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September 30, 2013 | 7:40pm ET
2013-14 Season Preview: Washington
By David Strehle, TheFourthPeriod.com

The affect of Alex Ovechkin on the outcome of the 2012-13 Washington Capitals fortunes was as blatantly evident as anything else during the shortened NHL campaign. While the Russian winger struggled to find his game under head coach Adam Oates, Washington got off to a horrendous 2-8-1 start.

The team drifted aimlessly through the first half and didn’t get to the .500 mark until April, but a blistering 11-1-1 record in the final month launched the Caps to their fifth Southeast Division crown in the last six years.

Ovechkin overcame a slow start as he notched 23 goals and 36 points in the closing 23 games of the campaign to garner both Rocket Richard and Hart Trophy accolades, and played a major part in the club’s late-season surge. With Ovi playing in the fifth season of a monstrous 13-year, $124 million pact, owner Ted Leonsis had to breathe a sigh of relief to see his franchise player return to superstar form following two subpar campaigns.

Goaltender Braden Holtby posted a 2.58 goals-against average and .920 save percentage on the way to a 23-12-1 mark, and elevated his performance in giving Washington a 3-2 series lead in the playoffs against the New York Rangers. But Ovechkin (one goal, two points, no points in last five games) and company could not beat Henrik Lundqvist in the final two contests en route to a seven-game defeat.

The Caps should get a “Back to the Future” feel in the Metropolitan Division, with familiar foes from the old Patrick Division days awaiting them. Expect moderate success from the club, but it will come with a greater degree of difficulty in achieving it beginning this season.

FORWARDS

Washington’s offensive attack would be greatly fueled by Ovechkin’s continued resurgence and the puck wizardry of center Nicklas Backstrom, who finished third in the NHL with 40 assists last year. While the loss of productive Mike Ribeiro hurts, GM George McPhee added centerman Mikhail Grabovski. It’s likely Grabovski will center the team’s second line, with prospective wingers being Troy Brouwer and either Brooks Laich or Martin Erat. Two youngsters were making their marks during long looks at training camp -- bruising 19-year-old winger and 2012 first-rounder Tom Wilson, who looks to have earned an opening night roster spot, and 18-year-old Andre Burakovsky, the 23rd-overall selection this past June who is set to be returned to the OHL’s Erie Otters.

Three to watch:

Ovechkin once again proved himself worthy of being called one of the game’s elite with his second half play, but one has to wonder just how the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in February in Sochi will affect “The Great 8”. Even if the prelude to the Games inspire him to attain similarly lofty heights, will Ovi have enough left in the tank for the NHL stretch drive and playoffs?

Grabovski scored 20 or more goals in three full seasons with the Maple Leafs, but he was thrown into a checking role and struggled last year. Toronto promptly exercised an amnesty buyout on the 29-year-old this past summer. A change of scenery should give him a thirst to prove the Leafs made a bad decision.

At 32 years old, Erat finds himself in a new situation heading into his first full campaign with the Caps. Always counted on to be one of the key offensive contributors for goal-starved Nashville, the Czech will play more of a role as supporting cast. Perpetually sound defensively in Barry Trotz’s system, Erat may find himself with looser reigns to create more scoring opportunities.

DEFENSEMEN

The transformation to a more defensively-conscious system that begun with Bruce Boudreau has continued under Oates and while the regular season GAA has been in the middle of the NHL pack (with the exception of fourth-overall in 2010/11), it is trending in the right direction. The play of the top-four -- Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and John Erskine -- will be crucial, as the group will likely have to eat a ton of minutes because the Washington blue line corp is not deep.

Two to watch:

From fall of 2007 through spring of 2010, Green established himself as one of the league’s premiere offensive blue liners. Over the course of 225 games during that span, he notched 68 goals and 205 points. While many point to his defensive shortcomings, Green still managed to finish with a +69 rating during those three seasons. The only real question since that time involves his health, as he’s missed nearly half of the Caps’ games (mostly with nagging groin injuries). Despite suiting up in just 35 games last year, Green still led all NHL defenders with 12 goals.

Entering his fourth full season and depending on Green’s availability, the performance of the reliable Carlson could become even more of an X-factor for the Capitals. He has not missed a game over the last three years, and was second on the team’s defense to Green in both TOI and points. Carlson’s play peaked by season’s end as the club’s most consistent defender.

GOALTENDING

Washington took a proactive approach in locking up their tandem of Holtby and Michal Neuvirth for the next two seasons, and the team boasts two solid, mid-20’s homegrown netminders.

Coming off a year in which he started the majority of games, Holtby has been everything Caps’ management could have hoped for, and more. The fiery competitor took full advantage of extra starts early in the season due to a Neuvirth illness, playing his way out of a poor beginning that saw him twice yield six goals in a game on the way to a 1-4 record. Holtby’s 13-2-1 mark down the stretch was good enough to help Washington clinch the top spot in the Southeast.

Following an excellent 2010/11 campaign in which he went 27-12-4, Neuvirth has been .500 or below over the last two seasons. The Capitals still inked him to a two year extension near the end of last season ($2.5 million AAV), as Neuvirth avoided becoming a RFA. Even though he appeared in just 13 games last year, the 25-year-old still sees the Washington starting goaltending situation as 1 / 1A as opposed to a set number one and a backup.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Washington’s power play unit was the NHL’s best last year with an overall success rate of 26.8%, which was made up of pretty consistent numbers both home (27.2%) and away (26.5%). The club’s NHL-best 44 goals scored while skating with the man advantage was bolstered by Ovechkin’s league-leading 16, or better than one-third of the Caps’ total. The squad is much more lethal when Green is healthy enough to man the point opposite Carlson, and benefitted from Brouwer’s work in the corners and in front of the net. Backstrom is a power play magician, as evidenced by 18 points (15 assists) while the opponent skated a man down. Ribeiro’s six goals and 27 PP points will have to be replaced.

As good as the club’s power play performed, the penalty killing was almost the polar opposite. The unit finished 27th-overall with a poor 77.9% kill rate, and their 36 PP goals was tied for third-worst. The squad showed improvement towards the end of the regular season and had an NHL-best 92.9% postseason kill rate. Assistant coach Tim Hunter, who was in charge of the PK, is not returning this year.

PREDICTION

Being one of the better Southeast Division teams through the years had its definite benefits, and last season was the perfect example as to why. Washington was a collective 15-3-0 when facing inter-division opponents, outscoring Southeast foes by a combined 73-43 clip. It’s patently obvious the cozy comforts of a bad overall division paid dividends for the Caps in qualifying for the postseason, especially when you consider they were just 4-9-2 against competition from the former-Atlantic Division (outscored 34-48) that will be part of the new Metropolitan Division.

With the level of competition greatly increasing, much of where the Capitals finish will be determined by Ovechkin’s production. As has been the case and as illustrated in last season’s run, the team’s success is directly correlated to their captain’s output. If Ovechkin picks up where he left off at the end of the regular season -- and not emulate the paltry playoff effort -- Washington should be just fine.

Also affecting the team’s chances will be Holtby’s effectiveness, Green’s ability to remain healthy, and just how well Grabovski fits into the mix.

While probably not exceeding the 100-point plateau like they did so often in the past in the Southeast, it would seem a fairly safe bet that most of what the club needs to happen to ensure success occurs and the Caps end up finishing in the top four and qualify for the postseason. If both Ovechkin and Holtby stumble and Green has a recurrence of his groin ailments, Washington could very well find themselves on the Metro bubble.

David Strehle is the Philadelphia Correspondent for The Fourth Period.


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