The Washington Capitals made many changes this summer, but Alex Ovechkin will still be the key to their 2014–15 season.
It's been a summer of change in Washington this summer, but there's still one that must be made before the Capitals are back on the right track.
Gone are coach Adam Oates and general manager George McPhee. Oates was a casualty of last season's playoff DNQ, the team's first since 2007. McPhee was let go after 17 frequently promising years that invariably seemed to end in disappointment. The two men were replaced by, respectively, Barry Trotz—fresh off 17 seasons behind the Predators' bench—and former Washington assistant GM Brian MacLellan.
MacLellan's hiring did not meet with much enthusiasm from fans looking for a fresh voice from outside the organization. But even his most resolute skeptics have to give him this much: In his first few weeks on the job, he's attacked the team's problems head on.
The biggest challenge MacLellan faces is upgrading a defense that allowed an average of 33.5 shots per game last season, fourth most in the NHL. To that end he poached a pair of blueliners from the Penguins (never a bad thing to hobble a divisional rival). And while the contracts for both Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik are likely to make a mess of the salary cap that will have to be cleaned up down the road, it's clear that the Capitals' defense is more competitive in terms of talent and depth than it was before the beginning of free agency on July 1.
It'll be interesting to see how the addition of Niskanen impacts Trotz's use of Mike Green and John Carlson. Green is clearly the most offensively gifted defenseman the Caps have, but his decline in performance in recent years has relegated him to playing rhythm guitar to Carlson's lead when Washington has a man advantage. The buzz out of D.C. suggests that Green will be part of the team's plans moving forward, but the Capitals will give only so much ice time to the righthander at even strength, let alone on the power play. With righties Carlson and Niskanen ahead of Green on the depth chart, he may eventually be more valuable as a trade chip than as a third-pairing defender.
But while Trotz will fun sorting out all this puck-moving potential, he'll have a harder time finding the right spot for Orpik. There's no doubt that Orpik brings experience and an element of unpredictable menace, but he's not someone you want playing against opponents' top lines (check out his “When On Ice Against" numbers). Putting him in a position to succeed may be Trotz's second-biggest challenge.
His biggest, of course, is maximizing the immense potential of Alex Ovechkin.
Trotz's hiring was widely heralded as a solid move because of his ability to squeeze every last drop out of the players on his bench. Though he's been portrayed as a defense-first coach, it's probably more accurate to say that his reputation reflects the talent he's been given through the years. In Nashville, he had goalie Pekka Rinne, defensemen Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, and a collection of scrappy 10-goal-a-season forwards.
The ingredients look a little different in Washington, but it's all in how they're used. The Caps led the league last season with a 23.4% success rate on the power play, but they were scarcely better than Trotz's Predators when playing five-on-five. Washington has high hopes for Tom Wilson, who Trotz says ”has a lot of the qualities of a Milan Lucic-type player” and Andre Burakowsky, the 2013 first rounder who dazzled at the team's prospect camp earlier this month, but the rest of the team's forward corps is virtually the same as it was last season.
Maybe he can whip up some of that ol' Nashville magic to maximize this group...and get the buy-in from Ovechkin that eluded his predecessors.
Trotz understands the balancing act that he'll have to perform in order to convince Ovechkin that championships are only possible if he commits to taking "the glide" out of his game and focuses as intently on his own zone as he does on the attacking end. Of course, there's only so much selling, coaxing and cajoling he can do. Ultimately, it's up to Ovi. If scoring goals by the bushel is enough for him, then he is what he is. But if he has any aspirations to be remembered as one of the greats—and any sense of the limited lifespan of snipers—he'll turn his game over to Trotz
If that happens, you can pencil Trotz in for the Jack Adams Award ... and Ovechkin for MVP.
In net, the Capitals appear committed to Braden Holtby despite the fact that he too often looked overmatched last season. His boxcar numbers (2.85 goals against average and .915 save percentage) were the worst of his career and while some of the blame for that rests with his defense, he seems far removed from the 1.95 GAA and .935 save percentage he posted during the terrific postseason run he made as a rookie. Washington brought in the highly regarded Mitch Korn as the team's new goalie coach (he was responsible for developing Rinne in Nashville), which could be exactly what Holtby needs to re-set his game. Korn's signing didn't make headlines, but it's the one deal that could have the biggest immediate impact on the Caps' success.
Washington also signed free agent Justin Peters from the Hurricanes, nominally to serve as the team's No. 2. Peters impressed in spot duty with Carolina last season, going 7-9-4 with a .919 save percentage, a 2.50 goals against average and a shutout, despite playing behind one of the league's worst possession teams. There are some technical issues to Peters' game that need addressing (rebound control in particular), but Korn should be able to iron those out. If he's successful, Peters could push Holtby for playing time after the Christmas break.
Altogether, it adds up to a deeper, better balanced team. But the reinvention of the Capitals won't amount to much without Ovechkin's buy-in to playing an effective two-way game.