The Washington Capitals took some time to get accustomed to new coach Adam Oates, opening the season 5-10-1 but, by season's end, they were looking more like the high-flying offensively-potent Capitals of a few years ago.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a talented team that is facing salary cap challenges, but is much more interesting with the rejuvenation of top stars Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green.
While the Capitals lost in the first round, in Game Seven to the New York Rangers, there is reason for optimism, not least of which is that top-six forwards Brooks Laich and Martin Erat missed all (Laich) or part (Erat) of the first-round playoff series, not giving the Caps a fair read on what a fully-healthy roster might provide.
With six straight playoff berths, the Capitals have had opportunities to win big, but haven't advanced beyond the second round since losing in the Stanley Cup Final in 1998.
While there might be some frustration for a franchise that hasn't been able to get over the playoff hump, there was progress under Oates and the Capitals still have much room to grow. Their puck possession was subpar and they relied on a league-best power play (26.8%) to reach the postseason. It's all well and good to have expectations for the power play when Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green are on the case, but it's difficult to maintain that level of success over the long haul and even more difficult if they can't find the cap room to sign unrestricted free agent Mike Ribeiro, who had 27 of his 49 points with the man advantage.
Because the Capitals have spent pretty freely in recent seasons, they are going to find it challenging to keep Ribeiro, possibly needing to shed salaries before entertaining the possibility of signing a 33-year-old to a new long-term contract.
The question that will need to be answered is, if the Capitals can't re-sign Ribeiro, are they still going to have the personnel to be a prolific offensive team?
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013 regular season ratings with a 93.65.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
George McPhee/Adam Oates
Capitals Forwards Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
When Alex Ovechkin came out of the gate slowly, scoring three points in the Capitals' first eight games, he was dismissed as being past his prime as a premier scorer. A funny thing happened on the way to the glue factory, however, as Ovechkin got accustomed to right wing after years on the left, and started launching more and more shots on goal. With more shots, came more goals and Ovechkin finished with a league-leading 32 in 48 games.
Over the course of his career, Ovechkin has nearly 30% more shots per game than any other player in the league, which has naturally led to a healthy lead in goals scored over that time frame.
Only once in his career has Ovechkin recorded fewer than 4.50 shots per game (2011-2012, when he played a career-low 19:48 per game and had 3.88 shots per game) and it was the only time that he didn't lead the league. If he's back to being the game's most prolific shooter, it's too soon to write off the production of a 27-year-old elite player.
Like Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom started last season slowly, but finished strong, ending up with a point per game for the fourth time in the last five seasons. Over the last five years, Ovechkin leads the NHL with 425 points, Backstrom ranks 11th with 346.
Power forward Troy Brouwer has seen his role grow, to a career-high 18:32 per game last season, and he set career-bests in goals per game (0.40) and points per game (0.70). His possession numbers could use work, but Brouwer is a big body who can be a valuable presence in front of the opponent's net.
Joel Ward's second season in Washington was decidedly better than his first. He scored at a career-high rate (0.51 ppg) and had respectable possesion stats.
Following a miserable season in Winnipeg, Eric Fehr returned to Washington and enjoyed a solid campaign, playing a career-high 13:22 per game. A big winger with a scoring touch, Fehr is a valuable depth forward.
Diminutive centre Mathieu Perreault doesn't play much, but is utilized effectively and is capable of contributing secondary offence with favourable possession stats.
Injuries limited Brooks Laich to just nine games so he was barely a factor. When healthy, Laich is a quality contributor, capable of delivering secondary scoring.
Brought in to provide an immediate skill upgrade, Martin Erat scored at his lowest rate (0.53 points per game) since 2002-2003 and a wrist injury cut short his playoffs. Nevertheless, Erat was a consistent scorer prior to last season, finishing between 49 and 58 points in eight consecutive seasons, so it's fair to expect him to contribute on Washington's second line.
After scoring a career-high 20 goals and 39 points in 2011-2012, Jason Chimera managed just three goals and 14 points in 47 games in 2013, his lowest goal-scoring rate (0.06 gpg) of his career and lowest point rate (0.30) since 2003-2004. The veteran has good size and speed and has scored at least 14 goals six times in his career, so he can contribute offensively.
Checking forward Jay Beagle remained a regular part of the Capitals lineup, playing a career-high 12:06 per game skating in all 48 games, but his ice time went down as the season progressed and he played 9:39 per game in the postseason, as opposed to 18:26 per game in last year's playoffs.
Picked up on waivers from Vancouver, Aaron Volpatti earned a contract extension from the Capitals, though it's fair to question whether a player with his puck possession record and five points in 71 career games warrants that kind of commitment, but he does have some security heading into next season..
Following a miserable start (one point, minus-7 in his first nine games) to the season, Marcus Johansson suffered a concussion and he was much better when he returned, finishing with 21 points in his last 25 games, skating primarily with Ovechkin and Backstrom on the Capitals' top line.
If the Capitals can find the money (ie. cap room) to make it happen, they would probably like to keep Mike Ribeiro; otherwise the room for newcomers may begin and end with a prospect like Tom Wilson getting a chance to play.
Free Agent Defence
||'12-'13 Cap Hit
Capitals Defence Usage Chart from somekindofninja.com
After a couple of injury-plagued seasons, it was starting to look like Mike Green's offensive prowess was lost. He still missed time in 2013 with a groin injury, but Green was the top goal-scoring defenceman in the league and he finished the year with 18 points in his last 15 games. If the Capitals are back to being an offensively-oriented club, Green should thrive.
23-year-old John Carlson has steadily improved and, in 2013, he played a career-high 23:01 per game, while scoring goals (0.13) and points (0.46) at career-best rates, finishing with a double-digit plus rating for the third time in the last four seasons.
Jack Hillen got hurt right off the start of the season and missed nearly two months, but when he finally stuck in the lineup, he was extremely fortunate. That's not to say that Hillen didn't have fine possession numbers, because he did, but the percentages (his shooting percentage as well as others on the ice with him) were at the far end of the scale, unlikely to be repeated. He's undersized, but Hillen showed that he could handle a regular role for Washington.
Making his NHL debut at 27, Steven Oleksy provided toughness and steady play, putting up strong possession stats in his first 28 NHL games. Getting as much as they did out of Hillen and Oleksy counts as a surprise, but it also likely earns both a regular turn to start next season.
32-year-old John Erskine played a career-high 18:28 per game, the tough guy getting used in more of a shutdown role than at any time previouly in his career. He was overmatched at times, and would probably be best-suited to work on the third pairing, but unless the Capitals add bodies ahead of him, Ersine may play a more significant role.
Playing a career-low 14:15 per game, while dressing in 26 of 48 games, was enough for Jeff Schultz to request a trade. He's huge, but plays soft for his size and perennially puts up poor possession stats.
A young shutdown defender, Karl Alzner is due for a new contract this summer and will get a sizeable increase in pay, but he's a stabilizing presence on the back end, playing nearly 21 minutes a night with tough matchups.
As with the forwards, the Capitals have a lot of spots filled on the blueline, even if they get rid of Jeff Schultz. Having prospects like Dmitri Orlov and Tomas Kundratek, who both have NHL experience, allows the Capitals to potentially improve their defence from within the organization.
Even after starring in the AHL (.932 SV% in 25 GP) during the lockout, Braden Holtby struggled early in the season, posting an .899 save percentage in his first 13 games, through the end of February. But from the beginning of March, Holtby re-established his crease credentials, recording a .931 save percentage the rest of the way. The 23-year-old played in a career-high 36 games in 2013, so he is still growing as an NHL goaltender, but indications to this point are quite positive that he's the right answer to start for years to come.
In an odd twist, the Capitals' backup goaltender, Michal Neuvirth, is earning more than the starter, Holtby. With a .909 save percentage in 121 career games, Neuvirth is certainly a good second stringer, but the 25-year-old needs to be better or, more importantly, play more to make that salary palatable.
||19-25-44, -1, 51 GP
||23-35-58, +36, 48 GP
||15-24-39, +12, 40 GP
||3-14-17, -2, 31 GP
||9-23-32, +16, 40 GP
||15-9-2, 2.25 GAA, .919 SV%
||12-32-44, +27, 68 GP
||16-15-31, -10, 49 GP
||10-28-38, +6, 76 GP
||15-15-30, +6, 75 GP
A premier scoring prospect, Evgeny Kuznetsov was the 26th overall pick in 2010 and is likely to make his NHL debut in the 2014-2015 season. That's a long wait, particularly for a player that has the skill to be a front line scorer, but there's little the Capitals can do but wait.
The 16th overall pick last summer, Tom Wilson is a big tough kid who can bang his way into a spot in the lineup right away, and he got into three playoff games for the Capitals. If Wilson's improving offensive numbers are any indication, though, there may be some power forward upside down the line.
A playmaking winger coming off a strong freshman campaign, Riley Barber should get more time to develop in college, but long-term potential to play in a scoring role as a pro. Nice value for a sixth-round pick in 2012.
After playing 60 games for the Capitals in 2011-2012, Dmitri Orlov spent more of his 2012-2013 season in the American Hockey League, due in part to concussions that sidelined him for a good portion of the season. If he's healthy, he has top four upside.
Signed as a college free agent following his junior season at Minnesota, Nate Schmidt had 73 points in 83 games over his last two seasons, so there is little doubt that he will be adept offensively. If his defence is sound, he'll be able to challenge for a spot quickly, perhaps allowing the Capitals to deal another piece on what has the potential to be a crowded blueline.
21-year-old Philipp Grubauer started his pro career in the ECHL, playing 69 games in that league, but showed well in 28 AHL games last season, even getting into two games with the Capitals. Grubauer could use another full season of AHL development but if Michal Neuvirth should move on, there might be an opportunity for Grubauer in the backup role.
A fifth-round pick last summer, Connor Carrick enjoyed a strong rookie season in the OHL, including a playoff run in which he scored 18 points in 15 games. The Capitals have options on defence, but Carrick has long-range potential as a puck-moving defenceman.
In the last two seasons, defenceman (this is noteworthy) Tomas Kundratek has 28 goals and 26 assists in 104 AHL games. Kundratek played 25 games for the Capitals in 2013 and while he may not have been quite ready, he's certainly close enough to move up and played more than 20 minutes in six of his last seven games in Washington before getting sent down.
Acquired from Nashville as part of the Martin Erat-Filip Forsberg deal, Michael Latta has 66 points and 300 penalty minutes in 131 AHL games. The 22-year-old a tough checking centre and maybe not far from being able to challenge for a spot in the NHL.
A sixth-round pick in 2009, Garrett Mitchell improved in his second pro season and the aggressive winger could make it at some point as a grind-it-out checker.
WHL winger Chandler Stephenson and Boston College grad defenceman Patrick Wey are other Capitals prospects worth monitoring.
23rd - Adam Erne, Ryan Hartman, Curtis Lazar
According to www.capgeek.com, the Capitals have approximately $55.9M committed to the 2013-2014 salary cap for 20 players.
Check out my possible Capitals lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top nine forward, one top four defenceman.
What I said the Capitals needed last year: Two top-six forwards, one top-four defenceman.
They added: Mike Ribeiro, Eric Fehr, Wojtek Wolski, Joey Crabb, Jack Hillen.
Jason Chimera, Joel Ward, Jeff Schultz, Michal Neuvirth.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.