The NHL preseason -- or the preseason in any sport, for that matter -- is a lot like "Whose Line Is It Anyway?": everything's made up and the points don't matter.
Okay, that's not entirely true, but nearly three weeks after opening training camp, the Washington Capitals wrapped up their eight-game preseason schedule Saturday with a 4-0-4 record, and will officially drop the puck on the 2013-14 season Tuesday against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Last season epitomized a roller-coaster ride. Through the first quarter of the season, the Capitals were the worst team in the NHL while adjusting to head coach Adam Oates' style of play without the benefit of training camp. Things eventually clicked both individually -- particularly Alex Ovechkin, who adjusted to a position change from left wing to right wing and earned his third Hart Trophy as MVP -- and as a whole; Washington won 15 of its final 19 games to earn its fifth division title in six years.
Once again, the ultimate low point for the Capitals was not meeting lofty expectations, bowing out in the first round in a seven-game loss to the New York Rangers. Not only are the Capitals seeking their first Stanley Cup, but their first trip to a conference final since 1998.
Their next journey begins Tuesday, so to prepare accordingly, consider this a primer of what lies in store for Washington at the onset.
(Before we begin, a shameless plug: for more preseason analysis and features, you can find all of my stories for NHL.com right here. <--- Right there.)
Ovechkin's Double Load
Allow me to borrow a line from one of my NHL.com stories: "Alex Ovechkin is no stranger to carrying the crushing weight of external pressures and expectations on his hulking shoulders. This season, however, he'll bear a double load." Man, was that lazy of me.
Anyway, it's true: Ovechkin will not only be tasked with leading the Capitals past the second round for the first time in nearly two decades, but his native Russia to its first Olympic gold in the 2014 Sochi Games.
Ovechkin just returned from a whirlwind trip to Greece to carry the Torch over the weekend, and it is evident by how his face lights up when discussing the Olympics just how important they are to him.
Yet that is not until February, so in the mean time, Ovechkin will look to improve on his Hart Trophy-winning 2012-13 season. Of course, as evidenced by last season's 23-goals-in-23-games stretch during the second half of the season that coincided with a 17-4-2 finish, as Ovechkin goes, so do the Capitals.
The Great Grabo
In early July, general manager George McPhee declared that Brooks Laich would be the next contestant on "The Price For A Second-Line Center Isn't Right (So We're Just Going To Throw Someone Else In There Again And Hope It Sticks)." Mike Ribeiro, who filled that role admirably last season, scored a major payday with the Phoenix Coyotes -- four years, $22 million -- and bailed.
For nearly two months, the Capitals made absolutely no attempt at signing a notable free agent. That is, until late August, when bought-out center Mikhail Grabovski, formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs, signed a one-year, $3 million contract.
Grabovski was the answer to Capitals fans' prayers. He is a possession monster, driving play better than most others at his position, and while he does not possess the pure playmaking pizzazz that Ribeiro does, he is a stronger two-way player that proved even in a marginalized role last season that he is an invaluable asset. Well, except to Toronto, who bought him out for some reason.
The Belarusian played with a myriad of linemates during the preseason, but meshed well with all of them, leading the NHL with seven preseason assists while showcasing his versatility. Playing on a line with Laich and Troy Brouwer will give the Capitals a hardworking trio capable of hurting the opposition on both ends of the ice.
Washington's power play was the NHL's best last season with a 26.8 percent success rate, the highest total in more than 20 years. Oates implemented a 1-3-1 power play that requires crisp passing and quick decision-making, keeping the penalty killers off-balance (for more on the nuances of the formation, I recommend this story from last season by the venerable Japers' Rink crew).
The Capitals scored on every fifth shot on their league-leading power play, the highest rate in at least six years, and over the course of a full season, that number is likely unsustainable. The departure of Ribeiro, who along with Ovechkin earned a NHL-high 27 power-play points, will hurt, but Grabovski will get an opportunity to fill that spot.
Let's be real though: a first-unit power play featuring Ovechkin, Grabovski, Brouwer, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom is going to be hard to stop.
The Kids Are Alright
When the Capitals finalized their 23-man roster Sunday evening, it included two teenagers: right wing Tom Wilson and defenseman Connor Carrick. Both young men are 19 years old, 2012 draft picks and played for the same junior team in Plymouth, Mi.
Wilson's inclusion on the roster was not a surprise considering how highly team brass spoke of him. The 6'4", 217-pound "kid" is multifaceted, proving throughout the preseason with both his hands and fists that he is far from out of place among men in the NHL. Oates heaped praise upon the imposing Wilson, who will have an opportunity to justify it.
On the other hand, a strong training camp and preseason put Carrick on the Capitals' radar. Carrick is a strong skater and puckhandler with all-around skill that also exudes poise beyond his years both on and off the ice. As a right-handed defenseman, Carrick, who Oates likened to fellow righties Green and John Carlson, will push incumbent Steve Oleksy for playing time, but he could also spend time in the AHL with the Hershey Bears in the event that he needs more seasoning.
“He makes great decisions, he can handle the speed and physicality of the game, had a great camp and has just been improving over the last year on a daily basis,” Oates said of Carrick Monday. “Obviously, we want to get him minutes he’s played a lot of minutes, but he’s got two guys in front of him that demand minutes. We’ll try to figure out that puzzle and that’s what it’s always about.”
There is also forward Michael Latta, often forgotten in the trade between Washington and Nashville involving Martin Erat and Filip Forsberg last spring. The 22-year-old rookie has the skill to contribute offensively, but it's his feistiness and willingness to sacrifice his body in the dirty areas that will become his NHL calling card.
“This is kind of my first real preseason and I’m thankful they gave me a real shot and gave me a lot of games,” Latta said. “I was kind of nervous coming in but in the preseason I felt I could play at this level – contribute. Maybe not score as much as the [AHL] but I can provide a role, be hard on the PK, be hard on the forecheck, play a simple role and help the team out.”
Metro Closes Doors?
The Capitals spent the last 14 seasons as a member of the much-maligned Southeast Division, feasting on the dregs of the Eastern Conference en route to seven division titles. Realignment, however, has removed them from those friendly confines and thrust them into the
Patrick Metropolitan Division, where they will share space with the Penguins, Flyers, Rangers, Islanders, Devils, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets.
Now, the Metropolitan Division will be tougher than the Southeast Division simply based on the quality of competition, but it is not as if the Capitals' schedule got any tougher (they will play the Penguins, Rangers, Islanders and Devils four times each, the same amount that they did last season). The Capitals, however, will no longer have the Southeast safety net to catch them if they fall; only Chicago earned more intradivisional points than Washington's 30, including eight straight victories during its 15-2-2 run down the stretch.
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