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Realignment, goalie talk and sweaters in our sixth installment of "you ask, we answer"

Our first question this week is about realignment:

As has been well-publicized, the Caps absolutely feasted on Southeast Division opponents last year, going 15-3-0, while they struggled against most of their new (old) Metropolitan Division rivals, posting a 4-9-2 mark against the then-Atlantic Division teams (they were 8-6-1 against last year’s Northeast squads). Let’s be clear on this point: if not for the good fortune of being in the Southeast Division last year, the Caps would have missed the playoffs. Let’s be clear on another point: we couldn’t care less.

Of course, the Southeast is taking a dirt nap now, and the Caps have been reunited with their former Patrick Division rivals of long ago, with the ‘Canes tagging along and Eastern Conference import Columbus filling out the Division. By any non-travel measure, this will be a much tougher division to be in than last year’s, and it seems to me there are two important aspects aspects in play here: what the realignment means to the Caps schedule-wise and how the new divisional alignment and playoff format is likely to impact them.

To the first point, I’m not sure just how big the schedule impact going to be. In the last full season the League played, teams in the Eastern Conference played every other team in the Conference four times, and then had eight additional intra-divisional games (two against each team in their respective divisions). In 2013-14, teams in the East will play every other team in the Conference three times, and then have nine additional intra-divisional games(one each against five teams, two each against two). So essentially instead of eight games against Carolina, Tampa, Florida and Winnipeg, they’ll have nine against Carolina, Pittsburgh, Philly, the Isles, the Rangers, Jersey and Columbus, and since two games in each set were against Carolina, you can remove them from each list, you can drop the difference down to six or seven "tougher in the new division" games on an 82-game schedule (and feel free to add the one extra game against Detroit that their conference switch adds). That’s not nothing (especially given recent margins for error this team has had in the final standings, which will likely be even further reduced in the new division), but neither is it overwhelming, as teams and divisions cycle through good and bad years with some degree of unpredictability.

To me, the bigger impact here is in the new playoff format. Right off the bat, the Caps (and everyone else in the East) go from a conference in which eight of 15 teams made the post-season to one in which eight of 16 teams make it. All else equal (which it never is), that drops a team’s odds of making the post-season by more than three percentage points before the season even starts. Let’s call the Bruins, Penguins and Red Wings mortal locks for playoff spots. That leaves 13 teams fighting for five spots. There may be one or two teams you can dismiss already, but it’s going to be real tight in between the Conference’s extremes, and it’s unlikely that any team will be able to dig out of the type of hole the Caps found themselves in last February because it’s unlikely that any division’s top teams will collapse the way Carolina and Winnipeg did last year (and without other teams filling the void) to meet the Caps halfway. The 2013 Caps made the playoffs because they were in the Southeast Division, but that was a pretty rare set of circumstance - with a two-division alignment, don’t expect that to happen again.

All that said, I may be wrong, but my gut says that realignment won’t be too much of a factor in whether or not the Caps make the playoffs. Ultimately, it’s likely that they’ll be good enough or they won’t, and being in a tougher division, playing a harder schedule and having one very good team added to the Conference isn’t going to be the determining factor of whether or not they make the post-season in their first Metropolitan Division campaign. Besides, if this team has to squeak into the playoffs, it’s unlikely they’d be capable of doing any real damage once there... but then again, you never know, do you?

Next up, a question about the goalies:

Having a pair of young goalies who can play gives a team options and, as is particularly beneficial in a salary-capped league, does so at a relatively low cost (as we discussed earlier in the week). A few examples from Caps history underscore the point. In 1983-84, 24-year-old Pat Riggin and 25-year-old Al Jensen split the goaltending workload nearly right down the middle and won the Jennings Trophy. In the summer of 1995, the Caps traded former second-round pick 24-year-old Byron Dafoe along with Dmitri Khristich to Los Angeles for what ended up being the fourth pick overall in the following draft, in part because they also had 24-year-old Olie Kolzig and 20-year-old All-Rookie Team member Jim Carey in the goalie stable (and less than two years later, Caps GM David Poile gave Boston the choice of Carey or Kolzig in the trade that brought Adam Oates to Washington, and Bruins GM Harry Sinden... chose poorly). And just two summers ago, the Caps, knowing they had Neuvirth and Holtby in the pipeline, were able to play hardball with restricted free agent Semyon Varlamov before finally shipping him to Colorado for a first- and a second-round pick.

Of course, most young goalies want to be "The Guy" and share the starter's role as little as possible (only one goalie can start Game 1 of the playoffs), so eventually having two young goalies who look like NHL starters usually forces the team to choose one (see, for example, Montreal choosing Carey Price over Jaroslav Halak in 2010, despite the latter's impressive playoff performance... or had you forgotten that?). Play 'em or trade 'em.

In the case of Holtby and Neuvirth, however, there are still questions about their respective abilities, either because of mixed results (Neuvirth) or a limited body of work (Holtby... and, to an extent, Neuvirth). Can you say with full confidence that either is capable of being an above-average NHL starter for the next handful of years? More importantly, could a rival general manager?

The Caps have at least two years (until the two are up for new contracts) to figure out what they've got in net with the duo, if they want to take that long, but it might not - that all depends on them. Can Neuvirth re-establish himself as a quality starter and, in the process, become a sought-after commodity? Can Holtby prove that the small sample over which he has posted impressive numbers translates well over a full season of work? And does Philipp Grubauer force their hand a bit sooner by proving everything he can at AHL Hershey?

At this point, it seems that the most likely way this ends for the Holtby/Neuvirth duo is with the Caps trading or giving up on Neuvirth some time in 2014 or 2015 and replacing him with Grubauer or a veteran, if Holtby falters. But it will certainly be interesting to see how it plays out, and might be even more interesting to look back on way down the road.

***

Lastly, a question on laundry:

Who doesn't like to argue aesthetics in August?

Alright, first the rules of engagement - we'll use seven different sweaters: 1974-95 red and white, 1995-2007 white, 1995-2000 blue, 1997-2007 black and 2007-current red and white. There have been tweaks along the way (for details, check this cool "Capitals Uniforms Through The Years" PDF that the team released when they debuted the current kits, as well as here and here), and we're not going to include the current throwback thirds because they're pretty much the 1974-95 whites (with the glaring maddening main difference being that the primary logo is now a patch rather than individually sewn-on characters). Cool? Cool. Let's count 'em down, seven-to-one (pics via the team):

06-07_black_medium

7. 1997-2007 Black. Know how many teams had a primarily black sweater around the turn of the century? Roughly all of them. Well, maybe not quite, but it sure felt that way (indeed a dozen teams had one in 1998-99). The arched nameplates were interesting (while they lasted) , and certainly these unis must have brought some luck to that 1997-98 team, but the colors were dark and depressing, and the logo uninspired - the Capitol dome, some stars and sticks... meh. (Hey, wait a minute...) I will say this for the logo (previously the shoulder patch), though - I tend to prefer those that are recognizable from a silhouette and generally dislike wordmarks, so at least it has that going for it. All-in-all, fitting jerseys for some dark years.

95-96_blue_medium

6. 1995-2000 Blue. There's that weird diagonal band that takes a couple of sharp turns and had the team name on it, and a shade of blue that was much more teal than Old Glory Blue, but what might be the biggest offense on these sweaters (and the white version) was the logo. I mean, we get it - it's a fierce eagle swooping down to snatch up its prey... but a right-to-left, up-to-down logo just says "crash and burn" to me - sort of how the American flag is properly worn with the union facing forward, perhaps I'd like this one a bit more if the eagle was facing the right. Regardless, the Washington Capitals should always be outfitted in red, white and blue because those colors invoke a) Washington which is b) the capital. These jerseys would've been a good fit for the Central High Eagles or something similar, but they weren't for your nation's Capitals.

06-07_white_medium

5. 1995-2007 White. These were obviously pretty similar to the 1995-2000 blue sweaters, but the white was cleaner (and less teal-y), and they dumped the team's name on the front after a couple of seasons. The best thing about these (and, to a lesser extent, the two preceding it on the list) is that these are the jerseys I picture Olie Kolzig and Peter Bondra wearing when I close my eyes and think back upon their best years - sentimentality far outweighs aesthetics for these first three entries.

83-84_red_medium

4. 1975-95 Red. Next to the current reds (more on those in a monent), this one almost seems a bit cartoonish, with the horizontal stripes running up so high, the dated font, and the blue "t." And the wordmark leans backward rather than forward (like the current logo), which is a little unsettling. Still, so classic... but I'm trying not to be too swayed by nostalgia, so here's where this one lands.

07-current_red_medium

3. 2007-Current Red. I actually don't love these (sorry, aggressive marketing campaign). I don't care for the random blue piping everywhere, the white stripes down the inside of the sleeves, or the outline-free white "Washington" and stars. But at least the colors are correct, and the three stars representing the District, Maryland and Virginia, the weagle shoulder patch with the Capitol dome as negative space, the more realistic and same-colored "t" in the wordmark, and the return to the presumably unintentionally ironic "Capitals" in lower case letters is all a pretty good time. All-in-all, it's a solid updated version of the traditional original road sweater, and a welcome change from the blue-black-and-bronze days.

07-current_white_medium

2. 2007-Current White. Piping be damned, these are sharp. The blue collar and wordmark on white, the red "Washington," stars and puck... it all works and is actually somewhat understated. I don't care for the ends of the sleeves on the new uniforms, but that's a pretty small complaint in the grand scheme of things.

84-85_white_medium

1. 1975-95 White. UniWatch nailed it - this is the timeless representation of the Caps. Six stars across the chest and four or five down each sleeve (to go along with five on each pant leg)? Now that's what I'm talking about. Red shoulders and collar, blue name and number, red and blue cuffs... these just look right (and the recent throwback versions look pretty good too). Sure, some of the criticisms of the road reds from this era apply here... but you go tell Rod Langway he looked cartoonish in this sweater.

That's my ranking. What do you think?

***

Agree? Disagree?

If you've got something on your mind, go ahead and ask it here on the site, on Twitter (use #JapersMailbag), via email or on Facebook, and we'll try to get to them. It's a long summer and there are a lot of question marks around this team... so let's talk about as many of them as we can.

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