With training camp in full swing and the first preseason game in the books, preparations are officially underway for the Caps' 2013-14 season - and there's no shortage of storylines to follow leading up to October 1 and beyond, whether it's the new faces in town or a coach heading into just his second year as an NHL bench boss (his first over a full 82 games).
So as the season creeps closer and roster decisions are finalized, here are some things to watch over the next seven months:
2C or not 2C – When George McPhee inked Mikhail Grabovski to a one-year deal last month, he fulfilled the wishes of many Caps fans, upgraded the second-line center for the second straight year and did so at a cap-friendly $3 million. And while Grabovski's positive influence on the lineup is, for now, merely on paper, it's hard to ignore how bringing in one player - particularly if he is the right player, as we hope Grabovski will be - could have a dramatic impact on the lineup. Without him the Caps have Brooks Laich as the second-line center, a third line that could double as a fourth, and question marks as to who replaces Nicklas Backstrom in the event of injury. With Grabovski, the Caps suddenly have four fairly evenly-balanced lines capable of sustaining an offensive attack as well as someone who could chip in on the top line if needed. All purely hypothetical for now, of course, but it's hard not to get a little excited about what someone like Grabovski could bring to this team.
Health equals wealth – Last season the Caps faced a number of obstacles throughout the season, not the least of which was the absence of guys like Mike Green, Brooks Laich and (in both the late stages of the season and a pivotal time in the playoffs) trade deadline acquisition Martin Erat. Obviously every team faced and always faces injuries, but it was hard not to notice the impact of their absence on the rest of the team - especially when we saw how the Caps played with them in the lineup, as rare as those moments were. As camp continues, at least two of the three appear to be 100% healthy (with the third member of that trio dealing with a "day-to-day" injury that hopefully is actually just day to day). Get all three, or even two of the three, in the lineup on a regular basis, and who knows?
Sophomore slump - It's common for players coming off of their rookie season, in any sport, to experience something of a letdown in their second go-round. It's not clear whether the same can be said of coaches, but after the performance Adam Oates put in last year - particularly in the second half, and especially with his captain - we're certainly all hoping it's not. Oates has a heap of heightened expectations to live up to in 2013-14 and will need to prove that the work his team did last season wasn't a fluke, all while playing in a slightly tougher division. He'll have some added artillery in the way of Grabovski, and some new help behind the bench in Blaine Forsythe, but ultimately the success or failure of his second year comes down to how well he adjusts a plan that worked in half of a 48-game season to an 82-game one.
Welcome, Blaine - That "new" help behind the bench for Oates isn't exactly new, of course. Blaine Forsythe has been with the team since the days of Glen Hanlon as a scout and video coach but was given an expanded role under Oates and was the brains behind the Caps' League-leading power play last season. With the departure of Tim Hunter, Forsythe moved down from his perch above the ice to a spot with a slightly better view and will maintain control of the power play (along with additional coaching responsibilities). If nothing else, his familiarity with the systems and the players should make for a smooth transition and his new spot behind the bench and in the locker room will help with on-the-fly changes - it's unlikely that the team maintains its lofty 26.8% power play rate this season, but with Forsythe more firmly in charge the hope is that it won't fall off all that much.
Special pandas – Special teams might not be everything, but they're still important, and the Caps' power play and penalty kill could go a long way towards another playoff spot this year. The question really isn't whether or not the power play will fall off from last season, as the team's high rate of production was likely unsustainable over a full 82-game run; the question is by how much? Oates has already noted that Grabovski will get a shot at the vacancy left by Mike Ribeiro, and while Grabovski wasn't used in that capacity by the Leafs last year he has been in the past and could be a viable option to keep the power play lethal - and beyond that, much of the cast of characters should be the same, so the success or failure may come down to whether the rest of the League figures it out (and if they do, how quickly Oates and Forsythe are able to adjust). On the flip side, the team's work shorthanded could... well, use some work. The now-departed Tim Hunter was in charge of tweaking the penalty kill and had started to turn it around by the end of the season, so it will be up to Oates, Forsythe and Calle Johansson to continue or even improve upon that work.
Rise and fall - In a shortened season, both team and individual stats are often accompanied by an asterisk of some kind; what someone accomplishes in a 48-game run isn't necessarily an indicator of what they're capable of over the course of a full season. So it wouldn't be surprising to see a few guys who maybe overachieved last season drop off a bit, just as it would be equally unsurprising to see a few who perhaps underachieved go in the opposite direction. As we mentioned, the power play could be due for a bit of regression, and with that the numbers of someone like Troy Brouwer (although Oates has already said that they want Brouwer to score goals this season, so we'll see). On the other hand, if the top line continues to click anywhere close to the way they did in the second half of last season, Marcus Johansson in particular should see an improvement in his total points and points-per-game. The reality is that League-wide last season was an anomaly; this year will give a better picture of what teams and players are really made of over the course of a full season, and it will be interesting to see just who ends up where.
Dueling goalies - Both Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth picked up contract extensions this summer, so at least outwardly (or contractually) the team isn't sending any clear message about who the goalie of the future will be. And while the starting job is likely Holtby's to lose for now, both should be motivated to force the team to do so soon (although the hope is that neither one needs something like that to motivate them). If Neuvirth can stay healthy and if Holtby can stay focused, and if the team plays in front of them the way they did in the second half last year, it should be a fun battle to watch.
Blue line and fourth line - Speaking of battles, we've talked about how the Caps will have some decisions to makeas far as roster spots go this fall, particularly on the blue line or on the wing. Just because rosters are formed in training camp, however, certainly doesn't mean they're final, and the defense in particular could be in a state of flux for at least the early part of the season (and maybe beyond). With a tight cap, decisions might be made based on financial constraints as frequently as (or even more frequently than) those based solely on performance and fit. Does that mean that someone like Dmitry Orlov gets stuck in Hershey for a while because of waiver concerns or cap space? It wouldn't be the first time... just ask Karl Alzner.
South"least" no more - Thanks (or perhaps no thanks) to realignment, the Caps are no longer citizens of the much-maligned and oft-mocked Southeast Division and will join some of their old rivals in the newly fashioned Metropolitan Division. A lot of talk in recent months has centered around the fact that the Caps will finally be in an extremely tough division and are in for a rude awakening after years of easy living in the Southeast - but the reality is that the Metropolitan, while tougher for sure, perhaps isn't the behemoth some want it to be. There are some good teams but none that have proven impossible for the Caps in recent years, and a lot of them were either right around or below where the Caps finished in the standings last year. On paper, at least, the Caps should be able to match up with the rest of the teams and hold their own; although whether or not that makes them a playoff team in this new divisional format, of course, is unknown. Regardless, there's no question that the battle will be a bit tougher this time around - and if the Caps do make the playoffs, the tougher path they'll have to take along the way should hopefully make them a bit more prepared for the rigors of postseason competition. Which, as we know, is not nothing.
Ovechkin the (still) Gr8 - Alex Ovechkin finished the regular season last year in a blaze of glory, working at a pace in the second half that was almost comparable to the pace set by Sidney Crosby in the first half and earning his third Hart Trophy in the process. Now it's up to him, and Oates, to show that that second-half resurgence was not just one last hurrah in a quickly fading career but the beginning of a new chapter - that he can sustain it to some extent, perhaps not at a 1.5 points/game pace but at a high level. Beyond that, he needs to take the show he put on in the regular season, the ones he's put on in a number of regular seasons, and bring it to the playoffs. For that, of course, he'll need some help from his linemates and his team, but a lot of it still falls on him - as the team's leader, he needs to lead them out of the first round doldrums and finally make some noise when it matters most.
Chocolate changes - One of the strengths of the Caps' organization in recent years has been the synergy between the parent club and its minor league affiliates, most notably in Hershey. The systems are similar enough so that the transition for players between the AHL and NHL, the ECHL and AHL, is as smooth as possible. With Hershey bringing in a new bench boss in Mike Haviland, one thing to keep an eye on is whether that continues; Haviland's been involved in all of the camps this summer and has had a pretty good crash course in the way Oates is running things, but he may have his own tweaks to make as he gets ready to lead his new team.
Off to Sochi - Nine different Caps have a shot at playing in the Olympics next February, and that could impact the Caps this season - both before and after the Games. For starters, Alex Ovechkin has been invited to be part of the torch relay the weekend before opening night and may have to go from DC to Greece and back to Chicago in a span of 48 hours in order to dress in his team's season opener against the 'Hawks October 1. Beyond that, most national teams are using the first few months of the season as the final test before making their roster decisions - that means that a handful of Caps are going to want to put their best foot forward for the first half of the season, and the Caps could benefit. Ovechkin, Carlson, Alzner, Green and Holtby, Neuvirth and Tomas Kundratek, Johansson and Backstrom... all have at least a shot of making their respective teams. That said, if they do make the team it means appearing in up to eight additional games on top of the 82 they'll play in the NHL, to say nothing of the rigors of travel and the adventures of being an Olympic athlete. When they get back, what shape will they be in, both short-term and for the remainder of the season? Will they be able to switch focus back to their NHL goal after the tournament concludes? What if they lose the gold? What if they win? What if they get hurt? These questions always surface whenever the Olympics roll around, and this year will be no different.
So long, farewell - As is the case every season, it's not just new faces changing the look of the roster; familiar ones have hit the road, and their departures could have an impact, although hopefully a minimal one, on the team. Matt Hendricks, Mike Ribeiro, Joey Crabb, Wojtek Wolski and Jeff Schultz all found new homes during the offseason (while Tom Poti still looks for a job). Of those five, only Crabb is a potential Eastern Conference foe this year - all will pay a visit to the Verizon Center at least once this year, though, so we'll get to see how these former Caps greet their old teammates on the ice... and vice versa.