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2014 in Review: The Top Ten Washington Capitals Storylines

A look back at the stories that dominated the chatter inside the Beltway and out over the last 12 months

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It's not as if the Caps ever leave us wanting for storylines... but the last 12 months have been chock full of particularly fascinating ones, from rookie performances to coaching changes and everything in between. And it wasn't a year that can be put in a specific silo of "good" or "bad", because 2014 had a little of both. One thing you can't say about it, however, is that it was boring.

Because it was anything but.

Let's hop in the wayback machine and relive some of the year's most intriguing storylines, shall we?

10. The emergence of Andre Burakovsky. When Burakovsky was first drafted by the Caps back in 2013, he seemed to be at least a few years away from cracking the big club. Something weird happened over the course of a year spent skating with, among others, uberphenom Connor McDavid in Erie - he got better. And bigger. And stronger. And suddenly there he was in training camp the following fall, making his case to not only stick around longer and longer but to actually make the opening-night roster.

Once he made the final cut, all that remained was for him to show that he deserved to be there, which he did early and often, scoring a goal on his first shot in his first game and going on a tear to start the season. He's had a few bumps along the way recently, but the 19-year-old has plenty of talent - and plenty of time to establish himself in the NHL. It'll be fun to watch him continue to do so.

9. Evgeny Kuznetsov arrives. If Burakovsky was the rookie who arrived ahead of schedule, Kuznetsov was the rookie for whom the schedule had no meaning. It was a long, drawn-out, four-year wait for his NHL debut, a debut that at times felt like it was never going to happen.

So when rumors started to fly that he would be leaving the KHL to join the Caps as soon as his team was out of the playoff race earlier this spring, it was almost hard to believe - right up until he actually put pen to paper and signed his entry-level contract. Even then it didn't seem quite real, as then-general manager George McPhee accurately noted, "[i]t's kind of like seeing the Loch Ness Monster".

It was very real, though, and just two days after signing with the team, there he was on the ice for his first NHL game against the Penguins. His first point - and first multipoint game - followed soon after, and by the end of the brief campaign Kuznetsov had compiled nine points in 17 games. That he performed relatively well early on was nice, to be sure. But the best part of Kuznetsov's debut wasn't the result so much as the breath of fresh air his arrival provided in a seriously oxygen-deprived season.

8. The perpetually-injured Brooks Laich. Over the course of his career, Brooks Laich had made a name for himself as a jack of all trades, ironman type who would play through broken bones and various bumps and bruises. That all came to an end after the 2012 lockout, when Laich injured his groin playing in Switzerland and returned to North America for treatment just before the lockout ended. The injury would linger on through most of the shortened season, allowing him to appear in just nine of the campaign's 48 games - and none of the team's postseason play.

Abdominal surgery followed, but all seemed to be well as the team got set to kick off the 2013-14 season, with Laich declaring himself "100%" during training camp. He appeared to be telling the truth... that is until the injury flared up again at the end of November, forcing him out of the lineup and onto long-term injured reserve. Then back into the lineup, and back out again in March, shut down for good and undergoing yet another procedure after playing in just 51 games total.

As the 2014-15 season got underway, Laich was back and was once again "100%". His groin seemingly healed, he made it through training camp and the start of the season without issue... and then a shoulder injury took him out of the lineup, not once but twice, mostly because he (shockingly) tried to come back too early and reinjured it. Since returning to active duty at the end of November, he's gone an incredible 15 straight games without injuring himself - but since he apparently cannot be trusted with his own health decisions, you'll forgive us if we occasionally want to swath him in bubble wrap and a big plastic bubble. Just to be safe.

7. The Plus-Minus "Problem". This one falls under the category of "thing that probably shouldn't have been a story but was"... or at least should have been a different story.

The short version went like this: Alex Ovechkin racked up a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad plus-minus rating that by the end of the 2013-14 season had fallen to an abysmal -35. The narrative around Ovechkin is that he's lazy and bad at defense. Ergo, the -35 proved that he was lazy and bad at defense.

The long version, of course, was much more complicated. While Ovechkin has been known to float through a shift or two over the course of his career, he has the ability to backcheck and block shots and do all of the things you're supposed to do - and he does them fairly regularly. The problem last season was that, while he was scoring goals on top of goals, no one else on his line was, to the point where the shooting percentages of his linemates were in single digits. Add to that a propensity for both Ovechkin and the team to generate a fair amount of offense via the power play, and the Caps' struggles at even strength from top to bottom, and it was no wonder that Ovechkin's plus-minus was so low (or that the plus-minus ratings of his two Swedish linemates were almost as low).

...but hey, why let a little truth and context get in the way of a good narrative?

6. Road to the Classic. Back in September of 2013, it was announced - after years of nudging by Caps' owner Ted Leonsis - that DC would play host to the Winter Classic the following January. What had long been assumed was finally confirmed, and the Caps began preparations for the annual outdoor game with gusto.

Only one problem: they had no opponent.

Two problems, actually: no opponent and no venue.

By June, that first problem was resolved, as the League announced that the Caps would take on the Chicago Blackhawks - a departure from what had largely been rivalry match-ups in previous Classic incarnations (and the first time it would be an inter-conference game). The second one took a bit more time, though, with rumored difficulties in negotiations to secure the venue before finally being confirmed as Nationals Park.

The matchup confirmed, the site secured, attention then shifted to the excitement of a potential 24/7 series chronicling the lead-up to the game...  until it was revealed that this would not be happening, as HBO decided to pull out of the series in September. Thankfully for all of us, the NHL found a new home for the series on EPIX, and two episodes down it seems as if the dropoff from one channel to the other has been minimal.

And now all that remains is to play the game...

5. The Sochi Olympics. It all started out so promising. Alex Ovechkin, one of his country's ambassadors for the Sochi games, was leading Team Russia to what they hoped would be glorious gold on home ice. Nicklas Backstrom and eventually Marcus Johansson made the cut for the talented Swedes. And John Carlson, the hero of the 2010 World Juniors for Team USA, was on his way to Sochi for his first Olympic experience. It seemed plausible that at least one - and possibly more than one - of the Caps would be returning home with a medal.

All three teams got out of the gate strong... but then things started to fall apart, one by one. First, the Russians found themselves in the relegation round, forced to play their way in to even have a shot at a medal. Then the Americans slipped out of contention, first by way of a hard-fought loss that pushed them to the bronze medal game, then with a disappointing performance against the Finns that saw them finish off the podium. It seemed as if the Swedes, already guaranteed at least a silver, would have to salvage these Olympics for the Caps.

And then on the day of the gold medal game against Canada, word started to trickle out that Backstrom was not in warm-ups. Eventually we learned that he had tested positive for a banned substance - he would not play in the game. Sweden went on to lose to Canada, with a tearful Backstrom forced to defend himself in the aftermath of missing what was likely the biggest game of his career. He did finally receive his silver medal this summer after months of appeals by the Swedish contingent (although even that may still be in doubt), but it didn't undo what was probably a pretty horrible experience for him.

All in all? A pretty lousy couple of weeks for the Caps, and for all of us Caps fans watching it unfold.

4. Days of our Goaltenders. Up until very recently, the Caps' crease has been a pretty tumultuous place to be.

It actually started at the tail end of 2013, when the team called up Philipp Grubauer to sub in for an injured Michal Neuvirth. Grubauer performed extremely well in his initial games with the team - so well that they decided to keep him up after Neuvirth returned to health. So well that they decided to play him over Braden Holtby, who up to that point had been the team's workhorse, but had struggled after being asked to change the style that had gotten him to the NHL in the first place. Now the team had three goalies, two of whom were losing confidence (and patience) and one of whom was relegated to the pressbox on a nightly basis. It was an extremely volatile situation, one that lasted far too long before Grubauer was returned to Hershey.

No sooner had one wave of chaos passed than it was time for the next wave, as the Caps shipped Neuvirth to Buffalo at the deadline in exchange for the team's old nemesis from 2010, Jaroslav Halak. Once again Holtby was forced to take a backseat as the team brought in a veteran, a clear sign that they saw goaltending as the team's biggest issue - and that they didn't think Holtby was the solution. The temporary fix did little to push the Caps into the playoffs, though, and Halak departed for greener pastures in the offseason... although not before a pretty public war of words with his coach.

Eventually the dust settled, and Holtby was finally anointed as the team's starting goaltender over the summer. Kolzig resumed his role with the team's netminding prospects, per his request. And goalie guru Mitch Korn arrived to help put Holtby back together.

So far, so good...

3. The Alex Ovechkin-Barry Trotz Relationship. If we thought Ovechkin's plus-minus was an overblown non-story that consumed the conversation around the team, it would only take a few months for something to trump it - and that happened the instant the Caps hired Barry Trotz to take over behind the bench.

Trotz came into DC with a reputation for being a defensive-minded coach, and inherited a superstar captain with a reputation (albeit a mostly unfair one) for being less than defensive-minded. So naturally, the first thing everyone keyed in on was the fact that this would either be a perfect match, in that Trotz could "fix" Ovechkin, or a match made in hell, with "coach-killer" Ovechkin taking down yet another bench boss with his stubborn refusal to play the right way.

...narratives are fun, aren't they?

At any rate, to the surprise of no one who follows the team with any level of depth, the relationship between the two has been just fine so far, both in terms of the way they interact and the way the team has performed. Ovechkin is still scoring goals (shocker), his plus-minus has improved (shocker), and Trotz - despite having to face thousands of questions about their relationship in every city he goes to - not only seems enamored with the captain but has also become fiercely defensive of him.

2. A Defensive Upgrade. In 2013-14, the Caps' defense was easily their weakest area, composed of homegrown studs, a couple of veterans and a revolving door of AHL-level blueliners - a lot of AHL-level blueliners. The result, unsurprisingly, was a team that struggled mightily to keep the puck out of their own net... for many reasons not limited to just the defense, of course, but it was certainly a factor.

So it was clear that the first job of new GM Brian MacLellan was going to be addressing this problem.

He did exactly that on July 1, when he took the team's checkbook for a ride and and got not just one but two former Penguins' defensemen in Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen - all for the bargain price of $67.5 million. It was a move that raised some eyebrows, both from a personnel and a money/term standpoint. After all, it was a lot of cash - and a lot of years - to commit to an aging veteran who wasn't the fastest of skaters and a guy coming off a career year.

It remains a lot of cash and a lot of years, but it's hard not to see the additions of Niskanen and Orpik (along with a system that actually seems to work) as major contributors to the Caps' turnaround this season, particularly at even strength. They've made the team better, and helped to give them what may be the best blueline they've had in over a decade.

1. Changing of the Guard. 2014 was filled with all kinds of change throughout the Capitals organization. The biggest change, though, and the biggest story of the year by far, was the dismissal of long-time general manager George McPhee and coach Adam Oates.

McPhee had been at the helm of the Caps for almost two decades, the man who drafted every member of the current team core including Alex Ovechkin, who traded for Jaromir Jagr (and then traded Jaromir Jagr away) and led the franchise to its first - and as yet, their only - Stanley Cup Final. Oates, on the other hand, was a rookie head coach who got off to a decent start but lost his luster pretty soon after, with issues ranging from public trade requests to rotating goalies to the first missed postseason in six years.

To replace them, the Caps brought in a familiar face from the past in Barry Trotz, and a familiar face from the present in Brian MacLellan - and it didn't take long for either one to make his mark, with MacLellan making some huge moves to upgrade the blueline via free agency, and Trotz instilling a system that allowed his offensive stars to flourish while not sacrificing the defense.

This story isn't over, obviously. How they continue to shape the Caps going forward remains to be seen, and while the results so far have been good overall, there's plenty of potential to get better - and so we have our first storyline to watch in 2015 (and beyond).