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Caps Questions: What Would Make for a Successful 2014-15?

With changes bringing new hope in the wake of disappointment, what might a good next season look like?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since 2007, the Washington Capitals will enter a season having missed the playoffs the year before. This last miss punctuated what Caps fans hope was rock bottom on the franchise's most-recent downward trajectory, and with a new coach, new general manager and rebuilt blueline, expectations have been recalibrated upward.

But what are realistic expectations for a team that struggled in most facets of the game that didn't involve a manpower advantage, and has now turned the reigns over to a fourth coach in as many seasons? What would make for a successful 2014-15?

Becca: It’s funny how the answer to this question can change so quickly from year to year; we’re not that far removed from when I would have answered "Conference Final or bust." Alas…

As far as this season is concerned, expectations have certainly been reset after seeing the Caps get progressively worse each season over the last 3-4 years. That said, I’m not sure I’d set the bar so low as to just make the playoffs or even to surpass last year’s point total. The 2013-14 squad was hobbled by a porous (and often AHL-level) defense, a goalie being asked to completely change his style, horrific penalty-killing and general inconsistency across the board… and they just missed the posteason.

In a weak Eastern Conference (and a weaker Metropolitan Division), I honestly think this is a team that could not only make the playoffs but also get out of the first round, and that’s where I’m setting the bar for success. Going beyond that point would far exceed any expectations I’ve set, because I’m not sure how much of an impact a new coaching staff will have and I’m wary about the defensive upgrades - but they do have a new coaching staff and the defense has been upgraded, and either/both of those things should have some impact.

I also think this season can be deemed successful if there are marked improvements on an individual and team level, regardless of where the team finishes up in the final standings. If Barry Trotz can get more out of Alex Ovechkin (and perhaps more importantly, his supporting players), that’s a win; tapping in to the Mike Green of old would also go into that category. Improving even-strength play, using players in roles for which they’re better suited, fixing the penalty kill, etc… in short, reversing a lot of the things that have happened in the last year-and-a-half. I just want to feel like they’re back on the right path.

Muneeb: That last part is pretty much where I stand. I don’t care that much whether they win one round in the playoffs - what I do care about is whether they can make the strides necessary to re-open the title window for the duration of Ovechkin’s contract. If the organization can ice a top-10 team in front of Braden Holtby, wasting relatively little talent in doing so, and make smart decisions regarding the futures of Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson (2015 RFAs), and Green (2015 UFA), I’ll consider the window ready to be re-opened.

The Peerless: I think there are three distinct planes on which one might answer this question. The first pertains specifically to the 2014-2015 season and performance on the ice. I think it’s safe to say that the Caps are not going to be on anyone’s short list of Cup contenders this season, so what are we left with?

Looking back at 2013-2014, the two teams that jump out at me are Colorado and Tampa Bay. On a points-per-game basis they were the most improved teams in the league from 2012-2013 (0.55 and 0.40 standings points per game, respectively). That kind of improvement isn’t realistic for any team like the Caps, a middle-of-the-pack club in each of the last two years (a 0.40 point-per-game improvement would get them 123 points next season - won’t happen). But nine teams, including some stalwarts - San Jose, St. Louis, Boston - had improvements of 0.10 points per game or more. That would be the standard here for me; be among the "most improved teams" in the league on a points-per-game basis (say, a 0.15 points-per-game improvement, which is what Philadelphia did last year). Playoffs would take care of themselves.

Then there is a broader management issue: futures. The window on Ovechkin Era 1.0 is closed; that team will not win a Stanley Cup. It requires infusion of talent, and that means that a "successful" year means "successful" progress among the relied-upon prospects in the pipeline. Andre Burakovsky at Hershey. Perhaps Tom Wilson as well. Connor Carrick and Madison Bowey; Jakub Vrana in Europe. Kuznetsov being a Calder Trophy finalist. These will be the pieces of Ovechkin Era 2.0, which is not yet here, but success at these players’ respective levels of development are part of a successful year.

The last plane is cultural. For too long a lot of us wondered just what sort of team this franchise wanted to be and whether the "culture," to the extent it existed at all, was too far inclined to anointing "rock stars." If Barry Trotz can leverage his experience and credentials to establish a "Capital Way" on the club that it can take forward as it builds Ovechkin Era 2.0, that would be an indicator of success as well.

Adam: I have taken at least a dozen passes at this question, and the more I look over it the more my thoughts on the subject change. My gut reaction was all about the numbers: GF/GA ratios, special teams efficiency, puck possession metrics, and the like. But alas, success this season will be predicated upon something that I am less comfortable talking about...the development of a team identity. Peerless touched on this in his last paragraph above. By my estimate, the last time that the Caps played a full season with a true identity was the year that they won the President’s trophy (2009-2010).

This team should make the playoffs even if they fail to establish a culture - I mean, they came pretty close last year without any semblance of a team philosophy. For that reason making the playoffs does not guarantee that the season was a good one. Establishing a team philosophy/identity/culture is an important step that must be accomplished this year. Doing so would go a long way in preparing the Capitals for a Stanley Cup run in the "Ovechkin 2.0 Era."

Ovechkin will be 29 this season - there’s no more time for moral victories.

D’ohboy: This is a fairly easy question for me to answer: advance beyond the second round. For a moment, I considered a scenario in which the team improved its puck-possession metrics and individual players developed positively, but lost a fluky first-round decision to a weaker team (a la Montreal in 2010). Then I remembered that this team has been there and done that. Twice.

Ovechkin will be 29 this season - there’s no more time for moral victories. It’s the Conference Finals or bust.

This team, despite a few down years, is more than capable. They have the league’s best goal-scorer, one of its best two-way centers, and a goaltender who has shown that he’s capable of stealing a playoff series. For the first time in Ovechkin’s tenure, the team also has a strong, deep defensive corps. There are some weaknesses on the roster - second-line center and scoring depth stand out - but with some tweaks and development / good luck, this is a roster that could make it out of the second round. Whether they manage that feat will depend on the players, but just as much on the coaching staff. Can Trotz keep what’s working (the power play) while overhauling the way the team plays at even strength and when down a man? Can he really instill a new culture in the locker room? If he can, the Caps look like contenders in a very weak conference.

J.P.: For my money, "better than last year" isn't enough because last year was horrid (to the point that the Caps could be "better than last year" and still be a pretty bad hockey team). And yet, there they were fighting for a playoff spot until pretty close to the end. They've added a good coach (subtracted a terrible one), revamped what had to be one of the shallowest D-corps in the League and lost a second-line center (which is an issue - the issue - but a full season of Kuznetsov and a healthy Laich might mitigate that some).

This team, on paper, is much better than last year's squad, so they need much better results. They need to be markedly better at five-on-five (in the top half of the League, at a minimum), and we can look to their possession stats and goal ratio to measure progress there. They need to be worlds better on the penalty kill (it'll be hard not to be), and we can look at the shot volume they're allowing and overall efficiency to see how they're stacking up there.

And they need to not only make the playoffs, but win a round or two and be competitive with the Conference's top teams (and look like they will for years to come), and we can look at our TVs in late April to check in on that. Hit that trifecta, and chances are the season is a success... and that's not all going to happen without Trotz, Brian MacLellan, Brooks Orpik, Ovechkin and others fix whatever it is that has been broken over the last few seasons, both on and off the ice.