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NHL Season Preview: Three Big Questions Facing the Washington Capitals

A hat trick of queries on what might make or break the Caps' 2014-15 season

Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports
SB Nation 2014 NHL Preview

As part of SB Nation's NHL Season Preview, we're answering a few of the biggest questions facing the Caps as the new campaign approaches...

1. Can Alex Ovechkin be happy and productive under Barry Trotz?

The Ovechkin-Trotz relationship is going to be an especially interesting one to see develop. Ovechkin, nine years a Capital, will be on his fifth coach (for the record: Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, Adam Oates, and now Trotz). Not many players of his accomplishment have gone through so many coaches in so short a time, although if you look at the history of say, Mario Lemieux, there have been players having gone through more coaches over the course of their career in one city (Lemieux had 11 different coaches in a 17-year career).

In the first four instances of coaches overseeing Ovechkin, none had previous NHL experience. None had a body of work at this level of play. With Barry Trotz, of course, the scenario has changed. And the fault line upon which this relationship will rest is wrapped up in a number: one. Ovechkin has played nine years with one team; Trotz coached 16 seasons with one team, the Nashville Predators.

Both men have become known for a style. Ovechkin is the pedal-to-the-metal goal scorer who often (so the story goes) tries to get a jump on the rush at the expense of defense in his own end. Trotz is the coach who gets the most out of a modestly talented group by focusing on responsibility, defense, and goaltending.

The degree to which Ovechkin might be "happy and productive" under Barry Trotz (or conversely, to which Trotz will maintain his sanity coaching Ovechkin) is going to turn on two elements and the degree to which they can complement one another. On the one hand, can Ovechkin, at this stage of his career, open himself up to being more diligent in his defensive game? This is no rhetorical question. Ovechkin has spent nine years as a goal scorer, through and through, but if you asked yourself honestly, what other part of Ovechkin’s game has he worked on to make better, you might be a while coming up with an answer. At 29 years of age and the clock starting to tick more loudly on the productive phase of his career, his openness to developing other parts of his game might be the key – the last chance, if you will – to his being a champion.

On the other hand, can Trotz preserve the strengths in Ovechkin’s game while bringing out other parts of his repertoire without undue repression of the skills that made him the best goal scorer of his generation? This is no rhetorical question, either. Trotz has not coached a team with the Capitals’ high end skill at this level of play. It is an unknown whether he can do it.

It is far too early to say definitively that Alex Ovechkin will be happy and productive under Barry Trotz. However, neither man lacks for incentive – Ovechkin to put into deeds his spoken desire to win a Stanley Cup (not to mention shut up those who hammer on his deficiencies), Trotz to prove that he is not a slave to one philosophy, that he has the imagination and tactical skill to coach to the talent he has and win what he could not in Nashville.

It is the shared incentive that leads one to answer the question in the affirmative, that yes, Alex Ovechkin can be happy and productive under Barry Trotz. Their respective places in the game depend on it.

2. Who will center the second line?

Reading about the Capitals' second line center position on this blog is similar to reading a book by Dan Brown; the ingredients might be a bit different, but the dilemma never changes.

By Trotz's own mouth, the leading candidates for chief flavor in this season's pivotal cocktail are Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson (with Brooks Laich making a late bid).

The relative upsides and risks for each are plenty evident. Kuznetsov is young and inexperienced, and what little experience he did gain on the tail end of a last year's lost season came on the wing. That said, in those 17 games the young Russian put nine points on the board (three goals, six assists) with a mix of skilled and unskilled linemates. That's nothing to scoff at for a youngster arriving on a sinking ship and playing North American hockey for the first time.

On the other side of the coin, Marcus Johansson is entering his fifth season in the NHL at the ripe young age of 23, and already his career has been somewhat defined by the dichotomy of the perception of unmet expectations versus the fact that he's actually had one of the most productive careers to date out of a pretty stacked draft class.  That said, his total offensive numbers are probably inflated by the amount of ice time he's shared with two of the NHL's offensive dynamos in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and by holding a spot for a couple years on one wicked power play.

That said, the guy making the decisions is new in town, and he's probably loathe to make a lineup decision as important as a scoring-line center based solely on performance during time playing in Adam Oates's fetish-choked systems.

So what is Trotz likely to value? Well, if you believe the big man himself, he wants his centers winning faceoffs. Pretty novel, huh? A focus on the draws doesn't bode particularly well for Johansson, who went a woeful 34.7% in the dot last season. As for Kuznetsov, his 18.5% was only half as good (albeit in only 18 faceoff attempts), but does have a 48.6% to 35.3% edge so far in the preseason. That said, Adam Oates's Washington Capitals were in the bottom quadrant in the league in overall faceoff percentage. Barry Trotz's Predators? Top marks. How much of that is a consequence of player skill, and how much of coaching?

With a new bench boss, new philosophies, and a lot of clarity still to be established in determining opening day lineups, there's as of now little besides conjecture regarding the second-line center spot. However, Trotz has repeatedly stated (in refreshing dissonance to Oates) that his players are going to play in accordance with their skill level - which is to say a guy with expectations, a skillset, and high-ceiling like Kuznetsov will play a position that aligns with those demands, making him our (slight) favorite to win the job.

3. Are the Caps back on track towards being a contender in the Eastern Conference?

There are two pieces to the answer to this question. The obvious one is, do the Caps have another "window of opportunity" in which they can contend for an Eastern Conference title? The less obvious one, and the harder one to assess is, who is most likely to be the Capitals’ competitor(s) in that window, in best position to deny them that prize?

With regard to the first, the difficulty one has in assembling a contender in a salary capped world is not necessarily the assembly part (the Caps did that once), but maintaining a contender over time. For the Caps, the first time was the comparatively easy part. They stunk, realized they stunk, sold off assets to acquire picks and prospects, watered and fertilized them, and watched them grow into very good young players largely on entry-level contracts: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Brooks Laich, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, and once upon a time guys such as Alexander Semin and Tomas Fleischmann, among others.

Then two things happened. The team got good, and players got paid (some, like Semin and Fleischmann, leaving to do so). What that meant was that those good young players encumbered a much larger share of the salary cap, and the high standings finishes meant that the Caps did not have the privilege of high draft picks. The Caps were not able to adqueately complement or fill-in behind the maturing core of players, and the performance on the ice suffered for it (also due in no small part to an odd procession of coaches with very different approaches to the game). Eventually, the Caps’ playoff appearance string ran out, suggesting that the window of opportunity was closed.

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However, the Caps have what might be deemed a "second wave" of prospects that hold out the promise of re-opening that window. Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, Madison Bowey – these players percolating through the Capitals’ development system could be, on their own entry-level deals, the reinforcements the club needs to provide depth and new blood to pry open that window once more over the next few years. They have the potential to provide what the Caps have lacked in recent years – depth in talent. If - and it is a big "if" - these youngsters can provide that depth, the Caps will have a formidable lineup, made moreso with the free agent signings of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to bolster the defense. It is a combination that could keep the Caps competitive at the top of the conference for the better part of the remainder of this decade.

The second part of the question is who, if anyone, has their own window of opportunity to effectively deny the Caps that Eastern Conference title? Boston, an elite team now, has something of an aging defense that would have to be retooled during the window we are contemplating. Pittsburgh is aging on the wings (Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz both will be 35 on Opening Night this season), but the presence of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, with a well-thought of group of developing defensemen, will continue to make the Penguins strong. The New York Rangers depend on goalie Henrik Lundqvist for so much, it has become hard to imagine them without him. But he will be 33 years old before seasons’ end. Who is next in line? Detroit will start this season with no fewer than eight skaters who will be 30 or older. They will look very different in a few years’ time, during the window we are looking at for the Caps.

Then there are the up-and-comers. Columbus and the New York Islanders. The Blue Jackets made the jump to playoff participant last season, and they are young enough (only three skaters older than 29) to maintain a level of play over a number of years. Their question is going to be if they have a prospect pool good enough and deep enough to let the club build on what they accomplished last season.

The Islanders might have more of an upside over the longer term than the Blue Jackets. They have a strong group of skaters who are now in the 24-26 age range (John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, Josh Bailey, Travis Hamonic) that will be only stronger over the next 3-5 years, provided they can be kept together.

We could go on with this, team-by-team, but what seems to be emerging is that in most instances, the competition for the Capitals is either formidable now, or they have an up-and-coming group that can be. With the possible exception of Pittsburgh, no team seems to have that first and second wave of prospects – one that came up in the mid-2000’s (Crosby and Malkin, Ovechkin and Backstrom) and one that is emerging now and over the next 2-3 years.

For the Caps it is a double-edged sword. They have that first wave of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Laich. To that might be added later draft picks Carlson and Alzner, and the two big free agent acquisitions this past summer: Niskanen and Orpik. As a group, these seven players encumber 57 percent of the 2014-2015 salary cap, and as a group all are signed through the 2016-2017 season, when the deals of Laich and Alzner expire. It does not make for a lot of wiggle room in terms of roster management and places pressure on the youngsters to make good on their promise. And, if they do make good on that promise, they will at some point be paid themselves. That second window of opportunity might open, but if it closes without a Capitals having a banner to hang, it might be a long time before they have another chance.