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 the Caps build on their momentum to become a contender in the Eastern Conference?
Absolutely. They were one win away from the Eastern Conference finals last year, before doing what they do best. They've upgraded the roster at key positions (right wing on the top two lines), and their highly skilled young players will enter the season with more experience and confidence.
Every team has question marks in this cap era, but there's no reason to believe this Caps team can't go toe-to-toe with any other roster in the East. They'll have a top-ten goalie, two lines that should be able to score (including the best goal scorer in the game), and two defensive pairs that can be trusted against top competition. Their depth gets questionable, but there are certainly players who could step up and have strong years, mitigating some of that concern. Injuries and other uncertainties will always play a role, and there's always room for improvement, but it's hard to say an incumbent final four Eastern team that improved is no longer a contender.
2. Can John Carlson keep the Caps' power play atop the League?
The fact is that John Carlson was never the linchpin to the Caps' power play - and neither was former Cap Mike Green. Carlson has spent plenty of time as the point man on that unit and has never been a hindrance (to wit, the unit generated more shots with Carlson back there). Carlson's shot is hard and accurate from the point, and his passing is good enough (though not as good as Green's, to our eyes… even if the data would seem to indicate that the unit’s biggest weapon didn’t suffer here either) to keep the puck moving around the set as they look for a dangerous shot.
Either way, the Caps’ power play has never really been about the point man. There has always been a ton of talent on this power play, and it's being upgraded this year, notwithstanding the loss of Green (and, to a much lesser extent, Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward). T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams are both better players than Brouwer, who rode a choice power-play assignment to a reputation as a scoring threat. Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov offer some more versatile options on either the first or second power play unit, including the critically important (and under-discussed) issue of gaining the offensive zone under control.
But ultimately, as long as Alex Ovechkin is the trigger man and Nicklas Backstrom is the quarterback, the assumption should be that the Caps' power play will continue to be deadly.
3. Will the Caps be able to cobble together an effective bottom-six forward group (including a shutdown line)?
The bottom six is where the Caps have some questions... but let's face it, if you want to have questions anywhere in your lineup, it's the bottom six. That said, there should be enough credible ability to put two lines together, especially with at least seven legitimate top-six forwards on the roster. Whether one line is a true "shutdown" line remains to be seen, though it's almost certainly something Barry Trotz would like to have at his disposal.
It's unlikely that the Caps will have an elite checking line that opponents fear and covet, but with veterans like Jay Beagle, Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera, they should be able to put together a line that can be trusted not to hurt the team with crucial mistakes (although actually possessing the puck would be a concern with those players). Whether that line ends up being the third line or the fourth line is the big question, and will go a long way toward determining how far the Caps are able to go this year.