The 2015-16 Capitals will likely have the best roster of any Caps team since at least the 2009-10 incarnation, and fans have good reason to be optimistic. As J.P pointed out in a recent Mailbag, however, there are still some things to be concerned about going into this season - and they are not all related to holes in the roster. Here's a quick list of three areas in which the Capitals have to improve either their execution, strategy, or both in order to get closer to a chance to win Lord Stanley's Cup.
1. Puck Possession and Five-On-Five Offense
The Capitals had a score-adjusted Corsi For percentage of 51.9% last season. That's a huge improvement (over four and a half percentage points) from 2013-14... but still only good enough for 12th in the league.
There was a pretty sizable gap between the Capitals and the League's elite puck possession teams. In addition, only four team's played at a slower Corsi pace than the Caps; while that may have worked to the team's advantage defensively (6th best SACA/60), it may also have contributed to the team's lackluster offense (16th in SACF/60). Per War-On-Ice, the Capitals score-adjusted offensive production was the 13th-best in the League during the regular season and that slightly-above-average offense was tasked with a heavy load during the playoffs. The Capitals even-strength offense simply wasn't strong enough to carry the team when their power play faltered, and that's ultimately what resulted in the team's expulsion from last year's playoffs.
Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz were able to revitalize the Capitals' team defense in just one season. Now MacLellan has delivered on his end for the team's Year Two project of improving the offense, improving the overall skill level on the roster by way of signing Justin Williams and trading Troy Brouwer for T.J. Oshie. So now the ball is in Barry's court - he has an opportunity to tweak his system to better utilize the talent of his high-end players.
2. Alternative Looks on the Power Play
As mentioned above, the Capitals were very reliant upon their power play in order to produce offense. During the regular season, the team converted on over 25% of their opportunities while pumping 115 shot attempts towards their opponents' net per 60 minutes of PP time. Unfortunately (and not surprisingly), that success didn't persist into the playoffs. The team only scored three times in 28 extra-man chances (10.7%) - a rate which might not just simply be a product of bad luck, as the team's shot attempt rate during the playoffs was 10.5% percent lower than their regular-season output.
Things get a little murkier when trying to determine why the Capitals power play lost effectiveness in the post-season. One possibility is that the increased level of scouting afforded to teams during the playoffs allows them to "figure out" the Caps' power play.
The Capitals have a lot of looks once they enter the offensive zone, but there's not a lot of variety to how they get there in the first place and they struggled in that department in the postseason. Marcus Johansson was a frequent - and effective - puck carrier on the power play in the regular season, but his effectiveness diminished once the playoffs rolled around (a fact which may have been due, in part, to an injury he sustained during Game 3 against the Islanders). The team would benefit from having another controlled-entry option on the power play; that option could be Oshie.
3. The Road to the Penalty Box
The Capitals were shorthanded 29 times more than they were on the power play last season, one of the worst differentials in the league.
Thanks to a spectacular power play and a solid penalty kill, the Capitals still managed to finish the season with an impressive special-teams goal differential of +10; as a frame of reference, Calgary had the highest special-teams goal differential in the League at +15 (but also enjoyed the highest opportunity differential in the league at +69). By applying the Caps' conversion and kill rates to the league average number of PK and PP opportunities (251), the goal differential would have been +16.
That net improvement of six goals equates to an extra two points in the standings, which may not seem like a lot... but if you consider that those two points would have been enough to give the Capitals home-ice advantage if they had advanced to play the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final, that small amount could make a huge difference.
It is worth noting that during the Capitals' playoff run only 60 power play opportunities were awarded (28 for and 32 against), or 4.28 per game - nearly two fewer power play opportunities per game than the regular season (6.13). If there's a similar decrease in postseason power-play opportunities next year (assuming the Capitals make it), it's a pretty safe bet that any series will be determined by even-strength play. So while the Capitals would be well served to improve their power-play opportunity differential, it's more likely to pay dividends in the regular season than during the playoffs.
Honorable Mention - Securing the Lead
The Capitals were a sub-par team while leading at the beginning of last season but they did eventually turn the corner. The team ended the season 12th in the NHL in Goals-For percentage and Fenwick-For percentage while leading; which is above average but it could (and should) continue to be an area of improvement next season.
The Capitals and Leads
If the Capitals are able to improve in the areas that outlined above (particularly in regards to puck possession) they have the chance to take their place among the truly elite teams in the NHL.