And so it begins again... another exciting season of Washington Capitals hockey! With mere hours remaining until the 2016-17 campaign gets underway, the Rink Crew gathered for one final look at this year's team and what lies ahead.
Q1. Which Capital do you think is poised for a breakout season?
Jason: It's gotta be Andre Burakovsky. From everything I've heard, he's understood himself and his metaphysical place in the universe, and that starts with his body type. He's big. At 6'3," and after apparently having put on something like 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason, he and Zach Sanford could both be the powerful-but-skilled, David Backes-type players that have been, quite honestly, missing from the Capitals recently. Bura is still developing, still learning. He didn't have several years in a top-flight league to polish his skills like Kuzy did. It's a contract year for Burakovsky; let's see if he earns that paper. MoJo did.
The Peerless: I would agree with Jason -- Andre Burakovsky. The nature of preseason games is such that players of some skill and experience can look better than they are against teams that are sprinkled with prospects and players likely headed to the minors, but Burakovsky looked like a player with more confidence in the games I saw. He looks bigger, too, which should help him address the physical issues he seemed to have at times and against some teams.
He had a big jump in production last season from his rookie year, from 22 to 38 points in 26 more games played. He should get enough ice time and opportunities with skilled teammates to challenge the 50-point mark this season, and I don't think it's beyond reason to think he could hit 60 under the right circumstances. If he did so, he'd be only the 14th player (15th if you assume Connor McDavid gets there first) over the last five seasons (including the upcoming one) to top 60 points at age 22 or younger.
J.P.: Zach Sanford has impressed in the preseason and has made the opening night roster, seemingly out of nowhere, so he's certainly going to have the opportunity to keep making a name for himself on a League-wide level. But I'm picking Dmitry Orlov. Orlov's career-to-date has been marked with fits and starts, with some terrific play (even if not everyone saw it) and some... less stellar moments, but he's going to have a chance to play a top-four role consistently this year, and we'll see if he can handle it. If so, he'll be on everyone's radar come April.
Geoff: This is Tom Wilson's year to break out offensively and make a name for himself with his offense. Through his young career Wilson has been typecast, both fairly and not, as a heavy bottom six winger who dances on the line between legal and illegal play. However, this is a player who tallied more than a point per game a little less than four years ago for Plymouth in the OHL. Since his rookie year in 2013-2014 Wilson has increased his goal, assist, and point production every season, registering seven goals and 23 points last year. Expect both of those numbers to increase for the third straight season as Wilson continues to grow his game in the offensive zone.
Pepper: I'll go with Orlov as well. He will be given the opportunities, both in situations and TOI, to become a solidifying force in what last spring's playoffs revealed to be a D group lacking in consistency in the performance of pairings beyond Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen. More importantly, unlike, I think, with Wilson's situation and the forward depth for the bottom two lines, there is no clear Plan B for the top-4 D if Orlov isn't able to handle the increased responsibility, suggesting that he will have a long leash, over the long season.
Adam: Andre Burakovsky had the third highest points per sixty minutes of five-on-five play (P/60) on the Capitals last year. To have a "breakout season" he'll have to continue to produce in elevated minutes. In addition to his stable role in the top six it appears that Burakovsky will be a mainstay on the second power play unit. The circumstances are right for a big year from Burakovsky.
Rob: I'll join J.P. on the fence, and then fall to the other side. Orlov may not have gotten the ice time he wanted and, really, the ice time he deserved, but his skill set and ability to contribute aren't going to be a shock. Sure, he might juice his boxcars but he's not going to come out of nowhere, at least for Caps fans.
Sanford has come out of nowhere. Even draft nerds didn't see this coming when he was picked in the second round in 2013. He's had three strong amateur seasons since then, but without a single pro game on his resume nobody expected him to make the team out of camp. But here he is. And, despite my cynical nature, I'll take the team's word for it that he has earned a spot on the roster outright and that this isn't a message to other players (as you could view the Liam O'Brien-type roster spots in the past).
This team seems to be past the days of rushing up young players based more on hope than performance; otherwise Jakub Vrana would have gotten more time in camp. So that means that Sanford, a budding power forward with soft hands around the net, has shown the staff that he can not only contribute in an offensive role, but can also play a defensively reliable game. After all, he's slated to play on the third line with Eller, allowing Johansson to move back into the top six.
All that tells me that this kid can play, and while he may not put up huge numbers, showing he belongs in the NHL at such a young age is a breakout of its own. I mean, if Sanford isn't good enough to play in the NHL then what kind of sign is that for Tom Wilson and his (once again) demotion to the fourth line...
Q2. What do you think is the team's biggest strength going into this year? What is their biggest weakness?
J.P.: On paper, the strengths are many. Goaltending. Special teams. The top-nine, heck, top-12 forwards (including, for the first time in forever, depth down the middle). Add in what would appear to be good-not-great blueline, decent five-on-five play, leadership and coaching, and a committed front office and this team looks very much like a Cup contender. On paper.
And while picking out weakness(es) is a tougher exercise, it's probably the defense. Make no mistake - this is a solid top-six, and among the better groups in the League. But there are two concerns that arise when asking, "Is this a D-corps that can win a Cup?" First is depth. Beyond that top-six (certainly seven), the drop-off is pretty steep and recent trade-deadline band-aids like Tim Gleason and Mike Weber and the play of the team's younger rearguards shine a spotlight on how important that depth is in the spring.
The second is at the other end of the depth chart - the "#1 defenseman." Here's a list of the top blueliner for the past four seasons' Cup finalists: Kris Letang, Brent Burns, Duncan Keith, Victor Hedman, Drew Doughty, Ryan McDonagh, Zdeno Chara (the 2013 version). You get the point - most of these teams had legitimate Norris Trophy-caliber defenders playing huge minutes at the most critical time of the year. Is John Carlson (or Matt Niskanen) that type of player? Without taking a step forward, probably not. The Caps' blueline is more balanced and is good... but that hasn't necessarily been the blueprint for successful defenses in recent years, where studs on the back-end have helped carry their teams to the Finals.
Jason: Oh my God, goaltending, and how refreshing is that? What was once an Achilles heel is now a robust Saskatchewan blocker pad. Remember the teeth-gnashing before the ‘15-16 season, when Holtby went unsigned for an uncomfortably long time and there was actually debate about whether or not he was worth the $6 million per year contract he eventually got?
If he wanted me to personally wash his Jeep Wrangler every day in a bikini to keep him backstopping this team, I would. (Call me, Braden.)
Washington Capitals Venn Depth Charts, 2016-17
Our unique look at the Washington Capitals depth chart
As for a weakness, I hope it isn't, but it could well be the defense. Against the Penguins in the playoffs, Brooks Orpik got...I won't call it exposed, but had harsh light shed upon what could be, if he doesn't find a way to apply his famous work ethic towards it, a fatal flaw in an aging star's game. Add to that Dmitry Orlov, who, let's be honest, is still largely an unknown variable. We're all betting on him being...lord, what? Mike Green Lite? Mike Green distilled from potatoes? Orlov's game, like several manner of fine hard cheeses, is delicious but prone to holes.
If the Capitals trusted Orlov to be the true second-pairing defenseman they hope he can be, they would not have waited contentious and well-documented months to sign him to a one-year duct tape contract.
Can he be The Man? He's got the legs. It will depend upon whether he's got the Spidey senses to pinch when he needs to pinch, drop when he needs to drop, and always - always - prioritize back checking over being the trailing man on the offensive break.
The Peerless: The Capitals' biggest strength going into this season is their offensive depth, especially among the forwards. This is a team that might have a top-five, if not a top-three first, second, third, and fourth lines of forwards this season. No opposing line of forwards or pair of defensemen is going to get a night off against that group. They were second in the league in team scoring last season (3.02 goals/game). We have them just slightly better this season, but that is a conservative estimate. This is a team that could average 3.25 goals per game, which would place it among the top 20 teams in team scoring in the post-2004-05 lockout era.
Their biggest weakness is an allergy to flowering plants. How else to explain their lack of postseason success in the spring each year? Seriously, though, it is not so much a weakness as a worry I have about this group, especially the young guys. As a group, the under-25 cohort came up small last spring. Marcus Johansson had adequate numbers with two goals and five assists in 12 postseason games, but he had just one point in the Pittsburgh series. Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, and Andre Burakovsky combined for two goals and four assists in 12 games. The Caps cannot afford a repeat of that level of performance in the spring. If "Will Over Skill" is a team motto this season, I'll add one for the young guys as they head into the spring. "Hey guys, just chill."
Geoff: Washington's biggest strength this year is their depth down the middle of the ice and that inspires a ton of confidence in their forwards. Led by Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov (depending on who you ask) and followed by Lars Eller and Jay Beagle the Capitals' centers can compete with the league's best. Eller has looked good in Washington so far and his experience in Montreal's top six should come in handy in the second season if scoring dries up.
The biggest weakness entering the season is the defense and it's because of their reliance on Brooks Orpik and Dmitry Orlov to play regular minutes on a Stanley Cup contending team. Orpik's lack of foot speed was evident last postseason and Orlov, to reinforce Jason's point, is still a green rearguard. In February of last year Brian MacLellan felt obligated to trade a third round pick to secure Mike Weber in the middle of the franchise's most successful regular season ever. Washington will begin this season with the same top six defensemen Weber was brought in to reinforce, and that's not good.
Pepper: Totally agree with Geoff. The center depth is breathtaking, and the anticipated heavy reliance on Orlov and/or Orpik concerning. Hopefully Orlov can develop to the point at which we are having a very different conversation about him in April, as a reliable performer in the top four. Like J.P. said, the lack of a true #1 blueliner is troubling, but if Orlov is capable, having two great pairings should make for a legitimate Cup contender.
Adam: The team's biggest strength has been, and continues to be, their forwards. The Capitals have at least two, maybe three, scoring lines and some truly dynamic players. It's hard to imagine the Capitals being near the top of the league in terms of goal scoring, especially if Barry Trotz's "tweaks" to his system allow for more creativity in transition.
I am concerned about the team's lack of a truly elite defenseman but J.P already has that topic covered, so let's go with different one. As I just said, the Capitals' offense is going to be really good in the regular season... but I'm a little worried about the playoffs. Is the Capitals in-zone offense free-flowing/dynamic/unpredictable enough to work sustainably over a long playoff series? It certainly looked like the Penguins were able to short circuit the Capitals' even strength offense as the round went on. I believe that the Capitals will need to add some wrinkles to their low-to-high offense if they're going to advance past the Eastern Conference's elite teams.
Rob: The strength of this team is so easy even String can get it - the forwards. The top six is still deep and highly skilled, with a seventh forward that is being forced to the third line. The fourth line is full of guys that can contribute on the penalty kill, play reliable defense, and bring Coach Trotz's heavy game (to the extent that's still the model...). I think we are likely to see a lot of tinkering with the lines, but at this point it'll be a major letdown if there aren't at least two lines that can consistently score and two lines that can competently defend.
The defense is going to be the weakness, especially if they see any type of injuries. The defense may not have been considered the strength of the team last year, but it looked considerably deeper at the start of the season than it ended up being. Injuries to Carlson and Orpik showed how quickly the rest of the D corps could be pressed into assignments that were above their head, and the suspension to Orpik in the playoffs proved costly as turnovers from the depth players (Nate Schmidt and Mike Weber, to remind you all) cost the Caps two game-winning goals against the Penguins in the playoffs.
This year, Orpik is even older, Carlson appears to have topped out (below the level of the elite players J.P. listed above, unfortunately), and unless Orlov takes a substantial step forward in his defensive game will be challenged by the elite teams that can roll out two high-caliber scoring lines.
Q3. Make one bold prediction for the 2016-17 season.
Jason: Stanley Cup. Jesus, why not? Forget a jinx, forget a jonx, forget qualified halfway passion. I'd rather die on my skates than live on my knees, and you know as well as I do that this team is good enough to win, this year.
Do you want to look up at the fireworks and mumble "Hm," or do you want to bet it all on Red one last time, and let it ride?
I'll be on the bandwagon, honking the horn.
The Peerless: It has been almost three years since a goalie scored a goal in an NHL game (Arizona's Mike Smith did it in October 2013). Not only will Braden Holtby break that drought and become the 12th goalie to score a goal in an NHL regular season game, he will become the second goalie to do it at least twice, joining Martin Brodeur (three times), after he scores twice this season. He would be the first NHL goalie to score twice in the regular season.
Geoff: Alex Ovechkin scores his first playoff overtime winner to advance Washington to the Eastern Conference Finals next May.
Pepper: The Caps draw the Rangers in the first round, and Holtby vanquishes the demons by finally defeating Henrik Lundqvist in a game 7 by a 1-0 margin. Having struggled and persevered through a tough first round, the Caps cruise through the next two, and face the St. Louis Blues in the Cup final.
Adam: Brooks Orpik will be a healthy scratch by the start of the playoffs.
Rob: Zach Sanford will still be on the roster on Thanksgiving.
J.P.: The political unrest in the U.S. resulting from the November elections and subsequent inauguration in January reaches a boiling point in early June and martial law forces an immediate suspension of the remainder of the NHL season... with the Caps leading their Stanley Cup Final series 3-0 and 4-0 in the third period of Game 4 at home. The season is never resumed, with a brand new season starting in October, 2017, order restored and peace brought to this great nation.