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Preseason Ponderings: What Could Torpedo the 2017-2018 Season?

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Keeping an eye on factors that could make this year a difficult one

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Looking at questions, concerns, issues, and milestones the Capitals might face this season, we ask the question, “apart from injury, what would be the one factor that could torpedo the Washington Capitals 2017-18 season?”

First we need to define just what “torpedo the Washington Capitals 2017-18 season” means. Quite simply, it would be a failure to reach the postseason. Think it can’t happen? Recall that when the Caps entered the 2011-12 season they were coming off three consecutive 100-plus point seasons, and twice they reached the conference semi-finals in the postseason before bowing out. Then, they ran off to a 7-0-0 start in the 2011-12 season, and things were looking just fine.

Fifteen games later, over which they had a 5-9-1 record, they were eighth in the Eastern Conference standings and relieved head coach Bruce Boudreau of his duties. They barely squeaked into the postseason under new head coach Dale Hunter, but the team was not what it was in those previous three seasons.

The Caps are coming off consecutive Presidents Trophy-winning seasons, but they are also coming off three consecutive second-round defeats in the playoffs. And that brings us to what could be an underlying factor that could torpedo this season. We will call it “disappointment fatigue.”

No fan can see inside a professional athlete’s head, but after two seasons of being at the pinnacle of the regular season and in each instance being eliminated before getting to a conference final, let alone a Stanley Cup final, and by the same team, to boot, it does make one wonder how much resolve is still in the tank to grind through an 82-game season to put itself in a position to compete in the playoffs again.

The problem is exacerbated by two factors. First, there is the roster. Six of the 18 skaters that took the ice in the last game of the 2016-17 season are gone, including half of the defense. It entirely possible that at least two rookies will be among the starters on Opening Night of the 2017-18 season (depending on how you feel about Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos, or perhaps Jonas Siegenthaler or Tyler Lewington, with Lucas Johansen or Connor Hobbs as possibilities). Or, the Caps might find spots for mid-career veterans Jyrki Jokipakka or Aaron Ness. And Taylor Chorney, entering his third season with the Caps, will be fighting for a regular spot in the lineup. No combination of three of these players, at first blush, would appear able to fill the skates of the departed Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Nate Schmidt, at least right away.

Here, the hope is that three from this group grow over the course of the season to be contributing players on a consistent basis. But in terms of fighting off “disappointment fatigue” early in the season, the Caps are working with a weaker hand, roster-wise, than that which they finished last season, even if you think youngsters like Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov continue to improve.

Then there is the schedule. The Caps do not play two consecutive games at home until Games 17 and 18 of the season, and those will come against the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and a team that could contend this season, the Edmonton Oilers. Ten of the Caps’ first 16 games will be played away from Capital One Arena, including the annual three-game swing through the western Canadian provinces and games at Vancouver, at Edmonton, and at Calgary. To top it off, the Caps will have four back-to-back sets of games in that 16-game start, six of those eight on the road. The ten road games in the first 16 on the schedule will involve travel of about 10,000 miles.

No team can win a Stanley Cup in October or November, but if there is a hangover from last year’s disappointing finish – well, two years of disappointing finishes – and it is complicated by a weaker, greener roster and a schedule that does no favors for the club early, the Caps could lose enough ground early to make it difficult, if not impossible, to compete for one in the spring.

How the Caps handle these factors over the first quarter of the season will go a long way in determining their fate this season. Handle them poorly, and the season could be torpedoed early.