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Rink Roundtable: The Champs Are Back

The Rink crew looks ahead to the 2018-19 season

2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Five Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The puck is about to drop on a brand new season... and yet while this is an (almost) annual rite of fall, it feels somehow different, as for the first time we get to see how this team responds to defending a championship. So what do we expect in the next 7-9 months? The Rink crew gathers together for a look ahead at 2018-19.

Q1. The season is about to begin, and the Caps are the defending Stanley Cup Champs. How much does this coming season’s success actually matter to you?

J.P.: Real talk? I’m not sure how much I care… to a point. I’d like to see them not embarrass themselves. But a playoff berth and a decent showing in the postseason would almost certainly be enough to not sour the feelings of the past four months. My bottom line here is that this will always be a special group in my mind, and there’s little that could happen this season that would change that. Hopefully they can add more positive memories, because there’s change a-comin’... but not quite yet.

Adam: I’d like to see the Capitals make the playoffs, and I’ll obviously be disappointed if they aren’t competitive, but I won’t get too worked up regardless of what happens this season… at least that’s what I say now.

Rob: I would love to believe that I won’t get worked up if they struggle this year, but I don’t think that will be true. It’s a competitive division and all that, but they’ve returned basically the same team that just won the damn thing. If they aren’t solidly in the playoffs and at least within the same tier as the other contenders, it’ll be disappointing. I’ll have patience for a slow start, and even an underwhelming regular season (see last year), but if they don’t find an inspired performance by the time the playoffs come around it’ll be disappointing--you’d like to see that fire keep burning even after the success.

Becca: I’m going into this season with two different levels of caring. On the one hand, I honestly can’t see myself getting as worked up over little things - single-game performances, scoring droughts and slumps, etc. - as I once did. The Caps will finish where they finish, players will have the seasons they’re going to have, and as long as they’re playoff bound in April I’m fine with it.

That said... on a larger level, I think I may actually care more about the team’s ultimate success, and it started back in the Eastern Conference Final. Up until the Caps advanced to face Tampa, my annual wish was just for them to make it to the third round - that would be enough. A step forward, long overdue, and then whatever happens happens. But once they got there, once they beat the Lightning, I found that I was not nearly satisfied - I wanted that Cup. Now that the Caps have one... I want another one. Yes, repeating is hard and the logical part of my brain knows that and accepts that just not embarrassing themselves would be sufficient. But man, it’s going to feel sort of hollow and odd if we don’t get another short, alcohol-drenched, scraggly-bearded summer in 2019.

Kevin: Of course I want the team to do well, but having won the Cup last year affords me this as a fan: if you were a hockey genie and you told me you could guarantee a 55 goal year for Alex Ovechkin this year, but the team would get knocked in the first round, I might take that deal.

Jason: Right now? It matters extremely little. This team will never again have as much “patience capital” with the fanbase as it does now. So go ahead: give the young guys some ice time. Try some new combinations and pairings. I’ve got….oh, at least until December before I start to get too worried.

Q: What do you see as the biggest challenge for the year ahead?

J.P.: I’d think fatigue, both mental and physical. These dudes have played a hell of a lot of hockey over the past year, two years, three years and at some point that has to start catching up with some guys (I’m looking at you, Braden Holtby). Couple that with the denouement following the Cup win and having to ramp back up, emotionally, for mid-Winter games against the League’s less-inspiring teams and the season ahead certainly has its foreseeable challenges.

Rob: Playing as the favorites has always been a challenge for this team, and coming into this season they’ll be the favorite against just about everyone. They won’t face any off-nights, nobody is going to take them lightly, and they don’t really have any “us against the world” fodder to draw upon. Finding the motivation to fight through every game (not literally, Mr. Wilson) is going to be something to watch.

Kevin: Everything JP and Rob said above, while also adapting to some big changes behind the bench. It’s easy to imagine that the team’s coaching philosophy on playing youth has, um, evolved as a consequence of the coaching change to Todd Reirden, and increased minutes for inexperienced players certainly comes with its pitfalls.

Jason: Balancing playing time between the experienced veterans that got you to the mountaintop, and the young rookies that will help keep you there in the coming years. For example, if Madison Bowey or Jonas Siegenthaler struggle on defense (I’m assuming both will play at points this season), do you give them time to right the ship? Or do you quickly pull them for other options? I know which one Barry Trotz would choose. I’m curious to see if Todd Reirden thinks any differently.

Becca: Agreed on above, but I’m going to go a bit smaller and focus on the goaltender workload, because aside from the coaching staff it’s the area facing the biggest change from last season. Pheonix Copley is a promising young goalie and could potentially be the next Philipp Grubauer circa 2017-18. But I’m not sure how confident the team is in giving him a significant number of games, regardless of whether he performs beyond expectations, and I really believe the fact that Holtby got to rest a bit and regroup last season played a huge role in his ability to step up in the playoffs. Do they win the Cup without Holtby being at his best? Absolutely not. Can he be at his best for an extended playoff run without being spelled by a highly competent backup? We may find out.

Q: Who’s your pick for breakout/biggest surprise Caps player? Anyone you see disappointing?

J.P.: How many years in a row are we allowed to peg Andre Burakovsky as a breakout player? I suppose I’ll take him - all the physical tools are there, and he’s just too talented not to produce more than he has so far. I don’t know if this is a make-or-break year for him, but it’d be nice for him to live up to some of that potential. (Of course, no one will forget his Game 7 against Tampa, and if that’s as good as it gets, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.)

Adam: It’s gotta be Andre Burakovsky’s time right? He was great in Game 7 against Tampa and was productive against the Golden Knights.

Tom Wilson is a valuable player but his reckless play makes him a prime target for multiple suspensions. Now that Wilson has an AAV upwards of 5 million a year it’s more important than ever that he’s in the lineup, and not simply counting against the cap while in the press box. If Wilson is unable to curtail the more dangerous parts of his game he may very well be a disappointment this year...for reasons beyond his play on the ice.

Rob: Vrana is going to be the breakout player--he was so close during the playoffs last year and I think he’s going to build on that and become a legitimate top-six threat. On the flip side, Burakovsky is going to continue to spin his wheels and not make that jump, so I’ll predict him as the disappointment this year.

Kevin: I went on record last year saying Jakub Vrana would hit 25 goals in 2018-2019. That presumes being given a longer leash and more ice time, but with him currently slotting in on the second line, I’ll stick to those guns.

Becca: I’m going a little off the board and taking Christian Djoos as my potential breakout player. He showed flashes of offensive brilliance last season - and had a few such moments in preseason, as well - and really didn’t seem fazed at all by the brighter spotlight of the playoffs. With a year (and a Cup) under his belt, he’s sure to have more confidence and I’m excited to see what he brings to the table.

As for disappointments... I’ll agree with Mr. Stringham. Super disappointed that Wilson continues to do stupid stuff like this. He’s capable of controlling himself (it’s worth noting that after last year’s preseason, he steered clear of even remotely controversial hits pretty much all regular season) and for whatever reason decided the second-to-last frame of the last preseason game was a good time to try and decapitate someone. After the year he had last year as a player and the punishments he faced in the postseason, I had high hopes for him this season and he’s already kind of dashed them.

Jason: Either Andre Burakovsky or Jakub Vrana needs to hit ~30 goals this year. It’s time. Burakovsky, especially, needs to prove if he’s the streaky, inconsistent player that gets scratched for weeks at a time, or if he’s the Eastern Conference Final hero who deserves uninterrupted time in the top six.

Q: Any concerns regarding Todd Reirden as the guy to replace Barry Trotz behind the bench?

J.P: Sure - he’s a totally unproven commodity, so the Caps are essentially going with a hunch. But it’s as good a hunch as any, and while some might have preferred a “new voice” rather than just promoting the predecessor’s #2… recall that it worked out when they replaced George McPhee with Brian MacLellan.

Rob: I’m not concerned. I get that he has not been an NHL head coach, but I wouldn’t call him “totally unproven.” He’s been behind the bench of two very successful teams, been credited with the development of numerous defensemen on both teams, and has been on the rising star list of coaches for several years now. I would be concerned about his ability to now have to work with the forwards, given his pedigree and experience, but he worked the power play last year so he’s already familiar with all the key players up front, and obviously has the ability to think about the offensive side of the game. When you see the quotes about his ability to communicate and relate to players I think it’s clear that he has the respect of the entire team and he won’t need to establish himself or his credibility with the team.

Becca: Not at all. I honestly think (and obviously our knowledge is limited to whatever people say publicly) that a lot of the positive steps the team took last year were due as much to Reirden’s guidance as anything Trotz was doing. The guys seem to really respect him, he’s been around the group for a long time, and he was a key part of a Cup-winning coaching staff. I’m excited to see what he can do for a follow up.

Kevin: It’s four months after the Caps won the Cup, so literally nothing concerns me. But frankly, I’m excited about Todd Reirden. Even acknowledging last year’s final glorious outcome, it seemed in evidence that the organization was ready for some fresh blood, and maybe for somebody a little bit less dyed in the wool of old-school hockey philosophy than Barry Trotz. Does Todd Reirden represent that? We don’t necessarily know, but there are worst situations to be in than dropping nearly the full returning Stanley Cup winning roster into the lap of a guy with a track record of success in all the positions he’s held before.

Jason: Absolutely none. Todd is beloved by all his players, especially young guys and defensemen - the two areas that the Capitals will hope to grow this year. I’m optimistic.

Q: How about one real and one bold prediction before we get out of here?

J.P.: Real prediction: Caps sputter here and there, finish third in the Metro, but advance to the Conference Final once again. Bold: Nicklas Backstrom leads the League in assists.

Rob: Real prediction: There will be a point in calendar year 2019 when there is a very real doubt about whether the Caps actually make the playoffs. Bold: Kuznetsov leads the east in scoring (and the league if McDavid gets hurt again).

Kevin: Real prediction: Ovi manages to fend off Patrik Laine for one more year, and wins his sixth Rocket Richard trophy in seven years. Bold: Chandler Stephenson chips in for 25 points this year.

Jason: Real prediction: The Capitals will make it back to the Stanley Cup Final. Bold prediction: Evgeny Kuznetsov will break 100 points for the first time in his career.

Becca: Real prediction: The Caps hit the 100+ point mark again (which may or may not be enough to win the Metro). Bold prediction: Back-to-back, baby. Let’s do this.