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What to Watch for in 2015-16

Just a little over 48 hours (!) remain until the Capitals kick off their 2015-16 season, with a glorious slate of 82 games – and hopefully more – awaiting us. The rosters are set, the ice is down, and all that remains is for the puck to actually drop on Saturday night.

In the meantime, there’s a ton of stuff to discuss, watch for and wonder about as we prepare to settle in for what should be a fun season… and here’s just a few:

What have you done for us lately? Under Barry Trotz‘s watchful eye, the 2014-15 Caps finished in the top-10 in both goals-for and goals-against, their captain had a 53-goal campaign and they were painfully close to getting to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in almost two decades. All in all, a pretty successful first outing behind the bench for Trotz… and now all he has to do is top it. Easy for us to say, of course, but as we noted a couple of weeks ago, he’s got pretty much all of the pieces he needs to have a very good team this year. He’s shown that he can manage the offensive side and the defensive side. The team is ready – more than ready – to take the next step. Can he get them there? That will be the big test this season.

Still Gr8. Alex Ovechkin’s tremendous season last year was vintage Ovi, with a splash of added maturity and a more well-rounded approach to his game that still resulted in him winning yet another Richard trophy and cementing himself as one of the most lethal goal-scorers in NHL history. The silly narratives that abound about how Barry Trotz “fixed” him and how he’s no longer difficult to coach are, as we all know, overblown, because the issue was never that he couldn’t or wouldn’t be coached – he’s done everything asked of him by every new bench boss that’s come in, and suffered for it. The issue was in finding the right coach for him at this point in his career. In Trotz, he seems to have that – and as a result, the hockey world is remembering why they loved him in the first place.

As the captain prepares to enter his 11th NHL season, no one’s expecting him to necessarily top his production from last season… but we certainly wouldn’t be surprised.

Dearly Departed. Every offseason brings some level of personnel turnover, with free agency and trades constantly re-shaping the roster; it is, as the cliché goes, a part of the business. This summer, however, it seems like there was a mass exodus of players who have been a significant part of – and played a significant role on – the team for a long time. Mike Green, Joel Ward and Eric Fehr all departed the team via free agency, settling in Detroit, San Jose and (ugh) Pittsburgh, respectively; Troy Brouwer was sent to the Blues in exchange for T.J. Oshie. With them goes a significant chunk of the offensive production over the last four years or so (and in Green’s case, a significant chunk of the team’s offense over the last decade) – which means others will need to step up to fill the void.

Holtbeast. Braden Holtby‘s early career has been peppered with long stretches of being brilliant with a few hiccups here and there (and one disastrous 2013-14 season that was really not his fault), and he’s been able to put the team on his shoulders many a night over the years, in the regular season and playoffs. Now he, like everyone else on the team, will need to find another level to his game and keep it consistent over the whole season.

He’s probably not going to get 73 games again this year, but he’ll still be tasked with a significant portion of the workload – and in a division where high-flying scorers abound and the margin of error should be razor-thin, he won’t have the luxury of a prolonged slump of any kind. Improved defense or no, the team is still heavily dependent on him to get them wins and cover up mistakes. If he’s up to the task (and there’s no reason to think he’s not), he could be a legitimate contender for his first Vezina Trophy.

A good problem to have. Remember the bad old days of fruitlessly searching for someone to be the team’s second-line center? Memories. Nowadays, with Evgeny Kuznetsov pretty firmly set as the team’s 2C, the biggest void up front is arguably the third-line center. As the season opens, that spot seems to be Jay Beagle‘s to lose… whether he’s the best choice for that job remains to be seen, even with his breakout season last year. The good news is that when your biggest concern is who will center your third line, you’re doing okay; the better news is that the Caps actually have quite a few options in their lineup should the Beagle experiment not work out, whether it’s Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson or Michael Latta (or even Andre Burakovsky, if they decide he’s working out as a pivot).

And if that doesn’t pan out, the best news is that the depth guys – your third-/fourth-line players – are relatively cheap and easy to find at or around the trade deadline, and the Caps should have some room to add someone there (or elsewhere) if they so choose.

Top Six Strength. At the other end of the spectrum, you have the team’s top-six forwards, a much deeper, more experienced and skilled group than they’ve had in the past. The additions of Oshie and Justin Williams are major parts of that overhaul, giving both the first and second line a new look; what they may have lost in size, they’ve gained in other areas, whether it’s talent with the puck or the ability to maintain possession (or both). And with Evgeny Kuznetsov blossoming into the second-line center we all hoped he could be, things look pretty good… once Nicklas Backstrom comes back, of course.

Bottom Six Questions. It’s not that the Caps’ bottom-six forwards are bad – if anything, the improvement in the top group has pushed some pretty talented guys down the depth chart. But the third and fourth lines are something of a puzzle that will have to be pieced together as the season goes on, between questions over who will be the third-line center, whether the team will have the type of “shutdown line” that Barry Trotz likes to deploy, and the simple question of just who will be getting a jersey on a nightly basis.

Willy or Won’t He? Heading into this year’s camp, Tom Wilson talked about wanting to take on more responsibility. The team is hoping he’s able to do the same, and transition to more of a power forward than an enforcer. The preseason results were good, as he picked up a couple of points and declined a couple of unnecessary fightsagainst a non-NHL goon (although he did drop the gloves – twice – in the penultimate game against Boston). He’s primed for a good year – but can he live up to the expectations surrounding him?

The kids are alright. Over the past year or two, the only lingering question on the Caps’ blueline was who would play on the team’s third pair. Mike Green held one of those spots last season, a rotating door of not-quite-right partners next to him; with Green’s departure, however, that job has fallen to Nate Schmidt and the now-healthyDmitry Orlov. Both are still very young and could be prone to mistakes, but if they are able to find some chemistry together and learn quickly from the veterans ahead of them on the depth chart, they could end up being one of the better third-pair duos.

Baby Got Backstrom. Any time you take an elite player out of a lineup, it’s going to have an impact; when it’s someone like Backstrom, though, the absence is palpable. To put it simply, he makes things happen. He conducts the power play. He chips in on the penalty kill. He is the yin to Ovechkin’s yang. He slows things down and simplifies them, and yet at the same time does things that most NHLers would never try… and they work. He’s just damn talented, and if preseason games and training camp practices felt a bit off, it’s because he wasn’t there. It doesn’t sound like he’ll be out for too much longer, which is good for all involved. But when he comes back, will he be able to pick up where he left off?

Crowded Metro. The Metropolitan Division ended up being a pretty tough one last year. This year? Forget about it. The Caps, Penguins and Blue Jackets all made significant upgrades to their forwards (all of which weren’t exactly weak before), while the Rangers and Islanders, already pretty tough teams, didn’t change a whole lot. Those five seem to be the consensus picks of who could be in the playoff mix this year, even if the order varies by “expert” – and if those five start beating each other up too much, don’t discount the possibility of the Flyers sneaking in and stealing at least a Wild Card spot. In short, this is going to be a dogfight. Buckle up.

Don’t Believe the Hype! The team slogan this year is “stick to the script”… and that’s going to be even more important this year as the Caps find themselves once again being considered as contenders for the Cup. After the collapse of 2010, expectations around DC’s hockey team were significantly lowered – but as the team added some pieces over the summer, the talk of the Caps being favorites to make a serious run started to ramp up. That’s always great to hear, except when it leads to complacency – on the ice, behind the bench or in the front office.

If they want this to be The Year, and all signs point to that being the case, they need to avoid believing their press clippings. Because you don’t have to be a Nationals fan to see just how quickly a “great on paper” team can fall apart…

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