Saturday, January 19, 2013

Change, potential surround Capitals as season arrives

The Washington Capitals underwent several changes over the offseason with the resignation of Dale Hunter and the hiring of Adam Oates as coach. Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble were not resigned, and Mike Riberio was acquired in a trade with the Dallas Stars to finally give the Capitals the second line center they've been searching for the last several years.

The new acquisitions bring excitment, but also raise questions. Here are the top five things to watch as the Capitals 2012-13 season finally begins.

1. Rookie Coach
Adam Oates has been described as one of the smartest and well-rounded players to ever lace-em up in the NHL. But, will Oates be able to translate that into smart coaching points? Oates will instill a balanced offensive and defensive system that will ask players to pressure puck-handlers and be sound in the defensive zone to allow the Capitals to tilt the ice in their favor. Hunter got the Capitals to commit more to defense last season, so they've shown they can do it. Now, Oates just needs to help  them find a balance between the two.

2. Alex Ovechkin
One reason Oates was hired was his work with Ilya Kovalchuk the last two years as an assistant with the New Jersey Devils. Kovalchuk was one of the most dynamic scorers in the league, but wasn't known for much else. Oates turned Kovalchuk into a sound defensive forward and a solid penalty killer. Now, Oates is tasked with doing the same with Ovechkin. Ovechkin immediately loved up to the his draft hype by scoring 50 goals four times in his first five season and winning two Hart Trophys. But, the last two seasons Ovechkin's goal totals have dipped (32 and 38) as have his overal point totals (85 and 65). Oates has already established a good relationship with Ovechkin as Ovechkin has already spoke of how he likes how much Oates communicates with him. Ovechkin signed off on a move from left wing to right, and has spoken of how he would like to play on the penalty kill. If Oates can get Ovechkin back near the 50-goal mark and improve his overall game, the Capitals chances of finally reaching the Cup finals will increase.

3. Mike Riberio
After years of failed experiments at the number two center spot, (Brooks Laich, Marcus Johannson and Jason Arnott) George McPhee finally acquired the second-line center the Capitals have desperately needed in a draft-day trade with the Dallas Stars for Mike Riberio. Riberio  is one of 12 NHLers with eight consecutive 50-point seasons and will surely take some pressure of off top center Nicklas Backstrom. Riberio gives the Capitals a legit quarterback for the second power play unit, and his presence will surely improve the point totals for Laich and former 20-goal scorer Wojtek Wolski.

4. Goaltender duo
Braden Holtby fell into the Capitals number one goalie position heading into the playoffs last season due to injuries to Michael Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun. Holtby turned in one of the most impressive playoff performances last season winning seven games, including Game 7 in Boston and a .935 save percentage in 14 games. Holtby's ability to shake off a bad goal, or loss was key in the Capitals getting to within a game of the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Holtby continued his strong play with the Hershey Bears of the AHL during the lockout, and is without a doubt the Capitals number one goalie heading into the season. Neuvirth has put up respectable numbers in his time with the Capitals, but has been plagued by inconsistency. Capitals front office members and fans are hoping Holtby avoids the inconsistency bug that has bit Neuvirth and former potential number one goalie, Semyon Varlamov.

5. No more Sasha
George McPhee decided to not re-sign enigmatic forward Alexander Semin this offseason after years of inconsistent play. Semin, at times, was the most dominant player in the Capitals lineup, but his stretches of strong play were followed by equally long stretches of Semin being nowhere to be found. Most troubling was that those stretches often took place in the second round of the playoffs. Semin had solid series against the New York Rangers in 2009, 20011 and Boston last season. But, followed with horrendous series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Rangers last season. Wolski has been brought in to replace Semin on the second line, and the Capitals will look for Brooks Laich to increase his overal point total. The acquisition of Riberio should help soften the lost production from Semin, too.

Prediction: The Capitals have questions, but many teams do heading into the shortened season. Ovechkin should have a bounce back year with Oates's guidance, and Nicklas Backstrom has established himself as one of the top centers in the league. Washington has a solid D-pairing in Karl Alzner and John Carlson, and Mike Green is fully healthy for the first time in two years. If Holtby continues his strong play from the playoffs, the Capitals will have one less issue to worry about. I see the Capitals reclaiming their spot on the top of the Southeast division, and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.

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