Sunday, October 04, 2015

Washington Capitals: Five Questions for 2015-2016, Part II

Our second big question for this season concerns whether the Washington Capitals can successfully fill critical spots from within as players depart.

One of the things that characterizes the Chicago Blackhawks in their current era of excellence is their ability to remake themselves.  That has been a product of necessity, salary cap limits and players who were coming up for raises after successful campaigns requiring the parting of ways with the Hawks.

It happened after the 2010 Cup-winning season, when the Blackhawks lost seven players – Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Colin Fraser, Andrew Ladd, and Antti Niemi – generally as a concession to their cap situation.  Chicago won again in 2013, but then they lost Michael Frolik, Dave Bolland, and Viktor Stalberg.  After winning a third Cup in six seasons last spring, the Blackhawks find themselves in the same situation now, having lost Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp.

What the Blackhawks have not done is tamper with their core – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith.  They have managed to fill in around that core very effectively.  Much of that has come from within, either new players sliding into the lineup or players assuming larger roles – Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Bryan Bickell, Marcus Kruger among them.

The Washington Capitals have not had nearly the success enjoyed by the Blackhawks, but they, too, are in the position of having to fill spots left open by players moving off to other teams.  Three players come to mind here, all Capitals draft picks – John Carlson, Andre Burakovsky, and Tom Wilson.  All are expected to assume expanded roles or fill in for departed players.

John Carlson has been slowly incorporating more responsibility into his game for a few years now.  Last season he was the team leader in minutes per game and finished the season among the best in the NHL in a number of statistical categories.  He was the team leader in even strength ice time per game and shorthanded ice time per game among defensemen for the Caps.  The one area in which he had not yet assumed the clear number one role on the blueline was quarterback on the power play. 

Now, with Mike Green departing for the greener pastures of Red Wing hockey (three-year/$18 million contract with Detroit), Carlson is going to get his shot at quarterbacking what has been the league’s best power play over the last three years (24.9 percent overall, first-ranked in two of those seasons, second by one one-hundredth of a percent in the other).  Carlson was a more efficient player than Green last season in producing power play points (16 in 142 minutes versus 17 in 199 minutes for Green), but he is going to get the best penalty killers that opponents can offer, looking to deny his teeing up Alex Ovechkin for one-timers from the left wing circle.  Assuming this responsibility means that for John Carlson, the job of number one defenseman is his job in full now.

Precocious rookie.  In Chicago, that role went to Teuvo Teravainen last season.  A former 18th overall draft pick in 2012, he went 4-5-9 in 34 games with the Blackhawks in the regular season, then followed it up with four goals and ten points in 18 post season games.  For the Caps, it was Andre Burakovsky.  The former 23rd overall pick in the 2013 draft surprised many by making the parent club out of training camp and scoring the team’s first goal of the season on his way to a 9-13-22 season in 53 games.  He followed that up with a pair of goals and three points in 11 postseason games. 

This season, Burakovsky is expected to assume a more expansive role.  He seems targeted for either the second line left wing or the third line center, although it seems likely he will be the second line center until Nicklas Backstrom returns to the lineup, and Evgeny Kuznetsov slides down a rung in the middle.

At times, it was hard to remember that Burakovsky was a 19-year old rookie.  He had a fine start to the season, and his postseason was uncommon for one as young as he was.  Then again, he was assigned to Hershey six times last season, the last time to participate in the Bears’ postseason run.  Not that he played a lot in Hershey (13 regular season games and one playoff game).  Many of the reassignments were “paper” transactions of a short term nature, but this year he will be expected to appear in more than the 53 games in which he played for the Caps last season.  But, let us keep in mind, too, that he is still just a 20-year old.  In the post 2004-2005 lockout era, 19 forwards in their 20-year old year recorded 50 or more points, less than two a year and never more than three in any one season.  If there are Caps fans out there thinking Burakovsky is going to be one of them, he is swimming upstream against recent history.  But he should be a significant contributor.  It is likely he will have to be for the Caps to be successful.

Tom Wilson is not your average 16th overall draft pick.  He is one of five players in the post 2004-2005 lockout era to record at least 300 penalty minutes in his first two seasons.  None of the other four were drafted higher than the third round or 73rd overall.  On the other hand, he is fifth in his 2012 draft class in games played (149), 14th in goals scored (7), and 11th in points (27), all rankings above his selection point (16th overall).

This season, Wilson could amend the definition of “power” forward as it applies to him.  Although the club obtained T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams to address perceived weaknesses on the right side of the forward squad, Wilson could slide into the third-line slot formerly occupied by Joel Ward, now of the San Jose Sharks.  In that position, there is going to be less emphasis on the power of his fists (26 fighting majors in two seasons) and more on muscling his way into scoring areas and improving his point production.

The age thing applies to Wilson as much as it does to Burakovsky.  He will be entering his 21-year old age year with the Caps.  In the last ten seasons, 14 right wingers have appeared in 70 or more games and recorded 30 or more points in their 21-year old year.  It would be a stretch for Wilson to make it 15, but making progress as an all-around contributor is the object of this season for Wilson.

In a salary-capped world, the ability of a team to bring new players into roles left open by players departing for better compensation is a key to sustained success.  The Chicago Blackhawks have perfected this technique in the last half-dozen seasons.  If the Capitals are to replicate the success of the Blackhawks, they are going to need to have players assume more responsible roles and make bigger contributions.  Key to that will be how John Carlson, Andre Burakovsky, and Tom Wilson – all former first-round draft picks by the club – improve on their performance to date.

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