“Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have
coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.”
coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.”
-- George S. Patton
“Washington Capitals, Stanley Cup Champions.”
It will never get old. But it is also a starting point for a journey into the unknown, a road on which this franchise has never traveled. How do the first-time winners of a Stanley Cup navigate their way to a second championship? That is what the next six months are about, how to manage being the prey and not the predator, being chased instead of doing the chasing.
If last season was an expression of how a team can put together by coming together in ways that previous editions of the club could not, even with superior talent, the 2018-2019 Capitals will be a study in how a club might use the same on-ice formula to achieve the same result. These Capitals are, almost in every part, the same club that won last year. But where they differ most might be most important, especially as they start the season.
Gone are head coach Barry Trotz, Assistant Coach Lane Lambert, and Director of Goaltending Mitch Korn, all off to assume similar duties with the New York Islanders. Enter new head coach Todd Reirden (promoted from Associate Coach), and assistants Scott Arniel and Reid Cashman. Reirden has previous head coaching experience (two seasons with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL), while Arniel spent a season and a half as head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The new group has several challenges in the short and the longer term.
The first is shaking off any hangover effects (figuratively and literally, given the gusto with which the Caps celebrated their Stanley Cup win). Why is that important? As far back as 2013, slow starts and their impacts on making the postseason were a thing. The point is that falling off the playoff pace, even by a few points, over the first month of the season can kill a team’s playoff dreams.
The second challenge is finding the right mix of not fixing what isn’t broken, this being a defending Stanley Cup champion, putting the coaches’ own imprint on the club in terms of style and philosophy, and being able to apply a critical eye to things that the club might not have done well last season in spite of the success they enjoyed. One thing to look for. It took a while for the Caps to settle on forward lines, Barry Trotz being something of a persistent mixologist in that regard at times. But settle they did. Will those lines remain intact through the early going?
The Caps are three-deep, three-across on their forward lines. Washington has among the best top-nine forwards in the league with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Lars Eller centering wingers Alex Ovechkin, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky on the left side, and Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, and Brett Connolly on the right side. It is not a group without questions, though. There is health. Oshie missed eight games last season to a concussion and plainly felt the after effects in the weeks immediately following his return. His susceptibility to that kind of injury will be a concern.
An entirely different health concern surrounds Tom Wilson, that being the degree to which he impacts the health of opponents with play outside the rules. He is likely to face a season-opening suspension of some length after his open ice hit on St. Louis forward Oskar Sundqvist in the team’s last preseason game. It would be Wilson’s fourth suspension in just over a year. A top line right winger cannot be missing productive time to those sorts of antics over a season if the team is to succeed. Vrana and Burakovsky have immense talent, but both have had episodes of inconsistency that have to be addressed. Ovechkin turned 33 years old in September, and for those who think there is another 50-goal season in his sticks, only three players in NHL history have hit the 50-goal mark having reached their 33rd birthday.
The new blood among the forwards will be on the fourth line, where a spot opened up when Jay Beagle signed as a free agent with the Vancouver Canucks. Travis Boyd appeared to have a good shot at nailing down that slot, but he opens the season “week-to-week” with a lower body injury suffered against St. Louis in a preseason game. That creates an opportunity for Nic Dowd, who came to the Caps over the summer with 131 games of NHL experience with two clubs. The question here, whether it is Boyd (later) or Dowd (now) filling Beagle’s slot is whether they can be as effective killing penalties and/or winning faceoffs.
The remaining questions might qualify as “Stanley Cup Champ Problems,” but there is the matter of whether Chandler Stephenson continues his improvement and/or Devante Smith-Pelly shakes off whatever that mysterious reason was for his being held out for much of the preseason and provides some consistent, even if modest production.
Like the forwards, this is largely a set group on paper. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov on the top pair, John Carlson and Michal Kempny on the second pa—oh, wait. Kempny was flattened by St. Louis’ Robert Bortuzzo in a preseason game (suspended for two preseason games and one regular season game) and is uncertain to start the season. How that might shake up the pairs is an early personnel challenge. Will the Brooks Orpik/Christian Djoos third pair be broken up? Will Jonas Siegenthaler (who had a fine training camp) or Madison Bowey get a sweater, either with Carlson or with one of Orpik or Djoos? If you don’t want to suffer that slow start that puts you in a hole from which you are not likely to emerge, an early injury on the second pair is not the way to start the season. But that aside, what was the most uncertain group among the Caps going into last season – the defense – might be the most stable as this season unfolds.
From 2014-2015 through 2016-2017, Braden Holtby averaged 67 starts per season. Last season he had 54 starts, Philipp Grubauer picking up the slack when Holtby suffered a curious late-season slump. Whether Holtby can be productive at something closer to his three-season/67 start average, instead of a volume of starts in the mid-50’s could be the difference between making and missing the postseason.
The reason is that Grubauer has moved on the Colorado Avalanche, and the Caps will start the season with a virtually untested backup in Pheonix Copley (two career NHL appearances, both with St. Louis). Grubauer was among the best backup goalies in the game last season, and his play allowed the Caps to ease Holtby into the 2017-2018 schedule with a “two-on/one-off” over Washington’s first dozen games before going to a “three-on/one-off” over the next 16 games. Something to look for here is just how much of a load that the new coaching staff places on Holtby and how they try to “shelter” Copley in terms of opponent and/or venue, if at all, to break him into the new role as goaltending backup.
Legend has it that Vince Lombardi, upon being named head coach of the Green Bay Packers of the NFL, installed his “power sweep” as the first play in his playbook. Elegant in its simplicity, everyone knew what it was, who had what role, and when one could expect it to be unleashed, and yet few teams could stop it. The secret was talent and execution.
So it is with the power play of the Capitals. The fan in the last row of the stands knows the formation, the guy standing in line at the concession stand looks at the TV feed and knows that the puck is eventually going to make its way to either Alex Ovechkin (almost all the time) or to the middle of the 1-3-1 set, but no one can seem to stop it with any regularity. Since Blaine Forsythe is returning as an assistant coach, and he had responsibility for the power play, one expects that the Caps will use talent and execution to dare opponents to stop what they know is coming. When you ponder that Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov are among the most talented and creative passers in the league, that Ovechkin is as dependable as the sun rising in the east in shooting from his left wing faceoff circle “office,” that T.J. Oshie has a sneaky right-handed release that makes him the perfect trigger man in the middle, and that John Carlson has improved immensely in being able to tee-up Ovechkin for one-timers, it would seem folly to think that the Caps’ power play will be any less productive this season than in recent seasons past.
As for the penalty killers, this might be the single area in which improvement would be welcome. Over the last five seasons the Caps have lingered in the low 80’s in penalty killing efficiency for the most part, finishing at 80.3 percent last season, 15th in the league. Part of the problem is the sheer volume of shorthanded situations they have to kill. They had the seventh-highest number of shorthanded situations faced last season, and over the last five seasons they are tied for third in the number of such situations faced (1,347; with Detroit). Limiting those situations would provide some relief to what might be a somewhat different penalty killing look with Beagle gone, and it would provide some relief for Holtby and Copley as they sort out their respective workloads over the course of the season.
Every fan will find fault or bias with what the schedule maker does with his teams’ 82 games, but there are some thing to note about the Caps’ schedule. First, they are tested early. Their first five games are against playoff teams from last season (Boston, Pittsburgh, Vegas, New Jersey, and Toronto). After getting a comparative breather against the Rangers and Florida at home, they then go off on their first long road trip, including the always treacherous three-game swing through western Canada (Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary) before wrapping up their trip in Montreal. If there is a break there, the Caps do not have to go through western Canada on one of those three-games-in-four-nights runs. They get three days between Vancouver and Calgary and then two days before facing Edmonton. Four days after that they visit Montreal.
The Caps get 13 back-to-back sets of games, two of them coming right out of the gate to open the season, against Boston and at Pittsburgh to open the schedule, and then six days later they host Vegas before visiting New Jersey the following night. After those two back-to-backs, the Caps have two such sets in November, two in December, three in January, three in February, and one in March.
February includes a critical part of the schedule. The Caps will have their longest road trip of the season in that month, a six-game trip that will include the Caps’ annual west coast trip to San Jose, Anaheim,m and Los Angeles. The games in Anaheim and Los Angeles will be one of the back-to-back sets.
Washington has only one schedule home-and-home series this season, that coming in late March against the Carolina Hurricanes.
As set as the Caps roster is, there will be instances in which depth will be tested. Last season the Caps dressed 19 forwards and ten defensemen in the regular season. It begs the question who among the Hershey Bears might be called upon to fill in the gaps when they (hopefully infrequently) occur? If Jonas Siegenthaler does not make the parent roster out of training camp, or even if he is reassigned to Hershey upon the return of Michal Kempny, he appears to have played his way into being at the head of the line for a call-up if needed on the defense. That he is waiver-exempt makes him perhaps a more attractive call-up option than, say, an Aaron Ness.
Among the forwards there is a lot of intriguing possibility – Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Shane Gersich, Sergei Shumakov, Brian Pinho, and even “veteran” prospects Liam O’Brien and Riley Barber. There does not appear to be a potential game-breaker in the bunch, but as a group they offer an interesting set of possibilities as role players. It would seem that how Hershey gets out of the blocks in the AHL schedule could provide an indication who among this group would be suited to at least exposure to the NHL. But for now, it is a group with many blanks to fill in.
Fearless’ Take… Sometimes, it is possible to overthink a thing. One can pay too much attention to old sayings as “if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.” It is easy to forget just how good this club was to end the 2017-2018 season. They went 12-3-0 to close the regular season, and then they went 16-8 in the postseason, a combined 28-11-0, a 118-point pace against some very stiff competition. That team returns almost intact, with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Braden Holtby in their competitive prime; and youngsters like Jakub Vrana, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov, and Christian Djoos with more experience than they brought to battle last season. Even among the coaches, Todd Reirden is familiar with the players, the systems, and the management. Scott Arniel has head coaching experience. This is a new coaching staff, but it is not one lacking in experience such as the Adam Oates staff of 2012-2013. One might say that the Caps undertook a “stand pat” approach to this season, but that might be only a superficial way of looking at things. Even with almost the same personnel, this is a team that might improve.
Cheerless’ Take… Yeah, hold on to that dream, cuz. This was a team that nobody had getting out of the East last year, a team with inferior personnel to the teams that won consecutive Presidents Trophies. Yeah, they got hot when it mattered, but is “hot” the same as “good?” Caps fans don’t much care; last year’s Cup is won. But Ovechkin and Backstrom are a year older, Oshie has that concussion thing, Wilson is Wilsonning all over the place again, and what’s Plan B if Holtby has another slump? What if the light bulb doesn’t go on over Vrana’s or Burakovsky’s head? What if Carlson had his best year last year and goes to seed after getting the big contract? What if Todd Reirden is more Scott Gordon than Scotty Bowman? What if the team took too many keg stands? There is just so much that can go wrong.
In the end…
We have a suspicion that folks are going to have a really good idea of who the 2018-2019 Caps are in the first 20 games. If there is a hangover, that hole is going to be mighty steep to dig out of. And the early schedule is difficult. If they can get through that first 20 games in a solid playoff position, it would be a reflection of the veteran, professional character of the club. There would be every reason to believe that all other things equal (as we cross our fingers hoping there will be few injuries), the Caps will find the postseason once more.
What the Caps did last spring was unconventional. Every series was its own story; every series had its own unique adversity to be conquered. This year brings an entirely new set of challenges of a sort never faced by any club in franchise history. If the Caps are to take their place among the model franchises of the last 15 years, those that have won multiple Cups – Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh – they will have to cope with the unforeseen and unpredictable, knowing that was achieved once, as hard as it might have been, will be harder to achieve again.
Prediction: 48-25-9, 105 points, first Metropolitan Division
Photo: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin