Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Washington Capitals: Five Bold...Perhaps Deranged Predictions

We end the look ahead to the Washington Capitals’ 2016-2017 season with “Five Bold…Perhaps Deranged Predictions,” guaranteed to make you think, or perhaps just annoy you.  Let’s get right to the big one…

1.  Alex Ovechkin will not only not record 50 goals this season, but we have seen his last 50 goal season.

Pop quiz question…how many seasons of 50 or more goals have been recorded by someone 31 years old or older in NHL history?  The answer: 10.  That was accomplished by nine different players.  Phil Esposito did it twice, the last time at age 32 (61 goals in 1974-1975).  John Bucyk was the oldest to do it (age 35).  It has only been done twice in the last 20 years (Joe Sakic with 54 goals in 2000-2001 at age 31 and Jaromir Jagr with 54 goals in 2005-2006 at age 33).  Alex Ovechkin turned 31 years of age in September.

This is not to say Ovechkin will slide down among the also-rans in the league goal-scoring rankings, nor does it mean that Ovechkin has necessarily won his last Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer.  We think he will, in fact, win the Richard Trophy this season (keep in mind, he is the only player over the last three years to finish with 50 goals in a season, which he did in each year).  However, time takes its toll on every player, sooner or later, and the first indications of time’s march on Ovechkin will be seen this season.

2.  The Capitals will have two finalists for individual awards this season who have not been one in their careers to date.

It says here that John Carlson will be a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, and that Evgeny Kuznetsov will be a finalist for the Hart Trophy.  Carlson is the easier case to make.  This might be the season in which a defenseman can thread the needle between P.K. Subban and Shea Weber, players traded for one another playing in new cities this season, to grab a finalist nod.  Last year’s finalists – Erik Karlsson, Drew Doughty, and Brent Burns – certainly will be in the mix.  Others might include Philadelphia’s Shayne Gostisbehere, Nashville’s Roman Josi, Dallas’ John Klingberg, and Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang.  However, Carlson has displayed very consistent improvement in his per-game scoring on a year-to-year basis, and despite missing 26 games last season averaged a career best 0.70 points per game.  Health, and the opportunity to hone his game in the World Cup, could give him a head start of taking the next step to elite defenseman status.

Kuznetsov is the harder case, or at least not an obvious one, especially playing a position (center) crowded with players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and John Tavares, who could challenge to be a Hart finalist, not to mention the likes of Patrick Kane or Jamie Benn.  The argument for Kuznetsov is admittedly speculative, but this is a player who more than doubled his point total last year over his first full season preceding it (from 37 points to 77).  He led the Caps in assists (57) and total points (77) last season.  The wild card is whether and how much he can improve on the 20 goals he recorded last season.  If that number is 25-30, and he improves on his fourth-place finish in assists, he could sneak into the discussion of Hart finalists.

3.  The Capitals will repeat as Presidents Trophy winner.

Since the Presidents Trophy was first awarded in 1985-1986, there have been six repeat winners (Edmonton in 1985-1986 and 1986-1987, Calgary in 1987-1988 and 1988-1989, Detroit in 1994-1995 and 1995-1996, Dallas in 1997-1998 and 1998-1999, Detroit again in 2003-2004 and 2005-2006 (the 2004-2005 year lost to a labor-management dispute), and most recently by Vancouver in 2010-2011 and 2011-2012).  The Caps have two players – Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky – who are still very much on the upward arc of their career path, and they will have more stability on the third line with Lars Eller anchoring it.  This will be, on paper, a team with at least as much potential as last year’s squad, even if goalie Braden Holtby does not have quite the year he had last season.  They will be able to take advantage of a post-Stanley Cup letdown by the Penguins and a New York Rangers team depending too much on another year older Henrik Lundqvist to finish with a stronger division record than they had last season.

4.  The Capital prospect most likely to make an impact this season is…

Not Zach Sanford.  Sure, he is the only rookie to make the club out of training camp, but this is our chance to go off the board here, and we’ll do just that.  Jakub Vrana was 16-18-34, plus-7 in 36 games for the Hershey Bears last season.  He had points in 14 of the Bears’ last 19 games.  In the postseason he was 8-6-14, plus-8 in 21 games.  Vrana might spend most of his 2015-2016 season in Hershey further acclimating himself to the North American game, but he is going to show Capitals fans why it is that his stay in Hershey is not likely to extend beyond this season.

5.  The road to the Stanley Cup will go through Pittsburgh…again, but with a happier ending.

Just as they did in 2012, when the Caps eliminated the Boston Bruins, the Capitals will eliminate the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round of the postseason, although this time it will not take a Joel Ward (or anyone else) overtime goal in Game 7 to do it.  Three times, the team winning the second of their consecutive Presidents Trophies won the Stanley Cup (Edmonton in 1987, Calgary in 1989, and Dallas in 1999).  Washington will make it four.

Photo: Hockey Hall of Fame Archives

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