NHL

Off-Season Game Plan: Washington Capitals

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Scott Cullen
5/22/2014 5:05:06 PM
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The Washington Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and got rid of their coach and general manager.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Capitals' possible summer plans, with the understanding that it's tough to plot a direction without a general manager or head coach around which to set those expectations.

There have been all kinds of rumours surrounding the Capitals' vacancies. Ray Shero, Don Sweeney, Paul Fenton and Doug MacLean are among those that have been mentioned as candidates for the general manager post and then the coaching candidates will naturally depend on which GM takes over, though Barry Trotz is one of the more prominent available head coaches.

In any case, let's presume that the Capitals do hire a general manager and a coach this offseason. There is a reasonably talented roster here, but one that relied way too much on power play production last season and that still wasn't good enough to get into the postseason.

Their possession stats weren't good enough and the new coach will have to find a way to make the most of his top skill players, including right winger Alex Ovechkin and defenceman Mike Green, a productive pair that come under heavy criticism for what they aren't, rather than getting appreciation for what they are.

Improving the supporting cast may bring better results, but it's hard to see the direction the Capitals may be headed when we don't yet know who's steering the ship.

The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- Corsi, adjusted for zone starts, quality of competition and quality of teammates, hits, blocked shots, penalty differential and faceoffs. Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be around 70, stars will be over 80 and MVP candidates could go over 90. Sidney Crosby finished at the top of the 2013-2014 regular season ratings at 87.12.

Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.

CF% = Corsi percentage (ie. percentage of 5-on-5 shot attempts), via www.extraskater.com.

GM/COACH
Vacant/Vacant

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Alex Ovechkin 82.81 78 51 28 79 49.3% $9.538M
Nicklas Backstrom 74.40 82 18 61 79 49.2% $6.7M
Joel Ward 70.06 82 24 25 49 47.4% $3.0M
Troy Brouwer 68.03 82 25 18 43 47.8% $3.67M
Jason Chimera 67.29 82 15 27 42 46.6% $2.0M
Eric Fehr 65.88 73 13 18 31 49.0% $1.5M
Marcus Johansson 64.21 80 8 36 44 48.3% $2.0M
Brooks Laich 63.71 51 8 7 15 47.5% $4.5M
Tom Wilson 57.60 82 3 7 10 45.0% $894K
Jay Beagle 56.94 62 4 5 9 44.8% $900K
Aaron Volpatti 53.36 41 2 0 2 39.5% $575K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Class '13-'14 Cap Hit
Mikhail Grabovski 68.76 58 13 22 35 51.0% UFA $3.0M
Dustin Penner 66.93 67 14 21 35 49.3% UFA $2.0M

There was a whole lot made of Alex Ovechkin being the league's leading goal-scorer, with 51, yet finishing with an abysmal minus-35 rating last season, to the point that I felt the need to defend him. The point of the defence was not to say that Ovechkin is a wonderful all-around player, rather, it's pointing out that the good that Ovechkin does on the ice far outweighs the bad and his minus rating was due to spectacularly poor percentages, finishing last season with a .964 PDO (the first time in the Behind the Net era that he's finished below 1.000).

New management and coaching will come with new priorities, but the objective doesn't have to be to turn Alex Ovechkin into a lunchpail hockey player that backchecks really well. Sure, it would be great if he backchecks more consistently, but surrounding Ovechkin with better talent, so that he can better play to his strengths (goal-scornig, physical play) offers a better chance for the Capitals to have success.

Sicne 2008-2009, Nicklas Backstrom has put up 425 points in 413 games, one of seven players to average better than a point per game in more than 400 games over that span and it's pretty great company (not so coincidentally, Ovechin ranks first). Last season, Backstrom took a few more penalties than normal and scored 44 of his 79 points on the power play, making him the only forward in the league (with at least 20 total points) to score more than half of his points on the power play.

To be fair to Backstrom, though, Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johansson all had at least 48% of their points on the power play, so it's pretty clear that improved 5-on-5 play ought to be a focus.

It's not often that a 33-year-old puts up career-best numbers, but Joel Ward did last season, scoring 24 goals and 49 points. He was riding percentages, scoring on a carer-high 18.0% of his shots, which contributed to a 10.58% on-ice shooting percentage, so there shouldn't suddenly be expectations that this will be Ward's normal production. At the same time, he's a big-bodied forward who can play in a checking role and contribute offensively, which makes it easy to find room for him in the lineup.

Troy Brouwer is a durable power forward who had a career-high 25 goals and 43 points last season. Brouwer has missed one game in the past three seasons (and eight games in the past five) and played a career-hihg 18:51 per game in 2013-2014. He's an okay possession player, but tends to play hard minutes, against quality competition with more defensive zone starts.

Jason Chimera, who had turned 35, is also coming off a season in which he tallied a career-high 42 points, with 36 coming at even strength, the same as Wayne Simmonds, Derek Stepan, Jussi Jokinen and others. Chimera has size, speed and is an extraordinarily durable player, having missed six games in the past five seasons.

Playing more than ever, including a career-high 73 games and career-high 14:45 average time on ice, Eric Fehr contributed 31 points along with decent possession stats. He even spent a decent amount of time at centre last season; not necessarily suited to his strengths, but good for the Capitals to be able to turn to Fehr in that role when needed.

While scoring 44 points as a 23-year-old put Marcus Johansson among the Top 10 in his age group last season, he did manage just eight goals, two coming at even strength. Two even-strength goals in 80 games while playing 17:32 per game, on the top line. In the history of the NHL, no forward had ever played more than 1400 minutes in a season and scored fewer than three even-strength goals. He's a skilled player, capable of so much more -- particularly in that role -- which made his lack of production all the more crippling for the Capitals.

Groin injuries have been a major problem for Brooks Laich over the past couple seasons, and he's missed 70 games in two years after missing four total in the previous five seasons. While he's a three-time 20-goal scorer, Laich has been a sound two-way player throughout his career, though that wasn't as evident last season. For the money they've committed to him, the Capitals need Laich to be healthy enough to contribute.

The 16th pick in the 2012 Draft, Tom Wilson skated in every game for the Capitals, and while he didn't put up great numbers, it was more of an investment in Wilson, keeping him in the NHL rather than sending him back to the Ontario Hockey League. He kept his dance card full, but there are hopes that Wilson develops into more than a fighter. He did have 75 points in 60 (regular season plus playoff) games in his last OHL season, so that hope has some justification.

Jay Beagle may be a serviceable checker and penalty killer, but he's a non-factor offensively and that inability to generate shots results in less-than-desirable possession stats. It should go without saying that he should not centre Alex Ovechkin for any length of time, as he did late in the season. That's just not putting either player in a position to have success.

A stockey agitator who has seven points and 137 penalty minutes in 112 career games, Aaron Volpatti is on an inexpensive one-way deal, which may give him a better chance to earn a roster spot, but he could easily be supplanted by a more skilled forward.

The expectation is certainly that top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov will remain with the Capitals, as he was at the end of the year, but the Capitals may need another scoring forward to make up for potential free agent losses Mikhail Grabovski and Dustin Penner. Finding a second-line centre to take Grabovski's spot could be tough. Paul Stastny is a free agent prize and maybe David Legwand is serviceable, but that could require a trade.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS CF% Cap Hit
Mike Green 72.39 70 9 29 38 51.7% $6.083M
John Carlson 69.65 82 10 27 37 46.9% $3.967M
Steven Oleksy 63.45 33 2 8 10 46.6% $542K
Dmitry Orlov 62.58 54 3 8 11 51.3% $2.0M
Karl Alzner 61.85 82 2 16 18 47.0% $2.8M
Connor Carrick 59.52 34 1 5 6 43.9% $637K
John Erskine 58.88 37 1 3 4 45.7% $1.963M
Jack Hillen 55.18 13 0 1 1 42.9% $700K

One of the top offensive defencemen in the game, Mike Green still isn't part of Washington's first power play unit. It's tough to criticize when the Capitals scored on 23.4% of their opportunities with the man advantage (and consistently generate more shots with John Carlson manning the point), but nonetheless strange to see a defenceman who has put up two seasons with at least 35 power play points relegated to the second unit.

That aside, Green may not be a bruising defender, but his ability to move the puck up the ice has resulted in the Capitals getting more shots with Green on the ice than off, and that was the case last season, so pay no mind to his minus-16, Green was effective.

John Carlson doesn't generate quite the same possession stats as Green, but that's in large part because Carlson is tasked with facing the opposition's best lines on a nightly basis. Carlson scored a career-high 37 points last season -- Sergei Gonchar was the only defenceman with more than 20 points to have a higher percentage of his points on the power play -- and logged a career-high 24:31 time on ice per game.

Even better, from the Capitals' perspective, is that Carlson is signed, at a cap hit under $4-million, for four more years.

A tough guy who has put up 19 points and 86 penalty minutes in 61 games with the Capitals over the past couple seasons, Steven Oleksy was demoted to the AHL last season. His track record and bargain contract suggest that he is worthy of a roster spot.

Strangely, Dmitry Orlov was shuttled back-and-forth to Hershey early last season, as though the Capitals had six better options on their blueline. Eventually, Orlov took a regular spot and formed an effective pairing with Green. 22-year-old Orlov has established that he can handle top-four minutes and, at this age, should still be getting better.

Karl Alzner hasn't missed a game in the past four seasons, averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game while facing the toughest checking assignments. He doesn't put up super numbers otherwise, scoring a career-high 18 points last season, but as long as Alzner is being asked to handle those matchups, any possession (or scoring) expectations have to be modest.

A fifth-round pick in 2012, Connor Carrick made the jump to Washington last season as a 19-year-old, though he only got into 34 games with the Capitals, playing 13 games in Hershey as well as a handful with Team USA at the World Juniors. He's undersized, but a smooth skater with good puck skills and, while he went through growing pains as a rookie, should have an opportunity to play a bigger role next season.

John Erskine is a physical defenceman who has been through the wars, missing 117 games over the past three seasons, and while his role was reduced to a more reasonable level when he did play last season, Erskine still struggled. At this point, he's likely no better than a seventh defenceman, particularly on a team that harbours playoff hopes.

A broken leg wiped out most of Jack Hillen's season, then suffered a concussion after colliding with Ovechkin late in the year. Small and mobile, Hillen has had some good good moments, but he's always battling for a spot in the lineup and that will be all the more difficult coming off a season in which he played just 13 games.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Braden Holtby 75.70 48 23 15 4 2.85 .915 $1.85M

It's hard being Braden Holtby, apparently, who lost his confidence and his starting job last season, yet still finished with an above-average .915 save percentage. Holtby has a .919 save percentage in 105 career games, which is enough reason to go into next season with him as the number one.

With Jaroslav Halak moving on, and Michal Neuvirth traded at the deadline, there should be an opening for prospect Philipp Grubauer to fill in Washington. Grubauer played well enough in his time with the Capitals last year, and has such a reasonable contract, that he should get first crack at the backup job, ahead of any number of veteran free agents on the market.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Evgeny Kuznetsov C Chelyabinsk Traktor (KHL) 8-13-21, -10, 31 GP
Andre Burakovsky LW Erie (OHL) 41-46-87, +46, 57 GP
Nate Schmidt D Hershey (AHL) 2-11-13, -5, 38 GP
Madison Bowey D Kelowna (WHL) 21-39-60, +44, 72 GP
Riley Barber RW Miami (NCHC) 19-25-44, +6, 38 GP
Philipp Grubauer G Hershey (AHL)

2.60 GAA .916 SV%, 28 GP

Chandler Stephenson C Regina (WHL) 30-59-89, +27, 69 GP
Michael Latta C Hershey (AHL) 14-20-34, +14, 52 GP
Patrick Wey D Hershey (AHL) 1-5-6, +7, 28 GP
Chris Brown RW Hershey (AHL) 16-24-40, -4, 63 GP
Christian Djoos D Brynas Gavle (SHL) 1-12-13, +5, 47 GP

A brilliant talent, Evgeny Kuznetsov was the 26th pick in the 2010 Draft, but has played at a high level in the KHL since, scoring 135 points in 175 games, then joined the Capitals for his much-awaited NHL debut last season. In 17 games with the Capitals, Kuznetsov had three goals and nine points, and struggled possession-wise. That isn't any reason to be down on Kuznetsov, but should temper some of the enthusiasm for what he might do next season as a rookie, when he will be expected to be a Calder Trophy contender.

Andre Burakovsky, picked 23rd overall last summer, came to the Ontario Hockey League and was outstanding in his first season in North America, scoring tons while playing on a powerhouse team. He may not be ready as soon as next season, but his play this year might warrant a long look if the Capitals are intent on upgrading their skill level up front.

Signed as a free agent ouf of the University of Minnesota, Nate Schmidt split last season between Washington and Hershey, and he played well enough to stick with the Capitals, contributing six points and respectable possession numbers in 29 games.

As teams trend towards skilled puck-movers on the back end, Madison Bowey is an intriguing option for the Capitals. A second-round pick last year, Bowey scored 74 points in 86 (regular season plus playoff) games for Kelowna, a junior franchise that has produced more than a few terrific NHL defencemen.

A sixth-round pick in 2012, Riley Barber is a strong two-way player who has decided to return to Miami for his junior season after scoring 83 points in 78 games through his first two collegiate campaigns. If Barber has a strong year in 2014-2015, he could be ready to join the Caps by season's end.

Drafted in the fourth round in 2010, Philipp Grubauer climbed up from the ECHL, where he played 69 games after graduating from junior hockey, and has posted a .924 save percentage in 19 NHL games during his auditions over the past couple seasons.

A solid two-way forward who had a breakthrough offensive season, Chandler Stephenson was a third-round pick in 2012. He got into a couple of late-season games with Hershey, scoring a goal, and should be ticketed for the Bears next season.

Acquired from Nashville in the Martin Erat-Filip Forsberg deal, Michael Latta has been feisty, racking up 418 peanlty minutes in 170 games through three AHL seasons, but he's also contributed 96 points (along with four points in 17 games with the Capitals last season), so there's enough to think that he could earn a spot on a checking line at the next level.

Picked in the fourth round in 2009, Patrick Wey battled through injuries in his first pro campaign after four years at Boston College. He fared well in nine games with the Capitals and, with little offence to his game, he could find a niche as a stay-at-home defender.

Added from Phoenix in a deal for Erat, Chris Brown is a physical forward who had a couple of points and okay relative possession stats in a dozen games with the Coyotes and Capitals last season. He can push for a roster spot, but it's going to be a battle.

A seventh-round pick in 2012, Christian Djoos has played a couple of years against men in the Swedish League, so it makes sense for him to come to North America to see if he can handle the rigors of the AHL and, hopefully, get stronger.

Capitals advanced stats and player usage chart from Extra Skater

DRAFT
13th - Haydn Fleury, Jared McCann, Alex Tuch

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Capitals have approximately $55.5M committed to the 2014-2015 salary cap for 19 players.

Check out my possible Capitals lineup for next season on Cap Geek here.

Needs: One top six forward, one top nine forward, two defencemen, backup goaltender.

What I said the Capitals needed last year: One top nine forward, one top four defenceman.

They added: Mikhail Grabovski, Tom Wilson, Nate Schmidt.

TRADE MARKET
Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, Mike Green, John Erskine, Jack Hillen.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Ovechkin and Green (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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