NHL

Off-Season Game Plan: Washington Capitals

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Scott Cullen
6/11/2012 11:23:49 AM
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The Washington Capitals lost in the second round of the playoffs for the third time in the last five seasons, with a different approach under new head coach Dale Hunter.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at a summer of uncertainty as the Capitals look for another new head coach and try to find a balance between their defensive, shot-blocking style that had some success in the postseason and improving their once-formidable offensive output.

There is nothing wrong with blocking shots and playing defensively-responsible hockey, but consistently losing the territorial battle is not a sustainable path to success, so the Capitals can't lose sight of the role that puck possession skill plays in a team's success and has been a relative team strength in previous seasons.

After all, Washington shouldn't be so committed to a style of play that didn't advance them any further than when they reached the Cup Final in 1998, particularly when their 92 points during the regular season was their lowest point total since 2006-2007.

Regaining offensive flair isn't going to happen with a flick of a switch, but there are a few factors that could make it possible, even with the likely departure of Alexander Semin in free agency. Number one centre Nicklas Backstrom and puck-moving defenceman Mike Green both missed a significant portion of the 2011-2012 season and they have been two integral parts of the Capitals' offensive success in recent seasons.

With those two healthy, the Capitals will have a better chance to compete offensively which will, in turn, allow them a little more leeway at the defensive end.

Additionally, a healthy Backstrom might get Alexander Ovechkin back on track. While Ovechkin still has moments when he's great, his production has tailed off the last couple of seasons and it's going to be challenging for Washington to recapture contender status if 26-year-old Ovechkin can't reverse his scoring decline.

They can still block shots, give their checkers tough defensive assignments and hope that Braden Holtby's playoff success is a sign of things to come, but if they aren't scoring, the Capitals aren't going to be any more likely to get over the hump in the postseason.

This will be a busy summer for General Manager George McPhee, as he not only has to find a new head coach but, with the potential losses of free agents Semin and Dennis Wideman, McPhee will need to make acquisitions just to keep the Capitals as skilled as they were last season; ultimately, a level of talent that wasn't high enough for a team with championship aspirations.

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) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.

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

GM/COACH
George McPhee/Vacant

Returning Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Alexander Ovechkin 77.17 78 38 27 65 -8 $9.538M
Nicklas Backstrom 76.90 42 14 30 44 -4 $6.7M
Jason Chimera 67.38 82 20 19 39 +4 $1.75M
Brooks Laich 67.24 82 16 25 41 -8 $4.5M
Marcus Johansson 64.58 80 14 32 46 -5 $900K
Troy Brouwer 64.08 82 18 15 33 -15 $2.35M
Joel Ward 60.24 73 6 12 18 +12 $3.0M
Matt Hendricks 56.35 78 4 5 9 -6 $825K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Alexander Semin 71.43 77 21 33 54 +9 UFA $6.7M
Mathieu Perreault 65.17 64 16 14 30 +9 RFA $525K
Mike Knuble 58.24 72 6 12 18 -15 UFA $2.0M
Jeff Halpern 57.78 69 4 12 16 -1 UFA $825K
Jay Beagle 57.04 41 4 1 5 -2 RFA $512.5K
Keith Aucoin 56.98 27 3 8 11 +4 UFA $512.5K

It wasn't so long ago that Alexander Ovechkin was the game's most feared goal-scorer, topping 50 goals in four of his first five seasons, but he's been held under 40 goals in each of the last two seasons and played a career-low 19:48 per game during the regular season. That reduced ice time was only a precursor for the postseason, when he played fewer than 18 minutes in each of the Capitals' last seven games.

Ovechkin's reduced role might have been the beginning of things to come under head coach Dale Hunter, but with Hunter moving on, Ovechkin may see his ice time return to previous levels. If he's going to play 21-22 minutes per night, it wouldn't hurt if Ovechkin's production returned to an elite level too.

An early January concussion limited Nicklas Backstrom to just 42 games last season, yet he scored more than a point per game for the third time in the last four seasons. The 24-year-old playmaker is strong on the puck and his playmaking creativity is vital to the Capitals having a competent attack. (When Backstrom was in the lineup, the Capitals averaged 3.10 goals per game. Without him? 2.30 goals per game.)

One of the Capitals that took advantage of increased opportunities, 33-year-old Jason Chimera scored a career-high 20 goals and 39 points. Chimera has size, speed and more offensive upside than a run-of-the-mill checking winger. He's also played 78 or more games in six of the last seven seasons.

Brooks Laich plays the hard minutes for the Capitals, with defensive zone starts and highest quality of competition among Capitals forwards (www.behindthenet.ca) and that helps explain declining production. His 41 points was his lowest total since 2007-2008, despite playing a career-high 18:30 per game. Like Chimera, Laich is durable; he's played all 82 games in four of the last five seasons.

The silver lining that came out of Backstrom's injury was that it allowed 21-year-old centre Marcus Johansson to take on a more significant role and he had 26 points in 44 games while playing more than 18 minutes per game from January through the end of the season. The Capitals have been seeking a legitimate second-line scoring centre for several years and Johansson's development should have him on track to ably fill that role from this point forward.

Power forward Troy Brouwer continues to tease with inconsistency. When he's on, he can be an effective big body in front of the net, but he can't seem maintain the pace. As an example, he went the last 16 games of the regular season without a goal (managing three assists in that time), to finish with 33 points, despite playing a career-high 17:11 per game.

Coming off a superb 2011 playoffs for the Nashville Predators, Joel Ward signed a three-year, $9-million free agent contract with the Capitals and then, while admittedly posting a career-best plus-12 rating (which tied for the team lead), he delivered a career-low 18 points while playing a career-low 12:26 per game. 31-year-old Ward was a late bloomer but, considering his contract, he needs to stick in a top nine role to have a positive impact on the Capitals.

Another late bloomer, Matt Hendricks didn't stick in the league until he was 28 and the soon-to-be 31-year-old was the epitome of the kind of lunchpail and hard hat player that saw more ice time under Hunter. Hendricks played a caree-high 12:07 in 78 games, yet managed just nine points. He's a classic high-character fourth-liner but, aside from some surprising shootout success, he's not productive enough to warrant a more significant role.

Tiny and skilled 24-year-old centre Mathieu Perreault continues to battle for a regular spot in the lineup and he strengthened his case in the second half of the year, scoring 23 points in 41 games, but was an afterthought in the postseason, dressing for just four games. His fight for a spot in the lineup figures to continue next season.

26-year-old Jay Beagle played a carer-high 11:51 per game in a career-high 41 games last season, but that was merely an appetizer for his postseason role, when the checking centre played 18:26 per game. Beagle has 10 points in 82 career games, so it's difficult to justify significant ice time, but his effectiveness in a defence-first role should have him in position to earn a full-time spot next season.

Washington's forward group could look rather different next season, particularly since it appears that Alexander Semin will be among those leaving. At one time it looked like the Capitals might be set to replace Semin with top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, but since Kuznetsov is staying in the KHL, Washington may need to do some shopping for a scoring winger.

Like any team in need of scoring, Zach Parise would be a desirable target, but other free agents could be more realistic options. Andrei Kostitsyn, PA Parenteau or Jiri Hudler might be capable of replacing some of the production lost with Semin's anticipated departure.

Returning Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Cap Hit
Roman Hamrlik 67.77 68 2 11 13 +11 $3.5M
Dmitry Orlov 66.26 60 3 16 19 +1 $900K
Karl Alzner 64.47 82 1 16 17 +2 $1.285M
John Erskine 61.04 28 0 2 2 +3 $1.5M
Jeff Schultz 59.85 54 1 5 6 -2 $2.75M
Tom Poti N/A           $2.875M

Free Agent Defence

Player Rating GP G A PTS +/- Class '11-'12 Cap Hit
Dennis Wideman 72.78 82 11 35 46 -8 UFA $3.9375M
John Carlson 69.41 82 9 23 32 -15 RFA $845.8K
Mike Green 68.21 32 3 4 7 +5 RFA $5.25M

38-year-old Roman Hamrlik took on a reduced role with the Capitals, playing under 20 minutes per game for the first time, officially, since 1998-1999, but most likely for his entire career. While he finished with a career-low 13 points, Hamrlik was plus-11 during the regular season and plus-8 in the playoffs

Promising 20-year-old Dmitry Orlov was eased into action, but he was effective enough in a limited role to expect that he will be given more responsibility next season and beyond.

Karl Alzner is developing into a steady shutdown defender, taking on the toughest matchups and he's been a double-digit plus in each of the last two seasons, one of only 14 defencemen in the league to do so.

Bruising defenceman John Erskine only played 28 games and just over a dozen minutes per game when he did play, so he's settled in as an extra on the blueline, called to action when his size and toughness might prove to be more beneficial.

A couple seasons removed from leading the league in plus-minus, Jeff Schultz has also taken on a lesser role with the Capitals, down to 15 minutes per game when he could get into the lineup. Between Erskine and Schultz, the Capitals have plenty of size in reserve on the blueline, though neither has been particularly effective lately.

The emerging leader on the Washington blueline, John Carlson handles difficult checking assignments, but is also capable of producing offensively. With size and skill, Carlson could emerge as a top-tier defenceman if his defensive game improves as he matures.

It seems like a lifetime ago, but only two years ago, Mike Green was the pre-eminent offensive defenceman in hockey, scoring 68 goals and 205 points over a three-year span, but injuries have limited him to 81 games over the last two seasons and Green wasn't very productive even when he did play last season.

The optimist would note that the 26-year-old was effective in the postseason while partnered with Hamrlik and Green's ability to generate offence from the back end can play a big role in whether the Capitals have the wherewithal to engage in run-and-gun-style offensive hockey.

With Dennis Wideman headed for free agency, the Capitals could use a top-four defenceman to keep the unit stable. Matt Carle, Jason Garrison, Sheldon Souray or Carlo Colaiacovo might be capable puck-moving replacements, but if the Capitals resort to a more defensive-minded option, they could press Orlov into a more offensive role.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating GP W L OTL GAA SV% Cap Hit
Braden Holtby 86.04 7 4 2 1 2.50 .922 $638K
Michal Neuvirth 63.34 38 13 13 5 2.82 .903 $1.15M

Braden Holtby was only okay during the AHL regular season (2.61 GAA, .906 SV% in 40 GP) and saw action in seven games with the Capitals before injuries to Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth practically forced Holtby into the starting job for the playoffs.

Sure enough, 22-year-old Holtby was outstanding in 14 postseason games and will go into next season as the starter; a lot of responsibility with a limited NHL track record, but Holtby has a .932 save percentage in 35 career NHL games (including playoffs and regular season), so there is something to be said for the measure of success he's enjoyed thus far.

24-year-old Michal Neuvirth may have expected that he would be the Capitals' goaltender of the future, but that plan was put on hold when they signed Tomas Vokoun last summer. Now that Holtby has emerged, it leaves Neuvirth in a backup role. From the Capitals' perspective, though, it doesn't hurt to have a backup that is capable of handling a starting role if Holtby should falter.

Top Prospects

Player Pos. Team/League Stats
Evgeny Kuznetsov RW Chelyabinsk Traktor (KHL) 19-21-40, +5, 49 GP
Cody Eakin C Hershey (AHL) 13-14-27, +4, 43 GP
Stanislav Galiev LW Saint John (QMJHL) 13-6-19, +4, 20 GP
Philipp Grubauer G South Carolina (ECHL) 23-13-5, 2.22 GAA, .918 SV%, 43 GP
Tomas Kundratek D Hershey (AHL) 12-11-23, +3, 55 GP
Patrick Wey D Boston College (HE) 2-5-7, +17, 32 GP
Caleb Herbert C Minnesota-Duluth (WCHA) 14-19-33, +16, 41 GP
Cam Schilling D Miami-Ohio (CCHA) 1-13-14, +13, 39 GP
Kevin Marshall D Hershey (AHL) 2-4-6, -6, 63 GP
Zach Hamill C Providence (AHL) 8-13-21, +5, 41 GP

A first-round pick of the Capitals in 2010, Evgeny Kuznetsov is one of the most skilled players outside the NHL and could have stepped into the Washington lineup next season, if he was so inclined. After signing a new two-year deal in the KHL, however, Kuznetsov will remain Russia through the 2013-2014 season, forcing Washington to be patient while the wait for this potential impact scorer.

Cody Eakin is a sound two-way forward who split his first pro season between the AHL and NHL, registering eight points and a plus-2 rating in 30 games with the Capitals. The 21-year-old should have a chance to start next season in D.C., but could also return to the AHL to build his confidence and further improve his offensive game.

Though he only played 20 regular season games due to a wrist injury, talented Russian winger Stanislav Galiev made the most of his time in the lineup, scoring 28 goals and 53 points in 37 regular season and playoff games. The 20-year-old likely needs some time in the AHL, but has a chance to be a scorer when he reaches the NHL.

Forced to the ECHL to get regular work, 20-year-old Philipp Grubbauer should move to the AHL next season and still has plenty of time to work on his game before he is concerned about challenging for an NHL job.

Acquired from the Rangers, Tomas Kundratek has good size and puck skills and raised his game upon arriving in Hershey, resurrecting his prospect status with a new franchise.

A 21-year-old who has 20 points in three seasons of college hockey, Patrick Wey is a defensive defenceman with minimal offensive upside, but he's played against quality competition and could be a reliable addition in a few seasons.

Caleb Herbert completed a successful freshman season for Minnesota-Duluth and his offensive production offers more hope for his pro future than might have been expected based on his previous USHL numbers.

23-year-old defenceman Cam Schilling wrapped up four solid seasons with Miami-Ohio and signed in time this spring to see some action with Hershey in the AHL. A steady defensive type, Schilling adds depth, if not a high ceiling, to the Capitals' blueline prospect depth chart.

A second-round pick in 2007, 23-year-old Kevin Marshall was acquired from Philadelphia. He's not going to score much, but he's a tough, stay-at-home type that might be able to fill a depth role.

A first-round pick of the Bruins in 2007, Zach Hamill was acquired for Chris Bourque after the season ended. Hamill has four points in 20 career NHL games and, generally, hasn't been strong enough physically to handle the NHL game. Perhaps a fresh start in Washington will give him the opportunity he needs.

Defencemen Brett Flemming and Garrett Haar as well as pesky winger Garrett Mitchell are also prospects worth consideration for the Capitals.

DRAFT
11th - Cody Ceci, Radek Faksa, Hampus Lindholm
16th - Matt Finn, Zemgus Girgensons, Brendan Gaunce

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Capitals have approximately $44.4M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 16 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Capitals roster on Cap Geek here.

Needs: Two top-six forwards, one top-four defenceman.

What I said the Capitals needed last year: Two top nine forwards.

They added: Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik, Dmitri Orlov, Tomas Vokoun.

TRADE MARKET Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, Mathieu Perreault, Mike Green, Roman Hamrlik.

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.

Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer, Nicklas Backstrom (Photo: Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)

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(Photo: Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)
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