The Washington Capitals suffered a heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the Metropolitan Division final, but their championship window is still wide open. The off-season acquisitions of Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie could push the offense to new heights, while goaltender Braden Holtby’s new, big-money contract has him out to prove himself all over again in 2015-16.
2014-15 Record: 45-26-11 (101 pts.)
THN’s Prediction: 1st, Metropolitan Division
What To Expect: The past decade of Washington Capitals hockey has annually featured
Alex Ovechkin in the Rocket Richard race but hasn’t seen the game’s most prolific scorer compete beyond the second round of the playoffs. This year, that changes. The league’s sixth-best offense (tied with Calgary) is bolstered by a couple right wing additions:
T.J. Oshie and
Justin Williams, a duo with more firepower than the departing
Joel Ward and
Troy Brouwer. If either finds chemistry with Ovechkin and
Nicklas Backstrom, 60 goals are well within reach for No. 8. With ascending youngsters
Andre Burakovsky and
Evgeny Kuznetsov also in the top-six mix, Washington will again be defined by rocking the red light.
The 2014-15 Caps were masterful shot suppressors in their first season under coach Barry Trotz. With systems now ingrained and a dependable top-four returning, the D-corps remains solid. Longtime Cap
Mike Green signed with the Red Wings, but
John Carlson’s emergence as a 50-point performer softens his departure. The third pairing is up for grabs, potentially featuring
Dmitry Orlov and
Braden Holtby broke out as an upper-echelon netminder last season, and GM Brian MacLellan paid him like one this summer: a five-year deal at $6.1 million per season. The pact makes Holtby, 26, one of 10 goalies with a cap hit of more than $6 million. The deal may be a bargain, as he led the NHL in starts (72) and was seventh in save percentage (.923). Even without Green, the top-ranked power play remains lethal. The Ovechkin-Backstrom duo will have new talent to experiment with Williams and Oshie, while Carlson and Niskanen operate as QBs. On the penalty kill, three of the top six forwards won’t return. Trotz will rely on a different cast to elevate last season’s rank of 14th. Ovechkin and Backstrom have each played more than 70 playoff games, none beyond Round 2. MacLellan hopes this year’s mix, featuring three-time Cup-winner Williams and the slick Oshie, helps the Caps march deeper into the spring.
Best-Case Scenario: The goal for the Capitals isn’t to return to the post-season. The goal this year is to at least make it to the final, and that’s absolutely realistic. They were one win away from the Eastern Conference final in 2014-15 and watched it slip away. With the new faces, there’s no reason to believe the Capitals can’t take another step forward. The best-case for Washington, and a scenario that could very well happen, is a campaign that ends with Ovechkin hoisting the Stanley Cup.
Worst-Case Scenario: The Capitals can’t have another collapse in the post-season. In the Metropolitan Division final in 2014-15, Washington had the New York Rangers dead to rights. After four games, the Capitals had a 3-1 series lead but proceeded to suffer three straight one-goal losses, including two overtime defeats. It was the third time in the past four seasons Washington’s campaign has ended in a Game 7 defeat at the hands of the Rangers. The Capitals’ championship window is open right now. Another heartbreaking post-season exit could be crushing.
Who To Watch: After the best season of his career, Holtby landed a massive five-year, $30.5 million deal and he has said repeatedly that he wants to prove he’s worth every penny. If that means he’s going to replicate his play from 2014-15, the Capitals are going to be tough to beat. Goaltending guru Mitch Korn following Trotz from Nashville to Washington was a big reason for Holtby’s vastly improved play, and with Korn’s track record it doesn’t seem likely Holtby will take a step back. Holtby finished with a .930 save percentage at 5-on-5, which was the tenth best mark of the 29 goaltenders to play 2,000 minutes at even strength. Topping his nine-shutout, 41-win campaign from this past season is going to be difficult, but if he can come even close, he could be back in the Vezina Trophy conversation in 2015-16.
What The Numbers Say (by Dom Luszczyszyn):
Click here for more detail on these predictions. The Capitals are our pick to win the Metropolitan Division and represent the East in the Stanley Cup final, but they don’t look as great by projected WAR. They’re the fourth best team in the Metro on paper and would be just barely outside the playoff picture. That seems really strange after a very good 2014-15 campaign and some great additions according to WAR in Oshie and Williams. So, what gives? First off is the underrating of the best player on the Caps, Ovechkin. His biggest strength is his shooting talent which regresses heavily for most players. Ovechkin has been steady in that regard because he’s the game’s best, so he’s very likely to exceed his two win projection. The other thing is the Barry Trotz factor. The projections use three seasons worth of data, and the Capitals were awful for two of them under the guidance of former head coach Adam Oates. Almost everyone performed much better during Trotz’s first season in comparison to their average output during Oates’ tenure which suggests the roster adjusted well to the new coach’s system.
Applying the ‘Trotz Boost’ to the players above pushes Washington’s projected point total up to roughly 100 points. That puts them ahead of the Rangers and almost even with the Islanders and Penguins for the Metro crown. It would also put their playoff chances closer to 80 percent rather than 46. That’s more accurate for a team looking poised for big things.
THN is rolling out its 2015-16 Team Previews daily, in reverse alphabetical order, until the start of the season. Check out our ‘Previews’ section (http://www.thehockeynews.com/blog/category/previews/) to see other team breakdowns.