A season of turmoil led to a summer of change for the Washington Capitals.
After four seasons of dominating the Southeast Division and becoming one of the top clubs in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals struggled throughout most of 2011-12, changing coaches while trying to adapt from a “run-and-gun” style to a more defensively responsible system.
Their formerly high-octane offense dropped to 14th overall and their power play to 18th. Changing their style was partially responsible, as was the declining production of superstar left winger Alex Ovechkin and the lengthy absences of center Nicklas Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green due to injury.
Despite their attempt to improve defensively, the Capitals finished 21st in goals against and 20th on the penalty kill, though they did get better during their playoff series against Boston and the New York Rangers.
The superb performance of rookie goaltender Braden Holtby was a significant factor in Washington’s post-season defensive improvement. He stepped in when regulars Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth were sidelined late in the season, nearly carrying the Capitals to the Eastern Conference final.
While Holtby could be the star netminder the Capitals have missed since Olaf Kolzig’s glory days, GM George McPhee still had some significant moves to make over the summer.
One was replacing Dale Hunter as coach. Hunter, who filled in for the deposed Bruce Boudreau last November, decided to return to his beloved London Knights of the Ontario League following the Capitals’ post-season elimination.
McPhee chose former Capital Adam Oates, who had stints as an assistant coach in Tampa Bay and New Jersey, as Hunter’s replacement. Oates prefers a more offense-minded style, which should boost the sagging Washington offense.
The Capitals GM also addressed his club’s need for a skilled second-line center, acquiring Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars during the 2012 NHL draft.
These additions, however, won’t mean much if Ovechkin’s offensive decline continues and Green continues to be hampered by injury. At least Backstrom, currently playing in the Kontinental League during the lockout, shows no lingering symptoms from the concussion he suffered last season.
McPhee failed to find suitable replacements for right winger Alexander Semin (who departed via free agency) or defenseman Dennis Wideman (dealt to Calgary in late June).
Semin’s offensive numbers were in decline the past two seasons, contributing to the drop in the Capitals’ scoring last season.
Marcus Johansson could be expected to pick up the slack on the right wing. McPhee also signed left winger Wojtek Wolski, but he’s notoriously inconsistent he cannot be counted upon to be a reliable scorer.
Earlier in the summer, there had been speculation the Capitals had interest in Anaheim Ducks right winger Bobby Ryan. If so, McPhee never seriously pursued it, nor was he involved in the bidding for unrestricted free agent right winger Shane Doan during the summer.
Promising blueliner John Carlson will be expected to elevate his play to replace the departed Wideman and a healthy Green should benefit from a return to a more offensive system.
The performance of 38-year-old Roman Hamrlik, who looked his age at times last season, could be a concern. If Hamrlik struggles, McPhee could look to the trade market if a suitable replacement can’t be found from within.
It appears McPhee was suitably impressed by his club’s playoff performance to give them another chance – under a new coach who specializes in offensive hockey – to regain their place among the league’s elite clubs.
That anticipated turnaround, however, hinges upon Ovechkin regaining his high-scoring form, Green staying healthy, Holtby adjusting to the rigors of a regular season, and Oates finding the right balance of offense and defense.
Whenever the NHL returns to action, McPhee will obviously take some time to fully evaluate his roster. Significant roster moves early in the season aren’t expected, but if the Capitals struggle again, don’t rule out moves near the trade deadline.