COMMENTARY | The Washington Capitals will begin yet another quest for their first Stanley Cup Tuesday as they open their season in Chicago. With a full 82 game slate and a brand new division, this could be a very different season for Washington. Here are five major questions they face heading into 2013-2014.
Can they compete in a tougher division?
One theory pundits have spouted regarding the Capitals' playoff woes is that the feeble Southeast division did not adequately prepare them for the postseason. With the new (embarrassingly named) Metropolitan division, the Capitals will face stiff competition from start to finish.
In the Ovechkin era, the Capitals have made the playoffs every year since 2008. Of those six years, the Southeast division has not had more than two teams qualify for the playoffs in any given year. In three of those years, the Capitals were the division's only representative.
Compare that to the new division. Since 2008, the teams that now compose the Metropolitan division have had no fewer than four teams in the playoffs and as many as six in 2009 (seven if you count the Columbus Blue Jackets who qualified in the west).
The level of competition has unquestionably risen. It will be interesting to see how the Capitals stack up.
Will the Capitals have another slow start?
It took the Capitals some time to adjust to head coach Adam Oates last year and it almost cost them the season. Luckily, the Capitals rebounded to win the division. With tougher competition, the Capitals cannot afford the same kind of start.
Much of that will depend, as it always does, on Alex Ovechkin.
During the team's 2-8-1 start last season Ovechkin initially struggled with the transition to right wing, recording only three goals and four assists in those 11 games. In the remaining 37 games, however, Ovechkin found his scoring touch and tallied 29 goals and 20 assists.
Without the growing pains of a new coach or a new position for Ovehckin, the Capitals should have a much better start.
How can the defense hold up?
The Capitals' top three defensemen could rival the top three of any team in the NHL. Mike Green is healthy and had a full offseason to prepare, something he has not had for several years. Karl Alzner has proven himself to be a top shutdown man and a great partner to Green. John Carlson rebounded tremendously after a poor start and looks poised for a great 2013-2014 season.
The questions on defense start with number four.
John Erskine spent much of last season paired with Carlson and is likely to do so again despite his terrible play in the postseason.
"He's not losing his job. He's not," Oates said of Erskine after the Capitals preseason game in Philadelphia. "It's not even up for grabs. He's top four on our team."
Oates likely would be singing a different tune if the team still had money to spend under the salary cap. As of now he is stuck with what he has.
Behind Erskine there is tons of depth. Jack Hillen, Steve Oleksy, and Connor Carrick give the team options for their third pairing while Dmitry Orlov and Tomas Kundratek are in Hershey and could see time in Washington this season.
So the Capitals are strong up top and have tons of depth, but a huge hole remains in the middle of the defense. It may not matter in the regular season as the defense was able to hold together during the regular season, but if the Capitals want to make a postseason run this will need to be addressed.
Will we see Evgeny Kuznetsov?
Capitals' 2010 draft pick Evgeny Kuznetsov has yet to make his NHL debut as he continues playing in the KHL. The Kuznetsov drama has taken numerous twists and turns this offseason with some reports saying he wants to stay in the KHL and others saying he is preparing for his move to the NHL.
What Kuznetsov may be thinking is anybody's guess, but his contract with his KHL team Traktor Chelyabinsk will expire at the end of this season. Prevailing wisdom is that he will stay in the KHL until after the 2014 Sochi Olympics and then leave for the NHL following the conclusion of Traktor's season.
Traktor's final regular season game is March 4 so the earliest we would see him in the NHL is probably about a week after that, assuming Traktor does not make the playoffs. If they do, the season could stretch into April.
In an interview with ESPN980, general manager George McPhee seemed hopeful Kuznetsov would be in D.C. for the 2014-15 season, but seemed less hopeful about the 2014 playoffs.
As spring approaches, there is bound to be more news from Russia surrounding Kuznetsov and what he ultimately intends to do. Fans probably should not get their hopes up for this season, but it is definitely something to keep an eye on.
How much deeper are the Capitals offensively?
The back two lines are truly undervalued assets in the NHL. The best teams tend to have three or even four strong lines they can roll and depend on in almost any situation. With a great preseason from Tom Wilson, the Capitals look very deep in the third and fourth lines.
Think of a third line of Martin Erat, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward and a fourth line of Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, and Wilson. This is just one possibility, but it reflects the depth this team now has.
If the Capitals can consistently roll all four lines, this suddenly is a much better and more dangerous team.
JJ Regan is earning his master's degree in journalism at American University and is a current freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy
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