With the conference finals heating up, we’re continuing our series of articles about each team that failed to make the playoffs. The Atlantic Division is done, so we’re shifting our attention to the Metropolitan Division.
Few teams underperformed more than the Washington Capitals in 2013-14. They weren’t Stanley Cup favorites, but they should have at least been competitive in the playoffs. However, they endured a 5-9-6 stretch from late December to the end of January that they were never able to recover from.
In the end, they finished the season with a 38-30-14 record that put them four points shy of a playoff spot (factoring in that they would have lost the tiebreaker). It was the first time that Washington missed the playoffs since 2007 and another wasted year of the Alex Ovechkin era.
The Russian superstar claimed his fourth Rocket Richard trophy, but he’ll turn 29 in September and he’s never been past the second round of the playoffs. Doubting the current management’s ability to change course, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has already parted ways with GM George McPhee and coach Adam Oates.
The guys that replace those two will inherit a team with questionable offensive options beyond Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, an enigma in defenseman Mike Green, and a troubling goaltending situation.
Let’s start with the last of those points when we analysis the players that put the Capitals in this situation:
Braden Holtby – Holtby was the Capitals’ hero in their 2012 playoff run and was instrumental in Washington’s second half comeback in 2013. There wasn’t a silver lining in the 2013-14 campaign though. He posted a 2.85 GAA and .915 save percentage in 48 games and his struggles encouraged Washington to lean on 22-year-old Philipp Grubauer for part of the season and later acquire Jaroslav Halak. Washington might acquire a veteran goaltender to solidify their situation, but assuming they don’t, Holtby will compete with Grubauer for playing time next season. In either scenario, we would only recommend taking Holtby as a late round gamble in standard fantasy drafts as we don’t like his chances of rebounding.
Brooks Laich – Laich used to be a capable secondary scorer for the Capitals, but groin problems have limited him to 60 games over the last two campaigns. Even when he’s been healthy, he hasn’t been nearly as productive, as Laich had just eight goals and 15 points in 51 contests in 2013-14. His ceiling isn’t particularly high and because of that, he’s one risky bet that it’s easy to pass on in standard leagues. If only the Capitals had that luxury. He’s still got three years left on his contract at an annual cap hit of $4.5 million.
Mike Green – Green had nine goals and 38 points in 70 contests in 2013-14, which is solid for a defenseman, but still a shadow of his back-to-back 70-plus point seasons. He’s still struggling with his defensive play though, which is one of the reasons his former coach called him an enigma. He’s got just one year left on his contract and we wouldn’t be surprised if he walks after that. Maybe a change of scenery would do him good, but for now we’re looking for him to have another 30-40 point season. Just keep in mind that he’s a bit of a gamble given his injury history and with a new bench boss coming in.
Mikhail Grabovski – Grabovski entered the season with a lot to prove after his rough 2013 campaign with the Toronto Maple Leafs that led to him being bought out. Early on, it looked like Grabovski would make the Maple Leafs regret their decision to give up on him as he had a hat trick in his Washington debut and scored 11 goals and 30 points in his first 38 games. He was plagued by ankle problems in the second half of the season though and his production dropped even when he did play. He ended up recording just two goals and five points in his final 20 contests. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent and it’s hard to gauge what his worth will be until he has a team, but speaking in general terms, there’s a good chance that he’ll bounce back in 2014-15.
New Jersey Devils
We can’t really be too critical of the New Jersey Devils. They were put in a bad spot when forward Ilya Kovalchuk decided to ditch them. After that, the question was if they would suffer the embarrassment of finishing in the bottom-five in a year where they didn’t have a first round pick (they lost it as punishment for their first cap circumventing attempt to sign Kovalchuk, but were later granted the 30th overall pick).
In the end, they actually defied expectations by coming close, thanks in large part to the efforts of Jaromir Jagr, who led the team with 67 points in 82 contests. Their offense after him was still an issue though and they ended up ranking 27th in the league in goals per game.
The Devils were also a horrendous 0-for-13 in the shootout. If they even had a 6-5 record in the skills competition, they would have made the playoffs. They scored a total of four goals in shootouts, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they sought out some help in that regard over the summer.
The Devils also have to decide what to do about their goaltending situation. The duo of Cory Schneider and Martin Brodeur certainly wasn’t their problem last season, but statistically there’s no question that Schneider warranted more than 43 starts.
Brodeur is about to become an unrestricted free agent now and it’s not clear if he has interest in coming back. If he does though, would it be in New Jersey’s interest to re-sign him? It might be better to get someone that can be more clearly defined as a backup so that Schneider can run with the starting job.
Adam Larsson – Larsson was taken with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and there was plenty of hype surrounding him when he entered the league. He’s had trouble establishing himself with the Devils though and ended up only participating in 26 NHL games in 2013-14. When he did play, he didn’t get much power-play ice time and only recorded three points. At this point, we can’t recommend grabbing him in standard leagues, even as a late round gamble.
Travis Zajac – Those hoping that Zajac would finally return to the 60-point mark in 2013-14 were sorely disappointed. He had 18 goals and 48 points in 80 games, which is pretty underwhelming for a guy that was in the first campaign of a monster eight-year, $46 million contract. The silver lining is that he did get better as the season went on, scoring nine goals and 19 points in his last 22 contests. He also demonstrated some on-ice chemistry with Jagr, who will be back for the 2014-15 campaign. So even though he didn’t live up to his contract last season, there are reasons to remain optimistic going forward.
Ryane Clowe – Clowe has been plagued by concussions since the start of 2013 and that killed his chance to stage a real comeback last season. After recording between 52 and 62 points in three straight seasons from 2008-09 to 2010-11, he had just seven goals and 26 points in 43 contests. For a team that was struggling to score without Kovalchuk, Clowe’s absence was devastating. He’s a decent candidate to bounce back in 2014-15 if he stays healthy, but that’s a big if.
Damien Brunner – Another forward that the Devils had hoped would help fill the void left by Kovalchuk, Brunner was coming off of a strong rookie season with Detroit where he scored 12 goals and 26 points in 44 contests. He inked a two-year, $5 million contract with New Jersey as an unrestricted free agent, but he couldn’t get any traction with his new team. He ended up with just 11 goals and 14 assists in 60 contests. We wouldn’t bet on him bouncing back in 2014-15.