It's been quite a while since my last blog post here but I just thought about it more and more and missed this outlet - at least for my hockey musings. So with my cautiously optimistic feelings about the prospects for the Capitals during the upcoming 2014-15 NHL Season nearly upon us and training camp just two weeks from opening, I decided to begin "blogging" about my musings again.
I look at this off season's moves and can really only forecast one thing with high certainty - that is the 2014-15 Washington Capitals will play a different game and style than the 2013-14 Washington Capitals. What that "game" and style will be remains to be seen, though I think it will be a grittier, 200 foot game than they played last season. I also think they'll be more focused on sound play at 5 on 5 and they will start their breakouts from their own end with shorter crisper passes than they did last season. Those are just "hunches" but it sure seems to be something one can say after having watched the Nashville Predators mush during the past several seasons. Combine that with the free agent pickups - Orpik and Niskanen - and I think one has to conclude the changes are likely to be focused on creating and playing a more "balanced" solid five on five game.
However, what will the lineup look like? Who will be the Capitals Defensive pairings? Who will be the First Line Left Wing? Who will be the Second Line Center? Will Jason Chimera and Joel Ward once again have career or near career years? Will this be "the year"? These and so many questions are percolating in my cranium, I can't help but muse about them... As I've mentioned before, I am at my core - an optimist. I also really felt at the end of last season the Capitals needed to make some fundamental changes and I've always liked what I saw the Smashville Predators do when they were led by Barry Trotz. Brooks Orpik was a guy I loved to hate as a Penguin but I'm happy the Caps picked him up, yes I think it's a contract that is "one year too long and one million too much" but I'd rather the Caps give it to a guy like Orpik then some of the guys who got those deals in the past - I think he'll be a solid leader "in the room." I actually think the Caps got Niskanen at a fair to good value. I also think that add those two guys to the other guys on the Caps blueline: Carlson, Alzner, Green, Orlov, Carrick, Olesky and Schmidt and you are looking at a group of nine guys that will form a much better and more stable group than the thirteen plus that cycled through the roster last season. Of course look at what that statement likely means: 1) what do they do with John Erskine; 2) Orlov, Carrick, Olesky, Wey and Schmidt - pick three of the five...
Lets talk the answer to 1) I love John Erskine but if there's room for him in the mix after the Orpik and Niskanen UFA signings then it will not be a good regular season for the Capitals, IMO. Others will say the odd man out should be Mike Green but I look at him John Carlson as the guys who will benefit most from the Orpik and Niskanen, particularly the Niskanen signing. To me assuming he comes to Camp ready play and play hard, the number six D-Man is likely Orlov. Behind those six I see Carrick, Olesky, Schmidt and Wey before I get to Erskine on the Capitals Depth Chart as I see this team shaping up both next season and then almost surely any season beyond then. Erskine has twelve (12) seasons of NHL experience and he has great size (6-4; 220) he's a total beast and "hockey player's hockey player" IMO but his foot speed just isn't there for the game I think the Caps will be looking to play. Also note - I put Jack Hillen who is also still on the roster below Erskine on that depth chart, so as for people who worry about the salary cap situation there's $2.6M of salary cap space tied up on Hillen and Erskine vs. $2.4M total for all four of Carrick, Olesky, Schmidt and Wey. So if you give two of the young guys the 7 and 8 slots on the roster vice "4" and "38" and you've freed up $1.2M of Salary Cap for the season...
Now onto 2) Orlov, Carrick, Olesky, Schmidt and Wey - pick three of the five. I pick Orlov (I think he's the most NHL ready of the five despite some of the bonehead moves he made last season); Schmidt (the only Left Hand Shot of the other four); and Olesky (I give him the shot at the start of this season as I like his grit, hockey smarts, and size). I think both Wey and Carrick can use at least a half season of regular play in Hershey to bulk up a little in Carrick's case and get used to a pro vs. NCAA game in Wey's case. But in no way should any of these guys be competing with Hillen or Erskine for ice time or roster spots beyond the first week of the season - the Caps need to move 4 and 38 before then, IMO.
Now what about who should be the first line right wing? To me the two choices are Kuznetsov or Johannson, both are Left Hand shots and natural Centers but to play where they think they should - as top six forwards - then the logical place for them is on Backstrom and Ovechkin's Left Wing. To me the guy I think meshes best with 19 and 8 of these two is 92 - Kuznetsov. He's also bigger and as fast or faster than 90 - Johannson at 6-0; 172# - with a little help from the Caps Strength and Conditioning team the 21 year old should be able to add another 10-12 pounds of muscle without loosing any flexibility or slowing any other aspect of his game. That should make a 92 - 19 - 8 line into a first line on par with any in the league and very much to Barry Trotz's coaching stff's liking as long as they backcheck as fearlessly as they can and do when they "want it." That leaves Johannson free for part of the discussion to the next question which is the 2nd and 3rd line Centers...
If 92-19-8 are the first line that leaves 16, 20, 21, 25, 42, 43, 46, 48,83, and 90. Just to make the discussion more traditional and despite them both having career years in 2013-2014 lets call 25 (Jason Chimera) and 42 (Joel Ward) the third line wings; and lets say after we finish the discussion of the "second line" we'll need to assign a center to them - since last season it seemed like they made whoever played between them look better than they had looked elsewhere in the lineup. The "second line" for the Caps, at least coming into this season remains pretty much undetermined and a bit of a mess. Going by salary cap hit the logic thing to say is the second line is 20 - 21 -16; however that didn't seem to work last season because 21 (Laich) couldn't stay healthy; also even when he was in the lineup he looked out of place there - at center - in Adam Oates' system. Personally I think that Johannson is a natural center, as is Fehr and that Laich should be played at Right Wing; but with a productivity last season of just 8 goals and 7 assists in 51 games (0.29 pts/game) it remains debatable whether the Caps can afford to give the 31 year old Laich top six or even top 9 forward ice time at even strength. Personally, if he doesn't light it up early and show he's back in top form at training camp and the first 10 games I'd drop him to the fourth line and have him focus on his Penalty Killing if they can't trade him or don't want to waive/buy him out. For the start of the season though I'd put Laich at second line left wing and have either Fehr (16) or Johansson (90) at Center and have Brower over on Right Wing. That way if Laich doesn't "cut it"/regain top form which unfortunately I don't think he will, I could quickly go to a 16-90-20 second line. It's really time, in my opinion to move Laich somehow though to clear Cap Space and a roster spot for a stable second line, as this is the final year of Ward and Fehr's current contracts. So I'd start the season with 21-16-20 as the "second" line and 25-90-42 as the "third" line.
My fourth line would be 43 - 83 - 46/48 (Wilson - Beagle - Latta/Wellman). So that means I'd send Volpatti to Hershey - which requires he clear waivers, or trade him. So to recap that makes my forecast opening season roster for the Capitals is:
Kuznetsov - Backstrom - Ovechkin
Laich - Fehr - Brouwer
Chimera - Johannson - Ward
Wilson - Beagle - Latta/Wellman
Green - Orpik
Carlson - Alzner
Niskanen - Orlov
I think that will be a better team than we ended the season with last April