"Eyes on the Enemy" will be a continuing bi-annual series on the NY Rangers Blog giving fans updates on the Rangers closest rivals. Part 3 of the offseason version of 'EotE' will focus on the Washington Capitals. All contract figures listed below courtesy of capgeek.com
There's an argument to be made that the Rangers have been the Capitals' toughest rival since the dawn of the John Tortorella era in New York. In 4 of the 5 seasons Torts was behind the Ranger bench, the Capitals and the Rangers met in the postseason for 26 knock-down, drag-em-out games. Familiarity breeds contempt and the two clubs have plenty of it. The NHL was even kind enough to put the Capitals and the Rangers in the same division after re-alignment, so fans of both teams should get used to these two teams running into each other for many years to come.
The Caps are on their third coach in 3 seasons following the firing of Bruce Boudreau in November 2011. Dale Hunter was brought on as his replacement and led the Caps to within one game of the Eastern Conference Finals before they were knocked out by the conference leading Rangers in 7 games. Hunter resigned following the season, opting to go back to coaching juniors in the OHL. Another former Capital Adam Oates took over the reins prior to the lockout.
Last season, the Caps jumped out to a brutal 2-8-1 start. Following a 5-2 loss against the Penguins which wound up being the turning point in their entire season, Alex Ovechkin took his frustrations public, accusing players of "not playing with emotion" while Troy Brouwer suggested the team hadn't been mentally prepared to play. Still, the rookie head coach wasn't rattled by the poor start and stayed optimistic about his teams' chances. After that game, the Capitals went 25-10-2, losing just twice in the entire month of April (both times to Ottawa) to find themselves a top the Southeast Division once again for the 7th time since 2000 heading into the playoffs.
As we know, the Capitals and the Rangers met in the quarterfinals. Each team traded home victories up until Game 7 when the Rangers blew out the Capitals 5-0 in their own building.
Somewhere, Adam Oates is still complaining about the Game 6 officiating.
The Capitals mostly stayed on the sidelines during the free agency period opting to keep most of the team that finished last season intact with a few exceptions. Forwards Mike Ribeiro, Joey Crabb and Matt Hendricks left for greener pastures. Jeff Schultz was given a compliance buyout. Defenseman Karl Alzner re-signed with the team for 4 years at $11.2 million.
On the Farm:
The Capitals drafted Austrian born Swede forward Andre Burakovsky with the 23rd overall pick in the 2013 Draft. Scouting reports list Burakovsky as a gifted goal scorer and puck possessor. Scouts have also compared his skating ability among the best that has come out of Sweden in recent drafts. However, scouting agencies labeled Burakovsky as "inconsistent," "a puck hog" and "a perimeter player." Burakovsky shined for Team Sweden at the U-18 WJC as a point-per-game forward after spending most of the year struggling with Malmö in the Allsvenskan league in Sweden. Burakovsky told the Washington Post after the Capitals development camp in early July that he's undecided as to where he is going to play next season after being selected by the Erie Otters in the CHL Import Draft. However, his agent told THN that Burakovsky intends to stay in Sweden next season. SKA St. Petersburg also owns his KHL rights.
Closer to home, the only other prospect of relevance is center Tom Wilson (1st-2012) who made his NHL debut in Game 5 of the playoffs against the Rangers. Though he was held pointless, Wilson is now regarded as the No.1 prospect following the inexplicable trade of top prospect Filip Forsberg to Nashville for Martin Erat at the trade deadline. Wilson, 19, is physically ready for the rigors of the NHL at 6'4" 215lbs, but has one more season of junior eligibility remaining. His play will be one of the questions for coaches to answer at training camp as to whether he'll be getting bottom 6 minutes on the Capitals or top line minutes for the OHL's Plymouth Whalers.
GM George McPhee has managed the salary cap well in the wake of Ovechkin's bloated $9.5 million cap hit. Only Marcus Johansson remains a restricted free agent as of this writing and was given a qualifying offer of $850,500. Johansson does not have arbitration rights. As stated above, the Caps let their free agents walk with the exception of Alzner. With only Johansson un-signed, the Capitals have roughly $5.6 million in cap space.
Odds and Ends:
McPhee took a tremendous amount of flak over the trade deadline deal that sent "can't miss" top prospect Filip Forsberg off to Nashville for a struggling Martin Erat, who had requested to be traded a few days prior. With regard to the sky high upside the 18 year old Forsberg possesses, it's very possible that the trade could have devastating consequences on any success the Capitals intended to have over the next 3-5+ seasons. Forsberg has the potential to be THAT good and all reports out of Nashville indicate Forsberg will be on the ice opening night.
The Capitals, in my opinion, are going to be the team most hurt by re-alignment. Gone will be the Southeast Division banners they've hoisted with regularity since Ovechkin came to town. Gone will be the frequent trips to the playoffs where they were awarded division titles by default for playing in a bad division. The schedule gets much harder with more games against the Rangers, Penguins and Flyers on tap, instead of Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay.
I'm bearish on the Capitals chances to seriously compete for a Cup in the near future for a couple of reasons. First, scoring depth looks to become a serious problem for the Caps next season. If Ovechkin doesn't score, the team will struggle to win games because of the lack of depth behind that top line. You only have to look back to the beginning of last season as evidence of that. Since his rookie season in 2005, Ovechkin is solely responsible for 19.5% of Capitals goals scored. Second, Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth don't exactly jump out at you as franchise goaltenders. While Holtby has shown flashes of brilliance at times, he's been equally pedestrian as well. Michal Neuvirth has been part of a platoon at the position since the 2008-09 season and has struggled to grasp the full time reins. Fix those two areas and the Capitals will be a thorn in the Rangers' side again. But until then, they'll be in the mix for the two wild card spots at the end of the year, but make little noise in the playoffs, if they get there.
If Rangers fans didn't have enough reasons to dislike the Capitals, here's another:
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