Thursday, October 8, 2015

Hockey Season Starts This Week! (or It'll Be Months Before the Caps Break My Heart Again!)

The Washington Capitals open their 2015-2016 season this Saturday night against the New Jersey Devils. I'll be in attendance, and maybe I'll post some pictures on my Twitter account (@GoodPointJoe). I'm very excited for the season to start; I work in an ice rink, so I have endless opportunities to talk hockey with co-workers and customers.

But as I get back into an NHL mentality, I can't help but remember how last season ended for the Caps: up three games to one against the New York Rangers, unable to close the deal, losing Game 7 in overtime on a rebound that found Derek Stepan uncovered and undefended.

It was the most brutal turnaround since...just kidding. It was classic Capitals hockey.

Same Old Same Old

Grantland posted an article before the most recent fateful game seven that explored the insane frustration that haunts Capitals fans (and presumably players, but we've been here longer). I won't rehash the whole thing, though there are a couple of quotes that spoke to me:
Despite being heavy underdogs, the Caps went into Pittsburgh and won the opening two games, returning home with a 2-0 series lead. “What could possibly go wrong?” asked Washington fans while pouring paint thinner into a whiskey bottle.
The lesson: Life is horrible and you should never care about anything.
The Washington Capitals have a unique ability to not just excite their fans, but excite them in the first or second rounds to the point of fervor. Think about it. Alex Ovechkin hasn't been to the conference finals in his entire career, but the heartache we've felt seems nigh unbearable. Can you imagine if we'd found ourselves closer to the promised land, only to fall short? I can, and it's a living nightmare.

Once again, however, we've managed to convince ourselves that this year will be different.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

We've parted ways with Mike Green, who while a strong offensive player generated just as many scoring opportunities in the other direction. In this year's final game, Green's final game with Washington, he took two penalties early in the second period, the second of which resulted in a game-tying power play goal by Kevin Hayes, and 30,000 Caps fans shouting, "Every goddamn time, Green!" In case you forgot, in that Game 7 against Montreal, Green was also in the penalty box when the Canadiens scored the first goal of the game.

We've also added a couple of right wings, shoring up a position that's been a relative weakness since Alexander Semin left town (don't kid yourself, Semin was extremely talented). Justin Williams has a trio of Stanley Cup championships, and figures to slot in on the right side of the second and third lines. The hope is that he'll bring a killer instinct that's been lacking when the time has come to close out an opponent.

The bigger-name acquisition was T.J. Oshie, a skilled scorer and Olympic "hero" (as much as you can be a hero when your team doesn't actually win anything). He's looked good in preseason, and he'll enter the season as RW1, on a line with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov (until Nicklas Backstrom returns from injury).

I wonder, though, if the team might be better served by swapping Williams and Oshie. Ovechkin has helped and been helped by grittier right wings in the past; Mike Knuble comes to mind. And a second line of Kuznetsov, Oshie, and Marcus Johansson would be prolific, and would demand attention from opposing defensemen and coaches. The best teams are those that can run out multiple lines that opponents have trouble defending.

In the end, while the acquisitions will be important, I think so much of this season's potential success relies on three young players and their development: Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, and Tom Wilson.

Three Musketeers or Three Stooges?

Kuznetsov showed flashes of brilliance last season, and has extra professional experience from his time playing in Russia. Particularly during the Islanders series, he was cool and collected, playing like a veteran. If he takes another step forward, the Caps will finally have the 1-2 combo of centers that they've been seeking for years.

Andre Burakovsky had a two-goal game against Henrik Lundqvist in Game 4 of last season's playoffs, though his scoring the rest of the season was sporadic. He's got enough skill to be a contributor, though he strikes me as more of a Brooks Laich-type player: solid two-way forward who doesn't necessarily excel in either facet. I'd love to be wrong and for him to have greater upside than I think he does, but it would be a surprise.

Tom Wilson is a player who almost everybody hates, and who almost everybody wishes was on their team. He's a true agitator, he checks hard and answers the bell if the situation calls for it (and sometimes when maybe it doesn't). We've been told for a couple years now that he's also got offensive upside, but we haven't seen much of that. Partly because he's been cutting a rut to the penalty box, but plenty of guys take a lot of penalties and still score. The dream is that Wilson can grow into a Scott Hartnell kind of player; gritty, unpleasant, and opportunistic offensively.

Oops, I Did It Again

Naturally, after spending this much time talking about the Caps and thinking about how good our players could be, I'm all-in once again. This is totally our year. All of those years of frustration and disappointment have been leading up to 2015-16, when we'll finally break through. The NHL pundits have been picking the Capitals to excel this season, and it makes perfect sense. The stars are aligning.

Sigh. Here we go again.

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