St. Louis Blues

Washington Capitals ’15-16 Outlook

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The easy answer, of course, is to get past the second round.

It’s a place Washington hasn’t been since the ’98 Stanley Cup Final which, when you consider what’s transpired in the aftermath, is a really long time ago. Six coaches have come and gone — Ron Wilson, Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, Adam Oates — and seven different captains have served.

All told, it’s seventeen years and counting without a trip past Round 2, a drought Barry Trotz wants to end.

“Last year was a foundational year for us,” the Caps’ head coach told the National Press Club in July. “We want to have a parade down one of these great streets.”

To achieve that goal, Caps GM Brian MacLellan went out and had himself a splashy summer — well, as splashy as someone with his financial constraints could, anyway. Despite hovering close to the cap ceiling, MacLellan accomplished his goal of adding quality wingers in Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie.

The sophomoric analysis and narrative is that Williams, a former Conn Smythe winner dubbed “Mr. Game 7,” would help the team win important playoff games. Oshie, the U.S. Olympic hero in Sochi, would thrive in the nation’s capital, while wearing stars n’ stripes while riding an eagle (or something like that).

The reality is a tad more complex.

Despite boasting the NHL’s sixth-best offense in ’14-15, the Caps’ forward group didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Alex Ovechkin was responsible for a whopping 22 percent of the team’s goals, and two of the teams’ top-five point-getters were defensemen. The hope is that Williams and Oshie will balance things out — especially on right wing, where the likes of Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson were briefly parachuted in.

“You don’t like to see revolving players go through that spot all year,” MacLellan told the Washington Post. “You’d like to have more stability where a guy’s there permanently or almost permanently.”

To be fair, it’s likely that MacLellan made the Williams and Oshie moves with an eye on the playoffs. Williams’ postseason exploits are, as mentioned above, well-documented and while Oshie doesn’t have much of a reputation for playoff performances, he could be viewed as a more talented/gifted goalscorer/gamebreaker than the guy he replaced (Troy Brouwer).

In the postseason, that’s a big deal; do remember that in blowing their 3-1 series lead on the Rangers last season, the Caps only mustered five goals over the final three games.

So to sum it up, the outlook for next season is the same outlook we’ve seen in years prior. Can they finally get over that playoff hump?

Or come springtime, will it be the same old Caps?

Capitals’ biggest question: Is this finally the year?

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Of the 12 NHL teams that have never won the Stanley Cup, there may not be a more optimistic one heading into 2015-16 than the Washington Capitals. 

Here’s why:

— Alex Ovechkin just won his third straight Rocket Richard Trophy. At 29, he remains the NHL’s most dangerous goal-scorer. On top of that, the Caps appear to have found the right coach for the Russian superstar in Barry Trotz.

— The Caps also appear to have found a second-line center in young Evgeny Kuznetsov. If the 23-year-old continues to progress — and there’s no good reason he shouldn’t — Washington could have quite the 1-2 combo at center in Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov.

— Defenseman John Carlson is emerging as one of the top blue-liners in the NHL. And at 25, he may get even better.

— Goalie Braden Holtby continues to post strong numbers. His .923 save percentage last season was tied with Pekka Rinne and one point better than Tuukka Rask.

Now throw in the additions of veterans T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams to go with youngsters Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson, and what emerges is a roster where a glaring weakness is pretty tough to find.

OK, sure, there are concerns. Like maybe the Caps will miss Mike Green more than they think. Ditto for Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and/or Eric Fehr. If Washington’s young players don’t step up next season, it’s hard to picture this team hoisting the Cup.

But that’s true of any team, really.

“I’d say the next three or four years is the window,” GM Brian MacLellan said in May.

Given how quickly the landscape of a young man’s league can change, it may turn out to be a shorter window than that.

The Caps have a real opportunity in 2015-16. Can they finally get it done?

Related: Green calls this year’s Caps ‘the best team we’ve had overall’

It’s Washington Capitals day at PHT

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For the most part, Washington’s ’14-15 campaign was a success.

Under new head coach Barry Trotz, the Caps had 45 wins, 101 points, got back into the playoffs and won a series for the first time in three years.

All good things.

But in the end, success was fleeting. Once again, Washington lost a Game 7 to the Rangers — for the third time in four seasons — and, once again, Washington failed to get past Round 2 (for the 17th straight year). That rekindled talk of the Caps’ inability to come through in the clutch and, subsequently, talk of Alex Ovechkin’s inability to come through in the clutch.

In the end, though, you’d have to say the positives in Washington outweighed the negatives, thanks in large part to quality individual efforts.

Ovechkin had his highest goalscoring season in six years, netting 53 en route to winning the Maurice Richard Trophy. No. 1 goalie Braden Holtby posted career-highs across the board and narrowly missed out on being a Vezina finalist. John Carlson finished fifth in the NHL in d-man scoring, and top-10 in Norris voting.

Combine those with the growth shown by youngsters Evgeni Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky, and the year — even though it ended in disappointment — could be seen as a stepping stone to a brighter ’15-16.

Off-season recap

GM Brian MacLellan made some pretty aggressive moves this summer, specifically at wing. Former Conn Smythe winner Justin Williams was added in free agency and then, in a bit of a stunner, U.S. Olympic hero T.J. Oshie was acquired from St. Louis.

The team’s objective, MacLellan revealed early in the process, was to find right wingers capable of playing on the top line (next to Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom) and the second unit (next to Kuznetsov and Burakovsky).

So, mission accomplished — though it didn’t come without a price.

Washington lost a trio of veteran forwards this summer: Troy Brouwer was sent to the Blues in the Oshie deal, Eric Fehr signed in Pittsburgh, and Joel Ward inked with the Sharks. Longtime blueliner Mike Green also left in free agency, as did trade deadline pickups Tim Gleason and Curtis Glencross.

Those departures were partly due to the price of the aforementioned acquisitions, but also because MacLellan had some big-ticket players in house that needed new contracts.

Chief among those was Holtby, who was rewarded for his banner season with a big five-year, $30.5M extension. Significant money was also spent elsewhere: Kuznetsov was given $6M over two years, Marcus Johansson $3.75M over one (by way of arbitration), and checking forward Jay Beagle $5.25M over three.

At the draft, the Caps were relatively quiet with just four picks, though did raise some eyebrows by picking highly-touted Russian goalie Ilya Samsonov with their top selection, at No. 22 overall.

St. Louis Blues ’15-16 Outlook

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Do something in the playoffs, maybe?

That’s certainly the Blues’ objective next year, something that’s been made abundantly clear by everyone in the organization — but, quite frankly, that topic has been done to death.

So how about a new angle? Consider what GM Doug Armstrong told Sportsnet in May:

“There’s the Bell Curve of a career. The data is being redefined. Age brackets pre-expansion were older… The slower game allowed longer careers. Now, the maturity of young players, with strength coaches at age 15. It’s tending to a younger man’s game every year.

There’s anomalies to all of this; every player says they are the anomaly… That’s what makes them great. But young players are driving the bus at an earlier age of their career.”

Translation: It’s time to go young, and St. Louis is ready to embrace it.

The trend began this summer when the Blues made 23-year-old Vladimir Tarasenko its highest-paid player with an eight-year, $60 million extension; in explaining the deal, Armstrong called the Russian sniper a “great building block” that could “help lead us now.”

Those were telling words from a franchise often identified by its veteran leaders.

And Tarasenko isn’t the only youngster looking at an increased role.

Gone from last year’s team are Chris Porter, Zbynek Michalek, Marcel Goc, Olli Jokinen and, most notably, two of the most prominent Blues — Barret Jackman and T.J. Oshie. If there’s one thing that linked these guys together, it’s age; Oshie is the youngest of the crew, and he turns 29 in December.

St. Louis has been stockpiling draft prospects for years, and this could be the time for some to break through: Ty Rattie, Robby Fabbri, Jordan Schmaltz and Ivan Barbashev, all top-35 picks, will get their looks to varying degrees, and Dmitri Jaskin — the 22-year-old Czech winger that scored 13 times last year — and Finnish d-man Petteri Lindbohm will try and take stronger holds on roster spots.

In fact, the development of some of these kids could have a profound impact on another Blues veteran — team captain David Backes.

“I think where we play David now depends on (Dmitrij) Jaskin, (Ty) Rattie and (Robby) Fabbri,” head coach Ken Hitchcock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “How they do in camp and what level of play we think they can arrive at will determine how much we play David on the right wing.

“I can tell you right now, (Backes) is going to play more right wing than he’s played since I got here. Whether he’s a full-time player there or not, we don’t know yet. That depends on those three young kids.”

Blues’ biggest question: Are they good enough down the middle?

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Jonathan Toews. Anze Kopitar. Jeff Carter. Patrice Bergeron. Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. Pavel Datsyuk. Henrik Zetterberg.

Teams that win the Stanley Cup almost always have an elite center. As you can see, some of them even have two.

Do the St. Louis Blues?

The answer to that will depend on your definition of elite. If it’s a generous one, then maybe Paul Stastny gets the nod. Otherwise, it’s hard to answer yes.

Next season, the Blues’ top two lines could look something like this:

Alex Steen – Paul Stastny — David Backes
Jaden Schwartz — Jori Lehtera — Vladimir Tarasenko

If one of Dmitrij Jaskin, Ty Rattie or Robby Fabbri can step into a top-six role, coach Ken Hitchcock has said that Backes could be moved to the third line.

Regardless of how the lines shake out, it’s no surprise that the Blues were left wanting more from Stastny, their big free-agency signing from last summer.

“Paul Stastny needs to be a bigger part of our group,” GM Doug Armstrong said. “We need him to be a bigger and better part of our team.”

Stastny had 46 points in 74 games last season. He then managed just one goal, with no assists, in the Blues’ six-game playoff loss to the Wild.

Not enough from a player who was supposed to be a difference-maker in the tough Western Conference.

“I think in every sport if you’re strong up the middle you’re usually a strong team,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said, per Yahoo Sports. “The center icemen seem to be the catalyst, usually offensively. They’re the guys who have the puck the most and make maybe the most decisions on the ice based on the number of touches they have in a game.”

Which is why there’s so much excitement in Washington about young Evgeny Kuznetsov.

But we digress.

The Blues are obviously a strong team. Their regular-season record is proof of that. But they haven’t been able to win that elusive Cup, so it’s only natural to pore over their roster in search of why.

Their lack of a truly elite center — and this goes for good teams like the Wild, Predators, Canadiens, Rangers, and Jets — may be as good an answer as any.

Related: Doug Armstrong is under pressure