Crucial Caps- Which Players will Make or Break the 2016-17 Season?

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Geoff Burke-USA TODAY

opinion While August 18th still feels like a long way out from the start of hockey season, the fact of the matter is the World Cup of Hockey is beginning in less than a month. Hockey season is fast approaching.  Several Capitals are partaking in the World Cup, meaning their preseason prep gets underway sooner than they would expect.

After this past season, the off-season has felt like an eternity, but fear not Caps fans! Hockey is closer than you know.  The Capitals open their season in Pittsburgh, where they will watch the Penguins raise their second Stanley Cup banner in the past 7 years.

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Coach Trotz is looking forward to the Penguins raising their cup banner in front of the Capitals, alluding to the extra motivation that it will provide his team (especially considering the President’s Trophy winning Capitals were eliminated by the Penguins in the second round of last year’s playoffs).  Personally, I believe that this year’s regular season means absolutely nothing; the Capitals will make the playoffs, and where and how they finish the regular season will merely determine who they play in the playoffs, and even THAT doesn’t matter because of how the NHL formats its playoffs.  That being said, here are the 5 Capitals that in my mind, are X-factors in determining how the team performs.

  1. Marcus Johansson

Marcus-johansson-washington-capitals-practice.jpgComing off a fresh 3-year contract extension, the Capitals have put their money where their mouths are.  Johansson’s 2015-16 season was numerically less productive than his 2014-15 season, but this past season he bounced around between second line wing and third line center.  I believe the extension gives MoJo a place in the top-6 to begin the season, where he will look to continue his development as a solid player on the Capitals and in the league.  I think it’s reasonable to expect 20-25 goals and 55-60 points, given that he plays second line left-wing.

  1. John Carlson

John-Carlson-washington-capitals.jpgThe NHL Network recently revealed a list of their top 20 defensemen in the league currently (which was absurd considering Kris Letang was ranked ahead of PK Subban), and a surprising member of the list was John Carlson.  Carly came into last season with the expectation that he would be rock-solid in the top 4, and maybe even vie for a top-pair defense spot.  However, injuries coupled with the constant shuffling of the defense corps made this past year a tough one for the American-born defenseman (he, as well as Matt Niskanen will be representing team USA at the World Cup of Hockey).  With the top-pair being established as Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen in the postseason last year, I think Carlson will play on the second defense pair, along with Nate Schmidt.  They looked good as a tandem last year, and I think both he and Schmidt will take steps forward in their development as defensemen.  As for statistical expectations, expect 5-10 goals and 30-35 points from Carlson this season.

  1. Lars Eller

lars-eller-washington-capitalsAcquired via trade from the Montreal Canadiens, Lars Eller was brought in to be this team’s third line center.  It is still relatively unclear who Eller’s linemates will be (if I had to guess, I’d say Justin Williams on the left and Tom Wilson on the right).  Eller has been a productive player over the course of his career, albeit his offensive numbers have never been staggering.  Eller never had a defined role in Montreal, something he commented on during his introductory conference call, and said he looked forward to being in Washington with a defined role and what he called a “winning culture.”  Eller is a solid shutdown center who can kill penalties and get to the front of the net effectively.  I would expect 10-15 goals and 35-40 points from “Larry” this year.

  1. Evgeny Kuznetsov

Evgeny-Kuznetsov-Washington-Capitals.JpgWhen it was announced that Nicklas Backstrom would miss the first few games of last season, I’ll admit I was pretty nervous.  I was unsure of the job Kuznetsov would do filling in as a first line center, considering his age and relative lack of experience. Boy was I wrong.  Kuznetsov was arguably the Caps’ best player last season (although invisible in the playoffs), fitting into the top line seamlessly (and having me argue that he should be our top line center going into next season).  In a contract year, Kuznetsov should be given every opportunity to succeed in both the regular season and the playoffs, and if he has a good enough year, the Capitals could be forced into some tough decisions going forward.  I would expect 20-25 goals and 80-85 points from Kuznetsov next season.

  1. Brooks Orpik and Dmitry Orlov

(Note: at the time this article is being written, Dmitry Orlov is still unsigned)

Brooks-orpik-washington-capitals.jpgBrooks Orpik had a horrible postseason, making the monster contract he was signed to look even worse than it already was.  During the regular season, he struggled to stay healthy, and when he was healthy he was slow, flat-footed, and struggled to keep up with the increasing speed of the league.  As for Dmitry Orlov, his poor decision-making put the Capitals in unnecessary bad spots in both the regular season and playoffs, even being scratched in favor of Mike Weber at one point in the playoffs.

Dmitry-orlov-washington-capitals.jpgIf the Capitals are to win a championship (and who are we kidding they could have Gretzky, Hull, and Gordie Howe in their primes and still find a way to lose in the second round), Orpik and Orlov (my projected 3rd defensive pairing) need to step up, make smart decisions with the puck, and not let a team’s weakest link beat them.  I don’t want to attach statistical expectations to Orpik, but if he can stay healthy, and not make dumb high hits or take bad penalties in do-or-die situations, I think that would absolutely be a step in the right direction for him.  As for Orlov, he’s still at a critical point in his development where he needs to show serious improvement or risk losing a spot on this roster going forward (especially with talented youngsters Madison Bowey and Lucas Johansen in the Caps system).  For Orlov, 10 goals and 25-30 points would be a smashing success.

I’ll conclude with my projected Caps lines and pairings for the 2016-17 season.  Let me know if there are any players I missed or other “X-factor” type players that will influence how this team does.

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By Matthew Jacobson

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