A Look At The Capitals' Near Future
By Stephen London
After the New York Rangers manhandled the Washington Capitals during Game 7 of the NHL quarterfinals, the Capitals have a tough offseason ahead of them and many impactful decisions to make. That said, the 2013-14 campaign is going to be different from this past season or any recent season.
The days of the Capitals having a stranglehold on the Southeast Division are over. Because of the NHL realignment, Washington will no longer benefit from playing against the Florida Panthers (15-27-6 record for 2012-13), Tampa Bay Lightning (18-26-4), Carolina Hurricanes (19-25-4) and the Winnipeg Jets (24-21-3), all of which did not make the playoffs. The Panthers, Lightning and Hurricanes were the three worst Eastern Conference teams.
The Capitals' new division looks similar to the Patrick Division of old, consisting of the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins. Also included in the Capitals' new division (Division D) are the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Carolina Hurricanes.
Of the eight teams, four made the playoffs (Penguins, Rangers, Islanders and Capitals). Considering the Devils made the Stanley Cup Finals last season and the Flyers are a perennial playoff team, this division will have harder competition than the former Southeast Division did.
Because there will be just two divisions in each conference next season, the top three teams of each division will make the playoffs, while the remaining two playoff spots in each conference will be determined by a new wild-card system. It is now possible for a division to have five playoff teams within its conference, while the other division has only three teams.
With this new conference realignment, each team will not have an equal number of games against their new divisional counterparts. The Capitals will play two teams in their division five times during the regular season (three home and two away against one and two home and three away against the other), and face the remaining five divisional teams four times. The opponents a team plays five times and the opponents a team plays four times will rotate on a yearly basis.
The divisional matchups account for 30 regular-season games, and teams will face non-division conference opponents three times (two home and one away or vice versa). These opponents will also rotate on a yearly basis.
The non-conference schedule was made larger for the Detroit Red Wings to maintain their rivalries with their Western Conference foes. Now, the out-of-conference schedule consists of playing each team twice at each stadium.
Because this new realignment has been approved for the next three years, the Capitals have a much tougher regular-season road than they were used to during the recent past. To help themselves, the Capitals must make calculated and bottom-line-minded roster moves in order to have a playoff-bound team next year.
Here is a look at the potential unrestricted free-agent players the Capitals could be losing during the offseason (ranked by priority).
1. Mike Ribeiro -- Ribeiro was one of the biggest acquisitions in recent Capitals history. He scored 49 points (13 goals, 36 assists) during 48 games for the Capitals this season. Despite his age (33) and his high price tag ($5 million), Ribeiro is the type of player that has longevity in the NHL because of the way he slows down the game speed in the offensive zone. Although it might cost more than $5 million to keep him around, the Capitals should do everything they can to keep this guy for at least a couple of more years.
2. Matt Hendricks -- Hendricks is a fan favorite around Washington, D.C., but is the 31 year-old grinder worth more than $1 million, the salary it could take to keep him? Odds are that another team around the NHL will offer him at least $1 million. Hendricks is a great asset to have in the locker room because of his personality and hard-working mentality. But is an aging grinder who has no real offensive advantage worth keeping around, or should the Capitals just find a cheaper one?
Joey Crabb, Tom Poti and Wojtek Wolski round out the class of unrestricted free agents for the Capitals this offseason. These players did not make good cases for themselves during the 2012-13 season. Crabb was sent down to the AHL halfway through the season, Poti has been injury plagued for years and Wolski was given numerous chances to impact games and didn't convert.
Aside from the unrestricted free agents, the restricted free agents consist of a few key players the Capitals should keep.
1. Karl Alzner -- Alzner is one of the best defensemen, if not the best, on the Capitals' roster. He is a must-keep player, regardless of the $1.27 million it would take to make a qualifying offer. Alzner, 24, has a bright future in front of him and has a great style of play.
2. Marcus Johansson -- Johansson is only 22, and he has speed and good offensive awareness. Considering a qualifying offer would take only $850,500, the Capitals should keep him.
3. Tomas Kundratek -- Kundratek, like Alzner, is a young defenseman (23). His qualifying offer is $660,000. Kundratek had a leg injury in March, but it should not affect his play for seasons to come, so the Capitals might want to keep him around for a while longer.
Besides signing a few key free agents, the Capitals also need to strengthen their roster in other ways. The 2013 NHL Entry Draft is one avenue the Capitals and general manager George McPhee have used to acquire suitable players late during the draft.
Another way the Capitals can improve is by signing other teams' free agents. The Capitals have not been known for bringing in huge free-agent names recently, but that might be what they need in order to flourish in what will be a tough division next season.
Posted May 22, 2013