Q & A With... Japers' Rink
Our talk with the other SBNation Metropolitan Division blogs continues as we go one on one with Rob Parker of Japers' Rink!
The Capitals took a major step back last season, and it resulted in them missing the playoffs as well as completely cleaning house behind the bench and in the front office. They nailed their hire in Barry Trotz, and they went nuts in free agency in signing two big defensive free agents in Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik.
For this series, I don't think I could go anywhere else than my man Rob Parker from Japers' Rink, who has joined me for podcasts in each of the last two off-seasons. This year's edition covered a lot of these topics, but it never hurts to explicate a little more. It's no secret that he's bullish on the Caps' chances this year.
No word on how many shots Rob took before answering these questions.
1) Barry Trotz - do you think he's a good fit for the Capitals and for their personnel?
Barry Trotz is a very good coach with a long track record of getting more performance out of his players than you might expect, when looking at the roster on paper. I think good coaches can fit anywhere, so I think Trotz should be a good fit for the Capitals. Further to the point, when you look at the Nashville teams he coached, the strength of those teams was on defense and in net, with some gritty, two-way forwards battling night in and night out. Aside from Ovechkin and Backstrom, that's basically what the Caps look like now. This isn't the same team that Bruce Boudreau had scoring 300 goals. If Trotz can get the Caps to execute similarly to how he had Nashville executing, the Caps will be very good.
2) Will Alex Ovechkin continue to be effective in a more "structured" environment?
Ovechkin seemed to have a mini career resurgence under Adam Oates, but it was mostly due to an elite power play unit. Trotz has indicated that he's not changing anything on the Caps PP once it's set up in the zone, so there is no reason to think Ovi's power play production will suffer much. At even strength, it would be hard to get worse than Oates' system, so if Trotz can improve that phase of the game there's no reason to think Ovechkin can't or won't be more effective. The big question on everyone's mind is whether Ovi will buy in to Trotz's system, but people forget that he played Dale Hunter's no-offense system without complaint. I think Ovi will buy in to what Trotz is selling, so as long as the system is coherent (i.e. not Oates's system) and has at least some interest in scoring goals on occasion (i.e. not Hunter's system) there's no reason to think Ovi won't continue to be dangerous.
3) The Caps spent a buttload of money on defense this off-season, but will those new guys really have a big impact?
Those guys will have a huge impact. The Caps had to dress virtually the entire Hershey Bears defensive corps at some point in the season, and there wasn't ever a point where the Caps had two pairs of established and reliable defenders. Now the Caps have, at a minimum, five guys who are established NHL defenders; they won't have to rely on giving critical ice time to AHL players (barring a horrific rash of injuries). Niskanen has had good possession numbers for several years now and he should help the Caps get the puck up ice to give the forwards an opportunity to do damage. As maligned as Orpik's contract is, the reality is he's still an NHL-caliber defenseman and he's much better than most of the guys that had to dress for the Caps last year. He'll also play a lot of PK minutes which will be critical because a) the Caps had a horrible PK and need some help, and b) because no defenseman played a higher percentage of his team's PK minutes than John Carlson (who also led the team at ES and PP time on ice). Someone needs to be able to step in and help Carlson out, and the additions of Orpik and Niskanen help ease the burden in all three phases. Between the substantial upgrade in personnel and coaching, this Caps team should be far better at keeping pucks out of the net than they have been in the past.
4) Braden Holtby is the #1 guy, finally. How will he respond?
He'll be fine. Since he joined the NHL he's had one of the top even strength save percentages in the league. His setback last year was almost entirely due to Adam Oates thinking he knew best and trying to change Holtby's style and positioning in the middle of the season. When Trotz came over from Nashville, he brought Mitch Korn, who has an incredible track record of success with goalies. As with basically every other aspect of the game, in net the Caps have gone from having unbelievably bad coaching under Oates to very good coaching. Even if Korn doesn't work any magic at all and can't get Holtby to take his game to another level, I expect to see Holtby bounce back simply by not having a coach try to change his game in the middle of the season.
5) The Caps were a mess at even strength last season. Have they done enough to improve and legitimately push for a playoff spot?
The Caps had a lot of things go wrong last year and they still barely missed the playoffs. They didn't have to improve all that much to legitimately push for a playoff spot. They upgraded their defensive personnel and coaching. The are going to have a much better even strength system. They aren't a perfect team, and the second line is still a pretty big question mark, but this team should absolutely be in contention for a playoff spot down to the end of the season; if they fail to make the playoffs again you better believe it'll be considered a massive failure. In a division full of flawed teams (it's certainly much nicer to be in the Metropolitan than the Pacific), the Caps should be able to keep the puck out of their net and score on the power play. I do think they'll get more even strength offense, especially out of the top line, but even if the scoring doesn't improve as much as I expect this team is going to compete for a playoff spot.
Thanks again to Rob for answering our questions (again) - go check out JR for an in depth look at the Caps as we get ready for the 2014-2015 season!