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One Prediction for Each of the Washington Capitals' Top Stars in 2013-14

Dave UngarCorrespondent IIIOctober 3, 2013

One Prediction for Each of the Washington Capitals' Top Stars in 2013-14

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    The 2013-14 regular season for the Washington Capitals is now under way, and the reviews from the Caps' 6-4 opening-night loss to the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks are somewhat mixed.

    The offense looked good and the power play looked great. Mikhail Grabovski looked better than advertised. Alex Ovechkin looked very strong as well.

    The defense looked sketchy, especially on the game-tying goal by Brandon Saad, when Saad made both John Erskine and Connor Carrick look pretty bad.

    Braden Holtby looked very strong—except for the game-winning goal, on which he looked very weak.

    So what can we really glean after just the first game of the season?

    Not a whole lot. But that won't stop me from making some predictions anyway.

    Here is one prediction for each of the Caps' top stars for the 2013-14 season.

Braden Holtby Will Emerge as an Elite NHL Goaltender

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    Braden Holtby turned in a pretty strong effort against the Blackhawks.
    Braden Holtby turned in a pretty strong effort against the Blackhawks.Bill Smith/Getty Images

    For much of the opening game against the Chicago Blackhawks, the only reason the Caps were still in that game was because of the great goaltending of Braden Holtby.

    This was especially true during the second period when the Blackhawks really took it to the Caps. Holtby stood as strong as he could, including stopping two breakaway chances for the Hawks.

    Was Holtby perfect? Hardly. The game-winning goal he gave up to Johnny Oduya was a bad goal no matter how you wish to describe it.

    And Holtby gave up far too many rebounds, some of which were quickly deposited in the net behind him.

    But, by far, Holby looked very strong against the defending Stanley Cup champions, stopping 29 of 34 shots he faced. The young man has enormous potential written all over him, and he truly seems like he's on his way toward becoming an elite-level NHL goaltender.

    One thing to keep in mind with respect to Holtby is that this will be his first full regular season in D.C. That does not seem possible with all the high-pressure hockey we have seen Holtby play the past couple of years. Still, he has never played in a full 82-game regular season before and has only played in 58 regular-season games in his entire NHL career.

    The way he handled the shortened 2012-13 season and everything that happened during that season shows that Holtby is wise and mature beyond his 24 years.

    He endured a really rocky start to emerge, quite clearly, as the Caps' No. 1 goaltender. Along the way, Holtby would end up in the top 10 in several key categories for goaltenders, including wins with 23 (good for fourth in the NHL), saves with 1,033 (eighth) and shutouts with four (sixth).

    Holtby needs to improve in the goals-against average and save percentage categories. For 2013, Holtby could only be considered average in these categories, as his goals-against average was 2.58 (27th in the NHL) and his save percentage was .920 (14th).

    Although he is off to a bad start, I believe we will ultimately see his goals-against average drop down below a 2.30 and his save percentage will get up to around .925 or higher.

    Once he achieves those marks, you can probably consider Holtby among the very best goaltenders in the NHL.

John Carlson Will Lead the NHL in Blocked Shots

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    John Carlson is one of the best shot blockers in the game—and he looks to be getting more physical as well.
    John Carlson is one of the best shot blockers in the game—and he looks to be getting more physical as well.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Rather quietly, John Carlson has emerged as one of the best shot-blockers in the entire NHL.

    Carlson does not get the fanfare of someone like Dan Girardi, Greg Zanon or Brooks Orpik. But when it comes to shot-blocking, Carlson is as good as any of them.

    Carlson truly became an excellent shot-blocker during the 2011-12 season. He registered 153 blocks during the regular season, good enough to be tied for 18th in the NHL. While he was almost 100 blocks behind the leader, Josh Gorges (who had 250), Carlson surprised many with this rather unexpected attribute.

    In the 2012 playoffs, though, Carlson took things to another level. With all of the Caps defenders buying into Dale Hunter's defensive approach and selling out on every play, Carlson emerged as the best shot-blocker on the team.

    He led all Caps players with 38 blocks and ended the playoffs with the sixth-most blocks of any player. The players ahead of him were members of the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils or Los Angeles Kings, all teams that reached the conference finals.

    This past lockout-shortened season, Carlson finished third in the NHL in blocked shots with 123. Zanon finished second with 124, and Girardi finished first with 125.

    In no time at all, Carlson had become one of the top shot-blockers in the NHL.

    In the playoffs, Carlson had 22 blocks and was ranked 23rd among all players. However, Carlson was the only player in the top 25 who played in less than 10 games, which makes his numbers all the more impressive.

    Carlson has emerged as one of the elite shot-blockers in the game, and I think that this season, which will be just his fourth full season in the NHL, will be the year he becomes the best in the game at this very important skill.

    Against Chicago on opening night, Carlson registered just one block, although he did have two hits. I doubt that is a trend that will continue.

    When this season is done, I believe Carlson will be standing tall as the best shot-blocker in the NHL.

Mike Green Will Lead All NHL Defensemen in Points

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    Mike Green is off to a strong start.
    Mike Green is off to a strong start.Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

    If Mike Green can stay healthy,  the Caps defender could possibly put up numbers similar to what he did in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons.

    Green scored 73 points in 2008-09 and then followed that up with 75 points in the 2009-10 season. If Green can replicate numbers like that during the 2013-14 season, he should be the most prolific scoring defenseman in the NHL.

    The 2012-13 season certainly showed that Green has the potential to again be one of the best two-way defenders in the NHL.

    Even though he missed 13 games due to injury, Green still led all NHL defenders with 12 goals. He led the Caps in ice time, averaging almost 25 minutes of ice time per game.

    Green got off to a strong start in the season opener against Chicago. Initially, it looked like he had scored two goals. However, Mikhail Grabovski got credited with two deflections and Green had to settle for two assists instead.

    That is still not too bad, and if Grabovski can continue to park himself in front of the net on power-play opportunities, expect many more of those types of situations.

    Green has one of the best shots of anyone on the team, and he is a great quarterback for the Caps' power play, which certainly looks like it will continue to be a source of strength for the team this season.

    I believe Green can absolutely score at least 20 goals. It sounds like a lot but, he was on pace for 21 last season. The Caps already look to be more offensively potent than they were last season.

    Look for Green to lead all NHL defensemen in points this season, and I expect him to make a pretty strong run at winning the Norris Trophy. 

Brooks Laich Will Remain Healthy

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    If Brooks Laich can stay healthy, the Caps should prosper.
    If Brooks Laich can stay healthy, the Caps should prosper.Bill Smith/Getty Images

    One of the main reasons why the Washington Capitals struggled as much as they did for a good part of the 2012-13 season was because Brooks Laich only played in nine games all season long.

    If you look back at Laich's career so far, his struggles with injuries during the 2013 season were quite out of place for him. Laich's durability, throughout his career, has been one of the things that has made him most valuable to the Caps.

    Being healthy has defined Laich's career thus far. From 2007 through 2012, Laich played in all 82 games four out of five seasons. The only season in which he did not play in all 82 games was the 2009-10 season—and even then, Laich played in 78 games.

    During that five-year stretch, Laich really made a name for himself and firmly implanted the idea that he was a top player for the Caps. He scored 101 goals, had 137 assists, 238 points and a plus-18 rating.

    When Laich is healthy, he is extremely effective and an essential part of the Caps offense.

    When you compare Laich's durability to other members of the Caps over the same time frame, his ability to escape injury and/or suspensions is even more impressive.

    Alex Ovechkin played in a full 82 games only once over that same time frame.

    Nicklas Backstrom played a full 82 games three times but then ran into concussion problems during the 2011-12 season and only played in 42 games.

    Mike Green managed a full 82 games only once, then ran into many of his own injury issues.

    When Alexander Semin was a member of the Caps, he never played a full 82 games over the same time frame, his best outing being 77 games during the 2011-12 season.

    Laich obviously had a rough time of things last season, and his absence was most certainly felt by the Caps. But his durability and reliability have always been his greatest assets to the team.

    Laich had a pretty good debut in the season opener against Chicago, logging over 17 minutes of ice time and winning 67 percent of his faceoffs. He did not show any signs of being slowed by the hip flexor injury he dealt with during the preseason.

    Laich is a natural leader and a very good playmaker who adds depth and flexibility to the Caps' second and third lines. If he can remain healthy, good things should happen for the Caps.

    I expect to see a healthy, motivated and productive Laich this coming season.

Troy Brouwer Will Score at Least 20 Goals

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    Troy Brouwer will prove last season was no fluke.
    Troy Brouwer will prove last season was no fluke.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    When the 2012-13 season began, most people would probably not have picked Troy Brouwer to be No. 2 on the team in goals scored at season's end, second only to Alex Ovechkin.

    As such, Brouwer's 19 goals and 14 assists were a pleasant surprise for the Caps—but a very welcomed one. Brouwer made the Caps' second line formidable and gave the team some much-needed depth.

    Brouwer was on pace to score 32 goals last season, if a full season had been played. That would have bested his career high—set during the 2009-10 season with the Chicago Blackhawks—by a full 10 goals.

    Is it possible for him to get to 32 goals this season? I think that might be asking a bit much.

    But I truly feel that Brouwer can crack the 20-goal barrier this season. He will be 28 when the season begins. He might very well be entering the prime of his career.

    In reality, Brouwer is one of those players who just does what he does and flies under the radar. Nevertheless, Brouwer has so many qualities that will be vital to the Caps' success that he has a chance to have a truly exceptional season, and with the Caps already looking to be faster and more explosive than they were a season ago, one has to figure Brouwer will get more chances to score.

    He is obviously going to have to shoot the puck more than he did against the Chicago Blackhawks on opening night. Brouwer had no shots on goal in the season opener. He did, however, log over 18 minutes of ice time and was the most physical player on the ice for the Caps, as he registered four hits.

    It might take a few games for Brouwer to figure out his role on an evolving second line. Once it all clicks, though, I expect to see Brouwer put up very solid numbers again, and he might even be able to eclipse his prior career high of 22 goals.

Nicklas Backstrom Will Finish 2nd in the NHL in Assists

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    Nicklas Backstrom has quitely emerged as one of the best setup men in the game.
    Nicklas Backstrom has quitely emerged as one of the best setup men in the game.Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

    Nicklas Backstrom is, in my opinion, very underrated.

    Here is a player with elite potential, a player who can really dictate the flow and tempo of a game and someone who makes a huge difference to the Caps and how their offense produces.

    Last season, Backstrom became one of the best setup men in the NHL. His 40 assists led the Caps, and he ended up finishing third in the entire NHL in that category. He would have been on pace for 68 assists, which would have tied him for his career high, set in the 2009-10 season.

    It was a good return to form for Backstrom, who saw his numbers drop during the 2010-11 season to just 47 assists in 77 games played. The following season, Backstrom missed 40 games and had only 30 assists for the entire season.

    Backstrom has always been a great setup man, and Alex Ovechkin would not likely be half the player he is without Backstrom by his side.

    When the Caps are on the power play is when Backstrom excels. This was on full display in the season opener against the Chicago Blackhawks.

    Backstrom's vision, passing ability and playmaking clearly made the Blackhawks nervous. The Hawks were third in the NHL last season in penalty-kill efficiency, yet they played rather tentatively against the Caps power play. Much of the reason for that seemed to stem from the respect the Hawks were giving to Backstrom and their not wanting to get burned by the Caps' potent power play.

    It did not work out so well. Three of the Caps' four goals were of the power-play variety. Backstrom had assists on two of them. This is part of what makes Backstrom so dangerous: Even when a team is actively trying to stop him, he can still make them pay.

    After just two nights of the 2013-14 NHL season, Backstrom is already ranked in the top 10 in assists. I expect this to continue all season long. If Sidney Crosby stays healthy, then he might very well lead the NHL in assists this season.

    But I think Backstrom will give him a serious challenge and will finish second in the NHL in this category.

Mikhail Grabovski Will Make Everyone Forget About Mike Ribeiro

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    If there were any doubts about Mikhail Grabovski, then his performance on opening night against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks went a long way toward silencing the remaining critics.

    Grabovski was supposed to be a replacement for Mike Ribeiro.

    The reality of the situation, however, is that Grabovski is actually an upgrade for the Washington Capitals.

    If you watched the opener against Chicago, then you probably immediately noticed several things Grabovski did that Ribeiro really did not.

    One of the biggest areas where Grabovski is an improvement for the Caps is with respect to his two-way play.

    Grabovski has always been a hard worker and a center who can play well in the offensive and defensive zones. We saw some of that in the season opener, and his play in the defensive zone on his first goal was a big reason the two-on-one developed in the first place.

    Last season, when he was being largely misused by Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle, Grabovski was frequently—and inexplicably—placed on checking lines. Put him out there with other playmakers and, well, the results speak for themselves.

    Ribeiro, on the other hand, played very well, but as far as his defensive skill set is concerned, Grabovski is a significant upgrade.

    Grabovski excels at tilting the ice. He is excellent at getting the puck out of the defensive zone and driving it into the offensive zone, maintaining possession and creating scoring opportunities for the offense. We saw it all preseason long and we saw it again against Chicago.

    Grabovski also makes the Caps' power play even more potent than it was last season. The way he got to the front of the net against Chicago, screening the goaltender and redirecting the puck—you really did not see much of that from Ribeiro last season.

    Even Ribeiro's game-winning overtime goal in Game 5 against the New York Rangers in the playoffs was more the result of a fortunate bounce than anything he did.

    Grabovski is off to a tremendous start, and he played very well during the preseason. By the end of the season, I believe he will have made everyone forget about Ribeiro—and he might make general manager George McPhee look like a genius for acquiring him.

Alex Ovechkin Will Score at Least 45 Goals

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    If you were watching ESPN the day before the season began, you may have caught a glimpse of Barry Melrose predicting Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals would score 60 goals this coming season.

    Sixty goals, Barry? Really?

    I guess the prediction makes sense. Ovi scored 65 goals during the 2007-08 season, and the only other player to get 60 goals since then was Stamkos, who scored exactly 60 during the 2011-12 season.

    But is it really a viable prediction? I think its somewhat too optimistic. Nevertheless, I think Ovi will get at least 45 goals this season, and he might even score 50 or more.

    In 2013, Ovi was the Great Eight once again. He collected 21 goals over the final 20 games of the regular season. Ovi claimed the Rocket Richard Trophy for a third time—the first player to do so—with 32 goals.

    Ovi actually equalled the number of goals he scored during the entire 2010-2011 season, when he also scored 32—and he did it in 31 fewer games. Ovechkin's performance was enough to earn him a third Hart Memorial Trophy as the NHL MVP.

    Ovi would have been on pace to score 55 goals had the 2012-13 season been of the 82-game variety. That would have been his third-highest total ever. The question now is whether he can maintain that pace this season.

    One thing in his favor is just how deadly Ovi is when the Caps are on the power play. There is no more dangerous player in the NHL when his team has a man advantage than Ovechkin.

    Last season, half of Ovi's goals were scored on the power play. No one was really close to Ovechkin in this category. Stamkos was a somewhat distant second with 10 power-play goals.

    What has to be frustrating for the opposition is that it knows what is coming. It is no secret that Ovi is going to float to the left faceoff circle and try and set up for a slap shot or for one of the best wrist shots in the game.

    Everyone knows this—and no one can seem to stop it.

    It is almost unfair at times. Ovechkin has one of the best shots in the NHL, whether it is a one-timer, a slap shot or a wrister. To give him a clear line of sight to the goalie—with all that skill at his disposal—well...good luck stopping that.

    And more often than not, opponents can't stop him. We saw this again in the season opener against Chicago. What was even more frustrating was that the Hawks played it pretty well and actually got a stick on the feed from Mikhail Grabovski. It did not matter. Ovi still fired the deflected puck past Corey Crawford for his first goal of the season.

    Ovi did not score a goal until the fifth game of the season in 2012-13. He had only two goals through the first 10 games of the season.

    He already has a goal in his first game this season and is now comfortable in his role as a right winger under Adam Oates' system.

    Look for Ovi to score at least 45 goals, and if can maintain his current pace, then perhaps Melrose's prediction might not be so far off after all.

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