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2013 NHL Preview: Capitals shift focus to on-ice issues

A new coach and a new system are two of the obstacles facing the Washington Capitals in the shortened 2013 NHL season.

That Hall of Fame ring? Suits you, sir!
That Hall of Fame ring? Suits you, sir!
Bruce Bennett

Early on Sunday morning, Capitals fans stopped asking "will there be hockey this year?" and started asking "when does the season start?"

While the NHL likely won't release the exact details of the reworked 2013 schedule until the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is actually ratified by both parties, the focus now quickly shifts from the boardroom to the on-ice product that will debut in less than two weeks.

Fans can expect a regular-season lasting between 48 and 52 games starting by January 19th and stretching into the first week of May, with the Stanley Cup Finals bumping up against the end of June. Should the season start on January 15th, Washington has a home date - currently against Vancouver, who likely won't play Washington at all this year with no out-of-conference games in the revised calendar - which could be the team's opener. If it starts on January 19th, Washington is currently slated to play in Tampa, which could remain static, and after a game on January 21 at Florida, the home opener could be the currently scheduled game the next night against Ottawa.

As for training camp, which could start as early as Wednesday if the CBA process is quick, it will about a week long and carry extra weight with a new coaching staff in town.

Washington's new coach, Adam Oates, will have to install his new, more offensive system in about a week, and according to TSN's Bob McKenzie, the Capitals won't invite any of its players currently in juniors to training camp. This indicates the Caps will have most of the players that will make up the opening 23-man roster set, with perhaps an extra player or two tagging along in case of injuries.

With several players playing during the lockout, the Capitals won't be entirely healthy coming into camp, either.

Nicklas Backstrom was injured on December 26 skating with Dynamo Moscow, as he was hit by Slovan's Milan Kytnar. Backstrom never returned to action for the KHL club before he headed to Washington Sunday. While the injury had been described to Russian Machine Never Break's Chris Gordon as "maybe week-to-week" by Backstrom's Swedish agent a week ago, you would expect the Capitals medical staff to re-evaluate the star when he checks into camp sometime this week.

In the American Hockey League, young defenseman Dmitry Orlov has been out for the past month, ironically injured in the Hershey Bears' game in Washington on Dec. 6. Orlov hasn't played since, but indications are he may return sooner than later.

In terms of personnel, while the Caps had been dogged by a lack of centers, the problem now shifts to wing, with the team likely needing to add a Top 6 winger before the trade deadline. Per, the Capitals have a pro-rated $6.61 million to spend in this year's adjusted $70.2 million cap, with the number set to drop to a reported $64.3 million next season, so a short rental or signing a one-year unrestricted free agent could be on the table.

With the new system in place, newly-engaged star Alex Ovechkin certainly will return to the more free-wheeling game we've seen from the Russian, although after Oates' work with compatriot and Ovechkin's good friend Ilya Kovalchuk in New Jersey, expect more attention to defense along with Ovi's offensive aggressiveness.

Defensively, the team is relatively healthy outside of Orlov, and Mike Green and John Carlson begin the first year of the new deals they inked with Washington this past summer. With a more open style, you can expect Green and Carlson to activate more often than we've seen in recent seasons, and go back to a style that both thrive playing.

Both of Washington's netminders were active during the lockout, as Braden Holtby played in Hershey and Michal Neuvirth played overseas in his native Czech Republic.

Holtby was the backbone of the Bears in recent weeks, winning the AHL's Goaltender of the Month for December, and making some big stops to steal some points for Hershey. Holtby posted a 2.14 goals-against average and a 12-11-1 recrd in 24 games for the Bears, along with a .933 save percentage.

For Neuvirth's part, he posted a 2.46 goals-against average for Sparta Praha, and a .927 save percentage.

Both goaltenders likely will platoon over the 48-game schedule, but with the increased importance of each game, Oates might be more inclined to ride a hot netminder than he would over an 82-game schedule.

It's a lot to take in, but for Capitals fans who just 24 hours ago wondered if there would be any games to watch at all this winter, the focus will quickly shift towards the games.