With the NHL All-Star Game in the rear-view mirror and the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline less than a month away, here are five pressing questions facing the Capitals as they march into the final 34 games of the regular season:
1. Will the Caps make the playoffs?
Hard to believe we have to ask that question, isnt it? But through 48 games, the Caps are holding onto the Southeast Division lead and the final playoff spot in the East by the skin of their teeth.
The Caps have the same number of points (55) as the seventh-place Panthers, eighth-place Devils and ninth-place Maple Leafs. One of those four teams is likely to miss the playoffs, but it wont be the Caps.
2. Will Dale Hunter return as coach next season?
See above. If the Caps fail to make the playoffs, all bets are off, because general manager George McPhee will be under intense scrutiny from ownership and Hunters future as coach is directly tied to the man who hired him.
Without question, Hunter has a cushy job waiting for him in London, Ontario, if things dont work out for him in D.C. But it would take a complete mutiny for Hunter to walk away from the only NHL team he ever wanted to coach. Hunter is far too competitive to walk away from a team that needs him more than he needs it.
3. Can the Caps win without a healthy Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green?
Short-term, yes. Long-term, no. But take a deep breath. You never really know with concussions, but the Caps are being extremely cautious with Backstrom in hopes that the 24-year-old center never has to deal with concussion issues again. Give the Caps high marks on their approach to concussions this season. They backed off with Jay Beagle and are being even more careful with Backstrom, who is less than two years into a 10-year, 67 million contract.
As for Green, hell begin skating sometime this week after his Jan. 17 sports hernia surgery. By this time next month, Green should be skating like the wind and making tape-to-tape passes. If not, the Caps will need to look to the trade market for help on the blue line.
4. How will the play of Alex Ovechkin be impacted by his three-game suspension?
Hell tell us not at all, but Ovechkin is a repeat offender, so there is no question his three-game ban will take away some of his aggressiveness. Thats a good thing for the rest of the NHL and a bad thing for the Caps.
Despite his drop in offensive numbers, Ovechkin has been tremendous under Hunter, showing a willingness to play at both ends of the ice with equal vigor. If that can continue when he returns to the lineup Saturday night in Montreal, the Caps have a chance of dominating in the playoffs.
5. What do the Caps need at the trade deadline to make a run?
If Green is healthy, theyre fine on the back end, although a little more grit wouldnt hurt. They are what they are between the pipes.
Up front, the Caps could use a second-line winger, preferably on the left side, who can provide some pop offensively and stir things up physically. That would allow Marcus Johansson and Brooks Laich to play their natural center positions and give the Caps some real strength down the middle.
As trade bait, the Caps have a pair of first-round picks theirs and Colorados as well as top prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov, but it would be a stretch to suggest McPhee will pull off a deal of that magnitude. Its more likely the Caps deal Mike Knuble andor Jeff Schultz for a player who can provide something extra for a playoff run.