(Sports Network) - By season's end, the Washington Capitals were finally buying what first-year head coach Adam Oates was selling.
And while the late run was enough to get the Capitals their fifth division title in six seasons, Oates still could not get the club over the playoff hump.
Oates, though, injected some life into the Washington franchise, and though tougher competition awaits in the new Metropolitan Division, the Caps are hoping a full training camp under the bench boss will lead to even more improvement.
Washington hired Oates on June 26, 2012 to replace Dale Hunter, who got the Capitals to the playoffs the previous season but also saw a four-year run as Southeast Division champs end. Alex Ovechkin put forth the worst offensive showing of his career, netting 38 goals in 78 games but logging a career-low 65 points.
Ovechkin's regression was one of just the few things going wrong with the Capitals at the time, but ultimately the biggest. So Oates was brought in to shake things up, but was robbed of a lengthy training camp due to the lockout.
It showed as Washington started just 2-8-1 and later found itself nine points out of first place on March 20.
Then things clicked. The Capitals won back-to-back games in Winnipeg over the first-place Jets, kicking off a 15-2-2 span to end the season. Ovechkin finished the season on a scoring tear and eventually captured his third MVP award, while running mates Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green also found past form.
The trio was hoping to stay hot in the playoffs, but was bounced out in the first round by the New York Rangers in seven games. It was a similar song for Washington, which has seen five of its six straight playoff appearances end with Game 7 losses.
But the spark Oates has provided was evident and the Capitals stayed very quiet during the offseason, letting a handful of players walk, including Mike Ribeiro, who signed a four-year, $22 million deal with Phoenix.
The Caps replaced him by inking Mikhail Grabovski to a much cheaper one-year deal worth $3 million.
With little tinkering to the roster, Washington is allowing Oates to sharpen the tools he already has rather than bring in a new set of weapons.
FORWARDS - It was obvious that how much success Oates would have in his first season depended on Ovechkin. Oates made the decision to shift the Russian sniper from the left wing over to the right and stuck with the move all season.
It took time, but Ovechkin exploded for 23 goals and 13 assists over the final 23 games, giving him 32 goals and 56 points for the season. He also led the NHL in power-play goals (16) and tied for first with 27 points on the man advantage.
With that problem fixed, Oates will try to find a way to keep Washington's power play going. The Caps were an NHL-best 26.8 percent with the man advantage last year, but Ribeiro factored in with 21 helpers and 27 points on the power play.
Troy Brouwer, Backstrom and Green are also steady contributors to the unit and Grabovski managed 10 power-play goals with Toronto in 2010-11, but had none a season ago.
Ovechkin, Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, inked to a two-year deal this offseason, make up the top line and Johansson should benefit from a full season in the role. He had a career-best 46 points in 80 games in 2011-12 and was solid with 22 points in 34 games last season.
Grabovski, who had the final four seasons of his contract bought out by the Maple Leafs, slipped to nine goals in 48 games after having posted three 20- goal campaigns in his first four years with Toronto. He'll slide into the second-line center role between Martin Erat, a late addition to the Caps last year, and Troy Brouwer.
Erat cost Washington top prospect Filip Forsberg and combined for five goals during the lockout-shortened season, but is a veteran presence. Brouwer, meanwhile, matched the 33 points he posted in the 2011-12 season in the most recent campaign in nearly half as many games.
The Grabovski addition allows Brooks Laich to slide back down to the third line and Washington has some capable bottom six scorers in Eric Fehr and Joel Ward.
Winger Tom Wilson could also crack the opening day roster after potting 23 goals and 58 points in 48 regular-season games with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. He joined the Hershey Bears for three American Hockey League playoff games and also skated in three contests with the Caps during the postseason.
It appears, though, as if Washington is going to have to wait another year for its top prospect in center Evgeny Kuznetsov to join the NHL ranks. Grabbed 26th overall in the 2010 draft, Kuznetsov figured to get some seasoning in the Kontinental Hockey League before eventually coming overseas, but the 21-year- old will play out the final year of his contract in the KHL. He could join the Capitals by season's end.
DEFENSE - The top three spots on Washington's defense are set in Green, John Carlson and Karl Alzner.
Green and Carlson both bring a ton of offense to the blue line, so it makes sense for Oates to split the two up. Green has struggled with injuries over the last three seasons since back-to-back 70-plus point seasons, but still led NHL defensemen with 12 goals in 35 games last year.
The steady Alzner allows Green to take chances in the offensive zone and was rewarded with a four-year deal this past offseason.
Carlson, meanwhile, is perhaps Washington's best defender now. He had 22 points a season ago and was a plus-11.
Things get less certain after that. Washington used a compliance buyout on Jeff Schultz, who was a postseason scratch, and didn't add any depth in free agency. Instead, John Erskine is likely to be paired with Carlson again, while Dmitry Orlov and Jack Hillen could be factors on the blue line if they can stay healthy.
Erskine is another steady presence, but is 33, while the 27-year-old Hillen had his first season with the Caps slashed by 25 games due to an upper-body injury.
Orlov was a second-round pick by Washington in the 2009 draft, but lost 40 games due to injury last season. Steve Oleksy is another option after logging nine points in 28 games with Washington last year.
GOALTENDING - After trying to plug in a veteran over the last few seasons, Washington finally felt comfortable going with Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth a season ago.
Holtby is the No. 1, a role he has held onto for the past two postseasons, and was 23-12-1 with a 2.58 goals against average and .920 save percentage last campaign. He played in all seven games versus the Rangers and was right on par with his regular season numbers.
Neuvirth is an experienced backup. He appeared in 48 games in 2010-11 and another 38 the following season, but was limited to 13 in the most recent campaign. Washington still signed Neuvirth to a two-year deal in April that actually pays him more than Holtby.
It would not be surprising to see the two switch roles at some point if Neuvirth gets hotter.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - Washington has always benefited from having the likes of Atlanta/Winnipeg, Florida, Carolina and Tampa Bay in its division. The recent struggles of those teams made the former Southeast Division one of the weakest, but the band was broken up in realignment and the Capitals will now be battling the likes of the Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils.
That will make it harder for the Capitals to overcome another slow start, but a shift back to the offense-heavy days that used to define the team should benefit Ovechkin and company.
Washington is certainly one of the favorites to earn a playoff spot and could take the next step if some of the younger players can lend support to Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green.