Mailbag: High expectations for Capitals

The pressure will be on the Washington Caps to at least reach the conference finals. G Fiume/Getty Images

Winding down the week with another mailbag. If you have a question for next week, send it in here.

What do you think are the chances of the Washington Capitals making the Eastern Conference Finals or Stanley Cup? -- Tommy Huynh, @GLaSnoST9

Everything measurable points to a strong season from the Capitals, including our formula calculated in ESPN The Magazine's NHL preview issue that's out this week. I loved the moves GM George McPhee made this offseason, adding exactly the kind of players the Capitals need.

It also adds up to the kind of pressure the Capitals haven't exactly handled well yet. At this point, anything short of a trip to the Eastern Conference finals would be considered a failure, and that's a lot to expect. "We'd like to win a Cup, all teams do," McPhee said. "I guess if people think we're capable of winning the Cup or to go to a conference final, and anything short of that is not enough, we must be doing something right. We must have a good team."

I still like the Pittsburgh Penguins with a healthy Sidney Crosby better than the Capitals. I also like the New York Rangers, assuming Marc Staal isn't dealing with concussion issues all season. Those two would be my Eastern Conference favorites right now, with the Capitals right behind.

I am from Buffalo, N.Y., so I am a BIG Buffalo Sabres fan. Do you think Ryan Miller will stay in Buffalo or go to a new team in his free agent year? I hope we signed enough talent around him so we do not have to rely just on him for victories (like we have in the past). -- Noel M. Klein, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Miller isn't going anywhere. The goaltender is committed to the franchise with a five-year contract extension in 2008, and this was before the owner Terry Pegula era. Now there's more stability than ever in Buffalo, and there's an owner who is committed to retaining his best players and winning a Stanley Cup.

Miller's deal (worth an average of $6.25 million annually) runs through the 2013-14 season, so he's locked in, as are a few of his best defensemen in front of him, including Tyler Myers (signed through 2019), Christian Ehrhoff (signed through 2021) and Andrej Sekera (signed through 2015). There's a commitment in Buffalo now that wasn't there in the past and, as you mentioned, it means Miller won't have to carry the Sabres like he did at times earlier in his career.

Is there evidence either way to dismiss (or not) a connection between brain trauma and depression in hockey players? -- @Ozman51

Last year, while working on a concussion package for the Sporting News, I posed this question to Dr. Brian Rieger, director of Central New York Sports Concussion Center.

"It's sort of a big question," he answered. He said we know that people have persistent problems after concussions and they're often emotional issues. Not just hockey players, everybody. "There seems to be a shared mechanism in terms of neurological effects of concussion and neurological effects of depression," Rieger said.

Another doctor I asked quickly answered, "Absolutely." I think the concrete evidence is the tricky part because this is still being studied. There may be an increased risk of late-life depression and that is a scary thought for all the players dealing with concussions right now.

The Boston Bruins have worked hard to make sure a guy like Marc Savard is getting the support he needs while recovering from his concussions. "I just want him to have a healthy life," Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said. "That's the overriding objective. Getting the counseling, the care, that's all you can do."

Who would you bet has a better season: Ovi or Malkin? -- @felixpotvin

This is a great question I weighed on Tuesday night when we held our ESPN fantasy hockey mock draft. For fantasy purposes, I picked Alex Ovechkin, but when we had to pick our preseason Hart Trophy winner I chose Evgeni Malkin. So the short answer is I think both are poised to have big years.

I'd give a slight overall edge to Malkin, though, based on his production in the past without Crosby in the lineup. The last time Crosby missed significant time and Malkin was healthy, he scored 47 goals. He might have to do some heavy lifting early on this season while Crosby recovers from post-concussion syndrome.

I thought this quote from Malkin in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review was pretty interesting: "We have 25 good players," he said. "But I think, yeah, [if Crosby is out] it's my team." Malkin has had a good summer of training and is 100 percent healthy, and I expect him to return to being a 100-point producer.

How do you think Jonas Hiller will fare this year? Is there any track record of players coming back from vertigo? Did the Ducks mess up by letting Ray Emery go? -- Drew, Omaha, Neb.

The thing that concerns me about Hiller is that he says doctors aren't sure what caused the vertigo in the first place. That makes me nervous because you can't help but wonder if it will return. "It's like almost every day you wake up and kind of just ask yourself how you feel today," Hiller told the Orange County Register. "I've always said I'd rather have a broken leg. Then I know what it takes. A couple of weeks and then you can start again."

We'll be watching him closely to start the year because he's the difference between the Anaheim Ducks being a Stanley Cup contender and a team that will have to fight to get in the playoffs. I'm cautiously optimistic that Hiller will return to the form we saw during the first half of last season.

As for Emery, he showed incredible willpower in coming back from hip surgery no NHL player has had to endure. I would never count him out, and I expect him to make the Chicago Blackhawks on a tryout. But with another year left on Dan Ellis' contract, the Ducks were committed to him as the backup in Anaheim and he's certainly capable in that role. He was 8-3-1 with a 2.39 goals-against after being traded to Anaheim in February. But it won't be a good sign for the Ducks chances if Ellis is asked to carry the load because of another Hiller injury.

What are the main negotiation issues for the next CBA? -- @PhysicsofHockey

I recently spoke at length with a player about the coming CBA negotiations. The current deal expires after this season. There will be plenty to debate: escrow, capping the length of long-term contracts, Olympic participation for NHL players, revenue sharing and reworking the salary-cap floor. The league may also try to take on guaranteed contracts, although some think that could just be a negotiating ploy to ultimately attempt to change the division of revenue.

"Negotiations are never about fairness, it's about what you think you can get," the player said.

One interesting suggestion would be to lower the salary-cap floor so small-market teams aren't losing a ton of money just to get to the floor. In return, the high end of the cap would be higher. The problem is that the league would lose some of the parity that has made the regular season so exciting since the lockout. Both Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr are veteran negotiators and neither has anything to prove in this negotiation. The game is in a great place with a healthy television deal. It's early, but every indication right now points to a solution without a work stoppage.