Ok DC, ready for a real sport, now that the Redskins have imploded, the United tanked and the Nats…well, they’re the Nats. Anyway, are you ready for some hockey?
The Washington Capitals open up their season tomorrow night in Boston against the Bruins, the first step in their 2009-10 quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Last season saw the Caps suffer the most ignominious of falls, crashing in a critical Game 7 against the eventual Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Even more galling to Caps fans was the fact that the Caps led that series 2-0 before running out of gas.
Will this year be any better?
While I’m sure a few of you actually care what I think about the Caps this year, most people I’ve talked with casually about hockey are skeptical of my Capitals analysis, considering I’m a Penguins fan at heart. Never mind the fact that last year, I was only two wins off predicting their season record and correctly predicted their playoff exit. So rather than take flak again this year, I turned to ESPN’s John Buccigross for his invaluable insight. (And for the record, Bucci picked the Flyers to win the Cup this year. That’s right, Philly. But we won’t hold that against him.)
1.) How would you rate the Caps summertime moves?
Bucci: OK. Mike Knuble is the kind of crease presence that can help the Caps, but he is 37 and his numbers have begun to slide a bit. But, at $2.8 million this is pretty good value. Brendan Morrison is a 50 point player. To get two veterans at those prices is a solid if not spectacular investment.
2.) Do you think General Manager George McPhee addressed the team’s inadequacies over the summer?
Bucci: Well, I still don’t love their defense but when you have a young team it is more about forecasting the upside with your current group of players. Who will get better, who will get worse? The young players have to keep improving and then ideally peak at the same time.
3.) Let’s talk goaltending. Do you think Theodore is up to the task this year, especially a contract year? Or will Varlamov be taking over as the starter?
Bucci: That is a great question. I saw enough out of Varlamov to think he has a chance to be a #1 goalie. I’ve never been a Theodore fan. He and Nylander are dragging down $9.3 million dollars on the Caps’ salary cap. That must make McPhee throw up in his mouth.
4.) Defenseman Mike Green was the hot topic last year. Do you think there’s any room for improvement in his play?
Bucci: Absolutely. He needs to get in way better shape and commit himself to being a physical fitness nut.
5.) And now Ovechkin. Art Ross Trophy three-peat? What about his statements regarding the 2014 Olympics – do you think the League will listen?
Bucci: His peak window is still here at age 24. But it will slowly close as he ages. Hockey players monster seasons are in their early 20′s. It is amazing he has missed 4 games in 4 years with the way he treats his body on the ice. You would think eventually he will get some sort of injury, but so far so good.
I have no problem with his Olympic stand. He is a passionate player who loves his country. But he has a contract and he would be facing a stiff penalty if he disobeyed orders.
6.) How deep do you think the Caps will go in the playoffs this year?
Bucci: That depends on goaltending and the continued maturation of their young players. They certainly have enough talent to win the East.
7.) If – God forbid – Ovechkin is sidelined with a long-term injury, do you think the Caps have enough strength to maintain their style of play? How much is the team reliant on Ovechkin’s playmaking abilities?
Bucci: With the uncertainty of their goaltending and their style of play, any injury to Ovechkin would be a significant setback and put them in the battle for the 7th or 8th spots.
8.) At this point, what possible trades do you think the Caps will be watching to make?
Bucci: They have no cap room so I think that will be difficult unless they trade Karl Alzner or a prospect and use those tools to get a team to take on a salary.
[Note: In his column yesterday, Bucci suggests trading off Alexander Semin to help free up the salary cap: “He is outrageously skilled, but the Caps have plenty of skill, and I question whether he will grow into a reliable two-way player. The team has to look at Mike Green and Ovechkin and build the team from that standpoint,” wrote Bucci. It’s definitely a better alternative to trading away Alzner, who’s turning out to be a great prospect and ready to break out.]
9.) Will the Vancouver 2010 Olympic break hurt or help the Caps this season?
Bucci: I think that’s impossible to forecast. I don’t think it’s a big deal unless someone gets hurt.
10.) Your take – where do the Caps end up in the Southeast, and in the Eastern Conference?
Bucci: With no injuries the Caps will win the Southeast again. The Eastern Conference comes down to goaltending. It’s tough to pick them to win the East without knowing for certainly their goaltending play. If they get solidified there they certainly have a good of a chance as any to win the East.
Honestly, I see the Caps with another decent team, similar to last year in tone and desire. While not solid, they’ll definitely dominate the Southeast – provided Ovechkin doesn’t get hurt. The team is peaking in popularity at just the right time; people around here need a winner to rally around and get excited about, and Ovechkin and Company fills that bill rather nicely. I rarely give credit to owner Ted Leonsis, but I’ll heartily give him this one: he’s given McPhee and Boudreau the license to really go out and make a team that isn’t just about winning today, but setting up a legacy of success for the foreseeable future.
Dan Snyder should take lessons.
Prediction? 55-19-8, 1st in Southeast, 2nd seed, Out in Conference Finals.