Tomorrow is the start of the 2010-11 NHL regular season, pretty much the only sport that matters in my household. Around the DC area, the Washington Capitals are becoming – if not already – the number two sports franchise, and with good reason: unlike many of the other pro teams in the area, the Caps have been consistent winners the last several years.
Today’s date, actually, should probably be declared a local holiday. Why? Well, five years ago on October 5, some rookie with the number 8 on his sweater hit the Verizon Center ice in the season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Forty seconds into the game, Alexander Ovechkin – the rookie in question – hit defenseman Radoslav Suchy so hard against the glass that one of the supports broke loose and hit the ice. A portent of things to come? If so, Ovechkin had two more signs to stamp his arrival to the NHL that night – his first two goals of his career, one of them a great one-timer from Jeff Halpern. At the end of that game, there was no doubt: Ovechkin – and the Capitals – had arrived at the next level.
It’s been an Ovechkin-fueled rocket ship ride for the Capitals since, with no sign of stopping.
In hockeydom, the singular prize that matters most is Lord Stanley’s Cup. And over the last five years, the Caps have reached for it time and time again, only to fall critically short. Yes, the Caps have ruled the Southeast’s roost for the last three years, dominating its (admittedly weak) division rivals last year by 38 points. The team acquired more hardware with the President’s Cup, earning a very impressive 121 regular season points. By all rights and appearances, the Caps should have easily had the Stanley Cup parade down Constitution Avenue already.
But then we turn to the playoffs. Critical failures at key moments over the last three years has turned the Caps into the Eastern Conference version of the San Jose Sharks – success in the regular season, but breakdowns when it really mattered in postseason play.
Still, fans of the team have every right to be optimistic for a different outcome this season. It’s the start of a fresh campaign, the talented core of the team remains, and once again, Lord Stanley’s Cup appears to be within reach. Or is it?
This year, the Caps don’t really have a choice to win. They need to.
Three years of breakdowns at nearly the same point in the spring isn’t accidental. It’s a disease. And the only cure this time is to win it all – or at absolute very least attain the Cup Finals. It’s that simple, really: win it all with these guys, who’ve been around the ice together now for roughly three years (more or less), or dismantle chunks of it and start all over again. I, for one, don’t think anyone in the Caps organization – from owner Ted Leonsis on down to the Zamboni driver – thinks the latter is an option. And it’s pretty clear from the fanbase that it’s the first option or nothing.
So does the team have what it takes this time?
Most certainly, yes. Granted, there are still questions that linger; the biggest is how the team will approach the postseason again. But that’s a query that has to wait to be answered. Right now? It’s still all about defense. Again.
Last year, ESPN hockey columnist John Buccigross mentioned to me that the Caps defense certainly wasn’t stellar and the penalty kill was, frankly, atrocious. And he was prescient; the team ranked in the middle of the league in goals against, letting in an average of 2.8 a game. The penalty kill was abysmal for the talent load on the bench: 25th in the league with only a 78.8% success rate. Fortunately, the Caps dominated the league in goals per game with nearly four, and found great success in their power play, leading the league with just over 25%.
The team clearly had a high-powered offense, geared towards winning simply through brute force: putting more goals in the opponent’s net than than the Caps allowed in. And why not? With seven players last year netting 20+ goals on the season (best in the league), the Caps had a solid offensive threat. And before we forget, let’s note that this year? All seven of those players are still on the roster: Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann, and Eric Fehr. Six of those guys had 50 or more points on the season (Fehr had 39) as well. Clearly, the potent and dangerous Caps offense remains here, and that’s a great thing.
Adding to the mix is mid-summer acquisition D.J. King, a gritty forward who promises to give as it’s given to the Capitals forwards. King is a better replacement for the departing Eric Belanger and while he may play a small part in the overall offensive scheme, look for King and last season acquisition Jason Chimera to be in the thick of it when the Caps play much grittier opponents such as Philadelphia, the New York Rangers, and Pittsburgh.
But the defense… It’s not the most solid blue line in the league by any stretch. Mike Green is more of a forward in his play, something great for the power play but less useful in preventing odd man rushes by the opponent. He’s a solid leader on the ice and no one can question his charisma. The Caps also have Jeff Schultz (and his league-leading plus-minus rating), John Erskine, Tom Poti, and Tyler Sloan returning; all solid blue-collar blue liners. What stirs the pot this year is the arrival of young blood in Karl Alzner and John Carlson, both rookies who logged some playing time last season. Both of them showed flashes of brilliance in their calls up from Hershey last year, and the Caps will be relying on them full time, now that Joe Corvo, Brian Pothier, and Shaone Morrisonn have departed.
Is it enough to stop their opponents’ attack this season? Somewhat. The key strategy by the Caps still seems to be “score a lot more than the other guy” and in this, the blue line is adequate to the task. Which is the same that can be said – for the moment – for the goalie tandem.
With Jose “three or more” Theodore gone to Minnesota, the netminding task has fallen squarely on the young duo of Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. Varlamov posted 15 wins in 26 starts last year with a .909 save percentage. While not stellar, it was solid and good enough to keep opponents from getting back into the game. Neuvirth, a two-time Calder Cup veteran in the AHL, is a solid backup, posting 9 wins in 17 starts last year with a .914 save percentage. It’s unclear if Varlamov has solidly won the go-to position; fans shouldn’t be surprised if both goalies end up splitting the season between them. [Late note: Varlamov was placed on injured reserve today due to a nagging injury; he’ll miss the start of the season. Summer acquisition Dany Sabourin is expected to back up Neuvirth for the first game or two.] The upside to such a strategy is that both will get more rest through the season, allowing them to bounce back from any truly bad games, and be in better shape come April. All in all, the Caps are probably in their best shape between the pipes than they’ve been the last few years.
There’s no question, however, that this year is a do-or-die year for not just a few players, but coaches and upper management as well. Coach Bruce Boudreau has had a couple years to settle in and has been steadfast in his high-octane, skate-pass-shoot offense. Is it enough to win it all? This is the year to prove it.
And what about General Manager George McPhee? Arguably one of the best GMs in the league, McPhee was strangely quiet over the summer, making no flashy moves, re-signing key elements, and letting go a few players whom many thought were locks for the new season. (Indeed, the only real highlight of the Caps during the free agent frenzy of the summer was snagging King.) McPhee’s instincts and confidence are very solid (witness the excellent scouting department the Caps have now) – the Caps success these last few years are in no small part representative of it – and all fans can do now is trust in his judgment. If the Cup makes its debut in Washington next summer, McPhee’s legacy here is pretty much assured. If it doesn’t, however…it’s quite possible he may be released to find a new home.
So where does all this leave us?
Confident. At least, for the regular season. The Caps won’t face much competition again from their division. Though Atlanta and Tampa Bay have gotten better, they’re still not on the same elite level as Washington. While perennial rivals Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New Jersey are still quality opponents, the Caps, with their returning core, are most certainly a strong favorite to take the Eastern Conference title once again.
But then comes the postseason, where it really counts the most. This season, more than any other in the franchise’s history to date, is crucial to the future legacy of the team.
Buccigross posed a question to me recently, and it’s a question I think echoes within all Caps fans and even the organization. “When I think of the Caps, I think of… Are they a regular season heavyweight and a playoff lightweight? Is the defensive culture too loose to win a Stanley Cup tournament?” These are questions that can’t be so quickly answered, unfortunately; an agonizing seven months lie between now and the playoffs before we can even begin to look at them with any degree of confidence. One thing is for sure during those seven months of regular season play, however…
Get ready for another Capitals rocket ship ride. Just hope that this time, it doesn’t abort before achieving orbit.
Prediction: 52-18-12; 1st in Southeast, 1st in Eastern Conference…and Stanley Cup Finalists.