NHL Season Preview: Washington Capitals
Who's Out: Kris Beech, C (FA-CBJ); Alexandre Giroux, C/W (FA-ATL); Bryan Muir, D (FA-TOR); Jiri Novotny, C (FA-CBJ)
What's Changed: The atmosphere surrounding the team -- it's once again fun to be a Washington Capital and a Washington Capitals fan. After a handful of decidedly lean years, players and management alike can barely contain smiles (if they even bother trying to) as they prepare for the season that lies ahead.
Gone are the days when free agents would avoid D.C., if those days ever really existed in the first place. Now, premier players like Michael Nylander are taking less money to play in the nation's capital than they could get in more storied hockey cities and players like Chris Clark are quick to sign extensions to stay in town, rather than test free agency.
Gone are the days when the team's practice facility would raise an ECHLer's eyebrow and was a long distance phone call away from the home arena. Now the Caps have the League's premiere training facility, a beautiful $42-million facility from which one can see the Washington Monument, and players ended their summer vacations early just to get back in town and on this new sheet of ice.
Even the days of depressing (and marginally-legible) black uniforms and a swooping eagle or Capitol dome logo are history, replaced with a return to red, white and blue and a new twist on an old favorite wordmark.
In short, the organization has undergone a complete makeover, one that symbolically tells the rest of the League what owner Ted Leonsis put more bluntly recently -- the rebuild is over, it's time to start working towards competing for a championship.
The reasons for optimism are many, but they start with the offense, and the offense starts with Alexander Ovechkin. After "struggling" through a "sophomore slump" in which he scored "only" 46 goals (and was a miserable minus-19), Ovechkin will, for the first time in his NHL career, be surrounded by legitimate playmakers. Whoever ends up centering the charismatic Russian -- be it Nylander or Ovechkin's Team Russia linemate, Viktor Kozlov -- it will be a tremendous step up from Dainius Zubrus, AO's converted pivot for most of his first two years in the League. Throw into the mix the acquisition of a puckmoving defenseman and powerplay quarterback in Poti, and it all should add up to a "bounceback" year for number eight.
Of course, the Caps are blessed with not one but two supremely talented Russian Alexes on the left wing, and Alex Semin, coupled with Ovechkin, gave Washington the third-highest goal-scoring teammates in the League a year ago (interestingly, behind a pair of other Southeast Division duos -- Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis in Tampa and Marian Hossa and Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta). As ridiculous as it may sound, Sasha Semin might actually be more skilled than the team's better-known Alex, armed with an elite wrist-shot and puck-handling skills that can make even veteran defensemen look like traffic cones. Whereas Ovechkin is just as happy going through a defenseman as going around him, Semin could create distance between himself and a 6'4", 230-pound defenseman in a phone booth, and with that wrister, giving him any room in the offensive zone often leaves goalies fishing the puck out of the back of the net. Semin is prone to taking bad penalties and sleepwalks through uninspired stretches, but if Kris Beech was your center, you might have motivation issues too. Hopefully for the Caps Semin's commitment will improve as the talent around him does.
But even the best goal-scorers need help, and heading into last offseason, the Caps knew they needed to get stronger down the middle, especially on the top two lines. They had Swedish wunderkind Nicklas Backstrom (the team's first round pick, fourth overall in 2006) set to make his NHL debut, but they certainly didn't want to heap the pressures of centering the first-line on the 19-year-old Swede, so they went out and signed Michael Nylander in one of the summer's better dramas. Truth be told, for a number of reasons, the Caps would have been hard-pressed to find a player more perfectly-suited to their needs. Nylander centered former Cap Jaromir Jagr last year in New York and returns to D.C. for a second tour of duty with the opportunity to set up a sniper or two -- what more could a slick playmaker ask for?
In addition to the Nylander acquistion, in order to bolster their top six forwards the Caps signed the well-traveled Kozlov. He is coming off a strong year on Long Island, which included a career-best 25 goals. His versatility (he can play all three forward positions, though he is weak in the faceoff circle) and potential chemistry with the Caps' top two snipers (in addition to playing with Ovechkin in Turin during the 2006 Olympics, Kozlov centered Semin for Tolyatti Lada in 2004-05) made him an attractive free agent target for Washington, and GM George McPhee got his man. Kozlov is a good passer and excellent in the shootouts -- an area in which the Caps struggled mightily last year (to the tune of 1-11, scoring on only 12.5% of their shot attempts while surrendering goals on 55% of the opposition's attempts). Oh, and Kozlov has had success centering an uber-talented Russian winger in the past. At the moment, it looks as if Kozlov will break camp as the man in the middle on the top line, but knowing that he can play center or wing on either of the top two lines is nothing but a good thing for head coach Glen Hanlon.
Joining Ovechkin and Kozlov on the top line (at least to start the season) will be Tomas Fleischmann, a 23-year-old Czech who has little left to prove at the AHL level, but needs to show that he can stick in the NHL. Fleischmann, acquired from Detroit along with the picks that the Caps used to draft Mike Green and Luke Lynes in exchange for Robert Lang back in the February of 2004, came to training camp without a contract and earned one -- along with a spot on the top line -- so the hopes for him are high.
Speaking of high hopes, Backstrom is the highest Caps-drafted center since Bobby "The Can't Miss Kid" Carpenter all the way back in 1981, and, with apologies to Brian Sutherby, likely will become the first Caps draftee to make a real impact for the team at that position since at least Steve Konowalchuk, more than 15 years ago. That said, the gifted passer will likely start the season as the second-line right wing as he acclimates himself to the North American game.
The third line should provide the Caps with both shut-down capability and a decent amount of offense, as left wing Matt Pettinger (a 20-goal scorer two years ago who never really seemed 100% healthy last year) and Chris Clark (a 30-goal scorer last year playing opposite Ovechkin on the top line, who is everything you could want in a captain) will flank the defensive-minded Boyd Gordon, who came into his own as a checker last year, as evidenced by his team-leading plus-10 rating. The trio provide the Caps with their best checking line since Steve Konowalchuk, Jeff Halpern and Ulf Dahlen did the job around the turn of this century. Of course, if the top line as constituted plays a less-than-acceptable amount defense, Clark could move back up there, with Fleischmann headed to the press box and a guy like Brooks Laich or Dave Steckel filling in on the third line.
Rounding out the forwards (and helping to maintain order) will be some combination of tough guy Donald Brashear, checkers Laich and Steckel, and bangers Brian Sutherby, Ben Clymer and Matt Bradley.
With three lines capable of chipping in offense (and don't forget that the "CBS Line" of Clymer, Bradley and Sutherby lit the lamp 37 times in 2005-06), the Caps should score plenty of goals. The question, then, is, "Can they score more than they allow on most nights?" and a key to answering that question lies in an emerging blueline, led by Tom Poti, Shaone Morrisonn, Milan Jurcina and Brian Pothier.
OK, stop laughing. Poti, the Caps "other" big offseason acquisition, has shed his "Pokecheck Poti" nickname in most circles outside of Manhattan and, since the lockout, has posted a plus-15 rating. But his real strength lies in his ability to run the powerplay, something no one on Washington was able to adequately accomplish last year. Poti plays a ton of minutes in all situations, which will allow other members of the Caps D-corps to play roles for which they're better-suited. In other words, Poti brings more to Washington than will show up on his personal stat sheet... but don't be surprised if he helps himself to a career-best season along the way.
Morrisonn, acquired from Boston in the Spring of 2004, has become Washington's most reliable defensive defenseman and isn't yet 25-years-old. Perhaps most impressive, statistically, is the fact that in his two years as a full-timer in D.C., he has accumulated a plus-10 rating -- not bad for a guy playing big minutes on a team that gave up 120 more goals than it scored during that span.
Like Morrisonn, Jurcina is a 24-year-old former Bruin (acquired for a song last February) with great size and good mobility. As "Juice" heads into his third NHL season, he will be counted on to show more of what he showed in his successful 30-game audition with Washington, and less of what got him shipped out of Beantown. And speaking of enormous Slovak Bruins rearguards, in case you're wondering what Zdeno Chara's second NHL season looked like, Big Z had 2 goals, 7 assists and was minus-27. Jurcina had 4 goals, 8 assists and was even this past season.
The other (and somewhat forgotten) top four blueliner is Brian Pothier, last year's big offseason acquistion who was thrust into a "number one defenseman" role for which he was ill-equipped. As a result, he became a bit of a whipping-boy amongst the fans and had a forgettable first season in D.C. But with the arrival of Poti, "Potsy" will be asked to do less, play fewer minutes and ease into a role for which he's better-suited, namely "second pairing defenseman."
Past those four, there are likely three, maybe four spots (two on the ice and one or two in the press box) up for grabs. John Erskine proved to be a good penalty-killer and part-time enforcer in limited minutes and might have the inside track on one of those spots, dressing more often when the Caps are facing a particularly fiesty opponent. The others will come down to youngsters Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, frequent scratch Steve Eminger and Josef Boumedienne, who has returned from Europe to possibly quarterback the second powerplay unit. Green and Schultz can be sent to the AHL without having to clear waivers (and Schultz is likely to be sent down, in part for that reason, while Green is unlikely to join him, thanks to a very strong camp), but it's anyone's guess as to who gets a sweater on opening night, and a trade (Eminger is the most frequently mentioned bait) is certainly not out of the question.
Which brings us to the men behind the masks, namely Olie Kolzig and Brent Johnson. Kolzig, a former Vezina winner, is the team's unofficial captain and longest-tenured player. He is coming off a season in which his save percentage was an impressive .910. Unfortunately, Kolzig saw his total games played decline for the sixth consecutive season -- not an overly encouraging stat for a 37-year-old netminder. But with less rubber likely heading his way this year and more meaningful games to play later in the season, "Olie the Goalie" should be good for 60-65 games in 2007-08. On Kolzig's nights off, the net will be patroled by Brent Johnson, who hasn't been as bad as his numbers since coming to Washington.
Who's On The Hook: The media may say Ovechkin, the fans may say McPhee and Kolzig would no doubt say Kolzig, but I think it's Hanlon. Leonsis has opened his checkbook, McPhee has written some checks and the talent he has drafted has matured, so the pieces are there for Hanlon to make it all work. A powerplay that finished in the bottom-third of the League last year could be blamed on a lack of personnel, but no longer. A team that struggled to hold leads and win games could be explained away by inexperience, but that reasoning is quickly losing its validity as skaters barely old enough to drink legally in the States have multiple NHL seasons under their belts. It's up to Hanlon to show that he can not only shepherd a young team through tough teams, but coach a talented squad to success.
Where They'll Finish: The Southeast Division probably has the most top-to-bottom parity (read: is the most mediocre) in hockey, and honestly, you could make a reasonable argument for any of the five teams as division winners (or losers). So here's the argument for the Caps: only Carolina has a better top-nine forwards, only Florida has a better number one goalie and only a healthy Tampa has a better top-four defensemen. And here's the kicker -- the Caps have tons of cap room, an owner willing to spend and prospects to burn should they need a piece or two at some point.
You can look at all of the smaller reasons the Caps and their fans are smiling this Fall, but they'll all add up to one big reason in the Spring -- a Southeast Division Championship.
Blogs To Watch: Japers' Rink (written by yours truly), Off Wing Opinion (by fellow FanHouser Eric McErlain), Dump n' Chase, On Frozen Blog, Ted's Take (Leonsis's musings), The Peerless Prognosticator and any of the other blogs listed here.
Gratuitous YouTube Embed: For Caps fans, the 1998 playoff run is as good as it has gotten... so far.