Who's In: Karl Alzner, D (Draft-2007); Jose Theodore, G (FA-COL)
Who's Out: Matt Cooke, F (FA-PIT); Steve Eminger, D (Trade-PHI); Cristobal Huet, G (FA-CHI); Olaf Kolzig, G (FA-TB)
What's Changed: Last year at this time, the big change in D.C. was in the atmosphere surrounding the team. As we wrote then, "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."
One year later the big change is the addition of Ice Girls in what will be expected from the current Caps squad.
While 2007-08 may not have gone exactly as planned (head coach Glen Hanlon was relieved of his duties in late November, leading to a no-room-for-error dash to the playoffs with eventual Coach of the Year winner Bruce Boudreau at the helm), the team ended up where it wanted to be -- in the playoffs -- finishing atop the Southeast Division, a mere two points ahead of Carolina. Those two points -- just one win over the 82-game regular season -- obviously made a world of difference at the time, but have a similarly sizable impact heading into this season. Had the Caps narrowly missed the post-season last Spring, a playoff berth in 2009 may have been a legitimate team goal. But now carrying with them last April's experience, the first such foray into the NHL's second season for so many on a young Washington team, the 2008-09 Capitals have their sites set higher. As All-Everything winger Alex Ovechkin put it recently, "Washington can do the same as Pittsburgh [did last season], except we'll win the Cup."
Speaking of Ovechkin, if there's one player in the NHL who could craft a fitting encore to one of the top goal-scoring seasons in NHL history, it's the Caps' Great Eight, who was as consistent as he was truly dominant last season... and who just turned 23-years-old two weeks ago. When the NHL handed out it's awards back in June, Ovechkin became the first player in League history to win the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year and the Hart Trophy as MVP within a three-year span, and joined Bobby Orr, Bryan Trottier and Mario Lemieux as the only players to win both over the course of a career (he also became the fifth player to win the Hart, Lester Pearson Trophy (NHLPA Player of the Year) and Art Ross Trophy (scoring champ) and lead the league in goals -- Phil Esposito, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky and Lemieux are the others). But despite the mind-boggling stats, historic achievements and legendary company, Ovechkin's singular focus has always been on winning, and now that he has nearly all of hockey's individual accolades and recognitions on his resume (or in his trophy room, as the case may be) and a contract in place that will keep him in D.C. for thirteen more years, you know what he's gunning for now.
Joining Ovechkin in his quest is a talented and deep group of forwards, including Calder finalist Nicklas Backstrom, who instantly clicked with Ovechkin after being promoted to the top line upon Boudreau's arrival, and who finished out the season with sixty points in 61 games while leading all rookies in assists. Alexander Semin will look to rebound from a disappointing 26-goal campaign (and his 24 goals in his final 47 games would seem to indicate that such a rebound is imminent), and Brooks Laich will try to prove that his breakout 21-goal season wasn't a fluke. Lending veteran leadership and production will be 2008 trade deadline acquisition Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov (plus-28 rating on the top line), Michael Nylander (assuming he isn't traded), and captain Chris Clark, who played just 18 games in 2007-08 due to a groin injury. Add to the mix extraordinary defensive pivots David Steckel and Boyd Gordon, more than a little sandpaper from Donald Brashear and Matt Bradley and wingers with offensive upside in Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann and Chris Bourque and the Capitals have one of the League's top forward corps -- a group that can play it fast and play it tough.
On the blueline, the Caps have another prized youngster coming off a breakthrough season in Mike Green, as explosive a puck-rushing rearguard as there is in the League. Green, a Bruce Boudreau favorite from their days together back in AHL Hershey, caught fire once reunited with his former coach, and ended up leading all NHL blueliners in goals, making him and Ovechkin the first teammates to lead the League in goals by a defenseman and overall since Lemieux and Paul Coffey did it back in 1988-89. "Game Over," as Green became known after potting an NHL-high three overtime goals last season, will now need to live up to the huge (and hugely important) deal he signed this past summer.
Shaone Morrisonn (plus-14 in 55 games under Boudreau), the versatile Tom Poti and the underrated Jeff Schultz round out the Caps' top four defensemen, with Milan Jurcina and John Erskine filling the last two spots... at least, that is, until highly touted Karl Alzner gets the call. Finnish puck mover Sami Lepisto could also find himself in D.C. before too long if he can transition to the NHL game as smoothly as he transitioned to the AHL in his first season on this side of the Atlantic.
Which brings us to the goaltenders. The Caps rode the brilliant netminding of Cristobal Huet (13 GP, 11-2-0, 2 SO, 1.63 GAA, .936 SV%) to the playoffs last Spring, only to see Huet ride that hot streak to Chicago for more money (and years) than the Caps were willing to commit to a guy who has never played 53 games in a season. With former franchise great Olie Kolzig already on his way out of town, the Caps turned to the oft-brilliant and oft-ridiculed Jose Theodore, who is coming off a strong season for Colorado (including a 2.34 GAA and .915 save percentage in the second half) after a couple of awful campaigns coming out of the lockout. He'll be backed up by Brent Johnson, though the team believes that prospect Simeon Varlamov is likely the long-term answer in goal.
Who's On The Hook: Theodore. With nearly the entire team from last year's remarkable run back to ostensibly pick up where they left off, the most significant difference between that team and the one the Caps will ice on Opening Night is in goal, and the new guy is as big a question mark as you'll find at his position -- will the Caps get Jose Theodore the Vezina and Hart winner or will they get Jose Theodore the punchline?
Then again, the Caps went 23-13-7 (a 98-point pace) from the day Bruce Boudreau took over behind the bench last season until Huet was acquired. Over that span, their number one goalie (Kolzig) went 17-9-6 with a 3.02 GAA and save percentage of .886. The Caps' underappreciated team defense give Theodore every chance to put up big numbers (as Huet did), and if Jose returns to anything resembling his Vezina form, look out. But if the team starts dropping a bunch of 5-4 games with Number Sixty in net, well, look out then too.
Where They'll Finish: Under Bruce Boudreau last season, the Caps were 37-17-7, which works out to a 109-point 82-game pace. Assuming that the team doesn't dig itself a hole similar to the one in which they found themselves last Thanksgiving, it will be difficult to re-create that level of intensity and desperation on a nightly basis.
That 37-17-7 mark is reset to 0-0-0 now. Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green have no goals, Nicklas Backstrom and Michael Nylander have no assists. The Southeast Division is Washington's for the taking, but it won't simply be given to them -- they're going to have to want it on a nightly basis. But given the leadership on the ice and behind the bench, that shouldn't be a problem. As Brooks Laich said, "We think we can be good. We aren't afraid of anybody. We're very curious to see how good we can be." Our guess? Repeat Southeast Division Champs, to begin with.
Blogs To Watch: Japers' Rink (written by yours truly), Off Wing Opinion (by fellow FanHouser Eric McErlain), On Frozen Blog, The Peerless Prognosticator, Dump n' Chase, A View from the Cheap Seats, Ted's Take and really any of the other fine blogs listed here.
Gratuitous YouTube Embed: The 2007-08 Washington Capitals gave their fans something to believe. Perhaps the 2008-09 version will give them something to celebrate:
Bruce Bennett, Getty Images
Doug Benc, Getty Images
Gerry Broome, AP
Dave Reginek, Getty Images
Eliot J. Schechter, Getty Images
Dave Reginek, Getty Images
Richard Wolowicz, Getty Images
Andre Ringuette, Getty Images
Dave Sandford, Getty Images
Bjorn Larsson Rosvall, SCANPIX / AP