- Will the season that started at Kettler end in a Stanley Cup celebration? (Photo: TBD Staff)
The Washington Capitals haven't made it easy to forget last year. That's exactly the idea.
Of the 23 players on the Capitals roster that will open the season against the Atlanta Thrashers tonight, 19 were with the team last year, which ended in a stunning series loss to Montreal in the conference quarterfinals. Only forwards Marcus Johansson, Matt Hendricks, D.J. King, and backup goaltender Dany Sabourin are new faces. Even more indicative of the organization's commitment to stability: 13 of the 23 were on the roster in 2007-8, a season that ended in the first of three straight Game 7 losses on home ice, to Philadelphia in the conference quarterfinals.
"We'd rather not bring in outside guys," General Manager George McPhee said this week at the Capitals media luncheon. "We'd rather go with the people we know. We had 121 points last year. Just because a goalie got hot against us for three straight games doesn't mean you break this down."
One thing is certain: Capitals fans won't be terrorized by Jaroslav Halak, who sent the Capitals to the driving range several weeks prior to expectations last year (He was traded to St. Louis over the summer). But the Capitals are beset by a large question that will not be properly answered for at least another seven months. Is this just another highly touted regular season team that can't take their game to the next level? Are they San Jose East? Will "Bruce Boudreau's Capitals" be mentioned, fairly or unfairly, in the same breath as "Roger Neilson's Rangers" or "Don Cherry's Bruins" when listing great teams that couldn't quite get over the final hurdle? We won't know for sure until the calender flips to 2011, but in the meantime, there's still 82 games to play.
"In some ways," said McPhee this week, "we don't care about winning the division or winning the President's trophy. All I care about is getting to the playoffs."
Whether this forward group can score 313 goals in a season again is to be determined, but they certainly possess the talent and depth at all three forward spots to come close to last year's mark. Leading the way is, of course Alex Ovechkin, three-time defending winner of the NHLPA's Ted Lindsay Award, and former winner of the Hart Trophy. The Russian start scored 50 goals and dished 59 assists last season. He, along with his linemate Nicklas Backstrom (33 goals, 68 assists) will be expected to reach similar levels of productivity this year. Ovechkin's fellow countryman, Alexander Semin (40 goals, 44 assists), was last year's third-leading scorer on the team and will be playing for a big free-agent contract this year. The ebb and flow of his production will also be interesting to watch. Indefatigable veteran Mike Knuble (29 goals, 24 assists) had a grand old time making a living in front of goal last season, and can be counted on for deflections and putting away rebounds.
Other fowards to look out for include Brooks Laich (25 goals, 34 assists) and Tomas Fleischmann (23 goals, 28 assists), who last season shrugged off criticism that he wasn't a natural center and anchored the team's second line. Another eye-catching prospect is the Swedish rookie forward Johansson. The center, who just turned 20 this week, is trying to imitate his countryman Backstrom in making the jump directly from the Swedish Elitserien to the NHL. He's made the roster out of training camp on the basis of his speed, good hands, and what Bruce Boudreau called his "defensive upside."
If Fleischmann can continue his good center play from last season, and if Johansson can show that he's fully adjusted to the North American game, this group of forwards has the potential to put up some truly eye-popping numbers.
Here's where things start to get iffy for the Capitals. The newly-resigned Tom Poti and rookie John Carlson will start the season together after putting in very solid performances in last year's playoffs. A lot of eyes will be on Mike Green, who struggled in the playoffs and had to deal with questions about his mentality and post season preparation. But the biggest question mark will be Green's defensive partner Jeff Schultz, who will be under pressure to duplicate his solid performance of last season. Tyler Sloan, John Erskine, and Karl Alzner will round out this group, who hopes that the improvement of last year will be big enough to get the Capitals over the hump.
In the Capitals' eyes, the time has come to take the training wheels off the duo of Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. The two started a combined 43 games behind Jose Theodore last season, and now that the Capitals have cut ties with Theodore, the onus is on these two to prove themselves at the NHL level.
Both have had troubles with injuries (Varlamov has already been placed on the IR this week), but both also have big-game experience (Varlamov went 3-3 with a 2.41 GAA in last year's playoffs and Neuvirth has two Calder Cups under his belt with the Hershey Bears). Given the injury-prone nature of both goaltenders, Capitals fans could see a lot of Sabourin, who will bounce between Washington and Hersey, but is also a proven NHL goaltender and a very good signing to shore up goaltending depth.
The Eastern Conference is unpredictable this year, but the Capitals should be able to take advantage of the relative weakness of the Southeastern Division and win their fourth division title at a canter. Once in the playoffs as a top-three seed, the Capitals should be able to make a deep playoff run. But that's been said before. All will be revealed in seven months.