Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Capitals Season Preview

After breaking down the 30-team NHL, let's take an in-depth look at what could happen around here, as the Capitals look to take a step further towards the Stanley Cup this season.

Coming in with high expectations, how to the Capitals stack up, and how close is this team to truly bringing a title back to Washington? Here's a position-by-position breakdown of what to expect, and what might unfold over the next six (or seven, or eight) months.

Goaltending: Probably the most intriguing position for the Capitals right now is in between the pipes, as while Michal Neuvirth's injury cleared up the goaltending situation and ended up earning him a trip to Hershey, it was pretty clear the two netminders the Caps were going to go with at the outset.

Jose Theodore, while losing his No. 1 spot in the playoffs last spring, still has one year left on his expensive deal, and could become an interesting bargaining chip as the season progresses. If the team needs to clear cap space at the trade deadline and Theodore gets ice time, they can parlay him into a deadline deal where his contract is much more appealing to a trade partner, and that means barring a meltdown by the veteran, he will see decent time in net.

Semyon Varlamov is clearly the future of the franchise, and he will get his chance to take over the role this season. Varlamov has certainly been impressive in his brief NHL career, and his flexibility has been the reason he takes away a lot of the lower part of the net. However, as the Penguins discovered in their playoff series last spring, he is vulnerable to high shots under the crossbar, and he will need to have to take those away in order to prevent having shooters just pick him apart with a high shot.

Michal Neuvirth will start the season in Hershey, but he could get his chance if one of the top two is hurt, or if the team elects to trade Theodore at the deadline. For the time being, look for the top two to rotate, with a decent possibility that could chance come March.

Defense: While the Capitals like to tout their depth on the blueline, it is a bit deceiving as the team has a Norris Trophy candidate in Mike Green, they also have some bottom-tier defensemen in the mix and perhaps the only thing they didn't do was acquire another top pairing blueliner to improve their chances this spring.

Mike Green certainly showed off his offensive skill last year, scoring 31 goals and 42 assists despite missing 14 games with injury. However, by the time the playoffs ended, Green was the walking wounded, unable to take the body during the Penguins series and hurting Washington's chances. Now, Green will look not only to duplicate his offensive showing, but show voters - and the Canadian Olympic team - that he can be more than a one-dimensional defenseman.

Tom Poti is coming off an injury-filled season where he could dress in 52 of 82 games and the normal power-play quarterback saw his numbers suffer and eventually lost his role on the first-team extra-man unit to Green. Poti is another good puck-moving defenseman with some questions in his own end, but clearly not with the finishing power of Green. Poti, who recorded 27 assists two years ago, only registered 10 last year and the Capitals will need him to step up this campaign.

John Erskine, who looked absolutely lost in the Flyers' playoff series two years ago, looked much better in last year's postseason, but he clearly doesn't quite have the speed to hang with the speedier clubs anymore. He will get more ice time this season as well this year since he takes over the tough-guy role vacated by Donald Brashear's departure, so he certainly will have a more important role in certain games.

Brian Pothier will also be an interesting case this year. Oft-injured since coming over from Ottawa a couple of years back, Pothier hopes to stay healthy for the season and also can provide some puck movement, although he isn't quite the crease-clearing role the Capitals are lacking on the blueline.

The mix of Milan Jurchina, Shaone Morrisonn and Tyler Sloan fill out the back end of the blueline, and the youngsters certainly have a chance to move up on the depth chart, all have been spotty so far on blueline.

Of course, Karl Alzner and John Carlson are waiting in the wings in Hershey, more because of their young status rather than a talent deficiency. Alzner made it down to the final week, but his solid but unspectacular style didn't quite make him stick in Washington, but he should be the first player called up should any of the team's defensemen get hurt.

Carlson, on the other hand, will probably get some time to get seasoned in Hershey before possibly getting called up later in the year barring a rash of injuries.

Forwards: The team's explosive offense got even more dangerous this offseason, as a critical element the team was lacking was filled in the summer with the addition of Mike Knuble from the Flyers.

Of course, the straw that stirs the drink is Alexander Ovechkin, coming off back-to-back MVP seasons and certainly in a good spot to become the first player since Wayne Gretzky to win three consecutive Hart Trophies. He hasn't scored less than 46 goals in his four seasons, and 121 regular-season goals in his past two campaigns. The key for Ovechkin is probably his health, although even an injured Ovechkin was pretty effective in last year's postseason, but clearly that would be the one huge factor if for some reason he sustains a serious injury.

Alexander Semin is in a unique spot, as his contract expires after this season and he may be out of the Capitals' price range next year since he figures to get a healthy raise from the $5,000,000 he's earning this year. He was perhaps the Caps' best player for a time last year, but also has a nasty tendency to vanish at times, which is frustrating for the coaching staff since when he's on, he can be almost as dominant as No. 8.

Knuble was a very underrated acquisition for Washington, but he fits the mold of what the team sorely needs, a player who can crash the net and isn't afraid of dirty goals. One deficiency the offense had was it spent too much time around the perimeter when Ovechkin was the one most willing to crash the crease, but now they have another forward capable of doing so on the power play when Ovechkin plays the point.

Nicklas Backstrom's sophomore season didn't have a slump, as he made a nice 19-point improvement over a good rookie campaign, and clearly his progression should continue as he could flirt with the 100-point barrier this season with assist totals that could reach the 70s and perhaps fight for the league leader in that category. Of course, there will be added time for Backstrom to skate this season, as he will be part of Sweden's Olympic squad.

Another underrated pickup could be Brendan Morrison, who is a four-time 20-goal scorer, but has been hampered by injuries in the past couple of seasons (and also missed time this preseason due to injury). The last full season Morrison was healthy was 2006-07, where he notched 51 points in 82 games, and he has played 120 games in the two seasons since. If he can stay healthy, he is a valuable depth forward and is capable of putting in a key goal where needed.

Brooks Laich also looks to build on back-to-back 20-goal campaigns, scoring a career-best 53 points last season and added seven points during the playoffs. Laich is another forward that the Caps hope can make progression this season and perhaps make a run at being a 30-goal scorer, although with the talented forwards the Caps have, he'd need to make the most of what figures to be somewhat limited ice time.

Thomas Fleischmann and Eric Fehr will begin the season on the injured list, but the Capitals do have some flexibility to fill in for those two capable forwards for a short period of time - although clearly, it will make for an interesting decision once those two are healthy enough to return.

Chris Clark returns as captain with something to prove, as the jury's still out if the veteran has fully recovered from an injury suffered two seasons ago. Clark's brightest moment came paired with Ovechkin a couple of seasons back, but lately, he's been looking slower and less effective, even as a checking forward. Clark only registered six points in 32 games last year, and Washington will need more from him this year to justify using a roster spot on him.

The other checking roles fall to Matt Bradley and David Steckel, who will need to improve on a combined -3, most likely by becoming a bit more of a threat in the other end as well. Too many times last year, the Caps were bottled up in their own end, and it might behoove them to create a bit more of a threat up front to keep the other team's line more honest.

The white elephant is Michael Nylander, who certainly is in an awkward positon as the team had hoped to move his contract, but without skating a single minute of the postseason, his trade value is virtually nil and his cap hit will limit the Capitals' ability to make a deadline move, unless they decide to move a player like Theodore.

The Nylander situation on Wednesday cost the Caps the services of Chris Bourque, who was waived to squeeze the team under the salary cap and claimed by the Penguins. Had George McPhee found a taker - either in the NHL or Europe - it certainly would have given the Caps more flexibility, but now, the team really will be limited in movements, just like last season.

Overall: The Capitals enter 2009-10 with heightened expectations and barring a Biblical rash of injuries, unlike past seasons, there's little doubt this will be a playoff team.

Washington's major obstacle for the Southeast Division title will be the Carolina Hurricanes, who have proven to be a hot-and-cold contender who at times can be a tremendous team, but other times turn in puzzling efforts. But Washington this year perhaps is even better than last year's addition, as the addition of Mike Knuble certainly negates the loss of Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov, with the only real question coming in the capabilities of Varlamov and Theodore in the postseason.

The team's early schedule is pretty difficult as well, with only one of their first seven games coming against a non-playoff team from last year, including games at Boston and Detroit, and could prove a barometer of how the team will stack up against some of the other best in the league.

Of course, the problem that limited the Capitals last season with a lack of flexibility with the salary cap could prove to be an issue, but I'd expect Theodore will be moved towards the deadline if that's the case if there's no successful resolution of the Nylander situation. If they move him then, they'd free up some money to pick up a player themselves, since regardless, Theodore's contract will be gone and Nylander's contract will allow them to trade or release him over the summer.

Washington also is a serious contender for the No. 1 seed overall in the East, likely with Philadelphia and Boston taking their respective divisions. The Flyers could prove to be a tough team to catch, as they are built for a good regular season (although the jury's still out how Ray Emery will fare when the pressure's on in April). Boston likely takes a bit of a step back this season, but they're still the best team in a fairly weak Northeast Division.

So look for the Capitals to enter the playoffs as a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the East, and then looking for a couple of favorable matchups to see if the team can at least reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1997-98, as Washington is quite capable of at least going that far in the playoffs. Anything beyond that is possible, but the Caps likely will need to add an impact defenseman and get a more consistent performance from whatever goaltender is playing at that point to advance further in the postseason.

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