The Washington Capitals dominated the 2009-2010 NHL regular season. They won the Southeast Division title by almost 40 points and finished almost 20 points ahead of the second ranked New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference standings. They won the President’s Trophy for the first time in team history, finishing eight points ahead of their nearest rivals, the San Jose Sharks. Their rampage through the league saw them win 14 straight games in January and February and head into the playoffs as a huge favourite to win it all. And then…. Halak’d. The Montreal Canadiens stunned the Capitals in the first round and led them into a summer of disappointment and reflection.
The Capitals did not make too many offseason additions. Goaltender Dany Sabourin was brought in by Washington, but he is expected to spend most of the season with the AHL’s Hershey Bears. The same is true for most of the organization’s newest players such as defenseman Brian Fahey and wingers Kyle Greentree and Brian Willsie. D.J. King, who was acquired in a trade with St. Louis may end up seeing limited time in the big leagues this year. By heading into the season with a vast majority of the same players that dominated last season and stalled in the playoffs, Capitals management is sending a clear message to their players: You have what it takes to win, now do it.
The Capitals blue line will look a little bit thinner this year. Shaone Morrisonn was unable to agree to terms with the Caps and will suit up for the Buffalo Sabres this season. Joe Corvo decided to return to the Carolina Hurricanes and Milan Jurcina headed out to Long Island. On offense, Eric Belanger went through a messy divorce with the team and will play with in the desert with the Coyotes. Prospect Alexandre Giroux is now in the Edmonton Oilers organization and AHL star Chris Bourque left for the KHL. Goaltender Jose Theodore, who has struggled with inconsistency for several seasons, remains a free agent and will not be returning to the Caps.
The Capitals offense is the envy of the league. Last year they had seven players record more than 50 points last season and only four players – Tyler Sloan, Jay Beagle, Boyd Kane and Andrew Gordon – with negative plus/minus ratings. Out of those four, only Sloan played more than 10 games. Washington is the kind of team that can quickly turn a 5-2 deficit into a 6-5 lead.
Of course captain Alexander Ovechkin is the offensive star on the team, but he is far from the only Capital that can put the puck in the net. Nicklas Backstrom is quickly becoming one of the finest centers in the game. His 101 points landed him fourth in the NHL in scoring. He is an incredibly gifted playmaker, a strong two way player and a perfect center for Ovechkin. Mike Knuble has proven to be a good complement beside Ovechkin and Backstrom as well. The veteran winger recorded 53 points in 69 games with the Caps and his net-front presence is one of the keys to Washington’s offense.
Outside of the team’s first line, the Capitals have considerable depth. Brooks Laich put up career numbers last season, primarily through hard work and grit. His leadership ability is second only to his tire-changing skills. Alexander Semin is a dynamic offensive player, but his terrible performance in the playoffs has some questioning his longterm roll with the team.
If the team has an offensive weakness, it is at center. Behind Backstrom, the second line center role could be up for grabs this year as no one has truly defined himself in that slot.
On the blue line, Mike Green is one if the finest offensive defensemen in the league. He once again lead all blue liners in scoring and was nominated for the Norris Trophy. Like almost every Capitals player, his effort in the 2010 postseason has been criticized.
The Capitals defense will be quite a bit younger this season. The departures of Shaone Morrisonn, Joe Corvo and Milan Jurcina will mean increased playing time for players like John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Tyler Sloan. Returning Capitals Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz, winner of the NHL Plus/Minus Award, provide defensive stability for the Caps.
One potential issue in Washington could be the lack of a strong shutdown defenseman who can play big minutes for the team. The Capitals offense definitely outshines their defense which lands them in a lot of high-scoring games.
The Capitals let veteran Jose Theodore walk this summer, leaving the team’s goaltending situation in the hands of Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. Theodore, for all of his struggles over the years, had a 30-7-7 record last season but was once again yanked in favour of Varlamov in the playoffs. Both Varlamov and Neuvirth appear to be in contention for the starting job in Washington, so the two goaltenders will likely be battling it out for a while to try and secure the number one role. Varlamov perhaps has a slight edge over Neuvirth and will be given the first chance to start most nights.
In case of injury or breakdown, Dan Sabourin will be waiting in the wings.
Best Case Scenario
The Capitals win the Stanley Cup. After a shocking first round exit last year, nothing short of holding the richest prize in the game over their heads will be good enough for Washington. The team has a roster of talented, enthusiastic players with all of the ability in the world. They should be able to use last year’s disaster as a motivating force going forward.
Worst Case Scenario
The Capitals cement themselves as the San Jose Sharks of the Eastern Conference. Forward Matt Bradley recently noted that “this year is kind of do or die” and he is definitely right. If the Caps once again follow a strong regular season performance with an early playoff elimination it could be enough for management to consider making major changes.
Washington’s AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, are the reigning Calder Cup champions. The championship is the team’s second in a row and third in five years. Several of the organization’s top prospects, who have honed their skills in Hershey, look to get serious playing time in Washington this year. The goaltending duo of Varlamov and Neuvirth and defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner will likely all have NHL jobs this year, as will center Marcus Johansson. Mathieu Perreault could also see himself in the nation’s capital for at least part of the season if all goes well for the speedy center.
All Eyes On…
Though some stand out more than others, no one player is responsible for the Capitals regular season success and no individual is the reason for last year’s playoff failure. If the Washington Capitals wish to succeed this season, they will have to do it together as a team.
With very few exceptions, every player on the roster put in a disappointing performance during the 2010 postseason. Most of those players will be returning this year. The talent is there and, likely, so is the motivation. In 2011 the entire Washington Capitals franchise will be under a microscope. Will they finally break through and contend for the Cup or will they once again head into a summer of disappointment?
Finally it’s our time now
These are the times that we’ll remember
Breaking the city’s heart together
Finally it’s our time now
It’s our time now
- Plain White T’s “Our Time Now”