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Five Questions Heading Into Training Camp
After last year’s disappointing sweep in the Eastern Conference Semifinals at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, fans in Caps Nation were left stunned trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered season and to once again figure out what went wrong. We felt invincible after beating the New York Rangers in five games and nothing was going to stop us from winning our first Stanley Cup. Why did our team, after finishing our second consecutive year with the highest point total in the Eastern Conference, get eliminated from the playoffs so quickly? With key free agent acquisitions made by General Manager George McPhee, and with the rookie training camp scheduled to start September 10th at Kettler Iceplex, and the veterans slated to report September 17th, I now ask five questions that will be the focal points on this years training camp.
How will the ice time be split between Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth?
On July 2nd, George McPhee showed the NHL how much of a thief he was by getting his hands on the “steal of the offseason” by acquiring Tomas Vokoun as an unrestricted free agent from the Florida Panthers and signing him to a one year contract at $1.5 million. Since becoming the 226th overall pick (9th round) in the 1994 entry draft, he has had a stellar career and has been the backbone of some pretty horrible teams. His career 2.56 goals against average, .917 save percentage, and 44 shutouts have made him to be a force to be reckoned with between the pipes. Vokoun has also been recognized for his efforts by being a two-time all-star selection in 2004 and 2008. He took less money then he was being offered by other teams to come to our nations capital for one reason and one reason only, to win the Stanley Cup. He will get the nod over incumbent starting goaltender Michal Neuvirth, who is coming off an excellent campaign last year. Neuvirth boasted a 2.45 goals against average, .914 save percentage, and 4 shutouts. Their playoff statistics are nearly identical as Vokoun holds a 2.47 goals against average, .922 save percentage, and 1 shutout in 11 games while Neuvirth has a 2.34 goals against average, .912 save percentage, and 1 shutout in 9 games. This year, he will have an amazing opportunity to grow even more as a solid NHL goaltender by having a fellow Czech as a mentor in Vokoun and by the front office bringing back Olaf Kolzig to the organization as an associate goaltending coach. Bruce Boudreau is very skilled at making sure his goaltenders are well rested and not leaning on one goaltender for too long of a period of time, but will Neuvirth regress in his overall development if he sits on the bench for too long and not getting enough ice time, and how quickly is Bruce Boudreau willing to pull Vokoun if he starts to hit a rough patch in the middle of the season?
If Tom Poti returns to the team in time for training camp, how will that affect the salary cap and what lineup implications will that hold for Bruce Boudreau?
Tom Poti missed the majority of last season due to an aggravating groin injury. Most people were under the impression that he was going to retire after last season, or at least start this season on the Long Term Injured Reserve list. However, reports started floating around that Poti was going to be ready in time for training camp. So what does this mean? If he were to be on the Long Term Injury Report list, Tom Poti’s salary would not count against the Capitals salary cap. According to capgeek.com, Poti is scheduled to make $2.875 million for the next two seasons as the Capitals are over the cap by $890,128 this season. If he starts this season on the LTIR, George McPhee does not have to make any changes to the roster or to any players salary, however, if Poti does come back, McPhee will be forced to make a roster move to get his payroll under the cap. Then the question remains, who will be the odd man out to make room? And then there are the roster implications. According to an interview given a few days ago by Bruce Boudreau, Poti’s usual blue line partner, Mike Green, will more than likely be Roman Hamrlik. Hamrlik’s two-way style of play will compliment Green’s more offensive-minded approach. The first defensive pairing is shaping up to be Carlson/Alzner and the third line is looking like Wideman/Schultz or Erskine (Boudreau can interchange the two at any time). Tom Poti needs to let the front office know of his intentions as soon as possible, and if not, there can be grave consequences to it.
Can the Karl Alzner/ John Carson pairing keep developing or will they have a case of the “sophomore jinx”?
Last season, the defensive pairing of John Carlson and Karl Alzner became one of the most lethal young defensive pairings in the NHL. So good, in fact, that they have relegated perennial all-star Mike Green down to the second defensive pairing. The duo combined for 47 points while Carlson was tied for 5th on the team with 30 assists and was 6th on the team with 37 points. On defense, the pair combined for 168 hits and 292 hits, with Carlson leading the team in this statistic with 160 and Alzner coming in third with 132. On July 15th, the team rewarded Alzner for his efforts with a new two year, $2.57 million deal. The team cannot afford another defensive letdown at any point in this season, and a lot of attention will be spent on mentoring and developing them. Can they keep developing to become the scariest defensive pairing in the entire league, or will they regress and leave a major gap in the Caps defense?
How hot is the seat that Bruce Boudreau is sitting in?
After losing to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2009, the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in 2010, and the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2011, many people were calling for the firing of Bruce Boudreau. George McPhee and Ted Leonsis decided to bring him back this coming season, to the chagrin of some. Some, including me, feel that this move was made purely on the fact that there were no other coaches in the talent pool this past offseason that had the same coaching abilities as Coach Boudreau. The general consensus in Caps Nation was that the team was lacking a vocal leader and the grittiness that the team desperately needed. Now with the additions of Vokoun, Hamrlik, Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, and Jeff Halpern, the team finally has that depth and grittiness that we lacked last year. Additionally, this team is one more year older. If Boudreau cannot get this team over the playoff hump this season, will it finally be the straw the broke the back of George McPhee and cause Boudreau to send out his resume to other teams come the offseason?
Can the Capitals exorcise the Ghosts of Playoff Past and actually win the Stanley Cup?
After three consecutive busts in the playoffs, there is a strange aura of ghosts and demons that overshadows Caps Nation. After the 2011 playoffs, a lot of finger pointing went on (lack of a vocal leader, lack of grittiness, team completely shut down in the Tampa Bay series, etc.) The hockey community is starting to believe that the Caps are all bark and no bite: the Caps will destroy you in the regular season but come playoff time the Caps will cower and once again be embarrassed and sent home early. Bruce Boudreau also admitted that he had a personal conversation with Alex Ovechkin at Kettler in which the coach stated that Alex MUST step up and be a vocal leader on this team; that he must fill the role and responsibility that comes with the “C” on the front of his sweater. Coach Boudreau stated that Alex works harder than any other player on the team, but he must start waking up his team and not just standing there trying to placate everyone and not hurt anyone’s feelings. He stated that Ovechkin took the talk to heart and will come to camp on September 17th ready to lead and take control of this team, even if it means calling someone out.
Caps Nation, this is OUR year and OUR team. THIS will be the year that we finally raise a Stanley Cup banner in the Verizon Center and bring the Cup to where it rightfully belongs. The road to the Stanley Cup begins on October 8th at 7 p.m. against the Hurricanes in our backyard. Are you ready?