(Photo by Caps Outsider) Washington area sports fans are walking pretty tall...
Around the NHL in 30 Days: Washington Capitals
Okay, folks, you’ve seen the rest of the Fansided Network write these articles, now it’s time to preview your 2011-12 Stanley Cup Champions, the Washington Capitals! (Don’t miss yesterday’s from last season’s overachievers, the Vancouver Canucks.)
It takes less than a glance at the Capitals’ offense to know Washington is a Cup-contending team. Cup-contending, but not necessarily Cup-winning.
General manager George McPhee’s moves this past summer were made in expectation of changing that, and if everything goes well, he may succeed.
The organization let go of a number of players: Jason Arnott, Matt Bradley, Eric Fehr, Boyd Gordon, Andrew Gordon, Marco Sturm, and less notably, Brian Willsie. Statistically, the seven represent a loss of 78 points (based on last season).
Enter center Jeff Halpern and wingers Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward. Among their former teams; Montreal, Chicago, and Nashville, respectively; the three combined for 91 points. So on paper, everything so far works out for the Caps.
There is, however, the center-factor.
Nicklas Backstrom will remain as the top center, with Marcus Johansson expected to come in second. (Note that though Backstrom may be on the second line, it is more about balance than declining abilities). Though Johansson and Halpern had a basically equal output last season (27 and 26 points) Johansson has the youth and speed that put Halpern into a third line situation.
Of course, things will be a bit more complicated. In a good way.
Should Johansson fall into a sophomore slump or should Halpern not live up to expectations, both Brooks Laich and Matt Hendricks are there to buoy the boat. And though Hockey’s Future ranked Washington low in terms of prospect depth, youngster Cody Eakin and not-so-youngster Mathieu Perreault* are ready to provide some support, and possibly take a spot.
The wing position remains strong, with Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin* and Jason Chimera on the left and Mike Knuble, Brouwer and Ward on the right. Ovechkin and Semin should continue to put up big numbers barring serious injury, with Ward likely making a mark in that arena. Laich of course, may switch to center.
Just as important is the grit that has been added on the ice. Chimera and Knuble are well-known for their blue-collar style, and key in Brouwer’s addition is not just his scoring potential but also a bit of a fighting reputation. If Washington has any hope of getting past the largely intact champion Boston Bruins, they’ll need that and a lot more.
Expect wingers DJ King* and Jay Beagle* to play more of a filler role especially with Laich able to fit in there as well.
The only offensive problem for the Caps is the unpredictability of reality.
Who will get injured and how seriously? How will the new players adjust to the system? Is there a slump in store for anyone?
*Prime trade material
A major Achillies’ heel for the Capitals last season was the blue line. It became so bad that Bruce Boudreau was forced to change the teams system from the run and gun offense that everyone was accustomed to a more trap defensive system. Because of this, the Caps ended the regular season in 4th for goals against per game (2.33), tied for 2nd in penalty kill percentage (85.6%), and 9th in shots allowed per game (29.0).
Injuries also plagued the defense with Tom Poti (groin), Mike Green (concussion), and Dennis Wideman (compartmental hematoma) all missing significant time for the Capitals. However, the emergence of Karl Alzner and John Carlson made them one of the most feared young defensive pairings in the NHL.
McPhee also used the free agency period to sign veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik who played for Montreal last season. Carlson and Alzner figure to be the top defensive pairing going into the season while Green and Hamrlik would be a good fit for the second pairing.
The third pairing is shaping up to look like it will be Wideman with Jeff Schultz and John Erskine interchanging to fit the situation of the game.
If Green and Wideman can stay healthy while Carlson and Alzner can play up to expectations, this will be one of the best defenses in the league this upcoming year.
On July 1st, the Capitals traded Semyon Valarmov to Colorado for a first round draft pick in 2012 and second round draft pick in 2012 or 2013.
Right when it looked like Michal Neuvirth was looking like he was going to be the opening night starter, McPhee locked up what is arguably the best free agent in this years pool when he signed Tomas Vokoun the very next day. Neuvirth was quoted in the offseason when talking about Vokoun, saying “When I was a kid, I wanted to be like him. Now, I want to be better than him.”
Vokoun will be the mentor that Neuvirth is needing to take his game to the next level, and should be one of the top 1-2 goaltending tandems in the league, while Braden Holtby will be getting a majority of the playing time in Hershey.
Stanley Cup Champions by Jeff K.
The Capitals should once again repeat as the Southeast Division champions. The conference title will be tougher to obtain with having to deal with the Penguins and the Bruins. The Capitals were in the fourth seed last year until they went on that season-ending tear and jumped the rest of the conference to wrap up home ice advantage for the second consecutive year.
The Capitals for the first time in recent memory have a complete team: a solid goaltending tandem, a great defensive corps who can play both ways, and guys up front who are scoring machines and can grind it out with the best of them. If everyone stays relatively healthy, they will be one of the teams to beat for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
We have seen the last few seasons that the Capitals always collapse in the postseason. This year will not be the case. Every concern that the Capitals had last season have been addressed: the Caps need more grinders (Ward, Brouwer, Hamrlik), a bigger veteran presence in the crease (Vokoun), and more vocal leadership (Boudreau talked to Ovechkin in the offseason about this, and so far the captain has risen to expectations.)
This is another year where it’s Stanley Cup or Bust for the Capitals, but unlike other years, this will be the year the Caps bring the Stanley Cup to our nation’s capital.
Why That Might Not Happen by Taylor Lewis
True, with the present roster the way it is now, little will change as far as the regular season. The Caps will probably end up in the first or second slot in the Eastern Conference, though with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the rising Florida Panthers, getting the Southeast title will be an ongoing trial.
Since the Caps will have to face the Bruins, and the new Southeast teams, and the revamped Philadelphia and Buffalo teams, and the impending return of Sidney Crosby, a Presidents’ Trophy is doubtful.
But that’s not the point.
I will acknowledge that the team finally has some key pieces needed to get into June, but I will also say that something is missing. Or hasn’t been exploited.
As much as Washington has acquired, there still is no rat.
If the Caps are going to get past the Bruins (and apparently the Flyers), they’re going to have to find some nastiness somewhere. Even with Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, Raffi Torres, and maybe Maxim Lapierre, the Vancouver Canucks didn’t have enough physicality to survive a Game 7 on their own ice.
The Bruins are bullies, are fully intact, and have shown themselves to be the team to beat. Once you get past the skaters, there’s still Tim Thomas. And we all know what happened the last time the Caps encountered a hot goalie.
If Washington doesn’t have to face Boston early on and can stay healthy, I can see them going deep. It would be even better if they could build up, Flyers/Rangers first round, Lightning/Penguins second round, and then Boston in the conference final.
If they have enough to defeat the Bruins and not fumble somewhere else, then the Finals are up for grabs.