Southeastern Division Preview: Washington Capitals

Washington Capitals

C Nicklas Backstrom, re-signed for 10 years
LW Eric Fehr, re-signed for 2 years
LW/C Tomas Fleischmann, re-signed for 1 year
C Boyd Gordon, re-signed for 1 year
D Jeff Schultz, re-signed for 4 years
LW DJ King, acquired through trade with St Louis Blues

C Eric Belanger (Phoenix Coyotes)
D Milan Jurcina (New York Islanders)
C Brendan Morrison (Free agency)
G Jose Theodore (Free agency)
D Shaone Morrisonn (Buffalo Sabres)
RW Scott Walker (Free agency)
D Joe Corvo (Carolina Hurricanes)

Washington enters this season with most of last year’s roster in tact. They went  into the playoffs as the favorite to win it all and choked in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens. This year they try to make sure that doesn’t happen so it was surprising that they didn’t make many moves this off-season to address the holes they have. It’s somewhat frustrating because a lot of the available free agents (Volchenkov, Mitchell, Michalek) could have helped this team in 2010 even if they would be in a tight cap situation. Just look at the Chicago Blackhawks. I know GM George McPhee wants to save money so they have enough to re-sign important players but sometimes you have to spend money to get into the post-season. That said, the Capitals still have a very good team and they will be depending on some younger players to fill their needs instead of free agents. Will this method get them over the playoff hump, though? That remains to be seen.

We all know that the Caps can score goals. They had seven players with 20 or more goals and were first in the league in goals scored. Leading the pack was star winger Alex Ovechkin who tallied 50 goals and 107 points in 2009-10 and finished as a finalist for the Hart Trophy. Another big factor with the success of the Capitals offense is center Nicklas Backstrom who established himself as a top 5 player at that position last year. Also contributing is Alexander Semin who at times can be a streaky and lazy player, but when he is on, he is dangerous has one of the most lethal slapshots in the NHL. Defenseman Mike Green’s presence on the powerplay is also something other teams have to look out for after he had another offensively productive season last year.

Those four get the most attention from other teams, but the Caps have a lot of depth when it comes to players that can light the lamp. Two of the most valuable ones are Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble. Both scored over 20 goals last season and bring grit and toughness to the team. Both can grind it out to win those tough battles along the boards and they aren’t afraid to get in front of the net and score dirty goals. Jason Chimera and Matt Bradley do this well, too but they rarely see top minutes. The Capitals also acquired more “grit” by trading for St. Louis Blues enforcer DJ King, who will be a welcome addition to this team.

They also made some important moves this off-season by signing Eric Fehr and Jeff Schultz this off-season. Also re-signed this off-season was Tomas Fleischmann who is really only a good player when he scores goals and he had 23 of them last season. He did have a very bad end to the year, which resulted in him being in the press box for game 7 of the Montreal series. I’m assuming he was kept for this year to get one last chance with the team. I could see him being traded if he continues to struggle.

The Capitals have three big areas of concern; defense, second line center and translating regular season success into the playoffs. Defense has always been what’s “dragging the team down” according to many people, and that’s very true. It’s a weakness that always gets exposed in the playoffs and it’s usually due to poor defensive play and forwards being lazy at back-checking. As noted earlier, the Capitals didn’t do much this off-season other than watch a lot of their UFA’s leave via free agency. The biggest departure on the blue line is Shaone Morrisonn, who had a very solid season last year. Also leaving is trade-deadline mistake[s] acquisition Joe Corvo. The young defensive tandem of John Carlson and Karl Alzner will be filling their void and the duo played very well in Hershey and when they were called up to the big club. Both have good all-around skills at the position, so the Caps are hoping they make a big impact in their rookie seasons. One player that needs to play a better all-around game is Mike Green. Yes, he’s lethal on the powerplay and the best offensive d-man in the league but his irresponsible defensive play has been plaguing the team when it matters.

It’s unaware of who will play center on the second line right now but it’s likely that the team will start the year with either Tomas Flesichmann or Brooks Laich there for now. There’s also the possibility for Mathieu Perrault to be called up permantely and play that role. He’s been outstanding almost every time he was called up last year. Another option is to have 2009’s first round pick Marcus Johanasson play there, but I don’t think he’s quite ready yet.

The goaltending could be a bigger issue than most think. Washington is letting Jose Theodore walk and putting a lot of faith in the young tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. Both have had plenty of experience and are capable of being the starter, but Varlamov will likely have the edge over Neuvirth for now. Varlamov is capable of carrying a bigger workload and has more experience as the starter. I could see this working out as a 1a/1b type platoon, though if one fails to outperform the other.

For special teams, the powerplay is much like this team where it dominates in the regular season, and struggles mightly in the playoffs. Most of the first unit should stay the same with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green being the key players. I wouldn’t mind seeing Fehr or Carlson getting some PP time on the second unit, this year, though. As for penalty killing, that’s another thing this team doesn’t do well. Losing Morrisonn and Belanger doesn’t help matters, either. This is where retaining Schultz is important since he’s probably the strongest stay-at-home defensemen on the team. A lot of pressure is going to be put on him to kill penalties.

This is really a “make or break” year for the Capitals. McPhee is showing a lot of confidence within the organization to get the job done this year, which means a lot of players could be traded before the end of this year pending their performance. How this team fares in the playoffs could also mean a lot for the future of coach Bruce Boudreau. After losing three game 7’s in a row, he’s already on the hot seat according to some and rightfully so. Boudreau’s emphasis on offense has made this team a blast to watch and it’s translated to regular season success, but not post-season success. You know what I call that? A dead end, especially when his post-season exits have been relatively early. It’s time for the Capitals to get past at least the first two rounds or major changes need to be made.


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