Capitals: 10 Things You Need To Know
Sometimes we imagine Washington GM George McPhee as a master safecracker. He listens intently at the Capitals' vault and slowly turns the tumbler, waiting for that telltale click, the sound that signifies success, the sound that promises an end to frustration and disappointment.
McPhee wondered whether he had hit the combination a couple of years back with veteran Sergei Fedorov and netminder Cristobal Huet. He later wondered whether veterans like Scott Walker, Brendan Morrison and Joe Corvo could do the job. Last season, he brought in Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm and gave kids like Karl Alzner and John Carlson more leash. So far, it hasn't yielded the Stanley Cup this team covets.
Still, it didn't deter McPhee from adding former Cup winner Troy Brouwer, gritty forward Joel Ward, veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik, veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun and veteran defensive center Jeff Halpern. But what sets McPhee apart from some of his colleagues is he continues to resist the temptation to explode his team and keeps the core intact.
"You cross your fingers and go to work," he told ESPN.com after this summer's changes. "I don't want to change a lot because it's a good, solid team."
Once again, the tumbler spins.
2. New faces
Not all the new faces in town have won a Cup, but they've been through the grind. Ward was a revelation for the Nashville Predators this past spring with seven goals and 13 points in 12 postseason games. He is a self-made player who went undrafted and was given little chance of NHL success, but he parlayed that playoff experience into a four-year deal worth $12 million.
Joining Ward up front will be Brouwer, who won a Cup in Chicago two seasons ago, and veteran center Halpern, a former Cap. All three bring an enticing blend of grit and success to a Caps dressing room that seemed to lack those elements against Tampa Bay.
On the blue line, Hamrlik comes from Montreal, where he was part of a successful run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2010. Hamrlik will fill the spot vacated by Tom Poti, whose problems with a recurring groin injury will keep him out of action for the foreseeable future. Finally, McPhee nabbed Vokoun on July 2 for the bargain-basement price of $1.5 million.
Last fall, we visited the Caps at camp and spoke with McPhee about his comfort level with the decision to go with two youngsters in net (Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth). With Varlamov's injury issues, Neuvirth earned the starting job heading into the postseason and cannot be faulted for the team's disappointing turn. Varlamov, unhappy with his lot in life in Washington, was dealt in a stroke of genius to Colorado for first- and second-round draft picks. McPhee then signed Vokoun.
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau already has established the pecking order by saying that Vokoun's accomplishments will make him the starter. Still, Neuvirth is technically very sound, so look for Boudreau to give him lots of playing time. The problem with Vokoun is he has little NHL playoff experience (he is 3-8 in his career in the postseason), and that is where the buck stops for this squad.
Waiting in the wings is Braden Holtby, who played well in relief when Neuvirth and Varlamov were injured last season.
4. Altered perceptions
The idea that the Caps can play only one way -- run and gun -- is just flat-out wrong. You can argue whether there is a style that is better suited to their personnel, but the Caps did end up ranking fourth in the league and second in the Eastern Conference in goals allowed per game. They were second behind Pittsburgh in penalty-killing efficiency.
Offensively, they went from the runaway leader in goals scored in 2009-10 to 19th last season; their power play was a strangely pedestrian 15th (tied) and delivered only five goals on 35 postseason tries.
But doesn't defense win you championships? If that's the case, solid goaltending and a blue line bolstered by the expected return of Dennis Wideman (injured for much of last season) plus Hamrlik, Carlson and Alzner will continue to make the Caps one of the most difficult teams to play against.
Some of the criticism for the Caps' playoff foibles falls at the feet of the team's captain. Alex Ovechkin had a disappointing season offensively but still finished seventh overall with 85 points and was an impressive plus-24. In the playoffs, he had 10 points in nine games, although at times he seemed to be trying to do too much (which makes sense given that many of his teammates seemed to be doing far too little).
Heading into 2011-12, Ovechkin has said he expects to be more of a leader this season, and Boudreau is expecting more of Ovechkin in terms of production and as captain. This isn't just idle chatter. Ovechkin was on the ice when the Caps' rookie camp opened, and even the criticism of former players like Matt Bradley did not extend to Ovechkin's leadership and effort.
We have no qualms about Ovechkin's level of play or his effort. The guy brings it. The question is whether it will be enough this season when it hasn't been enough in the past.
6. The power play
Plenty of really good teams have trouble getting their power play going. It happens. But Boudreau pointed out that if the power play was humming at a pace that was similar to two seasons ago, people wouldn't be complaining about the production of the Capitals' core offensive producers -- Ovechkin, Mike Green, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Now, the notion that the power play needs to get better certainly hasn't been lost on Boudreau or the rest of the team. The good thing for them is they know they can do it based on past history. It will be important for the unit to be clicking in the later stages of the season.
7. Poor Alexander Semin
Is Semin just misunderstood, or is he the dog that many critics suggest he is? The Semin debate is not new. When a player has this much skill but fails to deliver in the clutch as Semin often has, it is a valid talking point. The Caps signed the talented Russian to just a one-year, $6.7 million deal because they feared being tethered to him for longer.
The Semin debate was brought into sharper focus in the offseason, when former Cap Matt Bradley named Semin specifically as a player who didn't seem to care. A bit harsh, but the reality is, when he's on, Semin is a top-10 NHL point producer, maybe top-five; when he's off, he is invisible.
Would it be a surprise to see Semin dangled as trade bait before the 2012 deadline? Not at all. What would be even more surprising would be to see Semin light it up next spring with the Caps' season on the line. But take this for what it's worth: Boudreau told ESPN.com that Semin has been much more involved in training camp, asking questions and wanting to get better.
8. Then there's Backstrom
One of the more perplexing elements of this past spring's disappointing end was the play of top center Backstrom. After he signed a whopping 10-year, $67 million contract extension last season, it would have been a nice for Backstrom to justify the team's faith in his skills. Instead, like Ovechkin, he saw his point totals tumble from 101 in 2009-10 to 65 last season. He managed only six goals after the All-Star break and looked lost in the playoffs, missing golden chances and ending up without a goal in nine games.
He's only 23, so Backstrom has loads of time to get back to his former level, but one wonders about his confidence and how long it will take to put last season behind him. Backstrom told ESPN.com he worked on some different things this past summer and is looking forward to proving to his teammates and critics that last season was a blip on the radar.
9. Down the middle
With Backstrom's struggles, the Caps' lack of depth down the middle reared its head last season. Arnott was acquired at the trade deadline, but he also failed to deliver the goods after a couple of strong games in the first round. Halpern will provide depth, but the real interesting element will be how sophomore Marcus Johansson reacts to more ice time and responsibility.
Then there is Brooks Laich, who signed a big, six-year deal worth $27 million that kept him from hitting the market July 1. Laich is a tough-as-nails dressing room leader who needs to get back to the level of play that saw him score 20-plus goals in three straight seasons for the Caps. The question is whether Boudreau will want to move Laich to the wing to keep him among the top-six forwards or drop him back to a third-line role. Watch for Johansson to play some with Ovechkin and perhaps Brouwer to start and Backstrom to work with Semin and perhaps Mike Knuble on the second line.
10. Home sweet home
Regardless of the Caps' playoff foibles, the Verizon Center remains a difficult place for opposing teams to play. It's hard to believe that the Caps' home barn was once a cavernous place that even a visit from Sidney Crosby couldn't help fill. The Caps have sold out 106 straight home dates, and it's no coincidence the Caps led the Eastern Conference with a 25-8-8 home record last season.