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By Scott Burnside
When last we saw the Capitals, they were slinking out of the Verizon Center in Washington after being crushed 6-2 in the seventh game of the Eastern Conference semifinals by eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh. The loss was made all the more galling by the fact they had led the series 2-0.
If the theory is that great teams have to lose before they can win -- and Caps superstar and two-time defending Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin subscribes to that theory -- then the Caps will be a team to be reckoned with this season. Questions will remain about the team's goaltending and defense, but Washington remains one of the most entertaining squads on the circuit.
"We want to remember it, but we don't want to dwell on it," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said of the disappointing loss to Pittsburgh. "It's a new team, it's a new season."
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Capitals this season:
1. The Great 8
Although he fell just short of a second straight Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top scorer, Ovechkin was still all that for the Caps, leading the NHL with 56 goals for his second straight Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy and reeling in a second straight Hart Trophy as MVP. He was terrific against the Penguins in the postseason, although his missed breakaway attempt early in Game 7 must still haunt him.
In a recent interview with ESPN.com, he said he watched none of the playoffs after the season-ending loss to the Penguins. "Why [do] I have to watch? It was time to rest, time to rest. Time to forget," he said.
Still, there is nothing to suggest Ovechkin won't be the game's most dynamic player again, and he is pledging to be a better all-around player, which should strike fear in the hearts of opponents.
"Yeah, we've got more experience, for sure," he said. "And every year, we make one step closer to the Stanley Cup. It's good to have a team that don't stop working and just progresses, you know."
2. Mike Green gets in shape
Poor Mike Green. The guy leads all NHL defensemen with 31 goals and 73 points and is a Norris Trophy candidate and all people seem to want to talk about is how, eh, portly he was by the end of the season. It is true Green seemed out of shape come playoff time and endured a miserable time of it against the Rangers and Penguins in the postseason. Still, he showed up at Canada's orientation camp in August in great shape and is hoping to prove wrong those skeptics who think he's just a party animal.
Earning a spot on the Canadian Olympic blue line will be added incentive, as will helping the Caps take full advantage of their talent-laden team. Watch for Green to take a big step forward this season. He'd better.
3. The goaltender formerly known as "Simeon" and that other guy
Rookie netminding sensation Simeon Varlamov changed the Anglicized spelling of his name to Semyon, but it won't hide the fact he's going to have to prove he can handle a much heavier workload before people are going to get fully on the Varlamov bandwagon.
Give the young man his due, though -- he came in cold when Jose Theodore got the yips after his postseason opener and outdueled Henrik Lundqvist through a seven-game first-round series the Rangers led 3-1 at one point. Against Pittsburgh, Varlamov looked mortal as the second-round series wore on and was yanked in Game 7, but it's hard to believe he won't get a very long look as the No. 1 guy.
Still, Boudreau insisted the competition is wide open and he's including another kid in the mix, Michal Neuvirth. The 21-year-old was dynamite in leading the Caps' AHL team to a championship, posting a 16-6 record with an eye-popping .932 save percentage and a 1.92 GAA.
Boudreau said he'll wait for a signal from all three in the preseason before he decides what he'll do in the regular season, and there are those who believe it might be Varlamov who ends up starting the season in Hershey. Interesting times between the Caps' pipes no matter how you look at it.
4. Speaking of Jose Theodore
It was a summer marked by tragedy for the former Hart Trophy winner, whose 2-month old son died during the offseason.
Theodore played well enough for the Caps in the regular season (32-17-5), but the bottom line is that no one -- not Boudreau, not GM George McPhee and not anyone in the Caps' dressing room -- had an unwavering belief that Theodore could lead the team to a Cup.
In the final year of his contract, Theodore will get loads of playing time if Varlamov and/or Neuvirth falters, but the same confidence dilemma will dog him and the Caps come playoff time. Don't be surprised if Theodore is dealt by the trade deadline, although one wonders what his market value will be.
5. The other Alex
People sometimes forget just how productive Alexander Semin was for the Caps last season. Although he missed some time with a back injury, he still piled up 79 points in 62 games. If he stays healthy and produces at that pace, he's in the hunt for a scoring title. There are questions about his durability and compete level, but Semin was a point-a-game player for the Caps in the postseason. Sure, he took a handful of foolish penalties against the Penguins; but if Semin grows up a little, that's a pretty deadly one-two punch with Ovechkin, a one-two punch that might rival the one we're familiar with over in Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin).
6. Depth galore
The Caps have quickly become one of the deepest teams in the NHL. Boudreau told ESPN.com he was wrestling with a training camp roster he estimated had 30 NHL-quality players and room for only 23. Although some question the team's depth at center, Boudreau pointed out the Caps have five NHL centers in camp, six if you count Keith Aucoin, who might have won an AHL scoring title if not called up last season. All of which will make it difficult for young players such as defenseman Karl Alzner, the No. 5 pick in 2007, to crack the lineup.
"He's there, he's in the mix," Boudreau said. But the coach also pointed out that the Caps are returning all seven defensemen from 2008-09. "It's like a championship fight," he said. "You need to win by knockout [to push out an incumbent]."
The Caps had five 20-goal scorers last season (and Tomas Fleischmann had 19), and they added a perennial 25-goal guy in Mike Knuble, plus Brendan Morrison, who once upon a time was a consistent 20-goal man in Vancouver. After a third-place leaguewide finish in goals per game, second behind Boston in the Eastern Conference, look for the Caps to remain one of the most dangerous teams in the league.
7. Cup gap
So, what's keeping the Caps from becoming a Cup winner? The Caps were adept at protecting leads, as they were sixth overall and second in the conference in collecting points after scoring first (34-8-3). That's a sign of a team's maturity, and the Caps should be even better this season. But most critics will point to goaltending and team defense as elements holding the team back. Discipline is another area that needs to be addressed.
If you're looking for signs of maturity, a common one is the number of minor penalties a team takes. If that's a fair barometer, the Caps have a ways to go (they were 24th in the league in minor penalties accrued). Boudreau said staying out of the box will give his players more chances to create offense and draw penalties themselves. By cutting down penalty-kill opportunities from five or six a game to three or four, it takes pressure off the penalty killers and the goaltenders, he explained.
"Everything's related," he said. "That's a big thing. It has to be addressed, and it is being addressed."
8. Captain Clark
Chris Clark looked to be one of those great, late-blossoming gems when he scored 20 and 30 goals, respectively, playing mostly with Ovechkin in the first two seasons after the lockout. Throw in his gritty, take-no-prisoners attitude toward the game and Clark quickly became a fan favorite and dressing room leader. But injuries limited him to just 50 regular-season games and eight postseason contests over the past two seasons. This year, though, he is reporting a return to full health and, along with the addition of Knuble up front, promises the Caps will be even more difficult to play against while not giving away much in the way of production.
9. A scheduling note
For those keeping track at home, the Caps do not play the Penguins until Jan. 21, then play them three more times before the end of the season. They close out the regular season with six of eight at the Verizon Center; not bad for a team that was an impeccable 29-9-3 at home last season.
10. Olympic exposure
As befitting one of the most talented teams in the NHL, the Caps will have a clutch of players in action in Vancouver, starting with Ovechkin and including center Nicklas Backstrom, Semin and perhaps Norris Trophy candidate Green. Varlamov might get a look as a third netminder for the Russians, and Milan Jurcina looks like a lock for the Slovaks. Fleischmann will be in the mix for the Czechs pending his recovery from a blood clot in his leg that will keep him out of action until the start of the season.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 50-24-8
• Division: First in the Southeast
• Conference: Second in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted in second round by Penguins
• The Caps once again will run away with the Southeast Division and challenge for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. A Cup visit isn't yet in the cards, though.
• Bruce Boudreau has coached the Caps in three playoff rounds since taking over during Thanksgiving weekend of the 2007-08 season. All three have gone seven games, and he's 1-2 in those series. The view from the outside is the Caps are too run-and-gun to be a serious Stanley Cup contender and it will take a more defensive-minded coach to get the Caps over the hump.
We don't buy that, but there will be increased pressure on Boudreau this season to improve on the Caps' 19th ranking in goals allowed per game. As for getting past the disappointment of losing to the Pens, Boudreau said it's best to look at the positives of losing to the eventual Cup winners.
"They won it and they deserved to win it, but it gives you a lot of hope," he said. "It tells you that you're going to be fine."
F -- Alex Ovechkin
• What to say about the game's most exciting player? Is a Hart Trophy three-peat at hand?
F -- Nicklas Backstrom
• A great talent and one of the top young playmaking centers in the game. Skating alongside Ovechkin certainly helps.
F -- Mike Knuble
• The grit factor that perhaps the Caps were missing against Pittsburgh last season.
D -- Mike Green
• Slimmed down, the question is whether he can stay motivated to keep in shape throughout the season.
D -- Shaone Morrisonn
• The defensive conscience of this team. Cool name spelling, too.
Best Bet: Alex Ovechkin, F: Umm ... two straight Hart Trophies, two straight Maurice Richard Trophies, two straight Lester B. Pearson Trophies, an average of 55 goals and 105 points per season for his four-year career and an enormous advantage in your fantasy league's shots-on-goal category. Just some of the things Ovechkin brings to the table. Consider that he may lead the league in goals, points, shots and power-play goals -- four of the seven skater categories in ESPN standard leagues.
Risky Move: Alexander Semin, F: Semin will reward those who draft him with more points than games played, but don't be surprised if his games played are again limited by the nagging injuries that force him to miss 20 or so games per season. Even though he doesn't see a heck of a lot of ice time with Ovechkin, this Russian winger takes plenty advantage of the tools at his disposal on the Capitals' second line. He'd be a top-10 forward if he could stay on the ice for a full season, so know that there is some upside when you pick him in the third or fourth round.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Washington Capitals finish this season in Southeast Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.