THE BOTTOM LINE
By Scott Burnside, Special to ESPN.com
With the redistribution of talent across the NHL, it will be a minor miracle if the Capitals are not the worst team in the NHL. And given the improvements made by every other team in the Eastern Conference, and the emphasis on divisional and conference play, the Capitals might approach their own franchise record for futility.
Offense: One of Washington's top prospects, Alexander Semin, refused to report last season to the team's AHL affiliate in Portland, where it was hoped he might learn both the language and the North American game. Fair enough. But the 13th overall pick of the 2002 draft has been AWOL through the first two weeks of the current training camp and no one seems quite sure when (or even whether) he'll arrive. Even if he does show up, Semin will be far behind the team in learning systems and the new NHL game. The team's top free-agent signing, underachieving Andrew Cassels, broke a bone in the left side of his face in a pre-training camp scrimmage, and though he should be in the lineup on opening night, it is a setback for one of the team's lone offensive weapons.
As for the good news, there's little of it, but it comes in the form of 2004 No. 1 draft pick Alexander Ovechkin. A brash, talented player whose game already is highly evolved, Ovechkin is a franchise player who will have to play like one from the get-go.
Defense: Free-agent acquisition Ivan Majesky, who couldn't make a bad defensive team in Atlanta, failed his physical with a knee injury, and his future with the team is uncertain. Then there's Brendan Witt, a veteran defenseman who has never scored more than three goals in any one NHL season, demanding a trade because he doesn't want to be part of the Caps' rebuilding process.
Goaltending: Olaf Kolzig has gone from a Stanley Cup finals-worthy goalie in 1998 and a Vezina Trophy two years later to this. How long will he be able to endure the lowly depths of the Capitals?
Coach Glen Hanlon will rely on the handful of veterans who remain -- newly appointed captain Jeff Halpern, netminder Kolzig and Dainius Zubrus, who likely will play alongside Ovechkin -- to try to keep an even keel in the capital city. Good luck.
WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
YES Success for the Capitals will be in identifying the core of young players around whom they can legitimately begin to rebuild their franchise. This season is an 82-game tryout for the future.
BUT This is a team with no proven leadership, no defensive depth, limited offensive capabilities and no prospect of help from ownership in the near future. Failure, sadly, is a given.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Steve Eminger. The 6-foot-2 defenseman was the Capitals' top pick (12th overall) in 2002. He has had two stints with the big club, but is now being counted on to step forward as a leader on a wafer-thin defensive squad.
No question the challenge for Hanlon, entering his first full season behind the Washington bench, is in keeping his young team focused on the task of winning small battles as opposed to being consumed by the inevitable thumping they're going to take during the season.
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> ONLY ONE
Being able to bring back 2004 No. 1 pick Ovechkin for some kind of spark.
WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> BLACK HOLE
Not competing at all with other East teams on the free-agent market.
Jeff Halpern, C
Halpern led the team with 19 goals and 27 assists in 2003-04.
Olaf Kolzig, G
Where has Olie the Goalie gone? He had a 19-35-9 record and a 2.89 goals-against average in 2003-04.
“I spent three months last year in Germany playing, trying to fill the void. It was nice and I had a great time, met some great guys. But it's not like playing in the NHL.”
— Olaf Kolzig on returning to Caps