2008-09 Team Preview: Washington Capitals
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsideThe Capitals, a la the Pittsburgh Penguins, have moved rapidly from irrelevant afterthought to Cup contender, thanks largely to a number of top draft picks who have matured quickly into elite NHL players, starting with Alexander Ovechkin and including Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green.
After the Capitals won the Southeast Division last season with a spirited run behind new bench boss (and defending coach of the year) Bruce Boudreau, the expectations are higher than they've been for years in the nation's capital. Fan support, always fickle in D.C., is at an all-time high -- for now.
"I still wake up and pinch myself," Boudreau told ESPN.com before training camp started.
The thing about the Caps is they could be even better given that captain Chris Clark and top-six forward Michael Nylander were both lost to injury long before the Caps made the playoffs and both should be in the opening day lineup unless GM George McPhee moves Nylander. Cristobal Huet, so crucial to the Caps' run, signed with Chicago, but is replaced by Jose Theodore, who turned his career around last season in Colorado.
OFFENSE When longtime minor league coach Boudreau arrived on the scene at Thanksgiving last season, he decided he wasn't going to play it safe and turned the Caps loose. It didn't earn Boudreau any points with netminder Olaf Kolzig (now in Tampa), but overall his players responded and became one of the most entertaining teams in the NHL.
The team is led by the game's most dynamic player, and defending Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner, Ovechkin. Under Boudreau, the Caps enjoyed 17 come-from-behind victories and finished eighth in goals per game. Semin just might have more raw talent than any player on the team and Backstrom matured nicely in 2007-08 and should be more comfortable from the outset in his sophomore season. Mike Green emerged as a Paul Coffey-like presence on the back end, leading all NHL defensemen with 18 goals. He has a shiny new contract under his belt and will be expected to at least match his production this season.
Sergei Fedorov, acquired at the trade deadline, should see his production grow playing on the top two lines for a full season. Clark, who had 30 goals in 2006-07, and Nylander, a perennial point-a-game threat, should both be healthy and will challenge for ice time on a suddenly deep, potent Caps attack. Keith Aucoin has had great AHL numbers and will make a bid to be an NHLer after coming over from the Carolina organization.
DEFENSE The Caps were tied for 18th overall in goals allowed per game last season. Boudreau's theory is that it counts as "defensive hockey" if you have the puck all the time in the opposing zone. He's got a point. Assuming they can get consistent, quality starts from newcomer Theodore, the Caps should improve their defensive numbers. There is size here with Milan Jurcina and John Erskine, both at 6-foot-4. Tom Poti is 6-foot-3 and, when healthy, is probably the team's best two-way defenseman.
Jeff Schultz played in 72 regular-season games and is 6-foot-6. Karl Alzner, the Caps' top defensive prospect who is 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds, will also make a case for a spot on the opening roster. In the end, being pushed around won't be an issue for the Caps; having enough skill to quickly and safely move the puck to the team's dynamic forward unit is what will be in question. A tough forecheck has the potential to create turnovers in the Caps' zone.
GOALTENDING Theodore represents the great wild card for the Caps, not just in terms of repeating as Southeast Division champs, but also as being legitimate threats to advance to a conference final or beyond. It wasn't until midway through last season that Theodore was even given the starting role in Colorado, and that was due as much to the failure of Peter Budaj as Theodore's play. The former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner was sensational in the first round of the playoffs as the Avs upset Northwest Division champ Minnesota with Theodore turning in a 1.88 GAA and .940 save percentage in the series. But he was brutal as the Avs were swept in the second round by Detroit. With a young team like the Caps, consistency in goal is crucial to the team's evolution. Brent Johnson provides the safety net as backup, so the Caps will go only as far as Theodore will carry them.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterThe biggest improvement in Washington was the coronation of the greatest player in hockey as a Capital for life. With all due respect and apologies to Sid, Alex Ovechkin is not just simply the best player in the game today, but he is also the NHL's poster boy for what the game is all about. This guy does it all -- he scores, makes plays, hits and loves it, plays with unbridled passion and carries an entire franchise on his back. This is a player who begs to play in all the preseason games and actually insists on traveling to road preseason games even when he knows he won't play. Are you kidding me? If only the league could clone him. The Caps did the next best thing and locked him up for the next 13 years.
Under coach Bruce Boudreau, this became a pretty complete team last season; and just like the Flyers in the Atlantic Division, Washington can count on its young skill players to improve with age and experience. All indicators point up with this franchise. The only concern is in net. Jose Theodore enjoyed a complete renaissance last season in Colorado. He will need to continue it to pick up where Cristobal Huet left off last year in Washington. If he does, the Caps will again sit atop the Division.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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• Record: 43-31-8
• Division: First in the Southeast
• Conference: Third in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted in first round vs. PHI
• The Caps' longest road trip of the season is a five-game set that stretches from Nov. 15 to Nov. 24. A year ago, the team's dismal start culminated with the firing of Glen Hanlon on Thanksgiving weekend. The Caps are hoping this Thanksgiving is significantly more bountiful.
Experience: 1 year
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• What's not to love about Bruce Boudreau? Unpretentious, upbeat and sharp as a tack, he struck a chord for all perpetual minor league coaches when he was handed his first NHL job after Glen Hanlon was fired and promptly earned Jack Adams honors as coach of the year. When he took over at Thanksgiving, the Caps were 1-6-1 in one-goal games; under his tutelage, they were an impressive 20-6-7. Boudreau clearly grasps the new NHL and the success his players enjoyed gave the jovial coach instant credibility.
He'll be even better this time around when it comes to matching other coaches. Boudreau said he expects the Capitals to be energized by their stirring run to the playoffs, their battle to erase a 3-1 series deficit against Philadelphia in the first round and their fans' support. Getting his players focused again shouldn't be too difficult.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Alex Ovechkin
• A game-breaker unlike any in the NHL, he can and does score from anywhere. He has a tendency to overstay his shifts and his defensive game will continue to improve. His passion for the game and desire to win are contagious. His first taste of playoff action will make him hungrier for more.
F -- Nicklas Backstrom
• We liked him as rookie of the year given his contributions as the season went along. His confidence with the puck is impressive and his ability to find the open man makes him a perfect foil for Ovechkin. He did sprain his ankle working out shortly before training camp opened, but should eclipse his 69-point effort as a rookie, a total that was second only to Calder Trophy winner Patrick Kane.
F -- Viktor Kozlov
• The big winger was coming off a career-best 25-goal season on Long Island when the Caps signed him last offseason. He didn't quite get back to those levels, but playing with Ovechkin resulted in points in 11 of his last 18 games and an impressive plus-28. One imagines that Kozlov better click right off the hop with Ovechkin and Backstrom, or captain Chris Clark, who played with Ovechkin much of the 2006-07 season, will get a turn on the top line.
D -- Mike Green
• On another team, Green's play might give the coaching staff fits, but it was Boudreau who told Green not to hold back. So, it's not uncommon to see him at the side of the opposing net one instant and then racing back to his defensive position the next. Green is a high-risk, high-reward type of player who will look to play himself onto the Canadian Olympic radar this season.
D -- Shaone Morrisonn
• One of the reasons Green can essentially turn himself into a fourth forward whenever he likes is that Boudreau paired him with stay-at-home defender Morrisonn on the coach's first day behind the Caps' bench. Morrisonn, a former Boston prospect who was the 19th overall pick in 2001, was a solid plus-4 during the regular season, although he struggled in his first playoff experience, going minus-3 in the Caps' first-round loss to Philadelphia.
Answer: No. Not quite. Theodore will give the Caps enough to return them to the top of the Southeast Division, but not enough in terms of consistency and leadership to be considered a Cup contender, or even among the top two or three teams in the Eastern Conference.