Is this the year the Washington Capitals put the doubters to rest? Four years in succession of playoff failure has left many in the hockey community wondering if the Caps will ever be able to reach the next level. We won’t get the answer to this question until next spring, but this is the best Caps team ever assembled. It was a busy offseason for George McPhee and its clear there is one goal in mind, the Stanley Cup.
The skill on the roster of year’s past has never been questioned. Despite a few hiccups a season ago, the Caps have been a scoring juggernaut for the past four seasons. But the Boston Bruins proved to us what we already knew; it takes more then a cluster of fancy plays and jaw-dropping offensive skill to win it all. It takes a total team effort on both ends of the ice, in net, and most importantly in the Caps’ case – in the dressing room. This is where McPhee’s offseason acquisitions are going to bear their fruits.
The thorn in the side of Capitals’ fans has been the consistent lack of accountibility and discipline in the dressing room. This mostly has to do with the youth of the roster. I don’t intend to discount the role of veterans like Mike Knuble and Jason Chimera, but last year’s inconsistent play is a direct reflection of the team’s leadership void – topped off with yet another early playoff exit.
It starts with Alex Ovechkin. All reports are that the captain is in better shape then ever before. Ted Leonsis is on record as saying Ovechkin came into last season with the intent of peaking during the playoffs. Is that the reason for his lowest performance totals of his career? Regardless, last year’s season was a wakeup call for Ovechkin, now entering his sixth season with the Capitals. Ovechkin has the unenviable task of delivering the team’s first Stanley Cup. It is a considerable burden, but he has accepted that responsibility with open arms. It was all to obvious that Ovechkin was not in the best of shape last season. He had to make changes to his training routine this offseason, and reports are that he in the best shape of his career. As the Captain he must set the proper example for the rest of his teammates. If the reports are true, then Ovechkin is on the right track in that regard.
But McPhee knew the leadership role should be spread out amongst more then just the Captain. The acquisitions of Troy Brouwer, Roman Hamrlik, and Jeff Halpern should help take some of the pressure off Ovechkin. Jeff Halpern is a former Captain (with the Capitals), Troy Brouwer is a Stanley Cup Champion, and Roman Hamrlik is a 20 year veteran. Throw in Brooks Laich and the Capitals have solid group of veterans who, along with Ovechkin, who should be able to steer this team to the promised land.
As I mentioned before, the Capitals’ offensive prowess has never been questioned. They did run into some trouble a season ago while transitioning to a more defensive style of play. The team’s ability to shutdown teams in the defensive zone has always been an area of concern. This extends to the play of the goaltenders as well. For the most part, Michal Neuvirth had a breakout season last year. He is likely the goaltender of the future. But if you get the chance to sign a goaltender like Tomas Vokoun for just $1.5 million, you take it. In addition to the quality of play he will give the Capitals, he is also a countryman and childhood idol of Michal Neuvirth’s. Neuvirth will have the opportunity to learn from Vokoun who is an NHL veteran. On the flip side, Neuvirth certainly played well enough a season ago to be the Caps’ starting goaltender, so Vokoun will have be sure his play is sharp as Neuvirth will be pressuring him for playing time as the team’s backup. The Capitals now have elite level goaltending, something they haven’t had since Olie Kolzig mined the crease. The doubters have always pointed to the play of the goaltenders as the reason to cast suspicion on the Capitals’ Cup hopes. McPhee has done his part to silence those critics. Now the ball is in Vokoun and Neuvirth’s court.
For the goaltenders to have any shot at doing their job, they must have solid play in front of them. The Capitals made huge strides a season ago to improve their defensive play. They instituted a trapping style of play with emphasis on checking, and clearing the puck quickly out of the defensive zone to the sticks of the skilled forwards. Then they ran into Tampa Bay. The likes of Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Sean Bergenheim were to much to handle. The main reason being lack of execution and Guy Boucher’s coaching genius. But the Capitals needed more grit and grind then they had. McPhee realized that and traded for Troy Brouwer at the draft, and signed former Predator Joel Ward. Brouwer and Ward are guys that will punish the opposition on the forecheck, build their homes in the crease, and bring havoc to anyone unsuspected of their presence on the ice. They will contribute offensively as well. These were moves to add some depth to the lineup and make the Capitals even more difficult to play. The idea is not only to scare the opposition with the scoring potential of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, and Green; but also to be a nightmare physically for the opposition. Brouwer and Ward certainly help that cause.
The additions of Ward, Brouwer, Halpern, Hamrlik, and Vokoun make the Capitals an even more formidable foe because they addressed the team’s glaring needs; a grittier meaner roster, additional defensive depth, and a world class goaltender.
With camp opening today, the roster is all but set. The only issues to hash out are finding the best line combinations and one additional forward to fill the one vacant slot on the roster. The main questions Boudreau will search for answers for involve who will fill the role as the second line center and who will the extra forward. Marcus Johansson will likely be penciled into the second line center spot on opening night, but Brooks Laich will get some looks in that spot as well. Laich is arguably the team’s most versatile player. Likely to start on the left wing, don’t be surprised to see Laich centering Alex Semin and Troy Brouwer at some point this year. If there was one thing the Capitals’ did not address this offseason, it was the second line center spot. The question remains as to whether Marcus Johansson is ready to carry the load for a second season. As a rookie, Johansson faired well as the season progressed. As expected he started slow, but looked more and more comfortable as the season progressed. The undeniable trait of Johansson’s game is his incredible speed, but he struggled with the often bigger opposition a season ago. He had trouble being pushed off the puck and loosing battles in the corners due to his smaller stature. With one season under his belt and an offseason of training, my feeling is he will be even better this year then last. He will be looking to lock down the second line center role. One thing we know is that Stanley Cup champions typically have two solid centers on the first two lines. On paper, the Capitals don’t have that, so it may be center by committee to start the year until someone proves they are the man for the job full time. If nobody stands out, expect a move for a center at the trade deadline.
The last forward spot will be a battle between Mattias Sjogren, Cody Eakin, Jay Beagle, Chris Bourque, and Matheiu Perreault. Eakin was the last man cut a season ago so one would think he is in the driver seat. That was until the Capitals signed Sjogren over the summer. Sjogren is a bigger body who already has professional hockey experience having played in the Swedish Elite League. Sjogren will still have to prove he can compete with NHL caliber players and be effective on the smaller ice surface. Eakin came off a disappointing development camp in July. Having played the the long Junior season, as well as in the World Juniors, Eakin was admittedly not in the best shape. His play suffered. But all accounts point to him being in the proper shape entering camp. Whether he makes the opening night roster or not, expect to see Eakin in a Capitals uniform at some point this season.
It is hard to put into words the expectations entering this season. This is the best team the Caps have ever had entering camp. Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Semin all have chips on their shoulder. All had down years a season ago and will be looking to regain their status as one of the best trios in the NHL. Semin will be playing for a contract as well. Mike Green is finally healthy and will once again be the best offensive defenseman in the NHL. In addition, a full season with Dennis Wideman, a healthy Mike Green, and the addition of Roman Hamrlik will only help the power play which failed the Capitals a season ago. The Capitals will enter their second season with the combo of John Carlson and Karl Alzner. During the latter half of last season, they were the Caps best defensive pair. They were arguably as good as any pair in the NHL. Finally, the questions in net have been answered with Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth.
The Capitals are running out of excuses. The pressure is only going to mount as we get closer to opening night. You can expect the Capitals to win the conference this season, and possibly win their second President’s Trophy. But that is irrelevant. It boils down to performing in the playoffs. Anything short of the Eastern Conference finals will be a failure. But this team has sights on the Finals and the Stanley Cup. It appears they have all the pieces in place to finally reach a place they haven’t been since 1998 – the Finals and a chance to win the Cup.
The mission begins October 8.
About the Author: Jeremy is a life time hockey fan currently living in Washington DC. Jeremy also runs a Capitals blog called The Nation's Capitals where he frequently posts blogs about the state of the Caps. His other interests include music and politics. Jeremy has a degree in Political Science. Being from DC, politics kind of comes with the territory.