At the beginning of last season, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis declared that the team’s three-year rebuilding process was over and that the team’s quest for the playoffs had begun.
The Caps responded to the heightened expectations by dropping 14 of their first 20 games and costing then-Head Coach Glen Hanlon his job.
This season, after Jack Adams award-winner Bruce Boudreau replaced Hanlon behind the bench and rode Alex Ovechkin’s MVP season to the Southeast Division title, the expectations have been raised again. This year, Washington will be the favorites to earn the division crown, with some pundits even calling for the Caps to win it all. How will the team respond this time?
It’s not exactly a Stanley Cup hangover, but the Caps are coming off quite a high from last season. After making the playoffs for the first time since 2003, the team will have to hit the ground running to keep up with the momentum that began building before last season’s end. With the return of all of its young core, Washington has all the tools it needs to keep pace. Now, factor in a pair of savvy and successful veterans returning from injury and the Capitals promise to be even deeper than last season.
While Washington made its improbable run to the Southeast title, team captain Chris Clark and center Michael Nylander could do little but watch, sidelined by a severe groin pull and torn rotator cuff respectively. Again healthy, the duo is just a year removed from totaling a combined 137 points.
“It’s been 10 months since I played the game, and whatever you do on your own it’s hard to mirror the training camp intensity,” said Nylander, who led the team with 26 assists before suffering his season-ending injury. “I’m just happy to have started now and I’m working hard to get to the level where I want to be.”
Clark, who scored 30 goals in 2006-07, said he has had no setbacks from his injury in camp and is eager to put his rehab behind him and focus on the work ahead.
“We have a lot of expectations especially because of how well we ended,” Clark said. “Last season, there was a thought of us doing well. This year it’s we should do well. On paper we have a great team, we just have to go out and prove it.”
There certainly doesn’t appear to be a drop off in chemistry, or production, since the two returned to the team. That holds particularly true when playing together. Three times this preseason Nylander and Clark skated on the same line, combining for four goals in those games.
“Right now you just juggle and see who comes out,” Boudreau said following a practice last week. “We’re experimenting with every line to see who feels right together, who looks good together.”
That may be true, but the pair appeared on a line with underachieving prospect Tomas Fleischmann in both of the Caps’ final two exhibition games.
If that line holds up, the Caps could very well enter the season with one of the deepest offensive rosters in the NHL. The Fleischmann-Nylander-Clark line would be sandwiched by two lines featuring league MVPs (Ovechkin and 1994 winner Sergei Fedorov), and each of the Caps’ top three lines would sport a former 30-goal scorer – Clark, Ovechkin and Alexander Semin (38 goals in 2006-07).
And that doesn’t even consider the offensive prowess of upstart first-line center Nicklas Backstrom (55 assists as a rookie in 2007-08), breakout 20-goal scorer Brooks Laich or defenseman Mike Green, whose 18 goals led all NHL D-men last season.
Simply put, that’s enough offensive firepower to make the folks in the Pentagon blush. Given that scoring surplus – eighth best in the league last year without Clark, Nylander or Fedorov for a full year – the search for the Caps’ weakness has focused squarely on the team’s own end. Of course, that only spotlights another past MVP – recently-acquired netminder Jose Theodore.
The run to last year’s playoff berth was largely credited to the trade-deadline acquisition, and ensuing all-star play, of goalie Cristobal Huet (11-2 with a 1.63 goals against average after coming to Washington). However, the Caps lost Huet to free agency when they were outbid by the Chicago Blackhawks and the team turned to Theodore, whose past greatness has been clouded by his subsequent string of inconsistent seasons.
After winning the Hart Trophy for the NHL’s MVP in 2002, Theodore’s play slipped before he regained his form last season with the Colorado Avalanche (2.44 goals against average). The Caps will need him to repeat that kind of performance to make up for the occasional lapses of an improving, but still young and mistake-prone defensive corps.
In more than a quarter of the Caps’ games under Boudreau the team has allowed four or more goals. It’s a striking figure given that Washington allowed the ninth-fewest shots against goal last season, meaning when the Caps did give them up, they were usually good scoring opportunities.
Another year of experience for Green and his young counterparts, along with the continued steady, veteran play of Tom Poti should decrease those chances though. And if Theodore’s athleticism and agility in the crease can erase a few of those errors, there is little reason to think that the Caps won’t be able to return to the playoffs.
Heightened expectations? Absolutely. But with an arsenal of forwards that could turn the goal light into a strobe light and a steadily improving defensive presence, these Caps can measure up.
What happened last season? Just a record-setting year from Ovechkin (his 65 goals were the most ever by a left wing), a break-out campaign from Green and a nearly-impossible 12-1 run through the final 13 regular season games into the playoffs, a stretch of play that won over Washington to the Caps’ cause and packed the once-desolate Verizon Center with raucous, red-clad fans. But aside from that, not much.
From Dead to Red
One of the Caps’ greatest accomplishments last season was drawing in finicky Washington fans and turning a moribund Verizon Center into a frenzied home arena. At the season’s start, Caps crowds were nearly rivaled by some JV football games. In the playoffs and in the final seven games of the regular season – all sellouts – fans in the Phone Booth formed a sea of red even Moses would have struggled to part.
‘D’ Stands for ‘Depth’
If the Caps’ blue line gets bitten by the injury bug, the cavalry is just a call-up away. Young defensemen Karl Alzner and Sami Lepisto both nearly cracked the roster after training camp, while 18-year-old John Carlson likewise left a solid impression. Of course, the team could also turn to the 38-year-old Fedorov, who played defense during last season’s playoff series against Philadelphia and again this preseason.