Picking Splinters: Capital Queries

The pucks have dropped on the NHL’s 2010-11 season, as the league’s first preseason action took the ice Tuesday night. With the Caps skating Wednesday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets it feels like a good time to start looking ahead to some of the big questions facing Washington during the 2010-11 season.

Varlamov or Neuvirth?

We know that the Caps will rely on their two young netminders, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, this season, but which one will be 1A and which will be 1B? The idea of approaching the season with a platoon is all well and good, but come the playoffs, when you need a win, which one will it be? Both have shown glimpses of greatness, and while Varlamov has the edge in NHL experience, there are some who believe Neuvirth will be the better of the two. The question also looms whether they’ll both be around for the postseason. If the Caps start struggling and have a big need, say for a shutdown blueliner, those goalies could be very big trade chips.

How good can Green be?

There is no denying the raw talent defenseman Mike Green exhibits every game. There is also no denying that the impression he’s left Caps fans with in the playoffs is simply sub-par for a player with his ability level.

Repeat nominations for the Norris Trophy show that there are more than a few folks out there who believe he rates as one of the league’s best blueliners. But much of that is based off his unparalleled prowess with the puck, rather than shutting down his defensive assignments. In the new NHL, the ability to retrieve loose pucks in your own zone and make a smart pass up ice cannot be undervalued, and that’s something Green does very, very well. The only part of his game that still seems substandard is his decision-making.

The good news is that particular skill often increases with age and experience. Green is still young by elite defensemen standards. Two of last season’s best, Scott Niedermayer and Nicklas Lidstrom, are also two of the oldest. If Green can concentrate on maintaining his poise, take fewer chances with the puck and even slightly improve his positioning he could easily be the best D-man in the league. Of course, that’s no small order, but when you look at all the tools Green has, he’s simply too gifted not to be great.

Will Bruce Boudreau be coaching this team in the playoffs?

Boudreau’s name has circulated as one of the coaches on an early-season hot seat. Much of that talk has been fueled by the Caps’ lack of playoff success during his tenure. NHL coaches seemingly have the shelf-life of sushi, so whenever one hits a rough patch the job loss rumors get fired up. I think, however, that it would take an epic early falloff for Boudreau not to helm this team in the playoffs this season. The players love him and owner Ted Leonsis is a pretty loyal guy to those that have performed well for him. As long as Boudreau doesn’t lose the locker room, I think he can sustain a few losing streaks. Fall short of the second round of the playoffs again, however, and this becomes a very different situation.

Will Semin walk the walk in his walk year?

Alexander Semin will be playing for a new contract next year and prognosticators expect some very big numbers from him. But again, Semin has little left to prove in the regular season. If he wants to reap the biggest reward he can, he needs to show he can carry over his strong play to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Last season, a postseason power outage frustrated the sniper, causing him to fire from low-percentage angles almost as soon as he entered the zone. This season, he needs to stay focused, be willing to take the puck into high traffic areas and pay a price for his goals. If he can do that, scoring-starved NHL teams will be lining up to pay him like one of the league’s elite. If he doesn’t he’ll have to settle for far less than top dollar.