Team Preview: Washington Capitals

Key additions: Jeff Friesen, LW/RW (T - NJ); Andrew Cassels, C (FA - CBJ); Petr Sykora, RW (T - NSH); Chris Clark, RW (T - CGY); Ben Clymer, RW (FA - TB); Ivan Majesky, D (FA - ATL); Brent Johnson, G (Waivers - VAN); Mathieu Biron, D (FA - FLA); Jamie Heward, FA - Europe); Miroslav Zalesak, RW (FA - SJ); Matt Bradley, RW (FA - PIT); Lawrence Nycholat, D (FA - NYR); Bryan Muir, D (FA - LA); Boyd Kane, LW (FA - PHI); David Steckel, LW/C (FA - LA); Alexander Ovechkin, LW (D - 2004, 1/1); Mike Green, D (D - 2004, 1/29); Eric Fehr, RW (D - 2003, 1/18); Chris Bourque, LW (D - 2004, 2/33)

Key losses: Josef Boumedienne, D (FA - Europe); Jason Doig, D (FA - VAN); Trent Whitfield, C (FA - STL); Craig Johnson, LW/C (FA); Sebastien Charpentier, G (FA - Europe); Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, D/RW (FA - Europe); Chris Hajt, D (FA - CRL); Bates Battaglia, LW (FA); Brad Norton, D/LW (FA); Garret Stroshein, RW (FA - BOS); Darcy Verot, LW/C (FA); Joel Kwiatkowski, D (FA - FLA); Bill Lindsay, LW (FA); Rick Berry, D (FA - PHX); Ivan Ciernik, LW (FA); John Gruden, D (FA); Colin Forbes, F (FA - CRL); Kip Miller, F (FA)

Key player signed but being a whiny baby and playing in Russia: Alexander Semin, LW

Forwards: The Caps offense struggled to start the preseason, but picked up a bit towards the end, highlighted by a 6-goal explosion against the Flyers after a 4-goal game the night before versus Pitt. The Caps will be able to ice two lines of legitimate NHL scoring talent, with prized rookie Alexander Ovechkin starting out the season on the left wing of the top line with thus-far disappointing Dainius Zubrus and captain Jeff Halpern. What can we say about Ovechkin that hasn't been said already? The kid is electric and will only get better. Every time he touches the puck, people move to the edges of their seats because there's a decent chance they'll see something they've never seen before. But the most impressive thing about the rookie is that he wants to learn the game the right way. If only his fellow countryman Alex Semin had a tenth of Ovechkin's passion and drive, the Caps would have a truly dynamic duo. "This is Zubrus's breakout year" is a running joke amongst Caps fans, most of whom rue the day management sent Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis and a first-round pick (which turned out to be the highly-touted Alexander Perezhogin) to Montreal for Zubrus and Trevor Linden. Well, if Zubie can't break out with Ovechkin's talent and Halpern's hard work, he never will. As for Halpern, another 20-goal season (the second of his career and first since 2000-01) seems likely if he can ride shotgun on the top line. The second line has two proven commodities in Jeff Friesen and Andrew Cassels, and the big wild card - Petr Sykora. Friesen is a five-time 20-goal guy (albeit on much better teams), Cassels has surpassed 40 assists seven times, and Sykora... who the hell knows? Last year, Sykora tied for his Czech team's (a team loaded with NHLers) lead in goals scored, but will his game translate in North America? The "other" Petr Sykora could either be a huge surprise or, given what the Caps have gone through to finally get this guy over here, a huge disappointment. Stay tuned. The rest of the Caps forwards will be comprised of some combination of Chris Clark (once he's healthy), Boyd Gordon, Ben Clymer, Brian Sutherby, Brian Willsie, Matt Pettinger and Matt Bradley. Of this group, Willsie is the most likely to sneak up to one of the top two lines, should coach Glen Hanlon need to shake things up. There will be plenty of nights in 2005-06 when the Caps can't buy a goal, but with two good lines and a bunch of hard-working grinders, scoring won't be the Caps' biggest problem. What will be? Here's a hint:

Defensemen: Let's see if we can get through this paragraph without a gag reflex. Here goes. Brendan Witt is still here (who knows for how long, though), anchoring the Caps blueline. Unfortunately for Witt, he's a text book clutcher/grabber who will be absolutely killed if the referees are serious about enforcing obstruction penalties. How many minor penalties does it take to the lead the League in penalty minutes? Watch Witt try to find out. He has no offensive upside of which to speak, though he'll likely see some power-play time due to the inexperience around him, so maybe he'll improve on his career high in points for the fourth straight year - he'll only need 13 points to do it. Expect Witt to mail it in until he gets his wish and is traded for a roll of hockey tape (a steal for the Caps if George McPhee can pull the trigger on such a deal). Steve Eminger is a good puck mover, but looks like he will never live up to the high expectations the franchise had for him (he has just 24 points in 103 games in his AHL career). Shaone Morrisonn, acquired in the Sergei Gonchar deal, has been slightly less-disappointing through his AHL career (how's that for damning by feigned praise?), but, like Eminger, projects to be a serviceable NHL blueliner. Ivan Majesky failed his team physical, but if he can get healthy he'll provide the team with a physical presence. Journeyman Jamie Heward has found a temporary home and was probably the Caps' most impressive defenseman through the preseason, playing in all situations. Nolan Yonkman and Mathieu Biron have also made the team... out of camp (sorry - gag reflex). Somewhat suprisingly, the team sent down Mike Green, though he'll be back and has a bright future with the team. With some of the young guys getting valuable experience at the NHL level, this year's blueline will be tough to watch, but hopefully in the long-term this difficult season will serve them - and the team - well.

Goaltenders: Poor Olie Kolzig. Kolzig has looked very sharp in the preseason (up until the third period of Saturday's Flyers game, at least), and he'll need to be in order to keep the Caps in games and keep his own numbers respectable. Will Kolzig be traded during the year to a team looking for a veteran goalie? His contract will make him difficult to move until later on in the year, so expect Olie to be with the team, at least through the New Year. The backup job is somewhat in the air at the moment, as the Caps claimed Brent Johnson off waivers from Vancouver this afternoon. The move shows a lack of confidence in presumptive backup Maxime Ouellet, who has been horrid through the preseason and would have to clear waivers in order to be sent down to the AHL. Is Max still #2? Is a trade already in the works? The situation, as they say, bears watching.

Bottom line: If the Caps can score, they'll be entertaining. If not, they'll be painful. Either way they will lose early and often and will have a great shot at the #1 pick in the 2006 entry draft. But don't judge this team by its wins and losses. Instead, watch players develop and watch Alexander Ovechkin dazzle. With so many questions, one thing is certain - we'll be here through thick and thin, equal parts aggregator, scout and support group. Hopefully you'll be here with us and somewhere down the road we can all look back on this season and laugh as the Caps reach hockey's promised land and finally hoist the Cup.

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