When the Washington Capitals opened the 2008-09 season in Atlanta, the players who dressed that night had an average age of 28.3 years. Playing through the season, the average age lowered a bit due to injuries, benchings and other personnel decisions, and when it was all said and done, the average age of a 2008-09 Cap was 27.3 years1.
Heading into the 2009-10 season, the core of the team is still very much in tact, one season more experienced and one year older. And yet, the team itself isn't aging much at all. In fact, there's a good chance that the team the Caps ice on Opening Night 2009 (in Boston on October 1) will be even younger than the team that lost Game 7 against Pittsburgh (average age: 27.6 years old). Regulars gone from last season's roster include 39-year-old Sergei Fedorov, 37-year-old Donald Brashear, 34-year-old Viktor Kozlov, 32-year-old Brent Johnson and, for all intents and purposes, 37-year-old Michael Nylander. New(ish) arrivals include 37-year-old Mike Knuble, 34-year-old Brendan Morrison, 21-year-old Simeon Varlamov and, in all likelihood, 20-year-old Karl Alzner (you can add 23-year-old Chris Bourque to the mix as well, if you like). The result of these changes is that an 11-forward/7-defensemen Opening Night lineup reflective of the above would have an average age of 27.2 years old.
From a production standpoint, the Caps are incredibly youth-heavy, with 78.0% of their 2008-09 goals coming from players who were 25 years old or younger on February 1 (by contrast, 53.9% of Pittsburgh's goals, 52.3% of Philly's and 50.0% of Boston's were scored by sub-26-year-olds). In other words, the Caps are shedding older, less productive players as their core group of players enter their respective primes. What remains is a young (relatively, at least), but somewhat experienced and accomplished group. Defensmen Mike Green and Jeff Schultz (with an average age of 23.3 years old when the season opens) have already combined to play 440 NHL games. Alex Ovechkin (who turns 24 a couple of weeks before the season starts) has more career playoff goals than Markus Naslund, Dany Heatley and
Mike Knuble Joe Thornton have. Simeon Varlamov is already in the top 25 for playoff games played by a goalie since the lockout. Nicklas Backstrom, at 21, has played in more playoff games (and has more playoff goals and points) in his career than Marc Savard or Olli Jokinen have. And so on.
But do the Caps have enough experience, especially on the blueline? The top six defensemen for last year's Champion Penguins had played a combined 3,052 NHL regular season games by the time the playoffs rolled around. The Red Wings' D-corps that won the Cup the year before had played 4,439 games (even if you swap out Chris Chelios for Brett Lebda, that number is 3,221). The 2007-08 Ducks group had 3,023 games. By comparison, last year's Caps' playoff rearguards had just 2,358 games of regular season NHL experience heading into the playoffs and that's not just the top six - that's all of 'em (and more than 30% of those games belong to Tom Poti). With Karl Alzner and John Carlson on the horizon - talented as they may be - this group may be losing experience on the whole as fast as it gains it.
So while the question of whether the Caps have enough experience is one that likely won't be answered until next April, May or June, they're certainly still relatively green, particularly on the backline. While everyone is clamoring for the team to add a physical presence among the defensemen, the greater blueline need is probably in experience, and not just in what a veteran defenseman contributes in his play, but also in helping to develop the younger rearguards on the team - Brendan Witt and Sergei Gonchar had Calle Johansson and Joe Reekie. Who do Mike Green and Jeff Schultz have? Shaone Morrisonn's 350 games?
The Caps are a young and talented team, and they look to remain a young and talented team for some time. That's a good thing. But at some point, they may need to add a bit of been-there-done-that to get to the next level and truly contend for a Championship.
1Average age for the season was calculated by taking the age of each player as of February 1, 2009, multiplying it by the number of games he played, and dividing the grand total for all Caps players by the number of man-games played.