2009-10 Washington Capitals Season Preview

2008-09 Season Recap:  What's really amazing about the Capitals' 2008-09 season is just how much went wrong.  The new starting goaltender was inconsistent, finished with mediocre-at-best numbers in the regular season, and was pulled in the first playoff game.  The three big free agent signings who had been brought in a year earlier to fill key spots in the lineup failed to make the kind of impact they had in their first seasons in D.C. as Tom Poti missed thirty games, Viktor Kozlov saw his production slip, and Michael Nylander became such a non-entity that he was relegated to the press box for most of the playoffs and sat out the team's final playoff game in favor of Jay Beagle.  A largely inexperienced defense corps saw six of its members miss ten games or more due to injury, necessitating 93 man-games from defensemen who started the season in Hershey of the AHL.  The second line center position - considered a strength at the season's outset due to the presence of Nylander and Sergei Fedorov - remained unsettled for much of the season.  The team's secondary scoring was non-existent at times, and they went through long periods (a.k.a. February and March) looking disinterested and uninspired.

And, despite all of that, they finished with 50 wins and 108 points.

That kind of regular season success is incredible under any set of circumstances, and the fact that the Capitals could perform at that level with so much going wrong should be encouraging to Capitals fans, even in the wake of last year's Eastern Conference Semis Game Seven faceplant that unceremoniously ended the season.  It should also put the rest of the NHL very much on its toes.

Make the jump for roster changes, strengths, weaknesses, the team's depth chart, and our predictions.

Who's In:

  • Mike Knuble, RW - Knuble wasn't the biggest name available this summer, nor was he the flashiest player or the most skilled.  But what he was (and is) is the perfect fit for the Capitals - he provides a lot of what the team needs (net presence, grit, size, leadership) where they need it (right wing).  Having his 6'3'', 230 pound frame in front of the goal will make things more difficult for opposing goalies during Caps power plays and should give his linemates more space to work with at even strength. And having a knack for collecting and depositing loose pucks around the net won't hurt when he's playing on a line with a guy who has registered nearly a thousand shots on goal over the past two seasons.
  • Brendan Morrison, C - Morrison is another veteran who was brought in not to change the dynamic of the team or become a go-to guy, but rather to fill a hole and compliment the team's existing core - which is perfect because at this point in his career that's the role Morrison's best suited for.  He should provide solid defense on the second line while still being able to keep up with the likes of Alexander Semin, Tomas Fleischmann, Brooks Laich, and Knuble offensively.

Who's Out:

  • Donald Brashear, LW - There's a part of most Caps fans that will miss watching Brashear drop the mitts for the good guys, but the bottom line on Brash is that his production is going down, his salary is going up, and he isn't getting any younger.  Couple those facts with the ability to put a more skilled player from either a defensive (Quintin Laing) or offensive (Chris Bourque) standpoint, and there's no reason to be the slightest bit upset about that fact that Brash will be wearing someone else's red, white, and blue this season... so long as the "team toughness" we've been hearing so much about is, in fact, real.
  • Sergei Fedorov, C - It's sad to see a legend leave both the Capitals and the NHL, but the reality is that Fedorov, while productive when he played, had durability issues, took too many penalties, and sometimes looked like he had trouble keeping up with the Capitals style of play.  They team (some players more than others, no doubt) will miss his versatility and his veteran presence, but we have to think the team will be better off moving forward with a healthy Morrison as the second-line center. We'll always have Game Seven, though, won't we?
  • Viktor Kozlov, RW - A quintessential example of a player brought in to "bridge the gap," Kozlov was good in 07-08 and barely passable in 08-09 (flunking out of the Dainius Zubrus School of Statistical Inflation).  We thank him for his contributions to those two teams (those two tallies in Game Six of the Penguins series were nice), and wish him well in Russia... but we'll gladly take Mike Knuble in his place.

Four Strengths

  • Elite offensive talent - The Caps' "Young Guns" (Alex Ovechkin, Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green) all finished in the top 13 in the League in regular season points-per-game in 2008-09, with Green the only defenseman in the top-60. These kids - not one of whom is yet 26 years old - haven't even reached their respective primes yet. If healthy, the sky's the limit for the quartet.
  • The powerplay - Piggybacking off that last point, the Caps were second in the league in power play conversion last season when Green missed 14 games, Semin missed 20, and the team lacked consistent net presence (save for Laich).  The unit could be even better this year (thanks to Knuble and hopefully healthy years from Chris Clark and Brian Pothier), but even if it's not, it will remain one of the most feared in the League.
  • Depth on the blue line - At the moment the Capitals have at least eight guys who are clearly capable of taking a regular shift in the NHL, with at least a couple more in Hershey.  That doesn't change the fact the team could use another legitimate top-four guy, but it's also an organizational strength very few NHL teams have.
  • The third line - While we don't know who, exactly, will comprise the third line (especially with Fleischmann and Eric Fehr on injured reserve to start the season), we do know that it will be a strong unit.  David Steckel will almost certianly be the center and the wings should be filled out by a combination of Laich, Clark, Fehr, and Bourque (sorry, Matt Bradley Fan Club - we don't see him filling that role long-term).  The Caps third line should have everything you look at that spot in the lineup - size, grit, defensive skill, and the ability to chip in on offense - and should ensure the opposition can't afford to take any shifts off.

Four Weaknesses

  • Discipline - Last year's Caps team took far, far too many penalties that were either lazy, selfish, or unnecessary and, as a result, they were shorthanded as often as just about anyone anyone else in the league.  The departures of Fedorov and Brashear should help, but the team still has a lot of guys who take too many bad penalties.
  • High-end defensemen - Mike Green's just as good as his Norris Trophy Finalist status suggests, and both Tom Poti and and Jeff Schultz are solid defenders who bring a lot of value as penalty killers.  After those three, however, there's a pretty steep drop off that inherently results in at least one guy being given more minutes and more responsibility than he should be.  The addition - or emergence - of one more top-four defenseman would make a world of difference for this team right now.
  • Goaltending - Granted, this could turn out to be one of the team's greatest strengths, given the trajectory on which youngsters Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth find themselves. But at the moment, those two kids have combined to play fewer NHL minutes (playoffs included) than incumbent starter Jose Theodore played either before or after last year's All-Star Break. Competition should drive each of the three to be at his best, but the question mark in goal is certainly real in October... which may or may not matter in April.
  • Enforcement - Bradley's always willing to throw if need be, but doesn't have the win-loss record to match his heart. John Erskine can certainly handle himself when the rough stuff gets going, but concussions have limited how often he's dropped the mittens in recent years. Enforcement, for now, has given way to team toughness. We'll see if that can last for 82 games.

X-Factor: Bob Woods.  If the new assistant coach can overhaul the defense the way some people think he can, the Caps could become the team to beat in the East.

Depth chart:

Left Wing Center Right Wing
Alex Ovechkin
Nicklas Backstrom
Mike Knuble
Tomas Fleischmann
Brendan Morrison
Alex Semin
Brooks Laich
David Steckel
Chris Clark
Quintin Laing
Boyd Gordon
Eric Fehr
Chris Bourque Keith Aucoin Matt Bradley
Oskar Osala Jay Beagle
Alexandre Giroux

Mathieu Perreault
Andrew Gordon
Other
Michael Nylander
Defense
Mike Green Tom Poti
Jeff Schultz Shaone Morrisonn
Brian Pothier Milan Jurcina
John Erskine Tyler Sloan
Karl Alzner Sean Collins
John Carlson
Goaltender
Jose Theodore
Semyon Varlamov
Michal Neuvirth
Braden Holtby

 

Predictions

David: In the summer and fall before the 2007-08 season (and before I was blogging) I was yammering to anyone who would listen about how excited I was about the Capitals off-season and how much better they could be as a team.  When pressed on how good I thought they were (and could be) my stock answer wound up being that I thought they would be a team that bounced around the last playoff spot or two for most of the season and eventually made it in with a late season run because I expected them to get better as the season went on, that I expected them to lose in the Conference Finals in the next (08-09) season, and to win the Cup the year after that.  While I won't be so bold as to predict a Capitals Cup win in September in a public forum, I will say that the team's progression has been even better than I expected.  They might not win the Cup, but the Caps should at the very least be in the Eastern Conference Finals - and I expect them to bring the Prince of Wales trophy to D.C.

Pepper: Team toughness sufficient to win a Cup, with or without Brashear, has yet to be demonstrated. That nebulous quality means physical play and an increased willingness to drive to the net "Fred Shero style," but also relentlessness -- keeping the foot on the gas pedal. Too often last season the team would shock their opponents with their jaw-dropping skill and energy, and then coast for the remainder of the contest. And we've seen some of that dynamic in this pre-season already. Regardless of whether or not we see a repeat of that behavior in the 2009-10 campaign, the talent on this team is more than enough for it to cruise to another Southeast Division title.

But, as currently constituted (i.e., well before the March trading deadline), what I foresee as the team's undoing in the playoffs is the lack of a veteran defenseman who has deep playoff, if not Cup winning, experience. Someone who can clear the crease or tie up a stick looking for rebounds. Without that, they'll still likely win two rounds next spring, but falter in the Eastern Conference finals.

J.P.: I think the real challenge for this Caps team will be staying reasonably focused over the course of an 82-game regular season and not picking up some of the bad habits they developed in February and March of last year that carried into the playoffs. The talent is there in spades - if this team wants to win and is willing to do what it takes to win, there's no reason they can't, and no reason they won't. They'll win the East, and then anything can happen.

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