With the regular season drawing ever closer and the pain of last year's abrupt ending (hopefully) fading further in the rearview mirror, it's time to look ahead at the 2010-2011 Washington Capitals - what's good, what's bad and what's to come for this team determined to "stay angry"...
2009-10 Season Recap
The Capitals' 2009-10 campaign is probably best described by the famous words of Charles Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." And then some.
From October 1 to April 11, the Caps were among the best teams - if not the best team - in the National Hockey League, racking up points and wins at an astounding pace. Despite a few bumps, bruises, penalty killing woes and suspensions along the way it was nothing short of a brilliant regular season.
The Caps finished first overall in both the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference, winning the former by a hefty 38-point margin and the latter by an equally impressive 18 points. They set a franchise record by winning fourteen straight games, kicked off just after trading away one captain and anointing a new one in Alex Ovechkin. They scored more goals (318) than any other team in the NHL, had the League's most effective power play at just over 25%, saw seven different players crack the 20-goal plateau (and Mike Green missed by a whisker with 19), got solid goaltending from Jose Theodore (whose last regulation loss of the season came in mid-January), and went on to win the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy.
But if they were flying high as the season drew to a close, they were quickly brought back to earth as the playoffs rolled around. After a rocky start to their first-round series against Montreal it seemed they would do what everyone expected - dispose of the Canadiens quickly and easily; but a failure to adjust to Montreal's defensive stance, playing what GM George McPhee described as "the worst 10 minutes we played all year" at the beginning of a potential series-clinching Game 5 at home, an even more astonishing failure to cash in on the power play (going 1-for-33 in the series) and a superhuman effort by Montreal's Jaroslav Halak in net led to an absolute collapse, a blown 3-1 series lead...and a trip to the golf course before April was even over.
Make the jump for roster changes, strengths, weaknesses, and our predictions...
- D.J. King, RW - The Caps were left with a significant void in the enforcer department after Donald Brashear's departure in the summer of '09. And while the stereotypical enforcer doesn't always seem necessary to the Caps' style of play, the lack of one usually meant that middleweight Matt Bradley was charged with taking on heavyweights and the team's stars were left largely unprotected. The acquisition of King changes that, and keeps the Caps from being outpaced by Eastern Conference foes who have added "big brother" types during the summer.
- Matt Hendricks, C - A last-minute invitee to training camp this year, Hendricks earned himself a contract and has stayed in the mix for a roster spot largely in part to his offensive output, his grit and his willingness to send a message. If he doesn't crack the lineup, Hendricks at least provides the Caps with a reliable call-up waiting in Hershey.
- Dany Sabourin, G - He'll likely spend most, if not all, of the season sharing time with Braden Holtby in Hershey, but bringing in Sabourin gives the Caps another decent veteran presence behind a young goalie for the Bears - a system that has worked fairly well in the past few years.
- Marcus Johansson, C - The team's 2009 first round draft pick signed an entry-level contract with the Caps this summer (just as another Swede was signing a significantly larger deal) and has been projected by none other than George McPhee himself as a guy who could conceivably make the team out of camp this year. The slick Swede doesn't have the same ceiling as his countryman Backstrom, but his playmaking skills and physicality have impressed thus far and he could be a legitimate option on the third line this year.
- Jose Theodore, G - The veteran goaltender was brought in two summers ago to serve as a bridge between the old guard and the young goalies in the system. With Neuvirth and Varlamov seemingly both ready to make the jump to the NHL full time, Theodore's purpose was fulfilled and his days with the Caps drew to a close over the summer. He had some good runs, some bad ones and an incredible stretch to finish out his regular season tenure with the Caps - and above all else was a professional through and through. Best of luck in Minnesota, Theo.
- Brendan Morrison, C - Acquired last summer to fill the gaping hole at second-line center, Morrison's career as a Cap started out great, fizzled out by December and ended with him occasionally being a healthy scratch during the playoffs. The Caps cut ties with the center this summer (as did the Canucks more recently) and he's currently still looking for work. We'll always have this little doozy, though...
- Eric Belanger, C - The Caps traded for Belanger at the deadline to once again take a crack at filling the second-line center role (and perhaps boost the penalty killing). The result? Not great...oh, and Eric, please find a new agent.
- Joe Corvo, D - After re-signing with Carolina over the summer, Corvo said "[r]eally, the whole Washington situation was such a short period of time where it almost feels like I was never there..." Um, ditto, Joe.
- Milan Jurcina, D - Juice's 2008-09 season started and ended in Washington, with a brief detour to Columbus in between that brought Jason Chimera to the Caps. His second tour of duty with the team, such as it was, saw him on the shelf after surgery and as a result ended up costing the team nothing. If he's healthy, that million-dollar salary the Islanders gave him during the summer could end up being something of a bargain - and a potential question mark for Caps fans.
- Shaone Morrisonn, D - Morrisonn was one of the longer-tenured Caps, arriving in DC during the 2003-04 fire sale before heading to Buffalo via free agency in August. He was a quiet, fairly consistent presence on the blue line but had shown signs of pricing himself out of Washington long before hitting the open market and was probably made expendable with the continued evolution of Karl Alzner.
- Scott Walker, RW - Like Corvo and Belanger, Walker's time with the Caps was extremely limited - but of the three he probably earned himself the most fans, largely for his demeanor on and off the ice. During his nine regular season games he scored two goals (both in the same game, his first as a Cap) and added an assist as well as a fair amount of pint-sized grit, but was benched for all but the final game of the playoffs.
- Michael Nylander, C - Yes, yes, we know he's been "gone" for awhile now...but now he's really gone! Er, sort of.
- Power play - With the personnel relatively unchanged (and perhaps even enhanced a bit on the blue line) the Caps should once again be among the top teams with the extra man. Whether or not they can once again crack 25% effectiveness remains to be seen, but with the Young Guns at the helm anything is possible.
- Offense - Once again, whenever the Young Guns are involved (and some extra guys as well) the goals are usually going to come. For all the critiques leveled against the Caps in the past year or two, their ability to score and score big has never been in question. Whether it's shellacking a team from the start or scoring in clumps late to erase a deficit, this team knows how to put up goals. Seven guys scored at least twenty goals last year; Mike Green was just a goal away from making it eight. And while it's not a guarantee that all of them repeat the task, having five or six 20+ goal-scorers is still something to boast about.
- Chemistry - Whether you're talking about the synergy between Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, the palpable "click" that occurs when the power play unit steps on the ice or the fact that so many of these guys have, for all intents and purposes, grown up together, chemistry is one of the main strengths of this team and one that so many teams desire. That the Caps have it in spades, and on so many levels, could be a key factor as they continue to take steps forward.
- Penalty kill - It was abysmal for most of last season, languishing in the bottom third of the League despite the fact that the Caps were fairly decent at staying out of the box. Personnel? Systems? A combination of both? Whatever it was, the coaching staff has vowed to improve it this year...we'll see.
- Depth at center - No one questions Nicklas Backstrom's studliness on the top line, but beyond the young Swede is a tremendous drop-off in talent and a lingering question mark on the second line. For now the job is Tomas Fleischmann's to lose, and the Caps do have a ton of almost-ready guys in the system, but unless Fleischmann really clicks or one of the youngsters like Mathieu Perreault or Marcus Johansson ups his game, the Caps may need to go outside the organization to shore up the middle.
- Youth on defense and in net - For a few years now a lot of the criticisms of the Capitals have focused on the defense and the goaltending - sometimes fair, sometimes not, but always there nonetheless. The infusion of youth at both positions this year won't do anything to silence those critics, with as-yet unproven guys like Carlson, Alzner, Neuvirth and Varlamov looking to make their mark in the NHL. How far the Caps go this year, both in the regular season and beyond, will hinge largely on the ability of those four to do just that.
So how does it all end? Here are our quick and dirty predictions of when and where the Caps finish out their season:
Pepper: Caps should still easily take an admittedly much-improved Southeast Division, and win the Eastern Conference (though likely by not nearly as great a margin as last season). They'll win two rounds of the playoffs but I'm not convinced that the current roster can earn itself a Stanley Cup Finals berth.
J.P.: It's so hard to make a prediction in October about how this team will look in April, but I'll say they win two rounds and bow out in the Conference Finals.
David: First in the SE, second in the conference, out in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Becca: The Caps will make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals...and I'll leave it at that.