After a long summer filled with acquisitions, departures, and controversies, the final days of the offseason can't fly by fast enough. Thankfully, Opening Night is just around the corner. With that in mind, it's time to take a look ahead at the 2011-2012 Washington Capitals - what's good, what's bad, what's changed and what we have to look forward to...
2010-11 Season Recap
A few months after being unceremoniously escorted from the playoffs by the Canadiens, the Capitals returned to training camp in the fall of 2010 ready to erase the pain and frustration, even wearing shirts that reminded them to stay angry. It was certainly a nice idea in theory; nothing like a healthy chip on one’s shoulder to turn frustration into motivation. When it works, that is.
Problem was, it certainly didn’t seem to be at first. The oft-repeated sentiment that "regular season doesn’t matter" had apparently trickled into the Caps’ locker room and the result was a smattering of decent efforts and a record that belied the lackluster start to the year. And by early December, their grip on the Southeast Division was starting to loosen. After a healthy eight-game losing streak (captured in stunning HD by HBO's cameras for 24/7) and despite rebounding just in time for the Winter Classic, as January rolled around they suddenly found themselves looking up at Tampa Bay in the standings.
It would take a radical shift in philosophies – and a little patience – to turn things around. With goals hard to come by all of a sudden, the Caps switched gears and took on a more defensive, trap-like approach, improving their penalty killing and working their way up to become one of the League’s best defensive teams. By March they were back on top, buoyed by new faces Marco Sturm, Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman and looking poised for a long postseason run.
Their first test? The New York Rangers, a team that on paper shouldn’t have been a problem but that had manhandled the Caps twice during the regular season and wasn’t going to go out without a fight. After taking the first two at home (thanks to some overtime heroics in Game 1) they arrived in New York flat and handed over Game 3. It took a nail-biting, dramatic, come-from-behind, double-overtime victory in Game 4 to send the series back to DC with a chance to clinch – and a shot at a little redemption from a season ago. The Game 5 victory in front of a raucous Verizon Center crowd seemed to appease the ghosts of postseason past.
...seemed to, at least, until the Caps drew the Lightning in the Conference Semifinals. With a banged-up defense and an inability to pierce resident geriatric Dwayne Roloson, the Caps went in and out with a whimper, failing to generate even one win and seeing their playoff run – and their season – come to a screeching halt.
Make the jump for roster changes, strengths, weaknesses, and a few bold predictions...
- Troy Brouwer, W - The first of a series of moves during a busy offseason, Brouwer was acquired on draft day from the Blackhawks in exchange for the Caps' first round pick and signed a two-year deal with the team just a few weeks later. Brouwer's acquisition gave the Caps some much-needed grit and size, along with some pretty recent Stanley Cup-winning experience, and signaled a trend toward adding leadership and physicality to a young, skilled lineup.
- Jeff Halpern, C - It's never really felt quite right since Halpern left six years ago, has it? Thankfully the now-veteran center (and his new, improved skating ability) is back for a second run with a team that has changed immensely since he departed for Dallas all those years ago. Look for him to pick up where Boyd Gordon left off, killing penalties and winning faceoffs...with perhaps a bit more offense thrown in for good measure.
- Roman Hamrlik, D - With Tom Poti on the shelf indefinitely, the Caps went in search of an experienced blueliner with some offensive upside; their search led them to Roman Hamrlik, a veteran of almost two decades with a knack for mentoring young defensemen. The fact that he comes with a healthy power play ability doesn't hurt, either - in fact, his 13 power play assists were more than the entire Caps' blue line combined last season (minus Dennis Wideman, who played just 14 games in DC before his injury).
Tomas Vokoun, G - Caps fans are used to things not quite working out – deals falling through, players saying they don’t want to play here, money and length of term being exorbitant when they actually decide to sign…so it’s a wee bit unsettling when something falls into the team’s lap as perfectly as this Vokoun deal did. Unsettling in a giddy,
drunkenjoyful way. Yes, folks, for the low, low price of $1.5 million, Braden Holtby gets another year in the A to turn into the goalie we assume he’ll be, Michal Neuvirth gets to battle it out with a childhood idol, and we get the joy of watching Vokoun stone OTHER teams instead of the Caps for at least a year. Pinch us, we’re dreaming.
- Joel Ward, W - It’s probably a bit ludicrous to think that Joel Ward was brought in for four years based solely on one excellent postseason. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s shown he can step up when the games get big, but Ward falls in line with exactly the type of player management seemed keen on getting this summer – big, gritty, tough to play against and able to chip in some offense. And the possibility that we’ll see a checking line with Ward, Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera (particularly based on early reviews in the preseason) is nothing short of drool-worthy.
- Jason Arnott - In theory, the addition of Arnott was a great one. He provided a bit more depth at center, had boatloads of NHL experience (including a Cup-clinching OT goal) and seemed to have a positive impact on the locker room right from the start - especially where the Russian contingent of the team was concerned. Unfortunately that experience came at the cost of his health, as Arnott battled injuries during his brief time in DC and ultimately headed west over the summer. Not before picking up his 400th goal, though...and a treasured keepsake photo to remember it by.
- Matt Bradley - To experience Matt Bradley's tenure with the Caps was to experience the evolution of a cult hero. The man, the myth, the legend and the inspiration for #needsmoreBradley, everyone's favorite paper-faced warrior was a staple of those hard-working, tough luck clubs that defined the rebuilding era. But the arrival of Matt Hendricks marked the beginning of the end for Brads, and after six years with the organization he left the friendly confines of DC for division rival Florida. Parting shots aside, Brads will be missed - and not just by Dan Steinberg.
- Eric Fehr - Eternally busted shoulders, a glut of wingers, salary cap issues...the perfect storm to send Eric Fehr away from the organization that drafted him eight years ago. The Winter Classic hero was seemingly always in Bruce Boudreau's doghouse and should see more playing time in Winnipeg - and there's always something nice about seeing a good guy return to his hometown team.
- Boyd Gordon - Up until he hit the road this summer, Gordon had been the longest-tenured Cap on the roster (and his departure means Alexander Semin now holds that title). For nine years Gordon was a staple of the organization, whether it was winning a Calder Cup in Hershey or blocking shots and breaking hearts in DC - but all good things must come to an end. Remember to hydrate out there in the desert, Gordo...
- Scott Hannan - Hannan arrived in Washington at what had to be the worst possible time to be coming into a new room: right as the team descended into an eight-game spiral. After a rocky start for both him and the team, though, Hannan established himself as an anchor on the blue line and put up impressive numbers during his time here. We made the argument for keeping him, but the team was able to upgrade his role to include a little offense, and Hannan found his way back to the Western Conference by signing with the Flames.
- Marco Sturm - Sturm's acquisition off the waiver wire was one of those lovely low-risk moves in which the team gave up nothing and added some much needed depth up front. The move didn't exactly pan out the way the team wanted, but Sturm was a likable addition who at least displayed good hockey sense and sound positioning. He also proved that he could still skate after recovering from knee surgery and parlayed that into a two-year deal with the defending Western Conference Champs.
- Semyon Varlamov - Probably the most intriguing (and intrigue-filled) departure over the summer was that of Varlamov, who at one time was seen as the future of Caps' goaltending but whose injuries had prevented him from taking the starting goalie job for good. Both sides have their version of what happened between the young netminder and the organization - we all know how the story ended, though, and that was with a trade that sent Varlamov to Colorado in return for a first and second round pick. Highway robbery by McPhee or just a solid deal for both sides? Time will tell.
- Penalty Kill - Two years ago the Caps' penalty kill was slow, stagnant, and mediocre at best. After revising the system last fall, however, it eventually became a point of pride for the team and the second-best PK squad in the League. The coaches may be seeking a new hybrid offensive-defensive style for even strength, but with many of last year's penalty-killers still in the mix it's unlikely they'll do much tweaking in this particular area.
- Depth on D - The addition of Dennis Wideman gave last year's defense a bit more depth (until his season-ending injury, of course); this year Wideman's back and healthy, Roman Hamrlik has been added to the mix and the team's stud defensive pair in John Carlson and Karl Alzner continues to mature. Throw in a bounceback year for Schultz and the potential of seeing Dmitry Orlov rocking the red sooner rather than later, and that's a darn fine blue line.
- Goaltending - Once a position of constant flux and omnipresent question marks, the Caps' crease has since become one of the team's greatest strengths. Whether it was Michal Neuvirth or Braden Holtby, the Caps were in good hands heading into the season; throw in an elite goaltender like Tomas Vokoun (for pennies on the dollar) and it's an embarrassment of riches.
- Down the Middle - Same story, different chapter. Is Marcus Johansson the answer? Is Mathieu Perreault? What about Brooks Laich? Will Nicklas Backstrom return to form? Until we get the answers, this remains a question mark.
- Mental Strength - You can point to injuries or system failures or lack of depth, but a lot of what has plagued this Capitals team is between the ears. They need to find a balance between staying focused during the regular season while not focusing too much on the regular season highs and lows, between working with their talent and knowing when talent needs to be complemented with hard work, between respecting an opponent and knowing they can beat anyone. It's up to the coaches to guide them along - and the players to listen.
- Accountability - ...or lack thereof. Every member of this organization to a man has spent the summer trying to convince us that playtime is over and that accountability will be key, whether it's coaches making sure no one slacks off or players holding each other up to a higher standard. This needs to be the year that talking leads to action.
It Could Happen...
Since predicting where this team is going to end up is already a crapshoot, we figured we'd take it one step further and offer up some on-the-fringe-of-outlandish predictions for the season ahead. We don't expect these things to happen, but, to paraphrase Lloyd Christmas, "We're saying there's a chance":
- Michal Neuvirth will start Game 1 of the playoffs
- Dennis Wideman will lead Caps defensemen in scoring
- Alexander Semin will set a career high for games played
- Bruce Boudreau will be a Jack Adams Trophy finalist
Got any bold (or not-so-bold) predictions? Drop 'em in the comments - here's your chance to go on the record and look really smart in eight months or so...