Six Questions Facing the Caps

By Scott Lowe

It’s been an interesting off-season, to say the least, for the Washington Capitals.

Gone are longtime Caps Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon and Eric Fehr. Enigmatic, yet talented, netminder Semyon Varlamov also departed along with last year’s stretch-run veteran additions Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm.

The replacements? Former Caps captain Jeff Halpern, past Stanley Cup winner Troy Brouwer, Nashville playoff hero Joel Ward, elite goaltender Tomas Voukoun and 19-year steady blueline veteran Roman Hamrlik.

The net result? A team that has added size, speed, skill and grit; a club that can roll out a top-six defensive unit that matches up with any in the NHL; and a franchise that apparently has answered all the critics who said that it hasn’t had an elite goaltender for the past five years.

Add it all up and Washington has put together a team that on paper has few – if any – question marks or weaknesses. In past years when experts and publications have made their preseason predictions they’ve questioned the Caps’ heart or their ability to play a playoff style or their defensive depth and commitment or the quality and experience of their goalies.

None of that is happening right now. In fact, several of the usual naysayers have predicted that Washington will either finally make a run to the Stanley Cup Finals or even win the whole thing.

Clearly it’s a new day in Red Nation, but is that good or bad? For some franchises, dealing with high preseason expectations can be a burden that they never quite shake. For this Caps team, however, a group that has made progress over the past two years but still has dealt with playoff failures and been peppered by doubters, maybe the preseason praise will be just the jolt of confidence it needs.

No matter how well-structured the team is, Washington still has to prove it on the ice – first for 82 games during the regular season, which they’ve been able to do the past two years – and then in the playoffs, which have ended in disappointment the past two seasons. We won’t know the outcome of this movie until May or June, but you can bet there will be a lot of interesting plot twists along the way. There always are. It’s what makes hockey great, and it’s why they don’t award the hardware in September.

So, despite all of Washington’s progress in playing a more responsible defensive game last year, rallying from a mid-season slump to capture the top seed in the East and General Manager George McPhee’s off-season wheeling and dealing, there are some questions facing the Caps as they enter the 2011-12 campaign. Here are the top six, in no particular order:

Will Alex Ovechkin bounce back?

It’s hard to say that a guy who finished seventh in the league in scoring and eclipsed the 30-goal and 80-point mark had a down season, but clearly Ovechkin was not himself for a good part of last year. There were times when he took games over and carried the team on his back, like his spectacular overtime end-to-end rush to a deciding goal against Buffalo and his similar tally to ice game five against the Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs. But for a good part of the season Ovechkin, who reportedly played through nagging injuries all year, was just not the dominating player he had been throughout his career.

The good news is that Ovechkin, still only 26 years old, reinvented himself as a more defensively responsible player. He took a week off to let some of his injuries heal late in the season and the Caps didn’t miss a beat, proving to themselves that they are more than a one-trick pony. Ovechkin also showed a willingness to mix it up in front of the net from time to time, using his big body to help the team create scoring opportunities when the offense was struggling.

He came to training camp healthy, in great shape, a little bit lighter and determined to return to the level that saw him routinely net more than 45 goals and consistently be mentioned as one of the top two or three players in the world. The hunch here is that the Caps will develop a little more offensive and defensive balance and that Ovie will return to his past 100-point form.

Can the Czechs be mates?

In a solid rookie campaign Czech goaltender Michal Neuvirth grabbed the starting job from Varlamov in April and was tabbed as Washington’s starter heading into the playoffs. He outdueled Henrik Lundqvist in the opening round in spectacular fashion before falling back a bit in the round two sweep by Tampa.

Still, for a then-22-year-old in his first full NHL season, the young Czech showed poise well beyond his years, good quickness and athleticism and enough of a propensity to make the big save to make Caps fans and management feel good about the team’s goaltending future. He finished the year 27 wins, a 2.45 GAA and a .914 save percentage then came back with a spectacular preseason that saw him post a goals-against average below 1.50 and stop 95 percent of the shots fired his way.

Enter Neuvirth’s countryman Tomas Vokoun, a key offseason acquisition. Voukoun, who is a two-time all-star and the Nashville record holder for single-season and all-time wins, has not posted a save percentage below .919 in the past six years – despite playing for some horrific teams. He is fourth among active goaltenders in career save percentage and fifth in goals-against average – despite playing for some horrific teams. Despite playing for those horrific teams – do you see a pattern here? – Vokoun is widely regarded as one of the top goaltenders in the world. He’s the elite goalie the Caps have been missing.

Some might ask if two No. 1 goalies can co-exist on the same team. There seems to be no reason to worry about that being the case in Washington. Head Coach Bruce Boudreau has talked about the advantages of having a No. 1 and a No. 1A. Vokoun took $1.5 million to sign with Washington because he wanted to play for a winner. Someone who accepts several million dollars a year less than he could have made in hopes of winning a Stanley Cup doesn’t seem like a guy who would make waves in the room. If anything he can be a mentor for Neuvirth and will provide the Caps with the kind of game-stealer they haven’t had since Olie Kolzig’s heyday. And having two quality goaltenders to rotate will allow both to be fresh come playoff time.

The answer to this question would appear to be a resounding yes.

Will Alex Semin change his stripes?

Unfortunately for Caps fans Semin has shown no indication that he will be able to become the team-first kind of player they desire. He has shown flashes of being able to do this, but it’s never been for an extended period of time. His penchant for trying to be too fancy and turning the puck over, making the wrong pass at the wrong time, forcing shots from ridiculous angles and taking lazy third-period penalties has often landed him in Boudreau’s doghouse.

The problem is that Semin’s upside is so spectacular – he’s a former 40-goal scorer – that Boudreau never leaves him out on the back porch very long. Over the years he has benched the enigmatic Russian for stretches of games – even in overtime or during power plays at times – but never has completely scratched him for his poor play. This has not gone over well in the dressing room, according to Caps’ insiders, who say that Semin is not well-liked and that many players are sick of what they feel has been preferential treatment toward him. He is considered selfish by many and not willing to do what it takes to help the team in certain situations.

This year Boudreau has vowed to run a tighter ship. He had a heart-to-heart with Ovechkin over the summer and asked his captain to be more vocal and forceful with his teammates. There is a chance that the combination of this and Semin starting the season on a line with playmaker Niklas Backstrom might help “Bad Sascha” turn into “Good Sascha” more often this year.

The jury is still out on this one, but the bet here is that Semin may end up playing in a different colored sweater come February, possibly as a rental for a team that sees a key offensive player go down with a serious injury.

Can the Caps Play Jekyll and Hyde?

Bruce Boudreau swallowed his pride last year and reinvented his team as a trapping, defense-first unit. To the players’ and coach’s credit, the team bought in. It took some time – as evidenced by Washington’s well-documented eight-game losing streak – but from January on the high-flying Caps became almost, well, boring.

Sure they had the speed and skill to counterattack in spectacular fashion, but the 5-4 and 6-5 victories suddenly turned into more of the 2-1 and 3-2 variety. The team showed an uncanny ability to win low-scoring one-goal games, many coming in overtime and shootouts, and rose from the middle of the pack to the top of the Eastern Conference.

The in-season addition of veterans Scott Hannan, Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm added depth, skill and playoff experience. Washington entered the postseason looking like it might have transformed into the playoff-style team experts had been asking for, and the Stanley Cup talk was only heightened by a five-game, first-round playoff victory against the Rangers.

Then the Caps ran into a team even more committed to defense with an equal level of skill, a couple of red hot role players and a goaltender playing at the top of his game. They looked confused against Tampa Bay’s trap and struggled to score goals. The Lightning, who had been molding their game all year long under first-year head coach Guy Boucher, were able to capitalize on their few good scoring opportunities. Inopportune penalties hurt the Caps as they became frustrated by the Bolts’ style.

Washington had worked so hard to become a defensive-oriented team that the Caps didn’t know how or when to pin their ears back and open it up against a plodding, tight-checking team. The end result was a startling four-game exit from the playoffs and even more offseason questions.

This year the Caps need to be able to play both styles on any given night. Sometimes they have to be able to open things up to get a lead and then clamp down or to come back if they are behind. Other nights maybe it’s a more conservative, counter-attacking approach if they are tired or banged up.

It may take a little while to build chemistry and get in sync, but it appears as though the addition of players such as Brouwer, Ward, Halpern and Hamrlik – as well as the emergence of second-year speedster Marcus Johansson as a two-way threat – will allow Washington to vary its style more and be very dangerous come playoff time.

Will the real Mike Green please stand up?

Yes, former Norris-finalist Mike Green has been banged up a good part of the past two seasons. And he clearly has listened to his detractors and concentrated on becoming a better player in his own end. Both of those factors have caused his offensive production to decline.

In the past Green, who is a smooth and extremely fast, effortless skater, displayed rare confidence carrying and moving the puck in all areas of the ice. That confidence seems to have deteriorated a bit the past two seasons as he has focused more on defense. To his credit, Green has become a pretty solid defenseman in his own zone. The question is, however, whether or not that benefits the team more than the style that helped him top the 75-point mark and give the Caps the most feared power play in the game. That question is even more valid now that Washington has assembled a core of six defensemen who would be considered top-four guys for almost any team.

After notching 76 and 73 points the previous two seasons (the latter number in just 69 games), Green’s output fell off to 24 points in 49 games last year as he battled concussion issues and adapted to the team’s new defensive style. At the same time, Washington’s power play declined from the top unit in the league to a bottom-half producer.

This doesn’t appear to be a coincidence. If the Caps’ power play converted at the same rate it had in previous seasons, Washington would have been nearly unbeatable last year given its improved penalty killing and defensive play. Accordingly, returning the power play to elite status is one of the team’s goals this year, and Green should play a large role in that.

Asking Green to rebound and reach the 70-point plateau is a bit much to expect this year. Assuming that he stays relatively healthy, however, he should be able to notch 50-plus points and help make the Caps a more dangerous team with the man advantage. If that happens, Washington will become a very difficult team to handle.

Are the Caps strong enough up the middle?

The center position is probably Washington’s biggest question mark, and a lot depends on the development of Johansson, the sophomore speedster. Johansson made the team out of training camp last year and appeared in 69 games, missing a few contests with minor injuries. Boudreau stuck with the talented Swede early in the season through some growing pains, and it paid off as the youngster emerged as a consistent two-way player by the end of the year and in the postseason, finishing with 13 goals and 14 points and performing very well in the first round defeat of New York.

While he may never be a 100-point producer in the league, Johansson has the speed, skill and commitment to develop into one of the league’s top two-way forwards. He is very responsible defensively, a strong penalty killer and a guy who can beat you wide with speed or dangle and put the puck between your legs. Johansson also doesn’t mind setting up in the trenches for deflections or garbage goals. If he emerges as a reliable first- or second-line pivot, it will take pressure off of Backstrom – who needs to rebound from a sub-par 65-point campaign – and make the Caps very solid up the middle thanks to the depth provided by steady vets Laich and Halpern.

Right now Johansson is playing with Ovechkin and Brouwer on a fast and powerful top line. He improved so rapidly last year and plays such a mature style as a 21-year-old that it appears as though he will provide Boudreau with another potent offensive weapon, allowing Backstrom to relax and giving the Caps a pair of lines as dangerous as any in the league.

Comments

George Prax's picture

I always love a little Czech flavor on teams. I know Czechtacular won't like me saying that but it's true. They tend to play well together so the more the merrier. You'll like Hamrlik if he doesn't have to play as your number one defenseman most nights (he likely won't but he tends to fall into that role a lot of the time for some reason), great veteran guy.

I think the Caps are a darkhorse team this year. Sure everyone expects them to make the playoffs this year but all the attention in the east is on Pittsburgh, Philly and Boston, and for different reasons on teams like Toronto and Winnipeg. The Caps have a chance to slip under the radar come playoff time and they seem like a team that can take advantage of that after so many years of pressure and high expectations.