It seems the right time to do a season preview on my 1,000 post. It has taken me 4 years, some bad grammar, a few hate comments and nearly 100,000 hits a year in that time to get to this point. It seems apropos that it will be on the verge of what could be the year for the Capitals.
But Commissioner Gary Bettman isn't just going to hand the Capitals the Stanley Cup (unlike some other teams he would). That means the Caps will have to meander through another 82 game schedule to reach just a chance at that prize. It seems a bit cliche to make it "movie" themed, but this year's season preview will look at The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
If the Capitals even want a chance at the Cup, they will need another great year from the anointed next great one. Alex Ovechkin may get some much needed help in that regard and hopefully he will not have to carry that load alone. After the departure of Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov, the Caps needed to fulfill those veteran skates. Instead of just getting the best free agent on the market, they looked at what they needed. They needed some grit to accompany the skill.
Mike Knuble was brought in to add some sandpaper to the silky smooth play of the top line. One of the frustrating problems for the Caps a season ago was the amount of rebounds and loose pucks that were gobbled up by the opposition. Knuble should fix that problem. We have already seen that in the preseason. The Caps also pulled in some solid second line talent in Brendan Morrison to fill those two way center shoes.
The Caps also will benefit from a competitive goaltending battle. Jose Theodore was donned the number one crown by head coach Bruce Boudreau over the summer. That meant Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth would have to fight for the back up position. Don't think of it as a headache, it is a nice problem to have.
A healthy defensive core should also be a plus for the Capitals this season. The returning group will have new comer Tyler Sloan in tow for the '09 - '10 season. With players ready to expect how each of them plays their position, it should make for a stronger defensive core. Mike Green will add some offensive punch to the blue line, while John Erskine will make a few opposition forwards keep their heads up through the neutral zone.
Another positive for the Capitals is their penalty kill. With returning defensive specialists Dave Steckel, Boyd Gordon and new comer (and shot blocking machine) Quintin Laing, when the Caps do take a penalty they will be in good hands. The PK was flawless through the first three games of the preseason. But too many penalties can tax the players and throw off line combinations. It is best for this skill to be used as little as possible through the course of a game.
Bad habits haunt the Capitals. Whether it is taking lazy penalties or not finishing their games, the Caps have a slew of bad habits they have to kick. They need to beat the teams that they need to beat as well as have good games against the teams that will challenge them through the year.
One aspect may help the Caps in that regard. Their schedule is a little tougher at the beginning and end of this season. They should be good barometers to gauge where this team falls in the league. Starting their season against some elite teams on the road in Boston and Detroit will hopefully show how good this team really is or what they have to work on early in the season.
Penalties are a sore spot for the Capitals. When they stop moving their feet, they start swinging with their sticks and that leads to a plethora of 2 minute infractions. The Caps can ill afford to allow good teams to play their best players with a man advantage. In many ways, it should be the other way around, the skill on the Caps should be drawing more penalties. For what ever the reason is, the Caps just can not stay out of the sin bin.
The Capitals also have to improve on their power play. While they showed some success late last season, they tend to get cute with the extra man. That has lead to shorthanded chances for their opponents. Not exactly how that is suppose to work. Coaches will have to shore up the special teams and get it back to basics (shots on net). The Caps most likely will put the puck onto the stick of Alex Semin, but don't be surprised to see Nick Backstrom quarterback for a few power plays either.
Micheal Nylander has been a "non-problem" problem for the Capitals. A forward with amazing skill that just doesn't fit the Boudreau mold and that has created problems for the Caps. Even before they have played their first game. In order to fit under the salary cap, management had to put Chris Bourque on waivers after telling him he had made the team.
It is clear that Boudreau and GM George McPhee aren't keen on having Nylander in the fold. But with little options left, he will be on the opening night roster since they do not want to buy him out of his contract. Nylander was signed when the team had a more defensive feel under Glen Hanlon, but the whole philosophy of the team has changed and Nylander has been left in the cold. He has not suited up for a single preseason game, and it is likely that he will not see ice time when the Caps open their season in Boston.
What the Caps will do with Nylander remains a mystery. What McPhee has been working on is pawning the forward off to Europe, but it's not likely that will happen anytime soon. What ever rift that lays between management and Nylander will most likely start to be a distraction as the season wears on. An elite player that earns just under $5 million is going to be making appearances in the press box more than the ice. That just doesn't sit well.
The other ugly thing about the Capitals season will be the condition of the ice at Verizon Center. An issue as the league's MVP will most likely playing on a surface of deep ruts and cold puddles on the Chinatown floor. I am sure that the phone booth staff is doing the best job with what they have. But having poor ice conditions that can possible endanger $56.8 million in player asset, the Caps should be looking into ways to improve the frozen stuff.
February in Vancouver, the world will rear it's ugly head at a very beautiful city for the 2010 Winter Olympics. The Caps will have possibly 7 to 8 players that will compete. It will be 7 to 8 of the most irreplaceable and very expensive players that will play very competitively for a gold medal. McPhee, as well as the other 29 general managers, will be holding their breaths between February 15 and March 1.
There will be a lot of ups and downs for the Capitals this season. But their goal is closer now than it ever has been. There is a chip on the shoulders of the players, one can feel it just by being in the locker room. This is more than the game seven loss to Philadelphia two seasons ago, it's something much deeper, much more profound. They have learned some very hard lessons as they finished their season months ago. Those lessons should propel them through the tough times they will face as a team this season.
The Caps shouldn't have a problem within their division. Carolina and Florida are serious threats, but the Capitals have shown they can play with them and win. In the Eastern Conference there is more for the Caps to worry about. A strong team in Boston and New Jersey, a rivalry with the Penguins and Sidney Crosby, tough squads in Toronto and Philly and tough goaltenders in Tomas Vokoun, Henrik Lundqvist, Marc-Andre Fluery and more. They have the skill to beat any of those teams on any given night, and should.
I do predict the Capitals will make it to the number one spot in the East and should go far into the post season. I do predict that this team will make it to the Stanley Cup Finals. Whatever happens beyond that, I don't want to jinx it. Hey, I am a Caps fan after all.