Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Jon Jordan on 09/22/10 at 01:44 PM ET
Of all five Southeast Division clubs, the Washington Capitals of 2010-11 will look the most like themselves from a year ago, having added only a spattering of depth to the lineup that captured the President’s Trophy last season. Alas, as the reigning division champ and still the clear-cut class of the division, if it ain’t broke, well, you know… But a first-round playoff exit thanks to Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens left an awful taste in the mouths of Bruce Boudreau’s squad, meaning improvements are in order this year for sure. (Or else?)
A 54-15-13 record, 121 points and 313 goals scored are all incredibly impressive feats but you can’t get away from the feeling that getting bounced out of the playoffs in the first round just about ruined all of that. Washington’s dynamic offensive attack was neutralized in the final three games of that series, with the Caps managing just a single goal in each. Unfortunately for the Capitals, despite all of last year’s regular season success, any look back on the 2009-10 season begins and ends with the failure of that single playoff round. If it doesn’t, there are some priorities that need straightening.
CONVERGING ON THE CAPITAL
General manager George McPhee went with a patient approach this summer, happy with the talent he had in-house, largely, to take the franchise to the next level of post-season success.
The Caps did add some toughness in winger D.J. King, acquired in a deal with St. Louis for prospect forward Stefan Della Rovere.
Aside from that, and 2009 first-rounder Marcus Johansson coming over from Sweden to compete for the third-line center position with Mathieu Perreault, other Washington off-season imports were of the depth variety and the likes of goalie Dany Sabourin, d-man Brian Fahey and forwards Kyle Greentree and Brian Willsie are probably slated for significant time at AHL Hershey.
OUT OF OFFICE
Making room for younger players now ready for full-time roles, the Caps said goodbye to veteran defensemen Milan Jurcina, Shaone Morrison and deadline addition Joe Corvo, who all departed via free agency.
Up front, Brendan Morrison is gone (and trying to latch on with his former club, the Vancouver Canucks, to extend his career), as are Scott Walker and Eric Belanger, the latter of botched verbal contract agreement with Washington infamy, now onto Phoenix.
And, in a bit of a surprise, the Capitals moved on from goaltender Jose Theodore rather quickly and will go with the young tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth in goal.
On defense, Karl Alzner will get his first full-time go at the NHL level, likely alongside former Hershey partner, John Carlson, who many are eyeballing for a Calder Trophy run. With World Junior gold and a Calder Cup on his resume, as well as a solid showing in 22 NHL games last season, why not?
Early indications are that Perreault has a leg up on Johansson in their training camp battle. Exhibition game performance will likely play a key role in how that finally shakes out.
But the story of Washington’s youngsters is all about the goaltenders. Varlamov and Neuvirth have 54 games of NHL regular season experience between them and, for a team primed for a run at the Stanley Cup, they cannot afford the typical growing pains of inexperienced netminders. If Varlamov falters, Neuvirth will get a look. If that doesn’t pan out, a deal might be in order. A veteran addition around the trade deadline might be a foregone conclusion anyway, as Washington could look for some insurance as the playoffs approach. Down the depth chart a bit is Braden Holtby, who gets the starter’s gig in Hershey this year and fortifies some enviable long-term strength in the crease for the Caps.
It’s no secret at all that the Capitals are going to score some goals. Seven players netted 20+ for Washington last season and several have the potential for more. Alex Ovechkin’s 50 goals came in 72 games last season he could very well go 60+ again, as he did in 2007-08 with 65. Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble, Tomas Fleischmann and Eric Fehr give the Caps captain more than a formidable supporting cast. With several offensive-minded defensemen in the fold as well, Washington’s tallies come from all over the lineup. Simply stated, the Caps have some serious firepower.
There’s some concern about a defense relying on Alzner and Carlson, who will be 22 and 20-years-old, respectively, when the season begins, to play key roles. But Alzner has been groomed along slowly and Carlson’s championship pedigree alleviates a lot of that. If there is a legit concern, it has to be in goal where, as stated earlier, growing pains could still be an issue and where the only solution may be a mid-season veteran addition – no guarantee for turnaround there either. Of course, scoring nearly four goals per game helps and, of course, we said a lot of the same things about the Chicago Blackhawks last season, who went on to do that whole win-the-Cup thing. One of Varlamov and Neuvirth, likely the former, will have to come of age this season. At least that’s the hope in D.C.
John Carlson: Adding Carlson’s talent to a blueline that already boasts the offensively-gifted Mike Green and the +50 rating of Jeff Schultz from last season only makes Washington richer in the weapons department. The United States National Team’s World Junior hero from a season ago has a knack for coming through in the clutch, as evidenced by the OT goal against Canada that secured gold for Team USA. Carlson and Green manning the point on the Caps power play, with Ovechkin and company up front, could prove deadly for the opposition.
SOUTHEAST DIVISION OUTLOOK
It’s theirs until somebody takes it from them and, though Tampa Bay looks ready to give the Caps a little push, maybe that’s exactly what they need to propel them to greater glory come playoff time. It’s been a walk in the park for Washington in the Southeast in recent years and they’ll get tested much more than they’re used to this season by rival clubs that are almost all significantly improved.
Still, no one can touch the Capitals, in terms of talent throughout the lineup. Not yet. And while there are still questions about how the goaltending will hold up, this team is going to continue to score goals almost at will.
Washington takes the Southeast yet again, by a decent margin, though I expect Tampa and maybe even Atlanta to hang within striking distance far longer than in years past.
OTHER SE DIVISION PREVIEWS FROM JJ
Tampa Bay: Turnaround in Tampa Starts at the Top
Florida: Facing a Decade Without the Playoffs, Florida’s Rebuild Goes On and On
Atlanta: Post-Kovalchuk Thrashers Deep on ‘D’, Look to New Faces and Young Guns for Offense
Carolina: Carolina’s Push Toward Youth is Both Promising and Perilous
Filed in: NHL Teams, Atlanta Thrashers, Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes, Chicago Blackhawks, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Phoenix Coyotes, St. Louis Blues, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, | KK Hockey | Permalink
Tags: alex+ovechkin, alex+semin, braden+holtby, brendan+morrison, brian+fahey, brian+willsie, brooks+laich, bruce+boudreau, calder+cup, calder+trophy, d.j.+king, eric+belanger, eric+fehr, george+mcphee, hershey+bears, jaroslav+halak, jeff+schultz, joe+corvo, john+carlson, jose+theodore, karl+alzner, kyle+greentree, marcus+johansson, mathieu+perreault, michael+neuvirth, mike+green, mike+knuble, milan+jurcian, nhl+previews, nicklas+backstrom, scott+walker, semyon+varlamov, shaone+morrison, southeast+division, stefan+della+rovere, tomas+fleischmann
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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