Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Lyle Richardson on 09/07/11 at 12:00 PM ET
To no one’s surprise, the Washington Capitals are once again ranked amongst the NHL’s top Stanley Cup contenders, but unlike previous years, they find themselves facing considerably more pressure to play up to expectations.
Led by superstars Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, the Capitals topped the Eastern Conference in 2009-10 and 2010-11, winning the President’s Trophy in 2010 for the best regular season record.
Unfortunately, those impressive regular season performances failed to translate into playoff success.
In the 2010 Eastern Conference quarter-final, they were stunned by an underdog Montreal Canadiens team, blowing a 3-1 series lead to bow out in seven games.
That eventually led to the Capitals changing their game plan last season, from a run-and-gun offensive style to a more defensive oriented system. After a period of adjustment, they took off in the season’s second half to once again top the Conference.
After dispatching the NY Rangers from the Conference quarter-finals in five games with their defensive play, the Capitals game plan fell apart in the next round, as they were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Until that point, Capitals followers had accepted their team’s early post-season exits since 2008 as merely part of the team’s growth process on route to an eventual championship.
The disappointment amongst Caps fans following the elimination by the Lightning, however, was profound. It led to off-season calls from critics for players considered post-season disappointments (specifically, Green and forward Alex Semin) to be replaced by those with better playoff credentials.
GM George McPhee ignored the grumbling fan base, but over the summer added defensive depth and experience, bringing in Troy Brouwer from Chicago via trade and Joel Ward and Roman Hamrlik via free agency.
His biggest acquisition was signing former Florida Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun to a bargain basement one-year, $1.5 million contract.
These additions should improve the Capitals defensive game, but as this team enters 2011-12, questions still linger.
Is Vokoun capable of providing quality playoff goaltending?
His regular season stats over the past four seasons with the mediocre Florida Panthers were impressive, but the last time he saw the post-season was 2007, with the Nashville Predators.
In that series, which the Predators lost in five games to the San Jose Sharks, Vokoun had a 1-4 record, with a 2.97 GAA and .902 save percentage.
Will Semin finally silence his critics with a strong performance throughout the regular season and playoffs?
Semin is considered a strong first-half performer, who fades in the second half, and fails to come through in the post-season. Little wonder he’s been the subject of trade rumors throughout the summer, fuelled in part by his one-year contract.
His injury history, however, appears to have more to do with his perceived inconsistency. He’s played more than 70 games in a season only once in the past four seasons.
Against the Rangers last spring, Semin had four points in five games, but against the Lightning his production dried up, with only two points in four games.
It’s not solely Semin’s fault the Capitals struggled over the last two years in the playoffs, but if they hope to march to the 2012 Stanley Cup, they’ll need much more from him on a more consistent basis.
Can Green stay healthy and not only return to his strong offensive form, but improve his defensive play?
Only 25, he already has two 70-plus point seasons under his belt, impressive numbers for a defenseman in today’s NHL. He’s also been plagued by injuries, and missed over half of last season.
A healthier 2011-12 will certainly help his play and that of his team, but he’ll also be expected to work on his defensive shortcomings, especially in the playoffs.
Vokoun, Semin and Green are likely to be the most scrutinized Capitals this season, but they’re not the only ones facing questions.
Can former NHL coach of the year Bruce Boudreau find the necessary balance between offense and defense this talented team needs to finally take the big step toward a championship?
Will Ovechkin and Backstrom, whose offensive production dropped significantly last season during the club’s transition to a defensive system, regain their high-scoring ways while playing more responsibly on the back check?
Will Hamrlik provide a further steadying influence to a blueline with developing youngsters like John Carlson and Karl Alzner? Will those kids prove capable of handling more responsibility and big minutes?
The answer to most, if not all, of these questions will be likely be “yes”. The talent is certainly there for this team to make a run for the Stanley Cup.
Their fans will expect nothing less. Another early playoff exit will not only tax the limits of their patience, but that of team owner Ted Leonsis.
For the most part, Leonsis has allowed “GMGM” free rein to make the necessary moves to build up this team.
Another disappointing post-season could bring about significant change next summer, possibly behind the bench, more likely in the lineup.
If the Capitals fail to at least advance to the 2011 Conference Final, the label affixed to them next season won’t be “contenders”, but “pretenders”.
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