Wednesday, October 06, 2010

2010-2011 Previews: Your Washington Capitals

We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.

-- Henry David Thoreau

It was quite a season for the Washington Capitals last season.  Wherever you turned, at just about any point on the calendar, you saw achievement after achievement:

- 121 points, the first non-original six team to top 120 points in a regular season.
- 54 wins, obliterating the franchise’s best for wins of 50, set in 1986 and tied in 2009
- 30 home wins, tying the franchise record, set in 1986
- 66 standings points earned at home, a franchise record
- 24 road wins, a franchise record
- 55 standings points earned on the road, a franchise record
- 15 losses in regulation, a franchise low and five fewer than any other team in the NHL
- A plus-86 goal differential (not including Gimmicks), more than a goal per game, by far the best in the league
- A 14-game winning streak, four longer than the previous franchise best
- A 13-game home winning streak, three better than the previous franchise best
- A 25.23 power play percentage, best in franchise history
- 940, fewest penalty minutes in franchise history
- Plus-50 by Jeff Schultz, a franchise best.
- 1.51 points per game by Alex Ovechkin, a franchise best
- .761 winning percentage by goaltender Jose Theodore, a franchise best
- First 100-point season for Nicklas Backstrom

And it all came crashing down in the space of six days in late April.  That is how long it took for the Montreal Canadiens to erase a 1-3 deficit in games and shock the NHL by winning the last three games of the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs – two of them on Washingon ice – and send the Caps home as the punch line of a joke; “what’s red, white, blue and green; and seen every year in May?... A Washington Capital on a golf course.”

If one cannot be motivated by the bitter memory of that kind of playoff exit, then maybe they’re in the wrong line of business.  And that is what the 2010-2011 season is for the Capitals, a chance for redemption leavened by anger.  It will be an exercise in proving that last year was a fluke, a hiccup in The Force, the product of a pact with the Devil made by Jaroslav Halak and the rest of the Montreal Canadiens.

Well, forgive us our age, but we have been around long enough to have heard the “hot goaltender” reason trotted out often – Billy Smith, John Vanbiesbrouck, Kelly Hrudey, Sean Burke, Tom Barrasso, Ken Wregget, Johan Hedberg, Nikolai Khabibulin, Martin Biron… Jaroslav Halak. 

Yeah, we’ve heard it before.

But the Caps managed their way through the summer as if the playoffs were just that, a fluke.  Few changes were made:

Out: Shaone Morrisonn, Joe Corvo, Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, Milan Jurcina, Brendan Morrison, Jose Theodore
In: Matt Hendricks, Marcus Johansson, D.J. King, Michal Neuvirth, Karl Alzner, John Carlson

It bears noting that the tweaking that was done was primarily on the bottom forward lines and third defense pair, and to swap out an underperforming playoff goalie for a young prospect.  The core remains largely intact among the top six forwards and the top defensive pairings.  So where does that leave us?

Forwards:  The top six of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble, Tomas Fleischmann, Alexander Semin, and Brooks Laich is arguably the most potent offensive force in the NHL today.  That group scored an even 200 goals last season, more than entire Boston Bruins team.  There is every reason to believe that they will be just as formidable this season (we are projecting them at 205 for this season).  To that one might add Eric Fehr, who can be a real weapon from the right side on the third line.  One of the most efficient goal-scorers in the league last year, given the ice time he received, he could add another 25 or more this season.  Seven players with 230 goals?  Only ten teams in the NHL scored more last year.

The grit will be supplied by Jason Chimera, Matt Bradley, and D.J. King.  King will assume the policing role for the Caps, freeing up Matt Bradley (or more accurately, Matt Bradley’s face) from having to endure the punishment that comes from often scrapping outside one’s weight class.  Chimera could contribute 15-18 goals, in addition to being one of the fastest skaters in the league (an important ingredient in the Caps’ offensive scheme of things) and half of Bradley’s ten goals last year were game-winners.

Defensemen:  If there is a weakness on this team, this is it.  It might be odd to say that, given that Mike Green has been named a Norris Trophy finalist in each of the past two years, but this is a “green” group in other ways.  The top four lack NHL experience relative to their likely Stanley Cup competition.  And, the group got even younger with Shaone Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina being swapped out for John Carlson and Karl Alzner.  How fast Carlson – a potential Calder Trophy candidate – and Alzner grow up between October and April will have great bearing on whether the Caps can make a deep playoff run.

Jeff Schultz and Tom Poti will play important roles, and both have question marks pinned to their sweaters, too.  Poti is coming off a nasty eye injury that put him on the shelf for Game 7 of last spring’s opening round against Montreal.  Now sporting a visor, if he is fully recovered he provides some measure of experience and stability to the blue line that no other Caps defenseman provides.  For Schultz, the question is whether last year’s plus-50 was a statistical fluke, the product of good fortune in terms of who he was skating with.  He takes a lot of grief from Caps fans for not being physical enough, but he uses his reach well and plays angles well.  The sheer fact of the matter is, more good things than bad things happen with him out there, and even if all he represents is the lucky “rabbit’s foot” in that regard, Caps fans shouldn’t care.  But mark us down for thinking he is an improving defenseman.

Goaltending:  Between them, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth have 55 games of NHL experience.  Last season alone, 17 goalies appeared in more games.  But don’t let your eyes linger there.  Varlamov has 19 games of playoff experience and four Games 7 on his resume, not to mention having done so coming in relief of playoff starter Jose Theodore in each of the last two seasons.  He has had more than his share of pressure situations for someone with so little regular season experience.  Michal Neuvirth was 30-10, 1.98, .927, with five shutouts in backstopping the Hershey Bears to consecutive Calder Cup championships in the AHL.  He is about as prepared as one could be to assume his share of the goaltending responsibility. 

But you haven’t done it until you do it, and that sense of uncertainty will be an issue that hovers around the Caps’ net all season.  More ominously, Varlamov will start the year on the bench due to injury.  This is a repeating theme with him, having missed time to a variety of injuries (primarily groin problems) over the past two years.  It opens the way for Neuvirth to take the number one spot, but the prospect of Neuvirth working without a net (so to speak), even early in the season can’t give the Caps or their fans a warm and fuzzy feeling.  When the snows begin to melt and thoughts start turning to the coming spring, the thing that bears watching is how often the terms “Tomas Vokoun” and “Washington Capitals” start turning up in trade rumors.

Power Play:  The Caps led the league last year in overall power play percentage, road power play goals scored, finished second in home power play goals scored, had four players (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Laich, and Green) among the top-30 in power play goals scored, and registered almost a power play goal per game (79 in 82 games). 

The problem, though, isn’t when the Caps are on the power play (with one notable exception – that 1-for-33 they took in the playoffs), but in getting to the power play.  The Caps finished tied for tenth in the NHL in total power play opportunities.

One concern on the power play is the amount of time Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin get in manning it.  They finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in average power play time on ice per game last year.  It is hard to argue with success, the Caps being the top man-advantage unit last year, but still, perhaps John Carlson will get some time to relieve the burden on Mike Green, and the Caps have enough weapons at forward to give Alex Ovechkin a breather now and then as well.  It would be surprising, even if Ovechkin and Green had their minutes pared back, if the Caps suffered much, if anything in terms of a drop in power play effectiveness.  It would be nice to see more opportunities, though.

Penalty Killing:  The Caps finished 25th in the league in penalty killing last season, 15th among the 16 teams making the playoffs.  In fact, of the five teams below the Caps in the penalty killing rankings, three (Edmonton, the Islanders, and Toronto) were lottery teams.  This is not a neighborhood in which a team with Stanley Cup aspirations should find itself. 

More important, the Caps’ problems on the penalty kill largely negated the effectiveness of their power play.  If you compare the Caps’ net power play production (power play goals-less-shorthanded goals allowed) and compare it to the penalty killing production (power play goals allowed-less-shorthanded goals scored), the Caps finished a plus-9 for the season.  Here is a comparison; the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks finished with 52 power play goals, tied for 18th and 27 goals behind the Caps.  They also allowed four shorthanded goals to finish with a net of 48 goals, far behind the Caps’ net of 71 on the power play.  But because the Hawks had an effective penalty kill – they allowed only 39 goals (third fewest in the league) while scoring 13 shorthanded goals for a net of 26 allowed – they finished a plus-22 on special teams.

Will the Caps be better?  From the preseason returns they appear more aggressive on the penalty kill and allowed only three power play goals in six games.  But that was pre-season, and none of the teams they played – Nashville, Columbus, or Boston – could be considered offensive juggernauts, even with a full NHL-level squad.  Combined, those three teams scored 11 power play goals in the preseason in 19 games, a goals-per-game rate that would put them near the bottom of last year’s rankings of power play goals scored. 

It would help if the Caps cut down on the other team’s chances.  The 316 shorthanded situations they faced last year ranked in the top half of the league.  That is a somewhat unexpected result for a club that does not have the reputation of being especially physical or chippy.  Shaving 20 or so opportunities off that total, plus improving the rate at which opportunities are killed off will result in a much better power play-to-penalty kill plus/minus.  The power play, until demonstrated otherwise, has to be considered a work in progress, one that has to be improved over last year.

Youth:  The Caps are introducing Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson as every-night players this week.  Michal Neuvirth is getting his chance to not only start the season on the parent roster, but to man the nets for the season opener.  It is all a part of the Caps’ governing strategy to draft players and develop them from within a system that is employed throughout their organization.  Three are first-round draft picks, but only one is a “top-five” pick (Alzner).  You could say that this is going to be the first in-depth test of the Caps’ strategy, the ability to find value lower in the first round of the draft (Johansson, Carlson) or second round (Neuvirth) – where contending teams have to find value, because they don’t qualify for lottery picks -- and bring them along as part of a developmental strategy that pays dividends on a yearly basis. 

Alzner and Carlson are especially important to this approach, as they are considered to be a defensive pair that will help anchor the Caps’ blue line for the next decade or more.  With Mike Green and Jeff Schultz they could be, on paper at least, among the most formidable top-four units in the league.  Whether they will be this year is the question.  This pair has to grow up mighty fast for the Caps to have serious hope of going deep in the playoffs next spring.

Coaching:  It doesn’t take long in this league to go from Jack Adams Award winner to the hot seat, but that is where Bruce Boudreau finds himself in his third season removed from winning the Adams.  OK, perhaps not on the hot seat, but he’s in the same room.  After losing three times in four Games 7 over the past three years, twice to what arguably were inferior teams, and getting a lone playoff series win against a team that couldn’t shoot the puck into the ocean from the beach is how that path to the hot seat gets paved.  Did the Caps lack the wherewithal to adjust to things the Canadiens were doing last spring?  Were there too many optional practices?  Was there an inability to push the right buttons to motivate players?  Was the message to stick to a system not getting through?  All of these are at their core questions about coaching.   And that’s how questions get whispered as to whether Boudreau has the stuff to take his team the last step of the way. 

These questions aren’t new.  They haunt any underachieving team, and similar questions seem to have followed behind Boudreau when he was coaching in the AHL (in five of his first six AHL seasons his teams were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs).  He responded to that by taking two Hershey Bears teams to the Calder Cup finals, winning once. 

But Boudreau has won at just about every stop, too.  He won 56 times in 120 games in the IHL, taking the Fort Wayne Komets to the finals once.  He had a 340-215-41-59 record in the AHL with two trips to the Calder Cup finals and one championship.  He has a 141-56-28 record with the Caps.  You would think (just as so many think of Alex Ovechkin) that a Stanley Cup is inevitable for Boudreau.  But just like for Ovechkin, this is the toughest step of all to take, and there is nothing inevitable about it.  We would not expect Boudreau to suddenly put the Caps on a short leash, but we would not be surprised if he is more demanding of this team this year, befitting its place on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders.  The one thing that cannot happen this year is another first round flame out.  If that happens, “out” will be likely the word of the day.

Front Office:  This one might be the most interesting of all to watch.  The Caps are the precocious gifted child – a prodigy one moment, infuriating the next with its seeming lack of focus.  It is a product of its relative youth and the fact that it is a rather unbalanced squad – long on offense, shorter on defense and goaltending.  There are holes that any casual fan could recognize – depth and physicality on defense, experience among the goaltenders, a second line center worthy of the title.  There is no urgency to fill those holes now, although as we’ve seen, filling them late (especially on defense) can be an iffy proposition. 

But that is why George McPhee is paid the big bucks (ok, not as big as what Alex Ovechkin makes, but still…).  He has shown an ability to tinker with the lineup without giving up much by way of assets in trade.  The competing visions of this club that speak directly to McPhee’s personnel management skill can be phrased as questions.  First, have the assets he put in place to start this year justified his patience in not making more moves this past summer, of essentially standing pat with the important pieces and prospects that he selected and that have been promoted?  Second, will he have the horse-trading skill down the road this season to identify and acquire those last pieces to fill in or to even replace those assets that aren’t performing as well as expected?

We have a hard time thinking that the roster that will open the season later this week is the one that will take the ice for Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs next April.  History suggests that it won’t.  No team survives intact from beginning to end.  But with as much attention as there is focused on the Caps, both for the quality of their team and for how they respond to last spring’s failure, the Caps’ front office might be the most important factor in whether the Caps are playing golf or skating on ice next June.

Karma:  This is the hard one for Caps fans.  Twenty one times the Caps have made the playoffs, and 13 times they left after one round.  On six other occasions they were bounced in round two.  And they have lost playoff series in odd ways – a four overtime game on Easter Sunday, a three-overtime game on Easter Sunday (note to Ted… book something else for Verizon Center on Easter Sunday – a horse show, a crafts fair, SnagFilms fest, anything), blowing two-game series leads six times since 1992, losing three Games 7 on home ice in each of the last three years.  You get the feeling they should rename the arena, “Wrigley Center.”  The Caps have had as much misery, in their short history, as Cubs fans have had since their beloved team won a World Series. 

Say all you want that those were different teams from different eras, but this team has had its share of bad karma.  The iffy penalty in overtime that gave the Flyers a power play three years ago, the Caps almost killing off the penalty, then seeing the Flyers net the winner when goalie Cristobal Huet looked in the wrong direction in search of a rebound.  The breakaway on Alex Ovechkin’s stick early in Game 7 against the Penguins two years ago that he couldn’t put past Marc-Andre Fleury.  Mike Knuble’s bump of Jaroslav Halak's pad early in period three of Game 7 last spring that washed out Alex Ovechkin’s game-tying goal.  Then there is the whole Presidents’ Trophy thing and whether the winner can win a Stanley Cup, too.  That didn’t exactly work out well for the Caps last season.

It’s always something.  Getting past that is always an issue with this team, whatever brave language might be offered that it doesn’t apply.

In the end…

This team is not, right now, as good as the team that lost to Montreal in the playoffs last spring.  The defense is younger and not as deep, the goaltending is unproven (especially if you think of it in terms of swapping out Jose Theodore for Michal Neuvirth), it is not clear whether the Caps have a functioning second line center, and their third line center is likely to be a rookie who has yet to play a regular season game in North America.

This team is not, right now, a legitimate contender to win a championship.  You could argue that Chicago, Detroit, and Vancouver are better in the West.  In the East, they are no better than part of the mix, despite the fact that they should win the Eastern Conference, if not in such dominating fashion as they did last year, then perhaps comfortably.

But in that winning the Eastern Conference, should it come to pass, there might be an indicator.  As young as the Caps are, so is the upside in terms of making great progress in their development on an individual level this season.  The core players – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, and Semin are still 26 or younger.  Defensemen Schultz, Carlson, and Alzner are younger still.  The goalies are young, but they bring with them playoff experience and a winning attitude.  Even as an elite team, the progress the Caps make this year from October to April might be greater than any other team in the league in terms of developing experience and a “how to win” mind set. 

Then there is the motivation.  No team can claim to be more highly motivated than this one.  Being a prideful athlete embarrassed by a too-early playoff exit can have that effect.  Certainly Caps fans hope that is the case.  There is also the matter of management.  The Caps are not shy about making moves at the trading deadline, and at the moment they would seem to have the salary cap space in place to make some serious moves then or earlier, if opportunities are presented.  We cannot help but think such moves will be made. 

It is not hard to see a team with talent, youth, motivation, and a front office with the willingness to make roster moves having things fall into place – finally – for an opportunity to win a championship.  Six years ago the Caps initiated a plan to restore the franchise to competitiveness and win championships.  They have walked that path to this season.  Now it is time to take that final, uncertain leap into the dark that is the unknown of this season and realize their goal.