The reds have caught the US capital by storm. Literally. With a completely turnaround midway through the season leading to the club’s first division title in 7 years, the Capitals have completely swept the people of DC off their feet. Hockey in DC is as popular as ever, and backed by an owner who isn’t afraid to throw some money around or change conventional thinking, and a general manager who isn’t afraid to pull the trigger, the Caps are back.
No other player in the NHL is as exciting as Alexander Ovechkin. The Russian phenom just came off a 65-goal campaign and has since been named as the city’s mayor for one day and launched his own clothing line. The charismatic (and not coincidentally the league’s most marketable player) goal-scoring machine may not have mastered the English language, but his passion for the game is second to none, and it shows. Under Bruce Boudreau, the Caps moved towards a relentless forechecking game, a fantastic strategy given the Caps’ foot speed and size up front. Over the years the Caps have toiled, but George McPhee and Ted Leonsis have remained patient, and after hoarding draft picks over the years, the players have started to blossom. Nicklas Backstrom showed flashes of playmaking brilliance that will surely figure into an outstanding career, while Alexander Semin has really become a sniper of sorts. Even the forgotten draft picks and free agents the Caps have picked up, namely David Steckel, Matt Bradley, and Brooks Laich, have all found their respective niches in Boudreau’s system. Mix in a couple of savvy veterans in Sergei Fedorov and Michael Nylander some grit in Chris Clark and Donald Brashear, the Caps have a very well-rounded and well-coached forwards corps. Especially with captain Clark healthy for a full season, the Caps could very well improve on their offense (ranked 8th last year) and powerplay (9th).
Mike Green is a microcosm of the Caps’ turnaround. The former 1st round pick (in 2004) was almost forgotten before he exploded onto the scoresheets last year after spending 5 years in the WHL with Saskatoon. Green was never short on talent – in his first full season as a pro with Hershey of the AHL he managed to pot 43 points in 56 games, and another 18 points in 21 playoff games, earning a late call-up and finished with 22 NHL games under his belt. His first full NHL season saw him post just 12 points in 70 games, and it seemed (for a little while) that Green was another one of those talented players who could never translate his skill game to the NHL level. When Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon early in the season, and with a strong familiarity between the two, Green exploded and went on to lead the league with 18 goals. Hailed as the Caps’ new go to defenseman, he’s well supported by a veteran group led by Brian Pothier (currently injured) and Tom Poti, but also by a core of young players that will no doubt be hoping to replicate Green’s success, including Shaone Morrisonn, Jeff Schultz, and Milan Jurcina. As much offense as the Caps’ defense can generate, their defensive play as a whole is still a little suspect. The team doesn’t feature a shut-down guy, much less a shut-down pair, so it might be a little optimistic to think the Caps’ defense will improve over last year’s, especially with so much uncertainty in net.
The Caps wanted to keep Cristobal Huet, but when negotiations weren’t going anywhere the French goalie bolted to Chicago where the grass was greener, and the Caps had no choice (and I really mean no choice) to settle for Jose Theodore. Top goalie prospect Simeon Varlamov is still a couple years away from making the jump, and despite his inconsistencies and the mental baggage that Theodore seems to carry around with him, he’s an adequate short-term solution (he’s only signed for 2 years). Brent Johnson is more than capable as a backup, but the Caps are still hinging on Theodore to at least show flashes of his former MVP form in order for them to stay competitive. Ovechkin and Green and the rest of the crew may be able to score a lot of goals, but you can’t win if you can’t stop them either. With the Southeast Division filled with hotshot snipers, perhaps with the exception of Florida, defense and goaltending will be key to winning the division. The Caps are leading in those categories, but it’ll have to hold for 82 games, something which may be a bit of a stretch.
Their division is fairly weak, and by virtue the winner of the division will get home-ice advantage in the first round, but that doesn’t mean the Caps will be the underdogs going in. If all goes well, the Caps may very well end up as high as first (yes, first) in the conference. With Ovechkin finally getting a taste of the playoffs, you can bet that the exuberant Russian wants more, and the Caps may not disappoint at all this year. They’re not quite Cup favourites yet, but they don’t have to wait long before that happens.
Alexander Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Viktor Kozlov
Alexander Semin – Sergei Fedorov – Brooks Laich
Tomas Fleischmann – Michael Nylander – Chris Clark
Donald Brashear – David Steckel – Matt Bradley
Shaone Morrisonn – Mike Green
Jeff Schultz – Tom Poti
John Erskine – Milan Jurcina
Jose Theodore – Brent Johnson
Coach: Bruce Boudreau
GM: George McPhee
Predicted finish: 1st Southeast, 3rd East