GettyYes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — like the Washington Capitals.
The Capitals had retooled during the summer, jettisoning a few players (including the Semyon Varlamov trade) and bringing in veterans like Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward, with an eye on finally finding postseason success.
But first, they had to find regular-season success again: Two days after a humiliating loss to a depleted Buffalo Sabres team, the Capitals fired Coach Bruce Boudreau following a 12-9-1 start (that included benchings for both Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin). Boudreau had a record of 201-88-40 for the Capitals, led the team to the playoffs in each of this seasons there and once did an entire interview on HBO with food on his face.
Enter Dale Hunter, the Capitals legend who had coached the London Knights for the last 11 seasons. Long coveted by GM George McPhee, Hunter brought a conservative defensive style that the team finally bought into in the postseason; leading to a win over the Boston Bruins in the first round and the ascendance of rookie goalie Braden Holtby to postseason star. Alas, the run ended at the hands of the New York Rangers in Game 7.
After the season, Hunter walked away from the Capitals to return to juniors, and Washington inked another former player to replace him: New Jersey Devils assistant coach Adam Oates.
Can he be the one to finally get the team past the second round of the conference playoffs?
"Finally Drained of Semin"
As was just crudely mentioned, Alex Semin and the Capitals finally parted ways after seven years of brilliant offensive moments but frustratingly inconstant play and questions about work ethic. It was time for a change for both teams, as Semin signed with the Carolina Hurricanes -- but his offense isn't easily replaced.
The Capitals bid farewell to goalie Tomas Vokoun, who was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins; forward Mike Knuble, who was unsigned; defenseman Dennis Wideman, who signed with the Calgary Flames; winger Chris Bourque, was traded to Boston fro Zach Hamill; center Keith Aucoin, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs; and center Jeff Halpern and defenseman Sean Collins, who signed with the Rangers.
The Capitals weren't overwhelmingly active in free agency — they added Wojtek Wolski, Ryan Stoa, Jack Hillen and Joey Crabb — but swung for the fences with a big trade: Acquiring C Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars for C Cody Eakin and a second-round 2012 draft pick.
At forward … Alex Ovechkin finished with the lowest points per game average (0.83, the first time he was under a point per game) of his career, although he surged to 38 goals with a late-season push. Having center Nicklas Backstrom limited with 42 games due to a concussion was no doubt a factor. With Oates behind the bench, perhaps Ovechkin can make up some of the points he's lost on special teams in recent seasons.
Backstrom had 44 points in 42 games, skating to a minus-4. Having Ribeiro on the second line will help take some of the pressure off the talented pivot, rather than having a revolving cast of characters as the second option at center.
Marcus Johannson was third on the team in points, but managed only 3 in 14 playoff games. Still, he showed solid offensive promise in his sophomore season skating with Ovechkin and Backstrom.
Ribeiro should have Troy Brouwer on his line, as the former Blackhawk netted 18 goals last season. Mathieu Perreault is undersized but can create his own chances, as he frequently did in scoring 30 points in 64 games last season. Or perhaps, the Capitals will give speedy Jason Chimera a look after his breakout season with 20 goals.
Brooks Laich had 16 goals and 41 points on the season, and should be able to slide back into a defensive mode with the top two center spots solidified. Joel Ward, hero of Game 7 (well, at least to some) against Boston, will settle into a checking role again for the Capitals. Washington has several other truculent options down the lineup, like fan favorites Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks.
Where Wolski and AHLer Stanislav Galiev fit are anyone's guess.
On defense … It wasn't a sterling year for the Capitals' top two remaining puck-moving defensemen (with Wideman gone). John Carlson posted 32 goals, but finished at a minus-15, taking a step back from a stellar rookie season, Mike Green was limited to 32 games due to injury and posted seven points. He had a very strong postseason and earned a new contract; will we ever see the old Mike Green again?
Carlson should be back with Karl Alzner again, who may have been the team's best defenseman last season. Roman Hamrlik, the 38-year-old defenseman who averaged 19:13 TOI last season, will be back in the top four.
Rounding out the lineup: Defensive defenseman John Erskine and speedy Dmitri Orlov, along with Jack Hillen and Jeff Schultz. Then there's Tom Poti, still under contract but likely done.
In goal … Holtby should enter the season (whenever it starts) as the top option between the pipes, and is getting more work in the AHL during the lockout. He thrived in Dale Hunter's system; can he do the same for Oates?
Michael Neuvirth called Holtby the "weakest competition" he'll have faced in a goalie tandem, and then walked away from that statement briskly. Which ignores the fact that he's right: Holtby doesn't have the body of work in the NHL that Varlamov and Vokoun had. But Holtby's also been groomed to be the starter for years, considered by many to be a better prospect than Neuvirth. Two young goalies trying to beat the other out of a job. Not a bad problem to have for the Caps.
BEAT DAT BEAT UP! GTL 4 LIFE! (Mike Green pops collar.)
Oates arrives having never been a head coach in the NHL but having served well as an assistant with the Cup Finalist Devils last season. His hockey smarts are off the charts, and his offensive credentials are unimpeachable. If he can apply some of this power-play efficiency to this Capitals roster, their offense could roll.
That said, Boudreau lost the team and Hunter didn't feel compelled to return. Can Oates manage this locker room?
McPhee once again has attempted to add the last touches to a contender, in the hopes that this formula works. He deserved much credit for hiring Hunter and making some of the moves that paid off in the first two rounds of the playoffs (like Ward, finally). But he didn't replace Semin's offense, he may miss Wideman's points from the blue line and there's a creeping sense that the window is closing on this group — despite McPhee having locked up so many of them long term.
We'll go with Backstrom, who from an offensive and defensive perspective might be the most complete forward on the team. He's two seasons removed from his 101-point breakout, but should thrive with Ribeiro behind him and Oates there to teach him.
Orlov. He was a scratch in the playoffs, but had 19 points in 60 games for the Capitals during the regular season. He's got speed and size, and is yet another offensive option for the Caps on their blue line.
Holtby. While we think the kid has the goods, let's take a step back and see what the numbers look like without Hunter Hockey in front of him -- and with teams being a tad more familiar with him.
"Childhood obesity. A scourge on our society. A drag on our health system.
"Candy bars and potato chips: leading causes of childhood obesity.
"And yet Alex Ovechkin violently covets these treats:
"And tries to trick our children into thinking they can be used to create rips in the fabric of time and space:
"Let Alex Ovechkin know that childhood obesity matters to you.
"And by that, I mean poke him in the belly during the offseason.
"Paid for by George McPhee."
The Southeast is a more interesting place than last season: The Carolina Hurricanes have Jordan Staal and Semin; the Lightning have bolster their blue line and addressed their goaltending; the Panthers were a division champ last season (and are waiting on Luongo). The Capitals need a smooth transition to Oates next season, because a playoff spot isn't predestined for any team that gets off slowly in the East.
That said, the Capitals should be a playoff team. And Ovechkin should reclaim his form.