Puck Daddy - NHL

Colorful characters, revered championships, staged fights ... the rink shares plenty with the squared circle. So here at Puck Daddy, we've decided to preview the 2010-11 NHL season with the help of old-school wrestling icons, images and lingo. It's a slobber-knocker, Mean Gene ...

Last Season (54-15-13, 121 points; first in the Southeast; first in the Eastern Conference)

It was a steamroller of a regular season for the Washington Capitals: the highest point total in franchise history, with the best offense in hockey (313 goals).

Then came the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Thanks to masterful defensive and goaltending performances from the Habs over seven games, the Capitals were eliminated.

Blame was spread and accepted through the locker room. The Capitals were now, in the eyes of many, the overhyped superstar team that couldn't get it done in the playoffs. That reputation gave them a focused goal for 2009-10 ... which is to define who they are by delivering in the clutch.

They'll still be overhyped, from Alex Ovechkin's(notes) celebrity to the HBO show to the Winter Classic appearance. But can they finally live up to it?

Key Subtractions

There was some expected turnover from last year's team. Goalie Jose Theodore(notes) was unsigned and is still waiting for work. Defensemen Milan Jurcina(notes) (Islanders), Joe Corvo(notes) (Hurricanes) and Shaone Morrisonn(notes) (Sabres) all left via free agency. Other players the Capitals let walk included Scott Walker(notes) and Brendan Morrison(notes).

Then there was the sad ballad of Eric Belanger, the veteran center who thought he had a deal with the Capitals, did not, and then signed with the Coyotes as the dispute between his agent and the team went public.

New Additions

The Capitals pursued a few free agents (most notably defenseman Willie Mitchell(notes)) but mainly stood pat. Matt Hendricks(notes) came over the Avalanche on a tryout deal and was impressive in the preseason at forward, earning a one-year contract. Pugilist D.J. King(notes) was acquired from the St. Louis Blues for Stefan Della Rovere(notes). Goalie Dany Sabourin(notes) signed and will start the year in the AHL.


Wrestler That Best Personifies the Team

The Ultimate Warrior was all heavy metal rock and roll and punishing offense, making quick work of opponents. But get him in a long battle, and his flaws and limitations became rather apparent. (Note: Any resemblance between this selection and this story is coincidental.)

Forwards

Ovechkin was limited to 72 games last year due injury and NHL supplemental discipline, but still had the best average points per game of his career (1.34). He cracked 50 goals for the fourth time in five seasons, and took home the Lindsay Award for player-voted MVP.

Yet it was, overall, a disappointing year for Ovechkin professionally, from the Russian Olympic flop to the playoff loss to the hits to his reputation, both serious and silly.  

Ovechkin's center, Nicklas Backstrom(notes), came into his own as a playmaker with 101 points and broke 30 goals. The blue-collar Mike Knuble(notes) had 29 goals and 24 assists with the duo.

The third-leading scorer on the Caps was Alex Semin, who had 40 goals and 44 assists in 73 games. Then the playoffs arrived, and Semin didn't (two assists in seven games.) During he preseason, he's seen time with Tomas Fleischmann(notes) (23 goals) and Brooks Laich(notes) (59 points), aka the unofficial team mechanic.

Eric Fehr(notes) had 21 goals last season and will be counted on for depth scoring. Jason Chimera(notes) had 17 points in 39 games after coming over from the Blue Jackets, and plays a feisty game down the lineup. Dave Steckel(notes) struggled at times after a heroic performance in the 2009 playoffs, but remains a valuable defensive pivot. Matt Bradley(notes) and King will provide the muscle, while Boyd Gordon(notes) and Matt Hendricks provide versatility.

Keep an eye on rookie Marcus Johansson(notes), who could rocket up the depth chart this season as the team's next dynamic center.

Defense

Mike Green(notes) didn't have the goal-scoring season he had in 2008-09 (31 goals) but he achieved a new career best for points with 76. 

But it was another year of frustration for Green: left off the Canadian Olympic team, losing the Norris Trophy pageant again and then suffering through the criticism from another underwhelming postseason. He remains an elite offensive defenseman, but only a strong playoff performance will silence the doubters. And fulfill the promise of his website swagger.

His defensive partner Jeff Schultz(notes) was a revelation: a plus-50 to lead the NHL, along with a career-best 23 points. Everyone thought he was bored during the summer; turns out he just had mono. (That would be a "Wayne's World" reference, not an indictment.)

Tom Poti(notes) was third on the team in average ice time (21:24) and was a plus-26. He skated with highly regarded rookie (and American Hero) John Carlson(notes) during the postseason and again during this exhibition season.

John Erskine(notes) provides the muscle on the blue line, standing at 6-4 and listed at 220. Karl Alzner(notes) should finally stick with the NHL team this year after burning up miles between D.C. and Hershey. Tyler Sloan(notes), Brian Fahey(notes) and Patrick McNeill(notes) are also pushing for time. 

Goaltending

The difference between the number of regular-season games and postseason games in which Semyon Varlamov(notes) has appeared? Thirteen games. Which is both an indication of his postseason experience and his struggles with injuries during his rookie campaign in 2009-10.

Varlamov posted a 2.55 GAA in 26 regular-season games, winning 15 of them. He surrendered 14 goals in six games against Montreal in the playoffs. The Capitals need him to provide a consistent effort, occasionally being the difference-maker. What they can't afford are soft goals in big spots or prolonged injuries -- again.

Competing with Varlamov is fellow 22-year-old goalie Michal Neuvirth(notes), who started 16 games last season and went 9-4. Like Varlamov, he's won in the AHL and shown flashes if brilliance in the NHL. But can he earn the majority of the starts this season?

More importantly: Unlike Varlamov, does he dig heavyset American women?

Match We'd Pay To Watch

Marc Staal(notes) and Alex Semin in a ladder match, with a pair of bongos dangling 15 feet above the ring.

Breakout Player

Easy one: Carlson has all the makings of an outstanding NHL defenseman and could challenge for the Calder this year if his point levels and plus/minus are gaudy enough.

Potential Flop

Varlamov. Simply put, he needs to show he can be an NHL regular-season goaltender from a health and mental stamina perspective. Neuvirth provides a different kind of challenge than Theodore did: One was a veteran with an expiring contract, the other is as much the Goalie Of The Future as Varlamov is.

Finishing Move

What, did you think we'd be showing a few Mike Knuble goals from 2 feet out? From Hockey Web Cast, here's Ovechkin:

And ...

Special Teams

The most lethal power play in the NHL (25.2 percent conversion rate) during the regular season was balanced by the 25th-best penalty kill (78.8 percent).

In the playoffs, the trend reversed: The Capitals were at 80 percent on the kill and a putrid, crippling 3 percent (!) on the power play, going 1-for-33.

Coach/GM

Bruce Boudreau has a 141-56-28 regular-season record. That's a .689 winning percentage. He has a 13-15 postseason record. That's a .464 winning percentage.

There's no question he manages the roster well during the regular season, but there have been concerns about getting outcoached in the playoffs. Whether their struggles in the playoffs are on the coach or on the players is subject to debate.

That said: He's a fantastic actor.

GM George McPhee has managed to sign players like Ovechkin, Green and Backstrom to long-term deals and augment the roster with veteran grunts. But his hesitation to deal the Capitals' considerable assets to swing for the fences at a Cup run keeps him from an 'A' below.

2010-11 Preseason Report Card:

Forwards: A
Defense: B+
Goaltending: B
Special Teams: B
Coaching: B
Management: B+

Main Event or Dark Match? (Prediction)

The Washington Capitals can win the Stanley Cup this season if their goaltending doesn't fail them and if both Mike Green and their secondary scoring don't disappear in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They'll take the division, and likely the conference; how far they go after that is contingent on those factors and the ability of McPhee to address needs on defense and at center.

Entrance Music for 2010-11 Season

The Sgt. Slaughter theme. Not just because the Capitals play in D.C., but because it's literally 2 minutes and 11 seconds of a drum roll with no payoff -- a reminder of their 2009-10 season. 

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