Wed Sep 30 11:25am EDT
NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy (See Also Caps Eulogy): Southeast Division champions and second overall in the Eastern Conference (50-24-8, 108 points). Defeated the New York Rangers in seven games before losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games ... and it was all Yanni's fault.
The bitter defeat to Sidney Crosby(notes) and the eventual Stanley Cup champions lingered for most of the summer, but the refocused Capitals return this season with some new faces, younger players looking to make a splash and the player considered by many to be the best in the world looking for his third straight MVP trophy.
Coach Bruce Boudreau called the Capitals the team people "romantically want to see win" because of Alex Ovechkin, and there's something to that. The Washington Capitals are going to be a glamour pick for many, and even Hollywood's taking notice (See: Mike Green(notes) on "Cribs.") The hype is in place for the Caps to win their first Stanley Cup; but are the pieces?
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): The addition of Mike Knuble(notes) as a free agent from the Philadelphia Flyers gives the Caps the Bill Guerin(notes)-type they sorely missed last season. He scored 27 goals and 20 assists for the Flyers, going to the net and collecting garbage in a way that the Capitals' skill players infamously did not. No matter where he plays on the top two lines, he adds something valuable to DC. -- besides, you know, an appreciation for Lady Gaga and Bud Select.
Brendan Morrison(notes) was injured and out of sorts with the Anaheim Ducks (10-12-22) before moving over to the Dallas Stars for 19 games of good hockey (6-3-9). If healthy, he could be a great second-line pivot for a reasonable cost (one-year, $1.5 million). Clearly the second-best offensive center on the roster ... OK, not counting the bald dude with the no-movement clause.
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): As of this writing, Michael Nylander(notes) is still on the team, but a resolution of his acrimonious situation and hefty cap hit ($4.875 million) is expected soon.
The biggest changes are the departures of Sergei Fedorov(notes) (11-22-33) and Viktor Kozlov(notes) (13-28-41) for the KHL. That's a lot of veteran presence that skated out that door, for better or for worse.
Alex Ovechkin scored fewer goals (56, down from 65) and tallied more assists (54, up from 47) in winning his second straight Hart Trophy and Richard Trophy. He led the NHL in even-strength goals and was second in power-play tallies. He also led the NHL in goals per game (0.71) for the second-straight season; and while his sample size isn't as comparable, he's fifth in NHL history in goals per game (0.676), ahead of Pavel Bure and Wayne Gretzky.
As for his off-season ... well, we learned Ovechkin has an affinity for tramps stamps, sex before and after games, riding the zamboni in Manhattan and threatening to lead a mass exodus of Russian players to the 2016 Winter Games. So, yeah, it was a busy summer.
Introducing ... (Potential Breakout Player): The Capitals have had a few players that they've been waiting to "breakout," like Tomas Fleischmann(notes) (19-8-37) and Eric Fehr(notes) (12-13-25), that simply haven't due to injuries or ineffectiveness. So we turn to checking center Dave Steckel here, who showed a little bit more offense in the regular season (8-11-19) and then had the playoffs of his life. He's entering his prime (27) and could continue to watch his offensive totals rise to the point where he's a John Madden(notes)/Sammy Pahlsson type for a winning team.
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): If you read this blog, you know the saga of Mike Green. He shattered scoring records as a defenseman in a star-making season (31-42-73) before battling conditioning issues, external pressures and injuries in a completely underwhelming postseason. He's back in shape, focused on both the Cup and the Canadian Olympic team. In other words, he's living The Green Life 52.
The Capitals' defense remains unchanged from last season. Tom Poti(notes) and Brian Pothier(notes) are back as the puck-moving guys. Jeff Schultz(notes), John Erskine(notes), Milan Jucina and Shaone Morrisonn(notes) bring varying degrees of physicality to their defensive-defenseman games. Bright young prospects like John Carlson(notes) and Karl Alzner(notes) are still tapping their toes in Hershey, waiting for a shot.
It's a sold group. The question continues to be if it's a championship-caliber group.
And Now, a Short Message from Bruce Boudreau for Mercedes-Benz of Alexandria:
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): Jose Theodore(notes) entered camp as the No. 1 goalie, but the vibe at the end of camp was that playoff hero Semyon Varlamov(notes) had played himself into "No. 1 and No. 1-A" status. They'll both get their starts.
Theodore was widely inconsistent last season (2.87 GAA, .900 save percentage) and nearly lost his job to Johnson. In the playoffs, he finally did lose his gig to Varlamov, who carried the team (2.53, .918) until flaming out in Game 7 against Pittsburgh. If he gets his starts, he'll be a Calder contender this year.
The X-Factor is Michal Neuvirth(notes), the Calder Cup-winning keeper from Hershey who has played his way into the conversation. He should begin in the year in the AHL, but seeing him with the parent club at some point isn't an outlandish thought.
The Inventor (The Coach): Boudreau has coached this collection to a pair of division championships, one conference quarterfinal defeat and a conference semifinal loss. He remains uniquely positioned as someone that coached most of the grunts on this roster in the minors before moving up. His system -- propelled by Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom(notes) (22-66-88) and Alexander Semin(notes) (34-45-79) -- puts offensive pressure on opponents but sometimes lacks defensive solvency.
Say this about him: His move to Varlamov in the playoffs was one of the gutsiest made by a coach at any point during the 2008-09 season, and it paid off.
"Expect the worst and hope for the best? I don't think so. I'm tired of reading about how Semyon Varlamov is just a 'flash in the pan'. Officially, he is listed as the backup, but don't think too much of that. Varly is the real deal and will prove it by carrying the Capitals deep into the playoffs."
"Saying the Caps revolve around Alex Ovechkin is like saying Germans love David Hasselhoff; it's too easy. The real key is whether Alex Semin can put forth maximum effort in all 82 games. If he does, the Stanley Cup's trip to the White House will be a short jaunt across town."
"We all know the Caps are good. Good enough? That's the real question, of course, and for a team that won 50 games last year and didn't lose anyone whose spot in the lineup wasn't upgraded, you'd certainly think that they can be ‘good enough.' But will one of the three goalies step up and own the job? How about the defense? Are they tough enough for a deep playoff run? Springtime is a long ways away, and the Caps kept their powder dry at the deadline a year ago, but at some point, George McPhee is going to have to go all-in."
"2009 is the year that Alex Ovechkin and the Caps go all Ron Burgundy on your ass and show why they're kind of a big deal. Milk was a bad choice - the Capitals aren't."
"A big case of Pittsburgh Cup envy, and maybe the greatest fantasy line in the history of (on-ice) fantasy: Ovi-Backstrom-Semin (assuming Knuble sticks on line 2)."
Don Draper Says ...
"You don't market something like Ovechkin, gentlemen. He's an instant sell, like the hula-hoop ... in the sense that it's captivating just leaning against the wall or gyrating around a statuesque woman."
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: A-
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team): Can the goaltending duel produce a winner that can lead this team in the postseason? Will the new pieces fit into the lineup as well as the Russian veterans who left did? Can this defense, in a key spot, come up with the sort of shut-down performance that championship teams require?
Warranty Expires (Prediction): The Capitals will win the Southeast, likely finish atop the conference and advance to the second round of the playoffs. Logic dictates that they'll progress to the conference finals this year, but there's still something off about some of the depth at forward and on defense. They're loaded with star-power and coached well, however, and sometimes that's good enough.