September 30, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Everything you needed to know about where the Washington Capitals are as a franchise could be found in the atmosphere at the Verizon Center during their Game 7 overtime loss to the Flyers.
There was palpable enthusiasm, as fans painted their faces and "rocked the red" to fill not only the seats in the arena but the surrounding bars in D.C. The Capitals were, for a few weeks, the biggest sports story in town. And why not: Alexander Ovechkin had completed an MVP season, the team's young standouts like defenseman Mike Green and center Nicklas Backstrom had helped make this lineup more dangerous, and Coach Bruce Boudreau's first NHL job after what seemed like a lifetime in the minors had rescued the season from early disaster.
Their two-game rally in the conference quarterfinals made you want to believe.
But there was also a measurable feeling of dread. Of deflation. Of all of it being too good to be true, because these fans had become accustomed to heartbreak. You felt it growing during an tension-filled third period; and it bubbled over when Joffrey Lupul scored the game-winner in overtime.
It wasn't the Capitals' time. Not yet. So the first full year under Boudreau approaches with expectations, a new goaltender and one of the biggest questions in the conference this season: Is this team that good, or too good to be true?
Homecoming King (Top Player): Yawn. All this hype about Alexander Ovechkin. Sure, the guy led the league in goals (65), points (112), points per game (1.37), goals created (46), goals created per game (0.57), total goals for when the player was on the ice (150), even strength goals (43), power-play goals (22), game-winning goals (11) and shots on goal (446). He was named first-team all-NHL, and won the Hart Memorial Trophy, the Lester B. Pearson Award, the Maurice Richard Trophy and the Art Ross Trophy. He also released his own clothing line, received the key to the city in D.C., tried to find a wife on Russian television and was the lead singer in a glam rock video for the team.
Yeah but ... uh ... but he's never swum with sharks in an aquarium. Yeah, that's the ticket: Advantage Derian Hatcher! Take that, Ovie!
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Forward Brooks Laich has been a dependable and versatile player for the Capitals over the last few years. His 21 goals and 37 points pointed to some offensive potential. He's going to see time with some higher caliber offensive players this season than he has in the past.
While it's hard to say defenseman Mike Green can "break out" after an 18-goal, 56-point season, this could be the year when Green's name starts getting mentioned among the elite offensive defensemen in the game, thanks in part to a fat new contract as an RFA this summer. If the defensive side of his game continues to improve, the sky's the limit for this kid. Plus, he drops an occasional F-bomb in interviews, which is a real joy for a hockey writer.
Best Expulsion (Addition by Subtraction): Olaf Kolzig's time as the team's No. 1 goalie was at an end. His voice in the locker room had been diminishing, and his importance to the team had been eased with the trade for Cristobal Huet at the deadline. There's no denying his vital place in franchise history; but his bitter departure was mandatory going forward.
Fact No. 1: The Capitals don't make the playoffs without Huet's stellar play between the pipes, highlighted by a nine-game winning streak to close it out. Fact No. 2: Huet has never shown that level of consistency before, and was playing for a contract. There were no guarantees that Huet would be the same goalie though 65-70 games this season.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Goalie Jose Theodore was the Plan B for the Capitals, and his signing a two-year deal with Washington divided many fans. Is he someone who has fixed his game and can be a dependable goaltender for a contending team? Or were his impressive numbers with the Colorado Avalanche a product of a defensive system the team played during its run of injuries last season?
Along with defenseman John Erskine, the Capitals have a few players who can protect the team's offensive players. Brashear, by the way, is one of the best players in the league to articulate the importance of the hockey fight:
Teacher of the Year: The first indications that Boudreau may have been something special were in his first few postgame press conferences. The man he replaced, Glen Hanlon, spoke in coaches' code and parsed his words. Boudreau was gregarious, at ease talking about what his team needed to do to improve as he was spinning tales to reporters that started with phrases like "I won't bore ya's..."
That demeanor didn't change during the team's miraculous run to the postseason, which earned Boudreau a new contract and the Jack Adams award.
Perhaps his greatest asset last season was finding motivation and direction for the team's grunts: Players who filled the lower lines and never seemed to make much of a difference under the old regime: Boyd Gordon, Brooks Laich, David Steckel. Ovechkin was the MVP, but the Capitals' run was a team effort.
The Custodians (Goalies): For a veteran goalie, Theodore remains an unknown for the Capitals. How will he react to a new system in front of him? To a new city, a new coaching staff? One review of his play this preseason has been that he's been "fair."
The argument can be made that the team defense in front of Theodore will be one of the best in the conference. If so, that takes a ton of pressure off this signing. With either Huet or Theodore, there were going to be questions entering this season; Jose has a few extra dogging him, and thus the extra motivation to answer them.
Something to keep in mind: His playoff numbers haven't exactly been Conn Smythe worthy, although he was sick for last season's ouster by the Red Wings.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): Green is a future star, and someone whose speed allows him to cover up the mistakes he makes as a young defenseman. Tom Poti was the subject of ridicule during his time in New York, but provided a steady veteran hand last season. Erskine, Jurcina and Schultz bring size and presence in their own zone; but if there's a quiet MVP to this defense it's Shaone Morrisonn, an unsung defensive defenseman who consistently plays will in every pairing. Even if his name looks like a Junior Jumble puzzle.
Two X-Factors this season: Rookie Karl Alzner has pushed hard for a roster spot this preseason, and veteran Brian Pothier, a mobile defenseman trying to battle back from post-concussion syndrome and making "significant progress," according to the team.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Look at Alexander Semin's game log from last season. Notice a few blue lines? Those are point or goal-scoring streaks that Semin had. Many of them are bookended by bouts of invisibility.
There's no denying his talent or his offensive spark. But Semin seems to fight inconsistency, and his attitude has been questioned before. Perhaps having Russian mentors like Viktor Kovlov and Sergei Fedorov back for another tour of duty helps change that. Because the Capitals would like to see more focus, rather than Semin all over the place.
AV Club (Media): Tarik El-Bashir's Capitals Insider helps provide the coverage that his newspaper, the Washington Post, can't seem to provide space for in print. In the Room is also a solid daily read from Corey Masisak of the Washington Times.
The Capitals and owner Ted Leonsis are famous for the access they provide non-MSM bloggers and media. The has spawned one of the most diverse blogospheres in the NHL. Jon Press's Japers' Rink is a must-read every day. On Frozen Blog brings fan advocacy and constant Capitals news to its readership. Eric McErlain's Off Wing Opinion is a daily source for Capitals news in season. Also check out A View from the Cheap Seats, Random Reality Thoughts, The Peerless Prognosticator and Alex Ovetjkin.
And while he's on the team's payroll, Mike Vogel's Dump and Chase is an outstanding read.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): Winning the race. The frantic pace of the final months of last season was like having a playoff game every night. The team gelled, and thrived under pressure. But the season starts in October. It's impossible to keep up that kind of intensity until April. So veteran players like Fedorov -- a key leader for this team last year -- need to pace themselves as much as a kid like Mike Green. The Caps showed they can win a sprint; now comes the marathon.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: A- (the return of Chris Clark in front of the net could make this power play deadly)
Prom Theme: Well, when you have your own Pantera-like theme song like "Let's Go Caps" ...
Expected Graduation: The Capitals will be one of two teams to advance from the Southeast Division, and likely will repeat as division champions. Ovechkin is the best player in hockey; with players like Nicklas Backstrom a year older, the offense is only going to improve. The team totally bought into Boudreau's scheme last season, and there's no reason to believe it won't work again. Should this team slump, Boudreau appears to be the right man to ride it out in a professional and constructive way.
It's tantalizing to think about what this group might accomplish this season. We've already seen two Southeast Division teams win the Stanley Cup in the last several years. The Capitals have the balance, the weaponry, the leadership and the management to do the same thing.
This franchise has rightfully gone from "is this the year we make the playoffs?" to "is this THE YEAR?"