Caps give Ovechkin a supporting cast
It’s good because Ovechkin is the best player in the league, and the Caps have him locked up for 12 more seasons. It’s bad because if you don’t think of someone else, too, Washington will not get where Ovechkin wants to go.
Well, get to know these 2009-2010 Capitals because there actually is more to them than just Ovechkin. There’s 25-year-old Alexander Semin(notes), the quick-release Russian winger who has scored 98 goals the past three seasons and made a statement with last year’s 79 points in 62 games alongside a shiny plus-25.
There’s defenseman Mike Green(notes), who at age 23 has established himself as the league’s premier offensive threat from the blue line. Green scored 31 goals last season and was a plus-24 while averaging nearly 26 minutes a night. With all due respect to Boston’s Zdeno Chara(notes), just how did Green not win the Norris Trophy last season?
There’s Semyon Varlamov(notes), Michal Neuvirth(notes), Nicklas Backstrom(notes), Brooks Laich(notes), Boyd Gordon(notes), Jeff Schultz(notes), Eric Fehr(notes), Shaone Morrisonn(notes), Tomas Fleischmann(notes) and Dave Steckel(notes). That’s the young core. There’s veteran support in Mike Knuble(notes), Brendan Morrison(notes), Michael Nylander(notes), Matt Bradley(notes), Chris Clark(notes), Tom Poti(notes), Brian Pothier(notes) and Jose Theodore(notes).
In other words, there’s a lot more these days to the Washington Capitals than just Alexander Ovechkin, and that’s the main reason why the rest of the Eastern Conference has to take this team seriously.
Last season: 50-24-8 (108 points). First place in the Southeast Division, second overall in the Eastern Conference and fourth in the overall standings. Having won seven more games and improved by 14 points to win a second straight division title, the Caps went into the postseason with high hopes. Washington fell behind the Rangers 3-1 in the opening round but rallied to beat New York in seven games.
The Caps grabbed the first two games by one goal each on home ice against Pittsburgh in the second round, but lost three straight. Washington staved off elimination with a 5-4 overtime win in Game 6 at Pittsburgh but got blown out of Game 7 at home to see the season end.
Imports: RW Mike Knuble (Philadelphia) and C Brendan Morrison (Dallas)
Salary cap: Washington has spent right up to the ceiling – so unless there’s a long-term injury or a contract or two moved, there won’t be any additions to the roster. The Caps do, however, have 15 players under contract who are set to be either restricted or unrestricted free agents after the season.
Three keys: With 219 goals and 420 points in Ovechkin’s first 324 career games, there’s no doubting he will produce in a huge way for the Capitals. But as much as the eye-popping numbers and highlight-reel plays he makes stand out, the biggest thing Ovechkin brings to the team is his passion for the game and his will to win.
That is what is going to rub off on his teammates and get this team over the top. As great as Ovechkin is, he can’t do it alone. He’s getting more help each year, and he’s learning, too, what it takes in the postseason. The Caps were very close to the conference finals last year. It won’t take much more to get them there and beyond.
Second, the Capitals are going to have to get production or at least solid play out of the center ice position. Backstrom is a nice fit for Ovechkin because he knows his No. 1 objective is to feed the shot-happy winger; but he can also score himself, as 22 goals would attest. It gets tricky after that as Laich, Nylander (if he plays the middle), Fleischmann and Morrison need to complement the offense regardless of the role they play or minutes they receive.
The defense can’t get too caught up on helping the offense. Green is going to get his numbers and he’s going to be moving forward every chance he gets – and Poti doesn’t mind chipping in as well. But Pothier, Morrison, Milan Jurcina, John Erskine(notes) and Schultz need to take care of their end first and foremost.
On the hot seat: Varlamov burst on the scene in the postseason in relief of Theodore and seized the moment. His .918 save percentage and cool under fire opened eyes to the point that he enters this season as the starter.
The Caps might not have planned for the 21-year-old to arrive this fast, and they’re not thrilled to have Theodore sitting on the bench while earning $4.5 million this season. But the youngster will give Washington a better chance to win.
Poised to blossom: Can you be in two categories? Yes. Varlamov should work well with new goalie coach Arturs Irbe. Varlamov speaks little English, something Irbe had to overcome when he broke in with San Jose. He’ll be made to feel more comfortable having Irbe there to mentor him, and his play in the postseason will give his teammates confidence.
Time has passed: There was a time not long ago when Brendan Morrison was centering what many considered the best forward line in hockey – Markus Naslund(notes) on his left and Todd Bertuzzi(notes) on his right in Vancouver. Today, he’s playing for his third team in 12 months and wondering if he even fits in a top-six role.
The Caps lost both Sergei Fedorov and Victor Kozlov to the KHL in Russia, and it made sense that they’d take a chance of Morrison recapturing his touch. At 34, Morrison might be better equipped to center a third line and give way to Laich on the second line.
Prediction: We know how good Pittsburgh is, how poised and ready Boston is, and how tough and experience Philly is. But don’t be surprised if it’s Washington’s year in the East. And don’t be surprised if it doesn’t stop there.