It's going to be another year of blockbusters and huge flops in the NHL. Which teams blew out their budgets for big name stars and gigantic special effects to score Michael Bay-levels of box office gold? Which teams are bloated action retreads and terrible sequels? Find out in Puck Daddy's 2011-12 NHL Season Previews, running throughout the month.
"What happened? Where did it go wrong? Who choked? Who needs to go? Is it the coach?"
These have become annual queries for the Washington Capitals and their fans each May, as the team falls short in the playoffs after considerable regular-season success. Last season (48-23-11, 107 points) stung a bit more: The Capitals were featured on "HBO 24/7", won the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh and seemed primed for playoff success thanks to Coach Bruce Boudreau's new emphasis on defense-over-stats.
And then the Tampa Bay Lightning swept them in the conference semifinals.
Calls for Boudreau's job went unheard by GM George McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis, who not only backed their coach but added significant free agents in the summer.
Is this the year for the Capitals?
Can anyone still wrap his or her brain around the fact that the Capitals signed Tomas Vokoun for $1.5 million? There are 29 other goalies that have a higher base salary this season. Insane.
Restricted free agent Semyon Varlamov, meanwhile, was traded to Colorado in a deal that saw a first-round pick come back to the Caps.
The Capitals' other free-agent signings were interesting. Defenseman Roman Hamrlik to a 2-year deal with a $3.5 million cap hit. Nashville playoff hero Joel Ward earned a whopping 4-year, $12 million deal. Other free-agent additions included Ryan Potulny, Danny Richmond and Christian Hanson.
Troy Brouwer was acquired from Chicago at the draft for the 26th overall selection.
The Capitals bid farewell to a few veteran grunts. Center Boyd Gordon left for a 2-year deal in Phoenix. Brawler Matt Bradley was one of 187 free agents signed by the Panthers. Defenseman Scott Hannan, a playoff goat, signed a deal with the Calgary Flames. Last season's veteran pickups Marco Sturm (Canucks) and Jason Arnott (Blues) found new homes. Veteran Jeff Halpern returned as a free agent.
Alex Ovechkin saw his production drop dramatically last season: 32 goals down from 50 and 85 points down from 109, during 79 games. Theories from injuries to a change in training to a new philosophy on the regular season abounded. The primary culprit might have been Boudreau's emphasis on team defense, and that learning curve for Ovechkin and his teammates.
Whatever the case, both Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom (65 points, down from 101) are looking for a rebound season for Capitals in a significant way. Will they remain a tandem? There was some mystery in the preseason, but in the end it could be a top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom and gritty Troy Brouwer for the Caps.
The Capitals' other offensive star, Alex Semin, has an interesting offseason: Hearing trade rumors swirling and having former teammate Matt Bradley tell an Ottawa radio station that Semin "just doesn't care." All that said, he remains a lethal regular-season goal-scorer: 28 in 65 games last season after 40 in 73 the year before.
Washington didn't seek out a veteran second-line center in the offseason. That's because Marcus Johansson, who has 27 points in 69 games last season, is expected to progress into an offensive stud. The 39-year-old Mike Knuble should ride on his right, after a 24-goal season in 2010-11.
Brooks Laich was given a six-year extension for his two-way game at forward, his leadership and his expertise in automotive repair. Joel Ward's top offensive season was 17 goals and 18 assists in 2008-09; of course, all the Capitals care about is a second-gear for the playoffs. Jason Chimera brings speed and grit along with underrated offense, which earned him a new 2-year deal in the preseason.
Halpern is a veteran upgrade down the lineup and a former Capitals captain. Matt Hendricks is a fan favorite who brings a physical game every night. DJ King is the resident pugilist. Jay Beagle could find a home on the fourth line. Mathieu Perreault brings speed as another option at center, though he's undersized and could be back down in the AHL. He was in the mix for a final roster spot with Cody Eakin and Mattias Sjogren.
On defense, the Capitals' top six is impressive. Mike Green and Jeff Schultz are likely back as a tandem, with Green looking to bounce back from an injury-truncated 2010-11 (24 points) and Schultz trying to figure out where that plus-50 went from one year to the next.
Karl Alzner and John Carlson are a young, dynamic pairing. American Hero John Carlson didn't have a strong playoff run — well, neither did most of the Capitals — but he earned high marks as a rookie and his upside is considerable.
The other pairing should be Dennis Wideman, who was acquired last season as another puck-moving option, and Roman Hamrlik, the veteran former Hab who still blocks a ton of shots and can score around 35 points. Both will help the power play … in theory. John Erskine, Sean Collins and very promising rookie Dmitri Orlov are all in the mix.
In goal, Vokoun was named the starter by Bruce Boudreau in the offseason and should be good for around 60 starts. He's posted 19 shutouts in the last three seasons with the Panthers, and is among the NHL's leaders in save percentage during the time. But he hasn't played in a postseason game since 2007; that's where the Capitals need him.
Michel Neuvirth played well last season and wasn't the reason the Capitals lost to the Lightning. But he also didn't help them win the series, either. So in comes the veteran, and Neuvirth looks for spot starts ... and over his shoulder at blue-chipper Braden Holtby in the AHL.
"The Matrix Reloaded." Incredible action, hugely hyped, plenty of thrills … and then an ending that's as confounding as it is disappointing. Plus, there's always promise for an improvement in the next edition.
George McPhee has patiently built this Capitals team, holding onto prospects and making a few deadline/offseason moves. They've produced incredible regular-season success … but his teams have been unable to get past the second round. The additions of Ward, Vokoun and Hamrlik speak directly to that inability to advance — is this balance of veterans and young stars, old Caps and new faces the right mix to win?
Boudreau could have lost his job last season during the Capitals' HBO-televised losing skid. But he endured, even if his commit-to-the-defense mantra had been thoroughly ignored by the players by the end of their playoff collapse. He's a smart mixer of lines and someone whose outsized personality can deflect criticism of his players. The fans getting restless about winning in the postseason, is it conference finals-or-bust for Bruce?
Marcus Johansson showed offensive spark in the second half of the season and in the playoffs, and could be the solution at second-line center the Caps have craved for years. Then again, seeing him on a top line with Ovechkin isn't out of the question either.
"THEY WILL NEVER APPRECIATE YOU AS MUCH AS YOU APPRECIATE ME, COACH."
Joel Ward looked superhuman in the playoffs last season for Nashville, scoring 13 points in 12 games, including seven goals. He was a 29-point man in the regular-season, and now he's a got the weight of a 4-year, $12 million contract to carry. His success rests on his postseason performance; fail to be a difference maker in the tournament, and the signing will be criticized.
Mike Green. Vespa. Ridin' Drrrty.
The division race. Assuming teams haven't figured out Guy Boucher's voodoo, the Tampa Bay Lightning could give the Capitals a serious push in the Southeast after finishing four points back last season. A little competition could only be a good thing for postseason prep; but what if the Bolts end the Capitals' 4-season division championship streak? Would it benefit Washington to not be the top seed in the East?
The Capitals are as loaded as any team in the NHL. The veteran additions over the last two seasons have been expert. The core of the team makes them a President's Trophy contender.
And yet, what's it all worth if this team can't break through the conference finals?
The prediction: They'll do it this year. Then it's just a matter of being the conference bridesmaid or advancing to bring the Stanley Cup to DC.