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Loaded Capitals again search for elusive Cup

Monday, 08.29.2011 / 3:00 AM / 30 in 30

By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer

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Loaded Capitals again search for elusive Cup
After a disappointing playoff exit, the Capitals once again boast a roster that should challenge for the Stanley Cup come Spring.
For the first time since Bruce Boudreau became the coach of the Washington Capitals, the team dispatched a lower seed in the postseason with relative ease in April.

FACTS & FIGURES

Record: 48-23-11, 107 points, first in East

Coach:
Bruce Boudreau (5th season)

Interesting fact: Captain Alex Ovechkin enters the season as the Capitals franchise leader in points per game (1.29) and goals per game (0.63).
The Capitals defeated the New York Rangers in five games -- the first series to not need the full seven in Boudreau's tenure -- and Washington was looking like the Stanley Cup contender it is supposed to be.

Then the season unraveled in less than a week. Washington was swept out of the playoffs by Tampa Bay in the second round, dropping a game in overtime because of a horrific line change and then contests on back-to-back days at St. Pete Times Forum for a swift and sudden demise.

General manager George McPhee had another fantastic offseason, and once again the Capitals are expected to challenge for the Stanley Cup. First, they need to have a smoother regular season than last year, which included a long losing streak and several critical injuries. Then they have to prove they can advance past the second round for the first time since surprisingly reaching the Cup final in 1998.

CAPITALS: 3 QUESTIONS FOR 2011-2012

1. Will they score goals like the Capitals of old?
After scoring more goals than any team in 15 years in 2009-10, the offense dried up in Washington last year. Several of the team's top players saw decreases in production -- especially on the power play. The role players are better and should contribute more, but this team will only really be dangerous offensively if the stars rebound. If they do, 300+ goals is a possibility again.

2. Who is the No. 2 center?
Washington has basically spent two seasons without a viable No. 2 center behind Nicklas Backstrom. Marcus Johansson, who turns 21 on Oct. 6, could be the answer and he showed flashes of top-six ability last year. Brooks Laich, now with a six-year, $27 million contract, might also get a crack at the job. Someone needs to find chemistry with Alexander Semin and help ease pressure on Backstrom.

3. How will the workload be distributed in net?
Michal Neuvirth started 45 games last season and played every minute in the playoffs. For one day this offseason, he was the unquestioned No. 1 goaltender ... and then the Capitals added veteran Tomas Vokoun. Expect Vokoun to start opening night, and he’ll begin the campaign as the favorite to start Game 1 in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, but Neuvirth will push him and should be expected to play at least 30-35 games if both guys stay healthy. Braden Holtby could also see action if one or both get injured.

-- Corey Masisak


The players who are gone were rentals or role players -- defenseman Scott Hannan and forwards Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm joined the club during the season and were never likely to return. Fourth-line forwards Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon were valuable, but both received more money elsewhere than the Capitals were prepared to pay.

Tyler Sloan was a depth defenseman who also filled in at forward in times of need, but was passed up for playing time when injuries struck in the postseason. Eric Fehr was traded to Winnipeg in part because the Capitals had a surplus on the wings and in part because they needed some salary cap relief. Fehr never seemed to totally have the trust of Boudreau, and could flourish with more ice time in Manitoba.

The biggest loss could be defenseman Tom Poti. He's still on the roster, but the Capitals are not counting on him to play this season. He missed much of last season with a recurring groin injury, and if he's not ready for training camp will likely end up on the long-term injured list.

"We don't expect Tom to be able to play," Washington general manager George McPhee said earlier this summer. "It would be great if he can because he's played very good hockey for us, but at this point the injury doesn't seem to be any better than it was six months ago. We felt we had to make a move for another defenseman in picking up [Roman] Hamrlik. He gives us a veteran guy who plays a lot of minutes, he's good defensively and he can move the puck."



Adding Hamrlik, a free agent from Montreal, was part of a roster makeover that earned McPhee rave reviews. It began with trading the club's first-round pick at the 2011 Entry Draft to Chicago for forward Troy Brouwer.

The Capitals added Hamrlik and forwards Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern on July 1, but the biggest move came the next day when McPhee took advantage of a dried-up market to grab goaltender Tomas Vokoun at a deep discount.

"I never know what we're able to get. I think we all know that we have a wish list of people that you'd like to hopefully fill a hole, but it was like it just kept coming," Boudreau said. "It was good. We knew we had free agents that were going to leave and we had holes that would need to be filled, and I thought George and Brian MacLellan did a really good job of filling them."

UP-AND-COMING: 3 PLAYERS TO WATCH

Mike Green, D -- Green was the best offensive player at his position for the previous two seasons before an unlucky and less productive campaign in 2010-11. If he can move past multiple concussions and other various injuries, Green could return to All-Star form and the Capitals' defense corps, already strengthened by the development of Carlson and Alzner and the additions of Wideman and Hamrlik, could be pretty scary.

Alexander Semin, RW -- It is the same story with Semin as it has been for years now. He's one of the most talented players in the world, and for a handful of games each season he looks like the best player in the world -- he can provide Ovechkin-type offensive impact with better defensive play. The time for maturing and excuses about youth and being comfortable has past -- either Semin is going to have that one fantastic season (think 50+ goals, 100+ points) people have been waiting for, or he's destined to be an enigma. Matt Bradley's recent comments provided a glimpse of how some of his teammates feel about him, and those feelings weren't positive.

Brooks Laich, C/LW -- The core of Washington's team has always been four guys -- Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and Semin. Carlson is likely to squeeze into that group, but it might be time to include Laich as well. Now that he's the owner of a six-year, $27 million contract, he will no longer be viewed as a nice role player. Laich needs to get back to his 20+ goal-scoring ways, but whether or not he plays center or wing remains to be determined. Even as a third-line center, 20 goals should be attainable with some power-play time given the depth on Washington's roster.




The expectations will be simple in Washington, just as they have been for the past two seasons -- anything short of a long postseason run will be considered a failure. Great regular seasons are not enough, and given the roster McPhee has assembled even losing in the conference final could be viewed as a disappointment.

For the Capitals to finally make good on all of their promise, they will need more from their core of young superstars. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green all failed to meet expectations last season, either because of injury, lack of production or both.

Washington still has a deep and talented forward corps, and scoring should never be a problem. Last season it was, and it led to Boudreau switching to a more defensive philosophy to compensate. If there is a potential trouble area, it is at center. The Capitals have been searching for a No. 2 center since Sergei Fedorov went home to Russia. This year it could be young Marcus Johansson or veteran Brooks Laich who begins the season in that role.

"We think we're in real good shape at the center ice position with Backstrom, Johansson, Brooks [Laich] can play there and Halpern can really nail down the fourth spot and move up when necessary," McPhee said. "Then we have some terrific young players coming at the position."

This will be the best defense corps Washington has deployed with Boudreau in charge, and probably the best since the days when Rod Langway and Scott Stevens policed matters for the Capitals. Green, John Carlson and Dennis Wideman give the team three right-handed shooting defenseman who could all be a top-scoring guy on some NHL teams. Finding minutes for all of them on the power play could be a little tricky -- especially since Ovechkin typically plays the point during extra-man time.

Hamrlik joins Karl Alzner and Jeff Schultz as three steady, defensive-minded guys to pair with the offensive trio. There is some depth with John Erskine, but if Poti can't play it could be up to unproven Patrick McNeill or prospect Dmitry Orlov to fill in.

Vokoun will pair with Michal Neuvirth to form a cheap and potentially above-average tandem in goal for the Capitals. Another part of McPhee's masterstroke this offseason was offloading oft-injured goaltender Semyon Varlamov and receiving first- and second-round picks from Colorado in return. Braden Holtby, who fared quite well in emergency duty last season, will be a more than capable No. 3 and play big minutes with Hershey in the American Hockey League.

McPhee has done just about all he can, and the Capitals will enter the season with maybe the most talented team in the League. Whether or not it translates in postseason success is up to Boudreau and his young core of stars.


Quote of the Day

I feel that responsibility, I've felt it for the last two years. We core guys get a lot of minutes, we get a lot of opportunity out there. Our teammates, the organization and fans look to us to be the guys to put the puck in the net and to create momentum out there.

— Jordan Eberle on taking his game and the Edmonton Oilers to the next level