I’m writing my season-ending Owner’s Corner later than last year, which always is a good sign. A year ago I pledged our continued commitment to improving the franchise and asked for your patience. We both held up our end of the bargain. I sincerely thank you for your support as well as proudly acknowledging that you created the best hockey atmosphere Washington has seen. It truly has been a magical and unforgettable journey, and it was extremely gratifying to have so many fans share in the excitement.
It almost seemed like an all-out sprint since Thanksgiving, going from last place to division champion the last day of the season to overtime of Game 7 in the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs.
Certainly I shared your agony and disappointment when Philadelphia scored the series-winning, power-play goal in overtime, but I was anything but disappointed in this team and their performance this season.
We are building the team the right way, and we made monumental strides, improving our standings point total from 70 to 94 and winning the Southeast Division. The 24-point improvement was the second best in the league (Philadelphia, 39), and we were the first team in NHL history to ascend from 14th or 15th in the conference standings at midseason to a playoff berth.
Our top five scorers in the playoffs are all 24 years old or younger, and they all gained valuable playoff experience. We actually were the second youngest team in the playoffs, behind Montreal. Those players and their teammates embraced Bruce Boudreau’s philosophy and formed an important bond and chemistry that is frequently talked about but difficult to achieve. Seriously, what coach has done a better job than Bruce? He is the coach of the year in my book, and I’m glad he’s going to be behind our bench for years to come.
We also have given the hockey fans in the region a reason to embrace our team. The numbers tell one story – 19 consecutive games with 17,000-plus fans, an average of nearly 18,000 a game since Feb. 1 and 11 sellouts during that stretch – but that doesn’t measure the level of passion and interest our fans have displayed. You know I have a history of wanting to keep the fans of visiting teams out of our house, and we have had mixed results. But the fan response the last three months, especially during the last week of the season and the playoffs, was unparalleled. It made it even that much more enjoyable to come to the rink and witness a sea of red. The fanatical environment also plays an important role with our players, many of whom have commented publicly about the great atmosphere at Verizon Center.
It is all part of the building process, and it starts with our players. Topping that list obviously is Alex Ovechkin. He had a remarkable year, and in addition to earning the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top point scorer and the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the top goal scorer, he deserves the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s MVP. Alex has been incredibly instrumental in awakening the casual sports fan and is a terrific ambassador for our team, our sport and our city. It made me proud when he began to clap for the fans before departing the ice after Game 7.
Alex’s countryman, Alexander Semin, really displayed a previously unseen level of grit during the playoffs. Many scouts will tell you that he might have the highest skill level of any player in the league, and he really turned his game up a notch in the playoffs.
Nicklas Backstrom also found a new level to his game in the playoffs, scoring a team-high four goals (tied with Ovechkin) and a team-best +3 rating. A finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year, Nicklas was second on the team in scoring during the regular season and had a team rookie-record 55 assists. He played a ton of meaningful minutes in crucial games, and helped lead his team to the playoffs as its No. 1 center. I don’t think any first-year player had a better season than he did.
Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom were all Caps first-round draft selections, as was Mike Green. Mike had more goals (18) in the regular season than any defenseman in the league and averaged more ice time than any player on our team (23:38). He parlayed that into an outstanding playoff series, scoring three goals and adding four assists while playing nearly 27 minutes a game. He tied for the lead among all defensemen in goals and points in round one.
We had so many valuable contributions from so many players this year, from Brooks Laich’s 21 goals to Viktor Kozlov’s 54 points to Tomas Fleischmann’s overtime winner in Tampa, but much of our improvement should be credited to our commitment to overall team defense. From forwards Boyd Gordon, David Steckel, Matt Bradley and Donald Brashear to our improving defensive corps, we cut our goals against by more than a half a goal per game from 2006-07. We were at our best down the stretch, allowing just 2.07 goals per game in the last 30 games of the season.
When we signed Tom Poti I knew he would log a ton of minutes on the backline and help our transition game, but I didn’t realize what a solid defender he really is. Shaone Morrisonn was paired with Green as soon as Bruce was hired, and Shaone played significant minutes for us at even strength and on our penalty-kill unit. Jeff Schultz, another of our first-round picks, really improved his game and played more than 18 minutes a night. Milan Jurcina and John Erskine provided valuable contributions throughout the season, and Steve Eminger filled important minutes when called upon.
And I don’t think there is any denying that we are a much improved team when captain Chris Clark, center Michael Nylander and defenseman Brian Pothier are in our lineup. Unfortunately they combined to play just 96 games because of injury. Eric Fehr ended up playing 23 games for us, but he too missed a majority of the season because of an injury.
Our last line of defense, our goaltending, does pose some questions as we head into the off-season. Olie Kolzig and Cristobal Huet are unrestricted free agents beginning July 1, and only Brent Johnson is under contract for 2008-09. There are several possibilities moving forward, and I don’t want to speculate on an outcome until we have had an opportunity to hold the necessary discussions. Olie is the greatest goalie in our franchise’s history and has won more than 300 games. Both he and Brent have been extremely patient and true professionals since we acquired Cristobal. A three-goalie situation isn’t easy on any of them or the coach, but I thought they all handled it extremely well.
Sergei Fedorov and Matt Cooke, both acquired at the trading deadline, also will be unrestricted free agents this July. I thought both played important roles for us down the stretch and in the playoffs. Fedorov was a calming influence in our locker room and on our bench. His instincts, hockey intellect and leadership qualities were evident from the first time he stepped into our dressing room. Sergei has requested a little time to talk with his family and determine his future. Once he has done that, we’ll touch base and see what direction he intends to take. Matt Bradley is our only other unrestricted free agent, and we’ll talk with his representatives as well.
We already are planning for an eventful summer with the NHL awards presentation in mid-June, followed by the entry draft, July free agency, salary arbitration and our summer development camp, which once again will be held at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. All of the on-ice sessions and scrimmages from July 7-12 will be open to the public. We had great fan support last year, and we hope to see many of you here this summer.
We also will devote our summer to expanding our fan base. The initial response has been nothing short of sensational. Our season-ticket holders have renewed at nearly a 90% rate, the highest in franchise history – and it’s only April. We also have sold approximately 2,500 new season tickets, more than we sold all of last year.
Even before we won 11 of our last 12 regular-season games to win the division, our paid attendance was up more than 20%, which was the third highest increase in the NHL. And these fans also watched our games in unprecedented numbers. Our Comcast SportsNet TV ratings were up 119% during the regular season, and our playoff numbers were outstanding, including a record 5.6 D.C. rating and a 3.6 Baltimore rating for Game 7.
And when they were watching, a large portion of them must have been wearing the No. 8 jersey, which was the top seller at Shop.NHL.com in March. For the season, the Capitals had the second largest increase (118%) in merchandise sales during the regular season.
It was a great year. We met our goal of making the playoffs, so we can check that one off the list, but we realize there is plenty of work at hand to continue to improve our team. We will take the upcoming weeks to review our season, re-evaluate our talent, outline our needs and set our course for 2008-09.
Those plans most certainly will include advancing in the playoffs as well as continuing to engage our current fans and attracting new ones. We still have some room on the Caps bandwagon, and if you want to Rock the Red, we want you.