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Caps believe championship roster is in place

by Corey Masisak
The Washington Capitals endured their most tumultuous regular season in three years and still earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference in 2010-11.

However, for the fourth straight season, the Capitals were unable to defeat any team in the playoffs not named the New York Rangers, and even that was more of a struggle than it probably should have been -- they needed a crazy comeback in Game 4 to avoid being tied 2-2 with back-to-back losses heading into Game 5.

Their season ended when division foe Tampa Bay swept them in four games, sending Washington into another offseason with many more questions than answers after another postseason failure.


A. ovechkin n. backstrom m. Knuble
b. laich m. johansson a. semin
t. Brouwer m. perreault j. ward
j. Chimera j. halpern m. hendricks
j. beagle d.j. king
r. hamrlik m. green
k. alzner j. carlson
j. schultz d. wideman
ones to watch
Owner Ted Leonsis wrote on his blog that changes were coming, and general manager George McPhee made good on that promise. McPhee added forwards Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern, defenseman Roman Hamrlik and goaltender Tomas Vokoun while saying goodbye to many of the role players who had been with the club for the past four postseason malfunctions.

"I had a good offseason, and I think George had a really good offseason," Leonsis said. "There's not another dollar to spend. There's not another ticket to sell. It is all up to the organization to be very, very focused and improve upon last year. There's not much left to do in management. It is now up to the players and the coaches and I think they've all internalized that. The fan base is built. The team is rebuilt and we're ready to go."

In the first three seasons with Bruce Boudreau behind the bench, the Capitals were an offensive juggernaut, but the goals dried up midway through last season so he adjusted the team's system and tried to change the philosophy. Washington became a better defensive team, but individual players' defensive abilities were exposed by the talented and creative Lightning attack.

All of Washington's top offensive players will be looking for bounce-back seasons, and the biggest task for the Capitals during the regular season likely will be finding a balance between their distant and recent pasts with Boudreau in charge.

"You can't freewheel and deal offensively like we used to be and go with reckless abandon, but at the same time you can't be as non-offensive at times as we were (last season)," veteran forward Mike Knuble said. "Still, you have to use what you've got, and you've got the horses, you've got to let them go and play.

"It will be a combination of being a little looser but also still being responsible. I think guys saw the results -- during the regular season we've won two different ways. We won by outscoring everybody and then we won by playing good (defense) and chipping it off the boards. I think we'd like to take elements of both and be really good for the playoffs."


IN: Troy Brouwer, LW (trade, Blackhawks); Jeff Halpern, C (free agent, Canadiens); Roman Hamrlik, D (free agent, Canadiens); Danick Paquette, RW (trade, Jets); Joel Ward, RW (free agent, Predators)

OUT: Jason Arnott, C (free agent, Blues); Matt Bradley, RW (free agent, Panthers); Eric Fehr, RW (trade, Jets); Andrew Gordon, RW (free agent, Ducks); Boyd Gordon, C (free agent, Coyotes); Scott Hannan, D (free agent, Flames); Tyler Sloan, D (buyout, Predators); Marco Sturm, LW (free agent, Canucks); Semyon Varlamov, G (trade, Avalanche)
After losing to the Lightning, the standard rhetoric from the media and frustrated fans was classified in three groups -- fire Boudreau, trade one or two of the team's core players, or both. McPhee took a different tact, and has built what likely is the best supporting cast in the NHL.

The pressure squarely is on five people this season for the Capitals -- Boudreau, and the team's core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Alexander Semin. It's Stanley Cup or bust in Washington -- failing to advance to the conference finals likely would mean drastic changes next summer, and even not reaching the Cup Final could mean the end in D.C. for a key figure or two.

"It doesn't come down to the regular season. We're going to be fine there," said Knuble. "You could probably hold three or four guys out every night and we'd be pretty fine and still finish towards the top. You add the three forwards who are north-south players and are hard to play against, they're going to be in there mucking and grinding. That's going to be a difference -- plus our young guys aren't that young anymore.

"I hope everyone realizes the opportunity we have here. The collection of players we have don't come along very often. If our time isn't now, when is it going to be?"

Boudreau has experimented with different combinations during training camp, but what is certain is a Russian forward (Ovechkin, Semin) will be joined by a Swedish center (Backstrom, Marcus Johansson) on the team's top two lines. Ovechkin and Backstrom typically play together during the regular season, but Boudreau has paired Backstrom with Semin at some point during the postseason every year.

The right wing on the top line will be Brouwer or Knuble, with the other likely to play on the third line. Brooks Laich, now the owner of a $27 million contract, likely will start as the left wing on the second line but could end up at center with the third unit at some point. Ward should end up on the third line, while the fourth group should be Halpern, Jason Chimera and Matt Hendricks, with D.J. King and possibly Jay Beagle around as extra forwards.

Center on the third line remains the last competition in training camp, with Mathieu Perreault, Cody Eakin and Mattias Sjogren as the candidates; Perreault is the favorite based on preseason performance and contract status (he would have to pass through waivers to be sent to the American Hockey League). Eakin has a bright future and should make his NHL debut at some point this season.

Obviously there is plenty of elite talent here for the Capitals, but whether Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Laich can rebound from down offensive seasons in 2010-11 remains to be seen. Guys like Brouwer and Ward were expected to bring their postseason exploits with them from previous employers.

The Capitals may have been knocked for their inexperienced defense corps in seasons past, but this should be one of the top blue-line contingents in the League this season. Hamrlik adds a wealth of experience, and Dennis Wideman is basically an addition as well after only playing 14 games with the club before a season-ending leg injury.

Hamrlik likely will pair with Green, a two-time Norris Trophy finalist who dealt with a myriad of injuries last season. He probably won't be asked to log 30-plus minutes some nights like he has in the past, but Green still can be one of the best offensive rearguards in hockey.

"Mike's a game-changer on the back end just with a rush up the ice or a shot -- natural abilities that other guys just don't possess," Laich said. "He's also one of the hardest workers. You see him during games -- he's up the ice, back down the ice, blocking shots. He does everything on the back end for us and he's going to be a key component to our hockey team."

John Carlson and Karl Alzner became the go-to pairing last season because of all the injuries, and they flourished. Carlson could be a Norris candidate immediately if he didn't have to play behind Green, and Alzner took huge strides as a steady, mistake-free player to complement his partner.

Wideman probably will skate with Jeff Schultz, who has improved and remains underrated for his goal-prevention abilities.

Tom Poti is not expected to play this season because of a career-threatening groin injury, but John Erskine is a capable extra defenseman. Two seasons ago the Capitals had the luxury of calling up Carlson and Alzner when injuries struck, but it remains to be seen if the AHL depth is better than it was last season, when Carlson had to play through a nasty leg bruise because the club didn't have faith in the players with AHL Hershey to replace him.

Dmitri Orlov has plenty of promise, but this will be his first full season in North America and he's likely ticketed for more AHL seasoning. Sean Collins and Patrick McNeill likely would be the first wave of reinforcements if needed.

Tomas Vokoun
Goalie - WSH
RECORD: 22-28-5
GAA: 2.55 | SVP: 0.922
Vokoun was the bargain of the free-agent shopping season, a bit of good fortune the Capitals could not pass up. He has been one of the top goaltenders in the League during the past four seasons, but has little playoff experience.

Michal Neuvirth played all nine postseason games and will see plenty of action -- both to keep him sharp and developing while properly pacing Vokoun in anticipation of playing later into the spring. Semyon Varlamov was traded to Colorado the day before Vokoun's arrival.

Braden Holtby is one of the top No. 3 goalies in the League -- he starred in his brief tenure with the Capitals last season, and Boudreau won't hesitate to use him if one or both of the other two are injured or need a rest.

Two seasons ago the Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy with a franchise-record point total. McPhee has since taken that roster and molded it into a better one, despite all of the supposed restrictions of the salary cap. Now it is up to Boudreau and team's superstars to deliver a championship.

"I'm sure there is things that we need, but I felt we had a very, very productive offseason, and we won't know until the year progresses and hopefully we stay healthy and we qualify for the playoffs," Leonsis said. "We want to make sure we never fall into the 'regular season doesn't mean much (mentality).' The regular season is very, very important. It is where you develop habits that take you into the playoffs and carry you in the playoffs."

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