ARLINGTON, Va. -- Two seasons ago the Washington Capitals sliced through the NHL, piling up goals and points en route to the Presidents' Trophy.
That season unraveled after three straight losses to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, who completed one of the most stunning first-round upsets in League history. Since then, Washington general manager George McPhee has made plenty of changes to the roster, and it is likely deeper and more talented as the 2011-12 season beckons than the one that collected 121 points in 2009-10 and scored more goals than any team in the past 15 years.
The defense corps and the goaltending is better than it has been in years, and McPhee has added several forwards during the past 15 months to increase the grit quotient to go along with all of the club's skilled scorers.
McPhee may have constructed the best supporting cast in the League, but whether the Capitals can shake the reputation of being a paper tiger in the postseason -- let alone reach their goal of claiming the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history -- still rests at the feet of the same four players who have been at the epicenter of Washington's hockey renaissance.
Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Alexander Semin have been the foundation of the franchise since the Jaromir Jagr trade in January 2004 signaled the start of a massive rebuild and goaltender Olie Kolzig's career reached its twilight. While McPhee has turned over more than half of the roster in the past 15 months and parted ways with some young, talented players, those four players -- the ones who the team's marketing department once deemed the "Young Guns" -- still are here.
"They are difference-makers, and if they are really on top of their games and committed and playing well, then this team will have success," McPhee said. "The message to them this summer has been, 'It is time for you guys to really take over. You're talented, you can be a difference-maker, but now it is time to lead. We've had guys like (Sergei) Fedorov in and (Jason) Arnott, but it is your turn. You're old enough, you're experienced enough now to really take over and lead.' "
When Washington was on top of the hockey world during the 2009-10 regular season, those four players were considered equal to or better than any quartet in hockey. Ovechkin was en route to his second straight MVP award. Green was a Norris Trophy finalist. Backstrom was squeezing his way into the "one of the best centers in the League" discussion with 101 points and strong two-way play. Semin reached 40 goals despite playing mostly on the second line.
2011 NHL OFFSEASON NEWS
Still no coach in New Jersey
Mike G. Morreale - NHL.com Staff Writer
Don't expect New Jersey Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello to be naming a new coach anytime this week. READ MORE ›
Those four players combined for 142 goals and 370 points in 2009-10. But in the playoffs, Green struggled at times against Montreal and Semin disappeared. That has been a far too common theme for Washington's stars -- not during any of the team's six postseason series in the past four years has all four of them been in top form.
There have been times when three are playing well, but too often it has been only one or two.
"If all four of them are on top of their game in any one series, that is probably a series we should win, but the nature of the playoffs is it is hard to be great in every series for every player," McPhee said.
Injuries certainly have played a part. Green has tried to play through injuries in multiple postseasons. Semin had to get his thumb frozen to play some nights against Pittsburgh in the second round in 2009. Backstrom played through a broken thumb in April.
Boudreau changed the team's system and it led to a more defensive attitude last season, but those four players all were slumping before the shift. The slump was actually a big reason for the change.
"The change in the system had a little bit to do with less production, but they can all play better and they know it," McPhee said. "Nicky had an off-year and Alex (Ovechkin) didn't really get it going until the last 30 games or so. Semin had a really good start for us and tailed off. If those guys come back and play the way we can, we can get off to a good start and have a strong season."
Green in particular had an unlucky campaign. He missed a chunk of the season because of a pair of concussions, and then was injured again in the second round against Tampa Bay.
"Certainly by his standards, the season wasn't where it should be and the injuries held him back," McPhee said. "We really liked the way he played in the first round of the playoffs this year. It was probably his best playoff series ever. His speed and his talent really sets him apart from other players, but when he plays the game simple and moves the puck quickly and doesn't put himself in vulnerable spots, he can really be more effective than when he's lugging the puck a lot. I think he learned something in that series, but we hope that this is a big bounce-back year for him."
This offseason already has had a different tenor than years past in Washington. Players such as Brooks Laich (who now has a six-year, $27 million contract) and veteran Mike Knuble have used strong language in interviews when discussing the future, using words like "accountability" and "commitment."
The "Young Guns" stand at something of a career crossroad. No one has questioned the effort and commitment of players like Knuble and Laich, and new additions Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Roman Hamrlik aren't likely to be a problem, either.
"It is Nicky's fifth year. It is Alex's sixth year. It is Mike's fifth year, Semin's sixth year. For those big four, it is time for them to become ... if it is not already, it is their team. It is time for them to take charge and not be classified as 'Young Guns' anymore. We're expecting big things them from all of them." --Bruce Boudreau
There have been questions, fair or not, about each of those four stars in recent seasons, whether it was the physical shape of Green a couple of years ago or Ovechkin and Backstrom last season, or Semin's ongoing battle with consistent effort.
If the 2011-12 season is to be different, those four players will need to be self-motivated -- but don't be surprised if Boudreau and McPhee also are more critical when necessary of their not-so-young-anymore superstars.
"I think that is a safe assessment," Boudreau said. "It is Nicky's fifth year. It is Alex's sixth year. It is Mike's fifth year, Semin's sixth year. For those big four, it is time for them to become ... if it is not already, it is their team. It is time for them to take charge and not be classified as 'Young Guns' anymore. We're expecting big things them from all of them.
"I think we have to (be critical if needed), and I think it is going to happen. We'll see."
Added McPhee: "It is fair to say ... it is not about being firm, but they really need to recognize the opportunity that we have and how good they really are and how they can make a difference. When you look at our team picture from two years ago when we won the Presidents' Trophy, I think we have eight players left. That's really a great example of how much turnover there is in the League and how fleeting opportunities can be. There are some core players they haven't changed. They are the difference-makers. Lots of things can change around them, but if they're going then we can have success."