I hope you're all as excited about the upcoming Panthers' season as I am. My partner Denis Potvin has written a blog about the off season moves made by the Panthers and other teams around the NHL while I focus on moves made by the Panthers' Southeast Division foes.
As excited as we might be about the prospects of this coming season in South Florida, we have to realize that the Southeast Division (nicknamed the SouthLeast Division not long ago) has become extremely competitive. Success on the ice has led to stability: all five head coaches in the SE will be back (5 of the other 10 Eastern Conference teams will have new head coaches when the season opens in October!) The last two Stanley Cup champions (Tampa Bay & Carolina) are division rivals of the Panthers. Some of the best young talent in the game will face the Panthers in their 32 division games this season (Ovechkin, Staal, Kovalchuk just to name a few) as well as veteran superstars like Lecavalier, St. Louis, Richards, Brind'Amour, Hossa and Kolzig.
Here's a look at the Washington Capitals
2005-06 Record: 29-41-12, 70 pts (last in Southeast/14th in East) 22 points out of the final playoff spot
First 10 games: started the season with a 4-6-0 record and gave up an astonishing 21 power play goals against
Last 10 games: finished the season 5-3-2 and did a much better job on the PK with only 9 PPG against (4 in one game)
Strengths: Alexander Ovechkin and work ethic. In a year when rookies and young talent often stole the headlines, Ovechkin was above the rest. From opening night against Columbus when he made the highlight reel with 2 goals and a devastating hit, you knew this kid was something special. He plays with skill, he plays with "jam" and he's got just enough showmanship in his game that you just can't take your eyes off him when he takes the ice.
Ovechkin won the Calder Trophy as the Rookie of the Year and was named 1st Team NHL right winger. He's the first Cap to win the Calder and he's the first Cap forward named to an NHL 1st Team. But as great as Ovechkin was last season, he was a one man show on most nights. If Glen Hanlon's club hadn't been such a hard working bunch, the Caps would have struggled to win 20 games.
I thought it was a great touch by the Washington organization to have Ovechkin at the draft podium in Vancouver to introduce the Caps' #1 pick Nicklas Backstrom. Any opportunity to showcase the great young talent in NHL away from the ice is a plus for the hockey world.
Weaknesses: Depth of talent. The Caps, like many teams, were caught in a transition period as the NHL was going through its transition after the lockout. The season prior to the lockout was also a non-playoff year (59 pts) in Washington after the failed Jaromir Jagr acquisition. Last year, Ovechkin led the way with 52 goals and 106 points. The next best offensive threat was Dainius Zubrus with 23 goals and 57 points. It's going to take a lot more balance than that for the Caps to become a playoff team once again.
Off season moves
The Caps lost four players in the free agent market: forwards Jeff Halpern (Dallas) and Brian Willsie (LA) and defensmen Nolan Yonkman (Nashville) and Mathieu Biron (San Jose)
Like the Panthers, the Capitals are trying to become a playoff team. At this time, there have been four additions to their roster to offset the free agent losses. Donald Brashear was brought on board to upgrade the toughness of the team and undoubtedly provide a little more room for Ovechkin. Brashear spent the last three seasons with the Flyers. Other free agent signings include: former Cap Richard Zednik (Montreal) and defenseman Brian Pothier (Ottawa). The Caps also hope that their first round pick from 2002, Alexander Semin, can provide another scoring threat behind Ovechkin.
Veteran forward Peter Bondra, a former Cap, was not re-signed by Atlanta and is yet to sign with another team (maybe back to the Caps?).
Last season, Washington gave up more goals than any team in the NHL except Pittsburgh...and that's with a solid veteran, Olaf Kolzig, in goal! They were shorthanded the most (550 times) and gave up the most power play goals against (116) of any team in the league. So far in this off season, the Caps have not closed the talent gap on the teams in front of them in Southeast Division or the rest of the Eastern Conference. With some non playoff teams from last season (Florida and Boston) making significant moves this summer and others tweaking their lineup, the Caps are a long shot to reach the postseason in 2007.
NEXT: TAMPA BAY