NHL: 6 Items on the Washington Capitals to-Do List
To say the Washington Capitals weathered a roller coaster of a season would be an incredible understatement. The Caps' streaky season ranged from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs. Only 22 games into the season, Washington's front office gave the word that fifth-year head coach Bruce Boudreau was to be shown the door. As Boudreau jetted across the country to take over the ailing Anaheim Ducks, few predicted that new coach and ex-Capital Dale Hunter would turn the team around.
The Hunter-led Capitals limped through the season at times while the players tried to get acclimated to their new coach. As the regular season dwindled, it looked as if the Capitals were out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. However, with the season on the line, Hunter's Capitals pulled out five wins in their final seven games.
The 2011-12 Capitals were a different breed than the Capitals teams of previous seasons. The '11-12 season marked the first in which the Caps did not break 100 points since the 2007-08 season. Instead of dominating the regular season only to fall short in the playoffs as they have in recent years, Washington flew under the radar, sneaked into the playoffs and upset the defending world champion Boston Bruins in the first round.
Despite the successful ending, there were times when the Caps looked like they were in complete disarray this past season. If the Capitals want to start off on the right foot next October, they need to do a little maintenance this offseason.
Hire a New Head Coach
Many Washington fans were surprised at the firing of Bruce Boudreau due to the success he's had with the team in recent seasons. Dale Hunter turned out to be a quick-fix for the Caps as he left the team shortly after they were eliminated from the playoffs to head back to Ontario, where he is co-owner, president and head coach of the London Knights, a junior ice hockey team.
Usually, firing a coach midseason is not a good recipe for making it to the playoffs, or the second round of the playoffs for that matter. However, the '11-12 Caps were an exception. The currently coach-less Washington Capitals' first order of business this offseason should be to find a new coach.
The Capitals don't need to hire someone to rebuild the team. Instead, the better option would be to hire a coach that has proven he can win if given the right pieces to the puzzle. All the Caps need is someone to guide the team to a championship while stars like Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are still in their prime.
Get Alex Ovechkin Back on Track
It's difficult to say that a team's leading scorer is "off-track." It's even more difficult for Washington fans to admit that their superstar, Alexander Ovechkin, is not the Ovechkin of old.
In 2011-12, Ovechkin's statistics plummeted in nearly every category. In Ovechkin's first five seasons in the league he averaged just under 106 points per season. Last year, Ovechkin only mustered 85 points. That total fell even further this past season as Ovechkin only tallied 65 points.
It's unclear what caused the sudden drop-off in production. Perhaps he has lost a step, or it's plausible that teams have "figured him out." Maybe Ovechkin is too wrapped up in the D.C. nightlife, as Capitals goalie coach Olie Kolzig suggested back in February.
But that's all speculation.
What isn't speculation is that the Capitals success is extremely dependent on the play of Ovechkin. If his totals continue to drop in '12-13, it could be a very ugly year for hockey in D.C.
Designate a Clear-Cut Starting Goalie
In recent years, the Capitals have gotten by on flip-flopping goalie rotations. A lot of the switching had to do with injuries, but it was also had to do with the coaching staff's indecisiveness.
Since the departure of Jose Theodore after the 2009-10 season, the Caps have yet to find a clear-cut starter. For a short while, it seemed like Semyon Varlomov would be the future of the Caps. When that didn't work out, the Caps decided to bring in veteran net-minder Tomas Vokoun to compete with third-year goalie Michal Neuvirth.
When both goalies went down late in the season, it ended up being 22-year-old Braden Holtby, who started only seven games in the regular season, in net during the Caps' exciting playoff run.
It's unsure how much Vokoun, at 35, has left in the tank. It may be best for the Caps to allow the youngsters, Neuvirth and Holtby, to fight it out in training camp for the starting job next fall.
Washington needs a dominant, reliable presence in net if it wants to return to true form next season. By the time the puck drops in the first game next October, every Capital needs to know who his starting goalie will be.
Find a Replacement for Alexander Semin
With 197 career goals and 211 career assists, Washington Capitals left winger Alexander Semin is no stranger to the scoresheet. Since 2003-04, only Ovechkin has scored more goals for Washington than Semin.
Despite his spectacular point production in his seven seasons in D.C., it's likely that Semin's tenure with the Caps will come to a close this offseason as he is planning on testing the free-agent market. According to an article that ran in ESPN The Magazine earlier this month, Semin has no desire to come back and play in Washington next season.
For the Capitals and Semin, this may be a mutual break-up. Even though Semin put up a lot of points, oftentimes he was on the receiving end of blunt criticism specifically attacking his lack of hustle and apparent laziness.
To take the offensive workload off of Ovechkin, the Caps need to either reel in a big scorer through free agency, or develop a young in-house talent into the next big scoring threat.
Discover Their Identity
It may sound corny, but the Washington Capitals may be dealing with an identity crisis this offseason.
When Boudreau was the coach, the game plan was simple: Score, sore and score some more. In the regular season, the game plan worked. Oftentimes, the Caps won games by the likes of five, six or even seven goals to their opponent's measly one or two. However, when the playoffs rolled around, the scoring slowed and the Capitals could not win on their defense and goaltending alone.
When Boudreau hit the road and Hunter stepped in, the culture changed a bit. In lieu of Boudreau's highfalutin offensive style, Hunter instilled the importance of toughness and playing hard-nosed hockey. The culture change paid dividends come playoff time when the overlooked Capitals stunned the Bruins in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals and went all the way to game seven with the Rangers in the semifinals.
This offseason, the Capitals need to decide which type of hockey—much of which depends on who they hire to coach the team—they will be playing in 2012-13.
In recent seasons, the Washington Capitals have become poster boys for the saying "close but no cigar."
The Capitals have reached the playoffs each of the last five seasons. In four out of those five seasons, they won the Southeast Division. In two out of the four seasons in which they won their division, they finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference. And through all this regular season success, what do they have to show for it?
Nothing. Not even a conference championship.
In the past five seasons, the Caps have been knocked out in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals twice and the semifinals three times. Many of those times, the Caps were favored and, much to the dismay of the D.C. faithful, instead of winning they let their fans down.
There's no greater example of a time when the Capitals did not finish than Game 5 of the 2011-12 quarterfinals. Leading 2-1 with 20 seconds to play, a costly penalty allowed Rangers forward Brad Richards to score with 6.6 seconds and send the game into overtime, where the New York eventually won and pulled ahead in the series 3-2.
Whether it's a play, a game, a series or especially the season, the Capitals coaching staff and players need to come together this offseason to understand and stress the importance of finishing strong.