Barring any work stoppages, the NHL regular season will start in just under two months.
So will the Washington Capitals team that begins the 2012-13 season be worse than the team that ended the 2011-12 season?
To answer that question, we must first look at the departures the team has suffered since they lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals to the New York Rangers on May 12. The team lost a couple veterans when general manager George McPhee declared that the Caps would not re-sign winger Mike Knuble or goalie Tomas Vokoun. Knuble's role had diminished during this past season, but he is well-respected both around the league and on this team, and his presence will be missed.
Tomas Vokoun was signed by McPhee with the hopes that his skill would stabilize a position marked by constant change and uncertainty during the last few seasons. Vokoun was not able to do that, and his inconsistency added to the goaltending uncertainty instead of decreasing it. He was injured on March 29, although he recovered in time for the playoffs. But McPhee and the Caps had already moved in another direction, and Tomas saw no postseason action.
Thankfully, McPhee only signed the veteran to a one-year deal for $1.5 million.
Vokoun is not the only disappointing veteran that will not be returning to the Capitals in 2012-13.
Defender Dennis Wideman made his first All-Star team during the 2011-12 season, and then his performance promptly declined, never to recover.
Wideman did not respond during the playoffs either. He played in all 14 games and had three goals and three assists, but he finished with a plus/minus rating of minus-seven, once again showing why he is known more for his offensive skills than his defensive skills. Wideman was traded to the Calgary Flames in late June in exchange for a minor league defenseman and a 2013 draft pick.
This offseason also saw the departure of two sentimental favorites for the Washington Capitals. Jeff Halpern, a native of Potomac, Maryland, who began his career with the Capitals during the 1999-00 season, rejoined the team for the 2011-12 season. But like Mike Knuble, Halpern saw his minutes decrease and his healthy scratches increase as the season dragged on, and Halpern played in only two games during the playoffs.
The Capitals will also be without the services of Keith Aucoin for the upcoming season. The 33-year-old Massachusetts native had been with the organization since 2008-09 and became the face of the Capitals AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears. Aucoin scored a total of 78 goals with 274 points for the Bears in 195 games over three seasons.
This season was Keith's fourth stint with the Capitals. And for the first time in his professional career, a trip to the NHL did not result in a return trip to the minor leagues.
He played 27 games with the big club, including all 14 games in the playoffs. He had three goals and 11 points in the regular season and added two points in the postseason. But he chose to sign a free-agent contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs this offseason.
Statistically, the biggest loss of the offseason was Alexander Semin. Although plagued by inconsistency and issues with both defense and poorly timed penalties, the fact of the matter is that Sasha can put the biscuit in the basket. Semin scored a total of 216 goals in 469 regular season games for the Capitals, for an average of 0.42 goals per game.
His scoring will be missed, even if his other attributes will not.
The 32-year-old Ribeiro has 387 assists and 560 points in 737 career games in the NHL. The Montreal native has averaged 0.76 points per game over his career, and he has bettered his career average each of the last five seasons.
In addition to the trade for Ribeiro, the Caps also made a few free-agent signings. Washington signed winger Joey Crabb, formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs, to a free-agent contract worth $950,000 for one season. The team also inked former 20-goal scorer Wojtek Wolski to a one-year contract for $600,000. And the Capitals signed defenseman Jack Hillen from the Nashville Predators to a one-year deal worth $650,000.
However, the Washington Capitals offseason cannot be accurately judged without discussing the moves they failed to make.
With the impending departure of Alexander Semin, the Capitals did not replace his scoring with another elite goal scorer such as Zack Parise or Rick Nash. And despite making some changes on defense, none of those included the addition of a physical, shut-down defender such as Ryan Suter or Shea Weber that this franchise has sorely lacked for some time now.
Based upon the preponderance of evidence listed above, it cannot be concluded that the Washington Capitals have gotten better.
But at the same time, this team has not gotten worse either.
If the 2011-12 Washington Capitals finished the regular season with 92 points and in second place in the Southeast Division by a mere two points behind the Florida Panthers, then the 2012-13 version of the team as it is currently constructed can also be predicted to finish with 90-95 points and have a good chance to return the division banner to the rafters of Verizon Center.
Plus, the current team has several unknowns that could become positives during the season.
New head coach Adam Oates has never been a bench boss in the NHL or at any level for that matter, but he could prove to be a natural like his immediate predecessor and former Capitals teammate Dale Hunter. Alexander Ovechkin could return to his league-dominating ways by scoring 50 goals—or more—this season. And free-agent acquisition Wojtek Wolski could indeed turn out to be a near-perfect replacement for Alexander Semin if he can return to his previous goal-scoring levels.
And bear in mind that the Washington Capitals are very young at several key positions. Goalies Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth, defenders John Carlson and Karl Alzner, and centers Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault are all under the age of 25. This group of six has formed a new posse of "Young Guns" that still has not reached its full potential. If this group's rapid progress continues during the 2012-13 season, the Capitals could finish with more than 100 points and be playing hockey deep into May or even June.
If the latter occurs, then the Washington Capitals will clearly have gotten better.
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