The 2011-2012 campaign for the Washington Capitals ended in a similar fashion to years before—elimination in the first round or two of the playoffs.
In 2009-10, the Caps finished with a dominating 54-15-13 record and captured the President's Trophy but were knocked out in round one in seven games at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.
The following year, they came out and posted another strong record of 48-23-11 to capture the top seed in the Eastern Conference. They went on to send the New York Rangers out of the playoffs in five games, only to be swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the next round.
This most recent season, they started off strong being the last team to lose a game after winning their first seven. Once they fell to 12-9-1 after starting off 7-0-0, Bruce Boudreau was let go and former Capital, Dale Hunter, was brought in as bench boss.
The Capitals ended up finishing the season under Hunter with a 42-32-8 record which gave them the seventh seed in the East heading into the post season. After taking down the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins in a dramatic seven game series, the Caps fell to the New York Rangers in another seven game series. Dale Hunter has since elected to step down as coach and another former Capital, Adam Oates, has taken his place.
A change in coach was not the only thing the Capitals have changed this season—plenty has been mixed up in the roster as well.
One of the first moves the Capitals made was in goal. On June 4th they traded Tomas Vokoun to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for a seventh-round pick in the 2012 draft. The void left by Vokoun will undoubtedly be handed to the young Braden Holtby, who surprised the league with his performance in the playoffs while Vokoun was out with an injury. In his fourteen playoff games this past season, the 22-year-old goaltender posted a 1.95 goals against average and .935 save percentage. The Capitals will look to him to repeat those kinds of numbers during the next season.
Controversial forward Alexander Semin also will not return to the team as he decided to take his career in another direction. The Capitals will still get to see a fair amount of Semin, however, in Carolina red and black. If Semin returns to the point production he has had in past seasons, this could turn out to be a huge problem for the Capitals. Since the Carolina Hurricanes are a division rival of the Caps, they can only hope that Semin signing with Hurricanes does not come back to haunt them.
The Caps also lost some veteran leadership with Mike Knuble being informed that the team would not resign him for the 2012-13 season. In 72 games played last season, Knuble scored six goals and had 12 assists, totaling 18 points. With a decrease in point production and being 40 years old now, Washington chose to go in a different direction and Knuble is now exploring his options as a free agent.
On June 22, Washington took care of one of its longest-running positions, a second line center, when they acquired Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars in exchange for Cody Eakin and a 2nd round draft pick. Ribeiro has provided Dallas with a gritty role at center over the past several reasons, and will provide the same for the Capitals this coming season. Having some depth at center will allow Washington to reposition their offense and get them ready to go again under Adam Oates. If all works well, the Capitals could return to the fast-paced, high-scoring team that brought so much success in previous years.
Washington also brought in journeyman left-winger, Wojtek Wolski on a one year, $600,000 contract. This signing could pay dividends for the team if Wolski can return to his point production that he had with the Colorado Avalanche not too long ago. During the 2006-07 season with the Avalanche, Wolski totaled 50 points with 22 goals and 28 assists. Over the following two seasons with Colorado, he would total 48 points and 42 points respectively. Washington would love to have a player put those kinds of numbers up for a $600,000 contract.
Moving In the Right Direction:
Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom will both be healthy and ready to go at the onset of this season, barring a lockout. With the addition of a second line center in Mike Ribeiro, the Capitals have filled a void that has plagued them over several seasons now. Also, the addition of Wojtek Wolski at a low cost could pay off for the team if he is able to be the point producer he was with the Avalanche.
Adam Oates stepping in behind the bench may be what this team needs to get back to finishing at the top of conference like they did under Bruce Boudreau's more offensive systems. Letting Ovechkin have more offensive freedom has shown to be not only good for the team, but also makes for an entertaining sight for the fans.
Though Braden Holtby remains unproven, he gave the Capitals fans hope that if he can continue what he started in the playoffs last season, they will have a promising upcoming season. Being only 22, Holtby could become the next face of this team between the pipes.
Heading for Trouble:
What may end up being the most detrimental thing to the Capitals may also be the one thing that is out of their hands: how other Southeast teams have upgraded during the summer.
The Carolina Hurricanes have been one of, if not, the most improved teams during the off season. Jim Rutherford was able to bring in Jordan Staal and sign Alexander Semin away from the Capitals. Also, signing Jeff Skinner to an extension gives the Hurricanes a strong offensive core that they can continue to build around for seasons to come.
Another division rival, the Tampa Bay Lightning, were also busy this summer. General Manager Steve Yzerman recognized that Dwayne Roloson's age may finally be getting to him, so he went out and signed Anders Lindback from the Predators to be the new starting goalie. Although Lindback has not been a starter in the NHL, he has provided a strong backup presence for Pekka Rinne and is ready to be a starter. The Lightning also got Matt Carle from the Flyers, giving them more defensive depth.
The defending Southeast champion Florida Panthers cannot expect to repeat their 2011-12 successes after managing to win the division with the help of 18 overtime wins. The Winnipeg Jets should see some improvement with the addition of Olli Jokinen, but the departures of Chris Mason, Tanner Glass, and others should take a slight toll on them. However, having their inaugural season back in Winnipeg behind them and still having players like Dustin Byfuglien, Evander Kane, Ondrej Pavelec, and Andrew Ladd will see this team make more of a push for the playoffs this year.
If Adam Oates can come in and guide this team back to its more offensive play that it used in past seasons, then the Capitals should have success this season and finish with one of the higher seeds in the Eastern Conference. However, with the Atlantic Division still being strong and the Southeast getting substantially stronger than last season, the Capitals won't have an easy road back to the top of the division.
My prediction is that Washington makes the playoffs as either the second or fourth seed and loses in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
This team is heading down the right path, but so are other teams in the Southeast. With a new coach coming in and the team getting a new system in place, there will be somewhat of a learning curve that will have to be practiced against now-stronger Southeast teams. The Capitals will be a threat for seasons to come, but they will need more than one season to make a deep playoff run.