Washington Capitals: 10 Most Important Players for Next Season

Dave Ungar@@DaveUngar68Correspondent IIISeptember 20, 2012

Washington Capitals: 10 Most Important Players for Next Season

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    Let's pretend, if only for a little while, that this ridiculous lockout either never happened or was already over.

    Let's fantasize for a moment that our hockey fix will be satisfied by something other than NHL 13 this season—which is a great game by the way.

    C'mon guys—just go with me here.

    Now that you have suspended your disbelief completely, let's take a look at the Washington Capitals. One of the NHL's perennial powerhouses as of late, the Caps had what can best be described as an up-and-down season last year.

    Expectations for the Caps this season are all over the place. The predictions have ranged from their once again competing for the Stanley Cup to just completely falling flat and missing the playoffs entirely.

    Whether the team rises or falls will depend on, quite obviously, how they perform and gel as a team.

    In looking at the current lineup, the Caps have a nice mix of stars, potential stars and role players. With a new coach who holds the promise of making the team more up-tempo, combined with the defensive mentality the team gained from a solid playoff run, it is easy to be optimistic about the Caps' chances this season.

    But which players truly hold the keys to the Caps' success or failure for 2012-2013?

    Here are the 10 most important players for the Caps this coming season.

10. Michal Neuvirth

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    While it seems that everyone in Washington has all but declared Braden Holtby to be the starting goalie for the Caps this coming season, the fact remains that Holtby is untested over the course of an entire regular season.

    After all, Holtby has only played in 21 regular season games in his relatively short career. His numbers have been solid though as he has a 2.02 goals against average in those games.

    If Holtby does falter some though, than it will be up to Michal Neuvirth to step up and assert himself as the No. 1 goalie for the Caps.

    Neuvirth is no slouch in net, not at all. In fact, had Neuvirth not been injured near the end of the season, we might all be taking about a second consecutive solid playoff run for Neuvirth.

    Caps' fans can take solace in the fact that Neuvirth has played in 108 regular season games so he has much more experience than Holtby. During those 108 games, Neuvirth has a 2.65 goals against average so his numbers are not nearly as impressive.

    But Neuvirth did have that very good playoff run two seasons ago and he is an excellent goalie. If he can improve his numbers some, particularly his goals against and his save percentage (only a .909 in regular season games) then the Caps will have a formidable one-two punch in goal.

    One person who might not be buying into all the hype surrounding Holtby is Neuvirth. Obviously, he is not going to be satisfied being a backup to anyone, especially when people were talking about him being the main man less than a season ago.

    And, of course, there were those rather controversial comments that Neuvirth made about Holtby and Alexander Ovechkin (as translated by Karolina Martinková of hockey-on.blogspot.cz and published on RMNB via The Washington Times). As reported by Trent Reinsmith here on Bleacher Report, who posted a video from Caps365.com, those comments may have been the result of a language barrier.

    Regardless, Neuvirth is clearly ready to make a case for his being the best goalie in Washington. Whether his play justifies this remains to be seen.

    But if Braden Holtby is not all of what so many believe he will be, than Michal Neuvirth becomes an extremely important element of the Caps' formula for success.

9. Karl Alzner

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    With many of the questions surrounding the Caps centered on whether the offense will respond this year, it is somewhat easy to overlook the defense.

    But for anyone who watched the Caps' playoff run this past spring, they saw a very encouraging transformation of a team that formerly played defense loosely in order to transition to offense quickly into a tough, physical,shot blocking machine of a team that frustrated two of the best offenses in the NHL for 14 games.

    Leading the way to this transformation was Karl Alzner and I believe he will be a key component in how the Caps play defense this season.

    Now Alzner is not a threat on offense and with all of one goal and 16 assists a season ago, he won't be getting confused as a two-way defender anytime soon.

    It is what Alzner does bring to the table though that makes him such an important part of the Caps' defense. He is incredibly durable and resistant to injury as he has played in all 82 games two seasons in a row.

    He does not take a lot of penalties as he only had 29 penalty minutes last season. He had a plus-12 rating a season ago which is not bad at all.

    Alzner also blocked 139 shots last season, which was good enough for third on the Caps and tied for 38th among all NHL defensemen.

    In the playoffs was where Alzner played very well as he was frequently teamed up with John Carlson and tasked with neutralizing the top lines of both the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. His performance, in this regard, was quite solid.

    His minus-one rating for the playoffs seems somewhat bad. But when you consider what he was going against, perhaps it is not so bad at all. On top of that, he did not draw a penalty in the playoffs.

    Alzner needs to get more physical this season, hit more and make sure he plays during the regular season as he did in the playoffs where he was an unyielding defensive force that simply would not grant the opposition easy access to the offensive zone.

    If Alzner can do that, look for the Caps to make significant progress defensively this season.

8. Troy Brouwer

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    Just days before the last collective bargaining agreement expired, the Capitals made an intriguing move by signing forward Troy Brouwer to a three-year, $11 million extension (Washington Post).

    I say it is an intriguing move because Brouwer did not exactly set a torrid scoring pace a season ago, his first in Washington.

    During the 2011-2012 season, Brouwer tallied 18 goals and 15 assists. He did register a big game winning goal in Game 5 of the series against the Bruins and became a leader of sorts on a team that, at times last year, lacked leadership in a big way.

    The natural question is what exactly did the Caps see in Brouwer that convinced them to make a fairly significant investment in him? The even bigger issue is whether he will play well enough to justify this investment.

    Brouwer is a very important part of the Caps' offensive puzzle though. Last year, Brouwer could be called moderately effective, at best, while playing on the wing most of the time. If Brouwer can be more effective on the wing, it will be huge for the Caps as it will instantly create depth.

    For instance, if Brouwer is more effective this season, then he can be placed on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Or he could be placed on the second line with Mike Ribeiro and Jason Chimera or Mathieu Perrault.

    What this does is create flexibility for the Caps, something they have been lacking a bit the past couple of seasons. If Brouwer can cement his status as a top-six forward, it just creates all sorts of line combinations involving players like Brooks Laich, Chimera, Marcus Johansson, Perrault, Joel Ward and Joey Crabb.

    This would enable the Caps to replicate the sort of depth that carried the Bruins and Kings to their recent Stanley Cup championships.

    In many ways, the success or failure of Troy Brouwer might have a major impact on the Caps' overall success for the 2012-2013 season.

7. John Carlson

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    Speaking of interesting deals made just before the lockout went into effect, look at the deal the Caps made with John Carlson. Roughly a day before the lockout hit, the Caps signed Carlson to a six-year, $23.8 million contract (Washington Post).

    This is one of those deals which when placed in the context of the lockout, where owners are trying to cap deals at a maximum of five years, does not seem to make a lot of sense.

    That is not to say that Carlson is not worth it. The pairing of Karl Alzner with John Carlson was a thing of beauty during the playoffs as the two men shut down the best that the mighty Bruins and Rangers could throw at them.

    Similar to Troy Brouwer, Carlson will have a lot to live up to in order to justify that contract he just signed. He has all the skills and potential to do so.

    In addition to being one of the Caps shut-down defenders, Carlson has shown some real two-way potential. No, he is not close to the pace Mike Green set a few years back, but his nine goals and 23 assists were not too bad.

    Carlson is also a shot-blocking magnet. In 2011-2012, Carlson led the Caps with 153 blocked shots, which was good enough for 18th in the NHL in blocked shots.

    Carlson is also tremendously durable, playing in all 82 games a season ago, and he was second on the team in average ice time per game, logging almost 22 minutes per game.

    His playoff performance was even better as he averaged just over 24 minutes per game, had two goals and added three assists.

    John Carlson is an integral part of the Caps defense. He can also add some depth to the Caps' defense and, like Brouwer, can create some flexibility as far as lines are concerned. But his main task will be to anchor the top shut down line for the Caps' defense this year. If he is successful at this, the Caps could be in for a big season.

6. Brooks Laich

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    Brooks Laich did not sign any big extensions or anything like that. However, he is going to be a major factor as to whether the Caps rise or fall this season.

    Laich had a decent season last year. He scored 16 goals and 25 assists. But he was also a minus-eight last season as opposed to the plus-14 rating he had the year previously.

    Laich, however, is a very good skater, has excellent hands and a good shot. He is a natural leader and he is another of those players the Caps have that lead by example.

    What is interesting to note, though, is that for three seasons, from 2007-2010, Laich was a 20 goal scorer in each of those seasons. There is little question his productivity has declined some the past few seasons.

    There are a few theories for this. One theory seems to focus in on the fact that Laich has had to spend too much time trying to be the Caps' answer for a second line center, something the team really has not had since Sergei Federov went back to Russia after the 2008-2009 season.

    Many observers and fans feel that Laich is better situated on the wing and that using him as a second line center has been a big reason for the reduction in his productivity. It is hard to say that is completely accurate, but there is certainly some evidence that would seem to support this.

    That is why Laich is so important to the Caps. If Laich can get back out on the wing, where he belongs, there is no reason why Laich cannot once again be a 20-goal scorer, or better.

    For that to happen though, Laich will need some help from Mike Ribeiro. Ribeiro was brought in to be the second line center. If Ribeiro is moderately successful in this area, this will free up Laich to play on the wing.

    It also might free up Laich to play the third line center if the need arises. Once again, the Caps could add depth to the team and roll, at a minimum, three quality lines at opponents night in and night out.

    Brooks Laich could very well be the type of player who could be integral to the Caps offense getting back on track in 2012-2013. If he is able to play on the wing more often—and if this translates into more goals and points—the Caps offensive resurgence will move one step closer to reality.

5. Mike Green

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    One of the biggest gambles the Caps made this offseason was when they decided to sign defenseman Mike Green to a three-year, $18.25 million deal (Washington Post).

    Green has been injury plagued, to say the least, the past few seasons. He has only played in a grand total of 81 regular season games the past two years.

    If he continues with this pattern, then the Caps will have lost badly with the gamble. But the Caps are gambling that not only will Green remain healthy, but he will be a big producer again.

    Obviously, the Caps would like to see the return of the Mike Green who scored 73 points in 2008-2009 and then followed that up with 75 points in the 2009-2010 season. If the Caps get that, then the gamble will more than pay for itself.

    With Green though, it is more than just his offensive skills that have to be considered. Green made significant strides during the playoffs as far as his defensive play was concerned.

    During the Caps playoff run, Green blocked 28 shots, good enough for fourth on the Caps and 16th best of all players who played in the playoffs.Green also had a plus-five rating for the playoffs, third best on the team.

    It wasn't just about stats though. Green played solid, tight checking defense. He and Roman Hamrlik made for a very good second line and though Karl Alzner and John Carlson drew the most difficult assignments in the playoffs, the job that Green and Hamrlik did cannot, and should not, be overlooked.

    If Green continues to improve his defensive game, it creates opportunities to add depth to the defense and the various line combinations. There will be times when Green can pair up with Alzner or Carlson to make another shut down line.

    Or he may try and help a player like Dmitri Orlov further develop his game.

    Or perhaps he and Hamrlik can become a shut down line of their own.

    If Green stays healthy, opportunities abound for the Caps to make major strides on defense.

4. Nicklas Backstrom

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    I have to admit that placing Nicklas Backstrom at No. 4 on this list might be undervaluing his importance to the Capitals.

    It was last season where Backstrom's importance to the Caps was felt tremendously when he missed 40 games of the regular season due to injury.

    How much was this a factor? The Caps offense, without Backstrom in the lineup, was at times anemic. Not even Alexander Ovechkin and Alex Semin could spark the Caps offense to life at times. The team floundered around the entire time Backstrom was injured, and seemed to be locked into the No. 8 seed in the playoffs or perhaps missing the playoffs entirely.

    Once Backstrom returned though, the team changed gears and started playing very well. They went on a tear at the end of the season, winning four of their last five and not just sneaking into the playoffs, but getting there with a bullet and capturing the No. 7 seed.

    As reported on NHL.com, in the playoffs, Backstrom led all Washington forwards in ice time and assists. He was second on the team in points during the playoffs. Backstrom even got into the whole shift in philosophy during the playoffs and became a shot blocker as he was tied for third among all forwards with 16 blocked shots.

    His game winner in double overtime against the Bruins in Game 2 of that series really seemed to get the Caps going on their unexpected playoff run.

    Anyone who observed the Caps last season would likely admit that the team is very different with Backstrom in the lineup. As the top line center, Backstrom is the proverbial straw that stirs the drink. He is one of the most important parts of the Caps offense as not only can he score and skate with the best of them, but he is an invaluable resource for Alexander Ovechkin.

    Even though he missed 40 games last season due to injury, he still finished fifth on the Caps in points. If he can stay healthy, he is as important a player for the Caps as there can be.

3. Mike Ribeiro

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    On Draft Day 2012, the Capitals made what might ultimately prove to be the biggest move they made all offseason.

    It was on that day that George McPhee cut a deal with the Dallas Stars whereby the Caps got Mike Ribeiro in exchange for Cody Eakin and the 54th pick in the draft (Washington Times).

    The thought process for McPhee was simple. He had been looking for a second line center for a couple of years and he felt that Ribeiro would more than fill that role.

    Without question, if Ribeiro is what McPhee thinks he is, then this was a major steal for the Caps. As good a prospect as Eakin was, getting a guy with Ribeiro's talent and experience does not happen too often—and all for the price of only a one-year investment with an option to buy.

    Obviously, as he is in the last year of his contract, one would assume that Ribeiro will do all he can to impress the Caps and his teammates.

    He brings a ton of experience to the Caps as he has played in over 700 games during his NHL career. Despite all that action, he is not injury prone. In fact, the fewest number of games he has played in any season since 2003-2004 was 66 during the 2009-2010 season.

    While Ribeiro cannot really be considered a prolific goal scorer, he is more than adequate as far as lighting the lamp. He has averaged 19.88 goals per season since the 2003-2004 campaign with a high of 27 goals in 2008 and a low of 16 in 2006.

    He has played on some rather average—or less than average—teams during that stretch. The Caps have enough offensive talent and firepower that it is conceivable that Ribeiro could match his high water mark of 27 goals this season. At a minimum, he should be a 20-goal scorer on this Caps team.

    If he is, and if he finally is the second line center the Caps have been seeking since Sergei Federov's departure, it creates lots of flexibility and depth for the Caps this season.

    That is why Mike Ribeiro is one of the most important members of the Washington Capitals this season.

2. Braden Holtby

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    To say that Braden Holtby took DC by storm during the Caps' playoff run this past spring would be an enormous understatement.

    Holtby was thrust into action on the eve of the playoffs due to injuries sustained by Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. His first task? Outplay the defending Conn Smythe trophy winner, Tim Thomas of the defending champion Boston Bruins.

    What happened next could not have been expected by anyone except the most jaded Braden Holtby fans out there. With all of 21 games of regular season NHL experience under his belt, Holtby took the hockey world by storm, beat Thomas and the Bruins in seven thrilling games and then got the Caps to a Game 7 against the Vezina Trophy winner, Henrik Lundqvist, and the top-seeded Rangers.

    Along the way, Holtby posted a 1.95 goals against average for the playoffs, good for third overall.

    Needless to say, expectations for Holtby for the 2012-2013 season are through the roof. But for everyone out there who is ready to proclaim Holtby as the second coming of Ken Dryden or Patrick Roy, the plain and simple fact remains that Holtby has not been tested over the course of an entire season.

    Caps' fans who have been around for the past few years could hardly be blamed for thinking, Wait...haven't I seen this before?

    Yes, they have and they should know that a tremendous playoff run might not automatically translate into sustained success during the regular season.

    Look at Semyon Varlamov, who had a fantastic run, similar to Holtby's, in getting the Caps all the way to a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals during the 2009 playoffs. Varlamov's goals against average was a 2.53, not nearly as impressive as Holtby's numbers last year.

    The following regular season, Varlamov only played in 26 regular season games, posted a 15-4-6 record, had a 2.55 goals against average and a .909 save percentage. Those are decent numbers but probably not good enough to win a Stanley Cup.

    Varlamov's numbers in the 2009-2010 playoffs were actually better than a year earlier. Unfortunately, Jaroslav Halak played out of his mind and the Caps were dumped in seven games by the Canadiens.

    Michal Neuvirth also had a solid playoff run during the 2011 playoffs as he too led the Caps to the Eastern Conference semifinals. Neuvirth had a 2.34 goals against average during that playoff run, which was actually better than Varlamov's numbers during the 2009 playoffs. Many people were saying the same thing about Neuvirth a year earlier that they are saying now about Holtby.

    Last season, Neuvirth played in 38 games and was average at best posting a 13-13-5 mark with a 2.82 goals against average and a .903 save percentage.

    This is why Braden Holtby is so important for the Caps. Last season, they tried to find a true solution in goal by signing Tomas Vokoun. That did not go so well. Now, the fans in DC are hoping beyond hope that they have found their solution from within and that Braden Holtby will be the Caps version of Thomas, or Lundqvist or Jonathan Quick.

    He has all the tools and potential to do so. He just has to go and prove it night in and night out.

    If he succeeds, the Caps chances of going very far this season increase substantially.

1. Alexander Ovechkin

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    It should come as no surprise at all that the most important player on the Washington Capitals is Alexander Ovechkin.

    Hasn't it really been that way since he burst upon the scene during the 2005-2006 season?

    No one on the Caps is watched, loved, blamed or scrutinized more than the Great Eight. This is especially true here at Bleacher Report where—well I have lost count actually—numerous articles have been written by yours truly and other writers chronicling the trials, triumphs and tribulations of Ovi.

    I have vacillated between feeling Ovechkin is in a disturbing decline and thinking he is poised for a true bounce back season. One thing that seems very true though is that the Caps success seems very closely tied to Ovechkin's.

    What is also true, at least statistically speaking, is that Ovechkin's numbers have been down the past couple of seasons. There is no denying that but, in reality, they are not down quite as much as many think.

    Yes, compared to his 65-goal, 47-assist onslaught during the 2007-2008 season, Ovechkin's numbers are way down. But when compared to the rest of the NHL, they are not so terrible.

    Ask most Caps' fans and Ovechkin's 38 goals a season ago would be considered a major disappointment. Still, Ovi was fifth in the league in goals.

    Where Ovi's numbers fell off badly though were in the assists and points departments. He only had 27 assists last year (a dismal 122nd in the NHL) and his 65 total points ranked 37th in the league. Without question, those numbers must improve and I suspect Ovechkin would be the first one to agree with me.

    There is a lot of optimism in DC that new head coach, Adam Oates, will be able to get Ovechkin back on track and get him closer to being a 50-goal scorer once again. If Oates can get Ovechkin back to being a 50-50 player, the Caps offense should absolutely soar this season.

    But there are some dark clouds looming and we must address the L word we conditioned ourselves to try and ignore at the beginning of this article. The financial ramifications of the lockout are not being lost on Ovechkin.

    As reported by Katie Carrera of the Washington Post, through some translating from Slava Malamud of a report initially released through Sporbox.ru, Ovechkin has indicated that if player salaries are cut any more as a result of the lockout, then he would not rule out staying in the KHL, even after the lockout ends.

    While such a thought is particularly disturbing to Caps' fans—not to mention it would likely place Ovechkin in breach of the contract he signed with the Caps back in 2008—it does indicate how serious this needless lockout could potentially become.

    But assuming there is a season, and assuming Ovechkin is back in Washington, there is no player more important to the Caps' ability to succeed and prosper than the Great Eight.