What can I say, after a full offseason of the NHL and training camps just weeks away from opening, it's time for the return of the team-by-team, division-by-division team previews.
To start things off we're looking at the Washington Capitals and whether a rookie goalie, the premier offensive defenseman in the league and Alexander Ovechkin can carry them to success once again.
2008/09 Record: 50-24-8, 108 points, second in East, Lost in Conference Semi-finals in seven games to Pittsburgh Penguins
Additions: Mike Knuble—F (2 years/FA), Brendan Morrison—F (1 year/FA)
Subtractions: Donald Brashear—F (FA), Sami Lepisto—D (FA), Brent Johnson—G (FA), Sergei Fedorov—F (FA)
While Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins continue to jump out to quick success with their batch of young superstars, the Washington Capitals are still trying to make the jump to that next level.
With the evolution of Semyon Varlamov during last year's playoffs however, the Caps may have found one of the final pieces to their own championship puzzle in their bid to compete with the new Kings of the NHL.
Even with that new goalie the Caps could still use a few more pieces to help support that jig-saw.
Green with envy…
While many NHL teams feel that way about Mike Green—wishing that they could have a 70-point defenseman of their own—the Caps are actually the envious ones.
After the dynamic Green (who joined the elite eight of NHL defensemen with 30 goal seasons), the Caps roster is slim pickings on defense.
Offensively there's not a lot to choose from. While Brian Pothier became a feel-good story for the Caps last year when he returned after missing 13 months with a concussion, he'll need to be a source of sure-handed production to retain ice time with the Capitals. If Pothier can sneak his way back into the 25-point range, then he’s a perk for this team—if not though, he may just be taking ice time away from some of the younger blueliners.
Tom Poti is a great alternative as an offensive defenseman (as well as a solid penalty killer), but the veteran has held out of 30 games last year due to a wonky groin. If Poti can stay healthy this season and erase the problems that dogged him last year, then he adds becomes the number two option behind Green offensively.
If he can't stay in the lineup and the groin troubles return, hampering his mobility, it won't take teams very long to key on Green and shut down the offensive attack from the back end.
Shaone Morrisonn has started to turn into a reliable penalty killer for the Caps (averaging just under three minutes per game for them last year) and a solid late-pairing defenseman, but relying on him too heavily could spell disaster, while the same can be said for Milan Jurcina.
As the heavy weight on defense, John Erskine is a good physical presence, but he’s shown a lot of inconsistency. As his ice time went up following a concussion mid-season last year, Erskine’s performance did as well. Erskine was also burdened with a heavy workload during the Pittsburgh series, but did have trouble with the top-end talent.
With being 29, many would assume that there isn’t much "developing" Erskine could do, but if he can show up consistently and turn away the big names then he may be more than just a low-pairing shutdown guy playing big minutes.
Getting past the returning members of last year's core, this is the most telling stat: Jeff Schultz, Karl Alzner, and Sami Lepisto garnered more ice time per game than just two of the Capitals defensemen (Green and Poti) and Alzner and Lepisto were fresh to the NHL.
Whether it was because of circumstance or necessity, the Capitals still put big workloads on the shoulders of their young guys.
Going forward, Schultz looks set to start his third full season (fourth overall) with the Caps as he prepares himself to take on a heavier workload, while Karl Alzner deserves the opportunity to work his puck-moving abilities in tandem with the heavy shot of Mike Green.
This year may be a year of transition on the back end in Washington, as the youngsters have earned their shots, and some of the veterans may not be able to keep up with the fresh blood.
Sim through the season and get me to the playoffs…
Semyon Varlamov (which is apparently how it's spelled now) has officially turned the heads of everyone in the NHL with his playoff performance last year. Whether Varlamov fully understood the circumstances in which he was performing or not, the fresh-faced Russian quietly formed a solid debut in the regular season (losing just one game in overtime in five full appearances) and then lit the playoffs on fire.
After coming in to start game two, Varlamov allowed just one goal in a losing effort. After two more back-and-forth matches (including a shutout in game three), Varlamov picked his team up and moved them past the New York Rangers with three straight wins, and then went on to win the first two games of the Pittsburgh series.
Once the Penguins offense started to catch up to Washington it ultimately spelled doom for the Capitals, but Varlamov’s performance gave fans hope going forward for this season.
Although Jose Theodore won 32 games for the Capitals last year, the ball looks to thoroughly be in Varlamov's hands after Jose laid an egg in the first round last year. If Semyon falters at the beginning of the year Theodore may get a shot at earning his starting gig back, but he can’t afford to take a night off in any playing time he gets this year.
With the unknown being how well Varlamov will actually play over the course of a full season and how consistent Theodore can be in spot-start duty, goaltending is their biggest question mark heading into the season—especially when there’s no third goalie (Brent Johnson went to Pittsburgh) to rely on this year.
It's Semin to me that you're Back(strom) on track…
Alright, we're going to mention this once and once only: Alexander Ovechkin will score sixty goals barring injury or some unforeseen circumstance. I mean he scored 56 goals last year and he only scored two goals in his first 11 games and he missed three games as well.
So let’s talk about their other offensive weapons shall we? You may remember that Alexander Semin shared the league lead in points during the first stages of the regular season but fell victim to a back injury, pushing him out of the scoring race. Semin was good for 79 points though, so if he and Ovechkin are allowed to feed off each other for a full season, Semin should net 90 points if he stays healthy.
But enough of the Russians, what of the Swedes? Nicklas Backstrom is going to give Semin some hot and heavy competition as the number two scorer on this team, as his 66 assists were fourth best in the league—a fact that many don’t realize, ranking him up there with names like Malkin, Crosby, Getzlaf and Datsyuk.
On a team deep with offensive weapons, fellow Swede Michael Nylander becomes a little bit buried thanks to last year’s inefficiency.
After posting just 33 points in 72 games (he put up 37 in 40 games the year before), Nylander will look to have a bit of a bounce-back year, and he might be in luck if he gets the opportunity to feed the puck to Mike Knuble (not a Swede…but nice try).
The former-Flyer has scored 114 goals in the past four seasons and played 82 games in three of them. For a guy (Nylander) looking to bounce back, Knuble may be just what he needs.
But we've got to make sure we're covering all of our bases, so let's talk about a Czech(oslovakian). Tomas Fleischmann has two problems: One, he doesn't have the most difficult name on the team to spell (Thanks Shaone Morrisonn) and two, his offensive production is a little shrouded by all of the other weapons.
After posting 19 goals last year, Fleischmann is eyeing a 20-goal campaign and could easily nab it with all of the attention being paid to all of the other big guns.
It’s that kind of firepower that could have Brendan Morrison primed for a rebound season, while Brooks Laich could better last year’s career season, especially if both centers get a shot at building some chemistry with all of these weapons.
While the attitude and leadership of Donald Brashear may be missed, Chris Clark may finally be healthy and ready to go this season, giving the Capitals their leader back, along with a gritty presence in along the boards and in the corners.
Oh, and there's also Matt Bradley, Eric Fehr, and Boyd Gordon too, so Washington is good in the forwards department.
If you're looking for even more players to keep an eye on during the Caps' season, rookie Chris Bourque is worth it. With a shot at making the team out of training camp, Bourque has already slashed his way through AHL competition and could be ready to make the NHL his stomping ground.
Looks like the rich can only get richer with this offensive weapon.
So what does it all mean?
In the fighting department Chris Clark and John Erskine are going to have to pick it up a bit if the Capitals want to replace Brashear's departed toughness, and the loss of his and Sergei Fedorov's leadership is a big blow to this team.
However, there are a lot of young players on this team that can score and that are prepared to step up in the leadership capability, and they've got one of the most inspiring players in the league to follow in Ovechkin.
If this team falls, it'll be because of the defense and goal-tending. For such a vaunted offense, the defense is still thin, while as much as the playoffs may have helped him, Varlamov could be in for a very up-and-down year in his first NHL season.
They'll win the division, but it'll be closer than most think.
1st in Southeast
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, or you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.