Back in the Saddle: Washington Capitals 2010-11 NHL Season Preview

Benjamin BenyaCorrespondent IIOctober 7, 2010

Alex Ovechkin is great, but will the team he plays for be great as well?
Alex Ovechkin is great, but will the team he plays for be great as well?Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Key Additions: G Dany Sabourin, RW Brian Willsie, C Matt Hendricks.

Key Subtractions: G Jose Theodore, D Milan Jurcina, D Joe Corvo, LW Alexandre Giroux, C Eric Belanger, D Shaone Morrisonn.

They were absolutely dominant last year, and looked like the can’t miss Stanley Cup winners. But for the Washington Capitals, it was one of the strangest turn of events in NHL history.

After cruising through the regular season with the best record and the biggest scorers, the Capitals were upended by the Montreal Canadiens in one of the biggest upsets (and collapses) ever. Such an event would be cause for alarm in many circles, but the Caps stuck to their guns and now look forward to proving that last year was only a fluke. They may be right.

For a team with the biggest offseason acquisition being (arguably) Matt Hendricks, the Capitals basically gave up their deadline deals and are returning just as poised as ever. And for head coach Bruce Boudreau, that’s just they way they like it.

Inside the Verizon Center, he’s known simply as “the Great 8.” He’s even got his own merchandise line emphasizing such. Alex Ovechkin has taken the NHL by storm over the past five years, and the scary thing is, he could just be warming up. The Caps’ captain has scored 50 goals and over 100 points in all but one season since debuting, and every year he gets more physical and takes more shots.

It should say something when opposing fans hold their breath with each and every puck possession Ovechkin takes. He’s quite possibly the best the game has to offer, and he’s got a dynamic supporting cast keeping the team afloat.

At the front is Nicklas Backstrom, a Swedish-born phenom who is scary good. Backstrom was such a great passer for the like of Ovechkin and Alexander Semin that its hard to believe he scored 33 goals himself last season. Unlike Ovechkin, who is well into his prime in the NHL, Backstrom may still be a few years from it yet has no trouble hitting the 90-100 point mark.

The aforementioned Semin will be an interesting story all season. With his contract expiring and the Caps showing little interest in giving him a pay raise (he’s already making a cool $6 million), Semin may be playing more for the numbers than anything else. When avoiding injury, Semin has proven to be the next best goal scorer behind Ovechkin, finally breaking 40 last season.

Behind this hat trick of All-Stars are a legion of role players who have played well enough to score as often as several first line players on other teams. Tomas Fleischmann is a key forward among them, exposing his true potential during the Olympics while amassing more than 50 points last year. He’s still young with much time to grow.

Both Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr are the same way, each potting 20 goals last season. Both have also played noticeably bigger than others in the same pay grade and use their size as a scoring advantage. Laich may be a few years older, but he’s also a few years closer to superstardom.

Role players are important to every NHL franchise, and in Washington skaters like Dave Steckel and Matt Bradley fit the bill perfectly. They check, block shots, kill penalties, and score in situations that tilt the tables in favor of the Capitals.

Finally, we come to Mike Knuble, who gets a mention if only because of his consistent middle man play every season with half a dozen different teams. Knuble brings a plethora of veteran wisdom and leadership to a team that is still relatively young and creating its identity.

As scary as the scoring is on the Washington offense, the defensive side may be just as good. Led by Mike Green, Washington’s defenders for the most part play like wingers who were assigned a stay-at-home position.

In the past two seasons, Mike Green has averaged an astounding 25 goals, more than several teams’ top scorers could. He’s smart with the puck and has a thunderous shot that keeps goalies on their heels, not to mention Green can take the body and moves quick enough to counteract his own mistakes.

Youth may be the main factor in the Washington locker room, but Tom Poti is far from his heyday. At 33, Poti was once a 40+ point defenseman getting booed for weeks on end by fans of his franchise. He’s since found his role in Washington and thrives more as a two-way player than an offensive threat. He’s still fast and has decent enough reach to cause a problem.

Past Poti, John Erskine and Tyler Sloan are rounding out 30 and appear to have earned their roster spots. Each towering over the six foot mark, each able to deliver a good body check to motivate the masses. While neither shows up on the score sheet that often, they are the kind of players who play better because of it.

The Caps are still loading the back lines with young stars, including Karl Alzner, rookie John Carlson, and Jeff Schultz. Schultz was a plus/minus wizard last season and looks poised to be another playmaker for the defense. Alzner should be interesting to watch if he gets a full season to show why he was worth a first round pick a few years ago.

In net, the Caps are finally going with, you guessed it, the youth movement as well. No longer relying on the night and day play of Jose Theodore, the Caps have turned the team over to a pair of youngsters who will be vying for attention, and starting time, all season.

Before being placed in the injured reserve list, the common belief was that Semyon Varlamov would start the season for Washington. His playoff performance two years ago is what got him noticed in the first place, and he went 15-4-6 last year during the regular season.

Of course, any goalie starting for Washington last year was bound to win, so Varlamov will need to show more actual skill in the way he did as a puck-stopping, calm and collected player during the 2009 playoffs. When he returns, Varlamov will be a year wiser and a little more tested.

His backup is now the starter, and could be the usurper of the throne if he does well enough. Michal Neuvirth has been given the slow build over the past two seasons and may as well be up for the Calder Trophy already. Neuvirth is incredibly calm and smart for a goalie and looks as if he’s just biding his time to become the man.

Rookie Watch
The hype has begun for John Carlson spending a full year in the Verizon Center, likely because Caps fans got plenty of looks at him late last season and during the playoffs. Carlson joins in on the rush and is fast enough to bury a rebound the way a top forward would. He’s got skill and grit and is willing to show both.

With strong play from Neuvirth, Varlamov, or a combination of the two, there is very little that can stop the Capitals from dominating once again, especially since Jaroslav Halak now plays in the West. First in the Southeast, Second in the Eastern Conference.


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