Since the lockout, the Washington Capitals have had an interesting journey in the NHL
After years of mediocre seasons, the team was rewarded with some high draft picks that brought remarkable players to our Nation's Capital, including Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, Semyon Varlamov and John Carlson. In fact, a majority of the roster is made up of first and second-round draft picks who bring a high level of skill to every game.
With a solid core and supporting staff, the Caps have dominated the regular season, winning three straight Southeast Division titles and more recently, the franchise's first-ever President's Trophy. At the start of every season, the list of Cup contenders always includes the Caps because of the sheer amount of talent loaded on all lines.
However, outside of Ovechkin, the Caps' regular season success has been their only claim to fame. Since 2005, they have won only one playoff series.
The Caps are fresh off another early playoff exit, courtesy of the Montreal Canadiens and their (at the time) hot goaltender Jaroslav Halak. Up three games to one, the lead slipped away from them and they were dealt a major upset from the number eight seed.
The defeat headlined a group of questions facing the Caps as they enter the season with a chip on their shoulders.
Here are the Caps' 10 biggest questions facing the team so far this season:
Laura Falcon is a college intern for Bleacher Report and Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the 2009 playoffs, Caps fans as well as the rest of the hockey world were witnesses to Semyon Varlamov's heroics in net. With his sharp glove and lightning-fast reflexes, he carried the Caps to their first playoff series win since the lockout.
They would fall in the second round to the Pittsburgh Penguins, who would go on to win the Stanley Cup, but it wasn't without a strong fight that was back-boned by Varlamov's unbelievable performance, including his most infamous save against Penguins captain Sidney Crosby .
The Caps found their demise when Varlamov allowed four goals in Game Seven before head coach Bruce Boudreau relieved him of his duties. A comeback was out of the question.
Many pegged Varlamov's performance as rookie's luck that eventually ran out.
The following season, injuries kept Valamov out for most of the season, but he managed admirable stats, going 15-4-6 with a .909 save percentage.
While Varlamov was out with injury, Michael Neuvirth from the Caps' AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, was called up for backup duties. He, too, played admirably during his time in the NHL, registering a 9-4 record.
After losing starting goalie Jose Theodore to free agency, the Caps decided to call up Neuvirth full time rather than sign another goalie.
This is a precarious situation for the Caps. Both Varlamov and Neuvirth are 22-years-old and many NHL teams opt to have a veteran netminder back up their young star goalie not only because of the experience he brings, but to act as a teacher and guide for the younger goalie.
Neither Varlamov nor Neuvirth have a significant amount of NHL experience, yet Boudreau is calling on both of them to be the last line of defense. Can two young goalies take on the challenge without cracking under the pressure?
After Ovechkin's first NHL game, the entire world new that a pure goal scorer had entered the league.
Since then Ovechkin has, hands down, become the most deadly winger in the NHL. He expertly mixes soft hands with a powerfully accurate wrist shot that seems to always find the twine. His size also makes him harder to defend.
He was a one-man scoring machine and by the end of his rookie season, he had scored 52 goals and 54 assists.
In the following four seasons, Ovechkin would flip flop from scoring more goals to scoring more assists. Regardless of which numbers led, his overall point totals skyrocketed.
The question of whether Ovechkin will put up higher numbers in goals or assist isn't technically one of a serious nature. Either way, Ovechkin's overall numbers remain staggering. But the question is a testament to the growth of Ovechkin's game.
Because he was such a prolific goal-scorer, the description of "puck hog" began to drift toward Ovechkin's name. To many, it seemed like he only cared about himself and hitting the 50-goal threshold every season of his career.
To them, it wasn't about the team.
Last season, Ovechkin significantly improved his passing technique and wasn't solely looking for the one timer from the top of the circle. His passes became almost as deadly as his shot.
So what will this season bring? A third Rocket Richard Trophy? Or will he look to his teammates to do the job for him?
With Ovechkin on your team, it's hard to stand out sometimes, but Nick Backstrom has put on a quiet display of unique skill since he entered the NHL in 2007 after being drafted fourth-overall in 2006.
Fans are quick to call Ovechkin the star of the Caps. While he may be the one with all of the awards, they wouldn't be possible without Backstrom.
Easily one of the top three passers in the NHL, Backstrom is the definition of a playmaker. This has been a skill he has worked on in his three seasons playing pro and has dramatically improved with each season.
As an athlete, improving is the only way to remain one of the best. For Backstrom, this meant going from 69 points, to 88, to 101 in the span of three seasons.
What made this possible was Backstrom's health. He has yet to miss a regular season game and the ability to do so is very respectable because of how brutal the game of hockey is on the body. On top of the respect acquired, playing a full season makes the player dependable to not only the rest of his teammates, but the coaching staff and management as well.
Backstrom is no flashy player. His moves may make you do a double take, but he is certainly no Ovechkin. Because of that, he tends to be overlooked in some regards.
So far, Backstrom has shown the strength of his game by keeping up with the superstar in Ovechkin. But can he continue to improve his points numbers and overall domination of the game?
Varlamov and Neuvirth aren't the only young players on the team. John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson are babies to the team and the NHL, all under the age of 22.
Both defensemen, Carlson and Alzner are looking for this season to be their first full seasons in the NHL, although of the two, only Carlson is considered a rookie.
In the NHL, coming in as a young defenseman is always a difficult task. Many mistakes are made in order to perfect the style of the position, but what makes it different from playing up top is that the mistakes quite often show up on the jumbotron for the other team.
Lucky for Carlson and Alzner, the transition hasn't been bad. Both have made their progressions from their times in junior.
Carlson, a member of Team USA's 2010 World Junior Team, scored the game-winning goal in overtime to give the USA their first gold medal in five years against the favored Canadians. It's a moment that will stick by his name for the rest of his life.
Alzner hasn't fared poorly either. He was named the Top Defenseman in the CHL and WHL Player of the Year and Defenseman of the Year. Alzner also boasts two gold medals for Canada in the World Junior tournaments as well.
Johansson is a Swedish forward looking to play second or third line center on the Caps. He has the makings to be a solid two-way forward but is lacking in size that is favorable to the position. However, his potential and obvious skill in the preseason forced coach Bruce Boudreau to add him to the roster.
All three of these players have to continue in their growth to become solid players in their respective positions, but just how successful will they be?
The Caps have never had a problem scoring goals.
Their problems have come from stopping them and this isn't solely a direct reference to the goaltending. I'm talking about defense.
Defense has been a general concern for the Caps because of their inability to win upon facing a hot goaltender or a defensive pairing that can successfully shut down Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin. However, the lacking on defense tends to be pushed aside because, statistically, the Caps defensemen have good numbers.
Mike Green, for example, had 19 goals, 57 points and a +/- rating of +39. On paper, that looks fantastic, but Green has been shortchanging his defense to step in on offensive rushes.
These can work in the regular season, but when defense is tightened in the playoffs, it can come back to bite you which is exactly what has happened to Green.
Overall, the Caps don't have a standout, shut down defensive pairing. They also don't seem interested in making many changes to their defense despite their obvious weakness in the position.
It's no secret that the Caps' primary focus is on scoring, but the defensive lines need to do a better job. Winning games 6-4 may be a good thing in the season, but they can't depend on that in the playoffs.
So will the Caps' defensive players improve or will GM George McPhee trade away for a good defenseman once the playoffs approach.
Ovechkin is a force on the ice as far as his play, but his actions and demeanor are a completely different subject.
He was named captain of the team on January 5, 2010, just after former captain Chris Clark was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The decision didn't come without concerns, namely, his behavior on and off the ice.
People questioned Ovechkin's maturity. He seems like Peter Pan, a child who wants to stay young forever and his childish ways are what make him uniquely Ovechkin. His crazy goal celebrations and rockstar lifestyle come to mind.
It brings some fun to the league, people say. Ovechkin becomes an interesting character to follow.
However, this characteristic has turned against Ovechkin when he became the thrower of a few questionable hits that led to his suspension from four total games last season.
Media outlets also called out Ovechkin for his unwillingness to give interviews after certain games. These were typically losses.
Regardless of people's questions, Ovechkin had an immediate impact on the team after being named team captain. The Caps' record following the announcement was 30-4-7, incredibly dominating numbers.
Ovechkin tossed it aside as a coincidence that they became hot after he was made the leader of the team, but then we all know how the season ended for the team.
This will be a big year for Ovechkin because it will be his first full season as the captain. Will his leadership bring the Caps to victory or will his childish lifestyle get in the way?
Many NHL fans were up in arms when the Caps and the Pens were announced as the participants in the 2010 Winter Classic. The reason was because the league shoves these teams, and Ovechkin and Crosby, down their throats.
The fans of each respective team were probably more excited than the non-fans, but Caps fans may want to consider siding with the rest of the NHL fans.
There are so many distractions that come with participating in the Winter Classic, especially after HBO announced its 24/7 series that would document both teams on their roads to the Stanley Cup. Camera crews and media personnel would follow both teams everywhere they went so fans could get a taste of the life of a professional hockey player and hopefully draw more interest to the league.
Caps fans could have a legitimate beef with this because this takes away focus from what is really important: winning games and preparing for the playoffs.
While the Caps have shown that there are no problems with winning in the regular season, it would probably do them some good to maintain that focus so they can be as prepared for the playoffs as possible. This just might be too much fun for the team, something they may have too much of already.
Will the constant exposure of the team in promotion for the Winter Classic really benefit the Caps in maintaining their focus for when it really matters?
No one questions the Caps' dominance when it comes to the regular season, but the constant early playoff exits can become quite a concern if they continue.
There are some things that can be done to fix the ailing situation: switching up the lines, trading for different players, calling up some minor league players to force the NHL players to work for their positions.
However, if all fails and something must be done, Boudreau might find himself out of a job.
This would be a stunning turn of events just years removed from Boudreau's reception of the Jack Adams Award for best coach in 2008. He was the favorite to receive the award when he compiled a 37–17–7 rookie coaching record with a Caps team that was 6–14–1 when he took on the position.
Boudreau truly turned the average team around into an exciting and successful team, but that could only be said of the Caps that showed up before the playoffs began.
Success during the season is important. Without it, there are no playoffs for which to compete. However, should the Caps continue to choke in the playoffs, then management may want to consider other coaching options.
The question remains: if the Caps receive another early exit in the playoffs, does it mean that Boudreau might get the boot?
The Caps have three consecutive first-place finishes in the Southeast Division. Other divisional opponents weren't even close in the race.
In 2009-2010, the Caps finished the season with 121 points, the Atlanta Thrashers coming in second with 83. The year before that, the Caps had 108 and the Carolina Hurricanes had 97.
I wouldn't expect any more landsides from here on out.
While the Caps only made a few changes to their roster in the offseason, both the Thrashers and the Tampa Bay Lightning made key roster additions that include more depth in skill, grit, and playoff experience. Because of these changes, their rosters have immensely improved.
They have improved so much, some analysts are calling that they will both squeak into the playoffs this spring. This is not entirely out of the question because both teams were close last season. Before, the Caps were the only team in the division to make the playoffs.
The Southeast Division was lately considered a joke because of how poor the teams were outside of Washington. I don't expect this to be the case any longer. The Caps may not relinquish their position atop the division, but it will no longer be a given.
In the end, has it ever mattered that the Caps sit pretty at the top of the division?
A first-place finish in the division guarantees a spot in the playoffs, but does the division win matter if the Caps don't make use of it by carrying on their domination into the playoffs?
The last slide constitutes the most important questions, the one that has been asked of the Caps more than any other question: can they make it out of the second round of the playoffs?
I have mentioned how well the Caps play in the season, individually and as a team. They seem to be unstoppable at times, becoming even more evident this past season when they won the President's Trophy by a clean eight points ahead of the next closest team, the San Jose Sharks.
However, NHL teams don't compete for President's Trophies nor do they compete for the division title, Rocket Richard, the Art Ross, or the Jack Adams.
They ultimately compete for the Stanley Cup. This is the most important, the most sought-after prize in hockey.
If the Caps can't make it beyond the second round, then they will never win the Stanley Cup.
For a team that consistently carries such high expectations, they find a good way to do poorly when it truly matters the most. A majority of the previous questions mentioned in the slideshow come from the fact that the Caps have won only one playoff series since the lockout.
Everyone, the NHL, the team, the fans, the management, expects more than this. Their unsuccessful journeys in the playoffs have forced analysts to assume that early exits may become a given with this Caps team.
It has become about how the Caps will respond to the pressure and if, when another season rolls around, they are up to the challenge of proving everyone wrong.
Are they up to it this season?
I guess we'll find out come April.