Washington Capitals: 10 Bold Predictions for the 2011-2012 Season
Now that the free agency buzz has died down a lot, a lot of hockey's faithful are now finding themselves bored in the summer heat of hockey's offseason.
Personally I would rather it be freezing cold outside and hockey be in season than have the nice beach weather. But since it's now a little bit over halfway through the offseason, it's time for some more speculation about next season to begin.
After the Washington Capitals' last season was interesting, to say the least, and many of their star players had bad seasons I believe that the Caps are set to enjoy a much better season and postseason.
There were many upsides to the 2010-2011 season that I believe that Capitals will continue to build on, like their stellar team defense during the latter half of the campaign. Some of the new additions look to be promising as well. Some old players look to keep their games going well during the twilight of their careers. Some returning players are looking to improve from the slumps experienced last year or make good on big contracts they were given.
So, without anymore delay, let's look at 10 predictions for how the upcoming season will go.
Power Play Regains Form
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The Capitals power play will assuredly regain its former form and glory this upcoming year.
Perhaps it won't reach an astounding 25-percent efficiency again but I predict it will break the 20-percent mark again. To be honest, there are two very specific reasons that I believe the Caps' power play, which was formerly the most feared in the league, will return to healthy production:
Dennis Wideman and Brooks Laich.
After the trade deadline in 2011, since Mike Green was injured, the power play point was operated by Dennis Wideman and one of either Jason Arnott or Brooks Laich. The man-advantage looked superb with those three quarterbacking.
Jason Arnott is not returning to D.C. but Brooks Laich just signed a long-term extension and Wideman is still on the Caps' roster for one more year. To be honest, I thought Laich was better on the point than Arnott anyway.
Typically, Washington's power play was operated by Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin in the past but I think those days are no longer to be.
Green and Ovechkin exhibited horrendous inefficiency on the point this year. Green shows flashes of being a power play specialist but too often he seems to be the cause of short-handed breakaways by the courtesy of his weak fade-away passes. As for Ovie, well let's just say that his shot-selection on the point isn't great and whenever he's on the point, the whole power play seems to be flat-footed.
Green is too soft and Ovechkin just does not hustle or seem to understand the importance of quick puck-movement.
That said, Wideman has all the necessary attributes to be a superb power play quarterback. Wideman is a great passer, has great vision and good shot selection. He also has a great ability to get his one-timers on net.
Laich, on the other hand, exhibits great patience with the puck and seems to be able to find a healthy balance between quick puck and foot movement and waiting to find the right play.
I think we'll see Boudreau tinker a lot at the beginning of the year with the power play lineups but after Boudreau saw what Wideman is capable of on the point last season, he'll find a great comfort in putting him and Laich on the back-end of the man advantage.
Also, new additions Joel Ward and Troy Brouwer should see time on the power play and be very effective there as they are both bid bodies who understand the importance of going to the net, hustling and winning the small battles.
The Capitals power play should easily break 20-percent efficiency again and be within the top-five of league standings.
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It still may be hard to believe but last season Bruce Boudreau experienced great success in turning the Capitals into a defensive stalwart in the middle of last season.
It will be very interesting to see how effective at shutting-down the opposition the Capitals are this year with league-leading shot-blocker Roman Hamrlik, defensive specialist Jeff Halpern, and two-way forwards Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward newly added to the roster.
Even with the bad start to the 2010-2011 season Washington had defensively and the rather high goals-against average they experienced during their infamous eight-game losing-streak, Boudreau still managed to lead his team to some of the best numbers in the league defensively.
I predict that the Caps will boast one of the league's top-three defenses.
Their GAA will be superb. During the second part of the last season, the Caps were involved in games that would regularly go scoreless through one or even two periods. That trend will most certainly continue and help them have a GAA that will be very low—in the top-three and around 2.20 most likely.
Their penalty-kill will also continue to be excellent. With Dean Evason's new-and-improved penalty-kill system working so efficiently last year, the Caps can only get better in that aspect as they have kept all of their key penalty-killers as well as added strength at the most important penalty-killing position: goaltender. Tomas Vokoun as well as Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Halpern will be monumental in making the Caps' power play No. 1 in the league.
It's bold but I really do see the Caps having the best penalty-kill in the league this upcoming season.
What Boudreau was able to do with his team defensively without any big-name defensive players was phenomenal and, yet, also heavily underrated. Boudreau has his issues and there are some things to be desired with his coaching, but he is not the solely offensive, european style coach that he has been made out to be.
McPhee did a great job adding more two-way talent this off-season and it will do wonders for the Caps this year.
Increase in Offense from Last Season
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The Capitals decrease in offensive production last season was hard to watch for Caps fans. I'm sure the players didn't enjoy it much either. But with some great new additions and other returning players looking to make-up for last year, the Caps should see their offense increase this year.
They will not be a league-leading offensive force again but they will reenter the top-ten in goals-scored.
By adding Ward and Brouwer, the Caps get two 30-point scorers with the potential to do more on a team like the Caps. Ward scored 10 goals last year but is probably capable of at least 15. Brouwer, on the other hand, was a 20-goal scorer two seasons ago and was just three short of that plateau last season.
Jeff Halpern is another 30-point guy and is a huge upgrade offensively over Boyd Gordon, whose spot Halpern is taking.
Also, with Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin all seeing significant declines in their point-production—due partially to injury in each case—it is easy to understand why the Caps were so disappointing offensively last season. If those three are able to return to even a part of what they were two or three seasons ago, the Caps numbers will easily reenter top-ten offensive statistics next year.
I see the Caps scoring between 275 and 300 goals during the 2011-2012 campaign.
They will be very effective in the offensive zone but they won't risk their defensive game to play the end-to-end high-flying style they used to. Watching the series against the Rangers, the Caps were very calculated in their play, especially on breakout plays and in the neutral zone and it served them well.
Look for that same kind of cool, crisp and calculated offensive this year.
Ovechkin Will Return to 50-Goal Form
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The Capitals star supposedly played most of this season with a wrist injury, which he chose to play through instead of sitting out for a large-number of games. The injury excuse seems to be much too cliche these days, but a wrist injury would explain why Ovie's shooting was not accurate and he was hesitant to take good one-timers.
The Great Eight's shooting was just off last year. Most of his shots went into the goalie's chest and didn't have the same heat on them that we're used to seeing.
The big winger also looked a little too big. He has admitted that he wasn't pleased with the shape he came into last season with. He was noticeably slower on the ice last season and didn't have the same intensity in his game that he normally does.
Ovechkin has stated that he started training much earlier and in different ways this offseason to be in tip-top shape for the upcoming campaign.
Last year's 32 goals were just a blemish in what is sure to be a great career for the Russian phenom.
Alex will return to his former offensive glory and post a 50-goal season this year. I say this based on more than just hope. Ovechkin seemed to have trouble buying into Boudreau's new conservative system last year but when he finally did, it was incredible.
Recall the playoffs. Ovechkin has five goals and five assists and nine games. Four of the five goals were scored from within 20-feet of the net. The other goals was scored from 23-feet out. That means Ovie was taking shots from the hashmarks or lower.
Not your typical Alex Ovechkin, right?
Ovechkin has finally realized that he needs to make some changes to his game and he has begun to make them. He will surely show us some new moves and well as a more improved and consistent game this year in the process of scoring 50-goals.
He should also return to his usual 100-points.
Johansson Will Help Semin Score 40 and Become More Consistent
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Semin has to have more raw-talent than just about any other player I've ever seen. Unfortunately, inconsistency and problems with discipline and mental fortitude have marred Semin's career.
Still, Sasha Semin is a 40-goal scorer. He was actually on target for somewhere in the whereabouts of 65 goals at the beginning of the season.
For awhile I had thought that the old, streaky Semin was gone and Washington was finally going to see consistent scoring from the enigmatic Russian winger. Well, Semin seemed to learn a lot from veteran center Jason Arnott while the latter played in the District after the trade deadline last year.
Arnott really took it upon himself to spend a lot of quality time off the ice with his temporary teammate, mentoring Semin. Arnott talked about taking Semin out to dinner and just getting to know him as a guy. Arnott thought that a big reason that Semin struggles with finding chemistry with teammates and really getting emotionally involved in the game was because none of his teammates have ever really taken any interest in him and befriended him.
Well, Arnott befriended Semin quite quickly in his time in Washington and then continued by giving Semin lots of helpful pointers to bolster Semin's game.
The veteran taught Alex a lot about the smaller aspects of the game and it really seemed to make a difference in Semin's play. I expect that Semin has really taken Arnott's teachings to heart and has made a big step in maturing as a person and as a player.
This growth will be monumental in Semin's play this year.
I sincerely expect to see more maturity and consistency in Semin's game this season.
And Marcus Johansson, the Caps' aspiring second-line center, really exploded in his play and production at the end of the season and in the playoffs.
With Johansson starting to look like he's capable of second-line duties and Semin starting to show glimpses of maturity and willingness to get involved in the gritty aspects of the game, the two should pair up very nicely.
Semin is the key to the Caps' success. Having two scoring lines is important for a team to be effective. One scoring line is too easy to defend against these days, which is why McPhee has kept Semin around at such a high-price. The only problem is that Semin has never gotten any significant amount of time playing with a bona fide playmaking center.
Johansson will look to be that guy for Semin this year.
We might also see Semin paired with Backstrom and Johansson paired with Ovechkin on a few occasions this year. Backstrom and Semin have always played well together and MoJo and Ovie did very well the few times they played together this year. If Backstrom and Ovie aren't finding their groove again this year, expect the speedier Johansson to be Ovie's pivot while Backstrom and Semin pair up to see if they can find any chemistry between them.
Either way, Semin will score 40 goals again and, if he can find enough consistency, will challenge for 50.
Backstrom Will Continue to Struggle Offensively
Nicklas Backstrom was supposedly injured during the playoffs, which could explain his poor performance there. But he was also pretty far-off his normal production levels and offensively proficiency during the regular season.
Something went wrong for Backstrom last year and I'm not too sure he's over it. Whereas Ovie showed some serious determination and increase in his gameplay during the postseason, Backstrom hasn't really done much too convince me otherwise.
I see Backstrom's numbers increasing slightly from last year but he won't return to 100-point form. Maybe he'll hit 80 points.
However, despite still struggling offensively, Backstrom will continue to be very valuable defensively and will grow even more in the defensive aspects of the game under the defensive system Boudreau instituted last year.
Backstrom may yet become a Selke candidate or winner in his career.
Knuble Will Continue to Age Like Wine
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Mike Knuble is probably the best old-guy in the league. Out of the few 35-year-olds in the league, Knuble leads many statistical categories.
It looks like the Michigan native might be looking to pull a Mark Recchi and continue to be valuable into his 40's. Knuble will enter this season at the ripe age of 39 after potting 24 at the age of 38 last season.
Knuble may not be a fast skater in his old age, but his game isn't at all dependent on speed. Mike Knuble has made his entire living parked in front of the net and he is very very good there. With the Capitals valuing gritty play now more than ever, Knuble will continue to be a really important part of the puzzle.
Knuble may look like he's showing his age at the beginning of the season but that's what he always seems to do. Expect Knuble to make some people doubt at the beginning of the season and then get better and better as he approaches age 40, while adding yet another 20-goal season to his impressive resume.
Ward and Brouwer Will Increase Their Point Production
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Joel War and Troy Brouwer are both 30-point guys but should thrive under the Capitals system. The Caps have a number of guys who can shoot or pass but coming into this offseason, they needed a few more guys who could get the gritty stuff done and go to the net for rebounds.
The Capitals are looking to be a roster much more like the Big Bad Bruins this year. Brouwer and Ward will do very well playing for such a team. I predict both players will increase their production from 30 points to 40 points.
While putting up good offensive numbers, they will still stay defensively solid and be great contributors to the Caps defense as well.
Hamrlik Will Be the Mentor Green Has Never Had
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Mike Green is one of the most talented offensive defensemen to be sure but he still hasn't seemed to develop like he should and can.
Green has been nominated for the Norris trophy twice but never been able to win it. He has led all defensemen in scoring but his defensive prowess—or past lack thereof—has been called into question quite often.
Green still has the potential to develop into a Norris winner and elite talent. The newly acquired Roman Hamrlik should be a big help. Hamrlik was signed to a two-year deal, which should be plenty of time for him to impart his knowledge to Green while also being a big contributor to the Caps and a hopeful Cup run.
Scott Hannan was a great veteran presence on the Caps blue line last year. It looked like John Erskine and Karl Alzner learned a good bit from him this year. I think Green definitely learned from Hannan last year, but Hamrlik is really the kind of guy Green can look up to. Hamrlik is a great two-way defenseman who is a league-leading shot-blocker and also a great puck-mover.
Hamrlik isn't exactly the shutdown defenseman many people think that Green needs to be paired with but he will have a great influence on the young star and, while Carlson and Alzner should continue to be Washington's top defensive pairing, Green and Hamrlik will be a great second line.
I don't see Green putting up stellar offensive numbers but we should see some significant improvement in his overall game and maturity.
Tougher Southeast Division Will Strength Caps for Cup Run
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The Southeast Division began to look much stronger this last year. It looks even more promising for the upcoming season.
Florida is looking to be a playoff contender along with Carolina. Tampa Bay and the Caps are looking to make Cup runs and the Atlanta Thrashers becoming the Winnipeg Jets should pay dividends along with the roster moves they made.
The Southeast Division has quickly gone from being a crutch and one of the weakest divisions in the league to one of the best.
Playing in the new and improved division will make it much harder to the Caps to gain a another top-seed in the Eastern Conference but it will make them much more battle-hardened come the playoffs. When the playoffs come around, the new acquisitions McPhee made along with better preparation and competitive spirit the new Southeast division will help to foster, the Caps will be seriously poised to make a Cup run.
Teams like Boston had an advantage going into the playoffs because they had to claw with their fingernails all season in a more competitive division. It paid off for them. The same will be true of the Capitals this year.
Also, games between the Lightning and the Caps became more and more heated approaching the playoffs and then during their Conference Semi-Final series, the two teams may have really formed a good, old-fashioned division rivalry.
Having a proper division rivalry will be good for both teams but especially beneficial for the Caps.
Every time the Caps play Tampa they will be reminded of how they went wrong in the 2011 postseason and it will cause them to crack down on themselves and play with more grit, intensity and determination.