Washington Capitals: 7 Reasons Anything Less Than the Cup Will Be a Failure
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At the beginning of each NHL season, all 30 teams believe that they have an opportunity to make a compelling run towards the Stanley Cup the following spring.
However, realistically, the number of teams that have the necessary talent and experience to do so is closer to half that, and the group of clubs that genuinely expect to win the Cup is even smaller.
For the last four seasons, the Washington Capitals have entered training camp with the expectation that they'll at least contend for a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals, but still have not advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs since 1998.
Though the Caps have boasted impressive lineups since winning their first of four consecutive Southeast Division titles in 2008, the group that George McPhee has assembled for the 2011-12 NHL season is more than likely the best roster in franchise history.
Since the team is loaded with skill and grit from top-to-bottom, the Capitals' ownership, management team and fanbase genuinely expect this squad to bring home the franchise's first Cup, or else there will be major personnel changes for the first time in five seasons.
With that in mind, here's a look at the top seven reasons why anything less than a Stanley Cup will be considered a failure for the Washington Capitals in 2012.
1. This Capitals Team Has Too Much Talent Up Front
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The 2011-12 edition of the Washington Capitals features more talented players in the prime of their careers than any other in franchise history, which is why the team needs to win now.
Beyond the usual suspects such as Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps have a collection of hard-working players who have more skill than those playing similar roles on opposing teams.
Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Marcus Johansson and Joel Ward are all very good second- and third-line forwards, who are at the peak of their powers. In addition, veteran Mike Knuble's presence in the offensive zone gives Washington eight forwards who are more than capable of posting over 40 points, which means opposing teams will have to worry about three different lines being able to score.
After the team's lackluster offensive performance in 2010-11, Bruce Boudreau's troops will need to come close to duplicating their league-leading goal totals in 2009-10 if they're going to be successful. Fortunately, there's more than enough talent in Washington's locker room to do so.
If they can't, serious changes will be made, because it's simply unacceptable for a group of forwards this skilled and well rounded to struggle offensively.
2. The Blue Line Is Stocked
Alex Ovechkin Mike Green
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In the past, the Capitals's defense corps have been decidedly weaker than their forwards, but that's no longer the case in Washington.
After John Carlson and Karl Alzner emerged as two of the best young defensemen in the game in 2010-11, the Caps knew they needed to add a veteran presence in the offseason, and George McPhee did just that by inking Roman Hamrlik to a two-year deal this summer.
With Hamrlik now in the fold, the Caps now have two pairings that are capable of playing first-unit minutes, as Boudreau can choose between Alzner and Carlson and Hamrlik and Mike Green to play against the opposition's top scoring line.
Beyond those four, Washington has a former 50-point scorer in Dennis Wideman, as well as former first-pairing stay-at-homer Jeff Schultz, who could form a very serviceable third unit.
Either way, with Green up for restricted free agency at the end of the season, it's unclear as to whether Washington will ever have a group this talented on the blue line again.
3. The "Blame the Goalie" Excuse Won't Hold Up
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Since Olaf Kolzig's decline midway through the 2007-08 season, the Capitals have used four different starting goaltenders in four seasons.
This is a problem for a team that intends on contending for the Stanley Cup, even though none of the four netminders can be blamed completely for the Caps' postseason shortcomings.
With the arrival of two-time All-Star Tomas Vokoun, the Capitals net will be better protected than ever before during the Alex Ovechkin era in Washington. Vokoun is a proven commodity, and is capable of stealing games on occasion.
There's no reason why Washington shouldn't win a Stanley Cup with a goaltender of Vokoun's calibre backstopping the team.
4. The Caps Have a Near-Perfect Balance of Youth and Experience
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The days of the Washington Capitals being young and inexperienced are gone, as the team's nucleus is entering its fifth season together, without any substantial playoff results for themselves.
Though the Caps still rely on the play of core guys like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin and Green, they're now surrounded by a number of talented players who bring an ideal balance of experience and youthful exuberance to the table.
Vets like Mike Knuble, Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Halpern have been around this league for over a decade apiece, and bring grit and valuable postseason experience to the Caps' dressing room.
In addition to those older players, Washington added a couple of gritty forwards who are proven performers in the playoffs in Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward. Ward led Nashville in playoff scoring last season, Brouwer was a key player in Chicago's Cup run in 2010 and each will be counted upon for clutch play and leadership.
While being experienced is always a plus come playoff time, the Caps also have a few promising young players who bring energy and excitement to the lineup. Marcus Johansson, John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Michal Neuvirth are all eager to establish themselves as NHL standouts, which makes them even hungrier than some of the proven veterans on the roster.
5. Their Window To Win a Cup May Be Closing Soon
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Though a good portion of the Capitals' best players are under the age of 30, it will be difficult for the team to keep all of its key pieces in D.C. forever.
Mike Green and Alexander Semin are both up for free agency after the 2011-12 season, and though each has their fair share of critics, they're both big parts of the Capitals offense. In addition, John Carlson will be a restricted free agent, but there's no possibility of Washington letting their budding star on the back end leave town.
Beyond those two, newly acquired Tomas Vokoun will be an unrestricted free agent, as will veterans Mike Knuble and Dennis Wideman, so many of the Caps' best complementary players will be up for grabs at season's end.
6. It Means the Team's Loyalty in Bruce Boudreau Hasn't Paid Off
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Since the Capitals bowed out of the 2010 playoffs in stunning fashion, by losing to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in the first round, many critics have suggested that head coach Bruce Boudreau should be fired.
After a fourth consecutive early postseason exit in 2011, it looked as if Boudreau's time in Washington could've been over, but the team's ownership and management team both publicly backed their coach, and stated his job wasn't on the line.
However, if the Caps don't reach at least the Eastern Conference finals, there's little doubt that Boudreau will be moving on, and general manager George McPhee will be searching for a new head coach.
Washington has been patient with Boudreau, but at some point that patience will run out.
7. There's Not Much More George McPhee Can Add to This Roster
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One person within the organization that should be proud of his performance over the last four years is George McPhee, who has executed a number of savvy trades and signings to give the Capitals the best possible chance to win games.
While the Caps' core is made up of a number of high draft picks, the supporting cast is made up of free-agent signees and players McPhee targeted and obtained via trades.
Looking ahead, if this group doesn't win the Cup in 2012, what else can McPhee possibly add to make the Capitals a better team? In 2008, McPhee added veteran leadership and skill by adding Sergei Fedorov, Matt Cooke and Cristobel Huet at the deadline. In 2009, he signed veterans Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble. In 2010, he bagged Eric Belanger, Joe Corvo, Jason Chimera and Scott Hannan in various trades. Finally, in 2011 alone, he's traded for Troy Brouwer, Jason Arnott (who departed) and Dennis Wideman, and inked UFA's Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik, Tomas Vokoun and Jeff Halpern.
Unless McPhee wants to seriously alter the Capitals' nucleus, it's unclear what else he can add to this team to help it succeed.
If this year's edition of the Washington Capitals doesn't finally host Lord Stanley's silver chalice, it may be time for McPhee to consider dealing one of the franchise's cornerstone players, no matter how difficult it will be.