When the Washington Capitals watched the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrate their Game 4 victory in St. Pete Times Forum and move on to the Eastern Conference Finals, it meant the finish of another season with an earlier than expected playoff exit.
It was the first season the front office went to great lengths leading up to and at the trading deadline to improve the roster and make it fit for a deep playoff run. A first-round playoff victory over the New York Rangers gave DC faithful hope, but the Caps were subsequently shut down by the Bolts in the next round.
Therefore, it was on to another summer of disappointment for Caps fans as they watched the remainder of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and their Eastern Conference rivals Boston Bruins defeat the Lightning en route to lifting the Cup.
It was evident that general manager George McPhee would have to take some measures to update the roster going into this season and make the team more playoff savvy. Bruce Boudreau would need to find a way to win in the postseason as well.
A few players were released from their contracts, including mainstays Boyd Gordon, Scott Hannan and Matt Bradley, Bradley being the departed who would later generate the most headlines during the offseason by going on sports talk radio in Ottawa and denouncing some of the team habits and attitude of the players. He described an environment and player attitudes not conducive to success.
Prospect goaltender Semyon Varlamov and Eric Fehr were traded away to make room for their respective positions on the roster and to alleviate some salary cap issues. After these trades, it was clear the Caps would need some incoming players.
The first news of an upgrade to the roster came in late June, when McPhee acquired Troy Brouwer from Chicago for their first round pick in the upcoming draft. Brouwer brings a forward with qualities to get to the net and score goals in those tight areas, something the Capitals need to be successful in a long season.
Then, in early July, the Capitals pulled off one of the shock signings of the offseason. Goaltender Tomas Vokoun seemed set to secure a long term deal with a team needing the services of an experienced goaltender. However, he signed with the Caps for a bargain basement price, adding increased depth between the pipes at Verizon Center.
Forward Joel Ward and veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik would also sign with the Caps via free agency completing a much-improved and experienced roster heading into the 2011-12 season.
As is usual, there are a lot of expectations going into a new Capitals season. It remains to be seen if the new additions to the roster are what it takes to take this team to the next level, or if it will just be another year with early playoff curtains, leaving Washingtonians left to wonder what the real issue could be.
Michal Neuvirth enters his second full season on the Capitals roster with as much uncertainty as any. When Varlamov was traded to the Colorado Avalanche, it looked as though Neuvirth would slide into a No. 1 role—that was, until Vokoun was brought in.
Now the Capitals will enter another year with two apparent top netminders. It is possible one could suffer an injury or outperform the other. It will be vital for the Caps to enter the playoffs with a hot goalie, and either one of these two have the capability to be that kind of performer.
Goaltending is as vital as anything to Stanley Cup success. Is it safe to say the Capitals have that quality this year in Neuvirth and Vokoun?
Braden Holtby and Dany Sabourin will share time in Hershey for a second straight year and will be called upon if needed in the nation's capital.
Roman Hamrlik looks to bring stability to the young Capitals back line. While the 37-year-old might not be a top-four defenseman on this roster, his presence will solidify the team defensively and on special teams.
Mike Green is coming off of an injury filled 2010-11 which only saw him compete in 49 regular season games. If Green is able to stay healthy, improve his defensive capabilities and keep his offensive production around the same from previous years, it is possible he could appear as a Norris trophy candidate at the end of the season.
Karl Alzner and John Carlson have a full season under their belts, and the two first round draft picks look to continue improving.
Dennis Wideman was added at the trading deadline last season and brings plenty of options to Bruce Boudreau and Bob Woods, including on the power play.
Tom Poti is back from injury and looks to get back into the lineup, along with John Erskine, who will most likely feature as a seventh option if needed.
Alex Ovechkin is coming off his most statistically disappointing year in 2010-11. Obviously, the motivation is there for "The Great Eight" to improve on the score sheet this season, but the ultimate goal is to bring a Stanley Cup to DC.
If Boudreau is in need of motivational pieces, Alexander Semin’s locker should contain a stereo with a nonstop loop of Matt Bradley’s AM radio interview. Semin is also coming off a subpar season in goals and point totals and will look for a strong season to carry through into the post season. However, DC hockey pundits would all agree on one thing: The Russian right-winger needs to find a way to become more dynamic in the playoffs.
Centers Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson shared time at the first line center in the preseason between Ovechkin and Mike Knuble. Backstrom is the stronger candidate based on previous experience, but Johansson is coming off a very impressive rookie campaign and strong preseason.
Brooks Laich was the Capitals' main net presence the last few seasons, and his statistics show that, with 64 goals in the previous three seasons. Troy Brouwer hopes to slide into a similar, with him and Laich giving the Capitals the gritty forwards needed for playoff success.
Joel Ward, Jason Chimera and Jeff Halpern will look to occupy checking forward roles and help out on special teams. Ward and Chimera bring offensive upside, while Halpern will be the mainstay fourth line center.
Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle both cracked the opening day roster and now look to feature in more prominent roles with the team.
With the Capitals coming off of two straight years of disappointing, early playoff losses, something obviously needs to change.
The new additions should provide leadership and stability come mid-April, but the Caps might need a spark at that point based on last year’s fizzle-out against the Lightning.
Tampa Bay again should challenge the Caps for the Southeast Division title. However, the division appears to be stronger than usual, with a rising team in Carolina and a fresh start north of the border, with the Thrashers moving to Winnipeg.
Carolina has an improving team and one of the most exciting young prospects in the game in Jeff Skinner.
Washington should be the favorite to capture the east division again, but it’s all up in the air after that. We will have to see how this team meshes during the season and the way things look at the trading deadline to predict if any playoff success will follow.
Five Dates to Circle
Oct. 8 vs. Carolina
The Caps head into their season and home opener looking forward to get a new campaign underway. As mentioned before, Carolina has an exciting young team and will be looking to take positive steps forward this season.
Dec. 1 vs. Pittsburgh
The Penguins had a difficult season last year marred by injury. Sidney Crosby still remains a question mark to start the season. Pittsburgh hopes their 2011-12 campaign is on track as they make their first visit to Verizon Center.
Jan. 22 at Pittsburgh
The two teams renew their short-distance rivalry. This will be an important game to step back and see where both teams stand and what needs to happen going forward for two playoff contenders.
Feb. 5 vs. Boston
The defending Stanley Cup champions visit the nation's capital on Super Sunday in a showdown of what we hope are the two top teams in the East. This game could be a good measuring-stick to see how the Caps have progressed this season.
Apr. 2 at Tampa Bay
Could there be playoff or even Southeast Division implications on the line when the two rivals meet late in the season? What a better way for revenge from last years playoff loss to keep Tampa out of home ice or a favorable first round matchup.
The Washington Capitals enter 2011-12 the same way they enter 2010-11. The stinging from the playoff defeat a few months back has subsided, but now its time to make up for what has happened.
Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward will prove to be good additions and will lead this team forward into the playoffs, possibly obtaining career high goal totals in the process.
Should a No. 1 arise between Neuvirth or Vokoun, that will be the netminder to take them deep into the playoffs; both are qualified.
The Captials are talented enough to win yet another Southeast Division title, but they will need to show this season that they need to win when it counts. They might just be a season and one or two trade deadline deals away from being able to do just that.