As the Washington Capitals prepare to take the ice for their 37th NHL season on Saturday night, one thing is abundantly clear; the pressure to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup is as high as it has ever been during the team’s existence.
Sure, the Caps were favorites last year and the year before, but the Caps still had question marks with their young goaltending and defense. They also lacked a veteran leader in the locker room from the start of the season.
Any NHL fan worth their ice, knows it is a rare feat to win a Cup with netminders that are less than 25 years old. It is even tougher to win a cup when a veteran leader is brought in at the trade deadline, and the team spends two months trying to find chemistry instead of fine-tuning your special teams for a deep playoff run.
This year, none of those issues has to wait until the final day of February to be solved. General Manager George McPhee went to work this past offseason and did his job. In fact, McPhee did it exceedingly well.
He upgraded the roster by adding grit, toughness, and veteran leadership in every area the Capitals needed. Keep in mind that their division rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning, used all of these qualities in sweeping the Caps out of the playoffs last season.
It was not lost on this Caps fan that Owner Ted Leonsis said the same thing in his blog, Ted’s Take, following the Caps' dismal fourth game loss last May.
McPhee started on draft night by acquiring Troy Brouwer from the Chicago Blackhawks for the No. 26 pick in the NHL Draft. Brouwer immediately added size and toughness to their group of forwards, but McPhee was not finished by any stretch of the imagination.
He continued his quest to inadvertently rebuild a roster that had just won two straight regular season eastern conference titles. When free agency opened on July 1, McPhee was a busy man.
He signed winger Joel Ward to a four-year deal worth a reported $12 million, and veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik for two years at a reported $7 million.
He also reacquired a former team captain and local hero in Jeff Halpern. The best deal of the day may have been the trading of young goaltender Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche.
The 23-year-old Russian netminder seemed to fall out of favor with the Caps last season, as he played in just 27 games due to injury. When healthy, Varlamov was relegated to backing up rookie Michael Neuvirth.
In return for Varlamov, the Caps somehow managed to con the Avs out of a first-round pick in 2012 and a second-round pick in either '12 or '13. The first-round pick this season has the potential to be a top five selection.
McPhee closed out the start of free agency weekend by signing the veteran goaltender the Caps have lacked for the past few seasons. Tomas Vokoun, who was the consensus top goaltender to make it to free agency, agreed to a bargain-basement price of $1.5 million this season.
Vokoun played 57 games for the Florida Panthers in 2010-11, posting a record of 22-28-5 with a 2.55 goals against average.
Granted, the Czech netminder doesn’t have a lot of playoff experience, but even though he was just 1-4 with Nashville in the 2006-07 quarterfinals, he posted a .922 save percentage and 2.47 goals against in those games.
Vokoun is no stranger to pressure-packed Stanley Cup playoff type of games. His play during international contests has been nothing less than phenomenal at times
So what does all of this mean for head coach Bruce Boudreau? It means that his seat is hot starting three weeks ago, when training camp opened. Boudreau must get this team as deep as the conference finals, or he will be run out of town quickly.
In DC, being run out of town is not a new process after being the toast of the town for, oh say, four or so years.
This is not as complex an issue as it seems. The Caps are very good and have every piece in place to win the Stanley Cup, and if Boudreau can fix the power play, while maintaining the penalty kill, he will indeed deliver the goods to the hockey fans of D.C.
Call me Joe Namath, but this I guarantee, if the Washington Capitals can finish ranked eighth or better with the man advantage, and 10th or better down a man, then they will finally hoist hockey’s Holy Grail.
They must continue any success from the regular season into the postseason, and that is why McPhee admittedly overpaid when he signed Joel Ward on July 1. The former Predator, who is a second-line player at best, was a beast for Nashville during last year’s playoffs, and in 18 career playoff games over the past two seasons, he has 17 points (nine goals, eight assists).
It is also why he acquired Dennis Wideman last season at the trade deadline, and signed Roman Hamrlik on the day free agency began. To boost the power play, and even though Hamrlik is known as a responsible defenseman who takes care of the puck in his own zone, he has had some success on the power play.
Over the past four seasons in Montreal, Hamrlik averaged anywhere from 2:33 on the power play per game (2010-11) to 1:33 (2008-09). Becoming a league leader once again with the extra man is also a major reason why McPhee kept Alexander Semin instead of trading him this past off-season.
As we all know, Semin is a great player, when he wants to be, but he cannot help but be great when the Caps are up a man. He has scored 53 extra-man goals in his career. That is 30 percent of his 176 career tallies. That is two percent fewer than the Great 8, and the same percentage of PP goals as Sidney Crosby has scored in his career.
If Boudreau is going to re-establish the Caps power play as a dominant one, Semin must be a part of it.
Boudreau must figure out how to make the Caps power play a good one without making it predictable. Washington must take pride in beating the other team's penalty killing unit. Two seasons ago, the Caps managed to finish No. 1 with an extra man during the regular season, only to have the Montreal Canadiens shut them down cold during the playoffs.
The Caps were almost five percent better than the second-place team during the 2009-10 season scoring 79 goals (25.2 percent), which was 23 more than the league average. They also accomplished this feat by having fewer chances.
However, during their seven game loss to the Habs in Round 1, the Caps managed just one PP goal in 35 chances. How did this happen? It was simple: the Habs shut down the passing lanes to Ovechkin, and out-muscled the Caps in front of the net and in the corners.
The power play drought continued into the 2010-11 season. The Capitals fell to as low as No. 26 in the NHL, but finished the season converting 17.5 percent of their extra-man chances, good enough for 16th in the league. Washington only scored 46 goals (22nd) with the extra attacker last year, 33 fewer than in 2009-10 and 39 down from 2008-09.
This cannot happen during the 2011-12 season, and according to several published reports, Boudreau has worked his team hard in camp to see that it does not. While watching the Caps this preseason, one way they seem to be correcting this problem is by moving Alex Ovechkin to the half boards.
Usually Ovie stands, very stationary at the top of the circle, or on the point. Teams closed down the passing lanes to him, forcing him to work for every shot he took. Ovie looked rushed and out of place on a lot of Washington’s man advantages last year.
Katie Carrera of the Washington Post recently spotted Ovechkin playing along the half boards while the Caps practiced the power play during training camp.
Carrera wrote, “One of the ways the Capitals hope to add more choices for players on the power play is by moving Ovechkin to the half-board rather than his usual spot on the point.”
“With a glut of offensively inclined defensemen capable of playing the point—Green, Dennis Wideman, John Carlson and Roman Hamrlik—positioning Ovechkin along the wall allows the Capitals to make the most of their personnel and gives the two-time MVP greater flexibility as well.
"It should allow Ovechkin to control the puck more and have more scoring chances than simply a one-timer blast from the blue line, while making it more difficult for opposing penalty kills to cut him off from the rest of the power play.”
According to Caps coach Dean Evanson, who spoke to Carrera in the same story, “We just wanted to get him in position where he can score, regularly. On the point he can come down that back door, but now we put him in a spot where he can get some rebounds, he can get some better looks in the slot as opposed to just the ones on the top and at the back door because every team knew he was coming there.”
The Caps power play cannot be ranked in the bottom half of the league this year. If it is, and that may be at any time this season, then Boudreau may not finish the year behind the bench.
It did not start well in the preseason for the Caps power play. In five game stretch during the preseason, the Caps went 2-for-18 on the power play, including an 0-for-5 performance against the Nashville Predators.
In their final game against the Blackhawks, Mike Green tallied a PP goal for the Caps, but it came with a two-man advantage, and required the Caps to throw everything but their sticks at the Hawks goalie to score.
With the talent the Capitals have, there is no excuse for not having at least a good power play. Especially when you consider that with predominantly the same talent, you have already done it.
Good special teams have good discipline. Players are where they are supposed to be at the time they are supposed to be there. It is no secret that Bruce Boudreau lacked a disciplined locker room last season and possibly the season before.
Obviously, the lack of discipline off the ice affected the Capitals on it. It's hard to imagine how much better they could have been when you consider they won their second straight regular season Eastern Conference crown sleepwalking through the regular season on offense.
Only time will tell if Boudreau has restored any of the discipline his team lacked last year, but if he has not, then somebody else will be arriving soon to do so, and it will come before Christmas if the Caps are not performing.
It’s not as if Boudreau is not capable of making this happen. Did you happen to catch what he did with the Caps defense, and penalty killing unit last year? The Caps finished the season as the best goals against average team in franchise history. Unfortunately, and as usual, it all failed when it mattered most in Washington, during the playoffs.
If Boudreau can somehow restore pride and discipline in his power play, and his team can maintain it from mid fall to late spring, then congratulations Caps fans, you will be celebrating your first Stanley Cup victory. Because really, it is that simple when you look at how the Capitals are built this season.