Washington Capitals Season Preview

Everyone knows what to expect from the Washington Capitals these days. They will have a great regular season and then struggle come playoff time. The expectations for this team are raised every year and judging from most of their fans, anything less than an Eastern Conference finals appearance will be a disappointment for this team with the off-season they just had. GM George McPhee opened up his wallet and upgraded this team at almost every position this summer but will it be enough to get the Caps over the hump after four years of playoff disappointment? It goes without saying that they are the best team in the Southeast and will certainly have enough to get to the playoffs but how they fare after that is a mystery.

Forwards:

Off-Season Additions and Subtractions

Gone are Matt Bradley, Eric Fehr, Boyd Gordon, Marco Sturm and Jason Arnott. It’s tough to say who the biggest loss out of those players is but I think Gordon’s ability to play tough minutes, win face-offs and take a lot of the team’s defensive zone draws will be missed the most, even if they did replace him with Jeff Halpern. Arnott’s also a pretty significant loss even if he was only a rental player but that’s mainly because I have questions about Marcus Johansson centering the 2nd line nightly. Fehr is a good player but injuries put a dent in his value and while Sturm was a good possession driver, he is replaceable. Bradley is also easily replaceable even if he was a good team guy.

McPhee did a fine job of filling the holes these players left behind this summer by trading his first round pick in this year’s draft to Chicago for Troy Brouwer, who gives the team more scoring depth in the top-six. He will likely play the role that Sturm had in the last half of the season. He also signed Joel Ward, one of the best defensive forwards in the league and provides a big upgrade over Eric Fehr in that aspect, scoring is a different story. The aforementioned Halpern was signed to replace Gordon as the fourth line center.

Depth Chart (not line combinations)

LW C RW
Alexander Ovechkin Nicklas Backstrom Alexander Semin
Troy Brouwer Brooks Laich Mike Knuble
Jason Chimera Marcus Johansson Joel Ward
Jay Beagle Jeff Halpern Matt Hendricks
DJ King Mathieu Perreault

The Caps definitely have the horses up front and should score a lot of goals with this roster, but an interesting thing is that Washington’s corsi percentage was only 50.4% at even strength with the score tied. That isn’t bad but you would think a team with this kind of offense would be much better at driving possession at even strength. Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom and Laich had very good seasons in that area, but a lot of guys lower on the depth chart did not, with Johansson doing an abysmal job at driving possession even with favorable zone starts. This is where the Ward signing will help them out as he is one of the best in the game at driving possession (1.25 corsi ON with 39.8% OZone starts) and Brouwer should help at the other end of the spectrum (11.97 corsi ON with 62.9% OZone starts). I think Halpern is a downgrade over Gordon, though but only by a little bit.

Ovechkin is coming off a down year (32 goals, 85 points), but most people say that he will rebound and I tend to agree as his shooting percentage was at a career low 8.7% last season. I don’t think he will put up 50, but I would bet on him having another Ovechkin-like year. Backstrom and Semin are also coming off down years, respectively but some attribute that to Backstrom playing tougher minutes and shooting the puck less. Personally, I think that his 2009-10 total is unsustainable and he is more of a 20-30 goal, 70-80 point player than the 100-point player he was that year. Semin on the other hand did a great job at driving possession but his tendency to take bad penalties and pull disappearing acts makes me reluctant to make any kind of prediction for him. He’s got the potential to consistently put up 30 goals and is still in the prime of his career. 

The biggest hole the Caps have is the lack of a true second line center and it’s looking like Johansson will fill that role to start the year. He put up decent boxcar stats last season (13 goals, 27 points), but struggled territorially and was brutal at face-offs which makes me question whether or not he can hold onto this role. He has seemed to develop chemistry with Ovechkin and Semin at least so that definitely helps. Laich is another candidate for that spot but with Brouwer and Semin on that line, I have to think that Bruce Boudreau wants that line to get more offensive zone starts, meaning Laich would fit more into the third line with Chimera and Ward as he’s more defensively responsible than Johansson.

The Caps have tons of depth up front and plenty of guys who can work well on the penalty kill so they should be set here for now. The only thing I’m not a fan of is the fourth line as they may have to dress Jay Beagle every ngith and he’s never been a regular NHL-er before in his career.

Defense

Off-season Additions and Subtractions

The Caps parted ways with Scott Hannan and bought out Tyler Sloan this summer. They will also be without Tim Poti for most of the season as he’s still recovering from a “career threatening” hip injury. Hannan played a lot of tough minutes for Washington last year and was one of their best stay-at-home defensemen, but they replaced him with Roman Hamrlik who will play the same role and could possibly provide more offense. The fact that Sloan was bought out should tell you how big of a loss he is and Poti was injured for most of last year too.

Depth Chart

Left Defense Right Defense
Roman Hamrlik Mike Green
Karl Alzner John Carlson
Jeff Schultz Dennis Wideman
John Erskine (injured)
Tom Poti (injured)

The Caps have some pretty great depth here as just about everyone of their top six defensemen are capable of playing against tough competition and their potential bottom-pairing of Schultz-Wideman could be a top-pairing on some teams. It’s pretty remarkable that John Carlson and Karl Alzner were able to take on such a huge defensive role for this team so early in their careers and I expect them to continue that this year. Both are prone to regression just a little bit just because of how great they were last season. Although, with Hamrlik now on the team, I’m expecting some weight to be taken off their shoulders.

One question surrounding this defense corps is if Mike Green can rebound from an injury-riddled season and rejuvenate this team’s powerplay that could generate chances, but not finish them. The powerplay struggles mostly centered around Green’s injury and the lack of a puck-moving defenseman, which is why they traded for Wideman. A full-season out of those two along with Carlson should help them turn their powerplay around.

My main concern with this defense is that Hamrlik is 38 and has taken on some serious mileage the last few seasons. Can he play top-two minutes or would he be better suited for a bottom-pairing role with Wideman taking over for him? Also, Schultz is coming off a pretty rough season where he lost his role as one of the team’s top defensemen, but a bottom-pairing role might actually work well for him.

The depth Washington has on the blue-line is almost unfair, but there are concerns surrounding the health of Green and Wideman along with Hamrlik’s age which could pose a problem later in the season. The Caps had great depth on the blue-line last year too and then a plethora of injuries occurred at the worst time which ultimately doomed them in the playoffs. At least they can depend on someone not named Tyler Sloan to fill-in should that happen again.

Goaltending:

This is where McPhee made the most noise this summer. First, he dealt Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche for a 2012 first and second round pick and then signed Tomas Vokoun to a bargain deal at one-year for $1.5 mil. Vokoun has consistently been one of the most underrated goalies in the league as his save percentage since the lockout has been .922, and he spent most of those years on weak Florida Panthers teams. Hockey fans have always wondered what he could do on a contending team and now they are about to find out. Backing him up is Michal Neuvirth, who started most of last season for the Caps and could see himself in a back-up or 1 a/b role with Vokoun. He put up about average numbers last season and there’s a good chance he will improve on that this year. It’s a very solid goaltending tandem no matter which way you look at it.

Final Thoughts:

Again, I don’t think there is any doubt that this team will make the playoffs. The roster is way too talented and they have an elite goaltender to back-stop them now. After that, your guess on how they will do is just as good as mine. I do think this team is good enough to be a cup contender, though. There’s too much depth and experience for them not to be. That said, things could go awry if the injury bug hits them or if their key players continue to under perform.

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