Through the abject agony that was watching the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup triumph in June, I found a silver lining: moreso than from a young stud goalie standing on his head, moreso than from a bevy of bluechip blueliners, the Penguins raised Lord Stanley high above their heads due disproportionately to the heroic efforts of their Big Two. I was forced to reconsider — and revamp — two long-held principles I believed underpinned virtually every Cup champion: getting consistently great postseason netminding, and having an imposing set of blueliners. Marc Andre Fleury often was erratic in net last spring, and I’m not sure you could make much of a case that he outplayed Chris Osgood in the finals. Brooks Orpik is a star performer on the Penguins’ blueline, but Hall Gill, Mark Eaton, and Rob Scuderi were not. Sergei Gonchar skated on one leg. Youngsters like Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang performed at times with precocious poise, but as a whole, the 2009 Pens’ defense did little to make one think of the Habs’ Hall of Fame blueline units of the 1970s. The Pens had an adequate and effective defensive unit. And today they’re champions.
And so June’s cruel outcome seemed to offer hope for us in D.C. Not only did our guys push the eventual champs to the brink, but they’re commonly viewed as in-kind peers of the Pens in ability.
The Penguins again will be a primary adversary for the Washington Capitals in 2009-10, but the gap between the clubs is little — if it exists at all.
Let’s start our assessment with the most important position on the ice: in goal. Bruce Boudreau was absolutely correct in the preseason to identify Jose Theodore as his no. 1 backstopper. That didn’t commit the coach to starting him in Boston tonight, or in 50 games this season. Instead it acknowledged that JT possesses the most valuable commodity among the Big Three competing for the starting job and the right to try and lead the Caps to a Cup — experience. And as a new-season vote of confidence after Theo’s flameout in the 2009 postseason’s very first game, it was an appropriate bit of bench psychology.
Meanwhile, while Semyon Varlamov played wonderfully in 12 of 13 playoff games last spring, he needs to demonstrate that he’s a staying force, night in and night out, of a difference-maker. But I agree with Yahoo’s Ross McKeon — Varlamov gives the Capitals a better chance to win. He is easily the most athletically impressive netminder to wear a Capitals’ sweater, ever, and he certainly appeared most mentally tough through the vast majority of those 13 playoff games. The ceiling on his impact seemingly is high, and what’s already in place at age 21 may well be durably dynamic and difference-making.
There is another aspect to acknowledge about this fall’s goaltending competition: the fans in Washington have already made their choice. At exhibition games at Verizon Center this fall sizable crowds chanted “Varly! Varly! Varly!” as the young netminder impressed. On the psyche of a franchise, that matters.
Michal Neuvirth is hardy an afterthought in this trifecta of talent. If either Theodore or Varlamov goes down with injury, the Calder Cup MVP of last spring is more than able to fill in. He just lacks experience. The cumulative effect of such quality depth in net brings a dynamic that didn’t exist in D.C. a year ago: the push to perform, night in and night out.
Depth is a theme that recurs on the Caps’ blueline. Bruce Boudreau suggested at the start of training camp that he had easily a dozen defenders worthy of NHL sweaters. And he’ll open the season carrying eight of them on his 23-man roster. From my vantage, there were three lead storylines on the Capitals’ blueline this preseason, and all of them were positive.
First, Brian Pothier is fully returned to his pre- head injury form as a quality finesse defenseman with adept puck-moving acumen. After Mike Green he is the Capitals’ best puck-mover, and his play this preseason reminded me of his value to the Americans at the 2007 World Championships, when head coach Mike Sullivan skated him 30 minutes a night. A healthy season from Pothier necessarily means that the Caps will be bottled up less in their own end.
Boudreau identified Tyler Sloan as his best defenseman during the entirety of training camp. His has good size, terrific speed, and poise under pressure. It would be wrongly presumptuous I think to think of Sloan as one of the two defenders regularly out of Gabby’s lineup each night.
And while John Carlson was returned to Hershey relatively early in camp, that assignment wasn’t performance-related. He seemed conspicuously comfortable on the power play point alongside no. 8 during a couple of training camp scrimmages. I doubt we’ve seen the last of Carlson in D.C. this season.
If the Capitals’ blueline this season boasts the Milan Jurcina we saw against the Rangers and Penguins last postseason, when Juice simply played his best hockey to date in D.C., expect overall improvement from this much-maligned unit. Mike Green will again challenge seriously for the Norris, and steady Shaone Morrisonn has new-contract incentives to have a strong year.
Up front, the Capitals will again razzle-dazzle and delight. Anahiem’s Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry line knows few peers in scoring pizazz, but an Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin first unit could pot well over 100 goals and 250 points. But the Capitals this year should enjoy greater scoring balance now that Mike Knuble has been added to the top 6 and Brooks Laich has emerged as one of the league’s up-and-coming two-way performers.
At the team’s media day this week General Manager George McPhee emphasized that he was looking for Knuble to have the kind of mentoring role on right wing Eric Fehr that Semin enjoyed with Sergei Fedorov. He noted that during Fehr’s multiple 50-goal campaigns in the WHL the winger scored a lot of goals crashing the cage. He needs to emulate Knuble in that regard.
New center Brendan Morrison is a bit of a wild card in terms of forecasting production, but he adds valuable playoff experience.
The Caps possess a great deal of character and grit on lines three and four. They’re likely to add to both with the addition of Quintin Laing, a heart-and-soul gamer whose tally of blocked shots sometimes exceeds the number of minutes he plays. The Capitals’ collection of forwards offers dynamic scoring and playmaking, perhaps unrivaled puck possession, and now at last notable cohesion.
If the team loses anything from last season among the forward ranks, it will be on the penalty kill and in faceoff acumen with Fedorov’s departure.
Key questions that bear on the Caps’ quest to capture the Stanley Cup:
- (5) Can the Caps play like a champion against the league’s lesser talents, and more importantly, can they finally find an “easy out” early on in the postseason, and thereby reduce the taxing effects the postseason exacts on a team’s leading players? (That’s what champs do);
- (4) Will there be healthy improvement on the blueline by virtue merely of more experience among the returnees, or does GMGM have to shop for an impact guy in the winter?;
- (3) In his contract year, does Alexander Semin put together a healthy and All-Star worthy season — one that lightens the scoring burden of his countryman on the left side?;
- (2) Is a finally healed Chris Clark able to return to his former role of skilled, mobile banger and lead as a captain should?
- (1) Does Semyon Varlamov at some point this season wrestle away for good the mantle of no.1 in net, and backstop this Capitals’ club to the status of Cup favorite?