24 April, 2014


A Strong Preseason Concludes with a Dud; Next Up, the Second Preseason

With their uninspired and emotionless effort Sunday, in which they suffered their first exhibition setback in the preseason’s final game, the Capitals avoided flirting with the Preseason’s President’s Trophy (among teams playing just six games). That can only be a good thing.

Neither players nor coaches wanted to see so lousy a concluding performance on Sunday, but there was a sense that something like it was inevitable. Karl Alzner called it “a little bit of a wake-up call.” Bruce Boudreau suggested, “it’s probably a good thing we got ours today . . . There will be great video on Tuesday.” It was a meaningless coda. The Caps have Monday off, during which time the coaching staff will make final roster decisions.

The Capitals this preseason achieved what every NHL team wants to with training camp: they got through it largely unscathed. There are nicks to Semyon Varlamov, Nick Backstrom, and Matt Hendricks, but nothing in the way of a significant injury to an impact player. Up next: an 82-game exhibition season, beginning Friday night in Atlanta.

Unlike last October, however, the Caps will commence regular season play with an expectation held by many in media and the fanbase that the opening night roster will have to be altered, perhaps even somewhat significantly, between now and February. Last fall, perception was that having fallen just one game shy of the Eastern Conference finals in the spring of 2009, in losing in seven games to eventual Cup champion Pittsburgh, the Caps’ roster merely needed more seasoning, more experience, before taking the next step.

Not so.

This fall there is certainty only with the centers on lines one and four. Well, at least the first line. There is uncertainty as to who if anyone is a reliable, go-to guy between the pipes for next spring’s postseason. And certainly there is a pervasive sense that if the Caps fail to land a rugged blueliner to place in a top pairing the team will enter the postseason with a high-stakes set of question marks stationed in front of one of two young netminders. And so there is uncertainty with the blueline as well.

Uncertainty isn’t synonymous with weakness. It’s a realm of vagueness, of unreliability. It’s a vulnerability.

But because the Capitals are lodged in the Southeast division, they can enter a season with uncertainty, armed with weapons as they are, confident of concluding the season with a top three seed in their conference.

About those young goalies. I don’t fall in the camp that suggests that the Caps necessarily must shop for a veteran with playoff pedigree. Yes the goalie tandem is young, but Semyon Varlamov’s postseason experience stacks up rather nicely with a host of postseason-accomplished netminders, post lockout. And: Is there some ironclad demarcation of experience for when an organization trusts its postseason fortune to a young goalie? Prior to 2009-10, Antti Niemi had a grand total of zero playoff games of experience. That didn’t much seem to retard the Blackhawks in their run to a Stanley Cup last spring. What Niemi did have in front of him last season was a blueline that could reliably move the puck and dislodge opposing forwards from camping in front of their Niemi.

Cam Ward, too, had a grand total of zero playoff games’ experience prior to backstopping the ‘Canes to their Stanley Cup in 2006. That’s two playoff rookie goalies with Cups just since the lockout.

How about Marc-Andre Fleury for the ’09 Pens? He had a grand total of 25 playoff games of experience leading up to the Pens’ Cup run. That did include a Cup finals the year before. But I didn’t think Fleury much stood on his head for the Pens that Cup-winning postseason. In fact, he ran rather hot and cold. And of course today, like Cam Ward, there are those hometown supporters who aren’t all that sold on their Cup-winning netminder actually being a franchise goalie. Among Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, and Braden Holtby (eventually) the Capitals may well have a goalie(s) superior to recent Cup winners.

Or put another way: at what point last season would you have dealt Varly for Niemi straight up?

What all those successful postseason goalies since the lockout have had in front of them are sturdy rearguards, with names like Pronger and Gill and Lidstrom. That Carolina blueline in ’06 had nary a star on it, but plenty of playoff piss-n-vinegar.

Instead, I see the Caps’ situation this fall precisely as does former Caps’ scout Craig Button. This is what Button told NHL.com earlier this preseason:

“If Marty Brodeur, a three-time Stanley Cup winner and arguably the best to ever play the position, can’t win in this era without great defense, I can guarantee you Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov can’t win without a great defense,” Button said. “I have no problem going with a young goaltender, but you better make sure teams can’t take advantage of his vulnerability and inexperience.”

If the Caps are going to try and finesse their way through an other postseason, odds are they will fail. But I don’t believe we have much concern about that. Management didn’t audition Willie Mitchell for the better part of a week here in August for nothing. You could have Gump Worsley or Johnny Bower in their respective prime manning your pipes, but if Sidney Crosby is encamped in front of the crease while Greener, Poti and Sarge are waving at him, it won’t matter. That was Button’s point.

Winning — lots of it — commences this week. And winning hockey games during hockey season is always a good thing. Just remember, though, it’s still just another exhibition season.