We kid ourselves, don’t we, if we think for a moment that with the puck-drop tonight in Atlanta all the agony of last April will forever be vanquished? That all of our collective scar tissue will be healed.
Forget about just last spring — do you know how much scar tissue related to Capitals’ playoff misery there is for an Old Timer like me?
Of course it will be great to watch hockey again, but unlike any previous season in Capitals’ history, 2010-11 will be about crossing off the 82 game markers of the autumn and winter calendar and marching, deliberately, toward a severe springtime judgment. Spring is the season of our perpetual sting.
It was Mike Green, last May, who first hinted at the marathon-trial that lies ahead, beginning tonight. Belatedly he met with a smattering of Washington’s hockey media out at Kettler then, still somewhat shell-shocked from the first-round upset, and plainly stated: Now we have 82 games to get through before we get another chance at redemption.
Certainly Greener’s Capitals teammates didn’t arrive at training camp last month with amnesia. They wore their anger in their t-shirt slogan (“Stay Angry”), but also with an eye cast toward the future, with resolve to trust in one another (“Believe in Yourselves”).
In 2010-11, for this hockey club, trust is good; urgency, however, is better.
In the salary cap era the championship-contending window for any well assembled club is finite. And this hockey season brings the Capitals their first clear encounter with this reality: it is potentially Alexander Semin’s last in Washington, as he arrives at unrestricted free agency next summer and has already rebuffed management’s effort at an extension. Say what you will about Semin, but make no mistake: he is a game-breaking talent, one who put up 40 goals last season while being centered by committee (again). And he has been a part of the contending core that General Manager George McPhee has patiently assembled and believes is of championship mettle. Were he not — were Alexander Semin some manner of locker room sour, or an overall disappointment for the head coach — he’d already be gone; he would have been dealt over the summer.
But returning to the theme of a meaning-challenged regular season: it is not a pedestrian affair for every NHL club; just this one. At this moment. Do we really need another Southeast division championship banner hanging from on high? Or how about the encasement of a second President’s Trophy? What would give you, devoted fan, the greater satisfaction over the course of the next six months — witnessing the Caps sweep the season set with the ‘Canes or seeing George McPhee secure a burly, bruising blueliner as a Valentine’s Day gift to the Red Army?
My esteemed blogger colleague Peerless penned this week a majestic preview of the Capitals (you simply must read it), and I was struck at how in synch he and I were with integral but also somewhat controversial considerations related to this hockey club.
First and foremost, Peerless and I agree that the Capitals’ club that will take the ice in Atlanta tonight will be appreciably different from the one that competes in next spring’s postseason. The Capitals did not slow dance with Willie Mitchell back in August merely to pass idle time. And down the middle, they’ve two centers with demonstrated difficulty in taking faceoffs: Tomas Fleischmann won just 43 percent of his draws last season, and behind him, a just-turned 20-year-old rookie, Marcus Johansson, spent this exhibition season winning a grand total of 30 percent of his draws. The Pittsburgh Penguins have proven that a post-lockout team can win a Cup with great centers and mediocre wingers; it’s yet to be proven that a Cup can be won with but one difference-making center.
When it comes to the middle of the ice look for the Capitals this season to use upwards of a seven-man rotation, including Mathieu Perreault and Matt Hendricks, as management utilizes fall and early winter to assess whether or not it needs to shop for a veteran to follow Nicklas Backstrom on the second line.
Peerless also alluded to something tantamount to a Capitals’ curse (he calls it karma (of the bad variety), I call it a curse), and when I wrote about this over the summer the owner took issue with me (spiritedly). The Capitals made NHL history last spring by being the losers of a seventh game on home ice for the third consecutive season. There are an awful lot of NHL clubs with an awful lot more playoff experience than the Caps. No matter. That infamous record is ours. How couldn’t it be? Until a band of Caps warm-weather authors otherwise, that’s how the hockey gods have decreed it to be in D.C. Our team’s crest, I wrote this past summer, is cursed. Our Winter Classic one especially so.
To combat the curse the artillery in red this season is heavy: not eleven first-round picks in the lineup, Mr. Leonsis, but twelve!, as the father of the forgotten, Curt Steckel, helpfully reminded you. A quality NHL club would dress seven or eight on any given night, the Caps a full dozen. They are loaded.
Except where it most counts, for the portion of the calendar where it most counts. Willie Mitchell didn’t work out; someone else of his pedigree must. There are holes — or at least significant question marks — in the middle of the ice and that one big hole on the blueline.
In the immediate aftermath of the Capitals’ April demise I tipped my hat to R.J. Umberger (who was right) and opined that the Caps simply had to get tougher to play against. Welcome to Washington, King Kong; and welcome, too, Matt Hendricks. One or two more ornery types like you and we’ll have some fun alright.
There is for me, too, a real concern behind the bench. Peerless rolls out the disturbing stats here as well. In three seasons in D.C. Bruce Boudreau has won nearly 70 percent of the games he’s coached in the regular season (.689). It’s quite another story in the postseason: .464. In the American League it was fairly feast or famine for Gabby: He won a Calder Cup with Hershey (2006) and took them to the finals the very next season. But flaming out in the first round appears conspicuously in his record (five of his first six seasons in the ‘A,’ Peerless notes, ended abruptly early in spring). It was that early exit habit that got him axed in Manchester.
Bruce Boudreau has to be one of the most likable figures in all of pro sports. However, he’s yet to demonstrate — at this level — that he’s the man for the job. When it counts. He’s won championships at two separate levels of professional hockey. That’s the positive. But it wouldn’t be severe, the thinking here is, to posit that Gabby’s been outcoached in all four of his NHL playoff series. That Rangers’ club in 2009 in particular had no business extending the Capitals to seven games.
The Capitals this season possess intriguing possibilities for their fourth line. This season’s fourth unit — some combination of Boyd Gordon, Matt Hendricks, Dave Steckel, Matt Bradley, and King — is poised to deliver a portion of the trait that was badly lacking a season ago: miserable to skate against. Hendricks may have made the team on September 30, when at the opening faceoff in Boston he offered a reckoning to the Bruins’ Greg Campbell for some Ovi-directed disrespect from the night before. This season’s entertainment valued wouldn’t be harmed by more of that.
On the blueline, the Caps have jettisoned experience (Shaone Morrisonn, Brian Pothier, Milan Jurcina) for promising youth: John Carlson and Karl Alzner. Winning — large — appears to follow Carlson: Captain America is 3-0 in his last three championship competitions. While early on in training camp it appeared as if Boudreau was going to keep the dynamic young duo partnered together it looks more like Carlson with skate with Tom Poti with Alzner in the third pairing, at least to start the season. The Caps’ top four on the back end is mobile and poised on the puck, and ought to produce decent offense; there is not, however, much in the way of a crease-clearing ethos or stature. Again. Pray for that to change.
Youth is also served in net, but as 2010-11 commences there is already concern about the health of the presumptive no. 1, Semyon Varlamov. What back in summer looked like a glut of great young goalie talent in the organization is suddenly much-needed depth. If Varlamov’s leg ills persist it could be fair to interpret the condition as chronic, and perhaps even career-threatening. Then you would think McPhee would be forced into acquiring a veteran band-aid or better as replacement. Not comforting. But even if both Michal Nuevirth and Varly eventually compete healthy this season they will do so behind a young and largely soft and therefore vulnerable blueline.
It was Jekyll and Hyde on special teams a year ago: 1st in the NHL on the power play, 25th on the PK. To address the latter, Capitals coaches this season will have forwards up top apply more pressure in pursuit of the puck. There is plenty of personnel adequate to that task.
If the Capitals are to prosper next postseason they simply must be tougher to play against.
That brings me to Five Key Questions Confronting the Caps in their Quest for the Cup this season:
- Will a hot and confidence-instilling no. 1 netminder emerge internally, or will George McPhee have to go shopping for a vet?
- Will a quality second-line center develop or have to be acquired?
- Can the Capitals’ penalty killing move from the sewer and into a realm of respectability?
- Will a youth-laden blueline be bolstered by a bruiser, and can two terrific ‘youngins back there — Carlson and Alzner — prove precocious in the postseason?
- Will Gabby get it done?
It would be helpful for the Capitals this season to be pushed a little from competition within the perpetually putrid Southeast division. One lone resident within — Tampa — is equipped to do that. Atlanta is likely improved, but with spare parts from the Hawks. Carolina is without Caps-killer Ray Whitney and closer to rebuilding than contending for a postseason slot. Florida is appreciably worse — perhaps the odds-on favorite to win 2011′s Entry Draft lottery. And so again the Capitals will skate many an exhibition prelude to the season that counts.
To state the silly obvious, the Caps will win the Southleast, comfortably. Give me a burly blueliner at or before the trade deadline, to place at the top of the defense pairings, and I’ll peg them for the conference finals. Have one of the kid goalies get silly hot next spring . . . and let the healing begin.