Key Offseason Losses: Eric Belanger, Milan Jurcina, Brendan Morrison, Shaone Morrisonn, Jose Theodore
Key Offseason Additions: Dany Sabourin
Last Season Ranking: 1st in East
The Washington Capitals bring arguably the NHL’s most prolific offense to the ice again this season. Alex Ovechkin has reached at least 50 goals and 100 points in four out of five NHL seasons so far. He’s a dynamic player, moves very well on the ice, has a terrific shot, and just knows how to put the puck in the net. Of course it doesn’t hurt when the man centering you is one of the most talented playmakers in the league. Nicklas Backstrom has continued his growth year after year in the league, tallying 33 goals and 68 assists last season, breaking the 100 point mark for the first time in his young career. He should be right back around that mark this season as he and Ovechkin will continue to dominate. Finishing out the triple threat is Alexander Semin. He’s playing in the final year of his contract and will more than likely become a free agent next summer, so expect his production to be steady or increase. By the way, Semin notched 40 goals and 44 assists of his own last season, so any more production out of this guy could lead him to a 100 point campaign as well.
While it may seem like there is quite a weight on the backs of those three players, the depth of the Washington Capitals forwards has been growing in recent years. The most promising, I believe, is Tomas Fleischmann. His production has increased in recent seasons as he continued to work hard and earn more ice time. He started last season on IR, but then came in hot, scoring 11 points in his first 10 games back (including a 9 game point streak). He churned along the rest of the season and finished with 51 points in 69 games, including 20 points on the power play. Continuing down the line you have Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble, a couple of veteran scoring wingers who can do some damage of their own. This team should have no problem leading the league in goals for again this season.
Overall, the defense is one year older and wiser. We’ve seen the past few seasons that the run and gun style of the Capitals can be highly successful in the regular season, but come playoff time, you’re lost if you don’t have great defense. Fortunately they bring back a solid one-two punch with Mike Green and Jeff Schultz. Green is an offensively gifted defenseman, putting up 70+ points in each of the last two seasons. Shultz is more of a big bodied, laid back defenseman. It allows the two to work smoothly with the likes of Ovechkin and Backstrom, and remain effective in getting them the puck. Both are still young, however, and after experiences last season, they should come in this season ready to play the way it takes to win a championship.
Beyond that, the Capitals have a couple veteran defenders in Tom Poti and John Erskine. They should have also learned from frustrating playoff losses, and be able to help the young guys make the transition with their leadership. It will be especially useful for the likes of John Carlson and Karl Alzner, both of whom are young and talented, but have yet to see a full season in the NHL.
After deciding to part ways with Jose Theodore, the Capitals look to finally hand the reigns over to the young Semyon Varlamov. While Varlamov showed promise in the 2008 playoffs, he wasn’t able to fully grab the starting job after struggling with injuries last season. Overall, however, his numbers were good. He finished the year 15-4-6 with a .909 save percentage and a 2.55 goals against average. Varlamov is a very talented and athletic goalie, moves well in the net, and should be able to hold on to his number one role this season.
Backing up Varlamov will be another young goalie, Michal Neuvirth. He started 16 games last season for the caps, filling in when injuries plagued the other netminders. He’ll see some more time this season, but could be splitting back up duties with recently acquired Dany Sabourin, who was a nice offseason depth signing by the Capitals.
The reigning President’s Trophy winners should be tearing up scoresheets once again this year. Their offense is the NHL’s best as teams still struggle to contain their top scorers during the regular season. It’s likely that Washington will run through the competition in 2010-11 and finish the season among the leaders in the standings, with a good chance of repeating as the winner of the President’s Trophy. The real test will come playoff time again. Do the Capitals have what it takes to win low scoring games with lots of battles? Can the defense and goaltender shut down the opposition? And finally, can players like Mike Green and Alexander Semin, who were seemingly absent in the 2010 playoffs, show up and be as productive as they are during the season? The Washington Capitals are one year older, wiser, and hungrier. With the lessons they’ve learned, expect them to go far this season.