We've completed our tour around the Western Conference, only to figure out that the teams that were really good last year are likely to be at or near the top again, but if there's one thing I took away from each team it's that the West is going to be very competitive.
We now turn right (or left, depending on where you are in the country) to look at the teams that the Wings won't see that often, but are just as important. I'm talking about the Eastern Conference, and we kick things off with a strong team that has fallen far short of expectations recently. Let's preview the Washington Capitals.
In the NHL, there always seems to be that one team that has a ton of talent but can't get over that hump and win a Cup. In the mid-nineties, that team was our very own Red Wings, stockpiling a ton of great players but unable to win when it mattered most. As the nineties gave way to the twenty first century, the Sharks took that title, but back-to-back conference finals appearances is the longest current streak in the NHL, so perhaps it's time we looked elsewhere. The Canucks will get there, but they've only been a truly dominant team for a year or two.
Nope, the current holder of "Most Underachieving Team" is the Capitals. After struggling for years, the Caps were able to draft a true superstar in Alex Ovechkin and build a team around him. A President's Trophy in 2010 and division titles in 2009 and 2011 have resulted in a grand total of 2 playoff series wins, including a shocking upset at the hands of the Jaroslav Halak-led Canadiens in 2010 after the Caps had a 3-1 series lead.
Last year, a slow start prompted some to wonder whether the Capitals were finally crumbling under the pressure, but they ramped things up in the second half of the season and won another Southeast Division title. After dispatching the Rangers with relative ease in the first round, the Tampa Bay (Stevies) Lightning swept them out of the playoffs, meaning the Capitals would fail to advance past the 2nd round once again. In fact, the last time the Caps played in the Conference Finals or beyond was when they made it to the Cup Finals in 1998 against our Red Wings.
Pertinent Stats in 2010-11
Points: 107 (2nd NHL, 1st East)
Goals For: 219 (19th NHL)
Goals Against: 191 (4th NHL)
Power Play: 17.5% (16th NHL)
Penalty Kill: 85.6% (2nd NHL)
Offense: When one thinks of the Captials, they think of names like Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. However, last year was a down year for all of them, and the Caps struggled all season to score goals. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was Ovechkin, who had his worst offensive season as a pro, failing to score 40 goals for the first time since joining the NHL in 2005. Backstrom also struggled over the course of the season, only scoring 18 goals and 65 points. Semin an Green were hampered by injuries, but neither one of them were on the PPG pace that many have come to expect from them.
Caps fans shouldn't fret too much. All of those players are proven scorers and there's not a doubt that all of them could explode in offensive production, particularly Ovechkin who will no doubt be motivated to show that last year was a fluke and not a sign that his offense is declining a little.
The Capitals have a fairly spread-out offense, getting production from their second and third lines. The addition of Brouwer, who was deemed expendable by the Blackhawks, should give them a legitimate 30-40 point guy on the third line, while a healthy Green and another full season of John Carlson, a very promising young defenseman, should help boost an offense that was mediocre last season. However, the Caps won't go anywhere unless the stars rebound from poor years.
Defense: I'll admit: I was legitimately surprised to see that the Capitals ranked so high in both goals against and penalty kill last year. The Caps, like the Wings of the mid-90s, had a reputation as a team that could score with anyone, but their defense was suspect. That will not be the case this year.
We laugh at Mike Green and his abilities in his own end, but he's not the main guy in terms of shutting down the opposition's top lines. Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz have been the top defenders in Washington the last couple of years, but a groin injury may keep Poti out all season, and as of this writing, he's doubtful to play this season. The Caps do have a very capable replacement in Hamrlik, a former #1 overall pick of the Lightning who has remained a solid defensive defenseman in the NHL.
Carlson and Karl Alzner are both very young defensemen who had very good seasons last year, and will be looking to build off of those and continue to develop. Alzner is a big kid who projects to be a good all-around defenseman (think Kronwall without the massive hits) while Carlson is perhaps best remembered as the kid who scored the GWG in OT at the 2009 WJC against Canada.
Goaltending: After playing "spin-the-wheel" with their goalies last year, the Capitals finally landed on Michael Neuvirth, who replaced Semyon Varlamov and held off Braden Holtby to win the starting job. However, the Caps were able to take advantage of a very saturated goalie market and scoop former Panther and Predator Vokoun off the wire for the cool sum of $1.5M, a steal for a guy who was the only decent player in Florida (until Tomas Kopecky came along). Vokoun has consistently been a guy who makes a lot of saves but has been stuck behind some pretty bad teams, and it will be interesting to see what he can do behind a very good Washington team.
Neuvirth was kept around to be the backup, and after posting some good numbers last year, he could provide 25-30 quality starts to keep Vokoun fresh for the playoffs.
Player to Watch: I was really torn between Ovechkin and Vokoun in this space. My gut tells me that Ovi is going to have a monster year after posting career-lows in goals and points last season. With Sidney Crosby likely to miss the start of the season, Ovechkin will be looking to get back in the Hart Trophy discussion that has been dominated by the West Coast teams, confirming the bias that exists throughout hockey reporting circles.
Player With Something to Prove: When Matt Bradley left the team, he made a few comments regarding Alex Semin and his work ethic that were less than positive. Semin has a ton of raw talent and can be a game-changer, but like other stars in the past like Jaromir Jagr and Sergei Fedorov (hi Josh!), whether his head is in the game 24/7 is still questioned. Playing on a line with Ovechkin and Backstrom should result in his scoring a ton of goals, but last year he struggled when in the lineup and missed time due to injury. If nothing else, Bradley's comments probably left a bitter taste in Semin's mouth, and he'll be looking to swallow his pride and show that he's indeed the superstar many believe.
The Skinny: This is one of the most talented teams in the NHL, and they should cruise to another division title and top-3 seed in the playoffs. They could dominate a division with Florida and Winnipeg and win the President's Trophy, but none of it will matter if the Caps don't fail to advance to at least the Conference Finals. Like the Sharks and Canucks in the West, this is a team built to win now, and anything less than the third round is a huge disappointment once again in Washington.