Thursday, October 09, 2008

Your 2008-2009 Washington Capitals Preview

Reasonable people may differ, but it is pretty safe to say that this is the most highly anticipated season of Washington Capitals Hockey in the history of the franchise. The expectations are as high as they were when the 2001-2002 season started and the Caps were introducing Jaromir Jagr into their lineup. But please forgive us if we see some disturbing parallels to the 1998-1999 Washington Capitals.

The 1997-1998 Washington Capitals surprisingly ended up in the Stanley Cup Finals, a place where nobody had expected them to be, after missing the playoffs in the previous season. The town had fallen in love with the team again and despite the disappointing finish, there was a universal belief that the team had finally arrived. A few cosmetic changes were made to the lineup with most of the playoff rentals being allowed to walk away and the season quickly turned into a disaster. The promise of the previous Spring didn't carry over, the team traded away fan favorites, and even Dishonest Abe got out as he sold the team to Ted Leonsis.

While the 2008-2009 Washington Capitals are significantly younger than the 1998-1999 team, there are things people need to remember. While the Caps improbably made the playoffs after getting off to a dreadfully slow start that cost Glen Hanlon his job, the Caps still needed a 7 game winning streak at the end of the season just to make it into the playoffs. The Caps beat 5 teams in that streak that missed the playoffs. One of those wins was in a gimmick, another was in OT to the worst team in the NHL last year, and another required an improbable third period comeback on the road. Yes, the Caps woke up in time to force a Game 7 but still didn't have enough to get the job done when it counted most.

Even more troubling to us is that the needs of this franchise have not been addressed. We give credit to General Manager George McPhee for keeping together a young and exciting team under the constraints of a salary cap. But who is the stay-at-home, shutdown defenseman that will cause opposing teams to worry about venturing into our zone? Who is the right side scoring compliment to A.O. and Alexander Semin? The Caps are hoping that a healthy Captain Chris Clark and Eric Fehr can get the job done up front but even when Clark was healthy, the Caps were looking for a scorer opposite of A.O. and Fehr has yet to prove himself at the NHL level. There are no new answers at least on the backline and the constant attempts to make a silk purse out of the sows ear that is John "Coach's Pet" Erskine Bowles continues to frustrate us.

The bad news does not stop there, vital cogs Mike "BEAM ME UP" Green and Semin start new lucrative contracts this season. Will they have the same motivation that they did a year ago? Jose "Alvin, Simon," Theodore takes over in net, but how long will his adjustment period be? Better yet, will he provide at least average goaltending? What will the sophomore slump of Nicklas Backstrom look like?

There are some reasons for optimism of course. A.O. of course is the reigning MVP and scoring champion. Michael Nylander is healthy and Sergei Fedorov provides the kind of leadership and depth that a young team like the Caps desperately need.

The biggest challenge however for the Caps are the high expectations and the pressure they will bring. Now generally considered one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, gone are the nights when teams will take the Caps for granted. If Caps get off to another slow start, will they disintegrate like they did last season?

The one thing we will learn about the Caps this season is whether or not Bruce Boudreau can live up to his coach of the year title. Opposing teams have had a full summer to look at almost a full season's worth of tape on him and his systems. Will Boudreau be able to adjust to other team's attempts to stop him or are the Caps talented enough that it doesn't matter what other teams do, the Caps will run their systems to success?

For the Caps to be successful, the Power Play MUST improve over last seasons inconsistent squad. The Penalty Killing was ok but improvement there is not nearly as important on the Power Play. Eric Fehr and Tomas Fleischmann need to show that they belong at the NHL level. Jeff Schultz and Milan Jurcina need to have Mike Green like breakout years and Erskine Bowles needs to stay in the press box as much as possible. Theodore needs to regain his Vezina and Hart trophy winning form.

Last year we said that the Caps would miss the playoffs and while we were happy to be wrong, we still think that the Caps remain a playoff caliber team. But as we indicated last night, we aren't sold on the Caps becoming one of the NHL's elite teams overnight. The lack of salary cap space will make it hard to make the deadline deals that energized the Caps last season, so what you see now is largely what you'll see come April In other words,the pieces that are missing now, will remain missing all season, especially the piece on the blueline. At the very least, it should be fun and very well could end up breaking every body's hearts again in the Spring.

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