It was just another year of domination for the boys in Washington, which included a third straight Southeast Division title to go along with the Presidents’ Trophy. They finished with a ridiculous 121 points, but as for team hardware, the Presidents’ was not the only trophy they were gunning for. After a tough loss in seven games to Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference playoffs two seasons earlier, last year was even more disappointing. After landing the top seed and a date with the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, most analysts were predicting that it was Washington’s year. Up 3 games to 1, the Canadiens turned in three straight wins behind Jaroslav Halak to stun the Washington faithful. It was not luck as Halak and the team went on to dethrone the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins the following series. So after two tough exits from the playoffs the past several years, Washington returns as one of the favorites once again this season.
The offseason has been pretty quiet in Washington, mainly due to the development of young players in the system, but also because there is not much change needed in terms of management’s perspective -- especially with such a successful team in place. The league’s most potent offense does have a few concerns, which are as bright as day – defense, goaltending, and veteran leadership.
So, to start the season, one of the concerns which seems to loom year after year still remains at the forefront: goaltending. With Jose Theodore gone, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth are who the team relies on. Veteran Dany Sabourin was brought in, but GM George McPhee already expressed he will be in Hershey (AHL) and used as a security blanket if injuries become a problem. Knowing how Coach Bruce Boudreau handles his netminders, both will get their fair share of opportunities. That may not be the best way though, particularly in regards to obtaining the goal of winning Lord Stanley. A clear-cut starter with whom you win and lose by may be the new recipe needed in D.C.
As for the other two questions, neither was really addressed. They seem content with the young group of blueliners led by veterans Tom Poti and John Erskine. As for veteran leadership, the team is compiled of four, yes four, projected starters at the ripe old age of 30 years and above. It is not as though they need older guys in their lineup, but one common theme on championship clubs is veterans that have been there. The young nucleus that has turned the franchise around keeps the fans “rockin red” at home games continues to be rewarded for their play. Nicklas Backstrom received a 10-year deal worth $67 million, Alexander Semin re-signed for a hefty $6 million next year, and Jeff Schultz, the young and rugged defenseman from Alberta, avoided arbitration to sign a 4-year, $11 million dollar deal. Due to those re-signings, others had to part ways via free agency. A few notables are forwards Eric Belanger, Brendan Morrison, Quintan Laing, Alexandre Giroux; and defensemen Shaone Morrisonn, Joe Corvo, and Milan Jurcina.
This team has the ability to come close to equaling the numbers they put up last year, but it will be quite a challenge. They will be the favorite to repeat as the Southeast Division champs and one of a handful to win the Cup. The Capitals know what direction they want to take, and the release of many veterans (above) means young is that direction. But how far youth can carry them has yet to be answered.
THE BIG GUNS
Alexander Ovechkin (LW): Ovechkin continues to add hardware to his trophy case yearly, adding a third straight Ted Lindsay (formerly Lester B. Pearson) award for the players’ MVP. He was just beat out on his third straight Hart Trophy as well. These feats just do not happen to many; Ovechkin is just unbelievable. He is coming off another 50-goal season, adding 59 assists to finish one point behind last year's total. Simply put, Ovechkin is a natural, but he plays with no strings attached and no care for what is on the ice. He throws his body around like a rag doll and if there are any, this is his one flaw. By doing so, a major injury may happen. So while the energy is great, he needs to get more in control, which should continue as he matures. One other knock on the kid and his team is they do not have “it” to win in the playoffs. Over the last three years they have only advanced through the first round once and were bounced in the second round. He has a huge ego and one thing he wants to prove more than any other is that he can carry his team to a championship. Ovechkin leads almost all categories yearly, and has upped his numbers in the penalty box during the last couple years. Draft him at No. 1 with confidence again this year.
Nicklas Backstrom (C): Backstrom's third season was the breakout everyone expected. Not only were his first two seasons very productive, but Bckstrom put up a career year and was rewarded with a 10-year deal. He posted 101 points (33 G, 68 A), and the main reason is he shot more. Always trying to make the perfect pass, he wanted to score more and did so. If he dedicates himself more, look for even more production from Backstrom. He may be the most valuable top pivot in the league considering who he is usually setting up. As Ovechkin goes, Backstrom goes, and vice-versa. They make each other click and have a knack of knowing where one another are, without looking. Whoever gets the luxury of playing on the other side will also put up numbers; it is a fact – just look at Mike Knuble who put up his fourth best point total of his 12 years. One other reason to draft this assist machine as a top center is the fact that he has not missed a game in his three-year career.
Alexander Semin (LW): Semin has not put together a full season of hockey over his five year career. Speaking of career, he put up his best yet in 2009-10 with 84 points (40 G, 44 A) in 73 games. Overall, Semin played great hockey in last season, averaging 1.15 points. But to the demise of fantasy players in postseason pools, Semin failed to cap off the playoffs with comparable stardom, as the 26-year-old managed just two points in the quarterfinal round against Montreal. It will be interesting to see if he plays with a chip on his shoulder in 2010-11 to fend off the doubters. Either way, he remains a terrific option because of the talent around him, but he's missed an average of 16 games for the Caps over the last three seasons due to various injuries, which should keep him from being priced as an elite winger on draft day.
Mike Green (D): This kid has been talked about for years, with all the records shattered and awards won, but his 2009-10 season marked another important accomplishment -- setting his career-best scoring year. With five years under his belt his upside is absurd and dominance will continue. The Canadian blueliner completed the regular season with an unprecedented 76 points in 75 contests, which would be acceptable for a star skater, let alone a rearguard. He earned himself a second straight bid as one of the Norris Trophy finalists, but was snubbed once again. The candidates were the top three scorers among defenseman and Green locked up just about every category. How he didn’t win is beyond me. He is a power-play machine, finishing last season with 35 points on the man advantage, 10 directly off his stick. To fantasy owners, he is easily the top fantasy defenseman in the NHL, and for good reason, so draft him accordingly.
Other Notable - Mike Knuble (RW)
ON THE RISE
John Carlson (D): Carlson has the size, strength, and skating ability to be a very talented blueliner for years to come in this league. He is very responsible in his own end and plays controlled and smart hockey. Carlson has come into his own and can be a top defensive scorer, already showing flashes last season that he is here for the long haul. He appeared in 22 games (1G, 5A, plus-11) for the Capitals and gained so much trust in the coaching staff and his teammates that he started all seven playoff contests. In those seven games he posted a goal, three assists, and a plus-6 rating - that is just invaluable experience going forward. We predict that he will play a huge role this coming season and can very well become a breakout fantasy producer.
Brooks Laich (C): The Capitals have been waiting for Laich to showcase his true skill and scoring ability and he did just that by carrying over his great 2008-09 season right into last season. Last season, Laich took another big leap forward by posting career bests in goals and assists, but most surprising was his plus-16 rating -- the first time that he’s finished a season on the positive end of the rating in the six years that he’s been in the league. Also, each year, Laich is getting awarded with more ice time per game as well as more opportunity on the power play. He’s one of several Washington skaters not named Alex Ovechkin that possesses sufficient fantasy value heading into the 2010-11 season. Laich is currently on track to open the year on the second scoring line.
Tomas Fleischmann (LW): You know your team is deep up front when Fleischmann hammers out 51 points (23 G, 28 A) and it’s only seventh best on the squad. He should continue getting time on the man advantage while skating with Alex Ovechkin or Alexander Semin. As he matures, expect his shot totals to rise high enough for him to crack the 25-goal barrier sooner rather than later. The Capitals secured his services in July when he received a one-year deal valued at $2.6 million, but a bigger payday may not be too far away. Being versatile and having the ability to play wing and center, proved to be vital last season when injuries depleted the center position. The word around Capitals camp is he may be centering the second line with the likes of Brooks Laich and either Alexander Semin or Mike Knuble. Was that the second line mentioned? Well, yeah, when you have the firepower this team does, each of the top-six or-seven forwards have the ability to surpass the 50 point-mark. Drafting him will definitely benefit your squad as will a long list of players on this roster.
Other Notables: Karl Alzner (D), Semyon Varlamov (G), Eric Fehr (RW)
TWO TO AVOID
Boyd Gordon (C): The 26-year old grinder is coming off a season full of injury problems. He just could not stay on the ice and has been battling the same back issues for years. Who knows how long he’ll hold up from the constant disregard for his body from banging on the checking line? With four goals and six assists in 36 games last year, he is one of the guys on this offense to avoid.
David Steckel (C): A former first-round choice in Los Angeles, he has never played up to expectations. He finished last season with just five goals and 11 assists, and went extended lengths without scoring. He was scratched four times in the Canadiens' playoff series, supposedly due to lack of speed. One constant is the faceoff circle. When it comes to the dot he wins most of the time. What line he lands on will mark his fate for the season as center is one position in which the Caps are not really deep. Stay away from the inconsistent center.
Other Notables: Tom Poti (D), John Erskine (D)
Mathieu Perreault (C): A sixth round pick, Perreault has defied the odds about his size and proved he is capable of making it in the NHL. Last season he split the season between Washington and AHL Hershey. In 21 games in Washington, Perreault showed his scoring ability by notching four goals and adding five assists. Some of his qualities include above-average work in the faceoff circle, great vision and awareness, while being a guy that shows up for the big games. Washington may be able to make room for him to start the season, assuming he doesn’t just flat out earn a spot. They saw enough of him last year to know he can play at the NHL level, and may be their top prospect coming into the 2010-11 season.
Marcus Johansson (C): Johansson can play both wing and center after a switch made while playing with Farjestads, a Swedish professional team, where he spent last season. He has impressed the Capitals enough to have them excited about his future. He is a solid two-way forward with a strong, accurate shot, albeit with a few concerns. He is a bit undersized and has had concussions in the past. He will compete for a spot on the roster at camp and has a decent shot to start the year in Washington.
Dmitry Kugryshev (RW): Kugryshev was the fifth-leading scorer in the QMJHL last season with 29 goals and 58 assists in 66 games. He just has a knack to score and has done so his whole career. He is a solid winger who is strong on his skates and plays a two-way game. He still has some time to fine tune his game and will probably not be playing in the NHL this coming season unless injuries strike the team and he is needed. Kugryshev will likely spend the season in AHL Hershey.
Dmitri Orlov (D): Orlov plays in the KHL and has two years remaining on his current contract. He is an offensive defenseman (like the team does not have enough) who is decently sized at 6-foot, but not overly physical. He has the skills to be the next Mike Green or John Carlson, and is dedicated to making plays from the back end. Plus, he is a consistent scorer. Scouts have said Orlov was a steal in the draft, falling towards the end of the second round. Following training camp he is expected to return to Russia to finish out his contract, as he is still a few seasons away from being ready to play on this continent.
Braden Holtby (G): At 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, Holtby spent a short time with the Capitals last season, but did not appear in any games. Instead, he saw action in both Hershey (AHL) and South Carolina (ECHL). From December to the end of the season he played in Hershey, posting a 25-8-2 record with a 2.32 GAA and a .917 save percentage. Holtby has the ideal size for a goalie and plays in the butterfly. His downside is his positioning and is prone to getting beat high. While the Caps already have two 22-year-old goalies on the NHL roster (Varlamov and Neuvirth), Holtby will remain in Hershey waiting for an injury to get his chance. He will learn from longtime vet Dany Sabourin, but as far as becoming a starter at the NHL level, an organizational move seems like the only possibility to afford him that chance.