After a slower start than usual for the boys in D.C., the team really picked it up down the stretch and captured their fourth straight Southeast Division title, paired with the President’s trophy for the second straight year. This mainly was due to system changes made by coach Bruce Boudreau, who decided he wanted his club to play a more defensive-minded game. Many have questioned if that’s really what one of the top-powered offenses needs to do. Well, it did end up paying off later in the year, as the team simply became used to the style of play. However, after two straight disappointing playoff runs in 2008-09 and 2009-10, they were bounced yet again, as the Lightning swept them in the second round after the Caps landed the top seed in the East for the second straight year. Going into this season, that remains the biggest question: Can this team get over the hump and make a deep run, possibly to the Cup Finals?
After several years of not making many offseason moves, GM George McPhee pulled the trigger this summer and added some veteran presence, some goaltending, and a few young guys that can score. The veteran leadership comes by way of Washington native Jeff Halpern, rugged defenseman Roman Hamrlik, and netminder Tomas Vokoun. Then the Caps inked Troy Brouwer to play wing on one of their scoring lines, as well as Joel Ward, one of the more highly prized commodities this past summer. McPhee also did not forget to re-sign some of his young talent, but now the Caps are up against the salary cap, so this team needs to succeed come playoff time.
So can the offseason additions help get them to the Promised Land and a date in the Stanley Cup Finals? We’ll just have to wait and see. One thing that seems certain: Washington will be a preseason favorite yet again.
THE BIG GUNS
Alexander Ovechkin (LW): Ovechkin came out of the gates with a good first few months last season, but he hit a dry spell that he has never encountered before from December through mid February. Believe it or not, it may have been a good thing to go through a tough stretch, and he heated back up to finish the campaign. With only 85 points by season’s end, you could say it was a disappointing year, and his worst as a pro. Compared to his first five seasons where he eclipsed the 100-point plateau four times, he will look to forget about last season and get back to that 100-point mark. Being one of the best players in the world, his downfall is his lack of leadership, hence McPhee bringing in some guys to help on that front. As a forward, Ovechkin is a hitting machine and fires pucks at will toward the net, which is just added value for your team. With Sidney Crosby’s health still in question, Gr8 should be the man to draft at number one.
Nicklas Backstrom (C): After Backstrom put up monstrous numbers and signed a huge 10-year deal two seasons ago, he had his worst year as pro last year. With the fifth year of that deal approaching, he may need a wake-up call, as reports were surfacing regarding him coming to camp overweight and being lazy. For one of the top pivots in the game, Washington is not going to capture anything without him completely focused and dedicated. After really working before last season on his shot, he saw his goal total increase, but his best attribute is his passing ability. Backstrom had terrible point totals overall (65) and on the power play (22), which were both career lows. He has battled migraines in his short career and last season missed his first five games as an NHLer. Still, with that being one of the only downsides there is no reason to not draft him as a top center in this potent offense.
Alexander Semin (LW): Semin has not put together a fully consistent season of hockey over his six-year career and there are few signs that won’t continue. After a career year two seasons ago, Semin also struggled during the 2010-11 campaign. He did pass the 50-point mark, but the skills -- especially the shot this kid has -- give him a great chance to put up huge numbers, that is if he could stay healthy all year. Trade rumors have circulated, but McPhee has put them to rest (for now) recently, saying, “It's not easy to find players who can score goals.” One knock on Semin is his failure to produce in the playoffs, with just six points in nine games last year. This is another factor in Washington’s inability to make a deep run. The Caps need all hands producing and that particularly means their big guns. However, Semin remains a terrific option considering all the talent around him, but with the factors mentioned above it should keep him from being priced as an elite winger on draft day. He’s a good second tier guy with some upside.
Mike Green (D): Green has been talked about for years, with all the records shattered and awards won, but his last year was plagued with multiple injuries, especially the situation with his head injury. With the league cracking down on headshots, it still seems that far too many guys are sidelined with head problems. He has shown he can produce with the likes of the top forwards from the back end, with this coming year being no different. Playing in only 49 contests should have him well rested and ready to turn it on when the season begins. This catalyst of the power play scored 10 of his 24 points on the man advantage and, assuming he’s back in good health, should return to fantasy prominence once again. He should still be one of the top rearguards taken in any draft.
Other Notables: Mike Knuble (RW), Dennis Wideman (D)
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 really come into his own, especially picking up the scoring while Green battled injuries last season. With a full season under his belt, the U.S. native racked up 37 points and did not miss a game. With the experience gained over the past few seasons this youngster -- accompanied by a strong supporting cast -- could really take a jump this year. Consider him being a candidate for a breakout season; so if he happens to fall a bit, don’t be hesitant to pull the trigger.
Brooks Laich (LW/C): Laich has steadily put up good numbers over his past three seasons, and may very well benefit from talk of him moving to center the second line. He is a very durable player who rarely misses any time due to injury, and he’s really worked on boosting his all-around game and rating, finishing the last two seasons on the plus side for the first two times in his career. He continues to be asked to play more roles -- including time on the power play -- and the additions of Brouwer and Ward will only help. He did fail to pass the 50-point mark a year ago, but only by two points and he has a chance to clear that mark this season. Laich plays every shift like it’s his last. He’s one of several Washington skaters not named Ovechkin that possesses sufficient fantasy value heading into the 2010-11 season.
Troy Brouwer (RW): Brouwer already knows what it is like to play on an elite team, as he already has a Stanley Cup title under his belt in his young three-year career. The team considers him to have a great chance to join the second scoring line and he should flourish if given the chance. After averaging 30 points in his first three seasons, he should at least continue that pace and will probably add to it. Power play time may be hard to come by with all the talent here, but he should get his chance to show what he can do. He has tremendous upside coming into Year 4 and you should see him come off the board in some of the later rounds.
Other Notables: Joel Ward (RW), Karl Alzner (D)
TWO TO AVOID
Tom Poti (D): When he was healthy -- and that was some time ago -- Poti was a very good asset to any team he played for. Entering his 14th season, there are so many question marks. Will he be forced to retire? Can he stay healthy if able to play? There are no clear-cut answers here, and with all the young guys producing on the blue line, he could very well be pushed to the bottom pairing. With all the better options around, stay away from the battle-scarred veteran.
Jason Chimera (LW): With only one season in his career plagued by injury, Chimera is a guy who can come through in the clutch. Mainly slotted on the third line, the quick winger has shown flashes of being able to light the lamp. With 36 points as his career best, you cannot expect him to become someone that can hit 50, especially with all the other scoring options the team has.