As announced yesterday, Adam Vingan is our new Caps Correspondent. Here’s his first post, looking at this year’s model just before the puck drops.
It seems like just yesterday that the Capitals once again failed to meet expectations in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. After a season that saw turmoil (an eight-game losing streak, career-worst seasons for Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom) juxtaposed with moments of pure joy (winning the Winter Classic, the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference’s regular season crown), the Lightning swept the Caps in the second round and everything returned to normal (“normal” being an early playoff exit).
That wasn’t yesterday, though. That was almost five months ago. The NHL’s regular season begins this week and the Caps open at home for the first time since 2005 against the Hurricanes Saturday at Verizon Center. A lot has happened with the Caps since the season ended. Consider this a primer.
1. Who’s gone?
Quite a few players, actually. Seven players that rocked the red last season are now rocking some other color. Rentals Jason Arnott (Blues), Scott Hannan (Flames) and Marco Sturm (Canucks) decided to take their talents elsewhere (possibly for a full season even), while long-tenured Caps such as Matt Bradley (Panthers), Boyd Gordon (Coyotes) and Eric Fehr (Jets) left behind several years within the Caps’ organization for new opportunities. Perhaps the biggest loss in terms of shear speculation was Semyon Varlamov, who flirted with Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for months, according to several sources, before ultimately being traded to the Avalanche in exchange for a first-round pick in next summer’s draft and a second-round pick in either next summer’s draft or the one following.
2. Who’d the Caps replace them with?
The Caps were big spenders during free agency in early July, but before that, they traded their 26th overall pick in this summer’s draft to the Blackhawks in exchange for forward Troy Brouwer. Brouwer’s a big boy that can not only score (17 goals last season) and hit (262 hits, fifth-best in the league), but won a Stanley Cup in 2010, something only Mike Knuble has done when looking at the current Caps roster. Washington also picked up Joel Ward from the Predators; Ward led the Predators with seven goals during their run to the second round last season. Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Halpern join from the Canadiens. Hamrlik is a veteran two-way defenseman and was one of the guys responsible for helping the Canadiens beat the Caps in the playoffs two years ago. Halpern is a Potomac, Maryland, native and a former Caps captain, so he is familiar with the franchise.
Most importantly, the Caps acquired their first bona fide No. 1 goaltender since Olaf Kolzig left in 2008 when they signed Tomas Vokoun from the Panthers. Vokoun’s save percentage of .922% is the highest in the post-NHL lockout period (2005-present) and he will help Michal Neuvirth develop into a better goaltender along the way.
3. Will Ovechkin be good again?
Ovechkin is coming off of his worst season in the NHL. His 32 goals (18 fewer than his previous worst), 53 assists (one fewer) and 85 points (seven fewer) would be great numbers for anyone other than himself. Much was made about his physical shape, but Bruce Boudreau and Ted Leonsis have both assured the media and public that their superstar is in the best shape of his life and ready to play.
The other “Young Guns” — Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and Alexander Semin (more on him later) — also had some of their worst seasons. Backstrom had a career-worst 65 points, 36 fewer than the year before, while Green only appeared in 49 games after several head injuries. Semin scored 28 goals, but went almost three months without one. The “Young Guns” will be looking to reload.
4. What’s up with Semin not caring?
Well, it all started when Bradley said during a radio interview that Semin “just doesn’t care.” Then, another former teammate, David Steckel, echoed Bradley’s sentiment. Hell, just last week, Shaone Morrisonn, another former teammate, decided to join the fray, albeit several months too late. Semin is an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a red sweater, primarily because he does not publicly speak English. Yet, he decided to open up about his criticisms in Russian AND in English. Perhaps Semin will finally reach his potential this season and silence his critics, both inside and outside the locker room.
5. Will the Caps finally win the Cup?
That we won’t find out until next summer, but several prominent media outlets have penciled in the Caps to win their first Stanley Cup. To do that, they’ll have to advance past the second round for the first time since 1998. The pieces are definitely in place. The Caps have a good mix of youth and experience (overall and playoff), a rabid fanbase and a dedicated front office. It’s all up to the players now.