Hockey is officially back starting tomorrow, September 7th as Washington Capitals rookie camp opens and then is followed by the veterans joining the action on Saturday, September 12th at Kettler Ice Plex in Ballston, Virginia. The Caps, who have made the playoffs the past two seasons as Southeast Division Champions, are looking to avenge last year’s second round seven game series loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins and get their hands on the cup themselves next June. As I blogged on many occasions during last season, the Caps became legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in 2008-09 and this year they appear to be even closer to reaching their goal. The Capitals continue to be a young team, led by soon to be 24 year old Alexander Ovechkin (9/17), and should mature even more this season as superstars in the making Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are about to embark on just their third full season in the league.
Caps GM George McPhee has put together a very solid team that is deep on defense and Coach Bruce Boudreau’s aggressive style is exactly the type of system that fits the personnel McPhee has assembled. In short, this is a competitive and exciting team to watch and Caps tickets will continue to be tough to obtain.
So after losing an ultra close series to the Penguins and watching them host Lord Stanley’s Cup, just where do the Caps stand now in relation to the rest of the league? Well, I had a chance to catch up with an NHL scouting director recently to get his take on the off-season and he made a point of saying that he thinks that the Penguins and the Detroit Red Wings have lost ground since the Stanley Cup Finals. He felt that the departures of Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill on defense would hurt Pittsburgh and said Detroit is an aging team with shaky goaltending (but they still have Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, and Pavel Datsyuk). He also criticized the moves made by the Chicago Blackhawks (he is not a Marian Hossa fan and going with Cristobal Huet in net is risky) and felt that the hiring of Brent Sutter as head coach in Calgary would really help them considerably.
So given that the Pens needed seven games to dispose of the Caps and Washington has improved despite forwards Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov heading to Russia (but McPhee added Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison) you could make an argument that the Caps are the favorites to win the Eastern Conference in 2009-10. I’m sure the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, and Carolina Hurricanes (along with the defending champs) would beg to differ with that statement. For Washington to win the East they need to have the every day mind set that they are the team to beat and conduct themselves accordingly, starting this week in training camp, so that when April comes around they are ready to roll and not endure the bumps they faced early in last seasons playoffs (lost 3 of the first 4 opening series games to the Rangers).
It is a long way until April but as I alluded to above, everything the Caps do now sets the stage for the playoffs in April so here are some of the things I will be watching closely this next month in preparation for the start of the regular season:
1. Goaltending Battle – Back during development camp in July Boudreau announced that Jose Theodore, who has one year left on his current contract, was his #1 goalie heading into training camp. 21 year old Simeon Varlamov stole that job from #60 in the playoffs last spring and he is clearly the netminder of the future for Washington. In addition, 21 year old Michal Neuvirth led the Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup (AHL Championship) in June and is in the mix. Also up and coming is 19 year old Braden Holtby who looks to play in Hershey this year after a strong junior season in Saskatoon in 2008-09. By the way, Varlamov, Neuvrith, and Holtby all take the ice on Monday, September 7th when rookie camp commences.
2. Top Six Forwards Cohesion – Boudreau routinely shuffled his lines last season often putting Ovechkin and Backstrom with Alexander Semin when he needed scoring. Will that be the top line or will Knuble with the Great #8 and Backstrom work better while Semin plays with Morrison and either Tomas Fleischmann or Brooks Laich on the second line? Boudreau has mentioned he would like more stability with his top six forwards.
3. Which 7 players on D make the team? – The Caps have a lot of NHL caliber defensemen starting with Green, then you have veteran Tom Poti as the likely #2 defensemen. After that it gets interesting. Brian Pothier, who is an unrestricted free agent following this season, claims to finally be healthy and in shape and seeks to become a top 4 defensemen but he will battle the likes of 20 year old Karl Alzner (turns 21 on 9/24), Shaone Morrisonn, the much improved Milan Jurcina, the physical John Erskine, 23 year old and former 2004 first round pick Jeff Schultz, and 19 year old potential star John Carlson. That is 9 guys clamoring for 7 slots and as we all know, competition typically makes guys get better, so this will be fun to watch.
Other interesting stories will be:
– The return of team captain/forward Chris Clark, who claims to finally be healthy again. Can he regain his skating ability and scoring touch (he had 30 goals playing with Ovechkin in 2006-07)?
– The progression of Fleischmann (19 goals in 2008-09), who improved despite battling a severe case of pnuemonia last season. Will the 25 year old become a consistent top 6 forward?
– The impact that the loss of Donald Brashear will have on the team. Do the Caps need a tough guy? Can Matt Bradley and Erskine handle that role? Or will a potent power play be enough of a deterrent to other teams?
– Can forward Chris Bourque finally make the Caps or will he be traded? Bourque may get caught in a numbers game in DC.
– Will 2008 first round draft pick Anton Gustaffson make it through training camp without getting injured?
– How close are young guys like Matthieu Perrault (21) and Oskar Osala (21) to becoming the call ups of choice from Hershey this season?
We will see how things unfold these next several days and weeks. If you want to get out to Kettler and catch the practice sessions they are FREE and OPEN to the public. Click to get the complete team roster and training camp schedule. As always, please drop me a comment if you have a question or something to say about the Caps.