Caps Overcome First Half Injuries to Become Stanley Cup Contenders

January 02, 2009 | Ed Frankovic

At the 39 game mark of this season the Washington Capitals now have a 25-11-3 record which is good for 53 points and a 12 point lead in the Southeast Division over the second place Carolina Hurricanes. The Caps are also second in the Eastern Conference standings despite using 34 different players this year because of injuries, many of which came to top notch performers. Clearly Owner Ted Leonsis, General Manager George McPhee, and Head Coach Bruce Boudreau have to be very pleased with the team at this point in time. Attendance is up over 30% and that will only rise with football season ending and the success the guys in red, white, and blue are having on the ice drawing more and more local and national attention, and deservedly so. There is also a certain #8 guy that plays for this franchise and he represents Can’t Miss Hockey and that helps not only to put fans in the building but gets more viewers on television, and the ratings are way up there as well.

This team has made the jump from trying to get in the playoffs last season to that pretty much being a formality this season. The Caps have 43 games left and 16 of them will come against the Southeast Division. Washington is 5-3 against those four teams so far this year but I expect that mark to improve because they are so much better than those other squads. A strong division record should help them either lock up at least the second overall seed in the Eastern Conference or challenge the red hot Boston Bruins for first place overall by the time the regular season ends.

When you look at what has gone well this season DEPTH has to be the key word because nobody could have foreseen how banged up this team would become health wise, yet despite those big injuries it seemed that several Caps were always stepping up to help the team win. An example of that is the fact that the Caps had a stretch of 10 straight goals over the last two games without Alexander Ovechkin scoring ANY of them (the Great #8 did get the seventh goal in the win over Tampa Bay last night and he assisted on two of the 10 goals).

When Ovechkin wasn’t scoring early on, he was still hitting and leading this team but during that early stretch it was forward Alexander Semin who carried the offensive load and he was first overall in that category in the NHL before his back injury. Semin picked up this year where he left off last year, dominating when he is on the ice by using his phenomenal skill but, more importantly, becoming a better two way hockey player (I credit the acquisition of Sergei Fedorov for helping to improve his better overall play and for Semin’s increased maturity). Semin has an incredible 32 points in 21 games so if he can get his back healthy and return to the ice along with Fedorov (bad ankle), the Caps will have two dominant scoring lines as well as a host of other forwards that last year’s Jack Adams Trophy winner can put on the ice for any situation. The Caps started the year with 14 forwards up with the big club (Ovechkin, Semin, Fedorov, Nicklas Backstrom, Viktor Kozlov, Brooks Laich, Michael Nylander, Chris Clark, Tomas Fleischmann, Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley, Eric Fehr, Donald Brashear, and Dave Steckel) plus they’ve used six other ones from the Hershey Bears (Chris Bourque, Alexandre Giroux, Graham Mink, Oskar Osala, Keith Aucoin, and Andrew Gordon). Backstrom has blossomed into an elite NHL center in just his second year and Ovechkin should be promoted more by the league because as the NHL Network’s Craig Button, who can see any game he wants in person for free, told me recently, the Great #8 is worth paying the ticket price to see at all times. Sydney Crosby is very good but the league, in my opinion, is making a big mistake by not promoting Alexander the Great at, or above, the same level as they do Crosby.

The defense has just been hammered with injuries yet McPhee and Boudreau have been able to go to Hershey and bring up 2007th 1st round pick Karl Alzner, Sami Lepisto, Tyler Sloan, Bryan Helmer, and Sean Collins. Mike Green, who is fast becoming one of the best defensemen in the NHL, missed 13 games due to an upper body injury and Tom Poti has missed 16 contests due to groin injuries. These two were the Caps #1 and #2 defensemen coming into the season and those key injuries would cripple a lot of teams but because of the depth in the organization a catastrophic situation has been avoided (and then some). Alzner, who is only 20 years old, has already established himself as a mainstay on the blueline and despite his high rookie salary cap figure I just can’t see Washington sending him back down to Hershey simply because he belongs in the NHL. Alzner learned a lot in those 20 games down in the AHL, and he will tell you that, but going forward there really isn’t anything more he can really gain at that lower level. #27 is a smart and confident young man who works very hard to overcome any areas he needs to improve on. He was the team captain of the 2007 Canadian World Junior Championship winning team so he can not only play the game, he is a leader as well.

In net, Washington has gotten very good goaltending from the three players who have been between the pipes for a game this year in Jose Theodore, Brett Johnson, and Simeon Varlamov. Based on my grading system the Caps goaltending has received an “A” or excellent grade in 16 games, “B” or above average in 11 more games, “C” or average in 6 games, “D” or below average in only 4 games, and “F” or unsatisfactory in just two contests. This comes out to a 2.90 GPA or just about honor roll material. Like the Caps, several other teams are successfully going with a goalie by committee rotation this year to include the Bruins (Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez), the Detroit Red Wings (Ty Conklin and Chris Osgood), the Chicago Blackhawks (Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet), and the Philadelphia Flyers (Martin Biron and Anterro Niittymaki). As I wrote in my analysis of the goaltending situation blog last Friday, I did expect Theodore to seize the number one job and he seems to be on the way to doing that with his recent play. However, Boudreau is playing it smart by still using both of them and that should prevent the goalies from being burnt out when the playoffs start.

With all of the success so far, there are still 43 games to go before the playoffs and as many hockey people will tell you the season really doesn’t begin until January so the intensity level will start picking up around the league. The Caps have already shown that they can handle adversity but clearly there are still some concerns going forward, with number one of those being the overall team health. If the Caps are going to compete for the Stanley Cup in the spring then Semin’s back, Fedorov’s ankle, Poti’s groin, Johnson’s hip, Green’s shoulder, and the continued good health of Ovechkin are critical.

The second concern, in my mind, is the salary cap. Washington is up against it and if and when everyone gets healthy then somebody likely has to either be traded, sent down to Hershey, or waived for the Caps to stay under the salary cap. McPhee has already told me that he and his staff go over the numbers every day and it is an integral part of managing one’s hockey team. As I mentioned above, starting Alzner in Hershey was good for his development plus it kept the team under the salary cap early on but sending him back down now doesn’t compute if the Caps want to contend for the Cup this season, and clearly they are a team that deserves mention on the list of Stanley Cup contenders.

So what does McPhee need to do to field a totally healthy team with Alzner up for the rest of the season? Right now he doesn’t have to deal with that scenario because Fedorov is on long term injury until at least January 9th but once #91 is back and assuming no other player goes on long term injury the GM will likely have to unload someone in a difficult trading environment. Trades in the NHL are so hard to make these days because many other teams don’t have a lot of cap room and next year’s salary cap is expected to stay at the same level as this year’s figure (around $56M). We’ve all heard the “trade Nylander” ideas and rumors but #92’s salary is so high ($5.5M a year this year and next, then $3.5M in 2010-11) there aren’t likely to be a lot of potential takers. So someone else would need to be moved.

This season Nylander has been one of the few disappointments on this team and Boudreau would like to see more of the plays like he made last night when he set up Clark for his first goal of the season and a lot fewer of those like last night’s second Tampa goal where he over skated the puck in the neutral zone, coasted back on defense, and watched the other team score via an odd man rush. Team Captain Clark is another higher cost player ($2.633M) who needs to pick it up but his problems have stemmed primarily from injuries (he still doesn’t appear to be fully recovered from his groin injury from last season). Last night he seemed to start to turn the corner but the team needs consistency from him and he has to be able to skate well to be effective.

In the NHL these days, there will be several “rent a player” options available on or before the March 4th trade deadline because of free agency. Last year the Penguins added unrestricted free agent forward Marian Hossa on deadline day and used that acquisition to augment an already incredibly talented team to march through the Eastern Conference to the Stanley Cup Finals. McPhee took advantage of the salary cap room he had to work with last year to add Huet, Fedorov, and forward Matt Cooke for the stretch run and that helped to propel the Caps into the playoffs. I think the Caps are fine in the goaltending department this year and have enough offensive firepower given the good health of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, and Fedorov so the only area that could likely benefit from a deadline deal is on defense where a good defensive defensemen could help out. Detroit did this last year by adding Brad Stuart and he was a key player for them in their Cup run (a top four defensemen). You need salary cap room to make trades and right now McPhee does not appear to have that.

In summary, things are really looking good for the Washington Capitals this year and into the future given the depth they have in the organization. But in pro sports when an opportunity to win a championship comes along the club needs to really try and take advantage of that. Amazingly, a team that was sitting in 14th place in the Eastern Conference just 13+ months ago, is now in that boat this season. It will be very interesting to see how this turns out so stay tuned and enjoy the ride because the next several months will be a new challenge for this hockey team.