So it is now almost 24 hours since the debacle that was game 7 against Pittsburgh on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center and it is time for the Caps players, organization, and their fans to start putting aside the disappointment and begin focusing on the franchise’s now 35 year old unfulfilled quest: The Stanley Cup.
The Caps are now 2-6 in game 7’s, I have been at every one of them, and I can tell you that last night’s was the worst of the eight games. The only good news is that I feel even better about this team than I did last year when they first made the playoffs and were basically robbed by referees Don Koharski and Paul Devorski in game 7 against Philadelphia.
Here are the positives on this season:
The Caps repeated as Southeast Division Champions (108 points, second highest in team history) and won a playoff series before losing to Pittsburgh in 7 games in round two.
Alexander Ovechkin (age 23) followed up a 65 goal, 112 point full season in 2007-08 (82 games) with a 56 goal, 110 point season in just 79 games and showed he is still the best player in the NHL and he is up for the MVP (Hart Trophy) against Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk.
Defensemen Mike Green (age 23) continued to improve racking up 31 goals and 42 assists in just 68 games, more than a point a game! He is a finalist for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best defenseman.
Alexander Semin (age 25) showed that he can be one of the best players in the NHL and he led the league in scoring in October. Semin had 34 goals and 45 assists in just 62 games. He is as skilled as anyone in the entire league.
2nd year center Nicklas Backstrom (age 21) followed up a great rookie campaign by showing he is a big time #1 center in the NHL with 22 goals and 66 assists in a full season. He is durable, strong on the boards and his skates, and continues to improve in the face-off dot.
Rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov (age 21) emerged on the scene and promptly helped the team win a first round playoff series and was very good in the second round against Pittsburgh. Varly was 7-6 in the post season with a .918 save percentage, including two shutouts.
In addition to the five top young Caps above, the team also has a number of aged 25 and under players that contributed this season in forwards Brooks Laich (25), Boyd Gordon (25), Tomas Fleischmann (24), Eric Fehr (23), Jay Beagle (23), and Chris Bourque (23); defensemen Karl Alzner (20), Milan Jurcina (25), and Jeff Schultz (23); and rookie goalie Michael Neuvirth (21).
The team started 18-1-1 at home and the Verizon Center is as loud as any building in the league, rivaling Chicago for the top spot in that category. The fan base has exploded in the region (Game 7 received a 3.4 rating on Comcast in Baltimore) and season tickets are sold out for next year. Clearly the “Rock the Red” marketing campaign has been a huge success.
The future is bright but this team has areas it needs to improve on if they are going to achieve their goal of winning a Stanley Cup. This improvement will come from the natural maturation and development process that the current young players typically go through and be enhanced by additional coaching attention. In addition, with several contracts expiring (Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov, Donald Brashear, Shaone Morrisonn, and Brent Johnson) and at least one that should get dealt with via a buyout (Michael Nylander), GM George McPhee will have some salary cap space, something he didn’t have much of this season, to work with to improve this team. However, he will have to give Backstrom big money after 2009-10 and Semin is up as well after next season and will likely want a large chunk of change so George needs to be smart about a budget that could possibly decrease (due to the economy) from the projected 2009-10 salary cap of $54M to $56M to a lower figure in the outyears.
As for the individual improvements, here are my thoughts on some of the players:
The Great #8: Develop a better backhand shot. I’m convinced that if Ovechkin improved his backhand he could possibly break Wayne Gretzky’s single season goal record of 92. Can you imagine how scared defensemen would be if they had to worry about Ovechkin cutting to his backhand a larger percentage of the time instead of primarily going forehand? Alexander the Great also needs to decrease the number of turnovers he has at the opponents blue line.
Green: The great skating, free wheeling #52 can improve his decision making and positioning. Sometimes it is best to dump the puck in instead of trying to go through several opponents and open yourself up to big hits. Who knows how that hit he took from Chris Pronger back in November impacted the rest of his season and the playoffs? Clearly he was injured in the playoffs and was not himself. Good positioning will likely decrease the number of hits he exposes himself too. A summer of watching Nicklas Lidstrom tapes might be some good homework for Greenie.
Semin: Learn to dump the puck more. #28 had far too many turnovers trying to do too much and there was a stretch in January where he routinely took bad penalties after a miscue. Semin is way stronger on the boards than people give him credit for so if he simplifies in some areas he can be a monster force for an entire season instead of in bursts. Some of this has to do with his decision making and some of this is attitude. I’ve heard from sources inside the game that he is prone to not caring about the game, at times.
Varlamov: The athletic young goalie needs to learn positioning better, improve his English so he can communicate with his team, and also get better at stick handling. A goalie who can play the puck properly is like an extra defensemen and that ability can significantly lessen the number of hits his defensemen take from opposing forwards throughout the year. It remains to be seen if Varly can carry a #1 goaltending load but his insane flexibility should help him avoid injuries. But classic butterfly goalies put a pounding on their bodies so workload will be something the Caps need to watch with their young net minder.
Backstrom: Shoot the puck more. #19 has one of the best shots on the team but he typically looks to pass first. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau did get the young Swede to shoot more often but he could fire the biscuit even more frequently. Continue to improve from the face-off dot. Backstrom was so much better at this towards the end of the season. Perhaps a phone call or session with the great Dale Hunter (aka Chum) could take him to an elite NHL level in a very important category. I’m sure teammate Dave Steckel could help him as well.
From a team standpoint, Boudreau and assistant coaches Dean Evason and Jay Leach need to help improve its ability to play away from the puck. Too many times in the playoffs Caps players were in the right area to make a play (i.e, they outnumbered the opponent) but didn’t execute and ended up giving up a goal (either in their own zone or due to misplays in the neutral zone that led to odd man rushes). Boudreau and his staff preached dumping the puck and going to the net. The third and fourth line seemed to get this most nights but the skilled guys weren’t always buying in. It seemed that the team learned some of that as the playoffs went on. The Rangers and Pittsburgh were very good at doing this while the Caps were effective only in bursts (like the 3rd period of game 7 against New York).
During the regular season Washington had some stretches of off nights, especially against Western Conference teams, and often would win games on skill rather than working hard for a full 6o minutes. Next year the Caps need to use the regular season to hone their system and be ready when the playoffs start, unlike this year where it took them two games to get going. Who knows how much of that extra work and pounding hurt them as they moved on the Penguins series? The Caps need to develop a killer instinct and dispose of lesser talented teams more easily by ramping up their work ethic.
Going to the net and paying a physical price is something the Caps are still learning. One could argue that other than Brooks Laich they don’t really have a player that can crash the net or score ugly goals like Detroit has in Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen or the Penguins have in Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, and even Sidney Crosby who converted several “lay-ups” against Washington in the second round. I will guess that a power forward is on McPhee’s shopping list when free agency starts on July 1.
On the flip side, the Caps don’t do a good job of clearing their own net. John Erskine, Shaone Morrisonn, and Milan Jurcina are the more physical defensemen but only #4 really is a force that other teams might fear. Alzner, who is more of a puck moving and solid positioning d-man, is not going to be that type of player when he comes up next year so McPhee will likely be shopping in this market in free agency as well.
Overall, team chemistry is very good because these guys like playing with each other but to win a Stanley Cup takes learning and commitment. The Edmonton Oilers teams that were led by Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and Grant Fuhr had two straight playoff years, 1981 and 1982, where they did not advance past the second round before going to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1983 and then winning their first Stanley Cup in 1984. Each year they continued to learn more and more of what it takes to succeed in the season that matters (the playoffs). If this highly skilled Washington team wants to reach the Stanley Cup Finals next year they need to make a full commitment to a stronger work ethic on and off the ice starting now.