On Thursday night the Washington Capitals open up their regular season against the Montreal Canadiens at 7 pm at the Verizon Center celebrating 40 years as a franchise. As a nine year old kid who didn’t know a whole lot about hockey, my father, who had a sports radio show on WLMD at the time, started taking me to Caps games that first season. Boy were the Capitals bad and there were many nights when simply icing the puck could be considered a good play. To me, it’s fitting that the Caps are opening this 40 year anniversary season against Montreal, a team that thoroughly dominated the Capitals in the 1970’s. But Montreal, who had the great Guy Lafleur and Ken Dryden, manhandled everyone back then winning four straight Stanley Cups from 1976 to 1979.
Fast forward to 2014 and that nine year old kid is now a nearly 50 year old man who has watched this Capitals franchise go through it’s peaks and valleys. There were the seemingly hopeless 70’s followed by Stanley Cup aspirations in the 80’s and 90’s before things came crashing down in the early 2000’s. But then along came Alexander Ovechkin in 2005 and things started to turn around so much so that the term “Stanley Cup contender” was uttered by Capitals hockey fans once again in 2008 through 2010.
However, the failings of the previous GM to address a decaying blue line and his inability to bring in an experienced coach led to major changes after four straight seasons of mediocre hockey, at best. Clearly a new direction was sorely needed.
Enter new coach Barry Trotz, who cut his teeth in the Caps organization in the early 90’s, plus promoted GM Brian MacLellan and 2014-15 takes on a whole new outlook. It is one that I’m very optimistic about for several reasons, as outlined in this blog two weeks ago.
The saying that “Defense Wins Championship” is thrown around for a reason and simply put, the Caps haven’t had the talent nor the will or wherewithal to play defense for a long time. It was a side of the ice that this franchise, which has a proud history of great blue liners from Rod Langway to Scott Stevens to Kevin Hatcher, neglected terribly during the George McPhee era. But those days are over and with MacLellan and Trotz running the ship, you can bet that things will be different this year.
They’ve brought in top four defensive talent in Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to go with Trotz’ ability to devise systems to minimize the amount of times the red light goes on behind it’s goaltender. Floating and gliding in the defensive zone should be a thing of the past in Washington. Those great Caps teams from the 80’s and 90’s that featured super blue lines didn’t lose due to defense, it was often the result of a weak offensive punch and/or subpar goaltending.
With Ovechkin, the Caps will always have a player who can put the biscuit in the basket and pre-season has shown us that there is some serious talent developing to help him in Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. The 2010 and 2013 first round picks, respectively, are highly skilled players that should blossom into top six forwards. How quickly that happens will help determine how successful the Capitals are in 2014-15.
Nicklas Backstrom returns for his 8th season and he is an outstanding center that doesn’t get the credit he deserves from the media around the league. Ask Trotz about Backstrom and he almost becomes like a kid in a candy store. #19 is a super two way player that should take another step forward under this new regime.
So what should we expect from the Caps this year and what did we learn from the eight pre-season games?
Let’s start with the pre-season. Niskanen showed exactly why the Capitals opened up the bank to sign him. He’s a strong two way defensemen who knows when to pinch at the point and also when to take the body in the defensive zone. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with him and think he’ll have a monster season. Burakovsky was the surprise of camp for how quickly he’s adapted to the pro game. He is big, is an excellent skater, and has some of the best hands I’ve ever seen. If this kid is coached properly and has the right attitude the sky is the limit for him. As for Kuznetsov, he took some heat in pre-season but I liked the way he stood up against the big and physical teams like Boston and Philly. Kuzy is not easy to move off of the puck. The key for #92 will be learning how to play in his own zone, but that’s something this whole team needs to improve on. I’ve seen signs of this team being better away from the puck under Trotz and I’m hopeful that we’ll see more progression in that department right away. In years past, the Caps lack of ability to play away from the puck is a big factor in why they’ve been in the bottom half of the league in puck possession.
Other things that stood out in pre-season were fourth liners Chris Brown and Liam O’Brien. These two guys are big and have some offensive skill, which is what you need from your fourth line. Last season the Capitals did not have a good fourth unit but that should change in 2014-15. On the disappointing end of things, I did not like that Mike Green was injured again. #52 took a huge hit behind the net in the 3rd period against Boston and hasn’t played since that tilt. Green is now in his ninth pro season and if he keeps taking hits like that he’ll end up spending long stretches of time on injured reserve. Assistant coach Todd Rierden and Trotz need to get #52 to learn how to avoid those crushing blows. If they can do that, the Capitals will have a daunting right side of their blue line in Niskanen, Green, and John Carlson.
So how will the Capitals do in 2014-15?
I’m predicting a Metropolitan Division title. The additions on defense, combined with the young offensive skill and new coach should make the Capitals a lot better. Pittsburgh and the Rangers have lost players and gotten worse this summer while Columbus could very well be derailed by the Ryan Johansen holdout that was finally resolved on Tuesday. The Flyers overachieved last season and I’m not buying on the Islanders. I do think the Devils will be better than people think but Carolina is very likely to finish in 8th place.
But just because the Caps have upgraded their talent significantly and they have a new bench boss doesn’t mean they will win the division. This club has to learn to become a team and work hard. They need to be accountable and focused. That has been missing for several years.
The division and a super season are there for the taking for the Caps, but they need to be dedicated to their craft and show a sense of urgency.
To quote George Allen: “The Future is Now.”
Your move Ovechkin and company.