The Washington Capitals start their short but jam packed 48 game season in Tampa Bay tomorrow night when they take on the Lightning (7 pm CSN).
Since the magical run in the spring of 2008, I’ve felt like I’ve had a pretty good read on this team and could accurately say before the season started that the Caps were definitely a playoff team each of the last four campaigns.
Last year’s club struggled through a coaching change and key injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green before squeaking into the dance and then coming a game away from a date with the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Championship.
This season, I have no idea how this team, with a new coach and system, will respond in a season where taking a game or two off is just not an option.
Hockey starts in net and Washington will go with youngsters Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth. Personally, I am pretty confident in that duo right now, especially given the way those two compete. Holtby’s ability to play the puck certainly is an advantage I expect coach Adam Oates to put to use frequently.
On defense, Dennis Wideman departed in free agency (Calgary) but with a healthy Mike Green and an emerging John Carlson, they didn’t need him at the dollars he was looking for and received. With Karl Azner in the mix as the Caps most solid defensive defensemen to go with the aging, but savvy Roman Hamrlik, Washington has a decent top four. After that it is a crap shoot with Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, Jack Hillen, and a 35 year old Tom Poti, who miraculously is back after missing two years due to groin and hip injuries. Dmitry Orlov would probably be my number five d-man on this club, but he is hurt right now. So this defensive crew could be really good or teams could expose the third pair, if it doesn’t step up. Any two week or more injury to either Green, Carlson, or Alzner could be devasting.
Up front, the Capitals have three legitimate top six forwards in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Ribeiro. Luckily two of those three are centers, something the Caps haven’t been able to say since 2009. The question though, is who is going to be the wingers to fill out the top two lines? Troy Brouwer, because of his net presence is clearly the best answer on the roster. Brooks Laich would be your next best bet but he is out injured and may not play for the first two weeks. General Manager George McPhee is taking a flyer on forward Wojtek Wolski, who was signed off of the scrap heap this past summer. Wolski is 6-3 and 210 and he will need to play “big” if he wants to stick around in the top six.
Third year man Marcus Johansson is on the top line right now with the Gr8 and Backstrom. MJ90 has a lot of speed but he puts no physical fear into opposing defenders and he was often rubbed off of the puck easily in the corner in his freshmen and sophomore campaigns. Playing the third year Swede on the top line is asking a lot of the youngster.
I really like the third line of Jason Chimera-Jay Beagle-Joel Ward, especially now that we know Ward is not dealing with the hernia injury he had in 2011-12. The fourth line features heart and soul hard worker Matt Hendricks and likely a rotation of two of the following three players: re-signed Eric Fehr, Mathieu Perreault, and Joey Crabb.
Clearly this team will need above average to excellent seasons from Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green if it is going to win the Southeast Division. None of them had even average seasons last year, although Green and Backstrom had injury excuses. So to predict this team is a lock for the postseason is no sure bet.
Many of the so-called experts are already giving the Stanley Cup to the New York Rangers since they added forward Rick Nash while giving up pretty much nothing. We all witnessed how smart the experts were in the NFL last week when Ray Lewis and company went in and won in Denver when practically every talking head out there had a “Brady vs. Manning” AFC Championship matchup set in stone. Yes, the Rangers look good on paper, but you have to play the games.
The bottom line is the Caps could be really good or they could fall flat on their faces. McPhee has been consistent this week in saying “I like our team.”
Well the games start tomorrow, then come rapidly at a fast and furious pace, so Caps fans are about to find out if their GM is on the mark.