Watching the Washington Capitals rally into the SouthEast Division’s top spot on the final day of the season was stunning. Experiencing the first round battle with the ruffian Philadelphia Flyers was epic. Finally having the wind let out of the hurricane blown sales of the Caps was inevidable. However the building blocks to a better future are now in the cards. Thoughout the season, the Caps prepped themselves for their return to greatness, their return back to the days of the old uniforms and the yearly trips to the playoffs and ongoing duels with the hated Pittsburgh Penguins. The goal now, to outdo their franchise best, not the record tying consecutive post-season run but the 1998 attempt at the almighty Lord Stanley Cup itself.
The key piece is in place, Alex Ovechkin. He should win a tonne of hardware in the post season with the Art Ross and Rocket Richard trophies already essentially locked, the Lester Pearson and probably the Hart are to follow and with that and his long-term contract, what more could a team ask for. His humble being and understanding of the team-first mentatily is already so admirable and his play so spectacular, it is difficult to really critique him. However, in the grander scheme of development, Ove, like all young players, has some work to do as a player. Much like his comrades Federov, Bure and company before him, he has to learn to play solid two-way hockey. No disrespect to his natural ability to truly control the play, see the ice in spectacular fashion and make the puck movements flow so fluidly, but the Caps need all the help the can get on the backcheck and transition play and for some as physical as he is and as understanding of play developement as he’s becoming these are imperative. Remember too, the history of the Caps, what the team truly is from the inside out and at their core is a defensive minded team. Once Ove masters the transition play he will be ready to captain the team as he will then possess the forsight and maturity to truly lead.
The next big thing the Caps need to do is lock down restricted free agent and defensive phenom Green. Perhaps, Green is becoming the backbone of a defense that sorely lacked the firepower once provided by names like Johansson, Gonchar and Iafrate in the recent decades (or going all the way back to the Yvon Labre days). His two-way prowess is brilliant, as he jumps up on the play while still being able to fall back into position and stifle the transition or hold down checking in his own zone. Dangerous on both sides of the powerplay and still young enough to teach the leadership once held by Witt in his role, Green can become a dangerous competitor if the Caps can lock him down for the mid-term. Green needs to seriously continue to develop the flashes of brilliance he’s show and understand better how to lead the defensive corps, throwdown the big checks when he needs like Langway and more recently Witt and even the departed Stevens used to and jumpstart the offense as he’s done so well in his early days as a Cap. There’s a long way to still come but the foundation, especially with some of the other pieces in place, is already there, albeit not like his superstar companion in Ove.
Another important move the Caps need to make is in goal. Disrespecting former franchise face, all-time leader-in-everything for the team, best goalie that never recieved enough credit in the league including 11th on the all-time win list and counting (and former king clancy and veniza trophy winner among other titles), Olaf Kolzig is as good as gone. That’s unfortunate because the Caps never were able to develop anyone under him and with the revolving door of goal-tending that seems to occur, both in terms of free agency and typical ebb-and-flow of skill, finding the leadership and franchisability of a goalie like Kolzig will not be easy to replace. For the Caps, perhaps only Don Beaupre and Ron Low represent similar stability in net and for most teams the prospect of fielding a backstop such as Ollie for even half the number of games seems impossible unless as of late, you are the NJ Devils holding an ace in Martin Brodeur. Ollie’s numbers in recent years were representative not necessarily of his age, as much as the lack of defense and transitional play control in front of him. As to be expected with a team in transition, Ollie suffered, facing more shots per game than he was used to, and led the league in shots faced while maintaining a sane save percentage in the face of this barrage, and during which time mentoring the defense and the youth of the team in front of him. Replacing him at the trade deadline was Montreal’s Cristobol Huet. Gotta give the Habs this, they sure can develop goalies (do we really need to make a list: Veneza, Roy, Espisito, Laroque, Theodore or more recently Prince as homegrowns or bringing through their system as they have so many times, like with Huet). The downside to Huet is this, he’s a UFA come the summer and resigning him could be a linchpin to the future of the Caps. He’s only slightly younger and only marginally as tallented as Ollie was in his prime, so it is a short term solution to a more perminant problem. Should the Caps not be able to hold Huet in net during the free agency blitz this summer, the only other name out there is Jose Theodore. As mentioned earlier, Josey is a former Hab prospect and has had flashes of greatness in his years, he’s also seen utter failure and completely collapsed in systems. If the Caps take either of these, or any prospective trade-bait goalie (of which there are several others floating around on medocre teams) the contract cannot be long-term. Johnson is already held short-term as a servicable backup (lets face it, under Ollie he saw less than 20 games a season, including starts and mid-game pulls, behind backing up Jersey’s staward Brodeur there’s no worse postion to be in). Goalies are difficult to predict (remember Caps phemon Carey?) and often difficult to maintain (how about the Islanders long-term backstop), so a two-to-four year deal to feel out their commitment to the team, their ability to continue mentoring the rebuilding defense and provide leadership will be paramount. In as such, if the choice is to persue Huet, they also need to reign in his temper and teach him the Caps philosphy of teamsmanship because some of his slashing outbursts and wandering during the first round of playoffs, although occasionally inspiring, are a bit concerning as well from a team led by a selfless Ove.
Another big move would be to lock in UFA F Sergie Federov. He represents so much to a team that needs him so much. First, consider the continued progression of phenoms Ove and Semin as fellow Russian superstars. He can and will teach them leadership and humility and so many intangibles as well as helping them with skills and tactical things – heck in a few short weeks, he already has. The presense he brought not just to his fellow comrades, but also that of Nicky Backstrom and the rest of the young offense was a major part of the late run, but then again, too, consider his days in Detroit and learning how to play pure defense, what his leadership and ability must mean to Green and that crew when he plays as a backup blueliner, especially when he sacrifices himself to take up the blueline in a playoff game. There is really no way to replace his expertise and there are still a lot of people that look at Detroit’s success and realise the impact not only Federov as a player but in the way the team now looks to develop its players as great two-way tools. Could Detroit be the powehouse it is running the ice based on transitional success had they not first re-developed Federov and that high-octane offense into what they were to become and continue to be today? One may never know, but the fact of the matter is, his unfortunate move away from Detroit was not driven strictly by his passion for money, and it was the terrible teams he eventually ended up attempting to provide a backbone for weren’t designed for his tallent. Yes, he is a few strides slower than his prime and his wrists aren’t quite as quick, but what he might lack in youthful exuberance he now provides in experience and design and with the Caps he not only is he presented with his first real Stanley Cup challenge since his days as a Wing, he’s also finally provided with the kind of tallent he was built to work with including his days as a Wing. Be all, end all, Caps need Federov, and Federov needs the Caps, neither can cement a place in history without the other in so many ways their futures are intertwined.
Captainship is a key phrase for the Caps. Many questioned the move to go with the vet Chris Clarke after the departure of Witt holding the captain C, however Chris has been a great asset as a voice in the locker room during the transition and drives home that defensive mentality being a forward willing to drop back in a very Dale Hunter sort-of-throwback-way. Caps forwards are historically built on the old wing-lock defense from before the “trap” style of stifling the transition. Having someone like Chris anchor that and give the team back that face lost during the unfortunate Jagr years focusing on offence was important. Can Chris come back and continue his reign as Captain? Hopefully, because yet another change in captains before Ove takes over the position for the longer-term could be detrimental to a developing team. Can Chris come back and do his job? Hopefully, because his injuries were terrible to feel despite the teams ability to rally around him and drive forward.
Other signings that are important are F Matt Bradley and F Matt Cooke. Although Matt is the latter checking lines as a winger and Cooke was a late season RFA acquisition to bolster the offense, the blue collar work ethic that once brought the Caps to the finals against the Wings and saw them make a twenty-some year playoff run was led by the ability to play strong defensive offense. Resigning vets like Bradley and Cooke for the short-to-mid term will help not only take the pressure off of recovering Captain Clarke, but continue to bolser the brute of the offense. Bradley represents much needed right winger, and a defensive one at that, one that is built to play the role that once built the mightly wing-lock system of center-ice-to-blue-line defences of yesteryear. Cooke especially was key in taking the pressure off vet backliner Donald Brasher on the offense and replacing Witt in terms of a physical presence overall where Brasher looked unsettled at times in trying to grow as a mid-ice presence. Both Cooke and Brasher can put up penalty minutes like Witt did for over a decade, but combine and providing it as forwards together is a game changer especially in the east facing teams like Philadelphia that are built on force rather than finesse and balance the perceived skills led teams like Pittsburgh and Ottawa. Face Brasher and Cooke as wingers after being knocked around by Ove and Semin and that side of the ice and most of center ice becomes painfully untouchable. Bradly offers a nice ballance opposing.
Another mid-to-long term lockup that needs to happen are Alexander Semin and Nicholas Backstrom. Along with Ove and Green, these two are the remaining two cornerstones of the franchise, similar to the way that Bondra, Gonchar, Witt and Kolzig were previously. Backstrom put up huge numbers on the Ove line, like what former Caps Lang and Jagr once provided the supercharged Penns offense back in the day. If this is the second coming of that kind of line, than it needs to be secured and although it may take a season or two to fully develop, the flashes of brilliance the two gave one another working together fully outshine their current Penns rivals. Similarily, fellow left winger Semin more than backstopped the second line behind the heroics of fellow countryman Ove on the first line. Take into account for Semin the fact that Clarke and Federov might be coming back can center his line at any given time and the underacheiving Kozlov could return to form as the center for that line, it is huge. Think back to the Caps days led by guys like Doug Jarbivs, Mike Gartner, Dale Hunter and others.
Speaking of Nylander and other not-to-be-optioned options such as Steve Eminger on the D, there are some players that don’t need to be reconsidered. Don’t get the situation wrong, Mike and Steve are both good at their jobs, but what they provided the Caps was less than stellar compared to what they can give the league as a whole. For whatever its worth, Nylander’s second stint as a Cap was no more productive than his first and not up to his expectation from the Hawks years. Eminger, for as many flashers he showed on the blueline, he never really lived up to his abilities in the Caps system. Yes, the Caps were in flux on the line trying to redefine the system, but for someone with so much tallent to not define the system the way, say Witt did, it was a disappointment. Both could be better served as players to move on and not make enemies with Caps fans in the process rather than staying and sucking it up further.
The mention of Brasher earlier, as a role player, is important, as when you think of the Caps, the days of Hunter, Witt, et al. Maintaining Brasher is imperative if Cooke is not resigned or if Clarke is unable to particpate. The vet leadership will be imperative considering the type of leadership he provides to whaterver youth the team is able to acquire in the upcoming spring draft and pre-free agent times.