I am getting somewhat impatient regarding the impending beginning of hockey season. Not that I am ready to give up baseball yet, as the stretch run is going to make for some great story lines, but with pre-season football getting underway and the weather in the greater tri-state unbearably humid fall cannot get here soon enough so the sweet smell if rink ice can fill my lungs.
That being said, it was an interesting off-season for the Washington Capitals. Some losses, a couple of new faces and a lot of great things to build on upon the last two seasons successes. The average age of the team probably plummets which brings up concerns about where they are in terms of stability and stewardship but considering how far they came so far putting it together piecemeal when established vets were fleeing to other teams while the Caps were building almost completely from the inside out where they are at is one of the greatest testaments to development and scouting ever.
Let’s break this down in hockey terms:
The biggest plus is the acquisition of Mike Knuble. The Caps needed a net crasher and they got one. He’s not a big scorer, or a big assists’ guy but he will clear room in front of the net for Backstrom and Ovechkin to work their magic and perhaps with the singular skills of both players moving the puck it won’t help Knuble pad his numbers a bit more. It is a big change of personality from Viktor Kozlov who was more of a skills player on a very skills orientated line. Should Mike find a rhythm on the line where Kozy couldn’t it would make one of the leagues biggest scoring threats the last two years that much more deadly. He’s the right wing that line disparately needs but knowing the caps he can easily roll to the second line and keep opponents confused when the top six forwards are shuffled.
Eric Fehr (Caps 1st round 03) is huge as the winger comes into his own last season. Finding a home between the third and imaginary fifth line could be interesting but he showed flashes of brillance to build on.
Boyd Gordon (Caps 1st round 02) will continue to provide depth at a weak position for the Caps on the physical lines as a drafted center. His ability to adapt to the left boards provides more depth.
Quintin Laing (Caps 07 rookie) After a turbulent early career developing through the Caps system helped unlock Laing as winger and back up center. As the team develops lines Lain provides experienced in-system depth.
Milan Jurnica: He came into the league via an early millennial Boston system that developed him into what he’s becoming for the Caps. The conservative nature was broken this season playing on a line behind Green where he meandered into the zone more and showed his wicked shot. Given the op to develop that he could be a deadly two-way asset deeper in the D.
Shaone Morrison (Boston 1st round 01; NHL full season debut Caps 05) If he can find the old Witt & Johannson style of play where he can balance the physical with the neutral zone control and feed into either Jurnica or Green he’ll find a great rhythm as both continue to develop. Both need a responsible anchor who can develop a good feed play and help on the three way checking and take the penalty when necessary while pushing the play hard.
Jeff Schultz (Caps 1st round 04): he’s a good stay at home D that has a plus 30 cum career to build upon. If he can develop a good physical game and some solid neutral zone checking it would play well into the Caps offense system.
Losing the three big vets: Sergie Federov, Viktor Kozlov and Donald Brashear. All three were club house leaders for the team in their own way. The Russian connection with Feds and Kozy definitely changed the dynamic of the team overnight. When all else failed Brashear was a stabilizing force on and off the ice both physically and emotionally. Feds brought a great two-way style to the ice able to play every position he was asked (and could prob tend net if necessary one might think). Kozy was a roller coaster but he worked hard, day in and day out and by the end it was indispensable as he rolled lines. Donny was, well, Donny and all the while as the team lost Kolzig and suffered through Clark wounds Donny was the gritty vet leader that set the tone everywhere and commanded respect from everyone. Lost in the Federov-Kozlov-Brashear shuffle is also the loss of Brent Johnson as a goalie. His contributions before last year might have been overlooked by some because Kolzig was a workhorse in goal, but he provided a veteran
The acquisition of Brandan Morrison: It fills out that latter-line veteran center position the Caps were lacking. Questions remain on how physical he can be and how much 2-way discipline he can help instill on the back-lines and what type of presence he will bring into the clubhouse overall.
Chris Borque (Caps 2st round 04) Vote isn’t in on this multi-talented winger who also showed potential on as a center. Considering the heritage of the namesake alone one would hope he develops and the chances he had there were flashes of potential to build from. Resigning him could be a bonus if he matures into anything close to the way other Caps have but we’re not quite there yet as he only made it to the NHL last season.
Chris Clark as Captain Chris is a great gritty veteran presence. He’s not even played 40 games in the last two seasons. He’s a commanding player when he’s on the ice. He’s spent a lot of time on the DL. Captains lead their teams in many ways, and Chris’ absence from active duty hasn’t affected the impact he’s had in terms of being a leader, but it’s hard to imagine that if the team is going to continue to grow and develop they are going to be able to continue with a captain missing from the lineup. As for Chris as a captain this season, we’ll see, but beyond that, I think the leadership on the team needs to formally transition to someone from the youthcorps as they become the backbone of the franchise.
The Nylander Conundrum– Mike has been an enigma as a Cap in both tenures. If he can learn to drive the net and play hard through the neutral zone and offensive zone even when not holding the puck it would create ops for the wingers and more ops for him. He doesn’t share responsibility on the play, but wants to dominate it. Imagine if he could help spring Semin’s slapshot by setting him up on the point or at the top of the circle. Or if he crashed the net harder and played off the rebound of a Fleishman drive. Imaging him using whatever linemates he has by spring-boarding their strength with his puck handling ability. But this isn’t the style of hockey Mike’s known for and chances are he won’t make that adjustment this late in his career just to be in Bruce Bodreau’s favor in order to get ice time.
The Goalie Situation The 800-lb gorilla in the room is how the Caps handle the goalie situation. You certainly cannot round-robin Simeon Varlamov (Caps 1st round 06), Michal Neuvirth (Caps 2st round 06) and Jose Theodore as a threesome that’s for sure. Thankfully the conversation is not further complicated by the presence of perennial backup Brent Johnson in the mix, though, his presence as a backstop and on the bench will be sorely missed. So what are the Caps to do? There’s no right answer. Going with a tandem that involved Theodore and one of the rookies is the obvious option. Starting Josey means taking a chance on his streaky nature once again. Delegating him to backup status makes his one expensive bench-warmer. It would be stranger still to not play him at all and go with Varly and Neuvirth and completely neglect Theodore despite the brilliance both the rookies have shown thus far. Then again there is that point, neither has played much above a handful of regular season games for the big club and that leaves a lot of open questions. So what are the Caps going to do? No one knows and that’s both intriguing and frightening from an outsider’s perspective only six weeks away from the start of the season. Let’s hope internally everyone is on the same page because the longer the indecision goes on the more it potentially hurts the locker room vibe.
The youth corps! How many teams can boast 15 guys from their system on the ice? Think about the depth of this young lineup: Nick Backstrom (Caps first round 06), Alex Ovechkin (Caps first round 04), Mike Green (Caps first round 04), Alex Semin (Caps first round 02) plus Tom Fleishman (Caps 05 rookie acquired from Red Wings 02 second round 02) Brooks Laitch (Caps 03 rookie acquired from Senators third rounder 01), Dave Steckle (Caps 05 rookie acquired from Kings as a first round 01) all remain in place next season. Along with Fehr, Gordon, Laing, Morrison, Schultz & Varlamov (plus Neuvirth & Borque) the bulk of the team is developed internally. Over the last few seasons have come together nicely. The steady improvement led by this corps should provide an exciting foundation for next season and many to come.