Yes, there are important, impact veteran additions to the Capitals roster for 2011-12, and yes the club likely will be backstopped by the finest talent they’ve had in net since Olie Kolzig more than 10 years ago. Yes, the Capitals again will boast as much high-end skill as any club in the NHL. Yes, returning and newly added players have said all the right things over summer and reported fit for duty this fall for the new season. And yes, the Capitals again will finish at or very near the very top of the NHL’s Eastern conference.
Still, this fall we don’t know what we most need to about this hockey club — and necessarily we can’t: How much heart, courage, confidence, and history-defying swagger will it possess next spring, when the ghosts of Washington Capitals playoffs past will want to haunt again?
So what’s to preview? What we all want to know in October 2011 is what the collective state of our hockey hearts will be next spring. We all want to know that roster adjustments and hard offseason training and finally, at long last, an exasperation with failure has settled in, and in the aggregate these factors are driving the Capitals toward a more glorious fate — one befitting their other-worldly skill, one quashing four consecutive sour endings to spring. But we can’t know that right now. So instead, we saddle up for another long season (but likely a final season of Southeast division hockey!), hoping for better things on the power play, more goals, a returned-to-form Ovi, elite goaltending, good health.
And also this: night-in, night-out character and commitment, regular occurring 60-minute efforts, pride for the crest, an identity of hard work and an earned reputation for being tough to play against. Achieving that, we in the Red Nation could pretty well allow the chips to fall where they may.
When I wonder about the fate of this year’s Washington Capitals I find myself asking questions, identifying about 10 big-picture, perhaps defining queries, the answers to which I believe will determine just how far this team will go next spring.
(1) To what extent will the Capitals successfully implement a “hybrid” system relative to the preceding two seasons, one that better utilizes the prodigious skill sets of the team’s elite talents while also bringing more lunch pail ethos and thump and snarl for the season of ugly hockey (spring)? To what extent will there be “player buy-in” for this new system, and to what extent will the team adhere to it within the cauldron of high-pressure playoff puck?
(2) Will readily identifiable leadership develop under Alexander Ovechkin — on the ice and off? There are many superstar talents in many professional sports ill-suited to roles of extraordinary leadership. In his seventh NHL season Ovechkin not only has to recapture the game-breaking production he lost last season but he must embrace the responsibilities that come with wearing the ‘C’ in his sport, and inspire his teammates in the process. They already respect him; they already acknowledge his stature in the sport. Beginning this season, Alexander Ovechkin must look the part of mature warrior, and the Capitals must look like Alexander Ovechkin’s hockey team.
(3) How big a statistical rebound will we see from Ovi? His 65 goals in 2007-08 seem an outlier, highly unlikely to be replicated ever again, but last season’s 32, relative to his talent, seem even more aberrational. In better shape, and healthier, and a lead part on an improved power play, it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t significantly improve over last season’s numbers. But by how much?
(4) Will power be restored to the power play? It was inexplicably pedestrian (16th, 17.5 percent) last season. When it slumps this team’s extra-man unit still shouldn’t fall outside of the top 10. Roman Hamrlik, a healthy Dennis Wideman and a healthy Mike Green, and a more experienced John Carlson ought to deliver a big jolt from the point. And will that bolstered blueline allow for Ovechkin to be moved back to the half-wall, where he’s clearly done more damage on the PP in his career?
(5) Will Tomas Vokoun’s longstanding regular season excellence (career .917 save pct; 2.56 goals-against) translate to the postseason, for which he has but two series’ experience (11 games total) back some years with Nashville? It’s perhaps the lone area of uncertainty with this enormous and hungry talent, who apparently turned down better offers in July to try and win a Cup in D.C. this season. His postseason numbers (.922 and 2.47) are actually stronger than his regular season ones, but he went 3-8 in those 11 games.
(6) Who will reliably win faceoffs here this year? The Capitals late last season and in the offseason bid goodbye to two of the better draw men in the entire league in Dave Steckel (62 percent in ’10-11) and Boyd Gordon (58 percent). Both Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault are notably inexperienced in the art. Jeff Halpern (56 percent) should help. Two quality draw-takers need to emerge, and it would be helpful if one skated in the top 6.
(7) Is there a realm of more mature and more reliable excellence that Alexander Semin will display in what is clearly the most important year of his NHL career? He is the longest-tenured Capital today; if he fails to make improvements with respect to discipline (offensive zone and generally ill-timed penalties) and emerging as a productive scorer when the team needs it most, this is likely his last season in D.C.
(8) Much as the Capitals’ core roster has experienced growing pains in its path toward legitimate contention, so too has Head Coach Bruce Boudreau. Put bluntly: he’s underwhelmed a lot of observers with his handling of the Capitals’ recent postseasons, and in fact in the judgment of many been out-coached by less experienced bench bosses of lower-seeded clubs. This season Bruce Boudreau, too, needs to earn new regard when it matters most. Will he mature and improve as he expects his core skaters to?
(9) This hockey club’s conditioning was a hot topic during the offseason. Will this Capitals club look physically strong generally, and most especially in third periods?
(10) Don’t overlook the impact of an NBA lockout/lost season on Verizon Center especially, long a home, due to its heavy use, to one of the league’s poorer ice sheets. If there’s no NBA hoops, just how good can this ice sheet become — for a hockey team boasting many exceptional skaters and assembled to contest a fast-paced game?