(10) Gabby from the Get-go. Capitals players had plenty of time to come to grips with Bruce Boudreau’s system, what with his arriving from Hershey at Thanksgiving. In his 61 games in 2007-08, Boudreau went 20 games over .500 (37-17-7). Had that projected over the full season, the Caps not only would have won the Southeast handily but absolutely contended for first overall in the East (with 104 points, Montreal finished 10 better than Washington). It bears mentioning that Boudreau had to learn most of his new hockey club in mid-season just as they had to learn his system. This fall, Boudreau knows his roster quite well, they know him now by the title of Jack Adams holder, and he starts the season with a club as healthy and hungry as any the Caps have seen this decade. Let the good times roll.
(9) Renewed Might on the Right. What might have the Capitals’ fortunes been in the 2008 playoffs had they had the services of captain Chris Clark and his 30-goal skills and leadership? And what might a fully healthy Eric Fehr finally look like? We should find out in 2008-09. Both have told media late this summer that they’re “100 percent” and ready to go. We know what Viktor Kozlov, Matt Bradley, and Clark can do. Fehr is the wild card. But reasonably healthy, that quartet ought to offer some much-needed scoring balance on the right side of the Caps’ forward ranks.
(8) Is Karl Alzner NHL ready? In what appears to have been the final foray for the Caps in the NHL Entry Draft lottery, for some while anyway, the Caps selected Calgary Hitmen shutdown rearguard Karl Alzner with the 5th pick in the 2007 draft. In his draft class Alzner was lauded as being the “most NHL ready” of defense prospects. Nothing about Alzner’s ’07-08 season suggested otherwise. He captained Canada’s Junior team to yet another gold medal, and he was named WHL Defenseman of the Year and WHL Player of the Year. The Caps may find themselves with an intriguing and difficult call to make on Alzner this training camp: today he may well be one the team’s top 6 talents on the blueline, but would his long-term development be better aided with top minutes in Hershey this season?
(7) Center by Committee. The Capitals have a clear no. 1 center (Nicklas Backstrom) and, in ability, potentially three no. 2s (Nylander, Fedorov, Laich). Brooks Laich will get a long look on a wing. Additionally, there is fantastic defensive play and faceoff ability between Dave Steckel and Boyd Gordon. Bruce Boudreau is virtually certain to carry 13 forwards out of camp, and you have to believe five of them will be centers. But who sits? And who earns no. 2 minutes? Will there be a trade?
(6) Who’s no. 1 in Net — in Hershey? Rarely at the start of a new season is there intrigue about the goalie rotation down on the farm, but the goalie story in the Caps’ organization is a lead one in 2008-09. George McPhee has indicated that in Michael Neuvirth and Simeon Varlamov he has two AHL-worthy 20-year-olds; neither belongs in the E. Additionally, Daren Machesney has developed solidly in Hershey. One option could be to loan out one of the kids to another American League club. But both 2006 draft picks possess talent such that there respective stays in minor pros could be brief ones. Meanwhile . . .
(5) It’s Certain That There’s Some Uncertainty in the Washington Net. Jose Theodore was signed by Washington the moment that contracts talks with Cristobal Huet fell apart. Theodore possesses nearly 450 games of NHL experience spread out over more than 10 years. His career has been marked by moments of exemplary play commonly followed by conspicuously mediocre results. He has Vezina and Hart trophies on his mantle and pitchfork and torch scars on his gear bag. Playing behind a strong team of forwards and defenders, expect him to look like a world-beater during many regular season nights in 2008-09; the postseason will be more the barometer of his signing. Somewhat overlooked in the Kolzig-to-Huet-to-Theodore transition — all of it carried off in less than 9 months’ time — is that the Capitals’ blueline corps will have to adjust to yet another new netminder’s angles and rebounds tendencies. And it’s a short preseason.
(4) Is Semin a Star? There’s absolutely no doubt that left wing Alexander Semin is an elite, world-class talent. His wrist shot is simply one of the finest on the planet. But to date he has not put together a complete season of health and high production. With the Caps’ top-six-plus skill, 2008-09 should Semin’s season to shine.
(3) Potential Pitfalls of Press Clippings. It was just late last November that the Washington Capitals resided in dead last territory in the NHL, their rebuild strivings generating little returns. One coaching and netminder change ushered in a division title, a sold out home rink, and a wild-about-hockey Washington, and one of the great from hell to heaven rises in Washington pro sports history. The summer delivered an abundance of awards recognitions for the feat. And the Caps’ feel-good story of last season has fostered a pervasive ‘they’re-the-team-to-watch-out-for‘ forecast for this season. But the team is hardly dynastic, and they’ll compete with plenty of quality at the top of the East (Philly, Montreal, and Pittsburgh) and throughout the league overall. They’ll also have fewer games against their Southeast rivals this season — hockey’s weakest division.
(2) Golden Era of Ovechkin. If you believe Wayne Gretzky, we haven’t seen anywhere near the best yet from Alexander Ovechkin. The Great One believes that Ovi can score 90. Today the hockey world is Alexander Ovechkin’s oyster. He enjoys a best-in-his-sport status, he loves the challenge of making Washington a hockey town, and in 2008-09 he will skate in possession of the richest contract in Washington pro sports history. Now 225 pounds and a training dynamo, he is arrived at something close to his physical prime. There is among his fast-accumulating hardware one lone conspicuous omission. His aim in ’08-09 is to secure that one, too.
(1) As Good as It Gets? There were three striking qualities about Verizon Center in the final weeks of the 2008 season: it was consistently sold out; it was overwhelmingly red and partisan (except to Pierre McGuire’s eyes); and it was gloriously raucous and loud. It was an environment that I think caught even the Caps off guard; it seemed about two years ahead of forecast — if management could even imagine such environs here at all. Was it a fluke in response to a torrid and historic run, or is that the reception that hockey is hereafter to receive, the home team now competing, likely for a sizable number of years going forward, with coveted skill, depth, and youth? Washington’s hockey fans have been the butt of disrespect and ridicule for decades. A full season of Red Rockin’ during a lot of winning may squelch that slander permanently.