The flattering forecasts are coming in fast and furious. The Caps are a consensus selection to win the Southeast division for a second consecutive season, but additionally, they’re commonly identified either explicitly as a Stanley Cup contender or a “dark horse” one. To quote the good living theme from the movie ‘Things to To in Denver When You’re Dead,’ these are “boat drinks” days in hockey D.C.¬† This is rarefied air we’re breathing. But why? I think it’s worth reflecting on the factors that lead to such conventional preseason prognosticating.
Start at the top, with Head Coach Bruce Boudreau. His Jack Adams standing is impressive and nice, but what’s more salient to 2008-09 is his having guided a core group, now in D.C., that bought into what he was selling in Hershey in 2005-06, which culminated with a Calder Cup, and then, replacing Glen Hanlon in season last season, he got even more guys (NHL ones) — not least among them Hall of Fame lock and then rental player Sergei Fedorov — to buy in again, and go from worst to first in a historic regular season campaign. Gabby brought to Washington a championship pedigree, winning hockey titles on two different professional levels, and his 60-game results in the NHL last season were nothing short of startling. His is a stock you buy.
Stanley Cup hockey teams generally aren’t dominated by the heroic efforts of a lone standout talent. Think the Detroit Red Wings. The New Jersey Devils. The Edmonton Oilers. The Colorado Avalanche. The Anaheim Ducks. But in Alexander Ovechkin the Capitals seem to possess something markedly larger than just a heavy hardware hauler and a fun talent to behold. He competitiveness is as impressive as his talent, and he has very publicly stated that his hockey mission in life is to win a Cup and make Washington a hockey town. The early trajectory of his career invites comparisons especially with say Mario Lemieux’s in Pittsburgh: an afterthought franchise lifted up quite high by a sublime talent. Additionally, Ovechkin is that rare superstar who melds marvelously with all of his lesser heralded teammates. Heck, he melds well with no-name prospects at Rookie Camp. He is the face of the Capitals due not just to his standing as the planet’s greatest talent but because his teammates believe him to be. He loves leading them into battle, and they love being led by him.
If there was a commonly recognized weakness heading into 2007-08 on the Caps, it was the seeming absence of a true no. 1 blueliner, a guy who could ably and productively QB a power play and bring some firepower from the back end at even strength. Out of nowhere emerged Mike Green. He led NHL defensemen in goals scored last season. He possesses a breathtaking and dynamic skill set — and he’s just 23. If you read Corey Masisak’s feature on Green yesterday, you learned that no less than the father of Paul Coffey sees striking similarities in Green’s game to that of his son.
“Green is an atypical offensive defenseman,” Masisak wrote. “He enjoys carrying the puck, which often leads to exhilarating rushes from one end of the ice to the other. His stick-handling and creativity rivals that of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, while his vision and passing ability is equivalent of a playmaking pivot like Nicklas Backstrom.”
A team like Carolina proves that you don’t necessarily have to have a no. 1 blueline stud to win a Cup, but the vast majority of champions do. The Caps have theirs.
Another key ingredient is an elite playmaker for both the no. 1 line and the top unit power play. Nicklas Backstrom is that. Swedish hockey media years ago identified Backstrom as an heir apparent to Peter Forsberg. That may have been an unfair comparison, but in his rookie season in ’08-09 Backstrom made a magnificent, Calder finalist transition to star center status in North America. His stock, too, is one you buy.
The center position on the Caps was one thought to be improved but still a work in progress this time a year ago. This season a healthy Michael Nylander — the team’s top scorer in the preseason — will in all likelihood center the team’s third line. The Caps will skate three productive lines this season, and that helps out a bit in the playoffs.
In the cumulative, all of these factors are significant and indicative perhaps of a good-bet-for-the-playoffs kind of club. But if I had to point to a catalyst cause for all the truly heady predictions it’d be to the perception that the Capitals’ well drafted and assembled core of young talent, which certainly includes the likes of Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, Shaone Morrisonn, Jeff Schultz, Boyd Gordon, and Tomas Fleischmann, is collectively skating impressively now but also with their best NHL days still ahead of them. It’s a 95-to-100-pt. club on paper in the early October moment, absent the achievement of any notable production improvement among all the skilled youth. Who believes they’ve all plateaued?
Ultimately, a Stanley Cup caliber team is forged by distinctive chemistry, and this, too, is a calling card of these Caps. Something obviously special took hold in that room last spring. And it’s basically all back, ripening.