Red Army, fellow Washington puckheads, late January again finds the Washington Capitals in an enviable competitive position: in first place — by a Grand Canyon chasm — in the Southeast division, but also first overall in the Eastern conference. And of late, establishing some separation from the rest of the East. The Capitals’ brand of hockey — turbo up-tempo, high scoring, fan-electrifying — is the envy of the NHL, a sports marketer’s dream, and not so insignificantly, the lone source of pride for DC sports’ fans today.
Young core players continue to mature into global-elite talents. Additional promising talent, joined by a smattering of savvy free agent and trade acquisitions, fills out a formidable skating roster. There is additionally a surplus of prime talent in net. My friends in the Red Army, I am here this morning to report to you that the state of the Capitals’ Union is Stanley Cup contender-favorite strong!
A lead storyline in this Capitals’ season is the change in the team’s leadership. In December, Chris Clark was dealt to Columbus, his captaincy awarded to Alexander Ovechkin. Since his drafting in 2004, Ovechkin has been the face of hockey in Washington, and it’s a profile that has catapulted hockey’s standing to the fore of Washington’s sports scene. As such, his captaincy was an inevitability, but it also represents an earned leadership, hardly hastily bestowed, and one certain to endure the next decade-plus — a leadership stability the Caps haven’t known since Dale Hunter departed.
A year ago, fellow soldiers, the Capitals enjoyed their finest regular season in team history, earning a team-record 108 points en route to a 50-24-8 record. And yet there was an uneven quality to the team’s performance. They started out white hot on home ice over the first 20 or so home dates then tailed off dramatically. Additionally, the Caps were fairly labeled a team which rose impressively to meet the challenges of the NHL’s elite but ‘played down’ to the levels of inferior competition. This season, the Capitals have been more consistently excellent against all comers.
Some nights they overpower their opponents with their firepower; other nights they triumph in a tactical attack in close-checking affairs; still other nights they win with great goaltending. The constant in the equation is Bruce Boudreau. He is unlikely to win again soon a Jack Adams trophy as the league’s best bench boss, given the volume of skill he coaches, but his team’s stylistic adaptability from night to night speaks volumes for his benchwork.
When 2008-09 ended abruptly, and torturously, in game 7 against Pittsburgh, conventional wisdom posited that the Capitals needed to explore summer free agency relatively aggressively to shore up weak areas exposed by the Penguins. Instead, management ventured modestly but in very well targeted fashion in the shopping season, securing the services of Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison to replace Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov. Management left the team’s blueline intact, unaltered — and glutted with NHL-caliber talent.
Sometimes the best moves a GM makes are those he doesn’t.
By resisting the impulse to mortgage the Capitals’ future in a play for Chris Pronger last spring George McPhee today presides over a Cup-contending roster that appears of a contending-caliber far into the future.
Our warriors of winning this season are likely to lead the league in goals scored for the first time in franchise history. Their prolific offense is balanced superbly among three and at times even four lines, but Nicklas Backstrom deserves specific mention for the sniper’s shot he’s added to his world-class playmaking arsenal. The only downside to Backstrom’s season thus far is that he needs a new deal, and it’s going to cost the Caps a ton to get him inked.
Another lead storyline in 2009-10 has been the emergence of an Unheralded Trio: Tomas Fleischmann, Jeff Schultz, and Eric Fehr. If you want to pinpoint a reason why this year’s Capitals’ team looks formidable in the East as the season’s second half marches toward the postseason, the performances of these three players are a consistent catalyst.
When in last season’s preseason Bruce Boudreau spoke of Flash being a 30-goal scorer in the big league, few in media paid him much attention. Today, his are the hands of a 30-goal guy, and he’s now using them to great effect in the middle of the ice, helping forge a lethal follow-on line to Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble. Flash is nearly a point-per-game performer (17 goals, 19 assists in 41 games), and he will deservedly represent the Czech Republic in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. His starring performance is all the more remarkable when you consider that he missed the entirety of training camp, and the season’s opening weeks, with a frightening blood clot.
Jeff Schultz’ preseason was unremarkable. Frankly, he struggled. Frankly, he emerged from the preseason a bit of an afterthought on the Capitals’ blueline, and an early healthy scratch from the lineup. Today, however, he’s rapidly matured into one of Bruce Boudreau’s most reliable rearguards. He will not dazzle you with breakout passes or points, nor manhandle opposing forwards down low. Instead, he smartly assesses an opponent’s attack, reliably takes effective defending angles, and covers vast stretches of his own zone with the breadth of his reach.
But no player overcame more from the end of 2008-09 than Eric Fehr. Early in the postseason he found himself under the knife for surgery on both shoulders. In the early portion of summer he was unable even to feed and dress himself. Early in 2010 he ranks among the most dangerous of third-line wings in the league, and he’s posted career-best numbers (28 points in 41 games) little more than halfway through the season. His production is particularly impressive in light of the modest minutes he nightly skates — rarely more than 11-12 minutes a night, with minimal time on the power play.
As if the Capitals weren’t stacked enough on the NHL roster, their American League affiliate in Hershey is actually outperforming them. Like the Caps, the Bears have flirted with a 20-point cushion over their second-place rival in the division. But the Bears never lose. Here’s their record in their last 21 games: 19-2. With 70 points earned through just 45 games, it’s quite conceivable that Hershey could easily better their best-ever point total of 114 from the 2006-07 season. For good measure the South Carolina Stingrays boast a 16-point lead in the South division of the ECHL. My friends in the Red Army, it is an embarrassment of puck riches we follow with this organization.
It is genuinely difficult to distinguish between the Capitals’ present and future when so much of the talent on the farm seems primed to contribute reliably and productively in the present. Witness the contributions this season of Karl Alzner, Michal Neuvirth, Mathieu Perreault, and John Carlson.
John Carlson, Conqueror of Canada! Gold medal for his bling! Red Army, acknowledge our Hero’s nation-slaying anew!
Carlson was among five players the Bears dispatched to the AHL All Star game earlier this month. A sixth, Braden Holtby, should have participated, but his season has been split between the East Coast and American leagues, and he represented the Stingrays as an All Star. With Hershey this season Holtby is on pace to obliterate team goaltending records. Of his team’s American League affiliation Capitals’ owner Ted Leonsis this month claimed, “The excellence with which that [Hershey] organization is run washes up on us.”
There can be no assurances that the gaudy success across the Washington hockey organization thus far this season will translate into long-lasting postseason success, but should Capitals’ General Manager George McPhee decide he needs to strengthen his roster heading into the postseason, he can. By jettisoning the pricey contracts of Michael Nylander and Chris Clark in the seaon’s first half, he’s created cap space for impact player additions, should he want them. The Capitals have cap space and assets aplenty to be prime players in the wheeling-dealing market of February and early March.
With so much good news enveloping hockey in Washington you’d think there’d be not a thing in the rink to complain about, but there is, and as ever, it’s who’s missing most nights in the rink: much of Washington’s elite media. The usual suspects are conspicuous in their absence. Additionally, a great loss in the middle of this season arrived with the demise of the Washington Times and rising star reporter Corey Masisak.
But there’s some good news on the media front: new and upstart sports talk radio 106.7 the Fan, which from program to program, day after day, recognizes our very winning hockey team wonderfully, and rebukes that other Caps-hating sports talk radio outlet in town (the one owned by you know who). The Fan, as an outlet of its ilk should, delights in the Caps’ MoJo and lavishes generous air team upon the only hot team in town.
Recently the Caps’ press box was filled for a visit from the Detroit Red Wings, for the 23rd home game on the season, and it marked the first visit by most local sports media outlets en masse since the home opener. There are miles to go still with local press to convince them that every home game with this hockey team is a special occasion.
You, however, our city’s fans who’ve sold out Verizon Center all season long, you, the frenzied Red Army, certainly don’t need to be told.