In the leadup to this fall’s training camp I reached out to local media long devoted to covering the Caps and asked them to respond to a single line of inquiry: relative to where they imagined the Caps to be as claimants for legitimate Stanley Cup contention in the immediate aftermath of last April’s seven-game series loss to Montreal, where were the Caps at the dawn of training camp this fall? Improved? Regressing? More or less the status quo? I wanted from them a verdict on the Capitals’ offseason, with en eye toward the big prize. I received from my media colleagues what I thought I would: extremely thoughtful verdicts.
Jonathon Warner, WTOP radio, host of ‘Saturday Night Caps’: “GM George McPhee said all last season he believed in this group of players, and by not making any major off-season moves, proved he meant it. The Caps didn’t add a shutdown defenseman or second line center. Instead, they’re sticking to their plan of improving from within. Will a younger John Carlson and Karl Alzner be better than veterans Shaone Morrison and Joe Corvo? Can Marcus Johansson be the second coming of Nicklas Backstrom? Youth will also be served in net with Semyon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth battling for the number one spot. The only addition – DJ King – will add some grit, but it’s obvious the Caps are going to give their core group one more chance to get it done. If not, there’s always the trade deadline to add needed pieces, which appears what GMGM is planning on. You also have to be mindful of the salary cap.
“This has to be a breakthrough season for the Capitals, or it may be the last season for the likes of Alexander Semin, Tomas Fleischmann, and Mike Knuble – all in the final year of their contracts. That being said, I see a long playoff run for the Capitals. This could be the year to finally win the Cup.”
Rob Yunich, Storming the Crease. “The Caps have stuck to their build-from-within philosophy in a manner that befuddles many outsiders’ minds. GM George McPhee believes that, by making his roster a tad younger, he’ll actually improve the postseason results — because, let’s face it, the Caps are at the point where a stellar regular season means nothing. McPhee was nominated for GM of the year last time around and the mad scientist may be onto something for one reason: he’d rather have players who will buy into Coach Bruce Boudreau’s system over bigger names who will try to do their own thing. By not keeping any of the deadline-deal acquisitions, McPhee is betting that somebody like Mathieu Perreault or Tomas Fleischmann, who just barely got a one-year deal to return and might be entering his final season with the club, will be able to occupy the second-line center role. The biggest lesson the Caps need to learn, though, is what those former Hershey Bears already know: how to eliminate an inferior opponent on the way to clinching a championship. If that lesson has been learned, then McPhee will look like a genius. If not, there’s a chance (albeit minute) GMGM could be looking for a new job next spring.”
Sky Kerstein, 106.7 the Fan. “The Caps realized something last April everyone else already knew: when the playoffs come around, the ice gets smaller and defense wins. Offensively we know where this team is — they are and will continue to be second to none in the NHL. But when it counts you need those grinders, fighters, and stay-at-home defensemen. I like getting D.J. King because now you have a fighter that will a bout or two, no offense to Matt Bradley. When the “eventual” signing of Eric Belanger didn’t happen it made me more nervous about the 2nd and 3rd lines. I believe you would’ve put Belanger at 2nd line center, Matty Perreault as your 3rd line center, and Johansson off to Hershey till he adjusts to the North American game. At that time you move him to 2nd line center and put Belanger as your 3rd line center. But now without Belanger it is a huge question mark about who you have as your 2nd and 3rd line center.
“Even 19-year-old Cody Eakin is making a case, even though he is probably a year away. I think Johansson really needs to go to Hershey, but now he might not have that luxury and get thrown right in as your 2nd line center and have Matty P be your 3rd line pivot. Not ideal, but that might get you through the first couple months until you can make a trade . . . or it just might work out and you won’t need to trade for a vet.
“I’m ok with the goaltending situation. Varlamov, if he stays healthy, and Neuvirth will only get better with more ice time, and Holtby isn’t too bad as a 3rd. But they still are lacking a big stay-at-home defenseman. Right now having Erskine and Sloan as your 6 and 7 really makes me really nervous; they need to make a move. Shultz and Green put together a nice season but decided to take the playoffs off. Tom Poti had a great playoffs and had the face to prove how much he put into them afterwards, and I think the Carlson/Alzner pairing could be something special for years to come. But they still need one big stay-at-home guy or we could be saying the same thing in April again. If they can get a big defenseman that will cause all kind of problems and knock people out of the crease and a veteran center that could go between 2nd and 3rd lines, this team could go very very far. Also, hopefully they will have learned from last postseason that the playoffs are an entirely new season, and you have to show up or you will be going home.”
Hockey Mom, Musings of a Hockey Mom. “To everyone who follows the Capitals, the team’s stunning first-round playoff exit at the hands of the underdog Canadiens felt like a punch in the gut. Now more than five months later and within weeks of the start of a new season, have the vulnerabilities that led to the early exit been addressed? One of the recurring themes that was frequently heard in the aftermath was that despite putting up jaw-dropping offensive numbers during the regular season, the team was “too soft” for success in the playoffs. D.J. King was brought in over the summer to play the role of enforcer, but that did nothing to answer the recurring doubts about the current status of the blueline. Fans clamored for a trade that would bring a gritty, stay-at-home defenseman such as Willie Mitchell or Dan Hamhuis. But a trade (for now) did not go down, so we start the season with more or less the same defense corps as last year but with the full-time addition of John Carlson and Karl Alzner. Unfortunately, last year’s playoff debacle places even more pressure on these two talented youngsters. The offense may see the addition of a new face or two (hopefully Mathieu Perreault, who exudes the heart and spirit of sacrifice it takes to succeed in the postseason). But unless certain players get on line with the willingness to make the dirty goals and place less emphasis on the finesse scoring, there’s a good chance that things remain status quo when it comes to making another legitimate Cup run. But I’m a glass half-full type of gal, and if the Caps play with a nasty chip on their shoulder, I am quite optimistic about a different result in the 2011 post-season. April is a long way away after all . . .”
Ed Frankovic, Baltimore WNST. “Despite what the national media believe, and this includes Canadian media, the Caps problems do not lie in net. Semyon Varlamov is a proven playoff goalie. The biggest thing the Caps need to improve on is their maturity. They had the Montreal series all but won but they took a game five victory for granted and never recovered. Alex Ovechkin said after last season, “We thought we’d show up for game five and Montreal would give it to us.” The hardest game to win in the playoffs is the one to knock your opponent out, and this young team figured that out too late in 2010. Growing up and dedicating themselves to playoff hockey is a major challenge for these young players this season. There are some holes on the ice, most notably at second line center, but the only way that will get fixed is via a trade. I don’t believe Marcus Johansson should be rushed to the NHL this season to fill that need. On defense, they could use a physical veteran player, and Willie Mitchell would have been a nice addition, but he got a longer deal in LA. I expect that George McPhee will address that need via a trade as well during the season. The full time additions of Karl Alzner and John Carlson in D.C. will improve the defense, and its ability to move the puck out of the Washington zone. Up front, some players need to focus on getting to the front of the net more often to score the garbage goals. That was a weakness in April, and perhaps Eric Fehr may get more ice time as a result and a guy like Andrew Gordon gets a hard look as well? Perimeter hockey does not work in the postseason, so it will be important to weed out the players who aren’t willing to pay the price necessary to win a Stanley Cup and move them out by the trade deadline.”
Ted Starkey, WashingtonTimes.com: “The Capitals chose to stand relatively pat this off-season, as following an ugly seven-game series loss to the Canadiens last spring, their biggest acquisition in the summer was enforcer D.J. King. Washington, who acquired depth players such as Joe Corvo and Scott Walker at the trade deadline, let those players go following the campaign and now want to see if they can fill their roster spots with either players from the Calder Cup-champion Hershey Bears, or see if they can go bargain-hunting before the puck drops for real in October. Forward-wise, the Capitals were potent in the regular-season, but several top players refused to pay the price in the postseason, thrown off by Montreal’s shot-blocking and tight defensive play. Defensively, the team has ample puck-movers, but not the clear-out type of defenseman they needed two years ago against the Penguins. And in goal, the Caps are banking on Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth to take their spots with the big club. The Caps had a big chance to cement their chances at a deep playoff run this April, but instead, they seem content to wait and see what the trade deadline will bring.”