2010-11 NHL season preview: Washington Capitals

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ovechkinshoots.jpgLast season: (54-15-13, 121 points, 1st in Southeast Division, 1st in Eastern Conference) Capitals fans will cringe at this statement, but if one more season goes like the 2009-10 campaign did, those ‘San Jose Sharks East’ jokes will have a lot more validity. The team put together an astounding regular season, finishing nine points higher than the top-seeded Sharks in the West and 18 points higher than the Devils, the East’s second seed. Yet all that chest puffing amounted to despair in the playoffs as Montreal shocked Washington despite being down 3-1 in the series. The victim of bad luck since they vastly out-shot the Canadiens most of that series, but it’s hard to defend a team that is 1-3 in Game 7s during the Alex Ovechkin years … at home.

Head coach: People forget that the Capitals weren’t even a playoff team until Bruce Boudreau took the reins. Some bristle at the team’s middling interest in defense, but it makes them the NHL’s answer to the ‘seven seconds or less’ Phoenix Suns. Boudreau handles the team like Ovechkin handles his beloved sports cars: fast, furious and with more than a hint of recklessness. While the Capitals fans’ reactions on Twitter might make such an event intolerable, I’d love to see Boudreau stick to his guns and win a Cup by playing with a devil-may-care attitude. He might need to soon, because every season the team disappoints in the playoffs, the calls for his head grow louder.

Key departures: G Jose Theodore, F Eric Belanger, F Brendan Morrison, F Scott Walker, D Joe Corvo, D Milan Jurcina, D Shaone Morrisonn. The Capitals are betting big that two cheap, young goalies will do the job, so they let Theodore walk. The Belanger departure was like a bad breakup, with e-mails published and feelings hurt. Morrison and Morrisonn are also both gone along with the much-criticized Corvo and some other filler players. Washington could be a serious player during the trade deadline since they have a bunch of cap space after consistently opting to promote prospects instead of paying mediocre veterans.

Key arrivals: F D.J. King, G Dany Sabourin. OK, this category is a little deceptive since you could easily call goalie Michal Neuvirth, defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson and other Capitals prospects-turned-professionals ‘new arrivals’ to the pro squad. If the young squad falters, people will critique GM George McPhee for being inactive during the summer free agency frenzy, though.

mikegreeninasuit.jpgUnder pressure: While the team is rolling the dice on Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov in net, Mike Green might be under the greatest amount of pressure (even if the spotlight is always on Ovechkin). Despite putting up the offensive numbers of a first-line forward, Green receives criticism for his defensive lapses (and the occasional regrettable fashion choice). He actually receives a little too much abuse, but I can see why people have a beef that he almost seems destined to win a Norris Trophy. The Capitals lack a true shutdown player on the blue line, so Green gets too many of those minutes. If they lose again, he’ll be one of the top scapegoats, whether it’s fair or not.

Protecting the house: Look for the more NHL-experienced Varlamov to be the ‘1A’ in this goalie rotation. The Russian played nicely during the ’09 playoffs, helping the team come back from a hole they dug for themselves against the New York Rangers before succumbing in an awful Game 7 shellacking against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Both Varlamov and young backup/1B Neuvirth will experience something of a Grant Fuhr effect, as their numbers will be undermined by the wide-open style their team deploys. Yet, much like Fuhr during the 80s Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty days, they should expect the kind of goal support that make wins easy to come by.

The much-lampooned Green leads a flawed, but underrated, group of defensemen that could use a little more grit and veteran experience. Jeff Schultz is probably the ‘unsung hero’ of the group while Tom Poti is decent if a bit overpaid. This group could be a lot better than people expect — or a serious handicap for a contending team — depending on how Alzner and Carlson fare in their first full year of NHL action.

Top line we’d like to see: Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Mike Knuble. Although Alex Semin is a dangerous scorer, I think his skills are a little redundant when he’s out there with Ovechkin. By putting this trio out there, you have the best sniper in the game (Ovechkin), one of the top five passers (Backstrom) and a guy who will get to the front of the net and is often the missing and far-too-easily-forgotten ingredient on great lines (Knuble). This combination is more playoff-proven than the line with Semin instead of Knuble, too.

Oh captain, my captain: Sometimes, you just have to make the obvious choice, and Ovechkin is the ‘face’ of the franchise. The team is built around his all-world/generation/century skills, so putting the ‘C’ on his sweater just makes sense. He might not be a rah-rah type leader when he isn’t jumping into the glass after scoring a goal, but he’s their obvious leader.

Street fighting man: Since letting Donald Brashear go two summers ago, the team hasn’t really had a suitable enforcer. And, really, why bother slowing down that offense for a dancing grizzly bear? Matt Bradley was the team leader in fights last season with just five, according to HockeyFights.com. Still, with truculence-minded GMs installed in Florida and Atlanta this summer, they might need to let D.J. King suit up every now and then.

varlamovglovesit.jpgBest-case scenario: The Capitals silence their critics with a playoff run that’s even more impressive than their typically ridiculous regular-season production. After blowing through Montreal in a first-round grudge match, Washington dispatches two of their biggest nemeses (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) before dispatching the best of the West. Ovechkin wins a Hart Trophy and a Conn Smythe, their goalies play great hockey and Mike Green wins his first Norris Trophy, leading their bend-but-don’t-break defense.

Worst-case scenario: Not only do the Capitals fall apart in the first round of the playoffs, losing another Game 7 at home, but they do so as the fourth seed as an upstart club steals the division title away. Ovechkin’s physical style starts to take its toll as he misses a significant chunk of the season with injuries, Backstrom relaxes a little now that he has a big deal, Semin and Green disappear during the playoffs and the young goalies falter under the pressure. Boudreau receives a pink slip and McPhee coaxes Jacques Lemaire out of retirement to turn the Capitals into a trapping hockey team.

Keeping it real: The Capitals really could have used a genuine second-line center, but if their young players can play to their potential, they should still run away with the Southeast Division and probably take the top seed in the East again. It’s reasonable to wonder if Washington will ever win during the playoffs — a time in which they can no longer feast on ‘easy’ goals — but this team certainly will give defenses plenty to worry about. A Cup victory is certainly reasonable for this group.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Caps are a 5. If their goalies falter, the Caps could bring in a veteran goalie (maybe Tomas Vokoun if the Panthers can stomach the idea of him playing for a division ‘rival’?) with all that excess cap space. People forget that every great champion takes its lumps before they hit pay dirt. The Penguins lost to the Red Wings in the Cup finals while the Blackhawks fell to Detroit as well before claiming their championships. Only the most flippant observer would say they don’t have a great chance at a Cup victory.

Duchene trade talks quiet, but Avs will ‘listen to offers’

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To little surprise, not much is going on in the trade market. Just ask Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic.

The Denver Post’s Mike Chambers did just that, and Sakic revealed that he would still consider trading the likes of Matt Duchene … although he didn’t mention him by name.

“I will be listening to offers. Right now it’s quiet on all fronts,” Sakic said. “But I’ll listen to offers on how we can get better. I’ll never name names but I’ll sit there and if something makes sense for the way we want to go, with our team, we’ll really look at that.”

Considering that it’s mid-August, it’s not too surprising that little is happening. One can imagine that several GMs are more interested in finding drinks with umbrellas in them than trying to land Duchene, at least since the Avalanche don’t seem interested in giving him up without some serious haggling.

(And, really, the Avs would be wise to pump up Duchene and Gabriel Landeskog‘s respective trade values, anyway.)

That Denver Post story features a semi-update on Nikita Zadorov. Sakic told Chambers that the two sides agreed that a two-year deal would be best, but the “numbers” aren’t there yet. He didn’t tip his hand about how big the gap was. For what it’s worth, Sakic didn’t sound too worried about the lure of the 2018 Winter Olympics swaying Zadorov to head overseas.

While a lot of the activity circles around what hasn’t happened, the Avalanche did realize that Will Butcher officially won’t sign with them, while Colorado added a college free agent (and former Maple Leafs prospect) Dominic Toninato to their own mix.

At the moment, it doesn’t seem like something big is brewing regarding Duchene and other prominent Avs, but at least Sakic isn’t slamming the door shut on such a possibility.

Logan Couture’s teeth are still sore from horrifying mouth injury

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Still jarring and gross: the image of Logan Couture‘s mouth after taking a puck to the mouth about five months ago.

Still sore: Couture’s mouth.

Yep, the San Jose Sharks star hasn’t totally gotten over that injury, which forced him to have false teeth up top and some painfully sore ones on his bottom row. NBC Sports California’s Kevin Kurz transcribed the unfortunate details Couture shared with NHL Network this week:

“There’s good days and bad days,” Couture said. “My bottom teeth are still my real teeth. They’ve tried to keep them so I don’t lose them. I don’t know if I’ll be able to, they’re still pretty sore. My top teeth are all fake now – my front six, I think. So, it’s different. It just feels different in my mouth.

“But everything else with my face and all that is healed. I’m lucky that it’s an injury that didn’t affect my training, and hopefully won’t affect me going forward.”

As someone who’s endured more than a few unpleasant trips to the dentist, stories like these always lead to queasiness. This classic PHT post about Keith Tkachuk’s agony always comes to mind in situations like these.

Speaking of queasy, this is footage of when things were really bad for Couture. That link is provided because some will inevitably want to look, but treat this like the other gross things on the Internet that you wish you never saw and just move on.

(Seriously, the healing process continues on this end.)

Anyway, about the only bit of good news is that Couture can still train more or less as usual. He endured that injury late in the regular season (March 25), and while he suited up for the Sharks’ first-round series, it sure seemed like both Couture and Joe Thornton were limited in those six games against the Edmonton Oilers.

As much as dental agony seems like a uniquely “hockey” problem, this situation sounds especially rough for Couture.

Sidney Crosby at 30

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This post is part of Penguins Day on PHT…

Much like with Lebron James, Sidney Crosby is at the point in his career where the question is no longer “Will he be one of the all-time greats?” After back-to-back Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe wins, the discussion is shifting to where he ranks among the best of all-time.

And, like, with Lebron, there are a number of factors – including era, which is probably an even tougher nut to crack in hockey – that can twist and turn the debate.

Mere moments after Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins repeated as champs, Mike Sullivan made the case for number 87’s greatness.

” … You know, he’s arguably the best player of his generation, and he’s a guy that just knows how to win,” Sullivan said. “And so he’s done it in all different venues, whether it be the NHL and Stanley Cups to the World Cup to the Olympics. And he’s a player that — and I believe this, what separates him from others is his work ethic and his willingness to do what it takes to be the very best.”

It’s mind-blowing to consider the very real possibility that Crosby will be viewed as the best player to skate for the Penguins, edging Evgeni Malkin, Jaromir Jagr, and even Mario Lemieux.

It’s also mind-blowing that he just turned 30 on Aug. 7.

When it comes to the Mario vs. Sid debate that may eventually pick up steam, Crosby has some advantages. He matched “The Magnificent One” by getting those back-to-back titles and playoff MVP nods, while he already has three Stanley Cup rings to Lemieux’s two (and four Stanley Cup Final appearances to two).

Crosby already has an iconic moment to his name. Along with Paul Henderson’s goal and “Gretzky to Lemieux,” Crosby’s golden goal in the 2010 Winter Olympics will endear him to Canadian hockey fans for ages.

This list of accolades is honestly dizzying:

But, again, things get tougher when you try to really drill down to Crosby vs. The Greats. Most obviously since he’s far from done right now.

Circling back to the debate that might divide Penguins fans in particular, Crosby might also edge Lemieux if you correct for our modern era, which is so tough on scoring. NHL.com’s Rob Vollman explains Crosby’s place among the most impressive runs before 30:

From this perspective, Crosby is no longer in a block of a dozen players but in more select company. He ranks third at age 30 with an era-adjusted 998 points (377 goals, 622 assists), well ahead of Lemieux, who is in fourth with 899 points (365 goals, 534 assists). Gretzky is in first with 1,479 points (495 goals, 984 assists) in 896 games, followed by Jagr with 1,018 points (414 goals, 604 assists) in 858 games. (Adding to the distinction of being in the top four with Gretzky, Jagr and Lemieux: Those are the only three players to win the Art Ross Trophy as the League’s top scorer in the 21 seasons from 1980-81 to 2000-01.)  

Interesting. (This quick document has a bit more to chew on.)

Vollman also makes the point that even the all-timers tend to stop locking down the biggest awards once they turn 30. There’s an obvious barrier in Connor McDavid (just check the Hart Trophy odds) and possibly some other bright young players, so for all we know, most of our peak memories of Crosby may already be in the past.

That said, much like Lemieux, injuries have limited some of the stats Crosby’s been able to put up.

Crosby’s concussion history could conceivably prompt him to retire agonizingly early, but what if he instead gets better luck? We’ve seen cases, such as Patrice Bergeron, in which such issues become less of a concern over time. For all we know, Crosby might defy expectations and actually play until he’s 40.

(Hey, he already emulates Jaromir Jagr in being an inanely good puck protector.)

It’s been a special run already for Crosby, who’s already a no-brainer for the Hall of Fame. At this point, it’s about padding that resume.

Though, to Crosby’s credit, it’s still probably all about winning.

Sabres sign Zemgus Girgensons: two years, $3.2M

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The Buffalo Sabres basically wrapped up their mandatory summer moves by signing RFA Zemgus Girgensons to a two-year, $3.2 million contract on Thursday.

That translates to a cap hit of $1.6M per year; the team confirmed those terms.

The 23-year-old was selected 14th overall in the 2012 NHL Draft by the Sabres. He went two picks after the Sabres selected Mikhail Grigorenko, whose claim to fame is being part of the package that helped them nab Ryan O'Reilly. (Feel free to cringe at who went next, though hindsight seems especially convenient considering how long it takes to get to some of the whoppers.)

In Girgensons’ case, it’s still been a work in progress. His best years actually came early, particularly a sophomore season where he posted career-highs in goals (15) and points (30) despite being limited to 61 games. He enjoyed significantly higher ice time (19:05 per game) during that 2014-15, then came right back down.

If nothing else, Girgensons already has ample NHL experience, as he’s already played in 277 regular-season games.

Buffalo has about $7 million in cap space left, according to Cap Friendly, so there’s theoretically room to make more moves. Girgensons was their last remaining loose end of note, however.