2011-12 season preview: Washington Capitals

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2010-11 record: 48-23-11, 107 points; 1st in Southeast; 1st in East

Playoffs: Defeated New York Rangers 4-1 in Eastern quarterfinals, lost to Tampa Bay 4-0 in Eastern semifinals

The Capitals’ recent history has been dominated by a common theme: great regular seasons deleted by playoff disappointments. To some, those postseason failures erase all of the good things that happened in those 82 games. Fair or not, casual fans will paste the “choker” label on this team until they win a Stanley Cup.

Even after coach Bruce Boudreau changed the game plan from all-out offense to a more traditional (read: conservative and boring) approach, the team still flopped in the big time after posting the top record in the Eastern Conference. This season won’t be the final straw for Alex Ovechkin and a few others, but it’s a make-or-break campaign for Boudreau, Mike Green and much of the team’s familiar faces.

Offense

The Capitals’ 224 regular-season goals was the second-lowest total of all Eastern playoff teams – only Montreal found the back of the net less frequently (216 goals).

While Washington might not be as high-flying as its once was, expect the top guns to soar again. Both Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom should bounce back after suffering from career-low shooting percentages. Alexander Semin must realize that this could be his last shot to stay in Washington (and he is only signed through the season, which should add more incentive for a strong campaign).

Along with likely bounce-back seasons for incumbent stars, the Capitals’ future should look different after GM George McPhee added a few helpings of elbow grease. Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward are two wingers who play physical styles, adding grit to their upper ranks along with returning garbage goal specialist Mike Knuble and two-way center Brooks Laich. Jeff Halpern is a blast from the past who might work out nicely if he can stay healthy.

Jason Arnott might have been a voice of reason, but the team probably won’t miss him, eternal injury-list member Marco Sturm, Eric Fehr and other departed forwards all that much.

Defense

The defense is an interesting mix of players whose strengths could surprise some.

Green should be a bigger factor after an injury-plagued second half last season. Health is a big hurdle for Dennis Wideman, who’s essentially a less potent (but more physical) version of Green. Those two offensive defensemen are complemented by the up-and-coming shutdown pair of youngsters in Karl Alzner and John Carlson.

While Tomas Vokoun ranks as a bombshell of an upgrade in goal and Ward covers the “slightly overspend for a missing piece” aspect of the offseason, Roman Hamrlik is a big upgrade over Scott Hannan. He might not be as physical, but still manages to slow scorers down. Hamrlik can provide some offense as well, which might earn him some time on the power play.

Overall, the Capitals have an interesting group that could round out to one of the better defense corps in the East – if they stay reasonably healthy.

Goalies

Vokoun gives the Capitals something they haven’t had in their previous runs: a legitimate difference-maker in net. Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth had their moments and Jose Theodore did what he could, but none of them can match Vokoun’s impressive resume. Maybe big-time pressure might rattle a goalie who put up dominant numbers under the radar, but chances are good that he’ll thrive with the kind of goal support he’s never seen in Florida or Nashville.

The Capitals have fantastic insurance if Vokoun doesn’t work out (or shows his age a bit). Neuvirth’s individual numbers weren’t great in the regular season, but teammates and onlookers raved about his calm demeanor – something that shouldn’t be overlooked in a reactionary atmosphere. Even Braden Holtby showed some flashes of brilliance in spot duty last year, although fans should be warned about the dangers of small sample sizes.

Coach

Boudreau is a likeable guy who turned around a moribund franchise (with the help of an incredibly talented young cast, of course). That being said, people who constantly compare the Capitals to the Pittsburgh Penguins might view Boudreau as Washington’s Michel Therrien – a guy who bridged the gap from bad to good but couldn’t win a Cup. This might be Bellicose Bruce’s last chance to prove people wrong. It would be nice if he went out his way by playing a “guns blazing” style rather than last season’s compromised system, but either way, Boudreau needs some big results in the playoffs.

Breakout candidate

Alzner and especially Carlson could grab even more attention, but they played big enough minutes that they cannot be called breakout players. That title might go to the Capitals other Swedish center, Marcus Johansson. He looked solid (13 goals, 27 points) in his first 69 games at the NHL level and could provide valuable depth scoring for a team that might be a little top-heavy skill wise.

Best-case scenario

Vokoun proves he’s the real deal, finally giving the Capitals the hot goalie that felled them in postseasons past. Ovechkin and Backstrom go back to being, well, Ovechkin and Backstrom. Green, Semin and Boudreau silence their critics with a dominant run to earn that elusive Stanley Cup win. People who love calling professional athletes “chokers” turn their attention back to the San Jose Sharks – even if the Capitals beat them in the championship round.

Reality

The Capitals are loaded in almost every area, although they could use a better second-line center. Laich is a great checker but might be better off with a third-line role and Johansson might not be ready for that job either.

Things are looking pretty good if that’s your biggest trouble spot, although Semin and Green haters will probably disagree. Simply put, Vokoun pushes Washington to the level of genuine favorites.

Pending free agents, Radulov and Zaitsev won’t play for Russia at Worlds

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Montreal’s Alexander Radulov and Toronto’s Nikita Zaitsev will not play for Russia at the upcoming World Championship, even though the Canadiens and Maple Leafs have been eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Both Radulov and Zaitsev are pending free agents, and it would be a risk to play ahead of contract negotiations.

Zaitsev just recovered from an upper-body injury, possibly a concussion. It may, in fact, have been the Leafs who refused to let him go.

Radulov, 30, can become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Zaitsev, 25, will be of the restricted variety, assuming he doesn’t sign an extension first. 

Read more: Radulov denies he wants eight-year extension

They aren’t the only players skipping the Worlds due to their contract situations. Chicago’s Richard Panik and Vancouver’s Bo Horvat will not be taking the risk either.

Longtime Berenson assistant Pearson named new Michigan coach

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Michigan went the familiar route in replacing legendary head coach Red Berenson.

Mel Person, who spent 23 years as Berenson’s assistant before taking the head gig at Michigan Tech, has been named the ninth head coach in UM Hockey history, the school announced on Monday.

“I am thrilled to select Mel to lead our hockey program and for him to return home to U-M following tremendous success in leading the Michigan Tech program,” said director of athletics Warde Manuel. “I’ve known Mel for years and experienced his leadership ability when I was the sport administrator for hockey and he was an assistant under Red (Berenson).

“Mel’s qualifications are well known throughout the hockey community and reach far beyond his ability to coach. Simply put, I couldn’t have selected a finer person to lead our ice hockey program into the future.”

Pearson, 58, took Michigan Tech to a pair of NCAA Tournaments during his six years on the job. Several players advanced to the NHL on his watch including Chicago’s Tanner Kero, Edmonton’s Jujhar Khaira and New Jersey’s Blake Pietila.

Two weeks ago, Berenson stepped down from his post at Michigan after 33 years on the job. Together, he and Pearson captured two national championships together.

Backstrom believes Caps are ‘underdogs’ against Pens

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The Washington Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy by seven points over the Pittsburgh Penguins this season, but someone forgot to tell Nicklas Backstrom.

Heading into their second-round matchup against Pittsburgh, Backstrom believes the Capitals are the underdogs in the series, per beat reporter Isabelle Khurshudyan.

Well Nicklas, that’s one way to look at it.

Backstrom is clearly trying to take some of the pressure off of his team’s shoulders, but maybe he’s onto something.

As you may remember, a similar situation arose last year. The Capitals had more points than any other team in 2015-16, but that didn’t stop them from being eliminated by these same Penguins in the second round. Eventually, Pittsburgh went on to hoist the Stanley Cup.

This time, the Capitals won’t have to worry about star defenseman Kris Letang, as he’s out with an upper-body injury. Pittsburgh was able to overcome the Letang injury (Matt Murray too) in round one against Columbus, but Washington is a different animal.

Even without Letang, getting by Pittsburgh won’t be easy, especially when stars like Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Sidney Crosby are rolling.

Malkin finished the first round with two goals and an incredible 11 points in five games, while Kessel and Crosby had eight and seven points respectively against Columbus.

Things were a little more difficult offensively for Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, as they posted six, three and three points in six games against the Leafs.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who has the most points and it doesn’t matter who the underdog is in the series either. All that counts is advancing through to the next round.

PHT Morning Skate: Are Thornton and Marleau done in San Jose?

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–After reaching the Stanley Cup Final last year, the San Jose Sharks lasted just one round in 2017. With both Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1st, could their time in San Jose be over? We know that Logan Couture wants both players to come back, but would that be the right decision? Allowing them to leave could thrust young players into roles they’re not ready for, but keeping them around and icing a similar team could lead to another first-round exit. (Mercury News)

–The Philadelphia Flyers took a step back this season, as they failed to make the playoffs, but at least the future appears to be bright. They’ve managed to stockpile quality prospects and their farm team finished with the second best record in the AHL. (Philly.com)

–Former NHLer Brandon Prust spent a couple of months hanging around the Leafs earlier this season, but he never ended up getting a contract so he went off to Germany. Prust said the experience was great, but he was a little frustrated that Toronto decided to acquire players like Eric Fehr and Brian Boyle instead of giving him a shot. “I feel I belonged there and I could have helped that team; but what are you going to do? That’s hockey. I felt they really needed a guy like me; and I know I could have helped them. Then they go and make trades for players similar to me. It’s tough.” (Yahoo)

–Justin Bieber made an appearance at the ACC last night. He was wearing a custom Leafs jersey, and he seemed to be pretty into it. Unfortunately for Biebs, his team couldn’t extend the series to seven games. (BarDown)

–The Toronto Maple Leafs pushed the Washington Capitals as much as they could, but they just ran out of steam in Game 6. Check out the highlights from the Caps’ 2-1 OT win by clicking the video at the top of the page.

Braden Holtby, Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price were named finalists for the Vezina Trophy. The Hockey News makes a case for each of the three goaltenders, but Bobrovsky’s gotta be considered the favorite.  Jared Clinton writes: “It’s not just Bobrovsky’s base numbers that are impressive, either. His underlying numbers makes his case further. The only goaltending with 1,000-plus minutes at 5-on-5 to post a better SP than Bobrovsky’s .939 mark was Craig Anderson.” (The Hockey News)

–It sounds like Blue Jackets defenseman Zach Werenski is pretty confident that Auston Matthews is going to walk away with the Calder Trophy this year: