Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ten Burning Questions for the Capitals in 2009-10

Hey, remember Game 7? No? Good, me neither. Either way, that abortive evening is irrelevant now, because the puck drops on a new season tonight in Boston. About damn time.





The team's ascendancy is reason enough to be pumped for the return of hockey in Chinatown, but coupled with the massive, systemic and ongoing failures of the other local franchises, the microscope under which the Capitals find themselves is more intense than it's been, well, maybe ever. Seriously, when was the last time the Washington Post produced a standalone NHL season preview?

But let's take off the happy goggles for a few minutes; it may shock you to learn, dear reader, that the Capitals are far from perfection. While few Stanley Cup-winning squads manage to avoid undergoing significant changes throughout the course of a successful campaign, the Capitals fancy their chances with what they've got on the ice tonight. Should they? We've got 10 key questions that could affect whether or not Ovechkin's Revenge, as we're dubbing this season, boils into a full-blown couch-burnin' revolution, or simply peters out like the geniuses at EA Sports say it will.


10) Can Mike Green put his disastrous playoffs behind him and duplicate the regular season success he had last year?



Lambo-Greenie found no shortage of excuses to explain his utter disappearance from the playoffs last spring: he ran out of his favorite sticks, he was nursing injuries, he was out of shape. Despite posting decent offensive numbers for any D-man not named Mike Green (1-8-9), anybody who watched Green skate in the regular season could tell something wasn't right with No. 52, who led all Capitals skaters in playoff ice time, but posted a minus-5, was a turnover machine and simply couldn't keep opposing forwards away from the crease. Whatever was bugging him, Green knows he's under the gun now; a slow start to the season would stunt any chance he has of making the Canadian Olympic roster, and the longer it takes for him to find his form again, the more questions will arise about whether or not the GreenLife52.com lifestyle is becoming more than a chav-tastic glamour project. He was better than a point-per-game player last year; he should surpass his totals with the benefit of an injury-free campaign. But when playoff time next rolls around, there damn well better not be any more excuses.

9) Will Michael Nylander's contract prove ruinous?



What happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force? Here's what: Michael Nylander sits in the press box every night, earning $4.875 million. We could debate the merits of Bruce Boudreau's unstoppable urge to keep the Swede in street clothes, but really, the battle lines have been drawn, so let's talk reality: Chris Bourque is likely only the first casualty of George McPhee's 2007 generosity towards Nylander. It's gotten to the point where that dead cap space is now affecting hockey decisions in a very real way, and for a team with as much going for it as the Capitals to be hamstrung by this bloated corpse of a contract is, at best, inconvenient and at worst, self-sabotage. If Nylander's still here at trade deadline time and there's a glaring need to be addressed, which there always is, where does the team get the money from? Nylander's trade value won't increase by not playing, right? Right? Let's hope some KHL squad with Gagarin Cup aspirations (hah!) loses a few centers and comes calling.


8) Will the penalty kill take a leap forward?

The Capitals ranked 17th in the league in 2008-09 on the PK, but for 81 of those games, they were without Washington's newest soon-to-be superhero: Quintin Laing. We're not saying one guy can single-handedly boost the unit into the Top 10, we're just saying that Laing will be your favorite player by about November. The addition of Mike Knuble to a cast of penalty killers that already includes Brooks Laich, Boyd Gordon, David Steckel and Chris Clark should also boost the team's PK unit noticeably.

7) Will Bruce Boudreau actually find line combos that work and stick with them?



[Image via USAToday]


The team's health throughout the course of the season will have a lot to say about this, but we kinda doubt it. In his two seasons in Washington, Boudreau has made whole lines disappear as if he's been on a two-year coke binge, only to have them reappear the next game. If Boudreau doesn't like what he sees, or if his team doesn't have 3 goals by the end of the first period, everyone knows that whatever the top line was at the start of the night becomes Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin. Still, we'd like to see him give Knuble a shot at that first-line RW gig for at least two, maybe three periods on Thursday before he dashes it all to the wind.

6) Can Alex Semin stay healthy for a full 82-game season?

Semin has proved somewhat fragile over the course of his career; after skating in 77 games in 2006-07, he missed 19 games in 2007-08 and 20 games last season. That said (and this is purely anecdotal), I've heard more than one person say Semin looks bigger this year, and I tend to agree. That's not going to inoculate him from pulling a groin muscle, but it should allow him to advance the more physical brand of hockey the Russian seemed to embrace in the last two postseasons. Being able to initiate physical contact rather than fall victim to it could spare Semin some wear and tear. If he's on the ice for 75+ games in 2009-10, he has a chance to post career numbers because, after all, it's a contract year, and No. 28 wants to get paid this winter.

5) Will a healthy Chris Clark actually be a good Chris Clark?

If you sit up in the Verizon Center nosebleeds these days, you'll hear lots of chatter among bandwagon Capitals fans who question why Clark is the team's captain. Their memories are short; Clark was arguably the team's best player not named Ovechkin in the year following the lockout, and his sacrifices on the ice were rewarded with the C. Now, with two years lost to injury, Clark says he's finally healthy again. What can we expect? This team doesn't need Clark to be a 30-goal scorer like it did when he skated on the top line with Ovechkin and, wow, Dainius Zubrus. They do, however, need him to play solid defensively, and part of that means responsibly. Clark was a penalty machine in limited action in last year's postseason, but it would be hard for anyone to compete at playoff speed without the occasional hook or hold after sitting on the shelf for three months. A good season for Clark would look like this: 10-15-25, with about 70 PIMs.

4) If Alex Ovechkin gets hurt and misses time...what then?

Look, whenever Ovie goes flying headfirst into the boards and misses a shift, I wet myself. He plays with such reckless abandon at times that it seems like a mere eventuality that he goes into the corner and...no, I'm not even going to say it.

Russian Machine Never Break Down.

3) How will the Capitals make up for the veteran leadership that Sergei Fedorov provided?

Sergei Fedorov is an NHL legend and future hall-of-famer; you can't just replace what he meant to the team in a single offseason. However, Mike Knuble's a good start. The new No. 22 is already wearing an 'A', which reflects the wisdom acquired during a Cup-winning career that's included stints alongside Steve Yzerman (and Fedorov) in Detroit, Wayne Gretzky in New York and Ray Bourque in Boston. The guy knows what it takes to win, just like Fedorov did. A healthy Chris Clark also provides a measure of on-ice leadership that's been missing for two seasons, provided he behaves himself.

2) Will Alex Ovechkin evolve into a more complete player?

56-54-110. 35-78-113. One of those sets of numbers won a Hart Trophy; the other set didn't, though the eventual Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup probably eased that sting. Which of those numbers would you rather have? Ovechkin's numbers were eye-popping, but his 56 goals came from 528 shots on goal; Evgeni Malkin's more modest 35 goals came from just 290 shots on goal; if Malkin shot as much as Ovechkin did, he'd be close to 70 goals for the season, albeit with fewer assists. Ovechkin's assist totals should increase automatically with the addition of a garbage collector like Mike Knuble (presumably) skating on his right side, but if No. 8 turned some of those surplus shots into timely dishes, his numbers might more closely resemble the balance of Malkin. After all, Ovechkin creates so many of his shots off the rush, but someday in the next 11 seasons, he won't have the burst to get open for as many looks; learning how to distribute effectively now could go a long way toward prolonging Ovechkin's perennial grasp on the Hart Trophy.

1) Can Bruce Boudreau motivate his players to play hard every night?

"When you have championship blood in you, you never quit," Boudreau told the media after Washington's 3-2 OT win against Chicago last month. That statement is as true after a preseason victory as it is a victory in mid-June. But what about all those months in between? With the division seemingly wrapped up by the turn of calendar year 2009, the Capitals were bitten by the letdown bug, dropping winnable games at home against inferior opponents in February and March: 5-4 vs. Los Angeles, 4-1 vs. Colorado, a string of bad losses to Florida, Carolina and Toronto, all on Verizon Center ice. Let's not forget what happened in Games 1 and 2 in the New York Rangers series. Simply put, the Capitals in 2008-09 displayed a tendency to play tentatively when they had no reason to. Call it nerves or call it complacency, but it very nearly cost them their season.

Boudreau's challenge, with a roster full of superstars, is to infuse the team with the belief that they can win by simply doing what comes naturally to them. The entire organization is built on the idea of winning championships, and that requires a killer instinct that can't only be seen in Hershey. If the team truly has 'championship blood', it needs to be on display whether the calendar says March or May; whether the opponent is Atlanta or Pittsburgh; whether it's Game 64 or Game 7.

The 2009-10 Washington Capitals team has the talent in their lineup to win every single night; but is it in their blood yet? We'll find out starting tonight at 7 PM in Boston.

19 comments:

  1. Your comparison of Ovechkin and Malkin is flawed. Shots in hockey do not work like shots in basketball. Players do not have as clear an option of shooting or passing and a shot does not change possession. Part of Ovechkins talent is simply creating that many shots. If Malkin were to increase his shot frequency to Ovechkin's level, his % would stay at its current level. He would have to take more marginal shots, and obviously his assist total would go down. I think the Alex Ovechkin of last year is perfectly suitable to lead the Caps to a Cup.

    -jb

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  2. The Ovechkin of today is certainly more than capable of leading the Capitals to a Stanley Cup. He's a singular talent, and part of that is because of his unique blend of speed, positioning and strength. But as you said, JB, part of his talent is simply being able to create that many shots. At age 24, he's got the wheels to create more shots off the rush than many players will create in all phases of the game during an entire season. Will he still have that ability at age 34? Nobody knows. Ovechkin will always be (and should always be) a shooter, but if he found his groove as a distributor while he's still young, it would go a long way toward solidifying his status as a dangerous all-around player over the course of a long career.

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  3. Jb,

    I think you meant "If Malkin were to increase his shot frequency to Ovechkin's level, his % would NOT stay at its current level." Which makes sense.

    For Ovechkin to evolve into a more complete player, I don't think he needs to change anything offensively. Rather, he needs to channel some of that energy into a more concerted defensive effort. He's already playing 20+ minutes a game so I'm not saying throw him out there on the penalty kill - especially with the gluttony of defensive forwards currently on the roster - but a better effort in his own end on 5-on-5 could be the last piece to his puzzle.

    A more interesting comparison of Malkin and Ovechkin, in terms of completeness, goes something like this: Malkin had 94 takeaways (adjusted to 115), while Ovechkin had 60 (adjusted to 40). It's that discrepancy that has people thinking Malkin may win a Selke some day, while Ovechkin still has to polish his overall game.

    http://stats.hockeyanalysis.com/200809/playertakeaway.php

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  4. While I agree with you on some level JB, I believe the truth lies between your and IB's assessment of the situation.

    Ovechkin's mammoth shot total is a product of a few things. His unparalleled athletic ability, his hyper agressive mindset, and lastly a shoot first mentality.

    He will always have an inflated number of shots because of the first two factors: there is just no one else in the league who can recreate some of the scoring chances that he finds himself in. This is the OV factor. We see a few every game, and would be suprised to go a whole night a not see an "Ovie only" type play.

    What I, and I think most true Caps and Ovie fans are waiting for, is that year, month, or game when something clicks in Ovie's head and he understands how to focus his freakish ability to maximize the team's ability to score. Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to say Ovie should be LOOKING to pass more, or should be shooting less, per se, it has to come evolve naturally.

    Boudrea has alluded to it a few times, and I am sure that it will happen in the next couple years, hopefully sooner rather than later.

    Is Ovie a pure scorer? Yes. Does he have the raw ability to cement himself as the best hockey player ever if he can adopt a more balanced style of play? Yes.

    If he never changed his approach to the game he will go down as one of the best scorers of all time, that much is clear. But when you have someone like Ovie who can just do things that other people can't, there is the potential to be more than just a nuclear missle on skates with a 100000 pound shot. He can be the greatest.

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  5. By the way, great initial post.

    I've been seeing a lot of caps jerseys today. The district is definitely excited. 4 hours!

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  6. Yes, it certainly does have a different feel this year, doesn't it?

    BTW, if Nylander moves to Yaroslavl, I will be the first online at yaroslavl.ru to buy a No. 92 Lokomotiv jersey.

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  7. Great initial post, and Bushwood's comment is how I feel as well. I know we all see Ovechkin make the occasional dazzling cross ice pass through traffic that shows that he has the touch and vision to pass as well as anybody. If he could incorporate that into his game on a more consistent basis, then...

    And I've seen 2 Ovechkin jerseys today while walking around midtown Manhattan. God Bless hockey season.

    And yes Rico, I did mean that if Malkin's shot total went up, his% would NOT stay as high. I'm sneaking in posts between work and I have to type fast.

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  8. Indeed. Ovechkin's shown that he CAN dish. And when he loads up the cannon and then goes for the slap-pass, man, a thing of beauty.

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  9. Unless it's the 3rd period of Game 7 against Philly and Sergei Fedorov is on the receiving end...

    ...too soon?

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  10. Thanks Rico, I had blocked that from my memory. That game still feels like I got wasted and someone punched me in the face, knocked me unconscious and I still haven't woken up.

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  11. On Burning Question #7, the answer appears to be, no, he will not. From Caps Insider:

    "Based on tonight's lineup, it's apparent Boudreau plans to flip-flop right wings Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble this season based on matchups. Knuble spent more time skating with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom during training camp than Semin did, yet Semin will be on the top line against Zdeno Chara and the Bruins tonight.

    'I have my thoughts and my reasons, and I think they'll stay my thoughts and my reasons,' Boudreau said. 'If it does anything like it did last year, we'll move around our forwards a lot. It makes it difficult for other teams to pre-scout us, because it's two totally different looks.'"

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  12. Yeah, I was thisclose to posting an update on that earlier. Maybe we could settle for solid third/fourth lines, and keep the top two lines stable except for the right side.

    Look, if we win games, what Boudreau does matters not a bit.

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  13. Also, if you haven't watched the video at the top of this post, boygenius88 did a phenomenal job. Got me so amped; the emotional high of the whole video coupled with the crushing letdown of Game 7 set to just about the most perfect soundtrack for such an event, "The Matrix."

    The "Revolution" begins in about two hours.

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  14. In other news, I just bet 100 bucks that Semin will end the season with more than 67.5 points. By my calculations he'll hit that mark in about 40-45 healthy games....

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  15. Easy $$.

    I just want to weigh in on the Ovi defense thing, because I think it is key.

    There was a time when Michael Jordan was considered too offensively oriented to ever win a championship. Whether it was this criticism or coming to his own realization, he made a concerted effort one day to make defense his forte. The result: 1) multiple Defensive POY awards, 2) 6 NBA titles and, most importantly, 3) INFECTING HIS TEAMMATES WITH DEFENSIVE DISCIPLINE.

    If team commitment to defense, at least to hold leads if not ALL the time, is the one element the Caps lack, then Ovechkin's making up his mind to commit to it is the easiest way to change it. What he does, everyone else will too, especially Semin who is actually skilled at D in his own right when he tries.

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  16. That video is awesome. Somebody please identify that song for me.

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