Obviously the Capitals biggest strength, and it only got stronger in the offseason. Mike Knuble has already proven that he's the glue that Ovechkin has needed to take the first-line game to the next level. If Boudreau can avoid keeping the carebears together too much this season, the Caps should be in good shape. Alex Semin and Brendan Morrsion showed some pretty solid chemistry when they got to play together, and I think you'll see a little more of the Vancouver edition of Mo this season. I also expect to see more improvement from Brooks Laich, and hopefully from David Steckel. Don't be shocked to see Stecks learn how to score on teams other than Tampa this season. The only problem here is if the team leans too hard on Knuble for their offensive grit and otherwise try to be too fancy. That was the top problem last year, but it should be corrected.
Tyler Sloan has officially earned a spot with the big boys (as of today) and should help bolster the defensive corps with some depth. Guys like Jurcina, Morrisonn and Schultz must keep their play to a high level if they expect to see the type of ice time they saw last season. Brian Pothier came on very strong at the end of the playoffs, and should be able to shoulder a little bit of the load from Mike Green on the power play. This group is much maligned, but I think you have to put a great deal of pressure on Tom Poti this season. If the Poti of 2007-2008 shows up, the Caps should be a little more stout, but if the oft-injured edition from last year makes too many appearances, we could see a lot of 5-4 games. I think we'll see improvement to somewhere in the middle of the defensive rankings this season, but don't expect much better than that. Ideally, you'd like to see a Karl Alzner or John Carlson develop enough early in the season to squeeze a veterean out come the trading deadline.
I expect, like most, for Semyon Varlamov to start the season on the bench and wrestle the job away from Jose Theodore by Thanksgiving. People forget how poorly Theo played in the early goings last season, and he's prone to very slow starts. He can't afford to pull that stuff this year or he'll be riding the pine. I think the best case scenario is for Theo to have a strong enough season to go around 50-50 with Varlamov, keeping Varly fresh enough to take his game to another level in the postseason.Schedule:
It starts out like a bear, tapers off, then has a major break for the Olympics. Those are the things to watch. Don't be shocked if this team comes out hard early, but doesn't have a great record to show for it. The schedule is frontloaded with the likes of Boston, Philly and San Jose, but they don't play Pittsburgh until 2010. How will the team handle the long break? How will Ovechkin, Semin and the other Olympic participants fare at the end of the season. It should be interesting.
Does Gabby get them motivated every night? Does he resort to "pretty play" with Semin and Ovi or does he crack down on them and ask from more grit. Will he be able to push the right buttons down the stretch? How does he handle an inept Michael Nylander on the roster. These are all huge questions.
I think the Caps will be a better team this season. They're one year older and two playoff series wiser. It might not reflect in the points standings, but they will be a bigger force come playoff time. However, injuries could be the great equalizer. Last season, we seemed to have the injury bug throughout the season and into the playoffs. It could be the same with so many guys playing in Vancouver. That's something to watch for. Overall I look for an equally potent (but grittier) offense, a little more balanced defense, and up-and-down goaltending, hopefully settling by February or March. I think the Caps will have a tougher time with Carolina this season, but the win the Southeast. They'll take it a step further and lose to Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals this season. Here's hoping they go further.
Eastern Conference Runner-Up, 48-27-7, 103 points