By Adam Vingan
What makes a good soap opera? There are several elements:
- Several twists and turns.
- Memorable characters and quotes.
- An arc that plays out over several months before leading into another one that keeps the story going and the viewers interested.
All of these are integral parts of making a soap opera worth watching. The Washington Capitals’ 2010-11 season featured all of the above and then some (the fact that HBO spent an entire month chronicling the Caps only makes the analogy more appropriate). Yet, unlike “As The World Turns,” which is sponsored by Folgers and Ivory, last season’s Caps were sponsored by promise and disappointment. Yet another season at the top of the NHL ended with a departure – an embarrassing one at that – from the Eastern Conference Semifinals, a round that Washington has not advanced past in 13 years. The summer-long hiatus is almost over and the soap opera is about to return to air. Several new faces will become fixtures, while the returning characters will hope to rekindle the flame that made them so iconic in the first place. Whether or not this season has a happy ending, however, will not be seen until next spring. Will the season finale feature a long-awaited celebration or yet another disappointing finish? Talk about a cliffhanger.
Stocking Stuffers (notable additions): F Troy Brouwer (acquired from Chicago); F Jeff Halpern (free agency via Montreal); F Joel Ward (free agency via Nashville); D Roman Hamrlik (free agency via Montreal); G Tomas Vokoun (free agency via Florida).
Gift Receipts (notable subtractions): F Boyd Gordon (signed with Phoenix); F Matt Bradley (signed with Florida); F Jason Arnott (signed with St. Louis); F Marco Sturm (signed with Vancouver); D Scott Hannan (signed with Calgary); D Tyler Sloan (signed with Nashville); G Semyon Varlamov (traded to Colorado).
Ghosts Of Christmas Past (last season): 48-23-11 – first in Southeast Division – first in Eastern Conference.
Let’s break down last season’s storylines, shall we?
- Essentially the same team that was just a few months removed from a President’s Trophy (and another postseason failure) returned to the ice looking for vengeance. A 17-6-2 October/November was a return to normalcy for the Caps, but a 5-6-3 December, punctuated by a debilitating eight-game losing streak, had the Caps in the throes of depression, all of which was broadcast on HBO.
- January 1 not only brought a new year, but fresh momentum for Washington. A 3-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Winter Classic had the Caps on top of the world. A 5-3-4 January was modest, but February through April saw the Caps run roughshod over the East and NHL with a 21-8-2 record down the stretch, including a nine-game winning streak. Washington won its fourth-consecutive Southeast Division championship and second-consecutive No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. All was right with the world (the world is a recurring theme).
- The Eastern Conference Quarterfinals saw the Caps face off against a familiar foe (think evil doctor or cuckold) in the New York Rangers. For the first time under head coach Bruce Boudreau’s tenure, the Caps won a playoff series in less than seven games when they vanquished the Rangers in five games, squashing New York’s big city dreams with Jason Chimera’s double-overtime game-winning goal in Game 4 before pulling the plug in Game 5.
- When it seemed like everything was coming up roses, Lightning struck. Tampa Bay suffocated the Caps and ended their collective lives in a four-game sweep, the first against the Caps since the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. Fade to black and closing credits…
- Several guest stars (Hannan, Arnott, Sturm and Dennis Wideman) made memorable appearances, but for three-quarters of them, it was a one-off spot for them as only Wideman returns for another season. Three supporting cast members (Gordon, Bradley and Varlamov) were not brought back.
- Meanwhile, the stars (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green) all had some of the worst performances of their careers. Ovechkin had career lows in goals, assists and points, while Backstrom had the same in games played, goals, assists and points. Semin had a three-month goal scoring drought and Green missed 33 games.
Okay, enough of the soap opera jargon.
Wish List (season outlook): There is too much to discuss. Here comes another breakdown.
- New Additions
With five new acquisitions looking to make an immediate impact, the Caps could have the franchise’s best team on paper (or on a computer screen). Brouwer is just one year removed from a Stanley Cup, making him the only Cap to know what it takes to win a championship in today’s NHL. Ward made a name for himself last season while leading the Nashville Predators in scoring during the playoffs and is an industrious player that will endear himself to Caps fans quickly. Halpern needs no introduction as the former captain returns to his hometown team to provide leadership and stability. Hamrlik will become the elder statesmen on a young blueline, while Vokoun, one of the league’s most solid goaltenders, will play for a contender for the first time in his career. Bringing in these players in July as opposed to March will give them time to develop chemistry with their new teammates, which can only help.
The Caps’ offense last year was a shadow of its former self. One year after scoring a league-high 313 goals in 2009-10, the Caps scored almost 100 fewer goals and finished with 219. The power play was abysmal after two seasons of 25% or higher when it finished at a mediocre 17.5%. As said before, both Ovechkin and Backstrom had the worst seasons of their respective careers, but the rest of the team didn’t do much to help. Even though 20 players finished with double-digit points and 10 finished with double-digit goals (though two – Arnott and Wideman – scored a combined five goals in the regular season with the Caps), it did not seem to help matters. Brouwer and Ward could easily combine for 30 goals and will draw plenty of penalties to give the Caps more opportunities to fix their power play. But of course, the only way that Washington can become an offensive juggernaut once again is if the Young Guns reload. Green must stay healthy and Semin must finally prove that he is capable of producing over an entire season.
This season’s defensive corps is the best that Boudreau has ever had and may be the best within the last two decades (again, on paper). Green, Wideman and John Carlson did not appear in the same game last season while the first two suffered from injuries. The aforementioned players give the Caps three offensive-minded, puck-moving defensemen that will not only push the play, but rehabilitate the power play. On the other side will be Hamrlik, Karl Alzner, John Erskine and Jeff Schultz, four stay-at-home defensemen whose sound defensive game will allow their more free-roaming partners to do just that.
With the offense struggling, the Caps became a defensive team and to everyone’s surprise, it worked incredibly well. Washington had the league’s second-best penalty kill at 85.6% and fourth-best goals against average at 2.33 GA/G. If the Caps can maintain their defensive presence and find their lost offensive capability, this team will be dangerous.
For one day, Michal Neuvirth was the No. 1 goalie. General manager George McPhee traded Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche and was convinced that the Caps would enter the season with Neuvirth and Braden Holtby tending the net. Yet, one day later, that idea vanished when the Caps got what could be the steal of free agency by signing Vokoun to a one-year deal worth just $1.5 million.
Vokoun should be the No. 1 goalie by default because of his edge in experience, but Neuvirth will not go quietly. In an interview with the Washington Post‘s Tarik El-Bashir, Neuvirth said that he looked up to his fellow countryman, but his goal now is to be better than him. There will definitely be a battle as Neuvirth should start at least 30-35 games despite carrying the load last season. Either way, Vokoun and Neuvirth could become the NHL’s best tandem. If you’re not convinced, consider this: Vokoun and Neuvirth are under contract for a combined $2.65 million this season, the same amount that Gordon will earn for the next two years with the Phoenix Coyotes. Enough said.
The Caps will be a team to watch this season. For them, it is truly Cup or bust. The pieces are there and it’s time for Washington to finally put those pieces together and compete for the Stanley Cup. The world will continue to turn, but anything less than a championship and the Caps’ world could very well be destroyed. Tune in this season for the exciting conclusion.