Moving from worst to first in the Southeast Division was a significant accomplishment for the Washington Capitals in 2007-2008 and that achievement means increased expectations going forward.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a young team on the rise that may not have to be especially active in order to be even better next season.
To begin with, the Caps have a good young team already. That means that these young players should be counted on to improve as time goes on and simply through the natural development of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz and others.
Of course, not all of the young players are going to be better next season, but it's fair to hold the expectation that the team will, on balance, be better because of their young players improving.
The other factor that is important to note about the Caps is that they had some significant injuries. Michael Nylander, Chris Clark and Brian Pothier may not be superstars, but they are qualty NHL players and each of them missed at least half of the season with injuries.
So improved health could also be a factor in whether or not the Caps are better next season.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Washington's primary concern this off-season has to be in goal, where Cristobal Huet finished the season strong and is now an unrestricted free agent. Whether the Capitals re-sign Huet or find an alternative solution, they should be better than they were for much of 2007-2008 when veteran Olaf Kolzig struggled.
All that said, the Caps may want to make a move or two -- or re-sign a couple of their own free agents -- to tweak their roster, but there is no doubt that, with Alexander Ovechkin leading the way, expectations will definitely be higher.
After years of finishing out of contention, high expectations are a welcome development.
George McPhee/Bruce Boudreau
Top Prospects: Mathieu Perreault, Francois Bouchard, Chris Bourque
There may not be a more enjoyable player to watch than Alexander Ovechkin, the exuberant sniper who is coming off a sensational season. Ovechkin is not only the face of the franchise, but one of the league's most marketable stars and the Capitals should be thrilled to have him locked up for the next dozen seasons.
20-year-old Nicklas Backstrom is well on his way to being a premier NHL centre, scoring nearly a point-per-game from December through the end of the season. As he continues to mature, he'll be more of a gamebreaker in his own right.
Viktor Kozlov was a career-best plus-28 and served as an effective complement to the Caps' young scorers. It's difficult to trust him, but with back-to-back seasons over 50 points, Kozlov has added the slightest measure of consistency to his game.
An ankle injury hampered Alexander Semin early in the season and it took some time for him to get right, but when he's on, the 24-year-old winger is a dynamic offensive performer.
A shoulder injury cut Michael Nylander's season in half, perhaps preventing him from challenging for the league's worst plus-minus, so he'll need a bounceback season in 2008-2009. With Backstrom's rapid development, Nylander is more than capable of handling the number two centre role if need be.
Gritty captain Chris Clark only managed to play 18 games, so the season was virtually a washout for him, but he's proven to be more than just a checker, scoring 30 goals in 2006-2007, so the Caps have reason to hope for a solid contribution from a healthy Clark next season.
Additional grit comes in the form of Matt Bradley, a blue-collar winger who has never topped 22 points in a season, but he can handle a fourth-line role and isn't shy about dropping the mitts when necessary.
Tomas Fleischmann moved beyond his prospect status and proved to be a legit NHLer, but he'll need to play a more well-rounded game if he's going to maintain a regular spot in the lineup.
Lanky pivot Dave Steckel likewise made the jump to the NHL and, though he only managed a dozen points, he's a valuable part of the penalty-killing unit.
Minor league veteran Quintin Laing showed a ton of heart and determination in half a season with the Caps. He's as offensively-challenged as Steckel (scoring six points in 39 games), but his energy is good to have in a depth role.
Policeman Donald Brashear is still one of the game's most feared fighters, even coming off a season in which he finished with a career-low 119 penalty minutes.
For the first two-and-a-half years of his NHL career, Brooks Laich was a hard-working checking winger who was virtually lost in the offensive zone. Then he emerged as bit of a threat in front of the net on the power play and finished the season with 21 goals. If Laich could continue in his checking role and bury 15-20 per season, that's plenty helpful to the Capitals' cause.
Perennial prospect Eric Fehr had his third straight season that included a trial in the NHL, this time getting into 23 games. It's hard to believe he's still just 22, but Fehr could be reaching make-or-break time with the organization.
Checking centre Boyd Gordon saw his point totals dip from 29 to 16, but he's a strong penalty killer.
Provided all hands are on deck for next season, the Capitals don't really have significant needs up front and could very well have 14 NHL forwards under contract.
Top Prospects: Karl Alzner, Josh Godfrey, Sami Lepisto
Mobile defenceman Brian Pothier missed half the season with a concussion; too bad, because he was playing well and is a solid top-four defenceman when healthy. If he can't come back from this concussion, though, the Caps could surely use a replacement in their top four, with Ron Hainsey, John-Michael Liles and Brad Stuart among the possibilities.
Newcomer Tom Poti didn't quite have the anticipated impact, particularly at the offensive end, but he played better than 23 minutes per game and was generally effective.
Towering Jeff Schultz established his credentials as an NHL regular and used his reach effectively in a defensive role, particularly on the penalty kill.
Nasty John Erskine may have had his best season as a pro. He needs to pick his spots, but was better in that role as a third-pairing penalty killing guy who adds a physical element around the Capitals net.
Milan Jurcina is another big, physical presence on the back end. As long as he's not asked to do too much, Jurcina can be quietly effective.
Free-wheeling Mike Green was highly-touted coming out of junior, but it's fair to say that no one expected him to turn into one of the NHL's top offensive defencemen so quickly. The 22-year-old could command an offer sheet, as a restricted free agent, but the Caps would surely be inclined to pay up to keep this difference-maker.
Shaonne Morrisonn is another big, physical blueliner, though he's more accomplished as a defensive defenceman than most of the other Caps blueliners.
At one time, Steve Eminger was a highly-regarded teen, playing 17 games with Washington as a 19-year-old but, after three more uneven seasons, Eminger was a healthy scratch many nights and ended up playing just 20 games in 2007-2008. A fresh start with a new organizaton may be his ideal solution.
When all the defencemen are healthy, the Capitals don't really have any glaring needs on the blueline, especially if young guys like Green, Schultz and Morrisonn continue to improve and 2007 first-rounder Karl Alzner is ready to make the jump full-time.
Top Prospects: Semen Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth
Though Brent Johnson doesn't figure to be an NHL starter, he's the one guy under contract and is coming off a strong season in 2007-2008. He'll be a solid backup for whomever the Caps have handling the number one job.
Certainly, the Caps should be interested in having Cristobal Huet return. While his playoff performance wasn't great, Huet was sensational down the stretch (11-2, 1.63 GAA, .936 SVPCT) to get the Capitals into the playoffs.
If Huet hits the free agent market, he should have suitors and the door already seems to be closed on longtime Cap Olaf Kolzig, so Washington may need to dip into the shallow free agent pool. Dan Ellis would probably be the best available if the Caps aren't able to keep Huet.
23rd - Kirill Petrov, Joe Colborne, Zac Dalpe
The Capitals have approximately $39-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Starting goaltender
What I said the Capitals needed last year: Two top six forwards, One top pair defenceman, one top four defenceman
Who did they add? Nicklas Backstrom, Viktor Kozlov, Michael Nylander, David Steckel, Tom Poti
Michael Nylander, Steve Eminger
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com