Off-Season Game Plan: Capitals

Scott Cullen
6/10/2009 4:48:12 PM
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Continuity helped the Washington Capitals develop as a team and they reached Game Seven in the second round, the first time the franchise has advanced beyond the first round since losing in the Stanley Cup Final in 1997-1998.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Caps may do this summer, in an effort to get over the next hurdle to become a Stanley Cup contender.

"This team doesn't need radical changes," GM George McPhee told the Washington Times. "We've got a real good team and a real good coach. The objective is to keep progressing and keep getting better. If we can be a better regular-season team next year and a better playoff team, then maybe we are competing for the Cup."

While McPhee may be happy with the progress of his team, there is no reason to think that the same roster would somehow fare better next season. Thus, changes will be made.

It's difficult to nail down the Capitals' greatest needs because of the uncertainty over the status of some veterans. First and foremost is Michael Nylander, who has endured two brutal seasons and has two more to go on his current contract. Given the money he's getting Nylander has to be more than a spare part, or he needs to be let go because the Caps can't be jammed up against the cap due to an inflated salary for a non-factor.

Russian veterans Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov are a couple more prominent players from last year's team that may or may not be back. Negotiations with Fedorov are reportedly underway but, despite an effective season, the 39-year-old will need to take a pay cut in order to make sense as part of Washington's plans.

These Capitals have enough talent that they can feel secure as a playoff team moving forward, but it's incumbent on McPhee to lift their expectations higher than that, which means the Capitals are going to be an intriguing team to watch this summer.

George McPhee/Bruce Boudreau

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Salary
Alexander Ovechkin 103.75 $9.0M
Alexander Semin 89.86 $5.0M
Nicklas Backstrom 83.13 $850K
Brooks Laich 73.21 $2.1M
Tomas Fleischmann 67.04 $725K
David Steckel 65.03 $725K
Matt Bradley 62.51 $1.0M
Michael Nylander 60.87 $5.5M
Chris Clark 58.54 $2.65M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Sergei Fedorov 69.77 UFA $4.0M
Viktor Kozlov 69.08 UFA $2.5M
Eric Fehr 65.71 RFA $735K
Boyd Gordon 60.63 RFA $725K
Quintin Laing 57.29 UFA $500K
Donald Brashear 55.22 UFA $1.2M

Top Prospects: Anton Gustafsson (6-4-10, plus-6 in 25 GP; Bofors-SWE), Oskar Osala (23-14-37, plus-11 in 75 GP; Hershey-AHL), Chris Bourque (21-52-73, plus-10 in 69 GP; Hershey-AHL)

A spectacular talent, Alexander Ovechkin has been an impact player from the moment he arrived in the NHL and put up another sensational season in 2008-2009, leading the league with 56 goals and ranking second with 110 points. He's also one of the league's leading hitters, which is rare for a superstar, and was far and away the league's leader in shots on goal.

Ovechkin is obviously the cornerstone of the franchise, but will need his supporting cast to step up to improve the team's playoff achievement.

Alexander Semin remains a little fragile, having missed 39 games in the last two seasons, but he emerged last season as an elite offensive talent. If he'd been able to find the net in the second round of the playoffs, the Capitals might have met a different fate, but Semin's skills make him a dangerous complement to Ovechkin, whether on the same line, or away from top checkers on the second line.

Rising star Nicklas Backstrom has already shown a lot in his first two seasons, ranking third in the league with 42 power play points last season, and there is the promise of his being able to do an even better job protecting the puck and battling down low as he continues to get bigger and stronger.

Hard-working Brooks Laich has turned into a nice second-line scorer who is particularly effective working the slot on the power play. He's not a creative force, so Laich needs skilled linemates, but back-to-back seasons with more than 20 goals indicates he'll be an offensive contributor.

Progress has been gradual for Tomas Fleischmann, a skilled winger who would see more ice time if he showed greater commitment, particularly defensively. He has the talent to be a second-line scorer.

David Steckel is a big checking centre who is an excellent face-off man. Somewhat a late-bloomer, Steckel is just coming into his own and should be better in his third NHL season.

Matt Bradley doesn't shortchange in the effort department, busting his butt in the ten minutes he gets each night, hitting and dropping the gloves if need be. His stock should go up some after a strong playoff effort.

Whether you believe in karma or not, Michael Nylander is getting a healthy dose of payback it seems, as his career has been in a downward spiral since he backed out of a free agent deal in Edmonton to sign with the Capitals before the 2007-2008 season. The 36-year-old would figure to be a prime buyout candidate after he played in only three of 14 playoff games. That is, if he's healthy; shoulder woes have contributed to his struggles.

Team captain Chris Clark has only skated in 50 games total over the last two seasons, so his value over the final two years of his contract is debatable and definitely tied into his medical report. If Clark is healthy, he's a tough guy who will go to the net to score ugly goals but, considering the last two seasons, he can't be counted on for more than a checking role with any offensive production qualifying as a bonus.

In his first full NHL season, Eric Fehr did have some moments, but he was extremely streaky. He has size and a natural touch around the net, but has to land among the top six forwards if he's going to provide value.

Boyd Gordon is a responsible checking centre. Though his production has slipped in the last couple seasons, he's a sound foot soldier.

Should the Caps not keep free agents Sergei Fedorov (who should be a higher priority) and Viktor Kozlov, there will be openings up front.  The Caps could have an interest in scoring forwards like Montreal's free agent trio of Alex Tanguay, Alex Kovalev or Saku Koivu, who would help add some balance to the attack.  If the desire is for more size on the wings, then veterans like Mike Knuble, Keith Tkachuk or Bill Guerin could offer the right mix of talent and toughness. 

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Salary
Mike Green 91.73 $5.0M
Tom Poti 70.10 $3.5M
Brian Pothier 66.87 $2.5M
John Erskine 63.92 $1.25M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Jeff Schultz 68.98 RFA $650K
Milan Jurcina 67.11 RFA $913K
Shaone Morrisonn 65.61 RFA $1.975M

Top Prospects: Karl Alzner (4-16-20, plus-23 in 48 GP; Hershey-AHL), John Carlson (16-60-76, plus-23 in 59 GP; London-OHL), Sami Lepisto (4-38-42, plus-24 in 70 GP; Hershey-AHL), Joe Finley (2-8-10, plus-5 in 27 GP; North Dakota-WCHA)

No defenceman in the league has the kind of impact offensively that Mike Green did last season. Green constantly joins in the attack, quarterbacks the power play and does a terrific job getting pucks to the opposition net. Though he's not much in his own end, Green's greatest defensive value is that his tremendous skill helps the Caps keep control of the puck.

It was a down season for veteran Tom Poti, who finished with a career-low 13 points as he was limited to 52 games by ongoing groin issues. However, Poti was effective in the playoffs and remains a solid top-four defenceman.

Sidelined by more than a season due to post-concussion effects, Brian Pothier worked his way back into the lineup late in the season and in the playoffs. Pothier is mobile and handles the puck well and should be able to handle more with full preparation for next season.

Tough guy John Erskine has gradually developed as a player, playing a prominent defensive role in the playoffs. He's limited with the puck, but his size and toughness make him a nice fit as a sixth or seventh defenceman.

Towing defenceman Jeff Schultz had a strong season before a gaffe in the first game of the playoffs put him on the bench for the duration of the postseason. Given his size, Schultz could be more of a physical presence, but he's already effective enough and would seem likely to return to a regular spot in the lineup.

Milan Jurcina has great size as well, but he's more willing to use it, leading all Capitals in blocked shots and leading Caps defencemen in hits.

Shaone Morrisonn is another steady option on the blueline. He's tough and doesn't try to do too much and seems to have found his general level of production, registering 10-15 points and a single-digit plus rating in each of the last four seasons.

If all the restricted free agents are retained, that would already give the Capitals seven NHL defencemen, but it would seem necessary to at least find room for prospect Karl Alzner, who's not only good enough to play, but potentially good enough to be a top-four defenceman immediately.

And that doesn't even address the possibility of the Caps utilizing some of this defensive depth as part of a deal to acquire a top-tier defenceman like, say, Anaheim's Chris Pronger if he's made available.

Returning Goaltenders

Player Rating Salary
Simeon Varlamov 76.18 $850K
Jose Theodore 67.30 $4.5M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '08-'09 Salary
Brent Johnson 67.90 UFA $825K

Top Prospect: Michal Neuvirth (9-5-2, 2.70 GAA, .913 SVPCT, 1 SO in 17 GP; Hershey-AHL)

Though he flew under the radar for much of the season, playing just 27 games in the AHL, Simeon Varlamov announced his presence rather loudly in the postseason, backstopping the Caps to a first-round series win over the Rangers and taking the Penguins to seven games in the second round.

Varlamov had moments of inconsistency, which isn't unexpected from a 21-year-old in his first NHL playoffs, but it's enough reason to be cautious with his development next season. Varlamov ought to be the favourite to take over as the Capitals' starter in goal, but will need the support of a strong backup.

Jose Theodore's first season in Washington was marked by the mediocrity and streaky play that has been part and parcel of his game since winning the Hart and Vezina trophies in 2002. Theodore would be a strong backup option, perhaps a tad pricey, but not unreasonable as insurance.

24th - Nick Leddy, Landon Ferraro, Stefan Elliott.

The Capitals have approximately $45.7-million committed to salaries for next season.

Needs: Two top six forwards

What I said the Capitals needed last year: Starting goaltender

Who did they add? Eric Fehr, Jose Theodore.

Alexander Semin, Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann, Tom Poti, Milan Jurcina, Shaone Morrisonn, Jeff Schultz.

Scott Cullen can be reached at 

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