From now through the start of the NHL season on Oct. 4, TSN.ca presents '30 Teams In 30 Days,' a quick glimpse at each NHL club as the 2008-09 campaign approaches. Get the lowdown on every lineup, storylines to follow and Scott Cullen's fantasy analysis. It continues today with the Washington Capitals.
With apologies to Charles Dickens, ''It was the worst of times, it was the best of times'' for the Washington Capitals last year in A Tale of Two Seasons.
Big things were expected despite the fact that the team had missed the playoffs in four of the past five years. The Capitals splurged in the free agent market for Viktor Kozlov, Tom Poti and Michael Nylander. The team got off to an absolutely dreadful start. The Capitals piled up losing streaks in the first two months of the season that saw the team hit rock bottom of the NHL standings. The offence was non-existent thanks in part to injuries to Chris Clark and Alexander Semin and the defence was porous. After a string of five straight losses to Southeast Division rivals, management had seen enough and fired head coach Glen Hanlon.
Cue what we call the TSN Turning Point of the Caps' season. The team brought up Bruce Boudreau - who was coaching the team's AHL affiliate in Hershey - as interim head coach. The turnaround was immediate as Washington picked up an overtime victory in Boudreau's first game behind the bench.
What seemed like a dour, lifeless franchise suddenly had a bolt of energy. By December, it had become clear that the team had rallied around Boudreau's leadership, so management dropped the interim tag.
Coinciding with this transition was Alexander Ovechkin taking his game up another level to become the most dynamic pure goal scorer the game had seen since Pavel Bure. The Russian superstar began making nightly appearances on every highlight show as he was stock piling goals and crushing opponents with devastating hits. His energy was infectious and the league came down with Ovie-fever. The team rewarded the blossoming superstar the best way they could, signing him to the single biggest contract in the history of the NHL - a whopping 13-year extension at $124 million.
While Ovechkin was well worth the price of admission, he was not doing it alone. Rookie Nicklas Backstrom began to flourish centering a line for him. He finished the season with 69 points and finished runner-up to Patrick Kane in Calder Trophy voting for rookie of the year. Backstrom was not alone in his breakout season. After an anonymous rookie campaign, defenceman Mike Green suddenly put it all together, exploding for 18 goals and 38 assists while taking over quarterback duties of a very dangerous Caps power play unit.
By February, Washington had snatched the lead in the Southeast Division and did not look back. They then made their intentions very clear at the trade deadline by acquiring goaltender Cristobal Huet from the Canadiens, Sergei Fedorov from the Blue Jackets and Matt Cooke from the Canucks. The Caps wanted to win and they wanted to win now.
The moves helped Washington capture their first Southeast crown since 2001. Ovechkin finished the season as the league's leader in goals, points and elaborate goal celebrations.
The team entered the playoffs on a high, but ran into a Philadelphia Flyers team that was able to grind them down with their size and ability to control the tempo of the games. The Caps bowed out of the postseason after a hard fought seven games in what was a highly entertaining series.
Ovechkin's accolades kept coming, as he took home the Hart, Art Ross, Rocket Richard and Lester B. Pearson yrophies. Boudreau added the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's top coach. All in all, 2007-08 appeared to be the year that the Capitals broke through and established themselves as one of the NHL's elite franchises.
General Manager: George McPhee (11th season)
Head Coach: Bruce Boudreau (2nd season)
2007-08 Record: 41-31-8 (3rd in Conference)
Points Leader: Alexander Ovechkin - 112
Goals Leader: Alexander Ovechkin - 65
Assists Leader: Nicklas Backstrom - 55
PIM Leader: Donald Brashear - 119
Plus/Minus Leader: Alexander Ovechkin - 28
PP Goals Leader: Alexander Ovechkin - 22
SH Goals Leader: Brooks Laich - 2
What they Did: After being the face of the franchise for well over a decade, the Capitals bid farewell to goaltender Olaf Kolzig. They also allowed Huet to walk away in free-agency, replacing him in the net with another former Canadien in Jose Theodore. The team also secured the services of Green and Boudreau, locking up two big components of their success. They also re-signed Fedorov, Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, Boyd Gordon and Shaonne Morrisonn. Team management obviously believes that the Caps have the horses to compete night-in and night-out, choosing to largely ignore the free-agent market over the summer.
What to Watch For: Ovechkin, Ovechkin, Ovechkin. The Russian dynamo is the most exciting player in the game and has yet to reach his prime - a scary thought to the rest of the NHL. And while anyone associated with hockey can sing the praises of Alexander the GR8, this is far from a one man team. The scoring should be a little more balanced this year if Semin and Clark are able to bounce back from injuries. Backstrom should continue to develop into one of the top young playmakers in the game, while Fedorov and Nylander gives them a nice bit of depth down the middle should Backstrom suffer through a sophomore slump. The team also has some grit and size on the wings thanks to Matt Bradley, Kozlov and even Donald Brashear who is able to keep opponents honest despite his advancing age.
The team remains a little green (pardon the pun) along the blueline. While Mike Green has vaulted himself among the league's elite defencemen, the names Shaone Morrison, Tom Poti and Milan Jurcina don't exactly instill fear in opposing coaches. That is one of the reasons that the team is pinning a great deal of hope on 2007 first round pick Karl Alzner. Alzner, who captained Canada to gold at last year's IIHF World Junior Championship, is the type of prospect that makes general managers drool. He is big, strong and positionally sound and he makes excellent decisions with the puck. The Capitals envision an Alzner-Green tandem anchoring their defence for the next decade. A healthy Brian Pothier should also help. The former Senators' defenceman missed the last 41 games of the season with post-concussion symptoms. If fully recovered, Pothier should be able to take some of the offensive strain off of Green from the back end.
The team's biggest question mark remains in net. While Theodore enjoyed his best season since capturing the Hart Trophy in 2002, all his accomplishments must be taken with a grain of salt as it was a contract year with the Avalanche. Should he fall into the same bad habits that he displayed prior to last year, the Caps could struggle as there appears to be no ''Plan B'' in the nets. Brent Johnson hasn't had a winning record since 2003 and neither Darren Machesny nor Simeon Varlamov appear ready to take the reigns if Theodore flames out.
Parting Shot: Ted Leonsis is the type of owner that every NHL team deserves. He is passionate about the game and completely dedicated to giving his team all the tools that they need to win. The team rewarded him last year with a division title, but he hopes that it's just a sneak peak of what they can really accomplish. This is a young and exciting team that should continue to improve. Thanks in large part to Ovechkin, they have finally made some headway into the consciousness of sports fans in the DC area and should continue to win fans around the league.
Scott Cullen's Fantasy Analysis: After a strong push into the playoffs last season, the Washington Capitals are a team on the rise, with a lot of talent that will hold fantasy appeal. More.