So you woke up this morning with a severe hangover, only to find out that the terrible nightmare of a blow out by the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins was actually true. Well, don’t get too down. The Caps have one of the youngest teams in the league, with a great core of young players and a bright future.
To prove that I’m not just blowing smoke, here are five reasons to get excited for 2010:
1. Player Development
Over the 2008-09 campaign many players made huge strides in development.
Mike Green added 13 goals to his ‘08 total making him the first defenseman since Kevin Hatcher in ‘93 to accomplish a 30 goal season. In addition, he improved tremendously in the defensive zone and was an impressive +24 and a legitimate Norris candidate. I know what you’re saying. “He was so terrible in the Pittsburgh series.” First, let me assure you, the regular season Mike Green is the real deal. I’ll write later on and explain why he looked so bad. Like Mike Green, Backstrom saw a spike in his point total. He ended the season as one of four Capitals to average over a point per game. The average age of these “Young Guns” (Ovi, Semin, Backstrom, Green)? Twenty-four years old. These players should only get better with more experience.
On top of the stars, Washington has several role players who have become more and more valuable to the team. Brooks Laich saw a major jump in goals and points, and Dave Steckel was among the five best Caps in these playoffs. This guy gave us tough goals, a great face-off percentage and was a very solid penalty killer. And these are just a few of many guys who I can see taking leaps forward next year. Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann, and Jay Beagle could all be second line players in the near future.
2. Simeon Varlamov
When I saw this guy play during the regular season, I liked what I saw. Even so, I was as stunned as anybody at how well Varlamov played in these playoffs. Varlamov's save on Crosby during game one of the Penguins series is exhibit A. He has shown he is not shaken by hostile environments and situations. He’s also shown an unwillingness to quit on a play. I can recount several times during the Pittsburgh series in which Varlamov’s drive and determination led to spectacular saves. Jose Theodore had a goals-against average of 2.87, ranking him outside of the top 30 goalies this season, yet he was 12th in wins. If Varlamov is what he is showing us these playoffs, the effect on a team that had franchise record 108 points in 2008-2009 should be substantial. While certainly game seven was unpleasant, you trust the twelve good games he had more than the one terrible one.
3. Farm Hands
Washington has three impact players in the minors who could see substantial playing time next season, and are part of the continued youth movement that figures to carry the Caps forward.
While I think everyone is thinking of what is the quickest way to get Theodore out of town and anoint Varlamov as the heir, Neuvirth might have something to say about it. He’s played brilliantly for the AHL Hershey Bears over the last month of the season, including back to back shutouts against the Baby Pens in game six and seven of their Eastern Division playoff series. Some scouts like him more than Varlamov, but all scouts think that, between the two of them, the Caps are set at goaltender for a few years.
Alzner came up several times for the Capitals during the ‘09 season, and while there were games that he struggled, he has shown to be plenty talented to play in the NHL. He’s also cool and collected, makes smart plays, and rarely takes a penalty (2 PIM in 30 games). He does not have the offensive upside of other Caps prospects, but he has all-star level defensive potential. Adding him to a group that includes Morrison, Green, Poti and Erskine gives the Caps plenty of depth at a position that’s tough to fill out.
Another top defenseman prospect in the Capitals system is John Carlson. The Capitals front office loves this guy’s upside and talent so much that there was real discussion of him making the team out of camp. Instead, they sent him to OHL to continue to develop. Carlson did not disappoint, racking up 76 points in 59 games, and 22 points in 14 playoff games. In fact, Carlson was sometimes deployed on the wing during power plays, which speaks to how well he works in the offensive zone. He projects as a top 4 defenseman with a lot of offensive upside, and Capitals fans have to like the idea of adding another offensive weapon to the blue line.
4. Cap Space
While the Caps are weighed down by a Michael Nylander contract that reminds you of Denny Neagle’s for the Colorado Rockies (a little baseball reference for you), they actually have a pretty good cap situation. Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov come off the books this year and free up $6.5 million in cap room (some of which I think Caps fans would be happy to allocate right back to those guys, but hopefully at a discount). In addition, Theodore has just one more year on his contract, and Nylander’s drops to three million, giving us another $6.5 million in cap room. This kind of cap room could help Washington keep together the very good young core of players we have. General Manager George McPhee has also proven himself very capable of finding good veterans to mix with this young team.
5. GM GM
This point is obviously related to #4, since the decision on how to spend cap money will belong to George McPhee. In a town that has perfected terrible management and managed to frustrate two very large and loyal fan bases (Orioles and Redskins), the Capitals seem to have it right with McPhee. His trades at last year’s deadline have helped the Capitals to two Southeast Division titles. In addition, while some might look at his decision of not making a move at the deadline this year as a misstep, I see it as a smart decision. Chris Pronger was the object of Washington’s affection at the deadline. The reported asking price for Pronger was at least two of the following young players: Varlamov, Alzner and Carlson. Varlamov carried the Caps to game seven against the Penguins, and if you look up at where I talk about the team’s top prospects, you’ll find Alzner and Carlson. When you add in that Pronger has something of an albatross of a contract, the smart long-term decision was to stand pat.
I look at this Caps team and I see Pittsburgh two years ago. The team is very good, but not all of its pieces are in place just yet. They obviously didn’t have the consistency and maturity they needed to get deep into the playoffs. Longtime local hockey analyst Al Koken has said all year that this Caps team is fantastic and exciting to watch, but the best is still a year or two away. After seeing over 25 games live this year and a ton more on TV, I’m willing to make the same judgment.
Get ready Eastern Conference…these Capitals are going to be around for a while.
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