The Washington Capitals have won the Southeast Division two years in a row. Most hockey prognosticators have picked them to repeat as champs again this coming season. The Caps have the best player in all of hockey and they happen to have a couple of other pretty good players on the team as well.
Will they repeat? Is the choice a "no-brainer" like most seem to feel it is?
Well this blogger says, maybe not.
Why might Washington be ripe for a fall? First of all, has any (non Cup winning team) in the history of the NHL had as much notoriety as these guys have had this offseason? Perhaps it's the media's fault, but it has been non-stop Caps news all summer long. It seems like they have gotten more attention than the Pens.
Some of the highlights:
Ovie's new tattoo, Ovie rides zamboni in NYC, Ovie featured at Russian restaurant in Manhattan, Ovie opens a clothing line in America, Ovie helping models play field hockey, Semin and Ovie partying in Russia, Ovie signs with Upper Deck, Caps to be featured on "The Real World", Green to be featured on "Cribs", Ovie enjoys sex before games, and Varlamov insults American women.
Head coach Bruce Boudreau has been working on a book.
In the meantime, the Carolina Hurricanes have had a nice quiet summer of training. One must wonder, have the Caps had much of a chance to train at all? Perhaps they don't need to?
Another reason the Caps might not live up to expectations? Most of their top players had career years last season. Will they be able to repeat?
Mike Green had 31 goals in just 68 games while his previous high was 18.
Nicklas Backstrom had 22 goals and 66 assists while scoring 14 and 55 his debut season. But he only had 11 goals and 16 assists the year before that in Sweden.
Alexander Semin also had a career high 79 points in just 62 games.
Alex "The Great" Ovechkin came close to his career high of 112 points, (he had 110), but missed three games.
Is it reasonable to assume that all of these players will continue to achieve career best numbers?
Let's compare these favored Capitals to the Canes, a team everyone picks to finish behind Washington in the standings.
A couple of facts sometimes get lost in the shuffle when comparing these teams. One is that Carolina advanced further in the playoffs last postseason. Another is that the Canes won the head-to-head matchup last year with a 3-2-1 record. They earned seven points while the Caps earned six and outscored their rivals, 19-17.
There have been a few changes on both teams. Washington lost Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov and replaced them with Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble. The Canes lost Anton Babchuk, Dennis Seidenberg, Patrick Eaves, and Ryan Bayda. Their new players are Andrew Alberts, Aaron Ward, Tom Kostopoulos, and Stephane Yelle.
Maybe the Capitals are not heads and shoulders above the Canes after all? Let's compare the teams, line to line and player to player. (glove tap to JP with help on this, although the lines will be mixed)
There is no doubt that the top line match up has to go to Washington, but what about after that? The second lines could be considered a toss up, but the third and fourth lines are "advantage Carolina." Other than Mike Green, does anyone on the Caps defense scare you?
There is no need to put up the goalie stats, the Canes also have the advantage in net. While Theodore has been assured of the starting job, (at least in camp), most Caps fans are expecting Varlamov to eventually take over. While the young Russian can stand on his head at times, he is inexperienced and unproven and can allow more than his fair share of softies, as evidenced by his performance in the playoffs last year. I believe Alex Semin was quoted as saying, "As long as he only allows one soft goal a game, we're okay".
One could say that from top to bottom, the Hurricanes have a better, overall team. The big question is, can they stop Ovechkin and that top line? When the Canes have been able to limit that line's scoring, they have been successful. But obviously, that is easier said than done.
Bottom line, perhaps Washington bloggers, fans, and the experts around the league should slow down and pause a moment before prematurely handing the division title over to the Caps. The Canes have improved, the Thrashers are better, and the Lightning also made some moves. But will the Capitals be better than they were last year? Time will tell.