Each day this week we’ll preview part of the Washington Capitals in our 2011-12 Season Preview. Today, District Sports Page Washington Capitals Page Editor Abram Fox looks at the forwards.
The Washington Capitals post-lockout identity has revolved around one man: captain Alexander Ovechkin. He is the face of the franchise, for better or for worse. In previous seasons, he was the team’s bellwether. If Ovechkin played well, then the team played well, and vice versa.
And then came last season. Despite a lengthy losing streak, and despite Ovechkin and linemate Nicklas Backstrom registering the worst statistical seasons of their careers, the Capitals still won. A lot. Washington finished the year with 48 wins and topped the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference with 107 points. Washington suddenly discovered that they were actually a good hockey team, not just the supporting cast for a few superstars.
Ovechkin and Backstrom will still be asked to produce, and all indications are that they will bounce back from last season’s slump. Ovi may not hit 50 goals again and Backstrom may not top 100 points, but they will certainly improve thanks to a retooled power play unit featuring new acquisition Roman Hamrlik and a healthy Dennis Wideman seeing time at the point, freeing up the Great 8 along the left boards to unleash his mighty shot.
Caps GM George McPhee made a few deals on offense over the offseason as well, primarily geared toward depth. Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward, and particularly Troy Brouwer will undoubtedly crack the top two lines at points during the season, but make no mistake, they are role players at heart. Halpern, the former Caps captain, is a role player and penalty kill specialist at this point in his career, with little offensive upside. Ward and Brouwer are similarly grinders. Ward scored 10 goals in 80 regular season games last year for Nashville, which isn’t why McPhee signed him to a huge contract. No, the ‘why’ would be his seven goals and 13 points in 12 playoff games last season for Nashville, and the Caps expect Ward to deliver something similar this postseason to justify the $3 million per season they’re paying him.
Playoffs failure has been the story for the Caps the past few seasons, and retooling for the postseason has been the onus for McPhee this offseason. Gone are beloved and tenured players like Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon, and in their place are more well-rounded forwards with offensive and defensive upside. That’s the same reason Jason Chimera, who scored several clutch goals in the 2011 postseason, earned a contract extension last week.
Washington’s roster isn’t comprised completely of depth forwards. Alexander Semin returns and should also improve from last season’s total of 28 strikes. During the preseason Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau experimented with Semin playing alongside Backstrom on the second line and slotting Marcus Johansson on the top line with Ovechkin (Which line is Washington’s first line? The one Ovechkin is on). That arrangement would give Semin a bona fide setup man while allowing Ovechkin, who is more comfortable setting up his own plays, to play with speedy sophomore pivot Marcus Johansson. Another Swedish center, Johansson recorded a respectable 27 points last year and his pace should allow Washington’s transition game to shine when he’s on the ice.
Slow and steady Mike Knuble returns, to provide another season of 20+ unimpressive, clutch goals, plus a healthy dose of veteran leadership. Brooks Laich, a decade younger than Knuble, nonetheless is expected to provide the same. Laich is a ‘tweener on the Caps roster. His skill set is best suited for the second-line wing, where he can grind in the corners, crash the net, and occasionally snipe from the outside. However, Laich is also one of the Caps top players in the faceoff dot, and that plus his defensive awareness will likely result in him spending a fair amount of the season as the third-line center.
Laich’s fellow men-at-arms down the center are Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle, and Mathieu Perreault. Of the three, Hendricks is the gritty veteran whose spot on the Caps’ roster is assured, either as the fourth-line center or a bottom six winger. He’s also fashioned himself into a shootout specialist, something Washington has been sorely lacking since the departure of Viktor Kozlov. Beagle is similarly versatile in terms of position, but his lack of offensive upside limits him to the fourth line.
Both Hendricks and Beagle are talented penalty killers, a role the Caps will need filled with the departure of Gordon during the offseason. Perreault is more offensive-minded, and in two seasons of limited call-ups he has shown the durability and talent required of NHL players. The only question for Perreault at this point is consistency. He’ll likely make the NHL roster as a healthy scratch, as will pugilist DJ King, and Perreault’s appearance in game-night lineups is dependent on his growth as a setup man and his ability to push Johansson for the second-line center role. As for King, his role on the team as a fighter is more in-demand than last year with the departure of Matt Bradley and injury to John Erskine, but with Brendan Shanahan now policing the players as the NHL VP in charge of player discipline, King still may not have the opportunity to ply his trade. From all appearances King is a likeable teammate and has never complained about his role on the team, and that’s one of the main things teams look for out of the 23rd player on their roster.
All in all, Washington improved on offense, adding Brouwer, Ward, and Halpern while losing Bradley, Gordon, Sturm, and Arnott. The main question is whether they improved enough, and in the right areas. If Johansson or Perreault matures into a legitimate second-line center, then the Caps will have the talent and depth to roll four legit lines all season long. If either of those players falter, or the Caps are beset by the type of long-term injury to a forward that they’ve mostly avoided for the past few years, McPhee may have to be active again at the deadline to make the roster work for a long postseason run.