Wednesday, October 05, 2005

NHL: Washington Capitals Season Preview

As you all should know, the hockey season starts tonight.
That’s the sport with the big things sliding on ice right?
Uhh...sounds like it.
Where the guys have the brooms and you aim at a big red and blue target?
No, that’s curling.

But anyways, for the first time in almost a year and a half, the NHL will be in action tonight, and in this area, that doesn’t mean a whole lot to a whole lot of people.

The Capitals finished the 2003-2004 season with a ridiculous record of 23-46-10-3. The most ridiculous thing, of course, being that there are four numbers in a team’s record. Thankfully, there are no more ties in hockey, but there are still wimpy overtime losses, which I strongly disagree with.

Anyways, the Capitals are widely regarded as one of the worst, if not THE worst team in the NHL this year. Everyone from USA Today to ESPN to Canada’s TSN to our own Washington Post is picking the Caps to finish at or near the bottom of the league standings. (By the way, if you had any doubt about the Post’s lack of dedication to hockey, they place the Capitals section on their site’s sports nav bar between the (Baltimore) Orioles and the WNBA’s Mystics. And on top of that, the beat writer for the Caps is a guy who was a high school sports reporter until this year... Honestly, Dave Fay and the Washington Times are usually light years ahead of the Post with Caps coverage.)

Despite the doom and gloom predictions, Caps like newly-named captain and Potomac, Md., boy Jeff Halpern, long-time netminder Olie Kolzig and General Manager George McPhee (they love to call him GMGM on the Caps message board) have come out to say that the team won’t be as bad as people think.

Well guys, the team could win more games than people think and STILL come in dead last.

The Capitals are building for the future, and that usually means that the “now” sucks. Basically, the Capitals strategy is to throw a bunch of former first round picks onto the ice to see who proves they can play. They have a few veteran anchors like Halpern, Kolzig, defenseman Brendan Witt (who has asked for a trade), and a couple of new acquisitions -- speedster Jeff Friesen and assist-specialist Andrew Cassels.

There is some talent on offense, with 2004 top draft pick Alex Ovechkin seemingly poised to be one of the league’s best. Also, Dainius Zubrus is super-talented and people keep wondering when his breakout year is going to be, Friesen is a proven scorer who is one of the league’s fastest players, and Petr Sykora was one of the top scorers in the Czech league before being extracted from Eastern Europe just a few days ago. But on defense, it’s all up to the youngsters.

Witt anchors the defense, but is overrated as a “physical player” because of his propensity for the cheap shot. When it comes to battling in front of the net and playing sound defensive positioning, he’s nowhere to be found. Ivan Majesky was supposed to be one of the team’s top defensive signings, but then he failed the team physical. Steve Eminger is very talented, but he’s only 21, as is Shaone Morrisonn. Jamie Heward and Bryan Muir are both over 30, but both have mostly been minor league journeymen.

All that boils down to Olie the Goalie needing to stand on his head, which he’s certainly capable of doing, and he’s said all the right things to make us think he’s willing to take on that challenge and won’t get frustrated with the lack of defense, despite some temper tantrums in previous years. If you’re a Caps fan, though, you’ve got to love Olie. (Although I know at least a few question whether or not he is still an elite NHL keeper.)

You can check out the opening night roster here.

The line combinations appear to be up for grabs and will probably be tinkered with as the season goes on, but it certainly looks like Ovechkin will play opposite Halpern on a line centered by Zubrus.

Likely line combinations for opening night are (And I’ve included numbers so you’ll know who people are when you watch. Thank me later.):
Alex Ovechkin #8, Dainius Zubrus #9, Jeff Halpern #11
Jeff Freisen #12, Andrew Cassels #25, Petr Sykora #20
Ben Clymer #27, Brian Sutherby #16, Brian Willsie #24
Matt Bradley #10, Boyd Gordon #15, Matt Pettinger #18

(Notice the Caps’ two-Matt line and two-Brian line. Why not move Friesen and Halpern to the same line and have a two-Jeff line? And when Chris Clark is healthy, you can bring up Chris Bourque and have a two-Chris line. Incredible!)

And on defense:
Brendan Witt #19, Steve Eminger #44
Jamie Heward #6, Bryan Muir #47
Shaone Morrisonn #26, Nolan Yonkman #40

With, of course, Kolzig (#37) in net.

For now, Chris Clark is on the injured reserve with some banged up ribs, but he is listed as day-to-day and would likely bump Pettinger from a regular playing spot.

Those offensive lines are talented, and they can score goals in a big hurry. If the defense can even be serviceable, the Caps should at least be in a lot of games. I do believe, perhaps unreasonably, that this team will be better, sooner, than anyone expects (even themselves, probably). The “new NHL” rewards speed, and there is a lot of that on this team. There is a good mix of young talent and veteran experience, especially on the top two lines.

Ovechkin looked fantastic in the preseason, scoring a hat trick last Friday and adding a goal and two assists on Saturday. Caps fans are going to love him, not just for his talent, but for his team-oriented, humble attitude. There is a great article about him today from the Washington Post by William Gildea, which you can check out here.

There are a lot of good quotes in there from Ovechkin, who has only been learning english for about a year. Here is my favorite, which came after he scored three goals and notched an assist on Friday (from the article):

"Reporters surrounded him afterward, one asking if four points made this a time to celebrate.

He looked puzzled.

'We have next game tomorrow,' he said"

Awesome. Sign me up for a black #8 Ovechkin jersey RIGHT NOW.

On to a quick prediction...

I don’t think the Caps are making the playoffs, but I do think they’ll win more than they did in 2003-2004. I’ll go out on a limb and predict 35 wins and narrowly missing a playoff spot (the eighth place team in both leagues in ’03-’04 had 38 wins). We’ll know in about a month if that’s absolutely crazy or not.

So there it is. Your Nation’s Capitals, 2005-2006 edition.

Tonight’s game is at 7 p.m. at the MCI Center, and the Caps will be taking on the Columbus (that’s in Ohio) Blue Jackets. You can watch it from home on Comcast Sportsnet.

1 comment:

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