The 2011-12 Capitals were as frustrating as a hockey team can be. From night to night they vacillated between inspiring play and sheer disorganized chaos.
They were a team that played for two head coaches, three starting goaltenders, and were without two of their stars for long stretches of the campaign. And yet, they not only made the playoffs, but made enough noise in them to take the number one-seeded Rangers within a few minutes of an Eastern Conference final.
Yet, there are few who’d call the season successful by the measures set out in September. It was supposed to be cruise control until the playoffs, where things were supposed to go much differently than they had in the team’s four previous attempts to break through to a Stanley Cup final. Instead, we got the manic collection of talent that reached its apex for brief stretches and its nadir for much longer ones.
To a certain extent, every year in the modern NHL is a reset of sorts. But for Washington, 2012-13 will absolutely look more different than any Caps team has in five seasons. Here are twenty burning questions we have about next year’s team, and a few futile stabs at some answers.
20. Who coaches the team?
With Dale Hunter returning to London to be with his family and manage his junior hockey juggernaut London Knights, the Caps will have their third head coach within six months. Former head coach Ron Wilson was just fired in Toronto in March, while current assistant coach Dean Evason and Hershey head coach Mark French all could make a case for a shot at the job. The real question here is whether George McPhee is looking for someone who will play the same defensive brand of hockey as Hunter, which will inform so many other decisions about next year.
19. What did the team learn from this season?
If nothing else, 2011-12 was the year that proved a team can be adaptable and still succeed. Hunter hockey’s installation wasn’t an easy process, but it did lead to 14 playoff games played, which is more than could be said of the last two seasons of Bruce Boudreau’s firewagon style of play. It also learned that you can never have too much depth at goaltender, with Braden Holtby’s unlikely moment in the sun after Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth went down at the end of the season.
18. Will the two “fringe RFAs” be Capitals next season?
Forwards Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perreault made a name for themselves in the playoffs and regular season, respectively. Beagle’s hard work on the checking line and in the face-off circle were noticeably absent when he missed the final two games due to injury. Despite his diminutive size, Perreault acquitted himself as a viable secondary scoring option during the regular season, posting 33 points in 64 games, making the most of every shot by scoring on 26.7% of them. Both are players developed through the Capitals organization through the years and the team would love to retain them. Although, the may get a sniff by other teams, given that their cap numbers are low enough that there would be no compensation due to the Caps for losing them. Again, it could all depend on if and when a coaching decision is made. Beagle rarely saw ice under Boudreau but thrived under Hunter, while Perreault was a known Boudreau favorite.
17. Does John Carlson deserve a long-term deal?
Carlson’s season was more up-and-down than his partner Karl Alzner’s and the young blue-liner is an RFA this year. Like Mike Green’s early years, Carlson needs to be more consistent as a two-way player if the Caps are to lock him up as a top-4 defenseman for the long haul.
16. Will the Capitals sign a difference-making free agent?
This year is an especially weak free agent class, with many of the players near the top of the list being veterans looking to sign their last or second-to-last deal. Especially lacking flair is the pool of centers, which the Caps need desperately. Probably the best winger in the pool is the Caps own Alex Semin. Whether Semin stays or goes, the team needs to get at least one more top-6 forward, a center and possibly an eighth NHL-level defensemen.
15. What will Alex Ovechkin be accused of this offseason?
Weight gain, partying, playing for his country, not spending enough time working out, not spending enough time in the U.S.? Pick your poison.
14. Will Cody Eakin and Dmitry Orlov make the opening night roster?
Orlov did well in 60 games as an NHL rookie but did not get a sweater during the playoffs. Eakin had limited impact in 30 games but didn’t do anything to make the Caps worry that he’s not the prospect they thought he was. Both should be on the roster, but it’s probably not a good sign if Eakin is in the 12 forwards dressed when the Caps open up next season. Orlov absolutely needs to play himself into a top-6 defensive role every single night. If that doesn’t happen, either a) the Caps signed a major defensemen in free agency or b) Orlov regresses considerably this offseason.
13. Can the ice stay cool enough for 60 minutes of the Baltimore Hockey Classic?
I sincerely hope so. As a Baltimorean and a Caps fan, I have mixed feelings about the two intertwining so closely.
12. What do the Capitals do with their two first-round draft picks?
The Semyon Varlamov trade, which netted the Caps Colorado’s first-round pick, is looking better with every save Braden Holtby makes. Cashing in on the excessive depth at goalie was the wisest thing McPhee did last offseason, and now the Caps have two first-rounders to play with. With 2010 top pick Evgeny Kuznetsov’s NHL future in doubt, the team needs to build some serious goodwill toward the future. If there’s a buyer, the team theoretically could leverage the two picks to leap up and grab an elite talent like a Ryan Murray or Filip Forsberg. Or, as we saw in last year’s draft, the team could use one of the picks to grab a player (as they did with Troy Brouwer, who was a phenomenal addition). More likely, the team will grab two mid-high level prospects with at least one of them being a defenseman.
11. Will Joel Ward and Roman Hamrlik’s contracts limit the Caps ability to change in the offseason?
Joel Ward was signed for his big playoff performances in Nashville, and boy did he deliver on that in Game 7 of the Boston series. He also wiped that out with a costly penalty in Game 5 of the Rangers series, so karmically he’s more or less even. Given the lackluster regular season he had, it’s tough to look at the roster spot he’s occupying until 2014-15 at a $3m cap hit. The team probably also thought Roman Hamrlik, now a 20-year veteran, had a little more in the tank when they signed him to a two-year deal. Hamrlik is as crafty a veteran as they come, but definitely looked physically outskated at times this season. At $3.5 million, he’s also not a bargain. The Caps may not be able to do much except ride out these deals.
10. Is there any chance of seeing Evgeny Kuznetsov in a Caps uniform this year or ever?
The Russian wunderkind is not going to be a Cap in 2012-13. Whether he joins the team the following year seems very up in the air at this point. The scoring and playmaking winger turns 20 this week, so there is still time for him to develop into a good NHL player with a long tenure as a Capital. Just don’t pin the franchise’s hopes on it.
9. Will Tom Poti play hockey again, and will it be for the Caps?
Poti is still under contract for another season, but given how long it’s been since he’s seen the ice (January 12, 2011), it seems like the oft-injured defenseman and one-time Caps alternate captain may need to call it a career at age 35.
8. Who is playing center other than Nick Backstrom and Brooks Laich?
Marcus Johansson? Didn’t exactly challenge for the second-line center role as the team had hoped, and has looked more comfortable on the wing of late. Keith Aucoin? A career AHLer who served admirably late in the season as a playmaker, but lacks size and is a free agent. Jeff Halpern is 36 and a free agent as well. What’s left in potential centers behind Backstrom and Laich (who could easily be called a natural winger) is RFAs Beagle and Perreault, and the scrappy Matt Hendricks. Yeah, the Caps need help here.
7. What will it take (and should the team) keep Mike Green?
Mike Green’s an RFA, and the Caps would be due a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round pick from a team if they let him go. As the “Young Guns” begin to break up the band with Semin’s departure, Green would be the next likely candidate to depart Washington. Always a tough guy to read, it’s unclear just how happy Green is in DC with his dip in offensive production and time missed due to injury. It pains me to say it, because I really like how he’s evolved as a player, but this may be Green’s last year as a Cap.
6. Is there a reason to bring back Dennis Wideman?
Nope. Sorry D-Wides, but the All-Star play that he turned in during the first half of the season evaporated into being part of the goals-against monster known as Wideman/Schultz by the end of the season. Unless a player like Wideman is firing on all cylinders offensively, he’s become too much of a defensive liability to re-sign.
5. Is Mike Knuble done?
According to NHL Trade Report, Mike Knuble is interested in playing hockey at age 40 this season. Knuble underwent a publicly difficult stretch of being scratched under Hunter before emerging again in the playoffs. Again, who the coach is could make all the difference in the world, but it’s highly likely the Caps will be without the unrestricted free agent’s leadership and net presence in 2012-13.
4. Who is going to be in net in Washington and in Hershey?
If nothing changes, in that Tomas Vokoun’s time as a Cap is over and the team doesn’t sign anyone new, it looks like this: Neuvirth and Holtby in DC, and prospect Philipp Grubauer coming into Chocolatetown. Veteran minor-leaguer Danny Sabourin, who briefly served as the Caps backup in the playoffs, is a free agent. While it would seem silly to potentially push Neuvirth and Holtby down again by signing a veteran NHL netminder, the Caps learned how vital goalie depth can be. One has to think that if no new goalies are added, Neuvirth and Holtby will be in a 1a and 1b situation to start the year.
3. How does the team replace Alexander Semin if they don’t resign him?
The Alexander Semin Era is almost assuredly over in DC. It’s sad to see Ovechkin’s running buddy go, but the fact is that Semin has been lackluster in the playoffs despite his offensive outbursts during his regular season hotstreaks. The team absolutely needs to sign a top-six winger that is offensively inclined. Promoting Marcus Johansson or asking Jason Chimera to fill that role simply isn’t enough firepower, even in a defensive-minded system.
2. Will there be a 2012-13 NHL season, and if not, how bad is it for the Caps?
The elephant in the room that nobody seems to want to discuss is the NHL/NHLPA’s lack of a collective bargaining agreement for the upcoming season. The current deal expires in September, and the relationship between the sides seems to be icy after the NHLPA unceremoniously dismissed the NHL’s conference realignment plans this year. We’ve been down this road before with the NHL, and after the resurgence the league has made post-2005 lockout, it would be incredibly stupid to allow it to happen again. Particularly for the Capitals, who are riding a home sellout streak and are making a pretty penny off the team’s new-found popularity during the Ovechkin era. Losing a year from a lot of the key players in their mid-late 20s is bad hockey and bad business. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
1. What is the team’s identity, and what are their expectations?
The new coach, whoever it is, will largely contribute to the team’s identity. The odds are that McPhee will want someone to build on what Hunter did with playing a balanced (or “boring,” if you prefer) style of hockey. Alexander Semin is in some ways a paragon of the old system, and with his seemingly imminent departure, it seems like grinding out wins is here to stay. Whatever the identity or system, it’s not going to be clear in September and it’s not immune to change during the season. That much we’ve learned. It feels like about 20 minutes have gone by, but in reality it’s been five consecutive years of playoff hockey in D.C., a streak most NHL cities would kill for. Still, anything short of an Eastern Conference final is still going to feel like a letdown, regardless of off-season moves or coaching.