The Washington Times - September 13, 2008, 08:08AM

It took three long, losing seasons but last year was the beginning of the payoff for Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and GM George McPhee. Their plan to tear it down and start from scratch came to fruition as a roster with homegrown youth as the bedrock and veteran acquisitions sprinkled in proved to be the right mix after new coach Bruce Boudreau proved to be the perfect guy to lead them.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

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2007-08: 43-31-8, 94 points (first in Southeast)

PLAYOFFS: Lost to Philadelphia in first round

WHAT WENT RIGHT: The best player scored more goals than anyone has in more than a decade and collected a whole shelfs worth of hardware and a $124 million contract extension for his efforts. A career minor-league coach took over on Thanksgiving and directed a team languishing in the NHLs basement to an improbable surge, which led to a division title on the last day of the season and the first trip to the playoffs in five years. The much-hyped rookie started slow but took off with the new coach and became a Calder trophy finalist. A young defenseman had a breakout season and led the NHL in goals at his position while logging tons of minutes and earning a huge contract. The teams exciting brand of hockey made it a favorite to watch around the continent (and the globe thanks in part to a roster with as many as nine countries represented). The march to the playoffs energized what was a lagging fan base in this nations capital. Other than that, not much.

WHAT WENT WRONG: The team started 6-14-1, which cost coach Glen Hanlon his job. An ankle injury hampered Alexander Semin for the first half of the season, while injuries knocked out captain Chris Clark and pricey free-agent center Michael Nylander. While it might be remembered as the best series from the 2008 playoffs, the Caps will remember they lost a Game 7 at home.

ARRIVALS:G Jose Theodore, C Keith Aucoin

DEPARTURES: G Cristobal Huet, G Olie Kolzig, D Steve Eminger, LW Matt Cooke

IMPACT PROSPECTS:D Karl Alzner, D Sami Lepisto, RW Andrew Gordon, LW Oskar Osala

CAMP QUESTIONS

Who fills out the second line?

After bringing back Sergei Fedorov, the Caps should now be able to roll out three legitimate scoring lines this season. The question is, will it be Fedorov or Nylander next to Alexander Semin and will it be Brooks Laich who netted his first 20-goal campaign and looked very comfortable on this line late last year or someone else (Clark and Eric Fehr are the other top candidates) on the right side?

Will Alzner or Lepisto make it?

The Caps have seven other NHL defensemen, but Brian Pothiers concussion problems are not resolved, so that should open up one spot at least. It would appear the Caps have moved from happy to be here to going for it mode, so if both guys are in Bruce Boudreaus top six by the end of camp, theyll likely stick with the big club and either Milan Jurcina or John Erskine could be out of a job.

PROGNOSIS: Most of the other top teams in the East (Pittsburgh, New York and Philly) did not get better this offseason and the others (Montreal and New Jersey) might have only made minor improvements. Since GM George McPhee was able to get the band back together (except in net) and there are so many young guys on this team, it is safe to say the Caps can be better. But fans in Raleigh and especially in Hockey Bay are saying the same thing. Remember that the Caps spent all of eight days in first place last season before assuming a runaway in the Southeast Division. It could take 100 points to win it. Still, anything short of a trip to the playoffs and at least one series win will likely be considered a disappointment in D.C. this season and get used to hearing and seeing the phrase Stanley Cup dark horse when people talk/write about the Caps.

DEPTH CHART*

Alex OvechkinNicklas BackstromViktor Kozlov
Alexander SeminSergei FedorovBrooks Laich
Tomas Fleischmann/Eric FehrMichael NylanderChris Clark
Donald BrashearDavid Steckel/Boyd GordonMatt Bradley
Mike GreenShaone Morrisonn
Tom PotiJeff Schultz
Karl AlznerMilan Jurcina
John ErskineSami Lepisto
Jose Theodore
Brent Johnson

 

*NOTE: This is not necessarily an attempt to guess line combinations