Only five teams took more minor penalties than the Caps last season, and they followed it by averaging the most times shorthanded for any team that made it out of the first round of the playoffs. Players, coaches and fans can complain about the officiating all they want. There is no grand conspiracy - the Caps just flat-out lack discipline at times. It is an area that has to improve for the team to have any chance of winning the Cup.
If there’s an area where the Caps could improve significantly this season, this is it. Having captain Chris Clark healthy and adding free agents Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison should make the team a little tougher to deal with along the wall and in the corners. The trio of Knuble, Brooks Laich and Clark should also be the remedy for a lack of “dirty” goals that plagued the team at times last year, which could make the offense scary.
Bruce Boudreau is going to have to channel his inner baseball manager with how he handles the rotation at goaltender. Does he alternate Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov? Does he stick with the hot hand? Does he dare venture down the dreaded win-and-you’re-in path? The answer is likely a combination of the first two choices, with one of them taking control of the spot as the playoffs near.
Last season the Caps were besieged by injuries and ended up needing 16 players who began the year in the minors. The law of averages makes it a fairly safe bet there won’t be quite as many injuries, but the Caps remain one of the deepest organizations in the sport and have plenty of ammunition in Hershey should the occasion call for it. A couple of guys, namely Karl Alzner and Michal Neuvirth, could spend significant time with the big club.
Boudreau says this should in no way be an issue because the team hasn’t won anything yet. That is true, but the Caps remain the class of the Southeast Division and, if healthy, could roll to a double-digit lead in the standings by the midpoint of the season. With the division race over early last season, the Caps struggled at the end of the year to maintain their sense of urgency. If this team keeps its foot on the gas for a full season, the Presidents’ Trophy is a possibility.
SCOUTING THE CAPS
Exciting, dominant, frightening - these adjectives all apply when the Caps have the puck. Armed with the league’s top goal-scorer at forward (Alex Ovechkin) and on defense (Mike Green), one of the top five setup men (Nicklas Backstrom) and one of the few players who can outdazzle Ovechkin (Alexander Semin), the Caps can score on skill alone. Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich add the will, and Brendan Morrison could be a huge bounce-back guy as the No. 2 center. Leading the NHL in goals is not out of the question.