- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

FIVE STORYLINES

DISCIPLINE

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.

GRIT

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.

GOALIE SHUFFLE

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.

DEPTH

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.

COMPLACENCY

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

Offense

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.

Defense

This group took quite a beating after the team struggled to get the puck out its zone against Pittsburgh in the playoffs, but then the Penguins tore through a highly regarded Carolina defense as well. Sure, this group would be better with another veteran guy with a little snarl to his game, but which NHL teams couldn’t say that? The young guys are all a year older and Brian Pothier is healthy, so this group should improve - though a little more support from the forwards would help as well.

Goaltending

Jose Theodore is a capable NHL goalie, and Semyon Varlamov has the potential to be much more than that. How quickly can Varlamov realize his vast potential? He was lights out much of the postseason last year but has shown an ability to allow goals in bunches. How does Theodore handle Varlamov (and Michal Neuvirth) pushing him? This is not necessarily a weakness, but if one of the three doesn’t outplay the others and become “the man” by early April, it could be an issue.

Power play

This unit can be as good as the Caps want it to be. Few teams can match the firepower Washington will put on the ice in five-on-four situations. Ovechkin and Green at the points plus Backstrom, Semin and either Knuble or Laich up front is a scary quintet. Guys like Morrison, Tom Poti and Brian Pothier will form the second wave. Anything less than a top-five conversion rate should be a disappointment.

Penalty kill

This unit lagged last season, and some of the blame should be cast on discipline issues. Washington’s penalty killers were inconsistent, but when they only had to erase three or four chances a game, they typically were solid. Laich and Semin are mainstays, along with faceoff dynamos David Steckel and Boyd Gordon. This is an area where Quintin Laing will be a big help as well. They don’t need to be a top-five unit, but top-15 would be a worthy goal.

PROJECTED LINES

FORWARDS

FIRST LINEGAP

LW Alex Ovechkin 56 54 110

C Nicklas Backstrom 22 66 88

RW Mike Knuble 27 20 47

or Alexander Semin 34 45 79

SECOND LINE

LW Brooks Laich 23 30 53

C Brendan Morrison 16 15 31

RW Alexander Semin 34 45 79 or Mike Knuble 27 20 47

THIRD LINE

LW Quintin Laing 0 0 0

C David Steckel 8 11 19

RW Chris Clark 1 5 6

FOURTH LINE

LW Boyd Kane 0 0 0

C Boyd Gordon 5 9 14

RW Matt Bradley 5 6 11

Extras:

#LW Tomas Fleischmann 19 18 37

#RW Eric Fehr 12 23 35

C Michael Nylander 9 24 33

DEFENSEMEN

LD Shaone Morrisonn 3 10 13

RD Mike Green 31 42 73

LD Tom Poti 3 10 13

RD Milan Jurcina 3 11 14

LD John Erskine 0 4 4

RD Brian Pothier 1 2 3

Extras:

LD Jeff Schultz 1 11 12

LD Tyler Sloan 1 4 5

GOALTENDERS W-L-OT GAA

Jose Theodore 32-17-5 2.87

Semyon Varlamov 4-0-1 2.37

#Injured