2009-2010 was another season of heartbreak for the Washington Capitals. Despite erroneously being carved into the Prince of Wales Trophy, Caps fans will assure you that, no, they did not win the Eastern Conference a year ago, instead suffering a brutal first round ouster at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens.
That's three straight years, three straight Game 7 losses on home ice.
They've been able to hold that home ice, of course, thanks to several incredible regular season runs, fueled by impeccable records at the Verizon Center. Yet again in 2010-11, the Caps are poised to finish high atop the NHL's regular season standings, but the same question still rings loudly. Will they translate that into postseason success?
With help from David Getz from Japers' Rink, we look at Five Burning Questions surrounding the Washington Capitals this year.
1. Will team defense be better?
DMG: The potential issues with the Capitals' goaltending (youth and durability) and defense corps (age, experience, and depth) are well-documented and, for the most part, well-founded. But the team's issues go beyond existing personnel and also encompass style of play and philosophy, which means, even if the young goalies play well and stay healthy, Alzner and Carlson live up to their potential, and the front office finds a way to add depth on the back end, the Caps aren't necessarily going to be a Stanley Cup caliber team from a defensive standpoint unless their forwards buy in.
It's not that the Caps forwards don't possess the talent to be an excellent defensive team, or that they're as weak on defense some of their detractors would like to believe, it's that teams that have made it to the Stanley Cup final in the last few seasons have all had forwards who were willing to lock things down defensively when they needed to. With how the Capitals have played over the last couple of seasons, it's difficult to imagine the forwards consistently giving up opportunities for offensive chances, making life difficult for the opposition in the defensive end, and resisting the urge to try and make difficult passes coming through the neutral zone, and that's something that will inevitably hurt them in the spring.
The penalty kill is also a concern and could be fairly labeled the team's Achilles Heel. Again, approach is at least as a big an issue as personnel, with the passive system the Capitals have employed under Bruce Boudreau proving generally unsuccessful, allowing too much time for opposing powerplays to set, too many high quality scoring chances, and, ultimately, too many goals. Boudreau has said this preseason that he wants to penalty kill to be more aggressive in 2010-11 so the penalty killing, too, might be about buy in, with players - particularly forwards - needing to be willing to go outside their comfort zones and not just play the safe style the team has favored in the past.
2. What's going to happen with the second line center situation?
DMG: If you look at the teams that have reached the Stanley Cup Final since the lockout, one constant is strength down the middle, both in terms of depth and top-end talent. The Caps have the top end talent in Nicklas Backstrom but, as things stand at the moment, they can't reasonably claim to have the depth or auxiliary skill previous Cup winners have had, lacking clear answers at second- and third-line center.
It's not a crises situation at the moment - the team has decent options, and it'd have to be an incredible run of bad luck for none of them to pan out - but who's going to be in the pivot position come playoff time is still a major question.
DMG: There's no disputing the pedigree or natural talent of either John Carlson or Karl Alzner, and the odds are still very high both will be excellent NHL defensemen. That said, the reality is that both are young (Alzner, having just turned 22, is the older of the pair) and neither has a full season of NHL hockey under their belt.
How far along Alzner and Carlson are come trade deadline time is going to be a major factor beyond what's happening on the ice. If the youngsters are handling their newfound responsibilities without any major problems, the Caps can concentrate their effort on shoring up depth and perhaps adding a second center. If the team reaches March and only has three consistent defensemen, their focus naturally moves to the blue line. The question, then, might not be "How good will Carlson and Alzner be this year?" but rather "Are Carlson and Alzner going to be good enough to let the Capitals address the other holes in their lineup?"
4. Who's going to be the Capitals' number one goalie in April?
DMG: Semyon Varlamov has the natural talent and the 2009 postseason on his resume; Michal Neuvirth is a cool, calm technician with back-to-back Calder Cup wins who seems to elevate his play in pressure situations. Both have had injury woes; neither has started more than 23 games in an NHL season. There's no reason for Caps fans to be worried (at least, not yet), but whether Varlamov, Neuvirth, or someone else is going to starting the Capitals first playoff game next spring is anyone's guess.
5. Have the Capitals learned from their losses over the last three springs?
DMG: When Bruce Boudreau says the Capitals ran into a hot goalie last spring or that there's not necessarily a major lesson to take away from the upset the team suffered at the hands of Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens, he has a valid point: it's not as simple as reflecting on the loss, learning a lesson, and applying it. Reality is more nuanced.
Nonetheless, the Capitals need to show that they have learned something from their playoff disappointments. Will Mike Green settle down and play his game, rather than worrying about the critics? Will the forwards learn to dump and chase when things get tough, rather than trying to make increasingly pretty plays? Will Bruce Boudreau be quicker to make adjustments? Will Alexander Semin and Tomas Fleischmann learn that a perimeter game only gets you so far in the postseason?
Those are the questions that really matter. Unfortunately, they're also the one's were going to have to wait until April to have answered.