By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com
The Capitals weren't nearly as bad as most people (including this author) figured they would be. That's a credit to coach Glen Hanlon and a hardworking, tough-nosed bunch of players, a rookie sensation named Alexander Ovechkin and a top-notch goaltender in the form of Olaf Kolzig. We'd like to report that things are looking brighter for the Caps, but ownership has set the team adrift, apparently reconciled to the fact that attendance stinks (28th in the league last season) and won't get better until the team improves. Ownership seems unwilling to spend the necessary money even to at least give the appearance that improvement is on the agenda. That's a shame for Ovechkin, Kolzig and the Washington fans, who all deserve better.
Offense: When your best player, a rookie, is 49 points better than your next-best scorer, you either have a heckuva rookie or almost nothing in terms of scoring depth. In the Caps' case, it was some of both as Ovechkin turned out to be even better than expected in a 106-point performance good for third in league scoring. He was a revelation in terms of his personality and his willingness to use his skill to beat defenders wide or use his size to simply go through opponents. Center Dainius Zubrus just is never going to be the star many imagined when Philadelphia made him the 15th overall pick in the 1996 draft, and Chris Clark and Brian Willsie were surprise 20-goal men last season. But there simply isn't anyone on this team who is going to help Ovechkin evolve as an offensive star or take the pressure off him to produce such a huge part of the team's offense. Alexander Semin might be such a player, but he essentially ran out on the team last year, so let's just say the jury's still out on his commitment even though he has lots of raw talent.
Defense: Only sad-sack Pittsburgh gave up more goals than the Washington last season, and that is simply a reflection of personnel. In the past, a team without skilled puck movers could dumb down the game with obstruction and hang on for dear life. No more. The Caps lack a true leader on the back end and enough confident puck movers who can make that first, safe pass to help break out of the defensive zone. It's no surprise, given the team took a boatload of penalties, revealing an inadequate power-play unit that gave up more goals than any team in the league (116). Brian Pothier, who emerged as a steady NHL defender in Ottawa, will help stabilize the Caps' blue line, and there are some diamonds in the rough (or is that rough diamonds) such as Steve Eminger.
Goaltending: Kolzig remains one of the most solid netminders in the NHL, and his loyalty to the Caps franchise is admirable. He could have become an unrestricted free agent after last season, and there was much speculation that he would go to a contender at the trade deadline. But Kolzig signed an extension with Washington, presumably hoping the team was about to turn a corner. One wonders whether he'd like to reconsider, given the negligible steps taken to improve the team. That said, Kolzig will help cover up a myriad of mistakes in front of him once again.
Coaching: Hanlon might be one of the unsung coaching heroes of the NHL. His team was rarely outworked, and even though the Caps were outmatched most nights, they came prepared to play. The issue for Hanlon will be trying to keep losing from becoming part of the team mentality in his second year behind the bench.WHERE THEY'LL FINISH14th The Capitals will continue to make teams that take them lightly pay for their arrogance. But that won't happen all that often. Washington once again will occupy the basement in the Southeast and 14th in the East.BUZZ FACTORStock down. Attendance has been flagging at the MCI Center since the Caps' collapse during the 2003 playoffs, and with no hope of making the playoffs in the forseeable future, that's not going to change dramatically even with the game's best young player in the lineup.
FANTASY AND THE FUTURE TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS The Capitals are a one-man team, but what a man Alexander Ovechkin is. He finished his rookie season third in the league in goals (52) and points (106), and he'll only get better. Really, it's remarkable that a kid like Ovechkin, still only 21 years old, is so successful in spite of the lack of a supporting cast. Washington adds another promising rookie to the offensive ranks in Alexander Semin, and if he lands a job on the second line, he could step up with a surprising fantasy season. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Capitals:
1. Eric Fehr, 21, RW, Hershey (AHL)
Statline: 70 GP, 25 G, 28 A, 70 PIM
2. Chris Bourque, 20, LW, Hershey (AHL)
Statline: 52 GP, 8 G, 28 A, 40 PIM
3. Mike Green, 20, D, Hershey (AHL)
Statline: 56 GP, 9 G, 34 A, 79 PIM
4. Tomas Fleischmann, 22, LW, Hershey (AHL)
Statline: 57 GP, 30 G, 33 A, 32 PIM
5. Jakub Klepis, 22, C, Hershey (AHL)
Statline: 54 GP, 11 G, 20 A, 49 PIM
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Washington Capitals When We Last Saw Them ... Record 29-41-12 (70 points) Division Finished last in Southeast Conference Finished 14th in East Playoffs Did not qualify Who To Watch Now ... Center: Alexandre Giroux The 6-foot-3 native of Quebec City had 36 goals and 67 points in 73 games for Hartford of the AHL. The free agent will have a chance on a team that is thin down the middle. Winger: Alexander Ovechkin Maybe you've heard of him. What's next for the NHL's biggest young star? Defense: Brian Pothier The 29-year-old will have a chance to take ownership of the blue line. Is he up to the task? Goalie: Olaf Kolzig Even at 36, Kolzig is still a big-time netminder. That he's still in Washington tells you about the kind of character he possesses. Key Moves Well, if the team had made any key moves, we'd love to tell you about them. With the team going in developmental hibernation, Pothier's arrival is big news. That's not good. SportsNation Rating the Rangers The Washington Capitals finished 14th in the Eastern Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Capitals in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
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