As the hockey starved month of August comes to a close, Rock the Red gathered several members Capitals bloggers and colleagues for a round table to discuss the forth-coming season. Although many involved agreed on the same points, several answers varied more than Alex Semin's consistency.
Before we issue suggestions to make the jump to see what went down, we did want to thank everyone involved and mention we hope to put another together relatively soon.
1. Will the Capitals four-peat as Southeast Division Champs? If not, will they make the NHL playoffs, and at what seed?
Peter Hassett, Russian Machine Never Breaks: Yep. #1 in SE.
Sky Kerstein, Capitals Beat Reporter 106.7 The FAN: Yes, number 2 seed, they'll have some hangover from last year, but should be in the middle of it all come playoffs.
Ed Frankovic, WNST 1570 Baltimore: YES
Alex Ball, Live in Red: I definitely think that the Caps will four-peat as Division Champions. I do think that the Southeast Division will be stronger this year. It will not be a 38 point margin of victory as it was this year, but I think it could easily be 10 points or more.
Erika Schnure, Ravings of a Rink Rebel and Caps writer for The Fourth Period: I think the Caps will again four-peat, although I am expecting a little bit more competition for the title this year with the changes being made around the division - particularly with Tampa Bay and Atlanta. It won't be as easy as it was last year to win the division so the Caps are going to have to work for it. They can't underestimate their division opponents anymore. They can't afford to be complacent.
Peerless, The Peerless Prognosticator: Absent a long-term injury (as we knock on wood), I think the Caps are a betting certainty to win the Southeast Division. It’s a matter of the arithmetic of improvement that argues against any other team doing it. Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Atlanta all might be better this year than last, but are any of them 15-18 standings points better than last year, the number they likely would need to be sure of a playoff berth, especially when those three will be trying to crawl over one another? Each has too many lingering holes for me to think so. What I don’t think will happen is the Caps coming close to that 121-point finish last year. A lot of that was fueled by one long winning streak, one that no one should think will be repeated. 100-105 points seems about right.
David Getz, Japers' Rink: Yes.
Rob Yunich, Storming the Crease: Yes. The division just isn't strong enough to keep up, but they're certainly getting closer.
Sam "Horn Guy" Wolk: They'd better. If not, heads will roll.
Pucks and Books, On Frozen Blog: With ease
2. Do you see the Washington Capitals contending for the Stanley Cup? If not, what will be the key factor(s) which could prevent them from doing so?
Peter, RMNB: Yep. The Cup is theirs to lose. Mental toughness is the only x-factor.
Sky, 106.7 The FAN: Yes, they'll be contenders, but young goaltending, 2nd line center questions and as of now not a deep defense with no real stay at home guy will hurt them...of course this has a good shot at changing in the next few days.
Ed, WNST 1570: YES
Alex, LiR: The Capitals will make their deepest playoff run since making the finals this season. Will they win? Debatable. I still think that defense and goaltending are the places of worry. However, both could end up being strong points - depending on how the season progresses.
Erika, RoaRR: The Caps will absolutely be a contender for the Cup again this year. The lineup hasn't changed too much, and there are some exciting prospects that are coming in. The hunger definitely has built after each playoff disappointment, and I know that these guys want it. One factor that could keep them from that goal is injuries. Some of the guys we count on most are prone to injury, namely in the past few years, Varlamov, Semin, and Gordon. It's going to be really important for everyone to stay healthy. There's also the issue of goalie consistency. Michal Neuvirth has only seen 22 NHL starts. Varlamov was inconsistent and injured during the regular season. Both are excellent goaltenders, but still green. Hopefully, with experience will come the consistency we need. The last lingering roadblock is defense. The defensemen we have need to get more defensive. Notice that we tend to get railroaded by Western teams because of their defensive focus. We also need to be able to give more protection to our goaltenders. Chicago's defense made Antti Niemi look like Ryan Miller in the Finals. The Caps need a little more of that.
Peerless: If the team makes no other moves, then I think they will contend, but they cannot be considered a favorite. The last few years seem to have signaled a change in thinking among some teams – successful ones it turns out – to focus more on having a bedrock top-four defense, as opposed to the goalie-centered philosophy that used to be the critical theme for success. That’s why I’m not so concerned about the goalies, but I wonder if a top four of Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Tom Poti, and John Carlson have enough experience and grit for this club to go deep.
David, Japers' Rink: As the roster stands at the moment, no. The holes at center, particularly second line center, and on defense are too much for a team to overcome in the postseason. However, if the Caps can find answers at those spots - and they don't need great players, just solid ones - they're be a Cup contender.
Rob, StC: Yes, although without many changes from last year, it could be another early round departure as a worst-case scenario.
Horn Guy: As long as Halak stays in St. Louis I like the Caps' chances.
Pucks and Books, OFB: Contending is defined in different ways. As currently comprised, however, with serious question marks remaining at center and on defense, the Capitals I think are far from a prohibitive favorite to emerge from the East.
3. With trade/free agency activity this year, who do you see as the biggest threat to the Capitals in the Southeast? The East?
Peter, RMNB: Kovy's re-up at New Jersey, I guess.
Sky, 106.7 The FAN: SE would be Tampa, never doubt Yzerman and Pitt in the east as they got better defensively.
Ed, WNST 1570: Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh
Alex, LiR: The biggest threat to the Caps in the Southeast has got to be Tampa Bay. They picked up Simon Gagne, Dan Ellis, Pavel Kubina, to play with Lecavalier (although, the surgery might set him back), St. Louis and Stamkos. And oh yeah, there's that Steve Yzerman guy heading it up. In the East, I'd say Boston or New Jersey assuming that the Kovalchuk mess gets sorted out soon.
Erika, RoaRR: As mentioned previously, I'm seeing a bigger threat from Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Atlanta finally has a good starting goaltender in Chris Mason (not that Pavelec is terrible, he's just not as good as he once was), and have acquired about half the Chicago Blackhawks roster in free agency. Steve Yzerman has made huge moves for Tampa in free agency, and the roster shows a competitive team. In terms of the East as a whole, I'm expecting to see greater competition with the New York Islanders as well. They're another team that has made a lot of smart moves in free agency and could be a much better team next season.
Peerless: The sexy pick in the Southeast will be Tampa Bay, even to win the Division, but it always seems that Carolina finds a way to be competitive. Carolina, Atlanta, and Tampa Bay finished within three points of one another last year. That could very well be the case again this year. In the broader East, I’m not buying that Michael Leighton will be a top-notch goalie over an 82-game season for the Flyers, and before everyone falls in love with them they should remember that they owed their playoff spot to a Gimmick, and Peter Laviolette’s record (28-24-5) wasn’t a lot better than what came before him (13-11-2). Every year until Martin Brodeur retires is going to be prefaced with the question, “is this the year he slips?” I’ve been wondering about that myself, but now it’s a case of until he does it, then New Jersey has to be in the mix. What I’m not sure about is whether Ilya Kovalchuk is all that great a fit up there. In the end, though, all roads lead to southwest Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh will be the Caps’ most formidable competition in the East.
David, Japers' Rink: In the Southeast, it has be either Atlanta or Tampa Bay, and I'll go with Tampa. They have a great forward corps, they will be able to work something out in goal, and the coaching change should do them a lot of good.
Rob, StC: Tampa and New Jersey, respectively.
Horn Guy: The Atlanta Blackhawks are sure to be a stronger divisional foe this season. In the conference, the Sens will give the Caps fits. They picked up that bubbleheaded mofo Gonchar and we all know he was the key to the Pens' success.
Pucks and Books, OFB: If "threat" means who will finish within a dozen points of the Caps, the answer is no one. The best combination of established and emerging/still developing talent is in Tampa, but the window for Vinny and Marty is closing. Tampa has I think about a two-year window to get something done with those guys; not sure it's going to happen.
4. What member of the 2010 Calder Cup Winning Hershey Bears squad do you see making the biggest impact with the Caps this season?
Peter, RMNB: Karl Alzner
Sky, 106.7 The FAN: Neuvirth because Varly has shown he can't stay healthy for a long period of time.
Ed, WNST 1570: Karl Alzner
Alex, LiR: This is a tough question because I have always thought there were four players that will be in Washington full time this season. I think the answer to the question is Michal Neuvirth. I believe he's going to be the top dog in net and will make a huge impact on the team. A close second is Carlzner. That tandem on defense is invaluable with their experience working together.
Erika, RoaRR: I'm sure it'll be a popular answer, but John Carlson. He's already shown he has what it takes to play in the NHL. Last season, in 22 games, he was a +11. This kid is the real deal, and can only go up from here.
Peerless: John Carlson. Success follows this guy around, and I don’t think it’s coincidence. The biggest question with him is going to be in February and March, when young guys seem to hit a wall – mentally or physically – during the 82-game season. But if you take a look at the Caps’ defense, say, in the last win of their 14-game winning streak last year (a 5-4 overtime win over the Penguins), their top four defensemen were: Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Tom Poti, and Shaone Morrisonn. Carlson could be as effective as Morrisonn by that time this season. More importantly, he might be better come April. Even if he is not, he is cheaper than Morrisonn, which allows the Caps to do more things at the trading deadline. But I think that’s going to be a case of complementing the defense, not shoring up Carlson’s weaknesses.
David, Japers' Rink: John Carlson. Both he and Karl Alzner should be good, and help the team a lot, but I think Carlson's a little further along right now.
Rob, StC: John Carlson.
Horn Guy: The defensive beast Carlznerson. Final answer.
Pucks and Books, OFB: John Carlson.
5. With a fully-healthy Eric Fehr for the first time in years, what do you think we can expect from him?
Peter, RMNB: 25 goals and 50 points. 1 fight, which he'll lose.
Sky, 106.7 The FAN: 25 goals, 25 assists, they'll need his offense if/when Flash is indeed dealt.
Ed, WNST 1570: 25 goals, if he is given top 2 line playing time.
Alex, LiR: More tweets. But no really. Fehr could really flourish into a big asset for the Caps. I definitely expect Fehr to eclipse the 20 goal mark, and I think it would be reasonable to say 30 goals. A 50 point season would be a great success for Eric and I think its possible if he can stay healthy throughout the season.
Erika, RoaRR: A healthy Eric Fehr will definitely have another career year. He's got a new contract, greater confidence, and Boudreau has greater trust in him. His skating and hands have improved. I'd absolutely expect his point total to continue to rise.
Peerless: It’s going to be all about ice time this year. Last year, he was a more efficient goal scorer than Ilya Kovalchuk (among forwards with at least 60 games played and 10 minutes of ice time per game, goals scored per 60 minutes of even strength ice time). He was more efficient that Marion Gaborik, Zach Parise, and Steven Stamkos. And he did it getting 12 minutes and change of ice time a game. If he gets 14-16 minutes of ice time, he could be a 25-30 goal scorer.
David, Japers' Rink: I would expect pretty much the same thing we saw in the 2009-10 season. His overall production's going to be determined by how much ice time Boudreau gives him.
Rob, StC: The best case scenario for him is a breakout year of 30 goals on the second line. A realistic estimate, though, is 20-25 goals.
Horn Guy: I expect he'll get frostbite at the Winter Classic. I hope not, but seriously, Vegas has odds on it already. I checked.
Pucks and Books, OFB: Eric has 30-goal hands, easy. The big question is, can he find durable chemistry with a playmaking pivot and earn 30-goaler minutes in the lineup?
6. Which of the players in their "contract-year" do you expect to have the most successful season (Alzner, Bradley, Erskine, Fleischmann, Gordon, Knuble, Laich, Neuvirth, Poti, Semin, Varlamov)?
Peter, RMNB: Mike Knuble, at age 38, will have the best year of his career. Ian and I have a bet on this. Loser buys the winner a new garbage can.
Sky, 106.7 The FAN: Varly, even though I expect him to miss some time due to injury, the more he plays, the better he gets, he'll surprise a lot of doubters this season.
Ed, WNST 1570: Varlamov
Alex, LiR: Neuvirth and Alzner will have their breakout seasons this year, truly establishing themselves as the next round of stars in DC.
Erika, RoaRR: Knuble will have another great season. He did have a setback last year with his broken finger, but healthy, he should continue to impress. While he is older, he definitely doesn't show it on the ice. When we signed him, we got the netcrasher we desperately needed, and he's a natural on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom. His presence in the locker room is also what makes him valuable. Being the oldest on a team of mostly 20-somethings, he's sort of the wise old Dad on the team and exemplifies leadership and professionalism.
Peerless: In this case, I think it’s a question of “follow the talent.” And in that respect, I suspect Alexander Semin will have a very good year. He was the second-most efficient goal scorer in the league at even strength last year (same criteria as above), behind teammate Alex Ovechkin. His question mark is how many games he misses. He missed nine last year, 20 the year before that, and 19 in 2007-2008. His goals-scored improved from 26 to 34 to 40 in those same seasons. In 2006-2007, when he was playing for a contract, he had 38 goals in 77 games in what was only his second season. Last year, he had 14 goals in 28 games (a 41-goal season pace) before signing an extension for the 2010-2011 season. Over the past two seasons, his per-82 game goal scoring pace has been 45 goals. He could top that this year.
David, Japers' Rink: I'll go with Semin. Obviously the book on his is that he's ultra-talented, but sometimes his head isn't there. Well, whatever he wants to do long-term, a great season in 2010-11 will help him, so I expect him to be fully focused...or at least more focused that we're accustomed to seeing.
Rob, StC: Alzner, Knuble and Laich, although all three probably are locks to return.
Horn Guy: I'll use process of elimination to determine who won't have a successful season:
Bradley will end his career on a sad note when he realizes he's a hemophiliac.
Erskine will be lured mid-season to the KHL with promises of the good life on sun-drenched beaches with hot babes. Problem is, he signed with HC Yugra in Siberia.
Fleischmann’s production will be cut in half when he refuses to score at home and suffer the horror of that “Flash!” video again.
Gordon will realize in training camp that he can make more money in mixed martial arts and will likely get hurt less.
Obi-Wan Knuble will fall to Darth Vader (your powers are weak, old man).
Laich will leave hockey to become a professional Ladies Man, replacing Hef at the Playboy Mansion. Can you blame him?
Neuvy will have a fantastic season but will be replaced in Game 2 of the playoffs by Holtby.
Poti will request a trade back to the Rangers, where the fans appreciated him more.
Semin will be busted by the vice squad for, what else, being a hooker . . . you can't say he wasn't warned enough.
Varly will pull a groin while tying his skates and will miss all of 2011.
That leaves Alzner, who will win the Norris, the Byng, and an endorsement contract with Davey Crocket Fashionwear.
Pucks and Books, OFB: Semin.
7. Who will have secured Washington's starting goaltender position come April?
Peter, RMNB: Semyon Varlamov will be our man in net, but the shocker is that Braden Holtby will be #2.
Sky, 106.7 The FAN: Varly will be the goaltender come playoffs....if healthy.
Ed, WNST 1570: Varlamov
Alex, LiR: *Press Replay* Neuvirth. I think he's the more technically solid goaltender and more level headed. His cool temper and skills will lead him to the number 1 spot in April.
Erika, RoaRR: This is a tough one. Neuvirth is a strong contender for the No. 1 spot. He's a 2-time Calder Cup winner who has vastly matured in the last few years. I was at the game when he had his first NHL start at home, and the nerves were obvious. I remember him sort of flailing around in the crease in the beginning of the game. But once he got his bearings and his wits about him, he seemed more comfortable, more confident. In the games he played with the Caps last year, his confidence continued to grow, and he's earned next season's roster spot. That being said, Varlamov, as we know, is stellar in the playoffs - something just switches on in him after the regular season ends. I'd expect him to be the starter come April, but Neuvirth will definitely give him a run for his money, and could easily steal that starter spot away.
Peerless: This might end up being a trick question. The reflex pick is to say, “Semyon Varlamov.” But if it isn’t, then folks might want to think about the name, “Tomas Vokoun.” I don’t necessarily think it’s likely, but it’s an idea that might be lurking out there.
David, Japers' Rink: Michal Neuvirth. I think he'll be more consistent and less injury-prone than Semyon Varlamov.
Rob, StC: Varlamov.
Horn Guy: Michal Neuvirth, because elves have magical powers!
Pucks and Books, OFB: Varly
8. Predict the Southeast Division finish in order from top to bottom.
Peter, RMNB: Caps, Canes, Lightning, Thrashers, (lots of empty space here), and then the Panthers.
Sky, 106.7: Caps, Lightning, Thrashers, Canes, Panthers
Ed, WNST 1570: Caps, Lightning, Hurricanes, Thrashers, Panthers
Alex, LiR: Washington, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Carolina, Florida
Erika, RoaRR: Washington, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Florida
Peerless: Washington, Carolina, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Florida
David, Japers' Rink: Washington, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Carolina, Florida
Rob, StC: Caps, Tampa, Atlanta, Florida, Carolina
Horn Guy: Caps, Canes, Thrashers, Lightning and Panthers
Pucks and Books, OFB: Caps, Bolts, Thrash, Canes, Cats
Now that we've shared the groups' thoughts on off-season developments and other upcoming storylines for the year, we'd love to hear yours in our comments section!