Still Thirsting for a Cup: Washington Capitals' Young Core Could Use Addition of a Physical Presence

Under Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals won their first playoff series since 1998 and reached Game 7 in the second round, but work remains.
Under Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals won their first playoff series since 1998 and reached Game 7 in the second round, but work remains. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

The Washington Capitals amassed a franchise record for points in the regular season, tied the team mark for wins and captured the imagination of fans with a band of stars headlined by Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green.

But there are two parts to every NHL season, and the Capitals attained only a moderate level of success in the more important one.

Wednesday's 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals not only cut short a season in which expectations were higher, it accentuated the Capitals' flaws, which were exposed and exploited by the New York Rangers and Penguins.

As Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby proved time and again, the Capitals lack a physical defenseman who can clear the crease and force players such as the Penguins captain to think twice about venturing there. They also need at least one, but possibly two, rugged forwards adept at crashing the net and banging in the types of inelegant goals that are so critical to postseason success. Goaltending also will require attention in the offseason, a situation complicated by the sooner-than-expected emergence of rookie Simeon Varlamov.

This morning, General Manager George McPhee and Coach Bruce Boudreau will conduct exit interviews with players. Then, the real challenge will begin: addressing the deficiencies that prevented the Capitals from reaching their potential this spring.

Here's an in-depth look at some of the issues they face:

Goaltending

When the Capitals signed José Theodore to a two-year, $9 million contract last July, they did so with the expectation that the 32-year-old veteran would provide a bridge to Varlamov. But Varlamov, 21, progressed faster than anticipated and could be ready to assume the starter's role next season.

If Varlamov wins the job in training camp, that will force the Capitals to choose between Theodore and Brent Johnson as a backup. Theodore was replaced by Varlamov after the first game of the playoffs and is set to earn $4.5 million on a payroll that is pressed up against the salary cap ceiling, but he did win 32 games. Johnson, on the other hand, is a popular player in the dressing room whose laid-back personality lends itself to mentoring young players. Johnson also earned $825,000 this season, but he's an unrestricted free agent recovering from surgery on a labrum tear in his hip that ended his season in February.

Something else to ponder: Assuming Varlamov earns the starting role, what if the youngster struggles to handle the rigors and pressure of being an everyday starter in the NHL? As good as he was in the playoffs, he looked like a rookie in Games 4 and 7 against the Penguins. Who would be the better backup, an inconsistent Theodore or an injury-prone Johnson?

Defense

On July 1, the day free agency begins, the majority of NHL general managers will be looking for what's become a highly valued commodity: a veteran defenseman to shore up the blueline.

While injuries to Mike Green (shoulder), Tom Poti (broken foot) and John Erskine (foot) in the playoffs exacerbated the Capitals' shortcomings on defense, the team struggled with the same problems that hampered it in the regular season.

The inability to clear away Varlamov's rebounds allowed the Rangers and Penguins repeated opportunities to score. The defense also struggled to prevent Penguins such as Crosby and Bill Guerin and Rangers such as Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky from parking themselves in front of Varlamov and scoring from point-blank range.


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