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

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.

The expected promotion of Karl Alzner from the minor leagues to a full-time role in Washington will help some. But he is not the physical type of defenseman McPhee considered adding at the trade deadline when he called the Anaheim Ducks about four-time all star Chris Pronger and the Florida Panthers about free agent-to-be Jay Bouwmeester.

Pronger has another year on his contract at $6.25 million, while Bouwmeester likely will command a similar salary. Might McPhee make another run at one of them?

Net Presence

While the Capitals had trouble removing rugged forwards from their goal mouth, they also did not have a consistent presence in front of the opposing goaltender.

Going to the net was a problem throughout the regular season and it proved to be an even bigger problem in the playoffs. The Capitals' top six forwards -- Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Tomas Fleischmann, Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov -- are skilled players with dazzling moves and the ability to score highlight-quality goals.

The problem is that in the playoffs, defenses play tighter and the goaltending is better, placing an emphasis on scoring from close range, screening the goalie as the Rangers and Penguins did to Varlamov and, in general, disturbing the peace in the crease.

Forwards Brooks Laich and Chris Clark are capable of crashing the net, but Laich had only three goals in 14 playoff games and Clark had one goal in eight.

Roster Turnover

The Capitals made little news during free agency last season with the exception of signing Theodore.

That's probably going to be different this July.

The possible departures of Fedorov, Kozlov and enforcer Donald Brashear would free up $7.7 million in cap space for possible additions. Fedorov, 39, is an unrestricted free agent and could retire, while Kozlov and Brashear, also unrestricted free agents, could be headed to Russia.

The team also must decide whether to buy out the remaining two years of Michael Nylander's contract, meaning more room still for McPhee, who was hamstrung all season by a payroll that was virtually at the $56.7 salary cap ceiling.

If McPhee buys out Nylander, that would spread out the remainder of the $8.5 million over four seasons at a cost of approximately $1.42 million per year. Nylander, 36, was a healthy scratch for all but three playoff games and recorded no points.

If those four players do not return, McPhee will, at the very least, need to go outside the organization to add a second-line center and a top-six winger.

The Capitals also have restricted free agents Shaone Morrisonn, Jeff Schultz, Boyd Gordon, Milan Jurcina and Eric Fehr. While the Capitals could retain all five, there could be complications with Morrisonn if the 26-year-old files for arbitration for a third straight year and is awarded more than the Capitals are willing to pay. Last summer, it's believed Morrisonn asked for $3 million before the arbitrator awarded him $1.975 million. Teams have the right to walk away from arbitration awards.

Capitals Notes: The Capitals signed 2008 first-round draft pick Anton Gustafsson to a three-year entry level contract. The 19-year-old Swede is the son of former Capitals standout Bengt Gustafsson. . . . Jay Beagle and Tyler Sloan have been assigned to the Hershey Bears.

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