Washington Capitals Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
The Capitals were the biggest waste of talent in Washington D.C. last year other than Kwame Brown.
Nipped at the end of the season by one point for the Southeast Division title by the Lightning, the Caps got a chance at instant redemption with a first-round matchup against the Bolts. Washington started the playoffs with a couple of dominant three-goal wins over Tampa Bay, but dropped off faster than George W. Bush's approval ratings, losing four consecutive games to the Lightning to bow out with a whimper in the first round.
"We felt that we should've excelled and gone a little bit farther in the playoffs," general manager George McPhee said. "But we think we are a playoff team and we hope to be better this year. There were certainly some positive things about last year. We missed out on the division by one point. We felt like we were having a good playoff series and got some bad breaks and it didn't go our way. But the objective is to go as far as you can, and we think we are capable of going farther."
The Capitals are eager to start their second year under head coach Bruce Cassidy, believing not having to adjust to a new bench boss will make for an easier start to the regular season. It took Cassidy about 25 games before he settled in as an NHL head coach, and now that he has made the adjustment and knows the personnel around the league there are few questions surrounding his ability.
"It almost feels around here sometimes like we didn't make them [the playoffs] because everyone is so disappointed with the way we finished," Cassidy said. "I still say it's an accomplishment to make the playoffs in the NHL, but we're not sitting here saying we are satisfied. But there are 14 other teams that battled down to the wire and didn't make it who probably wish they were in our position. We have something to build on. We have the same group of forwards, the goaltending is the same, three or four D, the same coaching staff, so hopefully we can build on that."
Washington reduced Olaf Kolzig's workload to 66 games last year, after he had played in 216 over the previous three seasons. He responded by posting a 33-25-6 record with a 2.40 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage, his best year since 1999-2000. Kolzig has averaged 33.5 wins over the past six seasons, and the Caps will likely ride their workhorse netminder for somewhere around 4,000 minutes again this season. Youngsters Sebastien Charpantier, Maxime Ouellet and Rastislav Stana are waiting in the wings, but Olie the Goalie is still among the best in the business and has several good years left in him.
The Southeast will be wide open again this season with Washington and Tampa Bay the clear-cut favorites ahead of young, improving Atlanta and Florida, as well as redemption-seeking Carolina. The Caps appear to have enough to be a playoff team again, but then again, Dubya looked like a lock for re-election six months ago, too. A lot can change over the course of six months, and the enigmatic Capitals don't have the horses to compete with the Senators, Devils and Flyers, who are the class of the Eastern Conference right now.
Jaromir Jagr, RW -- Normally a player who averaged 1.03 points per game would be lauded by fans and be offered a raise by the ever-thankful organization.
Unless, of course, that player was already making $11 million per season and had a career average of 1.32 points per game coming into last season. To sum up Jagr's first two seasons in Washington, that would be one playoff appearance and no series wins. I guess $11 million per season doesn't go as far as it used to, does it?
Jagr endured his second consecutive frustrating season since coming to Washington in a blockbuster deal during the summer of 2001. Jagr has 67 goals and 89 assists in 144 games in Washington. Those are impressive numbers upon first glance, but they are a far cry from the 98.1 points he averaged in 11 seasons in Pittsburgh, a remarkable run which included him winning the Art Ross Trophy four times.
His maddening inconsistency is what drives most observers crazy. Still among the three most gifted players in the game, Jagr appears to be able to dominate when he's interested, as evidenced by his seven-point game on Jan. 11 against the Panthers, and 11 points in two games when that total is paired with the Jan. 13 contest against the Islanders. However, Jagr also had three-game scoreless streaks on three different occasions, something that shouldn't happen to a player with his talent.
"I think when you're the highest-paid player, pressure is a part of the game," Cassidy said. "It's part of the business and I don't think that's anything new to him. I think it was maybe easier in Pittsburgh to deflect some of it because of previous accomplishments like the scoring titles and the Stanley Cup rings. Here he hasn't done that yet."
Trade rumors over the summer had Jagr destined for the Big Apple, purportedly in a swap for Rangers bust Eric Lindros. More recently, Jagr was mentioned in a possible three-way deal where he would've ended up in Hockeytown, Curtis Joseph and Alex Tanguay would've landed in the nation's capital and Olaf Kolzig would've been shipped to the Avalanche.
"For whatever reason, they wanted to trade me," Jagr said Thursday on the opening day of training camp. "Maybe I didn't play the way they expect me to play. Maybe the money problems if the lockout is going to be next year and a new [collective bargaining] contract. A lot of things happen. They have to make a decision. They want to do what is best for the team and I understand that. But you asked me if I'm upset about it. No, I'm not. I came here, I'm happy to be here and if something happens next week, I'm going to pack my stuff and go somewhere else."
The relocation rumors will surely continue if Jagr gets off to a slow start or can't carry the Caps past the first round. McPhee believes it's unfair to say that Jagr has been disappointing in his two seasons in Washington and the team is hopeful that as Jagr matures into his mid-30s he will place a greater emphasis on team goals than in racking up statistics.
"With a lot of players a little bit later in their career, they realize later in their career that it's not all about points, it's about winning," McPhee said. "I think a guy like Steve Yzerman is the best example. Yzerman used to rack up all kinds of points, but when he cut down on his points and became a better two-way player, Detroit started winning championships. And I'd like to think that Jaromir is in that mode. He doesn't have to be the leading scorer in the league. We need him to produce, but he has to be a good all-around player for us to succeed."
The third year of the Jagr Era in D.C. will be a critical time when we find out if Jagr is still among the elite players capable of leading a team to great things, or if he's now just a hot-and-cold scoring threat on an ordinary team.
Defense -- Washington lost two of its top four defensemen when Calle Johansson retired and Ken Klee wasn't re-signed as an unrestricted free agent. That means Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt will be looking for new partners and there are plenty of youngsters vying to fill those roles. The need to develop their young blueliners quickly is something that weighs heavily on the Caps heading into the season.
"Our forward group is in good shape and our goaltending is in good shape, but we have question marks on defense," McPhee said. "We'll play some of our young players back there and see how they do. We have five or six young guys we are going to give opportunities to and we'll see who is able to grab those spots."
Joel Kwiatkowski and Jason Doig played well last season as the fifth and sixth defensemen and will likely remain in those positions. Both will be given a chance to play with Witt in training camp, but Steve Eminger and Josef Boumedienne also are likely to get long looks on the top two pairs.
The Capitals look at the success of the last four teams standing (Devils, Senators, Mighty Ducks and Wild) and realize that each team among that quartet utilizes the trap frequently on defense. While not conducive to aesthetically pleasing hockey, trapping seasons have proven successful for teams to keep games close and try to score on counterattacks. Washington will take a more team-oriented approach to its defense, asking even its scoring forwards to skate hard and come back into their own zone to help out more than they have in the past.
"It's proven that if you can play team defense and keep your goals against down you'll be in every game and have a chance to win the Cup," Cassidy said. "It may not be the prettiest style of play, but it lends itself to winning so you have to follow it."
The Caps will also give Rick Berry, Jakub Cutta, J.F. Fortin, John Gruden and Nolan Yonkman the chance to crack the top six, but they are better suited as depth guys at this point. Berry and Fortin have seen action with Washington and would love the chance to expand their roles, while Cutta (five NHL games) and Yonkman (11 games) are hoping to stick with the big for an extended period for the first time.
Why doesn't Washington D.C. love the Capitals?
Politics will always be the favorite water-cooler topic of discussion inside the Beltway, and the Redskins have a firm grasp on No. 2. But in the battle to take hold of the third spot in the hearts of Washingtonians, the Caps and Wizards have played to a dead heat and remain well behind the 'Skins on the sports landscape.
Michael Jordan's comeback coincided with Jagr's acquisition, and it seemed like a golden age of sporting excitement would call the MCI Center home. But the Wizards fizzled and the Caps haven't been able to ride the momentum generated by Jagr's trade to D.C.
Don Beaupre, Mike Gartner, Bengt Gustafsson, Dale Hunter, Rod Langway, Michal Pivonka and Mike Ridley offered plenty of fine moments back in the Cap Center days, but the excitement seems to have waned a bit since moving downtown to the corner of 7th and F streets. After averaging 15,534 in 2000-01, the Caps' attendance surged to 17,341 in Jagr's first season. But they dropped back to 15,787 last year, playing to only 84.6 percent of the MCI Center's capacity, the 13th worst average attendance and 11th worst average of capacity in the league.
Caps fans are disgruntled that the team has cut payroll from approximately $60 million to an estimated $50 million over two seasons. Owner Ted Leonsis' frequent criticisms of his team and lack of action in the offseason have Washington fans wondering how committed the team is to competing for the Stanley Cup. Leonsis claims he is losing $20 million per season despite playing in a major U.S. media market, so he will be among the owners who will likely take the hard line in collective bargaining agreements over the next year.
Unfortunately for Leonsis, the 2003-04 season could be a make-or-break one for his team, as they will be losing fans faster than money if they show they can't compete.
Steve Eminger, D, 6-2, 185 pounds
Eminger won't conjure up images of a young Scott Stevens for Capitals fans, but he may be their best defense prospect since then. More of a skate and passer than a tough guy and a fearsome hitter, Eminger still is pegged for a spot in the Caps' top four this season and for many years to come.
"He's a real mobile, very poised with the puck and defends well," Cassidy said. "For a 20-year-old, he's got a man's body and he skates so well and moves laterally. It's just a matter of getting used to the pace of the game. We hope over time that he develops a bit more of an offensive edge to his game, but right now we don't put a lot of pressure on him to do that. He's going to play, it's just a question of how good he'll be. Is he going to be an All-Star or not?"
Eminger played 17 games with Washington last season, before being returned to juniors so that he could represent Canada in the World Junior Championships. Eminger helped anchor Canada's backline to a silver medal, and then returned to Kitchener and was a part of the Memorial Cup-winning Rangers. He finished the regular season with two goals and 27 assists in 23 games, and added three goals and eight assists in 21 playoff games with Kitchener.
"We have a nice core of young players that we are very high on," McPhee said. "Eminger should be a better player this year. He got great experience last year playing at our level and then playing in the World Juniors and winning the Memorial Cup. We just finished our rookie camp and he was very good in that. He's evolving like we had hoped. He's a very smart player, he's good with the puck and has great mobility."
The Caps believe Eminger is very mature for a kid who is still more than a month from his 20th birthday, and they are hoping he can make an early impact in the NHL as Stevens did in the early 80s.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.