By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
The Washington Capitals watched from home in April, May and June, as the Carolina Hurricanes made the run deep into the playoffs that everyone assumed the Caps would make after acquiring Jaromir Jagr.
The Caps were 27-31-10-1 on March 16, but finished 9-2-1-1 and ended up just two points behind the Canadiens for the last playoff spot in the East and only six points behind the 'Canes for the Southeast Division crown.
"It can’t get much more disappointing than it was last year," Capitals general manager George McPhee said. "We thought we had a pretty good group, but we got hit hard by injuries. When you lose several good players for almost the entire season, it’s hard to recover."
Washington had Jeff Halpern for only 48 games, Steve Konowalchuk for 28 and Calle Johansson for just 11. And Jagr missed 13 games and probably played hurt in at least another six. Despite all these injuries, the Caps rallied to finish with a winning record, giving them confidence that a playoff berth is likely this season if their health doesn’t betray them again.
The Caps signed unrestricted free-agent center Robert Lang from the Penguins in the offseason, bringing in a fellow Czech with whom Jagr is friendly. The initial plan is to play Lang on the second line with right wing Peter Bondra, though Jagr and Lang could get ice time together on the power play.
"He brings offense, which you always want, and a big shot," McPhee said. "But he gives us versatility, since he plays in all situations. He’s good 5-on-5, he kills penalties and he can play the power play. We had identified a need for an offensive center last summer. We actually tried all last year to acquire one and couldn’t. With the departure of Oates it was absolutely necessary to obtain a guy who could do that for us."
The other major change in the nation’s capital is behind the bench, where baby-faced Bruce Cassidy has replaced Ron Wilson. The 37-year-old Cassidy was named the 2001-02 AHL Coach of the Year for leading the Grand Rapids Griffins to a 42-27-11-0 record in their team's first season in the AHL. He was also selected as The Hockey News Coach of the Year after guiding the Griffins to a 53-22-7 record in their final season in the IHL in 2000-01. His youthful enthusiasm and ability to adapt to different styles of play will be a boost to the Caps after five seasons under Wilson.
Jaromir Jagr, RW -- It’s hard to pick against a four-time Art Ross Trophy winner, but in reality, pick a right wing, pick any right wing. No other team offers as much scoring punch at one position as the Capitals, who also have Peter Bondra and up-and-coming Danius Zubrus listed on the right side. But because of the crowd at right wing -- and talent that necessitates he play on one of the top two lines -- Zubrus will center Jagr on the first line, a combination that clicked late last season.
Jagr and Bondra pack the strongest 1-2 punch of any team in the league, with a combined 599 goals over the past seven seasons. The two do their best work on the power play, combining for 63 goals over the past two seasons with the man advantage. Washington’s scored on 19.4 percent of its power plays last season (third-best in the league), thanks in large part to being able to split up Jagr and Bondra on the two extra-man units.
Zubrus re-emerged last season after going through a scoring slump with the Canadiens in the 2000-01 season. He finished with 17 goals and 26 assists in 71 games, good for a career-high 43 points. A full season playing with Jagr should boost his number considerably.
For all of the criticism that Jagr faced while the Caps were struggling last year, he still had a remarkable season. Jagr took time to adjust to his new surroundings in Washington, but he did score 31 goals and had 48 assists in 69 games, and his average of 1.14 points per game was third-best in the league behind Todd Bertuzzi (1.18) and Jarome Iginla (1.17).
Youth on defense -- The Caps have the best offensive defenseman in Sergei Gonchar, but after him, the scoring ability of their defensemen is very limited. And Washington lost Rob Zettler to retirement this offseason and Joe Reekie was traded to Chicago in January, leaving the team wet behind the ears along the blue line.
Though Sylvain Cote (36), Johansson (35) and Ken Klee (31) are still in the top six, Washington could have a youth infusion on the blue line this season. It is expected that 23-year-old Jean-Francois Fortin, 21-year-old Nolan Yonkman and 20-year-old Jakub Cutta all will see time this season. Fortin and the 6-foot-6 Yonkman are good bets to make the team out of camp, while Cutta likely will play in the AHL with Portland and be an in-season call-up when injuries hit.
"We’ve really got some good young defenseman who I think are ready to play," McPhee said. "I don’t know what that blue line is going to look like. I know that we have enough bodies and enough talent, but I just don’t know how it’s going to be constructed. If we had three young guys back there I think that would be a concern to start the season. But right now it looks like we’ll have two out of the three and we can handle that."
Who will back up Olaf Kolzig?
The Caps enter training camp with a legitimate three-way battle for the backup goaltending job behind Olie the goalie. Craig Billington, Sebastien Charpentier and Maxime Ouellet are all in the mix for the right to back up ironman Kolzig.
Billington has 327 games of NHL experience and has played decently in limited action during his three years in Washington. He has started 10 games in each of the three years and has a 10-16-6 record in 42 overall appearances.
Charpentier started the final two games for the Caps last season, going 1-1 with a 2.48 GAA and a .936 save pct. He was 20-18-10 with a 2.67 GAA and a .923 save pct. with Portland of the AHL last season. But having spent part of the past five seasons with Portland, he has nothing to gain with another year in the minors.
The wild card in the equation is the training-camp performance of Ouellet. The Caps acquired Ouellet from the Flyers at the trade deadline (along with three picks in the 2002 draft) in exchange for center Adam Oates. The deal tilted heavily in Washington’s favor when Oates failed to re-sign with Philadelphia, meaning the Flyers dealt their top prospect and three draft picks for a six-week rental of Oates. Last year was Ouellet’s first full season in the AHL, and at 21 he could need some additional time in the minors. But Washington is keeping its options open and wouldn’t be afraid to keep him as Kolzig’s backup if he plays lights out in camp.
The Capitals thought long and hard about keeping Sutherby up with the big club. But after a seven-game stint in the NHL to begin the 2001-02 season, Sutherby was returned to Moose Jaw of the WHL. Back in juniors, he was dominant, scoring 45 points (18 goals, 27 assists) in 36 games. Sutherby also scored 12 points in 12 playoff games.
"He started with our team last year, but we sent him back for a little more development," McPhee said. "He probably could’ve stayed with us, but I just want young guys to try to develop at the right pace. His biggest asset right now is his defense. There’s a maturity about him in terms of knowing how to play defensively that a lot of guys don’t have."
The Caps are hopeful that Sutherby eventually will develop into a scoring threat, as well, but for now they want him to come in and contribute as a solid checking center. McPhee also drafted Michael Peca in the 1992 draft when he was a part of the Canucks’ front office, and Sutherby often draws comparisons to the Islanders’ two-time Selke Award winner.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.