Considering all of the great moves that GM George McPhee has already made this summer, the Capitals are already an early favorite to finish first in the East this season. Unfortunately, the past two seasons have proved that winning the East (or the President's trophy) is not a sure-fire guarantee of playoff success. The good news is that in hockey, if you are lucky, there are second chances (2009 Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins) and it is never too late to finally get your name on the Cup (Lanny McDonald with the 1988-1989 Calgary Flames). Could this finally be "our year"? Read on to see why I believe this is a new Caps team that can finally reach the brass ring in 2012.
Top Five Reasons why the Caps will reach the Stanley Cup finals in 2011-2012:
1. The Grit Factor
With the additions of Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and Jeff Halpern to the line-up, along with returning muckers & grinders Matt Hendricks and Brooks Laich, the Capitals look to be a much more physical team in the upcoming season than they were last season. Grit wins games, as evidenced by this season's Stanley Cup winners, the Boston Bruins. The Bruins offense looked, at times, pathetic when compared to supposed high-wattage teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Vancouver Canucks (Finals games played at the TD Garden notwithstanding), but what they lacked in 40 goal scorers they more than made up for in mental and physical toughness. Between this and this, the Bruins never lacked the intimidation factor in their game. Sure, Tim Thomas stood on his head from October to June, but he didn't have a team of divas in front of him either. The Capitals are more than capable of the high-wattage offense, and if GMGM's gritty re-boot looks as good on the ice as it does on paper, the Capitals should be a tough team to beat in the coming season.
2. Tomas Vokoun
With the addition of Tomas Vokoun and the exit of the unreliable Semyon Varlamov (FOR A LOTTERY PICK!!!!!), the Capitals promise to have great goal-tending next sesaon. Vokoun posted a .922 save percentage last year, good enough for 7th among goalies playing at least 50 games last year, an amazing feat considering all of those other goalies played for playoff teams, while Vokoun played for the pitiful Panthers. Considering how much of a pay cut that Vokoun was willing to take in order to play for the Caps, it's clear that he is a team-first guy with a desire to win. When you remember how bad Florida's defense was compared to ours, Vokoun is shaping up to be a top 5 goalie next year. Neuvy and Holtby are the future of Caps goaltending, but in the present Vokoun will shine in net.
3. Coach Boudreau's System
After "the great losing streak of Christmas 2010", as future generations will refer to it, everyone's favorite foul-mouthed bench boss changed his system from offense-first to defense-first, and while our stars suffered off years statistics-wise, the Caps were phenomenal down the stretch, including a nine-game winning streak and a seat atop the Eastern Conference. In round 1 of the playoffs, the Caps were in fine form against Swedish superstar Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers, easily besting them in five games. In round 2, however, the Caps were swept by the Lightning when they were unable to adapt their system for Guy Boucher's 1-3-1 system. Luckily, Bruce should have the kinks in his new system ironed out by October 8, and with 82 games to figure it out, the Caps should be more adaptable in the face of adversity in the spring of 2012. Bruce Boudreau is a former Jack Adams award winner for a reason, and he is a much better coach than his team shows sometimes.
4. Olie Kolzig
Olie the Goalie will always be fondly remembered in the hearts of Caps fans, and for good reason: he holds nearly every goaltending record for the franchise, he's a Vezina trophy winner, and he was around for a very long time. Olie was there for some of the Caps' glory days (the team's lone appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998) and for some of our lowest points (my friend Jeremy Roenick had this to say about the Caps before the lockout), and the addition of Olie to the coaching staff is tremendous. The young stars on this team need a mentor, and Olie should be excellent in that capacity. Olie Kolzig will once again be a strength in the Capital's goaltending, even if he's not strapping on the pads himself, and he is just one more reason that the Caps will have goaltending which is among the League's best in 2011-2012.
5. Nicklas Backstrom
By his standards, Nicky had an bad year in 2010-2011, posting career-lows in points (65) and assists (47), in addition to having an abysmal playoffs (2 points, zero goals, even rating, 4 PIMs). He was suffering from a thumb injury late in the season, and his thumb caused him to miss games for the first time in his NHL career. The good news is that he is hard at work in the off-season, and his dedication will be rewarded in the long run. I expect Nicklas Backstrom to return in fine form next year, and he will further solidify his status as one of the elite centers in the NHL today. He's still very young, and he has a lot of potential. With the addition of Troy Brouwer to the top line, we will get to see more of the play-making ability that we came to expect from number 19 in 2009-2010. Backstrom could very well turn out to be a Conn Smythe winner, just as Brouwer's former teammate Jonathan Toews was in 2009.