Saturday, May 7, 2011

Capital Disappointment

Well, at least not everything's going poorly in the nation's capital with President Obama receiving plenty of deserved kudos for giving the okay on a successful mission that killed Osama Bin Laden. The President visited Ground Zero today along with Rudy Giuliani and Mayor Bloomberg in a fitting 9/11 tribute that finally had some kind of closure. Of course, it'll never be over. But at the very least, we can take pride in the red, white and blue for accomplishing what George W. Bush set out to.

I'm not quite sure how to transition from 5/1/11 to the latest Capital disappointment but here goes. Many came away impressed with the Caps' improved defensive oriented system, which conquered the Rangers in five games. Myself included, I expected Washington to oust Tampa Bay and advance to the Conference Finals. I chose the Caps in six thinking Alex Ovechkin would continue to get support from Alex Semin, Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble, Jason Arnott, Jason Chimera, Mike Green and John Carlson. I also figured Nicklas Backstrom would awaken from the malaise he was in all year.

Instead, I underestimated a strong Bolts club that had been my darkhorse due to real MVP Martin St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, Ryan Malone, Teddy PurcellVictor Hedman, Eric Brewer, Mattias Ohlund, Dwayne Roloson and my favorite third line featuring one-time Ranger Dominic Moore along with former Islander Sean Bergenheim and super pest Steve Downie. Did we mention ex-Isle Nate Thompson does a lot of the grunt work, becoming a real valuable player under snubbed Adams candidate Guy Boucher? Truthfully, the Lightning were always going to be a tough match up for the Capitals due to a solid nucleus that executed Boucher's 1-3-1 to perfection, allowing Roloson to see the puck without a plethora of chances versus a highly skilled opponent.

Nobody is playing at a higher level than St. Louis, who of the three Hart nominees (Daniel Sedin, Corey Perry) hasn't come down yet in crunch time. There, the cool small wonder sits atop the playoff leaderboard with six goals, seven assists and 13 points. The '03-04 former league MVP who last time the Lightning went this far led them all the way to Lord Stanley, is a constant waterbug every shift. The undrafted gem from Vermont is always on the puck utilizing his speed and skill to create as was evidenced on a nice set up for linemate Lecavalier that steered the Bolts back ahead in Game Three. Speaking of the rejuvenated Vinny C, he's back in a big way scoring huge goals like his sudden death crusher during Game Two that proved to be a fatal blow to the Caps. His dozen points (5-7-12) include a playoff tying three deciders (tied with David Krejci). The dynamic duo are joined by Downie, who Boucher shifted off the top line to a checking type that's wreaked havoc. All season, the rambunctious play of Moore, Bergenheim and Thompson have given opponents fits. Perfect players for the postseason where board battles are frequent and play gets chippy.

The genius behind bringing in Bergenheim, Moore, '04 hero Kubina, Simon Gagne and adding Brewer at the deadline is someone who knows a thing or two about winning in GM Steve Yzerman. The same young executive in Year One that hired Boucher under new management. Imagine that. From top to bottom, the Lightning Bolts got a remake and look equipped to challenge Boston for their second Cup appearance. If only it worked that way on Broadway.

Most impressive has been the play of Brewer, who plays the kind of aggressive, physical style the Islanders wanted no part of, trading him a decade prior to Edmonton for Roman Hamrlik. The Oilers didn't keep him. The Blues were sellers. So, they got what they could for a former '97 fifth overall pick that's better than his career stats. Won battles and clearing out in front don't show up on the stat sheet. He's the biggest reason Tampa's blueline is so much tougher, allowing Hedman to settle in while Brew and Ohlund manage the game's elite. Even minus Kubina and Gagne, Boucher's Bolts got it done quickly for a stunning sweep of the No.1 seed. Toss in stellar goaltending from Roloson (10 GA in series, 14 during 7-game win streak) and the Lightning are right there for the hardware. Roli is the youngest 41 year-old, sparking the Bolts back from a 3-1 deficit to oust the Pens. Now, they get the Bruins, who should be a stiff challenge after sweeping out Philly to avenge last year's humiliation.
While the Bolts move on, once again the Caps end in turmoil, unable to get past Round Two with a disastrous result to a close rival. How'd it happen? Ovechkin became the only scorer who held up his end of the bargain while Semin again disappeared and Backstrom continued his mystifying slump to conclude a dreadful first year in a new 10-year deal that has Charles Wang drooling. What happened? As new star Jeremy Roenick remarked on Versus, he's far too talented for this and will have plenty to answer after a long summer.

As for Semin, we have never trusted the enigmatic Russian, who is a classic tease that floats and loses composure. When he's not engaged, undisciplined penalties creep up that prove costly. Not exactly the kinda player you can trust with a year left at $6.7 million with a cap hit of $6 M. Might GM George McPhee consider trading the Russian enigma? If they could get a proven performer who plays a more straight forward game conducive to the postseason, they'd have to consider it. Semin's style might be a better fit in Hollywood where the Kings could use another finisher.

Offensive domino Mike Green also enters the final year of his contract and will earn $5 million ($5.25 M cap hit) before turning restricted in 2012. No one would argue how dangerous the top Cap power play rover is. One of the best quarterbacks in the game who possesses a rocket, Green's also a great skater who can transition the puck from defense to offense in a jiffy. For all his skills, he's still an adventure defensively. If Washington decided that they needed an overhaul, they could get creative and propose a blockbuster involving Semin and Green to LA for Ryan Smyth and Drew Doughty, who's due a raise this summer from the $3.475 million hit. The age difference between Doughty (21) and Green (25) is four with both celebrating birthdays during '11-12. Both are elite blueliners who'll earn hefty new contracts. The bigger risk is dealing a player with untapped potential eight years younger for a rugged, experienced warrior who's been where the Caps are trying to get.

If Bruce Boudreau sticks around, then owner Ted Leonsis is a man of integrity who understands that it takes time to adjust on the fly to a new system. It'd be easy to point out the latest failure as grounds for axing our favorite Haagen Dazs fan. However, his gutsy move to abandon the run 'n gun for a more diligent checking system produced a great second half with the Caps winning the East with 107 points in an improved division. That has to be considered along with a track record that's produced four division titles, a President's Trophy and tops in the conference. Something Leonsis alluded to on his blog, which indicated that they needed to take a few days before making up his mind. When you make such a radical change mid-season, there's bound to be some road blocks. Maybe it was too much to expect the Caps to win the Cup. More time is needed so that players don't panic when it fails.

The Caps have important decisions to make come July with Brooks Laich, Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm, Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon and Scott Hannan all up. Laich's been a good player who they should bring back while Arnott played well after the trade from the Devils. If he took a one-year discount, they'd be nuts not to re-sign the vet, who still is hungry for another Cup. The other four probably are gone even though Bradley and Gordon were good soldiers. Hannan was a risk after dealing offensive playmaker Tomas Fleischmann, who was a point-a-game before a pulmonary embolism ended his year. They missed his creativity.

Washington needs another rugged defenseman that can support Carlson and pup Karl Azner (RFA). If they keep Green, then the top six should remain intact featuring Jeff Schultz, John Erskine and Dennis Wideman, who was hurt. They also could get more mobile so that they're not pinned in like they were by Tampa. Tom Poti is likely finished which is a shame since he developed into a solid D in the nation's cap. They definitely missed him. Words I never thought I'd utter.

Where the Caps go from here remains to be seen. There's enough talent obviously to compete. But until they take that next giant step, there will remain skepticism. Is it time for a change?

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