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September 29, 2009
2009-10 VUKOTA Projections
Washington Capitals, 2nd Overall

by Richard Pollock

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(Note: This series will cover all 30 NHL teams in 30 days, from worst to first, as according to VUKOTA. This is the same material that would have been available in a 2009-10 Puck Prospectus Annual had we published one.)

Offense:

2008-09 Goals For: 272 (3rd on Offense)

2009-2010 Goals For: 277 (1st on Offense)*

Defense:

2008-09 Goals Against: 245 (20th on Defense)

2009-10 Goals Against: 238 (T-4th on Defense)*

Points:

2008-09 Point Total: 108 (4th in Points)

2009-10 Point Total: 106 (T-1st in Points)*

Team GVT:

2008-09 Team GVT: + 27 (6th Overall)

2009-10 Team GVT: + 39 (2nd Overall)*

Bayesian Ratings:

2009-10 Offense: 3.38 (1st on Offense)*

2009-10 Defense: 2.90 (T-8th on Defense)*

2009-10 Total: 0.48 (2nd Overall)*

Team Contention Status:

Eastern Conference Playoff Contenders (1st Round +)*: 84.0 %
Eastern Conference Noisemakers (2nd Round +)*:        55.7 %
Eastern Conference Contenders: (3rd Round +)*:        35.1 %
Stanley Cup Contenders (Stanley Cup Finals)*:         21.0 %
Stanley Cup Champions*:                               12.4 %

*2009-2010 VUKOTA Projections (Bayesian Ratings derived from VUKOTA)

Last season was a season of progress, as well as a season of missed opportunities for the Washington Capitals. The team improved on its 2007-08 campaign by winning a playoff round; unfortunately, the Capitals lost a seventh game at home to the Pittsburgh Penguins by an embarrassing score of 6-2.

Will the Capitals build on last year's progress, or will the team’s difficult loss set them back?

Forwards:

Legend:

OGVT: Offensive GVT

DGVT: Defensive GVT

SGVT: Shootout GVT

GVT: Total GVT

                             2009-2010 VUKOTA Projections
Name	           P   Age  GP      G      A      Pts    OGVT   DGVT  SGVT   GVT
Alexander Ovechkin F   24   82.0   56.5   61.2   117.7   23.4   4.3  -0.1   27.6
Nicklas Backstrom  F   22   77.9   26.7	  60.1	  86.8	 13.8	3.6   0.0   17.4
Alexander Semin	   F   25   66.7   30.9	  40.7	  71.6	 12.6	2.7   0.1   15.4
Brooks Laich	   F   26   70.1   20.7	  26.6	  47.3	  6.1	2.4  -0.1    8.4
Mike Knuble	   F   37   66.9   19.4	  21.2    40.6	  4.9	1.6   0.0    6.6
Tomas Fleischmann  F   25   63.9   15.9	  18.8	  34.8	  3.4	1.6   0.0    5.0
Brendan Morrison   F   34   62.6   11.8	  14.2	  25.9	  2.3	1.4   0.0    3.7
Eric Fehr	   F   24   55.0   10.9	  13.3	  24.2	  2.0	1.4   0.0    3.3
Michael Nylander   F   37   56.2    8.7	  18.5	  27.2	  2.1	1.0   0.0    3.1
Dave Steckel	   F   27   60.7    8.6	  10.9	  19.5	  0.5	1.8   0.0    2.3
Keith Aucoin	   F   31   36.1    5.9	   8.8	  14.7	  1.2	0.9   0.0    2.1
Boyd Gordon	   F   26   56.9    6.6	  10.3	  16.9	 -0.1	1.7   0.0    1.5
Andrew Gordon	   F   24   27.6    5.0	   6.3	  11.4	  0.7	0.6   0.0    1.3
Alexandre Giroux   F   28   32.4    4.8	   6.0	  10.8	  0.5	0.8   0.0    1.3
Oskar Osala	   F   22   28.4    5.3	   6.5	  11.8	  0.7	0.5   0.0    1.2
Chris Bourque	   F   23   30.8    5.4	   6.1	  11.6	  0.6	0.6   0.0    1.2
Boyd Kane	   F   31   26.4    4.3	   5.7	  10.0	  0.6	0.5   0.0    1.1
Quintin Laing	   F   30   32.1    4.2	   6.1	  10.3	  0.3	0.7   0.0    1.1
Matt Bradley	   F   31   58.2    5.9	   8.9	  14.8	 -0.2	1.2   0.0    1.0
Chris Clark	   F   33   39.2    4.7	   6.9	  11.6	  0.1	0.6   0.0    0.7
Jay Beagle	   F   24   29.7    4.7	   5.8	  10.5	  0.2	0.4   0.0    0.6

The conversation about Capitals forwards most obviously begins with Alexander Ovechkin as he is arguably the best player in the entire world. Ovechkin is fast, strong, can pass from anywhere on the ice, capable of scoring at any moment, and he dominates a game at the snap of a finger. Simply put, he is the most exciting player to watch in the National Hockey League on a nightly basis. Last season, Ovechkin scored 56 goals last season (leading the NHL) and added in 54 assists for good measure. His total of 100 points was second in the league only to Evgeni Malkin’s 113. Ovechkin scored 19 power play goals but is also dominant at even strength. He produced 2.86 points-per-60 minutes of even strength ice-time this season and has the ability to improve upon those numbers in 2009-10. VUKOTA projects an improvement on last season’s numbers to 118 points, as well as a dominating 27.6 GVT.

Of course after Ovechkin there is always going to be a fall off to the next best offensive performer on a team, but the Capitals are also blessed with another sniper in their top-six. Alexander Semin is a terrific skater who some think actually has a better shot than Ovechkin. The Russian sniper scored 34 goals in only 62 games last season, as injuries were a bit of an issue. However, when he played, he was a dominating force. He led the Capitals with a +25 in 2008-09 and finished the season with a GVT of 22.3 (ninth in the entire NHL). This season, VUKOTA projects a 31 goal season with a 15.4 GVT. So, the system clearly thinks Semin is in for a bit of a fall off, but with talent like Semin has, it is hard to bet against him.

Rounding out the team’s top three is Nicklas Backstrom. The 21 year old Swedish center is a gifted playmaker with great on-ice awareness and a deft passing touch. Soon, if not already, he will be listed amongst the best passers in the NHL. Last season, Backstrom improved on his 2007-08 numbers by increasing his point total by 17, which led to a very solid 88 points in 2008-09. His production at even strength was impressive (2.22 poitns-per-60 even strength minutes) but he has the ability to post higher totals in the future. As well, Backstrom played just under 20:00 minutes per game last season and should see that ice-time increase in 2009-10. VUKOTA predicts an 87 point season for Backstrom with a GVT of 13.8.

With the deparatures of Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov to the KHL, the Capitals will have to fill the approximately 16:00 minutes of ice-time per contest that both players helped fill.

To fill some of that ice-time, the Capitals signed Brendan Morrison to a one-year deal for $1.5 million. Morrison is generally a reliable player (has played almost every game possible over the past eight seasons except for in 2007-08) and is an exceptional passer. He is not the player he was in the early part of the 2000s, but Morrison still has some offensive ability, and with the talent up front in Washington, Morrison could be a welcome addition to the power play. VUKOTA, unfortunately for Capitals fans, is not convinced, and has the center slated to post 26 points in 63 games.

Another player brought in to fill that lost ice-time is the reliable Mike Knuble. Knuble did not produce great numbers at even strength (1.49 points-per-60 minutes) last season in Philadelphia but the Capitals knew that going in. Knuble, instead, brings a veteran calming influence to the dressing room, an ability to play with talented players and the willingness to battle along the boards. In essence, he brings a little bit more toughness and fight to Washington’s front line, something George McPhee set out to address over the summer.

The heart and soul of the Capitals’ forward corps may be Brooks Laich. The hard-working forward posted a more than respectable 53 point line last season, with a 1.76 points-per-60 even strength minutes. He is not the most talented offensive player but is not afraid of going into the dirty areas to produce points. The 26 year old is big (6”2, 205 pounds) and has improved markedly over the past two seasons (37 points to 53 points). He is trusted on both the power play (where he logged 2:38 minutes per game) and on the penalty (where his 2:57 minutes per game was third among Capitals forwards). His all-around game is a great complement to aforementioned skilled players. VUKOTA sees a 47 point season in Laich’s future for 2009-10 and a GVT of 8.4.

Laich is joined on the penalty kill by the likes of David Steckel and Boyd Gordon. Both players do not receive much press outside of Washington, but their value to the team is not to be understated. Steckel led the Capitals’ forward in short-handed ice-time in 2008-09 (3:48 minutes). In fact, Steckel’s ice-time was second of all the Capitals in short-handed ice-time, which is impressive considering that defensemen usually eat up the first few spots in that regard. The massive (6”5, 220 pounds) Minnesota native does not throw his weight around too much (91 hits) but is a proficient faceoff performer—winning 57.9% of his draws.

In Gordon, the Capitals have a similar defensively responsible player. Gordon is not huge (6’0, 190 pounds) and he does not see the ice that much (just over 13:00 minutes per game) but his value is on the penalty kill. He played 3:39 minutes on the penalty kill per game and added in 14 points for good measure. His role will probably not increase too much in Washington, but his contributions are valuable nonetheless.

This season Chris Clark is hoping he can finally stay healthy. After playing in 18 games in 2007-08, the rugged winger only played in 32 games last season. Best known by many for playing an instrumental part in the Flames’ run to the Cup Final in 2004, Clark is hoping he can get back into the lineup on a consistent basis. The 33 year old is counted on to be a veteran influence in the locker room and on the ice (hence the captain “C”). Some people forget that Clark rode shotgun with Alexander Ovechkin before all these injuries hit but Clark says he is at 100% coming into 2009-10. Clark’s worth is felt as much on the ice, as in the room. Considering the last two seasons have basically been a wash statistically, there is a reason Clark is projected to only play in 33 games and post 12 seasons according to VUKOTA. That said, Clark was once upon a time a very reliable forward who played 81, 82, 78 and 74 games from the 2002-03 season through to the 2006-07 season. So if luck is finally on his side, he should be able to best those projections.

Eric Fehr is an interesting case for the Capitals. The 23 year old forward was drafted out of Brandon of the WHL as a 50 goal scorer and expectations were high; unfortunately, his transition to the NHL has certainly not been as quick as the Capitals probably hoped. Last season, however, Fehr demonstrated some of the potential that made the Capitals spend a first round pick on him. While he only registered 25 points in 61 games, he only scored one of his eleven goals at even strength and only saw 11:14 minutes per game (0:45 minutes per game on the power play). So, taken from a different perspective, Fehr played quite well in his limited ice-time—2.18 points-per-60 even strength minutes. He has the size and has good hands, so if he can continue to improve, he has the potential to be a productive second line winger. VUKOTA only projects 25 points this season in 55 games, but with more opportunity, Fehr should best those totals.

Tomas Fleischmann was quietly productive for the Capitals last season. While he is expected to be out of the lineup until mid-October, the 25 year old Czech forward will be counted on in the top-six once he returns. Fleischmann skates well and has demonstrated the ability to complement talented offensive players. His hands are not incredible, but they are respectable and Fleischmann should see added responsibility with the departures of Fedorov and Kozlov.

Last but not least, we have Michael Nylander. Nylander opted out of a free agent contract with Edmonton because his wife apparently did not want to live in Oil Country. So, instead, Nylander signed in Washington and since Bruce Boudreau’s hire, he has not seen the ice much. Nylander’s skills are obvious; he can stick-handle, pass and can turn on a dime. His defensive game improved under Tom Renney in New York but the Swedish center’s “sideways” game did not mesh with Bruce Boudreau’s up-and-down style. Last season, Nylander only saw the ice for three postseason games and hinted that he’d welcome a trade this offseason. If both sides can make up, Nylander could add a nice offensive element to the team’s center corps, as well as its power play.

Defensemen:

Legend:

OGVT: Offensive GVT

DGVT: Defensive GVT

SGVT: Shootout GVT

GVT: Total GVT

                             2009-2010 VUKOTA Projections
Name	         P   Age  GP     G      A     Pts    OGVT   DGVT  SGVT   GVT
Mike Green	 D   24	  76.1	21.4   49.5   70.9   14.9   6.3	  0.0   21.1
Tom Poti	 D   32	  57.7	 4.0   16.2   20.2    1.9   3.7	  0.0	 5.6
Jeff Schultz	 D   23	  64.5	 3.0   11.8   14.8    0.4   3.7	  0.0	 4.1
Milan Jurcina	 D   26	  62.5	 2.8	9.5   12.3    0.2   2.9	  0.0	 3.1
Shaone Morrisonn D   27	  61.8	 2.3	9.8   12.1   -0.2   3.1	  0.0	 2.9
Brian Pothier	 D   32	  38.6	 2.6	8.8   11.5    1.0   1.9	  0.0	 2.8
Tyler Sloan	 D   28	  40.6	 2.0	7.5    9.5    0.5   1.9	  0.0    2.4
Karl Alzner	 D   21	  43.5	 2.3	7.7   10.1    0.2   1.8	  0.0	 2.0
John Erskine	 D   29	  50.9	 1.4	6.7    8.1   -0.4   2.1	  0.0	 1.7
Sean Collins	 D   26	  30.5	 1.5	5.2    6.7    0.1   1.3	  0.0	 1.4 

The Capitals’ defense, while not a giant weakness last season, is probably the main reason the team has not yet taken the next step to the promised land of the final four.

Led by Mike Green, Washington has arguably the game’s most dynamic offensive defenseman. Green can skate like the wind and can back up opposing defensemen by rushing with speed through the neutral zone. His shot is terrific and he quarterbacks a power play as good as any other defenseman; the stats back it up too. Green posted an incredible 74 points in 68 games last season, and 18 power play goals. He led all defensemen in the NHL in scoring and of his 74 points, 34 of them were at even strength (1.58 points-per-60 minutes of even strength ice-time). The one hold up with Green is his sometimes spotty work in the defensive zone. This was especially evident in the playoffs against superior competition, so if Green works on his defensive game, he could become the top defenseman in the entire league. For now, VUKOTA projects 71 points and an impressive GVT of 21.1.

After Green, there was a giant offensive drop off on the team’s back-end. The next highest scoring Washington defender tallied a measly 14 points (Milan Jurcina).

Arguably the Capitals’ second best puck-moving defenseman aside from Green is Tom Poti. Poti has been a whipping boy in both Edmonton and New York (Rangers) but brings some nice skills to the table. In fact, he seems to have found a home in Washington where he can settle in behind the team’s stars and just focus on doing his job. Last season, Poti only played in 52 games, but injuries should not be a major concern as the former Boston University standout had never played in less than 66 games in a season prior to 2008-09. Along with his smooth skating stride, Poti brings a nice ability to move the puck from his defensive zone, as well as through the neutral zone. In 2008-09, Poti played 21:08 minutes per game and saw far more time on the penalty kill (4:22 minutes per game) than on the power play (1:26 minutes per game). His ability to position himself well makes up for his lack of physical play and his active stick makes him a reliable top-four defenseman.

Brian Pothier signed with the Capitals with high hopes, but after his first season in D.C., he has faced injuries (including a severe concussion) that have limited his ability to play on a regular basis (47 games total over the past two seasons). When healthy, Pothier can skate really well and is a gifted puck-mover. The Washington brass is hoping that this is the season where Pothier can put his injury concerns behind him and become the top-four defenseman they had envision when giving him $2.5 million per season.

Milan Jurcina is not the fleetest of foot, but the big Slovakian defender led the Capitals in hits (157) and blocked shots (131) in 2008-09. On a defense that can be passive, Jurcina backs down from nobody. Sure that over-aggressiveness may sometimes hurt him, but overall it is an asset to the team’s back-end. Last season the defender did not see much time on special teams but his responsibilities could increase this season.

In Jeff Schultz, the Capitals have a 23 year old massive (6’5, 230 pounds) defenseman. The Calgary native played almost 20:00 minutes per game last season and was counted on for penalty killing duties. He blocks shots (93 in 64 games last season) but his lack of physical play does drive some Washington fans a little bit crazy. With time, the Capitals are hoping Schultz will continue to develop into a solid stay-at-home defenseman but he will be facing serious pressure from his defensive counterparts for ice-time and could fall out of the team’s top-four.

Shaone Morrisonn brings many of the same skills as the majority of his defensive counterparts. He is big (6’4, 215 pounds), limited offensively and can kill penalties (2:57 minutes per game). The 26 year defender was third on the team in hits (111) and third in blocked shots (98), so he is not scared of doing the dirty work. Unfortunately, his limited offensive potential limits his ice-time to under 18:00 minutes a contest.

John Erskine certainly paid his dues before arriving in Washington. The Kingston, Ontario product was all over the NHL and AHL and just could not seem to find a home. Erskine is big and mean and plays that way. That is something coaches love and Erskine’s physical play (118 hits in only 52 games) is a significant reason why he sees the ice. Unfortunately, his skating ability and limited offensive talent hold him back from being anything more than a third pairing defenseman.

The above defensemen will undoubtedly be pushed by youngsters Karl Alzner and John Carlson. Both of these rearguards are immensely talented; they can skate and move the puck in all zones, so with time and maturation, Carlson and Alzner will be joining Mike Green in the team’s top-four for a long time.

Goaltending:

Legend:

GGVT: Goaltending GVT

SGVT: Shootout GVT

GVT: Total GVT

                     2009-2010 VUKOTA Projections
Name             P   Age  GP     GGVT  SGVT  GVT
Simeon Varlamov	 G   21	  19.7   4.3   0.0   4.3
Jose Theodore	 G   33	  38.8   1.7   0.5   2.2
Michal Neuvirth	 G   21	  16.0   0.9   0.0   0.9

Sure Jose Theodore is said to be getting another shot at the number one netminding spot, but at the end of the day, that will not be the case. Last season, Theodore posted a .900 save percentage which was 40th overall in the NHL. Clearly that is not going to cut it on a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations. So, combine that with his removal as the number one netminder in the playoffs and Semyon Varlamov should be expected to receive the bulk of the starts in Washington.

Varlamov posted a .918 save percentage in five regular season games for the Capitals last season. However, his worth was demonstrated in the playoffs when he came in for Theodore and posted the exact same .918 save percentage in 13 games against the Rangers and Penguins. The Russian netminder is only 21, so there is still a learning curve to deal with, but he is the team’s most talented netminder and will almost certainly be relied upon for the majority of 2009-10.

We would be remiss if we did not mention the Capitals’ other 21 year old prospect netminder in Michal Neuvirth. Neuvirth played 17 regular season games in the AHL last season and recorded a .910 save percentage. That number is respectable, but it was Neuvirth’s play during the Calder Cup playoffs that convinced many he is the real deal. In 22 playoff games, Neuvirth recorded a tremendous .932 save percentage and led the team all the way to the Calder Cup championship.

As Theodore sees less and less time in the net, the Capitals should get better and better. Washington certainly has nothing to worry about in terms of goaltending depth, both now and in the future.

Conclusion:

The Capitals have no shortage of scoring, the team’s defense is improving with time and there is talent in between the pipes. If the team learns from last season’s difficult Game 7 loss to the Penguins and demonstrates a little bit more dedication to preventing goals, the Capitals have as good of a chance as any Eastern Conference team to represent the conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Richard Pollock is Editor for the hockey website Illegal Curve.

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