As with every NHL team – and every team, period – the Washington Capitals have their issues. But unlike every team, the Caps’ areas of concern are areas other teams would sacrifice their collective nether areas to be burdened by.
Here is what Washington fans, players and management have to fear as the NHL’s regular season hobbles toward a much-needed Olympic break:
1. Do we have the goaltending and defense corps to compliment The-Best-Player-We’ll Ever-Have come playoff time?
2. Somebody’s always watching Alex Ovechkin to make sure he isn’t risking life and limb in some previously unheard of, frenetic off-ice activity such as Midnight Moguls Zamboni Racing, right?
That’s it. That’s the sum of the Capitals’ stress. Ovechkin is under contractual obligation until July 1, End Of Time; Alex Semin also is signed, albeit only through next season; and there’s little doubt GM George McPhee will get Nicklas Backstrom’s signature on a multi-year contract extension come summer.
All things considered, life is fantastic for them. This isn’t Toronto, where local government has announced plans to induce residents into comas on a voluntary basis and keep them conscious-less until such time as the Maple Leafs make the playoffs again.
(Government officials are selling the idea as a pro-active way to curb civil unrest – or, in Orwellian double-speak, a way to promote civil, er, rest.)
That said, the Caps’ potential trouble spots aren’t anything to snort derisively at, either. In fact, their potential pitfalls prove how delicate a franchise’s competitive balance has to be for it to ascend to hockey’s ultimate level of greatness.
Questions about Washington’s back end have been hovering over the team ever since the arrival of a superb young core of forwards made moot any questions about their offense; those questions that remain aren’t going away until a Stanley Cup parade has been held in the District of Columbia.
So what exactly should the roster-reshaping priority be for McPhee as the March 3 trade deadline quickly approaches – the defense corps, or the goaltending?
I’ve heard the rumors about the Caps’ potential interest in Oilers D-man Sheldon Souray and while I could see how the veteran would shore up their ‘D’ for the post-season and replace some of the leadership lost when Chris Clark was sent to Columbus in a deal for Jason Chimera, I’d be good if the group of blueliners Bruce Boudreau has now stayed intact through the remainder of the year.
Why? Because Mike Green has shown he no longer is a Michael Bay-worthy abomination in his own zone. Because Jeff Schultz quietly has become one of the league’s most improved defensemen. And because the Caps’ youngsters – most notably, Karl Alzner and John Carlson – hold much in the way of promise for the future.
But my hands-off attitude toward Washington’s defensemen disappears when it comes to the Capitals’ situation in goal.
That position deserves a hands-on, hands-in, and hands-all-over approach – a major massaging of the three-headed monster that has held it together admirably this year, yet still arguably represents the franchise’s biggest Achilles’ heel as it prepares for the playoffs.
Each member of the netminding troika in question – Semyon Varlamov, Jose Theodore and Michal Neuvirth – has put up a decent, if not above-average showing at times this season.
However, with Varlamov still sidelined by groin and knee woes and Theodore leaving Tuesday’s game against the Islanders with a lower-body injury, Boudreau and the Caps were briefly leaning on the duo of the 21-year-old Neuvirth and 20-year-old Braden Holtby, both of whom were called up from the American League, though Holtby began the year in the ECHL.
Yikes. Actually, make that double-yikes, with a side order of excessive stomach acids.
Listen, I know Varlamov demonstrated last spring he could carry a team on his back and steal some playoff games. I’m not saying that can’t and won’t happen again this time around, but let’s be honest with ourselves – Boudreau would not feel especially bold in mid-April with an inconsistent Theodore and two kids as insurance for Varlamov.
Because the NHL goalie market is so flat at this stage – 23 of them are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents at the end of this season – McPhee could acquire a serviceable veteran (i.e. Martin Biron, Ty Conklin or perhaps even Marty Turco) for a pittance.
Alternately, McPhee also could angle to land a member of a goaltending platoon (Dan Ellis/Pekka Rinne in Nashville, for example) if he was looking for a longer-term partner for Varlamov.
Regardless of who would make the best addition, it’s clear the Caps’ netminding situation as it stands shouldn’t stand for too much longer.
You can never have too much goaltending as you enter the NHL playoffs. And right now, the Capitals just don’t have enough.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.