Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Blocking Shots, Breaking Hearts

We finish our look at the 2007-08 Washington Capitals with a look at the defensemen and the goaltenders.

- Tom Poti: Just today Scott Burnside said that Poti is the "little-known free agent who might be capable of big things" and he's right. Poti put together a career year last year on the Island and comes into this team as the highly-touted puck-moving, power play-quarterbacking defensemen they've needed. He's huge, has a long reach and can blast the shot from the point - it might not always go in, but when you've got Kozlov or Ovechkin lurking, why does it have to?
Knocks on Poti - Poti is often called inconsistent and has been prone to mental errors that can cost a team. He's also never quite used his size to its full ability (something that seems to be an epidemic for this team).

- Mike Green: Last season was something of a learning experience for Green. He did everything, from scoring highlight goals and making great defensive plays to turning over the puck at bad times and serving a stint in Hershey. But he's back this year with more muscle, more confidence, and another year of professional hockey under his belt - his preseason performance was at times stellar and he's only going to get better with time and a bit more veteran presence to help guide him along.
Knocks on Green - Call it the inconsistency of youth. Green still makes some boneheaded mistakes that show why defense, next to goaltending, is the most technically difficult position to learn. Has a tendency to be a bit too calm and casual with the puck.

- Brian Pothier: Pothier came into this team a year ago with the expectation that he would skate on the top defensive pair - unfortunately that's not where he should be and it showed early on. But as the season went on and his minutes were brought back down to a sane level his play steadily improved, albeit hampered by a series of injuries mid-year. By the end of the season he had found a rhythm with Schultz and has played very well throughout camp. If he's asked to fill that second defensive pair role this year expect him to fluorish in it.
Knocks on Pothier - He's not a stay at home defenseman so you'd like to see his offensive numbers a little higher than they were - hitting the net on occasion would probably help that (although he's improved so far this year).

- Jeff Schultz: Schultz is a tricky case. Last year he got the call mid-year to make his NHL debut and proved to be a steady, consistent defenseman - not flashy or offensively talented but always seemingly in the right place at the right time. You could go a whole game without knowing he was even on the ice, which is what you want in a player like Schultz. At 6'6" he's the biggest player on the team and at just 21 one of the youngest - the Caps are expecting a lot from him this year and in the future, to be sure.
Knocks on Schultz - I'll admit, I was puzzled when he made the team this year. The organization seems to love him and I love him too, but his play in camp and in preseason games didn't seem all that steady to me right now. Too many mistakes and not enough grit - sometimes I think he forgets he's bigger than almost everyone on the ice. We'll see what happens, I guess.

- Shaone Morrisonn: Morrisonn is really starting to come into his own as a defenseman just in time for him to take on a bigger role for the Caps. He's a big guy and plays like it, routinely using his frame to take forwards off the puck, and he's starting to make the smart defensive decisions more often than not. With Jurcina he's found some great chemistry and the two have the potential to be one of the scariest defensive pairings in the league.
Knocks on Morrisonn - Just the usual stuff, the occasional turnovers and bad penalties that will disappear with time and experience.

- Milan Jurcina: Arguably the best move made by the Caps last year and in fact in a long time was picking up Jurcina from the Bruins for a song. Milan came in and absolutely turned his game around 180 degrees, developing a chemistry with fellow former Bruin Morrisonn and making his presence known whenever he was on the ice. Already one of the best conditioned players on the team, he's packed on even more muscle - so much that one of his teammates joked he should walk by the opponent's locker room shirtless as an intimidation tactic.
Knocks on Jurcina - Um..........

- Steve Eminger: What can you really say about Eminger that hasn't been said before? He's got tremendous potential but has yet to live up to it. When he's on, his defensive skills and offensive ability are showcased prominently; when he's not, it's just as prominent and twice as deadly. An offseason injury has prevented Eminger from really performing to the point that he needs to if he's to stay in DC, and he finds himself on the IR for opening night...whether it's injury-related or more akin to Nycholat's bout with "illness" last year prior to his trade remains to be seen.
Knocks on Eminger - It's the same old song for so many young defensemen - consistency, consistency, consistency. Eminger was brutal to start the season, much improved by the end, and everywhere in between throughout.

- John Erskine: Erskine was a surprise last year for the way he came into camp and basically blew everyone away enough to earn a spot on the roster. He might have spent many nights in the press box and did the occasional stint in Hershey, but Erskine's presence was always felt when he was on the ice. He could take on the tough guy if Brashear was on the bench or simply not interested, and he's proven his ability as a fighter many times over. But it was the occasional glimpses of solid defensive play that made people start to take notice.
Knocks on Erskine - A severe foot injury really hampered his play last season and its hard to tell if the dropoff in his level of play was because he overachieved to begin with or just never fully recovered.

- Olie Kolzig: Olie has earned the respect of Caps fans, his teammates and coaches, and most of the NHL for sticking with the team through the hardest of times because he only wants to win a Cup with Washington. He'll be 38 by the end of this season, so that time is now - and for his part, he's been more openly optimistic about this team's chances than I've ever seen him. He came to camp in tremendous shape and is slowly shaking off the summer rust as he gets back into true Zilla form.
Knocks on Kolzig - Age. He's starting to slow down and the fact that he had his first really serious injury last year is a sign that he's no longer the spry kid he once was. That being said...he's Olie.

- Brent Johnson: Ignore the numbers. Johnson has been a dependable backup and a great addition to the team since coming on board at the start of the '05-'06 season. He's exactly what you want in a backup goaltender - he takes whatever games the coach throws at him and does it quietly. If his showing in camp and the preseason are any sign, Johnson is looking to be in the best shape he's been in a long time - which is good, since Olie may need him to take on increasingly more games as the season wears on.
Knocks on Johnson - What else? Consistency is an issue, as Johnny has a tendency to be a bit streaky at times. But the biggest knock on Johnson has very little to do with him and more to do with the team - they just don't play the same in front of him as they do for Olie, and that needs to change if he's going to have a bigger role on the team over the next year or two.

So where does this leave us? I'm not one for predictions, especially not this year when the league is so tough to figure out. The Rangers could be the most dominant team in the league or they could crumble under the weight of Jagr's ego; the Ducks could defend their championship or they could follow Carolina and Edmonton out of the playoff picture.

I do think that the Caps will be in the fight this year, staying in the battle for 8th place right up until the end - that is, if they don't win the division. Not out of the realm of possibility, kids. To be honest, as long as they're in it all year, as long as the team doesn't self-destruct by New Year's, I'll consider it an improvement. They have the talent and the depth to make the push, so a lot will depend on the rest of the East. As the Maple Leafs found out last year, sometimes you need help from other teams...and sometimes you don't get it.

Check out the veritable banquet of hockey goodies from the local papers today - Corey's got predictions, a piece on youth and its advantages, team capsules and his own top 5 lists (lawsuit pending); meanwhile over at the Post, Tarik discusses the financial outlook of the NHL and does his own preview of the upcoming season.