Offseason Series Part 1: Season In Review
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WHAT WENT WRONG:
1) Another HORRID first half.
The Washington Capitals were the biggest disappointment of the first half of the 2001-2002 NHL season. Entering the All-Star break, the team was 7 games under .500 with a 20-27-8 record. The Capitals had added defending scoring champ Jaromir Jagr and locked up goalie Olaf Kolzig with a career contract prior to the season.
Many commentators predicted they would be one of the Eastern Conference elite and they were viewed as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. A number of factors led to their downfall including…
2) Major INJURIES and tragedies.
The catalyst for the majority of the Caps’ problems this season was rooted in the major injuries they had to deal with. Injuries may be one of the more brutal truths of the NHL, but the Caps were forced to cope with far more critical injuries than they have faced in the past.
After playing in only 5 games, co-captain Steve Konowalchuk, the team’s best defensive forward, underwent shoulder surgery, missing the next 54 games. Eleven games into the season, they lost Calle Johansson, their best defenseman. Finally, in the middle of January, Jeff Halplern was lost for the season after being checked into the boards awkwardly during a 2-0 loss to Montreal. Superstar Jaromir Jagr missed 13 games with knee and groin injuries after he was viciously taken down by New York Rangers defenseman Igor Ulanov. The Caps also spent 13 games without their hard-hitting co-captain, defenseman Brendan Witt, after his father died. Olaf Kolzig spent the majority of the season playing through knee, ankle, and groin injuries which clearly hindered his play in net.
3) Poor Defense.
Traditionally, the Caps have been one of the best defensive teams in the league. After losing Calle Johansson, the team forced depth defensemen Frantisek Kucera and Sylvain Cote into critical defensive roles. After being sent to play in the Czech Republic during training camp, Kucera returned and performed admirably, finishing as the Caps’ plus-minus leader with a +7 defensive rating. Cote did well at first, but was unable to handle the pressure and large amount of ice time to make up for the loss of Johansson. Cote spent the majority of the second half as a healthy scratch, on injured reserve, or relegated to the third defensive pairing. The team allowed a laughable 240 goals against, placing them 25th in the NHL in that category.
4) Mediocre starting goaltending.
The defense did not do much to help Olaf Kolzig this season, but he did not do much to help himself either. During an interview with Comcast Sportsnet, Olie the Goalie claimed that this was the most frustrating season of his career. The main reason for his woes were injuries to his knee, ankle, and groin, but nevertheless, he had one of his worst seasons as a starting goalie. He did earn his fourth 30-win season in the last 5 years, but he frequently allowed weak goals, and he finished with a sub-par 2.82 goals against average and a paltry .902 save percentage.
5) Lack of Depth, Team Chemistry, and Speed
The organization lacked the veteran depth to make up for the rash of injuries they faced. Adam Oates did an exceptional job as the team’s top center and appeared to develop chemistry with Jagr, but Oates’ age and lack of speed made it difficult for the top line to establish a potent transition game from the defensive zone.
The Capitals’ shutdown line of Halpern, Konowalchuk, and Ulf Dahlen, the team’s best line over the last two years, was also torn apart when Konowalchuk had shoulder surgery and Halpern suffered the knee injury. Even while Halpern and Dahlen played together without Konowalchuk, they were unable to develop chemistry as Halpern’s training camp holdout kept him back from regaining his form from the past two seasons. Forward Glen Metropolit played very well when recalled, but it is not a sure thing that he will earn a roster spot for next season
The main problem though was the lack of speed from the blueline. The Capitals’ defense was often unable to keep up with the opposition’s top line. The Caps were one of the older teams in the league for much of the season and it showed as they were also one of the slowest teams.
WHAT WENT RIGHT:
1) Successful start to a youth movement.
The Caps played 38 different players this year, including 10 rookies. During the second half of the year, defensemen J.F. Fortin, 23, and Nolan Yonkman, 21, emerged from the pack. The two huge defensemen returned the porous Capitals defense to respectability during their time in the NHL. Both defensemen logged a large number of minutes with Fortin averaging 19:25 per game and Yonkman playing 12:43 per game. If both players can have beneficial off-seasons and play well in training camp, they should be able to hold on to their roster spots as full-time defensemen. These two showed that the Caps have a bright future in store for their defensive corps. Yonkman and Fortin both played very solid defensively and helped to improve the Caps’ team speed for the latter stages of the season. Both players could be integral parts of the Washington defense for many years if they can replicate their performance from the end of the 2001-2002 season.
In the final two games of the regular season, goalie prospect Sebastien Charpentier, 25, showed management that he is ready to be the Caps’ backup goaltender. Charpentier was named the Portland Pirates’ MVP this season and played magnificently for the Capitals. In his NHL debut, he led the Caps to a 3-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres, making 38 saves, many in spectacular fashion. In his second game, Charpentier made 35 saves against the Devils in a 4-3 overtime loss. In the two starts, he allowed only one weak goal, off the stick of Devils’ forward John Madden. Otherwise, Charpentier played very well and gave the Capitals a reason to believe that he is ready to back up franchise goaltender Olaf Kolzig as early as next season.
2) The emergence of Dainius Zubrus.
Dainius Zubrus, 25, may have been the best all-around player on the Washington Capitals this season. The 6-4, 231 pound power forward made quite an impact this season, finishing with
career-highs in goals (17) and points (43). He was also among the Caps’ leaders in plus-minus with a +5 defensive rating. Zubrus showed that he was the key to last season’s trade deadline blockbuster in which Washington sent talented young forwards Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis with a 1st round draft pick to Montreal for Trevor Linden, Zubrus, and a 2nd round pick. Linden has since been dealt to Vancouver for the Canucks’1st and 3rd round picks in this year’s draft. Zubrus was coveted by General Manager George McPhee even earlier last season when Peter Bondra was rumored to be offered to Montreal for Zubrus and a few draft picks.
Zubrus, a six-year veteran, is special because of his size and skill, but he is also an asset in the defensive end. In his second season in the NHL, he posted a +29 defensive rating while playing for the Philadelphia Flyers. He was one of the Caps’ best defensive forwards this year and helped to cope with the loss of Steve Konowalchuk.
Zubrus fully established himself after this year’s deadline trade of star center Adam Oates to Philadelphia. That deal left Andrei Nikolishin as the only natural center on the Capitals’ roster. Zubrus became the top line pivot after Oates was dealt and did an amazing job. He quickly developed chemistry with Jagr and as linemates, they almost led the Capitals to a post-season berth. Like the emergence of Fortin and Yonkman on the defensive corps, Zubrus came out of nowhere to provide the Caps with the big, talented, and speedy center they had lacked for the majority of the season.
3) BIG TIME returns for Adam Oates.
Adam Oates played superbly while in Washington this season, but when the trade deadline neared, the Caps received an offer they could not pass up. Philadelphia GM Bobby Clarke offered top goaltending prospect Maxime Oullet and the Flyers’ top 3 picks in the 2002 entry draft for only Adam Oates. Oates was an invaluable part of the Capitals, but the Caps were offered more for their 39-year-old center than they had traded for Jaromir Jagr. They made the deal, giving them 10 picks in the first four rounds of this year’s draft. The trade will help them to replenish the organization after dealing three top prospects for Jagr. Similar to the last time the Capitals faced missing the playoffs, George McPhee did an excellent job in making very beneficial trades for the future. In1999, the last time they missed the playoffs, the team traded players such as Dale Hunter and Joe Juneau for high draft picks. Those picks turned into the top prospects sent to Pittsburgh for Jagr. Who knows what great things the Caps’ GM can do with these picks. Only time will tell.
Notes: The Quad City Mallards are the only Capitals affiliate who earned a post-season berth. They finished their regular season ranked 1st in the UHL. Currently, the Mallards are tied 2-2 with the Muskegon Fury in the Western Conference Finals… The Washington Capitals signed 6-3, 217 pound forward Graham Mink, 22, to a two year contract. The University of Vermont product excelled with the Portland Pirates this season finishing with 17 goals and 17 assists for 34 points, and had a +23 in 56 games played… Following Tuesday’s draft lottery, the Caps will pick 12th in the 1st round and will find out where their two additional 1st rounders place at the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.