So as I look ahead towards the upcoming season on the eve of the opening of Caps Rookie Camp tomorrow, I decided to ponder and muse on what it will likely take the Caps to repeat as Southeastern Conference Champions and make a run deeper into the playoff then last season. The first thing I noted when looking at last season's statistics and standings is that last year in the supposedly softer Eastern Conference. It took 94 points to make the playoffs while over in the "tougher" Western Conference it took only 91 points for the Western Conference 8th place Nashville Predictors to make the playoffs. Of course the only Eastern Conference team that didn't make the playoffs in the East that would have made them if they were in the West were the Carolina Hurricanes.
What does that mean? Well looking at the year end standings and the pickups/changes from last year to me it means that the Detroit Red Wings are the only reason folks say the Southeastern Division is the softest division in the NHL. You got it, if it weren't for the President Trophy winning Red Wings, the "softest" division in the NHL last year would have been the Central Division - by a visible margin, in this authors opinion. What about looking ahead to this upcoming season. Well first we need to note that the schedule this year has each team play each of their division rivals only 6 times vice eight and that every team plays each other at least once. From a vantage point of "fairness", I think that's a good thing. From a Season Ticket Holders perspective, I also say thank goodness, I'm actually tired of seeing the Caps play the Hurricanes, Lightning, Panthers and Thrashers. From a scheduling perspective it means that instead of 8 games (2 each against the Hurricanes, Panthers, Thrashers and Lightning) the Caps will play one each against Western Conference Teams they didn't face last year (LA Kings - 71 pts, Phoenix Coyotes - 83 points, San Jose - 102 pts, Anaheim - 102 points, and Dallas - 97 points); they also play the Nashville Predators of the Western Conference (91 points) twice vice once and play two additional games against non-Southeastern Division Eastern Conference teams. So as far as strength of schedule they trade 2 games against the Lightning (71 points) for a game against the Kings (71 points) and the Coyotes (83 points); two games against the Thrashers (76 points) for games against the Predators (91 points) an the Flyers (95 points); two games against the Panthers (85 points) for games against the Rangers (95 Points) and Dallas (97 points); two games against the Hurricanes (92 points) for games against the Ducks (102 points) and the Sharks (108 points). So in review all 8 games the caps trade for non-Southeast division games are even or against stronger opponents then the Southeast Division based on last year's regular season standings. Further looking at the off-season moves by the teams the Caps add to the schedule this year, one generally concludes they are either on track to perform at least as well as last season or better. Phoenix, in particular looks read to make the playoffs.
All that said, if the Caps continue to play like the team that finished the regular season or even one that plays like they played after Thanksgiving last year they could break 100 points, even against this tougher schedule. From all reports the team's stalwarts and anchors worked pretty hard in the off-season and are arriving back in better shape then they were after they exited the playoffs last year. Further it looks like veterans Michael Nylander and Chris Clark are 100% healthy and ready to go as well.
Separating myth from reality the facts are, despite the negative hype, over the last 8 seasons, Western Conference Teams have won the Cup 4 times and Eastern Conference Teams have won the Cup 4 times. During that time Southeastern Division Teams have won the cup twice (Carolina - 1, Tampa Bay - 1), the same number as the Central Division (Detroit - 2), the Atlantic Division (New Jersey - 2), or the Western Division (Anaheim - 1, Colorado - 1). The Southeast Division hasn't been doormats, particularly when they get into the playoffs. The Caps have the ability to repeat but the Carolina Hurricanes are going to give them a run for their money and the Tampa Bay Lightning are a total wild card at this point. Once in the playoffs the Caps will have to overcome one of the usual suspects from the Atlantic and Northeast Divisions. The Flyers will again be strong, as will the Canadeans, and while Pittsburgh's depth up front took a small hit from off-season departures, they too will be a solid, tough playoff contender. New Jersey and Ottawa will also likely make solid runs this year and be playoff contenders to watch. Even given all of the above, the Washington Capitals have definitely arrived and are firmly in the top half or quarter of the leagues team, even on off nights.
I can't wait to Rock the Red on October 11th at the Phone Booth - can you?
LETS GO CAPS!!!!!!!!!!!!!