Sports

Picking Splinters: Asking the Tough Questions

The Washington Capitals will finally begin the process of rinsing the sour postseason taste from their mouths when players begin reporting to Kettler Ice Complex next week. Rookie camp gets under way Sept. 7 and the vets return Sept. 12 to begin the process of purging last year’s dismal finale against the Penguins and rekindling hope as a Stanley Cup Contender.

The Washington Capitals will finally begin the process of rinsing the sour postseason taste from their mouths when players begin reporting to Kettler Ice Complex next week. Rookie camp gets under way Sept. 7 and the vets return Sept. 12 to begin the process of purging last year’s dismal finale against the Penguins and rekindling hope as a Stanley Cup Contender.

To help get hockey fans in the mood over the next two weeks, I thought I’d take a gander at some of the pressing questions I’ll be looking to have answered at camp this season, starting this week with the newcomers.

Can Anton Gustafsson stay healthy?

It’s assumed that the son of former Cap Bengt will start the season in Hershey, given his age and the crowded varsity roster in Washington. The bigger issue, in my mind, is whether or not the talented Swedish pivot can stay healthy. For two consecutive prospect camps Gustaffson has managed to mangle himself in some way or another, slowing what projects to be a promising career. His troublesome back (banged up in summer 2008) is the most worrisome ailment, but at least he’s showing no ill effects of the concussion sustained this summer.

If Gustafsson stays away from the medical staff, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him excel at Hershey and earn a temporary mid-season callup as an injury replacement. Unless the Caps need to trade him to address their blueline this season, I believe the No. 2 center spot could be his for the taking in 2010.

Is Joe Finley the new Brash?

After the New York Rangers swiped enforcer Donald Brashear away from the Caps — part of the Blueshirts’ never ending quest to overpay players with limited skill sets — Washington may be looking for some extra muscle. Finley, whose mean streak led him to lay out a mascot during his college days, has no shot at cracking the Caps as a defenseman, his natural position. However, if the club decides it needs to muscle up, he could earn a spot on the fourth line defending the Caps’ talented skill players by dropping the gloves against anyone who takes a run at them.

How hard will John Carlson make GM George McPhee’s life?

Carlson won’t turn 20 until January, but he has a very real chance of starting the season as one of the Capitals’ top six defensemen. Even if that’s the case, however, it would be very difficult for McPhee to keep him on the roster, given the veterans already ahead of him and the team’s crowded salary cap situation.

Karl Alzner, who broke in for part of last season with Washington, has a better chance of starting the season with the big club. Even then the Caps would have eight defensemen with NHL experience. It’s unlikely the Capitals would carry either Carlson or Alzner as a regular healthy scratch, meaning there’s already going to be a healthy battle for playing time. If Carlson continues to impress, McPhee may have to do some serious juggling to make it work.

Can Michal Neuvirth really muck up the Caps goalie situation?

After then-rookie Semyon Varlamov stole the No. 1 job from Jose Theodore in the playoffs, it was assumed that tandem would start the season as Washington’s top two netminders. It would create havoc enough just having the impressive youngster Varlamov beating out the better-paid veteran Theodore, but if Neuvirth enters the frame, the Caps’ crease picture is going to look as muddled as pre-school finger painting. And it could happen.

Neuvirth was sensational in Hershey, earning MVP honors en route to the team’s Calder Cup last season. This will be a battle to watch all pre-season long.

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