Caps and NHL News for Starved Hockey Fans

July 27, 2008 | Ed Frankovic

Caps Sign Morrisonn; Caps News and Analysis

The Washington Capitals signed defensemen Shaone Morrisonn today to a one year contract as a result of Morrisonn’s arbitration hearing this past Thursday. According to Capitals senior writer Mike Vogel, #26 will get $1.95M for next season. With this signing the Caps now have 18 of the 20 forwards and defensemen who played for the team in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs under contract. The exceptions are forward Matt Cooke who is now in Pittsburgh (signed as a free agent) and defensemen Steve Eminger was traded to Philadelphia on draft day.

It appears that the Caps team is now set to start training camp in September and GM George McPhee should feel pretty good about the off-season, with the notable exception being the inability to lock up goalie Cristobal Huet, who went 11-2 down the stretch drive for the Caps. However, McPhee got the next best goalie on the market in Jose Theodore (played in Colorado last year) and only signed him for two years so things could end up working out better for the Caps. The back-up goalie will be Brent Johnson so at the NHL level things are pretty much set. The Caps have three young goalies who have worked their way up the system and according to team sources all of them will be playing professionally this season, and preferably in the AHL, meaning that perhaps one of Daren Machesney (2005 5th round pick), Michal Neuvirth (2006 2nd round pick), or Simeon Varlamov (2006 1st round pick) will be loaned to another AHL team. Hershey is the Caps primary affiliate so my expectation is that Varlamov will be the starter there with Machesney backing him up. Neuvirth seems to be the guy most likely to be loaned out. This has happened before as long time Caps fans might remember that when both Olie Kolzig and Byron Dafoe were in the Washington minor league system Kolzig was loaned to the Rochester Americans back in 1992.

Saturday night on the NHL network the featured replay game was the Caps-Flyers Game 6, a 4-2 Caps win that forced Game 7 this past season. The game reminded once again how well Alexander Semin played in the playoffs and how much he has improved overall. With Sergei Fedorov back in the fold again in DC Semin should continue to increase his production. Huet also made some great saves, especially when it was 2-0 Flyers, but once again, his weak glove hand was exposed and if Braydon Coburn’s early third period shot doesn’t hit the post the Flyers would have led 3-2 and might have gone on to win that game. That is history now and if the NHL network shows Game 7 I’ll skip it because I have no desire to watch the Paul Devorski-Don Koharski “three blind mice” act again. Oh, by the way, I did enjoy hearing the Flyer fans boo their team out of the rink again at the conclusion of Game 6. Philly fans once booed Santa Claus at an Eagles game, you have to love them!

If you look at the Caps roster going into training camp the only thing that really sticks out at me is the Caps potential lack of depth on defense. Mike Green, Tom Poti, and Shaone Morrisonn are the clear 1,2, and 3 defensemen but after that the health and continued improvement of Jeff Schultz will be critical and the ability of 2007 1st round draft pick Karl Alzner to step in and play at the NHL level is a question mark. Personally, I think Alzner can do it and hopefully he doesn’t lose confidence and improves as the season goes on (I could see him being a top 4 defensemen sometime next season). But Alzner will only be 20 on September 24th. After those five guys you have Milan Jurcina (age 25), John Erskine (age 28), and Sami Lepisto (age 24 in October). I have not counted on Brian Pothier because right now he just isn’t healthy and no one is sure if he will be able to play at all next season.

So clearly this is a young defense but a quick glance at some of the names on the unrestricted free agent defensemen market isn’t too appealing either (last year’s team in parentheses):

Andrei Meszaros (Ott), Bryan Berard (NYI), Patrice Brisebois (Mtl), Wade Brookbank (Car), Keith Carney (Min), Chris Chelios (Det), Jason Cullimore (Fla), Bret Hedican (Car), Sean Hill (Min), Marek Malik (NYR), Richard Matvichuk (NJ), Aaron Miller (Van), Jaroslav Modry (Phi), Teppo Numminen (Buf), Nolan Pratt (Buf), Luke Richardson (Ott), and Alexei Semenov (SJ).

So readers, I’ll let you play GM for a minute and if you were in McPhee’s shoes knowing you have some cap space is there a player or two above that you might sign to help provide depth to the Caps defense? Or do you go with the guys you have, see how things pan out the first three months of the season, and make a trade or two at some point to add depth in an attempt to make a deep playoff run (let’s face it, expectations will be high for this team next year)?

Out of the above list I like Meszaros the best as a fit for the Caps but he probably wants too much money and why make a decision now when there are likely to be some decent players available as the season unfolds?

As for the forwards, it is fun to try and figure out this season’s line combinations. You have to think that Coach Bruce Boudreau will keep Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom together on the first line with Viktor Kozlov starting on wing at the outset of the season (but he needs to score some more goals!). The second line is interesting with Semin definitely one of the wings with either the returning Michal Nylander or Fedorov at center with likely Brooks Laich on the other wing. If Chris Clark can come back healthy I could see #17, Fedorov, and Eric Fehr forming a nice third line. Then you have Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, Dave Steckel, Donald Brashear, and Tomas Fleischman who will rotate in the last three spots depending on health and who is hot. I would imagine that you will not see as much of Brashear this year except for games where the opponents have a noted physical presence like the Flyers, the Penguins (signed Eric Godard from Calgary), and Montreal (signed George Laraque away from Pittsburgh). Brashear is slowing down and takes some bad penalties but he can still fight and intimidate.

By the way, in case you missed it, the Caps will only be playing for second place next season because the new ownership in Tampa has already proclaimed that they will win the Southeast division. With Barry “the Mullet” Melrose as coach and Mike Smith and Kolzig as their goalies plus the myriad of boneheaded moves this franchise made this off-season I have a hard time seeing it (the only good move they made, other than drafting Steven Stamkos, was signing Vincent LeCavalier to an 11 year deal). Plus they have now given every team in the division “bulletin board” material. I really like that new ownership in Tampa!

NHL News

For those who haven’t had time to keep up with the NHL news here are some notable things that have happened league wide over the last two weeks:

The Los Angeles Kings have hired former Caps and Skipjacks coach Terry Murray as their head coach. Murray was an assistant coach with the Flyers last season. The Kings are a young team and aren’t expected to compete for a playoff spot next season. They are rebuilding so it will be interesting to see how Murray fares out west.

The league announced that the Winter Classic this season (i.e, the NHL outdoor game) will once again take place on January 1 but it will be at Wrigley Field and will pit the Chicago Blackhawks against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings. The Penguins-Sabres game received great ratings on New Year’s Day last year and had Michigan not been playing in a bowl game at the same time the ratings would have likely been even higher.

The Minnesota Wild signed forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard to a five year, $20.4M deal. Bouchard’s brother, Francois, is in the Caps system and will likely be in Hershey this season.

With Ted Nolan out as head coach on Long Island (fired July 14th), the NHL network is reporting that former Tampa Bay Lightning Head Coach John Tortorella is scheduled to talk with Islanders team officials this week.

The Philadelphia Flyers signed forward Joffrey Lupul to a four year contract extension.

The Buffalo Sabres locked up goalie Ryan Miller for five years.

Pittsburgh rewarded Coach Michel Therrien with a three year deal, Anaheim gave coach Randy Carlyle a two year extension, Columbus gave Ken Hitchcock a three year extension (and he’ll need it with that horrible team), and Dallas signed coach Dave Tippett to a two year contract extension through 2010-11.

Edmonton signed center Shawn Horcoff (played at the University of Michigan) to a six year contract extension.

By the way, Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin are still unrestricted free agents.