Caps Final Season Assessment & Grades
After losing Game 7 to the Philadelphia Flyers last night Capitals players and fans have to be very disappointed today and they should be. A series win would have been well deserved and would have been the icing on the cake to this season. Had Washington won last night I think the Caps would have lost to the Penguins in five games but it would have been great to have seen that series and you never know who would have won until the games were really played. NBC is probably very unhappy today that they didn’t get Ovechkin-Crosby but at least they did get Rangers-Penguins (although that could have been the Eastern Conference Final Series had the Caps won last night).
On the positive side of things, considering where the Caps were on Thanksgiving Eve when I wrote in this blog that Ted Leonsis should clean house and fire both his coach and GM, Washington has to take pride in the fact that they went from 6-14-1 to Southeast Division Champions and one goal and some questionable officiating away from the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The key to the turnaround was Coach Bruce Boudreau who should definitely win the Jack Adams Trophy for Coach of the Year. According to a statement from Caps GM George McPhee today Boudreau is locked up for multiple years with Washington so no need to worry about another team gobbling this great coach up. Good move George because that likely gives you more job security and to be honest, you earned it by bringing in Boudreau, locking up Alexander Ovechkin long term, and for making the playoffs. McPhee still has work to do though but building around Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green is a nice luxury to have.
Time for my end of the year Capitals Player Grades:
Alexander Ovechkin: A++; 65 goals, 112 points, hits, leads, skates, etc. He is incredible and is the most exciting player I have ever seen (yes, more exciting than Gretzky and Lemieux because of his power and hitting ability). Apparently played hurt in the playoffs and still was outstanding. Has one of the fastest shot releases and scares opposing goalies. Thanks to the Great #8 the Caps franchise should be set for years and tickets to the Phone Booth may become more and more difficult over the next several seasons. MVP of the league hands down. THANK YOU ALEX for one of the most exciting Cap seasons I have ever witnessed. You are truly can’t miss TV when the Caps are playing!!
Cristobal Huet: A+; Great trade deadline acquisition by McPhee. Huet more than made up for a shaky defensive corps and carried this team down the stretch after enduring some back spasms and missing a couple of games shortly after joining the Caps (11-2 regular season record with Washington). He was very good in Games 4 through 7 of the playoffs. Free Agent and will probably command decent $ on the open market (at least $5M per season).
Nicklas Backstrom: A; What was Glen Hanlon doing putting this guy on the 4th line? Backstrom will likely get edged out by the Blackhawks Patrick Kane for the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year) but without #19 the Caps do not make the playoffs. His passing ability and hockey vision is incredible. He is also tougher than he looks and can take/avoid hits along the boards. Now he just needs to use his great shot more next season.
Mike Green: A; Again, what was Glen Hanlon doing playing this guy only 15 minutes a game? Green led the NHL in goals by defensemen and is a great skater and passer. He struggled at times in the post season but apparently he was injured but the experience he gained this year was good. Now McPhee just needs to find another top defenseman to play with him next year – one who can be physical and clear the front of the net.
Brooks Laich: B+; If you told me before the season he would score 21 goals this year I would have told you to quit smoking that whacky stuff. Hard working, grinding, go to the net type of guy. Smart move by Coach Boudreau putting Laich on the power play. He does the little stuff necessary to score goals and disrupt the opposing goalie. That Peter Bondra trade doesn’t look so bad now, does it?
Tom Poti: B; Very solid defensemen. Not flashy and won’t hit anyone but is good moving the puck. Costly OT penalty in Game 7 hurt and he has to be smarter than to put his stick in there like that twice in overtime. Played second most minutes on defense behind Green and was a +9 on the season.
Sergei Fedorov: B; Another superb trade deadline acquisition by GM. Great penalty killer and seemed to revive his career playing with his Russian buddies after bad stints in Columbus and Anaheim. Because of Ovechkin and Semin he may re-sign here next year. Too bad he didn’t look back at Ovechkin late in the third period of Game 7 or he would have had the series winner.
Alexander Semin: B-; Was hurt most of the first half of the season but came on strong down the stretch and was very good in the playoffs. Showed more toughness and ability in the playoffs than I ever thought he could display. Still doesn’t play defense well (-18 on the season, needs to improve that) and is prone to turnovers at the opponents blue line (much like Kristian Huselius of Calgary).
Shaone Morrisonn: C+; Had a very good first half of the season before injuries slowed him down in the second half and in the playoffs (played with broken jaw in playoffs). If he can return to his first half of the season form that will be great for the Caps. Not a great skater but is good using the body. He needs to improve his passing as he had too many giveaways.
Olie Kolzig: C; Played very well most of the time and then some nights really struggled with rebounds behind the weak defense forcing McPhee and Boudreau to look for more consistency in net. Free Agent and may retire. Olie is a great competitor and it had to pain him to see Huet take over the job he held for almost 10 years. Thanks for the memories Olie! We’ll never forget 1998. #37 will be retired by the Caps for sure.
Jeff Schultz: C; Injuries slowed him down the stretch right when he was really improving. Very hockey smart but won’t hit anyone. Has a great reach that allows him to clog shooting and passing lanes and moves the puck well. Drafted two spots ahead of Green in first round in 2004.
Matt Cooke: C; Good deadline deal by McPhee but didn’t do as well as I thought he would in DC. Good third line and team guy. Unrestricted free agent.
Boyd Gordon: C; Third or Fourth line grinder. Averaged 15 minutes a game.
Matt Bradley: C; Only played 10 minutes a game but did well with his role
Dave Steckel: C; Very good penalty killer. Missed March with finger injury. Poor skater. Played well in playoffs.
John Erskine: C-; Takes bad penalties and is not a good skater. Was very solid in games 6 and 7 of the Flyers series. Would be a good #7 defensemen to insert in the lineup in spot duty and for depth.
Eric Fehr: C-; Health was and still is a big issue. Seems to have potential but is not fast enough to be a big scorer like the Caps had hoped. Maybe a summer of working hard will help him get faster because that is what he needs. He is a restricted free agent so GM GM has a tough decision on this former first round pick that right now sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to the other NHLers that were picked in that 2003 first round.
Donald Brashear: C-; Takes too many penalties and is slowing down. Meltdown in Boston almost cost the team the playoffs. Nice playoff goal but that was pretty much it for him in the series and why have this guy on your roster if the other team doesn’t have to pay the price from him for running the Caps goalie game in and game out?
Viktor Kozlov: D; 0 playoff goals, can’t skate, and turns the puck over too much. Was +28 but how much of that was Ovechkin and Backstrom? Had only one good 10 to 12 game stretch this season and for the most part lived off of his linemates. Is very good along the boards with the puck.
Tomas Fleischmann: D; Scored 10 goals, some of them big, like the game winner in OT down in Tampa late in the year but he is too inconsistent. I just don’t think he is an NHL player.
Milan Jurcina: D-; Had a horrible playoff series against the Flyers. Too many giveaways this season. Also prone to taking bad penalties. Belongs in the AHL.
Steve Eminger: D-; Would get an F if not for the strong games he played late in the Flyer series. Where was that type of play all season? Whatever he did or Boudreau did to get him playing that way might just make him worth giving a shot next season but I have serious doubts about him. Seems to have some maturity/attitude issues. Probably could be a 5th or 6th defenseman, at best.
Chris Clark, Michael Nylander, and Brian Pothier and any others not mentioned above receive an incomplete grade for being injured or not playing enough. Nylander and Pothier accounted for $8M in salary this year so Washington basically got nothing for that money.
Going forward the Caps future looks good with a possible franchise goalie in the system in Simeon Varlamov and a potential top two defensemen in Karl Alzner. Expect to see Varlamov in Hershey next year and Alzner up with the big club according to the latest report I received from an NHL scout.
The big need for Washington is clearly on defense. They must find stronger, more physical defensemen to clear the front of the net for their goaltenders. The Flyers won the series from Washington simply by crashing the net against the Caps non-physical defense. After defense, goalie is very important for next year. It seems smart to sign Huet for at least two years but it will depend on how much money he wants. Jose Theodore of Colorado is another notable free agent goalie after this season.
For McPhee the thing he needs to be concerned about now is the salary cap because next year he will have the following players and their respective salaries:
Ovechkin = $9M
Nylander = $5.5M
Green = Restricted Free Agent but will want at least $5M and possibly $6M considering the contract Dion Phaneuf signed in Calgary
Huet or other FA goalie = $5 to $6M
Semin = $4.2M
Poti = $3.5M
Clark = $2.75M
Kozlov = $2.5M
Pothier = $2.5M (if he retires due to injury the Caps can reclaim some/all of this money)
The above nine players total just over $41M in salary next season for the Caps. The salary cap was $50M this season and should increase to about $52M next season.
Fehr and Laich are restricted free agents and luckily Washington will only owe Backstrom $850K as part of his entry level contract (big money will start for #19 in 2010-11).
So it is shaping up like McPhee will have some salary cap issues to finally deal with at the high end when in the past this team had to struggle to just spend the minimum required figure. One thing that seems to make sense might be to try and trade Semin for a top level defenseman. It should be an interesting off-season in the Caps hockey department.
From a marketing standpoint the future is bright red and Ted Leonsis has done a good job of bringing in some smart people that help make the atmosphere at the games fun. His sales and marketing staffs are filled with nice, customer focused people and with the Great #8 on the team this region may finally get behind this team for good. Leonsis should market this team in both Baltimore and DC because there are lots of hockey fans who will shell out money to watch Ovechkin, especially now that the team has improved and the games are exciting and fun to attend. Leonsis continues to put every game on TV, most in HD, and that is good for business and for drawing fans.
NHL Playoff Preview
Well after the first round I went 5-3 on my predictions losing with the Caps, Devils, and Ducks. I was very happy to see Anaheim lose and, of course, sorely disappointed to see the Caps get beat by the Flyers.
Here are my thoughts, analysis, and predictions for the two second round Stanley Cup Playoff Series that begin on Thursday night:
Montreal vs. Philadelphia
The Flyers will not be able to crash the Canadiens net like they did against Washington because the Montreal defense, led by Mike Komisarek, is much bigger and stronger than what Philadelphia faced in the first round. Habs goalie Carey Price pitched a seventh game shutout against the Boston Bruins and hopes to follow in the footsteps of Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy who both went on to win Stanley Cups for Montreal in their first NHL seasons. The Flyers have to be running out of gas and the loss of Mike Knuble hurts. Daniel Briere, who turned down the Canadiens contract offer in the off-season, will face enormous pressure as a Frenchman playing in Montreal. Briere was only effective against Washington on the power play. Mike Richards and Jeff Carter are future stars for Philly but going against Alexei Kovalev, Saku Koivu, Christopher Higgins, and the rest of the Montreal forwards is too much to handle.
Series Prediction: Montreal in five games
Detroit vs. Colorado
Back in the late 90’s and early part of this decade this was the biggest rivalry in the NHL. Who can forget the Claude Lemieux cheap shot on Kris Draper along the boards or Patrick Roy and Chris Osgood fighting each other at center ice? These two teams still do not like each other. Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg are both playing but Forsberg is nowhere near what he once was and Sakic is slowing down too. The big break for the Avs this year was the unexpected return to form of Theodore in goal who won the series for Colorado against the Wild. Detroit has the league’s best defensemen in Nicklas Lisdstrom and two of the best forwards in Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Goalie has been shaky but Osgood came in and replaced Dominik Hasek in the first round and played superb. The Red Wings have a bunch of other good skating players that control the tempo and puck much of the game. They are downright good and are the favorite right now to win the Stanley Cup.
Series Prediction: Detroit in six games.
I’ll have analysis on the Penguins-Rangers and Sharks-Stars series posted on Thursday night.