Caps Analysis: Playing George McPhee
Tonight, after hearing the words of Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and General Manager George McPhee on Friday at breakdown day combined with the knowledge I’ve gained from watching this hockey team plus input I’ve gotten from other scouting and knowledgeable sources, I am going to play George McPhee as he heads into the off-season and try and predict some of what he might do and what I would do with this hockey club if I were in his position.
Before we begin, I agree with McPhee and Boudreau that this is a very good team right now and there are a lot of talented hockey players in the organization, many of them aged 25 and under. Clearly the future is bright. However, what the Caps need to do is finally win a Stanley Cup and not end up being a team that makes the playoffs 14 straight years without an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals, like they did from 1982-83 to 1995-96 under GM David Poile. Washington is close to achieving their goal but if I am McPhee I need to really adhere to my evaluation process and look hard at the personnel from a players and coaching standpoint to decide if I have what it takes to win it all.
Let’s start with the head coach. Clearly Boudreau is a guy this team likes playing for and his uptempo system seems to fit the talent. Based on what Bruce said on Friday, he has some guys on this team that don’t do what he wants them to do, which is go to the net. This is a problem because I can’t remember a Stanley Cup Champion team made up of perimeter hockey players. Given that combination some personnel moves are in order, and we’ll get to them soon enough. However, during the Penguins series a comment was made to me by an NHL scout who said that the Caps do not play well away from the puck (for the record, the scout criticized the Penguins ability to do this as well). This falls on coaching and personnel. What I don’t know, and if I am McPhee I am finding out, is the team’s lack of ability to play well away from the puck a function of the players not buying in or does the coaching need to improve? In this regard, a head coach and his assistants are responsible for the system. Boudreau is a lock to come back but I am not so sure he and McPhee are sold on the team of assistant coaches (Jay Leach, Dean Evason, and Dave Prior).
Prior is the goaltending coach and Olie Kolzig practically swore by him. Prior seems to be doing things right given that rookies Simeon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth have emerged ahead of schedule but my question to him is what the heck happened with Jose Theodore? Theodore was wildly inconsistent and a major argument could be made that he was the biggest reason Washington is out after two rounds of the playoffs. If he has any kind of a game one against the Rangers then the Caps win that contest, at worst, 3-2, and they probably knock off New York in five games. If they beat the Rangers in five games then some of the injuries we heard about on Friday probably don’t happen and it is more likely that a healthier Caps team would have beaten the Penguins. After all, the beat up squad that expended a ton of energy to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the opening round took the defending Eastern Conference Champions to seven games.
Granted the team in front of Theodore wasn’t totally ready for playoff hockey at the outset of the post season but the Caps played decent enough to win the playoff opener, if not for Theodore. Yes, good came out of that in terms of seeing the future in Varlamov but #60 was paid $4.5M this past season and next to try and help the team win a Stanley Cup. He has failed miserably and if I am Boudreau and McPhee I just don’t know how he could regain the #1 job because even if he plays well in training camp and the regular season next year, like he did from late December to the end of March, who is to say he doesn’t put up another clunker in game one of next year’s playoffs? Was Theodore’s problem technical or was it a mental thing? Prior would probably know best but I’m starting to think it might be mental and if I am the Capitals players, I just don’t have any faith in that guy anymore. Therefore, I think McPhee needs to move him before next season’s trade deadline. The problem, though, is that could be tough given his salary and you are really risking things going with two young goaltenders. All you have to do to find a situation where that didn’t work out was in Montreal this year with Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak. Of course the Canadiens don’t have Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green so that might not be an accurate comparison. If I am McPhee, a Varlamov/Neuvrith combo isn’t such a bad thing next year. Brent Johnson, who Boudreau called “A great team guy,” could be added cheap for insurance too but his durability could be an issue.
Questions were asked about the defense on Friday, specifically if McPhee was going to acquire a free agent to help keep the front of the net more clear. McPhee responded by saying he has alot of good defensemen but reading between the lines and based on what many of us have seen this year, they have a bunch of good defensemen but many of them are very much alike. Tom Poti, Karl Alzner, and Jeff Schultz all have similar styles in that they are good skaters and move the puck well but aren’t physical. Schultz is clearly the weakest of that trio. Green is the #1 defenseman and I see Shaone Morrisonn as being the odd man out because he isn’t a good buy given the money he wants (reportedly in the $3M range). One of my scouting sources does not see him as a good defensemen, and that is wording it nicely. So I think #26 won’t be back. As for Milan Jurcina, this guy really improved this season and deserves to return. He is turning in to a good #5 or #6 defensemen. John Erskine also had a good season but he is injury prone and some of that comes from his physical style and some of it comes from his subpar skating ability. The team has already committed to #4 for two more years so he is definitely back, plus he is physical and the Caps are weak in that area. Brian Pothier has another season under contract at $2.5M, which is too much, if you ask me. Assuming Mo is out, Washington needs another physical blueliner and therefore McPhee can either trade or go the free agent route. Schultz is clearly trade bait along with Pothier and I’d even put Jurcina in a deal with other players if I could get a top 4 defenseman to go with Green, Poti, and Alzner.
At forward, Michael Nylander is not back and he will either be waived or retire (McPhee said a buyout does not make financial sense), so that frees up money right there. The concern is the top 6 forwards of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Viktor Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov, and Tomas Fleischmann are not exactly grind it out and go to the net type of players. I think Fleischmann, if he can build up his strength in the off-season, will score more next season (that pneumonia he had really sapped his energy). I don’t think I bring back Kozlov because he isn’t a big go to the net guy. Washington needs a #2 center, especially if Fedorov is not back (and even so he only played 52 regular season games this past year). There is talk of Brooks Laich jumping up to that role and that wouldn’t be bad but McPhee still needs another forward who can go to the net in his top 6. Do you trade Semin, who has so much talent but prefers the perimeter and appears to be easily knocked off his game due to injury?
Dave Steckel clearly is back and has upside as does Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon. Eric Fehr needs to make the jump to becoming a 20 goal scorer but he can’t stay healthy. Apparently he draws the ire of the coaches too. #16 has the size and skating ability to be a go to the net player but I don’t think he will become a Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, or Bobby Ryan type of player that he was projected to be at one time. So McPhee needs to add another top 6 forward who is more physical and can get the grind out type of goals that a Bill Guerin is giving the Penguins since he moved over there at the trade deadline. Chris Clark is under contract for two more years but I have serious doubts about his ability to produce. His scoring touch seems gone (he did have wrist surgery) and he has lost a step. It is tough paying him $2.6M a season if he isn’t scoring at least 20 goals. I am not sold on Chris Bourque making it as a top 6 forward on this team but he might fit in elsewhere so perhaps he is part of a package deal for a defenseman or forward?
That leaves us with Donald Brashear, whose return Ovechkin lobbied for on Friday. I think #87 intimidated the opposition but he also was prone to bad penalties and his skating ability detoriated after his knee injury. I think McPhee needs a tough guy on the roster to prevent teams from taking liberties with Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green but I’m not sure it is #87 anymore. Perhaps the top 4 defenseman that is added can be the physical intimidator that this team still needs? Or another cheaper tough guy could be added?
Whatever the case, I think McPhee is more active this summer than last but the salary cap will likely limit his options. One of the biggest questions he has to answer is on Semin, who is immensely talented but seems to lack the drive necessary to take the Caps to the next level.
NHL Conference Finals Anaylsis and Predictions
After going 7 of 8 in the first round (only lost with San Jose), I was only 2 for 4 in round two (won with Pittsburgh and Detroit). With four teams left we are pretty much guaranteed the rematch of a somewhat recent Stanley Cup Finals unless Chicago knocks off Detroit and Carolina beats Pittsburgh. Last year we had the Red Wings defeat the Penguins, in 2002 Detroit was victorious over Carolina, and in 1992 the Penguins knocked off the Blackhawks.
Western Conference: Detroit (2) vs. Chicago (4)
Detroit is the defending Stanley Cup Champions and they added forward Marian Hossa to the mix from last year. Chicago is an up and coming young team that clearly aided from the hiring of coach Joel Quennville and more importantly, Scotty Bowman at the executive level. Chicago is fast with forwards Patrick Kane, Martin Havlat, Kris Versteeg, Patrick Sharp, and Jonathan Toews. They have good goaltending in Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet is the expensive backup. On defense, Brent Seabrook has really elevated his game and is logging over 26 minutes a night. Duncan Keith has been strong as well.
The Red Wings, though, are an incredible bunch and with Tomas Holmstrom and Johan “Mule” Franzen up front along with guys like Jiri Hudler and Daniel Cleary they score the ugly goal. The big question has been, where is Pavel Datsyuk? He only has 1 goal and 4 assists in 11 playoff games. I imagine he is nursing some injury. The other question on Detroit is can Chris Osgood hold up in goal? The two time Stanley Cup Champion always appears to be a lightning rod for criticism.
Prediction: The Red Wings are the men and the Hawks are the boys, Detroit in 5 games.
Eastern Conference: Pittsburgh (4) vs. Carolina (6)
This series sees two brothers, Eric and Jordan Staal, facing off against each other. The Hurricanes are the fastest team in the Eastern Conference and they used that speed and the superb goaltending of Cam Ward to knock off the Devils and Bruins in dramatic seven game fashion. Both of those teams did not match up well, from a skating standpoint, with the Hurricanes. However, the Penguins have speed plus experience. Sidney Crosby is the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe trophy right now and if Evgeni Malkin plays like he did in games three and five of the Washington series the Pens will be tough to beat. Their weakness is in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury plus the Sergei Gonchar knee injury has to be a concern. Staal and Erik Cole have been flying on a line together for the Canes and Ray Whitney has had a good playoffs as well. Carolina’s defense is a cast of no names that collectively play well together with Joni Pitkanen being the offensive qb.
Prediction: The Canes are fast but Pittsburgh has too much talent and can keep up with Carolina in the skating department. Penguins in 6 games.
If these predictions hold up, we will have a rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup Finals.