Late July Caps & NHL Thoughts

July 26, 2010 | Ed Frankovic

NFL training camps are getting underway this week and that is also an indication that we are closer to the start of the NHL season than to the end of the previous one. Despite the fact that it is late July and most NHL executives are getting ready to go on vacation next week, things are still going on around the league. So without further adieu, here are some thoughts on the Caps and the NHL:

Clearly the biggest news item of recent weeks has been the Ilya Kovalchuk contract signing and then its rejection by the NHL. Today, as expected, the NHL Players Union filed a grievance seeking to get the 17 year, $102 Million deal to be ratified. The big issue is the last 5 years, when Kovalchuk is aged 40 to 44, as it pays him only $550,000 per season during that period. There are many who are insisting the agreement is legally binding but is it really given that it’s a blatant attempt to circumvent the salary cap? I think the league absolutely should have rejected it. After all, if this contract is approved, what is next? Contracts extended until guys are 50? 60? 90? Basically the NHL said to Kovalchuk, his agent (Jay Grossman), and the New Jersey Devils, in the words of John McEnroe, “YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS?!” What pains me even more about the deal is how it is being compared by some to Alexander Ovechkin’s 13 year contract. Again, bring in the McEnroe quote and I’ll even take it one step further and borrow a line from Mr. Hand of Fast Times at Ridgemont High to address those who even try to connect the Ovie contract with Kovy’s, “What are you people, ON DOPE??!!”

Ovechkin’s deal starts with the Great #8 receiving $9M a season in years one through six, then in years seven until 13 he gets $10M annually.  From above, we know that years 13-17 of the Kovalchuk deal pay him $550,000 annually but here are the salaries for the first 12 seasons, in order: $6 million each of the first two years, $11.5 million for the following five seasons, $10.5 million in the 2017-18 season, $8.5 million for the 2018-19 season, $6.5 million in 2019-20, $3.5 million in 2020-21, then $750,000 the following season before the joke gets even worse in years 13-17. The overall annual average hit the mark the Devils needed, $6M per season, so that they could come in under the cap. It is laughable and I am shocked that a team that has won three Stanley Cups would stoop to such low levels to try and obtain their fourth. So shame on the Devils and also on the Kovalchuk camp for agreeing to a deal that is a sham and threatens to make a mockery of the CBA and the salary cap. It is in the hands of the lawyers now but I sure hope that the arbitrator realizes what a disgrace to the NHL this deal is and he upholds the league’s decision to reject it.

Long time Capitals fans received some good news last week when former blue liner, Kevin Hatcher, was elected along with his brother Derian and former Blackhawks star, Jeremy Roenick, to the United States Hockey Hall of Fame. Here is a good chunk of the press release courtesy of Nate Ewell of the Caps outstanding media relations department:

Hatcher, who played 17 seasons in the NHL between Washington, Dallas, Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers and Carolina, will join his brother Derian Hatcher, Art Berglund, Dr. V. George Nagobads and Jeremy Roenick as the Hall’s class of 2010. The five-member class will be formally inducted into the Hall of Fame on Oct. 21 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, N.Y.

Hatcher, who was drafted by Washington with the 17th overall pick in the 1984 Entry Draft, spent nine seasons with Washington and enjoyed his best years as a Capital. He recorded 149 goals and 277 assists (426 points) in 685 career games with Washington and captained the team for two seasons (1992-94). Hatcher played in three NHL All-Star Games while with the Capitals.

Hatcher ranks 11th in franchise history, third among defensemen, with 426 points and holds the club record for goals by a defenseman in a season (34 in 1992-93) and a career (149). He had 40 or more points seven times for the Capitals and at least 100 penalty minutes eight times. Hatcher recorded 48 points (16 goals, 32 assists) in 83 career playoff games.

Hatcher also excelled internationally, representing the United States at the 1984 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship, the 1987 and 1991 Canada Cups, the World Cup of Hockey in 1996 and the 1998 Olympic Winter Games.

Hatcher will join fellow Caps alumni Bobby Carpenter, Dave Christian, Phil Housley, Rod Langway and Craig Patrick as members of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. The Hall was founded in 1973 and includes 143 enshrined members. Inductees are chosen on the basis of extraordinary contributions to the game of hockey in the United States.

#4 was a dominant force during his time in Washington and during the 1990 season Wayne Gretzky made a comment that he thought Hatcher was the best defenseman in the NHL that year. The Caps might have made the Stanley Cup Finals that season had it not been for a cheap shot to Hatcher’s knee by forward Kris King of the New York Rangers in the Patrick Division Finals. King also injured Dino Ciccarelli, who will be inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame this fall, in that series. Combine that with the Scott Stevens shoulder injury and it was no surprise that Washington could not win a game versus Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals. Hatcher had a staggering 34 goals in the 1992-93 campaign and when his salary demands became very high he was dealt to the Dallas Stars after the 1994 season. I will always remember him as being among the elite group of Caps to wear the red, white, and blue.

At development camp two weeks ago Caps GM George McPhee was asked by Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post if the Capitals were pretty much done in free agency this summer and the GM nodded in agreement. This makes sense given that Washington does not have much salary cap room remaining (I’ve heard estimates of $8M left before the Tomas Fleischmann arbitration decision, that will come shortly after his hearing on July 28th) and the market is not abundant with players in the positions that the Caps appear to need at this time, which are second line center and a right handed shooting defensemen. I spoke with an NHL scout, who does not work for Washington, this past week about the current state of the free agent market and asked him who he thought the best remaining center and righty blue liner were available to potentially fill the Caps needs and he responded with “None.” Based on the words of McPhee and that assessment of the market by an external scout, it appears Washington will at least head into training camp with the roster as it stands now and allow some of their younger players from Hershey and perhaps 2009 1st round draft pick center Marcus Johansson, to take a shot at filling those needs.

Keep in mind that on defense that Washington has only Mike Green and John Carlson as right handed shooters while Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, Karl Alzner, Tyler Sloan, and John Erskine are the left handed blue liners who are signed for the upcoming season. Caps coach Bruce Boudreau made it very clear last season that he prefers to have three right handed and three left handed defenseman in the lineup so I would imagine at some point between now and the 2010-11 NHL trade deadline (7 months away) that a right handed shooting d-man will be added. It will be interesting to see how the second line center battle plays out between Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, Brooks Laich, and perhaps Fleischmann. 2010 1st round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov was quite impressive in development camp but he is only 18 and needs to mature physically before Washington even thinks about giving him a shot in “The Show.” The young Russian also is signed to play in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for two more seasons. From what I’ve seen of both Johansson and Kuznetzov, they have a lot of potential so if McPhee does make a move to add a new pivot, it will be likely be for the short term.

The Caps won the Southeast Division in 2009-10 by 38 points and the Eastern Conference by 18 points before being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. In their own division, Carolina and Tampa Bay, on paper at least, appear to be the teams that have the best shot at thwarting a record fourth straight first place finish for the Caps. New Lightning GM Steve Yzerman added former Flyers forward Simon Gagne last week in exchange for d-man Matt Walker and a 4th round draft choice. Putting Gagne in with a crop of forwards that includes Martin St. Louis, Steven Stamkos, Ryan Malone, and Vincent Lecavalier to go with an improved defense of Mattias Ohlund, Victor Hedman, Pavel Kubina, and Brett Clark has to give Bolts fans hope. But can they win with Dan Ellis and Mike Smith in goal? They also may have a tough time staying healthy as several of the players mentioned above are heading into the latter stages of their career. If I was wagering in Vegas, I’d still go with the Caps to capture the Southeast crown, once again.

Programming Note: Please listen live to Japers Rink Radio on Tuesday, July 27th at 8pm as I will be making my second appearance on a super radio show that is hosted by Stephen Pepper and Russell Waxman. We’ll be discussing Caps hockey and the rest of the NHL.