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Caps Suffer Worst Loss of Season

Posted on 27 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

With two guys asking for trades this week (Martin Erat and Dmitry Orlov), things went from bad to worse on Thanksgiving Eve as the Capitals turned a 3-1 first period lead into a 6-4 defeat to Ottawa.

It was a terrible loss for Washington primarily due to a lack of focus and effort. There are also holes in the talent department on the back end too, but more on that later.

The Caps came out skating, something you must do against a very fast Senators club, and as a result, they had the lead and the momentum. Then Chris Neil, who is known for physical and dirty play, took a run at defensemen Nate Schmidt drawing an obvious penalty in the process. What happened next, was the start of the end for the Caps. Defensemen Tyson Strachan immediately went after Neil taking an instigator penalty, five for fighting, and a 10 minute misconduct to take the Caps off of a power play that could have put them up 4-1. It was a bad decision at the wrong time for a guy who really should be playing in Hershey.

Ottawa received a spark from the play while the Caps seemed to get their boots filled with cement. The Senators would out shoot the Caps 19-3 in the second period tying the contest up and then they dominated Washington in the 3rd period to take a 4-3 lead on their third power play goal of the game. Ottawa was flat out too fast and determined for Washington and they repeatedly went to the net for screens and deflections while many of the Caps defenders failed to get position or tie up their sticks. It was absolutely terrible defense by the Capitals. A big part of that problem is the lack of talent on the back end. Strachan, Schmidt and Alex Urbom simply aren’t NHL players at this point in their careers. This is a big reason why the Caps are giving up lots of shots night after night (Ottawa had 40 on Wednesday) and the goaltending is starting to wear out. Braden Holtby started strong in this game but he faded giving up some goals he’d like to have back. But when your defense allows too many players in front of the net and can’t consistently close gaps on the ice, your goalies are going to get lit up eventually. You also can’t score when the other team has the puck.

Therefore, it is up to Coach Adam Oates, assistant Calle Johansson, and GM George McPhee to make some upgrades on the back end. Whether it is inserting Orlov, trying someone else from Hershey, or making a trade for some defensive help, something has got to give.

The Capitals are fortunately still sitting at 12-11-2 after this four game losing streak (0-3-1) thanks primarily to the outstanding play of Alexander Ovechkin and John Carlson this season. Carlson was great again tonight throwing seven pucks on net and his individual effort at the blue line drew a penalty and then #74 tied the game with three minutes left on the ensuing face off. It’s too bad that Mike Green’s awful night (3 minor penalties and shoddy d-zone play) and Schmidt’s inability to close on a streaking Senators forward resulted in the winning goal just 64 seconds later. Green was pretty bad on Wednesday after two games where he seemed to be on the upswing. Bottom line is #52 needs a steady NHL partner to be most effective and he does not have that with this defensive crew make up right now.

There were several other passengers in this one up front. Troy Brouwer was -3 and he continues to struggle this season. Mikhail Grabovski had a poor showing as well.

As for the penalty kill, it’s dropping like a bag of wet cement lately. The Caps are losing too many face offs and they are allowing too much traffic on their goaltender. The Caps rely heavily on Karl Alzner and Carlson to kill penalties and when the team gets into penalty trouble, like it did on Wednesday, it severely impacts the Capitals ability to win the puck possession battle because their top duo spends much of their energy while shorthanded. It’s a bad situation right now with the lack of experience on the back end.

So on Thanksgiving Eve, a game that started so promising, turned into a disaster and the way Ottawa skated all over the Capitals was telling.

It was an ugly defeat from the lack of effort and focus along with a shortage of talent on defense.

Worst loss of the season for the Caps? Absolutely.

 

 

 

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Orioles are finally in pennant race — but where are Baltimore baseball fans?

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Orioles are finally in pennant race — but where are Baltimore baseball fans?

Posted on 08 August 2012 by Nestor Aparicio

I’ve argued with WNST morning show host Drew Forrester for a decade about this. He’s always said – much like everyone in the Angelos family – “When the Orioles win they’ll ALL come back!”

Well, in case you haven’t noticed while you were dusting off your purple gear this week for tomorrow night’s meaningless and mostly unentertaining Ravens game in Atlanta, the 2012 Baltimore Orioles are just about everything you’d want in a MLB team in a “small market” where the owner is pocketing over $100 million in profit every year.

They have young stars. They are exciting every night – including last night’s 14-inning marathon victory over the Seattle Mariners that unfolded like The Ilyiad. They seem to play sudden death baseball a lot. It’s almost like they WANT you to fall asleep on them.

And these days, it appears, that most Baltimore sports fans have in fact “gone to sleep on the Orioles.”

By and large, most of you are not coming to Orioles games right now. The Orioles haven’t inspired you to buy a ticket, despite their good fortunes and entertainment value on the field.

This is a perfect day for me to write about going to Orioles games because I’m going to the game tonight.

Why?

Well, I got free tickets.

My complaints and reasons for not giving Peter Angelos my money are legendary and well-documented. The incident when the team stiffed me on a $30,000 sponsorship, then attacked me at a game in 2004 and sent an apology note signed, “The Bird.” Then, after 21 years of covering the Baltimore Orioles through three ownership groups, they took my press pass in 2007 and have summarily lied about why, which is standard operating procedure from the Angelos family.

Hell, four months ago at a charity cocktail function, Brady Anderson told me I “should leave Baltimore if I don’t like the way the team is being run.”

But I still watch them every night – which either makes me a sucker, a fool or an eternal optimist. Or maybe just someone who loves Baltimore and the Orioles and remembers how much fun baseball was for the entire community before Angelos wrecked the franchise for anyone who takes the time to examine all of the facts.

Oh, here’s one more warm and fuzzy — this Friday will mark the one-year anniversary that one of their legendary players, broadcaster and caring front office man Mike Flanagan put a gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.

The Orioles have played 110 games this year. I’ve watched about 95 of them in their entirety. The other 15 I’ve either fallen asleep (like last night) or kept track via my mobile device on WNST’s live box score feature.

If you follow me on Twitter, you might find five games where I haven’t been live tweeting most of the evening from my couch. So, I’m qualified to bitch in many ways because I’m the biggest Baltimore Orioles fan you’ll ever find.

And, again, I’m not giving Angelos my money – not tonight or any night.

In Dundalk, we would simply call him a scumbag and leave it at that.

But he doesn’t care about whether you or I come to the ballpark. He’s sucking that $3.00 per month from my cable bill and yours, 

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Olie Kolzig Talks Holtby & Lockout, Plus an Iafrate at Caps Development Camp

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Olie Kolzig Talks Holtby & Lockout, Plus an Iafrate at Caps Development Camp

Posted on 10 July 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals are holding development camp this week at Kettler IcePlex and on day two of a six day slate that ends this Saturday, another scrimmage transpired. There wasn’t a whole lot of excitement to the game in terms of pretty plays, but there certainly was a big physical aspect to the contest with 2012 first round draft pick (16th overall) Tom Wilson and free agent rookie Max Iafrate (son of former Capital “Big Al”) leading the way in the hits department. In the skill department, 2010 third round pick Stan Galiev certainly stood out as did 2012 1st round draft pick (11th overall) Filip Forsberg. Neither scored in a 2-1 game, but Galiev fired several shots while Forsberg displayed good skating ability and size.

Afterwards, the media had a chance to talk with assistant goaltending coach Olie Kolzig on a number of topics and “Olie the Goalie” was quite forthcoming. Kolzig joined the coaching ranks with the Caps just last spring and at the time he stated his role would be to help develop goalies in the Capitals system that weren’t at the NHL level. That plan came to fruition as Olie said that most of his time this past season was spent with Braden Holtby and Dany Sabourin.

“It was very impressive, just because Braden was inconsistent at the beginning of the year and I think one of the things he had to work on was his consistency. So going into the playoffs, we knew he had the talent, obviously, at the time the team needed him to play well, he played well. When he goes into Detroit and Philadelphia and gets three out of four points that speaks volumes about his character. Guys loved playing for him. So going into the playoffs one of the biggest questions was consistency and he was rock solid from game one right to game seven against the Rangers. He knows he can do it now, and I think he’s really excited about starting in September,” said Kolzig when I asked him to assess Holtby’s season.

“I didn’t hande the puck nearly like Braden did. I think, especially with Adam [Oates] coming  from Jersey and having Marty Brodeur handle the puck the way he did, he saw the benefits of having a goalie handle the puck like that and I think he is going to utilize Braden a lot more. It definitely helps on defense, you don’t get hit as much, you are able to break out of your own zone a lot quicker, and the odd time you’ll catch teams by surprise when they are making changes and lead to a lot more scoring chances,” finished Kolzig on how he expects the Caps new bench boss to use Holtby’s stick handling abilities.

In case you haven’t noticed, the pace of free agent signings by NHL teams has slowed to a crawl the last several days. A weak crop doesn’t help that, but I also believe that the current labor situation is impacting what clubs are willing to do without a new Collective Bargaining Agreement in place. I am hearing that the NHL could have a lockout that lasts until Thanksgiving weekend, which could conceivably wipe out close to a quarter of the season. Nobody wants to see that but with Donald Fehr in the mix as the head of the NHLPA, all outcomes are possible. Kolzig, who saw an entire season get wiped out in 2004-05, was clearly in the camp that a lockout would be very bad for all parties involved.

“I don’t want to see, and nobody wants to see a lockout, especially with the momentum the NHL has gained over the last few years. But you understand why and it’s the not so fun part of sports, but I suspect that both sides understand the NHL has grown so much the last few years and they don’t want to slow any momentum down or give any kind of negative outlook towards the NHL so they are going to obviously try to get [a deal] done. If for whatever reason it doesn’t get done by September 15th, then I would assume they’ll get something done in a short amount of time so we don’t see what happened in 2004,” started Kolzig on the potential lockout that could occur when the current CBA expires in September.

“It was awful, that was awful. I don’t think our union was prepared for how tough a stance the owners were taking on the lockout and they didn’t play. We didn’t really have a plan B…it was one season and money that I’ll never make back, that was the peak of my career…it was just an ugly situation and I don’t think anyone wants to see that happen again,” finished Kolzig on the NHL labor situation.

********************

He was known as “Big Al” to his teammates and you will still see Caps fans with jerseys at games with the name IAFRATE  and number 34 on the back. Al Iafrate was a very popular defensemen and even though he only spent just over three years with Washington, much of that time resulted in some of the best hockey of his career. Al was known as a big defensemen with a bigger shot. He held the NHL hardest shot record for 16 years until Zdeno Chara finally broke it in 2009 using new technology.  Al’s son, Max, who turned 18 on March 28th of this year, is attending Caps development camp after not being drafted a couple of weeks back in Pittsburgh. The 6′ 2″ right hand shooting defensemen, who was actually born in Baltimore, certainly throws hip checks like his father and seems to play the game with flair too. The media had a chance to catch up with the current Kitchener Ranger this afternoon and here is a partial transcript of the interview:

WNST: Did you have offers to go to other camps?

Iafrate: I think this was my first one, so I took it. My agent just told me right after the draft if you wanted Washington and I said yes.

WNST: So I noticed several hip checks out there. Your dad was a pretty good hip checker, did you get any technique from him?

Iafrate: Yeah, and my mentor in Kitchener, Ryan Murphy, is really good at hip checks , we both do it a lot during games, and we’ve kind of perfected it, almost, we are looking to do it more.

WNST: How would you describe your game?

Iafrate: I mean last year I came in to Kitchener being traded from Plymouth, they made me like a defense first defensemen. In Plymouth I was trying to be more offensive but they had Ryan Murphy there [in Kitchener] so I don’t think they need me to be offensive, the guy puts up 80 points a year, so just defense first, and this year, if Murph makes the pros I’ll step up and start playing power play and make more offensive contributions.

WNST: What kind of feedback have you gotten so far from the coaches on things they like and things they want you to work on?

Iafrate: Probably just keep it simple. I like to rush the puck and sometimes you make it more hard on yourself than it is, but I like to play exciting. It’s not that fun just sitting around.

WNST: What are your plans for the upcoming season at Kitchener and what kind of team are you going to have?

Iafrate: Last year I don’t think anyone thought we were going to be contenders for the [OHL] championship and we went to the Western Conference Finals. This year, we still have a great team, it will be the same team from last year, but even more experienced.

WNST: Have you seen video of your dad from his playing days?

Iafrate: Yeah, I watch him on You Tube, I’ve seen some Olympic videos of him, it is pretty cool to watch a little bit.

WNST: What hospital were you born in in Baltimore?

Iafrate: I don’t know. I just know shortly thereafter we moved to Boston. [Note: Al Iafrate was traded to the Bruins for Joe Juneau a week before Max was born.]

WNST: Does your dad still listen to the heavy metal bands? [Note: Iafrate was a big Grand Funk Railroad fan as well as Metallica and Van Halen back in his playing days. He also hosted a radio show in Annapolis that aired, for a short while, on 103.1, the Underground, when he was with the Caps.]

Iafrate: There’s really no good rock n’ roll bands anymore. He got into rap, so when I was little he showed me a lot of rap.

Clearly in Max’s case, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. In terms of personality and demeanor, he is very much like his father, the question now is, can he play hockey at the level his father did?

Notes: The Caps Development Camp has three more scrimmages slated for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday for those that want to trek down to Kettler and see some free hockey…Oates still has not named any assistant coaches…I spotted former Capital Jeff Halpern at Kettler on Tuesday evening. On Monday, Halpern signed a one year deal to play with the New York Rangers this upcoming season…both Caleb Hebert and Greg Burke were banged up in today’s scrimmage.

 

 

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A Season Changing Goal for Ovechkin?

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A Season Changing Goal for Ovechkin?

Posted on 07 December 2011 by Ed Frankovic

In the world of sports, often times we see plays made, typically by superstars, that change the course of a game or even a season.

Who can forget Jack Nicklaus’ near ace on the 16th hole at Augusta in 1986 that led to his Masters win or Mario Lemieux’s goal against the North Stars in the 1991 Stanley Cup Finals?

Tonight Alexander Ovechkin may not have made a play that carries the significance of what Nicklaus or Lemieux did, but for the Gr8 and the Washington Capitals, his highlight reel tally in the third period, that broke a 2-2 tie to lead the Caps to a 5-3 victory in Ottawa, could be one that turns the whole season around for Ovechkin and his club. It was a vintage Ovechkin goal at a crucial time. The Caps were possibly on their way to their sixth straight road defeat, losing their fourth game in five contests under new coach Dale Hunter, and falling to .500 on the season. But as the saying goes, “Great players do great things at big times” and Alexander the Great delivered when his team needed him badly. It was Ovechkin’s first goal under Hunter and only his ninth of the year in 27 games.

What makes this goal even more special is that Ovechkin played perhaps his best contest of the season. He had numerous scoring chances but Senators goalie Craig Anderson repeatedly denied him, including twice in tight after the Gr8 had skated around Senators defensemen. The key words in that previous sentence were “skating around Senators defensemen.” You see the Gr8 has been criticized for trying the same move over and over that routinely has led to blocked shots or poke checks by opposing defensemen, which often send the puck back the other way. Hunter appears to be getting Ovechkin to buy into the idea of using his speed and size to go wide on opposing d-men. As a result, the Gr8 had seven shots on net in eight attempts, many of which came via going down the boards instead of cutting to the middle after crossing the blueline.

When you go back and watch some of Ovechkin’s best goals, many of them have come off of the rush via defensive zone turnovers. The ones against Montreal in 2008 and Buffalo in 2009 come quickly to mind. But something happened to the Gr8′s ability to go from defense to offense during the latter stages of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure in DC and everyone started wondering what has happened to the Gr8. But under Hunter, we are starting to see the Gr8 improve his defensive zone effort and create plays in transition. He still has a ways to go in that end but this is very encouraging.

Not to get lost in Ovechkin’s heroics on Wednesday night were several other comeback performances from the Caps and that to me shows that this club is working hard and more importantly, getting mentally tougher. When the Senators scored two late second period goals to go up 2-1, how many Capitals fans thought, “Here we go again?!” It was easy to think that way given how the team had fallen into a pattern of giving up goals in bunches to lose games over the last month or so.

But on Wednesday, this team took on the resolve of ole number 32 and kept battling. John Carlson didn’t let a poor play on the Senators second goal bother him (to be fair, Dennis Wideman was the primary culprit on that Sens tally) and he finished with a goal and two helpers. Tomas Vokoun (31 saves) had been really struggling and he was partially to blame on all three Ottawa tallies but when Joel Ward took a bad penalty late in regulation he and defensemen Karl Alzner played incredible while shorthanded to preserve the victory. Is this a game that #29 can build off of to get on a run in net? Hunter sure would like to see one of his goalies step up and take over.

Not to be lost due to all of the talk about rebound performances, though, is the play of Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) and Alzner (27:40 of ice time, +2). #19 and #27 have been the leaders from the Capitals this season from an effort and consistency standpoint and Hunter is smart to increase the number of shifts they get, because when you are trying to turn things around, you have to play the guys who are getting it done the most. Dale’s decision to put Alzner back with Carlson has helped #74 improve his game and they are once again Washington’s best defensive duo.

After a great first period by Washington that yielded no goals, the premise of another Caps disappointing road loss appeared on the horizon after 40 minutes with Ottawa up a puck. But a sweet goal by Backstrom off of a feed from Brooks Laich evened it up setting the stage for Ovechkin’s master piece that will make all of the highlights on television and the internet Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

It was a goal the Capitals had to have. It is also the kind of tally that can bring a struggling player new found confidence. It is the type of play that often changes the entire attitude for a team and provides them with a spark necessary to go on a winning streak.

Will this goal by Ovechkin against Otttawa be just that? Stay tuned.

 

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Caps Off-Season Focus Should Be On Leadership

Posted on 17 May 2011 by Ed Frankovic

It’s been nearly two weeks since the Washington Capitals were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs in disappointing fashion. These last two hockey seasons the Capitals have been a squad that has been outstanding in the regular season but struggled when battling for Lord Stanley. In 2010, after losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, the club talked continuously about “running into a hot goalie” as the primary reason for their post season failure following a Presidents’ Trophy winning campaign. This year the Capitals are pinning the majority of the loss to the Bolts on injuries, specifically those to Dennis Wideman, Mike Green, and John Carlson, the three defensemen that Coach Bruce Boudreau heavily counted on to push the puck up the ice.

The Caps have a highly skilled and talented team that is still very young. But let’s be honest, their second straight Eastern Conference regular season title followed by an earlier than expected playoff defeat will only bring increased pressure next year on a team led primarily by Alexander Ovechkin, who will turn 26 in September. Another post season clunker in 2012 could seriously damage the confidence level of many of the young players on the team so the heat is clearly on the organization this summer to address some of the team’s deficiencies to help get them at least to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012.

The glass half full people will point to the numerous one goal losses the last two post seasons to justify their argument that the Capitals are getting closer to breaking through. The Caps lost three of the four games dropped to the Habs in 2010 by a single tally and this spring Tampa won two games by a goal and another by two due to a late empty netter. Surely had the bounces or breaks gone their way Washington might have won one or both of those series, right? Maybe, but I am not totally buying into that. A great quote from Hall of Famer Bob Gainey will back my position up.

“One-goal games are easy to hide behind. One-goal games are two goals away from winning, and that’s a lot in the NHL,” Gainey once said about one of his own clubs in a very telling statement.

If I am the Capitals, who are working through the final analysis of the 2010-11 season and beginning their planning for 2011-12, that quote from Gainey should be a reminder and a clear indicator that minor incremental changes aren’t what this hockey team needs to get to the next level. Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Green, and company are at a critical juncture in their development. They have talent and skill and they really want to win when it matters. The desire is clearly there from the interactions I’ve had with those three and we’ve also read the reports that Ovechkin spent extensive time this spring with former Stanley Cup winner Jason Arnott trying to pick his brain in an attempt to help put the Capitals over the top. Just last week owner Ted Leonsis mentioned in a radio interview that #8 offered to change his off season training regimen to try to finally deliver a Cup. Given all of this information, it seems to me that the big problem this team has right now is it just doesn’t know how to win when the chips are down.

Yes, General Manager George McPhee needs to improve some weak areas on this club, specifically finding a stronger second line center and bolstering a defense that seems to always be an injury or two away from major problems. There is no doubt some on the ice upgrades are necessary to improve their chances for success. But to me, what this organization seems to need more than anything, is an infusion of leadership. Simply put, they need to add personnel with Stanley Cup winning experience at the management level and on the ice. The role of those additions would be to help Ovechkin and many of the talented younger players on the team to understand the process of what it takes to capture a Stanley Cup, the hardest trophy to win in all of sports.

Armed with this premise on the Caps need to add leadership, I began looking at the personnel of past Cup winners to include not only the players but the coaches and the front office. Last season’s Chicago Blackhawks were a young club, similar to the Caps, but they did employ legendary Scotty Bowman, a nine time Stanley Cup winner as a coach who also has an additional three rings as a member of management, in their front office. On the ice they had Andrew Ladd, who won with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. In addition, three of their key players, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook, were members of the 2010 Olympic Canadian gold medal winning hockey team, so they gained invaluable experience playing alongside previous Cup winners Scott Niedermayer, Martin Brodeur, Dan Boyle, Chris Pronger, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Sidney Crosby, and Eric Staal.

In 2009, Crosby won his first Stanley Cup with the Penguins, who are owned by two-time Stanley Cup winner, as a player, Mario Lemieux. Mario has won at every level so you can bet that if Sid the Kid ever has any questions on what is needed to come out on top he doesn’t have to walk very far for advice. In addition, GM Ray Shero’s father, Fred, won two Stanley Cups as coach of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1974 and 1975 so the knowledge and pedigree were there as well. On the ice, Crosby was flanked by previous Cup winners Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz.

Continuing to go through the list of past Cup winners, it seemed that every team had multiple past links to Lord Stanley. Even the highly talented Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s had guys like Pat Hughes, Rick Chartraw, and Dave Lumley on their roster who previously earned Cups with the Bowman-led Canadiens of the late 1970’s. As highly skilled as those Oilers teams were with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, and Jari Kurri, General Manager and Coach Glen Sather still knew he needed experienced leaders, even if they were simply role players on the ice, to help teach his young talent how to win.

As my researched progressed, another team really started to stand out when examining their roster, coaches, and front office, the 1998-99 Dallas Stars. That Cup winning team’s best player was Mike Modano, the first overall pick in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft and their team captain was defenseman Derian Hatcher, the 8th overall pick in the 1990 NHL draft. Both of those players were in their mid to late 20’s, just like Ovechkin and Green will be heading into next season, and they had suffered several tough defeats in the post season in previous years. But that is where comparison to the current Caps team pretty much ended since Modano and Hatcher had lots of help when they finally broke through. Their GM was Gainey, Doug Jarvis (four time Stanley Cup winner with Montreal and former Washington Capital) was an assistant coach, and the club had eight players who already had their names etched on the most famous trophy in sports in Joe Nieuwendyk, Guy Carbonneau, Brian Skrudland, Mike Keane, Sergei Zubov, Shawn Chambers, Craig Ludwig, and Doug Lidster. It was a fascinating combination of young hockey talent with experienced players and management.

The Director of Player Personnel on that 1999 Cup winning Stars team was current NHL Network analyst Craig Button, the son of former Capitals Director of Player Personnel, Jack Button. Craig had started with the Stars in Minnesota in 1988 so he was heavily involved in the steps necessary to build this Cup winner and he worked with hockey legends Bob Clarke and Gainey in the process. With “the need for experienced leadership” hypothesis seemingly cemented via pure research, I contacted Button to discuss the subject, determine how important it really was to Dallas’ success, and attempted to gather insight into how they developed it in their organization.

“Leadership is clearly important and takes on a lot of different elements. It is extremely rare to find a team where it is mostly about one guy. Mark Messier is one of the greatest leaders of all time, in any sport, but people like him are few and far between, so you need a collective effort,” started Button.

The Stars had built their team around Modano and Hatcher but since a run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1991, they had ownership issues and moved to Dallas into a new NHL market before the 1993-94 campaign. That first season in Texas was an outstanding one with Modano putting up big numbers and Dallas advanced to the second playoff round before losing to the Vancouver Canucks. They then had two poor seasons and the pressure to win was mounting on a young team, but a couple of moves they made in 1995-96 added talent and more importantly, leadership, to the equation. Former Canadiens captain Carbonneau was acquired from St. Louis and in a blockbuster deal, Nieuwendyk was brought in from Calgary for Corey Millen and top prospect at the time, Jarome Iginla. Getting the former Flame was the move that stood out for Button because the Stars knew to win the West they would have to defeat Colorado, who had Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg as their top two center men, and Detroit, who boasted Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov at the pivot position.

“We needed that one-two punch up in the middle but we also needed influence on our younger players. Joe came in and he was such a pro. He was a strong man and a really good player but he took the pressure off of Modano. He helped the younger players understand how to be a professional,” added Button.

Button talked about the tough decision the organization faced to make that trade and he also felt that his club caught a bit of a break with Nieuwendyk’s situation with the Flames.

“We knew Jarome was going to be a really good player, maybe not a 50 goal scorer. But we also knew he wasn’t going to help Modano and the other younger guys on our team, who really wanted to win now but didn’t know how, figure out how to do that. So we made the trade knowing that we had good pieces in place but we needed someone to help Modano, Hatcher, Richard Matvichuk, and some of our other younger players. We also caught a break that Joe was available thanks to a contract dispute in Calgary,” recalled Button.

In the summer of 1996 they added d-man Zubov, who had won the Cup with the Rangers in 1994, and the still young Stars went on to win their division and grab the #2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. But they were upset in seven games in the first round by “hot goalie” Curtis Joseph and the Edmonton Oilers. Prior to the following season the Stars added goalie Ed Belfour and went on to win the franchise’s first ever Presidents’ Trophy in 1997-98. At the trade deadline they added Mike “you brought me here to win a Cup” Keane, but when Nieuwendyk injured his knee in game one of the post season on a check from Bryan Marchment, their chances of winning a championship took a big hit. Still, the Stars didn’t let that major injury derail them totally and they managed to take the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Red Wings to six games that spring in the Western Conference Finals. It was after that final loss that the presence of leadership helped set the stage, once again, for a strong offseason and the eventual Cup run the following June.

“We had just lost a tough series to Detroit and everyone knew the injury to Joe really hurt. It was really quiet in the dressing room following that game but after five minutes or so of dead silence, Jarvis spoke out and he said, ‘You know what we have here boys? We’ve got a team here!’ Suddenly the mood lightened and a couple of days later we had a great team party with the entire organization,” spoke Button of a leadership moment, that in hindsight, likely re-energized their club at a critical juncture.

That summer they went out and signed free agent Brett Hull but the interesting thing in that whole process was that the entire leadership team, from Gainey, Button, assistant GM Doug Armstrong, the coaches, and the players were all involved. Hull was a great talent but his dynamic personality could easily control and even disrupt a locker room. The Stars knew they needed more scoring but they didn’t want to risk that “team” concept they had developed that Jarvis glowingly spoke of following their playoff loss. Gainey met with Modano, and Hatcher, followed by meetings with the older leadership core (Carbonneau, Ludwig, Skrudland, Keane, Nieuwendyk, etc.) to ensure they understood what he was thinking and to emphasize their importance to the club and how they could be instrumental in integrating a player such as Hull into the locker room. When Hull came in he knew exactly what his role would be because he heard a consistent message from both management and players.

Before the puck even dropped on the 1998-99 season, the Stars leadership across the board had everything set up and the result was a second Presidents’ Trophy and eventually their first Stanley Cup in June. But along the way, that leadership had to play a key role. Around the trade deadline Button mentioned that Carbonneau went to Coach Ken Hitchcock to try to “manage” the team’s practice schedule down the stretch. The then 39 year old forward said that in order for his team to continue to play into June, some days off would need to be added. Hitchcock, who was not known as an easy coach, agreed, showing trust in his appointed leadership group.

“The coaching staff is only around the players about 20% of the time, the other 80% of the time you have to have leadership that understands what the team needs and calms everything down. They understand the ups and downs and the ebbs and flows and can keep everyone focused,” added Button.

That trust and reliance on leadership would pay dividends in the 1999 Western Conference Finals against Coloardo. The Stars had just lost game five at home, 7-5, and faced elimination in Denver in game six. After the first period, Dallas was down 1-0 despite playing solidly in the opening frame, and Button said that Hitchcock was walking towards the players’ room to talk to his troops when he overheard one of his leaders addressing the team.

“Hitch said he heard the players talking and emphasizing ‘to keep doing what we’re doing and we will be fine’. At that moment Ken knew he didn’t need to say much, if anything at all, because he knew the players already had his message,” said Button.

Dallas would score the last four goals of game six and go home and win 4-1 again in game seven to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. They would face the Buffalo Sabres and win, ironically on a game six triple overtime goal by Hull.

Clearly the Stars organization was loaded with great leaders on and off the ice, but if they didn’t have the strong leadership they definitely don’t win the Stanley Cup that year.

“Sure what we had in Dallas was special. Was it an embarrassment of riches? No question about it, but you can never underestimate the importance of being around proven leaders and the impact they can have,” finished Button on the Stars’ Cup winning experience.

It seems apparent that the Washington Capitals can learn some lessons from that Stars team, a club that endured similar circumstances prior to hoisting Lord Stanley.  Under contract, the Caps still have Mike Knuble with a Stanley Cup ring on their roster, but he is the only player. In the front office, it appears that Director of Player Personnel and assistant GM Brian MacLellan is the only manager with a Stanley Cup (as a player with the 1989 Calgary Flames).

McPhee will likely be making numerous personnel moves this summer, player turnover is inevitable and occurs every off season with each NHL team, so it seems important that he look for guys with Cup winning experience and leadership, as Button noted Dallas did during their Cup building process.

“It is not just about skill, you need to find the personality fits and get a team more than what that player can just do on the ice,” said Button of his experiences.

Off the ice, Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick might also discuss with McPhee the idea of bringing in another person at the management level with Stanley Cup experience. In that scenario they need to find a person who will work with the existing crew in a non-threatening manner.

This year Washington has seen firsthand and, unfortunately in a bad way for them, the impact of what a proven winner like Steve Yzerman can do to help turn around a struggling club. With the Wings former #19 at the helm in Tampa Bay, the Bolts added some key people with leadership experience (i.e, defensemen Pavel Kubina and scout Pat Verbeek) and Yzerman was also able to get one of his existing star players, team captain Vincent Lecavalier, to elevate his game to a level he hadn’t really been at since the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup victory. As a result, a team that relies on key young players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman is still very much in the running for this year’s Stanley Cup just one year after finishing 41 points behind the Capitals in 2009-10.

In closing, the Capitals have a very talented and young team that really wants to be successful and win in the post season. Unfortunately, they haven’t figured out how to do that yet. Washington could certainly address that issue by adding experienced leaders to the organization this off-season, on and off the ice, like several past Cup winners have done before finally breaking through. It might cost the organization more money and they may have to part with one of their future prospects, like Dallas did with Iginla, but if they really want to help take the pressure off of Ovechkin and some of their other star players, then it is definitely the right thing to do. If they decide not to go that route, then they will likely continue to pursue a championship via the “trial and error” path, which in no way guarantees success.

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Senators Blank Caps, 2-0

Posted on 25 March 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Absolutely nothing went the Capitals way on Friday night in Ottawa. Craig Anderson made several good saves plus was a little lucky when he had to be, Washington made some huge defensive gaffes, and the officiating was downright horrible. When you add that all up it leads to a Caps shutout loss, 2-0, to the Senators. The defeat drops the Capitals record to 43-22-10 (96 points) but they still lead the Southeast Division by seven points as a result of Tampa’s 4-3 loss against the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday night.

Here are the highlights and analysis of a game in which the NHL Director of Officiating, Terry Gregson, should be pretty embarrassed about:

- Anderson (31 saves) was very good for the Sens but he was also the beneficiary of some overpassing by Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin on a Washington power play in the second period when the game was scoreless. In addition, rookie Marcus Johansson rifled one through #41′s pads in the third period but the puck just trickled wide and an Ottawa defender scooped it out of harm’s way. Still, the journeyman goalie, who recently signed a big four year contract ($12.75M total) to stay in Ottawa, was very solid and calm in net and was easily the game’s number one star.

- The Caps made some big mistakes in their own zone and it cost them on both Ottawa goals. On the first tally, Scott Hannan chased Jason Spezza the wrong way around the Capitals cage and that allowed #19 to put a pass in front to a streaking Colin Greening out of the corner. Greening badly beat Caps d-man John Erskine to the front of the net but the puck hit both of his skates and then he interfered with Semyon Varlamov (21 saves) as he knocked the puck in the cage with his skate for an Ottawa 1-0 lead at 12:25 of the middle frame. Referee Stephane Auger called it a goal but then huddled with the other zebra, Kelly Sutherland. After they conferred with the league in Toronto, the goal stood despite being obvious goalie interference, which apparently is not reviewable. On the second Senators goal, early in period three, Karl Alzner blindly throws the puck up the boards right to Milan Michalek, who feeds it to Erik Condra in the slot. #38 then slid one by Varly as he went down too late into the butterfly position. There were other poor plays by the Washington defensemen on this night that didn’t lead to goals. Overall I would grade the defense as “below average” in this contest. They only gave up 23 shots but they made some big mistakes that will cost them in the post season if they don’t clean it up.

- As for the offense, the Caps did have the 31 shots but there were not a lot from in front of the cage. The Capitals showed some very good puck movement on their first two power plays and Brooks Laich looked excellent on the right point, but Semin made several wrong decisions with the biscuit that prevented Washington from lighting the lamp. On one sequence #28 held onto the puck below the goal line and skated up the right wing boards when Backstrom was wide open in front. He also was a victim of too many moves and over passing on some down low two on ones with the man advantage. Backstrom also tried to force a pass when he had a great chance on Anderson with the game scoreless. The Capitals routinely didn’t get pucks deep and cycle the Senators defense, who likely would have tired having played in New York the night before. Simply put, this was a LAZY offensive effort by Washington, in my book.

- Varlamov, who started for the first time since winning in Buffalo on February 20th, was good in goal. He had to face some quality chances and he did fairly well. He’d probably like another shot at the 2nd goal but Alzner did help Michalek put that one on a tee for Condra. Michal Neuvirth was slated to start this game but came down with an illness and it is possible that Braden Holtby could be recalled for Saturday’s game in Montreal either to start or backup Varly.

- As for the officiating, it was definitely the worst Caps game I’ve seen called all season. I’ve already talked about the mistake on the Senators first goal, which was the result of goalie interference, but there were two other BLATANT mistakes made in this game. First, Matt Hendricks took a stick to the head early on but after an initial high sticking penalty was called on David Hale, and it should have been a double minor since #26 was cut, the referees took #36 out of the penalty box. Shortly thereafter Al Koken of Comcast interviewed assistant coach Bob Woods on the bench who told him that the referees thought that Hendricks was cut with a skate. If you ask me, not only were the four referees blind for missing that, but they are also stupid. If a skate was up that high around Hendricks head and caught him where he was cut, he likely would have lost his eye and bled pretty badly. The other big miss was on a clean shoulder check on Patrick Wiercioch by Matt Bradley above the goal line. Wiercioch went down hard and slid into the boards. Somehow the referees called it boarding prompting Hockey Night in Canada’s Jeff Marek to question that logic via Twitter. Bradley also got jumped for the clean check by Zack Smith and the Caps would have had a power play if boarding wasn’t called on #10. Finally, the game was also called very inconsistently with hits and holds not very clearly defined, which had to make it tough for the players to know what the rules were on this given night. After the game on Twitter, HNIC’s Cassie Campbell stated how bad the officiating was and referenced the no call on the high stick to Hendricks. Gregson and the NHL cannot let this type of officiating happen starting April 13th.

- The Caps are now 3-2 on this six game road trip and they once again played without Alexander Ovechkin, Jason Arnott, Mike Green, Eric Fehr, and Tom Poti. On Monday we should know more about the status of those five with Green’s injury being the most concerning. Saturday’s tilt in Montreal is the final meeting between the Caps and the Canadiens in the regular season (Caps are 2-0-1). Right now the Habs sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and both teams could meet again in the first round of the playoffs depending on what happens down the stretch.

Notes: Dennis Wideman led the Caps in ice time with 24:25. Laich led the Caps forwards playing 23:30…the Capitals were smoked on faceoffs, 32-19. Johansson went 1-9 and Backstrom was 7-13…Washington had five shots on net on their three power plays. They only gave up four shots while shorthanded on three attempts.

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Maryland’s new football coach shouldn’t be hired by an apparel company

Posted on 20 December 2010 by Drew Forrester

It became official today, three days later than necessary, but official nonetheless.

The Ralph Friedgen era is over at the University of Maryland.

Strip away the wordsmithing attempts by Athletic Director Kevin Anderson and it came down to this: The school didn’t want Friedgen to coach the team anymore. Since they were locked into a deal through 2011, they sorta-kinda had to keep him around unless something or someone made it financially viable for them to part company with the 10-year coach.

Enter Vanderbilt — and James Franklin.

When Franklin took the job at Vanderbilt late last week, that absolved the Terps of a possible one million dollar payout to Franklin through the terms of his coach-in-waiting contract originally produced by former A.D. Debbie Yow.

And when Franklin started plucking coaches away from the Terps over the weekend, it made Anderson’s decision all that much easier. With little confidence that the school wanted Friedgen to run their football program after his contract expired in 2011, the decision to oust him was expedited by the mass exodus that included Franklin.

Understand?

It’s big business, I suppose, and it’s not really that “dirty” to fire a head coach, even when he just guided his team to a rather surprising 8-4 campaign and was named the ACC Coach of the Year in doing so. There’s certainly an argument that Maryland – as a football program – has fallen off the fall/winter sports radar in the DC/Baltimore corridor over the last few years. Some of that is due to the fact that the team hasn’t been very successful on the field, not forgetting this season’s success, of course. Some of that is due to the fact that Maryland’s non-conference schedule hasn’t been highly attractive. And some of that is due to the fact that Maryland’s football PROGRAM, in general, is just not that marketable — and that includes, frankly, the guy who is now formerly the head coach.

Firing Ralph Friedgen wasn’t that big of a deal. The team would have been good-to-very-good next season with him — or without him. It’s that Anderson tried to force Friedgen’s hand and make him do something — retire, gracefully or not — that he had no intention of doing just to ease the pain of having to dismiss the coach that just produced an 8-4 season.

This isn’t a great way for Kevin Anderson to start his tenure at Maryland. It might, for a while anyway, make it hard to root for the football team at College Park until the stink of Friedgen’s firing goes away in a year or two.

But there’s a more important decision looming at Maryland now.

Who gets the head coaching job?

Most people in the know are saying it’s already a done deal and that Mike Leach is a step away from getting his parking pass and painting his new office a different color just because he can.

Kevin Anderson is saying all the right things because there’s a process that needs to play out and committees have to be formed and “independent advisors” have to be retained to ensure that Maryland follows the hiring letter-of-the-law.

If Mike Leach isn’t the next coach, I’d be shocked.

But SHOULD he be the next coach?

That’s a fair question.

And despite the fact that most people close to the situation are hinting that a certain sports apparel entrepreneur is the guy calling (continued)

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Caps Fall to Avs, 3-2

Posted on 11 December 2010 by Ed Frankovic

For the first time in the Bruce Boudreau era the Washington Capitals have a five game losing streak as the Caps flu ridden team dropped a 3-2 decision to the Colorado Avalanche at the Verizon Center on Saturday night. Once again the opposing goalie was the story as Craig Anderson stopped 40 shots and the Avs net minder was very fortunate to escape with a victory as the Capitals misfired on several good chances. Washington completes a four game home stand at 0-3-1 and their overall record falls to 18-10-3.

Here are the highlights and analysis from a good effort by the Caps that didn’t get the desired result:

- The Caps worked hard and arguably deserved to win but there are three plays that cost them a victory and they were all bad ones by Washington. First, Michal Neuvirth gave up an awful bad angle goal to Kevin Shattenkirk less than three minutes into this tilt. Second, Tom Poti is horribly out of position on an Avalance rush and Ryan Wilson comes down the slot all alone on #30 and beats him. Finally, with the score 2-1 Colorado, Alexander Semin, after taking two whacks to the midsection from John-Michael Liles, responded with a dirty and cheap shot cross check to the neck/back of the head of #4 and was whistled for a five minute major and a game misconduct. Argue all you want against that call and you will be wrong on that one, it was a stupid and selfish retaliation penalty. The Avalanche would score once on the long power play and that goal was the final difference.

- Alexander Ovechkin (1 assist, 5 hits, +1) was a force in this one and he, along with Matt Hendricks (1 goal and 4 hits), set the tone for Washington with their physical presence and determination. For many Capitals this was their best tilt of the disastrous home stand and their head coach certainly recognized it.

“That looked more like our team tonight…it is on the upswing, not on the downswing. If we have an effort like that tomorrow we might get rewarded for it,” started Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, “You could tell the difference with Alex, he was skating, he was moving and he was hitting. I thought he did a good job that way,” finished the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner on his team captain’s strong effort against Colorado.

- Clearly the team missed the services of defenseman Mike Green, who is out with the flu, and it was rather apparent that Nicklas Backstrom is still struggling healthwise too. #19 was a terrible 4-15 on face-offs and he was uncharacteristically taken off the puck behind the net on several occassions, something that is a rarity. Boudreau was quick to give his #1 center a pass despite the lack of production.

“Backstrom could be better, he tried, but he’s coming right out of the sick bed,” finished Boudreau.

- Despite the fifth straight defeat there is no need to panic right now. Those calling for drastic measures should calm down. It is December and the Caps are banged up and not healthy at all at this point in time. Once this flu bug goes away, we’ll get a better idea of where the Caps are when they take on the Penguins twice in nine days between December 23rd and January 1st. If Washington doesn’t fair well in those tilts, then we can start talking changes, but I don’t expect the Caps to get beaten by a Pittsburgh club that might be peaking too early.

Notes: Next up for the Caps are the New York Rangers on Sunday at 7pm from Madison Square Garden and you can bet the farm that Semyon Varlamov will be in goal for Washington…I expect Semin to get at least a fine and perhaps a suspension for his dirty hit. There is no excuse for his actions on that play…Washington was outdueled, 36-31, from the face-off dot due to Backstrom’s struggles, which stem from his lack of strength due to the flu (perhaps someone else should have taken some of those draws?)…team guy Matt Bradley fought heavyweight Cody McLeod after #55 raced a good distance and hit him on the boards (no call from the zebras though for charging). #10, after being scratched against the Panthers, was -2 but that was the fault of Neuvirth and Poti…Marcus Johansson was scratched and his play has tailed off again, but he is a rookie…Mike Knuble had a goal and an assist and could have had more points since Ovechkin was a wrecking ball and constantly fed the puck into the crease area…that is it for tonight, sorry for the short blog, I have the flu too (was in Caps locker room following Thursday’s tilt).

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Caps Rookies Knock Off Flyers, 4-3

Posted on 16 September 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Caps Win Rookie Game

The Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-3, in their rookie game Thurday afternoon at Kettler IcePlex. Highlights of the tilt are up at washingtoncaps.com. Cody Eakin, who was taken in the 3rd round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by Washington, notched the game winner while 2010 3rd rounder Stanislav Galiev tallied first for the red, white, and blue by going to the net and banging home a Marcus Johansson (2009 1st round selection) feed. Defenseman Josh Godfrey (2007 2nd round choice) tallied twice for Washington on the power play in between those markers. Philip Grubauer (2010 4th round selection), who won the Memorial Cup with Windsor this past spring, started in net and gave way to Brandon Anderson, who played for Lethbridge of the WHL last season. Based on the highlights alone, it looks like Grubauer was very strong in net while Anderson had some struggles. The Capitals plan on posting the entire feed of the contest on their website sometime Thursday evening. Even though it was just a rookie game, it is always fun when the Caps beat the Flyers.

Interview with Dustin Stevenson

After Wednesday’s practice I had a chance to catch up with 21 year old defenseman Dustin Stevenson, who the Caps signed this off-season as a free agent out of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL). Stevenson, who is wearing #66 with Washington, had 11 goals, 36 assists and 134 PIMs in 56 games for the La Ronge Ice Wolves and he was also named 2009-10 SJHL Player of the Year. During the Caps July development camp he was very noticeable in a positive way and was one of the big surprises of that week.  Here is the transcript of the interview with the 6′ 5″ blue liner:

WNST: Tell us a little bit about how the first four days have gone and what your expectations are for the coming season?

Stevenson: The past few days have gone well. It is nice getting to know all of these guys that are in the system. I think we came together well as a team over the past few days. I’m learning the systems a bit here and getting ready for the big game [on Thursday vs. the Flyers]. I guess my expectations for this year is to take as much as I can from these camps, try and sponge up as much as I can. Wherever they put me I’ll try and make the best of it.

WNST: You are a pro this year so you are going to play in either Hershey or South Carolina, correct?

Stevenson: That’s right, [Hershey] is my goal for now but they’ll do whatever they think is best for me. So like I said I’ll try and make the best of wherever they put me.

WNST: If someone asked you to describe your game, what type of style you play and your strengths, how would you answer that?

Stevenson: I like to think that I am pretty good at moving the puck. I try and play a physical game too. I was on the power play back with my old team and quarterbacked that. I like to think that I am a bit of an offensive defenseman as well.

WNST: Tell me a little bit about the Saskatchewan league last year, how your team did, and what that did to prepare you for this move up in your career.

Stevenson: I had great coaching on my old team. We won the league so it helped to get that extra couple of months in and playoffs and everything and I learned quite a bit. Like I said I had good coaching along the way so to win the league was awesome.

WNST: Who was your coach?

Stevenson: Bob Beatty and Gavin Holcomb. Bob played pro for a quite a few years and he was kind of a tough nosed defenseman, so I learned a lot from him.

WNST: What are some of the areas that you want to improve on?

Stevenson: Obviously I need to work on my foot speed a little bit. I think everyone needs to do that when they make the next step up. I also think just concentrate on my d-zone and playing good defense. The guys are bigger and stronger and faster in pro. I’m going to have to make sure that I am prepared as much as possible for them coming down on me one-on-one. It’s going to be a bit of a change. So just work on my d-zone a bit.

WNST: What have the coaches, either Bruce [Boudreau], Mark [French], or Troy [Mann], said to you since rookie camp or this week?

Stevenson: After prospects camp I talked to Bruce and he said he really didn’t know what to expect with me coming from Tier II Junior A. He said he was happy with the way my camp went and to just keep working hard and take the rest of my summer to train and try and get better and come back to this rookie camp and compete the way I did in the summer camp and see what happens.

WNST: Coming from Tier II Junior A and now competing against high draft picks like Evgeni Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, and Stan Galiev has there been a big change for you speedwise?

Stevenson: It hasn’t been too bad. They are definitely very skilled players but it is nice to have them on your team as well because the better the players are around you the better that makes me play. I think they are very skilled players but I haven’t found it too hard. I think I fit in well.

WNST: What do you look for in a defensive partner, given that you said offense is your strength?

Stevenson: My defense partner I played with last season, he and I just gelled well. You know they can put me with anybody and as I get to know the way they play you kind of work with each other and I’m sure whoever they put me with will be fine.

WNST: So how did you end up with Washington?

Stevenson: I was just playing back in Saskatchewan and I guess I got scouted a little bit and then [Caps Director, Player Development] Steve Richmond came out and watched me play a couple of times. I just met with him. He took me out for dinner a couple of times to meet my family and ask me what my future plans were and I told him I was going to college. The original plan was he wanted me to do that, he thought that was a good idea, but then I guess he had a change of heart and he offerred me a contract so I talked it over with my family there and we felt it was the best decision for me and we feel it would be the best for my development.

Notes: Friday is off-ice testing at Kettler IcePlex for the Caps players so their will be no media availability or coverage. Training camp officially begins, for the veterans, on Saturday. At 10am Group A will practice followed by Group B at 1115am and Group C at 1pm. On Sunday, at Noon, Group B takes on Group C in game one of the three day round robin scrimmage event with the winner hoisting the Gaetan Duchesne Cup following Tuesday’s tilt.

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Don’t Change Your Style Caps!

Posted on 29 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

The 2009-10 Washington Capitals sold out every single home game, set a club record for points in a season (121), and scored a league leading 313 goals, which was 45 more than the second place Vancouver Canucks. However, after Washington was upset in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in seven games by the Montreal Canadiens there are people in the hockey world (other teams employees, media, fans, etc.) who insist the Caps need to change their style of play if they want to win the Stanley Cup. Even more crazy is there are some who are calling for Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau to be fired after he just orchestrated the single greatest regular season in franchise history. My reply to all of this talk is:  STOP THE NONSENSE! (which is a nicer way of saying, ala Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, “What are you people, on dope??!!”)

First off, the system works and it fits Washington’s make-up, granted I will argue that some changes in personnel need to be made to make it work even better, but more on that later. When Boudreau was hired the Caps stunk. They were 6-14-1 and in last place in the Eastern Conference. They had a bunch of young and highly skilled players but they were using an archaic system under former Coach Glen Hanlon. Enter “Gabby” and suddenly the Caps are more aggressive, score goals, and are exciting to watch. He also has led them to three straight Southeast Division titles and a third, second, and first place finish, respectively, in the Eastern Conference. The first season fans were just happy to make the playoffs and the loss to Philadelphia in the first round in seven games was considered a good first step. Then last season, Washington grew up and took eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh to seven games in the second round before losing convincingly in the last tilt, 6-2. Naturally expectations were high for 2009-10 and the Capitals delivered in the regular season setting the marks mentioned in the opening above. However, come playoff time, something happened on the way to the Forum and all of that firepower fizzled out, mostly due to a hot goalie but also due to some defencies on the Washington end. After last night’s loss, which can definitely be considered a post season step back, some have hit the panic button.

The easiest thing for critics of the Caps to point to are the comments from R.J. Umberger of Columbus that came after Washington beat the Blue Jackets, 3-2, in a meaningless affair in Ohio on April 3rd. Specifically Umberger said the following about the Caps:

“I don’t think any team in the West would be overmatched by them,” Umberger said. “They play the wrong way. They want to be moving all the time. They float around in their zone, looking for breakaways and odd-man rushes. A good defensive team is going to beat them (in the playoffs). If you eliminate your turnovers and keep them off the power play, they’re going to get frustrated because they’re in their zone a lot.”

Naturally after the Caps were knocked off by Montreal, which on paper appears to be a defensive team, the Umberger quotes were thrown in their face and labeled as correct. Ludicrous accusations, I say. Umberger basically says all you need to do is keep the Caps off of the power play because they won’t be able to get out of their zone and that will allow you to beat them with defensive mistakes. Well you don’t have to be a prosecutor or attorney on Law & Order to see that Umberger’s quote does not match what actually happened between the Caps and the Habs. Montreal DID take penalties, in fact, Washington had 33 attempts in seven games, nearly five a tilt, but they only scored once in the entire series with a manpower advantage. In addition, the puck spent very little time in Washington’s zone, other than short stretches in the early minutes of several of the contests and the proof of that is the Caps outshot Montreal by a staggering 292-194! Those stats do not represent the work of a club that chooses to “float in their own zone looking for breakaways.” The truth is the Caps dominated the play but lost due to an anemic power play, great goaltending by Halak, and the unwillingness of some Caps players to make the hard plays necessary to score goals.

Now that we have dispelled the Umberger myth let’s get back to some of the other thoughts on the style of play. Teams say because Washington is an offensive minded team that they can’t win the Stanley Cup. To that I say, any of those people ever see the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980′s or the Pittsburgh Penguins of the early 1990′s or some of the Detroit Red Wings teams’ that have won Stanley Cups in the last 15 years? We’ll get to those teams in a minute but does anyone really think that taking the skilled players the Caps have and putting them in a system like what the New Jersey Devils play will work in the post lockout era? Sure New Jersey is good during the regular season but in the playoffs their trapping, defensive system has led to three straight first round defeats with arguably the greatest goalie of all time in net (Martin Brodeur). To see more proof that their system does not work look no further than the mid-season addition of Ilya Kovalchuk. The highly skilled Russian, in the Devils defense first mantra, was supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle for New Jersey but he was unable to get Jacques Lemaire’s club out of the first round. So to think Washington should switch to a trapping, defensive system is pure hogwash. That style doesn’t work anymore.

The truth is, the Caps are playing the right system and post season setbacks will happen, especially to young teams like Washington has and despite what many people may be thinking today, this difficult experience is not all bad. Reference the 1981-82 Edmonton Oilers. This Wayne Gretzky led club, after being knocked out in the first round in their initial playoff appearance in 1979-80 and then defeated in round two in the post season in 1980-81, set the league on fire scoring an NHL record 417 goals! The Oilers notched 111 points and won their division, over the Vancouver Canucks, by 34 points (sound familiar?) but somehow got bounced in a best of five series by a Los Angeles Kings club that only amassed 63 points in the regular season. Wow, I guess breaking up Edmonton and changing their system, one that reflected the then clutch and grab..er Stanley Cup Champion New York Islanders were employing in that era was what should have happened next, right? But no, Edmonton Coach Glen Sather stayed the course, made some minor personnel tweaks (added forward Ken Linesman from Philadelphia), and in 1982-83 they went to the Finals only to lose to the Islanders. But in 1984 and 1985 they were Stanley Cup Champions and in 1987 and 1988 they did that again. I know people were all over Sather, Gretzky, Messier and company after the Kings debacle but the Edmonton brain trust knew what they had and didn’t panic. They simply allowed the young players they had to mature and one of the lessons learned was realizing the price that needed to be paid to win in the post season. This is similar to what the Red Wings went through during the 1990′s before they finally broke through and won back to back Cups in 1997 and 1998. I vividly remember the Red Wings being labeled as the typical Presidents’ Trophy team that could not get it together in the playoffs, much like the monikor the San Jose Sharks are wearing in current times.

If you look at the personnel on that 81-82 Oilers team the names Gretzky and Mark Messier jump out first. The two great centers were flanked by pure goal scorers Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri. They were also led on the blue line by a fast skating, offensive minded defenseman named Paul Coffey, who took a lot of heat in his career for his play in his own zone. In goal they had a young and acrobatic Grant Fuhr and they had a super solid Kevin Lowe on the back end who focused on defense first.

Circling back to Washington, I see a lot of similarities in the 2009-10 Capitals with the 1981-82 Oilers, although that Edmonton team was clearly deeper up the middle and on the back end. The Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom combination is not Gretzky-Messier but it isn’t way off the map as far as top ranked players in the league at the time are concerned, except that the Great #8 plays left wing. Two time Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green can be compared to #77 and in 81-82, Coffey only had a goal and an assist in five post season tilts before figuring out how to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs and recording seven goals and seven assists in the Oilers run to the finals in 82-83. Fuhr was a phenomenal goalie but he was lit up in five games going 2-3 with a 5.05 GAA in 81-82 but in their Cup run in 1983-84 he kept the GAA down to 2.99. Varlamov certainly has the ability of a young Fuhr. Anderson was a great skater and could fill the net and the closest comparison would be Mike Knuble, although #22 has nowhere near the speed that #9 had. Now the similarities start to get a little dicey, Kurri was a pure goal scorer who could play defense. Semin is the closest Capital in skill and ability but from what I have seen from #28 he has nowhere near the drive to be like #17 at both ends of the rink. Washington also doesn’t really have a Lowe type d-man right now. Would it be Tom Poti? Jeff Schultz? or perhaps could it be Karl Alzner? Big stretch on that front, if you ask me.

Clearly that Edmonton squad was great and they managed to learn from that first round knock out in their third playoff season. But Washington has a talent base that is somewhat comparable and the teams play very similar styles. With the post lockout rules, the game has become much more like the mid-eighties with the notable exception being the ability of the goalies and the increased size of their equipment. A Capitals style of hockey works, if Boudreau and GM George McPhee have the right players that execute the system.

Execution was clearly lacking against Montreal. Some players were not physical enough (see Tomas Fleischmann) to handle the demands of the high energy system while others just don’t seem to have the speed or size to punish opponents on the backend. This team will improve based on maturity and experience alone, but to take it to the next level some pieces of the puzzle need to be found. First and foremost is a second line center. Boudreau said himself that secondary scoring was what was missing from his club in 2010. Would a better center help Semin get going? Probably not, #28 still performed in the same soft manner when paired with Backstrom in game six, but if you brought in a real #2 pivot man then a Brooks Laich or an Eric Fehr likely pots more tallies in the post season. Based on this, Semin is disposable, especially if he fails to compete like he did for much of the Montreal series. The defense could use some tweaks in addition to the permanent promotions of Alzner and John Carlson. Specifically the blue line could use a guy who is physical in his own end, can wear smaller opponents out, and block shots.

In summary, the disappointment from 2009-10 is very high right now, but to do something drastic like changing the system or firing the coach makes zero sense. These guys are not going to become the 1995 or 2002-03 New Jersey Devils nor do the current rules dictate that type of system will work. An offensive team that is willing to pay the price at both ends of the rink is what has won the last two Stanley Cups and will likely take it again this year.  Washington just needs to mature as a team and realize that from puck drop they need to be ready. They clearly were not this post season. Finally, McPhee must fill some of the final holes on his roster, with a focus on finding another line that can score when it counts.

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