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Caps Knock Off Sabres in Pre-Season Tilt

Posted on 01 October 2011 by Ed Frankovic

With just eight days until the start of the regular season, Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau dressed a lineup on Friday against Buffalo that will be very close to the one he ices on opening night on October 8th against Carolina. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff played a crew that will very much resemble his regular season roster and the result was an excellent pre-season game that had intensity to it. The Caps rallied with a third period goal with some inspired play and ended up winning the contest in a shootout, 4-3. Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Matt Hendricks notched goals for Washington while Tomas Vanek and Jason Pominville had two tallies and one, respectively, for the visitors. Backstrom won the game in the shootout in the 6th round after Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin scored earlier in the gimmick.

Here are the quotes and analysis from a contest that provided a good benchmark of where the Caps are at with the NHL regular season just around the corner:

- The Capitals were extremely sloppy in their own end for the first 40 minutes and struggled with some turnovers and even worse, poor coverage. Low percentage clear outs were attempted and Buffalo players were given too much time and space on numerous occassions. It was clear that new goalie Tomas Vokoun is still trying to learn how the guys in front of him are going to play in the defensive end. For a goalie, knowing where the shots are going to come from is so critical and #29 is still figuring that out. The good news is that in the third period Washington really was solid in their defensive zone and Buffalo actually didn’t register a shot on net until past the period’s middpoint. Boudreau had a theory as to why things changed in the last portion of regulation.

“On the two goals that were scored against us there is still the newness of communication between Tomas [Vokoun] and the defense and I think on both of those goals, and we talked about it between periods, there was a miscommunication. Whether it was handling the puck, letting it go, defense in front ‘should I block?’, ‘should I not?’ Once we got that straightened around I thought they played a really good third period.”

Ovechkin also talked about the importance of playing well in their own end this year.

“The defensive zone is the most important thing for us. …Every time you have to play careful in your zone. We just give more attention to details in the preseason,” said the two time NHL MVP.

 

- Offensively the Capitals did a good job of putting the heat on the Buffalo defense. The Caps, despite being outshot for two periods, did have quite a few quality chances only to be denied by all world goalie Ryan Miller on a few occassions. Troy Brouwer played on a line with Ovechkin and the two of them did a nice job of forechecking and taking the body, which helped wear down a very good Sabres blue line crew.

“I thought the energy and the forechecking in the first two periods was pretty good as well. We got the results in the third period but I think a lot of it was because we worked hard in the first two periods, but it was consistent for 60 minutes, which we hadn’t done,” added Boudreau.

- The Capitals went 1 for 5 on the power play but there were noticeable differences to the way the unit plays from a year ago. The focus is clearly to get the puck to the top center portion of the point and fire away with traffic in front of the opposing goaltender. The past reliance on slick cross ice passes for one timers with the man advantage appears to be gone. There are still outstanding passes made by highly skilled guys, as evidenced by Green’s superb off the boards back pass to Ovechkin on the Caps second tally, but getting in position for rebounds is clearly now the recipe for success.

“I knew Alex was behind and I dragged the guy to me. I just had to make sure I bounced it hard enough so that he could get it because he is a right handed shot or else it would have been in his skates. He made a great shot and it was laying there and I decided to poke it in,” said Green describing his goal, that was set up by difficult bank pass.

“We are not going to give away any of our secrets. We have our game plan and [crashing the net] is a piece of it but we even have to be better. The fortunate thing is we have a lot of guys who can play. It’s not just one line anymore, it’s two, even three units that can play,” finished the Calgary native on the Caps power play.

“It’s hard to score in this league and when you are playing against Ryan Miller, it’s even harder. So you better go to the net if you want to score,” commented Boudreau on the net crashing strategy.

- Here are some quick thoughts on the performances of individual players in this tilt:

  • Ovechkin was into this contest, especially in the third period when he was throwing his body around. The Gr8 had two assists, although it looked to me like he scored the second goal that was credited to #52 (Boudreau said the same thing after the contest).
  • Marcus Johansson looked very good in this game as he starts his sophomore campaign. He continues to be a dominant skater and he is even stronger on the puck this year.
  • We always hear about how hard Joel Ward works but he is also a very smart hockey player with superb hockey sense. In the third period one of his best plays came in the neutral zone on a cross ice pass. #42 had two cross ice options on the play, one which was very high risk, high reward but needed to be threaded perfectly so it would not be intercepted, or another more orthogonal pass that would be very effective, but safer. Ward chose the later and it resulted in a scoring chance for Washington. The former Predators forward is clearly a guy that can play pretty much with anyone and is going to make his line a positive factor in the game.
  • Backstrom had the first goal after a good feed from Ovechkin and after an even better breakout pass by Brouwer. #19 buried that chance but I still am not seeing the burst of speed and superior skating ability that I saw from him in 2009-10. As for Brouwer, he was excellent in this contest. He went to the net to create traffic and added two helpers. He did have the occassional defensive zone lapse but that was corrected by period three.
  • For the Sabres, Vanek continues to show that he is a top notch player but the man who stood out for them was offseason free agent acquisition Christian Ehroff. #10 was superb running the Buffalo attack and he was +2 with a goal and an assist. If he stays healthy the Sabres should be a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.
  • The Caps tying goal was a thing of beauty. Jeff Halpern won the faceoff to Jay Beagle, who slid it back to Green at the point. #52 fired the biscuit at Miller while the Washington players crashed the net. The American goaltending star then gave up an uncharacteristic big rebound in the slot that Hendricks slid by the Michigan State alum. It was a hard working tally right off of a faceoff, something coaches love to have.
  • Given what I saw tonight and from preseason observations, I think that the 12 forwards who dressed tonight, minus Cody Eakin, will make the final roster, which is due on Tuesday at 3pm. Eakin needs a full year in the AHL to mature physically and play lots of minutes. Mike Knuble, who was rested on Friday, would be one of the top 12. Mathieu Perreault did not play on Friday but I see him making the club as an additional forward. #85 has had a strong preseason plus he would have to go through waivers if he was attempted to be sent down to Hershey (Eakin can go to the Bears without GM George McPhee worrying about a waiver claim). The six defensemen who dressed tonight, Green, John Carlson, Dennis Wideman, Jeff Schultz, Roman Hamrlik, and Karl Alzner, will be the opening night blue liners unless there is an injury.

Notes: Chris Bourque, Sean Collins, and Patrick McNeill were waived and sent to Hershey…Collins could be recalled for the opener as the seventh d-man if John Erskine is still not ready to play…Washington outshot the Sabres 32-24, largely due to a 15-3 advantage in the third period…the Capitals lost the faceoff battle 33-32 with MJ90 going 4-9…the Caps killed off all four Sabres power plays. Washington’s next and final preseason game is on Sunday at 5 pm from the Verizon Center against the Chicago Blackhawks.

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Caps Blanked in Baltimore Hockey Classic

Posted on 21 September 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The streets of Charm City were filled with fans decked out in red and the energy in 1st Mariner Arena was super, but unfortunately the Washington Capitals were unable to score any goals in the inaugural Baltimore Hockey Classic and lost, 2-0, to the Nashville Predators. An announced sellout crowd of over 11,000 witnessed the first professional hockey game at the arena since the Baltimore Bandits left for Cincinnati in 1997. It was a super event for the city of Baltimore and something that Caps Owner Ted Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee felt was a good idea to do given the growing Capitals fan base just 30+ miles up the BW Parkway.

“We’re thrilled to bring Washington Capitals hockey to the Baltimore market. Tuesday’s game will pump revenue into the local economy and serve as a great public-private partnership between the city and the Capitals,” said McPhee of the event.

There is no doubt the local businesses in the area received a spike from this game and despite the fact that the ice conditions weren’t exactly stellar - I don’t think anyone is going to confuse that surface with Rexall Place – it was indeed a great night to be a part of.

Now onto the game itself and the all important quotes and analysis from what was a pretty sloppy game due to the heat and humidity in the building.

- When the ice is the way it was on Tuesday, the team that simplifies and minimizes their mistakes usually wins. Nashville did that as their two tallies came as a result of Washington defensive zone turnovers, something that plagued them in their series loss to Tampa Bay last spring. On each goal scored by the Predators there was a turnover by a forward and the defense was unable to cover up for the mistake.

“On the first goal, [assistant coach] Bob [Woods] said it was the winger. On the second, Michal [Neuvirth] said it was a two on one and the guy tried to pass it and it hit our guy and came right back to him so it was an easy play. The first one I do know that we made a bad change and that’s what left [Shea] Weber so alone in front of the net to be able to make that play,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau on Nashville’s two goals.

“They just didn’t get the building cold enough, but it is what it is. There was less water in Florida [last night], but they had the building colder…the conditions were what they were, a hot building so you’ve really got to be mentally tough. We talked about let’s keep it simple, we can’t control the humidity and the heat and all of that…and it worked for us,” said Nashville coach Barry Trotz on how his club approached the way the game would have to be played.

“It’s hard to handle the puck out there. The conditions made a difference but both teams were playing on it. You see how wet the ice is, so sometimes you get the puck and kind of worry about if you handle it is it going to get stuck in the water? So I just tried to focus on moving the puck quick and getting it off of my stick,” added Caps defensemen Sean Collins on what he tried to do when he was on the ice.

- The best player for Washington on this night, in my book, was goalie Michal Neuvirth. #30 faced a lot of rubber, many of which came on quality chances due to Washington turnovers in their own zone. Both tallies were not the fault of the goaltender, he pretty much had no chance on either goal.

“It is usually the younger players, the hungrier players, that you see take over in games like this and I thought this was the case in this game tonight. The younger players were probably the better players or shined brighter, if there was anyone shining. I thought Michal Neuvirth is still pretty young and I thought he was a guy that played very steady for us tonight,” said Boudreau on the play of his young netminder.

- The 3rd and 4th lines for Washington provided the most effort and in particular Stanislav Galiev, Jay Beagle, and DJ King stood out for me.

“DJ King I thought had a pretty good game, guys that are fighting for jobs. Beagle, working really hard out there like he always does. Those were the guys that shined,” said Boudreau, who also praised Galiev’s ability to generate scoring chances.

“I think our line, right off the hop, we had a couple of good scoring opportunities we couldn’t bury. Obviously I’d like that one goal back, the puck bobbed on me and they ended up burying it. You have to play your role and play your game. I think they outworked us and that is what it came down to. We got to get it deep. You saw that when we got it deep we had it in there for the whole shift that we were out. You get the puck deep, you grind it out, and you take it to the net. Give it to the D, they had a couple of shots with tips and deflections. The puck just wasn’t going our way, but I think our line once we got it deep and got it going we played well,” said Beagle on what he thought of his line which included King and Garrett Mitchell.

- As for Washington’s more established players and stars, there wasn’t a lot of quality performances with Alexander Ovechkin having some nice shifts but many of the others not really playing well or hard.

“It’s hard for the skill [in this type of preseason game], but at the same time it is always easy to judge effort…you can tell the effort that is given and the effort that is received,” commented Boudreau, who felt that his younger guys were the ones who worked harder.

- On the special teams front, the Capitals power play only received two opportunities. On the first one, the initial unit featured Mike Green and Chris Bourque on the point with Ovechkin, Marucs Johansson, and Mike Knuble up front. Washington’s other power play came late in the game and the coach was able to try a few different combinations since he is in “try out” mode.

“Just experimenting, seeing what clicks, what didn’t click, trying to find fits. It’s one of these things for the next 17 days we’ll experiment with probably, a lot. I’d like to see something click and stay with it for a long period of time. This was the first real chance we had to see it. But what did we have, 2 chances? The last one I thought we had a couple of good opportunities at the end but when you get that sense of urgency on the 6 on 4, that was maybe our best opportunity,” stated Boudreau on what he is trying to do with his once deadly power play unit.

- Nashville didn’t play top six forwards David Legwand or Mike Fisher, but they did play their top defensive pair, and that duo made a difference in this game.

“Weber and [Ryan] Suter, they’re one of the best D pairings in the league, in the world. I know they were playing them quite a bit so I’m sure it was good for our forwards to really get a gauge of where they have to be. There are so many good defensemen here, it was nice for guys like me and Patty [Pat McNeill] to watch and learn from a Suter, a Weber, also Alzner, Green, so it was a learning experience,” added Collins on the benefit of playing a club like Nashville to open the preseason slate.

- Two of McPhee’s off-season additions, goaltender Tomas Vokoun and forward Joel Ward, played for the Predators and afterwards we had a chance to get the opinion of the Nashville bench boss on those Capital acquisitions.

“Tomas Vokoun is a helluva goaltender, they got a really, really good two way player in Joel Ward that was a Mr. Fix it for us. You can use him in a lot of different areas. He plays a little bit of a different game than a lot of guys for the Caps. He used to be a guy that stabilized lines for us, probably very similiar to Brooks Laich. He’s sort of whatever line you put him he puts stability to it, that is what Joel does and he is a great person. They got a good player in Joel. We’ve got some players scattered all over the place,” said Trotz, pretty much noting at the end that the small market nature of Nashville prevents them from keeping their good players from moving on for more money.

- In closing, this was a big night for Baltimore with the return of hockey and the city did a good job of supporting the Capitals, as Boudreau thought would happen based on his experience from his playing days in the AHL.

“I didn’t know what to expect but I do know that when I played here the Baltimore fans were great. So I expected if they’re still following hockey or their children are still following hockey, that they would be rowdy and be good just waiting for us to do something. Unfortunately we didn’t score any goals,” finished Boudreau.

Notes: Boudreau noted that his top guys will get more games this preseason, “Our main guys will probably play more games in this preseason than they’ve played in the past. Four, five, six games rather than the three or four that they’ve played maximum in the past to get ready for the season.”…Trotz added that he was impressed with the renovations in the downtown Baltimore area and also praised the Caps marketing efforts, “The Caps are doing a fantastic job of creating fans in this whole Baltimore Washington DC area and that it is really good, there is a lot of red out here.”…5 foot 9 Ryan Ellis tried to line up Ovechkin for a big hit, at one point, but bounced off of the Great 8 like he was hitting a brick wall…former team Capitals team captain and the man known as the Secretary of Defense, Rod Langway, dropped the ceremonial first puck…the Caps play preseason game number two in Columbus on Wednesday night.

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Caps Set to Take Center Stage in Baltimore

Posted on 19 September 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Charm City will be in the spotlight on Tuesday night as the Washington Capitals will take center stage at the First Mariner Arena to open their 2011-12 pre-season against the Nashville Predators at 7 pm. Baltimore, which hasn’t had a pro hockey team since 1997 when the AHL Bandits bolted for Cincinnati, will host a Caps team that has reached unprecedented popularity in the region. Led by two time NHL MVP Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals have won four straight Southeast Division titles and two straight Eastern Conference regular seasons. In 2009-10 they won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s best team. Unfortunately for the Caps the regular season success has not translated into post season satisfaction as Washington has gone 2-4 in playoff series’ the last four years.

But this past summer GM George McPhee made some significant personnel moves bringing in goalie Tomas Vokoun, defensemen Roman Hamrlik, and gritty forwards Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and Jeff Halpern. Those upgrades are designed to help the Capitals, who still are a fairly young team, compete in the spring for the Stanley Cup. McPhee’s moves, combined with Coach Bruce Boudreau’s shift to a more defensive system last winter, should give the Caps a better recipe for winning when scoring goals is at more of a premium. There is no doubt that team defense and goaltending are the keys to winning a Stanley Cup and this cast of Caps players, on paper, looks to be the best McPhee has assembled in his 14 year tenure as Washington’s GM.

Washington’s opponent on Tuesday night, the Nashville Predators, is run by former Capitals GM David Poile and former Baltimore Skipjacks head coach Barry Trotz. Poile, the current Preds GM, was Washington’s GM from 1982 to 1997 before being replaced by McPhee. Poile had huge regular season success but was never able to win a Stanley Cup during a time when the club played their games at the now defunct Capital Centre in Landover, MD. Trotz moved over to the Predators organization with Poile in the summer of 1997 and has been their only head coach since their inaugural season in 1998-99.

Back in Poile’s time the Baltimore area was a big supporter of Capitals hockey since the commute to Landover was not too difficult for those in Charm City and its surrounding counties. In addition, the Capitals had their farm team, the Skipjacks, playing in Baltimore from 1988 to 1993. Caps owner Ted Leonsis, who bought the team from Abe Pollin in 1999, had the vision to reach out to the Baltimore area to try and expand the fan base and that investment has paid off as the television ratings on Comcast for Capitals games continue to reach all time highs across the region. As a result, the savvy owner is rewarding the city with the Baltimore Hockey Classic and the town has responded by selling out First Mariner Arena. So if you have a ticket for this game, consider yourself lucky, because it should be loud and rocking with red on Tuesday night.

Note: WNST will be hosting a pregame “Rock the Red” party at Pickles Pub at 4pm with several drink and food specials.

Programming Note: I will be talking about the Baltimore Hockey Classic with Thyrl Nelson on Tuesday at 11:15 am on WNST 1570 AM Baltimore. Listen Live at WNST.NET.

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Caps Media Fantasy Camp plus Other Odds and Ends

Posted on 08 September 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals held Media Fantasy Camp down at Kettler IcePlex on Wednesday and the event started with Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau and assistant coach/video Blaine Forsythe providing the media with a tour and demonstration of the video room. The room is quite nice with very comfortable seats positioned in front of a 100 inch plus screen. Boudreau started the presentation by showing us a clip of the “old way” the Capitals used to play in their own zone. In that method, the strong side wing (the one on the side where the puck currently resides) was positioned high in his own zone on the near side defensemen. Boudreau noted that this tactic often resulted in quick transition for his club, which the highly skilled team took advantage of in previous seasons. However, due to the drop in goal scoring early on in 2010-11, the bench boss opted to change that strategy to one that is more closely used by the other 29 teams in the league where the winger is positioned down lower in his own zone. That tranformation, which was often painful to watch last December, was chronicled on HBO’s 24/7. But at the end of the season, the strategic move paid off as the Caps ended up 4th in the NHL in goals against average at 2.33 per game behind Vancouver, Boston, and Nashville. Note that two of those three were in the Stanley Cup Finals while the Predators gave the Canucks all they could handle in round two. From my vantage point, Boudreau absolutely did the right thing changing things up in his own zone last season, but more on that a little later on.

An interesting part of the video session was a one on one chat I had afterwards with Forsythe about the software technology involved in breaking down game tape. Today’s products make it very easy to get that done as soon as a period is over and the assistant coach stated that he is able to show the coaches and/or players whatever they want to see after each stanza. Back when I was doing statistics for the Capitals in the early 1990′s, then video coordinator Tod Button often did that task after the game, but while the game was going on he had software that allowed him to mark portions of the tape as even strength, power play, penalty kill, face-off, etc so that he could break it down quickly for then coach Terry Murray. Button would also use that software to break down game film of other teams, which he recorded via Satellite at Piney Orchard and sometimes at the old Capital Centre. Forsythe told me that he still relies on the Centre Ice Package to record the games of future Capitals opponents. As expected, Forsythe’s software, 20 years later, is leaps and bounds better than what Button had to work with. The video coach also stated that certain buildings provide much better angles than others, with Madison Square Garden being one of the best (so I guess Rangers fans do have something to chant about next year, eh?!). Video coordinators prefer that they get all of the game footage from faceoff to final buzzer so Forsythe’s biggest issue is one that Button didn’t like dealing with either in the 1990′s: the play starting in the corner! It seems even technology can’t replace a tv producer who prefers showing other footage while the puck is being dropped.

Once the video session was over, the media was treated to a practice and instruction session that was run by assistant coaches Bob Woods, Dean Evason, and Forsythe. It was truly a fun day out at Kettler.

Now back to the Caps and their defensive zone play. On a very recent trip to the Great White North, I spoke with an NHL scout who was adamant that the way to win the Stanley Cup was via solid team defense and goaltending. He opined that a team must have a goalie that can flat out win a game for a team when needed in the post season, as Tim Thomas did for the Bruins on several occassions this past spring. The list of those type of netminders includes mulitple Stanley Cup winners Ken Dryden, Billy Smith, Grant Fuhr, Patrick Roy, and Martin Brodeur. Having witnessed every Capitals season since their inception and many painful post seasons, it is hard to disagree with the scout. Washington’s biggest problem in the post season over the years has primarily been goaltending. In 1998 the Caps received the best netminding they’ve ever had as Olie Kolzig basically carried Washington into the Stanley Cup Finals. Looking back on very recent history, the best example of a Capitals goalie stealing a game or two was Semyon Varlamov’s play in the opening two contests of the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins series. If you go back and look at the quotes from the Pens you will see that many of them talked about how good Varly was playing. That was one of the reasons I was hoping that Varlamov would remain a Capital but his agent sealed that fate with some crazy negotiating and now that ship has sailed. So the question now becomes is Tomas Vokoun the guy that can take the Capitals to unchartered waters in the post season? That’s not to say that Michal Neuvirth can’t be that guy, after all he’s won two AHL titles, but #30 was unable to steal a game for Washington against Tampa this past spring when the Caps needed that desperately to change the momentum in a tight series. Clearly we can’t hang the series sweep primarily on Neuvirth, team defense was horrendous at times and all you have to do is go back and watch the Jeff Schultz giveaway in game one that led to Steve Downie’s tying goal or Eric Fehr’s disastrous clearing attempt in game three with the Caps up 3-2 in period three.

Here are some other Caps Odds and Ends:

- It was revealed by The Washington Post that John Erskine underwent shoulder surgery this offseason and he may not be ready for the regular season meaning the top six healthy defensemen are Mike Green, Dennis Wideman, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Roman Hamrlik, and Schultz.

- In that Varlamov trade, the Caps received Colorado’s first round selection in the 2012 NHL entry draft (they also received a 2nd round pick). When speaking with an NHL scout who is focused on the amateur side of the business, he mentioned that next year’s draft class was very good. He also felt that Colorado could very well struggle in 2011-12. So GM George McPhee and company could end up with a top five pick in a strong draft year!

- Capitals rookie camp opens on Sunday, September 11th at Kettler IcePlex with a rookie game in Philadelphia against the Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday, September 15th at 5 pm. The veterans will officially hit the ice on Saturday, September 17th at Kettler IcePlex.

- Single game Capitals regular season tickets are now available via washingtoncaps.com

- Tickets are still available for the Capitals pre-season opener in Baltimore at the First Mariner Arena on September 20th against Nashville. Go to washingtoncaps.com for purchasing info.

- Finally, my thoughts and prayers go out to everyone in and connected with the tragic plane crash in Russia on Wednesday. God Bless.

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17 Year Old Shines at Caps Development Camp Scrimmage

Posted on 15 July 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Caps are holding their annual summer rookie development camp this week at Kettler IcePlex in Virginia and Thursday was day four (out of six), and more importantly, the second of three intrasquad scrimmages. Hundreds of spectators filled the rink to view what was an entertaining contest that saw the white team come out victorious over the red squad, 4-3, in a shootout. Having attended the last four Capitals development camps, it is pretty clear to me that this year’s group of players is not quite as talented when compared to the previous three camps, which were highlighted by standout performances from Karl Alzner and John Carlson in 2008 and Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov in 2010. However, there was one player in particular who really stood out to me for the full 60 minutes on Thursday afternoon – 17 year old Travis Boyd, who was selected in the 2011 NHL draft by the Caps in the 6th round.

Boyd, who played the last two years on the United States National Development Team (USNDT) in the United States Hockey League (USHL), won’t turn 18 until September 14th and he will attend the University of Minnesota this fall. Wearing #53, the 5 foot 10 inch, 185 pound center set up the red squad’s first tally in period one with a nifty move in the slot and then tallied twice in the final stanza to rally his club from a 3-1 deficit to force the shootout (there was no overtime period in this format). What stood out to me about this young man was his hockey sense. His play away from the puck was outstanding. In the offensive zone he did a super job of finding small seams to slide into and when fed the biscuit, he was able to get off quick, hard shots on goal. When the other team had the puck, his positioning was exceptional which often forced his opponents into errant passes. On another occassion, he was on the left wing boards in position to try and pinch down and possibly force a turnover, however, he opted to stay high at the blue line, then recognized that his defensive pair was changing, and quickly raced back into the neutral zone to prevent forward Michael Collins from having what would have been a clean breakaway. It was evident, for the first 40 minutes, that Boyd knows how to do the little things that helps make a player successful and that carried over into the third period where he brought his team back and practically singlehandedly scored the game tying tally. It was only one day, but chatting with several of the beat writers and bloggers who’ve been out at camp this week, they told me that Boyd was very good in the first scrimmage as well. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau had good things to say about Boyd along with the two other skaters who were Caps 2011 NHL draft picks, defensemen Patrick Koudys and Garrett Haar.

“For me, I think I am a skilled forward so I like being in the offensive zone, and I like creating, I like working it and holding onto to the puck and making plays happen,” commented the Minnesota native when I asked him to describe the strengths of his game.

“That’s something that was stressed hard last two years out in Ann Arbor playing for the program out there (USNDT). That’s something that our coach, Ron Rolston, teaches. You have to play with the puck, without the puck so last couple of years playing with Rolston was the best years of my life,” added the impressive 17 year old when I asked him what coach taught him to play so well away from the puck. Rolston is the older brother of NHL veteran Brian, who played last season with the New Jersey Devils.

Boyd was likely drafted late due to his lack of size. Amateur scouts have the difficult job of projecting how a player may develop physically and my initial thought is that the right handed shooting center fell in the draft because of this physical factor. I was hoping to catch Washington’s Director of Amateur Scouting, Ross Mahoney, to get his take on that but unfortunately that conversation will have to come another day.

Here are some thoughts and analysis on some of the other players who participated in the scrimmage on Thursday:

Defensemen Dmitri Orlov (Caps 2009 2nd round pick) – #81 sure loves to jump up in the play and create offense but he took far too many chances today. He is highly skilled and not many players could have made the backhanded, up the middle, out of his own zone pass that ultimately led to a Brock Montpetit breakaway that was thwarted by Phillipp Grubauer. But Orlov, on his first shift, was easily moved off of the puck by Danick Paquette, who is likely a career ECHLer. Simply put, this young man needs a year, at least, in Hershey to learn how to play in his own zone. He could certainly help a power play at the NHL level right now but he’d be a liability at even strength, in my opinion.

Stanislav Galiev (Caps 2010 3rd round pick) – After Boyd, he was the next most impressive forward on Thursday. Galiev, who told me last summer that he needed to gain 35 pounds, already has added about 10 of muscle, mostly in the upper body area. He was strong on the puck, skated superbly, and set up and also had some good scoring chances. He is an engaging young man who isn’t afraid to answer questions. Galiev, who won the Memorial Cup this spring as a member of the Saint John Sea Dogs, will be back with Saint John but also plans to play for Team Russia, for the first time, at this year’s World Junior tournament. The Russians are the defending champions thanks to the play of Kuznetsov and Orlov, among others.

Mattias Sjogren (Signed by Caps as a free agent on June 1, 2011) – The 23 year old Swede is big (6′ 1″, 209 lbs.), has excellent hands, but does not appear to be a strong skater. He did well on face-offs, which he took primarily against Cody Eakin, but didn’t impress me. I really have a hard time seeing this young man, who should have been dominating play in this game, making the Capitals with the skating ability I saw today. He still has Saturday’s scrimmage and then September’s training camp to make a better impression, and he’ll need to. Basically I see Sjogren in Hershey right now.

Cody Eakin (Caps 2009 3rd round pick) – The smallish forward who had a great training camp last fall and was arguably the third best player at the 2010 development camp behind Kuznetsov and MJ90 was quite unimpressive on Thursday. I rarely got to see his blazing speed in action and he just didn’t seem to be clicking. Perhaps it was his linemates but if he doesn’t step it up come September he will be with the Bears as well, which I see as the likely scenario, at this point in time.

Danick Paquette (Acquired on 7/8/2011 in Eric Fehr trade) – Had one of the most memorable interviews ever at development camp, calling himself “a pretty dirty player, like Matt Cooke.” Boudreau commented that his hit on Crofton’s Adam Mitchell, had it been in an NHL contest, might have warranted review by Colin Campbell for disciplinary action. It was certainly a blind side hit and he also took a questionable run on Scott Wietecha that led to a bout with the 23 year old from Ferris State. Paquette pounded Wietecha and also scored a goal in the scrimmage. He also seemed to hit everything that moves but given his “on or over the edge” style and subpar skating ability, I think this kid struggles to make it to Hershey this year, given the strong moves that organization has made this summer. So Paquette seems destined for the South Carolina Stingrays in 2011-12.

Goalies – I was impressed with Grubauer, who was in net for the 2010 Memorial Cup champion Windsor SpitFires club that featured Taylor Hall (1st overall selection in 2010 NHL entry draft by Edmonton). The young German played the last 28 minutes and made several big saves to keep his team in the game. What made it even better was that he just started skating again after five months off due to mononucleosis. In addition, 2011 Caps draft pick Steffen Soberg was very solid in the cage for his 32 minutes of action, allowing only one tally.

Keep in mind, that this analysis is primarily based on what I saw in one day’s worth of action. I like to see guys play a good 10 or so times before totally making my mind up on them so the jury is still out.

Notes: On Friday Group A will practice at 930am while Group B takes the ice at 1115am. Saturday is the last day of development camp and a scrimmage will commence at 10am. It is also Capitals Fan Fest so get there early to get in on the fun and to find a good seat. Last year’s event was jam packed…the Caps signed forward Mathieu Perreault to a one-year two way contract on Wednesday and center Christian Hanson, son of Slap Shot’s Dave Hanson, to a one year two way contract this past Monday. Hanson played in the AHL for the Toronto Marlies this past season scoring 34 points (13G, 21A) in 58 games.

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Top 10 Baseball Distractions

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Top 10 Baseball Distractions

Posted on 11 July 2011 by Glenn Clark

Honorable Mention: Boxing-Diego Magdaleno vs. Alejandro Perez (Friday 11:05pm from Las Vegas live on Showtime), Friday Night Fights-Pawel Wolak vs. Delvin Rodriguez (Friday 9pm from New York live on ESPN2); WNBA: Washington Mystics @ Seattle Storm (Tuesday 3pm from Seattle live on NBA TV), Washington Mystics @ Los Angeles Sparks (Sunday 8:30pm from LA live on NBA TV); Arena Football-AFL Pittsburgh Power @ Cleveland Gladiators (Friday 8pm from Cleveland live on NFL Network); Canadian Football League: Saskatchewan Roughriders @ Hamilton Tiger-Cats (Saturday 4pm from Hamilton, ONT live on NFL Network), British Columbia Lions @ Edmonton Eskimos (Saturday 7pm from Edmonton live on NFL Network), Calgary Stampeders @ Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Thursday 8pm from Winnipeg live on ESPN3.com), Toronto Argonauts @ Montreal Alouettes (Saturday 7:30pm from Montreal live on ESPN3.com); Tennis: WTT New York Sportimes @ Washington Kastles (Tuesday 7pm from Kastles Stadium live on Comcast SportsNet), Springfield Lasers @ Washington Kastles (Thursday 7pm from Kastles Stadium live on Comcast SportsNet/Tennis Channel), St. Louis Aces @ Washington Kastles (Friday 7pm Kastles Stadium), Sacramento Capitals @ Washington Kastles (Monday 7pm Kastles Stadium)

10. Pat Benatar/Neil Giraldo/Dennis DeYoung (Friday 6pm Pier Six Pavilion), Peter Frampton (Sunday 5:30pm Pier Six Pavilion); Miranda Lambert (Friday 6:30pm Merriweather Post Pavilion); Lil’ Wayne (Saturday 7pm Jiffy Lube Live); Huey Lewis & The News (Wednesday 8pm Wolf Trap); Mr. Greengenes (Friday 7pm Power Plant Live); Soundgarden (Tuesday 7:30pm Patriot Center); Jonny Lang (Thursday 7pm Rams Head Live), Taking Back Sunday (Saturday 6pm Rams Head Live); Jimi Haha (Saturday 8pm Recher Theatre); Tim Meadows (Friday 6:30pm & 9:30pm Rams Head On Stage), Cracker (Sunday 8pm Rams Head On Stage); Interpol (Wednesday 7pm 9:30 Club), Stephen Marley (Thursday 7pm 9:30 Club), Marc Broussard (Friday 8pm 9:30 Club); Edwin McCain (Thursday 7:30pm Birchmere); k.d. lang (Thursday 8pm Meyerhoff Symphony Hall); A Perfect Circle (Sunday 8pm D.A.R. Constitution Hall); Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part 2 out in theaters (Friday)

I certainly wouldn’t pay to do it, but there’s at least a chance I’ll sit across the Pier Friday night for Dennis DeYoung. Do you have any idea how many times I’ve watched Styx: Behind The Music?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJJcR1r7u2A&feature=fvst[/youtube]

I was sitting around cracking crabs Sunday when a Lil’ Wayne tune came on Pandora. I was reminded of how much Mr. Weezy can make things…

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHZtMNbrmWE[/youtube]

I’m HONESTLY debating getting in the car Tuesday night, driving the two hours or so to Fairfax (might be more like 3 given traffic) and taking in the iconic pipes of Chris Cornell. Dude is an icon…

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0_zzCLLRvE[/youtube]

If you’ve never heard Jimi Haha outside of Jimmie’s Chicken Shack, I’d imagine you’d be quite pleasantly surprised…

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5i05XEAN9Lg[/youtube]

9. Poker-World Series of Poker (Thursday & Friday 3pm 7pm 11pm live on ESPN3.com 11pm live on ESPN2, Saturday 3:30pm live on ESPN2/ESPN3.com, Sunday 12am 3pm 10pm live on ESPN3.com 12am 10pm live on ESPN2, Monday 7pm live on ESPN2/ESPN3.com. All poker from Las Vegas)

Remember when ESPN attempted to convince us that everyone in the world would be watching/playing/caring about/paying attention to poker a few years ago?

Umm….how’d that work out?

Despite the fact that no one seems to care anymore, they’re going to provide their lengthiest/most in-depth coverage of the event ever this year. That’s good news, as I was struggling to answer the question “what am I going to not watch on TV this week?” with something besides NASCAR or golf.

Want me to watch? Try “World Series of Strip Poker” with Lais Ribeiro (thanks Guyism). I won’t guarantee I’ll watch, but I’m much more likely…

lais

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Caps Makeover Continues: Vokoun Signed in Net

Posted on 02 July 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Yesterday was Canada Day and Washington Capitals GM George McPhee made the Caps one of the big NHL winners on the Great White North’s holiday with his acquisitions of forward Joel Ward, d-man Roman Hamrlik, center Jeff Halpern, and two draft choices (a 1st and 2nd round pick) for a restricted free agent goalie (Semyon Varlamov) that possibly could have been had for just a second round pick via an offer sheet. Late that afternoon, as part of his job, McPhee stated that he was done with his moves in his chat with the media. But the man who has been the Capitals GM since 1997 was simply just keeping a poker face and playing his cards close to the vest. Those who read my blog know that he wasn’t done and this morning owner Ted Leonsis confirmed that the team was still likely to make some trades and maybe sign another free agent (I tweeted this info on twitter last night and this morning, so for Caps updates please follow me @EdFrankovic).

Today, on McPhee’s birthday, the Capitals signed free agent goalie Tomas Vokoun to a one year deal for a measly $1.5M. This is an amazing signing, given the price. Vokoun is a very good goalie, maybe not as naturally talented as Varlamov, but he can steal games for a team and it is something you need in the post season (see Thomas, Tim – Boston Bruins). He shut out the Caps twice last season and has thwarted them several times in the past, so the organization knows how good he can be. This move also provides some insurance in goal. Yes, the Capitals could have gone and would have likely been comfortable with just Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby in net, but with the price so low and injuries likely to happen at some point, this move makes perfect sense. Holtby needs to play and another year with the majority of his time in Hershey won’t hurt him either. Neuvirth was very good in the post season but in the Tampa series he never flat out won a game when Washington desperately needed it. Vokoun, who is 35 today and has played 13 years in the NHL, is clearly looking for a chance to win a Stanley Cup before his time is up and the Capitals give him a great chance to do so.

So are the Caps done now? I still say, NO! The biggest reason is the salary cap, but a clear locker room transformation is occurring as well that is contributing to these acquisitions and decisions to let others leave. So far Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, Varlamov, Marco Sturm, and Andrew Gordon have signed elsewhere. In addition, it is evident that Scott Hannan and Jason Arnott very likely won’t be back. McPhee still has to sign defensemen Karl Alzner and forward Troy Brouwer (acquired for the Caps 2011 first round pick at last weekend’s draft in Minnesota), who are restricted free agents. King Karl, who made in the $1.7M range last year, is set up for a huge raise and I can’t see his new average annual salary at lower than $3.14M per season. Why do I say that? Because for that figure or less, Alzner could be signed by another team now to an offer sheet and all Washington would receive in return, if they chose not to match, would be a second round pick. McPhee is too smart to let that happen. Leonsis blogged this morning that both King Karl and Brouwer will be inked. Brouwer counted $1.025M against the cap last season and I expect him to garner in the $2M plus range going forward.

The issue with those signings is that the Capitals go over the $64.3M salary cap once they ink both #27 and Brouwer. The Caps can exceed the cap by 10% ($70M) up until game one of the regular season, but clearly someone has to be moved out, even if Tom Poti and his $2.8M salary cap hit is off of the books due to retirement or long term injured reserve (LTIR). We’ll get to who the likely trade candidates are in a minute, but besides the dollars, an interesting thing is going on with the Capitals here, the team is bringing in veterans who are leaders to counter balance a young locker room. In addition, these are guys who have playoff or big game experience. Brouwer won a Stanley Cup in Chicago in 2010, Hamrlik (chosen 1st overall in 1992 NHL draft by Tampa) has a Gold Medal from the Czech Republic in the 1998 Winter Olympic games, Halpern is a former Caps team captain, and Ward has 17 points in 18 playoff games the last two seasons, including a great second round series versus the Canucks this past spring.

In addition, Brouwer, Ward, and Halpern are guys who can score from the tough areas in front of the opponent’s cage, something Washington did not have enough of on their roster after Mike Knuble and the recently re-signed Brooks Laich (6 years, $27M). Hamrlik should help a struggling power play as well since he has a decent shot that can be launched from the left point. The Caps did not have that type of left handed defensemen on last year’s roster. These are positive moves on the ice and off of it and if guys adopt #21′s work ethic, this team could be extremely good when it matters.

The previous two off-seasons the Capitals didn’t make many moves expecting that growth from within would help improve the club. That worked, but only in the regular season as evidenced by a Presidents’ Trophy (2010) and an Eastern Conference regular season title (2011) before first and second round playoff losses, respectively. This year McPhee, who along with Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau is likely feeling pressure to produce in the post season, isn’t taking any chances by standing pat. He is being aggressive, but also smart at the same time. The types of players he is bringing in signals that his most recent post season analysis dictated that he add leadership, work ethic, and grit to go along with some highly skilled players. But like I said above, his work is not done yet, there has to be some subtraction to make the numbers work.

Will it be Alexander Semin and his $6.7M salary? After all, #28 hasn’t delivered in the playoffs the last three years other than against the New York Rangers. As talented and skilled as he is, the types of goals he scores from October to early April don’t seem to occur in the playoffs when the game changes. He also isn’t known as the hardest worker, so could a Semin trade become addition by subtraction? There could be merit to that statement. Other candidates to be moved are Mike Green at $5.2M (entering last year of his contract), Jeff Schultz ($2.75M cap hit), and Eric Fehr ($2.2M).  I don’t see Green getting traded since the team needs guys who can move the puck on the back line. As for #55 and #16, possibly, but moving only one doesn’t seem to make the math totally work, after all, McPhee also likes to have some salary cap room to work with during the season. So if it isn’t 28 or 52, then both Sarge and Fehr would probably need to be moved to make salary cap room.  But if Semin is traded, even for just a draft pick (and hopefully a #1), that should free up more than enough salary cap room for Alzner and Brouwer and might even allow GMGM to go after a second line center.

In summary, I applaud these moves by McPhee. The Caps, on paper, have become a better team. But the club is not done, so stayed tuned as the makeover continues in preparation for a training camp that is now just over two months away.

Notes: I will be on with Drew Forrester on the Comcast Morning Show on WNST on Tuesday, July 5th at 925 am talking about the Capitals and other things happening around the NHL. Listen Live on 1570AM or on WNST.NET…forward Chris Bourque (Caps 2004 2nd round draft pick and three time Hershey Bears Calder Cup winner) has been re-signed by the team today. He is expected to play in Hershey but could be an injury call up…defensemen Sean Collins was re-signed yesterday and will play primarily in Hershey as well…Below is the Capitals full press release on the Vokoun signing:

The Washington Capitals have signed free agent goaltender Tomas Vokoun to a one-year contract, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today. In keeping with club policy, financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“We are excited to add an elite veteran goaltender to the Capitals,” said McPhee. “We now have a nice blend of talent, depth, experience and youth in the goaltending position.”

Vokoun, 34, completed his 13th NHL season while posting a record of 22-28-5 with a 2.55 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in 57 games with the Florida Panthers. It marked the eighth consecutive season in which he has recorded 20 or more wins and the third-straight season he has registered a save percentage of .920 or higher. He finished the season ranked sixth in the league in shutouts (6), 10th in save percentage, 12th in saves (1,616) and tied for 19th in goals-against average.

“I’m very excited to join the Washington Capitals organization,” said Vokoun. “It is a terrific team with a lot of talent and I look forward to doing everything I can for us to reach our ultimate goal in winning the Stanley Cup.”

The 6’, 215-pound netminder has played the fifth-most games among active goaltenders (632) and ranks 39th all-time in career NHL wins (262), 17th in saves (16,957) and 27th in shutouts (44). His .917 career save percentage is tied for sixth in the NHL among active goaltenders and he ranks eighth in wins, fifth in shutouts and 18th in goals-against average (2.56). Vokoun is tied for the best save percentage (.922) in the NHL since the 2005-06 season and is also tied for the fourth-most shutouts in that span (32). The two-time NHL All-Star (2004, 2008), has finished in the top ten in save percentage in five of the last six seasons. In 11 career postseason games with Nashville, Vokoun is 3-8 with a 2.47 goals-against average, a .922 save percentage and one shutout. He is also currently ranked sixth in playoff save percentage among active goaltenders that have appeared in at least 10 games.

The Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic, native led the Czech national team to a gold medal during the 2010 World Championships, posting a record of 7-1 with a 1.57 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage. He also helped backstop the Czechs to a gold medal in the 2005 World Championships and was awarded the Directorate’s Best Goaltender Award while being selected to the tournament All-Star team. In addition, Vokoun captured a bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics and represented the Czech Republic in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. In total, he has represented his country at two Olympics (2006, 2010), one World Cup (2004), four World Championships (2003, 2004, 2005, 2010) and one World Junior Championship (1996), posting a 31-12-1 record with a 1.80 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage in international play.

Vokoun was originally selected by the Montreal Canadiens in the 9th round (226th overall) of the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.   

 

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Caps Fans Will Like Troy Brouwer / Other Caps News

Posted on 27 June 2011 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals Media Relations staff arranged a conference call this afternoon with the Caps latest trade acquisition, former Blackhawks forward Troy Brouwer, and based on the way he handled himself during the question and answer session, the physical winger will be extremely liked by his teammates and the local fans. Brouwer talked about his style of play, the things he learned from former teammates to include Cup winning veterans Andrew Ladd and John Madden, and how he thinks he’ll fit in with the Capitals. He was very straightforward and honest and seems like a natural leader. Here is one of the more interesting quotes from the conference call when I asked Brouwer about playing on the top line in Chicago and how it might translate to Washington:

“In Chicago we had quite a few players that would move around the line-up a little bit. I think I was one of the guys who changed lines a little bit more than most people just because the coach used me as a pretty versatile player where I could play on the penalty kill, I could play in the shutdown role, but I could also be put on that first line to finish my checks and create room for [Patrick] Kane and [Jonathan] Toews. If I was to play on the top line in Washington, I don’t think I would change much, Kane and Toews are both guys that demand the puck all the time and they want the puck on their stick. I’m assuming [Alex] Ovechkin and [Nicklas] Backstrom are the exact same type of players who want the puck and make things happen. And with the world class skill that those two players have you are going to give them the puck and they are going to be able to get it back to you. So playing in Washington, if I am able to play on those top two lines, I am going to play exactly the same as what got me to the NHL and what made me successful in the NHL so far, which is trying to help out my linemates, make sure that they are controlling the play. I’ll stand in front of the net, I’ll take my shots when I need to, but those are two players that are going to want the puck and to be successful they need to have the puck and I’m just going to go get the puck and work hard to try and make sure that they have space.”

The full audio of the session is up on the Caps website.

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

In other Caps news, the team issued qualifying offers today to restricted free agents Karl Alzner, Semyon Varlamov, Brouwer, Mathieu Perreault, and Francois Bouchard. By doing this the Capitals retain the right to match any contract offer made to those players by any other NHL team. Brouwer, as noted by Mike Vogel in his blog on the offers over at WashingtonCaps.com, is the only one with arbitration rights.

Varlamov is the most interesting case and twitter was a buzz last night and this morning after a tweet from Dmitri Chesnokov of Puck Daddy that Varly was not likely to be back with the Capitals. Chesnokov said the situation would be resolved by July 1st. The Russian Kontinental Hockey League is clearly on the table for a player that GM George McPhee selected in the first round of the 2006 NHL draft. Last week, however, the Russian goalie told The Washington Post that he wants to play in the NHL. All of this info has led many to speculate that Varlamov could be dealt to another team. If Varlamov bolts to Russia for the KHL, for a reported $4M a season, then Washington retains his rights.

Personally, I believe that Varly is the best goalie of the three young Washington net minders. His performance in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs was outstanding and he kept the Caps in the series with a superior Pittsburgh Penguins team until he ran out of gas in game seven. The biggest downside to Varlamov has been his injury issues but recently hired associate goalie coach, Olie Kolzig, believes that the physical issue is all that is holding him back.

The question is how much money will it take to keep Varlamov? I threw out a $3M figure on twitter today and Chesnokov replied that the young Russian goalie wasn’t even asking for that much. Michal Neuvirth, who started all nine Capitals playoffs games in 2011, signed a two year deal for $1.1M per season last fall before he went on to have a great 2010-11 campaign. Washington also has 2008 4th round draft choice Braden Holtby in the system (10-2-2 with Caps this past season) so McPhee has other options should he choose to let Varlamov go to the KHL or trade him to another NHL team.

I’d like to see Varlamov, a guy I believe can be a franchise type of goalie, stay in Washington, but you can bet if the two sides can’t agree that GMGM will get good value for the young Russian goalie with huge upside.

Finally, Caps owner Ted Leonsis blogged today that changes are inevitable in hockey and for Capitals fans to expect guys to leave in free agency, others to possibly be signed to come to DC via that route, or others to be added and subtracted via trades. McPhee also stated over the weekend that he is seeking more players with Cup winning experience, something I did a significant blog on back in May. So if you put all of the rhetoric from the owner and GM together, Capitals fans should really pay attention these next few weeks as the organization tries to re-shape its’ club in an attempt to get over the dreaded playoff hump they have run up against the last four years.

Note: The Caps waived defenseman Tyler Sloan, who was set to make $700K in 2010-11. No word yet on if there will be a buyout of his salary or not.

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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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Evaluation Process Time for Caps. Who Stays, Who Goes?

Posted on 06 May 2011 by Ed Frankovic

Today was breakdown day for the 2010-11 Washington Capitals, the least favorite day for NHL teams that do not win the Stanley Cup, and with it came interviews with General Manager George McPhee, Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, and several players at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. We’ll get to that info in a minute, but perhaps what was even bigger news, at least in my view, was Thursday morning’s blog entry from Capitals Owner Ted Leonsis. Particularly the following sentences:

In times like these people are emotional; angry; and demand change. I understand.

The best course of action for us though is to let a few days pass; be very analytic about what needs to be improved; articulate that plan; and then execute upon it.

Clearly we know we have to improve to build a franchise that is as good as our fan base.

I appreciate your emails. I appreciate all of the advice we are being given by media and bloggers. I understand that we are what our record says we are.

Thank you for your support during this grind of a season.

Thank you for caring so much. I am so very sorry we let you all down.

Wow! That is some true, from the heart, direct feedback to the Caps fan base (gratuitous shot at Orioles ownership can be taken at any time). Leonsis clearly gets it and he realizes that he has a problem right now. It is nice to win four straight Southeast Division titles, a Presidents’ Trophy, and a second Eastern Conference regular season title, but his club is two for six in playoff series’ the last four years. Both wins came against mismatched New York Rangers teams and this year’s four game second round loss to Tampa Bay was shocking to nearly everyone. Right now, this club bears a lot of resemblance to those great 1980′s Capitals teams that were coached by Bryan Murray that also could not get past the second round. Back then the major problem was poor goaltending, but that wasn’t really the case this post season. So what are the problems, how are they going to be identified, and what will be done to fix them?

That brings us back to breakdown day and the evaluation process that McPhee described begins today.

“It’s important to do [an evaluation] and what we’ve always done is meet with the coaches and get their evaluations of players, and how the season went. Then I’ll meet with our pro scouts and then I’ll meet with ownership and we put it all together. We put together a plan and then move forward. I’d like to think we’ve been doing a lot of good things,” stated the man who has been the Caps GM since the summer of 1997.

Immediately following that response, Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post asked the GM if Boudreau would be back next season. After a slight pause, the GM gave the following answer.

“I expect him to be back, yeah, he’s a good coach..either you are a good coach or you are not,” stated McPhee.

So clearly the GM is likely in the coach’s corner at this stage of the process, which is at the absolute beginning. If we combine what McPhee said above about the evaluation process with the owner’s blog, it is clear to me that NOTHING has been decided yet, so the decision on Boudreau and anyone else in the organization has yet to be finalized. In addition to Leonsis, I would also imagine that Team President Dick Patrick will have a say in all hockey matters too, so we may be several days or weeks from decisions on management and coaches. After that is decided, the entire hockey department will focus on which players stay and which go, in addition to preparing for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

Locks to be back are Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, right off the bat, because of their talent and long term contracts. #19 struggled in the post season and courtesy of Mike Vogel of Dump ‘n Chase we learned today that Backstrom re-injured his thumb in the Rangers series and played hurt against the Bolts. Additional players who will most certainly be back are John Carlson, Michal Neuvirth, Karl Alzner (although he is a restricted free agent), Marcus Johansson, Braden Holtby, and Dennis Wideman. Mike Green, Mike Knuble, and Alexander Semin are under contract for another season. Knuble played with a fractured thumb that required four pins (hurt in game 3 of Rangers series), Green suffered a hip flexor injury, and Carlson played in pain with a hip pointer making it difficult for him to hit or be hit. With #52 and #74 ailing, and #6 out due to injury, it was clear that the Capitals biggest problem in the Tampa series was the lack of puck rushing defenseman, like I stated after game four. McPhee discussed that today.

“I thought that the [blue line] was our biggest issue in the playoffs. I thought our puck distribution and puck possession wasn’t where it needed to be due to those injuries,” commented GMGM on why he thought his team failed against Tampa.

As a result, slower defensemen Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, and Scott Hannan were exposed by a quicker Tampa crew of forwards. Both #4 and #55 are resigned for next year but are third defensive pair guys, at best. Hannan is an unrestricted free agent and will not get anywhere close to the $4.5M he made this season.

McPhee talked about the infusion of young talent into his lineup this year and the Capitals will certainly benefit going forward from their progression.

“The good news is we introduced some really good young players to our team this year to our fans and we think they liked what they saw in Neuvirth, Johansson, Carlson, and Alzner and we have some terrific young players I am thinking hard about introducing next year,” stated McPhee, who did not dismiss the possibility of center Evgeny Kuznetsov, d-man Dmitri Orlov, and forward Cody Eakin getting a shot at playing for the 2011-12 Caps squad.

It’s pretty clear from hearing McPhee today that he thinks he has the personnel on the roster or in the system to get the Caps where they want to be.

“There’s a certain place I want to get to with the team. I think we have it within in our organization to get there. I don’t think we have to go outside the organization. I want to spend more time talking to our scouts about that. We’ve really got some good ones, some difference makers,” added McPhee on how he sees team improvement occuring on the personnel front.

This squad, if it does not bring back Jason Arnott, who hurt his knee shortly after coming to the Caps at the trade deadline and had minor surgery done on it in March, still needs a second line center. Johansson made a lot of progress this year but he is really a third line center. Kuznetsov suffered a shoulder injury this spring and given that he will be only 19 and is not physically developed, he likely isn’t the answer at the two hole, yet. So maybe #44 is back? He told the media today that he wants to return. As for #90, he was playing hurt against Tampa, but he impressed the GM with his rapid development this season.

“He’s really good defensively, a lot of kids don’t have that this early in their careers and we expect his offensive game to continue to blossom,” added GMGM on his young Swedish center, who was selected in the first round of the 2009 NHL entry draft.

On the goaltending front, the GM is extremely happy with his trio of net minders.

“I’m really pleased with where we are with the goaltending. We drafted well, we’ve developed them well. They are three terrific kids with lots of upside.We are in no rush to change anything there. No pressure points in terms of waivers or anthying like that. We’re comfortable with that. It’s the most important position in the league. They’re good. We’ll continue to play them to see how they do. They did really well this year. All three of them played and played well. We have good goaltending,” said McPhee of a stable of goalies that many teams in the league would love to have.

I was happy to hear that the GM plans to stick with all three of them. To rush out and trade one of them would be a big mistake. What would have happened to this franchise had Olie Kolzig been traded in the early or mid 1990′s when he was seemingly passed in the organization by Byron Dafoe and Jim Carey? “Olie the Goalie” turned out to be the best of the three despite early injury problems that had him playing in the ECHL, at one point. #37 was the face of the franchise for many years until Ovechkin arrived on the scene. So a cautious approach with young goalies is a must for the Capitals brass. None of us, at this time, know who will be the best goalie long term between Semyon Varlamov, Neuvirth, and Holtby.

So it was clear, when hearing what McPhee had to say today, that he is pretty confident in staying the course, for the most part, and continuing to improve from within.

“We were the #1 seed in our conference and we played the #8 seed, and we had just four more wins than them. Nobody is that much better than everyone else. What we’re doing here, I believe is we are putting a good team on the ice every year, and hopefully one of these years we win it. But we’re in the mix every year, it could be worse, we could be missing the playoffs…thank goodness we’ve been drafting well, we’ve been really good at it recently…so I don’t expect us to lose any ground, I expect us to get better,” stated McPhee on player development.

“I don’t see major changes. Every team can continue to add to it and make it better. But we’ll see this summer. It’s not easy to step back for a manager either, we’re all here to win a Cup, as we all know, only one team wins it. Hopefully it will be that much better when we win it,” finished McPhee.

I wouldn’t expect McPhee, who has drafted or acquired all of these players, to think otherwise on where his personnel is right now given the fairly successful results of the past four seasons, at least based on the regular season. But to me there are major questions with how his talent is being implemented and that could impact some of GMGM’s personnel decisions going forward.

Are the Capitals playing the right system? Why does the power play continue to struggle after it was such an achilles heel in the 2010 post season? Why does Ovechkin continue to be placed on the point when it seems he would be better served down low or on the half wall? Had the power play been corrected could it have been the difference in games one and two of the Tampa series and allowed the Caps to overcome their key defensive injuries? Speaking of injuries, why is it that Green gets hurt every year? Is he not taking care of himself, is he being over targeted by other teams, or is it a function of not being taught how to move the puck more efficiently and avoid big hits? (You don’t see Nicklas Lidstrom with these continual post season injury issues). Why is Semin so inconsistent? Are the star players listening to the coaching staff? How come Tampa was able to hide its non-highly mobile defense and be so effective?

I could go on and on with these questions but you get the picture. Hopefully the evaluation process examines all of these issues because as I stated on twitter today, “collectively” this group of coaches and players have NOT gotten it done in the post season. This franchise needs to figure out why that is happening and fix it going forward before another year is wasted.

NOTE: Special thanks to Ted Starkey of The Washington Times for sending me the audio for Boudreau and McPhee’s media sessions from breakdown day.

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