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Next GM Most Important Decision in Caps Franchise History

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Next GM Most Important Decision in Caps Franchise History

Posted on 28 April 2014 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals have been in existence for 39 years and they still have not won a Stanley Cup.

With their team spiraling further away from winning Lord Stanley, Caps Owner Ted Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick fired both General Manager George McPhee and Head Coach Adam Oates on Saturday.

Those moves were no surprise, especially if you read my blog from two weeks ago. The Capitals have a flawed and unbalanced roster that became even more exposed under some questionable coaching decisions this past season.

Simply put, these moves had to be made and Leonsis stated that the team needed new leadership and “a new set of eyes.”

The hiring of the next GM is critical to this franchise given that star players Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who are both signed to long term contracts, are in the prime seasons of their career. McPhee and company were unable to put a quality team around those two players and as a result much criticism has fallen on them, especially the Gr8.

Some who cover the NHL have already tweeted or blogged that this is Ovechkin’s fault. When you make the money he makes, have won the MVP three times, aren’t of North American descent, and haven’t won a Stanley Cup yet, those things will happen. It’s an easy narrative for those who choose to be lazy and biased.

But those who’ve studied and watched this Washington team since 2008 know the real story. Fancy stats clearly show that this team’s puck possession statistics have steadily declined since 2009, after Sergei Fedorov left for Russia. The decline is a function of an eroding roster, particularly on defense, and poor coaching/system changes. None of those roster or system decisions were made by Ovechkin.

Hall of Famer Rod Langway used to always tell me that hockey starts from the goalie to the defense and then to the forwards. If your defense routinely can’t get the puck out of your own end, how are the forwards going to produce with any consistency at even strength? Washington’s overall blue line crew has gotten worse over the past several seasons.

Bottom line, as I wrote two weeks ago, the Caps have failed Ovechkin, not the other way around.

For those who still want to put a vast amount of blame on him I pose the following question:

If I gave you the choice of any other forward in the NHL in place of Ovechkin for the last three seasons, would the Capitals have won a Stanley Cup or even made the Finals?

That’s right, you could have Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Sidney Crosby, etc. but you lose Ovechkin in that move. Do you think the Capitals win a Stanley Cup doing that?

No way, not with the rest of that roster.

Hockey is a team sport. So blaming Ovechkin for the team’s decline is absolutely incorrect.

Now that’s not saying that the Gr8 can’t improve his game. Every player can always get better. NBA great Larry Bird used to spend every summer working on new moves, so if Bird thought he needed to improve, every player certainly should be trying to do so, as well.

Fortunately for Caps fans, the ownership, despite making it clear that these moves weren’t done solely for Ovechkin, get that the Gr8 is a special player. When I asked both Leonsis and Patrick about the pressure and abuse that Ovechkin takes, Patrick was quick to defend him and point out the nature of the NHL.

“Alex Ovechkin is a great, great hockey player,” Patrick said. “I wish we had two of him, then we wouldn’t even be here today, probably. All he wants to do is win. People are saying, ‘Well, you’ve got Alex Ovechkin. How come you haven’t won a Cup?’ It does take a team. It takes 20 guys. How can you be unhappy with what Alex Ovechkin has accomplished and continues to accomplish in the National Hockey League?”

Patrick is bang on and that is why it is so crucial to get a GM that really understands how to build a team. The “new set of eyes” needs to help alleviate the pressure on its two stars by bringing in better players, particularly on the blue line, and by adding leaders with winning experience.

As the great Jim Ignatowski once said on Taxi, “There is no substitute for experience!”

That brings me to my next point. The trend in sports is to seek out the next “hot” assistant and give him the keys to the camper. We see it with GM positions and head coaching openings many times in pro sports.

Jim Benning of Boston is a name that is on the top of the “next GM” list for many NHL clubs, according to people I’ve spoken with around the league. There are other hot assistants out there too like Ron Hextall, Jason Botterill, and Tim Burke.

But would hiring another hockey person with no GM experience be the right move here?

Hmmm…..

Sometimes bringing in a person that has performed in that role previously is the better choice, even if they’ve been fired. After all, Joe Torre and Bill Belichick were both fired but went on to win multiple championships with their new teams. Simply put, there is something to be said for learning from past mistakes.

So shouldn’t names like Mike Gillis, Neil Smith, and Craig Button garner attention? All have been a GM before and both Smith and Button have Stanley Cup winning experience, Smith as GM of the Rangers in 1994 and Button as the Director of Player Personnel with Dallas in 1999.

To me, Button is an intriguing option. He has ties to the organization from his late father Jack, who played a prominent role in the drafting and development of personnel in Washington from 1979 to 1996. Craig worked closely for years with Bob Gainey and Doug Armstrong in Dallas taking a team that was built around young players Mike Modano, Derian Hatcher, and Richard Matvichuck and transformed it into a Stanley Cup Champion. He understands the microscope Ovechkin and Backstrom are under and he has a successful track record in dealing with that scenario.

In addition, he took a flailing Calgary Flames team and re-built the defense on a club that eventually went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004. Then GM and Coach Darryl Sutter credited Craig for laying the groundwork for a squad that came ultra close to winning it all.

He currently covers the NHL for the NHL Network and TSN but he also pays close attention to the junior ranks and publishes his own draft board each spring on TSN’s website. His knowledge of current pros and amateurs is extensive. With the Stars, he drafted both Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow. As someone in the business recently told me, “He’s hard working, dedicated, and has an incredible passion for the game.”

Given his excellent people skills, I’d have to imagine he is on Leonsis and Patrick’s current list to interivew.

As for that process, Leonsis made it clear that they were not going to conduct a search where information is going to be made publicly available. Certainly details will get exposed as the media scouts out Kettler IcePlex, but the Caps are pretty good at keeping things secretive.

Leonsis stated this was going to be a thorough search while putting no timetable on its conclusion.

Given the importance of this decision, which I believe is the most critical one in franchise history, the owner and Team President must do what they need to do to make sure they get this GM selection correct.

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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.

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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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