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Caps Do Well With Trotz Hire But Miss on GM Decision

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Caps Do Well With Trotz Hire But Miss on GM Decision

Posted on 26 May 2014 by Ed Frankovic

On Memorial Day, the Washington Capitals announced they’ve promoted assistant GM Brian MacLellan to General Manager and have also hired former Nashville coach Barry Trotz as their new bench boss.

My quick take: they hit a home run on the coach and they swung and missed on the GM choice.

Let’s start with the positives. I worked for Barry Trotz back in the early 90′s when he was with the Capitals organization and he is not only a super coach but a great person. His passion for the game is unbelievable and he’ll do what he can to help anyone else he believes loves hockey too. True story, Barry once gave me five pages of notes and drills to use for my adult hockey team, and I didn’t even ask for it. That’s just one indication of how much he cares about hockey, and more importantly, people.

With Trotz, the Capitals will be a hard working two way team. The defensive and neutral zone disasters we witnessed in 2013-14 should be a thing of the past. He will implement a system that will maximize his talent and he will hold the team accountable to playing it.

The Capitals absolutely obtained the services of the best coach available right now in the market.

When the Capitals cleaned house just over a month ago, I blogged that the GM decision was critical and arguably the most important in team history. Caps owner Ted Leonsis also stated that the organization was looking for a fresh look at things.

Hiring MacLellan, on the surface, does not meet that criteria, at all. With names like Ray Shero and Craig Button available, men who’ve won Stanley Cups in a hockey management position, I don’t see how the Capitals came close to getting the right person to lead them to their first Stanley Cup.

As assistant GM, MacLellan was in charge of the pro scouting and that is where this organization has really fallen down the last several years. The return on the Filip Forsberg trade was abysmal and recent free agent moves have not addressed the team’s main deficiencies, which start on the blue line. When you see the attention paid to that position and moves like Roman Hamrlik and Tyson Strachan, you have to wonder what is going on in the pro scouting arena? How many times did George McPhee tell the media and the fans “We like our D?” Wasn’t MacLellan a part of the “We?”

Overall, the moves this team has made at the pro level the last few years have caused this team to go backwards, so why stick with someone in house?

That’s a question that Owner Ted Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick will have to answer because this decision is a very hard sell to me if you are trying to win at all costs.

This organization could use some new thinking in the hockey management department and this hire doesn’t do that.

Yes, Barry Trotz is a great move and he’ll bring a fresh set of ideas and eyes to the organization. But for Barry to win, he needs better players. The blue line on this team is woeful and they lack depth at center.

Both of those areas have been deficient for years, yet the GM they’ve hired is one who has been involved in the personnel decisions of a club that, as currently configured, is not a Stanley Cup contender.

Bottom line, the Caps needed to bring in an experienced GM from the outside, and they didn’t do that.

 

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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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Holtby Stones Devils in Caps 3-0 Win

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Holtby Stones Devils in Caps 3-0 Win

Posted on 09 February 2014 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals played three games this week and allowed only three goals getting super net minding from Michal Neuvirth on Tuesday in a 1-0 loss to the Islanders and then Braden Holtby in a 4-2 victory on Thursday against Winnipeg and a shutout of the New Jersey Devils on Saturday in a 3-0 win.

In all three contests the goaltenders did their job and held the Capitals in the game. Unfortunately, Washington was only able to win two of those three contests.

Goaltending is not the major issue in Washington. Holtby, Neuvirth, and even Philip Grubauer have all played well for the Caps this season. If there is an issue on this team, it’s on inconsistent defensive zone play and up front, where scoring, outside of Alexander Ovechkin, has been tough to find.

But back to the goalies, and specifically, Holtby. The young netminder has been very good in his short career with Washington and #70 nearly carried his club to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012. Last year, Braden had a tough game seven against the Rangers, but let’s be honest, the Capitals lost that series because they couldn’t put the biscuit in the basket, not due to the play of Holtby.

Fast forward to this season where Holtby came out of the gate playing well behind a very young and suspect defense. Then starting with a loss to Pittsburgh in late November, things kind of went off of the rails for the Saskatchewan native. There was talk of the coaching staff trying to change the way Holtby played with a focus on him not being so aggressive and his positioning being deeper in his cage. It was a big change for the goalie and he went into a tailspin. Suddenly longer range shots were getting by him and compounding the problem was a defense that gave up too many odd man rushes and often screened their goalie or deflected shots, making not playing the angles as much more of a liability.

But in some recent relief appearances and then the two games this week, #70 was back to his “original” self. After his third shutout of this season on Saturday, I asked Holtby what was going on and if the talk of changing his game was true.

“There’s been talk of it from the start of the year to try and change things. The last two games I’ve just played like what’s got me here. So Olie and I are really getting back to our basics and it’s working out,” said Holtby.

Clearly Holtby, in his response to me, was not comfortable with the different style. The coaches were trying to make adjustments, perhaps because the defense was so green, but they clearly weren’t working for a guy this team believes is their number one goalie long term. Basically, they traded away Semyon Varlamov, who just signed a five year $30M contract with Colorado and will be starting for Team Russia in next week’s Olympics, to give the cage to Holtby.

A coach’s job is to try and make a player perform at peak efficiency, but sometimes they can over think a situation. There aren’t many goalies that have the ability to play deep in their net and be successful like Henrik Lundqvist is able to do on a regular basis. In an interview on Sirius XM radio just this week, Calgary Flames Director of Amateur Scouting, Tod Button, stated what I just wrote about Lundqvist. Button basically said that Lundqvist is the exception to the rule when talking about what the Flames are doing with their young up and coming goalie, Joni Ortio. Button said that a lot of the European goalies play that “deeper in the net” style but in the NHL, the shooters are so good that they’ll eat you up, so you have to teach them to be more aggressive.

Holtby was always an aggressive goalie and the direction the Caps were going with him this year was to be less that way. It wasn’t working. But credit both Holtby and Olie Kolzig for working through this and getting #70 back to doing what is most comfortable for him. Based on the way Holtby played this week and has played in the past before the style changes, and given what Button stated (and it is a common thought around the league), letting Holtby be Holtby makes the most sense.

On Saturday, Holtby was the primary reason the Caps won. The Devils had 11 of the first 16 shots on goal and #70 made some big stops, including a two on one early on. I asked Braden what his toughest save of the night was and if it was that stop on the odd man rush. He said that was a good one but it wasn’t as difficult and you might think.

“Those look harder than they actually are if your d-man plays them right like they did and chooses to take away one, the shot or the pass. He chose the shot so I knew he was passing it, which makes it a lot easier on me,” stated Holtby on the sequence that led to a super left pad save.

Holtby did say that New Jersey did a good job of generating traffic and he did get some breaks. Patrick Elias had a golden chance in front in period two but somehow shot the puck wide.

“They put a lot of traffic in front, though, they are right on top of me all night, so a couple of lucky bounces and fighting through screens,” said Holtby describing the challenge he faced with the Devils on Saturday.

Holtby was certainly the number one star, but the other goalie, Cory Schneider, was good too. It took a shot from Julien Brouillette through traffic to beat a goalie many felt, including me, should be on Team USA next week. The goal was the young defensemen’s first in the NHL and it was all the Caps needed, although Martin Erat (1st goal of the year) and Troy Brouwer added empty net tallies.

This was a win the Capitals had to have heading into the Olympic break. They trail the 3rd place Philadelphia Flyers by three points with 23 games to go. The Capitals won their first Metropolitan Division game in their last eight tries to keep pace. The schedule gets extremely tough in March so the Capitals had to get at least six of the eight points on this recent four game homestand. They did that, primarily due to good goaltending from Holtby and Neuvirth.

The Caps will need both, and especially Holtby, who Coach Adam Oates said would be the starter coming out of the Olympic break, to be on their respective games.

It looks like Holtby is back in top form and you can credit that to the mutual decision to allow him to go back to the style that’s made him most successful in his career.

Notes: Alex Oveckhin had an assist and was +2 in 20:48 of ice time…John Carlson led Washington in ice time with 25:11…the Caps killed off all three New Jersey power plays but went 0 for 4 in their man advantage situations. Oates blamed that lack of PP success on poor reads, although the bad ice surface, due to an early basketball game, was a factor also, in my opinion.

 

 

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Caps Draft Burakovsky as Big Trades Fail to Materialize

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Caps Draft Burakovsky as Big Trades Fail to Materialize

Posted on 30 June 2013 by Ed Frankovic

The days leading up to the 2013 NHL Draft generated a lot of hype for the extremely talented players slated to be taken at the top of the draft as well as for the possibility of some blockbuster trades given the NHL’s salary cap dropping from $70M in 2013 to just over $64M in 2013-14. Well the first several selections lived up to the billing but as far as deals went, outside of the Cory Schneider to New Jersey trade for the 9th overall pick, there wasn’t much that was done to impact the rosters of many clubs.

Center Nathan MacKinnon, as expected, went first overall to the Colorado Avalanche, but surprisingly the Florida Panthers chose forward Aleksander Barkov with the second pick and Tampa took winger Jonathan Drouin with the 3rd choice sending defensemen Seth Jones, who many had rated as the top player in the draft, to the Nashville Predators with the 4th pick. So former Capitals GM David Poile was the winner in this draft, in my opinion. Jones, who is big, can skate, and has offensive talents, gives the Preds another great right handed defensemen to go with the powerful Shea Weber down in Music City.

As for the the Caps, General Manager George McPhee stated that he tried hard to trade up into the top third of the first round but was unsuccessful. Thus Washington selected Austrian born/Swedish left winger Andre Burakovsky with the 23rd pick in the draft. The early line on the Swedish forward who reportedly has excellent offensive skills is mixed. TSN’s Bob MacKenzie listed him 24th on his board while Craig Button had Burakovsky as far down as 58th on his final list. McPhee and Director of Amatuer Scouting, Ross Mahoney, have not had a first round bust since Anton Gustafsson in 2008. Over the period of 2008-12, they’ve picked up John Carlson, Marcus Johansson, Evgeni Kuznetsov, Filip Forsberg, and Tom Wilson in the first round. Certainly one would hope that Burakovsky fits in with that last group but one scout I talked to, who called the 2012 1st round picks “home runs” for Washington, had him more in the Gustafsson camp. Guess we’ll find out over the next few years who is correct on that front? McPhee did state that he believes Burakovsky will take time to develop, so he is likely several years from the NHL, at this point.

In the second round, the Capitals took right handed shooting defensemen Madison Bowey from the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League with the 53rd pick and then traded their 3rd (84), 4th (114), and 5th (127) round selections to move up to the 61st spot to take forward Zach Sanford from Derry, New Hampshire. Sanford will play in the USHL this year and then is currently committed to Boston College in 2014-15. Bottom line, the NHL draft is a crap shoot since you are choosing 17 and 18 year olds and many selections take years to develop.

Going back to the trade front, it’s pretty easy to figure out that Washington wants to upgrade the left side of its defense. Specifically, they need a left handed shooting d-man to play with John Carlson on the second d-pair. In addition, with center Mike Ribeiro slated to test the free agent waters, the Caps will likely need to add a number two center once again. There was hope that perhaps one or both of those voids could be filled with trades in New Jersey but despite the buildup, there were no big deals for top 6 forwards or top 4 defensemen at Sunday’s draft. But there are still four more full days until free agency begins on Friday, July 5th.

The biggest news of the weekend was Tampa Bay using its’ compliance buyout on 1998 1st overall pick Vinny Lecavalier. Naturally there is interest galore in the 2004 Stanley Cup winning center and he’d be a nice fit in Washington. But he’d be great for a lot of teams. McPhee noted that Adam Oates met with Lecavlier, facilitated by the fact that Oates was an assistant with the Bolts back in 2009-10, and that the Caps coach thinks highly of him. At the end of the day though, this is likely to come down to money and Washington just might not have enough salary cap room to land Lecavalier.

The next two weeks will do a lot towards shaping the Capitals roster for 2013-14. The GM has not decided if he will use a compliance buyout or not, routinely scratched Jeff Schultz is slated to count $2.75M against the Capitals salary cap, but he says he has ownership’s support to use that mechanism, if necessary. McPhee still has to sign restricted free agents Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson but the only questions there are pretty much the dollars. It will be interesting to see what the GM does to fill what look to be two holes heading into a season in which they move into an extremely competitive new division. Is Dmitry Orlov ready to be an NHL second pair defensemen? The Devils improved themselves by adding Schneider in goal while the Flyers have lost Ilya Bryzgalov and Danny Briere to costly compliance buyouts. In addition, Philly signed 35 year old defensemen Mark Streit to a long term deal for four years at $21M. So Paul Holmgren and company continue to do some crazy things and don’t appear to be any better, at this point.

But there are a couple of more weeks where the big action still looks to take place via trades and free agency, so stay tuned!

Notes: The Caps will hold development camp at Kettler Iceplex from July 8-13…Team USA will holds its Olympic orientation camp at Kettler as well from August 25-29 in preparation for the 2014 Olympic Games that will be played in Sochi, Russia. Poile is USA’s GM while the Penguins Dan Bylsma will coach the squad. This is a big deal for the area to host this type of event.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: I will be on the Morning Reaction with Drew Forrester talking NHL and Caps draft at 7:25 am Monday morning.

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Ovechkin Is Still The Most Exciting Player in the NHL When On

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Ovechkin Is Still The Most Exciting Player in the NHL When On

Posted on 23 February 2013 by Ed Frankovic

Wow, that was one fun afternoon for the Washington Capitals and their fans.

In vintage 2008 form, Alexander Ovechkin took over Saturday’s matinee with the New Jersey Devils exploding for three goals and an assist in a 5-1 Caps victory. The Gr8 has been playing extremely hard over the last 13 games but until today’s tilt, he wasn’t getting the results on the scoresheet to correspond to that effort. That all changed in this one, perhaps having fiancee Maria Kirilenko in attendance for the first time all season brought him good luck?

Whatever the case, when Ovechkin is on, in my book he is still the most exciting and explosive player in the NHL. He may not be the MVP, like he was in 2008 and 2009, but when he is skating, shooting, and hitting he can still lift you right out of your seat. Or as the NHL Network’s Craig Button once said several years ago after attending a Caps game for free, “Where do I pay for the performance I just watched?!”

Certainly the fans in attendance got their money’s worth and more today, thanks to Ovechkin along with many of his teammates. It was easily the best game this struggling club has played all year and they finally knocked off a team in the top eight spots of the conference (now 1-8-1, h/t @SkyKerstein).

The Caps stayed out of the box yielding only three Devils power plays and a penalty shot. Two of those infractions were of the delay of game variety, something that Coach Adam Oates has to address going forward. But Washington scored shorthanded on Eric Fehr’s tally in the third period and the Caps power play clicked two of the three times it was on the ice. Anytime you go +3 in the special teams department, chances are pretty good you will win via a lopsided margin.

It was pretty much a complete performance and Braden Holtby had another superb game in the cage, including thwarting a Steve Bernier penalty shot in the middle frame. #70 is now 4-2 and has a .9255 save percentage in his last six games. As I said a week ago Friday on the air on WNST 1570 AM Baltimore in my session with Thyrl Nelson, host of the MobTown Sports Beat, I am a big believer in Holtby and his abilities.

Other standout performances on Saturday came from Matt Hendricks, whose pass to Ovechkin on his second goal was a thing of beauty and started the third period onslaught; Karl Alzner, who was superb at both ends of the rink; and Mike Ribeiro and Nicklas Backstrom for the outstanding passes and center ice play.

Still, this one was all about Ovechkin and his explosive performance. The Gr8 took over this contest like he did so many times from 2008 to 2010 when Washington was dominating the Eastern Conference. The Caps, who don’t have nearly the talent on their roster now as they did during that period, will need a lot more of these type of outputs to turn this 6-10-1 season into a “2008-like” magical run.

But that is a topic for another day. So for the rest of Saturday, Sunday, and Monday just enjoy the victory and rewatch the highlights of the Gr8 show, because games and individual performances like the one Ovechkin displayed today are what makes watching sports a special experience.

Notes: Mike Green missed his 3rd straight game due to a groin injury. Tom Poti took his place in the lineup…Washington won the faceoff battle 36-25, the 6th straight game the Caps have done that. Coach Adam Oates was arguably the best faceoff man ever so his influence appears to be rubbing off on the center ice men…the Caps next play on Tuesday at home against the Carolina Hurricanes before visiting the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday night.

 

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