Tag Archive | "Kessel"

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Team USA’s Real Problem: Lack of Center Ice Talent

Posted on 22 September 2016 by Ed Frankovic

The 2016 World Cup of Hockey was supposed to help USA Hockey right the “wrongs” of Sochi and restore the team to at least the level they reached in Vancouver in 2010 (silver medal), but after two games, their entire tournament went kaput.

A stunning tournament opening 3-0 loss to Team Europe and then the not surprising at all 4-2 defeat at the hands of the Canadian power house leaves USA Hockey eliminated from the World Cup of Hockey after Thursday night’s meaningless game against the Czechs.

USA Hockey is now in disarray and searching for answers.

So how did it get this bad?

Well for starters, the choice of head coach put things headed in the wrong direction. John Tortorella is a fiery man and he’s won a Stanley Cup, but that was back in 2004 when the game was drastically different. Post lockout, Torts has had minimal success in Tampa, New York, Vancouver, and now Columbus. There are many who feel that the game has passed him by. His record since the lockout, and especially most recently, backs that up.

The fingers can also be pointed at USA Hockey management, as Craig Custance duly noted on Wednesday afternoon. After Sochi they publicly blamed players such as Phil Kessel for the problems. Bobby Ryan, who was left off of the team, had his name dragged through the mud in an article detailing the management conversations that went into selecting the 2014 Olympic team. For this tournament USA Hockey vowed to construct a team that was tough, gritty, and would stick together. Dean Lombardi was given the reigns, but let’s be honest, the blueprint for this roster came from longtime USA Hockey manager, Brian Burke. “Truculence” is one of Burke’s favorite words, he loves that style of play and he won a Cup in Anaheim with that style, but also with some very skilled and talented players in Scott Neidermayer, Ryan Getzlaf, and Corey Perry.

So the trio of Burke, Lombardi, and Tortorella were the architects of this 2016 mission and they not only played a style that lacked imagination, but resulted in no real flow and little offense. Following the defeat, Kessel and Ryan, who still feel slighted from 2014, took to twitter and basically blasted the management of USA Hockey. It also irked many of the USA players such as Zach Parise, David Backes, and Derek Stepan and they took public issue with the tweets. There are multiple camps on this one, many feel that the USA Hockey management deserved the brunt of the attack, and they are primarily right, but some think that those guys were just calling attention to themselves and piling on. I am not happy with USA Hockey management as well, but I tend to be in the latter camp. I felt the tweets were unnecessary. However, as someone in the game noted to me on Wednesday night, when you’ve got pride, you’ve been blamed for past failures and you see the current team, which you are not on, have no success, then it’s hard to take major issue with those players for pouring more gas on the fire. That’s a fair point, even though the players on the team who lost likely won’t forget the shots they feel were also sent their way by the tweets from those players.

But let’s get to the real problem that is killing USA Hockey at the pro level, and adding wingers Kessel and Ryan to this team would not have helped one iota in this area: center ice.

That same NHL scout, who basically gave Kessel and Ryan a pass for their tweets, noted that as much as we in the media and fans want to call USA’s loss to Team Europe an embarrassment, it really wasn’t. Europe has one of the best centers in the NHL in Anze Kopitar and they also have an up and coming center ice star in Leon Draisaitl. The scout felt that Europe’s third center, Frans Neilsen was equal to Stepan. So it’s no surprise that Europe beat the Americans and the most entertaining coach of the tournament, Ralph Krueger, smartly rode #11 as much as he could against the USA.

Simply put, the USA is woefully weak up the center of the ice in an era where you must be strong there to have a chance to succeed. Their #1 center was Stepan, and he’s a number two on his NHL team. After that there isn’t much to note. Tyler Johnson is a center, but he was left off of the team. Arguably, the best centers the USA have are Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel, but they were on Team North America because they are still teenagers. In contrast, you look at Canada and they go Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews up the middle of the ice, not to mention they have guys like Patrice Bergeron and Joe Thornton as additional pivot men.

So given the USA’s lack of center ice men to choose from, in Burke, Lombardi, and Torts’ defense, they felt they had to play a certain style to have a chance to win. It doesn’t make that choice right, because the game is about puck possession and speed these days, but that was likely their thinking.

Now USA could’ve played a different way and swapped out some wingers and added Johnson, but would it have mattered? Maybe a little bit, but they still weren’t beating Canada.

Look no further than the words from the coach who is going to win this tournament, Mike Babcock. The Leafs bench boss said himself that Team Canada is playing the exact same system that he used in Toronto this past season to finish DEAD LAST in the NHL. Babcock made it abundantly clear, it’s not about systems, it’s about the players. He has the best players to choose from in Canada and he will win. They are loaded at the most important position, center (and every other position, too).

Yes, I’d like to see Team USA play more of an up tempo speed game like Team North America is playing right now, but you have to have the talent to do that. It wasn’t there with this roster or the pool of players they had to choose from.

The bottom line is USA Hockey can swap out the management philosophy, and I think they absolutely should, but until they get some center ice men at the NHL level, it’s not going to make a huge difference.

Luckily they have Matthews and Eichel coming in the near future, but will that be enough to close the very large gap that exists between the USA and Canada at center?

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The Caps five game winning streak comes to a halt as the Pens win at the Verizon Center.

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Fleury and the Pens Stymie the Caps Offense

Posted on 28 October 2015 by Ed Frankovic

When Evgeny Kuzentsov scored on a lucky bounce just 88 seconds into period three of a scoreless hockey game, it appeared the Washington Capitals would continue their winning ways against one of their three biggest rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins (Flyers and Rangers).

Instead, some costly breakdowns on the defensive side of the puck turned a Caps lead into a quick one goal deficit in a matter of less than three minutes.

Beau Bennett scored after a great stretch pass from Olli Maata to Nick Bonino allowed him to streak in on the right wing and fire two biscuits on Braden Holtby (22 saves) and even things up just 24 seconds after the Kuznetsov goal. On that play, Washington’s forwards failed to cut off the center of the ice to yield a successful pass that is typically intercepted at the red line, when played properly. Compounding the problem was Brooks Orpik was too far to the center of the ice as he was trying to stop Bonino and that gave Bennett the lane to the cage.

If that wasn’t bad enough, then just over two minutes later, after the Capitals got caught in deep in the offensive zone, the Penguins worked a perfect cycle game and Phil Kessel beat Matt Niskanen to the net for the game winning tally. Bonino then added an empty net goal late to make it a 3-1 final.

The Caps now fall to 6-2 and their five game winning streak was snapped.

There were some things to like for Washington in this game. They killed off a lengthy five on three early on and another Penguins power play in the first period to go a perfect three for three on the PK on the night. Holtby was especially strong early on. In addition, they out-shot the Pens, 34-25, and out-shot attempted them for the game, 66-55. Marc Andre Fleury (33 saves) was outstanding in this game, so he deserves much credit for the win.

On the downside, I thought the Penguins did a great job of pre scouting the Capitals breakout and power play (0 for 3). Washington had a lot of trouble generating speed through the neutral zone and when they did, the Capitals often over passed the puck. They had 34 shots, but turnovers in the offensive zone probably cost them another seven to 10 attempts to the cage. When the other goalie is hot, you have to get pucks and traffic on him and the Caps were only successful at that in spurts.

I’ve seen the talk of the Penguins possibly getting rid of head coach Mike Johnston from some who cover the game. I’m not sure if there is any truth to those rumors, but based on what I saw, and granted this was the first time I’ve seen the Pens all season, I thought he did a great job of getting his club ready to play against the Caps. They had bodies and sticks in the Washington lanes all night and their puck support was strong.

Overall, the Pens deserved this one for their superior play in the final frame. They took advantage of the Caps mistakes and their goalie was excellent.

It’s only October 28th and the Caps will learn from this loss. They were too loose, at times, in this contest and they couldn’t bail themselves out with offense. Coach Trotz will have lots of good videotape to show and use after this one.

There are 74 games remaining. The Caps have the makings of a powerful team and are picked by many to win the division. That will happen, more likely than not, but on Wednesday, they didn’t bring anywhere close to their “A” game and lost a close one to a good hockey team.

Next up are the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday. C-Bus is now coached by John Tortorella. Torts is 2-1 since taking over and they are riding a two game winning streak after starting 0-8. Expect a physical game and you can bet Columbus will be clutching, grabbing, hitting, and blocking shots. Tonight’s loss against the Penguins should be good preparation for that type of hockey since Pittsburgh did a fairly good job of keeping the Capitals to the perimeter.

So stay calm and be ready for Friday night.

Notes: The Caps lost the face off battle, 35-29. Sidney Crosby was held pointless but he was 18-8 from the dot…Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Oveckin both played over 22 minutes. John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:16 and Niskanen was close behind at 24:36…Brooks Laich only played 7:16 and Chandler Stephenson just 5:42. It was their line that got caught in the offensive zone on the game winner and allowed the Penguins to get a cycle advantage to set it up. Laich changed before the goal went in.

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williams

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Caps Make Surprising Free Agent Splash Inking 3 Time Stanley Cup Winner

Posted on 02 July 2015 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan stated that he thought that his team would be relatively quiet during free agency, and for good reason. The Caps still need to sign restricted free agents Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Marcus Johansson and they were roughly $19M or so under the cap heading into this week.

While there were numerous deals that occurred during the early portion of NHL free agency, including the Penguins trading for Phil Kessel and Mike Green signing a three year, $18M deal with the Detroit Red Wings, MacLellan stayed true to his words throughout the majority of the day and didn’t make anything more than minor moves, re-signing restricted free agent forward Stan Galiev and depth defensemen Taylor Chorney for $700K.

In addition, on Tuesday, the Columbus Blue Jackets boldy traded for center Brandon Saad from Chicago, so some Metropolitan division teams appeared to be improving their forward cores.

With Joel Ward and Eric Fehr on the open market and unsigned, there was the thought that the Caps GM might be trying to bring both back to at least keep pace with some of the other teams in the division up front. It seemed that MacLellan’s patience was paying off in that regard with Ward and Fehr still available late on Wednesday night. Then lightning struck the Capitals, but in a good way.

Washington was able to ink 33 year old forward and three time Stanley Cup winner, Justin Williams, to a two year deal at $3.25M per season. The dollar amount and term are likely lower than what Ward will receive on the open market and the former King, Hurricane, and Flyer is a slightly younger player (Ward is 10 months older) with a wealth of championship experience.

Williams, who missed the post season this year with a tired Los Angeles team, is a smart player who has incredible possession numbers over the past five seasons. I watch a lot of Kings games and he is as intelligent and solid a player as they come. He can play anywhere from first line right wing to third line right wing giving the coaching staff a lot of flexibility with their lineup decisions.

While he isn’t speedy, he is very clutch, and his nickname, “Mr. Game 7,” is well earned, he’s 7-0 in those tilts (h/t @VogsCaps).

This move, combined with the promotion of Philip Grubauer to back up goalie, along with the projected improvement from Kuznetsov and Andrei Burakovsky (rookies last season), and the expected better season from Tom Wilson has the Caps positioned to be a strong contender in the Eastern Conference once again.

Sure the loss of Green will hurt some, but Washington is expecting Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt to help fill the void on the blue line. You can also expect Matt Niskanen to step up on the offensive side of the puck now that he’ll get more power play opportunities that went to old number 52.

MacLellan still has work to do to get the three big RFA’s (70, 92, and 90) signed, and he has roughly $14.4M to achieve that (h/t to @AlexPrewitt and @GeneralFanager). It would be ideal if he can ink those three and also find a way to bring back Fehr, too, since he can play third line center as well as wing.

But a day that looked to be a sad one in Caps history with the departure of Green, who was always a class guy in the community, with the fans, and the media during his 10 year tenure, turned out to be much more positive with the surprise signing of Williams.

The game is always played and decided on the ice, but the Capitals organization and their fans should feel even better about their club with the addition of a proven winner, in Mr. Game 7. Williams should help a Caps franchise that has struggled to win those contests (4-10 in game 7s) throughout their 40 year history.

Notes: Caps development camp will be held at Kettler IcePlex next week (July 7-11). All four draft picks, including first round choice Ilya Samsonov from Russia (22nd overall), are expected to attend…MacLellan signed center and face-off/penalty killing specialist, Jay Beagle, to a three year deal at a cap hit of $1.75M per season on Monday.

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Ovechkin, Neuvirth Rally Caps Past Leafs, 3-2

Posted on 10 January 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Michal Neuvirth, playing his first game since late November, had every right to be upset after Karl Alzner’s stick deflected a Phil Kessel shot from a weak angle by him to give Toronto a 2-1 lead just 54 seconds into the third period.  But #30 didn’t sulk, and in more important fashion, Neuvy made a game changing save on Mason Raymond, who was wide open in the slot, just 65 ticks later. If Raymond’s shot goes in, the game is pretty much over as Washington would’ve gone down 3-1. But Neuvirth made a great glove save.

Shortly thereafter, the Capitals started to take the play after slightly being outplayed by the visitors, to that point. Nicklas Backstrom would tie it at the 4:36 mark after strong work in the offensive zone and then Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal, 1 assist) made a great pass to Marcus Johansson, who then fed Joel Ward in the slot, and #42 buried the game winner just after David “Overpaid” Clarkson’s penalty expired.

Washington then closed out the final 8:09 of time and won their second straight contest in regulation to improve to 22-16-6 (50 points), which puts them in a second place tie with the Flyers in the Metropolitan Division.

With both teams having played the previous night, the first period had a sleepy feel to it and neither club dented the twine. But that changed in the middle frame and boy did the intensity pick up after Dion Phaneuf and John Erskine had a roughing match with the linesman sandwiched between them. #4 would end up getting the extra minor, a call that had Coach Adam Oates as mad as I’ve ever seen him on the bench. The Caps killed the extra minor and then Ovechkin scored his 32nd of the season after great work by Mike Green in the corner and a super pass by Mikhail Grabovski.

But, as usual, the Caps couldn’t stand prosperity and the Leafs’ James van Riemsdyk scored on the power play just 2:29 later. Then the intensity went to an even higher level, fueled by the Phaneuf-Erksine spat and likely also by a shaky hit from behind by Nazem Kadri on Alzner along the Caps bench. For some reason Toronto’s Carter Ashton then decided it would be a good idea to fight rookie Tom Wilson and talk about a bad plan, #43 pummeled the son of former NHLer, Brent.

That undercard bout would lead to the main event, Colton Orr vs. Erskine and Big John pounded Orr in a decisive victory. Unfortunately the fight wins didn’t translate into goals on the ice as the Leafs carried more of the play from then until the Kessel tally early in the third period.

But Neuvirth (32 saves) came through with the huge stop on Raymond when this game was in question and saved his club.

It was a big victory, granted it was over a struggling Leafs squad, but Washington needs wins now and Neuvy allowed his club to finally wake up and grab the contest.

So that is two strong goaltending performances in a row for the Caps. Philipp Grubauer was super in Tampa on Thursday and Neuvirth was excellent on Friday against Toronto. #30 still wants to be traded, but with a grueling stretch coming up, Oates is gonna need his keepers to play well.

What also helped Neuvirth tonight was the Caps clamped down in the neutral zone and avoided offensive zone turnovers. As a result the Leafs did not get any two on ones or breakaways. At best, they may have had one or two three on two’s. That is real progress for Washington, granted it was against a team that struggles to own the puck. The Capitals still allowed 34 shots on net and 66 attempts to the Leafs against 35 and 68 for the Caps, respectively, so they did not totally dominate puck possession.

Overall, it was a pretty even game but Neuvirth made some big stops when needed and the Capitals top players, Ovechkin and Backstrom, delivered down the stretch to help Washington eke out a victory.

Notes: Washington was 0 for 4 on the power play and afterwards Oates blamed much of that on the Verizon Center ice, calling it “terrible tonight”…the Leafs went 1 for 3 with the man advantage…the Caps lost the faceoff battle 39-34 and Toronto’s first goal came right after a defensive zone loss by Brooks Laich on the PK…next up for the Caps are the Buffalo Sabres at 3pm at the Verizon Center on Sunday. Ryan Miller made 49 saves last time these two teams met in Buffalo.

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