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Expectations Are High for the Caps in 2014-15

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Expectations Are High for the Caps in 2014-15

Posted on 14 September 2014 by Ed Frankovic

After an off season of much needed major changes, the Washington Capitals are finally set to open training camp this Friday, September 19th at Kettler IcePlex.

Expectations for the 2014-15 Caps, who will host the 2015 Winter Classic against the Chicago Blackhawks at Nationals Park at 1 pm on January 1st, are extremely high after they spent big dollars to upgrade their defense and brought in an experienced NHL coach in Barry Trotz to work with new General Manager Brian MacLellan.

How much of an impact will those changes have on a team that missed the post season in 2013-14?

The impact will be significant and I’ll go so far as to say that a Metropolitan Division title and a trip to the Stanley Cup Final is very much within their reach.

Here are seven items, in order of importance, on why to be optimistic about the Capitals chances this season.

1. Improved Defense. Last year it was painfully clear that the Capitals blue line was their biggest issue from a talent standpoint so MacLellan wisely went out and upgraded what has been the weakest part of this team for several years. Adding Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Dmitry Orlov gives the Caps three strong defensive pairs. This is easily the most talented blue line the Capitals have had since 1998. When you have a sub par defense, it is much harder to get the puck out of your own zone and also feed it to your offensive players so that they can generate scoring chances. Therefore, it is no surprise that Washington’s puck possession statistics had steadily declined over the last several seasons with management failing to address the blue line deficiencies. Expect to see the Capitals improve greatly in puck possession this season now that they have a legitimate defense. For more about the depth the Caps have compiled on defense and a summary on each player, check out Mike Vogel’s recent Dump ‘n Chase blog here.

2. Experienced Coach. To quote the great Jim Ignatowski from Taxi, “There’s no substitute for experience.” The Capitals badly needed a coaching change and they sorely needed someone who knows the league. Hiring Barry Trotz, who previously coached in Nashville since 1997, was a no brainer. Trotz cut his teeth in the coaching business with the Capitals back in Baltimore in the early 1990′s and was the Predators only bench boss until they decided to go a different direction this past off season. The Predators routinely spent well below the NHL salary cap yet Trotz was often able to get a less talented squad to bond together and overachieve. In 2011, they gave the Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks all they could handle before bowing out in six games in round two.  Now Barry comes to Washington, a team that spends to the cap on personnel, and he has a crew of talented players that have struggled to bond and succeed. Getting players to work together is a Trotz specialty and Barry has already put that process in motion by appointing a leadership group to help foster communication between the coaches and the players, something that has not happened very well in DC the last several years. Leadership should not be all on the captain and alternates, it’s a group effort, and Trotz recognizes in order to win everyone has to be on the same page (As an example, this “leadership as a group” concept worked very well for Ken Hitchcock when he coached the Stanley Cup Champion Dallas Stars in 1999). Trotz’s ability to get the Caps to be “a team” is his most important task, but his knowledge of systems and the other coaches and personnel around the league will be a huge plus too. The Capitals hit a home run with this choice as coach, he was the best commodity on the market and looks to be a great fit.

3. Braden Holtby. The coaching change and revamped defense will arguably benefit #70 more than any other Caps player. He should face less shots on net because the Capitals will have the puck more thanks to a better defense and a new system. In addition, he will work with proven goalie coach Mitch Korn, who came over from Nashville with Trotz. Korn, who has helped Tomas Vokoun and Pekka Rinne rise to the top of their games, should bring out the best in Holtby’s strengths. Also, the NHL has expanded the trapezoid by two feet on each side which will allow Holtby to play the puck more, something that he is good at and a skill that takes the heat off of the defensemen. Holtby has the ability to be a 3rd d-man, at times, so I expect Trotz to utilize that strength, something that former Coach Adam Oates failed to develop. I’d also expect the league to totally dump the trapezoid in the coming years. After all, they are trying to promote skill and allowing the goalies to play the puck fits in with that motto while also helping to reduce injuries on defensemen (perhaps we’d see fewer concussions?). Simply put, the Martin Brodeur rule needs to go.

4. Alex Ovechkin. The Gr8 scored 51 goals last season but much has been made of his -35. Plus minus is a team statistic and let’s face it, with the thin blue line the Capitals had last season it is no surprise they gave up so many even strength goals. Ovechkin had 24 of his tallies on the power play last campaign so it might be tough for him to hit 51 overall given that opponents will likely key on him on the man advantage. But Alex only had 28 assists in 2013-14 for a total of 79 points. With the improved talent around him, I have to think Ovechkin gets at least 90 points in 2013-14. Alex and his line mates should spend less time in their own zone with the improved blue line and as mentioned above, they’ll get the puck in better position to head up the ice, as well. 100 points for the Gr8 in 2014-15 could very well happen.

5. Mike Green. Heading into the final year of his contract, Green is in great shape and happy to be a part of Trotz’s leadership group. #52 is a very talented player who can drive puck possession. Unfortunately, due to a lack of blue line depth the last several years, the Capitals coaching staff has struggled to find the right partner for him. It’s very possible Orpik could be the stay at home and physical player that Green needs to succeed at an elite level once again. This could be a big year for Green because he won’t have all of the pressure on him to carry the back end with the additions of Orpik and Niskanen.

6. Evgeny Kuznetsov. “Kuzy” came over last spring and he had a lot of adjusting to do to play in the NHL yet he still managed nine points in 17 games. Judging by those last several games, he is an immense talent who likely will produce on one of the Capitals top two lines in 2014-15. The 22 year old has had the off season to prepare for a grueling 82 game grind but he knows what he is up against now because of last spring’s experience and he’ll be better because of it. Expect him to bigger, stronger, and more productive.

7. Brooks Laich. It’s hard to believe, but it hasn’t even been two years since Laich initially injured his groin during the 2012-13 NHL lockout. With the Caps eliminated from the post season last spring, #21 has had nearly six months to get healthy and initial reports are he is finally pain free and happy on the ice again. Laich is a heart and soul guy who is tough to play against. Brooks will fill a grinder role and be a fixture on the penalty kill. He’s also a guy who can work the front of the net on the second power play unit.

Last season was pretty much a disaster for the Capitals yet they only missed the post season by a handful of points. They are playing in a division that is wide open and you can throw the entire Eastern Conference into that equation, as well.

Clearly the play of the defense along with how this team bonds together under the new coaching staff are the two biggest keys to the season.

The talent is there for the Caps, but now they need to show a sense of urgency and execute.

Notes: Orlov and Tom Wilson, who were both injured after the Caps season ended, could see action late in September…the Caps first preseason game is this Sunday, September 21st at 5pm at the Verizon Center against the Buffalo Sabres.

 

 

 

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Caps Beaten by Beasts of the East

Posted on 29 March 2014 by Ed Frankovic

The Boston Bruins are one heck of a hockey team.

The “Beasts of the East” are clearly the team to beat in the Eastern Conference this year and possibly the club with the best shot at Lord Stanley’s Cup given the easier route to the finals in the Eastern Conference. They don’t appear to have any weaknesses, and this is a club that lost top 4 defensemen Dennis Seidenberg earlier in the year to season ending injury. But they have lots of depth.

So with the Caps having to face a club that came in to Saturday’s matinee on a 13-0-1 streak one would think they would be ready to compete right out of the gate.

They weren’t.

They didn’t skate well.

Their passing was atrocious and they didn’t pay the price to win the one on one battles in the first 30 minutes.

If not for Braden Holtby’s goaltending, a 3-0 deficit could’ve been at least six or seven. #70 was really good in the crease, but his teammates didn’t help him out.

You can’t do that when your playoff chances are on the line and especially not against a club as strong as Boston.

Washington’s line of Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward had their usual strong game and they scored late in period two after Mike Green, who was another bright spot, made a great rush up the ice. The Capitals then threw the kitchen sink at Bruins goalie Chad Johnson (31 saves) in the third period, but he was too good and then a terrible charging call on Alex Ovechkin took away any momentum the Caps had built to that stage.

The Bruins would score on that tally, and they scored on one other power play to go 2 for 4 on the game while Washington was 0 for 3.

Boston’s fast start and the special teams were essentially the difference in the game.

Make no mistake about it, the Bruins deserved to win this contest. They played better over the course of the 60 minutes.

But anyone who thinks that the officiating in this contest was decent is smoking some serious stuff. I’ve tried to give the zebras more of a break this season and for the most part, they’ve been better overall. However, the job that Tim Peel and Frederick L’Ecuyer did today in a critical game for Washington was disgraceful.

Of Boston’s four power plays, three were not even penalties. John Erskine’s delay of game hit the glass before exiting the rink (shown clearly on replay), Jason Chimera’s slashing call was a joke and at worst, Johnny Boychuk should’ve gone off with him if that stuff is going to be called. Finally, as mentioned above, the Ovechkin charge was an absolute mirage of a penalty.

In addition, during the Caps power play, right before the Ovechkin “charge” call, a clear trip on the Gr8 was missed that would’ve put Washington on a 5 on 3 advantage.

Simply put, Peel and L’Ecuyer should not get paid for their work today.

Also, why are some of these calls not reviewable by replay? The NFL has it and so does NCAA college basketball. Pucks going over the glass is an easily reviewable event!

But enough on the zebras and league policy, because complaining about those things is pretty much like talking to a brick wall.

This was an important game for Washington and they didn’t come out with the intensity they needed against a super Boston team.

Once again, make no mistake about it, the Bruins deserved the win.

The Caps do go 2-1-2 during a stretch that looked nearly impossible a few weeks ago, so they can take pride in this run against some of the NHL elite.

But now they need to get down to business and find ways to win down the stretch. They have eight games left and likely need 12 or 13 points to get in the post season dance.

Tomorrow night in Nashville against the Predators they desperately need a win.

Coming out with intensity from the opening draw, and getting pucks and bodies to the front of the opponents’ net like Caps Comcast analyst Alan May repeatedly calls for, would be a really good way to start.

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Close Losses Don’t Cut It Anymore For The Caps

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Close Losses Don’t Cut It Anymore For The Caps

Posted on 11 March 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Close only counts in hand grenades and horsehoes.

That saying totally applies to the Washington Capitals predicament right now. The Caps did a lot of things correctly on Monday night but lost a tough one, 3-2, to the Pittsburgh Penguins. As a result, the Capitals fall to 30-26-10 and with 16 games remaining, their playoff hopes are dwindling.

Coach Adam Oates’ club out shot the Penguins, 33-20, and out shot attempted them, 69-45, in a contest that saw the Capitals dominate the puck possession after a shaky start.

The second period was played for large stretches in the Pittsburgh zone but Jeff Zatkoff (31 saves) had the answer for 16 of the 17 shots the Caps put on the cage in the middle frame. The Pens would only get six shots on net in period two, but one of them was the game winning goal by Chris Kunitz. #14 put home the biscuit after Jaroslav Halak (17 saves) gave up a huge rebound in the slot and beat Nicklas Backstrom to the puck to bury his 31st goal of the season. Defensemen Connor Carrick and Jack Hillen were also out of position on the play.

In addition to giving up that one to Kunitz, Washington allowed a Kunitz early marker when he went around Mike Green like he was an orange road cone just 46 seconds into the contest. Just over three minutes later, Sidney Crosby (1 goal, 2 assists) put the Pens up, 2-1, when he scored on the power play. Pittsburgh received that man advantage as a result of a lazy penalty by Backstrom, who did a no-no by putting his stick into the hands of #87.

So the Pittsburgh goals were the result of two defensive zone breakdowns and a bad penalty. That has been the story of the Capitals season. They continue to make mistakes in their own end and they take far too many infractions of the lazy variety.

It’s a bad combination that is difficult to overcome no matter how much you possess the puck during the rest of the game.

The Caps played intense and harder hockey on Monday night, but they still aren’t playing smart hockey.

Former Caps Coach Jim Schoenfeld once said, “I don’t care how hard you work, you’ll never open a can of beans with a banana.”

It seems that when the Capitals do work hard, they often fall into that line of thought by making huge mental blunders to cost themselves’ hockey games.

They desperately needed a victory on Monday and played hard. But they shot themselves in the foot again with errors.

It’s been that kind of season.

Notes: The Caps will take on the Pens on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh in a rematch…Halak wasn’t that good in net on Monday so I expect to see Braden Holtby for Washington and Marc-Andre Fleury for the Pens…Evgeny Kuznetsov made his NHL debut and had two shots on goal in just over 10 minutes of action…the Caps lost the face off battle for the sixth consecutive game (30-22)…Oates is now 0-6 as the Caps bench boss versus the Penguins.

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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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