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Caps over Devils Burkie

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Burakovsky’s Bout Spurs the Caps to a 5-2 Win in New Jersey

Posted on 13 October 2017 by Ed Frankovic

“You mess with the bull, you get the horns.”

That was the message the New Jersey Devils received from the Washington Capitals on Friday night at the Prudential Center.

Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and three helpers, T.J. Oshie had two goals and an assist, Alex Ovechkin had his league leading 9th goal of the season and a gorgeous assist on Backstrom’s tally, and Evgeny Kuznetzov had two assists in a 5-2 Capitals victory that improved their record to 3-1-1 (7 points) and put them in sole possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Braden Holtby made 21 saves in the cage in a solid performance and overall Washington played their most complete game of the season.

Tom Wilson returned from a bogus George Parros imposed four game suspension to bring physicality and energy to the lineup and that jump started the third line allowing the Washington stars to take over the contest. Jakub Vrana tipped in a shot from Devante Smith-Pelly late in period two for a critical tally that made it 3-1, which was big because the Caps needed some strong contributions from their bottom six forwards (Vrana is in the top six, but DSP is on the fourth line).

Perhaps the biggest development of the night, though, was Andre Burakovsky’s first fight that came 2:33 into the final frame with the Capitals clinging to a one goal lead. Blake Coleman dangerously took out Dmitry Orlov’s legs and sent him slamming hard into the boards. A penalty was being called, but #65 wasn’t about to just walk away without letting Coleman know he crossed the line. Burkie dropped his mitts and went after the bigger Devil and lost the fight, although he didn’t take any hard shots to the head. Instantly the Capitals bench stood up and applauded the “good ole fashioned guts” from Andre “Killer” Burakovsky. It was a moment of team toughness and togetherness that this club displayed and you can bet that Andre will get a lot of “ataboys” from his teammates on the way to Philadelphia for Saturday night’s tilt against the despised Flyers.

Shortly after the Burakovsky bout, Lars Eller took a high stick to the face and that’s when Osh Babe, Ovi, Backy, and Kuzy made sure that young Andre’s first NHL fight wouldn’t go for naught. The Caps scored two pretty power play goals on the double minor to salt this one away.

Then it was payback time.

With 7:29 remaining, Coleman manned up and fought Wilson. Blake was whipped so badly that “Rag Doll” by Aerosmith would’ve been a fitting song to pipe through the public address system at that moment. Simply put, Willy let it be known that Coleman wasn’t walking out of the arena nearly injuring Orlov and beating up on the previously undefeated prize pupil, Burakovsky.

This is the kind of stuff that brings an already tight team even closer together. You can see that this Caps club is in it for each other. Everyone around the league and even many in town are already writing these guys off and foolishly trying to tie the local DC baseball teams post season failures to this hockey franchise. It’s pathetic, if you ask me. Baseball has nothing to do with hockey, period.

Anyone who really knows hockey sees the immense talent on this team despite the off season subtractions due to the salary cap. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Oshie are all top NHL players. Combined they have 37 points in just five games. To quote a famous movie from the mid-90’s, yes, “37!” These guys are good and they are still a work in progress with Vrana as a new piece in the top six and Burakovsky moving up as well for the departed Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson. Many are convinced that Oshie can’t score 33 goals again this year because of his high 2016-17 shooting percentage, but as I pointed out all summer, that shooting percentage didn’t including shots that missed the net. Oshie gets a lot of in close chances because of the guys he’s playing with and with the Gr8 on absolute fire, he’s getting more room and hitting the corners with his attempts so far. He’s notched five goals in five games, which is amazing, but when Alexander the Great already has nine, yes nine goals, it’s easy to overlook #77’s production. Last year I often wrote, “Pay the Man!” Boy am I glad the man got paid. Thanks Brian MacLellan.

Getting Wilson back reignited the third line and Brett Connolly and Eller had one of their best games of the season. When you have at least three lines going, it makes it very difficult for the opponents to match up. The Caps needed a presence from the bottom six forwards and they delivered on Friday.

On defense, things got tough with Matt Niskanen exiting the game on what appeared to be a missed slashing call by the inconsistent zebras. It was the second critical missed opponent slash in two tilts. On Wednesday night the referees failed to call a Carter Rowney slash on Kuznetsov on a rush late in that contest that would’ve given Washington a power play and a chance to tie the game.

Nisky will be reevaluated tomorrow, according to Coach Barry Trotz. That slash, with the Caps shorthanded, allowed the Devils to score on the power play and get within one goal with 3:32 to go in period two.

After Smith-Pelly’s key goal made it 3-1, things got close again in the first minute of period three when Kyle Palmieri took a great pass from Damon Severson and split Christian Djoos and Orlov for a breakaway marker.

When Orlov got dumped into the boards and stayed down on the next shift, things were looking bad for Washington, but then “Killer” Burkakovsky stepped in and took one for the team and the Capitals star players made sure to make the Devils pay the price on the scoreboard the rest of the way.

This was a feel good victory against a division opponent that was 3-0 and had just defeated the talented Toronto Maple Leafs earlier in the week.

Impressive messages were sent this night by the Capitals on the scoreboard, with their fists, and with their hearts.

On to the “City of Brotherly Love.”

Notes: Given the Capitals salary cap situation, if Niskanen can’t play on Saturday night in Filthy, it’s likely that Taylor Chorney will get a sweater because calling up Madison Bowey, a deserving right handed shooting blue liner, would require someone else to be sent to Hershey, unless #2 has to go on long term injury (which would be a bad scene)…the Caps were for 3 for 5 on the power play while New Jersey went 1 for 4…John Carlson led the Capitals in ice time with 27:26.  Niskanen only played 12:18 before exiting the contest so the other four guys played extra minutes than in a normal situation. Brooks Orpik logged 22:04, Orlov 21:12, Djoos 16:47 and Aaron Ness played 13:38…shot attempts were 52-46 in favor of the Caps…New Jersey won the faceoff battle, 39-27.  Jay Beagle went 8-5…Backstrom got hit with a puck in warmups and then notched four points…expect Philipp Grubauer to get the start in net against the Flyers on Saturday night.

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Kuznetsov Bird

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Caps Still A Contender Despite Off Season Losses

Posted on 03 July 2017 by Ed Frankovic

For the past three years Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan built a squad to compete for the Cup with entry level or bridge contracts working in his favor. Unfortunately, despite having a complete roster this past season, which led to a second straight Presidents’ Trophy, they did not get the job done.

The Caps had the best team on paper this past spring, but when it came down to it, they couldn’t defeat Pittsburgh, once again.

Bottom line, they couldn’t handle the pressure of the top seed and they under performed.

They choked.

There is no way around that, all you have to do is go back and watch the panic they displayed in game seven after the Penguins took a 1-0 lead.

But we’ve already dissected that loss and the disappointing end to the season, so it’s time to move on.

On this journey, however, MacLellan, while talking about what he called a two year championship window (2015-16 and 2016-17), also clearly pointed out that after those two years were up that roster changes were inevitable due to the salary cap.

As the Caps GM and anyone else that closely follows this team knew all along, they had 11 players from this past spring’s roster that were up for new contracts.

Eleven!

So there was NO WAY this team was going to be the same and they were going to lose many pieces, especially with the salary cap only going up to $75M after the NHLPA mistakenly didn’t take advantage of the full escalator clause. That error is now putting many veteran NHL players out of work and could force many of them to have to take major pay cuts just to stay in the league.

So with five unrestricted free agents, six restricted free agents and the expansion draft guaranteeing one unprotected player was going to be taken by Vegas, the Caps GM had his work cut out for him.

MacLellan wisely took a strategy that focused on keeping the core of the team intact while letting players be exposed, unsigned, or traded where they had other options in the pipeline at those positions, such as on defense and at wing.

For the expansion draft he took the 7-3-1 protection approach which left them most vulnerable with either their 4th defensemen (Nate Schmidt) or the backup goalie (Philipp Grubauer). Leaving just those spots exposed was good asset management, especially when the Capitals knew they were losing one good player NO MATTER WHAT. That turned out to be the very popular, but still relatively inexperienced Schmidt. The 88 car, who is a very good skater and a positive player, was an undrafted free agent that had yet to play a full 82 game season and playoffs as a top four defensemen. The Capitals clearly liked Schmidt and openly stated the plan was for him to have the first shot at the fourth blue line slot this upcoming season, despite not having lengthy experience in that position at the NHL level.

Vegas GM George McPhee, who knew Schmidt well from his days with the Caps, opted to take Nate instead of Grubauer and the first roster hole became official.

Immediately after the expansion draft, the T.J. Oshie signing occurred allowing Washington to keep the 33 goal scorer and top line right wing at a bargain price of $5.75M for eight years.

This past weekend, with the start of free agency on July 1st, MacLellan focused his efforts on signing his restricted free agents. He inked defenseman Dmitry Orlov to a six year $30.6M deal, winger Brett Connolly to a two year $3M contract, and center Evgeny Kuznetsov to an eight year $62.4M monster extension. Over the same period unrestricted Washington free agents Karl Alzner signed with Montreal, Kevin Shattenkirk went, as expected, to the Rangers, and Justin Williams received a high paying two year deal ($9M) to return to Carolina.

The problem with the Caps signings was that the Orlov and Kuznetsov numbers came in a bit higher, especially in Kuznetsov’s case, than originally anyone expected. Both had leverage with the KHL, primarily Kuznetsov, and with Washington thin at center in the organization, Kuzy had even more extra leverage to get a big pay day. After all he could bolt to Russia, play in the Olympics and KHL this season, log another year overseas and then become an unrestricted NHL free agent in the summer of 2019. With no clear top two centers in the Capitals organizational pipeline, MacLellan had no choice but to re-sign Kuznetsov, mostly on #92’s terms. At that point, with restricted free agents Andre Burakovsky and Philipp Grubauer still the only ones needing new deals, someone was going to have to be moved now or in the future to make the overall salary cap dollars work.

The NHL allows teams to carry up to 10% over the salary cap until final roster cut downs, but with so many veteran players on the market likely to be cheaper going forward due to the small salary cap increase (bad move again, NHLPA) it was clear that the trade market was going to be decreasing rapidly going forward. Add in the fact that most teams spent a lot of money to give big increases to their own players (see Connor McDavid and Carey Price) and you can see why there hasn’t been a big trade market since the NHL expansion draft.

Case in point, just last week Vegas GM George McPhee, who selected top four defensemen Marc Methot from Ottawa in the expansion draft, was only able to obtain from the Dallas Stars a 2020 2nd round pick and goalie Dylan Ferguson (a 7th round pick in the 2017 draft) for the blue liner. You read that correctly, it’s the year 2020 for that second round pick!

So with MacLellan needing to deal because the trade market was looking bleak going forward, the Caps GM had to pick a player to move for salary cap room while also finding a dance partner. Marcus Johansson, who carries a $4.583M cap number, was the most likely candidate, especially with Burakovsky and 2014 NHL first round pick Jakub Vrana in place and ready to move up the depth chart at wing. Luckily the New Jersey Devils, who had set aside money to try and lure Shattenkirk to their club on July 1st, but failed to do so despite likely offering more money than the Rangers, had remaining budget and needed to make a splash to improve their team and appease their fan base.

So on Sunday night, just after announcing the blockbuster Kuznetsov deal, the Caps traded Jojo to the Devils and received 2018 2nd and 3rd round picks for the forward who just completed a career year in Washington with 24 goals and 58 points. 19 of those 58 points came on a first power play unit with Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Oshie, but Marcus did his share to earn those points by being the best on the team in man advantage zone entries (Kuznetsov will assume Johansson’s 1st PP spot going forward).

With the departure of the also very popular Johansson to go along with Schmidt and the three EXPECTED unrestricted free agent losses, some in the fan base and local and national media went nuts. This despite the fact that MacLellan had managed to pretty much ensure he’d re-sign six of the 11 players that needed new contracts for 2017-18 while also getting two draft picks for the departed Johansson to fill in holes that they had in the 2018 draft as a result of previously traded choices. Those draft picks should prove to be valuable going forward.

Following the Johansson trade, the fan response on Twitter and blog/Twitter posts of some in the local and national media were emotionally charged and a major overreaction in a negative sense. It seems that many conveniently forgot the facts, or chose to ignore them: the Caps were going to lose good players this off-season and when prices went up in the restricted free agent market, it likely cost them one more that they did not originally expect or could reasonably prepare for given the expansion draft.

Suddenly MacLellan, who along with Coach Barry Trotz and his coaching staff have done a wonderful job of turning around a team that was an absolute train wreck just three years ago, had become the village idiot on Twitter for losing Schmidt and Johansson. But in reality they are two replaceable players in the grand scheme of things when you look at the Capitals organizational depth. They have young quality defensemen in the organization and at wing both Burakovksy and Vrana are ready to move up to fill in the gaps left by the departure of Jojo.

Overall, the expansion draft and the upward costs of the restricted free agents resulted in the loss of those two players in addition to their unrestricted free agents (although MacLellan did keep Oshie from the UFA pile). In my opinion, however, you’d be hard pressed to pick any other two players from the 7-3-1 protected list and restricted free agent crew that make the dollars work while resulting in a better overall scenario for Washington going forward, especially given the other assets they currently have in the organization for replacements. Keep in mind that Vegas had the final say for the expansion draft, too, so the Caps did not get to choose who the Golden Knights selected. In addition, the idea of buying out Brooks Orpik was never a viable option and it would not have resulted in enough salary cap savings (only $3M) this season to allow all of the restricted free agent signings to occur (not to mention it would add wasted dollars to the salary cap for the next four seasons).

The Caps lost good players, but let’s get one thing straight in spite of everything that has transpired since the end of the season – the Capitals still have a VERY GOOD hockey team heading into 2017-18.

The projected line-up, based on input from the Caps GM during his Monday morning conference call, is now as follows:

Forwards:

Ovechkin – Backstrom – Oshie

Vrana – Kuznetsov – Burakovsky

Connolly – Eller – Wilson

TBD – Jay Beagle – TBD

Defense:

Orlov – Matt Niskanen

TBD – John Carlson

Orpik – TBD

Goalie:

Braden Holtby

Grubauer

The TBD’s at forward, right now, include the possibility of several Hershey players such as Chandler Stephenson, Nathan Walker, Travis Boyd, Riley Barber, or recently acquired players such as Tyler Graovac, Anthony Peluso or Devante Smith-Pelly (signed from New Jersey on Monday on a two way contract for the league minimum, $650,000). On defense, the TBD’s appear to be two of Taylor Chorney, Madison Bowey, Christian Djoos, Aaron Ness, and Tyler Lewington.

Yes, this is no longer a 118 or 120 point roster, but it’s still a good one, likely in the 100 to 105 point range given the strong centers, skilled scoring wingers, and quality goaltenders. In my opinion, Vegas not taking Grubauer will be a blessing in disguise for the Caps in 2017-18 because goaltending is the most important position in hockey. There will also be a lot less pressure on this team, the media and many fans have already written them off.

Finally, keep in mind that the other playoff teams in the Metropolitan Division have lost players too, due to the salary cap. In Pittsburgh, the two time defending champs saw Marc Andre-Fleury (expansion draft), Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley, and Ron Hainsey all depart. Without Fleury, who was a great insurance policy for the oft-injured Matt Murray, the Capitals win that second round series this spring. The Rangers signed Shattenkirk, but they traded their number one center, Derek Stepan, backup goalie, Antti Raanta, and bought out defensemen Dan Girardi in the process of doing so. Columbus traded forward Brandon Saad to Chicago for Artemi Panarin, so they are still looking for a number one center to fill their biggest need. Bottom line, nobody has a roster without holes.

It’s clear the fact that the salary cap is impacting all teams gets lost in the noise when some look and analyze the Capitals.

Yes, they’ve become “top heavy” as MacLellan called them, but they are still a playoff team, at a minimum.

Fans are fans, though, so the negativity is to be expected, that’s just the way it is in professional sports. But you’d expect more out of the local and national media. Keep in mind, though, that there are critics in parts of the media who are fans, at heart, of other Metropolitan Division teams (for example, the Devils and the Flyers, to name a couple), or flat out just don’t like the Capitals organization, there’s no denying that. Then there are others who are just not experienced enough when it comes to the workings of the NHL or are trying to make their mark in their craft to move up the sports media ladder via page clicks – so please take their criticism and bashing with a grain of salt. They have an agenda.

In full disclosure, I won’t walk away from the fact that I worked for this organization for 11 seasons either, but my track record of calling the team out when they make mistakes is well documented (see my 2014 end of season fire McPhee and Oates blog or simply check out the first few paragraphs above). If I thought MacLellan did a poor job of handling this off-season, I’d call him out. But given what he was up against and the undeniable rising salary costs for the top players in the game, I think he’s done the best job he possibly could to keep the Capitals a playoff team and, depending on how the new players that make the lineup this fall pan out, still a Stanley Cup contender.

It’s now up to the Capitals star players, starting with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Holtby, to produce their best performances to help carry this club through the regular season and deep into the postseason.

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Oshie Signs

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Caps Smartly Lock Up T.J. Oshie Long Term

Posted on 25 June 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Pay The Man!

All last season as T.J. Oshie racked up key goal after key goal for the Washington Capitals from in the paint that was the phrase I used over and over about #77, whether it was in a tweet, a blog, or on the air on WNST.

Well, the Caps have now “Paid The Man!”

On Friday, Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan announced an eight year, $46M deal between the club and the “Osh Babe.”

Yes, T.J. and his whole family, who are must follows for their enthusiasm and passion on Instagram and Twitter will be Capitals for life.

Well done, Caps, well done.

Oshie, who will be 31 on December 30th of this year, has been the missing piece the Capitals have been searching for at right wing since Alexander Ovechkin entered the league in 2005-06. The closest they’ve come to having a true number one right wing was Alexander Semin back in the 2008 to 2010 period. But #28 was just too inconsistent, too soft on the boards, and took too many bad penalties to be counted on long term. Bottom line, that guy had all of the talent in the world, but he really didn’t have the interest or drive to put in the time or effort to be great at hockey. He was and still is one of the most maddening Capitals players to watch in club history.

Fast forward five years and Washington, under Coach Barry Trotz in his first season (2014-15), squeaked into second place in the Metropolitan Division on the last day of the regular season and parlayed that into a trip to the second round against the New York Rangers. The Caps would lose a three to one series lead and immediately afterwards in the summer of 2015, MacLellan stated that the Capitals needed to add to their top six up front to compete for the Stanley Cup. Specifically, he was looking for players who would go to the net and score, but also be able to compliment the skill they had up front in Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, and Andre Burakovsky. Enter Oshie in a trade for Troy Brouwer and Justin Williams via free agency and the Caps had players that knew how to win the one on one battles and keep pucks alive on the wall where previously they struggled to do so. Washington went on to win back to back Presidents’ Trophies before losing the Stanley Cup Final each spring in the second round to the eventual repeat Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Yes, they were devastating defeats, but let’s be honest, the Capitals were the second best team in hockey both seasons, but they had to face the best in round two because of the playoff format. As I wrote in my end of season blog, the biggest reason the Caps lost to the Penguins this spring was because they didn’t have enough players willing to go to the net and pay the price for the ugly goals. Oshie, Williams, and Johansson were the three Washington players who did that much better than any of the others on the club this past season.

Unfortunately for MacLellan, there is only so much money to go around and with the salary cap rising to just $75M and Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, and some others due for big raises, including Oshie, he was in a bind and could not keep this entire team intact for 2017-18.

In addition, they knew they were going to lose a decent player in the expansion draft to Vegas and it turned out to be defensemen Nate Schmidt. The 88 car, after being the sixth or seventh defensemen much of the regular season, really stepped up in the playoffs and was slated by MacLellan to be a top four blue liner with the Caps in 2017-18, despite having never done that at the NHL level for a full 82 games plus playoffs. Since the Golden Knights opted to draft Nate instead of goalie Philipp Grubauer (also a restricted free agent), Schmidt will likely play top four minutes for a full 82 games next season, but he won’t be going to the playoffs with the roster former Caps GM George McPhee has assembled for its inaugural season.

But back to Oshie, on the open market he could’ve easily grabbed a contract for four or five years at or above $7M a season. However, the Osh Babe made it clear he enjoyed playing in Washington and wanted to stay. Therefore, he opted for much longer term and lower money in the out years, which essentially results in a discount for the Capitals in the first five years of this deal. Oshie will get $32.5M ($6.5M AAV) yet only count $5.75M each year ($28.75M) against the salary cap in season’s one through five.

Again, looking more closely at the way this deal is structured, Oshie receives $22M of the $46M in the first three years. However, the Capitals could not afford a salary cap hit of $7.333M in the near term nor could they handle a five year deal where the cap hit was $6.5M.

Without T.J. though, they are simply not Stanley Cup contenders. There is no one on this club that dogs the puck like he does. He is a true number one right wing and they have no one in the pipeline in the organization that fits that role. I repeat, there is no top line right wing anywhere else in the organization. So the trade off to keep Oshie, which was a must do, was adding in years six through eight, where the Caps are on the hook for another $13.5M, for a player who will start the season at ages 35, 36, and 37, respectively.

Some are making this out to be a bad contract, but it really isn’t when you factor in salary cap growth and also the discount they receive for the player in years one through five.

Upon inception in 2005-06, the NHL salary cap was set at $39M and has grown over 13 seasons to the $75M figure it will be in 2017-18. Using linear regression of those 13 data points and extrapolating that into the future, the salary cap projects to be as follows: $79.4M in 2018-19, $82.13M in 2019-20, $84.87M in 2020-21, $87.60M in 2021-22, $90.33M in 2022-23, $93.07M in 2023-24, and $95.81 in 2024-25. Simply put, if the NHL continues to grow the game at the same rate it’s done since 2006, and that’s certainly achievable given that they overcame a lengthy lockout in 2012-13 that resulted in a flat salary cap from 2011-12 to 2013-14, then that $95.81M number is certainly achievable.

This is important because as Oshie ages it is natural to expect his production to decrease, especially in years six through eight. In year six he will be 35 years old to start the season, yet Williams just proved, that with quality players around him, you can still produce at a high level at that age and you’d have to expect that in those out years T.J. will have either Backstrom or Kuznetsov feeding him the puck.

Some will also point out that T.J.’s high shooting percentage in 2016-17 is not sustainable. Sure, based strictly on those numbers that’s likely true, but looking at where Oshie gets his shots from, it’s easy to see why he had 33 goals in just 68 games. Keep in mind that the 2016-17 shooting percentage figure does not take into account all of the shots he had in close that he missed the net on, either. Bottom line, #77 was the player who was likely to score the most goals as a Capital based on where his shots are coming from. All shots are not created equal and on this club, Oshie has gotten much better scoring chances than he ever did in St. Louis for some big reasons. First, he plays the right way by going to the net and secondly, you have to credit the highly skilled forwards on this club, primarily Backstrom and Ovechkin, his usual linemates, for helping open up the ice for T.J. Let’s not forget that many of those chances for all three of them often came as a result of Oshie’s ability to keep pucks alive in the offensive zone as well as get them out of his own end. He’s an elite player and he deserved to get paid that way.

The past two years Oshie’s salary cap hit was $4.5M which accounted for 6.3% (2016) and 6.16% (2017) of the Washington total. He was a super bargain at $4.5M, no doubt. There are no bargains out there for MacLellan to snag now for a number one right wing. Adding in the cap hits for Ovechkin and Backstrom, the trio combined for 25.25% and 24.44% of the total, in 2016 and 2017, respectively. In 2018, Oshie will account for 7.67% of the Capitals total yet the trio will be at 25.1% of the team total, which is lower than in 2016. As the salary cap increases, Oshie’s individual total drops and based on my league salary cap total projections, is only 6.36%, 6.18%, and 6.0% in years six, seven, and eight of the deal, respectively. Those percentages are certainly not horrible, and keep in mind that Ovechkin’s current salary cap figure will be off of the books starting in year five of Oshie’s deal.

Bottom line, if MacLellan doesn’t offer the eight year deal, there is no deal that keeps Oshie with the Capitals and that top line right wing hole becomes a much bigger one to fill than the fourth defensemen slot they vacated due to the losses of Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk to free agency and Schmidt to the Golden Knights.

Washington does have some very promising up and coming young defensemen in the system in Madison Bowey, Tyler Lewington, Christian Djoos, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Lucas Johansen, who should be able to step up at the NHL level in the near future, especially given how well Trotz and assistant coach Todd Reirden have done in developing both Orlov and Schmidt. So keeping Oshie in the top right wing slot instead of allocating the money for a fourth defensemen to be named later at an over market price is another reason why the Capitals got this one right.

Notes: Washington drafted four players in the 2017 NHL Draft. Defensemen Tobias Geisser, Sebastian Walfridsson, and Benton Maas were selected with the 120th, 151st, and 182nd picks, respectively. With the 213th pick of the draft (7th round), they took left wing Kristian Marthisen who was born in Norway but played in Sweden this past season…the Caps will host their annual development camp at Kettler Ice Plex this week from Monday to Saturday. Practices are open to the public.

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brian-maclellan

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Should the Caps Blow it Up or Stay the Course?

Posted on 29 May 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After the Capitals added Kevin Shattenkirk at this season’s NHL trade deadline, I certainly thought I’d be writing a much happier ending to this recent Washington hockey season.

Alas, once again, that is not the case.

You already know the story; the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Washington Capitals in the playoffs for the second straight season, this time in a seven game series. In fact, it is now the ninth time in 10 playoff meetings that the Pens have knocked out the Caps. Jim Schoenfeld remains the only Capitals bench boss to defeat Mario Lemieux’s franchise in the post season (1994).

Let’s start with giving credit to the Penguins, because they certainly deserve that. Despite being outshot, 232-161, and outshot attempted, 484-317, in the series, they managed to hold the Caps to two goals or less in four of the seven tilts and as result, they won each of those games. There’s your series.

You don’t do that without outstanding play from your goaltender. Cleary, Marc Andre-Fleury’s performance against the Capitals was the biggest reason why the Penguins will likely be winning their fifth Stanley Cup this spring.

Next, you have to credit Sidney Crosby. Despite being injured in game three and missing game four, #87 was the difference maker for Pittsburgh. It was his two goals early in the second period of game one that staked the Pens to a two puck lead which gave his club the confidence it could win at the Verizon Center after being smoked there in the regular season. Then in a crucial game seven, Sid made the key pass on the winning goal after a Washington defensive zone turnover.

Finally, tip your hat to the entire Penguins team and coaching staff because they overcame a ton of injuries to defeat the Caps. Washington had injuries, as well, namely Alex Ovechkin’s knee and hamstring and Marcus Johansson’s fractured finger, but that’s a part of the game and the Pens found a way to persevere through all of their health issues.

The biggest reason the Pens won is because of their resolve. They certainly were outplayed by Washington for long stretches in this series, but they stuck to their system and when they received a break via a Caps turnover or mental mistake, they typically buried the biscuit. They were an opportunistic bunch who believed they could win. They also were able to plug guys into the lineup when some of their top guys were out. Without Crosby in game four, they jumped on the Caps early and held on for a win that ultimately gave the Caps no margin of error for a series comeback. So the Penguins deserve kudos for the depth they’ve created via strong drafting and development.

Congratulations Penguins, you clearly know how to win when the chips are down.

Now, were they the better team like they were in 2016 when they knocked off the Capitals in six games? The statistics say no, but the scoreboard says otherwise, and that is all that matters.

As for the Capitals, the roster assembled by General Manager Brian MacLellan, on paper, appeared to have no holes. Washington certainly did a lot of things correctly in the series. You don’t dominate the numbers as heavily as they did without doing many things right. Unfortunately, they did some big things wrong at inopportune times.

Washington carried the play in several periods in this series, didn’t score, and then tried to change their style of play. That is when they got into trouble and ended up losing. It was pretty obvious that the best Capitals game plan was to put pucks deep in the Penguins zone to try and further weaken a defense that was suffering from multiple injuries. Kris Letang was already out for the season and Trevor Daley was playing on bad wheels. But too often, the Capitals forgot that this is a shoot first league and they went into overpass mode. They were caught up far too easily in playing a pretty game and that is not the way you defeat a team as structured and as mentally tough as the Penguins.

Many Capitals players talked about the defeat being a mental thing on Caps Breakdown Day, and they are correct. Pittsburgh, no matter what the score or the situation, pretty much continued to play the same way. The Caps on the other hand, were not patient enough or mentally disciplined to stick with the game plan. As three time Stanley Cup Champion Justin Williams told me after game two, its okay to dominate a period and not score a goal, it happens in hockey. The problem for Washington though, is they wouldn’t maintain what they were doing and that’s when the fancy game and turnovers appeared on the ice. That’s a mental issue all the way.

While the Caps had a lot of shot attempts, they weren’t getting enough with traffic on Fleury and the players were rarely in position for rebounds. It’s a shoot first league and there were too many times, especially in the third period of game seven, when the Caps would cross the blue line and force the puck to the middle when getting it deep and wearing down the Penguins defense was the right play.

Again, that is a mental toughness issue, in my book. You have to be willing to pay the physical price in the playoffs by making the correct play. Taking a hit in the neutral zone and ensuring the puck gets deep in the offensive zone is a critical part of post season hockey. That applies inside both blue lines, as well. A number of the Penguins goals came as a result of lazy or careless turnovers. That’s a letdown on the mental side of the game. You can also attribute all of the terrible penalties the Capitals took in game four as a mental issue. Washington had a tendency to not come out strong in some contests, most notably games one and four. There is no reason why the Penguins should’ve had a 21-13 shot attempt advantage in the first 15 minutes of game four with Crosby out of the lineup in a must win for Washington. That’s inexcusable and both players and coaches need to answer for that.

Breaking things down by team component, let’s start with the coaching staff. All season long the Caps relied heavily on rolling four lines, but once Karl Alzner was deemed able to play with his hand injury and Brett Connolly struggled in his first post season appearance, Coach Barry Trotz went to seven defensemen and 11 forwards despite it being counter to what they’d done all season. Yes, the seven defensemen and 11 forwards strategy worked in game three, but it might have only been successful because Matt Niskanen was kicked out very early in the contest and the other six d-men were able to rotate normally. In game four, that configuration backfired badly as Alzner and Brooks Orpik, the two slowest Washington blue liners, were out on the ice together early in the game. Patrick Hornqvist, who isn’t exactly fast, split them like Moses parting the Red Sea to tally on a breakaway and it was 1-0 just over four minutes in. Pittsburgh gained a ton of confidence that they could win that contest without Crosby from that goal.

Following the game four loss, which was also heavily impacted by a very injured Ovechkin, who probably shouldn’t have played, Coach Trotz shook up his forward lines. He moved Andre Burakovsky with T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom and bumped the Gr8 down with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson. Those moves worked and Washington came storming back to tie up the series. They seemed poised for a big game seven, but Pens Coach Mike Sullivan adjusted and the Capitals didn’t play with the passion and urgency they had in the third period of game five and all of game six. Simply put, they cracked under the pressure. It’s apparent that the weight of being the #1 seed plus all of the past history of Washington recent playoff failures was heavily on the minds of these players.

Coach Barry Trotz has a track record of being tough on players who don’t follow the rules or the system as evidenced by the Ovechkin suspension in October of 2015 and Andre Burakovsky being benched in December of 2016. He even questionably pulled Braden Holtby after the second period in game two for what he thought was subpar goaltending. However, he and his staff let his skaters get away from the system too often in this series. Any deviation from the structure against a disciplined team like the Penguins can lead to a quality scoring chance, and that is what happened at key times in the series. If guys start playing the wrong way, they need to be benched for a shift or two so they get the message.

Johansson, Oshie, and Williams scored a lot of goals in the regular season going to the net. Jojo even won the Toronto series in OT of game six by doing just that. In the Penguins series, we didn’t see enough net presence and it was on the coaches to drill that into the players heads and enforce the strategy of getting pucks deep to set that up.

Again, I wasn’t a fan of the 7/11 configuration because it got the Caps away from the four line forward group that worked so well from late December until mid February. I understand why Brett Connolly was pulled out of the lineup for maybe a game or so to observe, but he also scored 15 goals in the regular season, many of which were tallied via going to the net. With some guys severely banged up and unable to shoot, like Johansson, why wasn’t he put back in for another chance? It was a mistake, in my opinion, to totally give up on a guy who could’ve been a better performer than the guys who were playing hurt. Case in point, Conor Sheary was performing poorly while being nicked up, so Sullivan benched him for games five and six of the Senators series. Yet in a crucial game seven, #43 was back in the lineup and played a major role in the first two Pittsburgh goals.

So did the Caps lose totally because of coaching? No, the coaching wasn’t great, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here. This coaching staff has done a great job of building this team from the ruins of 2014. The two Presidents’ Trophies are evidence of that. Look at how far Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Tom Wilson have come in just a year. Each one of those players was a big part of why the Caps knocked off the Maple Leafs and dominated the possession statistics against the Penguins.

The playoff coaching certainly needed some improvements, but in totality, this is a very good coaching staff. Trotz and company will certainly take their share of the heat for the loss, but the biggest blame for the defeat is on the players themselves. They have to be stronger mentally and physically to do the correct things on the ice.

Let’s start right at the top of the players with Ovechkin. There’s no nice way to put this, it was a subpar season for Ovi and it all began last summer. How you handle off of the ice issues and life changing events is a big part of professional sports and with Alex getting married last summer it clearly impacted his ability to prepare for and play in 2016-17. After scoring 50 goals in 2015-16 and having a super 2016 post season, Alex looked slow and overweight for the large majority of the season. Clearly his conditioning wasn’t where it needed to be and then missing training camp due to the World Cup of Hockey didn’t help either. At age 31 and not in peak shape, the Gr8 lost some speed and that allowed defensemen to play him tighter so that he couldn’t get his shot off quickly at even strength. Ovechkin lived off of the power play in 2016-17 to score goals as he struggled in five on five situations.

In the playoffs, the hit from Nazem Kadri was low and the Russian Machine didn’t break, but it certainly slowed him down further and probably contributed to suffering the hamstring injury, as well. However, had Ovi been in better condition and had his speed from the previous year, it’s quite possible he could have avoided the Kadri hit altogether.

Ovechkin has made great strides under this coaching staff with his back checking ability, something he rarely did prior to the Trotz era. He deserves a lot of credit for that. However, his ability to play in his own zone has regressed. Standing on the left wing boards straight legged with your stick at your hips parallel to the ice is bad defensive posture. He needs to get rid of that and work on being a better player in his own end. If he gets back in peak shape and works at it, there’s no reason he can’t turn proper defensive zone play into several rush goals in 2017-18. Again, it’s a focus on conditioning and hockey.

That gets us to Backstrom. #19 had a very good season, but game seven was nowhere near his best. MacLellan’s goal in adding Eller and Connolly was to improve the bottom six and allow Washington to play a faster game. The thought was that having four lines would allow Coach Trotz to play everyone more evenly so that they could maintain a high pace and be fresher in the postseason. At times, the Capitals were able to do that, but they were not consistent. Ovechkin and Backstrom both played lower average minutes than they had in past regular seasons, by design, and in the end, it was likely the wrong move as both looked tired, at times, in the post season. Nicky, in his twenties, has been able to survive playing with extra weight, but as he moves into his thirties, like Ovechkin, he needs to shed any extra pounds he has to play faster.

When Washington lost to the Penguins in 2015-16, you could not blame either Ovechkin or Backstrom because they dominated Crosby and Malkin in that series. It was the Nick Bonino line that won for the Pens in the spring of 2016. In 2016-17, you can’t say the same thing. Both Crosby and Malkin elevated their games while Ovechkin and Backstrom weren’t as good as they were the previous May. Sure the Caps only received one goal in the series from their bottom six, but they rarely played the fourth line due to the 7/11 strategy.

Crosby is the best player in the game for a reason; he works harder than anyone at his craft. Orpik was quoted recently as saying that #87 is always the first player on the ice and the last player off of it for the Penguins at practice. That needs to be Ovechkin and Backstrom going forward. We’ve heard from other players that both have made strides, especially Nicky, in speaking up in the locker room. Speeches are great, but actions speak louder and doing the proper things on and off of the ice is so much more critical to winning championships. Those two guys are the Capitals leaders and have been the core for 10 years so they must be setting the tempo that everything is hockey first in 2017-18. We should not have to hear from Orpik that the team needs to get focused on hockey, like we did after the disastrous California trip in March. There were several post game players only meetings this season, including one after game two against the Penguins, and while it’s good to clear the air, they aren’t as necessary if everyone is focused on hockey.

Ovechkin and Backstrom are clearly the core of the Capitals and the goaltender is the third critical piece to the triumvirate. Braden Holtby, who has been stellar in past post seasons, had his worst playoffs from a statistics standpoint. Now how much of that is on #70 and how much of it is on the team giving up too many golden chances? I’d lean more on the side of the team breakdowns, but this was not Braden’s spring. This series was likely over in five games if he doesn’t make some big stops early in period three before the Washington three goal explosion that led to a victory and a two game winning streak. In game seven, he had no chance on the winning goal. However, I still didn’t like the Justin Schultz winning tally in game four. If there was a goal he’d want back in the series, I’d bet it would be that one.

On defense, John Carlson played his best hockey of the season against the Penguins, but he did not have a consistent year. He needs to amp his conditioning up so that he can play faster, as well. The standouts of this postseason on the blue line were Orlov and Schmidt and that’s encouraging given where we were just a year ago with both of them. Bringing in Shattenkirk for Zach Sanford and a first round pick seemed like the right move at the time, but in the end, with no Stanley Cup, it’s a lost trade. #22 has enormous potential and talent, but he was slow in the playoffs. Again, I think that might be a conditioning issue, but he didn’t come over until March with Washington. Hindsight is 20/20 and the deal now is another one that weakens the Capitals reach back for young players. Sanford has a lot of promise and first round picks are valuable. I can’t fault Mac for making that move, but coming up Cup empty now makes it an overall organizational defeat.

So where do the Caps go from here? There are calls for firing the coach, trading Ovechkin, or “blowing it up” from many in the fan base and some around the club. Even a couple of players said “major changes” were needed just two days after losing to the Penguins. It’s a natural reaction when a team loses again after being the favorite.

Let’s be honest, this is a team that is largely based on European talent and it hasn’t produced a trip to the Eastern Conference finals yet. This club improved greatly with the additions of North American players Oshie and Williams in the summer of 2015. They are guys who have a high “dog the puck” type of work effort. Both are unrestricted free agents and the team needs more of that style. Word over the Memorial Day weekend is that the Capitals and the Osh Babe have verbally agreed to an extension so that is great news, this team is not a Cup contender without #77 going forward. It would be nice if they could find a way to get Williams back, as well, but that will be tougher given the salary cap situation. Per the Caps great team reporter, Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps), we’ve heard that the salary cap is going to be in the $76 to $77 Million range. That is a big help to Washington, who also have to deal with Burakovsky as a restricted free agent. There are some who think #65 deserves a big pay raise, but given his inconsistent output, I’m not sure Washington can commit to longer term and/or high dollars on him, just yet.

I just don’t see moving Ovechkin or Backstrom as feasible given the likely low return and to be honest, #19’s contract is a great one for the Caps. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who also improved significantly in the post season outside of a poor game seven, is up for a new contract. He’s a restricted free agent, but somewhere around $6M per season seems likely for him. As for Orlov and Schmidt, it’s apparent they’ve moved up big time on the depth chart of this defensive roster and deserve decent longer term contracts. I’m speculating that Orlov will be come in at around $4M and Schmidt in the $2 to $2.5M range. Both play with speed and drive possession, which is so important in today’s NHL. Unfortunately, there will have to be other changes on the blue line. Shattenkirk will get paid big bucks elsewhere and I’d expect the same for Alzner, who really had a rough campaign. King Karl admittedly had a hard time regaining his speed after offseason groin surgery and then he broke his hand in the first playoff tilt against Toronto.  As for Orpik, as much as he’s a strong leader and a fitness freak, which was a big help in starting to turn the culture of this team around in 2014-15, his on ice value compared to his salary cap hit is not equitable anymore. He’s a third pair defenseman and you can’t afford $5.5M annually for that type of player when you want to win a Cup. MacLellan will have to look at either working a deal to move him, getting Vegas to pick him in the expansion draft, or buying him out to clear some needed salary cap space.

If the Caps had players ready to make the leap from Hershey or the college ranks to the NHL, like the Penguins have been blessed with the last two seasons, the overall situation could be better. Perhaps the bottom six will see a player such as Travis Boyd or Riley Barber come up and help out? Jakub Vrana has shown glimpses of being able to handle the NHL, but after his demotion this year he dropped so far off of the map that he was scratched for some games by Bears Coach Troy Mann in the AHL playoffs. Vrana is streaky and inconsistent, much like Burakovsky has been, so do you want to rely on another guy who doesn’t go to the net or high traffic areas consistently to finally help get you past the Pittsburgh problem? Seems awfully risky to me.

Clearly MacLellan has a lot to address in this offseason given the number of contracts that are expiring, NHL expansion to Vegas, and salary cap constraints. He also has a head coach reportedly heading into the last year of his contract. Add in that the two core players on the roster will both be in their thirties in 2017-18 and it’s clear that the GM has a lot to consider when charting the course for next season.

It’s not an easy job and there are very hard decisions to make, but in this case, I think it’s worth staying the course for at least one more year with the head coach and core players. In regards to a coaching change, is there somebody out there better than this head coach and staff worth pursuing? After all, there are several young players who have really improved during the Trotz regime and they’ve won two straight Presidents’ Trophies. They will likely have lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions in the second round yet again (yes, I see the Penguins defeating the Predators in the Stanley Cup Final) and that’s simply a function of the current division and playoff setup. In reality, they are the second best team in hockey, so does making drastic changes make sense? I don’t think so.

Brian, however, has to put pressure on the coaches and players to improve and be in better condition so they can make the playoffs and then deliver next spring. In hindsight, the World Cup of Hockey, which included participation from Coach Trotz and several top players, put the Capitals behind the eight ball from a readiness standpoint heading into 2016-17. The lack of preparation, based on what I’ve seen and heard, is a big reason they weren’t able to knock off the Penguins in the second round, once again.

So it’s incumbent upon Coach Trotz, Ovechkin, Backstrom, and everyone else in line after them to start getting ready for 2017-18 as soon as possible. Ovi, Nicky, and all of the players need to put in the hard work this July, August, and September so that they are in the best condition to play at a maximum pace in April, May, and hopefully June. If they can’t do that over the next 12 months, then certainly it will be time to “blow it up.”

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12 Caps Thoughts Heading Into the Playoffs

Posted on 10 April 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After losing to the Florida Panthers, 2-0, on Sunday night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals completed their 2016-17 regular season with a 55-19-8 record (118 points). Here are twelve Caps thoughts, including quotes from several players, as we move into the most wonderful time of the year, the Stanley Cup Playoffs

What a classy move by Caps GM Brian MacLellan, Coach Barry Trotz and the entire organization rewarding forward Garrett Mitchell, a 6th round pick in the 2009 draft and captain of the Hershey Bears for the last two seasons, with his first NHL game on Sunday night. The 25 year old has been a regular in Chocolatetown for six straight seasons without making “The Show.” Mitchell, who is a free agent after the spring, not only played, but started the game with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Nicky even got himself thrown out of the opening draw so that Mitchell could begin his NHL debut taking the face off. Kudos to all involved and afterwards you could not wipe the smile off of Garrett’s face. It was truly a feel good moment for a player who has done everything asked of him since he’s been drafted.

With the Columbus Blue Jackets rallying from a 2-0 hole on the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday night to win, 3-2 in regulation, the Caps will now face the Leafs instead of the Bruins in round one. This is a matchup that I’ve wanted for several weeks and now Washington has a chance to show why it favors the Capitals. Toronto is certainly faster than Boston, but they are far less experienced than the B’s and they have a blue line that the Caps should be able to expose. Defenseman Nikita Zaitsev was also injured in game 82 for the Leafs and his status for game one on Thursday is in question.

The Capitals won the Jennings Trophy for the first time since 1983-84 for allowing the fewest goals per game in the NHL over the course of 82 contests. Coach Trotz credited all three aspects of the team’s game, offense, defense, and goaltending for the achievement, but he put extra emphasis on what Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have done in net. Trotz stated that you really need strong goaltending in this league and he noted that if you look at the numbers for the Holtbeast and Grubauer they are very similar, especially in terms of save percentage.

Washington is at its best when they are playing a structured game and not giving up odd man rushes. Following Sunday night’s season finale, forward Daniel Winnik provided insight into the key to limiting them. “I think a lot of that just has to do with, you know I’d love to see our goal differential from when we’ve had the set lines and set d-pairings since December. I think that’s made a huge difference and tightening up our overall defensive game. A lot of that has come from limiting turnovers at the offensive blue line. I think we’ve done less of exchanging chances with teams. I think we have the best five on five goal differential in the league.”

T.J. Oshie (33), Marcus Johansson (24), and Justin Williams (24) all had career highs in goals this season and those three players have been very good at getting to the front of the opposing team’s net, something that is very important in playoff hockey. I asked Jojo on how the Caps have improved their ability to do that this season. “We’ve talked about [net presence] a lot. When it comes down to the playoffs most goals are scored from there. We have to get to those dirty areas and I think it’s shown that when you go there you are going to get goals and get rewarded. So I’m going to keep doing it.”

The addition of Kevin Shattenkirk from St. Louis at the NHL trade deadline has been a big one for the Caps. I asked Shattenkirk about the change in systems between the two clubs. “It seems like here we play a little more defense skating forward. We’re pushing up on teams and really trying to squeeze all of their time and space out of them. I think in St. Louis we received the rush a little more and allowed forwards to back check and apply pressure. But here I like that, I like playing on my toes. It keeps me engaged the whole game, it sets up well for me.”

I followed up with Shattenkirk by saying that I thought Coach Trotz’ system fits his skill set better. Here’s what Shatty had to say in reply, “It does, it does. I think especially when we turn pucks over in the neutral zone I think the skill that we have up front, the way that these forwards present themselves, our system allows us to turn back on teams and I think that’s a strong area of my game, getting those pucks and finding that outlet pass that we can turn right back on teams and get instant offense on it. All of that stuff really starts to feed into my game.”

Shattenkirk has been paired primarily with 2009 Stanley Cup Champion Brooks Orpik for the first time in his career. Here’s Kevin’s take on how he sees things working out so far. “I knew the style of defensemen I was going to be playing with here and he’s surprised me a bit. Playing here the last few years he’s changed his game in a way that he makes some poised plays. He’s not just an off of the wall and out kind of guy anymore, he makes plays through the middle and he makes plays at the blue line. We’ve been moving a lot from our offensive blue line and creating a lot of space for our forwards. He’s a guy that can dive in and dive back out. Every game has seemed to go better and better and I really like the way that we’re going.”

There’s no doubt that the addition of #22 has strengthened the Capitals power play and I asked him about the key to finding his role on that unit. “It’s great. For me it was a matter of the first couple of games, I think just like any player who would get that opportunity, you’re looking for Ovi all the time. I’m looking to go back to Nicky and let him make the plays. It wasn’t until the third or fourth game I started realizing that I had to shoot some pucks. Teams weren’t really worrying about me shooting pucks and that’s something we’ve worked on in practice, me just getting pucks into T.J. and Marcus, who are great around the net. Once I started to establish that, it seems like those other plays really opened up, the big plays, and Ovi only needs one shot a game to make it count and I just want to make sure that when that time comes I’m putting it in the right spot for him.”

The Capitals have yet to win a Stanley Cup, but both Williams (three times) and Orpik have raised Lord Stanley. Shattenkirk also went to the Western Conference finals last season while many of the Caps have yet to advance past the second round. I asked Shattenkirk what it takes to advance that deep in the postseason. “That’s a loaded question. There are a lot of things that factor into it. One is being even keeled. I think that we [in St. Louis] were the same last year as this team is now. We were the team that was out in the first and second round for four straight years. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, you just have to stick with it. You have to have resiliency about your team and make sure that you realize there’s going to be lows; you can’t put too much pressure on yourselves throughout the playoffs. The way we ride those waves is going to be important and like you said the two guys that we have with the most experience here [Williams and Orpik], we’re going to lean on those guys, hopefully I can be a fresh voice and we just have to keep the hunger there. This team has everything that we need in the locker room to win playoff games; we just have to make sure that we don’t beat ourselves up too bad.”

Coach Trotz has done an outstanding job of spreading minutes around the blue line this season, but once Shattenkirk came on board, things evened out more. I asked #22 if that allows the Caps to play faster. “It does and more than anything it’s the rhythm. In St. Louis it was more situational when I would play more minutes, here it’s we’ve got three pairs that can play. Depending what happens with penalties and power plays, that can skew things a little bit, but for the most part we’re all rolling and I think for us to have that rhythm as a defensive pair and as a defensive unit, it’s great for our team because you don’t want to have guys sitting three, four minutes in a row, especially in the playoffs in critical situations.”

The Capitals finished the season on an 11-2-1 run and you can pretty much throw that last loss to Florida out since it was a Hockey North America like no checking affair. Winnik was asked if he thinks momentum matters heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. “Completely. I think it matters how you play before the playoffs. I think Pittsburgh proved that, the previous winners, LA, so I think playing the way we are hopefully its good foreshadowing.”

Here’s the official Caps-Leafs first round schedule:

Date                                 TIME (ET)                                                            

Thursday, April 13             7 p.m.                   Toronto at Washington

Saturday, April 15             7 p.m.                   Toronto at Washington

Monday, April 17              7 p.m.                   Washington at Toronto

Wednesday, April 19        7 p.m.                   Washington at Toronto

*Friday, April 21                TBD                       Toronto at Washington

*Sunday, April 23              TBD                       Washington at Toronto

*Tuesday, April 25            TBD                       Toronto at Washington

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The Caps Must Put An End to Slow Starts

Posted on 07 March 2017 by Ed Frankovic

Through 65 games the Washington Capitals have the best record in the National Hockey League at 44-14-7 (95 points).

Virtually every form of online power rankings, whether it’s ESPN.COM, NHL.COM, or TSN.CA, has the Caps in the top spot in the league.

Reading the national press clippings after the acquisition of defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk, it’s pretty clear that most hockey experts believe the Capitals have the best team in the league and they have their greatest chance to finally win a Stanley Cup.

In terms of the best team in the league, well there is a certain club in the state of Pennsylvania that is still the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, so until the Capitals or someone else beats them, the Penguins continue to lay claim to the best team in the league title, in my book.

However, the experts are right that this is the Caps best chance ever to win a championship. I’ve been watching this franchise since 1974-75 and have seen some very good hockey teams that have put themselves in the Cup conversation, such as the 1985-86, 1991-92, 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2015-16 squads. They were all very good, yet they failed to bring home Lord Stanley.

Not one of those rosters was as talented and as deep as this current team. General Manager Brian MacLellan has done an absolutely amazing job of building a serious Cup contender from where he started from just three years ago. There are no holes after the Shattenkirk, Lars Eller, and Brett Connolly acquisitions that have occurred since last May’s loss to the Penguins. Coach Barry Trotz has changed the culture in the organization, for the better, and in his three seasons as Caps bench boss, the team has the best regular season record in the NHL.

Simply put, they have the talent and the coaching to put themselves in position to get the job done.

But all of that will amount to no more than a hill of beans in the spring if they don’t immediately address a big issue that has seriously crept back into their game, once again: SLOW STARTS!

From December 31st to February 11th, the Capitals went on a tear, jumping on their opponents early and often and in the process they scored five or more goals at the Verizon Center in 11 straight games, which tied an NHL record with the 1970-71 Boston Bruins. It was almost routine to see the Caps come out and score a goal in the first 10 minutes and put their opponents on their heels quickly. The way they played during that stretch reminded me of how Pittsburgh played from January 1st, 2016 until Sidney Crosby ultimately lifted his second Stanley Cup last June. They came out fast and they made their opponents feel uncomfortable instantly. Coach Trotz was then able to roll all four lines and all three defensive pairs to wear out the opposition; much like Mike Sullivan did last season. There was no “chasing the game” from Washington. They were playing the right way.

Since the bye week, however, Washington is a pedestrian 5-3-1 (11 points), but in only two of those games (at Nashville and vs. Edmonton) did they have a first 20 minutes that compared to what we saw before everyone took off for the beaches or the mountains for five days on February 12th. Basically, the Capitals have not been very close to the club we saw in the first 56 games. This post bye week team has been too lackadaisical in their efforts and their performances are eerily reminiscent of what we saw in the last couple of months of the 2015-16 regular season. That’s very concerning to me, we all know how last season ended, and I’d like to think the Caps players feel the same way.

On Monday night against the speedy Dallas Stars, the slow starts reached a boiling point. The Stars scored just 1:48 into the contest and would build a three goal lead by the six minute mark of period two. Sure the referees missed blatant goaltender interference on the first tally, but when you come out like you’ve been listening to “I Write the Songs” by Barry Manilow for hours before the game and let a team that has very slim playoff hopes skate all over you, you are putting yourselves at the mercy of the zebras. If the Caps come out strong, the goalie interference never happens and Coach Trotz doesn’t have to use his challenge before the contest is two minutes old. Washington has no one to blame but themselves for the sleep walking they did early on to end up so far behind the eight ball and as a result, they were the ones “chasing the game.”

After last season’s devastating loss to the Penguins, the club talked about having better starts to games and also developing a killer instinct. This was a very valid point, especially given that in games 2, 3, and 6 of the Pittsburgh series the Capitals got off to horrendous starts and found themselves expending massive energy to rally before losing each of those contests, and ultimately the series. The slow starts and lack of killer instinct also goes back to the Rangers series in the spring of May 2015 (see Game 6 and losing a 3-1 series lead).

Those teams had some holes, no doubt, and MacLellan has filled them, but the Capitals have reverted in the last three weeks with a subpar effort to the start of games. After the loss to Dallas, Coach Trotz said the fix to the problem has to come from “the room.”

To paraphrase Colonel Jessup from A Few Good Men, “You’re doggone right it does!”

This starts with the team’s leadership, specifically Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Brooks Orpik. All three of those players were guilty of terrible starts on Monday night and that’s just not acceptable. In fact, since the bye week, each game I find myself wondering, outside of T.J. Oshie, who in the top six is going to show up consistently (“Osh Babe” and the bottom six pretty much bring the effort every game).

Ovechkin told the media recently that it’s time to stop talking about winning the Cup and do something about it this spring. Well, this is when #8 needs to start stepping up and getting this team ready to play and rolling for the playoffs. He also needs to improve on his defensive zone play, because it’s slipped, once again. In hockey, offense comes from good defense, and he can certainly perform much better in his own zone than we’ve seen lately. His back checking has greatly improved over the last three seasons, but once he’s pinned in the defensive area, he’s struggled, especially this year. With his skill set, that can easily be changed with more effort, focus, and attention to detail. In fact, every player on this team should be looking at where they can get better, if they want to win the Cup.

There are 17 games left and just over a month before the hardest round of the playoffs to win, the first one, will commence. There is no finding your game once the post season starts. You need to be clicking and heading into that first week with momentum. Again, see Pittsburgh last season.

The Capitals, right now, don’t have any momentum, they’ve lost it on the beach, skiing, and doing other off-ice activities since February 11th. During their recent three game homestand, they scored a total of five goals. Oshie told me after the loss to Dallas that some nights the puck just doesn’t bounce your way and he also pointed out that it seemed like for a stretch this season, before the bye week, everything was going in. He’s correct that luck is a factor, but in sports, you mostly make your own fortune. The Capitals were scoring so many goals in January and early February because they were working hard to get pucks and bodies to the net via the quality scoring areas. They haven’t been working hard enough or very efficiently since the bye week to regain their offensive prowess. Oshie is the exception to that, all you have to do is look at his goal on Monday night, and I’ll give Ovechkin credit there for creating chaos in front of Caps killer Kari Lehtonen. Backstrom’s goal came from right in front, too, so the team can learn from the film of the Stars tilt to see what they need to do to start lighting the lamp again. To me it all starts with effort and attention to detail, the problem was it came too late on Monday night, nearly 30 minutes into the game.

When the Caps get an early lead, they are so deadly because of their depth. Oshie reiterated on Monday night that “depth” is the strength of this team. When you have 20 guys all pulling on the rope and four lines and three defensive pairs that can play, it makes the other team work extra hard and take chances to rally from behind. That opens up the ice for scoring chances for the Capitals, and they were burying them to the tune of nearly five pucks a night during that January to mid-February stretch. It was not pure luck, it was the result of playing the right way.

This is a tremendous opportunity that this Capitals team has this spring to win a championship. Teams like this, on paper, don’t come around very often and to hear the players talk, they are a very close knit group, as well. We’ve heard from the players and MacLellan that the chemistry is right with this crew.

It’s time to build on that and dial everything in on hockey for the next three plus months, starting with this upcoming three game road trip to California that starts Thursday in San Jose. 10 players need new contracts after this campaign, so they can’t fall back on MacLellan filling roster holes in the offseason or relying on throwing out catch phrases like “fixing the slow starts” or “finding a killer instinct” for next year to buy themselves time. The future is now. This team will never be the same or as stacked as it is now. Talk is cheap and I can’t help but think that these guys don’t want to endure another painful playoff disappointment and the doom and gloom of another breakdown day without a Stanley Cup.

Connolly told me back in December that if this club works on its habits, they can get to where they want to go. They did that in January and early February and were extremely successful, but the BAD habits have crept back in.

So to each and every player on this team, I have one thing to say if they want to become legends and deliver the Capitals their first Championship: IT IS TIME TO WORK AND BE 100% COMMITTED AND FOCUSED ON HOCKEY.

That way they will be playing the proper way and have the right habits come April 12th or whenever game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs is officially scheduled.

If they do that, they can definitely beat anyone.

If they don’t, then to paraphrase the late great Herb Brooks.

They’ll take this wasted season to their freaking grave.

THEIR FREAKING GRAVE!

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Caps Go All In and Acquire Kevin Shattenkirk

Posted on 27 February 2017 by Ed Frankovic

After last season’s devastating playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, I wrote that the Capitals needed to upgrade their defensive depth. Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan spoke afterwards about upgrading the bottom six forwards.

Guess what? By acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues along with former Caps goalie Phoenix Copley for Zach Sanford, Brad Malone, the Caps first round pick in 2017, and a conditional draft pick(s), he’s now done both!

Over this past summer, MacLellan acquired third line center Lars Eller for two second round picks from Montreal and he signed third line winger, Brett Connolly, as a free agent for just $850,000.

That is some incredible work to fix your remaining roster holes without giving up any current key players.

“We are excited to welcome Kevin to our organization,” said MacLellan on Monday night after the deal. “We felt it was important to acquire another defenseman to strengthen and add depth to our blue line. Kevin is a skilled, puck moving defenseman who we think will help our team at even strength and on the power play. In addition, we are also pleased to welcome Pheonix back to the organization. We feel his addition solidifies our goaltending tandem in Hershey.”

This team is now very deep across the board and could survive a significant injury to their blue line that they just couldn’t overcome last season when Karl Alzner was playing through a bad groin and Brooks Orpik was initially injured in Philadelphia and then suspended for three games against Pittsburgh.

Coach Barry Trotz and assistant coach Todd Rierden have a crew that can be downright dominating on the back end now that they boast three very good defensive pairs in Karl Alzner – John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen, and Brooks Orpik – Kevin Shattenkirk. Nate Schmidt becomes the 7th defensemen and Taylor Chorney the 8th.

Up front, they probably won’t have to worry about stopping both the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin lines only to get beat by the Nick Bonino led third line, like last season. Or if they face the Rangers, they have a better chance of containing the super fast and big Chris Kreider, who killed them in the 2015 playoffs and just a week ago Sunday beat Schmidt badly on a third period faceoff to score the game winning goal at Madison Square Garden. The Niskanen knee injury scare in Philadelphia last Wednesday night probably helped convince MacLellan that another right handed defenseman was definitely needed.

The forward lines, once Andre Burakovsky returns, will be:

Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – T.J. Oshie

Marcus Johansson – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Justin Williams

Brett Connolly – Lars Eller – Andre Burakovsky

Daniel Winnik – Jay Beagle – Tom Wilson.

I imagine that Jakub Vrana will be called up to fill #65’s slot until he recovers from his hand injury. Of course, MacLellan could also make a move to add another forward.

In a campaign when so many Capitals are in need of new contracts for next season and there likely won’t be enough money to go around, not to mention the Las Vegas expansion draft is looming in June, there is no time to waste. Bottom line, this current team, which was already very good before this trade was made, is not going to be intact next season so the future is now. This move is an add without really losing any key piece. Given that Oshie played with Shattenkirk in St. Louis and Carlson and Orpik also were his blue line teammates on Team USA in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, there should be some familiarity there. Shattenkirk is immensely talented and should fit in well, once he learns the Capitals systems. He has a good shot and could easily be the guy feeding Ovechkin on the top power play unit, if that’s the route the coaches go.

That’s not to say that the Penguins, Rangers, Blue Jackets, or any other team, for that matter, won’t defeat the Capitals in the playoffs, because anything can happen in the post season. But the Caps have just pushed all of their chips into the center in an attempt to win their first Stanley Cup and this move gives them a lot more defensive depth.

That really increases their odds of achieving their ultimate goal.

Simply put, it’s Cup or Bust!

Notes: Shattenkirk is reportedly already on his way to New York and will suit up for Washington on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers…St. Louis took on 39% of Shattenkirk’s $4.25M salary to complete the trade, per Frank Seravelli of TSN.

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Depleted Caps Out Skate the Super Fast Oilers in a 2-1 Victory

Posted on 24 February 2017 by Ed Frankovic

In a fun game to watch, the Washington Capitals increased their franchise record tying home winning streak to 13 games with a 2-1 victory over the super fast and talented Edmonton Oilers on Friday night.

The Caps were missing some big names due to the fact that the sore loser Neanderthal Flyers banged up Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, and T.J. “Pay the Man” Oshie in Filthy on Wednesday night. Washington was already without Andre Burakovsky, who fractured his hand before the bye week.

Riley Barber and Aaron Ness were called up from Hershey and suited up. Both Taylor Chorney and Nate Schmidt were in the lineup and boy did Caps Coach Barry Trotz get a SUPER outing from his six defensemen. The speedy Oilers, led by all world center Connor McDavid, are scoring machines, but Washington kept them predominantly to the perimeter in this game and the only goal they allowed was a turnover by Evgeny Kuznetsov and Justin Williams in the first minute of period two. Leon “Sniper” Draisaitl pounced on that miscue and beat Braden Holtby (30 saves) from the prime scoring area. There was nothing really the Holtbeast could do there, that one was on his forwards.

Speaking of Kuzy and Stick, those guys had that blunder and one other that led to an Oilers partial breakaway, but they were pretty much flying all night. Kuznetsov was matched up most of the evening against the 1st pick in the 2015 NHL draft and to be honest, #92 had bragging rights on this night. When it comes to skating, McDavid is almost unbeatable, but watching Kuznetsov stride in this one was an absolute joy. He had his wheels going so well he looked like he could have starred for the USSR Red Army teams of the 1970’s.

As for Williams, well he scored the game winner on a great no look pass from Jay Beagle just 5:48 into period three. Beagle’s line, the 4th unit of “Flip Phone” Beags, Tom Wilson, and Daniel Winnik was outstanding, once again, and sure seem to be making a strong case to be the best fourth line in the NHL right now. Wilson scored the opening salvo in this affair after a great pass from Dmitry Orlov at 12:22 of the 1st frame. #9’s ability to carry the puck in onside with his feet, Pele style, after a pass from Chorney, set the play up. Wilson, who is steadily improving in the offensive end, took the disc and fired it towards the net. Cam Talbot (23 saves) had no chance to stop the shot, which was just inside the far post, because Winnik was running traffic in front of the cage at the perfect time.

That 4th line not only played a big role in the two goals, but they continually seized momentum for Washington with strong shifts, especially with their forechecking and strong wall play. Simply put, they wore the Oilers big guns out and made them go 200 feet. By game’s end, big lug Milan Lucic was exhausted and resorted to barking at Wilson from the bench. Clearly #43 had gotten into #27’s grill big time.

On the back end, John Carlson was just outstanding logging 27:19 of ice time. Orlov played just five seconds short of his season high (24:24) and he was downright dominant. His overall game has just improved so much this season and that is a big reason why the Capitals are leading the league. Chorney was great in 18:37 of ice time and Karl Alzner was his usual steady self with an assist in 21:24.

The other thing the Capitals coaching staff will really like, besides the strong effort, was the fact that the Caps didn’t take a single penalty in this contest. That was a direct result of keeping their feet moving the whole game (effort) and keeping their sticks down. Washington was outshot attempted in this one (61-54), but in terms of having the puck, my eyes tell me the Capitals had the biscuit more often than their counterparts, but they did struggle to get shots from in close, and naturally they had several sequences where they over passed when a shot was the right play. Kuznetsov and Lars Eller were both guilty of not firing from the prime scoring zone in this one.

But overall, this was a gutsy effort by a depleted team against an up and coming hot Edmonton squad. The Caps played a high tempo game against one of the fastest teams in the league and their depth was the difference. That’s very encouraging.

The victory improves Washington to 41-12-7 (89 points) and they are +73 in terms of goal differential. More impressive, though, is the way this team is rebuilding their game after the bye week. This was the fourth game since beach time (well, skiing for Orlov) and you could see the positive result of the rest in the way the Capitals players were really moving their legs and skating. When they do that and get pucks and bodies to the cage, they are hard to beat.

Yes, they missed the “Osh Babe” and Burakovsky up front, but the depth of the team showed and that has to make both Coach Trotz and General Manager Brian MacLellan feel really good heading into Wednesday’s NHL trade deadline. I don’t expect anything major to happen from the Caps or around the league given how close the standings are and how many teams still think they can make the postseason (but let’s just hope the Flyers are golfing thanks to the Caps win on Wednesday. No one outside of that city wants to see those goons in the playoffs).

Notes: McDavid had an assist, but he was -1 in 21:42 of ice time…Brett Connolly moved up to the top line in #77’s absence and played well. He had one sequence where he made a great defensive play, then broke the puck out up the ice with speed to get a one on one with Talbot. Unfortunately he missed the net…Washington won the face off battle, 28-16. Flip Phone was 10-2…Barber played a team low 9:56 and Ness only received 10:37 of ice time, but both did not look out of place…Alex Ovechkin had nine shot attempts (3 SOG) in 18:31. He looked good in this one and something tells me a goal scoring streak is coming for him soon…Wilson had three shots on goal and five hits. He was a force all night…the injuries to Niskanen, Oprik, and Oshie are all believed to be minor, but they will not play on Saturday in Smashville. The Caps take on the Predators at 5:00, but I’m not sure why they are playing so early in the Music City?

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Grubauer and Connolly Lead the Caps over Buffalo, 3-1

Posted on 25 November 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan’s plan to upgrade the Caps bottom two lines following last spring’s bitter playoff defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins is starting to pay dividends.

On Friday night at the Verizon Center off season acquisitions Brett Connolly (goal and an assist) and Lars Eller (assist) formed a strong trio with 2016 trade deadine addition, Daniel Winnik (goal), to help lead the Capitals to a hard fought, 3-1 victory over the pesky Buffalo Sabres. Those three forwards all logged around 12 minutes of even strength ice time and at night’s end each had roughly 15 minutes overall. They were hard on the puck all evening and that line set a nice tone for the Caps, who started fast again, by outworking the Sabres and putting bodies and shots to the cage.

At just 5:08 into the contest they broke the ice for Washington when Eller came down the left wing and fired a hard shot on Anders Nilsson (29 saves), who put a juicy rebound into the slot. Connolly was cruising into the “point’s zone” and he got enough of the biscuit to push it towards the right post where a hard skating Winnik came around the net and buried it from a sharp angle.

The Caps would play a strong first period, outshooting the Sabres, 13-6, but only led 1-0, thanks to some stellar play by Nilsson in net.

At the other end of the ice, Philipp Grubauer (32 saves) was very sharp in his first home start in forever on the front end of a back to back contest situation (the Caps are in the Big Smoke on Saturday night at 7 pm to take on the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada). Buffalo had a power play just two plus minutes after Winnik’s lamp lighter to open the scoring and they have a very good one. However, Grubauer was the primary reason the Sabres weren’t able to tie the game up. For the night, the Caps backup goalie was their best penalty killer stopping seven shots in eight minutes of Buffalo man advantage time.

“I think that’s the privilege we have of having two great goalies. Either one that’s in gives us a really good chance of winning. Grubi’s played phenomenal this year so far and it’s really unfortunate that we couldn’t get him the shutout,” stated Winnik, who in honor of Movember, has grown one of the best moustaches you’ll ever see and it’s eerily reminiscent of the one Johnny had in Slap Shot. Kudos Mr. Winnik.

Marcus Johansson scored what would turn out to be the game winning goal from the slot. Jojo earned his 8th tally of the year when the Caps had a three on two rush up the ice. Justin Williams, who had several more good chances but didn’t score, came down the right wing and tried to pass cross ice to Nicklas Backstrom on the left wing side. The puck fortuitously hit the Sabres defensemen in the skate and bounced right to a streaking #90, who fired it quickly past Nilsson for a 2-0 Washington lead just three minutes and 25 seconds past the game’s midpoint.

The Caps had a 25-18 shots on goal advantage after two periods and a 49-44 edge in shot attempts, but the Sabres would have 5:32 of extra man time in the final frame. As mentioned above, Grubauer was the primary reason Buffalo would get blanked with the man advantage. They did, however, cut the deficit to a single goal with 10:02 to go when Sam Reinhart fired a shot through a Ryan O’Reilly screen and into the cage at even strength.

The Sabres then had a power play when just down a puck, but Gruabauer and the Caps penalty killers, most notably Winnik and Tom Wilson up front, prevented Buffalo from any great chances.

Then with 4:20 left and the crowd finally buzzing after “Unleash the Fury” was played on the video board, the Sabres took a too many men penalty when Washington fired the puck into the skates of a Buffalo player trying to change. At first it didn’t seem like the referees were going to call the infraction, but the crowd wisely groaned very loudly and off to the box Buffalo went. That penalty would provide the dagger for the Caps as Connolly, who earned 1st power play time at a crucial moment in the contest, buried the rebound of an Alex Ovechkin rocket to close out the scoring. #10 celebrated heavily and deservedly so. It was a big goal and he put himself in the right position to score an important tally that allowed the Caps to go 4-1 on this five game home stand that concluded on Friday. The only blemish was a zebra aided 3-2 victory for Columbus on Sunday.

Overall, the Caps put out a strong effort as a team, especially the Eller line as well as Wilson and Jay Beagle. Zach Sanford only saw 6:37 of ice time, but he nearly scored his first goal of the season on a beautiful rush move around a Sabres defensemen in the first period. Unfortunately for Zach, Nilsson made an awesome glove save on his backhand attempt.

The Caps did make some mistakes in this contest; most notably they were guilty of some bad decisions where they tried low percentage cross ice passes. Some of them were picked off and normally that would lead to odd man rushes. However, as Coach Barry Trotz pointed out afterwards, the Caps commitment level was there and that attention to detail prevented Buffalo from getting scoring chances off of those mistakes since another Capital seemed to be always in position to cover for the mishap. Connolly talked following the victory about trying to find the right balance of trying for the cross ice passes versus getting the pucks deep.

“We have so many guys here that can make really good plays. Coaches always talk about blue line turnovers and we got guys that can make plays on those blue lines. Eight times out of 10 they’re making those plays, but if we can just find the right mix of when to make those plays and when maybe to cut your losses and get it deep, then we’ll be better moving forward,” said Connolly, who was certainly one of the best Washington players on this night and is making an impact.

Connolly is absolutely correct, if there’s one criticism of this team, it’s that extra pass just inside the offensive blue line where the puck should’ve been put on or behind the net. Good things happen when you shoot is my motto, and as Coach Trotz likes to say, “The NHL is a shoot first league.”

“If we can just focus on trying to keep the puck out of our net we’ve got enough guys on the team that can score. I think that’s kind of been an area that obviously the coaches have been working with and just trying to cut our losses and not make those high risk plays, but if we’re coming back hard and we’re focused on helping the goalie out and the D out then we’re going to get chances at the other end, it’s just a matter of time and I think that once we figure that out we’ll be even better moving forward, so we’re moving in the right direction,” added Connolly.

Connolly, who MacLellan was able to bring in at a bargain price of $850,000, is right about the focus of the coaches and since Coach Trotz arrived this team has gotten monumentally better at playing away from the puck, something that has killed them in the post season in the past. The Caps have only given up 44 goals in 20 games and only the Minnesota Wild have given up fewer (38). There is the saying that “Defense Wins Championships.”

“We’re playing pretty well. We’re getting better every day. Guys are working hard in practice and we watch a lot of video and are getting better. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. We’ve got a good group of guys here, a good team. We’re going in the right direction,” finished Connolly.

20 games in and sitting at 13-5-2 (28 points) and on pace for a 115 point season, it’s hard to argue with what one of the newest Capitals had to say following a very nice win the day after Thanksgiving.

On to Toronto.

Notes: Buffalo’s O’Reilly was the best Sabre on the ice and he had five shots on net in 23:53 of ice time (led all players on both teams). Coach Trotz raved about #90 and said he is one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Winnik said of O’Reilly, “Phenomenal player, I played with him in Colorado. Really underrated guy who finally got the credit he deserved with the World Cup nod for Canada.”…Washington lost the face off battle, 37-30. Beagle did go 11-6…Oveckhin had zero shot attempts in a rough first period for his line, but he finished with six for the game, including an assist on Connolly’s game clincher…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:09, but John Carlson played 23:00…Taylor Chorney, who was only in the line up for the third time this season, played extremely well with Brooks Orpik. I could make a case that this was his best game since he’s been a Capital. He was very good in his own end and at breaking the puck up the ice…speaking of underrated, that’s Johansson, who played 17:16 and is such a good two way player…the Holtbeast will get the start in net on Saturday against Auston Matthews and company from the Air Canada Centre. The Caps are fired up to play the Leafs and Karl Alzner remarked afterwards, “We’ve been seeing all of their highlights on tv, so it will be fun to finally play them.”

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Are You Ready To Take A Chance Again With the Caps?

Posted on 11 October 2016 by Ed Frankovic

It’s been five months since the overtime goal that ended the Washington Capitals season in Pittsburgh. The Penguins would go on to win their fourth Stanley Cup and each time they have done so they have knocked off the Caps en route to hoisting Lord Stanley.

That was not supposed to happen last spring. No, everything shaped up to be the Capitals year from training camp to a Presidents’ Trophy and right up until a three-zip games lead on the Flyers in round one. Washington then had to work extra hard to send Philadelphia to the golf course in six games. Game one against Pittsburgh in round two saw Washington’s T.J. Oshie exploit Olli Maatta for a hat trick and the Caps were up 1-0. Things were still looking good, but then, to quote John Cougar Mellencamp, “The walls came crumbling down.”

An ill advised hit on Maatta led to a three game suspension for Brooks Orpik in game two (and knocked the Pens weak link on D out of the lineup) and an injury to Karl Alzner further weakened the Capitals blue line, allowing Pittsburgh to use their superior speed to take over a close series and crush, once again, any dreams of Washington winning the Cup.

It was a painful finish and the summer was long. Many Caps fans needed that duration to move past that devastating loss. Some may never get over that defeat, it was that stinging. Even Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan remarked to me during the Sweden-Team Europe preliminary game at the Verizon Center in September that he will never get over it. I get it, I’ve been watching this team find ways to not get it done for over 40 years, it is hard to take, at times.

But now it’s time for another Capitals hockey season.

The grieving is over, it’s done and finished. It’s time to look ahead once again, but by learning from the past.

So for Caps fans, the start of every hockey season since 1974 has to feel invariably like the lyrics from this old classic song from the legendary Barry Manilow:

And I’m ready to take a chance again
Ready to put my love on the line with you
Been livin’ with nothing to show for it
You get what you get when you go for it
And I’m ready to take a chance again with you


Yes, it’s time to take the chance again on this hockey club.

As for learning from defeat, General Manager Brian MacLellan once again did his job this summer and improved the Capitals roster by making it faster. He traded for center Lars Eller at the draft and added forward Brett Connolly as a low cost free agent. Gone are Mike Richards, Jason Chimera, and Michael Latta.

With the addition of Eller, Washington is as deep as it has ever been at center with Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Eller, and Jay Beagle, in that order. When you look at the wings the Capitals have, especially in the top six, with Alex Ovechkin, Oshie, Andrei Burakovsky, and Justin Williams, this club can be explosive. MacLellan brought in Eller to improve the “top 9” and the current plan is to have Eller center Marcus Johansson and likely Tom Wilson. “Willy” is in a pivotal season and it’s time for him to take a big step forward offensively. He’s shown flashes of potential, but he has to be consistent and he must find a way to put more pucks in the net.

In training camp, 21 year old Zach Sanford from Boston College had a marvelous few weeks and earned himself a spot on the opening night roster sending the likes of Stan Galiev and others, such as Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd, Christian Thomas, and Jakub Vrana to Hershey for more game time and development.

In goal, the Capitals are rock solid with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby between the pipes, backed up by Philipp Grubauer. Holtby admitted over the summer that he did suffer an injury in the opening round series against the Flyers, which explains some of the slight drop off in his play in that Penguins series.

As for the Capitals blue line, it is the same as last spring, but the club is counting on more from Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt to improve the overall back end, especially from Orlov, who aspires to top four minutes. The question is can he be consistent and learn to avoid the big mistakes he’s prone to make that lead to opposing goals? Orpik is now 36, and even though he’s in great shape and eager to get over his nightmare 2015-16 campaign, the league is faster at a time when he’s battling losing more foot speed. Bottom line, the blue line depth is Washington’s biggest question mark. Everyone knows what Alzner, top 12 NHL defensemen John Carlson, and the super solid Matt Niskanen can do, so it’s all about the growth of Orlov and Schmidt plus the ability of Orpik to stay relevant in an up tempo league.

Are the Capitals better than last year? On paper, I’d say yes with the addition of Eller and the experience gained by Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Orlov, and Schmidt. Those four players had great to solid regular seasons, but then sputtered in the post season. Hopefully they’ve learned what it takes to follow up a strong regular season with an even better playoff performance, because ultimately that’s where you’re measured in the NHL.

As for the team itself, to include the coaches, well they need to be better prepared for games. The slow starts that plagued this team so often in the past, need to be eliminated. Too often this hockey club allows the other squad to dictate the game before they decide to start playing. You rarely see the elite Championship teams do that in pro sports (see Patriots, New England). Washington must learn from what the Penguins did to them last spring and play the same way, regardless of the score. They need to find the “killer instinct” — they have the skill. That’s why their “will over skill” training camp tee shirts are very appropriate. The Capitals MUST ditch their laissez-faire approach to games and learn to come out firing and take the will of their opponents.

Letting clubs hang around, like the Caps did with the Flyers last spring, leads to more injuries and subpar play. That must be a thing of the past.

It’s a mindset and Washington, who has as much; if not more, talent than any team in the NHL, needs to improve the mental part of their game.

Last season the Capitals earned 120 standings points. I’ve stated they are a better team heading into 2016-17, but will they surpass that point total again? Not likely, but I do believe they will once again win the Metropolitan Division.

As for the rest of the Metro, here’s a look at each team in order of predicted finish:

2nd: Pittsburgh – they are the defending champs and to win the Cup you still have to go through the Penguins. They have the same team from last year minus defensemen Ben Lovejoy so they should be right there in the spring. The recent concussion that Sidney Crosby incurred at practice last Friday will likely keep him out of action for at least a game, but that is a smart decision by those in Pittsburgh. Sid skated on Tuesday, but given that the Pens will make the post season and it’s only October why rush a guy back who has a history of concussions?

3rd: Rangers – Henrik Lundqvist will be 35 in March. He showed some signs of his old self in the World Cup of Hockey, but overall he’s slowing down and his consistency will be in question. New York is still paying for going for the Cup the last several years so they are in salary cup trouble. They lost Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle on the blue line and are left with some slow footed dudes back there (see Girardi, Dan). Up front, they traded Derek Brassard to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad, primarily to save cap space, and added past Capital killers Nathan Gerbe and Micahel Grabner. They also signed NCAA free agent Jimmy Vesey.

4th: Flyers – Philadelphia brings back basically the same lineup they had against the Capitals in the first round last April so I expect them to continue to improve unless injuries hit one or more of their key players (Claude Giroux, Jakab Voracek, Sean Couturier, and Shayne Gostisbehere).

5th: Islanders – New York lost Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, and Matt Martin at forward. Those are some big losses. Their blue line is fairly strong and they added Dennis Seidenberg to it. In net they have Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss. Halak was superb in the World Cup of Hockey. He’s known to have hot streaks, but can be injury prone and inconsistent.

6th: Devils – New Jersey traded defensemen Adam Larsson to Edmonton for former NHL #1 draft pick, Taylor Hall, so New Jersey should have more offense. Cory Schneider is great in net, but this team has a questionable blue line and some young players cutting their teeth in the NHL at forward.

7th: Hurricanes – Justin Faulk and 19 year old Noah Hanifan are a nice start on defense and up front Jeff Skinner, Teuvo Teravainen, and Elias Lindholm are three talented players aged 24 and younger, but this club lacks the depth to earn a playoff spot. They’ll play hard every night though, so teams that take them lightly will be in trouble.

8th: Blue Jackets – If the World Cup of Hockey proved anything for USA Hockey, it’s that the game has passed Coach John Tortorella by. Why John Davidson and company hired this dinosaur to be their bench boss last October after firing Todd Richards is beyond me? They have two superb young defensemen in Seth Jones and Ryan Murray and up front they boast the talented Brandon Saad. After that, their forwards are a mix match of styles with too many slow plodders filtered in. They do have Sergei Bobrovsky in net, but can he stay healthy?

The NHL regular season slate opens on Wednesday with four games, but the Caps will begin their season in Pittsburgh on Thursday at 8 pm. I don’t expect Crosby to play, which is disappointing. On Saturday at 7 pm, Washington has its home opener against the Islanders.

Drop the puck!!!!

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