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Caps Championship Thoughts and More Breakdown Day Coverage

Posted on 14 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

It’s been exactly a week since the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup and the vibe I’ve been getting around the DMV is that people are still basking in the afterglow of the victory and are dying for more information and news on the team. It’s pretty apparent that this group of players, coaches, training staff, and managers will be heroes, at least in this part of the country, for the rest of their lives. Owner Ted Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick have put their heart and soul, plus a lot of money, into this organization over the years and are finally being rewarded with a Championship.

Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, Coach Barry Trotz, and the others on this team have silenced the critics with this amazing season that included a Metropolitan Division title, when most people had them barely getting into the post season or not making it at all. Once game three of the Columbus series began, they went on an incredible 16-6 run in which they overcame a games deficit in all four rounds to capture Lord Stanley’s Cup. It was a remarkable display of grit, toughness, perseverance, and desire to do what had never been done by the franchise before.

There were many moments along the way where they seemed destined to fail, but somehow found a way to push through. Columbus hits the post in game three of the first overtime that would’ve given them a 3-0 series lead before Lars Eller’s magical goal off of a Brett Connolly shot. Tom Kuhnhackl hits the post in overtime of game six before Evgeny Kuznetsov takes that super pass from Ovechkin to finally slay the Penguins dragon. The Caps give up a two game series lead to Tampa with three straight losses, but shut out the Bolts over the final 159 minutes of the series to storm into the Cup Final. In game two of the Stanley Cup Final, with 1:59 remaining and a one goal lead, the Holtbeat makes “The Save” on Alex Tuch to prevent overtime and propel Washington to four straight wins and hockey’s ultimate prize.

It was clear that the tightness of this team provided the foundation that allowed them to rise up and seize the critical moments in the postseason that the Washington Capitals had never done before, in any era. It was legendary, that’s the best way for me to describe it and as each moment since has transpired, I am appreciating more and more what they’ve accomplished. Many in Caps Nation surely feel the same way. Thank you, 2018 Washington Capitals.

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Wednesday was breakdown day at Kettler IcePlex, as I chronicled yesterday in this blog, but as promised, below is the transcript of a one on one exclusive interview WNST was able to obtain with Connolly, who came to Washington in 2016 looking for an opportunity after stints with Tampa and Boston, and has completely seized it.

WNST: You’ve been telling me for two years since you’ve been here that you guys have a good team, but the way you guys played and came together, that was amazing.

Connolly:  Yeah, it was amazing, such a good group, such a committed group, such a highly skilled group. We really just came together at the right time, especially after that Pittsburgh series where we first really believed we could win this. It’s such a big moment for all of us, we’re all just so happy that we could ultimately get this done for all of our fans, for our families, it was such a special moment.

WNST: Coach Trotz told us when he came out to Baltimore that this team this year, whenever he asked someone to move around in the lineup, that he received no push back. That seems to really speak to the type of team you had this year?

Connolly: Yeah, I think you have to be playing the guys that are playing well, whether you’re a veteran guy or a rookie guy, it doesn’t matter. I think we were just cheering for whoever was in, whoever was getting more ice time that night. If a guy wasn’t playing well we’d pick him up, he’d ultimately change his game and they’d figure it out. It was just a good environment to be in, everyone was playing their best hockey at the right time of the year.

WNST: The way you, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky played in the playoffs, all three of you guys have always had high skill, but the way the three of you took the body, were in the proper position on the walls, it seemed like that was the biggest jump you guys made and was a big part of the team’s success. Would you agree with that?

Connolly: Yes, I think so. I think I got a little taste of [the playoffs] last year, I didn’t play a whole lot, there were a lot of other guys deserving of that chance and I just wasn’t, but I think I got a little confidence from that, just knowing what to expect. I think we all really just played solid, just did what was asked of us, we didn’t really care. I think overall a lot of our games got better throughout the playoffs. It was ultimately why a lot of us were successful and had good stats and helped the team win.

WNST: It seems like every time an obstacle was thrown at you guys, you overcame it. First one, game three against Columbus, you score a goal that would’ve made it 2-0, it comes back on an offside, but on the game winning goal in double overtime, you make a smart play by shooting quickly and the puck goes in off of Lars Eller for the team’s first win.

Connolly: Simple, but that’s the playoffs, really simple. I had a couple of those in the postseason, just need a break sometimes and I just tried to shoot it as quick as I could and as hard as I could. You know we were earning all of our breaks in the playoffs, we were working for each other and I think we legitimately deserved everything we got.

WNST: The last goal of the Stanley Cup playoffs, you didn’t score the goal, but it was your shot, with again Lars going to the net. This team did that the whole playoffs.

Connolly: Yeah, just the same thing. Lars was hungry all playoffs, he’s a guy that’s going to the net all of the time. He really, really elevated his game the whole playoffs. Really awesome to see, he really turned a lot of heads. Such a big moment for the city, for me, him, and Burkie, whoever was on the ice, at that point.

WNST: You’ve been here two years, I grew up here, I’ve been around this team for 44 years. I don’t know how much you realize what legends you guys are going to be around this area to finally bring a Cup here. This team was gone in 1982, but for the Save the Caps. Then in 2004 it is gone again if Ovi doesn’t comes along. You guys now go and win a Cup and have put it over the top.

Connolly: It’s pretty cool. We saw the support at the parade. People are on cloud nine and it’s amazing to see everybody so happy. It’s really cool to be a part of something like that. To put so many smiles on so many people’s faces. There’s been so much good support the last couple of years I’ve been here, but that parade was insane and it was something that I’ll never forget and a lot of guys will never forget.

WNST: What are you going to do with the Cup?

Connolly: I’m going to go home to British Columbia, Prince George, just take it around town. I don’t know what we’ll do, but just try to get as many people to see it as possible.

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Connolly is definitely one of the better interviews on the team and I’ve appreciated his insight since he joined the Caps last season. He has worked hard to improve and he’s made General Manager Brian MacLellan and his scouting staff look super smart for bringing him to town. Kudos, Brett.

In yesterday’s blog, I failed to mention that Kuznetsov’s injury from the Brayden McNabb hit in game two was to his left shoulder. Fortunately, Kuzy is a smaller version of the Russian Machine that Never Breaks and came back in game three to lead his team to victory with an outstanding performance. All season long, in this blog and in my radio sessions with WNST owner Nestor Aparacio, I showered number 92 with tough love. He is an immensely talented hockey player who I knew, if he took his game to another level and played the right way, would be such a key to the Capitals finally breaking through into the later rounds of the playoffs. Boy did he do just that, and more. Evgeny led all players in scoring in the playoffs and he delivered when the team really needed him to do so. He has moved himself from the very good category to the elite/superstar level with his postseason performance. He earned every bit of the $7.8M he received from the Caps this past season.

The Caps now have a short turnaround for training camp, which will start around September 10th or so. It’s already June 14th, so there will be less time to get ready. Jay Beagle, who has won championships at the ECHL, AHL, and now the NHL level did point out that the short time to get ready isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Beags said that in the three summers following his ECHL and two AHL triumphs, he was more motivated to train and that he didn’t have to work hard to prevent losing focus like he’s done when the team has been eliminated earlier in the spring. So it would appear that this summer the Caps players do have that going for them….which is nice.

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Caps Breakdown Day News, Nuggets, and Analysis

Posted on 13 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals held breakdown day on Wednesday afternoon and it was obviously the best one ever, given that this year’s session followed the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup victory. The players were clearly tired from two grueling months of hockey and then the post triumph celebrations, but were extremely happy.

Here are some of the major takeaways from the day at Kettler IcePlex:

Alexander Ovechkin, now clean cut thanks to his Gillette sponsorship, is a very happy man, and rightly so. The victory has clearly brought back the old Ovi that we saw when he was younger before some of the angry and hating national and even local media constantly crushed him forcing him to withdraw some of the best sides of his personality from public view. On Wednesday, the Gr8 answered questions for 30 minutes going above and beyond the call of duty. Ovi started by stating “I still can’t believe we won, I still can’t believe we did it. Right now we are realizing how special this win was.” He also added that “We lost some key guys last year, but all of the new guys played unbelievable.” Ovi noted that this was the best team he ever played on and whenever someone got hurt, felt bad, or were suspended, people stepped up. “It was a special group.” He also praised former General Manager George McPhee for “drafting half of the group” and ended with a very classy “Thanks George for what you did here.”

Nicklas Backstrom suffered two fractures in his right index finger in game five against Pittsburgh. He said he will not need surgery. Clearly Nicky was still hurting when he came back in the lineup after missing four games and to perform the way he did with that injury – shutting down the other team’s top center in each of the Tampa and Vegas series – is the stuff of legends. Backy will have his Cup celebration in his hometown in Sweden.

Brooks Orpik injured his hand in game two of the Columbus series and also had the tip of his right pinky finger detached when Erik Haula violently slashed him at the end of game two in the Stanley Cup final. Despite the injuries, Orpik played some of his best hockey in this postseason. When asked about the improvement in his skating this past season, Brooks noted that he is always tweaking his off season training regimen to seek improvement, but he also pointed out this was the first season in a few years where he did not have any ailments that impacted his wheels. Orpik told me he’d find out on Friday if he needed surgery on his hand.

Coach Barry Trotz had initial new contract discussions with General Manager Brian MacLellan on Wednesday morning. The Stanley Cup winning coach says he wants to be back because he likes this group while also stating that the area and setup has been good for his family situation. When asked if the rest of the entire coaching staff would be back next year, he said that is unknown, at this time.

John “Big Game” Carlson has not had any contract talks with the Caps yet, but said he loves this team and would love to be back, but there are a lot of factors involved. He will be having his Stanley Cup celebration in the DC area (his wife is from the DMV). The Capitals have an advantage in negotiations since they can sign number 74 for eight years, while others can only offer seven campaigns. There is no doubt that “Big Game” is the number one offseason unrestricted free agent priority for MacLellan and the Caps. The salary cap number for 2018-19 will be out from the league on Monday, June 18th and the higher it goes, the better it is for Washington ($82M would be really nice). Backstrom, when asked about Carlson stated, “John Carlson just keeps getting better and better. It’s impressive. Hopefully he stays here.” I’ll say this now, just like I did about T.J. Oshie last year, Pay the Man! He’s a legitimate number one defenseman and easily in the top ten in the NHL, in my opinion. You don’t let stud blue liners like “Big Game” Carlson leave. Losing him would be close to the magnitude of the Scott Stevens departure back in 1990.

Defensemen Michal Kempny and Dmitry Orlov gave a lot of credit to assistant coach Todd Rierden for helping them improve their respective games. Kempny noted that he had little confidence when he came over in February in a trade from Chicago and that Rierden immediately helped him regain it. The Czech defensemen stated that he had some bad games in the postseason, but that Rierden was always there to give him some keys to turning things around in the next contest. Kempny, who was very vocal about coming back because the Caps have “a great group of players, coaches, and trainers,” is an unrestricted free agent and given that he played as the number four defensemen in the postseason, he’s high up on the contract pecking order for MacLellan and the Caps. He only has 103 games of NHL experience, so that could help keep his price lower (he made $900, 000 in 2017-18 and will get a decent raise). Orlov, who had his hand badly injured in the World Championships in the spring of 2014 and missed the entire first season of the Trotz era (2014-15), said he was unsure he’d ever be able to play again at a high level. Rierden has certainly helped Dima out, but I also give Orlov a ton of credit for constantly working and striving to be better. It’s amazing how far he’s come since the 2016 playoffs where he struggled against the Flyers and Penguins. He’s a quality blue liner that breaks the puck out of his own zone incredibly well.

Oshie said he hasn’t won much since he was younger, so this Stanley Cup victory has been very exciting. Courtesy of the great Tarik El-Bashir, T.J. said he was healthiest at the start of the Stanley Cup Final. He won’t require any procedures this offseason. The Osh Babe, who is one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet, told Tarik that “I didn’t even need Advil” as the SCF started.

Tom “Future Captain” Wilson noted that he played up and down the lineup this season, but said when he played 10 games straight with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, instead of just one or two, his game really took off. Willy talked at length about how close this team was (is), but credited former Cap Justin Williams for encouraging the team to have fun and said it helped loosen the team up and bond them. Top line Tommy says he’s loved his five years here, stated he’s always done whatever he can to help the team, but also said there will be an element of business this summer for him (he’s a restricted free agent). Like Orlov and Evgeny Kuznetsov and some others on this squad, it’s amazing how much they have improved in the four years this coaching staff has been in place. The players clearly get the majority of the credit, but you can’t discount the way the coaches have enabled these players to blossom.

On the netminding front, courtesy of Isabelle Khurshudyan of The Washington Post, MacLellan said Philipp Grubauer wants to be a number one goaltender, but he’d like to keep both Grubi and Braden Holtby, be he’s going to explore a trade for Grubauer so he can do his thing. There is no doubt that the Capitals don’t win the Metropolitan Division without the stellar play of number 31 this past season. You need two good goalies in this day and age in the NHL to make it to the postseason. If Grubauer, who is a restricted free agent departs via trade, there could be a big dropoff to third string, Phoenix Copley. 2015 1st round pick Ilya Samsonov will be coming over to North America to play this fall, but he’ll need time in Hershey to become acclimated to the smaller rink. Bottom line, the best scenario for the Caps is to keep Grubauer, but potential salary cap room and a good trade return will likely be too hard to pass up. Goaltending coach Scott Murray and his staff, to include Olie Kolzig, will need to really get the other goalies in the system ready quickly should the German keeper move on.

Jay Beagle, when asked why the Caps won this year, pointed out that the Capitals “built their game all year and peaked at the right time. In past years we peaked in December and Janaury and then tried to hold onto it.” When questioned about Ovechkin not letting go of the Cup very much since they won, he stated that Ovi is invited to his Cup celebration, but he doubted the Gr8 would come to the Beagle farm. On Trotz, number 83 said “He’s always been a great coach since he’s been here, has brought in great people around him, and I feel like we have been the most prepared team in the league.” The unrestricted free agent, who has now won championships at the ECHL, AHL, and NHL level, hasn’t had any contract discussions yet and stated “obviously, I have to wait until the big guys get settled first” before receiving an offer. The hard working total team guy stated he could wait until after July 1st and that he’d leave things up to MacLellan. When I asked him if he’d leave if some team came along and threw money at him, said he’d have to see what was best for his family. The fourth line center who is great on faceoffs and the PK made $1.75M in each of the last three seasons.

As I wrote in my Cup winning blog, players such as Brett Connolly, Jakub Vrana, and Andre Burakovsky really upped their compete level, especially on the physical side of the house, and were important factors in the Caps playoff run. Burakovsky told El-Bashir that after three hand injuries over the past couple of years that he plans to have a conversation with CCM this summer about getting more substantial gloves. He told Tarik that two of the injuries could’ve been avoided with more protection. Washington will need each of these three guys to continue to progress, as they’ve done so far under Lane Lambert’s tutelage, if they are going to have a chance to repeat. Connolly, who for two years has confidently told me that the Caps have a very good team, summed up why this Championship ultimately happened for this squad.

“It was amazing, such a good group, such a committed group, such a highly skilled group. We really just came together at the right time, especially after that Pittsburgh series where we first really said we could win this. It’s such a big moment for all of us, we’re all just so happy that we could ultimately get this done for all of our fans, for our families, it was such a special moment.”

That quote from Connolly really summed up this team, who will forever be legends around this area, in a nutshell.

Notes: Matt Niskanen, when asked about all of the celebrations, said “It was great to see Brooks Orpik let his hair down.” So many players mentioned how business like number 44 is and that they don’t often get to see that side of one of the biggest leaders on the Caps…Alex Chiasson, who scored a huge goal to open the scoring in the game six triumph that closed out the Penguins, was hoping to come back to the Caps next season, especially given his close friendship that he has developed with Ovechkin, which apparently started from playing cards on the plane together…Beagle is leaving town on Thursday and noted it would be good to get back to reality…I’ll post a full transcript of my exclusive one on one session with Connolly out at WNST.NET on Thursday night…Backstrom, when asked about the team possibly breaking up, “It sucks, but when you look back on this 10, 15 years from now, we’ll always have this special group.”

Photo credit to Jacquelyn Martin of the Associated Press.

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Caps win Cup

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Caps End 44-Year Drought With Stanley Cup Win

Posted on 08 June 2018 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals have won the Stanley Cup!!!

Pardon my French, but 44 years of futility is freaking over!

There will be no more doubting Conn Smythe Trophy Award winner Alexander Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom or Braden Holtby or General Manager Brian MacLellan or Coach Barry Trotz or Brooks Orpik and on and on down the list of Washington Capitals players, coaches, and managers. This is truly an incredible group of people who bonded together and showed that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They have made a long suffering fan base very proud and the Baltimore-Washington area will NEVER EVER forget this cast of champions!

As for the Stanley Cup clinching game itself, WOW!

The Caps jumped out to 1-0 and 2-1 leads, saw Vegas tie the game on a tally that sure looked like goalie interference and then surge ahead very late in period two with a power play goal. The Golden Knights had a 3-2 advantage after 40 minutes in a very hotly contested physical affair and had their eyes on sending things back to Capital One Arena down just three games to two.

Previous Washington teams might’ve folded, at that point, and started contemplating that game six in DC on Sunday night, but not the 2018 Washington Capitals. This club came out with a passion in period three and fought tooth and nail to get the equalizer, which came from an incredible individual effort by Devante Smith-Pelly to notch his 7th goal of the postseason after Orpik made an outstanding keep in at the offensive blue line to set the tally up. That marker came with 10:08 remaining and the Caps kept the hammer down.

With 7:37 to go, Luca Sbisa turned the puck over to Andre Burakovsky behind his own net and Burkie fed Brett Connolly alone in the slot. Conno fired on net and the puck squeezed through Marc-Andre Fleury’s pads and Lars Eller, who applied the fore check pressure to set up the turnover after a smart dump in by Michal Kempny, grabbed the disc and deposited it into the cage for what would be the first ever Stanley Cup clinching goal for the Capitals and his seventh of the post season, as well.

Imagine that, sevens were wild in the third period, in Vegas??!!

Washington had 13 of the first 18 shots on goal in period three to storm the castle and take a 4-3 lead.

From there, the Capitals went into their 1-1-3 defensive posture and really didn’t give Vegas any quality chances, despite six Golden Knights shots on goal. Any attempts that made it through were gobbled up by Holtby (28 saves), who kept this a one goal game early in period three by gloving a top shelf wrister from David Perron in the slot. It was a big stop and nearly as important as “The Save” in game two, because if the Caps go down two pucks there, then a game six would very likely have occurred.

Backstrom (1 assist) had a chance to end the series with an empty net tally with under a minute to go, but somehow missed the cage invoking memories of Esa Tikkanen not scoring in game two of the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. But Nicky’s teammates wouldn’t allow the miss to bite the team in the rear and the Caps killed off the remainder of the clock and celebrated wildly when it was over, led by their very emotional captain.

This team won the Cup because it learned to play defense better than any other Capitals squad in the Ovechkin era. Washington listened to the coaching staff and walled off the front of their net regularly in the post season. They received outstanding goaltending from the Holtbeast, who along with Evgeny Kuznetsov (32 playoff points), could’ve won the Conn Smythe Trophy, based on their on ice production.

But the Gr8 (power play goal, his NHL leading 15th tally of the 2018 playoffs) definitely deserved the MVP trophy for his incredible leadership. Who can forget the Ovechkin line, “We’re going to Columbus to win two games and bring this series tied back to DC” in the first round? Time after time he scored the big goal (first goal in game 7 in Tampa) or made a great back check and pass to win a series (Pittsburgh, game 6) or blocked a shot and dove to clear a puck at an important juncture (SCF game two). Ovi led by example on and off of the ice. He made it clear before game five that the team shouldn’t be talking about celebrations or any of the stuff that comes with winning because they hadn’t won anything yet. Simply put, all playoffs long, Alex talked the talk and then backed it up by walking the walk.

Seeing his emotions as he was given the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman was incredible, then watching him skate around with Lord Stanley and pass it to Backstrom is a memory that Capitals fans will remember forever. Two players who former General Manager George McPhee drafted and built the franchise around finally made it to the promised land after 11 years of failures.

As Ovi and Nicky will tell you, this wasn’t about them, though, this was about a team that picked each other up through injuries, suspensions, mistakes, adversity, and questionable officiating along the way. You can go up and down the lineup and point to contributions each player made.

  • Kuznetsov dominated with his skating and became a superstar this spring. He took his game to a whole new level and backed up the big contract he received last summer.
  • T. J. Oshie did just about everything you could ask for from scoring big goals (see game six vs. Tampa), winning the vast majority of board battles, and playing great defense to close out games. The Caps don’t win the Cup without the Osh Babe. There’s a reason I blogged and tweeted “Pay the Man” throughout 2016-17.
  • Tom Wilson evolved into a complete player this campaign and “Top Line Willy” was just a wrecking ball and force all post season. He’s built for the playoffs.
  • John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmity Orlov, and trade deadline bargain Kempny played a lot of minutes on the blue line in four grueling series. “Big Game” Carlson showed how a number one defensemen should perform in the playoffs and I’ll say this again about him, “Pay the Man!” Niskanen was so solid and took the heat for he and Orlov’s rough game five in Tampa. That’s leadership, right there, and it took the pressure off of Dmitry, allowing Dima to get back on track quickly in game six.
  • Orpik was a team leading +17 in the post season and “Batya” had the key game winning goal in game two that turned the Stanley Cup Final around. For all of the grief the Corsi crew gives him, he thrived in the post season on defense, the PK, and he even chipped in offensively with five points.
  • Eller stepped up, especially when Backstrom broke his hand. He played second and third line center doing whatever was asked of him. The Capitals also don’t win the Cup without “Tiger.”
  • Jay Beagle was a beast on faceoffs all post season and a dominant force in all three zones. Nobody works harder than “Beags.”
  • Connolly (6 goals, 3 assists in the playoffs) was a totally different player from the guy who was scratched in the 2017 postseason by using his speed, great shot, and more importantly, his body to win puck and board battles.
  • Jakub Vrana and Andre Burakovsky used their skill and speed to score or set up huge goals. Vrana had the critical game winner in game five against the Pens and Andre notched two huge breakaway tallies in game seven to defeat the Bolts. Those two guys learned to win board battles by adding a physical element to their game and that was critical to the team’s success. They became excellent playoff style hockey players, something this squad badly needed after the off season losses of forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson to the top six.
  • Chandler Stephenson (7 playoff points) played up and down the lineup and used his superior speed to set up goals and make opposing defensemen lose confidence. He was also a key cog on the penalty kill.
  • Smith-Pelly notched big goal after big goal, with his game going to an incredible level in the Cup Final after a rough game one.
  • Christian Djoos took advantage of the downtime down the regular season stretch he endured due to Jakub Jerabek’s strong play to jump back in against Columbus in game three and become part of a quality third pair duo with Orpik.
  • Even forwards such as Alex Chiasson (goal in game six against Pittsburgh), Nathan Walker (assist in game six against Pittsburgh), and Travis Boyd contributed when the injury bug and suspension to Wilson hit against the Pens.

Yes, this was a special crew of players because of how they united and after two very shaky games against Columbus, bought in to what the outstanding coaching staff was selling to go on a remarkable run. Washington was 16-6 beginning with game three of the first round. The switch to Holtbeast was a game or two late for me, but perhaps it was meant to be so that the rest of the club could finally understand the way they needed to play to have the ultimate success?

Yes, it’s true, Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are really Stanley Cup Champions!!

When is the parade??!!

Addendum

The ride was absolutely amazing and for me, this championship is extra special. As a nine year old boy in 1974, my father was in the sports journalism business at WLMD in Laurel and dragged me time and time again to Capital Centre to watch a terrible expansion team play a sport that quickly got my attention. It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school in 1983 that the Capitals finally made the playoffs thanks to David Poile, Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, and Bryan Murray. That’s when hockey became my favorite sport. From there I covered the team for the PG Post-Sentinel for a few years, meeting current WNST owner Nestor Aparacio in the process. That press box stint led to a Capitals team statistician position with Dr. Mike Herr and several other great people for 11 years. From 1986 to 1997 I traveled to games in Philly and everywhere in the playoffs with the team enjoying really great times while learning so much about hockey from great players such as Langway and Dale Hunter, and hockey personnel Jack Button, although I learned even more from his son, Tod. But there were so many heartbreaks along the way and several times it was to the Penguins, who won five Stanley Cups, defeating the Caps each time. In 2007, Nestor reached out to me and told me he was starting a WNST website and he wanted me to blog on it, doing whatever I wanted since I was someone he trusted and had inside access given my time with the Caps. Naturally I’ve turned that into this Caps blog and regular radio show sessions with Nestor. We’ve chronicled the highs and even more heartbreak since 2008 during the Ovechkin era. I was able to be on the ice in Hershey when Carlson, Beagle, and Holtby won the Calder Cup in 2010 (thanks John Walton!). But in 2014, I had seen enough of a bad culture and the lack of a cohesive team that led to me calling for the firing of Coach Adam Oates and GM McPhee, and the hiring of Trotz. Three years of crushing playoff defeats followed in the Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan era, but on July 3, 2017, I penned a “Caps are still a contender blog” despite the fact that many had written the GM, coach, and players off. Thankfully the GM, the coaches, and the guys on the ice delivered in a way that many hockey fans around this area will appreciate for the rest of their lives. I know I will, but most of all, I really appreciate my father, Ed, who will turn 80 on July 7th, for introducing me to the Capitals and the sport of hockey. Exchanging texts with him after the Capitals won the Cup was a very special moment for me and many of the people who reached out to me afterwards are great people that I’ve met along the way watching, working, covering, and just being around this great sport. I’ve made so many lifelong and life changing friends and people through hockey. I’d need numerous blogs to list all of them, you know who you are! I owe all of it to my father, so thanks Dad! I know you predicted back in 1974 that the Caps would sell out every game some day and they’d win a Stanley Cup. You are now correct on both counts!

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Kuzy Bird Game 6

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Kuznetsov’s OT Goal Puts the Caps in the Eastern Conference Final

Posted on 08 May 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Ding Dong, the witch is dead!!

Evgeny Kuznetsov scored 5:27 into overtime on a breakaway after a great defensive play and pass from Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals finally defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in a playoff series in the Ovi era, four games to two. This was only the second time in 11 tries that the Caps have won a post season matchup against the Pens (last time was 1994). For the Penguins, their hopes of being the first team to threepeat since the New York Islanders won four Cups in a row from 1980 to 1983 has ended, but what a run they had. I tip my hat to that club, especially Sidney Crosby, the best player in the NHL.

So how did the Capitals win a game six without Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, and Andre Burakovsky?

They received super goaltending from Braden Holtby and they played as a team, sticking to the game plan the coaching staff gave them. There was complete buy in from every player on that roster and they outworked Pittsburgh in a contest the Pens had to have in their own building. The leadership from the coaching staff to the captain to the alternate captains to the veterans on down was just amazing.

To come back and win game five without Backstrom, who has a right hand injury, and then game six in PPG Arena is the stuff of legends and that Kuznetsov goal and “Bird Celly” will go down in Caps lore along with Dale Hunter’s OT goal against the Flyers in 1988 and Joey Juneau’s OT goal in 1998 that put the Capitals in the Stanley Cup Final.

The postseason is so much about goaltending and all year on WNST I’ve been telling station owner and host, Nestor Aparacio, that the Caps needed 2012 Braden Holtby this spring. The Holtbeast didn’t even get the starting nod against Columbus, but after Philipp Grubauer’s early struggles, #70 took over and he’s locked things down for Washington making the key saves at the right times. The Penguins had more high danger chances than the Caps in this series, but it was Holtby who badly outplayed Pens goalie Matt Murray and that’s why the Capitals are moving on. It was a reversal of last spring when Marc Andre-Fleury stole the series from Washington. The Holtbeast went 8-3 in the first two rounds with a 2.04 GAA and a .926 save percentage.

Goaltending alone, however, was not enough to do it. Washington’s defensive unit of John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, Michal Kempny, Brooks Oprik, and Christian Djoos was dynamite. The Penguins averaged five goals in their first round victories over the Flyers and they are a team that loves to score on the rush and on the power play. The Caps, for the most part, did not allow the Pens to get into their rush game, especially in game six when the commitment from a lineup with five rookies (Djoos, Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, Nathan Walker, and Travis Boyd) was just outstanding. The Pens only goal came off of a faceoff win that clicked off of Stephenson and by Holtby. What I really like about this defense is their ability to move the puck. We all knew Carlson, Niskanen, and Orlov were adept at that, but the sneaky low cost deal to obtain Kempny by GM Brian MacLellan has turned out much better than the Kevin Shattenkirk move last spring. Credit goes to Brian, pro scout Chris Patrick, and the rest of the pro scouting staff that identified Kempny as well as Jakub Jerabek for two low cost, but much needed acquisitions. Bringing in Jerabek worked for quite awhile and it allowed Djoos to reset and become a strong and confident player again after some expected mid season rookie struggles. Niskanen and Orlov had the daunting task of facing the Jake Guentzel-Crosby-Patric Hornqvist line all series and they did excellent work. Nisky logged a team high 29:38 in game six. Carlson was a stud, as well, providing timely offense, especially on the power play. He is a big game player and I’ll say it again, “Pay the Man!”

Up front, Backstrom was a beast in games two and three when the Capitals really took over this series before the league derailed things by incorrectly suspending Wilson for three games. Nicky dominated Crosby in those tilts and was playing his best hockey. Unfortunately a Justin Schultz shot injured his right hand in period one of game five and he finally said “No Mas” in period three. At that point, there was one player who had to take over for the Caps, and that was Kuznetsov since he is the club’s other top center. Boy did Kuzy step up! In period three of game five he was as strong on the puck in all zones as I’ve ever seen him and in game six, he made the big finish to end the second round curse in the Ovechkin era. Kuznetsov only had one point in the first three contests, but he finished with a flourish getting five in the last three tilts. He was especially dominant in game five when his early final frame goal tied the game up and allowed Washington to take over that period and contest after being badly outplayed for 40 minutes.

As for the captain himself, his goal in game three in Pittsburgh was a real back breaker for the Pens and then his defensive steal and alert pass to Kuznetsov in OT finally put Alex into round three. The Gr8 had three goals and four assists in the series.

Let’s also not forget the work of T.J. Oshie who notched some big power play goals and also a huge empty net clincher in game five when he stripped Phil Kessel of the puck clean in a move that would make a Chicago pick pocket artist from the 1920’s proud. The Osh Babe is playing his best hockey of the year in this postseason.

Another big reason the Capitals are finally into the third round is they’ve had secondary scoring, unlike the droughts they’ve had from the third and fourth lines in the last three postseason second round losses. Alex Chiasson delivered a huge goal to give the Caps the lead in period two and it was set up by Nathan Walker, who was making his NHL playoff debut. The insertion of Walker, after Shane Gersich struggled in game five, was a move of brilliance and it paid off. #79 only played 8:29, but he was a positive on each of his shifts with energy and hustle that wore out the Penguins.

Lars Eller was a quiet hero in all of the action and he stepped up in Backstrom’s absence as the second line center in game six. In the previous two playoff losses to the Pens, centers Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen were the big difference makers for Pittsburgh. This spring, Eller outplayed big dollar trade deadline acquisition, Derrick Brassard, and Jay Beagle’s unit each game was better than the Pens fourth line.

After the terrible decision by the league to suspend Wilson, and I firmly believe it was media and Pens pressure induced, the Penguins dominated the next five periods of the series. Game four was pretty much all Pittsburgh and the first 40 minutes of game five certainly indicated that a getting healthier Pens team was starting to click. Fortunately for the Caps, the Holtbeast kept them in it and then two Kris Letang mistakes opened the door for the comeback and victory in game five. Washington dominated the third period of game five and they were the better team in just about all four periods in game six. That was what was so special about this win, on paper there was no way the Capitals, with all of the rookies and patched together forward lines, should’ve defeated the two time Stanley Cup Champions to close out the series on the Penguins home ice.

But they did and major credit goes to the players and the coaching staff for coming up with a game plan that worked. They stayed out of the box (only 1 penalty) and they didn’t get into a rush game. Washington had far more odd man rushes in this affair and ultimately it was one of those that decided the series.

For Coach Barry Trotz, this has to be big time satisfying for him and his staff. He’s taken heat all year for not being able to take a team, on paper that looked better than the Penguins in 2016 and 2017, into the Eastern Conference Final. Sometimes though, it’s not about what’s on paper, it’s how a team responds to each other and the heart they display on the ice.

Trotzy told Nestor and I out at Michael’s Café in Timonium in late March, “Last year I’d try to move guys around and I almost always got push back from some players who claimed they didn’t perform well with certain guys. This season, I’ve moved guys around all of the time to try things out and I’ve had no issues from anyone.”

In Carroll County back in March 2017 Trotz talked about that Presidents’ Trophy winning club and said this, “This may not be our best team, we won’t know until the year is over.”

Those two quotes from the coach certainly make a lot of sense now. That 2017 team was very talented, but maybe it was too talented and perhaps a bit selfish?

It’s safe to say now that this 2018 Washington Capitals group is clearly their best team, at least in the Ovechkin era. This is a club that has seen player after player step up when someone has faltered, injured, or gotten ridiculously suspended. It’s seen a Vezina Trophy goalie get benched, not pout but work harder, and then come back to take over and win two playoff series. It’s seen their best center go out due to injury and their second best pivot step up and become the dominant player we all knew he could be. It’s seen a Captain who was overweight and ultimately injured because of it last spring check his ego at the door and work his butt off to become a faster and better player in 2017-18. You can go on and on down the list at the players who have stepped up after the salary cap and expansion forced some big holes in this roster, especially on defense and on the wings.

This was certainly one huge game and series victory over Pittsburgh. The Capitals will have all Monday night to celebrate it, and they should.

But they are only halfway to their ultimate goal and the test gets much harder in round three. The Tampa Bay Lightning are an extremely good hockey club that is well rested and healthy. Coach Jon Cooper’s squad is heavy favorites to knock off the Caps in round three.

Then again, the Penguins were heavy favorites to win game six on Monday night, and that didn’t happen.

The game is played on the ice, not on paper, the Capitals have proved that.

So keep the faith, get behind the team like Coach Trotz has asked of you, and let’s play round three!

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Caps Get Rare Regulation Victory in San Jose

Posted on 10 March 2018 by Ed Frankovic

For nearly 25 years, the Washington Capitals have not known the way to winning in regulation in San Jose. On March 10th, 2018, Philipp Grubauer stopped all 24 shots he faced and Nicklas Backstrom turned in an all world performance, including notching the only non-empty net goal, in a Caps 2-0 victory at the Shark Tank. It was the Capitals first win without extra time against the Sharks at SAP Center since October 30th, 1993.

“Do you know the way to San Jose…”

The Caps do now, and the way they won was with solid team defense, strong goaltending, and a committed effort to getting pucks deep and towards the net, especially over the last 40 minutes.

The victory improves the Caps record to 38-23-7 (83 points) and combined with the Leafs 5-2 triumph over the Penguins on Saturday night it puts Washington back in 1st place in the Metropolitan Division by a point. The Caps have a game in hand on the Pens and third place Philadelphia has also played 68 games like the Capitals, but trail by two points.

Here are nine thoughts and analysis on a humongous win in a state that has not been kind to Washington.

California Dreamin’ – Coming into this matinee, the Caps had lost seven straight games in the Golden State. Last season, with seemingly the best roster, on paper, ever assembled in franchise history, the Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals went zero and three. La La land was not good to Coach Barry Trotz and his team this week either as they suffered a 4-0 defeat in Anaheim, a game that they looked like they were sleeping through, and then a tough 2-1 loss to the Kings on Thursday. The Caps played much better in that affair, but they could not put the biscuit in the basket. Saturday’s victory against a third straight California team that is desperate for points was one of the most sound defensive performances by the Capitals all season.

Hey Nineteen – When Washington gets strong play up the middle of the ice, they are an extremely tough team to beat. Many Capitals struggled in the first two games of this road trip, but Backstrom was near the top of that list. After his terrible turnover in period one in the City of Angels, he was a total non factor in the loss on Thursday. On Saturday, however, Nicky was the best player on the ice. His compete level was through the roof and he repeatedly won puck battle after puck battle playing with Brett Connolly (1 assist) and Andre Burakovsky in a newly configured trio. Connolly’s pass to Backy with 1:28 left in period two was a superb one, but #19’s slap shot was even better and he ripped it over Martin Jones’ glove into the top shelf. That tally is Backstrom’s 17th goal of the season. I’m of the opinion that several Caps are trying to pace themselves so that they can peak their game in April, when the postseason starts. Backstrom is definitely one of them, but on Saturday, the Caps needed a win badly in a tightening playoff race, and Nicky announced his presence with authority all afternoon.

Meet in the Middle – It’s no secret that Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan has focused the build of this team up the middle of the ice. In addition to Backstrom’s outstanding game against San Jose, pivots Evgeny Kuznetsov (+1 in 20:05) and Lars Eller (goal, +1 in 17:04) were excellent. Since Coach Trotz went all Reg Dunlop and shuffled his lines around, Kuzy centered the Gr8 and Tom Wilson while Eller was flanked by Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie. The change certainly helped Burakovsky and Connolly the most since there aren’t many centers better than #19 in this league. However, I liked how Oshie, who is rounding back into form and is long overdue for a goal, and Vrana played with Eller. Vrana has really improved his defensive zone play and he used his speed to get the puck out of the Caps own end a couple of times. All three of the Caps top centers were playing well in San Jose and Lars was rewarded with an empty net tally with 1:49 remaining to put a dagger in the Sharks.

Letting Them Play – For my money, the last two Washington games have been the best officiated tilts I’ve seen all season. In both affairs, the referees didn’t call a lot of penalties and let the teams play. However, stick infractions or obvious trips, clips, and interference were whistled. It was clear that the players for the Caps, Kings, and Sharks all knew how the games were going to be officiated and they played accordingly. There was lots of hitting and good end to end skating. The one constant in both contests was Trevor Hanson. The Richmond, British Columbia native is in his sixth season in the NHL and he’s quickly becoming one of the best zebras. Gord Dwyer and then Dan O’Rourke was the other referee in the Kings and Sharks games, respectively. The Caps had a three to one power play advantage on Thursday while the Sharks had two man advantage situations to none for Washington on Saturday. Both penalties on the Capitals at the SAP Center were well deserved infractions by Wilson. Simply put, I’d certainly like to see Hanson doing more Caps games.

Shoot to Thrill – Making the right decisions inside the offensive blue line has been a problem area for the Capitals this season, and in years past, especially in the playoffs. Those brain cramps have cost Washington a lot of odd man rushes and goals against this campaign. Poor offensive zone play is a big reason the Caps goals against average has gone up in 2017-18. In the first period of the Sharks game, the Caps forwards made a few mistakes in the offensive and neutral zones that San Jose turned into quality chances. Fortunately for Washington, Grubauer was at his best in a scoreless first frame where the Sharks had the better of the play. In the middle stanza, however, the Capitals really played the right way for the first time on this road trip and made sure to get pucks deep and towards the net. The result was a 12 to 3 margin in shots on goal in the middle twenty. When trailing 2-1 on Thursday at Staples Center, a House of Horrors for the Caps, Washington only put five shots on net in the third period. Connolly passed up a great look in the center of the ice and that’s just not a good choice given his super shot. Oshie and several others have been guilty of not firing the puck on net from the high danger areas, too. Coach Trotz, in his first two seasons in Washington, used to constantly utter the mantra, “This is a shoot first league.” He’s right and many of the goals are scored on rebounds or quick ones where the goaltenders don’t have time to get set. It would behoove the Caps to maintain the mentality they displayed in the second and third periods in San Jose, because that type of hockey is how you win in the spring. To reinforce the thought process, I recommend that AC/DC’s Shoot to Thrill be blasted in the Caps locker room before EVERY period.

Blue Line Reconfiguration – After the loss to the Ducks on Tuesday, Coach Trotz and assistant coach Todd Reirden made changes on the back end. Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov were still together while John Carlson was paired with Michal Kempny with Brooks Orpik and Jakub Jerabek forming the third duo. Things went okay in LA, except for the game winning goal where Jerabek failed to keep a puck in the offensive zone and then Trevor Lewis went around #44 like he was an orange road cone to score on his third shot in succession. It was a poor play by Orpik, who has struggled pretty heavily since the all star break, but Jerabek and Grubauer didn’t exactly shine in that sequence either. You can certainly put some of Orpik’s issues on being paired with rookie Madison Bowey, a future top four defensemen, who was understandably starting to have trouble with the intensity and speed of the game post January 1st. Against San Jose, a team that typically gives the Capitals fits, Brooks turned in arguably his best game in three months. He was physical with five hits and he had no giveaways in 17:04 of action. He was also part of a penalty killing unit that allowed only one power play shot in four minutes of man advantage time. Orpik must continue to play the way he did on Saturday and it would probably be wise for the coaching staff to give him some days off before the playoffs commence to keep him healthy and fresh, especially in back to back tilts.

Solid as a Rock – Braden Holtby has not had a good post all star break stretch and former Caps goalie Brent Johnson stated on Twitter that he believes fatigue, which ultimately then led to a drop in confidence, has been the issue. After #70 gave up three goals in the first half of the Ducks game, and all of those certainly weren’t on him, Coach Trotz has gone with Grubauer in net. #31 had a decent game against the Kings in a loss, but against San Jose he was superb in the opening frame until the Capitals got their game in gear. The Sharks hit a couple of posts early, as well, but Washington has been due for some breaks. In earning his second shutout of the season, Philipp improved to 9-8-3 this year and his save percentage is up to .925. Grubauer will be starting on Monday against the Jets at Capital One Arena and he’ll likely split the back to back games with the Holtbeast against the Islanders later in the week. The German keeper has certainly earned the cage right now with his solid play. He has been steady and he came up with some big saves early against the Sharks.

Closing Time – Overall, this was a much needed victory for Washington made more impressive by their style of play. This was a very important game to the Sharks and the Capitals matched San Jose’s compete level and desperation. It was a tight checking affair that is very reminiscent of how the game will be played in April and beyond. To win this way, with much improved team defense and better offensive zone decision making, bodes well for the Caps down the stretch.

Notes: Alex Ovechkin had 10 shots attempts and six shots on goal. His best chance to score his 41st of the season and 599th of his career was on a third period semi-breakaway, but Jones stopped him with his glove…Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 24:22. Carlson is getting a lot of press for his play this season, and deservedly so, but #9 has been very consistent since late October/early November on the back end…the Caps won the face off battle, 33-20. Kuzy was 10-8 after going 1-10 against the Kings. Eller was 6-1, Backstrom went 8-5, and Jay Beagle won six of nine draws…Wilson, who has been outstanding most of the season, took a puck to the head in the second period in LA but returned in that contest. On Saturday, he played, but looked a little off timing wise. He took two penalties and did not get a hard shot off on a good pass from Ovechkin in tight…Brent Burns led the Sharks in ice time with 26:01…congratulations to MacLellan for receiving a well earned contract extension from Caps ownership…it will be Washington vs. Winnipeg on Monday night at 7 pm from Capital One Arena. The Jets will definitely make the post season and they appear to be a lock for second place in the Central Division.

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A Detailed Look at the Caps After 45 Games

Posted on 15 January 2018 by Ed Frankovic

Following Jay Beagle’s stunning game winning goal with just over a second left in Carolina on Friday night, the Washington Capitals players headed to Atlantis, Florida, the Caribbean, Colorado, and other mostly warmer destinations for five days of rest and recovery during the team’s now annual bye “week.”

The victory improved the Caps to 28-14-3 (59 points) and they will remain in first place in the Metropolitan Division until they take the ice again on Thursday, against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center.

With the downtime, I’ve put together some lengthy thoughts on a hockey team that has once again positioned itself near the top of the NHL standings and is among the league’s best squads.

Shortchanged It’s called the “bye week,” but the Caps are only getting five days between games while most other teams are getting a six or seven day gap. In addition, the Capitals went into the break playing back to back games and will come out of it in the same fashion facing the Devils on the road and then the Montreal Canadiens at home on Friday evening. The bye break was something the players clamored for in recent years so that they could get away during what is a very long season. The downside of this plan, however, combined with the three day Christmas shutdown and the All-Star Break is a schedule made up of numerous back to back tilts and many three games in four night scenarios. This leads to a poor product on several occasions and a case in point was Washington’s 3-1 loss to Carolina last Thursday when it appeared that many on the squad were already on the beach.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes The 2017 summer saw some very important key Capitals players depart due to the NHL expansion draft and the rising salary cap to include defensemen Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt plus forwards Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Daniel Winnik. How General Manager Brian MacLellan and Coach Barry Trotz would handle those personnel losses would hold the key to the 2017-18 season. The Capitals were 30-9-6 (66 points) after 45 games in 2016-17, so they have only seven points less than they were at this point in a Presidents’ Trophy winning campaign. Last year’s team was experienced, stacked and averaged 28.4 years old. This year’s club has relied on contributions from several rookies, to include defensemen Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos as well as forwards Jakub Vrana (10 goals) and Chandler Stephenson (10 points). The average age of the team has dropped to 28.0, which is a significant change considering that each returning player is a year older. Plugging those rookies into the vacated spots alone clearly could not fill the void left by so many quality players. Therefore, Coach Trotz and his staff had to shift to a “rely on the returning players” philosophy while bringing along the young bucks. Comparing ice times in 2017-18 versus 2016-17 shows a very telling picture.

Player 2017-18 Avg TOI 2016-17 Avg TOI Delta
John Carlson 26:09 22:42 +3:42
Matt Niskanen 22:27 22:10 +:17
Dmitry Orlov 23:16 19:32 +3:44
Brooks Orpik 20:42 17:47 +2:55
Alex Ovechkin 19:42 18:21 +1:21
Nicklas Backstrom 19:40 18:15 +1:25
Evgeny Kuznetsov 18:54 16:57 +1:57
T.J. Oshie 18:40 17:51 +:49
Lars Eller 15:20 13:54 +1:26
Tom Wilson 15:29 12:55 +2:34
Brett Connolly 11:35 10:41 +:54
Jay Beagle 12:39 13:37 -:58
Andre Burakovsky 13:35 13:15 +:20

 

In a nutshell, the coaching staff is playing their key players more than last season when they could just roll four lines and wear teams down. There are some major changes in average time on ice on the back end, especially for Carlson, Orlov, and Orpik. Carlson, who is a Norris Trophy candidate despite two rocky games before the bye week break, has been outstanding, especially considering Niskanen has missed 14 games and has played less than 100% healthy in multiple others. As I’ve blogged on several occasions and GM MacLellan noted to The Washington Post last week, the unsung hero on the back end has been Orlov. Number nine has turned into such a strong two way defensemen and he continues to get better. The upside is still there, too, as he probably would have more points if he got more power play time. The concern is Orpik is playing nearly three minutes more than last season simply because he has to while Djoos comes up to speed. Without Brooks to carry a large load in the first 30 games while the rookies were learning and Niskanen was out, this team may have been sunk. Lately though, #44 has shown some wear on his wheels, so a January schedule that sees a lot of breaks should help him out. The improved play of Djoos and Bowey also will be critical in the second half of the season. I fully expect the Caps to add a defensemen at the trade deadline in late February.

Stars in the City There is no doubt that the “Coach’s Robot,” the Gr8, and “All Star” Nicklas Backstrom are a big reason why this team is still one of the best in the league. Ovechkin was overweight and not in ideal shape in 2016-17 and it showed during the regular season and the playoffs. He had only 33 regular season goals, most of which came on the power play, and he was slower and more prone to injury. Alex took management’s direction and trained totally differently this past summer and the results are blatantly obvious. He’s faster than he’s been since perhaps 2010, which has allowed him to generate better quality chances. He’s had several breakaway tallies and is leading the NHL in goals at 28 in 45 games (a 51 goals pace). 20 of those goals are at even strength this season, compared to just 16 in 2016-17. Backstrom had 86 points in 2016-17 and he’s on pace for 17 fewer this campaign, but most of that drop-off came when Trotz had the Gr8 on a different line. That experiment was smartly shelved and since the two have been Peaches and Herb’d, aka Reunited, the team has gone on a tear. There is no one on the planet who knows how to play better with Ovi than Nicky. Kuznetsov is a super talent, but he is so reliant on having the puck while Backstrom is such a strong two way guy that gets the biscuit from the opposition and allows Alex to get the touches he needs to score goals.

Carpe Diem With the departure of key forwards, several younger Capitals have seized the day and opportunity in 2017-18. Kuznetsov is playing nearly two minutes more a game (more on him in a minute), but looking at the average ice times for Eller and Wilson are very revealing. Willy is logging 2:34 more a night and at six goals and 18 points in 41 games he should shatter his career highs. Wherever Coach Trotz has put #43 this season he has produced and the nice thing is it’s been in a top nine role, no more fourth line Tommy. Eller, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer, has nine goals and 21 points in 44 games. He had 12 goals and 25 points in 81 total games in 2016-17. He’s playing 1:26 more a night and he’s become a better contributor, especially offensively, and that was sorely needed. The Washington third line, which was dominant last January when the Capitals were nearly unbeatable, has returned to play a big role in 2017-18. Eller and Connolly (10 goals) have been the staples there and there’s been a rotation of right wings to mostly include Oshie, Burakovsky, Vrana, and Wilson.

Not So Special In 2016-17 the Caps connected on 22.98% of their power plays and killed off 83.92% of their shorthanded situations. The league averages were 19.1% and 80.9%, respectively. In 2017-18, the power play has slowed to a 19.57% connection rate (NHL average is 19.4%) and is only thwarting 79.08% of their manpower disadvantages (NHL average is 80.6%). Simply put, the Capitals, unlike years past, have had to rely more on five on five goal differential to win games. This season they are +14 (91 to 77) in that category. There is lots of room for improvement on the special teams.

Dynamic Duo Looking at the team stats, the Caps have gone from outshooting opponents 30.4 to 27.8 per game in 2016-17 to being outshot 32.3 to 29 in 2017-18. That is a direct result of the change in personnel. Let’s be honest, the Capitals lost a lot of veteran players and are incorporating new blood into the squad. So why have they been able to still be successful? Well, outside of what has been mentioned already, the single biggest factor is the outstanding goaltending from Braden Holtby (24 wins) and Philipp Grubauer (7 quality starts in 12 games). The team save percentage has dropped from .925 to .917, but it’s clear that the quality of shots against has gone up a bit. These two continue to make the big save for Washington at the key time and goalie is the most important position in hockey.

Delivering the Overpass There’s a famous Bill Engvall “Here’s Your Sign” joke about a truck getting stuck with the punch line being, “Nope, I was delivering that overpass and my truck flat ran out of gas…Here’s Your Sign!” Perhaps the organization should bring the legendary comedian in to hand out “Here’s Your Sign” awards for all of those times the Capitals have tried to make an extra pass when they are in the high danger scoring areas? Guilty party number one on that list is Kuznetsov. When #92 plays the right way, and he’s had some nice stretches of that, the Caps dominate. He ranks second on the team in goals (13) and when he carries a shoot first mentality he is deadly on the ice because the defense has no idea what he is going to do, pass or shoot. Too often, though, he is in Harlem Globetrotters fancy pants mode, and that is much easier to defend. He needs to cut back on the circling pattern where he takes himself out of the high danger scoring area and eventually turns the puck over. That issue has crept into others on this team, to include Oshie, who I’d like to see shoot more. This is a shoot first league and with the goaltending being so good, rebounds or shots from high danger areas with traffic are the best way to beat them. Do the Caps think they have to make the pretty play so often because they practice against two of the best goalies in the league regularly? That could be a factor, but if they just looked at their recent tallies, many of them are just shots from the middle of the ice with players going to the net or using a defender to screen his own keeper. It’s not rocket science and it’s one of the big reasons the Caps are down in the shots on net and shots attempted statistics. They have the puck often, but many times they possess it for awhile and never generate a shot. They need to dump that habit and the cross ice pass at the offensive blue line if they want to go deep into the post season.

Where’s the Six Million Dollar Man? If you had told me on October 1st that Burakovksy would only have three goals after the Caps have played 45 games, I would have said the Caps would not be in playoff position. Luckily, I would’ve been wrong. #65 has played only 21 games due to injuries and overall malaise, but the man who signed a two year deal for a total of $6M is a very key cog in the wheel if Washington wants to challenge for the Stanley Cup. If I was Andre, the first thing I’d do after getting home from the Bahamas would be to pull out the tape of game six against the Penguins last spring and watch it. That’s the way Andre needs to play to be successful, very physical on the opposing boards and puck so that he can score and generate goals. He can be that player if he puts his mind to it and works hard. A return to form by Burakovsky is a must from now until June.

In summary, even with the personnel losses from last season, the Capitals have still positioned themselves among the best teams in the league. Despite what some statistics, such as Corsi, try to tell you, this positive outcome is not just pure luck. As I’ve chronicled, there’s been a method to the team’s success, which also includes a unique ability, much like the Pittsburgh Penguins have done the last two seasons, to counter attack and be deadly on the rush. Speed is an important aspect of hockey and the Capitals have improved in that department. Their save percentage is slightly down, but their goalies have been stellar and they aren’t living off of a higher shooting percentage. They are connecting on 10.5% of their shots, just like they did last season. The league average is around 9%, but the Caps have high end talent, unlike a Corsi loved team like Carolina, who throw a lot of pucks on net from everywhere, but don’t have the Ovechkins, Kuznetsovs, Backstroms and Oshies of the world who have great shots. Looking at another favorite analytic stat, PDO, which measures shooting percentage plus save percentage at even strength, it shows the Caps were at 102.4 in 2016-17 and this season they have dropped to 101.6 (meaning they’ve been less lucky). I’ve stated this axiom in blogs and on the air on WNST many times; it’s great to look at statistics, but in the grand scheme of things, hockey is a game of high skill and talent, it is non-linear and is chaos theory. The Washington Capitals have high end talent and the organization has structured the team around that. Now the question is can they continue to improve down the stretch so that they can peak in the post season?

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Caps Over Pens Nov 2017

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Caps Get Total Team Effort in Victory Over Pittsburgh

Posted on 10 November 2017 by Ed Frankovic

When 20 men all row the boat in the same direction, good things happen.

On Friday night at Capital One Arena the Washington Capitals played, by far, their best game of the season to knock off the two time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins, 4-1.

John Carlson, T.J. Oshie, Chandler Stephenson, and Jakub Vrana scored for the Caps and Braden Holtby stopped 27 of 28 shots to improve Washington to 9-7-1 (19 points).

Without further adieu, here are nine detailed thoughts and analysis on this huuuuugggggeeee victory.

  1. Nicklas Backstrom came into this game with a seven game scoreless streak and his linemate, T.J. Oshie, had not netted a goal in eight straight contests. In a smart attempt to shake the lines up, Coach Barry Trotz bumped Vrana down to the third line and added a player who works hard on every shift, Stephenson, to the mix. That trio was superb all evening and they spent a lot of time up against Sidney Crosby’s line. Nicky held Sid the Kid pointless and even broke his pointless drought with a great feed to Stephenson in the slot to make it 3-1 with 6:18 left. Crosby would play 18:58, have only three shot attempts, lose 14 of 22 draws, and ended up a minus two. It was a vintage two way game by Backstrom, one of the NHL’s best centers. Oshie also broke his slump with a sweet deflection of a Carlson point shot on the power play with 1:51 to go in period two. The Osh Babe also had great net presence on Carlson’s opening marker that hit Tom Kuhnackl’s stick and went in. #34 was trying to tie up Oshie and he was not successful.
  2. Speaking of Carlson, what a beast he was, once again! #74 had a goal and an assist in 28:43 of ice time. He has simply been sensational while Matt Niskanen has been out. The Caps have rode Carly and Brooks Orpik on the back end heavily and are 6-6 in Nisky’s absence. However, four of those six losses came on the tail end of back-to-back affairs. I attribute a lot of those losses to the lack of depth caused by the expansion draft, salary cap casualties, and key injuries. With #2 due back in the next week or so, that will alleviate a lot of pressure on Carlson and Orpik and really help get Dmitry Orlov back on track, too, since he’ll have his favorite d-pair partner again. Orlov has been very inconsistent and he tipped in the only Penguins goal in this one due to some bad defensive zone coverage.
  3. Sticking with the blue line, I thought this was Christian Djoos’ best game of his very young NHL career. His speed and ability to skate and move the puck provides a great match up against the Penguins and he was rock solid in 13:18 of ice time. Rookie Madison Bowey had a few giveaways in 15:44 of action, but he’s getting better and better. As I mentioned to Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan on Monday when we last chatted, the blessing in disguise of Niskanen’s injury will be the sped up development of both Djoos and Bowey. Those two kids have really improved and assistant coach Todd Reirden deserves credit for helping turn these guys into capable NHLers. Washington suddenly has more depth on the back end than they did on October 1st. I’d like to see Bowey stay up when Niskanen returns and Djoos, as well. Taylor Chorney should be the 7th defensemen and he’s been really good the last two weeks.
  4. The Andre Burakovksy injury (fractured thumb) was another big blow to the Capitals forward lines since he was expected to take over the production of Marcus Johansson this season. Vrana was gifted into the top six when #65 went out and he just hasn’t produced. His compete level and decision making was lacking and he deserved the demotion he received. Stephenson has taken full advantage of his opportunity and that has been a pleasant surprise. Any team could’ve had this guy right before the season for nothing and now he has five points in eight games. Washington really needed someone to step up with the Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, and Tyler Graovac injuries and he’s been one who has done that.
  5. After Thursday’s practice, Coach Trotz noted that with guys close to returning from injury he now has five lines of forwards and four defensive pairs practicing and he likes that because it brings competition. Well, I think it is no surprise that many players increased their compete level and were structured, strong on the walls, and won numerous one on one battles in this contest against the Penguins. When players are comfortable and aren’t pushed, they don’t do the hard work and little things necessary to win hockey games. Now that jobs are on the line, suddenly every guy with a Caps sweater on in Friday’s tilt was giving everything they had. There’s another example of socialism not working!
  6. I’ve been tough on Vrana and Alex Chiasson during the early part of this season. Both have had their on-ice issues and they have struggled to contribute in a substantial way. On this evening, both made a key play in an important situation that helped the Caps win. On Stephenson’s goal, Chiasson went to the net and created havoc in front of Matt Murray (27 saves). While he doesn’t have the best set of hands and his skating needs a lot of work, #39 at least knew to crash the cage there and what is likely keeping him in the lineup is his penalty killing. As for Vrana, he needs to compete harder and getting out there with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson is a good fit for him. #13 still can perform better and he needs to bury some of his chances, but his play on the empty net clincher was a combination smart decision and pure speed.
  7. Special teams have been a problem area for the Caps so far this season. The power play had become stagnant and the penalty kill was struggling having to kill too many opportunities. On Friday, both of those units were big reasons the Capitals were victorious. Caps assistant coach Blaine Forsythe added some new wrinkles to the power play and they connected twice in six opportunities (9:11 of man advantage time). Oshie gets a lot of credit for creating havoc in front of the net, but the passing was crisper and there was some good rotation. Alex Ovechkin (1 assist) had a great chance a couple of minutes before #77’s goal on the man advantage, but he shot wide. Perhaps the biggest story though, was the way Washington handled the Penguins power play, which is one of the deadliest in the league. The Caps did a great job of keeping the Pens on the perimeter and keeping the crease clear so that Holtby could see the puck. The Holtbeast was superb and was a major reason Pittsburgh went 0 for 4 with the man advantage.
  8. Liam O’Brien, who was called up a week ago, only played 4:36, but it was an important stretch. In the first period, one of the toughest guys in the league and lead agitator, Ryan Reaves, was trying to intimidate the Caps and help give the star players on the Penguins more room on the ice. Reaves was jawing at Tom Wilson from the get go in this one and he hit O’Brien on an early shift. #87, recognizing that Reaves was trying to set a tone and get Washington off of their game, took Ryan on and got beat quickly in a fight. However, he took Reaves off of the ice for five minutes and after that #75 was nowhere to be found and became a non factor in the contest. Well done, Liam, way to take one for the team.
  9. Finally, an immense amount of credit for the Capitals staying afloat during this early stretch with key injuries goes to Holtby. Braden is now 9-3 with a .924 save percentage this season. He’s been outstanding and the team’s MVP playing behind a much more inexperienced defense. The Holtbeast won his 200th career game on Friday and became the 2nd fastest goalie to 200 wins (319 games) since the legendary Ken Dryden did it with the Montreal Canadiens in 311 tilts (h/t Tarik El-Bashir of NBC Sports Washington).

In summary, this was a gritty and gutsy effort by the Caps on Friday night. They played structured and strong hockey and won a lot of little battles all over the ice. It was a team effort and they played the way they’ll need to in order to be successful this season.

It was their best game.

Notes: Pittsburgh is now 9-7-2 (20 points) and has a -17 goal differential. They’ve lost key depth, too, due to the salary cap and have yet to win on the tail end of back to back games, as well. They had not played since Tuesday, though, like the Capitals. Historical Cap killers Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, and Matt Cullen are no longer wearing the black and gold and Washington benefited from that…the Caps outhit the Penguins, 30-17…shot attempts were 59-56 for Pittsburgh, but the Caps got more on the cage, 31-28…the Caps won the face off battle, 34-26. Jay Beagle was 13-4 and Backstrom went 7-4…Orpik played 21:38 on the back end and had one of his best games of the season. He kept Patrick Hornqvist and company off of the Holtbeast all night long…next up for the Caps are the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday night at 7:00 pm at Capital One Arena.

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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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