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It’s Time for the Caps to Make Some Big Moves

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It’s Time for the Caps to Make Some Big Moves

Posted on 15 June 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee held a “State of the Caps” press conference Thursday at Kettler IcePlex in preparation for some important events coming up on the NHL calendar, namely the NHL draft on June 22-23 in Pittsburgh and the beginning of free agency on July 1st.  In addition, McPhee stated that the coaching search is continuing and he is in no rush to hire a new bench boss to replace Dale Hunter, who announced he is returning to his junior team (London Knights) following the Caps second round playoff loss to the Rangers.

It was an insightful session, granted you realize that there was no way McPhee was going to show any of his cards as he prepares for as important an off-season as the Capitals have had in several years. For a quick synopsis of the press conference, I highly recommend Mike Vogel’s Dump ‘n Chase blog.

So why is this such an important off-season for the Capitals?

For me, the team is finally in a salary cap position to re-tool the roster given that high priced players Alexander Semin and Dennis Wideman are set to test the free agent waters. In addition, McPhee has two first round picks in the upcoming draft, the 11th and 16th overall selections. Given the salary cap room and assets in the system, GMGM has a big opportunity to try and obtain the pieces this Capitals team needs to finally get over the hump in the post season.

Since the lockout, McPhee has chosen to go the draft route to build this Capitals team adding free agents or players via trades, when needed. It is a strategy that has worked well in getting Washington to become a consistent playoff team (five years in a row). The Caps have an explosive talent in Alexander Ovechkin and the combination of the Gr8 and winning has seen the Verizon Center become a “place to be,” as evidenced by the fact that the team has sold out 153 consecutive games.

McPhee made mention of that in his press conference, talking about the value of “building from within.” He compared the Los Angeles Kings, who raised Lord Stanley’s Cup for the first time ever this past week, to his own club pointing out that significant players Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick were all LA draft picks. Clearly Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Karl Alzner, Mike Green, and Braden Holtby form a comparable group for Washington to the Kings crew listed above. Both teams successfully stockpiled picks for several years and used the draft to help build a large portion of the core of their team.

But that is where the comparisons stop for me. After the names listed above the Kings can add Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Justin Williams, and Dustin Penner. Those are four top six forwards to go with Kopitar and Brown and each one was acquired in a trade with the Richards and Carter deals falling in the blockbuster category. Kings GM Dean Lombardi recognized the holes on his top two lines long ago, as LA was reportedly one of the finalists in both the Ilya Kovalchuk (2010 trade deadline) and Brad Richards (summer 2011) sweepstakes, before the Devils and Rangers obtained their respective services. To get each of those top four forwards, Lombardi traded the following:

Richards (acquired summer 2011):  forward Wayne Simmonds (2nd round in 2007), forward Brayden Schenn (1st round & 5th overall in 2009), and a 2012 second round pick

Carter (acquired trade deadline 2012): defensemen Jack Johnson (1st round & 3rd overall in 2005) and a 1st round pick in either 2012 or 2013

Williams (acquired trade deadline 2009): forward Patrick O’Sullivan and a 2nd round pick

Penner (acquired trade deadline 2011): defensemen Colten Teubert (1st round & 13th overall in 2008), a 1st round pick in 2011, and a conditional 2nd round pick

Those four, with Kopitar and Brown are arguably as good a top six group of forwards as any in the league. To get those players Lombardi had to give up assets, high drafted players along with high draft picks. Lombardi has also done well in the free agent market adding key defensemen Rob Scuderi (in 2009 from the Penguins) and Willie Mitchell (in 2010 from the Canucks). McPhee actually had Mitchell in town in 2010 before he eventually inked with the Kings. Simply put, the Kings GM made some very bold moves and took chances to build what is now a championship winning club.

Coaching is important in hockey, but there is no substitute for quality players. Darryl Sutter didn’t start working magic with the Kings until the Carter trade occurred, which gave Los Angeles two scoring lines. As McPhee said in his press conference, the coach he is looking for is one who will get the entire team to buy in. Dale Hunter did that this year with the Caps and they had some success, but in the end they were done in by their inability to score goals. I put that issue on the personnel as the Capitals were essentially a one line team, making it much easier to shut down the Caps big guns.

So the coaching system by itself, in my opinion, is mostly irrelevent, because the major driver in winning or losing is the talent level. As we stand now, assuming Semin leaves, there are at least two, and perhaps three or four, openings on the top two lines. Fill those gaps and whatever coach McPhee brings in can implement whatever system he chooses to try. After all, a coaching system can be changed or tweaked by the bench boss, but you don’t have a lot of opportunities to change the personnel, especially once the season starts. As GMGM stated at his presser on Thursday, the next few weeks seem to be the best time to make moves to improve your club. McPhee said it is not his desired route, he prefers to make changes while games and practices are occurring, but that is the way things have shaken out since the lockout ended and the NHL entered the salary cap era.

In pro sports, consistent winners almost always have a good draft history, so there is no question that is the main building block for a successful organization. The Caps have done that over the last five plus years. However, to get to the elite level and break through to win a championship, it is clear that management needs to take some additional chances. Recent Stanley Cup victories by the Kings, Bruins, Blackhawks, and Penguins bear that out.

GMGM stated last month that he tried to move one of next week’s first round selections for a top six forward at last February’s trade deadline but the return wasn’t deemed great enough that day. So McPhee knows what he needs to do, but coming out and saying that in a press conference now only drives prices up, so it is rare that you’ll hear the GM openly state his intentions.  

Based on the talk on twitter from several NHL insiders just today, the trade market is getting hot again and prices are not likely as high as they were in late February since there are more teams willing to move players. Washington needs an influx of high end players, especially at forward, if they want to challenge for a Stanley Cup.

That is why this offseason is so important for the Capitals. They can’t afford to play on the edges anymore, so McPhee must be aggressive and try to make some big moves to improve the talent level. Hopefully he can find the right dance partners in the coming weeks.

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Capitals announce preseason schedule

Posted on 12 June 2012 by WNST Staff

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Washington Capitals have released their 2012 preseason schedule, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today. The schedule features seven games against four opponents and includes three games at Verizon Center. The Capitals will face-off against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the second-annual Baltimore Hockey Classic at 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore on September 26.

Washington will open the preseason on Tuesday, Sept. 25 (7 p.m.), at Verizon Center in a rematch of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals vs. the Boston Bruins. The Capitals will begin their preseason road schedule on Sunday, Sept. 30 (5 p.m.), at Detroit versus the Red Wings.

The team’s preseason home schedule includes the Nashville Predators on Friday, Oct. 5 (7 p.m.), and Detroit on Sunday, Oct. 7 (5 p.m.). In addition, Washington will play exhibition games on the road against Columbus on Monday, Oct. 1 (7 p.m.), and at Boston on Wednesday, Oct. 3 (7 p.m.).

The Capitals were 3-3-1 in the preseason last year, and their all-time preseason record is 143-115-29-10.

Each preseason game will be broadcast live on WashingtonCaps.com. The complete 2012-13 NHL regular season schedule will be released at a later date.

2012 WASHINGTON CAPITALS PRESEASON SCHEDULE
DATE VISITOR HOME TIME (ET)
TUES., SEPT. 25 BRUINS CAPITALS 7 PM
WED., SEPT. 26** BLUE JACKETS** CAPITALS** 7 PM**
SUN., SEPT. 30 CAPITALS RED WINGS 5 PM
MON., OCT. 1 CAPITALS BLUE JACKETS 7 PM
WED., OCT. 3 CAPITALS BRUINS 7 PM
FRI., OCT. 5 PREDATORS CAPITALS 7 PM
SUN., OCT. 7 RED WINGS CAPITALS 5 PM

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Caps & Other Hockey Thoughts on the Eve of the Stanley Cup Finals

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Caps & Other Hockey Thoughts on the Eve of the Stanley Cup Finals

Posted on 29 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Now that it has been over two weeks and the dust has settled on another crushing playoff defeat, Capitals fans can look forward to the Stanley Cup Finals and the exciting things to come for their team following it. This Caps off-season will be like no other in the recent past because General Manager George McPhee not only has to select a new coach, he has two first round choices in the 2012 NHL draft (11th and 16th overall picks), and he also has a lot of salary cap room to work with for the first time since perhaps the summer of 2008. With the Alexander Semin departure freeing up $6.7M on the books and Dennis Wideman’s $3.5M hit expiring along with some other smaller contracts that have ended (see Mike Knuble and Tomas Vokoun), GMGM has some flexibility to reshape the team and hopefully fill the holes that has prevented the club from advancing past the second round of the playoffs over the last five years.

So with that as a stage setter, here are 10 thoughts on the Caps, the NHL, the Memorial Cup, as well as my Stanley Cup Finals prediction:

- With the Finals starting Wednesday (8 pm on NBC), Tuesday was media day at “The Rock” in New Jersey. One of my favorite quotes of the afternoon came from Kings coach Darryl Sutter when he was talking about what turned it around for his club after it struggled during much of the regular season. He began by talking about guys starting to understand his system but then focused on center Mike Richards ability to find his game again in mid March after suffering a concussion earlier in the campaign. He then said the addition of Jeff Carter from Columbus at the trade deadline was the final piece needed since it allowed him to spread the offensive wealth. Specifically, he was talking about Kings superstar forward Anze Kopitar, who was having a hard time scoring goals. “At that position, you can’t be great all by yourself,” said Sutter. That excellent quote, which explains a lot, could easily be uttered by several other teams in the league who struggle to win consistently without two true scoring lines (see the Caps and Alexander Ovechkin).

- It is always tough to watch the playoff round following the one in which your team is eliminated and that was truly the case this spring once Washington was bounced by the Rangers in seven games. I fully expected the Caps to knock off the Rags but the bounces did not go the Capitals way at all in games three and five and Henrik Lundqvist was superb in net. Coach John Tortorella also received excellent play from defensemen Michael Del Zotto and forward Marian Gaborik in that series. Against the Devils, it was a different story and New Jersey dominated the Blueshirts before dispatching them in six games. Del Zotto was terrible against Peter DeBoer’s club and Gaborik disappeared like Jimmy Hoffa. On Frozen Blog’s John Keeley, before the Devils series against New York, penned a super blog on Lou Lamoriello’s club. John was spot on about the Devils talent and style of play and had the Caps beaten the Rangers, I don’t think they would’ve have been able to defeat the three time Stanley Cup Champions, but I sure would have liked to have seen Dale Hunter and company try!

- Speaking of Tortorella, there is no doubt that he is a super hockey mind but his abrupt and abrasive press conferences following playoff defeats became a hot topic in the Washington and then the New Jersey series. It got so bad that super NHL Network analysts’ Kevin Weekes and Craig Button finally called him out on it. Everyone knew Torts was trying to deflect criticism of his club and put the heat on himself, but the Rangers bench boss clearly took it too far. However, the man who has a very classy side, as was displayed on HBO’s 24/7 series, smartly changed his ways and was insightful and more patient with the media even while his team lost the last three contests to give away a chance to play in the Stanley Cup Finals. He was even more revealing and truly honest this past Monday during his club’s breakdown day. He talked about how certain players get what the team is trying to do while others do not. He said it would be up to the organization to get rid of those not on board. You can’t be much more up front than that and it was certainly refreshing to hear a truthful assessment of a team following their defeat with no excuses offered (such as Phoenix blaming the referees in the Western Conference Finals). Kudos to Tortorella, who also FULLY endorsed assistant coach Mike Sullivan for any NHL head coaching opening. Well done John, I was tough on you this post season but you’ve gone way up again in my book with your late playoff changed ways with the media, who work hard to promote the game many of us truly love. Perhaps I’ll take a cue from Torts and go easier on the referees next season??!! On second thought, I will have to think a little bit more on that one. ;)

- As for Sullivan, it is rumored that Calgary is the leading destination for the former Boston Bruins bench boss given his past relationship with Flames GM Jay Feaster in Tampa. Many once fired coaches learn and improve the second time around (see Bill Belichick and Joe Torre) and “Sully” seems to be the hot prospect this spring. I imagine the Capitals have strong interest in the New York assistant too given that the style Washinton played under Hunter is similar to what Sullivan and Tortorella were using in New York. With all of the moving pieces McPhee has going on this summer it will be interesting to see if Washington’s GM sets up his roster first before picking a head coach (the patient route that New Jersey took last summer with DeBoer) or he selects a coach and shapes the roster to fit the new coach’s style. Put me in the first category as I think the Capitals need to play a style like they played this post season. They need to continue to be responsible in their own end. Now if GMGM adds some offensive talent, and there is no doubt he has top six forwards in mind, then the club can be more aggressive offensively like New Jersey and Los Angeles are doing now, but both teams still have a STRONG defensive foundation at the root of their respective systems.

- When it comes to defense, I have to wonder what the heck happened to the Pittsburgh Penguins this spring?! That club was most people’s pick to go to and win the Finals this June but Coach Dan Bylsma’s squad fell flat on their faces. The Pens clearly lost their focus down the stretch and their play away from the puck, especially in their own end, was just awful. They had the most talented roster in the Eastern Conference and laid an egg in the first round. It is more proof that you have to be responsible defensively if you want to win the Stanley Cup and Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and company seemed to have forgotten all of the good defensive lessons former coach Michel Therrien taught them before being dismissed during their 2008-09 Cup winning season. Wide open hockey does not work in the post season, plain and simple, just ask the 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers and they will confirm that axiom.

- After Hunter left his post here in Washington, he immediately went to sit in the press box and watch his London Knights battle for the Memorial Cup, which is the championship tournament featuring a pre determined host city and the three winners of Canada’s top junior leagues (the Western Hockey League (WHL), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMHJL), and the Ontario Hockey League (OHL)). London won from the OHL, Edmonton represented the WHL, while the defending Memorial Cup champs, the Saint John Sea Dogs, represented the QMHJL. The host city, Shawinigan, was the fourth club. The host Cataractes ended up defeating Hunter’s club in overtime of the final game to capture the Cup in a 2-1 thriller. Both goalies (Michael Houser of London and Gabriel Girard of Shawinigan) were impressive in the final match as were several other already NHL drafted players. Jarred Tinordi (Montreal), Austin Watson (Nashville), and Brandon Gormley (Phoenix) really stood out for me and seem poised to have good NHL careers. Russian Krill Kabanov (Islanders), who had one crazy junior career, did some nice things as well but it remains to be seen if he turns out to be an every day NHLer. The undrafted player that was high on my radar was Max Domi of London, son of former Leafs and Rangers tough guy, Tie. The 17 year old, who is draft eligible in 2013, was all over the ice with his speed and tenacious play. He isn’t big right now size wise, but he plays large and I have to think many teams will be very interested in him next June.

- Stan Galiev, of the Caps, played again for Saint John in the Memorial Cup, and the 2010 third round pick seems to have a bright future. He projects to be a top six offensive player but personally I think it would be wise for Washington to let him get at least a year in Hershey to properly develop and gain size and confidence.  The Russian forward will definitely help the Bears next season, who will not have former AHL Calder Cup MVP Chris Bourque back next year. Bourque, who very recently became a first time father, was traded on Sunday to Boston for center Zach Hamill. Hamill was the 8th overall pick in the 2007 draft and is still just 23 years old. He should help Hershey next season, as well.

- After last February’s NHL trade deadline I asked an NHL scout, with over 20 years in the business, why Tampa didn’t get a goalie this season when it was clear that it was their biggest hole and was certain to prevent them from making the playoffs despite the great goal scoring year Steven Stamkos was having. The scout said something that was quite telling. “It is not as easy as it seems to find what you need.” I expect Tampa to go after Vokoun or some other veteran goalie this summer to go along with youngster Dustin Tokarski, who won the 2008 Memorial Cup with Spokane.

- By the way, that scout’s quote is clearly relevant to what McPhee has been dealing with when it comes to second line center. GMGM knows he needs a center, but he’s been unable to get one for many reasons. As I said above, this summer might be his best chance, given the flexibility he finally has in terms of salary cap room. However, it takes two to tango and you can bet that other GM’s may not be willing to give what the Capitals desperately need without getting something significant back. Recent history shows though, that getting the superstar player while sacrificing lesser players, draft picks, and prospects is a recipe for success. Los Angeles, who did that to get Richards and Carter, and New Jersey, who did the same in acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk, both went that route and have been rewarded with a shot at the Cup. Pittsburgh did the same when it plucked Marian Hossa from Atlanta back in 2008. So it seems to make sense for GMGM to be aggressive and try and hit the home run on the center position this summer by giving up some assets to finally get an elite player to complement Nicklas Backstrom up the middle and alleviate some of the pressure on Ovechkin.

- Finally, I am going with the Kings in five games in the Stanley Cup Finals. Los Angeles is just rolling right now and my only concern with them is their eight day layoff. I can’t see their power play continuing to struggle the way it has to date in the post season. I love the way the Devils play the game and Zach Parise is one of the best players in the NHL right now. However, I think they are over matched in this series and if they don’t win game one, then this thing could be over quick. However, if New Jersey holds serve at home against a LA squad that is perfect on the road this post season, then anything can happen. That is why they play the games. Enjoy!

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Will Donald Fehr Wreck the Caps Off Season?

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Will Donald Fehr Wreck the Caps Off Season?

Posted on 17 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

“We’re getting too down. As soon as we get a goal scored against us it kind of feels like it’s the end of the world. It’s just one goal. It’s bound to happen every game. We’re killing our momentum by having them score and then giving up another one.”

“We were too slow. We were soft. We weren’t making the smart plays, helping each other get open. If you’re not working hard for each other you’re not going to be successful.”

Those are some really telling quotes there, aren’t they? While doing some end of season spring cleaning, I stumbled upon the quote sheet that the Caps super PR department distributes after games and the above were from November 25, 2011 after the Caps lost, 6-3, to the New York Rangers. Those two quotes were from the always honest and straight forward Karl Alzner.

The night after that contest Washington would get blown out, 5-1, in Buffalo and that would spell the end of the Bruce Boudreau era and bring Dale Hunter into the fold.

We all know what happened from there in a roller coaster season that nearly put the Capitals into the Eastern Conference Finals before a tough end in New York last Saturday night.

Unfortunately, Hunter announced on Monday that he is heading back to Ontario to be with his family and to work with his London Knights franchise. Selfishly I would have loved for Dale to stay here and coach this team because I felt that when he took over he was the right guy for the job and I still believe that. It is clear that this team came together under ole number 32 like they haven’t done in recent years. Reading those two quotes above from Alzner should remind EVERYONE just how far this hockey team came in the nearly six months Hunter was behind the bench.

The Caps no longer were mentally weak and found ways to come back from some crushing defeats (see late season loss to Buffalo, games one, three, and six to Boston, as well as games three and five to the Rangers). They also became a tougher team to play against and the word soft could only be used to describe perhaps a couple of players instead of most of the team. Washington’s players certainly learned to stick together and play for one another and at the end of the season I will say that this club overall became greater than the sum of their parts, which in the past often didn’t seem to be the case.

But the season is over and Hunter is gone. There were lessons learned that should be carried forward and that locker room unity we saw hopefully continues next fall, if there is a 2012-13 hockey season, but more on that in a minute.

Every season hockey rosters turn over and with free agency coming on July 1st, the Caps will no doubt undergo some changes. I would bet my last dollar that both Alex Semin and Dennis Wideman won’t be back. Add goalie Tomas Vokoun to that list too. Right there that is over $11M in salary cap room for General Manager George McPhee to work with. There will be other changes too and it is well documented in this blog that McPhee’s number one player issue is improving the middle of the ice. We all saw how inconsistent the Caps were when Nicklas Backstrom went down for 40 games. They nearly missed the playoffs because they had a hole at the number one and two center positions. Finding a true second line center isn’t easy and many Caps fans were hoping that 2010 first round pick Evgeny Kuznetsov might be the answer to that next fall, or at the very least he could come over and play on one of the top two lines as a winger. That isn’t happening. Kuznetsov, who turns 20 on Saturday, is staying in Russia. He can make more money there in the KHL and the uncertain NHL labor situation (the CBA expires on 9/15/2012) definitely didn’t help the Capitals cause.

The importance of quality centers cannot be overstated. There is no doubt that good centers help puck possession and other fancy stats. The Caps struggled in that area simply because they had pivots who could not break the puck out of their own zone very well, especially when #19 was injured. Hunter knew he had issues there and I firmly believe he put in place a strategy that gave him the best chance to win with the absence of strong centers. That was to focus on their own end and try to generate scoring chances via transition. He nearly pulled it off and if Alex Ovechkin or Troy Brouwer score from in tight in overtime in game three or they survive the last 25 seconds of game five they defeat the Rangers and instead they are the ones facing the New Jersey Devils.

Just look at the difference Brad Richards has made for a Rangers team that Washington manhandled in the first round in the spring of 2011! The bad news is there are no players like Richards on the free agent market this year, so McPhee has his work cut out for him.

Speaking of the market, does anyone have any idea how that will shake out this summer? After all, the head of the NHL players union is game killer Donald Fehr (see 1994 MLB strike and World Series cancellation) so you can bet that the NHL owners won’t be giving their GM’s a whole lot of rope to play with in the summer given the economic uncertainty facing the league with no collective bargaining agreement in place after September 15th.

So Fehr alone could wreck McPhee’s chances of retooling the Capitals this summer and getting them ready for a Stanley Cup run in 2013. It will not be a fun NHL offseason from that standpoint alone. McPhee does have two first round draft picks in this June’s NHL Entry draft so he needs to use those to help re-stock the prospect pipeline. He could package one of the picks in a trade to obtain a top six forward, but that seems to be a less likely scenario.

But given all of that, there are still places where this Caps team can improve on over the summer and it starts with each individual player. Regardless of who the next coach will be, every guy who wore a red sweater this past season needs to remember what brought them post season success: hard work, sticking together, and defensive hockey. The days of wide open play are over. The Caps kept doing that towards the end of the Boudreau era and all it led to was what I call “Odd Man Rush City” for the opponents. You can’t win that way in the NHL and even the Edmonton Oilers learned to play the right way before winning their first Cup in 1984. Defense wins championships, plain and simple.

You do need offense though and one way to improve that is by GMGM finding another top center. Washington needs two scoring lines and they didn’t have that this season. The result is it makes it much easier to defend Alexander Ovechkin. Hunter tried putting Backstrom with Semin on the second line to try and balance things out. It was a move that Boudreau smartly used in 2008 and 2009, but he had Sergei Fedorov to center the Gr8.

Ovechkin is at the top of my list of who can definitely improve next year. Better personnel will help him right off of the bat, if those moves can be made. But the Gr8 also can help himself by applying what Hunter was trying to teach him: good defense leads to more offense. Ovechkin needs to work on his defensive game regardless of the system implemented by the new coach. Pavel Datsyuk and Fedorov are great offensive talents but they both are/were very good defensively too. There is no reason why Alex can’t get better in his own zone. If he gets rid of the straight legged and gliding posture, bears down more, and does extra film study of opposing defenders to learn their tendencies, I am willing to bet that the Gr8 could score 10 more goals next season just by going from defense to offense more efficiently. His size and speed are some of his greatest assets and if he used them better in his own zone he could become the most dominant player in the league, once again. But Ovie has to want to do that and put the work in, plain and simple. Maybe he should give Ray Lewis a call to learn about work ethic and the benefits of film study?

Marcus Johansson is next on my list. MJ90 had a rough playoffs and was moved off of the puck too easily by the Rangers. Given that he was on one of the top two lines, that really hurt Washington’s chances to win the series. I’d much prefer him on the third line where he could really be effective and not have so much pressure on him, but with the lack of talent in the top six forward area, Marcus was forced to play up. He’s only 21 and he has great speed, but he needs to build strength and be stronger on the puck. The playoffs are all about winning the battles on the wall and he was not equipped to do that this spring.

We saw lots of promise out of Braden Holtby and Dmitry Orlov and both must avoid the sophomore slump. Alzner and John Carlson became a flat out dominant pair on the ice and they will be expected to do that and more next season. Carlson deserves first unit power play time, in my opinion. He has a great shot and isn’t afraid to use it. #74 was super in the playoffs and I see no reason why he can’t continue that level of play next season. Brooks Laich is a rock for this team but he needs to score more, hopefully the new coach gets him more power play time.

Right down the roster every player must find a way to improve while staying within the team structure. That brings us to the most important off-season decision that is non-player related, hiring the next head coach. The new bench boss must be a guy the players respect. Hunter certainly commanded it for his reputation as a player but also because every guy on the roster was held accountable, regardless of their contract or star power. That must continue.

McPhee smartly said he will take his time with the decision but there are some names out there that immediately bubble to the top of the list based on discussions I’ve had with people very familiar with the NHL coaching landscape: Craig Ramsay, Mike Sullivan, Jim Playfair, and Mike Eaves. Ramsay, Sullivan, and Playfair all have NHL head coaching experience while Eaves has been coaching at Wisconsin since 2002. Take a look at their respective coaching records yourself and you will be impressed with each candidate. McPhee certainly couldn’t go wrong picking any of those four, but perhaps he goes a different route and chooses someone with more ties to the Caps organization, such as a Terry Murray or Adam Oates?

It will be interesting to see what McPhee does, and this is a critical decision for him with this hockey team coming off of some positive playoff production.

There is a good vibe to this hockey team right now despite a disappointing end to the season, but the 2012 summer holds a lot for the Washington Capitals with so many important things on the agenda to address.

It is imperative they do the right things this summer. Let’s also hope that the NHL labor negotiations, and particularly Fehr, don’t wreck what is a very crucial off-season for the Caps.

 

 

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Another Crushing End to a Caps Hockey Season

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Another Crushing End to a Caps Hockey Season

Posted on 12 May 2012 by Ed Frankovic

There are no moral victories in pro sports, so the fact that the Capitals, after a dismal regular season made it to game seven of the second round, only to lose 2-1 to New York, shouldn’t make any Caps fan feel good about the season. Nope, this campaign is another failure in my book because Washington didn’t even get to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The game five meltdown, which officially stands as the worst loss in team history by my accounting, cost the Capitals a chance to play the New Jersey Devils for a shot at the Stanley Cup Finals. Instead they lose to a club they beat in FIVE games in the spring of 2011. The Rangers didn’t have Ryan Callahan last April when the Capitals dominated them, but they didn’t have Brandon Dubinsky in this series either. What the Blueshirts did have are two bonafide top line centers. GM Glen Sather, who once moaned in Edmonton about not being able to spend money to stay competitive, went out and got Brad Richards and at the end of the day, he was the difference between the Capitals going golfing and the Rags moving on to face Marty Brodeur and company.

It is a bitter pill to swallow for Caps fans and the core of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, Mike Green, and Brooks Laich has now gone five years without advancing past the second round. Ovechkin, after a great game six, was pretty much a non factor in the most important game of his career. It will be an interesting off-season now with Semin, Dennis Wideman, Tomas Vokoun, and Mike Knuble all unrestricted free agents. In addition, #52 is a restricted free agent.

Meanwhile, Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Laich will be back for sure, as well as Joel Ward, given their contracts. Roman Hamrlik will also likely be back since he gets $3.5M for another season (and he played very well in the post season).  Jeff Schultz is still due $2.75M for each of the next two seasons so he’s not going anywhere either.

Despite the overall failure, there were some good things that came out of this season. We know that Karl Alzner and John Carlson are a super defensive pair and should both be locked up long term, at some point. Braden Holtby stepped up and proved that he just might be the number one goalie going forward, his puck handling skills certainly helps the defense. We also know that this team can play the type of hockey necessary to win in the post season from a defensive standpoint. Guys like Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle were major positives in an underachieving regular season. I am squarely in the corner of hoping that Dale Hunter is the coach next season. I’d just like to see him have more of his type of players.

The Caps have two first round picks in the upcoming draft, which reportedly is a good one. But General Manager George McPhee must FINALLY address the real problem facing this club, a lack of another center to go along with Backstrom. The Caps continue to rotate players in and out of that position and it is the MAIN reason why they are so wildly inconsistent (see only 4 shots in period three tonight when their season was on the line). Marucs Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, and Laich were all tried there this season and the problem was never really solved. It also IS the reason why the Caps nearly missed the playoffs before a late rally. No Backstrom for 40 games meant a lack of top two centers for half of the season.

Another reason for the season failure is the power play. The Caps were given a chance to tie the game up late in regulation in this one and it failed miserably. I still want to know why Johansson is on the first unit instead of someone with more strength along the boards and more ability to get to the front of the net? Also, Carlson would have been a much better choice than Wideman on the point and the indecision and lack of chemistry between #6 and #52 prevented the Capitals from getting set up at a critical time in the season. Special teams decide playoff series and the Rangers won it with their PP in game five while the Caps blew their golden opportunity to tie the game with the man advantage in game seven.

So another season goes in the books for the Caps. I call this one an overall failure and another major opportunity to win their first Stanley Cup wasted.

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Florida WR Thompson joins Boldin, McPhee as Ravens Swamp Boys

Posted on 01 May 2012 by WNST Audio

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Your Monday Reality Check-Are Ravens better after Draft? I guess…

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Your Monday Reality Check-Are Ravens better after Draft? I guess…

Posted on 30 April 2012 by Glenn Clark

I’ve already gotten about a hundred messages via email/Facebook/Twitter/text/Pony Express that said something along the lines of “well Glenn, you got what you wanted.”

To at least an extent, the people sending those messages have been right. After pounding on the desk of the studio at 1550 Hart Rd. in Towson for months (if not years), the Baltimore Ravens acquired a size receiver in the NFL Draft.

In the 6th round of the Draft, the Ravens selected Tommy Streeter, a 6’5″ wide receiver from the University of Miami. Combined with impressive speed (Streeter posted an impressive 4.40 forty time at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis), Streeter seemingly adds a more unique dynamic to Cam Cameron’s offense in 2012. Streeter’s size presents an immediate matchup problem in the red zone (and specifically in the end zone) that the team simply didn’t have in their receiving corps in 2011.

Well…mostly anyway.

You see, the Ravens actually DID briefly have a receiver like that in 2011. If you’ll remember, the Ravens acquired former Buffalo Bills WR James Hardy late in the 2010 season in hopes he could make the team out of Training Camp. Nagging injury issues and a lockout later, Hardy couldn’t crack the 53 and the lack of a size receiver played a role in the Ravens finishing 18th in the NFL in red zone offense.

So Streeter solves all of those problems, right? Right?

As I was also quick to point out, simply being tall wasn’t the only desirable attribute in a new Ravens receiver. Clarence Moore was tall. Randy Hymes was tall. Even Marc Lester was tall. The Ravens not only needed a tall receiver, they needed a receiver who could catch the ball and become a consistent threat in a National Football League offense.

While I liked the team’s decision to draft Streeter, I will admit that I don’t believe the Ravens (and 31 other teams) passed on him for five and a half rounds because they were TOO worried about how good he was. There have been questions about Streeter’s hands, as well as his overall ability to develop into a consistent standout receiver. Those questions may or may not be fair, as the former Hurricanes star could show 31 teams they made a mistake in the coming seasons or they could show one particular team they made the wrong decision to take him even as late as the sixth round.

I guess that’s basically the entire point of this week’s column. After the NFL Draft, analysts attempt to identify “winners” and “losers” from three days of selecting players. Some of these players will go on to outstanding pro careers, others will leave little in the way of a legacy at the NFL level and others still will never play in even a single NFL game.

So do I think the Ravens did a nice job in the NFL Draft? Yeah…I guess. I guess the Baltimore Ravens did a nice job in the NFL Draft.

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The Caps Season Can All Change on Sunday

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The Caps Season Can All Change on Sunday

Posted on 22 April 2012 by Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals are on the verge of potentially changing their entire season in game six against the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon at the Verizon Center.

The much maligned in the media Caps, who were considered huge underdogs coming into this series with the Bruins, just might be able to change the perceptions of those who have been critical of them thanks to a gritty 4-3 victory on Saturday in Boston in game five of this best of seven series.

But media perceptions don’t really matter to this club, for perhaps the first time in a long while. That is primarily the case because they have taken on the identity of their head coach, Dale Hunter, and are singularly focused on results. Hunter doesn’t care what the media thinks, he just wants to win. His press conferences are proof of that. The coach pretty much says nothing, which is exactly what I would want my coach saying after each game, and especially in the playoffs. Too many words from the head coach can wear a team out and drain them emotionally, that won’t happen with Hunter (and as I predicted on twitter weeks ago, the New York Rangers are on the brink of elimination despite having the best record in the East, partially due to the fact that their coach likes to have too much conflict and discussion with the media). 

That identity I spoke of above is an almost unflappable demeanor, something this Capitals club struggled to display in the past. The minute adversity hit before, especially in the post season, they would often get caught up in it and fall apart. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. After the Caps gave up a 2-0 lead by allowing two goals in 28 seconds towards the end of period two today how many people were writing them off for the game and likely the series? I imagine you could get on twitter and find tweet after tweet burying this team when the Bruins turned up the heat.

However, this cast of characters, which received super goaltending from Braden Holtby (34 saves) once again, didn’t panic and came out composed for the final frame after they barely survived the last couple of minutes in period two. Mike Knuble scored a key goal on a rebound of a Joel Ward shot. But then adversity hit again when Marcus Johansson took too long to make a decision with the puck coming out of his own zone. Boston stripped the puck from MJ90 and Dennis Wideman was then whistled for a penalty. Next thing you know Boston scores their first power play goal of the series to tie it up. Caps nation, given past playoff failures, were probably saying “I’ve seen this movie before” and were waiting for the inevitable Bruins game winner to occur.

But it never happened. Hunter’s crew didn’t sulk and merely kept playing. Then they received a late power play when Nicklas Backstrom was hooked and Troy Brouwer took full advantage scoring with 1:27 to go on the rush. Washington would do a super job of preventing Boston from getting any really good chances late and as John Walton likes to say after victories it was “Good morning, Good afternoon, and Good night Boston!”

It was a huge win and puts the Caps in position to knock off the defending champs. But that win will be the hardest one they’ve ever tried to achieve. The Bruins faced the same situation in the Stanley Cup Finals, a 3-2 series deficit, and won the last two games to grab Lord Stanley’s Cup last season. You can bet that Boston will give everything they have on Sunday. Their coach is already whining again about the Capitals late power play to try and influence the referees, in a move we’ve seen from him far too often (hopefully the NHL is tired of it too). So the Caps will have to match the Bruins intensity and play smart once again. They have to stick to Hunter’s plan and not free lance defensively. If they stray from the blue print, then that means a game seven in Boston on Wednesday.

Simply put, the Caps have a chance to finally put a bad regular season behind them for good tomorrow. Will they finally be able to do that?

Puck drop is at 3pm, don’t miss it.

Notes: Alexander Ovechkin went for the big hit in the neutral zone and missed in period two and that led to the first Boston goal. Ovechkin only played 15:34 in game five and it is clear Hunter doesn’t like the matchups he is getting when the Gr8 is on the ice. Ovechkin needs to be better defensively as well…John Carlson and Karl Alzner were an outstanding duo again and they led the Caps in ice time with 25:05 and 24:37, respectively…Boston outshot the Caps 37-32 but shot attempts were even more lopsided, 70-48…the Caps went 1 for 3 on the power play and are 3 for 14 in the series. Boston went 1 for 4 and are 1 for 15 in the series.

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Caps Playoff Hopes Take Huge Hit

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Caps Playoff Hopes Take Huge Hit

Posted on 27 March 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals Coach Dale Hunter called Tuesday night’s game against the Buffalo Sabres for eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings a “game 7″ type of affair. Unfortunately, this one was like the game seven against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009, a one-sided blow out by the visitors. The only good news on the night? Washington has five games remaining and still can make the postseason, but now they’ll need help.

The difference in this game started with the most important position in hockey, goalie.

Braden Holtby, who has performed nicely since his recall from Hershey last week, made a terrible stick handling mistake to give the Sabres an early easy goal then he struggled with his rebound conrol. His defense, notably John Carlson (-3) and Jeff Schultz (-2), went to sleep on him and the Sabres built a 3-0 lead early into the middle frame. That spelled the end of Holtby and on came Michal Neuvirth.

Alexander Semin scored to cut it to 3-1 and with Buffalo losing defensemen Christian Ehroff to an injury for the game and Andrej Sekera in the locker room for the end of the second frame, it looked like the Capitals had a chance to get back in it when blue liner Robyn Regehr was called for hooking with 3:07 to go. But Alexander Ovechkin misplayed a puck at the left point and Jason Pominville went in on a two on one and beat Neuvirth to pretty much end this game. The Sabres added a third period marker and left town 5-1 victors and control of their own destiny.

Ryan Miller stopped 44 of 45 shots for the Sabres but the Caps rarely got to the net for rebounds. Miller is one of the best netminders in the league and he has been on the top of his game as Buffalo has put together a meteoric rise to seize the last playoff spot with less than two weeks left in the regular season.

The Caps, who recently had a successful critical road trip at 2-2-1, followed that up with a dud of a three game home stand going 1-1-1. With games at Boston, Tampa, and the Rangers plus two home games against Montreal and Florida, things are not looking good for General Manager George McPhee’s crew. The Capitals will have to go 5-0 or 4-1 to likely make it as Buffalo faces Pittsburgh and Toronto on home ice while traveling to Toronto, Boston, and Philadelphia. With the way Miller is going in net, they might not lose.

As for Washington, this team has been wildly inconsistent and as I’ve chronicled here all year, they will continue to be that way with their weak play up the middle of the ice. Nicklas Backstrom has been cleared to return but the question remains, is he ready for NHL action at the most intense time of the year? It seems risky to put #19 back in but it may be the Capitals only hope because the crew of Brooks Laich, Mathieu Perreault, and Marcus Johansson have not done the job at the pivot spot to allow this club to put a winning streak together.

The bottom line now is the Caps need at least four wins, and possibly five in a row to make the post season. Given what we’ve seen for the first 77 games, that seems highly unlikely, but that is why they play the games.

Backstrom back or not, they’ll need top notch goaltending and better play from their defensemen. On Tuesday night they did not get that and now their season is totally on the line.

Notes: the Caps won the faceoff battle 37-23 and outshot the Sabres 45-31 but Buffalo made the most of their quality scoring chances…the Caps went 0 for 4 on the power play and gave up a shorthanded tally. The Sabres were 0 for 1  with the man advantage…Washington’s next game is in Boston on Thursday. The Sabres play the Penguins in Buffalo on Friday night.

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Time to Buy for the Caps

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Time to Buy for the Caps

Posted on 26 February 2012 by Ed Frankovic

Hockey fans, it’s time to stop the presses! Why? Because the Washington Capitals have finally won back to back games for the first time since mid January.

All kidding aside, the two victories this weekend over Montreal and then at Toronto, while against subpar teams, is significant because it shows that this club still has a decent chance to make the playoffs. More importantly, if they can add some help up front, specifically in the pivot position, and get Nicklas Backstrom back from injury before the playoffs, then anything can happen.

The Caps have been really struggling on the road and given that they played on Friday night, flew to Toronto, and had to clear customs might have indicated that Washington was ripe for the pickings against a desperate Maple Leafs crew. But that theory went totally out the window, thanks to Marcus Johansson’s wraparound tally in the game’s first minute. For once the Capitals could finally play with a lead on the road and the goal definitely energized them. Before four minutes had elapsed, Alexander Semin would score off a nifty steal and from there the Caps built a 4-0 lead through 40 minutes and won fairly easily.

Michal Neuvirth was outstanding in net with 28 saves. The 2006 second round pick has always been underrated and those who have followed him closely know that he is mentally strong. The young Czech netminder, instead of feeling sorry for himself and pouting following coach Dale Hunter’s decision to sit him against San Jose on February 13th, has worked even harder since and in the games he’s played this week has been extremely strong in goal. Hunter may have made the wrong short term decision to sit Neuvirth against the Sharks, but in the long run, it worked because #30 has taken his play to the next level. Sometimes coaches tell it like it is or play head games with players in attempt to make them stronger and improve their performance. Whether Hunter was trying that or not with his goaltender in that instance, that sequence of events has gotten results.

As for the rest of the team, much of the inconsistency in their play over the last month has stemmed from many factors. The Nicklas Backstrom injury has been extremely difficult to overcome given the lack of quality centers on the depth chart after #19. Johansson is only in his second year in the league and he is more suited to play third line center. Mathieu Perreault has been practically written off several times due to his size and lack of steady results. Both players have been forced to take on increased roles and they’ve had good games and bad ones. On Saturday night both had solid outings but to think they can continue to keep it up, in Backstrom’s absence, is asking an awfully lot.

In addition to the talent gaps up the middle of the ice, the team’s inconsistent play has led to a serious lack of confidence and anyone that has played hockey knows that if your mind isn’t right when you step out onto the ice, you are pretty much beaten before taking a single stride. The Caps have had confidence problems, especially after that terrible fluky loss to Winnipeg at home back on February 9th. But these two wins could get their minds right and if General Manager George McPhee can move some of the dead weight on his current roster and bring in some reenforcements, then it becomes an iterative process of better play and increased confidence, a mode a hockey team wants to be in down the stretch. We’ve seen the Caps do this before from the trade deadline on but can they find a way this year with Backstrom likely on the shelf for at least a couple of more weeks?

Another thing to be happy about is the play of Mike Green. #52 has steadily improved since coming back from hernia surgery and he’s stabilized the defense. With Green getting more minutes, Dennis Wideman, who has had many good games but then his share of clunkers this season, has seen his ice time reduced.

So Saturday’s victory puts the Caps at 31-26-5 (67 points) with 20 games remaining. The Southeast Division is wide open between the Caps, Florida Panthers, and Winnipeg Jets with the winner getting the 3rd seed in the playoffs in the East. Surely if McPhee can add some help, and Hunter is likely looking for some size and definitely speed (note it has been the slower skaters who have been routinely getting seats in the press box), then the Capitals could be poised to win their fifth straight division crown.

That is why this team has to be buyers, at this point. Washington needs help up front to get to where they want to go, fortunately it appears that the prices for forwards are not at as high a premium as we’ve seen with defensemen, based on this week’s trades.

This has been a disappointing season so far for the Caps, but McPhee has a chance to turn it all around with the right moves on Monday. It won’t be easy, but given what is at stake for him and the organization, the next two days are going to be extremely important for his and the team’s future.

Notes: Alexander Ovechkin had two assists in a fairly strong performance. His one big mistake though was turning the puck over on the power play in the third period with the Caps up 4-1. The Gr8 can’t make those type of mental miscues. Neuvirth bailed him out with the breakaway save so Ovie certainly owes #30 dinner…Green had 23:00 of ice time and Jeff Schultz logged 21:40. Give #55 credit for working hard and improving his game with assistant coach Jim Johnson the last couple of months. He has gotten tougher to play against despite his lack of speed…Karl Alzner and John Carlson both played over 22 minutes while Wideman and Dmitry Orlov were essentially the third d-pair in this tilt…The Caps next game is Tuesday at the Verizon Center against the Islanders. It is the start of a critical five game home stand. It will be interesting to see what moves McPhee makes between now and the trade deadline at 3pm on Monday.

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