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Expectations Are High for the Caps in 2014-15

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Expectations Are High for the Caps in 2014-15

Posted on 14 September 2014 by Ed Frankovic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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TJ Oshie & Jonathan Quick Lead USA over Russia

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TJ Oshie & Jonathan Quick Lead USA over Russia

Posted on 15 February 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Most hockey fans know who TJ Oshie and Jonathan Quick are, but today, an entire nation now knows them, as well.

After USA and Russia played a marvelous 65 minutes of hockey, the skills competition commenced and the US bested the Russians, 3-2, after eight rounds of the shootout.

The rules are different in International Hockey so after three shooters, a coach can choose whatever player he wants and can keep repeating that selection. Team USA Coach Dan Bylsma stuck to his guns and kept throwing #74 out there and he delivered 4 of 6 times, three times via the “five hole,” to win it for USA. Quick, who won the Stanley Cup with the Kings in 2012, stopped 5 of 8 tries for the victory in net.

Wow, what a hockey game.

This was no “Miracle on Ice” from 1980. It is not even close and let’s be clear about that since 1980 was a mismatch on paper, but somehow a bunch of college kids beat one of the greatest teams of all time.

This game was a fairly even matchup. Team USA has an excellent squad but so do the Russians, who also have home ice. The perceived weaknesses on each club are their respective blue lines. Coming into the Olympics, you would have thought the Russian defense was as bad as the 2013 Washington Redskins, based on the pre tourney analysis. But they quickly proved that theory wrong playing excellent defensive hockey and only allowing two USA power play goals (Cam Fowler and James VanRiemsdyk).

Russia had some great chances and their power play, on paper, looks deadly. It features Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk (2 goals), and Evgeni Malkin. Talk about some serious fire power there! Somehow the US managed to hold the Russians to one tally on five chances in this one.

One thing both teams coaches will not like were the penalties each squad took. Bylsma can’t be happy about Dustin Brown’s giveaway and then penalty in the last 10 minutes. That infraction gave the Russians the power play that they tied the game on via Datsyuk’s second goal. Conversely, Alexander Radulov took two selfish penalties and the US scored on both. The only thing saving Radulov from a trip to Siberia was his great screen on the tying tally and his assist on Datsyuk’s first goal.

On that first goal, Datsyuk broke free from Max Pacioretty in the neutral zone and split Brooks Orpik and John Carlson for the game’s opening tally. Bylsma clearly wasn’t pleased with Carlson and Pacioretty because they didn’t see much ice time after that, but Orpik was just as much to blame as foot speed isn’t one of #44′s strengths. But Orpik kept getting put on the ice by Bylsma even after the miscue (Note: I wonder what coach he plays for during the regular season? Hmmm….).

After the Russians tied the game on Datsyuk’s PP tally, a goal that appeared to make it 3-2 for the home squad was correctly disallowed. Quick had inadvertenly dislodged the net on an earlier save and the referees didn’t see it and let play continue. Shortly thereafter, a Russian point shot was deflected and barely went in under the cross bar towards the right post. It was that right post that was off of its peg and pushed back a bit. After a review, which initially many thought was due to a potential high stick, the goal was taken down due to the net issue. It was the right call based on IIHF rules and I assert that there was no way to allow it based on physics, alone. If the net is in its proper position there the puck may have struck the cross bar and never went in to begin with. Bottom line is the right call was made on the ice after review, although it would have been better had the zebras noticed the dislodged cage sooner.

This win was big because it sets up the USA to place first in their group tomorrow with a victory over Slovenia (1-1), a team that is led by the Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings. Winning the group means a bye into the quarterfinals. Conversely, Russia will likely get a bye, as well, if they beat the Slovaks by being the best second place finisher. The other teams that will get a bye are Canada, who will likely be the #1 seed, and Sweden, who are ravaged with injuries. Both Henrik Zetterberg and Henrik Sedin are out hurt but they still managed to carry their group with three wins.

However, with Sweden’s injuries, this is shaping up to be a three horse race for the Gold Medal between Canada, Russia, and the United States.

In summary, this was a big win but this was not a “Miracle” type victory. Make no mistake about it, though, this game mattered A LOT, to both squads.

The two countries are nowhere close to allies and their are serious political differences.

The Cold War is over, but a win over the Russians still carries enormous weight in the USA.

The Americans played a strong game and won on the home team’s soil to set themselves up for a run at a medal.

TJ Oshie for President!

 

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Caps John Carlson Makes a Strong Team USA Olympic Hockey Team

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Caps John Carlson Makes a Strong Team USA Olympic Hockey Team

Posted on 01 January 2014 by Ed Frankovic

Following today’s NHL Winter Classic in the “Big House” in Ann Arbor, USA Hockey announced their 25 man roster for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi in February and as predicted in this blog back in November, the Washington Capitals John Carlson made the team on defense.

Carlson, in a conference call with the media tonight, called it a “dream come true” and said that playing on this big stage would be an even greater feat than scoring the overtime game winning goal for USA in the 2010 World Juniors Gold Medal.

Washington’s #74 received a ringing endorsement from team captain Alex Ovechkin when the Gr8 said that Carlson was the team’s best defensemen and 100% deserved to be on the team. Carlson has had an outstanding season and when Mike Green was injured earlier in the year, he stepped up as the team’s #1 d-man on the power play to go along with his role of being on the #1 pairing for killing penalties. Simply put, his ability to play in all situations combined with his excellent skating and hard shot made him a perfect fit for this year’s Team USA Olympic squad.

As for the rest of the team, GM David Poile’s club that will be coached by Penguins bench boss Dan Bylsma is as follows:

Goalies (3):

Ryan Miller (Buffalo), Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles),and Jimmy Howard (Detroit)

Defensemen (8):

Carlson, Ryan Suter (Minnesota), Ryan McDonagh (Rangers), Brooks Orpik (Pittsburgh), Paul Martin (Pittsburgh), Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis), Kevin Faulk (Carolina), and Cam Fowler (Anaheim)

Forwards (14):

Patrick Kane (Chicago), Zach Parise (Minnesota), Joe Pavelski (San Jose), Ryan Callahan (Rangers), Derek Stepan (Rangers), James van Riemsdyk (Toronto), Phil Kessel (Toronto), Blake Wheeler (Winnipeg), David Backes (St. Louis), T.J. Oshie (St. Louis), Ryan Kesler (Vancouver), Max Pacioretty (Montreal), Paul Stastny (Colorado), and Dustin Brown (Los Angeles)

This is a very good team but the challenge, as Poile mentioned back in August, is to be able to handle the big ice surface in Sochi. Team USA has not fared well outside of North America in the Olympics so the pressure is on this club to produce. The strength of this squad, in my opinion, is the goaltending and up front. Miller, despite playing behind a weak Sabres club, has been performing at a very high level and if Quick doesn’t get healthy and play well quickly, it will be the Michigan State alum in net once again for the Americans. Up front, Kane is as good a scorer as any in the world. The defense is the question mark but this crew of eight is filled with players who can play at both ends of the rink.

The time zone change, Sochi is nine hours ahead of the east coast, will be a factor for many of the NHL players but that impacts nearly every squad. On paper, Canada and Sweden look to be the best while Russia is hoping home ice helps their cause. I see Russia’s defense and goaltending as ultimately being their downfall. There are still six weeks to go until the games start, but my prediction right now is:

Gold – Sweden

Silver – Canada

Bronze – USA

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Pens Expose Caps D in Dominating Victory

Posted on 20 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

It was NHL rivalry night on NBC on Wednesday night.

It was Penguins-Capitals, two teams that have despised each other since the early 90′s, playing for first place in the new Metropolitan division.

It was Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, arguably the top 2 players in the NHL going head to head once again.

Should be a great game, right?

Nope, it was pretty much a dud. At least from the Washington Capitals side. The Penguins came in and dominated a Capitals club that was missing #1 defensemen Mike Green, winning rather easily 4-0.

The shots on net were 40-18 in favor of the guys from Pittsburgh as the Pens seemingly had the puck on a string all night (see Crosby’s goal that made it 3-0 late in period two). It was a thorough rear whipping delivered by the Pens against Washington.

Give credit to Pittsburgh, they are a good hockey team. As good as Crosby is, there is a guy wearing #71 over there that when he decides to play, can be just as good as #8 and #87. On Wednesday, Malkin was on. His play on the second Pittsburgh goal, against Washington’s top D pair of Karl Alzner and John Carlson, really took the wind out of the Capitals sails and Geno would go on to dominate many of his other shifts against a Caps defense, that frankly has four guys who are third pair defensemen, on their best nights.

When your defensemen can’t get the puck from the opposition and struggle to get it out of their own end cleanly, it’s tough to generate offense. That is what we saw from Washington tonight. Missing Green is a big factor. Normally Coach Adam Oates will get 45 to 50 minutes out of Green and Carlson on the right side, but tonight, all he had again was #74. The Caps got by without Green against a rare subpar Detroit Red Wings squad and a tired Blues team over the weekend, but going against a rested Penguins team that had their full lineup, it was a mismatch between Pittsburgh’s forwards and the Capitals defense.

Yes, Green makes a big difference for Washington but GM George McPhee has to have some concerns about the left side of his defense. Alex Urbom and Nate Schmidt are playing their hearts out but they are not meant to be getting more than 12 to 14 minutes a night at the NHL level. Schmidt has a bright future and could eventually be a 2nd pair defensemen, but right now he’s just not ready and is playing due to the injuries to John Erskine and Jack Hillen. Even still, in the summer we heard talk that the team was hoping that Dmitry Orlov could step up and be a top 4 d-man. Unfortunately, he hasn’t played at the NHL level this year yet. Part of that is because Washington has been smart about not rushing a player who has had a recent concussion history and putting him in a bad situation. Just last week McPhee stated that #81 was ready and was Hershey’s best d-man so perhaps we’ll see him Friday against Montreal?

The D certainly deserves the lion share of the blame but the Caps power play went 0 for 3 in the first frame too. Ovechkin hit the post and from there things went downhill.

It was an ugly game and a less than average effort against a disliked rival.

The Pens came to play on Wednesday and took advantage of matchups to dominate the game. Kudos to them.

For the Caps, the good news is this is just one game and it is only November. The team, despite the issues on the back end, is still 12-9-1 and in second place in their division.

There are concerns on defense, but there is plenty of time to evaluate and possibly make moves when the time is right or a good deal presents itself.

No need to panic, the Caps still have a very solid team. But it is frustrating to get smoked by one of your archrivals in your own building when first place is on the line. So November or not, it is telling in some regards. Now it is up to the team and management to adjust.

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Team USA Should Choose Caps John Carlson for Sochi Squad

Posted on 16 November 2013 by Ed Frankovic

With less than three months until Team USA plays its first game on February 13th vs Slovakia in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, things are heating up in the battle to make the team.

The rosters for many of the countries will be finalized over the next four to six weeks and make no mistake about it, earning a spot on a team is a big deal to NHL players.

Washington Capitals fans will have both Alexander Ovechkin (Russia) and Nicklas Backstrom (Sweden) to watch in Sochi, but there is another Caps player that is making a strong case to be on an Olympic roster, USA’s John Carlson.

That Carlson is in the running for a spot on the team is no surprise to Caps fans. #74 has been flat out dominant over the last few weeks and his 32:26 of ice time on Friday night in Detroit, including an eye popping 4:19 of play in the five minute overtime is quite telling. Carlson is a major reason that Washington is 6-1-1 in the month of November.

Team USA’s GM is David Poile and he is the ultimate decision maker for the roster, but he will get help from others to include Team USA’s head coach, Dan Byslma and Pens GM, Ray Shero.

Two quality NHL hockey writers, Pierre LeBrun and Scott Burnside, handicapped the Team USA roster on November 7th. In that post they list the following four players as locks to make Team USA’s defense:

Ryan Suter (Minnesota)

Paul Martin (Pittsburgh)

Jack Johnson (Columbus)

Ryan McDonagh (New York Rangers)

Given that there are likely going to be eight players chosen on defense, that leaves four roster spots remaining.

In the mix to make the roster, based on who attended Team USA’s camp last August, in addition to Carlson are:

Kevin Faulk (Carolina)

Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis)

Keith Yandle (Phoenix)

Brooks Orpik (Pittsburgh)

Dustin Byfuglien (Winnipeg)

Zach Bogosian (Winnipeg)

Matt Carle (Tampa Bay)

Cam Fowler (Anaheim)

Seth Jones (Nashville)

Danny DeKeyser (Detroit)

Erik Johnson (Colorado)

According to LeBrun and Burnside, they have Yandle, Shattenkirk, Faulk, and Orpik as the next four on their list. Carlson was further down on their rankings, but again, that list was done on November 7th and nine days later, we have more data.

The key for Poile is to have a crew that is playing as well as possible when February 13th arrives.

When talking to the former Caps GM out at Kettler IcePlex last August, it was clear to me that Poile is very concerned about the lack of success the Americans have had in the Olympics outside of North America and he pinpointed their ability to play on the Olympic sized ice, which is wider than the NHL rinks. This changes the game and puts a larger premium on skating ability.

It also, in my mind, puts more emphasis on having right handed players play the right side and vice versa with the left. Looking at the four locks to make the team in the ESPN article, one thing to note is that all four of those defensemen shoot left. So of the remaining four spots, one would have to think that at least three of them should be right handed shots.

The right handed shots on the above list are: Carlson, Jones, Erik Johnson, Kevin Faulk, Kevin Shattenkirk, Zach Bogosian, and Dustin Byfuglien.

Is Carlson in the top three or four on that list?

With the way #74′s played over the last month, absolutely!

Carlson’s four goals leads all USA defensemen (tied with McDonagh) and his 23:38 average time on ice puts him sixth overall out of the 16 players mentioned as possibilities. Carlson, and his defensive partner, Karl Alzner, routinely play against the top line of the opposition. So he’s no stranger to top players like Sidney Crosby, Geno Malkin, Eric Staal, Martin St. Louis, and John Tavares that will be donning the uniforms of Team USA’s opposition. There’s a reason Carlson gets those assignments game in and game out, he’s considered Washington’s top right handed defender in his own zone.

Another reason Team USA should choose Carlson is his skating ability. The 2010 World Junior Championship hero for Team USA is extremely mobile and that is something Poile’s team absolutely has to have in Sochi. I’m not sure a guy like Orpik is as effective on the big ice as he’d be in an NHL sized rink. Jones is a generational player and a raw talent, but he’s only 19 years old and is only just this year playing against the top competiton in the NHL. It just seems too risky to choose him now with so much pressure on the Americans to medal. Seth will eventually be there, but now is not the time. I’d also pass on a guy like Byfuglien who has had conditioning issues in the past and isn’t a super skater. He’s another guy more suited to NHL sized rinks. Bogosian, with all of the potential he brought when drafted high in Atlanta and his great skating ability, just hasn’t been consistent. Erik Johnson was super in Vancouver in 2010, but his game has been up and down recently and he is another much more suited to the NHL sized rink.

That leaves Carlson, Faulk, and Shattenkirk as my top three right handed shots. Carlson not only kills penalties but he also has a hard shot to bring to the power play. You can’t play 4:19 of a five minute overtime without being in great shape and #74 routinely is one of Washington’s best conditioned players. Overall, there is just no downside to putting Carlson on Team USA. He’s played in big games at the NHL level and in junior competitions in enemy rinks.

Carlson is playing the best hockey of his career right now and he deserves a really good look from Poile, Bylsma, and Shero (the Penguins are in town on Wednesday). If they see what we’ve seen Carlson do over the last several weeks, win the loose puck battles in all zones, get his shots to the net, and shut down the top line of the opposition, they should come to the same conclusion I’ve come to:

John Carlson deserves to be on the Team USA roster for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

 

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