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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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Hershey Advances To The AHL Eastern Conference Finals

Posted on 15 May 2016 by Ed Frankovic

Travis Boyd’s game seven top shelf snipe past Casey DeSmith 10:57 into overtime propelled the Hershey Bears to a 3-2 victory over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and into the AHL Eastern Conference Finals.

Justin Peters made 32 saves in a very strong effort in the cage. He was the big difference between the Bears moving on to face Toronto or Albany instead of going golfing.

Hershey jumped out to a 1-0 lead just 1:33 into this one as Dustin Gazley stole the puck behind the net from DeSmith and then beat him five hole on a backhander before the Pens goalie could get reset in goal. The Baby Pens, however, would answer on the power play following a very iffy head contact call on Zach Sill.

After the Pens dominated possession for much of the middle frame, Hershey was able to hem Wilkes-Barre in their own end for a long shift. The Pens got the puck out and tried to change, but Ryan Stanton made a quick pass to Carter Camper coming off of the bench. #18 then stick handled his way in and beat DeSmith with a nice move and backhander that froze the goalie at 18:43 of period two.

Hershey hit the post on a deflection early in period three that would’ve given them a two goal cushion. Then at 3:37 the Bears gave up a rush and the Penguins scored on another goal mouth scramble. From there the Bears played tight defensively around Peters and they didn’t generate many good offensive looks.

Overtime featured more of the same, but at the midway point Hershey once again had some extended zone time. Wilkes-Barre iced the puck with 9:24 left and following a mandated break, the Bears kept up the pressure to set up Boyd’s series clincher.

Overall, this was not pretty hockey, but Hershey prevailed.

Ryan Bourque, who is one of the smallest guys on the ice, had several good shifts and he routinely won the loose puck battles. He was one of Hershey’s best players and played large. Several other Bears will need to match his drive and effort if they want to win the Calder Cup.

Jakub Vrana was a plus one, but he only had one shot on net. His focus needs to be on working harder to get to the tougher areas on the ice to be more successful.

Madison Bowey certainly appears to be the Caps best blue line prospect. He moved the puck well and he is improving at using his size to play defense and win puck battles.

At the end of the night, though, Peters was the key at being able to keep Hershey tied until Boyd’s heroics.

The triumph in no way comes close to making up for the Capitals series loss to Pittsburgh last week, but it was nice to finally defeat the Penguins in the playoffs for once, even if it was just at the AHL level.

Notes: Shots on goal were 34-24 for the Penguins…Wilkes-Barre was 1 for 3 on the power play while Hershey went 0 for 2…Liam O’Brien was called for roughing when he was on the bench and engaged Tom Sestito, who was on the ice. That was a really bad penalty to take…Nathan Walker had three shots on goal in a spirited effort…Riley Barber didn’t have a shot on goal…special thanks to JustSports Photography for the photo.

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Bruins Best Caps in Shootout in Baltimore Hockey Classic

Posted on 17 September 2013 by Ed Frankovic

On a night with former all time great Capitals Rod Langway, Bengt Gustafsson, and Peter Bondra in attendance, the Washington Capitals lost to the defending Eastern Conference Champion Boston Bruins in a shootout, 3-2, in the Baltimore Hockey Classic. Boston won the gimmick in the eighth round after the B’s rallied from a late two goal second period deficit to force overtime. Tom Wilson and Casey Wellman tallied for Washington.

Here are my thoughts, observations, and analysis of the Caps third preseason tilt, all of which have gone to a shootout (Caps are now 2-1):

– Wilson continues to impress and seems a better than 50% chance to make the Capitals this season. He is big, skates well, hits like a freight train, and has a nice scoring touch. He has all of the makings of a good NHL power forward. When GM George McPhee and Director of Amateur Scouting Ross Mahoney selected the winger out of the Ontario Hockey League with the 16th pick of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, some of my sources from around the league felt that the Caps hit a home run with this player. He’s still only 19, but boy does he look the part.

– Braden Holtby received the start in net and in his 30 minutes of action was stellar. He made numerous quality stops and his poise and confidence in the cage continues to rise. He just looks to be on the verge of moving into the upper echelon of NHL goalies. Goaltending is a clear strength on this hockey team with Michal Neuvirth backing up and Philipp Grubauer third in line. Goaltending coach Olie Kolzig has to like coming to work each day with this crew of netminders.

– The birthday boy, Alex Ovechkin (28), didn’t score but he was all over the ice. He broke through the Bruins defense and skated in alone on B’s goalie Niklas Svedberg late in the contest but the young goalie denied the Gr8 of the game winning tally. Ovi did beat Svedberg in the shootout. Outside of nearly getting cut by a broken pane of glass, it was a good night of work for the reigning NHL MVP.

– Choppy ice made passing and handling the puck difficult but Washington’s power play was still able to do some good things. The Caps rode the man advantage to many victories last season and it will be interesting to see how opponents adjust to what made Washington successful last season and then how Coach Adam Oates and assistant coach Blaine Forsythe react to opposition adjustments. With the talent and skill Washington has, my money is on the Caps to continue to have a high ranked power play.

– Of the guys in the pipeline that still need development time, forward Nathan Walker and defensesmen Nate Schmidt made positive impressions once again after strong play in Saturday’s tilt against the Jets. Walker is not tall at 5′ 8″ but he isn’t afraid to go into tight spots. He skates well and has a knack for the puck. He set up Wilson’s first goal after stealing the biscuit on the left wing boards. Walker, who is only 19, is from Australia but played in the United States Hockey League last season notching 27 points in 29 games. He also had 63 penalty minutes. As for Schmidt, the Minnesota native is a smart hockey player who is excellent in the offensive end of the ice. It takes time to learn how to play in your own end at the professional level so going to Hershey and playing this season will be good for the 22 year olds development.

– After this group played on the big Olympic ice on Saturday, it was good to play a contest on a regular sized rink against a physical team like Boston. The Bruins are one of the elite teams in the NHL and having a game where you know you are going to get hit each time you have the puck is super preparation for the regular season.

Overall, it was a positive night in Charm City for the Caps and their fans, who got their money’s worth with the eight round shootout. After a day off tomorrow, the Caps will practice on Thursday at Kettler IcePlex and then they play their first preseason game at the Verizon Center on Friday night against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. Saturday brings the Caps Convention, which is a big event for Capitals fans (check out washingtoncaps.com for details).

 

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Here’s what your local “sports media personality” needs to know in 2012

Posted on 15 June 2012 by Nestor Aparicio

It was so much easier when I was growing up, this sports media thing. First, you learned how to write and then you went to some journalism or “communications” college or university, you did an internship and then sent resumes out and you got your dream job and lived happily ever after.

And maybe you got a gold watch if you hung around at the newspaper or TV station for 25 years or more?

Here at WNST.net this summer, we’re extending an open offer to any Baltimore sports fan who wants to be the next Baltimore Sports Media Superstar via our competition. All of the info is here…

The harsh reality of media and new media in 2012 is that it’s an all-encompassing commitment of time, experience and continuing education that makes a local personality or entity relevant as breaking news, information, analysis and the games themselves fly by in real time with your mobile device with you at all times.

And that’s just the content side.

Here’s a speech I gave to a Loyola Sports Marketing class in May 2012. This is Part 1 in a series about my current thoughts on the state of Baltimore sports media and the industry as a whole:

If you can’t sell your own personal brand – by bringing in audience, engaging them, adding value to their life experience and adding expertise or analysis that people care about – you will NOT be successful in the new media world.

If no cares to be your audience – or in this era that would be “opt in” or “follow” or “subscribe” — then no one will be available to stimulate the commerce necessary that ultimately will pay your salary via local sponsorship dollars..

In the old days it was easy – there were three TV channels, a few radio stations and a newspaper or two. Whoever the local program director or editor hired was all that the public got and all that you’d ever get from the “inside” of a sports team. The competition for those scarce jobs and the outstanding pay via expensive local television news ads fueled by automotive dealers and local advertisers was all coveted. And the public in Baltimore essentially had three choices for the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news – WBAL, WMAR and WJZ. There were two newspapers – The Sun and The News American. And sports radio didn’t exist except for Charley Eckman screaming bloody murder about some local issue on the Johnny Walker show on WFBR.

That was the entire world of Baltimore sports media in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

And the only ones who really did it the “new world” way were Coach Eckman and Tom Davis, who bought and sold their own “in-show” advertising and made far more money than most radio “talking heads” did and certainly more than the folks at The Sun or The News American.

All of the TV and newspaper people were part of a larger ensemble and staff. The radio sports talk guys needed to fight for audience and those radio stations needed hosts who garnered real traffic and real new business for local sponsors and advertisers.

This is the world I lived in on local AM radio from 1992 until 2006, when tens of thousands of you crashed my webpage and my email with traffic from all over the world after the initial “Free The Birds” walkout and showed me a new world of WNST.net on the internet.

In the new media world, if you can’t sell your own brand as a sports media expert then how can a local sponsor or business owner trust that you can help them sell pizza or cars or beer?

The reality is that I’m in college every day at WNST.net. The college of life, emerging media and business in 2012 and how it relates to the changing ways of sports fans’ consumption of information via mobile devices in real time.

It’s taken two decades but I’ve finally figured out why I went to college back in the 1980’s. All of those beers at Jay’s off campus at the University of Baltimore and all of those evening classes about Marshall McLuhan — it’s all finally paid off. All those classes with Julie Simon and discovering the roots of communication and theory of how the “medium is the message” and emerging “global village” has changed the world in the last decade since the internet has extended our FCC towers at what was formerly a “little AM radio station” at WNST-AM 1570 and brought video and words and statistics and instant feedback into the realm of the palm of our hands via mobile via WNST.net.

I’ve finally figured out the value of my University of Baltimore education and Corporation Communications degree – it just took me 20 years!

While I’m not going to be donating to UB anytime soon – or anytime that the name of Peter G. Angelos

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Caps Rookies Ready For Flyers

Posted on 16 September 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Thursday afternoon at 3pm the Washington Capitals rookies will take on a similar crew from Philadelphia down at Kettler IcePlex in Ballston to conclude the rookie portion of the Capitals training camp. The veterans officially start training camp on Saturday morning but most are in town skating already. This is the fourth straight year that the two organizations will meet up for a contest with home ice alternating each September. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau talked about the game Wednesday afternoon after his rookies concluded a practice that included a short scrimmage and he summed up the Thursday afternoon tilt fairly well.

“I don’t know what to expect because I don’t know who their rookies are, we just want to compete, but it doesn’t matter, when you put on a Philly jersey and a Washington jersey the two teams try very hard because there is not a lot of love between the two teams,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award Winner.

Boudreau, whose voice was a little hoarse from coaching up the young guys on the ice the last four days, appeared raring and ready to go and seemed estatic that there would be a full house on hand to watch this tilt (all tickets were previously distributed but you can watch it live on washingtoncaps.com with Steve Kolbe and Mike Vogel bringing you play-by-play and analysis, respectively).

“I think Washington is an unbelievable hockey town. I’ve been impressed all summer, everywhere we went or I’ve gone, with how much people watch the game and unfortunately they knew everything that we did last year or fortunately,” started the three time Southeast Division Champion bench boss, who was laughing during the ‘unfortunately’ part of his quote, “We had a great year and a bad finish,” summed up Boudreau.

A bad finish is correct and the team did not bring back any of the four players that were acquired at last year’s trade deadline (Joe Corvo, Eric Belanger, Milan Jurcina, and Scott Walker). GM George McPhee also did not re-sign veteran goalie Jose Theodore so the Caps will go with Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth in the cage for at least the first part of the season. Journeyman Dany Sabourin was signed to play in Hershey along with 2008 draftee Braden Holtby so those two will battle for the 3rd goalie position in the event that one of the top two gets injured.

McPhee also did not ink any free agents from other clubs, although they did try to sign former Canucks physical defenseman Willie Mitchell, who took a two year deal with the Kings. The GM re-signed his restricted free agents, most notably Eric Fehr, Jeff Schultz, and Tomas Fleischmann. Young defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson, who were both a big part of the Hershey Bears repeat Calder Cup Championship team, will start the season in the NHL and several other Bears, such as Andrew Gordon, Jay Beagle, Mathieu Perreault, and Keith Aucoin will have a chance to make the big club that will begin the regular season on October 8th in Atlanta. So clearly the message from McPhee and the Caps organization is that they like the players they have in their system and they want to see how they do before deciding to make any more changes.

As I mentioned last season, there remains an immediate hole at second line center, something that hurt Washington in their seven game loss to the Canadiens last spring. However, in the system are some very talented young players that can play the pivot such as 2010 first round pick Evgeni Kuznetsov (playing in the Russian KHL this season), 2009 1st round pick Marcus Johansson, and 2010 3rd round pick Stanislav Galiev. All three impressed the Caps and anyone who ventured out to Caps development camp in July saw that center could be a position that Washington is deep in in a few years (Nicklas Backstrom, the first line pivot, is already one of the top players in the NHL and he is only 22 years old). In the short term Fleischmann, Perreault, and perhaps Aucoin will get looks in the exhibition season because as good as Johansson and the others might be right now, they are still very young and their bodies have not fully developed. Thus they would likely not be able to handle an 82 game schedule and the post season. It is a younger NHL these days but the bottom line is that it is still a “Man’s League.” Also, historically the Caps have not been a club that has chosen to rush their draft picks to the NHL, instead wisely deciding to let them mature physically and gain confidence.

Johansson, who is wearing #90 in camp, has been mentioned in the media and around town by bloggers as a possibility to make the Caps out of training camp this fall. The young swede is a very good skater and creates opportunities on the ice. Today during the scrimmage, on one occassion, he gathered in the puck at his own blue line and skated around a couple of opponents easily through neutral ice and as he ventured inside the offensive zone he made a brilliant pass to Patrick Cullity. However the young defenseman overdeked and did not get off a shot. Still the sequence showed the speed and brilliance of the man most Caps fans refer to on twitter as MJ90. After today’s session I caught up with Marcus, who played last season in the top league in Sweden on a bigger ice surface than the NHL, and below is a transcription of the majority of the interview:

WNST: There is a lot of talk about you right now. Tell us where you are at physically, how you are fitting in with the team, and what your expectations are for camp and the season.

MJ90: I feel okay, I guess, it’s a different type of game but it’s getting a little better. Physically I feel great, I’ve been working out hard all summer. I feel like I am ready to take the next step in my career and I am excited about the game [on Thursday] and it’s going to be fun.

WNST: You’ve talked about the adjustment you have to make because of the rink size. How much of a difference is it for you?

MJ90: Yes, in Europe it is wider and the neutral zone is bigger. It is a little different. I think the difference is more straighter hockey – straight to the net – not the way it is at home. It is a little different but I’ll get used to it.

WNST: Your goal is to be up with Washington this year?

MJ90: Yes, I hope so. I am going to give it my best shot and see where it goes and hopefully I can stay.

WNST: Have you talked to [fellow Swede] Backstrom and gotten any advice?

MJ90: Yes, I’ve been talking to him but not that much about hockey. It has been talking and trying to get to know each other better and stuff like that. The hockey part is coming up.

WNST: If someone came up to you and asked you what your strengths were what would you say?

MJ90: I think it is playing with speed and being able to play with the puck with high speed, that is what I do best.

WNST: What if you were asked what is the part of your game that you need to improve the most?

MJ90: I don’t know, that is hard to say. I want to improve and just try to bring my A game every night. Just try to be as good as I can every night and not have too much ups and downs. I just want to be able to keep at a high level all of the time and that’s something I want to learn.

WNST: It will be pretty intense in here for the rookie game. What are your thoughts on the town and the fans so far?

MJ90: It is a great crowd and you know they just love hockey. It’s a different atmosphere than it is at home. It’s awesome.

Galiev, who is wearing #49, speaks english extremely well as a result of playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) last season and the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League (USHL) the year before. He is a very skilled forward who had 60 points in 67 regular season games for Saint John in 2009-10. In the playoffs he notched eight goals and added 11 assists in 21 games as his team lost in the finals of the QMJHL to Moncton, four games to two, in their best of seven series. Had Galiev’s club won that series then the young Russian would have been playing for the 2010 Memorial Cup. Galiev played left wing last season and in development camp but after the July session the Caps asked him to try center. Below is a transcription of the majority of the interview I had with him after Wednesday’s practice.

WNST: Tell about your game and what your strengthts are.

Galiev: Probably my speed and my skills. Usually on the ice I make goal chances and create some good passes.

WNST: What area do you really want to improve this year?

Galiev: Gain some weight and be stronger in the d-zone. Maybe try and play center this year because Bruce wants me to try and play it so I am going to keep working.

WNST: Center, right now at the NHL level, is something that the Caps don’t have a lot of, but in the system they have Kuznetsov, Marcus, and you so obviously they want to get as many guys as they can playing center, which is arguably the most valuable position. So they’ve talked to you about moving over but have you played it before?

Galiev: Not really because it is kind of different for me right now. If I have to play center I go and play it, it doesn’t matter for me.

WNST: So do you think your team, Saint John, has a chance at making the Memorial Cup this year?

Galiev: Yes, we still have a good team but a couple of new guys. They are doing good, the season has already started and they’ve won two games.

WNST: What position did you play? You shoot right.

Galiev: Left wing. I can play right too. Sometimes I switch my wings.

WNST: In the Caps system the center position is different, not as much focused on always being the 3rd man back and it’s aggressive. What do you think of that?

Galiev: I feel a little bit not comfortable because sometimes I don’t know what I have to do. But I’ve been watching Caps games from [last] year to try and focus how to play center. It’s fun, you are always aggressive and you try to make [the other team have] mistakes.

WNST: What are your expectations for the year coming up?

Galiev: Just keep working hard every game the hardest I can. Do my best and try to get 80 points this year, get the Memorial Cup. I have great linemates who are great guys that help me a lot, Nick Peterson [2009 4th round draft pick by the Penguins] and Mike Hoffman [2009 5th round draft pick by the Senators]. It was a good experience for me playing the [QMJHL] finals.

WNST: What are you looking forward to tomorrow in playing the Flyers?

Galiev: Oh I am so excited, I can’t wait for this game. It’s great because I like to play with so many people watching me. I try to do my best.

NOTES: Check back on Thursday night for the transcript of an interview I conducted Wednesday with 21 year old defenseman Dustin Stevenson, who played in the tier II Saskatchewan League in 2009-10. The Caps announced their television schedule today and ALL games will be broadcast in HD this season for the first time ever (yes Comcast Plus is now in HD!). For some great pictures of today’s rookie practice please check out Chris Gordon’s “Caps Snaps” website.

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Caps Wisely Quiet on Day 1 of NHL Free Agency

Posted on 02 July 2010 by Ed Frankovic

NHL free agency began on Thursday, July 1st and the Washington Capitals did not make a single signing. Based on the dollars and length of contracts being inked on day one, it appears to me that Caps GM George McPhee was very wise to stay out of the bidding wars and prevented himself from overpaying for a player that the organization might regret acquiring in a few months or a year or so down the road (see Michael Nylander in 2007).

There has been a lot of talk about the Caps needing a second line center and some even want a physical defenseman to improve the back end. I have been an advocate of another player at center ice but given that the Sharks Patrick Marleua re-upped in San Jose there was not what anyone would call a blue chip player to be inked starting Thursday at noon. One of the next best options appeared to be Matt Cullen from Ottawa, but he hit the jackpot getting $10.5 over three years from the Minnesota Wild. At this late hour, not much is left on the center market, and the player some are calling the best pivot man available, Matthew Lombardi of Phoenix, is asking for $4M plus. In the immortal words of Jeff Spicoli and his stoner buds from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I say, “No Dice!” to that figure.

On defense, there were some big signings, such as former Nashville Predators blue liner Dan Hamhuis cashing in for $27M over six years in Vancouver. In addition, the New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Ottawa Senators essentially “traded” defensemen with Sergei Gonchar going to Ottawa, Anton Volchenkov moving to New Jersey, and Paul Martin headed to the Steel City. The Penguins also gave former Phoenix Coyotes d-man Zybnek Michalek $20M over five years. In summary, each of these moves was for too much money and too long in terms of years.

Other acquisitions by some NHL general managers were bordering on ridiculous,  especially the Toronto Maple Leafs signing of third line forward Colby Armstrong for $9M for 3 years or the New York Rangers inking fourth line heavyweight Derek Boogaard for $6.5M for four years. Basically, it was a crazy day and those teams that didn’t spend a large sum of money or none at all, were the winners.

Back to the Caps. Just because McPhee did nothing on July 1st, and he hinted at that possibility when he was on the Comcast Morning Show on WNST on Wednesday morning, doesn’t mean the roster is set with what they finished the season with personnel-wise. There are still three more months before the season starts and seven months until the NHL trade deadline. Sure the team and its fans are disappointed with the round one playoff failure this past spring and there is certainly more heat on both McPhee and Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau for the 2010-11 season, but the bottom line is the Capitals still have a young team with a great deal of talent that should continue to mature and improve. 

Yes, the club needs to get tougher and grittier, especially in front of both nets, but to go out and throw caution to the wind in free agency would have been a “panic” move. Looking inside the organization first for improvements, makes the most sense. Washington’s farm team, the two time defending AHL Champion Hershey Bears, definitely has some players up front that warrant further evaluation such as center Mathieu Perreault and wingers Andrew Gordon and Steve Pinizzotto. Jay Beagle and even Chris Bourque could be guys who have outside shots to make the club in training camp, as well. Both McPhee and Boudreau have already pretty much stated that d-men Karl Alzner and John Carlson will be up full time during 2010-11 and that instantly improves a blue line crew that had its issues, at times, this past season. Another player who the squad will keep an eye on at development camp and then in September is 2009 1st round pick Marcus Johansson (center), but given that he is only 19 and the Caps don’t like to rush young players to the NHL, that possibility appears to be a much longer shot.

The reason so many of the aforementioned players will get a good look in September is because Washington has already indicated that several skaters from the roster, such as Joe Corvo, Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, Brendan Morrison, Shaone Morrisonn, and Milan Jurcina will very likely not be back with the club. Therefore, just because there were no July 1 acquisitions does not mean McPhee and company are going with the same crew they had last season when they won the Presidents’ Trophy, change is going to occur by attrition and internal promotion alone. The question still remains, and likely will do so for several months, what will the Caps bring in from outside of the organziaton for 2010-11, if anything at all? That answer is as clear as mud right now, but McPhee appears to be sticking with an astute plan of “Right player, right price” at this juncture. Stay tuned.

Note: For all of my instant thoughts on free agency and the NHL, please follow me on twitter (@Emfrank123). I had several tweets this evening that formed the basis for this blog, all available at twitter now.

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Another Big Game 7 for Caps

Posted on 27 April 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Whether you are a new or old Washington Capitals fan, you have learned one thing: winning playoff series is rarely an easy thing for the Caps to accomplish. This season is no exception as Washington will take on Montreal in game seven on Wednesday night at 7pm at the Verizon Center after they were seemingly in control of the series, up 3-1, after four games. The Caps all time record in game sevens, coming into this tilt, stands at 2-6. It was 1-5 going into last year’s playoffs before they defeated the Rangers in the first round and then lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. I have attended all of the past game sevens and it is hard to say which one was the worst. Anyways, if you want to read about those first six game sevens in team history you can click here for my blog about them from last spring.

The good news is that history does not matter at all. Each hockey game is an independent event and any perceived momentum coming into the game seven can, and often does, go right out the window once the puck drops. The Alexander Ovechkin led Caps team will play their fourth straight game seven in four playoffs series and in each of the past three they definitely had momentum on their side going into the final tilt. Washington’s record in those three game sevens is 1-2. This year there is no doubt that Montreal has the momentum, primarily because of the play of goalie Jaroslav Halak (allowed two goals in last two games). But Wednesday’s game is a new chapter and with that here are my thoughts and keys to the game for the Caps, in no particular order:

Start Fast:  The Caps need to have a good first period or at least be tied after the first stanza. Montreal has an 8-3 edge on the scoreboard in period one through the first six contests and a big part of that has been the lackluster effort from Washington to open these games. Three times in this series (games two, five, and six) the Habs have tallied twice in the first 10 minutes, that must cease on Wednesday for Washington to be victorious. The Canadiens, once ahead, fall back into their counter-attacking trap which has, for the most part, worked because of the way their goalie is playing. In addition, the team that has scored the first goal has won five of the six contests (game two was the lone exception).

Crowd Support:  The Verizon Center crowd needs to help their team out. If you watched game six, and according to Comcast a lot of people did because it set ratings records for Caps hockey viewing, you heard the raucous Montreal crowd and as Halak made save after save in the early going it seemed to get even louder and fuel their hockey team. The 18,000 plus fans who will “Rock the Red” on Wednesday night in DC need to get behind their club and stay supportive and loud.

Limit Penalties:  Washington needs to stay out of the box. The Caps have taken some bad penalties this series and Montreal has a power play goal in all but one contest (game five was the exception). Mike Cammalleri (five goals in the playoffs) has had a super year against Washington, especially on the power play when he gets time and space to get his shot off. If the Caps can take three or fewer minors on Wednesday that bodes well for them.

Crank up the Power Play:  The Caps will get power play opportunities in this one, they have averaged five a game so far in the series but they are a putrid 1 for 30. Personally, I hope Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau makes some changes to the first unit, and my preference is to bump Alexander Semin from that crew. I would prefer that Ovechkin be moved down low to create traffic and havoc in front of Halak. I would put either John Carlson or Joe Corvo on the points on the top unit with Mike Green and have them focus on getting shots through or dumping the puck down low where the Caps can cycle the two Habs defenders and wear them out. The power play needs to rid itself of the standing around and overpassing we’ve seen in the first six games.

Quality Goaltending:  Whether Boudreau goes with Semyon Varlamov or Jose Theodore as his starter does not matter. Either guy is capable of getting the job done and whichever one gets the call must find a way to cover any defensive mistakes. Halak is doing that for his squad and now it is the Caps turn to have the superior goalie. After all, Halak is due for a subpar performance.

Better Defense: With Tom Poti out for game seven, plus the second round if there is one due to a fractured orbital bone, defenseman Karl Alzner was recalled from Hershey for game seven. I like this move because #27 matches up better than Tyler Sloan or John Erskine does with the small and fast Montreal forwards. The Caps have done a poor job of thwarting the Montreal attack from their defensive blue line to the top of the circles in their own end. Simply put, the d-men have been backing up way too much and giving the Habs forwards time and space to create shooting opportunities, many of which have been with traffic in front of Washington’s goalies. I’d like to see the Caps blue liners challenge the smaller forwards and make them give up the puck sooner. Cammalleri, Tomas Plekenac, Scott Gomez, and company have had too much leeway to operate in Washington’s zone. Shaone Morrisonn, who returned from injury on Monday, was at least a step slow in game six so he needs to rebound with a big performance, if he is healthy. If he is banged up then Sloan needs to play.

Crash the Net:  If you take a look at the shot chart from game six, a lot of the 54 shots taken by Washington were from the blue line and the perimeter. The Caps need to fight harder to go to the slot and the front of the cage for chances and rebounds. Eric Fehr has two goals in this series that way, as does Ovechkin. Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, Boyd Gordon, and hopefully an insertion of Scott Walker into the lineup all need to pay the price and find a way to score some ugly goals on Halak. So far in this matchup, if Halak sees the shot he has pretty much stopped it.

Dump Puck and Cycle:  When the Caps have thrown the puck down low they have been able to generate chances from cycling the Montreal defense. For the most part, the Caps are bigger than Montreal (Hal Gill is the exception) and they should use their size to generate offense from below the goal line. Rookie d-man PK Subban played well for the Habs at home on Monday but at the Verizon Center the Caps need to hit him early and often to rattle him into making turnovers. Same thing goes for Roman Hamrlik and the other Canadiens d-men. Washington cannot afford to turn the puck over at the blue line, they need to dump it deep, hit the Habs, and get their powerful cycle game going.

In summary, the Caps need to bring emotion, discipline, and play a simple game on Wednesday night if they want to advance to play Philadelphia in the second round. Clearly the pressure is on, and if they don’t perform well and lose, it will be one long off-season with a lot of fingers pointed at several different people. But the Caps must avoid thinking about those types of things and focus on each individual shift in game seven. If they stay in the moment, listen to their coach, and give maximum effort, they will win and all of that stuff that the media likes to talk about goes away. Bottom line, keeping it simple in game seven leads to a higher probability of victory.

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Theodore Stops Bolts & Ovechkin Scores as Caps Win

Posted on 20 March 2010 by Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin returned to the Caps lineup on Saturday night in Tampa and he potted the game winner after a super feed from Nicklas Backstrom midway through the first period as Washington rode another outstanding performance from goalie Jose Theodore (33 saves) to a 3-1 road victory over the Lightning. With the win the Capitals complete a 3-0-1 road trip and up their overall record to 48-14-10 (106 points). With the Devils losing in regulation to the Blues on Saturday and the Penguins losing in overtime to Carolina, Washington just needs five points to formally lock up the Eastern Conference #1 seed (that is a formality). In addition, they now have a nine point lead in the battle for the President’s Trophy. The Chicago Blackhawks are now the main pursuers with 97 points and they have a game in hand on the Caps.

Washington also matched the club record for road wins (1983-84) and they are 22-10-6 away from the Verizon Center this season.

Here are the quotes, highlights, and analysis from the last game between these two teams until next season:

Despite the fact that they are now golf course bound on April 12th, Tampa gave Washington all it could handle for two periods. The Caps had won 12 straight against the Bolts over the last two seasons until a 7-4 loss in January, but Rick Tocchet’s crew is improving, thanks to the play of youngsters Steven Stamkos (1st overall NHL draft pick in 2008) and Victor Hedman (2nd overall NHL draft choice in 2009). After struggling for 40 minutes, Washington would finally dominate the Lightning in the third period on Saturday, firing 15 shots on net, and improved to 4-2 against Tampa in 2009-10.

“I thought they came out really hard and they outplayed us. The goalie stole it for us in the first two periods and then they probably ran out of steam in the third period and we played alot better as a group in the third period and especially when we got the third goal it was like the wind went out of their sails,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau on the victory.

Washington took several bad penalties (too many men on the ice and a couple of stupid boarding plays) but a much maligned penalty killing unit thwarted all five Tampa power play chances, something the Caps had struggled to do against Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vinnie Lecavalier, and company this season. Hall of Famer Rod Langway always used to tell me that everything starts with the goalie out and tonight the key to stopping the Tampa man advantage was Theodore.

“I thought the PK was great but the key was Jose. I thought he was outstanding. I felt so comfortable with him in net tonight, it was a good feeling to have. He is just playing with a lot of confidence and he is in such a groove. He’s been like that since January 1. He’s playing so good but I’m not naming anybody anything, but he’s certainly making a great case for himself,” added Boudreau on the play of his goalie and what his thoughts are as far as who will start game one of the Stanley Cup Playoffs the week of April 12th.

Jose Theodore is now 16-0-2 since January 13th. He has wins in six straight starts and his 18 consecutive decisions without a regulation loss are the most in Capitals history and the most by any NHL goaltender in the last 10 seasons (h/t Caps PR staff).

Ovechkin scored his league leading 45th goal (tied with Sidney Crosby) goal after another great outlet pass from Backstrom. #19 banked a long feed from his own zone off of the side boards and right on the Great #8’s stick. From there Alexander the Great went in and faked Antero Niittymaki (25 saves) to the ice and then roofed the biscuit behind him to give Washington a lead they would not relinquish. For the evening the Great #8 was +1 in 22:52 of ice time.

“I thought he was a little tentative early like he was afraid, an ‘I don’t want to get in trouble’ type thing. He got the real game winning goal and in the third period he had a couple of good hits. He is getting back to normal and he had 7 or 8 shots too, that’s good stuff. It’s not like we eased him back in,” added Boudreau on the play of his team captain.

Center Dave Steckel (1 assist) had a super outing and he and Eric Fehr set up Tomas Fleischmann for his 21st goal of the season just 2:40 into the contest. Those three guys were really clicking on a line together and could have had a couple more tallies. #39, who seems to always play well against the Bolts, logged 4:22 of shorthanded time, the most of any Caps forward. He was 9-8 on face-offs in a game that saw his team get smoked on draws, 39-22.

Washington’s third goal came as a result of a nice play by Brooks Laich, who made a good deke in the slot and fired a laser on Niittymaki, and when the goalie could not handle the hot shot, Alexander Semin tapped in the rebound for his 33rd goal of the season. #28 did not have a great game but he came up big at that moment.

The Caps power play went 0 for 4 and while they moved the puck well, they lacked crease presence and as a result, they could not beat Niittymaki. I would like to see more of the Mike Knuble-Laich combo in front of opposing goalies. When the enemy net minder can see the shot, he is almost always going to stop it. Traffic and shots were lacking from a power play that is still ranked #1 in the NHL.

Defenseman Jeff Schultz did not have one of his better outings and he lost Lecavalier in the slot on the Lightning’s first goal. He also made a bad giveaway up the boards to St. Louis in the 3rd period when it was still a one goal game. #55 has looked a little bit slower to me lately and hopefully he is not too worn down for the playoffs. Speed is definitely not his forte but he usually makes up for that deficiency with solid stickwork and positioning.

John Carlson, who was paired again with Shaone Morrisonn, had another strong effort on the blue line in 14:16 of ice time. Carlson is really fitting in at the NHL level and I really liked the way he easily took St. Louis, one of the top forwards in the league, off of the puck in the second period in the defensive zone. #74’s outlet passes always seem to be right where they need to be.

The worst news of the evening was the loss of Scott Walker to an apparent injury after he was knocked to the ground in a fight with Zenon Konopka early in period two.

Joe Corvo and Tyler Sloan were scratched on defense and the healthy forward ones were Matt Bradley (who will be back in for sure with Walker out) and Quintin Laing. Boyd Gordon was sent home earlier in the trip after aggravating his back in Florida on Tuesday.

At the end of the day this was not a pretty effort and the Caps took awhile to take the game over, but a win is a win.

“It’s a good road win for us. That’s 3-0-1 on a four game road trip and it seems like we are never satisfied with how we play but the end result is 3-0-1 in four tough buildings,” finished Boudreau.

Next up for the Caps are the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night in a “can’t miss” hockey event.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: I will be on Section 410 on WNST 1570 at 1040 am on Sunday morning talking Caps hockey with Eric Aaronson. Listen Live at WNST.NET

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Walker, Knuble Lead Caps over Bolts, 5-4

Posted on 04 March 2010 by Ed Frankovic

It was old man night at the Verizon Center on Thursday evening as newly acquired 36 year old Scott Walker and 37 year old Mike Knuble each scored twice to lead the Capitals to a 5-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Walker, who was playing his first game with the Caps after coming over from Carolina for a 7th round pick, notched two third period tallies sandwiched around two markers by a fighting for their lives Bolts squad. The victory improves the Caps record to 43-13-8 (94 points) and bumps their Eastern Conference standings lead to 14 points over the second place Pittsburgh Penguins. Washington now has a five point lead over the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks in the race for the President’s Trophy (both of them have a game in hand).

Here are the highlights, quotes, & analysis from this one:

Washington owned Tampa coming into this season having defeated them all six times last year and when they easily beat the Bolts, 3-0, back in November they pushed their win streak against the Lightning to 12 straight games. That run ended in Tampa in January in a 7-4 loss and the last two meetings here at the Verizon Center have resulted in one goal victories for the Caps. The secret for the Lightning in keeping things tight with the Caps has been a potent power play and the Bolts were 2 for 5 in this one. A win is a win but Knuble felt the Caps were sloppy after taking a 4-2 lead with 9:49 left and he also says that Washington will see the opponents best games down the stretch, especially from teams like Tampa on the playoff bubble.

“We were a little bit sloppy and I think we just need to bear down a bit more. We got timely goals, Scott [Walker] got a couple goals and I thought the new guys came in and played well. I’ll call [what we need] bearing down a little more, maybe we need to feel threatened and we didn’t seem to be taking their attack seriously. There was a bounce or two there where they were inches away from tying the game. So we got a couple of breaks, a couple of lucky bounces again and ended it. It’s a little sloppy but it’s a win too,” started the man who has scored 15 goals in his last 18 games and 18 in the last 22, “We need to get the idea that these last 20 games are going to be a lot harder than the first 60…Tampa’s season is on the line, they’ve got to get points and make the playoffs. We’re going to get everyone’s best effort…We can’t just slough off and hope that someone makes a play to score a goal or keep it out, we’ve got to bear down.” finished the man who leads all players 33 or older in goals.

Lightning Coach Rick Tocchet, whose team is now three points out of playoff position, was not happy with his club as a whole.

“It’s always frustrating when you lose. There are certain guys, Martin St. Louis, obviously Steven Stamkos, I thought Vinny [Lecavalier] the last couple games came to play. Some other guys, I don’t know. I really don’t know. You got to block a shot or dive to get the puck out of your own end. Bite the puck to get it out of your own end. We need those types of players. There’s five or six of those guys that are costing us right now. Bottom line. The positives are that there are enough guys here that want to win and are playing hard. I’m really proud of those guys.”

Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau thrust all three new acquisitions, Walker, defenseman Joe Corvo, and center Eric Belanger into the line-up forcing out Matt Bradley, Dave Steckel, and John Erskine from Wednesday’s victorious roster in Buffalo. Clearly Walker was the most noticeable in just 7:33 of ice time. Boudreau wanted to play him more but because of all of the penalties in the second period he “had to sit.” Boudreau felt that Corvo (20:19) had a good game and the coach tried him on the point on the power play with Mike Green in the first period, forcing Alexander Ovechkin down low. The 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner was critical of that decision saying “the coaching sloppiness resulted in the team becoming sloppy.” Washington was 0 for 3 with the man advantage on Thursday. Belanger logged 14:50, went +1, and won 5 of 12 face-offs.

The Capitals raced to a 3-1 advantage 28:21 into the contest but they then took four minor penalties in the next six minutes, three of which were within 56 seconds. Lecavalier (two goals) scored to make it 3-2 and after Green, Laich, and Poti all took minor infractions the Lightning had nearly three minutes to tie it up and then take the lead. Then Nicklas Backstrom, on a 4 on 3 penalty kill, broke his stick but managed to throw himself in front of successive Kurtis Foster blasts and lead his team in a momentum changing sequence. The work from #19 drew a lengthy ovation from the Verizon Center faithful and Boudreau felt that moment was a major key to the victory.

“I don’t know how many other superstars would be doing that, which is what makes him special, it was definitely a turning point. They had made it 3-2 and if they score when Nick is out there they still have a 5 on 4 again and they could have gotten the lead. It’s a lot different story playing with the lead than playing from behind,” said Boudreau on the importance of Backstrom sacrificing himself for the good of the team.

The difference in this game was the goaltending. Tampa’s Mike Smith gave up five tallies on 34 shots, some of which were of the soft variety, while Semyon Varlamov (25 saves) didn’t allow any questionable goals. Three of Tampa’s goals came in the slot as a result of poor Caps coverage and the other marker was from Lecavalier on a breakaway. Varly spoke with Russian newspaper reporter Slava Malamud afterwards and Slava told me that #40 felt he should not have gone for #4’s fake that got the young goalie out of position. Malamud mentioned that goaltending coach Arturs Irbe said that is something the 21 year old goalie will learn with experience. It is good to see Varly upset about giving up that goal but to be fair to him, Lecavalier has a Stanley Cup ring, was the first overall pick in the 1998 NHL draft, and is still one of the top players in the game when he wants to be. Malamud also added that Varlamov is totally healthy and learned alot about positioning from Vladislav Tretiak during his time with the legendary Russian goalie during the Olympics.

After Wednesday’s victory in Buffalo, Boudreau said he thought that the Olympic guys were tired and on Thursday it looked like Alexander Oveckhin (1 assist) and Alexander Semin (-1 in 19:00 of ice time) were still a little sluggish. The Great #8, who has not scored a goal for the Caps since his hat trick against Pittsburgh on February 7th (five game drought), had a breakaway in the second period but the puck rolled of his stick as he was making a move on Smith. He had some other decent chances but the biscuit is not bouncing Ovechkin’s way right now, but the good news is the Caps continue to win.

Next up for Washington are the New York Rangers on Saturday night at the Verizon Center. That game is the second on a five game home stand that sees the Capitals take the ice every other night.

Notes: Washington won the face-off battle, 33-28. Rookie defenseman John Carlson (20 years old), after two early giveaways, set up Tomas Fleischmann for a breakaway and broke up several passes in the second period. #74 had an overall strong game and was +1 in 14:46 of ice time. For Tampa, St. Louis had three assists in 21:35 of ice time and simply brings it on every shift. I spoke with him after the game and he was very disappointed with the loss while praising the Caps. “They are a good team, they are a division rivalry, we seem to give them good games but not good enough, you have to get a win with the playoff race right now.”

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Caps Knock Off Sabres, 3-1, on Wild Deadline Day

Posted on 04 March 2010 by Ed Frankovic

On a wild NHL trade deadline day that saw Caps GM George McPhee make four separate deals, the Washington Capitals opened up their post Olympics break in Buffalo, a place the franchise has struggled in like no other. Making matters seemingly worse was that Washington was going to have to face the 2010 Olympic MVP, Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, in his first post-Olympics start in his own building. Miller (37 saves) was very good, as expected, but the Capitals were the better team on the night and broke a 1-1 tie on Mike Green’s goal off of a super Tomas Fleischmann feed just past the 10 minute mark of the third period. Then fourth line grinder and penalty killing specialist Boyd Gordon banked one off of the boards the length of the rink and into an empty net with 41 seconds remaining to seal a Capitals 3-1 victory.

The win pushes the Caps to 42-13-8 overall and restores their 13 point lead over the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference with 19 games remaining. Washington now owns a three point lead on the San Jose Sharks in the race for the President’s Trophy. Let’s start with the highlights, quotes, and analysis of this victory and then I’ll provide some quotes and analysis on the trades the Caps made today.

Washington started slowly in this one taking two minor penalties and getting outshot 7-3 in the opening 10 minutes. After that, the Capitals dominated territorially holding a 37-17 shots advantage over the last 50 minutes. Even though the score was 1-1 in the second period you could see that the Caps were winning almost every battle.

“I think the rustiness was we were shorthanded for four minutes and guys just needed to get their legs going. I told them that was our best game in 10 games..by far our best game defensively where we didn’t leave the goalie out to dry too many times,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau summarizing the victory.

Defensively the Caps were much more sound and another factor in the victory, I thought, was Washington’s superior conditioning and one can’t help but point to Boudreau’s practice regimen that started last Wednesday, February 24. The Caps could have won this one in bigger fashion, though, if not for some overpassing and an inability to convert on odd man rushes.

“Six good practices I thought and [our team] got back to the basics and [Buffalo] turned the puck over so many times in the neutral zone from our pressure that if we could have scored on our 2 on 1’s we would have had an easier game,” added Boudreau attributing the solid play to time spent at Kettler Ice Plex while noting the bad execution by his team in finishing off their potential scoring opportunities.

The best line on the ice for Washington was the Fleischmann, Eric Fehr, and Jason Chimera unit. They were each plus two on the evening and set up the only two markers that beat Miller. Flash, despite not getting an assist, made the play behind the Sabres net to set up Jeff Schultz for a point blast that was first deflected by Fehr and then tipped again by Chimera to open the scoring. On the game winner #14 carried the puck into the offensive zone on a nice rush then hit a streaking Green in the slot and the 2009 Norris Trophy finalist whipped it past Team USA’s superstar goaltender.

The Gordon-Dave Steckel-Matt Bradley line was also very good on Wednesday so it was nice to see #15 rewarded with an empty net marker.

“That whole line was really good tonight, evidentally with 15 forwards they don’t want to sit out, so they were showing that they want to play and they’re highly energetic and very smart defensively,” commented Boudreau on his fourth line and the threat of them losing ice time due to the trades made on Wednesday.

As for Alexander Ovechkin and his linemates, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble, they had some chances but mostly did not convert due to overpassing. Ovechkin struggled all night to get shots off (he only had 4 on goal) as did fellow Team Russia comrade Alexander Semin (2 shots on goal). Boudreau had an explanation for the lack of production.

“[Ovechkin] looked a little tired, I don’t think it had anything to do with disappointment. I thought all of our Olympian guys looked tired and all our other guys gave us lots of energy,” added Boudreau, although Fleischmann could be considered the lone “Olympic” exception to that statement.

Finally, this game is not a win without another super effort by Jose Theodore in goal (23 saves). #60 made the big save when he had to and did not allow many rebounds. The only tally that went by him was the result of a defensive zone miscommunication between Brooks Laich and Green that caused the puck to pinball around and right onto Jochen Hecht’s stick in the slot.

The Caps will fly home on Wednesday night and take on the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Verizon Center on Thursday evening at 7pm. Three of the four players acquired on Wednesday (forwards Scott Walker and Eric Belanger plus defenseman Joe Corvo) should get in the line-up while defenseman Milan Jurcina is out with a sports hernia and likely won’t be ready for action until the playoffs.

In my blog on Tuesday night about the trade deadline and the Caps, I mentioned the holes the team seemed to have but also pointed out that Washington had great team chemistry that they did not want to disrupt. To address the weaknesses, it was noted that some of the team’s young players were likely off limits. Well, what GM George McPhee and his staff managed to do today was follow the plan that the GM had been preaching to the media all along:  Improve the club if they can but don’t allow it to subtract from being good next year. Based on the moves McPhee made today combined with what some other contenders did or did not do, Washington’s chances to win their first Stanley Cup have improved.

The Philadlephia Flyers, who were touted as being a top team in the East after acquiring Chris Pronger last summer, did not add a goalie and they will go with Michael Leighton in net, a guy the Capitals have rarely had trouble solving. In addition, the Flyers were in the running for Corvo but Washington beat them to the punch. The Devils already made their big splash before the Olympic break adding Ilya Kovalchuk and the Penguins tried to improve their squad with d-man Jordan Leopold and forward Alexei Ponikarovsky on Tuesday. Getting the players the Caps acquired it appears that they gained ground on their pursuers but the Washington GM said what those teams did was not a factor in how he and his staff operated on Wednesday.

“You look at a Kovalchuk, we have those kind of players, and you look at a Ponikarovsky and we have have four left wingers and who does he replace? Basically, what it comes down to is we look at the positions we want to sure up. It is hard to go over someone so you look to fill the holes you have. We wanted to add a top 4 D and add another center who is good on face-offs and has speed and can play both ends of the rink. We got both of those guys [in Corvo and Belanger] and then to add Walker and Juice was nice,” added McPhee on the transactions Washington made on Wednesday.

Addressing team chemistry and an in game incident that occurred between Chimera and Belanger earlier in the season when #25 was a Blue Jacket and the man who will wear #18 was with Minnesota, the Washington GM was confident the deals he made would not cause any locker room friction.

“It’s not a concern. In our business guys play hard against each other and often when they become teammates they are the first two guys to go to dinner together. It is a contact sport but people end up on the same team and they become teammates so I am not worried about [past Belanger-Chimera incident] and we moved one player off of our team so we kept our team basically intact and we have alot of good guys and a lot of committed people that want to win a Cup,” said the former Hobey Baker Award winner that goes to the nation’s top collegiate player.

As for each individual move, it is hard to not see the logic the GM had for making each deal and here is what he had to say about them, in the order they occurred:

Walker trade:

“Scott Walker is tough, tougher than me, and he is a guy that we can play up and down the line-up. We drafted him as a defenseman in Vancouver,” commented McPhee on the versatile Walker, who some hockey announcers compared to the Caps GM from a hard nosed while on the ice standpoint.

Belanger deal:

“We talked about [how loaded the Penguins are down the middle] a lot and we like his experience and ability to shut people down but he’s on pace for 18 goals this year and that’s fine. He can help us on our penalty killing and we just got another guy who is hard to play against,” added McPhee on a player Boudreau projects to be the team’s third line center.

Jurcina addition:

“He had success here in our system. We know Juice, I know Walker, and Bruce knows Belanger and Corvo so we know the personalities that we are getting.”

Corvo acquisition:

“Brian Pothier was a good guy and I want to thank him for everything he did for us but we thought Corvo would be a little bit better for us.”

One area where the Caps did not make a move was in goal, something many pundits, who don’t watch this team on a day to day basis like many of us locally do, were calling for Washington to upgrade.

“We are happy with our goaltending. We’ve got two young kids in Varly (Semyon Varlamov) and (Michal) Neuvirth and an experienced one in Theodore and (Braden) Holtby is playing alot. People asked alot about (the three young goaltenders) but they are untouchables, we were not moving those goalies,” McPhee said on what looks to be the best young goaltending trio in any NHL system.

The Capitals GM was not surprised that there were “no huge deals” made and he said draft choices were the asking price in many transactions. Washington gave up two second round picks plus sixth and seventh round markers, as well. The key for Washington was not losing any of the three goalies nor their top two defensemen prospects in Karl Alzner and John Carlson.

“These days it is hard to make trades and going in I didn’t sense any big trades happening. 2nd round picks were the currency of the day. We had an untouchable list and we didn’t give away any of those players.  I don’t think [giving up 4 picks] does hurt us, we’ve had a lot of picks recently and we have a lot of young talent in our system and I’m really pleased with the way we’ve been drafting. We’ve done well with the [Stefan] Della Rovere’s, the Cody Eakins, [Dmitri] Orlov, so we have a lot of kids coming,” commented McPhee on the importance of youth in the organization.

Today was definitely the day where moving the contracts for Michael Nylander and Chris Clark really paid off. After the trade deadline a team can carry as many players as they want as long as they stay under the salary cap. Washington now has 15 forwards, 8 defenseman plus Jurcina on IR and Alzner in Hershey, and three goalies (counting Neuvirth in Hershey as well). Prior to the lockout, when there was no salary cap, typically teams with a big budget could stockpile players for the post season. McPhee has now found a way to do this post lockout setting the Caps up to handle any injuries much better than they were able to react in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring.

“We’re real deep now, we have alot of players. Bruce and I talked about if we wanted to move people out, but we have the cap space to keep everybody..so let’s keep everybody and we did all of this with the playoffs in mind,” said McPhee on the logic in adding so much depth to the team, which will give Boudreau some minor headaches in trying to figure out which players to dress each night.

Overall this was a tremendous win for the Capitals on NHL deadline day. Not only did they get a top four defenseman and add depth to their lineup, they did not take on any players that have any more years on their contract. Each guy acquired is a free agent this summer, something McPhee said factored into the decision making process in trades.

“There was one guy [we looked at that was not a free agent this summer] but we just didn’t want to take on any term. We are a good team now and we will be in September so we didn’t want to take on any bad contracts and with respect to the cap we will be in good shape. That is why I am really happy today, we made our team better today and we are going to be really good again next September,” finished McPhee.

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