Caps and NHL Update

February 19, 2008 | Ed Frankovic

Caps Must Step it Up

After a 1-1-1 road trip against Southeast Division teams it is clear that the Washington Capitals must find a way to take their game to a higher level if they want to win the division. The only reason the Caps won a game on the latest road trip was because goalie Olie Kolzig stole a game from Tampa Bay last Saturday night in a 3-2 Washington win. Kolzig was phenomenal stopping 39 of 41 shots. The Caps are now 10-10-3 in their division and that mark must be improved on if the team expects to secure the #3 playoff seed in the eastern conference. The Caps have 22 games left and only two of the next 15 games are against Southeast division foes before Washington plays its last seven games against division opponents.

Alex Ovechkin was held pointless in his last two games but luckily Alexander Semin stepped up with a goal and an assist in Tampa, including the game winning goal late in the contest, to provide the lone Caps win of the road trip.

The Capitals defense continues to struggle and with Tom Poti injured and Milan Jurcina also out on Saturday Coach Bruce Boudreau went with Steve Eminger and rookie Sami Lepisto (first NHL game) to complete the defensive corps. Eminger continues to prove to be a first round bust and why he was on the ice in the last five minutes on Saturday night is beyond me.

Fortunately for the Caps, they still have the inside track on winning the division despite trailing by two points at the present time. Carolina is in first place but they lost captain Rod Brind’Amour for the season last week (torn ACL) and their defense and goaltending is a disaster. The Hurricanes have also played two more games than Washington. Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford made a trade last week to try and bolster his team by dealing forward Cory Stillman and defensemen Mike Commodore to Ottawa for forward Patrick Eaves and defensemen Joe Corvo. According to one NHL scout this was a very low impact trade. Atlanta is still trying to figure out if they are going to keep or trade forward Marian Hossa and Florida is in the same boat with Olli Jokinen. Tampa Bay has goaltending issues, a free agent defenseman who wants too much money in the off-season (Dan Boyle), and yet another new owner to deal with. Bottom line: The Caps should win this division even if GM George McPhee does nothing at the trade deadline.

The Caps host the Islanders on Wednesday night, travel to Carolina on Saturday, and come home to face the Devils at the Verizon Center on Sunday.

NHL Update

So what conference will provide this year’s Stanley Cup winner? The western conference is 67-39-12 against the east so far this season so clearly that is the better conference but according to one NHL scout once you get down to the top teams in each conference things start to even out. In the east the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators (assuming Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley are healthy), and Montreal Canadiens appear to have separated themselves as far as Cup contenders are concerned (I’m not sold on the Penguins yet). In the western conference the top teams are Detroit and Anaheim. The Dallas Stars have won nine of their last 10 games but I can’t see them making a run at the Cup with their current roster and let’s face it, Stars goalie Marty Turco has never played well in the post-season.

Anyone who caught last Saturday’s Edmonton-Vancouver game got to see some old time hockey as the teams combined for 193 penalty minutes in a fight filled game. The game featured 10 fighting majors in the last 40 seconds of a 4-2 Canucks win. The teams play again on Thursday, March 20th in Edmonton.

Speaking of late game altercations, the next Ducks-Calgary Flames game on Friday, February 29th ought to be interesting. Anaheim thug George Parros took a cheap shot at star Flames defensemen Dion Phaneuf’s knees in the waning moments so expect the Mike Keenan led Calgary crew to look for revenge in Anaheim on the 29th. One thing that is puzzling to me: Why was Flames Captain Jarome Iginla fighting third line checker Travis Moen with 29 seconds left in the game? All that could come of that situation is Iginla gets hurt. Some other Flames need to step up and take care of the dirty work and Iginla needs to be smarter and not get drawn into stuff with lower tier players. Flames fans have to be extremely frustrated watching this team this year. Anaheim likes to play on the edge with their toughness and if you are not a Ducks fan then they are an easy team to dislike. I am not a Ducks fan so I wouldn’t mind seeing someone clean their clocks and knock them out of the playoffs in the first round. But that will be a tough chore considering the talent on the current Anaheim squad.

Forget about Peter Forsberg coming back and shifting the balance of power in the NHL for the stretch run. Forsberg’s agent told the league today that his client will not be back this season due to recurring problems with his surgically repaired right foot. So how big of a deal is this? According to ESPN’s Scott Burnside several GM’s have been quoted as saying that the Forsberg decision was holding up trades. Meanwhile, another NHL scout told me that Forsberg is only a shadow of his former self and would not have made that much of an impact anyways. For proof of that theory just look at last year’s playoffs when the Nashville Predators were knocked out in the first round despite moving players and draft picks to Philadelphia for Forsberg at the trade deadline.

Speaking of Nashville, former Caps GM David Poile has his team in playoff position despite the fire sale his franchise endured after last season when former owner Craig Leopold put the team up for sale. Poile, who made the playoffs 14 of the 15 seasons he GM’d in Washington, has a new ownership group in place and recently signed free agent to be forward J.P. Dumont to a four year contract. The Predators are currently 6th in the western conference with 69 points.

The Detroit Red Wings came into tonight’s contest with the Colorado Avalanche having lost six straight games but pounded the Avs 4-0 at the Pepsi Center in Denver to end that skid. Henrik Zetterberg had two goals, Pavel Datysuk added three assists, and goalie Chris Osgood saved all 18 shots to snap his personal losing streak. The bad news: Detroit defensemen and arguably the league’s MVP, Nicklas Lidstrom, injured his knee on a check from Ian Laperriere in the first period. It is not known how long Lidstrom will be sidelined. The hit from Laperriere appeared to be clean but the Red Wings still took exception to it and Aaron Downey beat the stuffing out of the pesky Laperriere about 10 minutes after the hit. Downey and Laperriere went at it again in the closing minutes.

The Lidstrom hit reminded me of a story Craig Laughlin once told from his playing days back in the 1980’s. The Caps were in Philadelphia to take on the Flyers and in the first period Laughlin threw a big check on Flyers star defensemen Mark Howe. A few minutes later Laughlin was waiting for a face-off and out skated Philadelphia goon Dave Brown who lined up next to Craig and told him “You’ll never hit Mark Howe again.” Laughlin, laughing now as he tells the story, could only reply “Ok” and said he never did hit Howe again. That was in the old NHL when certain players were untouchable. Now players seem to lack respect for the top players and some of the third and fourth line players just don’t know their roles.

Can’t Miss Game of the Week:  Ottawa at Pittsburgh on Saturday at 3pm on CBC (Hockey Night in Canada day game). There is a chance that Penguins star Sydney Crosby, who has resumed practicing with contact, could be back in the line-up for this game but if not Evgeni Malkin will lead the Pens against the Senators top line of Alfredsson, Heatley, and Jason Spezza. Ottawa currently is tied for the top spot in the eastern conference (New Jersey) but the Penguins are only two points behind.

Caps and NHL Update

January 16, 2008 | Ed Frankovic

Caps Update

Despite the loss of forward Michael Nylander for the season due to rotator cuff surgery the Caps completed a four game season sweep of the Ottawa Senators tonight with a 4-2 win at the Verizon Center. The Senators, by the way, have the best record in the Eastern Conference at 29-12-4. The news has not been good for Ottawa lately as they lost star forward Dany Heatley for up to six weeks with a shoulder injury. I am sure the Senators are happy that they are done playing the Caps for the rest of the regular season.

For Washington, Alexander Semin stepped up tonight and had arguably his best game of the season at a crucial time pumping in two goals and adding an assist. If Semin picks up his game and scores anywhere near last year’s pace (38 goals) then the loss of Nylander will not be as bad (after all Nylander was sitting at -19 and clearly the injury was effecting his overall abilities).  I believe Semin will be able to more than fill the scoring void now that he looks healthier and it appears that the more defensive minded Boyd Gordon will play on his line for at least the near future. Gordon will allow Semin to not worry as much about his defensive zone liabilities and focus more on scoring goals.

As for the playoff race, it looks like the Caps best shot to make the playoffs is to win the Southeast Division although the Atlanta Thrashers suddenly look like the team to beat since Carolina has completely fallen apart on defense and in goal. The Hurricanes are desperately trying to make a move to shore up their defense. The Caps are 5 points out of first but have two games in hand on Atlanta. Carolina also is 5 points ahead of the Caps but have played three more games. If Washington can stay in the playoff race, and it will be up to the guys on the current roster to do so as GM George McPhee said tonight the Caps are “going with what they got”, then trade deadline deals (Feb 26) would be wise by McPhee to further the teams chances to get to the post season. There will likely be sellers at the deadline and the Caps have lots of salary cap room (3rd most in the league after Phoenix and Nashville). McPhee might need to make the playoffs to save his job especially after he spent so much money on Nylander, Tom Poti, and Viktor Kozlov and those moves have not paid off. Luckily for McPhee some of his younger players like Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green have really stepped up and the move to Coach Bruce Boudreau has been absolutely great turning the whole season around.

Future Caps update: For those who are wondering what the future holds in net for the Caps after Olie Kolzig decides to hang it up a Western Conference scout told me that Washington has two good goalie prospects in their system. They are Semen Varlamov (Russian) and Michal Neuvirth (Czech). Neuvirth recently played in the World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic and stopped 29 of 30 shots in a 5-1 Czech Republic win over Finland in the 5th place game. Both goalies were drafted in 2006 and it is up to the Caps to properly develop Olie Kolzig’s eventual replacement.

NHL Update

The Toronto Maple Leafs franchise is absolutely a mess right now. For those of you who saw Hockey Night in Canada last Saturday night and watched CBC’s Ron Maclean interview with legendary coach Scotty Bowman (still working in the front office for Detroit) you got a sense of the disaster that is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Bowman’s account of being wooed last August by Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Leafs, and then getting blown off by MLSE chief executive officer and president Richard Peddie revealed the inability to act that exists within that company. Current GM John Ferguson has missed badly on many of his player signings and now there is talk of former Leafs, Flames, and Coyotes GM Cliff Fletcher coming in to fix things on an interim basis. The following quote sums up some of the problems Fletcher would face if he comes in to take over given that he would be working with the salary cap for the first time. “It really penalizes you if you make a mistake (by signing player for a lot of years and a lot of dollars). If a player does not live up to expectations, it’s double jeopardy. Not only is he not performing, but you don’t have the ability to recover from that mistake.” (Note to Ted Leonsis: This is what GM George McPhee did to you with the Nylander, Kozlov, and Poti signings).

Curtis Joseph, aka Cujo, is once again in the NHL signing a one year deal with the Calgary Flames to back up goalie Mikka Kiprusoff. Kiprusoff has been struggling this year and the current backup, Curtis McElhinney, has very limited NHL experience so Flames GM Darryl Sutter and Coach Mike Keenan felt they needed a veteran goalie to take some of the load off of Kiprusoff for the rest of the season and what they hope to be a major playoff run. The 40 year old Joseph is fresh off helping Canada win the Spengler Cup in Switzerland just before the New Year. Calgary was hot in December storming to the top of the Northwest division only to cool lately by losing their last four games. The Flames did the same thing last January taking over the division lead after a hot streak but then faded badly down the stretch and barely hung on to the eight playoff position. Keenan’s job is to not let that happen again (or he will be out of a job again).

The surprise of the NHL continues to be the Phoenix Coyotes who are coached by “The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky. The Coyotes are quietly 24-20-1 after last night’s win against San Jose and sit only 3 points behind Calgary, who are the current 8th seed in the West. However Phoenix has two games in hand on the Flames. If the Coyotes make the playoffs Gretzky is a LOCK for coach of the year honors. He might win it anyways if the team stays above .500.

Key injuries are on the increase lately in the NHL. As mentioned above the Senators lost Dany Heatley (six weeks) and the Caps lost Michael Nylander (season). Here are a couple of other major injury situations that will impact the playoff race:

Colorado Avalanche: Joe Sakic (out until late March due to hernia surgery) and Ryan Smyth (out six weeks due to a fractured foot). I’m not sure how Colorado recovers from these two injuries but the Avalanche have won their last three games (all on the road) to keep pace in the West.

Chicago Blackhawks: Rookie sensation Jonathan Toews is out at least four weeks with a sprained knee. The Blackhawks are starting to draw fans again in Chicago as evidenced by three straight recent sellouts (despite enduring an eight game losing streak). The Toews loss hurts them with scoring and defense as Toews is a very good two way player. This injury will likely doom the Blackhawks playoff chances.

One final player note: Peter Forsberg is attempting a comeback once again by working out with the Swedish National Team. Forsberg told Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter he has been training off the ice for the past month and is still hoping for a return to the NHL, but is unsure what team he would play for. “I will definitely choose a team that is guaranteed to reach the playoffs, that has a chance to win the Stanley Cup,” Forsberg said.

Can’t Miss Games of the Week: NHL Doubleheader on NBC on Sunday, January 20th in HDTV: Boston at the New York Rangers at 1230pm followed by the Anaheim Ducks at the Dallas Stars at 330pm. Interestingly the Stars are scheduled to play at home on the day many thought the Cowboys would be hosting the NFC Championship game. Did the NHL know something everyone else didn’t??!! Anyways, since New England is likely to trounce San Diego it is a good idea to flip over to NBC and catch the Ducks-Stars game in HD. You don’t need the Fox glow puck with HDTV!!

WNST PROGRAMMING NOTE: I will be in studio at WNST on “Such on Sports” with Mark Suchy this Saturday, January 19th, from 1pm to 4pm. I hope that many of you hockey fans will call in to talk some puck. We’ll also talk about the Ravens and anything else on your mind.

Caps and NHL Update

December 28, 2007 | Ed Frankovic

Caps Update

The Caps are now 8-5-4 under Coach Bruce Boudreau and the “interim” tag was removed on Wednesday meaning that Boudreau is likely to remain the head coach at least as long as GM George McPhee keeps his job. There is no word on the length of Boudreau’s contract yet but you can bet that the length of the contract coincides with how long McPhee has left on his deal as Capitals GM.

Boudreau has done a great job taking what he has in DC and winning 8 of the 17 games he has coached. Unfortunately for the Caps, they lost Alexander Ovechkin to injury in the third period of tonight’s 4-3 OT loss to the Penguins. The Caps played well in Pittsburgh and seemed poised to win their first game in that building since 2002 only to give up a late power play goal that deflected off of Caps defensemen Milan Jurcina (a minor leaguer on most teams) and past Olie Kolzig. Kolzig turned in a masterful performance in relieve of an injured Brent Johnson (out 2-4 weeks) but lost the game in OT when the soft defensive pair of Brian Pothier and Tom Poti not only turned the puck over but knocked Kolzig off his skates in the process allowing Sergei Gonchar to take a Sydney Crosby pass and bury it into a mostly vacated net.

One of the big reasons for the Caps turn around under Boudreau has been the play of defensemen Mike Green. Under Glen Hanlon, Green only played 20 minutes or more two times in the first 21 games, however, since Boudreau took over he has gone 15 straight games with over 20 minutes of ice time and is quickly becoming the Caps best defensemen. Recently Green has been logging between 25 and 30 minutes a game (including 27 minutes on Wednesday night against the Lightning). Green, the 29th overall pick in the 2004 draft (taken two picks after fellow Caps defensemen Jeff Schulz), is a good skater and moves the puck well. Green has primarily picked up ice time from defensemen Brian Pothier (with some coming from Jeff Schulz) since Boudreau took over as coach.

On the downside, forward Viktor Kozlov continues to be a disappointment for the Caps as he has only scored 3 goals in 38 games. In Wednesday’s game against Tampa Bay he received some great setups from Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin but the slow footed, hands of stone Kozlov couldn’t finish on any of the chances. He was even worse in Pittsburgh routinely botching passes in the neutral zone and turning the puck over at the Penguins blue line. If the Caps could find another good goal scorer to put in the lineup instead of Kozlov that would really help the team. GM George McPhee has salary cap room so if he wants to have any chance of getting into the playoff picture and saving his job he needs to find a forward to play with Ovechkin (assuming that #8’s injury is not serious) and Backstrom and declare the Kozlov experiment a bust (Note: I predicted in this blog at the start of the season that Kozlov would be a dud).

One final Caps note: McPhee’s last four significant free agent signings account for $14M of salary this year: Nylander ($5.5M), Poti ($3.5M), Kozlov ($2.5M), and Pothier ($2.5M). If you ask me (and many other NHL hockey departments) there are a lot better ways to spend $14M in the NHL. The sad news is the team is on the hook for that same $14M next season with this collection of non-hitting and low goal-scoring players. To make matters even worse, in 2009-10 they are on the hook for the same salaries for Nylander, Poti, and Pothier so when McPhee is finally shown the door any new GM will still have McPhee’s mess to deal with.

NHL Attendance

A recent look at the NHL attendance figures shows that there are nine teams filling their buildings at 100% or more of capacity. Five of those are Canadian teams (Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Vancouver) while the sixth Canadian team (Edmonton) is 13th filling Rexall Place at 98.5% of capacity.

One thing that really stood out in the numbers was the fact that the Detroit Red Wings are 18th in home attendance (91% of capacity) in a place where game tickets were once next to impossible to obtain. The Red Wings, in self proclaimed Hockeytown USA, have the best record in the NHL but since Steve Yzerman retired attendance has steadily declined.

As for the Caps, they are next to last in NHL home attendance (72%) to Chicago (69.5%). However, I expect Chicago’s attendance to improve over the next several years because of the young guns they have recently drafted: Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Perhaps Caps owner Ted Leonsis should do a better job of engaging the hockey fans in the Baltimore area to help fill his building because northern Virginia isn’t getting it done?

NHL News

Anyone who watched the New York Rangers 4-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday night saw a gem of a performance by Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist had the save of the week and perhaps the save of the month against Ray Whitney with just under two minutes left in the game and the Hurricanes on a 6 on 3 advantage (goalie pulled). Whitney probably still can’t figure out how Lundqvist saved his point blank shot.

Speaking of great goaltending, Roberto Luongo continues to carry the Vancouver Canucks and gets my vote as the best goalie in the league right now. Martin Brodeur is still very good for the Devils and is a close second. One name you won’t see on that list anymore is Calgary goalie Mikka Kiprusoff who has struggled mightily this year after receiving a contract extension in October to keep him in Calgary through 2012-13. Kiprusoff played well on a recent six game Calgary road winning streak but has reverted to early season form giving up several weak goals (mainly via the five hole) that have cost the Flames games.

The Wayne Gretzky coached Phoenix Coyotes, who many picked to be the worst team in the Western Conference (including me), were 17-16-1 going into last night’s game against Minnesota. The Coyotes have scored just 86 goals but have yielded only 91 and since they claimed goalie Ilya Bryzgalov off of waivers they have given up more than 3 goals in a game only once (6-1 loss to Chicago on November 30th). Gretzky is clearly doing a very good job with this young team.

Can’t Miss Game of the Week: Anaheim at Vancouver, Sunday at 8pm. The defending Stanley Cup Champion Ducks try to defeat Roberto Luongo and the Sedin twins. Anaheim is starting to look like the team that won the Cup last year but Luongo just may be the league’s MVP to this point.

Caps and NHL Update

December 13, 2007 | Ed Frankovic

Caps Update

After their 5-4 thrilling overtime win tonight against the Rangers the Caps record under interim coach Bruce Boudreau is now 6-3-1. The team has definitely been more aggressive, especially with their forechecking, and they have out-shot the opposition in 9 of those 10 games. The Caps will need to keep up this pace over the next 20 games in order to put themselves back into the playoff picture.

It looks like it is time for the team to send defensemen Jeff Schultz down to Hershey before the young man loses all of his confidence. Schultz is -6 over his last nine games and he is not a physical presence on the ice at all. At 6 feet 6 inches he needs to use his body more and that is difficult to learn at the speed of the NHL game. He is only 21 so he still can be taught the proper technique with the right development.

If the Caps do fire GM George McPhee the new GM is likely to be the result of a marketing move. Hiring the Hunter brothers (Dale and Mark) might be a direction that Ted Leonsis takes. While Dale and Mark have been successful running the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League neither of them have much NHL management experience. However, hiring Dale Hunter would likely sell tickets. As for the potential GMs I mentioned previously in my November 23rd blog, it is unlikely that any of them would take the Caps GM job unless owner Ted Leonsis gave them full control over all hockey related issues.

One thing the Caps should look at it hiring is some of their former players to either coach or take a lower level position in the hockey organization to learn the business like Detroit is doing with Steve Yzerman and St. Louis is doing with Al McInnis. Slovak National coach Peter Bondra loves this area and would do well as a coach or another possibility is Scott Stevens whose kids are almost grown. Stevens definitely knows the game and would be well respected by the players.

Caps fans, let’s see how well you really know the team and their history. Can you name the 10 guys, from left to right, in the following photo?

NHL News

We are now more than one-third of the way through the NHL season. Here are some quick observations:

  • The latest news on this years NHL draft is it is not a great draft year. In order to get a really quality pick a team is going to need to be in the top six positions of the draft.
  •  In case you haven’t noticed, there has been a serious lack of player movement so far this season. The lack of trades is a direct result of the salary cap as many teams are very close to the cap. Money frees up later in the year so look for lots of deals to get done at the trade deadline (February 26th).
  • Anaheim should have no trouble clearing cap room for Scott Niedermayer, who will return to the Ducks as predicted in my blog back in the pre-season. The Ilya Brzygalov waiver move was part of the cap clearing efforts and they will likely let someone else go when Niedermayer is ready to play a game (such as Todd Marchant). It is not likely that defensemen Mathieu Schneider will be traded as several other teams don’t have cap room for him (he makes $5.6M a year). There are several teams that would trade for him in a heartbeat if they had the cap room.
  • Boston Bruin hockey is back! The Bruins are playing a much more physical style of play than in recent years and despite the loss of FA G Manny Fernandez to injury (and possibly season ending) they are currently 4th in the Eastern Conference. They are not an easy team to play against anymore.
  • An astounding stat shown on Versus the other night during the Bruins-Sabres game: Detroit has trailed only 12% of the time this season. It is no small wonder they lead the league with 46 points.
  • There are confirmed reports of locker room trouble in Calgary and the primary cause has been due to the arrogance of superstar defensemen Dion Phaneuf (22 years old). Phaneuf is a great talent but tends to free lance causing the other defensemen on the team to struggle with their own positioning. After a 6-3-3 start the Flames fell to 10-13-4 before recently going 3-0-1 to even their record at 13-13-1. A slow start by G Mikka Kiprusoff didn’t help matters either but Kiprusoff has recently returned to his all-star form and the Flames even won a shootout in Florida last night. Kiprusoff has struggled on breakaways this year but stopped all three shots in the Panthers game Tuesday night.
  • The Pittsburgh Penguins have definitely "righted the ship" and on a recent Western Conference road trip beat Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver in succession. The question now for the Pens will be how G Dany Sabourin holds up in net with former #1 pick Marc-Andre Fleury out for up to two months with an ankle injury.

Can’t Miss Game of the Week: Ottawa at Pittsburgh on Thursday, December 13th at 730pm. This is a rematch from last year’s playoffs and two teams who have been predicted to go deep into the playoffs this year.