Monday, July 3, 2017

Winners and losers, off-season edition

Following the excitement of the first expansion draft in almost two decades, the NHL off-season has been a dud.  

In terms of both term and value, the biggest free agent deal so far has been Alexander Radulov's 5 year robbery for $31.5 million.  Kevin Shattenkirk predictably signed for a lot of money ($26.6 million), though surprisingly for only four years.  Karl Alzner tied Radulov's term in a deal worth $23.125 million.  Beyond those deals, nothing stands out beyond salty veterans getting overpaid by teams desperate to win, but are no closer to doing so than they were on June 30th.  Sprinkle in a few trades, and the riveting drama of Kovalchuk's latest BronBron impression, and we are in for a boring July.

Winners:

Pittsburgh Penguins:
GM Jim Rutherford spent much time complaining about physicality, and surprisingly addressed the problem in a big way by trading for Ryan Reaves.  The price may have been a tad high, but Reaves is the best fourth liner in the game today, and the Penguins are better for it.  Justin Schultz signed a rich contract, but the Penguins avoided term, Antti Niemi signed for a very reasonable contract to be a serviceable backup, and ineffective Trevor Daley was replaced by Matt Hunwick.  The Penguins still have some cap space remaining, so they may acquire another center, but for the time being, they just keep winning.

Grade: A+

Nashville Predators:

Predictably, the Predators are retooling for another run at the Cup.  They overpaid for Nick Bonino, but he is an upgrade over Colin Wilson, who was traded for a future draft pick.  After losing James Neal to Las Vegas, the Predators brought back Scott Hartnell, who posted similar numbers despite playing a defensive role.  Adding Alexei Emelin to the already stacked defense will help relieve some of the penalty killing pressure on the top four, allowing them to focus on moving play in the right direction.

Grade: A-

New Jersey Devils

After trading for Mirco Mueller, a defenseman with plenty of upside, the Devils have had a quietly productive off-season, highlighted, of course, by drafting first overall.  They parted with Mike Cammalleri and Devante Smith-Pelly, which freed up additional cap space, overpaid for Brian Boyle, and won the lopsided divisional trade with Washington for Marcus Johansson.  With a few roster spots left to fill out, New Jersey has put together a superb off-season.

Grade: A-

Mixed Bag:

Dallas Stars

Another team that wins by not losing, Dallas overpaid, or overcommitted for Alexander Radulov, though he is a welcome addition to a team with plenty of offensive firepower.  Adding Martin Hanzal, though also at a higher cost than necessary, is helpful because he provides flexibility to the top six.  The trade for Marc Methot was smart; Dallas looks like the big winner today, though he will not look nearly as good without Erik Karlsson by his side.  Antti Niemi could not get it together in goal for Dallas, but replacing him with Mike McKenna is a weak move for a playoff-bound team.  Letting Ales Hemsky and Jiri Hudler walk was helpful too.  

Grade: B/B+

Anaheim Ducks

Patrick Eaves signed a fair extension to continue his offensive prowess next to Ryan Getzlaf for the next three seasons.  Ryan Miller was brought in to replace Jonathan Bernier as backup goaltender, Cam Fowler, who was almost run out of town two years ago, will be a Duck for life.  Most importantly, the Ducks kept their core together, losing Shea Theodore instead of one of their more prized defensemen in the expansion draft.  They lost some grit with the departures of Nate Thompson and Ryan Garbutt, but grinders are easy to replace.  It is hard to say the Ducks are better than they were on June 30th, but they were two games from the Stanley Cup, so they win by not losing.

Grade: B

More to come...

Monday, June 26, 2017

Nail Yakupov will not be tendered offer; becomes UFA

In an earlier post, I briefly touched on the possibility of potential bust Nail Yakupov being a target for the Capitals in free agency.  Now that the news is official, it is time to evaluate whether or not Yakupov is worth a roster slot, and if so, at what cost.

The main reason we are even in a position to discuss a 23 year old former #1 overall draft pick in unrestricted free agency is because of how underwhelming Yakupov has been as a player.  Lazy, uninterested, and/or ineffective, Yakupov has been hugely disappointing.  

However, there is value in that, as Brett Connolly can attest to: Connolly, himself a high first round draftee who has largely underwhelmed, set a career high with 15 goals, good for 7th on a stacked Capitals roster, is due for a raise over the $800k he earned this past season.  While Yakupov may not sign for quite as little as Connolly did, he can provide similar offense to Wilson or Winnik for less financial commitment.

Assuming Yakupov continues to play an average of 78% of his team's games (68 games), and scores at his average goals/minute, he would score 9 goals, or 2 more than Wilson, along with 11 assists.  This calculation also assumes that Yakupov would play the same 10 minutes per game that Connolly logged last year.  However, for most of his short career, including last year's aberration, Yakupov has generated shots well: his 8.07 SOG/60 falls somewhere between Ryan Kesler's 7.42 and Connor McDavid's 8.27.  Through 4 years in Edmonton, he averaged 8.43 SOG/60, though his scoring projections would be the same.

Connolly, by contrast, has averaged 6.91 SOG/60; his 6.88 with the Capitals brought the average down marginally.

All this has to be further put into context.  Since his outstanding rookie year, during which he was on pace for 29 goals had the NHL season not begun in January, he has scored on 7.5% of his shots on goal.  Granted his shooting 21% as a rookie was unsustainable, but he probably can convert better than what he has since.  Even a moderate improvement, to the league average for forwards of 10.753%, would make a profound difference of roughly an additional 3 goals per season.

For most of his career, Yakupov has played more prominent roles on far less talented teams.  While he may not be the best fit for fourth line duty, and regular third line work may be too much to ask, tasking him with playing spot duty alongside speedsters like Kuznetsov and Burakovsky/Johansson, or with bulls like Eller and Wilson could prove that Yakupov is the needle in the haystack.

For a team desperate for cap room, that cheap value may be just what is needed.

That is, unless he goes for the safe money in Russia.  

Friday, June 23, 2017

TJ Oshie should be the captain of the Capitals

TJ Oshie signed an 8 year, team friendly contract, leaving a lot of money on the table in favor of stability and the flexibility to play the role to which he is best suited - digging for pucks and scoring hard goals.  This kind of team-oriented behavior, along with the way he conducts himself on and off the ice, is what leaders are made from.

Joe Thornton is a prime example of what can happen when the pressure to lead is too great; he posted monster numbers for years in San Jose, but with little to show for it.  Since having his captaincy taken away, the Sharks have been much more successful, and Thornton still led from the front.  Only, unlike Ovechkin, he did not have the burden of the C sewn onto his jersey, the heaviest letter in sports.

Ovechkin has matured greatly, but his style of leadership is obviously not the answer to the team's problems.  Even when surrounded by a roster full of talented former first-round draft picks, multiple Cup winners, and Mr. Game 7 himself, the team falls flat.  It is time for a drastic change.  Ovechkin should not be the captain of this team.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Capitals should immediately trade Philipp Grubauer

With Nate Schmidt off to Vegas, and several teams looking for solid goaltending, the Capitals have a good case to trade Grubauer.

Grubauer is a restricted free agent, coming off a two-year bridge deal which saw him earn $750,000 annually.  As a backup, Grubauer has not started much, but he saw action in a career high 24 games last season, posting insane numbers.  Considering the Capitals overstrength in goal, and their insistence on reacquiring Pheonix Copley in the Shattenkirk trade, there is no need to keep Grubauer on the roster when he can be used to valuable acquire assets.

Potential trade partners:

Calgary Flames: Mike Smith is a serviceable starting goalie, but he is 35 years old and his best days are behind him.  The next one is several years away.  A playoff bound team needs more assurances in goal.  Potential return: several high draft picks.

Edmonton Oilers: Cam Talbot is solid in goal, but played more than he should have.  Backup goaltender Laurent Brossoit has played in 14 career games, posting subpar totals.  A team expected to make a deep playoff run would benefit from having a solid fail-safe, if for no reason other than injury concerns from an overplayed starting 'tender.  Potential return: Jordan Eberle and a mid-round draft pick in a cap friendly trade involving Orpik going the other way.  (editor's note: Eberle has since been traded to the Islanders for Ryan Strome).  Darnell Nurse?

Boston Bruins: Tuukka Rask has regressed considerably since winning the Vezina in 2014, providing the Bruins with a lower quality start percentage in three successive seasons.  Rask was downright awful in 2016-17; while his fantasy numbers might not have been bad, his real hockey numbers were atrocious.  He is only 30, so it is reasonable to expect some normalization of his numbers, but he might not be the strong backstop he once was.  For an aging team with an unknown quantity in Malcolm Subban, it may be prudent to make the move for a proven NHL goaltender.  Potential return: Jakub Zboril or Zach Senyshyn and a late draft pick.

Chicago Blackhawks: Corey Crawford has never made more than 58 starts in a season, so Grubauer would have plenty of opportunity to play in the Windy City.  Bringing in the restricted free agent would also provide financial flexibility for a team desperate for breathing room.  While Crawford shows no signs of slowing down, $6 million is a lot to pay for a 32 year old goaltender who may soon become expendable.  Potential return: Alex DeBrincat and a mid-round pick.

Other targets: Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers, Vancouver Canucks

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Filling out the defense

It is a foregone conclusion that the Capitals will ice a drastically different roster next season.  Just how effective at making changes the Capitals are remains to be seen.  Having previously covered some possible replacements for outgoing forwards, it is time to turn to the other side of the puck.

Out:

Karl Alzner: Alzner has been a mainstay on the blue line since opening night 2010, having played in 540 consecutive regular season games.  Consistently flying under the radar as a quiet complementary player, Alzner, like Edmonton's Kris Russell, is a benchmark for the stats vs. eyes test, who gets clobbered year after year in puck possession stats.  It will be difficult to replace him on the penalty kill, but he is due for a considerable raise over the $2.8 million he made this season.

Kevin Shattenkirk: The biggest deadline deal in Capitals history was, in true Caps fashion, all for show.  The team had no problem on the powerplay, so bringing in another quarterback never made much sense anyway.  However, Kevin will have no shortage of suitors, and has earned the huge paycheck he will have for the foreseeable future.  But that future will not be in Washington.

Dmitry Orlov: Nothing is decided yet, but Orlov will certainly have a pretty offer from the KHL to return home.  Hopefully this does not happen, as Orlov has developed in a fine second pair defenseman who surprisingly landed the best hit of the season for the Capitals, while playing in all situations of every game.  There is a reasonable chance Orlov will be gone next year.

There is a lot of value on the market, either available through free agency, or trade (less ideal).  The question is whether that fits within the Capitals budget:

Brian Campbell: The former Cup winner is old and not as mobile as in his heyday, but will neither command a high salary nor top minutes.  But Campbell is a winner, which would be a welcome change.

Eric Gryba: Not particularly mobile, but posted positive shot differentials in part time duty and is a steady, stay at home defenseman who can be an effective penalty killer.

Yannick Weber: He does not see the toughest assignments, but in a depth role, would be useful.

Eric Gudbranson: The oft-injured former Panther played just 30 games after being traded to the Canucks.  He is certainly due a significant raise, but may be worth freeing up cap space for, since he is 24 and a restricted free agent.  Philipp Grubauer will almost assuredly be chosen by Las Vegas, and with Ryan Miller out in Vancouver, a one-for-one swap would help both teams if the Capitals feel that Orlov will jump across the pond.

Matt Hunwick: He may resign with Toronto, and for good reason, as the Leafs figure to be highly competitive next season.  But a 32 year old without much long-term upside may be squeezed out of the Leafs roster.  Hunwick would be a solid third pairing defenseman who plays a lot on the penalty kill.

Other names: Dylan McIlrath, Fedor Tyutin, Deryk Engelland.

One thing is clear: the Capitals need to promote from within.  Djoos and Bowey figure to both get long looks in the preseason.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Low risk-high reward

The Capitals are in the worst possible position: a disappointing playoff finish, a depleted draft, a thin prospect pool, and plenty of cap trouble.  This whirlpool of unfortunate circumstances promises to bring some degree of change to the roster next year, though exactly how much remains to be seen.

With some major holes opening up on both sides of the puck, the Capitals may be best served looking for value as opposed to trying to retool for a run as they have in the past.  With that in mind, here are some possibilities to fill out the forward lines:

Nail Yakupov: A perennial disappointment chosen higher than he should have been will likely not be tendered by St. Louis, enabling him to enter unrestricted free agency much sooner than expected.  After playing on a $2.5 million/year contract, the possibility exists for Yakupov to run home to Russia, where he is sure to earn more, but presuming he wants another chance in the NHL, a no pressure depth role in Washington is sure to be of interest.

Radim Vrbata: Maybe more of a pipe dream as he enjoys playing in the desert, the Coyotes assistant captain has two thirty goal seasons since turning 30 and played on a very team friendly contract in 2016-17.  Vrbata will start next season at 36, so expectations have to be tempered, but he can still skate and he shoots the puck an awful lot, so another 15-20 goal season is a reasonable expectation.

Brian Boyle: Another pipe dream, Brian Boyle is awfully big, experienced, consistently wins faceoffs and moves the puck in the right direction.  Boyle starts most often in the defensive zone yet generates a positive Corsi.  He may be slow and cumbersome, but he has shown flashes of offensive skill, has great playoff experience, and should come at a relative bargain given his short-term upside.

Brett Connolly: Why not?  The definition of a low-risk, high-reward free agent signing turned in a career best 15 goals on a bargain contract.  Even with a modest raise, Connolly is a great value as he brings size and skill to a fourth line desperately in need of both.

Kris Versteeg: He can never seem to land anywhere long-term, having played for 8 teams in his career, but has 2 Stanley Cups and averages more than half a point per game.  Versteeg has built a reputation as a do-everything player and seems to make everyone around him a little bit better.  Losing Justin Williams will hurt; bringing in Versteeg could make that sting just a little bit less.

Sam Gagner: The Oilers single-game points record holder is a pending UFA again, and after posting a career best 50 point season is sure to find work.  However, Gagner has been wildly inconsistent throughout his career and, while due for a raise over last year's $650,000 contract, should be a reasonable bargain.

Patrick Eaves: Last year's 32 goals were more than he had posted in the prior 5 seasons combined.  While it would be unreasonable to expect that same caliber of production from a 33 year old, he was not a great beneficiary of shooting percentages, as he scored on average pace with the Stars before exploding for 11 goals in 20 games with the Ducks.  A solid depth option, Eaves might have earned himself too big a raise for the Capitals liking, but could easily slot into a third line role next to Eller and Wilson.

Other names: Chris Neil, Michael Haley, Tom Pyatt, Rene Bourque, Dominic Moore, P.A. Parenteau

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A case for Oshie to re-sign

TJ Oshie may have been the best trade acquisition in the team's history.  His two seasons in Washington represented his two best goal scoring seasons, and this year's .82 points per game were well above his .699 with the Blues.  Having scored on 18% of his shots with the Capitals, Oshie consistently found a way to get in behind the defense and into the high percentage scoring areas.  This is important.

First, to suggest that Oshie suddenly, at age 28, became a high percentage shooter, increasing from a career mark of 11.8% with the Blues to 14.1% and 23% over his two seasons in Washington, is shortsighted at best.  While some of the increase can be attributable to maturity on the ice, that stark of an increase is likely due to other reasons.  Namely, Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

Second, the NHL is a league of mimicry, and especially given the Penguins success over the past two seasons, there has been a particular premium placed on speed.  However, Oshie is not exactly fleet of foot.  Since he excels in front of the net, it is advantageous for someone else to be doing most of the shooting.  Ovechkin is in a class of his own when it comes to getting rubber on the net.  In fact, since entering the league, our beloved Alex has produced the top 7, and 9 of the top 11 seasons in terms of shots on goal.  He has 45% more shots on goal during that time span than second place (Eric Staal).  Oshie can take advantage of the attention Ovechkin naturally draws and position himself either in the soft spot for a one-timer, or in front of the net for a tip-in or rebound.  He has done a phenomenal job of both thus far, and he would be well served to recognize this unique opportunity.

Oshie may very well be the perfect right wing companion for Alexander Ovechkin.  Ovechkin has drawn defenders to him for most of his career in a way unseen since Mario Lemieux was in his prime.  For an offense that likes to control the puck and cycle, the defense cheating leaves room somewhere on the ice; Oshie was able to exploit this and weasel his way into high percentage scoring areas.  Oshie is a very good hockey player, but without an elite goal scorer next to him, he will draw more attention from the defense, and his effectiveness will suffer.  As far as complementary scorers go, Oshie is in a class of his own.

Few centers make the game look as easy as Nicklas Backstrom does.  His smooth skating, strong two-way play, and soft but crisp passing have been critical to this team's relative success.  Since joining the league, only Joe Thornton and Henrik Sedin have more assists than Backstrom's 540.  No one even comes close to his 247 power play assists; Thornton's 211 (in 40 more games) come closest, and no one else sniffs 200.  Someone as good on the power play as Oshie would have to be a fool to walk away from that.

Since his heroics in the Olympics, TJ Oshie has endeared himself appropriately to most hockey fans.  Having led the league in shooting percentage, he will have no shortage of suitors for his services.  He is well deserving of a pay raise, and will most assuredly receive a sizable one at that.  However, for his sake, and for that of the Capitals, he should remain where he is, in front of the net, banging home gifts from Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Capitals will win tonight

I guarantee it.

This is not the hapless, dough-eyed fan in me.  This is the pragmatist, the one who believes in puck luck, the one who believes in momentum, the one who believes in our time being now.  Our time, being that of the fans, naturally.

This team was built for this moment.

Tonight's roster will consist of almost entirely first-round draft picks.  Two Cup winners with four Cups between them.  Seven defensemen to insulate against defensive shortcomings and provide roster flexibility.  And an energized captain playing on the third line to create scoring depth unheard of in this city.

The Penguins are savvy veterans who have been there and done that, but they are banged up, and are limping into the lion's den.  There is no denying their talent and their coaching, but health will be the determining factor in this hard-fought series, and Pittsburgh is too injured, too hurt to continue.

That is not to say the Penguins will not put up a fight, because believe me they will.  But their fight will fall flat, their comeback will come up short, and the black and yellow will turn black and blue.

Prediction Guarantee: Washington 3, Pittsburgh 2

Monday, May 8, 2017

Offensive explosion forces game 7

The Capitals offensive outburst in game 6 forced this pundit to spring for a disgustingly overpriced ticket to yet another potential heartbreak.

But as a sports fan, this is what I live for.

Barry Trotz's tinkering of the offensive lines has seemed to work thus far, generating two wins in as many games.  Burakowsky, playing with Backstrom and Oshie, scored twice.  Backstrom picked up the game winner en route to being one of two Capitals to win most of his faceoffs.  The newly formed trio of Ovechkin, Eller, and Wilson combined for 8 hits and 5 shots, and despite losing the majority of the faceoffs, seemed to control the puck well.  Kuznetsov has awoken from what was a terrible 2016 calendar year to emerge as the dominant second line center the team has been searching for since Sergei Fedorov retired.

Sidney Crosby is playing hurt and it shows.  Game 7 will be a true test of his character.  Should he play, he may be a liability, as he will certainly be a target of enhanced physicality, and he may not be as effective as the second line AHLer due to replace him.  Should he sit, and the Penguins lose, the Capitals will have shifted the series due to the misfortune of a young man's proneness to injury.

Early prediction: Capitals 3, Penguins 1

"Wars might be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of the men who leads that gains the victory."

-General Patton

Trevor Daley out with LBI

According to Coach Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh defenseman Trevor Daley will miss tonight's action.  Considering he missed Friday's practice, this should come as no surprise.  Still, the Penguins rely on his grit, so he will be missed.

Brian Dumolin, despite being hurt in game 5, will play.

One would figure veteran Mark Streit slots in, as the former Islanders captain provides mobility and offense, and is a left-handed shot like Daley, though the right-handed Chad Ruhwedel offers youthful vigor and is more sound defensively and may earn a jersey.

Either way, with Letang and Daley out, the Capitals need to take advantage of the typically lengthy Penguins injury list and pounce early and often.

More to come.

6:08 PM edit:

Ruhwedel slots in to replace Daley, who is still feeling the effects of a clean Tom Wilson hit.  Wilson, who skated hard then glided for roughly 15 feet, was penalized for charging, an attempt by the referees to dictate the pace and physicality of the game.  No matter; the damage was done.