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.


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.

History will repeat itself

As Washington prepares for yet another potential series clinching game, we are reminded that this is not the first time these Ovechkin-led Capitals are faced with this situation: down 3 games to 2, going on the road to face a lower seed.

This playoff series has been eerily similar to 2009, when the second ranked Capitals defeated the seventh ranked Rangers on the back of Sergei Fedorov.

Having lost both games at Verizon Center, the Capitals won game three decisively before failing to complete a comeback in game four.  Sound familiar?

Matt Bradley exploded for two of his three career playoff goals in game five as the Caps downed the Rags 4-0 in a game which Capitals fans got the better of John Tortorella, who was suspended for the following game.

Game six was a physical affair, capped by Donald Brashear absolutely destroying Blair Betts with a clean hit from the blindside in what ended up as his final game as a Capital.  The result was equally exciting, as the Rangers furiously attempted to come back, but fell short in spite of a goal from Marc Staal with 6 seconds left.

I would expect a similar result Monday night.

The 2009 game featured goals from five players, including three defensemen.  So far this year, the defense has not been able to capitalize, which has obviously handcuffed the team.  In fact, since the Ovechkin era began, only once, between the regular and post-seasons, have the Capitals received such awful production from the back end.  The 2009 postseason saw 2 of the 22 goals scored came from blueliners; this year 3 of 31 have come from them.

A physical affair should provide the Capitals with several opportunities on the power play, which we will see capitalized upon in the way of multiple power play goals en route to a 5-3 finish.

Monday, May 1, 2017

OT heroes

Led by Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins, with the goaltender pulled, scored twice in the final two minutes of the game to send this to overtime.

We could whine about the officiating by Brads Meier and Watson, but that does us no good.

It is time to focus on overtime.  If the Caps are to have any chance in the series, winning in overtime on the road to scrape out a win is the way to do it.

If the Capitals win, it is because of Justin Williams.  He has been all over the ice since the opening puck drop, netting two assists and several hits thus far.  Mr. Game 7 lives for the clutch and will live up to his name.

If the worst were to happen, it will be because of Malkin.  It is hard to choose against the hot hand.