Thursday, December 7, 2017

Tom Wilson, MVP

Well, maybe not season MVP, but certainly last night's MVP.

Wilson notched his second career two goal game (his first being last month against Boston), and his first career four point night against the Blackhawks.  He also defended his captain in a big way from a potentially nasty knee-on-knee (but Russian machine never break).  RMNB had a great write-up.

We have long advocated for increased use of Wilson, to develop him into a complementary power forward, a la Scott Mellanby.  He has been long respected for his physicality, recently for his defensive play.  With a prolonged chance alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom, with whom he has played sporadically in the past, he should develop into a solid banger who can slam home rebounds, tip in shots, and cause mayhem in front of the net.

And as we have seen on numerous occasions, as well as last night, Wilson provides much needed muscle to one of the softer teams in a soft league.

It may have taken longer than expected, but Wilson is earning his draft selection.

Now if only the Caps still had the other guy they drafted that year...

Friday, December 1, 2017

Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oil! Oil! Oil!

Nathan Walker, the first Australian-trained (though Welsh-born) player to make the NHL, who was waived yesterday, was claimed by the Edmonton Oilers.  The Oilers were #3 on the waiver wire.  Iiro Pakarinen was waived to make room for the Thunder from Down Under.

Badly underutilized, Walker became a casualty of Coach Barry Trotz's affinity for low line competition, and replaceable veterans.  Walker was lost in the shuffle, competing for bottom 6 minutes with Brett Connolly, Alex Chiasson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Tyler Graovac, Chandler Stephenson, and Tom Wilson, with only Wilson's name in pen.  When fully healthy, the Capitals have 6 wingers competing for 3 roster spots.

Competition raises the level of play.  It forces players to be tight on their game, for fear of losing their roster spot.  Knowing that nothing is guaranteed demands that each individual takes every shift as their last.

This is good for the team.

This is not good for player development though, something Trotz has struggled with for much of his career (goaltenders aside).

Nathan Walker made the team out of camp, and played in a grand total of 94 minutes split over 7 games.  He needs to play more if he is going to develop.  No one gets better from the press box.

This begs the question:

Why was Tyler Graovac not waived instead?  He is listed as a center, but has taken a total of 3 faceoffs this year, and won 47.5% last year with Minnesota.  He does not penalty kill.  He does not score goals.  He does not hit much, averaging one per game.  He is not an energy guy.  He... does not impact the game in any meaningful way.  He is forgettable and unnoticeable.

Nathan Walker is an energy guy who plays more on the penalty kill.  He is one year younger.  He is smaller, but one cannot help but notice his presence on every shift.  And come on, he is a feel good story.  The additional $25,000 owed to Nathan Walker does not significantly affect the team.  The additional year of his contract does not either.

While not egregious, this was a mistake.  Walker should be on the roster, and Graovac should have been waived instead.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Capitals should trade Braden Holtby

Rarely will a team trade away Vezina-caliber goaltenders in their prime.  But the Capitals need to do just that.

Braden Holtby is one of the three best goaltenders in the league.  No one denies his ability to be a franchise cornerstone.  Most NHL GMs would kill for a player as talented as him.

But most NHL GMs draft goaltenders poorly, and develop them even worse.  However, this is probably the Capitals' greatest strength: goaltender development.  Adding the legendary Mitch Korn has a long history of developing quality starters; under his tutelage, his keepers have won a combined 5 Vezina trophies, with Hasek having won two more after Korn switched teams.  (This is also why I do not support the Capitals firing Barry Trotz: his assistant coaching staff is top notch).

Holtby was a steal in the fourth round, being the 9th goalie drafted in 2008.  Holtby has 17 more NHL wins than the first 8 goaltenders drafted combined.  In fact, Holtby has accounted for 44% of all of the goalie wins from his draft class.  There were 22 goalies drafted.

The last Cup-starting and winning goaltender drafted in the first round was Marc-Andre Fleury, who started in 2009's Penguins win: one of three since the 04-05 lockout to be drafted that high.

Goaltenders, more than any other position, have good value in later rounds.  Of the 14 goalies last year to win 30 games, three were first round draft picks, four were undrafted, and the rest fell somewhere in between.  The average draft number for the ten who were drafted is 102.

The Capitals also have a well stocked goalie cupboard.  Philipp Grubauer might not be ready to carry a team, but he has widely been pegged as the next great starter.  Pheonix Copley, whom the Capitals highly value, was a key part of the Shattenkirk trade last season and the Oshie trade before that- has absolutely dominated at the AHL level and should compete for the backup role in Washington.  Competing with Copley is Vitek Vanecek, who has performed admirably in both the ECHL and AHL.  Behind them both is Adam Carlson, who passes the eye test, when healthy.

But the biggest prize of all is Ilya Samsonov, the best goaltender outside of North America, who is expected to sign with the Capitals after his contract expires this upcoming summer.  Comparing him to other blue-chip Russian goalie prospects like Sergei Bobrovsky and Andrei Vasilevskiy, it is not unreasonable for Samsonov to quickly adjust to the North American game and compete for an NHL position right away.

This deep pipeline makes Holtby somewhat expendable- for the right price.  He has a friendly contract; of his cap comparables, fellow goaltenders +/- 10% of his cap hit of $6.1 MM, he is the youngest, and besides Carey Price, is undoubtedly the best.  However, the Capitals are desperate for cap relief, and trading away Holtby's $6.1 MM would go a long way towards a proper retool.  Holtby has been a workhorse in net, but his trade value is tremendous.

With no comparable trades of ace goaltenders in their prime with contract to spare, it is difficult to speculate on a return, but we can suspect that Holtby would bring in at least a solid starting player, a prospect, and a first round draft pick.  It might also be possible to use him to entice a team to pick up the last two years of Orpik's contract.  Who knows?  For a playoff team tight against the cap, but in need of a few solid pieces to become truly competitive, trading away the Beast might be the best move.  

Friday, October 13, 2017

Wilson's back! Notes and predictions

Tom Wilson will make his long awaited season debut tonight, skating on the third line alongside Brett Connolly and Lars Eller.  He will presumably return to the top penalty killing unit as well, although Devante Smith-Pelly has certainly made his mark.  In what promises to be a pivotal year for Mr. Wilson, fresh off of a suspension and making his season debut in Game 5, will need to finally justify his draft ranking.

Wilson was drafted 16th overall in 2012, just 5 slots behind a certain player who shan't be named, and was expected to bring a heavy game with offensive flair.  He followed up with 58 points in 2013, alongside 17 points in 12 OHL playoff games before making his NHL debut in the playoffs of that year in dramatic fashion.

He immediately made himself into a household name as a physical presence, sparking an ongoing rivalry with Brayden Schenn (then of Philadelphia), and drew the ire of just about everyone in the league for his explosive (yet clean!) bodychecks.  However, the Capitals did not draft a 4th line goon; they drafted a power forward in the same vein as Milan Lucic or Rick Tocchet.  Or so they thought.

Wilson's offensive game has not yet developed.  Although he has become a reliable two-way forward, even singlehandedly having the shift of the playoffs, he leaves us wanting more.  Needing more, actually.  With the departure of Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, Wilson will be relied upon to add some offense to his game - or he will likely go the way of the dodo.  Fan favorite or not, he has tremendous trade value (Las Vegas anybody?), and the team will eventually run out of patience and cut ties.

With that said, we expect Wilson to get a healthy dose of ice time this season, in all-situations, even turning in a few powerplay shifts.  Starting tonight, of course.

Speaking of tonight, here are the predictions:

1. Marcus Johansson will immediately make us regret trading him

This isn't so much a prediction as an admission.  Evgeny Kuznetsov, TJ Oshie, and Dmitry Orlov all deserved huge pay raises, and no one can fault them for taking their deals.  But we can still be upset that Johansson had to leave as a cap casualty.  We wish Marcus all the best.  Well, at least for 78 games.

2. Braden Holtby will show us why he is the best goaltender in the world

Facing a tough test on the road against an upstart New Jersey Devils squad, Holtby will rise to the occasion.  After yet another hard loss to the Penguins, he should bounce back immediately, like he consistently has throughout his career.  During his dominating three year run, he has only followed up a loss with another loss 16 times.  In 202 starts.  This trend will continue tonight.

3. The special teams will bounce back

Looking for a spark following Wednesday's abortion of a special teams performance, the Capitals will look to get back to what they do best: dominate.  After mustering a paltry 5 shots on 4 powerplays, and allowing 3 powerplay goals, there is plenty of room for improvement.  We should see that tonight.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Washington Capitals fall 3-2 at home to Pittsburgh Penguins

Not surprisingly, the Capitals lost to Pittsburgh, at home, yet again.

Also not surprisingly, Matt Murray played out of his mind, making several dynamite saves, and furthering the story of Sidney Crosby's continual dominance over Alex Ovechkin.

The results:

1. The Capitals will win handily


2. A defenseman will score for the Capitals

Christian Djoos impressed, netting his first career goal in his first career game on his first career shot.  He also added a beautiful assist on an Ovechkin slamdunk.  

3. The Capitals special teams will continue to shine





Some assorted notes:

  • Aside from scoring his first two career points, Djoos impressed in his limited role.  Djoos began with Ness, but quickly found himself paired with John Carlson, who was on the ice for two of the Penguins three powerplay goals.  
  • Carlson led the team with 26:22 of icetime, the third time he has led the team this season.  Excepting the blowout win over Montreal, in which he played a measly 23 minutes, Carlson has played more than 26 minutes nightly.  For an all-situations defender this is to be expected, but one has to wonder how long this can be sustained.  Carlson is ostensibly the Capitals #3 defenseman, but plays on the top powerplay and penalty kill units.  
  • Speaking of #1s, Matt Niskanen should have played more (22:13), but he took two soft penalties, the first of which allowed Kris Letang to score (coincidentally, from a place which would have been otherwise occupied by Niskanen himself).  Again, excepting the blowout, in which the third pair received considerably more icetime than in a competitive game, Niskanen was on the ice less than usual.  For some reason, he only played 6 minutes in the third period of a 1 goal game.  Odd, to say the least.
  • Brooks Orpik continued to exceed expectations, posting an even all-situations CF and 58.62% 5v5 CF.  He also played 21 minutes, slightly lowering his average for the season, yet considerably higher than his career average with the Capitals.  
  • The Capitals were badly outshot (36-22), but that does not pass the sniff-test: Washington attempted 55 shots compared to Pittsburgh's 57.  It's not as if the Pens were profoundly better at blocking shots than the Caps; Pittsburgh blocked 17 compared to the Capitals 16.  They were just better at getting shots toward the net. 
  • The fourth line was particularly buried, totaling 4% CF.  Yowch.
  • Tyler Graovac was arguably the worst of the bunch, seeing 0 shots head towards Murray, while seeing 9 towards Braden Holtby.  This would not be that bad, but Graovac had less than 6 minutes of ice time.  
  • The remainder of that trio, Devante Smith-Pelly and Jay Beagle had rough games too, but they earned most of their shots against on the penalty kill.
  • Alex Ovechkin slammed home an easy goal on a brilliant tic-tac-toe play started by Nicklas Backstrom, the first of his league-leading 8 that were not off the tape of Evgeny Kuznetsov.  
  • Alex Chiasson continues to underwhelm.  He had negative possession numbers again, and with the return of Tom Wilson, should slide out of the lineup.
  • Speaking of Chiasson, we're not sure what's worse: Sidney Crosby putting his shoulder into Holtby, or the lack of a response by the Capitals.  Take a look below and let us know:

  • Should Crosby have been penalized for his headshot, or was it in the normal course of play?  Either way, should someone have retaliated, to show Crosby, the Penguins, and the rest of the league, that the goalie is off-limits?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Djoos is loose: 3 bold predictions

Christian Djoos will make his long-awaited NHL debut tonight against our friends from Pittsburgh.  The move bumps Aaron Ness over the right side, and Taylor Chorney to the press box where he belongs.  Also slotting in tonight is Tyler Graovac, who will exempt Nathan Walker from the lineup.

Tonight's matchup pits the Washington Capitals against their archrival Pittsburgh Penguins in the first game since yet another disappointing finish in DC.  Pittsburgh, having played about a thousand games during their two year run on top of the league, is worn out, and playing back-to-back to start the year, the team showed fatigue.  They followed the 10-1 shellacking by Chicago (hehehehehe) with a 4-0 donut over Nashville.  Now they come to town looking to rub their Cup win in the Capitals faces yet again (oh God why?!).

Here are three bold predictions for tonight's match:

1. The Capitals will win handily

New look or not, this Washington squad hates Pittsburgh.  Alex Ovechkin is sick of being embarrassed and one-upped by Sidney Crosby.  Losing record in the head-to-head aside, Ovechkin is on fire and passion is always good when batting above your weight.

2. A defenseman will score for the Capitals

Last season's defense corps accounted for 29 of the team's 261 goals scored, or 11.1%.  To date in this young season, the blueline has laid an egg.  Tonight this changes; a defenseman will dent the twine for the good guys in red.

3. The Capitals special teams will continue to shine

Before allowing the deciding goal in overtime, the Capitals had killed off 13 consecutive penalties to start the season.  The powerplay is operating at a similar clip, reaching paydirt on one third of its opportunities.  Both trends should continue tonight, with Holtby back in goal to shore up the PK, and an undisciplined Penguins squad certain to make mistakes.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Washington Capitals fall 4-3 in overtime to Tampa Bay Lightning

In what should come as no surprise, the Capitals lost on the road to the Lightning.  Tampa Bay boasts one of the deepest rosters in the game, and it was on full display tonight, with four different goal scorers and eight players in total earning points.  Nikita Kucherov continues to impress for Tampa, and a healthy Steven Stamkos alongside him in downright scary.

The results of tonight's bold predictions:

1. The Capitals will score first, early, and often, but will lose

Yes, yes, kinda, yes.  The Capitals scored twice in the first and at one point held a 3-1 lead, and although they did not put up quite as many as expected, this still counts as a correct parlay.
2. The unsung heroes will lead the offense for the Capitals

Absolutely not.  Not only did the entire offense come off of Nicklas Backstrom and TJ Oshie's stick, the lower lines never had any good scoring chances.

3. We will see our first fight of the season

Close but no cigar.


Why is Aaron Ness still playing?


Road warriors: 3 bold predictions

The Capitals have a tough October schedule, facing 8 of 12 opponents on the road.  Not long after barely squeaking out a win in Ottawa, the Capitals dominated the home opener against the Montreal Canadiens.  Tonight, they face their toughest test to date: the Tampa Lightning team led by a finally-healthy Steven Stamkos and the ever dangerous Nikita Kucherov.  The Bolts have plenty of scoring depth, one of the best defense corps in the league, led of course by Victor Hedman, and two solid goaltenders who are off to slow starts.  Oh, and super-pest (and four time Cup winner OH GOD WHY?) Chris Kunitz.  

Tampa is the early season favorite to represent the East in the Cup Final.

Here are three bold predictions for tonight's match:

1. The Capitals will score first, early, and often, but will lose

Specifically, the Caps will score at least 4 goals, but allow at least 5.  The Capitals third defensive pair has been shielded by facing two opponents without the scoring depth that Tampa has.  Tonight, they get exposed.  The penalty kill has been perfect thus far, but they will change tonight too: Tampa's speed will draw obstruction penalties and they will punish Grubauer, who will make his season debut tonight.  

2. The unsung heroes will lead the offense for the Capitals

Between the third and fourth lines, and half of the defense corps, there are plenty of options to choose from.  We are betting that a defenseman and the bottom six will combine for the majority of the Capitals offense tonight.

3. We will see our first fight of the season

This Tampa squad is fast.  Very fast.  We expect to see a physical affair led by plenty of forechecking and board play, as the Capitals try to slow the Bolts down.  Nathan Walker, looking to stick in the lineup, and Chris Kunitz, one of our many banes of existence, should meet to exchange pleasantries after one of the many, many big hits we will see the Caps throw.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Notes from last night

Last night, the Capitals kicked off the new season with a 5-4 shootout win against the Ottawa Senators.  Alexander Ovechkin notably tied the franchise mark with 3 goals in the opener, though new linemates Jakub Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov had strong performances, scoring two and three assists, respectively.

  • Ovechkin-Kuznetsov-Vrana will combine for 100 or more goals.  Guaranteed.
  • Ovechkin's newly formed trio dominated the score sheet, with all posting strong possession numbers and accounting for the bulk of the scoring, but the Backstrom line may have had an even stronger game, led by Andre Burakovsky's ridiculous 71% CF.  The BBO line, with TJ Oshie on the right side, will have a fair amount of defensive zone starts, but strong skating and puck skills will enable them to still produce at a fair clip.  
  • Lars Eller looked great, winning 60% of his faceoffs, twice setting up Alex Chiasson while shorthanded, and landing an assist on Brett Connolly's goal.  When Tom Wilson returns and takes his place on his right side, we should see Eller's line play eat a lot of tough minutes.  Some continued offense would be a bonus.
  • Jay Beagle, Tyler Graovac, and Devante Smith-Pelly were buried, ceding 24 more shot attempts than they took.  Beagle had a strong game in the faceoff dot but otherwise was forgettable, finishing with a -2, no hits, and a single shot attempt.  Graovac was the only one of the trio to finish without a negative Corsi (50%), but he also only saw 6 minutes of ice time, not playing after the 43rd minute.  Smith-Pelly gave a goal away, and his physical play in the corners may not have been enough to earn the sweater on Saturday.  
  • We expect the Thunder from Down Under to make his debut against the Canadiens in the Capitals home opener.  
  • Dmitry Orlov posted a 62.5% CF while playing the second most minutes.  He was on the ice for 3:30 of shorthanded time, which when compared to the 14 seconds he averaged per game last season, indicates a great deal more responsibility on his shoulders.  
  • Aaron Ness and Taylor Chorney were predictably awful.  Ness took two penalties, and whiffed on a hip check.  Chorney looked every bit the 7th defenseman he is.  Barry Trotz thankfully kept them off the ice a lot, but one has to wonder how much worse Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey would be. 
  • Worse still was John Carlson.  He posted a -3 and took out Nicklas Backstrom with this hit.  No bueno.
  • Brooks Orpik played almost 25 minutes, 6 of which were shorthanded.  Never much of a possession hound, Orpik finished with a 37% CF and a -3 as Carlson's partner.
  • Braden Holtby looked rusty.  He did not pass the eye test.
  • Did you see the score of Chicago-Pittsburgh? Hahah

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Verdict

The NHL's Department of Player Safety has suspended Tom Wilson for 4 games for boarding St. Louis Blues forward Samuel Blais.

Why we agree:

After serving a two game suspension the week before for another borderline hit on an unsuspecting player, Blais' teammate Robert Thomas, this result was inevitable.  And while it is important that Wilson maintains the physical nature of his game, driving opponents mad, and drawing lots of penalties, it is imperative that he stays on the right side of the line more often than not.

We take no issue with Wilson sitting in the penalty box, but we take issue with him endangering his team's success by earning suspensions.  This is compounded by the salary cap situation, as Wilson's four game salary of $97,560.96 will still count, and the Capitals will more than likely carry an additional forward than they otherwise would have.  A cap tight team cannot afford stupid mistakes.

Why we disagree:

Looking closely at the hit, one cannot help but conclude that if Blais does not misplay the puck or stutter step, he would have turned up the ice to clear the zone.  In this context, Wilson was right to come hard and fast at Blais to cut off the angle and cause a turnover.  After Blais fumbled the puck, Wilson attempted to change his angle of approach, but since he plays in the NHL, he still finished his check.  By virtue of Wilson attempting to effect the play, and not seeking to impart punishment on an unsuspecting player, this was not a predatory hit, and therefore a suspension should not have been levied.

Further, if Blais had "not seen him coming", that is not Wilson's fault.  At some point, the player getting hit needs to be held to account for protecting himself and being aware of who is on the ice.  The third line, consisting of Brett Connolly, Lars Eller, and Wilson, is not exactly known for its dainty play.  Blais needed to have his head on a swivel, doubly so when holding the puck in the defensive zone against this trio.

Our opinion:

Given Wilson's repeat offender status, and the nature of two questionable hits taking place with so little time between, we feel that a suspension was appropriate.  However, a 4 game suspension is patently absurd, as it serves as a punishment for past indiscretions unrelated to either his R.O. status or this hit.

Point: In 2015 Zac Rinaldo, a repeat offender who had been suspended twice previously, inflicted a similar hit on Kris Letang, and only received a 1 game suspension.  Wilson's hit was not worse; therefore a similar punishment should have been levied.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Defending the castle

Karl Alzner, the Capitals top penalty killer, is gone.  Gone too is emerging two-way defenseman Nate Schmidt.  Also: Kevin Shattenkirk, thanks for nothing.  Three very big holes that, due to salary cap limitations, will likely be filled internally.

1st Pair

Orlov - Niskanen

Is there any question as to who slots in on the top pair?  Dmitry Orlov emerged last season as a two-way defenseman with budding potential.  He landed the hit of the year, got involved in the offense in a big way (increasing his shots on goal output by 28%), and was rewarded with an additional three and a half minutes of ice time per game.  Orlov was aptly called a "high event player", in reference to his hitting and missing opposing forwards.  The team will rely on him to create more good events and fewer bad events on the top pair, playing alongside Matt Niskanen, who has quietly become an elite defenseman.  Niskanen has become a reliable do-it-all blueliner, playing in all situations, eating big minutes, and leading the defense in scoring.  He could stand to improve his shooting percentage (an average shot length of 50.9 feet does not help), but that is the only knock on him as a player.  Niskanen is solid and has become the unquestioned leader of the defense corps.  Look for this pair to play upwards of 22 minutes nightly.

2nd Pair

Johansen - Carlson

Lucas Johansen will make the opening day roster, skating alongside the longest tenured Capitals defenseman.  What he does with this opportunity will speak volumes.  His older brother is known for his conditioning- problems with which seem to afflict young defensemen far more than young forwards- and we hope the apple did not fall far from the tree.  Pairing with John Carlson is ideal for Johansen's development, as the smooth skating Carlson will be able to continue leading the rush and rely on Johansen to protect the back end.  This trial by fire is necessary if the team hopes to compete this season and beyond.  Carlson will begin this season without Alzner by his side; Alzner, the second half of the Carlzner pairing, had been Carlson's roommate, defense pairing, and best friend for the past decade.  How he reacts will go a long way towards determining how well the Capitals perform.  Should he fail, the team goes with him.  Should he succeed, expect another strong regular season from the Capitals.

3rd Pair

Orpik - Bowey

Brooks Orpik, the elder statesman on his way out, remains an important leader on the backend, even if he will not be relied upon to do much on the ice.  We expect Orpik to eat up a lot of penalty kill minutes, and serve as a buffer while the top two pairs rest, but with his relative immobility worsening, all we can ask is that he limits his mistakes on the ice.  Madison Bowey will make his NHL debut this season, opening the year on the third pair.  Being waiver exempt, Bowey will be given a long look.  Playing next to Orpik may not be the best way to showcase his talents, but it should enable Bowey to develop the physical game necessary to build a long and successful career.


Chorney - Ness - Djoos

Taylor Chorney was drafted in the 2nd round of 2005 by the Edmonton Oilers, two weeks after they lost in the Stanley Cup Final to the Carolina Hurricanes.  Much like the Oilers, Chorney has been a disappointment.  On a good team, he is a 7th defenseman at best, but he remains a cheap option should one of the starters get hurt.  Aaron Ness, like Chorney, played college hockey after being drafted in the second round.  Unlike Chorney, Ness has not made much of an impact.  Entering the season with so many question marks on defense gives Ness his best chance to stick around.  Christian Djoos has a solid shot at making the big squad this season, but as he is not waiver exempt, unless he wows management and the coaching staff, he will begin the year in the AHL.  Losing Greg Smith increases the likelihood that the Capitals suffer more man games lost to injury than in the past several seasons, so there will be opportunities for Djoos to shine.  It just will not be in October.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Making the squad

68 goals walked out of the door this offseason.  14 game winning goals, 2 of which were in overtime.  2 top 6 forwards, gone.  2 top penalty killers, gone too.  There are some big holes to fill, and we expect most of the burden to be borne by prospects, although one veteran acquisition should make the squad.

1st Line

Ovechkin - Backstrom - Oshie

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.  Continuity is good, and in the case of a squad undergoing a massive overhaul, it is critical.  All roads lead to Ovechkin, who needs to score more than his pathetic (by his standards) 33 goals and 69 points.  A career 12.3% shooter, Alex shot 10.5% last season, which, while not bad, left 5 or 6 goals on the table.  If the Capitals expect to win, they will need the captain to convert more frequently, especially given the likelihood of TJ Oshie's own percentage receding back to normal.  The new look, quicker Ovechkin will need to score on the rush and drive play.  That is the only way to win in today's NHL.  Nicklas Backstrom lead the team in points for the first time in his career, and with two bona fide scoring wingers, look for a repeat performance.  The question dangling over his head is whether he will lose significant offensive zone time to Kuznetsov, taking on a role similar to Kopitar in LA.  If so, he will be successful, but that success will be measured differently.  TJ Oshie quickly became a fan favorite, and after two solid seasons in Washington, earned a long-term deal.  Like Orpik's contract, the back end could hurt the team, but this is a reasonable price to pay for a guy who brings it every shift and leads the team from the front.

2nd Line

Burakovsky - Kuznetsov - Wilson

Three guys with something to prove; Andre Burakovsky signed a 2-year bridge deal this summer and needs to show that he belongs in Washington's top 6.  Evgeny Kuznetsov is now the 11th highest paid center in the NHL, behind 5 Cup winners, and needs to back up the contract with a return to offensive excellence.  Tom Wilson, like his potential linemates, had a strong postseason, and is playing to justify his draft selection.  If he is unable to produce at both ends of the rink, he may find himself out the door, as the Capitals may shift away from physicality in an effort to mirror the Penguins success.  Expect this line to get plenty of chances to play together early in the year, as Kuznetsov looks for consistent wingers.

3rd Line

Chiasson - Eller - Vrana

For some reason, Alex Chiasson was not qualified this offseason.  Well, one man's trash is another man's treasure.  Or so we hope.  Chiasson has averaged 27 points per 82 over his career, and has shot from an average of 25.1 feet over the same time frame - similar to Johnny Gaudreau, Sidney Crosby, John Tavares, and Ryan Kesler.  Chiasson will not score like them, but it is always a good sign when a player gets into prime real estate.  Lars Eller was an expensive but reliable pickup, even if he will forever be linked to the goalie-who-shall-not-be-named.  He will also be a UFA this offseason, so I expect another strong campaign, ideally followed by a postseason reminiscent of 2014.  Jakub Vrana is a great fit on the second line, but I suspect he will spend much of the year on the third as the Capitals look to spread speed and scoring throughout the lineup.  If he underwhelms, look for him to be moved, as the Caps brass is on the hot seat and will be desperate to stay employed.

4th Line

Walker - Beagle - Connolly

Nathan Walker will make history on opening night, but he will not be an everyday player - yet.  His speed and tenacity are sorely needed on the fourth line, but Devante Smith-Pelly, Connolly, and Walker (and to a lesser extent, Chiasson and Anthony Peluso) will all share time on the fourth line wing.  Beagle should have another strong year on the penalty kill, and will likely regress somewhat on offense, but he is otherwise a great fourth line center.  Connolly was one of the best offseason steals last year and was rewarded with a two-year pact, so the pressure will be on him to produce.  He is not likely to net 18.5% of his shots again, but with a bigger role and an opposite winger with better offensive instincts, Connolly should match or exceed last season's point totals.


Smith-Pelly - Peluso

Devante Smith-Pelly, like Eller, had a great 2014 postseason.  Unlike Eller, Smith-Pelly has struggled ever since, scoring 24 goals in 191 games.  He brings great size, and energy, but as a player prone to streaks, he will likely play fewer than 50 games in Washington.  Anthony Peluso represents the game of the past, but with Pittsburgh adding Ryan Reaves, Columbus remaining big and mean, and the relative youth of the bottom six wingers, he should have some limited opportunity to play.  We are not expecting much, but a fourth line enforcer does not need to produce much to be effective.  

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.


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.


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.

The Capitals will win tonight

Down two games to none, having lost consecutive home games in embarrassing fashion, the Capitals will come out of the gates in Pittsburgh tonight firing on all cylinders.  Look for Washington to put the pressure on early, by dumping the puck and trying to knock the Penguins defenders into next week.

If there is a silver lining, it is that the Penguins are getting worn down.  Having blocked 62 shots through two games, and being outhit 78-36 has taken its toll: Pittsburgh, already down Letang, add three more to the injury ledger in Hornqvist, Kuhnhackl, and Hainsey, although the latter two figure to play tonight.

The Capitals need to focus on their strengths, namely puck possession and taking advantage of their collective heft, instead of trying to match Pittsburgh's advantage in speed.  The heaviest team in the East is not going to win many footraces.  Washington was built to take the blue line by force, win battles along the boards, and to slow down and cycle down low.  They are great at winning rebounds in front of the goal, but in order to do so, Oshie and Williams, who are not exactly fleet of foot, need the opportunity to get there.  That does not happen much in the transition game.

At least not against Apolo Ohno dressed in black and yellow.

Washington breaks the drought and builds confidence tonight with a big win: 4-1.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Second round predictions: Western Conference

With the first two games of the second round beginning tonight, and the magic 8-ball dusted off, it is time to make bold predictions as to who will advance.

(3) St. Louis Blues vs. (WC2) Nashville Predators

The Blues stole the series from Minnesota despite being badly outshot, losing the majority of faceoffs in every zone, and being outplayed.  Jake Allen was the star of the show, Vladimir Sobotka made a triumphant return from Russia to spark the offense, and the Blues made up for three massive roster losses since last year's disappointment against the Sharks.  This goes to show just how finicky the playoffs really are.  Anything can, and this year, did happen, as the only team to seriously contend for the Capitals regular season crown fell short.

Did I mention Bruce Boudreau is the coach?  That explains a lot.

Big plus to Mike Yeo for beating his former team, in dramatic fashion too.

The Predators, much like the Blues, were heavy underdogs going into the series, but their vanquished opponents, too, are golfing.  Routing the Blackhawks, while shutting them out twice in the United Center, was unpredictable to say the least.

Pekka Rinne was back to normal, and the Predators are looking very smart after trading Shea Weber for PK Subban.  Their luck will continue as they look to advance to their first conference final in franchise history.

Prediction: Nashville in 5

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (2) Edmonton Oilers

The pesky Ducks, led again by Stanley Cup winner Randy Carlyle, rolled over the upstart Calgary Flames.  This was made more impressive by the injuries to the defense corps of Anaheim, partly at the hands of Flames captain Mark Giordano.  Fortunately for Ducks fans, the team stood up for their defenseman (unlike the Capitals who chose to take cheapshots and hand away powerplays while never addressing the issue), and rallied around each other and sent the Flames to the links early.

Connor McDavid is the best player in the league.  He skates like Bobby Orr, stickhandles like Alexei Kovalev, and picks corners like Pavel Bure.  He also makes everyone around him better, to which Pat Maroon and his expected pay raise can attest.  McDavid is the difference maker in every game, and it is hard to pick against him.

Prediction: Edmonton in 7

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Paint by numbers

With the second season well underway, some trends have emerged.

Scoring is down from last year, despite the significant uptick during the regular season.  The first round games were far closer, with 28 of the 42 games played being won by a single goal, compared to 27 of 47 last year.  19 games this year went to overtime, with 2 being settled during the second overtime, as compared to last year resulting in 7 overtime finishes with 3 double overtime results.  Last year only saw 20 overtime games throughout the playoffs.

There have been 8 shutouts so far, and 9 in the first round last year.

However, in spite of the relative closeness, there have been two sweeps thus far, which did not occur at all last postseason.

Fights were down as expected, but more interestingly, extracurriculars were too, with a grand total of 5 misconducts, compared to 25 last year.  No one was taking a pound of flesh, despite a few dirty hits and goalie bumps.

Last year saw two upsets in the first round.  This year we saw three.

The two worst teams at faceoffs in the first round, St. Louis and Washington, both advanced.  St. Louis had the worst zone starts, and only won 42.3% of the faceoffs taken in the defensive zone, were outshot in all but one game, but Jake Allen stood on his head.

Sometimes, the bounces are in your favor.  That certainly was the case for the Blues.

Second round predictions: Eastern Conference

The results of my first round predictions were grim: I only correctly picked the Capitals to advance in the East, and the Oilers and Ducks in the West.  This is the nature of playoff hockey, and why we love it so much.  The unpredictability keeps us glued to the couch for two (often disappointing) months.

Still, 3/8 is not so bad, considering no one in the world had the Predators sweeping a still very good Blackhawks team. But I am a Capitals fan, so falling short of expectations is the name of the game.  No harm, no foul.

As we move on to the second round tomorrow evening, with oddly both Western series beginning on the same day, we take a breath, restock the fridge, and prepare for disappointment.

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (2) Pittsburgh Penguins

Much has been written of this playoff matchup between the top two teams in the regular season.  Mostly, the public response has been negative.  While not perfect, the current format, based on that of 1981-82, allows for teams to play year after year when it matters most, whereas the previous format would see the division champions ranked as the two top seeds with the remaining slots filled by the next six teams in the conference, making repeated playoff matchups far less frequent. 

However, instead of fretting over the format, we should focus on the likelihood that the winner of this series will go on to win the Stanley Cup, as it did last year and twice in the early '90s. 

The Capitals have never been more motivated to play hard than they are now - after a surprisingly tough battle with the Maple Leafs over a six game series which saw every game decided by a single goal, they now face their nemesis, their greatest rival, the biggest bump on the road to success, a team they have not beaten in a playoff series since 1994.  The x-factor in this series is health.  The Capitals have a question mark on defense with Alzner missing games for the first time in several years, but having acquired depth in Shattenkirk, they have seven NHL defensemen on the roster. 

The Penguins, having lost Letang for the duration of the playoffs, with Kunitz and Hagelin remaining as big question marks, are depleted of much of the scoring depth that helped propel them past the Capitals last season.  The Capitals are a heavy team, perhaps the heaviest in the Eastern Conference, and rely on dumping the puck into the zone and maintaining long possessions to score goals.  Letang counters that by getting the puck first and moving it out of the zone quickly to the Penguins fast forwards.  His loss will be the difference maker.  Hagelin of course led the team against the Capitals, scoring three goals including a game winner, and assisting on Bonino's OT winner which ended the series.  Forming one third of the best line in the playoffs last year, if he is unable to gear up, Hagelin's skating ability will badly be missed against a team that often looked bad in transition against a high-flying Maple Leafs roster.  Kunitz, having lost a step, is still effective on the forecheck, is tenacious in front of the net, and scored as many goals and assists in last year's matchup as Malkin and Crosby combined.  Depth scoring matters in the playoffs, and with the potential loss of these two, the Penguins will have their work cut out for them. 

Prediction: Washington in 6

(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (WC1) New York Rangers

Four years removed from posting the best save percentage in NHL history, and two years removed from the Hamburglar's incredible run, Craig Anderson is back where he belongs: backstopping an upstart Senators team in the playoffs.  Following an up-and-down season with an unprecedented amount of stress due to his wife's health issues, Anderson is seated firmly atop the goaltender depth chart.  Establishing consistency late in the year helped drive the Senators ahead of a team that showed flashes of brilliance, Anderson, having won 7 of his previous 9 starts, bested the hottest team outside of DC in dramatic fashion.  Driven by a dominating series at the hands of Erik Karlsson, the Senators took advantage of a stupid penalty - in overtime, off the puck - to put the Bruins away. 

This series may be partially overshadowed by the Zibanejad/Brassard trade, but the Rangers are playing for much more.  No team has played more post-season games since 2012 since the Rangers, who are leaning heavily on an aging and now often hurt Henrik Lundqvist.  After another amazing series against a top flight goaltender, it is clear that he still has a lot left to give.  The question is whether or not the team will give him another chance. 

New York was the best team on the road, and they will need to steal a game from Ottawa to have a chance. 

Prediction: New York in 7

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

First round predictions: Western Conference

With the most exciting sports tournament set to start today, we stock up on beer and fill out our brackets.  We move on to the Central:

(1) Chicago Blackhawks vs. (WC2) Nashville Predators

Chicago backed into the #1 seed in the West by finishing the regular season with four straight losses, but prior to that streak the Hawks had pieced together a 20-4-2 record since the start of February.  Led by a core group of three time Cup winners, the Hawks earned more points on the road than everyone except the Rangers.  Patrick Kane had another fantastic year, the goaltending was solid, and with the exception of Roszival, the roster is healthy.  The only real question is whether they can make up for their dreadful faceoff percentage; amongst playoff teams, only Edmonton was worse.  Nashville was the beneficiary of the Subban deal, and the skating advantage P.K. provides over Weber will be critical in this matchup.  Rinne turned in another solid season, but if the Predators hope to outmatch a solid veteran squad, he will have to exceed his career playoff averages.

Prediction: Chicago in 6

(2) Minnesota Wild vs. (3) St. Louis Blues

Ordinarily when a team sets franchise marks in wins and points, they garner heaps of praise.  Not so for this Minnesota squad, who suffered an awful 1-9 stretch which took them from tops in the West to hosting an unfavorable matchup against the always competitive Blues.  Behind captain Mikko Koivu, the Wild iced a solid two-way team; their +58 goal differential was second to only Washington.  Can Bruce Boudreau take his third team to the next level?  To do so, he will have to lead his Wild past his predecessor in Minnesota: Mike Yeo.  Yeo took over on February 1st for living legend Ken Hitchcock, and led the Blues on a rampage, taking 22 of the final 32 games to push ahead of Nashville.  After letting David Backes and Troy Brouwer walk in the off-season, the Blues, in somewhat of a rebuild, refused to let Kevin Shattenkirk leave without just compensation.  The trade with the Capitals brought in highly touted prospect Zach Sanford, whose big body and nose for the net fits the Blues offensive scheme.  Without much scoring depth, however, the Blues are outmatched.

Prediction: Minnesota in 6

For what promises to be the most physical division to win, we move to the West:

(1) Anaheim Ducks vs. (WC1) Calgary Flames

These teams hate each other.  The last time out, captain of the Flames, Mark Giordano, took out defenseman Cam Fowler with a knee collision.  Anaheim has quietly built a team full of pests and agitators, headlined by Corey Perry, and this feistiness should be expected to make its mark on the series.  The Flames, while much improved over their last dance in the playoffs, are too young and inexperienced to matchup well in a long, physical series.  This one figures to go seven games, and will be as close to old time hockey as we will get these days.

Prediction: Anaheim in 7

(2) Edmonton Oilers vs. (3) San Jose Sharks

Much has been written about Edmonton's prolonged playoff absence, and their triumphant return has been made possible by none other than the dynamic, future Hall of Famer, Connor McDavid.  This writer had the pleasure of seeing McDavid play his first career game in Verizon Center, albeit from the worst seats in the building, and it was worth every penny.  Connor skates like a young Bobby Orr, and handles the puck with the best of them.  Guarded by the muscle of Milan Lucic, Darnell Nurse, Zack Kassian, and Pat Maroon, the Oilers young talent has plenty of space to make plays.  Their dreadful faceoff percentage (47.03%) will be their biggest drawback, but luckily for Oiltown, the Sharks do not fare much better (48.13%).  The defending Western Conference champions have their work cut out for them, and with Joe Thornton beginning to show signs of age, this will be a steep obstacle to overcome.  Brent Burns posted another unreal season, and his continued dominance from the blue line is the last hope for big Joe to raise the Cup.  Unfortunately for Sharks fans, that will not be this season.

Prediction: Edmonton in 5

First round predictions: Eastern Conference

With the most exciting sports tournament set to start today, we stock up on beer and fill out our brackets.  We start with the best division in hockey, the Metropolitan:

(1) Washington Capitals vs. (WC2) Toronto Maple Leafs

The Capitals roster has been constructed for the playoffs.  Holtby has been terrific, again, but is well rested, having played in only 63 games in 16-17.  His year was outstanding, and much has been written about it, deservedly so, as he vies to become the first back-to-back Vezina winner since Brodeur won his fourth in 2008.  Scoring depth was huge; Beagle centered a fourth line that combined for 74 points.  The Capitals won the trade deadline by acquiring the best puck mover on the market, who meshed nicely, scoring 14 points in 19 games along with 2 game winners.  Washington can roll four lines and three defensive pairs that can compete with anyone in the league.  This is a great squad.  Meanwhile, the Leafs are a work in progress.  Matthews centered one of the league's most exciting lines, and built a strong case for the Calder Trophy, having finished tied for second in the league in goals and leading an upstart team to their first playoff matchup in several years.  This will be a great team, perhaps sooner than previously expected, but experience beats youth in this duel.  Get out the brooms.

Prediction: Washington in 4

(2) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (3) Columbus Blue Jackets

Sidney Crosby had another banner year, leading the league in goals for the second time in his career, while finishing tied second with Patrick Kane in points (89).  This was achieved largely on the back of him posting the second highest shooting percent of his career, which indicates his continued success finding shooting lanes.  However, with the injuries to this Penguins squad, they are not built for a playoff run deep into June.  Pittsburgh lost 278 man-games to injury (7th most), resulting in the 4th most minutes of injured players being lost, due to the importance of the players who missed significant time.  Columbus, on the other hand, has had great health, and won a comeback on the road against Toronto to close out the year on a strong note in spite of their late season slide.  Bobrovsky should win his second Vezina, Werenski might be the most underrated player in the league, and Tortorella is thriving in a town without much hockey press.  Columbus has quietly put together a hell of a squad, and they match up favorably against every team in the league.

Prediction: Columbus in 7

The Atlantic has this season's dark horse:

(1) Montreal Canadiens vs. (WC1) New York Rangers

The Canadiens made the biggest splash of the offseason by trading darling P.K. Subban for legendary defenseman Shea Weber.  Weber has been the most consistent and prolific goal scorer from the blue line since he entered the league, having scored more than anyone else during any five-year span of his career.  However, with his best years behind him, this was a power move to make a deep playoff run.  Firing Therrien was the right move, bringing back Claude Julien re-energized the team, and the Habs finished strong, winning the division comfortably.  The Rangers struggled with injuries throughout the year - notably missing Lundqvist for a significant stretch - but even when he was healthy he was subpar, posting the worst numbers of his career.  There is allegedly bad blood between the two teams, but with the turnover in today's game coupled with Vignault's signature women's college hockey style of coaching, expect no fireworks. 

Prediction: Montreal in 6

(2) Ottawa Senators vs. (3) Boston Bruins

The Senators have been inconsistent throughout the year, having posted three losing streaks of four or more games, including two such streaks in March.  Erik Karlsson posted yet another phenomenal season, but with injury concerns, the Senators perfect record against the Bruins may not be enough to overcome the red-hot Bruins since Cassidy took over.  After firing long time head coach Claude Julien, with whom the Bruins won a Stanley Cup and lost another, former Capitals head coach Bruce Cassidy took over and led the Bruins to an 18-8-1 to close out the year.  Having earned 37 of a possible 54 points, Boston paced ahead of everyone but the Capitals since the coaching change.  Much has been written about the fall of Tuukka Rask, but if the Bruins can keep controlling the puck like they have been all season, and Rask performs even to league average standards, the Bruins will roll over Ottawa.

Prediction: Boston in 5