Saturday, May 10, 2008

2007-2008 Season Wrap Up Part III: Coaching and Front Office.

Before the season even started we questioned whether or not Glen Hanlon was the coach to get the Caps into the playoffs. We got a resounding answer before we sat down to dinner on Thanksgiving Day. General Manager George McPhee pulled the trigger that morning and we all know the rest of the story.

McPhee's bashers (and there is no shortage of them) of course turned to Hanlon's firing in November and wondered why Bruce Boudreau wasn't brought in sooner. We ask, what did Hanlon do before this season that deserved being replaced? (Minor details) The McPhee bashers point out McPhee's comment during the Detroit game in December when he said on Versus "we're finally playing the way we thought we should be playing" but the Caps got off to a 3-0 start. There was talk of not just making the playoffs, but of getting to the Stanley Cup Finals. How much of chance should Hanlon have been given to turn the team around?

Beyond the coaching situation, there was also the sticky situation in goal. The McPhee bashers still have not forgiven him for passing on Ilya Bryzgalov when the Anaheim Thug Ducks waived him in November. However, they also question his acquisition of Cristobal "WE MUST PROTECT THIS HOUSE" Huet at the deadline and creating an untenable three goaltender situation for the final month of the season, never minding that Bryzgalov would have been brought in for the same reason (taking over for Olie Kolzig) and would have created the same untenable three goaltender situation earlier in the season. Imagine what the McPhee bashers would have said he denied Kolzig a chance to get his 300th win with the Capitals?

But the CW was that the Caps had to make the playoffs this season in order for McPhee to keep his job. While by all accounts the UA trade fell into his lap, the remaining trades turned out to be shrewd gambles that paid off. The George McPhee Watch may be over for now, but it is not being forgotten. McPhee has assembled a nice core of young players and has a nice pipeline of young talent ready to come up. It was also his management of the salary cap that allowed the UA trade to fall into his lap. There weren't many contending teams that could afford to take on a large amount of salary at the deadline but the Caps were one of them and that helped to make all the difference.

We don't hide from the fact that when Bruce Boudreau was originally hired, we openly questioned the wisdom of hiring another minor league coach. It turned out to be a wise move but despite the success, there were still things that concerned us. A forward was still manning the point on the Power Play which went from merely bad to very streaky. 5 on 3 Power Plays continued to be exercises in frustration and the first Power Play unit was given almost 3/4's of the advantages to work which was too much time. With the talent on the roster, there's no reason why the Caps can't ice two potent Power Play units that don't need a forward manning the point for the entire time.

However Boudreau's biggest challenge now is what might be called the "Ron Wilson Syndrome" around here. In his first season as Head Coach, Ron Wilson got the Caps to the Stanley Cup Finals. He never got close after that season and the while Boudreau has a lower bar to clear, a pretty high standard has been set. He's been able to win at every level but at some point, he's going to have to learn that a strong defense is needed in the NHL. It was his refusal to learn that lesson when he was a player that cost him a long NHL playing career and it could be the exact same thing that costs him his NHL coaching career. He can hide behind having a young hockey team but at some point, these guys are going to be considered seasoned veterans and if their play in their own zone hasn't improved, people are going to properly question the coach for that.

And speaking of high expectations, Ted Leonsis boldly declared that "the rebuild is over" and that this team would make the playoffs. By Thanksgiving, it wasn't looking too good and a seven game winning streak to end the regular season along with some huge help from other teams made Ted good on his word. Like Boudreau, the Caps too have now set a limit. Just winning the Southeast Division and going out in the first round won't be enough next season. Some are already comparing the Caps to the Penguin Scum and by extension, predicting at minimum, an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals next season. But there's plenty of work to be done in order to make that a reality.

Finally, some of you might be a little miffed at why we're still so angry and bitter at how this season ended. You're thinking "if we told you that the Caps would win the Southeast Division, make the playoffs, force a Game 7 after going down 3 games to 1 in the first round, you would have thought we were crazy" and you're right. This was a great thrill ride and it came to an end too soon. Now it is time for you to be honest. You were looking forward to playing the Penguin Scum in the Second Round. After watching that four week stretch of hockey, you wanted to see the Caps spit in the eye of the Penguin Scum Curse. You just had a feeling that this fairy tale wasn't going to end so soon and so ugly. That there was nothing that could stop this "team of destiny." Yet, if you and the team are complacent with what happened, if you look back on this season and the way that it ended and say "those are the breaks" and "we just need tomove on," you're setting yourself up for failure.

We've never had the chance to watch the thing from the beginning but we occasionally catch the NFL's Greatest Games presentation of the 1984 NFC Championship Game when the Redskins beat the San Francisco 49ers for a trip to Super Bowl XVIII. We don't know what year the interviews with the players were done but we were amazed as how angry and bitter the 49ers were all those years later over some of the close calls that went against them in that game. As a matter of fact, some of the 49ers said that their anger and bitterness over that game fueled them during the 1984 season when they lost only once en route to winning Super Bowl XIX. They flat out felt as if they had been cheated that day and took it out on everybody else the next season. If the Caps are able to use their disappointment over the way this season ended as a motivator for the upcoming 2008-2009 season; there's no reason to think that they couldn't do some serious damage next season and prove that what happened over the last month of this season was not a fluke. But if the Caps remain complacent, they'll never fulfill the promise that exists right now. Don't get us wrong, we're not coronating the Caps Stanley Cup contenders after a first round exit, this is still a young hockey team and some of the young players who emerged this season have to continue to improve and get better. But there's no reason why we can't expect this team to become a serious Stanley Cup contender in the next few seasons.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

2007-2008 Season Wrap Up: Part II Defensemen and Goaltenders

We've been preoccupied with other things recently which is why these posts have been so few and far between. We're not THAT angry and bitter...

Steve Eminger INCOMPLETE, Emmy barely gets this grade and we wonder just how much fault it is of his own versus the organization. He was placed on IR at the start of the season and once declared "healthy" he barely saw the ice as he became the 8th and even 9th defensemen on occasion. When he did get into the lineup, he had precious little icetime in order to make an impression. We've heard that his problem is that he wasn't doing what the team was telling him he needed to do but it doesn't make any sense to us because why would the Caps keep him around under those circumstances? He may luck out with the issues surrounding Pothier but he can't be too sure of his long-term future here in D.C. He's an RFA if he gets the qualifying offer that the Caps say they'll give him.

John "Coach's Pet" Erskine Bowles F, It should be no secret how we feel about this slow footed dim witted player. We've heard other Caps fans describe him as "a complete waste of icetime" and we don't disagree. The most damning evidence going against him is that he's advertised as a "Rugged Defenseman" yet the #1 item on our off season shopping list is a "Rugged Defenseman." Case closed. The worst news, he's under contract for another season.

Mike "BEAM ME UP" Green A-, A year ago, it looked as if Green was a long way away from doing what he did this season. The Illegitimate Son of James Traficant however had a breakout year and it couldn't have come a better time. But what wasn't as noticed was his improved play in his own zone. He is a defenseman after all. He posted a +6 after being a negative player in his first two NHL seasons but still has room to improve. He's a classic finesse defenseman, a guy who won't throw the big hit or clear out the crease. But Green is young and should be a Norris contender someday. He's also an RFA and the most important restricted free agent we have to sign this summer.

Milan Jurcina C+, He's more of a stay at home type of a defenseman and despite his size, he isn't a physical force on the blueline. Jerky seemed lost out there from time to time this season and ended up being a healthy scratch a few times. He's got a good shot from the point but hardly ever uses it. He could end up being an odd man out with the prospects in the pipeline and should the Caps sign another free agent. But for now, he's under contract for another season and we'll have RFA rights once this contract expires.

Shaone Morrrissonnn B-, Kind of the forgotten man on the Caps blueline, but his stay at home play was very instrumental in Mike Green's breakout season. In terms of games played as a Cap, he's now #2 behind A.O. He hasn't seemed to reach his potential on the offensive end but with some of the other defensemen on the team, that isn't much of a problem. The Caps could use a little more offensive pop out of him, but for now, his commitment to his own end is very much needed. He's an RFA and the Caps should qualify him but he won't break the bank.

Brian Pothier C+, Last year he was asked to play out of position and this year he was adjusting back to his usual role when he took another concussion. The bad news for Pothier is that career could now be over, the good news for the Caps is that it could free up the $2.5 million of cap space he currently occupies for the next two seasons. With the younger players coming up through the system and the likely addition of another blueliner through free agency, it's sad to say but the Caps may have caught a break here.

Tom Poti B-, Like most free agents, Poti had a hard time adjusting to a new team. Throw in a lingering shoulder injury that he played through and Poti didn't register the points that the Caps were expecting. He also didn't quarterback the Power Play as he was expected to but was still able to skate a lot of minutes and allowed the Caps to move Pothier to a more familiar role. With three more years at $3.5 million per season left on his contract, Poti isn't going anywhere and it could be interesting to see what he does next season when he's more comfortable and healthy.

Jeff "Sergeant" Schultz C, A favorite whipping boy of many Caps fans this year, Sarge actually lead all of the Caps defensemen in the regular season with a +12, Poti was second to him with a +9. The big complaint Caps fans have is that despite his size, Sarge isn't very physical and the legitimate complaint is that he doesn't move the puck very well. We wouldn't mind at all if Sarge spent this offseason doing whatever it was Mike Green did last offseason. Schultz isn't going to be the next Scott Stevens but he could certainly become the shutdown guy we've been looking for. His goal scoring run was fun to watch as he has another year left on his rookie contract.

Cristobal 'WE MUST PROTECT THIS HOUSE" Huet A, Practically given to the Caps by Montreal, there was nothing more you could have asked out of UA as he backstopped the team into the playoffs. Once the playoffs began his play slipped a little but he was by no means the reason why we lost in seven games. As a matter of fact, he came up with the saves we needed to get to Game 7. UA certainly is a change of pace from what we're used to seeing in Kolzig but he got the job done where Kolzig didn't. UA is a UFA this summer and is very much open to the idea of staying put in Washington. He's the only player that the Caps need to resign more than Mike Green as he not only represents the bridge to our developing prospects, but the goaltender that has the potential to carry the Caps deep into the playoffs the next few seasons.

Brent Johnson B, He's a backup goaltender and if he didn't know it before he knows it now. The team certainly looked a lot more comfortable playing in front of him this season than they did last season which is a plus. How much longer he'll last in D.C. remains a bit of mystery as while he's the only NHL caliber goaltender on the roster under contract, he only has one more year left on it. With UA's injury history, he could see some more playing time next season and let's hope he does a better job with it than he did two seasons ago now when he was plugged in as the starter when Kolzig got hurt.

Olie Kolzig C, This is another "Gentleman's C" we are very much aware of today's developments and we'll comment on them at another time in another post. Kolzig's numbers continued their decline despite playing behind an improving defensive corps. His rebound control is inconsistent and his recovery ability shows his age. Kolzig also made some impolitic comments this year when it was clear his influence in the locker room was beginning to wane. To his credit though, he kept his mouth shut and, to date, did not rip the team over the awkward situation created by the acquisition of UA.

Overall, we'll give the defense and goaltending a C- for the season. First of all, the Caps allowed 55 fewer goals this season than they did last season and actually scored more than they allowed for the first time in 5 years which was also the last time they made the playoffs before this season. The blueline is better than it has been since the lockout but still needs improvement. First the Penalty Killing was not up to par all season long. That has to improve if the Caps are going to be serious contenders for the Cup. Some of that will come with better goaltending but the defensmen need to continue their improvement as well. Secondly, the Caps need more offense from their defense. Only Mike Green (and to a much lesser extent Tom Poti) saw regular time on the Power Play as both coaches like using forwards on the point all season. There's more talent on the way and the Caps are expected to be looking for another UFA to install back there. Hopefully that will bring an end to Erskine Bowles stinking up the joint but we aren't holding our breath.

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Saturday, May 03, 2008

2007-2008 Season Wrap Up Part I: The Forwards

We're still angry and bitter at how the season ended but let's take a look at how the individual players shaked out this season and grade each one as if we actually know what we're talking about...

Nicklas Backstrom A-, His rookie year got off to a slow start but picked up when Bruce Boudreau moved him off the wing and had him center the fourth line. It wasn't long before he was centering the top line and one wonders just what he could have done centering the top line all season considering that he set the team record for assists by a Rookie. He picked up a Calder Trophy nomination but isn't favored to win because of who his linemates were most of the season and the fact that there is an Original Six Franchise rehabilitation program going on. He should have a fine career with the Caps and his playoff performance could be easily attributed to hitting the wall. Though he once again came to life after being shifted to another line. However, Backis played in all 89 games this season which is 21 more than he's ever played in his career. Our only complaint is that he needs to shoot the puck more. We know he's a setup guy and isn't a goal scorer, but we're only asking him to shoot once maybe twice more out of every ten chances. He's signed for another two seasons on his entry level contract.

Matt "Omar" Bradley B+, We had some harsh words for Omar last year but he deserved them. This year, Omar returned to form and provided some nice energy on the fourth line while also doing some good work on the Penalty Kill. He's still a dime a dozen mucker and grinder so if he's allowed to walk as a UFA this summer, we wouldn't mind in the least. But something tells us that he'll be back. As long he remains on one year deals, we'll be happy.

Mr. Donald Brashear C+, Early in the year, Mr. Brashear looked old and slow but when the coaching change was made, he seemed to pick up his game. Down the stretch his line provided a jolt of energy for the team and you could easily argue that he was one of the best forwards for the Caps in the series against the Flyers. However, we should also note that he wasn't leading the physical assault for the forwards with guys like Alexander Semin taking a stand against the Flyers. He's already been given a modest raise and will be back for another season but he's getting up in age and won't be around for very much longer.

Captain Chris Clark INCOMPLETE, Poor Clark. First he was expected to put up first line numbers on the third line which ended in total disaster. Finally put back on the first line, he got injured and couldn't get back into the lineup. The good news is that the Caps were able to do so well this season without out him. The bad news is that it showed how expendable he is, at least in the regular season because the Caps certainly could have used him in the playoffs. He starts a new three year contract next season and his cap number more than doubles to $2.633 million.

Matt Kent Cooke C, A spare part player acquired at the deadline from a team that he fell out of favor with; Cooke showed his excitement at a change of scenery. If there was a player on this team that we were looking forward to seeing in the playoffs more than A.O., it was Cooke. However, Cooke disappointed us in the playoffs. Cooke wasn't brought in to score goals but he didn't provide the energy and spark against the Flyers that he did down the stretch of the regular season. As a matter of fact, we thought he mostly disappeared in the playoffs. Cooke is a UFA this summer and while he wouldn't mind seeing him come back, we don't want a contract longer than two years and he'll need to take a paycut from his $1.5 million salary.

Sergei Fedorov B+/A-, We will admit that we didn't like the trade that brought Federov here. We thought that this was a good move if the Caps were guaranteed a playoff spot. But it is tough to deny just what Federov did while he was here. Federov unlocked the riddle, inside the enigma, wrapped in a mystery (or something like that) that is Alexander Semin. The late Dave Fay once wrote that the Caps needed a leader; a guy who will do whatever he needed to do in order to for this team to win and rally everybody behind him. Federov proved to be that guy down the stretch and in the playoffs. He got and kept the team's attention upon arrival by all accounts and certainly looked reinvigorated playing on a young team heading into the playoffs. Federov has cleary lost a step or two and is not the player he once was. However, he's a player with knowledge and experience that the Caps still need going forward. He's another UFA after this season and is considering retirement. Should he decided to return, the Caps should offer him a contract, two years if they absolutely positively must but he's going to have to step way down from the $6 million+ he's earning right now.

Eric Fehr C, Fehr gets the "Gentleman's C" because he did appear in 23 games this season. However, his season was mostly lost because he showed up at training camp injured and didn't get back onto the ice until over halfway through the season. When he did get back on the ice, he was rushed back to the NHL and was thrown in on the top line. We thought he actually acquitted himself well on the top line but was having a hard time keeping up because he was rushed back into the lineup. Fehr seemed to find his groove in the playoffs scoring a goal in Game 3 and put together some nice games on the third and fourth lines against the Flyers. Next season will be the big one for Fehr as he's an RFA this summer that the Caps are certain to qualify.

Tomas Fleischmann F, Flash entered training camp without a contract and played well enough in camp to warrant a one year contract. Once the regular season started, it is pretty safe to say that he began to disappoint. He rang up 10 goals and 20 assists but with the amount of time he spent on the top two lines, he should have done better than 30 points in the 75 games he was dressed. Flash was dropped after two games in the playoffs in favor of Fehr because Flash couldn't handle the increased physical nature of the playoffs. The club is convinced he's on the verge of a breakout and that's why they inexplicably gave him a two year contract for next year along with a raise. However, it's looking more and more like he's another Dmitri Khristich. The sooner he's gone, the better off we'll be.

Boyd Gordon B+, Employed on the third line and used as a penalty killer, El Gordo continues to show that he belongs in the NHL. However, he's another dime a dozen, mucker and grinder who is certain to stay with the Caps because of his young age and his status as an RFA. He won't hit a home run in contract talks so the Caps can afford to keep him around.

Viktor Kozlov C-/D+, Kozlov was a guy brought in to improve the Caps in the gimmick but he scored just three times in seven attempts this season. Even more troubling is that Kozlov pulled his usual disappearing act in the playoffs. He did register three assists in the seven games but was a team worst -4 after being tied for the team lead with a +28 in the regular season. He performed about as well as could be expected despite being a UFA pickup in the offseason but it should be interesting to see what he does next year now that his one year adjustment period is over. The Caps have him for another year and would be wise to see how he does in the playoffs next season before deciding to give another contract lettalone a raise.

Brooks "and Dunn" Laich A-, With the impending departure of Olie Kolzig, Laich is now the third longest tenured Cap on the roster. Laich did what Matt Pettinger couldn't go which was pick up his game when given the chance to skate on the second line. Laich posted career highs in goals, assists, and points and could very well cash in should he decide for arbitration again this summer. Laich though should be careful as he isn't totally inexpendable and will find himself in Pettinger's shoes should his production fall off the way Pettinger's did.

Quintin "The Human Bruise" Laing B-, A career minor leaguer who only stuck around as long as he did because he was willing to block shots. We certainly salute his courage and don't mean to downplay his contributions. However, he became the odd man out down the stretch and the Caps really didn't miss a beat with him out of the lineup. He's a UFA and should he return, we won't be upset but we'll feel just the same if he ended up somewhere else.

Michael Nylander C, In order to get an incomplete, you have to play less than a quarter of the season and Nylander appeared in 40 games. We could give him an incomplete and want to give him an incomplete because it is debatable as to how many of those 40 games he actually played. This is another "Gentleman's C" because he was apparently injured when he signed his contract here and finally shut things down when it was obvious he was hurting the team more than he was helping it. We've got three more years of Nylander and his role on the team is greatly diminished by the presence of Sergei Federov. If we had to choose between Nylander and Federov, we'd choose Federov and trade Nylander. Backstrom isn't going to need a mentor for another three seasons and and a 38 year old Federov is still better than a 36 year old Nylander.

Alex Ovechkin A+, The numbers speak for themselves. Career high and team record 65 goals this season that also won the Rocket Richard Trophy leading the NHL. Career high and second highest point total in team history with an Art Ross Trophy winning 112 points. Career high and second most game winning goals in team history with a league leading 11 game winning goals. Career high and tying the team record for Power Play goals in a season and leading the league with 22 Power Play goals. He should be the runaway winner of the Hart and Pearson Trophies and a unanimous selection for this third First Team All-Star in three years. A.O. has cracked the Top 20 on the Caps All-Time Scoring list and the Top 10 on the Caps All-Time Goal Scoring list. He could conceivably move into the Top 3 on the Goal Scoring list and stalk the Top 10 on the Scoring list by the end of next season. There is no debate in our minds who the best player in the league is right now but A.O. could actually be better. First of all, he needs to stop blowing the zone defensively and we would love to seem him improve his defensive play to the point where he can be trusted to kill penalties. Everybody was wondering how he'd do in the playoffs and he led the Caps with 4 goals, tied for the team lead with 5 assists, lead the team with 9 points, and also lead the team with two game winning goals. Once Kolzig goes, nobody else on the Caps roster will have played in more games for the Caps than A.O., but the best part is, we'll get to see him for at least the next 13 years.

Alexander Semin B-, His season started off slowly with a high ankle sprain suffered in the preseason. Once he did return full time, it took some time for him to regain his form which only drove his critics even crazier. His game greatly improved under the tutelage of Federov and but Semin is still prone to the lazy hooking penalty and stretches of lackadaisical play. That being said his 26 goals and 16 assists in 63 games was impressive as his 3 goals, 5 assists in 7 playoffs games were. We were also very impressed with his willingness to physically stand up to the Flyers and his +2 rating in the playoffs which was second on the team to Backstrom's +3. There's a great debate as to how much longer he's going to stay with the Caps but we do know that a new two year contract comes in next season and his cap number increases dramatically to $4.6 million while he retain his RFA rights.

David "Bolt Cutter" Steckel C+, If it weren't for his ability in the faceoff circle, we'd wonder why he was on the team in the first place. He led the team in the regular season but was by far the worst of the bunch in the playoffs. Maybe it was the broken finger but we really weren't impressed with him unless we were playing the Ning. He's under contract for another season and then a UFA.

Overall we'll give the forwards a B- for this season. Without A.O. this bunch would have had some serious trouble. The Caps scored a grand total of 7 more goals this season than they did last season. While the Power Play was improved over last season, it ran way too streaky and couldn't be counted upon to produce the big goals that the team needed on a consistent basis. With the talent among our forwards, that is inexcusable though there is some blame that should be placed upon the shoulders of the coaching staff who put all the best players on one unit and then played that unit too much.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The George McPhee Watch: Day 98

If I didn't know any better, I would have thought that General Manager George McPhee's job was in jeopardy with some of the trades he made yesterday. But CW wisdom is at least it is or was according to Tarik El-Bashir. However, with the triumvirate of trades that brought in forwards Matt Kent Cooke, Sergei Fedorov, and goaltender Cristobal Huet the preseason declaration of the making the playoffs has proven to be more than just a marketing gimmick. So let's look at the moves that really mattered for the Caps yesterday (I really don't care about the Motzkoball trade).

Matt "Princess" Pettinger to Vancouver for Matt Kent Cooke:

Simply put, extraneous garbage for extraneous garbage. Both players claim to have had problems with their former Head Coaches but Bruce Boudreau denies the claim and Cooke couldn't be baited into taking a potshot at Alain Vigneault. Cooke is a UFA after this season currently making $1.525 million while Princess was going to be a UFA for us making $1.1 million. I can't see the Caps looking to pay Cooke that same amount or even giving him a raise. Should he leave over the summer it would be disappointing because we gave up a player like Pettinger for nothing almost like we gave up Zubrus for what has turned into only draft picks. But neither player is a long term solution for what ails their new teams.

2008 2nd Round Draft Pick from Anaheim in the Brian Sutherby trade to Montreal for Cristobal Huet:

For Caps fans declaring McPhee incompetent for not having a bridge already in place to get from Olie Kolzig to prospects Simeon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth (conveniently forgetting this guy called "Maxime Ouellet" whom McPhee ripped off from Philly for Adam Oates a few years ago) have nowhere to go expect to grouse "GMGM should have done this sooner." But never the less, Huet has been struggling a bit recently (he was the goaltender on the other end of the singlehanded beatdown A.O. laid on the Montreal a month ago) though he should find the D.C. market a lot friendlier and the pressure considerably lighter than in Montreal. Huet turns 33 in 11 days so he won't give us an unlimited amount of time to groom Varlamov and/or Neuvirth but he should give us some time.

McPhee said last night that this trade does not necessarily mean the end of Kolzig's time in D.C. He further flatly stated this morning on Idiot in Morning that "Olie will be a Cap next year if he wants to be." While the straightforward English translation means that Brent Johnson is the odd man out, it could also be interpreted as "Kolzig will be here next year if he can show he can still get the job done. It's up to Kolzig to show us that and we happen to think he can. If Kolzig can't show us that he can get the job done, then it will be on him, not us because we believe in him." In other words, McPhee is already laying the groundwork to it being Kolzig's and not the team's choice should Kolzig not to return to the Caps next season no matter what.

But watching Kolzig's interview last night after the game you could see in his face that he knew that the management no longer had any confidence in him. John Riggins once said "when you think you're done and management thinks you're done are often two different things" and this is clearly the case with Kolzig. Kolzig has done a lot for this franchise and this town but it is clear he can't carry this team anymore. Some blame GMGM for that because of the defense he's assembled in front of Kolzig but there is no denying that Kolzig has better players in front of him this year than he has the two previous seasons so the question is, why has Kolzig's play gone down this season?

In a perfect world, Kolzig would retire after this season and accept a job in the Caps front office (or replace Ken Sabourin as color commentator on the radio and do the job full time, not just home games). Huet will hold down the #1 job until one of the prospects are ready with Johnson fulfilling the backup role he is better suited for. The key in all of this is resigning Huet who is also a UFA after this season. Huet won't command the $5.45 million that Kolzig does but he is going to see a raise over the $2.75 million he's currently making. This is almost a bigger priority than resigning Mike "BEAM ME UP" Green before July 1st.

Ted Ruth 2nd Round Draft Pick in 2007 for Sergei Federov:

First the obvious observation that 10 years ago this would have been an outstanding move. However, today it is a perplexing move for a couple of reasons. We don't "need" a 2nd line center once Michael Nylander returns. This is the kind of trade made not just to make the playoffs but to go well beyond the first round and there's no way the Caps are going deep in the playoffs and making the playoffs is a very tall order right now with or without Federov. Furthermore, this trade opens McPhee up to the legitimate criticism about not addressing the glaring need for the "rugged defenseman." We have a 2nd line center but he's hurt; those things happen. But our best excuse for a "rugged defenseman" is John "Coach's Pet" Erskine Bowles who only underscores our dire need for a "rugged defenseman."

The Penguin Scum got Hal Gill for a second round pick. We have a couple of extra of those and were willing to part with one to get Huet who is roughly the same age as Hall Gill. Was Toronto's asking price higher for us than it was for the Penguin Scum? Besides who isn't looking for a "rugged defenseman" right now? But McPhee was willing to address a short-term and mid-term need but the glaring need was not addressed.

Adding to the complications is that Federov is another UFA and he'll definitely have to take a nice paycut from his $6.08 million salary to stay in D.C., assuming that he even wants to. Plus at the ripe old age of 38, Federov doesn't have much left in the tank. (Though he does serve a useful purpose in making Kolzig feel younger...)

Should we sign Federov for next season (it would only be a one year contract in my estimation), we will have the opposite problem that we had this year heading into camp. We'll have at least 8 forwards suited for the top two lines and only six spots to fill where this year, we entered camp with just 5 bonafide top two line forwards for six spots.

But what makes all of yesterday's activity odd, is the ownership philosophy on deadline deals. I'll grant you, we held onto our first round pick and the only NHL player lost of the roster was a guy whose future with the franchise had become murky. But we gave up a recent second round pick and another second round pick for what is considered a very deep draft for three players who have the right to walk away after the season is over without any compensation coming in return. If the Caps were 5 points ahead in the Division instead of 5 points behind, I could understand making these trades. But the addition of Federov, Huet, and Cooke do not guarantee us making the playoffs and if the Caps were to make it, they would at best maybe get us to a 5 or 6 game series before bowing out simply because we'll be out of gas should we make the playoffs.

This of course doesn't take into account the damage done to chemistry and team cohesion as Kolzig and/or Johnson could very easily poison the locker room with three NHL goaltenders on the roster. You hope that isn't the case, but you never know.

However, I'll say again, do we even really want to make the playoffs? Look folks, last year this team won 28 games and registered 70 points. Lets assume we make the playoffs and catch fire and win a round or two. What about next year? Look at what happened to Atlanta. They made all kinds of moves just to make the playoffs last year and lasted all of four games. The expectations weighed heavily on them this season and now this year they ended up selling at the deadline. We've already made progress this season but too much progress can be just as bad as not enough.

But what is done is done. McPhee has made his bed and now he needs to lie in it. Whether or not he stays in that bed remains up in the air.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

The George McPhee Watch: Day 68

It has never ended folks. We only removed the "interim" tag when General Manager George McPhee removed the interim tag from Head Coach Bruce Boudreau. While Boudreau has so far proven himself as a capable NHL Head Coach, rightly or wrongly the CW is that McPhee's fate hinges on whether or not the Caps will make the playoffs. So with a little downtime before the crunch time starts, we'll look at the Caps chances of making the playoffs this season.

Why The Caps WILL Make The Playoffs:

  • There's no arguing that the Caps have turned this season around to this point after the firing of Glen Hanlon. The team is 17-12 with 38 points since Hanlon was fired and after being four points in 30th place, are now just 1 point away from leading the Southeast Division with 2 games in hand and grabbing the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference.
  • The improved record is due entirely to the improved play. The Caps offense has come to life under Boudreau and with not just Boudreau's former Hershey players taking off. Nicklas Backstrom, who played exactly zero games for Boudreau before he took over the Caps, has set rookie records and should be a serious candidate for Rookie-of-the-Year. The increased scoring from players not named A.O. has allowed A.O. to become a bonafide M.V.P. candidate.
  • One of the most important aspects of the coaching change is the attitude of the team. Under Hanlon, the Caps would face some kind of adversity and fold. Now under Boudreau, they almost seem incapable of finding their game until they fall behind a goal or two. You don't want to leave a Caps game early now.

Why The Caps WILL NOT Make The Playoffs:

  • Standings wise, it looks as if it will be win the Southeast Division or don't make the playoffs. While an 8th seeded matchup against Ottawa is a scary proposition for Senators fans, it isn't very likely right now. The Caps are 3 points out of the 8th seed and have no games in hand. With two teams in front of the Caps for the 8th spot; it looks doable with 32 games left on the schedule. But the schedule is not in the Caps favor. They have a six game road trip at the end of March and of the 18 teams the Caps will play, all but one (the Tampa Bay Lightning) are either currently holding a playoff spot or are within 6 points of making the playoffs. That means every game is huge for both sides and the chances of the Caps catching somebody napping are slim.
  • While the scoring has increased, so has the goals against. Olie Kolzig's whining aside, you have to seriously wonder if he and Brent Johnson can get the job done for the team down the stretch. Johnny has had the hot hand lately but he's shown in recent years that he can be frustratingly inconsistent. Kolzig is slowing down and even if the team makes the playoffs, would you feel comfortable with Kolzig or Johnson between the pipes? A recommitment to defense first could very well be necessary to win enough games and that goes against what has made the team successful under Boudreau.
  • Injuries, injuries, injuries. They will eventually catch up to you. Michael Nylander is done until training camp next season and heaven only knows when Brian Pothier and Captain Chris Clark will return to action. Skating John "Coach's Pet" Erskine Bowles on a regular shift every night and having Boyd Gordon and Brooks "and Dunn" Laich platoon as your second line center is not a recipe for long-term success. Though in fairness to McPhee, there is very little fault for him on this one. The salary cap makes it difficult for anybody to build quality depth.
  • Quite simply, the law of averages will catch up to everybody eventually. Atlanta fired Bob Hartley after an 0-6 start and are now 23-29, the same number of games under .500 they were when they made the change. The bounces, the breaks, and even the effort is going to start going against the Caps at some point. We've seen how they've faced adversity in a game under Boudreau but how will they face adversity in a stretch of games under Boudreau? Does anybody honestly think that we'll continue to "not lose consecutive games in regulation" for the rest of the season? What happens when a three game losing streak shows up?

All things considered, I'd rather be in this position, wondering if we have enough to make the playoffs at the All-Star break than wondering what are we going to get for our departing veteran players at the trading deadline. But the fact remains that we need 19 points in the last 32 games just to meet the last two season's standard of 70 points. That shouldn't be a problem with the Overtime/Gimmick loss, but we need a healthy 39 points in the last 32 games to reach the magic number of 90 which could or could not get us into the playoffs. That's a lot of work on top of the work done just to get to this point.

Will an improvement that falls short of making the playoffs be enough to keep McPhee as General Manager? I honestly don't know. It is easy to see where the Caps are going but there are there are still questions such as how does the team get from Kolzig to Michal Neuvirth and Simeon Varlamov provided that they develop into the #1 NHL netminders they are projected to be? For people who are yearning to a run to the Stanley Cup Finals, the never ending questions and reasons to doubt that this improvement is real is more than enough to get rid of McPhee.

Of course, there were those who wanted McPhee gone when Bruce Cassidy (and the Sundance Kid) was fired. Nevermind that their real preferred choice, Bryan Trottier (who was hired the same summer to be the Head Coach of the New York Rangers) was an even bigger failure as a Head Coach than Cassidy (Trottier didn't even last a full season on Broadway and hasn't been heard from in coaching circles since). They then of course say that McPhee should have hired Glen Hanlon as Head Coach all along but wondered why he waited so long to fire him; jumping all over his "we're finally playing the way we expected to" statement during the Red Wings game on December 17th. Funny how these things turn out?

With any luck, McPhee's fate will be decided by what happens on the ice and not by the whims of fans who aren't satisfied with anything. But the watch continues because the Caps aren't certain of making the playoffs. Should McPhee be dismissed after this season is over, his successor could very well find himself in the same position that McPhee found himself some 11 years ago now. Just needing to make a few tweaks to get a non-playoff team into the Stanley Cup Finals in his first year as General Manager.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Death, Taxes, &

Olie Kolzig throwing people under the bus...

Want to know why I'm wishing for a leader? This article is why. Look at this quote:
Bruce [Boudreau] is not a goaltender guy. One thing about Bruce, he's hard on goalies because he doesn't understand the position. And a lot of coaches that haven't played the position are usually that way. You know: 'Just stop the puck and get it done. Doesn't matter how or what.' That's something I've got to get used to because I've had Glennie [Hanlon] here for so long and obviously being a goaltender, he understands the situation and the position.

Now this looks rather innocent at first blush but consider that over his career Kolzig has tended goal under BOTH Murray brothers, Jim Schoenfeld, Ron Wilson, Bruce Cassidy (and the Sundance Kid), Glen Hanlon, and now Bruce Boudreau. That's seven coaches for those of you who can't count and Glen Hanlon is the only former goaltender of the bunch who has been Kolzig's Head Coach in the NHL. So now, in his 16th season and with his seventh Head Coach in the NHL, Kolzig only now has to figure out how to play for a coach who doesn't understand goaltending?

I'm sorry if I don't have more compassion for Kolzig. It is tough for an athlete at the end of his or her career when they believe they can still get the job done but clearly can't. Kolzig has certainly done a lot for this franchise and this community but it's clear that his better days are behind him. He was pulled on Sunday not because he wasn't playing well, but because Boudreau was sending a message to the team. It has happened to Kolzig before in his career and Kolzig regularly throwing his coach and teammates under the bus cannot be good for the locker room.

While it is good to see that the fire still burns in Kolzig and he's not out to earn a paycheck; it does cause me some concern that he will end up playing for somebody else next season if he can't get a contract worked out with the Caps. It's bad enough seeing Kolzig breakdown in a Caps uniform, it will be even worse to continue to watch it in somebody else's. It is my hope that Kolzig does retire at the end of this season and at least agrees to stay on as a mentor to Michal Neuvirth and Simeon Varlamov and does not go to play for somebody else.

As for the topic of the article itself, well it is a shame that Kolzig is on his way out as the team starts to climb back up but that's the way things go sometimes. Every sport is filled with great players who never won a championship for some reason or another. Kolzig deserves kudos for sticking around through the rebuilding when other veteran players asked to be moved. Kolzig has been the face of the franchise for a long time but do you realize it has been ten years now since Kolzig sparked our run to the Stanley Cup Finals? Some have tried and others are currently trying (take a look at the Red Wings roster) to play forever. But the end eventually comes to everybody. It would have been nice to have Kolzig coming up through the system now instead of 12 years ago that but isn't the case. We have to deal with the reality of the situation and not what we wish it was and the reality is, Kolzig is incapable of getting this team back to the Stanley Cup Finals and winning it. As long as Kolzig does not end up playing for some other NHL team in a vain attempt to "prove the Caps wrong" he'll leave his playing days behind with a fine reputation intact.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

We Need A Real Leader

Two summers ago now, Dave Fay wrote in the Washington Times that the Caps needed a leader, a run-through-the-walls-won't-accept-losing-at-any-price type of player who should not only show the Caps how to win, but how to win in the playoffs. Dave Fay suggested Micheal Peca as that type of player and strongly encouraged the Caps to sign the then Free Agent (who instead went to Toronto and spent most of the year on IR, he's now in Columbus the last time I checked and has had about as much of an impact there as he did in Toronto).

I disagreed to Fay to a certain point. Before last season even started, I felt there was no way the Caps were going to make the playoffs. I believed that the "fearless leader" type could wait another year with little damage. I also objected to the idea of Michael Peca being that type of leader for this team. He's never won anything in his career and IMHO, is one of the most overrated players in the history of the game.

But as this season as gone on, Fay's call two years ago now for a leader becomes more and more true. No offense to Captain Chris Clark who took a puck in the mouth, finished his shift, and then had to be threatened by management because he wanted to return right away. But Captain Clark is not a fearless leader run-through-the-walls-won't-accept-losing-at-any-price type of player, at least not right now. He could become that type of guy but isn't there yet. The closest the Caps have to that is A.O., but A.O. is a superstar type of player and those types of player often have a hard time relating to the players who are not as supremely talented as they are. Besides, A.O. tends to try to do everything himself way too much instead of leading the rest of the team in that kind of charge. What I'm thinking is another Dale Hunter type of player. A guy who has enough talent to play in the NHL but isn't a superstar and just refuses to ever lose.

Of course, you can't discuss leadership on the Caps and not mention Olie Kolzig. Kolzig has by far the longest tenure of any player on the team (He's in his 16th season, take a guess as to who is second in tenure behind Olie? It's this guy who is in his 6th season with the team.) and has long been considered the "Unofficial Captain" of the team.

Yet even before Kolzig was dubbed "Unofficial Captain," national NHL Talking Heads alluded to leadership issues in the Washington Dressing Room. Guys like Bill Clementhead and Mullet Melrose would often flat out say that there were leadership problems on the Caps and this was before Jagr was ever added to the Caps volatile locker room which clearly didn't help matters.

Now in the defense of Kolzig, there's a reason why goaltenders are not allowed to be named team captain. First of all they can't conduct business between team and the officials on the ice, especially in games when they are the backup goaltender. It is also isn't a good idea because that's the only time they're ever on the bench, when they're the backup and not playing in the game. They can't "rally the troops" on the bench and then go out and set an example on their next shift, because they're hardly ever on the bench during a game in which they are playing. The goaltender has a single job which is to stop pucks. They aren't responsible for things like clearing the zone, finding the open space on the ice, and scoring goals.

However, this Caps season has already seen a coaching change. Bruce Boudreau took over for Glen Hanlon a little over a month ago now but can we honestly say that things have changed every much? The team has played roughly .500 hockey which is a bit of an improvement but not very much. Boudreau has brought an aggressive style back to the Caps and is a lot more willing to rip the players who are underperforming than Hanlon ever was. But so far a Boudreau tongue lashing has a positive effect on the team for only a week. That's great when the Caps have four home games and end up winning three of them but when there's only two games in the one week span, the results tend not to be as positive. Furthermore, by being a bit of a taskmaster Boudreau is going to wear out his welcome with the team quicker than any other type of coach. I really think that the Caps had tuned out Hanlon and that a change of voice is what was needed for the Caps.

But since Boudreau was hired, it has become apparent to me that the real problem is a lack of leadership from the players themselves. This has been a problem since end of Dale Hunter's captaincy and the only constant through this entire time is Olie Kolzig. Again, while goaltenders are not allowed to be named captain, Kolzig looks to me to be more of the problem with leadership than the cure. First of all Kolzig's apology to Hanlon after Hanlon was fired seemed kind of odd to me. But when you read what he said about Hanlon's dismissal don't you really wish you were in on that conversation? Then take his comments from this past Saturday:


"Numbers don't always tell the true story ... We're playing a system now where you don't get a lot of comfort shots, a lot of perimeter shots. You've got to be ready. We're not allowing teams to come right through, but when they do, it's on a breakdown or a power-play shot.

"We're more aggressive in the defensive zone; we're pressuring. But if one guy isn't doing his job, that leaves another guy wide open. That's what I'm facing. I've come to grips with that. My philosophy is to make the key save at the right time."

Now unless Tarik El-Bashir is taking Kolzig's comments out of context (and I don't think he is) Kolzig is basically saying, "yeah, I'm not coming up with the big saves as much as I used to, but my team mates are hanging me out to dry because of the new system our new coach has installed"

Now, who wants to count the number of players and coaches Kolzig just threw under the bus with that one? Now keep that in mind and go back and look at what he said when Hanlon was fired:


[It] has nothing to do with coaching, and has everything to do with individuals not listening and being on their own program.

While I'm in no place to argue otherwise, who's fault is that? What does it say about the leadership on the team when the players hold a meeting, discuss their mistakes, and then go right back out there and make the same mistakes again?

It's pretty clear to me that Kolzig isn't getting the job done as a leader. Maybe much like coaches in the NHL, the locker room leaders wear out their welcome as well and get tuned out by the rest of the team. Kolzig's play this season hasn't given him much credibility either. After flubbing a clearing attempt against the Buffaslugs that turned into a shorthanded layup, Kolzig gave up another soft goal later in the game. Kolzig played well in regulation in Detroit but was then beaten badly on the exact same move three times in a row in the gimmick.

Kolzig couldn't throw anybody under the bus for that one.

Now I am NOT saying that the Caps need to trade Kolzig. Kolzig's contract is up at the end of the season and he'll be a UFA. As a matter of fact, his next contract is going to stick with the Caps for its entire term unless Kolzig is traded or goes to another team. My plea to Henrik Lundqvist was part joke, part serious. The Caps have Michal Neuvirth and Simeon Varlamov in the pipeline who are highly regarded prospects but unproven at the NHL level. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch for the Caps to go out and get that fearless leader run-through-the-walls-won't-accept-losing-at-any-price type of player in the off season and nudge Kolzig into retirement this summer.

Everybody in these parts is (rightly) concerned about the contract negotiations between the Caps and A.O., but Kolzig is in a contract year himself and we've heard even less speculation about that one. While the blueline certainly needs to improve, goaltending is always the key to winning, especially come playoff time. Even with Kolzig, I don't think we have the goaltending we need to make a run in the playoffs. A.O.'s contract will get done on its own time and he'll remain with the Caps. Kolzig however, may be playing his last season in Washington.

Because folks, let's face facts here, this season is lost. The Caps are not making the playoffs this year. They would need Kolzig to play like he did ten years ago in the playoffs for them to even have a chance. Kolzig shows no signs of returning to that form and because his play is slipping, he won't be able to rally the rest of the team behind himself. That's why this team needs a real leader.

A perfect example of a young team being turned around by a leader is the Tampa Bay Lightning. Dave Andreychuk was a but good but hardly a great player. He came on board in Tampa in 2001-2002. In second season was named Captain and he got the Ning back into the playoffs and in his third, he helped them get their wired Stanley Cup. There are other examples out there, but this is only the most recent one.

And just exactly who could/should this leader be? That's a good question because I don't have the answer myself. As shown above, it doesn't need to be a household name, just somebody who refuses to let his team lose. We may already have that player in Captain Clark, but he's not having the chance to be that guy out of deference to Olie. But this is why guys like George McPhee are paid the big bucks that they are and I'm just some idiot blogger who has to pay his way into the Phone Booth. McPhee or whoever takes his place as General Manager, should the Caps decide to fire McPhee, are the ones who need find the leader that the Caps need and bring him to the Caps.

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Friday, November 16, 2007

The Glen Hanlon Watch, Day 10

In the useless print edition of The (Com)Post today is an interesting stat. The Caps right now are on pace to score just 193 goals this season. That would be the third lowest total not counting the 1995 lockout shortened season.

So I took a look through my brand-new media guide and saw that the under the intrepid direction of Glen Hanlon the Caps have scored about 629 goals. 116 in the firesale 2003-2004 season (186 total that year but don't forget Hanlon took over on December 10th), 237 in 2005-2006 after the lockout, 235 last season, and 41 so far this season.

As a matter of fact, 193 would be an improvement on the 186 in that disastrous pre-lockout season that lead to the firesale. However, last season's 235 goals for were more than any Caps team had scored since the 1995-1996 team that scored 234. Caps teams that had Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra only topped out at 228 goals in 2001-2002.

Now this may look as a case FOR Hanlon. After all, with only A.O. to really run the offense through, what more could you ask for? Well, first of all, Ron Wilson and Bruce Cassidy (and the Sundance Kid) were shown the door after the weak offensive output that was at least supported by better defensive numbers (Crazy Ron only twice had a negative goal differential, the second occurrence came right before he was fired and in his one full season Cassidy was +4 and neither gave up as many goals as Hanlon has). Secondly, the Caps offense had Jagr, Bondra, Oates, and Lang to name a few, who all missed time during those seasons due to injury or had uninspired play.

But the real cause for the concern is that the offense is declining after hitting a high water mark right after the lockout with a Rookie A.O. and a team of cast-offs and other rookies. While I am not making a case for the return of Jeff Halpern, Dainus Zubrus, and Brian Willsie, I do wonder what happened to Matt Pettinger who scored a career high 20 goals that season? What's the deal with Brian Sutherby not being able to crack our offensively deficient line-up when he posted a career high 14 after finally getting a full season's worth of icetime that year? We also had Ben Clymer score a career high 16 goals that season.

And remember, Alexander Semin wasn't in Washington that season either.

Some of it has to do with scoring settling back down around the league after the rule changes that were made right after the lockout. However, most of the players I just listed were more than willing to score the "dirty" goals the Caps keep talking about how they need to score right now. This of course brings to mind some of the problems right now. There's no doubt that A.O. will score a dirty goal (he did last night), Captain Chris Clark has made a living scoring dirty goals, but does anybody remember Michael Nylander camping out in front of the net? And while Viktor Kozlov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tomas Fleischmann showed some impressive chemistry early on, does anybody believe that they'll get their noses dirty to score a goal?

Now I know certain factions will point to this lack of "grit" and blame George McPhee. However, McPhee does not set the line combinations. I don't think it was an accident that Clark started scoring when he was reunited with A.O. While Matt Pettinger may not be a true right wing for the second line, you know the guy will go to the net and score goals because he's done it on that line before. Sutherby is another guy willing to get to the front of the net when he's been given the chance. There's also the question of where will Semin skate when he returns? Will Hanlon break up A.O. and Clark again? Or his he going to try Semin in Fleischmann's place on the second line? (As long as Semin and A.O. aren't manning the point together on the Power Play...)

But the point is this, Hanlon somehow was able to mange more offense with less offensively skilled players than he is with more offensively skilled players. This my friends makes the injuries excuse moot because you can't reasonably explain how we were able to score considerably more goals with less talent than we are now. The predictability of our offense right now is staggering as everybody knows just who we're trying to feed the puck to and who we want taking the shot. Trading A.O. to force the rest of the team step up is not a viable option. But a new coach who is willing to develop other scoring options is.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Glen Hanlon Watch, Day 1

And so it begins... A vast majority of head coaches in the major professional sports leagues are fired and truth be told, I thought about starting this after the 7-3 loss in Loserville...er...Buffalo on Ocotber 13th. However, I thought that it was just too soon then. The Caps were 3-2 at that point in time and despite playing poorly in two consecutive games and showing little signs of improvement from the last two seasons, they still had a chance to regain their footing and recover.

But here we are almost one month later and the Caps have won only 2 more games since starting out 3-0. Things just aren't working right now and a change needs to be made sooner rather than later if the Caps want to salvage a playoff run for this season. Because you can't fire an entire team (nor would I suggest that's the problem right now), Head Coach Glen Hanlon will have to become the sacrifical lamb and "be relieved of coaching duties."

This isn't to say that the situation that the Caps find themselves in right now is all Hanlon's fault. Hanlon cannot control the injuries to the Three Injured Amigos; Captain Chris Clark, Tom Poti (who returned to action last night), and Alexander Semin. It's tough to blame a coach for bad bounces as well and I for one don't think a coach of a major league professional team can be held 100% accountable for a lack of motivation on the part of his players. These guys are being paid very well for what they do and that alone should be motivation enough. Finally, it's also tough to blame a coach because new players, particularly Nicklas Backstrom, Michael Nylander, and Viktor Kozlov, are having a hard time blending in with the players already here.

However, Hanlon does have full control of who does and does not play on the Power Play unit. Here we are now three seasons after the lockout and with the most talent the team has had since the firesale and the Power Play is still in the bottom third of the league. While some may want to blame injuries and new playes for the lack of sucess on the Power Play, we need to remember the original plan that had Semin and A.O. on different Power Play units. However, in a fit of desperation not only were Semin and A.O. put on the same unit, both players were put on the point. As a matter of fact, Hanlon has tried the "fourth forward on the point" move all season putting such luminaries as Joseph Motzko Ball on the point. What makes this all the more odd is the number of "puck moving offensive defensemen" we're supposed to have. You mean to tell me that none of them can get the job done on the point? The only time our Power Play has consistently looked dangerous is when Mike "BEAM ME UP" Green has gotten on the ice during a Power Play and taken it upon himself to lead a solo end-to-end rush. Yet here we are now 15 games into the season and the Caps have yet to score a 5-on-3 goal despite wasting using our timeout before just about every single one. There's no excuse for that with the amount of talent that we have in our lineup.

But getting back to odd lineups, Hanlon also has a weird tendency to put players wildly out of position. While Matt "Princess" Pettinger does not belong on the top two lines, he got tons of ice time there in recent years because there was nobody else to take the spot. However, that isn't so much the case anymore and Tomas Fleischmann has as much busniess skating on the fourth line as Motzko Ball does on the first. In his NHL debut, Chris Bourque got to skate with A.O. on the first line. While I am sure there are plenty of Bourque fans out there, I think most of them will agree he doesn't belong on the first line and if there's a line that does not need an infusion of energy, it's whatever line A.O. is skating on. I also fail to understand the love affair with John Erskine Bowles. I can understand using him as a stop gap measure in the case of injuries or prolonged poor play. But Hanlon seems to want to use him as a regular member of the blueline more often than not.

And speaking of A.O., without him I think it is safe to say that we would be asking Hanlon to make chicken salad out of chicken feathers. A.O. had great chemistry his first two seasons with Dainus Zubrus and Clark. Zubrus was traded given away for nothing in return and Hanlon decided to split up Clark and A.O. It is no surprise to me at least that when Hanlon finally put the two back together that Clark finally started scoring the goals that were expected of him and A.O. launched a 4 game point streak where he scored multiple points in all four games.

But in addition to the same bad play and the questionable line up combinations, Hanlon's message does not seem to be getting through as it once did. After holding a practice where the team had to avoid all kinds of obstacles when shooting, the Caps still had 20 shots blocked and another 16 miss the net while helping Cam Ward pitch a 35 save shutout. For those of you who are a little slow, that means that the just over half the shots the Caps took in a 5-0 embarassment did not even find the net. Even more troubling has been the recent preaching about discipline as the Caps continue to give up at least 5 Power Plays a night on average. There does come a point in time when a hockey teams tunes out the coach and the message no longer gets through. What is the most damning for Hanlon is that it has become obvious that time has come.

Finally, let me say that this declaration that Hanlon has to go is not meant to be a commentary on Hanlon's ability as a coach. Hanlon has done a fine job since taking over on December 10th, 2003 and leading this team through the firesale and well into the rebuilding. Hanlon's strongest suit as a coach is his ability to develop young players into competent pros. However, this is no longer a rag-tag-almost-minor-league bunch of hockey players. While there is still some inexperience in crictical places, this is not a team of rookies and minor leaugers. What this team needs now is a coach who has the experience and knows what it takes to not only make the playoffs, but win in the playoffs. I won't get into exactly who I think the next coach of the Caps should be but it has become clear to me that it is time for Glen Hanlon to be replaced.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

For The Record

I have to say, these four day breaks in the schedule are a killer when it comes to trying to fill time on your blog. Even if I didn't have a day job, going out and covering watching paint dry practice just isn't my cup of tea. Now I'm not putting down those that do go out to watch paint dry practice but about the only way I would do it on a regular basis if I was a person being paid to do it.

Then of course, there are days like yesterday when there isn't any paint drying practice to watch at all.

Maybe this is why our comrades Mike Vogel and The Peerless went out and wrote about how everything will be fine this season. I don't even have to check, I know they're responding to the denizens of Darwin's Waiting Room more than anything else. However, just on the off chance some of this was aimed at me, let me remind them, I picked the Caps finish fourth in the Southeast and don't think this team will make the playoffs.

Yes, 3-2 is rather nice compared to the nightmare brewing in Atlanta (I saw the end of the game against New Jersey on Saturday night, and let me tell you, that's a loss that will take a long time to get over) and a good start is much better than a poor one. However, there are some very troubling signs from the past two games.

As I mentioned in the Post-Mortem Saturday night the transition game has once again disappeared. We can equivocate and say that the Buffaslugs are an elite Eastern Conference team, but that doesn't excuse the poor showing. Maybe we should lose to the Buffaslugs, but lose by four goals and get outshot by 27?

I also find it interesting that Vogel points out that the Caps are 12 for 12 in the penalty killing department with Boyd Gordon in the lineup and just 10 for 15 without him. First of all, IF El Gordo is that vital to the Caps Penalty Killing success, let's start the Frank Selke campaign right now because he should be a shoo-in. Secondly, this goes to another problem I pointed out before the season started about the lack of depth (though in fairness to all involved, that has more to do with the salary cap system than anything else. The Skins are deep trouble for the same reason, injuries are killing them and the cap prevents them from stockpiling any depth to weather the storm). Finally, Vogel undermines this point when he points out that five games isn't a good sample set for a team's start. Vogel (and others too) thinks you need about 15-20 games in order to get a good read on a hockey team. If that is the case, how you can judge the penalty killing unit and who the vital cog is on that unit after only 5 games seems a little silly.

Then there's the number crunching Peerless (who does a good job BTW) who tells that one game under .500 in October isn't a kiss of death. Yet by Gary Bettman standards, the Caps were one game over .500 in October last year going 4-3-4 and still missed the playoffs. Montreal was 6-2-3 under Bettman (6-5 in the real world, still over .500 no matter how you cut it) Toronto was 6-4-3 (6-7, one game under .500 in the real world, like the Rangers, Ning, and Senators who made the playoffs) in October last year, and they too missed out on the playoffs. Better, yet, at the end of October last year, the Caps, Candiens, and Leafs all had more standings points than the Rangers, Ning, and Senators.

Now this isn't to say that playoff teams and championship teams don't have bad stretches in an 82 game schedule. Anaheim lost 4 games in a row twice last season (only one of those eight losses came in a gimmick) and Carolina lost three games in a row once in 2005-2006.

But the here problem is two fold, it wasn't that the Caps lost last weekend, it was the way that they lost. They were standing around on the penalty kill on Friday night and Saturday they couldn't get out of their own zone. It was a flashback to the play of the past two seasons. If the Caps had played hard both nights and came up on the short end of the stick, most people wouldn't be looking to jump off the bandwagon. What makes it all the more infuriating is what took place the opening weekend. There was no hint of a poor transition game and the Caps were the ones bottling everybody up in their zone. We see the glimpses of just how good this team can be and when they don't do it consistently, you begin to wonder if the team really has the potential some say that it does.

But people are all jazzed up about this season because of the talk from the team that started last April and is all a continuation from last season. For over a year now we've been hearing from the Caps "we're going to make the playoffs" "we want to make the playoffs" "we expect to make the playoffs" but the play on the ice looks to remain the same. If the brass in the Caps front office think they had PR problems with the way last season ended, they'll long for those days if the Caps finish 14th in the Eastern Conference again this season.

Sure, things could "turn around" and we could stay on the three wins out of every five games pace that will yield a minimum of 98 points and safely secure a playoff spot. But performances last last weekend have to be blips on the screen and not the normal run of play.

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Friday, October 05, 2007

A Kiss Of Death If I Ever Saw One

Ok, seriously, this isn't me just being a nattering nabob of negativism here and while I enjoy bashing the Worldwide Leader in Schlock, them deciding to follow the Caps this season just comes across as a bad omen.

Think of this as ESPN.com's "print" version of "The Season." Did any of the teams that ESPN pick for that program ever meet their expectations? Look, I know certain people want all the exposure they can get for this team and the sport overall. Along as Burnside reports in a respectful manner and the season doesn't go totally to pot very quickly, the series will be a good thing.

But as I said this week, if everybody is picking the Caps as a "surprise" and "darkhorse," just how are we a darkhorse and a surprise? Shouldn't we be favorites in that case? It seems to me that ESPN expects big things out of the Caps this season and only increases the pressure.

And let's not kid ourselves either, the odds of this increasing the exposure of the NHL on the Worldwide Leader in Schlock is rather slime because this will run only on the internet and not on the network itself.

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Your 2007-2008 Washington Capitals Preview Part III

So let's cut to the chase here, you already know I'm picking the Caps to finish fourth in the Southeast Division. Last year I said that the Caps were two years away from making the playoffs and nothing the Caps have done since then has made feel any differently.

The CW UFA shopping list included two top line centers (Michael Nylander and Nicklas Backstrom) a top line right wing (Viktor Kozlov), and a shutdown #1 defenseman which was not acquired but who in the NHL isn't looking for one of those? Tom Poti is another nice addition but it will take time for all these new parts to gel. There were some interesting moments in preseason with some nice skill demonstrations but, it was only the preseaon and all of it should be taken with a grain of salt. It should be noted that only 2 of the 6 forwards on the top two lines (A.O. and Alexander Semin) played in the season opener last season. While the overhaul of the top lines was needed, the changes will take some time to set before we really can get a sense of if they will or will not work in the long run.

However, two glaring deficiencies last year were not addressed in the offseason. Though to be fair to George McPhee and Glen Hanlon, there isn't anything you can do to give inexperienced blueliners experience short of playing them and letting them take their lumps. Furthermore, I don't know how you can blame the management when the players play better in front of Olie Kolzig than they do in front of Brent Johnson.

The other problem I have is that the Caps seem to be everbody's "darkhorse" and "sleeper" team. If that is the case, just how in the world are the Caps a "darkhorse" and "sleeper" if everybody is expecting it? Could the Caps win the Southeast Division? Well, I like their chances in the Southeast better than their chances of winning the Central Division simply because they play in the Southeast Division. The Caps also luck out in playing in a weak Eastern Conference. The Caps only need about 92 points to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs instead of 95 to make it in the Western Conference. That's about two less wins though the Caps only rang up 28 last year. They'll need at least 40 wins and 12 is a large jump to ask of a team with a two new top lines, a young blueline, and aging goaltender.

Yes, next year the goaltender will be even older, but with any luck, Michal Neuvirth and/or Simeon Varlamov will be ready to challenge for the #1 goaltending position. But the blueline will finally have more experience and that can save an aging goaltender. Just ask Dominek Hasek. But for this season, I think it will be another futile chase.

Finally, last season was derailed by the lack of depth on defense as injury and illness started a tailspin that was never recovered from. The injury to Olie Kolzig simply sealed the Caps fate. The Caps have improved their depth on the blueline so a rash of injury and illness there can be weathered better. Kolzig is still the key to the season, if he goes down or regresses, any hope of making the playoffs takes a huge hit. But the Caps are very vulnerable in terms of depth on their top two lines. Right now the Caps have exactly six forwards for top two lines. Jakub "and Sons" Klepis could be called upon in a pinch to step in but Eric Fehr is injured for the time being. But outside of them, the Caps will be forced to use one of their grinders to fill in on the top two lines. If Captain Chris Clark, Matt "Omar" Bradley, or Matt "Princess" Pettinger spend a considerable amount of time skating with the top two lines, the Caps are in for another long season.

The Caps will have some tough decisions coming up in the next off season but they are heading in the right direction for the most part. I would like to be wrong, but I think this team is still one year away from making the playoffs.

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Your 2007-2008 Washington Capitals Preview Part II

Yesterday we got the backend today we look at the front end...

The top line heading into the season looks to be A.O. centered by Viktor Kozlov with Tomas Fleischmann on the right wing. Just like his rookie season, A.O. has to spend the start of the season developing chemistry between himself and new linemates. A.O. has some history with Kozlov but has never skated a regular shift with Flash. This is a purely European line so the wingers and center should all be on the same page. It is also the most skilled top line we've had since the end of the lockout. Nicklas Backstrom should eventually take over as center before the season is over. It would more than likely move Kozlov to the right wing and Flash down a line. It largely depends upon Backstroms ability to handle being a center in the NHL because while Kozlov is a natural center, he's horrible on faceoffs. That definciency could ultimately hurt the production of this line because they'll be spending time trying to get the puck back instead of creating plays. Should Flash not keep his preseason performance going, he could be replaced by Captain Chris Clark who has shown an ability to keep up with a top line.

The second line features the other Alex, Alexander Semin centered by Michael Nylander with Backstrom making his NHL debut on the right wing. Here's another totally European line that will have to develop chemistry. Nylander too could pop up in important offensive zone draws late in the game and having two distributors with a noted puck hog could yield high dividends. Look for Matt "Princess" Pettinger to fill in here should injuries or other issues require a replacement. Eric Fehr might also pop in on this line should a need arise after he passes his training camp physical.

These players will also form the base of the forwards on the Power Play units. The Caps will need better Power Play production if they want to seriously challenge for the playoff spot. The sooner these units can come together, the better they will be.

The third line to open the season looks to be Boyd Gordon centered by rookie David Steckel with Captain Chris Clark on the right wing. Clark is coming of a 30 goal season but isn't very likely to repeat that simply because he won't be skating with Dainus Zubrus and A.O. anymore. This will be a checking line with two good defensive forwards and two centers who can win defensive zone draws late in the game. Steckel is getting his chance to show he belongs but the Caps still have plenty of talent to take his place should he falter. These guys will also form the base of the forwards for the penalty killing unit.

The only entrenched player on the fourth line is Mr. Donald Brashear. Right now it looks as if Brooks Laich will be his center and the right winger will be chosen among Brian Sutherby, Matt "Omar" Bradley and Pettinger. Sutherby and Pettinger should get the majority of the time and Brashear will also be a healthy scratch from time-to-time. All three of these guys in addition to Laich can also play on the third line if needed and aren't too shabby on the Penalty Kill. You know Glen Hanlon isn't happy with the Power Play unit when he sends Brashear out to camp out in front of the crease.

In the past the Caps have shown that they had the market cornered when it came to grinding forwards. They now have more skill for the top two lines which means that some of the grinders have to go. This is why Ben Clymer is in Hershey and Sutherby, Bradley, and Princess will be healthy scratches this year. However, that top line skill is still rather thin as the Caps don't have anybody (save for Eric Fehr who is injured) who is being asked to play out of position on a 3rd or 4th line. At least now we don't have somebody playing out of position on the 1st or 2nd lines.

It is in this area that the Caps are improved but the chemistry of the top two lines will make some time to form.

Later today, I'll explain what all of this adds up to...

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