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What’s next for the Caps?

Some of the Caps fanbase on Twitter and other social media outlets seems a bit uneasy about the fact that the Caps have not yet made a big splash in the free agency market.  While certain players may have made some sense (i.e. PA Parenteau), I’m in no way bothered by the Caps lack of activity thus far.  I would rather the team save the cap space to address needs at a date later than July 1st than rashly fill a hole in a manner that will likely prove to be inadequate or with a contract that will become regrettable.  That being said, there are holes on this roster that need to be fixed, most notably, a winger to replace Alex Semin on the second line.

The Caps filled a major hole on the roster by acquiring Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars. However, with the impending departure of Semin via free agency, the Caps still have some work to do in terms of their top 2 lines.  Given the lack of top-6 talent on the free agent market, the Caps may be best served to make a deal for a winger to play on one of the top two lines, which brings us to scenario one…

Trade for Bobby Ryan or a similar player.

This scenario was brought up recently over at Japers’ Rink with the hypothetical package of Dmitri Orlov, Marcus Johansson and a 1st round pick going to Anaheim for Bobby Ryan.  For a good debate on the value of that deal, head on over and read the comments section.  For my purposes here, I’ll assume the value makes sense for both teams.  If this trade were to happen, or one for a player similar to Ryan, the Caps group of forwards would look like this:

Ovechkin-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Brouwer

Perreault-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Ryan( or similar player)

Chimera-Laich-Ward

Crabb-Beagle-Hendricks

Is Perreault a top-6 winger? No.  But could he be a serviceable option given the quality of the players on his line as well as the quality of the other lines?  I would vote yes.   The top two lines would have plenty of scoring and prove difficult to play against with physical players such as Ovechkin, Brouwer and a Ryan-type player.  I see no question marks with the third and fourth lines listed above, they’d make Dale Hunter proud (and probably be his first and second lines).

However, we can play arm-chair GM all we want, but it doesn’t magically make Bobby Ryan or a similar player available and/or affordable.   So what if the Caps can’t bring in a second-line winger?   What if the contract or asking price for such a player is currently at a level that will do more harm than good for the Caps?  This bring us to scenario 2…

Sign Jason Arnott

This comes with a disclaimer. Ultimately, the Caps need a to acquire a 2W, not Jason Arnott. Without acquiring a winger to play on the second line, the Caps are not legitimate Cup contenders.   But what if nothing makes sense? Should the Caps stand pat?  Depending on the what’s available, possibly, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.   Instead, the Caps should put a band-aid on the situation and wait until a trade for a 2W opens up.  A band-aid type fix would involve bringing in a player on a short-term, low-risk deal so as not to handcuff the team should a 2W becomes available.   To me, the easiest way to do this is to sign a player to solidify the center spot on the third line to free up Brooks Laich to play wing on the second line.  Of all of the available free agents, Jason Arnott strikes me as the player best suited to serve in this role.  He’d likely be available on a one-year deal for a reasonable amount of money.  The forward lines would then look like this:

Ovechkin-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Brouwer

Laich-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Perreault/Johansson

Chimera-Arnott-Ward

Crabb-Beagle-Hendricks

I wouldn’t have a lot of faith in this team contending for the Cup, but I don’t think it’d be a disaster over the short term, either.  The intention here is to put a band-aid on the 2W situation until a legitimate one hopefully becomes available via trade during the season.  This is  certainly not an ideal option, but it’s better than signing Player X, who is questionably adequate to play as a 2W for the duration of his contract, to a deal that will be harmful to the team’s cap management.

Regardless of what the Caps end up doing, I like the patient approach they have opted for thus far.  Doing nothing to address glaring needs is generally a better approach than addressing those needs in an inadequate or fiscally irresponsible manner.  That being said, signing a player such as Arnott makes sense for the short-term.  The would allow Laich to fill-in as a 2W while also not handcuffing the team financially when/if a 2W becomes available.

Possible free agent target: Brad Boyes

The Capitals top-6 forwards are in need of reinforcements. With Alex Semin set to become an UFA and depending on if the Caps have Brooks Laich penciled in as a 2W or 3C next season, the Caps currently have as few as 4-top 6 forwards on their roster right now (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Brouwer, and newly acquired Mike Ribeiro).  These kind of players don’t come cheap, via trade or free agency.  With a particularly thin free-agent market this year, the price for top-6 forwards is likely to be even more inflated than usual.  The Caps have smartly not locked themselves into any crippling free agency deals with such players in recent memory, and it wouldn’t be smart to start now.  That being said, George McPhee would be smart to look for a player with top-6 potential but who has certain questions marks that will keep the money and term of the deal within reason.  On the free agent market this year, a player that fits that mold is Brad Boyes.

Over the course of the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, Boyes played in all 164 games and totaled 76 goals and 62 assists (a 0.84 PPG average).   However, in the 3 seasons since then, Boyes has totaled just 38 goals and 91 assists in 210 games (a 0.61 PPG average).  Boyes was particularly mediocre this season in Buffalo when he totaled 8 goals and 15 assists in 65 games.  So why should the Caps take a look at Boyes?

At 29, Boyes is unlikely to again reach the numbers of 4 years ago, but he is plenty young enough to still be a productive player when put in the right situation.  Last season, Boyes played just 13:10 per game and spent time on the Sabres 4th line.  While some may see a player whose production has fallen off a cliff, I see a player with a lot to prove who could be had on a cheap one year deal.  He likely will be signed to a low-risk/potential high value type deal.  Another positive is that Boyes, while primarily a winger, can play center when called upon.

There are reasons to hesitate signing Boyes and there are certainly valid concerns that his days as a top-6 forward are behind him.  However, in a day and age when many free agent contracts get bloated to regrettable levels, taking a flyer on Boyes, if he is under the radar, may be worth the risk for the Caps.

It’s over for the 2011-12 Caps, but these playoffs felt different

Just over two months ago, with less than twenty games remaining in the Washington Capitals regular season, I wrote the following as part of a post on how the struggling team was complaining about signs that fans were holding up before a game:

I’ve rooted for a lot of losing teams in my life; it’s really not hard to do. I’m not a fair weather fan, even when my teams are on a losing streak. But when a team doesn’t seem to care for stretches at a time or when they look deflated, uninspired and plain defeated, they’re not always a lot of fun to pull for…

See yourself, one solid shift at a time, winning the game being played on the ice, Caps, not what some fan is holding up to the glass surrounding it. Your season, and many fans’ patience, might be gone soon if you don’t.

A statue, located outside Rexall Place in Edmo...

A statue, located outside Rexall Place in Edmonton, honouring Wayne Gretzky. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to believe that the Caps team that just eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champions and then took the Eastern Conference’s top seed to seven games is the same group that seemed so far from focused just a short time ago. But focused is exactly what this team appeared to be during much of its 2011-12 playoff run.

Though their eventual Game 7 elimination by the New York Rangers was disappointing, like most any playoff exit is, and contained examples of improvement still being needed—such as an ugly third period power play or the inability of the team’s star players to perform at the level required to win the game—it’s hard to be upset with the Caps’ overall post-season performance, particularly given where they were in March. Perhaps more importantly, these playoffs signaled that the Caps of the Ovechkin era may be capable of playing the type of dedicated hockey often seen from teams that make deep playoff runs.

As Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post wrote in his post-series column:

In the past, what Washington often lacked was much more than a goal. It was a combination of qualities that command respect in the NHL and which Hunter, of course, calls character. He might as well say “pain in pursuit of progress,” because everything he demands hurts in one way or another.

Whether a Capitals player must throw his body in front of slap shots, bang on the boards, focus on defense first or sacrifice minutes so the right players, by skill-set, not star reputation, can be on the ice at the proper times — there is always an element of sacrifice…

Sacrifice. Dedication. Grit. Leaving it all on the ice. These are not terms that have been used often to describe the Caps playoff teams of the past few seasons. Yet even NBC Sports commentators were complimenting players like Ovechkin for blocking shots and buying into Dale Hunter’s system at times this post-season (it’s critical that Ovi still improve his two-way game more than any player on the team, but that’s perhaps a topic for another day).

Did this Caps team blow an opportunity in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead? Absolutely. But they bounced back and won the next game, like they did every time they needed to during these playoffs. Every game was close for the Caps, against both Boston and New York. All but one game during their entire fourteen game run was decided by one goal.

This year’s performance was far beyond last year’s second round loss in four straight to Tampa Bay, the blown 3-1 series lead against Montreal the year before or the 6-2 Game 7 loss to the Penguins in 2008-09 for which the Capitals didn’t seem to be in the building. As I’ve written before, “Not since the 2007-08 playoff loss in seven games to the Flyers has it appeared as if the team left it all out on the ice as they were eliminated.” That changed this post-season.

This year’s team seemed to grasp the fact that talent alone isn’t enough to win in the playoffs. These Caps were playing as if they now better understand the concept Wayne Gretzky wrote about in his autobiography, when he described the scene as he and fellow Edmonton Oiler Kevin Lowe left the building after losing the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals to the New York Islanders:

“We both knew we were going to have to walk by the Islander locker room, and we were dreading it: having to see all the happy faces, the champagne shampoos, the girlfriends’ kisses, the whole scene we wanted so much.  But as we walked by, we didn’t see any of that. The girlfriends and the coaches and the staff people were living it up, but the players weren’t. Trottier was icing what looked like a painful knee. Potvin was getting stuff rubbed on his shoulder. Guys were limping around with black eyes and bloody mouths. It looked more like a morgue than a champion’s locker room.  And here we were perfectly fine and healthy. That’s why they won and we lost. They took more punishment than we did. They dove into more boards, stuck their faces in front of more pucks, threw their bodies into more pileups. They sacrificed everything they had.  And that’s when Kevin said something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘That’s how you win championships.’”

Washington players have taken some bumps and bruises in the playoffs the past few years, but quite often it was the Caps who were having their shots blocked or who were being beaten to pucks by guys that seemed to want it just a little bit more. While it was the Rangers who rose to the occasion and seized the opportunity before them in Game 7 Saturday, the Caps put together a playoff run that shows they may finally be on their way toward getting it.

24th anniversary of Dale Hunter’s OT goal for Caps in Game 7 vs. Flyers

As the Washington Capitals face off against the Boston Bruins in Game 3 of their opening round playoff series on Monday night, the date marks the 24th anniversary of one of the biggest goals in Caps history. As any serious Caps fan probably knows, that goal was scored by the man now behind the bench for Washington…

I remember that goal well. It was scored on my 13th birthday. Snow flurries fell at one point that day in the D.C. area, which doesn’t happen too often around here on April 16. I was in seventh grade at the time and had a birthday party at my house that evening with my friends.

As soon as the party was over, I headed to the living room for the Caps game. My family and I were watching on TV—it was on Home Team Sports (HTS) in those days—as Hunter put that puck through Hextall’s legs.

For a franchise that had always seemed to lose big playoff games to Patrick Division foes, Hunter’s goal scored a monumental victory. Just the year before, the team had lost the Game 7, four overtime, Easter Epic to the New York Islanders (a shout out to my mom for taking me to that game and staying until the end, and to my uncle Mike for those tickets).

Four banners for the the Washington Capitals r...

Four banners for the the Washington Capitals retired numbers hang in the Verizon Center, #5 Rod Langway, #7 Yvon Labre, #11 Mike Gartner, and #32 Dale Hunter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the next round following Hunter’s series winning goal, the Caps fell to the New Jersey Devils in seven games. I was at Game 1 of that series at the Caps Centre (thanks to my aunt Terry for taking me to that one), when Rod Langway took a skate to the back of the leg from the Devil’s Pat Verbeek, putting the Caps’ captain out of action for the rest of the playoffs. My memory of the rest of that series is hazy, except that I recall being concerned after the team lost Langway on defense and I imagine the series might have played out differently had he been available the rest of the way.

After defeating the Caps, New Jersey went on to lose to Boston (the Schoenfeld-Koharski “Have another donut” incident took place during that time) and then Boston was swept in the Stanley Cup Finals by Edmonton in a series that also featured Boston Garden fog and a power outage that stopped Game 4 there in progress and forced its cancellation. I think my dad and I watched every minute of those Finals together.

That was the last playoff run for that particular group of core Caps players. The next year at the trade deadline, Caps General Manager David Poile dealt Mike Gartner and Larry Murphy to the Minnesota North Stars for Dino Ciccarelli and Bob Rouse. That same day, Poile also dealt goaltender Clint Malarchuk, defenseman Grant Ledyard and a draft pick to Buffalo for Calle Johnansson and a pick.

Malarchuk had come to the Caps with Dale Hunter in a trade with Quebec prior to the ’87-’88 season and had become expendable after the emergence of Don Beaupre, a former NHLer with the North Stars who’d been playing for the Caps’ AHL affiliate in Baltimore before being promoted to Washington. The Caps would use the draft pick they got from Buffalo in that Malarchuk deal to select goaltender Byron Dafoe in the 1989 entry draft, the same year they also drafted a guy named Olaf Kolzig.

Rouse, acquired in that trade with Ciccarelli, was eventually dealt to Toronto with Peter Zezel for defenseman Al Iafrate in 1991. After a few seasons in Washington, including one in which he scored 25 goals, Iafrate was traded to Boston for Joe Juneau.

That 1988 Dale Hunter goal against the Flyers was the biggest in Caps history until this overtime score by Juneau against the Buffalo Sabres, ten years later in the 1998 playoffs, sent Washington to their first ever Stanley Cup Finals…

Though this goal might now be the most famous one ever scored by a Capital…

Where were you the night Hunter scored that goal 24 years ago for the Caps? Add a comment about it below.

Four years ago today: Alex Ovechkin’s first NHL playoff goal and Caps fans

As sportswriter Ted Starkey pointed out on Twitter, it was four years ago today that Alex Ovechkin scored his first NHL playoff goal, “stealing the puck and scoring late in a 5-4 win over the Flyers in Game 1.”

I was at that game and took some video in the crowd as we reacted to that Ovechkin goal. It’s not the steadiest camera work, but the place was total bedlam with much high-fiving, jumping, etc. happening all around Verizon Center.

Here’s one I got after Mike Green scored prior to Ovechkin’s goal to make it 4-4:

What went wrong?

Life was good for the Caps as tonight’s game went to a TV timeout with a little over 13 minutes remaining in the 2nd period.  The team was up 3-0, outshooting the Jets 16-9 in the process.  Alex Ovechkin had two goals and it looked as if he and his teammates may blow the Jets out of the building.  They didn’t.  The Caps were outscored 4-0 the rest of the way and outshot 33-7, losing a standings point along the way.  What went wrong?

-Two words: Dennis Wideman.  Wideman’s consistent indecision and ineffectiveness with the puck when exiting the defensive zone proved especially costly tonight on the winning goal.  He had two chances to get the puck out and failed miserably both times.  About 30 seconds before the goal he tried to skate the puck out 1 on 3 and got his pocket picked just inside the blue line.   #6 has to make a better decision there. Lob the puck out, ice the puck, chip it forward four feet to clear the zone.  Just don’t turn it over 2 feet inside your own blue line  in that situation ever.   Still, Wideman had a chance to make amends.  Alex Ovechkin mishandled the puck above the faceoff circle but made a decent recovery and chipped the puck back to Wideman.  At this point the Caps were in scramble mode so Wideman needs to, again, just get the puck out, even if it means taking an icing.  Instead he weakly chipped the puck off the glass to the feet of a covered Ovechkin.  Turnover, Jets win 4-3.

-The way in which the Jets cut the deficit from 3-0 to 3-2 looked entirely too easy.  It was the kind of thing that makes Brooks Laich do this.  In less than two minutes the game went from being firmly controlled by the Caps to a dogfight.

-Dale Hunter made coaching decisions that were wrong questionable perplexing.  There was plenty of talk about the tactical approach by the Caps in the second half of the game, and rightfully so, but not much talk of Hunter letting his timeout go to waste when his team was under relentless pressure. As Caps Season Ticket Holder Joe Holden (Dad, as I call him) questioned after the game, why didn’t Hunter call a timeout at any point in the 3rd period with his team under siege in an attempt to slow the momentum?  The Jets called a timeout with the Caps up 2-0 and buzzing for more goals.  True, the Caps did then go up 3-0 but the end result was a 4-3 Jets win.  Maybe the Jets timeout had nothing to do with the change in momentum, but it would have been nice to see Hunter use his timeout in an attempt to calm his team down since nothing else was working. Oh, and as J.P. already pointed out. Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks (as well as Troy Brouwer) skated more minutes than Alex Ovechkin.

The Caps have let two points inexcusably slip away at home against the Jets this year while the Jets have escaped DC with four points that they’d be all but out of the playoff race without.  No sense in dwelling on any of this any longer with any sort of closing paragraph.  Next up: Minnesota.

A ‘sign’ that an unfocused Caps team has gone completely off the rails

I’ve been a huge Caps fan for a long time and I always will be. I’ve been a big believer in “The Plan” and a strong supporter of most of what the organization has done the last few years. But lately, a few things have been bothering me:

    • Though I’ve long been a big fan of Alex Ovechkin and the take-no-prisoners approach he took the NHL by storm with, I haven’t been impressed with him lately and his inability to take responsibility for some of his actions, act like a team leader publicly, etc. The organization and some fans seem OK with him doing whatever he’d like. Mike Wise recently dubbed these people Great 8 enablers, during the skipped All-Star Game debate. As Caps fans, we all need to take a break from the red Kool-aid often enough to see things objectively.
    • The Holden Family season tickets in the 400 level, which my father owns and generously lets his whole family use, have gone up 90.7% in five years. Professional sports is a business, I love what Ted Leonsis has done for the Caps, and this team has become extremely popular. However, now in their fifth straight year, these constant and sometimes rather steep increases have started to feel excessive—and like the type of thing that could come back to haunt the organization if they hit a prolonged rough patch.
    • I’ve watched the Caps exit the playoffs in an uninspiring fashion for three straight seasons. As I wrote the other day, (see ’90.7%’ link in the bullet point above): “Not since the 2007-08 playoff loss in seven games to the Flyers has it appeared as if the team left it all out on the ice as they were eliminated. In series losses to Pittsburgh (’08-’09), Montreal (’09-’10) and Tampa Bay (’10-’11), the team looked flat and unable to push over the hump to take their post-season game to the next level.” Yet still today, even under a new coach and with a variety of veterans and role players brought in over the last few seasons, the team does not seem to have learned to seize opportunities, finish opponents when they have them down or play a full 60 minutes on a consistent basis. There are times when the Caps don’t even seem present.

Then this afternoon, I read something that further irks me and it relates especially to that third and final bullet point above.

I was following a story Tuesday night about two Caps bloggers, known as Knights of Knuble, who were asked to take down “Free Knuble” and “Scratch Hunter” signs they brought to the game. It was reported by Stephen Whyno of The Washington Times that this was due to some Caps players requesting the signs be removed during warm-ups.

Today, Leonsis confirmed this on his blog, writing: “A couple of players saw a sign at ice level during warm-ups that they felt was disrespectful toward our coach. One of the players asked one of the bench personnel to see if he could get them to take it down. One of our arena employees thought he was being helpful, and asked the fans to take it down.”

Leonsis goes on to explain that the signs should have been permitted inside the venue, which is great to hear because banning signs is Redskins-like behavior and very un-Caps.

But I couldn’t help but wonder aloud on Twitter today: “Why are Caps players even focused on signs in stands during warm-ups? Nice that they want coach respected, but why not just block it out?”

This is a Caps team that acts confused when they can’t get up for a big game. Multiple players have commented on not knowing why they come out flat some games and they’ve been uttering nearly identical quotes after some of these games for over three years now.

Recently, after a loss to the Panthers, defenseman Karl Alzner commented, “Some teams it’s just real easy to get up for and that’s because of the team that they are: the Rangers, the Canadiens. Those games are really easy and sometimes here in Florida it’s difficult to get up…”

I was dumbfounded when I read that Alzner quote back in early February. If you’re a professional athlete and you’re thinking that, don’t say it out loud. And while you’re thinking that but not saying it, ask yourself why you are a professional athlete yet unable to focus enough to get up for any game you need to get up for, particularly one against a division rival that was banging on your door at that point.

But now, when I see that there are guys on the Caps that are so unfocused on the game at hand that they’re actually going to take the time to ask that a “Scratch Hunter” or a “Free Knuble” sign be taken down during warm-ups, quotes like Alzner’s and this team’s inability to play consistent hockey for 60 minutes, or from one game to the next, makes a little more sense.

Ignore the damn signs, Caps! Or be so in the zone and focused on the precious two points up for grabs that you don’t even notice the signs to begin with. Play like you did a few years ago when you were all business, dead set on gaining two points at a time and nothing more and nothing less…until it was time to play the next game and grab those two points.

You were a machine, Caps, and thousands of people were inspired by it. But now, when I see your captain sulking, your disinterest on the ice at times and some of you actually taking the time as pro athletes to worry about what a cleanly-worded and done-seemingly-in-good-fun sign says, I can’t help but think that you sound like losers.

I’ve rooted for a lot of losing teams in my life; it’s really not hard to do. I’m not a fair weather fan, even when my teams are on a losing streak. But when a team doesn’t seem to care for stretches at a time or when they look deflated, uninspired and plain defeated, they’re not always a lot of fun to pull for. And now you want to complain about signs, Caps? Really? Seriously, guys? Is that where the focus should be as you sit outside the playoffs with under 20 games left in the regular season? (I also doubt one of the biggest bad-asses in the history of hockey, Dale Hunter, needs anyone to protect him from a paper sign. I’m also sure he saw and heard much worse than “Scratch Hunter” during his playing days).

See yourself, one solid shift at a time, winning the game being played on the ice, Caps, not what some fan is holding up to the glass surrounding it. Your season, and many fans’ patience, might be gone soon if you don’t.

Jeff Carter to the Caps: What could have been

I’m already on record about why I think the Caps should have traded for Jeff Carter.   Unfortunately, Carter, a sure-fix to the Caps biggest need, has found a new home in Los Angeles.  I could go on about how a 27 year old offensively gifted center, who is a responsible two-way player and affordable (both in cap hit and trade price), could have gone a long way to fixing what ails even a healthy Caps team.  I could go on about how the 2C hole has become the Achilles heel of George McPhee’s tenure and this was likely his best shot at fixing it.  But I won’t.  Instead of 1,000 words on what could have been had the Caps traded for Jeff Carter, I’ll leave you with this picture.

Photo edit by Justin Michaliga (@jmichaliga)

Copy of the original Richards-Carter image here

Weekend recap

English: Alex Ovechkin, 2009

Alex Ovechkin - Image via Wikipedia

In case you missed anything, below are links to all the happenings this weekend at BrooksLaichyear.com:

Caps-Bolts: Ovechkin’s other options with 25 seconds left

With about 25 seconds to go in last night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals down by a goal, I would have liked to have seen Alex Ovechkin pass the puck to a teammate rather than hold it and eventually shoot from a bad angle (see video embedded below).

Troy Brouwer was open and then, after Ovechkin comes out from behind the net, John Carlson appears to have been open as he was cutting in from the point. Carlson might have had the whole top right corner of the net open for a quick shot, with Lightning goaltender Mathieu Garon down in a butterfly position and over toward the left post.

Just putting the puck on net like Ovechkin eventually did isn’t a bad idea in that situation, but he had better options and they would have involved some puck movement, which is often a very good thing—in fact, it’s what led to the Caps only goal of the game.

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