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Caps aggressive in first day of free agency

Brian MacLellan’s first day of free agency as GM of the Caps was anything but quiet. MacLellan handed out over $69 million on July 1st, more than any other GM in the league. MacLellan said his priorities were to bring in a veteran goaltender and to bolster the Capitals defense. While the effectiveness of the moves is up for debate, MacLellan certainly made moves that he feels addressed his priorities.

Justin Peters

Justin Peters comes to the Caps from the Carolina Hurricanes to serve as the backup to Braden Holtby. MacLellan was very clear in stating that he wanted to bring in a goalie that sent the message to Holtby that he is the Caps number one guy and that the organization believes in him.  This is refreshing to hear after the disastrous way Adam Oates handled Holtby and the effect it had on him. While it remains to be seen how new coach Barry Trotz handles his goalies in Washington, the fact that the organization is doubling down on Holtby as their guy is a step in the right direction.

Last season, Peters played in 21 games for the Hurricanes and posted a 7-9-4 record. Peters’ 5 on 5 save % of 92.3 ranked 33rd among goalies with 21 or more games played.  According to Rob Vollman, Peters faced the second toughest competition last season of all the goalies that were available as unrestricted free agents. The money on this deal makes sense as well, as Peters annual salary for the 2 year deal is $950,000, which currently ranks 48th among all NHL goalies.

Brooks Orpik

So that’s where we’re starting from. Not only did the Caps sign the one guy I singled out to avoid, they signed him to an absolutely insane 5 year, $27.5 million dollar deal. Brooks Orpik will be 34 before the season starts. While this deal may not kill the Caps immediately, the thought that in a couple years the Caps will have a defender on the wrong side of 35 taking up $5.5 million in cap space is troubling, to put it mildly. Yes, Brooks Orpik fits the bill of a “tough” and “hard-nosed” defenseman that many Caps fans have long called for. However, Brooks Orpik has never been a positive possession player in his career, meaning his team has always been out shot over the course of a season while he’s been on the ice. However, to be fair to Orpik, some context on these numbers is helpful. For example, this past season, Orpik started more shifts in the defensive zone than any other Penguins defender who played in at least half of the team’s games. Orpik also faced the toughest competition among this same group of Penguins D, and finished 26th overall among all NHL defenseman in terms of quality of competition faced. So, while Orpik’s team struggles with puck possession while he’s on the ice, some of this, at least from this past season, can be attributed to the fact that Orpik is given tough assignments.

There were a couple things MacLellan said about the Orpik signing that were troubling.

“The total dollars were centered around Brooks” (Alex Prewitt, Washington Post)

The fact that the Caps’ entire off-season plan revolved around a 34 year old defender, and giving said defender a 5 year deal with an expensive cap hit, is very troubling in terms of what it says about the vision of the Caps new management. In addition, the fact that Mikhail Grabovski (or any adequate second line center) was not in any way the focus of the “total dollars,” (thus far), is cause for even more alarm about MacLellan’s vision as GM.

I’ll skip over the fact that he used the phrase “the corsi.” Could coming to Washington and playing with an offensive, puck-carrying defender help Orpik’s possession numbers? Hmm, if only the Penguins had such a player like, I don’t know, Kris Letang. Over the past 3 seasons, Orpik has played with the offensive-minded Letang for 496:46 (less than 40 minutes of this time comes from this past season, due mostly to Letang missing significant time because of injury). When on the ice together, Orpik and Letang saw 49.5% of shots go in the Penguins favor. Perhaps MacLellan has a point, because Orpik’s shot for % when separated from Letang drops to 48%. But a stronger case could be made that Orpik will weigh down an offensive defender because Letang saw his shots for % jump to 53.4% when separated from Orpik.  I could go on and on. Bottom line, I think this is a terrible contract for the wrong player, a double-whammy. Orpik could provide decent (but overpriced) play for the Caps for a couple of years, but there will be many people, myself included, in line to say “I told you so” when he is bought out in the Summer of 2017.

Matt Niskanen

Not long after landing Orpik the Caps landed another ex-Penguin by signing Matt Niskanen to a 7 year, $40.25 million deal. The inherent risk in any 7 year deal is cause for concern, but apparently Niskanen is the player the Caps identified as worth this type of deal, so while the deal is risky, it’s not outright ridiculous like the Orpik contact. Niskanen posted impressive offensive numbers this past year with 10 goals and 31 assists in 81 games, after never topping 6 goals or 29 assists in a season since entering the league in 2007. Some of this rise in production can be attributed to the increased opportunity Niskanen received due to Letang missing so much of the year. Niskanen was on the ice for 55.4% of the Penguins power play time this past year after never topping 39.8% during his time in Pittsburgh. It will be interesting to see how the Caps divvy up their PP time among their defense this season, but it’s likely that Niskanen’s PP time will decrease in Washington. This is one factor that will likely lead to a decrease in Niskanen’s offensive numbers this season. Another factor in this is that the Penguins shot 10.3% with Niskanen on the ice this past year, while stopping 93%, for a PDO (combined on-ice shooting and save %) of 103.1, that is almost certain to regress closer to 100.0, no matter how well Niskanen plays. In short, don’t evaluate this deal solely based off of the offensive numbers Niskanen puts up next season. For reasons not within his control, they are almost certain to drop, even if he is playing well. 

Niskanen, as opposed to Orpik, has very strong possession numbers. He has consistently, over the course of his career, seen his team have more shots for than against when he’s on the ice.  This past season, Niskanen saw 53.3% of unblocked shot attempts in all 5-on-5 situations go in his team’s favor when he was on the ice. This would not only lead the Caps’ defense, it would lead the Caps’ team. The Pens saw 6.3% more of these shot attempts go in their favor with Niskanen on the ice than without him, which is also better than any Caps’ defender performed, relative to their team.

Brian MacLellan was anything but dull or quiet on his first day of free agency as an NHL GM. He got nice value in a backup goalie with Peters, signed Orpik to an absolute monstrosity of a contract, and signed Niskanen to a risky deal, but one that improved the Caps’ defense corps. He also made what could prove to be a major blunder in letting Grabovski walk, but I’ll withhold judgement on that to see if the 2C situation improves. The aggressive approach proved for an interesting day, but the shrewdness of said aggression is questionable, especially as it pertains to Orpik.

Caps Q&A with sportswriter Ted Starkey

Ted Starkey was nice enough to answer some questions I sent to him over email about the upcoming Caps season.  If you’re not familiar with Ted, you should check out his two books about the Caps and  follow him on Twitter.

Pat Holden: During the NHL Network coverage of the Caps preseason game vs. the Jets, it was twice mentioned that the Caps will miss Mike Ribeiro. Agree or disagree?

Ted Starkey: If the Capitals wouldn’t have signed Michail Grabovski, the second-line center position would be a huge problem for Washington. While Grabovski might not be quite the scorer Ribeiro is, his playmaking skills certainly will keep from being a big dropoff after Nicklas Backstrom in the middle. They will miss Ribeiro a bit, but certainly not to the degree where it will be a tremendous liability.

PH: What forwards end up getting the most top 6 minutes?

TS: Most likely, you will see beyond the clear-cut of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Grabovski getting the most time, you should see Marcus Johansson on the wing on the top lines (although he will need more consistent production), and Martin Erat and Troy Brouwer on the second line. There’s a pretty clean dividing line – with Brooks Laich’s injury – between the Top and Bottom 6 in the lineup.

PH: Tom Wilson makes the cut, yes or no? (ed. note: This Q&A was done 2 days before rosters were finalized)

TS: Yes, the team certainly feels the rugged forward has outgrown his usefulness in juniors. If anything, the Capitals keep Wilson in Washington off the bat, allowing them to punt their decision for 9 games. But barring a major regression there, he’s in Washington for good.

PH: One much discussed topic this preseason is who will see minutes on the 2nd defensive pair. Assuming Mike Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlson are the top 3 blueliners in terms of ice time, what defenseman will see the 4th most amount of minutes this season?

TS: Capitals certainly will try to use John Erskine in a Top 4 role as a balance for either the rushing partner of Green or Carlson, but the question is how he does at the age of 33, as he has shown some signs of slowing down. Part of the reasoning for putting him with an offensive counterpart is to allow the other to take some chances, if Green or Carlson have to be aware of a potential liability, it certainly opens the door for someone else to step in.

PH: Who/What will be the biggest surprise this year, good or bad?

TS: Grabovski should be a good boost to the Capitals this year, as he has excelled in preseason and seems to be a good fit for the lineup. His presence fills a major gap left by Ribeiro’s departure, and he should have a nice rebound season after being used in a limited role in Toronto.

PH: How does this season end for the team?

TS: Capitals will have a decent season, finishing 2nd in the Metropolitan Division. It remains to be seen, however, how the new playoff format that likely earns them dates with one of their recent playoff foes – the Penguins, Flyers or Rangers – will be for the team’s postseason hopes. Most likely, the Capitals can perhaps win a round, but realignment makes that road to the Stanley Cup a bit tougher for Washington.
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I’d like to extend a sincere thanks to Ted for taking the time to do this.

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.

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.

An open letter to Alex Ovechkin

Dear Alex,

You are probably frustrated by the suspension the NHL handed you for your hit on Zbynek Michalek, and rightfully so. I knew as soon as I saw the hit that it’d draw the attention of the league but I never expected three games. The hit was a bit reckless but by no means did you target the head and Michalek wasn’t hurt on the play.  In fact, Michalek was feeling so good that he doled out a questionable hit of his own just a few minutes later, but I digress. I thought you’d maybe get one game and never imagined you’d get three. That being said, I think your decision to not attend the All-Star Game as a result of the suspension is shortsighted, selfish and spiteful.

Personally, I don’t buy your explanation that you didn’t want to be a distraction by attending the ASG. I think all along you preferred (like a lot of players) the three days off and the suspension gave you a great excuse to bail. I think it comes across as “Oh, you want to suspend me?  Fine, I’ll show you!” I get that. I have reacted in a similar fashion plenty of times. That doesn’t mean I think it’s the right reaction.

Say a child is grounded by his parents and that child decides in response to stop doing his chores around the house. Perhaps this is a reaction you’d expect from a child but, from an adult, it seems like a shortsighted and spiteful reaction. That child (or in this case, you) fails to realize that he/she benefits in countless ways from being a member of the family other than just the freedom granted when not grounded. The child has a place to live, food to eat, etc. This child has a life because of his/her family. The NHL is your family that has given you so much and the ASG is one of your chores. Being grounded does not excuse you from your chores.

You’re also either failing to realize or failing to care how many other people your decision affects. You’re one of the most recognizable faces in the league. Your energy is contagious. People are drawn to you and genuinely excited to see you play. Some of those people are fans and some of those people are sponsors (and some are both). All of these people are essential to you having the life you have. The ASG is generally considered THE showcase for these people to gather and marvel at your skill and personality. Now they don’t have that chance through no fault of their own. They don’t have that chance because you have let your current grudge from your suspension let you lose sight of the bigger picture here. And please, spare me on the whole bit that you are doing the league a favor. The league put you in the ASG, so let the league make the decision if you shouldn’t attend (and yes, I know they said they understood your decision. But you are still the one making a decision that is not really yours unless you are injured or notify the league in advance of being selected).

I’m not saying any of this to attack you or because I don’t like you. The truth is, I really do like you. I love watching you play. I’ll still be cheering and rooting for you. That being said, I have investments in you and the Capitals, both financial and emotional, and, for what it’s worth, I feel disappointed that you have handled this in such a childish manner. Enjoy your break. I’m looking forward to watching your return in Montreal.

Let’s Go Caps,
Patrick Holden

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