There are many ways to win consistently in the NHL. One of those can be by having the right talent, another by having a great system and sticking to it. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether it’s offense or defense-oriented or a little of both, a team with a solid approach that plays it well game-after-game can sometimes make up for talent issues on a roster. And even teams with the best players need a good plan.
In this lockout-shortened season that came without a proper training camp and preseason, it’s apparent that the Washington Capitals could have used that time to learn their new coach’s system. It’s also clear that Adam Oates and the Caps could use a bit more talent in certain areas, one of them being within the six forwards on their first two lines.
With the Caps coming off a 4-0 win in Winnipeg Thursday night, now might seem like an odd time to talk about one of the areas where the team is lacking. But, if the Caps keep winning and make the playoffs or even just miss it, the issue could rear its head again. And, going into next season, it will likely need to be addressed for the team to become a true threat.
In their top six forwards, the Caps have three very talented skill players in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro. They also have several wingers who are top six material as a compliment to these players.
For example, Brooks Laich, just back from an injury, is a talented and capable left wing that the team can try pairing up with the Ovechkin-Backstrom duo. 22 year-old Marcus Johansson has struggled to develop further as a player while showing promise at times in his still-young NHL career, but he may be another who can be plugged in alongside Backstrom and Ovechkin as he was on Thursday.
Matt Hendricks has also been tried on the top line, though he may deliver better value skating on a lower one. And it appears that Wojtek Wolski and Jason Chimera are done, at least presently, getting time with the top unit.
On the second line with Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer is a solid choice at right wing. With 11 goals and 21 points in 29 games this season, Brouwer is putting up numbers that justify his $3.6 million cap hit and the move the team made to acquire him two summers ago.
On the left side of the second line, Oates can plug-in any number of players, such as he did with Laich last night while skating Johnasson in that spot on the top line. Eric Fehr is also an option as are some others. However, with their current roster of players, it is here on that left side of Ribeiro that the Caps run into the hole in their top six.
Washington has good players that can be used in this second line role, but they are guys that, when put in a top six spot, should mostly be used to complement a skilled duo. The top line currently has Backstrom and Ovechkin. The second has Ribeiro and needs someone else in the highly skilled department, even with Brouwer putting up some nice numbers this season.
In past years, the Caps had a legitimate goal-scoring threat on the left side of their second line in Alexander Semin, but he rarely had the opportunity to play with a second line-caliber center. The Caps now have that center in Ribeiro, but let Semin go and have yet to properly replace him.
Should Washington play well the next week or so and decide to become buyers at this season’s April 3 trade deadline, a deal for a sniping or highly skilled left wing should be high on their list. And going into October and the 2013-14 season, it’s an issue they should eliminate if they are to become a top team again.
The Caps could get by without this player, if they execute Oates’ system consistently. But even then, to take the team’s play to the next level and make them tougher to shut down, the Caps could use someone to fill this gap in their top six.
- The case for trading Mike Ribeiro (brookslaichyear.com)
- A look at next season’s Washington Capitals defense and Jeff Schultz (brookslaichyear.com)
- Soon might be the time for Caps to trade goaltender Michal Neuvirth (brookslaichyear.com)
It’s no secret that the 2012-13 Washington Capitals have holes to fill at wing on their top two lines. After going without a legitimate second line center for several years, the Caps’ June 2012 acquisition of Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars appears to have solved that problem at least through the end of this season, when Ribeiro’s contract is set to expire. But after Ribeiro, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, the “Top 6″ talent on the Caps’ 2012-13 roster drops off substantially.
Here’s the question for you, the readers: How many Top 6 forwards do you feel the Caps have on the team right now? Tell us in the comments below or via Twitter (we’ll paste some of your tweets into this post) how many you think the Caps have and who those players are. Your answer does not have to be a whole number. For example, I might score the team at a 3.5 right now:
— Mike Holden (@mikeholden) February 18, 2013
Habits and even loyalties can change during an NHL lockout, and that’s especially possible during the 2012 edition, as fans sour on a league that has played the work stoppage card four times since 1992. As the NHL owners and players squabble, the hockey-starved can find games elsewhere, from college to the minors or even overseas, where many NHL players have gone in search of playing time and a paycheck.
Monday afternoon, I showed my four-year old, hockey-crazy son an online stream of Washington Capitals stars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom playing together in the KHL for Dynamo Moscow against former Caps goaltender Semyon Varlamov and his team, Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
My son doesn’t fully understand the NHL lockout, but he knows it’s hockey season here in North America and that his favorite team isn’t playing until the owners and the players come to a new agreement. He had a few questions as I showed him Ovechkin and Backstrom on the ice together, and he was excited to see some hockey.
As I watched more of the game, my son went into the other room, grabbed his gloves and stick, and started playing a game of basement hockey as he does almost every day—except this time the two teams involved were from the KHL. He ran into the room every couple of minutes with game updates and questions, such as how to say “Varlamov’s team’s name again,” and eventually Ovechkin scored in a shootout to give Moscow a big victory in our downstairs arena.
Should the lockout go much longer, my family and I will likely seek out some live, non-NHL hockey to fill the void left by the absence of Caps games at Verizon Center. Maybe it will be an AHL or ECHL game or some college hockey. Whatever it is, I can’t help but wonder what will happen with younger fans like my son if the NHL cancels most or all of the 2012-13 season.
I already know that I, like some other fans I’ve spoken with, are frustrated enough by the NHL and NHLPA’s inability to get a deal done that we won’t be rushing to the games as soon as they start-up again. Sooner or later though, I’ll get the urge to venture back into an NHL arena. I imagine it could be requests from my kids to go to Caps games again that first lead me back to Commissioner Gary Bettman’s league. But what if by the time the NHL resumes games, their favorite team is the Hershey Bears or someone else?
If the owners and players keep their ridiculousness going much longer and younger fans latch onto teams from other leagues, perhaps some customers will be gone for a while; I doubt many will be gone for good. Having waited out a few of these NHL dramas before, I wouldn’t mind seeing the league struggle to draw spectators before things return to normal. Considering the two sides had years to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement that could have prevented the cancellation of games and satisfied all parties—including the seemingly forgotten customers—Bettman, the owners and the players deserve it, especially when they’ve behaved as if they learned little, if anything at all, about fan frustration from the 2004-05 lockout.
For now though, there’s a kid in my house who’s just thrilled to have some hockey to watch and mimic. It doesn’t seem to matter much to him that it’s not the NHL brand.
Mike Holden (@mikeholden) October 22, 2012
- Alex Ovechkin repeats: Players will stay in KHL if lockout deal proves unfavorable (sbnation.com)
- ESPN signs deal to show KHL games from Russia (timesunion.com)
- Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov signs with Russian team; NHL cancels remainder of preseason schedule (denverpost.com)
- NHL lockout a boost for KHL (nhl-red-light.si.com)
- Where are the Washington Post sports columnists on the NHL lockout? (brookslaichyear.com)
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:
Perreault-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Ryan( or similar player)
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:
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.
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.
My brother Pat wasn’t happy with Alex Ovechkin’s effort defensively on the Rangers first goal in Game 1 of their second round playoff series. He tweeted, “The listless, one hand on the stick effort in support of his D man who was clearly beaten is not really my thing.”
I hadn’t noticed this during the game. I was mostly focused on watching Artem Anisimov out-muscle Mike Green. But I tend to agree with my brother on this one. Where was the Ovechkin that seems to relish crushing opposing players with an explosive hit? This would have been a great time for one of those. At the very least, just a solid shoulder or a strong poke check might have done the job. I can’t help but wonder if Ovechkin would have had more spring in his step had this instead been an opportunity for a big play in the offensive zone.
Somewhat related to this, Alexander Semin has been demoted to the fourth line for Game 2.
Semin took two penalties in Game 1, one for unwisely retaliating after being slashed by a Ranger player and another for tripping a player while forechecking. The second penalty didn’t bother me much, as it appeared he was going for the puck and got too aggressive.
Caps’ Coach Dale Hunter told reporters regarding Semin, “We need him to score goals for us, we need him to play good on the power play.” (Note: Semin leads the team in both goals and power play goals so far in the playoffs.)
As I said via Twitter earlier today, I don’t care a great deal either way about Semin’s move to the fourth line. Maybe it will pay off through a more balanced set of lines or perhaps it will motivate Semin and we’ll see a big game from him. However, I do find it odd that Semin gets banished to the fourth line, while other highly-skilled offensive players on the team often don’t when they’re guilty of less-than-stellar play. Nor do I think they should necessarily.
For example, Nicklas Backstrom’s lack of hustle cost the Caps a goal in Game 6 against the Bruins (I’m not talking about the game-winning goal that was a result of his turnover and was easier to forgive). Marcus Johannson has been giving the puck away far too often these playoffs with careless passes. Ovechkin took a bad penalty Saturday against the Rangers for tripping, put in a questionable defensive effort on the Ranger goal highlighted above and was kept off the score sheet like Semin, but there’s no way Ovi or Backstrom is going to get demoted to the fourth line—and for good reason. Yet Semin does?
@cmasisak22 Or: Would Semin have made it out of the building alive yesterday if he backchecked like NB19 on G3 and made that turnover on G4?—
(@JapersRink) April 23, 2012
Maybe there’s more to the Semin story than I’m aware of as a spectator who isn’t in the locker room, but the higher standard Semin seems to be held to confuses me. Even the league seemed to have something against the guy when he was the first 40 goal scorer I know of to be left off the All-Star ballot the next season (I don’t mean Semin just didn’t make the game…I mean he scored 40 goals and then you couldn’t even vote for him unless you wrote him in).
NBC’s Pierre McGuire doesn’t give Semin a break, even when he’s scored a goal on more than one occasion right after McGuire calls him out. As NHL.com writer Dave Lozo recently noted, “Alex Semin is the only guy who can score on national TV and have people spend the next 5 minutes questioning why he doesn’t try. Amazing.”
Alex Semin is the only guy who can score on national TV and have people spend the next 5 minutes questioning why he doesn't try. Amazing.—
Dave Lozo (@DaveLozo) April 21, 2012
ESPN and Washington Post contributor Neil Greenberg said on Twitter today, “Surprised ppl continue to underappreciate Caps Semin’s contributions beyond points (and off zone penalties). If he walks, tough to replace.” Greenberg also did a statistical analysis last fall about how the criticism of Semin is unfair.
Surprised ppl continue to underappreciate #Caps Semin's contributions beyond points (and off zone penalties). If he walks, tough to replace—
Neil Greenberg (@ngreenberg) April 30, 2012
I don’t deny that there are occasions when Semin is—like many players—deserving of some criticism. However, I find it odd that other key Caps make mistakes and it doesn’t become half the story it does when Semin isn’t playing the way people would like him to.
But putting all that aside, if the demotion of Semin to the fourth line for tonight’s game results in a two-goal night, Hunter’s a genius.
- BrooksLaichyear’s Pat Holden talks Alex Semin on The Mike Wise Show (brookslaichyear.com)
- “I don’t think the criticism in the past has been really justified” (brookslaichyear.com)
Plenty has been said or written about Nick Backstrom’s turnover in overtime of Game 6 that led to the Bruins winning goal. While the mistake was costly, and could look even costlier if the Bruins end up winning the series, these kind of mistakes are bound to happen. Learn from it, shake it off and move on. I’m not advocating mistakes but I am saying that even an elite player fails to execute sometimes. What I’m not willing to excuse is Backstrom’s complete lack of hustle and effort on the Bruins third goal.
Tyler Seguin made a nice defensive play to strip Alex Semin in the Caps offensive zone. Semin may be at fault for the turnover, but much like the Backstrom mistake in overtime, it’s not worth dwelling on because it’s a lack of execution, not a lack of effort. Semin did exactly what he should have done after Seguin stripped him of the puck; He hustled back to avoid giving the Bruins an odd man rush off of his turnover. If Backstrom had given an effort similar to Semin’s then Andrew Ference wouldn’t have been able to skate wide open into the slot to deposit the loose puck into the net. The replay of the goal from up high (at the 30 second mark of the video below) gives the best look at how Backstrom and Ference are the 4th player on each team to join the play, and Ference flat out beat Backstrom to the puck because he hustled.
I realize that the 4th and 5th players back on defense are often not skating full speed to get back. However, this is because, especially in a man-to-man defense, they are responsible for guarding the opponents’ defensemen, who, more often than not, don’t join the rush or come into the offensive zone at full speed as the trailer on the play. However, when a defensemen does join the rush or hustle up the ice as a trailer, the forward responsible for him needs to match that hustle to ensure that defenseman does not skate into the slot unmarked looking for a loose puck. What happens if the forward doesn’t? Exactly what happened on the Bruins third goal.
Nick Backstrom is as at fault as anyone for the Bruins 3rd and 4th goals on Sunday. The turnover on the Bruins 4th goal is frustrating but excusable because it happens to everyone at some point (although you’d like for it not to happen in overtime of a Game 6). However, the lack of hustle and effort on the Bruins 3rd goal is completely inexcusable. Backstrom owes us one. I’m looking for him to bounce back with a great effort in Game 7 because, if not for his lack of effort in Game 6, the Caps just may have clinched the series on Sunday.
There was a lot of talk after the Caps 3-2 loss in Winnipeg last night about a possible suspension for a Jets player and a stick-holding incident, but there were a couple of things that bothered me more than either of these because they were within the Caps control:
- Why was Troy Brouwer sent out to take the offensive zone faceoff at the start of the Caps PP with 2:22 remaining in the game and the Caps down a goal? The Caps lost the draw and the puck was cleared, ticking off the first 20 seconds or so of a PP with the game on the line. One reason for this, directly or indirectly, is the decision to scratch Jeff Halpern. It’s doubtful that Halpern, who is one of the top faceoff men in the league, would have been out because of the PP and the need for a late goal. However, him not being in the lineup pushes everyone up a spot on the faceoff depth chart that led to a winger, who took one other faceoff the entire game, on the dot at a crucial time in the game. Mathieu Perreault was also on the ice, and may have been tossed out before the CSN camera panned to the dot, but the fact that Brouwer was even put in that spot, whether being first or second choice, is questionable coaching.
- The Caps were rightfully upset with Mark Stuart for his high and late hit on Marcus Johansson in the 1st period. Unfortunately, we only came to find out after the game that the Caps were upset, since there was absolutely no visible response from the Caps during the game. Is this team aware that you don’t have to wait for a player to be traded to Montreal in order to respond to a dirty play on a teammate? The Caps and Jets meet again next Friday and there may be a response then, but why didn’t that happen last night? That’s the kind of hit where I’m okay with a Caps player immediately charging at Stuart and risk giving the Jets a five minute PP.
- Let’s be totally clear about this, Caps fans: “Crosby Sucks!” is not an appropriate chant on Friday when the Jets visit DC. I’ll be at the game and will personally remove anyone from the arena who participates in this.
Overall, I’m still upbeat about the Caps chances of making the playoffs. There is plenty to like about the way the Caps have played in this most recent stretch of games. Additionally, Nicklas Backstrom has been skating and ramping up his workouts. While no return date has even been discussed yet, this is significant progress for the Caps number one pivot.
The Caps now look forward to the Blackhawks in Chicago on Sunday night. Almost two years ago to the day, on a Sunday in Chicago, Backstrom provided the Caps with a thrilling overtime goal to end a game that is one my favorite post-lockout Caps memories.
- Three things that have to improve for the Washington Capitals in the “second half” (brookslaichyear.com)