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Washington General Manager Brian MacLellan’s Interesting Comments on Brooks Orpik’s Role with the Caps

Defenseman’s Large Contract Even More Puzzling Now, Two Years Into Five-Year-Deal

In the summer of 2014, Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan inked rugged, nearly 34-year-old, Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik to a five-year, 27.5 million dollar deal. Despite needing to fill gaping holes in their defense, the choice of Orpik at that price and length of contract was an odd move.

In the years leading up to the Orpik signing, the NHL had begun a shift toward a style of play that places more value on smoother-skating, puck-moving backenders, things Orpik —more of a throwback to the days of crease-clearing, “HIT SOMEONE!”  defensemen—really is not.

Perhaps more importantly, by the time he received that long-term contract from the Caps, Orpik had reached an age when most NHL players experience a decline in their performance. Locking up a player who no longer fits the modern day blue-liner mold, through the season when he’ll be 38-years-old and at such a high salary, didn’t seem like a great idea.

Hours before the Caps and Orpik struck that deal two summer ago and not knowing who the team might make offers to, my brother Pat tweeted, “We all agree that the worst possible thing the Caps could do today, including standing pat, is to sign Brooks Orpik, right?”

But, maybe MacLellan saw the former Boston College player as a guy who could deliver value worthy of the contract that currently makes him the second-highest-paid Caps defensemen, just $250,000 a year behind Matt Niskanen. The 2009 Stanley Cup winner may have fit into the team’s plans in ways some outside the Washington front office couldn’t see.

If that was true at the time of the 2014 signing, recent comments by MacLellan make it hard to believe. The GM’s May 2016 remarks better support the thinking of those who’ve been skeptical of the Orpik signing for the past two years.

Addressing the media a few days after this season’s second round playoff loss to Pittsburgh, MacLellan spoke about the Caps’ trade deadline acquisition of defenseman Mike Weber. “I mean, did we need a higher-caliber defenseman? Maybe. But it was difficult to trade those off because you’re going to bring in a guy that’s going to jump in front of [Nate Schmidt] and jump in front of [Dmitry] Orlov and jump in front of Orpik,” he explained.

It was clear this season that Orpik was at-best the fourth defensemen on the Caps depth chart, with Niskanen, John Carlson and Karl Alzner ahead of him. MacLellan’s comment regarding the Weber acquisition hints he may feel similarly about Orpik’s place on the team.

At times, it could also have been argued that Schmidt ranked ahead of Orpik, with Orlov showing flashes of potential to do so as well. With a little more experience, both of those young players may soon remove any doubt they’ve surpassed Orpik in the value they bring to the Washington lineup.

In a May 24 radio interview, MacLellan touched on a piece of this, saying, “There’s an offensive upside to Orlov and there’s ability for him to move up in our lineup, and we’ve got to be careful that we don’t limit him in his ability to move there. I would count on him developing and getting to that next level. I mean, the idea would be, Brooks Orpik plays a little less minutes and Orlov plays a little bit more, maybe he moves into the top four for part of the time. That would be ideal situation, but we’ll have to see how he comes into camp.”

Clearly there’s the possibility in MacLellan’s mind that, as early as this coming season, the fourth highest paid skater on the Caps roster is playing in the team’s bottom defensive pairing, which brings to mind the question: If MacLellan is thinking that now, what was he thinking when he signed Orpik just two years ago? A player recently handed one of the biggest contracts on the roster shouldn’t fall down the ranks to fourth or lower on the depth chart so quickly, unless maybe he shouldn’t have been given that lucrative a contract to begin with.

Even as a fifth or sixth defenseman, could Orpik still provide valuable minutes as a penalty killer? Sure. Did he provide an immediate upgrade to a thin defense that badly needed it going into the 2014-15 season? Yes. Does he bring leadership and experience as a Stanley Cup champion to the Caps locker room? Most certainly. Could he likely be helping some of the team’s younger defensemen adjust to the NHL? Absolutely.

However, none of those needs requires a five-year, $5.5 million cap hit to address it. Players filling Orpik’s role in Washington can be had for far less and, just two seasons after losing him to free agency, Orpik’s former team in Pittsburgh is back in the Stanley Cup Finals without him. Like most players, Orpik is replaceable, regardless of what intangibles he may have brought to Washington.

If the Caps win the Stanley Cup next season, none of this may matter much in the short term. But, if Washington loses in next year’s playoffs due to not having enough of the right kind of talent in the lineup, and wishes they’d had room under the salary cap to add another piece or two, the Orpik contract could be pointed to as Exhibit A for why they weren’t able to do that. It could be argued it already was an issue this past season, possibly preventing the Caps from acquiring the aforementioned “higher-caliber defenseman” than Weber or another player.

Given his recent comments about the team’s plans, the guy who signed Orpik to that deal could be thinking similar thoughts, which raises the question of why MacLellan—who’s otherwise made shrewd moves since being named GM in 2014—didn’t see this coming two years ago and implement a different solution for filling the Caps’ needs on defense.

Pat Holden on Japers’ Rink Radio Talking Karl Alzner, Nicklas Backstrom, Jay Beagle, Andre Burakovsky and John Carlson

BrooksLaichyear co-founder Pat Holden joined Adam Stringham on Japers’s Rink Radio to talk Karl Alzner, Nicklas Backstrom, Jay Beagle, Andre Burakovsky, and John Carlson. Stream it at the link below.

And if you missed it earlier this month, Pat was also on Episode 84 of the PDOcast with Dimitri Filipovic.

 

Pat Holden talks Boudreau, Caps/Pens, Wilson and Burakovsky on the PDOCast

BrooksLaichyear founder and Russian Machine Never Breaks/Today’s Slapshot writer Pat Holden joined Dimitri Filipovic on Episode 84 of the PDOcast. The two discussed the firing of Bruce Boudreau by Anaheim, the Penguins and Capitals Round 2 series, Tom Wilson and whether he crosses the line, how good Andre Burakovsky is and more. Stream it below or on iTunesSoundcloud, Stitcher and at hockeypdocast.com.

 

The Definitive Guide to Unofficial 2016 Washington Capitals Out of Town Stanley Cup Playoffs Viewing Parties

Fans have been posting online about getting together in various cities to watch Caps games during the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Here you’ll find all the viewing party-related posts we know about so far.

Some of what’s listed below are gatherings that have already been coordinated and others are as simple as fans asking who else near them knows of a good place to meet up with other Caps fans to watch the games.

Want a gathering added to the list? Please use the comments or send us a tweet with a link to details. Tweet us a picture at @brookslaichyear from your viewing party too if you can.

Austin/San Antonio
https://www.reddit.com/r/caps/comments/4gpt5j/austin_tx_area_watch_party/

Boston
http://www.japersrink.com/2016/4/26/11513774/out-of-town-caps-watch-parties-in-boston-other-cities
https://www.reddit.com/r/caps/comments/4gscp0/watch_party_in_boston_for_games_12_at_lir/

Cincinatti
https://www.reddit.com/r/caps/comments/4gps24/any_caps_fans_in_cincinnati_ohio/

Denver
https://www.reddit.com/r/caps/comments/4grd4g/watching_in_denver_sobo_151/

Los Angeles
https://www.reddit.com/r/caps/comments/4gp7r6/caps_fans_in_la/

NYC
nyccapscrew.tumblr.com/post/142750045733/meet-us-at-kellys-if-you-live-in-nyc-or-just

Tucson
twitter.com/mattmugmon/status/725215185523204096

 

Evgeny Kuznetsov vs. Andre Burakovsky

What do Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky have in common?

They’re poised to make a splash for the Washington Capitals in their first (full) NHL seasons. Neither is a natural centerman, but both have worked to adapt to the position under coach Barry Trotz. And both are in the running for second-line center.

But who is more qualified for the position? Who will be most successful?

It’s tough to predict offensive totals for rookies like Burakovsky, who shone in the uber-inflated OHL. Scoring runs high, and he was one of the league’s strongest offensive players. That’s not to say Burakovsky won’t be successful, but he had incredible linemates during his time with the Erie Otters. In Washington, he won’t be paired with a handful of scoring machines like Connor McDavid or Dane Fox. Trotz has penciled him in as the team’s 3C, where he’ll probably spend most minutes with Joel Ward and Jason Chimera–both effective, grinding, play-driving wingers.

In the OHL, Burakovsky played left wing. The Otters’ surplus of high-quality centers helped set him up (literally) to score 41 goals in 57 games. His 46 assists were also impressive, and hopefully indicative of his. If Burakovsky centers Ward and Chimera, he’ll be aiming to help Ward and Chimera continue their positive trends in scoring. In the preseason, he’s played his new position with a variety of linemates, even on the first line. Trotz is clearly pleased with the results and all but stated that his position on the team is secure.

So how likely is Burakovsky to steal the 2C spot from Kuznetsov?

Let’s turn to the statistics side of things (my efforts to track down fancy stats in major junior have been far from successful.)

Rob Vollman, author of Hockey Abstract, estimates Kuznetsov will score well above 40 points in his upcoming season (the specifics can be found here.) Kuznetsov made his NHL debut last spring, and put up nine points in 16 games. His offensive totals and position have been hotly debated since he was drafted in 2010. At present, it appears that Trotz will employ Kuznetsov as the team’s second-line center, a position that requires superb setup skills in addition to goal-scoring ability.

While Kuznetsov has been guilty of some egregious defensive lapses, Trotz seems fairly unconcerned with these growing pains. He described himself as “patient” in evaluating the rookies’ progress, adding that “in the long run, they’re going to get better and better as they play more and more.”

Slotting two rookie centers into the opening night lineup appears to be cause for concern. Strength down the middle has been lacking for the Caps in recent seasons. But both players have versatility, albeit in different ways. Each could revert to playing wing. And if Burakovsky struggles with bottom-six minutes at the NHL level, he’s still eligible to play in Hershey. Kuznetsov has multiple, successful seasons at the pro level under his belt, and he spent some of that time as a center.

However, a strong center must be able to win faceoffs. Neither Burakovsky nor Kuznetsov has excelled in winning the draw. If Trotz is correct and patience pays off, both will blossom into faceoff-winning machines. Faceoffs in particular seem to be tricky; Eric Fehr cited them as a reason for his discomfort at the center position. But there’s always the possibility that Burakovsky makes a strong case for the 2C role midway through the season, and he gets bumped up at Kuznetsov’s expense. Stranger things have happened (see: Beagle centering Ovechkin.) For the time being, however, Kuznetsov is arguably the best guy for the job.

Caps training camp cuts: Who and why?

If Barry Trotz gets his way, the Caps will have 25 players on their roster by Friday. This target number will include eight defensemen, 15 forwards, and 2 goalies. Some cuts are more surprising than others, with waivers playing a role in Trotz’s decisions.

Last season, the Caps lacked a true fourth defenseman, and the bottom pairing was typically an amalgam of rookies. This time around, the issue is how Trotz will construct all three pairings, given the rich talent available and competition for the sixth, seventh, and eighth blueline slots.

Let’s take a look at some of the most notable cuts, all of which are defensemen.

 

Cameron Schilling

After four seasons with the Miami RedHawks, Schilling was targeted by several NHL teams. Yet he signed with the Caps in 2012 and inked an extension this summer. He’s one of the few defensive defensemen in the Caps’ system and has played in only one NHL game. Schilling is hardly a top prospect, yet he shows promise.

From Penn Live’s Tim Leone:

The 25-year-old may be a target for a claim by another NHL club. Sending him at this point of the preseason, when NHL rosters are full and depth charts deep, may reduce the chances of a waiver claim.

Expect Schilling to spend the majority of his upcoming season in Hershey, where strong play could earn him a call-up to D.C. However, he must clear waivers to resume play with the Bears. Given the number of Schilling’s previous suitors, however, it’s unlikely that he’d make the cut later in the season, especially when teams are adjusting their defensive cores and must cope with injuries.

 

Pheonix Copley

Copley’s strong training camp earned him two games in the Caps’ preseason. The first was the Caps’ preseason opener, a 1-0 win over the Sabres. Copley stopped all six shots he faced before his next outing, the first of the Caps’ back-to-back matchups with the Bruins. The game ended in a 2-0 loss for the Caps, and Copley allowed one of nine shots.

Before training camp, Copley was expected to compete for the starting job with the Caps’ ECHL affiliate, the South Carolina Stingrays. But an injury to Eddie Pasquale, the projected backup for Philipp Grubauer, may give Copley to chance to compete for the backup job. However, it’s also possible that both goalies see time in both the AHL and ECHL throughout the season.

 

Madison Bowey

Though consistently ranked one of the Caps’ top prospects, Bowey was a long shot to make the roster. He didn’t survive the first round of cuts and will foreseeably spend the upcoming season with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, where he’ll enter his second year of captaincy.

Bowey needs additional seasoning before he’s ready to compete for an AHL or NHL job, an assessment he believes accurate. But his strong performance at rookie camp was indicative of his development. He and Christian Djoos were regular partners on the top pairing, and he saw his share of power-play time. One highlight was a wicked pass during the Fan Fest scrimmage–one example of the types of plays Bowey hopes to make.

Since his return to Kelowna, Bowey has made his presence known. He notched three power-play assists, helping guide the Rockets to a 8-2 win. Should the Rockets bow out of the playoffs early, Bowey could see time with the Bears. He’ll turn 20 in late April, a milestone and exemption from the CHL-NHL agreement.

Kid who inspired the name BrooksLaichyear scores his first goal

My son provided the inspiration for the name of this blog. As mentioned in the first post I wrote here in 2012, “my hockey-crazy three-year-old son is under the impression that number 21 for the Caps and Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story share the same last name: Laichyear. It cracked me up the first time he mentioned the name “Brooks Laichyear” while telling me a story about a Caps game. And [my brother] Pat and I filed it away as what we’d name our Caps blog if we ever started one. ”

He’s six now and played his first hockey game Saturday. Below is the video of his first goal.

And you may have noticed there hasn’t been any blogging happening on BrooksLaichyear for the past few months. My brother is busy with his last year of grad school and I started a new job in the fall, plus my wife and I just welcomed our fourth baby into the world. But here’s one of those kids scoring his first ice hockey goal.

Caps play-by-play man John Walton: “Thug hockey back” in Philly; Calls Flyers goalie Ray Emery’s actions “a disgrace” and worthy of NHL suspension

From Washington Capitals radio play-by-play man John Walton’s call of the Ray Emery-Braden Holtby incident last night (Listen to it on Walton’s blog through the link below):

“Emery takes him down. Oh my goodness. You’ve gotta be kidding me. Ray Emery sucker punching Holtby. He’s still punching him. The referee hasn’t stopped it yet. Oh what a dirty play by Ray Emery. Taking Braden Holtby down. Thug hockey back in town. You’re losing by a touchdown and you just grab a sweater. If you think that’s gonna get you standings points, think again. The Buffalo Sabres are the only thing saving this team from being the bottom of the Eastern Conference and now they’ve taken it to the alley in the dirtiest way possible. Ray Emery went after Holtby. Holtby did not want it. He absolutely didn’t want to fight him. And Emery sucker punched him six times. It’s the only cheer you’re gonna hear out of this building tonight. That’s a disgrace. Ray Emery, a disgrace what he just did.”

“Suspend that guy. Suspend him right now,” Walton went on to say regarding Emery.

full audio clip of Walton calling the Emery-Holtby goalie altercation is available on his Capitals Voice blog.

And here’s a great shot of Michael Latta being waved off during the fight by referee François St-Laurent:

Caps Q&A with Sick, Unbelievable

Kevin Klein from Sick, Unbelievable was nice enough to take the time to answer some questions via email about the new Caps season.  You can follow Sick, Unbelievable on Twitter.

1) 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?

Before George McPhee went out and got Mikhail Grabovski, I would have agreed. Regardless of how “lucky” Ribeiro was (a not-exactly-accurate term used on account of his high on-ice shooting percentage and powerplay success), that kind of production was going to be missed. There wasn’t a soul on the roster in June who better fit the mold of 2C than Mike Ribeiro.

Grabovski changed that. He probably won’t be quite as high-octane on the man-to-the-good as Ribeiro was a year ago, but Grabovski has made a career of keeping the puck in the offensive zone at even strength. With the vast majority of the hockey game pie going to the even-strength slice, Grabovski is more likely than not an upgrade at the position. And that’s a conjecture made purely based on his on-ice merit and the Caps’ weaknesses from a year, with nothing to say for his friendlier age, contract, and possible future in the Nation’s Capital.

2) What forwards end up getting the most top 6 minutes?

I’d be a fool to veer away from the obvious answer: the top two lines, whoever they shake out to be. There’s a lot of modularity there with guys like Martin Erat, Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer and Eric Fehr. After Ovechkin, Backstrom, Johansson, and Grabovski, it’s anyone’s guess.

3) 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?

By all accounts it will be John Erskine, and if you ask me, that particular lineup choice is the team’s greatest roster flaw. Erskine’s underlying numbers for a year ago don’t represent how poorly he played— a fact that can singularly be attributed to the fact that he received a .944 sv % from the padstacker behind him over the course of the season. That goaltending didn’t add up in the playoffs, and as a result Erskine was exposed as something of a goat.

I’d expect the Capitals to make a move to obtain another, defensively stronger, left-handed D-man at the deadline to play on the second pairing.

4) Who/What will be the biggest surprise this year, good or bad?

I don’t know if you can call him a surprise at this point, but in many people’s eyes Braden Holtby is still unproven. It’s not a terribly unfounded notion, as Holtby has only played 57 career regular season games— in the ballpark of 1 full season’s work for a non-Lundqvistian NHL goaltender.

By no fault of his own, this will be Holtby’s first chance to put together a strong campaign over the course of a full schedule. Of all goalies that have played a minimum of 2500 minutes at even strength during the past three years, Holtby has the seventh best save percentage. If he can improve upon that, while continuing to rack up the wins (the guy’s got a .649 career winning percentage), it’ll be hard to argue that the Canadian Olympic-hopeful isn’t the real deal— and yeah, I think that will surprise some people.

5) How does this season end for the team?

In my 3-Dieselpunk’s deep mind’s eye, the season ends with Ovi drinking Vodka from the Stanley Cup (and me sharing an under the pressbox seat fistbump with Vlad Putin). In reality I think they absolutely make the playoffs— despite now competing in a substantially more stacked division, this team boasts an opening day lineup that looks as good as any they’ve had in the last ten years. In any event, anything less than a birth in the Conference Finals will be a disappointment, and that doesn’t have as much to do with the paper lineup as it does with our expectations, as they’ve been bred by the organization.

Matt Hendricks at near $2 million for three or more years wouldn’t make much sense for the Caps

Hendricks Smiling

Hendricks Smiling (Photo credit: clydeorama)

NHL free agency season is here and Washington Times columnist Mike Harris writes that the Washington Capitals should do two things that will “be worth every penny spent.” He suggests the team “go all in on Vinny Lecavalier (The Flyers have since signed him)” and “bring back Matt Hendricks.”

Harris says, “Hendricks, who made $850,000 last season, will have a few other suitors and probably should be able to command about $2 million a year for three years or so. For the Caps, it would be money well spent.”

I love the way Hendricks plays and mean no disrespect to Harris, but if the salary cap-challenged Capitals sign Hendricks for near $2 million per year for three or more years as Harris suggests, General Manager George McPhee should immediately be drug tested. As hard as losing Hendricks might be for some Caps fans and as important a role player as he’s been for Washington, the 32-year-old, bottom-six forward is replaceable, just as fan favorite Matt Bradley was.

If Washington were a rebuilding team or one with boatloads of room to spend under the salary cap, perhaps $2 million per year to a player like Hendricks might be possible. But at this point, with other holes needing to be filled and higher-upside, young players like Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson to be re-signed, there are cheaper ways to replace Hendricks if his price tag ends up being as high as $2 million per year.

Aaron Volpatti and his $575,000 salary, Michael Latta (acquired along with Martin Erat in the trade for Filip Forsberg, yet rarely talked about compared to the other two pieces of that trade) and 2012 first round draft pick Tom Wilson could all get an opportunity to fill that role at a smaller cap hit than Hendricks would come with at the price Harris wants the Caps to sign him for.

Much like Hendricks in some ways became the new Matt Bradley for Washington, someone can become the new Matt Hendricks. As great as guys like him are to cheer for and to have as teammates, the Caps cannot afford to give Hendricks a substantial raise given the other contracts on their roster and the other ways their remaining cap space could be used to further solidify it.

Kundratek a low-risk bargain at $575,000
On Tuesday, the Caps re-signed defenseman Tomas Kundratek and the deal really couldn’t be much better: $575,000 a year for two years, with the 2014-15 portion being a two-way contract, which would pay him $150,000 if he’s in the American Hockey League (AHL). Kundratek is only 23 and showed potential this season in 25 games with the Caps. If he becomes a regular in the Caps line-up over the next two seasons or even is just a reliable seventh defenseman or call-up from Hershey, Kundratek’s contract is a bargain. If Kundratek doesn’t pan out, at $575,000 a season, he’s a low-risk option that can likely be dealt easily, released or kept in the AHL.

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