Friday, November 30, 2007

Capitals Unable to Overcome Bad Luck; Worse Refs

Capitals 3, Hurricanes 4

I wrote on Friday that the Capitals had all too often been the victims of bad luck this year. It appears that's still the case.

When an opposing player misses the net, but hits someone else on his team in chest with the puck, which then falls at his feet for a tap in goal, you're dealing with some crap luck.

When you have an important late-period goal washed out because it failed to beat the buzzer by two tenths of a second, you're dealing with some crap luck.

When the other team scores from behind the goal line, by throwing the puck off your netminder and your best player's stick, you're dealing with some crap luck.

When the other team slashes your second-best offensive player in the offensive zone badly enough that he has to be helped off the ice with 15 seconds left and the result is a faceoff down near your goal and no penalty call you're dealing with some crap luck (and crap referees). Oh, by the way, Donald, next time the Caps play the 'Canes, take the two minute minor and ten minute misconduct and beat down Dennis Seidenberg.

When you lose a powerplay because your player (Mike Green) high-sticks the opposition (Chad LaRose after being hooked and is sent to the box you're dealing with some crap luck (and crap referees). That play should have resulted in a 5-on-3 for the Capitals since LaRose hooked Green and touched the puck before Green high-sticked LaRose. Instead 4-on-4 and an abbreviated 'Canes powerplay. Crap luck.

I have no idea what the Capitals have done to anger the hockey gods. Maybe it's that the Capitals don't have enough Canadians on the team (eight by my count), maybe the hockey gods are Japanese and hate their homeland's reputation being sullied by "Nanking", or perhaps it's just that Steve Stamkos is destined to be a Capital.

The Capitals still need to go on a run to get themselves back into the playoff picture and I still think they can do it, and will look for them to do so after Boudreau gets his five days off to work with the team without the pressures of a game. Picking up two against an inferior Panthers team tomorrow night is essential though.

I'm wondering if it would be worth it to start a section called "Laughlin's Laffers" where each game I'd chronicle the most absurd thing said by Craig Laughlin in the previous game's telecast. If I had such a section, tonight's would have been "I thought fans in Greensville were excited for hockey!" when he and Joe B. were discussing the move of the Hartford Whalers to Carolina. First of all, it's Greensboro, not Greensville. Secondly, the 'Canes played there for two seasons, in which they drew 9,086 and 8,188 fans per game.

Quick Hits

  • After Ovechkin's early goal Laughlin noted "that's the way you quiet a crowd". Good point. I'm sure those 628 people in their seats at the game's start were making a hell of a lot of noise and really intimating the Capitals. Or maybe it was that the Calgary-esque "Sea of Red" from all the empty seats around the arena.
  • What's the deal with the Hurricanes sounding the horn when an opposing team has a goal waived off?
  • Nice first period for Laing. He skated 5:02, and had three blocked shots. Apparently he told Joe B. before the game all he wanted to do was be in the right position and grind it out. I believe that's called "knowing your role".
  • From his gait I thought it looked obvious that Alexander Semin was in pain when he was skating. From the rest of his play it's obvious his hands aren't as deft as he's used to and he's still not used to playing at NHL game pace. That said I thought he was still quite effective at getting open in the offensive zone and making the Carolina defense either make plays or take penalties.
  • Comcast briefly showed Donald Brashear running around the ice in his spandex shorts/jock and a windbreaker and, believe it or, it indicated to me part of the reason he's not a great hockey player: his legs didn't look particularly strong. If you notice, a lot of elite players in the NHL don't have massive upper bodies, but have really strong legs (Ovechkin is one of them). Makes sense given that the most important part of any players game is skating ability.
  • Did you see Kolzig and LaRose nod to each other they were okay after their collision on the penalty shot and LaRose give Kolzig a little tap on the pads? It's stuff like that that makes me think hockey is the classiest sport at the pro level. Think about it - you never see NFL linemen ask the quarterback is he's okay after a sack (they're generally too busy prancing around).
  • It wouldn't shock me to see Ovechkin one day pull a Bill Gramatica and hurt himself celebrating.

What's the Obsession with Scapegoating Brian Pothier?

I'm not exactly sure why it is that so many Caps fans like to scapegoat Brian Pothier.

The Caps chat with Post beat writer Tarik El-Bashir yielded another example:

Round Hill, Va.: In regards to the previous question about Pothier, isn't he protected by the new CBA and that is why he is not being sent down to the Bears?

Tarik El-Bashir: Are serious? The Bears? Pothier is not going anywhere.

Just to clarify Pothier is not "protected by the new CBA". I'm not sure what that means exactly, but unless a player has a no-trade clause they can be traded and unless a player has a no-movement clause they can be sent to the AHL. Verteran players would have to clear waivers first, but they can still be sent down (see: Clymber, Ben).

As Tarik noted elsewhere Pothier, prior to the game against the Hurricanes, Pothier was tied for the team lead in points by a defensemen with nine and actually led the team with a +4 +/- rating.

I don't think Pothier is great by any means. He's a fine depth defenseman and decent guy to have on the point on the second powerplay unit and is a solid NHLer as long as he plays within his abilities, who was overmatched by how much he was asked to do last year.

Reminder: weekly Caps chat with Washington Post beat writer Tarik El-Bashir today at 2.

Good questions for the most part and Tarik, as always, did a fantastic job. One I'd like to note (and not just because getting my questions answered makes me feel smart...although it does):

Atlanta, GA: Mr. El Bashir,

What's the general mood around the Capitals these days? Do they feel like they're a winning streak (and maybe, finally, some good luck) away from being back in the playoff race? Or do you get the impression the team feels that, with all the injuries and the hole they're already in, they're already headed for a lottery pick?

Tarik El-Bashir: I've got the feeling that some players believe a run is possible. But it's going to take all of them, not just a handful.

Are the Capitals Cursed?

Per Tarik at Caps Insider, the Capitals are again facing injuries problems. Alexander Semin's ankle is hurt again (or is it 'still'?), Chris Clark is day-to-day with a groin injury and it looks like Boyd Gordon is likely going to miss a significant portion of time. To fill the roster spot the Capitals have recalled Quintin Laing from Hershey. The lines for tonight's game in Carolina will reportedly look like:

Ovechkin/Nylander/Kozlov
Fleischmann/Backstrom/Semin
Pettinger/Steckel/Laing
Brashear/Laich/Bradley

Which is actually not too bad, all things considered.

But back to the issue at hand - are the Capitals cursed? To anyone who has watched the team this year it seems like a legitimate question, possibly even a rhetorical one. Ever since those first three games the Capitals have been victim to bad calls (especially at inopportune times), bad bounces and, most of all, injury woes, seeing Clark, Semin and Tom Poti all miss time concurrently.

Clark missed games from October 27th to November 10th; Poti missed games from October 26th to November 5th; hence to two of them were both out five games, which included two one-goal losses and one two-goal loss. In the game only Poti missed, the Capitals also lost by one goal; the the game only Clark missed the Capitals lost another one goal game. In addition Alexander Semin was either hurt or ineffective due to his injury for each game in that stretch.

From October 26th to November 10th, the Capitals lost four one goal games, and one two goal game. You have to believe that having at least two of the three of Clark, Poti and Semin available and helthy for those games would have let the Capitals pull out at least four, if not more, points (they did manage one, losing in overtime in Atlanta). If the Capitals had managed a decent showing in those five games, picking up five points, they'd be sitting at 22 right now, tired for 12th in the Conference and only four out of the last playoff spot. Not overwhelming, but a much more feasible take than what they do currently have in front of them.

There there is of course the issue of the Capitals simply not being able to catch a break which, obviously, there is much less analytical evidence for.

Partially as a result of the late-October through early-November stretch the Capitals have lost their confidence. For the most part I don't think that they've lost confidence in their own ability or of the abilities of their teammates but they do seem to be convinced that the odds are stacked against them every night; that one bad turnover, one bad bounce, one referee's mistakes is going to bury the team and that as a result they have to play near perfectly to overcome the fact that fortune is not smiling on them. You can see it in the team's body language after the first goal of every game. If the Caps get it they look enthused, encouraged, like they're thinking "This could be our night, but even if it's not we've got a head start". If the opposition scores first the Caps body language is "Damn it, now we're in a hole and it's going to take a miracle for us to get out of it the way things are going".

So, how does the team get out of this mindset and out of the string of bad luck? Well the most common answer would probably be: win. There is of course a certain validity to that. Winning will give the team confidence and hopefully build momentum. But in my opinion that is not enough. The Capitals needs to win a couple games that they don't deserve to win, or at least win some close games handily because they got some good luck, in order to boost the team confidence that what is beyond their control isn't going to bury them on a regular basis. If the Caps start believing that, they will be able to weather adversity better and should start pulling off wins in game they fall behind or are outplayed early.

Eventually the bounces and the 50/50 calls are going to start going the Capitals way and if this team is playing reasonably well when they do they will be able to go on a run and make up significant ground in the standings. What the team needs to be able to do is hold its head above water in the standings (so they aren't in an impossible hole to get themselves out of) and keep playing well on the ice (so they can take advantage of the good luck and wins games when it finally comes around).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

This is not Capitals related, but I was perusing through my hockey videos and stumbled across this gem of an ad from our neighbors to the north:



video


OLD TIME INTER-OFFICE POLITICS, EH?!

Much better than the horrible PSAs they're running up there now, right?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Caps Fall to Cats at the End of 11 Player Shootout

Capitals 1, Panthers 2 (SO)

Earlier this week I said that the Caps should look to pick up four points in their two games against Florida and one against Carolina before heading into a lengthy break in which they could fully absorb Boudreau's new system. After picking up a point in the shootout loss last night the team can still do so, but they missed their best opportunity for two in their home game against a mediocre (but streaking) Florida team.

Florida ought to consider itself lucky to have picked up the two points. I'll give them credit enough to deserve one, but the Capitals should have had 1:59 of 5-on-3 to close out the overtime session. They refs managed to catch the Cullimore trip but they blew what should have been an easy roughing or interference call as Nylander was hit from behind and knocked down in front of the Panthers net. Maybe it was one of those situations where the refs were being lenient because another penalty had already been called, I don't know. But an infraction as blatant as that one needs to be picked up no matter what. As it was the Caps had seven overtime shots; with a 5-on-3 and nothing to lose you'd have to like their chances of picking up a goal.

The Cats also lucked out when Clark and Semin became unavailable for the shootout. Semin would have shot no matter what; Clark may not have, but you'd have to think he'd go before Pothier, Poti or Steckel.

In non game-related thoughts I'd have to say that I'm pretty sure Craig Laughlin is crazy. He was saying in the game tonight (and has said in the past) that it's an advantage for a shooter to be the opposite handedness of a goalie, i.e. that a left-handed shooter will have an advantage over goalie who catches with his right hand. I'm usually ready to agree to disagree and accept that other people's opinions can differ from mine, but let me tell you here - Laughlin is wrong.

As someone who played goalie for years let me tell you that it's easier to stop a puck with your glove hand. That hand is lighter, there's no stick to make it awkward, you can catch with it and it's easier to make the play with your palm facing outwards that in towards you. As a shooter it's easier to not have to come across your body; for a right handed shooter (like Ovechkin or Semin) to shoot high-glove on a left-catching goalie (like Kolzig). Thus if the blocker is worn on the opposite hand of the handedness of the shooter, it's an advantage to the shooter. Come on Laughlin, why do you think the majority of NHL players shoot lefty? Why do you think Canadian coaches and parents tech their kids to shoot left, resulting in ridiculously high levels of left-handed golf club sales north of the border?

Quick Hits

  • As much as I love Donald Brashear, the Caps may need to look for another enforcer in the offseason. Brash obviously has trouble keeping up with the pace in the NHL at his age and has taken a lot of bad penalties this year.
  • The Capitals honored Sean Taylor before the game.
  • I hear Dave Andreychuk used to do a drill where he would dump a bunch of pucks in and around the crease and practice snapping them high into the net as quickly as he could. Someone should show Viktor Kozlov this drill.
  • Boyd Gordon's shootout goal beautiful. How beautiful? I got so excited I jumped up, pumped my first, and wrenched my back.
  • The ice at the Verizon Center seems to be getting worse every game. Can it get any worse than last night's game? I doubt it. I mean, how can you make worse ice than when it doesn't even freeze?
  • Of course the terrible ice can work to your advantage - Nylander nearly won the game with his bouncing dump-in on Vokoun. Just think of it as a home rink advantage.

Shootouts

FloridaVille Peltonen shootout saved
WashingtonMike Green shootout saved


FloridaOlli Jokinen shootout goal
WashingtonAlexander Ovechkin shootout saved


FloridaJozef Stumpel shootout saved
WashingtonViktor Kozlov shootout goal


FloridaNathan Horton shootout goal
WashingtonNicklas Backstrom shootout goal


FloridaRostislav Olesz shootout saved
WashingtonMichael Nylander shootout saved


FloridaSteve Montador shootout saved
WashingtonBrooks Laich shootout miss


FloridaRichard Zednik shootout saved
WashingtonMatt Pettinger shootout saved


FloridaKamil Kreps shootout goal
WashingtonBoyd Gordon shootout goal


FloridaJay Bouwmeester shootout saved
WashingtonDave Steckel shootout miss


FloridaDavid Booth shootout saved
WashingtonTom Poti shootout saved


FloridaStephen Weiss shootout goal
WashingtonBrian Pothier shootout saved

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Flyers Strike Agan

Another dirty hit from a Flyers player:



Generally I am adamantly opposed to fining coaches or franchises for the actions of their players on the ice, but the Flyers have gotten so out of control I think it would be appropriate.

Caps Lose to Sabres; Hope to Rebound Against Florida

I will admit that I wasn't able to watch last nights game, but here's what I gathered from the reactions of others:

So, we now know that Bruce Boudreau is not a miracle worker who will go 61-0-0 this year. But other than that, what did the loss tell Caps fans? In my opinion, nothing really. Any team is going to have losses and any team is going to have bad losses, that's just the nature of hockey. The test will be seeing how this team comes back and responds to the loss Wednesday night against the Panthers.

Speaking of the schedule, the Capitals end their stretch of ten games in sixteen days this Saturday when they again play Florida (the game in between is against Carolina, in Raleigh). The busy stretch under Boudreau would have to be considered a success if the Capitals can take two out of these three games, which would put Boudreau's record at 4-2-0 going into a five-day layoff, which should give the team time to learn the intricacies of Boudreau's system. Needless to say, if the team picks up eight points in their first six games under Boudreau and then has a chance to fully adapt to his system, they will be in pretty good shape considering how things looked when Boudreau took over behind the bench.

While it should not be expected that the Capitals will beat the Hurricanes at home (which has as much to do with how good the 'Canes are as it does the Caps), it should at this point be expected that the Caps take both games from the Panthers. Simply put, the Capitals are better than the Panthers. They have better scorers, better defense and better depth, and as desperate as they need to be at this point they should come out and take care of the Panthers. No matter what the Capitals have a long road ahead of them if they want to get back into contention, and these games against Florida will be key in determining whether or not they have it in them.

TSN reports that Maple Leafs President Richard Peddie has called the hiring of Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr. "a mistake".

So there you have. Hiring Ferguson was officially a mistake. In other news the sky is blue, the Pope is Catholic and just about everyone on the Leafs blueline is overpaid.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Two in a Row: Caps Top Canes

Capitals 5, Hurricanes 2

What's more encouraging that a 4-3 overtime win against the 5th place team in the Eastern Conference? A 5-2 win over the 2nd place team in the Eastern Conference.

Anyone seen the movie "Major League"? If you have, you may remember this quote:

"You guys won today. You guys won yesterday, so that's two in a row. If you win again tomorrow, that's called a 'winning streak'. It has happened before."

...which pretty much sums up where the Capitals stand at this point.

For the second game in a row the Capitals came out and played with more jump, more creativity and more confidence than we've seen most of the season and looked like they expected to win. Boudreau's arrival may have sparked that confidence but the two wins over tough opponents is what's really going to help it grow.

One immediate change: special teams. It's been said many times that the key to success in the post-lockout NHL (I refuse to use the term "new NHL" anymore. It's been two full seasons people.) is good special teams and the Caps certainly had that tonight - they were 3-4 on the powerplay and killed off all three Carolina man advantages.

Next up: Buffalo, another team playing below their expectations this year, at Verizon Center, Monday.

DMG's 3 Stars
(1) Olaf Kolzig (35 saves on 37 shots; .946 save percentage)
(2) Alex Ovechkin (2 goals)
(3) Michael Nylander (1 goal, 2 assists)

Quotable
"If we have success next week, we're right back in it"
-Bruce Boudreau

Quick Hits

  • I'm sure many a Canes fan will be crying foul over Justin Williams' disallowed goal, but it was the right call. My logic: the puck moved downwards after it made contact with the stick and still hit the crossbar, ergo the stick was above the crossbar when it hit the puck.
  • Backstrom continued his solid play on the 4th line, picking up a pair of assists.
  • According to the broadcast team in Comcast, Boudreau received a congratulatory call from none other than Don Cherry in the last couple days.
  • With the way he skates, hits and plays in the offensive zone, Mike Green is going to become one of the most exciting defensemen in this league to watch.
  • It's not surprising Erik Cole managed to split the 'D' pairing of Milan Jurcina and John Erskine, as Cole is one of the better skaters in the NHL and neither Jurcina or Erskine is exactly agile.
  • Great crowd at the Verizon Center last night, both in numbers and enthusiasm.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Happy Birthday, Nicklas Backstrom - Caps Win 4-3

Capitals 4, Flyers 3 (OT)

Well. That was encouraging.

Before anything else, let me say this: the Caps, as a whole, played well enough to deserve better than a one-goal overtime win. The first Flyers goal shouldn't have happened - it should have been blown dead by the officials. The second Flyers goal shouldn't have happened because Olie shouldn't let that shot in.

The Capitals controlled the play most of the game, outshooting their opponents in every period and 35-25 for the game. But the most impressive stretch came early in the first. With
Shaone Morrisonn already in the box, Jeff Schultz inadvertently sent a rolling puck over the glass in his own end, giving the Flyers a 5-on-3 for 1:45. The Capitals were able to kill off the entirety of the penalty and maintain their one goal lead, keeping their slim margin early in the game in the face of adversity and giving a significant boost to a team lacking in confidence.

But the story of the game for the Capitals really was aggressiveness. Boudreau had mentioned that several times leading into the game and it made all the difference. Rather than sitting back and play tentative the Caps forechecked hard, worked to beat the Flyers to the puck and outhit Philly 15-14 (that's not as close as it looks - Scott Hartnell had six), and showed that they are indeed a good NHL team. The Caps have a lot of good skaters and they're the biggest team in the NHL - if they are allowed to play aggressively and pressure their opponents they should generally expect good things to happen.

So what's next? A home matchup this Saturday against Carolina where the Caps will try win two in a row for the fist time this season after their 3-0, and start a winning streak that will get them back into the playoff picture (they're currently seven points out, pending today's results). Is it just me, or do other people have more confidence that they'll be able to do that than at any other point this season?

DMG's 3 Stars

(1) Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal (the game winner), 2 assists, +2)
(2) Tom Poti (2 assists, 27:02 of ice time)
(3)Alexander Ovechkin (1 assist (a nice one on the game winner), +2, 4 shots, 23:06 of ice time)

*
Note/Edit: Final T.O.I. differs slightly from what was posted here b/c I put this up shortly after the game's conclusion.

Quotable

"It's subtle changes, not like you're revamping the whole thing. I just think the mind-set sometimes has got to change, and the culture's got to change. They've got to believe that they're really good players."
-Bruce Boudreau


Quick Hits

  • I have no analytic data but I would venture to guess a good 30% of the goals against Olaf Kolzig this year have come through the five-hole.
  • Thank you, Kimmo Timonen. Just as your team was really starting to get momentum, you took a stupid, obvious and unnecessary penalty to put the Caps on the powerplay.
  • Even though his team lost, I'm sure Daniel Briere had fun today. Not only did he get to jam his stick between a Capitals player's legs - he got a goal when he did!
  • Seriously though, there were quick whistles all day - where were they on Briere's goal?
  • Horrible, horrible slashing call on Tom Poti with 2:18 left in the game.
  • Either Nicklas Backstrom is really comfortable on the fourth line or he had something to prove, notching the game winner and two assists on his 20th birthday.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

On Frozen Blog has links to reactions from Caps players and personnel. Video clips here. Boudreau's is especially interesting.

More Boudreau commentary, from the Bears radio announcer:

I also know that some of you in discussion boards have wondered what Bruce Boudreau will do for your team, with some of you thinking “here we go again” with another AHL coach being called up instead of some “name” coach for big bucks. I just wanted to let you know, as a humble servant of your minor league affiliate, I believe Bruce is the guy you need. Bruce Boudreau is one of the greatest people I’ve ever been around, a great leader of men with just enough grit to go with his compassion for his players to get the job done for you.

Interesting Hockey News article about the coaching change. My favorite quotes:

"I'm fairly demanding," Boudreau said. "I may smile and joke with them, but if they don't do what is needed and necessary, they know they'll have to pay the price."


Hanlon... in a brief statement released through the team he called his time with the Capitals' organization, "the best years of my hockey life. ... I will be rooting for them."


Class right up to the end. It's too bad things didn't work out here for Hanlon, but he's a good coach and a good guy. Best of luck, Glen.

Who Didn't See This Coming?

The Caps have fired Glen Hanlon and replaced him (on an interim basis) with Hershey's Bruce Boudreau (press release). I don't think anyone is surprised in the least bit at this point (least of all me, I predicted after last night's game he would be shown the door this morning).

Some Caps fans are already up in arms about two things: (1) the firing on Thanksgiving and (2) replacing Hanlon with Boudreau ("not another AHL coach").

I have no problem with either. The team plays Friday and Saturday and with the way things were going a coaching change was needed immediately. It's just unfortunate the day it became obvious the Capitals could wait no longer.

As for Boudreau, I think he's the logic choice for the short term. The "not another AHL coach" cries don't make sense at this point. The team needed to hire someone on an interim basis; it's not like they were going to conduct interviews and make a hiring between 2 and 8 in the morning the night before Thanksgiving.

As for Hanlon, in a way I am sad to see him go. He did a very good job keeping the team's spirits high, getting the most out of the players and interacting with the media and fans during the rebuild. I'm sure he'll catch on somewhere else before too long. Best of luck to him when he does.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Hanlon, the Bell Tolls for Thee

Capitals 1, Thrashers 5

So much to write about and so little of it is good...

With the Caps reeling but most people still viewing injuries and bad luck as legitimate excuses, and only one game removed from upsetting the Senators in Ottawa 4-1, the team began its ten games in sixteen days stretch on November 15th. At the outset I expected that the stretch would determine Glen Hanlon's fate, but that no matter what happened the team would hold on to him until the end of the busy stretch on December 2nd. Now I'm not sure he will make it that far.

Say what you want about McPhee (so many Caps fans are at this point), but he's no idiot. Hanlon isn't going to make it much further as the Capitals head coach; by this point it's gone well beyond a question of "if" become a question of "when". I wouldn't be shocked to see Bruce Boudreau behind the bench in Philly Friday afternoon. I would be shocked if Hanlon is still here after December 1st. If that happens, it's time for McPhee to go (this coming from a guy who devoted so much space to defending McPhee yesterday).

In losing tonight the Capitals faced their usual three obstacles against the Thrashers: failure to score, stupid play at especially inopportune times and bad luck.

The stupidity was courtesy of John Erskine's cross-checking penalty on Slava Kozlov at 14:59 of the second. Moments earlier Kozlov had established position and Erskine (not the most agile skater) had gone down; it was not a cheap shot by Kozlov. Erskine's response was to level Kozlov (who weighs about 175 pounds) with a cross-check, to the back, right in front of the referee. It's hard to overstate what a stupid penalty that is, even with its impact being magnified as the Thrashers scored their second goal on the ensuing powerplay. If Milan Jurcina is watching from the press box for a bad turnover then Erskine should be without a sweater for a while for his play, which was simply inexcusable.

The bad luck resulted in the Thrashers third goal; those watching at home saw a good breakdown of the play by Al Koken. Watching in real time I'm sure many people were, like me, wondering "how the hell did Havelid get so open for that pass?" The answer was that the man who supposed to be on him, Chris Clark, had gotten into an altercation at least ten second earlier and was being held against the boards in front of the Capitals bench. Not only did the officials not call a penalty (or penalties), they didn't even stop the play, letting Ilya Kovalchuk find Niclas Havelid wide open in the Capitals' zone.

The Capitals aren't losing games because of single breakdowns or bad plays anymore. Simply put, they're playing like losers. They no longer have that attitude or physicality they carried the last couple years and they no longer expect to win. As soon as the opposition scores, they fold and their body language sends the message "well, here we go again, let's just get through this and go home". The biggest offender is Viktor Kozlov. If you're as skilled as Semin, Nylander or Backstrom you can get away with not playing a particularly physical game and still being a very solid contributer. But if you're not (and you are 6'4'', 225) you need to play physical.

Let's be realistic now. The season's done unless something amazing (a 10 game win streak or something) happens. All I can offer is that, no matter how poorly the Capitals play this year, they have the talent to compete in 2008-09.

Quick Hits

  • Hell of a classy guy that Bobby Holik. With less than five to go and his team up by four goals he's throwing a temper tantrum in the penalty box after being called. Then he gets an unsportsmanlike penalty from the bench in the game's closing minute. This is why I hate Atlanta. Whether it's Sutton taking a run at guys in the closing minutes of games, Boulton using him elbows in a Karl Malone-esque fashion, Captain Bobby wetting his pants over an irrelevant call, or the team stamping "LOSER" across people wearing the opposition's jersey on their Jumbotron, the organization lacks class. And let's not forget their "there's plenty of room left on the bandwagon" advertising campaign.
  • Jeff Schultz fared much better against Atlanta's top line than I would have expected.
  • Your team is down four goals near the end of the game. You're supposed to be one of the toughest players on your team and you get knocked face-first into your own net. What's the best response in that situation? Well that's up for debate I guess but I will tell you, Mr. Erskine, that it is not to lay on the ice and meekly swipe at the opposing player's skates.
  • Speaking of lack of toughness, Brashear needs to go after Holik for manhandling Clark behind the Thrashers net in the closing minutes. There's no excuse for letting someone go after your captain like that. Period.
  • To his credit Shaone Morrisonn did come out looking pissed and playing the type of game the Capitals needed to play.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Not on the 'Fire McPhee' Bandwagon

The Capitals are struggling mightily and their fans are (reasonably) upset and calling for either Glen Hanlon or George McPhee (or both) to be ousted. As I've mentioned before, I think it would be appropriate to fire Hanlon. It pains me to say so because I respect what he's done for the organization over the last couple years, but it's becoming increasingly clear that he is not the right coach for this team right now.

But I don't think McPhee deserves the boot.

If you're consider a coaching or management change you have to go beyond the knee-jerk reactions I think many people may be having, which take two forms: (1) "Well the team is struggling, it must be the [coach, GM, owner]'s fault, get rid of them!" or (2) "The team is struggling and I'm pissed off and I want blood, damn it!" Each reaction is understandable and to an extent warranted, but if you're going to make a change I think you have to go beyond these reactions and consider the situation more carefully. That's what I did with Hanlon and that's what I did with McPhee that led me to this conclusion.

What I'm going to do to make my case is lay what I think were crucial periods for the Capitals and how McPhee responded to them.

I. Initial Success
II. Two Bad Decisions
III. The Fire Sale
IV. The Rebuild and the Draft
V. Trades
VI. Summer of 2007

I. Initial Success

The Capitals started well under McPhee, who took the helm at the start of the 1997-98 season, which ended in a Stanly Cup Finals loss to Detroit. Critics here say that this wasn't McPhee's team; it was David Poile's and I think that is a fair assessment. Following a Stanly Cup run hangover in 1998-99, the team won its division in both the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 seasons.

II. Two Bad Decisions

I think most Capitals fan would agree that the reasons this team crashed and burned were twofold. One was the signing of Jaormir Jagr to that ridiculous contract for $77 million over 7 years. The other was the hiring of Bruce Cassidy as the head coach. Either of these would be enough to put a GM on the hot seat and both should be automatic grounds for dismissal. So why does McPhee still have his job and why do I think he deserves it?. Simple. The overwhelming impression given to Caps fans was that each was move was a brainchild of owner Ted Leonsis.

It's generally accepted Leonsis wanted to ink Jagr to huge extension as an effort to make a splash and garner more support for the team. If I remember correctly Leonsis boasted after the signing that Jagr would retire as a Capital and we heard a lot about the season ticket base expanding. As for Cassidy, his hiring was directly inspired by the job Paul Maurice had done with Hurricanes, taking them on a run to the Cup finals in 2001. Cassidy was supposed to be a coach in the Maurice mold - young, hip, play-friendly and decidedly different from defense-oriented taskmaster Ron Wilson.

Of course the Jagr contract became an albatross (even more so with the labor uncertainty surrounding the NHL in the next couple years), even while enshrined Jagr as the franchise cornerstone and hence lead to other bad signings (most notably Robert Lang). Meanwhile Bruce Cassidy turned out to be a world-class S.O.B.

After these failures McPhee was instructed by Leonsis to tear down and rebuild, resulting in....

III. The Fire Sale

Capitals fans remember the names that were shipped out well: Jagr, Lang, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Brendan Witt, Michael Nylander. Fire sales are tricky, especially this variety. McPhee was ordered to tear down the team mid-season (giving him less time to search for buyers) and had to do it amidst labor unrest, as the CBA was soon to expire (making it hard to deal vets with big contract like Lang and Jagr). Given that, I think he did well, amassing the following: Jared Aulin, Kris Beech, Shaone Morrisonn, Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann, three first round picks, three second round picks and a fourth round pick.

What else is there to say? It is what it is and all things considered I think McPhee did a good job.

IV. The Rebuild and the Draft

Caps draft history available here.

I decided to combine these sections because they are, in large part, on and the same. Let me preface this by saying that how much of draft success and failure is because of skill on the GM's part and how much is because of skill on the scouts' part is up for debate and can vary widely. That said, I think McPhee has done fine, picking players like Fehr, Eminger, Semin, Schultz, Green, Backstrom, Varlamov, Bouchard, Neuvirth and Bourque (and Ovechkin, but he doesn't count because, c'mon, that was a slam dunk). Not all of those guys are going to be great NHL players or even have sustained NHL careers. But looking at this it's hard to say that the Capitals haven't been getting useful players from the draft, or to say they haven't built up depth amongst their prospects. And yes they're all first and second round picks. But the reality is that it's very rare to get a productive NHL-caliber player past those first two rounds, especially these days. When it happens it's just as much luck as anything else.

There's always one argument I hate and it goes something like "[General Manager's Name] is horrible! Look at [draft year], he drafted [Player A] when he could have had [Player B]". In some instances this is fair. For example I think saying "McPhee should have picked Ryan Getzlaf over Eric Fehr" is reasonable, even though Fehr's effectiveness has been limited by his compressed nerve. When it bugs me is when people say something like: "We passed on Pavel Datsyuk in 1998! How could we do that?" because every team passed on Datsyuk. Several times. Credit where credit is due - the Red Wings made a great pick when the drafted Datsyuk. But it's not like any of the other 27 teams knew how good Datsyuk was going to be in 1998, so it isn't fair to vilify any one GM for passing on him. The fact is that with almost every pick in every draft you can look at it and find guys who "should" have been picked instead, that's the way it goes for any general manager.

To demonstrate this I've done the following: I decided to chose a high, but not top-10 draft spot and look at who was, and who should have been, picked there. I chose the 20th overall pick, when most of the top prospects were off the board but still early on that there theoretically shouldn't be that much luck to it. The drafts I chose to look at were 1997-2001, as these are the ones I think most people will have familiarity with that can be looked at using the conventional rule-of-thumb to wait at least five seasons before evaluating a draft class.

1997: Mike Brown (Florida). Picked ahead of: Scott Hannan (23), Brendan Morrow (25), Ben Clymer (27), Kristian Huselius (45), Henrik Tallinder (48), Maxim Afinogenov (69), Mike York (136), Brian Campbell (156), Ladislav Nagy (177)

1998: Scott Parker (Colorado). Potential better picks: Simon Gagne (22), Scott Gomez (27), Jonathon Cheechoo (29), Mike Fischer (44), Mike Ribeiro (45), Brad Richards (64), Erik Cole (71), Brian Gionta (82), Shawn Horcoff (99), Pavel Datsyuk (141), Michael Ryder (216).

1999: Barrett Heisten (Buffalo). Better picks: Nick Boynton (21), Martin Havlat (26), Mike Commodore (41), Jordan Leopold (44), Adam Hall (52), Niklas Hagman (70), Niclas Havelid (83), Mike Comrie (91), Martin Erat (191), Henrik Zetterberg (210).

2000: Alexander Frolov (Los Angeles). I picked a number (20th overall) at random and went with it. Honestly I think Frolov was the best player available at this point in the draft.

2001: Marcel Goc (San Jose). Potential better picks: Derek Roy (32), Fedor Tyutin (40), Mike Cammalleri (49), Jason Pominville (55), Tomas Plekanec (71), Jussi Jokinen (192).

So what's my point? Everyone misses players, everyone makes picks that don't work out. That is the nature of the draft

Go back to 1998, McPhee's first draft after having been with the team for a year and look at his first and second round picks. Some have failed (Jomar Cruz, anyone?) but for the most part if you take out the guys who either look like good prospects, have proven themselves to be quality players or who have had unforeseen injury issues, how many busts are there? Not a lot. And that's really all you can ask a GM to do in the draft after the first ten picks or so - pick up quality players and not waste your picks.

Of course, I don't think the draft is a great indicator of skill for a GM. As an aside, who knows who the Caps would have drafted if they'd had a top 4 pick in 2005 like they should have had (they tied for fewest points in 2003-04). The top four picks in the draft that year were Crosby, Bobby Ryan, Jack Johnson and Benoit Pouliot. Gilbert Brule, Marc Staal and Anze Kopitar would have been available. Instead the Caps wound up with the 14th pick and Sasha Pokulok. Nothing against Pokulok, but the I'd rather have one of those other guys. Like the Caps should have had. You know, teams could only move 3 spots in the regular lottery, why not have the same rule for the post-lockout weighted lottery?

V. Trades

Okay, not a time period but an important part of the GM's job nonetheless.

I really like what McPhee has done in the trade market. As bad as the Jagr extension was I still maintain the trade for him was not a bad move, given that the Capitals picked him up for Kris Beech, Michal Sivek and Ross Lupaschuk. The best offensive player in the league at that point for three guys who never amounted to anything in the NHL. That's a good trade.

  • Adam Oates to the Flyers for 14 games in return for Maxime Ouellet and one pick in each of the first three rounds in the draft - good trade, even though Ouellet never amounted to anything.
  • Chris Clark was acquired for, I believe, either a third or fourth round pick. Also a good trade.
  • Milan Jurcina for a fourth round pick. A good trade unless the Bruins get real lucky with that pick.
  • Brian Sutherby for a second round pick is a good trade. I like Suts but he wasn't going to play here.
VI. Summer of 2007

I bring this up to make one last point: going in the offseason the Capitals needed to fill three holes: a center who could play on the top two lines, a defenseman who could skate a lot of minutes and another top six forward, preferably a right wing. He filled all those holes quite well with Nylander, Poti and Kozlov, especially given the money available and the general low desirability of Washington for free agents.

My goal is not to exclude McPhee from criticism. Steve Konowalchuk shipping off for Jonas Johansson and Bates Battaglia wasn't a great move. Failing to sign Nick Boynton was a huge mistake (although it was almost ten years ago). I know that; McPhee probably knows it as well. But any GM is going to make mistakes.

So in closing then I guess I'd just have to say, where has McPhee gone so horribly wrong that he deserves to lose his job? After the Jagr/Cassidy fiasco Leonsis told McPhee to tear everything down and start over, which he did. He hasn't made horrible picks or horrible trades and hasn't signed any free agents that are going to be albatrosses for this organization. There's really nothing you can point at and say it was a mistake and that someone else could have been reasonably expected to do it better.

The Bottom Line: McPhee's had to try and rebuild this organization from scratch and the reality is that takes longer than three years. To expect anything else is to be unrealistic, thus it doesn't make sense to look at the Capitals current problems and automatically decide it's time to fire the GM. To me, once you look deeper, there's nothing to point at to show McPhee needs to go.

So I Hear That Steve Stamkos Guy is Pretty Good...

Capitals 3, Panthers 4

It has to be frustrating to be Glen Hanlon these days. After more than two seasons of struggling through a complete rebuild you finally get a chance with a team that has a decent amount of NHL talent. Then injuries hit, the refs seem to make a lot of questionable calls that go against you and every bounce is favoring the opponents. You finally get your lineup back from injuries and you lose again - in large part because of a horribly unlucky bounce. And poor referring. And the fact that your captain can't put away a golden powerplay opportunity early in the game when the powerplay seemed to be working well. And that your captain later took a needless penalty to erase another powerplay.

All that said I still think it's time for a coaching change. In addition to Hanlon's earlier questionable decisions, the fact is the Capitals look lost. Whenever they go down, especially by more than one goal, the feeling is palpable and it's obvious in their body language that the Capitals don't think they can win. They're just hoping to somehow pull it out. I can't say for certain if they've lost faith in Hanlon's system, if the early losses in games they deserved to win have brought about a defeatist attitude or if they players are just starting to think they're cursed. But no matter what it is the most obvious answer is a coaching change.

Realistically it would be a mistake to change coaches during a stretch as active as the one the Caps are going through right now, but unless the Capitals go on a three-plus game winning streak (provided they don't lose all the other games) December 1st is going to be the last night you'll see Hanlon behind the bench.

Quick Hits

  • Tap a guy on the gloves with your stick? Penalty. Lift another player's stick the wrong way? Penalty. Your jersey brushed the opponent's jersey as you skated by? Penalty. Punch Alexander Semin in the face and follow through with your elbow well after he has let the puck go? Play on, boys. Maybe the referees were overwhelmed by choice and couldn't decide whether to call roughing, elbowing or interference.
  • Seriously, Semin drew a penalty but there were three or four others that should have been called when he was being mauled. Do the refs have it in for him or something?
  • How strong is Alex Ovechkin? He knocked over Jassen Cullimore when Cullimore tried to stand him up while he was carrying the puck. Cullimore is 6'5'' and weighs 245 pounds.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sutherby Out to Anaheim

Before tonight's game the Caps shipped Brian Sutherby to Anaheim for the Ducks 2nd round pick in 2009 (TSN story).

The upside is that the Capitals pick up a second round pick, which should in itself be a solid pick and could also be used in a trade this year or next year to fill a hole. The downside is that most second round picks don't have sustained NHL careers (although many do) and Sutherby should be a good NHL player for a lot of years. So, as much as I've liked watching Sutherby over the years, I'd have to say it's a good move.

Sutherby just wasn't going to get playing time in D.C. for the foreseeable future. He hadn't shown enough offensively to warrant a top six role and the Caps already have Nicklas Backstrom and Michael Nylander for that (and Viktor Kozlov should need be), Boyd Gordon has the checking line role locked up and although Dave Steckel doesn't have Sutherby's grit he is a very good faceoff man and penalty killer.

It's good for Sutherby too. Not only will he get a chance to play, but he'll get a chance to do it on a team and in a system that suits his gritty style perfectly.

J.P. from Japers' Rink also adds this insight:

You'll recall that the Caps resigned Suts, a former first-round pick, to a 1-year, $800,000 deal this past summer, meaning that, in essence, they bought a second round pick in '09 for just under $200,000.

Caps/Cats Preview (sort of but not really....)

I don't have the time for a comprehensive preview so I recommend these to you:

And I'll summarize the main points:
  • Alexander Semin is back
  • The Caps need a win bad
  • It' s a winnable game, because Florida is not a very good hockey team
  • The Caps better start taking advantage of their games against their own division. They play everyone in it eight times and they're better than everyone except Carolina.
Also I like videos. So here's a good (and applicable) one:

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Strangest promotion ever?

Bryzgalov passed on by Washington; Claimed by Coyotes

Word is the Coyotes have claimed Bryzgalov off waivers, meanings the Capitals passed on him.

Bad move.

Brent Johnson is okay, but Bryzgalov is simply better. On any given night the Capitals would have a better chance to win with Bryzgalov in net.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Caps Fall To Bolts 5-2

Capitals 2, Lightning 5

Another day, another loss, another few decibels that the 'Fire Hanlon' chorus ratchets up.

To their credit the Capitals came out hard, looking like the desperate team that they are and were the better team for the majority of the first forty minutes. The Capitals could have easily been up 2-0 and in control of the game after the first period were it not for a stupid penalty by Schultz that lead to blue-line slapshot goal from superhuman Vincent Lecavalier, and Milan Jurcina doing his best Bryan McCabe Tom Poti impression, handing the puck over the Jan Hlavac in the process (thought Brent Johnson must bear some of the blame here - Hlavac let go a weak shot that trickled through the five-hole).

This game we out of reach for Washington with defenseman Paul Ranger's goal with 28 seconds remaining in the second. With that goal the Capitals seemed to lose all their confidence; you could see in their body language in the third period that they just didn't think they could win. With the way they have been piling up the losses recently and how much difficulty everyone not named Ovechkin has had scoring this year that is somewhat understandable and I can't say I didn't have the same reaction. But just because it's understandable doesn't make it acceptable and like so much else that's been going wrong with the Capitals you have to look at the bench boss first.

McPhee is slow to fire coaches - when Cassidy went on his infamous rant in the middle of a road trip with the team struggling he wasn't fired until the trip's conclusion. Given that I think there's very little chance Hanlon gets the boot before the conclusion of this ten-games-in-sixteen-days bit that ends December 1. That said if the Capitals don't either pick up a good number of points or win the last three or four in that stretch I think McPhee will send Hanlon packing. It'll be a shame in a lot of ways - Hanlon is good guy and has done a lot of good for this team over the last couple years and it will be a loss for the organization to be without his attitude but the reality is he is not getting the job done. And injuries can no longer be the excuse.

Capitals goaltender rankings for last nights game:

  1. Alexander Ovechkin
  2. Mike Green
  3. Brent Johnson
Quick Hits
  • Tampa' home uniforms are horrible. They look like ninja costumes you'd buy an eight-year-old for Halloween.
  • Can someone get Donald Brashear some pine tar? He seems to drop his stick every shift.
  • That play in the first period where Kozlov failed to bury the rebound from Ovechkin's shot on the PP is one of those plays you just watch and say 'Of course. That's exactly how the season is going.'
  • He's more than willing to scrap with the big boys but I've never felt Andre Roy could match up with the top-tier fighters in the NHL.
  • The NFL instituted a new rule so that throwing the ball after the play now results in a penalty. I don't think it would be a bad idea for the NHL to follow suit, at least in cases where it's out of frustration (I'm thinking of when Lecavalier whipped the puck against the back board after being called offside).
  • As earlier noted the Ducks put Ilya Bryzgalov on waivers today; the sense I got was that Caps fans were wishy-washy about whether they wanted him to replace Johnson. I wonder if anyone changed their mind by the end of the game?

More Thoughts On Halon's Job Security

More commentary about Hanlon's job security from one my favorites, CapsChick of A View from the Cheap Seats.

The issue was also addressed in Tarik's weekly Caps chat, which also provided a perfect example of why people on the internet don't get taken seriously:

Herndon, Va.: Tarik, why doesn't Johnson play more often? I think -- I am sure you will disagree -- he is better than Kolzig.

Tarik El-Bashir: You are half right. I absolutely disagree.

Update: two perfect examples:

Portland, Ore.: Has Hanlon considered putting Green on Ovechkin's line (as a forward)? He's the only other player who consistently makes me move to the edge of my seat when he's got the puck recently.

Tarik El-Bashir: Green has definitely made huge strides this year. He's still got a ways to go, especially in his own end, but he's going to be a player.


Ilya Bryzgalov waived

The Peerless Prognosticator is reporting (via TSN) that the Ducks are going to place Ilya Bryzgalov on waivers. Please Caps, pick him up. Kolzig is 38; he's going to need rest. Johnson is an okay backup, but Bryzgalov could be a starter for a lot of teams. Frankly, really, he's just better than Johnson.

TSN Story.

Worth Reading

The top story on hockeysfuture.com is about the Capitals goaltending prospects.

Capitals Goaltending Pipeline

Two-for-One: Caps/Cats Recap and Caps/Bolts Preview

With their game against Florida last night the Capitals kicked off a period of ten games in sixteen days, eight of which are against division opponents. It goes without saying that the Capitals need to put up a decent number of points - 12 or more in my opinion - through these ten games to salvage their season. They'll have the chance to do so, playing Florida four (!) times and Tampa and Atlanta once each (other games are two with Carolina and one each with Philly and Buffalo).

It's been said many times already, and by many people, that the Capitals need to turn things around quickly to have any hope of making it to the playoffs; if the Capitals can't put up some points through these ten games we won't have to say that anymore because the season will be over and we'll all be praying (1) to win the draft lottery and (2) for John Tavares to enter the draft (note: #2 may be conditional on #1).

As for the actual games - I don't think there much I can add to the commentary from last night's loss to Florida beyond what is being said at Japers' Rink and 3 Grumpy Caps Fans. What I do want to note is this:

  • This loss comes in large part because two of the Capitals most important players, Tom Poti and Michael Nylander, had terrible games. Poti was the primary Cap to blame on both of Florida's goals. It was especially bad on the second one when he made a pass any hockey player past the age of seven ought to know not to attempt. Nylander had at least four very questionable (read: terrible) passes and by the end of the game I'd lost all faith the Capitals were going to do anything when he touched the puck.
  • It's absurd Chris Clark was called for a dive when he was knocked down in front of the net and the Panthers' player (don't recall who) did not receive a diving penalty on the play where Jeff Schultz was called for interference.
As for tonights game, mark me down as someone who expects a Caps win. Yes, the Capitals are struggling, yes they are playing in Tampa and yes Vincent Lecavalier has been the best player in the NHL over the last couple weeks.

But I still think Tampa Bay simply is not that good; I know Lecavalier is not this good and I don't think the Capitals are this bad. Simply put the Lightning (7-1-1) and Lecavalier are overachieving and the Capitals are underachieving and both should return to levels that reflect their overall talent pretty soon (I have more faith Tampa will start to stumble that I do that the Capitals will start a winning streak. But I digress).

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Considering A Coaching Change

With the Capitals off to a 6-10-1 start and tied for fewest points in the NHL it's not surprising that there have been a decent number of fans (especially on the internets) calling for Hanlon's dismissal. Let me say that for most of the season I have not been one of them. In my opinion the team was outplaying it opponents most nights even if the results did not reflect it and to call for the coach's head was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction and a bit of scapegoating. Plus, as both Cory from the Washington Times and Tarik from the Washington Post pointed out, if you look at the Capitals from 2006-07, take away Poti, Clark and Semin but add Nylander and Backstrom you get....the Caps from 2006-07 (essentially). My argument for giving Hanlon more time (aside of the injury troubles) was that when deciding whether to fire a coach you have to look not just at results; not just whether the team is winning or losing but how they're winning or losing and that since the Capitals were playing well but getting bad results it wasn't fair to pin it on Hanlon.

Well in this regard I'm nothing if not consistent. I still think the most important thing to look at is how a team is playing and recently, with the way the team have performed and the decisions Hanlon's been making, I'm starting to lose faith that he will be able to have success even when this team gets reasonably healthy.

The causes for alarm are:

  • The Capitals always come out and play hard in the first period and this is a reflection on their coach. However they almost always come out and get outclassed in the second (The Peerless Prognosticator recently had a great post with the stats on this). This too is a reflection of the coaching staff. While the Capitals are able to start the game well it seems that all the opponent has to do is go into the locker room and make a few adjustments in order to be successful. The Capitals have clearly been unable to do the same and are paying the price in the second period. The odd thing though is that the Caps don't get dominated in the third which seems to indicate they are making adjusts - after being outplayed in the second. Perhaps what the coaching staff needs to do is realize that you need to make adjustments to keep you opponents off-balance no matter what.
  • Playing Donald Brashear on the powerplay. I understand Hanlon's desire to have that big body in front on the PP and it's a good idea. But you know what? The Capitals are the biggest team in the NHL. There's no reason to throw out Brashear just because he's a little bigger than your other options. For the record Brashear is listed at 6'3'', 239. The Caps have comperable options like Dave Steckel (6'5'', 218; 30 goals in the AHL last year), Viktor Kozlov (6'4'', 224), Brooks Laich (6'2'', 205), Matt Pettinger (6'1'', 205) and Matt Bradley (6'3'', 210). Okay, none of them are as big as Brash but the model for this approach is Red Wings winger Tomas Holmstrom, who is officially listed at 6'0'', 203. Brash offers nothing useful on the powerplay other than a big body in front, whereas those other players at least have some offensive upside.
  • Taking so long to get Nylander and Alexander Ovechkin together/playing Boyd Gordon on the top line. I was fine with starting the season with Ovechkin/Kozlov/Fleischmann and even going to Ovechkin/Kozlov/Clark. But when the injuries started to hit and the Caps couldn't get the puck in the net it was time to play the team's best playmaker with the team's best scorer, not throw Boyd Gordon on the top line. I love Gordon but he is not a top-line player, he is a a checking line center and it's a job he does very well. Which brings me to the second problem with putting Gordon on the top line - it eliminates the possibility of having any sort of checking like when you have you best defense forward playing on the first line.
I do hope Hanlon can turn things around because I really like the guy. He was the anti-Bruce Cassidy when he came in and helped steer the team through two miserable seasons while keeping morale relatively high. He clearly knows how to get the best out of checking line players and over the last couple years the Caps have built a reputation as one of the toughest teams in the NHL to play against. Plus he's always seemed like a classy guy. But the reality is that when he does things like throw Brashear on the powerplay, seemingly pick lines out of a hat and fail to make necessary in-game adjustments, it seems like he isn't going to be successful even with a healthy team because these look like bad coaching decisions.

Poti's back. Clark is supposed to be back Thursday. Semin is still out, but you can't blame massive underachieving on missing one player unless it's the goaltender. It's possible the injuries were to blame for some of the odd decisions and that the scrambled lines and failure to make adjustments came as a result. That's why it's not time to throw Hanlon under the bus yet. But if this team starts into another downward spiral that's going to wind up being another 2-8-0 stretch it will be Hanlon's time to go, not because the Capitals have had a disappointing and injury-plagued season, but because Hanlon has looked lost behind the bench.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Some Harsh Words for McPhee, Hanlon

Forbes just put out an article about the business of hockey and the NHL. On the Caps page they had some harsh words for management:

With a great building and one of the most exciting players in the NHL in Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals could be among the elite franchises in the league instead of one of the worst. The Caps are riddled with incompetent management. General Manager George McPhee has been at the helm for 10 years and has never come close to building a championship caliber team and has gotten the Caps to the playoffs only once during the past five seasons. Glen Hanlon has proven himself to be incapable of coaching at the NHL level. It can not be a surprise to owner Ted Leonsis that his team's attendance is near the league bottom.


I don't really know where to begin with how stupid that assessment is. I think most Caps fans know the two things that caused this franchise to crash and burn were the extension to Jagr and the hiring on Bruce Cassidy. I also think most Caps fans are aware that these decisions were made by Leonsis, not McPhee. Now given that Forbes is a financial magazine, not a hockey, magazine so I wouldn't expected them to necessarily have that depth of knowledge, but if you're going to make a statement like that you have to be able to back it up by knowing exactly what you're talking about.

I am have issues with the comment that McPhee "never come close to building a championship caliber team". In 1998, his first year with the team, they went to the Cup finals (yes I know it was Poile's team but the way things are laid out in this article...). In 1999-2000 and 2000-01 the team finished first in their division. If you go back to 2001 after Jagr was acquired people were talking about the Caps being one of the Cup contenders. Now obviously it didn't turn out that way but the team talent was there.

Even if you're going to say McPhee was riding Polie's coattails (which I think is a defensible position) then the accurate statement would be "after initially continuing his predecessor's success McPhee saw his team fall victim to the consequences of an over-involved owner. Since that debacle McPhee has been rebuilding from and bottom up, beginning in an unstable economic environment, and has been unable to turn the Capitals into a playoff team in two seasons". Oh, the ineptitude! How could this man who has had two entire seasons to turn what was only slightly better than an expansion team into a contender and failed to do it still possibly have a job?!

It's gets even worse with the assessment of Hanlon who has apparently proven himself to be a failure in his two and a half seasons. That's just stupid. Now, if you're watching every Caps game this year I'm sure some of Hanlon's lines have had you scratching your head. But if you look at how he's handled this team for the vast majority of the time he's been at the helm I don't think it's fair to say he's "proven himself incapable of coaching at the NHL level" [emphasis mine]. There's no coach, in the history of the game, who could have made the teams the Caps skated out there during their rebuilding competitive.

I think the crown jewel is the assessment that since the team has Ovechkin they should be one of the league's best franchises. Ovechkin is in his third year and was regarded as a phenom going into the draft. That means that within the last couple years the Caps had to have been awful to even get him which means the Caps are only a couple years out of being horrible. Hockey's not the type of sport where one player can turns things around that quickly.

Also they don't have the right logo for the Capitals on their page. If they can't get that right I wonder how much research could have gone into this write up.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Caps/Sens Recap

Capitals 4, Senators 1

The Capitals came into Ottawa Thursday night in last place in the Eastern Conference and beat the NHL-leading Senators (now 13-2-0) in a 4-1 game at Scotiabank Place.

Going into this game I don't think anyone could have said they expected the Capitals to win, but I had a sneaking suspicion the team stood a better chance than most gave them. My logic? Everything has gone right for the Senators so far this season and nothing had gone right for the Capitals. Given that it just seemed like things were going to have to turn around a bit.

The struggling offense picked up four goals and in honor of a decent offensive output I'm going to break down each goal:

  1. 12:10 in Period 2. Kozlov from Ovechkin; Morrisonn. You could tell Kozlov was relieved after his goal - the look on his face just said "finally". By his reaction I immediately thought to myself 'This could be the play that gets him back on track'.
  2. 14:27 in Period 2. Backstrom from Kozlov; Nylander. Hats off to Backstrom for getting his first NHL goal. And speaking of reactions, how about his? First career NHL goal, out of midair, off the goalie's back, to put his struggling team ahead 2-0 and he gets up and skates off the ice like nothing happened. This is the same kid who's played with more poise than most veterans and who when asked if he'd seen the monuments in the D.C. responded "I came here to play hockey. I want to see the rink." He's going to be something special. He was at least a little happy about things though - I saw him crack a smile on the bench afterwards.
  3. 17:55 in Period 2. Fleischmann from Kozlov. Flash's goal was beautiful, as was the pass from Kozlov to set it up. What was interested was how the Sens broadcast highlighted Fleischmann's play leading up to his goal. He came off the bench, streaked into the play and called for the puck. That's a kind of confidence he simply didn't have at the season's outset.
  4. 16:14 of Period 3. Ovechkin from Laich. In terms of this game it was just icing on the cake. But Ovechkin had only one point in the previous four games coming into tonight; hopefully this gets him going again.
It's not like the game was a shootout though. The Caps held the potent (even without
Jason Spezza) Senators offense to just one goal on 28 shots. The Sens were also 0-5 on the powerplay. Kolzig was solid through the first two frames but really shined in the third period.

In the standings this is only two points but in the larger scheme of things it could be a lot more than that for the Capitals. The Caps were able to beat the best team in the NHL, on the road, without two of their top six forwards. And it isn't like the Caps barely managed to squeeze out a victory - they outshot the Senators and were the better team (see quote below). What this does is serve as proof to the Capitals that they can beat anybody in the NHL, and the way things have gone this team needs that confidence boost.

The key now is going to be taking that confidence and the solid effort in this game and using it build momentum. The Caps may only be 6-9-1, but they're also two points out of the eight spot in the East and four points out of the fifth spot. If the team is able to pick up momentum and go on a run, winning several games in a row, five out of six, seven out of nine or something like that they'll be in a nice spot. Obviously in any case there's a lot of hockey left in the 2007-08 season but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be nice to be sitting at a playoff spot after 25 or 30 games.

Next up? Tampa Bay (1-7 -0 on the road), Saturday night, in D.C.

The Senators' television announcers were full of good points about the Capitals tonight:
  • "I don't think it's fair to judge this team without their captain Chris Clark and Alexander Semin."
  • "You have to feel like this is a better team that their record indicates."
  • "If just one or two bounces go the Capitals way in close games this season, they're looking a lot better."
I wish some Capitals fans (particularly those calling for the heads of Hanlon and McPhee) could realize this. However I think my favorite Sens' announcers quote was this:
The Capitals [fully] deserved the win. They were the better team tonight.


Quick Hits
  • A number of the Caps younger players who I thought had looked shaky are looking better every game, particularly Schultz and Fleischmann. I'm willing to bet it has a lot to do with Glen Hanlon.
  • Chris Bourque has looked real solid so far. He can obviously skate, looks like he has a good skill set, seems like a smart player and doesn't shy away from contact. It's not like he came out of nowhere though - he was picked 34th overall despite being only 5'6'' or 5'7'' before people realized just how much the game would change to make size less important after the lockout. I don't know that he's ready for full time NHL duty yet once Semin and Clark come back but he sure doesn't seem far away.
  • Anton Volchenkov left in the first with a leg injury after being hit by an Ovechkin shot. While it didn't go in the net at least this time Ovechkin manged to injure someone on the other team.