Friday, August 28, 2009

More Choices

Since the defense is pretty much all set, there may be more holes up front. With the departure of Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov the Capitals have made the stop to the free agent market picking up Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison. The departure of Donald Brashear makes room for a few players to try to squeeze into.

Again, it's not really fair to make these one on one draw ups. It is just fun to conceptualize. The choice today involves two very different players; a bit of the old and the new.

Quintin Laing or Oskar Osala?

Fan favorite from the previous season Laing won over the Capitals' faithful with his shot blocking prowess. If there was a shot from the point, he would not hesitate laying down his body to block the shot. A hard skill to master in today's NHL. He is also a favorite of head coach Bruce Boudreau, who thought Laing played a big part in getting the Capitals into the post season in '08. The quintessential role player, Laing is clearly a defensive forward and his skills in that matter makes him an important part of penalty kills. You will get experience and solid defense but you are not going to get much offensive production from him.

Osala may not be the defensive player of the year, but he was second among AHL rookies in scoring. In 68 games for the Hershey Bears, he scored 23 goals and 37 points last season. Osala brings size too, at 6'4", 217 lbs., he has some good hands for a big player. Osala basically brings in youth and scoring. He was brought up for two games last season coming in for some injured players and did not produce much. Osala did play all 22 games in the post season for the Bears in their championship run, producing 10 points (6 goals, 4 assists).

My money is on Laing over Osala. Osala could use another year in Hershey to season a bit, while Laing can prove to be more valuable on a checking line and on the penalty kill. Laing's hard work ethic is also contagious.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

This Or That?

With the Capitals' training camp dates set, it's time to start thinking about the competition to make the opening night roster in October. While it really isn't fair, putting one player up against another is a fun way to get to know the players coming to camp and who has an outside shot on making the team.

The defensive squad may be the hardest nut to crack as almost all of the defensive squad from last season will be returning. A few have played up with the big club after injuries hampered the Caps through out the season, but permanent jobs have been hard to come by. It is interesting to think that some of those players could possibly fight off some contract players returning.

That leads us to our first pair. It may look cut and dry here, but the decision is anything but.

Karl Alzner or Jeff Schultz?

Both are stay at home defensmen, both are first round picks. But both couldn't be more different kind of players.

It is all about size with Schultz. At 6'6" he towers over his teammates on the ice. He played 64 games for the Caps missing most of the rest of the games with a finger injury. He wasn't an offensive threat, but had a respectable 12 points (1 goal, 11 assists). He was also a +13 on the year.

Schultz does have good hands with the puck and can move it out of the zone quickly. But it was his failure to stop Brandon Dubinsky's inside-out move in the first round of the playoffs that has many fans on his bad side. It could be because of his injury or his bad play, but Schultz did not see another minute of ice time for the remainder of the playoffs. Schultz is not as physical as his teammates Milan Jurcina and John Erskine.

Alzner may not have the huge stature of Schultz, but his time in Hershey was very productive. In 48 games played for the Bears he produced an impressive 20 points (4 goals, 16 assists). Not bad for a player that admits he struggles to become more offensive in his play. What Alzner also brings to the table is leadership. He was a captain for his junior team and he has some proven leadership that has brought him defenseman of the year honors.

Unfortunately his time with the big club wasn't the best. In 30 games as a Capital he only produced 5 points and was a minus 1. He was just invisible in a Caps' sweater.

Alzner could make things interesting if he spent an entire year with the Caps. But the likelihood of that happening is very slim. There is something in Schultz the Caps' management likes. Whether it is his size or something else, Schultz should be a mainstay for the club.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Players Trickle In, Camp Dates Set

Players are starting to converge in Arlington for the Capitals training camp. Already players like Anton Gustafsson, Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon and John Erskine are already getting some morning ice time at Kettler Iceplex for individual workouts.

Other pro players have been working out with a few Caps like Jeff Halpern, goaltender Brent Johnson and minor-leaguer local Russell Smith. Those extra players have been told that Friday would be the last day they can work out with other Caps in the area as there will be enough players back in town to help with workouts.

Training camp dates have been released by the team. Rookie camp starts on Monday September 7. Veterans will report to camp officially on Saturday September 12.

What is starting to become a tradition, the rookie game against the Flyers will be on Friday September 11th in Voorhees New Jersey.

You can taste the hockey coming back.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Sad News

Sad news came out of Montreal yesterday on Jose Theodore's loss. His two month old infant son has passed away. Theodore's sister in law broke the story on her radio show in Montreal. Not the kind of news one ever really wants to report on. Our thoughts and prayers go to Jose and his family during this tough time.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Man In The White Pads Comes To DC

The Washington Capitals hired Arturs Irbe as the goaltending coach as Dave Prior resigns to spend more time with family. Irbe, best known for his all white pads and blocker and unique mask with the grid cage, will be coming from the KHL where he was a goaltender coach for Dinamo Riga last season in his hometown of Riga, Latvia.

NHL's Cool Shots did a feature on him when his days in the pros were over and he took a player/coach position with the Johnston Chiefs. He was 36 then, he is 42 now. Irbe had some great seasons with the San Jose Sharks and Carolina Hurricanes. He took the 'Canes all the way to the finals in '03.

Having met Irbe twice, I can tell you he is a laid back soul. He has a quick wit and loves to play between the pipes. He had a never say die attitude on every play.

Speaking of goaltending, Jose Theodore will be making his case that he is the Caps' number one in the net. Tarik caught up with Theo and asked him about his status in the team:
"Like I said last year at the end of the playoffs, now there's no doubt that Varly and [Michal] Neuvirth are the goalies of the future. They are great goalies," Theodore said at KCI, where he faced shots from Jeff Halpern, Stephen Werner and other. "But for myself, if you look at the season, out of 82 games I still played [57] and had a pretty good record and was pretty consistent toward the end."
Corey, on his blog, caught up with Bruce Boudreau and Gabby seemed to back up what Theo was talking about:
"Right now Jose's the No. 1 guy, and the other two young men [Varlamov and Michal Neuvrith] have got to come in and play the way they did last year and try to push him out," Boudreau said. "Jose won [32] games for us last year, and like the year before when Cristobal [Huet] got hot down the stretch, Varly came in and did a great job where we just couldn't take him out."
This should make for a very interesting camp. Can the rookies out duel the veteran? I guess we will find out.

I tend to agree with Theo though, both he and Brent Johnson carried the weight of the season to get the Capitals a second place seed in the Eastern Conference. Theo was playing better and better as the season progressed. Call it a turn of bad luck if you will that led to him sitting on the bench in the playoffs. On his final year of his contract, one would assume that Theodore would be ready to play this year; willing to do anything keep his number one spot.

Monday, August 10, 2009

What Is Old Is New Again

One man's trash is another man's treasure. Or in this case, what I thought was just junk turns out to be something very special.

My parents are in the process of moving out of the area. That means hauling my butt to their house and cleaning out things from long ago. Boxes of high school stuff, piles of old hockey equipment to shift through. In the back of their work room was a gathering of old hockey sticks. I knew they were there, I just didn't pay much attention to them.

My mother pulled them all out and told me to go through them. There were two sticks that were signed by players. I never really looked at them closely enough but I threw them in a corner to be looked at another time. I took what good sticks I had left to take home and use for later.

This past weekend I had a chance to take a closer look at both signed sticks. The chicken scratches were hard to decipher until on one of the sticks I saw P. Bondra #12. Clear as day. I scratched my eyes and slowly started to read the numbers down the stick. #6 Calle Johansson, #17 Mike Ridley. The names were hard to read, the names resembled former Capitals next to their assigned numbers. #31 Don Beaupre, #8 Ken Sabourin.

This stick itself was manufactured by Victoriaville with the name M. Lalor stamped on the side. Mike Lalor was a Capital for only two seasons until he was traded to Winnipeg in the 91-92 season. I realized the stick had been signed by Capitals in either of those two years. Most likely the 90-91 season when Sabourin wore number 8 (the next season, Dmitri Khristich would wear #8). The stick was a lefty.

What was to be just trash turned out to be a pretty neat souvenir saved from the depths of my parents' work room. The other stick was a right handed Titan (the exact kind Gretzky played with in his day). It was signed by different members of the Billings Bighorns, a minor hockey team out of Montana (I also found Bighorns' jerseys and a few pucks). I am tracking down some of the names and since most are unreadable it's hard to find out who and what year the stick was signed.

Former Capitals Mike Eagles and Bob Rouse (in 71 games Rouse accumulated 209 PIMs in 81-82) got their early starts for my home town Billings Bighorns back in the 80's*. Some other big names to come out of the Big Sky State that played for the Bighorns were Andy Moog (Moog played two season in Billings playing 46 games in 79-80 with a 3.67 GAA and .902 save percentage), Randy Moller (who played most of his career in a Nordique sweater), Dave Barr (played for the Red Wings in the late 80's), Rod Buska (Penguin draft pick in '81), Lindsay Carson (Flyers player in the 80's) and Pat Conacher (played for the Devils and Kings and was an assistant coach for the Coyotes in the early 2000's) just to name a few.

Both sticks are being handled with white gloves and I am looking at investing some glass cases.

NHL Notes:
  • Blackhawks' Patrick Kane was arrested over a scuffle for $.20. That's right, he punched a cabbie when he didn't have 20 cents for change. Really? Are we being that frugal? Kane apparently couldn't let the 20 cents slide and his cousin and him took out their frustrations on the poor Cabbie. Dude, let it slide.
  • The drama in Tampa Bay has not stemmed much, the infighting between the owners puts the whole organization on unstable ground. Now Gary Bettman has stepped in and has set up a buy out plan for the owners in where both can buy out the other for sole ownership. Besides the Coyotes' ownership craziness, this is the best Soap Opera on this summer.
  • Canada could care less about injuring their junior players. Coaches will not let up on the intesity of camp for their young players even though a player suffered a broken collar bone in the Red/White game. They must figure that they have enough youth to fill in the gaps if a few get thrown under the bus.
* - Harvie Pocza and Jim McTaggart both have played for the Bighorns, the Capitals and the Hershey Bears. In fact McTaggart is the only player to jump from the Bighorns to the NHL in the shortest time, just one year. He played in Billings in 79-80, then for the Capitals in 80-81.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Season Of Change

You might not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but Micheal Nylander clearly needs to change his game if he wants to gain favor and playing time from Caps bench boss Bruce Boudreau. Nylander opened up this summer to a Swedish newspaper saying that Boudreau didn't think the forward was "good enough." I don't think anyone doubts Nylander's skills as a player or think he is not good enough for the NHL, but there are somethings he can improve on or get rid of to play the kind of hockey his coach likes to play.

The following is three things Nylander can improve or drop to be a better player in this system. Let me preface this by saying that I am not Bruce Boudreau. These changes are what I have observed watching him play in the new system under Boudreau. In particular is a game early in Boudreau's reign against Florida. That was when Nylander was still a first and or second line center.

Change #1: Stop calling for the puck. I had a coach once tell me that there really is no need to slap your stick to call for the puck if you are in the right position. If you are were you are supposed to be, your linemates will find you. Nylander developed the bad habit somewhere and listening to his stick pounding on the ice is a bit like listening to Morse code. Dit-dit-dit-da-dit translated to "I need more ice time."

No matter where he was on the ice, he was calling for the puck. In Florida, the camera would nestle in on the play, but in the back ground, off screen, one could here the tap-tap-tap of his stick. Instead, Nylander should be jockeying for a position; working as hard off the puck as well much as he is on it.

Change #2: Cough up the puck. This is a two parter. One, Nylander has to head-man the puck. In the game against Florida in December of '08, he had Alex Giroux open in the middle to enter the zone. For some inexplicable reason, Nylander turned and skated back into the neutral zone. What's more astounding than the reset was if he had head manned the puck, Giroux had a breaking winger with him that could have resulted in a two on one inside the zone. Instead, the play was broken up when the Panthers were able to regroup and thwart the play.

Two, Nylander spends way too much time with the puck to begin with. A good skill to have, but he doesn't seem to head to the net or make an aggressive move with it once he has it. In some ways the skill is great to have on the powerplay, but is tough to swallow at even strength. He would clearly miss open players, fail to develop plays or odd man rushes, as well as a plethora of other problems for hanging on to the puck a moment too long.

Change #3: Be more aggressive. Nylander has to be more physical in the offensive zone. Instead of going for the hit, he would try to stick check allowing the player to slip past him. He has to stand up his player and get more physical, much the way Boudreau would like to see all his forwards play. We are not asking Nylander to be like Alex Ovechkin and destroy the other man. Rather, he needs to stand up his man and put pressure on the opposition's defensemen.

Maybe with these glitches fixed, Nylander could once again be an important part of the Capitals' line up. A trade to Edmonton may not be a bad deal either.

NHL Notes:
  • The Russians have invited some Capitals' players to it's camp this month. On the list are the obvious Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and goaltender Semyon Varlamov. And there are a few former Caps like Viktor Kozlov (KHL), Sergei Fedorov (KHL) and defenseman Sergie Gonchar (PIT). While Milan Jurcina has been invited to the Slovakian camp (but will not attend) and former Cap prospect Sami Lepisto will be attending Finland's camp this month.
  • Nikola Zherdev is an unrestricted free agent since the New York Rangers walked away from his arbitration result. The Rangers (much like the Caps) are walking a thin line to keep their team under the salary cap. Zherdev was in all 82 games for the Rangers last year, he had 58 points to show for it. He didn't score a point in seven games in the playoffs against the Caps.
  • Finally, in the Danny Heatley saga, it looks as if more than one team will be involved in possibly moving Heatley to San Jose. The Montreal Canadiens could facilitate a trade that would see as many as 9 players in new sweaters come October. But just like before, it may just be all talk.