Tuesday, August 31, 2010

5 Thoughts About The Capitals

It's five questions that many might have about this organization going into the '10-'11 season.

1. Will the Capitals resign/trade Alexander Semin?

My thoughts are that the Capitals will make an attempt to move the talented forward closer to the trade deadline. It would make sense since Semin has proven regular season success, but seems to disappear come the playoffs. But I have been wrong before on what General Manager George McPhee has in store for his club.

Semin is a really talented player, Alex Ovechkin loves to talk about the forward's golden hands. But the Caps are right up there against the salary cap and keeping the forward might prove an expensive exercise for them. If McPhee does try to resign him, look for a short contract around the $6 million dollar a season price tag. If Semin wants more, it might be advantageous to stock up the club with solid depth and proven prospects at the trade deadline.

I would love to keep Semin, but I am not sure if the Caps can afford him after this year.

2. Does the Caps' defense need to improve?

Yes and no. I don't think any team in the NHL would say they are completely happy with their defense (or offense either). I do think the Caps defense needs to be more abrasive. Right now the Caps bolster a back line of puck moving D-men and a couple sandpaper types (John Erskine and Tyler Sloan). With the subtraction of Milan Jurcina and Shaone Morrisonn, the Caps do lose some veteran size on the back end.

They will have to rely on some up and comers in John Carlson and Karl Alzner. The pair showed some promise late in the Caps series against the Canadiens. But neither are bruising defensemen, nor are they stay-at-home type players. I have a feeling though that the Caps are out looking for some sandpaper on the back end, mostly likely by trade before camp.

3. Can the Caps win with two virtual rookie goaltenders?

Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth have both some big game experience coming into this season. Varlamov has been the go-to goaltender for the Caps in the past three playoff series they have played in. Neuvirth has been Hershey's main backstop through two championship runs. The battle for number one should be pretty engaging.

But both goalies will have to prove their worth this season by surviving a grueling NHL regular season. That means staying healthy and focused for 82 games then deal with the playoffs. The Caps do have some back up in veteran back up Dany Sabourin, just in case.

4. Do the Capitals have to win the Cup for their season to be a success?

The Caps have already had a successful season by breaking a slew of franchise records. Just because they fell short and were unexpectedly ousted in the first round of the playoffs. You could not have asked for a better season for the Capitals last year. But it is difficult to call it a disappointing season after the team won a franchise first President's Trophy as well as breaking club records for wins and points.

If the Caps do repeat the kind of season they had last year and go further into the playoffs, I think you can call it a success.

5. Can the Capitals win the Stanley Cup?

Certainly. So can 15 other teams that make the post season. The parity in the league right now makes it very tough, even if you are the number one seed, to get to the finals. There is no certain winner any given year.

I do think they are a favorite to get into the finals, but it is a long season.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

NHL Thinking Outside The Box

TSN.ca listed all the possible rule changes the NHL is experimenting with. Some are definitely outside the box. A few don't seem like bad ideas. Even though the league has taken drastic steps to increase scoring (i.e. the trapezoid, no change icings, and so on) they seem to not be satisfied.

Every year the NHL does a Research Development and Orientation Camp. In that camp, they take up and coming players (the players they are using) to test different proposed rule changes to see if the changes will increase the competitiveness of the game.  While some of the ideas seem far fetched, others are taken a bit more seriously. The rule changes are brought about by players, GMs and more.

All the proposed rule changes being tested are highlighted in bold type.

Let's take a look at some of the experimental rule changes the league is considering this year at camp. First is a look to improve faceoffs.

The first is having three faceoff dots, one in each zone, down the center of the rink. It sounds a little out there, but the thinking is it keeps the action to the center of the ice and will cut down on whistles. Imagine a face off literally in front of the your net. It would eliminate the face off circles that flank the net in the zone and do away with the offside faceoff dots.

Brendan Shanahan, project leader of the RDO camp, showed some interest in this rule according to a NHL.com article:
"I'm curious to see how players and coaches react to those faceoffs in the zone when the faceoff is happening right in the heart of the slot," Shanahan said.
Next is a variation of the faceoff where a whistle starts play rather than the traditional puck drop. It is sort of like pick up hockey rules. Time spent setting up for faceoffs would be cut and the action would be more continuous.

If a player is deemed to have committed a face-off violation, he will be required to move back and keep his skates behind a "penalty line" (a foot further back) to take the faceoff. I much rather have the player tossed like it is now. Adding yet another line seems a bit too much.

Caps' bench boss Bruce Boudreau also weighed in on this rule in an NHL.com article:
"As a former centerman, I found them to be the most interesting thing," Boudreau said. "Nobody got kicked out, so it speeds it up that way. The only thing I worry about is I think, in the neutral zone it's great, but in the offensive zone it sure could lead to some goals. You're winning clean draws back to the slot, and for our team that's (Alex Ovechkin) and (Alexander Semin) because there is no real stick battles. They're getting it flat before a guy could get out there. If you want offense, that's good, but I'm thinking on the defensive end. We're going to be losing those faceoffs, too, and it might be (Ilya) Kovalchuk blasting it in."
The league also wants to find a solution to icings and players getting hurt. as they race for the puck as the defending player has to touch up for the call.

They will be trying both no-touch icing and a hybrid icing rule, where referees can blow the play dead prior to the defending player touching the puck. While the no-touch will be the same rule used in international play, the hybrid rule is something I am more willing to accept.

The linesman will have the athority to rule whether there is a chance for the offensive player to beat out the defensive one for the puck to negate the icing call. If there is no chance, the ref will simply blow the whistle like a no-touch call. If there is a close battle for the puck, the linesman has the choice to not blow the whistle and let the race continue. It also allows more of a chance that a linesman could decide the outcome of a game. The practice is currently in use in the USHL.

The hybrid rule seems to be gaining some support from GMs and players alike. It could be a rule that could be implemented soon.

A couple rule changes seem a bit unnecessary. Like the following two.

The league could have a second referee located off the playing surface. Perferably in the mascot suit.

Another rule that doesn't make much sense is not allowing a team to change lines after it commits an offside. We already do this for icing, pretty soon we won't allow either team to change except for on the fly.

Overtime seems to be a good subject that everyone has an opinion on. The league is proposing a couple of changes there too.

Like having three minutes of 4 on 4, followed by three minutes of 3 on 3 and finally three minutes of 2 on 2. Not sure I am into this at all. It could get to the point where it looks more like a practice than a game.

Having five players from each team participate in the shoot Out and they shall proceed in such order as the coach selects. If it's tied at the end of the shootout, it goes to sudden death shooting and no one shall shoot twice until all eligible shooters have shot. This would just be an increase from 3 to 5. I don't see the need to drag it on anymore than it has to. This isn't soccer futbol.

One change I do like is in 4 on 4 overtime, switch ends so teams have longer changes in the extra frame. It makes sense that the teams switch ends once more for the overtime period. Shanahan brought up a good point about it in the NHL.com article:
"To have four-on-four with a long change could create more of a challenge for coaches and for players," Shanahan said. "It's the end of the game. They're tired, mental mistakes can happen and that long change could create more out-numbered attacks."
 And, of course the changes to the landscape.

Like narrowing the shallowness of the net by four inches to create more ice behind the net and enable more wrap-around attempts. Not sure how I feel about this one. The net is a fixture that hasn't changed much since the league started. Narrow nets might just look stupid from an aesthetic point of view.

Another landscape change would be increasing the size of the crease proportionally in all directions by 3 inches. To add more protection for the goaltenders? I thought we were just going to limit pad size.

The changes will not likely happen anytime soon. Unless all the GMs and owners get on the same page about one or two particular rule changes. The icing change is one I can see happening sooner rather than later. Also some of the changes to overtime could be good additions to the game. The delicate balance needs to be maintained however between the new and the traditional.

At the moment, I think the game is doing just fine.

Friday, August 13, 2010

NHL Out For Bad Contracts

And it may be a bad idea. The NHL won a small victory against front loaded contracts when they successfully won a ruling that struck down the practice. The New Jersey Devils tried to sign Ilya Kovalchuk to a ridiculous contract that would pay him well into the forward's forties at a lesser cost. Now with that little victory, NHL is going all "Steven-Slater" on other contracts that pose the same front loading characteristics.

Roberto Luongo in Vancouver, Marc Savard in Boston, Chris Pronger in Philadelphia and Marian Hossa in Chicago are squarely in the league's cross-hairs. All have signed long term contracts that are the league may retro-actively disallow.

However, all of the players have already filled out their part of the contract by playing for their respective clubs. If the NHL didn't like the practice in the first place, they should have challenged it then and not by allowing those players to play for those teams and let them begin their contracts.

It is understandable that these contracts are a loop hole that bypasses the CBA. The contracts allow a team to pay top dollar for a player while keeping him in the fold for the players lifetime and the price drops when the player passes his prime.

But the league was slow to challenge any of these contracts when they were drafted a year ago. Going back will make those players unrestricted free agents and teams will have to scramble to resign those players or be out the money they paid them for one season and see those players go to other teams.

Vancouver may see this as an opportunity to part ways with Luongo who has underachieved in the playoffs for the Canucks. But the contract was eventually approved by the league, unlike the Kovalchuk contract that was challenged. It is a tough pill to swallow, but the league should not be going after past contracts they did not challenge and ended up approving anyway.

Other contracts and even trades could be affected by this retro-analyzing of contracts. Imagine a trade from a year or two years ago being challenged and the players in question have to return to their old teams. A team that made the trade, for good or bad, will be stuck paying for a player they didn't have to spend money on if the league had stepped in to begin with. No one is saying the league is looking into that, but it could be a next step if the league wants to pursue it.

It opens a Pandora's box of problems the league just wants to correct. In the end it will confuse fans and become a PR nightmare for the league.

The league caught this one, good for them. But to go back and challenge their own approvals of contracts just seems a bit petty.

Caps notes:
  • Japer's Rink thinks that David Steckel is one Cap that needs to be on the trading block. But I like the big guy!
  • Meanwhile, Peerless reminds us that rumors are just that, rumors.
  • Because I was a bit busy before the news broke, Olie Kolzig has confirmed he will be at the Capitals Convention in October. Also at this year's convention, the Caps will reveal their Winter Classic digs, panel discussions and lots of opportunities to touch a Capital player (no bad touching though).

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Rumor Mill

Per the Globe and James Mirtle:
According to multiple sources, free agent centre Eric Belanger has a one-year deal in waiting to return to the Washington Capitals. The contract is believed to be a slight raise over the $1.75-million he made last season, to $1.85-million.

What's interesting is that he has been told not to announce where he's going, leading to Belanger telling the French language newspaper Le Soleil on Wednesday that he is about to sign but can't say where due to the fact the team he's headed to is working on a trade.

Washington apparently does not want to announce they've signed Belanger in order to help first complete another deal, potentially to move out a forward and bring in a defenceman. I'm told that one player the Caps are looking to trade is 26-year-old Tomas Fleishmann, who had 23 goals and 51 points in a bit of a breakout season last year and signed a one-year, $2.6-million deal this summer.
The rumor is the Caps are deep in talks with Brian Burke and the Toronto Maple Leafs to land Tomas Kaberle. Kaberle is certain he will be traded despite his no trade clause he has with the Toronto organization. In return, Fleischmann has been dropped in as bait. As a result, Belanger can't say he is signed until the deal is finalized.

Unfortunately, there are also rumors that 19 other teams are in trade talks with Burke for the 11 year veteran defenseman. Burke also has struck down the rumors in the very same article:
"We are not in discussions with the Capitals about Tomas Kaberle," Burke said. "Not once."

Another rumor circling the rounds concerning the Caps is a possible trade with the Oilers. While this one has far less steam and less national media attention. The trade would include Fleischmann and a prospect for Sheldon Souray. Souray wanted to be traded after the Oilers finished out of the playoff race last spring and it may have set the organization looking for the best offer before the season starts to depart ways with the hard shooting defenseman.

Souray's contract is for another two years with the Oilers at $4.5 million a season. Close to the same price as Kaberle who is his final year of his contract with Toronto at $4.25 million.

Something to chew on.

Editor's note: Washington Post and other sources have confirmed that Eric Belanger will resign with the Washington Capitals for a one year deal around $1.85 million. The announcement will not come until the Caps finish making their roster moves. Not sure what the wait is for, considering that sources have said that the resigning will happen whether a trade happens or not.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Caps Fans "Cautiously Optimistic"

For the five plus years this blog has in existence, it has been noticed by a few season ticket holders. When I wrote about my extended hiatus, I knew it wouldn't be long for one of my friends who happens to be a long time Capitals' season ticket holder to write me an email urging me to come back. Why? So he can be my anonymous season ticket holder I can draw quotes from. He is very sweet.

I value his opinion and others who purchase season tickets mostly because they are the ones laying down the big bucks year after year and have a monetary interest in the Caps' successes. It is not something to scoff at. They are in many ways the driving force behind the team. When he has something to say, I often take it with some weight. And he is often not too far from the mark on what other Caps fans are saying either.

To get to the point, he is nervous. Not that the team won't be exciting. But he as well as a few other fans I have gabbed with can see what this team can be and what is holding it back.

"I remember some game in March where the Caps just had a awful second period," he says to me as we talk about what when wrong last season. "I can't remember the team [the Caps] played, but I do recall the loud booing as the team skated off to the locker room. I thought, if [the Caps] are unable to fix this problem now we are in for a short post season. I hated thinking that, and I hated being right."

When the Caps dominated the league down the stretch and ended up winning the President's Trophy no one thought about those lapses as much as they do now. Hindsight is always 20/20. Now he fears that Caps fans are going to be much more harsh on this team if they have a bad night.

"They could probably break every record in the book next year, but if they are out in the first round it's not going to be pretty. This town will probably turn on them. That is a lot to think about for those guys taking the ice next year."

Talking with some friends I play hockey with, they could have cared less about the off season transactions. They are more convinced that the Capitals face more adversity this season than any of the seasons before.

"The pressure to win is going to get them," one said.

"They will be playing tight for the first 15 games, I guarantee," said another.

Caps fans, in my opinion, are optimistic about the Caps returning to the post season in good shape. But that is where the optimism falls to a pessimistic view of things to come. They have read the comments on the blogs, seen the nightly sports news rail their team following the loss to Montreal. Choke artists, under-achievers, etc.

The biggest problems they saw from last year was Mike Green talking about changing his game because he wanted to answer his critics, Alex Ovechkin trying to do it all himself while trying not to be branded a dirty player, Alex Semin disappearing into the background, and a third and forth line that could not contribute. Caps fans know that the combination of those issues led to a playoff collapse. What they fear is it will happen again.

"The team can't take it to the next level," my big spender friend told me. "Their sticks are all wrong, or they are not playing like before. They are their [own] biggest enemies. They don't need more coaching, they need psychologists."

I would imagine that most Caps fans will with hold the bottled excitement they once had a year ago to a more cautious approach to this season. It is not like they are going to cheer any less when the team comes from behind to beat a rival, or boo any louder when the Caps let in 4 goals in the second period. But they are going to be much more reserve when it comes to Cup talk. They will leave it to that old saying, seeing is believing.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

It's Not Easy Being G

I think it's hard to be a General Manager of any professional franchise. They are constantly second guessed, yelled at and called names, subject to whimsical owners and eventually fired if their players don't perform. All of this from people who adore the team nonetheless.

Not many times are GMs ever recognized kindly for doing nothing in an off season. Fans and critics will both jump on the guy (and or girl) for not "improving" or "loading up" their team. Standing pat sometimes means brushing off the resume. But not with the Capitals, not this time.

George McPhee (or affectionately called GMGM) didn't rock the boat too much this summer when it came to the Capitals' off season. When July 1st came around, Caps fans were hoping for some big signing that made sense and would make the Caps a lock come next April. That didn't happen. In a way, that might have been the big move GMGM could have made.

Let's face it, the free agency pool this summer was lacking. Sure there were a few names floating around that on the surface looked appetizing. But in all, the overall feel of UFAs in the NHL was a weak class.

Instead of signing a long term contract or jumping on the latest "hot" player (see Peerless for a great example of this), GMGM stuck to his guns. He resigned Nick Backstrom to a comfortable non cap-breaking contract. He shed his rental players from the last playoff run. He opened up space for talent in Hershey to gain a step hold with the big club. And he got some muscle (something I felt the Caps severely lacked last season). The draft was okay (not the best, not the worst with what he had). And GMGM kept a team that had huge success in the regular season together for another run.

GMGM freed up some space for defense phenoms John Carlson and Karl Alzner to make the team as regulars by not resigning Shaone Morrisonn. Mo was a solid player (not to mention a cool guy for spending some time with PHT) and he will do well in Buffalo. He also let Jose Theodore go, opening the door for kids Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth to get some NHL love.

He traded a prospect for DJ King (or King Kong as he is nicknamed, probably the last time you see me mention him that way). A fighter with some skating skills that will fight for fourth line duties on the team. I always felt that GMGM made a mistake not signing an enforcer last season after he let Donald Brashear go (who is now a Thrasher). McPhee soothed my feelings by getting a guy that won't back down from a fight and may get under the skin of the opposing team. Something the team lacked last year, I think.

All in all, not a bad summer's work for the Capitals. They are allowing their youth movement to start to take over the reigns of the team. But time is short. The Caps need to show they can do it not just in the regular season, but in the post season as well.