Monday, November 28, 2011

This Is Only A Tribute

Assuming you have your ass outta your head, you have heard by now that Bruce Boudreau is out as the guy behind the bench in Washington, and former player Dale Hunter is in as coach. Hunter has been coaching the OHL's London Knights for the past 11 years, a team that he and his brother bought shortly before he took over those duties. In that time, he reached 300 wins faster than any other OHL coach, and is the winningest coach in the league's history. This is in addition to the fact that he is one of only four Caps players to ever have their numbers retired, had a 19-year career in the NHL, and that he desperately wants a Stanley Cup. As McPhee has said in his presser, "this is the only team he has ever wanted to coach, he has had other opportunities." I would say that I was not one to say "I told you so" if that was true... so let me just remind you that I told you so (albeit in a half-joking way). But there will be more time for Hunter talk later, especially after a tough first week against a hot St. Louis Blues (who also made a coaching change), the Penguins (now with rejuvenated superstar Sidney Crosby), and a game against the Southeast Division leading Florida Panthers on Monday following the "easy game" against the Ottawa Senators. For now, Boudreau is the man of the day, and here are my thoughts and memories of the man, the coach, the foul-mouthed legend.

When Glen Hanlon was let go four years ago, it was an AHL coach with some recent success that took his spot. "Gabby," as they called him, went on to take the team from last place to first in the division, bowing out in the first round of the playoffs in a year when most thought even making it would be impossible, and winning the Jack Adams award for best coach of the year. Budding superstar Alex Ovechkin went on to score 65 goals that season. The lineup was far from perfect, but it looked like better days were to come.

The following season played out like one would expect. Another division title, this one a little less hard fought as the Caps. They finished second in the conference, won the first round of the playoffs, and lost to the eventual Cup-winning Penguins in a 7-game series widely considered to be one of the best in league history. Things were only looking better after that, when Boudreau led the team to their first ever President's Trophy for having the best record in the league. Unfortunately, it only took a couple weeks for the first signs that something was wrong to show up, when the team lost in the first round to eighth-seeded Montreal. Questions persisted and dogged Boudreau from that point forward, as it seemed that series defined his career and coaching style for the remainder of his tenure in Washington. Lineup changes were made repeatedly in game, goalies were rotated constantly, and playing styles were tweaked and overhauled on more than one occasion. Last season Boudreau likely came to the brink during an eight game losing streak, and may have actually been saved by the HBO cameras watching every move, including the end of that streak. After being swept in the second round by the Lightning, it appeared that Bruce's time might be up, but McPhee gave him the vote of confidence before making several roster changes. However, after going 7-0-0 to start the 2011-2012 season, all the wheels seemed to fall off, capped by a horrible 5-1 loss to a Buffalo Sabres team half-comprised of minor leaguers. The time for a change was upon McPhee, and he made the right call. Boudreau out, Hunter in.

Boudreau, mind you, experienced success that few, if any, coaches ever have, so long as you include the qualifier that all that success was in the regular season. He was the fastest coach to reach 200 wins, although that included 50 OT and SO wins, and he has the best winning percentage of any coach since his first day on the job. Boudreau is, or at least can be, an excellent coach with the right players. That much was evident in his first two or three seasons in the NHL, not to mention his regular season record. Unfortunately for Bruce, the moves that McPhee made in the off-season likely doomed his DC coaching gig. Players like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, Green... those are Boudreau's kind of players. Brouwer, Ward, Hamrlik, Vokoun... not as much. Boudreau will find success with another team, and I do expect it to be soon. Teams like Anaheim and Columbus are underperforming right now despite a lot of offensive talent, and BB could easily find a home with either, or another team that isn't even on the radar right now. There are always teams with untapped talent that just need a new voice, the right voice, and guys like Boudreau will always be in demand for just that reason.

We have to thank Bruce Boudreau for the good times, the records, the wins, the four years of excitement and getting the team to a place where anything less than ultimate success is considered a failure. When a team is at a spot where a coach with Bruce's win-loss record gets fired, they are in a good place. At the same time, we have to thank McPhee for letting him go in the hopes that things will advance. This is a business, and coaches in this league are not expected to last forever. The good ones find work again, and soon. Don't feel too bad for Boudreau yet, he will be fine. I, and I am sure all the fans, wish him the best of luck moving forward. Haagen-Dazs is headquartered in Oakland, CA, so Anaheim would work out beautifully.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Where Do We Go From Here?

Well I had planned to make my return with a recap of last night's game. Finally switched TV carriers so now I can actually watch all the games, and DVR them in situations where I am not able to be home, like last night. I made it through the first two periods of my own personal re-broadcast, and just couldn't bear to finish. While I honestly do not think the team as a whole played as bad as everyone says they did through those first two, it certainly was not what you want to see. Gustavsson made some huge saves with the Caps on the PP, and a lot of the goals came down to all-around awful play by Schultz, Erskine looking totally lost/being slow/screening the goalie, and a rare piss-poor performance from Backstrom in his own end. The rest of the team has had better games and worse games, but I think the loss can pretty much be pinned on those three. Big picture, though, this is the seventh regulation loss in 11 games since going 7-0-0, and fourth straight loss for the team. Washington currently sits at 8th in the Eastern Conference, thanks to holding a couple tiebreakers with the New Jersey Devils, who are in ninth with the same 10-7-1 record. Something needs to change, but what?

As I, Steven Hindle, and others pointed out early on, that winning streak was really masking a plethora of issues facing the team. Some fans may still be deluding themselves into believing that the past 11 games are the anomalous ones of the season and that it is all still just some bad luck and injuries, but the real truth of it is more likely that the first seven games were the anomaly and a factor of good luck and other teams' injuries. Some people may recognize my twitter handle as the one claiming on July 1 that he would take $20 dollar bets that the Caps wouldn't finish above 7th in the Conference so long as Boudreau was coaching and no other big changes were made. That was before the Vokoun signing, granted, and that certainly was a big move that changed things in my eyes. But apparently not enough. So what are the big issues the team is facing, and what errors have Boudreau and McPhee made? Well since you're here, I'm assuming you care what my thoughts are on those matters, so here they are:
  • Much better by the Comcast sign than by the faceoff dot.
    First things first, let me say that I was at least half-wrong about Johansson coming into this season. I am very impressed with his overall play, and I think he may become a legitimately consistent scoring threat over the course of the season. I was practically screaming on Twitter and Facebook, and literally in my apartment, for him to be sent down to Hershey last year just so he could develop and prepare for this season without being a liability. I refuse to join the cavalcade of the deluded who think that he had anything better than a mediocre rookie outing, but consider me a converted fan of his this year. All that being said, Boudreau is still using him absolutely wrong. I really don't care what his scouting report said, he is not defensively-minded or skilled enough to play on the PK, or to center one of the top two lines. Aside from the much-talked about beauty of a pass to Brouwer in one game, he has proved a relatively ineffective setup man, and I think that is the real reason that Semin has struggled so mightily to score this year. In no rational human being's mind is he anywhere approaching the talent of his countryman Backstrom, and as such MoJo should never even sniff the first line. He's good, but not that good. He is also a lousy center. His faceoff wins have been a little better as of late, but he is still worst on the team. He plays and skates like a winger, just put him there. The real success for him will come when Boudreau stops trying to play him as a top-two center and he is allowed to focus more on using his breakout speed down the boards.
  • Cody Eakin is obviously a skilled player, and I am overjoyed to have him in the Capitals organization, and I want him on the team... in 2012-2013. He has played well enough in his few games, and I will not bash him as a player, but his presence on the team is a symptom of greater issues. Boudreau and McPhee both seem to have their favorite players, and their players who will always be in the doghouse. One of the most polarizing players in years past was Tomas Fleischmann, and he has been nearly a point-per-game player since being traded after being shuffled around the lineup and benched repeatedly by Boudreau. I expect a healthy Eric Fehr to be a similar player later on this season. I point them out because they are highly skilled players that saw moderate success in Washington, but still got shuffled around and bad ice time. The Caps seem insistent on solving problems that don't exist while ignoring the most glaring issues. Mathieu Perreault has done all that has been asked of him this season. He is scoring .5 points per game while averaging only 10 minutes of ice time on the fourth line. Put that in perspective: when was the last time the Capitals had a 40+ point scorer on the fourth line? Cody Eakin has taken Perreault's spot on the roster in that Perreault is benched, but the real demotion went to Mike Knuble,a perennial 20-goal scorer. Eakin has primarily played on the second line alongside Johansson and Semin,getting roughly the same number of minutes that Perreault got.
    Cody Eakin takes "Rock the Red" waaaaay too seriously.
    His PPG is also clocking in at one every other game, but with more assists and with a better spot on the roster. There is absolutely no reason for Perreault to be sitting on the bench, and there is even less reason for the Capitals to start any rookies this year. It's time to win, not time to train new guys for NHL play. Do it next year when you have to clear up cap space. Eakin, Galiev, Kuznetsov, and Orlov are shining stars for the future, but let's keep the focus for the team on the present. McPhee and Boudreau need to grasp that lesson before the team can progress further. They've done a good job of laying the groundwork for future success, but now is the time to focus on this season.
  • The line-shuffling has to stop. If Boudreau wants to keep his job, he needs to do less, not more. I have been saying this for over a year, and the call from other fans is growing louder, too. Look around the league, what other championship caliber teams are throwing out 20 different line combinations a night? Just because the team is losing, or because a line has a bad shift or even a bad couple of games, does not mean that things are not working. It is still mind-boggling that Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Knuble were broken up this year. If Boudreau did not have faith that Knuble could carry his own in a contract year, then he should have gone to McPhee and told him to shop the big guy around. Brouwer and Ward are not replacements for Knuble on the top line. Brouwer just is not the crease presence that Knuble is, and it is a shame that Ovechkin has had to try and take that job on for himself. Stick to what works more often than not, Bruce. 8-19-22 has been one of the league's best lines for a couple seasons, don't fix what ain't broke. Some say that Boudreau is being a hard-liner and a tactician with his lineups, I say he is panicking. He does not seem to know how to handle loss. I've read a lot that the players do not know how to handle adversity - I think it's the coach that can't deal. This lineup, on paper, is filled with some of the best talent the league has to offer, some of the fastest skaters, hardest grinders, best scorers, solid defensemen, and quality goaltending. But when a player doesn't know who is going to be on his left side next game or next period, or even that he will still be playing on the right side, it will cause issues. Carlson and Alzner embody this more than most, and especially Carlson. Alzner pretty much always knows what his job is and where to be as a shutdown guy, but the big reason these two are so successful together is that they have almost always played alongside each other. They know where the other guy will be without asking, without looking, and they feel confident. The big word this season has been accountability, and it needs to be dropped. Forget accountability, this team needs consistency. A consistent coaching style, a consistent lineup. Changes can/will/should be made from time to time, but with a team this good, only after several games of ineptitude, not a shift where they allow a goal because of one mistake. McPhee added a lot of new pieces this year, and shipped out familiar ones, give the guys time to adjust, and success will come.
  • Let Ovi be Ovi, but help him grow, too. Ovechkin is not a 19-minutes-or-less talent. Players don't get better by playing less. As Ovi would say: "Nobody ever got better at hockey by bowling. More practice for you." I am not saying he should be playing 26 minutes a game, but 22 sure sounds about right. When you want to win, you want your best guys playing and working the other team. Ovechkin is not going to score more, or be more defensive, or any of that other stuff by getting five or more fewer shifts a game. Make him work for it, though. I'm a big fan of putting him on the penalty kill. Want his defensive and two-way game to get better? Put him in the situations where it matters most. There are no questions about whether this
    Sasha Smiles all around! Let's see some more moments like this.
    Russian Alex cares, we all know he does. Give him more five-on-five time, and throw him in for a few PK shifts a game. Playing a guy like him less just makes him more anxious, gives him more time to get into his own head about scoring, and pushes his focus into one area of hisgame. I guarantee you he does not get benched and think to himself "Ok, next shift I won't try to score and instead I'll create an open lane for Jason Chimera to skate through." If Ovechkin is not put into situations where he has to be defensive minded, he will not have to grow in that area of his game. Boudreau, more than Ovi himself, is pigeon-holing the captain into one role. Get and keep him off the point on the PP, give him some PK time, and never ever split him and Backstrom up at 5-on-5 play. Give the guy some room to breathe and he will bounce back and mature.
  • As for McPhee: make a trade or two when you can. Right now, McPhee has absolutely screwed himself and the team. Semin never should have gotten $6.7 million for this season, Erskine should never have gotten an extension, and Schultz should never have gotten as much money as he did. Now, when the team may need to make an early trade most, they are unable to do so. No team is going to want to give up a top defenseman (which I honestly do not think the team needs right now) or a top-two center (which I think the team desperately requires) for an underperforming penalty-taking machine with character issues like Semin, especially at that price. Erskine is at best a number six defenseman on a good team, and still can't crack the top four on a basement-level squad. Right now, he is still the team's best shot at a trade because he has not gotten much better or worse in the past year, and because the team has other players to fill his spot. Problem is that he will not yield much in return. But if McPhee can trade him away sooner rather than later for a 4th or 5th round pick, that'll free up some cap space, and maybe Schultz can be moved with a pick for an upgrade at the blue line, assuming Sarge ever picks up his game a bit. Then again, if Sarge picks up his game, the team should not need to move him or add another d-man. Carlson, Alzner, Green, Wideman, Hamrlik, and Schultz should be more than enough talent to put together a responsible defensive corps, but moving Erskine should still be a top priority if only to free up another $1.5 mil in cap space. Down the line, if Semin picks up his game, trade him away for a top centerman. Ideally, I'd say look to Columbus and Jeff Carter. He cannot be happy there and would surely be happy to waive his no-trade clause, they need a scorer, and his style of play would fit in perfectly on the Capitals second line. In a fantasy world, this trade is great on paper, but I know it will never happen.
What does this all mean, then? In my humble (Not-so-humble? Arrogant, even? You decide.) opinion, give Boudreau one more month. If he can turn back the clock, get his team playing consistently by being consistent himself, if the team can get back to winning and the Alexes start scoring again, if Perreault sees more ice time and Eakin gets a chance to grow in Hershey, then keep him. If not, time to boot the guy. I do not know who could replace him, but I hear that Dale Hunter has taken to a little minor-league coaching recently, and I'm sure he knows a thing or two about playing good hockey. McPhee needs to make a move within the next month, though, and I'm not talking about call-ups. If a day goes by where GMGM is not on the phone with another GM in the next month, Leonsis needs to start asking some questions himself. I really do think this team can win, and my bleak July predictions were only because I do not have the faith in Boudreau and McPhee to show me that they know how to properly manage this incredible roster. So far, they have done nothing to prove me wrong. I want them to, just like Johansson has. But if they can't, hockey is as much a business as everything else and the dead weight needs to be cut off before it drags the whole club down to the depths. Can't worry about making it out of the second round if you can't make it to the first, fellas. So Rock the Red and get back to scoring four goals a game like two years ago while allowing two like you did last year. The talent is there, the players are there, and 90% of them are doing their jobs. Time for Boudreau to earn his keep.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lessons from the Western Conference

The Capitals just finished playing four Western Conference opponents in a row. Two home games against Detroit and Anaheim sandwiched a Canadian road trip to Edmonton and Vancouver. These four games revealed a lot about our boys in red, likely because these teams weren't exactly low-class organizations. Detroit has been one of, if not the most successful franchises over the past 15 years. Vancouver has been to the Western Conference what the Caps have been to the Eastern, only with a seven game Cup Finals appearance last season. Anaheim boasts what might be the best top line in hockey, including current MVP and Richard Trophy winner Corey Perry, as well as a top-notch goaltender in Jonas Hiller. Edmonton was probably viewed as the weakest opponent, but they have a budding group of talented young players including Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and are currently allowing the fewest goals against per game. In short, these were games to watch. Here are some takeaways:
  1. The offense is there. The Caps scored seven, one, four, and five goals, respectively. That's 4.25 goals per game, helping them lead the league in that particular category. After last year, it is nice to be reminded that the team is still capable of putting them in the back of the net. Backstrom in particular is at the top of his offensive game, posting his best numbers after 10 games.The offense is definitely boosted by the league's third-best power play, which is clicking at a 23.7% success rate.
  2. When it comes to the PK, we suck again. In my opinion, the most impressive thing about last season wasn't dropping the average shots against per game by 1.9 shots, it was the consistently awesome penalty kill. Well, something happened and now it is back to pedestrian-at-best. Through ten games, the Caps rank 25th, posting only a 75% penalty kill percentage. Given how much of the team's penalty killer carried over from last year, this is unacceptable. Losing Gordon, Bradley, and Hannan to gain Halpern, Ward, and Hamrlik should be an upgrade, or at least a wash. Hopefully this is just a symptom early season adjustments and things turn around soon, but there is definitely cause for concern.
    Look we all know they can do eet,
    so let's see those penalties killed.
  3. They are capable of solid defense. Anaheim is a very solid team, with some great offensive players. Holding them to only 15 shots through 63 minutes is impressive, even if four goals were allowed. "Capable of" just needs to translate into "always playing." The team is allowing far too many shots against, and Vokoun has bailed out the team more often than the other way around. The talent and ability is there, it just needs to be there consistently.
  4. Ride that Vespa all you want, just stay
    healthy and we will pretend you don't.
  5. Mike Green is even more important than we thought. And a lot of people thought he was pretty important. Green has really shaped up his defensive game over the past two years, and his upper body at least has been healthy, and his offensive touch has returned this year. Losing him to a twisted ankle for the past couple showed how important he is on the power play, and how effective he has become at the defensive part of his game. He's definitely playing like it's a contract year. Because, and don't forget it, it is.
  6. Faceoffs are an issue. Backstrom and Laich have been struggling lately on the dot, and Johansson, frankly, just sucks at faceoffs. Halpern has been great, as expected, and Perreault has performed admirably, perhaps more unexpectedly. One center being poor is fine, as is the occasional game where everybody blows, but a pattern of weakness down the middle can lead to problems for everyone. I think the first step is to move MoJo to wing and continue to 2C search. I know I sound like a broken record, but if anything his performance in Vancouver sealed it for me: the guy looks and plays like a winger, and a fairly good one at that. Get him off the dot and everyone wins.
  7. Sasha really may not care. Alexander Semin has two goals and four assists through 10 games, is tied with Hamrlik for a team-worst -2, and leads the team with 12 PIMs. Only one of those points, an assist, came in the last five games. Personally, I think that Johansson and Knuble
    His attempt at showing how much he cares.
    are not appropriate linemates for him, which hurts his point total. In fact, all three of them have six points right now. Johansson has five goals and an assist, while Knuble has the same 2-4-6 line as Semin. The difference is, they are bout +1. The penalties and plus/minus are on Semin,as the blame really can't be placed elsewhere. He is too talented to be playing the way he is, which is to say uninspired. He had a strong start to the season, and has done little to challenge the prevailing wisdom that was so "controversially" said aloud by ex-teammate Matt Bradley and seconded by Dave Steckel this summer. Hard to say he is trade bait with his recent performance and contract, but he sure isn't looking like the guy to re-sign. Dude needs to step it up unless he wants to feel Boudreau's wrath. Or not. Who cares?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Caps-Ducks Recap

Power outages and FCC blackout regs have left me with a broken ability to watch all of the past three games, which is why I haven't done a recap lately. But I was able to see all but ten minutes of the second period tonight, so here ya go. My five thoughts on tonight's game:
  • I don't know who was
    Personally, I think he is a Highlander. Ageless Scandinavian
    guy in peak physical condition? Just saying, don't be
    surprised when they find him headless in an alley or mountaintop.
    better tonight, the Caps' third line or Teemu Selanne. That's a lie, the ageless wonder was of course better (two goals and an assist, just an incredible player), but the meat-and-potatoes line looked damn good after a couple games of looking not-so-much. Combining for one goal and seven points overall, Laich, Ward, and Chimera all finished +3 to boot. If I had to pick my three stars, it'd be Selanne, M-n-P Line, and Backstrom. Backstrom, of course, got the 6-on-5 game-tying goal at the end of regulation, and then potted the winner in OT. He's obviously woken up this year and is back to form (other than those pesky faceoffs). I'm feeling good about Ovi and Backstrom this year.

    • While nobody was surprised that Boudreau did his line change shuffle tonight, seeing Knuble on the fourth line and the Carlson-Alzner pairing broken up was pretty surprising. It's been weird enough, for me at least, to see number 22 on the second line this season, but the fourth line? Man, I thought Perreault didn't belong down there. Thankfully, by the end of the game Knuble had moved back up the ranks and even got ice time with his old pals Backstrom and Ovechkin. Boudreau may have wanted to shake things up tonight, but all that really happened was he confused players by putting them with unfamiliar linemates. Just like the old days.
    • Roman Hamrlik was signed in the offseason to bring a veteran presence to the blueline,someone who could block shots, generate offense when needed, mentor the kids, and generally be one of the most defensively responsible guys on the ice. So hopefully there won't be many (any?) more games like this one. Playing a part in the first few goals scored against, with some saying he deserved some assists on the Anaheim goals, he finished with no points or shots on goal and a team worst -3, despite having the third-most ice time behind Wideman and Carlson. Hammer needs to put tonight behind him, shore up his game, and move on. But still. Yikes.
    • Defensive breakdowns and bad communication early on gave the Ducks an early 2-0 lead, and really none of the four goals Anaheim scored could be blamed on Vokoun (which is the kind of thing I don't say very often at all), and could probably be blamed on Boudreau as much as the players. Despite that, the Caps showed some of their best defensive play this season, holding the highly skilled Ducks to a mere 15 shots (6-5-4-0 by period). Not good for Vokoun's stats, but good news for the team. That effort, with a healthy Mike Green and familiarity amongst linemates again, is what they needed to carry over from last year.
    • On the opposite end of the ice, Jonas Hiller allowed five goals on 40 shots (9-12-18!-1 by period). They weren't all pretty, but that is still five goals for the league's leading offense, giving them an even 4.00 goals-for average. That's the kind of play they need to carry over from 09-10. Put 'em together and whaddya got? Bippity-boppity-winning. 
     Your Washington Capitals are now 8-2-0 through the first ten games of the season. It hasn't always been pretty, with four of those games decided in OT or the shootout, the ugly game in Vancouver, and the return of PK woes, but you don't have to win pretty for it to count in the end. I'll have more tomorrow on my thoughts of what lessons can be learned from these games, but for now, let's revel in the fact that the Caps are leading the league in point percentage and are perfect at Verizon Center. Let's keep winning, boys. And, of course, here are your highlights: