Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Caps are Losing. So What?

And not just because he is the team's king of bling

Tonight the Capitals lost to the fairly dreadful Toronto Maple Leafs, blowing a 2-1 lead by getting pretty much owned in the third. They were outshot roughly 2-1, but there were a few bright spots. Namely Joel Ward and Mike Ribeiro, but still.

I was going to say Michal Neuvirth, but then I looked at his actual stats this season. They're pretty dreadful, down among the league's worst, same as they were last season. The Caps defense has been nothing short of abysmal through these first seven games (the last five of which Neuvy has started), but that only gets you so far. Devin Dubnyk (4-2-0, 2.74, .922; Islanders), Sergei Bobrovsky (2-1-1, 2.40, .922; Blue Jackets), and tonight's foe James Reimer (3-1-0, 2.80, .914; Maple Leafs) all have far better numbers on (theoretically) far worse teams than the Caps and Neuvirth (1-3-1, 2.97, .899). I don't think Washington fans really want to swap team defenses with any of those three.

Anyway, I digress. What I meant to say is that I am not worried. I really do not care what the win-loss record is this season. Many would chastise me for saying this, but I do not want the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup this year. Silly as even I know it to be, I would not want the first time Lord Stanley is lifted by a Capital to be in a lockout-marred and shortened season. What I think is far more important is that the Caps find an identity.

Over the past year, Washington has seen three coaches, roughly four systems, no starting goalie, and lines that appear to be put together using Colin Campbells old Wheel of Justice. We've seen players effectively chirping each other in the media, coaches questioned, and hints of general locker room disarray. I've heard it suggested, almost in hushed whispers, that maybe this season is like an extended training camp or preseason for this team. I'm hear to shout it from the rooftops: that's a great way of looking at things.  It's probably easier to swallow (and more accurate) than the "R"-word: rebuild.

Now do not read this as me saying we should tank the season. I really believe that where this team finishes in the standings this year should not and does not matter. It's not the team's structure that is being rebuilt nearly as much as it is the team's identity. They had one, and it led them to dominate the league. The hottest of hot goalies cooled the Caps (and pulled the exact same crap on Pittsburgh, though nobody outside of the Steel City seemed to notice), and Washington went into panic mode. The team didn't just lose its identity, it was actively dismantled, destroyed, and dismissed. Here we are, three seasons later, with two more 2nd round playoff exits, and nothing has filled the void. It's time for that to change.

What, me worry?
This is the perfect time to experiment with Ovechkin. Put him on the third line. Put him on the opposite wing. Put him on the penalty kill. Use the shortened season to round out his game and build a repertoire with some other players, or at least learn for certain that it is never going to happen. Try to find out hidden talents of other guys. Joel Ward has been spectacular so far, making me and so many others eat our words about buying him out. Make a decision between Johansson and Perreault, as it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is only room for one of them on this team.

And the goalies. This 1A/1B crap has to end now. Neuvirth and Holtby are both RFAs after this season. Neuvirth will almost certainly lay down  the same lines that Varlamov did, and he should (although his numbers are worse than Varly's every season). With Philipp Grubauer in the wings, there is no need to keep all three young goalies. Trade one for a pick or a veteran tender to back up and mentor whoever is chosen to stick in Washington - my pick is Holtby. I think we've seen Neuvirth's ceiling, and I believe Holtby has more to offer long-term. But that's not the issue, making the hard choice is.

That's what this has to be about. Making hard choices and rolling with them. When Laich, Orlov, and Hillen are healthy, there will be too many players. Some would have to be sent down. Better to trade them, even if it's just for picks or prospects. But choices must be made. Some about specific players, some about linemates, but the biggest question to be answered is "Who?" - Who are these Capitals, and where are they going? It can't be answered in seven games. It won't be answered in twenty. But in forty-eight? We should know by then.

Friday, January 25, 2013

2013 Game 4: Caps at Devils

Well at least this one wasn't a straight up loss. Let's jump right into it:
Star: Kind of a tough one, but I'm going to go with Neuvirth. Which, if you know me and my thoughts on Michal, should tell you just how good he was tonight. Got beat on a 5-on-3 and ultimately lost the game by allowing two other goals, but he made some absolutely spectacular saves and covered for the defense in the third period to keep the offense in it. Mike Green is a very close second, scoring his first of the year and generally looking solid (aside from a turnover that led to a breakaway) all night/season.

Goat: My hopes were misplaced. John Carlson, again. On for all three goals tonight, he has looked downright lousy. I may have to jump on the reverse-Samson bandwagon: the hair has got to go.

  • After starting the game last night, Mathieu Perreault was a healthy scratch tonight. Not really sure why, but that's what happened. The powerplay missed him, as Marcus Johansson was the Turnover Monster, just getting owned on the boards and passing it to the Devils every chance he got. MP85 was able to corral the puck and dish it to his teammates, leading to some very strong (though unproductive) possession and scoring chances last night.
  • Speaking of MoJo, I have to think a healthy scratch is in store for him. He sports team worsts in +/- (-5) and FO% (30%), and has two shots through four games. Eric Fehr, who had one shot in his first appearance tonight, is the only forward with less SOG. Among forwards, he has been on ice for the most goals scored against along with Brouwer and Backstrom, all tied at six. If you're following the math, that's five even strength goals he has been on ice for, good for worst on the team along with Carlson. He, Perreault, and Fehr are the only forwards without points, and the other two guys have seen the press box. Just a dreadful start to the year for the third-year Swede.
  • Not having a dreadful start? Mike Ribeiro, who is fitting in quite nicely with his first goal of the year (on a five-on-three powerplay) securing the team lead in points with four. Joel Ward assisted on that goal, giving him third point to go along with his pair of goals that opened the Caps' season. At least it isn't all bad out there...
  • Unlike the defense. With the exception of Mike Green, it's all bad news bears. One of the best pairings in the league last year, John Carlson and Karl Alzner are 1 and 2 for being on ice for the most goals against, combining for 19. Oofa.
  • Lots of line shuffling and blending tonight. This is nothing new for the Caps, and I'll excuse it for now with a new coach, some new players, and key injuries to Laich and Orlov. But this crap needs to stop. Figure out who goes where, and stick 'em there. I honestly do not mind a losing season if it means that by year's end, we have a coach with a set system, players who know it, and at least three set lines of guys who know how their linemates play. The Caps have lacked that since Boudreau started losing his mind against Halak. It hasn't worked for two years, three systems, and two coaches, I have no reason to expect it will work as a long-term strategy now.
Enjoy the day off, folks. Sunday is your next Caps hockey day, when Washington will host the Buffalo Sabres. It's cold out there, so why not get something warm?

The Ballad of Mathieu Perreault

Disclaimer for anyone who has never read a post on this blog: I am about as close to a Perreault fanboy as you can get and still be a straight man who loves America (France sucks, Jennifer Lawrence does not).

Much was made of Mathieu Perreault's Google translated desire to be traded if he did not factor in the plans of Adam Oates or George McPhee. Predictably, there were a lot of fans who started coming down on Matty P as a "whiner" who needed to take what he was given. In a lot of cases, I'd probably agree with them. But I didn't read Perreault's words as whining. I read them as the words of someone who wants to play, feels he has earned it, and was promised it in the offseason with a new contract and the GM's assurances.

He has been up and down between Hershey and Washington. He was plagued by complaints of "inconsistency" (while the same people would praise Neuvirth as being more consistent than Varlamov without irony), and then broke out last year with 16 goals and 14 assists, spending time on all four lines, including a two-goal appearance on the top line. He was the most successful of the Caps' 2C-by-committee in the 2011-2012 season, and finished the season winning the majority of his faceoffs. In short, he stepped up to criticism, improved his game, and knocked 1st round pick Marcus Johansson out of the spot he was drafted to fill. Then he doesn't score a goal in the first four games of the playoffs, and Dale Hunter benches him for the duration of the postseason. Jay "I Routinely Go Entire Games Without A Shot On Goal" Beagle gets top minutes.

Fast forward through the lockout. Yet another new coach. Yet one more guy who doesn't know much about him and doesn't know what he can offer. Oates only knows that he doesn't know Mathieu Perreault, so boom, fourth line. That's not a knock on Oates, but put yourself in Perreault's shoes. You finished last year tied for fifth on the team in goals, and as a team leader in points per-, goals per-, and assists per-60 minutes, and you're stuck behind the guy who set a career high in points with five in 42 games.

Are you going to grit your teeth and just go with it, especially after seeing how Tomas Fleischmann (who was also jockeyed around the lineup and charged with inconsitency) was traded and became a nearly point-per-game player when he fit into the Avs' and Panthers' plans? Of course not. You're going to be upset. You're going to wonder why Johansson gets chance after chance without actually improving his game one bit (and actually getting worse at winning faceoffs), why Jay Beagle is getting twice the minutes you are, why the guy making half your salary because nobody else in the league wanted to sign him is in the spot the GM said would be yours.

He's looking up because that's where everyone else is.
And you know what? You'd be right. Not just for yourself, but for the team, too. The Caps have serious identity issues, and too many redundant players. MoJo, Wolski, and MP85. Brower and Laich. Fehr, Ward, and Chimera. Poti and Hamrlik. Hockey players aren't dumb, they can count. When Laich gets healthy, there will be two healthy scratches at forward. When Orlov and Hillen are healthy, there will be FOUR healthy scratches at defense. That's too many guys. The coach will constantly be trying to find the right combos without having the opportunity for guys to build chemistry. Somebody has to move.

But if you're in the team's plans, they aren't going to move you. If you're in the team's plans, then you have a spot, because that's the plan. You aren't trying to earn it, to prove that you belong, to try and one-up yourself just to earn the opportunity to one-up yourself. Obviously players should constantly try to better themselves, and a little competition can be healthy. Eventually, though, enough has to be enough. And like Perreault, I think 16 goals in limited minutes is enough. It wasn't for Fehr, it wasn't for Fleischmann, and last year it wasn't enough for Knuble, but it should be enough when 14 is enough for MoJo.

Perreault has been around the Caps organization to see the writing on the wall. He knows that if he isn't getting more than 10 minutes right away, he probably is not going to get them later. He's not in the plans. But maybe another team, you would be. Maybe on another team... maybe if you aren't in Washington's plans, they should trade you. Because why keep someone that isn't in your plans?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2013 Game 2: Jets at Caps

Two games, two losses. Look, the Caps have been here before, it happens, bad bounces, bad refs, bad luck, etc. Not in Panic Mode yet. But I will start something new for the blog: Star and Goat. The Star will be the Caps player most deserving of my personal MVP, and the Goat will be the guy who may earn a kick in the gut from a goat. Following that, my five thoughts.

Star: An easy call here. I was tempted to title the post "Jets at Hendricks and some other guys wearing jerseys." Matt Hendricks is your star of the game. He was a force on the ice with the opening tally (fluky though it may be) and two(!) fights. Maybe that will be the Matt Hendricks Hat Trick from here on out. Solid all around, hitting, blocking, scoring, and bashing. Earn that paycheck and a bump up in the lines, Hendy.

Goat: The Real American Hero himself, John Carlson. The Jets' first goal deflected off his skate and through Holtby. He failed to stop his guy from making an obvious pass (which also should have been stopped by Karl Alzner) that led to a powerplay goal against. All around ineffective after a solid outing on Saturday. Hopefully it'll be the last time he or Alzner are mentioned in this section.
  1. Troy Brouwer, who was my personal preseason pick for the most disappointing player on the Caps, had a pretty good night, too. He scored the late powerplay goal for Washington just as I was questioning why he continues to get powerplay time. It ended a 17 game scoring drought (thus my questioning of putting him on the PP), and reminded us that sometimes these guys are good at the hockey.  The cross-checking penalty that was called on him earlier, which negated a Caps PP, was a weak call by the refs, a theme that sadly persisted throughout the game. All in all, this game's positive notes pretty much started and ended with last year's leaders in PIMs and hits.
  2. Holtby... again, not panicking yet. The guys in front of him are rusty, it's a new coach, etc. etc. I'll be straight up - I don't care how well or how poorly he does this year. I want him to be the #1 guy and to get 30 starts. If he bombs, he bombs. We know what we have in Neuvirth (~.900-.915 sv% and ~2.45-2.85 GAA), we don't know what we have in Holtby yet. That being said, I think he'll come back strong in February.
  3. The defense. It needs work. Holtby had to face 39 shots tonight. Against Winnipeg. That is unacceptable. Including injured players (Orlov and Hillen), there are nine NHL defensemen in Washington. Alzner, Carlson, Green, Hamrlik, Schultz, Poti, and Erskine. Kundratek appears to be the callup of choice, and he has performed admirably in his limited appearances, tonight included. I would certainly rather have him in a couple of the others right now. McPhee has made it known he would like Cam Schilling to make an appearance at some point, as well. Guys better shape up, or odds are they'll be shipped out.
  4. Ribeiro and Wolski look like they're really developing some chemistry. Ribeiro likely would have had a goal on a real slick pass from WW17 if the puck hadn't taken an extra bounce over his stick. Wolski had some really nice looks, but wasn't able to close the deal. Ribeiro got beat up and took some high sticks that ended up requiring stitches, but the refs cared not. Unless until Ribeiro called them on it, and he got an unsportsmanlike to close the game. Can't blame him.
  5. Jay Beagle played pretty solid, but just like Joel Ward seems to be in the right spot these days, Beagle looks to be in the wrong one. He is one of the best defensive forwards on the team, and is able to get a surprise shot off, even if he is not likely to get it past a goalie. But it is because of the fact that he is highly unlikely to score that he does not belong anything higher than the fourth line. Hendricks and/or Perreault should be move up in his place. But it's a young season and things can change. Beagle certainly had the opportunities, and Pavelec absolutely robbed him at one point. This is a story to watch, even if nobody else talks about it.
The Caps host the bottom of last year's Eastern Conference, the Montreal Canadiens, and their new old coach Michel Therrien on Thursday. If the Caps leave that game without a point, then we may need to start worrying. Until then, we just have to hope the boys brush the rust off sooner rather than later.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

2013 Game 1 Recap: Caps at Bolts

First off, let's just be thankful that hockey is finally back after that ridiculous lockout. Today was the first day of the new season, kicked off by the Penguins topping the Flyers in revenge for their first round eviction from the playoffs, while the Blackhawks were busy beating the defending champ Kings on the other side of the country.

Then came our Washington Capitals and their new coach swaggering into the Tampa Bay Lightning's home against their new goalie. It started off well enough, with a 7-0 shot advantage and a couple powerplays. That was about the end of the good times, as Eric Brewer scored on the Bolts' first shot of the game, and the Caps never led from there on out to a 6-3 loss. Here are my five thoughts:

  • Tom Poti returned, and many Capitals fans are happy about this fact. Too many. Don't get me wrong, I am happy for Poti and his success in overcoming a multi-year long injury that had him this close to forced retirement. That's a huge accomplishment, and nothing else I say should take away from that. However, he just is not a very good defenseman, and it was a mistake on Oates' part to play him tonight. He has been gone for two years, and all the hockey he has played was two games in Hershey, where he had a goal and was a -1. That's not enough, given a one week training camp and a glut of available NHL-caliber blue liners, and it wouldn't be enough even if Poti was a high-level player, which he is not. It showed tonight, where he was the only defenseman to finish with a -2 in a game where the Caps let up three powerplay goals, at least one of which Poti was also on ice for. On Brewer's game-opening goal, Poti was parked right in front of Holtby while not trying to keep the Lightning's player out of the crease. It was ugly, and a big part of why that goal was let up. Lots of people are excited that he got an assist, but like it or not, he isn't paid to get points, he's paid to prevent them. Tonight he did not and looked like the worst player in white.
  • Holtby was not on his A game tonight. Probably not even his D game. He was slower to react than usual, and seemed to have a hard time seeing and controlling the puck all night. Goalies have bad games, especially when their defense is playing as horrifically has the Caps' was tonight, but six goals is a lot. That being said, he's still my pick for #1 on this team. I'm a long-time critic of Neuvirth, who I see as nothing more than a capable backup. This team needs a defined starting goalie, and that goalie should (and will) be Braden Holtby. Having a set guy in net gives the team consistency and allows for the skaters, especially the defensemen, to figure out their roles beyond what the coach is calling for. So it was a bad game for the young netminder, but I'm not worried and I'm looking for Holtby to start 30 games in this shortened season.
  • If you had Joel Ward on the powerplay as your pick for the Caps' first goal of the season, you're either a damned fool or a liar. Either way, you were right. Ditto if you had him scoring the second goal and leading the team in shots. Helluva game for him, and I really hope that this play is indicative of his skill level and being a good fit under Oates. He was my pick for the accelerated buyout, but if he can be productive on special teams, he'll earn that $3mil this year and the next two. One of the few bright spots for Washington in their season opener.
  • Speaking of bright spots, newcomers Wojtek Wolski and Mike Ribeiro had strong games. Wolski was the only other Cap with two points aside from Ward, with a goal and an assist. Ribeiro had the primary assist on that goal and looked like he was fitting in well as a setup guy all night. Smallest of small sample sizes, but here's hoping his 29% on the dot is not a sign of things to come, though.
  • The defense on the whole looked pretty awful, but thankfully we saw some good peeking through. Mike Green and his powerful shot were back and leading the game in ice time. John Carlson was a +2 with four blocked shots, and his partner in crime Karl Alzner was even on the night. Roman Hamrlik, the Tampa Bay Lightning's first overall pick 20 years ago in their first season, had an assist and was even on the night. The system still needs some work, but the talent is there and we saw flashes of it. Only flashes, though.
This was sloppy hockey folks, and so were the earlier games, and from what I hear so were the rest of them. It's what we all expected, even if we hoped for something better. Some new faces, yet another new coach with yet another new system... it'll be a minute before it is all sorted out. So get well Jack Hillen (welcome to the team?), and let's go Caps!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Back, Baby!

A few of you may notice that the last post of mine was June 30. A lot has happened since then, but I honestly felt like I had nothing new to contribute to any discussions about adding Wojtek Wolski, Joey Crabb, Jack Hillen, minor-league player moves, or, above all, the lockout (RIP). A good bit has happened in my own life, including finally securing a full-time, permanent job. But now that the lockout is over, and everything is settled down, it's time to get back to what matters: My opinions on the current and future state of the Washington Capitals.

Current Caps Outlook - Trust Me

If you look back at my early summer postings, you will see a lot of optimism about the 2012-2013 Caps. That was before the signing of Wolski, who I think will be a breakout player this year, earning a spot on the top six. Crabb and Hillen will make excellent backups for the 4th line and 3rd pairing, respectively. I still love this roster, especially under new coach Adam Oates. I just don't think there are any glaring weaknesses in terms of skill.

That being said, I think Washington will be something of a mess this shortened season. They won't look in sync, they won't execute a system well, and only a few players will live up to their potential as a result. Why, you may ask? Well there's this, and this, and that. Locker room strife, like it or not, is going to be an issue. When Neuvirth, statistically the worst Caps goalie on the roster every season since he has been on the roster, is talking down about his teammate and criticizing his captain, that doesn't make for a lot of trust on the ice - the kind of thing goalies rely on. When Troy Brouwer openly says he does not trust veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik and Neuvirth, you're looking at mistrust between a valued forward, the defense, and again the netminder.

These guys are pros, all of them, and you would expect them to put aside their feelings and play hard and play well. And don't get me wrong, they'll try their best (except maybe Neuvirth, that kid irks me with his sense of entitlement earned not from skill but from horrendous coaching choices). But trust and respect are huge in all relationships, sports included. Feelings get hurt, people hold grudges, and things gnaw at the back of your mind. This doesn't even include any possible feelings about half the team jetting for Europe and Ovi threatening to stay there. Those feelings I think can be dismissed far more easily than those related the specific name-dropping in press interviews. No other team had as many attacks between teammates during this admittedly contentious lockout, if any.

Throw in a new coach, and likely yet another adjustment to strategy, and I think you'll see Ovi trying to do it all by himself, defensive players getting frustrated, and a rotating cast of second line wingers never really finding a way to synchronize with Ribeiro. Speaking of rotating second liners, think back pre-lockout and the supposed promises McPhee made to Mathieu Perreault. He seemed to really believe that he would be in the top six. With Ribeiro, MoJo, Wolski, Backstrom, Ovi, Laich, Chimera, and Brouwer, you have nine guys going for six spots. Three of them will be on the third line, just by math, but then you have Hendricks and Ward, who have probably each earned a third line spot, stuck getting minimal ice time after all. McPhee has certainly done his part to hurt trust in the Caps organization with his handling of trades and free agency signings over the past 15 years.

It's the emotional side of things that are going to hurt the Capitals this year, not the roster and not the coaching. Thankfully, we have a shortened season, two buyouts, a slew of incredible prospects, and a smaller salary cap next year that will make 2013-2014 a different story. We just have to last til then. But more on that later.

Welcome back folks, I'm glad to be back and blogging again and I'd love input throughout the season!