Sunday, September 14, 2014

Capital's Rookie Camp Barely Underway; TSN Commenters Already Quite Ridiculous and Irritating

Well Caps fans yesterday my Caps Season Ticket Holder (STH) package arrived - not sure if I'll really use my new "Club Red 365" Lunchbox but I like it.  If there was a 10 year old mini-me here I know what his sandwich would be in tomorrow morning.  The arrival of the Caps STH package always cements the idea that hockey season is just around the corner and prompts me to check out the usual hockey blogs and media haunts as well as start some more research as to where and how I think the Capitals prospects and approaches for the upcoming season are starting to flesh out.

If you read my blog last week you'll know I am a fan and generally an optimistic one at that.  Last year this time I was curiously optimistic as to how the Adam Oates era would begin and go here in DC hockey, now we know those answer - short and not at all sweet.  Now we start the Barry Trotz era, given Trotz's last "gig" was so long in Nashville, I think we can all expect our current head coach's era to be longer than our last one here in Cap Nation.  I also think we can look to the style that Nashville played for at least a few clues as to the type of game he is going to be expecting from the Capitals and we will be watching.  Combined with the off season Free Agent pickups I think we will be looking at - believe it or not - a much higher energy game plan, and yes a "200 foot game" as has been speculated.

 But what does that really mean, I'm thinking shorter shifts for the forward lines and shifts of no more than 1:00 on average for the Blue Liners.  To me, I expect at the end of this regular season Ovechkin and Backstrom will have played 77+ games and have an ATOI of 18:45 - 20:00 - there 5 on 5 Corsi and +/- will be at career highs; and both will be 100+ point producers for the season with no more that 50% of those points coming on the power play.  Remember that you read that here first. Why did I lead off with that - just read the comments to this article over on TSN - it's typical of what their readers usually post about our Captain who they clearly do not watch actually play. Further if at any time you've ever wondered why reading my blog I'll occasionally rant about  "xenophobia" against anyone who is not a Canadian in the NHL in hockey media, etc.  just read more comments in articles on TSN where posters talk about any Russian, European or American players.  Now back to my more on point hockey musings.  I think the improved success of Backstrom and Ovechkin will be sparked by two things an even more talented and creative new Left Wing on the line (either Kuznetsov or perhaps Burakovsky) and smoother, faster breakouts from the Defensive zone enabled by a collectively more talented, bigger defensive corps. To me the addition of Niskanen is huge - it means the Caps now will have three pairings with anchored by a really skilled puck mover.  It takes a huge load off Mike Green and John Carlson and means other teams cannot sit back at all when 74 and 52 are on the bench.  Orpik brings grit and means gives some relief to Alzner - his addition means that 27 isn't the only NHL top four "shutdown" D-Man on the team; but I feel Niskanen's addition means other teams will have to play a much more intense forecheck if they expect to beat the Capitals during a game's five on five play.  I also think these changes mean the Caps, who had and continue to have tons of talent on the forward lines, now have a full set of three defensive pairings that will be able play the same game no matter who is out on the ice.  That will mean opponents won't be able to focus so much of their game plan on stopping 8 and 19.

Play the above out through the 40 minutes of each game that Ovechkin and Backstrom are on the bench and it should mean the rest of the team will also have more room to play the game and put up solid five on five numbers.  I don't see any reason why 42, 25 and 20 can't once again have career or near career years.  As with last week's article I think this year could be the year when we see if 90 is really better off as a natural center and a second line of Burakovsky (if Kuznetsov is on the first line) - Johansson - Brouwer could be surprisingly awesome.  I would NEVER count Eric Fehr out of the mix for the top lines.  Last season Chimera and Ward made whoever played pivot between them better, IMO.  I believe Tom Wilson will continue to develop, as will Casey Wellman as well.  What does the above mean - to me it means that Brooks Laich and Jay Beagle as well as any other forward on the team better show up to camp as fit as they've ever been and ready to play a harder faster game than they've ever played if they expect to be in this lineup on Thanksgiving.  The same really goes for the blue line corps.  I expect this team, far more than the 2013-14 Capitals will push each other to be much better hockey players both as individuals and as a team.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Looking Ahead to the 2014-15 Washington Capitals ...

It's been quite a while since my last blog post here but I just thought about it more and more and missed this outlet - at least for my hockey musings.  So with my cautiously optimistic feelings about the prospects for the Capitals during the upcoming 2014-15 NHL Season nearly upon us and training camp just two weeks from opening, I decided to begin "blogging" about my musings again.

I look at this off season's moves and can really only forecast one thing with high certainty - that is the 2014-15 Washington Capitals will play a different game and style than the 2013-14 Washington Capitals.  What that "game" and style will be remains to be seen, though I think it will be a grittier, 200 foot game than they played last season.  I also think they'll be more focused on sound play at 5 on 5 and they will start their breakouts from their own end with shorter crisper passes than they did last season.  Those are just "hunches" but it sure seems to be something one can say after having watched the Nashville Predators mush during the past several seasons.  Combine that with the free agent pickups - Orpik and Niskanen - and I think one has to conclude the changes are likely to be focused on creating and playing a more "balanced" solid five on five game. 

However, what will the lineup look like? Who will be the Capitals Defensive pairings?  Who will be the First Line Left Wing?  Who will be the Second Line Center?  Will Jason Chimera and Joel Ward once again have career or near career years?  Will this be "the year"? These and so many questions are percolating in my cranium, I can't help but muse about them... As I've mentioned before, I am at my core - an optimist.  I also really felt at the end of last season the Capitals needed to make some fundamental changes and I've always liked what I saw the Smashville Predators do when they were led by Barry Trotz.  Brooks Orpik was a guy I loved to hate as a Penguin but I'm happy the Caps picked him up, yes I think it's a contract that is "one year too long and one million too much" but I'd rather the Caps give it to a guy like Orpik then some of the guys who got those deals in the past - I think he'll be a solid leader "in the room."  I actually think the Caps got Niskanen at a fair to good value.  I also think that add those two guys to the other guys on the Caps blueline: Carlson, Alzner, Green, Orlov, Carrick, Olesky and Schmidt and you are looking at a group of nine guys that will form a much better and more stable group than the thirteen plus that cycled through the roster last season.  Of course look at what that statement likely means: 1) what do they do with John Erskine; 2) Orlov, Carrick, Olesky, Wey and Schmidt - pick three of the five...

Lets talk the answer to 1) I love John Erskine but if there's room for him in the mix after the Orpik and Niskanen UFA signings then it will not be a good regular season for the Capitals, IMO. Others will say the odd man out should be Mike Green but I look at him John Carlson as the guys who will benefit most from the Orpik and Niskanen, particularly the Niskanen  signing.  To me assuming he comes to Camp ready play and play hard, the number six D-Man is likely Orlov.  Behind those six I see Carrick, Olesky, Schmidt and Wey before I get to Erskine on the Capitals Depth Chart as I see this team shaping up both next season and then almost surely any season beyond then.  Erskine has twelve (12) seasons of NHL experience and he has great size (6-4; 220) he's a total beast and "hockey player's hockey player" IMO but his foot speed just isn't there for the game I think the Caps will be looking to play.  Also note - I put Jack Hillen who is also still on the roster below Erskine on that depth chart, so as for people who worry about the salary cap situation there's $2.6M of salary cap space tied up on Hillen and Erskine vs. $2.4M total for all four of Carrick, Olesky, Schmidt and Wey. So if you give two of the young guys the 7 and 8 slots on the roster vice "4" and "38" and you've freed up $1.2M of Salary Cap for the season...

Now onto 2) Orlov, Carrick, Olesky, Schmidt and Wey - pick three of the five.  I pick Orlov (I think he's the most NHL ready of the five despite some of the bonehead moves he made last season); Schmidt (the only Left Hand Shot of the other four); and Olesky (I give him the shot at the start of this season as I like his grit, hockey smarts, and size).  I think both Wey and Carrick can use at least a half season of regular play in Hershey to bulk up a little in Carrick's case and get used to a pro vs. NCAA game in Wey's case. But in no way should any of these guys be competing with Hillen or Erskine for ice time or roster spots beyond the first week of the season - the Caps need to move 4 and 38 before then, IMO.

Now what about who should be the first line right wing?  To me the two choices are Kuznetsov or Johannson, both are Left Hand shots and natural Centers but to play where they think they should - as top six forwards - then the logical place for them is on Backstrom and Ovechkin's Left Wing.  To me the guy I think meshes best with 19 and 8 of these two is 92 - Kuznetsov.  He's also bigger and as fast or faster than 90 - Johannson at 6-0; 172# - with a little help from the Caps Strength and Conditioning team the 21 year old should be able to add another 10-12 pounds of muscle without loosing any flexibility or slowing any other aspect of his game.  That should make a 92 - 19 - 8 line into a first line on par with any in the league and very much to Barry Trotz's coaching stff's liking as long as they backcheck as fearlessly as they can and do when they "want it."  That leaves Johannson free for part of the discussion to the next question which is the 2nd and 3rd line Centers...

If 92-19-8 are the first line that leaves 16, 20, 21, 25, 42, 43, 46, 48,83, and 90.  Just to make the discussion more traditional and despite them both having career years in 2013-2014 lets call 25 (Jason Chimera) and 42 (Joel Ward) the third line wings; and lets say after we finish the discussion of the "second line" we'll need to assign a center to them - since last season it seemed like they made whoever played between them look better than they had looked elsewhere in the lineup.  The "second line" for the Caps, at least coming into this season remains pretty much undetermined and a bit of a mess.  Going by salary cap hit the logic thing to say is the second line is 20 - 21 -16; however that didn't seem to work last season because 21 (Laich) couldn't stay healthy; also even when he was in the lineup he looked out of place there - at center - in Adam Oates' system.  Personally I think that Johannson is a natural center, as is Fehr and that Laich should be played at Right Wing; but with a productivity last season of just 8 goals and 7 assists in 51 games (0.29 pts/game) it remains debatable whether the Caps can afford to give the 31 year old Laich top six or even top 9 forward ice time at even strength.  Personally, if he doesn't light it up early and show he's back in top form at training camp and the first 10 games I'd drop him to the fourth line and have him focus on his Penalty Killing if they can't trade him or don't want to waive/buy him out.  For the start of the season though I'd put Laich at second line left wing and have either Fehr (16) or Johansson (90) at Center and have Brower over on Right Wing.   That way if Laich doesn't "cut it"/regain top form which unfortunately I don't think he will, I could quickly go to a 16-90-20 second line.  It's really time, in my opinion to move Laich somehow though to clear Cap Space and a roster spot for a stable second line, as this is the final year of Ward and Fehr's current contracts.  So I'd start the season with 21-16-20 as the "second" line and 25-90-42 as the "third" line.

My fourth line would be 43 - 83 - 46/48 (Wilson - Beagle - Latta/Wellman).  So that means I'd send Volpatti to Hershey - which requires he clear waivers, or trade him.  So to recap that makes my forecast opening season roster for the Capitals is:

Kuznetsov - Backstrom - Ovechkin
Laich - Fehr - Brouwer
Chimera - Johannson - Ward
Wilson - Beagle - Latta/Wellman

Green - Orpik
Carlson - Alzner
Niskanen - Orlov


I think that will be a better team than we ended the season with last April

Sunday, November 3, 2013

As Movember Begins In The NHL The Caps Find Themselves With A 0.500 Record

Well fellow Caps fans our team is now the owner of a 7-7-0 record after a relatively slow start.  Speaking of slow starts - what is it with those things and the Capitals? but more on that later.  During an interview earlier this season, Martin Erat basically said it the right way - a point earned in October and November is as important in April as any points earned at the end of the season. 

With realignment, and the incorporation of wild cards into the NHL playoffs, those early season points might be even more important.  However, the easiest way to make sure that all doesn't matter is to not be a bubble team.  How does one do that in the NHL for 2014 and beyond? Well it's still an 82 game regular season, and in my opinion, the teams that make the playoffs will all need to have 94+ points.  Projecting the Eastern Conference "Wild Cards" right now we see the teams in those two spots as Boston and Montreal each with 16 points, though Boston has a 0.615 record while Montreal has a 0.533 record.  In fact, the current projected playoff team with the "worst" record in the Eastern Conference is the Capitals with their 0.500 record.  Why do I go through all that?  Simply to support this conclusion - Q: what's it going to take to make sure your team makes the playoffs this season; A: play 0.600+ hockey over the course of the entire season and just like prior 82 game seasons that equals 98+ points.  Less than 98 points and more than 87 points and you're a "bubble team."  The good news for the league and hockey fans all over, except those of the one or two bubble teams "on the back side" of the wild card bubble is that as you can see looking at the current standings is the wild card format should improve the caliber of the teams that make the playoffs with those wild card slots compared to the prior 7th and 8th seeds in the earlier format.  At least I think it will. 

So what does that mean to our Capitals and the next two months?  Well interestingly, the Metropolitan Division as a whole has gotten off to a slow start and the Caps 0.500 performance during this first 17% of the season.  So the Capitals are now in the thick of things in the Division as well as the conference.  Additionally over the past ten games including the just concluded 5 game road trip, the Caps have played 0.600 hockey.  In the Division, the Penguins are playing 0.700 hockey over their last ten games and 0.733 over their first 15 games this season.  Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, Atlantic Division teams: Tampa Bay, Toronto, Detroit, Boston, Montreal, Ottawa, Florida, and Buffalo are in a much different state after the first fifth of the season than here in the Metropolitan Division, at least in my view.  Unless something changes drastically there Florida and Buffalo are or should already be in "rebuild" mode and Ottawa is getting close to that point as well.  Ottawa's performance over their next ten games will dictate whether they claw their way up to where the Canadiens currently are or slip down to the level that the Panthers, Sabres and for that matter the Flyers currently are at will be telling.  Further the Senators last ten game record of 3-6-1 (0.350) is not looking too good.  So to me when I look at the Atlantic Division I see five teams fighting for the three Division Playoff spots and the bottom of those five also being in the battle for both Wild Card spots. 

In the Metropolitan Division, right now, I see Pittsburgh winning the Division unless something drastic changes.  They've started the season playing 0.700+ hockey and are continuing to do so. Even if they drop to 0.650 or even 0.600 for the rest of the season, they will clearly continue to be the team to beat in the Met Division.  Additionally,  as has been noted, those 22 points the Pen's have already won will still be worth 22 points at the end of the season and right now they give the Penguins a 7 point lead over the second place team in the division.  So then you have the next six teams in the division: Islanders, Capitals, Rangers, Blue Jackets, Hurricanes and Devils all separated by just five points.  What I see here is that over the next two months, during which the Caps play twenty eight (28) games (thanks to the schedule compression to accommodate the Olympic Break) is that at least one but not more than two of those teams will play 0.400 hockey and put themselves into a tough spot and make it almost impossible to make the playoffs.  That means there will then be four teams fighting for the remaining two divisional spots as well as the last Wild Card spot. 

To make sure they are one of those four teams that have record that challenges the Penguins for the division championship, the Caps really need to play 0.600+ hockey though November and December.  The good news is so far the Caps are 2-0-0 in November; and they did that by winning a back to back at the end of a 5 game road trip.  Further positives, is that after a relatively slow start both Capitals Goaltenders have looked strong over the past ten games while they've played 0.600 hockey.  Further over their past ten games the Caps have played pretty consistent and strong hockey against a variety of teams that played a variety of styles.  My one worry is their slow start in games of late and the way those slow starts have resulted in paltry numbers of shots on goal and even fewer scoring chances during the first periods of their games.  The Caps just need to up their energy level and aggressiveness in the first period of games, at least I think they do, to even have a chance of playing 0.650 to 0.700 hockey over any extended period.  That said if the Caps play 0.600+ the rest of the way, the Capitals will have 95-96 points at the end of the season.  Ninety six points is NOT 98+ so to get and stay off the bubbly the Caps need to play 0.625+ through November and December - that would be thirty five (35) more points and mean they start 2014 with 49+ points.  If they do that they will be part of the "Class" of the Eastern Conference. 

Can the Capitals do it?  I'm hopeful they can - I think they have the talent across the board to do it and I like the way the coaching staff is driving the team to play.  That said, you have to play the games on the ice.  It also means the Caps need to stay healthy.  Another wild card this season, pun intended, is the Olympic break, which sort of means we play two seasons this year.  The Olympic break is just a lot longer than the All-Star break and changes how the season will "flow".

I'm going to start looking at re-energizing this blog/my blog again now and that will mean looking closer at specific issues and musings as pertain to Hockey and the Capitals in particular.  I don't really know if I'll be able to find the time - I'm pretty busy today but I figured I'd start by looking at the overall "big picture" as regards the season outlook for the Caps.  Now next up for the Capitals on Tuesday will be a test against the Islanders at the end of Tuesday evening's contest the Caps will either be: a) 1 point ahead of the Islanders; b) tied with them at 16 points a piece; or c) three points behind them.  If you're a Caps fan like me you're rooting for "a)".  That will also mean the Caps just might get those 35+ points between 11/1 and 12/31/2013 I mentioned.