Saturday, July 23, 2011

Time to Catch Up On Hockey After Another Busy Week At Work...

Well I spent two days in Charleston, SC for work - they were productive for me and the company and I was there when the South Carolina Stingrays announced they need to find a new head coach as theirs is off to the AHL (Abbotsford, surprise,) to become an assistant there. Not much news on the free agent market last week, not much news about the Capitals this week so I really didn't miss much immersing myself in the new job - which is a necessary task at this point, and frankly one I'm enjoying.

Here's an interesting listing of the NHL's top salaried players and whether they are worth it or not - I found it interesting because i agree with all their evaluations. Trade rumors, stupid trade rumors, IMO, apparently persist involving Alexander Semin and this post elsewhere earlier this week on the web, captures my thoughts a bunch better than I likely could ever succinctly many of the reasons I am such a big proponent and fan of "the other Alex." In other Capitals news, it appears the Caps are thinking Tom Poti will likely start the season on Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR), while Poti and his agent say he is working towards being ready and fit at the start of training camp. In other Capitals related news, the Caps freed up another of their 50 available contract slots when former first-round draft pick Anton Gustafsson (aka "Baby Gus") cleared unconditional waivers Thursday and his contract has been terminated by the Capitals. According to agent J.P. Barry, Gustafsson intends to play in Switzerland this coming season.

My favorite Capitals player quote of the week comes from off-season, veteran pick-up Roman Hamrlik in this blog post over at WaPo by Katie Carrera:

“I think when you’re young, you just play — you don’t think about it, you just work hard,” Hamrlik said when asked about when he became more active as a leader. “Four, five years ago when I signed with Calgary and Montreal you’re at that age when you kind of figure it out and you try to win as a team.”

I like some many things included in what Hamrlik had to say, I could have picked several other quotes from him in the post, but this one - the "you try to win as a team." part just struck a chord with me, even more than a few other statements that he said and I liked.

The time ... the time you ask, Caps Fans. I'm with Peerless - the time is NOW... yep, I too think it's time to "come out of the closet" and declare what I really think. I really think this team is ready now. Will it happen? Well if I knew that, I'd be a rich guy and I'm not so I'm a just saying...

I don't know about y'all but it's been hard for me to think about ice hockey this past week given the heat, and all - ice cube in a nice gin and tonic maybe, but ice hockey has been a stretch... In any case I am still rally pleased where where my favorite team - the Capitals - are right now and I'm sure I'll be really "jazzed" when the start of training camp rolls around.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Week of 7/9 Through 7/15 Recap and Capital Thoughts Going Forward

Wow another busy week for me at my new job and another busy week for Capitals GM George McPhee (GMGM). At the end of this past week though I'd say, I expect GMGM is likely ready for and capable of taking a bit of a summer break whilst I now have an ever growing "to do" list. Looking at the Capitals the reason I say GMGM is capable of taking a bit of a "summer break" now is he has navigated through the UFA frenzy and also the somewhat (this year at least) less frenetic but all the more interesting RFA signing period brilliantly, IMO. When I got back home from my business travels last week and looked to find what had gone on in and around the NHL, the signing of Karl Alzner to a two year, exceptionally "Cap Friendly" (double meaning fully intended) deal brought a smile to my face and a twinkle to my eyes. I confess that right now from what I see the only "better bargain" in the NHL is the one year UFA deal GMGM was able to ink with seasoned Veznia quality goaltender Tomas Vokoun, IMO. So folks here's where I see things being/are with a 22 man roster at the start of the season:

Forward Lines:

Ovechkin - Backstrom - Knuble (Combined Cap Hit: $18.2M)
Semin - Johansson - Brouwer (Combined Cap Hit: $10M)
Chimera - Laich - Ward (Combined Cap Hit: $9.4M)
Beagle - Halpren - Hendricks (Combined Cap Hit: $2.2M)

Defense Pairings:
Green - Hamrlik (Combined Cap Hit: $8.75M)
Alzner - Carlson (Combined Cap Hit: $2.1M)
Wideman - Erskine (Combined Cap Hit: $5.4M)

Goaltenders (Cap Hit: $2.65M)

D.J. King ($0.637M)
Jeff Schultz ($2.75M)

Injured Reserve:
Tom Poti ($2.875M)

That's a line-up. There are a few bargains in the Capitals line-up in my opinion and they speak volumes to a few others in my book. First let's give credit where credit is due, few outside of Washington Capitals "fan-dom", felt the Capitals would have been able to preserve the entire core and improve the team given all the threats and opportunities there were for them to loose key pieces to free-agency and their salary cap situation.

The first coup of the off-season to my mind's eye by GMGM is probably the biggest and that's the way the Capitals "goaltender controversy" was resolved, moving Semyon Varlomov to Colorado and getting something for a guy who could have just as easily ended up in Russia in the KHL "for nothing" was a great move. Then in the "I'd rather be lucky than good" category comes the signing of Tomas Vokoun for a mere $1.5M has to be, arguably, to my thinking the biggest, best signing of this year's UFA period; unarguably it's the best bargain for a team. Prior to the UFA period, many both inside and outside of hockey felt that Vokoun could/would easily have ended up with a "Cup contender" for $5M/year. Yet here he is in DC for $1.5, again I say - Wow. There's no doubt in my mind that the Capitals with Vokoun and Michael Neuvirth is a pretty awesome situation. In addition to having two great goalies, we'll no doubt see even more Czech Republic flags in and around Verizon Center this season. Also I can't think of a better coach to help Braden Holtby develop further and faster than "Olie the Goalie" or to demonstrate to Neuvirth the benefits of being patient with your own development curve. There's no doubt in my mind and no bigger surprise from this off-season to me than how much better I feel about the Capital's goaltending situation with Tomas Vokoun on the team and without the young goalies being #1 and #1A... Kudos to GMGM on the moves that resulted in the line-up in goal the Capitals now have.

In a set of moves that also surprised pretty much everyone in the hockey world, GMGM next turned his sights to re-tooling the Capitals front lines. I mean the Capitals forwards were already formidable, how was GMGM going to make them much better? Well he did and here's how... Signing UFA Joel Ward for $3M/season and trading Eric Fehr ($2.2M) to make Cap room was a good move. Yes, Fehr is/was a fan favorite and will likely be even better in Winnipeg. However, the Capitals needed someone like Ward in their line-up more than they needed another sniper and that's what and where Fehr will really help Winnipeg. Ward is and will continue to be a stalwart 2 way right wing who can and does help shut down the many left wing and centers in the league who are "snipers" that's why he played 80 games last season and averaged 17:01 TOI during the regular season but hey, then in the playoffs he not only continued to shutdown opponents and play 20:25 TOI a game through 12 playoff games but he also led the Predators in offense last post-season with 7 goals and 6 assists. So we trade Fehr who was getting about 12-13:00 TOI and not really fitting in where you'd expect on the roster which I believe is on the second line where he'll probably play in Winnipeg. Great upgrade for the Capitals #1. Next we have the "swap-out" of fourth line center Boyd Gordon for Jeff Halpren saving another $0.5M/year of salary Cap and it didn't really cost the Capitals much of anything. Yes "Gordo" is younger than Halpren (27 vs. 35) but if nothing else Halpren showed he was/is at least as durable, if not more-so than Gordon last season and there's no doubt that the return of the 35-year old Potomac, MD native to the team he once Captained fills some of the leadership that Jason Arnott brought to the Caps at the end of last season. Also in terms of defensive and face-off skills, while Gordon might have slightly better numbers, Halpren is also excellent and he has more offensive skills (11 goals last season vs. 3) and can and does use his body better (42 vs. 33 hits). To me, the fourth line with Halpren as pivot is an upgrade from the fourth line the Capitals put on the ice last season. Next we have the pickup of RFA Troy Brouwer really helps, it give us a great second line right wing to compliment Alexander Semin who can play his natural Left Wing position there and gives a great second finishing piece to young center Marcus Johansson should opposing teams choose to concentrate on Semin. Brouwer had 17 goals and 19 assists in the regular season last year along with 262 hits he's a stud and knows how to dig a puck out of a corner like nobody's business. I think a second line of Semin, MoJo, and Brouwer will be an awesome upgrade for the Capitals and adding Brouwer into the mix of potential Right Wings with Semin and Knuble to finish off the first line pair of Ovie and Backy gives the Capitals another really interesting set of options when it comes to mixing and matching their so called "top six" forwards of which the Capitals now have nine (9) legitimate "top six" forwards IMO: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Laich, Ward, Johannson, Knuble, Chimera and Brouwer, along with a fourth or energy line that can either shake things up or shut opponents down. And that's how GMGM managed to upgrade the Capitals' forward lines.

On the blueline thanks to the young duo of Karl Alzner and John Carlson the Capitals have the salary cap room to upgrade their front-lines without sacrificing anything on defense. Right now the Caps are carrying eight NHL D-Men on their roster, that's because no one know how things will end up with Tom Poti. I'm showing Poti on IR at the start of the season, if he's not, then the Capitals will need to do something to clear Cap space for him but a healthy Poti means an even better blue line corps than what I'm showing right now. Jeff Schultz has to take his game up a notch this season or it's likely the Capitals will look to move him because of his $2.75M salary Cap Hit, however right now having Schultz as an option until the Capitals know at least one of the two guys who finished the playoffs injured - Poti and/or Wideman - are healthy and ready to play a full season is a very sound and fortunate position to be in. The smoothness that Wideman displayed in fitting in the line-up as a trade deadline pick-up was a very pleasant surprise to me and i consider the swap-out of Hannan for Wideman to be an upgrade and a good move as well. Re-signing Alzner for just $1.285M/season is another huge coup for the Capitals to me as well. I really can't believe he didn't get an offer sheet that raised his overall price to at least the $2.75M that jeff Schultz is making this season. Well there you have it, all of the above are why I think the Capitals are an even better team this season than they were last season.


Monday, July 4, 2011

How Much is Karl Alzner Really Worth?

So now that the Washington Capitals are pushing up against the salary cap, at least according to those who look at and do not factor in the idea that Tom Poti is likely to start the season on Long Term Injured Reserve (LTIR) or retire; we Capitals fans turn our attention to the two unsigned Restricted Free Agents (RFAs) who might get offer sheets: Karl Alzner and Troy Brouwer.

There is certainly a lot of speculation about just what sort of offer sheets they might get; here's an interesting blog post from a Montreal Canadiens blog; I hope it's not right, I like Karl Alzner but $4.7M per year, I just can't see another team offering him that much and also being willing to forfeit the draft picks that would cost them. That said if some other GM wants to target the Capitals and make the sort of offers that "Eyes on the Prize" suggests (Alzner 1-4 years for $4.7M/year and Brouwer 1-3 years for $3.1M/year), I'd take them up on it and let both players go to those teams. The Capitals have the bench strength to let that happen without nearly the negative impacts that matching such offers would create in their current plans/roster. Also the draft picks they'd pick up would no doubt only further strengthen the talent pipeline they already have in their system. That's why I think we DON'T see many GMs using the "screw your neighbor" tactic too often. This isn't a parlor game or a card game after all, well maybe it is but it's real high stakes and for real. It's one thing to go target a young, promising talent like Alzner or Brouwer with offer sheets that provide them a 10-15% premium in terms of cap hit or a contract term with a year or two of extra length but quite another to "overpay" by any more given the compensation the acquiring team must also put up to close the deal. So we are back to really trying to gauge what these two players are really worth. Recognize, they both already have qualifying offers in hand from the Capitals so there's really no risk on there part to wait and see if the market offers them something more, especially in Brouwer's case, it's not like he has any reason to have any allegiance to Washington. So let's look at the 22 Year Old British Columbian and locate a few "comparables."

Karl Alzner:
Position: Defense
Age: 22
Height: 6'-2"; Weight: 210 pounds; Shoots: Left

Last season Alzner had a salary cap hit of $1.675M ($875K salary, up to $750K of performance bonuses and then the prorated $87.5K portion of his signing bonus) on the final year of his entry level deal. He was drafted in 2007 by the Capitals in the first round with the fifth pick of the draft. He was a blue chip prospect and his development to this point in his career has tracked and delivered on those expectations. Alzner didn't miss a game for the Capitals last season - he played 82 regular season games and 9 playoff games. He was usually paired with rookie John Carlson and they were, in many games, the Capitals "stoppers." As Alzner generally played the role of "stay at home" defenseman of the two, he is generally seen as the soundest young defender in the Capitals organization when it comes to hockey fundamentals. His ATOI last season was 19:00 minutes and he was a regular on a penalty killing unit that was very good. Because of his partner John Carlson and "young gun" Mike Green's scoring prowess, many often overlook Alzner's excellent abilities when it comes to his slapshoots from the point. In short Karl Alzner is the total package and he had 98 hits during the 82 game regular season and his Corsi On was 3.45 and Corsi Off was 2.45 during 5 on 5 play. In short, he had a solid season and he is definitely a top four defenseman at the NHL level by just about any measure. Is he worth more than a basic qualifying offer for sure and I'd bet he has one in hand. If I were Montreal would I offer Alzner anything like "Eye on the Prize" suggests - No, that price is too high for him, especially when you consider the draft picks you'd have to forfeit. That said if I were Vancouver, Alzner's "hometown team", who have a little bit of Cap Space and who could make more room, I'd offer him $3.5M/year and a four year contract to see if he'd like to "come home." Alzner would be a great fit for Vancouver and they could use another "Steady Eddy" top 4 D-Man to replace the loss of Christian Ehrhoff to Buffalo in free agency. Now that would be decision time for Caps GM George McPhee as I'd expect $3.5M would be on the order of $500K more than the Capitals would prefer to pay Alzner but not so much so that I wouldn't consider strongly matching the offer. What do I think Karl Alzner is worth, based on what I've seen to date I'd say he's a $3+M player...and after giving Roman Hamrlik a two year $3.5M/year deal, I'd say that the Caps Organization wouldn't argue with that. Also looking around the league, there aren't many clearly top four blueliners who have finished their entry level contracts that aren't making $3+M and maybe as much as $4M/year though I think the likely number starts with a "3". The best comparable I think out there for Alzner is the NY Rangers' Marc Staal, though Alzner's body of work isn't quite yet up at the same level of the 24 year old Staal brother.

There are actually quite a few teams who I think could be and should be interested in Alzner. Another team besides Vancouver, that could present Alzner an offer sheet might be Saint Louis, they could really, really use a guy like him and they have a TON of salary cap space, as does Ottawa who like Saint Louis could use another top four defenseman and Alzner would make a great pairing for Sergei Gonchar, IMO. Of course as mentioned there is Montreal, also Minnesota, Florida, Dallas ..and the list could go on, but the one thing that might actually help the Capitals avoid seeing any ridiculous offers made for Karl Alzner, is if you were an NHL GM who was willing to make a run at and possibly overpay for a young RFA D-man, why not "swing for the fences" and take a run at Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators or Drew Doughty of the LA Kings?

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Rating This Year Free Agent Moves So Far ...

So of this year's Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) signings so far (and as I write this it is Sunday July 3rd at 16:30 EDT) who do you think are the best signings/moves around the NHL so far (from the acquiring/gaining team's perspective)?

Color me surprised to write this but I'd say it's probably Capital's General Manager George McPhee's signing of 35 year old Czech goalie Tomas Vokoun to a one year $1.5M deal. A confluence of factors seem to have fortuitously come together to enable the Capitals and this world-class talent to come together with what can only be extolled as the most Salary Cap friendly deal around for a proven, durable net-minder with a career save percentage of 0.917 and GAA of 2.56 who has played a total of 120 games over the past two seasons and has delivered a GAA of 2.55 and a save percentage of 0.923 and 13 shutouts for a salary of just $1.5M. Vokoun must have a) wanted out of Florida to a team that he felt could go ... A-L-L ... THE - W-A-A-Y-Y as :Boomer" on ESPN says; b) wanted a short term deal so he could be a UFA again after next CBA is in place and he goes to negotiate the last contract of his NHL career; and c) believes the Capitals have the real potential to be the team that delivers him back to the playoffs so he can show everyone what he can do in the Playoffs - a place he has not been since leaving Nashville. The one year, $1.5M deal he signed is truly of note when compared to what Bryzgalov signing by Philadelphia (9 years $51M) or even the 1 year, $3M deal Dwayne Roloson signed with Tampa Bay, the three year deal that Semyon Varlamov just inked with Colorado or even the 2 year $3M deal that Jose Theodore signed back with the Florida club Vokoun is leaving behind.

A good second place deal to McPhee's signing of Vokoun is probably the LA Kings signing of Simon Gagne to a two year $7M deal after they "lost out" on the "Brad Richard's Sweepstakes" to the New York Rangers. Sure Gagne is no Richards but then I'd say the Kings need Richards a lot less than the Rangers and Gagne has proven over the past two seasons he know has and when to "raise his game." Even including his signing the Kings have an average of over $2.5M available for each of their remaining openings and I'd venture a guess they "aren't done yet" when it comes to improving their already formidable line-up.

For third place best moves in free agency I'd give a slight edge to San Jose on the re-signing of Devin Stetoguchi for 3 years at an average salary cap hit of $3M per year.

My fourth place good move goes to Vancouver on their re-signing of Kevin Bieksa for an average salary cap hit of $4.5M for 5 years, that's probably a year more term than I'd have wanted to give him but he was a total stud in this year's playoffs and that's got to be worth something.

Rounding out the top five "good" moves is Dallas' signing of Michael Ryder to a two year $7M deal.

For teams I'd have to think about it some but I've liked all of Caps GMGM's moves so far and not just because I'm a Capitals fan. I've been surprised at how inactive Toronto GM Brian Burke has been this off-season and I think despite giving Brad Richards a big payday these latest moves by the NY Rangers might well work out for them. However i haven't really gone team by team to analyze who I think the "winners" and who I think are the "losers" this off season to date. Also while I wouldn't have given Ilya Bryzgalov the contract he got from the Flyers the last time teams didn't want to pay him and he moved from LA to Phoenix, he proved he could deliver, so I wouldn't make a judgement on that deal until next June. I will say this, as a Caps fan, all these moves by "my team" has gotten my head back "into the game" and that's something I didn't expect to have happen until Rookie Camp opened.

Back to Woman's Beach Volleyball - hey don't laugh, it is an Olympic Sport and well .... you know ... exciting to watch.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

I Can Live With This Line-Up For Next Season How About Youse Guys?

Here's the way I now see the Caps Line-up for the start of the 2011-2012 season and I'm liking it a lot.

Ovechkin – Backstrom - Knuble
Semin – Johansson – Brouwer
Chimera – Laich – Fehr
King/Beagle – Halpren – Hendricks

Green – Hamrlik
Wideman – Erskine
Alzner – Carlson
Poti (IR?)


I am totally pleased and shocked or maybe that's shocked but pleased to see the Capitals able to pick up Tomas Vokoun. I've been pleased with Michal Neuvirth's progress and more than a little frustrated with Semyon Varlamov's well with Varly''s whatever it is he had been doing. Now that the situation is resolved, and the organization has two good young goalies in the system and an experienced proven world-class hand in net as well, we can really look at the rest of GM George McPhee's off-season moves so far.

Up front he's preserved the core, avoided having to spend an addition 500K of Cap space for a defensive fourth line center by swapping out Boyd Gordon for Jeff Halpren and may have also picked up some more leadership in the locker room by creating a situation where the Potomac native may be able to finish his NHL Career with the team he grew up rooting for. RFA Troy Brouwer was a good pickup as well. The twenty-five year old Brouwer has a qualifying offer to go with his 2010 Stanley Cup Ring and while he along with Karl Alzner are apparently looking to see if anyone will give them an offer sheet, should the Caps end up with Brouwer he would make a good complimentary wing on a second line with Semin and Johansson. Brouwer's arrival allows the movement of Eric Fehr down to the third line and construction of a third line of Jason Chimera Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr which means the Capitals would have three lines capable of playing and scoring with both speed and power. The presence of Jeff Halpren as the pivot on a fourth line with Matt Hendricks and any number of possible left wings ranging from D. J. King to Jay Beagle or Chris Bourque or Dmitry Kugryshev. So while I'll be said to see the team loose the feistiness and leadership of Matt Bradley and Jason Arnott, I think this team's forward lines have the potential to be even better than the great forward line play we've seen over the past three seasons.

On the blueline I confess at first I looked at the pickup of veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik as perplexing but with Karl Alzner apparently shopping for offer sheets, Jeff Schultz coming off a disappointing season, Tom Poti fighting for his career, and Scott Hannan either looking for more than the Caps want to afford or wanting to leave the Capitals to return to the Western Conference, it all seems to make sense. When you look at these pairings you can't be anything but pleased. Sure Hamrlik is 37 and will be 39 at the end of his contract but last season he averaged over 22 minutes a game and played 79 games. He finished the season with 34 points (5 goals and 29 assists) and was +6; thirty two year old Scott Hannan he played 78 games, had an ATOI of 19:47, 11 points (1 goal and 10 assists) and was +4. Hamrlik's signed for two years with a salary cap hit of $3.5M per while Hannan's cap hit last season was $4.5M. Bottom line is wort case the Hamrlik for Hannan swap out looks like at least an even move on talent and skill and should save $1M against the Cap - money the Capitals needed to pay for Alzner's qualifying offer. Am I ready to throw in the towel on Jeff Schultz - no; but last season was not a good one for the twenty five year old, and hopefully he learned in the second round of the playoffs that sometimes you need to play more physically and use his 6' 6" frame and his 230 pounds instead of trying to stick check a driving forward. Schultz will need to step up his game this coming season, even if someone presents an offer sheet to Alzner the Caps choose not to match; there are more than a couple of guys down in Hershey who I expect will be invited to Camp that could make a statement that they are ready to join the NHL, further should Tom Poti be able to return to play vice retiring, it wouldn't surprise me if GMGM moves Schultz should he find a willing trade partner.