The Washington Capitals are hoping that they will have something in common with the late great comedian Jack Benny this upcoming season. That something is the number 39. Benny portrayed character roles as a miser, and playing the violin badly. In character, he would be 39 years of age, regardless of his actual age at the time and it always seemed to work for him, being 39 that is.
The Capitals are hoping that their 39th season in the NHL is the charm as the franchise looks for its first Stanley Cup title as play begins tonight in Tampa vs. the Lightning. Ironically, Benny passed away in 1974, the same year the Capitals began play in the NHL as an expansion team.
The Stanley Cup Finals, or for that matter, the playoffs are still a long way away. There is a ton of hockey that must be played in a very short period before we get to the post season. The 2013 season is not the customary 82 game marathon but a 48 game sprint to the finish. It is likely that every one of these games will be a learning experience as the Capitals and their new head coach get to know one and other on the fly.
Last season, the Capitals suffered through their most tumultuous year since the Great Alex Ovechkin came to town. The season began as if Washington was going to walk through the league, but seven games do not a season make in the NHL.
The Caps started a franchise best 7-0-0 with impressive wins over Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. That is when the wheels fell off. Washington lost 10 of their next 15 games. After bad loses in Toronto and Buffalo, two teams depleted with injuries and without as many as nine regular starters, Bruce Boudreau was fired.
Former Caps captain Dale Hunter took over and while it was not always wine and roses, Washington was 30-23-7 under Hunter and seemed to excel as the season wore on playing his tough trapping style of hockey. This was evidenced by the fact that Washington went 25-3-5 when scoring first after Hunter took over as head coach on Nov. 28. Washington went 23-1-4 when leading after the first period, which ranked fifth in the NHL and the Caps went 25-0-1 when leading after two periods, third in the NHL (.962 win percentage).
Following a stunning upset of the defending Stanley Cup Champions in seven games and then a loss in seven games to the New York Rangers, Dale Hunter decided the NHL was not for him and returned to his junior team in London Ontario.
This was a surprising turn of events considering the playoff success Hunter experienced against Boston. With no choice and slim pickings, the Caps elected to once hand the keys to the Jaguar to a driver with a provisional license. Now, for the first time since the 2002-03 season and just the fourth time in franchise history (1978-79, 1997-98 and 2002-03),the Capitals will open a season with a new head coach.
Former Caps player Adam Oates is poised to make his NHL head-coaching debut tonight in Tampa Bay after becoming the 16th head coach in franchise history this off-season. Oates played in 387 games with Washington and becomes the fourth head coach to have also played for the Capitals during his career. Oates who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on the same day the Capitals hired him, will look to play an up-tempo style somewhere between the Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter system.
One of the traits that make Oates a great hire, aside from the fact that he bears a striking resemblance to actor Ray Liota, is his intelligence. General Manager George McPhee is not afraid to make a hire based off a lack of head coaching experience.
Oates is the fifth straight coach hired by GMGM with no experience guiding an NHL club. “You want intelligent guys running the bench," McPhee said. "A guy like Bill Belichick in New England, he's a bright guy, and you try to get the smartest guy in the room. And I just think, with Adam's understanding of this game, his ability to articulate it, he can be that guy."
NO TIME TO SETTLE IN:
Of all the seasons the Capitals sure could have used a full training camp, this was it. The Capitals, like every other NHL team will begin the 2013 season under the gun with just six practices and one scrimmage game under their helmets. How they fair on the ice all depends on how well they adapt to their fifth system change and fourth head coach (Hanlon, Boudreau, Hunter Oates) during the past five seasons.
Gone from D.C.. are some familiar faces that played a big role during the past five successful seasons. Aside from Dale Hunter’s departure, the Capitals did not bring back Alexander Semin, who decided to stay in the Southeast as he signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. Caps fans will have to wait a bit to see Semin in his new digs. The Caps and Canes do not meet until Feb 26 at Verizon Center in D.C.
Defenseman Dennis Wideman is also gone. The Caps lone All-Star representative in last year’s game is now playing in Calgary with the Flames. After three seasons in Washington, Mike Knuble’s time as a Capital also ended.
Cody Eakin was traded to the Dallas Stars during a busy first night of the NHL Draft in June. Along with the Caps 54th pick in the draft, Eakin was sent to the Stars for center Mike Ribeiro.
The Capitals also signed Eric Fehr this week in a move to bolster the depth at the forward position. This was not a stretch signing. The Caps former first round pick in the 2003 draft, played 230 games with Washington, recording 46 goals and 93 points, but was often sidelined by significant injuries to both shoulders. In July 2011, the Capitals traded Fehr to the Winnipeg Jets for a fourth-round draft pick and prospect Danick Paquette in order to shed salary and comply with the upcoming season’s salary cap.
Fehr, 27, recorded 13 goals and 25 points in 21 games with HPK Hameenlinna in Finland’s SM-Liiga during the lockout.
Off-Season Departures/Free Agents
D Dennis Wideman (traded to Calgary); C Jeff Halpern (unrestricted free agent, signed by NY Rangers); LW Alexander Semin (unrestricted free agent, signed by Carolina); G Tomas Vokoun (traded to Pittsburgh); C Keith Aucoin (unrestricted free agent, signed by Toronto); D Sean Collins (unrestricted free agent, signed by NY Rangers); C Cody Eakin (traded to Dallas); LW D.J. King (unrestricted free agent); RW Mike Knuble (unrestricted free agent)
Ribeiro headlines our additions to the Capitals as Washington in need of depth at the second center position acquired the former Dallas Star. Ribeiro should fill the void as he has produced eight consecutive seasons of 50 or more points.
Off-Season Acquisitions (w/ previous rights)
May 26: Acquired C Zach Hamill from Boston for LW Chris Bourque. June 22: Acquired C Mike Ribeiro from Dallas for C Cody Eakin and a 2nd-round pick in 2012. July 2: Signed RW Joey Crabb (Toronto). July 3: Signed D Jack Hillen (Nashville). July 11: Signed LW Wojtek Wolski (Florida
Here are four critical areas to watch as the Capitals begin their season.
THE GREAT 8 AND HIS NEW HEAD COACH, AGAIN:
Adam Oates has the responsibility of building the Great 8 back up once again. After all, the Washington Capitals are Alex Ovechkin’s team and Dale Hunter did a good job of tearing down and humbling him last season.
Hunter allowed Ovie to remain the Captain but Ovechkin was seen sitting on the bench during critical juncture of playoff games last season because of his selfish play and the fact that his defense had become a liability. Under Hunter, Ovie was rarely seen late in games with the Capitals protecting a goal lead. A star player that averaged almost 22 minutes of ice time per game entering the 2011-12 season, The Great 8 logged a season-low 13:36 of ice time in Game 2 of the playoffs last season vs. the Rangers in the second round. However, he still recorded a game-high seven shots, delivered two hits, blocked one shot and produced the game-winning goal in a 3-2 victory that evened the Caps best-of-seven series with the Rangers at 1-1.
Ovie was even taken off the power play at critical points, a change that began with Boudreau behind the bench. How Ovechkin responds this season with a rookie coach who was a Hall of Fame player that specialized in point production may take time to analyze but the early returns are good for Ovie and the Caps.
Ovechkin made an appearance before the lockout at Washington’s prospects camp, suiting up and taking the ice with the future of the team. His personal life has settled down greatly with his recent engagement to Russian tennis player Maria Kirilenko.
Ovie announced to the world via his Twitter account on New Year’s Eve that he was engaged. Further proof Ovechkin is ready to recapture the offensive form that made him the Great 8 is recent comments from the Caps superstar.
Ovechkin and Oates have an open line of communication and Ovie likes it that way. “I know I can talk to him about everything,” Ovechkin told the Washington Times in a recent story. “I talk only one time to Dale all year. Right now I talk to Oatesy almost every day.”
Ovechkin has never been outwardly critical of his coaches but he has been known to mouth off at them while on the bench. Remember the game when Ovechkin was caught responding to Bruce Boudreau when Gabby left him on the bench late at home versus the Anaheim Ducks just before Boudreau was fired.
When Hunter decided not to return, whispers of coach killer surfaced about Ovechkin’s role in the sudden instability behind Washington’s bench. Ovechkin is still young and great enough to be cocky but all goal scorers are. He is rich with a beautiful and successful fiancé and he boasts an ego to match.
Oates was chosen in part to coral Ovechkin a bit while allowing him the freedom to be The Great 8. Oates played a pivotal role in doing the same for another Russian star, the New Jersey Devils Ilya Kovalchuk last season. Devils head coach Peter Deboer raved about how Oates helped settle Kovalchuk down, which allowed him to return to playing his game.
Kovalchuk was traded to New Jersey by Atlanta at the trade deadline in 2010 and a few months later signed a 15-year, $100 million deal just before the start of the 2010-11 season. However, he did not play like a man earning $6.66 million per year. His 63-points were a big disappointment but with Oates help last season, Kovalchuk was 23 points better and the Devils reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
Ovechkin has steadily dropped his point production from 112 points in 2008 to a career low 65 last season, which were 20 less than he produced two seasons ago.
Former Oates teammate Brett Hull, who scored 741 career goals and had his best seasons with Oates at his side, took a shot of sorts at Dale Hunter while trying to explain to Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times why Oates and Ovechkin is a better marriage for the franchise.
“Coaches that never [were stars], they don’t understand Ovechkin. Like Dale Hunter. How is Dale Hunter ever going to understand what’s inside the mind of Ovechkin? He can’t. Adam Oates can,” said Hull, who scored more than a third of his career goals with Oates as his linemate. “He understands the mind of a superstar scorer and the ego that goes with it and what it takes to satisfy that ego. And the ego I’m talking about isn’t a bad thing; it’s a hunger within that guy.”
The two time Hart and three time Lindsay award winner played for his hometown team, the Dynamo Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League during the lockout. He performed well in what is now considered a personal training camp. Ovie had 19-golas and 40-points in 30 games.
He returned as soon as he heard the lockout was ending and was excited to be back in D.C. In fact, he seemed to be his old joking self as he showed up day one wearing a tee-shirt that said, "Am I really the prettiest one here, again?"
I’m not sure about that about, but I would like to see Ovie sporting a tee shirt as training camp opens next season that says, “Did we really just win the Stanley Cup”
PRIORITY No.1 FOR ADAM OATES, RETURN THE POWER PLAY TO GLORY: The Washington Capitals power play has been seen in spurts during parts of the past two seasons, but the one that led the NHL back in the 2010 season converting extra man chances 25.2 percent of the time is still on the side of many milk cartons.
Bruce Boudreau tried everything he could to get the Caps PP rolling again ever since the Montreal Canadiens and Jaroslav Halak destroyed it during the 2010 playoffs. The Capitals who dominated the NHL with the extra man the man converted just one time in 32 (3.1 %) chances during the stunning seven game series loss.
Last season, Washington finished ranked 18th with 16.7 percent effectiveness. The Caps PP has looked as if it’s been a step behind or half second too late in recent years. However, head coach Adam Oats feels the parts are in place and the system seems adequate. He will not provide major changes to it as his team enters the season.
“Seems to me the Capitals PP has been in place for a long time and I’ve always thought it was correct, so we’re not gonna change it,” said Oates, who worked with the power play during his two years as an assistant coach in New Jersey. “They’ve always had the pieces in place and it’s always kind of been the model for a lot of teams, myself included.”
It is hard to argue Oates point but is easy to point out its lack of production. You could also point to indicators, which suggest that the Caps PP was not completely missing last season. Washington went 22-8-1 when they scored a power-play goal and 16-2-0 when scoring a power-play goal and not allowing a goal with the man advantage.
So what will Oates do? It appears not as much as you might think.
One of the biggest changes Caps fans will notice is with the alignment. Oates is introducing is a 1-3-1 alignment, where one player primarily patrols the point, with three across the middle and another around the crease.
Based on the drills the Capitals ran in practice this week, the first power-play unit will include Green at the point, Ovechkin on the left half-wall, Troy Brouwer in the high slot, Backstrom on the right half-wall and Marcus Johansson around the net. The second group has John Carlson at the point, Ovechkin, Joel Ward and Mike Ribeiro in the middle and Wojtek Wolski down low.
The setup creates plenty of options, forcing an opposing penalty kill unit to guess which way a pass might go next, and relies on the usual power-play tenet of crisp movement. In practice, Oates focused on making sure each player in the unit was aware of how to react to any possible play or bounce.
With the shortened season, 48 games in 100 days, power plays are likely to be on the rise as teams hook and trip and rough trying to get into shape and keep up in a hurry. With that said, the Caps power play must improve this season if Washington is going to be any threat.
OFFENSE-DEFENSE AND DEPTH:
Washington does not have a rookie on the opening-night roster for the second-consecutive season. The last time the Capitals opened a season with a rookie on the roster was in 2010-11. The Caps had three first-year players take the ice to start that season (John Carlson, Marcus Johansson and Michal Neuvirth). Eleven players on the Capitals opening night roster were originally drafted by the team. Nine players were signed as free agents while three were acquired via trade.
The Capitals have depth but the question remains what type of consistency can they provide?
The Capitals needed all four lines to help the team reach the playoffs last season and again to get past the Bruins in the playoffs. That is not bad thing, third and fourth line scoring was a major reason why the Capitals have not had playoff success during Ovie’s era. Still, rarely did the Capitals call on the third and fourth units during the Ovechkin era as much as they did last season.
As a result, a number of Caps had career years in 2011-12. Mathieu Perreault recorded career highs for games played (64), goals (16), assists (14) and points (30). Karl Alzner collected career-best numbers for assists (16) and points (17) while Marcus Johansson had career-best marks in games played (80), goals (14), assists (32) and points (46). Jay Beagle set a career high in games played (41), goals (4) and points (5).
After jumping head first into the free agent market in 2011, the Caps dipped their big toe to test the waters first this past offseason. Washington was not quite the hit they were last summer but all the 2011 free agent market proved for Washington was that nothing is guaranteed and what a player looks like on paper does not always translate to the ice. They also learned that small samplings (Joel Ward playoffs with Nashville) do not always give you a great indicator either.
Aside from the draft day trade to acquire Ribeiro, the Capitals acquired Left wing Wojtek Wolski, right wings Joey Crabb and Eric Fehr and defenseman Jack Hillen. All serviceable players for the direction Adam Oates is taking his team.
Oates wants to play and all fit the resume. “You look at the two teams in the finals,” says Oates of the 2012 playoffs, “they were both in-your-face teams, all over the ice, in all three zones. I consider myself that kind of coach. There is a correct way to play. I don’t believe in sitting back. We have a lot of talented players here. I want our players to go north. I want us to be in the face of the other team. But we’ve also got to protect our goalie and our defense. We’ve got to play good defense. Offense comes from defense, for sure.”
The depth chart has Nicklas Backstrom centering Alex Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer. Ribeiro centers Marcus Johansson and Wolski. Brooks Laich in between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward and the fourth line, which was huge at times for Dale Hunter last season, sees the duo of Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks back and joining them should be Eric Fehr.
The Caps are hoping to get even more production from their blue line despite losing their defensive leading scorer, Dennis Wideman to Calgary. Another former Capitals player joining Oates on the bench is former Caps defenseman Calle Johansson.
Johansson introduced a new-old philosophy to the blue liners this week when he told them every defenseman on the roster has the green light to join the rush up ice if the situation presents itself. This will also pertain to the power play.
The blue liners are going to have to jump the play if they hope to repeat their performance from last season as a unit. In 2011-12, Washington’s 10 blue liners combined for 30 goals and 112 assists for 142 points in the team’s 82 games last season. A defenseman contributed at least one point in 62 of Washington’s 82 games last year. Washington’s defensemen combined for 20 more points last season than they amassed in 2010-11 (28 goals, 93 assists).
A major reason why the Caps defense was so steady is that they were arguably and of course Mike Green aside, one of the healthier units in the NHL. For the first time in their 37 seasons in the NHL, the Capitals had three defensemen – Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Dennis Wideman – who played in all of Washington’s games in the same season. In those 37 seasons, the Caps have gotten a full season’s work out of a defenseman 23 times including the three last seasons. Alzner and Carlson are just the fourth and fifth defensemen in franchise history to play in every game in a season in two consecutive campaigns and the first to do so in 20 years. The last Caps defenseman to play in every game in back to-back seasons is now the guy coaching the blue line unit, Calle Johansson.
The Capitals are going to have to address an issue that could have hurt them far worse than it actually did last season. Washington managed to win 25 games last season in which they were outshot. Teams cannot push the luck button on those types of stats two years in row. Simply put, Washington must protect the crease and continue to block shots as they did in the playoffs last season when they were the best of the 16 teams in round one and better than the Rangers, who were the best in round 2.
However, with the new philosophy in place and the possibility of Mike Green staying healthy for just 48 games, The Caps defense may help make up where the forwards lack depth beyond the first two lines. The Capitals will eventually replace Wideman with Dmitry Orlov, who has some offensive potential but has not played for Hershey in the American Hockey League since early December because of an injury. Karl Alzner, Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Schultz are not going to remind you of Paul Coffey, but Green and Carlson could be among the top offensive tandems in the League.
WILL HOLTBY BE THE No.1 GOALIE?
Braden Holtby emerged once again late last season at the right time and played his way into the starting cage for the playoffs. Holtby was only 4-2-1 but posted a 2.49 GAA and with Tomas Vokoun hurt and Michael Neuvirth struggling, Holtby’s poise and confidence far beyond what would be expected of a 22-year-old earned him the crease for the 2012 playoffs.
According to NHL.com, it seems obvious he would be the No. 1 goaltender as the 2012-13 season starts, but it only seems that way when playing in Washington. Capitals head coaches have had short memories when it comes to the hot playoff goalie in D.C.
The netminder who was the team's No. 1 goaltender during the previous postseason has not held that same distinction by the time Game 1 of the next postseason arrived four years running. Since Olaf Kolzig ceded the No. 1 job to Cristobal Huet near the end of the 2007-08 season, no one has kept the title for very long.
However, none of the other goaltenders accomplished what Holtby did for Washington during this span. His play allowed him to become just the third rookie goaltender to defeat the defending Stanley Cup champions in a playoff series when he helped the Capitals eliminate Boston. The other two: Montreal’s Ken Dryden (1971, also against Boston) and Calgary’s Mike Vernon (1986, against Edmonton). Holtby was the seventh rookie goaltender to post an overtime win in Game 7 of a playoff series and the first since Buffalo’s Steve Shields defeated Ottawa in 1997.
The Holtby option irked Neuvirth enough to give a heartfelt interview to a Czech newspaper last summer. Neuvy made some comments, which at first seemed like he was taking shots. Nevertheless, when you get through the three translations from Czech to English and eventually read the whole context of the quotes, it became obvious that Neuvirth's critical comments about Holtby being his weakest competition are not an issue. At least that is what both said in training camp.
Oates says both men will get their shot to be a No.1 guy between the pipes but the Caps really seem to play better with Holtby in net. They seem to play a more confident attacking style and it is likely that if Holtby stays hot or at least on the north side of warm, his stick handling skills may be too much for Neuvy to overcome.
While the Capitals are the Capitals, and by that I mean there is always a bit more drama than necessary both on and off the ice. There are always questions that arise at a moment’s notice with this team, but with that said, one has to feel confident that if Oates can get his system and message in place in time, then Washington should be looking at a sixth straight trip to the playoffs.
Winning a Stanley Cup on the fly would be an unbelievable accomplishment but that’s what the Capitals and any other team with a new head coach would be doing. While I will not go as far as predicting Stanley Cup glory, I do feel a better than expected finish for this team, especially with a rejuvenated Alex Ovechkin.
The Caps will make it out of the second round this season, perhaps losing to the Rangers in the conference finals. Just because the “Young Guns” are getting a bit older and wouldn’t you like to be considered old at 27, does not mean the door is closing, it is not.
The Capitals will make their mark in 2013 and just because I don’t expect to see them in the Fianls doesn’t mean it would surprise me to see them playing in June. I mean after all, did you expect to see the LA Kings last year?