Ovechkin's struggles just one part of Capitals' frustration

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Ovechkinski.jpgElliotte Friedman of CBCSports and Hockey Night in Canada
has a great article up today
on the Washington Capitals. He looks
ahead at what needs to change for the Washington Capitals as they take
the throne from the San Jose Sharks as playoff disappointments, and it’s
tough to argue with his suggestions.

He makes a great point that
while some were instantly calling for a coaching change, it’s smart of
GM George McPhee to state publicly that he stands behind Bruce Boudreau.
That’s not to say changes aren’t coming, but firing the coach in the
days after a painful playoff loss just reeks of desperation.

There’s
no doubt that the Capitals were outcoached at times by the Canadiens,
especially as it became obvious that the Capitals had trouble adjusting
to the system the Habs were rolling with. But what about the other parts
of the team that frustrated fans the most? So what did Elliotte have to
say?

On Alex Ovechkin, he says that the superstar needs to take a
page from the book of Sidney Crosby and adjust his approach to the game
as the league catches up to him. He has some damning quotes by Canadiens
players, as they say that Ovechkin became increasingly easy to defend:

“Generally,
you know what’s coming,” Gorges said. “When he comes in on
the off-wing, he’ll try to step to the middle and shoot through you. You
can bait him into that.”

“If you do go to the middle, he will
try to go to the outside,” Gill added.

Sidney Crosby
took the next step by learning to score more himself. As some coaches
observed the Ovechkin was crippling the Capitals power play by keeping
the puck too much, perhaps #8 can take the next step himself by learning
to be more of a playmaker than a finisher. He has some incredibly
talented teammates at his disposal, and as Ovechkin became increasingly
frustrated he became intent on trying to win himself.

Friedman
goes on to say that Mike Green needs to drown out his detractors and
just go back to playing the hockey that made him so good to start with.
Forget about the Norris Trophy debates, just be yourself. He also covers
how the Capitals are perhaps too much of a finesse team, a style that’s
not exactly conducive to postseason success and attacks the notion that
perhaps the approach that works for the Caps in the regular season
won’t work in the playoffs.

After all, it’s tough to argue with
R.J. Umberger after that first round disappointment.

Finally,
Friedman takes on a very interesting aspect of this ‘mess’ that we’ve
hinted at as it became apparent that the Capitals were starting to
struggle: Alex Ovechkin didn’t look like he was having fun anymore.

I
call it the Tony Romo syndrome. Someone who was known for his exuberant
style and his love for the game allows criticism and doubts about his
ability to carry his team in the playoffs affect his love of the game.
Ovechkin was frustrated, far from his joyous self and according to
Friedman there’s talk he’s let all the public criticisms get to him.

The
Capitals are still an incredibly talented team and have a formula that
could be successful if tweaked in the right places. More importantly,
they need Alex Ovechkin to get back to being as good as we all know he
can be.

Pre-game reading: Leonsis has Ovechkin’s back on Olympics

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— Up top, relive Carey Price‘s blocker attack on Kyle Palmieri, but this time in French!

— Not for the first time, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has said he’ll support Alex Ovechkin if Ovechkin goes to the Olympics, regardless of what the NHL decides about the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. “Alex Ovechkin and his family and the Capitals and I are in it together. He’s given so much to our organization, and I would respect what he wanted to do and be very supportive of him. On this one matter I understand and I would support him.” Leonsis said essentially the same thing in 2013, before the deal to send NHLers to Sochi was struck. Granted, that was a bit different because the 2014 Games were in Russia and Ovechkin was going to be a big part of them, but Leonsis knows how badly his franchise player wants to win Olympic gold. (NHL.com)

— Wayne Gretzky, who recently rejoined the Edmonton Oilers in an executive capacity, has some thoughts on the Olympic debate: “From my point of view, we play for one thing and that’s a Stanley Cup. There’s nothing more exciting than the Stanley Cup. The one spectacle that’s really remarkable is the Olympic games. I’m a big believer in the Olympic games. I happen to love everything about the Olympic Games. I think since ’98 when we first went to Nagano, the NHL players, not only promote our sport but they do a really nice job of being around the other athletes. It helps every sport in our country. I think it’s a positive but I’m not the only guy who has say in this. I happen to love the Olympic Games, but that’s my opinion.”  (Yahoo Sports)

— Hockey is an expensive sport to play, and that means a lot of kids don’t get to enjoy it. Former NHLer Jamal Mayers is trying to change that in Chicago’s inner city. “I think it’s about kids here seeing that it’s actually possible. They’ve never seen a hockey stick before. It’s the same principles as any of the ‘ball’ sports, like soccer and basketball. You’re creating two on one’s all over the place. It’s important that we did this the right way. We can’t just put kids on the ice and say ‘Let’s play hockey.’ They have to get comfortable holding a stick.” (Rolling Stone)

— The Blue Jackets’ power play was bound to slow down. It’s still the NHL’s best, converting at 24.6 percent, but opponents have started to defend it differently. “What we’re doing is not revolutionary,” said assistant coach Brad Larsen. “But teams have made adjustments, and now we’ve had to make little tweaks here and there to answer what they’re doing.” The Jackets went 2-for-6 Monday against Arizona, but that was after four straight games without scoring a power-play goal. (Columbus Dispatch)

— The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted 11 players in 2016, but not all of them were 18 years old. Take Regina Pats center Adam Brooks, who went in the fourth round. He was 20, in his third year of draft eligibility, when he finally heard his name called in June. “It comes down to opportunity. I just didn’t have a chance to get a lot of ice time in my first couple of seasons.” Whether or not this strategy pans out for the Leafs remains to be seen, but general managers across the league will be watching. Brooks, by the way, has 47 points in just 21 games for the Pats this season. (Sportsnet)

Enjoy the games!

Goalie nods: With Lundqvist struggling, Raanta goes back-to-back

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 29: Antti Raanta #32 and Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers celebrate the Rangers 2-1 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Madison Square Garden on February 29, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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No shortage of storylines at play when the Rangers take on the ‘Hawks at the United Center this evening.

First, the big one — Antti Raanta, fresh off stopping 17 of 18 shots in a win over Winnipeg last night, will get back-to-back starts in place of the struggling Henrik Lundqvist.

“Of course you want to play, but Antti’s playing well,” Lundqvist said, per NHL.com. “I know I need to raise my level a little bit.”

Lundqvist is 3-4-1 with a 3.05 GAA and .902 save percentage in his past eight starts and, as Brough wrote about this morning, admitted some “bad decisions” have been costing him.

Raanta, meanwhile, is 6-1-0 with a 2.05 GAA and .932 save percentage in his last eight starts.

From a personal perspective, there’s a big narrative at play for Raanta as well. This will mark the first time he’s faced Chicago since being traded to New York in 2015. The Finnish ‘tender made his NHL debut for the ‘Hawks and spent two seasons with the team, but was supplanted by Scott Darling as the club’s No. 2 behind Corey Crawford en route to the ’15 Stanley Cup win.

(Raanta’s time in Chicago ended oddly, you may recall. A Finnish-language publication ran a piece in which Raanta appeared to be critical of the ‘Hawks, followed by Raanta denying he said what was reported. The writer that conducted the interview said the quotes were legit, but needed context — and then, just to put a bow on it, Raanta’s name was left off the Stanley Cup. Chicago insisted that decision had nothing to do with his remarks, though.)

For the ‘Hawks, Darling gets the start.

Elsewhere…

Braden Holtby gets a night off, as the Caps will start Philipp Grubauer (for the first time since Nov. 25) in Buffalo. Robin Lehner goes for the Sabres.

— No surprises from Columbus, who will start the in-form Sergei Bobrovsky yet again. The host Red Wings have Jimmy Howard back in the fold but will continue to ride Petr Mrazek, who made 31 saves in a win over Winnipeg on Tuesday.

Cory Schneider played last night against Montreal, so Keith Kinkaid goes for the Devils. He’ll face off against Jake Allen and the Blues, who also played last night.

— After Jonas Gustavsson was beaten six times in last night’s loss in Philly, Cam Talbot is in for the Oilers. He’ll face off against Devan Dubnyk, who continues to play lights-out for the Wild.

Martin Jones will start for the Sharks in an all-California battle in Anaheim. The Ducks will give Jonathan Bernier a shot at redemption, as he’ll start for the first time since allowing eight goals in a loss to Calgary on Sunday.

The Canucks have a big decision to make with Erik Gudbranson

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 5:  Erik Gudbranson #44 of the Vancouver Canucks skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on November 5, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Leafs defeated the Canucks 6-3. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Erik Gudbranson got his first goal as a Vancouver Canuck last night in Tampa.

It was not the most beautiful goal ever scored, coming halfway through the first period, after Gudbranson wristed a point shot wide. The puck bounced off the boards, hit Ben Bishop‘s left pad, and slid into the net, giving the Canucks a surprising 2-0 lead.

Vancouver would go on to win, 5-1, handing the Bolts an embarrassing loss to a team they should’ve been able to beat.

But the night was a welcome reprieve for Gudbranson, who’s “struggled a little” since coming to Vancouver in an offseason trade with Florida. The 24-year-old defenseman is a minus-13 in 27 games, partly due to his team’s lack of goal-scoring, but also because of his own inconsistent play.

“I personally struggled a little with the new systems and adapting to it and finding a way within that system to play physical,” he told the Vancouver Sun recently. “I want to be tough to play against. I want guys to know they’re going to get hit if they come to my side. For a while there, I was struggling to find a way to have that presence.”

Gudbranson (1G, 4A) has been paired exclusively with young Ben Hutton, and those two have been playing big minutes with Alex Edler and Chris Tanev out injured.

It’s actually a good opportunity for the Canucks to see what they’ve really got, because Gudbranson is a pending restricted free agent with arbitration rights. This is his sixth season in the NHL, so he only needs one more season before he’s into his unrestricted years. His current cap hit is $3.5 million, and he probably won’t be looking to take a pay cut.

What to do with Gudbranson represents a huge decision for Canucks GM Jim Benning, who sent a good prospect in Jared McCann, as well as a second-round draft pick, to Florida to get the former third overall pick. Signing Gudbranson to a long-term contract is one option. But another has to be flipping him for help elsewhere, especially if Tanev isn’t going anywhere.

“We have depth on defense,” Benning said recently. “We’ve rebuilt our defense. (Nikita) Tryamkin is 22 years old, (Troy) Stecher is 22 years old. (Alex) Edler at 30 is our oldest defenseman, so we have a young, good group back there. We have depth back there. So if we look to make a move, we’d have to use some of our depth on the blue line to add a forward.”

Gudbranson, Tanev, and Stecher all play the right side, and Tryamkin can play it, too. Edler, Hutton, and Luca Sbisa play the left side. So does Olli Juolevi, who could be in the NHL next season.

So, do the Canucks see Gudbranson as a top-four defenseman? Or, is he a bottom-pairing guy behind Tanev and Stecher? Because if he’s a bottom-pairing guy, it’ll be hard to justify paying him big money on a long-term deal.

In fact, that’s why the Panthers traded him. It’s not because they didn’t like him. They just didn’t like him enough. They wanted puck-movers like Keith Yandle and Jason Demers, and Gudbranson is about as stay-at-home as it gets in today’s fast-paced NHL.

To be sure, there is a lot to like about Gudbranson. He’s big and he’s tough and he sticks up for his teammates. He’s always got a positive attitude.

“He’s a player that, in the analytics, maybe things don’t always measure out like you’d want them to,” Benning conceded back in September. “But as far as the intangibles, I really think he’s going to help our back end and our whole team.”

But again, how much is that worth?

Because in the salary-cap era, where every dollar counts, teams have to be very careful about overpaying for “intangibles.” The Canucks do have some cap space for next season, but remember that Bo Horvat is a pending RFA whom they’d like to get signed long term. And let’s face it, Vancouver isn’t good enough to waste cap space. If the money’s not going to good use, it needs to go elsewhere.

Trade: Holland, who wanted out of Toronto, acquired by Coyotes

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 18:  Peter Holland #24 of the Toronto Maple Leafs stretches in the warm-up prior to play against the New York Rangers in an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on February 18, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Rangers defeated the Maple Leafs 4-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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In late November, the agent for Maple Leafs forward Peter Holland confirmed the club was trying to move his client, amid reports Holland was displeased with his playing time under head coach Mike Babcock.

On Friday, Holland got what he wanted.

Per Sportsnet, Holland has been traded to Arizona for a conditional draft pick. Coyotes GM John Chayka has since confirmed the trade, to AZ Sports’ Craig Morgan.

Holland has been a bit player in Toronto this year, appearing in just eight games while averaging 10:43 TOI per night. He hasn’t suited up since getting just over nine minutes in a win over the Caps on Nov. 26.

The 25-year-old has been with the team since the middle of the 2013-14 season and has been fairly consistent in his production during that time, recording 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists) in 65 games last year. That came after a 25-point (11 goal, 14 assist) performance in 62 games the year prior.

Holland’s production was enough to get him a one-year, $1.3 million extension from the Leafs over the summer.

In Arizona, he’ll have a shot at replacing some of the minutes at center that became available with Brad Richardson’s injury.

Update: Per multiple reports, the conditional pick is a 6th-rounder at the 2018 draft. The condition is Arizona will only send Toronto the pick if it re-signs Holland, or trades him.