2010-11 NHL season preview: Washington Capitals

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for ovechkinshoots.jpgLast season: (54-15-13, 121 points, 1st in Southeast Division, 1st in Eastern Conference) Capitals fans will cringe at this statement, but if one more season goes like the 2009-10 campaign did, those ‘San Jose Sharks East’ jokes will have a lot more validity. The team put together an astounding regular season, finishing nine points higher than the top-seeded Sharks in the West and 18 points higher than the Devils, the East’s second seed. Yet all that chest puffing amounted to despair in the playoffs as Montreal shocked Washington despite being down 3-1 in the series. The victim of bad luck since they vastly out-shot the Canadiens most of that series, but it’s hard to defend a team that is 1-3 in Game 7s during the Alex Ovechkin years … at home.

Head coach: People forget that the Capitals weren’t even a playoff team until Bruce Boudreau took the reins. Some bristle at the team’s middling interest in defense, but it makes them the NHL’s answer to the ‘seven seconds or less’ Phoenix Suns. Boudreau handles the team like Ovechkin handles his beloved sports cars: fast, furious and with more than a hint of recklessness. While the Capitals fans’ reactions on Twitter might make such an event intolerable, I’d love to see Boudreau stick to his guns and win a Cup by playing with a devil-may-care attitude. He might need to soon, because every season the team disappoints in the playoffs, the calls for his head grow louder.

Key departures: G Jose Theodore, F Eric Belanger, F Brendan Morrison, F Scott Walker, D Joe Corvo, D Milan Jurcina, D Shaone Morrisonn. The Capitals are betting big that two cheap, young goalies will do the job, so they let Theodore walk. The Belanger departure was like a bad breakup, with e-mails published and feelings hurt. Morrison and Morrisonn are also both gone along with the much-criticized Corvo and some other filler players. Washington could be a serious player during the trade deadline since they have a bunch of cap space after consistently opting to promote prospects instead of paying mediocre veterans.

Key arrivals: F D.J. King, G Dany Sabourin. OK, this category is a little deceptive since you could easily call goalie Michal Neuvirth, defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson and other Capitals prospects-turned-professionals ‘new arrivals’ to the pro squad. If the young squad falters, people will critique GM George McPhee for being inactive during the summer free agency frenzy, though.

mikegreeninasuit.jpgUnder pressure: While the team is rolling the dice on Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov in net, Mike Green might be under the greatest amount of pressure (even if the spotlight is always on Ovechkin). Despite putting up the offensive numbers of a first-line forward, Green receives criticism for his defensive lapses (and the occasional regrettable fashion choice). He actually receives a little too much abuse, but I can see why people have a beef that he almost seems destined to win a Norris Trophy. The Capitals lack a true shutdown player on the blue line, so Green gets too many of those minutes. If they lose again, he’ll be one of the top scapegoats, whether it’s fair or not.

Protecting the house: Look for the more NHL-experienced Varlamov to be the ‘1A’ in this goalie rotation. The Russian played nicely during the ’09 playoffs, helping the team come back from a hole they dug for themselves against the New York Rangers before succumbing in an awful Game 7 shellacking against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Both Varlamov and young backup/1B Neuvirth will experience something of a Grant Fuhr effect, as their numbers will be undermined by the wide-open style their team deploys. Yet, much like Fuhr during the 80s Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty days, they should expect the kind of goal support that make wins easy to come by.

The much-lampooned Green leads a flawed, but underrated, group of defensemen that could use a little more grit and veteran experience. Jeff Schultz is probably the ‘unsung hero’ of the group while Tom Poti is decent if a bit overpaid. This group could be a lot better than people expect — or a serious handicap for a contending team — depending on how Alzner and Carlson fare in their first full year of NHL action.

Top line we’d like to see: Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Mike Knuble. Although Alex Semin is a dangerous scorer, I think his skills are a little redundant when he’s out there with Ovechkin. By putting this trio out there, you have the best sniper in the game (Ovechkin), one of the top five passers (Backstrom) and a guy who will get to the front of the net and is often the missing and far-too-easily-forgotten ingredient on great lines (Knuble). This combination is more playoff-proven than the line with Semin instead of Knuble, too.

Oh captain, my captain: Sometimes, you just have to make the obvious choice, and Ovechkin is the ‘face’ of the franchise. The team is built around his all-world/generation/century skills, so putting the ‘C’ on his sweater just makes sense. He might not be a rah-rah type leader when he isn’t jumping into the glass after scoring a goal, but he’s their obvious leader.

Street fighting man: Since letting Donald Brashear go two summers ago, the team hasn’t really had a suitable enforcer. And, really, why bother slowing down that offense for a dancing grizzly bear? Matt Bradley was the team leader in fights last season with just five, according to HockeyFights.com. Still, with truculence-minded GMs installed in Florida and Atlanta this summer, they might need to let D.J. King suit up every now and then.

varlamovglovesit.jpgBest-case scenario: The Capitals silence their critics with a playoff run that’s even more impressive than their typically ridiculous regular-season production. After blowing through Montreal in a first-round grudge match, Washington dispatches two of their biggest nemeses (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh) before dispatching the best of the West. Ovechkin wins a Hart Trophy and a Conn Smythe, their goalies play great hockey and Mike Green wins his first Norris Trophy, leading their bend-but-don’t-break defense.

Worst-case scenario: Not only do the Capitals fall apart in the first round of the playoffs, losing another Game 7 at home, but they do so as the fourth seed as an upstart club steals the division title away. Ovechkin’s physical style starts to take its toll as he misses a significant chunk of the season with injuries, Backstrom relaxes a little now that he has a big deal, Semin and Green disappear during the playoffs and the young goalies falter under the pressure. Boudreau receives a pink slip and McPhee coaxes Jacques Lemaire out of retirement to turn the Capitals into a trapping hockey team.

Keeping it real: The Capitals really could have used a genuine second-line center, but if their young players can play to their potential, they should still run away with the Southeast Division and probably take the top seed in the East again. It’s reasonable to wonder if Washington will ever win during the playoffs — a time in which they can no longer feast on ‘easy’ goals — but this team certainly will give defenses plenty to worry about. A Cup victory is certainly reasonable for this group.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Caps are a 5. If their goalies falter, the Caps could bring in a veteran goalie (maybe Tomas Vokoun if the Panthers can stomach the idea of him playing for a division ‘rival’?) with all that excess cap space. People forget that every great champion takes its lumps before they hit pay dirt. The Penguins lost to the Red Wings in the Cup finals while the Blackhawks fell to Detroit as well before claiming their championships. Only the most flippant observer would say they don’t have a great chance at a Cup victory.

Leon Draisaitl lands on injured reserve for Oilers

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After missing his team’s 6-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night, the Edmonton Oilers announced on Monday that forward Leon Draisaitl has been placed on injure reserve.

He was injured one week ago in a game against the Winnipeg Jets and has been sidelined with an eye injury and concussion symptoms ever since. It’s a big blow to an Oilers team that is off to a slower than expected start having won just one of their first four games.

Draisaitl signed an eight-year, $68 million contract over the summer making him a significant part of the Oilers’ core alongside Connor McDavid. He finished the 2016-17 season as one of the top offensive players in the league and is going to be counted on to help carry the offense again when he is healthy. The Oilers don’t have a ton of forward depth and are going to need McDavid and Draisaitl to be the focal points once again if they are going to live up to the preseason hype that made them one of the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

Before he was injured this season Draisaitl had recorded one assist in three games.

The Oilers host the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.

It is not yet known how long he will be sidelined.

SPHL gets creative, adopts ‘pick your opponent’ playoff format

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When discussion about the NHL’s playoff format comes up, there is a section of fans who would like to see the league allow for an even greater reward for top teams other than home-ice advantage.

That idea has become a reality thanks to the Southern Professional Hockey League.

The 10-team SPHL announced on Monday that they are overhauling their opening round and turning it into what’s being dubbed the “Challenge Round.” The top three teams will get to choose their first-round opponent during a “Challenge Round Selection” event which will be broadcast to fans on Sunday, April 8, the day after the regular season concludes. After the top three seeds select their opponents, the No. 4 team will be matched against the leftover side.

Every playoff series, including the President’s Cup Final, will remain best-of-three with re-seeding taking place for the second round.

The idea for this change came to SPHL commissioner Jim Combs over dinner in June with Axel Bammer, Chief Operating Officer of the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga. When Combs heard that the league’s top teams get to pick their opening round opponent, he could imagine the buzz and interest it would generate. (Sweden’s Elitserien did this in the past as well.)

A week after meeting with Bammer, Combs met with the league’s owners and received zero pushback about the idea. The new playoff format was widely embraced as the group felt this was the future of the hockey.

Feedback has been mixed on the change. But Mike Campos, who covers the SPHL for The Sin Bin, sees it being a big plus for the league.

One of the benefits of being at the bottom rung of the professional hockey ladder (second-lowest, if you consider the FHL a pro league) is there is flexibility to implement radically new ideas other leagues can not. If the “Pick Your Opponent” format change generates buzz among fans and rivalries between teams resulting in a spirited postseason, the decision could be a winner for the SPHL.

As Campos notes, lower levels of hockey allow for plenty of onnovation while not straying far from the fundamentals of running a hockey league. This new format will certainly make the end of the regular season much more interesting and provide bulletin board material for teams and storylines heading into the playoffs. It’s an idea worth exploring, and the SPHL is no stranger to implementing ideas that catch on elsewhere.

It was the SPHL where 3-on-3 hockey began over a decade ago. It was deemed a silly gimmick at first, but now that we’ve seen it at the NHL level for two seasons, it’s clearly a welcomed change — one that’s made overtime hockey must-see television.

Combs said the league will see how it this playoff format idea plays out in April before deciding whether to keep or tweak it in the future.

So what do you think? Would you want to see the NHL go in this direction for the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Stick-tap Scotty Wazz

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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With Perreault out four weeks, Jets call on prospect Kyle Connor

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Kyle Connor has been a scorer just about everywhere he has played — the USHL, the University of Michigan, and the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League.

He’s only had a brief taste of life in the NHL, playing 20 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season, scoring two goals and five points.

The 2015 first-round pick hasn’t yet experienced the same success at the NHL level, although he’s about to get another opportunity with the Jets after getting recalled on Monday. The move comes after Winnipeg placed Mathieu Perreault on injured reserve. He’s expected to miss up to four weeks.

Perreault has yet to play a full 82-game schedule with the Jets because of injuries, but he’s been an important player when available, with consistent production and strong possession numbers. That said, the 20-year-old Connor is a promising prospect with the potential for significant upside, especially considering the role he should find himself in.

Per NHL.com on Monday, Connor skated on the wing with Bryan Little and sophomore scorer Patrik Laine. That, it would appear, is Winnipeg’s second line, which gives them a difficult top-six group of forwards — the top line consisting of the red-hot Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler — for the opposition to face.

“Speed. That’s the big piece that he can add to that line,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “Patrik’s such a great shooter. Bryan’s a really quick player. What Perreault did well was he got in and he got on it. He was quick enough to get in there to create some offensive zone time and allow those guys to do the things they do well and Kyle should be able to add that.”

The Jets have won three in a row, with Connor Hellebuyck giving them a trio of impressive performances in net. They host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, although according to Sara Orlesky of TSN, Steve Mason is expected to get the start.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Eddie Olczyk to return to broadcast booth for Blackhawks-Blues Rivalry Night showdown

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The Chicago Blackhawks visit the St. Louis Blues for Wednesday’s Rivalry Night contest on NBCSN, and there will be a familiar voice on the broadcast.

Eddie Olczyk will return to the broadcast booth for this contest — the first meeting of the season between these two Central Division rivals — just over two months after it was publicly revealed that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer and was undergoing treatment following surgery to remove a tumor.

“We have some dates that we have highlighted and hopefully I will be strong to do the job,” Olczyk told USA Today. “If I am not feeling good, I just have to be honest with everyone and tell them I can’t do it.”

Read more: Blackhawks announcer Pat Foley gives shout out to Eddie Olczyk at Wrigley Field

Olczyk played 1,031 NHL games for six teams, including the Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, New York Rangers, L.A. Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins, from 1984 to 2000, scoring 342 goals and 794 points.

After coaching the Penguins during the 2003-04 and 2005-06 seasons, Olczyk moved to the broadcast booth as an analyst for NBC Sports’ coverage of the NHL and also Blackhawks games on NBC Sports Chicago.

In a statement in August, Olczyk vowed to return to broadcasting after his treatment.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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