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.

Sounds like Auston Matthews will finally return for Leafs

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All things considered, the Toronto Maple Leafs have weathered the storm when it comes to Auston Matthews‘ injuries.

Granted, there are likely “What if?” games, with Tuesday’s disappointing loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning standing as an example. Would the Maple Leafs have coughed up a 3-0 lead to lose to the Bolts in regulation with two-way star Matthews in the lineup? It’s a moot point, but Buds fans likely wonder as much.

Either way, the Maple Leafs are comfortably resting as a dangerous third seed in the Atlantic Division, waiting to see if the Lightning slip to second place or if they’ll take on the Boston Bruins (who likely feel little sympathy for Toronto’s injury issues considering their own).

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The Maple Leafs deserve credit for resisting the urge to rush Matthews back in the lineup, yet with the regular season winding down, they have to weigh risking re-injuries against the American star being too rusty. It sounds like Matthews will finally get back into the lineup for Thursday’s game against the red-hot Predators in Nashville.

At least, that’s what Matthews says, via TSN’s Mark Masters:

Matthews’ latest malady has sidelined him since Feb. 22. During his absence, the Maple Leafs went 5-3-2, scoring four more goals than they allowed.

There have been some bright sides to Matthews missing 20 games. For one thing, other players have been able to run with opportunities that might have been muted with him in the lineup. Mitch Marner generated an impressive 14 points in the latest 10 games with Matthews on the shelf, while James van Riemsdyk has been sniping at a ridiculous pace (eight of his 10 points have been goals). Morgan Reilly’s also been on fire, collecting nine points during that 10-game span.

From Left Wing Lock’s listings, it looks like Matthews will see some familiar linemates in William Nylander and Zach Hyman, while Marner and JVR aim to flesh out the second and third lines respectively.

Ideally, such alignments would allow the Maple Leafs to deploy waves of offense much like some of their most dangerous peers. including the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Matthews missing all this time has that silver lining, and as The Athletic’s James Mirtle notes (sub required), the American center’s loss could be the Leafs’ long-term gain. Depending upon how bonuses pan out, Matthews likely missing some marks could save Toronto quite a bit in cap space in 2018-19 and 2019-20, which is ideal considering that Matthews, Marner, and Nylander will see their rookie deals expire in the near future.

“The injury probably cost him the $2-million, as he would have been top 10 in goals,” Mirtle’s anonymous source said. “Technically, he could still make it in points per game but highly unlikely.”

If Matthews can get up to speed and in a good rhythm by the time the playoffs begin, the situation would present a lot to like for the Maple Leafs.

That said, much of that optimism ignores the plain reality that the Maple Leafs face a significant hurdle to even escape the first round. The Bruins and Lightning both pose serious challenges, so it won’t be an easy draw early on for Toronto.

Then again, the Maple Leafs are a tougher out than they seem, too, being that they’ve been without their best player for 20 games. A Maple Leafs team with Matthews at or near full-strength could set the stage for one of the best series of the first round.

Barring setbacks, that drive begins in earnest on Thursday.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL GM Meetings Wrap Up: Goalie interference review recommendation; salary cap expected to rise

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The NHL’s general manager’s wrapped up three days of meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. and came away with a recommendation for the league’s Board of Governors and the NHL/NHLPA Competition Committee.

As we wrote yesterday, the GMs want all decisions on coach’s challenges for goaltender interference centralized and the final say to come from the Situation Room in Toronto where a retired referee part of the NHL Officiating Management Team will be included in the process.

“At their annual March meeting, that concluded today, the general managers overwhelmingly voted to adopt this change to bring an added level of consistency to goaltender interference rulings and add the input of experienced former on-ice officials to the review process,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. “While, since the adoption of the coach’s challenge, there have been relatively few controversial calls on goaltender interference – perhaps half a dozen of approximately 170 challenges this season – the objective is to be as close to perfect as possible. However, goaltender interference ultimately is a judgment call.

“The video review process was designed to enable our referees to determine, upon viewing video replays, whether to overturn their original calls. In the vast majority of cases, their final decision has concurred with the Situation Room’s view.

“The recommended change is intended to help resolve the rare cases in which the Situation Room and the referees might have different opinions of a particular play and is intended to produce more predictability for our players and coaches.”

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

The core of the issue here is still the interpretation of what goaltender interference is. Sure, there’s a standard in place in the rulebook, but clearly that’s become a subjective issue depending on who’s officiating that night’s game. According to Bettman, that retired referee in the Situation Room won’t be the same one every night, meaning different eyes will see different things.

The definition of the call is still what many are seeking. How many NHL head coaches have publicly said they don’t know how goaltender interference is defined these days? Phil Housley, Mike Sullivan and Mike Babcock, for starters.

Should the BOG and the Competition Committee approve the recommendation, it will be enacted by the beginning of the Stanley Cup Playoffs next month.

According to the NHL, through Tuesday night’s games there have been 172 coach’s challenges for goalie interference (152 have been initiated by head coaches) with 120 calls being upheld and 52 overturned.

Offside review change fails to garner support

For the second straight year, the GMs failed to support any decision to revise offside reviews. According to Colin Campbell, head of the NHL’s hockey operations department, there were only 10 GMs were supported a change, with a two-thirds vote needed to move it to the governors and competition committee.

Head hits down, boarding up

George Parros, head of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, told the GMs that hits to the head have declined but hits from behind are increasing.

“Particularly with boarding, we do see a lot of younger players these days that turn their backs to the play at the last second, whether they’ve grown up that way not expecting to get hit, whatever it may be,” Parros said. “Those are the tough ones to determine where the fault lies. If a player can essentially get out of the way before making contact before he’s done seeing the numbers, we take that into consideration.”

Seattle gets same rules as Vegas

As has been said for months by the league, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly reiterated that should Seattle be granted an NHL franchise they will have the same expansion draft rules as the Vegas Golden Knights did a year ago. For $650 millon, you certainly would hope so.

Salary cap still expected to rise

The projections of next season’s salary cap ceiling remain on point with the range to land between $78 and $82 million. The current salary cap ceiling is $75 million, with an expected increase of at least $3 million for the 2018-19 NHL season. If the Players’ Associations uses its inflator, the ceiling could increase to $82 million.


What do you think about the idea of a period beginning with face-off in the offensive zone should a penalty carry over? The GMs apparently had no appetite for such a change. Nor did they see any need to do something about fights that begin after legal hits.


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.

NHL Playoff Push: Penguins chase key points; tank wars


Tuesday was jam-packed with action, particularly for the competitive Metropolitan Division, and none of the proceedings went well for the Pittsburgh Penguins, including a humbling 4-1 loss to the bumbling New York Islanders.

Being able to dust yourself off and persevere can sometimes be the difference between failure and success when chasing division titles, at least a round of home-ice advantage, or even just cozier playoff positioning.

[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]

Eastern Conference

To the Penguins’ credit, they’ve done a solid job of fighting through back-to-back sets after that was a justifiably noted weakness earlier in 2017-18.

Specifically, the Penguins have been far more successful in the closeout game of back-to-backs recently, and the most recent example comes against Wednesday’s opponents, the Montreal Canadiens. Last week, Pittsburgh shook off a loss the previous night to the Rangers to beat the Habs, even though Montreal raced out to a lead.

They’ll aim to show similar resilience tonight. There’s incentive, too, as the Penguins don’t have a very firm grasp on the Metro’s second spot any longer:

Yes, they have a game in hand and ROW advantages over Columbus, and even more of an edge against the Flyers. If they lose to Montreal, the margin of error gets even slimmer.

The other key game for the Eastern Conference playoff races comes when the Boston Bruins face the Blues in St. Louis. (Puck drop is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET; you can watch that matchup on NBCSN and stream it via this link.)

The Lightning were able to rally for a comeback win against the Maple Leafs on Tuesday, so the B’s see steeper odds to try to win the Atlantic Division crown. If that ends up out of reach, the Bruins still want to tune up for the playoffs, including getting Ryan Donato up to speed after a sensational NHL debut earlier this week.

Western Conference

That Bruins – Blues game is bigger for St. Louis than it is for Boston, as you can see above. While the Blues are out of playoff position today, the Stars’ stumbles and some games in hand advantages gives the fledgling Blues some hope.

The other big Western matchup comes as the Anaheim Ducks take on the Flames in Calgary. With 86 points in 73 games played, the Ducks are in the final wild-card spot, and they could jump back into the Pacific’s top three with a win. On the other hand, they could see much of their room for error evaporate if they lose and the Blues win.

The Ducks’ opponent shouldn’t lack for urgency, either. The Flames are barely clinging to playoff hopes thanks to recent struggles. To some extent, they’ll need other teams to stumble. Beyond that, Calgary needs to nail these head-to-head games against other bubble opponents.

Tank wars

While much of tonight’s focus is on teams trying to improve their playoff hopes, one game features fans who might be rooting against their own squads when the Arizona Coyotes visit the Buffalo Sabres.

As of this moment, the NHL’s bottom three looks like this:

Coyotes: 59 points in 72 games, 22 ROW
Canucks: 59 points in 73 GP, 25 ROW
Sabres: 58 points in 72 GP, 22 ROW

The Coyotes’ upward trend is pushing them ahead of the Canucks and Sabres lately, yet a Buffalo regulation win would push Vancouver to the bottom and Buffalo beyond Arizona.

The air could be thick with cognitive dissonance in Buffalo tonight.

If the playoffs started today

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils
Washington Capitals vs. Philadelphia Flyers
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets
Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Nashville Predators vs. Anaheim Ducks
Vegas Golden Knights vs. Colorado Avalanche
Winnipeg Jets vs. Minnesota Wild
San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

Wednesday’s games

Montreal Canadiens at Pittsburgh Penguins, 7 p.m. ET
Arizona Coyotes at Buffalo Sabres, 7 p.m. ET
Boston Bruins at St. Louis Blues, 8 p.m. ET (stream link)
Anaheim Ducks at Calgary Flames, 9:30 p.m. ET

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL on NBCSN: Blues continue push for playoff spot against banged up Bruins


NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues on Wednesday, as the St. Louis Blues host the Boston Bruins at 8:00 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online by clicking here.

The Boston Bruins are coming off an overtime loss to the red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets on Monday night. Sure, the Bruins would liked to have collected two points, but the fact that they managed to force overtime without Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Rick Nash in their lineup is still pretty impressive.

One of the players that stepped into the lineup on Monday was rookie Ryan Donato, who the team signed on Sunday night. The former second-rounder made an instant impact offensively, as he recorded a goal and two assists in the defeat.

Funny enough, Donato skipped Bruins practice on Tuesday to attend a class at Harvard.

“I plan on finishing this semester academically,” Donato said on Monday, per WEEI. “Obviously it’s gonna be difficult, but for me it was a dream to graduate from Harvard. Obviously I’m putting that off a little bit, but for me I need to finish this semester to have that opportunity and not put it off an extra couple years.”

Donato will play in tonight’s game.

Although their playoff spot is all but secure, the Bruins still have plenty to play for. With Tampa Bay beating Toronto on Tuesday, Boston is now five points out of top spot in the Atlantic Division with two games in hand.

When the Blues traded Paul Stastny away at the deadline, many (including Brayden Schenn) believed that their playoff hopes took a hit. Instead, they’ve managed to stay in the race.

Heading into this clash against the Bruins, St. Louis finds themselves just three points out of a Wild Card spot with a game in hand.

Unfortunately for them, they’ll likely have to take care of business without Vladimir Tarasenko, who is expected to miss tonight’s contest with an upper-body injury. Alexander Steen will take Tarasenko’s spot on the top line with Jaden Schwartz and Brayden Schenn.

“Obviously we’d love to have him in the lineup,” head coach Mike Yeo said of Tarasenko, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We know what he is and what he means for our team so it’s no question, it’s a significant loss, but we don’t have the opportunity or even the possibility for our team to sit around and think about what could be right now. We have to look at the group we have and we believe we still have a capable group.”


Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.