Alex Ovechkin

2011-12 season preview: Washington Capitals

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2010-11 record: 48-23-11, 107 points; 1st in Southeast; 1st in East

Playoffs: Defeated New York Rangers 4-1 in Eastern quarterfinals, lost to Tampa Bay 4-0 in Eastern semifinals

The Capitals’ recent history has been dominated by a common theme: great regular seasons deleted by playoff disappointments. To some, those postseason failures erase all of the good things that happened in those 82 games. Fair or not, casual fans will paste the “choker” label on this team until they win a Stanley Cup.

Even after coach Bruce Boudreau changed the game plan from all-out offense to a more traditional (read: conservative and boring) approach, the team still flopped in the big time after posting the top record in the Eastern Conference. This season won’t be the final straw for Alex Ovechkin and a few others, but it’s a make-or-break campaign for Boudreau, Mike Green and much of the team’s familiar faces.

Offense

The Capitals’ 224 regular-season goals was the second-lowest total of all Eastern playoff teams – only Montreal found the back of the net less frequently (216 goals).

While Washington might not be as high-flying as its once was, expect the top guns to soar again. Both Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom should bounce back after suffering from career-low shooting percentages. Alexander Semin must realize that this could be his last shot to stay in Washington (and he is only signed through the season, which should add more incentive for a strong campaign).

Along with likely bounce-back seasons for incumbent stars, the Capitals’ future should look different after GM George McPhee added a few helpings of elbow grease. Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward are two wingers who play physical styles, adding grit to their upper ranks along with returning garbage goal specialist Mike Knuble and two-way center Brooks Laich. Jeff Halpern is a blast from the past who might work out nicely if he can stay healthy.

Jason Arnott might have been a voice of reason, but the team probably won’t miss him, eternal injury-list member Marco Sturm, Eric Fehr and other departed forwards all that much.

Defense

The defense is an interesting mix of players whose strengths could surprise some.

Green should be a bigger factor after an injury-plagued second half last season. Health is a big hurdle for Dennis Wideman, who’s essentially a less potent (but more physical) version of Green. Those two offensive defensemen are complemented by the up-and-coming shutdown pair of youngsters in Karl Alzner and John Carlson.

While Tomas Vokoun ranks as a bombshell of an upgrade in goal and Ward covers the “slightly overspend for a missing piece” aspect of the offseason, Roman Hamrlik is a big upgrade over Scott Hannan. He might not be as physical, but still manages to slow scorers down. Hamrlik can provide some offense as well, which might earn him some time on the power play.

Overall, the Capitals have an interesting group that could round out to one of the better defense corps in the East – if they stay reasonably healthy.

Goalies

Vokoun gives the Capitals something they haven’t had in their previous runs: a legitimate difference-maker in net. Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth had their moments and Jose Theodore did what he could, but none of them can match Vokoun’s impressive resume. Maybe big-time pressure might rattle a goalie who put up dominant numbers under the radar, but chances are good that he’ll thrive with the kind of goal support he’s never seen in Florida or Nashville.

The Capitals have fantastic insurance if Vokoun doesn’t work out (or shows his age a bit). Neuvirth’s individual numbers weren’t great in the regular season, but teammates and onlookers raved about his calm demeanor – something that shouldn’t be overlooked in a reactionary atmosphere. Even Braden Holtby showed some flashes of brilliance in spot duty last year, although fans should be warned about the dangers of small sample sizes.

Coach

Boudreau is a likeable guy who turned around a moribund franchise (with the help of an incredibly talented young cast, of course). That being said, people who constantly compare the Capitals to the Pittsburgh Penguins might view Boudreau as Washington’s Michel Therrien – a guy who bridged the gap from bad to good but couldn’t win a Cup. This might be Bellicose Bruce’s last chance to prove people wrong. It would be nice if he went out his way by playing a “guns blazing” style rather than last season’s compromised system, but either way, Boudreau needs some big results in the playoffs.

Breakout candidate

Alzner and especially Carlson could grab even more attention, but they played big enough minutes that they cannot be called breakout players. That title might go to the Capitals other Swedish center, Marcus Johansson. He looked solid (13 goals, 27 points) in his first 69 games at the NHL level and could provide valuable depth scoring for a team that might be a little top-heavy skill wise.

Best-case scenario

Vokoun proves he’s the real deal, finally giving the Capitals the hot goalie that felled them in postseasons past. Ovechkin and Backstrom go back to being, well, Ovechkin and Backstrom. Green, Semin and Boudreau silence their critics with a dominant run to earn that elusive Stanley Cup win. People who love calling professional athletes “chokers” turn their attention back to the San Jose Sharks – even if the Capitals beat them in the championship round.

Reality

The Capitals are loaded in almost every area, although they could use a better second-line center. Laich is a great checker but might be better off with a third-line role and Johansson might not be ready for that job either.

Things are looking pretty good if that’s your biggest trouble spot, although Semin and Green haters will probably disagree. Simply put, Vokoun pushes Washington to the level of genuine favorites.

P.K. Subban takes Canada 2016 World Cup ‘snub’ in stride

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 02:  P.K. Subban #76 of the Montreal Canadiens looks on during a game against the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on March 2, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Just about any contending hockey nation will force some “snubs” heading into the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Snubs feel especially inevitable for Canada, though.

P.K. Subban has taken some confidence hits, relative to his abilities, when it comes to international play. Maybe that explains why he essentially shrugged off not making the team, as Sportsnet notes.

“I mean, everybody wants to make the team, right? And there’s a bunch of guys that I’m sure wanted to be on the team. But that’s the way it goes,” Subban said. “Listen, at the end of the day, we could take four or five teams to this thing. When I was speaking to [Team Canada GM] Doug Armstrong, my number one thing was I just want to see Canada win gold. So, I’ll be there cheering just like everybody else.”

Let’s face it, it’s probably pretty easy for Subban.

He’s super-rich, generally beloved and has a gold medal to his name. That probably makes it easier to shake off a snub.

That said, he also brings up a fun idea. If the Team North America idea runs out of steam, wouldn’t it be fun to watch Canada A vs. Canada B, or something of that nature?

Hey, if you’re bored, feel free to fantasy draft a second Canadian team for such a scenario. Or, you know, each a sandwich instead.

In other Subban news, he had fun with the Toronto Blue Jays:

Should Lightning trade Bishop and hand the torch to Vasilevskiy?

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08:  Ben Bishop #30 celebrates with Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in Game Three of the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on June 8, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Erik Erlendsson poses what may seem like a bold question on Hockey Buzz: should the Tampa Bay Lightning hand the reins to Andrei Vasilevskiy by trading Ben Bishop?

Erlendsson points to these comments made by Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, with the last sentence likely being most pertinent:

“I think we’re in a fantastic position,” Yzerman said. “We have two outstanding goaltenders, based on what we’ve seen from Andrei both last year and this year and in particular, him coming in in the Pittsburgh series, I think we have a brilliant young goaltender and a proven, I don’t even want to call Bish a veteran because he’s still relatively young in terms of years played and games played, but we’ve got two outstanding goaltenders. I know that at some point, when that is, we may for expansion or cap reasons, have to make a decision.”

Yes, at some point Yzerman would be forced to make a decision. Assuming an extension doesn’t come early, both Bishop’s $5.95 million cap hit and Vasilevskiy’s rookie deal ($925K cap hit) will expire after 2016-17.

One would think that this would be the fork in the road moment … but what if Yzerman decides to be proactive and trade Bishop now?

Stevie Y has plenty on his plate with new deals needed for Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin.

Still, this is expected to be an expensive offseason, whether it’s literal (locking all or more of those big pieces) or more figurative (possibly losing franchise player Stamkos). As great as Bishop has been, his near-$6 million could go toward locking down those pieces, especially if management already expects Vasilevskiy to be The Guy.

Granted, the Lightning have seen firsthand how crucial it can be to have two starting-quality goalies (at least for however long you can hold onto them).

Quite a conundrum, right?

If nothing else, it’s a point to consider, even while acknowledging Bishop’s strong work.

More on the Lightning off-season

Steven Stamkos on the situation

The Bolts want to bring back Jonathan Drouin

Subtle but effective offseason pushed Sharks to next level

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — After watching the San Jose Sharks miss the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, general manager Doug Wilson set out to remake the team last offseason.

Individually, none of the moves sent shockwaves through the NHL. The Sharks hired a coach who made the playoffs once in seven seasons as an NHL coach, traded a first-round pick for a goalie who had been a backup his entire career, added two playoff-tested veterans for depth at forward and defense and signed an unheralded Finnish rookie.

Together, the additions of Peter DeBoer, Martin Jones, Joel Ward, Paul Martin and Joonas Donskoi to a solid core that had underachieved proved to be the right mix to get the Sharks to their long-awaited first Stanley Cup Final appearance.

“I thought this team has a lot of the pieces of that puzzle,” Martin said. “Doug did a great job bringing guys in that he did, to make that push for it. I don’t think many people would have guessed that we’d be here right now, but I think we believed.”

The players all said the disappointment of blowing a 3-0 series lead to Los Angeles in 2014 and then missing the playoffs entirely last season served as fuel for this season’s success.

DeBoer also credited former coach Todd McLellan for helping put the foundation in place that he was able to capitalize on. The Sharks became the second team in the past 10 seasons to make it to the final after missing the playoffs the previous season, joining the 2011-12 Devils that pulled off the same trick in DeBoer’s first season in New Jersey.

“Everyone was ready for something a little bit fresher and newer, not anything that much different,” DeBoer said. “The additions that Doug made, it just came together. I inherited a similar team in New Jersey when I went in there. First time they missed the playoffs for a long time the year before I got there. I think when you go into that situation, when you have really good people like there was in New Jersey when I went in there, like I was with this group … they’re embarrassed by the year they just had, and they’re willing to do and buy into whatever you’re selling to get it fixed again. I think I was the benefactor of that.”

The transition from McLellan to DeBoer wasn’t seamless. As late as Jan. 8, the Sharks were in 13th place in the 14-team Western Conference and seemingly on the way to another missed postseason.

But with Logan Couture finally healthy after being slowed by a broken leg early in the season and the move by DeBoer to put Tomas Hertl on the top line with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski, the Sharks rolled after that and made the playoffs as the third-place team in the Pacific Division.

In-season additions of players like depth forwards Dainius Zubrus and Nick Spaling, physical defenseman Roman Polak and backup goaltender James Reimer helped put the Sharks in the position they are now.

“With the new coaching staff we needed to realize how we needed to play to win,” Thornton said. “Once that clicked, and that probably clicked maybe early December, I think after that, we just exploded. I think that’s really when we saw the depth of this team. Everybody plays a big part.”

That has been especially true in the playoffs when longtime core players like Thornton, Couture, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau got the support that had often been lacking during past postseason disappointments.

Jones has posted three shutouts in the playoffs, including the Game 7 second-round clincher against Nashville and back-to-back games in the conference final against St. Louis. He has proven more than capable of being an NHL starter after serving an apprenticeship as Jonathan Quick‘s backup in Los Angeles.

Ward scored two goals in each of the final two games of the conference final and has 11 points this postseason. Donskoi exceeded expectations just to make the team as a rookie and has solidified his spot on the second line with five goals and nine points.

Martin’s steady play has allowed offensive-minded defenseman Brent Burns to roam at times and given San Jose a strong second defensive pair that had been missing in previous seasons.

Zubrus and Spaling played a big role as penalty killers and on the fourth line, while Polak has been one of the team’s most physical players.

“Doug did a great job this summer, this season,” Couture said. “A lot of credit needs to go to him for the guys he brought in.”

Shattenkirk on Blues trading him: ‘That’s out of my hands’

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 23:  Kevin Shattenkirk #22 of the St. Louis Blues skates against the San Jose Sharks in Game Five of the Western Conference Final during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center on May 23, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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In a vacuum, it’s confounding to imagine the St. Louis Blues trading Kevin Shattenkirk.

He’s a highly productive defenseman in the meat of his prime at 27, and his cap hit is a super-bargain at $4.25 million.

Of course, as is the case with many of the NHL’s biggest steals, the Blues will eventually need to pay up. In Shattenkirk’s case, his bargain deal ends after the 2016-17 season.

That’s a tough enough conundrum on its own, but consider the deals on the Blues’ cap that also expire after next season.

Now, there are also some areas of relief; some will be happy to see the Blues part ways with Patrik Berglund‘s $3.7 million cap hit (unless he plays out of his mind, naturally).

There are also some other things to consider.

A) What if the salary cap rises more than one might expect for 2017-18?

B) Would expansion help the Blues cut a little fat by losing a less-than-ideal contract?

C) Who are the Blues bringing back from this off-season?

Item C) dovetails with Shattenkirk. Will the Blues try to bring back David Backes and/or Troy Brouwer, possibly squeezing out Shattenirk?

There have been rumors about Shattenkirk being shopped around in the past, yet the summer is a great time to make deals. Teams get salary cap leeway, owners may want reboots and new coaches could really value Shattenkirk’s in-demand skills.

For what it’s worth, Shattenkirk would prefer to stay:

There’s a strong chance that Blues GM Doug Armstrong may bide his time, whether he’s inclined to trade Shattenkirk during the season or re-sign him.

Still, the talented defenseman’s situation shows that the Blues have big decisions to make even regarding situations that do not technically demand immediate choices.

One thing seems certain: it won’t be any easy call.

Related

Blues face tough questions

David Backes wants to stay

So does Troy Brouwer