Buffalo Sabres v Washington Capitals

Two days that could set up Capitals for a bright future

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Let’s make no mistake about it: the 2011-12 season is a pivotal one for the Washington Capitals franchise. Many players will be harshly judged if the team comes up short again, while head coach Bruce Boudreau’s job is probably on the line.

If you take a step back, however, you’ll see that this team could be bound for great things. Maybe they were already hurtling toward that destination by merely employing Alex Ovechkin, but two days of great goalie-related moves could plant the final seeds for something truly special.

July 1, 2011: The Capitals realize that they’re just not that into Semyon Varlamov – at least at the price he wants. Shockingly, they managed to trade him to Colorado for the startling package of the Avs’ 2012 first round pick and a second rounder in either 2012 or 2013.

Getting two high-end picks is a significant victory even out of context, but it gets downright crazy when you consider the fact that Colorado was bad enough to receive the third pick in 2011. Naturally, the Avalanche aren’t guaranteed to tank again – they made a surprising run to the 2010 playoffs, after all – but the fact that the 2012 first rounder isn’t lottery protected just makes the trade astounding.

(Somewhere, an especially optimistic Capitals fan is picturing a Washington team with dual Swedish center-Russian winger combos of Nicklas Backstrom-Alex Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson-Nail Yakupov.)

July 2, 2011: GM George McPhee didn’t rest on his laurels after that master stroke deal, though. He made sure that the Capitals’ short-term future could be brighter than ever by signing world-class goalie Tomas Vokoun to a ridiculously cheap one-year, $1.5 million deal.

The Capitals have been the victims of great runs by goalies, especially Jarsolav Halak’s masterpiece in 2010. Thanks to Varlamov’s demands and a lax group of rival general managers, Washington opened up a spot for their best goalie since the days when Olaf Kolzig was in full-on Godzilla mode. (Some might argue that Vokoun’s even better, but we’ll see.)


Things could get really interesting if the Capitals win the Cup and get the top overall pick in 2012. Even if they fall apart in 2011-12, McPhee would have the option of blowing a big portion of the team up without being forced into any corners. Mike Green, Alexander Semin, Vokoun, Mike Knuble and Dennis Wideman will see their contracts expire, so the team could change its direction in a single summer by letting them go.

Having what could be an outstanding first round pick wouldn’t hurt that hypothetical renovation process, either.

Hitchcock going to more aggressive attack for Blues

Ken Hitchcock
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ST. LOUIS (AP) After three straight first-round playoff exits, the St. Louis Blues have learned to temper expectations.

They have been consistently among the NHL’s best in the regular season and realize it is past time to build something for the long haul. The sting still lingers from the latest failure, against the Minnesota Wild last spring.

“We’re all disappointed, everybody can agree on that,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “It’s never easy to kind of think about your failures, but we grow every time it happens.”

Management isn’t ready to tear it all down yet.

“We play, in my opinion, one of the toughest if not the toughest division in the NHL, and we’ve finished first or second in the last four years,” forward Alexander Steen said. “So we have an extremely powerful team.”

Maybe a change in strategy will be enough: Coach Ken Hitchcock is back with a mandate for a more aggressive, even reckless, style of play from a roster that hasn’t changed appreciably.

“We’re coming hard from the back and we’re coming hard to see how close we can get to the attack,” Hitchcock said. “I think it’s where the game’s at; I think it’s where the game’s going to go.”

The 63-year-old Hitchcock is pushing forward, too, unwilling to dwell on the flameouts. Coach and players agree that would be “wasted energy.”

“My opinion is when you sit and think about the past, you do yourself no good,” Hitchcock said. “If you learn from the past, that’s when you do yourself a whole bunch of good.”

There were only two major roster casualties. Forward Troy Brouwer came from Washington in a trade for fan favorite T.J. Oshie. Defenseman Barret Jackman, the franchise career leader in games, wasn’t re-signed.

“If you were expecting 23 new faces to be on the roster this year, I don’t think that was realistic,” captain David Backes said. “We’re going to miss those guys in the room and on the ice, but there has been some changeover and I think it’s pretty significant.”

Things to watch for with the Blues:

GOALIE SHUFFLE: Just like last year, there’s no true No. 1 with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen sharing duties. The 25-year-old Allen missed a chance to seize the job last spring when he failed to raise his level in the playoffs.

TOP THREAT: Vladimir Tarasenko had a breakout season with 37 goals and was rewarded with an eight-year, $60 million contract. The 23-year-old winger is by far the Blues’ most dangerous scoring option and said he won’t let the money affect his play. “I never worry about it,” Tarasenko said. “If you play good, you play good.”

NEW FACES: Brouwer and center Kyle Brodziak add a physical element that was perhaps lacking a bit last season. Brouwer has three 20-plus goal seasons and Brodziak, acquired from Minnesota, fills a checking role. Veteran forward Scottie Upshall got a one-year, two-way deal after being coming to camp as a tryout. Rookie forward Robby Fabbri, a first-round pick last year, will get an early look. Another promising youngster, forward Ty Rattie, begins the year at Chicago of the AHL.

RECOVERY WARD: Forward Jori Lehteri bounced back quickly from ankle surgery and opens the season without restrictions. Another forward, Patrik Berglund, could miss half of the season following shoulder surgery.

TRACK RECORD: The Blues won the Central Division last season and Hitchcock, fourth on the career list with 708 regular-season wins, has consistently had the team near the top of the standings. “He is our coach, tough cookies if you don’t like it,” Backes said. “From my experience, he puts together one heck of a game plan.”

It looks like Havlat won’t make Panthers

Martin Havlat

As PHT’s mentioned before, the Florida Panthers stand as a fascinating contrast between youth and experience.

Let’s not kid ourselves, though; fresh faces usually beat out gray beards, at least when it comes to teams that are still trying to build toward contender status.

While it’s by no means official, two Panthers beat writers – the Miami Herald’s George Richards and the Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Harvey Fialkov – report that the Panthers are likely to pass on Martin Havlat.

It wasn’t just about the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad leading the charge. Other young Panthers (maybe most notably Quinton Howden and Connor Brickley) made the team, thus making Havlat less necessary.

One would assume that it might be tough for the 34-year-old to find work, at least if he insists upon only an NHL deal.

Health issues continue to dog him, but he’s no longer one of those guys who tantalizes with talent when he is healthy enough to play.

Havlat also doesn’t really bring much to the table defensively. While other veterans can kill penalties and show a little more verstaility, Havlat’s greatest selling point is scoring.

Could this be it for a solid career that may nonetheless end with a “What if?” or two?