Washington Capitals

Pittsburgh’s biggest question: Is the defense good enough?

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For a team not really known for its defense, the Penguins sure have seen defensemen fly off the shelves.

Last summer, teams spent $76.45 million to lure away Deryk Engelland (Calgary), Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik (Washington).

This summer, more of the same with the Sharks signing Paul Martin and the Kings inking Christian Ehrhoff.

The issue here is obvious — if Pittsburgh’s defense wasn’t that great to begin with and then lost all these guys, how good will it be heading into 2015-16?

“I’m comfortable with (our defense) going into the season,” Pens GM Jim Rutherford said earlier this summer, per USA Today. “But it is certainly the area we will watch the closest.”

Rutherford isn’t the only one that’ll be watching.

Eyes across the league will be glued to Pittsburgh following Rutherford’s bold renovation project. Nearly all of his moves this summer were designed to improve his forward group — adding the likes of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, Eric Fehr and KHLer Sergei Plotnikov — essentially banking on the idea that, ready or not, his collection of young defensemen will carry the load.

And it really is a young group.

Only Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy have appeared in over 200 NHL games; even a “veteran” presence like 26-year-old Ian Cole is a bit of a wildcard, given he was buried on a deep Blues blueline before being acquired last season (prior to ’14-15, Cole’s career high in games played was 46).

As such, kids are going to take on some pretty hefty roles.

Olli Maatta and Derrick Pouliot, both 21, figure to get a lion’s share of the now-available minutes, while the likes of Adam Clendening (22), Brian Dumoulin (23) and Tim Erixon (24) will be fighting for depth spots — which, in Pittsburgh, are pretty important spots.

This is a defensive unit, remember, that was ravaged by injury a year ago (recall when the Pens only dressed five d-men against San Jose?) Things got so bad that, by the time the playoffs rolled around, Taylor Chorney was in the lineup.

Though the club has since hired two new staffers in an effort to “minimize injuries,” losing blueliners to injury always remains a concern.

But there is a wrinkle.

Rutherford, who took heat last year for rolling the dice on a thin blueline while stockpiling offense, says that his abundance of forwards may actually help out should he to add a defenseman.

“Hopefully the younger guys can fall into place and do a consistent job,” he explained. “If not, part of having more depth up front, is that it can help us in the long run because if we have to go get a defenseman we have those extra pieces.”

Translation: Rutherford knows the group might need help.

“I’m fully aware,” he said, “that at some point in time we may have to address that position.”

O, Dear: Russia fined $85K for skipping Canadian anthem

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Remember when Russian hockey players stormed off the ice instead of sticking around for Canada’s national anthem after a drubbing at the 2015 World Hockey Championship? Apparently that gesture will come at a cost beyond making Matt Duchene really, really mad.

The IIHF fined the Russian Hockey Federation $85K (in the form of 80,000 Swiss francs) for those actions, pointing to an “unmistakable head gesture” from “the captain,” aka Ilya Kovalchuk.

(As you may remember, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and some other players did stay out for at least a portion of the ceremony, so it wasn’t necessarily a team-wide action.)

Here’s a portion of the release, which is soaked in somewhat amusing legalese:

The panel is of the opinion that the occurrences on the ice show that this is not a result of an unfortunate misunderstanding. The Russian players and officials left the ice after a short discussion between the Russian team captain and some Russian officials and the unmistakable head gesture of the captain. It was also noted that the Russian team and management should have been aware of the postgame/victory and closing ceremony procedure because of their vast experience with IIHF Ice Hockey World Championships. The open gate was irrelevant.

Therefore the violation of the IIHF Championship Regulations should be sanctioned by a fine as provided in Articles 5.1, 5.2 of the Disciplinary Code.

So the “oops” excuse didn’t work?

Here are the highlights from Canada’s 6-1 win:

This seems like a good time to share a couple extra sad/angry Kovalchuk photos:

source: AP
Via AP
source: Getty Images
Via Getty

Hey, Brooks Laich and actress Julianne Hough got engaged

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Actress/dancer/famous person Julianne Hough and Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich announced that they got engaged on Aug. 18.

source:

Their caption reads:

We are overwhelmed with joy and excitement to share with you our recent engagement! #fiancé #love

Hough is the champion of the couple at the moment, as she’s part of two winning teams on “Dancing with the Stars.” She apparently was dating Ryan Seacrest before meeting Laich, according to Fox 411.

Sorry everyone, but you won’t get a better photo of Hough’s engagement ring, as you’ll instead need to settle for this description via People Magazine:

“The ring is over five carats and oval-shaped,” a source tells PEOPLE. “Brooks called Lorraine because he wanted to find the most perfect diamond that was truly beautiful and shined so bright — just like Julianne. Brooks and Lorraine worked together for months to find a ring that reflected Julianne’s grace and elegance. It’s very clean, very elegant, very beautiful and the diamond is the highest quality. It just shines gorgeous.”

Hough also got a new haircut to celebrate the occasion.

This has been a great summer for Laich, 31, in various ways. He told the Washington Post that he’s excited to work on skills rather than just rehabbing this summer, and now he can also work on wedding plans.

So, let’s throw down the gauntlet: where do Laich – Hough rank among the hockey celebrity couples?

Important stuff.

(H/T to Eye on Hockey)

Washington Capitals ’15-16 Outlook

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The easy answer, of course, is to get past the second round.

It’s a place Washington hasn’t been since the ’98 Stanley Cup Final which, when you consider what’s transpired in the aftermath, is a really long time ago. Six coaches have come and gone — Ron Wilson, Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, Adam Oates — and seven different captains have served.

All told, it’s seventeen years and counting without a trip past Round 2, a drought Barry Trotz wants to end.

“Last year was a foundational year for us,” the Caps’ head coach told the National Press Club in July. “We want to have a parade down one of these great streets.”

To achieve that goal, Caps GM Brian MacLellan went out and had himself a splashy summer — well, as splashy as someone with his financial constraints could, anyway. Despite hovering close to the cap ceiling, MacLellan accomplished his goal of adding quality wingers in Justin Williams and T.J. Oshie.

The sophomoric analysis and narrative is that Williams, a former Conn Smythe winner dubbed “Mr. Game 7,” would help the team win important playoff games. Oshie, the U.S. Olympic hero in Sochi, would thrive in the nation’s capital, while wearing stars n’ stripes while riding an eagle (or something like that).

The reality is a tad more complex.

Despite boasting the NHL’s sixth-best offense in ’14-15, the Caps’ forward group didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Alex Ovechkin was responsible for a whopping 22 percent of the team’s goals, and two of the teams’ top-five point-getters were defensemen. The hope is that Williams and Oshie will balance things out — especially on right wing, where the likes of Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson were briefly parachuted in.

“You don’t like to see revolving players go through that spot all year,” MacLellan told the Washington Post. “You’d like to have more stability where a guy’s there permanently or almost permanently.”

To be fair, it’s likely that MacLellan made the Williams and Oshie moves with an eye on the playoffs. Williams’ postseason exploits are, as mentioned above, well-documented and while Oshie doesn’t have much of a reputation for playoff performances, he could be viewed as a more talented/gifted goalscorer/gamebreaker than the guy he replaced (Troy Brouwer).

In the postseason, that’s a big deal; do remember that in blowing their 3-1 series lead on the Rangers last season, the Caps only mustered five goals over the final three games.

So to sum it up, the outlook for next season is the same outlook we’ve seen in years prior. Can they finally get over that playoff hump?

Or come springtime, will it be the same old Caps?

Capitals’ biggest question: Is this finally the year?

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Of the 12 NHL teams that have never won the Stanley Cup, there may not be a more optimistic one heading into 2015-16 than the Washington Capitals. 

Here’s why:

— Alex Ovechkin just won his third straight Rocket Richard Trophy. At 29, he remains the NHL’s most dangerous goal-scorer. On top of that, the Caps appear to have found the right coach for the Russian superstar in Barry Trotz.

— The Caps also appear to have found a second-line center in young Evgeny Kuznetsov. If the 23-year-old continues to progress — and there’s no good reason he shouldn’t — Washington could have quite the 1-2 combo at center in Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov.

— Defenseman John Carlson is emerging as one of the top blue-liners in the NHL. And at 25, he may get even better.

— Goalie Braden Holtby continues to post strong numbers. His .923 save percentage last season was tied with Pekka Rinne and one point better than Tuukka Rask.

Now throw in the additions of veterans T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams to go with youngsters Marcus Johansson, Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson, and what emerges is a roster where a glaring weakness is pretty tough to find.

OK, sure, there are concerns. Like maybe the Caps will miss Mike Green more than they think. Ditto for Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and/or Eric Fehr. If Washington’s young players don’t step up next season, it’s hard to picture this team hoisting the Cup.

But that’s true of any team, really.

“I’d say the next three or four years is the window,” GM Brian MacLellan said in May.

Given how quickly the landscape of a young man’s league can change, it may turn out to be a shorter window than that.

The Caps have a real opportunity in 2015-16. Can they finally get it done?

Related: Green calls this year’s Caps ‘the best team we’ve had overall’