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.

Home sweet home: NHL execs flock back to familiar franchises

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NEW YORK (AP) — Martin Brodeur has been back with the New Jersey Devils for eight months and only walked by his statue once. It’s harder to avoid his banner hanging from the arena rafters.

Brodeur returning to the place he spent the majority of his career sparked a recent run of executives going home to work for organizations they’re synonymous with. Steve Yzerman last month went back to Detroit as Red Wings general manager. In the past week, John Davidson became New York Rangers president and Mike Modano went back to his Minnesota playing roots as Wild adviser.

Yzerman, Davidson and Modano don’t have to avoid statues but do have to balance being beloved by their respective fan bases with the new pressure of succeeding in the front office. There are plenty of recent examples of fan favorite homecomings that didn’t work out: Pat LaFontaine in Buffalo, Ron Hextall in Philadelphia, Trevor Linden in Vancouver, Ron Francis in Carolina and Patrick Roy in Colorado are among them.

Still, the lure of going home is always strong.

”All the things with my banner in the rafters and my statue, this is what I did as a hockey player, but now I’m trying to leave my mark in a different way,” Brodeur said. ”I came back because I care about the success and the fans and the area. Regardless, you still feel the pressure because you want to do well. I’m a proud guy. I’m investing my time in this organization and I want to see them do well.”

While Brodeur and Modano are business-focused now, fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Yzerman and Hall-honored broadcaster Davidson are right in the fire of trying to rebuild proud franchises into championship contenders.

Yzerman won the Stanley Cup three times as Red Wings captain and is back in Hockeytown after eight years as Tampa Bay Lightning GM and another as an adviser. His family still lives in Michigan, he was tired of commuting and he considers the link to his playing days ”irrelevant” in undertaking this challenge .

”What I did as a player is done,” said Yzerman, who will work in the shadow of his No. 19 banner. ”I can’t do any more, good or bad. It really has no bearing on whether I’m a good general manager or not. I have a job to do.”

Davidson understands he has a tough job ahead to try to deliver the Rangers’ first title since 1994. After 13 seasons in St. Louis and Columbus gave him executive experience, parts of eight seasons as a Rangers goaltender and two more decades as team broadcaster before all that drew him back.

”I was here 28 years in a lot of different areas and that makes it a whole lot easier,” Davidson said after his introductory news conference Wednesday. ”I wouldn’t have left Columbus had I not been here originally and had a sense of home, a sense of people welcoming myself and our family back. …. It’s just this is a unique opportunity at a very unique time.”

When Davidson and wife Diana walked the streets of New York on Tuesday night, she turned to him and said, ”Doesn’t this just feel like we didn’t leave?” Thirteen years after leaving the broadcast booth to embark on a journey that has made him one of hockey’s most respected executives, he felt the same way.

Davidson was welcomed home like a conquering hero.

”There’s a lot of good feeling because John is a beloved person here in New York,” longtime broadcast partner Sam Rosen said. ”He was loved when he was a player, he was loved as a broadcaster and people now respect that he’s been a lead executive in the National Hockey League for more than a decade.”

Minnesota is in Modano’s blood after he was the North Stars’ first overall pick in 1988 and played there until the team moved to Dallas in 1993. Post-retirement, Modano spent three seasons as a Dallas Stars adviser, and while this isn’t the same franchise he played for, he’s excited to get back to where his NHL career started.

”It’s always been obviously a real sentimental thing for me, an emotional thing for me to start my career in Minneapolis and St. Paul back in the North Star era,” Modano said Thursday. ”I have a lot of fond memories with fans and friends and everybody involved in the hockey community there.”

Modano will work with owner Craig Leipold, who heralded the Hall of Fame center as ”an important part of our hockey culture in this state.”

The same is true of Brodeur in New Jersey after he backstopped the Devils to the Stanley Cup three times. His job as executive vice president of business operations is about as far away from the pressure cooker of tending goal as Brodeur can get, and it follows three hands-on seasons as Blues assistant GM.

”I went from my playing career right into hockey operations as an assistant GM, so the pressure and the day to day operations was always big,” said Brodeur, who sold his old house to Devils coach John Hynes and rents while traveling back and forth to St. Louis. ”You figure from the first day I walk into the NHL to last year, for me, every game, you get the mood swings, you got everything. I was kind of looking forward to kind of sit back and just kind of look at the big picture instead of the daily grind. It’s been a great change for me and for me family to be able to handle that.”

Hall of Fame defenseman Brian Leetch, who won the Cup with the 1994 Rangers and returned as an adviser, isn’t worried about the heavy expectations on Davidson or Yzerman to make the most of a second act.

”Steve Yzerman, John Davidson – any of these people that are in these positions that are successful, they put the pressure on themselves to be successful and to have a positive impact,” Leetch said. ”As much as there is outside pressure from media and the big city and fans, it’s really internal.”

AP Hockey Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed.

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins’ veteran quintet could be key in latest Cup bid

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BOSTON (AP) — When the Boston Bruins take the ice against the St. Louis Blues, they will do it with a core group of veterans who know what it’s like to hoist the Stanley Cup – and have it slip from their fingers.

Patrice Bergeron can still remember the instant euphoria and accompanying adoration from across New England that came after the Bruins outlasted the Vancouver Canucks in seven games to win the Cup in 2011.

He just as easily recalls the emptiness in 2013 when the Bruins lost the final in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks.

”I think it makes you appreciate and makes you understand how hard it is to get to this point,” Bergeron said.

He is one of five current Bruins that were on both of those teams, along with Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci and Zdeno Chara. Apart from Chara, who was 33 in 2011, Bergeron, Krejci, Marchand and Rask were all in their 20s during both runs. Defenseman Torey Krug was as a member of the ’13 team that came up short, arriving the season after Boston won it in 2011.

Nine years later Chara is now 42 and the 20-somethings are now grizzled NHL veterans as they prepare to take on the Blues.

It’s cast them all in the leadership role for another youthful and hungry Bruins team, built with many players about to experience this stage for the first time with Game 1 coming up Monday night.

It’s a position they have all willingly accepted.

Chara said this season has been a great teaching tool for them.

”It takes a lot to just get into the playoffs,” Chara said. ”We saw a lot of our games went to Game 7. First round. Second round. You have to realize how special it is to be in the final and what it takes. At the same time, you haven’t accomplished anything. You haven’t won anything.”

St. Louis coach Craig Berube knows the Bruins are deep and the veteran players are a key part of the team.

”Chara is still a good player, he’s a force out there, a big guy and he’s difficult to play against,” Berube said. ”Overall, their team’s a skilled and fast team and their goalie has played extremely well so far in the playoffs.”

Boston coach Bruce Cassidy, who is in his second season leading the B’s. He struggled in his first go-around as a head coach in Washington, going 47-47-9 over two seasons from 2002 to 2004.

The past two seasons in Boston, Cassidy said, he has gone from being apprehensive about speaking up around his best players to setting an agenda and then leaning on his veterans in the locker room to help implement it.

”I think this leadership group is second to none,” Cassidy said. ”I don’t know if I’ll ever have – wherever this career takes me – a group like this to work with. I said that since probably the second week of our job here. These guys are fantastic, and they sure make a coach’s job a lot easier.”

Though he has a reputation of letting his anger get the best of him at times, Marchand said he’s going into his third Cup final with Boston as even-keeled as ever.

”I think when you’re part of a team like that you expect it to last a long time,” he said. ”You don’t realize how one change in a team can really drastically affect how things play out. One player change. One injury. One call. You don’t realize what it takes to get back to the finals and how fortunate you are to get there.

”And so this time around I think I’m more appreciative of being here and at the same time more calm, I guess, in a way.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower

NHL players’ favorite Stanley Cup memories as fans

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

Not every player has photos of themselves as young fans in team-appropriate jammies like John Tavares with the Toronto Maple Leafs, so it can be fun and surprising to hear about their memories. Sometimes you’d be surprised to learn more about a players’ roots, and rooting interests.

In the fun video above, a variety of NHL players share some of their favorite Stanley Cup memories. You’ll see some expected moments, such as Brandon Dubinsky and Cam Atkinson recalling Mark Messier and the 1994 New York Rangers lifting that curse. The video also reminds us of how dominant the Colorado Avalanche were, as evidenced by a reminiscent Ryan Reaves. And, shield your eyes, Sabres fans, as a foot is, again, in the crease.

There are some other interesting touches. One mildly sad aspect is that Canadian NHL’ers P.K. Subban and Tyler Seguin point to a Doug Gilmour wraparound goal … even though it wasn’t associated with a Stanley Cup win.

You also might be intrigued to learn who mentioned Chris Pronger battling Dustin Byfuglien during the 2010 Stanley Cup Final, which player pointed to Teemu Selanne’s tearful Stanley Cup win, and some other moments. You may also notice a much younger Gary Bettman during certain moments.

It’s good stuff overall, so enjoy.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.

Bruins’ Chara cements towering legacy with Stanley Cup Final run

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Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

While Boston sports fans have been spoiled by a wave of championships across several leagues, you could make a similar argument for Boston Bruins fans when it comes to watching great defensemen.

Most obviously, they had Bobby Orr in all of his statue-worthy glory. People who were lucky enough to be alive to see his too-brief prime still often rank him as the greatest player – not just defenseman – to ever lace up the skates, and it’s not outrageous to have that debate.

Plenty of other names come to mind, with Ray Bourque enjoying a transcendent, high-scoring career in his own right.

It’s time to place Zdeno Chara‘s name in that select group.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For such a tall player, it makes sense to consider the highest heights of his career, of which there have been many:

  • Chara has served as captain of the Bruins since 2006-07, becoming one of just three European-born captains to win a Stanley Cup when Boston won it all in 2010-11.
  • This marks the Bruins’ third trip to a Stanley Cup Final during Chara’s time, as they also came within two wins (and suffered through 17 wild seconds) of another championship when they fell to Chicago in 2012-13.
  • Chara won the 2008-09 Norris Trophy, and was a finalist on five other occasions. Personally, I believe that Chara should have won at least one other Norris during his splendid career.
  • Overall, Chara’s played in 1,485 regular season games, and an impressive 175 playoff contests.
  • While Chara probably would’ve won another Norris or two if he was a more prolific scorer, he’s a guy who’s been able to contribute offensively, too, collecting 10 seasons of 10+ goals, including 19 in 2008-09.

The numbers can get pretty mind-boggling with Chara, yet the story becomes even bigger (almost larger than life?) when you zoom out.

Sustained greatness

As tough as it’s always been to miss a 6-foot-9 fitness freak, there have been moments in his career where his brilliance was overlooked, or at least misjudged. Infamously, the New York Islanders traded away Chara before they really knew what they had, but the Ottawa Senators also let him walk in free agency, possibly choosing Wade Redden over Chara.

Betting against Chara was clearly a bad idea, but then again, it’s easy to forget just how much of an anomaly he truly is.

Alongside Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton, Chara’s managed astounding longevity, as he remains a key part of the Bruins even at age 42.

Sure, Chara isn’t playing almost half of every Bruins playoff game like he did during his gaudy peak, but he’s still important. It’s almost unthinkable that Chara is basically breaking even at five-on-five (via Natural Stat Trick), especially since he’s still called upon in tough situations, as he saw plenty of John Tavares and Mitch Marner during the Maple Leafs series, for example.

Tall tales

Chara isn’t just an impossibly huge defenseman who can still, somehow, keep up enough with young skaters that he remains a useful player for Boston to this day. He’s also someone who probably set expectations too high for plenty of players who’d come after him.

Would players like Tyler Myers, Rasmus Ristolainen, or even Colton Parayko have gotten the same looks in today’s NHL if Chara didn’t show teams that a huge defensemen could find ways to keep up, whether that meant leveraging an outrageous reach or the natural intimidation factor that comes with such size? In breaking the mold, Chara also set a high bar: just about any skyscraper-type prospect could be compared to Chara, especially since “The Big Z” is considered a late bloomer.

While others show that bigger guys can still play (Parayko, Dustin Byfuglien, and so on), there’s really only one Zdeno Chara.

When you think about it, in a less media-saturated age, Chara would probably inspire Paul Bunyan-like stories.

After all, this isn’t just a large dude, it’s also the player whose 108.8 mph slapshot may not be matched for years. He’s scaled mountains. Chara seems to project the typical “Aw, shucks” hockey attitude, yet it’s clear that his ambition separates himself from the rest, and elevates him to a special place among Bruins legends.

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While Chara can be a punishing presence, and maybe blurs the line from time to time, he doesn’t have the mean streak of another elite, gigantic defenseman like Chris Pronger. “Gentle giant” might be too much, but Chara rarely resembles the bully he easily could be. To an extent, his towering presence does the bullying for him.

***

The Bruins have enjoyed a strong run of goalies as Tim Thomas passed the torch to Tuukka Rask, but who knows how successful those goalies would have been without the combination of Chara and Patrice Bergeron?

Adding young players like Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak breathed new life into this Bruins’ core, but remarkably enough, Chara remains a huge part of that foundation, and not just literally.

This run cements a thought that probably already should have been present: Chara belongs on the short list of Bruins legends. Winning another Stanley Cup would only make it tougher to deny — and it would also tie Chara with a certain No. 4.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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.