Getty Images

Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

1 Comment

Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

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

MORE:
Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

Current, former teammates shocked by Schmidt suspension

Getty Images
2 Comments

CHICAGO — Marc-Andre Fleury was surprised and T.J. Oshie said he was shocked to see Nate Schmidt suspended 20 games for violating the NHL’s performance-enhancing drug policy.

Current and former teammates expressed degrees of disbelief about the suspension this week after the NHL announced the Vegas Golden Knights defenseman’s punishment on Sunday. Schmidt insisted he didn’t intentionally take a banned substance and couldn’t have gotten any performance benefit from the ”trace amount” that got into his system.

”I really didn’t see how this guy, how this could happen to him,” said Fleury, the goaltender who helped Vegas reach the Stanley Cup Final last season. ”He’s obviously a very straightforward guy. I really believe everything he says. He’s a standup guy, and I don’t see him doing this kind of stuff.”

Schmidt and the Golden Knights released statements disagreeing with the suspension, though neither specified the substance. Schmidt said one of the experts testifying on his behalf at the appeal hearing likened the amount to a pinch of salt in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

[How will Schmidt suspension affect Vegas Golden Knights?]

The appeal, which was heard by a neutral arbitrator, was denied.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said he tries not to pay attention to the blowback from suspensions like this.

”I think it’s the nature of any performance-enhancing drug policy,” Daly said. ”I don’t view Nate’s reaction to this or the club’s reaction to this to be far different than other reactions you see from other athletes in other sports. It’s just the nature of the beast. I think it’s an unfortunate incident. Nate’s a good guy, he’s a great player. I wish it didn’t happen as much as he does.”

Oshie, who played with Schmidt for two seasons in Washington, trusts the explanation that it wasn’t intentional.

”I think he’s being very honest that this was out of his hands,” Oshie said. ”Knowing Schmidtty and the type of person he is, I can only think that he got the worst run of bad luck you could ever imagine. That’s the nightmare of trying to be healthy and take supplements is something gets tainted in a warehouse that no one would ever have any idea how it happened.”

Former Capitals teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov isn’t as much worried about how it happened as how Schmidt responds to adversity.

”We all know he’s nice guy, but at the same time sometimes you have to deal with the bad days in your life,” Kuznetsov said. ”You don’t want to be in that situation, but some players in different situations have their bad days, right? … Twenty games are not too much. I think they have a good team.”

Schmidt led the Golden Knights in ice time last season at 22:14 per game, and someone will have to fill the role of No. 1 defenseman until he can return Nov. 18. That will likely fall on the likes of Collin Miller, Brayden McNabb and still unsigned Shea Theodore to make sure Vegas doesn’t get off to a rough start.

”We’re lucky,” Fleury said Friday. ”We have some depth on D, and I think everybody contributed to success last season, and I think it’s another part of the season that we need somebody else to step up and not fill his shoes but play well and do the things that they can and we’ll be all right.”

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

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

Three questions facing Washington Capitals

Getty
1 Comment

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

1. How bad will the Stanley Cup hangover be?

Look, it’s probably silly to ask if there will be a hangover at all. I mean, have you seen what Alex Ovechkin‘s been up to?

View this post on Instagram

Я очень рад что привёз кубок Стэнли домой, в Москву, где его увидели тысячи людей на Воробьёвых горах, а так же мои близкие друзья, родные и самое главное моя семья! Хочу сказать огромное спасибо нашим незаменимым организаторам @svadberry @anna_gorod @goroddimka , всё было как всегда на высшем уровне, эти два вечера были не забываемы!!! Отдельное спасибо @renat_agzamov за совершенно уникальный торт! You r the best💪🏻И конечно же спасибо всем, кто был рядом в эти дни❤️… @orlov_09 @kuzy092 мужики мы чемпионы!!!! Thanks to all my team @capitals for the greatest time ever!!!✌🏻❤️

A post shared by Alexander Ovechkin (@aleksandrovechkinofficial) on

After winning the Presidents’ Trophy for two straight seasons, the Capitals slipped a bit (by their regular-season standards) in “only” winning a division title. In hindsight, that was far from a setback – what with the whole “winning it all” thing – but perhaps it was a sign that Washington may no longer run roughshod over the regular season?

Again, it’s not the end of the world. Washington won its long-awaited Stanley Cup without home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, after all. Still, a slow start could make some dominoes fall in a negative way.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Under Pressure]

New head coach Todd Reirden indicated that he’ll try to spare the Capitals in different ways as they try to repeat, but such measures could be sidetracked if a groggy start pushes Washington to the bubble.

A bad hangover might rob Washington of the underrated luxury of rest and/or make the path to repeat that much more treacherous.

Such thoughts bring us to another variable could factor into the Capitals’ chances of building a cushion:

2. Was Braden Holtby‘s tough regular season just an anomaly?

Fatigue was one of the concerns for workhorse goalie Braden Holtby, much like it seemed to be for Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy. Perhaps opening up about those challenges will keep the issue from cropping up again?

It’s a nice thought, and Holtby’s strong postseason silenced his critics, but goalies are an unpredictable lot, so who knows what kind of season he’ll experience? After all, Holtby seemed like as close to a guarantee of being elite (his previous three seasons featured a save percentage of .922 or higher, despite a Brodeurian workload), yet he suffered through a .907 save percentage in 2017-18.

Again, Holtby was dazzling during that championship run, underscoring the notion that he probably deserves more consideration as the flat-out best goalie in the NHL.

While his odds for success are high, there are some potential stumbling blocks.

With Philipp Grubauer out of town, the Capitals face more uncertainty behind Holtby. How much might this team stumble if Holtby gets hurt or merely struggles to stop pucks? Will Pheonix Copley or someone else be able to hold down the fort or will the Caps need to roll the dice any time they turn to a backup?

The Capitals have more questions in net than they did coming into last season.

3. Will the veterans lose a step?

Washington’s core players are entering that window where every season is a battle with Father Time.

That’s not to say that the Capitals need to worry about the aging curve to the same degree as, say, the Ducks or Sharks. Still, declines can be pretty sharp at times in professional sports, and the Capitals boast a few candidates who could slip (even if just by small measures).

Alex Ovechkin is 32, and he’s already played in 1,003 regular-season games. Nicklas Backstrom is 30, while both T.J. Oshie and Matt Niskanen are 31. Even Lars Eller is 29.

Washington features some guys in the meat of their primes (Evgeny Kuznetsov is flying high and only 26), not to mention promising young players who might get more looks under Todd Reirden, particularly Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana.

It’s not necessarily a question of if the Capitals will be any good. Instead, the worry is that they might lose enough steps to fall behind the NHL’s best. It didn’t happen last season – clearly – but the Capitals face some real questions as they hope to repeat.

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.

Under Pressure: Todd Reirden

Getty
2 Comments

Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Washington Capitals.

Barry Switzer deserved better.

You won’t hear that take often, certainly not on a hockey site. But that’s my take: people often act like the Dallas Cowboys winning a Super Bowl post-Jimmy Johnson was a given, to the point that Johnson had to shake off claims that “Switzer owed him his ring.” Such reactions dismiss how difficult it is to win at a high level, particularly when you carry the mantle of heavy favorites.

Once everything is said and done, new Capitals head coach Todd Reirden might feel Switzer’s pain.

[Looking back at 2017-18 | Building off a breakthrough | Three questions]

Even out of the specific context, Reirden would be under serious pressure. After all, the 47-year-old is receiving his first opportunity to be an NHL head coach after a long climb, including several years as an assistant between gigs with Washington and Pittsburgh.

Taking over for a team with aspirations to contend would already be a challenge on top of that, but he’s also responsible for the encore after the Capitals won their long-awaited first Stanley Cup. As The AP’s Stephen Whyno noted, Reirden is just the fourth new coach to take over a reigning champion over the last 30 years.

Colin Campbell was one of those other three coaches, as he inherited the New York Rangers after Mike Keenan’s historic (and tumultuous run).

“You can only tie. You can’t do better,” Campbell said. “Tying’s pretty good. You have to win a Cup just tie your performance from a year before.”

Whyno collected the advice three other coaches (Campbell, along with Dave Lewis and Scotty Bowman) gave to Reirden, which came down to being himself but also managing the transition from being an assistant/associate to head coach. That could be an underrated challenge, especially if an assistant and head coach previously created a “good cop/bad cop” dynamic. What happens if a more nurturing presence must now bring the hammer down?

Reirden said the right things about finally getting his head coaching shot, but it’s most interesting to note how he’ll aim for systemic changes, and how he’ll approach different personalities.

“I think one of my strengths as an assistant is I’ve been able to have a strong pulse of when the players need time away, when they need to be pushed harder,” Reirden said recently, via NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti. “In terms of those type of things, with it being a longer [Stanley Cup Playoff] run (last season), it’s important to have a strong pulse on your team and your leadership group in particular and know when to push and when to pull back a little bit in terms of where we’re at energy-wise. Those are things that I’ve already made adjustments to (in) our overall schedule that’s planned out, with travel situations or different things we can do to make sure we’re fresh to be able to give ourselves every chance we can to repeat.”

That sounds promising, and it’s plausible that Reirden may actually end up being a better fit for the Capitals. The painful possibility, though, is that he could very well do a great job and still get bashed if Washington’s results aren’t there. Winning a Stanley Cup – not to mention racking up Presidents’ Trophies before that title – sets the bar very high.

There are a number of scenarios where bad results could be out of Reirden’s hands:

  • He simply might not be a tactician at Trotz’s level: Trotz has his critics – Reirden may have more trust in skilled, young players, for example – but few would doubt his defensive schemes. Could there be a drop-off from Trotz to Reirden? It’s possible even if Reirden is still strong in that area.
  • Luck going the other way: One factor that slips under the radar is that the Capitals were weirdly healthy during Trotz’s years. It’s gotten to the point where it’s bordering on spooky.

Honestly, that might be the thing people should have harped on during Washington’s letdowns: they rarely dealt with key losses like other teams did. Their bitter rivals in Pittsburgh won a Stanley Cup with Kris Letang on the shelf, yet they’ve also been hobbled by serious issues to virtually all of their key players, including Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Maybe the Capitals’ staff can continue to work under-the-radar miracles, paralleling the Phoenix Suns’ glory days. Such a run of health might also have as much to do with luck as anything else, though, and Reirden could end up footing the bill.

  • Aging curve: The Capitals’ health luck has been remarkable, in part, because of the sheer mileage on their best players. Between international play and regular trips to the playoffs – disappointing or not – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and other key Caps have played a lot of hockey.

The older a player is, the greater injury risks tend to come along, strengthening the worries about health above. Even if trainers get that under control, you wonder if Father Time might come knocking as early as 2018-19.

The Capitals aren’t ancient, but if a series of moderate declines hit at the same time, it could really sting. Ovechkin is 32, and has played in 139 more regular-season games than his rival Crosby (1,003 to 864), even though both took the league by storm during the same 2005-06 season. Nicklas Backstrom is 30, T.J. Oshie is 31, and Matt Niskanen was showing signs of decline and is 31.

Again, these guys wouldn’t make the same pop culture references as Joe Thornton or Jaromir Jagr, but they’re already liable to start the season with a Stanley Cup hangover. (Ovechkin’s summer might be one big hangover, really.) It could be a tough regular season if they lose a few steps, particularly if they try to save some energy for the postseason.

Some people will be fair to Reirden if 2018-19 is bumpy. All it takes is a few impulsive (and probably unfair) hot takes to start to turn up the temperature, though.

  • Some losses: The Capitals navigated the off-season reasonably well, aside from the occasional debatable decision like Tom Wilson‘s new contract. Time will tell if it was right to pay big to keep John Carlson, but Reirden has to be relieved to have him to start.

That doesn’t mean that the Capitals kept the whole band together, and some subtractions could make life tougher for Reirden.

There’s at least some reason to worry that Braden Holtby might have another tough regular season, as Philipp Grubauer is no longer there to pick up the slack.

***

So, there are “be careful what you wish for” elements to Reirden getting a promotion to the head coaching gig.

As Campbell said, it’s not like he can really “top” what the Capitals did last year. It’s probably unfair to expect Reirden to duplicate those results – after all, this Stanley Cup run probably surprised more than a few Capitals executives and fans – but plenty of people will demand as much, anyway.

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.

Panthers add Troy Brouwer on one-year contract

Getty
1 Comment

After having the final two years of his contract with the Calgary Flames bought out earlier this month, veteran forward Troy Brouwer has a new home in the NHL.

The Florida Panthers announced on Monday that they have signed the 33-year-old Brouwer to a one-year deal.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed by the team but it will reportedly pay him $850,000 according to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.

“Troy is a skilled veteran forward with championship experience,” said Panthers general manager Dale Tallon in a team statement. “He adds depth to our forward group and his leadership will help our developing young core take the next step this season.”

Brouwer had signed a four-year, $18 million contract with the Flames prior to the 2016-17 season, a deal that quickly became an albatross on the team’s salary cap structure as his production fell off a cliff over the past two years, tallying just 19 goals and 47 points in his first 150 games with the Flames. Calgary is taking a $1.5 million salary cap hit in each of the next four years to be rid of him.

The big draw here is obviously the fact that Tallon has a history with Brouwer dating back to their days in Chicago where Brouwer spent the first five years of his career, helping the team win a Stanley Cup during the 2009-10 season. The Blackhawks had to trade Brouwer following the 2010-11 season as part of one of their many salary cap purges over the years, sending him to Washington for a first-round draft pick. The Capitals later traded him to St. Louis in a deal for T.J. Oshie that has pretty clearly worked out in their favor.

How much Brouwer has left in the tank remains to be seen, and his presence probably reduces the likelihood of one of the Panthers’ prospects opening the year with the team (Owen Tippett?). In other words: The Panthers are really banking on that veteran presence he provides making an impact.

After a tough start to the 2017-18 season the Panthers finished the year strong and missed the second wild card spot by just a single point. They have a good young core in place led by Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Aaron Ekblad, and have added Mike Hoffman along with Brouwer this offseason.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.