Archive for December 2006

The Latest From MSG

December 30, 2006

Steve Eminger, Brian Sutherby and Matt Pettinger are all on the ice for warm-ups as I type this. I’m told that Pettinger will play, Sutherby likely will not, and Eminger’s status will be determined as soon as he comes offthe ice from warm-ups. Mike Green is out sick and is back at the hotel along with Brent Johnson.

My guess for tonight’s line combos is as follows: Ovechkin-Zubrus-Clark, Semin-Beech-Pettinger, Laich-Gordon-Clymer and Brashear-Steckel-Klepis. That could change if Sutherby is able to play.

On defense, Morrisonn-Pothier, Heward-Helbling and Nycholat-Eminger. If Eminger can’t go, Jamie Hunt is in.

Daren Machesney must be having a blast about now. The Caps’ sudden and emergent backup goaltender is out there taking shots from the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, in Madison Square Garden. All this just weeks after his 20th birthday and less than 24 hours after recording his first AHL win in his first AHL start. Had a little chat with him before the game, and he is pretty relaxed. He was doing some work on his brand-new mask, one that features a growling Bear and a capital dome. He sported that one in warm-ups just now; he wore a different one last night in Albany.

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Spending Doesn’t Equal Winning

December 30, 2006

About 10 days ago I noted in this space the (at that time) upcoming stretch of four games in five nights for the Capitals, and noted just how rare that many games in that short period of time is at the NHL level (second time in 23 years for the Caps). It’s also worth noting that the four-in-five stretch concludes tonight, when the Caps play the second half of their fifth set of back-to-back games in 23 days. The Caps have 19 sets of back-to-back contests all season, so having more than a quarter of them in just over three weeks can be pretty taxing. Especially when you throw in a stomach virus the likes of which no one associated with the team has ever seen before.

(Think about this for a second. The Caps last five pairs of back-to-back games came in a span of just 23 days. The team’s next five back-to-back games come over a stretch of 70 days.)

Before I get into the “meat” of this post, I will note that Matt Pettinger, Brian Sutherby and Steve Eminger — all of whom missed last night’s game with the stomach virus — showed up and ate at the team’s mid-day meal here in New York today. Pettinger was heard to remark that he felt a lot better than he did on Friday, but it remains to be seen which of the virus-ravaged Caps will be in and which will be out of the lineup for tonight’s game against the Rangers. Washington did recall 20-year-old netminder Daren Machesney from Hershey on an emergency basis. Caps goaltender Brent Johnson is one of the most severely hit by the virus, and with Olaf Kolzig slated to play for the fourth time in five nights tonight, it makes sense for the Caps to have a healthy — if green — backup available. These are heady times for Machesney. The first-year pro started and won in his first AHL start at Albany last night, and before he can even eat lunch the next day he is on his way to The Show.

The good news is that the schedule will ease in January. The Caps start the New Year with a four-game homestand, and they play just one set of back-to-back games in 34 days. Some of the injured players (defensemen John Erskine and Bryan Muir and forwards Matt Bradley and Richard Zednik) should return to the lineup at some point in the first month of 2007. And despite the Caps’ recent slide (1-5 in their last six), they’re still hanging in what should be a very tight race for Eastern Conference playoff positioning over the second half of the 2006-07 season.

The trade deadline comes on Feb. 27 this season. Nearly 60 shopping days remain. Like virtually every team in the league, the Capitals have needs. Unlike virtually every team in the league, the Capitals have a lot of salary cap space with which to work. With a payroll of about $30 million, the Caps have plenty of room under the $44 million salary cap, a figure that is expected to rise to $48 million next season. Considering that salary cap hits are pro-rated, obtaining a $4 million player in midseason results in a cap hit of just $2 million.

So what should the Caps do? Spend some money, right? Go shopping, get a couple of defensemen, maybe a center, and still be well under the cap. Why not? Philadelphia is doing it, and they have as much chance of making the playoffs as the Redskins do.

Simply put, it’s not that simple. All things being equal, I’d much rather fill needs over the next 60 days via the trade route, than to get involved in bidding wars for unrestricted free agents looking for a big payday in July. Most observers would agree that Washington’s defensive corps could use an upgrade. But look at the teams that went out and spent on blueliners last summer.

Zdeno Chara is having a decent season for the Bruins, but is it a $7.5 million season? How’s that $7 million a year deal working out for the Coyotes and Ed Jovanovski? Is Pavel Kubina having a $5 million year in Toronto? Rob Blake’s $6 million deal and the Kings’ $20 million defense looks like a pretty good idea now, huh? Jay McKee is earning his $4 from the Blues and Willie Mitchell is having a $3.5 million kind of year in Vancouver, right? If you want to go back a summer, you could note Sergei Gonchar’s deal with the Pens, Adam Foote’s in Columbus, Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje in Philadelphia, and Adrian Aucoin in Chicago. The obvious point here is that spending the money does nothing to guarantee success. It didn’t before the lockout, and it doesn’t now.

The Kings and Leafs have both allotted nearly $20 million of their resepctive payrolls for defensemen. Phoenix pays its blueliners somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million. Think those teams are “getting what they paid for?” Anyone out there betting on any of those teams to make the playoffs this year? Good luck with that.

You can spend and win, too. The Ducks and the Wings both spend a lot of money on defense, and Dallas spends a fair amount. But you won’t find defensemen on those teams who are grossly overpaid, a situation that results in “dead money.”

The other night in the press box at Verizon Center, some of the writers were saying how the Caps need to go hard after a guy like Montreal’s Sheldon Souray this summer. Souray’s a nice player, but does anyone think he is going to get less than $5 million a year for about four years on the open market this summer? He has more goals (22) than any other NHL defenseman during calendar 2006. If the market says that Jay McKee is worth $16 million for four years, what sort of deal is Souray going to fetch?

If you’re the Capitals, and you’re bringing along a bunch of young players, including rising stars such as Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin, you might want to think twice before shelling out $25 million for five years worth of a defenseman (or two). The Ovechkins and the Semins are going to need to get paid if you want to keep them around and try to remain “Cup-competitive” over a period of several seasons. A year ago, Buffalo had a young, up-and-coming team with a relatively low payroll. Now, thanks to the wonders of arbitration, they’re bunched with 20 or so other teams who are within a couple of million dollars of the salary cap ceiling. Buffalo’s payroll went up by about a third, and they still haven’t won a Stanley Cup.

Draft, develop. Draft, develop. It’s not easy, but that’s what you’ve got to do. Build a strong scouting staff at both the amatuer and pro level. Bring along your own players, grow and nurture them through the ranks, and let the cream rise to the top. If you’ve still got holes, spend to fill them. But don’t spend for the sake of spending, and don’t spend because your fans and the media say that you should.

Jaroslav Spacek, Filip Kuba, Joe Corvo, and Brian Pothier were all available as free agents last summer, and all wound up signing for less than $3.5 million a season. All are providing better bang for the buck than most (and arguably all) of the high-priced Class of 2006 blueliners mentioned earlier. Hell, the Islanders shelled out $600,000 for veteran Sean Hill, and all he has done is play 21 minutes a night, rank second among Isles blueliners in scoring, and post a plus-13. The values and the bargains are out there if your scouts are doing their jobs.

Carolina is the defending Stanley Cup champion. It pays no defenseman as much as $2.5 million. Montreal is one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. The Habs pay no defenseman more than $2.5 million. The Atlanta Thrashers are an up-and-coming team on the verge of their first ever playoff berth and division title. No Thrashers defenseman makes more than $2.5 million.

San Jose and Nashville have two of the youngest groups of blueliners in the league, and both clubs have cobbled together a budget blueline, spending less than $10 million on their defensive corps. The Sharks have allowed the second fewest goals in the league this season, and the Predators the sixth fewest.

Here are a few other things worth noting. Of the top 12 teams in terms of payroll for the 2005-06 season, only seven qualified for the playoffs last spring. Only two of the seven advanced to the second round, and none went any further. All four conference finalists (and therefore, both Cup finalists) came from the lower payroll tiers. Spending does not equal winning. It didn’t under the old collective bargaining agreement, and it doesn’t under the new one.

Which brings us back to the Caps. Washington currently ranks 27th in the league in goals against and 30th in shots against. The Caps have a young group of defensemen, so certainly some improvement can be expected not only over the remainder of this season, but also over the next few seasons. That said, the Caps are in a position to make the playoffs for the first time in four years and that should not be taken lightly. A round or two of playoff experience would do wonders for this young team, regardless of the outcome.

With that in mind, certainly the Capitals should be (and in fact, they are) shopping around for possible upgrades for their backline. But certainly the Capitals should be (and in fact, they are) mindful and careful of the long-term implications a large ticket blueline acquisition would have on their budget not only now, but in the years to come.

All I am saying here in my usual long-winded fashion is the same thing I told those guys in the press box the other night. I’d much rather make a deal for a guy with a year or two left on his current deal than to plunk down $25 million for five years worth of a 30-year-old guy whose value and utility is likely to decline before the life of that pact is halfway finished. It will be interesting to see what types of defensemen are made available on the trade market in the next 60 days or so, and what it will take to fetch them.

Swamp Sickness

December 29, 2006

Here’s the latest from the swamps. Brian Pothier is going to try to go. Brian Sutherby, Steve Eminger and Matt Pettinger are out, and will be transported to the hotel where the Caps are staying in New York. Washington will dress seven defensemen and 11 forwards tonight, and some of the guys who are in the lineup and playing tonight are already feeling symptoms and may not be able to play on Saturday when the Caps face the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Goaltender Brent Johnson is among the ill, but he will dress tonight. He may be on the bench, but it is also possible that he will remain in the locker room while tonight’s game is unfolding.

Bryan Muir, Richard Zednik, Matt Bradley and John Erskine are on injured reserve, and the Caps are at the roster maximum of 23. If Washington is to recall any more players, it would have to first place another player on injured reserve. Illness is not an area covered by the “emergency recall” part of the CBA, so emergency recalls are not an option, either.

Both George McPhee and Glen Hanlon stated that they had never seen a bug like this run through a team this hard and this quickly. According to Hanlon, Ben Clymer contratced the illness first and suffered through it over the holiday break. The rest have taken ill since.

As far as lines go, Hanlon said they shake out something like this, at least at the game’s outset:
Ovechkin, Zubrus, Klepis
Semin, Beech, Clark
Laich, Gordon, Clymer
Brashear, Steckel

Having seven defensemen should help the Caps to ease Shaone Morrisonn back into the lineup after his bout with mononucleosis, and should also help the team ease the workload on first-year pro Jamie Hunt, who is making his NHL debut tonight.

It will be interesting to see how the Caps fare over the next four days, and who gets sick/well during that period.

Flu Bug Bites

December 29, 2006

If four games and five nights and five in seven wasn’t bad enough, how about throwing in a healthy dose of the flu bug to make things even more interesting? That’s what the Caps are facing on this crisp and sunny morning in northern New Jersey.

Several players stayed back at the hotel when we came over to Continental Airlines Arena this morning, which is where I currently sit typing this medical missive. Goaltender Brent Johnson is among the ill, meaning Olie Kolzig with start tonight in New Jersey and tomorrow in New York. Coach Glen Hanlon rattled off half a dozen other Caps who are under the weather, and now it’s just a matter of seeing who can recuperate enough to go tonight.

In the meantime, some reinforcements are en route from Hershey. Defenseman Jamie Hunt and center Dave Steckel have been summoned from the Capitals’ AHL affiliate. They won’t arrive in tiem for the skate this morning, but arrangements have been made for them to have a day room at our nearby hotel. And Timo Helbling arrived from Hershey last night, too.

There’s no telling what the Washington lineup will look like by face-off at 7:30 tonight, but I’ll keep you posted as best I can. The Devils just left the ice, and the Caps will be coming on as soon as the the pond is resurfaced.

The House that Ovie Filled?

December 27, 2006

With the Montreal Canadiens making their first visit to Washington this season, the accompanying media horde was present at Washington’s morning skate on Wednesday. Both the print and the electronic boys were out in numbers, and Caps bench boss Glen Hanlon and superstar Alex Ovechkin each spent about 10 minutes filling the notebooks and the tape recorders of the visitors.

Some of the questions were similar. They wanted to know about Daniel Briere’s saber-wielding skills, Alexander Semin, and the progress of the Capitals as one of the league’s up-and-coming teams. It was also interesting that both men were asked about Washington’s lackluster attendance. Here is what each had to say on the topic:

Glen Hanlon:
“We appreciate the support we do get, but I want them to realize what they have here and how special this kid is. It should be full every night. We have to share the responsibility as a winning product to get people to come.”

Alex Ovechkin:
“Well, it’s not empty. It’s half-empty. It’s getting better. If you saw last season and this year, [more] people have come to watch hockey and watch our team. I hope it will be better, because when you play and it’s sold out it is unbelievable.”

Later in the interview, one of the scribes asked Ovie about the “Do You Know No. 8?” billboards around town. The writer noted that the taxi driver who transported him to Verizon Center did not know the answer to the rhetorical question.

“I don’t know, who is it?,” joked Ovechkin. “[Washington] is not a hockey town, but I hope soon it will be. If we want people to come to stands, we have to win games. We have to be great team. If we don’t [win], of course people don’t go watch.”

It’s worth noting that fans in Washington are the only ones who are avoiding Ovechkin. Through 19 home dates (nearly half the home schedule), the Caps are averaging 12,999 fans per game. That’s 26th in the NHL, and down from last season’s figure of 13,905. The Caps’ current attendance average is the lowest since the 1983-84 Caps pulled in an average of just 11,837 fans. That team did not have Ovechkin.

Washington has no problems filling buildings when it is on the road. The Caps play to 69.6% of capacity on average at Verizon Center; they play to 94% of capacity in their 17 road games. Washington is fifth in the NHL in road attendance, trailing only the Rangers, Boston, Calgary and Toronto. The Caps play to an average crowd of 17,313 on the road. That’s more than 4,000 per game more than the Verizon Center numbers, and a shade more than Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins have played to (17,233) in the same number of road dates this season. Washington has the greatest disparity between home and road attendance of any team in the NHL this season.

The new state-of-the-art practice facility inside the beltway will help. Having the AHL affiliate just two hours away in Hershey should also help. But the main thing, as both Hanlon and Ovechkin noted, is winning. It’s coming, but the Caps are not there yet. They’ve actually played better on the road this season, and are a mere .500 (8-8-3) on home ice for the season, and just 1-3-1 in their last five games.

Everyone should know who No. 8 is, and they will. And when they do, the attendance should rise as well.

Jo-Jo to Buffalo

December 26, 2006

Recently the Caps have established a well-worn path between Hershey and Washington, with three different players coming to and fro last week. Make it four. Washington has summoned winger Jonas Johansson from Hershey of the AHL, and he will report to Buffalo in time for tonight’s game against the Sabres. Johansson’s presence is a hedge in case winger Ben Clymer is unable to answer the bell at game time. Clymer skated with his teammates this morning, but is a bit under the weather.

Defenseman Shaone Morrisonn is still suffering from the flu, and he won’t be in the lineup tonight. Washington will be forced to go with a patchwork defense that is lacking in NHL experience (775 NHL games among the six defensemen, or a fraction of the 1,268 games played by Buffalo blueliner Teppo Nuuminen) as it goes up against the league’s most prolific offense.

The Caps flew up to Buffalo early today. It’s relatively rare for an NHL team to head into the road city on the day of a game, but doing so gave the players a full day with their families on Christmas Day. Washington will head home immediately after the game; the Caps have a Wednesday home date with the Canadiens at Verizon Center. The Habs are probably en route to Washington as I type this. They’ll be in the District while the Caps are doing battle in Buffalo.

After Wednesday’s game with the Habs, the Caps will board a northbound train for New Jersey. For the second consecutive Friday, the Caps will clash with the Devils, this time in New Jersey. The Caps will have played three times in between the two meetings with Devils; New Jersey will have played twice and is likely to be a bit fresher.

On Saturday, the Caps will play their fourth game in five nights (all against teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings) when they visit the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers must play in Ottawa on Friday, so both the Caps and the Blueshirts will be playing the second of back-to-back tilts that night. The Caps will then return home to face a jet-lagged Phoenix team at Verizon Center on New Year’s Day. The Desert Dogs must play the Sharks on Saturday night in Phoenix, then travel cross-country for the New Year’s Day matinee against Washington.

The upcoming week will be a busy one for Washington, and the injuries and illnesses aren’t making things any easier. Hershey is also in the midst of a particularly rugged stretch of schedule. Beginning tonight in Bridgeport, the Bears start a stretch in which they must play five games in six nights. Three of those will be at home, but the Bears must go from Bridgeport to Hershey to Albany and back to Hershey.

If the Caps can get through this stretch, the slate gets a little easier the rest of the way. The Phoenix game starts a four-game homestand. After the back-to-backs against New Jersey and New York on Dec. 29-30, the Caps will play just one set of back-to-backs over the next 34 days. They’ll also have the benefit of a five-day all-star break in late January.

Seven days from now, the Caps will be just a game away from the midway point of the season. It’s going to be interesting to see how they (and the Bears) hold up during this difficult and crucial stretch.

The Scratch Report

December 23, 2006

The news here is not good. Not only are defensemen John Erskine and Bryan Muir missing from tonight’s lineup, Shaone Morrisonn was not on the ice for the pregame skate. He is a late scratch, leaving the Caps with only five healthy defensemen. The guess here is that Ben Clymer may slide back to the blueline tonight.

Donald Brashear did skate, and is likely to play. More definitive news as it is made available.