Archive for January 2007

Blueline Blues

January 30, 2007

In researching and writing the piece about the Capitals’ defense that is currently up on washingtoncaps.com, I was startled by something I had not previously realized. In both 2004 and 2005, the Caps chose a pair of defensemen in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. That in itself is not so startling, but I was stunned when I realized that between Brendan Witt (11th overall) in the first round of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft and Steve Eminger (12th overall) in the first round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, the Caps had taken only two defensemen in the first rounds of those eight drafts in between.

Those two first-round defensemen (Nolan Baumgartner at No. 10 in 1994 and Nick Boynton at No. 9 in 1997) played a total of 18 games in a Capitals uniform. And the rest of the Washington-chosen blueliners taken in between Witt and Eminger did not fare much better.

The Capitals drafted 31 defensemen between Witt and Eminger, and only five of those players (Baumgartner, J-F Fortin, Nolan Yonkman, Patrick Boileau and Jakub Cutta) ever donned a Washington sweater. Fortin led the way with 71 games as a Capital. A few others had brief NHL stints for other NHL clubs. It should also be noted that 22 of those 31 defensemen were drafted after the third round, where you can’t necessarily expect to find NHL-caliber talent from year to year.

Although veteran goaltender Olie Kolzig has been entrenched as the team’s starter for the last decade, the face of the Washington defense has turned over and changed drastically during the same period.

When the Caps took the ice for the start of the 1998 Stanley Cup playoffs (the only time in franchise history the Caps have advanced to the Cup finals), their six defensemen (Ken Klee, Calle Johansson, Mark Tinordi, Joe Reekie, Sergei Gonchar and Phil Housley) had a combined total of 3,628 games worth of regular season NHL experience among them. The Caps also had Jeff Brown and Brendan Witt on hand then, and both played during that run to the finals. The eight defensemen had 4,531 games of NHL regular season experience among them.

Fast-forward to the 2002-03 season, Washington’s last trip to the playoffs. The Caps still had Klee, Johansson, Gonchar and Witt, and Washington was the only team in the entire NHL that could boast of having four defensemen together for the previous eight seasons. The Caps were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs that season, and the defense began to take on a drastically new look the following season, after Johansson and Klee departed.

The Caps may finally be putting together a strong defensive nucleus to rival the ones they had in the 1980s and 1990s. With Eminger, Shaone Morrisonn, Brian Pothier, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, they have some talented young defensemen who could form the defensive core of the next strong Cup-contending team in Washington. Other recent draftees such as Sasha Pokulok, Joe Finley, Sami Lepisto, Oscar Hedman, Patrick McNeill, Andrew Thomas, Viktor Dovgan and Keith Seabrook could also develop into NHL-level defenders in the next half-decade or so.

There were no blogs 14 years ago, but it’s not hard to imagine writers of that day holding the same hopes for the likes of Boileau, Bamugartner and Sergei Zimakov. History has shown the NHL Draft to be a crapshoot in the later rounds, and an unpredictable hope chest in the early rounds. In other words, you may need to get some defensemen elsewhere, too.

Over its NHL history, Washington has been a resourceful franchise in terms of picking up defensemen from other sources. The Caps obtained Bryan “Bugsy” Watson from Detroit on Nov. 30, 1976, and pizza lovers in the area owe a huge debt to then-GM Max McNab for engineering that swap. After Watson retired in the area as the league’s all-time penalty minutes leader, he opened a bar-restaurant that serves the best pies in a radius of hundreds of miles. Combine that with the best “hockey bar” around, and that is a deal that continues to pay dividends decades later.

Man, am I hungry. And thirsty. And sorry for the digression.

Leif Svensson, Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Larry Murphy, Gary Galley, Grant Ledyard, Calle Johansson, Al Iafrate, Sylvain Cote, Joe Reekie, Mark Tinordi, Morrisonn and others all came to Washington via the trade or free agent route. But recently, those avenues have not been fertile, either.

Since the end of the 1998 Stanley Cup finals, the Caps have signed, traded for or claimed 38 defensemen. Three of those were converted to forwards. Eight others never donned a Caps uniform. Washington has played 624 regular season games since that lone Cup finals appearance. None of those 35 defensemen have played in more than 155 of those games. Here’s the top five:

Dimitri Mironov 155 (Sign)
Sylvain Cote 139 (Sign)
Shaone Morrisonn 129 (Trade)
Jason Doig 120 (Sign)
Joel Kwiatkowski 114 (Trade)

Given the dry patch of defensemen coming into the organization via both the draft and other routes, it’s amazing the Capitals have been as competitive as they have been over the past 15 years or so. There seems to be a new emphasis on defense within the organization now, and hopefully it will be enough to return to the Caps to the status of perennial contenders.

We’ll discuss this more on Wednesday’s edition of The Capitals Report (podcast), in which we’ll be joined by the aforementioned Reekie. He has some good perspective to share on the Caps’ defense and the development curve of NHL blueliners. The show airs live at 2 p.m. every Wednesday, and is also available for download shortly thereafter.

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99 is 46

January 27, 2007

When I was about 18, I was over at a friend’s house. His dad was sitting there reading the paper, and my buddy and I were watching what passed for “sports news” on television back in those days. A Wayne Gretzky highlight reel came on, showing the young WHA phenom, a mere 17 years old at the time.

“Hey dad,” said my friend, “That guy is younger than me.”

His dad peered around the newspaper briefly to have a look and said, “Yeah? So what the hell have you been doing with your life?”

A few months later, Oct. 10, 1979 to be exact, I found myself in the old Chicago Stadium, watching the season opener between the local (to me, at the time) Blackhawks and the Edmonton Oilers. It was Edmonton’s first game in the NHL after the merger between the league and the WHA, and it was Gretzky’s first game in the NHL. He was just 18.

The Hawks won 4-2, and Gretzky picked up the first of his 1,963 NHL assists and his 2,857 NHL points.

I’ve mentioned in this space before that I am a bit of a packrat. I tucked that ticket stub away, not because I saw it as anything special at the time, but just because that’s what I do after I come home from a hockey, baseball, football game or a concert. Throw the stub in a box. Must be close to a thousand of them now.

A few years ago, I was rummaging through the box just to see what was in there, and I came across the Gretzky stub. Wow, I thought. This is really something. I hadn’t really thought about it much at all over the years, the fact that I had seen The Great One’s first NHL game and had held on to the ticket stub.

I don’t collect autographs at all, but I thought it would be cool to get the stub signed and display it in a frame in my office at home. I’ve got framed and signed Dale Hunter and Rod Langway prints on the wall in there, and that’s it. I’ve never been an autograph seeker, but I decided long ago I would make an exception in the cases of Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr.

Wayne down, two to go.

Gretzky signed my ticket stub minutes after his Phoenix Coyotes edged the Capitals 3-2 on New Year’s Day. I can lose my job for soliciting autographs, so I went through channels and had someone with authority handle it for me. He brought it back and handed it to me and said, “It doesn’t look like my handwrirting, right?”

Funny guy.

Yesterday was Wayne’s 46th birthday, hope it was a good one. The Yotes’ shootout win over Colorado couldn’t have hurt any.

The Art of Dodging Bullets

January 26, 2007

There are times in the course of watching a hockey game when your stomach can turn and twist into any number of shapes and knots. This can happen for any number of reasons, and it can sometimes even be one of the elements that attracts us to the game. I had a prolonged stretch of stomach-twisting during a game last week. It all turned out well for the good guys, but it was difficult to watch nonetheless.

Last Thursday night, I was sitting in the press box at RBC Center watching the Capitals and the Hurricanes go at it. Early in the second period, the Caps held a slim 1-0 lead, but the Hurricanes were beginning to apply some serious offensive pressure. After the Caps outshot the Canes by a 17-11 margin in the first period, Carolina had come out with a lot of energy in the middle period and was buzzing the Washington net with purpose, right around the two-minute mark of the frame.

Carolina had forwards Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, Chad LaRose and defensemen Dennis Seidenberg and Anton Babchuk on the ice at the time. The Caps had forwards Matt Bradley, Ben Clymer and Kris Beech and defensemen Jamie Heward and Jeff Schultz on the ice. All 10 players had come out on the fly (Clymer, Heward and Schultz came out just a few seconds ahead of Beech and Bradley), and the Canes immediately took the puck into the Washington end of the ice.

For the next minute or so, the Canes cycled, rotated, passed and generally played keep-away from the five Capitals skaters. Finally, at the 3:06 mark, the Caps managed to ice the puck. Since the start of the 2005-06 season, this tactic provides only very short-term relief (unless a planned TV timeout happens to conicide with the stoppage), since the offending team (Washington, in this case) is no longer permitted to change players after icing the puck. Tired troops must remain on the sheet while the opposition is able to put out fresh bodies for what is an offensive zone draw for them.

Before the Caps iced the puck, the Canes were actually able to get both Seidenberg and Babchuk to the bench, replacing them with David Tanabe and Mike Commodore. When the two teams lined up for the face-off after the icing whistle, the five Caps had been on the ice for more nearly a minute. (Ideal NHL shifts range from 35-50 seconds, depending on the player, the player’s position and the coach’s preferences.) The same five tired Caps had to remain on the ice, while Carolina was able to counter with forwards Andrew Ladd, Trevor Letowski and Craig Adams — all of whom were taking their first shift of the second period. Carolina coach Peter Laviolette put defensemen Babchuk and Glen Wesley out with that trio of forwards.

Bradley won the face-off from Letowski, but the Canes quickly regained possession of the puck before the Caps could clear the zone without icing the disc, and get fresh personnel on the ice. Washington’s already tired charges were again pinned in their own zone, and Carolina was again buzzing and firing pucks in the direction of Caps goaltender Olie Kolzig. The Caps looked desperate.

Almost a minute after he took the draw, Bradley and his mates were still pinned in. Bradley managed to get high enough in the zone to get off for a change (changing on the fly is more difficult in the second period when the benches are farther away from the defensive zone); Alex Ovechkin replaced him after Bradley had been out for more than a minute and a half. Clymer was the next one to get off. Chris Clark spelled him after a shift that ran 2:15. Beech was on the ice for 2:23 before Dainius Zubrus replaced him.

It was nearly three minutes (!) before the two Washington defensemen were finally able to get to the bench for a change. Heward and Schultz both skated 2:50 on the shift in question. For the entire evening, Heward logged 17:32 and Schultz 18:49, so that one shift accounted for a great deal of their ice time for the night. (It should be noted that those ice time totals were inflated a bit by Brian Pothier’s unavailability for the third period. Pothier, the Caps’ leading skater in terms of average ice time per game, was lost to an upper body injury late in the second period.)

As I watched this drama unfolding before me, I squirmed in my chair, felt my innards doing contortions and flips, and silently urged the Caps to somehow get a whistle or a change without icing the puck. They did, but not before Kolzig was forced to make five saves. Bradley and Heward blocked a shot each, and another missed its mark. Carolina fired eight shots in a span of about three minutes, and the Caps had dodged a bullet to protect a 1-0 lead at a stage when the game was clearly still very much up for grabs.

To the untrained observer, those sorts of situations can look like a jailbreak. But, as Matt Bradley later elucidated for me, there is actually a great deal of method to what may look like pure madness:

“Coaches tell us when you’re tried like that on the penalty kill or in a 5-on-5 situation like we were there,” the Caps winger began, “just to keep it simple and close into a tighter box. Everybody moves closer to the middle of the ice, because when you have no energy you can’t be chasing guys [into the corners]. You have to have really good position. They had a couple chances but I think we kept them to the outside. We were were obviously tired, but there is no excuse for not playing good positional hockey.”

Kudos to Kolzig and his five teammates for keeping that game scoreless for three hectic minutes, and eventually salting away a much needed victory. Anyone else wonder why Laviolette didn’t send out the Rod Brind’Amour or the Eric Staal line after the icing call? I know I did. Both lines were fresh, but he opted to keep rolling his four units. These are but some of the little nuances and elements that go into making up the outcome of a 60-minute (and sometimes longer) contest.

All-Star Lame

January 25, 2007

When I was a kid, I routinely watched the NHL All-Star Game with my dad and my brother. It wasn’t something I looked forward to or anything, but it was mildly entertaining to see the best players in the league playing hockey with and against each other.

I had not planned on watching it this year, but my eight-year-old son decided he wanted to watch it, so I watched with him. My dad and my brother are among the hundreds of millions who don’t get the channel on which the game was televised.

They didn’t miss much.

Goals, lots of them. Some dizzying camera work, a broken microphone. Alex Ovechkin eating potato chips on the bench. But it was enlightening to see the game with my son, something I’m not often able to do, unfortunately.

“How come nobody is hitting anybody?” Well, they just don’t. It’s not “real” hockey.

“Maybe if just one guy would have the courage to hit someone, everyone else would start doing it too.” Yeah, maybe. But don’t hold your breath.

“What’s with the sweaters?” Those aren’t sweaters, son. Those are systems. And if you want one, you’ll have to save up $424. Euphemisms don’t come cheap.

When the goals really started pouring into the nets in the second period, my son observed, “You could be losing by 10 goals and still have time to catch up.” Not so in his youth league, where a 10-goal lead means the end of the game.

When Mike Emrick announced that there had not been a penalty in an All-Star contest since Sandis Ozolinsh’s hooking minor in 2000, the boy literally began laughing out loud. “Seven years???” Well, there was no All-Star Game last year because of the Olympics and none the year before because of the lockout. “Still …”

At one point, we logged on to NHL.com to check the real-time scoring sheet. We wanted to see if any player had actually been credited with a hit. To our amazement, the Western Conference’s Billy Guerin had one. He was the only guy who had one. But when I checked again after the game, the hit had vanished. Not a single player had been credited with a hit; it was a no-hitter. My theory: they checked Guerin’s pockets after the game and the pre-game eggs they gave him were in pristine, unbroken condition. No hit for you!

I told the boy how the new “systems” are supposed to make everyone like nine percent faster. He doesn’t really understand percentages yet, but he was quick to pick up that nobody really has an advantage if everyone is faster (sorry, Derian Hatcher). I told him that with these spiffy new “systems” and bigger nets that some people would like to see introduced, we might someday see most regular season games resembling this one, at least in terms of the final score. He kind of made a face at that.

He had to go to bed after the second period. I recorded the rest of the game for him. This morning at breakfast, I mentioned that the third period was there for his viewing pleasure. He thanked me, asked me what the final score was, and then asked when the next Caps game would be on. 12-9. And the Caps play tomorrow, I said.

“Good. You can delete the third period.”

Done.

We were both happy that Ovie scored, happy that Ovie led all forwards on both teams in ice time, and happy that Ovie was enjoying himself. It was nice that Mike Green got three assists in the YoungStars Game. We both agreed that the updates sent back from Dallas by the Caps’ Nate Ewell that chronicled Ovie and Green’s All-Star experiences were better than the actual game itself. But one of these games every three years is plenty, thank you.

By the way, it was lame that NHL.com lumped Ovie with the pointless and minus-4 Sidney Crosby, with a headline that read “Better Luck Next Year” and a caption that read: “Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin didn’t figure in much of the scoring in Wednesday’s NHL All-Star Game, but the super sophomores had a blast all the same.”

How about this instead:

“Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin didn’t figure in any of the scoring in Wednesday’s NHL All-Star Game and Tuesday’s YoungStars Game, respectively, but the super sophomore and the Russian rookie had a blast all the same.”

Much better, and infinitely more accurate. I’m sure had Sidney managed an assist, there would have been no story in the first place. The story liberally quotes Crosby, but no one bothered to ask Ovie how disappointed he was with his one-goal performance. Hmmm.

Gordo and the Guns

January 19, 2007

Talked a bit with Boyd Gordon after today’s morning skate. Gordon is obviously known mostly for his defensive prowess, which seems to grow greater by the game. But he put up his fair share of points during his junior hockey days with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels, and he actually started his NHL career as the center on a line with Jaromir Jagr.

Tonight, Gordon will begin the evening between Alexander Semin and Matt Pettinger, a pair of guys with good speed and good shots who have both scored 20 goals in a season in this league. I wondered whether Gordon would need to adjust his style at all to play with Semin and Pettinger.

“I think Alex is really talented, and the more he can get the puck in his hands in the offensive zone, the better it is for us. You can’t really change too much. I don’t want to be throwing long passes and turning the puck over, but in the same sense I maybe have to look for them a little bit more than I normally would someone else, because he and Petty can both shoot the puck so well.”

I reminded Gordon that he once played with Jagr.

“Yeah, that was a while ago,” he said. “But it was kind of similar to play with someone that skilled. You just try to get the puck to them and get open, and that’s what I will try to do tonight.”

With Red Deer, Gordon learned under the tutelage of Brent Sutter, who helped hone his defensive acumen. But Gordon’s defensive molding actually pre-dated his days with the Rebels.

“I think it started from a young age,” he said. “My dad was always my coach, and he always stressed playing two ways. I think Sutter was a big influence on me. He was always a defense-first guy, but he believed that if you played good defense you would create a lot of offense from it, just from being in good position. I think those have been the two biggest influences in my hockey career, for sure.”

Washington Monument

January 17, 2007

These last few Capitals road trips haven’t been the same. We’re missing a key member of our often merry band of traveling media. The incomparable Dave Fay of The Washington Times, dean of Washington hockey writers, baron of the beat, has been absent from the road games of late, and now he will be absent from the home games for a while, too. Dave is undergoing cancer surgery tomorrow, and all our thoughts, prayers and best wishes are headed in his direction. It’s not the same without him, and we need him back soon.

Dave has been fighting the fight for a number of years now, and has often held the upper hand. That says a lot about what a tough dude he is. The opponent is starting to rally, and Dave is now looking to answer back in the same fashion.

He is missed by players, media, staff and fans alike. Get well soon, Dave. We’re anxiously awaiting the return of your acerbic wit, your cantankerous nature, your lethal coffee cup and your daily missives. We’ll save you a seat.

Klepis In Against the Team that Drafted Him

January 16, 2007

Yesterday’s Game Day preview over on the Caps’ main site (washingtoncaps.com, you know, the paying gig) made note of some lineup adjustments for the Capitals as they prepare to take on the Senators tonight in Ottawa.

At yesterday’s practice here, Jakub Klepis sported the yellow sweater, meaning he was the guy who did not figure to be in the lineup tonight. Today however, it is Kris Beech who is out for tonight’s game. Klepis will skate with Alexander Semin and Donald Brashear.

The Caps have struggled to find a viable option at the second line center slot all season long. The Sens are a speedy team, and Klepis brings a bit more speed and skill to the table. Hopefully tonight Klepis will be motivated by the twin factors of having sat out the last several games and playing against the team that drafted him. The Sens chose Klepis (16th overall) one pick before the Caps took Boyd Gordon (17th overall) in the first round of the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.