Archive for February 2008

The Week That Was

February 29, 2008

We’ve had a wild rollercoaster of a week in Caps Land, and some of us are just now getting a chance to catch our breath. Road game last Saturday, overtime game at home on Sunday afternoon. Some internet woes kept us Web types at the Phone Booth for longer than we’d usually be there after a game, and the loss to New Jersey was a tough one, too.

Bruce Boudreau gave the boys the day off on Monday, which gave us a bit of time to catch up and take a look at what was out there and what might be coming down the pike. He also tabbed caps.com Web producer Brett Leonhardt as his second goalie for Tuesday’ morning skate, a move that turned Big Leo into a kid on Christmas Eve for the rest of the day.

I stayed in the office late on Monday, just in case something came up. Nothing did, but I was pretty certain something would happen on Tuesday.

Knowing that Brett was practicing with the team, and that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was in town, and that it was deadline day, I left Baltimore early with the intention of arriving in time for the 10 a.m. skate. Rainy weather and snarled traffic conspired against me, but I got down to Kettler around 10:30. After talking to a handful of players and my media cohorts for half an hour or so, we started to make vague lunch plans.

Around this time, Nate Ewell surreptitiously grabbed me and pulled me aside.

“Are you going to the arena?” he asked.

“Not today,” I said. On game days, I’ll usually try to get to the Caps’ skate and Kettler and then head over to Verizon to watch the opposing team and chat up a few of their players and their coach. There would be no time for any of that today.

“Good idea,” came his reply, and I could read in his tone and his face that the Caps had already done something. I collected my laptop and other accouterments and headed up the stairs to the offices. Before I started up, I noted that Bryce Salvador was a Devil and Wade Belak a Panther, so I ducked into the locker room to pass that news along to the few guys still there.

I checked in with Nate a few minutes later, and he told me about the Cristobal Huet and Sergei Fedorov deals. The Huet trade took me completely by surprise, the Fedorov deal did not at all. Like many of you, I began to believe that another deal had to be in the offing, one that would relieve the goaltending logjam.

By this time, commissioner Bettman had arrived, and he was making his rounds in the offices. He even spent a while in the war room with Caps GM George McPhee and the Washington scouting staff. While I was starting to write a piece on the Caps’ deadline day activity, I was also jotting down notes for my interview with Bettman. He had agreed to join us on our Pre-Cap pregame podcast at 3 p.m.

You always hope you’ll be the one breaking the news of the trades, but it rarely happens anymore. We usually learn of Caps trades and signings well in advance of the announcement, and when two teams make a deal, they usually also agree upon a time to announce it. Part of the process also involves notification of the players and their respective agents, and that’s when the cat usually gets out of the bag.

I had been asked to appear on Comcast’s Washington Post Live from the arena before the game that night, so I knew I’d better start thinking about food now. There wouldn’t time later. A few of us went down to the Ballston food court and grabbed some sandwiches. By the time we got back upstairs, we were informed of the impending Matt Pettinger for Matt Cooke deal.

I knew it was a good trade for the Caps, but it was tough to see Pettinger go. I had watched him in Portland and Washington for the last seven-plus years, got to know his family a little bit and always considered him a top-notch, stand-up guy in a business that is teeming with them. I took a couple of minutes to wish him well and started scarfing a sandwich.

By now, the trades from around the rest of the league were coming in fast and furious. We had the NHL Network’s coverage on and were watching the sparks fly.

Our podcast usually runs 30 minutes, max. We did close to an hour on this day, talking trades for a bit, then interviewing Bettman, then going back to the trades. By then, it was time to high-tail it over to Verizon Center. Press conferences, etc.

McPhee spoke, and Boudreau spoke. Then I had to wander down to the Olympia corner and do my TV bit. By now, a problem had started to surface. I could not get on the internet. Not from the press room, not from the press box. Not via wireless, not via ethernet. Biggest day of the year, and my hands were tied.

I watched the game and took notes, did my usual radio bit (but did it during the second intermission instead of the first, yielding my normal slot to Bettman). Between the second and third periods, Spike Parker was able to get me some ethernet access. After the game, I went downstairs to get quotes and talk to players, then headed back up the press box and worked alone from there until I was done writing. Sometime around 12:30, I headed home.

Wednesday brought more of the same. Another hour-long podcast, a couple more press conferences, another practice at Kettler and more chit-chat with players and a large assemblage of media. Huet struck me as being thoughtful and quietly intense. Fedorov has a bit of a rock star aura about him, but he’s also very well grounded. He patiently answered questions and even thanked the media folks for coming out.

Thursday brought the first practices for both Huet and Fedorov, and another opportunity to talk to both. Lots of media in the house again, most wanting to talk about the unusual three-goalie setup.

Today, finally we have another game. Maybe the most anticipated Caps games (today’s and tomorrow’s at home against the Leafs) since the first game after the lockout. Eighteen games remain. Three new players have been brought in from three different rooms around the league. Chris Clark is skating again. Management has sent a message to the room: we believe in you, and we’re going to try to give you a push to get to the playoffs.

The forward ranks have been upgraded. The defense is still young and a bit on the green side, but few (if any) difference making defensemen were available at the deadline this year. Goaltending? An embarrassment of riches.

Huet was an All-Star last season. Olie Kolzig is two wins shy of 300 and is 12-4-4 since Dec. 22. Brent Johnson has been excellent for the past three months. The Caps have three capable goalies, but can only dress two. The youngest of these three is the only one who is signed for next year, and he has best save pct. and GAA of the three over the last three months. But he’s the one who’s not dressing, and the one who believes he is “the odd man out.”

Everyone seems to think this means the end of Kolzig’s run here in D.C., and maybe it does. But McPhee says otherwise and we’ve got a ways to go before any of these decisions need to be made.

The Caps have been a compelling team all season, and they’ve made themselves even more so for the last 18 chapters of this year’s book. We’ve had a lot of drama here in Washington this season, and we’ll be having a lot more the rest of the way. You won’t want to miss a single episode.

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All In

February 26, 2008

In the Texas Hold ‘Em parlance, the Caps are all in. By adding goaltender Cristobal Huet, center Sergei Fedorov and checking forward Matt Cooke, the Caps have made a statement: they want to make the playoffs this year.

They’ve also laid out about $2 million in salary for the remainder of the season.

Talks are ongoing, and there’s still time on the clock. We may or may not be finished here.

Huet From the Habs

February 26, 2008

The Caps have essentially obtained Cristobal Huet for Brian Sutherby.

Back in November, they got Anaheim’s second rounder in 2009 for Sutherby. Today, they flipped that pick to the Habs for veteran goalie Cristobal Huet, who will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1. This trade tells me that the Caps are very serious about making a run for the playoffs now.

And I get the sense they’re not quite finished yet, either. More to come whenever I’m able to write about it.

Revival

February 25, 2008

It’s been great to see fewer empty seats at Verizon Center of late (five straight crowds over 17,000) and it was good to see the Caps notch their first sellout of the season yesterday with the Devils in town. Those of us who have lived in these parts for a while knew the fans would come when the team improved, and that has been the case. The Caps also traditionally get a second-half attendance bump and they’ve also benefited from their long-term commitment to Alex Ovechkin (and Ovechkin’s commitment to the District).

Back in September, I would have predicted a nice attendance bump for the Caps this season. But I would not have done so for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Although I spent most of my formative years in Chicago, I was never actually what you’d call a Blackhawks fan. I watched the road games on TV (the late Bill Wirtz refused to show home games on TV for decades out of deference to “season reservation holders”), I went to games at the old Chicago Stadium whenever I could, and shared a plan with some buddies for a while. Hockey was always on the radar in the Windy City in those days, the 1970s and 1980s. Plenty of great players and very good teams skated the Stadium surface, and the building was jammed, loud and lively more often than not. Newspapers and radio airwaves were filled with discussion of the Hawks and hockey.

The Hawks sort of lost touch with their fan base over the last several years. Attendance dwindled, and more alarmingly, season reservation holders opted not to renew in droves, driving the team’s STH count down to among the lowest in the league. Newspapers began to devote less space to the Hawks and more to other teams on the city’s sporting landscape. Radio sports talk all but ignored the Hawks in recent years. For those of us who lived in and near the city during the salad days of Chicago hockey, it was painful to see. The team has been mediocre for years, and the organization was unable to convince the fans that it cared enough about them or putting a good team on the ice.

That’s all changed now. Bill Wirtz passed away in September, and his son Rocky took the reins. The younger Wirtz wasted no time in breathing life and vitality into a long moribund franchise, and the quickness and degree of the turnabout have been astounding. Wirtz and newly hired team president (and marketing whiz) John McDonough have combined to revive the club off the ice while a pair of ex-Hawks from the glory years — general manager Dale Tallon and coach Denis Savard — have combined to revive the club on the ice.

A few months back, I wrote about the Hawks’ ambitious new TV campaign. Since then, the Hawks have reached out to legendary alumni Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito, making them part of the Hawks’ family once again. The team is likely to fall short of the playoffs, but the building is jumping again and fans are taking notice.

When I talk to friends and family back home, they talk as much of Wirtz and McDonough as they do Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Those of us around here are familiar with Comcast’s “Washington Post Live,” and Comcast Chicago has a similar vehicle called “Chicago Tribune Live.” McDonough had been with the Chicago Cubs until Wirtz spirited him away, and I asked one of my Cub fan pals what made him such a great hire for the Hawks. “He’s not a huckster,” was the reply. “He’s genuine.”

He passed along some proof: parts one, two, three, four and five of Wirtz and McDonough on Trib Live.

When I started here with the Caps some years back, I pitched a couple of ideas that fall outside the realm of my job description, just because I thought they were good ideas that would play well in this market. First is the idea of a Caps Convention, a summer hockey festival that would bring fans in and get the Caps some newspaper play in the dead of the summer offseason. It could be scheduled to coincide with the release of the NHL schedule and/or the team’s annual summer development camp. It’s hardly an original idea; McDonough presided for years over the Cubs’ annual winter gathering, a weekend-long event that drew attendees from around the world. The success the Cubs had with their off-season venture is what led me to suggest it in the first place.

Second, the Caps have been in existence for a third of a century now and it’s time the team established a Caps Hall of Fame. (It was “time” a few years back when I first brought it up, too.) Form a committee that would be in charge of elections/inductions and get it going. The Baltimore Orioles do a great job of honoring their alumni in this fashion, and the Orioles do a great job with very few things these days. Each year, one or two ex-Orioles gets inducted. He returns to town and is honored/inducted at a nice luncheon event and in a pre-game ceremony. It gives the fans a chance to connect with alumni they’ve watched for years and it makes far more sense than retiring players’ uniform numbers, an honor I believe should be reserved for a very, very special and elite class of player.

I know fans responded well to last April’s Caps alumni game and can’t wait for the next one. The annual Caps Hall of Fame induction could be scheduled around the alumni game.

McDonough still sees the value in a summer Hawks convention, and I guess commissioner Gary Bettman and the fans do as well. Hotel rooms have already sold out for the event.

The Hawks continue to grow together on the ice, too. They’ve still got a long way to go, but for the first time in a long time, the fans are starting to believe that they’ll get there.

During my travels around the league, I recently had a conversation with a high-ranking Hawks exec. He was beaming at the team’s progress on and off the ice, and we eagerly traded tales of the resurgence of our respective teams. We concluded our chat by agreeing how great it would be to see the Hawks and Caps facing off for the Stanley Cup in the not-too-distant future.

Low Leafs

February 25, 2008

Not sure why Mats Sundin is taking such a beating for refusing to waive his no-trade clause. The reason he has a no-trade clause is because he didn’t want to get moved. Ditto for Sundin’s teammates Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Kubina and Darcy Tucker, all of whom have reportedly said they would not waive their no-trade clauses, either. If Toronto fans and media want to put the hammer to someone, they should put it to management.

It’s not like the players slipped those clauses into the pact without management’s knowledge, is it?

I’ve heard that the NHL is kicking the tires on a new rule that would prevent situations like the one that occurred last year at this time when St. Louis shipped Keith Tkachuk to the Thrashers for a bounty of prospects and picks. A few months later, Tkachuk resigned with the Blues as a free agent. There are some who believe such activity should be outlawed, and that a player traded away by a team should not be able to re-join that team (via trade or free agency) within a calendar year of the original deal. I’d be in favor of such a rule myself.

The existence of such a rule would keep Sundin from being vilified as he is at the moment. The guy is a center and the team captain; it’s not up to him to rebuild the Leafs but to hear some tell it, he’s the villain in the whole episode.

And hey, how about the fact that we’re less than 26 hours removed from the trade deadline with little to no activity going on? I’m starting to see now why people would pay actual money (as opposed to that Paulie Walnuts Monopoly cash) to have some anonymous visionary hip them to “updated rumors.”

Those “rumors” might be as close as we get to a deal.

Seriously, I believe some cards will be played soon, but I’ll be surprised if the overall activity approaches the level of recent seasons. There are a lot of reasons for this, some of which are expounded on by a few prominent GMs in this piece I wrote for Caps.com.

Brass Bonanza

February 21, 2008

Today was a very quiet day at the Caps’ Kettler Capitals Iceplex headquarters. Practice was optional, and only defenseman Steve Eminger exercised his option to practice. Us media folk were given plenty to chew on though, as both general manager George McPhee and head coach Bruce Boudreau held court for lengthy periods and discussed a variety of wide-ranging issues.

I’ll be using some of those quotes in a pre-trade deadline story and in tomorrow’s Game Day Preview for the Carolina game on Saturday, but there’s no sense in letting the rest of those words fall to the cutting room floor. So here’s what was said. First, GMGM.

On Jeff Schultz’s strained knee:
“He seems better than expected today, but it’s hard to say with these things. Try it tomorrow and see how it is. Then go from there.”

On Sami Lepisto’s one game with the Caps:
“He played very well. He’s a smart player and he moved the puck real quick. Quick ups, which is what you want. He gets it and moves it up, gets it and moves it up. He was doing it in motion. He can, while he’s retrieving the [puck], be moving and cradling the puck and then seeing someone and moving it. Those are his strengths and there is certainly room for guys like that in today’s game.”

On whether he believed there was a lot of trade talk at the GM meetings in Naples:
“That’s always hard to measure because unless you’re spying on people, you don’t know who’s talking to who. You can see people talking from time to time, but you don’t know whether they’re having a social talk or they’re talking deal. Sometimes you can tell from the body language that it’s serious. And some guys are doing it because they don’t care what other people think. Some guys are doing it to make sure their competition knows what they’re trying to do. But it’s hard to say how much is going to happen. It’s probably like every other year where really nothing happens and then there are 40 transactions a couple days before the deadline.”

On the recently concluded GM meetings:
“The meetings themselves were really good. I’ve always enjoyed those meetings because you really have comprehensive discussions about hockey issues and there is a lot of responsibility there to do what’s right for the NHL and hockey all over the world, really. A lot of people follow what we do in this league. We usually have about 40 items on the agenda to talk about. We break into small groups of six to eight GMs on the first day with a couple of league people and then we discuss six or eight items and then make recommendations to the larger group and then sometimes there is more discussion based on that. That’s how we do it and it’s enlightening when you have a lot of experienced people in the game talking about the game at this level. It’s a neat experience to be a part of.”

On injured defenseman Brian Pothier:
“He is still having symptoms. There is just no timetable for this. Whenever he walks in and says he is feeling good, you get him going. He could walk in tomorrow and say, ‘I feel good today,’ string a couple more good days together and the next thing you know he is skating and playing in a few of weeks. But I don’t know.”

On injured right wing Chris Clark:
“He seems to be getting better. But until we seem him out there going all out in practice for a few weeks [he will remained sidelined].”

On whether he thinks the goaltending tandem of Olie Kolzig and Brent Johnson could remain in place for next season:
“I’m not looking that far ahead. We’re just trying to win games right now and at the end of the season you evaulate every position like we always do. This isn’t about next year. This is about right now, and we’re doing fine.”

On the logjam of young goaltenders in the system:
“The plan would be to have all the young goalies in Hershey and let them battle it out down there.”

On whether one of the young goalies would have to be loaned out to another organization:
“We’d have to do something, but it’s a nice problem to have, three good young goalies. We’d work something out. Our plan would be to get them all to camp and get them to work.”

On Tomas Fleischmann:
“He is a talented young guy and players develop at different rates. He is a smart player and he’s got good hands. This is his first [full] year in the league and he is doing fine. They can’t all be Ovechkins. You have to have young guys at reasonable deals in your lineup. Everybody has to have it. There aren’t many teams that can have a lineup full of expensive players. You have to play guys like Flash and hope they continue to come along.”

*********

Boudreau’s bits follow.

On whether he would change up the composition of the first line on Saturday because Alex Ovechkin is without a point in three straight games:
“I’m a little stubborn in some ways. I don’t think that Alex’s production [is down] because Tom [Fleischmann] is not playing well. Alex hit the post three times [Wednesday] and missed an open net. Sometimes you don’t want to use the word ‘slump,’ but things have been going so well for him for 57 games that you have a rough spot where things just don’t go in. The reason I know that it will eventually end is because he shoots the puck all the time. When you keep shooting the puck eventually it is going to keep going in. For the time being, at least for the first couple of shifts next game, that line will stay together.

On McPhee’s stance that the Caps don’t need much tinkering with at the trade deadline:
“I think the games that we haven’t had a lot of success in are the games that we haven’t played well. When we play well we’ve beaten the best teams in the league. I don’t think there is a lot of tinkering to be done. I like the group we have. If something changes, something changes and I’ve got to assume it will be for the better. But it’s a good group of guys and it’s a group that is very determined. I think that will go a long ways. And we do have guys in Hershey that we feel are very capable of coming up and playing in any situation. We’ll see how next week [unfolds]. It’s always an interesting time. I’m not counting on anything happening. But if it’s good for this team I’m sure George is going to do it.”

On whether the young Caps you played in the AHL playoffs will be able to play well in their first taste of the NHL playoffs:
“I think they can. Sometimes youthful exuberance takes over. They don’t know what the hell they’re getting into so they just run with it and have fun. It’s the one thing that George always told me every day when we were in the first [Calder Cup] run, ‘Enjoy the ride.’ And we had a young team at that point, too. If we ever get to that situation, we’ll enjoy it. This playoff push is going to make them an awful lot better next year than they were this year, because they’ll know what to expect. It’s all a learning experience.”

On his rooting interest in Thursday night’s game between Southeast rivals Carolina and Atlanta:
“I’m rooting against the three-point [game] and I’m hoping the game is so bad that Colin Campbell says ‘Nobody deserves a point.’ I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

On giving up third-period goals on shots from below the goal line in each of the last three games:
“It’s not a good thing. I hope it’s a fluky thing. Obviously those are the kind of goals you can’t give up.”

Lepisto, Fehr Back to Bears

February 20, 2008

The Caps announced today that they have reassigned defenseman Sami Lepisto and right wing Eric Fehr to Hershey of the AHL. Expect to see both back here in the District in the future.

Hershey is a few days away from setting out on a nine-game road trip, and these moves will help bolster the Bears for that journey.