May 23, 2015

Key offseason questions for the Washington Capitals

Braden Holtby Washington Capitals Practice, 10/07/2014 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Braden Holtby Washington Capitals Practice, 10/07/2014 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

With the Washington Capitals out of the playoffs, the focus now must turn from the 2015 postseason to the 2015-16 season. There truly is no rest for the weary as the Caps now must face several key offseason questions.

Despite how the season may have ended, Barry Trotz’s first season behind the bench in Washington was a successful one — he led the Caps back into the postseason and came within one win of knocking off the President’s Trophy winners, but that only matters if the team is able to capitalize on the strides they made.

Here are the biggest questions the team now faces as they head into the offseason:

How much will Braden Holtby cost?

Braden Holtby was absolutely phenomenal for the Caps with a .944 save percentage in the playoffs. In fact, Holtby currently owns the all-time highest career playoff percentage. Holtby also proved his worth in the regular season, playing 73 games and earning 41 wins.

This is pretty good timing for the Saskatchewan native as he is now a restricted free agent. Before you start thinking about a blank check with a lot of zeros, however, the fact that Holtby is a restricted free agent does  give the team the option of a “bridge” contract — a short-term deal to take him out of restricted status.

Essentially a bridge deal allows for the player to make more money without the team having to commit to a long-term deal yet. At this point, however, what is there left for Holtby to prove?

Bridge contracts can sometimes seem business savvy, but to give Holtby a “prove it” type deal after the season he just had seems silly considering that he also had a strong postseason showing in 2012.

Other teams could also force the Caps’ hand. Restricted free agents can receive offer sheets from other teams which does not happen a lot, but for a budding star/elite goalie Holtby is sure to generate some interest from around the league. Chances are this won’t happen and even if it does, it seems unfathomable to think the Caps won’t match regardless of what the offer might be.

So what is Holtby ultimately worth?

Henrik Lundqvist currently has the highest cap hit among NHL goalies at $8.5 million, but that seems a tad unreasonable. Holtby falls much closer to the $6-7 million range, probably closer to the lower end of that spectrum given that Holtby has only been a starter for one full season.

Will Mike Green be back?

Mike Green is coming off a contract that paid him about $6 million per year and was a third-pair defenseman this season. Regardless of what anyone thinks he is worth, one thing is guaranteed: another NHL team will offer Green more money than the Caps will. That is a 100 percent, take it to the bank guarantee. How much more money he’s offered will ultimately determine whether he returns.

While Green is on the third-pair with the Caps, there are other teams who will be willing to give him a bigger role on their team and therefore will offer him significantly more money.

Green has made it clear he wants to stay in Washington and would perhaps be willing to take a paycut, but we are probably talking about several million dollars. That makes Green’s return unlikely.

Who will be the top-line RW?

Besides re-signing Holtby, finding a top line right wing will be a top priority this offseason.  Given that Trotz tried just about everyone he could on that top line, this suggests the next right wing is either not on the roster or is still developing.

If you think Marcus Johansson should be on the top line, that’s great. Trotz tried it and moved on. If you think Joel Ward should be on the top line, that’s great. Trotz tried it and moved on. The same goes for Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle and Eric Fehr. Trotz tried all of these players on the top line and moved on from it.

Coaches on every team shuffle their lines during games and over the course of a season, but not nearly as frequently as we saw from Trotz. Clearly, he was not satisfied with what he saw on the top line.

Depending on how Andre Burakovsky and Tom Wilson develop this offseason, perhaps one of them can step into this role. Both players saw time on the top line over the season with some success. What makes them different from the others on the right wing merry-go-round is how young they are.

We know who Chimera is as a player. We know what you get from a player like Ward and Beagle. Burakovsky and Wilson are still developing and are capable of growing into a top-line role if they progress enough over the summer.

If the team decides neither of them are ready yet, they need to find someone to complete that line.

The free agent class is rather thin, but Justin Williams seems like a potential target. He will turn 34 just as the season starts and could bring veteran leadership and Stanley Cup experience to the roster.

If general manager Brian MacLellan doesn’t like what he sees among the free agents, then he will have to put some kind of trade package together to find one. Trading for a top-line player is expensive, however, and MacLellan will try to avoid this option if he can.

Who will backup Holtby?

The fact that Holtby played in 73 games this season says just as much about how Trotz feels about backup Justin Peters as it does about Holtby.

Peters finished the season with a 3-6-1 record and a .881 save percentage. That’s not good. At times, Peters did not play as bad as his numbers and often did not get a lot of help in front of him but when you play so little it becomes impossible to develop a report with the defense thus compounding the problem.

When Holtby was sick for Game 2 in the playoffs against the New York Islanders, Philipp Grubauer was recalled from the AHL and started over Peters. That should tell you all you need to know.

Considering that Trotz did not anticipate leaning on Holtby this much coming into this season, just think of what will happen next season now that he knows what he has in both Holtby and Peters. Clearly, something needs to change. Having Holtby play so much is not a recipe for success, this team needs a backup they can rely on.

Perhaps the answer is Grubauer.

Grubauer was very good in Hershey this year and has not looked out of place in his appearances at the NHL level. He is still young and no doubt would benefit more from getting consistent playing time rather than serving as a backup, but the team needs to evaluate what his role with the team will ultimately be if Holtby is going to be the long-term starter.

With one year left on Peters’ deal,  it seems doubtful that the team will sign another backup. If Grubauer does backup Holtby next year, Peters could go to Hershey where he posted a .948 save percentage and one shutout in three games this season.

If Trotz has no faith in Peters — which seems to be the case — it makes no sense to go into next season with Peters as the backup.

Who will the Caps re-sign?

Let’s go over the easy ones first. On defense, Green, Tim Gleason and John Erskine will almost certainly be gone. Nate Schmidt is a restricted free agent and the team will want him back.

We’ve already gone over Holtby. On offense, both Evgeny Kuznetsov and Johansson are restricted free agents and there is no reason to think either will not be back, especially Kuznetsov.

Aaron Volpatti will be gone. Curtis Glencross was a deadline acquisition and was a healthy scratch for four games in the playoffs including Game 7 against the New York Rangers. Chances are the team will move on.

That leaves Ward, Beagle and Fehr. With nine points in the playoffs, Ward is someone the team would probably like back, but he was already overpaid on his last contract at $3 million per year. He would have to take a significant pay cut to stay, but at 34, this will likely be the last ‘major’ contract Ward gets. This is a deal MacLellan will get done if he can, but the ceiling for how much Ward can ask will be pretty low before he gets out of MacLellan’s price range.

There is mutual interest in Beagle returning, but the problem with someone like Beagle is that he is ultimately a third- or fourth-line player. If he tests free agency there will be a team willing to overpay for him.  It won’t take much to out-bid the Caps. If he’s not locked up before July 1, he’s as good as gone.

Fehr is a great fit at the third line center and if Burakovsky goes to the right, the team will seek to bring Fehr back. Considering Washington is the only place where things have really clicked for him in the NHL, he will want to stay if at all possible.

What can we expect from the younger players next season?

The long search for a second-line center mercifully appears to be over. Kuznetsov had a breakout postseason scoring five goals and two assists. Caps fans should be drooling over what he can turn into when he reaches his potential.

Wilson was a first-round draft pick which means the Caps saw potential in him as a top-six forward. MacLellan told the media as much on Monday. He is the young player who needs to take the biggest step forward this summer to become a top-six wing. Depending on whether Ward returns, Wilson will likely start on the second or third line with a chance to prove himself. If he finishes the season on the fourth line again, then it may be time to consider whether the damage done to his development from Adam Oates’ tenure may be permanent.

Burakovsky started the season with the Caps, finished it in Hershey but was called back up to the NHL for the playoffs. He managed three points in 11 games, but looked impressive at times. It seems likely that his time in Hershey is over.

Burakovsky’s impact next season will be determined by what position Trotz uses him in. At the start of the season, Burakovsky was playing center, but developing two rookies at center in the same season is a difficult task and he was moved to wing. If he develops enough to challenge for the top-line wing, that’s where he will be. If not, don’t be surprised to see him back in the faceoff circle next fall centering the third line.

Given that Schmidt was recalled in the playoffs when Tim Gleason’s health was in question and  that Schmidt was Hershey’s leading scorer in the playoffs despite being a defenseman and playing in only eight of the team’s 10 playoff games. It would be a surprise if he was not with the Caps next season with Dmitry Orlov as the team’s third-pair.

That would give the team six defensemen leaving Connor Carrick as the odd-man out. He should spend the summer trying to pack on as much muscle as possible onto his small frame.

As for some of the other notable prospects — Riley Barber, Madison Bowey, Jakub Vrana — it would be unreasonable to expect anything from them at the NHL level next season. Neither Barber nor Bowey have spent any time in the AHL and Vrana has played only 13 games with Hershey.

All three are expected to start next season with the Bears. If they end up making any impact with the Caps next season, consider that a bonus.

Despite familiar collapse, this season was a success for the Caps

New year, new coach, same result. The Washington Capitals saw their season come to an unceremonious end on Wednesday with a Game 7 overtime loss to the New York Rangers and once again, it felt far too early.

But for all the similarities to the team’s past failures, there were clear signs of progress over the course of the season and the playoffs.

It may not feel that way right now. The Caps lost to the Rangers in the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons despite having a 3-1 series lead. It is the fifth time the Capitals have lost a series when up by 3-1 and the tenth time the team has lost when leading by two games. The Caps still have not made it past the second round since 1998, well before Alex Ovechkin came to Washington.

Yet, this is also the team that failed to make the playoffs just one season ago. In his first season as coach, Barry Trotz made the Caps into a hard-nosed, balanced team. He took this underachieving roster and made them into playoff contenders in just one year.

Rather than meddle with all aspects of the game and every position as Adam Oates did, Trotz delegated responsibilities to trusted and respected assistants such as Mitch Korn, who transformed Braden Holtby into one of the league’s top netminders, and Todd Reirden, who helped the Caps  improve defensively from 21st in the NHL with 2.79 goals against per game to 7th with 2.43.

Under Trotz’ tutelage, Alex Ovechkin became a more defensively responsible player, improving last season’s comical plus/minus of -35 to +10 in the regular season. Analysts were absolutely effusive in their praise of the Great Eight throughout the season saying he was a more complete player and a better leader. Clearly he was and that’s an important step.

Rookie playmakers also flourished under Trotz. In his first season with the team, Tom Wilson was locked in a closet by Adam Oates and given less than eight minutes of ice time per game. That’s less ice time than notable stars such as Ryan Stoa, Casey Wellman and Chris Brown. It’s even less time than Oates gave Martin Erat despite how clearly he distrusted Erat.

Under Oates, there was seemingly no plan in place for what to do with Wilson or how to develop him and we saw no noticeable improvements in his first season because of it.

That was not the case this year with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. Both players cycled up and down the lineup. Both saw their time in the press box and Burakovsky was even reassigned to Hershey. Yet, there was a clear focus on developing them. Both rookies played key roles with the Caps in the postseason, especially Kuznetsov, who had a breakout performance with five goals and two assists.

The bottom line is that this is a team that missed the playoffs last year with a coach and general manager making decisions based solely on the present with little regard for the team’s future. This year, not only did the Caps develop some of their top players for the future, they also took the Presidents’ Trophy winners to overtime in Game 7 in the second round.

One favorable bounce of the puck could have the Caps facing Tampa Bay right now. That’s all that separated them from the conference final.

As much as it may sting now, overall this season was a clear success. The reason it doesn’t feel that way is because of how the team lost. Losing yet another 3-1 series lead is hard to swallow, especially since the Caps came 101 seconds away from winning Game 5. Seeing Henrik Lundqvist on his way to the bench lifting his arms in triumph before he could get there will be an image that haunts Caps fans for years to come.

Trotz, however, was not the coach when the Caps were swept by Tampa Bay in 2011. He was not behind the bench when Montreal pulled off the unbelievable upset in 2010. No one with the team now was on the roster for the Caps’ collapse against Pittsburgh in 1992 or the Easter Epic in 1987.

In terms of this team, right now, this team showed progress.

Consider this: if back in October someone had said the Caps would take the Presidents’ Trophy winners to seven games in the second round of the playoffs, wouldn’t that have been considered a success?

Washington Capitals Second Round Game 7 Recap: Heartbreak, thy name is Caps

The Washington Capitals will not advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

A rebound goal by Derek Stepan 11:24 into overtime lifted the New York Rangers over the Caps 2-1 and into the ECF against the Tampa Bay Lightning while the Caps will head back to Kettler Capitals Iceplex to clean out their lockers and dwell on the missed opportunities of Games 5 and 6.

They should not dwell on “what could have been” in Game 7 because Game 7 was a classic, in every sense of the word.

The Caps and Rangers played even for 60 minutes, with a first period goal by — who else — Alex Ovechkin — and a second period equalizer by Kevin Hayes the only transgressions against the ledgers of Braden Holtby and Henrik Lundqvist, who were both superb yet again.

So of course, more time was needed to settle it. As if anyone concerned could have imagined any other scenario.

Much has been written, and much more will be added, to the storied and sordid history of the Caps not being able to close out playoff series. The loss to the Rangers makes the 10th time in franchise history this franchise has been unable to win a series they led by two games. They are 0-5 now in Game 7 after leading a series three games to one.

When history looks back on this series, it will be painted as just another blown series for the Caps, the perennial “choking dogs.” Lazy sportwriters will dwell on it, in fact, thinking it will make them look cool, smart or funny. They are none of those things.

The Capitals played Game 7 with total effort from start to finish. It was simply one of the best games in these playoffs, let alone the series. They lost in overtime to the team with the best record in the league and the best goalie (for my money) on the planet. They played these Rangers toe-to-toe the entire series and lost to the better team.

No choke. No curse. No conspiracy.

The Rangers were simply the better team. But it wasn’t by much. In fact, the narrowest of margins.

There will be plenty of folks that will mock these words, using bravado and arrogance to deflect their disappointment that the Caps — these Caps, not the Caps from 1987, 1992, 1995 or 2010 — lost in the most agonizing of fashions. It’s always hard to accept defeat.

But this version of the Washington Capitals proved that when they play with complete effort for 60 minutes they can play with the best team in the league, losing only on the bounce of a puck.

For the long haul, there are lessons to be learned, and holes to fill. Young players got a tremendous amount of particular experience. The veterans found out how Barry Trotz manages his team in the playoffs.

But for now, there is heartbreak.

Hockey is hard.  If it were easy, everyone would win a Cup. Twenty-nine teams lose every year. Be disappointed, but keep the faith. Next season will come sooner than you think.

HEARTBREAK

The Washington Capitals will not advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

A goal off a rebound by Derek Stepan at 11:24 of overtime lifted the New York Rangers over the Caps 2-1, sending the Caps home from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

We’ll have more coverage very soon at District Sports Page.

OPINION: Caps face date with sad destiny in Game 7

Even before those in this area had heard of the men that go by the names Ovechkin, Backstrom and Trotz, the stigma was firmly in place.

A lost 2-0 series lead to Pittsburgh in 1996 led Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser to label the Washington Capitals as “choking dogs,” a notion that has become all-too-familiar for one of hockey’s most loyal fanbases. It seemed for a bit as if those fans would be rewarded with a monumental win this past Mother’s Day, only to leave Verizon Center shaking their heads and collectively asking themselves  — and each other — one thing.

How can this be happening again? [Read more…]

OPINION: Caps must find better effort in Game 7 or risk history repeating itself

If you’re one of those fans that always looks on the bright side of things, that wants to see the positive, that hopes for the best… you might want to stop reading now. I’m not going to go on about how the Washington Capitals franchise is cursed (it’s not) or that the league wants the team from the bigger television market to win (it might, but that doesn’t influence games). But I am going to lay down some pretty harsh thoughts about the boys in red.

They simply don’t play hard enough for long enough stretches to win.

That’s a harsh thing to say, I know. But until the Caps finally do win and change the script, that’s going to stick with them as long as they play the game.

Throughout this season, the Caps have adopted coach Barry Trotz’ idea of “heavy hockey.” It took until the last week of the season to qualify for the playoffs, and the last day of the season to clinch anything but a last-seed in. Only through an utter collapse by the New York Islanders and the fluke of losing a shootout on the last day of the season did the Caps “earn” first round home ice.

The Caps obviously have some talent on the roster. But there’s not enough to outplay similarly skilled teams, they have to outwork them as well.

The Caps played that heavy hockey successfully in the first round, wearing down the smaller Islanders until they were finally able to deliver the knockout punch, but any honest Caps fan knows that their favorite team was outplayed much of that series and if the Islanders were a little more composed or had a little more experience, it easily could have gone the other way.

Then onto the current series with the Rangers, where again despite being outplayed for long periods of time the Caps were finally on the right side of a couple of lucky bounces and found themselves up three games to one. For once, folks were starting to believe maybe, just maybe, it was going to be the Caps that came from a lower seed to upset a heavily favored President’s Trophy winner.

So what happened to change the mood so much in three days? It’s not curse, conspiracy or choke.

When Curtis Glencross scored midway through the third period of Game 5, the Caps were nine minutes, six seconds away from advancing to their first Eastern Conference Finals since 1998.

Instead of playing the final minutes of Game 5 like their hair was on fire, taking their game to the Rangers and dictating play the way they got the 3-1 series advantage, they took their foot off the gas. With no margin of error, the Caps played back — “turtled” — hoping to survive the Rangers heroic onslaught.

They were not successful.

It came as a shock to no one that once Chris Kreider tied it with 1:51 left, the air was let out of their sails. The Rangers didn’t need overtime to beat the Caps, they’d already done it to themselves.

It’s cliché to say you play “to win the game.” But every cliché is written with history as a guide. Greatness isn’t forged by trying to not lose. You have to take it for yourself. When have you seen a champion — in any sport or athletic feat — win by playing conservatively or cautiously?

Simply put, after Glencross’ goal in Game 5, the Caps didn’t start playing aggressively again until midway through the third period of Game 6 when they were already down 4-1. They were trying not to lose instead of trying to win.

What we saw from that point forward was absolute domination from the Caps, in effort, intensity and skill. Were the Rangers a bit relaxed with their gift-wrapped three-goal lead? Sure. Did they weather the just over 15-minute storm. Just barely.

But the rules still apply. The Rangers took their foot off the gas and only because they had a three-goal cushion and happen to roster the best goalie in the world (for my money) were they able to withstand the barrage the Caps unleashed at them.

The point is this: the Caps must finally find a killer instinct in Game 7. They’re capable of it — we witnessed it Sunday night. But they have to sustain it for the entire 60 minutes, and whatever overtime may come too. Despite where the Caps sit, with the ability still to advance to a conference final, it’s shocking we still haven’t seen that complete effort — even in the games they’ve won, as long as we’re being honest about it.

It’s remarkable at this point and time in this franchise’s history — and the tenure of their best players — that we’re still having this conversation. Yet, here we are. The Capitals must have better, consistent and thorough effort in Game 7 or we’ll simply be watching history repeat itself. Again.

Washington Capitals Second Round Game 6 Recap: Late rally not enough as Rangers force Game 7 with 4-3 win

Down 4-1 in the third period, the Washington Capitals nearly dug themselves out of a deep hole. With nine minutes and change left, they pulled back within one goal of the New York Rangers but a late power play was squandered and the Caps could not find the equalizer. In falling to the Rangers 4-3, the Caps are forced into playing their second Game 7 in as many series this postseason Wednesday night back at Madison Square Garden.

[Read more…]

Washington Capitals Second Round Game 6 Recap: Capitals melt down in first period, Rangers force Game 7

EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINAL GOES TO DECIDING SEVENTH GAME IN MANHATTAN

Down 4-1 in the third period, the Washington Capitals furiously tried to dig themselves out of the hole they had dug themselves into, trimming the deficit to just one with still over nine minutes to play. But despite being awarded a misgiven late power play, the Caps could not find the equalizer and fell to the New York Rangers 4-3, forcing Game 7 Wednesday night back at Madison Square Garden.

Faced with elimination for the second game in a row, the Rangers proved to be the more desperate team Sunday night — at least for the first 20 minutes of the game and first five minutes of the third period. [Read more…]

Washington Capitals Second Round Game 5 Recap: Overtime dagger sends series back to DC

You knew it wasn’t going to be easy.

New York Rangers’ captain Ryan McDonough scored 9:37 into overtime to beat the Washington Capitals 2-1, staving off elimination and forcing Game 6 back at Verizon Center on Sunday.

McDonough took a pass from Derek Stepan and beat Capitals goalie Braden Holtby with a wrist shot from between the circles. It was McDonough’s second goal in 10 games in the playoffs.

The Rangers are 9-0 when facing elimination at home since Game 4 of the second round in 2008, which is an NHL record.

Overtime was required because Chris Kreider tied the game at one with his third goal of the playoff season, a one-timer from the top of the left wing faceoff circle, on a pass from Stepan.

Curtis Glencross gave the Caps a 1-0 lead midway through the final frame on a breakaway goal. Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist made the initial save, but Glencross stuck with it and banged home the rebound over the sprawled Lundqvist. It was Glencross’ first goal of the second season.

Glencross’ goal came courtesy of a terrific defensive play by Tom Wilson in the Caps zone, and a beautiful clearing pass from defenseman Matt Niskanen.

Both goalies were again remarkable. Holtby made 41 saves; Lundqvist 28. Holtby made several “how’d he do that?” saves, including robbing Martin St. Louis in the first period from point blank with a toe save. St. Louis fanned on the rebound and Niskanen guided the puck to safety.

The Caps were fortunate at times as well. Early in the second, the Rangers’ Tanner Glass had a wide-open net, but Mike Green was able to get just enough of the puck milliseconds after the shot to deflect it to the corner.

The Caps were also victims of bad luck. Late in the second period, it appeared as if the Caps took a 1-0 lead when a Niskanen slap shot from the point bounced off Lundqvist and into the goal. But the refs immediately waived the goal off, ruling that Joel Ward interfered with Lundqvist.

On replay, Ward very clearly was not in the crease and it appeared not only was he pushed, but the Lundqvist himself initiated contact.

Regardless, the Caps now face the daunting challenge of Game 6, still with one-game lead in the series, at Verizon Center Sunday at 7:00 pm EST.

CAPS NOTES:

  • Neither team made good on two power play opportunities.
  • Washington win the faceoff battle, with 52% won.
  • Alex Ovechkin had nine shot attempts, but just two on goal. Ward paced the Caps with five SOG.

Washington Capitals fall in overtime to Rangers, series comes back to DC

Ryan McDonough scored 9:37 into overtime and the New York Rangers staved off elimination, beating the Washington Capitals 2-1 at Madison Square Garden, moving the series back to Washington with the Caps holding a three games to two lead.

The Rangers’ Chris Kreider forced overtime with a goal with just 1:41 remaining in the third period.

Curtis Glencross gave the Capitals a 1-0 lead midway through the third on a breakaway goal, but despite Braden Holtby’s best efforts (41 saves), the Caps couldn’t make it stand up.

We’ll have full coverage of the Caps Game 5 loss later on District Sports Page.

 

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