August 1, 2014

What to do with Mike Green

The Washington Capitals overhauled their defensive core this offseason and many are wondering where that leaves Mike Green. With the additions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, is there still room for the former Norris Trophy candidate?

With trade rumors flying, the team was quick to declare that Green was still a part of the Caps’ future plans. The Caps would not be the first team to change their minds on a player, however, so let’s explore whether Green should be on the trading block. [Read more...]

MacLellan distances himself from McPhee with free agent signings

Anybody miss George McPhee yet?

No one really knew what to expect from Brian MacLellan when he was promoted to general manager; with no track record, he was an unknown commodity. The amnesty buyout period came and went with no movement and fans began to fear the had traded one complacent general manager for another. [Read more...]

Capitals overpay to rebuild defensive corps in NHL free agent frenzy

When I first heard the deal the Washington Capitals handed 33-year-old (34 before opening night) defenseman Brooks Orpik, I was as apoplectic as anyone else. Well, almost anyone else.

My initial reaction: the Caps drastically overpaid — in dollars and years — for an aging, slowing, one-dimensional defenseman that doesn’t drive play. While I can appreciate the element Orpik will contribute to the team, what crusty old Canadians refer to as “snarl”, in no way is that worth $5.5 million over a five year term. Let alone, to a player that will be 39 at the end of the deal.

The analysis stands. My emotional response to the deal has mellowed a bit though.

Yes, the Caps drastically overpaid. There’s no possible way Orpik returns value on the length of the contract. With luck, the salary cap will continue to go up and he’ll be less of a burden in the later years.

He’ll add very little to the offensive side of the game. He makes a decent outlet pass, that’s about it. There’s lots of video of more talented skaters turning him inside out, and that’s going to continue.

As Caps GM Brian MacLellan pointed out, Orpik’s primary responsibility was starting in his own end and getting the puck out of it. Corsi’s not going to be kind to a player like that.

But the Caps have very precious little muscle on the back end. And that’s where Orpik can still contribute. Essentially, Orpik will be the player the Caps hoped John Erskine could continue to be. It’s debatable how long Orpik will be able to continue in that role, but we’ve got the next five years to watch it.

The next deal that the Caps made, bringing in fellow former Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen, sort of helps put the Orpik deal in perspective.

Niskanen signed a market-value seven-year deal for $40.25 million — the largest contract doled out on frenzy day. Niskanen was probably the best defenseman available on the free agent market. He’s 27, coming off his best season, and in the prime of his career. He’ll “just” be 34 at the conclusion of his current contract.

Signing Niskanen gives the Caps not just another top-four defenseman, it gives them a top pair blue-liner. Whether Niskanen plays with Karl Alzner, Orpik, John Carlson, or even Mike Green or Dmitry Orlov, it slots every one down a spot. The Caps added not one, but two top four defensemen, something we advocated in this column before the conclusion of last season.

They are now deep, talented and tough on the back end, with impressive defense coaches to guide them.

Yes, the Caps spent a lot of money on two NHL caliber defensemen. But they needed to. After the parade of journeymen and teenagers last season, the Caps now boast a legitimate NHL defensive corps.

The team has been pretty good at drafting and developing puck moving defensemen, but you can’t teach size and toughness. As much as some of us (myself definitely included) like to point to possession and skill, this game still needs an element of toughness and defensive reliability on the backline.

The Caps have failed miserably to develop anyone to fill that role, so they had to pay for it.

The Caps are banking on the idea that while Alex Ovechkin is in his prime, they have to take every opportunity to “go for it.” Tuesday proved that this “refresh” is no rebuild. Damn the future, MacLellan’s directive is obvious: patch together a team that if it makes the playoffs, will at least have a puncher’s chance in the tournament.

The addition of Niskanen and Orpik, at an exorbitant cost, prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the organization — and ownership – thinks it should be competitive.  Maybe they are deluding themselves. Maybe they know more than we think. Maybe they are chasing fool’s gold. Maybe they are just trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

Maybe in three year’s time they’ll be looking for another general manager.

But for know, the Caps were the most active team in the free agent market. That means that they have at least acknowledged that problems existed. There will still probably be dominoes to fall. When all is said and done, we can — and will — judge.

Orpik’s deal is bad. He’s aging quickly, his skating isn’t great, and he doesn’t drive play. The last couple of years of this contract are going to be painful to watch. But, at least, at the end of the day we could see a semblance of a plan, where taken at face value and on its own it looked like unmitigated and indefensible disaster.
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Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics. Dave also works for Associated Press, covering Major League Soccer, college football and basketball out of its Spokane, WA college sports desk. Previously, he wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network and spent four years in commercial radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams.  Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence.  You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP.

Washington Capitals make big moves in free agency to address defensive depth

The opening day of free agency has traditionally not been a day when the Washington Capitals have made much of a splash. This year, however, was a different story. New Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan has already proven himself unafraid of taking risks – and spending a little money in the process.

Signing former Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen – and effectively locking up $68 million dollars between them — represents two of the largest deals of the beginning of free agency. Orpik’s contract was five years, $5.5 million and Niskanen’s contract is for seven years at $5.75 million. Both contracts contain a limited no trade clause as well.

Todd Reirden, newly appointed assistant coach in charge of defense, who worked with Orpik and Niskanen in his former position in Pittsburgh, was speculated to have influenced the signings of both players, but MacLellan told reporters the two players were on his radar long before Reirden’s hiring.

“It’s a big commitment by our organization and hopefully the players see the commitment by both ownership and management to address perceived needs that we do have,” MacLellan told reporters. “I’m excited about it and hopefully they are too.”

The money spent was also prioritized for Orpik’s signing, not Niskanen, as has been speculated. Orpik, according to MacLellan, was always the main target for the Caps. That Niskanen, who was courted by at least 10 teams, chose Washington as his destination was icing on the cake for the Capitals.

“The total dollars were centered around Brooks,” said MacLellan. “We needed to get him in first because we thought that was our greatest need. We tried to get him to stay as low as possible. We struggled with that first year for a while and then we ended up we felt we had to go there because it was getting so competitive.”

MacLellan feels that the Capitals addressed their greatest needs via free agency – goaltending and defense – not the draft, as had been widely panned. “I think we had some needs and we addressed them,” MacLellan said. “We had cap room. Ownership gave the green light to get to the cap and we spent the money where we thought we needed to spend it the most.”

“I like our defense. We have six really good defensemen. I think we have good balance now. I think we’re gonna let it play out and see how we’re doing,” said MacLellan. “We’ve added two new guys and I think it might take a little time to get the chemistry going.”

He elaborated a bit on what defensive pairings might look like with the additions of Niskanen and Orpik, as well. Orpik and Carlson were mentioned as a possible shutdown paring. Add Alzner/Niskanen and Orlov/Green to that equation, and the Capitals blue line looks the best it has in years.
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 Katie Brown is a Staff Writer for District Sports Page covering the Capitals. She grew up in Virginia and Maryland, currently resides in Arlington, VA, and developed a love for the sport of hockey as a youngster while watching her brothers play. She is co-host of Girls Just Wanna Have Puck podcast. You can follow Katie on Twitter @katie_brown47.

Washington Capitals add defenseman Matt Niskanen

From the press release:

The Washington Capitals have signed defenseman Matt Niskanen to a seven-year, $40.25 million contract, senior vice president and general manager Brian MacLellan announced today.

“We are very excited that Matt Niskanen has chosen to sign with Washington,” said MacLellan. “At 27 years of age, he is just entering his prime for a defenseman. We feel he will be a staple on our blueline for many years to come. We have stated all along that upgrading the defense was our top priority this offseason and we feel we accomplished our goal with our signings today.”

Niskanen, 27, set career highs in points (46), goals (10), assists (36), games played (81) and game-winning goals (6) in 2013-14, led all NHL defensemen in plus/minus (+33) and was named the team’s Defensive Player of the Year. He also recorded a career-high nine points (two goals, seven assists), led the team with six power play points and was first among team defensemen with 29 hits in 13 playoff games.

Washington Capitals add Orpik, Peters in free agent frenzy

On the first day of the NHL free agent signing period, the Washington Capitals address two major needs, adding veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik and backup goalie Justin Peters. Orpik, 33 and two-time U.S. Olympian, signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract, while Peters inked a two-year, $1.9 million deal. Caps GM Brian MacLellan announced both deals.

From the press releases:

“We are very excited to welcome Brooks to Washington,” said MacLellan. “We feel Brooks’ leadership and experience will greatly enhance our defense for years to come. Brooks plays tough minutes against the opposition’s best players.”

-snip-

Orpik played in 72 games for the Penguins in 2013-14, earning 13 points (two goals, 11 assists) and 46 penalty minutes and ranked first on the team in blocked shots (143) and first among Pittsburgh defensemen in hits (221). Orpik was drafted by the Penguins in the first round, 18th overall, in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft.

and…

We are pleased to sign Justin to a two-year contract,” said MacLellan. “We feel he is just entering his prime and has a tremendous upside. We look forward to him working with our goaltending coach Mitch Korn to reach his potential.”

Peters, 27, appeared in a career-high 21 games during the 2013-14 season, recording a 7-9-4 record with a 2.50 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. The Blyth, Ont., native also represented Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Championship. Peters has posted a 22-31-8 record with three shutouts, a 3.05 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage in 68 career NHL games with the Carolina Hurricanes.

In addition, the Caps re-signed forward Michael Latta, 23, to a two-year, $1.15 million contract.

Washington Capitals draft strategy underwhelming

The Washington Capitals entered the 2014 offseason with glaring deficiencies on their roster at center and defense. One big opportunity to address those deficiencies — for the long-term — is the NHL Draft, concluded over the weekend.

Unfortunately, and somewhat head-scratchingly, the Caps failed to address either position in the draft, opting once again to draft smallish wingers and trade away picks to move up five spots to draft an unheralded European goalie, who — not coincidentally — played with their first round pick on the Czech national team.

Considering new GM Brian MacLellan’s recent comments about “drafting your centers” and free agent Mikhail Grabovski’s contract demands being “prohibitive,” it’s puzzling that the new boss didn’t select a single true center in the draft.

Granted, players drafted over the weekend won’t contribute to NHL rosters for several seasons — if at all — it’s still hard to imagine the team not picking any true centermen or defensemen.

The Capitals new boss has made several public statements that have segments of the Caps fan base edgy. At his introductory press conference, he said he felt the organization needed a “refresh”, not a rebuild, comments echoed by the owner, Ted Leonsis.

He intimated that the current roster underperformed last season and that new coach Barry Trotz would most certainly be able to get more out of the players on hand than former coach Adam Oates.

Leading up to the draft, he revealed the team has no plans to buyout either Brooks Laich ($4.5 million) or Mike Green ($6.083 million) for the upcoming season. Then just prior to the draft, he made his remarks concerning Grabovski.

MacLellan then followed all that up with drafting six wingers (none bigger than 6’1″ or weighing more than 190 lbs.) and trading away a pick to move up five spots to select the eighth-ranked European goalie available (not eighth overall available) in the middle of the second round.

Later in the draft, they traded up again to select Nathan Walker, a winger that played in Hershey last season with middling statistics (5 g, 6 a) in 43 games. Granted, Walker’s story is great, as he tries to become the first Australian to play in the NHL, but his story is better than his prospect status.

But really, what says status quo more than drafting a player that played in your organization last season?

For a team that missed the playoffs for the first time in eight years last season, so far there doesn’t seem to be much change in the air.

MacLellan certainly has plenty of time, and over $12 million in cap space, this offseason to address needs of the big league club. With the start of free agency opening July 1, we may get a better handle on how he’s leaning.

But from everything he’s said and what’s transpired thus far, Caps fans might want to prepare themselves for being underwhelmed.

Capitals draft Australian Nathan Walker in third round of NHL Draft

Nathan Walker, the Washington Capitals’ third round selection in the 2014 NHL Draft, is a familiar face to those who follow the team. Walker has been a part of the Capitals organization since signing with the Hershey Bears of the AHL in 2013 after attending Washington’s development camp.

The Capitals traded their 104th and 118th overall picks to the Rangers and moved up to 89th overall and selected Walker, who is the first Australian ever to be drafted into the NHL. Walker was born in Wales, but raised in Sydney, Australia. He moved to the Czech Republic at age 13 and became the youngest player in the Czech Extraliga league. He was listed as the top European skater in the 2012 NHL Draft, but was not selected that year.

In 43 games with the Bears, Walker scored 5 goals and had 6 assists and logged 40 penalty minutes.

Walker did not make the trip to Philadelphia, so he was not available to reporters for comment.

 

Washington Capitals trade up in second round, select goalie Vitek Vanecek

NHL Central Scouting has Czech goaltender Vitek Vanecek ranked as the eighth best European goalie in this year’s draft. The Capitals traded their 44th and 74th picks to Buffalo and moved up to 39th, where they selected Vanecek, a goaltender from the Czech Republic. The Capitals drafted Vanecek’s teammate, Jakub Vrana, 13th overall. Vrana and Vanecek were named two of the top 3 players on each team as selected by coaches of the Czech team at the U18 World Championship this year. Here’s what we know about Vanecek  (Hockeysfuture.com scouting report):

Vaněček is an athletic, 6-foot-1 and 181-pound goaltender who uses his reflexes, a quick glove and blocker to stone the opponents. He’s been able to make big saves all season long, relying on his reflexes and athleticism. On the other hand, he’s been suffering from inconsistency as he sometimes just has a bad day. Not only has Vaněček been an efficient netminder in junior hockey, but he’s also made the first couple of steps towards the professional leagues.

 

Capitals first round pick Vrana: “I want to be the best”

Jakub Vrana left the Czech Republic at age 15 to play in Sweden’s U18 league, and 3 years later, his parents made their first trip to the United States to see their son drafted into the NHL.

It was his mother’s first time in an airplane, and she was uneasy. “She was really nervous, but I tired to help her a little bit,” said Vrana.

Leaving home at such a young age was understandably difficult for him, but he understood it would pave the way for his career.

“I was there alone, in an apartment. I needed to learn a lot of stuff there, let’s say cooking, so I think that helped me a lot with life, too,” said Vrana. “Of course I miss my family, but the choice of why I go there is hockey, and I love hockey. I was really happy every day, with the practices and everything. “

Vrana says he doesn’t know many NHL players, but his playing style has been compared to Los Angeles Kings winger Marian Gaborik. He is confident he can put in the necessary work to make it to the NHL. “I just want to try to do everything to make the team,” he said.

“I think you can make better everything as a player, so I will work on everything. I want to be better at everything. I want to be the best.”

He’s not sure what it will take to make it in the NHL yet, though, since he hasn’t been tested.“I haven’t been in any camps yet, I haven’t tried it, so we will see. I will fight about my spot and do my best.”

The Capitals took Vrana 13th overall after trying to move up a couple picks to take defenseman Haydn Fleury, according to general manager Brian MacClellan. It obviously didn’t pan out, so Vrana was their choice.

There is a connection between the Capitals and Vrana, as well. While in the Czech Republic, Vrana played most of his young life at former Capitals defenseman Frantisek Kucera, who played 56 games with the franchise before being traded to Pittsburgh as part of the maligned Jaromir Jagr trade. Kucera’s brother, Vojtek is a Capitals scout.

“I know their one scout [Vojtek], his brother owned the rink where I played when I played in Czech, so I know him really well. It was nice to see him there, not only in the rink but every day I was in Czech.”

Regarded as a fast skater with a hard shot, Vrana considers himself a “finisher,” that is, he excels at scoring goals rather than setting them up. Though he’s struggled to find ice time with Linkoping this season (2 goals in 24 games), he said working on defense after practices has helped him improve in a weak area as well.

When asked about his emotional approach to the game, he quipped, “You never know when is going to be your last goal. You have to celebrate it.”

 

 

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