April 23, 2014

What went wrong with the Washington Capitals, Part 3: the Players

It’s playoff season and though there is still hockey to be played, the Washington Capitals are playing golf.

To discover what went wrong this season, we’ve already looked at general manager George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates, but now it’s time to look at the guys who actually lace of the skates and take to the ice, the players.

Alex Ovechkin led the league this season with 51 goals and yet has come under incredible scrutiny for the Caps’ failure to reach the playoffs. He is the undisputed leader of this team and as he goes, so go the Caps.

Since the Caps have failed to win a Cup and even failed to make the playoffs this season, Ovechkin must shoulder most of the blame, right?

While Ovechkin does deserve some of the blame, to say the team is incapable of winning with him is a gross oversimplification of the team’s struggles.

Despite his 50 goals this season, Ovechkin had a -35, the third-worst +/- in the NHL. Though an imperfect statistic, it reflects a serious problem he had this season, namely that more goals are scored against the Caps at even-strength when Ovechkin was on the ice than the Caps scored..

This does not take into consideration his linemates atrocious shooting percentage, or his coach’s choice of linemates on any particular evening.

Here’s the thing, as a team the Caps had the seventh worst +/- in the NHL with -21. They scored only 139 goals at even-strength and allowed 155 (their five shorthanded goals and 10 allowed make up the difference to -21).

The entire team was terrible at even-strength this season.

The only reason Ovechkin was able to lead the league in scoring was because the Caps excelled on the power play. Twenty-four of his 51 goals were scored with the extra man.

The fact that the entire team suffered at even-strength leads me to believe that the problem is not all due to a specific player, but to the team’s coaching and roster.

In the 2009-10 season, Ovechkin was a +45 and had 50 goals. The Caps also had two other 30-goal scorers in Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom. Mike Knuble was only one goal shy with 29. This season, no other player on the team other than Ovechkin reached the 30 goals.

No team can depend solely on one player for all of its offense or they are left with what we saw this season: 51 goals, no playoffs.

This leads to a lot of unfair (and lazy) analysis of the captain. Clips of him ‘giving up’ on the backend have been replayed ad nauseam by analysts such as Mike Milbury to show how he doesn’t play the game the “right way”, or doesn’t show effort, etc, etc. That’s just plain wrong.

For every clip of a bad defensive play, there’s another clip of him putting the team on his shoulders. People like to point to the April game against Dallas and say he doesn’t show any effort, but in doing so they ignore games like December’s contest against Tampa Bay in which he scored four goals to erase a 3-0 deficit and lead the team to a shootout victory.

This notion that some people have that the Caps are somehow incapable of winning with Ovechkin is also a fallacy. If Ovechkin were to hit the trade market today, 29 teams would be scrambling to see how they could fit him under the salary cap. If Ovechkin ‘incapable’ of winning a Cup, teams would turn their backs.

That of course would not be the case because the notion that Ovechkin can’t win a Cup is hyperbolic nonsense.

Ovechkin is an elite talent who has not yet had the right coach or team around him to win a Stanley Cup. Many will scoff at that, but you cannot oversimplify a championship. It’s very easy to say he’s a great player and therefore should have won a Cup, but that seriously underestimates how difficult winning a Cup can be. Ovechkin is only a part of the equation.

If you want to argue that did not show great leadership this season, fine. As long as he’s wearing the C on his chest, he MUST do a better job defensively. The team feeds off of his energy and when he doesn’t go at full-speed at both ends of the ice it can be frustrating, especially during a season like this one in which the Caps struggled to get the puck out of their own zone.

As for who played well offensively, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Jason Chimera all had career seasons. Brouwer scored a career-high 25 goals, but like Ovechkin far too much of his production (12 goals) came on the power play. It’s great that he scored 25 goals, but if the Caps were middle-of-the-pack in terms of the power play, Brouwer’s numbers would have been much lower and suddenly his season wouldn’t look as good.

The only players who seemed to do well this season at even-strength were those in the third line, namely Ward and Chimera as the line’s center often changed. These two played fantastic together all season long and will likely remain together next season. Even Oates couldn’t mess this line up.

Defensively, it is hard to fairly judge the play of many of the team’s players given how young and/or inexperienced many of them were. Being in a position where the team needed to ask several players to do more than they were ready for is yet another reflection on the coach and general manager.

John Carlson and Karl Alzner are the team’s top two defensemen by far. Carlson comes with much of the offensive skill of Mike Green, without the defensive deficiencies. Alzner is the team’s best stay-at-home defenseman.

As a pairing, they’re good, but not great. They certainly won’t make anyone’s short list for the best defensive pairings in the NHL. Even so, their play this season was not something that held this team back.

There are two players, however, who did stand out for having a rough season: Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov.

This is one of those cases where the statistics and the eye test do not match up at all. Green and Orlov had the highest and second highest Corsi rating on the team. For a Caps team that struggled so much in terms of possession and production, having a duo like these two can be a major boon…on paper.

Anyone who watched these two, however, cringed every time they touched the ice as a horrendous turnover or ill-advised penalty never seemed far behind.

Remember that game I mentioned earlier against Tampa Bay? The one in which Ovechkin scored four goals to erase a 3-0 deficit? Part of the reason the team was down 3-0 was because Green took four minor penalties and a 10 minute misconduct…in the first period.

Green was tied for the most minor penalties on the team this season. We used to look past how terrible he was defensively because of how well he produced offensively, but that’s not the case anymore. In 70 games, he recorded only 38 points and was supplanted on the top power play unit by Carlson.

Green made $6 million this season and will make $6.25 million next season in the final year of his contract. He is clearly not worth such a high price to the Caps anymore. With big changes possibly on the horizon, he may find himself on the trading block.

As for Orlov, the time has come for him to decide whether he’s going to be a top-four defenseman in the NHL or not. He’s certainly capable of it, but he’s rapidly reaching the ‘put up or shut up’ point.

Oates handled Orlov poorly to start the season giving him the yo-yo treatment between Washington and Hershey, but when he did finally make it on the ice, his decision making was so questionable, you sometimes forgot this was not his first stint with the Caps.

There was no more egregious example of this than the Caps’ game on March 2 against the Flyers.

Orlov scored two goals and the Caps enjoyed a two-goal lead in the third period when he took an unbelievably stupid and egregious penalty on Brayden Schenn.

He was hit with a five-minute major penalty and a two-game suspension. The Flyers came back to win the game in overtime 5-4. With the Caps in desperate need of points, Orlov lost this game for his team. Add that to the multitude of turnovers and stupid plays we saw all season and you really begin to wonder the Caps have anyone behind Carlson and Alzner the team can trust on the blue line.

The Caps struggles on defense were further highlighted by the team’s carousel in net. Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer and Jaroslav Halak all took the reins as the Caps’ top netminder at some point over the season with Michal Neuvirth contributing several starts as well.

It’s been well documented that Oates and goalie coach Olaf Kolzig attempted to re-tool their strategy in net by having the goalies play deeper in the crease. The merits of such a change are debatable. There are advantages to this system just as there are advantages to a more aggressive style; it really comes down to your own philosophy.

Holtby struggled more with this change than any other goalie on the team. This comes as no surprise given his aggressive style of play. Eventually, Kolzig shifted tactics to allow him to take advantage of his natural instincts, but by then the season was half over and he had failed to assert himself as the team’s top goalie.

Philipp Grubauer did for a time, but was young, overused and, when Neuvirth was healthy again, under-practiced.

Then there was Halak.

Halak had a .930 save percentage and 2.31 goals against average with the Caps and yet finished with a record of only 5-4-3, failing to vault the Caps back into playoff position. Why? Because goaltending really wasn’t the problem.

Holtby’s struggles, Neuvirth’s inconsistences and Grubauer’s breaking down were all exasperated by the Caps’ defense. Even though Halak played well, it ultimately didn’t matter because he wasn’t fixing the team’s major problem.

So before you give up on Holtby or Grubauer, remember that their struggles in net looked far worse than they actually were because of the defenders they had around them. Holtby and Grubauer should be the team’s two goalies next season and you should feel comfortable with that, provided the defense improves.

Ultimately, the conclusion you should all be reaching by now at the end of third of three articles analyzing the team’s season is that McPhee didn’t do enough this season to build a championship roster, Oates constantly failed to put his team in the best position to win and the players didn’t play well enough on the ice. Each problem contributed to make the others worse until the season became a jumbled mess.

Given all of that, is it really that surprising that the Caps didn’t make the playoffs?

Washington Capitals re-sign Orlov to 2-year contract extension

From the press release:

The Washington Capitals have re-signed defenseman Dmitry Orlov to a two-year contract extension, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today. Orlov will earn $1.75 million during the 2014-15 season and $2.25 million in 2015-16.

Orlov, 22, has registered nine points (three goals, six assists) and 19 penalty minutes in 38 games with Washington this season. The 5’11”, 211-pound defenseman scored two goals against Philadelphia on March 2 and ranks sixth among Capitals skaters in ice time per game (19:31). In 103 career NHL games with Washington, Orlov has earned 29 points (six goals, 23 assists) and 37 penalty minutes.

This is, much like the Marcus Johansson deal last year, a great deal for both team and player. It locks up a young, up-and-coming player for the next two seasons, crucial to the player’s long-term viability as a top-line performer in the NHL, and it does so in reasonable amount and term of contract.

Orlov has much room to grow, especially in his own end. But he has tremendous puck-handling skill, is a good skater and is willing to play physically beyond his stature. This is a good deal for the Caps.

 

Washington Capitals Game 61 Recap: Orlov goes from hero to goat with late boarding major; Caps fall to Flyers in OT 5-4

The Washington Capitals played a terrific 50 minutes against one of their all-time rivals — and the team directly in front of them in the standings. Unfortunately, late penalties marred the previous efforts and allowed the Philadelphia Flyers to tie the game in regulation, then win in overtime, keeping the Caps in fourth place in the division.

Simply put, it was a waste of a point the Caps rightly should have had in their back pocket.

Braden Holtby made 31 saves and was spectacular at times, but the Caps went 0-for-6 on the power play and crumbled at the end, allowing the Flyers style to get them out of their game. Dmitry Orlov — who should have been the hero with the first two-goal game of his career – instead ended up the goat as his five-minute boarding penalty, which will almost certainly receive review at the league level,  allowed the Flyers late life.

The Caps got on top early, with Orlov booming a slapshot past Flyers goalie Steve Mason (25 saves). Five minutes later, Claude Giroux answered for Philly, with a wrist shot that flashed through the goal and back out so quickly, the on-ice referees couldn’t see in go in. After two more minues of play, the goal was reviewed and counted for the Flyers.

A few moments later, Nicklas Backstrom appeared to have gotten a puck through Mason, but defenseman Mark Streit sweeped the puck off the goaline. Another review ensued, and the call on the ice — no goal — stood.

The Caps did find the back of the net just a moment later, as Marcus Johansson did a great job establishing position in the crease to tap in a pass from Jason Chimera from the right wing corner.

The Flyers came out buzzing in the second period, but Braden Holtby was up to the task early, making a series of spectacular saves, incluing batting a puck away with his paddle baseball-style. Unfortunately, a turnover by Alex Ovechkin in his own end on the power play led to Adam Hall’s short-handed goal from right out in front of the net.

Washington answered less than a minute later, with Jay Beagle picking up his second goal of the year, assisted by Joel Ward and Mike Green. Then three minutes later, Orlov scored his second of the game, a blast from center point that got through a maze of bodies.

But penalties played a huge part of the third period. With Orlov off for the major, John Erskine allowed Steve Downie to get under his skin. The pair went off for coincidental roughings. A minute later, Jacob Voracek’s slapshot got past Holtby to pull the Flyers within one.

After the late penalties were settled, the Flyers forced overtime with the Caps at full-strength. With the goalie pulled and time winding down, Voracek sent one into the slot, which was redirected by Giroux and past Holtby for his second of the game.

Then in overtime, Vincent Lecavalier’s wrist shot deprived the Caps of the extra point and a tie of third place in the division.

With one point, the Caps tied Detroit for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, but it’s little solace when they should have had a four-point swing with the Flyers.

Caps at the midway mark: What’s right and what’s not

After the Washington Capitals 41st game of the season, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, their record stands at 20-15-6, 46 points, “good” for second place in the decidedly mediocre Metropolitan Division. Remember all the jokes that used to be made about the Southeast Division? Yeah, well the new Patrick Division has nothing to snicker about this season, as none of the teams except Pittsburgh would qualify for the playoffs at this point if they played in the Atlantic Division.

They are playing at a 92-point pace for a full season, which in most previous seasons would have had them on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

Fortunately for the Caps, they just have to be good enough to gain one of the top three spots in this motley crew of a division. Unfortunately, having lost their last three in a row, five of six and seven of 10, the margin between them in second place and Columbus in seventh is a mere six points. They are, as they say in finance, trending poorly.

Of the Caps’ 20 wins this season, only 12 have come in regulation or overtime — 25th in the league — with the other eight decided in a shootout, basically a crapshoot. Trim out the overtime wins, and the Caps have won a mere 10 games in regulation this season of the 41 they’ve played. That’s not just bad, it’s embarrassingly so. Remember how you felt about the Florida Panthers and their rash of overtime and shootout wins a couple of seasons ago. Yeah.

With all of this in mind, let’s now take a look at what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong so far this season. We’ll break things down into four categories: Offense, Defense, Goaltending, and Coaching/Administration.

OFFENSE

Overall, the Capitals are ninth in the league in goals per game with 2.85. That’s pretty good. But the power play, humming along second in the league at 25 percent, is masking the Caps dirty secret: their 5-on-5 goals for/against is 0.91, 22nd in the league, which gels with their generally crummy possession numbers at even strength. They are 12th in the league in total shots on goal per game — again, pretty good. But not great, considering the other side of the ledger. And again, the power play masks the deficiency at 5-on-5.

Individually, Alex Ovechkin far and away leads the league in goals scored with 31, 12 of which have come on the power play. He also far and away leads in shots on goal and total shots taken and is shooting at 14.4 percent, a not-unusually high percentage for him. Unfortunately, Ovi’s plus/minus says the exact same thing as his possession numbers: when he’s on the ice, both teams’ chances of scoring a goal raise dramatically.

The drop off after Ovi for goals is a steep one. Joel Ward is second on the team in goals with 12 — his third highest total already in his sixth full season in the league. Nick Backstrom is playing at an elite level, with 10 goals and 35 assists, good for fourth in the league. And late free agent pickup Mikhail Grabovski is 11-19-30 bouncing back-and-forth between three different lines, so he’s well on his way to earning a multi-year contract in the offseason after being the forgotten one at the dance last summer.

After that, things get murky.

Troy Brouwer took a long while to get going, but at 9-10-19 he’s right about where you’d expect him to be. He’s scored 40, 36, 33, and 33 points the past four seasons, so he’s right on pace. Anyone expecting more from him at this point is delusional. Eric Fehr, after being completely ignored in November, is 6-11-17 in 32 games, .531 points per game, a 44-point pace over 82 games. These are your second line wingers.

Marcus Johansson, who for a while was among the league leaders in assists, has completely disappeared again. Until Thursday’s two assist performance against Carolina, he’d gone five games without a point. The 23-year-old has three goals and six assists in his past 20 games. He’s not really all that young anymore, so we’re just about to the point where this is what you expect from him. It’s third-line production at best for a guy that’s spent the bulk of the season as the first-line left wing, usually a star’s position.

Brooks Laich has missed 13 of the team’s past 15 games, and has been completely absent on the scoresheet when he does play, with just six points in 27 games. Accumulation of injury has turned a once very useful and flexible player into someone the Caps simply can’t depend on right now.

DEFENSE

John Carlson made the U.S. Olympic team. Does that say more about Carlson or the U.S. Olympic team? In his defense, Carlson has made strides this season to being more of the two-way player the Caps envisioned he would be. His seven goals, four on the power play, have him on pace for easily the highest goal output of his career; he’s only two away from his career high of nine in 11-’12. He’s also become much sturdier on the back-end, teaming with Karl Alzner as the top penalty kill pairing, and has eliminated a lot of the silly mistakes that plagued his game as recently as last season. His biggest problem now is he’s not the greatest passer, but I think that’s more concentration than ability.

Alzner is a good, reliable, steady stay-at-home defenseman. He gets overrated in these parts because he’s the most adept on the team at that unglamorous task. He is not what they call a “shutdown” defenseman. He’s not physical or intimidating, and his strength at times leaves his work along the boards and in the slot lacking. But he’s positionally sound and a smart hockey player, making the most out of what he has.

After those two, however, come two players with major flaws and a group of others that quite frankly don’t belong in the National Hockey League, which is far and away the Caps’ biggest problem.

When Mike Green was scoring 70 points a season, you could overlook any other flaws in his game. He had a singular talent in the league for two seasons. But that, now, was a long time ago. Injuries have ravaged the player that was once one of the most dangerous in the game. Between his skill, speed and puck-handling, he was a unique talent. Now, he’s a shell of what he once was.

Third and fourth line wingers skate around him. He seems uninterested in playing his gaps and responsibilities. He routinely still leaves himself open to the big hit along the boards. And Carlson has eclipsed him as the lone defenseman on the power play. On top of all that, he’s taking penalties this season at a rate like no other time in his career, left to reaching and grabbing where before he could skate into position. He’s a liability almost every time he steps on the ice.

Dmitry Orlov is going to be a good hockey player. Will it be here in D.C.? Who knows. But he’s getting a chance to play now and with any young player (80 games in three seasons) he’s going to have ups and downs. He’s electric carrying the puck, something his current head coach and defensive assistant don’t like in their system. He’s prone to forget assignments and jump into the play instead. And he repeats mistakes, something that drives coaches crazy. But he’s one of the few Caps defensemen that can move the puck and make an accurate exit pass, and he won’t shy away from contact.

John Erskine is playing on one leg and is no longer an NHL caliber skater. Steve Oleksy was a nice story last season — the journeyman who finally got his chance due to multiple injuries — but there’s a reason he’s bounced around so long in the minor and independent leagues — he’s simply outclassed at this level. But unfortunately for the Caps, the rest of the defensemen on the roster are either not in any way ready (Schmidt, Carrick, Wey) or similarly flawed (Strachan, Urbom).

This team actually misses Jack Hillen.

GOALTENDING

Raise your hands if you had Phillip Grubauer as the team’s undisputed No. 1 goalie at the 41-game mark.

Liar.

Grubauer, the just-turned 22-year-old goalie has started 10 of the Caps last 12 games. He has a .932 save percentage and 2.20 goals against, so he’s acquitting himself well despite the Caps penchant for allowing more shots than they take. Will the .932 stand all season? No, of course not. But he’s playing well given the opportunity.

Braden Holtby, more than Grubauer, was victim to the sheer number of shots he faced much of the early season. Despite a .915 save percentage, he’s allowed 3.00 goals against per game. This is a result of seeing so many more shots a game. Of goalies that have played 20 games or more this season, he’s third in the league in shots against per 60 minutes at 31.3. He’s had his moments where he’s fought it, but he’s hardly the Caps worst problem. In fact, he held them in games the first two months of the season until late November-early December when he lost the coaching staff’s confidence. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s hiding or dealing with an injury either.

Michal Neuvirth is the invisible man. He’s played in just seven games, none since Nov. 22 despite being back on the roster the past two weeks. His trade value diminishes daily.

COACHING/ADMINISTRATIVE

Adam Oates drew a lot of praise last season for resurrecting Alex Ovechkin and the Caps’ power play. He also got good marks for his rapport with the media and for his hockey intellect. Rightfully so. He played the thinking man’s game and continues to do so as a coach. Now that he’s coached this team for a full season’s worth of games, there are positives to draw from but the jury is definitely still out.

The power play, despite struggling a bit in December, still is second in the league. At 5-on-4, the Caps skill has room to shine. At 5-on-5 though, that shine completely loses its luster. The Caps are 20th in the league at 5v5 goals for with 69 and 22nd in 5v5 goals against with 79. They are 27th in the league at 5v5 shots against per game with 32.2 and 20th in 5v5 shots for per game with 28.7.

That’s right, at 5-on-5 the Caps are one of the 10 worst teams in the league in all four categories, down with the dregs of the league that won’t qualify for the playoffs. We know the defense is bad… we can see it with our eyes. But the offense is just as bad 5-on-5, it just gets masked by the efficiency of the power play.

Consider it for a second. How can the same team that scores at a 25 percent rate with the extra man struggle even for shots at full strength? The simple explanation is that they don’t work hard enough at full strength to get into position to shoot. Or that they’re “too cute” and looking for the perfect play instead of throwing it on net and hoping for traffic, a redirect or rebound. Or yet, they haven’t mastered (or are suited for) the systems that Oates, Calle Johansson and Blaine Forsythe are trying to implement. Those are the simple answers. Are they the right ones?

As far as their own end, the Caps braintrust would rather defensemen get rid of the puck quickly instead of carrying out of the zone, primarily to reduce the amount of physical punishment by forecheckers, something the Caps have had trouble with. But the Caps lack the necessary skill with most of their blueliners to really make this strategy pay off and it reduces two of their players’ (Green and Orlov) strong suits. A lot of times, the defensemen are simply left to dump the puck to center ice, leading to turnovers and odd-man opportunities the other way, with the Caps forwards standing at the other blue line watching in horror.

As far as administratively, we’ve seen some curious internal personnel moves. Connor Carrick made the team out of training camp, but quickly proved he wasn’t ready at full speed. Martin Erat spent much of the first 25 games on the fourth line until his trade demands forced the team to play him with fellow skilled players in order to showcase him. Still without a goal, he has nine assists in his last 15 games since he was moved primarily to center. Dmitry Orlov was similarly buried, only in Hershey, until the Caps could no longer deny his existence — he’s now logging top-4 minutes. Eric Fehr spent most of the month of November eating nachos in the press box. As did Jay Beagle, who finally got a chance to play when Laich got hurt again. They are wasting a year of Tom Wilson’s contract playing him seven minutes a night.

And Aaron Volpatti continues to get a sweater despite everything else.

All the while, no outside moves have been made, other than claiming Alexander Urbom off waivers from New Jersey.

SUMMARY

The Capitals are fortunate to be in second place in the disappointing Metropolitan Division. There’s really no other way to say it right now. At full strength, they’ve been one of the 10 worst teams in the league. It’s due primarily to Alex Ovechkin, the power play, some timely goaltending and the shootout that the Caps aren’t looking up at the rest of the division. There’s a good bit of talent here, but it’s not enough to overcome the deficiencies in the roster, lack of execution and sometimes questionable utilization.

Combine that with the fact the team has played its last 23 games in the Eastern Time Zone and managed to lose ground to the first place team in the division and to most of the teams trailing them, and it only gets worse. The Caps play 10 of their last 14 games on the road. They’ve already missed their chance to put hay in the barn.

Unless the Caps play dramatically better at full and even strength in the second half of the season, it’s my opinion they are going to struggle to make the playoffs. And even if they do manage to get in, they certainly won’t have ample power plays and the shootout to fall back on.

Washington Capitals 2013-14 Preseason Roundtable Part 2

Opening night of the 2013-14 season for the Washington Capitals is finally upon us! With that in mind, the District Sports Page Caps staff and contributors will take a look at several key areas that will affect the Caps season as they get ready to start play in the newly-formed Metropolitan Division.

The first half of our roundtable posted Friday.

Also, for your enjoyment, here are links to out position previews:

Left Wings
Right Wings
Centers
Defensemen
Goalies

Our panelists: Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page; Katie Brown, Caps Staff Writer for DSP; Abram Fox, former Caps Page Editor at DSP, Erika Schnure, RinkRebel.com and DSP contributor; Ted Starkey, Caps author and contributor to DSP; Sky Kerstein, 106.7 The Fan and DSP contributor; and Harry Hawkings, RocktheRed.com.


5) Where will Brooks Laich spend the majority of his time this season (wing, center, second line, third line, infirmary, whatever)? [Read more...]

PHOTOS: Washington Capitals Practice, March 28

Dave and I are back in DC for a visit so we went over to Kettler Iceplex on Thursday, March 28 to watch the Washington Capitals practice. The last time we saw the Caps on the ice in person was in September before the lockout. We’re looking forward to seeing a few games at Verizon Center in the next couple of weeks!

There was a scary moment when Alex Ovechkin left the ice after catching a puck with his chin. He didn’t return to practice and tweeted photos from the doctor’s office before and after the 22 stitches. Ouch.

Here are a handful of photos from practice. It was great to take hockey photos again! As always, please feel free to comment on the post. I really appreciate feedback. Thanks.

This is what hockey fans do on their spring break! - Washington Capitals practice at Kettler, 3/28/2013 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

This is what hockey fans do on their spring break! – Washington Capitals practice at Kettler, 3/28/2013 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

 

[Read more...]

Washington Capitals recall defenseman Dmitry Orlov from Hershey

Dmitri Orlov in his full cage for Feb. 7 game. (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

Dmitri Orlov in his full cage for Feb. 7 game. (Photo by Cheryl Nichols)

The Washington Capitals have recalled defenseman Dmitry Orlov from the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League (AHL). Orlov has not played in an NHL game since April 7, 2012. He played 60 games in his rookie season last year, but was a healthy scratch for the playoffs under then-head coach Dale Hunter.

Orlov missed three months of action with concussion symptoms after getting hurt in Hershey’s game at Verizon Center in December.

Orlov, 21, has recorded 12 points (one goal, 11 assists) and 16 penalty minutes in 22 games with Hershey this season and has tallied three assists in his last two AHL contests. He collected 19 points (three goals, 16 assists) and 18 penalty minutes in 60 games with the Capitals during his rookie season in 2011-12. Orlov finished the season ranked fourth in scoring among rookie defensemen despite finishing ranked 23rd in average ice time per game (16:52).

Orlov will most likely slide right into the lineup in place of Tom Poti, who aggravated a back injury in Sunday’s contest against Buffalo.

Washington Capitals 2012-13 Positional Preview: The Defensemen

Karl Alzner -Practice April 27(Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Karl Alzner at practice, April 27, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

With the season opener right around the corner, District Sports Page takes a look at the construction of the roster to start the season. Today, the defensemen.

Karl Alzner
Though not the most experienced, highly paid, or offensively skilled defenseman on the Washington Capitals roster, Karl Alzner has emerged as the face of the team’s defensive corps thanks to his consistent play and willingness to face the media in any circumstance. The same composure Alzner demonstrates in front of a camera is evident with his play. Per statistics site Behind the Net, Alzner faced the strongest competition of any Caps player in 2011-12, yet still led the team in plus-minus with a plus-12.

New Capitals assistant coach Calle Johansson sees a younger version of himself while watching Alzner on the ice, and the talented young defenseman should benefit under Johansson’s tutelage. Many years down the road Alzner may also challenge Johansson for the Capitals’ franchise record for games played. The Swede played 983 of his 1,109 career NHL games for the Caps, while Alzner has played 215 games in part of four seasons, including all 82 games each of the past two years.

John Carlson
Riffing on the hockey tradition to not shave during the playoffs, Carlson showed up to training camp looking like he hadn’t cut his hair since the Caps’ playoff loss in May. Surfer hair notwithstanding, Carlson is coming off a career high in goals despite serving with Alzner on Washington’s shutdown defense pairing. The young defenseman may benefit the most from new head coach Adam Oates’s offensive scheme, possessing scoring ability, the speed to get back in the transition game, and the stay-at-home defensive partner to allow him to take chances.

The real test for Carlson will be if he can maintain his defensive form and conditioning. Unlike some of his teammates, Carlson stayed in the D.C. area rather than play professionally overseas or in a North American minor league. Instead, he kept active by skating informally with a small group that included teammates Mike Green, Jason Chimera, and Jay Beagle and former teammate and Maryland native Jeff Halpern. In doing so Carlson has saved several months of wear-and-tear on his body, but a lack of conditioning could lead to injury or poor play if he isn’t able to reach suitable form in short order.

John Erskine
Erskine is of the class of players who stood to suffer the most from the NHL lockout: a non-skill, marginal roster player good enough to stick around the NHL but not good enough to take one of the limited roster spots available to non-Europeans in an overseas league. Instead the Kington, Ontario native returned to his hometown to skate and workout on his own, and showed up to training camp looking much thinner and quicker than he has in years. That seems unusual for a defender for whom the most fitting adjective has traditionally been “hulking,” but perhaps Erskine took a look at film from new assistant head coach Calle Johansson’s career and realized he needed to alter his style to stay in Washington’s longterm plans.

In 2011-12 Erskine skated in only 28 games, spending much of the season as a healthy scratch while Dale Hunter relied on rookie Dmitry Orlov and the same roster game-in and game-out. With the addition of Jack Hillen and return of Tom Poti, Erskine will be part of a crowded field vying for one of the bottom pairing spots on the Capitals’ roster. He remains Washington’s de facto enforcer, a status without much cachet under Oates but which nonetheless helps his chances at securing one of the seven roster spots on defense to start the season.

Mike Green
2011-12 was a lost season for the former 31-goal scorer, who only played 32 games due to a recurring groin injury. He’s now completely healthy, but that’s a recent development as of about a month ago. Across the league groin injuries as a major concern for this condensed season, and Green is as susceptible as anyone else. Regardless of whether he’s paired with Roman Hamrlik, Dmitry Orlov, Jeff Schultz, or another teammate, Green will be the defenseman responsible for moving the puck when he’s on the ice, leaving him open to contact.

A complete season would be a triumph for Green, but a return to his scoring form would also be appreciated by the Washington organization. Shortly before the end of the lockout Green underwent laser eye surgery, which if nothing else may give him a psychological boost if he thinks he’s seeing the puck better. Green has traditionally played the right point on the Caps’ power play, which was Oates’ specialty while an assistant coach for New Jersey and Tampa Bay, and any increase in Washington’s power play effectiveness from last season’s 18th will reflect on Green’s personal statistics as well.

Roman Hamrlik
A former first overall draft pick and the most veteran member of the Washington Capitals, Hamrlik is a usually soft-spoken player who drew jeers during the lockout as one of the few voices players to explicitly criticize the NHLPA’s stance on negotiations. As one of six current players — Teemu Selanne, Ray Whitney, Jaromir Jagr, Martin Brodeur, and the soon-to-retire Chris Pronger are the others — to experience three lockouts, Hamrlik’s position is understandable, even if his means of expressing it was ill-considered.

Despite his active NHL best 1,379 career games played, Hamrlik remains capable of playing top-four minutes and was a steady partner to Mike Green last season. He’s seen it all, which makes him a valuable presence in a young defensive corps, and his late-career transition from powerplay quarterback to defensive-minded stopper is the blueprint for teammate Poti to do the same. The ascendancy of Orlov or return of a healthy Poti will spell a decrease in time for Hamrlik, and how he handles the move may be his real legacy with the Caps.

Jack Hillen
At the age of 26, Hillen is already on his third NHL franchise having played parts of four seasons for the New York Islanders before skating in 55 games for the Nashville Predators last season. Prior to signing a one-year deal with Washington in July, Hillen was best known to Capitals fans as the player whose jaw was broken by an Alex Ovechkin slapshot in January 2010. He’s all recovered now, and will challenge for a depth position on the Caps after skating on the third pairing for a dominant Predators defensive corps.

Hillen is a puck-moving defenseman, and his smooth skating drew raves from locker room neighbor Alzner after the team’s first training camp practice. That style of play will endear him with both Oates and Johansson, who are known to appreciate smooth skaters. He’s also acclimated well with his new teammates, sharing jokes with locker room neighbor Alzner after the team’s first session.

Dmitry Orlov
A potential breakout year for Orlov was derailed first by the lockout and then by a groin injury suffered in December, ironically during the Hershey Bears’ AHL Showcase game at the Verizon Center. Before his injury, Orlov was largely underperforming in Hershey with only one goal and eight assists in 18 games. His lengthy stint with the NHL squad last season removed any doubt that he belonged in the big leagues, so his production for the Bears may be more a case of personal disappointment than regression.

His rookie season with the Capitals last year saw Orlov post three goals and 16 assists in 60 games, averaging a respectable 16:52 time on ice. One of the smaller defensemen on Washington’s roster, Orlov’s abilities fit better in Adam Oates’ system than that of Dale Hunter, who nonetheless relied heavily on the services of the Russian defender over those of John Erskine and Jeff Schultz much of the season.

Tom Poti
For the first time since 2009, the Boston-born Poti is healthy at the start of the season. A groin injury and then fractured pelvis kept Poti to only 22 games played in the 2010-11 season, and he was on long-term injured reserve for all of last season, during which general manager George McPhee said he thought Poti’s career was over. Instead, the defenseman declared himself 100 percent healthy shortly before the end of the lockout, and since then has proven a man of his word. After passing his physical Poti was sent to the Hershey Bears for a conditioning assignment, upon which he scored a power play goal in his first game Saturday night.

It’s unclear what Poti can bring to the Capitals roster at this point, if only because no one has any clue how his skill set has changed in the past two years. He was already beginning to transition from puck-moving offensive threat to physical stay-at-home defender when he was injured, and it’s hard to imagine him resuming the puck-moving role with Green, Carlson, and Hillen or Orlov on the roster. Although he’s 35, staying out of professional hockey for two years has saved that much wear and tear on his body and allowed him to heal up from all those little aches and bruises that accumulate over the course of the years.

Cameron Schilling
Of the ten defensemen invited to training camp, Schilling was the longest shot when it comes to making the roster, and indeed has already been sent back to Hershey. The undrafted player from Indiana was signed as a free agent last spring immediately after the conclusion of his senior year at Miami University and appeared in 11 games for the Hershey Bears. His stint included four games in the Bears’ five-game first round series loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, in which Schilling netted two goals. In 33 games this season in Hershey Schilling has three goals and four assists and is fifth on the team with a plus-6 rating.

Compared to the rest of the players in the Capitals organization, Schilling has a leg up in one regard: he’s the only player with significant experience under Adam Oates as head coach, when Oates took over bench duties in Hershey for a stretch in late 2012. Although George McPhee insisted that every player in camp has a chance to make the Capitals’ roster, Schilling’s presence was largely to get the youngster acclimated to the NHL experience. Washington only has four defensemen with NHL experience under contract for the 2013-14 season, and the camp invite was a notice to Schilling that he’s expected to be ready should the need arise later this season and to contend for a spot next season and beyond.

Jeff Schultz
The erstwhile top-four defenseman and league plus-minus leader is now relegated to fighting for a spot on the Capitals bottom pair every night. Although Schultz has seemed to be on the outs for the past few seasons, the four-year, $11 million contract he signed after the 2009-10 season has kept him in Washington red and white. He was a favorite of Bruce Boudreau, who coached Schultz while in Hershey, but began to fall out of favor under Dale Hunter’s regime. It remains to be seen how he fits into Calle Johansson’s defensive scheme.

Schultz has demonstrated the ability to stick around for the past few seasons, and the quiet Canadian seems to get along well with his teammates. Although he doesn’t possess overwhelming physical or puck-moving capabilities, he plays strong positional hockey and rarely panics in his own end. There is no guarantee that Schultz will be able to maintain his roster spot this season, particularly with the return of a healthy Poti, but stranger things have happened.

Holtby and Orlov Ready to Leave Hershey Behind

The NHL is back and many of the league’s superstars are scrambling back to their home clubs from Europe, while those who opted not to play across the ocean are nervously hitting the ice and the gym in preparation for an extremely brief training camp.

However, there is a somewhat forgotten group of NHL players who have been playing in North America all along — in the American Hockey League.

In September, NHL teams anticipating the impending lockout assigned many of their AHL-eligible players to their farm teams so they could play there during the stoppage. Players on two-way contracts, as well as players still on their entry-level contracts were among those able to play in the AHL during the lockout.

Because of this assignment policy, the AHL was stacked with talent this season. Much of the media attention has focused on the 2011-2012 Edmonton Oilers’ “Kid Line” of Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Taylor Hall teaming up to make the Oklahoma City Barons one of the most formidable teams in the AHL. Others, like the Capitals’ Braden Holtby and Dmitry Orlov, have been quietly grinding it out with their farm teams while they waited for the end of the lockout.

Both humbly took on the challenge of returning to the AHL, despite the disappointment of starting in Hershey instead of Washington.

That’s not to say that Holtby and Orlov have been taking it easy in the minor leagues — last week, Holtby was named AHL Goaltender of the Month for December, and he is currently the fifth-ranked goaltender in the league with an impressive 2.14 GAA and .932 save percentage over 25 games. Orlov, though injured since early December, has nine points and is a plus-1 in 18 games this season.

But both had been hoping to start their full-time NHL careers in earnest last October. Instead, they had to postpone their NHL plans and wait it out in Hershey.

“Everyone’s in the same situation and I’m lucky I get a place to play,” Holtby told CSN Washington in September, before the AHL season began. “It’s an unfortunate situation with the NHL right now, but hopefully they get it solved and get it done right.

“Obviously, it would be nice to see what I can do over a complete season in Washington, but that’s not my mindset,” Holtby continued. “I want to keep getting better and use some of the things I learned in the [NHL] playoffs and get even better.”

Judging by his performance in Hershey this season, he has gotten better. However, NHL skill is a different animal, and the grind of the season is going to be even more intense with a shortened schedule. Holtby will benefit from his preparation, because beginning next week he’ll be competing for a job.

Holtby’s incredible performance in last season’s playoffs threw Washington’s starting goaltender role into uncertainty, and with fellow Capitals goaltender Michal Neuvirth making his return to Washington this week, Holtby will quickly go from certain AHL starter to fighting for an NHL starting job.

When it comes to that battle, Hershey coach Mark French is likely in Holtby’s corner. Speaking to the Washington Post in October, French indicated how impressed he’s been with Holtby’s attitude and maturity toward the Bears’ season in the face of the lockout. “There’s no arrogance or ego to it at all,” French said. “He’s got a great attitude coming into this. He feels he can get better every day and he approaches each day with that goal.”

Orlov is also eager to get started on the season. He was benched for the majority of last season’s NHL playoffs, but now that offensive defenseman Dennis Wideman has departed Washington to sign with Calgary as a free agent before the lockout began, Orlov seems to be a lock to make the Capitals roster full-time.

French feels confident that Orlov’s time with Hershey over the past few seasons has put him in good position for that roster spot. “(Orlov’s) individual skills are excellent, but he needs to find his game within the confines of our team game and the Washington team game and he’s been able to do that in Hershey,” French told CSN Washington in December.

However, Orlov’s 2013 NHL debut will have to wait a little longer. Capitals general manager George McPhee told reporters Tuesday that Orlov is not likely to be ready to start the NHL season due to his upper-body injury, which has kept him out of all action since December 6. However, McPhee reported that Orlov is in Washington and has begun working out again. Hopes are that Orlov will be prepared to join Washington’s practices in a few weeks.

Holtby, healthy and having had the majority of Hershey’s starts in goal this season, thinks that his latest stint in the AHL could be an advantage over the typical NHLer returning to the ice. “The main thing [playing in Hershey], though, is just being able to stay in shape, playing games,” Holtby told the Washington Times in December. “Keeping my mind sharp and when it gets going it’ll be an advantage.

Finally — thankfully — it’s about to get going.

Washington Capitals Assign 21 Players to Hershey Bears

Capitals Assign 21 Players to Hershey

ARLINGTON, Va. – The Washington Capitals have assigned 21 players to the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League and loaned forward Tom Wilson to Plymouth of the Ontario Hockey League, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today.

The players assigned to Hershey, Washington’s AHL affiliate, include forwards Mike Carman, Stanislav Galiev, Garrett Mitchell, Danick Paquette, Mattias Sjogren, Matt Clackson, Zach Hamill, Ryan Potulny and Ryan Stoa; defensemen Brett Flemming, Tomas Kundratek, Dmitry Orlov, Cameron Schilling, Dustin Stevenson, Kevin Marshall, Patrick McNeill and Garrett Stafford; and goaltenders Brandon Anderson, Philipp Grubauer, Braden Holtby and Dany Sabourin.

In addition, Washington has loaned Wilson to Plymouth (OHL).

The 11-time Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears will celebrate their 75th AHL season in 2012-13, and are scheduled to open training camp on Sept. 30.

Braden Holtby stretching during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Mattias Sjogren – Captials practice at Kettler, September 14, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

 

 

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