October 25, 2014

Washington Wizards Wisely Lock Up Marcin Gortat on Day One of Free Agency

On the morning of July 1, the opening day of the NBA free agency period, The Washington Post reported that the Washington Wizards had already reached out to their two most important free agents, Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza. By the time day one of free agency was over, Gortat had himself a new deal to remain in Washington. [Read more...]

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.

Big changes needed for Caps to contend for Cup in balance of Ovechkin’s career

Caps Captain Alex Ovechkin and Alternate Captain Nicklas Backstrom presented Mike Knuble and his family with a Sea-Doo on behave of the Caps players (Photo by @jlrpuck))

Will Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom ever play for a Stanley Cup? (Photo by @jlrpuck))

With the postseason slowly slipping away from them with every loss, the Washington Capitals have quietly put themselves in prime position for the offseason. With the NHL’s salary cap expected to go up and major revisions to the defensive corps on tap, the salary restraints being lifted could not have come at a better time.

How they use that cap space, and who makes those decisions, will shape whether this team will contend for a Stanley Cup during the balance of one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the league’s career with the Caps.

CLEARING THE DECK

GM George McPhee essentially pulled off the world’s quietest fire sale during last week’s deadline. He shed the team of Martin Erat’s $4.5 million and Michal Neuvirth’s $2.5 million. Both players wanted a fresh start where they could be a bigger part of a team’s plans; the team wanted to shed their salaries. McPhee moved both players without acquiring NHL contracts they’d be on the hook for past this season.

In the process, the team acquired UFA G Jaroslav Halak and LW Dustin Penner. Both veterans were immediately inserted into the lineup with the idea they could add a presence to help the Caps qualify for the playoffs this season. It hasn’t really worked out that way as the Caps have lost five of its past six games — and now stare a three-game west coast swing right in the face.

The organization can spin the trade deadline acquisitions all they want, but the moves were all about clearing cap space for the offseason.

THE LOOSE ENDS

With the Caps locking up D Dmitry Orlov to a two-year deal on Thursday — and finally bringing on forward Evgeny Kuznetsov after his contract expired in the KHL, the Caps have just three free agents heading into the offseason: the aforementioned Halak and Penner, and C Mikhail Grabovski, the past offseason’s major acquisition. Grabovski, who has been hurt much of the second half of the season, signed a one-year, $3 million deal to come to D.C. this year to re-energize his career after being relegated to the doghouse in his last season in Toronto. He was hopeful to put up big numbers and earn a multi-year deal.

It looked like he was well on the way to driving his salary up into the $5-6 million range, with a hat trick on opening night (courtesy of a couple of tip-ins) and 12 goals and 21 assists in 50 games. But the injury that has kept him out of the team’s past 17 games has really hurt him, which may make him easier to re-sign as the season nears its conclusion.

As for Halak and Penner, it’s debatable whether the Caps have any interest in re-signing either one. Halak is a good, dependable starting goalie in the league, but he’ll be expensive as a free agent. He’s of the age where he’ll want a 4-5 year deal, and with Braden Holtby (and Philipp Grubauer in the wings) it doesn’t seem like that’s the route the Caps would go, unless they have a major change of heart.

Penner is a big, rugged winger who has failed to register a point in five games since joining the Caps. In 49 games with Anaheim this season, he had 13 goals and 19 assists and hasn’t eclipsed 20 goals since the ’10-’11 season. He’ll be 32 at the end of the season, and has spent his entire career up until the past week and a half in the Western Conference. With Adam Oates’ reluctance to play him on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom, it isn’t a stretch to see the Caps allowing Penner to walk without so much as a second thought.

ELEPHANT(S) IN THE ROOM

The Capitals have one more buyout available (they used their first on Jeff Schultz) and it’s quite possible they might exercise that buyout this offseason. They have two prime candidates: F Brooks Laich ($4.5 million cap hit) and D Mike Green ($6 million).

Laich, 30, signed a long term deal a couple of seasons ago when he was a 20-goal scoring, two-way forward capable of playing on the power play as well as the penalty kill. He was a versatile player, able to move among the top three lines in a variety of positions. But the groin injury that’s robbed him of most of the past two seasons has really cut into his availability and reliability, as well as his production. This season, Laich has eight goals and seven assists in 50 games and is currently not practicing at all while trying to remain available for games.

Green has always been a liability in the defensive end. The fact that his possession numbers remain decent is hidden by the fact that when he gets beaten, it’s often ugly. He’s a target for opposing forecheckers, and that wear and tear has resulted in several head injuries in the past three seasons. In the past, the Caps were willing to live with Green’s inadequacies, but he’s just not putting up the kind of numbers that made him a two-time Norris Trophy finalist. His eight goals and 27 assists this season are nothing to sneeze at, but hardly worth the $6 million per annum Green counts against the cap.

BALANCING THE CAP

According to Capgeek.com, the Capitals — with Orlov’s new contract and the Laich/Green albatross contracts — will have a little over $14 million to spend under the expected cap available to sign free agents or bring in players via trade.

Obviously, it the team buys out either Laich or Green, they’ll have even more money to spend. Buy one out (Laich) and trade the other (Green) and the Caps would have a cash bonanza to work with.

CALLING THE CAVALRY

So if the Caps have all this money to play with in the offseason, where should they spend it? The simple, fast answer is on defense. The Caps have a dependable pair of defensemen in Karl Alzner and John Carlson, even if the opinion of the two is a bit inflated within the market. We’ve detailed Green’s shortcomings. If he was paired with a reliable, dependable defense-first partner, his shortcomings could be mitigated better. Right now, he’s paired with Orlov, who’s prone to his own bouts of turnover-itis in his own end.

The rest of the staff has been filled with has-beens (John Erskine), never-weres (Alexander Urbom, Tyson Strachan) and youngsters just barely out of high school. The Capitals have some promising young blueliners, but Connor Carrick, Nate Schmidt, Cam Schilling and Patrick Wey have all been overmatched, and Madison Bowey is still a couple of years away in the grand scheme.

A cursory glance at the top UFA defensemen provides a sobering moment when considering how the Caps should spend their money. There’s just not that much available on the open market that one might consider a “Top-4″ defenseman. Certainly there are some useful players out there that could bump Carrick, et al. back to Hershey for another year of seasoning to seriously upgrade the bottom pair. But how likely are the Caps to lock up an older player for several seasons to play in the third pairing, blocking the youngsters?

The Caps need to get better on the blueline from the top down, not the other way around. And it’s going to take going to the trade market in the offseason to do that.

If the Caps want to add to the forwards roster (and if Laich is let go, they would certainly be in the market) there are some interesting players still in their prime available, including Thomas Vanek, Paul Stastny, Jussi Jokinen and Matt Moulson, in addition to their own Grabovski and Penner.

CALLING THE SHOTS

The biggest question might be: Who will make these decisions? It’s no secret that both GM George McPhee and coach Adam Oates (and the rest of his nascent coaching staff) are on the hot seat. McPhee has build this team into a seasonal playoff team, if not a Stanley Cup contender. If the Caps were to miss the playoffs this season, the organization would miss out on that nice chuck of playoff revenue, which in turns hurts the bottom line throughout the system.

There are plenty of folks inside and outside of the Beltway that wouldn’t mind seeing a new manager put in charge of re-energizing this franchise. McPhee’s detractors point to exactly zero trips past the second round since the team’s Finals appearance in McPhee’s first season at the helm. At some point, just making the playoffs isn’t good enough.

But McPhee has overseen a rebuild before. And the moves he made at this past trade deadline didn’t seem like the moves a man in fear of his job security would make.

As for Oates, everyone wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially the way he was able to help Ovechkin get back to being the most lethal goal scorer on the planet. But the fact of the matter is that the Caps have steadily been in decline in terms of puck possession since he took over. The puck movement in the Caps’ own end has been amateurish at times. And instead of playing dump-and-chase, too often the Caps are relegated to playing dump-and-change, taking so long to get out of their own end that all they can do at the end of their shift is head back to the bench.

Add on the fact that the Caps aren’t above 50 percent in the faceoff dot, and it all adds up to a team that seems to still be searching for an identity under the first-time head coach.

Head coaches in this league have been let go for less.

THE BIG PICTURE

With 15 games left in the regular season, it’s still early to write this team’s epitaph. But the writing’s on the wall. Losses in five of the last six games and the brutal schedule ahead leave the Caps solidly behind the eight-ball in terms of postseason play. Most simulators have them with less than a seven percent chance at qualifying for the playoffs.

Whether they sneak in or not, big changes are needed if the Washington Capitals indeed want to compete for the Stanley Cup in the near future. Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom aren’t kids anymore. Every year that this team can’t truly compete in the second season is wasted. The Caps need to make some big changes soon, or the duo will go down not only as the best players in this generation to not win a Cup, but not even play for one.

And that would be a shame for all involved.

Washington Redskins jump in with both feet on day two of free agency

The Washington Redskins, fairly quiet in the first day of the free agent signing period, were quite a bit more active in day two.

The Skins added four players, including former Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Jason Hatcher.

The team also added defensive end Clifton Geathers, linebacker Darryl Sharpton and cornerback Tracy Porter.

Hatcher, 31, enjoyed his best year in the league last season, recording 11 sacks. He spent the first five seasons of his career as a backup and broke the starting lineup in 2011. He played right defensive end in the Cowboys’ 3-4 system that year before switching to tackle last season in a 4-3. He’s expected to play end for the Skins.

Hatcher represents a huge upgrade along the defensive front for the Skins. Not only did Hatcher have more sacks than the entirety of the Skins defensive line last season, he’s also adept at putting pressure on the offense in the running game.

Geathers, a massive 6’8″, 340-pound fourth year defensive lineman, appeared in 16 games with the Philadelphia Eagles last year, recording 13 tackles.

Sharpton recorded 87 tackles for Houston, starting the final eight games of the season. He should compete for a starting inside spot next to Perry Riley Jr., re-signed by Washington on Wednesday.

Porter started 16 games for Oakland last season with 67 tackles, two interceptions and a touchdown. Porter has had injury troubles in his seven-year career, playing just one full season as a pro. He can play against both wide and slot receivers.

Washington Redskins venture into free agent waters, but not too far

The first day of NFL free agency is in the books, and the Washington Redskins did indeed pick up a couple of useful pieces, but did not make a headline-grabbing splash as they’ve done in years past.

The Redskins used the first day of the signing period to bring back two of their own: LB Perry Riley and WR Santana Moss; and added G Shawn Lauvao, slot WR Andre Roberts and special teams standout LB Adam Hayward.

Lauvao, a 2010 third round pick out of Arizona State, started 11 games for the Cleveland Browns last season and started all 16 in 2011 and 2012. ESPN reported that he signed a four-year, $17 million contract. Lauvao is graded as a good pass blocker but not as strong on run blocking.

Roberts, who spent his first four seasons in Arizona, is a 5’10”, 195-pound slot receiver. He caught 43 balls for 471 yards and two touchdowns in ’13. Roberts signed for four years and $16 million.

Heyward is 6’1″, 240-pounds and has played primarily as a special teamer in seven season in the NFL. He played for current Redskins secondary coach Raheem Morris in Tampa Bay.

 

 

Washington Capitals GM George McPhee on NHL Free Agency: “We Stayed Away.”

Washington Capitals GM George McPhee met the media Monday on the first day of Development Camp. His most intriguing comments came right up front when asked about the NHL Free Agent signing period, and the Caps reluctance to enter the market for a second-line center with the departure of Mike Ribeiro to Arizona on a four-year deal.

McPhee was up-front in his assessment, stating that he wasn’t impressed with the players available. And for those few that the Caps did take interest in, he wasn’t impressed with the contract demands.

“We didn’t think it was a great class of players,” McPhee said from Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “Not a great pool of players to invest in, so we didn’t. There were a couple of players we had interest in, but when the numbers get the way they were going in terms of salary or term, we stayed away.”

“We didn’t really make any offers, we just knew where they were going,” McPhee continued. “Usually the issue is the term. Salary you can compete with, but when people get into term that’s too long, you can ultimately hurt your competitiveness down the road. We try to avoid that.”

The conversation naturally turned from the free agent crop to the Caps two UFAs they allowed to walk — Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks.

“We made our best offers at the trading deadline, with both of [those] players. We liked both of those guys a lot — as people, as players — but we made our decisions around the trading deadline, in far advance of July 1. You can’t wake up [at the start of the free agency period] and say, ‘What are we going to do?’.”

What McPhee didn’t do is chase either player and sign them to long-term, salary cap crippling deals. Both players signed four-year deals at higher rates than they commanded on their last contract, something the Caps were obviously — and correctly — reluctant to do.

So if the Caps aren’t going to obtain a 2C, who will they turn to in-house? How about their jack-of-all- trades, Brooks Laich? In a perfect world, the Caps would have Laich centering a third line with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward, players whose natural ability might seem to jive better with the lunch-pail Laich.

But McPhee sees Laich as a suitable player to fill the role.

“If you look around the league, it’s a hard position to fill,” McPhee noted. ” How many teams these days have a couple of elite centers? Five or six, maybe? Generally, you need a really good two-way player to play there, which is why we’re looking at Brooks Laich to play there now.”

“We had him there in the playoffs a couple years ago, liked it a lot. He’s a natural center. We think it’s time to  play him. He gives you the size and speed you’re looking for, the good two-way play you’re looking for, the face-offs… we think he’s capable of it. We don’t see any real difference in terms of ability to play between a Brooks and, if you look around the league, a Mike Fisher in Nashville, Mike Richards in L.A. or David Backes in St. Louis. Same type of players.”

Time will tell if McPhee is right. Since Sergei Fedorov left, the Caps have been looking for that elusive second-line center to provide scoring assistance and take some of the burden off their top scoring line. Last year, they finally had that, as Ribeiro turned in what has proved to be a consistently productive season, especially on coach Adam Oates’ revised power play.

What seems certain is that the players the Caps have on their payroll today is the squad they’ll enter camp with. How those players will be deployed is the million dollar question.

But as their opponents in their new division make additions to their roster they feel will help them be better teams, the Caps are obviously, and maybe disappointingly, standing put.

Washington Capitals: Seasonal Disappointment for Fundamentally Flawed Team

The Washington Capitals are 3-6 now in playoff series in the Alex Ovechkin Era, and the franchise has yet to advance past the second round in that time. If you judge the success of an NHL franchise in playoff wins and Stanley Cups, the Capitals have not only been a failure, but a spectacular one at that. Of the six playoff series losses since the ’07-’08 season, the Caps have held a two-game lead in three of them, five have gone seven games and the Caps hosted Game 7 and lost four times. That’s not just losing, that’s losing badly.

Of course, you know all this already.

During the Ovechkin Era, the Caps have been eliminated from the playoffs in eerily similar fashion. They run into a hot goalie, and teams game plan to frustrate the Caps’ talented players by blocking shots and clogging up the neutral zone and passing lanes.

These teams: the Flyers, Canadians, the Penguins, the Rangers — twice (the Lightning sweep in ’11 doesn’t count), have simply shown more patience than the Caps and waited them out.  Eventually, and ultimately, the Caps shoot themselves out and their opponent waits and waits and counterpunches when the Caps run themselves out of the building. It’s not unlike a heavyweight boxing match when a lesser-skilled boxer will allow his opponent to wear himself down punching, then sneak in when he gets tired.

It happened in Game 7 again.

Look no further than the number of shots. Not on goal, but overall number of shots taken. The Caps attempted a grand total of 79 shots. 35 made their way to Lundqvist, and yes, he turned them all away. But Washington also had 27 attempts blocked by Rangers defenders and another 17 missed their mark altogether. The Rangers attempted 47 shots, 27 on goal. Five went in.

Every year the Caps are bounced after a grueling series and we hear the same things from the losing locker room. “We ran into a hot goalie.” “We thought we were the better team.” “We’re frustrated with the result.” I could go back and look up quotes but you know them as well as I do.

Here are this years:

“You can see one guy beat us. Of course they have good team, great players, great defensive team, but the goalie out there was unbelievable. That’s why he’s best in league,” said Ovechkin. “In my mind it was Lundqvist. They have great team, no doubt about it, but Lundqvist was unbelievable. Just unbelievable.”

And:

“It’s the same thing as previous years, I would say,” said Nicklas Backstrom. “We came back regular season then playoff came and we’re not good enough. I can just talk for myself and my effort. Not good enough. No excuses. It’s just a bad effort.”

And:

“We threw the kitchen sink at him at times and he stood there and defended,” Mike Green said. “He’s a great goaltender we knew that, we talked about it before the series how to beat him and the times that we did score was what we talked about. At times I thought we kind of got away from that. I’m at a loss for words.”

But it’s much deeper than that. Yes, Lundqvist is a world class goalie. Yes, Jaroslav Halak stood on his head for three weeks that spring. But the real reason these goalies have so much success over the Caps is that the shots that get through are lesser quality — from farther away — and from less dangerous areas of the ice. Look at the shot chart. You’ll see where the goals are scored during the playoffs.

The Caps got a grand total of 226 shots on goal in the seven game series, an average of over 32 SOG per game. That’s good. But they scored just 12 goals, a shooting percentage of just 5.3 percent. That’s beyond bad. It’s also a testament of where those shots are coming from. In the regular season, the Caps had ten players with a shooting percentage higher than 10 percent. In the series, that number was four.

Ovechkin, obviously, led the team in shots with 30 and scored once, for a shot percentage of 3.3 percent. Ugh. Is that the result of suffocating defense? A hot, world class goalie? An injury? Bad luck? Even during the period of Ovi’s toughest struggles the last couple of seasons, that kind of shooting percentage is simply anomaly.

But here’s the kicker: the next three highest shot totals in the series all came from defensemen. Karl Alzner, of all people, tied for third on the team in shots on goal with 19 (he was 15th on the team in the regular season with 39). Those are shots from the deep perimeter that have a very low chance of going in. And a team with Karl Alzner pacing them in shots on goal isn’t going to win very many series — no offense to Karl. He isn’t paid to light the lamp.

The Capitals are, essentially, a perimeter team. Ovechkin prefers to carry the puck and rush at the goalie, or get fed for one-timers at the face-off dot. Green shoots from the point. He has a wicked shot, but it’s from outside the circles, nonetheless. During the regular season, when defensive players are less apt to “sell out” to block shots during a grueling 82-game schedule, they have success shooting from their outside spots, with talented finesse playmakers like Nick Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro setting them up.

But during the playoffs, the book is out on the Caps. If you clog up the box, put all five skaters inside the circles to jam up the shooting and passing lanes, the Caps will get frustrated. Oh, they have a modicum of success early in the series, winning games early in the series until the opposition realizes the deal and really buys into it. But as the games creep closer to elimination, it works without fail.

There’s not enough room to operate between the circles. That’s one of the big reasons players like Backstrom and Ribeiro are neutralized in the playoffs. That’s often why you see players like Brian Boyle score in the playoffs: they’re willing to go to the net. But the Caps lack enough of these types of players. Just look at the shot totals from the series from the forwards on this team not named Ovechkin. No forward had more than one goal. Jason Chimera was the next highest forward in shots with 15. That’s barely two shots per game. And he was the best of the forwards named Ovechkin.

Look at the goals from the games the Caps won in this series.

– Game 1: Ovechkin scored his only goal of the series on a put-back off the back wall. Marcus Johansson on a breakaway on a great spring pass and defensive breakdown. Jason Chimera though a screen.

– Game 2: Mike Green on the power play in overtime from inside the top of the faceoff circle.

– Game 5: Ribeiro, at the top of the crease.

Only Johansson’s can be called a “pretty’ goal, and that was caused by a spectacular breakdown by the Rangers defense.

Philadelphia. Montreal. Pittsburgh. New York. These are all series where the Caps had home-ice advantage and lost Game 7. They all used the same script against the Caps. It matters not when the book is so clearly out on these Capitals. Stuff the box and they have no other way to score. And the Capitals will be moving into a division with three of the four next season, along with New Jersey and the up-and-coming Islanders. Their path to hockey’s holy grail just got infinitely more difficult.

I’m not advocating the Caps go back to playing Dale Hunter hockey. Far from it. These teams that play hyper-defensively do it because they don’t have the offensive capabilities of the Capitals. You don’t win a Stanley Cup playing that way, you’ll eventually run out of energy or bodies. You need to have a balanced approach, be able to make adjustments when presented with challenges and be willing to sacrifice both in the defensive and offensive zones. The Caps, simply, don’t have enough of those players yet.

The other part I want to mention is the whole “woe is us” mentality following these playoff ousters. Ovechkin’s comments about the officiating, the lack of calls in Game 6, and someone wanting to see a Game 7 were ridiculous and smelled of sour grapes.

“The refereeing… You understand it yourself. How can there be no penalties at all (on one team) during the playoffs?

“I am not saying there was a phone call from (the league), but someone just wanted Game 7. For the ratings. You know, the lockout, escrow, the League needs to make profit… I don’t know whether the refs were predisposed against us or the League. But to not give obvious penalties (against the Capitals), while for us any little thing was immediately penalized…”

For his part, Ovechkin also said that he, the other stars on the team, and the team in general simply didn’t play well enough, but offered no specifics in how or, more importantly, why.

GM George McPhee backed his superstar in his comments to the media Wednesday.

“I don’t think there’s a league conspiracy but it sure didn’t feel right. Alex wasn’t wrong,” McPhee said when asked directly about Ovechkin’s comments. “I talked to them during the series but at some point you stop. They’ll referee the way they want to referee.”

“I didn’t like the refereeing, but if you complain about it during the series and you’re accused of trying to gain an edge. If you complain about it after a series is over, then it’s whining and sour grapes.”

But Ovechkin’s not the only one wondering what happened. Here’s Eric Fehr, talking about both the points I’ve been trying to make.

“The Rangers must have blocked a hundred shots. It was crazy how well they kept us on the outside,” veteran Eric Fehr said. “They do a good job of it, and they are allowed to do a very good job . . . Holding and pushing, they are allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted to do in front of the net.”

Every year teams complain about the officiating. It’s an NHL tradition as think as growing playoff beards. At some point though, these Capitals have to stop feeling sorry for themselves and take matters into their own hands. The way they collapsed after the power play ran dry at the start of the second period of Game 7 was palpable and disheartening.

The biggest difference between the Caps and the Rangers was evident in the third period. After the fourth goal, the Caps were skating at half speed, trying to get off the ice as fast as they could, and the Rangers were still blocking shots with a four, then five, goal lead.

I think Adam Oates has a pretty good idea what constitutes good hockey. He’s lauded as one of the smartest guys to ever play in the league. It took a little while this season, but he was able to find the way to rejuvenate Ovechkin and get him to play his best hockey in years. And not just scoring, but all-around. He was a better playmaker this year. He brought his physical game back. He skated better. Will that be sustainable? Caps fans have to hope so, because the success of this franchise is directly tied to Ovechkin being the “Great Eight”, not the mediocre or league-average Eight.

I also think that Oates still doesn’t have the roster he wants or needs to be successful. After Ovechkin and Backstrom, there’s a serious drop-off in talent. There’s also a significant lack of power forwards on the team. Why did the Caps turn to 19-year old Tom Wilson in Game 5 of the series to make his NHL debut? His size and willingness to play in front of the net. There is a dearth of that on this team. The Caps hope and pray Wilson turns out to be their Brian Boyle or Milan Lucic, and could stand to add another player or two like him.

This column might sound like I’m down on the Caps. I’m not. The last 35 games of this season showed that they can be a force to be reckoned with in the NHL. They didn’t do it with smoke and mirrors, they did it by outplaying the teams on their schedule. But there are significant holes in the roster. Their level of competition will get higher next season. And they are fundamentally flawed when the ice gets shorter in the playoffs.

The Caps have a little under $6 million available under the cap for next season, and that’s before trimming some dead weight off the roster and evaluating their own free agents. We’ve said this for a while, but it’s a crucial off-season for GM George McPhee. Coming into this year, it looked like the Caps weren’t counting on having a season at all with the lockout. The turnaround showed promise after the near-fatal start, but there’s lots to do this summer.

The almost-free path to the playoffs that the Caps’ Southeast Division schedule afforded them is gone. That playoff revenue is critical to the Capitals organization, and it just became much more difficult to obtain.

Oh, and I didn’t even mention the goaltending, which I’m not completely sold on. But that’s a post for another day.

Washington Nationals Hot Stove: LaRoche decision looms

Adam LaRoche hits one of his 33 homers in 2012 – Chicago Cubs v Washington Nationals, 9/6/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Adam LaRoche had a career year for the Washington Nationals N.L. East title-winning team last season, this much is certain. He was an integral part of their offense, especially early in the season when then were missing so many key pieces. His 33 home runs were a career high, his 100 RBIs tied his career best. The .271/.343/.510 were all above career averages. He earned his first Gold Glove. He produced –when healthy — just as GM Mike Rizzo said he would.

The news Thursday that LaRoche declined his option for 2013 and elected free agency is no surprise. Neither is the fact that the two sides didn’t work out a long-term extension before that happened. LaRoche should test the free agent market. He should find out what the contract parameters for a 33-year old first baseman with his pedigree would earn on the open market, especially considering he should be the most sought-after free agent first basemen in a weak crop this off-season.

Then, he should re-sign with the Nats anyway.

LaRoche owes it to himself to gather all available offers out there. At this point, you’d have to imagine at least Boston and Baltimore (having allowed Mark Reynolds to depart) would be extremely interested in filling the holes they have at first base with LaRoche’s production and steady glove. LaRoche might not be a sexy free agent — MLB Trade Rumors has him at No. 15 of their “Top 50 Free Agents of 2013“. But he will be sought after and garner a contract of at least three years — and maybe north of $36M when all is said and done.

Why then should he re-sign with the Nats anyway? First, I think the Nationals are willing to give him a three-year deal. They don’t really have any long-term prospects pushing for playing time at first base. Sure, Tyler Moore provided some pop off the bench last season. But Moore profiles more as a fourth outfielder/fill-in 1B. Davey Johnson did a masterful job getting Moore quality at bats where he could while Michael Morse was out, but the Nats would prefer a big left-handed bat in the middle of the order and slick glove at first base. After Moore, failed first round draft pick Chris Marrero is still in the organization, but he’ll be 24 next year after another lost season in the minors.

Second, I think the Nats are willing to dish out the money it will take to bring him back. The Nationals already have roughly $87 million committed to their 2013 payroll, according to the calculator work Adam Kilgore did Wednesday. His conclusion:

Some way or another, the Nationals seem likely to push past a $100 million payroll this winter for the first time.

If the market dictates a three-year, $36M contract, I think the Nats would be willing to accept that. In fact, I think the Nats have enough financial flexibility to absorb two $13M contracts (give or take) this off-season. They will get a bump attendance-wise next season, and at some point will reap the benefits of a new MASN contract. Also, I expect the team to shed some payroll burdens, like John Lannan’s $5M, and perhaps even Michael Morse or Tyler Clippard — who will be due a huge raise through arbitration.

Third, the Nats are comfortable with LaRoche in the middle of the order and in the field and feel like he will remain productive throughout a three-year deal, though he will be 33 when he signs the deal. They’ve shown with Jayson Werth — for the right athlete — they’re willing to lock players up until their mid-30s. LaRoche has been a dependable player throughout his career, despite losing much of 2011 to a shoulder injury that required surgery.

Finally, the player and his family are comfortable in D.C. Why fix something that isn’t broken over what might amount to not much difference in money, if anything? The Nats and LaRoche’s representation have already been working on the parameters of a deal leading up to his free agency filing, so once all the cards are on the table it should be a relatively easy negotiation. Either it’s yes or no.

The Nats are expected to be players for center fielder Michael Bourn as well. Bourn would give the Nats more speed and adequate OBP at the top of the order to allow Bryce Harper to slide down the order a bit into a more natural run-producing slot. It’s enticing to think about a batting order featuring Jayson Werth and Bourn in the first two slots (either way), with some combination of Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond filling out the middle of the order.

Notice a name missing out of that scenario? If the Nats re-sign LaRoche and land Bourn, it spells the end of Michael Morse in a Nats uniform. There’s just no place to put him. Frankly, that’s fine. Morse is a productive bat when healthy, but his problem last season, much like most of his career, is that he just can’t stay healthy. When he was on the field in 2012, all of his numbers dipped from his career year the previous season. His extra base hit percentage fell from 11.7 percent to just barely above MLB average (7.8 % including all positions) at 8.4 percent. His K/BB rate was an astronomical 6.06, due to his K% ticking higher and BB% plummeting 3.7 percent — well below MLB average of 8.4 percent.

On top of all that, his fielding in left field is Adam Dunn-esque — a heavy liability that was really exposed in the playoffs. He’s just not an MLB caliber outfielder. He played passable defense at first base in 2011 when LaRoche was injured. If the Nats don’t sign LaRoche, Morse could go back there and hope he stays healthy and his numbers rebound in what will be a walk year for him. But if the Nats re-sign LaRoche, look for them to move Morse and a relatively friendly contract to one of the A.L. teams looking for a first baseman — or designated hitter.

Bottom line: coming off the best season in franchise history and their first playoff appearance since the relocation, it makes sense for all parties to maintain the status quo and bring Adam LaRoche back on a three-year deal. If someone on the free agent market blows that away, LaRoche would be nuts to turn it down. But if it comes down to haggling over percentages of upwards of $36 million dollars, the Nats ought to win that bid.

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