October 25, 2014

How much does Hershey’s success impact Capitals player development?

I realize the can of worms I’m opening here. The Hershey Bears are one of the most successful minor league hockey franchises in North America with a fan base whose passion has no rival. Year-in and year-out they reside at the top of the American Hockey League and have won 11 Calder Cups in the franchise’s 76 years of existence. In the nine years that they have been associated with the Washington Capitals, they’ve won three Cups alone.

This isn’t to knock or “blame” Hershey for the current woes of the Caps.

But are the long-term goals of both franchises aligned? Does Hershey’s ultimate pursuit of winning Calder Cups have a negative impact on player development in the Caps system?

I don’t know the answer, which is why I’m asking the question and exploring the idea.

As the Capitals continue to languish in some sort of NHL purgatory — perennial playoff qualifiers but tragically flawed enough to not challenge past the first or second round — and now in real jeopardy of wasting another Hart Trophy caliber season in the prime of Alex Ovechkin’s eventual Hall of Fame career (along with another fine campaign of his running mate, Nick Backstrom), we have to examine any possible contributing factor to the Caps lack of depth on the big league roster.

Certainly, long-term contracts doled out to players that aren’t earning them — notably Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Mike Green — is the major and overriding factor. But the fact that the Capitals are having trouble calling up players from the affiliates able contribute meaningfully at the NHL level is worth noting and exploring.

The harsh reality is that the Capitals haven’t had a player — other than Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green — drafted and developed by the organization since Ovechkin (2004), record a 20-goal season or be named an All-Star. That covers 15 first round and 12 second round picks in 11 years.

[Maybe it should be noted: of the 15 first round picks, only five were Canadian, and just five of the 12 second rounders were Canadian. Does that matter? I don't know?]

That’s not to say the Caps aren’t drafting and developing NHL players. Since 2004, 21 of their 80 draft picks have played in the NHL, with the bulk of those becoming regular players in the league. But players like Marcus Johansson, Dmitry Orlov and even to an extent, John Carlson, haven’t become the players the Caps thought they were drafting.

Is that amateur scouting? Is it player development?

Every team has draft busts (see: Pokulok, Sasha; Finley, Joe; Gustafson, Anton), but the Caps seem particularly stricken with an inability to manage high-profile draft picks to an elite level in the NHL.

Meanwhile, the Caps continue to sign veteran AHLers as free agents during the off-seasons instead of fixing the NHL roster, which is filled with bloated contracts and perennial injury cases.

Look at last year’s free agent crop. Sure, Mikhail Grabovski has been a revelation, but the Caps and Grabovski were almost forced together by the hockey gods after Grabo was largely ignored on the open market. The other signings were two-way contracts, meant to stock Hershey’s roster with older, more experienced players.

Defensemen Tyson Strachan (28) and David Kolomatis (24), forward Matt Watkins (26) and goalie David Leggio (28) were all signed as free agents over the summer. I’m sure that none were considered moves to help out the big club, and except for Strachan, that’s been the case. We’ve seen a wave of minor leaguers make guest appearances for the Caps this season, and defenseman Julien Brouillette (27) is just the latest.

The previous summer, the Caps’ “big” free agent signings were Wojtek Wolski and Joey Crabb, with the rest slated for Hershey, including ECHL journeyman Steve Oleksy.

All of this ties together. A draft record spotted with big home runs (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green) and lots of strikeouts. A minor league affiliate with a rich tradition of competing for the Calder Cup. Bloated big league roster reducing free agent activity to reinforcing the affiliate with long-time minor league experienced players.

All of it contributes to what we see today: a Caps team unable to call up players to contribute at the NHL level when injuries thin a veteran, injury-prone roster.

How much of the Caps’ free agent and player development “strategy” is aimed at helping the Caps roster, how much is dictated by necessity and finances, and how much is dedicated to stocking Hershey with veteran AHLers for another Calder Cup run?

Washington Capitals announce three free agent signings

The Washington Capitals announced Monday signing free agent defenseman Tyson Strachan, right wing Matt Watkins and goalie David Leggio.

Strachan, 28, has the most NHL experience of the trio. He played 38 games with the Florida Panthers last season, compiling four assists and 40 penalty minutes. He brings size (6’3″, 225) to the blueline.

Watkins, 26, scored 11 goals and 19 assists for AHL Bridgeport last season and served as that team’s captain. He has appeared in one NHL game with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Leggio, 28, went 38-24-1 with a 2.56 GAA and .924 SV% for AHL Rochester last season.  He led the league in wins and games played in 2012-13, ranked tied for fourth in the AHL in save percentage and19th in goals-against average last season. Leggio set career-best marks last season in games played, wins, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts.

All three players were signed to one-year, two-way contracts and will most likely spend the season rostered in Hershey.

CAPS: Happy Birthday, Joey Crabb

HAPPY 30th BIRTHDAY JOEY CRABB!

The Right Winger was born on 04/03/1983 in Anchorage, Alaska and is now playing with Hershey Bears.

Make sure to wish #15 a happy birthday.

Joey Crabb - Captials practice at Kettler, September 14, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

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

 

Washington Capitals recall Cameron Schilling; Erskine to IR

The Washington Capitals reached into their AHL affiliate again for personnel, recalling left-handed defenseman Cameron Schilling to make his NHL debut Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes. Schilling will be inserted into the lineup immediately due to injuries to John Erksine (left hand/wrist), who was placed on injured reserve to make room on the roster, and Tom Poti, who is day-to-day with an upper body injury.

Here’s Schilling’s bio information from the Caps press release:

Schilling, 24, has recorded 14 points (six goals, eight assists) and is a plus-seven in 54 games with Hershey in his first full professional season. He currently leads active Hershey defensemen in goals, plus/minus and ranks tied for second in points.

The Carmel, Ind., native played in 144 collegiate games during his four-year career with Miami, collecting 57 points (eight goals, 49 assists) and 155 penalty minutes. The 6’2”, 197-pound blueliner was a member of two NCAA All-Regional Teams (2008-2010) and helped Miami win the 2010-11 CCHA Championship.

Schilling was originally signed by Washington as an un-drafted free agent on March 27, 2012. He will participate in Tuesday’s morning skate and will wear No. 45 for the Capitals.

Schilling is well-regarded by the Capitals brass and will reunited as a pairing with Steve Oleksy, with whom he partnered earlier in the season with AHL Hershey.

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’ Braden Holtby left in limbo during NHL lockout

Braden Holtby leads the Caps onto the ice during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Thursday was a surreal experience for all those involved at the Verizon Center Thursday night, seeing a hockey team other than the Washington Capitals take the ice for the first time this year.

For one player though, it was probably stranger than it was for the others. Braden Holtby should be in Washington, should be with the Capitals and should be starting in net. Instead, he is starting yet another year with the Hershey Bears, the minor league affiliate he has started the last three seasons with.

“Its definitely weird, its weird being here and not seeing any of the guys, thats for sure. But, you know, it is what it is,” Holtby said following the game. “To tell you the truth, at the start of the year, I didn’t think I’d be here for this game, I thought it would be solved by now, but that’s what happens and I was just glad to be here and play.”

His good feelings to be in Washington are still bittersweet. The 23-year-old Saskatchewan native took the NHL by storm last year, stepping in for injured starters Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun and led the Caps to the brink of advancing to the Eastern Conference finals. A not so out-of-nowhere surprise, Holtby seemed to always be stuck behind a series of set goalies who were blocking his way to the NHL level. Whether it was Neuvirth and Vokoun or Semyon Varlamov and Jose Theodore, Holtby was always the third guy in the pecking order.

Now though, Holtby is Washington’s man. His stellar postseason, seven wins and seven loses with a pristine 1.95 goals against average and 93.5 save percentage — under the harsh spotlight of the NHL playoffs — shows he has the talent to succeed in the NHL. Too bad the kid just cannot seem to find his way there when the season actually starts for the Caps.

Even though he desperately wants to be back at the Verizon Center, Holtby admitted his first few minutes there were not as great as he hoped they’d be.

“To be honest the first few strides didn’t feel too good, the ice wasn’t that great tonight,” Holtby said amongst a throng of reporters. “But it was good to see the crowd again, be back here in Verizon Center and it was great and luckily pulled out a victory”

Even though he is merely in Hershey to stay in shape, Holtby is still trying his best to win games and improve his skills. Towards the end of the game on Thursday, fans got a glimpse at just how much more technically advanced the young netminder of the future has gotten since last year. The subtle quick movements show how he may in fact not even be relatively close to reaching his ceiling.

As a fourth round pick, it is surprising Holtby has made it this far in his career at all, but at the end of the third period he showed why he’s regarded as the incumbent No. 1 despite his limited regular season experience at the NHL level. The Admirals were throwing everything at the net in an attempt to tie up the game and Holtby, who has struggled with pucks down low in the past, slammed the door. In a scene reminiscent of the one demonstrating Vladislav Tretiak’s ability in the movie “Miracle,” Holtby went down into the butterfly several times and stood back up in a 10-second span of time. While it may look easy, it shows the work Holtby has put in this summer to be able to make a save and immediately reset to be ready for the next one.

Despite the changes and advancements that are obvious in his game, Holtby’s play in the American Hockey League has not been stellar this year. In 15 games with the Bears this year, he is 8-7 with a 2.59 save percentage. Even he will admit he is not living up to his own expectations.

“There has been ups and downs, but as a group I think we want to play better,” Holtby said of his and Bears’ season. “Our record doesn’t indicate what we want to be at. That is what I take. If a team is doing good, it usually reflects on the goaltending. If not, it usually reflects on the goaltending.”

Even as the fans chanted “Fire Bettman” and booed the Washington Captials during the showcase — a chant Holtby said he could not hear well enough to figure out — his suffering or lack of playing is not his biggest concern. Instead, to him it is the state of the overall game that he finds the hardest to watch right now during the lockout.

“Yeah, it is, it is not the best situation. Like I said, it is out of our control. We’d all love to be playing hockey for the fans, especially here,” Holtby said of the lockout. “That is the hardest part to swallow, is seeing the game of hockey, really take a hit and it is a game we are all passionate about.”

No one knows when — or if — the lockout will end this year, considering the league Tuesday cancelled all games through the end of the calendar year. One thing hockey is really missing out on while they aren’t playing isn’t the necessarily the games themselves — though that is bad enough. Instead, it is the opportunity to see special talents on the ice like Holtby. The young goalie is clearly improved from last year and looks like he will be ready and able to step in for Washington once he is called upon. Whenever that may be.

Hershey Bears Sink Norfolk Admirals 2-1 in AHL Showcase at the Verizon Center

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

Washington was alive with the sounds of skates on the ice and goal sirens Thursday night when the Hershey Bears powered their way to a 2 – 1 win over the Norfolk Admirals behind a strong start by Braden Holtby in the AHL Showcase.

With the NHL Players Association and the NHL continuing their childlike squabble over dollars and Collective Bargaining Agreement language, hockey fans were able to quench their thirst with some American Hockey League action on the Washington Capitals’ ice. When the home town fans weren’t booing the Caps or chanting “Fire Bettman” they got to catch a glimpse some Caps regulars. Dmirtry Orlov took the ice on the top defensive pairing for the Bears and Holtby, last year’s Capitals playoff savor, took up his now familiar spot between the Verizon Center pipes.

Holtby struggled mightily in Hershey last season, making some wonder whether he regressed from two years ago when he made his NHL debut and put up some strong numbers in relief of an injury depleted goaltending pairing. His struggles though disappeared once he was called upon and led the Caps on an improbable run to Game 7 of the second round of the NHL playoffs. Those Hershey struggles from last year may have followed him to Verizon Thursday, at least to open the game, as he did not start well, surrendering a goal ten seconds into the game.

“I don’t know, I’ll have to look to see if it was just the fact there was a stick in front and I thought it was going to deflect or it actually did a bit,” Holtby said about the goal following the game. “I first saw it going low, then it kind of fooled me going higher. I thought I was seeing the puck all night, so it was kind of surprising.”

Hershey fought back almost 14-minutes later when Zach Hamil and Eric Bralow combined for a beautiful play. Hamil skated up the right side of the ice before dishing to Barlow who ripped a shot past the outstretch glove of Admirals goalie Frederik Andersen. Hamil ended up on his stomach, flying over a defenders stick on his way to the net and the puck ended up in the back of the net to tie the game at 1-1.

Other Capitals regular, Orlov, showed what makes him an intriguing young player for the organization. His heavy shot from the point was respected by the Admirals and he was a mainstay on the point throughout almost all the power play chances before he left with an upper body injury in the second period.

“We had some early power plays and I thought our power play was quiet effective at generating chances and I thought Dmitry was a part of that,” Bears Head Coach Mark French said. “I thought it hurt the power play when he, when we lost him, I think he had a pretty good jump in his step today.”

Neither team conceded any ground heading into the third with score all knotted up. After the Admirals killed off another penalty to open the period, they held the Bears goalless on eight power plays, Ryan Poltuny took a feed from Steve Oleksy, who was on the point, and sniped a missile glove side to put Hershey up 2-1 with a little over 15-minutes to go.

It looked like Norfolk tied it up with a short-handed goal with a little under five and a half minutes to play, but it was kicked it and immediately waived off. Hershey found themselves on their heals after the near equalizer was waived off and it clearly gave the Admirals a little bit of a boost in the final minutes.

With the seconds ticking off the clock, Hershey demanded just a few more saves out of Holtby. He made some fantastic saves demonstrating his technical proficiency while in the butterfly position to keep Norfolk off the board. Despite the Admirals firing with some chances late, and knocking Holtby down several times, the Bears held on to send the fans home happy with a hard fought 2-1  win to move to 10-1-1-0 in the AHL and push their point total to 19.

Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates to “co-coach” at AHL Hershey

New Head Coach Adam Oates watching Washington Capitals Development Camp Day 2 Scrimmage at Kettler, 7/10/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

According to multiple reports Sunday morning, the Washington Capitals will assign their NHL coaching staff to positions with AHL Hershey and ECHL Reading during the NHL lockout, including head coach Adam Oates, who will serve as co-head coach of the Bears along with returning head coach Mark French. [Read more...]

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)

 

 

2012 AHL Showcase Tickets Now Available

Missing hockey? Have the NHL Lockout blues? Here is something that hockey fans can look forward to and circle on the calendar.

Tickets are now available for the 2012 AHL Showcase at Verizon Center on December 6 when the  11-time Calder Cup Champion Hershey Bears face the reigning Calder Cup Champion, Norfolk Admirals. Washington Capitals season ticket holders may have previously reserved tickets.

Several familiar faces might still be playing with Hershey in December, depending on lockout status.

Official Team Press Release: 

2012 AHL Showcase Tickets Now Available
The 11-time Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears will face the Norfolk Admirals
at Verizon Center on Dec. 6

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – September 18, 2012

ARLINGTON, Va. – 2012 Washington AHL Showcase tickets are now available for purchase at 202-397-SEAT, on WashingtonCaps.com and at all local Ticketmaster outlets, including Verizon Center box office, the Washington Capitals announced today. The AHL Showcase will feature the Capitals’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Hershey Bears as they face-off versus the Norfolk Admirals in regular-season AHL action on Dec. 6, 2012, at 7 p.m. at Verizon Center.

The game marks the first Hershey Bears appearance in Washington since 1979. The Bears recently completed their seventh season as Washington’s AHL affiliate and will open their 75th season at Syracuse on Saturday, Oct. 13.

Hershey has qualified for the playoffs each of the last seven years and won the Calder Cup in back-to-back seasons as the champions of the AHL in 2009 and 2010 as well as in 2006. Hershey has reached the Calder Cup final in four of seven seasons it has been affiliated with Washington.

For more information on 2012 AHL Showcase contact 202-266-CAPS or visit WashingtonCaps.com.

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