October 24, 2020

Capitals face uphill battle to playoffs

Alex Ovechkin during warmups at Verizon Center, May 2 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

(Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

With the end of the Olympic tournament, the attention of the hockey world will shift back to the NHL and the final quarter of the regular season. One point out of the final playoff spot, the Caps face an uphill climb to reach the postseason for the seventh consecutive season.

In the last full NHL season, it took 92 points to make the playoffs. The playoff format has changed since then, but with the same number of teams qualifying his will be about the number of points teams will need to earn the last spot.

The Caps currently have 63 points with 24 games remaining on their schedule. As they currently own no tiebreakers, the team will likely need at least 30 points in those last 24 games. That would be a record slightly above .500. Doesn’t sound too hard, right?

Well, it does when you look at the schedule. [Read more…]

NHL trying to put Olympics on ice

On Saturday morning, fans across America celebrated an absolutely incredible Olympic shootout win over Russia. People across the country woke up early and were rewarded with an amazing game that somehow lived up to all of the hype. Americans cheered and tweeted all day about USA’s incredible victory.

Meanwhile NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sat in his ivory tower, arms crossed, watching disapprovingly as his sport took center stage and NHL players did their sport proud.

Ok, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but Saturday’s game shows the absurdity of the NHL’s desire to pull its players from future Olympic participation.

Both Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly have expressed the owner’s desire to keep the players out of future Olympic tournaments and the league does have valid concerns. Fans may have had the opportunity to watch Saturday’s game because it landed on the weekend, but except for the few times the Olympics are held in North America, the foreign schedule is not conducive for a large TV audience.

It doesn’t matter how great the games are if no one is watching.

Olympic participation also means a two-to-three week break in the NHL season. That stops the league’s momentum at a time when it is no longer competing with the NFL for an audience. It is hard to bring fans back after such a long break.

There is also the obvious injury concern as players can injure themselves playing in what essentially amount to exhibition games in the NHL’s eyes.

Is it worth risking the health of the league’s best players and the fans’ patience for a tournament that most people won’t even be able to watch?

Given where the next Olympics will be held and how long it took for the NHL to approve player participation in Sochi, there will likely be a real fight for the players to represent their national teams in four years.

When the NHL first hinted its displeasure with the Olympics, Alex Ovechkin made it clear he was going to Sochi regardless, saying he would go even if the season did not pause for an Olympic break. The 2018 Olympics will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It is doubtful he will make same threat then.

The real fight for the future of NHL Olympic participation is going to be for Pyeongchang. With so many Canadian stars, the NHL would have had a hard time keeping the players out of Vancouver four years ago and the same goes for Sochi.

There aren’t any South Korean superstars in the NHL. While representing one’s country is always important, Pyeongchang just will not carry the same importance as either Vancouver or Sochi.

That doesn’t mean, however, that players won’t fight to play in the Olympics. Despite what the NHL may think, ending their Olympics participation would be bad for the sport and for business.

The NHL season grinds to a halt every year already for an All-Star event that many fans really do not care about. Though the All-Star break is not as long as the Olympic break, there is no question that Olympic hockey generates more interest among fans than the All-Star game.

The NHL is also underestimating the world-wide importance of the Olympics to European players. As the KHL continues to rise in prominence and popularity, it is foolish for the NHL to deny players the chance to represent their native countries.

Alex Ovechkin is one of the faces of the Sochi Olympics because that’s how important this hockey tournament is. Eventually, the Winter Olympics will return to Europe and every European player in the league will want to represent their countries in front of their friends and families.

With the ‘defection’ of superstar Ilya Kovalchuk back to Russia and the KHL, is it really smart to give the KHL another major advantage in terms of convincing European players to stay?

How about an example that hits closer to home for Caps fans. Evgeny Kuznetsov appears to finally be ready to make his NHL debut after the conclusion of the KHL season. As he watches the Sochi Olympics, you can bet there are people in his ear telling him he may never represent Russia in the Olympics if the NHL has its way.

For many players trying to decide between the NHL and KHL, the Olympics could tip the balance just a little more towards the KHL.

The NHL of course isn’t saying that players can’t represent their countries. “I’m very much a believer in the World Cup,” said Bettman during a Q&A with TSN’s Gord Miller. “I think they’re great. Doing it at a time of year in places that we can control makes a whole lot more sense for us in terms of what we try to accomplish as the NHL. And we think it’s good for international hockey as well.”

But while a world cup may solve the problem for the NHL, the NHL seems to be assuming other leagues would follow suite. Why would the KHL throw its support behind the NHL’s Olympic alternative? Any NHL-backed tournament would likely be held more frequently in North America in order to benefit the NHL’s audience.

So here’s the choice the KHL faces. They can continue to allow their players to play in an already established, popular tournament that all their players want to play in and watch as the NHL withdraws its players allowing the European teams to dominate. They can then use Olympic participation as a recruiting tool for all players considering leaving for the NHL.

Or the KHL could help the NHL with its World Cup idea that would be organized in a way that best suits the NHL.

Hmm, where’s the benefit for the KHL?

The NHL is squaring itself up for a fight with its players that will benefit a major competitor in the KHL. It’s hard to take the NHL seriously as they cite player safety when international hockey is played on a wider rink and does not allow fighting. This is strictly a business decision and it is the wrong one.

The benefits of Olympic participation, though limited, are clear in the wake of such great hockey like fans were treated to on Saturday. Abandoning the Olympics for a World Cup the rest of the world has little reason to care about is just bad business.

What to watch for from the five Caps headed to Sochi

(photo courtesy Washington Capitals)

(photo courtesy Washington Capitals)

With the Olympic games underway, Washington Capitals fans will soon be seeing some familiar faces competing in Sochi.

Five Caps will be making the trek to Russia to represent their respective countries. Here are a few things fans should be watching for:

Alex Ovechkin

Obviously the most pressure will be on the Great 8 himself as he tries to carry the host nation to gold. Russia was embarrassed in Vancouver as they were handed a 7-3 drubbing by Canada in the quarterfinals. The Russians have not earned a medal since taking bronze in 2002 and the pressure is on for this team to get back on the medal stand.

Pavel Datsyuk will captain the team, but even so Ovechkin will be one of this team’s leaders as he is among the nation’s biggest stars. He has already been one of the faces of the these Olympics as he unveiled the team’s new jersey and was the first Russian to carry the Olympic torch in Greece as it began its long trek to Sochi.

The question is how will he handle the pressure?

Hockey is a big-time sport in Russia. Players do not dream of growing up and playing for the Stanley Cup. For them, the Olympics are really the pinnacle of the sport. After multiple playoff failures in Washington, some have questioned whether Ovechkin’s leadership is partly to blame.

If he can lead his team back to Olympic glory, he will have answered just about every question about whether he can handle the pressure on the biggest stage. Carrying the weight of Washington will seem like a cakewalk after carrying a nation.

Nicklas Backstrom

Backstrom’s elite skills are often overshadowed by the other superstar on the Caps’ roster. Sweden is absolutely loaded with talent and is one of the favorites to win the gold. The Olympics will offer him the chance to show how good he really is to fans who think of him more as Ovechkin’s sidekick.

It is easy to forget how good offensively Backstrom really is when it seems all he has to do is pass to Ovechkin and watch the show. Backstrom will be an intricate part of Sweden’s offense and a major reason for their success depending on how far they go.

Backstrom can remind the world on the Olympic stage that he’s pretty good too.

Marcus Johansson

With Henrik Sedin’s withdrawal from the Olympics, Johansson got his chance to join Backstrom on team Sweden. Though he is third on the Caps in points with 36, he only has seven goals. He has played incredibly passive this season when on the top line, deferring too much to his teammates.

Anyone can be put on a line with Backstrom and Ovechkin and feed them the puck, but Johansson wasn’t placed on the top line just to be a third wheel. He has his own offensive skills that he just is not utilizing right now in NHL play.

The fact that Johansson was replaced on the top line by Martin Erat is a pretty big sign that he’s not living up to Adam Oates’ expectations for his top left wing.

The Olympics will offer Johansson a chance to be more aggressive offensively. As a replacement player he may not get too much playing time, but hopefully he will take advantage of the time he does get on the ice. He’ll be playing with some good players, but on one of the lower lines he won’t be as overshadowed as he is in Washington. If he can show some aggressiveness in Sochi and bring that mentality home, it will be a huge boon for the Caps.

Martin Erat

Thank goodness he got his first goal of the season Saturday just prior to the Olympic break. Had Erat gone to Sochi and scored before he could even tally one goal this season in the NHL, there would be a lot of pretty bitter Caps fans waiting for him when he got home.

Lost amid his struggles this season is the fact that Erat is still a top-six NHL forward, evidenced by the fact that he is going to Sochi to play for the Czech Republic. Yes, he was called up to replace Vladimir Sobotka, but it is still is a major honor and a vote of confidence from the hockey community.

Sochi now offers Erat the chance to showcase his talents to other prospective NHL teams. The biggest problem Erat has had in Washington is that he just does not fit anywhere into Oates’ lineup. As a result, he has been passed around from line to line and his production has decreased. It’s hard to convince other teams that Erat is a top-six forward when he’s playing on the fourth line and can’t score.

Hopefully Erat will be a better fit for head coach Alois Hadamczik. With a coach who can utilize Erat, he can show that he can still contribute on another NHL team.

John Carlson

Carlson will be the first Capital ever to represent the United States in the Olympics. Widely considered to be the best defenseman on the Caps’ roster, it will be interesting to see where Carlson is in the lineup and how he is utilized by USA coach Dan Bylsma.

If Carlson seems overwhelmed by the tough competition, it will tell fans a lot about the state of the Caps’ defense. This also could be very important for the Caps’ other top offensive playmaker on the blue line, Mike Green.

There has been speculation surrounding Green all season long with his declining production about whether he could be on the trade block. Though a trade before the deadline is not likely to happen, if Carlson plays well it may make McPhee feel better about a possible move in the offseason.
_______________

JJ Regan is a Contributor to District Sports Page. He is an aspiring sports journalist currently earning his master’s degree in interactive journalism from American University and has his own website at regansports.com. He is also a digital freelancer for Comcast SportsNet Washington and Baltimore and is a contributor for Yahoo Sports on the Capitals and Redskins. JJ follows all D.C. sports but specializes in the Capitals. You can follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

%d bloggers like this: