Category Archives: Opinion

Mike Ribeiro’s Arrival Provides Capitals With Elusive Second-Line Center, Structure

The Washington Capitals making draft day trades has become an annual occurrence. Entering Friday’s first round, the Caps had been involved in NHL Draft transactions for four consecutive years, bringing them players like John Carlson (2008), Philipp Grubauer (2010) and Troy Brouwer (2011).

Friday, the Caps continued that trend, acquiring forward Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars in exchange for forward prospect Cody Eakin and a 2012 second-round draft pick (No. 54), which also continued General Manager George McPhee’s trend of being incredibly thrifty. Yet, what separates Ribeiro’s arrival from those that preceded him in recent years is that his will make arguably the biggest impact in Washington by shoring up the team’s weakest link: second-line center.

At 32 years old, Ribeiro is a seasoned and cagey veteran who is an elite playmaker and proven scorer; he has amassed eight consecutive seasons of at least 51 points, including 63 points last season, which is more than any of Washington’s hopeful second-line solutions from last season – Brooks Laich, Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson – have ever earned throughout their respective careers. He has exceptional vision, soft hands and even adds an agitating presence to a team that has sorely lacked all three at different points throughout the last several seasons.

“We wanted to add a little bit of skill to our lineup,” McPhee said Friday. “I just didn’t like the way we played in the playoffs. We’ve got some big gritty forwards and we just wanted to put another skilled guy in the middle of it to see if it helps. I think it makes our team immediately better.”

Ribeiro’s arrival will allow the Caps to better structure their entire lineup. Laich will be able to focus on being a shutdown center or winger on one of Washington’s checking lines, while Johansson could return to the wing, where he saw plenty of time during the end of the season. Ribeiro will also help establish a more potent second power play unit as well as add another shootout specialist to join Matt Hendricks.

“He’s got skill, makes plays and he’s a pretty good shootout guy, too,” McPhee said, adding that he pursued Ribeiro during the trade deadline last season to no avail. “We think he’s a one or two center in this league.”

“I like being able to have a coach craft different lineups for different teams,” McPhee said. “I loved the way Brooks played in the playoffs [at second-line center]. It’s nice to know he can do it again, but to find that kind of skill, I’m looking forward to watching [Ribeiro].”

With Washington’s likely long-term solution at second-line center – Evgeny Kuznetsov – staying in Russia for at least two more years, perhaps Ribeiro is just another proverbial band-aid; Ribeiro is under contract for one more season with a salary cap hit of $5 million. Yet, unlike other similar experiments such as Brendan Morrison, Eric Belanger and Tomas Fleischmann, Ribeiro is a player that can make an immediate impact as a purely offensive player.

The NHL Draft is the one weekend every year where NHL teams can prepare themselves for the future. With the arrival of Ribeiro, however, the Caps have proven once again that that same weekend can be as much about the present.

Thanks to SB Nation D.C.’s Ted Starkey for providing the audio.

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George McPhee, Capitals Must Trade For Second Line Center This Summer

The second-line center position has been the proverbial white whale for the Washington Capitals since Sergei Fedorov left at the conclusion of the 2008-09 season. Since then, the Caps have seen Brendan Morrison, Eric Belanger, Tomas Fleischmann, Jason Arnott, Brooks Laich, Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson try and ultimately fail to provide a long-term solution behind Nicklas Backstrom.

With the Caps holding two picks in the first round of the NHL Draft Friday, free agency looming July 1 and the hopeful long-term fix – Evgeny Kuznetsov – not available for at least two years, the aforementioned white whale has transformed into the elephant in the room: Washington will go another season without a second-line center if they do not trade for one.

Despite having the 11th and 16th overall selections in this weekend’s draft, it is unlikely that either of them will make an impact in Washington for at least two seasons. Meanwhile, the depth of unrestricted free agent centers this summer is incredibly shallow. Phoenix Coyotes center Daymond Langkow ($4.5 million salary cap hit last season) saw time at second-line center last season, but he was pushed down to the fourth line after the team acquired Antoine Vermette from the Columbus Blue Jackets; Los Angeles Kings center Jarret Stoll ($3.6 million) is a solid third-line center that can adequately fill in at 2C, but quite frankly, after winning the Stanley Cup this season, re-signing is the likeliest option.

Calgary Flames center Olli Jokinen ($3 million) is inconsistent at best and is certainly not the scorer that he used to be, while Buffalo Sabres center Jochen Hecht ($3.525 million) is recovering from a concussion. Coincidentally, it looks like Arnott may actually be the best available free agent option at center, which, after a injury-plagued season with the St. Louis Blues, is saying something.

Making a trade is necessary and it should be one that removes General Manager George McPhee from his comfort zone. There might not be a more thrifty general manager in the NHL than McPhee, who has the uncanny ability to turn nothing into something (after all, he acquired Fedorov for Theo Ruth). Yet, if McPhee wants to dramatically improve his club by finally filling a huge hole, he must make a big splash.

The most valuable pieces to do just that are both first-round draft picks and Mike Green’s negotiating rights. Trading away Green, a restricted free agent, might be a risky move because of what looks to be the inevitable departure of Dennis Wideman, but the Caps have puck-moving defensemen in John Carlson, already on the top pairing with Karl Alzner, and Dmitry Orlov, who could step into a larger role (not to mention that there is a shortage of quality unrestricted free agent offensive defensemen). Any combination of the draft picks and Green’s right could fetch the elusive second line center that has disconfigured Washington’s depth chart for three years.

When asked June 14 what he felt were the Caps’ biggest needs, McPhee did not budge, saying that “if I tell you that, then that’s all we’re gonna hear about for the next two months.” Perhaps McPhee had a point, but if he does not make an effort to rip the band-aid off the second-line center position and continues to look for the short-term fix, he is going to be hearing about it for a lot longer than that.

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Evgeny Kuznetsov’s Decision To Remain In KHL Further Brings To Light Capitals’ Lack Of Forward Depth Among Prospects

It was widely known that Washington Capitals prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov was planning to stay in Russia and the Kontinental Hockey League, but with Monday’s news that he had signed a two-year contract with Traktor, it became concrete.

While Kuznetsov’s decision hardly came as a surprise, it highlighted the fact that Washington’s organizational depth among its forward prospects is incredibly thin.

As of now, arguably the Caps’ most NHL-ready forward prospect is Cody Eakin, who saw 30 regular season games with Washington last season. Yet, Eakin’s time in the NHL had the opposite effect of what the Caps probably hoped would become of their highly touted prospect as his mystique wore off as the season progressed and his deficiencies (offensive consistency on the NHL level, size) were brought to the surface.

After Eakin, the Hershey Bears currently possess little to no semblance of impact players. Mattias Sjogren, who was thought to be one of the aforementioned players when he signed last summer, did not impress, even leaving North America altogether during the season before returning during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last month, Washington traded Chris Bourque, who had plenty of scoring upside, but could never translate it to the NHL level, to the Boston Bruins for Zach Hamill, who fits the same exact mold. Michael Carman will likely remain in the AHL throughout his career, while Garrett Mitchell and Christian Hanson might see some NHL time as fringe players in an energy role.

There is a reason why Hockey’s Future recently ranked the Caps 27th out of 30 teams in regards to overall prospect talent: they have a “surplus of role players,” but a “shallow pool in terms of overall NHL potential,” none of which have “proven game-breaking ability outside of Kuznetsov.”

Fortunately for Washington, it looks like help might be on the way. Stanislav Galiev will begin his first professional season in 2012 after another productive season with Saint John of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. A season with the Bears is likely in store, but that will allow Galiev to build strength and develop his game, which the Caps hope will be similar to that of Alexander Semin (minus the temperamental issues). Also, the Caps possess two first-round picks in this month’s NHL Draft at 11th and 16th. Both picks could bring in much-needed forward reinforcements.

The Caps have enough high-end forward talent on the main roster to keep them competitive for now, but they must restock the pond with quality forward prospects sooner rather than later. The last thing Washington – or any team for that matter – can afford is for the prospect pipeline to run dry.

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The More Things Stay The Same, The More They Change

An all-too-familiar scene played out deep within the bowels of Madison Square Garden Saturday. Just moments after a 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Washington Capitals’ locker room was despondent as they tried to wrap their heads around yet another second-round postseason exit, their third in four years.

Alex Ovechkin, strands of gray hair mixed into his black mane,  answered questions regarding what could have been before slumping into his stall, still in full uniform. Nicklas Backstrom, demure as usual, quietly attempted to explain the Caps’ shortcomings. Brooks Laich folded his arms across his chest, taking deep breaths before each carefully-crafted response.

Meanwhile, across the locker room, Karl Alzner held court with reporters, expressing his disappointment with how the season ended.

“I’m gonna view it as an underachieved season, in my opinion,” he said. “I know a lot of people don’t feel the same way. Nothing against the Rangers, they’re a good team, but we never should have lost that series. We’re a great team, we had a chance to win.  I don’t think we made it to what our expectations were as a team.”

On the surface, Saturday’s loss felt no different than last season’s sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Montreal Canadiens’ upset victory in 2010 or the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blowout Game 7 victory in 2009. Yet, while the Caps, originally Stanley Cup favorites, failed to live up to those expectations as Alzner mentioned, they proved something else.

For the first time, Washington battled through adversity instead of buckling under it. The Caps overcame a coaching change, a complete overhaul of their style of play and several bouts of inconsistency and injury just to qualify for the postseason. Once there, things gelled; the Caps were never out of any of their 14 postseason games, setting NHL records in the process. They disposed of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins before taking the top-seeded Rangers to the absolute limit.

As opposed to the aforementioned season-ending losses, from which nothing could be salvaged, Saturday’s loss was simply a speed bump on the road to continued growth. Evolution takes time.

Never has a team underachieved and overachieved in the same season. And Washington is stronger for it.

“I thought we did some really good things,” Laich said. “I thought the way it ended last year and the way it ended this year, I thought we took more positive steps . I thought we were a lot closer this year than last year. I think we play the right way.”

As equipment bags were packed and nameplates were taken off lockers for the final time, the reality of another complete, yet incomplete season finally set in. This time, however, things felt slightly different.

“Yeah, it’s terrible feeling now,” Ovechkin said. “All I can say, we do our best and it’s probably best team I played [on]. You know, group of guys and atmosphere, everybody was — it’s unbelievable to play and I hope everybody gonna stay here until next year.”

For once, it seems as if though the more things stay the same, the more they actually change.

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Washington Must Deep-Six Dennis Wideman

Every team has a “goat,” or a player that has been the most disappointing when considering the expectations placed upon him. Throughout the regular season, the Washington Capitals rotated through several players who could fit this description, but through 11 postseason games, there is no argument over who has been their biggest letdown.

Dennis Wideman’s offensive credentials cannot be denied, but he has been Washington’s worst defenseman and arguably one of its worst overall players throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs and as such should be held accountable for his poor defensive play by not being able to play in the Caps’ upcoming games against the New York Rangers.

Based on statistics alone, Wideman has been a defensive liability. He has been on the ice for 60 percent of Washington’s even-strength goals against this postseason (12/20), but most egregiously, his minus-7 is the second-worst among all players who have suited up in the Stanley Cup Playoffs (conveniently tied with his defensive partner, Jeff Schultz). Considering head coach Dale Hunter’s rationale behind scratching Mike Knuble earlier this season, the second statistic should be enough to strip Wideman of a roster spot (as is the “haven’t scored in a while” argument; Wideman has two goals since returning from his first All-Star Game January 31).

Of course, statistics never tell the entire story, but Wideman’s effort – or lack thereof – on the Rangers’ second goal during the Caps’ 3-2 Game 4 win Saturday certainly does. Late in the second period, Marc Staal’s clearing attempt flew over the head of Wideman, who attempted to corral the airborne puck with his glove, but missed. Then, for some reason, Wideman stopped skating, allowing Artem Anisimov to beat him to the loose puck. In an act of desperation, both Wideman and Schultz left the front of the net and New York’s leading scorer this season, Marian Gaborik, completely unguarded, leading to an easy tap-in goal that sucked all momentum away from Washington.

Perhaps there was some sort of miscommunication among Braden Holtby, Wideman, Schultz (who is likely to be the scapegoat as per usual) and even the officials regarding a possible icing call, but that does not excuse Wideman’s lapses in both judgment and common sense. Both were reprehensible – especially from a player tasked with as much responsibility as he is – and that kind of lackadaisical effort is exactly the opposite of the hard-working, self-sacrificing and defense-first style that Hunter preaches. Such an error should not go unnoticed.

The Caps are somehow winning despite Wideman’s less-than-stellar play (though, ironically, he assisted on Mike Green’s game-winning goal), but there is little to no margin for error at this point and Wideman has become a defensive risk.

The idea of scratching an All-Star may be dumbfounding, especially one that was one of the top-scoring defensemen in the NHL, but Wideman is an All-Star by name only. Unfortunately for the Caps this postseason, he is only a defenseman by one, too.

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2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs: Keys To Capitals/Rangers

KOL Co-founder Jack Anderson returns to break down the keys to the Washington Capitals’ series with the New York Rangers.
After a shocking upset of the defending Cup Champion Bruins, the Caps set their sight on the Eastern Conference’s number one seed in the New York Rangers. The matchup seems to be a bit more favorable than the last one for Washington who has to be coming in full of confidence after playing their best hockey of the season vs. Boston.
With the Rangers offense sputtering at even strength they will look to a stalwart defensive corps and elite goalie Henrik Lundqvist to carry the load. Meanwhile the Caps hope to get their stars untracked against a team they’ve previously had success against in the playoffs.
Some keys to the series:
  • Alex Ovechkin is one of those stars and he’s set to take on another tough defensive matchup in Dan Girardi.
Ovechkin had six points in five games while playing largely against Girardi in last year’s playoffs. The Caps will need a similar effort from their star forward this time around as Ovechkin will square off against the postseason leader in blocked shots.
  • Though he had a memorable series, Braden Holtby was far from perfect and was the first to admit it. He’ll need to clean up his game — particularly his rebound control — if he wants to outduel Lundqvist, the best netminder in hockey.
There’s a reason Lundqvist is both a Hart and Vezina finalist. He posted a 1.97 GAA and a save percentage of .930, helping the Rangers to their best season since 1993-94 when they won the Stanley Cup. Holtby has been a terrific story and will hold his own against New York, but he’s not yet in King Henrik’s league so the Caps will need to continue providing the same defensive zone support they did in round one.
Holtby will certainly be a factor in this series, but the Capitals will have more ice to work with against New York, meaning there will be extra opportunities to give him goal support. Alex Semin scored a team-high three goals against Boston and has been at his best when he plays New York in the postseason. In 12 playoff games against the Rangers, Semin has eight goals and 12 total points, making him the most likely candidate to tip the offensive balance in the Caps’ favor.
  • For the Rangers, the focus is on an offense that scored just five even-strength goals after Game 1 of their series against the Senators. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but Marian Gaborik might be under the most pressure to deliver. Gaborik has recorded two 40-goal seasons in the past three years, but has just two goals in his last 18 postseason games. If he can rediscover his scoring touch in the playoffs, then it could jumpstart a team, which already possesses a tenacious defense and world-class goaltending.

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‘Dale Hunter Hockey’ Finally Comes To Fruition

KOL co-founder Jack Anderson has returned (for now), sharing his thoughts on the Washington Capitals’ 4-3 series victory over the Boston Bruins.

In a series that came down to the slimmest of margins, the Washington Capitals used a new formula to pull off an upset of stunning proportions over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins

Instead of relying on a handful of big-name players to carry them, the Caps went toe-to-toe with the big, bad Bruins in the exact fashion Dale Hunter had envisioned. They went to battle as a team – each man playing their part to perfection.

No series had ever seen all seven games each decided by a goal until now. Not until Joel Ward jammed home a backhander did anyone in Boston or Washington stop sweating. It was two weeks of neck-and-neck hockey Hunter style.

There were so many unlikely heroes. No one expected Braden Holtby to steal a game let alone a series, but he posted a .940 save percentage in the absence of Washington’s top two netminders. Ward hadn’t scored on a goalie since January 7 and Mike Knuble had been a healthy scratch for 10 regular season and four playoff games.

John Carlson – much-maligned for his regular season struggles – transformed back into Karl Alzner’s shutdown sidekick. Roman Hamrlik – seemingly on his way out before the NHL trade deadline – mended fences with Hunter and played rugged minutes as the team’s most experienced defenseman.

It’s the foot soldiers…you wins series with them,” Hunter said. “Through the whole series they came through bigtime.”

And of course who can forget Alex Ovechkin? The world-class winger led his team in scoring, but it was his maturity both on the ice and in the locker room that made for a surprising X-factor. The buzz around Ovechkin centered on his lack of ice time, but he deflected the chatter with a renewed effort in all three zones and a team-first message to reporters.

Ice time doesn’t matter. Winning does.

The evidence for that came just seconds after Ward’s winner found the back of the net. Ovechkin leapt off the bench and beat Knuble – who was on already on the ice – to the boards to celebrate with Ward.

“I can’t say what I’m feeling right now,” said Ovechkin.

This series will go a long way towards furthering his legacy, but without contributions from the full cast of characters it would have never occurred.

After being in and out of the lineup down the stretch, Ward and Knuble saved their best for last.

“I thought I might have lost a little bit of respect of my own teammates from just being on the outside so much,” Ward said. “When you’re on the outside a little bit it’s definitely tough. For us to get back in the lineup and keep working – you know, we were excited just to be part of it.”

The spotlight was reserved for Ward Wednesday night, but if not for Karl Alzner’s game-saving denial of Patrice Bergeron on the doorstep minutes beforehand, he would have retained the label as a $3 million-dollar free agent bust.

Yet, Alzner wasn’t the only one providing an impact. Holtby also showcased his talents, outdueling reigning Conn Smythe and Vezina trophy winner Tim Thomas. The usual suspects like Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom had their moments, but the Capitals won because of Hunter’s lasting impression on a franchise in need of a makeover.

Hunter won’t win any awards for the job he’s done this year with the Caps, but somehow he got them to believe in his system overnight and it’s resulted in the most dangerous hockey team this town has seen in a long time. His steadfast approach has now been proven successful while before it only appeared to drive a wedge between him and some of the veteran players he scratched throughout the season.

But Hunter never sat a player down out of spite. He repeatedly told reporters his tinkering was about promoting competition and accountability. Play well and you’ll play more was the mantra.

That’s why Jay Beagle saw the ice in nearly every key faceoff situation. He earned Hunter’s trust as a defensive specialist after being nothing more than a role-playing winger recovering from a concussion under Bruce Boudreau.

It’s also why players like Ward, Knuble and Hamrlik re-claimed spots on the active roster. They didn’t let a troubling regular season turn into a short-lived stay in the playoffs. Instead they made the most of their respective hardships and after waiting their turn, seized the moment.

“When you win big games like this, it’s because they sacrifice and they did through the whole series,” Hunter said.

Now the first-year coach has to demonstrate the Caps are more than a flash in the pan. The NHL has taken notice and the team won’t fly under the radar anymore. It’s up to Hunter to make the necessary adjustments to match up with the Caps next opponent and to keep them grounded in reality.

And the reality is there’s 12 more wins to go.

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