Friday, July 22, 2016

A Pre-Pre-Season Look at Washington's Forwards

It's the dog days of the hockey calendar, the donut hole if you will, the emptiness between the end of free agency frenzy and the start of training camp and, this year, the World Cup of Hockey.

The Caps stayed calm during the draft and free agency, making only one trade and a few signings, even while the rest of the hockey world was busy doing cartwheels and backflips to the point where I'm fairly certain Wayne Gretzky is going to be Pittsburgh's 4C next year (hey, he can't be higher than Crosby, Malkin, or Bonino, that's just crazy talk).

Due to the uneventfulness of the Caps' summer thus far, examining Washington's roster is a lot more straightforward than doing so with, say, Florida's roster, or Edmonton's. However, due to the depth in the roster, it is still worthwhile to discuss how to optimize the lineup to be a true cup-contending one.

In recent years, it seems as though the Caps have been one step behind in building the perfect team.

  • Under Bruce Boudreau, the Caps were possession monsters with terrible defense and goaltending that sunk them every year. The cup winners those years, such as Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Chicago, had great defensive systems and above-average goaltending. 
  • Under Dale Hunter and Adam Oates, the Caps became extremely defense-conscious and relied exclusively on special teams to provide offense. The cup winners those years, Chicago and LA, used the "West-Coast" style of physical two-way hockey with a skilled Top 6, checking 3rd line and grinding 4th line.
  • Under Barry Trotz, the Caps have become more of that West-Coast-type team, using their physicality and good defensive play to spur the offense. This year's champion, Pittsburgh, utilized a skilled, speedy Top 9 and good goaltending to dominate possession and mask a porous, top-heavy defense.
If the Caps want to win the cup this year, they cannot afford to fall behind where the game is evolving. Last year the Caps were good but not great possession-wise, and that hurt them when the speed of the Penguins overmatched Washington's physicality.

Thankfully, the Caps have a roster more than capable of matching the skill of Pittsburgh's without having to surrender too much of the physicality. Here is how I would go about setting up Washington's forward lines if I were Coach Trotz.

Line 1: Alex Ovechkin - Evgeny Kuznetsov - TJ Oshie

This was the line the Caps started last year with due to Nick Backstrom recovering from surgery. Albeit in a small sample size, this line was a very, very strong possession team, and at this point in their respective careers, I truly believe that Kuznetsov is a better complement to OV than Backstrom is. While Backstrom is the superior passer straight up, Kuznetsov's skill and speed are unmatched anywhere else on the roster. Add Oshie's willingness to go to the net and above-average two-way play, and this makes for the kind of line that every team has to match their best defensemen up against. That makes it even tougher when they face...

Line 2: Andre Burakovsky - Nicklas Backstrom - Justin Williams

Williams is one of those players who dominates possession no matter where he is. The Backstrom-Williams combo was an absolute possession juggernaut in their limited time together last year, and Burakovsky also played better with Williams than without. Putting aside the advanced stats, the fit is also there style-wise. The best way for Burakovsky to develop would be to give him more time with the kinds of players that will let him hone his offensive skills. With Backstrom passing to him and Williams crowding the front of the net, Burakovsky will be able to get a lot more shot opportunities and garbage points, thus allowing him to mature and become the kind of scorer we will need as Ovechkin gets older. Additionally, Backstrom and Williams are more than good enough defensively that they can mask any deficiencies the youngster might have. This could be another dangerous skill line that gives defenses fits, thus leaving just the bottom of their defensive barrel when they face...

Line 3: Marcus Johansson - Lars Eller - Brett Connolly

I think this line is very similar to Pittsburgh's HBK line, the line that really led the Pens to the Cup this past year. Johansson is probably the fastest guy on this team with Chimera gone, so he's the speed element that Carl Hagelin was for Pitt. He's not quite as fast as Hagelin, but his better skill makes up for it. Eller played with absolutely terrible linemates in Montreal but was still able to escape with good possession numbers. He has a solid, Nick Bonino-esque two way presence that will make him the perfect 3C, and with better linemates than the garbage bin he had in Montreal, he should be able to improve upon his offensive numbers. That leaves the biggest question mark and discrepancy, Connolly vs. Phil Kessel. As of now, Connolly is nowhere close to Phil the Thrill, but given that he is a former 6th overall pick, I find it hard to believe that his offensive gifts have vanished. He put up 25 points last year in his first full NHL season while getting less than 13 minutes of average ice time. If he can get a little better this year, I think he will be a good scoring and speed presence on the third line. Besides, Eller can cover for any defensive deficiencies he has. I truly believe the success of this season depends on the third line, and this is as skilled a third line as one can get.

Line 4: Daniel Winnik - Jay Beagle - Tom Wilson

No surprise here, this is the energy checking line every team needs. While it's a disappointment to see Wilson here, I think this is the best 4th line in the league. It still has potential offensively, with players like Winnik, Beagle and Wilson who could still be Top 9 guys.
Now, this being said, it is extremely likely that Wilson plays on the third line, especially given the bridge contract he just signed. Although I think that this would not optimize the lines correctly, if Wilson can become a better offensive player and someone can step up and be a good checking-type forward, it would still work just as well.

In conclusion, the Caps have the personnel to use the style of play that will lead them to success. It just remains to be seen if they will do it.

Stay tuned for my next post, where I will dive into the depths of Washington's defensemen.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Who is Washington's Biggest Rival?

With the Caps on top of the league and getting set for another attempt at a long playoff run, one team that must be on their minds is the New York Rangers. Fresh off a 7-3 dismantling of the Rags at Madison Square Garden, the Caps seem to be determined to vanquish their playoff demons once and for all. Playoff loss after playoff loss have helped to rekindle (and even enhance) a once-dormant rivalry between these two teams.

With that thought, who is Washington's biggest rival right now? The Rangers, who've knocked us out a few too many times recently? Is it the Penguins, the bane of the 90's Caps? Or is it someone else?

With the Caps playing more and more meaningful games later and later in the season, these and more rivalries are only going to continue to grow. Here is one Caps fan's ranking of their top 5 rivalries.

5. Boston Bruins
Best Moment in the Rivalry:

The Caps have dominated the Bruins recently, with Braden Holtby shutting them down every chance he gets. He shut them out all of last season and gave up one goal on a weird bounce earlier this year. Due to this, as well as the fact that they play in a different division, the rivalry has really weakened. However, it gets points for the physicality that both teams bring, the motivation the B's have to finally get the best of Holtby, and the fact that these are two of the best teams in the conference, and another playoff meeting may be imminent.

4. Philadelphia Flyers
Best Moment in the Rivalry:

This has been one of the most underrated rivalries since the Caps joined the league 40 years ago. The Caps and Flyers have had four playoff meetings in their history, most famously the one that ended with the above goal by Dale Hunter. That 1988 series was one of the best in franchise history. Recently, these two teams haven't played each other much in the playoffs (just the one meeting in 2008), but there is absolutely no love lost between them. We all remember the two line brawls in 2013-14. We all remember Wilson's hit on Schenn and Niskanen's duel with Scott Laughton. The physicality alone clinches the rivalry the fourth spot in the countdown.

3. New York Islanders
Best Moment in the Rivalry:

Before the Rangers this decade and before the Penguins in the 90's, the Islanders were the bane of Washington's existence, teaching the Caps exactly how to lose 7-game series in heartbreaking fashion. Everybody knows about the Easter Epic and Hunter's hit on Turgeon. More recently, we're all still basking a bit in the memory of Kuznetsov's goal above that won the Caps one of the most hard-fought series I have ever watched. Unfortunately, our first meeting this year won't be until January 7th, but if the preseason was any indication, the game as well as the season series will be physical, heart-pounding, and absolutely exhilarating. And if these two teams meet again in the playoffs, oh boy. This is quickly becoming one of the best and most exciting rivalries in the league.

2. New York Rangers
Best Moment in the Rivalry:

Washington's most-met playoff opponent, both all-time and in the OV era, is now the New York Rangers. After last year's heartbreaking Game 7 loss, the third straight seven-game series loss to the Rags, the Caps have shown that they have a thirst for revenge this year after their 7-3 dismantling of the struggling Manhattan squad. So why do the Rags rank second instead of first? For me, the answer is, quite simply, I don't hate enough of their players. Chris Kreider is an idiot, Derek Brassard is weird, and Marc Staal is washed-up and terrible, but other than them, who is there to hate? Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, who play their hearts out to stop OV? Rick Nash, the 40-goal scorer who is almost as maligned as OV? And of course, Henrik Lundqvist, the bane of Caps fans, who has singlehandedly carried the Rags over the course of his 10-11 year career? The games are thrilling, suspenseful, and usually heartbreaking, but there simply isn't the level of hatred needed to rank this rivalry first.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins
Best Moment in the Rivalry:

Pittsburgh, however, is a different story. It all started in the 90's with the successive years of playoff heartbreaks. Can anybody forget the Petr Nedved 4OT goal? That is in the pantheon of the Caps' disasters along with the Easter Epic, Tikkanen, Ward's high-stick, and Stepan. The rivalry is still going strong these days, despite the few playoff meetings between these two teams. And let me tell you, we may not meet in the playoffs, but I hate nearly everybody on that team (with the exception of Eric Fehr and Steven Oleksy, of course. Sniff). Sidney Crosby's a whining diva. Evgeni Malkin's an annoying idiot who is always the most dangerous player on Pittsburgh when we play. Kris Letang is a cheap-shotting diver. Chris Kunitz and David Perron are talentless goons who get free points from playing with Crosby. The list goes on and on, and there will probably never be a team I hate more than Pittsburgh.

So this is my ranking for the Caps' biggest rivals right now. What do you think? Do you have a different number one? Other teams in the Top 5? Let me know, and Let's Go Caps!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What This Year's Caps Must Remember from History

The Washington Capitals enter the 2015-16 season with extremely high expectations. With the signing of Justin Williams and the trade for TJ Oshie, the Caps enter the season with a great chance of building upon last year's seven game second round loss.

However, as all Caps fans know, potential means nothing when the playoffs come around. After 40 years of disappointment, I don't think there is a single Caps fan getting his hopes too high up.

With that in mind, let's look at some of the previous Caps teams who were in a similar situation to this year's team and see what happened to them.


The 1988-89 Caps were coming off of a Game 7 defeat in the second round of the 1988 playoffs against the New Jersey Devils. The 88-89 regular season was arguably the most successful in Caps history to that point, as the team won the division for the first time in franchise history and placed second in the conference. The team was strong both offensively and defensively, with two 40 goal scorers (Geoff Courtnall and Mike Ridley) and two 80 point scorers (same two) and a defense starring Rod Langway, Scott Stevens and Kevin Hatcher.

Despite the success in the regular season, the Caps were knocked out in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers, losing in six games. Needless to say, it was a huge disappointment.


Yeah, let's not even get into this one, OK? As if the seven game second round loss to Pittsburgh the year before wasn't painful enough.


The 2012 Caps survived Hunter Hockey, knocked out the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, and pushed the Eastern Conference first seed New York Rangers to seven games. The 2013 season started in the middle of January after the end of the lockout. The Caps were very optimistic about their chances considering they were still in the Southeast Division, had a new coach in Adam Oates, and had addressed their lack of forward depth by trading Cody Eakin and a pick for Mike Ribeiro and signing Wojtek Wolski.

Hmm... trading for one player and signing another player to fix a team weakness... wait a minute...

As we all know, despite stumbling out of the gate, a huge second half by Alex Ovechkin led the Caps into the playoffs, where they blew a 3-2 lead and lost, once again, in the first round, this time to the New York Rangers. Yet another disappointment.

In conclusion, this version of the Caps may be better than the 1988-89, 2009-10 and 2013 teams, but if we fans have learned anything from the franchise over the past 40 years, it's that anything can happen with this team. Hopefully, with one of the smartest coaches in franchise history, a deep offense, stellar goaltending, and a solid defense, this year's Caps team can rise above the others.

However, until they give us reasons for optimism, I don't think most of us fans are going to be expecting too much from them.