Thursday, June 28, 2007

On tempering expectations

Since the draft, Original Six has been sending emails to the Deuce and I every day, with a countdown to "D-Day," or the start of free agency. There is a sense of anticipation, a buzz that is evident on the message boards, in several blogs, and in the hearts of Caps fans everywhere. Caps fans are giddy in anticipation that the club will dig deep into its pockets and pull Drury, Gomez, or even *ugh* Briere into the fold. So, as the resident grumps in the group, it's up to us to bust the bubble for everyone.

You will not see Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, or little Danielle Briere in a Capitals sweater (or jersey or uniform system) this year.

Okay, deep breaths everybody.

Here's why:

The Capitals are shallow at the center position, but they also have a prospect that they believe can be a true number one center in Nicklas Backstrom. He has top tier Swedish Elite league and international experience with Team Sweden (the senior team, not a junior roster). He'll be a full year older, more experienced, and more physically developed than other NHL rookies. And George McPhee almost cracked a smile when talking about him during a recent press conference (for those of you that know how much McPhee dislikes dealing with the press know this is no small thing).

Signing one of the "big three" immediately cuts into Backstrom's minutes. Severely. And if Nick is anything like a certain other Capitals rookie who came into the league a full year after he was drafted, the Caps will want him playing first line minutes. So it makes very little sense to go out and break the bank on a number one center when you have the makings of one already under contract with the organization.

So, if the number one center position is taken, what do the Caps need to do?

I wrote last season that the team's most pressing needs are at the blue line, and that still holds true. The Capitals absolutely NEED a top tier defenseman, for two reasons. First and most obviously, they need a defenseman with the experience to play first line minutes and strike fear into opposing players who right now view the Caps defense as a set of turnstiles. Don't get me wrong, the Capitals do have talent back there, especially with the younger players. However, they don't have a hammer, a guy who forwards will actively avoid engaging. Think Scott Hannon, not Sheldon Souray.

That brings us to the second reason the Caps need a big time defensive defensmen. They have a wealth of young, talented blueliners who lack experience. And while teaming with Pothier will help them learn how to make a great breakout pass, it will not teach them how and when to play the body of an opposing forward. Having a veteran defenseman to tutor Jurcina, Green, Shultz, Morrison, Eminger and now Alzner is an absolute necessity for them to continue their professional growth. Without one, it will take a minor miracle for them to develop into top tier NHL defensemen.

Once the Caps make a move for a free agent defenseman, they still have a hole up the middle that needs to be addressed. But since they're looking for a number 2 center, and not a number 1, they have options. Options like Handzus, Nylander, or even bringing back Dainius Zubrus. Reuniting Ovechkin, Zubrus and Clark would give the Caps two top tier scoring lines with Semin, Backstrom and either Fleischmann, Fehr (should his hip heal up) or a mid-level free agent right wing working the second line. This looks more and more likely since Buffalo has decided not to sign Zubrus to an offer before the start of free agency. It's no secret that we aren't huge fans of Zubrus as a number one center, but as a number 2 or 3 he could be effective. And since Backstrom would be the number one pivot on the power play, that's effectively the role Zubrus would fill, even though he'd be logging minutes on the first line at full strength. Handzus could fill that role equally well, and his defensive prowess would allow him to play with either the first or second line (since we all know Semin and, to a lesser extent, Ovechkin need someone willing to do the dirty work in the defensive zone).

So Caps fans, when the Capitals don't break the bank signing Drury, Briere, or Gomez, don't fret. But if they don't sign a big-time defenseman and a second tier free agent center, if may be time to hit the panic button.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Come on down...

Karl Alzner.

And is it just me, or was McPhee working the phone pretty hard before the pick? At any rate, this is a solid pick for the Caps, who already have a wealth of young defensemen. As the Capitals teams from the 80s proved, you can never have too many quality defensemen in the organization. Whether Alzner plays with the big club this year or (more likely) spends a year down in Hershey, he's officially the first draftee of the second wave of Caps prospects.

I'm liking this pick more and more as the moments go by... especially after this tidbit from OFB - "[Alzner] lists making a good first pass out of the zone as an asset." Anyone who watched the Caps trying to break out of their own zone last year should be doing backflips right now.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Jersey talk

Now that the new Capitals sweaters have been unveiled, the Deuce an I weigh in.

I'm not a huge fan. I was certainly a proponent of moving back to the traditional look, but I just don't think the logo on its own on a HUGE field of red gets the job done. I've said it a million times, but taking inspiration from the Russian jerseys would have been a move in the right direction. That said, as a fan of the original Caps jerseys, I'm not horrified by the new design. I have a feeling it will grow on me, but there was an opportunity here to redefine the franchise while still referencing the past that I think the organization missed out on.

The Deuce's take:

I like them. For years everyone was screaming that the old jerseys were "old school" and we needed to return to the "traditional Caps look." I even posited that they should use the old reds as the alternate/third jersey, like Buffalo did this year. Well, this is pretty darned close. I like it more than the busy, stars and stripes road jerseys. I like the font -- and remember, you can always tweak the design from year to year. Just look at Ottawa (going from those beautiful Roman centurion blacks to the stupid cartoonish Roman Meal reds).

I also like the eagle -- similar to DC United's Eagle (which is still the baddest-ass), and incorporates the washington "W", the eagle, and the Capitol Dome all at once. I have a funny feeling we'll be seeing a 3rd Jersey with that Eagle on the front next year, and that's fine by me. Most importantly, THEY COULD HAVE DONE MUCH WORSE (Tommy Hilfiger's bandana eagle)!!! They've come up with a nice, modern design that is not too radical, and brings back memories of the old jerseys. If they had put a different eagle, or the silly-looking Capitol dome on the front, half of the fans would be screaming that it's worse than the BUFFASLUG.

All in all, I like the colors, I like the eagle, and the letters don't look bad. I've always said I wanted a logo, not lettering, but after seeing those awful black jerseys for the past 6 years, I prefer "Capitals." Even if it makes no sense, as the word capitals is spelled in lower-case, but whatever. It's the team's name that's a problem, but I don't want them to change that at this point. I've always said, just because it's DC, doesn't mean you have to name the team Capitals, Senators, Diplomats, Nationals, lobbyists, politicians, congressmen, etc. etc. etc. That's why I love "D.C. United," and their fierce black and read color scheme with the bad-ass eagle (in fact, the first eagle was so fierce it scared people into changing it because it looked too mean! Now that's bad-ass!)

In summary, could've been better, could've been MUCH worse, will look GREAT on the Russian Machine, and Original Six WILL be purchasing me a custom #8 jersey for my birthday -- even if I have to wait a month to get it.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

NHL Adopts Silly Rule Changes That Will Affect No-One, Once Again Refuses to Move Sport Into 21st Century.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Deuce:

The NHL’s Board of Governors met yesterday, and decided on these fantastic rule changes intended to make the sport more exciting and increase scoring:

• A player may be awarded a penalty shot if he is fouled on a clear breakaway outside his defensive zone.
• Referees are now allowed to assess a major penalty and a game misconduct when an injury results from an interference infraction.

Wow. I mean, wow. I am SO much more excited for this season now that I know improved the NHL product will be as a result of these changes!

What the NHL needs right now is a shot in the arm, not a band-aid. Why do the league higher-ups refuse to face facts, and continue to do business as usual as the sport we love is lambasted in the press. What is the shot in the arm I’m talking about….wait for it….wait for it… The Deuce is talking about BIGGER FRIKKIN’ NETS. Note: If there are any Canadians reading this website that belong to that all-important old-school of “Hockey Traditionalists,” just go ahead and stop reading now before you go apoplectic. For those of you with open minds, read on.

Here is why the NHL must, and will (hopefully within the next 5 years), increase the size of the nets:

Here’s what a BIG NHL goalie looked like in the 1940s:

Here’s Tony Esposito, one of the greatest from the 1970s:

And here is a Ken Dryden, maybe the best goalie ever, who was a giant when he played at 6’4”, 207 lbs:

(This picture can also serve as a rebuttal to those who think the new “tight” jerseys are a travesty and destroy the so-called “traditional,” loose-fitting hockey look).

Now let’s take a look at a picture of J.S. Giguere, who stands 6’1” and weighs 200 lbs:

Sooooooooo, you’re an NHL forward breaking down the ice -- which one of these guys would YOU rather face. Exactly. And no disrespect to Giguere, but it’s simply a question of how much open net there is to shoot at.

With that visual evidence, is it any surprise that the NHL has seen such a huge drop off in scoring in the last 15 years? And that’s without even mentioning that G*d D*mned Jacques Lemaire and his Neutral Zone Mind Sucking Trap. (May he be forced to watch replays of a typical Devils’ Game for all eternity).

Americans have short attention spans. They like action, hitting, and scoring (see NFL football, America’s most popular sport). Why is it Americans have never taken to soccer? Because they cannot watch a 90-minute 0-0 tie, where the only action may be some “nice crosses.”

I know the “traditionalists” out there will scream that bigger nets will ruin the game, destroy all that is good in the world, and that they would never watch another game if it happened. They are lying. Those people are hockey fanatics, and they are hooked. They can never stop watching (if they’ve been able to watch the sh*t product the NHL put out in the late 90s and 2000s, they’ll watch any hockey.)

The NHL needs to make the game more exciting to the casual observer. Not everyone understands great defense, great schemes, icing, offside, etc. Everyone understands a goal. How do you increase scoring? Well, getting rid of that stupid 2-line pass rule was a start. That stupid trapezoid is another idea. Fractionally smaller goalie equipment is yet another (by the way, you can’t convince me that we can make small, lightweight, bulletproof body armor, but goalies NEED all that stuff they’re wearing for “protection.” I guarantee you they could safely play goalie in protective gear that’s NO BIGGER THAN WHAT A REGULAR SKATER WEARS…but that’s a different post).

Why is this so hard for these old-school GMs to understand. Let’s break it down Barney-style: Bigger nets = more goals. More goals = more excitement. More excitement = more fans. More fans = more money for the league.

I want to see these kinds of stats again:
93 Goals, 120 Assists, 212 Points (Wayne Gretzky, 1981-82)
85 Goals 114 Assists, 199 Points (Mario Lemieux, 1988-89 (100 of them vs. the Caps))
Last year? Crosby had 36 goals and 120 points. The year before, St. Louis had 125 pts. Before that? 94, 106, 96, 121, 96, 127, etc.) Just more evidence of the drop-off in scoring. Something drastic must be done. Now. The NFL and NBA, who have much better numbers than the NHL, both recognized that sports = entertainment, and adjusted accordingly. The NBA outlawed the zone defense in 1974, because it was boring to watch. They instituted the shot clock, so teams could not sit on a lead (I hate you, Devils). The NFL recently instituted rules changes that make it nearly impossible to guard wide receivers. Before that, they instituted a little thing called the “forward pass.”

Hockey used to be played with straight sticks, no forward passing, and goalies were not allowed to fall to the ice to make a save. So things change. Necessarily.

And always remember this. Those thousands of hockey traditionalists who write in to ESPN and SI to skewer any writer who suggests any change to the game (new jerseys, shootouts, 4-on-4 in playoff overtime as opposed to 5:30 am ending snooze-fests) will NEVER stop watching the game. They love it too much. As do I. I am simply capable of recognizing that any product requires updating from time to time. We’re not all working on DOS right now at our computers, are we? I didn’t think so.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Last I checked

the new Capitals jersey unveiling was scheduled for Friday. Since everyone and their grandma has probably seen the newest supposed leak, I figured I'd repost my 3rd grade crayola inspired mockup. Because it's just as likely to be the real deal as the leak.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Alex Ovechkin is a very good hockey player

For the second consecutive year, the Russian Machine has been named an NHL First Team All Star. For details, click here.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Quick notes on today's press conference

A couple quick items to report from today's press conference at Kettler:

1. The Caps are really, really high on Nick Backstrom. When McPhee was asked about how they evaluate a player's hockey sense, he specifically mentioned Backstrom as being at the top of the list in that regard.

2. There's no update on Eric Fehr's hip.

3. The Caps have a really nice training facility. I'm not sure it's enough to sway a free agent one way or another, but it's very well put together.

More later...

Ok, it's later.

McPhee's quote on Backstrom, when asked about evaluating player "hockey sense" in general - "He's as high as you get in that category."

On the possibility of trying to sign restricted free agents - "It's mostly a waste of time" as the offers are almost always matched.

On the scouting combine - "We check out the NHL body... is this a body that will hold up in the NHL." Other than that, the main purpose is to interview the players. Outside of that, there are "only a couple tests we like."

On evaluating smaller players on their ability to play in the NHL. "There's a saying around [the NHL]. If you're good enough, you're big enough."

That's pretty much it. There weren't a whole lot of amazing revelations, and I missed my chance to inquire (on behalf of the deuce) on the Caps stance on making the nets larger. Guess I'll have to put that one in the back pocket until after the draft and free agency kick off.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Congrats to the Anaheim Ducks

Congratulations to the Anaheim Ducks for winning Lord Stanley's Cup. They now take their place beside the best teams in hockey history.

For now, Caps fans can only imagine what this must feel like:

But our time will come... oh, yes, it will come.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Kick it

According to NHL rules, it is illegal for a player to use a kicking motion to redirect the puck into the net. In the event the puck is kicked into the net, the goal is disallowed.

I have a simple question. Why?

The heads of the NHL claim they want to increase scoring and scoring chances. Why not make it perfectly legal for a player to kick the puck into the net?

The only reason I can think that the rule is in place is to protect goaltenders from having players skate over their hands when there is traffic in the crease. I'm sure league officials envision scrums where players from both teams kick and the puck and each other whenever the puck enters the crease. There is a simple way to address this. The rule should be written in such a manner that kicking the puck IN THE CREASE is illegal (for skaters, not goaltenders). Also, any player who is ruled to have intentionally kicked a goaltender regardless of whether they were in or out of the crease would be assessed a major and and automatic game misconduct. That should allay any injury concerns for the goaltenders.

Allowing players to kick at the puck would also cut down on the number of ridiculously long reviews that take place whenever a puck finds the net after being redirected with a skate. The proposed rule is much more straightforward than the current implementation, where referees must make a judgment call as to the intent of the player instead of a simple did he or didn't he proposition.

There are some who might argue that this would turn hockey into a sort of soccer-on-ice, which is silly. Anyone who has ever played the game, especially those forwards who make a living in the high traffic areas around the crease, will tell you that winding up to kick the puck leaves a player off balance and totally exposed. Think guys are going to wind up and take a big kick at the puck when there's a 90% chance they'll be floored by the nearest defenseman? Me neither.

Essentially, all the rule change would allow for would be situations where a player has an opportunity to deflect or redirect a shot or pass on goal. It wouldn't change hockey to soccer. It wouldn't allow players to throw or pick up the puck.

What is would do is allow players to redirect the puck using a kicking motion outside the crease. It would 1) clear up a rule that is currently to difficult to enforce uniformly, 2) increase scoring, and 3) maintain the safety of the skaters and goaltenders.

So what's the holdup?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Bring some air freshener

For those who like smelly hockey gear (and who doesn't) the Capitals will hold their annual equipment sale on Saturday, June 16th from 1:30 to 4 PM at Kettler.

The bad news? If you want to grab something used by The Russian Machine, you have to win a lottery just to get the opportunity to purchase it. But hey, there's only so much of the guy's stuff to go around.

Surprisingly, you won't have to win a lottery for the chance to purchase authentic used Kris Beech gear.

Late Edit: A few tidbits from the Caps:

According to the organization, "the sale includes both new and game-worn items and will feature equipment from almost every member of last season’s team, including items from superstar Alex Ovechkin. In addition, more than 200 game-worn jerseys dating back to the 1996-97 season will be available for purchase."

Also, the prices for all equipment (even the Russian Machine's stuff) are pre-set (no auctions).

Friday, June 1, 2007

Caps sign Lepisto, Neuvirth

The Capitals have signed 19 year old Czech goaltender Michal Neuvirth to an entry level deal. They also signed Finnish defenseman Sami Lepisto to a deal earlier this week.

Also, it's not really related to the Caps, but Neil Henderson has been awarded the William Thayer Tutt Award by USA Hockey for his dedication to the game. Coach Neil is a wonderful person and a fantastic ambassador for the game. Both the Deuce and I skated with teams Coach Neil ran, and I can say without question that he is one of the finer people I've met in life. His commitment and dedication to the Fort Dupont community and to hockey in general have been recognized before, but cannot be overstated.

There is no 800 lb. gorilla in the room

Tarik has posted again on the sagging ratings for the second game of the Stanley Cup finals. And once again, fans and media alike are declaring that hockey's tenure as a major sport in the US has come to an end.

This idea is patently ridiculous.

I'm not Papa Ted, so I'm not going to break down the rise in the NHL's overall revenue, or how the cash value of franchises in the NHL is increasing. Instead I'm going to focus on the one area people keep complaining about. Media coverage.

Notice that I did not just write "TV coverage." Hockey has not gotten a fair shake from most media outlets for several years. The Caps have been banished to the back pages of the Washington Post and other local outlets for some time now. However, there are signs of progress that need to be held up and recognized.

The Washington Post online, whether out of creativity or necessity, has Tarik blogging on the Caps in particular or hockey in general almost every day during the season or postseason. And while most newspaper writers simply treat blog posts as another column or story, Tarik has been excellent in making the blog an open forum, by posing questions to readers and frequently responding to reader posts. Regardless of the whether it's a traditional or new medium, I think it's safe to say the depth of coverage he has provided is more than the Capitals have seen in this town from a print reporter. Ever. And as more print media catch on to this whole interweb thing, expect hockey coverage to improve at across the board.

In addition, the NHL is far ahead of the curve in releasing highlights and video clips on youtube and on The decision to allow that contend to be accessible without cost may be one of the most forward thinking decisions the NHL has made since the lockout. They could easily have cited copywrite law and constantly pulled clips that feature NHL content. Instead, the league recognized the value of allowing fans thirsting for content to get access to it absolutely free. This may seem like a small thing right now, but keeping ahead of the curve in the digital arena will only help the league long term. I can tell you that being able to pull up Alex Ovechkin highlights at work and show them to co-workers has made Caps fans of more than one of them (and just as important to Papa Ted, sold a few tickets to boot). It's much easier for both casual and hardcore fans to access footage of games, which is incredibly important given that there isn't currently an NHL highlights show on television. There only misstep has been the additional charge for subscribers of NHL Center Ice to access live games online. Asking fans to pay twice for the same content is not in the best interests of expanding the league's base.

Now for the big daddy, the one section of media coverage which any and everyone who is interested in hockey has an opinion on. The television deal with Versus. From what I have read, fans have two problems with Versus. The first complaint is about the "spot on the dial," the channel number given to Versus on cable and satellite providers.

Which is one of the most idiotic things I've ever heard.

I have no idea what channel TNT is on, and I'm willing to bet most NBA fans don't know either, but somehow they get fans to tune in for their games. I couldn't tell you the numbers for 5 channels on my DirecTV lineup. That's why they make those handy-dandy on screen guides, so you can find the channel or program that you're looking for. If you're incapable of doing that, you've got a lot worse problems than finding Versus.

The second complaint, which is of the legitimate variety, is that Versus has a much smaller reach than ESPN. This cannot be discounted. If fans don't have the channel, they can't watch the games. Versus needs to find its way into more homes. They know it. The NHL knows it. They're working on addressing the issue.

What I rarely hear from fans who get Versus is that there isn't enough hockey programming available. The absence of a nightly highlights show aside, Versus has been a breath of fresh air for hockey fans. Their volume of coverage is much higher than ESPN's had been pre-lockout. When was the last time you saw 2 games a night throughout almost the entirety of the playoffs on ESPN2? That's right. NEVER. Versus has also drastically improved the quality of their broadcasts, from their pre and postgame shows to their camera operators. The deal with Versus is still in its infancy, but it shows a great deal of promise. Mark Cuban's HDNet is also an outlet for NHL content, and has been delivering the NHL to HD content starved digital television owners for some time.

The role of HDTV in the future of the NHL has not been discussed to the degree it should be. Upgrading HD content and delivery should be a primary focus of the league as it moves forward. There is an opportunity for the NHL to greatly expand its fan base by actively courting the growing number of HDTV owners who are absolutely STARVED for content. If the league plays its cards well by expanding the number of games broadcast in HD AND searching for alternative methods of distribution such as making High Def highlights available on video game networks such as XBox Live and the Playstation network, streaming to Tivo Series 3 recorders, etc will expose younger users with expendable income (isn't a parent's money always expendible) to the league without having to "unplug" from their experience. It's imperative that the NHL further explore these opportunities in order to grow and thrive in the new age of HD media distribution.

So, to summarize: yes, television viewership of the Stanley Cup finals is down this year. However, this is only year 2 of the league's TV contract with Versus, which one would expect would have its ups and downs. As long as the league continues to be forward thinking in their delivery of content, and as long as the league takes advantage of existing technology (Tarik's blog, the number of blogs NOT created by paid traditional media journalists, digital distribution via youtube and the NHL's website) and stays ahead of the curve by taking advantage of advances in technology (getting FREE HD and standard def content to digital marketplaces like XBox live, the Playstation Network, distributing content that can be streamed to TVs via media servers, etc) the TV ratings will improve.

See, that 800 lb gorilla's starting to look a lot smaller already.