Friday, July 30, 2010

A Hockey Fan's Guide to Redskins Training Camp

Let’s be honest, hockey fans are pretty much one-track minds.  We like winter.  We like cold.  We like ice.  We don’t really know what to do with ourselves between June and September.  Therefore, I direct you all to the Kings of Summer, Offseason Champs, our very own Washington Redskins.

Since we as hockey fans don’t really know all of the details of the complex alternate universe that is the Redskins organization, I have put together a quick guide to get to know the characters of Wonderland.  Welcome down the Rabbit Hole.  We have cookies.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Capitals Acquire Fighter D.J. King

King has 4 goals, 9 points, and 185 penalty mins
in 101 NHL games

At this time last year, General Manager George McPhee had to answer question after question about the overall toughness of the Caps.  With Donald Brashear leaving for the New York Rangers, the Capitals didn’t have an enforcer to “protect” their superstars.  McPhee stated that the team didn’t intend to sign a replacement for Brashear, that “team toughness” would take over.  His logic was that if other teams wanted to run around and try to intimidate them, the Caps would just kill them on the power play, which it pretty much exactly what happened.

It appears the Caps are taking a different approach this season, as they traded prospect Stefan Della Rovere to the St. Louis Blues for notorious heavyweight D.J. King.  This was shocking to most of the Caps community and the NHL community in general.  McPhee had committed to a Detroit Red Wings approach, and it is pretty well understood that at 6’2 and 235 lbs, Alex Ovechkin doesn’t need protecting.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Ovechkin and Zimmerman: Faces of DC Sports

When teams struggle, in any sport, they need a change.  Sometimes it’s a coaching change, sometimes it’s a managerial change, and sometimes it is a player change.  The coaching change seems to be the most popular, especially in the middle of a season, but during the offseason teams begin to change their makeup with the entry draft.

Generally in the draft, it is rigged so that the teams with the worst record have a better chance on getting a higher pick so they can rebuild with the best players.  Washington D.C. has had the unfortunate luck of being in that position several times in the last 5 years or so, and in many different sports.  Two of these picks were made a year apart and have had a tremendous impact on sports in this city.

The first of these picks was made on June 26, 2004, when the Washington Capitals selected Alex Ovechkin with the first overall pick in the NHL Draft.  The team had dumped salary and gone into full rebuilding mode.  The team’s most powerful, offensive players were gone, and the team needed a new face to join Olaf Kolzig’s in leading the franchise.  They also needed someone to take over for Kolzig when he eventually left, and that is what they got.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Glimpse of the Future: Caleb Herbert

To get us through these last couple of months until training camp, I will look at some of the lesser-known prospects in the organization who have unexpectedly impressed.  This will be called "Glimpse of the Future" and this will hopefully be the first of many I am able to do. Enjoy!

As Capital’s Development Camp wrapped, there were quite a few players getting high accolades.  Evgeny Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson, Dimitri Orlov, and Joe Finely were all among those most talked about after the final scrimmage had ended.  These stars shone bright, but there was one 2010 draft pick that flew relatively under the radar: Caleb Herbert.

The Minnesota native (and part of the American/high school invasion in this year’s draft) just graduated from Bloomington-Jefferson High School.  The school is one of the more prestigious teams in Minnesota’s already elite high school hockey system.  He is committed to play at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, but is expected to play one year in the United States Hockey League before he makes the transition to college.  He was also chosen for the United States U17 Select team.

He was not as flashy as the players previously listed, but he was extremely solid at camp. He was one of the better skaters, and his soft hands lead to a release that is like a lightening strike.  It is that quick scoring ability that the Caps were known and feared for last season.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Recurring Nightmares of Labor Issues: the NFL's Turn

In 2005, every hockey fan’s (and perhaps every sports fan’s) biggest nightmare came true: the season was cancelled.  We were officially going to be without hockey for more than a year.  Billions of dollars, and fans, were lost.  The NHL still hasn’t recovered, and now must begin negotiations on the next CBA with both sides willing to come to the table with open minds.  It was detrimental to the hockey world and the growth of the sport in the United States.  Evidently, the other leagues weren’t paying attention.

Five years after lawyer Bob Batterman represented the NHL in it’s failing CBA talks, he finds himself in a similar situation with another client: the National Football League.  The owners opted out of the final year of their Collective Bargaining Agreement, meaning that it will now expire in March 2011 after the conclusion of the 2010 football season, which will almost certainly be an uncapped year.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Kovalchuk's Rejection

The absurdity of contracts has become something sports fans have been forced to deal with, not unlike herpes or athlete’s foot.  They are commonplace in the NBA and NFL, but in the NHL where we are generally shielded from egos, we are also generally shielded from complete craziness in terms of money.  They have less money to spend. Alex Ovechkin, the highest paid player in the league, makes 9 million a year and is arguably the best player in the world.  On the flip side, well-known hissy fit-er and megalomaniac Albert Haynesworth of the Washington Redskins was given 42 million dollars last season.  So in general, we really never had to worry about NHL contracts. Until now.

In the last couple of years, organizations have figured out how to circumvent the salary cap by exploiting a loophole in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.  Because the cap hit of a contract is the average amount of money that player is paid per year in his contract, teams began adding years to contracts at an extremely discounted price.  These years would come towards the end of the player’s career, and there would be an unspoken understanding that said player would retire during those years and the team would no longer have the cap hit.

Players like Roberto Luongo, Marian Hossa, and Chris Pronger signed these kinds of contracts, essentially agreeing to remain with their respective clubs for the remainder of their careers.  The NHL frowned on the cap manipulation, but since teams were only adding on a couple of these silly years, they let it go. And it got shoved down their throat yesterday when Ilya Kovalchuk, the 27 year-old grand prize of free agency this season, signed a 17 year, 102 million dollar deal with the New Jersey Devils.  He was set to earn $550,000 the final five years of the contract, and he would be 44 by the time it expired.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Went Camping...And Loved It

I feel the need to strengthen my firewall and put up the most indestructible online defenses I possibly can, for I fear the wrath of fellow life long, intense Caps fans. What I’m about to reveal is so blasphemous, so inexcusable, so shameful that some would probably believe it warrants permanent exile from the Washington Capitals community: I had never been to Kettler Capitals Iceplex (or Ballston Mall, for that matter) until last Tuesday.

Now before you all burn me at the stake because I can swim, remember I paid my fan dues during the lean years and even received my very own Joe Juneau blue away jersey as a Christmas present. I have a hockey stick with the signatures of the entire 1998 team. We used to have a ticket package of about 15 home games a year until 2003.  I wore 12 in every sport and on every team I played for Peter Bondra.  Have I won back your love and my credibility? Good.

What brought me to Kettler three times this week was the combination of live hockey deprivation, a fascination with 2009 first round draft pick Marcus Johansson, and a temporary glimpse into the future.  That’s right fans, it was Development Camp time.  I was familiar with a large portion of this year’s crop of campers, so I figured it was finally time to get in on the action and see what all the fuss was about.  And boy did I get it shoved in my face from Day 1.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Kontinental Free Agency

There used to be no free agency. Imagine a world where players aren’t in any position to demand 10 million dollars a year, where hour-long ESPN specials are dedicated to actual impactful events.  Then we were blessed with the beautiful rectum that is the free agency season.  This seems to be more painless in the NHL, where they have fewer egos to satisfy and more players who just want to play the game. 

It was a simple concept, really; after a player’s contract expires with his team, other teams are allowed to sign said player to a contract of their own.  A new wrinkle was added when the salary cap was instituted, but the market adjusted.  Now the market must make another adjustment, this time for Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

The revamped version of the Russia Superleague, the KHL has really grown in strength and power over the last few years.  It’s presence is felt by the NHL more and more each year, and especially around free agency time.  It is often the rumored destination of many a free agent who is looking for more money or looking to extend their career.  This meant that usually these players weren’t wanted by the NHL.  Last year that changed.

Fresh off a Stanley Cup Final appearance and a Western Conference Championship, Jiri Hudler of the Detroit Red Wings turned down an offer from Ken Holland in favor of a deal in the KHL with the now defunct Dynamo Moscow team (yes, the same team that developed and nurtured our own little Alex Ovechkin).  Both Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov of the Washington Capitals excepted deals in Russia last summer also.  They were aging and there was no longer a market for them at the price they wanted, similar to the situation that brought Jaromir Jagr to Avangard Omsk (KHL).

Monday, July 5, 2010

Everyone Relax: GMGM Knows What He's Doing

Like the commercial says, hockey fans aren’t like other fans. We are a tight-knit band of fiercely devoted people, and we know no other way. We weep with every loss and rejoice with every victory. We know the true meaning of tough.

We also, however, inevitably feel we can be a better genera manager than the man who controls out team. From a distance, I watched the Caps fan community disintegrate into madness as they watched George McPhee stand by while the top defensemen were signed away.

The name of the game the NHL free agency season seems to be “overpaid.” This year’s free agent class is less deep than those in the past, and that caused teams to jump at the chance to sign the few valuable players available to high-priced, longer term deals than those players would otherwise be worth. The Ottawa Senators signed Sergei Gonchar to a 3-year deal at 5.5 mil per year, for a player who is 36 and more than past his prime. Anton Volchenkov signed a 6-year deal worth 25.5 million with the Devils. Even players like Adam Burish and Jody Shelley were given million-dollar-a-year contracts.

This trend continued with capable centers, as fans watched players like Mathew Lombardi slipped out of reach. Many fans were angry about this, and not without reason: a team that was far and away the best during the regular season was rudely escorted out of the playoffs by the team with the least amount of points to make the cut.

For the newer fans, this seems to be more frustrating. They have only seen the team succeed in the last three years, and didn’t need to acquire the patience the longer fans have had to deal with for about a decade now. The problem with spontaneously signing this year’s bigger free agents is that a grand total of zero of them were for the right price.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Comeback of Epic Proportions

The last 18 innings Stephen Strasburg has pitched for the Washington Nationals, the team has scored a grand total of zero runs. His last three starts, this had translated into losses for the star rookie. However, a team determination and never-give-up attitude changed that yesterday when the Nats came back from being down 5-3 after the 8th inning and won the game 6-5 in the bottom of the 9th. It was Strasburg’s first no-decision of his major league career, and one he couldn’t be happier about.

The Nationals have not been very good lately. Their games have been riddled with errors and a dreadful offensive drought. The team seemed to have given up after a series of heartbreaking losses. That’s why they needed this game. It was important for Strasburg’s and the team’s confidence.

Strasburg, who had been pitching excellence but receiving no support from the rest of the team, needed to know that he could have an off day and the team would have his back. He needed to know he didn’t have to pitch a shutout for the team to win. He got that reassurance yesterday when Pudge Rodriguez hit his walk-off single.

The team needed to know they could come back. They needed to believe they could get themselves out of a hole and continue to play in the late innings. In the future, the team will look at this game and say “See, we’ve done it before, now let’s go out and do it again.”

This timing of this game is significant too. Around this time last year, Jim Riggleman replaced Manny Acta as manager. After the All-Star break, which is next weekend, the team went on a tear. With the way things have been going for the Nationals lately, their due for some good fortune. Hopefully, the 4th of July magic can give them the spark they need.