Thursday, July 28, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Dale Hunter

Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the United States. His administration was but one part of what historians refer to as the “Age of Jackson.” The person behind the age inspired considerable respect…and hate.  In that sense, he is not unlike a former Washington Capital whose years spent in Washington might be considered its own “age” as well, the age of Dale Hunter.

Where Jackson was born is in some historical dispute. It seems that what is agreed upon is that he was born on or near what is now the border of North and South Carolina, an area that today remains rural, but in that era would have been little more than wilderness. Growing up was a battle for Jackson, quite literally. At the age of 13 he was a courier in the Revolutionary War, during which he became a prisoner of war. He grew up to be a lawyer in the frontier territory of Tennessee, where a lot of the work was in hotly contested land claims and assault cases.  He grew up a prideful person, quick to fight when he perceived assault on his honor, and he dueled Charles Dickinson, who published an attack Jackson and his wife, killing him while suffering a wound that he would carry all his life.  It was a reflection of a personality that was once described as “tough as old hickory wood on the battlefield,” leading to his nickname, “Old Hickory.”

Dale Hunter didn’t have quite the raw and treacherous youth of Jackson, but neither was it entirely dissimilar. He was born in Petrolia, Ontario, the town’s name being derived from the oil boom that swept that region of Ontario in the 1860’s, and he grew up in Oil Springs, a town even smaller than that in which he was born. In terms of his hockey development, he clearly had talent, but he was also something of a provocateur. In three seasons in the QMJHL (Kitchener, Sudbury), he had 98 goals and 259 points in 188 games, but he also accumulated 492 penalty minutes. And it was not any different when he arrived in the NHL. Drafted by the Quebec Nordiques, he would be nicknamed “The Nuisance” by his head coach, Michel Bergeron for his ability to antagonize opponents.

Jackson was also an astute manager of his affairs.  He managed to accumulate sufficient resources to build a home and general store near Nashville.  To this he added a plantation, the “Hermitage” and additional land later.  He was owner of more than 1,000 acres that continues today as a museum

What Dale Hunter built came after his playing days were over, and was accomplished in very different ways (Jackson is said to have once owned more than 300 slaves).  He took over the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League as co-owner, president, and head coach in 2000.  Since then, his Knights have won eight division titles in the OHL, four OHL championships, and twice won the Memorial Cup as Canadian Hockey League champion. 

As President, Andrew Jackson might have been described as confrontational toward elites.  He advocated abolishing the Electoral College and opposed patronage.  But he also had the idea of the “commander” about him, making use of the veto and his partisan position in an effort to dominate Congress (it was under Jackson that the old “Republican” party split, with “Democratic-Republicans,” what would become the Democratic Party, following Jackson), and throwing his weight against the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States and efforts to end protective tariffs.

Dale Hunter was not any less the “commander” as a Washington Capital, and he was no less confrontational on the ice.  He came to the Caps in a 1987 trade and would eventually become the ninth captain in team history in 1994.  He led be example, and quite an example it was.  He was widely considered a “dirty” player, a reputation Hunter would inflame in a 1993 playoff game against the New York Islanders in which he checked Pierre Turgeon into the boards after Turgeon scored an insurance goal in what would be the series-clinching win for the Islanders.  Turgeon suffered a separated shoulder than caused him to miss the first six games of the next playoff round, but Hunter received a 21-game suspension from new Commissioner Gary Bettman, then the longest suspension in league history for an on-ice incident.

Hunter might have been the bete-noire of 29 other teams, but he was a rough sort beloved by Caps fans, especially after scoring the game-winning, series-clinching overtime goal in Game 7 of the Patrick Division semi-finals at home against the Philadelphia Flyers in 1988.  He served as Captain of the club from 1994 until he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche late in the 1998-1999 season and was a player who, throughout his tenure as a Washington Capitals player, inspired strong feelings, good and bad.  He was a player who commanded respect for his skills, but who inspired hate among opponents and their fans for his antics outside the rulebook.  Hunter is the only player in league history to record at least 300 goals (323) and accumulate at least 3,000 penalty minutes (3,565).

Andrew Jackson defined an age in American history and was an important transitional figure from the revolutionary past to a more modern nation.  He was a complex personality that could, even in the context of his achievements, inspire respect and hate.  Dale Hunter was a soft-spoken sort off the ice, but on-ice he was as much a person capable of inspiring respect and hate, despite his achievements (the Caps reached the postseason in 10 of his 11 full seasons with the club, including reaching their only Stanley Cup final).  In many respects, Andrew Jackson and Dale Hunter were one-of-a-kind.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Chris Bourque

John Quincy Adams was America’s sixth President.  He was the first son of a President to take the oath of office.  While one of a select few to hold the office, it could be fairly said that he did not have the resume of accomplishments his father – John Adams – had.  In that respect, and some others, he resembles another son of a more accomplished father, a son who played for the Washington Capitals – Chris Bourque.

Adams the Younger had what was arguably an undistinguished term as President.  He served but one term, losing his re-election bid to Andrew Jackson in 1828.  He had quite a list of accomplishments before he became chief executive, though.  Minister to the Netherlands, Minister to Prussia, Minister to Russia, Minister to the Court of St. James, member of the House of Representatives, senator from Massachusetts, and Secretary of State, all of which he accomplished over a 30 year-period in public service before becoming the sixth President of the United States.

If John Quincy Adams was the well-traveled son of a former President in his climb to the White House, Chris Bourque was the well-traveled son of an NHL Hall of Famer.  From Cushing Academy in Massachusetts, Bourque moved on to the Boston University Terriers in the NCAA for a year after he was taken in the second round of the 2004 entry draft by the Caps.  Then he started his way up the Caps organization, playing with the Portland Pirates late in the 2004-2005 season before the AHL affiliation moved to Hershey and the Bears.  Bourque played two seasons with the Bears before making his NHL debut in the 2007-2008 season.  He ended up playing just 12 games with the Caps over two seasons before he was waived and claimed by the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Barely two months later, after playing in 20 games for the Pens, he was waived again and re-claimed by the Capitals.

Bourque played just one game with the Caps in his second tour with the organization, spending most of his time in Hershey and wining a Calder Cup with the Bears in 2010 as well as the Jack Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the AHL playoffs.  Finding his path to the NHL blocked, though, he headed to Europe to start the 2010-2011 season, joining the Atlant club in the KHL. Lasting just eight games there, Bourque then moved on to the HC Lugano team in the Swiss League.  After the season he returned to North America and the Capitals for a third time, this time failing to crack the parent roster.  He did play in 73 games with the Hershey Bears.  He was traded late in the spring of 2012 to the Boston Bruins for Zach Hamill and split time between the Bruins and the AHL Providence Bruins in the 2012-2013 season.

After that, Bourque was on the move once more, heading back to the KHL and the Kazan Ak-Bars club, followed by a trip to the Biel HC club to close out the 2013-2014 season.  Then it was back once more to North America, first with the New York Rangers’ AHL club in Hartford, then this past season once more in the Hershey with the Bears where he led the league in points (80 in 72 games).

Chris Bourque is under contract to the Capitals for the 2016-2017 season, but who knows where his travels will take him after that (if not sooner)?  In that sense, as much as he is the son of a more famous father, he has much in common with John Quincy Adams.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Marcus Johansson

America’s fifth President, James Monroe, is not the revered figure in American history that other Presidents are.  He is not mentioned in the same breath as a George Washington, or an Abraham Lincoln, or a Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  That is not to say he was not an effective President, perhaps worthy of a little more “good feeling” than he generally gets.  In that respect, he is not unlike a current Washington Capital – Marcus Johansson.

You might say that James Monroe had a “first round” pedigree in his development.  He studied law under Thomas Jefferson, was Governor of Virginia, served as a diplomat to France where he helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, and served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War under James Madison. 

Marcus Johansson became a first round pick of the Capitals by effecting a steady, purposeful rise through the ranks of hockey in Sweden – the IF Malmo Redhawks, the Swedish U-18 national team, Lulea HF, Farjestads BK Karlstad U18, Skare BK, Farjestads BK Karlstad, the Swedish Junior National Team.  It prepared him to become a 24th overall selection for the Capitals in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft.

Marcus Johansson has no “doctrine” as James Monroe has, but there is something of a connection here.  For those of you who have forgotten just what the Monroe Doctrine is, here it is in the “author’s” words“as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers. . .”  In other words, any efforts by European nations to colonize territory in the Western Hemisphere would be considered an act of aggression requiring an American response.

But did he write those words? No, he didn’t.  It turns out that the wording came from his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams.  Not to take away anything from Monroe, who certainly was an advocate for the point of view reflected in the statement, but it sort of shows the importance of teamwork.

As for Johansson, it is worth noting (and we have in the past) that Johansson is among the brightest stars of his draft class.  Seventh in games played, eighth in goals scored, fourth in power play goals scored, fifth in assists, fifth in points.  Since he came into the league with the Caps in 2009-2010, he is fifth on the team in games played, fourth in goals scored, fourth in assists, third in total points.  However, over those years, Johansson spent the bulk of his 5,407 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time playing along side Alex Ovechkin (1,864 minutes) and Nicklas Backstrom (1,533 minutes).   It would be hard not to be productive playing more 5-on-5 minutes with those two forwards than with any other for the Caps over that period.  Not to take anything away from Johansson, who certainly has been productive in that role, but it demonstrates the value of teamwork.

As President, James Monroe’s administration was one characterized by a disinclination to draw party lines.  He made appointments without regard to partisan affiliation for many posts, a behavior that led to his era being called the “Era of Good Feelings,” although there are those who employ the term with a measure of sarcasm.  Marcus Johansson is a player who in a sense epitomizes “good feelings.”   Since he came into the league in 2010-2011, no player in the NHL has appeared in at least 375 games and accumulated fewer penalty minutes than Johansson (52).

James Monroe is often lost in the reverie of our Founding Fathers and as a result might not be accorded the respect he deserves as President and in his other capacities.  But, in an aggregate ranking of American Presidents, there he is, in 16th place, between Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Marcus Johansson might not be generally recognized among the best of his generation of hockey players, either in the NHL generally or the Capitals specifically, but he has made his contributions.  In that respect, there are some things that the two have in common.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Kelly Miller

We have had a look at three Presidents of the United States and who we think might be their Washington Capitals counterparts.  In a way, Washington-Adams-Jefferson might be something of a “top line” threesome of Presidents, but let’s not underestimate the fourth person to hold this office – James Madison – or who might be his Capitals counterpart – Kelly Miller.

There is the superficial similarities between Madison and Miller.  Both came from large “families,” so to speak.  Madison was the oldest of 12 children, while Miller is a member of one of the largest families in hockey.  Ten hockey-playing members, in fact. 

Both were a bit undersized for their positions.  “Jemmy” Madison was the smallest President in American history, coming in at five-feet four-inches tall and barely breaking 100 pounds.  Miller, who spent most of his career as a checking forward in a division known for its bare-knuckled physical play, was just 5’11/195 pounds.

There are deeper similarities, though.  Madison is often referred to as the “Father of the Constitution.”  He was a major force in the calling of a constitutional convention to replace the Articles of Confederation of the new Republic and was a prolific speaker during the proceedings of the convention. His work was not limited to that of debate within the confines of the convention, though.  He was a durable advocate of the product of that convention, assuming the role of a leader of the effort to ratify the new constitution.  He was one of three authors (all writing anonymously) of a series of articles published over a ten-month period in 1787 and 1789 that constituted a comprehensive argument in favor of ratification and would later be compiled and known as “The Federalist Papers.”  Then, as a member of the new House of Representatives, he was a principal sponsor of the first ten amendments to the Constitution -- the "Bill of Rights."

Miller could not be fairly claimed to be the “father” of the style of hockey the Capitals played over his tenure with the club, but he was the embodiment of it.  From the time he arrived in Washington in a New Year’s Eve 1987 trade with the New York Rangers until his last season with the Caps (and in the NHL) in 1998-1999, Miller was the epitome of a 200-foot, hard-working sort of player what was the style of the Capitals of the period.  He was an extraordinarily durable player, especially given his size and style of play, setting what was a career record of 940 games played in a Capitals uniform (since eclipsed), appearing in more than 95 percent of the games played by the Capitals in the 12-plus seasons he spent with the club.  Although he was a fine scorer in his college days (82 goals and 163 points in 163 games at Michigan State), he would forsake the scorer's role to find multiple ways of contributing at both ends of the ice -- the timely goal or taking on the opposition's top offensive threat.

If there was one thing that characterized Madison’s tenure as chief executive, it was presiding over the War of 1812, thought be some to be one conflict in the much broader series of conflicts grouped under the “Napoleonic Wars” that involved more than two dozen participants.

In 12 full seasons with the Capitals, Miller had some of his harshest competition in the battles of the Patrick Division (later morphing into the Atlantic Division) and in particular the two Pennsylvania and three New York area teams that made for the nastiest rivalries.  In those 12 seasons, Miller went 59-112-171, plus-36 in 335 games against those five teams, his 171 points representing more than 40 percent of the points he scored as a Capital (408) and his plus-36 almost half way to his career plus-75 with the Caps.

In his post-Presidential years, Madison went on to serve as a member of the Virginia state constitutional convention, wrote a number of essays on political subjects, and served as chancellor at the University of Virginia, thus passing along his experience and employing his knowledge for the benefit of future generations.  In Miller’s case, coaching was the avenue.  He started soon after his playing days were over, serving as an assistant with the AHL Grand Rapids Griffins.  He also served as an assistant with the Anaheim Ducks and the New York Islanders in the NHL, among other positions, before returning to his alma mater – Michigan State University – where he serves as an assistant coach.

Given the breadth and depth of his contributions to a young nation, perhaps James Madison does not get as much historical recognition as he should for those contributions.  Kelly Miller has played more games than all but two players in Capitals history, and no one has played in more postseason games (he’s tied at 100 with Dale Hunter).  He is in the top-20 in team history in regular season points scored and would arguably be the last name fans would identify to be on that list.  Kelly Miller was the personification of a Capitals style of hockey for more than 1,000 regular season and playoff games, but in the years that have passed since his retirement, he does not seem to get nearly the credit he might deserve for being such an important part of the franchise’s history.  In that sense, his career bears a resemblance to that of the Nation’s fourth President.  

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Bengt Gustafsson

We continue our stroll through the history of American Presidents and compare the third President of the United States – Thomas Jefferson – with a Washington Capital of the past.  And that Capital is… Bengt Gustafsson.

Any child in grade school knows the basic history of Thomas Jefferson’s life and career.  Governor of Virginia, member of the Continental Congress, principal author of the Declaration of Independence, the first Secretary of State in American history, and Vice President under John Adams, in addition to serving as the Nation’s third president.

In Washington Capitals history, Bengt Gustafsson holds a lofty place of his own.  He ranks 14th in team history in games played (629), sixth in goals scored (196), seventh in assists (359), and seventh in total points (555).  Despite appearing in only 32 postseason games in Caps history, he ranks 15th in goals-per-game, fourth in assists-per-game, and sixth in points-per-game.

Those are the basics.  But what sets each of these individuals apart, and in a sense what binds them for purposes of this whimsical scribble, is what lies beneath.  With regard to Jefferson, John F. Kennedy once remarked at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners that the gathering was “the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”  

It was not hyperbole.  Jefferson was a prolific inventor and innovator.  Some were mundane, like the “turning machine” for clothes.  Others served a utilitarian purpose, such as his take on the “moldboard plow.”  He also explored the process of copying with his “polygraph,” a redesign of the “dumbwaiter,” and even delved into encryption with his “wheel cipher.”   Certainly, Jefferson was much more than the offices he held.

It could be said that Bengt Gustafsson was more than goals, assists, and points, too.  He was a particular effective player on both sides of special teams.  More than 40 percent of his career assists (145 of 359) and more than a third of his total career points (194 of 555) came on the power play.  Four times in his last five seasons in the NHL he received votes for the Selke award as the league's top defensive forward, finishing as high as fourth in the voting for the 1985-1986 season.  And, as if to illustrate he could play the entire spectrum of “gentlemanly play,” Gustafsson demonstrated a certain fearlessness (if utter lack of good judgment) in playing physically, from his rookie year, when he had the temerity to dump Gordie Howe to the ice, to his last year in the NHL, when he finished sixth among 27 players receiving votes for the Lady Byng Trophy. 

When Thomas Jefferson died, he was buried at his home at Monticello under a marker engraved with an epitaph he wrote: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”  He did not include his offices held among those accomplishments and for which he might be best known to students of American history. 

For Caps fans, Bengt Gustafsson is best remembered for the nine seasons in which he played in Washington.  But more than that, he was a fixture on the Swedish national hockey team, playing in five world championships, medaling four times (two Gold).  He played in Canada Cup tournaments in 1984 (runner-up) and 1987 (eliminated in the semi-finals).  Gustafsson also appeared once in the Olympics for Sweden, that in 1992 (Sweden finished fifth).  He would go on to become an assistant coach with the Swiss national team, then move up the coaching ladder in Europe including stops as head coach with F√§rjestads BK in Sweden, where he won a championship in 2002, and with the Swedish national team.  In 2006 he cemented his spot in coaching history as the first coach to win both a world championship (over Czech Republic) and an Olympic gold medal (over Finland) in the same year.

Thomas Jefferson might have been, as John Kennedy suggested, the greatest collection of talent and human knowledge ever to find himself in the White House.  It might be said that Bengt Gustafsson was among the most talented and versatile players ever to have worn a Washington Capitals jersey.  It is in the richness and depth of their respective endowments, abilities, and varied experiences that is the reason they find themselves mentioned in the same space here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Adam Oates

After our look at which Washington Capitals player might be best compared to the first President of the United States, we now take a look at the second chief executive and which Capital might be the best comparison.  Today, we look at a pair of “Adams…es…”  John Adams and Adam Oates.

John Adams was our second President, but he was much more.  He was one of the most prolific and well regarded political theorists of his time and in American history. He provided a key "assist" to Thomas Jefferson in the writing of the Declaration of Independence.  He was the principal author of the constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  He served two terms as Vice President under George Washington.

Adam Oates would play 19 seasons in the National Hockey League and would play more games with the Washington Capitals (387) than he would for any of the seven teams for which he played.  But he was more than that.  He was twice a first team All American and was named to the All-Tournament team in the 1985 NCAA playoffs while at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  He would become one of the greatest playmakers the NHL has even known, currently seventh in the all-time career assist rankings in the NHL.  He is one of just five players in NHL history to record at least 90 assists in a season two or more times (only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux have done it more than twice).  And, he would return to Washington after his playing days to coach the team he once captained (we will return to this).

And about those assists.  John Adams provided a lot of assistance to his cousin, Samuel, in the revolutionary period of American history, even as Samuel was perhaps the more dynamic personality of the two.  In two and a half seasons with the St. Louis Blues, Adam Oates recorded 228 assists in 195 games, many of those helpers put on the stick of Brett Hull, quite a personality himself, who scored 212 goals with the Blues while a teammate of Oates.

But it was with the Capitals…sort of…that Oates twice led the league in assists (he led the league three times in his career).  We say “sort of,” because while he led the league with 69 assists in 81 games in 2000-2001, he recorded 57 of what would end up being a league-leading 64 assists in the 2001-2002 season.  He was traded by the Caps late that season to the Philadelphia Flyers for goaltender Maxime Ouellet and a first, second, and third draft pick in 2002 (that first round draft pick would later be traded to the Dallas Stars for a draft pick that would become Alexander Semin).  

John Adams’ tenure as Chief Executive might have been expected to go smoothly, given his experience as Vice President under Washington.  However, it was not without its controversy.  He signed the Alien and Sedition Acts, four bills that brought the full weight of the executive branch down on immigration, citizens deemed by the government to pose a danger, and those critical of the Federal government.  He also had his philosophical disagreements with Alexander Hamilton over the matter of strong central government.

Hockey has far less consequence than national policy, of course, but Adam Oates had his share of controversy, even if he brought assistant coaching experience to his first posting as a head coach in the NHL.  There was his odd and persistent obsession with “handedness,” not just for defensemen, but extending to the forwards, flipping Alex Ovechkin from the left side to the right in no small part because Ovechkin is a right-handed shot.  There was his odd line combinations, most notably with respect to Ovechkin, who skated a substantial amount of time with the likes of Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera, Aaron Volpatti, and Joey Crabb.  Then there was the borderline bizarre venture into coaching Braden Holtby in the finer arts of goaltending despite never having played the position that, while not career-shattering, perhaps wasted a year of productive development. 

It is worth noting that John Adams served only one term as President of the United States.  He was defeated for re-election by Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800.  Jefferson reversed a number of initiatives enacted by Adams, including the Alien and Sedition Acts and a number of taxation measures.  Similarly, it is worth noting that Adam Oates did not survive as head coach after his second season with the Capitals, one in which the club failed to reach the postseason.  He was replaced by Barry Trotz, under whose administration Alex Ovechkin was returned to his natural left wing, and Braden Holtby returned to a more aggressive, athletic style of goaltending.  Ovechkin scored at least 50 goals in each of his two seasons playing for Trotz, while Holtby continued his ascent into the elite ranks of NHL goaltenders, winning the Vezina Trophy as the top netminder in the league in 2015-2016.

Despite being born 227 years apart, one in Massachusetts, the other in Ontario, there would seem to be much in the experience of John Adams and Adam Oates that connects them.  Well, enough for us to write about.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Yvon Labre

And now, as we steam (quite literally) into the dog days of summer, and we gird our loins for what looks to be an entertaining political season, we will take a look back at Washington Capitals over the years and ask ourselves, “if so-and-so was a U.S. President, which one would he be?”  Let’s start at the beginning…

Yvon Labre, the “Father of Our Franchise.”

It makes sense, right?...

George Washington, first President of the United States, first (and to date, only) President to be elected unanimously (in 1789 with all 69 electoral votes).  Yvon Labre was not the first Captain of the Washington Capitals (Doug Mohns was), but he scored the first home goal in franchise history (the Los Angeles Kings were the victim; it was the only Caps goal in a 1-1 tie, the first standings point earned in club history) and was the first player in franchise history to have his number retired.

George Washington fought for the British before fighting the British.  Yvon Labre was a Pittsburgh Penguin before he played against the Pittsburgh Penguins...

George Washington lost more battles than he won.  In fact, “he lost more battles than any victorious general in modern history.”  Yvon Labre lost more games than he won as Captain of the Capitals (91 losses to 41 wins).

George Washington was the only President who did not live in Washington, D.C.  Yvon Labre didn’t play for the Capitals in Washington, D.C.  The Caps played at the Capital Centre in Landover, MD.  Oh, and Washington was a landowner…land-owner…land-over.  Almost the same, eh?

George Washington did not wear wooden teeth (his false teeth were made from other materials), but he famously had problems with his teeth (mostly a lack of them).  Yvon Labre was a hockey player…’nuff said.

George Washington had a variety of health problems over the course of his life.   Yvon Labre had knee injuries that would ultimately cut short his career

Yvon Labre played his last seven NHL seasons with the Capitals, all of them in the difficult, formative years of the franchise.  It was not unlike a military commander called upon to lead a young collection of colonies to independence through battle and into the formative years of the Republic.

OK, it is different, but let’s not get too serious.  After all, it is summertime.  

Friday, July 01, 2016

Washington Capitals: As The Great Talent Rush of 2016 Begins

July 1st is a date that every hockey fan circles – the start of the unrestricted free agent signing period.  Like its comparison event, the NHL entry draft, it represents hope.  Hope that can be addressed in a more immediate nature with the signing of players who can help their team now, not four or five years down the road (if at all).

Fans of the Washington Capitals are no different.  They were made very happy last year at this time when the club signed free agent winger Justin Williams to help get them over the pesky second round playoff wall they never seem able to scale.  Things did not turn out as planned, but hope springs anew as the 2016 version of the “NHL Talent Rush” commences.  I’m sure the cousins have something to chime in with on this issue, so let’s get their take…

Peerless… OK guys, let’s start with holes.  Where are they on this roster?

Fearless… If you look at the 12 forwards and six defensemen, plus the two goaltenders you are likely to want playing every night with this team, it isn’t really a team with holes, or at least they have fewer than just about any other team in the league.  Their top-six forwards are not in such a state that you would seriously contemplate taking on salary to add that level of skill, given where the Caps are on the salary cap.  The same goes for the top-four on defense.  There might not be a Norris Trophy candidate in that group, but there aren’t many teams with the balance the Caps can ice at that position.  Goaltending certainly isn’t an issue for this club.

Cheerless… Well, cuz, in this game, if you snooze, you lose.  Stand still, and you’re moving backwards.  If you’re not the early bird, you don’t get the worm.  Are you going to look at what the bottom nine forwards did in the playoffs and what the defensemen not named “Carlson” did on offense and say, “we’re good?”  If you can improve there with a free agent, you do it.  You strike while the iron is hot.  You can make the numbers work.  Other teams seem to be able to do it.

Peerless… The Caps have several free agents, both restricted and unrestricted, whose futures must be addressed.  Who stays, and who goes?

Fearless… By the time folks read this, I suspect Jason Chimera will shortly, if not already be the property of another club.  His fate was sealed when the Caps traded for Lars Eller, which will end the matter of Marcus Johansson, wing or center?  As for Johansson, a restricted free agent, I have a hard time imagining how the Caps don’t re-sign him.  He’s among the most productive players from his draft class, and he’s a solid, reliable 45-50 point contributor (at that level or better per 82 games over the last five seasons).  As for the “Mike’s” – Latta, Richards, and Weber – Latta (a restricted free agent not tendered a qualifying offer) is gone, and the other two will follow.  That leaves the other restricted free agents, Tom Wilson and Dmitry Orlov.  Both, like Johansson, were extended qualifying offers.  They have roles to play on this team; I don’t think either is going anywhere (note: Wilson was signed to a two-year extension).

Cheerless… What Fearless said, but I wonder about Tom Wilson.  Something Brian MacLellan said about Latta sticks with me… “I think the key for him is he’s gotta bring something besides energy in that fourth-line role. He’s got to kill penalties; there’s got to be another dimension to his game for him to be successful in the league.”  Something like that might have been said about Wilson last year, when it seemed his biggest skill was making mayhem.  He added penalty killing this past year, fourth among Caps forwards who appeared in more than half the games.  But he’s a 16th overall pick, too.  I think folks are going to want to see him add some more offense to his game, even if his point totals have improved every year.  The team thinks there is something there; they re-upped him for two more years. 

Peerless… Let’s get right to the nub of it.  This is a team that has built itself largely from the draft, but the last two summers the Caps have been busy under Brian MacLellan, getting defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in 2014 and forwards T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams last summer.  Will they be busy this summer?

Fearless… No.  Head Coach Barry Trotz gave up the ending yesterday when he said:

“I don’t think we’ll be actively going after a high-end free agent or anything…One of the reasons is we have a couple players out here that could challenge I think for our hockey team. We’ve been patient with some of our young guys who really made a lot of progress and showed how much they’ve grown. They went to the Calder Cup Final, and they’ve really grown. We don’t want to block our good young guys with a 35-year-old veteran, who can get it done, because we have a veteran team now…We want to give some opportunity to our kids. They’ve made great progress, and I think they’ve earned that right to challenge for spots, and I think we’re not going to block them. I think if we do anything, we might add maybe one forward. I think we’ll be pretty quiet.”

That pretty much sums up what Caps fans can expect.

Cheerless… If I’m dealt two pair, I’m not throwing one of them out to try to get four of a kind.  I like my chances with this hand…maybe I look for another card to round out a full house, but I’m not blowing up my hand.  All that talk about snoozing and worms and all that.  Forget it.  The Caps have a pretty good hand right now. 

Peerless… In the end, the Caps are in a pretty good place, if you’re an optimist.  If you look at the postseason just completed, the Caps were an overtime away from taking the eventual Stanley Cup champions to a seventh game on home ice despite:
  • Their leading scorer in the regular season having one point in six games against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Evgeny Kuznetsov just turned 24 in May.
  • The 13th player in team history to record at least 60 points over his first two seasons before reaching the age of 22 having one point in six games against the Penguins.  Andre Burakovsky turned 21 in February.
  • A defenseman who missed an entire regular season of hockey coming into this season and who had never appeared in an NHL postseason game before this year having no points in five games against the Penguins.  Dmitry Orlov is 24 years old.
  • A 16th overall draft pick who has improved on his regular season scoring numbers in each of his three seasons having one point in seven games against the Penguins.  Tom Wilson turned 22 in March.

The worst you could say about this quartet is that they won’t get worse in the postseason.  Frankly, it would be hard to do that.  You hope, if not outright expect, that they will improve.  And, if they do next season, they do it with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Justin Williams, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and others to perform at or near their production levels this past season. 

Go back to the quote from Barry Trotz above, and think about where the open roster spots are.  The Caps probably stabilized their forwards by trading for Lars Eller, which will likely settle Marcus Johansson in a wing slot on a permanent basis.  With Jason Chimera (likely) and Michael Latta not coming back, one could envision a spot for a winger, but this is where those “good young guys” come into play.  The Caps might want to take a long look at players like Jakub Vrana, Riley Barber, Chandler Stephenson, or Travis Boyd to fill a slot to reward developmental performance and, in the longer term, keeping salary room available for any moves the team might want to make in season or at the trading deadline.

If a lot of moves in free agency is something fans find entertaining, this free agent signing period is likely to look to Caps fans like a bad public access cable talk show.  But this is a club that would already seem to have the parts it needs, just with a little more experience for some of them, to kick in the door to the vault where that Stanley Cup is kept.