It didn’t take long for Brian MacLellan to get acquainted with his new job as Washington Capitals general manager. The bevy of additions look to catapult the Caps from a near playoff berth to an Eastern Conference powerhouse. Washington’s alterations demanded the attention of the hockey world, including their divisional companions, the Philadelphia Flyers. Are the Flyers threatened by the Caps’ spending? Or will Philly pick right up where they left off with them?
Part IV of a seven-part series analyzes the offseason chess match between the Flyers and their Metropolitan Division nemesis, the Washington Capitals.
Building Off The 2013-14 Season Series
Washington’s 7-0 blowout victory on November 1st against the Orange and Black was enough to cringe over. At the time, it was viewed by many as a nasty precursor for things to come in the season series between the two. The Caps scored five 2nd period goals, while Joel Ward recorded his first NHL career hat trick en route to an embarrassing loss for the Flyers.
Philadelphia’s night was capitulated, however, by a goalie fight between Ray Emery and Braden Holtby. Emery, who didn’t even start the game, was worse than his predecessor, Steve Mason, which perhaps added to Emery’s foul mood. After replacing Mason, who surrendered three goals on 17 shots, Emery was taxed for four goals on 15 shots.
In all, the two teams finished the savage contest with 164:00 of penalty time, 99:00 of them issued to the Flyers.
“He didn’t want to fight,” said Emery of Holtby. “I said, basically, ‘Protect yourself.’ He didn’t really have much of a choice.”
While Emery’s actions were frowned upon by many, and for good reason, his fisticuffs with a reluctant Holtby wasn’t a solo act. The rivals dropped their mitts in an all-out line brawl as Emery took shots at Holtby’s dome. Still, it was Emery who received not only an ejection, but the game’s sarcastic third star as well.
The Flyers used the 7-0 shellacking as bulletin board material so to speak, and commenced their season series against the Caps with a 3-1-1 record.
“That was embarrassing, especially in our own building,” said Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds. “You never want that to happen, and I don’t think it will ever happen again. I think it opened up a lot of guys’ eyes.”
After dropping their next meeting with the Caps by 5-4 shootout loss, the Flyers seized the last three meetings between the two, including a 5-4 overtime win on March 2nd.
“They’re the leaders of this team,” Flyers goalie Steve Mason said of Giroux and Voracek after Philly’s 6-4 win on March 5th. “When they are going, everybody follows. We have to have that on a consistent basis moving forward, because every game moving forward is so important. Tonight, for two periods, we played an extremely good hockey game. You can’t let your foot off the gas in this league, because teams will take advantage of it.”
The scoring in last year’s games were abundant as the two teams combined for 42 goals. And despite taking the season series from Washington, the Caps outscored the Flyers by a margin of 22-20.
This maverick-like style was indicative of Washington’s season, since the Caps finished 21st in total goals allowed with 229. Two more than the Flyers’ season total. But unlike the Flyers to date, the Caps addressed their defensive shortcomings.
Whether it’s enough to shift the balance of power Washington’s way or not is yet to be seen. But it’ll certainly add to an already wacky rivalry.
Much like the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Caps entered the free agency frenzy under a new regime. After a 17-year reign as GM, George McPhee was shown the door as his contract expired. And after only two seasons behind the bench, Adam Oates was fired as well.
“We were a continuously improving playoff team until we weren’t. And the last two seasons showed us that we need to improve. And that’s what it came down to,” said Capitals owner Ted Leonsis. “Dick (Caps president Dick Patrick) and I said, ‘We have to make that gut check. Do we have to change? And where do you start?’ And you start with the coach and the general manager.”
But instead of leading a wild goose chase by teasing interest with television personalities, the Caps filled the GM position from within when they promoted Brian MacLellan.
“MacLellan, 55, has been a fixture in Washington for the past 13 seasons, serving first as a pro scout, then director of player personnel and, for the past seven seasons, assistant general manager under George McPhee. Promoting MacLellan doesn’t fulfill what owner Ted Leonsis explained in April as a need for a “fresh set of eyes and new voice” to assess the team, given that the Guelph, Ontario native has been involved with Washington since 2000.” — Katie Carrera, The Washington Post
On the same day MacLellan was elevated to general manager, the team named former Nashville Predators head coach Barry Trotz as their new bench leader.
“Barry’s teams have always played with structure, discipline and intensity, and I look forward to him leading us to success for many years to come,” said MacLellan.
Barry Trotz will make the D better and he now has an offense. If the team gets in sync, it's dangerous. Excuse my biased opinions.
— Josh McCarron (@Niskannon) July 3, 2014
With a name to the face behind the Caps bench, and a new GM to quarterback to act in free agency, the Caps did just that. MacLellan struck like a ninja, signing Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, and Justin Peters for a combined $71.9 million. The total yearly cap hit of the three stands at $12.2 million, which after some other minor deals were struck, leaves the team currently with a little over $1 million of open cap space.
“Reckless or not, the Capitals are quickly becoming a team built in the image of Barry Trotz.” — Chuck Gormley, CSN Washington
Reckless is one way to put it, although credit the Caps for aggressively making an effort to improve an area that was clearly a weakness last season. And as the Flyers know, overspending is what it takes to land your guy. But investing over $60 million in a pair of players who are anything but a sure thing appears to be overzealous.
“Why am I worth that?” Orpik asked. “Uhh…that’s probably a better question for the people who give out the contracts. I think my body of work speaks for itself.”
For all we know, though, the signings of Niskanen and Orpik could work out exquisitely for the Caps. After all, Niskanen is coming off of a career year, in which he scored 46 points in 81 regular season games. And Orpik’s physical presence alone is enough to make him attractive in Red and Blue in MacLellan’s eyes.
But do the pro’s outweigh the “what if’s?” Before producing those 46 points, Niskanen’s previous career best in points stood at 35. It was his second year in the league (2008-09) as a member of the Dallas Stars. But despite Niskanen’s CEO-like salary, he has proven both durable, and clutch. Since the 2011-12 season, the 27-year-old defenseman has missed only 16 games.
Niskanen gives the Caps a scoring threat from the blue line that can lead the power play. Out of his 10 career game-winning goals, eight of them have come in the past two seasons.
Niskanen: "If the #Caps call, you gotta listen."
— DistrictSports Caps (@CapitalsDSP) July 1, 2014
Orpik, on the other hand, skates to the Potomac with a richer deal than he had gotten from Pittsburgh six years ago. And at 33-years of age, it would seem that the 27-year-old Brooks Orpik was more deserving of his new $27.5 million deal than the one who brings a history of concussions and mileage.
“I don’t want to pick on Brooks Orpik right now,” said Mike Johnson on NHL Network. “We’re delighted for him that he got that contract, absolutely. But I think on July 1, there may be no group of players that are more overvalued than defensive defensemen. And Brooks Orpik is good at his job, but that kind of term, that age, when he skates like that, that is going to be tough for them to handle down the road. That might just be a little too long for Brooks Orpik.”
The former Pens will join Mike Green, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Dmitry Orlov on Washington’s blue line. A solid group when matched up against the Flyers, the latter four combined for five goals and seven assists. Niskanen’s presence now adds to the Caps’ defensive scoring threat, and Orpik adds to a tower of a defensive unit. One that currently has only two players under six-foot.
Whether they overspent or not, the Flyers will certainly have their hands full next season. Even if Niskanen and Orpik combined for four points total against the Flyers last season.
With now the fifth highest payroll in the league, the addition of the mini corporation known as Niskanen and Orpik means a cut somewhere else. In an effort to thicken the defense, the Caps let center Mikhail Grabovski join the New York Islanders.
“Last season in Washington, Grabovski was limited by injuries and played just 58 games but finished with 13 goals and 22 assists. Not to mention he’s a strong two-way player with positive possession metrics. Not everybody agrees (ahem, Maple Leafs) but at $5 million, he’s at an OK price but should be worth it for the Isles, especially since they aren’t in cap trouble.” — Brian Stubits, CBS Sports
It’s not that MacLellan wanted Grabovski gone as much as it was that he simply could no longer afford him. And with Brooks Laich still on the tab at a $4.5 million cap hit for the next three seasons, Grabovski’s deal in Long Island has to sting.
— JB (@JB_HockeyTalk) July 2, 2014
The Caps finished last season 13th in the NHL in goals, with 225. Clearly, scoring wasn’t their issue. Washington outscored the Red Wings, Rangers, Habs, Wild, and the Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings. But if Grabovski’s 13 goals are wiped away, the Caps would sit 19th in the league, right behind Barry Trotz’s Preds.
“You look around the league, and it’s really tough to win just scoring goals,” said forward Eric Fehr. “You have to play defense in the playoffs, and that was a change I think we needed to make. Goals never really worked anyway if you look at our playoff history.”
Since losing in the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, the Caps haven’t even returned to the Conference Final, losing five times in the opening round. The prolific scoring led by Alex Ovechkin may be quite entertaining, but resulted in playoff disappointment, along with three missed playoff appearances.
This explains the sudden shift in mentality, which will result in Dustin Penner’s inevitable departure. After being traded at the deadline from Anaheim, Penner’s three points in 18 games doesn’t help you remember he played for the Caps in the first place. Penner either flat out doesn’t fit Trotz’s mold, or MacLellan is using too small of a sample size in his determination.
“Penner, a two-time Stanley Cup winner for two different teams, can be a disruptive force for opposing goaltenders when he parks his big frame (6 feet 4, 247 pounds) in front of the net. His shots on goal have dipped slightly each year since he averaged almost 2.5 shots per game in 2009-10, but when he does put a shot on net, it is usually up close and personal with the other team’s goalie.
“He can help on the power play (2 minutes 16 seconds per game with the Ducks last season) and proved he can be productive when playing on the top line, as he did with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in Anaheim.” — Neil Greenberg, The Washington Post
Penner was merely used as a token piece in his brief stint in D.C. The comedic vet was demoted often to the fourth line, where he mopped up irrelevant minutes for the plundering team. Depending on who signs him, if someone signs him, he could quite possibly leave the Caps with regret.
Are The Flyers Threatened By D.C. Spending?
With Grabovski and Martin Erat no longer with the organization, the Caps will return nine of the 11 skaters who scored three or more points in the season series against the Flyers. With Steve Downie now in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia returns seven of their eight scorers who recorded the same amount or more.
One of those players, Jakub Voracek, led all skaters with six goals throughout the series, which includes the game-winner on March 5th. And even though Niskanen and Orpik are new to the Caps next year, Voracek shouldn’t be effected; if his performance against Pittsburgh last season has anything to do with it, that is.
“In all honesty, a case could be made that Jakub Voracek is actually the best player on the Flyers. That’s probably going a bit too far, as Claude Giroux is one of the league’s truly elite power play quarterbacks and a fantastic penalty killer as well, but at even strength, Voracek is right there with him.” — Charlie O’Connor, Broad Street Hockey
The Flyers will undoubtedly rely on their captain, Claude Giroux, as well. Despite trailing Voracek’s goal totals by a single goal, Giroux made up for that shortcoming by adding four assists. But with the league’s second ranked power play last season, Washington’s man-advantage grows even stronger with their newest additions.
“They have a good power play,” said Giroux after their last victory over the Caps last season. “They’ve got a lot of tools that can hurt the other team. They move the puck well. Hopefully we did some good stuff on the (penalty kill). But they did great stuff on the power play.”
Nicklas Backstrom has been a power play machine throughout his seven-year career, despite a recent drop in point production since the 2009-10 season. Backstrom was held scoreless on the power play, but led Washington scorers with eight points. The Flyers will have to limit both Backstrom, and Alex Ovechkin, who burnt the Flyers with three goals and two assists.
The upcoming season series, however, will come down to goaltending. Can Steve Mason avoid the sluggish start that resulted in the 7-0 thrashing last November? Or can he build on the 3-0-1 record he would go on to establish against the Caps last season?
“I like Steve Mason,” said former Flyer, and current NBCSN analyst, Jeremy Roenick recently, “but I don’t think Steve Mason is the answer to winning a Stanley Cup.”
I have zero issue with what Roenick said. With that said, Mason played in front of a bad defensive core. Game 7 was insane. He was stellar.
— Kyle (@NHLFlyersHockey) July 17, 2014
Mason may refute Roenick’s comments by sustaining success against one of the league’s higher-powered offenses. But as Roenick later mentioned, Mason and the Flyers still lack the top defenseman that all championship teams have.
“I think you need an upper echelon defenseman, I think you need an upper echelon goaltender,” added Roenick. “The Flyers do not have [either].
“I think that’s something that you’re going to have to look at in terms of improving your team.”
Braden Holtby, on the other hand, was no better than Mason in last year’s series. Holtby’s 1-1-1 record with an .882 save percentage was pedestrian at best. But with a restructured defense in front of him now, Holtby may be tougher to beat.
With Justin Peters backing up Holtby, the Caps’ one-two punch in net has improved. And although Philipp Grabauer was able to steal a game from the Flyers last season, Peters is a much more viable option.
Peters is 1-3-0 all-time versus the Flyers, but the 27-year-old backup picked up his first career victory against the Orange and Black last season as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes.
Although the Flyers carried the season series last season, the high scoring nature of the series suggests that the Caps have pulled even with their defensive repairs. But with or without their big free agent acquisitions, predicting a season series between the two is difficult enough. Yes, the Caps have improved. But forecasting next season’s outcome is anyone’s guess.
Barry Trot’s attention to defense should make the Caps not only difficult to beat for the Flyers, but for the rest of the league as well. On the other hand, though, we’ve heard this before about the Caps. Only time will tell.