They have a great goalie in Braden Holtby. They have a great coach in Barry Trotz (Trotz Trotz Trotz! As Tony Kornheiser is fond of saying). They have one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of hockey in Alex Ovechkin. The Washington Capitals are the class of the NHL’s Eastern Conference and should be the the favorite to reach the Stanley Cup Final, if not win it, yet in the Ovechkin Era, they have never gotten out of the second round. It’s at the point where you have to ask about the Caps: if they can’t do it this year, will they ever?
This has been the history of the Washington Capitals for some 40 years. They are often good, occasionally great in the regular season, but that greatness almost never translates for more than a round in the playoffs, with the exception of the 1997-98 season when they made the Final, but lost to the defending champion Detroit Red Wings. They are the “choking dogs,” as Kornheiser likes to call them, of the NHL. Some of it is bad luck, some of it in recent years has been running into Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington’s personal kryptonite.
Jokes are often made that the San Jose Sharks are the Capitals of the Western Conference, or that the Caps are the Sharks of the East, but even San Jose broke through and made the Final last season. If the last 12 months have taught us nothing else, we have certainly learned that the unexpected can and will happen, and sports curses are made to be broken. The Sharks broke through the same year as the Cubs, and the Caps could be next.
That is why they are one of the biggest winners of the NHL trade deadline, acquiring defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk from the St. Louis Blues without having to give up anyone from their NHL roster. Shattenkirk not only bolsters their strength at the blue line, he is perhaps better prepared for what the Washington Capitals need than anyone on the trade market. Shattenkirk made a name for himself as a power-play quarterback in St. Louis, being the guy to set up Russian-born sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, so it should be an easy transition dishing the puck to Russian-born sniper Alex Ovechkin in D.C.
Best of all for the Capitals, Kevin Shattenkirk is the opposite of a choking dog: he is a prevailing Terrier. Shattenkirk was a member of the Boston University Terriers team that won the NCAA National Championship in 2009, and he assisted Colby Cohen on the overtime game-winner in the National Championship Game against Miami University. That game, it should be noted, was played at Verizon Center in Washington D.C., so Shattenkirk may have experienced better postseason success at Verizon Center, albeit in college, than anyone on the Capitals’ roster.
Nothing is guaranteed in hockey. Nothing is guaranteed in any sport, but that is especially true in hockey because it is on ice, and everything that happens is based on another mistake. That being said, on paper, the Caps should be the best team at the end, and that was true before adding Shattenkirk. Bur history also tells us the team that should win and the team that does win are often not the same. This trade helps their chances of a better outcome, though. We will see how it plays out.
This is an article I wrote for my school newspaper at Fitchburg State University in October 2016. Now that I have graduated, I am publishing some of the writing I did during the semester.
Hockey fans will look back on October 12, 2016 and remember it as the day a new era in the NHL began, even if they did not watch it live. After a decade of the league being dominated by the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane (with Jaromir Jagr, who won two Stanley Cups before Bill Clinton was elected president, is still somehow playing at a high level on top of all that), it is clear to me that a new generation is ready to take the NHL by storm. Toews and Kane have won three Stanley Cups together in Chicago, and may win it again this season, Crosby captained the Pittsburgh Penguins to a second Stanley Cup last June, and while he has yet to find the same playoff success as his peers, Ovechkin remains must-watch television whenever he steps on the ice, but it will not be long before Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers, Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, Patrick Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, and Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs begin to take over the highlight shows, podcasts, and Reddit posts that drive hockey discussion in the 21st Century, and while McDavid and Eichel arrived in the NHL last season, the new era truly began on October 12 when Auston Matthews made history.
Matthews, who was selected with the #1 overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, scored four goals in his NHL debut on the road against the Ottawa Senators, including scoring on each of his first three career shots. The Maple Leafs lost the game 5-4 in overtime, but he showed that he belonged and that Toronto has a cornerstone piece to build their franchise around going forward. The Leafs, the most consistent punchline in hockey for nearly 50 years, finally have something to be excited about again, and it came from an unconventional place.
While McDavid, Eichel, and Laine come from much more traditional hockey talent pools, (McDavid is from Ontario, Eichel is from Chelmsford, Massachusetts and played at Boston University, and Laine is from Finland), Auston Matthews is from Scottsdale, Arizona, was the first in his family to play hockey, and got into the sport from going to Phoenix Coyotes games as a child. The original Winnipeg Jets moved to Arizona in 1996, and Matthews was born in 1997. This is a kid who would be playing college football or baseball this year were it not for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s polarizing strategy of moving NHL teams from cities like Winnipeg, Quebec, Minneapolis, and Hartford to nontraditional markets like Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, and Raleigh (though Winnipeg and Minnesota did eventually get new teams, in addition to expansion franchises in Ottawa, Nashville, Columbus, San Jose, Anaheim, Miami, and Tampa) in the 1990s. Matthews being selected #1 overall back in June is a sign that hockey is growing, that the best athletes from more places are choosing that sport, and the key to the NHL’s growth going forward is not making the game more popular in Canada, (which is why the NHL’s next expansion team is going to be in Las Vegas, not Quebec, as the people of Quebec have not had their own team in 20 years, but still watch the games on TV and buy the jerseys), but to strengthen its influence in the United States.
If there’s any problem I have with hockey’s youth movement, it’s that the best players are stuck in Canada. Coming out of the 2005 lockout, the NHL was able to win back fans because of parity and a high number of competitive teams, but perhaps more importantly, the best teams the last ten years were in American markets. Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Tampa, and San Jose were in the mix for the Stanley Cup more often than they weren’t in a time when the NHL really needed American TVs tuned into their games. Now it seems like the next generation of elite players will be mostly based in Canada, and that could be a problem. It would take the Edmonton Oilers making the Stanley Cup Final for one of Connor McDavid’s games to make it onto NBC, and the same is true of Patrick Laine in Winnipeg. At least Matthews is in Toronto, which as Canada’s largest city and the only Canadian city with teams in the NBA or MLB, is a little more justifiable for American network executives.
All in all, the future of the NHL is bright, and Auston Matthews is leading the way, not just for a franchise that last won the Stanley Cup when there were still only six NHL teams (I know it was 1967 and not 1908, but seriously, the Leafs are the Chicago Cubs of hockey and this doesn’t get talked about enough in America), but for kids playing hockey all across the United States. If a kid who grew up in a state where hockey cannot be played outdoors any time of the year can score four goals in his first NHL game less than a month after his 19th birthday, a lot more kids are going to play hockey thinking they have a chance at the NHL when they otherwise might have stuck to football, and that can’t be a bad thing.
January 19, 2016 edit: Today, the NHL decided to make things right and confirmed that John Scott will be attending the All-Star Game in Nashville and will serve as the captain of the Pacific Division’s All-Stars despite getting traded to Montreal and being assigned to their AHL team in Newfoundland. Good job, NHL. My angry take on the matter from a couple days ago has been neutralized for the most part, but you can still read it below.
The National Hockey League has proven once again how out of touch it is with its fans. Not since the 2012 Lockout, in the months when before I started this blog, and was using my university’s newspaper as the outlet to vent my frustrations about the issues that plague the sport I love have I been so angry with the powers that be. I had mellowed out a bit as a hockey fan since then. Sure, Gary Bettman isn’t a great commissioner, but my focus was turned to the overwhelming incompetence of Roger Goodell at the helm of the NFL. Sure, the hockey owners are a collection of billionaires who made Mr. Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life look like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but NFL owners were no better, and in fact far worse given how much more profitable their league is and given that NHL player contracts are fully guaranteed, while NHL contracts are not. I had accepted that the NHL would not become bigger than the NBA, but recognized that the NBA was doing a lot of things really well from a business standpoint, and started to root for them to overtake the NFL in popularity. I thought there were things the NHL could do to improve their standing, and borrow from the way the NBA was growing their fanbase, and I thought that was working. All of that may still be true, but this week I cannot help but feel disgusted by the NHL, and feel sorry for John Freaking Scott of all people.
For those who haven’t been paying attention (and I can’t blame you if you haven’t), the NHL this year decided to change the format of the All-Star Game yet again. In the past, they’ve done Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference like the NBA always does, American players vs. Canadian players, North American players vs. European players, and had team captains pick the teams like it’s kickball in middle school gym class, and those are just the formats I can remember off the top of my head. This year, after the success of changing the regular season overtime format from 4 on 4 to 3 on 3, they decided to make the All-Star Game 3 on 3 as well. It is my understanding that there is still an aspect of the captains picking teams system (I’m not entirely sure, and I honestly don’t care enough about an exhibition game that has been seemingly changing on the fly as long as I’ve been following hockey), but the game itself would be injected with the fun skates-on-fire chaos that exists when each team has two fewer players on the ice. Considering all the different ways the NHL has tried to shake up the All-Star Game, and considering that they haven’t even played the All-Star Game half the time this decade because it gets cancelled any time there’s a work stoppage or the Winter Olympics, the NHL All-Star Game shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and should be fun, right?
Enter Jeff Marek of Sportsnet and Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo Sports. They host the popular hockey podcast Marek vs. Wyshynski, which I have pitched to my Boston area friends as Felger and Mazz if Felger and Mazz only talked about hockey and pop culture, and if Mike Felger was Canadian and sounded Canadian. They had the idea on their show of trying to get John Scott of the Arizona Coyotes, a career enforcer in an era when that role is declining faster than seven footers with no shooting range who can’t hit free throws and running backs taken in the top ten of the NFL Draft. According to Scott’s Hockey Reference page, the 32 year old Michigan Tech alumnus has played for six NHL teams, and has amassed a whopping five career goals to go with 542 penalty minutes. Marek and Wyshynski thought it would be amusing to see 6’8″ John Scott in a 3 on 3 situation, skating against the likes of Patrick Kane or Alex Ovechkin, in a situation that his coach would never trust him in a real game.
Marek vs. Wyshynski planted the seed of John Scott’s All-Star candidacy, but it was Reddit that took the idea and ran with it, because that’s how the Internet works in 2015-16. Scott ran away with the All-Star vote, and in doing so, generated more interest for the NHL All-Star Game than I can ever remember. One would think that the NHL would be excited about the publicity, that even if the buzz around the All-Star Game was Internet trolling (albeit in maybe the mildest form of trolling I’ve ever seen), at least it was generating buzz.
We live in a world where people feel like they need to be outraged about something at all times. That’s why Donald Trump is leading in the polls, that’s why air in a football in a blowout of an AFC Championship Game was treated like something that should actually be of concern, and that’s why members of the hockey media who for years thought of the All-Star Game as nothing more than a pointless exhibition are now upset over the sanctity of their precious tradition being tarnished by a goon like John Scott being voted in. Measures have been taken to take the All-Star rosters out of the hands of the fans, to prevent a national tragedy like this from happening again, but the way John Scott has been treated has been far worse.
Before I go any further, I should say that I am no fan of John Scott the player. In 2013, I wrote a post on this very blog saying that Scott gives hockey a bad name. I think the only reason he’s in the NHL is because he can fight. I am one of those people who believes that fighting still has a place in the game, but that fighting for the sake of fighting is a thing of the past. The best era of Bruins hockey in my lifetime could be called The Shawn Thornton Era. Shawn Thornton signed with the B’s after winning the Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007, and was a fixture of the team and the community until 2014. During that span, the Bruins became relevant again, made the playoffs every year, won the Stanley Cup, came within 17 seconds of Game 7 in another Stanley Cup Final, and won their first President’s Trophy in over 20 years. Thornton was the team’s enforcer, but was more than a fighter. He could actually play hockey, and while he was never any kind of offensive juggernaut, he did score ten goals in the 2010-11 season. That is my idea of what an NHL enforcer should be, and John Scott does not fit that mold. That being said, John Scott the person seems like a pretty funny guy (one time, he scored a goal and then had a t-shirt made depicting himself scoring a goal), and a family man. He seemed to be playing along with the joke quite nicely, and was excited to be a part of the All-Star festivities in Nashville with his wife (who is expecting another child) and children. One of the great things about the constant sports coverage we get thanks to the Internet is that we get to see the person behind the name, behind the actions on the ice that we may not like. It’s good to remember that the guy who is a punchline in hockey forums and on sports talk radio is actually a person, too. It’s all in good fun, or at least that’s what most people working outside the NHL offices who pay attention to this trivial story seemed to think.
According to Bob McKenzie, the NHL and the Arizona Coyotes asked Scott to bow out of the All-Star Game, and he refused. In response to that, the NHL did their best to make John Scott go away. This week, the Coyotes send Scott down to the minors, which is not unusual for a guy like Scott, who has been straddling the line between the NHL and AHL his entire career, and yesterday the Coyotes traded him to Montreal, where the Canadiens promptly assigned him to their AHL affiliate in St. John’s, effectively ending his eligibility for the All-Star Game unless the Habs decide to call him up to their NHL roster.
The weirdest thing about the way the John Scott situation was handled by the league is the way they passive-aggressively gave it the “nothing to see here” routine that made it a much bigger deal than conducting business as usual. Sending him to the AHL is one thing, but Arizona trading him to Montreal is another. I found out about Scott getting traded because I got a news alert from the Yahoo Sports app on my phone while I was at work. Because I’m too lazy to adjust the settings, I usually only get alerts that pertain to the Bruins (and the other Boston teams), unless it’s a really big deal. For instance, last week, I did not get an alert about the Ryan Johansen/Seth Jones trade between Columbus and Nashville even though two good young players taken with high picks in recent years moved in the deal. I had to find out about that one on Reddit, but “All-Star Captain John Scott has been traded to Montreal” was something my phone needed me to know right away.
If Scott got to play in the All-Star Game, it would be something to tune into. He wouldn’t be the first enforcer named to the All-Star Game. When Mike Milbury was coach of the Bruins, he selected Chris “Knuckles” Nilan to the All-Star team, and people were mad about it then, but at the end of the day, who really cares? The fact the Gary Bettman or whoever is pulling the strings with the Scott fiasco is going this far to discredit the fan vote seems to forget that the fans who vote for John Scott are the same people who are what make the NHL a viable business. If the league wants to grow, expanding the game to non-traditional hockey markets is certainly important, but so is embracing the weirdness of the fans you already have. John Scott’s All-Star candidacy should be celebrated for what it is: lots of people online trying to tweak with the fabric of an ultimately meaningless exhibition of a game that kids play on frozen ponds, but somehow the economy supports a system in which adults can get paid to play. It’s all supposed to be fun, and that should be obvious. Then again, this is the same league that has cancelled all or part of three different seasons because the billionaires are afraid of making too many players into millionaires at the expense of the fans, at the expense of the customers. Great, now I’m mad about the lockout again. Thanks, Bettman!
It wasn’t quite the Miracle on Ice. Elimination would have to have been on the line for it to come close to the most iconic Olympic event in American history, but it was, however, an unforgettable event that is the perfect example of why the Winter Olympics are great. On the morning of February 15 (well, it was morning in the United States, anyway), the United States defeated host nation Russia in a showdown for the ages.
The names in this game were enough to make it epic. Patrick Kane. Ryan Kesler. Joe Pavelski. Ryan Callahan. Phil Kessel. Jonathan Quick. Pavel Datsyuk. Ilya Kovalchuk. Alex Ovechkin. Evgeni Malkin. Sergei Bobrovsky. Who needs an All-Star Game when you can have the best players in the world playing for their respective countries. In the Olympics, they use a larger sheet of ice than the NHL does, which led to a more wide-open game for players to show off their speed and crisp passing skills.
Russia has a lot riding on this Olympic tournament. It’s more than the pressure of hosting the Olympics. Team USA consists entirely of NHL players, while the Russian team has mostly NHL talent with a handful of KHL players. This is about the Kontinental Hockey League trying to surpass the National Hockey League as the most prestigious hockey league on the planet. Ilya Kovalchuk could be playing in New Jersey, and Alexander Radulov could be playing in Nashville, but they chose to play in their native Russia. The KHL hopes this is the start of a new trend where the best European players will come back to Europe, and the young ones will never go to North America in the first place.
Regulation was not enough time to decide this game, and neither was overtime. The Unites States and Russia worked to a 2-2 draw that would have to be broken by a shootout. T.J. Oshie of the St. Louis Blues went first for Team USA, and scored. Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins went first for Russia, and missed. James van Riemsdyk of the Toronto Maple Leafs went second for Team USA, and missed. Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings went second, and missed. Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks went third for the United States, and missed. Ilya Kovalchuk, who left behind the twelve remaining years of his NHL contract with the New Jersey Devils to return to the KHL last summer, went third for Russia, and scored. And so the shootout after the overtime went into extra innings.
An interesting difference between the NHL and Olympic shootout rules is that in the Olympics, after the third round of shootouts, a team can tap a player who has already shot to go again, whereas in the NHL, everyone has to go before anyone can go twice. Team USA coach Dan Bylsma decided to ride T. J. Oshie for all of the extra shootouts the way a baseball manager might ride a hot hitter in October. Oshie went 4 for 6 in the shoothout, while the Russian team went back and forth between Datsyuk and Kovalchuk. In the 8th round, Kovalchuk was stopped by American goaltender and UMass alum Jonathan Quick, and Oshie had a chance to put the Russians away. He got it past Sergei Bobrovsky one final time and bars all across America began to celebrate. It wasn’t even noon yet. It doesn’t get much better than that.
A win over a powerhouse like Russia improves the standing for the United States, but it does not mean they have the Gold Medal in the bag. Let’s not forget that Team USA beat Canada early on, but lost to the Neighbors to the North in sudden death overtime in the Gold Medal Game. T. J. Oshie has gone from being a name hockey fans know to a name the most casual of American sports fans will remember for a long time. That’s the beauty of the Olympics.