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.
It’s not entirely fair to compare basketball to hockey as frequently as we do. Sure, both the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League play 82-game regular season that encompass the traditional North American academic year, and both are played indoors in arenas, and many basketball and hockey teams share said arenas in many cities, but basketball is poised to challenge football as the most popular sport in the United States in the next 20 years and challenge soccer internationally, while hockey is struggling just to stay in fourth place. While the NBA is as popular as it has ever been, leading to an enormous spike in the salary cap this year, the NHL’s cap is staying put by comparison. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two sports is they way their own versions of “The Decision” played out this summer.
The original “Decision” came in the summer of 2010, when LeBron James decided to rip out the collective heart of the city of Cleveland on live national television to take his “talents to South Beach.” The move was polarizing to say the least, added water to the packet of Instant Villain Mix that was the Miami Heat, and ultimately made LeBon’s eventual return to Cleveland and title run this spring that much sweeter for a city that hadn’t won a championship since the Johnson Administration. This summer, both the NBA and NHL had the biggest free agent courtship stories of the decade, and while the Kevin Durant free agency experience lived up to the billing, the drama in the NHL this August seems incredibly minor by comparison, but at the same time, a really big deal for that sport.
Enter Harvard University captain Jimmy Vesey of North Reading, Massachusetts. Vesey was selected in the 3rd Round (66th overall) by the Nashville Predators in the 2012 NHL Draft. He had such a good 2015-16 season for the Crimson that was received the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey , and was guaranteed a top-six spot on Nashville’s roster, as the Preds were gearing up for a playoff run in a stacked Western Conference. In as surprising move, Vesey informed the Predators that he was not interested in signing with them, and that he intended to hit free agency when his draft rights expired on August 15. While is must be frustrating for Nashville, who not only used a draft pick on him, but invested time working with him in development camps over the years with the understanding that he would be part of that team’s bright future (And the Predators are a team that is really going places. I’ll have more on that another day.), but it was well within Vesey’s rights to do what he did. Vesey did not choose Nashville. Nashville chose him, and he has blossomed into a really good player whose game has the potential to translate very well to the NHL. Had he been in the draft after his senior season at Harvard, he may very well have gone in the top ten. The summer of 2015 was a chance for Vesey to explore his options.
It is hard to quantify the equivalent talent in basketball that teams were courting in Jimmy Vesey. He’s obviously not an established, can’t-miss talent like LeBron in 2010 or Kevin Durant in 2016. He hasn’t even played in an NHL game yet even though Vesey, who turned 23 in May, is older than Jonathan Toews was the first time Toews captained the Chicago Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup. The closest thing I can think of would be if there was a basketball player from Eastern Europe or Australia who had YouTube highlight reels upon highlight reels destroying guys and hitting insane shots in half-empty gymnasiums that also had never been drafted by anyone. In a case like that, the chance of that guy becoming Euro-Jordan would be slim, but too tempting a chance to not at least look into when elite talent is so hard to come by. The award he won is promising, but not necessarily indicative of success at the next level, either. The Hobey Baker is about as hit and miss as the Heisman Trophy, if not more so, because the Junior Hockey leagues in Canada are still the more mainstream pipeline for NHL talent than the NCAA. Kids who can play in the NHL at 18 or 19 typically go from Juniors to the NHL. Those who cannot make that leap play college hockey, or end up there because they are American and get overlooked. Some Hobey Baker winners, though have made it as stars in the NHL, like Ryan Miller or Chris Drury, and the most recent winners, Johnny Gaudreau of Boston College and Jack Eichel of Boston University, have turned into promising and exciting players for the Calgary Flames and Buffalo Sabres, respectively. If you believe in things coming in threes, maybe Jimmy Vesey completes the Hobey Baker Winners Who Went To College In The Boston Area And Took The NHL By Storm Hat Trick.
What Vesey represented more than anything was a free high draft pick who would be cost controlled for the next couple years, who had a real chance to blossom into a top-six forward. The NHL has a hard salary cap, and teams generally hang onto their good players, unless they’re my Boston Bruins, in which case I need another drink. Jimmy Vesey was a low risk, potentially high reward acquisition for whichever team was able to land him. The Bruins, the Blackhawks, the Rangers, the Sabres, the Islanders, and the Maple Leafs were all in very different situations, but all really wanted the player because of how he could cheaply improve their team in an era when everyone is struggling with the same salary cap. Boston was the only city that was in the mix for both Vesey and Kevin Durant this summer, and the Bruins and Celtics both came up empty handed. With Durant, the Warriors were the far easier situation to join compared to anyone in the NBA, but with Jimmy Vesey’s decision to sign with the New York Rangers, the reasoning is not as clear.
I can understand not wanting to sign with Boston as a kid who grew up and went to college in Massachusetts. If you want to find out what it’s like to live somewhere else, there is no better time than when you’re 23. Was New York the better hockey situation, though? Not if he wants to win right away, I don’t think. The Blackhawks are the class of the NHL, and the chance to play with Jonathan Toews, who I think is this generation’s Steve Yzerman and that comparison might be selling Toews short, or the chance to play on a line with for the Islanders would be better than anything the Rangers can offer him, as they are a team that can only go as far as the still excellent but aging goaltender Henrik Lundqvist can take them. The Rangers offer him a place to showcase his talents as he prepares for that second contract, with little threat of getting bumped down a line from younger, hungrier talent. After that, maybe Jimmy Vesey decides to come home to Boston, or to a closer to contending Toronto or Buffalo team, or maybe he washes out of the NHL by then. The Hobey Baker Award doesn’t have the greatest track record of NHL success, after all.
The real problem with Jimmy Vesey’s Decision wasn’t that he exercised his right to pursue free agency, it was that it was August and hockey fans were so bored we made it a bigger story than it was because there was nothing else going on. The rest of the big free agents signed in the first week of July, and we’re still a couple of months away from real NHL games. All we have in August is regular season baseball (which as a Red Sox fan, has been good this year), and the mostly nonsense that is the Olympics. We did this to Jimmy Vesey more than he made this about himself. If his career doesn’t reach the level of anticipation that the past week did for hockey fans, we need to remember that.
I’m not really sure where to begin. I almost bought a Dougie Hamilton Boston Bruins jersey a couple of months ago, so there’s that. I went to a bachelor party a couple of weekends ago, and two of my friends were talking about the Bruins trading up in the draft for Boston College star and Norwood, MA native Noah Hanifin (Boston University star and Chelmsford, MA native Jack Eichel was locked in at #2 in the draft, and there was no way the Buffalo Sabres were trading that pick), and we had already resigned ourselves to the likelihood of Milan Lucic getting traded sooner rather than later, so there’s that. By the time I showed up for the wedding on Saturday, the damage had been done. Those same two friends and I were commiserating over what happened instead. How did this happen?
I work evenings, and I turn off the mobile data on my phone when I’m working, except on breaks. At my first break on Friday night, I saw updates from Yahoo Sports and from Reddit that Milan Lucic had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings for a 1st round pick, goaltender Martin Jones (who has since been traded to the San Jose Sharks), and prospect defenseman Colin Miller, and that Dougie Hamilton was headed to the Calgary Flames in exchange for a 1st round pick and two 2nd round picks. Okay, here we go. Something big is about to happen. It’s sad to see Hamilton, an impending restricted free agent, go before he becomes the player he’s supposed to become, but maybe this is what they need to acquire Hanifin.
I shut off the data and put my phone in my pocket knowing the Bruins had the 13th (from LA), 14th (their own), and 15th (from Calgary) picks in the draft and anticipated what might happen next. When I went on Reddit at my next break, /r/BostonBruins was full of “Fire Sweeney,” “Fire Neely,” and “seriously, what the hell just happened?” posts. Apparently, instead of trading up, they kept those picks.
At 13, the Bruins took Jakub Zboril, a defenseman from the Czech Republic, who was projected to be drafted in the middle of the 1st round. Okay, so far, so good. Might not be Hanifin, but it’s something.
At 14, the Bruins took Jake DeBrusk, a forward for the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League, ranked in the late 20s by most prospect evaluators. Alright, I guess. I mean, they took him a little ahead of his consensus value, but it the Bruins think he’s their guy, then he’s their guy, right? Their probably going to use the next pick on someone that’s a more sure thing and little less of a reach…
At 15, the Bruins took Zachary Senyshyn, a forward for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. He is ranked #38 by NHL Central Scouting, #39 by ISS Hockey, #40 by Bob McKenzie of TSN, #42 by Future Considerations, and #57 by Hockeyprospect.com. Yeesh. Now that’s a reach. That’s what you use the Hamilton pick on? This kid better be good, or in a couple years Don Sweeney is going to be looking for work somewhere on the Canadian prairie the way Peter Chiarelli made it to Edmonton this summer (On a side note, I can’t wait until Chiarelli inevitably becomes the probably the first executive in any sport to trade away the first two picks from the same draft when he deals away Taylor Hall for pennies on the dollar. It’ll be the inverse of the House of Cards-style manipulation that Pat Riley pulled off to get the top three picks from the 1992 NBA Draft to play together in Miami).
The biggest concern I have as a Bruins fan is the same one I have as a Red Sox fan: it’s unclear to me which way direction the teams are going, and it’s unclear to me if the teams themselves know.I’ll save my rant about the Red Sox for another day, but with the Bruins, I can’t tell if they’re trying to compete right now or rebuild. If they’re competing now, why let Lucic go now? Even if you can’t or don’t want to re-sign him at the price he’s going to command as an unrestricted free agent, you’d get the most out of him with a playoff run in a contract year. I had the same issue with Chiarelli doing the same thing with Johnny Boychuk last year.
If you’re going to rebuild, then why did Hamilton get traded and not Zdeno Chara. It’s clear he’s not the player he once was, but he could still contribute to a contender if he’s not having to play the amount of minutes he normally plays. If you’re going to rebuild, why did you give an aging, perpetually injured veteran blueliner like Adam McQuaid a four year contract extension? If you’re rebuilding, isn’t Dougie Hamilton the kind of player to keep around?
I wrote in the middle of the 2014-15 season that there were only three players the Bruins should not consider trading: Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Hamilton. With Hamilton now traded, and the window to compete while Chara is still a Bruin quickly closing, the only untouchable player on the roster is Bergeron. They should tear this thing down. Trade Chara. I’d be more hesitant about trading Tuukka Rask, but is they get a good return (which I have very little faith the Bruins can do), they should trade him, too. Put the “C” on Bergeron’s jersey, and find a coach who can better adapt to the changing landscape of the NHL. It sounds simpler than it is, and I have my serious doubts that they can pull it off, but can it really get much worse than it is right now?
Hamilton is the fourth talented player the Bruins have dealt with a varying return in recent years. While Hamilton did not reach the level that Joe Thornton or Phil Kessel or Tyler Seguin reached in Boston, he was a star on the rise. With all four players questions arose of their character or competitiveness, and some of those issues were valid, but when this kind of thing keeps happening with the same organization, it makes me think the issues are more with the Bruins than the individual players. Claude Julien’s system is demanding in the defensive zone, and players like Seguin, Kessel, and more recently Ryan Spooner, have struggled to gain his trust despite their offensive prowess. At some point you need to score, no matter how good your defense and goaltending are, and the Bruins have trouble dealing with guys that can be playmakers or goal scorers in the offensive zone.
This past weekend was a trial by fire for new Bruins GM Don Sweeney. Sweeney, who worked under Chiarelli for years in the Bruins organization, is similar to Chiarelli in that they both played college hockey at Harvard, but differs from Chiarelli in that he was teammates with team president Cam Neely on the Bruins, and is supposed to be Neely’s guy. If this is Neely’s vision for the Bruins, I’m worried. I thought getting rid of Chiarelli would be a good thing, and he did need to go. From bad drafts (see Hamill, Zach and Caron, Jordan) to overpaying role players from the Stanley Cup team (see Kelly, Chris) to not getting a good return on players traded away (see Seguin, Tyler and Boychuk, Johnny) to giving away young players for nothing on the waiver wire (see Fraser, Matt and Cunningham, Craig), it was about time the guy lost his job. It would have happened sooner if not for the heroics of Tim Thomas in the spring of 2011.
Chiarelli and Claude Julien made the Bruins respectable again for the first time in a long time, but it was time to move on. I’m not sure exactly why Claude Julien is still the coach of the team. He’s a very good coach, he’s won a Stanley Cup here in Boston, and his defense was a key to the success of Team Canada in the 2014 Olympics, but I’m not convinced he’s the right guy to oversee a rebuild. He coached up a young roster when those young players were Bergeron, Lucic, David Krejci, Kessel, Mark Stuart, and Blake Wheeler, but he was also in good position to compete in the short term with veterans like Chara, Marc Savard (whose long-term injured reserve contract was traded to Florida this week), P.J. Axelsson, Thomas, and Glen Murray providing leadership and experience to the room. Claude likes to lean on the guys that came up big for him in the past. Chris Kelly’s presence on the roster stunts the development of Ryan Spooner because Claude trusts the overpaid Kelly more than the inexperienced with high upside Spooner. For Spooner and David Pastrnak and Seth Griffith and Alexander Khoklachev to get better, they need to play, and they need a coach that will play them.
What there doing makes sense until the next move, and as a fan of the team, that’s troubling.