23 April, 2014


Size, of Body and Heart, Matters — Especially in 2012

Instructive moment: Rangers’ captain Ryan Callahan, made captain at so tender an age partly out of his affinity for playing December hockey games like they’re game 7s in May, blocked a John Carlson slapshot at the point the other night, and the selfless sacrifice led to a Rangers goal in transition seconds later. The block was one of four Callahan recorded in the game’s opening 20 minutes. Among a few members of the Capitals’ commentariat  on Twitter then there was expressed something tantamount to censure of Callahan, for, I guess, what was deemed a reckless lack of self regard: were he to keep it up, the tweeters lectured, Callahan would again find himself shelved with injury come spring.

A devoted worshiper at the Church of Old Time Hockey, and imbued with resounding cynicism, I couldn’t help but think: We in D.C. have become so saturated with soft, perimeter play by our hockey players — most especially in spring — that it shouldn’t be surprising that some observers here find Callahan’s impression of William Wallace . . . so alien. One interpretation of the perpetual scratching of Jeff Schultz is that the Capitals’ new head coach thinks like I do.

An alternative interpretation of Callahan’s gallantry could go something like this:  That motherf*cker is damned tough to play against, and for the past couple of seasons, the talent-challenged Rangers have well reflected their captain’s grit and determination, by decree of their head coach, and given more talented clubs a real run for their money (especially in spring). Ryan Callahan is one hell of a captain. He will be one hell of an American Olympian captain as well.

Today, that talent gap with the rest of the East for New York has been closed quite a bit, and for me it’s no coincidence that playing inspired, finish-your-checks hockey the Rangers reside at the very top of the conference. Soon, they’ll get their best defenseman in the lineup (Marc Staal), for the first time this season, making them even tougher to play against. The Rangers are built the way serious contenders are — from the net out, big and brawny, with an unmistakable net-clearing ethos in front of the net, and mobile and skilled on the blueline. Served the Bruins rather well last spring.

Perhaps before we criticize another team’s captain and his teammates for excessive sacrifice and courage we ought to see to it that ours is within driving distance of the Viking, Alberta, meter of toughness and tenacity.

The Washington Capitals of the past five years haven’t exactly been known for the selfless sacrifice of their bodies for the betterment of the team, for finishing their checks. In fact, especially in spring, they have fairly earned the reputation of being a team that’s easy to play against, one that comparative lunch pale squads want to draw in the postseason. To state the obvious: there is today no Capitals player quite like Ryan Callahan, and there hasn’t been for some years. Once upon a time, though, there was. The good news is that the former Capitals’ captain is now behind the team’s bench. There, he’s attempting to change a country club culture.

He needs time — cultures, of course, aren’t changed in a week or a month.

Almost certainly, he also needs more Patrick division bodies. More on that in a moment.

Speaking of instructional moments, HBO’s ’24/7′ this month is again affording more stark relief for Capitals fans insofar as how the rugged East comports itself. Watching the intermission exhortations of John Tortorella and Peter Laviolette is not far removed from listening to the warrior words of William Wallace. At their conclusion I find myself clutching my abdomen on my couch to make sure no Rangers or Flyers stick blades make their way through the TV screen at me, and necessarily I’m reminded of the contrast Dan Bylsma brought with our guy on last year’s series (“Hit Green.”).

George McPhee hired Dale Hunter because he believed him to be the best possible coach for the Capitals at the present moment, and part of that formulation perhaps included his conviction that Hunter could be the architect for revamping both the style and ethos of the club. My guess is that Coach Hunter is taking inventory of the roster he has and will report rugged shortcomings to the GM in short order.

The arrival of 2012 really brings a demarcation moment for the Washington Capitals. To posit any plausible playoff success next spring the Caps necessarily will have to get past the pesky and gutsy and supremely sacrificing Rags, the larger and skilled Flyers and Bruins. I’m not sure that as comprised the Capitals would be favored in any series. But 2012 also brings Washington’s return to the reconstituted Patrick division. The Capitals of the past five years have been assembled to compete quite well in the softer Southeast. In the next calendar year the hockey for the guys in  red necessarily gets rougher and tougher.

Looking ahead to 2012 and beyond, there is cause for concern. When you inventory the Capitals’ prospects holdings at Hockeysfuture, with an eye toward who among just the top 15 qualifies as a North American forward prospect tipping the scales at at least 6 ’0, 180 pounds (hardly power forward in stature), the calculation is stunning: zero. Then for fun take a look at the size of the prospect holdings for the Rags, Flyers, Pens, and Devils — and just in their top 10. The Rangers are awaiting on reinforcements like Chris Kreider (6 ’2, 200), J.T. Miller (6 ’1, 198), and defenseman Dylan McIlraith (6 ’4, 215, nicknamed the Undertaker). Philly, ravaged by injury this season, has already received notable contributions from young, big-bodied North Americans like Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier. The Pens have Eric Tangradi (6 ’4, 232), Dustin Jeffrey (6 ’1, 205), Robert Bortuzzo (6 ’3, 196), and Brian Strait (6 ’0, 200) in the pipeline. From the development perspective, we’re coming to the Patrick rechristening party next season with jockeys.

I still suggest that in hindsight it was right to draft the likes of Brian Sutherby, Nolan Yonkman, and Joe Finley. Things didn’t work out with them; injuries eviscerated their respective development. But the Capitals obviously have gotten away from drafting size and guile and grit, and beginning in 2012, they need it badly. Funny: The ‘New-look’ NHL at the top of the East these days rather resembles the old, in stature. The Capitals hold two first-round picks and potentially Colorado’s second-rounder next June. Those picks need to resemble NFL linebackers or safeties in size, and here’s hoping Dale Hunter — uniquely qualified to assess the attributes of top junior talent — is at the draft table for their selection, and subsequently their development.



6 Comments

  1. R wrote:

    You know, I rolled my eyes so hard while reading this that my eyes almost fell out. Please. We get it, you miss hockey from the 1980s when players were, for the most part, big and slow and dumb and unskilled. Do us all a favor and switch your allegiance to football where the main purpose of the sport is to have 300-pound guys slam into each other every two yards, and leave the beauty of hockey to those of us who appreciate it.

    It’s hard to even know where to begin on this post filled with inaccuracies and a storyline not based in fact, so I guess the beginning works. The Rangers aren’t a tough team, at least not in the way you want them to be. Callahan’s a stud, everyone knows that, and they have a few players who bring grit and toughness and work ethic, and Tortorella yells a lot, but they’ve also got guys who are “soft”, and guys who don’t try and don’t bring heart. Tough to play against at times, sure, but the Caps ran their show pretty well in the playoffs and did so again Wednesday night. Not bad for a “soft” team.

    And enough with that already, the Caps aren’t soft. That hasn’t been a knock against them in the playoffs, it’s not why they’ve lost in the past (unless you really want to claim that the 2009-10 Canadiens, with an average size that rivals a Kindergarten class, were also tougher) and it’s certainly not why they got bounced last year… by a so-called weak Southeast Division team. After beating the “tough” Rangers in five games.

    Is Ovechkin soft? Brouwer? Laich? Alzner? Chimera? Backstrom? These guys play physical and sacrifice their bodies on a nightly basis, and they’re hardly the only ones on the team who do so. If you believe that they’re soft, you’re no longer watching the games – you’re just lying back and daydreaming about what used to be while molding today’s team into some preconceived narrative in your mind.

    Speaking of preconceived narratives, the Flyers aren’t the Broad Street Bullies you so badly seem to want them to be, either. Skilled, yes, but hardly a bunch of big, bad goons. They’re a good team now because they have speed (and quite a few forwards who aren’t tipping the scales but are putting up points, by the way), not because they scare the shit out of their opponents. As for the Bruins, they may have won a Cup but the way they play and the way they disgrace themselves is not something I want out of my team. If you want that, I hear Boston is lovely this time of year – be my guest.

    As for those reinforcements you see in the pipeline for the other teams, what are the odds those big guys even make it – and if they do, how do you know they’ll make an impact? Considering we’re talking about a bunch of 18-year-olds, I’d much prefer the Caps take the best, most skilled players available even if they’re all 180 pounds and let them grow into their frame while learning the ropes; better that than to take some big kid just because he’s a big kid and hope that his size and lack of speed won’t work against him in a League where speed is still king.

    Injury didn’t stifle the development of Finley, Sutherby and Yonkman; lack of talent did. I loved the guy but even before he started having injury issues Sutherby was never going to be an impact player, Yonkman was washed up before he could even get started and Finley… well, we all know how much you love him so I’ll keep criticisms of his (lack of) skill to myself.

    The issue with the Caps isn’t physical. Say what you want but they have the grit and the size and the physicality to rival any team in the League, even those vaunted Bruins and Flyers you seem to adore. Their issue has been and continues to be mental, and to say otherwise is just ridiculous. When they’re focused they can be the best. That’s why Dale’s here, to bring that out of them – not to turn them into what he used to be.

    One last thing, this?
    “I’m reminded of the contrast Dan Bylsma brought with our guy on last year’s series (“Hit Green.”).”
    Awfully selective memory you’ve got there, my friend. I believe it was in the same episode where Boudreau told his troops to, and I quote, “Hit Malkin”, knowing it would piss 71 off and cause him to take a dumb penalty. I also believe that his instructions produced much more of an impact than Bylsma’s did.

    But I suppose that, too, goes against your preconceived narrative… apologies for stomping on your delusion.

    31 December, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink
  2. Brad wrote:

    Ovechkin (6’3″ 230 lbs.) and Brouwer (6’2″ 214lbs.) are both top 20 in the league in hits, meanwhile not a single player from Boston OR Philly can claim this. You use Ryan Callahan as an example for shot blocking and he’s not even the leading shot blocker on the Rangers, let alone 3 Caps have blocked more shots than Callahan (Hamrlik, Carlson and Alzner). Have to agree with the commenter here, not much substance to your claims.

    1 January, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink
  3. HMA wrote:

    Amen, R.

    1 January, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  4. Stealth wrote:

    If OFB was smart, they would be offering R a job…

    1 January, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Permalink
  5. HBH WC wrote:

    @R,
    Don’t apologize. P’nB, do you have a response?

    1 January, 2012 at 7:51 pm | Permalink
  6. Mikey wrote:

    @BRAD

    ” You use Ryan Callahan as an example for shot blocking and he’s not even the leading shot blocker on the Rangers, let alone 3 Caps have blocked more shots than Callahan (Hamrlik, Carlson and Alzner).”

    You do realize the point he was trying to make is that Callahan is a forward who is willing to sacrifice his body, correct? You named three Capitals defensemen, all of whom have 30 less shot blocks on the season than the Ranger’s leading d-man, Dan Girardi.

    Callahan is 3rd in the league among forwards in shot blocks. He has 41 to Brouwer’s 25 or Ovechkin’s 12.

    Finally, there is a difference between the mere blanket statistics you use to support your argument and actually watching the aforementioned players play. If you were to actually watch a game or two, you would see that teams like the Flyers and Rangers play with far more grit than we do.

    2 January, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink