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Bluelines: Challenging Year for the Washington Capitals

Stan Fischler and Co. analyze the Washington Capitals' poor performance and Jack Campbell's struggles, share Peter McNab stories and more.
Alex Ovechkin


1. When the Connor-Leon headline act doesn't score – try Wednesday night – sorry, but the Oil Cans are leaking as they approach Under-.500-Land.

2. Los Angeles was picked for fourth in the Pacific Division and Edmonton first. I'd turn that prediction upside-down – for the duration.

3. Toronto hosting New Jersey last night loomed as a titanic skill-speed tug-of-war. This critic’s review: the Devils defy credulity and proved it again last night with their 3-2 OT win. Remarkable backup Vitek Vanecek won his eighth straight game.

4. Offensive whiz Jack Hughes didn't score the winner, but his deft interception of a Leafs pass orchestrated the Yegor Sharangovich goal. Hughes is getting better by the week, and he's already A-1.

5. More and more, the Penguins are looking like a non-playoff team and have been more ersatz than excellent since last season's trade deadline.

6. Darcy Kuemper was supposed to provide "welcome stability" to Washington's crease. So far, it's been more like unwelcome instability.



Oilers' GM Ken Holland once was a goalie. Based on that fact, we have to assume that he understands netminders. But did he know what he was getting by signing Jack Campbell? Our intrepid – also fearless – Sean McCaffrey has the answer here:

What do Cam Talbot, Anders Nilsson, Laurent Brossoit, Jonas Gustavsson, Al Montoya, Nick Ellis, Mikko Koskinen, Anthony Stolarz, Mike Smith, Stuart Skinner, Troy Grosenick, Dylan Wells, Alex Stalock, and now Jack Campbell, all have in common?

The answer: all 14 goalies have suited up for Edmonton ever since the arrival of Connor McDavid. Ditto for Lord Leon.

Outside of Talbot, who had a historic 2016-17 season for the franchise, no other Oilers goalie has been able to make it out of the first round during the McDavid-Draisaitl worshipful era. Now, they're stuck with Campbell.

Where once expensive goalies – such as Henrik Lundqvist – have failed to win a Cup, inexpensive, young goalies (Matt Murray, Jordan Binnington) previously have succeeded. Right this minute, Campbell is an abject Alberta failure.

He got the Oilers gig – heavy moolah – only because his GM continuously fails to find a reasonable facsimile of Igor Shesterkin. Campbell is there only because he was in the right spot at the right time for a hard-up GM.

Apart from Darcy Kuemper, Campbell was the only starting goalie available on the free-agent market. It meant Holland had to do something, and, by default, Campbell became the man in Edmonton. The wrong man.

After 10 games, the 30-year-old, who signed a whopping five-year deal worth $25 million overall, is a prime candidate for the overpaid-overrated booby prize of the half-century.

Among all 73 goaltenders who have made a start this season, Campbell's .873 save percentage ranks 69th overall in the league. His goals-against average of 4.27 ranks him 70th.

His winning record of 6-4 is only propped up by McDavid and Draisaitl, the NHL's top scorers. What this means is that Holland has to pray that Stuart Skinner, Campbell's 24-year-old backup, can make beautiful music between the pipes. Maybe the kid can do it. What we do know is that the cage cartel that's also known as ‘Soupy’ has his club deep in the soup.



Alex Ovechkin, broad shoulders and all, cannot carry the Caps all by himself, although he sure gives it a good try. As for his mates, they are trying – very trying. Alan (I've Seem Them All Except the Americans) Greenberg has the D.C. scoop.

Never were the Capitals’ frustrations more evident than in their recent journey to the Sunshine State where they received no southern hospitality. First, they were run out of town in an ugly 6-3 loss in Tampa, during which Darcy Kuemper was pulled after surrendering four goals on nine shots. On the east coast, they played well against the Panthers, but third-period defensive lapses cost them in their 5-2 loss.

This is a team missing a good part of its nucleus. With Tom Wilson out, the intimidation factor is reduced. Add the losses of Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Connor Brown and Carl Hagelin and a big part of the offensive punch is gone.

The Caps are seventh in the Metropolitan Division. Nobody is suffering more than Alex Ovechkin. His nine goals and 17 points in his first 19 games are commendable, but the output doesn’t even put him in the top 50 NHL scorers. With Wilson and Backstrom on the sidelines, 'Ovi' has had a succession of linemates. After the Florida loss, the Caps were on an 0-21 power play schneid over four games.

Following the loss in Sunrise, coach Peter Laviolette lamented the ineffective power play.

“Right now, we’ve got to find a way to score goals," he said. "The power play has got to get us one; five-on-five has got to get us another one. I thought we played hard in the last 40 minutes and pushed to get that win. We couldn’t seem to get ahead of the score.”

John Carlson summed up the adventure in the State of Florida.

“It’s really frustrating coming off a stinker of a game (in Tampa); and then you deserve a little better, but that’s the way it works sometimes,” Carlson said. “You’ve got to push through it. If we get chances like we did tonight, we expect it to turn at some point.”

The Caps earned a degree of redemption Thursday night in St. Louis, breaking the power play draught and overcoming a three-goal deficit to salvage a shootout loss.

There is no timetable for when the team will return to full strength, so it is up to the current cast to step up. The firepower is still there. Evgeny Kuznetsov has to heat up, and scorers like Dylan Strome, Conor Sheary and Anthony Mantha need hot streaks and a little puck luck. It’s a long season.



When the Rangers signed Jaroslav Halak as the replacement for exiting Al Georgiev, they expected by mid-November that 'Prince Hal' would have at least a couple of wins to his credit. As of today, Halak's mark is somewhat to the left of the .500 mark. His win-loss mark is dismaying, to say the least. Yet, Rangers super-sleuth Sean McCaffrey is sticking up for the old boy. Why? McCaffrey, as Witness for the Defense, has the answer:

While Halak's record does not inspire handstands up and down Seventh Avenue, consider the following: In five games played, he's only received two-plus goals in support once. On average, the team only scores one goal per game for him.

And this is from the eye test - Halak has made a few tremendous saves in each game, including odd-man rush and breakaway saves. Of the goals he's given up this season, I'd say two, maybe three, were really on him.

In a way, he's been better than Igor this season, proven last night as Iggy lost another, this time in OT to the Kraken.



BIG ANSWER: ABSOLUTELY NOT, because he's worth the price of admission, and San Jose fans deserve to see this artist in rhythm.



When ailing Hall of Famer Borje Salming was honored on Scotiabank Arena ice last Saturday, many observers were intensely moved with emotion rare in the hockey business. With that in mind, we're adding one more tribute from a native Torontonian and longtime Maple Leafs reporter, Rob Del Mundo. His version follows.

During a weekend in which three Swedes received their Hockey Hall of Fame rings and blazers, the man considered to be the pioneer for Tre Kronor’s members to enter the NHL was lavishly applauded in Toronto.

Leafs legend Borje Salming, who is afflicted with ALS – a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease – made the trip from Sweden to be present for the weekend’s festivities.

Salming, who became the first of his countrymen to be inducted into

the Hall in 1996, paved the way for superstars such as Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Daniel Alfredsson, all of whom are members of this year's Hall of Fame class.

Unable to speak, Salming was greeted with a thunderous ovation at Scotiabank Arena prior to last Friday’s game between the Leafs and Canucks. Salming’s arm was propped up by long-time teammate and friend Darryl Sittler, an off-ice assist to enable the six-time All-Star defenseman to wave to the crowd.

“I was very emotional,” said Toronto right winger William Nylander after the game. “(Salming) was very nice to me whenever I spoke to him when I first got to Toronto. He was the first guy from Sweden to make his way over and lead the way with his toughness. It’s just so sad to see him go through what he’s gone through.”

Twenty-four hours later, Salming was feted on the scoreboard at the same arena with a video tribute showing highlights of his career. The six-time All-Star punctuated the pre-game ceremony by dropping the puck for the ceremonial faceoff between Nylander and Vancouver defender Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

As a personal tribute, Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe iced a starting lineup of six Swedes: forwards Nylander, Calle Jarnkrok and Pierre Engvall, defensemen Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin, and goalie Erik Kallgren.

Alfredsson, shortly after receiving his Hall of Fame ring, praised Salming’s influence on the game.

“He was truly a legend and pioneer and trailblazer for Swedish hockey players,” Alfredsson said. “He was such an icon and a humble guy too, but he fought through so much. The character he has, you almost thought – because he came back from all the injuries, all the scars and stitches – he’s immortal. To see him the way he is, it’s heartbreaking.”

A true warrior on the blue line during his stellar career in Toronto, Salming faces his toughest battle yet.


WHO SAID IT? "Face it, people in the United States would rather watch The Rifleman than a hockey game." (ANSWER BELOW).



Peter McNab, who recently passed away, had legions of friends from the hockey world and outside as well. Many of them have contacted us with remembrances of Peter as a pal and as a player. One of them is Alex Shibicky who knew McNab when they were kids as well as when they were teammates on the Denver University varsity hockey team. The following are some of Alex's thoughts:

"I first met Peter through the Vancouver/Burnaby/New Westminster minor hockey league program around 1958. My father (Alex Shibicky, former star on the 1940 Rangers Cup winners) had two separate stints as coach of the New Westminster Royals in the old Pacific Coast Hockey League. And Peter's dad, Max McNab, had come out to the coast as his NHL career had wound down. Max played for my father and spent some time as the team captain.

"Max’s coaching career started off with the San Francisco Seals of the old WHL prior to coaching the Vancouver Canucks after which he joined the San Diego Gulls. During a recent dinner conversation with Peter, he told me that it was when Max took over the Gulls that Max gave Peter the choice of staying in New Westminster or moving with the family down to San Diego, pointing out to him that San Diego did not have a minor hockey program and that any career ambitions would be severely limited and/or stymied.

"Peter told me that it was a no-brainer and jumped at the chance to move to southern California knowing that he would have great exposure to his father’s coaching and time on the ice with the Gulls... and then there was the weather and the California girls, too!

"The team ownership, along with Max and sons David and Peter, went to work in the community to build a minor hockey program with a lot of team resources and hard work, David and Peter were the poster boys of what the program could be.

"Hockey was not the only love of Peter’s life, as he was a very talented baseball player which, ironically, came into play a little later in his teenage years. With both Peter and myself growing up with famous hockey-playing fathers, we got exposed to some of the all-time best hockey players from the history of the game.

"We attended the 1964 Old Timers Game where Peter and I got to hang out with the likes of Rocket Richard, Cyc Taylor, King Clancy and others. It was off the charts inspiring, not to mention, really cool. Peter and I played together on the Sons of Players versus New Westminster Bantams in the preliminary game. Tracy Pratt was our team’s coach with his dad, Babe, in the featured game. It was a big deal in the Vancouver area and also included ex-Ranger Hy Buller. It was a very cool moment for Peter and me."



Yays and Boos


YAY TO TOM FITZGERALD for constructing an arresting and appealing Devils squad.

BOO TO CEREBRAL OILER ZACH HYMAN for his comment after Edmonton lost 3-1 to the Kings the other night. He lamented his team's poor start with this gem: "We talked about starting on time." Geez, will somebody buy Zach an hourglass? That might help his Oil Cans to start "on time."



When the Devils opened their season, the hope was that Mackenzie Blackwood would be the "A" stopper with Vitek Vanecek the backup and Jon Bernier the backup to the backup. But since Blackwood went down with an injury, Vanecek has admirably replaced him, winning eight straight games. New Jersey kept winning while other netminders have gone down like tenpins, including Minnesota's high-priced Marc-Andre Fleury. When all is said and done, it could very well be the backups who decide whether teams make the playoffs or not.



Oddsmakers in Vegas didn't give Lindy Ruff much of a chance to survive this season. Neither did Devils fans, some of whom were chanting for his exit during the first two losses of the season. But, somehow, the Devils turned it around, and Lindy has played a big part in helping the young club's ascent. Right on top of this story is our Emmy Award-winning author-commentator George Falkowski. Here's his report.

"When Lindy Ruff signed on to coach the Devils, more than a few observers felt he was a placeholder until the roster was stabilized and a proper-up until the next bench general could take over. For his first two seasons in Jersey, Lindy and the team looked lost. This year’s 0-2 start didn’t help.

"But a funny thing happened on the way to the unemployment line. GM Tom Fitzgerald brought in new assistant coaches as well as better talent. Veterans like John Marino and Eric Haula have brought experience and maturity to the dressing room.

"The young pups, Jack Hughes and Jesper Bratt, began to figure things out. And with the arrival of Vitek Vanecek in goal, the Devils are suddenly relevant, and Ruff has gone from lame-duck coach to coach of the year candidate.

"I knew things were changing during the postgame press conference after the Devils shutout win against Colorado several weeks ago. As Lindy wrapped up, he smiled as he left the podium. I hadn’t seen that in quite some time."



If you have a Twitter account, you should follow Devils' fan page named The Bratt Pack (@TheBrattPack63). He's doing "The Job-O-Meter" for the Devils' coach. It started the season on "Fire Ruff," continued to "Alright, let's see what happens here" and right now, it's on "Extend Ruff." Go follow him, great account.



Our Gus Vic knows the "John Tortorella Effect" better than anyone. Here's his latest from Philly on the Flyers coach.

"By season's end, it may not show in the records, but early markers point to progress with the Flyers despite the 4-1 loss to the Bruins Thursday night. I can see the commitment and buy-in from his players. But the two areas that are most glaring are consistency and mistakes in bad areas of the ice.

"Once some of his wounded troops return – coupled with the baptism-by-fire some of his kids are getting – the Flyers can be a bubble team by next season. If one can get past some of the gruff in his press conferences, Torts' insight and ability to see everything and everybody on his club is remarkable.

"By the time he's done in Philadelphia, this may be his best work as a coach when taking the entirety of this undertaking into account. He should do a book, but I'm not sure he'd go down that path – for now."



* You can hear it across the continent: The Bad Guys are picking on that poor, helpless hulk called Connor McDavid.

* If Gordie Howe still was with us, his reaction to the Edmonton "Leave Our Connor Alone" bleats would be a wry smirk and an even wry-er Tut Tut!

* Sometimes coaches make statements in English which sound like Greek to me. Exhibit A is the following gibberish from Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh:

* "We've got to eliminate the volatility in our game." I have no idea what he's talking about, do you? Hey, Mike, wake up. Volatility is the essence of hockey.

* Jim Rutherford's not-so-subtle hints about Bruce Boudreau's coaching sound like the GM has his hand on the guillotine lever.

* Maybe you can help me on this pressing question: Is it too late to teach Evgeni Malkin the fine art of backchecking? Yes? No? Maybe?

* If "structure," isn't a confusing enough player crutch-word, how about "process" which is about as annoying and confusing as, well, "structure."

* The rise and fall of Thatcher Demko as Vancouver's top stopper boggles the mind, the crease and, most of all, the Canucks.

*At least one art critic among the Western hockey writers is upset with the Canadiens attractive new, blue uniforms.

* Hot tip: It's neither the end of the world nor the NHL. Grin and bear it, bud.



When it comes to goaltending, the Leafs’ confounding crease woes make for good debate. Here's what our Toronto ace Rob Del Mundo thinks of Sheldon Keefe's keepers.

Re: Kallgren – while it's not his fault that injuries to Murray and Samsonov thrust him into the starter's role, he is not an NHL caliber goalie. Through eight games, his sub .900 save percentage will attest to that. While showing occasional flashes of brilliance, the timing of the goals he has surrendered has also been suspect. He has three overtime losses (to San Jose, Anaheim and Vegas), and the third period game-winner he allowed last Friday night – a softie versus Pittsburgh's Brock McGinn through the five-hole – was a backbreaker.

Samsonov, on the other hand, has been a very pleasant surprise to many skeptics, including yours truly. He is full measure for his 6-2-0 record and has salvaged the Leafs on many nights with a "bend but don't break" mindset. What remains to be seen is if he can sustain this level of play for a full season. As of this writing, there is no timetable for his return from a knee injury he sustained Nov. 5 when attempting, unsuccessfully, to make a penalty shot save on Boston's Brad Marchand.


ANSWER TO WHO SAID IT: Don ‘Grapes’ Cherry. Who else would say that?


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