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Column: Saban restless in a way rest of us are not

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Column: Saban restless in a way rest of us are not

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) At some point, all that success should have brought real joy, or at the very least, some satisfaction. Instead, it's only made Nick Saban chase each win more relentlessly than the last.

On the eve of Alabama's pursuit of its third BCS crown in the last four years, more than a few people wondered whether Saban might open up, the way Urban Meyer did while still coaching at Florida a while back, the way plenty of his predecessors have when their legacy, like Saban's, was secured. Saban did - just not the way most expected.

He began with a story about inheriting his uncompromising work ethic from a father that he and everyone else in their tucked-away corner of West Virginia always called ``Big Nick.''

``There was a bum that used to come to my dad's service station early in the morning because he'd give him free coffee and doughnuts,'' Saban said. ``We had had a tough game the night before, I don't remember whether it was basketball game, a football game or whatever. The guy was giving me a hard time and I sort of sassed him. I was 17 years old. I got the strap right on the spot.

``It was the right thing,'' he added quickly. ``I needed to learn a lesson. I was disrespectful to an older person, regardless of the situation.''

Saban rarely comes off as a man who speaks from the heart. More often, he sounds like someone cobbling together bits and pieces culled from a shelf's worth of books on motivational speaking, which Saban, not surprisingly, has turned into a lucrative second career. Maybe that's what made that story he told about his father seem even more revealing when the subject came up a day later.

This time, the lesson was not about respect, but about always striving for ``a standard of excellence, a perfection.'' Saban recalled being 11 years old, already working at that same service station by then. His responsibilities ran from pumping gas and collecting the cash to checking the oil and tires, and finally, washing the cars with great care.

``I hated the navy blue and black cars, because when you wiped them off, the streaks were hard to get out. And if there were any streaks when he came,'' he paused, referring to ``Big Nick'' once more, ``you had to do it over.''

Sports is hardly the only place where the father-son dynamic ignites a spark of ambition that grows and grows until it becomes a consuming flame. And there are men like Saban at the top of every profession. They clamber up the ladder without regard for the consequences, treating each job like an audition for the next one. His story is especially instructive that way.

Saban played defensive back at Kent State, despite standing only 5-foot-6, and the determination he showed won him a job as a graduate assistant there in 1972. Next came a half-dozen more stops as an assistant - including a season with the NFL's Houston Oilers - before Saban landed his first head-coaching job at Toledo in 1990. He brought the school a Mid-American Conference title in his one and only season there, bailing out to take a job as defensive coordinator with the NFL's Cleveland Browns under then-coach Bill Belichick.

In the ensuing 15 years, Saban burned through three more jobs, each one good enough to be considered a ``destination'' among his peers - first at Michigan State, then at LSU, where he won his first national title, and finally with the Miami Dolphins. Instead of feeling like he'd arrived, Saban remained restless in a way the rest of us are not. After two years, including his first losing season as a head coach, he flat-out denied he was leaving for the vacant job at Alabama - and then lit out for Tuscaloosa in 2007, anyway.

Saban is still there six seasons later, longer than his tenure lasted anywhere else. He's been so successful that he not only owns the town and the state; he's even won over those fans and alumni who once insisted once that no coach deserved the Crimson Tide job without some connection to the legendary Paul ``Bear'' Bryant. Some of the most stubborn hold-outs now even use the ``D-word (dynasty)'' to describe what Saban has accomplished there.

In the meantime, he sunk roots in the community, including relocating the ``Nick's Kids Fund'' charity he and wife Terry set up more than a decade ago. It's actually named for ``Big Nick,'' the blue-collar taskmaster and former Pop Warner League who taught his son never to take on a job unless he intended to do it right.

Whether Saban has learned that lesson might be open to debate, though measured strictly by his winning percentage, he's certainly done right by nearly every team that hired him. The only remorse Saban feels when he remembers the debt he owed ``Big Nick'' is that he didn't figure it out sooner.

``Probably when I was a senior in college, that's probably when I realized it,'' he said. ``And my first year of graduate school was when he passed away. I never really ever told him,'' he said, ``which I regret.''

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.

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5 things to know about the newest Capital Radko Gudas

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NBC Sports Washington

5 things to know about the newest Capital Radko Gudas

Most fans know little about Radko Gudas other than the fact that he has a reputation for being a dirty player. Here are some facts to help you get to know the newest Capital a little better.

1. Gudas has been suspended four times in his career

First the bad news. Gudas has a lengthy suspension history and is one hit away from getting a significant suspension from the Department of Player Safety. Here’s a look at all four of his suspensions:

Dec. 2, 2015: Check to the head of Mike Zibanejad, suspended two games

Oct. 10, 2016: Late check to the head of Austin Czarnik, suspended six games

Nov. 19, 2017: Slash to the head of Mathieu Perreault, suspended 10 games

Feb. 20, 2019: High-stick to the head of Nikita Kucherov, suspended two games

These plays are why Gudas has the reputation that he does.

Fans will want to compare Gudas with Tom Wilson, but really there is no comparison here. If you watch these plays from Gudas they certainly seem much more intentional than anything Wilson does.

The good news is that Gudas is working on playing a cleaner game.

“I worked on it in the summer and I thought I adjusted the game enough to still be able to play physical, just not be a liability out there for me team,” Gudas told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday. “It's always something hard to adjust, but we still have to do it. It's our job. If you don't hurt the team that you're playing for while doing it, that's where you can find (the line) as a player.”

This is not just lip service as Gudas’ penalty numbers have gone in each of the past three seasons, going from 116 in 2015-16 to 93, to 83 to 63 in 2018-19.

2. Gudas has had two fights against the Caps

Gudas has not been shy about dropping the gloves in his career and has done so twice against Washington.

The first instance came back on Nov. 11, 2014 while he was playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning. A scrum broke out after Eric Fehr barreled into goalie Ben Bishop and Gudas and Wilson became engaged leading to both players dropping the gloves.

The second fight came this past season. In a game between the Caps and Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 8, Gudas laid a big hit on Nic Dowd and Devante Smith-Pelly immediately came to his teammate’s defense. The fight was more of a tussle than anything else as neither player could get their hands free.

3. Gudas was voted as Philadelphia’s best defenseman in 2018-19

Now on to the good news. The Caps have actually gotten a good defenseman.

When it was announced that the Caps had traded Matt Niskanen for Gudas, the initial reaction was that Washington’s defense had gotten worse, but that was a necessary price to pay considering the team needed to clear cap space. That may not be the case.

Gudas had a very good 2018-19 season for the Flyers, so much so that he was given a team award as the most outstanding defenseman as voted on by sportswriters and broadcasters.

Did it help that pretty much everyone on Philadelphia’s blue line had a bad year? Yes, there is no denying that. Gudas is not the caliber player that he should be an NHL team’s best defenseman. But he is a lot better than most people give him credit for.

Make no mistake, this was not a simple salary dump by Washington. Brian MacLellan very shrewdly freed up some cap space by bringing in a defenseman who can play at a level that is just as good if not better than Niskanen can at this point.

4. Gudas has experience playing with Michal Kempny and Jakub Vrana

Gudas is from the Czech Republic and has some experience with some of his new Czech teammates. He and Kempny played on the U18 and 20 Czech teams together. Gudas and Vrana were teammates over the summer in the World Championships which Kempny could not participate in because he was injured.

“I played with a lot of the guys throughout the years that I play in the league, but with Michal, I used to play on the national team (with him),” Gudas said. “We're the same age. We played some important games together in youth. And with Jakub, I know him from the world national team a little bit now and I think we hit it off pretty well. Looking forward to work with them, too.”

5. Gudas is family with former Cap Michal Neuvirth

Neuvirth and girlfriend Karolina Gudasova had a baby girl in September 2017. As you can guess from Karolina’s last name, she is the sister of Radko thus making him the uncle to their girl, Emilka. Now Gudas is officially Neuvirth’s brother-in-law after Neuvirth and Karolina were married which led to hilariously random pictures like this.

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Free Agency Bracket: Brett Connolly vs. Brooks Orpik

Free Agency Bracket: Brett Connolly vs. Brooks Orpik

It is almost time for NHL free agency to begin, and the Capitals certainly have needs to fill and a limited budget. Who would be the best fit? Who would be the best free agent target for Washington to pursue? That’s what NBC Sports Washington wants to find out!

Our experts got together and made a bracket of the 16 best free agent fits. The bracket is divided into four regions: Third line forward, fourth line forward, depth defenseman and Caps’ free agent. Now we want you to tell us who you want to see rocking the red next year!

Every weekday we will match two free agents up against one another and present a case for each player. Then you get to vote and decide who advances!

Check out today’s matchup:

Region: Capitals free agents

Brett Connolly vs. Brooks Orpik 

 

2018-19 stats 

Brett Connolly (27 years old): 81 games played with the Capitals, 22 goals, 24 assists, 46 points, 13:20 TOI

Playoffs: 7 games played with the Capitals, 2 goals, 0 assists, 4 points, 13:50 TOI

 

Brooks Orpik (38 years old): 53 games played with the Capitals, 2 goals, 7 assists, 9 points, 15:40 TOI

Playoffs: 7 games played with the Capitals, 1 goal, 1 assist, 18:12 TOI

 

Hockey-Graph contract projections

Brett Connolly: 3 years, $3,536,091 cap hit

Brooks Orpik: 1 year, $1,150,064 cap hit

 

The case for Brett Connolly 

The Capitals have already re-signed one of their third-line free agents with Carl Hagelin’s new deal. Is there room left for Connolly? There is an argument to be made here. Connolly has made himself comfortable in Washington. He tied his career highs in goals twice (15) and then broke through with a career-best 22. And he is one of the league’s most productive players given his limited ice time. 

There are just too many big names in front of Connolly to get him much power-play time. Those 22 goals wouldn’t be easy to replace and GM Brian MacLellan said scoring depth is a concern this offseason. If he is again willing to sacrifice role for a bump in pay and some security then maybe Connolly returns to a place he re-ignited his career. The talent is certainly there as the No. 6 overall pick in the 2010 draft and Connolly is headed into his age-27 season so a three or four-year deal takes care of his prime years. 

It might be out of Washington’s hands anyway. Even if the Capitals want to keep him, other teams could use money AND ice time to entice Connolly. But can they strike gold again with another cheap third-line winger as they did with Connolly? That’s not easy to replicate. They could simply sign Connolly and take care of it, but the salary cap is tight.    

The case for Brooks Orpik

A leader, a winner, a three-time Stanley Cup champion. Hard to measure what Brooks Orpik has done for the Capitals in his five years with the team. Did the Capitals overpay an aging defenseman when they signed Orpik before the 2014-15 season? Maybe. But it worked out for everyone even after last summer’s buyout and subsequent return. Orpik contributed again last season – though a knee injury limited him and bothered him most of the season. He even scored a game-winning overtime goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Some of this will depend on what Orpik wants to do. He said it would be later in the summer before he makes a firm decision on whether to play at age 39. 

But while the Capitals have solidified their blueline with the trade for Radko Gudas and have two young players – Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos – available to play the left side, it’s always nice to have a veteran there. Orpik might not want to play a limited No. 6/7 role even if Washington wants him back. And maybe the Capitals want to give those young players ice time. But Orpik won’t cost much more than they do. Do you bring him back? 

Who’s your pick? Vote here. 

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