Capitals

Pac-12 filled with surprises at season midpoint

Pac-12 filled with surprises at season midpoint

PHOENIX (AP) The Pac-12 season has reached its midpoint and, other than second-ranked Oregon rolling again, few things have gone as predicted.

Oregon State, picked to finish last in the North, is undefeated and tied with the Ducks atop the division. Arizona State is the surprisng leader of the South after winning five of its first six games.

No. 11 Southern California had its national championship hopes dented with a conference-opening loss to Stanford, which turned around and lost to Washington its next game.

Utah, expected to challenge for the South title, is off to another disappointing conference start, winless in three Pac-12 games. And the Air Raid that was expected to hit at Washington State under new coach Mike Leach hasn't gone off as planned, leaving the Cougars 0-4 in the conference.

Here's a few of the highs and lows of the season so far:

---

OFFENSIVE MVP: Oregon RB Kenjon Barner. LaMichael James was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2010 and probably would have been last season had he not gotten hurt. Barner has a chance to be in New York for the presentation, perhaps even win the award if he keeps it up. The senior has rushed for 727 yards in six games and has 10 touchdowns, putting him among the nation's leaders in scoring. He's also the only Oregon player since at least 1965 to score on a run, catch, punt return and a kick return. Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly has been invaluable for the Sun Devils, but Barner is the best player on the best team in the conference.

---

DEFENSIVE MVP: Oregon State CB Jordan Poyer. A big part of Oregon State's surge this season has been its improved defense and Poyer's shutdown ability on the corner has been a key. The senior can play man-to-man with anyone in the conference, allowing the Beavers to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks and not have to worry about the secondary. Poyer had three interceptions in a tight win over Washington State and has five on the season, second nationally to Fresno State's Philip Thomas' six, but in two less games. Arizona State's disruptive defensive tackle Will Sutton isn't far behind, 1A to Poyer's No. 1.

---

BEST NEWCOMER: Kelly, Arizona State. An afterthought in a three-man race to be the Sun Devils' starter, the sophomore came on strong at the end of fall camp to earn the job. He's proven to be a good choice, leading Arizona State to a 5-1 record that few outside of the program expected in its first season under Graham. Kelly leads the Pac-12 and is third nationally with a passing efficiency of 175.98, and has been a dynamic leader with his ability to extend plays and make something out of seemingly nothing.

---

MOST DYNAMIC PLAYER: Oregon running back De'Anthony Thomas. Barner leads the Ducks in rushing, but Thomas is the leader in electricity. The sophomore has averaged 10.2 yards per catch, 9.2 per rush, close to 15 on kick returns. He has six touchdowns rushing, three more receiving and is a threat to score wherever and whenever he touches the ball. Thomas is one of those players you can't look away from, waiting to see what he's going to do next.

---

BEST COACH: Graham at Arizona State certainly would be a good choice, but he didn't enter the season with people calling for his job if things didn't turn around. Oregon State's Mike Riley did. One of the good-guy coaches in college football, Riley kept a positive outlook through two down years in Corvallis and exuded a quiet confidence this season despite dire predictions for his Beavers. Riley has led Oregon State to its best record since World War II behind an explosive offense and a much-improved defense. The Beavers are back and don't appear to be going anywhere, thanks to Riley.

---

BEST TEAM: Oregon. Not a hard one to pick. The Ducks may have their best team under Chip Kelly, who already has a national championship game appearance and the school's first Rose Bowl win in 95 years under his belt. Oregon has been unstoppable so far, averaging 52 points and 541 yards per game to rank among the top 10 nationally. The Ducks have two of the most dynamic players in the country in Barner and Thomas, and have taken quick-strike scoring to a new level with 24 scoring drives that have lasted two minutes or less. But what makes this year's version of Oregon so formidable is an improved defense that leads the nation with four interception returns for touchdowns.

---

BIGGEST SURPRISE: Oregon State. Riley was on the hot seat after consecutive losing seasons, but the Beavers have knocked him off it by opening 5-0 for the first time since 1939. Oregon State is eighth in both The Associated Press poll and in the first BCS Standings behind an explosive offense and a steady defense. The Beavers didn't even slow down when quarterback Sean Mannion went out with a knee injury; backup Cody Vaz threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns against BYU on Saturday in his first start since high school.

---

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Washington State hasn't yet clicked under Leach and California has put coach Jeff Tedford on the hot seat with an uneven start that included an opening loss to Nevada. More surprising has been Utah's start. The Utes opened their first Pac-12 season with four straight losses before coming on strong late last year, spurring hope for 2012. Utah hasn't lived up to expectations - it received one first-place vote in the preseason poll - losing to smaller Utah State in its second game and dropping its first three conference games. The Utes may have another turnaround on the way, but it's been a disappointment so far.

Quick Links

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Just how deep is Washington's blue line?

orlov-usat.jpg
USA TODAY Sports Images

Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Just how deep is Washington's blue line?

It’s time for a new Capitals Mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Douglas F. writes: Now that we traded away Matt Niskanen will Nick Jensen be paired with Dmitry Orlov? I personally would like to see how Jonas Siegenthaler would do beside him. My ideal defensive pairings: John Carlson/Michal Kempny, Jonas Siegenthaler/Dmitry Orlov, Nick Jensen (or Radko Gudas)/ Christian Djoos. Would that make sense?

What you have to consider is the shooting side of each player. Michal Kempny, Dmitry Orlov, Jonas Siegenthaler and Christian Djoos are left-shot defensemen while John Carlson, Nick Jensen and Radko Gudas are all right-shot defensemen. I don’t see the team putting two leftys together in the top four. Right-shot defensemen are harder to find and the Caps have three of them. That is a luxury not every team gets and I do not see Washington going into the season with a plan to willingly giving up that advantage.

Brian MacLellan telegraphed his feelings on Jensen when he traded for him and re-signed him for four years before he ever put on a Caps jersey. They see him as a top-four and that is where they are going to use him.

Granted, if Jensen struggles then pretty much all options are on the table so perhaps we could see this possibility later in the season.

I also get your point on Siegenthaler. I liked him a lot last season. I was surprised it took four games to get him into the playoffs and I was not surprised to see him move up to the top pairing after that. For now, however, putting him on the third pair with Gudas makes the most sense to me not just because of his inexperience but because of the guys ahead of him.

Paul O. writes: With the glut of young defensemen in the prospect pool, along with good ones moving fast in Alex Alexeyev and Martin Fehervary, has the team soured on Connor Hobbs and Lucas Johansen ever making the jump to the big club?

I am not sure “soured” would be the right word for it as I think this has more to do with how impressed the team has been with Alexeyev and Fehervary than any negative feelings towards Hobbs and Williams.

Hobbs was a fifth-round draft pick who has shown that he may have had more potential than initially thought and could reach the NHL, but he was always going to be a third-pairing type of player so it is no surprise to see highly touted prospects like Alexeyev and Fehervary push for the NHL before Hobbs makes it there. His defense has improved tremendously, but the offensive skill that made him a standout in the WHL has not translated to the AHL as of yet. Johansen was hampered greatly by an upper-body injury last season and looks very jumpy with the puck on his stick which is not good news for a player in whom puck-moving was supposed to be a major part of his game.

The bigger concern of the two would be Johansen as he is a first-round pick. That means the team saw him as being a significant NHL contributor and I do not think they would have anticipated him getting passed on the depth chart before reaching the NHL. Hobbs, however, was always going to be a long-shot as a fifth-rounder.

To me, the greater takeaway is not that the team has soured on anyone, but that they are so high on both Alexeyev and Fehervary. Hopefully the other two will continue to develop and eventually catch up, but the silver-lining is you have at least two defensemen the team seems pretty confident can compete for an NHL spot in the near future.

Luka K. writes: Hershey has eight defensemen who all deserve and need to play (Erik Burgdoerfer, Connor Hobbs, Lucas Johansen, Colby Williams, Alex Alexeyev, Martin Fehervary, Tobias Geisser, Tyler Lewington and probably Bobby Nardella)? Who is deemed surplus, an ECHL ticket or possible trade for forward prospect?

In addition to the nine you mentioned, Hershey also has Tommy Hughes and Kristofers Bindulis. That gives the Bears 11 defensemen which should make for a crowded blue line even for the AHL where teams carry more players. Of those nine, Burgdoerfer and Hughes are the only two not under contract with the Caps and are playing on AHL contracts with Hershey.

I would assume Bindulis is headed to the ECHL. He played in only four games for the Bears last season and 12 the season before with 34 games in the ECHL with the South Carolina Stingrays. He certainly looks like the odd-man out. Hughes played last season in Europe, but was with Hershey in 2017-18 and spent the majority of that season in the ECHL. I could easily see him head there this year as well, though I expect Hershey wanted him and Burgdoerfer as veterans to help the younger guys.

Speaking of the younger guys, if they are struggling with the transition and are not getting much playing time, they may get a tour in South Carolina, but the Caps will want to see their top prospects in action and I imagine most of those players will stick around in Hershey.

The only one I could potentially see eventually being on the trade block is Johansen. As a first-round pick, he still could have some trade value. When you start getting passed on the team’s depth chart, it does not take long before your trade value surpasses your on-ice value.

Brian D. writes: Can you please explain the Connor McMichael signing? He’s not going to crack the Caps roster this year and he’s too young to play in the AHL so it’s almost guaranteed he’s going back to juniors this year. So why pay a salary to a player (and burn years off his entry level contract) to play in juniors the next two years? Why not wait till he’s ready to play professional hockey to start paying him and using his entry level contract years?

Barring a miraculous performance in training camp, no, Connor McMichael is not going to make the NHL roster this year. You are also correct in that he is still with his junior team so, by rule, he cannot play in the AHL. He can either play in the NHL or the OHL this season, there are no other options. The good news, however, is that McMichael is not going to burn a year off his contract.

Because most players require more development before they reach the NHL, entry-level contracts slide so as not to punish a team for its patience. So long as McMichael does not play 10 NHL games next season, he will not burn the first year of his contract and will not earn a salary. The only money he will be paid is his signing bonus. There are rules as to when an unsigned draft pick becomes a free agent and when some players get close to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, they elect to wait it out and head into free agency. Signing these players to NHL contracts early in their careers when they are excited about getting drafted is much easier than waiting until they start to think the grass may be greener on the other side.

So why not just immediately sign every draft pick to a contract and let them continuously slide until you need them thus avoiding losing them to free agency? Because teams are limited to only 50 contracts and teams could quickly run out of room to sign or trade for more players they may desperately need. The Caps ran into this issue last season. With 50 players already under contract, the team could not sign highly touted prospect Chase Priskie who has declared he will wait until Aug. 15 when he will become a free agent. If the team could have signed Priskie at the end of his college season last year and brought him right away to the AHL or NHL it could potentially have enticed him to sign. Instead the Caps now stand to lose him for nothing.

So I hear you, Brian, but there is no reason to fear. Now the Caps have McMichael signed and do not have to worry about him holding out for free agency several years from now, but they also are not losing any contract years.

Phillip M. writes: With the Seattle Expansion Draft approaching and the Caps having signed most of their key players through the next 2 years I have a question. NHL teams can protect 7 forwards, 3 defensemen and a goalie, or any 8 skaters plus 1 goalie. I understand first and second year NHL players, and unsigned draft choices are exempt. So I assume that means signed non-NHL playing draft choices can be selected. Are Alex Alexeyev, Connor McMichael, Brett Leason and Ilya Samsonov available to be selected by Seattle? Who do you expect the team will most likely protect?

What qualifies as first and second-year players to the NHL is players who have finished at least two seasons of professional North American play. I explained above how a player burns the first year of his entry-level contract. With the expansion draft two years away, that means any prospects who remain with their junior teams at least through this season will not qualify not have to worry about the expansion draft including McMichael.

Ilya Samsonov already burned the first year of his contract last season and with Alexeyev and Leason expected to play in Hershey this season, all three will likely qualify for the expansion draft..

It is really hard to project between now and 2021, but if you insist:

Seven forwards: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Jakub Vrana, Lars Eller, Brett Leason

Three defensemen: John Carlson, Jonas Siegenthaler, Alex Alexeyev

Goalie: Ilya Samsonov

Don’t hold me to this, a lot can happen in two years.

John F. writes: Will an enterprising team owner (with deep pockets) ever consider building an outdoor arena designed specifically for hockey? Sticking an outdoor game in a baseball or football stadium seems like a bad way to watch a hockey game.

I can’t see this ever happening. Maintaining a playable ice surface is incredibly hard to do inside in an arena. When you put it outside, you are greatly complicating things. The league does a great job with its outdoor games, but this is just for one game. Building an entire stadium for the limited number of Winter Classics and Stadium Series games it would host would not be feasible. If you are suggesting a team could have all its home games outdoors, this would be a nightmare in terms of maintaining the ice surface for the full season especially when the weather gets warm. Heaven forbid you try to have a playoff game there.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want read and answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

MORE CAPITALS NEWS:

Quick Links

Nationals Roundup: Nats' bullpen spoils Erick Fedde's economical outing

fedde-orioles-7-27.jpg
USA TODAY Sports Images

Nationals Roundup: Nats' bullpen spoils Erick Fedde's economical outing

The Battle of the Beltway Series finale didn't go as planned for the Nationals in Baltimore Wednesday night. Washington settles for a series split and falls to 50-44 following its 9-2 loss to the Orioles. 

Consider these news and notes as Davey Martinez's club heads south for a pivotal four-game weekend series in Atlanta. 

Player Notes:

Can you say economical? Erick Fedde cruised through six innings inside Oriole Park at Camden Yards on just 66 pitches (40 strikes). The 26-year-old surrendered just one run on five hits while striking out two. 

Very quietly, Adam Eaton is hitting .330 over his last 29 games and has reached base safely in 73 of 89 games in 2019. His third-inning sacrifice fly brought in Victor Robles, and a fifth-inning double -- his 12th of the season -- brought in Trea Turner. 

To put it quite simply, the Nationals' bullpen imploded Wednesday night following Fedde's exit. Wander Suero recorded just one out while allowing three runs, three hits and walking one Oriole. Just nine of his 19 pitches were thrown for strikes. Javy Guerra and Matt Grace then went on to allow a combined three runs on six hits, and Baltimore never looked back.  

Injuries: 

SP Max Scherzer: Back, Expected to be out until at least Jul 20

RP Jonny Venters: Back, Expected to be out until at least Jul 18

SP Jeremy Hellickson: Shoulder, Expected to be out until at least Jul 20

RP Justin Miller: Shoulder, Expected to be out until at least Jul 16

RP Koda Glover: Elbow, Expected to be out until at least Aug 7

RP Austen Williams: Shoulder, Expected to be out until at least Jul 17

Coming Up:

Thursday 7/18: Nationals at Braves, 7:20 p.m., SunTrust Park

Friday 7/19: Nationals at Braves, 7:20 p.m., SunTrust Park 

Saturday 7/20: Nationals at Braves, 7:20 p.m., SunTrust Park 

MORE NATIONALS NEWS: