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Justin Williams: 'I'm just going to be me'

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Justin Williams: 'I'm just going to be me'

Justin Williams was between interview sessions Friday morning when he let out a yawn and rubbed his eyes.

His Thursday night flight from Los Angeles to Washington touched down around midnight and his train from the airport was delayed.

That wasn’t enough to dampen the spirits of the 33-year-old right winger on his first full day in Washington as a member of the Capitals.

“I’m here now,” Williams said after a quick tour of Kettler Capitals Iceplex and before heading out to look for real estate with his wife, Kelly, and their two children, 7-year-old Jaxon and 5-year-old Jade. “It’s all good. Kids are resilient.”

So, he hopes, are their parents.

In signing a two-year, $6 million contract with the Capitals, Williams left the palm trees of his home in Manhattan Beach and returned to the East Coast, about 150 miles south of where he first planted his NHL roots.

Fifteen years ago, Williams began his NHL career in Philadelphia as a 19-year-old member of the Flyers. It’s where he met his wife, and not far from where they spend their summers in Ventnor, N.J., just outside Atlantic City.

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Williams said location was one of the boxes on his free-agent checklist. But it wasn’t the first one.

“There are a bunch of things that play into your selection,” Williams said. “The team. Where you fit within the team. Coach. Facilities. In my instance, schools and area to live. But certainly at the top of the list, ‘Does this team have a chance to win?’ All the boxes were checked here.”

Because the Los Angeles Kings missed the playoffs for the first time in six years and Williams went into the offseason without a contract, he said he had a chance to watch the Stanley Cup playoffs with potential employers in mind. With Braden Holtby, Brooks Orpik, John Carlson, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Williams felt the Caps had enough goaltending, defense and offense to challenge for a Stanley Cup. They just needed to learn how to do it.

“Management builds the team,” Williams said, “but it’s not just finding the best players. It’s finding the right players for the team. Everyone can see that if you have a team of All-Stars it’s probably not going to work. But if you have the right guys and the right fit and the guys care about each other you’re going to have a successful team.”

Traded from Philadelphia to Carolina in 2004, Williams first learned that when he won the Stanley Cup in his first full season with the Hurricanes at the age of 24. Six years later he won his second Cup as a member of the Kings, and last year he had his name engraved again, this time at the age of 32 as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner with nine goals and 16 assists for 25 points in 26 games.

“I learned what it takes to win,” Williams said. “Winning, you want to celebrate with the people you care about. With your teammates and your family. You know how hard it is and when you do it, the feeling is so good you want to keep doing it, and I want to try to win it with another group of guys.”

During his playoff career, Williams has played in seven Game 7s and has won all of them, recording seven goals and seven assists. To put that into perspective the Capitals are 4-10 in Game 7s in their playoff history.

“I have good numbers in Game 7s but it’s a product of great teams I’ve played on,” Williams said. “We’ve won championships because of it. Game 7s, there are little plays here and there that make differences. It’s a goal here or there, it’s a blocked shot. It’s miniscule things that add up to the end result.

“Yeah, the end result is a goal, but the things that lead up to it are just as important. This team is close and I just want to do what I can to help.”
Hours after it was announced that Williams had signed with the Capitals, the club traded right wing Troy Brouwer, goaltending prospect Pheonix Copley and a third-round draft pick to the St. Louis Blues for right wing T.J. Oshie. Williams, whose Kings knocked the Blues out of the playoffs twice during his six seasons in L.A., said he was “instantly excited” about joining forces with Oshie.

“He’s a little pit bull,” Williams said. “He hits like a truck but he can stick handle through a phone booth. He’s got a lot of great qualities. That’s what you want. You want some excitement. He’s obviously a dynamic player offensively, but he’s a guy that plays hard as well.”

Williams said he’s equally excited to team up with Ovechkin, the favorite player of his son, Jaxon.

“People have asked me who’s hard to play against and usually you’d think of a defenseman,” Williams said. “But Ovi is hard to play against. Skillful and hard. He’d play against us in L.A. and he’d hit (defenseman Drew) Doughty about seven or eight times and Doughy was like, ‘Holy Smokes! Stop.’ When he wants to be, he’s pretty impressive and tough to face.”

Williams said that although his mind is telling him he’s an “idiot” for missing the playoffs, his body is thanking him and he’s excited about starting the newest, and perhaps final, chapter of his playing career. Williams will turn 34 on Oct 4.

“It’s different,” he said. “You’re moving to a new city. It’s going to be different for myself and my family. I’ve been in L.A. for six years and now I’m coming back to the East Coast.

“I’m just going to be me. I’m not going to try to be someone I’m not. This certainly isn’t my team. I’m here to be a piece and I hope I’m going to be a good fit.”

 

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Grading the champs: How have the Caps fared through 20 games?

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Grading the champs: How have the Caps fared through 20 games?

Monday’s win over the Montreal Canadiens was Game 20 for the Caps meaning we are officially one quarter of the way into the NHL season. That means it’s time to take a step back and look at just how the Caps have performed thus far.

Here are the first quarter grades and awards for the Caps:

Offense: B+

The Caps boasted the top offense in the NHL for a short stretch, but the numbers were being propped up initially by the explosive power play. When it comes to five-on-five play, the offense is a bit weaker than the power play would make it seem. Evgeny Kuznetsov, for example, has six goals and zero have come at even strength.

Not having Tom Wilson in the lineup for the first 16 games due to a suspension clearly hurt the offense and Todd Reirden was forced to shuffle the lines as best he could looking for a spark. Now that he is back, the offense looks much improved and much deeper. Plus, Alex Ovechkin continues to be Ovechkin even at the age of 33.

The offense has had its full lineup for less than two games this season, but even despite that, Washington still ranks seventh in the NHL with 3.35 goals per game. This is already a top-10 offense and it’s trending up.

Defense: C-

In hearing Reirden describe the team’s defense, it involves a lot of commitment. All five players are expected to back check and get into shooting lanes every time the opposition has the puck. Obviously, the defense is more nuanced than that, but at its basic core, this is what the Caps want to do. That sort of commitment is easy to get in the playoffs, but it’s harder to get a team to constantly jump into shooting lanes in November. As a result, this is where the team’s Stanley Cup hangover has been the most glaring.

The defensemen have had their struggles, particularly Dmitry Olrov and Matt Niskanen, which has led to a shuffling of the pairs. The offense also has not been as quick on the back check as you would like to see.

Most critically, however, has been puck management. The biggest defensive breakdowns for this team have been self-inflicted with bad turnovers and lazy passes. As glaring as they may be, however, they also should be correctable.

Goaltending: B

The first month of the season has been a scoring bonanza so Braden Holtby’s numbers are not where you would want them, but in recent weeks he has started to look like the dominant netminder who foiled opponents in the playoffs last season. There is no reason to think he will not continue to get better as the season goes along and he develops more of a rhythm.

The real story here has been Pheonix Copley who was largely an unknown commodity at the NHL level heading into the season.

Copley’s play was shaky to start, but when Holtby suffered an upper-body injury and Copley was forced to start all four games of their current road trip, he played very well for the most part. You can point to Monday’s game in Montreal in which he was pulled in the second period all you want, but in terms of whether this team has a backup it can trust to plug into a game 20-25 times this season, Copley has shown he is capable of providing that.

Special teams: C-

Yes, the power play is great and ranks fourth in the NHL at 29.7-percent, but it has cooled considerably in recent weeks. In the month of November, the Caps have scored on six of 29 opportunities, good for 13th in the league at 20.7-percent.

The real issue for Washington in terms of the special teams is the penalty kill.

Reirden wanted the penalty kill to be more offensively aggressive this season, but so far the Caps have not been able to do that without leaving themselves vulnerable defensively. The result is that their penalty kill now ranks 29th in the NHL at 73.3-percent.

Reirden’s goal here, I believe, is not so much to generate offense at the expense of the defense, but rather to force an opponent’s power play to be aware of Washington’s offensive weapons and to help kill time by keeping and holding possession of the puck in the offensive zone. Thus far, however, it hasn’t worked.

If the Caps are going to keep this philosophy on the penalty kill, then the coaches need to sit down and study film of the Arizona Coyotes who lead the league in both the penalty kill (91.7-percent) and shorthanded goals (10).

Pleasant surprise: Madison Bowey

Bowey has been a highly touted prospect within the organization since he was drafted in 2013. He made his NHL debut last season, but seemed to struggle with the transition from AHL to NHL. This year, he looks like the most improved player on the team and has played well in relief of an injured Brooks Orpik.

What’s more, Bowey is showing a lot more confidence in his play. He is a two-way defenseman, but no one would have been able to tell that from how conservative he was last season. This year, he is being more assertive in the offensive zone and it should translate into more points.

Needs improvement: Andre Burakovsky

Burakovsky has just four points this season in 20 games. Tom Wilson, by comparison, has five points in four games since returning to the lineup.

Burakovsky has tremendous skill, but he remains an incredibly streaky player. It was thought that confidence was the major issue for him and he saw a sports psychologist over the summer. The results? Both he and Reirden say they see a difference and say he is a more confident player, but it has not translated into more production.

Burakovsky is not a shutdown forward, he is not a physical grinder, he is not a penalty killer. If he is not producing, he just doesn’t add that much to the lineup.

MVP: Alex Ovechkin

At times it looked like John Carlson or Kuznetsov would be the MVP, but through 20 games just about every player on this roster has had the ups and downs typical of a season and especially of a Stanley Cup championship team that is realizing playing in October is not nearly as fun as it is playing in June. The only player who is consistently great on a night in, night out basis is the Great 8 who shows no signs of slowing down even at the age of 33.

With 15 goals, Ovechkin sits second in the NHL behind only David Pastrnak’s 17.

Overall: B

Let’s consider everything Reirden has had to deal with in his first season as an NHL head coach: Wilson’s 20-game suspension, injuries to Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Travis Boyd, Braden Holtby, Michal Kempny and Brooks Orpik, a backup goalie making the jump to the NHL and a Stanley Cup hangover.

Yes, the Caps have played below the lofty standards we have come to expect and do not yet have a win streak of over two games this season. But considering everything, the fact that this team still sits in third place in the Metropolitan Division and appears to be trending upward is a good sign for the direction this season is going.

This team has another level it has not yet reached, but they are getting there, slowly but surely.

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Brooks Orpik undergoes arthroscopic surgery on his knee, will miss another 4 to 6 weeks

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Brooks Orpik undergoes arthroscopic surgery on his knee, will miss another 4 to 6 weeks

Brooks Orpik underwent an arthroscopic surgical procedure on his right knee and is expected to miss four-to-six weeks, the Capitals announced Tuesday. Orpik last played on Oct. 27 against the Calgary Flames, but has not participated in practice since due to what the team has called a lower-body injury.

Why did it take so long to have the surgery when he could have been recovering and nearing a return at this point? The specific nature of the injury is not known, but what typically happens in cases such as these is that the player and the team will wait to see if surgery is necessary. No professional athlete likes going under the knife and most will try to avoid it at all costs.

It could also be a case in which the severity of the injury was not known as is evidenced by the fact that he was initially labeled “day-to-day.”

With Orpik out, that will likely mean more time for Madison Bowey who has looked like one of the most improved players overall on the roster this season. It also likely gives an opportunity for Jonas Siegenthaler to get more games at the NHL level.

Siegenthaler has been with the Caps since getting recalled from the Hershey Bears on Nov. 9. He has played in two games. Originally, it looked like the young Swiss defenseman would make the Caps’ roster out of training camp with Michal Kempny dealing with a concussion, but the team had to get creative with the salary cap after Tom Wilson was suspended and the acquisition of Dmitrij Jaskin forced Siegenthaler to the AHL.

In his two NHL games, Siegenthaler has not looked out of place at all at the NHL level.

If he remains with the team, it seems likely he will get into the lineup again sooner rather than later. As a young prospect the team hopes can be an NHL player, they will be loath to keep him in Washington another four to six weeks just to sit up in the press box and not play. Young players like him need the playing time.

With Orpik out possibly until the calendar turns to 2019, however, do not be surprised if the Caps elect to recall a player like Aaron Ness and send Siegenthaler back to Hershey. Ness is a veteran AHLer who the team can be more comfortable scratching from the lineup for a long period of time. If they don’t, then expect to see Siegenthaler crack the lineup again in the coming days.

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