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Secret handshake? Trotz fueling Regina pipeline

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Secret handshake? Trotz fueling Regina pipeline

Upon introducing himself to Capitals defensive prospects Colby Williams and Connor Hobbs, Capitals coach and fellow Regina Pats alum Barry Trotz extended his hand and said …

“He asked me if I knew the secret handshake,” said Williams, part puzzled and part amused by the question. “I guess that must have fallen through the cracks over the years, so I don’t know it. And he wouldn’t show me.”

Hobbs was just as perplexed, wondering if there is such a thing as a secret Regina Pats handshake.

“I didn’t have a clue and I kind of felt bad,” Hobbs said. “Maybe we’ll have to make a new one.”

Near the end of the 2015 NHL draft, the Capitals did something they had never done before, taking Regina defense partners Hobbs and Williams in the fifth and sixth rounds of the draft. With Pats alums Garrett Mitchell (sixth round, 2009 draft) and Chandler Stephenson (3rd round, 2012) already in the Caps’ farm system the Caps are starting their own pipeline from Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan and the former home of Trotz and Capitals assistant general manager and scouting director Ross Mahoney, who also played for the Pats before attending the University of Regina.

“That’s where home was for Coach Trotz for a bit and that’s where home is for me and Colby,” Hobbs said. “It’s the oldest junior team in Canada. Everywhere you look it’s Pats, Pats, Pats.”

Now, the same can be said of the Capitals’ development camp locker room. And that’s a good thing, according to John Paddock, a former draft pick of the Caps (37th overall in 1974) who has spent the past 30 years coaching or managing six different AHL teams and three different NHL teams and is now the had coach and senior vice president of the Pats.

“I didn’t talk to Ross or Barry, but the Capitals picked up two really good defensemen,” Paddock said from Saskatchewan. “I think they’re going to be happy they took those two guys.”

Hobbs, 18, is a hard-hitting, hard-shooting 6-foot-2, 191-pounder from Saskatoon who was taken by the Caps in the fifth round of the draft, 143rd overall. He began last season with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western League, but was seventh on the club’s defensive depth chart and was traded to the Pats on Jan. 4, his 18th birthday. He said his season took off after that, picking up one goal and 15 assists in 33 games while playing alongside Williams.

“If I didn’t get traded I don’t think I would have gotten drafted,” Hobbs said. “I don’t think I could have gone to a better spot than with John Paddock. It’s so perfect for me.”

Hobbs and his father were in the stands at BB&TCenter in Sunrise, Fla., when the Caps called his name, making him their second of three defensemen drafted that day, along with second-rounder Jonas Seigenthaler. When the Caps selected Williams, his 20-year-old defense partner, in the sixth round with the 173rd pick overall, Hobbs was elated.

“I was like, ‘What the heck?’” he said. “I thought it was so cool.”

Williams, who is more of a natural skater and puck mover than Hobbs, had been passed over in two previous NHL drafts and was in the midst of a 7K Spartan race on an Alberta ski slope when the Capitals made him their final pick of the draft.

Two hours later, when he re-established cell service, Williams said he retrieved a text from his agent congratulating him on being drafted, along with a phone message from Hobbs.

“I didn’t really believe it until my agent texted me and said, ‘Congratulations, you’re a Washington Capital,’ Williams said. “The feeling that came over my body was unbelievable.”

A 6-foot, 195 pounder from Regina, Williams said a lack of consistency had kept him from being drafted as an 18- and 19-year-old, but when Paddock took over for former Pats head coach Malcolm Cameron, Williams said his game turned around.

“I kind of had a rough two years,” said Williams, who recorded a career-high 11 goals, 30 assists and 95 penalty minutes in 64 games with the Pats.

“I had a different coach than I’m used to. He was hard on the guys about playing tough. I’m kind of an opposite player than that. It’s not that I’m not tough, but I play differently than how he wanted me to play. With John, he allowed me to play how I wanted to play and that helped me a lot.”

Paddock used Williams and Hobbs as his top pairing and said he was impressed with the way Williams took Hobbs under his wing.

“I think he epitomizes the kind of defenseman that is emerging more in the league,” Paddock said. “He’s a really good skater and a really smart player. He went from a plus-23 to a plus-45 while playing with a younger partner. I think that speaks volumes about the kind of season he had. He’s a bit of a late bloomer but based on last year I think he has a chance to play in the NHL.”

While Hobbs is ticketed for a return to Regina next season, the Capitals have the option of sending Williams back to Regina for one more season or signing him to his first pro contract and assigning him to AHL Hershey next season.

“I don’t think there’s a wrong answer to that question,” Paddock said. “Either way, it’s a win. If he’s going to play 12 to 20 minutes a night in Hershey that’s where he should be. If not, they know he’ll be with us and he’ll play 20 to 28 minutes a night. I think it will be beneficial either way.”   

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the power play get back to an elite level?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can the power play get back to an elite level?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2. 

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.  

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next three weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.   

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we look at a power play that dipped out of the top 10 last season. Can a unit that has been so consistent for so long get back to that top level? 

This comes back to tactics more than personnel. The same players are back who have been part of this unit for years. Alex Ovechkin is the ultimate weapon in the left face-off circle, John Carlson mans the point, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov do their thing on the half wall and below the net and T.J. Oshie is the trigger man in the slot. 

Those five players all had 227 minutes of power-play time last year or more. Ovechkin had 17 goals which is about standard for the best ever. Kuznetsov came next with eight goals and 13 assists. Backstrom had four goals, but 17 assists. Carlson had two goals and 27 assists. 

Oshie missed 13 games so his numbers are a little down, but in the games he did play he still hit six goals and eight assists. Tom Wilson was Oshie’s primary replacement in that bumper position and he had three goals. 

Not too bad for Blaine Forsythe’s group. He’s the assistant coach who has run the power play the past five years. You can’t argue with the track record. Unfortunately, the expectations for Washington’s power play are massive given that talent level and it’s fair to say it fell short at 12thoverall in the NHL at 20.8 percent.

Again, 49-for-236 isn’t bad. It’s just the talent level says it should be better. The Capitals were seventh in 2017-18 (22.5 percent), fourth in 2016-17 (23.1 percent), fifth in 2015-16 (21.9 percent), first in 2014-15 (25.3 percent), tied for first in 2013-14 (23.4 percent) and first again in 2012-13 (26.8 percent). The last time Washington finished outside the top 10 on the power play was in 2011-12 when it cratered to 18th (16.7 percent). 

There are a few issues that could be tweaked. The Capitals managed just 236 power-play chances. That tied for 16thin the league. To even break into the top 10 in that category they’d need 16 more penalties drawn. 

Only three times after Oct. 22 did they score two power-play goals in the same game and never more than that. How does that even happen? They had two or more power-play goals four times in the first eight games alone, including four on opening night. After that? It was one and done, 

Kuznetsov is one of the best in the game at getting the puck into the offensive zone. Fans loathe it, but the drop pass – or “the slingshot” – has become an effective way, when used properly, to get the puck into the offensive zone on the power play. It just didn’t seem to work all that well for Washington last year. 

One wonders if Forsythe will make some tweaks there. Kuznetsov was often the player on the receiving end of the drop passes, which can keep the penalty kill off balance, but can also waste precious seconds when it doesn’t work. Then you have to regroup and try again. 

It’s not going away, though – even for those who want to slingshot the drop pass to the moon. It’s used all over the league. Some teams like to use two players as options when coming up ice using the slingshot. That’s easier to defend in some ways, but it also gives your team a certain level of unpredictability. 

Maybe teams have just become better at defending the Capitals on the PK simply because they have had the same personnel and coaching for years now. Opposing coaching staffs have hours of video on this group to break down and analyze. 

But there’s no reason to change too much. That Ovechkin one-timer is the ultimate weapon and you don’t want to stifle the creativity of players like Backstrom or Kuznetsov.

Maybe quicker unit changes would help keep players fresh. Ovechkin is almost always going to be out there for the full two minutes and it would be silly to take that shot off the ice. But developing a more reliable second group might help, too. 

Last year’s “second” unit by ice time was Lars Eller, Jakub Vrana, Wilson, Brett Connolly and Dmitry Orlov/Matt Niskanen. Connolly is gone via free agency. Niskanen is gone via trade. One wonders why Andre Burakovsky was hardly used (18:25), but he’s gone, too, in a trade. 

Will be interesting to see if Forsythe can come up with a more reliable second group centered around Ovechkin, Eller and Vrana, who deserves more power-play time even if he’s buried on this roster, and Wilson as the big body in the middle. Richard Panik was fifth on the Arizona Coyotes in power-play minutes last season (146:16) so maybe he has a role there. 

The very best Washington power plays in recent years had secondary players like Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams around before the salary cap cleaved that depth. The Capitals were still a very good power play in 2018-19, but they could use more of that. These are minor changes that could get them back toward the very top of the league and helps take pressure off its 5-on-5 play. 

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Alex Ovechkin headed to China as an NHL Ambassador

Alex Ovechkin headed to China as an NHL Ambassador

Capitals center Alex Ovechkin is headed to China the week of Aug. 4 to serve as an international ambassador for the NHL, which is trying to grow its presence in that country. 

The NHL played two pre-season games in China last year between the Boston Bruins and the Calgary Flames. The year before the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks did the same.  

Ovechkin’s trip to Beijing will include youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings. 

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a statement. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL and the NHL Players Association are hoping to generate interest in the sport in the world’s largest market. The preseason games played in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen have drawn good crowds the past two years. The goal is to develop grassroots hockey programs at all levels, but especially for kids.

One other aspect of the trip: It generates publicity if the NHL decides to allow its players to return to the Winter Olympics in 2022 when they are hosted by Beijing. That issue needs to be worked out in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations over the next year. NHL players had participated in every Olympic Games since Nagano, Japan in 1998 until the league refused to let players go to Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics in South Korea last year.   

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