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Where will Vitek Vanecek play next season?

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Where will Vitek Vanecek play next season?

Goaltending prospect Vitek Vanecek, taken by the Capitals in the second round of the 2014 NHL draft (39th overall), likely will be leaving the Czech Republic to play for the South Carolina Stingrays of the ECHL next season, Caps goaltending coach Mitch Korn said Thursday.

“There was a discussion of leaving him there, but I think the majority of us felt that the sooner we can acclimate him to North America and he becomes able to communicate, the sooner we can start to make more progress,” Korn said, “and I’d rather start that now than later.”

Vanecek, 19, spent most of last season with Benalky of the Czech Republic’s second-tier league, where he had a 2.24 GAA and .925 save percentage in 20 games. He also played two games with Liberec Bill Tygri of the top Czech League and represented his country in the World Junior Championships.

“I think (South Carolina) is the best place for him to start as a 19-year-old,” Korn said. “We want guys to have success at every level they play at. We don’t want them treading water; we want them swimming ahead.”

Vanecek speaks little English and Korn found the best way to communicate with him last season was through Czech League goaltending partner Jan Lasak, a Slovakian netminder who was drafted by the Nashville Predators in 1999 and worked with Korn in the Predators organization.

“Jan has kept me informed throughout the season,” Korn said. “It’s nice to have spies throughout the world. It’s hard to communicate with Vitek because his English has been an issue. It is getting better.”

Korn said the improvements he’s seen in Vanecek’s game over a calendar year have been dramatic.

“He’s way better,” Korn said. “Last year when he came over here the proverbial deer-in-headlights probably comes to mind. I can just imagine picking myself up and dropping myself into a country that speaks no English and having to perform being that young.”

Korn said Vanecek is now exhibiting better balance, better rebound placement and better quickness in the crease than he showed at last year’s development camp.

“I often joke that when you take the SATs the second time you’re no smarter, but you’re results are better and they should be because we all have a learning curve.”

Following his season in the Czech Republic, the Capitals flew Vanecek to Hershey to spend 12 days working out with the Bears and taking English lessons. He is also taking English lessons this week.

Meanwhile, the Capitals’ 2015 first-round draft pick, Ilya Samsonov, is working out with his KHL team, Mettalurg Magnitogorsk, which is why he is not at development camp. Samsonov stands 6-foot-3, 201 pounds and was the first goalie taken in this year’s draft. Korn said he has only seen Samsonov on video, but likes what he sees.

“He’s an ominous body and for a big man he moves exceptionally well,” Korn said. “And there’s a thing that we call goalie sense. It’s not where the puck is, it’s where the puck’s going, and the guys that are really good know where the puck’s going, whether it’s off the stick to the net or off the stick to another option.

“He seems to have really solid goalie sense. The speed of the game requires great processing and he seems to possess that. But you never really know I until you own  it, and until I get to know him first-hand I’m projecting.”

Speaking of goaltending, Hershey Bears coach Troy Mann said he is preparing to lose goalie Philipp Grubauer to the Capitals and accept veterans Justin Peters and Dan Ellis as his two goalies in Hershey next season.  

“From a coaching perspective I don’t think (Grubauer) has anything left to prove at the American Hockey League level,” Mann said.

As for Peters and Ellis, Mann said both are quality goalies and quality people.

“We’ll see how we have to handle it,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a challenge for (goaltending instructor) Scott Murray with potentially two older, veteran type of goalies. It’ll be a bit of a balancing act there. If you can’t be in the NHL I would think Hershey’s a pretty good spot with what I would consider an NHL atmosphere in the building.”

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Four straight losses leave the Caps searching for answers

Four straight losses leave the Caps searching for answers

Figuring out what’s wrong with the Capitals isn’t all that hard. It’s figure out why that the team seems to be struggling with.

At first glance, it is obvious what the biggest problem for Washington is. In four straight losses, the Caps have been held to a combined four goals. The offense has suddenly gone dry, but no one seems quite sure why that is.

“I don't know,” Matt Niskanen said. “We're not purposefully going out there just for shits and giggles.”

Somehow a team that boasts such talented forwards as Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie among others has been completely shut down offensively and that was certainly evident in Friday’s 2-0 loss to the New York Islanders.

“We're making it tough on ourselves,” Brooks Orpik said. “We're playing against teams that are trapping, and we're just trying to force pucks through the middle the whole time. You look at how they're playing against us: they're getting it behind us and a lot of offense is coming from point shots and just outbattling us in front. But we're not even getting opportunity to do that because we're trying to go through too many guys in the neutral zone.”

Washington was held to only 19 shots on goal on Friday in what looked like a rather easy shutout for Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss.

Though the scores of the last two games look dramatically different – a 7-2 blowout in Nashville and a 2-0 shutout against New York – Washington had many of the same offensive issues in those games.

When they got the puck players either held onto it too long, trying to do everything themselves and stickhandling their way into a turnover, or they tried to force passes when they weren’t open.

Trying to force offense is the sign of a frustrated team. The only real difference between the two games is that Nashville has a lot more playmakers on its roster who were able to take advantage of Washington’s mistakes with numerous turnovers ending up in the back of the Caps’ net.

“I just think we need to get back to basics and work a little harder as a team,” Backstrom. “I think we’re maybe doing a little too much by ourselves. Maybe work together a little bit better. Better execution. I think that’s something we haven’t been great at lately. Tape to tape passes. That’s a key in this league.”

It is perhaps no surprise the Caps are at a loss during their current losing streak as they don’t tend to lose this much very often. The last time Washington lost four straight games was in March 2017. Now they face the possibility of a five-game skid if they cannot find a way to beat the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, something they have not done since Oct.-Nov. 2014.

Their current losing streak is so unlike them it calls into question whether or not this team is simply running out of gas. They played an additional 24 playoff games plus and went through a shortened offseason. Ovechkin already backed out of the All-Star Game claiming he needs the rest, so could fatigue be playing a role in the team’s struggles?

To a man, every player who was asked said no.

“We're professional athletes,” Braden Holtby said. “You should never use that as an excuse. You get treated the best in the world health-wise. Our training staff, our strength staff, the way we travel, hotels we stay in. You never use fatigue as an excuse.”

But while the exact reason for the team’s current struggles seems hard to pin down, it’s not hard at all to figure out what the solution is.

With Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, Oshie, Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana combining for just four goals and four assists in the team’s last four games, Washington must get more offensive from the top of the lineup in order to be successful.

“We need to be better,” Todd Reirden said. “That's right from top of our list to the bottom of our list. We need more. We need more from our players.”

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A special night for Barry Trotz on his return to Washington

A special night for Barry Trotz on his return to Washington

WASHINGTON — Barry Trotz stood on the unfamiliar visitors’ bench and scanned the rafters at Capital One Arena as the national anthem played. 

It had to be around here somewhere. He looked to one side of the scoreboard and then the other. Finally his eyes locked on the 2018 Stanley Cup banner hanging in the south end of the arena, a testament to a season he will remember the rest of his life. 

"I was just focused on the game. Until the national anthem, I didn’t even know where it was,” Trotz said. “I was looking on the other side, around the clock, and then I turn around and there it is. That’s a proud moment for everybody involved: ownership, Ted Leonsis, and [Brian MacLellan] in management, and the players and everybody, the fans. That’s the one you want.” 

Trotz could afford a reflective mood as he spoke after a 2-0 win against the Capitals in his first game back in Washington since leading the franchise to its first Stanley Cup last June. The Islanders broke a scoreless tie with two goals in the third period just 2:26 apart. They are the surprise of the NHL after losing star center John Tavares to free agency last summer. They are all alone in first place in the Metropolitan Division now well past the halfway point of the season. 

Trotz stayed focused before the game. He arrived hours before game time and holed up in his office trying to figure a way the Islanders could win the second of a back-to-back against the rested Capitals.

At the first television timeout of the first period, Trotz steadied himself for the video tribute the Capitals put together. There, on the giant scoreboard, the indelible images flashed: Trotz at his opening press conference in 2014, promising his new team had what it took to win a championship, winning the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year, laughing with his players, skating the hot laps during last year’s playoffs, lifting the Stanley Cup. The Capital One Arena crowd stood and roared for the entire break in the action.  

“My heart got full of all the good memories,” Trotz said. “I was looking up there. I was trying not to look too much because I was getting pretty close to that sensitive side of myself. But it was extremely well done and it was just great memories. Everybody was a part of something special.”

Afterward they had another mini reunion outside the Washington locker room, his home for four years. Trotz and Lane Lambert, his assistant for all four years with the Caps, chatted with players as they came out. It wasn’t as emotional as the championship ring ceremony when the two teams first met on Nov. 26 in Brooklyn. Trotz’s voice wavered as he addressed his former players before that game. This time was all laughs. 

Capitals assistant Blaine Forsythe was there and head coach Todd Reirden briefly stopped by. Tom Wilson and Matt Niskanen and Devante Smith-Pelly came over to say hello. Brooks Orpik, who had a memorable night of his own with a ceremony for playing in his 1,000th NHL game earlier in the week, leaned against a wall and chatted with Trotz and Lambert, who jabbed Caps goalie coach Scott Murray and said he better have a “hotter suit” the next time they meet, which will be in New York on March 1.

Maybe then the Islanders will have come down to earth or maybe Trotz is in the midst of another magical season. Maybe these two teams, with so much shared history, are destined to meet again in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

“They’ve got the same team. They’re a good hockey team. There’s no question,” Trotz said. “They’ve got lots of mettle and it starts with their leadership and [Nicklas Backstrom] and [Alex Ovechkin] and that core group….That whole group, Johnny Carlson, all the guys that have here for a long time, they’ve got lots of mettle. I’m fortunate to have another great group to work with on the Island. As I said to them, I hope we can have the same experience down the road. It’s special doing that.”

 

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