Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Player Is Not the Only Thing Missing from the Capitals

As I'm sure you all heard, the Caps lost 6-0 to the New York Rangers; a team that has struggled to score, and yet found the ability to drop six on Washington. With the trade deadline approaching, many have requested certain pieces and/or players to be implanted into Washington's roster. However, with the way the Caps have played of late, they resemble more of a mess than a team that has a few pieces missing. I realized long ago that this team needed more help than any center, winger, defenseman or veteran goaltender could provide.

When the Capitals started this season, it was noted that they needed 1.) a reliable, stay at home defenseman 2.) a center for their second line 3.) a playoff-experienced, most likely a previous Cup-winning veteran with presence to lead this team. Pieces 1 and 2 were most urgent, and number 3 could be acquired later in the year.

The season progressed, and the Capitals seemed to be struggling offensively. Turns out the struggles were the result of their shift from a high-octane offensive team to a team focused on winning with defense. The Caps acquired Scott Hannan for Tomas Fleischmann in November, crossing one item off their wish list, but the offensive struggles continued and there still was that hole at center.

Fast-forwarding to the 26th of February, two days before the NHL's trade deadline, the Caps still have made no moves toward numbers 2 and 3 on the list of needs. What also remains an issue for Washington is that even if they went out and got said player(s), they still no longer remain favorites to win it all, despite their expectations to do so this year.

So then what else could be wrong even if the team plugs those holes?

Confidence. Trust. Identity.

All of these traits are missing in Washington.

The Capitals have no identity: while they have shifted to a "more defensive" style of play, they continue to try and convince everyone that they have an offensive attack. "Well," I ask, "where is this 'attack'?" The Caps have fallen into this trap of becoming a team that thinks it's playing well defensively, but still it is not winning them games consistently..

Hell, this style of play hasn't even worked against teams that already use this "defensive" style. As the Caps saw with Western Conference teams like the Sharks and Kings, who have bigger players and players used to this system, Washington doesn't match up well to these guys. And even though the Capitals may be "better," it doesn't mean jack when you lose almost every game like this.

There is a line between being "defensively responsible" and "blue collar." The first time I had heard the term blue collar to describe the Capitals was in Mike Hoffman's article about the re-signing of Matt Hendricks. It almost tore my mind apart. While Hendricks is a fan favorite in Washington, and a fantastic addition this season, he is not the entire persona of the team... and he shouldn't be.

Let's get real here: don't tell me you're a "blue collar" city when everybody drives a Bentley. Alex Semin = not blue collar. Alex Ovechkin; not blue collar. Nick Backstrom; not blue collar. This is why you have four lines to play with. You have your cafeteria line, mail room line, all the way to the secretary and office line, to the CEO line. That's what worked for Washington. That's what gave them their swagger and their confidence to play.

So pick one style. No wonder they're such an enigma. They lost their game in an attempt to try to tell me they are something they're not. Glen Sather did not tell Wayne Gretzky to play defense in November. It wasn't until the Stanley Cup playoffs when Gretzky was told to shorten his shifts and work a little more on defense." (I replaced the term "Finals" with "Stanley Cup playoffs. Otherwise, he was encouraged to break his records and play HIS game. When you have such stars on a team, like Ovechkin, you build a team to win around his style.

Which brings us to the next issue: Trust. The fact that head coach Bruce Boudreau could not trust general manager George McPhee to get players for his system that he felt he had to go through this ridiculous game shift is a big problem. There is no trust then from the players in the general manager, and brings questions to the team's real commitment to winning.

Yeah, I said it. Commitment to winning. Even the smallest of moves can make a difference, as The Hockey Writers' Mike Colligan wrote. For the last few weeks, we have been hearing about the trades of Ray Shero, Steve Yzerman, Paul Holmgren, and other GMs of contenders in the East. But how about the small moves that did not even shift the team, but showed an effort to move to win? The San Jose Sharks picked up Kyle Wellwood (fatass or not), Ben Eager, and recently got Ian White via waivers and small trades. In between all of these moves, the Sharks became a team that went from not making the playoffs to possibly winning their division.

Then there are the big splash moves like Shero made to plug the holes his team had, especially in the face of injury. With the Penguins biggest stars like Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby out (both possibly for the rest of the year), Shero went out and negotiated his ass off to get the types of players he needed that seemed impossible to get for next to nothing. Not everyone can get the type of moves that he did, but his approach was the right one in seeing what the team needs and going for it. And also finding ways to not give up key pieces even with injuries running rampant.

Timing was key in Steve Yzerman's moves. He made moves during the offseason to build the Lightining around their key stars like Lecavalier, Stamkos, and St. Louis. Yzerman then made a mid season trade to get Dwayne Roloson to take over the goaltending duties. While Roloson may not be the best goalie around, his veteran presence gave the Bolts some breathing room and he's won games for them that they probably would not have won with Mike Smith and Dan Ellis. Last week then, as we move closer to the playoffs, Yzerman gets Eric Brewer, a defenseman who was captain of the St. Louis Blues. A veteran player who also can put sturdy defense in front of Roloson and keep the team focused helps make the Lightning more solid than before. Then, seemingly a touch up move, Stevie Y moves Dan Ellis to the Ducks for Curtis McElhinney in a goalie exchange.

On the Ducks' end of things, it seems as though Jonas Hiller might be out longer than expected, and with McElhinney not working out too well, Ellis and their other option, Ray Emery, will handle the goaltending duties until Hiller can return. Even though these are not top goalies, it's a move that was made for the best available.

McPhee may be working behind the scenes for Monday's deadline, but if players are hearing about these trades going on and every day their team is not involved in the mix of all the teams making moves and winning as a result, it hurts their trust in the team and in the GM. As a GM, you must set your own time table for these deals to get done. McPhee is not Ken Holland of the Detroit Red Wings, who has the trust of his players that he will get things done (if even need be) and vice versa. Holland has given Detroit championships, and has a team with a pedigree and a reputation... an identity if you will. There is no reason for people to have faith in McPhee because he has done nothing close o what Holland has done for the Red Wings.

Even the most conservative of GMs, Dave Poile of the Nashville Predators went out and got Mike Fisher in a timely manner. While we joke that it had everything to do with Carrie Underwood, in reality, Mike Fisher actually works in Nashville, and Poile even gave up a first rounder for the move. If such a quiet GM made a move like that, it shows the environment that is needed to get the deal done and sometimes, a trade can be made to trade; the same way a coach can get fired just to get things done, or any other kind of move to show what the team wants to do. Right now in Washington, it looks as though the GM doesn't know what he's doing and he will have to come up with the biggest fish of them all, or else he fails.

Finally, this leads into confidence. With all of this falling on the mistakes of the GM of the Caps and the over-pronounced shift in the Caps' play by the coach, the players are the ones who execute these plays and have to have responsibility for their own actions as well.

They look dead. Especially after Friday night's 6-0 loss.

Will there be enough time to tweak the team before the playoffs to return to scoring once the pick up is made by Monday, we don't know. Many have remained passive and have tried to show trust in the Caps' front office to make decisions. Go ahead, get mad. There's no reason to trust them.

If a move is made that turns this team around, I will take everything back that I have said. No problem admitting that. I do not mind admitting being impressed after heavy criticism. If the Caps win without making a move, I can admit being wrong. But if none of the above happens, be prepared for me to rip a new one into the atmosphere. But I'll stay classy.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

*Guest Post* Head Injuries: Can't Forget About Them

Since this weekend, much of the hockey world (and anyone else who wished to comment) made a lot of out of Mario Lemieux's comments about the incidents that occurred Friday night during the Pittsburgh Penguins/New York Islanders game. A series of fights, brawls, and bench-leaping resulted in a few suspensions and fines from the NHL.

However, the most pressing issue until Friday was the topic of headshots and concussions. While le
Magnifique stresses the safety of players as a result of all-out brawls like Friday's game, the NHL cannot forget that it has this situation to take care of primarily.

So for my second guest post, I had Vinod Venugopalan (We can call him "V"), a medical researcher from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University, shed some light from a medical perspective. I thought this was important because we hear too much from people who don't know a thing about concussions, and what better way is there to discuss the real implications of concussions than to hear it from a guy with experience in the field. He's also a Montreal Canadiens fan, so he understands from a fan perspective as well on head injuries.

Hope you enjoy and learn a bit!

First, I’d like to thank Angie for graciously giving me space on her blog to air my opinion on an issue that I feel very strongly about. My name is Vinod Venugopalan. I’m a medical researcher at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. The recent rash of concussions in the NHL is a definite cause for concern.

The loss of Sidney Crosby, Marc Savard and several others due to head injuries has prompted the NHL to re-think its policy regarding hits to the head. However, to date, the NHL’s response to the sharp increases in the number of head-injuries has been woefully inadequate and poorly reasoned. The NHL has determined that the rise in head injuries can be curbed by increasing the severity of disciplinary action against head shot offenders. What seems to be missing in their consideration of this issue is how to limit the concussions from occurring at all.

What Is A Concussion?

I think it’s important to start with a definition of what a concussion is, and what causes them. First, concussions are brain injuries resulting from a force that causes the head to snap violently. This force in turn causes the brain to move within the skull and scrape along its jagged edges to cause a brief (ranging from seconds to minutes) loss of consciousness. More alarming is that it becomes easier to become concussed the next time and the time after that. In other words once concussed, the brain is never the same.

What's wrong with what the NHL does now?

One main issue regarding how the NHL deals with concussions is that the average team medical staff is not trained effectively to recognize symptoms of concussions: Headaches, dizziness, inability to concentrate, vision, hearing sensitivity, anxiety and depressed mood are all signs of a concussion.

Case in point: Sidney Crosby has yet to return to action as a result of two seemingly innocuous hits to the head, the first by Dave Steckel during the Winter Classic and the second by Victor Hedman of the Lightning. What concerns me more as a medical scientist and clinician is not the Steckel hit on Crosby, which appeared to be accidental, but that the Penguins medical and training staff put him back on the ice after appearing dazed during a second period interview. Moreover, he was allowed to play the next game when he was injured again in a collision with Victor Hedman of the Lightning. Did the training staff not recognize that he was concussed? And if not, why not?

One of the great obstacles in evaluating the extent of brain injury following a concussion is that present brain imaging technology lacks the requisite resolution to detect brain damage caused by concussion. One improvement over the years in analyzing head injuries are new brain imaging techniques are making great headway in being able to detect microscopic injury, the type of injury caused by concussions. A recent a study on concussed athletes suffering from post-concussion depression found functional abnormalities in the frontal lobes of the brain. Five years ago this type of information that ago was not available to the medical community.

Most players who have had concussion problems have had them since they were younger. To my knowledge, there are no comprehensive programs in place at the junior and minor hockey levels that test every player for head injury. This is the ideal place to start. Neuropsychological testing (or testing of cognitive functions, such as memory, attention, verbal reasoning and planning) can and should be assessed in every player from Midget onward. This data should be recorded in a medical database and used for future reference. Players should be tested at least twice a year and flagged for more extensive testing if there are performance decrements from one testing period to another. This type of continuous follow-up will help to detect or at the very least manage these head injuries more effectively.

Revisiting the Crosby case, my first impression is that Sidney Crosby was concussed much earlier in his career, perhaps as far back as his days in QMJHL. I suspect that a great percentage of players come to the NHL with un-reported head injuries. Part of the responsibility lies with the player who is reluctant to tell the trainer he’s hurt for of fear of losing ice-time, his job, draftability, or just simply appearing weak. In a game whose very ethos is defined by resilience and toughness, admitting weakness is career suicide.

In an interview with Eric Duhatschek of Globe and Mail, Pierre-Marc Bouchard of the Minnesota Wild who missed more than a year after sustaining back-to-back concussions talked about how difficult it was as a player to overcome the natural urge to compete and block out any obstacle to playing. “As hockey players, we don’t like to miss games,” said Bouchard. “You think you can play through it. You think you’ll be able to get rid of it the next few days - and you might. But if you get hit again, there’s that danger - that you could get an even bigger concussion." That is exactly what happened to Bouchard.

There are ways, however, to prevent or manage head injuries.

Concussion Prevention

In order to prevent and diagnose head injuries, early detection is key. The NHL should make use of new technology to have every individual brain-scanned before entering the league and scanned a minimum of twice a year, and collect data on the incidence of concussion. The more information we have at our disposal, the better we can use this data to inform NHL policy regarding head injuries.

Once we have this information, it is important to educate all NHL players and staff about what concussions are and the real-life implications of head injuries. It is this way that the players will be more aware of the dangers they are subject to on the ice on both the giving and receiving end of hits.

In Conclusion...

Hockey is a game of hitting and contact; that will never change. As a fan, I do not want it to change. It’s a big reason why many of us watch the game in the first place. That said, I think it’s time for the NHL to change tack. Instead of trying to legislate hits to the head, it must shift its priorities to prevention through the methods explained: education, early detection, and technology.

If you would like to contact Vinod directly, feel free to send your questions or comments (or fan mail) to:

Montreal Neurological Insitute Room 276
3801 University #276
Montreal, QC, Canada
H3A 2B4

or you can just simply email him at vinven55@hotmail.com.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Malkin's Out... Again #injuryninja

So I'm convinced the Hockey Gods (or the #injuryninja as @TheProgramBTR calls it) have decided to just curse all the league's favorite people: Alex Ovechkin JUST hit 20 goals last night, as a result the NHL would probably kill us with Sidney Crosby news -- except he's been out with a concussion he received in the Winter Classic and is still out to date, and now Evgeni Malkin is out, again.

Malkin had been dealing with a knee injury at the start of the season and was unable to play for Pittsburgh until later in the year. He finally returned and slowly found his scoring touch, until just before the All-Star Break, he had a sinus infection that kept him out for five games and the All-Star Game. Nonetheless, he returned after the break and played last night against the Buffalo Sabres.

According to an eye-witness account I received, Malkin hit the boards standing, until Tyler Myers fell onto Malkins knee. The way it bent, she said, he looked as though he tore his MCL.

Lo-and-behold this morning, Malkin was slated to be out for the rest of the year with a torn MCL AND ACL. ESPN's Pierre Lebrun on Twitter said his sources say the recovery time for Malkin after surgery would be six months. So all in all, Malkin will be out for the rest of the year.

The Penguins, who are currently three points behind the Flyers, can choose to deal with their struggles and call it a year, or go for someone at the trade deadline. Their injuries, especially to their centers, pose the option of going after Brad Richards from the Dallas Stars. Not that I have any inside information on any talks between the two teams, but because Dallas' uncertainty in being able to re-sign Richards and a having a legitimate chance at the Stanley Cup, it is a viable possibility.

In the coming days, I will have a guest-post from medical researcher, Vinod Venugopalan, on concussions and Crosby's career options. You won't want to miss the opportunity to hear from not a know-it-all sports journalist, but an actual medical source on such a serious issue for the NHL.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Next Live Chat Coming Soon!

(for those who missed out pucking with me last night). I hosted a live chat last night for the Washington Capitals vs. Montreal Canadiens game for LiveHockeyChat.com. I just wanted to thank all those who joined in and talked hockey and watched the Caps lose 3-2 in the shootout with me.

Even more, thanks to Hulk Hogan (I kid you not, someone signed in and gave a Hulkster impersonation all night. Was quite humourous), who referred to Brian Gionta, who had 2 goals and the shootout winner for the Habs, as Hornswoggle. If you do not know who Hornswoggle is, you can look him up and it will make all the sense in the world. If you do, fellow wrestling fans, laugh on.

I certainly want to do another live chat soon. Monday, March 7th when the Caps face the Tampa Bay Lightning on the road is one date I have in mind. Wednesday, March 16th when the Detroit Red Wings host the Caps, is another time I'd like to host a chat. If the selected dates go well enough, I would consider making them more frequent and pretty regularly.

Hell, I'm not opposed to hosting live chats featuring other games either, as I realize that not everyone is a Caps fan, and I love watching other games, too. So if there are any recommendations for a game you would like me to host a chat for, feel free to comment on here, or find me on Twitter (@LadyHatTrick). I'll puck with any team out there.

Also, if you are interested in being a guest-poster, please email me at lewisa@washpost.com.
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