I recently had the pleasure of chatting about hockey with John Buccigross, ESPNEWS Anchor and SportsCenter host – and the former primary host of NHL 2Night when ESPN covered NHL games. Bucci’s (as many call him) columns on hockey on the ESPN website are often insightful, humorous and engaging. Just don’t call him ESPN’s “hockey guy.”
Since the Washington Capitals have hit the halfway point, I wanted to give a mid-season review, so why not Bucci?
Sum up the Caps season so far. At or above expectations?
[Bucci] Right about where I thought they would be. Maybe a little better. They are certainly among the NHL elite. Time will tell if they can win low scoring playoff games and if they have enough playoff defense and goaltending when they play a good team every night for two months.
Areas of improvement?
[Bucci] Team defense, blueline, a goaltender to trust to win for two months, and keeping their goals against lower.
Goaltending. Can they be successful with just Johnson and Theodore (and some solid minor-league backups), or is this where McPhee needs to pull a trade-trigger?
[Bucci] This where GM’s earn their money. They get paid to make tough decisions. They have to make a determination if they have the goaltending to win the Cup. I would think they don’t because they are not a great defensive team. But, if they can improve in that area and they keep scoring goals, they might have enough.
Alex and Alex, courtesy of clydeorama
Standouts on the forward line so far?
[Bucci] Obviously, the big three of Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom are carrying the offense. They could probably use another scoring forward.
Standouts on the blue line?
[Bucci] Mike Green is an elite offensive player. After that there is a bit of drop-off and it will probably be upgraded if possible.
Fleischmann – obviously having a great season, stepping in during the injuries and Ovie’s cold start. Future with the Caps, or is he looking like trade-bait?
[Bucci] Tomas Fleischmann only makes 725,000 this year and next. That’s great value for a guy who looks like a 20-30 goal guy. We don’t know if he he can produce for the playoffs. We will know what the Caps think of him deep down if they trade him. That’s why trades are interesting. They often expose what an organization thinks of someone. I would think the Caps would move him if they could find a goal scorer with more sandpaper.
What do the Caps need to make them a Cup Final team?
[Bucci] Great goaltending, more balanced scoring, health for their key offensive players and more experience on the blue line.
The team that hits the ice now – is this a short-term team or do you think McPhee’s made the right choices for the franchise’s longer-term success?
[Bucci] The Caps look to be set up pretty well. Ovechkin’s 9.5 million cap number hurts a little. Crosby and Malkin took 800,000 less in Pittsburgh. Nylander is overpaid. Federov’s 4 million will come off the books after this year. They should be in position to upgrade if there is a right fit in free agency. Now, that they are good it will be harder to make the right pick in a lower draft position, so it will be harder getting front line players.
Semin’s first fight – your take?
[Bucci] Hi-lar-ious. He looked like a female mud wrestler.
Penguins – Capitals rivalry – where would you rank it against the classic rivalries in the NHL?
[Bucci] It is the best rivalry right now because it has the two best players who both obviously raise their intensity level. We could see them in an opening round playoff series. I see the Penguins finishing anywhere from 6th to 8th in the east and the Caps are obviously going to win the division. I will be keeping an eye on the seeings as the season goes along.
Who do the Caps draft in June, regardless of their Cup run result? Where do they need to focus for the future?
[Bucci] Because the Caps will now be drafting in the 20′s, they pretty much have to take the best player available unless they identify a player who fills a need who they project as a quick developer. Drafting low is where an organization needs to follow a plan of drafting players who fit their style of play. That’s the secret of the [Detroit] Red Wings’ success. They know who they are and draft those kinds of players.
Are the Caps a team that could be challenged by a salary cap ceiling reduction next year, or are they more safe than other teams?
[Bucci] Like I said above, I think the Caps are in pretty good shape. They have money coming off the books and have no restricted free agents set for a bump in pay. That will be an issue after next year when Semin and Backstrom will due raises. Semin could command a cap number of 6-7 million depending on his health and production and Backstrom is headed for 5-6 million dollar territory.
My thanks to Bucci for taking the time out to give Caps fans an honest look at the team here at the halfway point. If you’ve not been to a Caps game at the Verizon Center, go while you can. Much thanks as well to Flickr user clydeorama, who always has great Capitals hockey photos.