Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Focus on Prospects: Dustin Stevenson

With rookie camp coming up in under 2 weeks, I wanted to look at some of the prospects that may be invited. I'll do profiles of a couple of guys until rookie camp - if there's someone you want to hear about, let me know!  But for my first choice, let's take a look at defenseman Dustin Stevenson.

photo by bridgetds

Name: Dustin Stevenson
Position: D
Shoots: Left
Height: 6'5"
Weight: 220 lbs
Birthdate: 1989-08-12
Hometown: Gull Lake, Sask.

While one of the Caps prospects not currently playing in the CHL, KHL, or Collegiate, Dustin Stevenson is arguably the star of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League (SJHL).  The SJHL, for those curious, is a Junior A league, which is considered to be a step below leagues of the CHL (which are Major Junior leagues).

But don't count Stevenson out based on that.  Last season, the La Ronge Ice Wolves (which Stevenson captained) won the Credit Union Cup, making the Ice Wolves SJHL Champions.  At the end of that same year, Stevenson was named the SJHL Player of the Year after notching 11 goals and 36 assists, third among defensemen in the league.  He also became the first SJHL player to ever be signed to a pro contract while still with the SJHL (signed right in the middle of the SJHL Credit Union Cup finals).

Not too shabby for a hulking kid from a town of under 1,000 people.
(To provide perspective, when I was a senior in high school, my high school's student population was about 2,500.)

However, SJHL players age out once they are over 20, and with Stevenson just turning 21 this month, he must move on from his team.  Before his signing, he had a hockey scholarship to attend St. Lawrence University, which has produced Hershey Bear Zach Miskovic as well as a handful of current NHL players and coaches.  However, in signing a pro contract, Stevenson had to forgo his turn at a college education and NCAA play.  Though it's not like he's terribly upset that the Capitals signed him.
"For sure, it's a dream come true. Ever since I was a young guy, my dream was to sign with an NHL team. I still haven't wrapped my head around it completely but it's definitely a dream come true."
Many reports say that Stevenson has a Chris Pronger style of play, but he's no goon.  With the size and strength perfect for a defensive defenseman, the speed of a power forward, and the work ethic of a seasoned captain, Stevenson is a coach's dream.  His coach in La Ronge, Bob Beatty, was delighted but not surprised by the signing:
"There's so much potential there.  He's such a good character kid. We know he's going to put in the effort to get better and obviously Washington feels the same way."
Stevenson is also on Bruce Boudreau's radar after an impressive development camp showing.  Stevenson was one of the players that Boudreau singled out in his "all-camp team."  Since Stevenson will not be able to return to the SJHL and will not be attending St. Lawrence due to the fact that he's signed a pro contract, I'd expect him to join the South Carolina Stingrays next season.  A little more pro experience is needed for this self-proclaimed "late bloomer," but he's well on his way to becoming a great addition to an NHL blue line.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Case for Willie Mitchell

 photo by Getty Images

GMGM has remained vague about signing any more free agents, saying that the Caps were done but not sounding definitive while saying it.  With Willie Mitchell visiting the Capitals and Kettler Capitals Iceplex this week and having "a very good meeting," could Mitchell be the ace up McPhee's sleeve?

A related question could be: Do the Caps really need Mitchell?  In a word, yes.  One of the persistent issues with the Capitals roster has been the lack of defensive defensemen - the "stay at home" guys who aren't afraid to make the tough hits and are valuable on the penalty kill.  The Caps lost perhaps their only good stay at home defensemen when free agent Shaone Morrisonn (who last year trailed only Alex Ovechkin for the team high in hits) signed with Buffalo.  

The Caps are gaining John Carlson and Karl Alzner,  but both are rookies who lack the experience of a seasoned blue-liner.  Jeff Schultz has stepped up his defensive play in recent years, leading the league in +/- last year, leading the team in blocked shots (129), and improving his hit count with 66 last year.  However, for some perspective, John Erskine bested Schultz in hit total (by over 40 hits) while playing 30 fewer games.

While Willie Mitchell, 33, missed almost half of last season with post-concussion syndrome (thanks to a hit by Evgeni Malkin), his 2008-09 stats show a definite knack for defense.  In that season, he had 82 hits (one per game) and blocked 125 shots.  He was fourth on the Canucks in takeaways with 39.  He also led the team in +/-, finishing up the season with a career-high +29.  Mitchell was awarded the Canucks' trophy, the Babe Pratt Trophy, for best defenseman on the team in 2008 and 2009.

With Kevin Bieksa, Mitchell has been a one half of arguably the best defensive pairing on the Canucks - Bieksa's offensive mindset complements Mitchell's strong defense and long reach (Mitchell uses a stick at the league-maximum of 63 inches).  I'd love the idea of a top defensive line of Mike Green and Willie Mitchell - Green would be a little more free to explore his offensive side without too much worry over the blue line going unprotected.

Only time will tell who Mitchell decides to sign with - Los Angeles and San Jose are in the signing mix with the Caps.  The Canucks haven't been ruled out either; re-signing Mitchell may be an option for them.  But Caps fans are pushing for McPhee to sign someone of Mitchell's physical presence.  The Caps have a decent amount of room under the salary cap.  And it's undeniable that the Caps could use him.

Mitchell is expected to make his decision by the end of the week.
UPDATE 8/25/10 - Willie Mitchell has signed a 2-year contract with the LA Kings.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hockey is Everywhere

On the way back from vacationing in Hilton Head Island, I stopped for gas at a station off I-95 in Selma, North Carolina (Population: 7,008).  Pumping gas in my Capitals John Carlson shirt, the guy at the pump on the other side of me noticed my team loyalty.

"Is that your team?"
"At least you have a team.  I'm from just north of Toronto.  We haven't had a team for a while.  But Brian Burke's working on it..."

The conversation got me thinking.  First of all, hockey really is everywhere, even between a Capitals fan and a Maple Leafs fan in bumblef*ck North Carolina.

But it also reminded me how lucky Caps fans are.  When I think about all the moaning thats been going on this offseason about the moves the Caps have made, it just makes me realize that we are so much better off than the majority of NHL fans.  And we really do take it for granted.

We have a coach who took over a team in the middle of a complete renovation, and turned them into a President's Trophy-winning Cup contender in just a few seasons.  Boudreau constantly pushes his players to be better, admits it when his players are wrong, and defends them when they're being unjustly criticized.  In fact, he won a Jack Adams trophy for his tremendous coaching in his first season at the helm.  He hadn't even coached a full season when he won - he joined the team in the end of November and won that June.

People have also been tough on General Manager George McPhee this offseason.  Yes, the ending to last season was extremely disappointing, but it wasn't GMGM's fault - Montreal is a good team that had a hunger greater than ours.  McPhee has been one of the most adept GMs in the biz.  He's one of the smartest drafters in the entire league, bringing little names like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Semyon Varlamov, and John Carlson to the Caps.  And when necessary, developing them through one of the greatest minors systems available and bringing them in to the big leagues just when they're ready.  He's also smart when it comes to money.  The Caps are one of the few teams not in a load of trouble right now with the salary cap.  His sharp decisions earned him a nomination for the first-ever General Manager of the Year award this June.

Basically, at least we know that our team will have a postseason.  Our season isn't a total crapshoot - we know our team can win, WILL win.  So stop complaining, Caps fans.  At least we aren't the Maple Leafs.

Sorry, Leafs fans.  No offense intended.  We were there once too.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

In Case You Missed It...

My first article for The Fourth Period has been posted on their website.  I review the Capitals' off-season here: http://www.thefourthperiod.com/news/was100811a.html.  Check it out!

I've also added a sidebar named "The Fourth Period Article Archive."  I'll be linking to all my TFP articles from there in the future.