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Big changes for Washington Capitals after another playoffs collapse

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THE aftermath of the Washington Capitals’ all-too-familiar early playoff exit has an unfamiliar feeling this time.

No longer could players fall back on learning from the latest loss, in seven games in the second round to the Pittsburgh Penguins, because some if not many of them won’t be back next season. With forwards T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams and defenseman Karl Alzner among the unrestricted free agents and several players set to eat up bigger chunks of the salary cap, changes are coming to Washington after back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies and a decade of playoff failures.

Sidney Crosby #87 and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury #29 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrate.Source: AFP

Led by Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals have made nine playoff appearances in the past 10 seasons and haven’t made it past the second round once.

“Obviously, it’s not working,” Backstrom said Friday on another sombre exit day. “I’m sure the organisation will figure that out and try again.” How much needs to be different is a matter of opinion, and really owner majority owner Ted Leonsis, general manager Brian MacLellan and others in the organisation are the only ones whose thoughts matter. Because of the impending salary-cap crunch and new contracts needed for centre Evgeny Kuznetsov, winger Andre Burakovsky and defensemen Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt, MacLellan made it no secret before the 2015-16 season he saw this as a two-year window. Now it’s over.

“This is a pretty good window that we had here, and unfortunately it’s not there anymore,” said Alzner, who played with a broken bone in his hand and faces his own uncertain future. “You can only get to the second round so many times before you have to think that something needs to be changed.”

Tom Wilson #43 of the Washington Capitals is checked by Ron Hainsey #65 of the Pittsburgh Penguins.Source: Getty Images

Coach Barry Trotz said the window hasn’t closed on the Capitals after three consecutive second-round exits. He said similar teams have added pieces and allowed for the possibility that Washington is even better next year. That’s difficult to imagine unless MacLellan can work some magic. He went all out in signing Williams and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik and acquiring Oshie two years ago, centre Lars Eller last summer and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline to solve all of the Capitals’ apparent woes to go for a Stanley Cup now.

With that mission unaccomplished, what MacLellan does next — especially with top players — is anyone’s guess.

“The question is what do you do with your core and do you decide you want to take it one more time,” former GM and current NBC Sports analyst Mike Milbury said. “The goal being the Stanley Cup, you have to ask questions about your core players and whether they can get you to the promised land.” No option, from firing Trotz to trading stars to blowing it all up, is entirely off the table. Leonsis wrote on his blog that the goal is to make the playoffs and compete for a Cup again in 2018, so that limits the possibilities. But how to the Capitals fix what has ailed them?

Goalie Braden Holtby #70 of the Washington Capitals looks on after giving up a third-period goal.Source: AFP

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Niskanen said. “I don’t know if minor cosmetic changes are going to change anything, really. It’s pretty clear that this group didn’t get it done, so what changes and how many or what level of changes, I don’t know what the answer is. Talent-wise and our potential is clearly there. That’s all fluff now. We need results.” Laying an egg in a 2-0 Game 7 home loss and the urgency of the situation made this the most difficult ouster to take for more than a few players. They used words like “terrible” and “awful” to describe another sour ending and the prospect of several teammates leaving.

But they knew changes were coming.

Bryan Rust #17 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates with Sidney Crosby #87 after scoring a second-period goal.Source: AFP

“The writing was on the wall,” said Williams, a three-time Cup-winner and 2014 playoff MVP. “It was evident what was about to happen, win or lose. … We’re in the business of winning and this team, albeit very successful, hasn’t been successful in the right way.” Trotz said the difference between winning and losing in the playoffs can be millimetres, but the Capitals somehow ended up on the wrong end of it again. This time, Ovechkin was hampered by hamstring and knee injuries, Marcus Johansson had a broken finger and several others were dealing with injuries. Mentally, they’re also dealing with the way it went down and the difficult transition to a summer of changes.

“After two days when you lose, it’s hard to say what to expect and what we should do,” Ovechkin said. “I think we have to take a deep breath and maybe in two weeks or three weeks just see what happened. Because right now it’s just a situation where you’re frustrated, you’re angry, you still think about the Game 7. And it’s hard. It needs time and we’ll see what happens out there.”

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Ben Simmons Philadelphia 76ers, trade news, practice, Travis Kelce slams Simmons, NHL, NFL, Philadelphia Eagles,

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The Ben Simmons saga has become so bad that other sports are getting dragged into the fray. Now the Australian has received a brutal reality check from one of Philadelphia’s most beloved NFL stars on earning the respect of Philly fans.

Jason Kelce played a key role as the 2017 Eagles won that season’s Super Bowl – their first ever – then dressed up as a ‘Mummer’ (a participant of a unique Philadelphia parade) and gave an inspired speech during their trophy parade.

Now he’s taken aim at Simmons, explaining the fans who are notoriously tough on their own players are simply asking for accountability and hard work.

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“You write your own narrative,” Kelce said, per NBC Sports Philly. “What’s going on, I don’t want to crush any other players, but what’s going on with the 76ers, Ben Simmons, stuff like that. All that is because of a lack of accountability, a lack of owning up to mistakes and a lack of correcting things.

“If all that got corrected, you fix the free throws, if you’re getting better as a player, none of this is happening. Everybody can b***h and complain about how tough this city is to play in. Just play better, man. This city will love you.”

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He added: “This city really appreciates accountability, appreciates people being very honest, real, emotionally invested, caring.

“There’s a lot of people who say it’s a hard place to play. I think it’s pretty f***ing easy, to be honest with you. You just go out there, play hard. Want to be loved in this city as a baseball player? Run to first base. They’re going to f***ing loving you. I mean, that’s what it comes down to. If you go up and make a bunch of excuses, if you come up here and try to lie to them and act like they don’t know what they’re talking about — which, sometimes they don’t — when you act that way or when you aren’t accountable if you’re making mistakes, or when you’re not getting better or anything like that, they’re going to crush you.

“Everybody’s going to get crushed at some point. Everybody’s going to go through a downturn or struggle, right? At all times this city is going to keep you accountable to be doing your job and performing. But if you stick to it, if you fight through it and you get better and everything like that, they’ll respect the hell out of you.

“Even if you’re struggling and you’re fighting and really trying, they’re still going to respect you. That’s what I think most guys miss.”

A former New England Patriots assistant coach also slammed Simmons. Michael Lombardi, who also worked as an executive with four other NFL franchises, tweeted: “Ben Simmons is embarrassing himself now —not even his ardent defenders can support his behaviour. Believe what you see.”

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It’s not just NFL where Simmons’ situation is making a mark. In the NHL, “F**k you Simmons” chants rang out during the Philadelphia Flyers’ 6-3 win over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night (local).

TNT’s broadcasters at Wells Fargo Center even took digs at Simmons being booted from practice during the game.

As Flyers fans left the game, more “f**k Ben Simmons” chants were yelled.

But the biggest impact is still being felt by Simmons’ Sixers.

Despite Simmons missing the season opener, Philadelphia smashed New Orleans 117-97. But that didn’t stop the Pelicans fans from delighting in the Australian’s absence.

The crowd at Smoothie King centre repeatedly chanted “Where’s Ben Simmons?” during the game. And whenever a 76ers player took a free throw, those chants became louder – a reference to Simmons’ woeful 34.2 per cent shooting from the charity stripe in the 2021 playoffs.

On one occasion, Sixers star Joel Embiid was on the receiving end of sarcastic chants by fans declaring: “We want Simmons.”

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What made ‘The Great One’ great? Wayne Gretzky arrives in Sydney for USA v Canada Ice Hockey Classic, NHL

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WAYNE Gretzky was never the biggest, strongest or fastest guy on the ice. A lanky figure with a gentle smile, he didn’t look much like his NHL counterparts. But somehow Gretzky ascended to become a legend of the sport. So what is it that helped make ‘The Great One’ great?

In a career spanning twenty years Gretzky stacked 61 official NHL records, (60 of which he still holds), including the most goals (1,016) and most assists (2,223). He’s won the Stanley Cup four times with the Edmonton Oilers and won the Hart Trophy, the league MVP award, on a record nine occasions.

When it comes to ice hockey, there’s Wayne Gretzky — light years — and then everyone else.

The word ‘legacy’ is sometimes overused when reflecting upon the achievements of our sporting heroes, but few compare to the legacy left by Gretzky.

Wayne Gretzky in his infamous #99 jersey of the Edmonton Oilers.Source: Supplied

Looking back, it’s not his records or accolades he’s most proud of though. It’s the effort he put in.

“People ask me all the time, if someone said ‘How would you like to be remembered?’ I always say the same thing: I played a lot of bad games but I know in my heart that I played hard every single game,” Gretzky told Fox Sports Australia.

“People came up to me and they said ‘You worked hard out there,’ and to me, that’s the biggest compliment I can get.”

Canada’s favourite son had many great mentors throughout his playing career, like his father Walter, and ‘Mr Hockey’ Gordie Howe — who tragically passed away just this month.

However Gretzky credits his grandparents for instilling in him the grit and determination that would make him a legend.

“I probably got that from my grandparents,” Gretzky said.

“My grandfather [Tony] was from Belarus, part of the Soviet Union at the time. In 1920 he came over with my grandmother [Mary] who was from Warsaw, and they both went to North America.

“They both worked through to their early 80s. They had a farm, and they did all their own farming, so I think the work ethic that I had as a player was inherited from my grandparents.”

Wayne Gretzky touched down in Sydney on Thursday. Picture: Stephen CooperSource: News Corp Australia

That farm is where a young Gretzky would watch ice hockey on TV with his family. It’s also where he first pulled on the skates and picked up his stick.

Greatness would soon follow as he rocketed through the junior ranks and made his professional debut at the age of 17 in the WHA (now defunct), before joining the Oilers in the NHL the very next year and creating NHL history playing for Edmonton, the Los Angeles Kings, St Louis Blues and New York Rangers.

Even after his playing days, he continues to be an ambassador for the sport, currently visiting Australia for the USA vs Canada Ice Hockey Classic that bears his name.

“Hockey has been so good to me in my life and everything I have is because of hockey, so I think that we can help promote the game and get everyone to see how great of a sport it really is,” Gretzky said.

“The game fares well in colder climate places. Kids in Canada can skate on lakes and ponds in the winter and it doesn’t cost parents any money. But we’re getting much bigger now with San Jose, LA, Anaheim, more kids are playing, and the first pick in the NHL Draft this week will be from Phoenix, Arizona [Auston Matthews], which nobody ever thought would be possible.

“So it’s growing, it just takes time and hopefully twenty years from now, people over here are going to say ‘Wow, this is a fun sport’.”

Wayne Gretzky meets junior ice hockey players from the Canterbury Eagles. Picture: Stephen Cooper.Source: News Corp Australia

Gretzky said getting more kids to watch and play ice hockey is what will help it grow Down Under. He also praised Australia’s first (and only) NHL draftee Nathan Walker for helping that cause.

“I heard he plays hard and he has some great abilities, and had a strong season [with Washington Capitals affiliated AHL team Hershey Bears]. It only helps our sport,” Gretzky said.

Sydney fans will be in for a treat Saturday night when Gretzky takes to the ice in a four-on-four exhibition prior to the main event.

The five-stop Australian tour has already been a hit in Melbourne, Perth, and Adelaide, with Sydney and Brisbane the final games left on the schedule.

Wayne Gretzky and his son Ty (then 14, now 25) in 2004.Source: Getty Images

Gretzky has also brought along his 25-year-old son Ty, a keen player himself who now works for his dad’s hockey camps and is expected to play in Sydney.

As for what ‘The Great One’ will get up to in his downtime while in town, just don’t expect golf to be on his itinerary, despite his son-in-law Dustin Johnson’s triumph at the US Open last week.

“I don’t get any golf tips,” Gretzky said.

“My golf upside is about as good as his hockey upside… which is not very good.”

Wayne Gretzky will be at the Qudos Bank Arena for the USA vs Canada Ice Hockey Classic.

Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne: Friday 17 June, 2016

Perth Arena, Perth: Saturday 18 June, 2016

Adelaide Entertainment Centre, Adelaide: Friday 24 June, 2016

Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney: Saturday 25 June, 2016

Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Brisbane: Saturday 2 July, 2016

Team USA line up for the national anthem before the match between Team USA and Team Canada at Rod Laver Arena on June 17, 2016 in Melbourne.Source: Getty Images

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Toronto Maple Leafs select Arizona-born Auston Matthews as no. 1 pick

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ON the heels of the NHL expanding into Las Vegas, the Toronto Maple Leafs are pinning their future on Arizona-born centre Auston Matthews.

Amid chants of “Go Leafs, Go!” the 18-year-old from Scottsdale was selected by Toronto with the first pick in the NHL draft Friday night. Though the Maple Leafs had kept their decision under wraps since winning the draft lottery in April, Matthews was the expected choice.

Auston Matthews reaches for his mother Ema Matthews after being selected first overall.Source: AFP

NHL Central Scouting ranked the 6-foot-2, 210-pound playmaker as its top draft-eligible project, and he’s also a natural centre, a top-line position that’s difficult to fill. Matthews already has pro experience after spending last season with Zurich in the Swiss Elite League.

WHAT MADE ‘THE GREAT ONE’ GREAT?

Finnish-born forwards Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi rounded out the three top prospects.

Matthews, who grew up a Coyotes fan, became the seventh American selected at No. 1, and first since the Chicago Blackhawks chose Patrick Kane with the top pick in 2007.

Auston Matthews puts on a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey.Source: AFP

For Toronto, Matthews represents a significant piece in general manager Lou Lamoriello’s extensive rebuilding plans to restore relevance to one of the league’s most high-profile franchises. The Maple Leafs have missed the playoffs in 10 of the past 11 years, and spent last season purging high-priced contracts and veteran talent with a focus on rebuilding through youth.

Matthews arrives at a time when the Maple Leafs usher in the 100th year of professional hockey being played in Canada’s largest city.

Winnipeg was set to select second, followed by the Columbus Blue Jackets, whose general manager Jarmo Kekalainen said he’s considering trading the pick depending upon which two players are taken ahead of him.

Auston Matthews celebrates after being picked first overall.Source: AFP

Two trades were announced by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman before the second pick.

Montreal traded forward Lars Eller to Washington for the Capitals’ second-round draft picks in 2017 and ‘18.

Also, Chicago traded forward Andrew Shaw to Montreal for the Canadiens’ two second-round picks — No. 39 and 45 — in this year’s draft.

Numerous Maple Leafs fans made the two-hour drive to Buffalo to be on hand for their team selecting first for only the second time in the draft. Toronto selected Wendel Clark first in 1985. Each time Maple Leafs began cheering, their rival Sabres fans began booing.

Before the draft began, Bettman announced that the league’s annual pre-draft rookie combine will return to Buffalo for a third consecutive year.

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