Tuesday was an exciting day for our organization, acquiring three outstanding players in trades and beating a very good Minnesota team in front of an energetic crowd at Verizon Center. But I also found it enlightening to step back a bit and look at the bigger picture, comparing Tuesday’s experience to the last few trade deadlines.
It certainly had a different feeling this year – a much better feeling. In many ways it also continued to validate our willingness to steadfastly adhere to our plan. Think about it: In our 4-1 victory over the Wild, we saw young players whom we acquire in prior trades leading us to victory. Brooks Laich (from Ottawa) had a four-point night with two goals and two assists, Shaone Morrisonn (from Boston) scored an important goal and Tomas Fleischmann (from Detroit) and Mike Green (draft pick from Detroit) added key assists. We had a team and a building that was clearly energized by the commitment we showed in acquiring Sergei Fedorov, Cristobal Huet and Matt Cooke.
And we had a reason to keep an eye on that out-of-town scoreboard, which is an awfully nice feeling as we embark on what should be an exciting March.
Clearly times have changed. I told you change was coming, didn’t I?
As I think George McPhee demonstrated with his moves on Tuesday, we want to make the playoffs. To do that, we have to make up some ground. The Carolina Hurricanes are ahead of us in the Southeast Division and have proven to be a tough, battle-tested opponent. Florida and Atlanta are on our heels. But we have games in hand, and we get to play those teams two more times each.
As George has pointed out, our team has played so hard and so well the last few months, we wanted to give them every opportunity to earn a playoff berth without jeopardizing our overall plan. I think we did remarkably well. Remember, Michael Nylander, Chris Clark and Brian Pothier all have missed a significant amount of time, and we have hung tough in their absence. The hope is that the players we obtained at the trade deadline will give us the necessary extra push to make the playoffs. I have faith in our team.
I also have faith in our fan base. The energy at Verizon Center recently has been unbelievable. When you factor in the new high-definition video boards and the fans’ excitement, I think the overall experience is as good as it’s ever been.
Our ticket sales for full and partial plans as well as group outings are strong, and every February game drew a crowd of more than 17,000. Since Alex Ovechkin signed his long-term extension, we have seen attendance increase more than 20% from the first half of the season. There are a number of factors for that, certainly including Alex’s commitment to the team. We’ve always seen a spike in the second half on the schedule, and the team’s rise in the standings helps create ticket demand. We have also been creative and aggressive in sales and marketing strategies, especially with implementation of the Caps Student Rush program. We’ve also received tremendous support from sponsors for our “Click to Win” nights and from our ownership group for the new “Josh’s Kids” section, both of which bring deserving children to Verizon Center to see our games.
Attendance only begins to tell the success story. Local broadcast ratings have spiked dramatically. Comcast SportsNet has enjoyed a 40-plus% improvement from last season in its ratings, and our recent game against Pittsburgh on VERSUS featured the best Washington, D.C., ratings since the network began televising NHL games in 2005. NBC has taken notice as well, picking up the March 9 game against Pittsburgh that will now start at 12:30 p.m.
The return to red, white and blue has been overwhelmingly positive. I loved the site that rated our jerseys as the second-best new design in the league, and cited our secondary logo as the best. Merchandise sales are among the best in the league when you look at what’s sold through NHL.com, and that doesn’t even include the jerseys purchased through our special preorder last summer. Alex Ovechkin’s jersey is, predictably, one of the best sellers in the league.
Speaking of Alex, the last two months have seen him earn some praise that’s been overdue, I believe. That might seem silly to say about a two-time first-team NHL All-Star and a Calder Trophy winner, but people always seemed to praise him as a pure goal scorer. Now, more and more recognize him the way we do – as the best player in the NHL.
Alex is earning acclaim for his leadership, for his two-way play and for the ways that he makes his teammates better. And he’s still the best goal scorer the league has seen for a while – the only other players to score at least 45 goals in each of their first three seasons were Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy and Luc Robitaille.
Needless to say, we’re thrilled to have him signed for the next 13 years. Alex is the cornerstone around which our Stanley Cup championship teams will be built.
The talent that surrounds him is looking better and better as well. Consider this: if Alex leads the league in goals and Mike Green leads all defensemen in goals, they’d be the first teammates to pull that off since Mario Lemieux and Paul Coffey in 1988-89.
Green is a great success story this season, as he has blossomed under coach Bruce Boudreau. He is among a great group of young players who we look forward to watching grow up together. Guys like Alexander Semin (20 goals in 47 games), Nicklas Backstrom (battling for the rookie scoring lead) and Jeff Schultz (plus-5 and playing 18 minutes a night) have made significant contributions already, and we expect others will in the near future.
Part of Tuesday’s excitement was that we made key acquisitions without sacrificing the future. There was – and is – a lot of affection for Matt Pettinger in our organization, and we wish him the best back home in Vancouver. The fact was, especially with his struggles offensively this year, we weren’t sure how he would fit in next year’s plans.
We are excited to see how the players we obtained will perform down the home-stretch of the regular season. We will have the opportunity to see them first-hand and see if they would fit in our plans moving forward. First and foremost, however, we feel that they will help our quest for the playoffs, and that’s the most important thing on our minds right now.
We got a sense of just how good Cristobal Huet is when he shut us out less than a month ago, and he was rock-solid in his Caps debut, posting a 4-0 shutout at New Jersey. This is one of the best goaltenders in the league – an All-Star last season – who was available at a price (Anaheim’s second-round choice in 2009) we couldn’t turn down.
Cristobal and Olie Kolzig give us two elite goaltenders. Much has been made about our goaltending situation, one which I see as more of a luxury than a problem. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about Olie in 19 years, it’s that he’s a professional first and foremost. I had no trepidation about his reaction to this move, and his performance Tuesday night confirmed it. He’ll play his heart out, as he has throughout his entire career, and we have another elite goaltender to compete with him for time.
Brent Johnson has been an outstanding backup to Olie Kolzig, and his importance shouldn’t be diminished. George – in consultation with our scouts and goalie coach Dave Prior – just felt that the price was too good for Huet, and that’s something that the NHL media echoed across North America.
Sergei Fedorov is a player I’ve always admired, and hearing Alex, Alexander and Viktor Kozlov speak about him, I know I am not alone. Much has been made of how Sergei will impact them, but I think he will impact our entire team. He’ll help the power play, the penalty kill, the second line (which is missing a key piece in Michael Nylander) and in the locker room. Sergei has three Stanley Cup rings. He’s won one in Washington even. He brings an amazing presence to our team.
Matt Cooke is a player that I know George has admired for a while. I wonder if he may play a little like George did – feisty, tough and with enough skill to average double-digits in goals the past six years. I can’t wait to watch him, and I know our guys can’t wait to have him on their side.
I hope you share in my excitement regarding the direction we are heading. We recently sent out our season-ticket holder renewal kits, something I know many of you have received already. It includes information on playoff tickets – it was fun to include those for the first time in a few years! – and info on how our season-ticket holders can obtain a great “Young Guns” lithograph autographed by Ovechkin, Green, Semin and Backstrom.
Most of our season tickets have gone up in price, in part because of the additional D.C. admissions tax and the fact that we haven’t had an across-the-board increase in five years. Only three teams have a lower average ticket price than we do, and we still will remain well below the league average. More than 40% of our seating allotment is available for $20 or less based on season-ticket pricing. Your emails and comments to our guest services group have been extremely encouraging, so we’re gratified that you are onboard.
Something special is happening around the Capitals – a remarkable atmosphere at Verizon Center and even at Kettler during practice. We’re on the way to our goal, and as George is fond of saying, we won’t be done improving our team until we reach it. That goes for all aspects of the business. Thanks for your support and enjoy the ride.