Monday, September 15, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Eric Fehr

Eric Fehr

"Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself."
-- George Bernard Shaw

Some might think it a modest achievement that Eric Fehr set his second best career marks in goals (13), tied for his career best in assists (18), and set a second best career mark in points (31) last season.  He set career highs in games played (73) and average ice time (14:45).  However, given the journey of the former first round draft pick, 2013-2014 was a fine season.

Fehr, who was the 18th overall pick in the 2003 entry draft, has endured back injuries, multiple shoulder injuries, rib injuries, was traded away, returned as a free agent, and remade himself from a big goal scorer upon his draft by the club to more of a checking line, two-way winger in his current edition.

Fehr found his place last year on a third line with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward that provided the Capitals with consistently solid play.  There was a consistency in his game as well, despite what might be considered modest scoring numbers.  Although he finished the 2013-2014 season with 31 points, he registered points against 21 of the 29 teams against whom he played, including 11 of the other 14 teams in the Eastern Conference.

Fehr did this while learning a new position on the fly.  Drafted and playing most of his career as a right winger, Fehr was converted to center under head coach Adam Oates.  He was a solid possession player, at least in the context of the team for which he played, finishing fourth among all Capital forwards who played the entire season in Washington in Corsi-relative at 5-on-5 (+2.04 percent).  And, he did that while recording the third lowest share of offensive zone starts among forwards (46.76 percent; source:  What it meant in terms of performance was that he and his most frequent linemates – Joel Ward and Jason Chimera – all ranked in the top four on the team among forwards in points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.

Fearless’ Take…

Over the last two seasons Eric Fehr has remade himself into a reasonably reliable goal scorer, despite where he has been deployed.  Among forwards playing for the Caps in each of the past two seasons Fehr ranks sixth in goals per game (0.19, which works out to 16 goals per 82 games).  In fact, since his career best 21-goal season in 2009-2010, Fehr is fourth among forwards currently with the team in goals per game (0.23; minimum 150 games played). 

Cheerless’ Take…

Last season was a career high for Fehr in games played – 73.  The nine games he missed was a nine-game stretch in November in which he was a healthy scratch.  That might have been a product of his being a minus-8 in his first ten games of the season, although in one of those odd quirks that seemed to populate Adam Oates’ tenure as coach, Fehr was benched after he went 0-4-4, plus-3 in four games.

It is hard to find a lot to fault in Fehr’s game last season if it is placed in context.  He was put into a new position that he seemed to accept willingly.  He eventually came to play that position on what was not considered a scoring line, perhaps not what was envisioned when he was a prospect years ago.  He took to it as well as one could expect.  Which is not to say he is a long-term option at that position; his faceoffs might have been better (46.0 percent), and his assists/60 minutes at 5-on-5 (0.99) ranked tied for 80th among centers.  It was a good first year at the position, though, especially having to learn it on the fly.  It just might not be a long term solution.

The Big Question… Where will Eric Fehr play?

It seems unlikely that the Adam Oates experiment of making Eric Fehr a center will proceed in 2014-2015.  It does not mean that Fehr has a position waiting for him, though.  He could play on either side of the top two lines or provide some productivity for the fourth line.  He could, in a pinch, fill in at center on the third line, but that seems for the moment to be a fall-back position for the club.

Where Fehr plays might depend on how new head coach chooses to deploy Alex Ovechkin.  If Ovechkin is redeployed to left wing, where he played before Oates assumed the coaching responsibilities, Fehr could be a top line right winger.  If Ovechkin was on the right side of the top line, and Marcus Johansson was to move back into his top line left wing position, Fehr might be on the left side of the second line.

One other thing to wonder about with Fehr this season is whether he will get any more power play time than he has had.  Last season Fehr averaged 0:36 a game with the man advantage (less time than Jason Chimera, who had 0:50, and Dustin Penner, who had 0:56)), down from 0:49 in 2012-2013. 

In the end…

Eric Fehr has shown himself willing to play any role the team needs.  He has played all three forward positions and has played on all four lines in his eight seasons (over two tours) with Washington.  What he has not had in any of those eight seasons was a permanent home, a position he could call his.  Even last season, when he played primarily center, it seemed a stop-gap sort of move.  This season, at least to start, he seems to be once more a man looking for a steady role. 

Whatever role he plays, it could be at a bargain.  Looking at comparables from in terms of age and value, Fehr is in the neighborhood of such as Cody McCormick, Mike Santorelli, Tanner Glass, Drew Miller, Nate Thompson, Jim Slater, and Gregory Campbell.  Fehr compares well to that group, especially given is adaptability and versatility.

Lurking there, though, might be a goal scorer yet.  As noted, Fehr has scored goals at a 16-per-82 game pace the last two seasons, and his is not far removed from a 21-goal season (2009-2010).  It might get him a look at a scoring line role or on the power play.  Whatever role he is asked to play, though, it seems Eric Fehr is ready to give it a shot.

Projection: 77 games, 16-16-32, plus-2

Photo: Bruce Bennett

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Jason Chimera

Jason Chimera

You go back Jack do it again
Wheel turnin' 'round and 'round
You go back Jack do it again

-- Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

In his first season with Washington Capitals, 2009-2010 being a partial one following his trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets, left wing Jason Chimera scored seven goals in 39 games, a 15-goal pace over 82 games.  The following season he had ten goals in 81 games.  A drop, yes, but still a respectable number for a bottom six winger.  Chimera hit the jackpot in 2011-2012, recording his first 20-goal season while playing in all 82 games. 

Then, the bottom fell out of his production.  In the abbreviated 2012-2013 season, Chimera did not record his first goal of the season until his 28th game and finished with only three goals in 47 games.  Last season he rebounded to score 15 goals in 82 games on what was, on many nights, the Capitals’ most reliable, most effective line: Chimera, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward.

Chimera’s 2013-2014 goal total was consistent with his career average with the Caps and overall (about 14 goals per 82 games), but underneath it all there has been a certain lack of consistency in recent years. 

We have made a point over time that pairs might matter more than lines when it comes to forwards.  Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin is an example.  Last yeaer, so was Jason Chimera and Joel Ward.  Chimera skated more with Ward than he did any other Capital forward last season, more than 80 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes.  When together in those situations, Chimera recorded more than a goal per 20 minutes with Ward.

Fearless’ Take…

There was an odd number coming out of Chimera’s 2013-2014 season.  He averaged less than half a penalty minute per game, the lowest total for a full season in his career.  His 0.44 PIMs/game was consistent with his most frequent linemates, Eric Fehr (0.44) and Joel Ward (0.39).  Of the 12 Caps forwards playing in at least 20 games last season, Chimera’s plus-minus/60 minutes (+0.29) was third best on the club, trailing only linemate Joel Ward (+0.48) and Mikhail Grabovski (+0.60).

Another odd number: 17.  Chimera had 17 of his 27 assists in wins last season.  That would not be so odd in itself but for the fact that he had only 6 of his 15 goals in 38 wins, 9 goals in 44 losses.  It was part of a season that reflected the importance of secondary scoring.  Chimera had five multi-point games last season, four of them coming in wins.  The 27 assists for Chimera was a career best, as were his 42 points.

Cheerless’ Take…

Let’s draw a picture, ok?  If you look at his goals, assists, and points per game over his career, those years with the Caps start to look like a muskrat-tooth pattern at the end…

He went from 0.12 goals per game in the Caps part of his 2009-2010 season, then up to 0.24, down to 0.06, then back up to 0.18 goals per game last season.  Part of that seems to be an uneven shooting performance.  Since he came to Washington in 2010-2011, Chimera is 13th among Caps forwards who played in at least 50 games in shooting percentage (7.7 percent).   What’s it going to be this year?

The Big Question… Can Chimera maintain the solid level of play he displayed last season?

Consider it asking Cheerless’ question in a slightly different way.  Start with this.  Absent a trade over the next three weeks, Jason Chimera will open the season as the Capitals’ oldest player (35 years old), the only player on the roster born in the 1970’s.  The number – 35 – is not insignificant. Last season, nine forwards age 35 or older played in at least 50 games, recorded 12 goals, and finished with 35 points:
  • Jaromir Jagr
  • Olli Jokinen
  • Brian Gionta
  • Martin St. Louis
  • Jarome Iginla
  • Marian Hossa
  • Shane Doan
  • Daniel Alfredsson
  • Patrik Elias

This group is, by and large, primarily scoring line forwards, not the third line type into which Chimera might fall.  And, although we set the parameters at 12 goals, 35 points, and 50 games, the fact is that of this group of nine players, none had fewer than 18 goals, none had fewer than 40 points.  Those numbers are at the outer edge of Chimera’s career best performances – one season with 18 or more goals, one season with 40 or more points.  The extent to which Chimera can hold back the advance of time might be a significant factor in whether the Caps are successful this season.

In the end…

Despite just four and a half seasons with the Caps, Jason Chimera will enter the season sixth among all players in games played with the Capitals (331).  He might be considered among the team leaders at this point based on longevity.  He also might be a bargain.  Entering the first year of a two-year contract with a $2.0 million annual salary cap burden, his comparables (in age and value, according to might include Raffi Torres, Chris Neil, Travis Moen, or Matt Hendricks.  Based on last year’s performance, one might reasonably think Chimera is a bargain at that price, given his comparables.  At his performance level in 2012-2013, however, he is not a bargain.

And that is going to be the thing to watch with Jason Chimera as the 2014-2015 season unfolds.  His year-to-year consistency has been an issue since his arrival in Washington, and if his pattern holds, this season would be a “down” one for him.  The mitigating factor here might be in his partnership with Joel Ward.  Last season he skated those 80-plus percent of his 5-on-5 minutes with Ward to great effect.  In the previous season (the one in which he had three goals in 47 games), Chimera did not skate as many as 50 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes with any skater (he skated 42 percent of those minutes with Ward). 

Aesop said that “familiarity breeds contempt.”  It might be that familiarity, though, both with his surroundings and his linemates, that would enable Jason Chimera to do it again and once more make him an important ingredient to the Caps’ success this season.

Projection:  82 games, 14-22-36, plus-4

Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Troy Brouwer

Troy Brouwer

“There are no second acts in American lives.”
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald

OK, so Troy Brouwer was born in Vancouver.  But the point is that Brouwer has quite an act upon which to follow up.  You might remember that in our 2013-2014 preview of Brouwer, the theme was a quote from the movie, “Field of Dreams:”

“There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place, and the universe opens itself for a few seconds, to show you what is possible…”

Well, things clicked for Brouwer last season.  Following up on his production at a career-best pace in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season, he played in all 82 games for the second time in his career in 2013-2014.  He set a career high in goals scored (25).  He set a career high in points (43).  He nearly doubled his previous career best in power play goals (from 7 to 12).  He tied a career high in power play assists (9).  He set a career high in ice time per game (18:51) and shots on goal (161).

Brouwer became a fixture on the power play.  It was not so much his ice time – he averaged 3:25 a game compared to 3:22 a game in 2012-2013) – as much as production.  Those five extra goals he scored over his 2012-2013 output accounted for the five point increase from year to year.  He was a top-20 point producer on the power play among forwards, a fixture on the power play almost as much as Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom.

Fearless’ Take…

Over the past two seasons only six players have scored more power play goals than Troy Brouwer:  James Neal, Zach Parise, Wayne Simmonds, Joe Pavelski, Chris Kunitz, and Alex Ovechkin.  It is more than Patrick Kane, more than Thomas Vanek, more than John Tavares.  He seems as well suited to playing in the middle of the 1-3-1 Capitals power play as Ovechkin is as the trigger man on the left wing or Backstrom as the creator on the right wing.

Overall, Brouwer has scored at a 28 goals per 82 games pace over the past two seasons.  That goal-scoring rate is second on the club only to Alex Ovechkin over the past two seasons.  He ranks in the top 40 in goals per game over the last two seasons among skaters playing in at least 50 games.

Then there are the situational aspects of his goal scoring.  Last season 19 of his 25 goals were scored when the Caps trailed by one goal (4), tied (11), or ahead by one goal (4).  His goals were not of the stat-padding sort.

He is also an efficient shooter.  Over his three seasons with Washington, Brouwer ranks 19th in shooting percentage (15.3 percent) among all NHL forwards having played in 50 or more games and having recorded 50 or more shots.

Cheerless’ Take…

117 forwards scored more even strength goals than Troy Brouwer last season.  Compare that to 37 forwards having more even strength goals in 2002-2013.  There was also the odd penalty profile.  Last season was the first in Brouwer’s career in which he averaged more than a penalty minute per game (1.12).  Included among his 92 penalty minutes were four fighting majors and two misconducts, the 40 minutes being almost half his total.

We wonder, too, about Brouwer as a penalty killer.  He was second on the team in shorthanded ice time per game (2:06), but he was also the team leader in goals scored against (19) while on ice in shorthanded situations.

The Big Question… Is Troy Brouwer a one-note wonder?

Troy Brouwer had a fine year on the man advantage, like a number of Capitals.  His even strength production was a bit less impressive.  He finished fourth on the team in even strength goals, eighth in even strength points.  It might have been part of a broader second line production problem, but a problem it was nevertheless.  Last season he had barely as many even strength points (22) as power play points (21), a departure from his first two seasons with the Caps (43 even strength points, 21 power play points).  The improvement in power play production is welcome, but for the Caps to be successful it would seem likely that his even strength point production as the second line right wing will have to improve this season.

In the end…

In his own way, Troy Brouwer was a reliable indicator of outcomes for the Caps last season.  Washington was 19-1-4 in games in which he scored a goal, 19-29-10 in games he did not light the lamp.  Not that everything has been unicorns and accordions.  Brouwer has been a minus player in each of his three seasons in Washington (minus-26 overall).  It does argue that the Caps need improved performance from Brouwer at even strength (as they do from a lot of players). 

Depending on how head coach Barry Trotz chooses to deploy Alex Ovechkin, on the right side or the left, there might be an opening on the top line for a right winger.  Troy Brouwer might get a look at that spot.  While his power play performance has been impressive, his even strength performance does not argue for his being installed in that spot.

Then there is the matter of the whole career year thing.  At age 29, Brouwer is in his chronological prime.  He might be expected to sustain his overall level of production for a few years.  The fact that he has sustained his overall level of production at a career high level over the past two seasons (a 28-20-48 pace per 82 games) lends support to that view.

However, can that level of performance be sustained on disproportionate dependence on power play results?  That is going to be the question hanging over Troy Brouwer as the 2014-2015 season unfolds.  The answer to it will reveal whether there is a second act – or a second career year – in Troy Brouwer in 2014-2015.

Projection: 80 games, 20-17-37, even

Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Jay Beagle

Jay Beagle

"Honor lies in honest toil."
-- Grover Cleveland

In six seasons with the Washington Capitals, Jay Beagle has seen his workload increase: three games in 2008-2009, then seven, 31, 41, 48, and finally 62 games played last season.  Until last season his ice time exhibited a similar increase: 7:36, 9:16, 10:30, 11: 51, and 12:06 before dropping back to 11:15 last season

That is not bad for a guy who was undrafted and who spent all of part of four seasons with the Hershey Bears in the AHL before making the big club for good.  On the other hand, Beagle has never had a ten-point season in the NHL.  He is a fourth liner who does not play special teams much, a total of 255 minutes in 192 regular season games, almost all of it penalty killing (about 1:15 a night over his career).

There is little about Beagle’s resume that stands out.  Aside from being an infrequent point-getter, he does not take a lot of penalties, but he takes fewer.  For example, his ratio of penalties taken/60 minutes to penalties drawn/60 minutes at 5-on-5 last season was second worst on the team among forwards playing in at least 20 games.

That said, what Jay Beagle was last season, as he has been over his six seasons in the NHL is a guy who puts in an honest day’s effort, even if his production is modest.

Even when he is called upon to play on the top line. Last March 16th someone thought it would be a great idea to pair Beagle and Alex Ovechkin.  OK, that someone was then head coach Adam Oates, so it became a fact.  At the 15:53 mark of the second period in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the puck was shot into the netting to stop play.  On the ensuing faceoff, Oates put Beagle out with Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson.  From that point through the Caps’ April 1st contest against Dallas, Beagle and Ovechkin skated together on 113 shifts with one of Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, or Mikhail Grabovski on the top line (shifts with Dustin Penner were excluded as not being a scoring forward).  The Caps were outshot, 43-28, over those shifts and outscored, 2-0.  The Caps went 3-2-3 in the eight games that Beagle and Ovechkin were paired in this way.  It seemed the best spin head coach Adam Oates could put on that experiment was “I thought that line hasn’t hurt us.” 

Fearless’ Take…

In the traditional formulation of forward lines, you want the first and second line to score, the third line to prevent scoring, and the fourth line to provide energy (a euphemism for crash and bang hockey) and/or do no harm.  Take that penalties thing.  He has taken only one major penalty in his career, that being a five-minute major for fighting (it didn’t end well for Beagle).  Only four times in 192 games has he taken more than one minor penalty in a game.  He has never taken a double minor penalty in the NHL.  In other words, he doesn’t play stupid, which is more than a fair number of players in his role can say.

Cheerless’ Take…

Uh, cuz…about that “do no harm” thing.  Beagle doesn’t get a lot of ice time, and almost all of it was at 5-on-5 last year.  He had the worst ratio of goals for to goals against on ice at 5-on-5 of any Capital forward who played in at least 20 games (11 for/20 against).  The Caps allowed 157 5-on-5 goals last year, 12.7 percent of them when Beagle was on the ice.  He was 351st of 435 league forwards playing 20 games or more in goals against per 60 minutes.  He is not a Selke candidate, but it is hard to think of him as any more than a fourth liner, either.

The Big Question… Is Beagle a keeper?

Jay Beagle is in the last year of a three-year contract that carries a $900,000 cap hit.  As contracts go it is unspectacular, either as a bargain (it’s not) or as an overpayment.  According to his comparables in age (26-30; Beagle is 28) and cap hit ($850-950,000) include: Kyle Chipchura, Richard Clune, Jesse Winchester, and Jesse Joensuu.  None of these five players were a member of a playoff team last season.

It suggests that players at this age, level of play, and compensation are interchangeable.  That is an indelicate way of putting it, but the fact is that there are a lot more players available at this level of play than there are among scoring line forwards.  Given his experience, it would seem that it is entirely likely that Beagle will start and end the season as a Capital.

In the end…

The Capitals have a fair number of unsettled roster issues – who plays second line center, which side Ovechkin plays on, how the defensemen will be paired.  Who plays on the fourth line might not get a lot of attention, but there is a potential battle shaping up there.  Beagle, Chris Brown, and Michael Latta will compete for a spot on that line, and all of them can play center.

Beagle has the advantage of experience (192 games to 17 each for Brown and Latta).  He is also a good faceoff man (54.2 percent over his career, 51.7 percent last season).  Neither Beagle nor Latta are waiver-exempt;Brown is (for another 52 games, anyway).  None are likely to raise eyebrows at the offensive end.  The battle might turn on which of the three can play adequate defense and contribute on the penalty kill. 

Beagle’s ascent through the Capitals’ system was slow and steady after he was signed as a free agent in March 2008.  In 2012-2013 he finally had a chance to play in every regular season game, albeit in an abbreviated season (48 games).  Last year he was a scratch in 20 of the Caps first 25 games.  It is worth noting that Latta played in 15 of the 20 games in which Beagle was scratched.

That was a different time under a different coach, though.  Which is to say that Beagle seems likely to be in a fight for playing time, even if it is as a fourth line forward.  Honest work has served him well so far; it appears Jay Beagle has some more ahead of him.

Projection: 52 games, 4-4-8, minus-4

Photo: Greg Fiume, Getty Images

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom

Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.
-- Jonathan Swift

Since Nicklas Backstrom came into the league in 2007-2008, only three players have more assists – Henrik Sedin, Joe Thornton, and Martin St. Louis.  Only Sedin, Thornton, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin have more assists per game.  Sure, a lot of those assists are finishes by Alex Ovechkin, but this is like the case of the chicken or the egg.  Ovechkin wouldn’t have as many goals without a center of Backstrom’s talent, Backstrom wouldn’t have as many assists without a finisher of Ovechkin’s talent. 

The fact of the matter is that Backstrom has taken advantage of the talent around him to be one of the most consistent players of his generation.  Over 495 career regular season games, Backstrom has 494 points.  He was every bit as consistent in 2013-2014 with 79 points in 82 games.  How he got there was a bit different, though.  He had a career low in even strength assists in seasons in which he played at least 50 games (23) while posting a career best 38 power play assists for the league’s second-ranked power play.

What was not his career best was his plus-minus.  Only five centers were worse than Backstrom’s minus-20 last season, the worst in his seven-year career.  And, no center with as many points as Backstrom recorded last year (79) was close to that minus-20 (Jason Spezza had 66 points and was a minus-26).  By itself his plus-minus has limited value to explain, but it was part of a larger problem the club had at even strength last season.

Fearless’ Take…

The best thing that can be said about Backstrom’s 2013-2014 season as far as his plus-minus is concerned is that it was an anomaly in the context of his career to date.  He had been a plus-94 in six seasons going into last year.  The Caps were just such a mess at even strength last season.  They were 23rd in 5-on-5 goal ratio; no team lower than 17th made the playoffs.  It was the first time since Backstrom arrived in Washington that the Caps were below 1.00 in that measure. 

While plus-minus is a team measure, Backstrom occupies such a central role in the Caps’ scheme that he is a reflection of that outcome.  However, the fact that last year’s results, both for Backstrom and the Caps, were out of the recent norm at evens suggest that the problem can be corrected.  That might be at least as much a matter of how much a coaching change matters as whether Backstrom’s individual execution on the ice is lacking.

Cheerless’ Take…

Last season at this time Fearless said, “One would like to see better possession numbers from Backstrom and the top line.”  Well, we did not see them.  He was 220th among 375 forwards playing in at least 40 games in Corsi-on ice at 5-on-5.  Compare that to his finishing 139th among 395 forwards playing in at least 20 games of the abbreviated 2012-2013 season.*  Are his numbers an anomaly (whatever that is), or is there a trend happening here?  Then there is his shooting.  Backstrom has been either really good over his career (three seasons at 12.5 percent or better) or not really as good (three seasons at 9.5 percent or worse).

It is not all on offense, though.  In his first four seasons his ratio of goals for to goals against on ice at 5-on-5 ranged from 1.25 to 1.95.  In each of the last three seasons it was 1.24 or lower, and in two of them it was below 1.00.

The Big Question… Is it coaching, is it Ovechkin, or is it Backstrom?

Nicklas Backstrom is a point a game player.  That is as reliable a prognostication as can be made of any Capital.  However, there does seem to have been an erosion in Backstrom’s game at even strength, and it might not be restricted to one end of the ice.  At the defensive end it might or might not be associated with the iffy coaching schemes of the last three seasons, it might or might not be a product of his association with the oft-criticized defense of his linemate Alex Ovechkin, it might or might not be a product of teams matching strength to strength on Backstrom’s line, it might or might not be a product of some dim after effect of his concussion in 2011-2012, or it might be some combination of these or other factors.

At the offensive end, Backstrom was 37th in the league in even strength points (34).  This is not a neighborhood where you might find an elite center.  It is where you find Tyler Johnson (34 points), Franz Nielsen (35), Alex Kilhorn (33), or former Capital Mathieu Perreault,, who had the same 34 even strength points but did it in just 69 games.  It was not even a neighborhood in which you might have found Backstrom before last season.  He had 30 even strength points in 48 games in 2012-2013, and last year was the first in his career in which he did not average at least half a point per game at even strength (0.41).

For whatever reason or reasons, Backstrom has been slipping into sub-1.00 goals for to goals against ratio at evens over the last three seasons.  For the Caps to be successful this season, Backstrom might improve on his even strength offense, but given his history of consistency around that point a game level of performance, any improvement there would seem likely to be limited.  If there is going to be improvement – in Backstrom’s plus-minus, in the Caps’ even strength performance, in more wins than losses, -- it seems likely that most of the attention will have to be directed toward allowing fewer goals.  And for that, Backstrom has to be more the player he was in his first four seasons than that which he has been over the last three.

In the end…

As much as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom is the indispensable Capital.  There is no substitute for him anywhere in the Capitals system.  Sure, down the road Evgeny Kuznetsov might be a top-flight center.  Ditto for Andre Burakovsky, but these are potentials at best, pipe dreams at worst.  In the here and now, Nicklas Backstrom has to be and play like a top-line center. 

He is, as he has been, the epitome of the playmaking center, but his goal scoring has been a bit disappointing over the last two seasons, especially at even strength.  It is unlikely he will ever return to that 33-goal season in 2009-2010 (22 at even strength), when it seemed every Capitals set a career high in something on offense.  But being a 16-goal per 82 game player that he has been over the last two seasons needs some improving.  Look at it this way.  Three seasons ago he scored 11 even strength goals in 42 games.  Last season Backstrom scored 11 even strength goals in 82 games. 

You might have thought that the quote above refers to Nicklas Backstrom’s vision on the ice that makes him one of the premier playmakers of his generation.  It applies at least as much to Capitals fans who think Backstrom is a premier center right now.  He is not, not in that top tier anyway.  That vision might be clouded by remembrance of his 101-point season in 2009-2010 or his ability to consistently score at a point a game pace.  However, in the last two seasons he seems in his own way to have become as much a product of the Caps’ power play as Alex Ovechkin.  For the Caps to return to the post-season in 2015 he is going to have to improve his performance at even strength, and in that at both ends of the ice.  It is entirely possible that he will still be that point a game player, but if the mix between even strength and power play points tilts more toward the even strength side of the ledger, with fewer goals against when he is on the ice, the Caps might be better off for it.

Projection: 82 games, 20-63-83, plus-8

*  Numbers used here are from,, and

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Washington Capitals: All-Franchise Teams by the Alphabet -- Team A-E-I-O-U...and Sometimes Y

We have one more team to look at in the Washington Capitals All-Alphabet Teams. Some players worthy of consideration suffer by virtue of the fact that they had letters with too few eligible players to form a team. So, we bring you Team A-E-I-O-U…and Sometimes Y.

Left Wing: Mel Angelstad

Regular Season (with Capitals): 1 season, 2 games, 0-0-0, even
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Between amateur and pro hockey, between North America and Europe, Mel Angelstad played 1,036 regular season and playoff games covering 18 seasons of hockey in ten different leagues.  Of all those games, over all those seasons, traveling to so many places, there were two games with the Washington Capitals.

The NHL was probably a long shot for Angelstad who, despite an obvious dedication to the game (a maniacal one, one might say), he was not the most skilled of contestants for an NHL sweater.  He was never drafted, never traded for.  His associations with NHL teams were by way of free agency (Dallas and Washington).

He did, however, have a certain skill that made for a hard way to make a living.  It is in this number: 5,608.  That is the number of penalty minutes earned by Angelstad among his many stops in his hockey career, regular season and playoffs.  Five times he recorded more than 400 penalty minutes in a season.  It is a tough way to make a living. 

In 2003-2004 Angelstad was in his third season with the Portland Pirates, his longest stop of any in his career.  On April 3rd, with the Capitals hopelessly out of the playoffs (they were in 14th place in the Eastern Conference, just three points ahead of Pittsburgh for last place), they signed Angelstad to a contract.  He appeared that same day against the New York Rangers, getting 13 minutes of ice time in his NHL debut at the age of 31.  The following day he dressed for the season finale against the Pittsburgh Penguins, recording his only NHL shot on goal and two penalty minutes in 12 minutes of ice time.  And that would be the end of Angelstad’s career with the Caps. 

When the NHL went on extended hiatus, losing the 2004-2005 season to labor-management squabbles, Angelstad went to Europe, playing with the Belfast Giants.  He returned to North America to play for the Motor City Mechanics of the United Hockey League.  It was his last season in pro hockey.

I takes a unique personality to devote so much time, withstand so much physical punishment, pull up stakes and move to another city on almost an annual basis for little chance of making it to the NHL.  Angelstad did, and though he had only those two NHL games, he did achieve a first-ever in league history.  He became the first player in NHL history to wear the number “69.”  He can wear it proudly on Team A-E-I-O-U…and Sometimes Y.

Center:  Stefan Ustorf

Regular Season (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 54 games, 7-10-17, plus-5
Playoffs (with Capitals): 1 season, 5 games, 0-0-0, minus-1

In 1991-1992 Stefan Ustorf completed his first season of professional hockey, playing for hometown ESV Kaufbeuren in the German Eishockey-Bundesliga.  His 33 goals in 37 games was not enough to impress teams to taking him high in the 1992 NHL entry draft, but it was impressive enough for the Washington Capitals to take him in the third round (53rd overall).

Ustorf played two more seasons with ESV Kaufbeuren (which might have set off warning signals, in retrospect) before joining the Capitals’ AHL affiliate in Portland for the 1994-1995 season, where he scored 21 goals in 63 games.  The following season he made his NHL debut, appearing in 48 games for the Caps.  As rookie campaigns go it wasn’t bad.  His 17 points is tied for 32nd all-time among Caps rookies; his points per game (0.35) is tied for 25th.  His post-season was disappointing, though – no points in five games.

In 1996-1997 Ustorf regressed, so much so that he spent just six games with the Caps, failing to register a point.  He spent the rest of his season with Portland, scoring only seven goals in 36 games.  Three seasons in North America, two spent in part with the Caps, was apparently enough for Ustorf, who returned to Germany for the 1997-1998 season.  He gave North America another shot, playing with the Las Vegas Thunder, Detroit Vipers, and the Cincinnati Cyclones of the IHL over three seasons, but it would be his last hockey in North America.  Ustorf continued his career in Germany for another 11 seasons, retiring from the game after the 2011-2012 season at the age of 38.

Stefan Ustorf holds the all-time franchise record for games played by players born in Germany drafted by the Caps (54).  OK, so there have been only two such players (goalie Philipp Grubauer is the other).  Still, it is enough to get a spot on Team AEIOUASY.

Right Wing: Terry Yake

Regular Season (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 47 games, 6-8-14, plus-2
Playoffs (with Capitals): 1 season, 3 games, 0-0-0, minus-2

Terry Yake played 11 seasons in the NHL.  Perhaps in nine of them was he guaranteed a roster spot in trainng camp.  Even when things went well, they didn’t.  In the 1992-1993 season with the Harford Whalers, the team that drafted him in 1987 (fourth round), he scored 22 goals in 66 games, his first full season in the NHL after spending four years bouncing between Hartford and the AHL. 

His reward?  He was left exposed in the 1993 expansion draft.  The Anaheim Mighty Ducks plucked him, and Yake scored 21 goals for the Mighty Ducks in 82 games in the 1993-1994 season.

His reward for that?  He was traded to Toronto for David Sacco, who was coming off a four-game, two-point season with the Maple Leafs (Sacco appeared in 35 games over three NHL seasons).  A year with the Maple Leafs (split with the Denver Grizzlies in the IHL), and it was off to St. Louis.  Then he was signed as a free agent by the Buffalo Sabres, then the St. Louis Blues.  Then he was claimed by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 1999 expansion draft.  Then he was claimed by St. Louis  off waivers. 

Finally, in January 2000, Yake made his way to Washington, claimed on waivers from the Blues.  It would be his last stop in the NHL.  He had a respectable 6-5-11 scoring line in 35 games to close out the 1999-2000 season with Washington.  The following season, though, he spent most of his time in the AHL with the Portland Pirates (55 games), getting only 12 appearances with the Caps (0-3-3). 

That was the last straw.  After the 2000-2001 season Yake headed off to Europe for the last three seasons of his pro hockey career, and fittingly it was spent with three different teams in Germany. 

The much-traveled and unappreciated Terry Yake spent 11 seasons in the NHL with five different teams.  Two those seasons were spent in the Capitals organization.  Maybe as a consolation prize for his devoted effort, he gets a place on Team AEIOUASY

Defense: Al Iafrate

Regular Season (with Capitals): 4 seasons, 256 games, 58-118-176, plus-25
Playoffs (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 26 games, 11-5-16, minus-1

OK, let’s be honest.  The real reason we have a Team A-E-I-O-U…and Sometimes Y is to find a place for Al Iafrate.  He is the only skater in team history whose name begins with the letter “I.”  Not that he wouldn’t have made a “Team I” if we had one.

He was drafted fourth overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1984 entry draft, a loaded draft that produced Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, Patrick Roy. Kirk Muller, Gary Roberts, and oh yeah, some kid from Quebec named “Lemieux.”  His progress was stunning before and after his being drafted.  In successive years he went from the Detroit Compuware squad in the Michigan National Hockey League to the United States National Team (including an appearance in the 1984 Winter Olympics) to a brief stint with the Belleville Bulls in the OHL after the Olympics to the Maple Leafs in 1984-1985.

Iafrate played in 68 games in that rookie 1984-1985 season, starting what would be a six-plus season career with the Leafs.  Off ice problem led Iafrate to seek a trade in the 1990-1991 season.  He got his wish in January 1991, heading to Washington for Peter Zezel and Bob Rouse. 

With Washington, Iafrate showed steady improvement.  He scored six goals in 30 games to wrap up the 1990-1991 season with the Capitals, then scored 17 goals in 78 games the following year.  In 1992-1993 he went 25-41-66 in 81 games, was named a second team all-star, and finished sixth in Norris Trophy voting for the league’s outstanding defenseman.  He played in the All Star Game that season and impressed in the skills competition with a slap shot clocked at more than 105 miles per hour, the first NHL player to top the 100 mph mark in the competition…

The following season Iafrate was caught in team-wide offensive slump (he had only ten goals in 67 games).  To try to remedy the situation, the Caps traded Iafrate to the Boston Bruins for forward Joe Juneau, who was coming off a 102-point rookie season. 

Injuries to his knees were starting to catch up with Iafrate, though.  He had a good finish to the 1993-1994 season with Boston (5-8-13 in 12 games), but he missed the 1994-1995 and 1995-1996 seasons to surgeries on his back and both knees.  Boston traded Iafrate to the San Jose Sharks in June 1996 for Jeff Odgers and a fifth round pick in the 1996 entry draft.  He played in only 59 games over two seasons with the Sharks, totaling just eight goals and 14 points.  The Sharks made him available in the 1998 expansion draft, where he would be claimed by the Nashville Predators.  Less than a month later he was signed as a free agent by the Carolina Hurricanes, but he never dressed for the team, choosing to retire in September 1998.

To Washington Capitals fans, Al Iafrate will always be “Wild Thing,” a blur on the ice with balding head and mullet haircut.  He was a fine hockey player to boot, before injuries whittled away at his game.  He has to get a jersey for Team AEIOUASY.

Defense: Nolan Yonkman

Regular Season (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 50 games, 1-7-8, plus-4
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Nolan Yonkman is probably known more for what he did in a practice than what he ever did in a game wearing a Washington Capitals jersey.  On the eve of the season opener in 2003-2004, Yonkman and Michael Nylander battled for a puck in practice.  Their skates got tangled up, and Nylander – five inches shorter and almost 50 pounds lighter than Yonkman – lost.  He broke his ankle, and injury that would limit him to three games with the Caps that season until he was traded to Boston in March.

At the time, Yonkman was a 22-year old prospect with just 11 games of NHL experience trying to make the club.  He was drafted by the Caps in the second round (37th overall) of the 1999 entry draft (note: the Caps passed on Mike Commodore, drafted five spots later, and Jordan Leopold, drafted two spots after that, but these things happen).

Ironically, Yonkman himself would miss most of that 2003-2004 season to a knee injury.  No sooner did he finish rehabilitation on that knee following reconstructive surgery, he injured the same knee, limiting him to just 32 games with Portland in the AHL for the 2004-2005 season.

In 2005-2006 Yonkman appeared in 38 games for the Capitals, his high-water mark in games played, although he did not score a goal and recorded just seven points.  The Caps did not re-sign Yonkman to a new contract following that season, and he moved on to Nashville.  In four seasons in the Predators’ organization he never dressed for the parent club, and in July 2010 he signed as a free agent with the Phoenix Coyotes.  It started a four-year run in which Yonkman would appear in only a total of 26 NHL games with three teams, the Florida Panthers and the Anaheim Ducks being the others.  He is currently a free agent.

Nolan Yonkman might have been that big, physical defenseman that the Capitals lacked in the years before the NHL 2004-2005 lockout.  It was his body that betrayed him as much as anything, though, with injuries cutting deeply into his developmental schedule.  Still, he did manage to play in parts of three seasons with the Caps between causing and sustaining injuries.  Give him a sweater for Team AEOIUASY

Goalie: Gary Inness

Regular Season (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 54 games, 16-24-12, 3.64
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Even for the period, that being the early 1970’s, Gary Inness’ path to the NHL was not the usual sort.  Inness was not drafted by an NHL team and took the Canadian university path, playing two years with McMaster University and another at the University of Toronto.  At that point he was signed by the Pittsburgh Penguins as a free agent. 

Inness made the jump right from university to the NHL, appearing in 20 games for the Penguins in 1973-1974 (7-10-1, 3.26).  His sophomore year was better – 24-18-10 with a goals against average of 3.09 as the Pens’ number one goalie.  That was the regular season, though.  After escaping into the second round of the playoffs after beating the St. Louis Blues, 2-0, in a best-of-three series, Inness got the call in all seven games of the second round series against the New York Islanders.  He won the first three of them.  He lost the last four, though, allowing the Islanders (in their first playoff appearance in franchise history) to become only the second team to win a Stanley Cup playoff best-of-seven series after losing the first three games (Toronto did it in 1942).

He lasted into his third season with the Pens when he was traded across Pennsylvania to Philadelphia for Bobby Taylor and Ed Van Impe.  After a season and change with the Flyers in which he appeared in a total of only eight games, Inness signed with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association.  After barely a season in Indy, Inness arrived in Washington, signing a free agent deal in December 1978.

Inness played three seasons in Washington.  He appeared in 37 games in his first season, after arriving from Indianapolis, posting a 14-14-8 record with a 3.70 goals against average.  It was by far the best record among the four goalies playing for a team with a 24-41-15 record.  Over the next two seasons, though, he would split time between Washington and the Hershey Bears in the AHL.  After the 1980-1981 season, he retired to take up a job as head coach with the Bears (replacing Bryan Murray when Murray was promoted to Washington) where he spent three more seasons.

Gary Inness spent the last three seasons of his NHL career toiling for a team that struggled quite a bit.  Nonetheless, he earned the nickname, “Man with the Golden Glove” for his early play with the club.  It has to earn him a spot on Team AEIOYASY.

And there you have it.  Team A-E-I-O-U…and Sometimes Y is the last entry in our look back at the All-Alphabet Teams of the Washington Capitals.  Some teams are impressive, some are not.  But they are all, in their own way, Capitals.