Monday, September 29, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Defensemen: Mike Green


Mike Green

“I'm always making a comeback but nobody ever tells me where I've been.”
-- Billie Holiday


From 2007-2008 through 2009-2010 there was no more dangerous offensive defenseman in the National Hockey League than the Washington Capitals’ Mike Green. Over those three seasons he led all NHL defensemen in a number of offensive categories, some by a wide margin:
  • Total goals: 68 (Shea Weber was second with 45)
  • Goals per game: 0.30 (Zdeno Chara: 0.18)
  • Total points: 205 (Nicklas Lidstrom: 178)
  • Points per game: 0.91 (Sergei Gonchar: 0.81)
  • Even strength goals: 31 (Duncan Keith: 25)
  • Power play goals: 36 (Mark Streit: 26)
  • Game winning goals: 12 (Andy Greene: 11)
  • Shots on goal: 682 (Chara: 665)
  • Shots per game: 3.03 (Chara: 2.81)
  • Shooting percentage: 10.0 percent (Andrei Markov: 8.6 percent)
It is amazing enough that Green led in so many categories over those three years, but what is just as amazing is that there is no clear “second best.” The second highest totals in that list are spread over eight different defensemen. Green, for those three years, with a 68-137-205, plus-69 scoring line, was a dominant offensive force from the blue line.

Then came the injuries and the coaching changes. Over the next three seasons Green played in only 116 of 212 games and had a total scoring line of 23-34-57, plus-8. The injuries – upper body, concussion, ankle, groin, concussion again – took away too many games. The parade of coaches – Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, and Adam Oates – made for too many changes in style that was an especially important factor for a player who controlled a great deal of play with breakouts and passing. He did, however, have a productive year in Oates’ first year behind the Caps’ bench, going 12-14-26 in 35 games. His 0.74 points per game was sixth among all defensemen in the league.

Last season Green made another tentative step back toward something approaching his best years. In 70 games he went 9-29-38, his highest point total since the 2009-2010 season (19-57-76 in 75 games). Even though his points per game (0.54) slipped to 24th in the league, the 70 games played was the most he played since that 2009-2010 season. As it is, since Mike Green’s first big season in 2007-2008, he is the only defenseman in the league to record 100 goals and 300 points.

Fearless’ Take…

As it is, through all the injuries Mike Green still led the Caps’ defensemen in scoring in five of the last seven seasons and was second once. He is one of only four defensemen in franchise history to score at least 100 goals with the club (103), and he has done so playing in at least 151 fewer games than the other three. He should pass Calle Johansson (113) for third place on the list this season. He is sixth on the franchise list in points by a defenseman (315) and could pass Larry Murphy (344) for fifth place this season.  Green is not only the dean of the defense at this point in his career (longest in terms of service), he is the most among the most accomplished in the history of the franchise.

One thing that might help with respect to Green’s consistency.  Get him a regular partner.  Over the last four seasons he has spent the most 5-on-5 ice time with four different partners (in percentage of ice time):
  • 2010-2012: Jeff Schultz (60.2)
  • 2012-2013: Roman Hamrlik (53.1)
  • 2012-2013: Karl Alzner (77.9)
  • 2013-2014: Dmitry Orlov (40.9)
With two new kids on the block and a new coach evaluating everyone on a fresh canvas, Green might yet have a fifth most-frequent partner.

Cheerless’ Take…

OK, cuz, try this on. The Caps were 30-27-13 in the 70 games in which Green played, 8-3-1 in the games he missed. You wonder if there isn’t a changing of the guard going on here. John Carlson had more average ice time overall (24:30 to 22:43), more average power play ice time (3:08 to 2:45), more goals (10 to 9), and more power play goals (5 to 3). Carlson had 22 power play points to Green’s 15. And, Green seemed to fade late. He was 8-27-35, minus-11 in his first 55 games, a 12-40-52 scoring pace over 82 games. In his last 15 games of the season he was 1-2-3, minus-5, a 5-11-16 scoring pace and a pace for a minus-27 over 82 games.

The Big Question… Is Mike Green destined to remain a Capital?

Mike Green is in his contract year, winding up a three-year deal paying him $6,083,333 a year. With $20.0 million in salary cap space committed to five defensemen in 2015-2016 it seems unlikely that the Caps would be able, even if they were inclined, to accommodate an extension at that salary, let alone a raise. Green’s injury history makes any such investment quite risky as he approaches his 30th birthday (he will turn 30 on about Opening Night of the 2015-2016 season).

If Green was to put up big numbers for the Caps this season, it would complicate things even further. Bigger numbers, more suitors in free agency, the potential for an even bigger payday. As it is, Green has the 11th largest cap hit among defensemen in the league. His comparables by age (26-30) and by caps hit ($5.5-6.5 million) would include:
  • Brent Seabrook (29 years old/$5.8M cap hit)
  • Brent Burns (29/$5.76M)
  • Tobias Enstrom (29/$5.75M)
  • Matt Niskanen (27/$5.75M)
  • James Wisniewski (30/$5.5M)
  • Matt Carle (30/$5.5M)
  • Dan Girardi (30/$5.5M).
In terms of roster and cap management, the question might be how Green gets slotted and for how long a term.  The Caps have three defensemen – Carlson, Orpik, and Niskanen – signed through 2017-2018.  The Caps will presumably want to sign Alzner, whose contract expires after the 2016-2017 season to grant him unrestricted free agent status.  Where does Mike Green fit in this puzzle?  Four-and-24 (to use round numbers)?   That would be about $25 million tied up in five defensemen, a substantial share of the salary cap.  Corsi, Fenwick, and zone starts are not the only numbers that will bear watching this season.

In the end…

Mike Green was part of that first “rebuild” draft class in 2004, the one that included Alex Ovechkin and Jeff Schultz. More than any home-grown player since then, he has seen everything from a Calder Cup championship in 2006 as a prospect in Hershey to sharing time with some poor Caps teams in the early years out of the 2004-2005 lockout to the team’s return to competitiveness to a Presidents Trophy to the current unsettled state of affairs with the club.

Over the last 15 seasons no defenseman for the Washington Capitals has logged more total ice time than Mike Green, more than 11,000 minutes worth. It might be true that he will never fully return to those three amazing seasons that made him the best offensive defenseman of the period. Still, a return to health could provide the opportunity to make him a threat once more. Whether he can put together another 1,500 or so minutes in 2014-2015 will go a long way to determining whether the Capitals can make a comeback to the post-season, whether Green can make a comeback to a level of play approaching what the Caps enjoyed a few years ago, and whether he can come back to the club past this season.

Projection: 74 games, 14-38-52, plus-7

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Defensemen: John Erskine


John Erskine

“My work is a game, a very serious game.”
-- M. C. Escher


Since John Erskine joined the Washington Capitals as a free agent in September 2006, only 12 NHL defensemen have logged more penalty minutes.  The thing is, though, Erskine compiled his 529 penalty minutes in only 350 games, while 11 of the 12 defensemen in front of him on that list did it in more than 400 games, six of them in more than 500 games.

That statistic speaks to the hard way that John Erskine makes a living, something that deserves more respect that it sometimes gets from fans.  He is the closest player – perhaps the only player – resembling a physical defenseman the Caps have had since he arrived.  Consider the list of Capitals defensemen who have played in at least 100 games with the club since Erskine arrived:
  • Mike Green
  • Jeff Schultz
  • Karl Alzner
  • John Carlson
  • Shaone Morrisonn
  • Tom Poti
  • Milan Jurcina
  • Brian Pothier
  • Dmitry Orlov
There are not many defensemen with the adjective “physical” attached to them on that list.  Here is another way to look at it.  Erskine has been involved in 29 regular season fights in a Capitals uniform.  The other eight defensemen on that list above were involved in a combined seven fights in their tenures with Washington.  If the Discovery Channel ever brings back “Dirty Jobs,” John Erskine could host it in place of Mike Rowe.

Unfortunately, doing the dirty work has come at a price for Erskine.  Of the 622 regular season games that could have been played in Erskine’s eight seasons in Washington, he has appeared in only 350 of them, just 56 percent of the total number of games.  Only once – in 2010-2011 when he appeared in 73 games – has Erskine played in more than 52 games in a season with the Caps.  The injuries that accumulated over those eight seasons – foot, thumb, lower body, upper body, concussion, leg, hand, shoulder, knee – have peeled off a lot of games from those in which Erskine might have appeared.

Fearless’ Take…

For all the abuse John Erskine has taken physically over his eight seasons in Washington, he is 14th on the list of games played as a defenseman with the franchise, and it is possible that he passes both Shoane Morrisonn and Rick Green (tied with 377 games apiece) this season.  That experience might not be as big an issue with the addition of Brooks Orpik (703 regular season games) and Matt Niskanen (491 games), but experience can only be earned, and there are young Caps defensemen who are still building on that.  It might require careful management, but Erskine’s experience (not to mention his ability to be a physical presence) can have its place.

Cheerless’ Take…

Cuz, there just isn’t any way to sugar coat this.  The Caps were 13-17-7 in games in which John Erskine appeared last season, 25-13-7 in games he sat out.  What do those fancy stat guys say, “constipation is not causation?”

(Peerless… “correlation is not causation”)

Yeah, that.  But still.  That should be an alarm going off when you consider that the Caps were 21-7-2 with Erskine in the lineup in 2012-2013, 6-11-1 without him, and that was with the same coaching staff (whatever you think of it).

The Big Question… Does John Erskine have a role to play in 2014-2015?

The Caps went out and got two free agent defensemen precisely because of the lack of depth in talent on the blue line in recent years.  While John Erskine is a high-effort player, there is a reasonable question about his being capable, at this point in his career, of being a 16-minute a night player on a contender (he averaged 15:51 a game over his first eight seasons with the Caps). 

He is going to have a hard time cracking the 2014-2015 lineup unless there are injuries or one of the top six (Alzner, Carlson, Green, Niskanen, Orpik, and Orlov) simply goes into the dumper in terms of his performance.  He seems relatively safe to start the season with Orlov still recuperating from a broken arm suffered during last spring’s world championship that could delay his return to the lineup.  There does seem to be a bulls-eye on Erskine with respect to his continued presence on the roster, though.

In the end…

John Erskine has been nothing less than a stand-up guy on a team that did not have much of a physical presence over his eight seasons with the club.  But the physical abuse has taken a toll.  He appeared in only 95 of 212 games over the last three seasons, only 37 of 82 contests last season.  With the additions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik for the defense, the Caps do not have a lot of spare minutes on the blue line into which Erskine can be slotted on a regular basis. Orpik, who can provide the physical style of play (within the rules) that Erskine might have provided, has been more durable a player than Erskine, despite being the same age (34).

As far as the physical style of play at the edge of the rules, there were rumblings of the Caps seeking to move Erskine’s contract so that the club could sign Paul Bissonnette, a move that might have save the team a considerable amount from Erskine’s $1,962,500 salary cap hit.  What it probably means is that Erskine is now on the edge of the roster, a 7/8 defenseman on this club.  If the Caps carry only seven defensemen, it would seem he will be in a battle with Jack Hillen for that seventh spot, especially now that Cameron Schilling (a prospect defenseman who is not waiver-exempt) was sent down to Hershey, pending his clearing waivers.

For eight years John Erskine has been a player who as much of more than any other Caps defenseman found himself in serious circumstances on the ice that required the exercise of his physical gifts and temperament.  The roster log jam is a different sort of circumstance in which he finds himself, one that is no less serious.

Projection:  17 games, 0-2-2, minus-2

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Defensemen: John Carlson


John Carlson

"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."
-- Norma Desmond, “Sunset Boulevard”


John Carlson had some cleaning up to do in 2013-2014.  Mainly in his own end.  Only eight defensemen were on ice for more goals in 2012-2013 than Carlson (61), and no defenseman was on ice for more power play goals against (28).   With regard to the latter, it wasn’t close.  The New York Rangers’ Dan Girardi was on ice for 22 power play goals against in second place.  Of 147 defensemen playing at least 500 5-on-5 minutes in 2012-2013, Carlson was 96th highest in goals against/on-ice per 20 minutes. 

So, how did he improve in 2013-2014?  Carlson was on ice for the 11th highest number of goals against among defensemen (95) and was on ice for the second highest number of power play goals against (33).  Of 200 defensemen playing at least 500 5-on-5 minutes, he was 82nd highest in goals against/on-ice per 20 minutes. 

Carlson was something of a bellweather in terms of his performance numbers.  He did not have a wide spread in his scoring numbers between wins and losses.  He was 7-16-23 in 38 wins, 3-11-14 in 42 regulation and extra time losses.  But he did have a wide spread in his plus-minus numbers.  It was in the losses that the numbers told something of a tale.  Carlson was minus-22 in those losses and was a plus player in only six of them.  That is merely another angle from which you can see his playing time (almost 18 minutes a game at even strength) and those high goals against on ice totals.

Another thing about the ice time.  Carlson spent 72 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time last season paired with Karl Alzner.  That was a return to normalcy of a sort.  He spent only 9.9 percent of his time at 5-on-5 with Alzner in 2012-2013, that after spending 65.6 percent of his time with Alzner in 2011-2012 and 77.4 percent of his time with him in 2010-2011.

Fearless’ Take…

John Carlson tied for the team lead in games played (82), led the team’s defensemen in goals (10), was second in assists (27), was second in points (37), and led the team’s defensemen in shots (208), power play goals (5), power play points (22), and average time on ice (24:30).  Over his four full seasons in the league only three full-time defensemen have more even strength goals than Carlson (22): Karlsson, Shea Weber, and Keith Yandle.

And that whole goals scored on-ice thing that Peerless was yammering on about.  Carlson also happened to be on ice for the 11th  highest number of total goals among defensemen and was tied with Erik Karlsson for fifth overall in power play goals for/on-ice.  He was also tied for eighth overall in power play points scored.

Carlson was the go-to defenseman for special teams last season.  There were 195 defensemen last season who appeared in at least 40 games.  Of that group only three – Philadelphia’s Kimmo Timonen, Detroit’s Niklas Kronwall, and Carlson – averaged at least three minutes of power play time and three minutes of shorthanded ice time per game.  Carlson averaged slightly more total average special teams ice time (6:52) than the other two (6:49 for Timonen, 6:25 for Kronwall).

Cheerless’ Take…

The possession numbers at 5-on-5 could have been better.  Carlson’s Corsi-for percentage (47.0) was 158th of 200 defensemen playing at least 500 5-on-5 minutes last season.  His Corsi-for percentage weighted for his teammates was not much better (48.0 percent), 150th among that group of defensemen. Carlson also had his issues against divisional opponents.  Outside the Metropolitan Division he was 7-22-29, plus-5 in 57 games.  In 25 games within the Metro, he was 3-5-8, minus-8.

The Big Question… Is this John Carlson’s year to step up and step out as a top NHL defenseman?

Maybe it is having played in Washington for five seasons where the attention, to the extent it exists for the hockey team, is generally centered on the trials and tribulations (and the goals) of Alex Ovechkin.   Maybe it is because the Capitals have not won as much as other teams, but John Carlson does not get much in the way of media attention, at least not as much as a top-shelf NHL defenseman might get.  That’s not to say that Carlson is an also-ran defenseman.  Hardly, but for a guy who was a first round draft pick, who has a world junior championship, who has two Calder Cup championships, who was a first team defenseman on the 2011 All-Rookie Team, and who had the most votes of any rookie defensemen for the Calder Trophy in 2011, the media spotlight does not often shine on him.

That could change.  Carlson has been playing a gradually expending role with the Caps since he entered the league late in the 2009-2010 season.  He is a man for all situations and has cemented himself as a core component of the Capitals for the foreseeable future.  While we have commented on his partner Karl Alzner’s consistency, Carlson has shown a certain consistency of his own.  His points per game over his first four full seasons with Washington fall in a tight range: 0.45/game in 2010-2011, followed by seasons of 0.39, 0.46, and 0.45.  Carlson compiled this resume not having reached his 25th birthday (he will turn 25 in January). 

Now, it is time to take the next step.  Carlson might particularly benefit from having coaches experienced in developing defensemen behind the bench this season.  Barry Trotz and Todd Reirden might be able to tap the next vein of talent in Carlson’s repertoire in a way Adam Oates and Calle Johansson could not over the past two seasons.

In the end…

John Carlson has been a rock for the Capitals over the past four seasons.  He has had bouts with inconsistency in his own end, but that might be explained away by his youth and the development curve for defensemen.  He still has just 316 games on his NHL resume.  And even though that number is sixth among defensemen of his 2008 draft class (behind Zach Bogosian, Tyler Myers, Drew Doughty, Luke Schenn, and Michael Del Zotto), it is not a high volume for a position with a long developmental curve.

With the Caps improving their depth on the blue line this past summer, some of the heat might be taken off Carlson to carry as heavy an all-situation load as he did last season.  In that respect it is an opportunity for Carlson to substitute higher quality of play for logging heavy minutes or in having to face opponents’ top competition as part of shutdown pair in addition to his responsibilities to carry an offensive load. 

Cheerless noted that Carlson had rather ordinary numbers against Metropolitan Division opponents.  Here is another way to look at his performance.  He was 4-12-16, minus-4 in 28 games against the eight teams in the Eastern Conference that reached the playoffs last season.  If you take out his performance against the Philadelphia Flyers, against whom he struggled (0-0-0, minus-6), he was 4-12-16, plus-2 against the other seven teams over 24 games, a respectable level of performance against stiffer competition.  John Carlson is poised to take the next step forward in his developmental arc.  It is time for his close-up. 

Projection: 82 games, 12-28-40, plus-8

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Defensemen: Karl Alzner

Karl Alzner

"I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament."

-- William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1)


Karl Alzner might not be the most constant defenseman in the National Hockey League, but he resides in close proximity.  Over the last four seasons Alzner has appeared in every game, one of only four defensemen to do so.  He has been a constant, if modest, in his offensive production, scoring one or two goals in each of those four seasons, averaging between 0.15 and 0.22 points per game in the three full 82-game seasons in that span.  His penalty minutes per game ranged from 0.29 to 0.32.  His time on ice per game has ranged from 20:01 to 20:57 over the past four seasons.

On defense, Alzner has expressed a similarly constant nature to his game.  Over the last three seasons he has been on ice for 80, 55, and 85 total goals against; 30, 18, and 30 power play goals against.  That makes for a very consistent goals-against on ice per game. 

That’s on the surface.  In 2013-2014 Alzner had a bit of an odd season.  For long stretches he played with the consistency to which Caps fans have become accustomed.  However, there were two blocks of games last year in which he played in something of a funk.  There was a three-week span to start December in which over nine games he was 1-1-2, minus-11.  Oddly enough, the Caps were 5-2-2 in those games.

Then there was another nine-game stretch, this one coming from mid-March through April 1st in which Alzner was 0-2-2, minus-4, a minus player in six of those games.  The Caps were 4-2-3 in those games.   Odd that in what might have been Alzner’s worst games of the season in terms of his own performance numbers, the Caps would go 9-4-5.

Fearless’ Take…

Last year at this time, Peerless pointed out that Alzner drew tough assignments in 2012-2013 based on the 5-on-5 ice time he logged against individual opponents.  That was certainly the case in 2013-2014, too.  The top ten players against whom Alzner played last season in 5-on-5 ice time were (source: stats.hockeyanalysis.com):
  • Claude Giroux
  • Eric Staal
  • Jakub Voracek
  • Marian Gaborik
  • Evgeni Malkin
  • James Van Riemsdyk
  • Alexander Semin
  • Jaromir Jagr
  • Phil Kessel
  • Travis Zajac
Not only does he draw tough assignments, he plays in tough geography on the ice.  Only two Capitals defenseman had a lower percentage of offensive zone starts last season at 5-on-5 than Alzner (49.8 percent; minimum: 20 games).  And no Capitals defenseman in that group had a better offensive zone finish/start differential (behindthenet.ca). 

Cheerless’ Take…

Among 200 defensemen playing at least 500 5-on-5 minutes last season, Alzner was 74th in goals against/on ice per 20 minutes He was 162nd in goals-for percentage on ice.  Alzner does not contribute a lot of offense on his own to push up the goals for percentage number but the rankings in those two areas are not what the Caps might want out of the guy they depend on being part of a shutdown pair.

And, there are defensive defensemen, but among 224 defensemen having played in at least 100 games over the past four years, only 37 have scored fewer goals per game than Alzner (0.02).  Only 11 of 124 defensemen having played in at least 200 games over the past four years have fewer goals than Alzner (6). 

The Big Question… Has Alzner plateaued?

We made mention of Alzner’s consistency over the past four seasons.  Looked at from another angle, that might be a case of Alzner have reached the ceiling of his play.  He is still just 26 years old and entering what should be the chronological prime of his career.   It might be a stretch to think that he will reveal much more of an offensive game, but the Caps have enough weapons from the blue line on offense.  Alzner is a player who is counted on to help shut teams down at the other end of the ice.  For example, he has been first or second in average shorthanded ice time per game over the past three seasons.  The odd thing about his even strength ice time is that last season was his lowest average even strength ice time in the last four seasons, more than a minute less (16:56) then he had in 2012-2013 (18:17). 

The Capitals have not been an especially good defensive team in recent years.  In the last three seasons the Caps have not ranked higher than 18th in scoring defense and not higher than 16th in penalty killing.  The Capitals have to be better in those rankings, and Alzner, given his role, has to be a significant part of that. If Alzner has another level as a shutdown defenseman, his growth in that area is likely to show up in those defensive rankings for the club.

In the end…

No defenseman in the draft class of 2007 has played in more regular season games than Karl Alzner.  Over the last four seasons he ranks 30th among defensemen in total minutes played overall, and remember than he gets almost no power play time (only 44:55 combined over the last four seasons).  He is sixth among defensemen 25 or younger in the last four seasons in total minutes played, the others being Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, P.K. Subban, Erik Karlsson, and teammate John Carlson.  Alzner, who gets very little recognition outside the friendly confines of Capitals Nation is quite literally “unsung.”  But he, with John Carlson, have been among the most reliable and consistent defensemen in the league over the past four seasons.

Constant, dependable, reliable.  These have been the hallmarks of Karl Alzner’s career with the Capitals to date.  There would be worse things than to have him continue to be that constant, dependable, reliable defenseman.  One still hopes, though, that there is still some growth in his game.  Not necessarily at the offensive end, but in being that constant in the defensive zone who can keep opponents off the scoreboard.

Projection: 82 games, 2-14-16, plus-6

Photo: Evan Vucci/Associated Press

Friday, September 26, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Tom Wilson


Tom Wilson

“Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”
-- Benjamin Franklin


Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals had a difficult choice before the start of the 2013-2014 season. Wilson, the 16th overall pick of the 2012 entry draft after two seasons with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League, might have played another season with the Whalers, played a season or two with the Hershey Bears in the AHL as his introduction to the pro game, then graduated to the Capitals to start the 2015-2016 season as a 21-year old, physically mature and with maybe 150 games of professional experience in the regular season and playoffs in the AHL to mature his game.

Nice plan, but for a technicality. Wilson was not eligible to play for the Bears in 2013-2014. The NHL and the Canadian Hockey League, which covers all of the major junior leagues in Canada, have an agreement that CHL prospects must remain in junior hockey until they are 20 years of age or have played in four full seasons. Wilson, at 19 years of age, was not eligible to play for the Bears. It was juniors, for his fourth season with the Whalers, or the Caps. There was no third option.

Wilson might have been sent back to juniors, but he was an impressive physical player who scored 23 goals and 58 points in 48 games with the Whalers in 2012-2013. There was little left to prove there, and there might have been players looking to build a reputation and get some attention from scouts by trying to take Wilson down a peg or two. Wilson might have been viewed as too valuable a commodity to be exposed to that. The Caps decided to keep him in Washington, even if it meant playing fourth line minutes.

Fourth line minutes is precisely what Wilson got, playing all 82 games and averaging 7:56 a night. Only three forwards playing in at least 75 games skated fewer total minutes than Wilson (651): Tom Sestito (497 in 77 games), Brian McGrattan (511/76), and Patrick Bordeleau (565/82). None of them were first round draft picks.

Then again, Wilson’s experience might have been rare, but not unique. Joe Thornton, a number one overall pick in 1997, averaged just 8:05 in 55 games in his rookie season with Boston. Daniel Briere, a 24th overall pick in 1996, played 11 minutes a night in his first full season, then played an average of seven minutes a night the next season and ten the following season in the NHL while splitting time between the Phoenix Coyotes and the AHL.

All in all, the 2013-2014 rookie season for Wilson was far more experiential than productive. Even though he was one of only three rookies to appear in every regular season game (Nathan MacKinnon and Tyler Johnson were the others), he was tied for 20th among 26 rookies appearing in more than 25 games (the number rendering them ineligible for Calder Trophy qualification in future years) in goals scored (3), tied for 17th in assists (7), 19th in points, and 25th – next to last – in average time on ice. You could say that he outperformed his ice time, but it is not the strongest argument.

Fearless’ Take…

In the modern era (post-1967 expansion), Tom Wilson is one of only 18 rookies playing in at least 50 games who recorded at least ten points (he had 10) and at least 150 penalty minutes (he had 151). He is one of only eight players in that group who was a “plus” player (plus-1). And here is an odd fact. Wilson skated ten minutes or more in 16 games last season. The Caps were 8-4-4 in those contests. Now perhaps he was stapled to the bench in close third period games and got more third period time in wins, but still.

Cheerless’ Take…

Since the 2004-2005 lockout, 18 rookies have played in all 82-games of their rookie season. Wilson was 18th in goals (three, compared to the next lowest total – five – in 2007-2008 by Toby Enstrom…a defenseman), 18th in assists (10, compared to 20 in 2007-2008 for Torrey Mitchell in 17th place), 18th in points (10, half that of Mitchell), tied for 15th with three other players (that is, last) in power play goals (one), 18th in shots on goal (63, compared to 98 in 2007-2008 for Andrew Cogliano one rank higher), tied for 17th (again, last) in shooting percentage (4.8, with Enstrom), and 18th in minutes (651, compared to 1120 for Cogliano, the next lowest number). That’s certainly not all on Wilson, not by a long shot. The Caps spoon fed him ice time and used one of those baby spoons to boot.

The Big Question… Can Tom Wilson play a bigger role in 2014-2015?

Tom Wilson could have a long and productive career with the Capitals. He probably projects as a reliable third line option, perhaps even second line, on the right wing. At the moment, though, he suffers from there being a bit of a log jam on that side. Even with Alex Ovechkin being moved back to the left side, there are Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and possibly Eric Fehr ahead of him on the depth chart. Time might solve that problem, since Ward and Fehr are both on the final year of their current contracts. But for now, Wilson is still on the bottom rung of the ladder.

It begs the question of whether the Caps should make room for Wilson my moving one of those ahead him, either to another position (Fehr played center much of the time last season) or to another team. The difference this year, though, is that the AHL option is there for Wilson that was not there last season. There is a certain charm in that possibility in that it might provide an opportunity for him to develop a working chemistry with Andre Burakowsky, a prospect of considerable potential who faces an uphill climb to make the parent club out of training camp this fall and who might benefit from a full year playing a large role in Hershey.  To the extent one believes in the power of pairs, rather than lines (and I do), it might be the sort of postponed gratification on the way to three formidable pairs a few years down the line: Ovechkin/Backstrom, Kuznetsov/Vrana, and Burakovsky/Wilson.

In the end…

Tom Wilson’s first season in the NHL was characterized more by his willingness to do the dirty work of hockey.  Not only did he get fourth line minutes, he was a frequent pugilist.  His 14 fights was fifth in the league, and his 151 minutes in penalties tied for the 13th highest total for a first year player over the previous 20 seasons.  None of the other 13 players were first round draft picks. 

That might be considered part of the apprenticeship Wilson is performing.  Now, it is time to hone his other skills, those within the rules.  To answer “The Big Question,” that will mean he could very well play a larger role, once he recovers from the ankle injury he suffered over the summer.  The thing is, that role might very well be played in Hershey.

Projection: 18 games, 3-4-7, plus-1

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Joel Ward


Joel Ward

“The reward of a thing well done is having done it.”
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson


Last season Joel Ward set career highs in games played (82), goals (24), assists (25), points (49), power play goals (6), power play assists (4), shooting percentage (18.0 percent), and tied personal bests in shorthanded goals (2) and game-winning goals (4). He was in rare company, too. Of all the players in the league who scored 25 or fewer goals, three had as many as six power play goals, four game winners, and two shorthanded goals: Antoine Vermette, Adam Henrique, and Ward.

It was an especially sweet season for Ward who, in the eyes of some, might have been seen to struggle in his first two seasons in Washington after signing a four-year, $12 million contract as an unrestricted free agent in July 2011.  His 24 goals almost doubled his output with the Caps over his first two seasons (14) and equaled his output over his previous three seasons, including his last year with the Nashville Predators.  His 25 assists surpassed his combined output over his previous two years with the Caps (24), as did his 49 points (38).

Ward recorded the first hat trick of his career last season, potting three goals in a 7-0 rout of the Philadelphia Flyers on November 1st.  He had two other three-point games, two goals and an assist in a 6-5 overtime win over the Detroit Red Wings on February 2nd, and a goal and two assists in a 5-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on April 10th.

As one might expect, Ward was most effective in winning efforts, going 16-14-30 in the Caps’ 38 wins.  However, his 9-10-19 scoring line in the Caps’ 44 regulation and extra time losses was respectable, given that he did not play on a scoring line.  The most telling difference between his performance in wins and losses was that he scored five of his six power play goals in wins.

Fearless’ Take…

The one thing that held back Ward in his two seasons with the Caps was a drop-off in production after good starts.  In his first two seasons, combined, Ward posted a scoring line of 10-11-21, plus-14 in his first 20 games (40 overall), a per-82 game pace of 21-23-44, plus-29.  However, after that, in 72 games covering those two years Ward was 4-13-17, plus 5, a per-82 game pace of 5-15-20, plus-6.  Compare that to 2013-2014.  In his first 20 games he was effective again, going 9-4-13, minus-1, a per-82 game pace of 37-16-53, minus-4.  In his last 62 games, though, he was 15-21-36, plus-8, a per-82 game pace of 20-28-48, plus-11.  It was his ability to avoid that steep drop-off after his first 20 games that enabled him to record a career year on offense.

Cheerless’ Take…

Ward is going to be 34 years old in December, and he plays a pretty rugged style of hockey.  He has been durable, playing in almost 93 percent of the games scheduled over his six full seasons in the league. Still, he’s getting to that point where the combination of durability and performance will be something to watch.  There are a fair number of forwards since the 2004-2005 lockout who have played in at least 75 games and scored at least 15 goals after reaching the age of 34 (54 in fact), but not many do it more than once (28 forwards).  Of course, he is in the last year of his contract, too, so he only has to do it once.

The Big Question… Can Joel Ward match, or at least come close to his career numbers of last season?

The easy thinking here is that Ward will be playing for a coach with whom he has experience, and he will be working in a system that either he has grown comfortable with or that has learned to accommodate his skills (at least on the power play).  One might expect that he will play a role similar to the one he played last season, right wing on the third line at even strength and in the middle of the power play when Troy Brouwer is not manning that post.

That Ward could match or approach those career bests he set last season is certainly possible.  It just might not be the way to bet.  Why?  His even strength goal total (16) was 33 percent higher than his previous best (12 in 2008-2009).  His even strength assist total (21) almost matched that of the previous two seasons combined (22).  He finished seventh in shooting percentage (18.0 percent) among 287 qualifying forwards, another career best that is substantially higher than his career mark before last season (9.5 percent).  That is quite a spike in performance.  Sustainable?  We will see.

Then there is the consistency issue.  Was last year’s production pace after his first 20 games a one-off, or is it a sign of later career dependability in his output?

In the end…

Joel Ward is in a contract year that could make him an attractive signing for the second time in his career.  In 2010-2011 he had a good, if unspectacular regular season (10-19-29, minus-1 in 80 games).  It was his playoff performance that year that stood out (7-6-13 in 12 games).  It earned him a shot at a lucrative contract in unrestricted free agency that he received from the Capitals.  He might need something closer to the regular season performance he had last season, one in which he skated on what was often the best forward line the Caps had, or a big post-season such as the one he had in his last season in Nashville to catch the eye of other teams or get consideration from the Capitals to tender an offer. 

The pieces are in place for Ward to do just that, but there are issues, too, or at least things to look for as the season unfolds for him.  Having done a thing well last season, if he does it as well or nearly as well this season he will be rewarded.

Projection: 80 games, 17-22-39, plus-7


Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America

The Washington Capitals Winter Classic Jersey...It's Blue, It's White, and it's...uh...

Since the Washington Capitals' unveiled their Winter Classic jersey on Tuesday, there has been little agreement on its merits as a hockey fashion statement.  There also seems to be little agreement on just what the dominant color is.  So far...


  • Red
  • Deep Red
  • Maroon
  • Oxblood
  • Bordeaux
  • Burgundy
  • Merlot (no Syrah or Malbec yet, but we're hopeful...and thirsty)
  • Vintage Red
  • Brick Red
  • Carmine
  • Crimson
  • USC Red
  • Barn Red


Can we pick one and settle on that?  Really...just what color is it?



Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Aaron Volpatti

Aaron Volpatti

“Baseball is a red-blooded sport for red-blooded men. It's no pink tea, and mollycoddles had better stay out. It's a struggle for supremacy, a survival of the fittest.”
-- Ty Cobb


What Ty Cobb said about baseball a century ago can be said for hockey today.  While there is a privileged place at the table for the player of skill and imagination, there is also a place for the player who struggles and survives.

This explains how it is that a player with fewer than ten career points in more than 100 career games can have a place in the lineup for a National Hockey League team.  It explains the Washington Capitals’ Aaron Volpatti.

Aaron Volpatti has played in parts of four NHL seasons, never appearing in more than half his team’s games in any of them.  He appeared in precisely that many games – 41 of 82 – for the Capitals last season.  It was arguably his best season in his still young career.  In addition to setting his career high in games played, he set a career high in goals scored.  OK, so two goals is a modest career best, but they all count, and you have to crawl before you can walk, let alone run.

What makes Volpatti’s presence in the league, not to mention his modest progress, more interesting is the fact that it was not as if he was a hot shot amateur who had to re-tool his game for the NHL.  He had just 13 goals in 137 games over three seasons with the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL, followed by 32 goals in 123 games over four years at Brown University (17 of those goals coming in his senior season).  After signing as a free agent with the Vancouver Canucks following his senior year at Brown, he played in 61 games over two seasons with the Manitoba Moose and scored just three goals. Nine amateur seasons, 321 games, 48 goals, more than a third of those in one season.  He was not coming into the NHL as a sniper.

What he was, though, was a scrapper.  There were 279 penalty minutes in 137 games with the Vipers, 236 penalty minutes in 123 games with Brown, then 91 penalty minutes in 61 games in the AHL.  It didn't stop in Vancouver.  In two-plus seasons with the Canucks, Volpatti managed only three goals in 54 games, but he had 81 penalty minutes, 55 of those minutes coming in 11 fights.  This was a player who, when traded to the Caps in March 2013, took a fighting major on the fourth shift of his first game with the club.   Volpatti was not, and almost certainly will not, make his living in the NHL be being an offensive threat.  He has had to, and almost certainly will have to, scrap for every minute of ice time he gets.

Fearless’ Take…

The Caps were 22-12-7 in games in which Volpatti played last season, 16-18-7 in those he did not. In 2012-2013 the Caps were 12-3-2 in games in which he appeared after arriving in trade from Vancouver. A 34-15-9 record when he dresses?  That’s a 48-21-13 pace per 82 games (109 points). Some things are hard to explain.

Cheerless’ Take…

So, in your world the sun rises because the rooster crows? In those 58 games Volpatti had three points and was a minus-5 while averaging less than eight minutes of ice time.

The Big Question… Is there a roster spot in his future?

There could be something of a log jam on the fourth line for the Capitals, and Volpatti would appear to be in the mix for it. Jay Beagle, Chris Brown, Tim Kennedy, Michael Latta, Casey Wellman, and Volpatti. It could be quite a competition. On the other hand, no one stands out in any particular way. It presents an opportunity for Volpatti, since he and Kennedy are the left wingers by position in that mix.

But here is the steep climb Volpatti has.  Over the last four seasons, only three forwards have appeared in as many or more games than Volpatti (112) and have as many or fewer points (7): John Scott (165 games/3 points), Colton Orr (149/7), and Volpatti.  Even on a fourth line, the Caps need more production.

In the end…

The Caps are not awash in options at left wing on the fourth line, which might be the best thing that can be said about Aaron Volpatti’s chances of being in the opening night lineup.  After four years and 100-plus games, it does not seem likely that he is going to provide much of a contribution other than a certain brand of feistiness.  That sort of thing has its place to keep things honest on the ice, but even there, fourth liners do not generally get assignments that might pit them against higher lines on which there might be players who need to be reined in. 

There is going to be a competition to see just who and in what combinations dresses for the Caps on the fourth line on a night-in, night-out basis.  Volpatti will be in that mix, and not being a “mollycoddle” by any means, he will be battling for that spot.

Projection: 17 games, 1-1-2, -1




Sunday, September 21, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

“All our sweetest hours fly fastest.”
-- Virgil


It has now been more than ten years since Alex Ovechkin walked to the stage and pulled on a Washington Capitals jersey for the first time as the number one overall pick of the 2004 entry draft.  Nine NHL seasons (six reaching the post-season), eight world championship tournaments, two Olympic tournaments, and the better part of a season in the KHL during the 2012-2013 NHL lockout.  From charismatic pitch man who sold everything from cars, to TV networks, to candy bars, to banks, to hockey equipment; to perhaps the most casually dismissed elite goal scorer, certainly of this era and perhaps in the history of the NHL.  It certainly has not been a boring ten years watching the career of Alex Ovechkin unfold.

But here we are, ten years into what almost certainly will be the most accomplished career in the history of the Washington Capitals, Ovechkin having won just about every regular season individual honor the NHL awards, and both he and his fans are still waiting for that elusive team accomplishment, a Stanley Cup.

Coming off his fifth 50-goal season in 2013-2014, tied for sixth all time in number of such seasons, Ovechkin received far more press for posting a minus-35 (and yes, he is the only player in league history to record at least 50 goals and a minus-35 or worse).  Still, he won his fourth Maurice Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer.  He was named to the second team NHL all-star team, the eighth time in nine seasons he was named to the first or second team (not including being named to both first and second teams in 2012-2013 at right and left wings).  For the fourth time in his career he recorded at least ten game-winning goals (10, second in the league last season). 

Then there was the power play.  His 24 power play goals led the league, was the third time he recorded at least 20 man advantage goals, and were the most in the NHL since Teemu Selanne had 25 in the 2006-2007 season.  In the modern era (post-1967 expansion), only five players have more 20-power play goal seasons than the three turned in by Ovechkin to date: Brett Hull (5), Mike Bossy (4), Phil Esposito (4), Tim Kerr (4), and Luc Robitaille (4).

Fearless’ Take…

One of the hallmarks of Alex Ovechkin’s career to date has been his consistency.  With respect to Ovechkin’s goal scoring, here is one way to look at that. Only three times last season did Ovechkin go more than two consecutive games without a goal.  His 51 goals were scored over 40 games, those 40 games with at least one goal being more than half the games in which he played (78).  He had points in 48 of the 78 games in which he played.

He remains the straw that stirs the drink.  In 36 wins in which he played, Ovechkin had 35 goals (35-19-54).  He had 16 of his 24 power play goals in those 36 wins, scoring power play goals in 13 of those wins.  He had 23 percent of the total goals scored by the Caps last season (51 of 225) but more than a third of the game-winning goals for the team (10 of 28).

Ovechkin was recently described as “one of the least feared 50 goal scorers in the history of the game.”  The breathless hyperbole aside, since he entered the league in 2005-2006 he has more than 100 more goals (422) than the next highest goal scorer over that period (Jarome Iginla: 310). He has five of the 18 50-goal seasons since the 2004-2005 lockout.  Only Sidney Crosby (5) has more 100-point seasons since the 2004-2005 lockout (4), and while the last of those was in 2009-2010, consider that since then he has been a bit hamstrung by coaches who were rookies behind an NHL bench when they took over (Dale Hunter, Adam Oates) and a season (2012-2013) half lost to another lockout. 

Cheerless’ Take…

Yeah, cuz, about all those goals and points scored in wins.  Thirty-five goals, 54 points, and a plus-3?  He was a minus player in ten of those 36 wins in which he played.  In 42 regulation and extra time losses he was minus-38 and was a minus player in 26 of those games.

While plus-minus is a statistic of limited use to explain individual performance, it is also true that only 12 of 435 forwards playing in at least 20 games last season were on ice for more goals per 60 minutes at5-on-5 than Ovechkin.  And, he had the 20th worst plus/minus per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 in that group of forwards.  Only five forwards were on ice for more goals against at 5-on-5 than Ovechkin.  While his linemates bear a certain amount of responsibility for that kind of performance, no Capital forward ranked lower than Ovechkin in any of those categories.

That whole plus-minus thing was a particular problem against Eastern Conference teams that reached the playoffs.  In 28 games against those eight teams Ovechkin had 18 goals, an impressive number.  He was also a minus-18, a less impressive one.

The Big Question… Is that all there is?

The consensus question that the hockey media thinks most important with respect to Ovechkin is whether he and new head coach Barry Trotz can read from the same page.  The implication is that he and Trotz’ predecessors either did not read from that same page or that there was some sort of antagonistic relationship between Ovechkin and those coaches.

That seems to be a simple, and simplistic, conclusion.  Except for one in-game comment about a coaching decision, it is hard to find much in the way of commentary from Ovechkin that undermined his coaches’ authority or that signaled an antagonism toward those coaches’ approach to the game.  One can argue about results – the Caps have not advanced past the second round of the playoffs in the Ovechkin era – but the term ”coach killer” (a term that generates no lack of hits in a web search) is reflexive, not the product of analysis.

It is fair to ask what Ovechkin has done to improve and round out his game over nine seasons in the NHL.  He came into the league as a prolific goal scorer, and he remains one of the most productive goals scorers in the game. And, if you are going to have one skill, it would be hard to think of another one you would rather a player have.  However, if you look at the rest of his game you wonder what it is that has improved over the course of his career.

This is where Barry Trotz can make a difference, if any coach can.  Ovechkin has played for four coaches, all of them in their first NHL coaching positions.  None had the ability (and in a couple of cases, showed little inclination) to develop those other skills that would make Ovechkin a more dangerous all-around player.  Trotz has 15 seasons on coaching experience at the NHL level.  He has coached a wide variety of players at that level in terms of style, temperament, and talent.  This is a type of coach Ovechkin has not had in his career.

It is not all on the coach, though.  Ovechkin just turned 29 and is in the chronological prime of his career.  That, and his nine years of experience, implies a certain responsibility on his part to take the initiative to improve and bring out other aspects of his game.  It has not yet been enough in terms of team success that he be primarily (or exclusively, in the opinion of some) a goal scorer.  Even if he remains the most productive goal scorer of his generation, if that is all there is it would seem unlikely that the Capitals will be any more successful going forward in Ovechkin’s career than they have been over its first nine seasons.

In the end…

The whole plus-minus thing with respect to Ovechkin’s game is a red herring.  This is a player who was a plus-82 over his first eight seasons.  The minus-35, while historic, was a convenient hook on which a lot of hockey media could hang their general disdain for Ovechkin’s style on and off the ice.  On the other hand, he is the captain, he is the straw that stirs the drink, and the Caps are not likely to be successful on any level unless he is happy and productive. 

In 2014-2015 he is in a situation in which he has not found himself in his career, playing for a coach with a long NHL resume.  The team around him is more balanced than it has been in recent memory, with a deeper defense than the club has known in at least a decade.  It is not all on him to score goals.  That makes it an opportunity for Ovechkin to develop more of his game.  Better late than never, because as Virgil said, “All our sweetest hours fly fastest.”

Projection: 80 games, 51-37-88, plus-4

Photo: James Guillory-USA Today