Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Goaltenders: Braden Holtby

Braden Holtby

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


In less than nine years, Braden Holtby went from an obscure fourth-round draft pick, the tenth goaltender taken in the 2008 entry draft, to the pinnacle of his profession, tying a record for wins in a single season by an NHL goaltender.  Measured another way, only one of the nine goaltenders taken ahead of him – Jake Allen of the St. Louis Blues – has more career wins (57) than Holtby recorded in the 2015-2016 season (48).  Five of those goaltenders taken ahead of Holtby have yet to appear in an NHL game.  He has come a long way indeed.

Holtby started fast this season, setting a performance standard that would be difficult to maintain over a full season.  Looking at his ten game segments, he had that hot start – 6-2-0 in each of his first two segments, followed by an 8-0-1 record in his third segment, with goals against averages under 2.00 in each of those three opening segments – but he hit a rut in the middle of his season.  His win-loss record did not suffer, going 19-2-2 in his fourth through sixth ten-game segments, but his goal against average was progressively worse in each one, and his save percentage was barely above .900 in the fifth and sixth segments.  Holtby rebounded in his last two segments, going 9-3-4, 2.17, .916 over his last two segments, but it was still short of that blistering start to his season. 

What he did over the course of the season was something more than give his team a chance to win.  He was often the best player on the ice for either team.  It was a matter of being very good when he was on, posting a record of 38-2-2 when allowing two or fewer goals over a full game.  No goalie in the league finished with more games allowing two or fewer goals in a full game (minimum: 55 minutes) than Holtby (42).


Fearless’ Take… Braden Holtby obliterated the franchise wins record, surpassing Olaf Kolzig’s 41 wins (later tied by Holtby) with his 42nd win on March 15th in his 56th game of the season and Game 69 for the Caps in 2015-2016.  He became the first player in franchise history to appear in at least half of the team’s games, post a goals against average under 2.25, and record a save percentage of .920 or better.  Kolzig is the only other Caps goaltender to have accomplished that feat (2.20 and .920 in 1997-1998).  Holtby is still younger (26) than Kolzig was when he had that season (27). He did not lose consecutive decisions all season until April 5th and 7th, his 64th and 65th games of the season, and even then both losses were in overtime.

Cheerless’ Take… There really isn't a lot here to get all wound up about from the regular season.  Even when he was bad, he wasn't often awful.  He was pulled early three times in 66 games, and in his 16 regulation and extra time losses he had a goals against average of 3.44 and a save percentage of .882.  That save percentage just in losses isn't a lot worse than Eddie Lack (.901) or Mike Condon (.904) posted in all games this season.

Odd Holtby Fact… Braden Holtby allowed four or more goals eight times during the regular season.  Seven of them came after January 1st.

Bonus Odd Holtby Fact… There have been 33 instances in NHL history of a goaltender winning 40 or more games while appearing in 70 or fewer contests.  Only two of those goalies won more than 70 percent of their appearances – Ken Dryden (.732 winning percentage on 41 wins in 56 games in 1976-1977) and Braden Holtby (.727 winning percentage on 48 wins in 66 games this season).

Game to Remember… April 9th versus St. Louis

Approaching a record, especially one held by a legend, is something that can often play havoc with the pursuer of that record.  As Braden Holtby got nearer to the single-season wins record by a goaltender, held by hall of famer Martin Brodeur, the wins were slower in coming.  When Holtby took the ice in St. Louis against the Blues, he had just two wins in his previous five games.  What made things more agonizing was that all three losses in that five-game stretch came in extra time.  And, as if to amp up the pressure just a little bit more, Holtby was seeking to tie the record with the record holder in attendance in St. Louis.  Brodeur was serving as an assistant general manager for the Blues.

It was not a start that inspired visions of a celebration for Holtby or the Caps as the Blues scored just 75 seconds into the contest, courtesy of Vladimir Tarasenko on the Blues’ third shot of the game.  That would be the last the Blues would see of a puck in the back of the net, though.  Holtby stopped the last 17 shots he faced, while the Caps scored five unanswered goals, three of them on an Alex Ovechkin hat trick.  Holtby had his record-tying win and a handshake of congratulations from Brodeur to seal the occasion.  Holtby would tie the season wins record in his 66th and final game of the regular season; Brodeur won his 48th season game in Game 78 of the 2006-2007 season (through 66 games that season Brodeur had 41 wins).

Game to Forget… December 18th versus Tampa Bay

Sometimes one will hear talk of a goalie feeling the puck early in games to get into the swing of things.  When that first feel doesn’t come early, things do not always end well.  In mid-December, they didn’t for Holtby against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center.  He did not face his first shot on goal until the 8:18 mark of the first period.  Unfortunately for Holtby and the Caps, the Lightning scored on that shot, Alex Killorn doing the honors.  He did not record his first save until 10:33 had passed in the period.  He would not face his third shot until the 19:24 mark of the period and faced only four shots in all over the first 20 minutes. 

The Lightning got pucks to the net with some more frequency to start the second period, but it was still hardly a barrage.  When the Lightning broke through with a pair of goals just over two minutes apart on consecutive shots, their 11th and 12th of the contest, it was clear that Holtby was not sharp.  He was pulled after allowing his third goal on 12 shots in 28:57 of ice time.  The Caps roared back with Philipp Grubauer in relief in goal, scoring five unanswered goals to steal a 5-3 decision, but for Holtby it was arguably his worst performance of the regular season in one that had few poor ones.

Postseason: 12 games, 6-6, 1.72, .942, 2 shutouts

Among goaltenders appearing in at least half a dozen postseason games this season, Braden Holtby led all goaltenders in goals against average (1.72) and save percentage (.942).  He had one fewer shutout in the postseason than leader Martin Jones in half the games played (12 for Holtby to 24 for Jones).  And yet, the Caps still didn’t advance past the second round.  What happened?

Well, for Holtby it was a tale of two series.  In the opening round against the Philadelphia Flyers he was 4-2, 0.83, .968, with two shutouts.  In the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins he was 2-4, 2.57, .923.  It was not as if he was significantly outplayed by his Penguin counterpart, Matt Murray, but given the starting point of expectations – Holtby as a potential Vezina Trophy winner and with a record-tying season in wins versus Murray appearing in his first NHL postseason after playing just 13 regular season games – Murray’s better goals against average (2.40 to 2.57) and save percentage (.926 to .923) for the series had the feel of a clear Pittsburgh win at the position.

In the end…

Braden Holtby is now at that point in his career where he can be mentioned among the very best the league has to offer among goaltenders, but he has unfinished business.  His career postseason record is, on the whole, sparkling – a 1.87 goals against average, a .937 save percentage.  He is the only goaltender in more than 30 years to post a career playoff goals against average under 2.00 and record a save percentage better than .935 in 20 or more postseason games played.  On the other hand, his win-loss record of 22-24 is very much underwhelming. 

What has been perhaps the most agonizing part of this is that Holtby’s last two postseasons ended on an overtime goal allowed, in Game 7 of the Caps’ second round series against the New York Rangers in 2015 and in Game 6 in the second round against the Penguins this season.  Three of his four season-ending games in the postseason have been by one-goal margins.  Such is the thin line between success and elimination in the postseason.

Braden Holtby is very much a believer in vision training.  He uses it, as he puts it, “to warm up [his] eyes and keep them sharp. If you're not seeing it, nothing else matters. Your eyes are the basis of your whole game."  If there is one “vision” yet to be realized, it is Holtby finding a way to piece together more of those superb postseason efforts to help get the Caps past the frustrating obstacle of the second round of the postseason and perhaps to the Cup that has long avoided this franchise.

Grade: A-

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America


Monday, June 27, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Goaltenders: Philipp Grubauer

Philipp Grubauer

“A round man cannot be expected to fit in a square hole right away. He must have time to modify his shape.”
-- Mark Twain


Coming into the 2015-2016 season, only three goaltenders in Capitals history over their first three seasons recorded a career goals against average better than Philipp Grubauer while having appeared in 20 or more games: Jim Carey (a Vezina Trophy winner with the Caps), Semyon Varlamov (who would go on to become a Vezina finalist with Colorado in 2014), and Braden Holtby (currently a Vezina finalist).  Grubauer’s career save percentage tops the list (.924, one point better than Holtby over their first three seasons).

After those three seasons and a 100-plus game apprenticeship with the Hershey Bears in the AHL (55-39-9, 2.37, .919, 11 shutouts), Grubauer was prepared for the next step in his development, serving as the full-time backup to Holtby for the 2015-2016 season.   As it turned out, the 2015-2016 season had its expected outcomes and some unexpected ones.  First there was the matter of retaining Grubauer’s services, but his re-signing with the club with a two-year, $1.5 million contract could hardly be considered surprising after going 7-6-5, 2.44, .924 in 20 games over three seasons with the Caps.

Back safely in the Caps’ fold, going into training camp Grubauer had to be considered the favorite, even if not a prohibitive one, to emerge as the team’s backup goaltender over Justin Peters, who served as backup to Braden Holtby in 2014-2015, and Dan Ellis, a nine-year NHL veteran signed as a free agent in the off-season.  After posting a respectable 2.22 goals against average and a .919 save percentage in the pre-season, the backup job was Grubauer’s.  Put that in the “expected” column, too.

Given that Braden Holtby came into the 2015-2016 season as the minutes leader among goaltenders in the 2014-2015 season (4,247; one of 13 goalies to play at least one 4,200-plus minute season since the 2004-2005 lockout), Grubauer was not likely to get a lot of ice time, even if there might have been a desire to pare back Holtby’s workload.

Grubauer did, in fact, get a substantial amount of ice time in 2015-2016, his 1,111 minutes more than doubling the total he compiled in parts of three seasons preceding this one (1,032).  The profile of appearances through his ten-game segments looked like something one might have envisioned when the season started and unfolded as it did.  He averaged two appearances and about 113 minutes per ten games in his first four ten-game segments, then, as the Caps pulled away from the rest of the league and the season wound down, he appeared a bit more frequently – averaging 3.5 appearances and 165 minutes per segment in the second half of the season.


Fearless’ Take… Among goaltenders appearing in at least ten, but fewer than 30 games (an arbitrary range for a “backup” goaltender), Grubauer finished sixth among 28 goaltenders in this category in goals against average (2.32) and 11th in save percentage (.918).  It might not make him an “elite” backup at this stage of his career, but he was solidly in the top half of this cohort of goaltenders.

Cheerless’ Take… OK, so let’s get to that “unexpected” portion of the show.  He played in 22 games, a total that was weighted to the second half of the season (14 appearances in the last 41 games versus 8 in the first 41).  The Caps were 4-3-1 in Grubauer’s first half appearances, but they were 5-9-0 in his second half appearances.  He was personally 3-6-0 in the second half of the season.  That kind of win-loss record wasn’t on anyone’s “expected” list.

Odd Grubauer Fact… About that second half of the season.  The odd part of it was that despite the deteriorating win-loss record, his goals against average was better in the second half (2.27 versus 2.40), as was his save percentage (.920 versus .914).

Game to Remember… February 16th versus Los Angeles

Going into a mid-February game against the Los Angeles Kings, Philipp Grubauer had not faced 40 or more shots in a game since he stopped 38 of 40 shots on goal by the New York Rangers in a 3-2 win on December 27, 2013.  His workload to start the game against the Kings was not very noteworthy, if a bit on the heavy side (12 shots in the first period).  It was not the shots but the circumstances that left him and the team with a bitter taste in their mouths heading into the first intermission, a shorthanded goal by Anze Kopitar late in the period that gave the Kings a 1-0 lead. 

However, Grubauer slammed the door in the second period, stopping all 19 shots he faced as the Caps tied the game, then he nailed it shut in the third frame by stopping all nine shots he faced.  The Caps took the lead late on an Evgeny Kuznetsov goal, then they scored an empty netter in a 3-1 win.  The 40 shots on goal was a season high for Grubauer, and in an odd bit of history represented the only time all season that a Caps goalie faced 40 or more shots from a team not from Pennsylvania (Braden Holtby faced 40 or more shots three times by Pittsburgh and once by Philadelphia).

Game to Forget… February 2nd versus Florida

The lack of work within a game can be the bane of the NHL goaltender.  Seeing few shots prevents some goaltenders from getting into a working rhythm, and they can end up being off their game.  Such was the case for Philipp Grubauer in a game against the Florida Panthers in early February.  It was not a case of lack of work generally; he appeared in three of the Caps previous six contests and stopped 55 of 57 shots in that span (.965 save percentage).  However, against the Panthers, while the Caps were piling up early shots on Panther goalie Roberto Luongo (16 in the first period, but without a goal), Grubauer saw half of the workload (eight shots on which he allowed two goals). 

The workload shrank in the second period, but the results didn’t – two more goals allowed.  By the time it was over for him, when he was pulled for an extra attacker in the last minute of what would be a 5-2 loss, he allowed four goals on just 18 shots.  It was the worst save percentage for a single game (.778) by a Caps’ goaltender in at least 30 years in which the goalie played more than 55 minutes and faced fewer than 20 shots.

Postseason… no games played.

In the end…

Philipp Grubauer had a bit of an odd season that, if anything, seemed to be characterized by a lack of “run support.”  He was 2-8-1 in full games played in which he allowed more than one goal.  He was 5-0-0 in full games played in which he allowed a single goal (Grubauer did not have a shutout this season).  Still, his first full season as the Capitals’ backup goaltender was, on balance, what one might have been expected.  His second half win-loss record was mitigated by his performance numbers (goals against and save percentage), which improved over his first half.  As first-year backup goalie seasons go, it was a good start on Grubauer’s NHL career, although there is enough slack in his game to think that there is room for improvement, too.

Grade: B+

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Nate Schmidt

Nate Schmidt

“Anyone who has a continuous smile on his face conceals a toughness that is almost frightening.”
-- Greta Garbo


Google “Nate Schmidt,” and click on “images.”  Go ahead, we’ll wait…

Have you ever seen anyone smile so much?  The guy must have a bowl of “happy” every morning at breakfast.   There was reason for Schmidt to be happy about his 2015-2016 season.  In his third season with the Washington Capitals, the defenseman appeared in more games (72) than in his previous two years combined (68).  His assist total (14) doubled the total from his previous two seasons (7), and he set a career high in points (16).  His plus-12 ranked third among Capitals defensemen, and he was fourth in blocked shots (111).

His progression through his ten game segments looked like something of a bell curve.  Schmidt had a slow start with no points in his first ten game segment, but he improved to two points in each of his next two with a plus-1 followed by a plus-4.  He peaked in the fourth and fifth segments with four point in each and was a plus-10 over that span.  He slid back over his last three segments, finishing the season with one point and a minus-3 in the last segment of his season.

If there was a more consistent theme with Schmidt, it was outcomes in heavy minute situations.  When Schmidt logged at least 20 minutes of ice time, the Caps were 18-3-3.  However, what is odd about that nugget is that he did not reach the 20 minute mark in ice time in any of the last 23 games in which he played in the regular season.


Fearless’ Take…  Among Caps defensemen logging at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, Schmidt finished fourth overall in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (50.6 percent) and was second in Corsi-for/Relative (plus-0.4; numbers from Corsica.Hockey).

Cheerless’ Take… Schmidt’s possession numbers – his 25-game rolling average Corsi-for at 5-on-5 – look like the Loch Ness Monster with this big hump in the middle (numbers from Corsica.Hockey)…


…and that rolling shots for has a wee bit of a wilt at the end, too…


These young guys, they have to learn to grind out that 82-game season.

Odd Schmidt Fact… If blocking shots is a function of effort and will in the face of hardened vulcanized rubber hurtling toward your body, Schmidt’s reward was the team’s.  The Caps were 13-1-1 in games in which Schmidt blocked at least three shots, 24-4-2 in games in which he blocked at least two shots.

Game to Remember… January 9th versus New York Rangers

Nate Schmidt recorded multi-point games twice this season, once against the Montreal Canadiens on December 26th and again against the New York Rangers two weeks later.  It was that second game that was one to remember for the circumstances of his points.  He recorded a primary assist on a goal by Justin Williams, springing the latter on a breakaway with a nifty lead pass from his own blue line to Williams breaking at the other blue line, to give the Caps a 2-0 lead…


The Rangers took the lead, 3-2, midway through the third period, but the Caps tied it with 5.7 second left in regulation on a goal by Nicklas Backstrom.  That left overtime for settling matters.  With the clock just under four minutes to go in the extra session, the Rangers won a faceoff in the Capitals’ end, and both Rick Nash and Derek Stepan had chances from in close.  Stick work by Schmidt helped keep the puck out of the net, and it squirted to Alex Ovechkin, who proceeded to execute and end-to-end rush that ended the contest…


Schmidt got credit for an assist on the play, giving him a pair for the game.

Game to Forget… April 7th versus Pittsburgh

Schmidt’s stick got him in trouble early in this game.  Less than a minute into the contest he tried to poke the puck off the stick of Tom Kuhnackl while backing up and had the effect of merely waving at the biscuit.  Kuhnackl found Matt Cullen darting behind Schmidt, and Cullen beat goalie Braden Holtby for an early 1-0 Pens lead.  With Pittsburgh holding a 2-0 lead midway through the second period, Schmidt and his stick were victimized again, trying to swipe the puck away from Oskar Sundqvist as he was feeding the puck across to Conor Sheary.  Schmidt missed, the pass was completed, and Sheary gave the Pens a 3-0 lead nine minutes into the period.  Washington mounted a furious comeback to tie the game, but the Penguins won in overtime on a goal by Sidney Crosby.  Schmidt’s score sheet was forgettable – no shot attempts, a giveaway, and a blocked shot in just 9:36 of ice time, his lowest number of the season.

Postseason: 10 games, 0-1-1, minus-3, 51.9 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, minus-1.2 CF%/Relative at 5-on-5

Like too many Capitals, Schmidt went silent in the offensive end in the postseason, posting a single assist in ten games, than coming in the “meltdown” game against the Flyers when the Caps scored five power play goals (Schmidt’s assist came on the last of those five man-advantage goals).  He managed only seven shots on goal in those ten games, and the outcomes when he was on the ice were not what was hoped for, his on-ice PDO being only 95.5 at 5-on-5.  Ice time was hard to come by as well.  A player who skated fewer than 15 minutes in only 12 of 72 regular season games, he skated more than 15 minutes only twice in ten postseason games, neither of them in the second round against the Penguins.

In the end…

Although one looks at Schmidt and sees a young defenseman still on the upward arc of his development (we hope), he finished the season with 140 games in a Capitals sweater.  Odd as it might seem, that places him in 39th place in team history in games played by a defenseman.  He is one of just 22 defensemen in Caps history to play in at least 140 games for the club before his 24th birthday.  But one thing that lingers after the season just completed is the degree to which his numbers faded down the stretch.  

 It is here that we point out that the 82 regular season and playoff games Schmidt played this season was the most he played in a season since he dressed for 70 games with the Fargo Force in the USHL in 2009-2010.  As much as skill, the ability to endure the rigors of a long hockey season is part of development, and this is something (based on his results this season) that stands out as something Schmidt needs to demonstrate an ability to do.  When he does, perhaps that smile will conceal a toughness that is almost frightening.

Grade: B-

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Brooks Orpik

Brooks Orpik

“Age merely shows what children we remain.”
-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


In 11 full NHL seasons before the 2015-2016 season, Brook Orpik missed a total of 93 regular season games – fewer than nine games a year, not bad for a physical defenseman in the National Hockey League.  And when he dressed for the Caps’ first 14 games of this season, it looked as if Orpik would add to his list of seasons of dependable play.

In that 14th game, though, Orpik lasted just one shift into the second period of a game in Detroit against the Red Wings.  A “lower-body injury” was the verdict, and it would keep him out of the lineup for 40 games, his longest stint on the injured list in his career and almost as many games as he missed in the previous five seasons (44).

The odd part of it all was not so much getting injured.  It happens to players over the course of a season or a career.  What made this instance unique (although some might not think it so for hockey players) was that the injury actually took place in Game 9, almost two weeks earlier, against the Columbus Blue Jackets when Orpik blocked a shot and then aggravated the injury when he was kneed in the thigh.  The result was a cracked femur (thigh bone) on which he finished with more than 20 minutes of ice time against the Blue Jackets, then played in four more games before finally going down in the second period against the Red Wings on November 10th.

Orpik returned to the lineup on February 16th against the Los Angeles Kings and played in 27 straight game before sitting out the season finale against the Anaheim Ducks along with a few other Capitals regulars.  Even with appearing in just half of the Caps’ regular season games, Orpik finished fifth among defensemen in goals with three, a career high for a single season.  Coincidentally, his shooting percentage of 9.7 percent led the team’s defensemen and was a career best.  He finished in double digits in points (10) for the eighth consecutive full NHL season, not including the abbreviated 2012-2013 season.  His plus-11 was fourth-best among the Capitals’ defensemen.  The physical side of his game did not suffer from the absences, his 125 credited hits being third among the team’s defensemen and his 3.0 hits per game ranking sixth among all NHL defensemen appearing in at least 41 games.


Fearless’ Take… Brooks Orpik might have had what for him were very good offensive numbers, but it hardly made him an offensive defenseman.  Evaluating his contributions, as it is for most defensive defensemen, can be something of an exercise in indirection.  In 12 games in which he was a “plus” player for the season, the Caps were 11-0-1.  In 19 games in which he logged at least 20 minutes of ice time, the Caps were 15-1-3.  They were 8-2-0 in games in which he recorded at least five hits.  When Orpik was “Orpik” – steady, physical, capable of a significant minutes load – the Caps did well.

Cheerless’ Take… Orpik being “Orpik” might not have been all that.  The Caps were 26-11-4 in games in which he appeared (1.37 standings points per game).  They were 30-7-4 in games he missed (1.56 points per game, almost 14 percent better).

Odd Orpik Stat… The Caps won just 13 of 23 games (13-8-2) in which Orpik recorded at least one shot on goal.  

Game to Remember… February 20th versus New Jersey

When the Caps took the ice on February 20th against the New Jersey Devils, it was Brooks Orpik’s 798th career regular season game.  In the 797 games that came before it, Orpik never experienced scoring a game-winning goal.  That changed with this game.  The teams alternated goals over the first 55 minutes, dueling to a 3-3 lead late into the third period.  Then, with the clock inching toward the four-minutes remaining mark, Evgeny Kuznetsov took a feed from Alex Ovechkin behind the Devils’ net.  He backed off toward the corner to the right of goalie Cory Schneider, showing as if he was going to send the puck to the front of the net.  Justin Williams did his part in the ruse, cutting to the net and pulling Lee Stempniak just ever so slightly to the inside.  It created a passing lane for Kuznetsov to find Orpik filling in at the left wing faceoff dot.  The pass was placed right on Orpik’s stick, and he did not waste the chance, snapping a shot over Schneider’s right shoulder for what would be his first career regular season game-winning goal in a 4-3 Caps win.

Game to Forget… November 3rd versus New York Rangers

There are, from time to time, those games in which everything bad happens when you are on the ice.  So it was for Orpik at Madison Square Garden on November 3rd.  In his first ten games of the season, Orpik did not record a “minus” game.  That changed in a big way in this game.  First, he was locked up with Viktor Stalberg in the slot when Oscar Lindberg opened the scoring early in the first period.  Later in the period he was caught as the last Cap back on a 2-on-2 Ranger rush that Kevin Hayes finished to make it 2-1.  Seven minutes into the second period, with the Rangers holding a 3-1 lead, he was on ice when Derick Brassard scored to make it 4-1.  Then, four seconds after stepping onto the ice after serving a penalty (the Caps’ only penalty of the game), he had no chance to get back into the play to prevent Jarret Stoll from scoring his first goal as a Ranger in a 5-2 Blueshirts win.  Orpik was on ice for four goals in 15 minutes and change of ice time and was a minus-4, the only game all season in which he finished worse than a minus-1.  It was the first time he was a minus-4 since recording one in an 8-4 Pittsburgh Penguin loss to the Ottawa Senators on March 24, 2012.

Postseason… 6 games, 0-0-0, minus-3, 45.5 Corsi-for at 5-on-5, plus-1.0 CF%/Relative at 5-on-5

The postseason is a time of year any player looks forward to, but when looking back upon this one, Brooks Orpik might utter one word…”yeesh.”   Let’s leave the scoring (or lack of it) out of the discussion.  He’s not an offensive defenseman, and points would be few and far between.  But the rest of it…yeesh.  There was this hit by Ryan White on Orpik in Game 3 of the opening round against the Flyers…


He missed the last three games of that series but returned for the opener of the second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  The first game wasn’t the problem; the second one was.  Early in the first period he caught Olli Maatta with a late hit in the defensive zone…


That hit cost him three games, courtesy of the Department of Player Safety.  He did return for Game 6 in what would be the last game for the Caps in the 2015-2016 season, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pens.  It was not the sort of postseason a wise veteran would want featured on his resume.  But even here there was a subtext.  Chances are he was not entirely 100 percent from the cracked femur suffered in the regular season, and he ended up playing after suffering a concussion and neck injury with the Ryan White hit in the Flyer series.   

In the end…

It is hard to say that Brooks Orpik showed his age (35) in this season.  Injuries happen (remember the unfortunate series of leg injuries Jack Hillen suffered as a Capital).  When he was available in the 2015-2016 season he played reasonably well, but the wear and tear on his body this season was significant, raising the issue of what sort of future level of performance Orpik might enjoy with the club.  It seems odd to think of a 35-year old as having question marks, but even if Goethe was right, that age merely shows what children we remain, age is not kind to those who would play a children’s game.

Grade: B

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Monday, June 20, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Dmitry Orlov

Dmitry Orlov

“’Comeback’ is a good word, man.”
-- Mickey Rourke


On April 13, 2014, Dmitry Orlov skated more than 23 minutes in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the finale of the 2013-2014 regular season.  He finished with one shot on goal and no points.  The no points thing was not limited to his performance.  No one on either team had one, the Lightning winning the contest, 1-0, in a shootout in what was the last Capitals game of the season.

It would be the last NHL game Orlov would play for 545 days, owing to a broken wrist and a recovery that was agonizingly long and resistant to progress.  But when Orlov took the ice on October 10th on Opening Night against the New Jersey Devils, he embarked on a season that would have him appear in all 82 regular season games for the first time in his career, one of seven Capitals to do so.

As one might expect for a player appearing in every game for the first time in his career, Orlov set personal career highs in goals (8), assists (21), points (29), plus-minus (plus-8), penalty minutes (26), credited hits (121), and shots on goal (198).  The odd part of his season, though, was that of his three full NHL seasons, it was in this one in which he recorded his lowest average ice time (16:02).  Orlov also took his place as a leader in offensive production, tying for the team lead in goals among defensemen (with John Carlson), finishing third in assists and points (behind Carlson and Matt Niskanen), tying for second in game-winning goals (three, with Niskanen), and finishing third in shots on goal (also behind Carlson and Niskanen).

Fearless’ Take… On a club with as many assets on defense as the Caps have, it is easy to overlook what Orlov has accomplished at such a young age, even with an entire season lost to injury.  He is the 13th defenseman in the history of the franchise to record at least 60 career points before his 25th birthday, and the list includes quite a number of well thought of members of the Caps’ fraternity: Scott Stevens, Kevin Hatcher, Mike Green, Sergei Gonchar, Calle Johansson, Larry Murphy, and John Carlson among them.

Cheerless’ Take… Minutes were not particularly kind to Orlov in the offensive end of the rink.  He skated more than 21 minutes nine times in the 82 games in which he appeared and in them went 1-0-1, minus-1.  The one goal came on a total of 19 shots.  And, he stumbled rather hard in the last stages of the season, going minus-8 in his last ten-game segment (12 games in all), while managing just two points, tied for his lowest ten-game segment output for the season.

Odd Orlov Fact… The Caps won 18 of 24 games in which Orlov did not record a shot on goal (.750 winning percentage), but only 38 of 58 games in which he did record at least one shot (.655 winning percentage).

Game to Remember… November 21st versus Colorado

After an 8-2-0 start in October, the Caps were stumbling a bit in November, going 4-3-1 leading up to their contest against the Colorado Avalanche on the weekend before Thanksgiving.  The Avs were doing something of a two-step over their previous ten games, a pair of losses followed by a win, then another pair of losses, three wins, and two losses before visiting Verizon Center.  The Caps got out to a 4-0 lead in the first period, but Colorado halved the deficit in the second period.  Evgeny Kuznetsov put the Caps up by three on a power play in the seventh minute of the third period, then Dmitry Orlov scored one of the strangest goals in recent memory…


A curl and drag through the legs and a snap shot from close in was pretty enough, but when everyone in the building, save one, thought that the puck was hung up somewhere in goalie Calvin Pickard’s gear, Orlov – the lone soul who seemed to know where the puck was – skated out from behind the goal line on the opposite side of the Colorado net and snapped the biscuit past Pickard’s blocker before he realized just what had happened.  It was Orlov’s first goal of the season, one in which he set a career best in that category.

Game to Forget… April 7th versus Pittsburgh

The Caps were not exactly sprinting to the finish line in the last week of the regular season.  Since shutting out the New Jersey Devils, 1-0, in overtime on March 25th, they were 2-2-2 heading into their last regular season meeting of the season against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  It did not begin well for either the Caps in general or Orlov in particular.  Pittsburgh scored three goals in the first 9:03 of the game, Orlov on the ice for two of them.  The second of them, Pittsburgh’s third of the game, featured some lackadaisical defense by Orlov, who waved unenthusiastically at the puck as Tom Sestito was entering the zone.  After Sestito fed the puck across to Oskar Sundqvist, who relayed it to Conor Sheary for the goal, Orlov was gliding back into the play with less urgency than what was now a 3-on-2 advantage would have suggested.  Orlov saw the ice for just six more shifts in that game, finishing a minus-2 in just 10:42 of ice time.

Postseason: 11 games, 0-1-1, even, 53.45 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, plus-1.41 CF%/Relative at 5-on-5

Dmitry Orlov may one day be a very good offensive defenseman.  He had a career year in the regular season, but in his first career postseason action, his offense was nowhere to be found.  His lone point was a secondary assist on the Caps’ last score in a 6-1 Game 3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.  He did not record his first shot on goal in the postseason until Game 4 of that opening round series, and he managed only five shots on goal in 146 minutes of playing time over 11 games. Three of those shots on goal came in Game 5 against the Flyers, a 2-0 Philadelphia win.  He recorded only one shot on goal in his last six postseason games.  If there was a silver lining, Orlov was on ice for only two goals against in the 11 games in which he dressed, fewest on the club among defensemen dressing in more than two games.

In the end…

Given that Dmitry Orlov missed an entire season of his development to injury, his season was something of a pleasant surprise.  He appeared in all 82 regular season games, one of three Caps defensemen to do so.  He tied for the team lead in goal scoring among defensemen, finished third among defensemen in assists and points.  He had the best ratio of credited takeaways to giveaways among the blueliners (0.90-to-1).  His offensive output exceed his combined total of goals over his first three seasons with the Caps covering 119 games, and his assists and total points almost matched the combined totals of those three seasons.  In that sense, the 2015-2016 season was quite a comeback for the young defenseman, and it might give Caps fans hope that his contributions will improve even more as he continues in the developmental phase of his young NHL career.

Grade: B+

Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen

“The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.”
-- Marcus Aurelius


If you watch Matt Niskanen in one game, you almost certainly will not get an appreciation for the diverse talents he has.  Coming into this season he was one of ten defensemen since he came into the league in the 2007-2008 season to play in 500 games, record at least 35 goals, post at least 150 points, and have a plus-minus of plus-30 or better.  He combined durability, an ability to contribute offensively, an ability to be effective at both ends of the rink, and to log significant minutes (just under 20 minutes per game).  He was 6-23-29, plus-7 on a per-82 game basis over those eight seasons, and over a five-season stretch ending with his first season in Washington last year, he saw his ice time increase every year, from 16:32 in 2010-2011 to 22:21 last season with the Caps.

In 2015-2016, Matt Niskanen had a year that might not have been foreseen, given the profile of results he had with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the year before he became an unrestricted free agent signed by the Caps.  In that last year with the Penguins, Niskanen posted the best offensive numbers of his career (10-36-46, plus-33, a plus-6.9 Corsi-for/Relative in all situations, PDO of 103.3 in all situations).  His first season with the Caps was more modest, with four goals and 31 points, with a plus-7.  In 2015-2016, Niskanen’s contributions were more nuanced than perhaps at any other point in his career.

Niskanen’s offensive production in his second season with the Caps did not look a lot different from his first season (5-27-32 this season versus 4-27-31 last season).  His possession numbers were not a lot different, in fact down slightly (51.1 percent Corsi-for at five-on-five versus 52.0 last season), but his goal differential at fives improved quite a bit, from plus-1 last season to plus-12 this season.  His on-ice shot differential showed even greater improvement, from plus-4 last season to plus-65 this season.

Niskanen did pare back his penalty minutes (from 47 to 38), but he seemed to play with a bit more of a physical edge.  He was credited with 157 hits this season versus 143 last season.  He also upped his blocked shots from 106 to 145, and he reduced his giveaways from 76 to 62.

Looping back to his offensive contributions, those of Niskanen were timely.  The Caps were undefeated in the five games in which he scored a goal, 23-1-4 in games in which he scored a point.


Fearless’ Take… It can be easy to take a player’s durability for granted.  For the second straight season, Niskanen appeared in all 82 games.  He is one of just eight defensemen to appear in all of the season’s games, and having missed just one game in his last three seasons;  only five defensemen have appeared in more contests.   Then there is the ice time he consumes.  This past season, 128 defensemen logged 25 or more minutes in at least one game.  Niskanen was 17th on that list with 35 games of 25 minutes or more of ice time.

Cheerless’ Take… There isn’t a part of Niskanen’s game that really sticks out in a good way this season, but it is even harder to find a part of his game that stood out in a bad way.  His ten-game splits do have a little bit of odd in them, though.  He was a minus-2 in each of his last ten splits and a minus-4 in 5-on-5 goal differntial, even though he had solid possession numbers.  And those possession numbers and scoring chance differential in the third and fourth set of ten games were nothing to get excited about.

Odd Niskanen Fact… In nine NHL seasons with three different teams (Dallas, Pittsburgh, Washington), Niskanen has never finished a season below 50 percent in Corsi-for at five-on-five.  Neither has he ever finished in negative territory in Corsi-for/Relative at 5-on-5 (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

Game to Remember… October 10th versus New Jersey

No point earned in the NHL is “easy,” but on Opening Night at Verizon Center, Matt Niskanen’s 200th career NHL point was as easy as it is ever likely to get.  Having already recorded a point on an assist on an Alex Ovechkin goal in the third period against the New Jersey Devils, the Caps took a 4-2 lead into a power play with 4:38 left in regulation.  In what has become something of a thing in the NHL, the Devils, down by two goals and shorthanded, lifted goaltender Keith Kinkaid for an extra skater.  With the clock ticking down past the three-minute to go mark, Niskanen slid the puck from the right point to Dmitry Orlov on the left side.  Orlov moved the puck down the wall to Justin Williams at the goal line extended to the right of the cage.  Williams circled out, fending off defenseman John Merrill, and found Niskanen filling in from the point.  With the net empty and Kyle Palmieri trying mightily to assume the role of netminder, Niskanen ripped a slap shot into the net with 2:53 left for his 200th point in a 5-3 Caps win.

Game to Forget… February 20th versus New Jersey

On the same ice sheet four months later against the same team, things did not go quite so memorably for Matt Niskanen.  Three times the Devils took a one-goal lead, three times Matt Niskanen was on the ice for them, including goals against on consecutive shifts late in the first period.  The Capitals did tie the game a third time, and they went on to win, 4-3, on a Brooks Orpik goal of all things.  However, Niskanen suffered his only minus-3 of the season, and his 19:54 was one of only two games all season in which he did not finish with 20 minutes of ice time.  It does bear noting, though, that holding a one-goal lead, he was out there for the last shift of the game.

Postseason: 12 games, 0-3-3, plus-3, 50.9 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5; minus-1.6 CF%/Relative at 5-on-5

In the postseason, it’s not how you start but how you finish.  Matt Niskanen recorded a pair of assists over the first four games of the first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, was plus-3, and his possession numbers were good (52.0 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5).  His possession numbers only improved in the last two games; he finished the Flyer series with a 57.7 percent Corsi-for.  The second round series against the Penguins was another matter.  He had one point, an assist in a Game 3 loss, and his possession numbers sagged – 45.1 percent Corsi-for at fives.  And, having to make do without his regular partner, Karl Alzner, for almost the entirety of the second and third periods of Game 6, lost by the Caps in overtime to end their season, Niskanen’s possession numbers took it in the teeth.  He was minus-20 in Corsi plus-minus, 32.8 percent for the game, his worst of the postseason and seventh worse game result out of 94 regular and postseason games this season.

In the end…

We have to admit to a quiet admiration for players like Matt Niskanen, guys who perform at a consistently high level without generating a lot of hoopla in doing it.  He has had a remarkably consistent career in his performance numbers (goals, points, plus-minus) and his production numbers (possession).  This year was no different.  That the season ended as it did for him, with an all too close view of the game-winning, series-clinching goal in overtime against the Penguins, was not so much anything he did or did not do as circumstance – the Caps unable to ice their best defensive pair with Karl Alzner out with an injury.  Nevertheless, in the long arc of an NHL season, Niskanen had another good one, although sometimes it was not quite obvious how good.

Grade: A-

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America


Monday, June 06, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Taylor Chorney

Taylor Chorney

“Before everything else, getting ready is the secret of success.”
-- Henry Ford


On the first day of the unrestricted free agent signing period last summer, there were 70 transactions, according to the NHL official list.  It goes without saying that the Washington Capitals’ signing of defenseman Taylor Chorney to a one-year, $700,000 contract was not the most newsworthy transaction on that date.  But, with four of the ten defensemen to have dressed for the Caps in the 2014-2015 season no longer with the club, the need for dealing the depth issue had to be addressed.

Depth defenseman is an apt description for Chorney.  A veteran of five seasons with three teams (Edmonton, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh), Chorney had just 68 total games of NHL experience coming into this season, 42 of them in 2009-2010 with the Edmonton Oilers.  He had a total of 24 games in the NHL over the last five seasons, two of which were spent in their entirety in the AHL.

With the Caps set on their top-four – Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Brooks Orpik – and looking to give youngsters Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov regular minutes, Taylor Chorney was in for another NHL season of limited duty.  And that is precisely what he got in the Caps’ first 14 games, appearing in five of them. 

The thing about being a seventh defenseman, though, is that circumstance can make you a top-six blueliner in short order.  That is what happened to Chorney when Brooks Orpik went down with an injury in Game 14.  Starting with Game 15, Chorney appeared in the Caps next 40 games, going 0-5-5, plus-9, while averaging 12:46 a game.  He did not stand out over that stretch, but neither was he a liability when it came to wins and losses.  The Caps were 30-6-4 over those 40 games with Chorney in the lineup.

When Orpik returned to the lineup on February 16th, Chorney was once more relegated to observation duty.  He appeared in just ten of the last 28 games on the Caps’ regular season schedule.  All in all, the Caps were 40-10-5 with Chorney in the lineup, 16-8-3 when he was not.


Fearless’ Take… Taylor Chorney started the year with modest career statistics, but he did set ot tie career highs in games played (55), goals (1), assists (5), points (6), plus-minus (plus-8), penalty minutes (21), and credited hits (56).  If you are thinking in terms of replacement, his numbers in 2015-2016 were at least comparable to Jack Hillen’s last season (35 games, 0-5-5, plus-1, 12:22 per game in ice time) or perhaps John Erskine in the previous year (37 games, 1-3-4, minus-5, 15:35 in ice time per game).

Cheerless’ Take… Those ten-game pieces have a…well, interesting look to them.  Chorney had a really nice looking first ten games, then the thing kind of went sideways on him.  Five of his last seven segments were in “minus” territory, including his last four.  In six of his last six segments he was a minus player in shot attempts at five-on-five for and against (again, including his last four).  Same with scoring chance differential.  And, in five of his last six segments he had a minus goal differential.  Of seven Caps defensemen with at least 500 five-on-five minutes of ice time, he was seventh in Corsi-for (48.53 percent; numbers from war-on-ice.com).

Odd Chorney Fact… When Taylor Chorney finished the season with a plus-8, it was the first time in his career that he finished a season in “plus” territory.  Over his first five seasons he was a combined minus-32 in 68 career games.

Game to Remember… March 2nd versus Toronto

February 15, 2011.  Dallas Stars.  Those were the date and the opponent for Taylor Chorney’s first and, coming into this season, only goal scored in the NHL.  It turned out to be the game-winning goal for the Edmonton Oilers in a 4-1 win.  When the Washington Capitals took the ice against the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 2nd, it had been 1,842 days for Chorney since that first and only NHL goal.  Before the first period was over, so was the waiting on that second goal.  Evgeny Kuznetsov interrupted an attempt by Martin Marincin to move the puck out of the Leafs’ zone.  Tracking the puck down in the corner, Kuznetsov fed T.J. Oshie entering the zone.  The pass was in Oshie’s skates, but his kicked it to his stick and left it for Chorney at the left point.  Chorney stepped up and wristed the puck up and over goalie Jonathan Bernier’s left shoulder on the long side to give the Caps a 1-0 lead on what would be his only shot attempt of the contest in what would be a 3-2 win.

Game to Forget… February 2nd versus Florida

Winter Storm Jonas had postponed two Capitals games, and when the Caps returned to the ice after an eight-day hiatus they dropped a 4-3 overtime decision to the Philadelphia Flyers.  The NHL All-Star Game gave the Caps another break, meaning that when the team went to Florida to take on the Panthers, it would be just their second game in two weeks.  The rust showed.  The Caps were down, 3-0, just 21 seconds into the second period.  By that time, Taylor Chorney recorded less than two minutes of ice time and was on ice for one of the Panther goals.  By the time the second period was over, Florida had a 4-0 lead, while Chorney had just nine shifts and 4:34 in ice time.  He would not see the ice in the third period.  The only mark on his score sheet, in addition to finishing a minus-1, was a blocked shot in what would be his lowest ice time recorded of the season.

Postseason: 7 games, 0-1-1, minus-1, 57.7 Percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, plus-2.7 CF%/Relative

Quite literally up until the last moment of the season, Taylor Chorney had a rather decent, if unspectacular year in a fill-in role on the Caps’ blue line.  But seventh defensemen are seventh defensemen for a reason, and having to rely on one when your best shutdown defenseman goes down to injury in the season’s last game is bad timing and bad luck.  You might have seen it coming.  The quality of competition being what it is in the postseason, opponents will find the weak spots.  Chorney in the lineup was one of them.  In six games in which he appeared before Game 6 of the second round series against the Penguins, the Caps lost five times.  It was not that he played poorly; he was over 50 percent Corsi-for at five-on-five in each of those first six games. 

However, with the Caps down a defenseman and having to play more and more responsible minutes in the absence of Karl Alzner in Game 6 against the Penguins, it was Chorney on the ice as Matt Niskanen’s partner when Nick Bonino scored 6:32 into overtime to end the Caps’ season.  Sometimes, the moment is just a little too much for the best you have.   It was the only postseason game in which Chorney was under 50 percent in Corsi-for, but even with that he was on his way to finishing with his only game of the postseason with a positive goal differential at 5-on-5…until that last moment.

In the end…

Injuries and circumstances conspired to grant Taylor Chorney a career season.  While the results themselves were rather modest, he did a credible job within the limits of being a seventh defenseman.  The club thought enough of his effort to sign him to a two-year contract extension last February.  One might quibble with the choice to give Chorney a sweater in Game 6 over Nate Schmidt, but it was not an entirely unreasonable decision given that Chorney did bring some more postseason experience into the playoffs than did Schmidt (this was the latter’s first postseason; Chorney played in five postseason games for the Penguins last season).  It made for a difficult end of a season in which Taylor Chorney made himself ready for a burden of games few might have anticipated.

Grade: B-

Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America