Sunday, April 20, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Karl Alzner

“If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.”
-- Henry David Thoreau


In his first two full seasons with the Washington Capitals, Karl Alzner toiled at developing a reputation as a smart, reliable defenseman who used angles and position more than force and brawn to defend his end of the ice.  In 164 games over the 2011-2012 and the 2012-2013 seasons that approach allowed him to post a scoring line of 3-26-29, plus-26.  The 29 points was not what was noteworthy, it was the plus-26.  Even with top-pair responsibilities (generally with John Carlson), Alzner had more good things happen than bad on the ice.

In the last two years, though, Alzner has remained reliable, playing in all 130 regular season and seven playoff games, but his regular season scoring line was 3-20-23, minus-13.  It is that minus-13 stands out, especially as part of his 2-16-18, minus-7 season in 2013-2014.

The most disturbing part of the 2013-2014 season for Alzner would appear to be in his “tens,” his ten-game segments.  He started the season with a plus-1 in each of his first three ten-game segments.  This continued a pattern for Alzner.  In 2012-2013 he started the season with a minus-3 in his first ten-game segment, then followed that up with plus-2 in each of his next two segments.  In 2011-2012 Alzner was plus-7, plus-2, and plus-2 in his first three segments.

In his ten-game segments to follow, though, Alzner ended up minus-10 over his last five segments.  Again, it was part of a pattern.  He was minus-7 in his last two segments of the abbreviated 2012-2013 season and was an inconsistent plus-1 over his last five segments of the 2011-2012 season.  Looking at this from a slightly different point of view, this was the second straight season in which Alzner was on ice for more than a goal per game (1.04/game, after 1.15/game in 2012-2013).   In the two full seasons preceding, he was under that threshold (0.98/game in 2011-2012 and 0.76/game in 2010-2011).  Give his almost metronomic offensive pace, that trend suggests a bit more porousness in the defensive end of the ice.


Fearless’ Take

At this time last year Peerless noted that Alzner faced some rather offensive-minded forward opponents in his top 5-on-5 time on ice:

Jordan Staal
Evander Kane
Jeff Skinner
Steven Stamkos
Martin St. Louis
Blake Wheeler
Nik Antropov
Ilya Kovalchuk
Marcel Goc
Olli Jokinen

This year that list includes:

Claude Giroux
Eric Staal
Jakub Voracek
Marian Gaborik
Evgeni Malkin
James van Riemsdyk
Alexander Semin
Jaromir Jagr
Phil Kessel
Travis Zajac

What Alzner gets is a lot of time against a lot of players with very good possession numbers generally.  In terms of average Corsi of opposing players at 5-on-5, Alzner faced the 27th best opposition among 173 defensemen playing in at least 50 games.    He faced the 17th highest opposition in average relative Corsi.  

This is also a player who, as one might expect given the nature of the opposition he faced, got comparatively few offensive zone starts.  His 30.6 percent offensive zone starts is in the same neighborhood as defensemen such as Zdeno Chara (30.8 percent), Ryan McDonagh (30.8 percent), and Dan Girardi (30.5 percent).  Alzner remained, for this season and for better or worse, as close to a shutdown defenseman as the Capitals had.

Cheerless’ Take

How are those Corsi treating you these days? Alzner was 116th among 142 defensemen playing in 75 percent of their games in Corsi-for at 5-on-5.  His Fenwick was not any better (111th).  As it turned out, Alzner ended up 120th among those defensemen in goals for/against percentage.    And his goals-for percentage was not all that good relative to the teams’s goals for percentage at 5-on-5; Alzner was 105th among  defensemen in that one.  

Odd Alzner Fact…  Above we compared Alzner’s 2010-2011and 2011-2012 seasons to his last two seasons, noting the change in plus-minus.  There is also the scoring line.  In the first two of those seasons Alzner averaged 0.1768 points per game.  In the last two seasons he averaged 0.1769 points per game.  Taking his points per game out to a fourth decimal place is a rather amazing piece of consistency, despite having played for three coaches in that span (Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, and Adam Oates).

Game to Remember… March 8th versus Phoenix.  When the Capitals returned home on March 8th from a two-game road trip to Philadelphia and Boston, they were in the midst of a three-game losing streak and were three points behind Detroit for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.  Awaiting them were the Phoenix Coyotes, who had consecutive wins over Vancouver and Montreal before traveling to DC.  The Coyotes got out to a 2-0 lead over the Caps with goals in each of the first two periods.  As the game moved through the third period it looked as if the Caps would extend their losing streak.  As we described it at the time…

From the 3:20 mark of the second period to the 9:15 mark of the third period, Phoenix out-shot the Caps, 19-14.  Then, something strange and wonderful happened.

Karl Alzner scored.

It was innocent enough.  Jay Beagle and Keith Yandle were fighting for a loose puck in the left wing corner to goalie Mike Smith’s right.  As they were dueling, Eric Fehr swooped in and gathered up the puck, sliding it out to Alzner at the left point.  With Mike Ribeiro in the shooting lane, Alzner stepped to his left and down the wall to get an opening, then flipped a soft shot toward the goal (kids, take note...a right-handed defenseman on that side cannot make that play; sometimes the "handed" thing works).  As Alzner was snapping his shot at the net, Jay Beagle backed across Smith’s line of sight dragging Yandle with him on the coverage, and the commotion might have provided a distraction.  It was enough to allow the puck to sail untouched into the back of the net, and the Caps were within a goal.

That goal, on Alzner’s only shot on goal for the game, was the catalyst for a three-goal burst over a five-minute span that brought the Caps all the way back for what would be a 3-2 win that would stop the bleeding of the three-game losing streak.

Game to Forget… December 17th versus Philadelphia.  There were the Capitals, hanging on to a 2-1 lead mid-way through the second period of their mid-December game in Philadelphia against the Flyers.  Then the Flyers caught a break.  Nicklas Grossman started it with a wrist shot from the top of the offensive zone.  It was knocked down by what looked like a high-stick from Brayden Schenn, the puck dropping to the feet of Steve Downie. With Alzner trying to tie Downie up, Downie turned and tried to throw the puck at the net.  The puck caromed off the skate of Alzner onto the stick of Matt Read, who had a lay-up as a result, tying the game at 2-2.  Then after the Flyers took a lead late in the period on a Mark Streit power play goal following a major penalty to Tom Wilson for charging, they were on the attack moments later.  Kimmo Timonen walked the offensive blue line looking for a shooting lane but spied Jakub Voracek in the right wing circle instead.  Timonen slid the puck to Voracek, and before Alzner could step out and challenge, Voracek wristed the puck past goalie Breaden Holtby’s left pad to give the Flyers a 4-2 lead in a game they would win, 5-2.  It was Alzner’s only minus-3 performance of the season.

In the end…

Alzner is a pretty good barometer of the Capitals’ situation.  He generally speaks his mind for public consumption in an earnest sort of way, and his comments at the end of the season were illuminating…

"We play good some games, and play tough against the good teams, but the teams that are lower in the standings we take our foot off the gas.  It's almost like we have the swagger sometimes that we're the best team in the League and we can just not play our best. I think it's a mental attitude adjustment that we need to fix.

"We're supposed to be a high-flying offensive team and we haven't really done that.  Our power play has been the only real bright spot this year. But 5-on-5 we just need to be better. I mean, we have to be one of the worst 5-on-5 teams in the League in goals-for vs. goals-against. We've got to be up there.

"It's insane, really just insane.  We don't have the identity. What we're supposed to be, we are not being. That's something that needs to change. I personally am a huge fan of the tight-checking, grind-it-out, 2-1 and 1-0 games, but that's not the way this team is built. If we're not built that way we have to be better for how we're built."

That is a pretty good summary of what ails the Caps, but he did not spare himself, either…

"If you're supposed to be a guy who is scoring all the time, you've got to be scoring.  If you're supposed to be a guy keeping pucks out of the net like me, then your plus-minus has to be better than minus-8 (note: he finished minus-7). We have to hold ourselves way more accountable than we have this year."  

It was not an especially good year for Alzner or the Caps, and for a defenseman who was developing steadily as a shutdown defenseman, it was a disappointing outcome.  He, like his teammates, has some things to work on and think about before taking the ice next season.

Grade: C+

photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Washington Capitals: By the Tens, a Look at Improvement in Ten-Game Segments

We are about to embark on our annual look at the Washington Capitals’ season “by the tens,” but before we delve into the individual player reviews, the unpleasant way in which this season unfolded got us to thinking about just how that unpleasant result came about.  One way to look back at that matter is in looking at “the tens” in a bit of a different way.

This is the second year of a new coaching regime.  Adam Oates and his assistants did not get the benefit of a full year in 2012-13 to install all the bells and whistles of their hockey philosophy and have it become second nature to the players on the ice.  Last year, we thought this year would be the season to see those concepts bloom, having had the benefit of what amounted to a 55-game test drive last season (48 regular season games and a playoff round).

If you extend that line of thinking into this season, it would be reasonable to think that the Caps would be: a) improved in their performance at the start of the season compared to their start last season, and b) better at the end of this season than at the start of the 2013-14 campaign.

So… were they?  Better, that is.  Let’s take a look at the first proposition, that the Caps getting a second start under Oates would be better this season than last.  We can do that first by looking at ten-game start segments.  Let’s start with wins and losses (note: teams making the playoffs are shaded):


Neither the 2012-2013 team nor the 2013-14 team was fast out of the gate in their first ten games.  If anything, the 2012-13 team had an easier time of it – fewer teams played that would ultimately make the playoffs – but did worse, losing eight of their first ten games.  The 2013-14 Caps had a worse five-game start (1-4-0 compared to 1-3-1) but righted themselves sooner (4-1-0 in the last half of their first ten games compared to 1-4-0).  A record of 5-5-0 is an improvement over 2-7-1, but hardly something to get excited about.

What about overall scoring?  Did the Caps improve in their goals for/against and shots for/against in their first ten games from year to year?  Yes, they did, rather dramatically in fact.  The Caps scored five more goals in their first ten games of the 2013-14 season than they did to open the 2012-13 season (not counting shootout-winning goals against Calgary and Winnipeg) – and half-goal per game improvement – and they allowed six fewer goals, year-to-year (note: games in which opponents out-shot the Caps are shaded):


Then there is special teams.  If there was clear improvement from the ten-game start in 2012-13 to that in 2013-14, it is here.  The Caps were almost 50 percent more efficient on the power play, year-to-year (from 20.0  percent to 29.7 percent).  The penalty kill was improved in two ways.  There was the improvement in efficiency, from 77.8 percent to 88.2 percent.  But there was also the improvement in limiting shorthanded situations faced.  The Caps faced 11 fewer such situations in their first ten games in 2013-14 than they did in their first ten games in 2012-13, a 24 percent improvement:


Those are the gross measures of comparison.  What about the underlying numbers?  Let’s look at those numbers in even strength situations.  Here the numbers are more disturbing.  Corsi events – all shots directed at the opponent’s net – increased substantially in total both for the Caps and their opponents from the first ten games of 2012-13 to the first ten games of 2013-14.  However, one might also consider the events per minute of time.  This is where things get disturbing.  For the Caps, the number of Corsi events per minute of even strength time increased by only 1.8 percent (from 0.89 to 0.91).  For opponents, though, the increase was more significant, from 0.87 events per minute of even strength time to 0.94, an 8.5 percent increase (numbers from extraskater.com).


(click for larger images)

It gets worse when one controls for blocked shots – the Fenwick measure.  Again, total Fenwick events increase for both teams, but as in the case of the Corsi measure, the Fenwick events per minute of even strength ice time increase far more for opponents.  For the Caps, the change in Fenwick events was insignificant, a 0.1 percent increase.  For opponents the increase in Fenwick events per minute of even strength ice time was 15.4 percent. 

These numbers were reflected in the shot values, as well.  Tracking with the Corsi and Fenwick results, total shots at even strength increased for both the Caps and their opponents over the first ten games of 2013-14 compared to 2012-13.  But on a shots-per-minute basis at even strength, opponents saw their shots increase by 19.1 percent, compared to a 1.1 percent increase for the Caps.  On a year-to-year basis looking at the first ten games, the picture was not pleasant.

What might have allowed the Caps to salvage a slightly better record in their first ten games this year compared to last, at least at even strength, comes down to shooting percentages.  It was not so much their own shooting percentage that improved, from 6.3 to 7.0 percent, as it was the shooting percentage of opponents reduced.  Conversely, the save percentage of Caps goaltenders.  The Caps improved here at even strength from a .888 save percentage in the first ten games of 2012-13 to .917 in the first ten contests of 2013-14.  Overall, though, the improvement from 2-7-1 to 5-5-0 in the first ten games of the respective seasons looks to come down to special teams, not even strength play.  And that was not enough to give the Caps a winning record coming out of the gate to start this season.

The year to year differences are one thing in looking at improvement over time, but there is also the matter of whether the Caps improved as this past season wore on.  That might be done looking at their first ten games and their last ten contests.

Again we can ask, “were they?”  Better, that is.  In terms of wins and losses, yes and no.  The Caps had that 5-5-0 record in their first ten games to start the 2013-14 season, earning ten standings points.  In their last ten games there were 4-3-3, good for 11 standings points.  But there also was the matter of those three extra-time losses, all coming in the Gimmick.  That left the Caps with six losses in those last ten games and those three points left on the table in the freestyle competition hurting their cause to reach the post-season:


Let’s go through the same drill here as for the year-to-year comparison.  First, overall scoring.  The Caps played a somewhat tighter game late than they did early.  Their goals per game were down slightly, but their goals allowed dropped even further.  It was not a case of tightening up on shots allowed, though.  The Caps allowed 34 shots on goal per game in their first ten games of the 2013-14 season, 33.9 in their last ten games.  That difference is mitigated somewhat by the Caps playing an extra ten minutes in their last ten games (four shootout results versus two in their first ten games), but not enough to suggest significant improvement in holding opponents’ shot totals down.


More to the point, the Caps were outshot nine times in their last ten games (a 4-3-2 record) versus being outshot five times in their first ten games (2-3-0 record).  It was their own shot totals, down from 31.9 shots per game in their first ten games to 26.3 in their last ten that was putting them on their heels.

As for special teams, it would have been next to impossible to maintain the 29.7 percent power play conversion percentage over their first ten games consistently over ten-game stretches.  That said, the 21.2 percent conversion rate was quite respectable.  The penalty kill finished strong as well (85.7 percent), even compared with the start to the season (88.2 percent).  Here, as with the year-to-year comparison of first ten games, the effectiveness of the penalty kill in the last ten games of the 2013-14 season was as much limiting opportunities.  The Caps saw their shorthanded situations faced drop from 34 in their first ten games of the season to 28 in the last ten.  And that was a drop from 45 situations faced in the first ten games of the 2012-2013 season.  That might reflect the state of the game in the NHL, where power play opportunities are dropping generally. Nevertheless, it made for a Capitals penalty kill that allowed only four power play goals, the same number as in the first ten games, despite a lower penalty kill rate.


The underlying numbers paint an unkind portrait, though.  Corsi events at even strength dropped through the floor, in total (from 456 to 392) and in events per minute (0.91 to 0.75) of even strength ice time.  Meanwhile, Corsi events for opponents went in the other direction, from 473 in their first ten games of the season (0.94/minute) to 533 (1.02 per minute).  That the Caps’ Corsi events per minute dropped by 17.4 percent while their opponents had theirs increase by 8.3 percent made for a difficult conclusion to the season. 

The Fenwick event numbers and shot totals painted a similar picture.  The Caps saw their total and event-per-minute results drop from their first ten games to their last ten.  Much of that might be attributed to the quality of competition in the last ten games; five of their last ten games were played against teams that finished in the top six in Corsi-for percentage at even strength


(click for larger images)

What saved the Caps, at least enough to post a 4-3-3 record in their last ten games, was once more a matter of even strength percentages – shooting and save percentages.  The Caps posted an 8.9 percent shooting percentage in their last ten games, substantially better than their 7.0 percent in their first ten games.  It was the save percentage that stood out, though.  The .936 save percentage was much better than their .917 to start the season. 

But even this is something of a mirage.  If you break that last ten-game segment into equal parts, the first five games were played to a 4.7 percent shooting percentage and a .897 save percentage at even strength.  The Caps, needing to win these games to hang onto any semblance of competition for a playoff spot, went 0-3-2 in those games.  In the last five games they had a 13.4 percent shooting percentage at even strength and a .936 save percentage.  It was too little, far too late.

In the end, the Caps have played 130 regular season games under this coaching regime.  Will it be the groundwork for a better team down the road?  Perhaps it will, perhaps not.  But at the moment it is hard to see where this team has improved over the past two seasons, either in their overall performance numbers (goals scored and allowed, special teams) or their underlying productivity numbers (Corsi, Fenwick, shots for and against).  Certainly not in their wins and losses.  The only positive blip in all of this looks like the ten games we did not subject to this review – the last ten games of the 2012-2013 season that the Caps played to an 8-1-1 record (part of an 11-1-1 finish) to sneak into the playoffs.  It was a brief, pleasant interlude in what looks like a very mediocre performance over the last two seasons.

additional information obtained from hockey-reference.com

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Metropolitan Division Semifinals: Capitals at Rangers, Game 1

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

As faithfully as the swallows return to Capistrano, as reliably as the sun rises in the east, as unfailingly as Mike Milbury will say something derogatory against Alex Ovechkin, the Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals will face the New York Rangers in Game 1 of their Metropolitan Division Semifinals matchup at Madison Squarer Garden in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“Uh…cuz?”

In a minute, Cheerless.  This marks the fourth consecutive year that the Caps and Rangers have met in the post-season and the fifth time in the last six seasons…

“Cousin…a moment, if you please?”

Hold on, Fearless.  In their four meetings over the past five years the Caps won the first two engagements, while the Blueshirts won the last two.  Three of those series went a full seven games, the Caps winning one and the Rangers a pair. 

“Cousin!...”

Guys, I’m trying to work here…can’t this wait?  The Caps will come into this series with… hey…  HEY!!  What are you two…mmph… mmph-mmph.

“Calm down, cuz… we’re doing this for your own good.”

MMPH…HEY!  GET THIS GAG OUT OF MY MOU…

“Now cousin, just think of this as an intervention.”

“Yeah, cuz.  We’re all trying to deal with this whole ‘no playoffs thing’ in our own way.”

BUT MY READERS!

“What, all 14 of them?”

THEY’RE DEPENDING ON ME!!!

‘Someone has a rather inflated view of themselves”

MMPH!...MMPH!!

There, there cuz.  You’ll be fine in time for training camp.”

BUT….BUT…THERE’S THE DRAFT…AND FREE AGENCY….AND D-CAMP…

“There will be time enough for that, cousin.”

AND THE RANGERS!!!  DON’T FORGET ABOUT THE RANGERS!!!

“As if we could, cuz… as if we could.”

LUNDQVI-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-IST!!!






Monday, April 14, 2014

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 26

Most of the time, saving the best for last is a good thing.  In Week 26, the last week of the regular season, it might have been the Washington Capitals’ best week of the season, which only makes it tinged with sadness over a season wasted.


Record: 3-0-1

After going 1-3-2 in Weeks 24 and 25 to slip out of playoff contention, the Capitals ended the season with their second 3-0-1 record of the season and second in the span of four weeks.  What made it all the better, and all that much sadder, was the competition against which it was accomplished.  The Caps won games against playoff participants in the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks, and they earned a standings point in the season finale with a shutout in a 1-0 Gimmick loss to the playoff-bound Tampa Bay Lightning.  The wins over the Blues and the Blackhawks allowed the Caps to finish the season over .500 against the Central Division (7-6-1) and with a fine record against the Western Conference (14-9-5).


Offense: 3.25/game (season: 2.74 / rank: 13th)

With four or more goals in the first three games of the week the Caps extended a streak of four or more goals to four games, tying their longest such streak of the season (February 27 – March 5 in which they scored a total of 17 goals). Week 26 was the unexpected in terms of individual production.  There was Nicklas Backstrom leading the team with three goals.  There was Joel Ward leading the club with four assists.  There was Jay Beagle with his first NHL two-goal game.  The Caps spread things around with eight players sharing in the 13 goals for the week and 15 skaters recording points.  There were old reliables, though.  Alex Ovechkin tied for the team lead in points (five, with Ward) and notched his 50th and 51st goals of the season, the fifth time in his career he reached the 50-goal mark.

Defense: 0.75/game (season: 2.79 / rank: 21st)

Three goals in 12 regulation periods plus an overtime ranks among the best defensive efforts of the season over a week’s span of games.  Or was it?  The possession statistics suggested something else.  Over the four games the Caps had a cumulative Corsi-for percentage of 39.8 in 5-on-5 close score situations and a Fenwick-for percentage of 41.8.  If anything, the even-strength numbers were worse – 37.2 and 38.8, respectively – although there might have been score effects influencing that result.  The poor possession numbers left the Caps finishing 24th in Corsi-for percentage and 25th in Fenwick-for percentage in 5-on-5 close situations for the season.  

Goaltending: 0.73 / .977 / 2 shutouts (season: 2.68 / .918 / 5 shutouts)

Well, they finished with a flair.  Braden Holtby and Jaroslav Halak stopped 130 of 133 shots in Week 26.  For Holtby it was especially encouraging, even the games took on less meaning as the week unfolded.  Holtby stopped 96 of 99 shots (.970) in almost 185 minutes of work this week.  The effort included a shutout (a 1-0 Gimmick loss to Tampa Bay), his fourth of the season, good for a tie for 11th place among goalies.  It made for a good finish to the season for Holtby, who was 4-2-1 (one no-decision), 2.07, .939 in his last eight appearances.

Halak added a shutout in his only appearance of the week.  His shutout in the season’s penultimate game and Holtby’s to follow in the finale made it the first time the Caps recorded consecutive shutouts since January 12/14, 2002 when they posted consecutive 1-0 decisions over Florida and Boston, the latter coming in overtime.  Olaf Kolzig was the goalie of record in both games.  The shutouts by Halak and Holtby are the first time in franchise history that the Capitals closed the season with a pair of shutouts. On the other hand, they have had it done to them, losing consecutive 3-0 decisions to Carolina and Buffalo to close the 1998-1999 season.

Power Play: 3-3 / 33.3 percent (season: 23.4 percent / rank: 2nd)

The Caps almost did it.  They almost led the league in power play percentage.  As it was, they finished second with a 23.37 percent conversion rate to Pittsburgh’s 23.38 percent.  If the Caps either did not have that lone power play in the season finale or managed to convert on it, they would have had the title.  As it was, they had a good week on the man-advantage, even if three of the teams they played (Carolina, Chicago, and Tampa Bay) finished in the lower half of the league in penalty killing.  Still, they had the week’s best performance against St. Louis (2-for-4), a team that finished second in the league overall in penalty killing and best in road penalty kill.

The Caps shot 3-for-12 in 13:04 of power play time for the week, Alex Ovechkin being most effective in recording two power play goals on three shots for the week.  He broke his own franchise record for power play goals scored in a season (22, shared with Peter Bondra) and has three seasons of 20 or more power play goals in his career.  His 24 power play goals led the league, eight more than San Jose’s Joe Pavelski.

Penalty Killing: 9-9 / 100.0 percent (season: 82.0 percent / rank: 16th)

If the power play was good, the penalty killing was better.  For the second time in four weeks the Caps killed off all the shorthanded situations they faced.  Over the last five weeks of the season the Caps killed off 45 of 50 opponents’ power plays (90.0 percent).  In Week 26 it was a combined effort.  The defense held opponents to 10 shots in 15:19 of power play time, and the goaltenders did the rest in turning away all ten shots.  And, unlike the power play that faced less than top-notch penalty killers, the Caps faced three teams – St. Louis, Chicago, and Tampa Bay – in the top half of the NHL power play rankings.

Even Strength Goals Scored For/Against: 10-2 (season 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.90 / rank: T-23rd)

After a season in which scoring at even strength was a continuing, and arguably most concerning issue with this club, the Caps demolished teams at evens in Week 26.  It was a combination of things, as it often seems to be when success is achieved.  The Caps shot 13.9 percent at even strength for the week while holding opponents to a 2.8 percent shooting effort.  It was a good thing, too, since the Caps were outshot, 113-72 at even strength.

Faceoffs: 85-202 / 42.1 percent (season: 48.4 percent / rank: 23rd)

Well, the Caps were consistent in Week 26.  The spread – 42.6 percent in the offensive zone, 41.6 percent in the defensive zone, and 42.1 percent in the neutral zone – certainly reflects that.  If there was one thing standing out, it was the fact that while the Caps had 77 defensive zone draws and 71 neutral zone draws for the week, they took only 54 draws in the offensive end of the ice.

Of four Caps taking at least 15 draws for the week, only Nicklas Backstrom made it to 50 percent overall (27-for-54, 50.0 percent).  Backstrom and Eric Fehr were the only Caps taking more than two offensive zone draws for the week who finished over 50 percent, both at 57.1 percent.  The Caps finished the season where they played much of it in the circle, a consistent 45-50 percent club, but not one who could dominate in the circle and assume an offensive posture at the start of plays.

Goals Scored For/Against by Period:


It was a sparkling week in scoring by period for the Caps.  In Week 26 the Caps held opponents scoreless in the first period and allowed only a single third period goal.  They outscored opponents in each of the periods, building up multiple goal margins in each period for the week.  As it was, the Caps would finish fourth in the league in second period goals scored.  On the other hand, it would be the only period in which they finished on the plus side of the ledger (plus-6).  They were minus-6 in the first periods of games and minus-5 in the third period.

In the end…

It was a good week where it counted, in wins and losses.  Unfortunately, even they did not count for much in the end as the Caps were eliminated from the post-season.  And even with the 3-0-1 record in Week 26 there were problems of a persistent nature, mostly in the possession game, that lurked under the surface.  Hopefully, no one will have been mesmerized by a good week in a disappointing season, because frankly, it was a misleading result that was more the product of opponents tuning up for the playoffs and strong goaltending. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Washington Capitals -- A Summer Where Reflection Meets Analysis


For the first time in seven seasons the Washington Capitals are sitting out the post season.  Do not be surprised.  From a certain perspective you could see this day coming from the moment the Capitals were eliminated in seven games in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup tournament.  The Capitals have been in a slide since they received the Presidents Trophy in 2009-2010.  It is high irony that the proximate agent of that ouster in 2010 – Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak – should have been the goaltender the Capitals would call upon to stave off (unsuccessfully, as it would turn out) elimination from the playoffs in the 2013-2014 season.

But, what is done, is done.  The Capitals are, if it has not yet finally occurred to them, an also-ran, one of the 14 teams that will ask, “what happened?” and “what do we do about it?”  The Capitals, unlike many other teams, have recent knowledge of what that means.  Rest assured, this situation is not as dire as that which confronted the club in 2003 after they lost their first round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning (a recurring theme for this franchise), but it is not insignificant to the point of needing only tweaking, either.

When the Caps returned to the ice for the 2003-2004 season after their disappointing loss to the Lightning they stumbled badly out of the gate, going 5-13-1 in October, fired their coach in December, and came to a chilling conclusion – they needed to start over.  They did.  Five seasons later the Capitals were Presidents Trophy winners and on the verge of being Stanley Cup contenders for years to come.  That came crashing down with their first round playoff loss to Montreal in 2010.  Ever since, it has been a mudslide in slow motion.  From that 121-point season in 2009-2010 the Caps posted these results:
  • 2010-2011: 48-23-11/107 points, second round playoff loss under head coach Bruce Boudreau
  • 2011-2012: 42-32-8/92 points, Bruce Boudreau fired in favor of Dale Hunter, second round playoff loss
  • 2012-2013: Dale Hunter elects not to return, Adam Oates named head coach, 27-18-3/57 points, first round playoff loss
  • 2013-2014: 38-30-14/90 points under Adam Oates, fifth in the Metropolitan Division, out of the playoffs

Four seasons, three coaches, two years getting to the second round (and no further), one season missing the playoffs altogether.  It has been a slow, steady regression, leaving the Caps not a contender for a Stanley Cup, but more like the aging doyenne whose best days on stage are behind her, left with trying to recapture the magic in dinner theater.  It is not a happy place to be for a franchise with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in at least the chronological prime years of their careers.  And that begs for careful scrutiny of what the issues are and how to correct them. 

There are those who have already jumped right to the “what” – what the Caps should do in terms of personnel changes to make in the front office and on the ice, what the Caps’ philosophy should be as an organization and as a hockey team, what measures should be taken between now and opening night of the 2014-2015 season to return the Caps to competitiveness, to a position to contend for a championship.

“What” to do presumes that the “how” the organization arrives at those decisons is either already completed or trivial if it has not.  We do not share that view.  On the other hand, we are not privy to the decision-making processes in this organization that would allow fans to get a warm, comfortable feeling that the powers that be will undertake ”a comprehensive review of what transpired this year, listen to appropriate voices and then determine what steps are necessary to ensure the Capitals return to the playoffs and compete for a Stanley Cup.”

We cannot know the specifics of what such a “comprehensive review” might look like.  Or do we?  In 2009 a corner of the tent flap was lifted on the Capitals’ 10-point rebuilding plan implemented a decade ago.  It serves as a road map for fans to follow as the days and weeks pass, and the Capitals figure out what happened and what to do in response.  How might one look at those ten points in what promises to be an off-season of soul-searching?

1. Ask yourself the big question: "Can this team--as constructed--ever win a championship?" If the answer is yes -- stay the course and try to find the right formula -- if the answer is no, then plan to rebuild. Don't fake it--really do the analytics and be brutally honest. Once you have your answer, develop the game plan to try to REALLY win a championship. Always run away from experts that say, "We are just one player away." Recognize there is no easy and fast systemic fix. It will be a bumpy ride--have confidence in the plan--"trust and verify: the progress -- but don't deviate from the plan."

Since this 10-point guide was published in February 2009, the Capitals have been in five post-season tournaments and missed the playoffs this season.  They have three playoff round wins, five losses, and have yet to so much as reach a conference final.  They won a conference quarterfinal two years ago, lost in a conference quarterfinal last year, and failed to make the playoffs this year.  This is not moving in the right direction.

Want to make a comparison?  Let’s do that.  Imagine a team with an elite scoring winger in his prime, a center who has a history of meshing with that scoring winger, a top-end offensive defenseman in his late-20’s prime.  Sound familiar?  It should.  It was the 2002-2003 Capitals, the team that made the playoffs in 2003 but was blown up the following year in what would become the start of The Great Rebuild.  That was the team that had Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, and Sergei Gonchar in the roles of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green.  All of them were moved for assets or to clear the decks for draft picks in years to come.

If you look at the playoff era of Capitals that just ended this past weekend and compare the team that closed the first playoff season with that which wrapped up this season, there are six players who were on both: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Mike Green, John Erskine, and Eric Fehr.  One could regard the first four of that group as the remaining “core” of the playoff era – an elite winger, a center with a history of meshing with that winger, a top-end defenseman in his late 20’s, and a useful utility forward to boot.  Can the Caps win a championship with that core, as it is constructed?   Does it need to be broken up?  The more appropriate question at this point is, if you “really do the analytics and be brutally honest,” do you have to consider it?

2. Once you make the decision to rebuild--be transparent. Articulate the plan and sell it loudly and proudly to all constituencies, the media, the organization, the fans, your partners, family and anyone who will listen. Agree to what makes for a successful rebuild--in our case it is "a great young team with upside that can make the playoffs for a decade and win a Stanley Cup or two."

Obviously, the Caps will not “make the playoffs for a decade.”  The streak ended at six years this season.  And, having gone through a painful rebuild only a decade ago, is it too fresh in fans’ minds for the team to be willing to undergo another one, even less a “rebuild” than a “renovation?”  This is the kind of thing that, if undertaken, would test the mettle of what is arguably the strongest facet of this enterprise, its ability to market its product.  The higher you go in dissolving the “core,” the harder that job gets.  It would be one thing to deal with a parting of the ways with a Brooks Laich, or even a Mike Green, both of whom have become fan favorites in their decade or so in the organization.  It would be another thing entirely if the Capitals were to seriously consider parting with Ovechkin or Backstrom. 

Then there is the second part of that point, agreeing on what makes for a successful rebuild.  In 2005 that was “a great young team with upside that can make the playoffs for a decade and win a Stanley Cup or two."  That sounds a lot like a marketing theme as much as a case for a rebuild.  And there are not a lot of products that repeat marketing slogans with success.  What fresh new theme would the team use to promote a renovation?

3. Once you decide to rebuild--bring the house down to the foundation--be consistent with your plan--and with your asks--we always sought to get "a pick and a prospect" in all of our trades. We believed that volume would yield better results than precision. We decided to trade multiple stars at their prime or peak to get a large volume of young players. Young players will get better as they age, so you have built in upside. Youngsters push vets to play better to keep their jobs, and they stay healthier, and they are more fun--less jaded by pro sports.

It is one thing to move a 31-year old world-class winger who gives every indication of being unhappy with his role, whose best days were spent in another city entirely, as was the case of Jaromir Jagr in 2004.  It is quite another to move a world-class talent of the home grown sort who is the centerpiece on and off the ice for the franchise and who has both given no indication of undue unhappiness (other than the frustrations that occur when the team is not as successful as hoped) and who has become as much a part of the community as an athlete can who spends nine months a year in the States.

The center you might be considering as a trade candidate is not a 33-year old well-traveled veteran, as was the case with Robert Lang in 2004, but a 26-year old home grown point-a-game player over his career who is elite in his own right.  If Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom never hit their career highs in goals or points again, neither are either of them in what might be considered their declining years.

The Caps are more constrained with respect to their ability to move their prime assets – they are still valuable to this franchise and would be unlikely (or at least would be uncertain) to return anything close to current value in trade.  They also carry heavy salary cap burdens that many teams might be unable to bear.  If the Caps choose to “renovate” instead of “rebuild, they seem likely to do it with the lesser of their core players – moving a Green and/or a Laich, but that means lower probabilities of getting a pick and a prospect, at least any considered high draft picks or upper echelon prospects.

Perhaps the Caps break up what they built over the last two seasons rather than their core.  Now we are into “less jaded by pro sports” territory.  To cast veterans by inference as more jaded to pro sports seems a bit harsh and too much a blanket statement, but there is a considerable population of players who have been with the club the last two seasons who would qualify as veterans.  If you take the core out of the mix, you are left with the following group who are 28 or older (an arbitrary standard) that were with the team in each of the last two seasons:
  • Jay Beagle
  • Troy Brouwer
  • Jason Chimera
  • John Erskine
  • Eric Fehr
  • Jack Hillen
  • Aaron Volpatti
  • Joel Ward

All of them are under contract for at least next season.  If the Caps are considering moving Brouwer and/or Ward, they would be doing so with each player having a career year in goals and points.  It would be reasonable to think that the Caps would never get as much return for either as they might right now, even if other general managers believe that neither has another career year in him.  The others?  Good luck getting a “large volume of young players” at the end of that process.

4. Commit to building around the draft. Invest in scouting, development, and a system. Articulate that system and stay with it so that all players feel comfortable-- know the language-- know what is expected of them-- read “The Oriole Way.” It worked and it is a great tutorial. Draft players that fit the system, not the best player. Draft the best player for the system. Don't deviate or get seduced by agents, media demands, or by just stats or hype. Envision how this player will slide into your system.

We have been over the matter of building through the draft in some detail.  The performance in evaluating, drafting, and bringing to an NHL performance level amateur talent has been uneven.  Perhaps Evgeny Kuznetsov or Tom Wilson, both of whom have just taken the first steps in their NHL careers, will improve the overall performance of the Caps in their ability to build through the draft.  Perhaps an Andre Burakowsky or a Madison Bowey will make that jump to important contributor down the road. 

However, the fact remains that three of the top five Capitals in goals scored this season were obtained by trade (Brouwer, Ward, Chimera), the two players tied for sixth in goal scoring (Eric Fehr, Mikhail Grabovski) were obtained in free agency, Fehr coming back for his second tour with the Caps after being drafted by the club in 2003.  The offensive talent among the skaters on the 2013-2014 club were built with a couple of lottery picks (Ovechkin and Backstrom) and players coming from somewhere else.

On defense the situation is comparable.  John Carlson and Karl Alzner are a solid pair (whether they are a bona fide top pair on a contender might be in some dispute).  After that there is Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov.  To the Caps’ credit, those are four home grown draft picks.  After that, however, of the other ten defensemen to have dressed for the team this season, only two – Connor Carrick and Patrick Wey – were drafted by the club.  Seven were signed as free agents, and one was obtained through waivers.  Drafting defensemen has been an endeavor with mixed success.  Going forward, even with a renovation, can fans have a reasonable expectation that this will improve?

As for the “system” and drafting the best player for it, do the Caps have a system?  Into what “system” were Kuznetsov, Wilson, and Burakowsky drafted?

5. Be patient with young players-- throw them in the pool to see if they can swim. Believe in them. Show them loyalty. Re-sign the best young players to long term high priced deals. Show the players you are very loyal to them as compared to free agents who achieved highly for another team. Teach them. Celebrate their successes. Use failures as a way to teach and improve. Coaches must be tough but kind to build confidence.

The Capitals certainly did that with defenseman Connor Carrick this season, who was thrown into the deep end of the pool on Opening Night against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in his first game as a professional at any level.  He is also something of the poster boy for what ended up being a mismanaged asset, somewhat overmatched at this level of play (limiting him to 33 games played), but not included on the roster of playoff-eligible players for the Hershey Bears, where a late-season playoff push or playoff games in the AHL Calder Cup tournament could have been valuable developmental experience.

At the other end there were the curious experiences of Steve Oleksy and Nate Schmidt, who played 62 games between them with the Caps, but none after January 21st.  Whatever you think of the plus-minus statistic, those two were two of only three defensemen still with the club in “plus” territory and two of only nine skaters still in the organization with plus numbers.  Even now at the end of the season they rank second and fourth in that measure with the Caps.

Then there is Tom Wilson.  You could say he was thrown into the pool, having gone from Plymouth in the Ontario Hockey League in 2012-2013 to the Caps in the playoffs last season and for the entirety of this season.  But the club tossed him into the shallow end and never let him out into deeper water.  Only two of 34 rookie forwards having played in at least 40 games have averaged less ice time than Wilson’s 7:56. 

Perhaps every youngster is their own case, but it certainly applies conspicuously to the Caps, whose  plan for bringing youngsters along seems inconsistent.

6. Make sure the GM, coach, owner and business folks are on the EXACT same page as to deliverables, metrics of success, ultimate goal, process and measured outcomes. Always meet to discuss analytics and don't be afraid of the truth that the numbers reveal. Manage to outcomes. Manage to let the GM and coach NOT be afraid of taking risks, and make sure there are no surprises. Over communicate. Act like an ethnic family--battle around the dinner table--never in public. Be tight as a team. Protect and enhance each other. Let the right people do their jobs.

If there is one point in the ten-point plan that a fan might like to see in more detail after this season, this is the one.  Were the GM, coach, owner and business folks on the EXACT same page as to deliverables, metrics of success, ultimate goal, process and measured outcomes?   If they met to discuss analytics, did they have a consistent set of them that all the parties treated as dispositive with respect to the team’s performance on the ice?  Did they manage risk appropriately?  If the coach and general manager were given latitude to take risks, was the risk taking asymmetrical (think here in terms of the general manager making trades for Martin Erat and Dustin Penner and the coach not using them)?  Going forward in the review of this season, with respect to what “outcomes” will the team be evaluated? 

This is likely to be the least transparent aspect of the evaluation (reasonably so) but almost certainly the most important.  One thing seems apparent, though.  Looking back over this season, it looked as if the general manager and the coaching staff were not on the same book shelf, let alone the same page.

7. No jerks allowed. Implement a no jerk policy. Draft and develop and keep high character people. Team chemistry is vital to success. Make sure the best and highest paid players are coachable, show respect to the system, want to be in the city, love to welcome new, young players to the team, have respect for the fan base, show joy in their occupation, get the system, believe in the coaches, have fun in practice, and want to be gym rats. Dump quickly distractions. Life is too short to drink bad wine.

There is a cart and horse element to this point.  Are players “jerks” when they arrive, or do they become so when used (or not) inappropriately (not that any are in evidence on this team)?  How is character evaluated?  When does “team chemistry” become “too comfortable with their station in life?”  What “system” is it in which the players are being trained? 

Overall, this speaks to a cultural element, and this has, from a distance at least, become a fundamental problem for this club.  Players (not to mention coaches and managers, for that matter) appear to have become too comfortable in their occupations.  What might be viewed as “patience” with performance can look like denial about the state of the club and its performance level.  There is too much attention to personalities, of image, of what seems to market well and less with holding people accountable for the “outcomes” one manages against in Point 6.  Assuming, that is, that it is the on-ice outcomes that are paramount.

8. Add veterans to the team via shorter term deals as free agents. Signing long-term, expensive deals for vets is very risky. We try to add vets to the mix for two year or three year deals. They fill in around our young core. They are very important for leadership, but they must complement the young core (NOT try to overtake them or be paid more than them). Identify and protect the core. Add veterans to complement them, not vice versa.

The club has adhered to this guideline for the most part.  If one looks at individual deals – extensions for Jason Chimera, Troy Brouwer, etc., or free agent deals, the only one to exceed the 2-3 year threshold was the free agent deal for Joel Ward (four years).  Duration is not the only consideration, though.  There are the compensation amounts as well.  In that regard the Caps have been good to “good soldiers” such as John Erskine or Jack Hillen or Aaron Volpatti in contract extensions.  Were these wise moves?   

But it has not been enough to add these parts to short term deals.  It is left to the imagination what the overall strategy was into which these pieces fit in the first place.  Individually, the deals might make sense, even to a fan.  But the Caps’ record over the past four seasons suggests that those parts have not been assembled into a coherent whole.

9. Measure and improve. Have shared metrics--know what the progress is--and where it ranks on the timeline-- be honest in all appraisals; don't be afraid to trade young assets for other draft picks to build back end backlog-- know the aging of contracts-- protect "optionality" to make trades at deadlines or in off season; never get in cap jail. Having dry powder is very important to make needed moves.

There are so many unknowns here.  One wonders what those “shared metrics” are in evaluating performance on the ice or in the front office.  Are the appraisals analyzing the right things, a pre-requisite to being “honest” with their results?  What constitutes progress?  Is it something other than wins and losses, progressively deeper runs in the playoffs?  If those are the outcome measures the team thinks are important, can the team honestly make a case that it has made progress?

10. Never settle--never rest--keep on improving. Around the edges to the plan, have monthly, quarterly and annual check-ups. Refresh the plan when needed but for the right reasons-- "how are we doing against our metrics of success and where are we on our path to a championship." Never listen to bloggers, media, so called experts--to thine own self be true. Enjoy the ride.

Hey, I wouldn’t listen to me either if I was making decisions about an asset worth nine figures with talent payroll over $60 million a year.  Neither I nor any of my fellow blogging wizards are privy to the detailed machinery of decision-making in this organization.  Fortunately, however, sports provide clarity with respect to outcome measures.  You win, or you lose.  The rest is just noise.

So, let us add to the decibels that will be shed in the aftermath of this dumpster fire of a season.

To a team that was trumpeted as one that would win “Stanley Cups” – plural –  that goes from the Presidents Trophy to a first-round playoff loss that same season, slides down the standings ladder until they have to rely on late season rushes just to make the playoffs, then fail in that altogether, the word “success” does not apply.

Is this team “patient” in its management, or has it merely been satisfied?  Last year we gave the planners a “Gentleman’s C.”  It would be hard to give the planners – the people one would expect to conduct the comprehensive analysis that is said to be coming – even that good a grade this season. 

This is not a case of injuries decimating the club and rendering it uncompetitive over long portions of the 82-game season.  Pittsburgh lost more than 500 man-games to injuries.  They are in the playoffs.  San Jose lost almost 300 man-games to injuries.  They are in the playoffs.  Ten teams finished with more man-games lost to injury than the Capitals.  Five of them are in the playoffs.  

This is not a case of a collective failure on the part of players.  Alex Ovechkin recorded his fifth 50-goal season.  Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward recorded career highs in goals and points.  Nicklas Backstrom finished third in the league in assists.

This is not a case of the culture shock of moving from the Southeast Division to the Metropolitan Division.  They were under .500 for the season in the Metro (12-15-3), but they were under .500 last season against the same teams, except Columbus, who the Caps did not face (7-10-2).  They were 12-10-2 against those teams in 2011-2012.

This was not a case of goaltenders costing the team ten points with inconsistency.  Capitals goalies finished in a virtual tie for 11th overall with Anaheim, a team that won 54 games this season, in save percentage at even strength.  

Over the last few years the Caps have worked from the bottom up in trying to fix what ails the team on the ice.  They have had four coaches over their last 190 regular season games starting with Bruce Boudreau’s last appearance behind the Caps bench in Game 22 of the 2011-2012 season.  A total of 65 skaters and six goaltenders have dressed for the Caps since their first round playoff loss to Montreal in 2010.  They have changed systems and schemes. 

And yet, the slide to also-ran status has proceeded uninterrupted since that 2010 playoff embarrassment.  The Caps are out of excuses.  It isn’t injuries, it isn’t realignment, it isn’t coaches, it isn’t players.  It is bigger.  This is a team that offers no evidence of what it wants to be as a hockey team and shows no particular ambition to be a champion.  It has too long been little more than a core and a revolving door of coaches and players, either too content to pursue popularity more than excellence, or pursuing success in an almost aimless manner. 

That is not to say they do not want a championship, in the abstract they probably want it as much as any organization. But fostering a culture that has a single-minded focus on winning?  A culture that promotes accountability?  A culture that takes a clear-eyed look at itself and fixes problems?  A culture that exudes a hard-working, relentless approach to the game? We are going to find out if all this attention to metrics and outcomes is an analytical tool or merely for public consumption.

Management cannot look outside the office suites for answers any longer.  They have to look in the mirror.  The answer starts there.


AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Washington Capitals: A ONE-point Afternoon -- Game 82: Lightning 1 - Capitals 0 (OT/Gimmick)

Live by the trick shot, die by the trick shot. 

The Washington Capitals ended 20 of their 81 games played before Sunday in the 2013-2014 season with the NHL’s own little Gimmick, the shootout.  It was entirely fitting that the Capitals ended their season with just such a finish in their season finale against the Tampa Bay Lightning, coming out on the short end of the freestyle competition, 1-0, on Fan Appreciation Day at Verizon Center.

It would be one thing to say that the hockey portion of the game was dominated by top-notch goaltending.  In fact, there were moments when Washington’s Braden Holtby and Tampa Bay’s Anders Lindback had to make saves to keep the game scoreless.  But the game was played more like a “let’s get this over with” sort of air to it.

When all was said and done, only Matt Carle, a player who had not taken a shootout attempt on the road this season and a defenseman to boot, would find the back of the net in the trick shot phase.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps were 8-3 in their first 11 trick shot competitions this season, 2-8 in their last ten.

-- The Caps were 0-for-3 shooting in the freestyle against the Bolts.  That made them 4-for-35 in that last 2-8 run in the Gimmick (11.4 percent).

-- 21 trick shot competitions sets a new NHL record for non-hockey hockey.

-- Season in a nutshell… Adam Oates sends Alex Ovechkin in the shootout (15 shot attempts, two goals), Ovechkin tries a trick-trick shot that ends up in the goalie’s logo.  Stubborn on one hand, pretty for a moment on the other, ultimately not what was hoped for.

-- When Peter LeBlanc took the ice for the Caps, he became the 12th rookie to dress for a game this season for the Capitals (11 skaters, one goalie).  That is the highest number of rookies dressing for the Caps in a season since Washington dressed 17 rookies in the 2003-2004 season (14 skaters, three goaltenders).

-- The 18 shots on goal was the fifth time this season that the Caps were held to fewer than 20 shots on goal.  This was the only game in which they earned a standings point (0-4-1).

-- Only nine Caps had shots on goal, none with more than three (Backstrom, Brouwer, Ward).  Six Caps had more missed shots than shots on goal.

-- Braden Holtby’s shutout was his fourth of the season.  In his last eight appearances he was 4-2-1 (one no-decision), 2.07, .939.

In the end…

What is left to say?  It was a game devoid of highlights to end a season with too few of them.  Tampa Bay goes on to the playoffs, the Caps go on to their exit interviews.