Sunday, September 25, 2016

Washington Capitals 2016-2017 Previews -- Forwards: Justin Williams

Justin Williams

“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
-- Leonardo da Vinci


Justin Williams was a first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2000, having played two seasons for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League in Canadian juniors, a team that won 96 of 136 regular season games over those two years.  Williams was 41-54-95, plus-58, in 115 games for those clubs and added another 15 goals and 33 points in 30 post season games.

Six years later, after having been traded to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2004, Williams won his first Stanley Cup, tying for third on the team in total scoring (18 points in 25 games), but perhaps as important, scoring the insurance empty net goal in Game 7 of the Hurricanes 3-1 win over the Edmonton Oilers to win the Cup.  It was the first time Williams played in a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup final and the second time he played in a playoff Game 7, the Hurricanes beating the Buffalo Sabres in the previous series as Williams recorded a goal and two assists.

It would be another six seasons before Williams would play for a team that won a playoff series.  After he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 2009, he and the Kings failed to get out of the first round of the playoffs in two tries.  However, in 2012 he and the Kings won the Cup, although not once in four series were the Kings extended to seven games in winning. 

The following season, Williams added to his growing “Game 7” resume, scoring both goals in the series clinching 2-1 win over the San Jose Sharks in the conference semi-finals.  Los Angeles lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, the eventual Cup champion, in the conference final, but it was a stepping stone to the 2014 postseason for both player and club.  The Kings played three seven-game series on their way to the finals, Williams going 2-3-5, plus-3 in the three Games 7, propelling the Kings to the final where they beat the New York Rangers in five games.

It was that ability to step up in the postseason that the Caps were counting on when they signed him away from the Kings as a free agent in July 2015.  He was certainly a solid contributor in the regular season, his 22 goals being the most since he posted that total with the Kings in 2011-2012 and as many as he had in any season since he had 33 for the Hurricanes in 2006-2007.  He finished with 52 points, the fifth time he recorded more than 50 points in a season.

One of the things that commended Williams to the Caps, in addition to his playoff theatrics, was his record as a possession player.  He did not disappoint here, either.  At 5-on-5, his Corsi-for was 53.4 percent, best among all Capitals forwards with at least 250 minutes at 5-on-5 (numbers from Corsica.Hockey).  What is odd about his performance, though, is that the 53.4 percent Corsi-for at fives is his worst finish over the last nine seasons.

Fearless’ Take…

Only once over the course of the 2015-2016 regular season did Williams go as many as four games without a point.  The Caps were 17-2-0 in games in which he recorded a goal and 31-5-4 in games in which he recorded a point.  Washington did not lose a home game in regulation when Williams recorded at least one point (18-0-2).  Williams skated at least 100 5-on-5 minutes with six other Caps forwards in 2015-2016.  Only Evgeny Kuznetsov had a better Corsi-for skating apart from Williams than he had skating with him, and that difference was less than one percentage point (53.0 percent to 52.1 percent; numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com).  He stepped up in the postseason when the Caps needed him to do that.  Williams had points in each of the last four games of the second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins (3-2-5, plus-5).

Cheerless’ Take…

Where was Williams in the first part of the postseason?  In his first eight playoff games last spring he had just two assists and was a minus-6 (he wasn’t a “plus” player in any game).  From Game 4 in the first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers through Game 2 against the Penguins in the second round, he did not record a point.  The five straight games without a point tied his longest career postseason points drought.

Oh, and what was the deal with getting goals overturned?...





The Big Question… Can Justin Williams be “That Guy” in the postseason one more time?

It would seem entirely likely that Justin Williams will have another typically solid regular season.  He has missed only one regular season game over the last five seasons and has averaged better than half a point per game in each of those seasons.  But what about the postseason, the time of year that has set Williams apart from many of his contemporaries?  Williams will turn 35 years of age nine days before the Caps’ 2016-2017 season starts.  Since the 2004-2005 lockout, only 12 forwards 35 or older have appeared in at least 20 postseason games and averaged at least a half a point per game.  It is not a rare occurrence, given how many players appear in at least 20 games in any postseason, but it is not a common one, either. 

Williams has appeared in at least 20 postseason games three times in his career (each time with a team winning the Stanley Cup).  Over those three postseasons he averaged 0.82 points per game.  What is more, he has stepped up late in the postseason.  In 37 conference final and Stanley Cup finals games in those three seasons, Williams was 11-22-33, plus-23.  And of course, there is that Game 7 record.  Seven games, seven wins, 7-6-13, plus-10.  The only issues, it would seem, is if he has another such season in him at age 35.

In the end…

Justin Williams did not get to play in a Game 7 in his first year with the Capitals.  Neither did he get to play in a conference final or Stanley Cup final, where he has excelled over his career.  So, for Year 1 of his stay in Washington, the score is “Capitals Curse:” 1 – Mr. Game 7: 0.  Williams will be engaged in a different sort of subplot in his second year in Washington, his own durability and level of performance against the march of time.  Players keep themselves in top shape longer these days than in past years, so it would not be surprising to find Williams having a regular season along the lines he had last season (82 games, 22-30-52, plus-15). 

And let’s remember that Williams did not win a Stanley Cup in Philadelphia, did not win one in his first (partial) season in Carolina, and did not win one in his first two-plus seasons in Los Angeles.  The flip side of that is that there is no guarantee of a “third time being the charm” in Washington, since Williams is embarking on the second year of a two-year contract with the Caps.  Williams has made the playoffs a regular thing in his career (he is in the top-15 among active players in postseason games played).  And he has tasted from the Stanley Cup often enough to suggest that it is a stage to which he wishes to return.

Projection: 81 games, 19-28-47, plus-13

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America

Friday, September 23, 2016

Washington Capitals 2016-2017 Previews -- Forwards: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

“It is not by the gray of the hair that one knows the age of the heart.”
-- Edward Bulwer-Lytton


For those acquainted with the works of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, one might think a more appropriate quote would be a line penned by Bulwer-Lytton that is perhaps the most famous bad opening line in literature…”It was a dark and stormy night.”  A “dark and stormy night” seems, on some levels, to be an apt description of Alex Ovechkin’s career in the NHL, one with a lot of lightning and thunder, but ultimately dark and disappointing.  That would be one narrative.

Another would be that Ovechkin comes into the 2016-2017 NHL season as the most dominant goal scorer of his era.  Need convincing?
  • Since he came into the league in 2005-2006, Ovechkin could have sat out the last three seasons and still led the NHL in total goals (371), ten more than Jarome Iginla posted (361) in that time.
  • He has seven 50-goal seasons on his resume.  There are six active players in the league with a combined total of seven 50-goal seasons (Steven Stamkos has two).
  • He is one of three players since 2005-2006 to play in at least 250 games and average at least half a goal per game.  But his scoring rate (0.63 goals per game) is almost 15 percent higher than that of Stamkos (0.55 goals per game).
  • Ovechkin has 195 power play goals since he came into the league.  In second place is Thomas Vanek with 124.
  • If you deleted all the even-strength goals he has scored, the 199 special teams goals (195 power play goals and four shorthanded goals) would place him just outside the top-50 active goal scorers overall.
  • He has five seasons with at least 10 game winning goals.  No other active player has more than two (Max Pacioretty).

With Ovechkin’s goal scoring comes a certain expectation – a Caps win.  He certainly accommodated that expectation in 2015-2016, the Caps going 33-5-2 in the 40 games in which he scored a goal.  But it might be helpful to think of that as a baseline.  It is the getting others to score that is as much a signal of whether the Caps win, and the club going 15-2-1 when Ovechkin recorded an assist attests to that. Nine times last season he recorded a goal and an assist, and nine times the Caps won.

This being the era of possession, it merits mention that Ovechkin has been a much improved possession player under Barry Trotz over the last two seasons.  His Corsi-for at 5-on-5 was 53.2 percent last season, marginally under his 53.7 percent in 2014-2015.  Compare that to the previous three seasons in which he was under 50 percent each year (numbers from Corsica.Hockey).

But it is the playoffs where reputations for greatness are made, and Ovechkin at least made progress last spring restoring some of his as a big game player.  His five goals in 12 games was his best goals-per-game mark since he had five in nine games of the 2011 postseason.  His 12 points was the first time he had more than 10 points in a postseason since he posted 21 points in 14 games in the 2009 playoffs.  What is more, he had points in four of the six games of the second round series that the Caps lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins and was 2-4-6 in the last four games of that series.  It is hard to think that there was more he could have or should have done on the score sheet for the Caps to advance.  Perhaps it was just that little bit, though, that the Caps needed and did not get.

Fearless’ Take…

Alex Ovechkin takes a lot of shots.  No, like a LOT of shots.  Since he came into the league, he has been credited with 4,228 shots on goal (5.0 shots per game).  Next on that list is Eric Staal with 2,909 shots.  Rick Nash is second among active players in shots per game (3.6).  With those shot volumes have come the assertions that it reflects a certain selfishness on Ovechkin’s part.  If he can duplicate last year’s results, the Caps might want to keep feeding him the puck.  In games in which Ovechkin recorded more than five shots on goal, the Caps went 21-3-3 (he scored 29 goals in those 27 games).  He was less “selfish,” though, recording more than five shots on goal in fewer games (27) than he did in 2014-2015 (32).  That outsized win-loss record in games with more than five SOG is something of a departure, though (16-10-6 in 2014-2015 and 12-10-7 in 2013-2014).

Cheerless’ Take…

Ovechkin has this reputation for being a big hitter.  And only three forwards have more total credited hits that Ovechkin since he came into the league (it is worth noting here that the three – Dustin Brown, Chris Neil, and Cal Clutterbuck – have combined for 400 goals in that time, 125 fewer than Ovechkin).  But does it matter?  The Caps were 5-5-3 in games in which Ovechkin was credited with five or more hits last season and did not win a road game when he did (0-4-1).

The Big Question… Are 50 goals and a Stanley Cup compatible?

No team has won a Stanley Cup with a 50-goal scorer since Joe Sakic potted 54 goals in 2000-2001 for the Colorado Avalanche.  Yes, part of the problem is that there have been only 22 50-goal seasons in the last 14 campaigns since Sakic did it, and yes, Alex Ovechkin (for the famously underachieving Capitals) has seven of those 22 seasons, including the last three.  Still, it just does not happen these days.  No one is going to argue for Ovechkin to take his foot off the gas as far as trying to score goals, but his reaching that 50-goal mark just looks more and more like the hockey gods mocking him and the team.  Sure, you can have your 50-goal scorer, but Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby and Anze Kopitar will skate the Cup around the rink.  There is also the unpleasant fact that time takes its toll on every player, and it will do so on Ovechkin at some point.  Whether that toll starts to manifest itself this season, one cannot know.  Maybe there is another 50-goal season in him, maybe there is not.  But the bigger question might be, “does it matter?”

In the end…

Alex Ovechkin, now 31 years of age, has cemented his place in the Hockey Hall of Fame.  But he is arguably now playing on the back nine of his career (well, maybe the tenth hole), and the ultimate prize – a Stanley Cup – still eludes him.  As a practical matter, the days of his leading the Caps to a Cup are dwindling, although that time does still seem to be some time off.  At some point, if he is to be on a Cup winner for this franchise, it might be that he will be carried more than lead, by the likes of an Evgeny Kuznetsov, an Andre Burakovsky, a Jakub Vrana, or some combination of the youngsters coming through the system.  But for now, and until results judge otherwise, this is and remains his team.  He remains a player whose flecks of gray in his hair do nothing to diminish the heart he brings to the rink.

Projection: 80 games, 48-31-79, plus-20

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Washington Capitals 2016-2017 Previews -- Forwards: T.J. Oshie


T.J. Oshie

“No sooner do we think we have assembled a comfortable life than we find a piece of ourselves that has no place to fit in.”
-- Gail Sheehy


T.J. Oshie was drafted by the St. Louis Blues in 2005 and played seven seasons for the parent club.  By the time he completed his seventh season with the club, he was among the franchise leaders in games played (443/T-22nd), goals (110/23rd), assists (200/18th), points (310), and plus-minus (plus-71/5th).  He was one of 14 players in team history to record more than one career hat trick (he had two), and he was 12th in team history in games with three or more points (15).

Something, however, was missing.  Despite a solid record in regular season play that would have – should have – made him a bedrock foundational player for the Blues, his postseason performances were substantially less impressive.  In five postseasons with St. Louis, Oshie appeared in 30 games and managed only five goals and nine points.  The plus-71 player of seven regular seasons was minus-12 in those 30 postseason games.

With five playoff appearances in his seven seasons and only once moving past the first round, and underperforming on an individual level compared to his regular season output, there was a part of Oshie that increasingly seemed not to fit.  And so, he was traded to the Washington Capitals for forward Troy Brouwer, prospect goalie Pheonix Copley, and a third round draft pick.

Oshie slid in on the right side of the top forward line for the Caps, and he fit quite well.  His 26 goals in 80 games was a career best.  His 11 power play goals was a career high and exceeded his total of the previous three seasons in St. Louis combined (10).  He posted his best shooting percentage (14.1), set a career high in faceoffs taken (262) while finishing above 50 percent in wins for the first time, posted his second-highest blocked shot (62) and credited hit (134) total, and he tied a career best in credited takeaways.

Fearless’ Take…

Then there were the playoffs.  Oshie had six goals in 12 games, more than doubling his career total (from 5 to 11).  He more than doubled his career postseason point total (from 9 to 19). He had two game-winning goals – one in overtime – his first two game-winners in his postseason career (both of them against Pittsburgh, which isn’t nothing).  He took 59 faceoffs, which might not sound too significant until you see that he took a total of 28 draws in 30 previous postseason games.  And he won 59.3 percent of those 59 draws.  The Caps won four of the six games in which he scored, lost four of six in which he did not.  Put another way, his six playoff goals in 12 games doubled the number Troy Brouwer, the player he replaced, posted in 35 postseason games for the Caps.  His ten points was one more than Brouwer posted in almost three times as many contests.

Cheerless’ Take…

You gonna be Oshie’s campaign manager, cuz?  OK, so it’s hard to really find much fault with the year he had.  He scored, he possessed, he playoffed.  But 19 even strength assists and 25 in all?  He had fewer assists than two defensemen and Justin Williams, playing on the top line.  The 25 assists ties for the fewest Oshie has had in a season in which he appeared in more than 50 games (he had 25 in 57 games in his rookie season).  He didn’t have assists in consecutive games over the last 31 games of the season and had only nine in those 31 games, three of them against the woeful Toronto Maple Leafs on March 2nd (a 3-2 Caps win).

The Big Question… Was last season an outlier, the hilltop of T.J. Oshie’s potential for production?

Looked at in the context of his career before arriving in Washington, the 2015-2016 season was something of an odd one for T.J. Oshie.  In seven seasons with St. Louis he never averaged less than 0.23 goals per game and never more than 0.27 goals per game, a rather tight band across the years.  With the Caps, that number jumped to 0.33 goals per game, a 22 percent improvement on his career best.  His performance range for assists is a bit broader, from 0.39 per game at its lowest and at 0.50 per game at its highest, but the departure from the range is just about as stark in 2015-2016.  Oshie averaged 0.31 assists per game.  What it means, strangely enough, is that Oshie’s points per game in 2015-2016 (0.64) lies comfortably within the range he posted over seven years with the Blues (0.63-0.76), if somewhat at the low end of it.  In that sense, perhaps Oshie might see a bit of a regression from his goal scoring (that career best shooting percentage sticks out some, although it is not wildly above his previous career highs).  It is in those assists where there might be movement, if Oshie is to improve on his point totals from last season.

In the end…

T.J. Oshie was about as good a fit as one might have expected to provide some punch and stability on right side of the Caps’ top forward line.  He was consistent, not going more than five games without a point all season, and he was productive, one of seven Capitals since the 2004-2005 lockout to record 26 or more goals in a season (Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin are the only Caps to do it more than once).  The bonus was his playoff performance, one that saw him become just the fifth player to record a postseason of ten or more points in the post-2004-2005 lockout era with the Caps (Alex Ovechkin (four times), Nicklas Backstrom (twice), Alexander Semin, and John Carlson are the others).

Oshie will not turn 30 years of age until December.  He is in what is usually seen as the prime chronological years of his career.  There is little to suggest that 2015-2016 was an aberration, or even necessarily a ceiling for him.  But although Oshie has demonstrated himself to be a fine fit in Washington, it is not something with which he or anyone else in Capitals Nation should be comfortable.  There is too much more work to be done.

Projection: 80 games, 25-26-51, plus-14

Photo:  Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America


Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Washington Capitals 2016-2017 Previews -- Forwards: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Evgeny Kuznetsov

“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”
-- Henry Ford


It is hard to find any player in Washington Capitals history with the same meteoric progression of offensive numbers over their first three seasons in the NHL.  Part of it is a matter of circumstance, Kuznetsov appearing in only 17 games of the 2013-2014 season after his season at Chelyabinsk Traktor in the KHL ended.  He went 3-6-9, minus-2 in those 17 games.  He followed that up with a full-time rookie season in which he went 11-26-37, plus-10 in 80 games.  Then, last season, he arrived.  He went 20-57-77, plus-27, his 57 assists ranking fourth in the league and his 77 points tied for ninth.  His plus-27 finished sixth in the NHL and was the highest such number for any Capital since five players finished with higher plus-minus numbers in the “Showtime” 2009-2010 season.

Kuznetsov showed that he could score points in bunches last season.  Only three players – John Gaudreau, Artemi Panarin, and Patrick Kane – had more games with three or more points last season.   And that is not to say he wasn’t consistent.  Kuznetsov had points in 47 games for the Caps last season.  There are only four instances of a Capital with more season games with points over the last six seasons. And those games matter in the larger picture.  Washington earned points in 42 of 47 games in which Kuznetsov recorded a point (37-5-5).

Kuznetsov possession numbers have improved smartly as well.  His 5-on-5 Corsi-for was just 42.7 percent in 17 games in 2013-2014, improving to 49.2 percent in his rookie 2014-2015 season, and jumping to 52.5 percent last season.  He was third among Caps forwards in Corsi-for at fives last season, trailing only Justin Williams (53.4 percent) and Alex Ovechkin (53.2 percent; numbers from Corsica.Hockey).

Kuznetsov has also become more assertive as an offensive player, as one might expect having assumed the role of a top-six forward with power play responsibilities.  At a high level, his Corsi-for per 60 increased by more than 20 percent from his first to second year (from 42.6 to 53.8), and again by more than 15 percent from 2014-2015 to 2015-2016 (which might be as much a product of better teammates).  At a more specific, individual level, his shots per game overall increased from 1.29 in his 17-game 2013-2014 season to 1.59 per game in 2014-2015, and increased again in 2015-2016 to 2.35 shots per game.

Fearless’ Take…

Evgeny Kuznetsov (0.94) was second only to Calgary’s John Gaudreau (0.99) in points per game last season among players 23 years of age or younger appearing in at least 50 games.  Of course, Connor McDavid (1.07) would have bumped Kuznetsov to third had he appeared in that minimum number of games (he played in 45 games, limited to that by injury).  No player 23 or younger appearing in more than 50 games averaged more assists per game than Kuznetsov (0.70).  McDavid would have had more, but not by much (0.71 per game).  He is one of just 29 players age 23 or younger to have recorded at least 0.94 points per game in the 11 seasons since the 2004-2005 lockout (although some did it multiple times).

Cheerless’ Take…

About those possession numbers.  At 5-on-5 with the score tied last season, he was under 50 percent (48.9 percent) and was actually under his 2014-2015 number (49.2 percent).  Only Jason Chimera was worse (48.9 percent) among 11 Caps forwards with at least 150 5-on-5 minutes (numbers from Corsica.Hockey).  Then there were the playoffs.  Only three players, two of them defensemen (Roman Josi and Marc-Edouard Vlasic; Alex Hemsky was the forward), recorded at least 39 shots on goal (the total Kuznetsov had) and scored one or no goals.  He had no goals on 24 shots over his last nine postseason games.  The Caps went 3-6 in those games. 

The Big Question… Does Evgeny Kuznetsov have the description “elite” attached to him this season?

Evgeny Kuznetsov’s progress in two seasons has been remarkable, if not wholly unexpected (he is a first round draft pick generally thought of as one of the best pure talents in the 2010 draft).  He was top-ten in scoring last season and fourth in assists.  He is one of just five Capitals to record at least 75 points in a season in the post 2004-2005 lockout era.  Only Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin were younger when they did it for the first time in their respective careers.

Kuznetsov might not improve significantly over the numbers he posted last season, given that he would seem likely to get second line ice time and second power play ice time.  But, averaging at least a point per game is not an unreasonable expectation.  Only seven players in the league exceeded that threshold while playing in at least 50 games last season, and all of them are considered among the elite in the league.  One season achieving one measure would not constitute becoming an elite player, but insofar as Kuznetsov would do it in just his third full season, it would be another milepost passed on his way to being included in that category.

In the end….

Intro to NHL hockey…check.  Fine rookie season…check.  Among league leaders in scoring…check.  Clutch playoff performer… well, there was that five-goal output in 14 games in 2015, but the 2016 performance?   That left something more than “something” to be desired.  Two points in 14 games will not get it done, not for a top-six forward for whom “elite” status is hoped.

This is not an empty concern, since although Kuznetsov’s resume in tournament and postseason play is not very extensive, neither is it impressive, or at least not uniformly so.  There was his being the team’s leading regular season scorer by a wide margin (44 points in 51 games to 31 for Jan Bulis) for Chelyabinsk Traktor in the KHL in 2012-2013 but finishing tied for fifth on the team in postseason scoring (11 points in 25 games).  There was his two goals and five points in 18 tournament games (Euro Hockey Tour and World Championships) in 2013-2014. He was younger than many of his contemporaries in those situations, so perhaps we can think of his postseason performance level as having some room in which to grow.  But despite the fact that Kuznetsov just turned 24 last May, it is the postseason on which he – and the Caps – will be judged, as being either an elite player or an elite team.  He and the Caps came together three years ago, they stayed together through the last two seasons as Kuznetsov assumed a more responsible role.  Now it’s time to work together so that player and team can take the next step.

Projection: 80 games, 22-60-82, plus-22

Photo: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images North America

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Washington Capitals 2016-2017 Previews -- Forwards: Marcus Johansson


Marcus Johansson

“What I appreciate is acknowledging to the audience that I think they have brains.”
-- Lily Tomlin


The Washington Capitals’ Marcus Johansson is fifth among active Capitals in games played (419) since the 2004-2005 lockout.  Only Alex Ovechkin (839), Nicklas Backstrom (652), Karl Alzner (509), and John Carlson (454) are higher on that list.  If he appears in 81 games this season he will become the 27th player in the history of the franchise to appear in at least 500 games (assuming Carlson gets there first).  He will have appeared in more games for the Caps than Bob Carpenter (490) and Craig Laughlin (428), more than Jason Chimera (490) and Alexander Semin (469).  With three seasons of at least 80 games played by age 25, only Mike Gartner (4), John Carlson (4), and Bob Carpenter (5) had more in Caps history.

No one has done it in a quieter way than Johansson, who for the last five seasons has average more than half a point per game, who has more power play goals scored (19) than any other Capital except Ovechkin (97) and Troy Brouwer (30), who has more game-winning goals (13, tied with Nicklas Backstrom) than any other Capital except for Ovechkin (36) and Brouwer (16).  About those game-winning goals, the seven he posted last year almost doubled his career total (to 15, including the two he had as a rookie) and was second on the team to Alex Ovechkin (8).  Only ten players in the league had more than Johansson.

Johansson’s consistency persisted at an even more granular level.  Last season, Johansson went as many as four games without a point only once.  He also fared well against good competition; he was 3-9-12, plus-1, in 17 games against Eastern Conference teams reaching the postseason.   He recorded eight penalty minutes in 36 home games and eight penalty minutes in 38 road games.  He had 22 points at home, 24 on the road.

What is more, Johansson will just turn 26 the week before the 2016-2017 regular season starts.  And, his $4.583 million cap hit is in an age and salary cap neighborhood that includes Kyle Palmieri and Tyler Ennis (in fairness, it also includes Brad Marchand and Max Pacioretty).

Fearless’ Take…

Since he came into the league in 2010-2011, Marcus Johansson is one of two players to have appeared in at least 375 games and recorded fewer than 55 penalty minutes (Ryan O’Reilly is the other).  He is one of only ten players to do it in the post-1967 expansion era.  And, in one respect he has taken advice to heart.  Johansson has been a reluctant shooter from time to time.  That has changed over the last two seasons.  He will never be the Gatling gun that is Alex Ovechkin, but his shots per game have increased in each of the last four seasons, starting with a baseline of 1.13 shots per game in 2011-2012 and increasing to 1.78 shots per game – a career high – last season.  He was sixth on the team in that statistic in 2015-2016.

Cheerless’ Take…

We could go way out into left field for a weird Johansson shooting number.  Six times last season he scored on his only shot on goal in the game.  Four times that shot came in the third period, once into an empty net, and a fifth was in the last minute of the second period of the game.  In his six seasons in the league, no Capital forward has more games without a shot on goal than Johansson (114).  And, he has had issues with possession numbers.  The 2015-2016 season was his fifth in six seasons in which he finished under 50 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, both overall and in tied-score situations (numbers from Corsica.hockey).  Then there is the matter of playoff efficiency.  Only once in six regular seasons has Johansson posted a shooting percentage under 12.7 percent.  On the other hand, only once in five postseasons has he finished with a shooting percentage of higher than 8.0 percent.  His career postseason shooting percentage (7.6) is not much more than half that of his career regular season percentage (12.8).

The Big Question…  Is last year’s “big question” still the big question?

Last year we asked, “What is Johansson’s upside, and have we seen it?”  And then Johansson proceeded to post a regular season that looked almost exactly like his previous three full seasons (not including the abbreviated 2012-2013 season).  In those three previous full seasons he averaged 14 goals.  He had 17 in 2015-2016 (although in just 74 games, compared to an average of 81 games the previous three full seasons).  He finished with 46 points, compared to an average of 46 points the previous three full seasons.  Johansson did it playing most of his 5-on-5 minutes with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Justin Williams; the previous season he played most of his 5-on-5 minutes with Kuznetsov and Troy Brouwer.  It makes one wonder if this is the ceiling of Johansson’s production.

In the end…

Johansson has shuttled between center and left wing, and between the first and second lines for much of his career.  It is a strange sort of regularity that accompanies his offensive consistency.  Generic top-six forward, able to be plugged in wherever needed, he puts up 45-50 points per 82 games.  This season could be something of a departure for Johansson in that with the stability in the middle (centers Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Lars Eller) and on the left side on the top two lines (Alex Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky), Johnasson would appear to be plugged in on the left side of the third line on a more permanent basis (assuming Burakovsky does not slump). 

What could be different for Johansson is that he could be the offensive anchor on the Caps’ third line, a role he has not had to play in his six seasons to date.  In the past, he could be the quietly effective (to a point) winger on lines with more dynamic personalities and talents – Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line, Kuznetsov on the second.  Now, he is likely to be matched with Lars Eller, himself a player who has shuttled between center and wing in his career but who is likely to center the Caps’ third line (but who has never recorded more than 30 points in a season), and whoever the Caps decide should man the right side.  It that respect, it is entirely possible that Johansson could post numbers very similar to those he has had over his career and yet be a more effective player for the teammates he plays with.  He will not be the silent partner of an Ovechkin or a Backstrom or a Kuznetsov.  Those who have watched Johansson closely over his career might see a better player, even if the numbers don’t immediately suggest it.

Projection: 79 games, 17-28-45, plus-10

Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Washington Capitals 2016-2017 Previews -- Forwards: Stanislav Galiev

Stanislav Galiev

“I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.”
-- Mark Twain


Stanislav Galiev was drafted in the third round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the Washington Capitals (86th overall).  Six years later, he has 26 games of NHL experience.  Of his draft class, 68 players have more NHL experience, including Christian Thomas, immediately ahead of Galiev on that list with 27 games of NHL experience.  Those two might be competing for the last forward spot on the Capitals roster before Opening Night and perhaps even into the regular season. 

Thomas comes to Washington as his fourth team in four seasons after being taken with the 40th overall pick in that 2010 draft by the New York Rangers.  For Galiev, the Caps are the only NHL organization he has ever known, but this season represents a critical point in his professional hockey career.  He is in the second year of a two-year contract that will leave him a restricted free agent at seasons’ end. 

If head coach Barry Trotz is true to his word, Galiev will get that opportunity to make a more lasting impression than he has done in his 26 NHL games to date: 

“We want to give some opportunity to our kids. They’ve made great progress, and I think they’ve earned that right to challenge for spots, and I think we’re not going to block them.”

With Jason Chimera having headed off to the New York Islanders, Michael Latta in Los Angeles with the Kings, and Mike Richards seeking employment elsewhere, there would appear to be room for a forward, even with the addition of Lars Eller.  While many of the lines and roles are set, Galiev should not face the logjam in front of him that has stunted his progress.  His problem now is the clot of players in a similar situation fighting for the same spot.  Newcomer Brett Connolly, Thomas, even perhaps up-and-coming Jakub Vrana will be competing with him for one of the few open roster spots.  At 24 years of age, it might be premature to say that this is Galiev’s last opportunity to cement a permanent roster spot, but those opportunities are certainly dwindling as prospects such as Vrana, Riley Barber, or Zach Sanford could be competing for that spot Galiev has not been able to lock down.

Fearless’ Take…

For someone who has as few games as Galiev has at this stage of his career, one has to look at other things and in other places for sources of optimism.  First, there is that 2014-2015 season in Hershey in which he tied for the team lead in goals (25) and led the AHL in power play goals (15).  Then there is last season.  Yes, he appeared in only 24 games.  Yes, he failed to score a goal in any of them.  Yes, he had only three points (one in his last 18 games).  But in those 24 games, averaging only nine minutes a game, he did record 14 hits (as many or more on a hits-per-game basis as Daniel Winnik and Justin Williams), four blocked shots (as many on a blocks-per-game basis as Chimera and Latta), and four credited takeaways (more, on a per-game basis, than Tom Wilson and Chimera).  It shows, on a limited basis to be sure, a willingness to try to do other things to contribute.

Cheerless’ Take…

You wonder if in the back of some front office minds they look at Stanislav Galiev and think “Mathieu Perreault.”  It took Perreault four years in the organization to get his first taste of the NHL, and it was another two seasons – at age 24 – that he finally appeared in more than half the team’s games.  He never recorded more than 30 points, though, and he was traded to the Anaheim Ducks for John Mitchell, a player who never played a game for the Caps or any other NHL team.  Perreault has gone on to record three straight 40-plus point seasons with the Ducks and the Winnipeg Jets.  Perreault was a far more prolific scorer in juniors than Galiev, but he never came close to replicating Galiev’s best goal-scoring season in the AHL (16 in 56 games in 2009-2010 to Galiev’s 25 in 67 games in 2014-2015).

The Big Question… Is this Stanislav Galiev’s last, best opportunity to secure a permanent roster spot?

There are three parts to that question.  First, it could be the “last” opportunity, but it would seem that those who would answer in the affirmative with a measure of certainty are speculating more than evaluating.  Still, Galiev is going to be 25 years old in January.  That window on securing that roster spot is closing.  Second, the matter of it being his “best” opportunity seems to be on firmer ground.  The Caps have had a history of growing from within in the post-2004-2005 lockout era, and it does not appear that the Caps under Brian MacLellan’s leadership as general manager is much different in this regard than his predecessor, George McPhee.  If the competition is close among those competing for the last couple of forward spots on the roster, perhaps the nod goes to the player who has climbed through the system since his draft day.  The last part is the “secure a permanent roster spot.”  The phrase “with the Capitals” was left off intentionally.  Galiev does have a skill set that suggests he would get a look from a team with less offensive depth than the Caps if this is his last opportunity to finally get his permanent roster spot here.  But as much or more than in any of his six (soon to become seven) seasons in the organization, Galiev controls his own destiny.

In the end…

Stanislav Galiev was a 29-goal scorer in the USHL (in 2008-2009 in 60 games with the Indiana Ice).  He was a 37-goal scorer in Canadian juniors (in 2010-2011 in 64 games with the Saint John Sea Dogs).  He was a 23-goal scorer in 46 games in the ECHL (in 2012-2013 with the Reading Royals).  He was a 25-goal scorer in 67 games in the AHL (with Hershey in 2014-2015).  There is a pattern there; every other year he has posted good goal-scoring totals at increasingly higher levels of play.  That’s not to say he is going to blossom into a 20-game scorer this season with the Caps, but it is indicative of the tantalizing potential he has exhibited at each level at which he played.  It might be, though, that the NHL is just one rung on the professional ladder too high for him.  He has to demonstrate that he can stick on an NHL roster before those thoughts of significant production are entertained.  The urgency of that task makes this season an opportunity that needs to be seen and seized by Galiev.

Projection: 20 games, 1-2-3, even

Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America

Monday, September 12, 2016

Washington Capitals 2016-2017 Previews -- Forwards: Lars Eller

Lars Eller

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.”
-- Lao Tzu


Lars Eller was the 13th overall pick of the St. Louis Blues in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, the highest ever Danish born and trained player drafted in the NHL.  However, it was not until he was traded, with forward Ian Schultz, to the Montreal Canadiens for goaltender Jaroslav Halak in June 2010 that he started to develop a profile notable for its offensive consistency.  Eller dressed for 77 games in 2010-2011, his first with the Canadiens, and went 7-10-17, but in the four full seasons after that, he appeared in between 77 and 79 games, scored between 12 and 16 goals, and had between 26 and 30 points.

There are, however, two seasons in his last five worth noting.  The first was the abbreviated 2012-2013 season, one in which Eller played in 46 of 48 games and set career bests in points (30) and plus-minus (plus-8).  It was a year that stood out because it was, by far the best 46-game start in his last five seasons in Montreal.  In none of the other four seasons did he record more than 20 points in his first 46-games of the season.  And it was not as if he was playing with high-powered linemates.  He spent most of his 5-on-5 ice time that season with rookie Alex Galchenyuk and split half of his 5-on-5 ice time with Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong (numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com), neither of whom could be considered a forward of noteworthy offensive skill.

The other season to note with respect to Eller is last season.  It was his worst 46-game start in his last five seasons with Montreal, recording eight goals (the same as in his 2012-2013 season) but only six assists (compared to 22 in 2012-2013).  He also had a career worst 46-game mark of minus-7.  Part of that was playing for a club that fell apart after starting the season 9-0-0 (Montreal was 29-38-6 in their last 73 games), but the Canadiens were not an awful offensive club (they finished 16th in goals per game).  What was odd about those six assists in his first 46 games was who the goal scorers were: Sven Andrighetto (twice), Daniel Carr (twice), Alexander Semin, and Alex Galchenyuk.  It is a reflection of the variety of linemates Eller had. He spent more than 100 of his 970 5-on-5 minutes with eight different forwards.

Perhaps the Canadiens saw Eller’s production as having hit a ceiling, a level they might get with cheaper options (Eller has a $35. Million cap hit through 2017-2018).  Whatever the reasons, the Canadiens traded Eller to the Capitals for a pair of second round draft picks at the NHL Entry Draft in June.

Fearless’ Take…

Over his seven-year career, Lars Eller has averaged 14-15-29 per 82 games.  And, he has never missed more than five games in a season in any of the six full NHL seasons in which he played (including the abbreviated 2012-2013 season).  That kind of production and stability out of the third-line center spot would be welcome for a team that couldn’t consistently muster either last year.  He was a good possession player for the Habs last season, posting a 52.7 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5.  What makes Eller particularly intriguing is thinking about what he might be able to do with stability on his wings.  Consider this description of his 2015-2016 season

“What you'll see online is two viewpoints. Either he's useless offensively, or he's a possession monster.

The truth is somewhere in the middle. You won't get a 50-point season from the Danish forward, however saying he's useless is incredibly shortsighted. On the flip side of things, yes he does drive possession, however we do have to accept that his offensive upside is limited.

Essentially, Eller provides the Habs with solid minutes, but he'll probably never crack the 20-goal mark in the NHL, especially once we consider his usage.

You can expect him to score 10-15 goals per year, while providing versatility to the head coach. This year Eller was used as a left-wing, a center, and on the right side. He also spent time on 10 different line combinations, none of which lasted more than 135 minutes of ice time.”

The Caps acquired him, in no small part, to avoid having to employ so many line combinations on that third line.

Cheerless’ Take…

The price tag Eller brings with him is pretty high.  With a cap hit of $3.5 million a year he is in an age and compensation neighborhood that includes, among others, Cam Atkinson, Kyle Turris, David Desharnais, and Reilly Smith, all of whom have at least one 50-point season on their resume (numbers from generalfanager.com).  Eller has that one 30-point season three years ago on his record (it was a 53-point pace per 82 games).  The Caps might be starting the season with a cheaper alternative at third-line center than they might have hoped for last season (if you think Brooks Laich and his $4.5 million cap hit could have been a credible third line center), but “cheaper” is not “cheap” in this instance.

The Big Question… Can Lars Eller be a better producer as regular third-line center than he was in a second-line role for the Canadiens?

Those ten line combinations, none of which amounted to more than 135 minutes of ice time keep coming back to mind here.  If you look at the Caps last year, and specifically Jay Beagle, you would see that Beagle spent 50 or more 5-on-5 minutes with eight different forwards (numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com).  That’s a lot of churn on the third and fourth lines on which Beagle played and was accompanied by the Caps taking a flyer, so to speak, on Mike Richards to provide some experience and stability on the bottom six forward lines.  On paper, at least, that is not going to be a problem this season.  Eller will be the third line center, and Beagle will anchor the fourth line.  And that third line shouldn’t experience the sort of shuffling to which Eller was exposed in Montreal last season. 

There might be a question about who it is that will get the most work on the right side of that line, but it isn’t hard to see Eller and Marcus Johansson on the left side spending a lot of time together on that line.  The pairing of those two could help Johansson, whose possession numbers slipped last season (49.4 Corsi-for at 5-on-5 compared to 53.1 percent the previous year, according to Corsica.Hockey).  It might be a stretch to think he will get to 50 points, given the lack of power play time and the third line minutes he is likely to get.  But 30-35 points would not be out of the question, an improvement over his production of the last three seasons.

In the end…

The Caps did not lose their second round playoff series to the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring because Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin had big numbers.  They were beaten by the likes of Nick Bonino (2-3-5 in the series) and Carl Hagelin (3-4-7).  Lars Eller, like each of those Penguins before last spring, is a veteran who has toiled in largely anonymous fashion (Eller actually has about 100 more regular season NHL games than either of those two players).  And, he is a player who once put up five goals and 13 points in 17 postseason games (2014).

Eller will not be expected to carry the offense in any sense, but he does have the potential to add some punch at that end, or at least provide some stability around which his wingers can perform.  And, he is a solid two-way player with good defensive instincts and possession numbers.  As this as the margin was between winning and losing last spring, those qualities could be just what the Caps need to go just that much deeper into the postseason in 2016-2017, just the change in direction both Eller and the team would welcome.

Projection: 77 games, 14-17-31, plus-2

Photo: Claus Andersen/Getty Images North America