Saturday, March 03, 2007

Happy Birthday to Alexander Semin

...from the Islanders, sporting their new uniforms for next year.

Looking on at the "inside"

The Peerless read with great interest the first “Capitals Insider” online discussion moderated by the Washington Post's Capitals writer Tarik El-Bashir since the trading deadline. What follows is The Peerless’ take on some of the issues*…

Waldorf, Md.:1. Could a free agent shootout specialist help? If the Caps had won half of their overtime losses, they would be in the hunt for the playoffs...

Tarik El-Bashir:1) Yes. A free agent shootout specialist would help. I certainly think that's something McPhee is must consider this summer. And, yeah, those points lost are a killer…

The Peerless’ Take: The shootout problems of the Caps are the kind of thing that can be overanalyzed and overemphasized. Certainly, that 1-10 record in eleven shootouts is a problem…this year. But had they gone 6-5, they would have 65 points and still be looking at a steep climb to catch Carolina (in eighth place this morning). The Caps have two of the finest stickhandlers and shooters one could hope for in the Alexes. The club could have serviceable shootout players in guys like Tomas Fleischmann or Eric Fehr down the road. But to burn resources for a “shootout specialist?” It’d be like adding a “faceoff specialist” along the lines of a Yanic Perreault. He is gifted at his task (and is on a pace to have what would be a 31-goal season over 82-games), but he’s also been with four clubs in four seasons. Does that sort of thing really bring all that much to the table? It can, which is not to say it does. Tampa Bay is 10-1 in shootouts and is a borderline playoff team without that success. On the other hand, Boston is 8-3 in shootouts and will be getting fine tee times in April, while Detroit is 1-4, and they could have a deep playoff run.

While Brooks Laich’s name was invoked as a possibility, perhaps are we thinking also of a “Vyacheslav Kozlov” (7-of-9 on shootouts this year and a UFA at the end of the year) or an “Ales Kotalik” (5-of-7, but who has years left on his contract, thus necessitating a trade)? The Peerless thinks there is a broader and more important context to consider (one which is not, as yet, very clear) – what identity is the club seeking to build?

Kansas Board of Education: Do you think Caps will evolve next season for a good playoff run?

Tarik El-Bashir: It's way too early. Right now, there's no chance that THIS team would come anywhere close to the playoffs. But let's see what McPhee does this summer.

You can take this to the bank: If this free agency period doesn't go well, and the team misses the playoffs next season, too, heads will roll.

The Peerless’ Take: We’ve said elsewhere that this upcoming off-season has the makings of being the critical time in the progress of the rebuild. The kids are beginning to come of age, and the time is ripe to infuse the club with more mature, veteran talent. The Peerless agrees that this club, as constituted, would have a difficult time making the playoffs (although the words “no chance” are perhaps a bit strong if “this team” is healthy). The club needs to send a message – to fans that they really are serious about building a winner and justifying the investment fans (whatever number that might be) have made in ticket purchases, and to players that management will do what it takes to support the efforts they’ve put in to improve themselves and the club. If the Caps come up dry in bringing in talent this summer, one wonders what incentive fans will have to come to the rink and what effect the failure will have on efforts on the ice.

Arlington, Va.: Are the Caps certain that Backstrom will be playing in D.C. next season? What are your thoughts on his ability to make an impact right away?

Tarik El-Bashir: I don't think anyone can be certain Backstrom will come over next season. I just think everyone expects that he will.

I spoke to Bengt Gustafsson last night (former Cap and coach of Team Sweden) and he said that Backstrom still hasn't informed his SEL team that he's planning to leave for the NHL next season.

The Peerless’ Take: It would be easy to overreact to something like this, and The Peerless admits that when he read this for the first time, he wondered if the Caps drafted the wrong guy, if he had the constitution to flourish here. Thinking about it, hey…he’s a kid – 19 years old. And by the way…Peter Forsberg (with whom Backstrom has been compared) did not make his NHL debut until he was 21. We’re not going to worry too much about this.

Arlington, Va.: Okay, short and sweet.

Gomez or Datsyuk?

Tarik El-Bashir: I'd be shocked if the Caps didn't target Datsyuk. After all, he's played with Ovechkin in Russia, and they "think" the game the same way.

That said, I love Gomez's game.

I'm pretty sure both are going to be hearing from the Caps the moment free agency begins.

Rockville, Md.:"The NHL prohibits managers from discussing players who are the property of other teams, so I'm not at liberty to mention specific names, but we track the status of every player the in league as well as where each team stands in relation to the salary cap."

Is that code for "I want to go after Briere"?

Tarik El-Bashir: No, it's code for: "I want to go after Datsyuk."

Foggy Bottom, D.C.: I know it's probably tampering but if Ovechkin casually called his friend Datsyuk and suggested that he should come to Washington for some good money, no one would get in trouble (caught), right?

Tarik El-Bashir: That would not be tampering. That would be two friends talking about next season. Now, if Ovechkin were to fax him a contract proposal ... that would be something else. (Before anyone asks, that hasn't happened).

The Peerless’ Take: These questions are all part of a larger piece that gets back to the matter of “personality.” What kind of club are the Caps’ building here? Are the Caps building a club with a personality into which they fit talent, or are they trying to build a club around a talent? The issue here is, well, the talent. Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps are a marriage of skill and a drive that exudes a gritty, balls-to-the-wall, run-your-mother-over mentality to the game. It is the gritty, earnest 1980’s attitude on steroids and with more skill. OK, so…is that the kind of club you’re trying to build, or are you trying to build around Ovechkin (you may read that to mean, “make Ovechkin happy”)?

Enter Pavel Datsyuk. OK, why would he be at the top of the free agent center wish list?

The positives: fine set-up guy, sees the ice really well, has improved on faceoffs, a good match for the speed game of the NHL.

The negatives: can be pushed around, has been a complement to what has always been a strong team for the span of his career (he hasn’t had to be “the man”), is not a great shooter, is 3-12-15, -1, in 42 playoff games.

The Peerless looks at the possibility of his arrival and has a little queasiness. We’re wondering . . . “Robert Lang?” That was the element that was supposed to bring out the rest of Jaromir Jagr’s game. That went well, didn’t it? Datsyuk is a fine player. He might be the center the Caps need. But it is not a slam dunk, obvious conclusion to make. And the bigger question the club ought to be asking is, “does Datsyuk fit into the team personality we’re building?” Not, “will he make Alex happy?”

* We’re not taking issue with Tarik’s commentary – the questions and answers provide the context.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Islanders, March 3, 2007

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Kris Beech
Donald Brashear
Chris Clark
Ben Clymer
Rico Fata
Jamie Heward
Bryan Muir
Richard Zednik
Dainius Zubrus

Brian Pothier
Brian Sutherby
Shaone Morrisonn
Boyd Gordon
Steve Eminger
Alexander Semin
Brooks Laich
Alexander Ovechkin
Mike Green
Olaf Kolzig

Brent Johnson

That was your opening night lineup for the Caps last October. Almost half of it spent significant time injured, are currently injured, have been traded or waived, or have been sent to Hershey. To the players remaining, add Eric Fehr and Matt Pettinger to the injury list (Pettinger perhaps both beginning and ending the season injured). That’s fully half of 22 players turned over in some fashion this year. It is a lot of churning for a young club with depth issues to have to endure, and the record reflects that.

Fans will say, “well, Buffalo has injuries,” or “Anaheim has had injuries.” Well, gee…Buffalo was a better (not to mention deeper) club coming into the season. They were, after all, a conference finalist last year. Anaheim was a pre-season favorite to reach the Cup final. The Peerless doesn’t recall the Caps being part of either of those conversations. The club that the Caps will finish with – starting tonight against the New York Islanders – will be looking more to next year than to anything with respect to the 2006-2007 season.

The Islanders, on the other hand, have much to play for. The Peerless (certainly not alone in this respect) felt at the start of the year that the Islanders would explore new vistas in suckitude, the club being run by a fool (the owner), a novice (the general manager) and an outcast (the coach). The Islanders are not guaranteed a playoff berth just yet – they are only one point ahead of Montreal, but with three games in hand -- but they have shown a resiliency and a grit to make it this far and remain in the playoff mix.

The Islanders are 6-1-1 in their last eight games, the last seven of which were played on Long Island. Only two of those games were decided by more than one goal, which explains the Islanders’ comparatively thin 25-22 scoring advantage over this stretch. In the six one-goal decisions, the Isles are 5-0-1 (including three extra time wins). It is the photo-negative of the Capitals, who since the 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh on February 3rd have had nine one-goal games in 12 contests, going 2-2-5. One of those wins, though, was over the Islanders – the Capitals’ only shootout win this season.

The Islanders have been something of an odd club in this eight-game stretch, especially with respect to special teams. Four goals in 21 power play chances is certainly respectable (19.0 percent), but killing only 20 of 27 shorthanded situations (74.1 percent) really isn’t. They’ve given up at least one power play goal in six of the last eight games.

Jason Blake, who in most respects seems to be the skating embodiment of the Islanders’ personality, has been the go-to guy over these last eight – 5-4-9, +6. But, he hasn’t been without some support. Trent Hunter has chipped in a 5-1-6, even line, while Mike Sillinger and former-Cap Chris Simon have chipped in three goals apiece. This constitutes almost two-thirds of the Islanders’ scoring in their last eight games.

Rick DiPietro has gotten the call in all of the last eight, going 5-1-1. He’s carried a 2.68 GAA and .912 save percentage over this span, pretty much mirror images of his season numbers of 2.67, .915. He is 4-2-1, 1.99, .928 in his career against Washington.

These are teams on opposite sides of the divide – the Isles are in the top eight, the Caps are not. The Isles were buyers at the deadline (Ryan Smyth, Richard Zednik), the Caps were sellers (Dainius Zubrus, Zednik, Lawrence Nycholat, Jamie Heward). The Isles have been winning one-goal games, the Caps have been losing them. The Isles have been proficient in extra time games, the Caps have been struggling.

But while the teams are on opposite sides of the divide, they are not that far apart. The Isles have 25 goals in their last eight games, the Caps 24. The Isles have yielded 22 goals in their last eight, the Caps 26. The possibility looms large that this game won’t end until around 10:00. “Shootout” is in the air…maybe one like the ten-rounder the Caps endured on Thursday against the Lightning.

It says here, that’s where we’re going. Alexandre Giroux with the winner in a shootout . . .

Caps 4 – Islanders 3.