Sunday, July 22, 2007

What this off season might mean to two left wings

It is hard to overemphasize the effect the change in centers on the top two lines is likely to have on next year’s Capitals club. Let’s look first at the top line.

In 2006-2007, up to the trading deadline, the top line of Alexander Ovechkin, Dainius Zubrus, and Chris Clark had a total of 84 goals. But the oddity was that Dainius Zubrus had only 32 assists. Had that pace played out over the entire year, Zubrus would have ended up with 42 assists. That would have been good for a tie for 26th among centers and a tie for 45th among all forwards in the NHL last year. Those are not necessarily bad figures, but on a line with a goal scorer such as Alexander Ovechkin more might be expected out of that position.

However, it might be the second line where the changes will be felt more keenly. The pivot on the second line was shuffled around quite a bit last year, itself a problem. Kris Beech might have had the most opportunities in that spot and finished the year with only 26 points. Even if you sum the production of Beech, Jiri Novotny, Brian Sutherby, and Brooks Laich, you find this composite center having a finish with the Caps of 23-42-65. Without putting undue pressure on the rookie, Nicklas Backstrom, he should settle into the range of those numbers for the season (perhaps with a few fewer goals and a few more assists).

It makes Alexander Semin’s year on offense all that more noteworthy and could signal a much bigger year this coming season from the young left wing. Semin was 38-35-73 last year, but he was 17-21-38 on the power play (he led the Caps in power play scoring), leaving him “only 21-14-35 at even strength. If there is any production out of the second line center, it could result in a substantial improvement in Semin’s scoring at even strength.

That Ovechkin and Semin could combine for 84 goals last year is quite an accomplishment, given the depth of centers last year, especially on the second line. This year, they could be the league’s top 1-2 goal-scoring tandem.

"Soccer has already surpassed hockey on the American sports landscape...."

It's a throw-away line in the fourth paragraph of a column by the Washington Post's Michael Wilbon last Friday morning. Mike's column concerns itself with professional soccer and the curiosity that is David Beckham.

It is the only time in the article that the word "hockey" appears, but it is in the paragraph in which it doesn't appear that might be more significant to the sport:

"Soccer is an international sport and has been for decades. Basketball is an international sport and has been since the 1970s. People all over the globe play both regularly, and support their own leagues. Baseball, slowly, has extended its international reach, but seems to have enough restraint to know that selling a few jerseys overseas and scheduling games there on a consistent basis are two wildly different things."

With the exception of soccer, what sport is more "international" than hockey? Europe is teeming with hockey leagues. 46 countries were represented in the IIHF world rankings for 2007; 33 in the women's rankings. The NHL is represented by countries "A" (Austria) to "Z" (if you accept the NHL's symbol for South Africa, "ZAF," the birthplace of Olaf Kolzig). Robyn Regehr was born in Recife, Brazil, for heaven's sake (wonder if he plays soccer).

Is it this "international" quality a burden for soccer in the US? for hockey?