Sunday, August 12, 2007

Benchmarks, Part II -- The Second Line

Next up in this look at benchmarks from the 2006-2007 season to which the Caps may be compared, the second line…

BENCHMARK: “The Kid Line” – Anaheim

The reason this group is selected as a benchmark is that the Caps’ second line could be a relatively inexperienced one (this assumes Chris Clark is not on one of the top two lines). The Anaheim group of last year -- Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Dustin Penner – having only 132 games of combined experience coming into the 2006-2007 season, certainly, as Nuke LaLoosh might have put it in ‘Bull Durham,” announced their presence with authority. All three played in all 82 regular season games and registered a combined 71-76-147, +27. The thing is, though, this production was achieved with less ice time than one might think. None of the three were among the Ducks’ top ten in regular season ice time per game. In fact, the three averaged only 13:50 per game, per man. Perhaps most stunning among the statistics in the context of their ice time is that the three combined for 15 game-winning/overtime goals – almost a third of Anaheim’s win total.

In the playoffs these three would see their ice time increase to an average of 17:25 per man, and the three would hold their own on the score sheet, going a combined 16-24-40, +10 in 21 games. They combined for six game-winning goals in Anaheim’s march to the Stanley Cup.

Physically, it was an imposing group. Averaging 6’3”, 219 pounds, they could physically dominate opponents. But for such a young group, and given the reputation of the Ducks as a group, it was a relatively disciplined group. They amassed only 179 combined penalty minutes during the regular season, among which were five major penalties (all for fighting…boys will be boys) and a misconduct.

One could argue whether this was the best second line in the NHL last year, but that’s not the point here. They constituted a very young, very green unit that rose to the occasion and played an integral role in the Ducks’ success last year. Without their level of play, Anaheim arguably doesn’t make the finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Given where the Caps stand in their development, they are the appropriate benchmark to assess the Caps’ prospects.

The Capitals (projected): Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Eric Fehr

First off, we recognize that it is at least as likely that Chris Clark starts on the right side of this line to open the year. A veteran presence might be what Semin (who can be undisciplined) and Backstrom (a rookie) will need. But Fehr projects, at some point, to be a top-two line right winger. This could be that year, and for purposes of argument, we’ll put him here.

The three will bring a total of 154 games of experience into the 2007-2008 season, virtually all of them accumulated by Semin (129 games). Backstrom will bring a respectable 110 games of experience from the Swedish Elite League (Brynas), having delayed his entry into the NHL for a season to play an additional year in Sweden. But it isn’t the NHL in style, talent, or dimensions. Whatever his talents, a period of familiarizing himself with the nature of North American hockey will be necessary. In the worst-case scenario, he does not start the year as the second line center, which will create a substantial amount of havoc with the lineup. In the best-case scenario, he slides seamlessly into the position and permits Alexander Semin to take the next step toward being one of the most feared snipers in the league.

Semin has a world of talent, both in shooting and handling the puck, but he also seems to have a world of discipline to gain in certain aspects of his game. If he can make the next leap in the mental aspect of his game to match what is possible at the business end of his stick, he can tap deeper into his considerable potential. What should give Caps fans hope is that Semin scored 38 goals last year without the benefit of a true playmaking center on the roster. The trick is for the sniper to let others (well, Backstrom) find him in shooting space, rather than commandeering the puck for long stretches and taking his linemates out of the play.

Fehr is a wild card here. He was put on the shelf last year just as he was starting to look like he had an inkling of what was going on out on the ice. He’s had a steady improvement in his goal-scoring progression at each stop in his brief career (11-26-50-59 in juniors; 25 in 70 games, then 22 in 40 games – which projects to 39 in 70 games – at Hershey). Nothing is a given in the last big jump to the major league level, but there is little to suggest he will not be a goal scorer at the NHL level. Time and improved health (a back injury shelved him last year) are the keys with him.

As a group, they are not the imposing physical specimens that comprise the Anaheim group. Semin and Backstrom are “new-NHL” types in terms of Semin’s speed and offensive flair, and Backstrom’s described ability to see the ice and think the game well. Fehr can be the beneficiary of all that skill possessed by his linemates. He need only finish Backstrom’s passes or Semin’s loose change, and play some earnest defense to complete the line.

If this trio mines any depth of their potential, they will be an improvement on a club that had no reliable center or right wing on the second line last year. But it has a long way to go to approach the benchmark of Anaheim’s “Kid Line” from last year. Think of it though -- at this time last year, who would have thought Getzlaf, Penner, and Perry would be a line with a name attached to it?

I’ll call it “The SNICKER Line”Semin/NICKlas Backstrom/ERic Fehr.

The Peerless just hopes it refers to their sweet play and not as the result of a punch line.