Monday, August 13, 2007

Benchmarks, Part III -- The "In Your Face" Line

In the third of this look at benchmarks we’re down to the nuts and bolts of a club – the checking line . . .

BENCHMARK: Anaheim – Rob Niedermayer, Samuel Pahlsson, Travis Moen

It is tempting here to go with the New Jersey Devils checking line as the benchmark, but the Ducks and Devils had an important common opponent late in the year – the Ottawa Senators in the playoffs and the “top line” benchmark. The Ottawa top line was 9-14-23, +18 in a five-game series win in the conference semi-final against New Jersey, but they managed only 5-3-8, -9 in a five-game series loss in the final to Anaheim. Anaheim gets the nod.

This trio was at the bottom of the team ranking in plus-minus for the regular season (occupying three of the bottom four slots), but that is not surprising. The New Jersey group of John Madden, Jay Pandolfo, and Sergei Brylin occupied a similar ranking with the Devils in the regular season, although this group was broken up for much of the later stages of the playoff series with the Senators.

The Anaheim trio was a combined -16 over 82 regular season games and an amazing combined +24 in 21 playoff games. To be a combined -1 per five games against other club’s top scoring lines, when your line isn’t necessarily a high scoring group (combined 24-39-63) is noteworthy. To be a +24 in 21 games against top-flight competition is borderline insane. Part of the bump in playoff performance is explained by an increase in this group’s scoring rate (34 points in 63 man-games (0.54/game), versus 63 points in 246 man-games (0.26/game)), but clearly this group became a true “shut-down” line.

The Capitals (projected) – Matt Pettinger, Boyd Gordon, Chris Clark

This has the potential of being a very dynamic line for the Caps, almost a hybrid checking/scoring line:

-- Chris Clark, who has set career bests in goal scoring in each of his two years with the Caps (20 in 2005-2006, 30 last season), has a knack for finding the back of the net without being a pure shooter – he finds a way.

-- Matt Pettinger, when he can avoid injury (he’s missed 29 games over the last two years), has quietly improved his own goal scoring production the past couple of years (20 in 2005-2006, 16 last year) without sacrificing a crash-and-bang style.

-- Boyd Gordon – “Muffin,” if you will – is not a shooter in the sense Ovechkin or Semin are, or even Clark for that matter, but has shown goal-scoring progress in his junior (10-12-22-33 in his four years at Red Deer) and minor-league (5-17-16 over three years, the last in only 58 games at Portland) development. That might be an untapped element of his game at this level.

This is a group that could combine for 50 goals…but that is not what their principal (or even most valuable) role could be. They could be a real throwback to the “Plumbers Line" (Gaetan Duchesne, Greg Adams, and Craig Laughlin) – a lunch pail group that is difficult to play against, yet can pot the occasional (or even more than occasional) goal. The Peerless thinks this group has it in them to be not only the best “in your face” line (we find “checking line” a bit limiting here) in the history of the franchise, but one of the best in the league this year. Clark is a smart, gritty (to the point of being almost “bionic”), deceptively talented player at both ends of the ice. And, he is a natural (as opposed to a forced or manufactured) leader. Gordon is intelligent, good at the little things, and extremely dependable. Pettinger is the orneriest member of the trio who has the capacity to get under an opponent’s skin in the defensive zone, then score at the other.

The season might start without this group in place. Clark could find himself playing on the right side of either of the top two lines (more likely the top line, given his recent history with Ovechkin). But, if things fall the right way (as in, the Caps find a scoring winger to play on one of those top two lines), this group could come to be what defines the Caps’ style this year – important for a club that seems to be struggling with a defining personality -- and could be the key to whether they fall just short of the playoffs or find themselves in the middle of the spring mix.

Can this group meet the benchmark set by Anaheim last year? Given its role, that is a tougher question to answer than in the other two benchmark cases. Anaheim’s group had the benefit of an excellent back line to complement it. The Caps are not likely to have that kind of support for this group. Clark, Pettinger, and Gordon could play very well and get lost in the noise of the inexperience that is still what defines the Caps’ blue line.

There is also the matter of when (or even if) this group plays as a unit. Much depends on what happens with the top two lines and where Chris Clark ends up. If Clark if playing on one of the top two lines, this line might see Brian Sutherby moved into the center position and Boyd Gordon moved over. It could create an opening for David Steckel. There are possibilities here, but the best “in your face” line option would appear to be the Pettinger-Gordon-Clark trio…and a mighty fine one it could be.