Thursday, August 23, 2007

Like Fine Wine?

James Mirtle has a post that ranks the 30 NHL clubs by age. What caught The Peerless' eye was not that Detroit is the only club with a 30-plus average age, it's that three of the six oldest clubs are out of the Southeast.

Maybe the Caps can wear 'em down this year.

Benchmarks, Part IX -- Shootouts

The next “specialty” benchmark is…shootouts. Caps fans would rather not think about this, given last year’s results, and The Peerless thinks that this abomination should be banned from the sport at the earliest opportunity. However, it’s here, and points are awarded for winning such things, so here we go…and we’re going to get this over with quickly by addressing team and individual benchmarks…

BENCHMARK (team, offense): Minnesota Wild

Yup, those boring, green-clad, Jacques Lemaire-coached Minnesota Wild. And this isn’t even especially close. No team had more wins (10), and more to the point of the offensive side of shootouts, no team had more “goals” (27), only one team with more than 10 shootouts had a better shooting percentage (Atlanta, in six fewer games), no team had a higher goals-per-shootout average (1.59). They were also very balanced – they were 17-for 39 at home (43.6 percent), 10-for-23 on the road (43.5 percent).

Part of their success is the fact that Wild goaltenders weren’t particularly successful at the other end (they finished 19th in save percentage, for example), but the offense kept them going enough to finish with a 10-7 record.

As a group, they did not depend a lot on a long bench. Only five Wild (“Wilds?”) scored shootout goals, and none of them were named, “Gaborik.” In fact, Marian Gaborik only took two of the Wild’s 62 shots all season (failing on both attempts, but missing 34 games to a groin injury early on contributed to his not being in the mix). The big guns were Mikko Koivu, Pavol Demitra, and Brian Rolston, who combined to go 19-for-41 (46.3 percent). What is odd is that it was defenseman Petteri Nummelin who led the Wild in shooting percentage, converting six of seven opportunities.

There isn’t a mystery here. Rolston, Demitra, and Koivu finished one-three-four on the club in goals scored (31, 25, and 20, respectively). They were the guys who finished in games, and they were consistent finishers in the shootout, and they were consistently used in those situations. Demitra led off in 12 of 17 shootouts, Koivu was in the two-slot in 10 of 17. There was a particularly odd statistic about Koivu, however. He loved home cooking. He was 8-for-9 at home, 0-for-6 on the road.

BENCHMARK (individual, offense): Vyacheslav Kozlov, Atlanta Thrashers

Kozlov tied for the league lead in shooting percentage among shooters with at least ten shots (with Paul Kariya) and was tied for third in goals. But what set Kozlov apart were his five game deciding goals (of his seven total shootout goals and seven shootout wins for Atlanta). He was especially effective on the road, going 4-for-5 with three game-winners. Kozlov, while not an elite goal-scorer, is a reliable 20-goal-a-season guy (10 of 12 non-shortened seasons with at least 20 goals). He simply has a knack for this sort of thing – it’s worth noting that in two seasons he is 12-for-18 with seven game-winning goals. He is the benchmark for individual shooters in this phase of the game.

BENCHMARK (individual, goaltending): Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins

On a club that struggled defensively (29th in goals-against/game), Thomas shined when he didn’t have the handicap of teammates in front of him. He finished at the top of the NHL in save percentage among goalies with at least 10 shootout games (.826) and was tied for fourth in wins (eight) despite playing in fewer shootouts than any of the top six in wins. He won his last eight shootout decisions. Thomas does not have a noteworthy record over his career as an NHL netminder; being a backup might be his niche. But last year, he was the standard for performance in the shootout.

...a note on the shootout. If anything, the benchmarks here illustrate just how fundamentally different the shootout is from “hockey.” Minnesota was a decent club last year, but they ultimately finished as a 7-seed and were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the ultimate Cup champion, Anaheim. Kozlov is a decent goal scorer, but would not be included among the elite of that class. Tim Thomas is a decent goaltender, but is not likely to be a starter on a Cup contender. Yet, all were at the top of their 2006-2007 class in the shootout. It might be entertaining (well, for some), but the shootout isn’t hockey. That soap-box moment having passed, let’s move on…

Capitals (projected top-three): Viktor Kozlov, Michael Nylander, Alexander Semin

Alexander Ovechkin simply can’t be as bad at this as he was last year. He was 2-for-12 (16.7 percent) which put him in a tie for 144th in the NHL in shooting percentage. But then again, the NHL’s top goal scorer for the season, Vincent Lecavalier, could only manage three goals on 12 attempts himself. Maybe there are some things he just does not have a knack for. He might have to play himself onto this trio (or more to the point, someone might have to play themselves off).

Kozlov, on the other hand, might have been only the second-best Kozlov in shootouts last year, but 5-for-13 isn’t bad, and he had two game-winners…that would be twice as many as the entire Caps team had. Nylander also finished 5-for-13 last year, which means that the two new forwards had twice as many goals last year, combined (10), than did the entire Caps team (five). If nothing else, this should (we hope) take some of the pressure off the Alexes to perform…those two had four of the five shootout goals for the Caps. Semin gets the other spot, mostly by default. Being 2-for-10 last year wasn't anything to get excited about.

Capitals (goaltending): Olaf Kolzig, Brent Johnson

Kolzig finished 59th in the NHL in save percentage last year among all goaltenders (.471), while going 1-5. Brent Johnson finished 34th (.650), for all the good it did him…he was 0-5. Frederic Cassivi played in the other shootout, stopping two of three shots in a loss. It wasn’t a memorable year (it wasn’t for the shooters, either, so this was a team effort).

There is good news and bad news in this for the bigger picture. The good news is that eleven of the Caps losses were of the freak-show type. The bad news is that the shootout is back, and so are the goaltenders.

This is likely to continue to be the weakest part of the Capitals’ game in 2007-2008. Difficulty in shootouts at the goaltending end wasn’t confined to last year, although last year certainly was the worse of the last two seasons. In those two seasons, Kolzig is 5-10, .607; Johnson is 3-6, .727. If these two could at least return to a 2005-2006 level of performance as far as save percentage is concerned; the addition of more punch on the offense side might result in a few more wins.

The Caps finished last year...

-- tied for 28th in wins (1)
-- 30th in losses (11)
-- 28th in goals scored (5)
-- 25th in goals allowed (18)
-- 30th in goal differential (-13)
-- 28th in shooting percentage (.125)
-- 27th in save percentage (.550)

They should do better by accident.

Congratulations, Dave

Dave Trembley was announced as the new Baltimore Orioles skipper on Wednesday afternoon. His boys celebrated by giving up more runs in one game than any club had in the past 110 years (the Louisville Colonels having been the last to surrender at least that many, back in 1897 to the Chicago Colts). What, they drained Charm City of Natty Bo before taking BP last night?

By way of comparison, that run total was more than the points scored by 20 of the 41 Super Bowl winners. Brian Burres gave up eight earned runs in two-thirds of an inning of relief for the O's. That's an ERA of 108.00, or roughly the GAA of Martin Houle (ok, his GAA was 30.00, and he only played 2:12 last year).