Saturday, January 05, 2008
Professor Peerless Posts the Midterm Report Card
41 games in the books, and it’s time to hand out midterm evaluations. We will dispense with the usual “grades” that come out this time of year and look to the sorts of comments that we used to get when we were in grade school...
Is a good citizen.
Viktor Kozlov. This might go for his only having accumulated 10 penalty minutes in 41 games, but one can’t help notice that despite his wretched goal drought that he ended the other day against Ottawa, he never seemed to complain or pout or get surly about it. He kept plugging, and while he can have the look from time to time of a guy skating without a care in the world, he did manage to compile 20 assists in the first half. That’s a pace that would get him his second highest career total.
Is becoming more dependable during work periods.
Alex Ovechkin. It might seem odd to place him under this comment, but while we marvel at his pace of a 60 goal season, let’s not forget that he is also on a pace for a +12 – a 31 point improvement over last year.
Is developing a better attitude toward work.
Alexander Semin. He hasn’t dressed as often as one might like, and this is a product of somewhat limited viewing this year, but he seems to be just a bit jollier in his attitude.
Is learning to occupy his time constructively.
Nicklas Backstrom. After what might be regarded by some as a slow start to his rookie campaign, he’s been averaging about a point a game since Thanksgiving, and he’s been able to hold his own with the top centers in the league. And he’s doing it while averaging 17:32 a game.
Wants responsibilities and follows through.
Mike Green. He still doesn’t get any penalty killing time to speak of, but he’s become the go-to guy on the blue line in the offensive end. He leads the defensemen in power play scoring, and he’s added five and a half minutes to his average ice time this year. He has the look of someone who can – and wants to – do better.
Has great potential and works toward achieving it.
Ovechkin. It isn’t often that a player – any player, but especially one arriving with all the ballyhoo of an Ovechkin – can be said to exceed expectations, but he’s done so in his short time in the NHL. That he would be mentioned as a potential 60-goal scorer in his third year, before his 23rd birthday, is rather amazing. Here is a comparison for you...in his first three years in the NHL, Wayne Gretzky scored 149 goals in 231 games. At his current scoring pace this year, Ovechkin is on a pace to score 141 goals in his first 231 games. He’s in pretty good company. And the combination of his enthusiasm and his raw hunger to score more suggests that he’s still on the rise in his scoring production.
Gaining more self-confidence.
Brian Pothier. This might look like another odd pick, Pothier being 30 years old. However, Pothier had logged fewer than 300 games in his career prior to this year and last year was burdened with the weight of a comparatively (for the Caps, at least recently) large contract and playing a larger, broader role than to which he was perhaps suited. He is not an all-things-in-all-situations defenseman, and he is not a 28-32 minute guy. This year, he’s fit into a role in which he seems a better fit – playing 18-20 minutes a game – and his game has prospered for it (5-9-14, +5, one game winner). The result is that he looks surer of himself on the ice.
Has earned a very fine report card.
Brooks Laich. The Caps have a lot of third and fourth line kinds of guys, and coming into this season there was a fear that there would be a real log jam among them. But Laich has quietly put together a pretty solid season, moving anywhere from the second to the fourth line, chipping in the odd goal, and crashing and banging when the situation calls for it. Only Ovechkin has more game-winning goals.
Has been consistently progressing.
Backstrom. Last summer, there were more than a few Caps fans who seemed to think Backstrom was overrated, based on his performance in rookie camp. Here’s a kid – 19 years old when the season started – in a different country, on a different ice surface, learning a different kind of game than the one he was used to playing in Europe. It was hardly a stretch to think he might struggle early. The club brought him along slowly, starting him on the wing in the early games. But since he’s been established at center, his scoring has improved, he’s been responsible in his own end, and he looks more assertive in all three zones of the ice. Playing with Ovechkin helps, but Ovechkin’s production has been helped by Backstrom’s improvement, too.
Works well in groups, planning and carrying out activities.
Michael Nylander. Let’s put Nylander’s -16 aside for the moment (no, let’s just throw it in a hole and shovel dirt on it). He has done what Nylander does...he is a “playmaker” who looks to set up teammates. Some might see him as a little too cute with the puck from time to time, or a little too concerned with making the pass, but he has 14 assists in his last 15 games. If he keeps up that pace in the last half (he’d finish with 61 assists), he will eclipse his career high for helpers (57, set last year with the Rangers).
Possible he could exceed grade expectations.
Boyd Gordon. Gordon had a slow start to the year and has missed 15 games (12 of them in December), but he’s 1-2-3, +3 in his last four games, has won 55.7 percent of his draws this year, and leads the entire NHL in shorthanded ice time. Not this year, but soon, he could be a Selke winner for the Caps. And we still think there is an untapped offensive potential there.
Jeff Schultz. He makes mistakes from time to time, and can be somewhat exasperating in not using his size to better advantage. But he rarely looks as if he is in panic. He plays smaller than his size, and that is not always a bad thing. Smaller defensemen need to use smarts and an ability to use angles and position to defend. He does this pretty well for one with fewer than 75 games of experience at the NHL level.
Tomas Fleischmann. He played his way onto the opening night top line, then found himself overmatched early on. But he’s been earnestly plugging away – sometimes on the second line, sometimes on the fourth line – and is putting together a season that, if it won’t especially impress anyone this year, could be something to build on for the future.
He is capable of much better work.
Matt Pettinger. If someone had predicted Pettinger would have only two goals in 39 games and have the same scoring line as Donald Brashear (2-3-5), they’d have been thought a bit wacky, based on Pettinger’s last two years (36 goals in 135 games). His performance has been one of the big mysteries and disappointments of the first half. The good news is, if he can approach his rate of production of the last two years in the second half, it could be just the additional jump this team needs to push them into the playoff mix.
Disruptive in class.
The obvious pick here might be Donald Brashear, with his seven fighting majors this year (11th in the league). But Matt Bradley deserves a nod here, too, and in a good way. 56 hits (4th on the team) while getting only 8:29 of ice time a night. He makes his presence felt.
He still needs guidance and support from both you and me.
Milan Jurcina. And the “you and me” might read, “coaches and fans.” There is the lingering feeling that Jurcina is not performing up to the level he displayed upon coming to the Caps via trade from Boston last year. Statistically, that’s true...2-7-9, +5 in 30 games with the Caps last year versus 1-2-3, -4 in 36 games this year. He does not appear to be playing with quite the same edge or sense of urgency as last year and appears at times a bit lost on the ice. You’d wonder if this wasn’t a matter of a slip in self-confidence. One good sign...he’s only been on the minus side of the ledger twice in the last dozen games.
He assumes responsibility well and has a fine attitude.
Shaone Morrisonn. He draws the big assignments – the Jagrs, the Crosbys, the Lecavaliers. The lack of offense (four goals in 202 career games with the Caps) is something that folks might like to see improvement in, but here is a guy who has had two minus games in his last 14 drawing those big assignments. If he’s on the plus-side of the ledger that often in the second half, it will be a good second half for the Caps.
Quality of work has improved.
Tom Poti. Before Thanksgiving, Poti was 0-4-4, -4, in 15 games. Since then, he is 0-8-8, -1 in 19 games. It hasn’t propelled him into a short list for Norris Trophy consideration, but it is improvement.
Chris Clark. Hey, it’s not his fault (we’re more inclined to wonder if it wasn’t the condition of the ice that contributed to Clark’s groin injury), but having the captain out hasn’t helped this team. That the Caps have done as well as they have in his absence is a credit to the team and Bruce Boudreau. If Clark can get back to the ice for the second half, it can only help the team that much more. The hard part about this is that despite going scoreless for his first seven games, he was 5-3-8 in ten games before his injury, very much consistent with his career-record setting pace in goals set last year.
David Steckel. He draws big minutes among forwards on penalty kills and often draws the big matchups at center. Even with some recent struggles in the faceoff circle, he’s won 52 percent of his draws this year. Not bad for a guy who came into the season with 12 games of NHL experience.
Does colorful and interesting work.
John Erskine. He has a knack for getting under the skin of opponents without ever changing the expression on his face. And I’ll bet no one had the “over” on the scoring contest between him and Pettinger this year (Erskine is 1-5-6).
Takes pride in work well done.
Quintin Laing. Some guys do one thing very well. Often, it is something that doesn’t get a lot of attention other than a “here’s an odd statistic” moment on a game broadcast. Laing’s thing is blocking shots. He has 19 in 14 games. Here’s some perspective on that stat...it projects to 111 for a full season. That happens to be the total that led the league among forwards last year (Mathieu Dandenault).
Exhibits excellent attitude.
Brent Johnson. You’d better have someone with an excellent attitude who is likely to get into a game maybe three times a month over the course of a season, if the number one goalie is doing well. Johnson is having perhaps his best of three years with the Caps (3-4-1, 2.92, .898). For a team with ambitions of making the playoffs, those numbers might have to improve some in the second half, but at the moment that will be difficult, given that he’s injured.
Does not work up to his ability.
Olaf Kolzig. This might seem harsh, but only because he has been the rock of this franchise for the better part of the last decade – a goaltender who has played a lot better than his numbers might suggest because the team in front of him has been so weak. But this year, one has a disturbing feeling that the club has bailed the goalie out more often than had been the other way around in the past. It is not that Kolzig has played poorly, at least not for long stretches. But he’s given up at least four goals in four of his last ten appearances, ten in 33 appearances this year. Part of the recent trend might be the higher risk offense coach Bruce Boudreau employs. But a save percentage of .868 over the last ten games isn’t something the team is going to be able to weather from its number one goaltender, either.
Overall, we said that this would be a team that would probably struggle early with all the new parts it had to incorporate this year, especially among the top-six forwards and on defense. We didn’t think they’d struggle to the extent they did. If one looks at the first 41 games, then it projects to 74 points...another year of disappointing mediocrity. However, the Caps are 10-6-4 in 20 games since the change behind the bench. If they continue that pace, they will finish with 86 points. Given that last year, 92 points was necessary to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, that projection might look bleak. However, at the moment Carolina leads the Southeast Conference, and they are on a pace to earn...
The above might look a bit too "pollyanish" for some tastes, but the after-Thanksgiving team looks a lot more like the team folks thought might contend for a playoff spot. That goal is not out of reach, or at least not to the extent is appeared to be a month ago. There is still a lot of work to do, performances that have to be improved, and there are a lot of teams to climb over, but it could end up being a very interesting second half...if only this club can get healthier.