Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 7

Number 7. Young Guns

The 2003-2004 season was the bitter aftertaste of the disappointment that was the end of the 2003 Stanley Cup playoffs, when Martin St. Louis drove home the final nail in the Caps’ coffin of dead playoff dreams in a third overtime in Game 6 of the opening round. On opening night of the 2003-2004 season, the Caps defeated the Islanders, 6-1, on a night where the Caps inaugurated their 30th season by honoring the best Capitals by decade: Yvon Labre (1970’s), Rod Langway (1980’s), Dale Hunter (1990’s), and Calle Johansson (2000’s).

There was precious little honor in what followed. The Caps were winless in their next eight games (0-7-1). Their go-to guys (allegedly) – Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra – managed a grand total of four goals and six points, combined, in the eight game winless streak. It didn’t get better.

The Caps would not cobble together as many as two consecutive victories until December, by which time the team was 8-15-1-1, and the writing was, if not on the wall, being hastily scribbled – something had to be done. It didn’t take long. After another two pastings on the road – a 7-3 loss in Los Angeles and a 4-1 loss in Colorado – the end of The Great Experiment in Coaching was at hand, that being the dismissal of Bruce Cassidy. But this was a team that was highly paid, less talented, and unmotivated. Firing a coach wasn’t the end.

And thus, “The Rebuild” began in earnest. We will not go into the detail, because you can find them by clicking on one of the “rebuild” links over there on the right. But there was one deal that is relevant to our purposes, as much for the risk it represented as for the return. In the middle of the god-awful season that was unfolding, Robert Lang managed to lead the NHL in scoring for the Caps. As trading day arrived, he was 29-45-74 in 63 games. If would be an iffy thing to trade the league’s leading scorer, even if the team doing it was on an express train to Suckville. It had never been done before in league history.

Well, that is precisely what the Caps did, trading Lang to the Detroit Red Wings on February 27, 2004 for prospect Tomas Fleischmann, a first-round draft pick in 2004, and a second-round draft pick in 2006.

There is a lot of instant analysis on trades, especially when big producers are involved. Getting a former late first-round draft pick and a couple of futures might not have seemed like much of a return to many folks. Even when that first round pick was used by the Caps, there might have been some head-scratching. They picked a defenseman who labored for a Canadian junior team that went 7-52-11-2 in the regular season. He was the leading scorer among defensemen on that Saskatoon Blades team, but he was also a minus-29. On this fellow, a first round pick was burned? OK, the Capitals already had won Powerball in the right to select Alexander Ovechkin at the top of that draft, but still…

That pick was, as you no doubt have figured out, defenseman Mike Green. He played for one more year in Saskatoon (a playoff team, it should be noted), then split the 2005-2006 season with the Hershey Bears and the Caps. While Green was getting his feet wet in those 22 games with the Caps in 2005-2006, his first-round draft mate in the 2004 draft was smashing (literally, in many instances) the league to smithereens. Alex Ovechkin had a season good enough for 50-plus goals and a Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. But that Capitals team was too weak or too green in too many other areas to do any better than manage 29 wins and 70 standings points. The ingredients were being assembled, but there just weren’t enough on hand to finish the recipe.

After that 2006 season, the Caps were once more in the draft lottery and won the right to pick fourth in that draft. The Caps didn’t lack for needs – a big physical defenseman, a scorer to complement Ovechkin, a strong two-way center. Making the selection difficult was the fact that there were players fitting the need profile – Erik Johnson on defense, Phil Kessel as a scoring forward, Jordan Staal and Jonathan Toews filling the promise of a sturdy two-way center. However, with the fourth pick the Capitals picked a playmaking center from Gavle, Sweden – Nicklas Backstrom – who looked to be the perfect playmaking fit for a goal scorer of Alex Ovechkin’s talent.

The hitch in the plan, though, was the decision by Backstrom to play another season in Sweden. It left the Caps with the dim prospect of Alex Ovechkin being the only bullet in the Capitals’ pistol. But there was another Russian – another Alex – that rejoined the club after a roundabout journey that took him from a 52-game stint with the Caps in the abysmal 2003-2004 season to the Portalnd Pirates, then back to Russia. It was a journey not without its controversy, but Alexander Semin was back with the Caps for the 2006-2007 season. Ovechkin and Semin finished one-two on the Caps in goals and total scoring, and established themselves as one of the most dangerous scoring pairs in the league. Mike Green was also a member of that team, logging 70 games, but finishing with unspectacular results (2-10-12, -10). The rest of the roster was too thin on experience or talent to do any better than another 70-point finish.

Even as the 2007-2008 season dawned, the Caps looked to have talent (Backstrom would join the team), but lacked enough experience to impress anyone as anything other than a playoff maybe, at best. The early season looked to confirm the opinions of those pundits as the Caps started 6-14-1 and replaced another coach. Glen Hanlon was relieved of his duties in favor of Bruce Boudreau. It wasn’t as if the Caps suddenly caught fire, as they went 7-5-3 over the next 15 games leading up to Christmas.

But oh, what 2008 brought…

The Capitals finished the 2008 portion of the season with a 28-12-3 record that allowed them to clinch a playoff spot in the final game of the season. The guys who led the way were the quartet of Ovechkin, Green, Backstrom and Semin…

Ovechkin would lead the league in goal scoring, total scoring, and would tie Viktor Kozlov for the team lead in plus-minus at +28.

Green would lead all NHL defensemen in goal scoring (18).

Backstrom would be a Calder Trophy finalist and would average almost a point a game (7-34-41) in the 43 games played in the 2008 portion of the season (including two four-point games).

Semin, who fought injury problems early in the season, had 20 goals in the 41 games he played in the 2008 portion of the season.

This foursome has hardly let up. As of today, the Caps are 48-23-6 in this calendar year. In putting together that 2008 record, here is what these four players’ contributions have been:

Alex Ovechkin: 75 games, 55-52-107, +33
Nicklas Backstrom: 77 games, 17-58-75, +21
Alexander Semin: 62 games, 34-38-62, +9
Mike Green: 66 games, 18-40-58, +19

These four players, three of them offspring of the wreckage that was the Capitals’ 2003-2004 season, represent the core of the team. Backstrom and Semin are under contract through next season, Green through the 2011-2012 season, and Ovechkin until the sun goes dark. None of them are older than 24. Coming out of the lockout, Ovechkin might have been the only bullet in the Capitals’ gun, but now, that gun is loaded. More to the point, they are all guns in their own right…The Young Guns are one of the top stories of 2008.

1 comment:

Justin said...

Awesome! Just think where we'll be if they ever all play together this year...