Saturday, January 12, 2008

plink, plink, plink...shh, I'm tuning up

40 shots, 37 saves...

...but the Bears lost to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in Wilkes-Barre last night, 3-1, in Brent Johnson's rehab assignment game with Hershey.

It didn't exactly look like a sterling night for the chocolate and white, being out shot 40-16 and giving up those three goals in a space of 10:33 in the third period.

Johnson earned the game's second star.

(photo: Don Carey, The Times Leader)

The First Half...a bit of a belated look

We know, the Caps have now completed 43 games on this year's journey, but it might be useful to look at a comparison of this year to last through the 41-game first half among the players and see how things have improved...or haven't.

Brian Pothier:

2006-2007: 41 games, 1-16-17, -3
2007-2008: 38 games, 5-9-14, +5

Pothier takes a fair amount of grief from Caps fans, perhaps a product more of his contract than his play. However, he’s been more complete this year than last, and perhaps that is due to the change in his playing time. Last year through 41 games, he averaged 25:34. This year, that number is down to 18:42. The almost-six minute reduction seems to have freed him up to play at a higher level when he does take the ice.

Tom Poti:

2006-2007: 40 games, 3-16-19, -4 (with NY Islanders)
2007-2008: 34 games, 0-12-12, -5

Except for the goals, and a few games missed to injury, Poti is having (statistically, at least), pretty much the start he had last year. He did have a better second half than first half last year (3-22-25, +3 in 38 games). The hiccups of injury to start the year and end the first half contributed to a slow start, one that might have been foreseen anyway with his coming to a new team and expected to be the quarterback and offensive engine on the blue line. His having a better second half is likely to be important to any success the Caps realize for the remainder of the season.

John Erskine:

2006-2007: 18 games, 1-4-5, -5
2007-2008: 20 games, 1-5-6, -3

Coincidence or not, the Caps’ fortunes changed last year when he sustained a broken foot blocking a shot against the Flyers on December 16. That game was the high-water mark of the year (15-10-7), after which the Caps finished 13-30-7. Erskine might not have been the proximate cause of that slump, but he is the only “physical” defenseman on the roster. His year-to-year production, based on the numbers above, suggests a player of the sort that isn’t going to surprise, either in his skills or his limitations. His penalty minutes are down this year (36, versus 56 at the half-way point last year), but 29 of those PIMs last year came in a “back-to-the-70’s” night against Atlanta in which 176 penalty minutes were meted out, three players were suspended (Erskine not being among them), and both coaches were fined.

Alexander Ovechkin:

2006-2007: 41 games, 25-29-54, -3
2007-2008: 41 games, 30-20-50, +6

We’ve commented on Ovechkin’s consistency in the past (check the link to the subject over in the right margin), and this is no exception. Wind him up, watch him produce – this year doing so with a revolving mix on his line at center and right wing to start the year. This year, his total scoring is slightly down from last year, but he is a more complete player at both ends and is picking up an additional two minutes of ice time a night in the meantime. He’s given no reason to suspect anything but a similar performance in the second half. It isn’t so much that he has to take his game to the next level as much as the team around him has to – to the extent they do, it would seem likely that his assist totals will improve.

Matt Bradley:

2006-2007: 24 games, 3-6-9, +2
2007-2008: 36 games, 2-6-8, +2

Bradley is, in hockey parlance, an “energy” forward. That’s another term for “nuisance.” He’s there to annoy, bother, aggravate, and otherwise get opponents off their game. If he chips in the odd goal or two, fine. He’s been somewhat more durable this year, but he plays a game that subjects him to breakdowns.

Boyd Gordon:

2006-2007: 32 games, 2-8-10, +8
2007-2008: 26 games, 4-3-7, +2

Gordon has had to contend with injuries this year, but still has managed to contribute in ways that don’t find their way to the score sheet. Despite a hand injury, he is ninth in the NHL in faceoff percentage. The Caps have been giving up more goals than is comfortable in recent games. Gordon’s presence in the second half is needed to address that issue.

Chris Clark:

2006-2007: 39 games, 14-14-28, -2
2007-2008: 17 games, 5-3-8, even

Well, at least he’s still around. By this time, Caps captains of recent vintage (Steve Konowalchuk, Brendan Witt, Jeff Halpern) have moved on. But this has been a lost season so far for Clark, who is still battling a persistent groin injury. Getting him back and healthy for the second half is almost at this point, after having missed 24 games in the first half, like making a trade.

Matt Pettinger:

2006-2007: 33 games, 10-9-19, -7
2007-2008: 39 games, 2-3-5, -10

Clark has had injuries that have influenced his production this year. Pettinger, though, has been a mystery. It doesn’t appear for lack of effort – he’s plugging away each night. But the results just haven’t been there. He’s been moved around among the second, third, and fourth lines, but hasn’t really seemed to find a comfort zone anywhere thus far. As disconcerting as the lack of scoring has been is his being a -10 half way through the year (second worst on the club).

Nicklas Backstrom:

2006-2007: no games, 0-0-0, 0
2007-2008: 41 games, 7-22-29, -3

We wouldn’t have included him in this entry (his not having played in the NHL last year) but to note the progress he’s made since the start of the year, and especially since Thanksgiving. He’s been averaging about a point per game since late November and has established himself as an important ingredient to the club’s success. If he continues his scoring pace of the last six weeks through the rest of the year, he will finish with 65-70 points and will get a lot of Calder Trophy consideration. His faceoff performance could stand improvement (43 percent), but even Sidney Crosby struggled with that in his rookie year (45 percent).

Brooks Laich:

2006-2007: 41 games, 4-4-8, -7
2007-2008: 38 games, 7-5-12, -2

In a way, Laich is providing almost the numbers one might have expected from Pettinger. He is on a pace for career highs in goals and total points and is doing it filling a number of roles. He’s another who has found himself anywhere from the second to the fourth line, and gets some power play time thrown in. For a player who was on the bubble – one of the log jam of third/fourth line forwards the club had in training camp, he’s taken advantage of opportunities presented.

Milan Jurcina:

2006-2007: 29 games, 2-1-3, -3
2007-2008: 36 games, 1-2-3, -6

The numbers aren’t all that different, but Jurcina doesn’t look like the same force of nature he was at times last year. When he arrived with the club via trade from Boston last year, he made an impression pretty quickly as a player who was not afraid of taking the body, as they say, of an opponent and smearing it along the boards. The same sense of urgency and malice doesn’t appear to have been there as often this year. His contributions aren’t likely to find their way into the score sheet, but they need to be more frequent in the second half.

Viktor Kozlov:

2006-2007: 40 games, 13-11-24, +7 (with NY Islanders)
2007-2008: 41 games, 4-20-24, +6

There is an inconsistent consistency in Kozlov’s numbers from one year to the next. While the points remain the same, the mix has changed, skewing much more heavily toward assists. That’s what playing with Alex Ovechkin will do…or does it? While Kozlov has more assists on Ovechkin goals than for any other player, such assists do not dominate Kozlov’s total to the extent one might expect. He actually has more primary assists on Nicklas Backstrom goals (4) than on Ovechkin goals (3). Kozlov has spread it around, too. He’s assisted on goals from 10 different players. One might like that goal total to be higher (he’s had 12- and 23-game goal scoring droughts this year), but he’s found other ways to contribute in the meantime.

Shaone Morrisonn:

2006-2007: 37 games, 1-5-6, +2
2007-2008: 41 games, 0-6-6, +1

A lot is made over the emergence of Mike Green on the blue line since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the bench, but there is subtle flip side to that. Morrisonn was +11 in 22 games to finish the first half under Boudreau. Is that because he plays a lot with Green, who is scoring more these days, or is it because Morrisonn has Green’s back, covering for him so Green can jump into the offense more? Well, it’s both. One doesn’t work without the other. If Green is going to be credited with blossoming into a new, bigger offensive role, then Morrisonn needs to be credited with providing the support that allows that part of Green’s game to emerge, too.

Alexander Semin:

2006-2007: 37 games, 19-18-37, +3
2007-2008: 23 games, 6-6-12, -9

Injuries have made this something of a lost first half for Semin, a player for whom lost time causes swift erosions of game-day skills such as puck-handling and shooting. Having played only four games in October and five in November, he never could get the early traction that would allow him to find a groove. In Bruce Boudreau’s parlance, the groove become a rut...early injury, unproductive play when he was back in the lineup, and re-injury. The Caps have climbed back to the edge of playoff competition largely without much production from Semin. If he can approach the pace he set last year in the second half (19-17-36 in the second half last year), it will be a welcome boost to the Caps’ chances.

David Steckel:

2006-2007: 3 games, 0-0-0, -2
2007-2008: 41 games, 3-3-6, +1

From call-up depth forward to defensive stopper, Steckel has come a long way in a year. The usual goals-assists-points statistical line doesn’t say much, but his value can be summarized in two numbers: 2 and 23. Those are his rankings in the NHL in short-handed ice time among forwards and in faceoffs (51.9 percent wins) among players taking at least 500 draws. Now, if he could just play against Tampa Bay 82 times a year (3-2-5, +4 in five games this year).

Tomas Fleischmann:

2006-2007: 8 games, 0-1-1, -1
2007-2008: 38 games, 5-7-12, -5

No Cap has had a wilder ride through the first 41 games than this guy. From coming to camp without a contract, playing himself into a deal and the first line on opening night, finding himself somewhat overmatched in that role, bumped down the pecking order, sitting for a few games, getting back into the lineup and moving about the second, third, and fourth lines…getting 12 points in 38 games isn’t the worst result that could have occurred. But getting 12 points in the first half wasn’t what was expected when the puck dropped for the first time in October, either. Fleischmann is essentially an offensive player, and he stuck in a numbers game. Ovechkin and Semin are the scoring line left wingers. Kozlov and Clark (when he returns) are likely to be the right side top liners. Fleischmann might not get enough time on ice to fully develop or demonstrate his game. He’ll be getting some third and fourth line duty, perhaps some power play time. It might be a struggle for him to get quality minutes, and in an odd way he might be the canary in the coal mine in the second half. If he’s getting a lot of minutes, it is a likely to be reflection of injuries. When a coach says that an injury means that the next guy has to step in and be just as good, here is the guy who has to be just as good.

Steve Eminger:

2006-2007: 37 games, 0-7-7, -9
2007-2008: 2 games, 0-1-1, -3

12th overall draft pick to young up-and-coming-defenseman to minutes-eater (fourth on the club in average ice time last year) to…oblivion. The speed and depth of his fall has been stunning and is no small mystery on a club that is not elite in talent and is fighting health issues on the blue line. It’s anyone’s guess how this tale will play out (and at this point, anything anyone might offer on the subject is just that – a guess), but it seems that Eminger has no future in Washington. Someday, we might find out why that is so, but for now, it is merely a mystery worthy of an Agatha Christie.

Mike Green:

2006-2007: 39 games, 2-6-8, +5
2007-2008: 41 games, 10-11-21, -2

From “why isn’t this guy in Hershey?” to “is he going to be a Norris finalist?” in, what, eight weeks? As stunning as Eminger’s fall has been, so has been Green’s ascent. It is a story of two seasons. Through games of November 21st, Green was 3-4-7, -8. Starting November 23rd through the end of the first half, he was 7-7-14, +6. Think the coaching change made a difference? No player has been affected more by the change behind the bench than Green. His is something of a high-risk/high-reward game, though. Since the change – and the larger role Green has been playing – he’s had four games of +2 or better. He’s also had three games of -2 or worse. Here is your Mike Green number-o’-the-day…five. That is how many seconds of shorthanded ice time he’s played this year. Even Eminger has more.

Quintin Laing:

2006-2007: no games, 0-0-0, 0
2007-2008: 14 games, 1-2-3, +1

Laing gets a mention here, because he’s something of a throwback, reminiscent of the “Plumbers” of the 1980’s. It is tempting to pigeon-hole him as a “he’s not” kind of player, as in “he’s not this,” or “he’s not that.” But that’s doing him a disservice. What he is, is the kind of player who will take what skills he has and amplify them, even if they’re not sexy. His is shot-blocking. In those 14 games in the first half, he had 19 blocked shots, a pace that over 82-games would equal the league-leading total of last year among forwards. It is among the ultimate self-sacrifices in the sport, placing your body in front of a speeding puck (at least goalies are largely armor-protected). Laing is an elite practitioner of the art.

Jeff Schultz:

2006-2007: 4 games, 0-0-0, -2
2007-2008: 34 games, 5-3-8, even

There is a saying, “you can’t coach big.” You can’t hide it, either, and that is something of a curse for Schultz, because he doesn’t play like a big man, or at least fans’ notion of how a big man should play. He plays a game that might be more common among guys who are six feet and 190 pounds, rather than 6’6”, 224. That is not necessarily a bad thing. The league allocates standings points for wins, not for style points for hits. And if Schultz can keep opponents from scoring by using position and angles instead of body-checks and thunderous hits, well, good for him. He has struggled at times this year, but such might be expected from a guy who came into the year with only 38 games of NHL experience. The change in his game from this point last year hasn’t necessarily been “leaps and bounds,” but rather measured and incremental. He plays the sort of game where if you don’t notice him, he’s probably doing his job well. On a good night, he’ll get 20 minutes, might get a secondary assist, a couple of blocked shots (he’s second in that stat among defensemen), and a +1. He won’t have a SportsCenter highlight hit, but the opponent won’t score when he’s on the ice, either. If you notice him, it’s more likely to be a bad night, the sort where he’s in the frame in the highlight of the opponent scoring a goal.

Donald Brashear:

2006-2007: 36 games, 0-3-3, -4
2007-2008: 41 games, 2-3-5, -2

Brashear is a practitioner of perhaps the toughest job in the sport – peacekeeper (one might substitute terms such as “enforcer,” “fighter,” etc., etc.). But he is not a liability in other aspects of the game, at least to a point. That he plays at the edge of the rules – and sometimes over that edge – isn’t exactly one of the league’s best kept secrets. But he gets more power play time a game than Boyd Gordon or Jeff Schultz (though 16 seconds isn’t much), and he isn’t as one dimensional as many of his physical cohort are. He’s “opened up” on offense this year compared to last, although he isn’t on a pace to come close to any career highs in that regard. He’ll get 6-8 minutes a game, try to disrupt an opponents rhythm (or teeth). That’s his role on this team. If he chips in a point every 6-8 games, more’s the better.

Michael Nylander:

2006-2007: 39 games, 14-31-45, +11 (with NY Rangers)
2007-2008: 37 games, 10-23-33, -16

Since Nylander’s game includes a large element of skating and playing off linemates, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see him start slowly with a new club, even if it was his second tour in Washington. He did start somewhat slowly (5-14-19, -9 in 22 games through Thanksgiving), but unfortunately, he hasn’t improved on that pace much. The problem here is an injury (shoulder) that allows him to stay on the ice with diminished productivity, but which might require surgery from what we’re reading.

Olaf Kolzig:

2006-2007: 31 games, 13-12-4, 3.08, .911
2007-2008: 33 games, 13-16-4, 2.99, .891

We know it’s difficult, but let’s put aside the name, close our eyes, and think…


Only one goaltender in the league with at least 20 games has a lower save percentage (Johan Holmqvist, Tampa Bay). It isn’t a consistently poorer performance by Kolzig this year that has left him in that position, it is more that opponents are ripping off larger chunks of goals more frequently. If you compare this year’s first half to last and the times Kolzig has allowed more than three goals, he’s actually doing better this year (10 occasions to 12 thorough the first half last year). But while opponents tagged him for five or more goals only three times in the first half last year, he’s given up five or more five times in 33 games in the first half this year. It is an unsettling trend, even if the Caps choose to employ a higher-risk offense under Boudreau (although three of the five occasions this year came before the coaching change). The Caps have had a winning formula since Thanksgiving, but that seems as often as not to be in spite of, not a product of goaltending.

Brent Johnson:

2006-2007: 13 games, 4-5-3, 3.40, .893
2007-2008 11 games, 3-4-1, 2.92, .898

When looking at benchmarks some months back (check the link over on the right), we made a point about backup goaltenders on playoff squads last year:

-- None of the ten goalies who played more than 20 games in this group (except for Marc Denis, who was demoted) had a below-.500 record.

-- None of the ten goalies who played more than 20 games (again, except Denis) had a goal-against of more than 3.00

-- Only two of the ten goalies in this group who played more than 20 games had a save percentage below .900 (Denis and Johan Hedberg)

Johnson is below .500 (this year and last), has a GAA hovering around 3.00 (markedly improved over last year, though), and has a save percentage a couple of ticks below .900. He’s also injured. The Southeast is characterized by goaltending issues among most of its teams, the Caps (somewhat surprisingly) included. When he returns, Johnson is going to get playing time, and if the Caps are going to make a push, he can’t be just a “sacrificial” goalie to give Kolzig a breather. The Caps need to earn points when he plays, and sometimes he’s going to have to be the key to getting them. He is playing somewhat better than last year, but will have to improve on that for the Caps to contend.