Tuesday, March 18, 2008

We interrupt this playoff stretch drive...

We might as well start seeing that caution on just about any hockey web site you'd care to imagine. The reason?...a growing "controversy" over the Hart Trophy, what it means, and who is, is not, or should not be a favorite.

The question sparking the debate seems to focus on two things...first, a player -- Alex Ovechkin -- and second, whether a player whose team does not make the playoffs should be "eligible" (loosely defined) for the award.

Look around...Mike Brophy weighs in at The Hockey News...Jim Kelley opines from Sports Illustrated.

From Winnipeg to Montreal...from Philadelphia to Toronto (ok, Calgary)...from one national media source to another...the stage seems to be set and the cast assembling for one of the great debates (well, since the Jarome Iginla - Jose Theodore debate of ought-two) over the Hart Trophy.

There are few newspapers, magazines, web sites, or bloggers who have not at least hinted at an opnion or a preference. And we're three weeks from the playoffs.

So, for the record, we'll weigh in. Who cares if there are still nine or ten games left to play...

First, there is something that annoys me about the Hart voting. There are two "performance" awards for which any player, regardless of position, is eligible -- the Hart and the Pearson. However, both seem to be subjected to the same criteria -- the NHL's "best" player -- when neither include such a criterion in their citations.

The Hart is for the player "judged to be the most valuable to his team." The Pearson is for the "most outstanding player."

As to the former, the Hart seems to me to have become a "numbers" award. Lack them, and you're out of consideration. That suggests to me a certain laziness among the voters (even though I -- and I'm not a voter -- spend a lot of time looking at numbers). Second, I am mindful of the term "valuable" being in the citation. All other things equal, how valuable can a player be if his team does not make the playoffs? It seems to me a fair question.

The thing is, not all things are equal. There is an 82-game season with all its ups and downs, and the stretch drive that determines who does make the playoffs. Is there room in this consideration for a player, without whom his team could not or would not contend for a playoff position, even if his team comes close but does not make the playoffs? I think so...to think otherwise is to exhibit, in my opinion, the same narrow-mindedness that makes the Hart a "numbers" trophy most years.

Each team has a "most valuable" player. On some of those teams, the choice is clear, the only matter being whether that player has enough "value" to raise his team up into contention for a playoff spot or a high seeding. On other teams, the choice is less clear, either by virtue of being on a talent-loaded team where an individual's "value" might get lost in the noise (think "Detroit"), or whether that players prolific numbers are truly "valuable" (e.g., whether his team would have done as well without him).

To me, the Hart is a two man race. There are two players -- one in the East, one in the West -- who, if their teams had to play without them for any length of time, would sink rapidly in the standings...one team out of contention, the other perhaps out of the top-eight. They are the faces of their teams, the engines that drives their teams' performances. Each is as complete a player as there is in the league at any position, and they do many things more commonly associated with grinders or physical players. In fact, they seem to relish in it. Neither is a prima donna; both are among the most approachable and personable individuals in the sport (although that is not a selection criterion). Both have put their teams on their backs in the last 20 games -- one going 13-9-22, +11, while his offensively challenged team went 11-7-2, the other going 14-15-29, +6, while his all-too-young team went 11-6-3.

In my mind, this is a race between Jarome Iginla and Alexander Ovechkin.

One might argue, what about Evgeni Malkin? To that I'd say that while he has the numbers, it's not clear he's the most valuable player on his own team. Pittsburgh got uneven play from Marc-Andre Fleury when he went down with an ankle injury. But in the wake of that, Ty Conklin grabbed his responsibility by the throat, and the Penguins improved their goal-against-per-game average by about three-quarters of a goal a game. Malkin has fine numbers -- better than either Iginla or Ovechkin over his last 20 games (13-23-36, +10). But has his contribution been more important than that of Conklin? Perhaps, but if so, not as clearly.

Which brings me to the Pearson, which I think is a part of this conversation. This seems to me an odd award -- equal parts consolation prize to the loser of the Hart (even though there are different groups that vote on each award), if the competition is close (Jaromir Jagr in 2006, when Joe Thornton won the Hart), or ratification of a player's special year, if there is no clear-cut competitor to the eventual Hart winner (Sidney Crosby last year). No goalie has won it in ten years (Dominik Hasek, 1998, his second consecutive selection), and you'd have to go back to 1981 to find another (Mike Liut, the only other goalie to win it). So that means perhaps the loser of the Hart, assuming Iginla and Ovechkin are the top contenders, wins the Pearson.

What of the goalies, though. Martin Brodeur's name has popped up as a "dark horse" candidate (as if someone with his pedigree could ever be thought of that way) for the Hart. Brodeur certainly has fine numbers, and his team is having another fine year. But is his value to the Devils any more than that of an Evgeni Nabokov, who has similar numbers and plays for a team with results that so far are similar to the Devils? Ditto Roberto Luongo and J-S Giguere, whose win totals lag behind Brodeur and Nabokov, but who have nonetheless put together excellent years?

And what of the injured? By their absence -- and their team's performance in that absence -- do they merit consideration. If so, one would have to include Nicklas Lidstrom in the conversation (Detroit was 3-3-1 in his absence from February 18th to March 9th).

It is a crowded field, to be sure, and you can probably think of a couple other names to throw into the mix. But at the top are two players whose "value" to their teams -- one fighting for a higher playoff seed, the other for a playoff spot -- is just that much higher than the rest of that crowded field.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Predators, March 18th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

On the road again…just can’t wait to get on the road again.

OK, enough of that. The Caps are on the road in the first game of their longest absence from Verizon Center this year – six games – as they visit Sommet Center in Nashville to face the Predators. We managed to sit down with a couple of Predator season ticket holders to talk about what Caps fan might expect…Claude and Maude from Mt. Juliet. Hi folks, what has it been like following the Predators this year?

Maude: “What’s it been like?”

Yeah, has it bee like a roller coaster season, one of ups and downs? What analogy would you use?

Maude: “Analogy?...Claudie, why is he usin’ such big words?”

Claude: “Now, Maudie, they’re not big words if you break ‘em down into itty-bitty ones…take this one…first you have ‘ay-nal’…’ay-nal’…’a-nal.’ You know what that means. They you have ‘oh-gee’…’oh-gee’…sounds like something you’d say whilst you’re tryin’ to grab onto a hare-brained answer to somethin’ you don’t know…’ay-nal’…’oh-gee'…some story you’d grab outta yer butt.”

That’s about the best definition I ever heard for it…but folks, about the Predators. Being out west, in a manner of speaking, Caps fans might not know a lot about the team. What kind of year has it been?

Claude: “What kind of year has it been?...What kind of year has it been?...I’ll tell ya what kind of year it’s been, Mr. East Coast, high-fallutin’ come from a sorry, no-account, lame division like the Southeast hockey blogger, it’s been…”

Maude: “there, there, Claudie…you’ll have a spasm. You’ll have to excuse Claudie, he gets like this sometimes. You would too, if you were in the same division as the Red Wings. We were out of the division race by Thanksgiving. And we weren’t 6-14-1, either.”

But you’re still in the playoff hunt, aren’t you?

Claude: “Yeah, and if we were in the Southeast, we’d be thinkin’ about where to hang the banner for the division championship.”

You folks have been having some attendance woes that jeopardized the club’s staying in Nashville, but you’re doing better lately, isn’t that right?

Maude: “There he goes again with the big words…’jepperdized?’”

Claude: “He’s just sayin’ we weren’t drawin’ flies, and maybe the team would go to Hamilton or Winnipeg or Memphis.”

Maude: “I git it…well, we’ve actually had more than 17,000 for a game a few times…”

Claude: “Five times…”

Maude: “That’s right…five times.”

But you’re still struggling…28th in the league in attendance. You folks going to be able to keep your team?

Maude: “I sure hope so…I’d hate to have to start goin’ back to the ‘Grand Ol’ Opry’ again for a night out.”

Claude: “I just wish they’d move us into the Southeast Division.”

One last thing…do you folks all talk with an accent down here?

Claude: “No, actually, we just do it for you northern tourists. Isn’t that right, my wife?”

Maude: “indubitably…”

Well, there’s something you don’t ever expect…and speaking of that, there are probably a fair number of Caps fans who, after the Caps lost a pair of self-inflicted heartbreakers last weekend against Boston and Pittsburgh, thought the season was a wrap.

Well, as the Caps enter tonight’s play, they are two points behind Philadelphia for eighth place. But tonight the Caps face a team in a situation very much like their own. Nashville is in ninth place in the Western Conference, four points behind a trio of teams tied for sixth (Calgary, Vancouver, and Colorado). The Predators haven’t been helping themselves lately, lurching to either side of the road:

Record (last ten games): 4-6-0
Goals for/against: 27/34
Power play: 7/48 (14.6%)
Penalty killing: 46/53 (86.8%)
Record in one-goal games: 1-2-0
Games with more than three goals allowed: five

That last statistic is interesting. The Predators have been an all-or-nothing team on defense. Three times they’ve allowed six or more goals; four times they’ve allowed just one. If recent history is a guide, you’ll have a good idea where the Caps stand early. Five times the Predators have allowed at least one goal in the first period during these last ten games. In four of them, the opponent scored at least four goals for the game and won the contest.

So, that raises the question of how the goalies have performed. Dan Ellis has shouldered most of the load in the last ten games. The rookie is 4-4-0, 2.65, .919 in nine appearances.

Chris Mason is, perhaps, the more interesting case. In parts of three seasons, he played superbly in a relief role, giving the Predators the confidence to trade Tomas Vokoun to Florida at last summer’s draft for a 2nd round draft pick in 2007, a 1st round draft pick in 2008 and a conditional 2nd draft pick in either 2007 or 2008. Mason was signed to a two year deal last July. He hasn’t fulfilled expectations. 17-20-6, 2.94, .899 was not what was expected of a player who was 40-20-5 (with one tie) in parts of three seasons, with a 2.39 GAA and .922 save percentage. Here is one way to look at it. So far this season, Mason has played 2,527 minutes, 186 more than last year…about three games’ worth. But he’s given up 124 goals this year compared to 93 – 31 more goals in three extra games of time. He hasn’t had a good season. And in the last ten games, he’s made four appearances, giving up 14 goals (0-2-0, 5.02, .854).

If you’re looking at the skaters, you’d have to think first of Jason Arnott -- Nashville's leading scorer -- who has perhaps more experience against the Caps than do most Predators. He is 6-10-16, -1 in 21 games against the Caps. He’s 3-6-9 in the last ten games, but there is a -9 at the end of his line, too.

J.P. Dumont is 1-8-9, even, in 18 career games against Washington. He is 5-1-6 in over the last ten games, but he, too, has that -9 at the end of his line.

Alexander Radulov might have the most sheer talent among the forwards, but he’s had a rough time of late, at least in the goal-scoring department – 0-5-5…but at least he’s even over those ten games.

What Nashville has is a solid cadre of defensemen This seems hardly surprising, given that General Manager David Poile had similar success in Washington when he was GM for the Caps. Marek Zidlicky – a somewhat undersized blue liner (5’11”, 190) leads the defense in scoring 5-36-41. Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Dan Hamhuis, and Greg De Vries provide more size and comprise a very solid unit. Makes one wonder, why as this team allowed 34 goals in its last 10 games, some of them blowouts?

Then there is Jordin Tootoo. If you look at the statistics, you might be lulled to sleep by the fact that Tootoo is ranked in a tie for 65th in penalty minutes (83 for the year). That’s somewhat deceptive. He achieves this while getting barely 10 minutes of ice time a night. He’s not out there to make anyone forget Wayne Gretzky…or Wayne Campbell, for that matter. He’s there to cause a ruckus and make sure that the opponents have their heads on a swivel. While his rise to the NHL is an interesting story, being the first Inuit to play in the league, he plays, to be charitable, to the edge of the rules. Fans of opponents that play the Predators frequently will no doubt have a stronger opinion. He’s had an interesting private life, too.

But hey, there’s hockey to be played and standings to climb. These are very similar teams in terms of results:

Goals/game: Caps 2.86/Preds 2.85
Goals against/game: Preds 2.80/Caps 2.86

How they get there, though, is quite different:

Power Play: Caps 19.7% (6th)/Preds 15.4% (27th)
Penalty killing: Preds 84.8% (3rd)/Caps 80.6% (25th)
Winning when scoring first: Preds .789 (5th)/Caps .649 (23rd)
Winning when trailing first: Caps .306 (10th)/Preds .171 (30th)
Winning when leading after 1st period: Preds .815 (4th)/Caps .680 (24th)

This is one of those games where the team that can impose its will early has a very large advantage. If the Caps can get off fast, Nashville is not a come-from-behind team. That’s how we see it, too…

Caps 4 – Predators 2