Sunday, May 18, 2008
Theme: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes and the grass grows by itself”
That is an old Zen proverb, and in a peculiar way applies to Viktor Kozlov. A player of considerable natural skill, Kozlov has had the look of an underachiever often in his career. Coming into the season, he averaged 19-34-53, +1, per-82 games over his 12 seasons with four teams. One thinks he could average five more goals and ten more assists than that. The thinking was that pairing him with the likes of Alex Ovechkin could awaken a slumbering giant…or at least get him to approach his thought-of potential. What did he finish with? 16-38-54…pretty close to his 82-game averages.
In fact, Kozlov’s 2007-2008 season was of the consistency that marked Ovechkin’s only writ smaller…
In every ten-game split, from five to nine points…in every one scoring 1-3 goals (except for a five-goal outburst fueled by a pair of two-goal performances that included a power play goal in each instance – his only power play goals and multi-goal games of the year)…a couple of penalty minutes or so. His longest points-scoring streak was a modest four games (achieved three times). His longest streak without a point was four games (in October). There simply wasn’t anything that jumped out of his ten-game splits.
There was that +28, though. He was+30 over his final 59 games, with only ten games in the minus column. Only twice in those last 59 games did he have as many as two minus games in any three. One could argue that such a result was a product of playing alongside Ovechkin (himself a plus-28). Well, perhaps. Or did his style of play – one that did not lend itself to statistical gratification – complement Ovechkin’s style to permit such production?
There is one other matter. Loathe as we are to even discuss the concept, Kozlov was brought here in part to address a glaring shortcoming the Caps had last year – achieving success in the Gimmick. Coming into the season, Kozlov was 13-of-25 in shootout attempts (52 percent). Seven of those goals were game-winners. This year, Kozlov connected on three of seven attempts, one of them being a game-winner. Part of the result is the product of the Caps only participating in eight Gimmicks this year (only four teams participated in fewer). The best that might be said for Kozlov's shootout performance is that it was the same as that achieved by Daniel Briere (ok, Alexander Semin, too...three-for-seven).
From observing him over those 81 games, it appears as if Kozlov simply doesn’t have enough selfishness in his game to ever realize the potential others might have seen for him. But that does not make him a bad fit for this team. He plays a quiet, mindful game that does not appear much in the usual statistical measures to which folks pay attention. He is very adept at lugging the puck and maintaining control of it when closely marked by defenders. He is patient in the offensive zone and acts as a “cool” counterpart to the radiant energy that Ovechkin emits. While not a grinder in the usual sense of the term, he still does a lot of the dirty work in steering the puck into position for others to work their magic.
In an odd sense, he is something of the forward version of former Cap defenseman Joe Reekie. It might have been said of Reekie that he didn’t have particularly noteworthy statistics, but he consistently put up year after year of “plus” seasons (13 straight). Kozlov put up game after game of “plus” results, despite his own statistics not being of elite stature. Was he along for the ride? Or a quiet cog in the machine? Whatever…despite his relatively quiet statistical line and frustratingly lethargic-at-times pace, he was there for many more good things than bad in the Caps’ rush to the playoffs. He has the look of a player who could have much more of an effect on a game, but who seems comfortable (perhaps too much so) with the game he has come to play.
Next year will be an interesting one for Kozlov -- a contract year and one for which there are likely to be greater expectations for the club. But for this year, it is hard to give him a poor grade and hard to give him a high one. We’ll settle for a bit above average…
The Russians pulled it off. Down 4-2 to Canada after Dany Heatley scored a goal mid-way through the second period of the World Hockey Championship final, the Russians stormed back to tie the game late in the third period on a goal by Ilya Kovalchuk. Then, with Rick Nash in the penalty box for the Canadians after taking a delay-of-game penalty, the Russians completed the comeback on a power play goal by Kovalchuk 2:42 in overtime to capture the title, 5-4.
It capped a spectacular tournament for the Russians on the Capitals' roster -- Alexander Semin, Alex Ovechkin, and Sergei Fedorov. Combined, they finished their nine-game journey as follows:
Semin: 6-7-13, +11
Ovechkin: 6-6-12, +11
Fedorov: 5-7-12, +10
That's 17 of the 43 goals Russia scored in the tournament...
...and, of course, the championship. As far as Capitals represented in the tournament are concerned, Ovechkin and Mike Green (CAN) were named to the all-tournament team -- Green finished 4-8-12, +2 in nine games.
In the final, Alexander Semin had two goals and an assist, Ovechkin had a pair of assists, and Fedorov also had a pair of assists (including the primary on the game-winner). Green had an assist for the Canadians.
Any tournament experience these young players can get can only help them in their quest for a Stanley Cup. Ovechkin remarked after the win that "We played hard through the whole tournament. This gold medal is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to me."
Next year, we hope he can repeat that sentiment wearing a Capitals jersey.
The big finish...
...and other highlights
Photo: IIHF/HHoF/Jukka Rautio
Theme: “Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.”
Samuel Johnson was an 18th century essayist, not a hockey player (he might have been a power forward if he was), but his quote certainly applies to Brooks Laich, hockey player. Laich is perhaps the unexpected feel-good story of the Capitals this year. Laich was awarded a $725,000 contract in arbitration last July and came to training camp as one of many players out of the same mold – grinders for third or fourth line duty – fighting for a spot on the roster. That he might be moved wasn’t exactly an original thought.
When the curtain fell on the 2007-2008 regular season, Laich played in all 82 games (one of only four Caps to do so), was the team’s sixth leading scorer (tied with Michael Nylander), was its third leading power play goal scorer (tied with Mike Green), and was its second leading game-winning goal scorer (tied with Green and Nicklas Backstrom). Tell us you saw that coming when the season started, and you can take the name “Peerless Prognosticator.”
The thing is, though, through 60 games you still might not have seen it coming...
Through those first 60 games he was a respectable 9-8-17, -4 – not bad for a third/fourth line forward on a team on the playoff margin. But those last 22 games…12-8-20, +1, and a pair of game-winning goals. He became the club’s sharpshooter over that last stretch, scoring those 12 goals on a total of 46 shots (26.1%). And, he was something of a power play terror, netting seven power play goals over those last 22 games.
And it wasn’t as if Laich was a one-note wonder. Here is perhaps an interesting number to ponder…Laich was credited with at least one point against every team in the Eastern Conference except Montreal. For an Alex Ovechkin, you would expect that sort of thing (yes, he did score against every team in the East), but for a player with only 37 points all year, that is rather unexpected.
If there was one adjective to describe Laich this year, it would be “versatile." In addition to the power play prowess he exhibited in the last quarter of the season, he could play any of the forward positions. We describe him here as a winger, but he took almost 600 draws this year in seeing substantial time at center (47.2 percent wins). He also led the forwards in blocked shots this year (56…ok, Quintin Laing had only four fewer in 43 fewer games) and was fifth among forwards in hits.
What makes his production especially noteworthy is that Laich was 12th on the team in ice time, among players who played in at least half of the Caps’ games this year. In this respect he benefitted from the coaching change in a rather substantial way. In the first 21 games of the year, he averaged only about 11:50/game – five times he skated for less than ten minutes. Over the last 61 games he averaged about 14:50/game and only skated fewer than 12 minutes only three times. Part of this was out of necessity (the minutes vacated by Nylander went he went on injured reserve had to be made up), part the result of some solid play.
Laich’s season is that of the Capitals in miniature. Not especially highly thought of when the season began, he struggled with ice time and production early, then got a life when the club made a change behind the bench. The spark he got helped give the Caps a boost in the last 60 games of the season, during which his production improved dramatically, especially over those frantic last 20 games. That is would be Laich who might be called the club’s most pleasant surprise this year is most unexpected. It is with that in mind that we’re inclined to grade him rather highly…
Moving on with the wingers, we take a look at…
Theme: “The key to everything is patience. You get the chicken by hatching the egg, not by smashing it.”
So said Arnold H. Glasgow. He could have been thinking of our subject. Alexander Semin is one of the most gifted skaters, puck handlers, passers, and shooters one is ever going to want to see on ice. He can be Baryshnikov on skates.
He also can drive a fan nuts.
Last year, Semin provided a long look for fans at what he could be…38-35-73 in 77 games. This year, however, was largely one of frustration for Semin, a product of a combination of injury, a lack of punch and consistency on the second line on which he played, and a lack of discipline from night to night on his part. If one looks at his ten-game splits, he was himself somewhat consistent…
* three games
Except for a sluggish start (perhaps a product of an ankle injury) and better-than-average 21-30 game production, Semin was a 5-8 point player over his ten-game stretches. But Semin also expressed a certain consistency that exasperated fans and, no doubt, coaches.
First, there is the matter of penalties. In his first 40 games, Semin had 10-8-10-12 minutes in penalties, all minors. And it is not as if the majority of those penalties were those of aggression. Ten of the 20 minors he took in those games were hooking penalties. Add in a trip and a holding-the-stick, and 12 of the 20 minors were obstruction-type calls. A lingering effect of the injury, preventing him from keeping up with the opposition? Or laziness on his part in defending?
Over his last 23 games of the year, though, he exhibited considerably more discipline, committing only seven minors (three hooks, four roughing calls…that’s right, roughing penalties).
Fortunately for the Caps, it hardly seemed to matter in terms of wins and losses. When Semin was committing those 20 minors in his first 40 games, the Caps were 9-7-1. In the last 23, when he committed only seven minors, the Caps were 3-2-1. One wonders, though…with a little more discipline over longer stretches of time, and Semin spending more time on the ice, would the club do better? Well, we got a glimpse of that over a 15 game stretch in February and March. From February 23rd through March 21st, the Caps played 15 games. Semin was whistled for a total of two minors over that stretch. The Caps went 9-5-1 and lost both games in which Semin had his penalties (to Pittsburgh and Chicago). We will not go so far as to offer a cause-and-effect relationship here, but it’s better for Semin to be on the ice than off it, especially when he’s taking himself off for ticky-tack obstruction-type calls.
The other matter is his plus-minus number. In none of his three seasons with the club has Semin been a “plus” player. He will never be a finalist for the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward. He won’t be a Selke finalist unless the list is expanded to 200 players or there is an act of God. But -18 in 63 games is a bit much, especially on a team that earned 94 points. He was not worst on the team – Michael Nylander was -19 in 40 games – but Nylander had the explanation of: a) being new to his teammates, and b) not being able to compete at full strength for the last stretch of games he played as a result of his shoulder injury. In Semin’s six full ten-game stretches, he was a “minus” player five times. In those 60 games, he was a minus player 24 times, a plus player 12 times. From February 20th through March 29th, he went 19 consecutive games without finishing on the plus side of the ledger. The Caps were 12-5-2 over that stretch (Semin was 8-4-12 in scoring over those games).
If there is something on which one can point to as a good sign moving forward, it is in the progress (of a sort) that Semin made in his last 18 games. Looked at as a whole, he was 7-5-12, -6…not especially impressive. But break up those games into thirds. In the first third (six games), he was 2-3-5, -3. He followed that up with a 1-1-2, -5 over his middle third. He finished up with 4-1-5, +2 in his last six games. Why do we pick this 18-game stretch? It corresponds with the arrival of Sergei Fedorov from Columbus. Centered mostly by Fedorov over this stretch, Semin appeared early on to play in awe of his linemate – too much so. Semin looked rather confused in the offensive end, looking to pass a little too much (he had only ten shots in the first six games of that 18-game run). He started shooting the puck more in the middle third (20 shots) and finally seemed to reach a comfort level with Fedorov in the last six games. No player seemed to be affected – good and bad – by Federov’s arrival than Semin, and with the way the youngster closed the season, it appears Fedorov had a positive effect on him. Whether that carries over to next season as a general maturation of Semin’s play, or whether it requires the presence of a Fedorov (who is an unrestricted free agent) will be one of the big questions for the team heading into the 2008-2009 season.
What consistency Semin exhibited this year was largely of the negative sort – his penalty-taking and struggles on defense. He has given the appearance at times, of being lazy (the hooking penalties is a representative example), or immature or undisciplined (retaliatory roughing penalties). He is, however, a gifted offensive player who is perhaps more of a highlight-reel threat every time he touches the puck than Alex Ovechkin. He has the potential to be a consistent 40-plus goal scorer annually. He can be a thrilling player to watch and an exasperating one, too. He showed signs late in the season of being able to deal with these demons, and the issue becomes one of patience. With the first year of a two-year, $9.2 million deal kicking in next year, much will be expected of Semin. Those expectations will include an ability to play with more maturity and consistency. He has tested the patience of those around the club in his tenure here. Hopefully, next season, this egg is going to hatch.
For this year though, owning to his inconsistency and troubles in his own end, we would give Semin a…