Sunday, June 29, 2008

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Defensemen: Jeff Schultz

Number four in the defenseman hit parade…

Jeff Schultz

Theme: “I think no virtue goes with size.”

One defenseman is 6’6, 221. The other is 6’6, 213. One is Jeff Schultz, the other…Chris Pronger. And that is the sort of comparison that leads to wonderment among Caps fans as to why Schultz doesn’t play more to his size, more like…Pronger.

Let’s leave behind the context of that quote from Emerson, above (it comes from a poem about a bird). It speaks to an important issue with respect to Schultz. Why does he become something of a whipping boy because he’s not a big hitter in a six-foot, six-inch body?

He had 40 fewer hits than did Minnesota’s Nick Schultz (who is six inches and 20 pounds smaller than Jeff), but as far as we are concerned, we don’t care if Schultz hits a guy or reads him Emerson, as long as whatever he does keeps opponents from putting pucks in the Capitals’ net. And the fact is Schultz – only 22 years old this morning – was more than merely a serviceable defenseman with a hitting problem this past season. In fact, he was pretty effective. If you look at his ten game splits, the usual lack of pizzazz one sees from offense-weighted statistics is there...

He did have a stretch of six games (December 8-17) in which he netted four of his five goals. But otherwise, the numbers have the look of a defenseman who tends to his own end rather than join any rush.

His season breaks down, as you might expect, into two pieces. However, it isn’t a “Hanlon” and a “Boudreau” segment. The dividing line is Christmas. Before December 25th, Schultz was 5-1-6, -4, in 29 games. He was even or better in 17 of those games, but was inconsistent. After Christmas, his offensive numbers did change some on per-game basis (0-12-12 in 43 games), but Schultz became much more consistent and reliable in his play. He finished the season +16 in his last 43 games and was +10 in his last 22 games as the Caps were turning into the stretch.

Jeff Schultz had only 38 games of NHL experience coming into this year (all earned last year). But by the end of this season, he was a dependable 18-20 minute a night defenseman (he averaged 18:41 in ice time after Christmas). What’s more, he’s quite a bargain in that role (cap hit: $750,000; 2008-2009 is the last year of his current contract). It’s hard to see what there is to complain about with Schultz, who looks to have a long NHL career ahead of him. We hope it’s with the Capitals.

By the way…it might bear noting that while Schultz had “only” 61 hits in 72 games this year, Pronger had only 74 in the same number of games, tied for 99th in the league.

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Defensemen: Tom Poti

Next up on the blue line…

Tom Poti

Theme: “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.”

Tom Poti came to the Capitals in 2007-2008 with certain expectations – a power play specialist (6-26-32 in power play scoring in 2006-2007, 11th in the league among defensemen), not an especially big hitter given his size (tied for 111th in the league among defensemen in 2006-2007), occasionally a liability in his own end (a minus player in five of his last six seasons entering this one).

If you look at Poti’s ten game splits, your disappointment in his performance (if that’s what you’re looking for) might be confirmed, to a point…

He had only those two goals, and he only had more than five points in a split once. But look a little harder. As with many Caps, his was two seasons. The “Hanlon”/”Boudreau” segment comparison is useful, but in Poti’s case, it is almost more an “injured/not injured” split.

In his “Hanlon” segment, Poti played in only 15 of 21 games, missing six with a groin injury. He finished that part of the schedule 0-4-4, -4, and certainly not looking like a player worth a $3.5 million price tag. However – and here we go again – Poti was 0-3-3, +1, in his first two games under the new coach, and it spring-loaded the rest of his season. In his last 56 games (he would miss another five games to injury over two separate incidents), he was 2-23-25, +13.

As far as expectations go, we can dispense with the hitting category right away. Poti was not a big hitter with the Caps any more than he was the year before on Long island. He finished tied for 159th in the league among defensemen in that category. While hitting has is uses and places, it is not the be-all or end-all of defense (we’ll get to that with Jeff Schultz later). Poti was second on the team among defensemen in plus-minus, second in total scoring, and second in average ice time.

But there is the matter of special teams – power play, specifically – and evidence of an altered role for Poti. As noted, in 2006-2007 Poti was 11th among defensemen in power play scoring – 6-26-32. This past season, he was 0-8-8. That’s the Mike Green effect (Green was 16th in power play scoring among defensemen this past season). Poti, who logged an average of 4:38 in power play ice time with the Islanders in 2006-2007, logged about two fewer minutes, on average (2:39), on the power play in 2007-2008.

Conversely, while Poti was only 0-6-6 at even strength with the Islanders in 2006-2007, he was 2-19-21 at even strength with the Caps this past season. The switch from emphasis on the power play to that of play at even strength looked to be reflected in his shots. The 99 shots on goal he registered was his lowest in the NHL since his rookie year in 1988-1999. On an average shots-per-game basis, he was down about 20 percent (1.39 shots-per-game last year versus 1.72 the year before). He was more “stable” than “specialist.” It was not a case of failing to achieve expectations than it was his carving out a different set of them.

The 2007-2008 season, by the "tens" -- Defensemen: Shaone Morrisonn

If we’re going to do Mike Green, then next should be his partner on the blue line, which brings us to…

Shaone Morrisonn

Theme: The man who occupies the first place seldom plays the principal part.”

Hockey and “The Sorrows of Werther” probably don’t intersect much, but that quote from von Goethe does seem to offer a glimpse into the matter of pairs on the blue line and the complementary partnership of Mike Green and Shaone Morrisonn. Green is getting a lot of attention this week in his restricted free agency status, Morrisonn not as much, even though he – like Green – finds himself in the restricted free agency pool.

As for Morrisonn, one might wonder if Green would have had the breakout season he did without Morrisonn playing the patient, stay-at-home, let-Mikey-join-the-rush sort of defense that he did. Morrisonn’s ten-game splits will not look especially impressive…

…but his value isn’t going to be reflected in the usual offense-weighted statistics. In a curious way, one can see his value precisely in his offensive statistics. As with Green, it is useful to look at the “Hanlon” and “Boudreau” segments. Under Glen Hanlon, Morrisonn was 0-3-3, -10, paired mostly with Milan Jurcina. Morrisonn and Green were paired in Bruce Boudreau’s first game behind the Capitals’ bench, against Philadelphia on November 23rd, and the two were 1-1-2, +4, combined. Seems the coach was on to something.

Over the second half of the year, the two were a combined +28. Morrisonn, by himself, improved from a -10 in his “Hanlon” segment to +14 in his “Boudreau” segment.

Morrisonn seemed to rise to the occasion with respect to opponents, as well. Against the Atlantic Division, arguably the best and deepest of the divisions in the East last season, Morrisonn was on the plus side of the ledger against four of the five clubs – Pittsburgh being the exception. Against the other four clubs, Morrisonn was a combined +8 in 16 games. Extending that line of thought, Morrisonn was even or better in 41 of 55 games in his “Boudreau” segment for the year (only 11 for 21 in his “Hanlon” segment). Plus-minus always has a certain “chicken or the egg” air about it, but it remains that Morrisonn was more successful in his own game and as a partner to Green in those last 55 games he played for the season.

Morrisonn has been consistent in his three years with the Caps. Whether the Caps were finishing the year with 70 points, as they did in his first two years, or with 94 points and playoff spot, his statistical lines have been steady: 1-13-14, +7, in 2005-2006; 3-10-13, +3, in 2006-2007; and 1-9-10, +4, this past season. That kind of consistency, along with his attention to his stay-at-home role, doesn’t make for gaudy statistics. But perhaps it served as the basis for an important contribution to the success of the club this year.

However…Morrisonn’s one goal this year?

…it was a game-winner.