Sunday, October 05, 2008

2008-2009 Previews: Tomas Fleischmann

And now, we're up to…

Tomas Fleischmann

Last Year: 10-20-30, -7

Career average (per-82 games): 10-18-28, -14

Fearless’ Take: Fleischmann has skill. The question is whether he has “AHL skill” or “NHL skill.” In the AHL, he was 59-74-133 in 155 career regular season games. If anything, he ramped up his performance in the playoffs, going 16-37-53 in 39 career AHL playoff games (all with Hershey). But in the NHL, he’s been somewhat slow to develop. A lot of the problem is his getting pushed around the ice a lot, not having the wherewithal to deal with the more limited time and space one gets in the NHL. Last year, going to camp without a contract, he not only played himself into a deal, but played himself onto the top line to start the season. It ended up being something of an albatross around his neck for much of the season. Set that aside for a moment and ask, for a guy who went into the 2007-2008 season with only 43 games of experience, was 10-20-30 that bad of a year, especially when he wasn’t on that top line anymore?

Cheerless’ Take: Fearless, Fleischmann has a job as a "top-six" forward. That’s his calling in the NHL. If he doesn’t cut the mustard there, he doesn’t have a job. It really comes down to that. And if he gets top-six minutes, he should get 30 points by accident on this team in an 82-game season. But let’s put that aside for a second. What’s up with that -14 in his career average? Last we checked, the rink was 200 feet long, and you generally had to play in both ends of it. He wasn’t the worst on this team in that regard (his -7 was tied with Donald Brashear and ahead of both Alexander Semin and Michael Nylander), but he’s been on the bottom half of the club in each of his three years with the Caps. He looked somewhat sturdier in camp and preseason, which could improve his ability to defend, but that will be something to watch, too.

The Peerless’ take: Fleischmann is another of those guys who is being, or will be pushed for a roster spot sooner rather than later. Chris Bourque could push him now (but for the options the club has with Bourque as far as sending him down to Hershey), and guys like Francois Bouchard, Dmitri Kugryshev, or even an Oskar Osala could push him down the road. In a sense, the apprenticeship of Tomas Fleischmann is at an end. His skills aren’t a mystery – he has displayed a talent as a fine puck handler and passer, and he’s shown an ability to score in the clutch…in the AHL. He now has more than 100 NHL games of experience under his belt. He has shown improvement (30 points for a player bringing as much experience as he had into last season wasn’t a bad result). But it is time to take another step. What might influence that is – as in the case of a few others on this team – what the third line looks like. If one presumes a top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Viktor Kozlov; and a second line of Alexander Semin, Sergei Fedorov, and Brooks Laich (for argument’s sake), then a third line might look like Fleischmann, Michael Nylander, and Chris Clark. That was, in fact, a line that worked together for a time in training camp. It would present Fleischmann with the opportunity to demonstrate that his skill isn’t limited to an “AHL” standard. But until he demonstrates that kind of a leap in production…

Projected: 10-18-28, -3

2008-2009 Previews: Matt Bradley

Fearless…Cheerless…you want to stop playin’ with the livestock and get back in here. We have work to do…

Matt Bradley

Last year: 7-11-18, +1, 2 GWG
Career average (per-82 games): 8-12-20, -4

Feerless’ Take: “Fearless” would be a good nickname for Bradley. He’s not going to score a lot, but what he does bring is energy, an affinity for hitting things in the sweater of the other club, and for taking things into his own hands when the need arises...

Bradley has been consistent in his three years with the Caps, generally putting up 20 points per 82 games, which is right there with his career average. The odd part of it is that he’s done it with decreasing ice time-per-game – 12:35 in his first year in Washington, 11:55 in 2006-2007, and 9:59 last year. Chalk one up for efficiency. He’s also been consistent in dealing punishment to opponents. In his first year in Washington, he had 120 hits in 74 games, in 2006-2007 he had 65 in 57 games (when he missed 21 games for a variety of injuries and personal reasons), and in 2007-2008 he had 126 in 77 games. He doesn’t have the offensive upside of some of the “plumbers” of the 1980’s squads, but he brings the same solid “lunch pail” ethic. The team must have seen something it liked, having signed him last May to a three-year, $3 million deal.

Fearless’ Take: Don’t get me wrong, cuz, but don’t you think three years at a million-per was a bit much for a guy who has a total of 95 points and is -18 in over 400 games? OK, he was tied for 74th in hits last year – that’s all very nice. He was also tied for 356th in points with the likes of wingers Jordin Tootoo, Stephane Veilleux, Trevor Letowski, and Chris Thorburn. All of them are paid less in the NHL than Bradley, except Letowski. Oh, he’s in the KHL.

The Peerless’ Take: Well, Cheerless, Bradley might be the highest paid among those you mentioned. He is also the only one of that group who finished the year on the plus side of the ledger (the others were a combined -35). And here is your fun fact…in the 18 games Bradley played after the trading deadline, he was 4-3-7, +7, and average more than two minutes above his season average of ice time. He got more work, more responsibility, and did rather well for a fourth liner. Bradley turned 30 over the summer. That almost puts him among the elder statesmen on this team. It also suggests that he’s settled into being a pro. Except for injury, he’s been a full time performer for the Caps in his three years here, performing an important role as a guy who will get under the skin of opponents, stand up for teammates, and pot the occasional goal…including when he calls his own number in the shootout.

Projected: 6-9-15, even

Commercial Throwdown...Mercedes Style

OK, we've all seen by now the commercial Bruce Boudreau filmed for American Service Center. OK, maybe you haven't, but now it's time for the throwdown...Bruce versus Eddie, Mercedes-a-Mercedes, cup holder versus shot be the judge...

But sorry, have a long way to go to top the master...

2008-2009 Previews: Boyd Gordon

Next up…

Boyd Gordon

Last Year: 7-9-16, +5, 55.8 pct. faceoff wins

Career average (per-82 games): 6-15-21, +1, 51.7 pct. faceoff wins

Feerless’ Take: If one were projecting Boyd Gordon into a player of the past, one that might come to mind is Kelly Miller. In 1,057 regular season games, Miller averaged 14-22-26, +6 per-82 games. But in his first two seasons in Washington, Miller averaged only 10-18-2, +10 (on better teams overall than did Gordon). While they play different positions – Miller being primarily a left wing, while Gordon is primarily a center – both bring a certain earnestness and hard-working attitude to their games. Gordon has played the role of being chiefly a defensive specialist who takes critical faceoffs. In his 67 games last year, he was in the minus column only 12 times, and only once as bad as a minus-two. And, in only 17 of 67 games did he find himself with a lower than 50 percent mark on faceoffs. It would be fair to say he was extremely consistent – one knew what they were getting with Gordon night-in and night-out. On a team that has such a high-powered offense, it is nice to have a player such as Gordon who can step out and shut down an opponent, to preserve those hard-earned gains made by the offense.

Cheerless’ Take: Kelly Miller? Don’t you mean “Kip?”…or “Kevin?” The fact is, Gordon regressed last year, at least statistically. He was held to the same number of goals as in 2006-2007 (seven), had fewer assists (nine versus 22), fewer points (16 versus 29), had a worse plus-minus (+5 versus +10, on a better team), had fewer shorthanded goals (one versus two), took fewer draws (904 versus 1,214)…and did this with no appreciable change in either total or even-strength ice time. It’s nice to have two defensive, face-off, penalty killing specialists like David Steckel and Boyd Gordon on one team, but one might consider that a luxury, too. If you had to take one, right now, would it be Gordon?

The Peerless’ Take: Well, Gordon also missed a dozen games last year due to a fractured right hand, Cheerless. That was time missed, not only to contribute to the club, but coming as the injury did in late November, it cost him time to become accustomed to new coach Bruce Boudreau’s game. He was forced to play catch-up upon returning. What it means is that he has a special need to prove something this year. He has the defense and penalty-killing thing down, and he has been consistent. But can he be that Kelly Miller-type who chipped in the average of 25-30 points a season on a consistent basis? The style that the Caps play suggests he’ll get opportunities to do that, and in fact, Gordon did show some promise as a more prolific scorer when he was in Canadian junior and in the AHL. This is a contract year for Gordon – he is a restricted free agent at the end of this season. While his are valuable skills to have on a roster that has lofty aspirations – you need the guys to do the simple, basic stuff well – he is being pushed from underneath by prospects who could challenge for playing time next year (Chris Bourque, for example, if he doesn’t make the cut this year) and from the side by players with similar skill sets (David Steckel). It’s hard to say that a guy not yet 25 years old (he will turn 25 on October 19th) is in a pivotal year of his career in Washington, but such is the state of the team now, where competition has grown keen for roster spots. It is an important year for Gordon.

Projected: 9-11-20, +7

2008-2009 Previews: David Steckel

Continuing the march through the forwards, the cousins and I turn to…

David Steckel

Last year: 5-7-12, +1, 56.3% faceoff pct.

Career average (per-82 games): he hasn’t played 82 games yet, either

Feerless’ Take: Odd, isn’t it, that Steckel doesn’t yet have a full season’s worth of NHL games experience (79 games over three seasons)? It just seems as if he’s been here a while. Maybe it’s the experience he had at Hershey in his two full seasons there that heralded his arrival in Washington (a key player in two Calder Cup finals appearances). Maybe it is his solid defensive play and faceoff acumen that merely suggests more of a veteran player. Maybe it’s merely his demeanor…blending in as an island of calm in a sea of riot (the one over on the top left, without his arms raised in the air)…

…whatever, he has built himself into a solid defense-oriented center. There does, however, seem to be an unrevealed part of his game. In 176 games at The Ohio State University, he had 50 goals. In 208 games in the AHL, he had 54 goals (including 30 in 71 games at Hershey in 2006-2007). This isn’t to suggest that he is the next 30-goal scorer on the Caps (joining Ovechkin, Semin, and Clark as players on the roster who have such seasons with the Caps), but that perhaps there might be another scoring option on the bottom half of the forward lines. But even if he doesn’t improve significantly on the scoring side, Steckel provides such consistent defensive play as to be a critical element on this team.

Cheerless’ Take: Once in seven games – once – did Steckel have a better than 50 percent winning percentage on faceoffs in the opening round playoff series against the Flyers. And, he didn’t have a plus game in the bunch. As for his regular season, he was 4-2-6, +4 in six games against Tampa Bay, but was only 1-5-6, -3 in 61 games against the rest of the league. In 67 games, he had only four in which he had more than two shots on goal, and in 21 of them, he didn’t register a single shot. That’s not a recipe for improving his offense, cuz.

The Peerless’ take: Steckel was seventh among all players taking at least 500 draws in faceoff win percentage. What is telling about that is that of the six players ahead of him, none has played fewer than 298 games in his career. In fact, of the half dozen players below him in that statistic, none have played fewer than 204 games (that would be Boyd Gordon, of the Caps, by the way). And, as far as the offense goes, there is that Tampa thing…given what Tampa’s defense is likely to look like this year, he might double his goal total against the Lightning alone. Well, probably not, but it is good to keep in mind that Steckel was a rookie last year – a more mature rookie, perhaps (26 when the season ended), but a rookie nonetheless. He does have that history of producing on the offensive side of the ledger at previous stops, but that really isn’t his role on this team. He’s really on this club to matchup against the other club’s scorers, to kill penalties, and to win important draws. If he scores on top of that, it’s gravy.

Projected: 6-9-15, +3

2008-2009 Previews: Donald Brashear

Next up among the forwards…

Donald Brashear

Last Year: 5-3-8, -7, 119 PIMs

Career average (per-82 games): 7-10-17, -7, 216 PIMs

Feerless’ Take: There comes a time when, in Brashear’s particular line of work, you become the bear no one wants to poke. It is a station in the sport that comes at the price of a lot of work and pain. Brashear has had, according to, 212 fights in his NHL career (regular, post, and pre-season). If one were to average this over his career, his 192 regular season fights would mean 17 fights per 82 games. But he hasn’t had 17 fights in any NHL season since the 1998-1999 season in Vancouver. In two seasons with the Caps, he has had 26 fights in 157 regular season games. He’s hardly become a shrinking violet, but what it’s meant for the Caps and Caps’ fans is that there are other aspects of Brashear’s game on display that suggest his contribution is not merely that of an enforcer. For one, he’s had 234 hits in those 157 games, third behind Alex Ovechkin and Milan Jurcina, which isn’t bad for a player averaging less than eight minutes a game these past two years (about a third of what Ovechkin averages). There are scoring lines, and there are crash and bang lines. Brashear has shown he can contribute to the latter in ways that don’t only focus on fisticuffs.

Cheerless’ Take: Uh, cuz?...He wears ’87,’ it doesn’t make him Sidney Brashear. He was 27th on the club in average time on ice last year (last) and 27th the year before (ahead of only Jamie Hunt). He plays those less than eight minutes a game for a reason. Here’s your fun stat…in 14 seasons, Brashear has been a plus player twice. He’s still an intimidator who will police the ice for the Caps, but the flip side of that is whether he’ll take the iffy penalty, too. You didn’t forget what happened in Boston last spring, did you, cuz?

The Peerless’ Take: Brashear’s role is to maintain order, to prevent anyone from taking undue liberties with the skill players the Caps employ. It is not a unique role in the NHL; there are several heavyweights employed in this fashion. But Brashear, despite being 36 years old, is not entirely one-dimensional. He can provide serviceable minutes on the fourth line, and in a pinch can play on the checking line. How the Caps choose to populate the top three lines will influence how Brashear is used (or the extent to which he is dressed) this year. The Caps have that surplus of scoring forwards that could man three full lines, leaving the fourth as a checking line. That would seem to argue more for something like a Bradley-Steckel-Gordon deployment, leaving Brashear as an odd man out. But there will be situations and teams against which Brashear’s presence is recommended.

We would maintain that his role is just about the toughest to do well in the NHL; it is a hard way to make a living in professional sports. But having climbed the rungs of the enforcer ladder in the early stages of his career, here is what that has produced in terms of what perhaps is a statistic surprising to Caps fans. Brashear has been in the top ten in fights only once in the last eight seasons (eighth in 2006-2007). He hasn’t been in the top-five since the 1997-1998 season. There comes a time when a player in the enforcer role has built a sufficient reputation that no one really wants to challenge him…or take liberties for which they will have to answer. In that respect, Brashear is as effective a player in his role – keeping the peace – as the “skilled” players who are at the top of the scoring lists.

Projected: 2-4-6, -4