Friday, October 10, 2008

2008-2009 Previews: Alex Ovechkin

And finally…

Alex Ovechkin

Last year: 65-47, 112, +28, 22 PPG, 11 GWG, 220 hits

Career average (per-82 games): 55-49-104, +4, 20 PPG, 8 GWG

Fearless’ Take: If you were going to build a hockey player for the 21st century from the ground up, it would probably be Alex Ovechkin. He is not only the most dynamic talent on ice in the league, he has fast established himself as the most dynamic personality off it, as well. There isn’t much to say about him, his 2007-2008 season, or his potential that hasn’t already been said. He is the first player in half a century to be named the best at his position (first team NHL all star) in his first three years and is the only skater in the history of the league to be so named. His domination of the league’s scoring rankings last year was the stuff of legend. His 65 goals eclipsed second place Ilya Kovalchuk’s total by 13 goals, a full 25 percent margin. It was the first time since the 2000-2001 season that the goal-scoring champion led his nearest competitor in total goals scored and percent margin (Jarome Iginla bested three other players, 52-41, in that year). It was the first time since 1995-1996 that a player scored that many goals to lead the league (Mario Lenieux, 69).

His consistency as a pro has been amazing, and it was on display last year. Only once did he go consecutive games without a point, a three-game stretch from February 15-20. He had only one stretch when he went more than two games without a goal, a seven-game drought from February 15-29. And when it came to take the club and carry it on its final run, from March 1 – April 5 (the last 17 games of the season), he was 17-12-29, +19. No player in the post-lockout era dominated the season or the stretch run as did Ovechkin in 2007-2008. It sets a very high bar to try and raise in 2008-2009.

Cheerless’ Take: OK, let’s look at that February 15 – 29 stretch for a minute, cuz. Seven games, 0-5-5, -4. What happened?...distractions, perhaps? Ovechkin is the closest thing to a rock star the NHL has to offer, and it arguably its most important global marketing commodity (with apologies to the suits in the NHL front offices that are trying so very hard to make Sidney Crosby the face of the NHL). And he did appear in a lot of places and magazine covers this summer. Ovechkin’s summer was also as newsworthy for the latest girlfriend news or appearance on variety shows as it was for anything to do with hockey. Ovechkin might have as single-minded an attitude when it comes to hockey as anyone who plays the sport, but distractions do intervene from time to time. If one is looking for a reason to think he will have a drop off this season (and I’ll admit, cuz, it’s an exercise in picking nits), it is the distractions and demands on his time off the ice that could serve to undermine the season.

The Peerless’ Take: Players who score more than 60 goals don’t win Stanley Cups, not since Wayne Gretzky’s hey-day with the Edmonton Oilers, at least, and those clubs were loaded in ways the Capitals can only, for the moment, dream of. Ovechkin could score 70 goals this year. He could score 50-in-50. He could consign Joe Malone to the dustbin of history with an eight-goal game. All of that is nice, but for the Caps to be successful, they might have to see a little bit of Steve Yzerman in Alex Ovechkin. Yzerman was a scoring whiz on bad Red Wings teams in the 1980’s. When he forsake a bit of his scoring game for a more rounded game, his teams won. We do not want to argue for an Ovechkin becoming a 35-55-80 point player. The Caps won’t win with that player, either. And what we’re looking for is not necessarily Ovechkin suspending his aggressiveness in the offensive zone. We think it is a case of more people getting more opportunities. Instead of Ovechkin having to carry the offense with 422 shots (his career 82-game average), it might be an Alexander Semin, a Nicklas Backstrom, or someone else and taking more advantage of the opportunities presented to them.

Ovechkin is, and will continue to be, the straw that stirs the Capitals’ drink (or he might be the seltzer). He will begin – and in fact already has begun – to dominate the game in other ways. He got a taste of penalty killing this pre-season and showed an ability to use even those situations as an opportunity to put pressure on opposing defenses. That probably isn’t going to be a feature of the regular season, at least as a standard deployment, but it is another weapon in the Capitals’ arsenal. Ovechkin also has the look of someone who is taking it upon himself to exercise more leadership on and off the ice. He leads by performance and example, be it scoring hat tricks, being the first on and last off the ice in practice, or in driving to Philadelphia on a night he wasn’t playing to be with his teammates for a preseason game.

Ovechkin is the hockey player – the athlete, for that matter – that you would order from Central Casting for his performance, his personality, for the buzz he seems to create wherever he goes. You'd have to look long and hard to find someone who has more fun being himself. He might not scale the same goal-scoring heights he did last year, but he – and the Caps – will be better this year.

Projected: 55-51-106, +22

The Birth of a Brand

It isn’t often one gets to sit and watch a vision unfold in the mind of its author, but if you haven’t clicked on “On Frozen Blog” this morning, you owe it to yourself to do so, to get a glimpse…no, a five and a half minute look at how a premium brand is created.

The guys at OFB sat down with The Big Guy to get a take on the season that begins tonight, and in Part 3, one is struck by the original thinking that is being brought to the creation and marketing of “The Washington Capitals” as a premium brand of considerable reach.

When the Capitals lost to Tampa Bay in the 2003 playoffs, even Ted Leonsis, in what looking back seems more emotion than analysis, seemed to be pessimistic about the Caps’ future when he said, “I think the market has spoken and I have some real re-evaluating to do on the kind of investments we're going to make in the team because the city didn't respond. You cannot have a playoff game with 14,000 people with the kind of marketing and consumer focus we've had." It was the beginning of a difficult period for the franchise that suggested it was not a matter of “if,” only a matter of “when” the club would move or fold. Fortunately, the emotion of the spring of 2003 gave way to a more sober look at what needed to be done.

Ted makes the observation that “very infrequently in life…do you get a mulligan, a do over.” It can be fairly said (and you could have counted The Peerless among the doubters two or three years ago) that Ted and the Capitals have made the most of their “do over.” Over the past five years, the Capitals have torn the franchise down to the studs and rebuilt it – in ways both obvious and subtle – so that it is in a position to take its place as a premium “brand” among NHL franchises.

The obvious part is the team’s on-ice makeover. We thought, at the time in 2001, that the Jaromir Jagr trade was something that had to be done. The Capitals were not known as a favored place of employment among NHL players, which made the likelihood of signing a top free agent an iffy prospect. The Caps had to be more creative, and they were, in securing Jagr via trade. We thought that such a move would announce that the Caps would be “players” in the NHL, that they were serious about competing. We hoped that this kind of move would leverage greater interest among players to come to Washington and make them a contender.

Well…that didn’t work.

So, the Caps got around to their “do over.” Big contracts and veterans were moved, and obscure journeymen took their place in what amounted to a marking-time phase as a dismal 2003-2004 season closed. Then, the Caps caught a break. Despite finishing third in the “Alex Ovechkin Sweepstakes,” by virtue of their regular season record, they found they held the winning ticket and selected the franchise cornerstone. But getting Ovechkin was not an end, only a beginning. We’ve maintained – with respect to a Sidney Crosby or an Ovechkin – that unless teams took care to build around such players, they would be hung with the description “best player never to win a Stanley Cup.” The thing is, though, the Caps were thinking bigger. Yes, they used all those picks to select the core of a team that could contend for a decade, but there were also the beginnings of what was being built as the Capitals “brand”…

- A new practice facility in Ballston that is as state-of-the-art as such things get

- A relationship with the Hershey Bears that, due to its proximity and storied history in the American Hockey League, created a larger regional fan base. The anecdotal evidence (and we’re sure the Caps have more empirical support for such an opinion) suggests a large following of Hershey fans who follow the Caps and attend games at the Verizon Center, and a similar large following of Caps fans who watch the Bears and make the trek to Hershey (we’ve done it often).

- What Ted, in the video at OFB, describes as an extension of “The Oriole Way” – a reference to the philosophy once exhibited by the Baltimore Orioles in developing and nurturing talent. The systems and philosophies are a reflection of the “brand.” There is no “Washington” way and a separate “Hershey” way. There is the “Capitals Way,” reflected in coaches and on-ice systems – both in practices and games – that are pursued in unison…down to the minute, as Ted describes it. The term that comes to mind when thinking about this is “the conveyor.” If you look at the Caps, their draft picks, the prospects they obtained from their 2004 “selloff,” you can see a chain of players moving from junior/NCAA/Europe to Hershey (or perhaps, first, South Carolina) to Washington for years to come…Mike Green a couple of years ago, Nicklas Backstrom last year, Chris Bourque and Karl Alzner almost making the cut this year (they’ll stick next year), perhaps a Mathieu Perreault or an Oskar Osala in a couple of years, Anton Gustafsson…John Carlson…Simeon Varlamov…with each passing year, there are (or will be) kids ready to make the jump. It is a seamless conveyor belt of talent and philosophy that stretches ahead as far as the eye can see.

But those are the obvious things, the things fans like us can see. There are also the things we don’t. We won’t pretend to have expertise in business or marketing and the strategies that organizations use to successfully establish a “brand.” But clearly, the Capitals are thinking “strategically” in this regard. Alex Ovechkin as the dynamic face of the organization; the aggressive use of push-the-envelope tools and methods to increase the visibility of the club in the community, on the web, and across the league; the openness to alternative media (the welcoming attitudes toward bloggers, for example, which many other franchises are having trouble accepting), and what one would suspect are a host of strategies that are unfolding behind the scenes in the Caps’ offices. It is a strategy that, on the one hand, says (or as Ted says), “let’s make it so that the players never want to leave,” while on the other hand it is the one that says, “let’s make it so that fans – in the Washington/Hershey region and across North America – always want to follow us.”

In a way, last year was something of a “test marketing” season for the new brand. New uniforms, new attitude, new coach, “rock the red.” This year has the looks of what might be the big “roll out.” These are not your father’s Washington Capitals…they are The Washington Capitals.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Opening Night: Caps at Thrashers

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It has been 171 days since we uttered those words, and it is once more a thrill to start the day with them. We are LIVE from Peerless Center, where we will bring you the only prognostications you’ll ever need as we lift the curtain on the 2008-2009 season. We will bring you the best in prognosticatory analysis from our army of analysts. So let’s get to it…

Tonight, the Caps inaugurate their quest for Lord Stanley's Cup with a visit to Philips Arena in Atlanta to take on the Thrashers, whose slogan this year is “Become One in Blueland.” Last year, the Thrashers became 14th in the Eastern Conference with a 34-40-9 record, good for 76 points. They did not come by their misfortune by accident…

Goals scored: 2.52/game (T-22nd)
Goals allowed: 3.24/game (T-29th)
5-on-5 scoring ratio: 0.74 (30th)
Power play: 16.5% (23rd)
Penalty killing: 78.8% (27th)
Winning % when scoring first: .588 (27th)
Winning % when trailing first: .292 (18th)
Winning % when leading after 1st period: .700 (22nd)
Winning % when leading after 2nd period: .727 (29th)

It was a team effort. But that was then and this is now, so let’s go to our crack team of analysts for some insights, or at least give me time to hit the head…

John Biebe, former captain for legendary Mystery, Alaska…Philips should be rockin’ tonight, this being the home opener for the Thrashers and their exciting superstar, Ilya Kovalchuk. What’s the feeling down there today, John…

“This is not a hockey town…”

Well, John, folks don’t hold out much hope for the Thrashers this year…if you’re new coach John Anderson, what do you tell the boys on opening night against the Caps?

“You tell them, ‘don’t give these guys too much respect…they didn’t pull a dog sled, did they?...they didn’t skate the river, did they? Forget that f***ing circus out there, that’s still black ice, this is our pond! This is our pond!!’”

Thanks, John…we’ll be talking to you a lot this season, we hope. Denis Lemieux, after your career with the Charlestown Chiefs, you had a brief stint here in Atlanta in the Federal league, how do you think the fans will be, tonight?

“…my allergy to those f***ing fans has returned. I’m tired of it! Puke! Blah! All the time, puke!”

You’re a goalie, you’re supposed to be like that. We’ll try to get back to Denis when he’s feeling a little better. Let’s go to our studio analysts, the boys from Pardon the Interruption, Tony and Mike…guys, we don’t have “five good minutes” to spare, but can you give us “one good minute?”

“For hockey?...what are you, a dope?”

“Call us when basketball season starts, knucklehead.”

Well, OK then. Jim Carr…you’ve been in the booth covering the Charlestown Chiefs for decades, and you’ve seen some tough young players come up. Any thoughts about this rookie defenseman for the Thrashers – Zach Bogosian?

“Oh, this young man will have a very trying rookie season, with the litigation, the notoriety, his subsequent deportation to Canada and that country's refusal to accept him, well, I guess that's more than most 21-year-olds can handle.”

Isn’t that a description of Ogie Oglethorpe?

“Ogie…Zach…same goofy name.”

Let’s wrap things up by spending a minute with Donnie Shulzhoffer, who is to hockey analysis what we are to prognostications…Donnie, what are the Thrashers’ chances this year? Any hope?

“I hate to say it, they’re done like dinner.”

How can you say that before they’ve even taken the ice?

“This is hockey, OK? It's not rocket surgery.”

Well, most folks do, in fact, think the Thrashers are “done like dinner.” In fact, you can think of tonight as Day One in the Ilya Kovachuk Countdown Watch. Kovalchuk, who will be the only reason to go watch the Thrashers this year, might have two years left on his current contract, but there isn’t much likelihood that the Thrashers will climb to the “competitive” rung on the NHL standings ladder in the time he has left. Kovalchuk might end up with a season that looks a lot like the one Peter Bondra had for the Caps in 1994-1995, when the Capitals’ winger went 34-9-43 in 47 games. A 43-12-55 season isn’t entirely a fantasy. The Thrashers return one player who had more than 14 goals last year – Vyacheslav Kozlov – but that was an 11-goal drop in production, and Kozlov is 36 years old. Consider the Thrashers’ top line for this evening – Kovalchuk, Todd White, and Jason Williams. Combined, last year, they were 79-81-160. That pales compared to the Caps’ top line – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Viktor Kozlov – which was 95-140-235 last year. But after that, what is there for the Thrashers? Is a second line that is likely to include Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen going to scare anyone? Probably not, unless the Penguins have traded Sidney Crosby to Atlanta to join his former teammates.

What will keep Atlanta in games gong enough for Kovalchuk to evade defenses to perform his magic is Atlanta’s own defense. But, it is either too young or too incomplete to raise this club competitive. Zach Bogosian (11-51-61 at Peterborough last year in Canadian juniors, good enough to get him picked 3rd overall in last June’s draft) will be a good one. Toby Enstrom had a fine rookie year last year (5-33-38, -5, although he faltered late). After that, Ron Hainsey looks somewhat overpaid (he stood out on a bad Columbus team…it doesn’t make him a top-four type on a contending team). Mathieu Schneider brings a lot of experience, but is also 39 years old. He might be asked to do more than he can handle on a team whose defense will be pressured night-in and night-out.

In goal, the Thrashers are in a bit of turmoil. Ondrej Pavelec, who some thought could supplant starter Kari “Groin of Tissue” Lehtonen sooner, rather than later, threw a tantrum at being demoted to Chicago in favor of Johan Hedberg in the role of backup. Pavelec, who claims to have been told by the organization he would get a fair shot to make the NHL team during training camp, decided yesterday to report to the Wolves. But that still leaves Lehtonen, a goaltender of superior talent, but who missed 35 games in 2005-2006 with a groin injury and missed another 16 games last year with a similar injury. He’s a guy who seems always to be one split away from IR. Against the Caps, who are likely to come at the Thrashers in waves, this is a real possibility.

On paper, this is a game that should be decided before the second intermission. But, teams – even bad ones – can muster fine efforts on nights when hopes are high. Opening night is such a night, and the Thrashers could mount a formidable challenge. Besides, these are still two teams that don’t much like each other (although many of the principals in those ill-feelings, guys like Andy Sutton and Olaf Kolzig, dress for other teams these days). Nevertheless, this is the first game on a quest for the Caps, a death march for the Thrashers.

Caps 5 – Thrashers 2.