Friday, February 06, 2009

A dozen games until the trading deadline...

...a dozen questions…

1. (When) does Neuvirth get a start?

With Brent Johnson now scheduled to undergo a hip procedure next week, Jose Theodore will have to shoulder the load, but he can’t play in every game. At the moment, the backup duties fall to the untested and untried Michal Neuvirth, a prospect of considerable potential, but one who has played a grand total of 21 games as a professional, none of them in the NHL. The Caps’ schedule coming up has Florida on tap at Verizon Center on Saturday, then a three-game road trip (Rangers, Lightning, Panthers). The games are spaced so that Theodore could play them all (Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday), but it might be that the Caps will want to get a take on Neuvirth to see how urgently they need to look for a stop-gap replacement for Johnson. We think he’ll get a call within the week. Tampa looks like a good bet.

2. Does the schedule present an opportunity?

We think it does, because it offers two things that the Caps seem to need at the moment. First, an opportunity to play games against their divisional opponents. Six of the dozen games before the deadline are against Southeast Division opponents (Florida three times, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Atlanta). The stars are aligned to make hay against the weak sisters (Atlanta, Tampa Bay) and the injured (Carolina), and to slam the door on the upstart Panthers. There are 12 points here for the taking. We think the Caps should grab eight. Ten would be better (duh…).

But the schedule also provides an opportunity for the Caps to test their mettle against teams they might see in the playoffs – the Rangers, Montreal, Philadelphia, Boston, and (yes, although we'll get to that) Pittsburgh. Three of those games are at home. The Caps have done well against such teams this year, and it would be helpful to maintain the competitive sharpness games against these teams provide. There are ten points there. If the Caps earn six, color us satisfied. If they get eight?...giddy.

3. Are the Caps going to be buyers at the deadline?

It seems the Caps will have a little – very little – wiggle room under the Cap to make a deadline move. They could go shopping for some insurance on defense, some grit up front, or they might have to find that replacement for Johnson. They have trading assets to use. Michael Nylander’s name has been bounced around more than a basketball at a Terps practice. But there are other assets, if the Caps think they can really go deep in the playoffs, and if the Caps use them fans in Hershey will not be pleased. Players such as Oskar Osala, Francois Bouchard, Mathieu Perreault, Chris Bourque, and perhaps even a Neuvirth, for that matter, whatever their potential as future Caps, also have value in trade. But that gets complicated a bit, by…

4. Will Eric Fehr finish what he starts?

When Fehr was a draft-eligible junior, we prognosticated that he would be drafted by Washington. We looked at his goal scoring progression in juniors thereafter, and in his AHL years, and thought he had a good chance to be doing much the same thing on the right side of the top line at some point. Then, injuries and the delays to his development that stemmed from that stopped his progress. He is still only 23, but it seems as though the clock is ticking on him. He’s played very well lately, getting top line opportunities last night and going 2-2-4 in his last four games. As much as the output has been his assertiveness. He has 17 shots on goal in his last four games, and as Alex Ovechkin shows, goal scorers don’t score if they don’t shoot. Now, Fehr needs to bury more of these chances. If he can produce in the next dozen games, it might make it easier on the Caps to move a youngster further down the food chain.

5. Does Karl Alzner return for good?

Here is what we wrote before checking in with Tarik El-Bashir

It’s the kind of question that makes one think “bomb disposal specialist” is a job preferable to “professional sports general manager.” With Johnson out for surgery, it might signal a chance for the Caps to use any cap savings to recall Alzner. Except, the Caps have six healthy defensemen playing satisfactorily (last night notwithstanding), and the Caps might have need of a defenseman with more grit and experience for the road ahead in the playoffs than Alzner has at the moment. Unless there is an emergency, we don’t think he’s going to be called up (which means Capital Insider is probably reporting his recall as we type this).

Sure enough, Alzner’s been called up.

6. Which Tomas Fleischmann will show up as the season winds down?

In his first 36 games, Fleischmann was 15-8-23. In his last eight games, he is 0-2-0. Perhaps more troubling, he’s not getting (or not taking) any shots on goal. In those first 36 games, he had 76 shots. In his last eight games…nine. And, he’s had no more than two shots in any of them. Compare that to the 18 shots he had in his previous eight games (in which he had five goals). Oddly, though, in the first 36 games he was -11. In the last eight, he is +6. Go figure. If we could have the goal-scoring, plus-making Fleischmann, that would be nice.

7. Can Ovechkin replay 2008?

From February 1, 2008, forward to the end of the regular season, Alex Ovechkin went 22-20-42, +14 in 30 games. By way of comparison, he is 24-14-38, -3 in his last 30 games through last night. He’s going to get a break, if you can believe that, by getting more chances against Southeast Division opponents that he’s had a lot of success against in his career. His past-30 games goal scoring pace puts him on a pace to finish with 60 at the end of the year. Even if Ovechkin gets some of his minutes reduced (if the Caps are taking a big division lead into March, for example), it would seem likely those would be the PK minutes he gets (he averages 1:16 in penalty killing time per game at the moment). There could be another big finish in store.

8. Is Theodore really…I mean “really” now, no fooling…”the man?”

Japers has periodically made the point, using some pretty compelling numbers, that Theodore does have a distinctly dual-personality when it comes to his goaltending performance. His second halves are Martin Brodeur-like, while his first halves are more Martin Short. That’s nice, but really…c’mon now, no foolin’ around… is he really the guy? Or is this just the last, best, most cruel trick ever played on a Caps Nation that has seen more than its share of tricks played on it by fate. Using the data Japers employed, one thing that might bear watching is how much rubber he faces. Since Christmas, Theodore has been in the upper half of this group in terms of fewest shots per game faced. It’s one thing to have a goalie you are not quite 100 percent sold on (which is probably consensus in Caps Nation), it is another to test the proposition needlessly by leaving him out to dry to face a lot of shots.

9. Can the Caps overtake Boston?

The short answer to this is, “no.” Now, here’s the long answer. The Bruins began the year 2-2-3. Since then, they are 37-6-3. They’ve lost two games in regulation in succession once in that span. The Bruins have 29 games left to play. In the worst 29-game span they’ve had at any time since that start, they still earned 46 points (22-5-2, from November 22nd through January 29th). If the Bruins were to match that level of output over their last 29 games, they would finish with 130 points. The Caps have 70 points with 29 games to play. If the Caps win them all, they get to 128. Caps fans, do yourself a favor… put Boston out of your minds until May.

10. Can the Caps be overtaken for second?

The short answer to this is…“no.” Here is why (without all the empirical mumbo-jumbo). Montreal can’t catch them, because they can’t catch Boston (division winners getting the top three seeds automatically). Fourth is as high as they’ll finish. That leaves, as a practical matter one of: New Jersey, New York Rangers, or Philadelphia. On Hallowe’en, the Rangers were 10-2-1. Trick or treat? Since then, they are 19-16-4 and, with a record of 6-5-2 in 2009, have the look of a team that is this close to a major collapse.

New Jersey might have shot their ammunition already. The Devils just had their eight-game winning streak ended by the Caps, but the wheels were already coming off that wagon. The Devils have surrendered 11 goals in their last three games, and they have Boston and San Jose coming up in mid-February in consecutive games. At some point, Martin Brodeur will come back, but he’s in a place he hasn’t been before, and that the Devils haven’t been in, in almost two decades – wondering if Brodeur will be the rock in goal he’s always been.

Philadelphia has the most ground to make up against the Caps (nine points), and they are six points behind the Devils. Plus, their goaltending situation doesn’t argue for long winning streaks. Despite the fact that he’s played in only 21 games, Antero Niittymaki has better numbers (11-4-4, 2.59, .917) than number one netminder, Martin Biron (15-11-5, 2.89, .905). Biron was the hero last year, but having lost his last four decisions (giving up 14 goals in the process) he’s not looking lately as if he’ll repeat that performance.

Unless the Caps suffer a collapse, then second place looks like a better-than-even bet.

11. Will the Caps meet the Penguins in the playoffs?

The short answer to this is…”no.” Not in the first round, not in the second round, not ever this year. Why? Because the Penguins are the kind of mess in the same way that a room of furniture bought from eight different stores is a mess. The pieces don’t seem to fit coherently to make for a long, successful run of wins. Do they match Crosby and Malkin on a line, or do they split them up? When is Gonchar coming back? What winger can they match with Crosby to get any production? What happened to the power play (tied with Tampa for 23rd overall and dead last in the NHL on the road)? What happened to Fleury (he’s saved fewer than 90 percent of the shots he’s faced in nine of the last 16 games he’s played)? Do Crosby and coach Michel Therrien not get along? Will – or when will – Therrien be fired? The Penguins have, as they say, “issues” that go far beyond a Stanley Cup hangover. Even Barry Melrose, who would know the specie (having seen one up close coaching Tampa Bay this year), said that the Penguins aren’t a very good hockey team.

12. Who won’t be a Cap on the late afternoon of March 4th?

We’re a month out from the trading deadline, and you’re asking that question? Sorry, you’ll have to stay tuned to get that prognostication.

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