Saturday, May 23, 2009

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Centers: Michael Nylander

Michael Nylander

Theme: “Paradise Lost”

Michael Nylander played in 72 games this year. That is not a misprint, but it had to be the most anonymous 72 games perhaps ever logged by an NHL player, certainly among those who make almost $5 million a year. When the season started, we thought Nylander would bounce back – somewhat – from last year’s season lost to injury…

Here is a player who, coming into this season, averaged 19-43-62 per 82 games over an NHL career that spanned 848 games. 72 games later, he was an afterthought on a team with hopes of competing for a Stanley Cup…

What happened?

After scoring six points in his first four games of the season (2-4-6, +2), he went 25 games without a goal with only nine assists. He went 36 games with a total of only two power play points (both assists in a game against Anaheim on November 19th). By appearances, the Caps had changed their basic philosophy in Nylander’s absence the previous year, relying on a north-south, high-tempo style of attack that was at odds with Nylander’s more deliberate, east-west, curl-off and find the trailer sort of approach to offense. In a real and in a figurative sense, Nylander never caught up.

Looking at the ten-game segments one can see a slow descent into irrelevance. His scoring started in a manner consistent with his career trend (eight points in his first ten) games, but he’d never reach that mark again, getting more than four points in any ten-game segment only once. He had a total of seven multi-point games for the season (by way of comparison, Brooks Laich had 11; Eric Fehr had five), four of them before Thanksgiving.

In other areas, he was worst on the club in faceoffs among players taking at least 200 draws (perhaps a lingering effect of his shoulder injury). He took as many shots per game (1.2) as defenseman Milan Jurcina. He was ninth on the team in power play scoring (4-6-10), but had only five power play points in the 2009 portion of the season. This is a guy who was 18th in the entire league in power play scoring (14-23-37) in the year before he rejoined the Caps. Among the Caps’ centers, only David Steckel and Boyd Gordon averaged fewer points per 60 minutes at even strength, and Steckel and Gordon are defense-first players. That might not be true of Nylander, who was on ice more frequently for goals scored against at even strength per 60 minutes than any other center on the club.

Statistically, stylistically, whatever – this season was largely a disaster for Nylander. Whether this is a lingering product of his injury in the 2007-2008 season or his playing a style incompatible with that currently employed by the Capitals, there are some important decisions with respect to Nylander’s future on the club – decisions that are difficult to separate from Sergei Fedorov, who had his own production problems (perhaps a combination of age and health issues).

Nylander has two more seasons at $4.875 million a year to go on his contract. A 13 minute a night, 35-point center earning that sort of money is a substantial drag on the Caps’ payroll and their flexibility to make roster moves. His offensive production (9-24-33 in 72 games) was approximately equivalent to Columbus’ Manny Malhotra (11-24-35 in 77 games), a player who earns less than one-fourth what Nylander does ($1.2 million).

We said that Nylander’s season was a slow descent into irrelevance. Here is one way to look at that. He only dressed for 35 of 44 games in the 2009 portion of the season and skated for more than 15 minutes in only five of them. In his last year with the Rangers before signing with the Caps he had only five games all year out of 79 in which he played in which he skated less than 15 minutes.

It would be easy to forget that Nylander was 5-14-19 in 21 games with the Caps before Bruce Boudreau took over early in the 2007-2008 season. If anything, this lends weight to the argument that Nylander has not so much forgotten how to play hockey as much as he is a bad fit for this particular team. On teams that play the equivalent of a half-court offense – such as that which the Rangers played when he and Jaromir Jagr skated for the Rangers—Nylander has been, and would appear still to be, an effective player. On this team? It would not seem likely.

Nylander’s problems are not necessarily of his making as much as they might be the status of his physical recovery and the style the club plays. Still, he did not perform well within this structure, and for that…

Grade: C-

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