Sunday, September 06, 2009

2009-2010 Previews -- Defensemen: Milan Jurcina

Milan Jurcina

Theme: “International arbitration may be defined as the substitution of many burning questions for a smoldering one”

That quote from Ambrose Bierce’s essay on arbitration focused on economics, and that was the summer of Milan Jurcina. In this instance, it was his winning an arbitrator’s award of $1.375 million to skate for the Capitals in 2009-2010. It isn’t the sort of award that will break the bank, but it does shine something of a brighter light on Jurcina coming into the season. And if one turns that light on Jurcina’s performance with the Caps, the two words that come to mind are, “not bad.” For instance, his 2008-2009 numbers improved over the previous season’s results in goals (from one to three), assists (from eight to 11), points (from nine to 14), and hits (from 151 to 157). On the other hand, he tied for seventh among all defensemen in the NHL in penalties taken-per-60-minutes at 5-on-5 (50 games minimum). Of the 34 minor penalties he took, 23 of them were of the “obstruction” variety (holding, hooking, interference, tripping). And, he averaged one giveaway for every 25 minutes of play last season. This doesn’t approach the Mike Green level of giveaways, but then again, Jurcina doesn’t often have the puck in an offensive situation.

Subjectively, Jurcina should have more potential than, say, John Erskine. But his production suggests another defenseman whose time might better be “managed,” so as to avoid speedy teams that can exploit his propensity to take those “obstruction” sorts of penalties. What he is, is inconsistent. That displays itself in the nature of the competition he faces. In 29 games against the seven other teams in the East that made the playoffs last year, he 0-1-1, minus-4. In 32 games against the seven teams that didn’t make the playoffs, he was 2-7-9, plus-5. OK, so he did better against weaker teams. But what of those games against playoff teams? If you look closer, Jurcina compiled a rather ghastly 0-0-0, minus-6 in four games against the Rangers. But in the playoffs, he was a much more respectable 1-0-1, plus-4 in seven games against the Blueshirts. That he seems capable of so much more makes “not bad” somewhat infuriating. You guys have anything to add?...

Fearless: Jurcina’s role on this team has changed quite a bit in the not quite three full seasons he’s spent with the club. In his first year, after arriving from Boston, he averaged more than 23 minutes of ice time a game. That has since dropped to less than 17, and last year a shade more than 16 minutes. More to the point, his special teams ice time has shriveled to just about nothing. He averaged 5:35 in special teams ice time in his first year. Last year, that dropped to 1:02. That’s a reflection of two things that might be mirror images of one another. The first is the growth and improvement of defensemen around him (Mike Green and Jeff Schultz from within, Tom Poti from the outside). The other is that Jurcina’s game does not seem to have progressed.

Cheerless: There’s another way to get at this, cuz. Ask yourself, “does it matter?” Jurcina took at least one penalty in 30 games last year. The Caps were 17-10-3 in those games, a 101 point pace. He was off the PIM register in 49 games, and the Caps were 31-13-5, a 112-point pace. You could say that the difference was in having to endure extra power plays, as opposed to Jurcina providing a positive influence in those games in which he didn’t deprive the Caps of his presence on the ice. What he has been is durable. No Caps defenseman has played in more games the last two years than has Jurcina (154). But cuz?...if you really want to save yourself some time, just read Japers’ mock arbitration.

In the end…

The Caps defensive squad has gone – and is going – through a number of phases the last few years and in the next few years to come. Coming out of the lockout, the Caps lacked for talent on the blue line on the parent squad, having only selected Mike Green and Jeff Schultz in the 2004 draft. In that first post-lockout year, the talent was really thin, unless Bryan Muir and Mathieu Biron are your cup of tea. The next year, the Caps dipped into the free agent market to grab Brian Pothier, and they picked up Jurcina in trade. Still, it was a squad thin in talent.

The following season constituted the next phase, Tom Poti was brought on board, Green emerged as an offensive force, and Jeff Schultz stepped up as a defenseman with some upside. Brian Pothier would have been a mainstay, but played in only 38 games because of injury. Jurcina adopted a somewhat lesser role in this scenario. Last year was similar in that Green, Poti, and Schultz, when healthy (they missed a combined 62 games), assumed important roles. Jurcina had much the same role as in the previous year – almost entirely an even-strength skater, usually against the lower half of the forward lines of opponents.

This phase might be coming to an end as youngsters Karl Alzner and John Carlson emerge to join the likes of Mike Green and Jeff Schultz on the blue line. For players such as Jurcina (and Shaone Morrisonn, Brian Pothier, Tom Poti, and John Erskine) roster spots will be subject to more competition. Does that augur an exit for Jurcina after this season? As much as anyone, it’s up to him. The “smoldering question” is can he be more consistent, avoid the odd obstruction penalty, chip in a little more offense, perhaps, and improve his chances of having a spot on the 2010-2011 squad?


65 games, 2-7-9, +2

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