Monday, September 28, 2009

2009-2010 Previews -- Forwards: David Steckel

David Steckel

Theme: “Every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead.”

That little quote comes from one of the most familiar faces in movies and television you’ve probably never heard of, a fellow by the name of Dabbs Greer. The kind of fellow of whom you might say, “oh yeah, I remember him in ‘The Green Mile,’” or “Little House on the Prairie” or “Gunsmoke.” He plays a role, never a starring one, but an important one nevertheless. And so it is with David Steckel, a player who might play the role of “defensive specialist,” or “penalty killer,” or “faceoff man.” Occasionally – as in overtime in Game 6 of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal – he is thrust into the limelight, and he delivers… by playing his role. He wins a faceoff, heads to the net, and scores on a deflection to become a star for 48 hours. But he then recedes once more into his role as a “character actor,” or in team sports parlance, a player of character.

Steckel is another of those players who leaves the impression of having been here longer than he has been. He’s played only 155 NHL games 9all with the Caps, having completed only his second full NHL season last year (he is 27 years old). In both of those years, he led the Caps (among players playing at least 50 games with the Caps) in faceoff winning percentage and was a top-ten league wide performer in each of those seasons.

That he plays a defense-first role is reflected in the team’s 1.94 goals-against average at even strength when he was on the ice last season, best of any center on the team. But here is a disturbing number: 1.50. That was the difference in the team’s goals against average at 4-on-5 when Steckel was on the ice between 2007-2008 (5.27) and 2008-2009 (6.77, according to That isn’t so much a problem regarding Steckel as it is a general problem with penalty killing for the Caps.

Fearless: Steckel hasn’t cracked the ten-goal mark with the Caps, despite his scoring at least that many in seven of eight seasons from 1999-2000 (USHL) through 2006-2007, when he had 30 in Hershey. If he never gets to ten, but he can be the defensive stopper, the Caps would seem likely to accept that trade-off rather happily. They don’t lack for offense in other places.

Cheerless: Hey cuz, any chance the league could schedule more games against Tampa Bay? In 13 career games against the Lightning, he’s 6-5-11, plus-7 (that’s a 38-32-70, plus-44 82-game pace). Against the rest of the league, he’s 7-13-20, minus-5 in 142 games (that’s a 4-8-12, minus-3 82-game pace).

In the end:

If it’s all about the playoffs, then consider – of the eight teams to win at least one playoff round last year, the Caps had the third worst penalty killing success rate (only Chicago and Detroit were worse). That’s especially bad when the Caps finished tied for fourth for most times shorthanded, despite being eliminated in the second round. The Caps – and Steckel – just have to be better at killing penalties (the times shorthanded thing is a team-wide problem).

But again, Steckel is a player with less than two full season’s worth of regular season games. Granted, he came into the league as both a former first round draft choice (30th overall to Los Angeles in 2001) and a four-year player in the NCAA (with Ohio State), but that’s not the same as NHL experience, and Steckel is still earning his.

Steckel had a very solid season last year and showed a knack for goal scoring against the Penguins (against whom he had all three of his goals) in the playoffs. There is every reason to believe that there is some untapped potential yet to realize. He has taken on a substantial role in penalty killing (second among Caps forwards in average shorthanded ice time in 2007-2008, first among forwards last year), and he is trying to assume a more assertive role on offense (66 shots on goal in 67 games in 2007-2008, 103 in 76 games last year).

Steckel plays a role that won’t make a lot of highlight reels, but it might be as important in the end – taking on the opposition’s top forwards and killing penalties – as the highlight reel goals and incredible saves. Steckel has to play that role well, even if in the end he’s only a star in his own little sphere.


12-14-26, +4

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