Monday, March 02, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Hurricanes, March 3rd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s desperation Tuesday, which follows desperation Sunday. Why? Well, if Florida was a team desperate to hold onto a playoff spot (they are sixth in the East) on Sunday, then tonight’s opponent – the Carolina Hurricanes – is desperate times two. Carolina visits Verizon Center on the wrong side of the playoff mix, currently standing tenth in the Eastern Conference. What makes this worse for the Capitals is that for as often as they have seen Carolina this year (the teams haven’t met since December 7th), the Hurricanes might as well be a Western Conference team…and you know how the Caps have fared against Western Conference teams this year (if you don’t, they are 7-10-0).

“Why so cheerless, Peerless? You sound like Mopey over here…”

Hey, cuz. Guess it’s just the anxiety over the last 18 game-stretch of the season, the trading deadline, the snow in my driveway, taxes due in a month…

“Whoa, whoa, whoa…you’re so down, you make me sound like freakin’ Stuart Smalley.”

Let’s not be silly, Cheerless…but what brings you guys here?

“It’s the holidays, cuz! Trading Deadline Day! It’s like Christmas without the egg nog and wrapping paper. Gotta spend it with family.”

I appreciate the sentiment, but don’t you think the Mike Milbury mask is a bit much?

“Sorry…just getting into the whimsical spirit of things.”

So, do you guys see any deals for the Caps?

“You mean like the Bill Guerin un-trade?”

No…real deals.

“I didn’t bring my magic 8-ball with me, but…”

“I got it right here, cuz.”

“Cheerless, you’re useful for something other than making beer runs after all…”

OK, so let’s ask a question…Will Michael Nylander be a Cap at sundown on Wednesday?

Will the Caps get a pick, a prospect, or a player?

Which one?

Let’s try this another way…will the Caps get a defenseman for the stretch run?


You’re not very good at this, are you?

This isn’t going well…ok, how about this…will the Caps land Chris Pronger?

Did I say something funny?

OK, let’s try something simple…will the Caps win tonight?

OK, fine…as for tonight’s game, the Caps come in – stop us if you’ve heard this before – as the superior team in just about all of the numbers…

Carolina is one of those teams in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts. They have one player in the top-50 in scoring (Ray Whitney: T-47th), one player in the top-50 in goal scoring (Eric Staal: T-12th), no player in the top-100 in plus-minus (Patrick Eaves: T-111th). Their top goalie – Cam Ward – is only 20th in GAA and tied for 24th in save percentage.

But the Hurricanes are a team that still has managed to hang around the periphery of the playoff picture, mainly by being thoroughly and consistently mediocre of record. The Hurricanes have one losing streak of more than three games this year (five games, January 8 – 17) and one winning streak of more than three games (four games, Dec. 31 – January 6). Otherwise, this is a team that lurches from a couple of wins here to a couple of losses there.

For February, Carolina was – typically – 7-6-0. Perhaps as typically, they scored as often as their opponents – 39 goals for and against. The odd part about that is, eight of the 13 games played in February were settled by at least three goals (Carolina was 5-3-0 in such games). Although they finished as more or less a .500 team, they were either very good or very bad in doing it.

Special teams in February were just as middle-of-the-road for Carolina. The Hurricanes were 11-for-61 on the power play (18.0 percent) and 40-for-50 in penalty killing (80.0 percent). It’s worth noting in there that Carolina managed to draw 11 more man advantages than they yielded. In fact, in their last five games, they have drawn 29 man advantages compared to 13 shorthanded situations. Had they converted more than four times (13.8 percent) on those 29 power play opportunities, they might have improved on their 3-2-0 record in those games.

Looking at the top scorers for Carolina, one is struck by one thing – they are, as a group, not very good at even strength. Ray Whitney, Eric Staal, Tuomo Ruutu, Sergei Samsonov, Matt Cullen, and Rod Brind’Amour are the Hurricanes’ top six scorers. All have at least 30 points this year, but as a group they are a minus-51. Only Cullen is on the plus side of the ledger, and three of them are a minus-10 or worse. Brind’Amour is -30, which makes him next to last in the league in that measure (Brendan Witt coming in last at -31).

It’s not as if this is a dynamic team on the power play, either, to make up for even strength shortcomings. Ray Whitney leads the Hurricanes in power play scoring at 3-16-19. By way of comparison, the Capitals have three players with at least 30 power play points (Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Mike Green). They might have a fourth, but for the fact that Alexander Semin (22 power play points in 45 games) has missed 19 games to injury.

What Carolina gets that the Capitals do not is balanced scoring from the blue line. Mike Green is having a tremendous year (56 points to lead all NHL defensemen), but no other Washington defenseman has as many as 15 points (Milan Jurcina and Tom Poti have 13, apiece). Carolina has three defensemen with at least 20 points (Joe Corvo, Joni Pitkanen, and Dennis Seidenberg), and Anton Babchuk has 19.

Meanwhile, Cam Ward is giving every indication that his Conn Smythe-winning performance in the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs might be his high-water mark as an NHL goalie. This isn’t to say he’s a bad goalie, but neither is he the great one that people might have expected on the heels of that special post-season. His 2.58 GAA (20th among 43 ranked goalies in the NHL) and .909 save percentage (tied for 24th among 43 ranked goalies) put him squarely in the middle of the pack of the goalie rankings.

As for backups, Michael Leighton started well – 4-1-0 in his first five decisions. But he is 2-5-2 since, and in three of his last four appearances, dating back to January 10th, he has been little more than a mop-up reliever for sub-par performances by Ward.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Carolina: Rod Brind’Amour

Brind’Amour’s career numbers against the Capitals are very different than his numbers this year. In 94 career games, he is 38-42-80, +18, with eight game-winning and three game-tying goals. Compare those last numbers to what he has this year: minus-30 and one game-winning goal among only eight goals he has this year. If Carolina is going to make a push, one might think it will start with the captain, and it couldn’t start at a better time for the Hurricanes than against a team Brind’Amour has had success against in his career.

Washington: Mike Green

Since setting the record for consecutive games with a goal among defensemen in NHL history, Green has but a single goal in eight games. Not that he’s been shy about shooting, he has 36 shots in those games. But he’s come up dry, and it seems to have affected him in other ways. While he was a plus-10 in the eight games of his streak, he is minus-4 in eight games since and hasn’t been on the plus side of the ledger since a plus-1 against Florida on February 15th. He is getting points on the power play (five in those last eight games), but appears to be in something of a slump at the moment.

If the Caps have been long since playing the Hurricanes, they will more than reacquaint themselves with Carolina shortly. The teams will meet three times in the next ten games of the Capitals’ schedule, two of them at Verizon Center. The time for unfocused, inconsistent play is over. If the Caps really are that elite team that is going to make a Stanley Cup push needs to do better than the 3-3-0 placeholder they’ve put up in the last half dozen games. We’d like to think they can muster enough effort to weather the Hurricanes…

Caps 4 – Hurricanes 2


Most Valuable Guerin.

Whodathunkit? A 38-year old forward who won a Stanley Cup more than a decade ago but is a minus-30 in his last two seasons, a player who had a disappointing run as a rental two seasons ago, a player whose next point will be his 800th in a 16 year career, is the most followed trading commodity of the past 30 hours.

Plucked from the ice during warm-ups of a game against Buffalo last night, presumably as a prelude to a trade, his fate has been the blogosphere equivalent of the devout packing St. Peter’s Square in Rome, waiting for the white smoke to signal the election of a Pope. So let’s survey the situation. Who is saying what about where Guerin will land?

Chris Botta is the author of “Islanders: Point Blank” and has given every evidence of being as close as close can be to what is happening, although he seems to acknowledge that there is only so much he can know. As he put it, “I’ve also decided that it’s ludicrous for me to not take a stand, put my money down and tell you my hunch. Who am I kidding? This is a friggin’ blog.” Predicted destination: Washington.

Andy Strickland – a St. Louis Blues blogger who happens to have ties to Guerin going back to the days when Guerin skated for the Blues – seems to think (emphatically) that the Capitals are not Guerin’s destination (neither are New Jersey or Boston) and in fact is headed to the Flyers, pending the Flyers shedding some salary.

Lyle Richardson, a.k.a., “Spector,” has been acting more in his role as an aggregator of information. He referenced Botta’s reporting, as well as reports from, the Washington Post, Newsday, and, ultimately concluding that, “it could well be that the potential deal may have fallen through.”

As for that Washington Post reference, Tarik El-Bashir stated point blank that his sources told him that Washington was not (in bold letters) Guerin’s destination.

Bruce Garrioch, with somewhat uncharacteristic understatement, noted that “the Islanders have discussed the possibility of moving RW Bill Guerin. He could end up with the Bruins, Rangers or Devils for a playoff run.” Of course, he has the Caps in the Bouwmeester sweepstakes, too.

Over at Newsday, meanwhile, Greg Logan noted that, “[the source of an early report on the trade] ruled out Boston and the Devils as destinations, and a report out of Washington said the Capitals were not involved. Some speculation centers around Montreal, which has the salary-cap room to accommodate the remaining $1 million on Guerin's contract this season.” Logan also named Carolina, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, the Rangers, Philadelphia, and Florida as potential (if not necessarily likely) landing areas for Guerin.

We could go on, but you get the point. Folks are doing what folks do with a lack of information and a surplus of time – speculating. Some of it is certainly reasonable, and some of it is the product of sources who might be said to be “knowledgeable,” certainly a lot more so than yours truly.

But, being in the prognostication business, we’re struck by the matter of time in this story as the basis for speculation. If this was a simple trade that one finds at this time of year – the player for picks and/or prospects – we’d already be speculating on whether the team Guerin was going to was improved in the deal. But more than 24 hours has passed since Guerin was pulled from the lineup, and there is no indication as to when an announcement is going to be made.

To us, that means there is a second deal that is not yet made. Why a second deal? Because the team to which Guerin is going needs to clear salary cap space. Of the teams identified as possible destinations – Washington, Montreal, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Florida, and Carolina, which ones don’t have to clear space to make a deal? Carolina and Buffalo have more than $5 million in payroll space, according to “Cap Central.” You’d have to think they’re not in the mix, or the deal would already have been announced.

So…Washington, Montreal, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Florida. Still a big population. Florida has the larger problem of what to do with Jay Bouwmeester – whether to trade him for futures or keep him for a playoff run, then lose him to free agency with no return this summer. There is also the matter of whether the Panthers are enough of a contender for Guerin to waive his no-trade clause. And, there is the matter of geography – Guerin is reported not to want to go far from Long Island, so as to remain close to his family. Strike Florida.

If you were to draw a circle on a map around Nassau Coliseum at 300 miles or so (arbitrary, we know), we could rule out Montreal, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo. We’re left with Washington, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Boston. All of them are contenders, all are in close proximity to Long Island, all are tight against the cap, all – by necessity or desire – are said to be looking at other players. Most notable among other players linked to these teams is Anaheim defenseman Chris Pronger, mentioned in connection with Boston and Washington. Pronger would fetch a big return from either. From Boston, the price has been mentioned as including Phil Kessel. The problem for the Bruins is whether to upset chemistry by moving their leading goal scorer for another defenseman. Guerin is not likely to be as pricey or even, perhaps, as problematic with respect to potential effects on chemistry (at least as it applies when important players are lost). Washington’s problem is more complex, in that the Capitals would have to execute another deal (assuming the Islanders are not in the market merely to trade salary). At the same time, the problem is simpler, since the other deal would have to include Michael Nylander. If the Caps can execute that deal, then bringing in a Pronger or a Guerin is probably doable.

The Flyers have already made a deal, of sorts, waiving Glen Metropolit and Ossi Vaananen so as to accommodate the return of Daniel Briere under the salary cap. The Flyers are as close as close can be under the ceiling and would seem to be in the same position as the Caps – needing to make a separate deal. And, they are mentioned as a landing point for Pronger. But is that worth Joffrey Lupul and Matt Carle, as has been floated? Even if it is, then what would the Flyers have to do to bring in Guerin?

Which brings us to New Jersey. The thought that comes to mind in pondering the Devils’ role in this is “never underestimate Lou Lamoriello.” The only problem with this, though, is the matter of time. The Devils would appear to be in a better position than Washington, Philadelphia, or even Boston in obtaining Guerin straight up in the usual sort of deadline transaction. If that’s true, then a delay shouldn’t have come into play, since Guerin has already accepted the deal.

The matter of time and salary cap concerns, plus a desire for proximity to his family, argue for the team to which Guerin is going is one of Washington, Philadelphia, or Boston. All of them have to clear space to fit the remaining portion of Guerin’s contract under the cap.

Philly has already made accommodations to fit their own player – Briere – under the ceiling. It isn’t clear that they’ll go for another round of moves unless they can do it for a bigger prize – Pronger. And even that seems a stretch.

Boston has chemistry problems that argue against a deal for Pronger, but one for Guerin would take a smaller bite out of Boston’s hide, with what one would think would be lower possibilities for negative effects on chemistry.

For Washington, the matter is simple – move Nylander to create space. But it is complex as well – Nylander has his own no-movement clause.

We were impressed by the relatively strong manner in which Washington was eliminated as the team in question by a source close to Guerin (Strickland) and one with sources close to the Caps (El-Bashir). But Boston and Philadelphia seem to have more complex paths to get Guerin (or Pronger for that matter). The mix of assets they would have to move are more variable than what the Caps would have to do. We are the sort who puts stock in “Occam’s Razor” – among competing solutions to a problem, the simplest among them is generally the correct one.

Unfortunately, for those looking for an end to this story, the simplest solution is also the most specific. Teams like Philadelphia or Boston might have cap troubles that are impediments to a deal, but they can tweak the mix of assets they can use to solve that problem. In that respect, it doesn’t look like any more work than what a team might have to do under normal circumstances to complete a trade at this time of year. However, Washington would appear to have but one road to bringing Guerin on board, and that is to move Nylander. We’re not suggesting Nylander is being obstinate or unreasonable – a contract is something both parties must agree to and obligates both parties to honor its terms. But unless Nylander is moved, we don’t see how Guerin can become a Cap. And that seems to explain the delay better than any other alternative with respect to destination. The simplicity of it argues for the Caps being that team, and the same rigid simplicity argues that there might not be any deal, after all.