Thursday, December 31, 2009

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 2: Zoolander

We’re almost there, but first…

Number 2: Zoolander

“You gotta tame the beast before you let it out of its cage.”

-- Derek Zoolander

Well, we don’t know about being a beast, or letting it out of its cage, but the Caps unlocked the cage, held open the door, and all but begged Michael Nylander to take his leave and accept employment somewhere else, even if the Caps had to pay his salary to do it. Never did seem that so much silence and inaction could have such effects on the fortunes of a season for a team in professional sports, effects that spilled over from one season into another.

Michael Nylander was signed by the Capitals to a contract as an unrestricted free agent on July 2, 2007. It would be his second tour with the Caps, and this one didn’t come without controversy, either at the beginning or at the interminable end (not that we've reached it yet). Back in that July of 2007, the original reports concerning a Nylander signing had him going to Edmonton to skate with the Oilers. Edmonton could not or would not confirm the signing, and shortly thereafter the Caps announced having signed Nylander. The next week saw considerable back-and-forth with Canadian media reporting that the Oilers were contesting the signing. After much gnashing of teeth and trading of insults across the continent, Nylander would remain with the Caps, a move seen at the time as a good fit for a team that needed a number one center and who played a style suited to the Caps deliberate ways under Coach Glen Hanlon.

Well, things took a turn when the Caps stumbled badly out of the gate in the 2007-2008 season, so badly that it cost Hanlon his job on Thanksgiving. Enter Bruce Boudreau, whose brand of hockey was fire to Hanlon’s…well, if not ice, then slush. There is a place for slush (the Devils have been practicing it for almost two decades with considerable success), but that wasn’t what the Caps bought in bringing on Boudreau. And it wasn’t a style compatible with the sort of game Nylander played. Nylander didn’t get much of a chance to show why this fit was so bad, injuring his shoulder, apparently in a game against the Florida Panthers on December 1st. He played in 13 more games before going down for the year and undergoing surgery. It wasn’t even as if he played badly; he was 4-9-13 in the 14 games he played injured.

But when the curtain rose on the 2008-2009 season it was apparent that Nylander’s role with the team was very much in flux. One could see in the monthly splits… October: 2-6-8, plus-3 in nine games (of nine total played by the Caps)… November: 0-6-6, -3 in 14 games (of 15 total)… December: 1-2-3, plus-3 in 14 games (of 14 total). Nylander was dressing every night, but his production was declining.

2009 began for Nylander with the first hints of a diminished role. He played in only ten of the 12 games in January, going 2-5-7, plus-2. As February dawned, one couldn’t help but think the team would try to move him at the trading deadline, but there was the problem of that contract. It contained a no-movement clause that severely hampered the Capitals in any deals that might become available. Nylander had to agree to the terms.

If there was a player playing as if he was going to be headed elsewhere, or perhaps having the possibility of such weigh on him, it appeared to be Nylander. The month he had was nothing short of awful for a player occupying $4.875 million in salary cap room. Nylander finished the month 2-1-3, minus-2 in ten games. Almost incomprehensibly for a player who was nominally the second line center, he took a total of five shots on goal for the month, one over the last six games in which he played.

Absent granting the Caps relief under the no-movement clause of his contract and accepting a move, Nylander was going to remain a Cap through the March 4th trading deadline. In fact, as a practical matter he had to grant such relief if the Caps were to make any deals, since the Caps were unable to add salary absent that relief. It didn’t keep from rumors being circulated though. Perhaps the one that had the most meaning for the Caps, both at the deadline and (as it would turn out) for the playoffs was one that had Bill Guerin coming to the Caps (as if to put a period on that, it was Guerin who was credited with the game-winning goal in the series clinching win over the Caps in the Eastern semis last May).

After the trading deadline, Nylander became less of a player and more of a symbol – of cap woes, of an inability to make deals, of being a road-block to the advancement of players from Hershey – all stemming from his no-movement contract clause and his apparent willingness to invoke it. The playoffs came, and Nylander dressed for only three games, playing in less than ten minutes in two of them (no points, minus-1, no shots on goal). The summer came – and went – with the occasional blip of a rumor that Nylander was going somewhere (more, it seemed, wishful thinking on the part of Caps fans). Then came an interview published on a Swedish web site in which Nylander was quoted as saying that Coach Bruce Boudreau told him he wasn’t good enough. You would think that such a sentiment, if true, would have led to a deal before the start of training camp.

But like a divorce that can’t find a settlement, Nylander and the Caps remained joined until, if not death, then Nylander’s contract expiring would they part. It made for a strange situation – a team that had moved on (signing Brendan Morrison to take up the second line center position) and a player who was willing to move on… on his terms.

September came… no movement. Opening night… still on the roster (if not, and never to be, in the lineup). There was the tease of a possible deal with a team in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia that gave Caps fans the mirage of hope that something would be resolved. This had been the football that Lucy kept on offering up Charlie Brown since the summer, only to pull it away. It had the special whiff of credibility in that the team perhaps most often cited as a partner in a deal – Avongard Omsk – provided Nylander to reunite with Jaromir Jagr, with whom Nylander enjoyed his best offensive seasons with the New York Rangers.

There came a moment of sunlight peeking through the clouds in late October when the Caps sent Nylander (with his approval) to Grand Rapids in the AHL for a “conditioning stint.” Conditioning for what? It had to signal an imminent deal, didn’t it?

Uh, no.

Nylander’s stay in Grand Rapids came and after two weeks went, and there he was, still on the Capitals roster, still not playing, still with that $4.875 million cap hit. You would have to forgive Caps fans if they were frustrated, even angry at Nylander for not taking a deal (we had our own Nylander hockey-held-hostage watch for a while), but the fact is, Nylander was merely abiding by terms of a contract freely entered into by both he and the Caps. If there was no no-movement clause in the contract, the Caps would not have bat an eye in moving him to wherever they might to maximize the benefit to the club. Nylander merely held those cards on the other side of the table. He didn’t bat an eye in invoking what were his rights under a mutually agreed upon deal. Fans might get upset, but Nylander was comfortably within his rights.

Finally, though, choirs of celestial angels sang, the clouds parted, cherubim and seraphim did whatever they do, and a resolution was at hand… sort of. On December 13th, the club announced in a terse, four-sentence statement, that they had assigned Nylander to the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL. The cap hit comes off the Caps’ books for the remainder of the season, but there is still the matter of the last year of Nylander’s contract. While the no-movement clause will not be in effect next season as the last under that contract, the Caps still have a contractual relationship with the player that must still be resolved. But that is a discussion for 2010. There was enough to deal with in the saga of Michael Nylander to inspire a 1,500 word entry as one of the top stories for the Capitals in 2009. And with that, we’ll leave the last word to Derek Zoolander…

"Do you understand that the world does not revolve around you and your do whatever it takes, ruin as many people's lives, so long as you can make a name for yourself… no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied along the way, just so long so you can make a name for yourself… no matter how many friends you lose or people you leave dead and bloodied and dying along the way?"

It wasn’t bloody, just a zoo… a “Zoo-lander,” so to speak.

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 3: The Farm

And now, in this series of top ten stories for the Caps in 2009...

Number 3: The Farm

“It is thus with farming: if you do one thing late, you will be late in all your work.”

-- Cato the Elder

For those of you who aren’t up on your ancient Romans, Cato the Elder wasn’t a hockey player, but he knew of battles, and he knew of farming, and he could probably appreciate the mixture of the two with respect to the 2009 year that was had “down on the farm” for the Washington Capitals franchise. More to the point, he could appreciate – and Caps fans should – the importance of the “patient urgency” attached to growing things, in this case young hockey players for the long run.

It was quite a year down on the farm. But it didn’t start in 2009. The seeds were sown in draft picks and free agent signings dating as far back as 2002, before the Capitals had a relationship with either the AHL Hershey Bears or the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays. They were sown on August 11, 2004, when the Capitals and the Stingrays began their affiliation, on April 26, 2005, when the Caps and Bears forged their working agreement.

But it was in 2009 when the patient urgency yielded a bumper crop of successes down on the farm. For South Carolina, 2009 did not start in very promising fashion. The Stingrays broke out of the gate in the new year rather slowly, posting a 4-8-2 record in January. February didn’t start much better with two losses to start the month. But then came what might have been a turning point on February 6th, when the Stingrays hosted the Florida Everblades. South Carolina took a 2-1 lead into the first intermission, but gave the lead away on a couple of Everblade tallies in the second period. Whatever took place in the locker room in the second intermission, it had an effect on left wing Trent Campbell, who scored 41 seconds into the third period to tie the game, then again at 3:28 to provide the winning margin in a 4-3 Stingray win.

The come-from-behind win propelled the Stingrays into quite a run down the stretch. Starting with that win South Carolina finished February on an 8-3-0 run, to which they added a 12-2-1 stretch in March and April to close the regular season. That 20-5-1 overall record from February 6th forward catapulted the Stingrays to a second-place finish in the South Division of the American Conference and a first round matchup against the Charlotte Checkers, against whom they finished 10-5-1. But it was a record obtained in an odd fashion with South Carolina going 5-0-0 in the first five games, 0-4-1 in the next five, then 5-1-0 to close out the season against the Checkers.

It looked as if the scale would tip once more toward Charlotte, as the Checkers took Games 1 and 2 by identical 5-3 scores. But when the series moved to Charleston, the Stingrays took control, winning Game 3 by a 4-2 score and Game 3 by a 4-1 margin. The pivotal Game 5 – the getaway game for the Stingrays before heading back to Charlotte to close the series – featured haymakers being thrown from the get-go. But after the teams notched six goals in the opening period, South Carolina getting four of them, the Stingrays poured it on in periods three and four to win going away, 8-3. It was enough momentum for South Carolina, who scored the first two goals in Game 6, then hung on for a 4-3 series clinching win.

The second round series against the Everblades, who finished with the league’s best record, featured a more back-and-forth set of games with the teams exchanging wins in each of the first five games of the series, the Stingrays having the advantage of having won Game 1, 3 and 5. Game 6 would feature more of the same, with the teams first exchanging single goals in the first period, then exchanging two goals – South Carolina getting the first two, then Florida the next two. The Everblade side of the exchange was part of a furious finish in the last two minutes of regulation with a goal at 18:31 to draw Florida within a goal, then the tying marker at 19:41 to send the game into overtime. But barely nine minutes in, Zach Tarkir ended the series with assists from Travis Morin and Maxime Lacroix (a pair of Capitals draft picks) to send the Stingrays to the Conference final against the Cincinnati Cyclones.

South Carolina pounded the Cyclones in Game 1, 7-4 and made short work of their opponent thereafter. The Stingrays swept Cincinnati in four games, outscoring the Cyclones 17-10 in the process, setting up a Kelly Cup final against the Alaska Aces. South Carolina drew first blood in Alaska by using a three-goal third period to erase a 2-1 Aces lead and take Game 1 by a 4-2 score. The Stingrays broke on top in Game 2 with the Tarkir, Morin, Lacroix trio teaming up to get the goal and put the Aces back on their heels – Lacroix getting the goal, the others the assists. But the Aces didn’t allow another and scored three of their own, the last an empty netter, to even the series on home ice before heading to South Carolina.

The Stingrays put the Aces in a headlock in the first two games in Charleston, winning Game 3 by a 4-2 score, then getting a shutout from James Reimer in a 5-0 blowout to put the Aces on the brink of elimination. But the Aces weren’t quite out of effort. Alaska exchanged a pair of goals apiece with the Stingrays in the second period of Game 5, then battled South Carolina to a scoreless third before going to overtime. Colin Hemingway made sure there would be hockey in Anchorage at least one more time, ending the game 17:22 into overtime, giving the Aces a 3-2 win.

Alaska made sure that returning home would yield benefits, coming from two goals down to take a 3-2 decision on a goal by former Stingray and Capitals farm hand Matt Stefanishion with less than four minutes left in regulation. Game 7 unfolded in much the same way as did Game 6. Goals late in the first and early in the second period gave the Stingrays another 2-0 lead. Alaska got one back midway through the second, but South Carolina restored their two goal lead barely a minute later and took a 3-1 lead into the third period. But there was Stefanishion again to make things interesting late, getting a goal with 1:45 left to draw the Aces to within one. The Stingrays drove the last nail in the Aces’ coffin, though, getting a shorthanded empty net goal from Pierre-Luc O’Brien to seal the win and the Kelly Cup for the Stingrays.

The Stingrays would finish the year on a 36-15-1 run, starting with that win over the Florida Everblades on February 6th. But it wouldn’t top what was going on up in Hershey, where the Bears were adding to a long and storied history.

In a way, Hershey rang in the year much the same way South Carolina did – they got pasted by the Providence Bruins, 7-2, in the first game of the new year. Michal Neuvirth was tending goal in only his third game with the Bears and frankly wasn’t giving much indication that he would have much success in Hershey after going 6-7-0 in South Carolina. With this game he had allowed 14 goals on 73 shots in three games, going 1-2 in the process. But the Bears – and Neuvirth – would get their skates under them. Hershey would win nine of their next 15 games to post a 9-4-3 record for January, and Neuvirth would not lose another game in regulation in the month (3-0-2, 2.10, .935).

February was another story. The Bears could barely tread water for the month, going 5-5-2, a month that feature three losses to the Binghamton Senators (two in extra time) and a four-game losing streak, three of the losses coming on home ice at Giant Center. In March and April, as the Bears were heading toward the finish of the regular season, they compiled an 11-6-2 record, but even with the winning record there were ominous signs. Hershey could manage only a split of four games with arch-rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the month and would finish the regular season on a 2-4-1 run. It wasn’t the way to head into the playoffs.

But what they did have going in was a hot goaltender…sort of. Michal Neuvirth, who took that pasting back in the first game of the new year, would lose only three more games in regulation in 15 appearances over the rest of the regular season. The 2009 portion of his season looked like this – 8-4-3, 2.59, .917, and he won five of his last six decisions.

In Round 1 of the Calder Cup tournament the Bears drew the Philadelphia Phantoms, a team the Bears finished 7-3-2 against during the regular season. They made quick work of Philadelphia, beating the Phantoms in Game 1 and 2 in Philadelphia to end the Phantoms’ history in Philadelphia on a sour note (they are now the Adirondack Phantoms), and beating them in Games 3 and 4 in Hershey to set up a Conference semi-final battle with the Penguins.

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was not a team against which the Bears had much success in the regular season, going 2-5-3 overall. If there was an advantage for the Bears, it was in having home-ice advantage, and they used it well in games 1 and 2. But it wasn’t without suspense. Hershey took an early 2-0 first period lead in Game 1, but the Penguins came back with a pair in the second to tie the game. The Bears restored some momentum on a late second period goal to take a 3-2 lead into the third, then built on it with an early tally in the last frame. The Penguins got one back to give some concern to the Giant Center faithful, but Alexandre Giroux ended the suspense with a goal to give The Bears a 5-3 win.

Game 2 was utterly lacking in suspense on the scoreboard. The Bears put up three goals in seven minutes late in the first period, and Neuvirth made it hold up, allowing only a late third period goal to spoil the shutout in a 3-1 lead, sending the Penguins home down 0-2 in games. With Game 3-5 on Penguin ice, the task for the Bears was to get at least one so that they would have no worse than two chances to clinch on home ice. They had their chance in Game 3, getting a power play goal early in the third period to take a 2-1 lead on the scoreboard and get within shouting distance of a 3-0 stranglehold on the series. The Penguins came back, though, getting a power play tally of their own in the 17th minute of the third period to send the game to overtime. Mark Letestu sent the Penguin fans home happy with a goal at 4:48 of overtime to get the Penguins back to 1-2 in the series.

Games 3 and 4 were object lessons for the Bears in terms of letting teams off the hook. The Penguins scored the first four goals in Game 3 and won going away, 6-3 to tie the series. Then, in Game 5, the Bears couldn’t find a way to solve backup goalie Adam Berkhoel, who held the fort long enough to allow the Penguins to get a lead in the first, then some insurance in the second and an empty-netter in the third on their way to a 4-1 win and a 3-2 lead in the series as the teams headed back to Hershey.

Game 5, facing elimination, Michal Neuvirth put his stamp on the series with authority. After allowing 11 goals on 80 shots in taking the three losses in Wilkes-Barre, he was a wall in Game 6. The Bears got a goal in the first to stake Neuvirth to a lead, but the young goalie faced 14 shots in the second period, turning away all of them to give the Bears momentum heading into the third. His teammates took over from there, getting a goal in the first minute of the third period and another on a power play three minutes later for a bigger cushion to work with. Neuvirth didn’t seem to need it, though, finishing the game with 30 saves on as many shots in a 3-0 shutout, setting up a Game 7 against perhaps the Bears’ most hated rival.

If you’re going to make a statement in a Game 7, it is perhaps no better than to do it getting a goal in the first minute of play. The Bears did just that on a goal by Keith Aucoin. It was part of a 13-6 shot advantage that the Bears enjoyed in the first period, Neuvirth once more turning away all that he faced. The Bears added a goal in the second, and another in the third. But the story would be Michal Neuvirth. The rookie netminder would turn away all 24 shots he faced, completing his seventh consecutive period of shutout hockey and notching for the first time in the history of the Calder Cup tournament shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of a playoff series. It set up a Calder Cup final against the Manitoba Moose.

We cover a lot of the ground in this series in a number of posts made during the finals in June. We won’t cover it again here. But there did seem to be a ‘there’s no stopping us now” quality to this series after the Bears dispatched the Penguins. More to the point, there was a “no way we don’t stop you” quality, as Michal Neuvirth dominated the series in goal. In the six-game final, Neuvirth finished 4-2, 1.61, .941, and one shutout. That, and his 16-6, 1.92, 932, four shutout performance for the tournament earned him the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as Calder Cup MVP.

It was quite a 2009 for the two franchises. As of this morning, South Carolina is 47-23-7 for 2009 with a Kelly Cup Trophy in it hands. The Hershey Bears finished 2009 with a record of 49-23-9 and added the tenth Calder Cup to their collection. These franchises are not only reflections of excellence in their own right, but serve as breeding grounds for the next generation of Capitals. Although most of the prospects Caps fans might recognize are playing at Hershey, there are those among them who have spent time in South Carolina.

Andrew Gordon split time with the Stingrays in the 2007-2008 season, going 8-6-14 in 11 games there. He played 80 games for a Calder Cup champion in Hershey last year and has had a couple of short stints in DC with the Caps. He is currently tied for fifth in scoring in the AHL. Sean Collins played in 31 games in South Carolina in 2007-2008. The next year he played in 39 games in Hershey and even chipped in 15 games with the Caps. He is a plus-11 in 27 games with the Bears this year.

Last season, no fewer than 16 players played in both Hershey and in Washington (this does not include Brian Pothier, who logged 31 games in Hershey in his comeback from a concussion). In fact, of the team that took the ice in the Calder Cup-clinching game against Manitoba last June, 13 saw time with the Caps in the 2008-2009 season. Eight players who have skated with the Caps this season dressed for that Calder Cup-clinching game last June. If you don’t think this relationship has meaning and is beneficial to all the parties, then we don’t think you’re paying attention.

And it is in that relationship that the excellence displayed in Charleston and Hershey has special meaning in 2009. The experience and the success gained there by the kids in the system are as important as the skills they possess. Winning breeds winning, up and down the chain. It creates expectations, it instills confidence. It becomes a habit learned and carried forward. That it would come within five years of the establishment of the relationship between the Caps and these two franchises (Hershey also having won a Calder Cup in 2006) speaks to the “patient urgency” of growing your own prospects and bringing them forward in due time, giving them not just a taste, but a sense of responsibility with the big club as they make their way toward what we hope as Caps fans will be long and successful careers in Washington. For that reason, the hard work down on the farm rewarded with championships is a top story for the Caps in 2009.

A NO-point night -- Sharks 5 - Caps 2

What are you gonna say about that one?

Well, San Jose was better, from start to finish, that’s what. As dominating as the Caps were in a 4-1 win over the Sharks in October, so San Jose was last night in a 5-2 win. It wasn’t so much what San Jose did as what the Caps didn’t…

Get shots, for example. For the second straight game, the Caps were held to fewer than five shots in the first period. Washington had three shots in the first period, none in the last eight minutes. And, the three shots were hardly what one might call “quality chances:”

- 3:19 – Poti, 47 feet
- 5:07 – Fleischmann, 42 feet
- 11:57 – Erskine, 50 feet

In fact, the Caps had only two more attempts on goal in that last 8:03 of the first period, one by Alex Ovechkin (blocked) in the 15th minute of the period and the other coming from the stick of Alexander Semin (blocked) in the last minute of the frame.

And if you’re wondering, no, that is not the first time the Caps have surrendered two penalty shots in a game. But you have to go all the way back to the inaugural season for the team, in fact in the inaugural month, when the Chicago Blackhawks were awarded two penalty shots in the same game against the Caps. Stan Mikita and Jim Pappin came up empty against Michel Belhumeur on October 23, 1974 in the Caps’ eighth game as a franchise. The Caps lost that game, too, 3-2.

Other than the two penalty shots he surrendered, Michal Neuvirth didn’t play badly (28 saves on 31 shots), but after making a sterling save on Scott Nichol early in the period, he gave up goals 75 seconds apart later in the first period to put the club behind the eight ball early, and the Caps weren’t playing well enough otherwise to really make a game of it.

Other stuff…

-- One can only suppose that the official scorer for the Sharks was making a point in naming Dan Boyle the third star. Two penalties, minus-1. Yeah, he was on the ice for 23 minutes (tops for the Sharks), but a third-star worthy game? Maybe it was for the faux-tough guy thing when he got mixed up with Alex Ovechkin, then got all tough when the officials came in to save his life. Or maybe Mike Green was supposed to notice who was the Olympian and who wasn’t.

-- Thank heavens for masks. If not for such implements, chances are Michal Neuvirth’s head would have exploded from the impact of a Dany Heatley shot late in the third period that appeared to get Neuvirth square on the chin right in the “U” on his mask where it says, “Neuvy.”

-- Jason Chimera gets the all-you-can-eat score sheet buffet coupon in his first game as a Cap. In 11 minutes he had an assist (on the Mike Knuble goal), one shot on goal, a shot blocked, two misses, three hits, a giveaway, a takeaway, a blocked shot, and a faceoff loss.

-- Alex Ovechkin had five of his shots blocked in the game’s first 27 minutes (six overall). At least he spread it around; four different Sharks defensemen took one for the team.

-- Green might get some heat on that first Sharks goal by Pavelski, but rewind the tape a couple of seconds and see who was a couple of ticks late at the Caps line getting to the guy who set up Pavelski. Shaone Morrisonn took aim at Dany Heatley, but never got there in time to keep Heatley from making the cross-ice pass. Green was forced to try to sprint to the other side of the ice to keep Pavelski from shooting, but didn’t get there in time.

-- The game-within-a-game was a remake of ‘When Worlds Collide”… a reference to a couple of 230-pound guys going at it all over the ice in Doug Murray and Alex Ovechkin. Nothing dirty about it (although we could almost hear Caps fans howling for penalties). Just two guys at ramming speed getting on after each other.

-- The Caps dressed 18 skaters. You might have noticed three of them…maybe. 15 or so guys seemed to skate as if they were extras in “Night of the Living Dead.” Brooks Laich…18 minutes, one shot attempt (but he took an amazing 21 draws). David Steckel…no attempted shots. Brendan Morrison… one shot attempt. Eric Fehr… one shot attempt. And on and on and on…

-- It wasn’t as if the defense played any better. There was Morrisonn’s WTF moment. There was John Erskine doing… well, we don’t quite know what he was doing when Joe Thornton broke in alone to draw a penalty shot.

-- When we say “not noticed,” that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for Jeff Schultz. Almost 19 minutes, not on the ice for any goals scored against, a shot, a couple of hits (probably an indication that the scorer had a finger spasm working the hit meter tonight… 78 hits were recorded for both teams; it really wasn’t all that physical, or maybe it’s a California sort of hit thing), and a blocked shot.

2009 came in with a bang – a 7-4 demolition of Tampa Bay. It goes out with a whimper – a 5-2 loss to San Jose. The 2010 early schedule favors the Caps – a struggling LA Kings team (losers of three straight and four of five), then a six-pack of thoroughly beatable opponents. But the Caps have to play better – individually and as a group – than they did tonight. First periods, which had been a strength of this team, have killed them in the last two games. They’ve been outshot 23-7 and outscored 5-0. Not the sort of thing from which victories are made.