Theme: “What we hope ever to do with ease, we must learn first to do with diligence”
-- Samuel Johnson
When first we saw David Steckel this season we thought that perhaps this was it; this would be the season when he added some offense to his abilities as a defender, penalty killer, and faceoff specialist. When last we saw him, we didn’t. Steckel did not dress for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Montreal Canadiens. In fact, he dressed for only one of the last five games, a victim of numbers and perhaps the small, mobile character of the Montreal forwards he would have been asked to match up against.
It was a year in which Steckel appeared to move neither forward, nor backward, but rather sort of sideways. His 5-11-16, plus-4 in 79 games looked a lot like his 8-11-19, plus-2 in 2008-2009. He improved some on his faceoffs, winning 59.2 percent of the 1,076 draws he took versus 57.9 percent of the 886 draws he took in 2008-2009. His ten-game segments looked like this...
Overall, you might say his defense improved, too. Comparing last season to this, his goals against/on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 dropped from 1.94 to 1.82. His plus/minus on ice per 60 minutes improved from -0.16 to +0.50 (all numbers from behind the net.ca).
Looking at his ten-game segments, he evidenced better offensive production as the year moved along, but you also had the feeling that there was more there. Not that the Caps needed it, given the team’s finish at the top of the scoring heap. But Steckel recorded 13 fewer shots on goal for the season (about a quarter of a shot on goal a game).
He had reasonably good numbers against higher caliber competition. In 38 games against teams that made the playoffs, Steckel finished 3-5-8, plus-4; he was 2-6-8, even, against everyone else. Like a lot of Caps, he saved his best for the Atlantic Division, against which he was 1-4-5, even, in 20 games, registering at least a point against every team in that division except, perhaps curiously, the Islanders.
Perhaps one reason his offensive production did not improve was that he failed to score against Tampa Bay. In his previous two seasons, Steckel was 6-5-11, plus-7 in 12 games against the Lightning. He finished this season 0-1-1, even, in five games.
Steckel struggled some at home. In 39 games played at Verizon Center, he was 2-5-7, minus-3, the two goals coming despite managing 52 shots on goal. And, in what would be a harbinger of things to come, the only three games he missed during the season came in the post-Olympic portion of the season (he played in 17 of 20 games), a product of the crowded situation at forward following the trading deadline. It also was accompanied by his failing to hit the 50 percent mark in faceoff wins in eight of those 17 games that he did play.
The playoffs were something of an odd circumstance for Steckel. He played in only three of the games, two of which Montreal won. In those games, Montreal scored a total of 12 goals. Steckel was on the ice for one of them – the first goal the Canadiens scored in the series, a power play goal by Mike Cammalleri. Seven hits, four blocked shots, 18-13 on draws (58.1 percent).
Last year we said of Steckel, “Steckel has fewer than two full years of NHL game experience (155 games). This was only his second full season with the Caps, and in just about every statistical category you’d care to name, he improved on his first full season. He did show an ability to score at the AHL level, and one might hope that he continues improvement along those lines…” That improvement was very much incremental this year and uneven as well. The improvement in offense over the last part of the season gave way to an unremarkable playoff (0-0-0, plus-1 in three games, no shots on goal in 31:25 of playing time).
Last year at this time, one might have had a clear picture of Steckel’s role on the club moving forward – centering a checking line, being effective in the defensive end and in the faceoff circle, perhaps a bit of an improvement in the offensive end. But this year, that picture is cloudier. He took a seat for four of the last five games of the series against Montreal, which raises questions about where he is on the Capitals’ depth chart. But he has a three-year contract kicking in next year, and he is one of only seven forwards under contract for next season.
It was something of a “sideways” season for Steckel, but he has the ability to do the little things well. And those will be skills the Caps could use if they are to take the next step.