Friday, October 29, 2010

The Virtues of Patience... But Not Too Much of It

Yesterday, Kareem El-Alaily posted this on the "Box Seats" blog in the Washington Post...

"...the six most important players on a hockey team should be the goalie, then the first-line center (1C), top defenseman (1D), second-line center (2C), second defenseman (2D) and finishing with a first line winger (1W)."

El-Alaily went on to look at recent Stanley Cup winners and their attention to this detail, and at the Capitals and their compliance with this formula to be "strong down the middle."  The conclusion was that the Caps are somewhat lacking, having little in the way of a credible 2nd line center, a second defenseman who is not quite ready to be the sort of second defenseman one suspects is needed to win a Cup, and hanging on to Alexander Semin (a top-end scoring winger who is second best on a club with Alex Ovechkin) when perhaps they should not.

We took away something else in the reading of this.  The odd part of the analysis was that it would seem to vindicate the Caps' management strategy this past summer in a perverse sort of way. The Caps had three issues that dominated conversation -- the lack of a bona fide second line center, the lack of depth/experience/physicality on defense, and youth in goal. A lot of pundits and message boarders out there thought the Caps should go after a veteran goalie (Nabokov, Turco, Ron Tugnutt)...others thought they should trade an asset (Tomas Fleischmann) for a defenseman (Sheldon Souray, Brad Park, Red Kelly)...others thought that maybe they should do what it would take to pry Jeff Carter away from the Flyers.

Well, the Caps did none of those things. And what do they have? Well, had they traded a young goalie (probably Neuvirth in this scenario) and signed, say, Marty Turco, they would have a goalie who is performing quite well at the moment (2.44, .927, and no reason he would be appreciably worse in a Washingon uniform), but they would still have the injury-prone Semyon Varlamov as his backup.  Worse, with Turco getting the starts, Varlamov (who is currently out of the lineup) might have been, or rather his wonky groin might have been, a ticking bomb of unknown impact until he took the ice for any extended work.  That, given Turco's age (35) and the one-year nature of the deal he might have signed (as he did with Chicago), could have had longer term effects on the Caps in terms of who would be their number one goalie three or so years down the road.  And, we would never have had the opportunity to see Michal Neuvirth, or rather Neuvirth would never have had the opportunity to establish himself as the number one goaltender as he has done, at least for the time being.

The Caps also have a defense of some promise.  Lift your eyes from this morning's box score for a moment and look down the road.  Along that road, John Carlson is getting more ice time than he would have had if the Caps had traded for a top-pair defenseman.  He's also getting more minutes than he would normally get given the injury situation on the blue line.  The point is that every extra minute of ice time Carlson is getting now, whether a product of injury or the moves the Caps did not make, is like a minute in class -- a learning opportunity -- that could pay handsome dividends down the road, both in terms of this spring and for years to come.

The Caps have the opportunity to hold auditions for a second line center from within.  Tomas Fleischmann, Mathieu Perreault, and Marcus Johansson all have been afforded an opportunity to grab that position by the throat.  Through ten games, none of them have been able to get a firm grasp on that prize.  But in giving this threesome the chance, the Caps can evaluate in real time where they stand and what their needs are.

This applies to the goalie and defenseman situations as well.  The Caps have the opportunity to evaluate what they have in setting of high responsibility and expectation.  Had the Caps made the deals many fans clammored for in the off-season, the Caps would have denied themselves a fuller opportunity to conduct that evaluation in an effort to find the quick fix. 

This is not an argument to allow the experiments to go on through the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs, and I do not suppose the Caps will do so.  We can see the faintest of images of a conclusion to each of the problems noted above.  First, Neuvirth has the technical skills to be the number one goalie, the biggest unknown being whether he can mentally survive the grind of the 82-game season.  Keep in mind, this is Neuvirth's third professional season, and in the previous two he played in 39 and 35 regular season games.  So far, though, the returns are favorable.  If anyone can find a way to get -- and keep -- Varlamov healthy, it would be a huge plus.

As for the defense, Carlson's extra minutes are a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, you can see the skills he has as a two-way defenseman.  He is tied for third among all rookie skaters (first among defensemen) in scoring.  But he is prone to making rookie mistakes, too.  He is second among rookies in penalty minutes and leads all rookies, by a rather wide margin, in giveaways.  Giving him the extra minutes now means accelerating the learning curve and getting the "rookie mistakes" out of his system, hopefully in time for a long playoff run in the spring.

The second line center situation is a great deal more problematic.  Two rookies and a converted wing (yes, we know Fleischmann had played center in the past) has all the look at the moment of patchwork.  And from our chair, we do not see this situation improving nearly enough between now and April to make the "in-house" option a viable solution.  Sometime, from somwhere, the Caps are going to have to find a better option, in our opinion.

What patience did was allow the three competing situations to come a little more into focus.  If the Caps had made a deal in the summer and addressed, say, the goalie situation to the exclusion of the others, the club would be in a bind -- the unknown of Neuvirth's capabilities having been moved and the continuing problems at the other positions.  The Caps might have pursued two outside solutions over the summer, but again, the question is whether they would have guessed right.  If they went after a goalie and a defenseman, the result could have made matters worse in that they very well might have burned off any cap room to pursue a center later in the year to deal with that problem.

Patience is a virtue, it is said.  That the Caps find themselves with a 6-4-0 record after ten games, despite enduring injury and growing pains, speaks to the truth of that proverb.  In fact, for having exhibited that patience, the Caps have found that in many instances it is precisely those players who got the opportunity as a result of that patience -- most notably Neuvirth and Carlson, but not necessarily limited to them -- that have been the best players for the Caps to date.

The trick now will be in knowing when patience gives way to hard-headedness about growing from within and avoiding that problem.


Justin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin said...

EXCELLENT post, Peerless. I've been thinking about this subject for a while now and you put it into words well. Not to sound old (I'm not), but we as Caps fans (and society as a whole) demand instant gratification it seems. Reading the boards the past month or so, or even during the summer when we didn't pull off the blockbuster acquisitions, you would think we lost the Cup before the first game was played. Does this team have needs? Yes. Does every team have needs? Yes. I'm all for evaluating this team and making the best possible tweaks later in the season. We have the time to do so.

Lisa said...

This post reminds me of something GMGM said at Caps Con. If I remember correctly, he was asked about the composition of the defense and said, among other things, that he prefers to evaluate the team during the season when it's a "living organism" as opposed to making the bulk of personnel decisions over the summer. I would think this philosophy holds especially true when introducing a number of young players into the roster because as you said, the Caps need to see what they've got.

The issue of 2C is where this master plan, if it is one, could get derailed. I have no hope for Flash, Matty P. is a fill-in and Marcus is too inexperienced (he sure is pretty to watch though). So, if the Caps can't trade for a 2C, how will they overcome this deficiency? Please, not another Game 7 at VC.