Sunday, May 09, 2010

And in other news...

The 2009-2010 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Alexander Semin

Alexander Semin

Theme: “All genius is a conquering of chaos and mystery.”

There is perhaps no more mysterious player in the NHL than Alexander Semin. A genius with the puck – shooting it or passing it – he is also perhaps the most confounding of Caps. 2009-2010 was Semin’s best year statistically, and it would have seemed to be the springboard to even bigger things, as the ten-game segments suggest…

After missing seven games with a wrist injury in late November, Semin closed the regular season by going 31-36-67, plus-35 in 55 games (a 48-56-104, plus-54 pace). And it didn’t stop there. For the season, for those wingers playing in at least 40 games, Semin finished at 5-on-5 (numbers from…

-- Second in goals/60 minutes (1.71, to teammate Alex Ovechkin)
-- Third in points per 60 minutes (1.71, behind Ovechkin and Daniel Sedin)
-- Third in plus/minus per 60 minutes (behind Ovechkin and Sedin)

Semin also improved in his ability to protect the puck. His 0.79 giveaways per game was the best such value since the lockout and represented a 25 percent improvement over the 2008-2009 season. And, this was his second consecutive season in which takeaways outnumbered giveaways.

Semin had a spectacular record against Eastern Conference teams this season, going 33-35-68, plus 28 in 55 games (a 49-52-101, plus-42 pace). He hardly skipped a beat against teams that made the playoffs, too, going 14-16-30, plus-11 in 24 games (a 48-55-103, plus-36 pace).

Even the injury bug failed to pay Semin its usual frequent visits. He missed two games to illness and seven more to a wrist injury, but then played in the last 55 games of the year without incident. This after 11 separate occurrences over the previous three seasons in which Semin missed a total of 44 games to injury or illness.

And there was another aspect of Semin’s game that presented itself this season – penalty killer. On a team that had a generally weak penalty killing performance for the year, Semin took a semi-regular rotation among the forwards called upon to kill penalties (of Caps forwards spending the entire season with the club, Semin was seventh in average shorthanded ice time). And his goals against (on ice) per 60 minutes of 4-on-5 ice time was better than that of Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, Henrik Zetterberg, Joe Thornton, and Patrick Sharp, to pick from among a number of forwards with roughly equivalent or more shorthanded ice time.

There is an aspect of Semin’s game, though, that is (and continues to be) disturbing. He took 33 minor penalties this season, most since he took 45 in the 2006-2007 season. It isn’t the “how many” as much as the “what,” however. Of those 33 minor infractions, 20 of them were for “obstruction” types of fouls (tripping, interference, holding, hooking). He had 22 such penalties last year (14 for hooking alone), 14 the previous year (13 for hooking). He also took 21 of his 33 minor penalties in the last 42 games of the season. Whether this is a product of a long season (fatigue, loss of focus) or just harebrained play is an open question.

The playoffs this year were, as any Cap fan knows (and still gnashes their teeth over), another frustrating story. The second round is almost over, and Semin remains ranked fifth in shots on goal (44). For all that apparent effort – no goals (and only two assists, while we’re counting). He had 24 of those shots on goal in the last three games of the Montreal series (nine of those shots coming on Capitals power plays, more than any Cap had in those games). If Semin had scored goals consistent with his shooting percentage for the season (14.4 percent), the six goals it would have meant over the series would have us not writing this just yet.

Alex Ovechkin gets the ink and pixels, Nicklas Backstrom is this year’s most known unknown player. But Alexander Semin is an elite offensive talent who has the capacity to be consistent 100-point scorer (over the last two seasons, that is the pace at which he has put up points). He also has the capacity to be a passable, if not above average two-way forward. But he has a penchant for taking the odd and seemingly lazy sort of penalty, and he need to establish himself as a player who can survive the grind of the NHL’s season without lapsing into periods of ill focus.

As for the playoff situation, not getting a goal in 44 shots is not necessarily symptomatic of his being a player who comes up short in the playoffs routinely – he did have eight goals and 14 assists in 21 playoff games over his previous two seasons. But his absence from the score sheet was keenly felt in this year’s post season.

Next year, Semin will be playing for what might be the biggest payday he will enjoy in his NHL career, as he embarks on a contract year (he is on a one-year deal for $6 million). If he does take his place among the elite, he could conceivably price himself out of a contract with the Caps after next season, but if it comes as the product of a big season and a Stanley Cup, all sides will likely be happy with the result. This year was a step toward that end, if an incomplete one.

Grade: B+

The 2009-2010 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

Theme: “…if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you...Listen, you hear it? ‘Carpe’…hear it? ‘Carpe…carpe diem.’ Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

-- John Keating (“Dead Poets Society")

It is hard to think that a player who registered his fourth 50-goal season, his fourth 100-point season, finished a plus-45 (2nd in the league), finished with seven game-winning goals (tied for 4th), had 13 power play goals (tied for sixth), had 14 multi-goal games, and was 30-4-7 as captain of the club could be said to have an unsatisfying year, but there it is. His ten-game segments look rather impressive

And those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Among wingers playing in at least 40 games, Ovechkin finished at 5-on-5:

- First in goals/60 minutes of ice time (1.90)
- Third in primary assists/60 minutes: (1.32)
- Second in points/60 minutes (3.75)
- First in plus/minus (on ice) per 60 minutes (+2.80)
- Second in plus/minus differential per 60 minutes, on ice/off ice (+2.69)

Stiffer competition appeared to bring out the best of Ovechkin’s game. In 25 games against the seven teams that would make the playoffs in the East in addition to the Caps, he was 20-22-42, plus-36. He scored 12 goals against the Pennsylvania teams alone, seven of them against Pittsburgh. His durability was never in question, either – he had 10 goals in 11 games he played that were the second half of back-to-back games.

But Ovechkin, in addition to all those gaudy numbers, missed ten regular season games (four of which came as a result of two suspensions), played in only four games at the Vancouver Olympics because Team Russia was plastered across the Canada Hockey Place ice by Team Canada in the playoff-round of that tournament, and did not manage to drag his Washington Capitals teammates out of the first round of the Stanley Cup tournament.

It’s numbers versus hardware, and Ovechkin’s season will include much more of the former than the latter. No Olympic medal, no Stanley Cup, no Ross (won by Henrik Sedin), no Richard (won by Steven Stamkos and Sidney Crosby), and the possibility of not taking home either of the two individual NHL trophies (Hart, Lindsay) for which he is a finalist.

What happened? Well, the obvious fault line on which Ovechkin’s season appears to have fractured is the Olympics. Before the Games, he was 42-47-89, plus-43 in 54 games. Had he played the last 20 games after the break at that pace he would have finished 58-64-122, plus-59. And if anything, that is a conservative estimate. Over a 32-game stretch that began with his first game back after serving his first suspension and ending with his penultimate game before the Olympic break, Ovechkin was 24-35-59, plus-30 (a 62-90-152, plus-77 82-game pace).

However, he played in 18 of the last 20 games – he served the second of his two suspensions after a hit on Chicago’s Brian Campbell that broke his collarbone – and went 8-12-20, plus-2. That would be a fine pace for 95 percent of the players in the league, but it wasn’t “Ovechkinesque,” and it would be a signal of the frustration that would be the end-game of his season.

OK, if the Olympics was the obvious bright line separating the two parts of his season, was there a less obvious reason for his results? The two suspensions might have affected him in a way that is hard to quantify outside of this obvious statistical measure. His hits-to-games played ratio this season of 2.57:1 is his lowest such number since his second season (2.24:1). Hits are, to a significant extent, an arbitrary measure dependent on what the scorer sees. But the suspensions seem to have discombobulated Ovechkin in terms of how far he could push his game, and they brought upon him some negative press that seems to have flummoxed him just that much more. His game ended up lacking a certain rhythm to it that was there when he was on top of his game.

Ovechkin did a lot of things right this season. There are the obvious things – the goals, the points, the plus-minus. He took over the captaincy, and the club responded with a remarkable 30-4-7 record. But there was a less obvious signal of a maturity in Ovechkin’s game, and that was his safekeeping of the puck. His 76 giveaways in 72 games represented a 21 percent reduction in giveaways, measured in giveaways per game. It was the best year of his career in that respect. And, he was clutch in terms of when his goals game. 34 of his 50 goals came with the Caps tied, behind by one, or ahead by one.

But having collected all those numbers, it is still the team prize that eludes him. It was all on display in the first round of the playoffs. Games 1-4… four goals (on ten shots), eight points, plus-eight, and the Caps had a 3-1 lead in games. Games 5-7… one goal (on 24 shots), two points, minus-2, and the Caps were sent packing after losing three straight.

Ovechkin’s fault? No, but he is the Captain, too. And if you want to give him the lion’s share of the credit for that 33-5-7 run as captain that took the Caps to the brink of advancing to the second round of the playoffs, then that is the share of responsibility he must bear for the last three games. He had numbers (he is still tied for 21st in scoring and tied for ninth in goals scored, even though he has played at least two fewer playoff games than any player in front of him), but he is playing in the World Championships this week – a rather cruel naming convention, given the fact that most of the elite talent in the world of hockey is still playing in North America.

Last year we said of Ovechkin…

“Next year will be a telling year in the career of Alex Ovechkin. He will be 24 years old when the season ends. That’s barely getting started in most walks of life, but looking at the greats – Gretzky won his first Cup at age 23, Mario Lemieux at 25, Maurice Richard at 22, Bobby Orr at 21, Gordie Howe at 21. The window is open for Ovechkin to join those greats, and to be mentioned in the same breath as them, he will have to have his name engraved on the same piece of hardware.”

Well, the clock is ticking – loudly – on Ovechkin’s chances to lead a team to a Stanley Cup. He has been compared with those all-time greats of the game – Gretzky, Lemieux, Richard, Howe. Ovechkin will be 25 years old on Opening Night of the 2010-2011 season. By that age, Gretzky had two Cups, as had Richard and Howe. Lemieux would finish that season winning his first. There is also the matter of his nemesis – Sidney Crosby – having already won a Cup at age 21 and in the running for another at age 22. Not every great player who wins their first Stanley Cup does it at the age of 31, as did Steve Yzerman in 1997. Ovechkin has but one number left to collect of meaning…

One, as in “one” Stanley Cup.

Grade: A-