Monday, May 17, 2010

The 2009-2010 season, by the "tens" -- Defensemen: Mike Green

Mike Green

Theme: “Success and failure are greatly overrated. But failure gives you a whole lot more to talk about.”

Hildegard Knef probably never played hockey – she was a German actress – but she might have described Mike Green’s 2009-2010 season many years before the fact. Green had what, by the usual statistical measures, was one of the most impressive seasons – not counting his own the previous season – in recent memory. He became the first defenseman to lead all defensemen in points in consecutive years since Brian Leetch did it in the 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 seasons, and he had the most combined points in consecutive years in almost two decades. And, he had generally solid ten-game segments…

Green actually improved on a year in which he set an all-time record for goals scored in consecutive games by a defenseman. He played in more games (75 to 68), had more assists (57 to 42), more points (76 to 73), a better plus/minus (+39 to +24), fewer penalty minutes (54 to 68), more hits (133 to 86), fewer giveaways (73 to 95). And just like last season, Green finished high in the rankings among defensemen in a variety of statistics:

Goals: 19 (1st)
Assists: 57 (1st)
Points : 76 (1st)
Plus/Minus: +39 (2nd)
Power Play Goals: 10 (1st)
Power Play Assists: 25 (1st)
Power Play Points: 35 (1st)
Game-Winning Goals: 4 (T-2nd)
Time-on-Ice/Game: 25:28 (9th)

In spite of all of that, Green might as well have been a dead carp left on the counter for a week. He was toxic as a potential member of the Canadian men’s hockey Olympic team – “There are parts of his game that we’d need to see improved upon before he’s ready to play in the Olympics” was the way Steve Yzerman tried to put it diplomatically.  He would be pooh-pooh’ed as a potential Norris Trophy winner. Can’t play defense. He’s a fourth forward. What’s with the hair? It was a rather consistent, mind-numbing, head-pounding narrative, and not an entirely unfair one.

But what Green had was a reasonably consistent – if not record-settting – season in terms of goal scoring. What inconsistency he had in the offensive end had to do with his production on the power play, as his ten-game splits suggest.

This is something of a classic era in terms of young defensemen with bright futures. Drew Doughty, Tyler Myers, Luke Schenn, Erik Johnson, Victor Hedman, Zach Bogosian, to name just a few. Green, at the age of 24, is certainly in that group. And this season cemented Green' status as the top offensive defenseman of this era. He was ridiculously productive against Eastern Conference teams that made the playoffs. In 24 games against the other seven teams making the post-season, he was 8-20-28, plus-32.

Defensively, to put the best spin on it, Green is a work in progress. Consider that as recently as the 2006-2007 season, Green was averaging only twenty seconds a night on the penalty kill on a team that was bad in that respect. OK, it isn’t really any better (actually it’s worse – 78.8 percent for the regular season versus 80.2 percent in that season), but Green is assuming a larger role in penalty killing – 2:09 in PK ice time a night this past season.

One could not say, however, that the increase in shorthanded ice time came with an increase in effectiveness at 4-on-5 play. Of the 92 defensemen who played at least 60 games this season and averaged at least two minutes of shorthanded ice time per game, only 24 defensemen had a worse goals-against/on-ice per 60 minutes than Green (according to Even though you will find some names of note below Green on that list (Dan Hamhuis, Dennis Seidenberg, Scott Niedermayer, and Rob Scuderi among them), penalty killing is still very much an area that could use improvement for Green.

It does get better – somewhat – for Green at even strength. Among defensemen playing in at least 60 games with at least 15 minutes a game at 5-on-5, Green ranked 37th among 110 defensemen in goals-against/on-ice per 60 minutes of ice time this past season. He still has a way to go to catch the likes of Nicklas Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara, Chris Pronger, Rob Scuderi, and Rob Blake, to name a few who ranked better, to join the top rank of defensemen who are effective in their own zone.

What is something of a festering problem for Green is one alluded to by Steve Yzerman in explaining his decision to select Drew Doughty over Green for a spot on the Canadian men’s ice hockey Olympic team… “We feel [Doughty] can handle pressure situations,” the clear inference being that Green cannot. It is hard to avoid noticing that including this year’s post season performance against Montreal, Green is 1-14-15, minus-5 in his last 25 playoff games. Against the Canadiens in the opening round of this year’s playoffs, Green was 0-3-3, plus-1. He also was on the ice for 10 of the 20 goals Montreal scored in the playoffs. Even with the heavy ice time Green got – he led all Caps with 26:01 in average ice time for the series – that is a high percentage of on-ice goals against.

In the wake of the disappointing playoff exit against Montreal, Green declined to speak to the press. The press being, well, the press, they seemed to take offense at the slight, but Green did speak to reporters a few days later. Parsing any athlete’s commentary isn’t always a productive exercise, but a point was made, then returned to by Green in his remarks…

“The tough part for me is that it takes 82 more games to get another opportunity. That's a long time… Now we have to play 82 games to prepare ourselves to play like a playoff team for next season.”

It is, in a sense, the right thing to say in that it ackowledges that for the Caps, they will now be judged on playoff performance, not posting big numbers in the regular season. But concerning the regular season, this comment caught our attention…

“I think mentally I was preparing myself for the playoffs to play strong defensively. When all season you're an offensive-minded player, and you get criticized about your defensive play, you try to adjust to become that complete player. Going into the playoffs, I wanted to play strong defensively. And maybe that [affected] my offense."

Intuitively, it makes little sense to think that a player can magically shift from one style to another merely as a product of starting the playoffs. Developing those skills is a task for that regular season, part of the preparation for the post season. Green has become a better defensive defenseman in his five seasons in the NHL. Next season he is going to have to display similar improvement in those 82 games leading to the playoffs if he is to be a more complete, not to mention successful, defenseman heading into the post-season.  And maybe we'll have less to talk about.

Grade: B+


The Capitals announced this morning the signing of a pair of centers from Sweden. Nicklas Backstrom was inked to a 10-year, $67 million contract. Marcus Johansson -- a 2009 first round draft pick -- was signed to a three-year entry-level deal.  Backstrom's deal keeps him in DC until he is 32 years old, and Johansson, who is coming off a season in which his Farjestads BK team won the Swedish Elite League championship, will wear sweater number "90," worn only by Joe Juneau and Steve Pinizzotto in Caps history.

Congratulations* to both Nicklas and Marcus, the Caps organization, and fans of the Red Fury.

We hope we got it right above; our apologies to the Swedes who might read this if we did not.

The 2009-2010 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Quintin Laing

Quintin Laing

Theme: “A good sacrifice is one that is not necessarily sound but leaves your opponent dazed and confused”

Quintin Laing – once upon a time a fourth round draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings (1997) – will turn 31 years old in a few weeks. As this season draws to a close, Laing has not yet compiled a season’s worth of NHL game experience (79 games). While Laing might be the sort of player whose career is spent on the margins of the NHL and AHL, his having played as few games as this (76 games with the Caps over the past three seasons) is as much a product of ghastly luck as it has been his talent.

In 2009 he was called up to the Caps from Hershey, only to see his NHL season begin and end in the only game for which he would dress, sustaining a lacerated spleen when blocking a shot in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. This past season he started the campaign with the Caps on opening night in Boston and played in ten games before sitting out the next three with the flu. He returned to play in eight more games. In that eighth game, however, Laing blocked a shot by New York Ranger defenseman Michal Roszival… with his face. Laing suffered a broken jaw. But perhaps typically, the pain Laing was feeling was less in his jaw and more in the realization that he would miss time

“I was more angry because I knew it was broken, I knew I was gonna have to miss some games, and the thought of that hurt more than the jaw. Just the fact that I knew something was bad, I knew it was probably broken, I knew I'd have to miss some time--that makes me upset more than anything. That's the first thought that came into my mind."

We suspect that only hockey players think this way. But even if it is a common sentiment among players injured in hockey games, the sacrifice did not go unnoticed. As Brooks Laich put it after that game

"I don't know what to say other than I haven't seen stuff like that in a long time. I mean, it's humbling. Guys are blown away in the locker room. The Ovechkins, the Backstroms and the Greens are the backbone of this team, but the Bradleys (note: Matt Bradley engaged Aaron Voros in a bout in that game) and the Laings, those guys are the guts -- and that's why we win."

Even Bradley was impressed…

"To most people, what he does is crazy, but crazy in a good way. I mean, crazy in a way that everyone wishes they were that brave, you know?"

Laing would have to have his jaw wired shut and would have to be sustained by a variety of liquefied foods until his damage healed. Still, despite all of that, he missed only a total of 14 games before returning to the ice on December 19th against Edmonton.

One wishes that there was a happy ending to this, that Laing came back and lit up the scoreboard or played 15 minutes a night of gritty defense. But after the injury Laing played in only 18 more games over the rest of the season, registering only a pair of assists in that span and playing as many as ten minutes in a game only twice. His overall ten-game segments reflect a somewhat sparse presence in the lineup…

It is hardly surprising that the thing for which Laing is best known (and what was the cause of his injuries) – blocking shots – diminished this past season. Having blocked 53 shots in 40 games as a Cap over the previous two seasons, he recorded 20 blocks in 36 games this year. One should hardly be surprised – we would be whimpering in a corner merely at the sight of an opponent winding up to take a shot, as far as possible from the prospect of hurling ourselves at the puck.

With the end of the season, Laing is now an unrestricted free agent. It would not be surprising if he was to remain in the Capitals’ organization, but it is hard to imagine that he will begin next season in the same place he found himself on opening night this season – in the starting lineup.

Still, one could do much worse than have a player of Laing’s character and selflessness in their employ. When such a player has teammates in awe of his capacity for physical sacrifice, one can only think that in fact that sacrifice must leave opponents dazed and confused… this guy is crazy!

Grade: B-

The 2009-2010 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Jason Chimera

Jason Chimera

Theme: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
-- George Eliot

Jason Chimera spent parts of nine seasons toiling in relative obscurity, starting his career in Edmonton in the 2000-2001 season (when he played in one game), then moving to Columbus after the lockout, departing just in time to miss out on the Oilers going to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006. Over that span of time, Chimera enjoyed modest success for teams that enjoyed, well, modest success.

Then, just before New Years this past season, he was traded to the Capitals for forward and team captain Chris Clark, and defenseman Milan Jurcina. At the time, Chimera was leaving a team wallowing among the Western Conference also-rans at 14-18-7 and in the midst of a nine-game losing streak (0-7-2), while the team he was joining was 24-8-6 and sprinting toward a President’s Trophy.

Chimera brought two things the Caps needed – an edge to his game and speed off the edge. He provided both right out of the gate. In his first 13 games with the Caps he was 3-6-9, plus-3, and he amassed 28 minutes in penalties, including fights in consecutive games against Florida on January 13th and Toronto on January 15th. It was certainly consistent with the player against whom the Caps played when Washington hosted Columbus on November 1st. It was in that game – a 5-4 overtime win for the Blue Jackets – in which Alex Ovechkin was injured, possibly the result of a scrum at the players’ bench with Chimera. Ovechkin missed six games as a result.

Overall, Chimera displayed a reasonably consistent level of performance, as reflected in his ten-game segments…

It was one that he sustained upon joining the Caps, with one noteworthy exception. Chimera had 28 minutes in penalties in that fourth ten-game segment, then went all squooshy, relatively speaking, getting sent to the penalty box once in his next two segments, covering 16 games, and that one was a delay-of-game penalty for clearing the puck over the glass against the Rangers. He was plenty ornery in the last segment, though, picking up 21 minutes in penalties, including 14 in the regular season finale (a pair of minors and a ten-minute misconduct), largely a product of a game-long feud with Bruin goalie Tim Thomas.

But Chimera didn’t only pick up penalty minutes. He provided something that the Caps were not getting, unfortunately, from the player Chimera replaced – Chris Clark. Chimera did have those seven goals and ten assists over his 39-game stint with the Caps and showed a consistent ability to use speed to put defensemen back on their heels. The shortcoming, however, was that Chimera did not produce against playoff teams the way he did against the also-rans. In 17 games against playoff teams while with the Caps, he was 1-3-4, minus-1. He was 6-7-13, plus-7 in 22 games against non-playoff teams.

In the playoffs, Chimera chipped in a bit of offense – his only goal would be the Caps’ last game-winning goal of the season, coming in Game 4 (it was his first playoff goal in his career) – and managed to get more shots on goal (15) in the seven games than Tomas Fleischmann and Brendan Morrison, combined (14), while getting less ice time than either of them. What he did not do, perhaps surprisingly, was provide a physical edge. In the seven games, his seven total hits was fewer than Boyd Gordon, Nicklas Backstrom, and Jeff Schultz, none of whom are generally regarded as physical players.

Chimera was an upgrade over Chris Clark, who was not able to return to the level of production he enjoyed before a series of injuries struck. Whether Chimera is a bargain at his $1.875 million a year compensation for the next two years is an open question. Comparing him to other players at his position, can he be an overachiever, such as an Alex Burrows ($2.0 million this past season while putting up 35 goals and 67 points), or might he be a disappointment, such as a Ruslan Fedotenko (11 goals and minus-17 for a defending Stanley Cup champion while pulling down $1.8 million)?

Chimera has averaged 15-19-34 per 82 games since the lockout. He will now get the chance to improve upon that with a better cast of teammates around him. If he can be a 15-plus goal, 35-plus point player for the Caps next season – including doing some damage against stiffer opposition – and do it with a bit of an attitude, it will be an important ingredient for the Caps to incorporate into what one hopes will not be another season ending in disappointment. It’s not too late to be what he has not yet been in a nine-year career – an important cog in a Stanley Cup winner.

Grade: B-