Saturday, October 02, 2010

2010-2011 Previews: Forwards -- Alexander Semin

Alexander Semin

Theme: “За одного́ би́того двух неби́тых дают (loosely translated... “experience is worth it”).”

-- Russian proverb

The literal translation of the saying above is, “a beaten one is worth two unbeaten ones.”* Well, Alexander Semin took something of a beating in the press after last spring’s seven-game loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. After finishing the regular season with career highs in total goals (40), even strength goals (30), shorthanded goals (two), road goals (17), and home goals (ok, his 23 was one short of his career best), he couldn’t get ANY goals against the Canadiens in seven games last spring.

I wasn’t for lack of trying. He had 44 shots on goal in that series, a total that still had him ranked 25th in shots on goal at the end of the playoffs, despite playing only those seven games. How deep was the frustration? The next highest shot total for the playoffs for any player failing to score at least one goal was that of Phoenix’ Martin Hanzal (29). Of 72 players recording at least 25 shots in the playoffs last season, only three (Philadelphia’s Darroll Powe being the other) failed to record a goal.

That playoff record left a rather impressive regular season largely forgotten. In 73 games, Semin finished 40-44-84 (his career high in points), plus-36 (another career best), had 278 shots on goal (yup, career high), was second on the club in takeaways, and was one of three Caps (Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom being the others) to record more than one Gimmick goal.

Going into last season Semin padded his goal totals at the expense of the weak sisters of the Southeast Division. 52 of the 108 career goals he recorded entering last season came against Atlanta (10), Carolina (19), Florida (10), and Tampa Bay (13). OK, so 12 of his 40 last season came at their expense once more. But against the other seven clubs in the East that made the playoffs, Semin was rather stout in his production. In 24 games against those seven clubs he was 14-16-20, plus-11.

He did, however, like the friendly confines of Verizon Center. On home ice he played at better than a 100-point pace (23-28-51 in 39 games). It is not exactly unusual for Semin, having scored more at home than on the road in each of the past four seasons (and at a 45-43-88 per-82 game pace).

And that is what makes last spring’s drought so confounding… or does it? Semin has played in 28 playoff games over the past three seasons, compiling a record of 8-16-24, plus-1, and 114 shots on goal. 16 of those games were played at Verizon Center, in which he has a record of 4-5-9, plus-2, and 68 shots on goal. The home scoring line isn’t especially impressive, but the problem is what he has done lately. In his last eight playoff games at Verizon Center he has no goals, three assists, and 36 shots on goal. He has not recorded a playoff goal anywhere since scoring a first period goal in Game 7 of the opening round playoff series against the New York Rangers in 2009. That is a run of 14-plus games and 64 shots on goal since that strike against the Rangers.

Fearless: 26, 34, and 40 goals the last three seasons. 42, 79, and 84 points. Minus-18, plus-25, plus-36. 185, 223, and 278 shots on goal. Being a little hard, aren’t you, cousin?

Cheerless: Three goals in seven games, five goals in 14 games, no goals in seven games. Eight, 14, and two points. And that’s with 28, 42, and 44 shots on goal. Those are his three playoff season records, cuz.

In the end…

That Alexander Semin is an enigma is not exactly news. Who knows what color the sky is in his world? But he is 26 years old and will be starting his sixth full season with the club this month. Did we mention he is being paid $6 million this season? That is not a sum for a player whose productive portion of the season is expected to end in the first week of April. Production in May and June is what will justify that kind of sum this year and, perhaps as important, what Semin will command as he becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season.

And that presents a problem for management. Semin’s contributions in the post season are going to be essential if the Caps are to make a deep playoff run. If he does make those contributions, does he price himself past the Caps’ affordability threshold? Or would Semin be content to leave some money on the table to take on the lesser responsibilities or pressure that come with playing alongside Alex Ovechkin?

Semin is among the top-half dozen pure talents in the league as an offensive player. But he has quietly expanded his comfort zone to accommodate other responsibilities. For example, last season seven players (including Semin) recorded at least 40 goals. Semin had more average shorthanded ice time than five of them (only Steven Stamkos and Patrick Marleau skated more). He had more than Marian Gaborik and more than Ilya Kovalchuk, neither of whom could be thought of as penalty-killers, but he also had more than teammate Alex Ovechkin and his nemesis, Sidney Crosby.

With five seasons and 327 games on his resume, Alexander Semin is hitting his prime at the age of 26. In that time he has enjoyed considerable regular season success, but he has come up increasingly short in the playoffs. Hopefully, the experience of those four series (three of them losses for the Caps) will have been worth it in terms of more maturity and more resolve when the stakes are higher. Having taken the beatings of an empty resume in his last two playoff series, we can only hope so.


72 games, 40-45, 85, +32

* At least if the folks at know their stuff; my apologies to our Russian-speaking readers for any errors.

2010-2011 Previews: Forwards -- Mike Knuble

Mike Knuble

Theme: “Courageous, untroubled, mocking and violent-that is what Wisdom wants us to be. Wisdom is a woman, and loves only a warrior.”

-- Friedrich Nietzsche

Mike Knuble works in a violent world. That semi-circle with a radius of a dozen feet from the center of the goal line are the equivalent of a Class IV or V rapids on a river – difficult to negotiate, heavily obstructed, dangerous, requiring the best effort and greatest knowledge. Working in that world over the past 13 seasons has imparted upon Knuble a certain wisdom on how to survive (he has played in fewer than 64 games in a season only once in the last 11 seasons) and how to flourish (he has averaged 28 goals a season over the past seven years). And through it all, to watch him in interviews he seems the most unflappable sort, nothing in his demeanor betraying the fact that he has to be violent to an extent, not to mention courageous, to work in that difficult world around an opponent’s net.

Last season – his first with Washington – Knuble was exactly as advertised. A sturdy presence around the opponent’s net, his scoring would come from a dozen feet and in. Sure enough, 29 goals (six on the power play) were the result, just about exactly where one might have predicted he would finish.

But in addition to finishing fourth in goals and fifth in points among Caps forwards last season, he took the odd penalty killing shift (0:36 in shorthanded ice time per game), was fourth among forwards in blocked shots, and even chipped in his first shootout goal in the NHL (against the best of opponents):

If not for a broken finger that sidelined him for a dozen games early in the season, he very well might have challenged his career highs in goals (he finished five short), points (12 short), and game-winning goals (one short).

Against Eastern Conference teams that made the playoffs last year, Knuble finished 10-6-16, plus-17 (that’s not a typo) in 21 games. He was 4-2-6, plus-6 against Pittsburgh alone in four games. And that brings us to an important point about Knuble’s production. Plainly put, he’s been a Penguin killer. In 57 career games against Pittsburgh, he is 27-14-41. The 27 goals are almost ten more than he has against any other opponent (18 against Buffalo). He has also shown his ornery side to the Penguins, earning more than ten percent of his career penalty minutes against them (including 19 of his 59 PIMS last season, 17 of which came in the February 7th contest in which he had an instigator, a fighting, and a misconduct penalty…oh, and the game-winning goal in overtime).

Knuble also had a finishing kick, something one might not have expected from a player who was about to turn 38 last July 4th. From January 1st on, Knuble was 22-12-34, plus-18, in 41 games. In the 14-game winning streak the Caps had from January 13th through February 7th, he was 11-6-17, plus-14, in dressing for all 14 games.

Fearless: Last year, there were 22 players in the NHL who dressed for at least one game that were older than Mike Knuble. None had more goals. Only one (Ray Whitney) had more points. In fact the next oldest player who matched Knuble’s 29 goals just turned 35 this past June (Martin St. Louis). The next oldest player who surpassed Knuble’s 29-goal total turned only 33 last December (Mikael Samuelsson, who had 30). Find out what kind of water this guy is drinking.

Cheerless: There were only 15 forwards older than Knuble who dressed last year. And that group included guys like Rod Brind’Amour, Bill Guerin, Robert Lang, Donald Brashear, Owen Nolan, Keith Tkachuk, and Slava Kozlov. What do these guys have in common?

In the end…

If, like the rest of the club, it all comes down to playoff performance, Knuble did not have a bad playoff against the Canadiens last spring. In fact, it might have been his personal best in eight playoff appearances, but for one or two things. He finished with his second highest point total (six in seven games, compared to seven in 12 games in 2008). He recorded the only shorthanded goal of his playoff career. What he suffered from was what a lot of his teammates suffered. Following what was his most efficient shooting performance of his career in the regular season (19.5 percent of his shots on goal found the back of the net) he had only two goals on 23 shots in the Montreal series. And of course, there was this…

But that is what Knuble does night in and night out (look at how close last year’s numbers were to his career per-82 game averages). He sees a teammate in a position to get a puck on net, and he heads there, as surely as the Sun rises in the east. It is the wisdom born out of doing it dozens of times in dozens of games over the years. It is having learned how to negotiate that violent world in front of a goaltender, even when the referees get it wrong (or at least make a call that hasn’t been called in that manner consistently). You can probably count on him doing it again and again for 75 or more games, pushing on the edge of 30 goals, just as he seems to do every year. Knuble is that Capital who is the warrior loved by wisdom.


75 games, 27-25-52, +20

2010-2011 Previews: Forwards -- Tomas Fleischmann

Tomas Fleischmann

Theme: “On your mark, get set, and go now. Got a dream and we just know now. We're gonna make our dream come true.”

Words from a theme song to a television show in the 1970’s might not seem to have much to do with hockey, let alone a player who had not yet been born when that show was on the air. But Tomas Fleischmann has been quietly working toward this season, making steady progress while enduring the slings and arrows cast his way for not fitting a certain mold of player that fans seem to expect. Step back for a moment and try not to associate the player with the name. Now consider a player who…

- Came to North America from Europe to play two seasons in Canadian juniors, where he had 21- and 33-goal seasons.

- Played three seasons of AHL hockey in which he averaged 0.35, 1.11, and 1.13 points per game, the latter two coming in seasons in which he played in Calder Cup finals (winning one).

- Inched his way into the NHL, playing in 14 games his first season, then 29, 75, and 73. His goal scoring improved from zero to four, then 10, then 19. His points tracked in a similar fashion, going from two to eight, then 30, then 37.

- He was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis shortly after the end of the 2009 playoffs, for which he was placed on blood thinners and ordered to rest for five to six weeks.

- He missed the first eleven games of the 2009-2010 season as a result of his condition, but still went on to post career highs in goals (23), assists (28), points (51), plus/minus (plus-9), penalty minutes (28), while tying career highs in power play goals (seven) and game-winning goals (four) in 69 games.

- On the way to those numbers last year he was 8-8-16, plus-4 against the other teams in the East that made the playoffs, and he was named to his country’s Olympic men’s ice hockey team.

Yeah, that’s Tomas Fleischmann.

But (and you knew there would be a “but” right about now), that’s all regular season stuff. In 22 NHL post season games he is 3-2-5, minus-3. He was scratched in favor of Scott Walker in Game 7 of the opening round series against Montreal last spring after he failed to find the back of the net in the first six games with only eight shots on goal. That shots on goal statistic is telling. Not that he is a big shooter (1.62 SOG/game over his regular season career), but only twice in those 22 career post season games has Fleischmann recorded more than two shots on goal. Fleischmann is part of that “secondary scoring” group that just has not been especially productive for the Caps in the post season over the past three years.

Fearless: It’s not as if he is incapable, cousin. In 39 post season games with Hershey over two years he was 16-37-53. He was 7-15-22 in 22 post season games with Moose Jaw in juniors. He had a goal and a pair of assists in five Olympic games this past year.

Cheerless: Follow me on this, cuz. In the last three seasons, Fleischmann is 5-4-9, plus-4 against the Penguins in the regular season. He’s done pretty good against them. He was 2-1-3, even, in seven games against the Penguins in that series the year before last. You might have expected that.  But that means in his other 15 playoff games against teams that don’t have a dumpy skating penguin on their chests he has one goal and one assist, and only 22 shots on goal.

In the end…

The job of “second line center” is Fleischmann’s for the taking. He might not be a bad option there in the end; during the 14-game winning streak the Caps had last season (during which Fleischmann spent much of his time at center) he was 2-10-12, plus-5. A 70-point pace for a second-line center is not a bad thing, certainly better production than the Caps have enjoyed in recent years from that position. We do not think he will score at that pace, but given the skill (Alexander Semin) and the grit (Brooks Laich) that could flank him, he could be productive in this role.

However, the job of center carries with it more and different responsibilities. For one thing, it would be nice if his faceoff success rate improved. Had he qualified among the leaders last season, Fleischmann’s 43.1 percent winning percentage would have ranked him 83rd out of 85 players. Although, frankly, guys like the brothers Staal -- Jordan (73rd) and Eric (78th) – should be more embarrassed about being on the last page of the NHL stats in this category than a part-time center.

Fleischmann will also have more defensive responsibilities. Although he was a plus-9 last year (his first year on the plus side of the ledger), that was good for only 14th place among the Capitals (eighth among forwards), and he is still minus-14 for his career to date. Among 351 forwards who played in at least 50 games last year, Fleischmann’s plus/minus differential (on-ice versus off-ice) ranked 286th (numbers from For a forward who is primarily an offensive player, that ranking is rather grim.

All of that is prologue though. As much as any other Capital, Fleischmann has to ramp up his game in the spring. Five points in 22 post-season games (career) just isn’t going to get the Caps where they want to be, especially if he is doing it as the second line center. As Fearless pointed out, he certainly has shown himself capable of producing at that time of year. Perhaps last season he just didn’t have anything left in the tank as a result of his getting out of the blocks late after his leg problems over the summer. Whatever the reasons in the past, the time has come for Fleischmann to step up when it matters, because it will be an important part of making the Caps’ dreams come true.


72 games, 24-33-57, plus-15

2010-2011 Previews: Forwards -- David Steckel

David Steckel

Theme: “Do not worry about holding high position; worry rather about playing your proper role.”

-- Confucius

On a team that has offense in spades, the Caps are a club that is perceived as being somewhat lacking in the defensive arts.  That notion seems to apply to forwards as well as defensemen.  A team that finished 16th in goals allowed per game – sixth among the eight teams in the Eastern Conference that made the playoffs last spring – has not really done much to alter that perception.  And that brings us to David Steckel. 

You might be forgiven if you are of a mind that the Milwaukee, Wisconsin native has been playing for the Caps for years and years.  It might merely seem that way.  The truth is, Steckel has played only three full seasons for the Caps (fewer than ten games in two others) and has only 234 regular season games to his credit.  But at age 28, he is now entering what should be his prime years.  Given the way the Caps are put together, it is not likely that his “prime” will be reflected in the usual numbers.  Steckel’s contributions to the Caps are going to be more at the defensive end of the ice – matching up against an opponent’s scoring line centers, winning faceoffs, killing penalties. 

Let’s take a look at that.  First, defense.  If you look at the 143 centers that played in at least 50 games last year, Steckel ranked 28th in plus/minus-on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (  That is a rather respectable ranking, higher than Ryan Getzlaf, higher than Anze Kopitar, higher than Mikko Koivu, among others.  But that is rather deceiving.  If you compare that to /minus-OFF ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, Steckel has the second highest number of those 143 centers (parenthetically, only Brooks Laich’s was higher).  What that means is that the plus/minus differential (on ice versus off ice) for Steckel is -0.97, which ranks 129th among the 143 centers in this list.  This is not a result you would be looking for in a defensive center.

Faceoffs are another matter.  In his three full seasons with the Caps, Steckel finished the season ranked seventh, fifth, and second in the league last season, his success rate climbing from 56.3 percent to 57.9 percent to 59.2 percent last year.  Only 16 times in 79 games last year did Steckel fail to win at least half of his draws taken.  But 11 of those occurrences took place in the last 22 games he played.

Steckel’s penalty killing was part of a larger problem the Caps had playing a man short last year.  There were 88 centers who played in at least 50 games and averaged at least one minute of penalty killing ice time a game.  Among that group, Steckel had the 11th highest goals-against/on ice per 60 minutes at 4-on-5.

Hockey is a team game, and as a team game, the Capitals deficiencies cannot be laid at the feet of David Steckel or any single player.  But Steckel is something of the canary in the coal mine here.  As a forward with primarily defensive responsibilities, his numbers have to be better for the Caps to be more successful in shutting other teams down.

Fearless:  Hey cousin, did you know that Rod Brind’Amour went minus-3, minus-8, minus-9, and minus-4 in his first four years with the Flyers?  He went on to win two Selke Trophies.  Or that Michael Peca was minus-7 over his first two sesasons?  He won two Selke’s, too.

Cheerless:  Uh, cuz?  In those six seasons those guys played, only one (Brind’Amour’s Flyers in 1994-1995) finished above .500, and that was the 48-game season.  Those teams were pretty bad all around.

In the end…

Steckel was a decent offensive performer in the AHL (54 goals in 208 games), but that is not the role he plays at this level.  He is going to get 12-14 minutes a night, 3-4 of that coming in penalty killing situations.  He is going to be the go-to guy on faceoffs in critical situations (for example, he was second in the league last year in shorthanded faceoffs won).  He is not going to put up gaudy numbers; in fact, against Eastern Conference teams making the playoffs last year he was 1-4-5, minus-2 in 28 games (oddly enough, his lone goal was also his only power play goal last year, scored against the Flyers). 

The difficulty Steckel and the Caps face is that he and Boyd Gordon, despite very different appearances on the ice, play very much overlapping roles.  Both are primarily defensive forwards, both are excellent at faceoffs, both get a lot of penalty killing minutes (more than a quarter of Gordon’s average ice time per game last year was spent killing penalties).  The trouble from a management standpoint is that Steckel carries a $300,000 larger cap hit and has three years left on his contract (Gordon is in a contract year). 

What it all means is that the Caps need improvement defensively, and this is the role Steckel has inherited among the forwards.  Last year was not a particularly good one, either for him or for the club at their own end of the ice.  Sins in the defensive end can be absolved in the regular season when the offense can steamroll most teams.  But those sins, if not corrected in the regular season, tend to get magnified in the post-season.  It means that the Caps – and Steckel – have to play a more determined role in their own end of the ice.


77 games, 5-12-17, +5