Friday, November 12, 2010

The NHL All Star Game Ballot -- We Whine So You Won't Have To

So, the NHL released its “ballot” and voting process for this season's All-Star Game. Fans can pick three forwards, two defensemen, and a goaltender in an all-digital voting process. They will have the opportunity to select from among 100 players on the ballot or to write in the name of their selection, if that player is not on the ballot. Fans will, according to the league, have the opportunity to vote as often as they like online, via mobile device, or on Facebook. As the league put it in their release…

"The 2011 NHL All-Star Fan Balloting site will feature interactive English and French ballots. Each player ballot includes video highlights and real-time player statistics. Fans will be permitted to select as few as one player -- a balloted player or write-in -- per online ballot. The ballot will be optimized for iPad users.

"Mobile users in the U.S. and Canada will be able to cast their votes via text message using any mobile device and wireless carrier. To vote via text message using any wireless carrier, fans should text their favorite player's last name to the shortcode 81812. Message and data rates may apply.

"Fans in North America have the additional option of a mobile ballot available on iPhone, Android and all Blackberry devices, using any wireless carrier."

Well, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that they have all the toys covered. But what about that ballot? It includes 53 forwards, which we have taken the time to rank by points (it’s as good as any other method for these purposes; click for a larger image):

Uh, notice any player conspicuous by his absence, Caps fans? We’ll give you a hint… among forwards (the balloting pool for this exercise) he’s fourth in overall scoring. Need another hint? He’s second in goals. Tied for 25th in assists. Still having trouble? OK, he’s tied for seventh in plus-minus, tied for fourth in power play goals, and is tied for third in takeaways.

No, it’s not Marion Gaborik. His no goals and two assists in four games is present and accounted for (ok, he did have 42 goals last year, so there is that carryover thing).

It’s not Shane Doan, either. His one goal, three assists, and minus-5 are there for your voting pleasure.

Nope, not John Tavares. He brings that big honkin’ minus-12 to the ballot.

OK, we get why guys like Doan and Tavares are on the ballot. Fans pay the freight, and they should – in our opinion – get to pick the game rosters. Doan is a heart and soul guy who has give his all for the game for 15 seasons, and Tavares is one of those new generation kids that folks might want to see.

We get why Phil Kessel is on the ballot. He’s a Maple Leaf (one of four on the ballot; Washington has three…go figure).

We get why Johan Franzen is on the ballot. He’s a Red Wing.

We even get why Ales Hemsky is on the ballot. Shoot, someone from Edmonton had to be there.

And we get why certain guys who are having fine seasons might get left off like Colorado’s Chris Stewart (10-7-17 so far) or even a Patrick Sharp (whose statistical profile last season looked a lot like Brooks Laich’s, although he does have that Cup, which does count for something). Or even a Loui Ericksson (not exactly a household name, but he did have 71 points last season and is 9-7-16 with a plus-12 so far this season).  They haven't yet had a big year or built a reputation or a following to suggest a slam dunk ballot spot.

And we certainly get that leaving a player off the ballot does not eliminate him from participating in the game.

But how is it that a 40-goal scorer from last season isn’t on the ballot? Of the top 15 goals scorers among forwards from last season, two are not on the ballot. One is Vancouver’s Alexandre Burrows, who missed the first ten games of the season with a shoulder injury and is 1-1-5, plus-3 in five games so far.

The other is this guy…

…the one who is fourth in overall scoring among forwards, second in goals, tied for 25th in assists, tied for seventh in plus-minus, tied for fourth in power play goals, and tied for third in takeaways. And he had 40 goals last year (and has averaged 35 a year for the last four years), which seems to have been forgotten in this ballot engineering.

If it’s entertainment the league wants, Alexander Semin is entertaining, not to mention productive. And even if you accommodate universal eligibility – making sure every team is represented – how is it he is not among the top 53 forwards in the league? It can’t be a pure numbers thing – Anaheim has four forwards on the ballot, Detroit has three, as does Philadelphia and San Jose. But we can see how R.J. Umberger gets a spot on the ballot.

Must be a “playing the game the right way” thing. Or maybe it's an "Alexander" (or "Alexandre") thing.  Or maybe it’s just as Chris Botta tweeted

“Getting worked up about #NHL All-Star ballot snubs implies the folks in charge know what they're doing. Don't bother.”

Well, we feel better for the rant, anyway.  We hope you do, too.

A Defenseman Grows Up

Mike Green is an “offensive” defenseman. These days, that is a term that seems to question one’s manhood as much as it identifies a defenseman’s style of play. As in, “Green doesn’t play defense.”

It is the narrative theme that probably cost Green a Norris Trophy in each of the last two seasons, his brand of play being less rugged and less “two-way” than the voting media seemed to want in their defensemen nowadays.

Green came to the Capitals as the 29th overall draft pick in the 2004 entry draft. Caps fans know by now that he was a steal at that position, having been the eighth defenseman picked in that draft. But that was as an “offensive” defenseman. And what an offensive defenseman he is. Of the entire Class of 2004, Green has recorded more points than any skater except for two classmates – Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. Not bad company, that.

But the knock on Green has been that he plays only at the offensive end of the ice. You probably could have made that argument when Green was playing in Canadian juniors, based on his statistics (34-113-147 in 168 games in his last three seasons with Saskatoon). And you might have made that case for his brief time in the AHL (12-49-61 in 77 games with Hershey, including playoffs). To date he is 75-156-231 in 330 regular season games in the NHL. Yeah, he does offense rather well.

But playing in one’s own end is perhaps the hardest talent to master in the NHL, especially for a defenseman. Moving the puck, blocking shots, tying up opponents, playing the wall and behind one’s own net. All involve decisions having to be made in the blink of an eye. And this doesn’t even include the decisions at the other end that have their defensive implications – when to step up, when to make that cross-ice pass, when to pinch. Make the wrong decision often, and your goaltender is facing a lot of 2-on-1 breaks.

But back to his own end. The big minutes eaters in the NHL among defensemen get so much ice time, in part, because they are out there killing penalties. Of the top-15 defensemen in average ice time last season, 10 of them skated at least 2:30 per game in a penalty-killing role. Ditto for the previous season, and of the ten that year, six skated more than 3:30 a game on the penalty kill.

Mike Green did not come into the league as a penalty killer, and it showed in his ice time. In his first three seasons, Green skated a total of 56:53 on the penalty kill, barely what he skates in total ice time over two games these days. That works out to an average of less than 20 seconds a game skating shorthanded in his first three seasons. It didn’t get a lot better in his next two seasons, as he failed to get a foothold in the top-100 in average shorthanded ice time. Here is how his first five seasons went and the neighbors he had in his ranking:

This year, things have changed. So far this season, Green ranks 48th in average shorthanded ice time (3:08/game), which is more than the likes of Duncan Keith or Zbynek Michalek. But more than the ice time numbers there is this. In the 13 games Green has played so far, the Caps have allowed seven power play goals. Green was on the ice for three of them, hardly an inordinate number given the ice time he is logging (second to Jeff Schultz in average shorthanded ice time). But in his absence for three games the Caps allowed three power play goals, all of them in a 4-1 loss in Boston on October 21st.  His presence makes a difference.

Green is still the big dog on F Street in terms of total ice time. He is sixth in the league in average total ice time and is skating almost four minutes more than second-place Jeff Schultz for the Caps. But the difference is this. His average ice time so far this year is precisely that which it was last year (25:28). But within that 25:28 average ice time number for this season he is skating less time at even strength (17:41 compared to 18:15 last season) and less time on the power play (4:39 compared to 5:03 last season). It is on the penalty kill, where he is skating almost exactly a minute of additional ice time a game, that is making up for the reductions elsewhere. And what is more, he is doing it effectively, if the Caps’ 87.0 percent penalty killing rate with Green in the lineup has any meaning.

And none of this added ice time on the penalty kill or improvement in effectiveness when skating shorthanded seems to have affected his offense. He is currently tied for ninth among defensemen in total points, although he has played in fewer games than any of the defensemen ahead of him. He is tied for third in goals scored, and he is tied for eighth in overall plus-minus. In his last seven games he is 4-6-10, plus-3. Although he was held off the score sheet last night, much of that might be attributed to his focus on the defensive end, where he was called upon to pay a lot of attention to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Steven Stamkos (ice time for each by period, thanks to

Stamkos had a goal (not on the power play), and Martin St. Louis did have two assists, but the Caps won the game, 6-3.

There are still more than 60 games this season left to play, and there will be a lot of twists and turns along the way. But based on early returns, if the voters for the Norris Trophy are going to deny Mike Green the hardware this time around, they are going to have to do so without the “but he doesn’t play defense” argument to justify it.

A TWO-point night -- Game 16: Caps 6 - Lightning 3

Not tonight.

This was supposed to be the night when the Tampa Bay Lightning made a statement, that the upstarts from Florida would announce that the stranglehold the Washington Capitals had on the Southeast Division was at an end. Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Victor Hedman, Dan Ellis, and a supporting cast skated onto the Verizon Center ice determined to skate off having shown the Capitals and themselves that they were back to the competitive form they had when making the playoffs in four straight seasons from 2002-2003 through 2006-2007.

Yeah, well… not tonight.

Instead, the Caps skated off with a 6-3 win to keep their hold on the top spot in the league.  The Capitals got off to another disinterested start, giving up the first goal for the 12th time in 16 games and trailing at the first intermission for the 11th time in those 16 games, the result of a a goal by Teddy Purcell off a feed from Sean Bergenheim that eluded Brooks Laich, who got caught defending Purcell from the wrong side of his goaltender, giving Purcell an unimpeded path to the net to tap in the centering pass.

Tampa was up, 1-0. Ho-hum.

Well, it was really worse than that. Through 20 minutes the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble registered a grand total of no shots on goal. One could almost hear the legendary play-by-play announcer Harry Doyle up in the booth saying disgustedly, “For the Lightning, one goal and 13 shots. For the Caps, no goals, and let’s see… the top line didn’t get a shot on goal. Is that all they got, no #@$&ing shots?”

It was all Coach Bruce Boudreau needed to see to inject some Vitamin A into the top line – Alexander Semin. The move actually helped out the second line right away as Mike Knuble followed up a Tom Poti goal with a sweet goal of his own, sweeping the puck off his backhand into the far side of the net while standing below the goalline, linemates Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann getting the assists. That is how the second 20 minutes ended.

Ryan Malone tied it early in the third period on a Tampa Bay power play, snapping in a rebound of a long-range shot by Martin St. Louis for his second goal of the season and first since Game 2 of the season, a game-winner against Montreal. But then, the Vitamin A kicked in…

Alexander Semin restored the Caps’ lead 1:50 after Malone’s goal. Although Semin finished the play, don’t lose track of the fact that it started with an offensive zone faceoff win to start the power play. Brooks Laich fought off Nate Thompson to win the draw, and the result was that the Caps controlled the puck in the Lightning zone until Nicklas Backstrom could collect the puck along the right wing boards and sweep it to Semin just inside the edge of the right wing faceoff circle. Finding a soft spot between three Lightning defenders, Semin had time to take a step in and wrist the puck off and over the shoulder of goalie Dan Ellis to give the Caps the lead they would not relinquish.

Just over six minutes later it was Semin again, but once more, don’t lose track of how it came to be that Semin finished the play. Alex Ovechkin dug the puck out of the left wing corner and pushed it to Nicklas Backstrom circling behind the Lightning net. From Gretzky’s Neighborhood he found Semin at the top of the right wing circle. Semin one timed the pass with a rocket past Ellis to establish a two goal lead, and things looked a lot more comfortable.

Steven Stamkos put an end to that, though, when he led a 3-on-3 rush through the neutral zone. Stamkos slid the puck to Martin St. Louis, who skated into the Caps’ zone and dropped the puck for Dominc Moore. Moore swung wide and pushed the puck to the net as Mike Green and Tomas Fleischmann were closing on him. Jeff Schultz – the third man back -- lost Stamkos as a result of being tied up with St. Louis in front of the net. It allowed enough time for Stamkos to wrist the puck into the top of the net and make things interesting again at 4-3, Caps.

Alex Ovechkin put an end to the suspense barely two minutes later. One more time, it bears noting how the finish was made possible. It was actually Ovechkin who started the sequence. With Victor Hedman and Teddy Purcell closing on him at the Caps’ blue line, Ovechkin threw the puck out into space, out ahead of Alexander Semin, but softly enough where Semin could collect it with some room to work. Semin closed on the goalie, but had Hedman swat him with his stick in a desperate effort to interrupt the play. As he was getting whacked Semin sent the puck wide, but followed it into the corner. He circled out cleanly and found Ovechkin, who was calling for the puck. An instant later, an Ovechkin wrong-footed wrister found its way to the back of the net, and the Caps had their two goal lead back.

Semin completed the hat trick with an empty-net goal in the last minute, making it two hatters for the season (the other coming in a 4-3 overtime win over Atlanta three weeks ago). And with that, the Caps had a 6-3 win and restored the Southeast Division pecking order.

Other stuff:

-- Stamkos should never have scored his goal. No, not because goalie Michal Neuvirth made a bad play on his shot, but because at the other end of the ice, Pavel Kubina was taking a whack at Brooks Laich in the Caps’ offensive zone, hauling him down and freeing the puck to allow the Lightning to start the play that ended in Stamkos’ goal (screens from

-- 44:17. That is how long it took for Chris Lee and Kevin Pollock to figure out that the rules permitted referees to call penalties on both teams in the same game. The penalty called on Dominic Moore was one of only two that would be called on Tampa Bay, the other one washed out when Ovechkin scored his goal.

-- Speaking of referees, it is now beyond tired that a player levels an opponent with a clean hit, has to endure one of the opponent’s teammates jumping him to answer to some sort of code, and then gets sent off with his dance partner for fighting without an instigator being called on the third man in the episode. Matt Bradley stepped up on Matt Lundin in the corner and leveled him cleanly, which inspired Adam Hall to jump Bradley. That lasted about six seconds, Bradley taking Hall to the ice to complete the daily double. The five minutes apiece we get, but where was the two minutes for Hall jumping into Bradley after the latter executed a clean hit? If the league wants to reduce the incidences of fighting, then there is not any lower hanging fruit to pluck than this situation. It has become reflexive. Hit…fight. Tack on the two – it would be a disincentive to fight while preserving the clean hit.

-- Mike Green can’t play defense. We know this. You know this. The whole of Canadian hockey media knows this. Aunt Fanny knows this. Even my idiot cousin Cheerless know this (well, maybe not).  OK, then explain this (click for larger view)…

…that would be the graphical representation of Mike Green’s and Steven Stamkos’ ice time by period (thanks to There seems to be a lot of overlap there. And Stamkos had but the one goal (i.e., the one he should not have had if either referee had a working pair of eyes).

-- Two games, two goals. Kanoobie has a real spring in his step now that Mike Knuble seems to have shaken off the cloak of goallessness (that’s points in three straight games, too… ARF!).

-- The reconstituted top line was 4-8-12, plus-10. It might be like that dish you only make for the holidays, but when this line is cooking, it is the most dangerous line in hockey.

-- Starting with that hat trick game against Atlanta on October 23rd, Semin is now 10-6-16, plus-6 with two hat tricks, three power play goals, and a game winning goal (tonight) in nine games. And the oddest part of this run might be the fact that in four of the nine games he recorded only one shot on goal in each.

-- Speaking of hot, it might have escaped attention, but Nicklas Backstrom is 3-11-14, plus-9 in his last eight games. He might have flown under the radar a bit in this one, but he was smeared all over the score sheet in a good way… four assists (the first time he’s done that this year, making it the sixth time he recorded a four-assist game), plus-3, one shot, two hits, three takaways, two blocked shots.

-- The Caps now have three of the top five scorers in the league (pending the late games) – Ovechkin (9-14-23), Semin (12-9-21), and Backstrom (4-14-18).

-- The Caps won 40 of 71 draws. David Steckel had half of those faceoff wins, 20 wins in 29 tries. That pushed him up to fourth in the league in winning percentage. But there was Nicklas Backstrom winning 12 of 18, too. His 55.6 percent winning percentage for the season is impressive enough, but perhaps more impressive is the fact that he is sixth in draws taken. No longer a liability in the circle is he.

-- The record will show that Michal Neuvirth allowed three goals. But he stopped 38 of 41 shots faced (.923 save percentage), his high for workload so far this season. In fact this was only the fifth time in 15 appearances he faced more than 30 shots and the first time in seven appearances dating back to his facing 32 in a 4-3 overtime win over Atlanta on October 23rd. But hey, the Caps can’t play team defense.

-- The fourth line of Boyd Gordon, Matt Hendricks, and David Steckel did not record a shot attempt. Gordon left after skating only three shifts and 1:42 in ice time. He had what was described as an injury to his “lower extremities,” an injury that was also described as one he has dealt with before. Expected down time: a week.

-- How many nights does Alex Ovechkin get fewer than 18 minutes of ice time? Before last night it happened once in his previous 48 games (including playoffs).

-- We’re guessing no one reading this had Sean Bergenheim leading all players in shots on goal for this game. He had eight. Alexander Semin was the only Cap who had more than two (he had six).

In the end, it might not have been that elusive “full 60 minutes” fans and coaches like, but it was the sixth straight win for the Caps and the fifth game in that stretch in which the Caps scored at least five goals (ok, one of those included a Gimmick). In the six games they have outscored their opponents 30-17 (without the Gimmick), and the power play is 9-for-22 (40.9 percent). It would be nice to get more than the 3.67 power play chances the Caps have had in this run, and it certainly would be better to get more than the single (successful) chance they had tonight. And we’re not liking the fact that the penalty kill seems to have reverted to old ways – 18-for-23 (78.3 percent). But it’s hard to quibble with a 12-4-0 record (the Caps were 9-3-4 after 16 games last season).

Over the next four games the Caps play Atlantalo and Bufflanta... two against the Sabres and two against the Thrashers, who combined have only as many wins as do the Caps. It is a chance to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the division and perhaps the conference, but for now, revel in the sweet smell of a six-game winning streak.