Monday, November 29, 2010

Brooks, Brodeur, and Bad Trade Ideas

We find ourselves agreeing more often than we used to with our favorite crazy columnist, Larry Brooks of the New York Post. We attribute this to either the advancing years or wood beetles boring into our cranial spaces. But Brooks wrote a column published on Sunday that really had us wondering how much he really pays attention to teams not in the greater New York metropolitan area.

The argument concerned the current plight of the New Jersey Devils and the possibility that in order to save their future they might have to trade much of their present, including perhaps Martin Brodeur. The context in which Brooks makes this argument is the experience of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2006-2007 season. The Flyers of that season were skating their way to a 22-48-12 season, the 22 wins representing the third lowest total for a Flyers team in club history.

In an effort to minimize the damage, Flyer general manager Paul Holmgren traded a legendary, but aging star – Peter Forsberg – to Nashville for Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent, and Nashville’s first and third round picks in the 2007 draft (that third was eventually traded to the Caps and became Phil Desimone).* Upshall later was traded to Phoenix with a 2011 second round draft pick for Daniel Carcillo. Parent was traded to Nashville for Dan Hamhuis and a conditional pick in the 2011 draft. Hamhuis, a pending free agent, did not come to terms with the Flyers and was traded to Pittsburgh for a third round choice in 2011.

The point Brooks is trying to make here is that the Flyers saw the problem looming in their future – a team that would struggle with aging players – and sought to mitigate that damage by moving an asset for youth (never mind that he got the particulars wrong).

The relevance to the Capitals comes later in the column…

“What [Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello] has on his team are nine players with no-trade clauses who would have to be massaged in order to be moved -- impending free agents Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott are worthy -- and what he has is Martin Brodeur.

“Understand, the only way a Brodeur trade becomes a part of the conversation is if the all-time goaltender himself initiates the conversation with Lamoriello.

“If that were to happen, if Brodeur, 38 and on the penultimate season of his contract, were to tell Lamoriello that he'd be OK with a trade to a blue-chip contender in need of a blue-chip goaltender, oh, and let's just say he names Washington, then Lamoriello might well have his Forsberg and the Devils might well have John Carlson or Karl Alzner -- or Mike Green? -- plus a young forward along with a critically needed No. 1.”

Let us see if we have this right. The Devils, hypothetically, would move Martin Brodeur to Washington for one of John Carlson, Karl Alzner, or Mike Green; a young forward (Eric Fehr? Tomas Fleischmann? Marcus Johansson?); and a number one draft pick?

Are you kidding me? Let’s say, for the sake of argument that this deal looks like Brodeur for Alzner, Johansson, and a number one pick. This year, Brodeur’s cap hit ($5,200,000; annualized) is twice that of the combination of Alzner and Johansson ($2,575,000, including bonuses; annualized). Even with the season almost one third completed, the difference in cap hit (assuming the deal was to be made soon) would be between $1.5 and $2.0 million. And, the Caps give up a top-four defenseman from a roster already thin in NHL-capable defensemen and a center who could very well be a reliable third-line center (if not a second) by the spring in an organization that doesn’t have a lot of center options (well, good ones) after Nicklas Backstrom on the top line. Further, assuming the marginal cap hit that Brodeur brings would constrain the Caps’ ability to fill defenseman and/or center needs in the spring via trade.

Then there is next season. The full brunt of the last year of Brodeur’s contract would hit the Caps’ books, and this would be coming in the midst of other important salary decisions – Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble, Tomas Fleischmann, and Brooks Laich (among others) would be unrestricted free agents; Semyon Varlamov would be a restricted free agent.

Which brings up the matter of a decision point – one of Neuvirth or Varlamov would almost have to be moved. And the Caps had better pick correctly, since Brodeur would not be with the team after the 2011-2012 season. The Caps could find themselves depleting much of their future for the sake of a goaltender who has had iffy playoff performances over the past four seasons (failing to get out of the first round in the last three) and who had a sub-par start to this season before sustaining an injury.  You could argue that moving Varlamov or Neuvirth could bring back that center or defenseman the Caps need, but will that player fit under the salary cap?

It is in this respect that we just do not suspect Brooks has been paying attention, at least to how the Caps have been doing business since the great selloff. The club has taken great pains and has exhibited great patience in assembling a roster by building from within. The club has not been entirely averse to signing free agents (Mike Knuble, Tom Poti) or making trades (Jason Chimera). But the important pieces are home grown, including the three goalies who have dressed for the Caps this year, none of them older than 22.

For the Caps to mortgage a significant chunk of their future for an aging star – even a hall of famer in waiting – would not be consistent with their behavior the past five years. To do it for an aging star giving indications of being in decline would border on insanity. This is the sort of trade the folks at Puck Daddy might highlight. Oh wait… they did. Well, sorta.

* Brooks actually gets the deal here incorrect, at least in the particulars. He stated that “[Forsberg’s] trade to Nashville that ultimately brought back Scottie Upshall, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell represented the underpinning of the immediate 2007-08 revival.” In fact, Forsberg was traded to Nashville in February 2007; Hartnell and Timonen were obtained in June for a first round draft pick in 2007 (Jonathon Blum), which previously belonged to Nashville, obtained in a separate deal. OK, it was the Forsberg deal, so we guess the two are related.

That Was The Week That Was: November 21-27, By the Tens

The last full week of November is in the books, and here is how it went …

Record for the week: 2-1-0

After riding over some bumpy road early this week that started late in the previous week, the Caps found their stride again to close the week. The 5-0 shutout loss to the New Jersey Devils on Monday was the Caps’ second 5-0 whitewashing in three games, and it had the potential to become a worse situation when after the game, during the press conference outside the Caps locker room, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and the Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk were close enough to coach Bruce Boudreau to raise his hackles a bit when one of the players could be heard laughing. While this stuff probably goes on in 30 of 30 rinks in the NHL, having it happen within the range of open microphones had the makings of an embarrassing situation for the Caps. What it did, though, was signal the low point of the season, from which the Caps rose to beat Carolina in Raleigh (3-2), then swatted away the upstart Tampa Bay Lightning back in D.C. (6-0).

Offense: 3.00/game

If the average was somewhat low for the Caps, one had to like the progression – none, three, and six goals in the three games. This week it was the second period in which the Caps dominated. Yes, they were outscored 2-0 in the second period in the 5-0 loss to New Jersey, but they outscored Carolina, 1-0, and Tampa Bay by a 4-0 margin in the other two middle frames in the week. It was a bit of an odd week in that the Caps managed no goals on 30 shots against the Devils and only two goals on 38 shots against Carolina, but they torched Tampa Bay for half a dozen on only 29 shots in the third game of the week. Alex Ovechkin was the top point-getter of the week with five points, all of them coming on helpers. Alexander Semin led the Caps in goals, getting all three in his third hat trick of the season, this one in a 6-0 win over Tampa Bay. A couple of firsts this week – Brian Fahey registered his first NHL point with an assist in the Tampa win, and Marcus Johansson recorded his first multi-point game with a pair of assists in the Tampa win.

Defense: 2.33/game

Again, it’s the progression – five, two, and no goals allowed. You get the sense, though, that they can be better. Allowing five goals to one of the least productive offenses in the league (and none of those goals coming off the stick of Ilya Kovalchuk) has to be disappointing. But to the Caps’ credit they clamped down hard on the Hurricanes and Lightning to close the week. They allowed only 45 shots combined in the last two games of the week, the second lowest two-game total of shots allowed so far this season.

Goaltending: 2.34/.903

The big story this week was the return of Semyon Varlamov to the nets. And a fine return he had, not that he had an especially high volume of shots to face. In the two games he played last week he faced a total of 49 shots, stopping 47 of them (.959). Although it has been interrupted by a lengthy (34-day) stretch on the shelf due to injury, his start is looking better than last year’s. In his first four appearances this season he is 2-1-0, 1.88, .928, with one shutout. In his first four appearances last season he was 3-0-0, 3.01, .895. What should not be lost in this week was a gutty performance by Braden Holtby to open the week. Not that he was good, he wasn’t. But he gritted it out, taking a shellacking for the team (five goals allowed on 23 shots faced) with Michal Neuvirth injured and Varlamov on the bench, but almost unavailable for play given that he was coming back from an injury and had just played two games in the previous two nights in Hershey.

Power Play: 3-11 (27.3 percent)

One more time… the progression. No power play goals in the game last Monday against the Devils, one against Carolina, and two against Tampa Bay. Alexander Semin had two as part of his hat trick against Tampa Bay, but it was just as nice to see Brooks Laich get one against Carolina, breaking a seven game streak without an extra man goal. Hopefully it will spring him loose in that regard. The marker against the Hurricanes was Laich’s third power play goal of the year. He had 12 such goals last season. Overall the Caps recorded three power play goals on 22 shot attempts covering 11 power plays. The 11 power plays in three games is getting a little closer to the average number of opportunities per game the Caps had last season (3.82), but 3.67 for the week still leaves the Caps short of maximizing their potential, given the efficiency the power play unit continues to demonstrate.

Penalty Killing: 10-12 (83.3 percent)

A solid week from the Caps on the PK. They allowed a goal on the first power play they faced, the first goal in a 5-0 loss to New Jersey. After that they skated off 10 of 11. The success was earned, in part, by denying opportunities to opponents. In 12 power plays faced the Caps allowed only 12 shots on goal. The Caps also had five shorthanded shots on goal, all coming in the last two games of the week. The ability to make teams defend when on their own power play goes a long way to making for a successful penalty killing unit.

Paying the Price: 77 hits/40 blocked shots

What might have seemed like a light week in blocked shots might be a product of scoring peculiarities in New Jersey, where the Caps were credited with only three blocks (the Devils were credited with only six). But in each of the three games the Caps finished with more hits than their opponent and were credited with more blocked shots than their opponent in each of the last two games of the week. If you accept the notion that any scoring bias (e.g., toward underreporting hits or blocked shots) is evenly applied to the teams in a game, then the Caps being on the long end of hits and blocked shots more often during the week can be recorded as a good week.

Faceoffs: 93-172 (54.1 percent)

The Caps did even or better in all three games for the week. It allowed them to climb to 11th in the league in faceoffs and within another good week of jumping up several more places. It was a case of taking advantage of weak teams in the last two games of the week, Tampa Bay ranking in the lower half of the league standings and Carolina being the worst in the league on draws by a fairly wide margin (barely 40 percent as a team). It was nice having Boyd Gordon back to take draws, too. He was 20-for-29 for the week.

Turnovers: Plus-3

It was a lot better week in protecting the puck than the previous week’s minus-14. The Caps were even or better in each of the games. Noteworthy was the reduction in “unforced” turnovers – giveaways. The Caps had only 19 giveaways in three games last week, compared with 41 the week before in four games.


Two wins in a week might not seem like much, but if the Caps average that over the remainder of the season they will add 38 wins to the total of 16 with which they finished the week, tying last season’s franchise record-setting 54 wins. Laughter-gate seems to be shrinking in the rear-view mirror with the two wins to close the week.

Getting points from 11 players is approaching the sort of balance you would like to see over a stretch of games, and this past week’s scoring lines are impressive in that none of the nine goals were recorded by Alex Ovechkin, and three defensemen had goals, none of them named “Mike Green.” Green, in fact, did not record a point this past week. What it suggests is that even with the Caps scoring six on Tampa Bay, it is a team that has not yet really put it all together for a stretch of games. And for a team that is in the midst of a 9-2-2 month at the end of this past week, not to mention leading the league in standings points, the league should be on guard that the day is coming when the Caps do start putting it all together. For the teams having to face that Caps team, it will not be pleasant.

A TWO-point night -- Game 25: Caps 3 - Hurricanes 2 (OT/SO)

For the Carolina Hurricanes tonight goaltender Cam Ward was their best player. It was not enough, though, as the Washington Capitals shook off a tying goal with 2.2 seconds left in regulation to beat the Hurricanes, 3-2, in a Gimmick-decided result.

It did not look as if the Caps would have to worry late, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first period and outshooting Carolina 17-7 in the first 20 minutes. Marcus Johnasson started and ended the play that resulted in the first goal, beginning the sequence by sending the puck deep and around the boards from just inside the Carolina blue line. Eric Fehr then took advantage of Joni Pitkanen’s inability to control the puck cleanly coming around to the right wing corner. Fehr picked Pitkanen’s pocket and slipped the puck out to Johansson, who had moved to goalie Cam Ward’s left. Johansson turned and pulled the puck across the crease, just outside Ward’s reach to poke it away, then tucked it under Ward’s right pad to open the scoring.

Alexander Semin staked the Caps to a two-goal lead late in the first period when he converted a ice feed from Alex Ovechkin, who worked his way down the left side on defenseman Tim Gleason. Ovechkin had options as he was moving in on Gleason – shoot through the legs, turn and cut to the center, go wide around him. But what Ovechkin did was something he might not have attempted, let alone converted before this season. He feinted as if cutting to the middle, then cut wide, reaching around Gleason to snap the puck across to Semin coming down the right side. The pass caught Semin right in stride, and all that was left to do was to flick the puck high over the sliding goaltender and into the back of the net.

Carolina evened the game with goals early in the second – a doorstep goal from Erik Cole 50 seconds into the period – and late in the third period. The late goal came on a goal-mouth scramble in the last eight seconds of regulation. It started in the most improbable way. Eric Staal and David Steckel skated in to take a faceoff in the Caps’ defensive zone with eight seconds left. Staal came into the game with one of the worst faceoff winning percentages in the league (42.8 percent ), Steckel with one of the best (64.3 percent). And in this game Steckel had already won eight of ten, while Staal won only 10 of 23. But no one wins them all, and Steckel lost this one cleanly to Staal. That started a flurry that ended in front of the Caps’ net and Staal flipping a loose puck in the paint over goalie Semyon Varlamov to tie the game with 2.2 seconds left.

Overtime passed without a goal, but not without its dicey moment. Varlamov kept the Hurricanes from enabling the Caps to get to the skills competition with a chance to get the second standings point they could not secure in the hockey phase of the contest. After Jeff Skinner failed on his attempt to start off the proceedings, Alex Ovechkin converted the first chance for the Caps by going wide, circling in, patiently waiting for Cam Ward to commit, then and lifting the puck over Ward’s left pad. The Caps would not score again, but at the other end Semyon Varlamov didn’t allow the Hurricanes even a crack in the door of opportunity. He stymied Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu to seal the win, the Caps’ third in a row after their three game losing streak.

Other Stuff…

-- At the 25-game mark the Caps are two points ahead of last year’s franchise record-setting points pace (36 points to 34) and three wins ahead of its record-setting wins mark from a year ago (17 to 14). Of course, last year featured a 14-game winning streak, but even in the absence of that in this season the Caps are on a pace to finish 56-20-6, a 118-point pace.

-- Late in the game, Darren Pang tweeted…

OK, fair enough. Staal won the faceoff late and scored the game tying goal. Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin gave up a shooting opportunity for a better chance on the stick of Alexander Semin in the first period and buried the game-winning goal in the skills competition. If you are not aware, the assist was Ovechkin’s 22nd of the season, putting him atop the list of wingers in the assist column. And to reduce more finely by position, he has a whopping lead (22-16) in assists over his closest competitor at left wing.

-- The Caps have scored 84 goals in 25 games. The 3.36 goals/game is down from last year’s full-year mark of 3.82. However, it is almost exactly the number of goals they scored through the first 25 games last season (85).

-- Eric Staal might not be the best faceoff guy in the league, and he did have a losing record in this game (12-for-25), but Tuomo Ruutu… oh-for-10? Small wonder he is 88th of 90 skaters on the faceoff leader tables. In fact, Carolina has three of the worst seven players among faceoff leaders – Staal (84th of 90), Ruutu (88th), and Brandon Sutter (89th).

-- Tom Poti would have had a really nice game…except for those last eight seconds. Jeff Schultz was able to get inside position and tie up Jussi Jokinen in the pile-up in the final seconds, but Poti could not tie up Staal’s stick, despite having inside position on him on the play. The play started with Poti on the goal line to receive the draw from Steckel, were he to win it (pictures captured from highlights on…

When Steckel did not, Poti tried to cut Staal off from getting position driving to the net, which he appeared to do…

…but he could not tie up Staal’s stick, and Staal’s reach allowed him to flip a backhand past Varlamov to tie the game…

-- Ovechkin had 12 shot attempts for the game, seven of them on goal with none of them finding the back of the net. But there didn’t look to be an easy save in the bunch for Ward.

-- Not often you see the losing goaltender get the game’s first star, but it was deserved. A lesser goaltending performance – against Ovechkin alone – and this game would have been over at the first intermission. If it was against a different opponent, we would say that Cam Ward deserved a better fate.

-- We are starting to get the feeling that there is no “number one” defensive pairing. The top two pairs of defensemen – Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, and John Carlson and Karl Alzner – had almost identical ice times, ranging from 23:08 (Alzner) to 25:09 (Carlson). Part of that was Mike Green going off after blocking a shot, but the rookies (we still think of Alzner as a rookie) are taking their place in the rotation of responsible minutes and doing good things with those minutes. Carlson had four hits, four shots, and three blocked shots; Alzner had four blocked shots and a takeaway.

-- Tomas Fleischmann had two shots on goal in the first minute of play… one over the last 64 minutes. He did, however, win nine of 13 draws. But it is worth noting that he started the game getting more than five minutes of ice time in the first period, almost four in the second, and just over three in the third (also a 40 second shift in overtime).

-- The Caps have a very efficient power play, but the continuing problem with it is not having the opportunity to unleash it often enough. Tonight they had one – one! – power play. They should have had one in overtime when Erik Cole upended Alex Ovechkin, but...

-- As it was, the Caps managed twice as many shots on goal on their lone power play (four) than Carolina had on the three power plays they had (two). In fact, the Caps had as many shorthanded shots on goal (two) as the Hurricanes had on their own power plays.

-- It is also worth noting that Semyon Varlamov has faced only 77 shots in the three games since his return (25.7/game). That he has a save percentage of .948 in those three games suggests that for the moment he has moved ahead of Michal Neuvirth in the goaltending order. But with 57 games to go, this is likely to be a back-and-forth thing, hopefully of the sort that finds one or the other turning in fine performances when called upon.

-- The Caps blocked 25 Carolina shots tonight. Jeff Schultz had almost a third of them (seven).

In the end, it was another one-goal win (eight, tops in the league), another extra time win (six, most in the league). Precisely the testing ground this club might need to prepare for closer-to-the-vest games that they will see in the playoffs. What is more, these one-goal games are not fire wagon games with lots of goals. Of the 11 one-goal decisions the Caps have had (8-1-2), they allowed only as many as four goals in regulation twice. They allowed two or fewer in regulation in eight games.

You could look at the 42 goals allowed in 14 games this month and conclude that the Caps haven’t done a very good job on defense. But remember, too, that 14 goals were allowed in a three-game stretch. Otherwise the Caps have allowed 28 goals in 11 games, a respectable 2.55 per game. That three game stretch has to be looked at as an anomaly. In their last 18 games the Caps have allowed more than three goals five times, three of them coming in that three-game stretch. There isn’t likely to be a Jennings Trophy at the end of this for the Caps’ goaltenders having allowed the fewest goals in the league, but it is a defense that is improved over last season.

Now the Caps go on the road, first to a place where few teams (well, two) have visited and won this season – St. Louis – then to a city where the Caps have had difficulty winning (13-22-8 overall, 2-7-1 in their last ten visits). It will be quite a test for a club looking to hold off the Philadelphia Flyers and the charging Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the East. But they got off to a good start with a good getaway game tonight for their league-leading 17th win.