Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Questions: Is The Whole Less Than The Sum Of Its Parts?

The next question…”Is the whole less than the sum of the parts?”

The subject of this question is the “Young Guns” – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green. And if the answer to the question is “yes,” then it begs the next question, “should they be broken up?”

The Young Guns do not have a parallel anywhere in the history of the Washington Capitals. For 30 years, the Caps were seen by most as a sort of “little engine that could” sort of hockey team. Although the club could boast of the occasional high end talent – Bobby (before he became just “Bob”) Carpenter and Mike Gartner in the 1980’s, Peter Bondra in the 1990’s – never did the Caps have a quartet of such offensive talent as these four. Ovechkin is the most prolific goal scorer of this generation. Semin might have more innate talent as a scorer and puck handler. Backstrom is among the top five (or better) playmakers in the NHL today. Green is (or at least, was) the best offensive defenseman in the league.

Why, then, has this unprecedented collection of talent on a Capitals roster failed to do what only two clubs have done in 36 seasons – advance to at least a conference final in the playoffs? Well, individually this foursome has been impressive in the post season. In 37 games they have combined for 54 goals, 137 points, and are a plus-23. By now you are really wondering what is up with these guys and the lack of team success. I know it, I can see you scratching your head.

Well, let’s decompose this a bit. The Caps have played in six post season series over the last four years, winning two and losing four. In the two series they won, the Caps played in a total of 12 games (eight wins, four losses). In the series that they lost, a total of 25 games (nine wins, 16 losses). Now how do things break down?

Well, this is where things start to turn strange. In the 12 games played in series that the Caps won, the Young Guns are 16-27-43 and a plus-20. More than three-and-a-half points per game is pretty impressive. But wait… in the 25 games in series the Caps lost, this group is 38-56-94 and a plus-3. As a group, they actually scored more per game in series they lost (both goals and points-wise) than they did in games in series that they won.

Strange as that outcome is, it starts to clear up a bit if we drill down just a little more. This foursome becomes two twosomes in the post-season. For instance, in 37 playoff games Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are a combined 37-45-82, plus-26. Alexander Semin and Mike Green are a combined 17-38-55, minus-3. Yes, yes…Ovechkin and Backstrom generally play alongside one another, usually without Semin on that line. And Semin and Green play different positions (Green’s, despite his prolific output as a defenseman, not generally associated with big offensive numbers). So let’s drill a little more.

In series in which the Caps have won, Ovechkin and Backstrom are a combined 6-15-21, plus-8 in 12 games. Meanwhile, Semin and Green are 10-12-22, plus-12 in those same games. The difference – and perhaps the problem – lies in the games in series in which the Caps lost. In those 25 games, the Ovechkin-Backstrom pair is 31-30-61 and plus-18. Their respective levels of play have not – at the series level – diminished in series the Caps lost. But for the Semin-Green pair the numbers are 7-26-33, minus-15 in those 25 games. What is more, Semin and Green were a combined 6-9-15, even in the seven-game loss to the Flyers in 2008. In three series losses since then (covering 18 games) they are a combined 1-17-18, minus-15. It isn’t quite “not showing up,” but that is a significant drop off in production, especially in the Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Tampa Bay series losses, and they were getting killed at even strength.

Mike Green has, if not an excuse, an explanation. In two of the last three series the Caps lost, he was perhaps not physically well. In the Pittsburgh series in 2009, when he was pounded mercilessly by Penguin forecheckers, and in the Tampa Bay series this year, when he might have been suffering the effects of a shot taken to the head (and perhaps a leg injury that sidelined him for Game 4), injuries might have factored into a 0-5-5, minus-8 performance in those two series.

Semin’s production is more of a mystery. In the last three series the Caps lost, his production looks like this:

Pittsburgh (2009): seven games; 0-6-6, minus-6
Montreal (2010): seven games; 0-2-2, even
Tampa Bay (2011): four games; 1-1-2, minus-2

In those last three series, 1-9-10, minus-8 in 18 games. He is one of the purest offensive talents in the game and frankly is an underrated defender, when motivated. In a perverse way, his importance to the team might be reflected in those poor numbers in those three series the Caps lost. If he had anything approaching his numbers in series when the Caps win, well, the Caps probably win there, too.

And therein lies the conundrum. The answer to the question posed at the top of this essay is obviously, “yes.” The whole is less than the sum of its parts. And too much of that problem is related to the irregular production of Alexander Semin. If he could find it within himself, or if a coach could pull it out of him, to be more consistent in the post season, the Caps almost certainly would have been more successful. He has that kind of talent. But for whatever reason, that talent has not expressed itself on a consistent basis, at least not as consistently as his partners in the Young Guns foursome.

And that raises the reasonable question of whether the Capitals might add by subtraction. Neither Ovechkin nor Backstrom can be traded (owing to their contracts), nor should they be. Both have shown up, win or lose (except for Backstrom’s curious absence for much of the 2011 playoffs). Semin and Green, less so. But Mike Green is a commodity one does not find in large supply in the NHL. A defenseman who can skate, score, and even (honest) defend, at least more so than his reputation suggests. Alexander Semin, while a sublime talent with the puck, is not as essential to this club’s success, not if his post-season consistency is going to continue to be problematic. If Semin was to be moved, the Caps would almost certainly receive something less than equal value in return. If a blogger can figure out there are consistency issues here, people who are paid to evaluate talent have their own, more detailed dossiers of his weaknesses. And there is the matter of that contract for next season. A $6.7 million deal for Semin might be worth it to the Capitals, but it is hard to see how it will be of similar value to another team, one that will expect him to be the go-to scorer on a night-to-night – and post-season – basis.

We are not here to bash Alexander Semin, to lay at his feet all the ills the Caps have suffered in the post season the last four years. If blame is your thing, there is more than enough to go around. The point of this is to consider whether the Caps have a reasonable expectation to crack through that second round and win a Cup with the Young Guns intact, or whether the “Young Guns” are more sizzle than steak. If you think the latter, then the question becomes which one to move. And on that score, Semin seems to be the candidate.

It is hard to see a way clear to thinking that Semin will find his inner consistency in the post season. It hasn’t appeared yet in four seasons, and he is arguably in his productive prime at age 27. Will the Caps pull the trigger on a deal to shake things up, to challenge the comfort level of other players, and to try to find that unexplainable mix that winners seem to put together? Hard to say, although frankly, we doubt such a deal is in the offing this summer. What it means is that the Caps will choose to grant Semin – and the other Young Guns – one more chance…a statement that probably applies to other Caps as well.

We just do not think it is necessarily the right choice.


Insanity said...

As I'm watching the Red Wings vs San Jose game, the thing that I notice is how much practice and coaching could improve this foursome.

I'm not sure if desire can be built from coaching/practice -- but I am sure things like too many men on the ice, power play puck movement, and movement away from the puck can be..

And then it's a chicken or the egg problem -- does more practice/effort lead to more heart by not wanting to see that go to waste? Or does heart lead to more practice/effort?

Hale said...

@Insanity--I had the exact same thought while watching that game last night. I also noticed how few offsides the Wings seemed to have. We have way too many, often due to Ovi and his zig-zags along the blue line, MJ90's or Chimera's speed getting ahead, or Laich/Semin a half-stride over. Certainly there are some coaching issues in all of that; it can't just be execution by so many players.

Peerless, you mention Green's injuries as a reason for some playoff failure, but Semin also was injured, particularly in the Penguins series. It was widely speculated he was playing with a broken thumb; he had been slashed and hacked considerably by Orpik. While he had no goals due to the injury effect on shooting, he had 6 assists.

It also seems Ovi's numbers mask and inflate Backstrom's for this post-season, considering it was 2 rounds and Backstrom had embarrassingly little to show for it. What are the numbers if you pair Ovi and Semin, then Backstrom and Green? Or, how about Ovi and Green, then Backstrom and Semin? I have not gone back to look, but if memory serves, Backstrom and Semin actually played a lot together in the first Rangers series and the Penguins series. So, presenting the data the way you did appears a bit manipulative.

In the end, I understand your point, and it way well be true. I hope not. I'd rather see a coaching change before I throw up my hands. I'd certainly miss watching Semin on a regular basis. Winning everything is certainly the ultimate goal, but watching boring hockey without an electrifying player of Semin's caliber is not how I want to spend 82 games a year. There's a ton of entertainment value in his unpredictability, and I don't mean that in the inconsistency sense, but in you never know what fantastic play he might make or when. It can hit like lightning and keep you on the edge of your seat. It also wins games.

Where would the Caps have been this post season without his performance in the Rangers series? Who would you replace him with who could provide that kind of difference? Look at the teams still in the playoffs: where have the Sedins been? Where is Marleau? How many seasons has it taken Thornton to get going? When did the Canucks last win a cup? How long have the Sedins been there? They are 30 and it's been their only team.

I'm glad GMGM has patience. I hope he maintains it still.

Hale said...

One more point: Backstrom's and Semin's post season numbers are almost the same --

Backstrom: 12 G, 20 A, 32 P
Semin: 12 G, 18 A, 30 P

That is not a significant difference. So how can you say one is a better post season performer than the other and one is the problem? Backstrom didn't perform to expectations all season long, and it carried over through 2 playoff rounds. It can't even be attributed to significant injury, even if his thumb was reinjured, that would not affect his whole game. At least when Semin was playing with a broken thumb, he had 6 assists to show for it in one series, much less two.

So, again, how are the performances of these two players so different in the post season? How many other top NHL players have some inconsistency, as BOTH Backstrom and Semin have had, through 6 playoff rounds over 4 seasons?

Anonymous said...

@hale- the point isn't about one being *better* than the other. The point is that one is more *consistent* than the other. Outside of this year, Backstrom has been a much more consistent and reliable player.

Hale said...

@anonymous--disagree. He's talking about playoff performance. The Caps now have played in 6 rounds. Backstrom and Semin have almost identical scoring records and both could be said to have "disappeared" (though I personally think it's inaccurate for both)in 2 of the 6 rounds each. So, how do you call one more consistent in the playoffs than the other?

Furthermore, deciding to deconstruct aggregate numbers of 4 players into 2 twosomes is wholly arbitrary. Doing so is not enlightening at all: presenting a pairing of Ovi and Semin is just as valid as that of Ovi and Backstrom.

If you take Backstrom and Semin and switch the pairings, the scoring effect will be virtually unchanged, though the +/- is better for Backstrom, but that alone does not define consistency. So, if you do that, then Backstrom/Green looks like the pair that has not performed.

It's arbitrary and I don't see the validity of presenting it that way.

The Peerless said...

Backstrom and Ovechkin have been demonstrably more consistent, evidenced by their performance in series in which the Caps lost. Semin has been especially absent in the three most recent series in which the Caps lost (he performed well in the first of that series, the loss to Philadelphia in 2008).

This is not an exercise in evaluating who is the best among this set of players. If that was the criterion, then arguable Semin is surpassed only by Ovechkin. But this foursome has not performed as a group at the level one expects from their respective talent level in the playoffs. The question needs to be asked if the Caps would not be made better by subtraction. If that is the case, and the playoffs are where the question truly matters, then which of the four is the best candidate to be moved. Ovechkin and Backstrom, by virtue of their contracts and consistency probably can't and certainly should not be moved. Green could be, but his skill set is either harder to replace, or more important to a club's success these days (Cup winners have solid top-four defense corps).

Semin, for his comparative inconsistency and the nature of his position argues for his being the best candidate, a matter wholly apart from whether or not he is the "worst" from among these players (which he probably is not).

Doug B. said...

Conundrum central for sure--definitely agree with Hale's point about the entertainment value of Semin (not to mention my daughter's investement in his jersey...), but also can see value in Peerless's addition by subtraction scenario...me? Maybe I have been anesthesized by too many seasons of GMGM "we have the pieces" mollification, but, with a week of dust-settling, I am kind of thinking "we have the pieces"-- Poti and Wideman (and Fehr, I guess) notwithstanding....but hard to watch Detroit (actually, it's pretty easy to watch them) without thinking: "Hey, this is what a team can look like when practice consists of more than who can knock the water bottle off the cage..."?

Hale said...

@Peerless: I appreciate that, and for that matter, your blog all the time. I highly value your opinions.

However, it's a matter of misrepresenting someone's playoff career to this point by 1)characterizing the Pens performance as being "absent" when 6 assists while injured says otherwise; characterizing the Habs series by being "absent" when he took 44 SOG and was really working hard, which was commented on at the time by people like Alan May; absent from the scoresheet? Yes. Absent from the games? No; then assembling comparative scoring stats in an arbitrary fashion that prove nothing but support your opinion that Semin would be the one to go; I could assemble them differently to draw a different conclusion.

My main problem with a lot of this excessive verbiage on "proving" how disappointing Semin too often is in the playoffs is that people feel they need to spew it to justify a gut feeling for a need for a change and Semin seems the logical choice, for the reasons you mentioned. Your blog could have been that short today without putting the playoff stats through the sausage grinder.

The Peerless said...

OK, make the case why any of the other three should be sent off before Semin.

Hale said...

@Peerless: that's not my point at all and never said so. You're grasping. My point is: the blog today seemed more like you had a conclusion you had drawn and needed a statistical way to justify it which was arbitrary and misrepresented the facts, especially when comparing the scoring stats of Backstrom and Semin in the playoffs. What you wrote in the last response, I think, is really the gist of your position, and I can accept that you and others feel that way. I don't want to get rid of any of them. I want to give it another go.

The Peerless said...

So, your argument is that after four years of not getting through the second round, the result will be different the fifth time around. Well, that's a way to go, I guess. It's possible, but I don't think it's the way to bet.

And I'm still not seeing where the underlying analysis is wrong.

Avtopilot said...

Peerless, hello,

i actually don't think, that the problem is in Semin, but rather in a very specialised roles in Top6, that make it possible to shut down the Cap's offense.
Look, how the lines are completed:


There is only one puckmover in the group and only one sniper and that is the problem of this team.

Opponents find a way to block passing lanes of P and cover shots of S - so, this is exactly when the specialised players are completely lost in action.

So far only Ovi was able to adapt recently and improve a lot on scoring from the crease and assisting. So, he is not only Shooter now. That's how he is still visible in PO even in lost games.

Instead, Semin is a pure sniper, Backs lost confidence in his wrist-shot and Knuble is only good for rebound hunting.
Laich to be honest is not really good at anything to be at Top6.
Arnott is better and that immediately shows up in PP statistics (can move the puck, shoot and crush the net).

MoJo is making his way to the Top6 as he is fast, playmaker and can score from the distance - he is more adaptable, then many Caps superstars.

And this is, how it will translate to the transfers.
1) Somebody needs to train in off-season Semin's passing and Back's wrist-shot. Otherwise, they are not worth their money. Ovi did adapt his play, the other Big guns need to do the same.
2) Knuble and Laich are not really Top6 or PP, they are not good enough at moving the puck or shooting.

Ovi - Backstrom - X
Semin - Arnott(MoJo) - Y
Knuble(Chimera) - MoJo(Laich) - Laich(Fehr)

Sturm will go, Arnott,Laich,Chimera are under question. They actually can be traded for veteran wingers X and Y, who need to be 20-30 goal scorers and move the puck efficiently.
If Arnott and Laich will both go, then a 3C is also required.