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.