Tuesday, August 30, 2011

50 Goals...Part II

50 goals…
…Stanley Cup

50 goals…
…Stanley Cup

Are these things mutually exclusive? More to the point, with all this talk about whether Alex Ovechkin can or will score 50 goals this year or ever again, is that an important ingredient for winning a Stanley Cup?

History might be a guide here. Over the last 20 seasons, having a 50-goal scorer doesn’t seem to matter for much, but there is something else you might concern yourself about. Here is a look at the last 20 years of Stanley Cup finals, the winners, the runners-up, the top goal scorers (regular season), and the number of players with 10 or more goals scored in the regular season:



(click for larger picture)

Twenty years, and 20 champs had a total of four 50-goal scorers. Yes, most of that period is plagued by the “dead-puck” era, but note that the runners-up did have six 50-goal scorers. And since the lockout, when the rules allegedly opened-up the game for more offense (how’s that working out, kids?), no Cup winner has had a 50-goal scorer on their roster, and only one runner-up had one (Dany Heatley, with 50 in the 2006-2007 season). In fact, only half of the six Cup champs had 40-goal scorers.

Ah, but look at the columns for players with ten or more goals. Only once in 20 seasons did a Cup champion have fewer than eight 10-or-more goal scorers, and that was in the abbreviated 1994-1995 season, when the New Jersey Devils had five. You should also note that 16 times in 20 seasons the winning team in the Stanley Cup final had as many or more 10-or-more goal scorers on its team. The last four Cup champs had at least ten such players.

Which brings us to the Caps. Last season, the Caps finished the season with ten players with at least ten goals. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Not so fast. Two of those players were trading deadline pick-ups (Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman), one of which is no longer with the team (Arnott). Another – Eric Fehr – departed in free agency to Winnipeg.

So here we are. The Caps will return seven double-digit scorers who played the entire season with the club. You might pencil in a Mike Green to return to double digit goal-scoring, assuming he can stay healthy. But this is where guys like Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, and Jeff Halpern become important. It was the missing element for the Caps in the playoffs last spring – that undercard scoring.

Perhaps one should pay less attention to the matter of whether Alex Ovechkin still has that 50-goal touch and pay heed to the musings of someone like Matt Hendricks.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

50 goals

So…will Alex Ovechkin rebound with a 50-goal season in 2011-2012? Will he ever see the north side of 50 goals again?

It certainly is among the topics Caps fans are talking about lately. Perhaps it was the magnitude of the drop in goals Ovechkin experienced in 2010-2011 – from 50 to 32 – that lead some folks to think it was merely a hiccup on the way to many more 50-goal seasons. Then again, you have folks who have pored over the history of 50 goal scorers and concluded that the window on Ovechkin’s career as a 50-goal scorer is closing.

Well, we are going to add our two cents to the discussion of 50-goal scorers by borrowing (ok, stealing) from a couple of previous discussions of this topic. Quisp, at “Jewels from the Crown,” put together an impressive set of tables last summer (updated this past July) that provides a stunning visual cue as to the likelihood of players past their 27th birthday recording 50-goal seasons. And over at Russian Machine Never Breaks, Neil Greenberg looked at Ovechkin specifically and the possibilities of his topping the 50-goal mark in the context of 50-goal histories.

We took a look at every NHL player who has recorded at least one 50-goal season, and the 27th birthday really is a bright line as far as 50-goal scorers go. As Quisp points out, the age of 26 is the high for average and median goal scoring among the 50-goal scorers. Those players with at least one 50-goal season on their resumes (90 by our count) played a total of 1,333 seasons in the NHL, 626 of them before their 27th birthday, 702 seasons after. In those 626 total seasons played before their 27th birthday, the 50-goal scorers recorded 129 seasons of at least 50 goals – 20.6 percent of the seasons played. And in those 702 seasons played after their 27th birthday? 61 total 50-goal seasons, or 8.7 percent of the total number of seasons played.

And if you are thinking the “prodigies” such as Ovechkin have been spared the decline in production that comes after reaching the age of 27, think again. Other than Ovechkin, eleven players in NHL history have recorded at least three 50-goal seasons by the time they reached the age of 27. Those 11 players recorded at least 50 goals 45 times in 79 total seasons before reaching their 27th birthdays (57.0 percent). Prodigies, indeed. But after reaching the age of 27? A total of 13 50-goal seasons in 96 seasons played among them (13.5 percent). Four of the 11 failed to record a single 50-goal season after the age of 27 (Michel Goulet, Jari Kurri, Luc Robitaille, and Rick Vaive in 36 seasons among them).

If you are thinking that with age, like fine wine, quality manifests itself…well. A total of 32 of the 50-goal scorers played in at least 10 seasons following their 27th birthday. Those players account for a total of 387 seasons among them. And the number of 50-goal seasons? Thirty-one (8.0 percent). Fifteen of them did not record so much as a single 50-goal season in any of the 10-plus seasons they played after their 27th birthday. Almost a third of the 50-goal seasons by this group (10 of the 31 in all) were recorded by two players – Marcel Dionne and Phil Esposito, who had to be considered late-bloomers (one 50-goal season in 13 combined seasons before their 17th birthdays).

Alex Ovechkin is a generational talent. Four 50-goal seasons in his first six years, including a league record for goals by a left wing in a single season, attest to that. In a different era – the 1980’s, perhaps – he might have challenged the likes of Mike Bossy (nine times over 50 goals, five times with at least 60 in ten seasons) as perhaps the best natural goal scorer in NHL history and be a regular 50-goal scorer for years to come with several 60-goal campaigns on his resume. But this is not that time. In the six seasons since the lockout, the number of 50-goal scorers by season has gone: five, two, three, one, three, one. It has been a select group, and it bears noting that Ovechkin has four of the 15 50-goal seasons in that time. Only Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk have more than one of their own (two apiece). In fact, Ovechkin has five of the 51 total 40-plus goal seasons since the lockout. He has been the outlier that came back to the pack last season.

As Neil Greenberg pointed out, “even if Ovechkin posts a season under 50 goals– it is not a disappointment nor an indication he is any less spectacular.” History is not on his side in the pursuit of 50 goals, and the house – by virtue of the dropping goal totals league-wide in recent years – is stacked against him. Ovechkin might have another 50-goal season in him. Perhaps even more.

But it would not be the way to bet.


photo: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

R-r-r-r-r-r-rumble!

Shake, rattle, and roll.

Washington was on the receiving end on Tuesday of an earthquake that registered 5.8 on the Richter scale. A 5.8’er might not impress folks in California (and note to those folks…you getting two inches of snow doesn’t impress us in these parts, either), but it made for an interesting afternoon and evening. We will spare you the gory details of our five-hour commute from downtown D.C. to Loudoun County (about 30 miles as the pigeon flies). It did get us to thinking about that Richter scale, though. A 5.8’er is roughly equivalent to 7.6 kilotons of TNT, roughly half the energy yield of the Hiroshima atomic bomb. And an earthquake of 5.0-5.9 occurs about 800 times per year, about 2.2 such events worldwide per day (all that according to Wikipedia).

They just don’t happen here.

But – and you were wondering if we’d be getting around to how this relates to hockey – what if there was a Richter scale for our Washington Capitals? We might have something like the following…



(click for larger image)

Too bad Boyd Gordon wasn't still here...we could make some snarky comment about his shot being in the "micro" category.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sittin' at the end of the bar... Watching Daytime Dramas


We’re into the home stretch of the summer. Not a sprint, mind you…more like a couple of tricycles you’d see at intermission of a Caps game spinning their wheels, but it is the home stretch, nonetheless. And how do we know this? There are actually things to talk about…

There was The Semin Imbroglio. Erstwhile Cap Matt Bradley questioned whether former teammate Alexander Semin cared enough to win a Stanley Cup. Semin was inscrutably, well…inscrutable when made aware of Bradley’s remarks (it was Semin's agent who responded). It was left to Mike Knuble to have both Bradley’s back
“It can’t be controlled what he’s going to say. I’m sure he didn’t mean for it to come out that way and it just kind of did…Matt’s a smart guy, and he understands when he’s saying things. I’m sure there’s a certain level of regret with that.”

and Semin’s
“…he’s my teammate and I want him to do the best and not because I want him to reach his talents but because I know how talented he is and the better he does the better we do…”

Which makes October 18th a date to circle on the calendar, the first meeting in the 2011-2012 season of Bradley’s Florida Panthers and Semin’s Capitals. Which begs one of those tree-in-the-forest kinds of questions…if Alexander Semin goes bongos on Matt Bradley, does a Bradley bleed?

**********

Nicklas Backstrom was disappointed. It made us think of another one of the K├╝bler-Ross five stages kinds of things…

1. Shock…We were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning? After we went 4-1-1 against them in the regular season? We get a do over, right?

2. Anger… Two $#@%ing years in a row? Unh-uh…no way. No $#@%in’ way.

3. Disappointment… “I have to say that I'm still incredibly disappointed. It felt good after the first playoff round and then we lost in four straight games to Tampa. It came as a shock and I felt totally empty inside after that. But at the same time, if we don't play better than that, and I have to say that Tampa played really well; they played smart against us and had a good goalie, they definitely deserved the win but I don't know, we should have been better, and if I'm talking about me personally, I underachieved in the playoffs and I just can't do that in that situation."

4. Resolve… “…there is only one way left for us now, and that is to go all the way. But at the same time you put a lot of pressure on yourself, and the organization puts a lot of pressure on itself too - we want to win. All teams that make the playoffs can win it all; the eighth seed can win over the first seed. Just look at how we lost to Montreal two years ago. What I'm trying to say is that your position after the regular season really doesn't matter. It's a long road to get to the finals…”

5. Redemption… well, we’ll just have to wait on that.
**********

Matt Hendricks has seen the future – his future – and it is “Gretzkyesque.” Well, maybe somewhere between “Brent” and “Wayne.” Hendricks was kind of disappointed over scoring only nine goals for the Caps last year, which strikes us as interesting, given that Hendricks even didn’t have a contract with an NHL team before the last week of September last fall. But kudos to him for wanting, or at least seeing the need (or opportunity) to add a bit more offense to his game.

The utter futility of fourth line scoring in the playoffs last spring was one of the many little things that needed to be done better than undid the Caps. The trio of Hendricks, Matt Bradley, and Boyd Gordon did not register a point in nine post-season games, and Hendricks recorded one shot on goal in the 64 total minutes he played in the seven games in which he appeared. He was ninth in points and the tenth leading goal scorer among forwards for the Caps last regular season. But considering that the Stanley Cup champion Bruins had 12 forwards with more than the 25 points Hendricks had and 12 forwards with more goals, every little bit of improvement would be helpful.
**********

Two years ago, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby tied for second in the NHL in points (109), were first and third (Crosby and Steven Stamkos tying for first) in goals, both had 13 power play goals, and the two otherwise finished in the top ten in game-winning goals, assists, shots on goal, and power play points. They were living up to their reputations as the top two players in the game. Fast forward to now, and clouds hang over both. Crosby is spending the off-season in a dark world of several dimensions – the matter of whether he can recover from the concussion (or concussions) he suffered in January to end his season, the mystery that surrounds his comeback, the odds as to whether he will start the season on time or find 2011-2012 a lost season with uncertain prospects for his career in the NHL.

Ovechkin carries the considerable baggage that he has been accumulating since his lost February of 2010 when his Olympic dreams crashed to earth. That lost month became a disappointment in the NHL playoffs, which was followed up by a 2010-2011 season in which he underperformed, underachieved, and underwhelmed some with his conditioning. Now that he has shown himself to be mortal, he is characterized as something of the poster child (as befits his position as team captain) for a certain nonchalance that plagues the Caps, and he might even have slipped a rung beneath a star who has yet to make an appearance in D.C. this year as top local sports star.

Two years from being at the top of their profession to afterthoughts – unless what you’re thinking about is physical flaws and character faults (real or imagined).
**********

There are so many subplots leading up to training camp and the beginning of the 2011-2012 season that the Caps should play their games before sundown. Where else would you watch “daytime dramas.”



Thursday, August 18, 2011

Talk Take II

Coke or Pepsi… Stones or The Beatles… Bird or Magic… Brady or Manning…

The emerging D.C. version of this seems to be “Ovechkin or Strasburg.” It started with the Washington Post's Jason Reid recently anointing Stephen Strasburg as “the District’s No. 1 sports star.” Hockey fans in these parts reacted with predictable results, the failure to recognize Alex Ovechkin as the District’s top sports star viewed an assault on the player, the Caps, hockey, and all that is good and wholesome in sports. Even we weighed in on the matter.

Chastised to a point, Reid offered in a follow-up column that he did not give Ovechkin enough credit. But he still ranked Ovechkin behind Strasburg. Good for him. I don’t agree, but he wasn’t bullied into changing his mind. From a perspective as a self-styled “baseball guy,” his choice is entirely reasonable.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the original contention and the question it purports to answer – “Who is the District’s number one sports star?” How do you define that? Who is the most accomplished? Who gets the most hits on a Google search? Who gets the most column inches in local newspapers? Who leads off the discussion most often on sports talk radio? Who wins the most (ok, strike that…not yet relevant in these parts)?

It is in these questions that I don’t agree with Reid, and here is why. It is the difference between “is” and “could.” Reid makes the specific point in his follow-up piece that Strasburg “could emerge as the single most important athlete in D.C. sports history if his performance matches his talent. The hard-throwing right-hander could play the biggest part in transforming D.C. into a place where football no longer rules.”

“Could” has no firm place in a discussion of who “is” the biggest local sports star. Both teams pack the house when either is playing, the Caps having sold out more than 100 consecutive games, the Nationals filling the house when Strasburg takes the mound (or is even rumored to do so). For the Ovechkin and the Caps it is the product of having demonstrated an ability to win (with notable exceptions) and to display an entertaining style on the ice, a significant part of it due to Alex Ovechkin’s body of work. For Strasburg and the Nationals, though, it is the product of curiosity, precisely because Strasburg is still almost entirely potential without a body of work. Ovechkin is the statue – still largely unfinished, but we can see the shape it is taking. Strasburg is the block of marble; we are left to imagining what shape it will take.

Let’s pose a hypothetical. Let’s just say that hockey and baseball seasons overlapped more than they currently do. It is a regular season weeknight. The Caps are hosting the Minnesota Wild – a team that isn’t an especially big draw as visiting hockey teams go. The Nats are hosting the Milwaukee Brewers (another team without a clear local following) with Strasburg penciled in to take the mound. Who – Ovechkin or Strasburg – is going to be the lead on sports talk radio? Who is going to be the above the fold story in the Washington Post? Who is going to trend higher on Twitter? Who gets more attention in the blogosphere?

In the here and now, those questions are asked in the context of the teams for which these two players play. The Caps are an accomplished team, one that has won their division for four straight seasons and has won the top spot in the Eastern Conference the past two years with a Presidents Trophy thrown in for good measure. The Nats are a team that still struggles to win 70 of 162 regular season games (they have not done it in the past three seasons, although they are on a pace to win 78 this season) and have never appeared in the playoffs since arriving in D.C. in 2005. Baseball might have the advantage over hockey in these parts as sports go, but winning matters, too. And Ovechkin is a big part of why the Caps win. In that context, it’s a tough call to say whether Ovechkin or Strasburg get the majority of the attention on a regular season weeknight. But there is that winning thing. The Caps are now a playoff team, the Nats are not. Ovechkin is going to get more attention, more consistently, over more of the season than will Strasburg. At least in the here and now.

But fast-forward a few years. Strasburg has established himself as the cornerstone of the Nats’ rotation, and the team has solid players like Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, and the Zimmermans – Jordan and Ryan – around him. They have kids pushing for roster spots. They are 90-win team, a contender. Ovechkin is still a force in the NHL, the Caps are still a playoff-caliber team, maybe with a Stanley Cup on the mantel. Sports in D.C. is good (even the Redskins might have returned to relevance, which might make John Beck a bigger star than either, but we digress).

If that is the environment in which Ovechkin and Strasburg display their talents, this is no contest. Strasburg, by virtue of his position (number one starting pitcher being analogous to starting quarterback in football) and the broader appeal of his sport, both locally and nationally, would win in a walk. This is not to say that Ovechkin would suddenly find his exploits confined to page 8 of the sports section of the Post or the link in six-point type you would have to scroll down to find on the Post Web site, but baseball is baseball, and hockey is, well, still hockey.

But that is what could happen. Stephen Strasburg could be the biggest sports star in these parts. He could be one of, if not the biggest sports star in D.C. sports history. But baseball being what it is, he could reach these heights of performance and achievement playing in the Bronx or in Boston, those teams having lots of cash and no salary cap to keep them from poaching this talent.

We do agree with Reid when he says…

“D.C.’s pro sports landscape has been barren for so long, a generation of fans has only heard stories about the way it used to be when the Redskins were winning Super Bowls. If the Redskins finally get it right again behind Shanahan, the Capitals finally break through in the playoffs and the Nationals and Wizards reach that level, D.C. would be full of sports stars.”

But that is down the road. In the here and now – as to the matter of who is the biggest sports star in D.C. – Stephen Strasburg is not the correct answer to the question. There is too much “could” and not enough “is” in his resume. Alex Ovechkin is, for the time being, the number one sports star in D.C.

Talk Take I

Timing is everything.

Say something provocative on a winter’s weekday when games are played, moves are contemplated, and fans and media alike are riding the ebb and flow of the hockey season, and that provocative comment gets a minute’s notice and fades into the background.

Say something provocative in August, when nothing else is going on, and fans and media will hit rewind and replay over and over to try and divine some hidden meaning or get a better peek under the tent flap of the locker room to see what really goes on.

On Wednesday, former Cap and current Florida Panther Matt Bradley sat down with the folks at TGOR Team 1200 radio in Ottawa to talk some hockey. And talk he did. Asked about the Caps’ post-season problems of recent years, Bradley said…

“I think we had some guys that didn’t show up in playoffs, and I’ll leave them unnamed. I think our locker room was maybe a little too nonchalant and guys weren’t disciplined the way they should’ve been. Those two things are big things, and I’d say that’s about it because I think I heard you guys saying we had a lot of guys that played hard and played well and it seemed that sometimes the guys that weren’t playing well were the ones getting rewarded with ice time, which In the playoffs – I don’t think it matters who you are — it’s who’s playing well for you at the time. That’s not always what happened with our team. It wasn’t the guys that were playing well at the time, it was the guys that were our best players for the most part that were playing no matter what.”

Seems he was just getting warmed up. Having opined on the parceling of ice time, he turned to player discipline and one player’s effort in particular…

“wasn't that guys were going out the night before a game…but not being ready to practice or missing practice with questionable injuries – that kind of thing – and not being focused. I don't mind saying Alexander Semin's name, because he's one guy who has so much talent, he could easily be the best player in the league, and just for whatever reason, just doesn't care. When you've got a guy like that, you need him to be your best player, or one of your best players, and when he doesn't show up, you almost get the sense that he wants to be back in Russia."

He walked back his comments a bit as the interview went on, noting that…

"I mean, there were a lot of guys who played well that didn't probably play as much as they needed to, but I love Bruce [Boudreau] and Bruce is a great coach and he was in a very tough position there, because in Washington our top guys are definitely the stars and the guys that people want to see on the ice, so I totally understand. That just doesn’t happen on our team, it happens on a lot of teams. When you're paying your top guys a lot of money and those guys carry you through the whole season, and if one of them isn't going, it's very hard not to play them, and I understand that that's tough. But I think in the end, if you want to win, sometimes you have to sit some of those guys down and maybe send a message and try to get them going."

Then noted about Alex Ovechkin…

"I never worry about Ovi.  He’s an all-in guy. He's young, he makes his mistakes, the same as anyone would. I often try to put myself in his position. And you've got to remember, he's 25 years old, he's got a guaranteed $120 million, he's on top of the world, and he still for the most part makes the right decisions. Ovi has some growing up to do as far as taking care of himself and things like that, but as far as his want to win, he really does just want to win the games, and he doesn't care if he scores or not. That isn't an act. He's a great guy, great player. I'd never say anything bad about him."

One can look at these comments on a number of levels. First, concerning Bradley himself, that’s rather bald commentary from a player who is few months removed from sharing a locker room with these players. Does that make his comments impolitic? Perhaps, but professional athletes – even those with many years and many questions fielded over those years – are not necessarily practiced or skilled in the nuance and subtlety that goes with the ability to parry a question into the oatmeal that are sports clich├ęs (unless your name is Sidney Crosby). Put another way, they’re not politicians. A question asked was a question answered, and we don’t think the answers reflect especially poorly on Bradley. He was a stand-up guy when he was here, and he was that in the interview. We didn’t hear those answers as bitterness or sour grapes.

Then there is the matter of the reaction. It didn’t take long for that interview to wind its way through the hockey media, mainstream or otherwise. That’s what happens when the speed of Internet meets the desert of August in the hockey calendar. There isn’t a lot of hockey news to compete with Bradley’s interview. Add to that the commentary about one of hockey’s best teams and the fact of its playoff frustration and, well, it is going to generate its own momentum. If Bradley gives this interview in March, it is buried between the shutout so-and-so had the previous night and what Sidney Crosby had for breakfast. It wouldn’t be nearly as big a story.

But then there is the matter of what might be most relevant to Caps fans. Was he right? Bruce Boudreau was quick to respond…”Oh yeah? Well, it’s his opinion.” Just about what one might expect. But it does leave lingering the content of the comments. Bradley called out Alexander Semin by name and had praise for Alex Ovechkin. Surely a lot, if not most of the attention is going to be paid to those remarks about Semin. But we wonder about the notion Bradley left hanging of who the best players were that were playing “no matter what.” That brings the other “Young Guns” into the frame – Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. Backstrom is a curious case. In 28 playoff games going into the most recent post-season, he was 12-18-30, plus-13. It would be hard to say he didn’t show up. And this season, he was burdened by injuries that limited his effectiveness and production (0-2-2, even, in nine games). Should he have sat because of injuries and yielded ice time? Perhaps a fair question, but yield that time time to whom?

Mike Green is another matter. His post-season record of 5-20-25, minus-6 in 36 career playoff games is not especially impressive, particularly when compared to his regular season record over that same period (23-46-69, plus-22 per-82 games). Then again, was the post-season dropoff for him a product of injuries (in 2009 against Pittsburgh when he was beaten to a pulp by forecheckers, and in 2011 when he returned to the playoffs after an extended stay on injured reserve recuperating from concussions)? Should a sub-par Green have had his ice time pared back? He skated at least 22 minutes in five of the eight post season games in which he played last spring, but he also skated only 16:30 or less in the other three.

There was this odd line, though… 

”...you should kind of run with the guys who are playing well, and I don’t think we always did that there, for whatever reason I don’t know. If it’s a guy like Jason Chimera, who is maybe your third line guy playing well, I think you should play him more if one of the top-two line guys aren’t playing well, you know."

Well, Chimera being who he is – a winger – it calls to mind those wingers on the top two lines who might sit or drop down a line or two as a result of their production. Semin might have been a candidate, but the comment would seem to shine a light on Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich, too. Maybe we’re reading too much into that, that perhaps it’s just a hypothetical and Jason Chimera serves only as an example. But Knuble has four goals in 13 post-season games with the Caps (two this past post-season when he played in only six of nine game due to injury), and Laich has only seven in 37 post-season games and no power play goals in each of the last two playoff seasons (despite 16 in regular season games in that span).

Then there is the general impression one might be left with that there isn’t anyone steering this bus; that players are left to their own devices in terms of effort and discipline. And that goes to the bench. Despite his comments that “Bruce is a great coach, and he [is] in a very tough position [here],” Bradley paints a picture in which the inmates are running the asylum. Bradley hints that other forces might be at work (that the stars are the guys folks want to see), but whether the situation is a reflection of coaching style or an acknowledgment of who it is that puts seats in the seats, it gives the impression of there being a too laissez-faire attitude. Is any of it true? This is one player – and eye-witness, to be sure, but still one player. Fans will perhaps draw their own conclusions depending on where their preconceived opinions lie.

And in that, there is probably a certain, “yeah, I thought so” reaction among many Caps fans having listened to or read those comments. That the team has suffered playoff disappointment after disappointment with key players not performing up to their regular season standard is a plain fact. And while the attention will be paid to Matt Bradley’s calling out Alexander Semin by name, his comments touch on what is a larger issue with respect to this team. It has the talent to win a Stanley Cup, but does it have the discipline, the focus – the character – to win one? Bradley’s comments might serve to bring that question into focus as the Caps embark on the 2011-2012 season. If the team genuinely has the attitude expressed in Boudreau’s response – “oh yeah? That’s his opinion” – they could use those comments as a motivator, to show their critics wrong. But if Bradley’s observations have merit, there are bigger problems here than Alexander Semin. The proof will be in the product.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Cheerless' Summer Project

So here we are in the desert of the hockey calendar that is August, and we’re sitting around thinking of things to think about. The Caps have made all those changes, and we now have only rookie and training camp to look for…

“Uh, cuz?”

Yeah, Cheerless…

“Ever think about all those moves and all those players who left?”

Yeah, so?

“What if they were their own team?”

Their own team? What league would they play in?

“The League of Extraordinary Caps Third and Fourth Liners?”

Cute…but what about this team?


“Strasburg”

“Hey, have you seen him pitch?”

Go on…

“I put together a team of former Caps.”

OK, I’ll bite…

“Here, look…”



I can see you put a lot of work into this.

“yeah…I used colors and everything.”

Two Czechs on the top line…

“Czechmates…get it?”

Yeah…clever.

"And the 'Clampett Line'…"

The “Clampett Line?”

“Jason, Eric, and Dainius…JED Clampett.”

You’re scaring me, Cheerless.

And the '60 Minutes Line'…"

Lemme guess…”CBS.”

“Now yer gettin’ it.”

And the fourth line?

The “DMV Line.”

DMV?

"David, Matt, and Voyd."

Uh…

“OK, it’s a work in progress.”

Odd thing about that team.

“What’s that, cuz?”

Eight of those 20 players played in that 2010 first round playoff loss to the Canadiens.

“Get rid of the evidence?”

That’s one way to put it…

“So cuz, think this team could make the playoffs?”

When singing pigs fly out of my butt.

“What’s sports talk radio got to do with it?”

Good point…

Voices

Some say radio is dead. Actually, I’ve been hearing that for years. But in my experience there is little that compares as a sports fan to listening to a ball game on the radio on the porch in summer or piling into the car after a cold winter night in a hockey rink to listen to the recap on the radio when heading home.

As to the latter, there are changes in two cities, two hours apart, involving a pair of veteran play-by-play broadcasters that will have their effects on how hockey fans in Caps Nation fulfill their radio fix. Steve Kolbe ends his 12-season run as the radio voice of the Caps. Anyone who spends much time listening to the teams they root for on radio knows that every play-by-play announcer has his own style, and chances are that any of those fans could identify their play-by-play guy instantly. Kolbe’s rhythmic inflection (A-lex-o-VECH-kin) is something that Caps fans who listened to radio could probably mimic without too much effort. It is a style that made Kolbe’s voice their radio voice of Caps hockey. Add to that his work supporting other causes through hockey (for example, his participation in the Dave Fay Classic Charity Hockey Game and Auction), and he’s going to be missed. We wish "The Iceman" all the best.

But for those Caps fans who have not had the pleasure of listening to Hershey Bears hockey broadcasts, are you in for a treat. It is no overstatement on our part that one of the joys of driving up to Hershey to watch the Bears in action from time to time has been having the chance to listen to John Walton on the post game show as we were leaving the Giant Center parking lot. And listening to him do play-by-play on Internet broadcasts of Bears games was just one more of the things that made Bears hockey the gold standard of performance in the AHL. We still have Game 6 of the 2010 Calder Cup final on DVR to revisit from time to time to listen to Walton as much as to watch the Bears come all the way back from an 0-2 deficit in games to win the franchise’s 11th Calder Cup. His distinctive voice and ability to convey what is happening on the ice crisply and with the sense of urgency that the sport of hockey demands is going to make him a “must-listen” source of Caps hockey before too long.

John Walton will be only the third radio play-by-play announcer the Caps have had as they embark on their 37th season, Kolbe and the legendary Ron Weber being the others. It seems only fitting that he comes to Washington from Hershey, since there are so many – both on the ice and behind the bench – who have taken that same path to Washington. In Hershey, his signature call at the end of every victory of, “Good Morning, Good Afternoon, and Good Night,” was heard three times in the last six seasons in a championship-clinching game for the Bears. It never got old for the folks in Hershey. Let’s hope his new audience gets to hear one of their own in the Caps’ last game of the season next June.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Captivation and the Burden of Expectation

“Capitals fans would argue Alex Ovechkin is second to none in production and style. The Wizards believe they have a rising superstar in John Wall and the Redskins have popular Pro Bowler Brian Orakpo. None of them, though, are capable of captivating D.C. sports fans as much as [Stephen] Strasburg. Ovechkin, Wall and Orakpo don’t possess the potential to do as much as Strasburg could for the Nationals 30-plus times a season."

-- Jason Reid, The Washington Post

So let’s see if we have this right. A pitcher who has a grand total of 12 games of major league baseball experience – only seven of which were played in front of local fans – has more potential to do more for his team in playing in less than 20 percent of his team’s games (and, if he is outstanding, maybe 15 percent of their innings) than does a player who might take 90 percent or more of his team’s defensive snaps in the NFL, play more than 40 minutes a night for his NBA team, or who might play more than a third of his team’s total minutes in the NHL.

What would it take to “captivate” sports fans in Washington to a degree that eclipses that to which Ovechkin, Arakpo, or Wall have done so far? Well, probably not much. Let’s leave alone the contention that D.C. isn’t Montreal or Edmonton, which puts Ovechkin at a disadvantage. Or that Orakpo doesn’t play quarterback for the Redskins, or that Wall is a nice player with little around him with the Wizards.

If anything, Ovechkin is the standard against which Strasburg would have to be measured in the D.C. orbit of major professional sports players. Both number one overall picks in their respective drafts, both viewed as generational talents combining skills rarely seen in players that young – Strasburg’s overpowering speed and assortment of knee-buckling breaking pitches, Ovechkin’s ability to marry a scorer’s touch with physical intimidation. Both gave evidence of a flair for the dramatic in their first appearances in Washington, Ovechkin planting an opponent through the glass on his first NHL shift and scoring two goals in his first game, Strasburg striking out 14 and walking none (the first player in major league baseball history to strike out that many without walking a batter in his major league debut) in only seven innings of work.

The difference is that Ovechkin has a fuller body of work. Incomplete it might be, but there are 475 games of regular season and 37 games of post-season experience to look back upon. And the disappointment that attaches to that experience as a result of the Caps’ persistent playoff disappointment has perhaps caused his potential to seem unrealized. Strasburg, meanwhile, has only those 12 games, merely a fleeting glimpse of what could come. Fans can still imagine a fireballing Strasburg leading the Nats to the post-season and pitching in a World Series (never mind that it has been almost 80 years since a Washington major league baseball team appeared in one).

And that brings us to an unfortunate truth. The ability to captivate fans, whether in D.C. or in just about any other major league sports town – is as much a product of winning as it is talent. And it has been a long time since any of the teams representing Washington in the four major professional team sports claimed a championship. January 26, 1992, to be exact, the Redskins winning Super Bowl XXVI. In the 19-plus years since, D.C. teams in the four major professional team sports – the Redskins, Wizards, Nationals, and Capitals – have a combined record of 1,902 wins; 2,329 losses; and 202 overtime losses and ties. Less than 43 percent wins in that time. And the post-season hasn’t been any better – 62 wins and 86 losses, a .419 winning percentage. Only seven playoff series wins (six of them by the Caps), and only one team – the 1998 Capitals – so much as competed in a championship final (it is also the only team to advance as far as a conference final in that time).

And losing, or at least failing to fulfill expectations, can have a draining effect on those abilities to captivate. Even the accomplished Ovechkin, he of the four 50-goal seasons, three Ted Lindsay Awards, two Hart Trophies, two Maurice Richard Trophies, an Art Ross Trophy, and the Calder Trophy as top rookie, had some cracks appear in his support this past season – maybe he isn’t in top shape, maybe he shouldn’t be captain. That sounds more like fan frustration than an indictment of Ovechkin’s talent, but it is testament to the finite shelf life even a gifted athlete might have in terms of his ability to captivate and grab the imagination of sports fans in these parts if his team doesn’t win.

So maybe Stephen Strasburg does have the potential to captivate D.C. sports fans to a degree that Ovechkin, Orakpo, or Wall cannot. Maybe he can do more in 30 starts for his team than the others can do playing in all their respective teams' games.  But to realize that potential, he is going to have to win, and not just in terms of 20-win seasons, the rough equivalent to a 50-goal season. He, like his contemporaries in Washington sports, is going to have to win on the big stage. And he, like his contemporaries, is looking up a steep hill of frustrating history to get there.

Busy Day in Caps History

August 8th was a busy day in history for the Caps as August days go in hockey.  In 2005 they signed Ben Clymer and Miroslav Zalesak.  In 2006 they signed Timo Helbling and Petr Taticek.  Clymer played in 143 games over two seasons with the Caps.  Helbling played in two games with Washington. Neither Taticek nor Zalesak played with the Caps.  And in fact, none of them played in the NHL again after they left the Caps.

We said it was a "busy" day, not a consequential one.

Dreamin'...


Last night we partook of our weekly ritual of a bacon, sauerkraut, and anchovy pizza, and it had the predictable results – noxious emanations and a lively dream sequence. Couple those with having had to listen this past week on sports radio to the tedious minutiae of what passes for Redskins training camp, where the media hang on every throw and catch and furrow of Shanahan brow, and we had an interesting dream about what Caps training camp might be like if sports radio in these parts hung on every twitch and shrug…

Aggravating Show Host: “We’re joined now by our Caps beat reporter Ray Bock, who has been over at Kettler catching up on the Caps this week at training camp. So, what’s going on with the Caps?

Ray Bock: “Well, the Caps had a lively session this morning, and if they aren’t yet in mid-season form, they looked pretty sharp.”

Know-It-All Co-Host: “So as anyone knows, nothing the Caps do in the regular season means anything compared to the playoffs, and nothing they do this week means anything compared to the regular season, so let’s get back to which number John Beck is wearing this week for the Redskins.”

ASH: “That’s in our next segment, but Ray, how did Alex Ovechkin look?”

RB: “Ovechkin really looked on top of his game. He made a nice left turn in the corner in one drill, and he certainly had the water bottle squirt down late in the session”

KIACH: “It’s hard to believe that this is more interesting than ‘Graham or Gano, which kicker’s got to go?’”

ASH: “Uh…yeah. But Ray, what about Nicky Backstrom? Is he sharp?”

RB: “As sharp as you could expect. He did manage to complete a saucer pass to Alex Semin in the skate around before practice that looked close to mid-season form.”

KIACH: “Shouldn’t we be talking about whether Tiger Woods will ever win another golf tournament.”

ASH: “Save it for the weekend golf show…Ray, did Bruce Boudreau seem pleased with today’s practice.”

RB: “His whistle didn’t seem to be quite up to his tweeting standard, but he showed real nimbleness when he was scribbling on the white board.”

ASH: “What about the new guys...how did Jeff Halpern look?”

KIACH: “Orakpo or DeAngelo, which one will put on a show…”

RB: “I have to say, Halpern looked like he was born to wear the ‘15’ made famous by Stan Gilbertson and Mike Sitala.”

KIACH: “You know, no Capital has worn Halpern’s old number ‘11’ since Halpern left the club.”

RB: “Uh, well, that’s because ‘11’ was retired in 2008.”

KIACH: “And no one was more deserving than Jeff Halpern…”

RB: “Uh…Mike Gartner?”

ASH: “What about the other new guys…Joey Ward and Ron Hamrlik”

RB: “JOEL Ward and ROMAN Hamrlik looked in tip-top shape. Neither fell down once in today’s skate, and Ward had a real nice dump in about half way through the practice.

ASH: “I guess the last question is Alex Semin…there is a lot of talk about whether he is going to be with the Caps or if he is going to be traded. How did he look today?”

RB: “He was at his curl and draggy best…”

KIACH: “Shanahan-a-lan-a-dingdong…”

ASH: “We’ll be right back after these messages…don’t go away.”