Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Jeff Halpern

Jeff Halpern

Theme: "He travels best that knows when to return."
-- Thomas More

When last we saw Jeff Halpern in a Washington Capitals uniform, the colors were blue, bronze and black; and he had two goals in a 4-1 Capitals win over Tampa Bay that closed a dismal 2005-2006 season in which the Caps were 29-41-12, 14th in the Eastern Conference. It was a team of Bryan Muir and Ivan Majesky, of Mathieu Biron and Jeff Friesen. Halpern was the captain and third leading scorer on that team with 44 points, the second highest total of his career. It was not an especially good team.

Halpern moved on to Dallas, then Tampa Bay, then Los Angeles, then Montreal. And now he returns to Washington, a team that looks considerably different than the one he left. Mike Green, Brooks Laich, and Alex Ovechkin are the only players still in uniform from that team. Another former teammate – Olaf Kolzig – is now a coach in the organization. Even the uniform is different, trading the blue, bronze, and black for red, white, and blue.

Halpern returns as a role player in the latter stages of his career. But not, perhaps, as just a fourth liner filling out a roster. He did record 11 goals last season for the Montreal Canadiens, and he averaged almost 18 minutes of ice time in the post-season in four games after he returned to the ice from a lower-body injury. And, since leaving the Caps after the 2005-2006 season, Halpern has averaged 13-17-30 per 82-games. In each of the five seasons since leaving Washington he has won more than 50 percent of his faceoffs and is 52.8 percent to the good overall in that regard in that time.

And here is what might strike Caps fans as a shocking statistic. Last season Halpern averaged 2.05 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. That would have been good for third among forwards on the Caps who played in at least 50 games, behind only the Alexes and ahead of Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich. The goals scored differential at 5-on-5 for Halpern was plus-0.73/60 minutes, which would have been fourth among Caps forwards, behind the Alexes and Backstrom. That kind of production is difficult to describe considering that his Corsi value on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was the second worst on the team last season among Montreal forwards playing in at least 50 games. And, among that same group of players for the Canadiens, Halpern was the only player with offensive zone starts at 5-on-5 below 50 percent (43.3). Perhaps the word we are looking for to describe it is “opportunistic.” At the other end, his 2.21 goals scored against per 60 minutes when on ice was fifth best among Canadien forwards (numbers from behindthenet.ca).

Fearless’ Take: The most recent generation of Caps fans, that is “post lockout,”might not remember that Halpern was quite the Penguin killer. And his career numbers against Pittsburgh cleave into two parts. With other teams, he played 13 games against the Penguins and was 2-2-4, minus-2. With the Caps he was 9-8-17, plus-13 in 22 regular season games and 4-4-8, minus-1, in 11 playoff games.

Cheerless’ Take: Uh, cuz…Halpern hasn’t scored a goal against the Penguins in a Caps uniform since before the lockout. Stop living in the black-and-white era. You’re starting to sound like Stan Fischler. Just remember that six times a team Halpern has played on reached the playoffs, and none of them moved past the first round.

The Big Question… Can Halpern contribute more from the third or fourth line than David Steckel or Boyd Gordon?

It is almost a betting certainty that, barring injury, he will, at least offensively. In the past four seasons, corresponding to the Caps’ playoff era, the Steckel/Gordon combination was 42-65-107. Meanwhile, Halpern was 47-56-103. And there is this – Steckel and Gordon compiled those numbers in 505 combined man-games. Halpern did it in 278 games.

In the end…

There are early returns to suggest that Halpern and Matt Hendricks are establishing a certain chemistry between them.  This might not be surprising. Each is a somewhat underrated offensive player, and Hendricks in style resembles a younger Halpern (except he fights more).

What Halpern brings is more balance to the fourth line than that which existed when David Steckel and Boyd Gordon were playing there. Neither Steckel nor Gordon was a credible offensive threat. And while both were excellent faceoff artists, Halpern is no significant downgrade in that area.

Halpern has now been signed twice as a free-agent by the Caps. First, it was as a 22-year old out of Princeton University. Now, as a veteran of 792 NHL regular season games (more than Steckel and Gordon’s combined 672 games, to extend that comparison). He is one of a group of players that the Caps and their fans hope is an upgrade on the third and fourth lines. And when a player reaches the age of 35, as Halpern did last May, there might be the realization that the chances to win a championship are dwindling. For the hometown boy who has returned, he is getting his best chance, and he could be an important part in realizing that goal.

Projection: 74 games, 9-16-25, +1

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