Sunday, April 03, 2011

Two Rookies Who Won't Win the Calder Trophy

A recent Twitter exchange between CSN-Washington’s Alan May and’s Corey Masisak about where defensemen John Carlson and P.K. Subban might finish in the Calder Trophy race got us to thinking about that question. The Calder Trophy winner is selected by the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association as “the most proficient in his first year of competition in the National Hockey League.” In the 77 times the Trophy has been awarded it has been won by a forward 51 times. This year, three forwards appear to be the front-runners for the award – Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks, Jeff Skinner of the Carolina Hurricanes, and Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders. There are those who might make a case for goaltenders Corey Crawford of the Chicago Blackhawks, who has played in more than 50 games after the Marty Turco experiment was tried and found wanting. And perhaps others might include Philadelphia Flyer goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who has played in 50 games for the Eastern Conference’s leading team.

There seems to be no room at the table for defensemen this season. Not that members of this year’s rookie class of defensemen are unworthy of consideration, but the position does not lend itself well to the clean comparison of numbers that one can apply to forwards or goaltenders. A pity, because there are two defensemen who are in the midst of establishing themselves as stars for years to come – the ones that were the object of the exchange referenced above. And it begs the question, if there was a “Ray Bourque Trophy”* to honor the league’s top rookie defenseman, would the winner be John Carlson or P.K. Subban?

Oh, before you toss the names of Cam Fowler or Kevin Shattenkirk into the mix, we counter by noting that Fowler, despite being second among all rookie defensemen in scoring, plays almost no shorthanded time (22 seconds a game) and has by far the worst plus-minus among his fellow defensemen with the Anaheim Ducks. As for Shattenkirk, he leads all rookie defensemen in total points, but it is difficult to make him a leading candidate, having been traded this season from Colorado to St. Louis and who himself has logged next to no shorthanded ice time this season (25 seconds a game).

That leaves Carlson and Subban. Each has put up impressive numbers of their own:

Points…identical. Goals against while on ice…ditto. Ice time…nearly so. Both get substantial special teams time. But the numbers also indicate that they are very different players.

Subban has more hits, more penalty minutes, more power play points. In Subban’s game the two sides of the coin are that on the one hand he is a more dynamic player than John Carlson, especially as a power play contributor (he leads all rookie defensemen in power play goals); but the other side of that coin is his being more mercurial. He can be prone to the big mistake that manifests itself in taking ill-timed penalties. Carlson’s numbers suggest a more consistent game on a night-to-night basis, stronger at even strength (second among all rookie defensemen in plus-minus) and a bit better in his turnover ratio; but the other side of that coin is that he does not have the game-changing dimension that Subban has at this point of their respective careers.

If you are looking for separation between these two, well, good luck. And it might not be found in their own numbers. On one hand, Subban has to play in a market where the spotlight is always on hockey and the Canadiens in particular. And much was expected of Subban in his rookie year, so that spotlight burns quite brightly on him. A lot of rookies might sag under the strain, but Subban has not. On the other hand, Montreal has the benefit of a rather experienced defensive corps around Subban. Growing up around graybeards such as Hall Gill and Roman Hamrlik (2,298 regular season games between them); plus later season acquisitions Paul Mara and Brent Sopel (another 1,386 regular season games) provides some relief from the burden Subban might otherwise have to bear.

Carlson does not play in the most rabid of hockey markets (with a nod to all those consecutive Verizon Center sellouts, it’s not Toronto or Montreal, or even Chicago or Detroit), but he has assumed a critical role by virtue of its diversity for a serious Stanley Cup contender. Carlson has had to grow up surrounded by injuries to Mike Green (30 games missed this season) and Tom Poti (58 games missed), and now will perhaps bear a bigger share of the burden with Dennis Wideman out indefinitely. And with the added responsibility and the ice time that comes with it (his average ice time has jumped by a minute over his season average in the 18 games since Mike Green last went out of the lineup), there have been the occasional rookie lapses.

If anything, both have picked up their games, and this time along a similar path. Carlson endured a month-long drought in January and February in which he was 0-3-3, even over a 13 game stretch. But since then he is 2-11-13, plus-7 over his last 17 games and has not skated fewer than 20 minutes in any of those games. Subban had a five-game point-less streak in February in which he also went minus-3, and he was riding a streak of 12 games in which he accumulated 31 minutes in penalties. But since then he is 6-6-12, even, in 19 games, during which he skated fewer than 20 minutes only once. These are not rookies being nursed into a role for their respective clubs; they are important cogs in their respective teams on a night-to-night basis.

This is a remarkably talented rookie class. There are a half-dozen or more legitimate contenders to be Calder Trophy finalists, and there are more than that who could become impact players in the years to come. Numbers aside, it would be hard to argue with an all-forward finalist group this season. But the closer race might be in deciding which rookie defenseman would win an award as best rookie for that position. Because in looking at the seasons that John Carlson and P.K. Subban have had, there doesn’t seem to be as much as a sliver of daylight between them.  Who would we pick?  Hey, there are three games left for each of them.  Let's not get hasty.

* Our hypothetical award is named for Ray Bourque, the 1980 winner of the Calder Trophy, who was 17-48-65, the fifth highest point total recorded by a rookie defenseman (second highest by a Calder winner), and was a plus-52 that season, by far the highest ever recorded by a rookie defenseman.

A TWO-point night -- Game 79: Caps 5 - Sabres 4 (OT)

Two points...and that’s all that counts.

It was not a pretty 60-plus minutes that vaulted the Washington Capitals into the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but it was a win nevertheless that put them there, a 5-4 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres last night.

The ticket might have had “Fan Appreciation Night” stamped on it, but it seemed more like”Hallowe’en” with all the gremlins out in force on the Verizon Center ice. Pucks hitting sticks and going in, pucks hitting skates and going in, another Caps defensemen injured (making three in three games), and a hideous dance at center ice that might have been as much exorcism of demons as it was celebration of a game-winning goal.

The Caps looked as if they would end the competitive portion of the evening early when they turned Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth (starting in place of injured Ryan Miller) into a rebound machine. Mike Knuble got the Caps off on the right foot (unfortunately, not a rabbit’s foot) in the first minute when he swatted in a rebound of a John Carlson drive. Alexander Semin doubled the lead four minutes later when Enroth could not squeeze a Nicklas Backstrom shot, and Semin tapped it in from inches outside the goal line.

The Caps had a 2-0 lead on the scoreboard, and 8-1 lead in shots, and Enroth looked as if he was moments away from taking a seat on the bench. And then…

Lindy called timeout.

Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff didn’t panic with his team down a pair of goals, he merely called a time out, brought his team in, gave them a stern lecture about getting their tax returns in before the deadline, and sent them back out. Whatever he did say, it was the tonic. The Sabres outshot the Caps 10-6 over the rest of the period and tied the game when Michal Neuvirth was the victim of a bit of bad luck and a bit of bad play on his part. Jason Pominville threw the puck as the net from high along the left wing boards as he was going to his knees. Thomas Vanek got enough of the puck with his stick to deflect it past Neuvirth to halve the lead 6:30 into the period.

Then Drew Stafford flipped the puck at the net from almost the same spot from which Pominville shot it three minutes later. The shot came out of a maze of four players crossing among one another just in front of Pominville, and it seemed to freeze Neuvirth. He was too slow to react to the puck darting past his left pad, and the game was back to even.

After a silent second period, Buffalo took the lead when Paul Gaustad broke between a slow-reacting Capitals defense, took a Nathan Gerbe feed, and while all alone on Neuvirth, deked him to the ice and slipped a forehand under his sprawled form.

It was the Caps’ turn to tie things up when Mike Knuble got his second of the night on a power play, deflecting a Brooks Laich drive wih less than five minutes left. But that lasted barely two minutes, as Drew Stafford got his own second goal of the night on a power play for the Sabres, It, too, was on a deflection, but in this instance it was a deflection off the skate of Caps defenseman John Carlson, who was trying to defend Marc-Andre Gragani driving the net.

That might have been it, except for the Caps getting one more power play. With Gaustad in the box for high-sticking, Jason Arnott was johnny-on-the-spot to pick up a rebound to Enroth’s right. He pulled it clear of the pile and backhanded the puck past Enroth, who was tangled with his own defenseman in the crease.

It seemed inevitable, given the twists and turns of the game, that the contest would go to overtime, and it was there that Alex Ovechkin took advantage of one more practical joke played by the gremlins in attendance. After collecting a puck that Brooks Laich sent around the boards, Ovechkin stepped out from the left wing corner, walked around defenseman Chris Butler, showed Brad Boyes the puck, then pulled it back, and then from the middle of all four Sabres’ defenders, wristed a puck that was destined to go wide. Except it hit the skate Andrej Sekera and snuck just inside the far post to send Ovechkin into a dance at center ice and the fans home…appreciative.

Other stuff…

-- It was Bill McCreary’s last game as a referee in the NHL, and from the looks of things the officiating theme was to be “no penalties.” There were none called in the first 47:59 of the game (the Caps have never played in a game in which no penalties were called). But the refs had to call one when the Caps had too many men on the ice – a penalty they barely avoided on the previous shift when Eric Fehr was about to go off, then didn’t to rush back on defense. Four penalties were called in the last 8:01 of the game – two on each team – and three power play goals resulted, two for the Caps.

-- Jason Arnott’s goal was his 400th, Ovechkin’s his 299th, and for Mike Knuble his two goals were numbers seven and eight in his last ten games.

-- For Ovechkin, the three-point night made him 10-16-26 over his last 21 games. He has points in 17 of those 21 games.

-- Two power play goals broke a 1-for-17 skid on the man advantage over the previous seven games.

-- The four goals allowed was only the second time the Caps allowed more than three in their last 17 games. The Caps have won both instances, both by 5-4 scores, and both in extra time (one in a Gimmick against the Flyers and last night in overtime against Buffalo).

-- If the goaltending situation was murky before last night, it became a swamp with the results of this game. Looking at the four Buffalo goals, Vanek’s deflection for the first one is not an uncommon circumstance (although perhaps John Carlson might have done a better job of tying him up). The Pominville goal looked ugly and perhaps should have been stopped. But looking at it a few times on replay one could see where the puck might have gotten lost in that maze of bodies crossing in front of Pominville as he was shooting. Gaustad’s goal was as much a breakdown in defense (a slow-to-react backcheck as Gaustad was breaking down the middle) as anything Neuvirth did. And Stafford’s goal was off a skate as Carlson was trying to defend. Other than that, Neuvirth did have a number of excellent stops that resulted in an overall effort that looked better upon the second seeing of it than it did when seeing it in real time. Still, this thing might not be settled.

-- After the Caps scored two goals from a combined distance of about six feet, they seemed to give up on crashing the net. Perhaps it was a case of settling into a defensive posture of less risk-taking and more clogging the neutral zone, but with Jhonas Enroth looking like a deer in a goalie mask, giving up rebounds on the most harmless of shots, the Caps might have missed an opportunity to bury the Sabres early.

-- Matt Bradley is probably an unsung hero of this game. When the Caps were fighting off sluggishness after the Sabres tied the game, he was looking to inject some life back into the team by hitting anything in a white sweater. He finished with seven hits in less than 11 minutes of ice time, plus two takeaways and a blocked shot.

-- How odd was this game? Nathan Gerbe, who is about three feet tall, had five hits…more than any Cap not named Bradley. He was a real nuisance out there and used his speed to take advantage of Scott Hannan chasing a loose puck that drew a penalty and led to Buffalo’s last goal.

-- What is it, do folks graduate from Buffalo high schools and immediately come to Washington to go to school or find work? Or did the whole city schedule a field trip to see the cherry blossoms and look up ticket prices on Stub Hub? Last night was the loudest sustained cheering for a visiting team we’ve heard at Verizon all season.

-- With three assists last night, that’s seven helpers in the last six games for Nicklas Backstrom. It was the most assists he had in a game since Veterans’ Day, when he had four in a 6-3 win over Tampa Bay.

-- Tyler Sloan was injured, making it three defensemen hurt in three games (Dennis Wideman against Carolina, John Erskine against Columbus). We made the point early and often that the Caps’ defenseman depth would be tested and that with it likely that they would have to dress eight-or-more defensemen this season they might not have that depth. Well, the Caps have now dressed 11 defensemen with the appearance of Sean Collins last night. In addition to the seven roster defensemen, two of the 11 came via trade (Hannan, Wideman), two others from Hershey (Brian Fahey, and Collins). Watching Sloan and Collins last night, they certainly worked hard, but it wasn’t a pairing we’d like to see often.

In the end, it was entertaining, but it was not a game we suspect the coaching staff wants to see often. We think they rather liked the 3-2 sort of game more than the pinball wizard stuff going on last night. But pinball it was, what with pucks going off skates left and right. And after 60-plus minutes of that,the Caps still found themselves on top of the Eastern Conference with the Flyers chasing them for a change. All in all, a good night all around. Oh, except for young Mr. Enroth…