Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Joel Ward

Joel Ward

Theme: "Expectation is the root of all heartache."
-- William Shakespeare

Joel Ward is one of the great stories of the NHL. Four years in the Ontario Hockey League (Owen Sound Platers/Attack), then four more with the University of Prince Edward Island Panthers of Canadian Interuniversity Sport. He was signed to a free agent contract by the Houston Aeros of the AHL in December 2005 before signing – at age 25 – his first NHL contract as a free agent with the Minnesota Wild in September 2006. Ward appeared in his first NHL game in December 2006, and although he had only an assist in 11 games with the Wild and would spend the following season in Houston, he established enough of a foot-hold in the NHL to get the attention of the Nashville Predators. The Preds signed Ward to a free agent contract in July 2008, where he played in 230 games over three seasons, recording 40 goals and 98 points.

But it was the post season of his last year in Nashville that would change the arc of his career in a big way. In 12 playoff games last spring Ward scored seven goals, including four in Nashville’s second round loss to the eventual Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks. That performance made him a hot commodity on the 2011 free agent market, and he was signed by Washington to a four-year/$12 million contract on the first day of the free agent signing period last July.

So now he is going to be the last piece of the puzzle, right? That is where the whole notion of “expectations” can often end in heartache. Expecting Ward to score at a 48-goal pace (what seven goals in 12 playoff games means) is unfair. His regular season averages of 14 goals and 34 points per 82-games, plus the fact that he averaged almost 77 games played in his three full seasons in the NHL suggest a player who will give an honest effort with modest, if potentially valuable results. He is not going to turn into Teemu Selanne.

Fearless’ Take: If anything, Ward’s potential is tantalizing. He got a late start in the NHL, but has made up for it in missing few games in his three seasons. One absence might be noteworthy, though, not for a developing propensity to injury, but for revealing that he might be entering a more productive phase of his career.

Last March, Ward was ambling along with seven goals and 22 points in his first 66 games. Not a lot to get excited about there. But then he had a three-game stretch in mid-March against St. Louis, Minnesota, and Colorado in which he scored goals in each of the three games and recorded five points with a plus-2. Two of the three goals were game-winners. But then he came up with an injury in pre-game warm-up before a March 15th game against Los Angeles. He missed that game and the next against Boston. He returned for the last 11 games of the regular season, but his momentum was snuffed out – he did not score any goals in those last 11 games. Then there was that playoff run he had. So, the question one’s mind might be, was that three-game goal run before his injury an indication that maybe after having passed the 200 game mark in his career he was hitting his scoring stride, to see it interrupted by injury before resuming it in the playoffs. Or, was it merely a nice streak?

Cheerless’ Take: Cuz, it wasn’t the first time he did that. In 2010 he had a three-game goals streak in February, then had one goal in his last 20 games of the regular season. He followed that up with two goals in a six-game playoff loss to the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks. And the year before that he had a three-game goal streak in March, only to score two in his last ten games of the season. Let’s not be taking the bus down Expectations Boulevard.

The Big Question… Can Joel Ward be a “contributor” without being consumed by expectations from a big contract?

It is hard to answer a question like this in advance of seeing a body of work, but if there is a player whose path to DC suggests an answer in the affirmative, Ward fills the bill. He certainly paid his dues in a painstaking journey through juniors, collegiate, and minor league hockey before getting his chance. And one he had it, he hing tightly onto it by exhibiting a durability in his three seasons in Nashville. What has to be concerning, though, is that his goal totals dropped in each of those three seasons, from 17 to 13 to 10. That has been coupled with a shooting percentage that dropped in similar fashion, from 12.8 to 9.7 to 6.4 percent. Those numbers should temper expectations of what Ward is going to contribute in terms of scoring numbers.

In the end…

If Ward seen through a clear lens, he is a hard working winger who is likely to contribute more offense than any of the players he could be replacing. Even his ten goals last year was more than Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon, combined (seven). And they were as many as Eric Fehr had. It is also worth noting that Ward missed only two games last season. Fehr missed 29, Bradley missed 21, and Gordon missed 22. There is something to be said for durability. What the Caps are getting is some steel on the bottom half of the forward lines who can knock in a puck or two along the way. Hopefully, the kind of player that a team with designs of a championship needs.

Projection: 78 games: 11-17-28, +2

(Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

White Nets, We Hardly Knew Ye

Now that the nets behind the goals at Verizon Center are going to be returned to their “black” state, we can retire the white nets to the dustbin of “Good Ideas That Sucked”…

10. Sony Betamax

9. Crystal Pepsi

8. Pet Rocks

7. Heinz Colored (Not Red) Ketchup

6. Clairol “Touch of Yogurt” Shampoo

5. Thirsty Dog Bottled Water

4. Sylvester Stallone Pudding

3. Harley Davidson Perfume

2. White Nets Behind Hockey Goals

And the number one – and still champion “Good Idea That Sucked”…

1. New Coke

Sight Lines

Top ten materials considered for Caps new netting behind the goals…

10. Cheesecloth

9. Chicken wire

8. Those climbing nets you see at boot camp

7. Bounty paper towels

6. Window screen mesh

5. Doilies knitted together

4. Mosquito netting

3. Old goal nets they found at Piney Orchard

2. Chain mail

And the number one material considered by the Caps and installed behind the goals…

1. Surgical gauze

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Alexander Semin

Alexander Semin

Theme: “From caring comes courage.”
-- Lao Tzu

That qualifies as the quote version of a drive-away shooting. Former teammate Matt Bradley (now of the Florida Panthers) uttered those words on an Ottawa sports talk radio show last August. They elicited denials from the usual suspects – Semin’s agent, current Caps, management. They cut the fan base in two – those who see in Semin a uniquely talented player who is given little credit for the all around contributions he does make, and those who might have read Bradley’s comments and said, “see?...it isn’t just fans who think it.” For his part, Semin responded that “I don't pay absolutely any attention to [Bradley’s] words." The issue inspired its own Twitter topic of #sashacares.

Is there another player in the league who causes more people to go all Dr. Phil trying to figure out what makes him tick? What isn’t in question is the fact that Alexander Semin is one of the most gifted pure talents in the NHL. In almost 400 games in the NHL he has averaged 37 goals and 74 points per 82 games played. Not bad for someone who has received mostly second line minutes and is primarily a left winger playing a lot on the right side because a teammate is the best left wing in the league.

Here is a comparison for Caps fans. Semin has played in 392 regular season games so far in his NHL career and has 176 goals. After 392 games in his NHL career witht he Caps, Peter Bondra had 187 goals. And in his first five seasons covering 388 games, Mike Gartner had 184 goals for the Caps. Semin is in the neighborhood and plays in a much more defense-oriented era than did either Bondra or Gartner when they were embarking on their respective careers.

If anything has held Semin back from taking his place among the game’s stars, it has been his health. As we pointed out in another post, Semin has missed 65 games over the past four seasons. And as to the effect of these absences on his game, we had this to say about it when he was healthy…

“Semin played in what was arguably his healthiest stretch of hockey in a period covering 125 games from January 3, 2009 (game 40 of the 2008-2009 season) through the end of the 2009-2010 season. Semin played in 114 of 125 games (91 percent) over that period and went 60-71-131, plus-41 (a per-82 game pace of 43-51-94, plus-29).”

A healthy Semin is a dangerous one.

Fearless’ Take: Semin has led the Caps in 5-on-5 goals scored per 60 minutes in two of the past three years (behindthenet.ca). But Semin also had the second lowest 5-on-5 goals against/on ice per 60 minutes (1.73) of any Caps forward playing in at least 50 games last season. The 0.53 goals improvement from 2009-2010 might be attributed to the overall emphasis on defense in the 2010-2011 season, except that Semin improved his team ranking from eighth best among 10 forwards playing the entire year with the Caps to second. He is a better defensive player than he is given credit for being.

Cheerless’ Take: You wonder why I drink a lot, cuz? Maybe it’s from watching Alexander Semin in the playoffs. Consider this – in the first playoff series he every played he had points in five of the first six games against the Flyers, going 3-5-8, plus-2. In Game 7 he did not record a point; the Caps lost. The next series he played – against the Rangers – he was 5-3-8, plus-5, and had a goal in Game 7 that was overshadowed by Sergei Fedorov’s series-winner. But they don’t get to that point without Semin’s goal. He followed that up by going oh-fer in goals against the Penguins (0-6-6-, minus-6) in a seven-game loss, then did it again (0-2-2) the next season in a seven-game loss to Montreal. He was 3-1-4, plus-4 in a five-game win over the Rangers last spring, but was 1-1-2, minus-2 in the four game sweep at the hands of Tampa Bay. In three series in which the Caps won or at least performed admirably (we put the Flyer series in that category), Semin was 11-9-20, plus-11, in 19 games. In the other three series (all Caps losses in disappointing fashion), he was 1-9-10, minus-4, in 18 games.

The Big Question… Can Semin’s “game” match his “talent?”

That Semin has the talent to be an elite player is in little doubt. But for whatever reason – injury, poor timing, sunspots – he has found it difficult to be able to sustain a level of production commensurate with that talent over a long stretch of games. And the coincidence of his poor playoff performance coming in series that finished in especially disappointing fashion for the Caps has left him with a bulls eye on his back, whether it is fairly earned or not. In his career to date, the instances have been too infrequent, especially in the biggest games, where his “game” – is ability to dominate and determine an outcome – matched his “talent.”

In the end…

One could see Alexander Semin winning a Conn Smythe Trophy. One could also see him being shutout in goals in a series and the Caps slinking away once more from the post season. That is not an indictment of Semin’s ability or his capacity to care, but acknowledgment that the Caps are not likely to go deep into the post season unless he contributes in a consistent and reliable fashion. He is just one rung short of joining the top tier of players in the game, and 2011-2012 will be interesting to watch to see if Alexander Semin can take that last step up.

Projection: 72 games, 33-36-69, plus-18

(photo: The Washington Post)