Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Your 2011-2012 Prognostos -- The Eastern Conference

Having covered the Caps’ previews, what about prognostications for the rest of the league?  Glad you asked.  We’ll start with the…

Eastern Conference:

1.  Washington Capitals

Salary caps, the draft, free agency all contribute to a sense of parity in the league, and one of the ways that is reflected is in raising questions about even the best teams on paper.  The Caps are one of those teams, and this is arguably the best team they have ever iced – on paper, especially since they inked (in Tomas Vokoun) the lights-out goalie they haven’t had since Olaf Kolzig was carrying the team to a Cup final in 1998.  But disappointing exits in the last three years have uncovered a lack of killer instinct in this team.  The Caps have lacked the “f*** you and the horse you rode in on” gene.  Whether they have changed their genetic makeup with the additions of Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik, and Vokoun, and/or whether that missing gene can finally express itself in the person of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, or Alexander Semin is the question about this team.  It really is the only thing that could be lacking.  They have the most talented team in the East – on paper.

2.  Buffalo Sabres

Two things will conspire to make the Sabres the number two seed.  First, they are deeper than they have been in recent years with the additions of Robyn Regehr, Ville Leino, and Christian Ehrhoff.  None of them, by themselves, are game changers, but they could do the same kinds of things for the undercard of the Sabres lineup that the additions the Caps implemented might accomplish.  And that might take some pressure off goalie Ryan Miller to be the man every night.  The other thing is the Stanley Cup hangover.  You know the drill… no team has repeated as Cup champion since the Red Wings did it in 1998.  But there is more, starting with the Detroit Red Wings’ Cup win in 2002, the Cup winner of the previous year failed to get out of Round 1 the following year five times, and one other team (Carolina) failed to qualify for the playoffs.  Only once did a team go past the second round.  Boston will not be immune to that effect and Buffalo will be the beneficiary in the Northeast.

3.  Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins finished with the fourth highest point total in the league last season without the services of Sidney Crosby for 41 games and Evgeni Malkin for 38.  It speaks to the motivational talent of head coach Dan Bylsma and the virtue of hard work.  Crosby’s return is assumed, but the precise details are iffy.  Malkin is coming off a significant knee injury.  So, for the Pens, the question is, can they muster up that level of effort again?  They’ll have to as they wait for James Neal to be that scoring winger the club has lacked.  In a division having teams with more question marks than the Pens have, they should win a battle of attrition to finish atop the Atlantic and a three-seed.

4.  Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers will be the best of a tightly grouped lot in the middle of the other conference playoff eligibles, but not because of anything they do.  Rather the difference between themselves and the Rangers for second in the Atlantic, behind Pittsburgh, will be the absence of Ranger defenseman Marc Staal for the foreseeable future.  They’ll be that close.  We do not buy into the notion that Ilya Bryzgalov is going to take South Philly by storm, or that a team losing Mike Richards and Jeff Carter and gaining a soon-to-be 40-year old Jaromir Jagr as a first line forward is an elite team.  They’ll be good and hard to play against, but not in the top-tier of clubs.

5.  Boston Bruins

Yes, they are the defending Stanley Cup champions.  They also finished the 2010-2011 regular season with a so-so 8-6-4 record and were an overtime from being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.  Score one for timing and resilience.  But it does not make them the class of the East.  Tim Thomas, though, probably keeps his position as class of the East in goal.  Everything springs from him.  He had a 1.40 goals against average in Bruin wins last season.  Boston lacks an elite offensive player, but made up for that with balance last season – 12 players with at least ten goals, eight with at least 40 points.  It was a successful formula last season, but it might have too many moving parts to swim upstream against a Stanley Cup hangover, especially early.

6.  New York Rangers

These are not your father’s Rangers, if by “father’s,” you mean circa 2000.  This is a gritty, nail-spitting group that plays good defense and has world-class goaltending in Henrik Lundqvist. Adding Brad Richards and the further development of players like Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, and Artem Anisimov might have meant a 10-12 point jump in the standings.  But with Marc Staal still suffering the after effects of a concussion sustained last February, the loss of the cornerstone of their defense will be a big hole in that lineup.  If Richards and Marian Gaborik find some instant chemistry, it could mitigate that loss.

7.  Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay had five skaters play all 82 games last season and another seven play at least 75 games.  Health was not an issue.  Not all of those players return, but if the Lightning are to keep pace with the Caps they will have to have a similar run of good luck concerning health.  This is a team that could finish anywhere from a top-three seed to out of the money altogether.  What determines that is whether Dwayne Roloson can fend off Father Time another year in goal at age 42.  If Roloson falters, it will take all of the considerable offensive gifts of Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis to qualify for the post season.

8.  Toronto Maple Leafs

Yup, they’re back.  David Steckel is the last piece.  OK, we’re kidding, but the Leafs showed signs of improvement late last season with a 10-7-2 finish after March 1st (that’s a 95-point pace).  A lot of that was rookie goalie James Reimer, who won 20 games for Toronto last season, all of them in the 2011 portion of the season.  If the Leafs get improvement from Mikhail Grabovski (58 points last season), Phil Kessel (32 goals), and Nikolai Kulemin (57 points), the Leafs could surprise some folks and make their first playoff appearance since before the lockout.  What might hold them back is an injured Nazem Kadri (knee), who otherwise has had difficulty justifying his seventh overall pick in 2009.

The rest…

9. Montreal Canadiens.  Small and quick with a veteran defense and good goaltending gets you to the playoffs.  But lose one of those legs of the stool, and it falls over.  Losing Roman Hamrlik and James Wisniewski will hurt, not to mention Hal Gill (36) and Jaroslav Spacek (37) being another year older.

10.  Carolina Hurricanes.  They always hang around with guys like Eric Staal and Cam Ward in the lineup, and Jeff Skinner was a find last year as a rookie.  But they are not deep enough, especially on defense, to crack the top-eight.

11.  New Jersey Devils.  Last season was like a sandwich with a tasty filling made with moldy bread.  They had that 23-3-2 run in the middle of the season that got them into contention, but before that they were 10-29-2, and after it they were 5-7-1.  A year later, it is a team with a new coach (Peter DeBoer) and a team that is not all that different from the one that finished dead last in offense.  And while it might not be the last year for the legend in goal, Martin Brodeur can see it from his crease.  Pride will get them this far.

12. New York Islanders.  This team is not that far away from being a playoff contender.  The arc of their season might resemble that of the 2006-2007 Capitals, a team that was in the thick of it for 30 games but faded when health issues and lack of talent caught up with them.  The most entertaining story might be how they handle the Rick DiPietro/Evgeny Nabokov/Al Montoya goaltending carousel.  Right now, they are light a forward on the roster, choosing to carry all three goalies.

13.  Winnipeg Jets.  The Jets will come flying off the runway as the adrenaline of a new city and rabid fans bear them up.  But they will run out of fuel by Thanksgiving.  They are still the Atlanta Thrashers – 20th last year in scoring, 29th in defense, 27th in penalty killing, one player with more than 20 goals.  They just are not deep enough to challenge over an 82-game schedule.

14.  Florida Panthers.  Florida is where all the retirees from the north settle to spend their golden years.  Seems the logic applies to the hockey team, too, in a way.  Tomas Kopecky, Jose Theodore, Scottie Upsall, Ed Jovanovski, Marcel Goc, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, and Matt Bradley.  Free agents all, forsaking more northern latitudes to settle in south Florida.  Nice try, but that’s not going to be enough to move the needle a lot higher than the 27th-ranked scoring team last season.

15.  Ottawa Senators.  29th in scoring last season, 24th in defense.  They were the worst even strength team in the league.  They had 11 players who were minus-10 or worse, three at worse than minus-25.  They had one 20-goal scorer and one 50-point player.  Both happened to be Jason Spezza, who also happens to have missed 42 games the last two seasons.  And Daniel Alfredsson’s games played has gone from 79 to 70 to 54 the last three years.  He will be 39 in December.  It will be a long winter in Ottawa.

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Tomas Vokoun

Tomas Vokoun

Theme: "There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place, and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds to show you what's possible."
-- Terence Mann (from “Field of Dreams”)

You’ve played 36,082 minutes as an NHL goaltender. Only 31 goaltenders in the history of the league have played more. Among those 31 goaltenders ahead are names such as Richter, Smith, Khabibulin, Osgood, Hasek, Barrasso, Vernon. Names that have in common their having been engraved on the Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, you’ve toiled those minutes compiling records like 12-18-4, 13-17-5, 23-28-11. Your lot has been to be the iron man, recognized as one of the best goalies in the game averaging 62 appearances a year for largely mediocre teams. You have a total of 679 minutes in playoff competition over a career that has spanned 13 seasons. Two playoff series, one over in five games, the other in six.

And then, the cosmic tumblers click into place, opening up the universe for a few seconds to show you what’s possible. Those tumblers clicking into place are the 30 positions for starting goaltenders in the National Hockey League, and in doing so, a lot of those positions – especially those on teams with Stanley Cup aspirations – are filled. But in Washington there is a team still green in goal and guilty of perennial disappointment to their management, their fans, and themselves.

In those few figurative seconds, Tomas Vokoun signed a one-year/$1.5 million contract with the Capitals, the thought being (as his agent put it), “He’s been on teams with no chance to win for a very long time. The opportunity to compete for a Stanley Cup means a great deal to him.”

How does Vokoun take advantage of that opportunity? To start, he is fourth among active goaltenders in games and minutes played. Each of the three ahead of him have played in a Stanley Cup final, and two of them have Cups on their resume.  He is tenth among active goalies in goals against average, five of those ahead of him having played in a final and two of them having won Cups. He is fifth on the active list in save percentage, third in shutouts. He not only has the experience, but has performed at a high level over that long run to place himself among the most proficient goaltenders in the league.

Then there is the matter of the effect of playing with also-ran teams. In eight seasons in Nashville, Vokoun appeared in 383 games, posting a 2.54 GAA, .913 save percentage, and 21 shutouts, doing it facing 29 shots per 60 minutes. But in his last four seasons, spent with Florida, Vokoun upped his save percentage to .923 over 248 games while facing a whopping 33.2 shots every 60 minutes. Compare that to, say, Roberto Luongo, who has faced an average of 29.1 shots per 60 minutes over the last four seasons in Vancouver. If Vokoun saved 92.3 percent of that shot workload his goals against average would be 2.24. It is worth noting, the Caps gave up an average of 29.0 shots per game last season.

Fearless’ Take: Vokoun doesn’t have a save percentage lower than .919 in the six seasons since the lockout ended. Six Capitals goaltenders in that time have played in more than half the team’s games, and the highest save percentage among them was .914 – the save percentage posted by Michal Neuvirth last season.

Cheerless’ Take: Since the NHL went to a seven-game format for all playoff series beginning in 1987, only three goaltenders age 35 or older have won a Cup and recorded all 16 wins in the process – Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, and Tim Thomas. Vokoun turned 35 on July 2nd.

The Big Question… After having toiled for so many middle-of-the-pack (or worse) teams, are the Caps “too rich” for Vokoun’s blood?

Being very very good for teams that do not do so well in wins and losses imparts a degree of anonymity on that player. People who pay attention to the game know that Vokoun has been a very efficient goalie in terms of his own performance since the lockout ended. But the light has never shined too brightly on the NHL team on which he was playing, either. Now, Vokoun comes to a contender and is widely seen as the piece that has been missing from recent editions of the Caps – a slam-the-door goaltender. Will the increased attention have an effect? Well, it’s not as if Vokoun has come into pressure situations and folded like a freshly laundered jersey. In 2010 he was 7-1-0, 1.57, .944 in the World Championships, including a 35-save effort on 36 shots in the final, won by his Czech Republic team. He also has a gold medal from the 2005 Worlds and a bronze medal from the 2006 Olympics.

In the end…

Only once in the 36-year history of the franchise have the Caps had a true shutdown goaltender who was successful in the playoffs. In the first three rounds of the 1998 playoffs Olaf Kolzig was 12-5 with four shutouts and was 4-2 in overtime games to lead the Caps to the finals. Much more often than not, the Caps have been the victim of, but have rarely had themselves the “hot goaltender.” This year, Vokoun is expected to fill that role. But not to be the iron man who has to bear the burden of 60 or more games to get to the playoffs. If all goes well, Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth might split the workload, 50-30 or so, and that could mean a sharp and fresher Vokoun for the post season. Hopefully, just in time for those last tumblers to finally click into place after 37 seasons.

Projection: 56 games, 32-15-6, 2.29, .923, 5 shutouts

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Michal Neuvirth

Michal Neuvirth

Theme: “We are never ripe till we have been made so by suffering”
-- Henry Ward Beecher

Over the two seasons preceding 2010-2011, goaltender Michal Neuvirth broke in his skates at the NHL level, appearing in 22 games and posting a respectable 11-5-0 record, a 2.80 goals against average, and a .910 save percentage. But it was in Hershey where he was honing his game in earnest. Not so much in the regular season, where he appeared in only 39 games over two seasons, posting a record of 24-11-2, 2.45, .912, with two shutouts. It was in the post-season where Neuvirth established himself as a bona fide prospect. In 40 playoff games over two years, Neuvirth was 30-10, 1.98, .927, with five shutouts, leading the Bears to consecutive Calder Cup championships, and adding a Jack Butterfield Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs in 2009 for good measure.

Neuvrith came to the 2010-2011 season ready to do battle with Semyon Varlamov to see which of the kiddie goaltenders would emerge as the number one goalie for the Capitals. Varlamov being, well, Varlamov, he was unavailable to open the season due to injury. Neuvirth seized the opportunity, appearing in the Caps’ first 13 games of the season (ok, there was that 47 second “appearance” against Boston), posting an 8-3-0 record, with a 2.41 goals against average and .914 save percentage and a shutout over Carolina. His performance propelled the Caps to a good start, and put Varlamov in a position as backup goaltender from which he would not permanently recover.

Neuvirth would go on to finish third among all rookie goaltenders in wins (27), third in goals against average (2.45), fifth in save percentage, and tied for first in shutouts with four (minimum 30 appearances). And things were looking good in the first round of the playoffs. Neuvirth, who had yet to lose a playoff series as a professional, posted a sparkling 4-1, 1.38, .946 record against the Rangers with one shutout.

But things came crashing down in Round 2. In the four-game sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Neuvirth was anything but sharp with a 3.74 goals against average and .867 save percentage. Whatever his accomplishments in Hershey or promise displayed up to that point, he showed that perhaps his game had not sufficiently ripened to be that go-to guy in the post-season who makes all the stops he should and a lot that he shouldn’t in stealing games here and there in the tournament.

It was, at an individual level, a successful year for Neuvirth in that he showed what he is capable of when he puts his whole game together. But he could not put it together consistently enough when the margin for error was reduced to a sliver.

Fearless’ Take: Neuvirth finished strong, going 8-2-0, 2.17, .924, with one shutout down the stretch. And, you might think that a .885 save percentage in defending against a power play is altogether unimpressive. But it was one tick below Ryan Miller (.886), above that of the $51 million man in Philadelphia (Ilya Bryzgalov’s .881 with Phoenix), and far above the darling of Broadway, Henrik Lundqvist (.873).

Cheerless’ Take: He didn’t exactly sparkle against playoff teams. He was 7-3-2 in 16 appearances, 2.92, .900, and two shutouts (both against Pittsburgh. He was a Penguin killer, giving up only two goals on 88 shots for the season, but that meant he had a save percentage of only .877 against the other six teams in the East that made the playoffs.

The Big Question… How will Neuvirth cope with being in the shadow of Tomas Vokoun this season?

The Capitals could be the only team in the NHL this season on which both goaltenders hail from the Czech Republic. Even though both come from the northwest region of the country, there isn't that much else in common. There are almost 12 years separating them in age, and Tomas Vokoun has appeared in almost ten times as many NHL regular season games (632) as has Neuvirth (70). That kind of experience can be very valuable to a youngster such as Neuvirth, who is much closer to establishing himself as a top-tier NHL goaltender than a green prospect might be in this situation. This year could, in a way, be the goaltending equivalent “finishing school” for Neuvirth.  Vokoun could be the example for how to deal with the months-long grind of an NHL season with its ups and downs, and for how to develop the mental discipline and attitude to cope with it effectively that Neuvirth did not have last season.

In the end…

It is probably unfair to refer to Neuvirth as a “backup” or the “number two” goaltender. He is more of a “1A” goalie who can ensure that there will be little or no dropoff in the event Vokoun needs a breather or is incapacitated. Last year, thirteen goalies appeared in 60 or more games, meaning that there was a clear “number one” and “number two” pecking order. This year, a 50-30 split would not be surprising with Neuvirth and Vokoun. The question will be whether those 30 or so appearances for Neuvirth will allow him to establish and maintain a rhythm, or if the frequency of appearances will be too unsettling.

We suspect that he is capable of weathering the tosses and turns of his schedule. This is, after all, a goalie that played on three different teams in one Canadian junior hockey season (2007-2008, with Plymouth, Windsor, and Oshawa) in addition to representing the Czech Republic in the World junior tournament. He split 30 games between Hershey and South Carolina in 2008-2009 before leading the Hershey Bears to a Calder Cup and winning the MVP award. Uncertainty is not a stranger to Neuvirth. And in the end, perhaps this experience won’t be viewed as much a step back as it is a chance to finally ripen into the goaltender the Caps can count on for the next decade.

Projection: 32 games, 16-8-3, 2.39, .916, 2 shutouts

(Photo: Associated Press)