Friday, December 30, 2011

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 7: "Deadline Deals"

We covered streaks in the first three installments of the top ten stories for the Washington Capitals this season. Now, we turn to other matters.

February is a nervous month for NHL teams and NHL players. Sure, teams are jockeying for playoff position, but it is also a time of year when some players start to wonder whether they will be in a new city come the new month. February is the month in which the NHL trading deadline takes place, when teams look to find those last pieces to complete a puzzle that bears the image of a Stanley Cup.

February 1, 2011 was the first day of games on the NHL schedule following the All-Star Game break. It was the opening of a four-week window for teams to take a final assessment of their needs and to scout players to solve what problems remained for those teams.

For the Washington Capitals, the needs were hardly news. The Caps had a world-class center for their top line in Nicklas Backstrom, but there was a stunning lack of depth at the position once you got past Backstrom. Marcus Johansson was a rookie and not experienced enough to take on the responsibility night-in and night-out of centering a scoring line. Brooks Laich was more a center in the checking line mold than a playmaker. After that, the pickings got very thin, very fast.

Then there was the defense. Tom Poti – a reliable veteran defenseman – had not played in a game since January 12th (and lasted barely five minutes in that one). Mike Green – arguably the team’s best all-around defenseman and a two-time Norris Trophy finalist – would play in only five games in February leading up to the trading deadline and would be injured in two of them. First, he took a puck to the side of the head on a shot by Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik late in the first period of a 3-0 Capitals win on February 6th. He missed the next game, but he returned to the ice and skated 22 minutes in a 4-1 loss to Los Angeles on February 12th. It did not seem to agree with him, though; he missed the next five games from a combination of a concussion and the flu. When he returned once more – three days before the trading deadline – he was driven into the corner boards by the Rangers’ Derek Stepan as New York was completing a scoring play less than six minutes into a 6-0 loss to the Rangers on February 25th. Green did not return (he would not return for the rest of the regular season).

The Caps were left with two clear needs, but as far as the answers there was only one persistent answer being floated in the hockey media. Jason Arnott was mentioned as a “fit” for the Caps, despite his having a no-trade clause attached to his contract with the New Jersey Devils. Arnott, so the idea went, could provide things the Caps didn’t have at the second line center position: size, experience, some scoring punch. The Capitals pulled the trigger on a deal for Arnott, sending David Steckel and a second round pick in 2012 to the Devils for the center.

The matter of a defenseman was murkier. There did not seem to be any obvious available “fits” in the same mold as Jason Arnott at center. But the Caps and General Manager George McPhee do seem to have a sense of dramatic and surprising timing. February’s surprise was snaring Dennis Wideman from the Florida Panthers in exchange for Jake Hauswirth and a third round choice in the 2011 entry draft (that pick turned out to be Jonathan Racine, a defenseman currently playing with Shawinigan in the QMJHL).

The Caps appeared to have plugged two holes in their lineup that had to be plugged if a long playoff run was to be achieved. Both came to the club doing what they were expected to do. Arnott had the more auspicious debut with the Caps, feeding Brooks Laich from behind the New York Islander net to tie their March 1st contest with 48 seconds left in regulation (Alex Ovechkin won the game in overtime with a goal). But Wideman had his contributions too – six shot attempts, three shots on goal, four hits, a pair of blocked shots, and a plus-2 in almost 27 minutes of ice time.

It was that last number as much as anything else that Wideman was brought in to provide. Mike Green had been a minutes-eater for the Caps, and Tom Poti had averaged more than 20 minutes a night for the Caps in his first three full seasons with the club. With John Carlson and Karl Alzner pushing past the 20 minute a night mark with the Green and Poti injuries, bringing a veteran such as Wideman to bear some of the ice time burden lifted some off the youngsters.

Over the remainder of the regular season, though, the paths of Arnott and Wideman diverged. Arnott played in 11 of the Caps’ last 19 games, going 4-3-7, plus-3 in the process. He provided stability and leadership, hardly shy about pointing out things that needed work or areas that needed improvement. He also appeared to develop a chemistry with the enigmatic Alexander Semin, both on the ice and in engaging Semin more than what seemed to be the case from other players not named, “Ovechkin.” What was disappointing was that while he had been a 50-plus percent faceoff man up to his arrival in Washington, he won more than 50 percent of his draws in only three of the 11 games in which he played. And there was also the fact that he played in only those 11 games, missing others due to what was then an “undisclosed” injury.

At least Arnott returned from his injuries. It would not be so for Dennis Wideman. The defenseman appeared in each of the 14 games played by the Caps after his arrival, but there the streak would end. In a March 29th game against Carolina, Wideman collided with Tuomo Ruutu of the Hurricanes in open ice. It was the kind of hit you could see often in a game, the sort that might result in a bruise, but nothing more. Unfortunately, it was much more. Wideman was diagnosed with compartment syndrome and a leg hematoma that required surgery to avoid permanent muscle or nerve damage to his leg. The injury would end Wideman’s season.

Arnott did return, however, and it was hoped that where the Caps would feel his presence best and most would be in the playoffs. He did continue to string together points – he closed the regular season with points in two of his last three games and had points in each of the first three games against the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. But his tangible contributions tailed off after that – three points (all assists) in his last six playoff games, managing only six shots on goal in his last five. Whatever chemistry he had with Alexander Semin continued into the post season; Semin was 4-1-5 in his first six playoff contests. But he tailed off, too (0-1-1 in his last three games, all losses to Tampa Bay). The Caps were out in the second round of the playoffs, the 20th time in 22 playoff appearances they bowed out in the first or second round.

Was it worth it? Arnott and Dennis Wideman for a fourth line center (Steckel), a prospect not likely to rise to regular status with the parent club (Hauswirth), and a couple of draft picks, neither one of them being first rounders. The price to take a flyer on a couple of veterans with proven track records to fill gaping holes was low. Of course it was worth it. Only one team wins a Stanley Cup, and to say that the deal was not worth it on that basis is to say that a lot of other teams made deals not worth making. It would be hard to argue with the nature of the deals themselves, either. Arnott’s best days were behind him, but he was an upgrade at that position – second-line center – over anything the Caps had. The Caps could have done much worse than Dennis Wideman in what had become an emergency situation with both Tom Poti and Mike Green on the shelf.

But were the deals consequential? In the end, no. The answer to this question does hinge in large part on whether you win. The Caps could have bowed out in the second round or earlier without these deals having been made, although we are left to wonder if Dennis Wideman’s presence (with Mike Green back in the lineup) might have made a difference in a second round matchup in which the Caps managed only ten goals in four games, losing three of the games by one goal and converting only two of 19 power play opportunities.

If nothing else, looking at the matter of consequence shines a light on the limitation of trading deadline deals. They are the last piece of the puzzle only if the other pieces are in place and fitting together well. That the Caps managed only 23 goals in nine post season games suggest that there were problems bigger than whether Jason Arnott was adequate as a second line center or that Dennis Wideman’s absence made a difference.

It only goes to point out just how hard it is to find the right combination for the lock that guards the Stanley Cup. And even if the moves made at the trading deadline did not have their desired effect, they remain part of one of the top-ten stories of 2011 for the Washington Capitals, serving as a sign to fans that perseverance in pursuit of the prize does not always yield the prize in the end.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 36: Sabres at Capitals, December 30th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

“No he ain’t. We decided to give cousin Peerless the night off’n so he can go git ready for New Years.”

“Don’t lie to the folks, cousin… we actually have him tied up in the closet.”


“We thought drastic times called for drastic measures, and seeing how he has been so unreliable with his picks this season, we thought he could use the night off, so to speak.”


“He doesn’t seem to like the idea, cuz.”

“And nor should he, but he seems to be suffering the same malady that has befallen Alex Ovechkin this season, and he is not nearly up to his prognosticatorial standard.”

“Ya mean he sucks?”

“That would be putting it a bit uncharitably…let’s just say we’ve heard that kind of noise emanating from his narratives too often over the past couple of months.”

“So, we gonna do those tables and ‘Take 5’s’ and all that sparkly stuff he does?”

“We shall not bother ourselves with copying the style of others. We shall come up with our very own.”

“Ya mean ‘pompous and stoopid?’”

“Absolute--- NO! Of course not!”

“OK, so about these Buffalo Sabres…”

“Well, Cheerless, the Sabres have 95 goals scored so far this season. Nine of them – almost ten percent – have come in two games against the Caps.”

“You mean…”

“Yes, the Sabres are averaging 4.5 goals a game against the Caps and 2.5 against the rest of the league.”

“Bet that goes for the defense, too.”

“Well, Buffalo has allowed only three goals to the Caps in two games and 102 to the other 28 teams in 34 games…so, that’s 1.5 goals allowed per game against Washington and…”

“3.0 against the rest of the league.”

“Very good…what else did you notice?”

“Uh, the Caps and the Sabres have numbers that look a lot alike.”

“Go on…”

“5-on-5…the Caps are 0.96, the Sabres are 0.96. Power play…the Caps are 16.8 percent, the Sabres are 19.1. Penalty kill…Caps are 82.0 percent, Buffalo is 84.1 percent.”

“But they’re different in one important way, Cheerless.”

“Hmm…what’s that, cuz?”

“Buffalo is only 2-5-1 in their last eight games. And their scoring is drying up. In those eight games they have only 19 goals – 2.38 a game. Nine of the goals came in the two wins.”

“Well, one of those wins was against the Caps, Fearless.”

“Right you are, my dim-witted cousin.”

“Who you callin’ ‘dumb?’”

“’Dim’…’dim’…not ‘dumb.’”

“OK…that’s different. Hey, shouldn’t we check and see if Peerless is alright?”

“He’s fine. I left a box of Depends in there with him…”

“Good, I ain’t cleanin’ up no mess in there.”

“Speaking of mess, that has been the Sabres’ penalty kill over this 2-5-1 run. They are 23-for-30…only 76.7 percent.”

“They’re 7-for-8 in two games against the Caps…”

“That they are, and even though Buffalo is having their troubles on penalty kills, they are tearing it up on the power play – 8-for-27 over their last six games; 29.6 percent.”

“Two for five against the Caps in that game last Monday, cuz.”

“You seem to be trying to make a point, Cheerless.”

“Hey, ya like it? I’ve been whittlin’ this stick for days trying to get a nice sharp point on the end of it.”


“Who do we have to pay attention to, cuz? I’m thinkin’ that Pomegranate guy is one we oughtta be watchin’.”

“’Pominville,’ you twit. Jason Pominville. And yes, he bears watching. He has a goal in each game this season against the Caps, including the game-winner in the first meeting back in November. He has eight goals in 25 career games against Washington.”

“And how ‘bout that Vanek guy?”

“Well, at least you got his name right. Thomas Vanek has points in his last six games and eight of his last ten.”

“And he has one in the only game he played against the Caps this season, too.”

“Not to mention nine goals in 25 career games against the Caps.”

“Then why’d ya mention it?”

“Come again?”

“If’n it’s ‘not to mention,’ then why’d ya mention it?”

“It’s a figure of speech, Cheerless.”

“Like a figure eight?”

“Sure…why not. We can’t forget Ryan Miller, either.”

“Didn’t he play for the Caps?”

“That was Kelly.”

“You sure it wasn’t Kip?”

“Him too.”

“Of course, it could have been Kevin…”

“Yeah, him too.”

“But not Ryan…”

“No, not Ryan.”

“Too bad. He’s pretty good.”

“I’d say so. Never won fewer than 30 games in a season, Vezina Trophy winner, first team all-star, Olympic silver medalist.”

“Uh, yeah…but what about this year?”

“Not so much this year, so far at least. He’s 39th among 46 qualifying goalies in goals against average (3.05) and tied for 34th in save percentage (.902). Those nine wins in 20 decisions (9-9-2) certainly puts that run of 30-win seasons in jeopardy.”

“But he’s done pretty good against the Caps, right?”

“12-8-0, 2.49, .916, and three shutouts. That would qualify as ‘pretty good.’”

“How ‘bout the Caps?”

“Well, the Alexes had a pretty good game last time out. Ovechkin might finally be turning things around. He has points in his last four games and has not gone consecutive games without a point since he had a four-game streak without one that ended on November 19th. Since then he is 5-8-13 in 17 games. The four-game points streak he is on ties his longest of the season.”

“He’s got a funny set of numbers against Buffalo, though.”

“Do tell…”

“15 goals in 25 career games against the Sabres, but he is a minus-8 in those 25 games, too.”

“It is a puzzle.”

“Semin seems to be scoring some…”

“Points in four of his last five games, 4-2-6 overall in those games. It’s not that he’s necessarily shooting more – 10 shots in those five games – but he is finally getting some of them to go in. His two goals against the Rangers were especially pretty.”

“Very Seminesque.”

“Very poetic, Cheerless.”

“Whaddya mean, ‘pathetic?’”

“Po-etic…po-etic…po po po.”

“OK OK OK! So, is this the part where we oughtta be prognosticatin’?”

“I suppose.”

“I got Buffa…”


“Peerless, how’d you get out?”

You guys are as good at locking folks up as you are at prognosticating.

“Uh, we wuz only tryin’ t’help…seein’ how you were in a slump’n all.”

“OK, cousin. You’re the professional prognosticator here. How do you see this coming out?”

The Caps started the year with a 3-1 win. It would be a good way to end it.

Capitals 3 - Sabres 1