Thursday, January 19, 2012

What's a Captain to Do?...shoot

It is April 18, 2006, and the Washington Capitals have just closed the book on Year 1 after the lockout with a 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. For the Caps it would be a year that measured in standings would have to be deemed “unsuccessful.” The win over the Lightning raised the Caps’ record to 29-41-12 – 70 points. They were last in the Southeast Division, 14th in the Eastern Conference. If the 15th-ranked Pittsburgh Penguins were the floor of the conference, the Caps were the carpet padding just above them.

But standings was but one way to look at the season. The Caps and their fans had the opportunity to witness the introduction of one of the most remarkable rookies in recent NHL history. Alex Ovechkin did not have a goal in that 82nd game of the season, but he did have 52 of them in the first 81 games, good for third among all NHLers and 13 more than the next highest goal total for a rookie (Sidney Crosby).

Although the Capitals had the player who would win the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie in their fold, there was not a lot of talent surrounding him. His 52 goals in 2005-2006 constituted 22.6 percent of the 230 goals scored by the team that season. And, his 425 shots on goal was 17.3 percent of all the shots taken by the Caps that season. Ovechkin was a cornerstone to build around, but building was what was necessary. There was not enough around him to either take the pressure of scoring off him or to move the Caps’ scoring needle past 23rd place in scoring in that 2005-2006 season.

Ovechkin scored 46 goals the following year, 19.7 percent of the 234 scored by the Caps, and his 392 shots on goal was 17.1 percent of the 2,296 shots taken by the team in 2006-2007. But the Caps finished once more with 70 standings points and again in 14th place in the Eastern Conference. Clearly, it was what was going to be built around Ovechkin that would be the key to the Caps joining the elite in the NHL.

The following year, Ovechkin had his season for the ages – 65 goals, the most by a left wing in NHL history. The 65 goals was 27.3 percent of the 238 goals scored by the team. In a perverse sort of way, it was a step back for the team, even though they made the playoffs with a win in Game 82 of the season. Ovechkin’s goal total jumped by 16 from the average of his first two seasons, but the team’s goal total – 238 – was only an improvement of eight goals over the total the Caps scored in Ovechkin’s rookie year.

But there was the promise of talent starting to catch up. Alexander Semin scored 26 goals. That was a drop from his 38-goal total the previous season, but he played in 14 fewer games, too. His 0.41 goals/game projected to a 34-goal season if healthy. Brooks Laich recorded his first 20-goal season, the 21 goals he had being a 13-goal jump from his previous season. Mike Green had 18 goals, a big leap from the two goals he had in 70 games in 2006-2007. And there was Nicklas Backstrom chipping in 14 goals as a rookie and Tomas Fleischmann getting ten in his first full season with the Caps.

But that was the promise. There was also the matter of the veterans; Viktor Kozlov had 16 goals. Michael Nylander had 11. If the Caps could realize improvement among those young players and surround them with veterans who could reliably contribute scoring, then the team would improve even as Alex Ovechkin’s goal numbers might drop. In fact, you might almost say that Ovechkin’s numbers had to drop for the Caps to take the next leap. Stanley Cup winners didn’t have 55-60 goal scorers leading their teams:

2008: Henrik Zetterberg – 43
2007: Teemu Selanne – 48
2006: Eric Staal – 45
2004: Martin St. Louis – 38
2003: Patrik Elias – 28

What’s more, those goal scoring leaders had wingmen. Zetterberg had Pavel Datsyuk scoring 31 goals and three other teammates with at least 20. Selanne had four teammates scoring between 25 and 30 goals. Staal had three teammates with 30 or more. The three champions since the lockout to that point had even more support – Detroit had ten players with at least 10 goals. Anaheim had 11, and Carolina had nine in their championship seasons.

One could expect that Alex Ovechkin could and would be the straw that stirred the drink, but that drink was going to have to have some more ingredients. And that leaves us with this edition of the Washington Capitals and the question of whether that team has grown up and been built up around Ovechkin to provide the balance and support to accommodate a reduction in Ovechkin’s goal totals as a welcome result if the team could win.

How is this team doing? Through 45 games, the Caps have scored 127 goals (not including trick shots). That is a pace for 231 goals, a number almost identical to that of the team in Ovechkin’s rookie season (230). In that sense, the team is more balanced than those of Ovechkin’s early days. At the moment, Ovechkin is on a pace to score 35 goals, a total that would be 15.2 percent of the club’s projected total of 231. And, remembering the experience of the Stanley Cup winners in Ovechkin’s early days, he has support…maybe.

If you look at the Caps’ goal scoring to date, four of Ovechkin’s teammates are on a path to 20-plus goals, but only if you make certain assumptions about and avert your eyes from the history of some of those players. For example. Nicklas Backstrom has played in 38 games. If he was to dress tomorrow against Carolina and play in every game for the rest of the season, scoring goals at his pace to date, he would finish with 26 goals. He is not going to dress tomorrow and probably will not until after the All-Star break, if then.  Who knows what his production (not to mention his durability) will be when he comes back?

Then there is Jason Chimera. He is on a pace to score 26 goals, based on his 14 goals to date. Well, Chimera has never scored more than 17 goals in a season, and he has one goal in his last 12 games. That is not the profile of a 20-goal scorer in waiting.

Troy Brouwer is also on a pace for 26 goals. He does have a 22-goal season on his resume covering four full seasons before this one. But his pace at the moment might be distorted by his first hat trick in his career. Until that three-goal performance against Tampa Bay, he was on a pace for 22. He is not a sure bet to get to 20.

Alexander Semin is on a pace to score 21 goals if he plays in all of the games remaining in the season. That his projection would be that low is disappointing. He was not with the Caps for that first season with Ovechkin, but in the four seasons that followed he scored goals at a 41-goal per 82 game pace. Even with his injuries over those four seasons he averaged 35 goals a season.

Given the history and injury situation of these players, you might think Semin could do better (he’s healthy and has a history of goal scoring), but the other three?  Iffy.

Then there are the disappointments. Brooks Laich is on a pace to finish the season with 15 goals. If he finishes with that total, it would be his lowest total since the 2006-2007 season (eight). Mike Green is reported to be on a path to rejoin the team in 4-6 weeks after sports hernia surgery, but he has played sparingly in the last two seasons and has only ten games played this season. If he was to return at the beginning of March and play the last 19 games, scoring goals at his pace in the ten he played so far, he would finish with nine. Better than the eight he had last year (in 49 games) but a far cry from the 68 goals he had over a three-season period ending in 2009-2010.

The last piece of this is the addition and/or presence of veteran role players who can provide reliable support. In 2005-2006, that was Brian Willsie recording 19 goals. It was Ben Clymer with 16. On defense it was Bryan Muir with eight and Jamie Heward with seven. Who are those players on this team? Well, by and large, they are not here. Taking the defense first, you could look at Dennis Wideman and his projected 15 goals and think that he does replace those 15 goals of Muir and Heward. But that is the “all the eggs in one basket” problem. Roman Hamrlik is on a pace for two goals, which would be a career low. He had three when he was a 19-year old in Tampa Bay in 1993-1994.

Then there are the forwards. Who replaces those 35 goals from a Brian Willsie and a Ben Clymer? You cannot find those forwards on this roster. Joel Ward is on a pace for nine goals. Jeff Halpern is on a pace for six; Mike Knuble for five.

You could fry millions of brain cells debating in your own mind whether this team was not built effectively or if it has not been utilized effectively. But the incontrovertible fact is that if you were expecting that Alex Ovechkin would see his goal totals drop while those of his teammates rose, the result being a more balanced scoring attack with a higher total goal total compared to, say, Ovechkin’s rookie year, it has not happened. And looking at the mix of players, production, and projections, it will not.

After 45 games, this team – once the most entertaining in the league – has become a disappointment at the offensive end of the ice. And that brings us back to Ovechkin. His projected 35 goals would be 15.2 percent of the team’s projected total for the year. His projected 304 shots on goal would be only 13.4 percent of the team’s projected shot total, a far cry from the 17.2 percent in his rookie year or the 17.6 percent of the shots the team took in 2007-2008, when he scored 65 goals.

The Caps are in a hard place these days. They are spending too much time in their own zone defending shots and shot attempts, not getting nearly enough zone time or shots in the offensive end of the ice. They are relying too much on their goaltenders to eke out 2-1 or 3-2 wins. They are not getting much goal-scoring support from the 3rd or 4th lines, and one wonders about those players who project to 20 or more goals and whether they will revert to their respective histories and fall off that pace.  The result is their dancing on the margin of playoff eligibility.

Hockey is a team sport. It takes 20 guys to win night in and night out. But having passed the half-way point of the season, one has to wonder if the “support” players around Alex Ovechkin have it in them to ramp up their offensive production. It would be reasonable to have doubts. And that leads one to wonder. It is a good thing for a captain to try to lift all of his teammates, to spread the wealth around. But perhaps there comes a point – perhaps we are at that point – where Ovechkin needs to be a little more assertive (call it “selfish” if you want) and shoot more when he has the opportunity instead of looking for the pass. To be less “Magic Johnson” and more “Michael Jordan.”

1 comment:

Hale said...

Not just the Captain, but the last part is just as easily applied to Semin. He needs to shoot more. On that 2 on 1 last night, he should have shot instead of forcing the pass to Halpern. Obviously, I wasn't on the ice, maybe he didn't see a clean shot, but Semin's finishing is certainly better and perhaps there would have been a better rebound opportunity. His shooting percentage hasn't been bad, not quite to what it usually is, but better than Ovi's. Both need to shoot more.