Theme: “If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail.”
For a player such as Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, the path to stardom does not take many twists or turns or wrong exits. You are branded a phenom, you are expected to be a high draft pick, you are selected first overall and pose with the Commissioner, and you go forth and put up a lot of big numbers. For the Joey Crabb’s of the world, the path is not so straight, nor so true.
Crabb was taken in the seventh round of the 2002 draft by the New York Rangers. He went on to a four-year career at Colorado College where he recorded 53 goals in 158 regular season games. It was not enough to put him on a path to fame in Manhattan; he was signed as an unrestricted free agent by the Atlanta Thrashers just before the 2006-2007 season. He would spend most of his time in the Thrasher organization toiling for the Chicago Wolves.
In 256 games with the Wolves Crabb posted progressively higher goal totals: 7, 9, 15, then 24 in the 2009-2010 season. But he could not crack the Thrasher lineup on a consistent basis, dressing for only 29 games in the 2008-2009 season, recording four goals and nine points.
On to Toronto. Crabb signed with the Maple Leafs as a free agent in July 2010, where he was…assigned to the AHL Marlies. But here Crabb’s career started to get some traction. He was recalled to the Maple Leafs at the end of November 2010 for a brief stay, and again at the end of December. He stuck with the big club through the end of the season, finishing 3-12-15 in 48 games.
It got him a new one-year contract with Toronto for the 2011-2012 season. But again, the career path took a turn. Just before the regular season he was placed on waivers, the intent being to return him to the Marlies. Crabb cleared waivers and went down to the AHL where he spent nine games before being called up to the Leafs for good on the first day of November. Crabb dressed for 67 games with the Leafs in 2011-2012 and posted a very respectable 11-15-26, plus-1 line for a team that finished among the league’s also-rans (35 wins, 80 points). The Capitals saw something in that result, signing Crabb to a one-year deal for $950,000 this past July.
Joey Crabb got something of a late start, his having only 144 games of NHL experience at age 29. But he has shown some unexpected ability as a goal scorer. He is probably not going to be a 20-goal scorer in his career, but he does average 10 goals per 82 games so far in his limited NHL experience. When you consider what the Caps got from their third and fourth line wingers last season, ten goals doesn’t sound too bad. Then there are the other numbers. Crabb did a fair job of drawing penalties, more of them drawn per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than the likes of Mikhail Grabovski, Tim Connolly, or Phil Kessel last year in Toronto. He also did better in this regard than Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, or Nicklas Backstrom for the Caps. And even though his Corsi value relative to quality of competition at 5-on-5 was 10th among 12 Leaf forwards playing in at least 40 games, his offensive zone start values were not an advantage (43.1 percent).
You forgot one transaction in that long and winding road, cousin. In June 2010 Atlanta traded him to Chicago as part of that big salary dump the Blackhawks made after they won the Cup. Of the five players the Blackhawks got in that deal or drafted with the picks they got, you know how many games those players have actually played with the Blackhawks? Twelve. And Crabb doesn’t have any of them (all of them played by Jeremy Morin). Less than a month after that trade, he was signed by Toronto. Let’s not make him the second coming of Pat Verbeek or Andrew Brunette (identified as comparables over their first three years by the folks at hockey-reference.com).
The Big Question… Can Crabb firm up that soft underbelly that has been the Caps’ third and fourth lines too often over the past few years?
Last season, if you look at the bottom half of the forward draw for the Caps, the quintet of Joel Ward, Mike Knuble, Jeff Halpern, Matt Hendricks, and Jay Beagle recorded a total of 24 goals in 333 man-games, a six-goal pace per 82 games. Crabb had 11 goals in 67 games last season in Toronto getting 13:26 a game (that was more average ice time than any of the Caps we mentioned except Knuble). But scoring more does not really help much if you are on the ice for a lot of goals against. Of Toronto forwards playing in at least 40 games last season, only Matt Frattin and Mike Brown were on ice for fewer even strength goals against; he was also third best among that group in terms of goals against/60 minutes at 5-on-5 (numbers from behindthenet.ca).
In the end…
Let us do a simple comparison. Player A played in 57 games last season and was 11-15-26, plus-1. Player B played in 67 games and was 11-15-26, plus-1. Player A was 6-13-19 at even strength; Player B was 9-15-24 at even strength. If you followed along to this point, you know that Player B is Joey Crabb, the one who played in those 67 games. Who is Player A? Dallas’ Brenden Morrow. We are not going to argue that Joey Crabb and Brenden Morrow are interchangeable players, especially considering that Morrow’s season was interrupted by a neck injury. On the other hand, Crabb might not be player merely filling a jersey for a dozen minutes a night, either. His path has taken a long and winding course to Washington, and while he is here he might provide some unexpected, if certainly welcome contributions.
Projection: 62 games, 9-12-21, plus-3
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America