Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Tale of an Opportunity

In 2009-2010 the Washington Capitals were the most entertaining team in the National Hockey League. They were averaging 3.82 goals a game, more than half a goal a game more than their closest pursuer in the scoring rankings (Vancouver: 3.27). They were beating up opponents along the way, the only team in the league that scored more than a goal a game, on average, more than their opponents.

But amidst all this entertainment, the hockey intelligentsia were proclaiming, “yes, but the Caps can’t (or don’t) play defense; they will fail in the playoffs.” And when the Caps did, in fact, fail in the playoffs, the hockey intelligentsia was validated. The Caps learned their lesson, but not after having a refresher course in pain the following season in the form of a December eight-game losing streak.

The Caps decided in the midst of that eight-game losing streak last season that the blueprint for success had to be tossed out and replaced by a new one, a plan that emphasized more focus in the defensive zone, trapping in the neutral zone, and restraint in the offensive zone to avoid turnovers. No more flying the zone before you get possession, no more daring stretch passes, no more pressing the attack.

And it worked…kinda. The Caps went 30-11-7 after that losing streak and after first installing their new “defense first” approach. When they defeated the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, it appeared that the change was further validated. The hockey intelligentsia looked on and smiled. And then it all blew up when the Caps were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning and the fearsome (if sleep-inducing) 1-3-1 defense. The hockey intelligentsia clucked that the Caps didn’t have the defense or the goaltending to go deeper (the Caps allowed 16 goals to the Lightning in the four-game sweep).

The Caps took their lessons to heart in the off-season, adding grit and hockey toughness in players like Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern and Troy Brouwer. They added a defenseman who knew how to play the game (as in, “won’t go jumping up in the offensive end”) in Roman Hamrlik. They got an elite goalie at a discount.

The Caps went out to a 7-0-0 start, and folks might have been thinking, “see? It was worth it to change styles.” Then, the Caps record fell through the floor. They went 5-9-1 in their next 15 games, and it got their coach fired. They went 12-9-1 in their first 22 games under the new coach, the same record the old coach started the season with, and folks might have been thinking…”what the #@$%?”

And now, we’re all frustrated as Caps fans. But it got us to thinking… did the Caps abandon that hell-bent-for-leather style too soon? Humor us.

Let’s look at that Caps team that was defeated by Montreal in the 2010 playoffs. Let’s look at the defensive side of the roster. First, the four defensemen who played in all seven games against Montreal – John Carlson, Mike Green, Joe Corvo, and Jeff Schultz. Carlson had so few games played in the regular season, he would qualify for rookie of the year selection the following season. Green was finishing up his fourth full season. Corvo was, well…ugh. And Schultz was coming off a freakish plus-50 season in which he put up 23 points. You get to that plus-50, perhaps, by being dependable at the defensive end while your teammates are having fun at the other.

Then there is the rest of the group that dressed. Tom Poti played in six games (suffering a gruesome eye injury in Game 6 that kept him out of Game 7). He was a player of considerable experience and had a reputation of being competent at both ends of the rink (if he had played that Game 7 and the Caps won, would there ever have been a change in philosophy?...hold that thought). On the other hand, there was Shaone Morrisonn. A player of modest skill, but let’s face it. He now toils for Rochester in the AHL and cannot crack the Buffalo Sabres lineup. Tyler Sloan played in two games and would never be thought of as a top-four (or top-six, seeing as how he is playing in Milwaukee of the AHL) defenseman. Karl Alzner (with barely 50 games of experience) played one game – Game 7 in Poti’s place – as a call-up.

The goalies? For the second straight year, the Caps started with Jose Thoedore, then had to give way to Semyon Varlamov when Theodore faltered. In the 2010 playoffs, Varlamov was the starting goalie for the last six games of the series against Montreal with a total of 32 games of NHL regular season and 13 games of playoff game experience.

Here we had a defense lacking in experience in a Game 7 (Carlson, Alzner), a defenseman entering who might be entering his prime (Green), a competent if unexciting stay-at-home defenseman with fewer than 250 games of experience (Schultz), a current minor leaguer (Morrisonn), and a defenseman for whom “defense” did not seem to apply (Corvo). It should never have come to that in a Game 7, but that was the hand dealt, and Montreal ended the night with better cards.

In retrospect, perhaps the Caps’ wide open style might not have been doomed for lack of sufficient detail to defense. Perhaps it was abandoned before the defense could mature and catch up to the offense, or at least have the ability from added experience to bar the door when the Caps weren’t wreaking havoc in the other end. Look at the John Carlson and Karl Alzner of today, with perhaps a Dmitry Orlov, and let’s even throw in a healthy Mike Green (like we said, humor us). Heck, swap out the 2010 Corvo model for the 2012 Alzner edition. A Jeff Schultz with another 100 games of experience. If that defense had been there in 2010 with the level of skill they now have (yes, we realized Orlov would not have been there), would that Montreal series have ended differently? Would there have even been a Game 6 in which a Tom Poti could get hurt? And more to the point, would the Caps today be the juggernaut with the plus-68 goal differential that folks talk about instead of the Boston Bruins, and with Bruce Boudreau still at the helm?

Perhaps it was a time and case of opportunity knocking, and the Caps opened the door to an exciting brand of hockey, only to close it too soon.

We shall never know.

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.”

Caps Throwback Jersey Record Update

Because you didn't know you wanted to know...

The Caps have 20 road games left, 13 in the throwbacks.

A TWO-point night -- Game 45: Capitals 3 - Canadiens 0

The Washington Capitals might have explained away a loss last night to the Montreal Canadiens as their having to play their third game in four nights. That is, had they lost the game. The Caps used goals from Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson to give the Caps a lead in the first period, then a power play goal from Alex Ovechkin mid-way through the second period, to combine with Michal Neuvirth’s 31-save effort in goal to post a 3-0 win over the Canadiens.

The theme lately has been shots, specifically the Cap’s seeming inability to generate many. Last night, it was an issue again. The Caps managed only 16 shots on goal for the game, the 16th consecutive game in which they did not top 30 shots and the third time in four that they did not have more than 20. But let’s break that down a bit.

In the first 4:41 of the game, a period of time ending with Mathieu Perrault’s goal, the Caps had five shot attempts (two shots, two misses, and a shot blocked) to Montreal’s four attempts (two shots, a miss, and a shot blocked).

In the next 3:42, the period ending with Marcus Johansson’s goal, the Caps had four shot attempts (two shots, two shots blocked), while Montreal had only two shot attempts (two shots on goal).

So, by the time the Caps went out to a 2-0 lead, they had nine shot attempts (four shots, two misses, three shots blocked), the Canadiens had six shot attempts (four shots, one miss, one shot blocked).

Montreal closed the first period with a rush, getting nine shot attempts in the last 11:37 – three shots, three misses, and three shots blocked. The Caps had six attempts – one shot and five misses. In the first half of the second period, the Caps would out-attempt the Canadiens leading up to the third and final goal of the evening (the power play goal from Alex Ovechkin). Washington had ten shot attempts – five shots on goal, three misses, and two shots blocked, while Montreal had seven shot attempts – one shot, three misses, and three shots blocked.

With the Caps having a 3-0 lead at the 10:44 mark of the second period, they had 25 shot attempts – ten shots, five misses, and ten shots blocked. Montreal had 22 shot attempts – eight shots, seven misses, and seven shots blocked.

After that, the Caps went almost silent on shot attempts. In the last 29:16 of the game, Washington had only 11 shot attempts – six shots on goal and five shots blocked. Meanwhile, Montreal would register 50 – that’s right, 50 – shot attempts: 23 shots on goal, nine misses, and 18 shots blocked. Of that number, 36 shot attempts – half of Montreal’s total of 72 attempts – came in the third period.

At 1-0, attempts were 5-4, Caps.

At 2-0, attempts were 9-6, Caps.

At 3-0, attempts were 25-22, Caps.

After that, over the last 29:16 of the game, the attempts were 50-11, Montreal.

Other stuff:

-- Three goals, three different players; nine points, nine different players; two even strength goals, ten different plus-1’s.

-- Montreal’s power play was every bit as bad as the statistics indicated. At first blush, getting nine shots on goal in 11:59 of power play time is not too bad, but having had that 11:59 in power play time, one might have thought they would get a goal just from having so much in-game practice and from wearing Caps penalty killers down.

-- OK, we’ve seen the fight with Rene Bourque. Kudos to Matt Hendricks for being that stand-up guy for the Caps, but it is time to move on. Although we are wondering what might have prompted Joe B. and Craig Laughlin to opine that it would be the first of several instances involving Bourque on the evening. Perhaps the lack of a second (or a third) was the product of too much time being a man down over the rest of the contest, and by the time the third period got started – the Caps having their 3-0 lead – it was a case of “what’s the point, look at the scoreboard.”

-- In the 2007-2008 season, Alex Ovechkin scored his 19th goal on November 30th in Game 26 of the season. He got his 19th of this season last night in Game 45. Different time, different place.

-- The Scott Gomez goal watch continues. It is 45 games without a goal (not including seven playoff games without one). At this point, Gomez Addams would seem a better bet to score first. Scott Gomez had five shots and eight attempts without finding the back of the net.

-- Montreal had as many missed shots as the Caps had shots. They had nine more shots blocked than the Caps had shots (25-16). The Caps had only ten shots at even strength (four on the power play, two shorthanded). We had to get that in.

-- Speaking of which, Roman Hamrlik had one shot on goal for the game… it came while shorthanded.

-- Sixteen faceoffs in the offensive end (nine wins), 24 in the defensive end (14 wins). That is still quite a difference.

-- In killing off seven of seven shorthanded situations, it is the first time the Caps handled that many cleanly since killing of eight of eight on December 13, 2008… against the Canadiens… in Montreal (Semyon Varlamov’s first appearance and first win for the Caps).

-- Mathieu Perreault had 6:09 of ice time last night covering eight shifts. A goal, three hits, and he won all four draws. A nice, tidy night.

In the end, we are still not sure this is a long-term formula for success. “Prevent” defense is said to prevent only one thing – “winning.” Allowing 50 shot attempts in the last half of the game might have been a product of this being the third game in four nights, in which case Michal Neuvirth more than deserves that first start of the night in the NHL. But if this is how the Caps are choosing to play, one wonders if teams like Boston or the Rangers, who lurk on the schedule’s horizon, will be as accommodating as the punchless Canadiens.

Still, the win pushed the Caps back ahead of Florida atop the Southeast Division, by virtue of having more wins in regulation and overtime. And speaking of the latter, maybe is has escaped notice, but the Caps have only one fewer win in regulation and overtime than the Boston Bruins.

They just do it differently.