Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Day of Silence

“Kudos to Washington Capitals GM George McPhee. I know what you’re saying, why exactly? Because he took a knee. That’s why. This just isn’t their year. One big trade isn’t going to put the Caps over the top and make them contenders. One big trade isn’t going to clear star center Nicklas Backstrom of his concussion symptoms. McPhee did the hardest thing of all, resist the short-term fix. That takes guts.”

-- Pierre LeBrun, ESPN Analyst, commenting on yesterday’s activity on the NHL trading market

We suppose there are a lot of ways to look at what the Caps did – or more precisely, did not do – yesterday. The club made no deals, despite almost the almost universal assumption that veterans Mike Knuble and Roman Hamrlik would be dealt.

There is, on the one hand, the reactionary message board sort of opinion that will conclude that George McPhee was asleep at the switch while other teams were active. It is tempting to just dismiss this out of hand. In fact, there were only 15 trades made yesterday involving 19 teams. St. Louis did not make a deal. The Flyers did not make a deal. Florida did not, Dallas did not, Los Angeles did not.

But, trading “day” is not necessarily just a “day.” The trading “period” got started on February 16th, when the Flyers sent a 2nd and a 3rd round draft pick to Dallas for defenseman Niklas Grossman, a player who already has three assists in three games for the Flyers and is plus-2 averaging 17 minutes a night. If you then look at the February 16-27 trading “period,” 28 deals were consummated involving 26 teams. The only teams to sit out the dance were: Pittsburgh, Calgary, Carolina, and…


To be sure, a number of those deals were rather minor. One cannot imagine much impact – certainly for this season – of a Brandon Segal for Matt Fornataro trade. But those deals were in the minority. There was considerable tweaking of teams participating in the trading activity.

The Caps did not tweak. Fans cannot know what the Caps were seeking or what teams were offering for a Mike Knuble or a Roman Hamrlik. Knuble’s situation might be the more perplexing from the fan’s point of view. Mike Knuble is a 39-year old player on an expiring contract. Given that he has played a lot of fourth line minutes this season and has often been a healthy scratch in recent games, the natural conclusion to reach here is that the Caps do not see him in their plans going forward. Why not move him for a mid-round draft pick?

Well, there are several possible responses to this. First, can we be sure the Caps were offered that much, if anything at all for Knuble. There is that matter of not being able to listen in on the conversations George McPhee might have had with his fellow wizards. If the offers were more along the lines of a sixth or a seventh round pick fans might ask, “well, hey…why not? It’s something.” Take the longer view for a moment. Knuble’s best days are not ahead of him. However, he is a player with 271 goals on his resume and one who came into this season with eight consecutive 20-goal seasons. Even if his production has fallen significantly, he is worth more to the Caps right now than a sixth or seventh round pick (we’ll leave alone the fact that the Caps have not exactly found a lot of nuggets in that part of the draft). Perhaps there is enough in the tank to make some – if modest – contributions between now and when the season ends for the Caps. If it comes to the summer, there is the chance – perhaps remote – that the Caps could trade rights to Knuble to a team wishing to sign him to another contract as a free agent. Whatever, the uncertain marginal return of a low-round draft pick – even a mid-round pick – does not clearly argue for Knuble being dealt yesterday. Holding him is not evidence of being asleep at the switch.

Hamrlik is a different situation. Defensemen are gold at this time of year. Of the 32 war bodies traded yesterday (i.e., not including draft picks), 18 were defensemen. In a perverse way, that argues against the Caps trading Hamrlik, even if he sees press box time instead of ice time. And that gets to need and availability. What was being offered for Hamrlik? One can infer from McPhee’s comments after the trading day closed:
“We would have added something to the team if we thought it would make us better, but it had to make us better. What transpired today, really there wasn’t anything there that would have been the right thing for our club. Everyone seemed to want our players but they wanted to give us futures and prospects. I wasn’t interested in doing that.”

This the same “bird in the hand, two in the bush” argument that suggests the team was less interested in the potential (conversely, the uncertainty) of futures than in the certainty of a player with a body of work. Well, they have a player with a body of work in Hamrlik, and in a sport where defensive depth is an important ingredient to success, standing pat on Hamrlik has advantages over the alternative.

Then there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room – the need for a second line center. See any of that specie move yesterday? Paul Gaustad, whatever his other talents, is not a second-line center on a contender. Even if you want to argue that he is an upgrade over what the Caps have now, is he worth a first round pick (what Buffalo took from Nashville for Gaustad and a fourth rounder)? Not for a team that has a commitment to building from the draft. And, as if this needs saying, a “manager” cannot merely manage trading day, he has to manage the long view as well. It’s his job.

Other names were tossed around as a potential solution (band-aid might have been better) – Tomas Plekanec, Derek Roy… even Olli Jokinen. But are these solutions? Or merely a “name” to appease fans that would command a price in picks or prospects that would cost the Caps in developmental terms while the flaws in these players could been seen from closer range by those fans? The “second line center” market pretty much dried up when Jeff Carter was traded by Columbus to Los Angeles. After that, even if the Caps had been inclined to bid on Carter (and we have no idea if they were or did), there was not much of a market.

In the end, there was no rabbit in the hat. George McPhee stood pat. But rabbits and hats are all part of an illusion, anyway. The Caps are left with the reality of the roster they take to the ice against the Islanders tonight and for the last 19 games of the season following that. And that is a different kind of reality. If McPhee can be credited with not panicking and making a deal he might regret this summer, he now has the team he built this past summer as his legacy to this season. It has not been a team that is easy on the eyes or effective on the ice. On paper last fall, it had the look of a team that could do damage during the season and deep into the playoffs (we sure thought so). Injuries to Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom were of the sort that could be expected to knock the team onto the shoulder of the road to the playoffs. What seems less acceptable is that they knocked them clear off the road and into a ditch.

Alex Ovechkin has not come back from a sub-par season in 2010-2011. Alexander Semin is as enigmatic as ever. Michal Neuvirth took a step back in his development, although he has shown signs lately of emerging from a season-long funk. Marcus Johansson has not come close to filling the shoes of his countryman who is still injured. John Carlson has not duplicated his fine rookie season last year. Brooks Laich is versatile, but the flip side of being the jack-of-all-trades is that he has too often been the master of none of them. The free agents brought in last summer have been inconsistent in their respective contributions. The team as a whole has nothing approaching the snarl that their new head coach had as a player. And that new head coach has struggled to find the right buttons to push while the man he replaced is dragging his new team closer and closer to the playoffs in what looks like the 2008 Capitals all over again.

This is the team McPhee built this season and the one that will now carry the Capitals’ banner over the last 20 games of the season. It is no longer a team “on paper.” It is one with 62 games of history in it, one that has some fair sized dings and dents in it, and one that sits on the outside of the playoff mix looking in. The manner in which the Capitals – their management and their players – will be judged for this season lies not in what did or did not happen before 3:00 yesterday, but in what actions were or were not taken over the past ten months since the last Capitals playoff disappointment. It is that body of work to which people might, and perhaps should be praised... or held accountable for what comes of this season.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 63: Islanders at Capitals, February 28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals roll out their 2011-2012 team, version 2.0 Tuesday night against the New York Islanders. Oh, wait…they did not make any deals on Monday before the league trading deadline, so version 2.0 is pretty much the same as version 1.0. And it got us to the thinking about the science of trading and what the experts have to say about it. So we went to some of the best in the business, so to speak.

Louis Winthorpe III, did you take in the live updates on trades yesterday?

LW3: “I had the most absurd nightmare. I was watching for the Caps and no one liked them. They didn’t move any forwards, they didn’t move any defensemen, they kept the same roster, everyone hated them, and it was all because of this terrible, awful bald-headed man on television.”

You mean Pierre McGuire?

LW3: “Precisely.”

So what is your secret to trading, Mr. Winthorpe?

LW3: “Think big, think positive, never show any sign of weakness. Always go for the throat. Buy low, sell high. Fear? That's the other guy's problem. Nothing you have ever experienced will prepare you for the absolute carnage you are about to witness. Super Bowl, World Series - they don't know what pressure is. On Trading Deadline Day, it's either kill or be killed. You make no friends on the phones and you take no prisoners. One minute you're up a couple of all-star forwards and the next, boom, your team doesn’t go to the playoffs and they've taken away your parking space at Kettler. Are you with me?”

“Yeah, we got to KILL the mother… we got to KILL ‘em.”

Billy Ray Valentine, the legendary whiz kid of Duke and Duke. What advice do you have to offer the novice trader?

BRV: “You know, it occurs to me that the best way you hurt good teams is by turning them into bad teams.”

Can you give us an example?

BRV: “Okay, Rick Nash prices were dropping all morning, which means that everybody is waiting for it to hit rock bottom, so they can buy low…you know, like for a second round draft pick. Which means that the people who own the player are saying, ‘Hey, we're losing all our damn money, and the draft is around the corner, and I ain't gonna have no draft picks to get my team any prospects! And my wife ain't gonna f... my wife ain't gonna make love to me if I got no prospects!’ So they were panicking, they were screaming ‘SELL! SELL!’ to get out before the price keeps dropping. They were panicking out there, I could feel it.”

Interesting. Then there is the old school of trading. And here we have Randolph Duke to explain it to us.

RD: “Quite right. Now, what are players and draft picks? Players and draft picks are trading assets... like Columbus trading Kirk Muller to Dallas for Evgeny Petrochinin in 2001... like their trading a second round pick to Colorado for goalie Marc Denis in 2000, then re-signing him in 2000 and re-signing him again in 2002 and 2004… or drafting Rick Nash in 2002, which is used to make a Rick Nash trading frenzy in 2012. Clear so far?”


RD: “Good, Peerless! Now, some of teams are speculating that the price of players or draft picks will rise in the future. And we have other teams who are speculating that the price of players or draft picks will fall. Then they make their trades.”

Mortimer Duke: “Tell him the good part.”

RD: “The good part, Peerless, is that, no matter whether a team like the Caps makes a good trade or a bad trade, the team still gets to raise ticket prices.”


Well, while the dust of Trading Day settles, the Caps still have games to play, and they have one on Tuesday against the New York Islanders. The Islanders have spent the last month marking time. Starting with a 3-0 loss at Toronto on January 23rd, the Islanders are 7-7-2 in their last 16 games. The Islanders might be lucky to have come out of those 16 games with that record. They have been outscored by 47-32 in those games, allowing four or more goals six times in the process. Their power play has not been too bad – 17.7 percent (6-for-34) – but their penalty kill has been weak, killing off only 28 of 39 shorthanded situations (71.8 percent).

What is more, the Islanders have been unable to settle on a goaltender. In the 16 games, Evgeni Nabokov was 5-4-0, 2.25, .929, with one shutout. Al Montoya was 0-1-2, 3.64, .861. Kevin Poulin was 2-2-0, 3.00, .911. None could win consecutive games. The inconsitency has left the Islanders with only the faintest glimmer of hope of the playoffs, eight points behind eighth-place Winnipeg in the East. Here is how the teams stack up (before last night's play)…

 (click pic for larger image)

1. The Islanders have something of a reputation as a difficult team to play against, but they do seem to wilt as play goes on during games. In goals for/goals against by period, they are minus-6 in the first period, minus-14 in the second, and minus-18 in the third period.

2. And falling behind has been a problem for the Islanders. In 32 games in which they have allowed the first goal they have only seven wins. Only Carolina and Columbus have worse records when allowing the first goal.

3. The Islanders do not have an especially efficient penalty kill on the road – 82.7 percent (12th in the league going into last night's play) – but they do benefit from not having to deploy it much. No team has faced fewer shorthanded situations on the road than the Islanders (81), and only three teams have allowed fewer power play goals on the road than the 14 given up by the Islanders.

4. The Islanders are one of the least penalized teams in the league. They rank tied for 27th (with Nashville) for the fewest minor penalties in the league, and they rank 24th in major penalties taken. Only three teams have recorded fewer penalty minutes per game than the Islanders. Only four times in their last 32 games have they faced more than three shorthanded situations.

5. Only two teams in the league have more blocked shots on the road than the Islanders. Only one team has fewer giveaways. They rank ninth in takeaways on the road. They try to keep things simple and do the little things.

1. The Caps are trying to win their third game in a row. If they do so it will be the first time since January 11-15 when they completed a three-peat over Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Carolina (all at home). Coincidentally, that streak came to an end when the Islanders shut out the Caps at Verizon Center by a 3-0 score on January 17th.

2. Starting with that Islander shutout, the Caps come into this game with a 7-9-3 record in their last 19 games. Only four times in those 19 games have the Caps scored more than three goals. They won all four.

3. Starting well has been a problem for the Caps. In fact, the first 40 minutes have been a problem. The Caps are minus-12 in the first period of games so far this season (goals for/goals against) and minus-8 in the second period. They are plus-12 in the third period.

4. Even with the poor overall first 40 minutes, the Caps are eighth in the league in net plus-minus at home (plus-13). Of the seven teams ahead of them, all are currently playoff-eligible in their respective conferences.

5. Only four teams have fewer one-goal wins than the Caps, who have a total of 13. Only eight of those one-goal wins have come in regulation so far.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: PA Parenteau

Parenteau was thought to be an Islander on the move yesterday before the trading deadline, but he is still wearing the blue and orange. Good thing for the Islanders, too. He is 4-7-11, plus-2 in his last ten games. He has been a pain for the Caps, too. In seven career games he is 3-4-7, plus-3, including a pair of goals in that 3-0 Islanders shut out on January 17th.

Washington: Mike Knuble

Well, the big guy is still here. The Caps did not move him yesterday, even though that was thought to be a given from the custodial staff at Kettler Capitals Iceplex all the way to perhaps Knuble himself. Not only was he not moved, he skated with the top line at practice yesterday. With 20 games left, Knuble – between fourth line play and healthy scratches lately – has not had as much wear and tear on his body as perhaps many of his teammates. This can be his time, and given the Caps’ modest offense over the past few months, they could use his contributions. He has 11 goals and 27 points in 62 career games against the Islanders.


1. Score first. Again…duh. But only one team in the league – Columbus – has more losses in regulation when allowing the first goal than the Islanders (22). The Caps have 20 of their 31 wins when socring first.

2. Men at Work. If the Caps are not going to be the Greatest Show on Ice, they need to be Lunch Pails R Us. One shift at a time, one period at a time, one game at a time. They still have their fate in their own hands, but they need to exhibit the playoff work ethic from here on out.

3. This isn’t "Hoosiers." In the movie “Hoosiers,” Coach Norman Dale exhorts his team to pass four times before taking a shot. The Caps should not be so cute. Get pucks to the net, and maybe Knuble can find that old magic…or Brooks Laich…or Joel Ward…or Jason Chimera… You get the idea.

In the end, the rest of the season is not “the rest of the season,” it is game-by-game, brick-by-brick. The only two points the Caps can win are the ones available tonight. That has to be as far as the Caps look ahead from here on out…60 minutes at a time.

Capitals 3 – Islanders 2