Wednesday, May 30, 2012

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Forwards: Jeff Halpern

Jeff Halpern

Theme: “Home is where one starts from.”
-- T. S. Eliot

 (click pic for larger image)

Thirteen years ago Jeff Halpern was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Washington Capitals making him the first native of the Washington, D.C, area to sign with the club. He played six seasons with the Caps – 648 regular season games and 17 post-season contests – before heading off into free agency in 2006, signing with the Dallas Stars. He played a few games fewer than two seasons with the Stars, moved to Tampa Bay at the trading deadline in 2008 (in one of the odder trades in that none of the five principals in the deal – Halpern, Jussi Jokinen, Mike Smith, Brad Richards, and Johan Holmqvist – are with the teams that took them in trade).

Two years later, Halpern was traded to Los Angeles at the 2010 trading deadline, then signed as a free agent by Montreal the following September. He played one season with the Canadiens, and last July 1st signed a free-agent deal with the Caps, back where he started.

In Halpern’s first stint with the Caps he progressed from unlikely starter (making the big club in the fall following his free agent signing) to defense/faceoff specialist, to 20-goal scorer, to team captain. He played for playoff teams, and he played through the tear-down and start of the rebuild. Now, he rejoined the club as a 35-year old veteran with almost 800 games of regular season experience who was expected to chip in fourth – maybe third-line minutes – and provide some more tangible contributions to the score sheet than his predecessor – Boyd Gordon – who himself took the free agent route to Phoenix.

Well, that was the plan. Halpern started respectably enough for a fourth liner. In his first three 10-game segments he was 3-6-9, plus-1. By comparison, at a similar point in his season in 2010-2011, Boyd Gordon was 1-4-5, even. But after going 2-2-4, plus-4 in a four-game stretch ending on December 13th, Halpern would go 33 games without a goal, and the one he scored against the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 25th (the game-winner in a 4-2 win) would be his last of the regular season. He did not play in any of the last seven games of the regular season and saw action on only three of the last 15 games.

Halpern did do the little things that teams need to have done to be successful. His 58.4 percent faceoff winning percentage would have ranked him fourth in the league, had he qualified (not enough draws taken). He was very responsible with the puck; his six giveaways was the ninth lowest total among NHL forwards playing in at least 40 games. His takeaway-to-giveaway ratio was 3.7:1. He was fifth among forwards in blocked shots despite being ninth in average ice time per game and tenth in total minutes played.

Halpern’s underlying numbers are unremarkable. Among the 15 Capital forwards playing in at least 20 games his rankings in such staple 5-on0-5 measures as the various Corsi measures (on-ice, relative, relative to quality of competition), PDO, and quality of teammates rank in the middle third. His quality of competition, however, was generally inferior to that faced by other forwards in this group (Halpern ranked 12th). What one might have expected did in fact come to pass. Halpern had the lowest share of offensive zone starts of any Capital forward (39.2 percent), and yet he still have offensive zone finishes of 42.0 percent at 5-on-5, the largest positive spread in points of any Capital forward. Here is how his number compare to those of last season with Montreal:

Odd Halpern Fact… Only 19 times in 69 games did Jeff Halpern finish a game with under 50 percent faceoff wins. The Caps were 5-11-3 in those games.

Game to Remember… January 24, 2011. It is not always about scoring goals. Sometimes it is stepping up and not trying to do more than you can, but more of what you do. Until this game against the Boston Bruins, Halpern had been stuck in a rut of averaging in the low-teens in ice time minutes and had gone five games without a point. But on this Tuesday night at Verizon Center, with Alex Ovechkin serving the first game of a three-game suspension, Halpern skated almost 18 minutes, won 11 of 15 draws (including four of six in the defensive zone), had two blocked shots and notched an assist on an empty-net insurance goal in a 5-3 win over the Bruins.

Game to Forget… March 23, 2012. In what would be Jeff Halpern’s last appearance of the regular season the Caps raced out to a 3-0 lead against the Winnipeg Jets before the game was 26 minutes old. But the Jets scored in the 27th minute, again in the 29th minutes to get the Jets close, then one more time with less than four minutes in regulation. Halpern was on the ice for two of those goals, not the expected output for a “defensive” forward who skated a grand total of 4:35 in the game. It was his lowest ice time of the season.

Post-Season… Halpern had only two appearances in the post season, Games 6 and 7 against the Rangers in Round Two, getting the call when Jay Beagle went down to injury. There was not much of a story to tell there. In just over 16 minutes of total ice time he did not record a point, had one shot on goal, won ten of 18 draws and took a high-sticking double minor in Game 6 that the Caps managed to kill off on their way to a 2-1 win in what would be their last victory of the 2011-2012 season.

In the end… It looked early on as if Halpern would contribute something near the level of offense he did in his post-Washington, late-career years. After his first three ten-game segments he was on a pace to finish 8-17-25. As a fourth-liner it would have been roughly equivalent to the contribution of Matt Hendricks in 2010-2011 (9-16-25) in eight fewer games and more than the combined output of Boyd Gordon (3-6-9) and Jay Beagle (2-1-3) in 91 games. However, in his last 40 games Halpern was only 1-6-7 and was reduced to a spare part. It was not the way the season was supposed to go for a homecoming.

Grade: C+

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Forwards: Cody Eakin

Cody Eakin

Theme: “The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are."
-- John Pierpont Morgan

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"He hasn't looked out of place, I'll tell you that. It's not like you can tell he's an 18- or 19-year-old; he's hung right in there. . . . His maturity, I think, is beyond his years, too, so that's really good."
-- Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau describing Cody Eakin in Training Camp 2010

“Here’s a guy who went to the Memorial Cup and you don’t finish playing until the end of May and you probably take a few weeks off — boy it’s hard to get back into it in early July. It wasn’t his draft year, he knew he was turning pro but he knows that it counts now — July 10 it didn’t count — and he’d been through three [development camps]. You can see a little bit more determination on his face. I think it will show.”
-- Boudreau on Eakin after the first on-ice session, Training Camp 2011

Twice Cody Eakin came to training camp with the Washington Capitals as a young player with a future, but not necessarily a present with the big club. Twice he made it difficult to send him down. Twice the Capitals did just that – back to Swift Current in Canadian juniors in 2010, down to Hershey in the AHL in 2011.

As the 2011-2012 season started with Eakin skating for the Bears, one had to remember that he was still a raw 20-year old prospect only 28 months removed from his being selected in the third round (85th overall) in the 2009 NHL entry draft. He did not let down upon his being sent to Hershey from last fall’s training camp. He was 3-5-8, plus-3 in ten October games with the Bears. It was a month in which the big club was paying attention; he was called up in time to make his NHL debut on November 1st against the Anaheim Ducks. Eakin did not put up any points in the 5-4 overtime win, but he had three shots on goal (four attempts), a hit, and a blocked shot in 13:19 of ice time.

His recall on November 1st would be the first of seven recalls during which he played in 30 games over the course of the 2011-2012 season:

November 1, 2011 (19 games played; 3-3-6, plus-2)
December 30, 2011 (one game; 0-0-0, even)
January 12, 2012 (seven games; 1-1-2, plus-1)
January 30, 2012 (two games; 0-0-0, minus-1)
March 23, 2012 (no games)
March 28, 2012 (one game; 0-0-0, even)
May 1, 2012 (no games)

It certainly made for an up-and-down season for the youngster. But clearly, there was still work to be done. If you take away the adrenaline-fueled rush of the first recall to the bigs, a stretch of 15 games in which he was 3-3-6, plus-4, he was 1-1-2, minus-2 in his last 15 games with the big club.

But even with the small population of games played there were things to take away as positives. He was not a big hitter (15 hits in 30 games), but had more hits-per-game than Alexander Semin among forwards. He did not have many takeaways, but neither did was he charged with many giveaways (six and five, respectively). He did not take many draws (40 in 30 games) but won a majority of them (21-19). He might have had the rookie’s reticence in shooting the puck, but his shots-per-game (1.03) was not too far off Joel Ward’s (1.08) and was better than Jeff Halpern’s (0.91).

Among his fellow rookies, he did not rank especially high in points (tied for 37th among rookie forwards), but his points-per-game ranked 26th, a respectable finish for one who did not get a lot of ice time (48th in total ice time). And among Capitals forwards who played in at least 30 games, his PDO value at 5-on-5 was tied for second best (with Joel Ward and behind Keith Aucoin, so you may have that grain of salt). However, the quality of competition he faced at 5-on-5 was weakest among Caps forwards, while his quality of teammates was fourth highest among the 15 forwards in this group. Add in that his offensive zone starts was fifth highest among the 15 forwards and he had something of a sheltered existence.

Odd Eakin Fact… Of 42 forwards in franchise history playing in at least 30 games in their first season with the club (think we had to dig for this one?), only Glen Currie recorded fewer penalty minutes (two in 32 games) than did Eakin (four in 30 games).

Game to Remember… November 4, 2011. It didn’t happen in his first game, but it would in Cody Eakin’s second. His first NHL goal, that is. It came late in what would be a 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. It came mid-way through the third period with the Caps holding a 3-1 lead. Alexander Semin beat Carolina defenseman Joni Pitkanen to a loose puck along the wall in the defensive end and chipped it up and out of the zone. His momentum carried him past Pitkanen and to the puck in the neutral zone. Eakin filled the lane to Semin’s left as the latter collected the puck and carried it down the right wing. With Pitkanen out of the play, only Jamie McBain was back to defend the 1-on-1. Semin held the puck until he go to the Carolina blue line, then fed it across to Eakin. McBain was caught in no-man’s land without defending either Eakin or the possible pass to Semin. Eakin took his time and wristed the puck cleanly past goalie Cam Ward. It was his second point of the game, his first – and first NHL point – coming when he assisted on what would be the game-winning goal by Troy Brouwer early in the second period. Eakin finished 1-1-2, plus-2, scoring on the only shot he recorded in the game.

Game to Forget… November 25, 2011. Welcome to the bigs, kid. On the day after Thanksgiving the Capitals hosted the New York Rangers at Verizon Center. On a day when a lot went wrong for the Caps, a lot of it happened with Eakin in the vicinity. Not that it was all his fault, but out of 15 shifts he skated, five of them featured penalties – three of them against the Caps, one of which he committed when he was whistled for holding Ranger defenseman Steve Eminger in the offensive zone. Two other shifts ended in Ranger goals. All in all, the Caps lost by a 6-3 margin, while Eakin had no points, the two minutes in penalties, no shots, no shot attempts, and he lost his only faceoff in just short of 12 minutes of work.

Post Season… 0-1-1, minus-2 in five games at Hershey.

In the end… Everybody has to start somewhere, and for Cody Eakin he started in the midst of a team’s spiral downward toward a coach’s firing. He had to endure the ritual of recall and reassignment and memorize all the roadside stops between Washington and Hershey. He had the ups and downs of a rookie getting his first taste of play at its highest level. He looked at times as he fit right in, and in others as if he was out of place. He looked polished in some instances, and utterly unnoticeable in others. In other words, a rookie.

Grade: B-

Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America