Sunday, September 30, 2012

Washington Capitals 2012-2013 Previews -- Forwards: Matt Hendricks



Matt Hendricks

Theme:  “I really believe that everyone has a talent, ability, or skill that he can mine to support himself and to succeed in life.”
-- Dean Koontz


If age 30 is in your rear-view mirror, and you have only 137 games of NHL experience on your resume (fewer than two full year’s worth of games), it helps to have a special skill in your pocket that sets you apart from other players.

And that brings us to Matt Hendricks.  Going into the 2011-2012 season Hendricks had just celebrated his 30th birthday, and he had only those 137 games of experience with 18 goals and 41 points to go along with them.  He made himself a fan favorite with the Caps with his utter fearlessness in taking on opponents when they thought they could take liberties with teammates.  His 12 fighting majors in the 2010-2011 season tied him for 12th in the league.  It made it a difficult way to make a living for a guy topping out at six-feet in height and a shade over 200 pounds. 

But in the 2011-2012 season, Hendricks found another way to make fans cheer.  Of all NHL players with at least three attempts in The Gimmick, Hendricks tied Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson for the highest shooting percentage (83.3 percent).  That’s right, a grinder in 65 minutes of hockey who was last among 13 Caps forwards last season in goals scored for-on ice per 60 minutes turned into Mike Bossy… well, maybe that’s a bit much … in The Gimmick. 

Hendricks became so adept at making goalies look foolish in Bettman’s Folly that Caps TV analyst Craig Lauchlin gave Hendricks’ signature move its own name, “The Paralyzer.”   It was a move Hendricks picked up as a high-schooler.  Caps fans paying close attention might have gotten a clue that this skill would be a feature of Hendricks’ game when he tied for the team lead in shootout attempts (five) in his only season in Hershey in 2006-2007.

He brought “The Paralyzer” to the NHL and might have found its high point when he deked former Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas into the ice in a March 29, 2012 game in Boston against the Bruins.  But Thomas was not the only goalie victimized.  Dwayne Roloson, Evgeni Nabokov, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Peter Budaj were the other four goalies paralyzed by Hendricks.  Only Johan Hedberg stopped Hendricks in a 3-2 Gimmick win posted by the New Jersey Devils back in November.  Overall the Caps were 4-2 in games in which Hendricks attempted a trick shot (4-1 when he scored, losing only to Philadelphia), 0-2 when he was held off the ice.  Hendricks scoring in the apr├Ęs-hockey round and the Caps winning when he did was as reliable an occurrence as anything the Caps had last season.

Fearless’ Take…

Back to hockey for a moment.  Matt Hendricks was one of a quartet of Caps who finished the regular season with a rather impressive Corsi value relative to quality of competition at 5-on-5.  Only Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, and Jason Chimera were better.  And of this group only Laich had a lower offensive zone start value (43.1 percent to 44.2 percent.  In fact, only Laich, Jay Beagle, and Jeff Halpern had lower shares of offensive zone starts among the 13 Caps forwards in this group.  And, of those 13 Caps forwards, only Halpern, Beagle and Joel Ward had fewer goals scored against-on ice/60 minutes at 5-on-5.  One could explain this away by saying that Hendricks was, by and large, a fourth liner, but he finished in the middle of the pack (seventh) in quality of competition faced at 5-on-5 (numbers from behindthenet.ca). 

Cheerless’ Take…

Hendricks had the kind of offensive consistency that the Caps did not need.  In the regular season he was 4-5-9 in 78 games.  In the playoffs he was 1-1-2 in 14 games, about the same rate of scoring, which is to say "not much."  Although Hendricks is not a big scorer, his four goals and nine points for the regular season was by far the lowest in each category for him in his three full seasons in the league.  And, in the regular season Hendricks was 1-2-3, minus-6 in 28 games against teams that qualified for the Eastern Conference side of the playoffs.  Overall he was one of many on the third and fourth lines who struggled in making contributions on offense.

The Big Question… Can Matt Hendricks translate some of his “paralyzer” game to the 60-minute portion of the game?

As Matt Hendricks enters his fourth full season his offensive production shows a somewhat concerning trend: nine goals in 56 games in 2009-2010 (a 13-goal pace per 82 games), nine in 77 in 2010-2011 (10), and four in 78 games last season (four).  And this trend comes in spite of his getting progressively more ice time (9:16/game three seasons ago to 11:28 in 2010-2011 to 12:07 last season).  Part of the problem might be that Hendricks’ offensive zone starts dropped from 51.7 percent in 2010-2011 to 44.2 percent last season.  Still a 4.1 percent shooting percentage is not something that can be sustained, even from a fourth line forward.  That shooting percentage was 449th among 597 forwards dressing in the NHL last season.  Only 22 forwards playing more than half their team’s games had lower shooting percentages.  That 4.1 shooting percentage would have ranked Hendricks only 131st among defensemen in the NHL last season.

In the end…

The Caps are not expecting Matt Hendricks to be a scorer.  If he gets 10-15 points, that is probably sufficient on a team with some of the considerable weapons the Caps can use.  His forte is grit, an ability to get under the skin of opponents (he tied for the team lead in penalties drawn at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes last season), and an ability to play adequate defense.  Perhaps the drop in offensive production last season was a reflection of the style of hockey the Caps played under head coach Dale Hunter.  In a more cautious system, having the third and fourth liners taking risks is not part of the portfolio.  One could certainly come away with that watching Hendricks’ offense finding its expression in the Gimmick.  Perhaps this season he will find a little of that flair under a new head coach, although if Adam Oates can return some of his teammates to their accustomed level of success, Hendricks can be the pain in the backside – and “The Paralyzer” – that makes him a fan favorite.

Projection: 76 games, 4-4-8, minus-1

Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals 2012-2013 Previews -- Forwards: Joey Crabb



Joey Crabb

Theme:  “If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail.”
-- Heraclitus


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. 

Fearless’ Take…

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).

Cheerless’ Take…

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