Thursday, January 17, 2013

Questions, Questions... Then and Now: The Defense and Goaltenders

We have updated our look at questions concerning the 2013 Washington Capital forwards; now it is time to take a look at the folks who are trying to keep the puck out of the net – the defensemen and goalies.

Karl Alzner… Will Karl Alzner be among the biggest “values” among defensemen this season?
What we said back then… If you look at comparables at the Web site, you will find a lot of names that the casual fan – and, we dare say, a fair number of regular fans – would not recognize. Chris Butler, Kevin Klein, Theo Peckkham, Raphael Diaz, Brian Lee among them. Alzner represents a scant 2.0 percent of the current salary cap. Of the 21 Capitals skaters currently under contract, only eight have lower cap hits, and he is sixth of eight defensemen in cap hit (Dmitry Orlov and Jack Hillen are lower). Given Alzner’s growing ability as a shutdown defenseman, he might be the biggest value at the position in the league today.
And now?... When teams change coaches there is the uncertainty that comes with new ideas, new approaches, new voices.  When that change is accompanied by a sea change in style, one wonders what effect that will have on younger players, especially when the change involves moving from a style that seems compatible with one’s game to one that is going to push the boundaries.  This might be the case for Alzner, more of a defensive defenseman than a “puck mover.”  There is something of an anomaly in Alzner’s career numbers, though.  On a per-82 game basis they show little difference between those posted under Bruce Boudreau (2-13-15) and those posted under Dale Hunter (0-14-14; and yes, 60 games might qualify as a small population of events).  Adam Oates and staff are giving defensemen more latitude to join in the play, something that Alzner says will take a bit of time to become second nature  In Alzner’s case that might not matter, and that could be a good thing.  Reliability and consistency are among his strengths.  It will be maintaining them that is the issue meriting attention concerning Alzner this season.

John Carlson… Which John Carlson will Caps fans see in 2012-2013, the regular season disappointment of last season or the post-season cornerstone?
What we said back then… John Carlson will not be 23 years old until January. It is a bit much, perhaps, to expect him to show the maturity of a player who is coming up on 33 years old. As such, there are bound to be potholes and detours on the road of his professional development. The best that one could say is that the regular season was something of a wake-up call, that nothing can be taken for granted. That Carlson stepped his game up in the post-season suggests a lesson learned. He has the tools to continue that march upward on his professional arc, and his head might be in the right place now to continue that progress.
And now?... If there is a defenseman who might show big improvement in his numbers under Oates, it could be Carlson.  This is a player who scored 76 points in 59 games in Canadian junior.  He also was on ice for only seven even-strength goals scored against the Caps in 14 games of post-season action last spring.  He can play at both ends.  But the odd part about his numbers is that while he recorded those 76 points playing for Dale Hunter at London in 2008-2009, he was 5-15-20, minus-20 in 60 games under Hunter last season.  In a system that provides a longer leash to defensemen Carlson could see his offensive game jump a notch or two.  Much will depend on the power play time he gets, but 20-25 points in the abbreviated season would not be out of the question for Carlson in such a system…  without the minus-20.

John Erskine… Is there room for John Erskine in the starting lineup?
What we said back then… The Capitals appear set on their top two defensive pairs – Karl Alzner and John Carlson being one and Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik being the other. The third pair will be one of those tough decisions for new head coach Adam Oates to deal with. While Dmitry Orlov would seem to have the inside track on one of the spots, his inexperience has to be weighed in the matter. His presence on that pairing is no sure thing. Erskine is in the mix with Jeff Schultz and Jack Hillen for a spot on that pairing. The difficulty for Erskine is that he does not stand out at either end of the ice, hence the fight for a third pair spot. Among 237 defensemen playing in at least 20 games last season Erskine was 167th in Corsi value at 5-on-5, 219th in Corsi relative to quality of competition., this despite being 46th in offensive zone starts. Oddly enough, however, his goals against-on ice per 60 minutes of 1.69 was much better than his corresponding value off ice (2.79). But again, his quality of competition faced was inferior to that faced by most other defensemen. According to it was 228th of 237 defensemen in this group. Perhaps having to comeback from significant injury played into this, but still, he is likely to face quite a battle for that third pair spot.
And now?... Dmirty Orlov appears likely to start the season on the shelf with an injury, which gives Erskine an opportunity.  And a challenge.  It would be tempting to say that Erskine’s skills and Adam Oates’ philosophy are incompatible.  Tempting, but premature.  Consider that Erskine was a “plus” player in each of his seasons playing for the offensive-minded Bruce Boudreau, including the 20 games (eight of which Erskine played in) coached by Boudreau last season.  If there is anything that might slow Erskine down, so to speak, it is his own injury history.  Since joining the Caps in 2006-2007 he has sustained foot, thumb, “lower body,” “upper body,” concussion, leg, hand, shoulder, and “lower body” injuries.  Only once has he played in more than 55 games in any of those six seasons.  It appears that there is room in the lineup for Erskine, given what could be Orlov’s absence, but whether Erskine takes advantage of it with good health will be a bigger issue for him than any perceived incompatibility with the new philosophy on the ice.

Mike Green… Can Mike Green stay healthy?
What we said back then… Since dressing for all 82 games in the 2007-2008 season, Mike Green has been absent for almost one-third of the regular season games played by the Caps (104 of 328). What is worse, his availability is a matter of diminishing performance – 75 games in 2009-2010, 49 games in 2010-2011, and only 32 games last season. It is entirely possible that the concussions suffered in the 2010-2011 season are far enough in the past to be of lesser concern. It is not unreasonable to think that the surgery he had to repair an injured groin last season will leave him stronger going forward. Productivity, at least at the offensive end of the ice, has not been a problem for Green, even in the midst of his injuries. His 11-20-31 line over 81 games in the last two seasons wouldn’t keep him among the game’s elite scoring defensemen, but it would have left him among the top 40 defensemen in points last season, and the 11 goals would have left him in the top 15. Not bad for a guy who has had to battle injury and changes to a more defensive style employed by the Caps. But it is that pesky injury bug that Green has to shake.
And now?... The groin problems appear to be in his rear-view mirror, and it appears that he can see that clearly Not a moment too soon, either, because if the defense is going to be expected to play a bigger role in scoring, Green will have to be a big part of that.  He is now three seasons removed from being the best offensive defenseman in the league.  He does not have to return to that level, necessarily, but he has to be a dependable threat from the blue line.  Over the last two season he compiled a total of 31 points in 81 games.  That 31 points (a 53-point pace over 82 games) might be a good benchmark to use for him in the 48-game season the Caps are about to play.

Roman Hamrlik… Does Roman Hamrlik get second-pair minutes with the Caps?
What we said back then… Karl Alzner and John Carlson are likely to get the most minutes as a pair for this club. Last year, each of them averaged about 18 minutes of even-strength ice time per game. Mike Green would appear likely to get almost as many minutes (he averaged 17 even strength minutes a night in his 32 games). Who gets the minutes on the other side of that second pairing is something of an open question. Dennis Wideman took his 18:41 of even strength ice time that he averaged last season to Calgary, and Dmitry Orlov might not be ready to assume than much of a load. It would be hard to think that anyone but Hamrlik would be paired with Green on the second pair to start the season (hey, humor us about that). Whether Hamrlik will have enough to be on that pair in the spring is another matter.
And now?... OK, so maybe Hamrlik doesn’t have a career in politics.    That is hardly a concern of the Caps or their fans.  What is a concern is that he will be 39 years old in April, and he has almost 1,500 regular season and playoff games under his belt in the NHL (1,490, actually).  But here’s the thing.  In his last 60 games last season starting with the change in coaches, including all 14 games in the post season, Hamrlik was 2-14-16, plus-29.  It seems a certainty that he will get second-line minutes with this team, this season.  And he has given no clear sign that age is yet a factor in his play.  Last season, any attention that came his way generally did so because he was not playing well.  If little is said about him this season (other than the odd pot-stirring quote), chances are that steady play he exhibited over the last two-thirds of last season is carrying over to this season.

Jack Hillen… Can Hillen leap-frog into a top-six spot?
What we said back then… Hillen was a top-six defenseman on Islander teams that had modest aspirations and a lack of depth. In Nashville, his 55 games might have been more a product of circumstance. Certainly that seems to be the case given that the Predators chose to stick with younger options in the lower pairings than re-sign Hillen. The Caps have a more veteran group fighting for third pair spots (Jeff Schultz and John Erskine have 797 regular season games of experience between them to 230 for Hillen), which will make the contest difficult from Hillen’s perspective. If he has an advantage it might be that he could be a more mobile defenseman than either Schultz or Erskine and a better fit for Oates’ approach. But since both Oates and Hillen are unseen commodities in these parts so far, it makes for a fuzzy picture trying to look ahead.
And now?... Hillen remains something of an unknown quantity.  New guy on a new team with a new coach.  He is part of the logjam among the eight (or nine, depending on how you stand on the matter of Tom Poti) roster defensemen battling for time as a third-pair defenseman.  He does not have the size or wingspan of a Jeff Schultz or a John Erskine (or a Poti) and does not have the low center of gravity sturdiness of a Dmity Orlov.  What he does have is a couple of 20-plus point seasons among the parts of five seasons on his resume.  It is hard to see him getting a lot of time absent injury, but then again teams do often have the need for dressing ten or more defensemen over the course of a normal season (the Caps dressed 10 defensemen last season).

Dmitry Orlov… Does Orlov’s absence in the 2012 post-season portend a sophomore slump in 2012-2013?
What we said back then… Base on the company he keeps in terms of his first-year production, the temptation is to say “no.”  But of course, this is really a question that has only a speculative answer in advance.  His being withheld from the post-season did not appear to be a clear product of any late-season slump.  He was 1-8-9, plus-3 in his last 20 games while averaging almost 17 minutes a game.  It is certainly harder to shelter a player when the level of competition ramps up, as in the playoffs.  It will be difficult to do so this season if Orlov gets some of the minutes that Dennis Wideman took to Calgary.  But that is going to be part of the pain to be endured as Orlov develops the defensive side of his game.  His offensive game is further developed at this stage than his game in his own end, and one might expect in that regard that he will not suffer such a sophomore slump.
And now?... Orlov appears unlikely to be ready to answer the bell to start the season.  He has one of those “upper-body” injuries and has only 18 games played at Hershey this season.  That is especially unfortunate; his 19 points in 60 games as a rookie (fourth among all rookies) made him one of the more intriguing story lines for a team that looked to be moving to a more offense-oriented, up-tempo style.  Missing any length of time to start this season will put him at a bigger disadvantage than what might be the case in an 82-game season – the need for the club to iron out its kinks early, integrating a new style of play, the need for the player to get back into game shape quickly upon return.  It makes for what could be a difficult season for Orlov.

Jeff Schultz… Is Jeff Schultz suited to the sort of game Adam Oates wants to play?
What we said back then… Again, no one has seen Adam Oates coach a game in anger yet, so his philosophy is a big unknown to Caps fans.  We hear he will not be as buttoned down as Dale Hunter, but not as Animal House as Bruce Boudreau.  Even if he achieves a happy median, it might not look too good for Jeff Schultz.  After all, Schultz dressed for only 33 of 60 games under Hunter, and he did not distinguish himself in ten playoff games (no points, minus-7) in place of Dmitry Orlov, who was effectively benched for the post-season.
For Schultz, will a game that could be more up-tempo than what Dale Hunter implemented be compatible with his skills?  Well, Schultz was that plus-50 under Bruce Boudreau, so it is not as if he is a slug out there.  The answer to the question might be more in whether Schultz can shake off any rust that playing in only 126 of the last 164 regular season games might leave him with or if he can find happiness – or at least stability – with this, his third coach in the space of 11 months.
And now?... From plus-50 to fighting for a sweater (and usually not getting one) in three seasons if quite a fall.  Schultz is one of those guys who might benefit from having a fresh set of eyes looking upon him (although this would be the second fresh set in a year).  But has Schultz become a defenseman who needs his minutes managed?  There is a curious number from last year – “11.”  He was on ice for 11 power play goals against in 54 games.  On a per-82 game basis that ranked third on the team behind John Carlson and Karl Alzner, who generally drew much more difficult assignments.  He had the worst goals against/on-ice per 60 minutes at 4-on-5 of any Caps defenseman.  What is more, he was a defenseman who while killing penalties got favorable zone occupation (tops among Caps defensemen in offensive zone starts and finishes).  On a team that does not have an abundance of “defensive” defensemen, one would hope Schultz could fill that role as a second-unit defenseman while shorthanded.  We will see if he gets that chance to put up better numbers.

Tom Poti… Huh?
What we said back then… Nothing.  After playing in only 21 games in the 2010-2011 season and missing all of the 2011-2012 season, he looked all but done. 
And now?... He gets a chance.  He is on a conditioning assignment with Hershey, having played in two games (0-1-1, minus-1).  But the road ahead of him is steep.  There is not a lot of time to get back into game shape at game speed at the NHL level.  A healthy, game-ready Poti would be a valuable addition to this team, given the way it appears the Caps want to play.  But he has been lapped by time and injury, and it is going to take a lot for him to catch up to the leaders – the eight roster defensemen – to make a contribution to the Caps this season.

Braden Holtby… Can Braden Holtby sustain his performance level to date over a full NHL season?
What we said back then… The simple answer to this question is “no.” Holtby’s top-end numbers so far in his young career are a 2.02 goals against average and a .929 save percentage. Let’s say Holtby was to log 2,500 minutes this season (27 goalies logged at least as many last season). That would get him to a little over 3,500 minutes over his first three seasons. No goaltender since 1990-1991 has achieved those goals against and save percentage numbers in at least 3,500 combined minutes over their first three seasons. Only two goalies have lower than a 2.02 goals against average in at least 3,500 minutes over their first three seasons: Roman Cechmanek and Marty Turco. Only ten such goalies have a GAA lower than 2.30. Only three goalies in that period under those criteria have a save percentage of over .920: Niklas Backstrom, Roman Cechmanek, and Marty Turco. Only 18 have a save percentage over .910 (teammate Michal Neuvirth is one of them at .913).
And now?... Holtby has gone from playoff hero to the weakest link to the likely starter for Saturday night’s season opener, at least in the eyes of his teammates.  Despite the roller coaster ride since last spring’s coming out party for Holtby, he remains a goalie who has yet to appear in more than 14 games in a regular season (ok, this is his third season).  It is still an open question if he can sustain a high level of performance when getting 70-75 percent or so of the appearances.  Given the nature of the schedule it would not seem likely he will get 30-35 appearances, but 25-30 is possible, a number that would be more than his career regular season total to date.  The advantage here is that Holtby had a baptism by fire as the number one in last spring’s playoffs.  If one looks at a 48-game season as merely a long first round of the playoffs, Holtby should be ready.

Michal Neuvirth… Can Neuvirth grab the number one job by the throat and hold it?
What we said back then… Michal Neuvirth had a chance to take the number one goaltending job for the Caps into the 2010-2011 regular season and took it, only to drop the ball in the playoffs after a fine opening round. It cost him a realistic chance at having a shot at the number one spot in 2011-2012 when the Caps signed Tomas Vokoun. But now, the lane is clear in front of him heading into training camp (whenever that might be). He has Braden Holtby on his outside running neck and neck, and if Holtby’s performance regresses (how could it not from where it was over his first 35 games of NHL experience), the job could be Neuvirth’s for the taking. He will be facing arguably his weakest competition in the last three years of the Capitals’ goalie sweepstakes – Braden Holtby is neither the first round pick Semyon Varlamov was, nor does he come close to the body of work Tomas Vokoun had – but Neuvirth will be coming off an injury while his competition compiled an impressive post-season performance last spring. There is no easy answer to this question.
And now?... It all seemed so simple.  Semyon Varlamov was traded to Colorado, Tomas Vokoun would get his year in goal to provide the transition, and Michal Neuvirth would take the reins as the number one goaltender.  Then Marco Sturm fell on his knee, Braden Holtby took over and become something of a media darling during the playoffs (not to mention being very good), and Neuvirth has become “the other guy” as this season starts.  There is also the matter of his being a restricted free agent after this season ($1.150 million cap hit this year on a full-season basis) and Phillip Grubauer making considerable progress in the Caps’ minor league system (2-1-0, 1.79, .938 in four appearances so far for Hershey after leading the ECHL in wins and ranking sixth in goals against average with Reading).  Being “the other guy” might be the least of Neuvirth’s problems.  He could be the odd man out after this season.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"but not as Animal House as Bruce Boudreau". Love this statement, keep em coming...Mike.