Monday, September 16, 2013

Washington Capitals 2013-2014 Previews -- Forwards: Aaron Volpatti

Aaron Volpatti

Theme: “Well, there are some things a man just can't run away from.”
-- Henry, The Ringo Kid (John Wayne in “Stagecoach”)

When the contract of Matt Hendricks expired with the end of the 2013 season, it was apparent that he would not be resigned to a new deal by the Washington Capitals.  Hendricks established himself as a fan favorite, his “Paralyzer” shootout move delighting crowds, his stand-up attitude gaining the respect of players and fans alike.  But he was also a fourth liner who was not likely to get more than ten minutes or so of ice time on an average night and was not likely to be more than a 10-15 point a season player.  Given his age (32), the hard miles put upon his body, even over only 263 regular season games, and his likely asking price (he signed a four-year deal in Nashville for $1.85 million a year), returning to Washington was a long shot at best.

And that brings us to Aaron Volpatti. Four years younger than Hendricks, with only 71 games of NHL experience, and (perhaps most important) with only a $575,000 salary cap hit through the 2014-2015 season with the two-year contract extension he signed last April (itself a hint that Hendricks would not be re-upped), Volpatti now assumes the role of agitator, provocateur, grinder, occasional pugilist that was filled by Hendricks.  As for his replacing “The Paralyzer” in the trick shot competition, don’t count on it.  He has not yet taken a turn in the Gimmick as an NHL’er.

Volpatti skated a path similar to that of Hendricks to get to this point in his career.  Both are products of four-year careers in NCAA schools, Hendricks at St. Cloud State, Volpatti at Brown University.  Both had brief introductions to the AHL when their final NCAA seasons ended, Hendricks with the Milwaukee Admirals, Volpatti with the Manitoba Moose.  This is where the paths diverge a bit, though.  Hendricks knocked around the AHL for another five seasons – Lowell, Rochester, Hershey, Providence, and Lake Erie (with a stay in Florida of the ECHL included).  Volpatti spent a little less than a full season at Manitoba in 2010-2011 - 53 games there, with another 15 with the Vancouver Canucks in the NHL – before sticking with the Canucks permanently (if not full time; he played in only 23 games due to a shoulder injury) in 2011-2012.

Earlier this season, at the end of February, Volpatti was claimed off waivers by the Caps.  He played in only 17 games for the Caps out of 29 for which he was available.  It took him a while to get started with the Caps.  He had as many fights (one) as shots on goal (one) in his first eight games with Washington.  Not that he was getting much ice time; he averaged less than eight minutes a game over those first eight contests.

His ice time picked up in the last nine games of the season he played for the Caps – almost 11 minutes a game – but he did not record a point and had nine shots on goal.  He finished 0-1-1, minus-2, averaging 9:18 of ice time a game.

Fearless’ Take…

The extent to which Volpatti gets ice time would seem to bear a direct relationship to his propensity to play with a physical edge.  That does not necessarily mean dropping the gloves.  In his first season with Vancouver he led all forwards in hits per game, even though he appeared in only 15 games.  The following season he was second (minimum ten games played).  Last season, up to his being waived, he again led the Canucks.  One might say with some confidence that hits are something of an arbitrary statistic, but given his rank among teammates, you might expect that the observational bias would be similar among teammates.

Cheerless’ Take…

Volpatti has given no sign of contributing much, if any offense from the fourth line.  Yeah, he has only 71 games played in the NHL, but by the time he played in 71 NHL games, the guy Volpatti is replacing (Matt Hendricks) was 10-9-19.  Volpatti is 3-2-5 and has twice as many penalty minutes (88) as shots on goal (44).  No one expects the fourth line to contribute much on offense, but it can’t be a dry well, either.

The Big Question… Will Aaron Volpatti be anything more than a patch this season?

The top two lines are largely set for the Caps.  The third line could be a Brooks Laich-Mathieu Perreault-Eric Fehr production.  That leaves Jason Chimera and Volpatti to work things out on the fourth line at left wing.  Chimera would appear to have the inside track on that spot, but he slumped so much on offense last season, it might sound alarms about how large his contributions might be.  The thing is, neither Chimera nor Volpatti play much, if at all, on special teams, so it comes down to 5-on-5 production.  Volpatti is going to struggle to get a sweater on this team, absent injury or a personnel move.  If he is going to blossom, he is going to have to hit the ice skating to make an impression.

In the end…

It is hard to see how Volpatti plays more than a handful of games and/or makes an impact when he does.  He has displayed little in the way of being an offensive threat, is a hitter but not necessarily a fighter (probably an overrated skill in this NHL these days).  His contributions are going to be the kinds of things that do not show up in box scores.  He is likely to be the prototypical “energy” player who is difficult for other teams to play against.  He is going to have to show some skill in the defensive end to make up for his offensive shortcomings.  It is not an easy way to make a living in professional hockey, even if there are just some things a man can’t run away from. 

Projection: 26 games, 1-1-2, minus-3

Photo: Harry How/Getty Images North America

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 15

Fifteen days to Opening Night, and Fearless is running out of elements to match with your Washington Capitals.  Next in line is number 15…


The name “phosphorus” comes from the Greek word, “phosphoros,” meaning “bringer of light,” an ancient name for the planet Venus.  The name was bestowed upon the element as a result of the glow that phosphorus gives off in the presence of oxygen.  The glow is evidence of the high reactivity of phosphorus, an element not found in nature in a pure form for just that reason.

Phosphorus as an element exists almost entirely in two forms, white and red (convenient for our purposes here, covering the Caps and all).  White phosphorus glows green in the dark and is self-igniting in the presence of air.  It must be stored in water to avoid this occurrence.  Red phosphorus is obtained by heating white phosphorus and is more stable than its white counterpart.  It will not spontaneously ignite in air, although as we will see in a moment, that does not make it entirely safe.

Phosphorus is named for a word meaning “bringer of light,” but it also has another term attached to it – “The Devil’s Element.”  Why?  Well, it was the 13th element to be discovered (the number 13 thought to be an unlucky number).  Also, it its “red” form it was used to make matches (“frictional” heating, such as striking it across a rough surface, returns the “red” phosphorus to its “white” form, which then ignites).

It was discovered in 1669 by German chemist Hennig Brand, and this is where the story turns just a bit weird.  Brand, who might have been an otherwise rational sort of fellow, set out to create the “philosopher’s stone,” a centerpiece of alchemy thought to be capable of turning base metals (lead, for instance) into gold or silver.  Brand got it into his head that he might be able to accomplish the feat by distilling salts from (and we’re not making this up) urine.  We are not going to go through the whole, frankly disgusting process, other than to say it required large quantities that took up to two weeks to accumulate (these days, that’s what graduate research assistants are for).

He must have been disappointed when he did not end up with gold, but rather a white, waxy substance that glowed in the dark.  What he had was ammonium sodium hydrogen phosphate.  It would be up to Johann Kunckel, a Swedish chemist (you knew there had to be one here somewhere), to produce elemental phosphorus in 1678 from the compound Brand synthesized.

Today, phosphorus has a variety of uses – flame retardants, pesticides, water treatment, steel production, water softening, carbonated soft drinks (which used to be called “phosphates”).  There are two applications that bear special notice.  One, in its calcium phosphate form, is bone china – a fine material that contains a minimum of 30 percent phosphate.  The other is, as we hinted, matches.  The head of the match contains phosphorus that ignites when struck on a rough surface.

What we have is an element that is unsafe in one of its predominant forms, capable of spontaneous ignition, and potentially dangerous in another, a form in which it can be ignited under special conditions.  It has something of an odd history about it, and it can be found in materials that can, on occasion, be fragile.  It sounds like a defenseman who can be a bit dangerous in his own end from time to time, but who at the other end can ignite an offense.  A defenseman who can be fairly described as a bit odd on occasion and who has been a bit fragile, subject to injury.

Phosphorus… the “Mike Green” of the elements of the periodic table.

Washington Capitals 2013-2014 Previews -- Forwards: Mathieu Perreault

Mathieu Perreault

Theme: “…you were meant to be here tonight. This is YOUR time.”
-- Herb Brooks (“Miracle”)

Mathieu Perreault’s apprenticeship as a professional hockey player technically ended on April 24, 2011.  That was his last game as a Hershey Bear, a 3-0 loss to the Charlotte Checkers in Game 6 of the first round of the 2011 Calder Cup playoffs.  In 2011-2012 Perreault was a full-time member of the Washington Capitals, finishing the season with a surprising 16 goals in 64 games.  He was on an 82-game season pace to play in 67 games last year in the abbreviated 2013 NHL season.

Nevertheless, Perreault was a player without certainty in terms of his role.  Was he a potential scoring line center?  A third line center who provided offense?  A player whose diminutive stature might relegate him limited minutes on the fourth line?  Then there was the matter of his intermittent benching last year by new head coach Adam Oates.  By early-February, Perreault had sat out six of the Caps first 11 games.  Oates remarked that, with respect to Perreault’s play, “it’s not about production; it’s about playing correctly.” 

Perreault seemed to get the message.  In his first game back after sitting for five games – a 5-0 win over the Florida Panthers – Perreault had a goal and an assist in 12:40 of ice time.  Those were his first points of the season and set off a finish in which he appeared in 34 of the Caps’ last 37 games, going 6-11-17, plus-10.  That was a 14-27-41, plus-24 pace per 82 games, not bad for a player who averaged less than 12 minutes of ice time a night, spending most of that ice time on a line with Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr.

And here is the thing about Perreault’s performance last year.  He assisted on 11 goals scored by seven different players.  Most his assists came on goals scored by Eric Fehr, who scored three goals off primary assists from Perreault, but what is noteworthy is that of his 11 assists, 10 of them were primary assists.  He did not come by his helpers cheaply.

Insofar as “playing correctly” is concerned, Perreault seemed to have made progress on that front.  At 5-on-5 Perreault was second among the team’s forwards in Corsi/on ice and second in relative Corsi (on-ice minus off-ice Corsi), suggesting superior possession performance.  Among forwards playing in at least half of the Caps’ games, he was on ice for the third fewest goals against.  He had the team’s second best PDO (sum of on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage) at 5-on-5, suggesting good things happened when he was out there.

Fearless’ Take…

Mathieu Perreault has suffered being thought of as too small to take the day-to-day, 82-game physical grind that is the NHL.  The thing is, though, Perreault has missed only six games in his career for physical reasons – one for food poisoning, one with a broken nose (he might have suffered a concussion but missed only the one game…perhaps not his brightest career move), and four with an “upper body” injury sustained a year to the day after his broken nose when his stick was caught in a seam along the boards in a game in Buffalo against the Sabres, and he speared himself.

He has been surprisingly consistent in his output over his brief NHL career to date, even as he has had to bear those intermittent benchings and early-career yo-yoing from Washington to Hershey.  He has consistently been just under half a point per game (0.44, to be exact), deviating less than 0.05 points per game per season over his four year career.  Over his four years he has the highest shooting percentage among all skaters playing in at least 150 games, almost a full percentage point (18.9 percent) greater than Steven Stamkos (18.0 percent).

Cheerless’ Take…

Was Mathieu Perreault’s season a mirage?  If you buy into the idea that the Caps feasted on weak Southeast Division competition, Perreault was like a competitive eater with a tapeworm.  He was 3-10-13, plus-10 in 17 games against the other four Southeast Division teams in 2013, 3-1-4, minus-1 in 18 games against everyone else.

And there is always going to be that idea that he will struggle with an 82-game grind until he doesn’t.  Over his last 20 games he was 1-4-5, and all of those points came in games against Southeast Division teams (Tampa Bay and Winnipeg).

The Big Question… Is Mathieu Perreault ready to have his name written in ink on the lineup card?

Perreault’s early career has been a series of fits and starts, spending time shuttling between Washington and Hershey in his first two seasons, getting a seat in the press box from time to time in his most recent two years.  As last season progressed he seemed to be settling into a third line role with Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr.  It would seem that to start this season Perreault will be centering Fehr and Brooks Laich on the third line (Laich’s current state of health notwithstanding).  This could be an interesting line to watch as the season unfolds.  Laich is probably more adept than Chimera at fishing out loose pucks and battling in front of the net.  Fehr was as pleasant a surprise as one could hope for last season.  But the line has to be driven, and that is going to be Perreault’s job.

In the end…

One usually thinks of a third line center as something of a grinder, a player who is matched against an opponent’s top line to shut them down more than as a player who generates offense.  Mathieu Perreault might be one of those “pound-for-pound-the-toughest-guy-in-the-league” kind of players (he certainly is not shy about trafficking in hard places), but he still shows signs of being predominantly an offense-oriented player. 

That is not a bad thing, especially if one adheres to the idea that “the best defense is a good offense.”  If Perreault can replicate his possession numbers from last season, the line could surprise with Perreault leading it.  And before we succumb to the idea the Perreault is something of a one-trick wonder, able to perform only against those weak Southeast teams, consider that over his four year career his per-82 game production against the Southeast was 12-30-43, plus-27, while against everyone else it was 17-19-36, plus-9.  He might have a somewhat better record against the Southeast, but he has not been a dog against the other 25 teams in the league.

What it comes down to is that the time for uncertainty or the intermittent nature of his role with the team has come to an end.  He will turn 26 just after the start of the new calendar year.  The 2013-2014 season is Mathieu Perreault’s time to establish himself in the regular scheme of things.

Projection: 71 games, 13-18-31, plus-5

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America