-- Alexandre Dumas
Those are the last words of Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” a story of perseverance and hope. For the Washington Capitals, “hope” was personified in three players with three very distinct sets of expectations attached to them. In 2013-2014 Caps fans were given their first glimpse at what each player might bring to the club on a more regular basis in the future.
In “The Count of Monte Cristo,” the hero – Edmond Dantes – spent six years in the Chateau d'If, a prison from which no prisoner had ever escaped. Caps fans did not have to wait quite as long to see Evgeny Kuznetsov in the flesh after he was drafted in 2010, and an island prison in the Mediterranean Sea in the early 19th Century is not Russia in the early 21st Century, but Kuznetsov did spend more time in Russia than the Caps or fans might have thought when he was taken with the 26th overall pick of the 2010 entry draft. His choice. When Kuznetsov chose to make the journey to North America he gave indications that the wait would be worth the trouble.
Fearless’ Take… There were 21 forwards in their first season in the NHL who recorded nine or more points and played in 17 or more games. Kuznetsov was that 21st forward, having played in 17 games. Of that group, the forward with the next fewest games played was Pittsburgh’s Jayson Megna, who played in 36 games and recorded nine points as well. Of 69 first-year forwards playing in at least 17 games, Kuznetsov had the ninth-highest points per game. Seven of the eight players ahead of him played in at least 20 more games. The Caps also happened to be 8-5-4 in the 17 games in which Kuznetsov played.
Cheerless’ Take... Some players drive play with possession, others are passengers. Evgeny Kuznetsov was stuck in the bed of the pick-up truck. A Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 of 42.3? Fenwick-for percentage of 40.9? Okay, okay. A lot of that is playing so much time with Tom Wilson (37.7 percent of his 5-on-5 time) and Jay Beagle (26.4 percent), but still.
Peerless’ Take... That Kuznetsov averaged more than a half-point per game with such poor possession statistics might be evidence of the raw talent he possesses, an ability to make something of not much. But that is not a strategy going forward. His performance suggests that he will, at least for a while, be the sort of player who electrifies for stretches, makes one long to be electrocuted for others. But he will be fun to watch develop.
Michael Latta is the only remnant of the trade that sent Filip Forsberg to Nashville and that brought Martin Erat to Washington. Erat finished his 2013-2014 season in Phoenix, while Forsberg has played only 18 games to date for the Predators. Who would have thought that Latta would play more games with his parent club this season (17) than Forsberg (13)? Or score as many goals (one) and almost as many points (four, versus five for Forsberg)?
Fearless’ Take… If Michael Latta ends up playing more games than Filip Forsberg or scoring almost as many points, it will say far more about Forsberg than Latta. That, however, is Nashville’s concern for the time being. In Washington, Latta played in 17 games and was that rare breed of Capital. He was not a “minus” player. He was decent (do not read that as “good”) in his possession numbers: seventh among 17 Caps forwards playing in at least ten games in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5, tied for 11th in Fenwick-for percentage. The Caps were 9-6-2 in games in which Latta appeared.
Cheerless’ Take… Less than eight minutes a game, only twice getting more than ten minutes, no games registering more than one shot on goal. Among first-year forwards, his 1-3-4, even, 7:42 in average ice time over 17 games profile is almost indistinguishable from that of Darren Archibald (1-2-3, plus-1, 7:47 in 16 games) or Jerry D’Amigo (1-2-3, minus-1, 8:02 in 22 games). Let’s just call him a work in progress, okay?
Peerless’ Take… If the Caps find a serviceable fourth liner in the mold of, say, a Matt Hendricks, in Michael Latta, they will have salvaged something out of one of the more perplexing trades and aftermath in club history. If there is something intriguing about his game, it was in his Hershey numbers. With the Bears he was 14-20-34, plus-14 in 52 games. On a per-game basis, that’s better than the best seasons Jay Beagle had in Hershey. Just something to think about.
If you were going to write a manual on how a defenseman might work up the developmental ladder, Patrick Wey might be the model. USHL program, drafted by the Capitals, enrollment at Boston College, four years under one of the flagship programs in collegiate hockey (including two national championships while he played there), eight games in Reading with the Royals in the ECHL, then up to Hershey, and finally – last December – called up to the big club. Okay, so he only played in one game before being reassigned, but he was recalled on two more occasions, playing in nine games and recording his first three NHL points (in consecutive games played).
Fearless’ Take… Wey is not going to be an offensive-minded defenseman, but three assists in his first four games with the Caps at least hints he will not be totally silent at that end of the rink. His test drive might have lasted longer but for a fight with Nashville’s Rich Clune on March 30th. It ended unpleasantly for Wey in what would be Wey’s last game with the Caps and his last game of the season. The Caps were 5-1-3 in the nine games in which Wey appeared.
Cheerless’ Take… Those three points in his first four games were pretty much offset by his minus-4 in his last four games. Yeah, it was pretty stiff competition (San Jose, Los Angeles, and Boston among the teams), but he was on ice for seven of the 13 goals the Caps allowed in those four games. It was an indication that more seasoning is needed before he’s ready to come to the table.
Peerless’ Take… In Patrick Wey’s last game with the Caps, on March 30th against Nashville, the Caps dressed a defense that included Julien Brouillette and Dmitry Orlov, in addition to Wey. Those three defensemen had a combined 121 games of experience going into that game, and Orlov had 111 of those. For the season the Caps dressed 14 defensemen, among them Wey, Brouillette, Cameron Schilling, Alexander Urbom, Nate Schmidt, Steve Oleksy, and Connor Carrick, only Oleksy (61) with more than 35 games of NHL experience at the end of the season. Wey was part of a mixed green salad of sorts, the “green” being inexperienced defensemen. Getting injured in a fight did nothing to help in Wey’s development, but playing in Washington at all in the 2013-2014 season probably would not have occurred had the Caps been deeper at the position. That suggests that if a new management team does anything with respect to firming up the blue line, Wey will get a chance to continue his development in Hershey in 2014-2015.
In the end…
Scorer, grinder, stay-at-home defenseman. Given their respective ages, Evgeny Kuznetsov (22), Michael Latta (23), and Patrick Wey (23) might be expected to play significant minutes in perhaps three to four years (sooner in the case of the gifted Kuznetsov). With varying frequency this past season, each gave an indication that they could contribute those minutes. Each of them had their shortcomings as well, though, suggesting that they have much work to do to get those significant minutes and make significant contributions to the big club. For these three players, it is “wait and hope” for Caps fans.
But hey, we’re used to that by now, aren’t we?
Kuznetsov: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America
Latta: Elsa/Getty Images North America
Wey: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America