"I feel the need…the need for speed.”
-- Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell (“Top Gun”)
Last season, fans of Washington Capitals’ forward Jason Chimera created an ice-blue cheetah mascot head to honor the player that years earlier earned the nickname, “Ice Cheetah.” One of the fastest players in the NHL, Chimera has built a 15-year career largely on his ability to fulfill his team’s need for speed.
Over his last eight seasons, though, he was also known for a sawtooth trend in his goal production. Starting with the 2007-2008 season, his goal progression from year to year was: 14-8-15-10-20-3-15-7. Last season – that of the seven goals in 77 games – continued that odd production trend. Last season looked like a long stretch of desert with the intermittent shrub. After scoring a goal in his fifth game, Chimera went 13 games without one. After breaking that drought, it was ten games without a goal. Ten more without a goal. It was like that all season until his 71st game when he had his only two-goal game of the season, that in a 5-2 win over the New York Rangers on March 29th.
As it was, Chimera recorded points in only 14 of the 77 games in which he played, eight of those against teams that did not reach the playoffs. He did not record a goal against a team that would be playoff-eligible until his 50th game of the season when he had a goal in a 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks.
Odd as the season’s outcome was in perpetuating his goal-scoring trend, one might have seen it coming given his possession numbers. His Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (47.3) was his second worst since the 2005-2006 lockout, and his Corsi-relative (minus-5.5) was his worst over that span by a significant margin (numbers from war-on-ice.com). It was the fourth time in five full seasons with Washington that he was in minus territory in his Corsi-for and Corsi-relative numbers (all numbers from war-on-ice.com).
Say what you want about his odd regular season trend over the past eight years, but he has been a dependable playoff performer in a limited role. In five postseasons with the Caps he has 11 goals in 56 games, a 16-goal pace per 82 games. Compare that with his 12-goal pace per 82 games over his five-plus regular season career with the Caps. More to the point, he has seven of his 11 career postseason goals in 26 postseason games against the New York Rangers (a 22-goal pace per 82 games). He was 1-2-3 in the seven game series against the Rangers last spring, and his 3-4-7 scoring line overall left him tied for third in goals and points for the Caps in the playoffs. It suggested that despite the regular season production difficulties he had, Chimera still had something in the tank.
Even in extra capacity tanks, the gauge hits “empty” at some point. With so much of his game dependent on speed, the calendar becomes a bit of a concern. He will turn 37 next spring (hopefully, when the Caps are dispatching whoever it is they are playing in the second round). If he loses a step, he does not have a resume to suggest he will make up for it with soft hands or guile (like that word, cuz?). The season about to begin is supposed to be his “up” year in this weird cycle.
He has been getting more shorthanded ice time in the last two seasons (1:43/game two years ago, 1:23 last season), and given that neither T.J. Oshie nor Justin Williams got more shorthanded ice time with their respective teams last season, and Troy Browuer and Joel Ward (both of whom got more with the Caps last season) are gone, Chimera might have a bigger role here. Is that a good thing? We’ll see.
The Big Question…. Up?
No, not the animated Disney movie, the fact that 2015-2016 should be an “up” season in the odd trend that has been Jason Chimera’s production the last eight seasons. Over the course of those last eight seasons, Chimera’s scoring line in his “up” years averaged 16-21-37 per 82 games. In his “down” years he averaged 9-17-26. Never an especially efficient shooter (he has not averaged more than 10 percent shooting since shooting 13.4 percent in 80 games with Columbus in 2005-2006), Chimera averaged 8.6 percent shooting in his “up” years, 6.0 percent in his “down” years. Part of it might be the act of shooting, itself. He averaged 2.3 shots per game in his “up” years, while averaging just 1.8 percent in his “down” years. While it does not seem much on a per-game basis, it is almost a 20 percent drop in shots from up years to down years. The oddest fact attached to his trend might be this, though. In five full seasons with the Caps, Washington is 17-1-1 in games in which Chimera scored a goal in his three “down” years, 16-10-6 in games in which he scored goals in his two “up” years.
In the end…
Jason Chimera is entering the second year of his current two-year contract with the Capitals. He is the only unrestricted free agent to be of any consequence on the roster. There is that incentive to make this an “up” year and extend his cycle. Whether he does or not might hinge on another aspect of his cycle on which we have not touched, and that is ice time. In five full seasons in Washington, Chimera’s average ice time in up years was 14:26 a game in 2011-2012 and 15:25 in 2013-2014. In his down years that average ice time was 13:15 in 2010-2011, 12:40 in 2012-2013, and 12:56 in 2014-2015.
Will he get that extra ice time, and with whom will he get it? The two linemates with whom he had the most 5-on-5 ice time last season – Joel Ward and Eric Fehr – departed in the offseason to San Jose and Pittsburgh, respectively. Given the uncertainty at center on the top two lines with the possible absence of Nicklas Backstrom to start the season, Chimera might start the season with Brooks Laich centering his line, or perhaps Marcus Johansson. When things settle out, it might be Andre Burakovsky centering that line. It could be a line that is, as a group, somewhat quicker than the Chimera-Fehr-Ward line employed last season, although it might not be quite as “heavy” a line. One can imagine a line that could make use of Chimera’s speed, and if so, things would be looking “up” for Chimera in 2015-2016.
Projection: 80 games, 14-24-38, plus-1
Projection: 80 games, 14-24-38, plus-1
Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America