Sunday, July 23, 2017

Washington Capitals -- Weekend Doodles...Did You Know?

Did you know…

No team created in the post Original Six era has more 50 win seasons than the Washington Capitals.  With five such seasons in team history, they trail only the Boston Bruins (nine), Montreal Canadiens (seven), and Detroit Red Wings (six).

Since the 2004-2005 lockout…
  • The Caps have the second-best scoring offense in the league at 2.99 goals per game.  Only Pittsburgh is better (3.05).
  • Washington has the best scoring offense on the road (2.86 goals per game).
  • The Caps have the league’s most efficient power play overall (20.6 percent) and the most efficient power play on home ice (21.3 percent).
  • Only one team has a worse penalty kill on the road than the Caps (79.6 percent) – Toronto (79.2 percent).
  • They have the second best shooting percentage (9.862 percent to 9.886 percent for Pittsburgh).
  • No team has scored more third period goals than the Caps (tied with Pittsburgh with 992).
  • No team has scored more overtime goals than the Caps (69).
  • Only five teams have more wins than the Caps  (515) – San Jose (547), Detroit (532), Pittsburgh (536), Anaheim (527), and the New York Rangers (522).
  • Only four teams have more standings points than the Caps (1148) – San Jose (1199), Detroit (1193), Pittsburgh (1173), and Anaheim (1168).
  • Mike Green has the highest goal total in a season among 797 defensemen to dress over this period (31 in 2008-2009).
  • Alex Ovechkin has seven of the 20 50-goal seasons recorded over this period.
  • Ovechkin has four of the 13 20-power play goal seasons over these years and is the only player to do it more than once.  He has 82 more power play goals (212) than the second-place player on the list (Thomas Vanek: 129).
  • Ovechkin is the only player in the league to have logged more than 4,000 power play minutes of ice time (4,459).
  • The Caps have five of the 28 100-point seasons over this period (Ovechkin has four of them; Nicklas Backstrom has one).  Only Pittsburgh has more (eight).
  • Only Henrik Sedin (seven) and Joe Thornton (six) have more 60-assist seasons than Backstrom (five).

See… it hasn’t been so bad.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- July 22nd

We are back with another Washington Capitals “what if today didn’t happen the way it happened back then?”  After a brief sojourn into an episode in which a player departed the organization to great effect, we return to an instance in which a player was brought into the organization.  July 22, 1996, was Day 3 of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, but several hundred miles to the north, the Capitals dipped into the free agent market.

The team was coming off a decent season, which is to say “typical.”  In the 1995-1996 season, the club finished with a 39-32-11 record, good for fourth in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference, the seventh-seed in the playoffs that season.  They drew the second-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round and lost in six games, a series that featured a four-overtime game, which of course, the Caps lost.

In the 1995-1996 season, the Caps’ blue line contributed some offense with three defensemen – Sergei Gonchar (15-26-41), Sylvan Cote (5-33-38), and Calle Johansson (10-25-35) – posting at least 35 points.  However, there was quite a drop-off after that to Mark Tinordi (3-10-13).  In the playoffs, though, the defense was barely heard from in terms of offensive contributions.  Gonchar was 2-4-6, and Cote was 2-0-2.  That did it for defensemen with any points in the six-game series against the Pens.

Which brings us to late July the following summer.  They signed 14-year veteran Phil Housley to a three-year/$7.5 million contract.  Housley, who had several teams from which to pick as an unrestricted free agent, chose the Caps because “the other teams weren't going in the same direction as the Capitals. Right now, they have the goaltender [Vezina Trophy winner Jim Carey] and the defense that can carry a team through the low-scoring games."

One might have been led to believe at the time that Housley was the last piece of the puzzle, the player who could deliver the mail from the blue line on offense.  After all, Housley was a defenseman who had fewer than 60 points in a full NHL season (not counting the injury-shortened 19993-1994 season) only once in 13 seasons, and that was a 43-point year in the lockout-shortened 1994-1995 season.  With Gonchar, Cote, and Johansson, the Caps could ice a formidable foursome in terms of offensive threat from the blue line.

Yeah, well, that was the plan.  What was not in the plan was the Caps having only two defensemen dress for more than 65 games in the 1996-1997 season.  Housley was one of them (77 games), Ken Klee was the other (80 games).  Gonchar, Cote, Johansson and missed a combined 67 games, and while those three finished second, third, and fourth, respectively, in defenseman scoring (Housley was first with 40 points), it was not the output foreseen when the Caps assembled this defense. 

Worse, the Caps missed the postseason after a 14-year run in reaching the playoffs.  The result was due, in no small part, to the team missing a total of 361 man-games to injury.  But it also had its origins in the weak play at goaltender.   The Vezina Trophy winner that Housley alluded to in describing his decision process in choosing the Caps, Jim Carey, imploded.  After a ghastly 1996 postseason (0-1, 6.19, .744 in just 97 minutes played), Carey went 17-18-3, 2.75, .893 in 1996-1997 (not awful by the standards of the time, but not good, either), and he was traded late in the season as the team was falling out of playoff contention.   In terms of the defense, Housley was not the “last piece” of what could be a championship-caliber team, he was the “only piece” of a defense decimated by injury and a team that managed just 75 standings points, ninth-lowest for a full season in club history to that point in time.

The Caps stormed out of the gate in the 1997-1998 season, the team going 7-1-0 in their first eight games.  Housley might have done likewise, going 1-2-3, plus-4, in his first five games, but then he was sidelined for three games (all Caps wins).  It barely slowed him down, though.  In the first 29 games of the season in which he dressed, he was held without a point in consecutive games only twice and went 3-20-23 in those games.

Then, his offensive output dried up.  From December 13th in Los Angeles against the Kings through January 21st in Tampa against the Lightning, Housley went 14 games without a point. He broke the drought with a goal against the Boston Bruins on January 25th, a 4-1 Caps win, but then he went another eight games without a point.  Housley recovered to finish the regular season 2-5-7 in his last dozen games, although three of those points (all assists) came in a 6-3 win over the Florida Panthers on March 7th.  It ended up being a frustrating season for Housley, who missed 18 games in the regular season and finished with just 31 points, his lowest total for a full season to that point in his career (not including the injury-shortened 1993-1994 season in which he had 22 points in 26 games).

It hardly improved in the postseason for Housley.  With the Caps going on a roll, winning three series to reach the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history, Housley was scratched for three games in the second-round series against the Ottawa Senators.  He averaged barely 12 minutes in the 18 games in which he did dress for the postseason (only Brendan Witt had a lower average among the six defensemen who appeared in at least ten games) and had four assists (no goals).

When the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Capitals, 4-1, to complete a four-game sweep of the Stanley Cup final, it brought down the curtain on Phil Housley’s career in Washington.  The Caps placed him on waivers in July, and he was claimed by the Calgary Flames.  And we finally get to the “what if” portion of the piece.  What if Housley had not been signed in the summer of 1996?  Looking at his body of work as a Capital, it is tempting, to say the least, that little would have changed.  In two years with the Caps, he did go 17-54-71 in 141 games, but over time he became largely a power play specialist. His minus-20 was tied for 182nd among 205 defensemen appearing in at least 50 games over the 1996-1997 and 1997-1998 seasons (to be fair, Brendan Witt was minus-31 over the same two seasons, but those were his second and third seasons in the league).  His one postseason with the Caps was as a support player with limited exposure who seemed to fall out of favor of head coach Ron Wilson.

One might make an argument that Housley’s contributions were of the intangible nature.  Despite being just 32 when he arrived in Washington, Housley had 932 games of NHL regular season experience.  That could only help a club with a couple of very green defensemen of whom much was expected; Sergei Gonchar was just 22, and Brendan Witt was just 21 years old.  The numbers Housley put up in his two seasons with the club were, in the context of the club for which he played, pretty good.  There were 15 defensemen who dressed for the team over those two seasons.  Among them, Housley ranked as follows:
  • Games played: 1st (141)
  • Goals: 3rd (17)
  • Assists: 1st (54)
  • Points: 1st (71)
  • Plus-Minus: 14th (minus-20)
  • Power play goals: 2nd (7)
  • Power play points: 1st (39)
  • Shots: 2nd (296)

However, of his 21 NHL seasons, Housley’s 11 goals in 1996-1997 is tied for the sixth lowest total in his career, while his six goals in 1997-1998 is tied for second lowest.  Similarly, his 40 points in 1996-1997 is the sixth lowest total of his career, while the 31 points he posted in the following season is third lowest.  Those years were even worse compared to his other NHL stops.  Housley played in at least 20 games for seven franchises in his career (plus one game for the Toronto Maple Leafs).  His goals per game with the Caps was sixth best of the seven teams for which he played.  His points per game was tied for sixth.  His shots on goal per game was worst with the Caps among the seven teams.

His postseason numbers might be considered disappointing.  In his two years with the club he appeared in just one postseason and was the only Capital defenseman of seven appearing in more than two games not to record a goal.  He had only two even strength points, one fewer than Joe Reekie, whose stock and trade was not in the offensive end of the ice.

It would be reasonable to conclude that had Housley not been signed by the Caps in 1996, the 1996-1997 season would not have been appreciably different.  The 1997-1998 season is a bit more nuanced.  There were all those injuries on the blue line that held Mark Tinordi to 47 games played, Sylvain Cote to 59 games, and Ken Klee to 51 games.  Housley missed 18 games that season himself.  Had Housley not been a Capital that season, the team might have had to put Brendan Witt, in just his third NHL season and first appearing in more than 50 games, in more responsible (and vulnerable) situations.  And, the Caps might have had to give defensemen such as Jeff Brown (nine games that season), Stewart Malgunas (eight), or Nolan Baumgartner (four) more appearances.  Or, the team might have had to swing a deal for a defenseman. 

It is a stretch to think that the Caps would have finished out of the playoffs with Housley never having been a member of the 1997-1998 team that went to the Cup final.  After all, they did finish 18 points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference.  But it could have upset the seedings enough to give the Caps an unfavorable matchup as early as the first round.  Consider that the Caps finished just five points ahead of the seventh-place Montreal Canadiens.  If the Caps were five or more points worse without Housley – not beyond imagination – the Caps would have drawn the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, a team against which the Caps were 1-1-2 that season (two overtime ties) and a team against which the Caps were already 1-4 in postseason series.

If Phil Housley had never been a Capital, it is possible – if not likely – that the Caps would still have only 1990 as a year in which they advanced past the second round of the playoffs and would still be looking for their first trip to a Stanley Cup final.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- July 16th

There are distinct mileposts in a team’s history. For teams that have won championships, the dates when they clinched a title are foremost among them. For teams that haven’t, others have to do. In the case of the Washington Capitals, the dates that stand out in team history more often than not are those when important deals were transacted. And in almost all of those cases for the Caps, they involved a player arriving in Washington. There was September 9, 1982, when the Caps obtained Rod Langway in a trade that might be the most consequential deal in the history of the club, quite literally saving hockey in Washington. There was July 11, 2001, when the Capitals traded for arguably the best player in the league at the time in Jaromir Jagr. There was June 26, 2004, when General Manager George McPhee stood at the podium at RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, and announced that with the first pick in the 2004 entry draft, the Caps selected Alex Ovechkin.

But there is a date in Capitals history important for the player who left town. That date was July 16, 1990. The St. Louis Blues had tendered an offer of a four-year, $5.1 million contract to Capitals restricted free agent defenseman Scott Stevens. Weighing the choice of matching the offer or accepting as many as five first round draft picks in return, the Capitals opted for the latter, allowing Stevens to depart. He signed his contract with the Blues on July 16, 1990.

This deal occupies its own special place in Caps history. In fact, it could be its own “wing” of the museum, if you will. The departure would make Stevens arguably the most prolific and consequential draft pick in team history for the lineage his departure sprouted

Things have progressed even more since this superb tree was developed at Japers' Rink (for example, Nathan Walker, who could land a spot on the Opening Night roster, is a part of this tree, and boy, it that a road to behold/1).

But the subject of our thought exercise is not the Stevens departure, but what would have happened had the Caps matched the Blues' offer and retained him for another four years. The immediate effects would have been felt on the ice. The question is, would they have been significant? In the 1990-1991 season the Caps had a revolving door at the blue line, owing to injuries and trades, dressing a total of 14 defensemen in the regular season, but only four of them appearing in more than 60 games – Calle Johansson, Kevin Hatcher, Mike Lalor, and Mikhail Tatarinov (parenthetically, current Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville was one of the 14, dressing for nine games with the Caps). One would think that Stevens, who dressed for 73 or more games in seven of his first eight seasons with the Caps, would have been another reliable fixture in the lineup. One would also think that Stevens, who topped 50 points in five of those eight seasons, would have given the Caps three such performers on the blue line (Johansson had 52 points, and Hatcher had 74).

But it might have been in the postseason in which Stevens’ presence could be most keenly felt. The Caps had six defensemen appear in at least ten of the team’s 11 postseason games in 1991. Hatcher, Johansson, Al Iafrate, and Calle Johansson were solid performers. Rod Langway, even at the tail end of his career, was still a solid stay at home defenseman. The other two defensemen – Mike Lalor (who came to the Caps in the Geoff Courtnall trade of which we spoke in the previous installment in this series) and Ken Sabourin were the others. It is Sabourin who deserves some attention here. Mid-way through the regular season, the Caps were lollygagging along with a 22-25-2 record when they made a trade to get nastier. It was a two-stage effort, the first picking up John Kordic and Paul Fenton from Toronto for future considerations. Then, the Caps shipped Fenton to Calgary for Sabourin. The shake-up was an effort to address the problem that, in General Manager David Poile’s words, the Caps “have not played tough enough.”

Sabourin played in 28 regular season games, and then got a sweater for 11 games in the postseason (he did not record a point in those 11 games and was minus-4). One wonders, if Stevens was still with the club, do the Caps make that deal? Stevens was the more skilled defenseman by leaps and bounds (which is no insult to Sabourin, a solid player in his own right) and did not lack for orneriness. That combination of attributes might have been the missing ingredient in the Caps’ five-game loss to Pittsburgh in the second round.

But thinking over the four years that Stevens might have spent in Washington had the team matched the Blue’s contract offer, it is interesting to compare Stevens’ durability and production with the changes that characterized the blue line over that period. A total of 26 defensemen dressed for the Caps over that period, Hatcher and Johansson the only ones to spend all four full seasons with the Caps (Al Iafrate spent two full seasons and parts of two other seasons with the club, the last part of 1990-1991 after arriving in Washington from Boston and leaving late in the 1993-1994 season for Toronto). Only Hatcher had more points in those four seasons than Stevens would record with St. Louis and New Jersey in real time (247 to 243), Stevens ranking tenth in points among 353 defensemen who dressed over those seasons.

This is not to say that the Caps would have been a Stanley Cup contender over those seasons, let alone a Stanley Cup champion. But it is hard to see how the team was made better in the short term of that four year contract, especially when one considers that the first of the five first round draft picks the Caps got in compensation did not dress for the Caps until the 1994-1995 season (Sergei Gonchar, drafted in 1992).

About those draft picks, though. On their own, the quartet of Gonchar, Trevor Halverson (1991), Brendan Witt (1993), and Mikka Elomo (1995; the Caps traded their 1994 pick with Mike Ridley to Toronto for Rob Pearson and a first round draft pick that became Nolan Baumgartner) had an uneven history with the club, neither Halverson nor Elomo (a total of 19 games between them with the Caps) getting much ink in the history book, while Gonchar (second highest goal scorer among defensemen in team history) and Witt (the second most penalized defenseman in team history) had solid careers with the club. Both Gonchar and Witt played for what would be the only Capitals team to play in a Stanley Cup final, in 1998, but they were feature players in a club that was largely an annual spring disappointment.

Even looking at the Stevens “family tree,” there are a lot of familiar names in addition to those we already mentioned – Matt Pettinger, Semyon Varlamov, Jeff Schultz, Kris Beech (in what would be his second tour with the club), and Mike Ribeiro among them. But they are well-known characters in those annual episodes of disappointment, too. Volume and quality are, in the context of the family tree, not synonymous.

In the end, there is no logical argument that springs to mind in favor of letting Scott Stevens go being a good move in a hockey sense. And despite the prolific nature of the deal, resulting in more than a dozen players dressing for the Caps over a period spanning more than two decades, there is the disappointment that has grown alongside the Stevens Family Tree over those same years. It is a truly bitter “what if” to contemplate.

1/  Follow along… After the Caps traded Filip Forsberg, who is fruit of this tree, for Martin Erat and Michael Latta, the Caps later traded Erat and John Mitchell to Phoenix for Chris Brown, Rostislav Klesla, and a fourth round draft pick. Klesla was immediately traded with Michal Neuvirth to Buffalo for Jaroslav Halak and a third round draft pick. Halak was later traded to the New York Islanders for a fourth round pick in the 2014 draft. The Caps traded that pick (which belonged originally to Chicago) and their own fourth round pick to the New York Rangers for a third round pick in the same draft that was used to select Nathan Walker. The tree lives on.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- July 13th

Next in our “what if today didn’t happen the way it happened back then?” series, we wonder about July 13, 1990.  Doesn’t ring a bell, does it?  The Washington Capitals were coming off their deepest playoff run ever, a trip to the Prince of Wales Conference finals.  They were smoked by the Boston Bruins in that series, four games to none, but it was still quite a ride, a year in which the Caps dressed 37 skaters and five (yes, five) goaltenders in the regular season and a year in which the phrase “Druce on the Loose” would become part of the Capitals’ history.

That playoff run led, at least indirectly, to an incident that took place before July 13, 1990, one that we would have to think could not have happened for the July 13th event not to take place.  That incident occurred on the evening of May 11th and the early morning of May 12th.  In it, four Capitals allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor (a grand jury later chose not to indict any of the four players).

Of the four players allegedly involved in the incident – Dino Ciccarelli, Scott Stevens, Geoff Courtnall, and Neil Sheehy – only Ciccarelli ever played for the Capitals again (he would be traded two years later), but the player who is the subject of this “what if” is Courtnall.  He was traded on July 13, 1990 (said to be at the player's request) to the St. Louis Blues for forward Peter Zezel and defenseman Mike Lalor.  Courtnall was coming off a 35-goal season after posting 42 goals with the Caps in 1988-1989.  He would go on to record a fourth straight 30-plus goal season in 1990-1991 with the Blues and the Vancouver Canucks, to whom he was traded late in the season. 

To ask “what if Courtnall had not been traded” is really to ask the question, “what if that incident in Georgetown never took place,” thus sparing the Caps from making deals in its aftermath?  Keep in mind, none of the four players involved had reached age 30 in the 1989-1990 season.  Ciccarelli and Sheehy were 29, Courtnall was 27, and Stevens was 25.  You could say that if these four had stayed around, the Caps might have built something special off their 1990 run to the conference final.

There are two flaws in that thinking, though.  First, there was the matter of Stevens, whose contract was up at the end of the 1989-1990 season, making him a restricted free agent.  He would be tendered an offer sheet by the St. Louis Blues, and as any Caps fan knows, the team did not match the offer to retain his services.  In exchange, the Capitals received five draft picks as compensation (note that the trade alluded to in the linked article that would be announced later would be the Courtnall trade that is the subject of this look back).  There is no reason to think that this part of the timeline would have been altered had the events of the previous May not happened; Stevens would still go to St. Louis, and the Caps would still get those five draft picks.

But what if Courtnall and the others stayed?  If you subscribe to the notion that the Stevens signing made him the most effective draft pick in team history for what his departure begat (I would subscribe to that notion), keeping an offensive contributor such as Courtnall could only have helped.  But one should not get too far in front on this idea, either.  Keep in mind that the Capitals team that went to the conference finals in 1990 finished the regular season with a record of 36-38-6, third in the Patrick Division.  They did close the regular season with a bit of a rush, going 8-4-2 in their last 14 games to give themselves some momentum heading into the playoffs.  However, this was not a dominant team by any stretch of the imagination.  If ever there was a team of whom in could be said, “just get in, and anything can happen,” the 1990 Caps were that team.

In 1990-1991, even with the Caps retaining the services of Courtnall and Sheehy, in addition to Ciccarelli, the team was embarking on something of a youth movement.  The Caps dressed 13 rookies that season in real time for a total of 228 man-games.  Three – Mikhail Tatarinov (65), Peter Bondra (54), and Dmitri Khristich (40) – appeared in 40 or more games.  Even with Courtnall and Sheehy staying, it is hard to think that the rookie imprint on the season would have been a lot different, although one can entertain the idea that perhaps Bondra would not have had quite the exposure he had that season.

And this brings us to the second flaw in thinking something special might have happened.  As it was, the 1990-1991 team without Courtnall or Sheehy was not a lot different from the previous year’s version, going 37-36-7 and once more finishing third in the Patrick Division.  Would Courtnall’s offense have made a difference?  Yes, but perhaps only on the margins in the regular season.  The Caps might have made up the four points they finished behind the New York Rangers for second place in the division, but they still would have faced the Rangers in the first round of the postseason, a team they beat four games to two in real time. 

This, however, is where things get intriguing.  In the second round, the Caps did (and likely would in this scenario) face the Pittsburgh Penguins in what was the first-ever postseason meeting of these clubs.  Washington finished just seven points behind the Penguins in the regular season, although they did struggle with them (a 2-4-1 record in seven games).  Having taken Game 1 of their second round series against the Pens, 4-2 in Pittsburgh, the Caps were in a position to grab a two-game lead on the road in Game 2.  Game 2 was a back and forth affair.  Washington scored first on a Dale Hunter goal, but the Pens scored three straight to take a 3-1 lead.  The teams then exchanged goals twice, the Pens taking a 5-3 lead.  A pair of goals by Ciccarelli tied the game, and then Calle Johansson gave the Caps the lead mid-way through the third period.  With less than five minutes in regulation, Randy Gilhen tied the game for Pittsburgh, sending the contest into overtime.  There, Kevin Stevens scored eight minutes in to give the Penguins the win and salvaging a split of the two games in Pittsburgh.  The Penguins went on to win Games 3-5 (the Caps managing single goals in each of the games) to take the series on their way to their first Stanley Cup.

So, one wonders, if Courtnall had been a Capital in the 1991 postseason, and he managed to make his own goal-scoring contribution in Game 2 to help push the Caps to a win and a 2-0 lead in games heading back to Washington, does the arc of that series change in the Caps’ favor?  And even if the Caps did not go as far as the Penguins did in the postseason in 1991, does a whole unfortunate volume of Capitals history that spans decades – up to and including this past spring – of always falling at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs never get written?

That is what we wonder about when we think about Geoff Courtnall not being traded on July 13, 1990.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- July 11th

The cousins thought it would be a fine idea to embark on an occasional summer series asking the questions, “what if today didn’t happen the way it happened back then?”  In other words, what might have happened had a transaction on this or that date not taken place?  Of course, the cousins having an idea pretty much ends there.  They always seem to be otherwise occupied when it comes to actually putting the idea to paper.  Be that as it may, it’s not a bad way to while away the summer.  We’ll get started on this with perhaps one of the most famous dates in Capitals history, July 11th.

No, it’s not going to be a retrospective on the Capitals career of defenseman Marc Chorney, who was signed by the Caps on this date in 1984.  Chorney never played for the Caps (unlike his son, Taylor, who does), spending his last season in pro hockey skating with the Binghamton Whalers in the AHL.  It would be 17 years before the Caps pulled the trigger on another deal on this date, and it was the blockbustiest of blockbusters.

Less than three months removed from losing a first round playoff series to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games, the Caps executed a deal that brought one of the Penguins’ key elements – Jaromir Jagr – to Washington along with defenseman Frantisek Kucera in exchange for prospects Kris Beech, Ross Lupaschuk, Michal Sivek and future considerations (another term for “cash”).

Jagr’s arrival in Washington was met with great joy and anticipation, but his departure less than three seasons later was met with mutters of “good riddance.”  We won’t go back over that difficult history, but rather wonder what might have happened if the summer of 2001 had not been as eventful.  The rest of that summer saw a few low-wattage deals – the acquisition of the Ferraro twins Peter (free agent) and Chris (in trade from New Jersey), and claiming Glen Metropolit off waivers from Tampa Bay.

The lack of action on the roster could not cover up a disturbing fact.  The Caps had not won a playoff series since winning the Eastern Conference final against the Buffalo Sabres in 1998 to go to the Stanley Cup final, missing the playoffs entirely in 1998-1999 and then losing first-round matchups to the Penguins in each of the next two seasons.  And, they were getting old.  Ten of the 19 players to take the ice in the home opener of the 2001-2002 season against the New Jersey Devils were past the age of 30; three of them – Adam Oates, Joe Reekie, and Sylvain Cote – were at or past the age of 35.

The Caps did have some youth in the lineup, though.  Kris Beech won a spot on the roster after playing four games with the big club the previous season.  Beech slotted in the third line center spot behind Oates and Trevor Linden.  At the age of 20, only Brian Sutherby was younger in that lineup to open the 2001-2002 season.

For the Caps, experience was not helping, nor was youth, such as it was, providing a spark.  The team dropped its first half dozen games of the season, the last five of them on the road, to dig themselves an early hole.  By the time October ended, a month in which the Caps played nine of 12 games on the road, they were 2-9-1-0 (ties still being a result that season).  The woes were not limited to their on-ice performance, either.  Linden, who spent nine and a half seasons in Vancouver before being traded to the New York Islanders (followed by a stint in Montreal before coming to Washington), never seemed to find his game with the Caps, managing only four goals and three assists in 28 games before he was traded in November back to the Canucks with a second-round draft pick for a first and a third round draft pick.  The Caps were 2-13-1-0 when the trade was made.

It hardly got better. The Caps struggled to score as teams loaded up on defending top goal-scorer Peter Bondra, whose goal scoring plummeted after the Caps traded center Adam Oates to the Philadelphia Flyers late in the season for goaltender Maxime Ouellet and three draft picks.  He finished with 32 goals, but no other Capital forward finished with as many as 20.  The team finished the year with just 27 wins and 66 points, finishing 27th in the league standings and getting a leg up on its rebuild with the fourth overall draft pick in the June entry draft.

The fourth overall draft pick could have been predicted given the club’s recent history.  In each of the previous four drafts, the first four under general manager George McPhee, the club’s first selection came from the Western Hockey League in Canadian junior (Jomar Cruz in 1998, Beech in 1999, Sutherby in 2000, and Nathan Paetsch in 2001).  With the first three picks going to Columbus (Rick Nash), Atlanta (Kari Lehtonen), and Florida (Jay Bouwmeester), the Caps had their pick from a variety of positions.  Joni Pitkanen and Ryan Whitney were available among defensemen.  Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Eric Nystrom were available among forwards.  The Caps, instead, once more went to the WHL well, taking Scottie Upshall from Kamloops in the WHL with the fourth overall pick (in reality, he went sixth to Nashville in that draft).

Having the fourth-overall draft pick in this draft instead of their own 12th overall pick they actually did have in that draft (Steve Eminger was selected), the Caps did not pull the trigger on the deal with the Dallas Stars on June 12th that netted them the 13th overall pick for a first (from Philadelphia in the Oates deal) and second round pick in this draft and a sixth rounder in 2003).  In other words, they did not pick Alexander Semin.  They kept their 26th overall pick and took Jarret Stoll (who was actually taken 36th overall by Edmonton).  In between, with the 17th overall pick (from Vancouver in the Linden trade), Washington selected Boyd Gordon (as they actually did in 2002).

The 2001-2002 season was a walk in the park compared to the 2002-2003 season, one in which the Caps got older and slid further in the standings.  They had a worse start than in the previous season, going winless in their first ten games, eight of those games played on the road.  They held their sell-off a year earlier than they did in real time, trading Peter Bondra to Anaheim (with a third round pick for the Mighty Ducks’ first rounder in 2003), Calle Johansson to Detroit (for a second round pick in the 2003 draft), and Michael Nylander to Ottawa (for a second round pick in the 2003 draft).

Having loaded up on second round draft picks in the 2003 entry draft the Caps, pushed to the third overall pick in the first round when Columbus won the draft lottery, selected Nikolai Zherdev, the top-ranked European skater in the Central Scouting amateur rankings (Columbus selected Nathan Horton with the first overall pick, while Carolina took Eric Staal with the next pick).  With the 28th overall pick obtained from Anaheim in the Bondra trade, the Caps took Corey Perry of the London Knights.

The Caps would finish out of the running for a playoff spot in the 2003-2004 season, although having bottomed out the season before, they would not win the 2004 draft lottery that would have enabled them to draft Alex Ovechkin first overall.  They would, however, have another top-ten pick, this time taking Alexandre Picard out of Lewiston in the QMJHL.

There would be no 2004-2005 season, the NHL going dark for the entire season due to a lockout.  It would make for an interesting 2005 draft, what with there being no standings-based lottery to hold and the fact that the prize amateur of this generation – Sidney Crosby – awaited.   The NHL devised a lottery that gave, in theory, all 30 teams a chance at the number one overall pick.  Each of the 30 teams would be granted three balls in the lottery barrel.  For each playoff appearance in 2002, 2003, and 2004, a team would lose a ball to a maximum of two.  The Caps, having missed the postseason in each of those seasons, did not lose a ball.  Then teams with the first overall pick in any of the previous four drafts – 2001, 2002, 2003, or 2004 – would lose a ball to a maximum of two.  The Caps did not have a first-overall pick in any of those drafts.  The Caps would go into that draft as one of five teams with three balls in the barrel – Buffalo, Columbus, Pittsburgh, and the New York Rangers being the others.

The Capitals, not having made the trade for Jaromir Jagr in 2001, fell on hard times quickly, more quickly than they did having made that trade.  In doing so, it accelerated their decision to implement a rebuild, although it would happen a bit more gradually than it would in real time.  In this scenario, the Caps do not get Alex Ovechkin or Mike Green, among others, and in their place get Scottie Upshall, Jarret Stoll, Boyd Gordon, Corey Perry, Nikolai Zherdev, and Alexandre Picard.  Given the uneven levels of performance over the careers of those players, it would be hard to see a way where the Caps would be able to replicate the success they had in the post-2004-2005 lockout. 

Unless one of those three balls in the lottery barrel was picked in 2005.

Photo: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Monday, July 03, 2017

To Marcus Johansson...Farewell

The off-season in the National Hockey League can be one of hope with the entry draft in June.  It can be one of suspense of a sort one has wondering what awaits on Christmas morning when the unrestricted free agency signing period begins on July 1st.  And, in the salary cap era, it can be one of sadness as players that fans watched “grow up” with the club from draft pick to a player to follow and root for leaves for another city.

The Caps bid farewell to such a player on Saturday, when Karl Alzner signed a contract with the Montreal Canadiens.  As if that wasn’t enough of a gut-punch, the Caps sent seven-year veteran and 2009 first-round draft pick Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for a second and third round draft pick in the 2018 entry draft.  The move became necessary when the Caps signed center Evgeny Kuznetsov to an eight-year contract, severely limiting the club’s ability to further fill out the roster under the league’s salary cap.

Johnansson leaves the Capitals as one of the most effective offensive players in recent history with the club while being among the most durable.  For example, he is one of two Capitals to have appeared in at least 500 games over the past seven seasons (501) while posting at least 100 goals (102).  The other is Alex Ovechkin (525 games, 289 goals).

He also managed to produce at this level by coloring within the lines, so to speak.  Johansson’s ability to avoid penalties was remarkable.  Johansson finished the 2016-2017 season as one of six active players to have scored at least 100 goals and logged fewer than 75 penalty minutes over the last seven seasons.  He is one of seven players in the league to have played in 30 games and logged fewer than 20 penalty minutes in each of the past seven seasons.  Among 70 players to have played in at least 250 games over the past seven seasons and logged 100 or fewer penalty minutes, he ranks second in fewest penalty minutes per game (0.12), behind Brian Flynn.

But just as with Karl Alzner, all that tells only a part of the story.  There were the images.

There was the prospect’s puckhandling prestidigitation in levitating a puck…

Photo: Jamie Squire - Getty Images

…there was the “keeping green” moment with Nicklas Backstrom…

…there was the accommodating Johansson, as good with a Sharpie as he was with a stick…

Photo: Nicole Weissman

…there was the “almost” first and only fight of his career against a player who deserved to get it right in the moosh…

...there was perhaps the most famous Caps-related meme in recent club history, Marcus Beauregard Johansson writing to his "Dear Abigail" from the NHL front...

…the overtime, game-winning, series-clinching goal in the playoffs…

But in the end, we remember the moments of celebration.  And as Marcus Johansson takes his leave of Washington, that’s the image we want to remember…

Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Bidding Karl Alzner Adieu

The last time the Washington Capitals played a regular season game without defenseman Karl Alzner in the lineup was April 11, 2010, the last game of the 2009-2010 regular season.  Since then, Alzner has appeared in each and every one of the Caps’ 540 regular season games.  He was the most durable player in the history of the franchise, the team record holder for consecutive games played.

“Was” the most durable player.  On Saturday, July 1st, Alzner signed a five-year/$23.2 million contract with the Montreal Canadiens.  The deal ends Alzner’s stay in Washington at 591 games played for the franchise, 20th on the club’s all-time list.  He is one of 12 top-five draft picks in club history, having been taken with the fifth-overall pick in the 2007 draft.  He is the last such pick the Caps have had.

Alzner also appeared in 64 postseason games for the Caps, 16th in club history.  It was there, though, that his unrelenting endurance betrayed him in the last two seasons with the club.  He played through injury in 2016, finally succumbing to a lower body injury that caused him to miss most of the season-ending Game 6 in the second-round loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.  In 2017, injuries forced him to miss six of the Caps’ 13 postseason games and limited his duty when available to more or less seventh-defenseman duty when the Caps dressed seven blueliners.

Alzner's contributions in the offensive end were modest, scoring as many as five goals in a season only once (2014-2015) and topping the 20-point mark twice (21 points in 2014-2015 and in 2015-2016).  His contributions were more of the technical sort in the defensive end, where he could use positioning, angles, and adept use of his stick to thwart opponents.

Alzner was a consistent and even-keeled player on the ice, but he leaves Washington as one of the team’s more interesting and endearing personalities.  He seemed to be a ready and willing quote for the media with an ability to speak in an unfiltered way about his own and his club’s shortcomings, but not in a mean or edgy way.  He also seemed to be a quirky sort who could make a memory in the moment.  The pictures tell the story…

There was the prize for being named most valuable player in the opening game of the 2007 “Super Series” between junior players from Canada and Russia…

Photo: Paul Chiasson/AP

…Alzner’s only NHL fight, back in 2012 against Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie…

…there was the changing fashion in facial hair…

…the sense of adventure…

Photo: Capitals Outsider

…the commentary on an opponent’s behavior…

…learning that a triple-overtime loss would not be the end of his woes one spring evening, inspiring a bit of Twitter devotion...

…but his pals getting even, so to speak…

In the end, though, despite being a quiet, stay-at-home defenseman, Karl Alzner was about as cool as it gets. 

It was a good run in Washington, and he will be missed.  Good luck in Montreal, Karl…well, except, you know…when you play the Caps.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Washington Capitals: 2016-2017 By the Tens -- Goaltenders: Braden Holtby

Braden Holtby

“Your best teacher is your last mistake.”
-- Ralph Nader

“The Vezina Trophy is an annual award given to the goalkeeper adjudged to be the best at this position as voted by the general managers of all NHL clubs.”

That is the citation for the Vezina Trophy.  Braden Holtby is the only goaltender in the NHL to receive votes for that award in each of the last three seasons.  He is the only goalie in the league to have received any first place votes for that award in two of the last three seasons.  He and Carey Price are the only two goalies to have been named finalist for the award twice in the last three seasons.  Holtby won the award in 2016 and finished second this past season.  That is an argument to support the contention that Holtby is the best goaltender in the game.  But if you do subscribe to that argument, you might have to accept that it comes with an asterisk, but we’ll get to that.

As far as the regular season is concerned, Holtby had what might have been his best season.  Among his five seasons appearing in the majority of Caps games, he had his best goals-against average (2.07), best save percentage (.925), and tied his career high in shutouts (9, set in 2014-2015).  He had his best save percentage at even strength (.935).

Holtby fell six wins short of last season’s all-time record-tying total of 48, but he did tie for the league lead with 42 wins (Edmonton’s Cam Talbot also had 42, but in ten more appearances).  It was in part a product of a slightly lower workload.  He appeared in three fewer games and logged more than 150 fewer minutes.

One gets the feeling, though, that Holtby is the sort of goalie who is a bit less effective if his mind is left alone to wander.  He was 16-3-3 , 2.10, .935, with one shutout in 22 decisions in which he faced 30 or more shots; 26-10-3, 2.06, .917, with eight shutouts in games in which he faced fewer than 30 shots (including games in which he was relieved early; he did go into a game in relief this season).

Holtby’s ten-game splits looked like a roller coaster of performance, but in an odd sort of way.  In his first four splits he was just 19-8-4, while in his last four he was a superb 23-5-1.  However, in his first four splits he had a goals-against average of 1.90 and a save percentage of .931, with five shutouts.  In the last four splits those numbers were 2.25, .918, and four shutouts.

Fearless’ Take… Braden Holtby is the only Capital goaltender ever to lead the league in wins.  He is the only goaltender since Martin Brodeur in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 to lead or tie for the lead in wins in consecutive years.  He is the only goaltender in the last three seasons to have appeared in at least 20 games and record a save percentage of .920 or better in all of them.  He has more shutouts over the last five seasons (29) than any other NHL goaltender (Tuukka Rask has 27).  His 2016-2017 season was just another brick in that wall.

Cheerless’ Take… Holtby’s record after losses this season was not of the “stopper” sort he’s had in past years.  He was 12-4-3, 2.13, .925, with one shutouts after losses (regulation or extra time); 30-9-3, 2.04, .925, with eight shutouts after wins.

Odd Holtby Fact… This season was the first in his five seasons appearing in the majority of the Caps’ games that he did not record a penalty minute.

Game to Remember… January 5th vs. Columbus

When the Columbus Blue Jackets came to Washington on January 5th, the stars were aligned in favor of the Jackets extending their winning streak to 17 games, one that would tie the all-time mark (Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992-1993).  They were on a roll, and they came to Washington facing a goalie against whom they had a measure of success.  Braden Holtby, who was facing the Blue Jackets for the first time in the 2016-2017 season, had an 8-2-2 record against Columbus, but he had a career 2.81 goals-against average and .902 save percentage against the Jackets,  Coupled with his having an awful game in his previous outing two days previous, there was suggested a vulnerability.

Whatever vulnerability there might have been was snuffed out in the first period when he stopped all 11 shots he faced while his teammates scored a pair of goals to take the early lead.  He stopped all ten shots he faced in the second period as the Caps doubled their lead, then shut the door in the third with eight saves on eight shots to complete the 5-0, 29-save shutout to end the Columbus winning streak.  At the time, it was only the second time in the season that Columbus had been shut out and the first time on the road.

Game to Forget… January 3rd vs. Toronto

That awful game Holtby had before facing Columbus came at home against the Toronto Maple Leafs.  It was hard to see coming, since Holtby was 6-2-3, 1.60, .943, with two shutouts in his previous 11 appearances, and he was dominating on home ice.  And, when the Caps scored on their second shot on goal just 74 seconds into the game, courtesy of Justin Williams, it looked as if it would be one more happy night for the Caps and their fans. 

Then, the Leafs scored on their second shot, Nazem Kadri whacking in a loose puck on a power play.  Then they scored on their fourth shot, five minutes later.  The Caps tied the game late in the period, but Toronto scored again with less than two minutes left in the first period to take a 3-2 lead into the first intermission.  When the teams came out for the second period, Holtby was on the bench, his night over in what would be his shortest outing of the season – 20 minutes – having allowed three goals on eight shots.   The Caps did win the game, though, 6-5 in overtime.

Postseason: 13 games, 7-6-0, 2.46, .909

The 2017 postseason was, by quite a margin, Holtby’s worst in five trips.  From 2012 through 2016, Holtby was the only goaltender in the league to appear in at least ten postseason games (he appeared in 46), post a goals-against average under 1.90 (1.87) and a save percentage over .935 (.937).  He played much better overall than his 22-24 record would indicate.  This year, though, he finished 11th among 23 goalies appearing in the playoffs in goals-against average (2.46) and 15th in save percentage (.909).  His even strength save percentage of .911 was 16th in that group.  He allowed three or more goals in six of the 13 games in which he played and had a save percentage under .900 in six games, four of them against Pittsburgh in the second round, three of them losses.  His home record was especially disappointing, going 3-4, 2.35, .914, even if his production numbers (2.60, .904) were worse on the road.  A team that finished fourth in scoring offense (2.77 goals per game, tied with Edmonton) should have fared better with a goalie with Holtby’s postseason pedigree, but for whatever reason, this year he could not find that spark.

In the end…

Most folks think that goaltender is the most important position on the ice, especially when the games matter most in the postseason.  You do not have to have elite goaltending, necessarily (only 16 times, for example, has the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason’s most valuable player been won by a goalie), but you cannot have iffy goaltending in the postseason and make a deep run.  Perhaps Capitals Nation was spoiled by Braden Holtby’s superb four-year run in the postseason.  Whatever misfortune the Caps had could not be laid at his feet.  Over a five year stretch that included four trips to the playoffs, he was arguably among the best playoff goalies, in terms of playing his position, in the post-expansion era of the NHL   

This year did not measure up, and it cast a shadow over his season and going forward.  Consider that over his last 27 appearances – regular and postseason – he was 15-11-1, 2.61, .906, with one shutout.  That was a long, slow slide to end the season.  It is the asterisk to the comment above that Holtby is arguably the best goalie in the game.  And given the uncertain nature of any predictions of any goaltender’s future performance, it will make the start of next season perhaps an anxious one for Caps fans.  We will find out if his late season performance was a lesson or a harbinger of things to come.

Grade: B

Photo: Claus Andersen/Getty Images North America

Friday, June 23, 2017

Washington Capitals: 2016-2017 By the Tens -- Goaltenders: Philipp Grubauer

Philipp Grubauer

"All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."
-- Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), in “Sunset Boulevard”

Goalies are like grits.  You can’t rush them cooking them on the stove, and the “instant” variety to finish them faster pretty much sucks.  The Caps have been “cooking” Philipp Grubauer gently and with care since he was drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 draft.  He spent a final year in the Ontario Hockey League after he was selected by the Caps; played a season in the ECHL; split a year among the ECHL, AHL, and the Caps; and finally became the full-time back-up goaltender to Braden Holtby, a role he played this season as well.

His progress has been interesting, improving his save percentage on each successively higher rung of the developmental ladder -- .903 in his last season in the OHL, .916 in 69 ECHL games, .919 in 105 AHL games, and .923 in 66 games with the Caps.  That .923 career save percentage with the Caps is the second-best among 76 active goaltenders with at least 2,500 career minutes played.

This season was particularly noteworthy in Grubauer’s development.  He finished fourth among 56 goalies playing at least 1,000 minutes in save percentage (.926) and second in goals-against average (2.04).  He was fourth in that group in save percentage at even strength (.937).  Grubauer did not allow more than three goals in consecutive appearances all season (24 games), and he had only one stretch in which he allowed three goals in as many as three consecutive games (January 16-24 against Pittsburgh, Dallas, and Ottawa, over which he had a record of 1-1-1).  He did not have consecutive games this season in which his game save percentage was under .910.

Grubauer was lights out at home this season, when he got the chance.  He appeared in seven games at Verizon Center and won all five decisions with which he was credited, the only goalie in the league who played at least 250 minutes on home ice with a perfect win-loss record.  Among that same group of 60 goalies, he had the best goals-against average (0.72) and save percentage (.973).  All three of his shutouts were on home ice.

On the other hand, his road split was not especially impressive.  He had a record of 8-6-2 in 17 appearances, a goals-against average of 2.51 (21st among 64 goalies with at least 250 minute played on the road), and a save percentage of .911 (35th).

Fearless’ Take… Since the league started keeping save percentage statistics in 1982-1983, 57 Capital goalies have recorded seasons in which they logged at least 1,000 minutes of ice time.  In that group of 57 goalies, Grubauer’s .926 save percentage this season ranks first overall, as does his 2.04 goal-against average.

Cheerless’ Take… In one way, Grubauer was very consistent over the course of the season, and in another he was not.  Looking at his first dozen games and his second dozen games, he had a 2.05 goals against and a .925 save percentage in the first, and he had a 2.03 goals against and a .928 save percentage in the second.  However, he was 9-1-2 in his first dozen games, but he was only 4-5-0 (three no-decisions) in his second dozen games.

Odd Grubauer Fact… There were 25 goaltenders this season who recorded three or more shutouts, Grubauer among them with three.  Of that group, Grubauer logged almost 200 fewer minutes (1,264) than the goalie with the next lowest ice time in the group (Carter Hutton: 1,459 minutes and four shutouts).

Game to Remember… February 5th vs. Los Angeles

When the Capitals took the ice at home against the Los Angeles Kings on February 5th, they were skating the second of a back-to-back set of games, winning in Montreal the night before, 3-2.  That was a formula for giving Philipp Grubauer a start, and he made the most of the opportunity.  It was not easy, though.  The Kings were coming off a game the previous night as well, beating the Flyers in Philadelphia in overtime, 1-0, their fourth straight road win.  Grubauer stopped all 12 shots he faced in the first period as the Caps took a 2-0 lead.  He slammed the door in the second, stopping all 15 shots he faced as the Caps scored another pair of goals.  Former King Justin Williams capped the scoring in the third period, while Grubauer nailed the door shut with 11 saves on 11 shots to earn the shutout in the 5-0 win. 

The 38 shots faced in the shutout was the fourth highest shot total faced by a Caps goalie in a shutout since the 2005-2006 season.  Brent Johnson authored a 46-saqve shutout in a 1-0 win over the Ottawa Senators on April 1, 2006; Tomas Vokoun had a 42-save shutout in a 4-0 win over the Florida Panthers on February 7, 2012, and Michal Neuvirth stopped all 39 shots he faced in a 1-0 shutout over the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 21, 2011.

Game to Forget… January 16th vs. Pittsburgh

Barely 21 minutes into their January 16th contest in Pittsburgh, the Caps were coasting with a 3-0 lead, and Philipp Grubauer had a good view of it, doing baseball cap duty from the bench in favor of Braden Holtby.  Then, things fell apart…quickly.  The Penguins scored to break the shutout, scored again less than a minute later to get within a goal, then scored less than two minutes after that to tie the game.  When Pittsburgh scored a pair of goals 50 seconds apart to take a 5-3 lead, Holtby’s night was over.

Enter Grubauer.  The Caps clawed back into a tie with a pair of goals less than two minutes apart late in the second period, and they seemed to have blunted the Penguin momentum, keeping the Penguins from getting a shot on goal since Evgeni Malkin scored at the 14:37 mark to give the Pens the 5-3 lead and end Holtby’s evening.  However, 25 seconds after the Caps tied the game on a shorthanded goal by Lars Eller, Malkin struck again, scoring on the same Penguin power play on the first (and only) shot Grubauer faced in the second period to take a 6-5 lead into the third period.  It went back and forth in the third period, Sidney Crosby giving the Pens a tw-goal lead early and the Caps scoring a pair of goals five minutes apart mid-way through the third period to tie the game.  The teams split 14 goals in regulation, giving one the impression that the overtime coming up would be brief.  It was.  Conor Sheary followed up his own shot with the game-winning goal 34 seconds into the extra session, the third goal allowed by Grubauer on 11 shots in his relief of Holtby.  It was his only loss in a relief role in the regular season and the most goals he allowed in any short stint.

Postseason: 1 games, 0-0-0, 6.32, .778

With 18 minutes and change in a mop-up effort in a 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh in Game 2 of the second round, there isn't enough meat on the bone to talk about here.

In the end…

On almost any other team in the NHL, you could reasonably say that Philipp Grubauer has completed his apprenticeship and is ready to assume the duties of a number one goaltender in the NHL.  Unfortunately for him, former Vezina Trophy winner and two-time finalist Braden Holtby is ahead of him on the depth chart.  When Nate Schmidt was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft instead of Grubauer, it left Grubauer once more on the outside looking in on a starting role in the NHL (truth be told, he'd be that in Las Vegas, too, behind Marc-Andre Fleury).  And it can become a difficult situation for the player, who has Ilya Samonsov – who might be Holtby’s successor as the franchise goaltender – a year or two away from being a credible backup.  The team has managed Grubauer with patience.  The player has approached his job patiently and professionally.  But time ticks on, and being the best backup goalie in the league might not be a title any NHL goaltender aspires to, especially when he is 25 years old and entering what might be his prime years.  Grubauer’s play in 2016-2017 argues that the time for his close-up is at hand.  But the camera is pointed at someone else for the weeks, months, and perhaps years to come.

Grade: A

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Washington Capitals: 2016-2017 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Kevin Shattenkirk

Kevin Shattenkirk

“Life is all memory, except for the one present moment that goes by you so quickly you hardly catch it going.”
-- Tennessee Williams

Seventy-two days, 32 games, regular and postseason.  That is the “moment” spent in Washington by defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who played his first game with the club on February 28th and his last on May 10th.  In that brief time he became the only Capital defensemen in team history to play in fewer than 20 regular season games (19) and record more than ten points (14).  He is one of only three defensemen in team history to play in fewer than 40 regular season games and record more than ten points, Lee Norwood (34 games/18 points) and Chris Felix (35 games/13 points) being the others.  He is the only Caps defenseman in franchise history to appear in fewer than 15 career postseason games with the club (13) and record more than five points (6).

You could say he was impactful...maybe.

But if the Caps were very good before Shattenkirk arrived, it’s hard to know if they were better – or at least more successful – after he came to town.  Washington was 13-5-1 in the 19 games in which he played for the Caps down the stretch (he missed games against Anaheim and Minnesota), a 117-point pace over 82 games, 42-14-7 before he got there and in his two absences, a 118-point pace.

Fearless’ Take… There have been 133 defensemen in Capitals history to dress for ten or more games.  Kevin Shattenkirk finished the season in second place in points per game in that group (0.74, behind Larry Murphy’s 0.76).

Cheerless’ Take… The Caps were 5-2-1 in games in which Shattenkirk did not record a point, 8-3-0 in games in which he did.  Six o’ one, half dozen o’ the other.  And, they won all three games in which he did not record a shot on goal. 

Odd Shattenkirk Fact… Kevin Shattenkirk had 14 points in 19 games with the Caps.  That puts him in a tie with Roman Hamrlik and Frantisek Kucera for 76th place in franchise history scoring among defensemen.  The thing is, Hamrlik needed 72 games for his 14 points, and Kucera needed 56 games for his.

Postseason: 13 games, 1-5-6, minus-4

Up above we said that Shattenkirk was “impactful.”  Well, here is another side to that.  Only three Capital defensemen in franchise history appeared in more than 10 games in a single postseason and had a worse plus-minus than Shattenkirk – Brooks Orpik (minus-7 in 13 games this season) and Dennis Wideman (minus-7 in 14 games in 2012).  It was attributable to an horrific start to his postseason, going 0-3-3, minus-7, in his first eight games, not finishing better than even in any of them and not recording an even strength point. 

If there was a strangeness to his postseason, it was in how little the Caps’ fortunes were influenced by his performance numbers, save one.  Washington was 3-3 in games in which Shattenkirk had three or more shots on goal, 4-3 when he had fewer; 3-3 when he skated at least 18 minutes, 4-3 when he skated fewer; 3-2 when he was credited with three or more hits, 4-4 when he was credited with fewer; 3-4 when he recorded two or more blocked shots, 4-2 when he had fewer.  However, the one area that did matter – and it was really what he was brought here to provide – was scoring.  The Caps were 5-1 in games in which Shattenkirk recorded a point, 1-6 when he did not.

In the end…

One way of thinking about deadline deals (and you may think otherwise) is that everybody loses a deadline deal except the team that makes one and wins a Stanley Cup.  It’s just some teams lose less than others – making the second round is better than missing the playoffs entirely.  If you subscribe to this point of view, then the trade to secure Kevin Shattenkirk was a loser, even if perhaps a small one.  On the other hand, it was precisely the sort of deal a team makes when it is looking for that last impactful piece for a Stanley Cup run.  In that sense there is no fault in the Caps acquiring Shattenkirk.  The numbers suggest he did just about all he was expected to do, to a point.  

The fact is, he was acquired to make that deep Stanley Cup run.  But last year’s playoff run with St. Louis was repeated in an eerie sense with the Caps.  In 2016, Shattenkirk was 2-9-11 in 20 games with the Blues, but six of his points came on power plays (all assists), and he was a minus-8.  This year it was 1-5-6 in 13 games, but four of those six points came on power plays (including his only goal), and he was a minus-4.  There was an even strength element that seemed missing, last year and this, and not to single him out, because one could identify any number of players or elements of whom one could ask, “what if,” a little more production at even strength might have been the difference between a second round exit and a long postseason run.  In that respect, his “moment” in Washington, assuming he departs for free agency, might not be one to dwell on too long.

Grade: B-

Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images North America