Thursday, September 21, 2017

Washington Capitals 2017-2018 Previews -- Defensemen: Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen

“Good, better, best. Never let it rest. 'Til your good is better and your better is best.”
-- St. Jerome

When Matt Niskanen signed a seven-year/$40.25 million contract as an unrestricted free agent in July 2014, he was cashing in on what was a perfect example of timing.  After six seasons with Dallas and Pittsburgh in which he never recorded more than seven goals (and that in his rookie season) and never more than 35 points (in his sophomore season), he hit the jackpot with a 10-36-46, plus-33, season with the Penguins in 2013-2014.

When Niskanen fell back to a more career-normal 4-27-31, plus-7, in his first season as a Capital in 2014-2015, it might have been seen by some as a disappointment.   What he gave the Caps was a solid 22 minutes a night in 82 games, he and John Carlson being the only Capitals defensemen averaging over one minute of both power play and shorthanded ice time for the season.

What Niskanen has done in two seasons since is improve his numbers incrementally each season and establish himself as perhaps the Caps’ best all-around defenseman.  In three seasons with Washington, Niskanen is second among Caps defensemen overall in goals (14, tied with Dmitry Orlov), assists (88), and points (102), all to John Carlson (29-102-131). He has averaged 23:04 of ice time over those three seasons (two seconds fewer than Carlson).  He has logged more than 600 more minutes (5,585) than the next Capital in line (Karl Alzner  with 4,969) and missed just four games as a Capital, all of them in 2016-2017.

Last season, his best as a Capital (5-34-39, plus-20, in 78 games), he displayed a certain consistency in his production.  Only once in eight ten-game splits did Niskanen record fewer than four points (three in Games 61-70, which included one of the four games he missed for the season), and he was a “minus” player only in his second segment of the season (minus-2). In his fifth and sixth segments (Games 41-60) he contributed seven power play points as John Carlson missed six games to a lower-body injury.

Odd Niskanen Fact… Of Niskanen’s five highest ice time totals last season, the Caps lost five times, four times in extra time and each of those instances on the road.

Bonus Odd Niskanen Fact… All five of Niskanen’s goals last season were scored against Metropolitan Division teams (one against Columbus, two each against Philadelphia and the New York Islanders).

Fearless’ Take…

Matt Niskanen is one of five defensemen over the past three seasons to play in at least 225 games, record 10 total goals, 100 total points, and post a plus-minus of plus-30 or better.  Despite being a Capital for only three seasons, he is 24th in team history in games played (242), 23rd in goals scored (14), 15th in assists (88), 15th in points (102), 14th in plus-minus (plus-37), and tied for 11th in game-winning goals (11, with Rod Langway).  Last season he demonstrated a certain “road warrior” mentality, going 3-23-26, plus-6, in 39 road games (both of his game-winning goals came on the road) while posting a scoring line of 2-11-13, plus-14, at home.

Cheerless’ Take…

Outside of John Carlson (8-14-22, plus-2), the Caps have not had a lot of offensive numbers put up by defensemen in the postseason over the last three seasons.  Matt Niskanen is no exception, even if he is second in points over that span.  In 39 playoff games over his three seasons with the Caps, he is 1-10-11, plus-1.  And that goal came in a 6-2 thrashing by the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 2 of their second-round series last spring (to be fair, it was a power play goal that tied the game in the first period).  In fact, Niskanen’s postseason production has lagged his regular season numbers for most of his career.  The four points he posted with the Caps last spring in 13 games tied his second-highest point total in any playoff year (he had nine points in 13 playoff games in his last season with the Pens in 2013-2014).

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2017-2018...

  • 800 games played (currently has 733)
  • 50 goals (currently has 49)
  • 300 points (currently has 269)
  • 500 penalty minutes (currently has 383)

The Big Question… Does Matt Niskanen have another level of improvement to provide?

Losing the likes of Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Nate Schmidt on the blue line; and replacing them with rookies, late training camp signings, or in-season replacements makes for a difficult challenge on defense.  It places a certain pressure on both John Carlson and Matt Niskanen to strike a balance between improving their production and staying within their comfort zones in terms of style and role.  That Carlson slipped a bit last season in terms of per-game production at least suggests the potential for bouncing back.  Niskanen presents a different situation.  While he has improved in each of his three seasons with the Caps, the numbers in each of those seasons are all higher than his career per-82 game averages.  It begs the question of whether he regresses to a personal mean, or he has another 2013-2014 level of production in him.  The answer to that question might signal whether the Caps are a contender or will fight for a playoff spot next spring.

In the end…

Matt Niskanen is not going to show up on a short list of elite defensemen.  He does not have the offensive numbers of an Erik Karlsson, doesn’t have the cannon of a shot of a Shea Weber or a Brent Burns, and he does not have the deep playoff resume or a Duncan Keith or a Drew Doughty.   And even though a Capitals defenseman did receive a vote for the Norris Trophy last season, it was not Niskanen (it was Dmitry Orlov).   His is the profile of an underrated player, one who is very good at a wide range of tasks.  He plays well in all three zones and in all three strength situations. 

That he carries the description of “two-way” defenseman might normally suggest he is not especially skilled in either way, offensively or defensively.   Far from it.  Niskanen might be the best defensemen at both ends on this team, who has been durable, to boot.  His presence lends stability and consistency to a lineup that will need it this season, but if he was better last season than he was in the season before that, and better then than in the season before that one, he might have to be at his best this season for the Caps to make a deep playoff run.

Projection: 79 games, 7-36-43, plus-18

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Washington Capitals 2017-2018 Previews -- Defensemen: Christian Djoos

Christian Djoos

“Still round the corner there may wait, a new road or secret gate.”
-- J.R.R. Tolkien

The last time that the Washington Capitals dressed two rookie defensemen for at least half of the team’s games in a season was the 1995-1996 season, when Brendan Witt appeared in 48 games, and Ken Klee dressed for 66 games.  Before that you would have to go back to the 1981-1982 season when Timo Blomqvist (44 game) and Greg Theberge (57 games) did so.

The Caps might make it a third season in franchise history with the rise of Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos to the parent roster.  As we described a few days ago, Bowey’s progress has followed a more or less traditional path – second round draft pick, Canadian juniors, AHL, and now a shot at a spot in the top-six on the blue line.  For Djoos, the path was a bit different.

Djoos was taken in the seventh round (195th overall) in the 2012 entry draft.  To show how difficult it is to rise from that selection level to the NHL level, no player from the 2012 draft taken after the 175th pick overall has yet accumulated as much as half a season’s worth of career games in the NHL, and only eight of 36 players taken after the 175th pick have dressed for any NHL games.

However, Djoos climbed the developmental ladder slowly, but surely.  He spent three more seasons with Brynäs IF in the Swedish Hockey League before getting his first taste of pro hockey in North America with one game in a Hershey Bears uniform at the end of the 2014-2015 season.  He appeared in more than 60 games with the Bears in each of the last two seasons.  Last season his 45 assists tied for the AHL lead among AHL defensemen, and his 58 points was third best among AHL blueliners.

Odd Djoos Fact… Since the NHL went to a seven-round draft in 2005, no Capitals draft pick drafted as low as Christian Djoos (195th overall) ever dressed for a game with the Caps (Stefan Della Rovere, taken 204th in the 2008 entry draft, appeared in seven games with the St. Louis Blues in 2010-2011).

Fearless’ Take…

Djoos’ progress through amateur and minor pro hockey has been steady.  His point totals improved in each of his three full seasons with Brynäs, and he improved from season to season with Hershey, almost doubling his goal total from one full season to the other (from eight to 13) and more than doubling his point total (from 22 to 58).  As a defenseman who can contribute offense, it would be hard to argue that Djoos does not show promise.

Cheerless’ Take…

Sure, he shows nice progress with his offensive numbers, but almost from the day he was drafted there was another number that some folks might have paid some attention to.  With the Bears last season he was listed at 161 pounds, and last season no defenseman in the NHL as light or lighter than that dressed for a game (he is listed at 169 pounds on the Capitals’ web site, but 158 pounds on the training camp roster).  Minnesota’s Jared Spurgeon, who appeared in 76 games, was listed at 164 pounds.  Skill isn’t as much a concern as Djoos’ ability to endure the punishment in his own end over an 82-game schedule at this level.

The Big Question… In a game increasingly defined by speed and quickness, can Djoos thrive?

If the Capitals have had a generic weakness the past two seasons, despite winning Presidents Trophies with the league’s best regular season record, a lack of speed up and down the lineup might qualify.  Djoos would appear to provide a dimension of skill and speed that they might not have had with, say, Karl Alzner, but it is an open question whether he can flourish in his own end as much as any of the three departed defensemen (Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Nate Schmidt).  It also could be a question some time in finding an answer.  Only three Capitals defensemen since the 2004-2005 lockout appeared in more than half the team’s games as rookies: Mike Green (70 games in 2006-2007), John Carlson (82 games in 2010-2011), and Dmitry Orlov (60 games in 2011-2012).  It has happened only eight times over the last 25 full seasons of Caps hockey (not including the 48-game seasons of 1994-1995 and 2012-2013).  For Djoos to do it, he is going to have to demonstrate the offensive skill he displayed last season without being a liability in defending his own end, even if it is with the modest minutes a third pair defenseman gets.

In the end…

Christian Djoos does not appear to be the prototypical NHL defenseman, even by today’s standards emphasizing skill and speed.  On the other hand, his steady improvement in production in Europe and in Hershey cannot be dismissed.  In those settings he has grown into his position, so to speak.  As he prepares to make the last step up the ladder of development, he has the pedigree (his father, Pär Djoos, played 82 games in the NHL with Detroit ant the New York Rangers), and he has skill.  Now he gets his chance to demonstrate and measure his all-around game against the best the NHL has to offer.  As much as any Capital, his story is among the most intriguing to follow this season. 

Projection: 40 games, 1-5-6, even

Photo: Washington Capitals

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Washington Capitals: What's in a Number?

Sports can be a “numbers” game.  And not just the statistics part of it.  Jersey numbers mean a lot to players and fans alike.  They become one with the identity of the player.  Everyone knows who "The Great 8" is ("Kirk Cousins!"... shut up, Cheerless).  It is also part of what fans identify with in that player.  It brings to mind the interesting assignment of jersey number “91” to Tyler Graovac of the Washington Capitals in training camp.  Not that he has anything to do with its history, or should care, in fact, but that number was worn by only one player in Caps history (regular or postseason), and any Caps fan of even recent vintage will remember it being worn by Sergei Fedorov, a hall of famer for his exploits with other teams, perhaps, but who certainly left his mark on this franchise.

It makes the cousins and I wonder about numbers being worn by prospects, depth players looking for a roster spot, and invitees at training camp and how they compare to those who might have worn the number with distinction (or as the only one to do it) for the Caps.  This is one of those silly “end of the bar” sorts of things guys might argue about after a few beers.  Like…

John Albert…wearing number 16…better or worse than the last owner of that number, Eric Fehr?

And you can go on and on.  Will any of these players among those on the training camp roster make their mark on the Capitals like those who might have worn the number before them?…

  • 1: Pheonix Copley or Pete Peeters
  • 3: Jyrki Jokipakka or Scott Stevens
  • 14: Anthony Peluso or Gaetan Duchesne
  • 21: Lucas Johansen or Dennis Maruk
  • 22: Madison Bowey or Dino Ciccarelli
  • 24: Riley Barber or Mark Tinordi
  • 29: Christian Djoos or Joe Reekie
  • 33: Parker Milner or Don Beaupre
  • 34: Jonas Siegenthaler or Al Iafrate
  • 35: Adam Morrison or Al Jensen
  • 36: Connor Hobbs or Mike Eagles
  • 38: Colby Williams or Jack Hillen
  • 40: Garrett Pilon or Nolan Yonkman
  • 41: Vitek Vanecek or Jaroslav Halak
  • 42: Wayne Simpson or Joel Ward
  • 47: Beck Malenstyn or Mike Farrell
  • 50: Matais Bau or Joe Motzko
  • 51: Kristian Marthinsen or Stephen Peat
  • 53: Hubert Labrie or Sean Collins
  • 54: Mason Mitchell or Quinton Laing
  • 55: Aaron Ness or Jeff Schultz
  • 56: Tommy Hughes or Patrrick Wey
  • 61: Brendan Semchuk or Steve Oleksy
  • 66: Dustin Gazley or Milan Novy
  • 67: Hampus Gustafsson or Chris Brown
  • 75: Tim McCauley or Chris Hajt
  • 76: Garrett Mitchell or Darcy Verot
  • 81: Adam Carlson or Dmitry Orlov
  • 84: Kristofers Bindulis or Mikhail Grabovski
  • 94: Damien Riat or Sergei Berezin
  • 96: Stephen Collins or Phil Housley

And there are those who are wearing a number that has not been worn in the regular season by any Capital.  Think any of these players will stake their claim to being remembered by their number?

  • 71 – Kevin Elgestal
  • 72 – Travis Boyd
  • 73 – Tanner Jeannot
  • 78 – Tyler Lewington
  • 79 – Nathan Walker
  • 82 -- Robbie Baillargeon
  • 93 – Mark Simpson
  • 95 – Dmitri Zaitsev
  • 97 – Jimmy DeVito

Alas, three numbers will wait for their first regular season owner, barring any number changes: “80,” “86,” and “98 (“99” being permanently retired league-wide).”

Whether they will be here only this week or have a long career in the NHL, all of these players now have their place in the history of the Capitals.

Washington Capitals 2017-2018 Previews -- Defensemen: Taylor Chorney

Taylor Chorney

“The man who has the will to undergo all labor may win to any good.”
-- Martin Luther

The headline in the Washington Post story announcing the signing of defenseman Taylor Chorney by the Washington Capitals back in July 2015 was, “Depth defenseman Taylor Chorney signed to one-year deal.”
“Depth defenseman.”  It has the faint whiff of “not good enough to play regularly.”  Perhaps true, but there is no sin in that, either.  Quite the contrary.  No NHL team completes a season dressing only six defensemen all year.  Depth defensemen are a necessary ingredient not just to ice a team but to be successful, too.  While perhaps not quite skilled enough to play 70 or more games, he cannot be a liability when he does get a sweater. 

In two seasons with the Capitals, Taylor Chorney has filled in when a defenseman was injured (he played 55 games in 2015-2016, much of that total when Brooks Orpik missed 40 games with a cracked femur), and he filled in for spot duty (18 games in 2016-2017, his longest stint of consecutive games played being six).  In the 73 games in which he appeared for the Caps to date, the team was 53-13-7, while they were 58-24-9 when he was not in the lineup.

The 73 games for which he dressed as a Capital these past two seasons are more than he dressed with three other clubs (Edmonton, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh) over five seasons (68).  And although his numbers have been modest (2-9-11, plus-16), he has not been a liability in a wins and losses sense.  Now, whether that is the product of an uncommonly deep and talented Caps team on which he played the last two seasons, facing lesser competition, getting shielded third line minutes, or sunspots, results matter, and putting Taylor Chorney in the lineup has not been a drag on the Capitals’ results.

Odd Chorney Fact… Taylor Chorney has never scored an NHL goal on the road.  Sure, he has only three goals in his career (all of them in wins, two of them game-winners), but still.  It is part of a weird split in his home and road numbers, particularly his plus-minus.  Over his career he is plus-7 in home games, minus-23 in road games.

Bonus Odd Chorney Fact… Taylor Chorney has dressed for seven postseason games as a Capital.  The Caps won only one of those games, a 3-1 win over Pittsburgh in Game 5 of the 2016 Eastern Conference semifinals.  In fact, his teams’ record with him in a postseason lineup is (you might want to sit down for this) 2-10.

Fearless’ Take…

The Caps were 13-3-2 in the games Chorney played last season, and the last two regulation losses came after Game 60, by which time the Caps were already seven points clear of second place in the Eastern Conference standings and five points clear of the second best record in the league.  And, following on that whole results thing, Chorney was a “minus” player in only one of his 18 appearances last season, going minus-1 in a 4-3 loss to Dallas on January 21st.

Cheerless’ Take…

Well, about last season.  The Caps did not lose a game in regulation when Chorney played less than 14 minutes (8-0-2), but they were just 5-3-0 when he did skate more than 14 minutes.  Seems a little bit of Chorney wasn’t bad, but you don’t want too big a helping.  And, his possession numbers were off last year, too.  Sure, a smaller population of games, but his shot attempts-for percentage (45.31) was lower than the previous season (48.57) and was worst on the team for any of the eight defensemen playing in more than ten games.

The Big Question… Is Taylor Chorney going to be a 55-game player, or an 18-game player this season?

The answer to this question might rely more on what happens with other players than it does on anything Taylor Chorney might do in training camp.  The possibility of injuries always has to make “depth defensemen” ready to serve on a moment’s notice.  But this year is a different one for the Caps and, perhaps, Chorney in other respects.  With three defensemen gone from last year’s squad who might have had top-four roles (Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Nate Schmidt), the Caps would seem to be opening up chances for youngsters to come forward – Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos in particular.  If both of those rookies get sweaters to open the season, Chorney would be relegated to a seventh-defenseman role once more.  However, expecting two rookies to get regular appearances might be a stretch (whether Bowey, Djoos, or surprises among those such as Connor Hobbs, Lucas Johansen, or Jonas Siegenthaler, for example), and even if they do, there might be those stretches when they falter a bit as they continue along their respective development curves. 

In the end…

Taylor Chorney would seem likely to fill a role somewhere in between that which he had two years ago and the one he had last season.  Inconsistency among rookies might replace injuries that would result in him playing a higher number of games, but he would still play the “spot starter” role he filled last season.  In any case, he seems likely to be, at least at the start of this season, something a bit more than a “depth defenseman,” something of an insurance policy in the event things don’t work out as hoped for with other players.

But Chorney can only keep himself ready for those situations as opportunities that present themselves and work to ensure he can contribute on short notice when such occurrences present themselves.  It is out of that work that good can come out of difficult situations.

Projection: 46 games, 1-5-6, plus-6

Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America

Monday, September 18, 2017

Washington Capitals 2017-2018 Previews -- Defensemen: John Carlson

John Carlson

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
-- Yogi Berra

It seems like the blink of an eye ago, John Carlson was taking the ice for the first time as a Washington Capital.  It was back on November 20, 2009 against the Montreal Canadiens.  In a 3-2 loss to the Habs, Carlson did not record a point in 17 minutes and change of ice time and had only one shot on goal, but he did record what for him would be a season high in hits (five).  Perhaps it was an adrenaline rush.  He would not record that many hits in a game until April 2012 when he had five against those same Canadiens. 

Now, eight years later, Carlson embarks on a season that could put him among the all-time leaders among defensemen in Caps history in a variety of categories.  If he appears in 74 games this season, he would become the eighth defenseman in team history to dress for 600 regular season games.  With 76 games played he would pass Scott Stevens for seventh place on that list.  With 14 goals this season he would pass Sylvain Cote for seventh place among Caps defensemen.  If he gets 45 assists he would pass Mike Green for sixth place on the all-time list.  Six points and he passes Cote for seventh place on that all-time list.  If he finished with a plus-20, he would pass Jeff Schultz for fourth best in team history.

Why are these numbers important?  John Carlson is entering the final year of a six-year/$23.8 million contract.  Come next July 1st, he could be the biggest prize available among free agent defensemen, and climbing the all-time rankings among Caps defensemen will only boost his value.

One thing that might help is more consistency.  Looking at his ten-game splits from last season, the thing that one notices is inconsistency of production from segment to segment.  Part of that was due to injury (he missed six games of his fifth ten-game segment and posted only three points), but the production also withered a bit as the season was winding down.  He was 4-8-12, minus-3, in his last 30 games despite averaging almost 22 minutes a game in ice time.  In his last 15 games he was 3-2-5, minus-6.

Odd Carlson Fact… In the eight years he has been in the league, John Carlson is one of only nine defensemen in the league so score 50 or more goals, record 200 or more assists, and post a plus-50 or better.  It is an impressive list, indeed.  

Fearless’ Take…

John Carlson has had a certain consistency over his career that places him in the upper echelon of Caps’ defensemen.  Only four Capital defensemen in club history have more 30-point seasons than Carlson (six).  No Capitals defenseman has more seasons with three or more game-winning goals than Carlson (four), and he has 10 such goals over the last three seasons.  He was among the top-20 defensemen in the league in power play points last season (16) despite ranking 31st in power play ice time per game.

Cheerless’ Take…

It will take something better than last season to make Carlson a big free agent prize next summer, it would seem.  Although he played in 16 more games in 2016-2017 (72) than he did in 2015-2016 (56), he had just one more goal (from eight to nine) and dropped a couple of points (from 39 to 37).  His plus-7 was the worst among any of the six Caps defensemen appearing in at least 20 games, and his shor attempts-for percentage (SAT) was second worst among that group (49.55).

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2017-2018:
  • 600 games (currently has 526)
  • 300 points (currently has 265)
  • 100 power play points (currently has 86)

The Big Question… Would a 14-45-59, plus-20 season – one that would allow him to move up in all those all-time team rankings – fall under the category of “possible” for Carlson?

The short answer to that question is, “yes.”  It would not be much of a stretch above what is, statistically, his best season.  In 2014-2015, Carlson was 12-43-55, plus-11, in 82 games.  That last number gets to the longer answer that follows, “it depends.”  After playing in each and every regular season game in his first five full seasons in the league, Carlson has missed 26 games over the past two seasons to injury.  If he misses upward of a dozen games, he will not hit those marks.  Then there is the matter of his baseline.  Over more than 500 regular season games, Carlson has averaged 10 goals and 41 points per 82 games.  A career season would be, by definition, above the baseline, but hitting those marks would be considerably above his career 82-game averages. 

One factor that argues for the possibility is that Carlson is the defenseman on the top power play unit.  He led the Caps’ blue line with an average of 2:38 per game last season.  It was off his career highs for that statistic (he averaged over three minutes per game in both the 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 seasons), but it would appear for the time being he will continue in that role.  There is also the very matter of his contract status.  Not that Carlson (or just about any player, for that matter) is going to put personal numbers over team goals, but the fact that this is likely to be his biggest career payday might be the sort of thing that focuses the mind and effort to produce within that team concept.  In that respect, seeing Carlson perform more consistently that he did last season would be a welcome sign.

In the end…

With the departure of long time teammate Karl Alzner, Carlson is now the dean of the Washington defense in terms of games played in the organization (526 games with the Caps to 283 for…get this…Dmitry Orlov).  With that comes a certain responsibility that is not limited to numbers.  Being a moderating influence when things are not going well, being grounded when there is the temptation to get to high on success.  Playing the game consistency and, dare one say it, the “right” way. 

It is a lot to ask for a player who will not be 28 years old until January, but then again, John Carlson has more than 600 regular and postseason games on his resume, not to mention some international experience sprinkled in as well.  If the Caps have a very successful postseason – an uncommonly successful one – he could become the team’s all-time leader in postseason games played by a defenseman (he would have to play in 20 games next spring to pass Calle Johansson’s 95 playoff game appearances).  It is all part of the path Carlson is taking as he approaches that fork in the road of unrestricted free agency.

Projection: 75 games, 13-35-48, plus-9

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Friday, September 15, 2017

Washington Capitals 2017-2018 Previews -- Defensemen: Madison Bowey

Madison Bowey

“I will prepare and someday my chance will come.”
-- Abraham Lincoln

For Washington Capitals defenseman-in-waiting Madison Bowey, that chance is here. Three defensemen who started the Capitals’ last game of the 2017-2018 season play for other teams – Karl Alzner with the Montreal Canadiens, Kevin Shattenkirk with the New York Rangers, and Nate Schmidt with the Vegas Golden Knights. As things stand going into training camp, there are only five defensemen on the parent roster, and depending on how you come down on Taylor Chorney’s chances of making the Opening Night roster, there could be three (or four, if the Caps carry eight defensemen) roster spots open for a blueliner.

Bowey paid his dues to arrive at this moment in a manner familiar to many NHL-watchers. In his first full season in Canadian juniors (2011-2012 with the Kelowna Rockets), he played in 57 games (8-13-21, plus-3) and won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2012 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament. The following season he improved his numbers with Kelowna (12-18-30, plus-41, in 69 games) and won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2013 U18 World Championship. It was after that season that he was taken as the 53rd overall pick (second round) by the Capitals.

Bowey scored 60 points in each of his last two seasons with the Rockets, and in both of which served as captain. In that last season with Kelowna he led the team to a Memorial Cup final and won a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2015 IIHF World U20 Championship.

Then it was on to the Hershey Bears for what one hoped would be finishing school. He had a solid rookie season, appearing in 70 games an posting a scoring line of 4-25-29, plus-22. His 29 points led all Bears defensemen, and that total was ninth among rookie defensemen in the AHL. Then, a combination of youthful indiscretion and “gruesome injury” not two months apart sent his 2016-2017 season in Hershey sideways.

As it was, he appeared in just 30 regular season games for the Bears in 2016-2017 and in 10 of the team’s 12 postseason games. His regular season production (3-11-14, plus-6) was about on par with the previous season (4-25-29, plus-22) on a per-game basis, and his postseason numbers (2-2-4, plus-4, in 10 games) were an improvement over his 2016 playoff numbers (0-6-6, minus-3, in 21 games).

Odd Bowey Fact… In his last season with the Kelowna Rockets, Bowey scored more points (60) than teammate and third-overall 2014 draft pick Leon Draisaitl (53, but ok…Bowey played in 60 games while Draisaitl played in just 32). And he ended his career in junior by setting the team’s all-time mark for goals by a defenseman (58).

Fearless’ Take…

In his last three seasons with Kelowna, Bowey was plus-123 in 199 games. At Hershey he was plus-28 in 104 games. Sure, plus-minus, chicken-egg, was it him or the team, and all that… but good things did seem to happen more often than bad ones when he was on the ice.

Cheerless’ Take…

Yeah, well…let’s just hope he fares better than another Kelowna blueline alumnus picked in the second round not all that long ago…

Potential Milestones…
  • First NHL game: October 5, 2017
  • First NHL point: October 5, 2017
  • First NHL goal: October 5, 2017
  • First NHL assist: October 5, 2017

The Big Question… Is Madison Bowey ready for a sweater every night at the NHL level?

Simple question, but it has a lot in it. “ready” is really a lot of discrete elements. There is what fans might look at first – “skill.” The progress of Bowey’s numbers, at least on the offensive side of the ledger, certainly suggest his apprenticeship at Hershey is at, or at least near an end. Dig down, though. There is more of and a different sort of travel at this level. There won’t be three games in three nights on a road trip that he might see in the AHL, but there is the west coast trip, the trip to the western Canada provinces, the up-and-back intra-divisional trips to rival cities. Even if the travel, by economy-class traveler standards, is pretty posh, there is a lot of it. How does a rookie manage it? There is the self-management aspect. While players’ routines are rather regimented in-season, there is the matter of managing free time. Just the whole growing up thing any young 20-something might do. There is the long hard slog of an 82-game (or more, hopefully) season. Is there a wall to be hit by a player who might not have had so many games to play in a previous season?

None of these things apply to Madison Bowey uniquely. Any rookie would face them. But coming up with a team that might be expecting good, if not great things from him in a year in which there are so many openings on defense, they do seem to take on importance. Some of the factors cannot be evaluated until the season is underway and perhaps well into the cold winter. But this is a player who has played in almost 450 regular and postseason games over the past six years. He might be better equipped than most rookies to deal with the other factors so that his skill can come forward.

In the end…

A 22-year old rookie playing a hard position on the fastest team sport is not going to impress night in and night out. If fact, there is no certainty that Madison Bowey will be on the Opening Night roster. But as much as any young player with an important role to fill, it will be much more important to see what kind of player he is in March and April (or May and June) than he is in training camp or the first month of the season. What one can say right now is that he is better prepared than most to take the last step toward taking a regular shift as a defenseman in the NHL. For Madison Bowey, the “someday” described by Lincoln has arrived.

Projection: 66 games, 4-9-13, plus-2

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Washington Capitals 2017-2018 Previews -- Forwards: Tom Wilson

Tom Wilson

“The trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”
-- Moliere

The first question we might ask as Tom Wilson skates into his fifth season with the Washington Capitals is, “is he on track in his development, or was his draft class a weak one that inflates his status within that class?”  The answer starts with where he started, as the 16th overall pick of the 2012 entry draft, between Codi Ceci (taken by the Ottawa Senators) and Tomas Hertl (selected by the San Jose Sharks).

Of the 211 players taken in the 2012 draft, only Alex Galchenyuk has appeared in more games (336) than Wilson (313). Otherwise, Wilson’s numbers rank roughly with his draft position: goals (21/T-17th), assists (48/T-16th), points (69/T-14th), plus-minus (plus-12/T-10th).

However, from another angle Wilson’s progress appears to have stalled.  Whether it is a product of playing almost exclusively fourth line minutes or just plateauing, his numbers have not moved much over the last three seasons.  Goals (four, seven, and seven over the past three seasons), assists (13, 16, and 12), and points (17, 23, and 19).

If there was something to take away in a more positive sense for Wilson last season, it is that he recovered from a sluggish start.  He started the season with one point (a goal) in his first 26 games but recovered to go 6-12-18 over his last 56 games (a 9-18-27 pace over 82 games).  It was part of a more engaged profile in the offensive end, at least as far as getting shots on goal was concerned.  After registering only 27 shots on goal in those first 26 games, he had 68 shots in his last 56 games (1.21 per game) and 22 in his last 15 games (1.47 per game).

Odd Wilson Fact… Tom Wilson remains a player who does not shy away from defending himself and teammates, although he did for the second consecutive season keep his fighting major penalties in single digits (nine).  Of those nine fighting majors, six of them came in road games.

Fearless’ Take…

One of the features of Tom Wilson’s development to date has been the waiting game of sorts as he progresses from a “physical” player with modest offensive numbers to a more well-rounded game.  Wilson is likely to always be considered a “power forward,” but there is evidence – baby steps, if you will – to suggest the turn is coming.  He did tie for tenth in the league in fighting majors last season, an uptick from the previous season when he was tied for 17th with seven such majors.  But there appears to be less of a “running around” aspect to his game, reflected in his hit total and the consequences of it.  The Caps were just 13-11-3 in the 27 games in which he had four or more hits, 42-8-5 when he had fewer than four hits.  That can be a product of the Caps – and Wilson – not chasing the puck in that winning record, but if one is looking at hints of an evolution in Wilson’s game, this could be a modest one.

Cheerless’ Take…

Four seasons, four times with more than 130 minutes in penalties.  Only one player in the league since the 2004-2005 lockout has as many seasons with that many or more PIMs in his first four seasons (Jared Boll).  One is a former fourth round draft pick with 27 goals and almost 1,300 penalty minutes in his career, the other is a 16th overall draft pick.  He had 133 penalty minutes last season, his fewest in four seasons, but at the moment, a line from the movie, “The Matriix,” comes to mind… “you have been down there… you know that road, you know exactly where it ends.  And I know that's not where you want to be.”

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2017-2018:
  • 100 points (currently has 69)

The Big Question… Is this the season that Tom Wilson takes a big step up?

That is a question that can be looked at from a number of different angles.  In one sense, he took quite a step up last season.  He took regular shifts killing penalties, averaging a career best 2:04 in shorthanded ice time per game (fourth among forwards for the Caps).  Quite a difference from his first two seasons when he recorded a total of 46 seconds skating shorthanded in 149 games played.  This season, he will have at least the opportunity to broaden his even strength game.  There will be some sorting out at right wing behind T.J., Oshie with the departure of Justin Williams.  Grabbing a second line spot on the right side might be a reach, but a third line spot would almost be an expectation for a player with more than 350 regular and postseason games played in the NHL.  Wilson has not averaged as much as 12 minutes of even strength ice time per game in any of his four seasons and topped 11 minutes per game just once (11:13 in 2015-2016).  He is going to have the space and opportunity to expand on that this season.

In the end…

In his first four seasons, Tom Wilson was a too-often one-dimensional player, one who could intimidate physically but whose skill-based contributions were more modest.  Now, he has an opportunity to broaden his portfolio, to move up the depth ladder from the fourth line to which he was pinned by more experienced and skilled right wingers over his first four seasons.

If there were few bright spots in last spring's postseason for the Caps, Wilson might have been one.  He averaged almost 14 minutes per game in 13 postseason contests, a career high.  He also recorded his first three playoff goals, and although all of them came in the first round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs (including the game-winner in Game 1), it was a step forward for Wilson.

Tom Wilson has demonstrated himself to be a durable (three seasons appearing in every regular season game) and at times intimidating player.  He has been a bit slower in demonstrating a consistent offensive game.  It is time for that part of his game to bear fruit.

Projection: 82 games, 11-18-29, plus-8

Photo: Claus Andersen/Getty Images North America

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Washington Capitals 2017-2018 Previews -- Forwards: Jakub Vrana

Jakub Vrana

“Experience is something you don't get until just after you need it.”
-- Steven Wright

The Washington Capitals have a good record over the years drafting, developing, and employing goal-scoring wingers from Eastern Europe.  Peter Bondra (born in what is now Ukraine), Alexander Semin (Russia), and Alex Ovechkin (Russia) rank second, fifth, and first, respectively, on the club’s all-time goals scored list.  Capitals Nation hopes that Jakub Vrana (Czech Republic) is next in line to leave his place among the goal scoring leaders in team history.

But first, Vrana has to complete his rookie season.  Although he is just 21 years old, Vrana has had a rich and full development between representing the Czech Republic on the international stage, playing with Linköpings HC in Sweden, and then with the Hershey Bears of the AHL over parts of the last three seasons.  Last season, Vrana got his first taste of NHL action, dressing for 21 games with the Caps in two call-ups last season.

As debuts go, it was not electrifying, but it did provide the occasional glimpse of what the Caps might have in the young winger.  Vrana scored three goals in those 21 games, all of them on power plays, and two of them of the game-winning variety.

That was the good.  But there were disturbing signs as well.  Upon returning to the Bears after his second call-up with the Caps, Vrana went 5-5-10, plus-5, in 13 games to end the regular season.  The postseason was another matter, though.  In the opening round against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, he was without a point in Games 1-3, and he recorded only two shots on goal.  The lack of offensive contribution mattered, even as the Bears held a 2-1 lead after those three games, since the team managed only seven goals in the three games, five of them in Game 1. 

Vrana was benched for Games 4 and 5 as the Bears eked out a first round win.  But the pattern for Vrana reappeared in Round 2 against the Providence Bruins – no points in the first three games of the series and a benching.  He sat for Games 4-6 before taking the ice in a decisive Game 7 that the Bears lost, 4-2.  As it turned out, Vrana went without a point in seven postseason games and recorded only three shots on goal.  That the Bears managed only 25 goals made his lack of contribution that much more disappointing.

Odd Vrana Fact… Jakub Vrana did not record a point in any game in which he skated more than 11 minutes last season (0-for-10).  He was 2-2-4 in  seven games in which he skated less than ten minutes.

Fearless’ Take…

Despite that disappointing 2017 postseason at Hershey, Vrana did post 35 goals in 88 regular season games with the Bears over parts of three seasons.  In 187 games in various settings with Linköpings, he recorded 86 goals.  He does have a knack for finding the back of the net. 

Cheerless’ Take…

If anything, Vrana’s two stretches with the Caps last season revealed things he needs to improve.  Strangely, one of them might be shooting, or at least getting shots on net.  Eight times in 21 games he did not record a shot on goal, although averaging just around 11 minutes a game in those contests might have played a role.  His shots tapered off with time, too. He had 21 shots on goal in his first call-up of 12 games, but he had only 11 shots in nine games in his second call-up, and in five of those games (four of his last five) he had no shots on goal.

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2017-2018:
  • 100 games (currently has 21)

The Big Question… Can Jakub Vrana be the next version of a renowned Capitals sniper?

Jakub Vrana has perhaps more potential than any prospect in the Capitals’ system.  He is, at the moment, the top under-25 player in the system yet to secure a spot on the parent roster.  It is always an iffy proposition to attach the term “next [fill-in-the-blank player]” to a player with a skill set such as Vrana’s.  However, there does seem to be a clear parallel with him in terms of skill set and developmental arc.  Consider that in 1990-1991 the Caps had a 21-year old with a profile as a goal scorer (86 goals in 129 games with VSZ Kosice in Europe in three years before joining the Caps) who could skate like the wind.  He had 12 goals in 54 games of his rookie season, four of them power play goals.  He did, though have defensive issues as he familiarized himself with the North American game, going minus-10 in his rookie season (his worst until he was a minus-17 with the Caps in his 14th and last season with the club).

Vrana is a 21-year old who has already demonstrated an ability to score goals both in European hockey and in the highest pro level under the NHL.  He, like the player who came before him, is a left-handed shot and is of similar size.  He would appear to have issues to work through, but he also appears to have the skill set to be a top-notch goal scorer at the NHL level.

Peter Bondra became the most prolific goal scorer in team history (since eclipsed) while playing much of his career with the club in the “dead puck” era.  Jakub Vrana, who will wear the number “13,” while his predecessor wore the number “12,” might not reach such lofty goal totals as Bondra, but the similarities in style of play are intriguing enough to wonder if achieving such goals are possible.  It makes watching his rookie season with the Caps one of the interesting subplots of the season, to see whether in fact those perceived similarities express themselves in performance.

In the end…

Whatever Jakub Vrana’s potential as a goal scorer, it would be a stretch to think of him as a leader in that statistic on this team, this season.  Even rookie goal scorers have an apprenticeship to serve.  As noted, Peter Bondra scored 12 goals in 54 game of his rookie season, but then later recorded four 40-plus goal seasons, twice reaching the 52-goal mark.  Alexander Semin (the only other 13th overall draft pick in Caps history apart from Vrana) scored 10 goals in 52 games of his rookie season before topping 30 goals three times and hitting the 40-goal mark once.  Sure, Mike Gartner recorded 36 goals in his first year with the Caps, but he had a year in the World Hockey Association before joining the Caps, and that was a different, more freewheeling era.  And there is Alex Ovechkin with his 52-goal rookie season, but his is the freakish outlier, one of only five player in NHL history to record more than 50 goals in their rookie season. 

Jakub Vrana is likely to have a “rookie” season – stretches of production that hints at his potential sprinkled with stretches in which he disappears and perhaps frustrates his coaches (as skilled players sometimes do with their lack of focus in the defensive end).  And as with rookies, the important thing to watch for is the kind of player he is in March and April compared to the one he might be in October and November.  It is experience he needs, although the team could benefit from his getting it before he needs it…in the spring.

Projection: 69 games, 12-14-26, plus-5

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Washington Capitals 2017-2018 Previews -- Forwards: Devante Smith-Pelly

Devante Smith-Pelly

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.”
-- Seneca

New beginnings and beginning’s end appear to be habit with Devante Smith-Pelly.  It happens to many NHL’ers.  In Smith-Pelly’s case, he will be donning the jersey of his fourth NHL team in seven NHL seasons, having had previous stops in Anaheim (second round draft pick and three-plus seasons), Montreal (parts of two seasons), and New Jersey (one full season and change).

It is a lot of traveling for a player who has been on the margin of holding a consistent spot in an NHL lineup.  In those six seasons, Smith-Pelly has appeared in 266 games, and only in the last three of them has he appeared in more than 50 games. 

He has not left a large footprint in his six NHL seasons, posting 33 goals and 77 points in those 266 games.  But some folks do see something more in him.  In fact, one person of particular importance and relevance to the matter thinks, “there’s some untapped potential.”   If one looks at the full arc of his development, one can see the possibilities.  In three years of Canadian juniors, Smith-Pelly put up increasing goal totals, from 13 in 57 games as a 16-year old with the Mississauga St. Michael Majors to 29 goals in 60 games the following year (the season preceding his being drafted) to 36 goals in 67 games in his last year of juniors.  He experienced similar improvements with the Norfolk Admirals in his two AHL seasons, scoring 14 goals in 60 games in his first season with the club and 27 goals in 55 games the following season as a 21 year old.

Odd Smith-Pelly Fact…  Oddly enough, Devante Smith-Pelly’s most productive seasons were those in which he dressed for two different teams.  In 2014-2015 he was 6-14-20 in 74 games split between Anaheim and Montreal), while in 2015-2016 he was 14-11-25 in 64 games split between Montreal and New Jersey.

Fearless’ Take…

One thing that has not seemed to intimidate Smith-Pelly in his young career is going on the road.  He has roughly equivalent numbers (on a per game basis) on the road (17-23-40 in 139 games) as he does at home (16-21-37 in 127 games).

Cheerless’ Take…

Just sayin’, but in nine career games against the Penguins, he is 0-1-1, minus-9.  That plus-minus is the worst he has against any team in the league, save one…the team he’s playing for (minus-10 in 12 games against the Caps).  He is also a minus-24 in 61 career games against Metropolitan Division teams, minus-5 against the rest of the league in 205 career games.  Sure, a lot of that was skating with a weak New Jersey team, but the number is the number.  It did not help that he had the third worst shot attempts-for (SAT) percentage with the Devils last season (40.90 percent) and the seventh-worst of 351 NHL forwards skating in at least 50 games.  And there is that postseason thing, too.  Smith-Pelly was 5-0-5, minus-1 in his first ten career playoff games.  In his last 14 postseason games he is 1-2-3, minus-4.

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2017-2018:
  • 300 games (currently has 266)
  • 100 points (currently has 77)
  • 100 penalty minutes (currently has 84)
  • 10 game-winning goals (currently has seven)
  • Points against all 31 teams (currently has points against every team except: Detroit, New Jersey, Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Las Vegas)

The Big Question… Is Devante Smith-Pelly an economical bottom-six forward solution?

Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson are gone.  This could open up top-six forward spots for Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson, or Brett Connolly.   When you couple that with the contracts that were finalized this summer, that means the Caps will have to fill in their bottom six spots with economical (read, “cheap”) alternatives, either from within or with new signings.  Smith-Pelly has the advantage of almost 300 regular and postseason  games of NHL experience.  At $650,000 on a one-year deal, he is about as economical as it gets for an NHL player with that experience level and comparable to the rookies with whom he is likely to compete (Riley Barber, Chandler Stephenson, and Nathan Walker among them).  If Smith-Pelly does have the untapped potential the General Manager Brian MacLellan seems to think he has, then he would be a bargain.  If not, his is a low-risk signing. 

In the end…

That he has not seen an arc of improvement in the NHL similar to that he experienced in juniors and the AHL does not foreclose the possibility the Devante Smith-Pelly is doomed to a lackluster NHL career.  He just turned 25 years of age in June.  But time continues to pass, too, and there is not a lot of time to establish himself as a player worthy of a sweater night in and night out.  The departures the Caps experienced in this past off-season provide a unique opportunity for players like Smith-Pelly, who have some spotty experience but are still young enough to grow into a responsible role on a team with more than a few remaining veterans.  He is likely to compete for a bottom-six spot on this roster, and in that competition his experience could put him a step ahead of those with whom he is competing.

Projection: 52 games, 6-5-11, plus-2

Photo: Steven Ryan/Getty Images North America

Monday, September 11, 2017

Washington Capitals 2017-2018 Previews -- Forwards: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

“Everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough.”
-- George Bernard Shaw

Another year, another disappointment.  Like the previous eight trips to the postseason in the Alex Ovechkin era, the ninth trip ended with a loss.  For the third time, that loss came against the Caps’ most frustrating rival in this era, the Pittsburgh Penguins.  That loss last spring was the tenth Game 7 in which Ovechkin has played in the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Those games have not been kind to him.  He and the Caps have a 3-7 record in those contests, and Ovechkin’s personal scoring line of 3-3-6, minus-2, does not impress.

What is more ominous going forward about his postseason performance last spring (5-3-8, minus-4, in 13 games overall) is that it came on the heels of his second-lowest goal scoring output over a full season (not counting the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season) of his career.  His 33 goals, a fine total by most players’ standards, was one more than Ovechkin recorded in the 2010-2011 season.

The 2016-2017 season was something of an odd one for Ovechkin, goal scoring-wise.  He started like a house afire with four goals in his first six games, seven in his first 11 contests, and 12 goals by the time the season was 19 games old (including a hat trick against the St. Louis Blues in Game 19).  He was on a 52-goal scoring pace.  Rather normal for Ovechkin. 

And then, the wheels started wobbling.  He went seven games without a goal before potting nine in his next 15 contests.  At the 41-game mark he had 21 goals, still on a pace to score 42 goals, but then the goals started drying up.  He had six goals in Games 42-58 before falling into a ten-game streak without one.  That ended whatever chance he had to record his eighth 50-goal season.  Even though he would score six goals in seven games following that drought (wrapped up by a hat trick against the Minnesota Wild), he would end the regular season without a goal in his last seven games.

That strange “hot start/cool finish” carried over into his postseason.  Ovechkin had three goals in the first four games of the first round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but then he fell into a slumber with two goals in his last nine playoff contests.

Odd Ovechkin Fact… In the 12 seasons he has been in the league, no player has more seasons with 30 or more goals and 30 or fewer assists than Alex Ovechkin, who has five such seasons (four players have three).

Bonus Odd Ovechkin Fact… No player in the last half century of the NHL has more seasons with ten or more power play goals in his first 12 NHL seasons than Alex Ovechkin.  It is a feat he accomplished 11 times (only in 2011-2012, when he had seven power play goals, did he fail to reach double-digits).

Extra Bonus Ovechkin Fact… Alex Ovechkin has 558 career goals.  That is 230 more goals than any other player in his 2004 draft class (Evgeni Malkin has 328).  He could have sat out the last five seasons and still had 11 more goals than Malkin.

Extra Extra Bonus Odd Ovechkin Fact… Since he came into the league, 256 players have dressed for 50 or more playoff games.  None of them have averaged more postseason goals per game than Alex Ovechkin (0.47).

Fearless’ Take…

Even with the drop-off in his goal total, Ovechkin became just the third player in NHL history to record 30 or more goals in each of his first 12 NHL seasons, joining Wayne Gretzky and Mike Gartner.  For the fifth consecutive season he led or tied for the league lead in power play goals. 

And there is an unspoken achievement a long time in the making.  Alex Ovechkin has played a dozen years with a certain style bordering on chaos, throwing his body around in a “hit first, lest ye be hit” sort of mind set.  Despite that hyperkinetic style, he has appeared in 921 of 950 scheduled regular season games (96.9 percent) and has appeared in each and every one of the 97 postseason games played by the Caps since he came into the league.  And, of the 29 games he missed over his 12 years in the league, nine of them were for suspensions or personal reasons.

Cheerless’ Take…

Second round.  Second.  Round.  Say it.  Embrace it.  Try to look away, and the gaze always returns.  Ovechkin has scored 65 goals in a season, has a bushel of 50-goal seasons, hat tricks, power play goals, various NHL trophies and awards, all-star game appearances, all-star team honors, seven Kharlamov Trophies as the best Russian hockey player, the Russian Order of Honor, an asteroid named after him, Olympic Games appearances.  He even has three World Championship gold medals.  But the albatross that hangs around the neck of his prodigious career is the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the barrier across which he has yet to cross.  As cruel as it seems, adding to his collection of regular season awards, more 50-goal seasons, hat tricks…whatever.  All of it might, despite the difficulties in their achievement, seem like reruns.  Except for his final rankings among the greats in a variety of statistical categories, there is just one unrealized achievement in the NHL for Ovechkin. 

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2017-2018:
  • 1,000 games (currently has 921)
  • 600 goals (currently has 558, would become the 20th player in league history to reach that mark)
  • 1,100 points (currently has 1,035, would become the 60th player in NHL history to reach that mark)
  • 100 game-winning goals (currently has 95, would become the seventh or eighth player to reach that mark, depending on whether Patrick Marleau (98) reaches that mark first)

The Big Question… Is Alex Ovechkin now a part of the ensemble and not the featured soloist for the Caps?

Not that any successful hockey team is one player’s domain, but Alex Ovechkin was the straw that stirs the drink for the Caps for his first 11 seasons.   Although he remained the player teams had to game plan for last season, his statistics were, by his lofty standards, not nearly as impressive.  Last season was the first time in 12 seasons with the Caps that he did not lead the team outright in goals scored (he tied for the team lead with T.J. Oshie).  His 16 even strength goals was the lowest total for a full season in his career (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season), far below his previous low of 25 in both the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 seasons.  It was the first time in his career that over a full season he had more than 15 power play goals but fewer than 20 even strength goals and the first time he had more power play goals (17) than even strength goals (16).

One has the disturbing feeling that Ovechkin is evolving into a specialist, like a third-down running back in football who runs good pass routes.  In his case, he can still intimidate on the power play, but his even strength production has been receding.  Others on the team might be eclipsing him in their ability to affect a game in multiple ways (Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and perhaps in the not too distant future Andre Burakovsky).  Whether the Capitals can add in terms of success what they subtract in terms of Ovechkin’s contribution to it, if that is how his career is evolving, will be a front-and-center issue this season.

In the end…

You are just short of your 32nd birthday, you have more money than most will earn in a lifetime, you just settled down with a new wife, you have more honors in your profession than almost anyone in the history of the sport, you are recognized on several continents, your place among the greats in the sport is secure.  Tough life.  That is not to say that Alex Ovechkin does not burn inside for a chance to hoist the Stanley Cup, but if fate dictates he does not do so, it will do little to diminish his legacy as perhaps the most dominant goal scorer of his generation, if not in the history of the sport.  Sometimes, it seems it is fans and the collected hockey media who spend more time navel gazing at Alex Ovechkin’s shortcomings.  Meanwhile, his remarkable combination of consistency, production, and durability has been almost unique in a sport that can chip away relentlessly at any of these qualities.

But time plays no favorites, and Alex Ovechkin is no exception.  His constitution might push off that reckoning (he appears to be coming to training camp significantly leaner than last season), but it will come, and his production will diminish, if it has not started to already.  It makes George Bernard Shaw’s comment about time especially noteworthy.  Is there enough time for Ovechkin to realize the last of the great achievements available to an NHL player?

Projection: 78 games, 35-38-73, plus-8

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America