Monday, May 25, 2015

Washington Capitals: 2014-2015 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Brooks Orpik


“It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see.”
-- Henry David Thoreau


Brooks Orpik is no stranger to mixing it up in the corners of a hockey rink.  In 11 seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Orpik earned a reputation as a defenseman who made life difficult for opponents who crossed his path or entered his territory.

Nothing prepared him for the cross-checks and the sharp elbows flung in his direction by commentators after he signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract as an unrestricted free agent with the Washington Capitals.  The adjectives in the headlines announcing the deal said it all…


You would think Orpik was a stiff who needed assistance lacing his skates.  In fairness, the contract seemed outsized in dollars and term given Orpik’s age (he was less than three months from his 34th birthday when the deal was signed) and mileage (795 regular season and playoff games; almost 16,000 minutes of ice time in the NHL).

The new generation of hockey data analysts were not exactly enthralled with the signing, either.    If Orpik was a sensitive sort, he might have locked himself in a closet and not come out until the following spring.

However, whatever sensitivities he possesses, they applied neither to the deal, nor his on-ice potential, at least not in the eyes of theman who would coach him, Barry Trotz…
"The things that Brooks Orpik does, you can’t put a value on…he can have an effect.  And the effect is going to be…in culture and winning and attitude. And that’s what Brooks Orpik does.” 

As it turned out, if you had been paying attention to Orpik’s career in Pittsburgh (and no doubt more than a few Caps fans did), you got more of it in his first season as a Capital. 

Goal scoring?  Nope.  In 11 seasons in Pittsburgh he managed a total of 13 goals and never had more than two in any single season.  He had none for the Caps in 2014-2015. 

Assists?  This is actually a bit of an underrated part of Orpik’s game.  Sure, he played with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for much of his career in Pittsburgh, but he reached double digits in assists six times in his last seven seasons with the Penguins, the only time he failed to do so being the abbreviated 2012-2013 season.   He had 19 with the Caps in 2014-2015, his second highest career season total (23 in 2009-2010).

Hits? Since the league started compiling that statistic in 2005-2006, Orpik averaged 264 hits per 82 games with the Penguins.  He had 306 for Washington this season.

And, Orpik was something of a good luck charm.  When he did record a point, the Caps were 15-1-1, the losses coming in the last two games of the season in which Orpik recorded a point, one an overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators on April 4th, and the only loss in regulation coming in the last game of the regular season.  Orpik had an assist in the last minute of the Caps’ 4-2 loss to the New York Rangers, the Caps having already clinched a playoff spot.

But about those underlying numbers.  The thinking here was that Orpik was not an especially effective player in the context of possession.  That might be derived by looking at his Corsi numbers over his last two years in Pittsburgh – an aggregate Corsi plus-minus at 5-on-5 of minus-334, a Corsi-for percentage of 45.4, a Corsi-for relative at 5-on-5 that averaged minus-6.0 over those two seasons (numbers from war-on-ice.com). 

In his first year in Washington, however, getting top minutes, his numbers improved.  He was still a “minus” player, but only minus-18.  His Corsi-for percentage was still under 50 percent, but barely (49.7).  His Corsi-for relative was still in minus territory, but his best in five seasons (minus-2.4).


Fearless’ Take:  There are some things that elude quantification that have value.  Three years at Boston College, three Frozen Fours and a national championship.  Two years with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL, an appearance in the Calder Cup finals.  Ten full seasons in Pittsburgh, eight playoff appearances, two Stanley Cup finals, and a championship.  He does have a certain affinity with winning.  And there is his recognition of his place in the locker room as the mentor, which seems to have manifest itself in terms of his relationship with rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov.  In that respect, he resembles another veteran who helped shepherd a group of young guns on this team a half decade ago: Mike Knuble.

Looking at his ten-game segments, Orpik displayed a startling improvement in his overall Corsi numbers from the first four segments (minus-47, each segment a minus) to the last four (plus-29, each segment a plus).  The change in scoring chances was in the same direction, but not as stark.  What neither did was have much of an effect on goal differentials; Orpik was plus-2 in goal differential over his first four ten-game segments, minus-1 in his last four.

Cheerless’ Take:  Uh, yeah…about that Knuble reference, cuz.  If you’re squeamish, you don’t want to look at his possession numbers over his three years with the Caps.  At 5-on-5…Corsi plus-minus went from plus-155 to plus-38 to minus-153.  Corsi-for percentage went from 54.3 to 50.9 to 44.6.  Corsi-relative went from plus-1.5 to minus-0.5 to minus-4.4.  Orpik did not have a bad set of possession numbers for the Caps, but he, like Knuble before him, could see them trend that way pretty quick.  Those intangibles had better be a lot more tangible pretty soon.

Odd Orpik Fact: Although the Caps had a fine record when Orpik recorded a point this season, he did not have a goal, let alone a game-winning goal.  He has gone 781 regular season games and  15,543 minutes without recording a game-winning goal in his 12-season regular season career.  His only career game-winner was a series-clinching goal in Game 6 of the Penguins’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff series against the New York Islanders in 2013.

Game to Remember: December 27th at Pittsburgh.  Brooks Orpik’s first game back in Pittsburgh as a Capital was a typical illustration of an Orpikian game.  He logged more than 24 minutes for the Caps, including more than four minutes killing penalties.  He did not have a shot attempt, but he did register an assist.  He finished the game with seven hits and a blocked shot.  More important, he finished a plus-3 in what would be a 3-0 win over the Penguins.

Game to Forget: October 14th versus San Jose.  You would like to get off to a good start with the new fans, and having lost the home opener to Montreal five days earlier, Orpik and the Caps wanted to get the home portion of the season on a winning track.  Well, it was a nice thought.  The San Jose Sharks came into Verizon Center and scored three goals in the first 9:34 of the contest.  Orpik was on ice to get a good look at all of them.  The Caps would crawl back to force overtime, but the Sharks would escape with a 6-5 Gimmick win.  Orpik was on ice for all five of the five hockey goals scored by San Jose.

Postseason: 0-2-2, plus-5, 74 hits, 36 blocked shots

It says something about Orpik’s ability to play within himself and play his game that as the playoffs approach the end of the third round, he is still second overall in hits and tied for sixth in blocked shots as of May 23rd.  His possession numbers were consistent with his regular season performance (49.2 Corsi-for percent at 5-on-5), and his Corsi-relative numbers were impressive in the last four games against the Rangers.  He would, however, find himself on ice for that last goal of the season, though, and for him, as it does for his teammates, it has to sting.

In the end…

If there was a player who delivered based on expectations for the Capitals this year, Orpik would rank highly on that list.  He has given no evidence of making many contributions over his career in the offensive end, and he was consistent with that profile this season.  When he did contribute, it was meaningful.  He did not contribute empty points.  On the defensive end he had the reputation of playing a rugged game, and he was true to form.  It would be a style that, if it didn’t rub off on his teammates, it was one that the club assumed – the “heavy” style of play discussed often in the season’s latter stages.

Orpik also played the role of wise veteran with knowledge to impart to his younger teammates.  It seems a natural progression for his career, having come from one of the storied programs in NCAA hockey through an NHL organization that had success, and finally to a team that has young skill players who are just learning what it takes to compete and succeed in the NHL.  In that sense, Orpik’s numbers cannot be looked at in a vacuum.  It would be hard to quantify the effects “Batya” has had on players such as Evgeny Kuznetsov or Andre Burakovsky, but both players finished their seasons in strong fashion.  Looking at the numbers for Orpik is one thing, but what you see when you lift your eyes from the spreadsheets looks a bit different.  Whatever one might think of Orpik’s contract in the long term, it would appear that the Capitals got their money’s worth from it in 2014-2015.

Grade: B

Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Short Programming Note...

It is Memorial Day weekend in the U.S., and if folks aren't glued to the tube to watch the NHL Conference finals, they are spending the first weekend of summer with friends and family...or you should be.  So, we will be off until Tuesday.  Have a happy and safe holiday.


And for all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice that this weekend remembers and salutes, you have our everlasting thanks.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Top Ten Reasons Mike Babcock Took the Maple Leaf Job

We're all going to miss David Letterman, so here is our humble (you may read: "lame") homage to that format...

Here they are, the top ten reasons Mike Babcock signed with Toronto...

Number 10... Engaging with the most knowledgeable fans in hockey in reasoned discourse

Number 9... The chance to see the smiling faces of the Toronto media every day

Number 8... Sharing the night life with Rob Ford

Number 7... He was tired of Datsyuk always muttering something at him in Russian every time they got back together after an international tournament

Number 6... He can see real baseball in the off season, the way it was meant to be played, not that American version

Number 5... No more Obamacare!

Number 4... The chance to follow in the footsteps of coaching legends in Toronto like Mike Nykoluk and Tom Watt

Number 3... He didn’t want a contract that was going to pay him in bacon-wrapped pizza

Number 2... He's a sucker for the metric system

…and the number one reason Mike Babcock took the job in Toronto…

The chance to coach the myth, the man, the legend that is Phil Kessel


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Washington Capitals: 2014-2015 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Matt Niskanen


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


The Matt Niskanen that signed a seven-year/$40.25 million contract with the Washington Capitals in July 2014 was something of an anomaly in the context of his own career.  In the 2013-2014 season – his “walk” year with the Pittsburgh Penguins – Niskanen scored ten goals, more than the combined total he recorded in his previous three seasons covering 178 games (nine).  He had more points (46) than he had over those same three seasons (45).  He tied a personal best in power play goals (3) and tripled his best season in game-winning goals with six.  It would be a difficult season to match.

He did not, at least in terms of the raw numbers.  Four goals, 31 points, a pair of power play goals, no game winners.  If you were comparing that to last year’s Matt Niskanen, the 2015 version might pale somewhat in that comparison.  It would also be unfair to Niskanen. 

The 2013-2014 season was a a bit of a unique instance for Niskanen.  It was a case of an opportunity born out of misfortune.  Kris Letang missed 45 games last season for the Pittsburgh Penguins to a lower body injury, and upper body injury, and then a cardiovascular ailment.  Niskanen played in all of those games, assuming much of the role Letang played.  In those 45 games, Niskanen went 7-19-26, plus-15, with three power play goals and a 120 shots on goal.  On an 82-game basis that would work out to a 13-35-47, plus-27 season. 

As it was, Niskanen was actually 10-36-46, plus-33, last season.  The difference was essentially the power play production (all three power play goals he scored came with Letang out of the lineup).  It was not going to be a role he would reprise for the Caps in his first season, either in replacing a top defenseman lost to illness or injury, or in getting top power play minutes over a long stretch of games.

Niskanen’s first season with the Caps resembled more his body of work before last season and in fact was slightly better.  On an 82-game basis, Niskanen was a 5-19-24, plus-1 player in his first six seasons in the NHL with an average of one power play goal, six power play assists, and 116 shots on goal.  In 82 games this season he was 4-27-31, plus-7 with two power play goals and eight power play assists to go with 117 shots on goal.

Niskanen’s ten-game segments display a certain consistency about them as well on one level, but an odd change over time on another level.  He was generally in the 3-4 point range per segment, and he recorded special teams points in six of the eight segments (including a shorthanded assist in the fourth segment).  His shots on goal were generally in the mid-teens across the segments. 


Fearless’ Take: Niskanen is an all-situations defenseman.  He was the only Capitals defensemen to average at least 19 minutes of even strength ice time per game and at least a minute a night on both the power play and penalty kill.  In fact, he was one of only 18 defensemen in the league with that ice time profile.  His 22:21 in average ice time was a career best for him.

Cheerless’ Take:  Look over at the columns in the far right of that summary table at the top of the page.  His Corsi plus-minus (all situations) was a net plus-68 over his first 50 games, but in his last 32 games it was a minus-91.  The scoring chance plus-minus follows a similar pattern, plus-74 in his first 50 games, minus-54 in his last 32 games.  Oddly enough, his goal differential (all situations) in those last 32 games was a plus-4 (all numbers from war-on-ice.com).  Why?  Perhaps it was those four power play assists (doubling his output over his first 70 games) that contributed to the result.  But that sure was an odd end of the season.

Odd Niskanen Fact:  That Corsi plus-minus in all situations of minus-23 can be explained in its entirety (and then some) by his performance against New York teams.  Niskanen was minus-27 against the Ranger and Islanders, plus-4 against the rest of the league.  Making that fact a bit stranger is that he was 1-5-6, even, against those two teams in eight games.

Game to Remember: November 28th versus the New York Islanders.  Matt Niskanen’s start with his new team was a lurching on, at least in the offensive end.  In his first 19 games with the Capitals he did not record a goal and had only five assists, those coming in three games.  He was having particular trouble scoring at home.  In ten home contests over those first 19 games, Niskanen was 0-2-2, plus-2.  He got his first goal as a Cap in his 17th game (and his first home ice goal) in a 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on November 22nd.  Then came a home-and-home set with the Islanders.  Niskanen recorded an assist in the first of those two games, the first time he recorded points in consecutive games with the Caps, although the Caps lost again, 3-2, in overtime. 

In the back half of the home-and-home at Verizon Center, Niskanen recorded his high for points in the 2014-2015 season.  He assisted on the Caps’ first two goals, a primary assist on a power play goal by Andre Burakovsky and another primary assist on a goal by Marcus Johansson late in the first period of that contest.  The Caps gave away the lead, allowing two goals in the space of 35 seconds in the last 1:02 of the first period of that game, but they took the lead in the second period on a goal from Alex Ovechkin, then added a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov in the third.  Niskanen took a hit to make a play late in the contest, taking one from Brock Nelson just as he was about to send the puck around the back wall in his own end.  It started a play that was finished by a Joel Ward empty net goal, and Niskanen had his third assist of the game, the first time he did so since February 2009 with the Dallas Stars.

Game to Forget: November 1st versus Tampa Bay.  It started in the game’s seventh minute when Matt Niskanen got caught in a no-man’s land above the hash marks trying to defend Bryan Boyle.  He tried to poke the puck off Boyle’s stick, but it was late and Boyle’s shot was redirected by Ryan Callahan to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead.  The Caps took the lead on goals by Marcus Johansson and Eric Fehr, but in the tenth minute of the second period, the Lightning scored again.  This time Niskanen got caught at the front of the net peering at Nikita Kucherov with the puck behind the Caps’ net.  Niskanen did not see Ondrej Palat pinching in and was no position to defend the one-timer from Palat off a pass from Kucherov.  Niskanen could not be faulted on the Lightning’s third goal, a redirect from Kucherov, but he did get a good look at it from the opposite side of the crease from where Kucherov was camped.  Washington tied the game in the last minute of the second period on a power play goal from Troy Brouwer, but the Caps lost on a third period goal by Jason Garrison.  Niskanen was not on ice for that goal in the 4-3 loss, but the three goals he was on ice for contributed to his worst plus-minus (minus-3) of the season.

Postseason: 0-4-4, minus-2

Niskanen’s postseason mirrored a lot of Caps defensemen.  The offensive contributions of the regular season were not as evident in the playoffs, especially against the Rangers in the second round (one assist in seven games).  He did lead Washington’s defensemen in takeaways in the postseason with nine.  Trouble was, he also led the blue line in giveaways with 24.

In the end…

The reasonable evaluation of Niskanen’s year would be that he delivered what would reasonably be expected of him.  Accounting for the year he had in Pittsburgh last season under somewhat unique circumstances, his performance numbers were a bit better than his career numbers would have suggested.  Even with the somewhat bizarre Corsi and scoring chance numbers late in the season, Niskanen was a steady, durable, reliable performer.  Sort of like radial tires.  You don’t really think about them much, but they do their job.

That odd fact does kind of loop around to an odd outcome of Niskanen’s season, though.  He was 1-4-5, plus-1 against the Islanders this season, but he was just 1-2-3, minus-7 in 20 games against other teams in the Eastern Conference that reached the playoffs.

On balance, though, Niskanen provided solid minutes in a second-pair role.  There is no reason to suspect that his contributions going forward would be any less.  In that sense, his new start with a new team in a new city was not so much a continuation of the experience he left behind in Pittsburgh as it was a return to the solid defenseman he has demonstrated himself to be, the sort that can be used in any situation.

Grade: B

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Washington Capitals: 2014-2015 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Mike Green



“I think goodbyes are sad and I'd much rather say hello. Hello to a new adventure.”
-- Ernie Harwell


Mike Green first took the ice for the Washington Capitals on October 12, 2005 in Carolina against the Hurricanes.  It was not an auspicious start for Green, nor was it a memorable evening for the Caps in general.  Green recorded 14 minutes and change in ice time, recording neither a shot on goal nor a point, finishing with one hit and two blocked shots in a 7-2 Caps loss.

However, in 574 games since that evening, Green ranks at or near the top in a number of statistical categories among defensemen in team history:
  • Games played: 575 (8th)
  • Goals: 113 (T-3rd, with Calle Johansson)
  • Assists: 247 (5th)
  • Points: 360 (5th)
  • Plus/Minus: plus-58 (6th)
  • Power Play Goals: 52 (2nd)
He is one of only 21 defensemen in Capitals history to record a shorthanded goal, and despite a record of injuries that robbed him of much of the most productive part of his career, he is fourth among active players on the team in games played with the club.

All of that is relevant because for Green and Capitals fans, the 2014-2015 season, if not The Long Goodbye, might be The Long Question Mark.  As an unrestricted free agent, would it be his last season with the Capitals?  That is a question that cannot be answered  in the here and now, but if the 2014-2015 season was Green’s last in Washington, he remained one of the best offensive defensemen in the league.  On a per game basis, Green finished as one of 10 defensemen who played in 70 or more games, averaged at least 0.10 goals per game, at least 0.45 assists per game, and at least 0.60 points per game.

Green remains one of the most consistent performers on the power play among NHL defensemen.  His 16 assists with the man advantage ranked tied for tenth among defensemen this season, an improvement on his 24th place ranking in 2013-2014 and consistent with his tied for 11th ranking in 2012-2013.  In this area, he improved as the season wore on.  Green had only two power play assists in over the first three ten-game segments of the season, but he recorded at least one in each of his last five segments, 14 in all.

It was part of a season in which Green, despite a diminished role as a third pair defenseman, still finished the season in the top-20 in total scoring among defensemen (45 points, tied for 16th).  There was the matter of that diminished role, though.  For the first time since the 2006-2007 season, his first full season in the league, Green averaged less than 20 minutes of ice time per game.  The drop in even strength ice time was more pronounced.  Coming into this season, Green had led the Caps’ defensemen in even strength ice time per game in six of the past seven years including the two years preceding this one.  This season his even strength ice time dropped from the 19:28 he recorded last season to 15:47, fifth highest on the club.


Fearless’ Take:  More than the ice time is the mix.  If you look at how Capitals defensemen spent even strength time with one another, one is taken by the consistency among the first and second pairs:



Brooks Orpik spent 84.1 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time with John Carlson, and Carlson spent 84.2 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time with Orpik (all numbers for ice time from stats.hockeyanalysis.com).  Similarly, Karl Alzner spent 89.9 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time with Matt Niskanen, while Niskanen spent 83.6 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time with Alzner.

Then there was Green.  He did not spend more than 30 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time with any other Caps defenseman and spent 20 percent or more (rounded) with three defensemen – Nate Schmidt, Jack Hillen, and Tim Gleason. 


And it could be reasonably said that the three were of different types, Schmidt a youngster who is more energetic in the offensive end, Hillen a two way type who depends on guile and position far more than physical presence, and Gleason a physical stay-at-home defenseman (a sort of “John Erskine-lite”).  If Green was not quite the offensive force he once was, and if he did play a diminished role, he did it in challenging circumstances with the variety of partners he had.

Cheerless’ Take:  Mike Green as a power play force seems something of a memory.  From 2007-2008 through 2013-2014, Green scored more power play goals than any defenseman (51) except Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber.  Those two recorded only two more power play goals than Green despite playing in roughly 100 more games (500 for Weber and 522 for Chara, while Green played in only 411).  No other defenseman over that period is within a dozen power play goals of Green (Dustin Byfuglien: 37 goals in 417 games).  In 2014-3015, though, Green had one power play goal.

Odd Green Fact: About that lone power play goal.  Mike Green scored it in his first game for the Capitals this season, back on October 11th in a 4-0 win in Boston over the Bruins.  Over his last 71 games and 197:07 in total power play ice time over those games, he would not record another.

Game to Remember: April 5th versus Detroit.  The Capitals clinched a spot in the postseason on this evening, technically, when the Ottawa Senators lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a Gimmick.  The Caps did not settle for backing into the playoffs, though.  Evgeny Kuznetsov scored a power play goal in the first period to give the Caps a 1-0 lead over the Red Wings.  In the second period, Green added to the lead with a blast from the top of the right wing faceoff circle.  It would be the margin of victory in the Caps’ 2-1 win over the Red Wings, Green’s second game-winning goal of the season.

Game to Forget: November 4th versus Calgary.  There was enough grief to go around for the Caps in what would be a 4-3 overtime loss to the Flames at Verizon Center, especially giving up a lead late in the third period.  It would be an especially difficult night for Green, however, who was on ice for all four Calgary goals, including the overtime winner with just 42.2 seconds left in the five-minute extra session.  Green’s minus-4 for the evening was his worst of the season.

Postseason: 0-2-2, minus-1

At a performance level, Mike Green was reduced to being a virtual non-entity in the postseason.  Part of it was deployment (he had half the average power play ice time of John Carlson), part of it was shooting (he did not have a lower average shots per game – 1.93 – in a postseason since 2009), part of it might have been just dumb luck.  He had never gone through a second round of a postseason without a goal in his career, and only once did did he do so at all (the 2010 postseason in which the Caps were eliminated in the first round).  Then, as if the hockey gods were mocking him, he drew two penalties 2:39 apart in the deciding Game 7 of the series against the New York Rangers, the second of which resulted in the game-tying power play goal in a 2-1 Capitals defeat.

In the end…

There is a whole generation of Capitals fans who know no other defenseman manning the right side on the top defensive pair (well, now the third pair) than Mike Green.  You can draw a bright line from Yvon Labre, to Rod Langway, to Scott Stevens, to Larry Murphy, to Kevin Hatcher, to Calle Johansson, to Sergei Gonchar, and finally to Green as Capitals defensemen who made a significant impact on the fortunes of the club over the years.

Since 2007-2008, no defenseman, save Duncan Keith, has more points than Green.  Over a three-year period, from 2007-2008 through 2009-2010, Green was not just the dominant offensive defenseman of the period, he lapped the field.  He had 68 goals over those three seasons; Shea Weber was next with 45.  He had 205 points; Nicklas Lidstrom was next with 178.  He had 36 power play goals; Mark Streit was next with 26.

It is a nice memory, but the reality of 2014-2015 is that Mike Green is not, and is unlikely to become again that defenseman with this club.  He remains one of the most productive offensive defensemen in the game, and his two-way game – so often denigrated when he was putting up those big offensive numbers – has improved by leaps and bounds.  However, he is no longer the minutes-eater he was when he was younger, a concession to the depth the Caps finally have at the position and perhaps the injuries Green sustained over the years that robbed him of 96 games over the three seasons ending in 2013.

There is little reason, in a hockey sense, to think that Green would be any less productive a player over the next four or five seasons than he was this past season, and he was productive indeed, especially in his role (he might have been the best "fifth" defenseman in the league) and given the changing partners on his left side.  But he and the Caps are going to have to deal with some difficult arithmetic.  A player of his talent could still be a top-pairing defenseman on a number of teams, and he could command $6 million or more per year in the free agent market.  That is a number that the Capitals almost certainly cannot accommodate in their payroll structure.

The difficult arithmetic means that Green might share something else with those Capitals defensemen of the past.  Like Stevens, Murphy, Hatcher, Johansson, and Gonchar - all of whom would move on from the Capitals, albeit under differing circumstances - it could mean that Green will be moving on to a new city come July.  It will be sad for Caps fans, should it come to pass, and no doubt for Green as well.  But it would be a new adventure for him, too, and Caps fans would have the memory of having witnessed one of the best careers in the history of the franchise.

Grade: B

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Monday, May 18, 2015

Washington Capitals: 2014-2015 By the Tens -- Defensemen: John Carlson



“Always do whatever's next.”
-- George Carlin


John Carlson has played five full seasons in the National Hockey League, and his progress has trended upward through each of those five seasons.  His goals per game has improved from 0.09 per game to 0.15, assists from 0.37 to 0.52, points from 0.45 to 0.67, shots on goal from 1.76 to 2.35.  He is one of only seven skaters to have played in every game over those five seasons and one of only three defensemen to do so (Keith Yandle and teammate Karl Alzner being the others).

There is also a certain balance to his game evidenced in those five seasons.  Using Hockey-Reference.com’s point share estimates over the last five seasons (the points contributed by a player from his offense and defense), Carlson is 14th among defensemen in offensive point share contributions, 16th in defensive point share contributions, and 12th overall (minimum: 200 games played). 

In 2014-2015, Carlson finished in the top dozen among defensemen in goals (11 – tied for 1th), assists (43 – tied for 5th), points (55 – tied for fifth), even strength assists (30 – second), even strength points (38 – second), and blocked shots (200 – third).  He was barely outside the top dozen in shorthanded ice time per game (2:57 – tied for 15th) and takeaways (41 – tied for 17th).  Again -- balance.  He was one of only four defensemen in the league whose offensive and defensive point share contributions were 4.8 or better (minimum: 40 games). 

There might be a subset of all of these numbers that bears watching as the Caps move forward.  Over the last five seasons, Carlson’s power play points have improved from 2.1 points per 60 minutes in 2010-2011 to 6.8 points per game this season.  This year’s number led the formidable Capitals power play, part of a three-headed monster from the blue line in that regard (Matt Niskanen averaged 6.8 points per 60 minutes, and Mike Green averaged 5.20 points per 60 minutes; numbers from war-on-ice.com). 

Carlson’s ten-game segments reflect a measure of consistency on the offensive end.  Only once did he fail to score a goal in any ten-game segment; only once did he record more than two goals.  Similarly, he did not finish any ten-game segment with fewer than five points, and only once did he have more than eight.  Digging underneat those numbers, Carlson feel into a ditch in his Corsi plus-minus (minus-75 in the fourth segment, minus-126 overall) and scoring chance plus-minus (minus-47 in the fourth segment, minus-35 overall) by the fourth ten-game segment of the season.  But over the last half of the season he slowly dragged himself out of that hole, or at least where he could see daylight (minus-17 Corsi +/- and minus-31 in scoring chances, but improvement in each ten-game segment).  The odd part in those ten-game segments, though, was Carlson’s goal differential – plus-3 over the first four ten-game segments, minus-3 over the last four segments.


Fearless’ Take: Carlson’s year-to-year improvement in his offensive numbers is substantial.  Goals up from 10 to 12, assists up from 27 to 43, points up from 37 to 55, plus-minus from minus-3 to plus-11.  He has quietly become one of the most productive offensive defensemen in the game.  Over the last two seasons, Carlson is one of five defensemen to have recorded 20 or more total goals and 70 or more total assists.  The others read like an all-star team top four: Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Victor Hedman, and Mark Giordano.

Cheerless’ Take:  John Carlson can scare up some pretty nice efforts against elite players, but sometimes he ends up being victimized by middle-of-the-pack players or the odd lost second or two of focus.  Carlson skated more than 35 minutes at even strength against Sidney Crosby this past season, and Crosby did not have a goal.  Claude Giroux scored just one in 39:52 in 5-on-5 ice time against Carlson.  On the other hand, there are players like Andrej Nestratil (two goals in 20 minutes at 5-on-5 against Carlson) and Anders Lee (two goals in 23:04; numbers from http://stats.hockeyanalysis.com).  It seems that one part of Carlson’s game he has not yet been entirely able to shake is being around for a goal that probably should not have been scored.

Odd Carlson Fact: Six times this season John Carlson recorded at least five shots on goal in a game.  Number of goals scored on those 34 shots: zero.

Game to Remember: March 15th against Boston.  The Capitals went into their game against the Bruins on March 15th trying to nip a slump in the bud.  They had lost three of their last four games, the last of which was a lackluster 4-2 loss to Dallas at home.  The Caps had a healthy lead in the race for a playoff spot, but it shrunk from 11 to six points over the ninth-place team that 1-3-0 skid.  They needed a jolt, and Carlson provided it against the Bruins.  On a Capitals power play early in the context, he started the scoring sequence with a feed to Alex Ovechkin for a one-timer that went off the side of the cage.  The puck was turned aside by goalie Tuukka Rask, but it was tracked down by Troy Brouwer behind the net.  He fed the puck around the wall to Nicklas Backstrom who hit “reset” and fed Carlson.  Instead of sending the puck to Ovechkin again, Carlson fired and beat Rask to give the Caps a 1-0 lead in a game they would win, 2-0, to take over the first playoff wild card spot.  It was one of two game-winning goals that Carlson would have against Boston this season.

Game to Forget: October 14th versus San Jose.  You have two assists in a game and still go minus-4?  Well, it happened to John Carlson on this night against the San Jose Sharks.  Before the game was ten minutes old, the Sharks had a 3-0 lead, and Carlson was on the ice for all three goals scored by the visitors.  By the time the game was into the second minute of the third period, Carlson had been on ice for all five goals scored by the Sharks.  Nevertheless, the Capitals came from behind by two goals to tie the game late in the third period but lost in a Gimmick, 6-5.  It would be Carlson’s worst plus-minus game of the season.

Postseason: 1-5-6, plus-3, 1 PPG

One of the hallmarks of the Capitals’ season was the contributions on offense by defensemen.  John Carlson was the biggest part of that.  And when the offense from the blue line dried up, especially in the second round series against the Rangers (no goals and three assists from six defensemen in seven games), the Capitals’ chances to advance were diminished.  And Carlson was a big part of that, too.  He took an o-fer on 22 shots in those seven games against the Rangers and had one goal on 41 shots for the postseason overall.  He was on-ice for 11 of the 28 goals scored against the Caps in the post season, a number that puts him in the top twenty of defensemen in goals scored against/on ice.  While that is not necessarily a rank one would want attached to their name, it is fewer than the goals against scored while on ice for such as P.K. Subban, Duncan Keith, and Ryan Suter.  The Capitals – and Carlson – were very stingy on defense.  The Capitals – and Carlson – found points hard to come by.  It made for a lot of one-goal decisions; too many, as it turned out, for the Caps.

In the end…

John Carlson has, without much fanfare, become one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL, which is a nice development, especially with the uncertain return of Mike Green next season.  However, there might be limits to that in its effect on games.  Carlson set a personal best by recording a point in 40 of the Capitals’ 82 games this season.  It eclipsed his 31 games with points set last season.  The Caps were 23-12-5 in games in which he recorded a point, 22-14-6 in games in which he did not.  Look like a significant difference?  It doesn’t to us, either.

Nevertheless, Carlson has become a cornerstone of the Caps’ blue line and the team in general.  His development has been a steady, unbroken arc since he was drafted 27th overall in 2008 by the Capitals.  He is one of an impressive cohort of NHL defensemen in their mid-20s who could dominate the league for years to come.  That arc might have to continue climbing upward for the Caps and Carlson to be successful.  Should Mike Green depart in free agency, he will become the go-to offensive contributor from the blue line, even with Matt Niskanen in the lineup.  And, his use in all situations (he led the team in shorthanded ice time per game, for example) suggests that he will be the unquestioned number one defenseman for the Caps.  The roles expand and become more complex for Carlson, but it is what comes next after a very good season.

Grade: B+

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Washington Capitals: 2014-2015 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Karl Alzner



“I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be.”
-- Douglas Adams


If you are not an offensive defenseman with a big shot or an ability to run a power play, or if you are not a big hitter on the back end for your club, your value is in being where you need to be on defense – a positional defender who depends on angles, stick placement, and position to prevent opponents from getting scoring chances and goals.

For Karl Alzner, the 2014-2015 season was a huge improvement in the most basic of metrics for a defenseman – goals allowed on ice.  Last season, Alzner was on ice for 85 goals against, second most on the team and top (or bottom, depending on your perspective) 30 in the league.  In 2014-2015, Alzner shaved that number by 30 goals against, to 55.  Part of that was time on ice.  Alzner, while skating in all 82 games for fourth time in his career (and in every game for the fifth consecutive year), recorded almost 100 fewer total minutes in total ice time.  That, in turn, was a reflection of his playing primarily a second pairing role with Matt Niskanen. 

In his ten-game progression, there is the trend.  Alzner had as slow start in what for him (or rather, given his responsibilities) were revealing statistics.  Over his first three ten-game segments he was a minus-5 and had a minus-ten overall goal differential.

From that stuttering start, however, he took off.  In his fourth ten game segment, Alzner was 2-2-4, plus-10 and had a total goal differential of plus-9.  It was his best ten-game segment of the season.  However, it was an odd segment in which to do well.  Those ten games were evenly split between teams that would reach the playoffs (Ottawa, the Rangers, Pittsburgh, the Islanders, and Chicago) and five that would not (Columbus, New Jersey, Florida, Toronto, and Philadelphia). He did not record a point in games against the playoff-bound teams.  Alzner was a “plus” player in eight of the ten games and even in the other two.  He was a plus-1 in scoring chances for and against (numbers from war-on-ice.com), but he was a minus-5 overall in Corsi +/- (total shot attempts for and against).

Overall, Alzner finished the season with career bests in goals (5), assists (16, the third time in four years he hit that number), points (21), and plus-minus (plus-14, matching his 2010-2011 result).  His shooting percentage of 6.9 percent for the season was three times better than his career shooting percentage coming into the season (2.3 percent).

Fearless’ Take: Alzner has been a rather consistent defenseman over his five full seasons with the Caps, with two exceptions, both of them this season.  There is the scoring that Peerless noted, Alzner setting or tying personal bests in goals, assists, and points.  But an edge crept into his game this season.  Hits are a somewhat arbitrary statistic, but even allowing for that he was in a 73-98 range over his previous four seasons.  This season he finished with 120 hits, by far a career high.  More offense, more physical play.  New dimensions in Alzner’s game.

Cheerless’ Take: Let’s go back to those tens, cousins.  His overall Corsi plus-minus over his last three segments covering 32 games was minus-143.  Almost five more shots against than for per game over those games.  The scoring chances plus-minus was minus-82; that was after being a plus-33 over the first five ten-game segments.  His scoring chances plus-minus over his last segment was minus-41, almost three and a half more scoring chances against over those 12 games.

Odd Alzner Fact: Alzner did have a career best five goals this season, but none of them came against an Eastern Conference playoff-eligible team.  He was 0-3-3, even, in 24 games against teams in the East reaching the post season.  His five goals came against New Jersey (2), Florida, Columbus, and St. Louis.

Game to Remember: March 26th versus New Jersey.  The Capitals were coming off a 3-0 shutout loss in Winnipeg against the Jets and a four-day break when the hosted the New Jersey Devils in late March.  Karl Alzner was in a slump, recording only one assist in his previous nine games and no goals in his previous 23 games before taking the ice against the Devils.  The Caps were treading water over their previous eight games, going 4-4-0.  Alzner broke his goal drought early in the contest when he took a pass from Matt Niskanen at the top of the left wing circle, stepped up, and fired a wrist shot that beat goalie Cory Schneider on the short side to give the Caps an early 1-0 lead.  The teams exchanged second period goals, but the Devils got the only third period goal to send the game to overtime.  In the second minute of the extra session, Evgeny Kuznetsov tried to feed Marcus Johansson cutting to the net, but Damon Severson got a stick on the puck to deflect it away from Johansson.  The puck came bouncing out to the right point where Alzner one timed a backhand pass to Matt Niskanen on the left point.  Niskanen fired a shot that Kuznetsov redirected past Schneider, giving the Caps a 3-2 win, a victory that would sent the Caps off on a 6-2-1 finish to the regular season and give Alzner his second two-point game of the season.

Game to Forget:  November 1st versus Tampa Bay.  The Caps were not off to the hottest of starts with new head coach Barry Trotz.  They played October to a 4-3-2 record and were 1-3-0 to finish the month.  Things did not look a lot better to start this game.  Ryan Callahan scored just over six minutes into the game, sneaking out from behind the net to redirect a Brian Boyle shot while Alzner was occupied by Brenden Morrow in front of the net.  After the Caps took a 2-1 lead in the second, the Lightning tied the game in the tenth minute of the period when Alzner got caught chasing – first Tyler Johnson as he was curling through the faceoff circle with the puck, then, when Johnson fed the puck forward, Nikita Kucherov behind the Tampa Bay net.  Kucherov fed the puck back to Ondrej Palat in the space Alzner departed, and the Lightning forward snapped it into the net to tie the game.  Kucherov victimized Alzner for the Lightning’s third goal when he redirected a drive by Eric Brewer with Alzner on his left hip.  The Caps tied the game late in the period – a Troy Brouwer power play goal in the last minute – but the Lightning won with a third period goal from Jason Garrison.  The three goals Alzner was on ice for was his high for the season.

Postseason:  2-2-4, even, 1 GWG

Alzner set career bests in offensive contributions in the playoffs, too.  It was very much a front-loaded contribution, though.  He had two goals in the Caps’ first five games of the first round against the New York Islanders, then recorded just one assist in his last nine post season games.  As it was, his two goals led the Caps’ defensemen in the playoffs (the team had only three), and his four points was tied for second among blueliners.  The goals against were a bit more disturbing.  After being on ice for 0.67 goals per game in the regular season, Alzner was on ice for 11 goals against in 14 games (0.79). 

His Corsi-for share (47.95 percent) was not significantly different from his regular season result (46.35), another indicator of consistency and dependability (at least in terms of what to expect) in Alzner’s game.

The better level of competition and the small number of games does not make his overall contribution significantly different in the post season compared to his regular season performance, but like a number of other Caps, he was not quite up to what was needed in the strongest parts of his game.

In the end…

Being a defensive defenseman in the NHL is a little like being a cornerback in the National Football League.  No matter how good you are, you are going to get beat from time to time.  Even though Karl Alzner’s role changed a bit this season – moved off the top pair with John Carlson to play second pair minutes – his game is still one of being a “shutdown” defenseman.  And in that role, he was better this year than last.  Or, perhaps more accurately, more effective, as reflected in so many fewer goals scored against the Caps with Alzner on ice. 

Part of that might be attributed to better coaching.  The Caps had a much more experienced group behind the bench this season than they had last season.  However, the player still needs to execute.  For the most part, Alzner did.  His offensive numbers established a career standard, and his goals against/on ice was quite a year-to-year improvement. 

But there were some underlying elements one would like to see Alzner improve upon, the Corsi and scoring chance numbers, for instance.  On balance, though, it was a good year for Alzner.  He will have just turned 27 years old when the season dawns next October, a signal that he is entering what should be his prime years.  In that sense, we see what Alzner is, although he might be a better version of it in the years to come – durable, dependable, unspectacular.  It might be the perfect description of a second pair defenseman, a role for which Alzner might be well suited, one that he played quite well in 2014-2015.  It might not be where one thought a fifth-overall draft pick might go, but for the Capitals it is a place he needs to be.

Grade: B

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America