Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Nate Schmidt

Nate Schmidt

“Anyone who has a continuous smile on his face conceals a toughness that is almost frightening.”
-- Greta Garbo


Google “Nate Schmidt,” and click on “images.”  Go ahead, we’ll wait…

Have you ever seen anyone smile so much?  The guy must have a bowl of “happy” every morning at breakfast.   There was reason for Schmidt to be happy about his 2015-2016 season.  In his third season with the Washington Capitals, the defenseman appeared in more games (72) than in his previous two years combined (68).  His assist total (14) doubled the total from his previous two seasons (7), and he set a career high in points (16).  His plus-12 ranked third among Capitals defensemen, and he was fourth in blocked shots (111).

His progression through his ten game segments looked like something of a bell curve.  Schmidt had a slow start with no points in his first ten game segment, but he improved to two points in each of his next two with a plus-1 followed by a plus-4.  He peaked in the fourth and fifth segments with four point in each and was a plus-10 over that span.  He slid back over his last three segments, finishing the season with one point and a minus-3 in the last segment of his season.

If there was a more consistent theme with Schmidt, it was outcomes in heavy minute situations.  When Schmidt logged at least 20 minutes of ice time, the Caps were 18-3-3.  However, what is odd about that nugget is that he did not reach the 20 minute mark in ice time in any of the last 23 games in which he played in the regular season.


Fearless’ Take…  Among Caps defensemen logging at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, Schmidt finished fourth overall in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (50.6 percent) and was second in Corsi-for/Relative (plus-0.4; numbers from Corsica.Hockey).

Cheerless’ Take… Schmidt’s possession numbers – his 25-game rolling average Corsi-for at 5-on-5 – look like the Loch Ness Monster with this big hump in the middle (numbers from Corsica.Hockey)…


…and that rolling shots for has a wee bit of a wilt at the end, too…


These young guys, they have to learn to grind out that 82-game season.

Odd Schmidt Fact… If blocking shots is a function of effort and will in the face of hardened vulcanized rubber hurtling toward your body, Schmidt’s reward was the team’s.  The Caps were 13-1-1 in games in which Schmidt blocked at least three shots, 24-4-2 in games in which he blocked at least two shots.

Game to Remember… January 9th versus New York Rangers

Nate Schmidt recorded multi-point games twice this season, once against the Montreal Canadiens on December 26th and again against the New York Rangers two weeks later.  It was that second game that was one to remember for the circumstances of his points.  He recorded a primary assist on a goal by Justin Williams, springing the latter on a breakaway with a nifty lead pass from his own blue line to Williams breaking at the other blue line, to give the Caps a 2-0 lead…


The Rangers took the lead, 3-2, midway through the third period, but the Caps tied it with 5.7 second left in regulation on a goal by Nicklas Backstrom.  That left overtime for settling matters.  With the clock just under four minutes to go in the extra session, the Rangers won a faceoff in the Capitals’ end, and both Rick Nash and Derek Stepan had chances from in close.  Stick work by Schmidt helped keep the puck out of the net, and it squirted to Alex Ovechkin, who proceeded to execute and end-to-end rush that ended the contest…


Schmidt got credit for an assist on the play, giving him a pair for the game.

Game to Forget… April 7th versus Pittsburgh

Schmidt’s stick got him in trouble early in this game.  Less than a minute into the contest he tried to poke the puck off the stick of Tom Kuhnackl while backing up and had the effect of merely waving at the biscuit.  Kuhnackl found Matt Cullen darting behind Schmidt, and Cullen beat goalie Braden Holtby for an early 1-0 Pens lead.  With Pittsburgh holding a 2-0 lead midway through the second period, Schmidt and his stick were victimized again, trying to swipe the puck away from Oskar Sundqvist as he was feeding the puck across to Conor Sheary.  Schmidt missed, the pass was completed, and Sheary gave the Pens a 3-0 lead nine minutes into the period.  Washington mounted a furious comeback to tie the game, but the Penguins won in overtime on a goal by Sidney Crosby.  Schmidt’s score sheet was forgettable – no shot attempts, a giveaway, and a blocked shot in just 9:36 of ice time, his lowest number of the season.

Postseason: 10 games, 0-1-1, minus-3, 51.9 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, minus-1.2 CF%/Relative at 5-on-5

Like too many Capitals, Schmidt went silent in the offensive end in the postseason, posting a single assist in ten games, than coming in the “meltdown” game against the Flyers when the Caps scored five power play goals (Schmidt’s assist came on the last of those five man-advantage goals).  He managed only seven shots on goal in those ten games, and the outcomes when he was on the ice were not what was hoped for, his on-ice PDO being only 95.5 at 5-on-5.  Ice time was hard to come by as well.  A player who skated fewer than 15 minutes in only 12 of 72 regular season games, he skated more than 15 minutes only twice in ten postseason games, neither of them in the second round against the Penguins.

In the end…

Although one looks at Schmidt and sees a young defenseman still on the upward arc of his development (we hope), he finished the season with 140 games in a Capitals sweater.  Odd as it might seem, that places him in 39th place in team history in games played by a defenseman.  He is one of just 22 defensemen in Caps history to play in at least 140 games for the club before his 24th birthday.  But one thing that lingers after the season just completed is the degree to which his numbers faded down the stretch.  

 It is here that we point out that the 82 regular season and playoff games Schmidt played this season was the most he played in a season since he dressed for 70 games with the Fargo Force in the USHL in 2009-2010.  As much as skill, the ability to endure the rigors of a long hockey season is part of development, and this is something (based on his results this season) that stands out as something Schmidt needs to demonstrate an ability to do.  When he does, perhaps that smile will conceal a toughness that is almost frightening.

Grade: B-

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Brooks Orpik

Brooks Orpik

“Age merely shows what children we remain.”
-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


In 11 full NHL seasons before the 2015-2016 season, Brook Orpik missed a total of 93 regular season games – fewer than nine games a year, not bad for a physical defenseman in the National Hockey League.  And when he dressed for the Caps’ first 14 games of this season, it looked as if Orpik would add to his list of seasons of dependable play.

In that 14th game, though, Orpik lasted just one shift into the second period of a game in Detroit against the Red Wings.  A “lower-body injury” was the verdict, and it would keep him out of the lineup for 40 games, his longest stint on the injured list in his career and almost as many games as he missed in the previous five seasons (44).

The odd part of it all was not so much getting injured.  It happens to players over the course of a season or a career.  What made this instance unique (although some might not think it so for hockey players) was that the injury actually took place in Game 9, almost two weeks earlier, against the Columbus Blue Jackets when Orpik blocked a shot and then aggravated the injury when he was kneed in the thigh.  The result was a cracked femur (thigh bone) on which he finished with more than 20 minutes of ice time against the Blue Jackets, then played in four more games before finally going down in the second period against the Red Wings on November 10th.

Orpik returned to the lineup on February 16th against the Los Angeles Kings and played in 27 straight game before sitting out the season finale against the Anaheim Ducks along with a few other Capitals regulars.  Even with appearing in just half of the Caps’ regular season games, Orpik finished fifth among defensemen in goals with three, a career high for a single season.  Coincidentally, his shooting percentage of 9.7 percent led the team’s defensemen and was a career best.  He finished in double digits in points (10) for the eighth consecutive full NHL season, not including the abbreviated 2012-2013 season.  His plus-11 was fourth-best among the Capitals’ defensemen.  The physical side of his game did not suffer from the absences, his 125 credited hits being third among the team’s defensemen and his 3.0 hits per game ranking sixth among all NHL defensemen appearing in at least 41 games.


Fearless’ Take… Brooks Orpik might have had what for him were very good offensive numbers, but it hardly made him an offensive defenseman.  Evaluating his contributions, as it is for most defensive defensemen, can be something of an exercise in indirection.  In 12 games in which he was a “plus” player for the season, the Caps were 11-0-1.  In 19 games in which he logged at least 20 minutes of ice time, the Caps were 15-1-3.  They were 8-2-0 in games in which he recorded at least five hits.  When Orpik was “Orpik” – steady, physical, capable of a significant minutes load – the Caps did well.

Cheerless’ Take… Orpik being “Orpik” might not have been all that.  The Caps were 26-11-4 in games in which he appeared (1.37 standings points per game).  They were 30-7-4 in games he missed (1.56 points per game, almost 14 percent better).

Odd Orpik Stat… The Caps won just 13 of 23 games (13-8-2) in which Orpik recorded at least one shot on goal.  

Game to Remember… February 20th versus New Jersey

When the Caps took the ice on February 20th against the New Jersey Devils, it was Brooks Orpik’s 798th career regular season game.  In the 797 games that came before it, Orpik never experienced scoring a game-winning goal.  That changed with this game.  The teams alternated goals over the first 55 minutes, dueling to a 3-3 lead late into the third period.  Then, with the clock inching toward the four-minutes remaining mark, Evgeny Kuznetsov took a feed from Alex Ovechkin behind the Devils’ net.  He backed off toward the corner to the right of goalie Cory Schneider, showing as if he was going to send the puck to the front of the net.  Justin Williams did his part in the ruse, cutting to the net and pulling Lee Stempniak just ever so slightly to the inside.  It created a passing lane for Kuznetsov to find Orpik filling in at the left wing faceoff dot.  The pass was placed right on Orpik’s stick, and he did not waste the chance, snapping a shot over Schneider’s right shoulder for what would be his first career regular season game-winning goal in a 4-3 Caps win.

Game to Forget… November 3rd versus New York Rangers

There are, from time to time, those games in which everything bad happens when you are on the ice.  So it was for Orpik at Madison Square Garden on November 3rd.  In his first ten games of the season, Orpik did not record a “minus” game.  That changed in a big way in this game.  First, he was locked up with Viktor Stalberg in the slot when Oscar Lindberg opened the scoring early in the first period.  Later in the period he was caught as the last Cap back on a 2-on-2 Ranger rush that Kevin Hayes finished to make it 2-1.  Seven minutes into the second period, with the Rangers holding a 3-1 lead, he was on ice when Derick Brassard scored to make it 4-1.  Then, four seconds after stepping onto the ice after serving a penalty (the Caps’ only penalty of the game), he had no chance to get back into the play to prevent Jarret Stoll from scoring his first goal as a Ranger in a 5-2 Blueshirts win.  Orpik was on ice for four goals in 15 minutes and change of ice time and was a minus-4, the only game all season in which he finished worse than a minus-1.  It was the first time he was a minus-4 since recording one in an 8-4 Pittsburgh Penguin loss to the Ottawa Senators on March 24, 2012.

Postseason… 6 games, 0-0-0, minus-3, 45.5 Corsi-for at 5-on-5, plus-1.0 CF%/Relative at 5-on-5

The postseason is a time of year any player looks forward to, but when looking back upon this one, Brooks Orpik might utter one word…”yeesh.”   Let’s leave the scoring (or lack of it) out of the discussion.  He’s not an offensive defenseman, and points would be few and far between.  But the rest of it…yeesh.  There was this hit by Ryan White on Orpik in Game 3 of the opening round against the Flyers…


He missed the last three games of that series but returned for the opener of the second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  The first game wasn’t the problem; the second one was.  Early in the first period he caught Olli Maatta with a late hit in the defensive zone…


That hit cost him three games, courtesy of the Department of Player Safety.  He did return for Game 6 in what would be the last game for the Caps in the 2015-2016 season, a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pens.  It was not the sort of postseason a wise veteran would want featured on his resume.  But even here there was a subtext.  Chances are he was not entirely 100 percent from the cracked femur suffered in the regular season, and he ended up playing after suffering a concussion and neck injury with the Ryan White hit in the Flyer series.   

In the end…

It is hard to say that Brooks Orpik showed his age (35) in this season.  Injuries happen (remember the unfortunate series of leg injuries Jack Hillen suffered as a Capital).  When he was available in the 2015-2016 season he played reasonably well, but the wear and tear on his body this season was significant, raising the issue of what sort of future level of performance Orpik might enjoy with the club.  It seems odd to think of a 35-year old as having question marks, but even if Goethe was right, that age merely shows what children we remain, age is not kind to those who would play a children’s game.

Grade: B

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Monday, June 20, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Dmitry Orlov

Dmitry Orlov

“’Comeback’ is a good word, man.”
-- Mickey Rourke


On April 13, 2014, Dmitry Orlov skated more than 23 minutes in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the finale of the 2013-2014 regular season.  He finished with one shot on goal and no points.  The no points thing was not limited to his performance.  No one on either team had one, the Lightning winning the contest, 1-0, in a shootout in what was the last Capitals game of the season.

It would be the last NHL game Orlov would play for 545 days, owing to a broken wrist and a recovery that was agonizingly long and resistant to progress.  But when Orlov took the ice on October 10th on Opening Night against the New Jersey Devils, he embarked on a season that would have him appear in all 82 regular season games for the first time in his career, one of seven Capitals to do so.

As one might expect for a player appearing in every game for the first time in his career, Orlov set personal career highs in goals (8), assists (21), points (29), plus-minus (plus-8), penalty minutes (26), credited hits (121), and shots on goal (198).  The odd part of his season, though, was that of his three full NHL seasons, it was in this one in which he recorded his lowest average ice time (16:02).  Orlov also took his place as a leader in offensive production, tying for the team lead in goals among defensemen (with John Carlson), finishing third in assists and points (behind Carlson and Matt Niskanen), tying for second in game-winning goals (three, with Niskanen), and finishing third in shots on goal (also behind Carlson and Niskanen).

Fearless’ Take… On a club with as many assets on defense as the Caps have, it is easy to overlook what Orlov has accomplished at such a young age, even with an entire season lost to injury.  He is the 13th defenseman in the history of the franchise to record at least 60 career points before his 25th birthday, and the list includes quite a number of well thought of members of the Caps’ fraternity: Scott Stevens, Kevin Hatcher, Mike Green, Sergei Gonchar, Calle Johansson, Larry Murphy, and John Carlson among them.

Cheerless’ Take… Minutes were not particularly kind to Orlov in the offensive end of the rink.  He skated more than 21 minutes nine times in the 82 games in which he appeared and in them went 1-0-1, minus-1.  The one goal came on a total of 19 shots.  And, he stumbled rather hard in the last stages of the season, going minus-8 in his last ten-game segment (12 games in all), while managing just two points, tied for his lowest ten-game segment output for the season.

Odd Orlov Fact… The Caps won 18 of 24 games in which Orlov did not record a shot on goal (.750 winning percentage), but only 38 of 58 games in which he did record at least one shot (.655 winning percentage).

Game to Remember… November 21st versus Colorado

After an 8-2-0 start in October, the Caps were stumbling a bit in November, going 4-3-1 leading up to their contest against the Colorado Avalanche on the weekend before Thanksgiving.  The Avs were doing something of a two-step over their previous ten games, a pair of losses followed by a win, then another pair of losses, three wins, and two losses before visiting Verizon Center.  The Caps got out to a 4-0 lead in the first period, but Colorado halved the deficit in the second period.  Evgeny Kuznetsov put the Caps up by three on a power play in the seventh minute of the third period, then Dmitry Orlov scored one of the strangest goals in recent memory…


A curl and drag through the legs and a snap shot from close in was pretty enough, but when everyone in the building, save one, thought that the puck was hung up somewhere in goalie Calvin Pickard’s gear, Orlov – the lone soul who seemed to know where the puck was – skated out from behind the goal line on the opposite side of the Colorado net and snapped the biscuit past Pickard’s blocker before he realized just what had happened.  It was Orlov’s first goal of the season, one in which he set a career best in that category.

Game to Forget… April 7th versus Pittsburgh

The Caps were not exactly sprinting to the finish line in the last week of the regular season.  Since shutting out the New Jersey Devils, 1-0, in overtime on March 25th, they were 2-2-2 heading into their last regular season meeting of the season against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  It did not begin well for either the Caps in general or Orlov in particular.  Pittsburgh scored three goals in the first 9:03 of the game, Orlov on the ice for two of them.  The second of them, Pittsburgh’s third of the game, featured some lackadaisical defense by Orlov, who waved unenthusiastically at the puck as Tom Sestito was entering the zone.  After Sestito fed the puck across to Oskar Sundqvist, who relayed it to Conor Sheary for the goal, Orlov was gliding back into the play with less urgency than what was now a 3-on-2 advantage would have suggested.  Orlov saw the ice for just six more shifts in that game, finishing a minus-2 in just 10:42 of ice time.

Postseason: 11 games, 0-1-1, even, 53.45 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, plus-1.41 CF%/Relative at 5-on-5

Dmitry Orlov may one day be a very good offensive defenseman.  He had a career year in the regular season, but in his first career postseason action, his offense was nowhere to be found.  His lone point was a secondary assist on the Caps’ last score in a 6-1 Game 3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.  He did not record his first shot on goal in the postseason until Game 4 of that opening round series, and he managed only five shots on goal in 146 minutes of playing time over 11 games. Three of those shots on goal came in Game 5 against the Flyers, a 2-0 Philadelphia win.  He recorded only one shot on goal in his last six postseason games.  If there was a silver lining, Orlov was on ice for only two goals against in the 11 games in which he dressed, fewest on the club among defensemen dressing in more than two games.

In the end…

Given that Dmitry Orlov missed an entire season of his development to injury, his season was something of a pleasant surprise.  He appeared in all 82 regular season games, one of three Caps defensemen to do so.  He tied for the team lead in goal scoring among defensemen, finished third among defensemen in assists and points.  He had the best ratio of credited takeaways to giveaways among the blueliners (0.90-to-1).  His offensive output exceed his combined total of goals over his first three seasons with the Caps covering 119 games, and his assists and total points almost matched the combined totals of those three seasons.  In that sense, the 2015-2016 season was quite a comeback for the young defenseman, and it might give Caps fans hope that his contributions will improve even more as he continues in the developmental phase of his young NHL career.

Grade: B+

Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images North America

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen

“The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.”
-- Marcus Aurelius


If you watch Matt Niskanen in one game, you almost certainly will not get an appreciation for the diverse talents he has.  Coming into this season he was one of ten defensemen since he came into the league in the 2007-2008 season to play in 500 games, record at least 35 goals, post at least 150 points, and have a plus-minus of plus-30 or better.  He combined durability, an ability to contribute offensively, an ability to be effective at both ends of the rink, and to log significant minutes (just under 20 minutes per game).  He was 6-23-29, plus-7 on a per-82 game basis over those eight seasons, and over a five-season stretch ending with his first season in Washington last year, he saw his ice time increase every year, from 16:32 in 2010-2011 to 22:21 last season with the Caps.

In 2015-2016, Matt Niskanen had a year that might not have been foreseen, given the profile of results he had with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the year before he became an unrestricted free agent signed by the Caps.  In that last year with the Penguins, Niskanen posted the best offensive numbers of his career (10-36-46, plus-33, a plus-6.9 Corsi-for/Relative in all situations, PDO of 103.3 in all situations).  His first season with the Caps was more modest, with four goals and 31 points, with a plus-7.  In 2015-2016, Niskanen’s contributions were more nuanced than perhaps at any other point in his career.

Niskanen’s offensive production in his second season with the Caps did not look a lot different from his first season (5-27-32 this season versus 4-27-31 last season).  His possession numbers were not a lot different, in fact down slightly (51.1 percent Corsi-for at five-on-five versus 52.0 last season), but his goal differential at fives improved quite a bit, from plus-1 last season to plus-12 this season.  His on-ice shot differential showed even greater improvement, from plus-4 last season to plus-65 this season.

Niskanen did pare back his penalty minutes (from 47 to 38), but he seemed to play with a bit more of a physical edge.  He was credited with 157 hits this season versus 143 last season.  He also upped his blocked shots from 106 to 145, and he reduced his giveaways from 76 to 62.

Looping back to his offensive contributions, those of Niskanen were timely.  The Caps were undefeated in the five games in which he scored a goal, 23-1-4 in games in which he scored a point.


Fearless’ Take… It can be easy to take a player’s durability for granted.  For the second straight season, Niskanen appeared in all 82 games.  He is one of just eight defensemen to appear in all of the season’s games, and having missed just one game in his last three seasons;  only five defensemen have appeared in more contests.   Then there is the ice time he consumes.  This past season, 128 defensemen logged 25 or more minutes in at least one game.  Niskanen was 17th on that list with 35 games of 25 minutes or more of ice time.

Cheerless’ Take… There isn’t a part of Niskanen’s game that really sticks out in a good way this season, but it is even harder to find a part of his game that stood out in a bad way.  His ten-game splits do have a little bit of odd in them, though.  He was a minus-2 in each of his last ten splits and a minus-4 in 5-on-5 goal differntial, even though he had solid possession numbers.  And those possession numbers and scoring chance differential in the third and fourth set of ten games were nothing to get excited about.

Odd Niskanen Fact… In nine NHL seasons with three different teams (Dallas, Pittsburgh, Washington), Niskanen has never finished a season below 50 percent in Corsi-for at five-on-five.  Neither has he ever finished in negative territory in Corsi-for/Relative at 5-on-5 (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

Game to Remember… October 10th versus New Jersey

No point earned in the NHL is “easy,” but on Opening Night at Verizon Center, Matt Niskanen’s 200th career NHL point was as easy as it is ever likely to get.  Having already recorded a point on an assist on an Alex Ovechkin goal in the third period against the New Jersey Devils, the Caps took a 4-2 lead into a power play with 4:38 left in regulation.  In what has become something of a thing in the NHL, the Devils, down by two goals and shorthanded, lifted goaltender Keith Kinkaid for an extra skater.  With the clock ticking down past the three-minute to go mark, Niskanen slid the puck from the right point to Dmitry Orlov on the left side.  Orlov moved the puck down the wall to Justin Williams at the goal line extended to the right of the cage.  Williams circled out, fending off defenseman John Merrill, and found Niskanen filling in from the point.  With the net empty and Kyle Palmieri trying mightily to assume the role of netminder, Niskanen ripped a slap shot into the net with 2:53 left for his 200th point in a 5-3 Caps win.

Game to Forget… February 20th versus New Jersey

On the same ice sheet four months later against the same team, things did not go quite so memorably for Matt Niskanen.  Three times the Devils took a one-goal lead, three times Matt Niskanen was on the ice for them, including goals against on consecutive shifts late in the first period.  The Capitals did tie the game a third time, and they went on to win, 4-3, on a Brooks Orpik goal of all things.  However, Niskanen suffered his only minus-3 of the season, and his 19:54 was one of only two games all season in which he did not finish with 20 minutes of ice time.  It does bear noting, though, that holding a one-goal lead, he was out there for the last shift of the game.

Postseason: 12 games, 0-3-3, plus-3, 50.9 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5; minus-1.6 CF%/Relative at 5-on-5

In the postseason, it’s not how you start but how you finish.  Matt Niskanen recorded a pair of assists over the first four games of the first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, was plus-3, and his possession numbers were good (52.0 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5).  His possession numbers only improved in the last two games; he finished the Flyer series with a 57.7 percent Corsi-for.  The second round series against the Penguins was another matter.  He had one point, an assist in a Game 3 loss, and his possession numbers sagged – 45.1 percent Corsi-for at fives.  And, having to make do without his regular partner, Karl Alzner, for almost the entirety of the second and third periods of Game 6, lost by the Caps in overtime to end their season, Niskanen’s possession numbers took it in the teeth.  He was minus-20 in Corsi plus-minus, 32.8 percent for the game, his worst of the postseason and seventh worse game result out of 94 regular and postseason games this season.

In the end…

We have to admit to a quiet admiration for players like Matt Niskanen, guys who perform at a consistently high level without generating a lot of hoopla in doing it.  He has had a remarkably consistent career in his performance numbers (goals, points, plus-minus) and his production numbers (possession).  This year was no different.  That the season ended as it did for him, with an all too close view of the game-winning, series-clinching goal in overtime against the Penguins, was not so much anything he did or did not do as circumstance – the Caps unable to ice their best defensive pair with Karl Alzner out with an injury.  Nevertheless, in the long arc of an NHL season, Niskanen had another good one, although sometimes it was not quite obvious how good.

Grade: A-

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America


Monday, June 06, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Taylor Chorney

Taylor Chorney

“Before everything else, getting ready is the secret of success.”
-- Henry Ford


On the first day of the unrestricted free agent signing period last summer, there were 70 transactions, according to the NHL official list.  It goes without saying that the Washington Capitals’ signing of defenseman Taylor Chorney to a one-year, $700,000 contract was not the most newsworthy transaction on that date.  But, with four of the ten defensemen to have dressed for the Caps in the 2014-2015 season no longer with the club, the need for dealing the depth issue had to be addressed.

Depth defenseman is an apt description for Chorney.  A veteran of five seasons with three teams (Edmonton, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh), Chorney had just 68 total games of NHL experience coming into this season, 42 of them in 2009-2010 with the Edmonton Oilers.  He had a total of 24 games in the NHL over the last five seasons, two of which were spent in their entirety in the AHL.

With the Caps set on their top-four – Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Brooks Orpik – and looking to give youngsters Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov regular minutes, Taylor Chorney was in for another NHL season of limited duty.  And that is precisely what he got in the Caps’ first 14 games, appearing in five of them. 

The thing about being a seventh defenseman, though, is that circumstance can make you a top-six blueliner in short order.  That is what happened to Chorney when Brooks Orpik went down with an injury in Game 14.  Starting with Game 15, Chorney appeared in the Caps next 40 games, going 0-5-5, plus-9, while averaging 12:46 a game.  He did not stand out over that stretch, but neither was he a liability when it came to wins and losses.  The Caps were 30-6-4 over those 40 games with Chorney in the lineup.

When Orpik returned to the lineup on February 16th, Chorney was once more relegated to observation duty.  He appeared in just ten of the last 28 games on the Caps’ regular season schedule.  All in all, the Caps were 40-10-5 with Chorney in the lineup, 16-8-3 when he was not.


Fearless’ Take… Taylor Chorney started the year with modest career statistics, but he did set ot tie career highs in games played (55), goals (1), assists (5), points (6), plus-minus (plus-8), penalty minutes (21), and credited hits (56).  If you are thinking in terms of replacement, his numbers in 2015-2016 were at least comparable to Jack Hillen’s last season (35 games, 0-5-5, plus-1, 12:22 per game in ice time) or perhaps John Erskine in the previous year (37 games, 1-3-4, minus-5, 15:35 in ice time per game).

Cheerless’ Take… Those ten-game pieces have a…well, interesting look to them.  Chorney had a really nice looking first ten games, then the thing kind of went sideways on him.  Five of his last seven segments were in “minus” territory, including his last four.  In six of his last six segments he was a minus player in shot attempts at five-on-five for and against (again, including his last four).  Same with scoring chance differential.  And, in five of his last six segments he had a minus goal differential.  Of seven Caps defensemen with at least 500 five-on-five minutes of ice time, he was seventh in Corsi-for (48.53 percent; numbers from war-on-ice.com).

Odd Chorney Fact… When Taylor Chorney finished the season with a plus-8, it was the first time in his career that he finished a season in “plus” territory.  Over his first five seasons he was a combined minus-32 in 68 career games.

Game to Remember… March 2nd versus Toronto

February 15, 2011.  Dallas Stars.  Those were the date and the opponent for Taylor Chorney’s first and, coming into this season, only goal scored in the NHL.  It turned out to be the game-winning goal for the Edmonton Oilers in a 4-1 win.  When the Washington Capitals took the ice against the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 2nd, it had been 1,842 days for Chorney since that first and only NHL goal.  Before the first period was over, so was the waiting on that second goal.  Evgeny Kuznetsov interrupted an attempt by Martin Marincin to move the puck out of the Leafs’ zone.  Tracking the puck down in the corner, Kuznetsov fed T.J. Oshie entering the zone.  The pass was in Oshie’s skates, but his kicked it to his stick and left it for Chorney at the left point.  Chorney stepped up and wristed the puck up and over goalie Jonathan Bernier’s left shoulder on the long side to give the Caps a 1-0 lead on what would be his only shot attempt of the contest in what would be a 3-2 win.

Game to Forget… February 2nd versus Florida

Winter Storm Jonas had postponed two Capitals games, and when the Caps returned to the ice after an eight-day hiatus they dropped a 4-3 overtime decision to the Philadelphia Flyers.  The NHL All-Star Game gave the Caps another break, meaning that when the team went to Florida to take on the Panthers, it would be just their second game in two weeks.  The rust showed.  The Caps were down, 3-0, just 21 seconds into the second period.  By that time, Taylor Chorney recorded less than two minutes of ice time and was on ice for one of the Panther goals.  By the time the second period was over, Florida had a 4-0 lead, while Chorney had just nine shifts and 4:34 in ice time.  He would not see the ice in the third period.  The only mark on his score sheet, in addition to finishing a minus-1, was a blocked shot in what would be his lowest ice time recorded of the season.

Postseason: 7 games, 0-1-1, minus-1, 57.7 Percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, plus-2.7 CF%/Relative

Quite literally up until the last moment of the season, Taylor Chorney had a rather decent, if unspectacular year in a fill-in role on the Caps’ blue line.  But seventh defensemen are seventh defensemen for a reason, and having to rely on one when your best shutdown defenseman goes down to injury in the season’s last game is bad timing and bad luck.  You might have seen it coming.  The quality of competition being what it is in the postseason, opponents will find the weak spots.  Chorney in the lineup was one of them.  In six games in which he appeared before Game 6 of the second round series against the Penguins, the Caps lost five times.  It was not that he played poorly; he was over 50 percent Corsi-for at five-on-five in each of those first six games. 

However, with the Caps down a defenseman and having to play more and more responsible minutes in the absence of Karl Alzner in Game 6 against the Penguins, it was Chorney on the ice as Matt Niskanen’s partner when Nick Bonino scored 6:32 into overtime to end the Caps’ season.  Sometimes, the moment is just a little too much for the best you have.   It was the only postseason game in which Chorney was under 50 percent in Corsi-for, but even with that he was on his way to finishing with his only game of the postseason with a positive goal differential at 5-on-5…until that last moment.

In the end…

Injuries and circumstances conspired to grant Taylor Chorney a career season.  While the results themselves were rather modest, he did a credible job within the limits of being a seventh defenseman.  The club thought enough of his effort to sign him to a two-year contract extension last February.  One might quibble with the choice to give Chorney a sweater in Game 6 over Nate Schmidt, but it was not an entirely unreasonable decision given that Chorney did bring some more postseason experience into the playoffs than did Schmidt (this was the latter’s first postseason; Chorney played in five postseason games for the Penguins last season).  It made for a difficult end of a season in which Taylor Chorney made himself ready for a burden of games few might have anticipated.

Grade: B-

Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images North America

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Defensemen: John Carlson

John Carlson

“The worst thing that happens to you may be the best thing for you if you don't let it get the best of you.”
-- Will Rogers


When the puck dropped on Opening Night of the Washington Capitals’ 2015-2016 season, John Carlson took the ice in his 379th consecutive game, a streak that started late in the 2009-2010 season.  He also took the ice as the undisputed number one defenseman for the team, his takeover of a position once occupied by Mike Green, now playing for the Detroit Red Wings, complete.

It was some time in coming, but over a five-year span starting with his first full season, it came steadily for Carlson.  From 2010-2011 through 2014-2015, Carlson logged more minutes than any other defenseman (8,656, more than a thousand more minutes than Karl Alzner), had more goals than any defenseman (44, two more than Green), more assists (139), and more points (183).

What is more, his numbers improved over those first five full seasons.  Carlson’s goal total rose from seven in his first full season to 12 last year, his assists going from 30 to 43, his points from 37 to 55.  The constants were two – his presence in each and every game, and his minutes, averaging just over 23 minutes a game and never fewer than 21 in any of those five seasons.

Carlson got off to a hot start in 2015-2016, posting points in six of his first seven games (2-8-10).  That kind of start would be hard for any contemporary defenseman to sustain, but he did manage to post points in 19 of his first 34 games through December 26th.   But something was not right with Carlson, and whether it was coincidental or not, you could see it in his possession numbers in his early ten-game splits.  The shot attempts for and against (Corsi-for plus-minus) went from plus-8 in his first segment to minus-8, then to minus-19 in his third segment.  His fourth segment was ghastly, in which he was minus-26 in just four games.  It was part of a streak in which his Corsi plus-minus at five-on-five was minus-48 over seven games.

It turned out there was a reason.  Carlson had been playing on a broken foot/ankle (a fact only revealed at season’s end).  On December 28th, against the Buffalo Sabres, Carlson was out of the lineup for the first time since April 6, 2010.  He missed 12 games before returning to the lineup on January 27th against the Philadelphia Flyers.  He still was not quite right, though.  Over a 13-game span he was 0-4-4, plus-4.  His Corsi-for plus-minus was plus-14 over those 13 games, but he had some rough spots along the way with a pair of minus-13 games against the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators.

Back on the shelf he went, this time to undergo a procedure to remedy his problem.  He returned to the lineup for good on March 25th against the New Jersey Devils, and in his last nine regular season games (he, like a few other Caps, sat out the season finale) he was 3-6-9, plus-7, and was plus-49 in Corsi plus-minus at five-on-five.  At least in terms of his production, he was the player he was to start the season.


Fearless’ Take… Even playing in just 56 games this season, John Carlson was one of just eight defensemen this season to appear in at least 50 games and average 0.70 or more points per game.  His plus-16 among that group was second only to Dallas’ John Klingberg.  He finished the season as the eighth defenseman in Capitals’ history to record at least 50 career goals and at least 200 points.  And, in his six full seasons, he is one of just 13 defensemen in the league with 400 or more games played, at least 50 goals, and at least 200 points.  The Caps were 8-0-0 in games in which Carlson scored a goal in 2015-2016, and they were 24-2-3 in games in which he recorded a point.

Cheerless’ Take… Carlson might be the number one defenseman on paper, but on the ice it might be another thing.  He was third on the club in even strength ice time per game, perhaps a nod to his pairing for the most part with Brooks Orpik and the pair of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen getting the most even strength minutes.  His possession numbers were not all that special at five-on-five, either.  Of 169 defensemen logging at least 750 five-on-five minutes this season, he was 100th in Corsi-for/Relative (minus-1.15).

Odd Carlson Fact… Carlson getting shots on goal did not seem to be much of a factor in wins and losses.  In games in which he recorded one or no shots on goal, the Caps were 14-3-3.  They were 25-8-3 in games in which he recorded more than one shot on goal.

Game to Remember… November 5th versus Boston

In the season’s early stages, the Caps did not lose often, but when they did they did so in ugly fashion.  Their third loss of the season was a 5-2 thumping at the hands of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden in early November.  Next up was the Boston Bruins back home at Verizon Center.  The Caps fell behind early on a power play goal by Jimmy Hayes.  However, less than five minutes after that goal, the Caps tied it.  Alex Ovechkin got the goal, a highlight goal scored while tumbling to the ice at the top of the crease, but it was John Carlson who started the play, earning an assist on what would be his 200th career point.  After Brooks Laich gave the Caps a lead early in the second period, Carlson called his own number on a power play.  Seven minutes into the period he took a pass from Nicklas Backstrom and fired a one-timer past goalie Tuukka Rask to make it 3-1 in what would be a 4-1 Caps victory.  It was one of nine multi-point games for Carlson on the season.

Game to Forget… November 3rd versus New York Rangers

That loss in the previous game was one a number of Caps might like to forget.  The memory of John Carlson’s performance began with being on ice for both Ranger goals in the first period, the first one came when both he and his partner, Brooks Orpik, were caught below the goal line, allowing the Rangers to get bodies to the net and ending with Oscar Lindberg scoring for the Blueshirts.  The second one came when Carlson got caught in the neutral zone leaving Orpik as the only defender back on a two-on-one on which Kevin Hayes scored.  In the second period, Carlson got an early jump out of the zone as Marcus Johansson tried to secure the puck along the wall in the Caps’ end.  When he failed to do so, Orpik was the only defender back as Mats Zuccarello fed Derick Brassard coming down the middle with Carlson trailing.  Brassard scored to make it 4-1 in what would be a 5-2 Rangers win.  Carlson finished with his only minus-3 of the season.

Postseason: 12 games, 5-7-12, minus-2, 53.8 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, plus-3.3 CF%/Relative

John Carlson’s postseason was of the “on the one hand, on the other hand” variety.  On the one hand, Carlson became the only defenseman in Caps history to average a point per game in the postseason while playing in at least ten games (he was 5-7-12 in 12 games).  He had points in nine of the 12 games in which he played, including every one of the second round games against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  And, his possession numbers were very good – 53.8 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (13th among defensemen with at least 100 5-on-5 minutes as of June 5th), a Corsi-for percent/Relative of plus-3.3 (19th in that group; numbers from war-on-ice.com).

On the other hand, Carlson was on ice for half of the 22 goals scored against the Caps in 12 games.  He was on ice for at least one goal against in nine of the 12 postseason games.  If there was a bizarre part to that fact, it was that Carlson also was on ice for 17 of the 29 goals scored by the Caps.  Things happened when he was on the ice, good and bad.

In the end…

John Carlson has rather methodically taken on a larger role on the Caps’ blue line over the years and has shown improvement in doing so.  His year-to-year change in scoring on a per-game basis has improved to where his 2015-2016 season was his best in seven seasons on a points-per-game basis.  He also sliced his penalty minutes on a per-game basis  by more than 25 percent.  His possession numbers have improved as well, the 2015-2016 season being his second straight finishing over 50 percent in Corsi-for at 5-on-5.  There is still room for improvement in this area as his Corsi-for/Relative was in minus territory for the third straight year.

What marred Carlson’s season were his two absences from the lineup, the first time in his career he has missed significant time to injury.  It is entirely likely that he was not 100 percent over the second half of the season and even into the playoffs.  That might have played a role in his odd postseason with goals a-plenty at both ends when he was on the ice (the goals a-plenty against being a relative thing, given how few the Caps allowed overall).  Still, even with the injuries, or in spite of them, Carlson had a solid season.  Not that there isn’t room for improvement, especially at the defensive end, but given his history of steady improvement, it could be the best is yet to come for him.

Grade: B

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Friday, June 03, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Karl Alzner

Karl Alzner

“Twice and thrice over, as they say, good is it to repeat and review what is good.”
-- Plato


Karl Alzner might not be the best defenseman in the National Hockey League.  He might not be the best at his position on the team for which he plays, the Washington Capitals.  But there might not be a more dependable, reliable, consistent defenseman in the league than the eight-year veteran from Burnaby, British Columbia.

Alzner has already passed the 500-games played mark in his career, the tenth defenseman in Capitals history to hit that mark.  He has not missed a game in the NHL since he was assigned to the Hershey Bears on Valentine’s Day 2010, and he skated with the Bears for the remainder of that regular season.  Since dressing for Opening Night of the 2010-2011 season he has appeared in 458 consecutive games, and counting.

What is particularly noteworthy about the season Alzner just completed – bordering on the bizarre, actually – is that his 2015-2016 season is a virtual replica of his 2014-2015 season:
  • 2014-2015: 82 games, 5-16-21, plus-14
  • 2015-2016: 82 games, 4-17-21, plus-14

Alzner’s second straight 21-point season made him the 14th defenseman in Capitals history to hit the 100-point mark (he finished the season with 104 career points).  When Alzner wasn’t replicating his 2014-2015 numbers, he was improving on them.  He set career best marks in assists (17), total minutes played (1,753), average minutes per game (21:23), hits (135), and blocked shots (207).

About those hits and blocked shots.  First, hits are a somewhat arbitrary statistic, but then again, Karl Alzner is not generally considered a physical defenseman.  Nevertheless, his 135 hits was the ninth highest total for a Capitals defenseman in a season since the 2004-2005 lockout.  Those 207 blocked shots was third in the league overall and is the most by a Capital in the post-2004-2005 lockout era.

Alzner is not expected to make his biggest contributions in the offensive end, but what he contributed was welcome.  The Caps did not lose any of the four games in which he scored a goal, and they were 14-3-3 in games in which he recorded a point.  It was more his ability to consume minutes that mattered.  The Caps lost just three games in regulation when he logged 22 or more minutes of ice time, going 21-3-7.


Fearless’ Take… Karl Alzner had only 20 “minus” games all season and only two of them worse than minus-1.  Only once all season did he have as many as three minus games in a row, and those came in Games 77-79, when the Caps had long since settled where they would finish in the standings.  One thing that he might not get enough credit for is not taking himself off the ice.  He was charged withjust 13 minor penalties this season (26 total penalty minutes), and only once did he take more than one minor penalty in a game (February 7th against Philadelphia).  Alzner has never recorded as many as 30 penalty minutes in a season.  He is something of a technician on the ice with playing position and angles, but it extends to his adhering to the rulebook, too.

Cheerless’ Take… Alzner has one of those odd patterns with his possession numbers…up-down-up-down-up-down…  Since he came into the league in the 2008-2009 season, he has not failed to alternate up years and down years in Corsi-for at 5-on-5.  This season was a “down year,” his 49.5 dropping from 51.0 last season.  And this was his third straight year being a minus player in Corsi-for/Relative at fives (minus-2.3; numbers from war-on-ice.com).  That might be because he generally draws tougher defensive assignments, but it still isn’t territory you like seeing.

Odd Alzner Fact… Karl Alzner and Keith Yandle are the only defensemen in the NHL to have appeared in every game of the last six seasons.  Yandle has 460 to 458 for Alzner due to a trade in March 2015 that allowed him to appear in 84 games that season instead of the league maximum 82.

Game to Remember… February 7th versus Philadelphia

It is difficult to select between games against the Philadelphia Flyers less than two weeks apart – the one in which he set the Caps’ record for consecutive games played (423, since eclipsed by himself) or the one in which he recorded his 100th NHL point.  Well, we took the one in the game the Caps won, the 100th-point game.  The thing of it is, Alzner reached that milestone in perhaps the most “Alznery” way possible.  Take a look at the video clip…


That’s Matt Niskanen going end to end to score a highlight reel goal – the game-winning goal, as it turned out, in a 3-2 Caps win – but nowhere to be seen is Karl Alzner, who earned the primary assist.  Oh, but he was the first one to greet Niskanen in celebration after the goal.  It was one of two assists that Alzner had in the game, his only multi-point game of the season.  Earlier in the game he assisted on Alex Ovechkin’s 30th goal of the season, playing a role in Ovechkin’s hitting that mark for the 11th straight season.   

Game to Forget… February 24th versus Montreal

When the Montreal Canadiens came to visit Washington in late February, the Caps were doing quite well.  They had won four in a row and nine of their previous ten games.  They had a five-game winning streak on home ice.

That came apart in a little under 33 minutes, during which Montreal sprinted out to a 4-1 lead.  The last goal – what would be the game-winner in a 4-3 Habs win – came when Alex Galchenyuk and Lars Eller got loose on a 2-on-1 break with just Matt Niskanen back for the Caps (Karl Alzner having been caught up ice).  Galchenyuk finished the play to give the visitors that 4-1 lead.  For Alzner, he was on ice for two of the Canadiens’ goals (the other a power play goal by Brendan Gallagher in the first period), finishing a minus-1 with no shot attempts and just two hits as marks on his score sheet in just 16:42 of ice time, his lowest amount of the season.

Postseason: 12 games, 0-2-2, plus-3, 51.3 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, minus-0.9 CF%/Relative

The history of the Washington Capitals is strewn with disappointments and their second cousin, “what-if’s.”  As time goes by, perhaps no “what if” question will loom larger in franchise history than “what if Karl Alzner wasn’t so badly injured that he had to sit out the last 44 minutes of regulation and overtime of the Caps’ season-ending playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins?”  The man who played in every regular season and playoff game played by the Caps over six seasons, the best shutdown defensemen the club has, was in the locker room when Nick Bonino scored the series clinching goal in overtime with his partner Matt Niskanen on the ice with his replacement, Taylor Chorney.

Alzner, who had been a warrior, playing through the injury for some time, taking maintenance days so he could dress for games, just could not go any more. To that point, Alzner had a solid postseason in the way he would.  He did not post many points (two), but going into that Game 6 against the Penguins he was a plus-4 and was on ice for only five goals against in the 11 games leading up to the unfortunate finale.  In 12 games overall he was not on ice for a power play goal against.

In the end…

Karl Alzner is a player who, in a cruel sort of way, is a reflection of the franchise and its four decades of frustration.  He is an earnest, solid player whose virtues are best appreciated over the long arc of the season.  He is consistent, reliable, and dependable.  And then, with the possibility of a deep playoff run this season still possible, it was an assault on the very thing that was perhaps his most noteworthy attribute – his durability – that ended his, and arguably the Caps’ season.

You wonder how it is that one team can find so many different, and particularly cruel ways to come up short in the spring.  In Alzner’s case it was nothing of his doing, just a matter of circumstance.  It does nothing to take away from another in a series of seasons in which Alzner has displayed modest improvements in his game while demonstrating a thinking man’s approach to the game that makes him one of the most effective defenders the franchise has known over the last two decades.

Grade: A-

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America