Monday, August 31, 2009

Sittin' 'Round the Summer Campfire, Part Two

We’re here with another look back at our trip into the north woods with the cousins, Fearless and Cheerless. The subject of prognostications came up…

Well guys, I don’t know if you’ve read any prognostications for the upcoming sea—

“Cuz, when I’ve had this much beer, my limit is three syllables…”

Fine, Cheerless. I don’t know if you’ve read any predictions for the upcoming season…

“That’s better…”

But it seems that it’s a foregone conclusion that the Penguins are the class of the East, if not the whole league. You guys have an opinion?

“Makes one wonder if hockey writers have Sidney Crosby’s picture on their desk or in their wallets. Yeah, the Penguins are good, but it’s hardly a slam dunk that they’re the best team in their division, let alone the East.”

Fearless, you seem to have strong feelings about this.

“OK, let’s look back for a moment. Yeah, the Penguins got to skate the Cup around Joe Louis Arena ice. Fine, they deserved to. But how did they get there? The series they played against Carolina in the conference final was truly dominating. They outscored the Hurricanes 20-9 and played in only one game decided by fewer than three goals in sweeping the series.”

“Hey cuz, he’s doin’ all this without a cheat sheet.”

Remarkable… go on.

“Well, in the other three series, the Penguins were taken to seven games twice, six games once, had a record of 12-8, outscored their opponents by a total of four goals (59-55) and lost elimination games in two of the series.”

Your point?

“They were good enough to win, but not by much.”

It’s not “how,” cuz, it’s “how many,” and the Penguins still won 16 games.

“Right you are, and we’re not arguing that the Penguins are an unworthy champion, but to hear some talk, it’s as if they are now the reincarnation of the Gretzky-led Oilers from 25 years ago. That first Oiler Cup winner had a 15-4 record in winning the Cup and outscored their opponents, 94-56, in doing it.”

Well, that was the first year they won the Cup.

“It didn’t stop there. The Oilers won four Cups in a five-year period, and in doing so had a playoff record in the four Cup-winning years of 62-14.”

“It was a different era, cuz…”

“And that’s the point, hops-breath. There are no truly dominating teams these days. The Red Wings are the closest approximation of one, and they won four Cups over an 11-year period, not five years, like the Oilers, or in four consecutive years, like the Islanders before them.”


“The Penguins are one of many, perhaps more so this coming year than in any of the last decade.”

So you think they’re going to fail to repeat?...

“…just like the last ten Stanley Cup winners.”

Fearless has a point. If you look at the Penguins, you have to look at their gains and losses. They lost a couple of defensemen – Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill – and will replace them with Jay McKee and, one would think, Alex Goligoski. Gologiski is a nice kid, but he looks more like an eventual replacement for Sergei Gonchar, not a replacement for Scuderi.

“What about that Magoo guy?”

“McKee…Jay McKee. Read a newspaper once. Well, maybe, but you’d have to wonder… in five of the last six seasons, he’s missed at least a dozen games, and in three of them he missed at least 20 games.”

Well, you’d have to think Crosby and Malkin will continue to improve.

“Really? To what, 140 points? The days when a player gets that many points are gone, cuz, unless they slice some more equipment off of goalies or make the nets bigger. Goalies are too good, and there are too many of them. And even if that wasn’t the case, Bill Guerin will be 39 in November, and Chris Kunitz couldn’t shoot a puck into the ocean in the playoffs. Crosby and Malkin will be better, but enough to make up for the net losses elsewhere?...”

So, if not the Penguins, who?

“There are several teams that could come out of the East, if things broke just right for them. And yes, the Penguins are one of them. But so could the Caps, one of those teams that took Pittsburgh to seven games and with a goalie who had 12 games of experience under his belt going into the series. Boston could advance; they were an overtime goal away from advancing to the conference final last year, and they bring the important pieces of their team back almost intact.”

“Unless they can’t figure out that kettle mess.”



Philadelphia could advance, if Pronger still has his engine running high, they can stay away from injuries, and they get the 2007 version of Ray Emery, not the 2008 version. And Carolina, the team that did advance in beating Boston, returns just about everyone. Cam Ward seems to have this goaltending thing figured out. He’s improved in wins in each of the two years following the 2006-2007 season (from 30 to 37 to 39 wins), GAA (from 2.93 to 2.75 to 2.44), save percentage (from .897 to .904 to .916), and shutouts (from two to four to six).

“Don’t forget the Devils…”

Everyone talks about the Devils taking a step back. This has been a theme for a few years, now. I’ll believe it when I see it. They’d have to be thought of as in the mix, certainly as long as they have Brodeur.

“All these teams have question marks, though.”

Yup… with the Penguins, it will be their blue line. The Caps?... goaltending. Carolina?... age. Philly?... goaltending. New Jersey… is Brodeur still “Brodeur?” And the Bruins…


“Hey, he got one!”

Even a blind squirrel finds an empty beer can once in a while. Yeah, goaltending. You wouldn’t think so, seeing as how the Bruins have the defending Vezina Trophy winner in Tim Thomas. The issue with him will be his load. The most regular season games he’s played in a season in his career is 66, three seasons ago. In each of the next two seasons, he played in fewer – 57 games in 2007-2008 and 54 games in 2008-2009. If he’s managed in the same fashion this year, who is getting those other 25 games? Is Tuukka Rask ready?

“As long as Thomas is ready for the playoffs…”

Yeah, that’s why the Bruins won’t hit 116 points again. But what you’re going to see is half a dozen teams clustered around that 100-point level, and there are some interesting games at the end of the season. In the last weekend, Carolina plays Boston, Boston plays Washington, Philadelphia has a home and home against the Rangers, who cost the Flyers home ice against the Penguins last year.

“So, who’s going to come out of the East?”

Patience, cuz… we’ve got a month until opening night.

“All I wanna know is, whose turn is it to fetch the beer?”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Are you ready for some hockey?

Are you ready for some hockey?
Are you ready for the good times?
Are you ready for the pucks and sticks
And all the hat tricks
And a whole lotta skatin' around

And even if we win the Stanley Cup... if we win... HAH! Even if we win! Even if we play so far above our heads that our noses bleed for a week to ten days; even if God in Heaven above comes down and points his hand at our side of the ice; even if every man, woman, and child held hands together and prayed for us to win, it just wouldn't matter because all the really good looking girls would still go out with the guys from Pittsburgh because they've got Sidney Crosby! It just doesn't matter if we win or we lose. IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER!

Nevertheless, Tripper, camp starts on September 7th when the rookies come to town...


Yorn desh born, der ritt de gitt der gue...
Orn desh, dee born desh, de umn bork! bork! bork!

We're going to have recurring visions of Ovechkin and a cleaver.

Hockey After Life

Elite professional athletes are paid handsome sums of money these days, so much that many don't have to wonder if they can make ends meet after their playing days are done. But we had one of those odd anchovy and pineapple pizza dreams last night about what some Caps might be doing when they hang up their skates one last time. We imagined what the business cards might look like for these budding entrepreneurs...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Best of The Peerless

We've been out tending to other important matters in recent days, and we haven't been able to bore you with more meaningless summer dreck. So here is another in an occasional series of dreck from the past, another edition of "The Best of The Peerless," this time taken from January 2004, recalling a former Cap and a wish-it-was-forgotten moment on the part of a certain member of Caps management...

LLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLET’S GET READY TO PROGNOSTICA-A-A-A-A-TE! We’re here at Madison Square Garden, the mecca of sport, for tonight’s fight card between the Washington Capitals, led by Ted “The Big Moussaka” Leonsis and the New York Rangers, with their new acquisition, Jaromir “The Contract” Jagr.

These foes are evenly matched, bringing a stunning lack of defense and shaky goaltending to the fray, hoping that somehow, they can land enough haymakers into their opponent’s net to negate the distinct lack of defensical fortitude one needs to wear the champion’s belt . . . uh, hoist the Cup.

In the tale of the tape, the Rangers have the advantage in size, scoring, defense, payroll, and offensive fans. The Caps have the advantage in . . . uh . . . hmmm . . .

The teams and their principals are coming out . . . here’s Jagr, coming out last, wearing a blue jersey, red pants, and skates with yellow tasseled laces. He looks determined, his face a mask of stone (which must really, really be heavy). And here is Leonsis . . . adorned with a dark pin-stripe suit, white shirt, yellow tie, and tasseled loafers. What is the deal these days with fighters and tassels?

Leonsis and Jagr glare at one another across the ice. And the fans are getting into it, too. One fan is holding up a sign . . . “Hey, Ted . . . You Fight Better Than Your Team.” Well, at least he didn’t have anything referring to AOL on the sign (opening at 18.34 a share today, up 85 percent over its 52-week low).

The referee smooths his hair and brings the teams together at center ice . . . let’s listen in . . . “OK, boys, you know the rules . . . no punching on the break, no rabbit punches, keep your wallets in your pockets, and when the linesmen come in, immediately go to a neutral corner . . . now shake hands and put your sticks in.”

A comely lass skates out to hold up the round card, and we’re ready for the bout to begin . . . DING! Round One! . . . and the Rangers come out swinging . . . Eric Lindros wins the draw back to Brian Leetch, who sends the puck up to Jagr . . . Jagr curls into the zone and spies Martin Rucinsky on his left . . . Jagr sends a pass across to Rucinsky, who skates in and fires a jab at Olaf Kolzig . . . Kolzig blocks the jab, and the Caps head the other way . . . Brendan Witt starts the play up to Peter Bondra . . . Bondra skates through the center of the ring . . . uh, rink . . . he moves past Tom Poti and is cruising toward Mike Dunham . . . Bondra tries a hook around the net and score on a wrap-around, but Dunham fends off the blow . . . it’s up-and-down, rock-‘em, sock-‘em hockey . . . Kovalev on a drive . . . Lang with a wrister . . . Holik in front . . . Carter from the circle . . . oh, the haymakers being thrown . . . the crowd is in a frenzy . . . DING! . . . and we’re at the end of Round One!

First Intermission . . . Joining us in the prognosti-booth is former heavyweight champion George Foreman with his take . . . Champ, what did you think of Leonsis’ bout the other night . . .

“Well, Ted has great footwork for a man of his size . . . as a guy who enjoys cheeseburgers as much as Ted looks like he does, I know that’s something you don’t learn easily. But, I think he should have softened up the midsection with some body shots before going for the choke-and-throw move . . . that will come with experience, though. It wasn’t bad for his first bout of the season.”

DING! . . . Round Two . . . In contrast to the fast pace of the second period, the teams come out sizing each other up, looking for the counterpunch. It’s more like the undercard as Matthew Barnaby and Chris Simon are on the ice with Stephen Peat and Darcy Verot. The quartet circle one another with sneers on their faces and malice in their hearts (or else they must have had too many Nathan’s Famous with chili before the game). They eye each other warily . . . looking for an opportunity to drop the gloves . . . to send a mess- . . . wait! While that’s going on, Alexander Semin skates by and in alone on Mike Dunham . . . “alone,” you ask? But where is the Ranger defense? . . . they’re at the bench, arguing with Sather that “hey, if I don’t play defense, and I skate pretty, I should be getting at least six . . . seven million a year.” Dunham can only look like those poor befuddled fans at intermission playing that spin-around-the-stick game as Semin dekes, pulls it back, and wraps the puck around the dizzy, fallen goaltender . . .

Meanwhile, Simon, Peat, Verot, and Barnaby are striking John L. Sullivan poses . . . seeing as how this is going on with new quintets ready to take the ensuing faceoff, both teams are whistled for too-many-men-on-the-ice . . . off the ice, The Big Moussaka is enduring the chants of Ranger fans . . . “Let’s Go M-S-N clap clap clap-clap-clap . . . Let’s Go M-S-N clap clap clap-clap-clap” . . . seems to be a reference to certain business interests. Finally, when a Ranger fan wearing a home jersey and sporting MSN butterfly wings taunts TBM (The Big Moussaka), he goes off, hurling AOL 9.0 Optimized CDs at him. The fan retaliates by beating TBM with his wings. They’re at it, tooth and nail . . . even the players on the ice are struck dumb by the spectacle. Finally, security pulls them apart, and TBM is in distress . . . “mah eye, Mick . . . mah eye . . . cut me, Mick.” Someone answering to the name of “Mick” picks up a CD and cuts the swollen eye. DING! . . . and we’re at the end of a very eventful Round Two.

Second Intermission . . . It looks like the Caps are ahead on the judges’ cards, Champ . . . what do you think so far?

“Well, as sure as I’m fat, old, slow, and bald, thing can change in the blink of an eye. You can’t tell what the outcome is going to be until it’s over. It’s like a cheesburger . . . you wouldn’t decide whether it was good or not if you just had the meat . . . you need the bun, the tomatoes, the onions, the cheese, the pickles, the lettuce, the jalapenos, the mushrooms, the . . .

Thanks, Champ . .

“bacon, the ketchup, the mustard, the hot sauce, the zucchini, the raspberry jam, the spinach, the calamari, the almond paste, the truffles, the . . .

DING! . . . Round Three . . . The principals come out for the last round. It’s been a titanic struggle, on the ice and in the stands. The referee takes one last look at his coif in the reflection from the glass and heads to center ice for the faceoff to start the round. . . . The period starts in bizarre form as a stick flies out of a Ranger’s hands and whacks him in the teeth. While the chiclets are being collected, a penalty is called . . . Caps, four minutes for high sticking. WHAT?! Brendan Witt, Mike Grier, and Peter Bondra are all following the referee to the scorer’s table to plead that the Ranger whacked himself . . . all to no avail. TBM is restless in his seat . . . and then, a second penalty is shown on the board . . . unsportsmanlike conduct . . . a 5-on-3 advantage, and TBM is on the edge of his seat.

The Rangers start throwing head shots . . . a drive by Leetch . . . a deflection try by Lindros . . . a curl-and-drag to the net by Jagr . . . all stymied by Olaf Kolzig . . . until the whistle is blown, and . . . delay of game? The Caps’ bench is incensed . . . Glen Hanlon is standing on the bench, screaming at the ref . . . and another penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct is whistled. The fans are going crazy . . . it’s taking a squad of out-of-work Arthur Andersen accountants to tally up the damage in penalties for the Caps . . . the Rangers are putting all of their skillful wares on display . . . Lindros’ ruggedness . . . Leetch’s skating . . . Jagr’s stickhandling . . . Messier’s Cro Magnon orbital ridge . . . raining a hail of punches . . . uh, pucks down on Olaf Kolzig. A shot is turned into the corner . . . Jagr picks it up and throws a cross-ice pass in the direction of Petr Nedved, except Nedved is on the Rangers’ bench . . . the puck is picked up by Peter Bondra, and as one, the Rangers exclaim, “ACK, WE HAVE TO PLAY DEFENSE!” Bondra skates in on a clean break, not a Ranger in the same borough . . . Dunham can only sigh as the puck flies by (“oh gee, another night at the Garden . . . no defense”), and the Caps have a 2 goal lead.

Amidst the celebrating, the Caps are whistled for another delay-of-game penalty, and TBM is out of his seat. The Rangers are looking to land a combination to take advantage of what seems this forever 5-on-3. Jagr is at the right wing boards . . . he looks over the situation . . . he skates into the seam between Trent Whitfield and Brendan Witt and flicks his wrists . . . where’s the puck? He forgot to bring it with him! (must be in a New York state of mind). Mike Grier is heading the other way on another breakaway . . . Dunham is contemplating life as a color analyst for TSN Canada when Grier slides the puck into the twine . . . the Ranger fans, so thrilled a few moments ago, are booing loudly enough for people at LaGuardia Airport not to be able to hear planes taking off. The slapstick plays out as the clock winds down, and the blueshirts skulk off after being upset by the Caps, 3 - 0. The team skates off, pleased with its feisty performance, one mirrored by a certain owner, who still unhappy, confronts a referee outside the locker room...

...we can’t know what really went on, but I’d swear that I heard a legendary sportscaster’s voice exclaiming . . .



Ah, but he who laughs last... Ted is filling his house, Kerry Fraser is off in retirement tending to his collection of antique combs, and Jagr... well, Jagr is in Siberia.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Sittin' 'Round the Summer Campfire, Part One

We took some time off recently and headed to the far north woods with two of the wisest hockey pundits in North America to talk about the summer, the upcoming season, and life in general.

No, not Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury… our own cousins, Fearless and Cheerless. We’ll try and convey to you some of the conversation. Just keep in mind, there was a lot of beer involved…

Well, guys, here we are in the middle of nowhere…

“You mean Cole Harbour?”

No, Cheerless, it’s just a figure of speech… we’re here in the middle of nowhere, with no cell phones, no BlackBerrys, no text messaging, no Twitter… FEARLESS!

“Uh, sorry, cuz… I just had to tweet about what we were doing…”

Gimme that!... –skip-skip-skip-ploop…-- there, that’ll take care of that. You don’t have any gadgets with you, do you, Fearless?

“No, cuz… I thought Twitter was a defenseman playing for the Islanders.”

Now… where were we? Oh, yeah… out here in the great outdoors, nothing but the clear starry night, a campfire, and…


Yeah, beer… but hey, I haven’t seen you guys since the Penguins knocked the Caps out of the playoffs.

“They did? Shoot, I thought that was just some dream I had when I got after a few too many PBRs…”

No, Cheerless, they did knock out our Caps. What, you don’t know that Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov signed to play in Russia?


And Donald Brashear…

“Watch it, cuz… I don’t know if he can take this.”

… was signed by the Rangers.

“uhhhhhhhhhhh… I’m gonna be sick.”

“Now hold on, Cheerless, we got Mike Knuble.”

“A FLYER?!?!?... oh man, why don’t you just put a dress on me and call me ‘Briere?’”

Guys, guys… let’s get a grip. It’s been a busy summer. What do you think of the Caps signing Brendan Morrison?

“Well, the Caps lead the league in Morrison’s.”

“They have Brendan, too?...They have all the Morrison’s in the league!”

Guys… can he play? He missed 43 games two seasons ago, but on the other hand, in the other seven seasons combined, he missed one game. In seven full seasons, not including that injury-shortened one, he’s had at least 16 goals in all of them and at least 31 assists in all of them until last year, when he finished with 15 helpers, split between the Ducks and the Stars. Over his career, he’s averaged 19-36-55, +6, five power play goals, and four game-winners per 82 games played.

“You do all that math in your head, cuz?”

Hush… now, can he play?

“Well, Sergei Fedorov and Michael Nylander – combined – were 20-46-66, +4, with six power play goals and four game-winners. If Morrison just has an average year, he’s in the neighborhood.”

“Cuz, not to wet all over your good time, but did you know that since the 2002-2003 season, his points on an 82 game basis has decreased in just about every season? The only one it didn’t, he got hurt.”

His time on ice has decreased in every year, too – from more than 21 minutes a game in 2002-2003 to just over 14 last year. If he gets second line minutes, like the 16:30 a game Fedorov got last year, he might still be a 60-point player.

“Yeah, if he’s healthy, and if he can find a right wing to play with on that second line.”

Speaking of which, assuming Knuble is on the right wing on the top line, who gets that second slot?

“How ‘bout a second – urp – beer…”

You look like you’re on your second six-pack, Cheerless.

“He’s in training.”

Well, everyone needs their own training camp, I guess… we’ll get back to that second line right wing. But what about Knuble. Think he’ll make a difference?

“He could be the greatest ‘22’ in Caps history.”

“Did you forget Steve Konowalchuk?”

How ‘bout Dino?

“And don’t forget Lew Morrison.”

“Geez, another Morrison?”

Hey…guys? Knuble?

"Yeah, I was up there once… loved that Skloosh ride…"

That’s Knoebels, you goober, the amusement park. Knuble… Mike Knuble, the hockey player.

"Well, tell us what you think, cuz…"

-sigh- OK… here’s what jumps out at me. Since 2002-2003, 37 games, 21-9-30, +6, 4-3-7 on the power play and three game-winning goals…

…against Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Realignment, Peerless Style

Hey, everyone else has done it (including this recent edition), and there isn't a lot else to talk about, so...

We're not bothering with waiting for the NHL to decide to go the way of the NFL and 32 teams, we just went ahead and settled this Phoenix mess (they're now Hamilton) and put teams in Las Vegas and Kansas City to put that to rest, too.

Oh, and enough of the geography lesson every time I look at the standings. We want some old school conference and division names...and speaking of divisions, our playoffs include the first two rounds as intra-divisional play. There is nothing like beating up on your divisional opponents for a few games in the playoffs to build up that hate among players and fans that seems to be missing from too many divisions (well, the Southeast, anyway).

Hey, my realignment, my rules.

...unless you don't like it, then I'll blame it on Fearless and Cheerless.

What's wrong with this picture?

Go ahead... we'll give you a moment?

OK, yeah, the 11th spot in Allan Muir's "NHL Power Rankings" at seems way low for the Capitals, but that's not it.

Check the fine print. "Last Week: 9."

Huh? It's August, dill weed. How can the Caps -- any team, for that matter -- rise, fall, or be abducted by aliens in August? Did the Caps lose a free agent last week? Did Alexander Semin sign in Russia last weekend when we weren't looking?

And we can't even hazard a silly wild-assed guess as to why it is that Calgary went up seven spots from "last week" (unless by "last week," you mean, "before Jay Bouwmeester was signed" or "last May"), or how the Flyers jumped eight spots.

August... when the world of hockey goes insane.

Thanks to Japers for pointing the way to this.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Tortoise and the Hare

In the fable, the hare mocked the slow moving tortoise, leading the tortoise to challenge the hare to a race. In the race, the hare sprinted off to an early lead, and seeing that he was far ahead of the tortoise, decided to rest. The hare fell asleep, only to awaken later and find that the tortoise had already won the contest.

The moral of the story is that “slow and steady” wins the race.

Well, there is a subtext to the fable that applies to the long regular season of the NHL – you’d better make progress early, even to be “steady.”

That brings us to October (which can’t come soon enough for hockey fans), and whether a fast start is a key ingredient to a Stanley Cup championship. The Capitals have played in 33 Octobers in their 34-year history (the 1994-1995 season starting too late for any games in October). In those 33 Octobers, the Caps have never won as many as ten games. That’s not so bad; only four of the last 33 Stanley Cup champions have won ten or more games in October (the Detroit Red Wings did it three times – 1997-98, 2001-02, and 2007-08 – and the New York Islanders in 1982-83).

However, while winning ten or more games – that fast start by the hare – isn’t essential to winning a Stanley Cup, there is something to be said for “steady” progress. And the key measure here is in points earned per game in the season’s first month. In the last 33 Octobers played (corresponding to the Caps’ history), only once has the eventual Stanley Cup winner has earned fewer than a point a game, on average, for the month (Montreal in 1985-86). Only twice has the eventual winner earned fewer than 10 points (Montreal – nine points in nine games in 1978-79 and again with eight points in ten games in 1985-86).

The Capitals, as any long-time fan will note, have been notorious slow-starters. Something about horses is cited as the usual culprit (although the Washington International Horse Show has a smaller calendar footprint in recent years, making for shorter trips away from home to start the season). In 33 seasons, the Caps have averaged at least a point a game in October only 12 times. In those 12 instances, the Caps made the playoffs 10 times, but advanced past the second round only once (in 1998, when they went 7-4-2 in October and went to the Stanley Cup final).

In the last 33 NHL Octobers, the eventual Stanley Cup champion has averaged 1.37 points per game. The 1.37 points per game average is a 112-point pace over an 82-game season. Now, it’s true that the nature of standings points has changed, but it will not really affect the point we are going to make in a material sense. The Capitals, in those same 33 Octobers, have exceeded 1.37 points per game in October only twice – in 1991-92 and 1995-96. Good teams – contending teams – are good early. Also rans also reveal themselves early. The Caps have a long history of being a playoff-eligible team (20 playoff appearances in 34 seasons, including that abbreviated 1994-95 season), but they also have a disturbing history of making early exits (advancing past the second round only twice in 20 appearances).

As we move forward into the 2009-10 season, history is a guide. Playing well in October isn’t a guarantee of playing at all in June, there being only two finalists. But you’d better play well in October to give yourself a chance. Not necessarily lights out, but the slow and steady sort of tempo that corresponds with a 100 to 110-point or so pace.

The Caps have 13 games in October – seven at home, six on the road (no horse show excuses this year). If they finish the month on the far side of 15 points, it would be a good sign. If they don’t, history argues strongly against the Caps playing in June. You can’t win the Stanley Cup in October, but you can lose it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Last, Best Questionnaire About Hockey

If you're into surveys, and we are, you are going to want to click on over to "A View from the Cheap Seats," where Caps Chick has compiled the mother of all hockey questionnaires -- The "Hockey Questionnaire o' Doom." You can opine on subjects are far-ranging as "What is the first jersey you ever owned?" to "Who has the more intriguing hair – Brian Engblom or Barry Melrose?" to "Coffee or tea? " You can even build your own divisional realignment.

We've sent our responses in, and we encourage all you hockey fans out there to join in.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Keystone Standard

So, the Eagles signed Michael Vick.

Good luck with that.

Why do we say that? Because there is no higher standard for winning in all the land than in the Keystone State (disclaimer: we were born and raised there). Let’s look at the case…


Since this space focuses on hockey, let’s start with that. The Pittsburgh Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champion and two time-defending Eastern Conference champion. And that’s only the beginning. On the other side of the state, where Vick will play, the Flyers have made the playoffs in 13 of the last 14 years and have had a better than .600 (not just .500) winning percentage, expressed as percentage of available standings points won, in nine of those seasons.

Then there is the next level. The Hershey Bears are the defending Calder Cup champion and have played in the Calder final in three of the past four years. They’ve won the Calder Cup ten times and appeared in the finals 21 times.

And when Hershey wasn’t appearing in the finals recently, another team from Pennsylvania was. A Pennsylvania team – Hershey, the Philadelphia Phantoms, or the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins – has appeared in each of the last six Calder Cup finals and nine of the last 13 finals.


The Phillies are the defending champions of Major League Baseball and currently have the second-best record in the National League, making them one of the favorites to appear in the World Series once more.

At the next level of play, the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees are the defending Governor’s Cup champions of the International League in Triple-A and lead the North Division of the IL this year.


The Pittsburgh Steelers are the defending Super Bowl champions of the National Football League. They are the NFL’s only six-time Super Bowl champion. The Eagles – that team that Vick is joining – has appeared in five of the last eight NFC conference championship games and has averaged more than ten wins per season in the last nine years.

Down a level, the Penn State Nittany Lions have won 372 games in 42 seasons under Coach Joe Paterno. That includes 23 bowl wins and a winning percentage of almost 75 percent.

And back to the Super Bowl… in each of the 43 games played there has been at least one player who also participated in the “Big 33” all star game featuring the top 33 high school all stars from Pennsylvania hosting representatives from another state (Ohio, Maryland, and Texas in the history of the contest).

You’d be hard-pressed to find another state in the union with as high an athletic standard for winning as Pennsylvania. And they don’t suffer losing gladly, none less so that Eagles fans.

So like we said about Michael Vick landing in Philly…

Good luck with that.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hey!...Mattress Discounters Wants Their Irbe-pedic Mattresses Back

But the new Caps goalie coach certainly seems like the personable sort...

The New School of Hockeynomics

Yesterday, James Mirtle penned an entry in “From the Rink” discussing the “new” statistics in hockey. In it, he referenced an e-mail he received asking about the current state of statistical analysis applied to hockey. The key questions in the message were:

“What are some of the most important new metrics?"

“What are their limitations?"

These questions really get to the crux of the matter. Personally, I’d hate for hockey to go the way of baseball, where countless “statistics” have been constructed that have little use other than to give “seamheads” something to read and argue about over message boards.

There is a distinct difference in my mind between “data” and “information.” In baseball, a lot of folks latch onto a piece of data – on base plus slugging percentage, batting average with runners in scoring position with less than two outs in the seventh inning or later in weekday day games, whatever – and assume those data are meaningful.

Well, are they? Do they inform an evaluation of a player’s effectiveness? Do they credibly explain a team’s success? Can one demonstrate a relationship between that statistic and a result? If not, then all those statistics are, is a collection of useless data. They aren't “information.”

The school of hockey statistics is well served with the question Mirtle asks to close his entry…”if [he] was to put together a list on this site of the five to 10 key ‘new’ metrics you'd like to see creep into the league's stat books, what would it include?”

But in it lies a danger, that hockey will use baseball as a data analysis template in an effort to create a generation of “puckheads” that is analogous to “seamheads.” Frankly, I don’t see that as being particularly useful in developing a body of analytical tools to evaluate performance. Those diligent souls who are at the forefront of developing those tools for hockey have a relatively clean slate to make those statistical tools meaningful, not just a collection of empirical gibberish.

To take a cue from Mirtle’s question, I’d be more interested in learning “why” those metrics should be included and “how” they inform an analysis of player and team performance.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Time to roll out the themes for 2009-2010

We’re heading into the home stretch of the off-season, and NHL clubs are ramping up their themes for the upcoming 2009-2010 season. And that brings us to slogans. Some clubs choose not to attach a catchy (kitschy?) slogan to this year’s version of their team. Others make reference to their history. And there are those that make it sound like we’re being called to join the Tenth Crusade. Let’s take a tour of the league, shall we?

The Colorado Avalanche have chosen to lure fans with the theme of the “Avalanche Experience.” Wow… now that’s a stone groove right out of the 1970’s. We’re guessing the Avs will take the ice to the strains of “Love’s Theme” from the Love Unlimited Orchestra.

Then there are the Columbus Blue Jackets. For those who don’t know, the team name was selected, according to the club’s web site, to “celebrate patriotism, pride and the rich Civil War history in the state of Ohio and, city of Columbus.” So what is their tag line? “Carry the Flag.” C’mon boys, we’re invadin’ Nashville! Then it’s on to Atlanta!!

Speaking of Nashville, we’re not sure what to make of “It stays with you.” We read that and think that last night’s kielbasa and kraut is staying with us, but it’s not the thing of which warm memories are made.

In Los Angeles, they go all mathematical on their fans. Their slogan is “Pride=Passion=Power.” Not quite up there with E=MC2, but it is an adequate representation of the transitive property of mathematics. But this year, while “pride” might equal “passion,” and that might equal “power,” it also might equal “putrid,” “pathetic,” and “pitiable”… “pfft.”

Then there are the history-oriented teams. Detroit’s web site proclaims the club as an 11-time Stanley Cup champion....

Impressive as it might be, one can then go to the Canadiens’ web site and see “Home of the 24-time Stanley Cup Champions."

Meanwhile, over in Pittsburgh, the web site simply announces, “Stanley Cup Champions.” Doesn’t get much simpler than that.

Slipping down a notch on the “history” ladder is the San Jose Sharks, where you will find that they’ve chose to hang their hat on the fact that they are “Home of the 2008-2009 President’s Trophy.” That’s akin to being “Sloppy Sam’s Grease Pit: Home of the Bowel Bomb Burger.”

And then you can compare that to the “history,” reflected in the Washington Capitals’ web site… “Back-to-Back Southeast Division Champions.” Well, you have to start somewhere, I guess. And we’ll get back to this bunch.

Back to the martial theme, the Ottawa Senators march into the 2009-2010 season, “A Force United.” United in what? Hating Dany Heatley?

Then there is Tampa, who has this delusion that “Together We Will.” And they have the image of a determined Steven Stamkos, a confident Vincent Lecavalier, and the dwarfish Martin St. Louis to lend heft to that sentiment.

Not only that, if you click onto their main site, you get this puppy-dog face driving the point home a little more, asking fans to “answer the call.” The Lightning are so bad, the only dogs can hear that call. And if “Together We Will” was a winning slogan, would the league have to step in and keep their feuding owners apart? Food for thought.

The Islanders might be the most optimistic, forward-looking bunch, though. Even though they have a rich history (albeit in the dim past), they’ve chose to put a countdown clock on their site…to when tickets are available online. Ooh, I’d better set my alarm clock for Saturday at 1:00.

Then – back to the Capitals – we have color therapy in the line, “Red Is Caps Hockey.” Hey, you know what? Red is the color of ink you use to indicate you’re losing money. Red is the color of ribbons used to bind documents in days of yore, which gave rise to the derogatory term “red tape.” Red is the color of the ladies’ tees in golf.

There might be other teams unfurling other themes on their web sites before too long, but among those who have unveiled their themes for this year, there is no lack of force, passion, or flag-waving… or trophy hoisting, or group hugging, or…

Just drop the freakin’ puck already.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

We go to the vault in search of...


Sounds like a 1970's detective show like "Mannix" or "Cannon," doesn't it? But anyway, this being August, which means no hockey news (except Jeremy Roenick's retirement), we went back -- way back -- in the vault for old tyme Peerless Prognostos that we used to post on The Official (before they turned into this) and came upon this one starring Roenick, from way back in November 2003...

Welcome, hockey fans, to another . . . yes, ANOTHER edition of The Peerless Prognosticator, this time brought to you by . . . the National Public Radio, whose word for today is “YIPPEE!”

Re”Cap” of Caps versus Lightning . . . unbeaten, eh? . . . Toast of the NHL, eh? . . . yeah, so’s yer mother. Caps lulled the Lightning into a false sense of superiority, allowing the Bolts to get an 18-7 edge in shots in the opening frame, but one shorthanded speed rush by Dainius Zubrus around Brad “Traffic Cone” Lukowich, and the Lighting had a glimpse of what the night would hold. From there, it was Lang, Halpern, Jagr, and of course, the obligatory “off-a-random-body-part” goal from Zubrus before an inconsequential goal from the resident smurf, and when coupled with a 41-save performance from the big guy, the Caps had their first road win of the year, a 5-1 Thrashing (oops, wrong team) of the Lightning. OK, now get over it, because it’s time to face the music . . . 0-9-1 in their last ten in the brotherly confines of Philadelphia, so let’s get to the prognostications . . .

Pre-Game . . . South Philly . . . you can almost smell the atmosphere . . . on second thought, you CAN smell the atmosphere . . . smells like Camden (“no, it smells like ass!”) . . . Cartman?! . . . not you again!!

First Period . . . The Flyers are wearing their orange “Rollerball” jerseys, causing several hundred fans to go into seizures. The Caps are in white, which is a color often associated with sacrifice. This being South Philly, the connection is easy to make. Why, there is even a “raw meat” concession here at Wachovia (hehehe) Center.

As the teams are readying for the contest, over at the Capitals’ bench a grim-looking fellow in a suit, wearing sunglasses and an earpiece nods at Coach Cassidy . . .

The puck is dropped and the Flyers take aim at the Caps . . . Todd Fedoruk lines up Sergei Gonchar for a bone-rattling check, but Gonchar spins away adroitly and Fedoruk is left sampling the glass platter at Chez Wachovia. Gonchar sends the puck ahead to Robert Lang, who forwards the mail to Jaromir Jagr, who wrists the package past Jeff “I-don’t-know-if-I-can” Hackett. Inside of a minute, and the Caps have a lead . . .

The Flyers try once more their efforts at intimidation . . . Eric Weinrich takes a run at Dainius Zubrus, but as Zubrus shifts into a higher gear, Weinrich ends up over the players’ bench and with a fine view of Justin Williams’ lap . . . Zubrus curls in and leave Hackett trying to whack it as he packs it into the Flyers’ net, and the Caps have (celestial choruses sing) . . . a two-goal lead . . . AGAIN!

At the Caps’ bench, the sunglasses presses the earpiece as if he is getting a signal and motions to Cassidy. Cassidy taps the shoulders of the Federal Reserve Line, and they hop out once more. Jagr spies Bondra darting to the net from the back side and lays the puck right on his tape for an easy tap-in . . . the clock can’t run down fast enough for the Flyers and Ken Hitchcock to figure out what’s happened . . . the teams skate off, Caps leading 3 - 0.

First Intermission . . . “Yo, Peerless! . . . Whatchu doin’ here? . . . I taught youse was down in Florida . . . yo, Adrian, look, it’s Peerless.” Hey, Rocco . . . long time no see. So, how’s the fight game? “Yo, dintcha know? . . . I wuz signed by Toronto . . . I’m a hockey playah!” Geez, Rocco, can you skate? “He-e-e-e-y . . . what skating . . . I go out there, and bam-bam . . . then I sit for five minutes . . . Hey, Mickey shoulda seen dis.”

Second Period . . . The Flyers come out even more determined to let the Caps know whose house they’re in . . . Jeremy Roenick tries to plant a shoulder into Steve Eminger, but the slick-skating rookie spins the other way, leaving the cameraman in the corner with an excellent shot of Roenick’s cheek denting the glass . . . “make sure you get my good side,” Roenick mumbles as Eminger heads up ice. Eminger sends the puck across to John Gruden, who chips it into the zone for the barnyard dogs of the fourth line to go fetch. Brian Sutherby outduels Chris Therien for the puck and backhands it in front . . . Boyd Gordon whiffs on the chance, but Stephen Peat is johnny-on-the-spot to chip the puck over Hackett’s blocker, and the Caps have a four goal lead for the second time in three days.

Hitchcock is bewildered on the Flyers’ bench . . . trying to create some offense, he juggles lines, but the Flyers continue to struggle just to get into the Caps’ zone. Flyer fans being, well, Flyer fans, the booing makes Wachovia (hehehe) Center sound like a convention of prize Guernseys (those are cows, folks). It only gets worse when Roenick, looking for the camera with the red light on, coughs up the puck to Jeff Halpern, who sends Bates Battaglia ahead on a one-on-one against Joni Pitkanen. The rookie bites on Battaglia’s move to the outside, leaving a clean sheet of ice for Mike Grier humming down the right side. Battaglia sends the puck across . . . Grier swats it into the net . . . mooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

Perhaps a tall, cold glass of milk will settle the ornery fans as the teams head off, Caps leading 5 - 0.

Second Intermission . . . “I wanna cheesysteak!” . . . shut up, Cartman . . .. “I wanna cheesysteak!! . . . shut up, Cartman . . . “I wanna cheesysteak!!! . . . shut up, Cartman . . . I wanna . . .

Third Period . . . Sunglasses talks into his sleeve, then gives Cassidy a signal . . . he’s sending the Blood, Sweat, and Grier line out to counter Hitchcock’s top line of Tony Amonte, Errol Flynn . . . oops, Jeremy Roenick, and Mark Recchi. The Caps win the draw, and Brendan Witt starts slowly up ice . . . sending the puck around the boards, Witt then stands sentry at the top of the Flyers’ zone. Behind the net, Halpern and Therien fight over the puck. Halpern skates away with it and sees a gaping hole between the hash marks. Roenick, apparently, is rehearsing lines from his gawd-awful NHL house party show instead of playing defense . . . “Anson, get your feet off the tabble . . .rats! . . . TA-ble.” Witt sees the opening and takes the pass from Halpern, leaving Hackett just enough time to see the puck go whistling by . . . “ta-ble . . . ta-ble . . . ta-ble . . .”

At the bench, Cassidy looks in the direction of sunglasses, who gives a subtle nod . . . Cassidy sends out the Fort Knox Line, and soon, the last nail in the coffin . . . Sergei Gonchar chips the puck along the boards . . . Lang picks it up behind the end line and sends it back to Jagr. The right-winger dances one way, does the funky chicken in another, then does the hustle around Eric Weinrich, snapping the puck over Hackett’s glove . . .

. . . mooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

Nothing left now but to watch the fans trudge up the stairs to the freedom of the night air . . . still smells like Camden. The Caps skate out the clock, and the Flyers are left to contemplate both the 7 - 0 schmearing and the moos ringing in their ears (you ever seen Philly women? . . . “moo” is right!). In the locker room, Coach Cassidy is all smiles standing next to sunglasses . . . “what was the secret, Coach?” Sunglasses chimes in, “uh, we can’t talk about that . . . FBI business, you know.”

You don’t think they bugged the Flyers’ bench, do you? . . . In Philadelphia?? Maybe we should ask the mayor . . .


Unfortunately, the Caps went to 0-10-1 in their last dozen in South Philly, losing the game, 4-2...

Saturday, August 08, 2009

On this date, August 8th... 2005, the Caps signed Ben Clymer and Miroslav Zalesak

...and in 2006, the Caps signed Timo Helbling and Petr Taticek

A landmark day in Caps history...

Friday, August 07, 2009


That is all...

Gasping, Wheezing, Limping to Training Camp... August is "Nothing to Write" Month

So, we are desperate for something, anything, to keep our eyes on the prize...

We are 55 days from Opening Night. A tool I use to think of how much time that is, is to think, "ok, what happened 55 days ago?"

Well, on June 14th...

- GT1 Corvettes were retired following Corvette Racing's sixth victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

- The second season of "True Blood" premiered on HBO.

- Sidney Crosby took the Stanley Cup to PNC Park where the Pittsburgh Pirates were playing the Detroit Tigers. All six fans in attendance were in the rest rooms.

- James Symington, a former officer with the Halifax Regional Police, was presented with five clones of Trakr, his German Shepherd Dog who lived and worked with Symington as a search-and-rescue dog for 14 years, and who located the last survivor in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001.

Is it September yet?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Zherdev?... Zher-don't!

Seems there are a few outlets (like the one run by that boob named after a former Flyer) who think every Russian hockey player in search of a contract is in the sights of the Washington Capitals. There are more than a few Capitals fans who think along those lines, too.

Which brings us to Nikolai Zherdev... Russian, hockey player, in search of a contract.

We consulted the nether realm as to whether this was a good idea and came upon some clues when searching for anagrams for "Nikolai Zherdev"...

"Haze Drivel Oink"... OK, he plays in a haze, the descriptions of his talent are just so much drivel (given his performance), and whatever contract he gets is going to be a real "oinker."

"Elk Head In Vizor"... that might be the reason for his occasional numbskull level of play.

"He Zero Diva Link"... might be a stretch, but maybe it's an indicator that he's a bit too much to have to deal with?

"Hi, Dark Evil Zone"... ok, now that's scary.

...can you tell it's August?

Giroux Returns to Hershey

No doubt Hershey Nation is thrilled, but one would think coming off a 60-goal season, not to mention another 15 in the post season, that there has to be a twinge of disappointment that the winger didn't get an NHL-deal.

Still, he and Hershey are obviously a great fit, and it's great news for the Bears and their fans.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

If Annie Was a Hockey Fan

This interview and a baseball analogy I made with respect to the play of Michael Nylander over here, combined with these being the dullest days of the hockey calendar got me to thinking... if Annie Savoy had been a hockey fan instead of a baseball fan, what would she think of the sport? Well, let's let her speak for herself...

"I believe in the Church of Hockey. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in Gerry Cheevers’ mask. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in hockey. Oh, sure, the referees try to make players feel guilty by making them spend two minutes in the penalty box, but that’s really just a chance for the player to get in touch with his inner pee-wee. And hockey’s never boring... which makes it like sex. There's never been a hockey player slept with me who didn't have the best year of his career. Making love is like a taking a faceoff: you just gotta relax and concentrate. Besides, I'd never sleep with a player with a bad plus-minus... not unless he had a lot of goals and was a great fighter.

"You see, there's a certain amount of life wisdom I give these boys. I can expand their minds. Sometimes when I've got a hockey player alone, I'll just read Ken Dryden or Walt Whitman to him, and the guys are so sweet, they always stay and listen. 'Course, a guy'll listen to anything if he thinks it's foreplay. I make them feel confident, and they make me feel safe, and pretty. 'Course, what I give them lasts a lifetime; what they give me lasts 82 games. Sometimes it seems like a bad trade. But bad trades are part of hockey - now who can forget Markus Naslund for Alek Stojanov, for God's sake? It's a long season and you gotta trust. I've tried 'em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Hockey."

What about the draft Annie? Do you think there really is any science behind how teams settle on their picks?...

"Well, actually, nobody on this planet ever really chooses each other. I mean, it's all a question of quantum physics, molecular attraction, and timing. Why, there are laws we don't understand that bring us together and tear us apart. Uh, it's like pheromones. You get three ants together, they can't do dick. You get 300 million of them, they can build the Consol Energy Center."

Annie, you've obviously spent a lot of time thinking about this. It's as if you were a hockey player in another life...

"I think probably with my love of the way goalies use their sticks and gloves, and my love for four-legged creatures and hooves and everything, that in another lifetime I was probably Catherine the Great, or Francis of Assisi, or maybe George Hainsworth. I'm not sure which one. What do you think? "

How come nobody ever says they were Joe Schmo or John Roach?

Oh my...

Monday, August 03, 2009

Even "Suck" Sells, Eventually

We were perusing the puck headlines over at "Puck Daddy," and came across a link to a story about the 2010 Winter Classic and the "benchmark for Classic couture success." In the linked story from the Boston Globe, Bruins principal Charlie Jacobs is quoted as saying about that standard (the Pittsburgh blue uniforms borrowed from the 1968-1969 design),

“That worked, because they’re not necessarily their team colors. There’s no black or gold. It’s a powder blue jersey, and that made it unique. It’s certainly recognized in their market. It’s not like the Pirates, Steelers, or anything else. It’s unique.’’

"Unique." OK, that's one way to describe it. Here's another... they were the uniforms of a team that sucked. The Penguins did not incorporate black and gold into their jersey scheme until the 1979-1980 season. In the dozen seasons leading up to that change, the Penguins topped 30 wins in a season only five times and were a .500-plus team only four times. The reason they made the change? According to the Pens' web site...

"On Jan. 30, 1980, the Penguins wore black and gold for the first time. With the Steelers winning the Super Bowl and the Pirates capturing the World Series title in the same year, the struggling Penguins hoped to gain fan support by aligning their colors with the other teams in the 'City of Champions.'”

Now we know the real reason the Caps weren't invited to the Winter Classic. Someone would have had them go retro...

Two Kids Born in 1984

You were born in November of that year and grew up to be a gifted, if somewhat mercurial hockey player. You were drafted by something of a backwater club in the NHL and developed a reputation for moody, inconsistent play, despite your evident gifts.

But along comes the big city team, bright lights and bulging checkbook. They trade for you, thinking that they can unleash the offensive weapons you have at your disposal. You play in all 82 games, but finishing with 23 goals and 58 points is not quite what folks had in mind. It gets worse when you play in seven playoff games and don't register a single point in any of them.

Your contract is up, but you remain a "restricted" free agent with rights to arbitration. You present your case to the arbitrator; the club presents its case. The thing is, the club is said to present a number that is actually below the amount it had to offer to qualify you as a "restricted" free agent. Doesn't say a lot about what the club thinks of you, does it?

But the arbitrator has other ideas. The arbitrator looks at your record -- in your career so far you have averaged 22 goals per 82 games (you had 23 last year) and 54 points per 82 games (you had 58 last year). Your numbers last year (23-35-58) look an awful lot like those of Kristian Huselius (21-35-56) in Columbus (where you toiled) or, for that matter, a couple of your teammates -- Chris Drury (22-34-56) and Scott Gomez (16-42-58).

Huselius has a salary cap hit of $4.75 million. Drury comes in at $7.05 million, Gomez at $7.357 million (which is now Montreal's burden).

The arbitrator gives you $3.9 million.

Are you a bargain? Or are the New York Rangers going to walk away from the arbitrator's decision, Nikolai Zherdev?

It does make one wonder, though, what another player born in 1984 -- one who has averaged 35 goals and 70 points per 82 games in his career -- might might see on an offer sheet next year when he, too, will be a restricted free agent...

Alexander Semin

It's An Ovie-ful Life: Part IV

As the curtain opens on Part IV, the Caps have once more finished last in the NHL in points, and the club has come to a crossroads. It’s May 2008, and the Caps are about to clean house in preparation for the summer’s activity. George McPhee – gone. Bruce Boudreau – gone. It seems that anyone not employed by the Caps in a skating capacity is being shown the door.

As the Caps are undertaking a front office remake, they are hit with a bombshell. Alexander Semin – arguably their most talented player – signs with the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia.

Rick Dudley is hired away from the Chicago Blackhawks, where he was assistant general manager, and assumes the role of general manager (his third tour of duty in the Southeast Division). He arrives too late to keep Semin from returning to Russia, and now he has to prepare for a draft that will be held in a matter of weeks. He has the benefit – and the pressure – of holding the first overall pick, as the Caps have won the lottery for the second time in three years. There is no mystery in this draft, though. Steven Stamkos is the odds-on choice as top prospect, and on draft day the Caps end whatever mystery there might be about whether they would trade the pick and announce Stamkos as the newest Capital.

There was still the matter of naming a head coach. Joel Quenneville, relieved of his duties by Colorado in May, is brought on board. That would not be the only move made by Washington. Gilbert Brule, the top Capitals pick of the 2005 draft, is sent to Edmonton for Robert Nilsson, an exchange of somewhat disappointing players. The Caps also swing a deal in free agency for former Ottawa forward Cory Stillman.

The 2008-2009 season opens in Atlanta, and the Thrashers should be a good barometer to gauge the state of the team entering the new season, for the Thrashers are coming off a disappointing season of their own (76 points, 13th in the East). The Thrashers pound the Caps in the opener, 7-4, but the Caps find their stride in October, finishing the month 5-3-1. It is their best October since the lockout.

What the Caps are finding is that they have an emerging defensive core. Cam Barker is a competent, if perhaps not an all-star defenseman. Mike Green is developing as an offensive defenseman. Erik Johnson (who did not stumble in a golf cart with St. Louis) is a number-one defenseman in the making. At forward, Stamkos – leaping straight to the NHL after being drafted in June – isn’t replacing Semin’s offense, but one can see why he was a number one overall pick. Turris, almost forgotten as the Caps’ top draft pick in 2007, takes his place with the big club. Stillman is a steadying veteran influence, if no longer a big offensive producer. They still have holes to fill, primarily among the forwards and at goaltender, but they make progress.

The Caps teeter along the fault line at .500 for most of the first half of the season, but an injury to Green and a flu bug going through the room take their toll. The Caps go 2-9-2 in January, and the team is left with only the faintest hope of making the playoffs. But they remain a difficult team to play against, a product of their improving defense, reminiscent of the kind of teams they iced in the 1980’s. They will finish the year 34-36-12 with 80 points, their best finish since the 2002-2003 season.

What they have not done, however, is significantly improve their popularity in Washington. They remain buried in the bottom third of attendance every year, with neither a consistent winning record nor a galvanizing personality bringing fans to the rink. What keeps them from being a perennial 30th ranked team in attendance is the fact that fans of other teams – either transplants living in Washington or fans that can make the trip – often turn Verizon Center into a “road game” for the Caps. The club cannot bid on high-end free agents, and even with a payroll closer to the floor than the ceiling each year the Caps can’t earn a profit. There are lingering questions hovering about this team as to whether it will remain the “Washington” Capitals. Although the club has made progress since the lockout, it has been measured in baby steps. In the summer of 2009 there is the broad realization that the Capitals are not yet a true playoff contender, and they are years – if ever – from being a Stanley Cup contender.

You, dear reader, may comb through this tale and find things you disagree with, or things that in your mind could not or would not have occurred. And neither are we making a case to turn Alex Ovechkin into a latter day George Bailey. There are a lot of ways to build a successful hockey team, and it often doesn’t require employing the best player in the league. Ovechkin is entering his fifth year, but has played for a team with only one playoff series win in that time. But that’s not the point. Ovechkin was drafted by the Caps in 2004, Crosby was drafted by Pittsburgh in that 2005 30-team lottery, and the Caps drafted Sasha Pokulok (the Rangers drafted Al Montoya in 2004… how’d that work out?).

Things are what they are, and all things considered, the Caps have done pretty well with the cards they were dealt in the draft the past half dozen years. Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Nicklas Backstrom, Semyon Varlamov, Karl Alzner, John Carlson… even the most hardened Capitals fan would probably admit that this is a pretty good core of players. And that doesn’t include Alexander Semin, a 2002 draft pick. And there could be others on the way from those last half dozen drafts.

The Caps are not the favorite to win the Stanley Cup in 2009-2010; they might not even be “a” favorite. There are still holes on defense and uncertainty in goal that put them behind a Detroit or a Pittsburgh. But they do play an exciting brand of hockey, and they do sell out the house these days. It is unlikely any of this happens but for the bounce of a ping pong ball in 2004.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

It's An Ovie-ful Life: Part III

As Part III of this tale opens, the Capitals have completed the 2006-2007 season in a way reminding what few fans they have left of the old saying about the Washington Senators that could be updated to reflect the Caps’ futility…

“Washington… first in war, first in peace, last in the NHL East.”

Although the Caps would tie the Flyers for the worst record in the NHL in the 2006-2007 season, the Chicago Blackhawks, who finished with the fifth-worst record and had only an 8.1 percent chance of winning the lottery, did just that. The Flyers, with fewer wins than the Caps, would pick second and the Caps third. The Caps weren’t waiting around, though, as things started happening shortly after the season ended. Coach Glen Hanlon was relieved of his duties on the day after the season ended. Without a marquee player to market, without a distinctive style to galvanize fan interest, the Capitals embarked on a search for a marquee coach – one with a record of success, if possible. On Memorial Day 2007, the Caps would announce the signing of Mike Keenan as head coach, Keenan’s eighth stop in an NHL coaching career that spanned more than two decades. He would bring with him a record of six divisional championships, but none since winning the Atlantic Division title and the Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994.

With once more having a high draft pick, the Caps turned their attention to their final evaluations of eligible amateur prospects, while the Ovechkin-led Penguins and Crosby-led Rangers were battling toward their first playoff meeting in the Eastern Conference final. The top three prospects in the 2007 draft were thought to be Kyle Turris (the CSB top-ranked prospect from Burnaby, BCHL), Patrick Kane (the top-ranked prospect at ISS from London, OHL), and James Van Riemsdyk (US U-18). While the anticipation on draft day centered on what the Blackhawks would do, there would be a mini-soap opera unfolding with the third pick. Rumors would swirl around the floor that the Capitals were looking to trade down from the number three spot, which raised more than a few eyebrows. As the Blackhawks and Flyers picked Kane and Van Riemsdyk promptly with their selections, the Caps used almost every second on the clock before making their pick – Kyle Turris. It didn’t look like a happy table, perhaps not for having missed a chance to trade down but rather for not agreeing on what to do with the pick.

July 1st is generally treated like Christmas Day for NHL fans – it is the first day of the unrestricted free agent signing period. But when you’re a club with a lot of missing pieces, a lot of pieces that don’t quite fit yet, and an empty pocketbook, you’d be thankful for coal in your stocking if you were a Caps fan. There wasn’t even that in this summer of free agency. The Caps were managing payroll and crossing their fingers that Barker, Brule, and Johnson were ready to stick and that some other youngsters could make an impact – Eric Fehr (a 2003 draftee), Alexander Semin (a 2002 draftee), Mike Green and Jeff Schultz (these two being the other first rounders in 2004). On paper, it would be a solid nucleus of prospects. But again, the twin problems would be the growing pains one had to endure with prospects of longer lead times than those such as Crosby or Ovechkin, and patience, a commodity in diminishing supply as the Caps entered the 2007-2008 season having averaged 58 standings points over the previous three seasons.

Patience was also not often a characteristic attributed to the Caps’ new bench boss, and it was tested early in the 2007-2008 season. Brule was not ready – two points in October – and by Hallowe’en was skating on the fourth line. By Thanksgiving, he’d be in Hershey. Barker didn’t make it that far – he started the season in Hershey. Johnson was pushed into more minutes and more responsibility than he was ready for, but he Caps had little choice. Green was contributing some in the offensive end, but his defensive play was an adventure, leading him to take a room in Keenan’s Chateau Bow-Wow. The Caps couldn’t stop anyone from scoring, and teams were loading up on defending Jason Arnott, whose contract had become quite an albatross for the club, and Alexander Semin, who was finding playing for Mike Keenan difficult.

The club was a mess.

Frustration on and off the ice was one commodity that was in large supply, and even an organization not given to a lot of disclosure couldn’t hide all of it. The Caps were showing no signs of improving their standing from recent years, and the club looked disinterested on the ice, the cruelest slap in the fans’ faces. A team with a long history of being a hard-working, lunch pail sort of club was going through the motions by the time the holidays rolled around. Finally, with the Caps mired in 30th place at the All Star break with a record of 14-29-7 and rumors of front office in-fighting, Keenan abruptly resigned.

The Caps looked to Hershey, where the Bears were once more among the leaders in the AHL. Head Coach Bruce Boudreau had led the Bears to a Calder Cup in 2006 and the Calder Cup final in 2007. He was on a pace for another trip deep into the playoffs with the Bears when the Caps called. Boudreau took over a demoralized club that was far out of the playoff mix and lacked the parts to do much damage to teams that were contending. The Caps went younger, calling up Brule to join the other youngsters.

Boudreau’s style, emphasizing an attacking strategy, appealed to the younger, more offensively-oriented players. But the club still suffered from uneven effort on defense and inconsistent goaltending. The mix made for a more entertaining brand of hockey, but not enough to move the needle appreciably in terms of improvement in the standings or tickets sold. The Caps were competitive until the end of February, playing .500 hockey, but couldn’t sustain the effort. They finished 12-14-6 in Boudreau’s portion of the season to complete the 2007-2008 campaign 26-43-13. 65 points would not be enough to get the Caps out of the NHL basement. Neither would it inspire enough fans to come to the rink to lift the Caps out of 30th place in the NHL in attendance.

It was another lost season with a summer that would suggest changes. That’s where we will pick up Part IV.