Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Opening Night: Caps vs. Bruins, October 1st

The Peerless Prognosticator is BACK… ON THE AIR!!!

It’s Opening Night of the 2009-2010 season, and the Washington Capitals – the only team with a winning record in the last two seasons in these parts (OK, OK… you DC United fans can just cool yer jets) – crack the seal on this season by visiting the Bruins of Beantown, the defending Eastern Conference regular season champions.

Of course, that sort of title is like being named the fifth Duke of Bumfuckinstein. There isn’t a lot of gravitas attached to it.

But here at Peerless Center, we take our prognostitorial duties with the utmost seriosity, and so we take a closer look at the Boston Bruins, a club that the Caps played close in four games last season. Here’s the tale of last year’s tape…

But that’s chewed food, spilt milk, yesterday’s news. It’s a new season and a fresh canvas on which we can produce a special painting. The Capitals are a favorite of many to advance far into the postseason, but the Bruins stand in their way in the fight to be “NHL Idol.” So who better to evaluate tonight’s opponent than the “King of Mean,” himself? Simon, thanks for stopping by on the glorious occasion.

“Well, it’s your pleasure, of course.”

Uh… right. Tonight’s opponent – the Boston Bruins – they start the year as the defending regular season first place finisher in the East. It’s a formidable unit, bringing back the defending Norris Trophy winner in Zdeno Chara, the defending Vezina Trophy winner in Tim Thomas, and some capable role players who could…

“I met someone the other night on the team who's 28 years old, and he hasn't worked a day since he left home because he's pursuing a dream he'll never, ever realize: He thinks he's a great hockey player. Actually, he's crap.”

Uh, yeah… well, let’s take a look at that Bruin lineup. Chara is the cornerstone of the defense, and the hockey world thinks highly of him…

“I’d tell him to shave off your beard and wear a dress. You would be a great female impersonator.”

I’m not sure that’s the smartest thing to say to almost seven feet of hurt, but I guess that’s your thing… what about Tim Thomas in goal? He returns after a superb season and the Vezina Trophy, what about…

“If his lifeguard duties were as good as his netminding, a lot of people would be drowning.”

Well, there is David Krejci, who doesn’t get nearly the ink his two more celebrated teammates get, but who is…

“…is a dairy farmer dressed as a woman.”

Yeesh… don’t you think that’s kind of harsh?

“If I said to most of the people who auditioned, 'Good job, awesome, well done,' it would have made me actually look and feel ridiculous. It's quite obvious most of the people who turned up for this audition were hopeless.”

Uh, it’s a hockey game, not an audition.

“You are a saucy little thing aren't you?”

Well, I’m not that type… what I mean is… let’s just get back to the game. The Bruins are one of those teams that works hard, has some skill, and is well coached, do you think…

“Bruins. Sharks. Panthers. The end of the animal trade would leave more time to trap or beat to death Stanley Cup wannabes.”

Well, just one last question, Simon. Who is your pick to win tonight’s ga—

“I don't think I can do this anymore.”

Well, if you have to go… That was rather uncomfortable, wasn’t it? And uncomfortable is what the Bruins have a talent for making their guests. Their 29-6-6 record at TD Garden was the best in the East last year. They closed with a rush, going 8-0-1 in their last nine home games to close the regular season.

And the Bruins achieved their lofty overall status last year the new fashioned way… with gaudy numbers:

Goals scored: 3.29 (2nd)
Goals for/1st – 2nd – 3rd period: 87 (1st) – 92 (2nd) – 88 (T-9th)
Goals against/1st – 2nd – 3rd period: 65 (T-8th) – 60 (2nd) – 61 (3rd)
Goals allowed: 2.32 (1st)
5-on-5 scoring ratio: 1.42 (1st)
Power play: 23.6% (4th)
Penalty killing: 82.4% (12th)
Winning % when scoring first: .723 (7th)
Winning % when trailing first: .543 (1st)
Winning % when leading after 1st period: .794 (9th)
Winning % when leading after 2nd period: .884 (10th)

What the Bruins perhaps didn’t expect, however, was having a 36-goal chunk of their offense removed. But that’s what happened when Phil Kessel was sent to Toronto for a first- and second-round pick in the 2010 draft, plus a first-round pick in the 2011 draft. Kessel had shown considerable improvement as a goal scorer, finishing the last three seasons with 11, 19, and 36 goals, respectively. Whether the Bruins will miss one-seventh of last year’s goal production remains to be seen.

It would seem that if those 36 goals are to be made up, it will be done from within and by committee, as the Bruins did not make much of a splash in the off season player markets. Blake Wheeler finished his rookie year with 21 goals last year, suggesting that he could contribute to the deficit from the Kessel departure. But when moved from the left side to the right on the top line to take Kessel’s spot, he came up somewhat short and appears ticketed for the second line. He was held without a point in four games against the Caps last year.

David Krejci might be thought of as a contributor to that missing goal total, coming off his 22-goal season in his first full year with the Bruins. But Krejci made no appearances in any preseason games, coming off hip surgery. Krejci had a goal in four games against the Caps last year and was a minus-2.

Milan Lucic is coming off a season in which he more than doubled his rookie season goal total (from eight to 17). He is also one of the biggest hitters in the game, having registered 262 hits last year (tied for fourth in the league). Lucic had a goal in two games against the Caps last year and was a minus-1.

The straw that stirs the drink on offense, though, remains Marc Savard. In three seasons with Boston, Savard has averaged 21-67-88. Last year, he finished tied for ninth in league scoring (with Nicklas Backstrom). Against the Caps last year, Savard was 2-3-5 in four games and minus-1.

On the back line, the Bruins will be strong once more, led by Norris winner Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman. Those two logged a ton of minutes last year (Chara – 26:04, Wideman – 24:38). However, that time might be reduced with the addition of Derek Morris over the summer. Morris, who seemed to have a difficult time after being traded from Phoenix to the Rangers at the deadline, might flourish more in the more structured and defense-oriented system of coach Claude Julien.

Julien is another of the Bruins award winners, having carted home the Jack Adams Trophy as top coach of the 2008-2009 season. Julien took over a team two years ago that was coming off a 76-point season, having missed the playoffs. In two years since then, he has led them to 94- and 116-point finishes.

Finally, there is Tim Thomas, he of the unorthodox style in goal that somehow works. Thomas is the very epitome of the late bloomer. He didn’t play more than 30 games in an NHL season until 2005-2006, at the age of 31. In the last three years, he’s posted a 94-59-17 win-loss record, a 2.58 GAA, a .919 save percentage, and 11 shutouts. However, he’s had his struggles against the Caps in the last two seasons (2-2-1, 3.25, .902).

16 of the last 20 games in this series have been one-goal affairs (that includes a 3-3- tie in 2003-2004). The Caps’ record in those 16 games is 5-4-6-1. Only four times in those 16 games did the winning team score four or more goals. It figures that these two teams – very different in style (think “irresistible force meets immovable object”) would play their games close to the vest. And that’s what is going to happen tonight.

The only time the Caps visited Boston for the season’s opening night, they were beaten 4-3 to open the 1987-1988 season. Well, if you know this space, you know we’re thinking the Caps will return the favor, so for tonight’s game…

“I never want to hear that song again. I cannot stand it. I'm allergic to it.”

…oh, shut the $#@% up, you twit.

Caps 3 – Bruins 2


So, this being the season of prognostications, and we being a practioner of the prognostitorial arts, we thought we’d come up with ten silly wild-assed prognostications (hence the term, "SWAPs") for the Caps in this up coming season.

Number 10… The Capitals have never led the NHL in power play conversion success. Last year’s second-place finish to Detroit and their 25.2 percent success rate are franchise bests. This year, the Caps will lead the NHL in power play conversions at 27.7 percent.

Number 9… The Capitals have never had an undefeated month (five games played minimum). January 2000 is their best on record (11-1-2). This club will have an undefeated (in regulation) February.

Number 8… The Caps have never had a 100-power play goal season (in 1992-1993 they had 97). This year, that mark will be topped.

Number 7… Nicklas Backstrom will break the club record for consecutive games with an assists (nine, held by Dave Christian and Bengt Gustafsson)

Number 6… The Caps will set a franchise record for playoff goals scored, team (currently 54, by the 1988 squad)

Number 5… Quintin Laing will have a two-goal game. They will be his only two goals of the season.

Number 4… Matt Bradley will fight Donald Brashear. Bradley will win the bout when Brashear keels over in laughter at Bradley dropping his gloves.

Number 3… Michael Nylander will score a goal this year…against the Caps.

Number 2… Alex Ovechkin will carry home five trophies – Hart, Ross, Pearson, Richard, and…

…wait for it…

…Conn Smythe.

And the Number 1 prognostication for the Caps this season.

...Plan your parade route, kids, there’s hardware comin’ to town!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Your Peerless Prognostos for the 2009-2010 Season -- The Western Conference

We’ve done the East, and now, the West…

1. San Jose

The good… On paper, lots. The Sharks subtracted a player who went from 56 to 12 goals in the blink of an eye (Jonathan Cheechoo) and added a player who has averaged 37 goals a year over his seven year career and who is in his prime (Dany Heatley). The Sharks otherwise return their top four goal scorers and point producers from last year. They’ve topped 100 points in four of the last five years (and had 99 in the other year); they’ve averaged 48 wins over the last five years. They know how to win… in the regular season.

The bad… Since reaching the conference final in the 2003-2004 playoffs, the Sharks have failed to escape the second round in four straight seasons, getting eliminated in the first round last year. More than any other team in the league, the regular season means nothing in evaluating this team. They’re kings from October to April. May and June?... well, that’s another story.

The key… Heatley. If you look at his 82-game splits for his career, he’s averaged 42-46-88, plus-8. Twice he’s topped 100 points in his seven year career. He’s a point-a-game producer in the playoffs over his career. But he has no Stanley Cups, and his teams, while loaded offensively in Ottawa, reached only one Cup final. Is Heatley the A-Rod of the NHL? All gaudy stats and no titles? He might not have any better chance to get that monkey off his back than this year – he and his fellow Sharks.

2. Chicago

The good… The Blackhawks are young, skilled, and exciting team to watch. They took a big step up last year. In their first playoff appearance since 2002, they advanced to the conference final before losing to Detroit (two of the losses coming in overtime). During last year’s regular season, they played Detroit to a virtual draw, going 2-2-2. They return most of that team, with a year of experience to their credit.

The bad… Their leading scorer from last year – Martin Havlat – is skating for Minnesota. Half of last year’s goaltending tandem – Nikolai Khabibulin – is tending goal for Edmonton. Adam Burish, who provides some edge for the Hawks, is out for the next six months with a knee injury. The kids – Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews – are going to have to bear a heavier load in carrying this team.

The key… Cristobal Huet. Last year’s free agent find, brought in because Khabibulin had been such an underperformer with a big contract, now becomes what could be this year’s underperformer with a big contract. Huet has never played more than 42 games in a regular season, he’s won more than 20 games in a season only once. He has decent career regular season numbers (2.45 GAA, .917 save percentage), but in three tries, he’s never played in more than seven playoff games in a postseason, and he’s never led his team to a playoff series win (he played in three games in last year’s playoffs). Chicago had two untested youngsters – Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford (ten NHL games between them) – fighting for the backup slot. For better or worse, Huet is the guy, and he’s working without a net, so to speak, for the first time in his career.

3. Vancouver

The good… Quietly, Vancouver got young. Their roster as of today includes only five players older than 30. But it isn’t as if they lack experience. The Sedin twins return (both 29) after finishing tied – what else – for the team lead in scoring with 82 points. Ryan Kesler, who finished third in Canuck scoring last year, plays solid defense, and won 54 percent of his draws, is only 25. The top scorers on the blue line – Kevin Bieksa and Alexander Edler – are 28 and 23, respectively. Alexandre Burrows, who chipped in 51 points while racking up 150 penalty minutes, is only 28. And there is Roberto Luongo (30), who remains one of the top goaltenders in the game.

The bad… Well, let’s get back to Luongo. He had that famous meltdown in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinal last year, but it also bears noting that he gave up five goals at home in Game 2 of that series. A save percentage of .877 in that series is not the way to cement one’s reputation as a clutch playoff goalie. And, Pavol Demitra, who had 53 points last year, is starting the year on long-term injured reserve, as is Mathieu Schneider. But even with those two on the shelf, the Canucks are hard against the salary cap.

The key… Laurence Gilman. It’s tempting to say Luongo, given the need to rid himself of the bad taste to the finish of his season, but the Canucks have some fancy footwork to do concerning their salary cap. And that’s where assistant GM and “capologist” Gilman comes in. The Canucks will be dancing with the cap all year, and if they are to have any flexibility to make any roster moves to help their prospects, Gilman will be a very busy man.

4. Detroit

The good… The whole organization, from the owners to the Zamboni driver. This is the platinum standard for team management and sustained excellence in the NHL. 18 straight years in the playoffs, four Stanley Cups in the last 12 years plus one other trip to the finals, nine straight years of at least 108 standings points (13 of the last 16 over 100 points). They are strong down the middle with Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen. They have one of the best two-way wingers in the game Henrik Zetterberg. They have a hedgehog to give goalies fits in front of the net in Tomas Holmstrom. They have one of the top defensemen in the history of the sport in Nicklas Lidstrom and a clutch playoff goalie in Chris Osgood. They are, in short, a lesson in the construction of a hockey team to last.

The bad… You’d be picky finding anything truly bad about this team, but two things might be of concern. First, although this team has quietly gone about the task of getting younger (nine of the roster players are older than 30), they remain rather old in key positions. Osgood will be 37 next month. Lidstrom will be 40 in April. Defenseman Brian Rafalski just turned 36. Forwards Kris Draper (38), Kirk Maltby (37 this December), and Holmstrom (37 next January) have considerable mileage. The other thing is that this team has played not only the requisite 246 regular season games the last three years, but another 62 post season games as well. That’s even more mileage on the critical components.

The key… Pavel Datsyuk. The Russian has established himself as one of the most consistent, not to mention skilled, players in the game. Since the lockout he has a pair of 87 point seasons and a pair of 97 point seasons. He’s developed into a goal scorer (27, 31, and 32 the last three years), and has been durable despite being a bit undersized (5’11”, 194) and thought of more as a finesse player. He’s missed only 18 games over the past five seasons. His value is in that he is not only one of the best offensive players in the game, but one of the best defensive players, too. He’s the center around which the whole Red Wings team turns.

5. Calgary

The good… Brent Sutter is behind the bench. He squeezed 106 points out of a New Jersey team last year that missed Martin Brodeur for most of the regular season. In the Flames, he might have a team that more closely approximates “Sutter Hockey” – nasty, edgy, rugged. Jarome Iginla is a supremely skilled player and a fine leader, but he isn’t beneath getting in an opponent’s face. There is no prima donna in his game. Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr are two of the biggest hitters from the blue line in the league. They’ve added Jay Bouwmeester to the blue line. And it’s not as if the Flames are only a scratch-and-claw kind of team. They finished eighth in league scoring last year.

The bad… Mr. Kiprusoff? Your reputation is in peril. Over the last five seasons Miikka Kiprusoff’s goals against has gone 1.69, 2.07, 2.46, 2.69, 2.84. His save percentage has gone .933, .923, .917, .906, .903. He hasn’t escaped the first round of the playoffs since backstopping the Flames to the finals in 2004. Perhaps he suffers “Brodeur Syndrome,” a propensity to play for more than 4,000 minutes a season (he’s averaged just over 4,400 over the last four seasons). He would seem to need his minutes dialed back, too.

The key… Daymond Langkow. Thought we were going to say, “Iginla,” didn’t you? Well, Langkow needs to step up and fill in some of the offense that departed with Mike Cammalleri to Montreal. In the last three seasons, Langkow’s points have dropped from 77 to 65 to 49. He needs to be closer to 75.

6. Anaheim

The good… Anaheim didn’t draft Eric Fehr? Sorry, that’s a Caps fan joke. Ryan Getzlaf, the guy the Ducks drafted when the Capitals passed on him to take Fehr in 2003, is perhaps the league’s standard for “power center.” At 6’4”, 221, Getzlaf has turned into a scorer (91 points last year, after seasons of 39, 58, and 82), has developed an edge to his game (PIMS up from 22 to 66 to 94 to 121), is a solid two way player, and can hold his own in the circle (over 50 percent on draws for the first time in his career last season).

The bad… Luxury. As in, can the Ducks afford the luxury of a $6 million a year back-up goaltender? Jonas Hiller (the inexpensive $1.3 million a year goalie) and J-S Giguere (the one with the contract) each played in 46 games last year. Hiller had more wins, a better GAA, better save percentage, and more shutouts. Then, Hiller played in all 13 Ducks playoff games, finishing with a more than respectable 2.23 GAA and .947 save percentage in going 7-6. The word is that the two will split time to start the year, but there is a decision coming that can’t be avoided.

The key… Bobby Ryan. The trivia answer to the question, who was drafted just after Sidney Crosby in 2005, Ryan had a superb first full season with the Ducks last year (31-26-57, plus 13, 12 PPG, 3 GWG). The key for him is whether he can avoid the sophomore slump. Even having added Saku Koivu and Joffrey Lupul to provide punch, getting the next level of improvement from Ryan will be key to a successful season in Anaheim.

7. Columbus

The good… Finally! After eight seasons of frustration, the Blue Jackets finally skated in their first post season. OK, so they lost in the first round. Baby steps. And speaking of baby steps, the Blue Jackets should enjoy another step up in development from forwards Jakub Voracek (38 points in 80 games last year) and Derick Brassard (25 points in 31 games before ending his season with a shoulder injury). Those two, plus Rick Nash, R.J. Umberger, and Antoine Vermette, make up a soild core of forwards, and none is older than 27. Add to that Calder Trophy winner and Vezina finalist Steve Mason in goal and rookie Nikita Filatov, and this is a team that will have to be reckoned with down the road.

The bad… The defense needs work. Mike Commodore is a solid vet, and Rostislav Klesla can be a solid blueliner, when healthy (he’s missed 86 games in four years since the lockout). After that, there is uncertainty. It’s also a young group. Only Jan Hejda is older than 30.

The key… Rick Nash. At 27, with 441 games of NHL experience, he’s now the old man. After netting 41 goals in 2003-2004, he seemed to have slipped for a few years, but he reached the 40 goal mark once more last year. He’s likely to have more opportunities with more skill surrounding him. He needs to cash in on his opportunities for the Blue Jackets to take the next step.

8. St. Louis

The good… The Blues seem to have successfully kept defenseman Erik Johnson away from golf carts over the summer. He returns to the lineup after missing all of last year with a knee injury suffered in a golf cart mishap. And he seems to have put the off-time to good use. 6’4”, 238, and 8.8 percent body fat? And even without Johnson, not to mention Paul Kariya for 71 games, the Blues made the playoffs last year after spending three years on the outside looking in. They did it with spit, bailing wire, and fine coaching. They averaged 2.77 goals a game last year, and they gave up 2.77 goals a game. But they had Andy Murray behind the bench, who coaxed everything possible out of the team.

The bad… This is a team that might rely a little too much on special teams. They were third in the league in penalty killing last year, eighth on the power play. Getting Kariya back means more offense, but this is still a somewhat offensively challenged club that is going to depend on the continued genius of Andy Murray to coax the most out of them.

The key... Keith Tkachuk. Tkachuk was the fourth leading scorer for the Blues last year, but he is clearly in sight of the end of his career. He’ll be 38 in March and hasn’t had but one 60-plus point season since 2003-2004. His point totals have slipped from 58 in 2006-2007 (with St. Louis and Atlanta) and 58 in 2007-2008 to 49 last year. If he can get closer to 60, he takes some pressure off a club that has capable, if not elite goaltending in Chris Mason and Ty Conklin.

9. Los Angeles

The good… With Drew Doughty (20 this December), Matt Greene (26), and Jack Johnson (23 this January), the Kings have as solid a young core of defensemen as there is in the league. Add in the underrate Rob Scuderi, fresh off a Stanley Cup win in Pittsburgh, and this looks to be the strength of the team in the near future.

The bad… Those defensemen had better be good. The Kings were 27th in the league in scoring last year, even with a gifted player such as Anze Kopitar. Ryan Smyth will add some grit, but not enough offense to make this team scare people.

The key… Kopitar. He slipped a little last year, down in goals (from 32 to 27), assists (from 45 to 39) and points (from 77 to 66). He needs to be a better in his own end, too. But he’s only 22 and has lots of upside yet to realize. On a team with more moving parts on offense, he could be a 100-point player. But the Kings don’t have enough around him. The temptation to be avoided is in trying to do too much and take everything into one’s own hands.

10. Nashville

The good… There might not be a more resilient team in the NHL. Despite the soap opera playing out off-ice with this franchise, it still managed to finish within three points of a playoff spot and win 40 games. They did it with a non-descript offense (24th in the league in scoring), a middle-of-the-road defense (13th in scoring defense), and success-challenged power play (26th). But a team coached by the durable Barry Trotz and managed by the diligent David Poile should be expected to have a large measure of resiliency.

The bad… This is a club trying to operate in a wing-tip league on a shoestring. They made no signing of note in the off-season, and they don’t really have prospect depth to provide improvement on offense. It is a team that will struggle night-in and night-out to cobble together goals.

The key… Trotz. After 11 years as the Predators’ coach – the only one the franchise has known – you’d think he’d wear out his welcome or have players start tuning him out. But no one in the organization seems to embody the work ethic and stick-to-it attitude like Trotz. He is only the second coach in NHL history to coach a new team for at least its first ten years (Lester Patrick is the other, with the Rangers from 1926-1939). He’ll need all of his arsenal of tools and tricks to get the most out of this team. It has some solid defenders in Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Dan Hamhuis, but it lacks mightily for skill on offense.

11. Edmonton

The good… The biggest moves might be behind the bench, with Pat Quinn taking over as head coach and former Ranger boss Tom Renney taking over assistant duties. Good thing, too, because the team of Gretzky had one 60-point player last year, and they didn’t make up for that with sterling defense, finishing 22nd in goals allowed.

The bad… This is an odd team. Six skaters account for at least $4 million apiece in salary cap hit. It’s not that they are bad individually, but Shawn Horcoff, Dustin Penner, Alex Hemsky, Lubomir Visnovsky, Sheldon Souray, and Tom Gilbert don’t sound like a solid core to build around, either.

The key… Nikolai Khabibulin. He’s going to be expected to lift the Oilers from 22nd in goals allowed, but the last time he was brought in to work that magic as a free agent, it didn’t go so well. Will he be an improvement over Dwayne Roloson? Perhaps, but not nearly enough of one, it would seem.

12. Dallas

The good… This franchise probably needed some fresh paint, or at least it gave that impression, and it did so in adding a new general manager (Joe Nieuwendyk) and new coach (Marc Crawford). Perhaps that’s what they need. Even though they missed the playoffs last year, this is a team that made the show in five straight years before that, averaging 105 standings points in the process.

The bad… Sometimes, guys have career years all as a group, and that leads to a team doing better than expected. But last year, it seemed the Stars went in the other direction. They had only seven players with at least 30 points. But none seemed to crash and burn more than goalie Marty Turco. He managed 33 wins only because he played in 74 games, a career high. Otherwise, he had career worsts in GAA (2.81), save percentage (.898), and had the fewest shutouts of his career (three) since getting only two in 2001-2002.

The key… Brad Richards. Is there a player who has done less in recent years to justify such an outsized contract? Since putting up a 23-68-91 line in 2005-2006 with Tampa Bay, he gone from 70 points to 62 to 48. In fairness, he was injured last year (only 56 games) and suffered mononucleosis the year before that. That just means he needs to show the club just what it’s getting for $7.8 million a year.

13. Minnesota

The good… Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, they are free at last. The shackles of a defense first, second, and always system appear to have been lifted with Todd Richards taking over for Jacques Lemaire behind the Wild bench. Frankly, the defensive shroud style seemed to get stale in the far north. Richards has a history as a winner. As the Wild web site points out, he advanced to the playoffs in each of his 13 seasons as a player and in all seven as a head coach or assistant coach.

The bad… Can Richards turn around a team that finished 22nd in scoring last year and squeeze a couple of more standings points out of a team that finished two points out of a playoff berth? That’s going to be a tough job to pull off, even after the Wild added the oft-injured Martin Havlat (138 missed games over the last four years) and Petr Sykora (ten straight 20-goal seasons).

The key… Havlat. If he is the 81-game player of last year with the Hawks (29-48-77, plus-29), the Wild are a decent bet to challenge for a playoff spot. If he’s the player of the three years before that (playing in only 44 percent of the games available), it would be a stretch for the Wild to make the playoffs.

14. Colorado

The good… The fall of the Avalanche from the elite in the NHL is complete. The last vestiges of their golden years are gone. Joe Sakic has given way to Joe Sacco (new coach). They’ve added a new GM (Greg Sherman). Avs fans can take solace in the knowledge that it is not likely to be worse than it will be this year. It gets better from here.

The bad… Until last year, no Avalanche team had won fewer than 39 games in a season, and that 39-win year in 1997-1998 was the only time in 12 years prior to last year that they won fewer than 40. Last year’s 32 wins might look good in comparison to this year. They won’t be worse on offense – they were 30th in goals scored. It would be hard to be worse on defense – they were 26th in goals allowed – but they will give it the old college try. Craig Anderson and Peter Budaj would be fine backups on another team. Unfortunately, one of them will have to shoulder the load as the number one.

The key… Not to get impatient with Matt Duchene. The third overall pick in last June’s draft is the future of the Avalanche. It isn’t likely he’ll be the present. He doesn’t have a Vincent Lecavalier or a Martin St. Louis to take the offensive burden off him like Steven Stamkos last year. Guys like Milan Hejduk and Paul Stastny are a notch or two below that level of support.

15. Phoenix

The good… It’ll feel so good when it stops. The unending story of “Whither Coyotes?” that has been playing out for months now, that is. Other than that, there isn’t much good to talk about here. The Coyotes have swapped out coaches (Dave Tippett for Wayne Gretzky) and added fresh bodies to add to the count – Lauri Korpikoski, Jason Labarbera, Adrian Aucoin, Taylor Pyatt. They added Robert Lang on Tuesday. These are largely placeholders until the likes of Mikkel Boedker, Kyle Turris, Martin Hanzal, and Peter Mueller develop further.

The bad… It’s bad enough to be thin on talent, but having to deal with all the other distractions and what has to be a bitter fan base in Phoenix will combine to make this a very ugly season.

The key… Finding their happy place. The situation surrounding the Coyotes is what it is, and there is nothing any player – or coach, for that matter – can do about it. If they just play the games, gain experience, and get some luck in the inevitable lottery in which they will participate, it might not be so bad in the end. At least it might be something they can tell their grandkids about.

Your Peerless Prognostos for the 2009-2010 Season -- The Eastern Conference

We’ve covered the Capitals in some detail, now it’s time to get to the 2009-2010 league prognostications. First up, the East…

1. Boston

The good… They are perhaps the team most equipped in the East to lose a 36-goal scorer like Phil Kessel. Even with that loss, they are the deepest, most balanced team in the East. That is reflected in the fact that they had the largest goals-for/goal-against differential last year (+0.97/game) and return just about all of their team. The reason they had such a large differential wasn’t so much their offense, but their defense. And with the unorthodox Tim Thomas coming back in goal, Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman returning on the blue line, the Bruins should rank highly in the goals allowed category once more.

The bad… Thomas played in only 54 games last year. The Bruins got 28 games of quality relief from Manny Fernandez (16-8-3, 2.59, .910), who has been replaced by Tuukka Rask, an unproven, if very promising rookie. Can Thomas duplicate last year’s numbers getting 60-65 games or more? His high in games played is 66 in a season, and he had a 3.13 goals against that season.

The key… The Bruins are a largely known quantity. But in goal, while Thomas is the guy on whom the Bruins will depend in the playoffs, in the regular season they have to get 20 or so games worth of quality play out of Rask. If they don’t, it’s likely to be the difference between a one-seed and a five- or six-seed. The East will be that close.

2. Washington

The good… The Caps are good enough to be the highest scoring team in the league. They could be that rare team in the past decade to top 300 goals. Alex Ovechkin will enter the season as a favorite to win his third consecutive Hart Trophy, but Alexander Semin could top 40 goals, and Mike Green could top 30 again (he had 31 last year). Nicklas Backstrom could finish with 100 or more points. And the power play, which finished last season with the second highest success rate this decade, is likely to be – on paper – even better with the addition of Mike Knuble.

The bad… The goaltending situation is unsettled, which might not be a crippling problem in the regular season, but it would be in the playoffs. Jose Theodore has not been a model of consistency and was pulled after one game in last year’s playoffs in favor of Semyon Varlamov and his six games of NHL experience. Varlamov played in 13 playoff games and was brilliant early. Later?... not so much. Were weaknesses discovered that other teams could exploit this year? The third man in this play – Michal Neuvirth – might have the best long-term potential, and he won a championship at Hershey last year. But he starts the season injured and will play, for now, in Hershey again. As for the defense, it is deep, but that doesn’t necessarily mean “good.” There are a lot of NHL-capable defensemen, but not a single shutdown defender in the bunch.

The key… Can the Caps’ defense and goaltending come together over 82 games to make them a formidable playoff team? Can they solve their maddening tendencies toward undisciplined play and the occasional lack of focus that allows teams back into games that should not be competitive? If not, they will be susceptible to the same sort of forechecking and shot making onslaught that the Penguins used to success last spring.

3. Philadelphia

The good… The snarl is back. Teams have personalities, and that of the Flyers dating back to the 1970’s has been one of a team that would just as soon beat you up as beat you. The Flyers will employ three of the top penalty minute accumulators from last year – Daniel Carcillo, Riley Cote, and Ian Laperriere. Braydon Coburn and Chris Pronger are hardly shrinking violets on the blue line. Even goalie Ray Emery will drop ‘em. Despite that edgy sort of personality, the Flyers finished last year fifth in the league in scoring, and they return their top four scorers. And, the Flyers led the NHL in shorthanded goals last year. The group that led that effort – Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, and Simon Gagne (15 of the 16 shorthanded goals) returns.

The bad… The Flyers were second in the NHL in total shorthanded situations faced last year. They seem to have spent the offseason intent on overtaking Tampa Bay for the league lead. Philly finished sixth in penalty killing last year (83.0 percent). They’d better be at least that good this year. Then there is the matter of goaltending, long an Achilles heel with this franchise. Martin Biron and Antero Niittymaki have been swapped out in favor of Ray Emery and Brian Boucher. We are not thinking that is an improvement, but more a sideways sort of move.

The key… Emery. If he’s the 2007 version of the model (33 wins, 2.47 GAA, .918 save percentage), the Flyers are likely to be a Stanley Cup contender. If he’s the 2008 model (12 wins, 3.13 GAA, .890 save percentage), the Flyers could find themselves battling just to get into the postseason.

4. Pittsburgh

The good… Twice defending Eastern Conference champion, defending Stanley Cup champion, and the none of the core of their team – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal – have yet reached the age of 25. They boast a formidable offense (sixth in the league last year), and yet their gifted offensive players also play with a sense of defensive responsibility. This is a team that now plays for the spring.

The bad… They will not be as good defensively as last year. Dress it up, pretty it up any way you want, but Jay McKee and Alex Goligoski is not an upgrade over Rob Scuderi (departed for Los Angeles) and Hal Gill (Montreal). Is it a large drop-off? No, although the loss of Scuderi will be felt. The Penguins could use a healthy year out of Mark Eaton, who has played in at least 70 games in a season only once in nine seasons (he’s missed 107 games in three years with Pittsburgh). Oh, and the power play needs to be more like the one they had in the playoffs (20.6 percent) than the one they had in the regular season (17.2 percent).

The key… the blue line. The Penguins are deep at forward, and they have a good balance of skill and grit up front. Fleury is now a battle-tested goalie, not the playoff averse netminder who disappointed early in his career. But the defense? They have offensive skill in Sergei Gonchar and an emerging Alex Goligoski. But they do not look to be as sturdy in their own end, even if they did sign Martin Skoula today.

5. New Jersey

The good… One would be hard pressed to find any team in all of professional team sports as consistently excellent as the Devils. They have reached the 100-point mark in the standings in ten of the past dozen seasons (they finished the other years with 95 and 99 points). They have been in the playoffs in each of those last dozen years, and they’ve been to the Stanley Cup finals three times (winning twice). Winning is a habit in New Jersey. Last year, even with goalie Martin Brodeur held to 31 games due to injury, the Devils finished with 106 points. They might be the sexy pick to experience a drop-off, but we’ll believe it when we see it.

The bad… Martin Brodeur logged more than 4,000 minutes in ten consecutive seasons before missing most of last year with a torn biceps in his left arm. He came back and finished a respectable 13-7-1, 2.67, .916. He was 3-2, 1.76, .947 in the first five games of the opening round of the playoffs against Carolina. Then he imploded. Eight goals on 68 shots, two coming in the last 80 seconds of the season, as the Devils lost games 6 and 7, and the series. Is Brodeur, after all this time, finally mortal?

The key… Yann Danis. You heard right. The Devils are skilled, balanced, professional, well-managed. In the past dozen years, it’s been wind ‘em up, watch them get 100 points. It’s also been watch Marty get 40 wins (seven times in ten years until last season). But, is Marty at that point in his career where he needs his minutes dialed down? And that brings us to Danis and his 37 games of NHL experience. Actually, he was quite respectable for a gawd-awful Islanders team last year (10-17-3, 2.86, .910, two shutouts). If he can give the Devils 15-20 games of quality relief (no Devil backup played in more than 13 games until last year since Mike Dunham played in 26 games in 1996-1997), the Devils could get more out of Brodeur in the spring.

6. Carolina

The good… Nine members of the team that skated around the ice with the Stanley Cup on the last night of the 2006 playoffs are still skating for Carolina – Rod Brind’Amour, Erik Cole, Matt Cullen, Chad LaRose, Eric Staal, Ray Whitney, Aaron Ward, Niclas Wallin, and Cam Ward. They are a veteran group that knows that the season is a marathon, not a sprint. They had 19 players with at least ten points last year (21 the year before that), nine with at least ten goals (the same as the previous year), indicative of a philosophy that emphasizes a certain amount of balance.

The bad… The flip side of having all of those players from the 2006 Stanley Cup championship team is, well, they’ll be four years older next spring. Brind’Amour will be 39, Whitney will be 38 if the Hurricanes make it deep into the playoffs, Wallin will be 35. This sort of thing seems to work for the Detroit Red Wings, but we’re not so sure it works here. Besides, Brind’Amour finished 884th among 885 skaters last year in plus-minus. Plus-minus might be an overworked number, but finishing 884th of 885 in anything can’t be good.

The key… Eric Staal. At some point, this will be his team. It might be now, even though Brind’Amour still wears the “C” in those parts. Statistically, he hasn’t matched in any of the past three years his 100-point season of 2005-2006, but he might be a more rounded player at both ends of the ice at the age of 24. He is a formidable goal scorer (40 last year, the first time he’s done that since 2005-2006), was a plus player for the first time in his career (plus-15, best on the team), and he had his best year on faceoffs (although at 45.3 percent, he could stand to improve). He’s likely to need a bigger year if the Hurricanes are going to make much noise this year.

7. Buffalo

The good… Even though Ryan Miller missed 13 games last year to an ankle injury, the Sabres finished only two points out of a playoff spot. Even though three of their most important cogs at forward – Derek Roy, Jason Pominville, and Jochen Hecht – finished the year each having at least ten fewer points in 2008-2009 than in 2007-2008, the Sabres finished only those two points out of the playoffs. They remain a balanced team (five of the six players with more than 40 points return from last year’s team and all four of their 20-plus goal scorers).

The bad… The Sabres decided pretty much to hit rewind on their roster. They could feel the loss of defensemen Jaroslav Spacek and Teppo Numminen, if only because they didn’t do much to replace them. It will put pressure on those forwards mentioned above to rebound, and on Miller to repeat, if not improve upon, what was for him a career best last in GAA (2.53), save percentage (.918), and shutouts (five).

The key… Miller. If he’s healthy, the Sabres are a marginal playoff team. If he’s not, they might not be the best club in the state of New York, and in a state that includes the Islanders, that’s a problem.

8. Montreal

The good… The East is pretty weak once you get past the top-six. Frankly, that’s the only realistic hook on which the Canadiens can hang their hope for the playoffs. Having looked at the wreckage of the 2008-2009 season, the Habs decided to sweep it all away and more or less start over. In doing so, they brought in players who do have a history of performing – Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri. They will get offense from the blue line in Andrei Markov (since the lockout, Markov’s ranking in scoring among defensemen has jumped from 20th to 17th to sixth to second).

The bad… Montreal has the look of having exchanged disappointment (Alex Kovalev) for disappointment (Gomez), of size (Mike Komisarek) for size (Hal Gill), of scoring (Alex Tanguay) for scoring (Cammalleri). In other words, they look like they are marking time with different names on the backs of the jerseys. And the one constant from last year – Carey Price in goal (who turned 22 only last month) – needs to start realizing the potential he had when he was winning a Calder Cup championship.

The key… Bob Gainey. He sure can’t be faulted for being conservative. But one gets the impression that this club just isn’t quite, well, there in terms of the 2009-2010 season. If this club is close in February, it’s what Gainey does next that will be key.

9. New York Rangers

The good… The Rangers have one of the most skilled forwards in the game in Marian Gaborik. On a per-82 game basis, Gaborik has averaged 36 goals over his career. The Rangers haven’t had anyone score that many goals in a season since Jaromir Jagr netted 54 in 2005-2006. Before that, you’d have to go back to Eric Lindros and his 37 in 2001-2002. The Rangers still employ Henrik Lundqvist in a goaltending capacity. Durable (at least 70 games in the last three seasons), consistent (GAA of 2.43 or lower in the last three seasons), and often spectacular (save percentage of at least .912 in each of the last three seasons), he’s the foundation for this team.

The bad… Gaborik has missed 121 games over the past four years, including 65 games last year. Lundqvist, when he had to be the rock to protect a 3-1 games lead in last year’s playoffs, cracked. The Rangers’ blue line could be the weakest in the Atlantic Division (yes, weaker than the Islanders). And there is that Atlantic Division thing. 18 games against Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh is going to be difficult as a means to high conference standing.

The key… Gaborik. If he plays in 75-plus games, the Rangers are likely to be a playoff contender. Not a sure thing, but a contender. If he plays closer to his average the last four years (52), the Rangers have no hope, not unless Lundqvist’s GAA is around 1.50.

10. Atlanta

The good… Well, they still have Ilya Kovalchuk, for now at least. They have an emerging cornerstone defenseman in Zach Bogosian and a fine defenseman in his own right in Tobias Enstrom. Slava Kozlov did put up 76 points last year. Todd White finished with more points than did Dany Heatley. Coach John Anderson installed a style that allowed the Thrashers to take advantage of their offensive skills to finish ninth in scoring (and give the Caps fits by winning two of three games in Atlanta last year).

The bad… At some point, goalie Kari Lehtonen is going to have to deliver on his considerable potential and provide cover for an offensively-oriented team. In four full seasons, he has played in as many as 50 games once and has never finished with a GAA below 2.75. Part of the latter is a lack of talent in front of him, but the defense shows signs of improvement. It’s not like Lehtonen has played like Roberto Luongo in front of some bad Florida Panther teams, stopping everything in sight and still losing games.

The key… Kovalchuk. Lehtonen is what he is (and what he is at the moment is injured…again, still recuperating from offseason back surgery). But Kovalchuk can play happy – on a team that is contending for a playoff spot, playing a style that agrees with him, and that is trying to resign him. Or he can play unhappy – on a team mired in the basement, looking up at the playoffs through the fall and early winter, marking time until the Thrashers move him. But he has the look of a more mature player the last couple of years, and he can make things happy for the Thrashers and himself more than any other player.

11. Ottawa

The good… Heatley’s gone. After watching the slow bleeding abscess that was Jaromir Jagr over a year and a half of unhappiness here in Washington, we can appreciate that Ottawa is probably better by elimination by moving Dany Heatley to San Jose. They still have offensive talent in Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, and they will be players that opponents will still have to game-plan for. They added Alex Kovalev, who perhaps could benefit from the change in scenery from Montreal, and Milan Michalek from San Jose, who has 20-plus goals in each of the past three seasons.

The bad… The Senators are coming to the end of a generation. The very gifted teams of the early part of the decade are giving way to time. Heatley is gone. Alfredsson is 36. Spezza could be trade bait later this season (although a $7 million cap hit through 2015 would be quite a lump to swallow). Their goaltending is weak, which is not something we might have thought when newcomer Pascal Leclaire was posting nine shutouts in 2007-2008 with a weak Columbus team. Defensively, the Senators had only one blueliner who missed fewer than ten games last year (Chris Phillips). They’re not strong enough to deal with instability on the blue line.

The key… Leclaire. Somebody has to stop pucks. Last year Leclaire missed 48 games to an ankle injury, and Steve Mason took over for the Blue Jackets when presented with the opportunity, making Leclaire expendable. If he’s healthy, he will be an improvement on last year’s trio of Alex Auld, Martin Gerber, and Brian Elliott. If he’s not, this will be a long, long season for the Senators.

12. Florida

The good… Geez, can you name two Panthers? That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as once before there was a “no-name defense” playing in south Florida, and they won a championship. Such lofty ambitions are probably out of Florida’s grasp, but they do bring back nine of their top 11 scorers from last year. They added Scott Clemmensen to the goaltender roster (he of the 25 wins in relief of injured Martin Brodeur in New Jersey last year) to back up Tomas Vokoun.

The bad... Even with nine of their top 11 scorers coming back, they bring back no one who had more than 61 points. Nathan Horton has not yet lived up to his lofty number-three overall pick in the 2003 draft. Despite having a solid group of defenders, you can’t lose a Jay Bouwmeester and be better. Vokoun had a career year last year in save percentage (.926) and shutouts (six), and still the Panthers finished ninth (albeit only a tiebreaker out of the playoffs).

The key… Keith Ballard. With Bouwmeester and his 27 minutes a game gone off to Calgary, someone has to take his minutes. Ballard is likely to fill in much of the 3:24 in penalty killing time Bouwmeester skated last year, not to mention the 3:14 Karlis Skratins – now in Dallas – had (Ballard had 2:25, third on the team). He had better be up to it. Florida finished 17th in scoring last year and might not be better.

13. Toronto

The good… Well, the Maple Leafs will be entertaining. In 2003-2004, the Leafs won 45 games and reached the Eastern Conference semi-finals. Since then, they’ve won 41, 40, 36, and 34 games. See a trend? Enter Brian Burke as general manager. Presto-change-o, and in a matter of a few months, the Leafs are transformed, adding Phil Kessel, Wayne Primeau, Garnet Exelby, Colton Orr, Mike Komisarek, and Francois Beauchemin. Then for good measure, he added a goalie with the nickname, “The Monster.” Yup, they’ll be entertaining.

The bad… But will they be good? Perhaps eventually, but there are so many new parts from so many places, it’s hard to see a way for Toronto to improve by the dozen or so points they will need in order to make the playoffs. More to the point, will the additions drag Toronto out of 30th place in goals against per game or 30th place in penalty killing last year?

The key… Jonas Gustavsson. If the Leafs have any hope of playoffs this year, Gustavsson had better be a monster, because neither Vesa Toskala, nor Joey MacDonald are going to have “Monster” attached as a nickname. Last year, playing for Farjestad in Sweden, Gustavsson had a 1.96 goals against average in 42 games, then followed that up with five shutouts in 13 playoff games.

14. Tampa Bay

The good… They can’t be worse than they were last year, can they? 25th in scoring, 27th in goals allowed, 19th on the power play, 26th in penalty killing, and on, and on. But in all of that, the Lightning found a hockey player in Steven Stamkos. He had points in 17 of his last 22 games (13-8-21) and became a mainstay with at least 20 minutes of ice time in five of his last six games. Tampa Bay will be strong down the middle with a healthier Vincent Lecavalier and a more experienced Stamkos. They seem to have used more of their brains in signings, getting Mattias Ohlund and Alex Tanguay (at least it has the look of a plan instead of just emptying their checkbook); and drafting Victor Hedman.

The bad… Depth. The Lightning lack it, despite having 46 skaters dress last year. They get little scoring from the blue line. Steve Eminger led their defensemen in scoring last year. Let’s leave aside that reading such a sentence as that will cause your eyes to spin in their sockets… he’s gone (Anaheim). They don’t figure to get anyone, either from returning players or new acquisitions, to fill in the gaps.

The key… Martin St. Louis. He led the Lightning in scoring last year (30-50-80), but after a three-point effort against the Caps, he coasted into a 1-2-3 finish in his last seven games. If he has another 80-point season, the Lightning might have two decent scoring lines and might challenge for a playoff spot. He’s been remarkably durable for a smallish player (he’s missed a total of two games over the last six seasons). He needs to continue that iron-man sort of play for the Lightning to have any chance at contending for a playoff spot.

15. New York Islanders

The good… Winning the lottery. It was by far the Islanders’ biggest win of the year, allowing them to draft John Tavares. They also have Kyle Okposo, who might have finished with only 39 points last year (second on the team), but that’s likely to be a career low. Mark Streit was seventh among all defensemen in scoring. The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum did not collapse in the middle of a game.

The bad… For now? Just about everything else. The Islanders look like the 2005-2006 Caps… a few promising youngsters – Tavares, Okposo, Josh Bailey – and lot of guys who won’t be there two years from now.

The key… Tavares. He’s provided enough hope to get Islander fans at least interested. Now, he has to perform to keep the momentum, spare as it is, going. This isn’t Stamkos in Tampa last year, playing in a smaller market but with at least a dim memory of a Stanley Cup. This is New Freakin’ York, with all the attendant attention and impatience, and the Islanders haven’t won a playoff series since 1993 (that’s when there was still a “Patrick” Division). The good will won’t last too long.

Monday, September 28, 2009

2009-2010 Previews -- Goaltenders: Semyon Varlamov

Semyon Varlamov

Theme: “Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”

So, an Italian cleric – Angelo Roncalli – describes what this season might hold for a young Russian goaltender. When last we saw Semyon Varlamov in a game that mattered, he finally wilted under a withering assault at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, pulled from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals after 22 minutes, having allowed four goals on 18 shots. It was the fourth straight game in that series in which he allowed at least four goals.

Varlamov – as unexpected a choice to lead the Capitals forward in the playoffs as one could imagine – failed where many before him had… Olaf Kolzig, Jim Carey, Don Beaupre. All fell to the Penguins in the playoffs.

But Varlamov’s future looks brighter than any of his predecessors. And it’s not just the fact that Varlamov will – this year and in the immediate future – enjoy a better cast of skaters than any of his predecessors, but Varlamov seems that rare combination of athletic skill, having a capacity to improve, and possessing a calm confidence that will allow him to weather the intermittent failures as he makes progress toward taking over the number one goaltending spot and, Capitals Nation hopes, toward a Stanley Cup championship.

Hardly lost in last year’s unfortunate end was a run in which the youngster announced his presence with no small measure of authority:

- He won his NHL debut in one of the most difficult venues for visiting goaltenders, topping the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre, 2-1, stopping 32 of 33 shots one night after joining the club in mid-game after having been called off the road – literally – as the Hershey Bears were traveling between cities on a Texas road trip.

- He won his Verizon Center debut five days later, besting the St. Louis Blues 4-2 and stopping 29 of 31 shots with his father in attendance.

- He finished the regular season undefeated in regulation in six appearances (4-0-1), holding opponents to two goals or fewer in five of those appearances.

- He took the reins in goal for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal after the Caps dropped Game 1. He lost two of the next three, but stopped 75 of 78 shots, securing his win via shutout. Having given his teammates an opportunity to get their legs under them, he won the last three games of the series, giving up only four goals on 67 shots. For the series, he had a goals against average of 1.17, a save percentage of .952, and two shutouts in six games.

The kid can play…

Fearless: Even though there are no sure things among 21-year olds, you can’t think he’s a fluke. He was 19-7-1, 2.40, .908, and two shutouts at Hershey. In two seasons with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl he recorded six shutouts in 77 regular season games and another five in 22 playoff games over that span.

Cheerless: Uh-huh. Well here’s another goalie… 39-21-2, 3.05 in college; 30-14-11, 2.76 in the minors, 18-6-3, 2.13 as a rookie in the NHL, then a Vezina Trophy winner the next year. Three years later, he was out of hockey.

In the end:

Yes, we know the story of Jim Carey, and yes, his career pretty much cratered after he was shelled by the Penguins to the tune of a 6.19 GAA in the 1996 playoffs. Not every goalie who starts fast suffers that fate. For a Jim Carey there is a Cam Ward. And truth be told, those Caps teams on which Carey played that lost to the Penguins in 1995 and 1996 were not really set up for deep playoff runs. The 1995 team won 22 of 48 regular season games and had to go a 5-0-1 run to close the season to clinch a playoff spot, and the 1996 team finished fourth in the Atlantic Division.

By comparison, this Caps team is loaded. So much so that Varlamov is in much the same boat as Jose Theodore. He is probably, at this stage of his career, lacking in sufficient experience to be the cornerstone of a 16-win run to a Stanley Cup. But he can (as he showed last spring) steal games, allowing the Caps to use their impressive skill among their skaters to otherwise dominate opponents.

Varlamov has given no indication of any hangover from his disappointing results in the Penguin series last spring. He is probably ahead of the developmental pace set by the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury, who as a 21-year old was skating on a bad team and suffering through a 13-27-6, 3.25, .898 record with the parent club. Then he crashed and burned at Wilkes-Barre, going 2-3, 3.48, .883 in the Calder Cup playoffs and getting benched in favor of Dany Sabourin in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ last game of the year, a 1-0 series clinching loss to Hershey. Of course, Fleury’ memory of that is no doubt softened by the fact that he backstops the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Varlamov might be following the same arc. That is what it is still possible for him to do.


30 games, 16-9-2, 2.58, .912, 1 shutout

2009-2010 Previews -- Goaltenders: Jose Theodore

Jose Theodore

Theme: “What may be done at any time will be done at no time.”

The Scots are known more for having invented the game of golf, not for their prowess in hockey, but that above is a Scottish proverb. And it applies here, for this is likely to be Jose Theodore’s one, best, and perhaps last chance to backstop a team to a Stanley Cup. “Any time” has become “this time,” as in “now.”

Last season, Theodore won 32 games – a respectable number for having played in 57 games on a playoff contender. But he was also a “second page” goalie. By that, we mean that if one was to go to and look at the goalie statistics, you’d find him on the second page of the goals-against rankings and the save percentage rankings. Even on an “offense first” club like the Capitals, that is neither a hoped-for nor an expected result. Not for a player with 11 years of NHL experience going into last season and holding a two-year, $9 million contract (if you’re wondering, 12 goalies carry a heavier cap hit than does Theodore).

The problem is, in part, that Theodore won the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2002 after posting a 30-24-10, 2.11, .931, seven shutout season. He hasn’t really come that close to matching those numbers since (except for wins, which he surpassed with 32 last year). The lowest GAA he’s had since that year was 2.27 in 2003-2004. The best save percentage he’s had since was .919 in 2003-2004. And in that year he also posted his highest shutout total since the trophy year, finishing with six. In four seasons since the lockout, including last year’s with the Caps, Theodore’s average season is 23-18-4, 2.93, .907, and one shutout. We hate to make this comparison, but that’s pretty much Carey Price from last year (23-16-10, 2.83, .905, and one shutout).

There is also the matter of load. Last year’s 57 appearances represents Theodore’s high water mark since the lockout. He has never appeared in more than 67 games in a season in his career, and he has eclipsed the 3,500 minute mark twice in 12 seasons. In fact, he has played in more than 3,000 minutes in only half of his 12 NHL seasons.

Fearless: Well, he’s in the last year of his deal with the Caps. The last time he was in that situation, he improved his goals against from 3.26 to 2.44, his save percentage from .891 to .910, and his shutouts from none to three. If he has similar “improvement” this year, Semyon Varlamov is going to break in that baseball cap nicely.

Cheerless: How many times has Theodore played in the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs? Take your time, we’ll wait. Did you say, “none?” Well, you win a stuffed duck. Here is the scarier part of that fact. Four times he made it to the second round, plus mop-up duty in Game 7 last year. His second round record?... 2-16, 3.87, .885.

In the end:

Once more… there is no position fraught with more uncertainty than that of goaltender on this club. Semyon Varlamov doesn’t have the body of experience one would like to see in a goalie on a championship-caliber club. Michal Neuvirth, ditto. And Jose Theodore doesn’t have the sort of playoff resume to inspire confidence. If the Caps are a club that has to depend on their goaltender to steal the majority of wins in the spring, then the Caps would not be a betting favorite to win a Stanley Cup.

But let’s use an analogy from another sport here, a sport that places a lot of emphasis on one position in a championship setting. The Capitals do not have the hockey equivalent of Joe Montana or Tom Bradey tending goal, the guy you just know is going to find a way to come up big in the big game. But Super Bowls are won by the likes of a Jeff Hostetler at quarterback, too. Sometimes, like a football quarterback, all that you ask of a goaltender is not to make the big mistake. You don’t ask him to shoulder the load. The Caps have a team that can ease that burden on a goaltender, but having a goaltender that might be looking over his shoulder at his potential successor will make for a continuing subplot to the season.

One would think that the yanking after Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs would be motivation to make things right this year. But Theodore had a difficult summer that makes that benching in the Rangers series pale in comparison. It’s made for a grueling six months for the veteran. Whether a Caps fan or not, one can’t help but root for him to have a much better six months in front of him, and an even better spring to follow.


54 games, 30-16-5, 2.76, .904, two shutouts

2009-2010 Previews -- Forwards: On the Bubble

With 18 forwards on the roster going into the weekend, there are still cuts to be made among that group. Injuries that are likely to keep Eric Fehr and Tomas Fleischmann on injured reserve to start the year mean that there are two roster spots available for players on the bubble. But we still have the matter of four forwards fighting for what appear to be two roster spots, assuming the Caps carry 14 forwards. Alexandre Giroux, Chris Bourque, Keith Aucoin, and Quintin Laing are the principals in that battle.

The other two forwards not guaranteed roster spots – Brandon Sugden and Michael Nylander – are highly unlikely to start the year in Washington, but for different reasons. Sugden would appear to be ticketed to Hershey as the club’s enforcer. Nylander is ticketed for… well, somewhere else. Where that will be is still something of a mystery, but the hints are being dropped that something will happen in the next day or two.

So let’s go back to those four players – Giroux, Bourque, Aucoin, and Laing. Bourque is the only one of this group who could be called a “prospect” at this point in his career. He has played a total of 12 NHL games over the past two seasons, registering one goal for his cups o’ coffee with the club. He could be considered in the mix to secure one of the two open forward slots (that is, not encumbered by Fehr or Fleischmann upon their return). He has played at a high energy level in the preseason and has given the effort commensurate with a youngster who knows that he has an opening to shoot for. Missing a couple of pre-season games cut into his opportunities to impress, but he’s made the best of what could have been a difficult situation, coming back yesterday with a solid effort in 14 minutes against the Rangers. The absence of Fehr and Fleischmann is the opening Bourque needs – a few extra opportunities, perhaps, that were missed when he missed those other pre-season games.

Laing is more of a known quantity in both his strengths and weaknesses. In 43 games in the NHL (40 with the Caps), he has one goal (for the record, a game-winner against the Devils in December 2007). Offense will neither get him, nor keep him in the league. But he will block shots (53 in 40 games with the Caps, an 82-game pace of 109 that would have led the league by far among forwards last year). And he will give himself up to make a play, evidenced by his suffering a serious injury to his spleen in his lone game with the Caps last year, then making it back to skate in nine Calder Cup playoff games with Hershey, including the Cup-clinching win in Manitoba. What Laing brings to the party is something you can’t really teach – a player has it, or he doesn’t. And coaches love the things Laing brings. Chances are, Laing would be on the roster on opening night in any case. A couple of roster spots freeing up early gives him just a little more opportunity to show those unheralded (at least by fans) gifts.

At the other end of the spectrum is Alexandre Giroux, who remains a mystery. How could a player who scored 60 goals in 69 regular season games last year in Hershey, plus another 15 in 22 Calder Cup playoff games, look so lost and incapable of scoring at this level? In 22 career regular season games in the NHL (all but one with the Caps), Giroux has three goals (all with Washington). He scored on his first shot of the preseason – against Buffalo – but has been off the score sheet in three other games since, registering a 1-0-1, even line in four preseason games. It seems unlikely in the extreme that Giroux would have a roster spot on this team on opening night if Fehr or Fleischmann were healthy. Getting four preseason games worth of opportunities is as much as anyone could have asked for in this abbreviated pre-season, and his not getting a sweater for yesterday’s game against the Rangers was revealing. Unless he finds some magic, and right quick, he has a locker waiting for him in Hershey.

That leaves Keith Aucoin, who is the most “NHL-ready” of these four players. He has 65 games of NHL experience (12 with Washington last year). Does that give him a leg up on the competition? Well, he notched a pair of goals in his three preseason games of work (the Caps lost both games), but the question would appear to be whether he is sturdy enough to stick on a club that already has offensive talent on the top two lines, but needs some sandpaper on the other two. In a way, Aucoin is an older (30 years old) version of Bourque (23) – a player of smallish stature (Aucoin is listed at 5’9”, 187; Bourque at 5’7”, 181), who can play center or wing, who plays at a high energy level. In this case, a tie might go to the younger player.

There is no escaping the decision that eventually, two of these players will stay, and two will go. Given the Caps’ needs, we’re thinking that it will be Laing and Bourque who get to stick around.

But like we said, we’re glad we don’t have to make these decisions.

2009-2010 Previews -- Forwards: David Steckel

David Steckel

Theme: “Every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead.”

That little quote comes from one of the most familiar faces in movies and television you’ve probably never heard of, a fellow by the name of Dabbs Greer. The kind of fellow of whom you might say, “oh yeah, I remember him in ‘The Green Mile,’” or “Little House on the Prairie” or “Gunsmoke.” He plays a role, never a starring one, but an important one nevertheless. And so it is with David Steckel, a player who might play the role of “defensive specialist,” or “penalty killer,” or “faceoff man.” Occasionally – as in overtime in Game 6 of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal – he is thrust into the limelight, and he delivers… by playing his role. He wins a faceoff, heads to the net, and scores on a deflection to become a star for 48 hours. But he then recedes once more into his role as a “character actor,” or in team sports parlance, a player of character.

Steckel is another of those players who leaves the impression of having been here longer than he has been. He’s played only 155 NHL games 9all with the Caps, having completed only his second full NHL season last year (he is 27 years old). In both of those years, he led the Caps (among players playing at least 50 games with the Caps) in faceoff winning percentage and was a top-ten league wide performer in each of those seasons.

That he plays a defense-first role is reflected in the team’s 1.94 goals-against average at even strength when he was on the ice last season, best of any center on the team. But here is a disturbing number: 1.50. That was the difference in the team’s goals against average at 4-on-5 when Steckel was on the ice between 2007-2008 (5.27) and 2008-2009 (6.77, according to That isn’t so much a problem regarding Steckel as it is a general problem with penalty killing for the Caps.

Fearless: Steckel hasn’t cracked the ten-goal mark with the Caps, despite his scoring at least that many in seven of eight seasons from 1999-2000 (USHL) through 2006-2007, when he had 30 in Hershey. If he never gets to ten, but he can be the defensive stopper, the Caps would seem likely to accept that trade-off rather happily. They don’t lack for offense in other places.

Cheerless: Hey cuz, any chance the league could schedule more games against Tampa Bay? In 13 career games against the Lightning, he’s 6-5-11, plus-7 (that’s a 38-32-70, plus-44 82-game pace). Against the rest of the league, he’s 7-13-20, minus-5 in 142 games (that’s a 4-8-12, minus-3 82-game pace).

In the end:

If it’s all about the playoffs, then consider – of the eight teams to win at least one playoff round last year, the Caps had the third worst penalty killing success rate (only Chicago and Detroit were worse). That’s especially bad when the Caps finished tied for fourth for most times shorthanded, despite being eliminated in the second round. The Caps – and Steckel – just have to be better at killing penalties (the times shorthanded thing is a team-wide problem).

But again, Steckel is a player with less than two full season’s worth of regular season games. Granted, he came into the league as both a former first round draft choice (30th overall to Los Angeles in 2001) and a four-year player in the NCAA (with Ohio State), but that’s not the same as NHL experience, and Steckel is still earning his.

Steckel had a very solid season last year and showed a knack for goal scoring against the Penguins (against whom he had all three of his goals) in the playoffs. There is every reason to believe that there is some untapped potential yet to realize. He has taken on a substantial role in penalty killing (second among Caps forwards in average shorthanded ice time in 2007-2008, first among forwards last year), and he is trying to assume a more assertive role on offense (66 shots on goal in 67 games in 2007-2008, 103 in 76 games last year).

Steckel plays a role that won’t make a lot of highlight reels, but it might be as important in the end – taking on the opposition’s top forwards and killing penalties – as the highlight reel goals and incredible saves. Steckel has to play that role well, even if in the end he’s only a star in his own little sphere.


12-14-26, +4