Monday, February 16, 2009

25 Games

There are 25 games left in the regular season. It’s gone by quickly, hasn’t it? It seems only like last week when the Caps were arriving at Kettler Capitals Iceplex for training camp. But here we are, and with those 25 games left, it might be interesting to sit down and take a look back to last year.

You might think that last year is the standard for 25 game finishes in Caps history. Here is what they did…

However, the Caps have something of a history as a team with a big finishing kick in the regular season. Here are their biggest finishes (30 or more points in their last 25 games)…

The 1983-1984 team is the standard here. After 50 games (there being an 80-game season in those days), the Caps were 30-21-4, but had just thrashed the Edmonton Oilers, 9-2, to win their fifth straight game and finish their ninth straight game without a loss.

The Caps would go on to win five more games in that streak to launch them on their big finish – they ended the season as their first with more than 100 points (101 off of a 48-27-5 record). In earning 37 points in those last 25 games, the Caps scored an even 100 goals (4.00/game) and allowed only 55 (2.20/game).

That 1983-1984 team was, in some respects, the 1980’s version of the current crop. It was a group that was in its second year of success (the previous year having earned 94 points), just as this one is (last year’s team earning… 94 points). It had a young goal scorer who would go on to the Hall of Fame – Mike Gartner (40 goals that season). It had a young Swede who was an adept playmaker and was a somewhat underrated defensive player – Bengt Gustafsson. It had (actually obtained during the year) a young defenseman who could score – Larry Murphy.

What the Caps didn’t do that year that people this year almost expect is to advance far in the playoffs. After sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers in three games, the 1983-1984 edition of the Caps lost to the New York Islanders in the second round.

But we digress. The point is that the last 25 games of the year is a stretch of games that the Caps have found to their liking in past years. 11 times, they have reached 30 points in the last 25 games, six times they have won at least 15 of those last 25 games. If the Caps can reach the average of those 11 seasons as they finish the season – 32 points – not only will they allow us to break the thermometer over there on the right, they will set a franchise record for points (109).

Something to watch and (hopefully) to look forward to.

A Man Lost His Job Yesterday

A man lost his job yesterday.

That’s hardly news these days, what with the economy being the way it is and employment news being a daily dose of despair.

But this is a bit different. And it is the same old story.

Michel Therrien was relieved of his duties as head coach by the Pittsburgh Penguins yesterday. Therrien, who has a reputation of being hard on his players from time to time, is also only the third coach in that franchise’s 41-season history to take his club to a Stanley Cup final, Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman being the others.

What was it that got Therrien fired? The proximate cause was that his team – having gone to that Stanley Cup final last year – didn’t look as if it was getting there this year. In fact, it was becoming less and less likely that it would even qualify for the playoffs this season. And, in a town that prides itself as being a city of champions (its professional football team having just earned such a prize), that is a considerable burden to bear.

What have you done lately for us, Mike?…oh, and here’s your coat.

Firing the coach is the oldest supposed “remedy” to what ails a team in sports. It isn’t even limited to sports. Students of history might recall that George B. McClellan was “fired” by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 for not winning enough against the Confederate Army in the Civil War.

But unlike 1862, these days a coach is under the microscope 24-7. Newspapers, sports talk radio, internet message boards, and blogs see to that. A coach isn’t as good as his last season, he’s as good as his last game. And if that game is a loss, the criticism can be a white-hot blowtorch of invective directed at the coach.

Therrien probably didn’t help his own cause by being a somewhat abrasive personality as a coach, given to calling out his players in public from time to time and being abrupt with the media. But here, too, is a coach who in 11 previous seasons in professional hockey (AHL and NHL) took eight teams to the playoffs, twice taking his teams to his league’s championship series.

If anything, the firing says a lot more about people surrounding the event than the subject of the exercise. And in a way, this is the same old story, too.

Ray Shero, the general manager who fired Therrien and who is now on something of a hot seat himself, was the overseer of changes to the team that went to last year’s Stanley Cup final, none of which might be objectively considered improvements. Whether he had the power to stop it or not, he had neither the skill nor perhaps the inclination to retain the services of Ryan Malone or Marian Hossa, both of whom left for other teams via free agency. Malone is 19-12-31, +3 for a struggling Tampa Bay team. Hossa is 33-27-60, +18 for the Red Wings. They were replaced by Miroslav Satan and Ruslan Fedotenko – both capable players in their own right – but at a combined 28-25-53 (less than a “Hossa”alone) cannot be said to have been a remedy for the departures.

Shero also moved mountains – well, prospects – to get Hossa in the first place. When confronted with the opportunity to win now (and there is pressure on Shero and all GM’s to do that as well), it is the sort of thing management does. But it did no favors for Therrien in the longer run. Shero moved forwards Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen, prospect Angelo Esposito, and a first-round draft pick in the 2008 entry draft (Daultan Leveille) to secure the services of Hossa for the stretch run and the playoffs. One could reasonably argue that it was worth it, given that the Penguins came within two games of winning a Stanley Cup last year.

But the operative words in that last sentence are, “last year.” What have you done for us lately, Mike? So you don’t have Armstrong, or Christensen, or Malone, or Hossa. That’s a lot of scoring and grit removed from a team, replaced by Satan, Fedotenko, Pascal Dupuis (who came in the Hossa deal with Atlanta), and Matt Cooke (who was signed as a free agent). Ask youself, looking at this year only, without having knowledge of the deals made for a Stanley Cup run, would you make that trade? Those four players for those four players? Because that’s the hand Therrien was dealt this year.

And it helped get him fired.

But what is new as the dawn and as old as the sun in this is the drumbeat of fan displeasure leading up to the firing and the poorly-hidden glee with which the firing is being received by many of those same fans. Penguin fans are not unique in this regard. We don’t even have to look very far to remember a similar instance – the events leading up to the firing of Glen Hanlon as coach of the Capitals will suffice. But what gets lost in the “Fire Therrien” – or “Fire [insert name of beleaguered coach here]” – talk is that these are men doing a job. It is still unseemly, the manner in which fans can treat coaches (and players for that matter) as disposable commodities to be “gotten rid of” or to be dismissed without a thought. And these days, fans do not lack for the vehicles to voice that displeasure – loudly and often. Instant chatter – on message boards, talk radio, and blogs – serves to create a “critical mass” of displeasure that has to influence a decision and its timing to fire a coach.

Therrien isn’t the sort to inspire much in the way of sympathy, given his public persona, but he’s a guy with the same sort of day-to-day concerns any of us would face, or have to face, with the loss of a job. Scott Burnside wrote of another side of Therrien’s life a couple of years ago, a story that adds depth to the sometimes two-dimensional perspective fans get on their local sports personalities. It’s the sort of thing that should give fans pause when they are in full-throated roar for this or that coach to be fired, for they’re not unlike you or me in the lives they lead and the responsibilities they bear away from the rink or the field or the court.

Did Therrien deserve to be fired? Sports is the last meritocracy, it seems, and winning is the standard. By that standard, Therrien was not meeting expectations. But that aside, Michel Therrien is a statistic this morning. He’s unemployed. Evidence of his being coach of the Penguins has already been expunged from the Penguin web site – it’s Dan Bylsma’s team. But it might be well for Penguin fans to thank Therrien in their thoughts for having resuscitated a foundering franchise and to remember that whatever his faults as a coach – and a reasonable person could find them – he was a guy going to work every day to do a job. And while the remaining compensation on his contract will make his unemployment more tolerable than that being faced by so many these days, we can’t imagine getting fired is any less bitter or humiliating at Therrien’s level than it might be among the less famous among us who suffer that fate.

Good luck, Mike.