Saturday, June 13, 2009

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Defensemen: Shaone Morrisonn

Shaone Morrisonn

Theme: “Right timing is in all things the most important factor.”

That quote is more than 2,500 years old, from the Greek epic poet, Hesiod. Sometimes, it seems that long since Shaone Morrisonn was traded to Washington, along with a first round pick (which became Jeff Schultz) and a second round pick (Mikhail Yunkov) in 2004 for Sergei Gonchar. In fact, in terms of service to the franchise, Morrisonn is the longest tenured Capitals defenseman in time spent with the team and games played with Washington. He was obtained in trade on March 3, 2004 and has played 309 regular season games as a Cap.

As the ten-game segments suggest, though, Morrisonn did not improve on his consistency with maturity…

He did not string together two consecutive “plus” segments, which is probably not a good thing for the defenseman who might best pass for a “shutdown” type on this team. He had spikes of penalty minutes and three times had at least three consecutive games with penalties taken. On the other hand, the Caps were 17-8-3 in games in which Morrisonn was sent to the box.

One ten-game segment stands out, Morrisonn’s sixth. In those ten games, dating from February 1st through February 22nd, Morrisonn registered his highest point total of any segment (2-2-4), his best plus-minus (plus-5), the most hits (22), the most shots on goal (nine), and the most penalty minutes (29, including 15 minutes – for a boarding major and a game misconduct – in a 3-1 win over Florida on February 7th). Perhaps not coincidentally, the Caps posted their second best ten game win-loss record of any ten-game segment (7-2-1, including a pair of 5-2 wins over New Jersey and Pittsburgh). It suggests that a more energetic Morrisonn is a more productive one, or at least it seems to go along with more success for the team.

More than most Caps (and there were plenty in this category), Morrisonn suffered in his efforts against Western Conference teams, against which he registered a single point (an assist) and went minus-5 in 17 games. In 55 games against Eastern Conference opponents, he was 3-9-12, plus-9. However, that plus-9 was earned in its entirety from Southeast Division teams in 22 games, not the strongest division in the East. Against the rest of the East, he was 2-3-5, even, in 33 games.

But on the defensive side, and this is where Morrisonn earns his keep, there were some numbers not so good. He was 69th in the league among defensemen playing at least 50 games in blocked shots per 60 minutes (by way of comparison, Tom Poti was 36th). He was tied for 76th in goals scored against-per-60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, despite being tied for 108th in quality of competition.

For a defenseman who makes most of his contribution at the defensive end, he wasn’t getting a lot of opportunity to make that contribution. He was sixth on the team among those playing at least 50 games in even strength ice time per game (if we include Karl Alzner in the mix, who played 30 games, Morrisonn would be seventh), and he was third (fourth, if you include Alzner) in shorthanded time on ice per game. He also had the shortest shifts, on average, of any defenseman for the Caps this season (ok, Staffan Kronwall had shorter shifts, but he played in only three games).

Here is another set of numbers that have a somewhat disturbing air about them. Morrisonn was 3-10-13, +3 in 2006-2007. He was 3-10-13, +4 this past year. The difference is that he recorded that first set of numbers on a team that finished the year with 70 points, 14th in the Eastern Conference. This year, he recorded almost exactly the same numbers on a team that finished with 108 points, 2nd in the Eastern Conference. The first instance was that of a standout on a poor-performing team, the second that of, well, something else on a very good team.

Last year, Morrisonn had a decent year that earned him a contract of $1.975 million through arbitration. This year was a contract year for him, and while he improved his numbers marginally over last year, his timing doesn’t appear to have been fortunate in terms of suggesting a large increase in pay. In fact, his numbers suggested those of a 4/5/6 defenseman, one who could provide 18 minutes a night (he was sixth on the team in average total ice time), occasionally – if not consistently – provide a bit of a physical edge, and generally finish on the plus side of the ledger (if not overwhelmingly so). It suggests that he, too, is not irreplaceable, although he can be useful. The trouble for Morrisonn here is that his minutes could be Karl Alzner’s next year.

This year, Morrisonn ended up in the usual place, as far as his career numbers go, but he took a rather meandering route to get there. Given his consistent regular season numbers with the Caps, one might be forgiven wondering if this is as good as he will be. Not bad, to be sure, but not a cornerstone, either.

Grade: B-

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Defensemen: Milan Jurcina

Milan Jurcina

Theme: “There must be consistency in direction.”

Maybe it’s fitting we insert a quote from Deming here. Because, if we look at the performance of Milan Jurcina this year, we are struck by two things – the occasional stretches of quality performance and the lack of consistency in achieving them. This is reflected in Jurcina’s ten game segments…

Jurcina, to the extent he can be, was a “scorer” early, recording more than half of his season’s points in the first 40 games of the year. Unfortunately, he also had three segments in there in which he was a minus-2 for each. That’s not the sort of result one hopes for concerning a defenseman who: a) is not considered or expected to contribute a lot of offense, or b) doesn’t face top-flight offensive lines on a night-to-night basis.

Jurcina scored less, but moved into “plus” territory in the last half, not registering a “minus” in any of the last four full ten-game segments. That’s probably a more suitable “comfort zone” for a defenseman who is probably a third-pair sort on a contender (his even-strength ice time per game – 15:05, fifth among defensemen with at least 50 games played this year – suggests his being such a defenseman).

If there is a disappointing aspect to Jurcina’s season, it is that he hasn’t become something more of a goal scorer, despite the observation of some that he has a heavy shot. He had six goals in 51 games in his rookie season in Boston and hasn’t come close to equaling that modest total since. As a Capital, he has a total of six goals in 184 games, covering three seasons. This year he had his highest total since that rookie year (three). And this despite his being second on the team in shots on goal and total shot attempts (shots, blocked shots, missed shots).

Regarding the latter point on shot attempts, there is a notion that Jurcina has trouble getting shots to net, that he is slow on the release (he is), and that he is something of a scattershot (ok, he’s that, too). But if you take a look at his ratio of shots on goal to shots not on goal (misses, blocks), he is fourth on the team among defensemen playing at least 30 games, behind Mike Green (the only Cap with a ratio above 1.00), Karl Alzner, and Tom Poti. As much as anything else, that might tell us that the Caps defensemen not named “Green” had their problems.

Defensively, Jurcina was second best on the team among defensemen (at least 30 games) in goals scored against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time. That is, as much as not, a reflection of the fact that among the same group of defensemen he faced the second worse quality of competition. He also managed a goal-differential per 60 minutes of ice time of +0.10, which was third on the club.

Going back to those ten-game segments, there were two areas in which Jurcina was reasonably consistent. He registered eight penalty minutes in five of the full ten-game segments and ten in another. Jurcina, in fact, tied for the team lead among defensemen in minor penalties taken and had the worst differential of penalties taken to penalties drawn at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes on the club among defensemen and second worst, regardless of position (Sergei Fedorov). Not that it seemed to have an inordinate effect on the Caps results. The Caps were 17-11-2 in games in which he took a penalty (1.20 standings points-per-game, versus 1.32 points-per-game overall)

The other area was hits. After a slow start in that department in the first ten games (12 hits in ten games), he was tightly bunched around the 20 hit mark for the next six segments, and even in the last full segment averaged slightly more than two hits a game in eight games played. He led the team in hits (157) and was tied for 21st in the league that measure.

The odd thing about Jurcina’s whole line is that if one removes his games against the Rangers, it wasn’t a bad year. He was scoreless and a minus-6 in four games against the Blueshirts, a problem he seemed to rectify in the playoffs, when he was 1-0-1, plus-4 in seven games. He had his best regular season efforts against teams in the Northeast Division, against which he was 1-3-4, plus-8 in 20 games.

Jurcina is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent this summer. Last year he was an $881,250 cap hit on the team ($912,000 salary). And, he is among a clot of defensemen (Shaone Morrisonn, Jeff Schultz) in a similar contract situation. Jurcina’s numbers and performance do not suggest that he is irreplaceable by any means. However, he just turned 26, and he still has fewer than 300 games of NHL regular season experience. He might not have reached his peak.

In the meantime, though, Jurcina displayed a certain inconsistency in his game, but perhaps not as much as is commonly believed. He might have been (and continues to be) somewhat disappointing on the offensive end, but he otherwise played his role fairly well.

Grade: B-

That's a Wrap

Tonight, Pennsylvania is the center of the hockey universe. The Pittsburgh Penguins defied the odds in winning a Game 7 on the road against the defending Stanley Cup champions and beat the Detroit Red Wings, 2-1 to win the Stanley Cup.

Not long after the horn sounded in Detroit, the Hershey Bears set an American Hockey League record in winning their tenth Calder Cup, a 4-1 win over the Manitoba Moose to close out that series in six games in Winnipeg.

Caps fans might not be pleased with the Penguin win, but it was well-earned. Several players stepped up in a big way for the Penguins in a manner befitting a champion. Marc-Andre Fleury forever silenced his critics (we being occasionally among them) with a sterling performance in a building that has been unkind to him in his young career, one capped by a diving save on a Nicklas Lidstrom drive in the dying moments of the contest. Maxime Talbot was the hero of Game 7, netting both goals for the Penguins in what would be the Triumph of the Grinders in the championship-deciding game, and the rest of the team cobbled together a superior defensive effort in holding a team that had scored 11 goals in three home games to a single tally.

As it was chronicled in many places, no team in any of the major North American team sports had won a Game 7 in the last 18 tries since 1980. It hadn’t been done in the NHL since the Montreal Canadiens did it against the Chicago Blackhawks in 1971, coincidentally the last time a team fell behind 2-0 on the road and came back to win the in the finals.

Congratulations to Evgeni Malkin (Conn Smythe winner), Sidney Crosby (youngest captain to win the Cup), Dan Bylsma (a mid-season replacement behind the bench who in no small way saved the Penguins’ season), and the rest of the Penguins. It was a Cup well-deserved.

For the Hershey Bears, it was another season in a long history of excellence. And perhaps the biggest part of this year’s contribution to that history was the performance of Alexandre Giroux. The Bears’ winger scored on a breakaway mid-way through the first period in tonight’s Game 6 against the Manitoba Moose to drive a stake into the heart of the fans in Winnipeg, giving the Bears a 3-0 lead on their way to the 4-1 win. For Giroux, it would be the emphatic exclamation point on a season for the ages – 60 regular season goals, 15 more in the playoffs, a total of 75 goals for the season that would be the highest total ever achieved in the AHL for the regular season and playoffs, combined.

But Giroux was hardly alone. Michal Neuvirth – this year’s winner of the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as Calder Cup MVP – announced loudly in these Calder Cup playoffs that he is a prospect to be reckoned with in the Capitals’ scheme of things. He posted a 16-6 record, a 1.92 goals against average (third in the Calder Cup playoffs and a Bears team record), a .932 save percentage (fourth), and four shutouts (tops in the Calder Cup playoffs). He became the first goalie in AHL history to win Games 6 and 7 of a playoff series with shutouts, turning the trick against arch-rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in the second round of the playoffs.

Then there was Quintin Laing. On a March evening dominated by Alex Ovechkin’s “hot stuff” goal celebration, Laing skated in his only game for the Caps this season – a 5-2 win over Tampa Bay – and tore his spleen. It was an injury that was expected, at the time, to sideline him for the rest of the season. But Laing came back to play in nine Calder Cup playoff games and served as an inspiration to his teammates in their march to the championship.

For Bears head coach Bob Woods, it was probably especially satisfying. In leading the Bears to their tenth Calder Cup title, he can now claim a Cup as a player (1997 Bears), an assistant coach (2006 Bears), and head coach (2009 Bears). He’s earned his place in the long history of excellence achieved by the Bears.

While turnover is a part of any team from season to season, there might be a special poignancy attached to the Bears in this regard as this season comes to a close. There is a certain “graduation day” air attached to it. For players like Karl Alzner or Chris Bourque, it might be the last time they skate for the chocolate and white as they move onward and upward. It might be that guys like John Carlson and Michal Neuvirth – neither of whom started the year in Hershey – won’t be far behind. Oskar Osala could make the jump before too long. And for a player such as Alexandre Giroux, he might move on to another franchise to find a clearer path to the NHL. Bryan Helmer, who captained the team, and Graham Mink, who is in his second stint with the Bears, are unrestricted free agents this summer.

What a last eight months it’s been for the Keystone State. A World Series championship in Philadelphia, a Super Bowl Championship in Pittsburgh, a Stanley Cup championship in Pittsburgh, and a Calder Cup championship in Hershey. You might even throw in a Governor’s Cup for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees of the International League of minor league baseball. It's been a big year in Pennsylvania.

With tonight’s action, hockey comes to an end for the 2008-2009 season. The celebrating isn’t over yet for the Penguins and Bears, but for the rest of us, we’re already looking forward to next season. It can’t get here fast enough.