Sunday, June 14, 2009

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Goaltenders: Jose Theodore

Jose Theodore

Theme: “WYSIWYG”

You don’t often see that acronym anymore, as it is an archaic term dating from the MS-DOS days of computing. But the acronym – “what you see is what you get” – and the vintage of the term seems to fit the subject.

Theodore’s win-loss numbers don’t differ much from those we projected last fall. But where we thought he’d be more of the reason for those wins, he ended up being a guy who benefitted from an offense that could score enough to mask mistakes made by defensemen and goaltenders. And as the ten-game segments suggest, a quality he displayed in previous seasons did not emerge this time around…

In 2007-2008, Theodore started slowly – 7-8-1 in the 2007 portion of the season – before closing with a 21-13-2 record in the new year portion. This year, a slow start could be forgiven as the product of backstopping a new team with high aspirations, as long as a fast finish was in store.

Theodore had that slow start – 4-3-0, 3.44, .877 covering seven appearances in his first ten-game segment, including a disaster of an opening night when he was shelled for four goals on 17 shots in less than 30 minutes. On two other occasions in that segment he allowed five goals. While he fought back from that debacle, his first three ten-game segments (covering through December 12th) was a somewhat lackluster 8-6-1, 3.08, .888, and he had been effectively benched in favor of Brent Johnson in early November (tht run ended when Johnson was injured).

Theodore climbed out of that hole to post five straight segments in which he posted a save percentage over .900 – he finally topped a season mark of .900 for good on March 10, in Game 68 of the year. But it was only in the fifth segment, covering games from January 6 through January 31st, that it could be said that Theodore was the goalie folks were expecting – he was only 5-3-1, but he posted his lowest segment GAA (2.31) and highest save percentage (.916).

After that fifth segment, Theodore didn’t really ramp up his game, and in fact he finished in rather mediocre fashion. After that fifth ten-game segment, he was 14-8-3, 2.97, .901, and ominously enough ran through the last 22 games 9-6-2 in 17 appearances, 3.04, .899. That wasn’t a hot goaltender going into the playoffs.

But here is the odd part – in 23 games against the other seven teams in the East that made the playoffs, Theodore was 14-3-4, 2.61, .912. Generally, he was fine against Eastern Conference teams, going 26-10-5, 2.78, .904. He struggled against the West (6-7-0, 3.14, .889) and was poor against poor teams (4.93, .808 in four games against Atlanta; 3.20, .887 in six games against Florida, 3.00, .894 in three games against Buffalo being the biggest examples).

31 goaltenders played in at least half (41) of their team’s games. Of that group, Theodore finished 27th in overall save percentage and 25th in goals against average. Only one goaltender finishing below Theodore in both overall save percentage and goals against average played on a playoff team (Chris Osgood… go figure).

Then there were the playoffs. Theodore started them, and he finished them. He did neither well. His indifferent performance in Game 1 of the opening round series against the Rangers – four goals on 21 shots in a 4-3 loss – earned him the baseball cap in favor of Semyon Varlamov (a rookie with all of six games of NHL experience) until the rookie finally melted down in Game 7 of the second round against the Penguins. Theodore came in for 22 minutes of mop-up time to close a year that didn’t end the way anyone might have wanted.

And that playoff line – 0-1-0, 3.71, .818 – continues a disturbing trend as the team moves forward. In each of his last three seasons in which he appeared in both the regular season and playoffs he has posted worse playoff save percentage numbers than he had in the regular season, and he’s had a worse GAA in the last two playoffs than in his regular season.

The concern at the start of the season was whether Theodore could be consistently good enough to backstop a championship contender. That really wasn’t the problem. He had a few decent stretches over the course of the season, but all in all, he just wasn’t an especially productive goaltender. He was one led by the offense to a 30-plus win season more than he carried the team there. A lot of that might be the still-green nature of the defense in front of him and the style the Capitals prefer to play, a hell-bent-for-leather pressure game that will leave goalies exposed from time to time. That has to figure in any evaluation of the position. But the Caps’ style is what it is, and the question now is whether Jose Theodore is the right goaltender to play behind such a team. That he wasn’t in this year’s playoffs is telling.

Grade: C-

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Goaltenders: Brent Johnson

Brent Johnson

Theme: “you still here?”

Brent Johnson’s season ended after gutting out a 7-4 win over Ottawa on February 1st. It was his first start in eight games, only his third in 16 games. His injured hip (an injury dating back to a November 12th game against Carolina) just would not let him continue any further, and he underwent surgery, ending his season.

It was a most unfortunate end for Johnson's season given his performance to date. His ten-game segments in an abbreviated role suggest that he was on his way to his best season since arriving in Washington, perhaps his best since he won 34 games for the St. Louis Blues in 2001-2002…

In his first three segments he was 9-4-2, 2.36, .922, and had supplanted number one goalie Jose Theodore for a time, playing in five straight games in early November, ending with that hip injury that took him out of a game against Carolina. In 15 appearances he had allowed more than three goals only once.

After that, though, Johnson was obviously playing hurt – 3-2-0, 4.09, .870. In the only appearance in which he allowed fewer than three goals, he had come into the game in relief of Jose Theodore, playing in less than nine minutes before Theodore would return in a wild, come-from-behind 5-4 overtime win against the Rangers on December 23rd.

Even with all that, though, Johnson’s season had a Jekyll and Hyde quality to it. He was undefeated in regulation at home (9-0-1) with a 2.08 GAA and .932 save percentage. But he was 3-6-1 on the road, 3.65, .882 on the road. He was 11-3-2 against Eastern Conference teams, 2.62, .919. Against the West – 1-3-0, 3.52, .860.

When we looked at “benchmarks” by positions two years ago, we said this of Johnson…
“Playoff aspirants can’t afford to give away games when the number one
goaltender isn’t on the ice.”

In his previous three years with the Caps, Johnson fought hard, but there were a lot of games that just got away. He was 22-35-10 in his first three years with the Caps, generally backstopping a team that wasn’t very good. In 2007-2008 – his third year in that set – he improved to 7-8-2, and that was on a team that didn’t make the playoffs until Game 82 of the regular season.

This year, he was providing solid, even superior efforts when called upon, especially when Jose Theodore struggled early. That his season ended prematurely was one of those twists of luck that might have a player asking, “why now, why me?” But Johnson doesn’t impress us as that sort of player, and it is that sort of temperament that makes him well suited to the role he plays on this team. Going forward, the question will be whether he gets to play that role for the Caps. With the performance of Semyon Varlamov in the playoffs, a long look will be given to the youngster as a backup (at the very least) next season. He, with Michal Neuvirth, who cemented his own place among goalies-in-waiting with his Calder Cup performance, is the future of the Caps. That future seems to be rushing forward.

But Johnson still seems to have fuel in the tank, assuming he comes all the way back from hip surgery. If the Caps were to move Jose Theodore, Johnson could be a more-than-adequate backup for a Varlamov. However, there is considerable risk in turning over the keys to a rookie – and Varlamov will be a rookie – goaltender. Can Johnson fill in for long stretches if he struggles?

Those are matters to be pondered another day. For today, and this season, Brent Johnson did almost everything one could ask of a backup goaltender. When healthy, he was arguably the best goaltender on the roster. And even after he was injured, he fought gamely to give the Caps a chance when called upon.

Grade: A-

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Defensemen: Jeff Schultz

Jeff Schultz

Theme: “A good scapegoat is nearly as welcome as a solution to the problem”

That anonymous quote seems to fit young Mr. Schultz rather well. Instead of accepting Schultz for the player he is – a steady one who plays angles and anticipates, who does not sacrifice position for the big hit, fans would seem to want to take the clay that is a defenseman with about two years of experience (174 games, to be precise) and remake him into… Chris Pronger.

Schultz’ curse is that he is a positional defenseman in a Pronger-like body (they are virtually the same size – 6’6” and about 220 pounds). And that’s probably going to be his curse for as long as he plays the game. He might develop more of a physical edge as he gains experience, but he plays a certain way, and that way is not to go for the bone-crunching hit or the bug-on-a-windshield smear against the glass. Compound that with the fact that a defenseman of his size playing the style he does can look ungainly at times, and it makes for a difficult row to hoe with respect to how fans view him. The facts are these…

- He was second on the team amond defensemen in even strength ice time per game, second in shorthanded ice time per game.

- He was fourth in points among defensemen, despite missing 18 games.

- He was second in plus-minus, despite missing those 18 games

- He took only eight minor penalties this year (we’ve noted folks – including ourselves – praising Karl Alzner for having taken only one)

- He was second on the team among defensemen in total goals scored when he was on the ice.

- He had the second best goal differential per 60 minutes at even strength on the team (+0.61, second to Mike Green’s +1.36)

His ten-game segments suggest an up and down sort of year…

There was a solid start, scoring wise (seven points in his first two segments), followed by something of a drought. What he was able to do consistently was finish on the plus side of the ledger – he was even or better in five straight segments (and that even came in a segment in which he played only one game). However, at the end, he faded. From Game 61 to the end of the year, 0-2-2, minus-5 in 21 games, although hey, he hit more often (25 hits in those 21 games).

And that leads us to some unfortunate numbers for Schultz as we delve deeper. He was last among defensemen on the team with 50 or more games played in his Corsi rating. He followed up his five goal season last year with a single goal this year – a shorthanded empty netter against Pittsburgh in January. Despite that second best goal differential at even strength noted above, he has the second highest goals-against per 60 minutes at even strength, while the quality of competition he faced was third among the six defensemen playing at least 50 games for the Caps. For a “positional” defensemen, he did not position himself in front of a lot of shots. He was last among the defensemen (50 games, minimum) in blocked shots per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.

As a penalty killer, Schultz faced the second worst quality of competition among the six Caps defensemen playing at least 50 games. Yet, he still was only fourth among the Caps D in goals scored against per 60 minutes in 4-on-5 situations.

An odd number shows up at this point, and that concerns his home and away performance. Despite the heckling he gets from the home folk, Schultz was a better performer at Verizon Center (0-6-6, plus-14, seven PIMs) than he was on the road (1-5-6, minus-1, 14 PIMs), or at least his numbers came out better.

And here is another odd one, if you’re not inclined toward being a Schultz fan… against the other seven playoff teams in the East, he was 1-4-5, plus-12, with only two penalty minutes in 23 games.

Part of Schultz’s problem is that when he makes a mistake, it’s usually a doozy. He’s like the cornerback in pro football whose mistake is out there for all to see. None was bigger than the game-winning goal scored in Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs, when Schultz got his legs tangled at the Capitals blue line, and Brandon Dubinsky left him writhing on the ice as the Ranger skated in along to net the winner. It would be the only playoff game in which Schultz would play. Why? Well, not because of the gaffe, but the fact that he had a broken rib that was suffered before this misfortune.

Schultz is yet another one of those arbitration-eligible restricted free agents among the defense. His cap hit of $763,889 this past season was, frankly, a bargain. What that means in terms of a new contract, that’s another matter. Is he worth Shaone Morrisonn money (at least what Morrisonn earned this year). Almost certainly not. But the Caps can fill only so many holes on the blue line, if anyone departs. Since he is in a competition of sorts with two other defensemen for contracts (Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina being the same situation), his return is not a certainty. But for all the nonsense he takes for the contradiction that fans seem to feel between his size and his style, he is what he is – a young defenseman who could one day be a quite effective, if unspectacular one.

Grade: B-

Words to live by

"We don't hang up division championships. We don't hang up conference championships. The only thing you're going to see hanging are [AHL] championships."

-- Bob Woods, Head Coach, Hershey Bears

Photo: Blaine T. Shahan/Sunday News (Lancaster, PA)

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Defensemen: Tom Poti

Tom Poti

Theme: “Get some ice, I've pulled my groin. My enormous groin.”

OK, we were stuck for groin jokes, so we found that one by Stephen Colbert. But for Tom Poti, this was “The Year of the Groin” (we’re not sure if that shows up on a Chinese calendar). It really wasn’t a laughing matter for Poti, though, who played the fewest number of games (52) in his ten year career because of repeated injury. Poti had four separate stretches in which he lost at least three consecutive games to injury. All of them were attributed to groin injuries. The effect was to leave him with the lowest assist total (10), points (13), penalty minutes (28), shots on goal (48) in his ten seasons. It had a wearying effect, as his ten-game segments suggest…

In his last two segments, in which he played 18 games, Poti recorded only a single point (a power play assist) and was minus-5. In only four of those games was he on the plus side of the ledger.

There is one number in Poti’s season that comes jumping off the page… zero. That is the number of power play goals he had this past year. In fact, he has not yet recorded a power play goal as a Capital, an odd thing since that is one of the talents he was bringing with him when he was signed as a free agent in the summer of 2007. Part of that is the emergence of Mike Green as a force on the power play (18 power play goals this year, the only Cap defenseman to score any), but even Poti’s power play assists dropped from eight last year (itself something of a disappointment) to two this year. Part of that problem might be in that Poti’s power play ice time was almost cut in half this past year (from 2:39 to 1:26 per game).

The more detailed numbers suggest this was something of a lost year for Poti, made frustrating in that he was reasonably productive when he did dress. Among the six Capitals defensemen playing at least 50 games, he was second in goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, second in points per 60 minutes, and maintained a goal differential of 0.00 per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, despite having the highest quality of competition faced among any Capitals defenseman.

Poti’s missing 30 games had its effect on the Capitals. While the team was 33-19 in games for which he dressed (including extra-time losses), they were only 17-13 in those games he missed. Oddly enough, though, in Poti’s longest absence of the year – a 15 game stretch from December 23rd through January 27th – the Caps were 10-4-1, a slightly better standings points pace than their 82-game total.

And, Poti was no road warrior. In 25 road games, he was 1-2-3, even, despite taking more shots (26 versus 22) and getting more ice time (21:33 versus 20:51) in fewer road games (25 versus 27 at home).

What Poti had was a pretty good year against stiffer competition. Against the other seven teams in the East that would make the playoffs, he would finish 1-5-6, +8 in 19 games. He had his only “minus” against the Flyers. His struggles came against also rans – 0-2-2, minus-3 in five games against Atlanta; 0-0-0, minus-3 in two games against Los Angeles; 0-0-0, minus-2 against Buffalo.

His ability to rise to the level of competition was reflected in what was his best playoff season of his career. He scored his first two career playoff goals in this year’s post season, nearly doubled his career total in points (from eight to 15), was plus-8 (only his second year on the plus side). Unfortunately, almost all of that offense was recorded against his former team, the New York Rangers, in the first round. In the second round against Pittsburgh, he was 0-1-1, plus-6. And, there was the unfortunate deflection off his stick on a pass by Evgeni Malkin that was probably the single most important moment in the Penguins’ drive to the Stanley Cup. Had the Capitals won that game in overtime, instead of Malkin scoring the winner, it would have been the Caps taking a 3-2 series lead into Pittsburgh, instead of the Penguins for Game 6.

Until joining the Caps, Poti had never gone through a regular season without scoring a power play goal. Perhaps next year, he can take some of the heat (and ice time) off Mike Green by playing and contributing more in those situations. He’s shown to be perhaps a better defender here – certainly a more mature one – than he’s been at any of his previous stops in his career in Edmonton, Manhattan, and Long Island.

But this season was a year-long struggle just to get and stay on the ice. The frustrating part of it is that when he was out there, Poti was pretty good, especially early in the season, when he still had two good legs (or at least better legs) under him. Nevertheless, he was probably the second best defenseman for the Caps this year.

Grade: B