Sunday, September 06, 2009

2009-2010 Previews -- Defensemen: Shaone Morrisonn

Shaone Morrisonn

Theme: “Success is like reaching an important birthday and finding you're exactly the same.”

Audrey Hepburn wasn’t much of a hockey player, but her quote is a faint hint at this being a contract year for Shaone Morrisonn. This is the second year Morrisonn will have been playing on a one-year contract, last year as a product of an arbitration ruling, this year signing a one-year deal in advance of arbitration. You can interpret how that might play out in a couple of ways. One, Morrisonn could have the sort of year that a lot of guys have leading up to a new contract – the sort of year they’ll look back on and say, “that was a helluva year,” whether he re-signs with the Caps or not. Or, he could mark time, play out the string, and play all year with the intention of moving on in July after this season.

There has been a sort of “sameness” to Morrisonn’s stay with the Caps. Plug him in when the season starts, watch him play 75 or so games, see him get a couple of goals, 10 or so assists, and he provides adequate at times, very good at other times defense. But what Morrisonn saw last year was his average ice time pulled back. In his first three full seasons with Washington, Morrisonn averaged over 20 minutes a game (averaging 20:39 a game). Last year, he averaged 17:57 and was seventh on the team among defensemen (30 games minimum) in even strength ice time (he was third in each of the previous three years).

Allegations of incipient cannibalism aside, Morrisonn has seen his penalty minutes drop in the last couple of years, and he dropped a bit from his high perch atop the Caps minor penalty rolls among defensemen (first or second in his first three full seasons with the Caps), ranking third in minors taken in 2008-2009. Penalties figure oddly in Morrisonn’ year last year in that of the 30 minors he recorded, eight of them were for interference. But it was a slow, or at least something of an indifferent start to the year that found Morrisonn spending more time in the penalty box. He was whistled for at least one penalty in seven of the first nine games of the year (eight minors for 16 minutes), half of the penalties he earned being for interference. His was an undisciplined (some might call it lack of effort ) sort of performance. He was much more disciplined late, earning only seven minor penalties in his last 22 games.

Another somewhat odd part of Morrisonn’s year last year was the difference between his performance against Eastern Conference teams and those in the West. He was 3-9-12, plus-9 in 55 games against the East, but only 0-1-1, minus-5 against the West in 17 games. He had similar disparity in the 2007-2008 season (0-8-8, +7 in 66 games against the East, 1-1-2, -3 in 10 games against the West). That might be viewed as a good thing, as long as such a difference is going to manifest itself. OK, guys…your turn.

Fearless: Morrisonn finished a lot stronger in the second half than his first half performance. Before the All-Star Game, he was 1-3-4, minus-2, with 32 PIMs in 38 games. After the break, he was 2-7-9, +6, with 36 PIMs in 32 games (although 15 of those PIMs came in a single game against Florida on February 7th). One would hope that carries over into this year.

Cheerless: Cuz? What about that playoff finish? 0-1-1, minus-5 in the last six games of the Penguin series. He was on the ice for nine of the 20 even strength goals the Penguins scored in those six games, not what one would expect of a defenseman whose forte is, well, defense (the odd part is that he was on the ice for only one of the nine power play goals the Penguins scored in those last six games).

In the end…

Morrisonn will turn 27 in December; one would think he is now entering his prime playing (not to mention earning) years. He has an opportunity here that can benefit both Morrisonn and the club. If he can put together a season that looks like the second half of last year (with a sprinkling of the sort of penalty killing effectiveness he displayed in the Penguin series last spring), it could only be good news for the Caps, and Morrisonn will be in line for a larger pay day (unfortunately, that could price him out of the Caps’ comfort range). He certainly has that sort of ability – he was the Caps’ shut down defenseman for his first two seasons and was the policeman patrolling the back end as partner Mike Green was developing his offensive side. And on a team as bad as the Caps were in the 2005-2006 season, he was the only defenseman who played more than half the season’s games and has a “plus” rating (plus-7, best among Caps defensemen). But Morrisonn is also prone to taking the odd penalty here and there. His consistent season results cover a bit of inconsistency within seasons. This year, sameness wouldn't be bad, but it would be nice to see some of the potential he showed in his first two years here that he hasn't seemed to quite reach.


78 games, 1-11-12, +8

2009-2010 Previews -- Defensemen: Milan Jurcina

Milan Jurcina

Theme: “International arbitration may be defined as the substitution of many burning questions for a smoldering one”

That quote from Ambrose Bierce’s essay on arbitration focused on economics, and that was the summer of Milan Jurcina. In this instance, it was his winning an arbitrator’s award of $1.375 million to skate for the Capitals in 2009-2010. It isn’t the sort of award that will break the bank, but it does shine something of a brighter light on Jurcina coming into the season. And if one turns that light on Jurcina’s performance with the Caps, the two words that come to mind are, “not bad.” For instance, his 2008-2009 numbers improved over the previous season’s results in goals (from one to three), assists (from eight to 11), points (from nine to 14), and hits (from 151 to 157). On the other hand, he tied for seventh among all defensemen in the NHL in penalties taken-per-60-minutes at 5-on-5 (50 games minimum). Of the 34 minor penalties he took, 23 of them were of the “obstruction” variety (holding, hooking, interference, tripping). And, he averaged one giveaway for every 25 minutes of play last season. This doesn’t approach the Mike Green level of giveaways, but then again, Jurcina doesn’t often have the puck in an offensive situation.

Subjectively, Jurcina should have more potential than, say, John Erskine. But his production suggests another defenseman whose time might better be “managed,” so as to avoid speedy teams that can exploit his propensity to take those “obstruction” sorts of penalties. What he is, is inconsistent. That displays itself in the nature of the competition he faces. In 29 games against the seven other teams in the East that made the playoffs last year, he 0-1-1, minus-4. In 32 games against the seven teams that didn’t make the playoffs, he was 2-7-9, plus-5. OK, so he did better against weaker teams. But what of those games against playoff teams? If you look closer, Jurcina compiled a rather ghastly 0-0-0, minus-6 in four games against the Rangers. But in the playoffs, he was a much more respectable 1-0-1, plus-4 in seven games against the Blueshirts. That he seems capable of so much more makes “not bad” somewhat infuriating. You guys have anything to add?...

Fearless: Jurcina’s role on this team has changed quite a bit in the not quite three full seasons he’s spent with the club. In his first year, after arriving from Boston, he averaged more than 23 minutes of ice time a game. That has since dropped to less than 17, and last year a shade more than 16 minutes. More to the point, his special teams ice time has shriveled to just about nothing. He averaged 5:35 in special teams ice time in his first year. Last year, that dropped to 1:02. That’s a reflection of two things that might be mirror images of one another. The first is the growth and improvement of defensemen around him (Mike Green and Jeff Schultz from within, Tom Poti from the outside). The other is that Jurcina’s game does not seem to have progressed.

Cheerless: There’s another way to get at this, cuz. Ask yourself, “does it matter?” Jurcina took at least one penalty in 30 games last year. The Caps were 17-10-3 in those games, a 101 point pace. He was off the PIM register in 49 games, and the Caps were 31-13-5, a 112-point pace. You could say that the difference was in having to endure extra power plays, as opposed to Jurcina providing a positive influence in those games in which he didn’t deprive the Caps of his presence on the ice. What he has been is durable. No Caps defenseman has played in more games the last two years than has Jurcina (154). But cuz?...if you really want to save yourself some time, just read Japers’ mock arbitration.

In the end…

The Caps defensive squad has gone – and is going – through a number of phases the last few years and in the next few years to come. Coming out of the lockout, the Caps lacked for talent on the blue line on the parent squad, having only selected Mike Green and Jeff Schultz in the 2004 draft. In that first post-lockout year, the talent was really thin, unless Bryan Muir and Mathieu Biron are your cup of tea. The next year, the Caps dipped into the free agent market to grab Brian Pothier, and they picked up Jurcina in trade. Still, it was a squad thin in talent.

The following season constituted the next phase, Tom Poti was brought on board, Green emerged as an offensive force, and Jeff Schultz stepped up as a defenseman with some upside. Brian Pothier would have been a mainstay, but played in only 38 games because of injury. Jurcina adopted a somewhat lesser role in this scenario. Last year was similar in that Green, Poti, and Schultz, when healthy (they missed a combined 62 games), assumed important roles. Jurcina had much the same role as in the previous year – almost entirely an even-strength skater, usually against the lower half of the forward lines of opponents.

This phase might be coming to an end as youngsters Karl Alzner and John Carlson emerge to join the likes of Mike Green and Jeff Schultz on the blue line. For players such as Jurcina (and Shaone Morrisonn, Brian Pothier, Tom Poti, and John Erskine) roster spots will be subject to more competition. Does that augur an exit for Jurcina after this season? As much as anyone, it’s up to him. The “smoldering question” is can he be more consistent, avoid the odd obstruction penalty, chip in a little more offense, perhaps, and improve his chances of having a spot on the 2010-2011 squad?


65 games, 2-7-9, +2

2009-2010 Previews -- Defensemen: Mike Green

Mike Green

Theme: So… what have you done for me lately?

Record-setting goal scorer among defensemen, first-team NHL all star, runner-up for the Norris Trophy. You’d think that on the heels of such a season, such a player would be hailed as one of the top two or three defensemen in the NHL.

Well, not these days. Mike Green is given little better than an even chance to make his country’s Olympic hockey team, and there are whispers – ok, shouts in some quarters – that he’s less of a defenseman and more of a fourth forward.

That’s what a month in the spring will do. Despite finishing the regular season as the league’s top scoring defenseman in goals (31), power play goals (18), and points (73); despite finishing the season fifth in plus-minus among defensemen (while playing in only 68 games); despite finishing tied for third among defensemen in game-winning goals; despite finishing with more goals and points in a season than Scott Niedermayer has ever had in his career, more goals in a season than in any in the career of Nicklas Lidstrom, and more points in a season than in all but one season of Lidstrom’s career, no Capital seems to have more questions attached to his outlook for the upcoming season than does Mike Green. And that is the result of a month of playoff games last spring in which he was 1-8-9, -5, in 14 games, and didn’t have a goal in his last eight games (tied for his longest drought of the season). Worse, no defenseman in the playoffs had more giveaways than the 25 that Green had in only those 14 games.

That finish was a sour ending to a fine season, and it seemed to validate the view held by some folks that Green simply isn’t that good a defenseman. Statistically, he is not as bad a defenseman as some would assume. His plus-24 was best among Capitals defensemen (almost twice as good as Jeff Schultz’ plus-13). He had the highest Corsi rating on the team and was third best in goal-against-per-60-minutes (5-on-5) while facing the third highest quality of competition on the club (minimum 30 games played), according to Green’s problem is not so much “half-court” defense as it is another problem, one already hinted at – turnovers. He finished second among NHL defensemen in giveaways last season. That makes for a lot of puck-chasing transition defense, which really isn’t the sort of thing the Capitals are going to be successful in executing if they – including defensemen like Green – are pressing their attack at the other end.

Part of the problem Green has is one that a point guard has in basketball – when he’s on the ice, he’s spends more time than others carrying the puck up ice. He is going to have more opportunities, for lack of a better word, for turning the puck over. But the fact remains that unless he can improve that aspect of his game, he – and the Capitals in general – are going to struggle defensively, and Green is going to be seen as a somewhat one-dimensional “offensive” defenseman, not the standard for two-way defense that Niedermayer and Lidstrom represent.

Fearless: If you drill into that giveaway number, the comparison of Green to Niedermayer and Lidstrom becomes even starker. Lidstrom averaged one giveaway for every 42 minutes of ice time last year, Niedermayer one in every 30 minutes. Green averaged one every 18 minutes. In the playoffs, that was one giveaway every 14 minutes. The silver lining here is that we’re making comparisons to two guys who have already had their plaques made for the Hockey Hall of Fame; we’re just waiting for the induction ceremonies down the road. And Green won’t turn 24 until the second week of the season. Lidstrom came into the league as a fully-formed, productive defenseman at both ends, but he might be among the top five defensemen ever to play in the NHL. Niedermayer wasn’t “Niedermayer” until perhaps his sixth or seventh full season. And if defensive defensemen take a while to mature, so should it be expected that the defensive side of Green’s game should be the last part of his repertoire to mature. He is, now, the best offensive defenseman in the game.

Cheerless: I was cruising the Interweb (“Internet,” doofus) and saw an article by this Pierre LeBrun guy, and he said this about Green and the playoffs… “There were questions about Green's fitness level. He simply wasn't the same blueliner come playoff time. He lacked confidence with the puck. I won't soon forget the night of the Capitals' Game 7 second-round loss to the Penguins. A distraught Green never came out to talk to the media, likely devastated by what he knew was a subpar playoff performance.” How long does that linger with a player? If Green gets off to a bad start, are the whispers going to start all over? If he’s held off the Canadian Olympic team, does his star start to fade?

In the end…

Green suffered an awkward spill in the Ranger series that might have left him physically sub-par for the remainder of the playoffs. That seems as likely an explanation of the drop-off in his performance as his “fitness level.” But if there is a player in the NHL less lacking for motivation than Mike Green, we’d appreciate your pointing him out to us. He finished second in the Norris Trophy voting, had a weak series against the Rangers, a poor series against the Penguins, might not make the Canadian Olympic team, and is being called out in just about any hockey publication you can find. But here’s the thing, Green has improved in each of his full seasons in the NHL on a per-82 game basis in goals (from two to 18 to 37), assists (from 12-38-51), points (from 14 to 56 to 88), plus-minus (from -12 to +6 to +29). This year, though, one can imagine a Green with a great deal more focus at both ends of the ice… unless he hears the whispers.


77 games, 24-48-72, +26