Monday, September 21, 2009

A "pfft" kinda night: Sabres 2 - Caps 1

This game doesn’t count…
This game doesn’t count…
Repeat after me… “this game doesn’t count.”

Good thing, too, because the Caps, to be kind, well… stunk. Some examples…

-- The Caps had a full five minute power play straddling the first and second periods. During that advantage, they had one shot on goal… from 61 feet out.

-- Mike Green, John Erskine, and Karl Alzner attempted eight shots on goal among them. Seven of them were blocked, one missed the net entirely.

-- Tarik El-Bashir noted via Twitter that “the whole Caps' scouting dept. is in town and will be watching the on-ice activities very closely ahead of a few tough decisions.” The only tough decision after tonight was figuring out which guy on the bubble to kick in the keister. No one “grabbed” a roster slot, let alone didn’t let go (a reference to Coach Bruce Boudreau’s comment that “somebody's just got to grab and don't let go”). It wasn’t for lack of energy among the hopefuls like Andrew Gordon or Chris Bourque, but there seemed to be a lot of heat and not much light as a result of their efforts.

-- Watching the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble line, I was reminded that sometimes, in a 45-rpm world, some folks are going to move along at 33-1/3. Mike Knuble, to be fair, played in a bit of bad luck, hitting a pipe once and missing when he had a chance to roof the puck from point-blank range.

-- Jose Theodore didn’t have to be spectacular (the Sabres had their own offensive issues), and he wasn’t. He was certainly good enough to win. But the Caps losing wasn’t his problem.

-- Kudos to John Erskine and Alex Ovechkin, though, for one slice of the latter stages of the first period. Erskine flattened Jeff Cowan with an open-ice hit that was as pure a hit as you’re likely to see (not that crap that Dion Phaneuf pulled on Kyle Okposo the other night). Paul Gaustad jumped Erskine, but as another Sabre was trying to enter the fray, Ovechkin grabbed him from behind and clean-and-jerked him to the ice. Gaustad got two for instigating, five for fighting, and ten for a misconduct. Erskine got two for roughing.

-- Speaking of Ovechkin, give the guy a little credit for class. He had a couple of Sabres lined up for some nasty hits and stepped past them (yeah, he did have a couple he didn’t pass up). It’s preseason.

-- The Caps were 0-for-6 on the power play. That makes 1-for-12 and ten in a row that failed to end in a score.

-- And for the clown sitting behind me who spent the entire 60 minutes in a non-stop invective against Jeff Schultz, imploring him to “hit something” every time Schultz was within a time zone of another player (sometimes a teammate)… Schultz tied for the team lead in hits (four).

Could the Caps have played better? Yeah. Does this result matter in the larger scheme of things? Not is your name is “Ovechkin,” “Backstrom,” “Knuble,” or “Semin.” None of them looked to be running at mid-season speed, but they weren’t dogs out there either (sorry, Kanoobie). Mike Green was something of another matter. Did you ever watch a spring training baseball game, and while the action is going on in the field, pitchers are doing sprints in the outfield? Green wasn’t exactly sprinting out there, and he didn’t seem to be entirely engaged in the game, either. Let’s just hope that’s his way of getting ready, because as we know…

This game doesn’t count.

Seven Questions, Seven (Wordy) Answers

A short time back, we were asked by DC Pro Sports Report to respond to seven questions concerning the Caps for the upcoming season. You can go here to see how our fellow wizards responded, but here is what we wrote...

1. Will the Caps three-peat as SE Division Champs?

The Caps won the Southeast Division by 11 points last year. So, I have to ask myself first, has Carolina improved so much to make up the entirety of that gap? You'd have to think that getting a full year of Jussi Jokinen and Erik Cole would narrow the gap. On the other hand, Rod Brind'Amour is 39, and Ray Whitney is 37. The Southeast as a whole will be stronger than last year, and this could eat into the Caps standings points total from last year. I do not see the Caps finishing with 108 points again, but they should be the class of this division.

2. Do you foresee a Washington Capitals Stanley Cup appearance this season?

As a fan, anything less than that has to be regarded as at best a disappointment, at worst a failure. The Caps have a window that is open now and that will, in my opinion, last for another four or five years. But stepping back and looking at the Caps, it will be extremely difficult to reach that far in the playoffs, because the playoffs are so goaltender-centric. And there is no position with more uncertainty for the Caps than that one. An inconsistent veteran and a prospect of limited experience. That's not a recipe for success.

3. If and when will Semyon Varlamov wrestle the starting goalie job from Jose Theodore?

I read one column in the last few days opining that Theodore would start the season, and Varlamov would finish it. It reminds me a little bit of an NFL team with an aging quarterback and a phenom. I suspect that is going to happen this year, and it will happen around New Years Day.

4. Each year there seems to be a surprise offensive player. Who will it be this year?

I don't foresee any player leaping off the page to change from a five-goal scorer to a 20-goal scorer. I expect there will be some players who improve as goal scorers - Nicklas Backstrom, David Steckel.

5. What player or type of player does the Washington Capitals need to make that final push to win the Cup?

First, what they don't need - the flashy trading deadline pickup. Pittsburgh got more effective results from adding Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin than they did from adding Marian Hossa (which is not to say that either Kunitz or Guerin is a better player than Hossa). Some sandpaper. Guys who will get dirty.

6. What impact will 2008 1st rounder John Carlson will make on the Caps this season?

I think he will appear in a call-up/injury fill in role. I don't see him making the squad out of training camp.

7. Rank the SE Division standings

Tampa Bay

We're ON THE AIR!!!... sorta

According to Corey Masisak (via Twitter), tonight’s lineup looks like this for the Caps. As part of our own training camp, hopeful that we won't be sent to Hershey in the last cuts of camp to blog for the Bears (or sent to South Carolina… or bought out – gulp – ), we bring you the “game within a game”… uh, game:


Chemistry 101. These guys have been The Three Amigos on the ice since the first puck was dropped last Sunday, and they’ve been quite impressive. Now, they get to skate in a game. Want to hit the ground running on October 1st. Let’s see how fast they run as a group in facing their first real competition.


This is essentially an audition for Alexandre Giroux. Coach Boudreau was quoted as saying, "We are giving him a good look, and we're giving him every opportunity. We are putting him with good players and it is up to him to the job." Given that Tomas Fleischmann and Eric Fehr are uncertain to start the season, this is Giroux’ big chance for a “call back” an opportunity to start the season with the Caps on opening night on a scoring line. Keith Aucoin would seem to be a victim of numbers, especially given that the center slots on the top two lines are occupied.

Joudrey-Steckel-A. Gordon

The key here might be Gordon. In a way, it’s an audition for the same position Quintin Laing has been auditioning for – an energy guy to do a lot of the dirty work. Laing would appear to have a leg up on Gordon on the merits, but they do their jobs in different ways.


The subplot here is the rumor (since squashed by none other than the subject of it) that the Caps would try to find a home for Chris Bourque other than Hershey if there is no room on the Caps roster. If at the top of the forward lines the competition is among Eric Fehr, Tomas Flesichmann, and Alexandre Giroux for what looks like one vacant slot, then down here on the third and fourth lines, the competition is between Bourque and Quintin Laing (with Andrew Gordon on the outside) for a spare slot.

Schultz, Green, Alzner, Carlson, Collins, Erskine

Three entrenched defensemen – Green, Schultz, and Erskine. Three hopefuls auditioning for what might be one slot – Alzner, Carlson, and Collins. The guy who might be the leader in the clubhouse for that slot – Tyler Sloan (who played in the first preseason game) – isn’t playing tonight. Does it say something that these three hopefuls are in, and Sloan isn’t? We’re thinking this is the best chance to impress for these three guys. Someone has to emerge from this group.

2009-2010 Previews -- Forwards: Brooks Laich

Brooks Laich

Theme: “A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.”

In the first year after the lockout, Brooks Laich skated in 73 games for the Caps and finished 7-14-21, minus-9 for a team that finished 14th in the East with 70 standings points. Folks might have been forgiven if they thought that an 11-minute-a-night forward who was ninth among forwards in scoring wasn’t quite a bargain for trading away an icon like Peter Bondra.

Fast forward to 2008-2009, and a Brooks Laich who finished 23-30-53, minus-1. He became an important cog on the Capitals’ power play (9-15-24, third among forwards in power play scoring) and was otherwise something of a jack-of-all-trades, finishing with a 51 percent faceoff winning percentage, 99 hits, 44 takeaways, and three game-winning goals. Laich, if not quite earning super hero status, was turned into a local “Chuck Norris” type for his 17 minutes a game of derring-do. Perhaps not enough to have fans ask, “Peter who?”, but enough so that fans weren’t grumbling about the Laich-for-Bondra trade in 2004.

Let’s play a little game called, “Which is Which?” We’ll compare two players, and you tell us which is which? Player 1 is 25 years old, and his season went 23-30-53, -1. He had a 51.1 percent faceoff winning percentage, 99 hits, 44 takeaways, and three game-winning goals in 82 games. Player 2 is 26 years old, and his season also went 23-30-53. He was a minus-9, had a 53.8 percent faceoff winning percentage, had 20 hits, 20 takeaways, and had five game-winning goals.

Which is which?

OK… you probably figured out that Player 1 is Brooks Laich last year. But Player 2 was a 26-year old Chris Drury playing for Calgary in 2002-2003. It was by no means Drury’s best year, and we’re not submitting a comparable for a $7 million arbitration award on Laich’s behalf, either. But it does suggest that Laich is one of those “under the radar” guys who has become quite an important cog in the Caps’ skating machine.

With Laich’s increase in ice time has come progress. In each of the last four seasons, Laich has played in at least 73 games (82 in each of the last two), and in them…

- His goals have improved from 7 in 2005-2006 to 23 last year
- His assists have improved from 14 to 30
- His points have improved from 21 to 53
- His plus/minus (mirroring the improvement of the team) has improved from minus-9 to minus-1
- His power play goals have improved from one to nine
- His game-winners have improved from one to three (although he did have four in 2007-2008)
- His faceoff wins have improved from 49.7 percent to 51.1 percent
- Hits are up from 50 to 99
- Blocked shots are up from 28 to 42
- Takeaways are up from 28 to 44 (ok, so are giveaways – from 24 to 49… nobody is perfect)
- Shots on goal are up from 118 to 185

Fearless: You’d be hard pressed to find so uniform and significant an improvement among any of the Capitals over the past four years. But cuz… when you did that “Rebuild: Reloaded” thing a year ago, you only gave the trade a revised grade of B-plus. Are you going to reconsider that grade?

Cheerless: Geez, even I can’t find much wrong here. He’s better’n a double value store coupon. He makes $2.1 million this year. Some other guys in that neighborhood include Doug Weight, Trent Hunter, Jeff Halpern, Steve Bernier, and Darcy Tucker (is he still in this league?). Are any of those guys as productive or as versatile as Laich?

In the end:

Laich is entering his prime. He’s been mentioned in a few places as future captain material on this team. He’s also approaching his prime earning years (he is an unrestricted free agent after the 2010-2011 season). So for now, he remains a bargain. We don’t think he’s going to match last year’s career highs in offensive production, mainly because Mike Knuble seems likely to get some of those power play points that Laich got last year (and add to that total). But that won’t make Laich any less effective.

Laich can play any of the forward positions on either a scoring line (say, as right wing on the second line) or a checking line. He can take faceoffs; he can kill penalties (he trailed only David Steckel and Boyd Gordon in PK time last year among forwards). Last year, only Sergei Fedorov among centers faced a higher quality of competition at five-on-five, according to He was sixth among all forwards in goal differential/60 minutes, on versus off the ice at 5-on-5 (+0.45).

Laich has made the most of the extra six minutes of ice time he took last year over that which he skated in 2005-2006. He has become a solid 16-18 minute a night player whose continued effectiveness will be an important ingredient in the Caps upcoming season. If he can continue to exhibit that “extra five minutes” of bravery – or at least effectiveness – then Laich might be Ralph Waldo Emerson's definition of a hero, and the Caps should go deep into the spring.


80 games, 18-27-45, +1