Sunday, September 27, 2009

2009-2010 Previews -- Forwards: Alexander Semin

Alexander Semin

Theme: “The only thing that should surprise us is that there are still some things that can surprise us.”

For a guy who provides little for public consumption (absent the odd quote about Sidney Crosby), Alexander Semin is chock full of surprises. Last year, Semin was 34-45-79, +25. But that was in only 62 games. On an 82-game basis, his 45 goals would have put him tied for third in the league, his 59 assists would have led all wingers and placed him ninth overall, his 104 points would have left him fourth in scoring, his 11 game winning goals would have tied for second, his 40 power play points would have tied for fifth, and his plus-33 would have left him tied for fourth in the league. Had he played in 82 games at that pace, it might not have been outside the realm of possibility that he would have been among the Hart Trophy finalists, having finished with more goals, points, game winning goals, and power play points than Pavel Datsyuk and one point behind in plus-minus.

In the last three seasons, Semin has averaged on an 82-game basis 40-39-79. However, in the last three seasons Semin has missed a total of 44 games, too. And that, as much as anything, is the problem. Ankle, tailbone, and back injuries, as well as a bout with the flu have put him on the shelf for those 44 games. If this guy ever plays 75-80 games…

Fearless: Well, the one year he did – 77 games in 2006-2007, he had 38 goals. And that was his first full season in the NHL. But last year was surprising in one other respect. In his first three seasons, he skated a total – a total – of 10:56 while shorthanded. That works out to an average of about three seconds a game. Last year, he was fourth among Caps forwards in average penalty killing time (1:31). And his plus/minus-per-60 minutes of shorthanded time was – surprisingly – better than either David Steckel or Sergei Fedorov, better than either Boyd Gordon or Brooks Laich (according to

Cheerless: Cuz, that’s like being named prettiest pig in a beauty contest. The Caps finished 17th in penalty killing last year. Only two playoff teams in the East were worse (Carolina and New Jersey). But he is a threat to score shortfingered (…”handed”… short “handed”).

In the end:

Semin is, if not comparable to Alex Ovechkin in offensive skill, at least in the neighborhood. He is probably a better skater in traffic, a better passer, and has a more diversified array of shots. What he hasn’t been is durable (Ovechkin has missed one game to injury in four years). Still, Semin finished 19th in overall scoring despite playing at least 15 fewer games than every player ranked ahead of him.

What he is, too (or at least remains), is something of an undisciplined player. His 31 minor penalties last year was fourth on the team (again, in only 62 games). 14 of them were hooking penalties, and six others were tripping penalties. 21 of those 31 minors came in the last 34 games of the season. He also had 27 minors in 63 games in 2007-2008 and 45 minors in 77 games in the 2006-2007 season. The Caps took 414 minor penalties last year, tied for sixth most in the league, and they face the third highest number of shorthanded situations (387). Semin is hardly alone in taking perhaps too many trips to the penalty box, but it doesn’t give him a pass, either, especially given the number of stick infractions he took last year.

It’s a little hard to believe that Semin is still only 25. It seems he’s been a member of this organization for much longer. But at 25 he is entering both what are likely to be his prime years of production, and he is in a contract year (he will be a restricted free agent after this season). The last time his contract was expiring, he put up 38 goals and 73 points in 77 games. Last year, he demonstrated that he could be every bit the elite scorer (on a points per game basis) his more celebrated teammate Alex Ovechkin has been. If he can show more durability and less inclination to take penalties, he’s going to be up for quite a raise next year. And this makes for quite an irony. If Semin was to take those steps forward – perhaps play in 75-plus games, push 100 points, and be that vital cog on a champion – he could be in a position to price himself out of Washington. But that is another issue for another day.

Another thing that will be interesting to watch is how Semin performs in the absence of Sergei Fedorov. In the year-plus that Fedorov skated for the Caps, Semin was 41-50-91, +19 in 80 regular season games and 8-14-22, plus-1 in 21 playoff games. No one seems to have benefitted more from Fedorov’s presence than Semin. This year, we get to see if the lessons took, as Fedorov will be skating in Russia. If he can keep up that level of production and spend less time in the penalty box, he could be the key ingredient in pushing the Caps over the top and to a Stanley Cup championship.

And that would be a pleasant surprise.


74 games, 39-44-83, +13

2009-2010 Previews -- Forwards: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

Theme: “Well, then, I guess there's only one thing to do… win the whole %$#&in' thing.”

Jake Taylor, the fictional catcher for the Cleveland Indians from the movie "Major League," might have said that as an inspiration to his teammates to get back at an evil club owner, but it’s really all that’s left for Alex Ovechkin to do in the NHL. Calder Trophy?... check. Ross Trophy?... check. Hart Trophy?... check, check. Pearson Award… check, check. Richard Trophy?... check, check.

Ovechkin’s goal scoring achievements are common knowledge among hockey fans. But here is a more complete list of the categories in which he has ranked first in the league in each of the past two years…

Goals created
Goals created-per-game
Goals on-ice for
Even strength goals

However, here is one you don’t hear much about – he was second among wingers last year (10th in the league) in assists-per-game. Only teammate Alexander Semin ranked higher among wingers. Last year, he tied for the league lead among all wingers in assists (54, with Jarome Iginla). This from a guy who fans (ok, Penguin fans) see as something of a puck hog. And, he is the only skater in the history of the league to be named a first team all-star in each of his first four seasons. In every place outside of the 412 area code, he is the consensus pick as the best player in the sport.

What he doesn’t have is a Stanley Cup.

And the clock is ticking. An odd thing to say of one who just turned 24, but that’s the sad fact of life in the NHL. We wrote back in June, after the season ended…
"Next year will be a telling year in the career of Alex Ovechkin. He will be 24 years old when the season ends. That’s barely getting started in most walks of life, but looking at the greats – Gretzky won his first Cup at age 23, Mario Lemieux at 25, Maurice Richard at 22, Bobby Orr at 21, Gordie Howe at 21. The window is open for Ovechkin to join those greats, and to be mentioned in the same breath as them, he will have to have his name engraved on the same piece of hardware."

Fearless: Ovechkin has 219 goals in four seasons. Even if he doesn’t average more than 50 goals a season in his career, certainly he should average more than 40. So if he plays 15 seasons, he’s a 600-goal scorer. Know how many of the 17 600-goal scorers in NHL history have not won a Stanley Cup? Three – Marcel Dionne, Mike Gartner, and Dino Ciccarelli.

Cheerless: Hey, cuz… what do two of those three have in common with Ovechkin? Think, “red jersey.”

In the end:

Alex Ovechkin has posted an average per 82 games in his four-year career of 55-51-106, +5, 20 PPG, and nine game winners. Since expansion in the 1967-1968 season only one left winger has had a better single season than that average (Luc Robitaille was 63-62, 125, plus-18, 24 PPG, and eight game winners in 1992-1993). In a sense, his universe of comparables isn’t his present-day opposition (outside of those two guys in Pittsburgh), but the history of the league.

But here is another fact. Of the six wingers, regardless of what side they play on, who posted seasons of at least 55 goals, 51 assists, and the rest of those average numbers since expansion (Alexander Mogilny, Mike Bossy, Jari Kurri, Luc Robitaille, Jaromir Jagr, and Guy Lafleur), every one of them has a Stanley Cup ring. Some of them won those Cups when they had their big seasons (Bossy, Kurri, Lafleur), some didn’t (Mogilny, Jagr, Robitaille). But they all did, sooner or later.

And that will be the standard against Ovechkin will be judged for the rest of his career, especially now that his arch-rival Sidney Crosby and countryman Evgeni Malkin have their rings.

It’s hard to say what it is Ovechkin needs to do to give himself – and the Caps – a better chance to take a turn around the ice with the Cup. Well, actually, it isn’t… but how it happens might be complicated. There is a feeling that Ovechkin is not the most robust player in his own end of the ice. For a guy with more than 400 points on his resume in four years, to be plus-19 for his career seems a bit light. Yeah, he played on a couple of rather grim teams, but he was a plus-2 on one of them (his rookie year, one of only three forwards playing more than 50 games to do so).

But on the other hand, he takes long shifts, both at even strength and on the power play, where he often skates the entire man-advantage (no small factor in his being on the ice for 10 of the 11 shorthanded goals that the Caps allowed last year). He led all forwards in average ice time last year after finishing third the year before. What is odd is that in the last two seasons, Ovechkin averaged more than 60 seconds per shift (Ilya Kovalchuk being the only other forward to do so in each of the last two seasons) while averaging less than a minute in each of his first two years on vastly inferior teams. Does he need to play 23 minutes a night on a team with as many offensive weapons as the Caps have? Clearly, he can, but should he?

Ovechkin doesn’t have to establish his bona fides as a generational talent. He compares more than favorably to any player currently playing in the NHL and certainly is in the conversation about all-time greats, even after only four years in the league. But there is that matter of the fancy spittoon. It is the difference between a Babe Ruth and a Barry Bonds, a Michael Jordan and an Elgin Baylor, a Joe Montana and a Dan Marino.


82 games, 56-57-113, +19

2009-2010 Previews -- Forwards: Brendan Morrison

Brendan Morrison

Theme: “Consistency is the foundation of virtue.”

For six consecutive seasons – from 2000-2001 through 2006-2007 – Brendan Morrison played in all 82 games of the NHL season for the Vancouver Canucks. Then he endured a wrist injury that kept him out of 38 games of the 2007-2008 season, then a knee injury that put him on the shelf for the last four games of that regular season.

Morrison resurfaced with the Anaheim Ducks in the 2008-2009 season, signing with the club as a free agent. After 62 games, he was placed on waivers and claimed by Dallas, where he finished the season playing 19 games for the Stars.

Now, he’s in Washington and presumably, hopefully, healthy once more. If he is, those six seasons of 82 games might be instructive. Over those seasons, Morrison averaged 21-39-60, +7 with six power play goals and five game-winners. All other things equal, one might not think he would match those numbers with the Caps, owing to his being older (he is 34), the fact that he is penciled in as the second line center for this team, and the likelihood he will get less power play time as Nicklas Backstrom carries the load at center in that regard. On the other hand, he is likely to have the benefit of a superior offensive talent in Alexander Semin on his left.

Morrison seems to be one of those solid citizens the Caps have accumulated in recent years. If you look at the “second page” of the resume, so to speak, he has been a Central Collegiate Hockey Association (NCAA) player of the year at the University of Michigan (twice), an NCAA tournament most valuable player, and a Hobey Baker Award winner.

Back to those 82-game seasons. They came in the midst of what became for Morrison a 542-games played streak that, when it ended in December 2007, was the 11th longest in NHL history. Until his wrist and knee injuries, this was not a player with durability issues. And even coming back from those injuries, he played in 81 games last year. That would be 29 more than did the Caps’ second line center, Sergei Fedorov. It would be more than Fedorov averaged in a season since the lockout (65). Is Morrison a better player than the man he’s replacing? Well, no. But if Morrison is back to health, then 75 or more games of his production is likely to have better results than 52 (last year’s total) from Fedorov.

Fearless: If you get past the names, Morrison – even with his missing most of the 2007-2008 season – was a more productive player offensively than Sergei Fedorov since the lockout:

What Morrison appears unlikely to bring is the defensive versatility Fedorov possessed.

Cheerless: Does Morrison speak Russian, cuz? What do you call those things players have that doesn’t have on the player stat pages…tangerines? (you talking about “intangibles,” cuz?) Fedorov seemed to do wonders for the Russians on this team. How many wins you think that meant?

In the end:

We’re going to see if the Russians have grown up, but that’s another discussion. As for Morrison, this is a player who has played in 80-plus games in seven of the last eight seasons. If last year was a “rehab” year, one in which he still managed 16 goals, then this year he could return to something approaching his career averages. He’s not going to be the almost-20 minute a game player he was with Vancouver; he won’t get the power play time to approach those minutes. But as a 16-18 minute a game player, he could be fresher come the spring.

Morrison is something of a low-risk, high-reward kind of signing for the Caps. Inked to a one-year, $1.5 million contract, Morrison is skating for his next contract, demonstrating (both he and Caps fans hope) that he is fully recovered from the injuries that cut short his 2007-2008 season. If he is recovered enough to play in 70 or more games, it would seem likely that he will put up numbers superior to those of Sergei Fedorov last year.

However, whether Morrison will be a more important ingredient to Caps success this year is the annual unknown of free agency. In an odd sort of way, Morrison might be considered the third contestant given the opportunity to take on the role of the second line center. Michael Nylander was signed to the job in 2007 (a job he took once his placeholder duties on the first line gave way to Nicklas Backstrom), and he didn’t work out. Sergei Fedorov was brought in via trade, and he provided a shot in the arm for the Caps’ big playoff run a couple of years ago. But last year, he wasn’t in the lineup on a consistent enough basis to be a truly productive player. In fact, Nylander might have been the last productive second line center on a respectable Caps team, and that would have been in 2002-2003, in his first tour with the club (he was 17-39-56, plus-3 in 71 games). Here is an odd stat… Last year, the Caps were the only team in the Southeast Division without two centers having at least 45 points (we do not count either Brooks Laich or Viktor Kozlov as centers for these purposes, despite their being identified as such at Morrison will end that nonsense this year.


76 games, 16-38-54, +6