Monday, September 28, 2009

2009-2010 Previews -- Goaltenders: Semyon Varlamov

Semyon Varlamov

Theme: “Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what it is still possible for you to do.”

So, an Italian cleric – Angelo Roncalli – describes what this season might hold for a young Russian goaltender. When last we saw Semyon Varlamov in a game that mattered, he finally wilted under a withering assault at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins, pulled from Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals after 22 minutes, having allowed four goals on 18 shots. It was the fourth straight game in that series in which he allowed at least four goals.

Varlamov – as unexpected a choice to lead the Capitals forward in the playoffs as one could imagine – failed where many before him had… Olaf Kolzig, Jim Carey, Don Beaupre. All fell to the Penguins in the playoffs.

But Varlamov’s future looks brighter than any of his predecessors. And it’s not just the fact that Varlamov will – this year and in the immediate future – enjoy a better cast of skaters than any of his predecessors, but Varlamov seems that rare combination of athletic skill, having a capacity to improve, and possessing a calm confidence that will allow him to weather the intermittent failures as he makes progress toward taking over the number one goaltending spot and, Capitals Nation hopes, toward a Stanley Cup championship.

Hardly lost in last year’s unfortunate end was a run in which the youngster announced his presence with no small measure of authority:

- He won his NHL debut in one of the most difficult venues for visiting goaltenders, topping the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre, 2-1, stopping 32 of 33 shots one night after joining the club in mid-game after having been called off the road – literally – as the Hershey Bears were traveling between cities on a Texas road trip.

- He won his Verizon Center debut five days later, besting the St. Louis Blues 4-2 and stopping 29 of 31 shots with his father in attendance.

- He finished the regular season undefeated in regulation in six appearances (4-0-1), holding opponents to two goals or fewer in five of those appearances.

- He took the reins in goal for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal after the Caps dropped Game 1. He lost two of the next three, but stopped 75 of 78 shots, securing his win via shutout. Having given his teammates an opportunity to get their legs under them, he won the last three games of the series, giving up only four goals on 67 shots. For the series, he had a goals against average of 1.17, a save percentage of .952, and two shutouts in six games.

The kid can play…

Fearless: Even though there are no sure things among 21-year olds, you can’t think he’s a fluke. He was 19-7-1, 2.40, .908, and two shutouts at Hershey. In two seasons with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl he recorded six shutouts in 77 regular season games and another five in 22 playoff games over that span.

Cheerless: Uh-huh. Well here’s another goalie… 39-21-2, 3.05 in college; 30-14-11, 2.76 in the minors, 18-6-3, 2.13 as a rookie in the NHL, then a Vezina Trophy winner the next year. Three years later, he was out of hockey.

In the end:

Yes, we know the story of Jim Carey, and yes, his career pretty much cratered after he was shelled by the Penguins to the tune of a 6.19 GAA in the 1996 playoffs. Not every goalie who starts fast suffers that fate. For a Jim Carey there is a Cam Ward. And truth be told, those Caps teams on which Carey played that lost to the Penguins in 1995 and 1996 were not really set up for deep playoff runs. The 1995 team won 22 of 48 regular season games and had to go a 5-0-1 run to close the season to clinch a playoff spot, and the 1996 team finished fourth in the Atlantic Division.

By comparison, this Caps team is loaded. So much so that Varlamov is in much the same boat as Jose Theodore. He is probably, at this stage of his career, lacking in sufficient experience to be the cornerstone of a 16-win run to a Stanley Cup. But he can (as he showed last spring) steal games, allowing the Caps to use their impressive skill among their skaters to otherwise dominate opponents.

Varlamov has given no indication of any hangover from his disappointing results in the Penguin series last spring. He is probably ahead of the developmental pace set by the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury, who as a 21-year old was skating on a bad team and suffering through a 13-27-6, 3.25, .898 record with the parent club. Then he crashed and burned at Wilkes-Barre, going 2-3, 3.48, .883 in the Calder Cup playoffs and getting benched in favor of Dany Sabourin in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins’ last game of the year, a 1-0 series clinching loss to Hershey. Of course, Fleury’ memory of that is no doubt softened by the fact that he backstops the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Varlamov might be following the same arc. That is what it is still possible for him to do.


30 games, 16-9-2, 2.58, .912, 1 shutout

2009-2010 Previews -- Goaltenders: Jose Theodore

Jose Theodore

Theme: “What may be done at any time will be done at no time.”

The Scots are known more for having invented the game of golf, not for their prowess in hockey, but that above is a Scottish proverb. And it applies here, for this is likely to be Jose Theodore’s one, best, and perhaps last chance to backstop a team to a Stanley Cup. “Any time” has become “this time,” as in “now.”

Last season, Theodore won 32 games – a respectable number for having played in 57 games on a playoff contender. But he was also a “second page” goalie. By that, we mean that if one was to go to and look at the goalie statistics, you’d find him on the second page of the goals-against rankings and the save percentage rankings. Even on an “offense first” club like the Capitals, that is neither a hoped-for nor an expected result. Not for a player with 11 years of NHL experience going into last season and holding a two-year, $9 million contract (if you’re wondering, 12 goalies carry a heavier cap hit than does Theodore).

The problem is, in part, that Theodore won the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2002 after posting a 30-24-10, 2.11, .931, seven shutout season. He hasn’t really come that close to matching those numbers since (except for wins, which he surpassed with 32 last year). The lowest GAA he’s had since that year was 2.27 in 2003-2004. The best save percentage he’s had since was .919 in 2003-2004. And in that year he also posted his highest shutout total since the trophy year, finishing with six. In four seasons since the lockout, including last year’s with the Caps, Theodore’s average season is 23-18-4, 2.93, .907, and one shutout. We hate to make this comparison, but that’s pretty much Carey Price from last year (23-16-10, 2.83, .905, and one shutout).

There is also the matter of load. Last year’s 57 appearances represents Theodore’s high water mark since the lockout. He has never appeared in more than 67 games in a season in his career, and he has eclipsed the 3,500 minute mark twice in 12 seasons. In fact, he has played in more than 3,000 minutes in only half of his 12 NHL seasons.

Fearless: Well, he’s in the last year of his deal with the Caps. The last time he was in that situation, he improved his goals against from 3.26 to 2.44, his save percentage from .891 to .910, and his shutouts from none to three. If he has similar “improvement” this year, Semyon Varlamov is going to break in that baseball cap nicely.

Cheerless: How many times has Theodore played in the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs? Take your time, we’ll wait. Did you say, “none?” Well, you win a stuffed duck. Here is the scarier part of that fact. Four times he made it to the second round, plus mop-up duty in Game 7 last year. His second round record?... 2-16, 3.87, .885.

In the end:

Once more… there is no position fraught with more uncertainty than that of goaltender on this club. Semyon Varlamov doesn’t have the body of experience one would like to see in a goalie on a championship-caliber club. Michal Neuvirth, ditto. And Jose Theodore doesn’t have the sort of playoff resume to inspire confidence. If the Caps are a club that has to depend on their goaltender to steal the majority of wins in the spring, then the Caps would not be a betting favorite to win a Stanley Cup.

But let’s use an analogy from another sport here, a sport that places a lot of emphasis on one position in a championship setting. The Capitals do not have the hockey equivalent of Joe Montana or Tom Bradey tending goal, the guy you just know is going to find a way to come up big in the big game. But Super Bowls are won by the likes of a Jeff Hostetler at quarterback, too. Sometimes, like a football quarterback, all that you ask of a goaltender is not to make the big mistake. You don’t ask him to shoulder the load. The Caps have a team that can ease that burden on a goaltender, but having a goaltender that might be looking over his shoulder at his potential successor will make for a continuing subplot to the season.

One would think that the yanking after Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs would be motivation to make things right this year. But Theodore had a difficult summer that makes that benching in the Rangers series pale in comparison. It’s made for a grueling six months for the veteran. Whether a Caps fan or not, one can’t help but root for him to have a much better six months in front of him, and an even better spring to follow.


54 games, 30-16-5, 2.76, .904, two shutouts

2009-2010 Previews -- Forwards: On the Bubble

With 18 forwards on the roster going into the weekend, there are still cuts to be made among that group. Injuries that are likely to keep Eric Fehr and Tomas Fleischmann on injured reserve to start the year mean that there are two roster spots available for players on the bubble. But we still have the matter of four forwards fighting for what appear to be two roster spots, assuming the Caps carry 14 forwards. Alexandre Giroux, Chris Bourque, Keith Aucoin, and Quintin Laing are the principals in that battle.

The other two forwards not guaranteed roster spots – Brandon Sugden and Michael Nylander – are highly unlikely to start the year in Washington, but for different reasons. Sugden would appear to be ticketed to Hershey as the club’s enforcer. Nylander is ticketed for… well, somewhere else. Where that will be is still something of a mystery, but the hints are being dropped that something will happen in the next day or two.

So let’s go back to those four players – Giroux, Bourque, Aucoin, and Laing. Bourque is the only one of this group who could be called a “prospect” at this point in his career. He has played a total of 12 NHL games over the past two seasons, registering one goal for his cups o’ coffee with the club. He could be considered in the mix to secure one of the two open forward slots (that is, not encumbered by Fehr or Fleischmann upon their return). He has played at a high energy level in the preseason and has given the effort commensurate with a youngster who knows that he has an opening to shoot for. Missing a couple of pre-season games cut into his opportunities to impress, but he’s made the best of what could have been a difficult situation, coming back yesterday with a solid effort in 14 minutes against the Rangers. The absence of Fehr and Fleischmann is the opening Bourque needs – a few extra opportunities, perhaps, that were missed when he missed those other pre-season games.

Laing is more of a known quantity in both his strengths and weaknesses. In 43 games in the NHL (40 with the Caps), he has one goal (for the record, a game-winner against the Devils in December 2007). Offense will neither get him, nor keep him in the league. But he will block shots (53 in 40 games with the Caps, an 82-game pace of 109 that would have led the league by far among forwards last year). And he will give himself up to make a play, evidenced by his suffering a serious injury to his spleen in his lone game with the Caps last year, then making it back to skate in nine Calder Cup playoff games with Hershey, including the Cup-clinching win in Manitoba. What Laing brings to the party is something you can’t really teach – a player has it, or he doesn’t. And coaches love the things Laing brings. Chances are, Laing would be on the roster on opening night in any case. A couple of roster spots freeing up early gives him just a little more opportunity to show those unheralded (at least by fans) gifts.

At the other end of the spectrum is Alexandre Giroux, who remains a mystery. How could a player who scored 60 goals in 69 regular season games last year in Hershey, plus another 15 in 22 Calder Cup playoff games, look so lost and incapable of scoring at this level? In 22 career regular season games in the NHL (all but one with the Caps), Giroux has three goals (all with Washington). He scored on his first shot of the preseason – against Buffalo – but has been off the score sheet in three other games since, registering a 1-0-1, even line in four preseason games. It seems unlikely in the extreme that Giroux would have a roster spot on this team on opening night if Fehr or Fleischmann were healthy. Getting four preseason games worth of opportunities is as much as anyone could have asked for in this abbreviated pre-season, and his not getting a sweater for yesterday’s game against the Rangers was revealing. Unless he finds some magic, and right quick, he has a locker waiting for him in Hershey.

That leaves Keith Aucoin, who is the most “NHL-ready” of these four players. He has 65 games of NHL experience (12 with Washington last year). Does that give him a leg up on the competition? Well, he notched a pair of goals in his three preseason games of work (the Caps lost both games), but the question would appear to be whether he is sturdy enough to stick on a club that already has offensive talent on the top two lines, but needs some sandpaper on the other two. In a way, Aucoin is an older (30 years old) version of Bourque (23) – a player of smallish stature (Aucoin is listed at 5’9”, 187; Bourque at 5’7”, 181), who can play center or wing, who plays at a high energy level. In this case, a tie might go to the younger player.

There is no escaping the decision that eventually, two of these players will stay, and two will go. Given the Caps’ needs, we’re thinking that it will be Laing and Bourque who get to stick around.

But like we said, we’re glad we don’t have to make these decisions.

2009-2010 Previews -- Forwards: David Steckel

David Steckel

Theme: “Every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead.”

That little quote comes from one of the most familiar faces in movies and television you’ve probably never heard of, a fellow by the name of Dabbs Greer. The kind of fellow of whom you might say, “oh yeah, I remember him in ‘The Green Mile,’” or “Little House on the Prairie” or “Gunsmoke.” He plays a role, never a starring one, but an important one nevertheless. And so it is with David Steckel, a player who might play the role of “defensive specialist,” or “penalty killer,” or “faceoff man.” Occasionally – as in overtime in Game 6 of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal – he is thrust into the limelight, and he delivers… by playing his role. He wins a faceoff, heads to the net, and scores on a deflection to become a star for 48 hours. But he then recedes once more into his role as a “character actor,” or in team sports parlance, a player of character.

Steckel is another of those players who leaves the impression of having been here longer than he has been. He’s played only 155 NHL games 9all with the Caps, having completed only his second full NHL season last year (he is 27 years old). In both of those years, he led the Caps (among players playing at least 50 games with the Caps) in faceoff winning percentage and was a top-ten league wide performer in each of those seasons.

That he plays a defense-first role is reflected in the team’s 1.94 goals-against average at even strength when he was on the ice last season, best of any center on the team. But here is a disturbing number: 1.50. That was the difference in the team’s goals against average at 4-on-5 when Steckel was on the ice between 2007-2008 (5.27) and 2008-2009 (6.77, according to That isn’t so much a problem regarding Steckel as it is a general problem with penalty killing for the Caps.

Fearless: Steckel hasn’t cracked the ten-goal mark with the Caps, despite his scoring at least that many in seven of eight seasons from 1999-2000 (USHL) through 2006-2007, when he had 30 in Hershey. If he never gets to ten, but he can be the defensive stopper, the Caps would seem likely to accept that trade-off rather happily. They don’t lack for offense in other places.

Cheerless: Hey cuz, any chance the league could schedule more games against Tampa Bay? In 13 career games against the Lightning, he’s 6-5-11, plus-7 (that’s a 38-32-70, plus-44 82-game pace). Against the rest of the league, he’s 7-13-20, minus-5 in 142 games (that’s a 4-8-12, minus-3 82-game pace).

In the end:

If it’s all about the playoffs, then consider – of the eight teams to win at least one playoff round last year, the Caps had the third worst penalty killing success rate (only Chicago and Detroit were worse). That’s especially bad when the Caps finished tied for fourth for most times shorthanded, despite being eliminated in the second round. The Caps – and Steckel – just have to be better at killing penalties (the times shorthanded thing is a team-wide problem).

But again, Steckel is a player with less than two full season’s worth of regular season games. Granted, he came into the league as both a former first round draft choice (30th overall to Los Angeles in 2001) and a four-year player in the NCAA (with Ohio State), but that’s not the same as NHL experience, and Steckel is still earning his.

Steckel had a very solid season last year and showed a knack for goal scoring against the Penguins (against whom he had all three of his goals) in the playoffs. There is every reason to believe that there is some untapped potential yet to realize. He has taken on a substantial role in penalty killing (second among Caps forwards in average shorthanded ice time in 2007-2008, first among forwards last year), and he is trying to assume a more assertive role on offense (66 shots on goal in 67 games in 2007-2008, 103 in 76 games last year).

Steckel plays a role that won’t make a lot of highlight reels, but it might be as important in the end – taking on the opposition’s top forwards and killing penalties – as the highlight reel goals and incredible saves. Steckel has to play that role well, even if in the end he’s only a star in his own little sphere.


12-14-26, +4