Monday, December 28, 2009

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 8: Oh Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;

So begins the poem by Walt Whitman. The prize the Caps seek has not yet been won, yet as in the poem their Captain will not be with the team to reap that reward, should it come this spring. Chris Clark was dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets with defenseman Milan Jurcina for forward Jason Chimera just before the end of the year.

In the cold light of truth, the move cannot be criticized on its face as a bad business move. Clark clearly lost a step, either through age (he is 33), the accumulation of injuries, or both over the past couple of years. And, the deal saves the Caps about $2.2 million in salary cap (annualized), thus giving the team additional flexibility to pursue a trade down the road. The trade comes with enough lead time so that the team can take a long look at the remaining pieces and see how they fit both on and off the ice.

And that brings us to the elusive concept of “chemistry.” George McPhee is no stranger to flipping the switch on a big deal in the midst of good times. This deal, coming as it does in the midst of a three game winning streak, has the faint echo of a deal he made on March 13, 2001, when the Caps were on a 16-2-2-1 run (and five-game winning streak) and were coming off perhaps their most electrifying comeback in team history – a 6-5 win over the Ottawa Senators when the Caps came back from a 5-2 third period deficit. McPhee traded Richard Zednik, Jan Bulis, and Washington's 1st round choice in 2001 Entry Draft to Montreal for Trevor Linden, Dainius Zubrus and New Jersey's 2nd round choice in 2001.

The trade in 2001 did not work for the Caps as intended, the club finishing the post-trade portion of the regular season 4-7-0-2, then going quickly and quietly in six game in the opening round of the playoffs against Pittsburgh. This deal isn’t that big, perhaps, but it has a similar feel in that it the effects on team chemistry cannot be overlooked. And the biggest part of the chemical equation has to do with the dealing of the team captain. The Caps are no strangers to this, either…

1995: Kevin Hatcher — replaced by Dale Hunter as captain in 1994, traded to Dallas
1999: Dale Hunter — traded to Colorado
2002: Adam Oates — stripped of captaincy in 2001, traded to Philadelphia
2003: Steve Konowalchuk — traded to Colorado
2009: Chris Clark — traded to Columbus

It is a stark reminder that this is, first and foremost, a business where jobs and reputations are measured in wins and losses. It is the responsibility of team management – any team’s management – to make every effort to ice the most competitive team possible with an eye toward winning the Stanley Cup. If it means dealing a player – a captain – widely respected in the locker room and among fans as a player’s player, one who will do whatever it takes to win, then that is the price one pays from time to time to take the next, and perhaps the last step needed to winning the Cup.

For fans, it is another rite of passage for those who perhaps have not followed the Caps or any individual team for very long. Players come, and players go, sometimes suddenly and without warning. The attachments that fans develop with those players – and Clark was a player anyone who appreciated the sport could root for – makes for some trying times and bitter responses (The Boss will probably be getting some e-mails now). But this is how it is in professional sports. Nevertheless, another part of what makes this a top-ten story is the nature of Clark as player, teammate, and representative of the club. In all of those respects, his time here has been memorable. As a player, he introduced himself to Caps fans by setting, then breaking personal highs in goal scoring in his first two years here on clubs that were otherwise difficult to watch at times. He was a stand-up sort of player who did not suffer liberties taken with teammates lightly. And he gave every indication of being honest and forthright in his dealings with the media, often serving as the voice of the team after a win or a loss.

Clark also served as the sort of role model of the tireless, they’ll have to drag me off the ice sort of player that inspires. Taking an Alex Ovechkin slap shot off the ear or a puck in his mouth, requiring a repair with the aid of a cadaver’s palate and screws, or playing through a wrist injury that would ultimately require surgery, Clark was the epitome of the tough as nails teammate.

This has to be especially hard for a player like Clark, who can see the end of his career in the distance. He came to the Caps having played (and lost) in a Stanley Cup final, skating for a new club that was in a self-inflicted burn-it-to-the-ground rebuild. He played just about every role a forward could have – scorer, checker, keeper of the peace, grinder – serving as an example for a team that played hard every night, even when it was only a 70-point team. Then the injuries started coming, and the Caps had skilled kids who passed him on the depth chart. He did not seem to be able to get over the hump, even as his health returned, and his ice time and responsibilities were cut back. But he was still the “Captain,” who carried himself in such a fashion that did honor to himself and the club on and off the ice, despite being reduced to fourth-line status much of the time. At 33, he can see the end of his career on the horizon, and now he goes off to a team that is itself at least a couple of years from contending in a tough division. In the back of our mind, we think a guy like “Clarkie” deserves better.

This trade would perhaps be a bigger story in 2009 if the effects were better known. We can’t know that at this stage, neither team having yet welcomed their new players. For all we know, this could be the equivalent of a Dainius Zubrus-for-Jiri Novotny trade. But for the seismic shocks that will ripple through the team that sees its captain, and arguably its most heart-and-soul player, traded away, it has to be a top-ten story for 2009.

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 9: The Goodbye...And The Hello

At number 9 in this look at the top ten stories of 2009, we look at a goodbye… and a hello.

Starting with the drafting of Alexander Semin in 2002, the Caps drafted six Russians in six drafts through June 2007. Although only Semin and Alex Ovechkin from that cohort would be with the team to start the 2007-2008 season, those two would be important cogs in the Capitals’ machine heading into that season.

In that summer of 2007 the Caps would add Viktor Kozlov as a free agent from the New York islanders, a player of considerable skill, but something of a disappointment in his career, too. What he brought to the team was a measure of maturity, having toured the NHL as a member of four other teams over 12 seasons. He could be as much of a help to the young Russians in the locker room as he could on the ice.

Later that season, the Caps would execute a heist on the Columbus Blue Jackets, giving up prospect defenseman Ted Ruth for veteran and hall-of-famer in waiting Sergei Fedorov. Fedorov – a hockey legend on two continents – was just what the Alexes needed at their respective points in their development. It might be hard to quantify the effect the marriage of Fedorov to the young Russians (figuratively speaking) might have had on the youngsters, but there is no doubting the amazing record the Caps compiled (11-1-0) in their head-long rush to a playoff spot in 2008.

Kozlov and Fedorov were back for the 2008-2009 season, but it could be reasonably said that neither were critical contributors on the ice – numbers-wise – to the Caps record-setting 108 point season. Kozlov played in only 67 games and contributed only 41 points (he dropped from a plus-28 to a minus-9, worst on the team). Fedorov fought lower body and ankle injuries in playing only 52 games and finishing eighth on the team in scoring (11-22-33). When the playoffs came, there was only one real highlight for either player, although it was a doozy – Fedorov’s series-winning goal in Game 7 of the Easter Conference quarterfinals against the New York Rangers.

When the season ended it was clear that the $6.5 million in cap hit accounted for by the two Russians was not yielding as much of return as hoped for, and it was iffy that either would be resigned. Both players made the decision easier on the Caps by accepting offers in the Kontinental Hockey League – Kozlov with HC Salavat Yulaev and Fedorov with Metallurg Magnitogorsk, the latter fulfilling an ambition to play alongside his brother Fedor.

It left the Caps with two top-six forward positions to fill. Neither Eric Fehr nor Tomas Fleischmann had been able at that point in their careers to grab that role by the throat, and no one from Hershey was ready to be given that responsibility. It left the Caps to be a player in the free agent market last July.

On July 1st, the first day of open season on unrestricted free agents, 49 free agents were signed. Washington eschewed the high-end signings such as Marian Hossa ($62.8M/12 years by Chicago) or Marian Gaborik ($37.5M/five years by the Rangers), targeting need in signing Mike Knuble for two years and $5.6 million. Knuble might not have had the reputation of being a flashy 40-goal scoring type, but the Caps had enough of those already, either in fact or in potential. What Knuble brought was precisely something the Caps didn’t have enough of – a knack for scoring in close, cleaning up garbage, and being a solid power play presence in front of the opposing goalie. Although he has missed time (12 games to a broken finger), the Caps are 17-9 in games in which he played so far, 7-5 in games he missed.

Nine days later, on July 10th, the Caps took a chance on a guy who had been remarkably durable (six consecutive seasons playing all 82 games) and solid in his numbers (averaging 21-39-60, plus-7 in those six years), before missing 43 games to wrist and knee injuries in 2007-2008 and recording only 31 points in 81 games (split between Dallas and Anaheim) upon his return last season. Brendan Morrison was the guy the Caps took that chance on as the replacement for Sergei Fedorov as the center for the second line. Morrison has proven to be durable (played in all 38 games heading into tonight’s action), productive (10-15-25 in 38 games, a 22-32-54 pace that is consistent with his 20-36-56 career per-82 game pace), and flashy, in keeping with the team concept…

Morrison and Knuble – teammates once more after once having been teammates at the University of Michigan – are on a pace to out produce the players they replaced:

It could be fairly said that the Kozlov signing and the trade for Fedorov were the right moves at the right time given the state of the Caps’ development. They lent a certain veteran gravitas to the roster that could help in the progression of Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. By the same token, both players had become something of a weight on the team, primarily because of their respective contracts and production issues. Replacing them with Morrison and Knuble was the right move (with a $2.2 million reduction in cap hit, to boot) at this stage of the Caps’ development. Ovechkin is a leader in production and in fact on this club, and Semin (while he still has a bit of a way to go in this regard) is a more mature player at this point in his career than he was before Fedorov was brought in. The need for mentors such as Fedorov or Kozlov isn’t as keen a need as production.

To Fedorov and Kozlov, Caps fans might offer a thought of appreciation for their time here. For Morrison and Knuble, Caps fans might be excused for thinking that they are the cogs the club needs to set up an appointment for an engraving order. For that reason, saying goodbye to Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov, and saying hello to Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble is the ninth of the top-ten Capitals stories of 2009.

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 10: The Beasts of the Southeast

Well, we’re almost at another year end, the 35th year that will end without the Capitals having hoisted the Stanley Cup (including one year – 2005 – in which no one did). But in some ways the Caps got closer, or at least took steps to get closer, than they have in any of those 35 years, including the one in which they played in a Stanley Cup final.

It is in that context that we look back at 2009 and what, from our keyboard at least, are the top ten stories of the year (we’re not aware that decades end in the number “9,” so we’re not doing an end-of-the-decade look). So, let’s get started. This year’s ending fast…

Number 10 – The Beast of the Southeast.

Since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the Capitals bench, he has compiled a 39-13-2 record against the Southeast Division. If Washington beats Carolina tonight they will complete a perfect 2009 portion of the 2009-2010 season against the Southeast (9-0-0), and they will finish the calendar year with a 21-5-0 record against their division rivals.

The dominance is stunning in other measures as well. In the 25 games played against the Southeast so far in 2009, the Caps…

-- Outscored their opponents by 100-74.

-- Had a power play success rate of 23.4 percent.

-- Killed off 84.9 percent of the shorthanded situations they faced.

-- Scored at least five goals in a game as many times as they were held to fewer than four (eight times).

-- Had two of the three shutouts the team recorded for the year.

-- Only once lost consecutive games to division opponents (March 1-3 against Florida and Carolina).

-- Have won 12 of the last 13 games played against the Southeast.

Individually, the Caps also dominated the competition. For example…

-- Alex Ovechkin was 15-21-36 in 22 games against Southeast Division competition. In those 22 games he was held without a point only three times (twice by Atlanta).

-- Alexander Semin was 13-17-30 in 21 games. He had nine multi-point games against the Southeast for the year.

-- Nicklas Backstrom was 6-25-31 in 25 games, with ten multi-point games. He is also a plus-13 in those games.

-- Mike Green was 12-11-23 in 22 games, including 11 goals in 15 games in the 2009 portion of the 2008-2009 season.

-- Brooks Laich was 7-14-21 in 25 games and had three three-point games.

One could argue that being the “Beast of the Southeast” isn’t much of an accomplishment, but this is a division that has had over significant stretches this season three teams in the top eight of the Eastern Conference (Washington, Atlanta, Florida). At the moment, the Southeast has three teams with better than .500 records (in standings points) against teams in the Eastern Conference outside the Southeast Division. Are Atlanta and Florida teetering on the playoff edge because they’re not very good, or are they there because neither have found a way to beat the Caps (The Thrashers are 0-2-0, the Panthers are 0-3-0)?

But with the NHL schedule as division-centric as it is (still), a team has to make hay while the sun shines in its own field. And the Caps haven’t lost a game in regulation to an SE team at home since last March 3rd (a 5-2 loss to Carolina, curiously enough). The Caps have built that strong foundation of winning against the Division as a basis for keeping among the top teams, points-wise, in the Eastern Conference and using it as a springboard for playoff seeding. Such things don’t guarantee playoff success (since the Caps are 1-2 in playoff series over the past two years), but all things considered, we would still want that home-ice advantage come springtime.

For that, being the “Beast of the Southeast” is the 10th top story of 2009.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Hurricanes, December 28th

The Peerless Prognosticator Is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, we’re back. After having our fill of plum pudding, Christmas goose, and a bowl (or twelve) of holiday cheer, we’re back to provide you with the very best in prognostications. While we were away, the Caps gobbled up another two points with a victory at Verizon Center over the New Jersey Devils on the heels of a win over the Buffalo Sabres, which no doubt means that the Caps will slip a few notches in the weekly power rankings among the expert media outlets. No matter – the Caps are winning to the tune of 10-3-0 since Thanksgiving and giving their fans hope that success will bloom in the spring…


I beg your pardon?


Scrooge, isn’t it? Well, you've never seen the like of me before, have you?

“Never, and I wish the pleasure had been indefinitely postponed.”

Shouldn’t you be as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world, and all that Victorian crap?


But you had those Christmas spirits visit and show you the error of your ways…

“Bah…that last Christmas spirit? He took me to the graveyard and pointed at a headstone that was supposed to have my name on it, and I fell whimpering that I’d honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year, that I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future, that I’d sponge away the writing on this stone...blah, blah, blah"


“Well, hey genius…it was winter. Snow? It turns out it wasn’t my name on the stone after all. The snow covered up what was really on the marker…”

You mean?

“Yeah, I wasted all this time being nice and jolly, when I could have been…”

Coach of the Rangers?


Well, the Caps have certainly been spreading Christmas cheer among their fans with having torched two of the best goalies in the NHL – Ryan Miller and Martin Brodeur – for nine goals in the two games on this holiday home stand. Tonight the Caps host the Carolina Hurricanes, fresh off stealing a standings point from the Philadelphia Flyers, coming back in the last 11 minutes of regulation, down 3-0, to tie the game and ultimately send it to a Gimmick, where they lost, 4-3. It was the third loss in a row for the Hurricanes after what was a reasonably decent start to the month for them (4-3-1).

At 4-5-2 for the month, the Hurricanes are still losing ground to, well, everyone as they stand in 30th place in the league standings. They're 30th in a lot of things...

But buried under the wreckage of the season there are elements that suggest that Carolina might be becoming competitive, if not yet a threat to make the playoffs. First, there is the matter of where they are getting their offense. They have been getting it from the guys who have to provide it…

Eric Staal

Career vs. Washington: 38 games, 15-22-37
2009-2010 vs. Washington: two games, 1-2-3
Last five games: 1-2-3

Staal came into the month in the midst of what was becoming his most disappointing season – scoring-wise – since his rookie year when he was 11-20-31 in 81 games. He started the month 3-6-9 in 17 games. In 11 contests this month, though, Staal is 3-9-12 with four multi-point games. However, it wouldn’t be the 2009-2010 season for the Hurricanes without even some cloudiness in these December numbers. Staal started the month on a rush (3-7-10 in his first seven games in December), but he has been held without a point in three of his last four games (0-2-2).

Joni Pitkanen

Career vs. Washington: 15 games, 1-5-6
2009-2010 vs. Washington: two games, 0-0-0
Last five games: 0-2-2

Pitkanen has ten points for the month, all on assists and five of those on power plays (of nine power plays scored by Carolina). He’s been the minutes-eater for the Carolina blue line, four times logging more than 30 minutes in 11 games this month (averaging 29:15). The problem Pitkanen has mirrors that of his team. He is fourth among all defensemen in average ice time, but he is also 263rd (among 265 defensemen) in plus-minus for the year (minus-15). He is one of three Hurricane defensemen for the year with at least a minus-10 (Joe Corvo (minus-10) and Aaron Ward (minus-17) being the others).

Ray Whitney

Career vs. Washington: 54 games, 18-30-48
2009-2010 vs. Washington: two games, 0-0-0
Last five games: 0-1-1

Whitney is the club’s leading scorer for the season (10-14-24 in 36 games) and is the team’s third leading scorer for the month of December (4-5-9). But he, too, has cooled off after a hot start to the month (4-4-8 in the first six games of December). Whitney is the closest thing the Hurricanes have to a power play specialist (2-7-9 in power play scoring this season – the Caps have six players with at least ten points). Last year he was something of a Cap killer – 3-5-8 in six games, the most points he had against any opponent in the 2008-2009 season. He has yet to register a point against the Caps so far this year in two games.

That brings us to goaltender Cam Ward. In his first four games back in goal after missing a month with a lacerated leg, Ward showed signs of rust. He was 1-2-1, 4.00, .878. In four games since, even with getting pulled 9:32 into a 5-1 loss to Montreal after allowing three goals on seven shots, Ward is 1-2-1, 3.10, .903. He might not be “Ward-sharp,” but he is moving forward. He is 12-5-3, 2.61, with three shutouts in his career against the Caps, but he dropped his only decision against Washington this year, a 4-3 overtime loss on December 11th.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Carolina: Jussi Jokinen

Jokinen is tied for the team lead in goals for December (four), getting half of them in a furious comeback from a 3-0 deficit against the Flyers on Saturday (a game the Hurricanes would lose in a Gimmick, 4-3). He is the only Hurricane with more than one game-winning goal this year. If this game should go to a Gimmick, he will be the player to watch. Jokinen is tied for second in the league in Gimmick goals (four) and is 26-for-48 in the Gimmick for his career.

Washington: Jose Theodore

Theodore was not feeling too jolly when Michal Neuvirth was named the starter for the Saturday contest against New Jersey, snapping the blade of his stick as he came off the ice during a practice and announcing that “I just work here” when asked about the situation. Well, he is the likely starter this evening, and he has a pretty good record against the Hurricanes over his career (15-11-3, 2.65, .909, four shutouts). He has two victories over Carolina this year. With the Caps on a bit of a roll, winning three in a row with Neuvirth in goal after Theodore lost a 3-2 decision in Vancouver, eyes will be on him to see if he can get a firm hold on the number one netminder job. He’s had a tough job doing that, showing the unnerving lack of consistency that has been the major complaint about his play. So far this year he has not won more than two decision in a row (although he’s won two in a row four times); he has not lost consecutive games in regulation since losses to the Rangers and Red Wings on October 8th and 10th. Seeing as how he lost his last decision in regulation, this should be a win.


1. They’re 30th, they’re not dead. For almost 50 minutes on Saturday night, Carolina looked old, small, and slow. They were either unable or disinclined to create any traffic in front of former teammate-turned-Flyer Michael Leighton in goal. They looked like the worst team in the league. But down 3-0 with 11 minutes left, the Hurricanes finally solved the traffic problem and pumped three goals through Leighton (as part of 15 total shots on goal in those last 11 minutes). Of note, all three goals came from within ten feet.

2. More power. The Caps are 12-for-44 on the power play for December (27.3 percent). But 7-for-18 of that came in the first two games of December. Since then, Washington is 5-for-26 (19.2 percent). That’s not bad, but they have failed to register a power play goal in five of their last eight games. Carolina is served up as a remedy (26th in the league in penalty killing) for whatever might ail the Caps’ power play.

3. Find something to Laich. Brooks Laich doesn’t have a goal since December 5th, against Philadelphia. He is 1-4-5 in 11 games for the month. He doesn’t have a point in either game against Carolina this year. And, he’s struggled a bit at home – 5-6-11, minus-5 at Verizon Center, compared to 5-11-16, plus-6 on the road. He’s one of those guys – a net crasher with some touch – that will be very important down the road. It would be nice to get him started down that road with a point or two.

The moral of this story is that there is no team – not even the 30th-ranked team in the league – against which a team, even as skilled as the Caps, can just throw their sticks on the ice and expect to win. Taking any team for granted is a recipe for failure, and having bested two fine goaltenders in Ryan Miller and Martin Brodeur in their last two games, the Caps might be in the dismal position of tempting fate against a lesser opponent by putting forth a “B” effort.

If the Caps avoid the post-Christmas let-down, this game should be over at the first intermission. Oh, wait…there is that last 11 minutes to worry about. Strike that. Put forth 60 minutes, and the Caps will add two points to their season standings total and post their top month for wins this season (nine).

Caps 5 – Hurricanes 2