Thursday, March 04, 2010

Distant Early Deals

Deadline Day is the last day of shopping before teams have to move on with what they have. It isn’t the first day. Some deals – the biggest ones, in fact – were consummated before the Olympics. Marquee players such as Ilya Kovalchuk and Dion Phaneuf were moved weeks before Deadline Day.

But that isn’t really the start of it, either. And that has some special relevance to the Caps. The Caps were busy on Deadline Day, although you can’t say any single deal was for a big difference maker. The deals were incremental – some more grit, some better defense for the forwards, some relief for Mike Green, some depth. But before that, the Caps made two deals of considerable consequence for this year – the signings of Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison. In light of those signings, you cannot say that the Caps have stood pat with respect to their roster.

Let’s compare the lineup that the Caps had in their last win of last season – the 5-4 overtime win over Pittsburgh in Game 6 of the Eastern semifinals – and a lineup that they could ice with their new acquisitions. First, the forwards…

The Caps clearly upgraded the first line, swapping out Viktor Kozlov for Mike Knuble. Knuble provides the net presence on offense that Kozlov was unable to provide and is probably a better defensive player to boot. Knuble already has 23 goals (ten more than Kozlov had in ten more games played last year) and has already passed Kozlov’s point total from last year (42 to 41). His style, characterized by playing more with his backside in the goalie’s face, has given Backstrom and Ovechkin more room to maneuver, and their improved offensive numbers reflect that. More importantly, his presence has given Backstrom more room to control the puck and allowed Ovechkin to avoid making the sort of high-risk plays, allowing those two to be highly ranked in the plus/minus scale. The first line is better defensively for Knuble’s presence by letting the others keep the puck out of the other team’s hands.  Next, the second line...

The second line still has issues with respect to the center. Sergei Fedorov was largely a shell of his former self last year, his series-winning goal against the Rangers in the first playoff round being more or less his last roar. Brendan Morrison was signed to fill that position when Fedorov returned to Russia. And while Morrison got off to a fine start, his play slumped as the games went by. The break might do wonders to rejuvenate him, and having him strong to complement the skill of Alexander Semin and the grit of Brooks Laich will be important entering the playoff part of the season.  Then, the third line...

The third line becomes more of a scoring line than perhaps was the case last year, but the addition of Eric Belanger makes it defensively responsible, too. Eric Fehr is a diligent forechecker and is an efficient (given his ice time) goal scorer. Fleischmann is a very capable offensive player, but has his struggles at the other end of the ice. Belanger provides enough of a two-way presence to help both of those players, should this be the way they line up. The Caps do not lose much, if anything, with Belanger on this line on draws, and he could be Steckel’s equal on defense. Fehr provides more offense than Clark, although Clark’s intangibles are hard to replace.  And last, the fourth line...

The fourth line marries the defensive responsibility of Steckel to the energy that Walker and Bradley provide (or, if need be, the added defensive skill of Boyd Gordon). This is not a line that will score much, but it could be better at making the lives of opposing players more difficult.  (edit: our apologies to Jason Chimera, who we left out of the original draft of this, who was brought in after the first deals and before the last.  He adds even more "bang and boom" -- physical play and some contributions on the offensive end -- that will make the Caps even harder to play against).  From here, to the defense...

On defense, the result of all the deals seems to be to move players to more comfortable levels of responsibility and effort. Mike Green and Jeff Schultz seem to be a good pairing in that Schultz has grown defensively and serves an adequate complement to Green. He can play the minutes, and he is as quietly effective a defender as there is in the league (the operative term there being “quietly”).

Joe Corvo and Shaone Morrisonn would be an echo of the first pair, only with fewer minutes at even strength. Morrisonn was the stay-at-home guy for Mike Green, and he could be that guy for Corvo, who at times resembles Green in style. Tom Poti could play anywhere from the first to the third pair and play in either an offensive or defensive mode. He is now the most versatile of the Caps’ defensemen, which is not necessarily something you might have said about him four or five seasons ago.  And finally, goaltending...

In goal, the Caps still have the uncertainty attached to Jose Theodore’s consistency and Semyon Varlamov’s health. Had the Caps made a deal here yesterday, we think it would have been with those problems in mind, not the talent of the respective goalies. When either of them are “on,” they can be spectacular. The question has been, and will be going forward, can the Caps reliably count on their being “on” (or even around) when it matters in the next few months.

Overall, the Caps have replaced players at five positions (six, including Chimera) from the group that took the ice in last year’s last win. That is a rather substantial overhaul among 18 skaters. In doing so, it has moved and will move other players to other spots with respect to responsibilities. We think is hard to make a case that the Caps are only treading water with the moves, let alone worse off. They are arguably better on the first line, more reliably consistent on the second (Morrison being healthier this year than Fedorov last). They are different on the third line and more versatile as a result. The fourth line will cause more of a commotion than what folks might have associated with the Caps.

The defense balances risk and reward a little more evenly, and the goalies are a year older (and, we hope, a year wiser).

It’s not just about Deadline Day. It’s also about the distant early deals that have threaded their way into the roster. If done well, you might think the players in those deals have been here forever. And with Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison coming in the first of this year’s deals, that seems to be the case. The Caps, for all the deals they’ve made, are a better team right now and more “playoff ready” than they were when the season ended last year.

The Day After Christmas

Well, the smoke has cleared, the dust has settled, and another “Trading Day” is over. For the Caps, it was one of those days that might make a few fans do a facepalm.  We didn't get all the presents we might have wanted, but from this chair, it was a day of subtle reengineering that could be more important to getting a Stanley Cup that getting the flashy name. Why? It’s a matter of need…

Top-Six. It would have been a reach to think that the Caps would have made a play for any player who might fill the bill of “top-six forward.” The club is more or less set there with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble, Alexander Semin, Brendan Morrison, and Brooks Laich. Compare that to teams like Pittsburgh, who needed a scoring winger (Alexei Ponikarovsky) and New Jersey, who needed more punch at forward (Ilya Kovalchuk). The Caps didn’t have needs there. So, with that part of the team in good shape…

The Next Six. There are a few things that might have been accurate about the next six forwards that could have hampered their chances for success in a playoff scenario. First, they don’t get enough offense (or at least enough consistently) out of that group. David Steckel, Matt Bradley, and Boyd Gordon have a combined 16 goals this year in 153 man-games. Quintin Laing adds another two in 28 games. Eric Belanger brings 13 in 60 games from Minnesota. The Caps do not need much by way of offense in general, but what Belanger provides there is more of a threat from the undercard.

Second, there is the lingering idea that this group isn’t sturdy enough and is a little too “earnest” in their play. While Matt Bradley is certainly a guy who will stand up for his teammates, and Jason Chimera will have his moments, the threat of orneriness isn’t generally an attribute attached to this group. Scott Walker will provide that. As a group, the Caps are now better positioned to give compete more with New Jersey in a grinding game and to make like more difficult for skill forwards of the sort Ottawa and Pittsburgh employ.

Third, there is penalty killing, the soft underbelly of the Caps, especially on the road where they are 29th in the league. Washington is not a very good penalty killing team, although it hasn’t been for a lack of trying in terms of putting out a couple of forwards who can do the job. Ten Caps average at least 30 seconds of power play time a game; seven average more than a minute. Belanger will assume responsibilities here and should be an improvement (his being a good faceoff man doesn’t hurt, either, for defensive zone draws). To the extent he assumes a larger responsibility for this, guys like Nicklas Backstrom (1:03 in average SH ice time) and Tomas Fleischman (1:19 in average SH ice time) won’t. Those two will be fresher for the things they are better at. And, with a couple of veterans added, there shouldn’t be as much the intimidation factor on the road that might play a role in the woeful PK numbers the Caps have as visitors.

Defense. If the Caps could have sprung Dan Hamhuis out of Nashville, who we look at as sort of a “Rob Scuderi” sort of player in terms of being effective at the same time as being relatively unknown, we’d have done hand springs. As it is, the Caps traded one “puck mover” (Brian Pothier) for another (Joe Corvo). And, they sent prospect forward Oskar Osala to Carolina in the deal. In the short term, the evaluation can only be whether the Caps could be more successful with Pothier or with Corvo. Pothier is safer; Corvo is more “high-risk.” Pothier isn’t an especially physical defenseman, but then again, neither is Corvo (or at least, neither really fills the perceived need here). Pothier, who was signed to be something of a two-way defenseman on the heels of a 35-point season in Ottawa in 2006, never really filled that role with the Caps. Corvo, who has a 40-point season on his resume (with Los Angeles in 2006), had a 38-point season with Carolina last year but fell off to 12 points in 34 games, fighting injury along the way.

It seems to us that Corvo is here for one reason, and that is to provide Mike Green with some relief. Green is a minutes-eater (12th in the league total, but that is along with being 96th in SH ice time). Corvo should get some power play time to leave Green fresher to deal with the sort of abuse he endured last year in the playoffs and that no doubt he will face once more in the spring.

The addition of Milan Jurcina, who won’t be available for at least a month, is more a depth move. The 6/7 spot could have been John Erskine/Tyler Sloan. Now it is Erskine/Jurcina (or will be). Folks might clamor for either Karl Alzner or John Carlson to get their shot, and they might yet get that opportunity. Someday, Alzner and Carlson will be a cornerstone pair for the Caps. But at their respective points of their careers, Alzner and Carlson are not obviously better than Erskine and Jurcina in that 6/7 role for this team. That said, that sixth defenseman spot is going to remain a lingering problem.

Goaltending. Did the Caps make a play for Boston’s Tim Thomas? Was there interest expressed to Florida about Tomas Vokoun? We don’t know. Vokoun would have been an upgrade in talent, Thomas we’re not as sure about given his performance this season. Having not made a move at this position, the trouble for the Caps here is uncertainty. Jose Theodore is on a 13-game streak in which he hasn’t been beaten in regulation. But we’ve seen this sort of performance before, leaving the question of whether his performance is improving or if it is another high in a pattern of inconsistent performance. In early December, Semyon Varlamov was showing all the signs that he was going to take the number one job. Then he got hurt and has played in only one NHL game since (17 for the year). Michal Neuvirth has been generally good, but has had some problems with inconsistency on his way to a 9-4-0 mark. It would not be precisely correct to say that the Caps will offer up a “goaltender by committee” arrangement, but Theodore and Varlamov will be taking these last 20 (now 19) games to audition for opening night on Broadway, as it were – Game 1 of the opening round of the playoffs. A trade would have provided clarity as to who that goaltender would be, but now, for the moment, it isn’t clear who that is.

In the end, the Caps didn’t need to beef up their skill positions in the same way that New Jersey did or that Pittsburgh did. And, they resisted the temptation of making the splash to do so. The Caps targeted the weaker elements of their roster and performance…

Next Six forwards – improved for defense and penalty killing, should provide a little more offense in the process. Getting Belanger and Walker were plusses (probably more the former than the latter).

Defense – Allows the team to spread the responsibility around a bit more, especially on the power play. Corvo is high-risk/high-reward, but the clear benefit should be in leaving Mike Green fresher. Although, we’re more or less left crossing our fingers that Corvo leaves his big ol' bucket-o'-risk in the locker room. Having Jurcina is as better option than Tyler Sloan, but it isn’t the sort of thing that will make folks squeal in delight.

Goaltending – OK, boys… Jose, Semyon, Michal? Fight it out.

Overall, the Caps are in a better position to compete over the entire roster with the Devils, Penguins, and (if it comes to that) the Sharks or Blackhawks, and that was the object of the exercise, not to add the flashiest name.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Lightning, March 4th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

We’re here with some comments on last night’s game and a preview of tonight’s contest, when the Caps…

“Getting’ lazy, huh, cuz?”

Well, well… seems the cousins are back from Vancouver. How’d you like the Olympics, guys?

“Spectacular! A feast for the fan of competition.”

“Yeah, and the women were good lookin’, too.”

“Quite a change for you… they all had all their teeth.”

“Yeah, even the lady hockey players.”

Guys, what competition did you like most? Fearless?

“Curling… sort of like chess on ice, except you only have 40-pound rocks, instead of rooks and knights and such.”

Cheerless, how about you?



“Oh, yeah… gimme any sport where you get to strap a couple o’ planks on yer feet, and you get to shoot guns… I’m there.”

So you were really excited about that one, eh?

“You bet. But I have an idea to make it even better.”

“Oh, this oughtta be good.”

“Sure, my idea is for a “TRI-athlon.”

A “triathlon?”

“Sure… you ski to a spot, chug a beer, take a shot… ski to a spot, chug a beer, take a shot.”

“Sounds like New Years at your place, cuz.”

“You’re just still mad ‘cuz you shot yerself in the foot last time.”

Guys? The game?

The Caps beat the Sabres last night, 3-1, in Buffalo in what could be an important game going forward. First, they beat Ryan Miller, no small feat. True, Miller is coming down off the high – and the disappointment – of leading the United States to a silver medal in hockey, losing in overtime to Team Canada for the gold, but Miller has been consistently superb and often brilliant all year. Last night he was in good form, just not quite good enough.

And a lot of not being quite good enough was a product of who was playing at the other end of the ice. Jose Theodore turned aside 23 of 24 shots to win and put his record at 11-0-2 in his last 13 appearances.

Then there is this. The Caps are the top scoring team in the league, but the flip side of that coin is that they have not been successful in low scoring contests this year. Going into last night’s game they were 8-11-5 in games where they scored three or fewer goals. Gutting out a 3-1 win is what folks in Caps Nation are going to want to see as the calendar moves toward the playoff phase of the season.

In a related vein, it was encouraging to see the Caps put the clamps on the Sabres in terms of both shots and goals allowed. The Caps had not held an opponent to a single goal since defeating Boston, 4-1, on February 2nd. But perhaps just as important, the 24 shots allowed was the lowest number since they allowed 19 to the Kings in Los Angeles on January 2nd. Having the time off to rest and to reacquaint themselves with their systems in practice bore fruit last night.

But the chore now is to put two of these together, and the Caps get their chance to do that tonight against the Lightning, when the boys return to Verizon Center ice. Tampa Bay comes into this game in a bit of disarray. After starting the month of February on a promising note – four straight wins, only five goals allowed – they lost their last three going into the Olympic break by a combined score of 15-10. Then, on Tuesday, they were pasted by the Flyers in their first game back after the break, 7-2.

Both of the goalies seem to be on a rough stretch. Antero Niittimaki, who took the loss on Tuesday, is 0-2-0 in his last three appearances, 6.92, .824. Mike Smith, who would appear to be the victim…uh, goalie for tonight’s game, has fared better statistically (barely), with a 3.42 GAA in his last five appearances and a .847 save percentage. He is 0-3-0 in those five appearances. Neither have played especially well against the Caps this year. Niittymaki has the only win for the Lightning this year, but gave up two goals in 33 minutes of work in getting it. It is his only appearance against the Caps this year. Smith is 0-2-0, 3.29, .896 in three appearances so far this year.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Tampa Bay: Steven Stamkos

Stamkos is the one Lightning player who has been on fire, even in the midst of the four game losing streak. In those four games he is 4-5-9. He is also 3-2-5 in three games againt the Caps so far this year. That’s a lethal mix.

Washington: David Steckel

Yes, Caps fans know the drill. Steckel is a Tampa Bay terror – 6-5-11 in 13 games coming into this year. But he doesn’t have a point against the Lightning in three games this year. The key for Steckel is that he is 0-2-2 in his last 14 games since scoring his last goal, which came against Detroit on January 19th. It would be nice to get a little more pop out of him.


1. Getting to know you, getting to know all about you. Tonight the Caps are likely to greet their new troops – Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, and Joe Corvo (Milan Jurcina is out for at least a month with a sports hernia). Integrating that many players into the lineup without the benefit of at least a full practice could be a chore. Hope these guys can learn on the fly. But hey, it’s hockey, right?... right?

2. PK be OK. The last two times time these teams met the Lighting were a combined 5-for-9 on the power play. It can’t be said that the Caps penalty killers had an epiphany as a result, either. Since the Lightning went 4-for-7 in a 7-4 win on January 12th, the Caps have skated off 64 of 80 shorthanded situations – 80.0 percent. That needs to improve.

3. Second 20. Washington has the second highest total of goals scored in the second period of any team this season. Tampa has allowed the fourth most goals in that frame. Look for the Caps to pull away by the 40-minute mark.

In the end, it’s a story of two different teams – one tuning themselves for the playoffs, the other fighting for their playoff lives (Tampa is two points out of eighth place). That’s a product of one team being that much better at both ends of the ice. Tonight, it will be a case of showing who belongs where in the Eastern Conference pecking order…

Caps 5 – Lightning 2