Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Blueprint

When the Caps tore out the 2003-2004 team all the way to the studs and began the Great Rebuild in earnest, the ensuing plan had as its core the idea of building through the draft. That’s nice, as far as it goes, but it does not fully describe what unfolded over the next several years as the Caps dragged themselves up from being the functional equivalent of an expansion team to a championship contender (and yes, dear pessimists, you would have to still consider the Caps a “contender”).

If one looks at the current roster and a couple of other guys you might pencil in as possibilities to make the opening night roster, you can peer a little deeper into the method the Caps have employed – and continue to employ – for building a roster. Looking at the skaters first, the 21 players in this group break down roughly into three groups: The Core, The Upper Crust, and The Foot Soldiers.

The Core

These four players have also been known as “The Young Guns” and represent both the most skilled players, and the players in whom the Caps have made the biggest investments. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green all are on contracts of at least five years; and Alexander Semin is being compensated to the tune of $6,000,000 this season. As a group, these four players will encumber $27.5 million of cap space this season, 46.3 percent of the total cap space available. All are first round draft picks; three of them selected in the top 13 picks of their respective drafts.

The Upper Crust

The eight players in this group might be described as skill or critical players that occupy (or are expected to occupy before too long) top-six forward or top-four defenseman slots, but do not command the investment in time or money that The Core enjoys. It is noteworthy that five of these eight players are Caps draft picks, and two others (Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann) played at least 100 games in the Caps’ farm system before sticking with the parent club for good. For all intents and purposes, you could consider them “home grown.” Only Mike Knuble came to the Caps as a fully-developed NHL player from another organization. What separates this group from The Core is the fact that they are comparative short-timers. Four of the eight are not under contract past this coming season. If you had to describe them in one sentence, you might call them “important, but replaceable.”

The Foot Soldiers

If the idea is to draft for skill and fill other needs through other means, then these are the guys who fill other needs and (mostly) have been obtained by other means. Of the nine players in this group, two were obtained by trade, and five were signed as free agents. Only Eric Fehr (who could make the leap to the next level this season; we wrestled with this) and Boyd Gordon were drafted by the club. These are the positions that one might expect to swap in and out over time as players’ contracts expire, and they either move on to another club (or another league) or retire (although sometimes, as in the case of a David Steckel or a Matt Bradley or an Eric Fehr, they get extensions). You will note that Tom Poti is included in this group, which might seem like an anomaly. We decided on placing him here more as a product of the manner he was obtained – as a free agent at a time when the Caps were trying to flesh out a comparatively weak roster. At the time, the Caps were coming off their second consecutive 70-point season, and the prospects of a playoff-caliber season to follow were uncertain. Poti might have been seen as much as a veteran to help bring along players like Mike Green and Jeff Schultz. We will not argue with you about the merits of placing either Poti or Fehr up in the next group. Generally, these are the more or less interchangeable parts of the roster that serve as role players.

Finally, we have the goaltenders. Consider that since the current hockey operations regime took over in 1997, the Caps have drafted 14 goaltenders and have taken at least one in 10 of 14 drafts. Only once (1999, 2000) did the Caps go consecutive drafts without picking at least one goaltender. Eleven of them never played a game in the NHL, mostly a product of Olaf Kolzig being the number one netminder since that asteroid killed off all the other dinosaurs. Rastislav Stana (1998) played in six games, all in that godforsaken 2003-2004 season.

That leaves Semyon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth, both products of the 2006 draft and semi-welded at the leg pads ever since.

Varlamov is further along on the development curve than Neuvirth (51 NHL regular season and playoff games to 22 for Neuvirth – none in the playoffs), but Neuvirth is arguably more accomplished, having backstopped the Hershey Bears to consecutive Calder Cup championships. Both are on entry level contracts, and both are entering the last year of their respective deals. It might be that a decision will have to be made about which of these two to keep after next season, but even if the Caps have a decision to make in that regard, there is yet another drafted goaltender waiting in the wings – Braden Holtby – who will serve his apprenticeship in Hershey this season and perhaps could become a backup goaltender for the Caps in the not-too distant future. The theory here apparently is “volume-volume-volume” when drafting goalies. Now, as was the case in the early 1990’s (when the Caps had Olaf Kolzig, Jim Carey, and Byron Dafoe on the roster), the Caps have what could be the most pleasant hard choice to make, which two of three goalies to keep going forward.

Whether a coincidence, or whether it is a part of The Plan, the Caps have constructed a roster that seems to obey certain rules with respect to how they fill certain roles. Draft for skill, obtain other players by other means. Having gone from 70 points in 2006-2007 to 121 points in 2009-2010, it seems to have been a productive strategy. But, as The Boss is fond of saying, “we still have work to do.”  And in that respect, look at that "Upper Crust" group.  I would argue that it is this group (perhaps with the exception of Perreault and Johansson, who might or might not be on this roster this season) that has to come up big, that has to step up their game in the playoffs if the Caps as a team are really going to be the "Upper Crust" sort of team we hope to see playing in June.

King me!

On the last day of April, we wrote
“Blowing things up based on the Montreal series – what appears to pass for a plan among an awful lot of Caps fans – is an option. It also happens to be a really bad one. One of the things that went wrong early for the Caps in this regime’s tenure was going for the quick fix, then compounding it by trying quick fixes to fix the quick fix (the ‘Snyder Syndrome’).”

Well, the Caps didn’t blow things up. They have not traded Alexander Semin, they resigned Tomas Fleischmann to a one year deal, they have said good things about Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault, both of whom could end up with roster spots by opening night.

And now, from the “tinkering on the margins” file, we have D.J. King, obtained yesterday in trade from the St. Louis Blues for Stefan Della Rovere. King certainly brings a certain “presence” to the ice that the Caps have lacked. Need a hint? OK, look at these numbers…

2006-2007: 27 games, 1 fight
2007-2008: 61 games, 14 fights
2008-2009: 1 game, 0 fights
2009-2010: 12 games, 5 fights

He’s not here to provide scoring support or kill power plays. It is an interesting trade in that the Caps traded a future pest (of uncertain likelihood to reach the NHL roster) for a bruiser who can step into the lineup right now.

Caps fans are probably going to pooh-pooh this trade, that the Caps don’t need an “enforcer.” We think the term is something of an antique, given the state of the game today that places such a premium on skating. But the bottom line here is that the Caps, despite their impressive skill, were entirely too easy to play against, especially on the last two forward lines. David Steckel and Boyd Gordon are very earnest, hard-working players, but making opponents’ lives difficult is not their game. Jason Chimera and Matt Bradley can get their dander up and are the kinds of teammates you would probably want in that foxhole with you. But was either effective at policing opponents’ attitudes?

King, presumably, is the attitude adjuster that the Caps haven’t had. Sure, you could argue that for the three years Donald Brashear was here, he policed the ice effectively for the Caps. But the Caps did not get Brashear in his prime, when he was a passably effective player in addition to his pugilistic exploits. Brashear averaged about eight minutes a game for the Caps over his three seasons.

King might not get many (if any) more minutes with the Caps than did Brashear. In his entire career, spanning 101 games, he has recorded more than ten minutes of ice time in a game only twice. And there is the matter that he has not recorded a point since October 2008 and has not scored a goal since March 2008.

And that brings us to why he might have had such difficulty being productive within the rules. That raises another set of numbers…

2008-2009: 3 games missed to wrist injury
2009-2009: 78 games missed to shoulder surgery
2009-2010: 3 games missed to thumb injury
2009-2010: 39 games missed to right hand surgery

123 games missed to injuries over two seasons is not a confidence-builder if you are expecting someone whose role is to police the ice to actually be on the ice.

The acquisition of King is something of a response move. Look up and down the Eastern Conference, and you can find players who might have felt comfortable taking liberties with the Caps. In Philly, there is Daniel Carcillo and Jody Shelley. In Pittsburgh, Matt Cooke. In New York, Derek Boogaard. On Long Island, Zenon Konopka. In Atlanta, Ben Eager. In Boston, Shawn Thornton. Not that these players are ever going to get any ice time skating against the likes of an Alex Ovechkin or a Nicklas Backstrom, unless they are going off on a line change. But these players might be out there for some time against a second or third line, or might be out there to heap abuse on defensemen, the Caps’ version of which tends more to the skill/skating side than physical. The Caps didn’t have an answer for this kind of player, frankly.

Let's not over-analyze this (he said as he pushes past 800 words).  It isn't a big trade in the larger scope of things.  This isn't the NHL of 30 years ago, or 20, or ten for that matter.  Fighters play a much smaller role in the sport than they did in those days.  But that doesn't justify ignoring certain moves that other teams made that could place some of your players at risk in the liberties taken against them, especially if it doesn't cost much for the "protection."  In a way, the Caps traded an uncertain future (whether Stefan Della Rovere would ever become a regular NHL player) for an uncertain present (whether D.J. King can stay healthy). But at a $637,500 cap hit for two years (according to, the potential reward is worth the risk. When you compare it to the sorts of compensation others in King's player profile will make -- Boogaard getting $1,625,000, Shelley getting $1,100,000 a year, for example, King could end up being a bargain.  He will provide the size and orneriness that the Caps, frankly, lack. And besides, how can you not root for a guy who wasn’t a Cap ten seconds before responding to the news of Max Talbot’s description of Alex Ovechkin as a “douche:”
"Wow. I guess that's not going to be happening too much longer."

Here’s to your health, D.J.

Fleischmann Signed...Is he a Bargain?

Caps Nation breathes a sigh of relief. Tomas Fleischmann has been signed. One year, $2.6 million. Now the usual back-and-forth will begin…

Too much money for a one-dimensional player…

…But he’s a 20-plus goal scorer.

He doesn’t show up for the playoffs…

…but he’s improved in goals scored and points in every single season.

He’s soft…

…he’s skilled.

He can’t win faceoffs…

…he hasn’t played the position regularly in years.

Tomas Fleischmann is “Alexander Semin-lite.” In a number of ways. Flesichmann makes up the Holy Trinity of Caps that fans love to beat on – Alexander Semin, Jeff Schultz, and Flesichmann. The complaints about Fleischmann mirror those made about Semin in many respects. He is a very skilled player, but doesn’t do the dirty work to earn points when the going gets tough. He disappears for long stretches, often when it matters. He has a lot of upside as a player. But does he have the diligence and focus to realize that potential?

Well, now we are going to get a year, if not to answer the questions surrounding Fleischmann, then at least get closer to finding them. With this signing, the Caps appear to have gone all-in on their plan to develop their skill positions from within. The second line center position is now a contest between Fleischmann, Mathieu Perreault, and Marcus Johansson, with Fleischmann the early favorite to emerge as the opening night pick at that position.

But about the deal itself. Is it a value signing? We can now depart the theoretical world of “comparables” and “platform years” and the like that makes for gainful employment among arbitrators. What of the neighborhood in which Fleischmann resides, the collection of players who last year were of similar production? Compared to the contracts those players will play under in 2010-2011, is Fleischmann a “buy?”

First, we have to figure out just what the neighborhood looks like. To do that, we decided to normalize statistics to put everyone on a per-82 game basis. Having done that, we can then find those forwards who are in the ball park in terms of their production last year. We limited the neighborhood to those 10 forwards finishing with more points and those that had fewer points (we included more players for ties at either end). If we do that, the neighborhood looks like this (click on the tables for larger views)…

First of all, one might note that this group of 24 players includes some big names – Scott Gomez, Mike Richards, Brian Gionta, Ray Whitney, Danny Briere among them. Another thing is that Fleischmann is among the youngest in this group. He is in a group of five players at age 26, and only Mike Richards (25), Patrice Bergeron (25), and James Neal (22) are younger.

But we are here to assess value. Looking at how these players rank with respect to cap hit, they look like this…

First, those names at the top of the list – Scott Gomez, Thomas Vanek, and Danny Briere – whatever you might think of them as players, they are no bargain at those levels of production. Fleischmann ranks 18th in this 24-player group in cap hit. He is competitive in this group in term of goal scoring (10th in adjusted goal scoring), power play goal scoring (tied for ninth), and game-winning goals (tied for fifth, although he played on a team with more wins than that of the other players, save for Brooks Laich).

But Fleischmann is projected as a center for next year. Among this group of players, how does he rank among the centers? Well…

Again, he ranks rather low in terms of cap hit (10th among 11 centers). And yet he ranks fourth in goal scoring, tied for fourth in power play goal scoring, and tied for third in game winning goals. But as a center, he has more responsibility, and that faceoff winning percentage of 43.1 stands out (not only because it is highlighted in yellow).. Only Alexander Steen has a weaker success rate.

But there is the matter of age, too. Gomez is, it is alleged at least, in his prime at the age of 30. McDonald is a solid veteran center at 32. Arnott and Koivu are, if not in the twilight of their respective careers, at least in sight of it (both being 35 years old). So if those players are accounted for, how does Fleischmann look in his age cohort of centers?

Flesichmann has the lowest cap hit among this cohort. But Fleischmann’s adjusted goal scoring rate ranks him 5th among these eight players and tied for fourth (with two other players) in power play goal scoring. He has the best plus-minus number, but this is undoubtedly a product of the team he plays with (most wins, most goals scored) and his comparative lack of defensive responsibilities (compared to, say, Mike Richards).

We are not arguing for a moment that Fleischmann is the best player among any of the slices of these data. And there is more to the hockey player than scoring. But in the context of the contract he signed and the role he is expected to play, he might be a bargain for the Caps this coming season, especially if he improves his numbers as he has in each year in the NHL.