Friday, October 29, 2010

The Virtues of Patience... But Not Too Much of It

Yesterday, Kareem El-Alaily posted this on the "Box Seats" blog in the Washington Post...

"...the six most important players on a hockey team should be the goalie, then the first-line center (1C), top defenseman (1D), second-line center (2C), second defenseman (2D) and finishing with a first line winger (1W)."

El-Alaily went on to look at recent Stanley Cup winners and their attention to this detail, and at the Capitals and their compliance with this formula to be "strong down the middle."  The conclusion was that the Caps are somewhat lacking, having little in the way of a credible 2nd line center, a second defenseman who is not quite ready to be the sort of second defenseman one suspects is needed to win a Cup, and hanging on to Alexander Semin (a top-end scoring winger who is second best on a club with Alex Ovechkin) when perhaps they should not.

We took away something else in the reading of this.  The odd part of the analysis was that it would seem to vindicate the Caps' management strategy this past summer in a perverse sort of way. The Caps had three issues that dominated conversation -- the lack of a bona fide second line center, the lack of depth/experience/physicality on defense, and youth in goal. A lot of pundits and message boarders out there thought the Caps should go after a veteran goalie (Nabokov, Turco, Ron Tugnutt)...others thought they should trade an asset (Tomas Fleischmann) for a defenseman (Sheldon Souray, Brad Park, Red Kelly)...others thought that maybe they should do what it would take to pry Jeff Carter away from the Flyers.

Well, the Caps did none of those things. And what do they have? Well, had they traded a young goalie (probably Neuvirth in this scenario) and signed, say, Marty Turco, they would have a goalie who is performing quite well at the moment (2.44, .927, and no reason he would be appreciably worse in a Washingon uniform), but they would still have the injury-prone Semyon Varlamov as his backup.  Worse, with Turco getting the starts, Varlamov (who is currently out of the lineup) might have been, or rather his wonky groin might have been, a ticking bomb of unknown impact until he took the ice for any extended work.  That, given Turco's age (35) and the one-year nature of the deal he might have signed (as he did with Chicago), could have had longer term effects on the Caps in terms of who would be their number one goalie three or so years down the road.  And, we would never have had the opportunity to see Michal Neuvirth, or rather Neuvirth would never have had the opportunity to establish himself as the number one goaltender as he has done, at least for the time being.

The Caps also have a defense of some promise.  Lift your eyes from this morning's box score for a moment and look down the road.  Along that road, John Carlson is getting more ice time than he would have had if the Caps had traded for a top-pair defenseman.  He's also getting more minutes than he would normally get given the injury situation on the blue line.  The point is that every extra minute of ice time Carlson is getting now, whether a product of injury or the moves the Caps did not make, is like a minute in class -- a learning opportunity -- that could pay handsome dividends down the road, both in terms of this spring and for years to come.

The Caps have the opportunity to hold auditions for a second line center from within.  Tomas Fleischmann, Mathieu Perreault, and Marcus Johansson all have been afforded an opportunity to grab that position by the throat.  Through ten games, none of them have been able to get a firm grasp on that prize.  But in giving this threesome the chance, the Caps can evaluate in real time where they stand and what their needs are.

This applies to the goalie and defenseman situations as well.  The Caps have the opportunity to evaluate what they have in setting of high responsibility and expectation.  Had the Caps made the deals many fans clammored for in the off-season, the Caps would have denied themselves a fuller opportunity to conduct that evaluation in an effort to find the quick fix. 

This is not an argument to allow the experiments to go on through the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs, and I do not suppose the Caps will do so.  We can see the faintest of images of a conclusion to each of the problems noted above.  First, Neuvirth has the technical skills to be the number one goalie, the biggest unknown being whether he can mentally survive the grind of the 82-game season.  Keep in mind, this is Neuvirth's third professional season, and in the previous two he played in 39 and 35 regular season games.  So far, though, the returns are favorable.  If anyone can find a way to get -- and keep -- Varlamov healthy, it would be a huge plus.

As for the defense, Carlson's extra minutes are a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, you can see the skills he has as a two-way defenseman.  He is tied for third among all rookie skaters (first among defensemen) in scoring.  But he is prone to making rookie mistakes, too.  He is second among rookies in penalty minutes and leads all rookies, by a rather wide margin, in giveaways.  Giving him the extra minutes now means accelerating the learning curve and getting the "rookie mistakes" out of his system, hopefully in time for a long playoff run in the spring.

The second line center situation is a great deal more problematic.  Two rookies and a converted wing (yes, we know Fleischmann had played center in the past) has all the look at the moment of patchwork.  And from our chair, we do not see this situation improving nearly enough between now and April to make the "in-house" option a viable solution.  Sometime, from somwhere, the Caps are going to have to find a better option, in our opinion.

What patience did was allow the three competing situations to come a little more into focus.  If the Caps had made a deal in the summer and addressed, say, the goalie situation to the exclusion of the others, the club would be in a bind -- the unknown of Neuvirth's capabilities having been moved and the continuing problems at the other positions.  The Caps might have pursued two outside solutions over the summer, but again, the question is whether they would have guessed right.  If they went after a goalie and a defenseman, the result could have made matters worse in that they very well might have burned off any cap room to pursue a center later in the year to deal with that problem.

Patience is a virtue, it is said.  That the Caps find themselves with a 6-4-0 record after ten games, despite enduring injury and growing pains, speaks to the truth of that proverb.  In fact, for having exhibited that patience, the Caps have found that in many instances it is precisely those players who got the opportunity as a result of that patience -- most notably Neuvirth and Carlson, but not necessarily limited to them -- that have been the best players for the Caps to date.

The trick now will be in knowing when patience gives way to hard-headedness about growing from within and avoiding that problem.

A NO-point night -- Game 10: Wild 2 - Caps 1

Well, we suspect Minnesota Wild fans left last night’s game happy. They watched their team skate off with a 2-1 win over the Caps. They saw Alex Ovechkin score a goal.

Minnesota Wild coaches were probably happy. They watched their guys hold the Caps to a season-low 22 shots on goal – the first time the Caps had been held under 30 shots on the road so far. They could take comfort in the fact that they broke a two game losing streak. And, the Wild held an opponent to two or fewer goals for the sixth time in ten games.

The folks on Versus were probably happy. They got a tight game with some fireworks at the end to hold their viewers’ eyes on the tube or hand-held device.

No one in a white sweater should be happy. No one rooting for the guys in white sweaters should be happy. No one who signs the checks of guys in the white sweaters should be happy. What was there to be happy about? The Capitals sleep-walked through 50 minutes of hockey, managing a total of 14 unremarkable, unsuccessful shots on goal in that span, giving Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom as much as a night off as a goalie gets in the NHL.

By the time the Caps realized they were in a hockey game they were in jeopardy of losing, it was too late. A goal by Alex Ovechkin with the Caps skating an extra attacker in the last two minutes and Nicklas Backstrom almost netting one in the dying seconds provided a fine patina of excitement to an effort that was chock full of “meh” all evening and not nearly enough to solve the suffocatingly dull style of hockey the Wild employed.

The Wild got one when John Carlson lifted the stick of Chuck Kobasew for an instant in front of the Caps net, but couldn’t keep Kobasew from getting his stick back down to bury a centering feed from Andrew Brunette to give the Wild the game’s first goal. That was bad enough. But the second goal…

With Minnesota already on a power play and with a delayed penalty going to be called, all four Caps on defense were caught pinned within 20 feet of goalie Michal Neuvirth, and all four were looking at their own net when the puck squirted from the clot of players onto the stick of Mikko Koivu, a player the Caps simply lost in the high slot. Koivu threw the puck past the jumble of players, past Neuvirth (who lost sight of the puck and did not recover in time to find the shooter), and with 16 seconds left in the second period got an insurance goal.

Other stuff…

-- Of the 22 shots on goal, the first line had 11. That’s good as far as it goes. But one goal, one point. The search for the “big night” continues.

-- There is no clearer indicator of the problems the Caps are having icing a healthy defense than what is going on with John Carlson. Second on the team in minutes tonight (21:42), he was on the ice for both Wild goals. The best that can be said of the minutes Carlson is accumulating (and the growing pains) right now is that he is going to be a stud in the spring.

-- When we were thinking about this season last summer, Caps fans, who among you would have bet that the surest thing on a night to night basis for the Caps would be the production they get from their goaltender… and that the goaltender would be Michal Neuvirth?

-- Two shots from the second line last night. That is all.

-- It hardly seems to matter, does it? Who plays the second line center position that is. Marcus Johansson is out, but he isn’t really ready for prime time in that role, anyway. Tomas Fleischmann can’t really handle the auxiliary responsibilities of the position (faceoffs, defense) all that well and last night had one shot on goal and lost eight of 13 draws. Mathieu Perreault – one shot on goal, five losses in six faceoffs, a giveaway, and barely ten minutes of ice time, only three shifts in the third period. The Capitals do not have an answer on their roster or in their system for this problem.

-- Matt Bradley had the strangest of games. No shot attempts, no giveaways, no takeaways… but five hits in less than nine minutes.

-- In the “Being There” category… Eric Fehr had no shot attempts, no hits, no giveaways or takeaways, no blocked shots, didn’t take a draw when a center was tossed, and he played less than 12 minutes. But he was a plus-1.

-- “Being There II”… Brooks Laich had one shot attempt (blocked), one hit, one giveaway, one blocked shot, lost all five draws he took… he was a plus-1, too.

-- Tyler Sloan (this is getting tiresome, Peerless)… no shots, no shot attempts, no hits, no giveaways or takeaways, no block shots, and a penalty in less than eight minutes of ice time. Brutal.

-- Compare all that above with the Wild, who got enough from the guys they need to get “enough” from… Matt Cullen had three shots, an assist, and won six of ten draws. Mikko Koivu had a goal and held his own in the circle (13-for-26). John Madden blocked a pair of shots and won ten of 17 draws in 15 minutes of earnest hockey. And, the Wild got their power play goal (the game-winner, as it turned out).

-- Ovechkin played 5:22 of the last 9:48. This is what happens when the Caps are behind in the third period.

-- Fleischmann played 3:11 of the entire third period (four shifts). Perreault played 1:42 of the entire third period (three shifts). This is what happens when the Caps don't have an answer for their second line center problem.  Trust issues?

In the end, the Caps were not a very good hockey team last night. They squandered the win they earned the night before, one that was obtained through effort and consistency… things that were abundantly absent last night. Michal Neuvirth deserved better. He continues to be the rock that the team can depend on. One wonders if this will last and for how long, given that Neuvirth is a rookie (and perhaps prone to rookie moments himself).

The Caps have the look of a “rookie” team in some respects. They cannot be depended on for consistency in their effort or production on a night to night basis. Some of that is the injury bug that has gone through the team. It’s hard to build a sense of continuity and comfort if the lineups keep getting scrambled.

But that certainly isn’t the whole explanation, either. The top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble has been in the lineup all ten games. They have a total of nine goals, or as many as Patrick Sharp has in Chicago by himself. That is not going to do it. And then there is the second line. The big donut with the hole in the middle. One hopes that either Fleischmann or Perreault or Johansson will grow into the role and fill the hole in. But at the moment, that’s a mighty big bucket of hope to carry around. And the defense needs to get healthy, not to mention more consistent. Skating a less-than-100 percent Mike Green for more than 30 minutes (as was the case last night, including more than 12 minutes in the third period) impresses us as playing with a Bic lighter in the middle of a gas station.

We hope these things will work themselves out and that we won’t see such wild (pardon the pun) swings in consistency and results on a night-to-night basis.

Hope is a nice thing to have…

...but don’t expect us to be happy.