Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How Clear the Reflection?

Over at Japers' Rink, the question was posed, "Is San Jose’s window closing? Read this and see how many similarities you can point out to the local puckers."  "This" refers to a column authored by ESPN hockey analyst Pierre LeBrun about the San Jose Sharks' going home from the Stanley Cup playoffs empty-handed once more.  And JP's question asked about how many similarities there are between the Sharks and the Washington Capitals.  Well, we took a look at LeBrun's comments, and penned a "parallel universe" sort of thing from the Caps' last two seasons (LeBrun's words in bold)...

The San Jose Sharks played their guts out Tuesday night in a 3-2 double-overtime loss, outshooting the victorious Vancouver Canucks 56-34, but went home empty-handed after five games in the Western Conference finals.

In 2010 the Washington Capitals played their guts out in a 2-1 Game 7 loss, outshooting the victorious Montreal Canadiens 42-16, but went home empty handed in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

It's a feeling the Sharks are getting mighty tired of. They failed to reach the Stanley Cup finals once again when they looked every bit as dangerous as any other team in the league.

It’s a feeling the Caps are getting mighty tired of. This season they failed to get past the second round for the fourth consecutive season, the last three of which when they looked as dangerous as any team in the league.

How many more times will they get here? Is the window for them closing?

How many more times will they get here? Is the window for them closing?

What's puzzling about the Sharks is that they've knocked out the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings two years in a row -- no small achievement. But they've followed that up by losing eight of the nine games they've played in the Western Conference finals.

What’s puzzling about the Caps is that they set a record for points by a non-Original Six team in 2009-2010 and posted their third straight 100-point season in 2010-2011 – no small achievement. But in the last four years they have lost in the playoffs to teams seeded below them in the tournament.

Glass half full or half empty?

Does the regular season matter?

We can think of many NHL teams that would celebrate back-to-back conference finals appearances. Heck, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs still revere those back-to-back trips in 1993 and 1994 as legendary moments in the franchise's history.

We can think of many NHL teams that would celebrate three consecutive 100-point seasons.

The Sharks, however, self-admittedly set a loftier goal for their season once again: the Stanley Cup. Great teams aren't shy about setting the bar high. It shows confidence. But when the team falls short, questions are asked.

The Caps, however, do not give the appearance of a team setting the bar high with confidence. “We will look back at our series against the New York Rangers and see a 4-1 in games scorecard but we will know that our series had 2 OT games and every game was close with no margin of error. Luck played a big role in what we did… ("Ted's Take,” April 26, 2011)

This second trip to the Western Conference finals and subsequent quick exit revealed a few truths: Thornton, Ryane Clowe, Logan Couture, Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray are up to the task. They brought it night in and night out and paid the price to have success in the playoffs. Clowe played the entire playoffs with a shoulder injury, McLellan revealed after the game. Clowe was so upset after the loss that he couldn't talk to reporters. This team needs more guys that care like he does.

The last few post-seasons and early exits revealed a few truths: Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are up to the task. They brought it night in and night out and paid the price to have success in the playoffs. Backstrom’s lack of production in the playoffs this past season might have been a product of a hand injury that took away is greatest gift, his ability to set up plays. Ovechkin played with nagging injuries for most of the season, yet still produced in the post season. The Caps need more guys who bring their “A” game like these two.

But there are still too many passengers on this team.

But there are still too many passengers on the team.

First and foremost, the challenge for GM Doug Wilson is to improve his blue line. The speedy Canucks exposed his defense in this series. Boyle and Murray hung in there, but after that, it was slim pickings. The injury to Jason Demers hurt, but the fact is the Sharks need to prioritize adding a top-four blueliner in the offseason. Look, we know they don't grow on trees, but that's a glaring need on this team.

First and foremost, the challenge for GM George McPhee is to improve the team's compete level. Going out early against teams ranked below them in the standings suggests that there is too much reliance on skill, not enough on grit, an ability to grind their way through a tough series. We know, that’s a hard commodity to identify, but that’s a glaring need on this team.

Up front, the Sharks have to figure out what to do with Dany Heatley. His back-to-back 50-goal seasons in Ottawa seem like eons ago, his goal production has slipped dramatically and his inability to keep up with the playoff pace is a stunning reality. Heatley has three more years left on his deal at a $7.5 million cap hit. Heatley needs to have one of the hardest-working offseasons of his career, because three goals in 18 playoff just games doesn't cut it.

Up front, the Caps have to figure out what to do with their second line center position. Jason Arnott is an unrestricted free agent, and Marcus Johansson – who will someday be a fine player – has growing to do. They also need to figure out Alexander Semin. A hugely gifted winger, the Caps have not found a way to tap that skill consistently in the playoffs.

Devin Setoguchi is a restricted free agent July 1. He had seven goals in these playoffs, two of them overtime winners. But his performance was inconsistent and frustrated the coaching staff. Do the Sharks re-sign him or explore his trade value at the draft?

Brooks Laich is an unrestricted free agent July 1. He had one goal in the playoffs, following a regular season with 16. And that comes after a playoff with two goals that followed a regular season of 25. That kind of dropoff can frustrate a coaching staff. Do the Caps resign him at the $4 million he might command on the open market?

And what about Joe Pavelski, who exploded on the bigger stage last season with a clutch postseason and a terrific Olympics? Pavelski's playoff production dropped from an impressive 17 points (9-8) in 15 games last spring to 10 points (5-5) in 18 games this year. His two helpers Tuesday night were actually one of his better games. Still, what gives? Yes, last year he had a top-six role in the playoffs while this spring he dropped to third-line center, but he still racked up important power-play minutes. His slight regression is troubling for the Sharks.

And what about Eric Fehr, who had three goals in seven games against Montreal in last year’s playoffs, but was injured this post season and had only one goal in five games? His inability to approach the goal-scoring production he had in juniors, coupled with his injury history, has to be troubling for the Caps.

On the flip side, the evolution of the captain this season was hugely encouraging. Thornton took his game to new heights, especially in the playoffs, playing both sides of the puck like never before. His willingness to sacrifice offense for two-way play is reminiscent of the great Steve Yzerman. So is Thornton's willingness to play through pain, the star center revealing afterward he separated his shoulder in Game 4 but played through it Tuesday night.

On the flip side, the evolution of the captain was somewhat encouraging. Alex Ovechkin’s goal total plummeted from 50 last season to 32 this season, but his embracing the defense-first makeover the Caps implemented in their eight-game losing streak in December was essential for the rest of the team adopting it. And he still produced five goals in nine games in the post season, giving him 25 in 37 career playoff games.

In the end, the Sharks will look back on these playoffs and regret not disposing of the Anze Kopitar-less Kings in fewer than six games and not ending Detroit's season earlier than seven games after taking a 3-0 series lead. That sucked the life out of the Sharks, and they had nothing in the tank for the opening two games of the conference finals.

In the end, the Caps will look back on the last four years of disappointments and regret not being able to advance past lower-seeded teams and playing in so many seven-game series that sapped their energy or resulted in losses.

It's a lesson the Sharks must remember for next season when they'll try yet again to get over the hump.

It’s a lesson the Caps must remember for next season when they’ll try yet again to get over the hump.

"I'm sure we'll probably sit back and think about it," Couture said. "Right now, the sting of the loss is so tough to overcome. It just sucks. It sucks."

“I’m sure they’ll probably sit back and think about it," a Caps fan said. “Right now, the sting of the losses has to be so tough to overcome. It just sucks. It sucks.”

No two situations are identical, and this applies to the Sharks and the Caps in this instance.  But both teams have a shared history of playoff frustration, and neither team has won a Cup.  The question for both of them now becomes, "do they have it within them to reach that goal, or have we seen the best they have to offer?"

Making Luck

We suppose there are going to be those who looked at the last ten seconds of last night's Western Conference final contest between the San Jose Sharks and the Vancouver Canucks that thought, "wow, what a lucky bounce."

Maybe.  The Canucks' Alexander Edler can stand along that wall chipping pucks from now until the sun goes dark and perhaps never hit that stanchion again.  Kevin Bieksa might stand out at the blue line until the earth stops spinning and never have that puck come out to him as if on a silver platter.  It was a once in a lifetime coincidence of circumstances that led to Bieksa's series-winning shot from the blue line that bounced and skittered into the back of the net with everyone -- including Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi -- looking in another direction.

None of which would ever have happened without the gritty work of the Canucks in the last 29 seconds of a 2-1 game they seemed destined to lose.  Ryan Kesler, who sustained an injury in the second period of the game, yet returned, won a face off against Joe Thornton (and words cannot describe what a game he had, leading the team in shots, blocking two shots, winning ten of 18 draws, all while playing with a separated shoulder).  It gave the Canucks a last chance in the San Jose zone.  As Edler and Alexandre Burrows were maneuvering the puck at the top of the zone, Kesler worked himself to the front of the net between Shark defensemen Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray, and in front of Niemi.  Edler sent the puck to the net -- a hope and a flutter of a prayer -- as the clock ticked down under 20 seconds in regulation time.  But he got the puck through, or at least close enough where Kesler could get his stick on it to deflect it down and under Niemi's arm, and into the back of the net.

Lots of pixels will be devoted to the events in the last few seconds that led to Bieksa's game winner sending the Canucks to the Stanley Cup finals.  Some folks might see it as luck.  Well, maybe.  But the Canucks made their luck with the work they did to get to that thrilling, if bizarre end.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Questions: So, how's that "plan" working out? A short history of the draft

In the 2010-2011 season, 28 players appeared in at least 10 games for the Washington Capitals and finished the season with the club. That cohort’s make up and how they were acquired might speak to what we can expect of the Capitals’ “plan” going forward.

Of the 28 players, 14 were drafted, seven were obtained via trade, and seven were signed as free agents. As we have been told often, the Caps plan is to rely primarily on the draft to build and maintain the roster, and to keep it competitive.

Well, what about that? That half of the Caps’ roster dressing for games this season was built via the draft can reasonably be considered relying primarily on that avenue for building a roster. What is revealing, though, is what that group of 14 players represents. Eleven of them are first round picks, all taken over a period from 2002 through 2009. At least one first round pick from each of those years dressed for at least ten games, except the 2005 class. All in all, that is not a bad record. Quite good, in fact, because over those eight drafts the Caps had 15 total first round picks…

- three of which were top-ten picks, all of whom played the full 2010-2011 season with the club

- five of which were middle-ten picks (11-20), three of whom played the full season (and of the others of which was turned into another first round pick)

- seven of which were bottom-ten picks (21-30), five of which played the full season

That’s a pretty good outcome. Unfortunately, that kind of success has not been replicated down the draft rounds. Over the same eight year period, the Caps have had 11 second round picks, only one of whom – Michal Neuvirth – is currently with the club (although Theo Ruth, a 2007 second rounder, was part of the deal that brought Sergei Fedorov to Washington in 2008). Chris Bourque is the only other one of that group to have ever dressed for a Caps game over that period.

And it gets worse as one descends through the rounds. Over that 2002-2009 period the Caps drafted 48 players after the second round. Two – Mathieu Perreault and Braden Holtby – played in at least ten games this season. Five of the 48 appeared in at least one game for the Caps over that period (Andrew Gordon, Sami Lepisto, and Oskar Osala being the others). You could rationalize this by thinking that the Caps have improved in late-round drafting, and you would have a point, to a point. In the 2006-2009 period the Caps had 21 picks after the second round, three of which dressed for at least one game for the Caps and two of who played in at least ten games this season (Perreault and Holtby). Still, if the Caps rely on the draft, they rely heavily on the first round for those prospects. But when they miss…

Four of the Caps 15 first round picks over the 2002-2009 period are no longer with the club. The Steve Eminger pick (12th overall in 2002) gets something of a pass, because he was parlayed into the pick that was used to select John Carlson in 2008. But the other three picks – Sasha Pokulok, Joe Finley, and Anton Gustafsson. You just cannot polish them into a shine, no matter how much you try. Pokulok is out of professional hockey, a situation likely accelerated by concussion problems early in his career. But Pokulok was the 39th-ranked North American skater in the Central Scouting Service amateur rankings in 2005. He was the 15th-ranked defenseman in that ranking and was taken with the 14th overall pick in the draft. In retrospect, what did the club see there?

Joe Finley was one of the defensemen ranked ahead of Pokulok in that 2005 CSS ranking and was taken 13 spots later by the Caps (at 27 overall). Looking back, you can probably rationalize that pick as one taken out of uncertainty as to how the post-lockout style of game would unfold. Finley looked more like a “pre-lockout” sort of reach, given his size and orneriness. One could call it a draft-to-type pick, one to fill a need for more physical presence. The game just evolved differently in the post-lockout world.

The other pick – Anton Gustafsson in 2008 (21st overall) – was a good idea gone bad in a hurry. First, there was the pedigree. Gustafsson being the son of a well-known former Cap, Bengt Gustafsson. OK, we get that. And there was the matter of his being ranked fifth among European skaters in the CSS 2005 amateur rankings. On that basis, you might think, “uh, 21st overall?...maybe not a reach.” But the Caps burned another pick to move up to that slot (sending the 23rd and 54th overall picks to New Jersey to move up to 21st). One supposes that in moving up two slots, the idea was that the pick in between – held by Edmonton – would have been spent on that player (Gustafsson). Well, the Caps got their man, and Edmonton settled for Jordan Eberle. The 21-year old finished his rookie season with 18 goals and 43 points for the Oilers. Gustafsson has, to date, played one game of professional hockey in North America (with Hershey in 2009-2010). The best one can say for this is, “things happen.”

Perhaps the best thing that can be said of the first round picks over this eight-year period is that seven of those years produced a first round pick currently on the roster. Although the 2005 draft – the only one in this period from which a first round pick has not appeared for the Caps -- was more or less a disaster (no draftee has yet to play a single game for the Caps), the consistency in getting first round contributions to the roster is absolutely essential to the success of a “draft-first” philosophy. But are the Caps coming to the end of a generation of these picks?

Boyd Gordon (UFA), a 2002 first round pick, is without a contract for next season. Alexander Semin, another 2002 first rounder, has spent parts of six seasons with the Caps and is entering a contract year. Mike Green, a 2004 first rounder, is entering a contract year, as is Eric Fehr, a 2003 first round pick. Add to that the fact that Karl Alzner (currently) and John Carlson (after next season) are or will be coming off entry deals as RFAs, and there is the potential for some turnover in the next year or two.

And that begs the question, who is pushing the roster from underneath? Certainly not the second rounders. Dmitry Orlov – a 2009 second rounder – has to be considered a long shot to make the roster at best. Dmitri Kugryshev (a 2008 second round pick) is, again at best, a couple of years from making the roster. The rest of the second rounders of recent vintage are either out of the game (Eric Mestery) or have been disappointments unlikely ever to see a Caps roster (Josh Godfrey, Francois Bouchard). And it does not get better going down the rounds of recent years. Mathieu Perreault might never be consistent enough to crack this roster, and he is an RFA besides. Braden Holtby has shown promise as an NHL goaltender, so there is that. But after that, the down roster hopes pretty much rest on the shoulders of Cody Eakin, a 2009 third rounder, who might make the roster next season. Makes one hope that Evgeny Kuznetsov -- the 2010 first-round pick for the Caps -- finds the idea of playing in North America to his liking.

The Caps have put most – not all, but most of their eggs in the basket marked “draft.” And they have done rather well with first round picks, if getting them to the roster and into the lineup is the principal criterion for success. But by that same criterion, the Caps have done markedly less well after the first round. And that puts a lot of pressure on first rounders to perform. A team with that sort of drafting profile cannot afford to have too many “2005’s” in that mix.

If the Caps can be said to have had a “great” draft over the eight drafts in this look, the 2004 draft would qualify. But this was less a product of getting value late as it was getting multiple picks early – three first round picks. Even 2006, which probably ranks second in quality of drafts in this set, was a product of having three of the top-34 picks, all of whom were on the roster this past season. The ability to acquire additional first round picks salvaged what could have been rather sparse drafts over these eight years. That was how the Caps were able to draft Alexander Semin and Boyd Gordon in 2002, Jeff Schultz and Mike Green in 2004, Semyon Varlamov in 2006, and John Carlson in 2008.

Unproductive picks after the first round balanced by the benefits of multiple first round picks. Unless the Caps improve upon the former, they will have to find a way to keep doing the latter. If they do not, and they continue to pursue a draft-centric approach to roster building, then the Caps are going to find that “window” for winning closing sooner than they suspect as the players they have drafted graduate to bigger contracts, perhaps with different clubs, and there is insufficient advancement from those after-first round picks.

How is that plan going to look then?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Questions: Is "Best" not Best?

Alex Ovechkin… 65 goals. Most ever by a left wing in NHL history… 2007-2008.

Mike Green… goals in eight consecutive games. All time NHL record for defensemen… 2009.

Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, Braden Holtby… only trio of goalies for the same team under the age of 22 in NHL history to record ten or more wins apiece in the same season… 2010-2011.

Mike Green… first defenseman since the 1992-1993/1993-1994 seasons to go consecutive years averaging better than a point per game in each one (50 games played minimum)… 2008-2009/2009-2010

Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom… only Capitals teammates in franchise history to reach the 100-point mark in the same season… 2009-2010.

All in the rear view mirror.

And it begs the question, “have we seen the best of these players?” On one level, you would certainly hope not, given that none of them have yet gotten past the age of 25 (Ovechkin will be the first to hit 26, this coming September). And there is the matter that some of these “bests” are in the stratosphere. I mean, really… 65 goals? Goals in eight straight games… for a defenseman?

But what if it these “bests” are the best we are going to see from these players? Is that such a bad thing? Well, please note that all these “bests” have occurred since the lockout, and among the five Stanley Cup winners since the lockout…

-- Only two had a 100-point scorer (Carolina, Pittsburgh); one had two 100-point scorers (Pittsburgh).

-- None had a 50-goal scorer; three had a 40-goal scorer.

-- None had a defenseman who averaged a point or more a game.

-- One had a defenseman record more than 15 goals (and Chicago’s Dustin Byfuglien might have had a number of his 17 goals playing as a forward). In fact, of 52 defensemen dressing for the five Cup winners during their respective regular seasons, only seven defensemen recorded as many as eight goals for the season, let alone get them consecutively.

-- Four had two goalies record at least 10 wins. In fact, two had two goalies record at least 20 wins (Chicago in 2010; Detroit in 2008). None had three goalies with at least ten wins.

Perhaps career bests are nice for the trophy case and for the player notes in the media guide, but not for winning championships. Teams that have won in recent years do have dominating players – Crosby and Malkin in Pittsburgh in 2009; Datsyk and Zetterberg for the 2008 Wings; Selanne and Niedermayer in Anaheim in 2007; Kane, Keith, and Toews in 2010 in Chicago. But not necessarily “career-best” sort of dominating.

Watching your favorites on the Caps pile up numbers and the accolades that accompany them are a nice diversion during the regular season, but they are no reliable predictor of post-season success. If the Caps are going to win, it has to be a 20-man effort every night, even if it means we’ve seen the last of any “career bests” from any of these Caps.

And maybe that’s the “best” to be hoped for.

Questions: Time to Make a Decision?

The next question… “Is it time to make a decision?”

And the subject is, “goaltenders.” The Capitals came into the 2010-2011 season entrusting the nets to a pair of prospects – Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth. Each had their strengths – Varlamov being an acrobatic shot-blocker who had significant NHL playoff experience despite his age, Neuvrith being a cool technician who came up big in the biggest games of his young career (never having lost a playoff series). But they had their weaknesses, too. Varlamov was frequently injured, and Neuvirth had not exactly sparkled in his NHL chances. Then there was the matter of Varlamov having only 32 games of regular season experience coming into this season, Neuvirth having only 22.

It seemed highly unusual that the Caps would give the keys to a Stanley Cup contender to a pair of goalies who combined did not have a full season’s worth of game experience at the NHL level. But these two goalies have been advancing along parallel paths against one another since both were drafted in 2006 (Varlamov with the 23rd overall pick, Neuvirth with the 34th overall pick). Varlamov grabbed a firmer foothold in the NHL earlier than did Neuvirth. Neither got much ice time in their first season (for both, the 2008-2009 season – Varlamov six appearances, Nevirth five). But when backup goalie Brent Johnson ended with hip surgery (he did not appear in a game after February 1st), Varlamov became the backup. Despite only four appearances in the regular season after Johnson’s season ended, Varlamov was thrust into the number one position when Jose Theodore had a shaky start against the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. Varlamov was spectacular in the opening round in relief of Theodore, and it took a relentless barrage of shots by Pittsburgh in round two to wear him down and eventually chase him in Game 7 of the second round, when the Caps lost to the Penguins, four games to three.

Neuvirth took a more conventional path to the NHL in one way, a bizarre path in another. After being drafted by the Caps in 2006 out of HC Sparta Praha Junior (Czech), he came to North America to join the Plymouth Whalers in the OHL, where he had a fine regular season (26-8-4, 2.32, .932, four shutouts) followed by an excellent post season (14-3, 2.44, .930). You might expect he would spend another year in juniors at the age of 19, which he did. But playing for three different teams? Ten games with Plymouth, eight with the Windsor Spitfires, 15 with the Oshawa Generals, all in the OHL in the 2007-2008 season. From there it was splitting time with Hershey and South Carolina in the AHL and ECHL, but leading the Bears to a Calder Cup, for which he was named most valuable player of the tournament. He repeated the feat the following year (without the MVP trophy, which went to teammate Chris Bourque). His apprenticeship complete, he could now challenge Varlamov for the number one position in goal. And despite many pundits' assurances that the Caps could not leave the goaltending chores to a pair of youngsters, that the team would have to find some veteran help, the Caps gave the kids the chance.

And, in a way, past was prologue. Varlamov, who had been plagued by injuries often in his young career, started the 2010-2011 season on injured reserve (groin). Neuvrith stepped in and was the Caps’ best player over the first six weeks of the season, posting a 12-3-0 win-loss mark. Varlamov would miss 25 games as a result of three injuries (groin, lower body, knee) over the season, and Neuvirth would step up to appear in 48 games. Advantage, Neuvirth.

But wait! As if this contest of young goalies wasn’t enough, there was this fourth-round draft pick from 2008 out of Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, who was going to have a say in the matter. Enter Braden Holtby. His progress after draft day was unremarkable in the path taken – a final year with Saskatoon in the WHL (his third in juniors), followed up by a season split between South Carolina (12 games) and Hershey (37 games). He had little post season experience (a 3-4 mark in one series with Saskatoon in 2009, a 2-1 record with Hershey in 2010).

However, while Varlamov’s injury provided an opening for Michal Neuvrith to assume the lead role between the pipes, it also provided Holtby with a chance to show what he could do as a backup at the NHL level. And talk about announcing your presence with authority. In his first NHL appearance, he came on in relief of Neuvirth in a November 5th game against Boston, stopping all four shots he faced (after Neuvrith let the Bruins back into the game with three goals on five shots to open the third period) in a 5-3 Caps win. Then in his first NHL start, he stopped 23 of 25 shots as the Caps beat the Flyers, 3-2 in overtime on November 7th. It got bumpier for Holtby from there, as he allowed 11 goals on 55 shots (.800 save percentage) in three appearances (all losses, one in overtime) before being returned to Hershey.

Holtby returned to Washington in January when both Neuvirth and Varlamov were nursing lower body injuries. His encore stint was amazing. Nine appearances, 8-0-1, 1.01, .968, and two shutouts. All of a sudden, there was a third horse in the two-horse race to see who would take over as the Caps’ number one goaltender.

And that is where we are today. Varlamov might have the most raw talent, but has durability issues. Neuvirth is the best technician, but he has finally lost a playoff series and has the occasional durability issues of his own. Holtby has shown an ability to shoulder a big work load (twice appearing in more than 60 games in juniors) and seemed to improve as he rose through the Caps system (GAA and save percentages improving when going from South Carolina to Hershey, and from Hershey to Washington).

So, do the Caps hold onto all three for another year? Do they make a decision on which two to keep? If it is time for a decision, which two do you keep, and what are you looking for in sending the other one out? Part of the issue is contracts. Michal Neuvirth was signed to a rather cap-friendly (for a number one goaltender) $1.15 million for each of the next two seasons. Braden Holtby is signed to a $683,000 cap hit for each of the next two seasons. The odd man out, contract-wise, is Semyon Varlamov, who is a restricted free agent. He would presumably be due a raise, perhaps along the lines of the Neuvirth contract.

But with Varlamov, the issue is going to be the team's tolerance level for his durability. Do the Caps wait on him to grow out of his “injury” phase, essentially preserving the status quo (Neuvirth and Varlamov in Washington, Holtby in Hershey)? Or do the Caps move Varlamov’s rights in exchange for other assets, giving the keys to Neuvirth and Holtby? The latter presents problems in that there is unproven depth past Holtby in the system. Brandon Anderson and Phillip Grubauer are signed through the 2013/2014 seasons, but neither has played yet above the junior level.

Signing a free agent goaltender to serve as insurance and play primarily at Hershey is an option, one the Caps took in signing Dany Sabourin for this past season. But in the end, even keeping all three goaltenders on the payroll is not going to break the Caps (combined, if Varlamov gets a Neuvirth-like deal, they would cost less than $3.0 million – 15 individual goaltenders in the NHL have higher 2011/2012 cap hits). In a salary capped era, teams should not make decisions on young players until they have to (read: when they are due their first big pay raise). The Caps do not have to make that decision with these three goaltenders based on contracts, and that being the case, we suspect (and endorse) all three will be with the Caps come the fall.

Unless that whole KHL thing is serious…

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Questions: Deal or No Deal?

There is a lot of talk in Caps Nation these days over whether or not a shakeup is needed on the roster to shake off the spell of early playoff round failures that have beset the Caps the past four years. Much of the talk centers on whether it is a good idea to trade defenseman Mike Green.

It is hard to come to a clear answer to the question, “deal or no deal?” Some point to his age (he will turn 26 early in the 2011-2012 season) and position, and wonder if there is still an untapped level of performance for a player who mans a position that usually requires a longer lead time to maturity. Others point to his early-career production and conclude that he has peaked in his offensive production, that he will skate along the path of others before him – a drop in production followed by some increase later, but not to the heights of his early years  – making a long term, high-dollar contract of limited value, thus suggesting that trading him now is the best bet for the Caps.

Well, the Caps themselves have been down a similar road before. An “offensive,” puck-moving defenseman accused of having some issues in his own end, who might not be as physical a defensive presence as fans might like, who had some playoff performance issues.

Yeah, we’ve been here before. So let’s take a look at two Caps – one former, one present. Player A spent parts of six seasons with Washington early in his career (he was not drafted by Washington), playing 453 regular season games between the ages of 22 and 27. Player B (who is Mike Green), has spent parts of six seasons with the Caps, playing in 366 regular season games between the ages of 20 and 25. Let’s compare their numbers in the regular season (data courtesy of

Spooky, isn’t it? Well, it gets better when you compare the playoff performance of these two players over that same relative span:

We will stipulate to all the questions about this kind of comparison – players of different eras, different styles played in those eras, comparing a current player to only one other player, even different contract circumstances (Green will be a restricted free agent after next season; Player A played before the onset of broad free agency rights).

But the age and productivity of the two players are reasonably similar, the big difference being the concern over Green’s durability (he missed 54 games over the past three regular seasons). Still, we do not see the matter of trading Green as a slam dunk in favor of the proposition. And his playing a position that is a virtual requirement for post-season success (solid-top-four defensemen being almost a prerequisite these days) leads us to believe that, all other things equal, keeping Green is the way to go. Of course, the matter of the next contract past next season will weigh heavily in any decision, and that has to be a factor. A Mike Green at a $5.2 million cap hit is one thing. A Mike Green at a $6.5 million cap hit is another matter.

Still, we think the comparison useful, if only to point out the perils of letting a player go – especially at this position – too early. For you see, “Player B” is indeed Mike Green.

“Player A” is Larry Murphy…yes, that Larry Murphy, the one "whooped" out of town, who went on to play with four Stanley Cup winners and who has a bust in the Hall of Fame.

Whoop at your peril.

Everyone's Doin' It: Realignment

A couple of years ago, we came up with this scribble on realignment, but with the Thrashers now looking like the second team from that city to head off to western Canada, well...

Oh, yeah...we're thinking Phoenix is a goner, too, but that comes later.  Just planning ahead.  And just like last got a beef?  Blame Cheerless or Fearless.

But for the life of does a group calling itself the "Atlanta Spirit" merit the name when it seems to expend more energy trying to rid itself of the Thrashers than making them a contender?

Monday, May 16, 2011

Questions: Who Are They?

Last year, we asked “now what?”

This year, we are left to ask “who are they?”

In 2010, the Washington Capitals lost in the first round of the playoffs to a club that finished 33 points behind them in the standings. This year, they lost to an upstart that had not made the playoffs since 2007 and that they defeated four times in six tries in the regular season. In any one year you might say that a playoff loss is a product of slumps at the wrong time, hot goaltenders, injuries, or blind luck. If, over four years, you last one, two, one, and two rounds of the playoffs, we are of a mind bad “luck” isn’t the problem.

This was the year that the Capitals were righting the wrongs of their three previous playoff failures, eschewing the offense-oriented style in favor of playing the “right way,” of using a defense-first philosophy to advance deep into the playoffs. Well, that didn’t work, either.

Or did it?

The Caps started the 2010-2011 season pretty much where they left off in the 2009-2010 regular season, slicing through opponents’ defenses like hot knives through butter. In their first 26 games they averaged 3.38 goals per game. Not quite the offensive juggernaut that they were in 2009-2010 (3.82 goals per game), but certainly capable of giving goaltenders nightmares. In those first 26 games the Caps scored more than four goals seven times.

Trouble was, the defense was pretty much where they left it in 2009-2010, too. In that season the Caps allowed an average of 2.77 goals per game. The started the 2010-2011 season allowing an average of 2.62 goals a game in those first 26 contests. An improvement, but no one was going to confuse them with being the New Jersey Devils (when they were still the New Jersey Devils).

Then came that eight game losing streak in December and the famous makeover in which the Caps did a 180 and became a defense-first club that shut down opponents instead of rolling over them with offense. In the last 56 games of the season (including the losing streak), the Caps scored an average of only 2.34 goals per game, more than a goal-a-game drop off from their average before the makeover.

But the turnaround did have the desired effect on defense, the Caps allowing an average of only 2.20 goals per game in the last 56 contests of the regular season. So, this was a success, right? Well, not if you look at the playoffs, and not when you drill a little bit into those before and after numbers.

The Caps rode this pinball offense sort of theme for the 2009-2010 season and the first 26 games of the 2010-2011 season. In those 108 games they scored 274 goals at even strength. That average of 2.54 goals per game at even strength needs some perspective. For the entire 2010-2011 season, the Devils scored an average of 2.08 total goals per game. The Boston Bruins averaged only 2.39 total goals per game in 2009-2010. After having transitioned to a defense first philosophy, the Caps averaged 1.79 even strength goals per game. It was a significant drop off from what they posted in the year-plus preceding it (0.79 goal per game reduction). One might expect that the even strength offense would be less prolific, but a 31 percent drop in production from the previous 108 games?

If you are going to rationalize this away, you might do it by thinking it is the price one pays for tearing out one system and installing a new one more or less on the fly. That the players would adopt it and achieve the results they did (a drop from 2.73 goals allowed per game in the year-plus leading up to the changeover to 2.20 after) is a reflection of the players’ talent and their coachability. But there are limits. And the drop in even strength scoring might be a reflection of them.

But the power play…ugh.

It’s hard to see a way toward an clear explanation of how the power play disintegrated in the last 56 games of the season. In the 108 games covering the 2009-2010 season and the first 26 games of the 2010-2011 season the Capitals averaged 0.94 power play goals per game (on a 25.1 percent conversion rate). Even in the first 26 games of the 2010-2011 season they averaged 0.85 power play goals per game (24.4 percent conversion). Not a bad drop off considering that the Caps led the NHL in power play conversions in 2009-2010.

But in those last 56 games the Caps scored a total of 24 power play goals – 0.43 per game (13.9 percent). That was more than a 50 percent drop off from their power play goals scored per game in the year-plus before that. Part of the problem was getting opportunities in the first place. In the 108-game block the Caps averaged 3.73 power play opportunities a game. In the last 56 games of the regular season, when the Caps transitioned to that more defensive style, they averaged only 3.09 power play chances a game. A product of playing safer in the offensive end?

But safe as a team might play in the offensive end at even strength, even if in doing so they end up with fewer penalties drawn, that 13.9 percent conversion rate on the power play in the last 56 games sticks out. That and the fact that the Caps went 43 consecutive games without registering more than one power play goal in a game and only had four multi-power play goal games in the last 56 of the season (they had 20 such games in the 2009-2010 season).

Adopting a more defensive posture resulted in the Caps dropping their even strength goals allowed per game from 1.82 a game in the 108 games (the 2009-2010 season plus the first 26 games of the 2010-2011 season) to 1.64 a game. On the other hand, the offense took a bigger dip, from 2.54 even strength goals per game to 1.75. That might have been a good tradeoff; certainly the Caps’ regular season record after the transition (30-11-7 after the eight-game losing streak) suggests it was. But that was the regular season, and what was perhaps an unexpected result was that the power play went almost silent. And even if it improved late in the season, it let the Caps down in the playoffs (2-for-19 against Tampa Bay).

So it begs the question, “who are they?” Are the Caps an “either-or” team that can do the offense or the defense (but not both with consistency), or was 2010-2011 something of a learning year, where a team that steamrolled teams with offense almost since this coaching staff took over had to learn to play a different game at the other end of the ice. The hopeful fan will be thinking the latter. After all, a high-octane offense and a stingy defense are not mutually exclusive styles. They certainly were not in Vancouver, where the Canucks led the NHL in offense in 2010-2011 (3.15 goals-per-game) and in defense (2.20 goals-per-game).

But there remains the mystery of the power play and how a team with as much offensive talent to deploy on the man advantage that the Capitals had could be frustrated so often. In the end, despite the improvements in defense the Caps made, despite their ability to win close games (26 one-goal wins, second in the league), despite their ability to come from behind (second in wins when trailing after two periods, first in wins when allowing the first goal), the power play and its troubles was the weak link during the latter two-thirds of the regular season, and it never really did come around in the playoffs.

Perhaps “who they are” next year will be a team that learned its lessons in defensive hockey and can apply them without sacrificing so much offense. But if “who they are” is a team that plays a style closer to the margin – a lot of one-goal games and a defense-first philosophy, then that power play is going to have to be more effective than it was this season. Or you can count on the same kind of finish.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Questions: Is The Whole Less Than The Sum Of Its Parts?

The next question…”Is the whole less than the sum of the parts?”

The subject of this question is the “Young Guns” – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green. And if the answer to the question is “yes,” then it begs the next question, “should they be broken up?”

The Young Guns do not have a parallel anywhere in the history of the Washington Capitals. For 30 years, the Caps were seen by most as a sort of “little engine that could” sort of hockey team. Although the club could boast of the occasional high end talent – Bobby (before he became just “Bob”) Carpenter and Mike Gartner in the 1980’s, Peter Bondra in the 1990’s – never did the Caps have a quartet of such offensive talent as these four. Ovechkin is the most prolific goal scorer of this generation. Semin might have more innate talent as a scorer and puck handler. Backstrom is among the top five (or better) playmakers in the NHL today. Green is (or at least, was) the best offensive defenseman in the league.

Why, then, has this unprecedented collection of talent on a Capitals roster failed to do what only two clubs have done in 36 seasons – advance to at least a conference final in the playoffs? Well, individually this foursome has been impressive in the post season. In 37 games they have combined for 54 goals, 137 points, and are a plus-23. By now you are really wondering what is up with these guys and the lack of team success. I know it, I can see you scratching your head.

Well, let’s decompose this a bit. The Caps have played in six post season series over the last four years, winning two and losing four. In the two series they won, the Caps played in a total of 12 games (eight wins, four losses). In the series that they lost, a total of 25 games (nine wins, 16 losses). Now how do things break down?

Well, this is where things start to turn strange. In the 12 games played in series that the Caps won, the Young Guns are 16-27-43 and a plus-20. More than three-and-a-half points per game is pretty impressive. But wait… in the 25 games in series the Caps lost, this group is 38-56-94 and a plus-3. As a group, they actually scored more per game in series they lost (both goals and points-wise) than they did in games in series that they won.

Strange as that outcome is, it starts to clear up a bit if we drill down just a little more. This foursome becomes two twosomes in the post-season. For instance, in 37 playoff games Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are a combined 37-45-82, plus-26. Alexander Semin and Mike Green are a combined 17-38-55, minus-3. Yes, yes…Ovechkin and Backstrom generally play alongside one another, usually without Semin on that line. And Semin and Green play different positions (Green’s, despite his prolific output as a defenseman, not generally associated with big offensive numbers). So let’s drill a little more.

In series in which the Caps have won, Ovechkin and Backstrom are a combined 6-15-21, plus-8 in 12 games. Meanwhile, Semin and Green are 10-12-22, plus-12 in those same games. The difference – and perhaps the problem – lies in the games in series in which the Caps lost. In those 25 games, the Ovechkin-Backstrom pair is 31-30-61 and plus-18. Their respective levels of play have not – at the series level – diminished in series the Caps lost. But for the Semin-Green pair the numbers are 7-26-33, minus-15 in those 25 games. What is more, Semin and Green were a combined 6-9-15, even in the seven-game loss to the Flyers in 2008. In three series losses since then (covering 18 games) they are a combined 1-17-18, minus-15. It isn’t quite “not showing up,” but that is a significant drop off in production, especially in the Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Tampa Bay series losses, and they were getting killed at even strength.

Mike Green has, if not an excuse, an explanation. In two of the last three series the Caps lost, he was perhaps not physically well. In the Pittsburgh series in 2009, when he was pounded mercilessly by Penguin forecheckers, and in the Tampa Bay series this year, when he might have been suffering the effects of a shot taken to the head (and perhaps a leg injury that sidelined him for Game 4), injuries might have factored into a 0-5-5, minus-8 performance in those two series.

Semin’s production is more of a mystery. In the last three series the Caps lost, his production looks like this:

Pittsburgh (2009): seven games; 0-6-6, minus-6
Montreal (2010): seven games; 0-2-2, even
Tampa Bay (2011): four games; 1-1-2, minus-2

In those last three series, 1-9-10, minus-8 in 18 games. He is one of the purest offensive talents in the game and frankly is an underrated defender, when motivated. In a perverse way, his importance to the team might be reflected in those poor numbers in those three series the Caps lost. If he had anything approaching his numbers in series when the Caps win, well, the Caps probably win there, too.

And therein lies the conundrum. The answer to the question posed at the top of this essay is obviously, “yes.” The whole is less than the sum of its parts. And too much of that problem is related to the irregular production of Alexander Semin. If he could find it within himself, or if a coach could pull it out of him, to be more consistent in the post season, the Caps almost certainly would have been more successful. He has that kind of talent. But for whatever reason, that talent has not expressed itself on a consistent basis, at least not as consistently as his partners in the Young Guns foursome.

And that raises the reasonable question of whether the Capitals might add by subtraction. Neither Ovechkin nor Backstrom can be traded (owing to their contracts), nor should they be. Both have shown up, win or lose (except for Backstrom’s curious absence for much of the 2011 playoffs). Semin and Green, less so. But Mike Green is a commodity one does not find in large supply in the NHL. A defenseman who can skate, score, and even (honest) defend, at least more so than his reputation suggests. Alexander Semin, while a sublime talent with the puck, is not as essential to this club’s success, not if his post-season consistency is going to continue to be problematic. If Semin was to be moved, the Caps would almost certainly receive something less than equal value in return. If a blogger can figure out there are consistency issues here, people who are paid to evaluate talent have their own, more detailed dossiers of his weaknesses. And there is the matter of that contract for next season. A $6.7 million deal for Semin might be worth it to the Capitals, but it is hard to see how it will be of similar value to another team, one that will expect him to be the go-to scorer on a night-to-night – and post-season – basis.

We are not here to bash Alexander Semin, to lay at his feet all the ills the Caps have suffered in the post season the last four years. If blame is your thing, there is more than enough to go around. The point of this is to consider whether the Caps have a reasonable expectation to crack through that second round and win a Cup with the Young Guns intact, or whether the “Young Guns” are more sizzle than steak. If you think the latter, then the question becomes which one to move. And on that score, Semin seems to be the candidate.

It is hard to see a way clear to thinking that Semin will find his inner consistency in the post season. It hasn’t appeared yet in four seasons, and he is arguably in his productive prime at age 27. Will the Caps pull the trigger on a deal to shake things up, to challenge the comfort level of other players, and to try to find that unexplainable mix that winners seem to put together? Hard to say, although frankly, we doubt such a deal is in the offing this summer. What it means is that the Caps will choose to grant Semin – and the other Young Guns – one more chance…a statement that probably applies to other Caps as well.

We just do not think it is necessarily the right choice.

Questions: Does He Have What It Takes II

The next question is the same question…”Does he have what it takes?”

Different subject this time, though – Alex Ovechkin. But this one is more complex, because it can be applied to a variety of situations concerning Ovechkin and his role on this team. Does he have what it takes to be captain going forward? Does he have what it takes to be “the best player on the planet” once more? Does he have what it takes to be a winner?

The 2010-2010 season for Alex Ovechkin might not have been as obviously disappointing as the 2009-2010 season (when he was suspended twice, skated in an embarrassing performance by Team Russia in the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, and captained a team that was ushered out of the Stanley Cup playoffs when it lost the last three games of its opening round series). But it was disappointing, nonetheless. Personal numbers dropped significantly, nagging injuries, another one-and-done playoff performance. Not all of blame, then or now, could be laid at the feet of Ovechkin, but when you are mentioned in the same sentence that starts, “the best players in all of hockey are…,” then yours is the name that is mentioned most when it comes to underachieving.

Let’s take the parts of the question in turn. Whether by example or by personality, the captain of a hockey team occupies a unique leadership position among team sports. No doubt one can find instances in which one team or another might look to a player who is not captain for leadership (the Flyers and Chris Pronger comes to mind at the moment), but generally the captain is that team’s leader. And looking at successful clubs over the past several years (that is, Stanley Cup champions), there seems to be little doubt that the captain was that team's leader – Rod Brind’Amour in Carolina, Scott Niedermayer in Anaheim, Nicklas Lidstrom in Detroit, Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh, Jonathan Toews in Chicago. Young or old, whether by example or by personality, there was not much dispute over their being the leaders as well as captains on those champions.

Does Ovechkin measure up in this regard? Well, we are not sure. We cannot know what goes on in the locker room or in private conversations and meetings among teammates. His performance example certainly seems of “leadership” quality, but does he have the presence at this point in his career to lead by personality or by example that does not involve prolific scoring? Again, knowing for sure whether or not that is true is difficult, but inferences can be drawn. In recent years the Caps have brought in Sergei Fedorov, Mike Knuble (both before Ovechkin’s ascension to captain), and Jason Arnott. All were on the back half of their careers as productive hockey players, but all were veterans with championship pedigree and/or demonstrated leadership characteristics. It is not a knock on Ovechkin to say that bringing in a Jason Arnott this season filled a leadership void. Ovechkin might not have been (and might still not be) ready to shoulder those responsibilities. It begs that question, “does he have what it takes?” And the best answer we can come up with is that in retrospect, perhaps “not yet.”

What of the “best player on the planet” level of performance? Well, we are six years into Ovechkin’s career. It is an impressive regular season resume he has built. In 475 career games he has averaged 52-54-106, plus-15, per-82 games. His playoff record isn’t too shabby, either; better in fact than his regular season numbers (on a per-82 game basis) – 55-55-110, plus 29. But you could argue that being the “best player on the planet” means bringing his teammates along as well as putting up his own big numbers. And his teams have not matched his performance. Why? Two things come to mind. First, even with his prodigious numbers, the very nature of his position works against him. Among forwards, wingers are not as likely to impact teammates’ performances as a center. Even a prolific scorer such as Ovechkin has limits in the degree to which he can influence results through his teammates. Second, despite the numbers, there is an odd character to his performance. In 17 playoff wins in his career he is 15-12-27, plus-15. In 20 losses he is 10-13-23. No surprise that his production drops off a bit in losses, but the lingering question there is whether that is a product of better defense by opponents or his trying to do too much when the Caps fall behind, taking too much on his own.

The big question, though, is “does he have what it takes to be a winner.” We have made the point before that to be mentioned in the same breath as the all-time greats in the game, you have to win the sport’s ultimate prize, and with all due respect to the folks who sponsor the World hockey championships, that’s not it. Not even Olympic gold qualifies (mainly because most of the game’s all-time greats were not eligible for participation in that tournament in the past given their professional status). The Stanley Cup is the measuring stick, and among the all-time greats, they won that prize for the first time at a comparatively early age (most of them younger than Ovechkin will be next season when he tries for the seventh time to win that prize). This is, to date, the unfulfilled aspect of his career, and the fact of the matter is Ovechkin has two championships on his resume to date – one of them won at the 2003 World Junior Championships, the other at the 2008 World Championships. He has not gotten past the second round in any of the four NHL playoff tournaments in which he has participated.

Hockey is enough of a team sport so that one could say the lack of NHL post-season is not his doing alone, but neither is hockey (or any sport) fair in this regard. Ovechkin is the face of this franchise over the past six seasons and for many to come. If he has not won, or will not win a Cup, he is not going to be mentioned in quite the same breath as a Gretzky, an Orr, a Richard, a Howe, or a Lemieux. He will not, by definition, be a winner.

When the puck drops on Opening Night for the 2011-2012 season, Alex Ovechkin will be 26 years old and entering his seventh season in the NHL. He has accomplished much in his first six seasons in the NHL – the Calder Trophy, an Art Ross Trophy, twice a Maurice Richard Trophy winner, twice a Hart Trophy winner, three times a Ted Lindsay Award winner. But these are individual awards. Ovechkin has expressed an opinion that such things matter less than winning a Stanley Cup, and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity.

But there is a darker side to this question that does not generally attach itself to the greats in the game. In 2009-2010, Ovechkin had a difficult season, reflected in suspensions for overly aggressive play, disappointing tournaments in the Olympics and the Stanley Cup playoffs, and what some might have perceived as a surlier attitude. These things happen to players. But this past season, there were questions about his preparation. Was he in shape? Was he partying too much? True or not, and we (and you, too, dear reader) don’t know, it is in the questions themselves that a problem exists. Would such questions have been asked of those other legends mentioned? Would they be asked of many of his contemporaries who are considered elite players?

We are still left with the question, “does he have what it takes?” To lead a team to success, to lead that team to a championship. Not only have the hoped-for results failed to materialize, but the performance of the team he is leading has been especially disappointing. It would not be unreasonable to ask whether the club should revisit the matter of who serves as captain.  Putting a kinder spin on things, at 26 next season he will still be a work in progress as a leader, that progress hopefully leading to becoming a winner at the sport’s highest level.

But given how the greatest in the game achieved their championships, how they became winners (more often than not before they reached his age), the clock is ticking.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Questions: Does He Have What It Takes?

We’re going to get to the season by “the tens,” but before that we are going to ask a number of questions about this team. We do not claim to have the ultimate answers to those questions (as if that would stop our writing about it), but we do hope they inspire some conversation. The first one (actually, the same question we will pose in the second installment) asks…

"Does he have what it takes?"

Let’s start with a premise. Bruce Boudreau forgot more about hockey over his morning coffee than I am ever going to know if I live to the next millennium. But I can read a box score, and unless the laws of arithmetic have changed, four is greater than three (or two, or one, or zero) in all instances. And the Caps do not get to four often, in the playoffs that is.

But first things first. When a team was as ghastly as the Caps were from 2003-2004 through 2006-2007 – a period over which the Caps won only 80 of 246 games – no one but the deluded could expect or demand that such a team contend for a Stanley Cup. That is what made the 2007-2008 season so special. The Caps started slowly that season under head coach Glen Hanlon and were given up for dead before Santa received his wish lists from kids all over the world (Caps fans asked for sanity). Enter Bruce Boudreau, who oozed hockey from every pore of his being, a true lifer who loved the game and picked up nuggets of knowledge from just about every rink from Mississippi to Medicine Hat.

The run that followed had to be among the best times of a Caps fan’s life. “Improbable” doesn’t begin to capture what unfolded, culminating with an 11-1-0 finish that allowed the Caps to squeak past the Carolina Hurricanes into the playoffs. That the Caps would lose to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs in 2008 could not even be considered much of a disappointment, such was the exhilaration of the climb through the standings that got them there.

But three more post seasons later we find that in four times in six attempts, the Capitals failed to reach the number “four” in games won before their competition in a playoff round. The only times they were able to get to “four” first were against the offensively challenged New York Rangers, which makes one wonder why head coach John Tortorella was given a contract extension.

Each playoff loss has been more frustrating than the last. The Caps came back from a three games to one deficit to force a Game 7 against the Flyers in 2008, only to lose that Game 7 on home ice on an overtime power play goal. They lost in 2009 after forcing a Game 7 with an overtime winner of their own on the road against Pittsburgh, only to lay an egg in Game 7 on home ice in a 6-2 loss. In 2010 it was gagging on a three games to one lead against Montreal, falling in Game 7 (again, at home) by a 2-1 margin. This year, there was no Game 7, the Caps being swept by Tampa Bay in four games.

Over the past four seasons, the Caps have been a case of two entirely separate concepts that neatly divide into the regular season and playoffs, but reflect a division between strategy and tactics. In the fall of 2007 the Caps were a team shackled to a play-it-safe approach under head coach Glen Hanlon that was ultimately a poor fit for the talent the Caps had collected on their roster. Bruce Boudreau replaced Hanlon in that fall of 2007, and it was a better fit of philosophy to talent. The Caps finished the season on a 37-17-7 run under Boudreau and an unexpected playoff berth. A large part of that success was that recognition of the talent on the roster and matching a philosophy to it. The Caps averaged almost a full goal more per game (3.13) under Boudreau in that season than they did under Hanlon (2.24).

It was a philosophy that was refined and improved – one that emphasized a pressure offense that took the heat off a green defense and uncertain goaltending. The Caps improved their scoring to 3.27 goals per game the following season and to 3.82 goals per game in 2009-2010. That the Caps were not an especially adept defensive team (2.67 goals per game in the last 61 games of the 2007-2008 season, 2.93 goals per game in 2008-2009, 2.77 in 2009-2010) did not seem to matter – they were 141-56-28 under Boudreau coming into the 2010-2011 season.

But three seasons of early playoff exits and an eight-game losing streak in December led to some re-thinking of the strategy. The Capitals had to play better defense to succeed in the long run, and the team adopted a more defense-oriented approach to their game. The results were stunning. After going 18-12-4 in their first 34 games (ending on that eight-game losing streak), averaging 2.91 goals a game while giving up 2.79 goals, the Caps finished the year 30-11-7, limiting opponents to 2.00 goals a game – a 28 percent reduction in average goals allowed.

In matching a style to talent and reworking that style to meet the realities of successful hockey in the contemporary era, Boudreau proved himself a superior coach in terms of developing and implementing a strategy. And that brings us to the post-season. The Caps have played in six playoff series over the past four years, and the only series wins they have to show for it are against the offensively challenged New York Rangers. Of the other four series, the first of them – the seven game loss to Philadelphia in 2008 – could be said to be a loss to a slightly superior club (the Flyers did finish with more points in the regular season than the Caps, despite the Caps furious rush to the finish). The other three playoff series losses revealed aspects that call into question the coach’s tactical acumen.

The three clubs to whom the Caps lost in those playoffs were, at first glance, quite different. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who beat the Caps in seven games in 2009, were a club that had high end talent in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but that displayed a tenacity up and down their roster that made them a difficult team to play against. The Montreal Canadiens, to whom the Caps lost in 2010, were a team of modest talent but that had a veteran defense, a solid goaltender, and that knew how to play responsibly in their own end, ingredients that allowed them to employ an offense that was more opportunistic (a fine power play, for example) than talented. This year, the Tampa Bay Lightning had talented veterans with Stanley Cup winning experience and made up for a lack of defensive skill with schemes matched to the skill level they had.

But the three teams had something in common in playing the Caps. All of them deployed tactics aimed at striking the Caps at their weak points. In 2009 the Penguins used a withering forecheck to create turnovers and unleash a barrage of shots at rookie goaltender Semyon Varlamov. The Caps won Games 1 and 2, but allowed 36 shots on goal in each. The barrage never stopped – or more to the point, the Caps never had an answer for it. The Penguins sent 154 shots on goal in Games 3-6, winning three of them and losing the other in overtime, scoring 17 goals along the way. By Game 7, Varlamov and the Capitals showed cracks, and in Game 7 the walls came tumbling down in a 6-2 loss in which Varlamov was chased and the competitive portion of the game was over before the second period was three minutes old.

In 2010, the Canadiens could not match the Caps’ firepower, so they employed something of a rope-a-dope strategy, packing the middle of the ice in their own end and blocking shots in bunches. The Capitals attempted an astounding 576 shots in the seven games (more than 82 per game). Almost a third of them were blocked. What is more, in the last three games of the series – all losses – the Caps attempted even more shots (more than 85 a game) with the same results, almost a third of them blocked. It was as if more of the same would create a different result. Montreal deployed a tactic for which the Caps had no answer, any more than they had one for the Penguins’ tactic the year before of punishing the Caps in their own end.

This year, "1-3-1" were not the winning numbers in the DC-3 lottery drawing, but the defense the Tampa Bay Lightning was using to stymie the Capitals. It was hardly a new wrinkle. And it wasn’t a decisive impediment to the Caps, who went 4-1-1 against the Lightning during the regular season. But once more, an opponent deployed a tactic in a short series for which the Caps had no ready answer.

But what was perhaps worse was that what the Caps had spent almost 50 games honing and perfecting was not there. The emphasis on defense, the improved penalty killing...where was it? Tampa Bay scored 16 goals in four games, and the Caps killed only 14 of 18 shorthanded situations (77.8 percent). It was almost a photo-negative of the previous spring, when it was the almost unstoppable offense that averaged 3.82 goals per game in the regular season that produced 22 goals in seven games, but only three in the last three contests on 134 shots on goal.

In the last three seasons the Capitals have had similarly disappointing post seasons in that the strengths displayed in the regular season were nowhere to be found in the playoffs. In 2009 the Caps were 3-0-1 against the Penguins in the regular season, holding the Penguins to 110 shots in the four games (27.5 per game). But come the playoffs, the Caps didn’t have an answer for the Penguins’ ability to forecheck the Caps into mistakes and bombard them with 256 shots (36.6 per game). In 2010 the Caps won the regular season series against the Canadiens with a 2-1-1 record, but succumbed to a goaltender they did not face in the regular season – Jaroslav Halak (Carey Price was the goaltender of record in all four regular season games) – for whom they could not find an answer, and they couldn’t find an answer to Montreal packing in their defense. In 2011, the numbers “1-3-1” presented an unsolvable problem in arithmetic as the Tampa Bay Lightning swept the Caps.

What it suggests is an ability to compose the broad contours of success – taking advantage of the gifted offensive talents on the roster, being able to retool to adopt a generally defense-oriented posture. But the lack of success in a short series, even against opponents against which the Caps had regular season success, point to a lack of nimbleness, an inability to adjust tactics on the fly, to react when the other guys act. When the Caps had 50 games or so to install and refine a new strategy, they did so effectively – in 2008 when the Caps abandoned the play-it-safe model under Glen Hanlon and again in 2011 when it became apparent that the Caps needed to shore up their own end of the ice. But when the Caps have had a week to act and react? In this year’s instance one might argue that injuries played a role, an argument that seems more convincing with every revelation since the season ended. However, there is a body of work here now spanning four seasons. And the result has been that unless the other team plays its home games in Manhattan, the job hasn’t gotten done in the playoffs.

And that brings us to one question that perhaps brings the matter into focus. If the Caps are now a team for which only the playoffs matter, is it reasonable to conclude that Bruce Boudreau has what it takes in the short series format to succeed?

He might not be the problem for the Capitals, but it seems that neither is he the solution. The results speak for themselves.

Friday, May 06, 2011

What can you say...

The Caps went quick and quiet in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal against the Tampa Bay Lightning, bringing another season to an early end. The Caps fell behind, again, and when the Lightning opened a 3-1 lead in the second period, you could probably rest easily that there would be no “Miracle on 34th Street” comeback. Tampa shut things down, added to their lead in the third, eventually getting a late goal that would make the margin 5-2 before a late window dressing goal for the Caps made a 5-3 final seem closer than it was.

And so, the Capitals’ summer starts early once more. One gets the feeling that a moment has passed, the best opportunity for the Caps to win a championship, at least for the near future. They had a mix of players in their prime and enough veteran leadership to give fans real hope that this, finally, would be the year.

But in the end, this Caps team was no different than any other you might compare it to over the 36 years of this franchise’s history – underachievers or unhealthy, unimaginative or unable to beat a team it should have beaten. It is early, perhaps too early to render a fitting judgment on this squad and its place in Caps history, but we cannot help thinking that this franchise is all sizzle and no steak. Thirty-six seasons of this will leave that impression. The current edition has the great videos, big web presence, and is steeped – marinated, in fact – in the whole idea of the “experience.” But the hockey? Twice in 36 years the Caps have moved past the second round. This year’s team was just another team that didn’t, indistinguishable from the 2009 team, the 1994 team, the 1991 team… 1988… 1986… 1984.

Oh, the players will say all the right things in all the right tones about how disappointing this is to them personally and how they let down the fans. Coaches will talk of what went right and what didn’t. Management will try to spin this as just another step on the road to success.

Heard it. Year after year after year.

No, the Caps are what they are. Swap out the names Carpenter and Gartner for Ovechkin and Backstrom. Switch out Larry Murphy for Mike Green. Scorer for scorer, grinder for grinder, goalie for goalie. This club is, in the end, no different than any of those teams in the 1980’s that should have won, and didn’t. You can talk about luck, or bounces, or health (and this club did – before this post season even got started), but in the end it isn’t any different from the teams of the 1980’s or 1990’s or the early 2000’s that should have done better, and didn’t. Over all those years, the players have seemed like genuinely good guys, guys who wanted to win and who took it hard when they didn’t. Coaches were earnest folks who probably spent a lot of time trying to figure out what they had to do to squeeze out the last bit of effort that would get their teams over the hump. Management was diligent in trying to assemble rosters that could make deep playoff runs.

But in the end, two of them did. Two. This team wasn’t one of them. And we are left to wonder, “OK, now what?” As a fan, we were angry last year over what happened to the Caps in losing to the Canadiens after building a 3-1 series lead in the first round, saying that “the season stands as a failure. Period, and point blank.” This year, it is more a resigned sigh. This is what Caps teams do. They tease, they have flashes of brilliance when snow is on the ground. But when push comes to shove, they do not push enough and do not shove enough. They sputter, they make mistakes in the simplest parts of the game, they lack the killer instinct. They go quietly when the trees blossom.

Somewhere, someone is going to be tempted to say, “it was a hard lesson to learn.” Wrong cliché. The same lesson of beating back adversity has been pounded into the Capitals for the past four seasons, but they just don’t seem capable of learning it. Teams out work, out-scheme, out-whatever the Caps. Whether it is the Islanders or the Rangers, the Penguins or the Flyers, or last year’s Canadiens or this year’s Lightning, for 36 seasons it has been a case of the Caps not so much being beaten by better teams as much as they are losers to teams they should have cast aside.

It isn’t even anger-inducing. It does not seem to be worth that kind of emotional investment. It might not even be disappointing any more. It is expected. And even if the Caps make changes – on the ice, behind the bench, or in the front office – it hardly seems to matter. The Caps have had hall of famers skate for them and hall of famers in waiting. They have been coached by a pair of Murrays, a Wilson, a Boudreau. They have had a Poile and a McPhee making personnel decisions. It hardly seems to matter. The pieces change, the results are the same.

We’ll look forward to the draft, to development camp, to training camp. We’ll be at games, and we’ll probably be writing about them. But purely as a fan, making an emotional investment in the Caps looks more and more over time like a fool’s errand. There is no romance in being a fan of a lovable loser. Losers are lovable only to fans who do not follow that particular team. We doubt Cubs fans think of their team as “lovable” losers, and we are quite sure that New England wasn’t in a loving mood watching the Red Sox come up short year after year.

In the 1980’s the Caps disappointed their fans with early playoff exits, but looking back they probably got about as much out of their talent as they could. This edition of the Caps – the one that now has two playoff series wins in six tries over the last four years (both over the offensively incompetent Rangers) – looks more like a club that has squandered both opportunity and talent. They were passed by in 2009 by the Penguins, passed by in 2010 by the Blackhawks, and passed by this year by their own division rival in the Lightning. That is pretty much the definition of the phrase, “moving backward.” The Caps would appear to have the talent to be a reliable playoff contender for years to come, and we have the uneasy feeling that this is quite good enough for club management in that it will keep the turnstiles turning. But a championship contender? When we read that “anything can happen in the playoffs” or that such and such a team is “hard to play against,” we’re not put in the mind that it is a championship level team doing the talking. Those kinds of teams aren’t victims of bad luck. They make their luck. They are the teams that others find it difficult to play against. Teams like the Caps – who can be quoted as saying results are as much the product of luck and the initiative of the opponent – don’t win.

The best chances of that seem to be in the rear view mirror. It is hard to envision this club being given any serious consideration as a genuine Stanley Cup contender next season with its having failed to meet expectations in the past few years. Oh, they’ll make the playoffs, but they seem to be settling into that “also ran” status in which they will reach the playoffs, perhaps win a round, but who will inevitably run into a “hot goalie” or a coach with a better scheme, or plain bad luck.

These aren’t evil people; they haven’t been over the last 36 seasons. They care – we do not dispute that. No one gets up in the morning and ponders, “how can I screw up on the ice tonight?” Or “what mediocre talent can I get for this team?” Or “How can I make fans more miserable??” But after 36 years of relentless disappointment, made more bitter over the last few years precisely because of the talent on the ice, we’re left with asking “Why?”

Because they are the Caps. It’s what they do. It’s what they’ve done for 36 seasons.

What can you say…

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Semifinals: Capitals vs. Lightning, Game 3

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The saying in the ads goes, “History will be made,” but for the Washington Capitals the question is, “will history be repeated?” The Caps go into Game 3 tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning down two games to none, having lost both games at home. It is not unlike the situation the Caps faced two years ago, having dropped Games 1 and 2 to the New York Rangers at home. Then, like now, things looked bleak. More so then, because the Caps had never come back from an 0-2 deficit, not in four tries, never having so much as extended a series to a sixth game in any of the four instances.

But in 2009, the Caps went to Madison Square Garden down two games to none under similar circumstances as what face them now. They lost two one-goal games (Game 1 of the 2011 series being essentially a one-goal game, Tampa getting an empty netter late), an indication that there was not much difference between the teams. One of those games, like one of the game in the pair at Verizon Center this year, was settled in overtime. The Caps struggled to score (three goals in two games then, four in two games now). They were facing a goaltender who looked capable of stealing a series.

Then the Caps went on the road. Maybe there is something in that Game 3 from two years ago that can offer up some hints on what to look for as the Caps try to crawl back into the series…

Shoot early, shoot often…

Four shots on goal in the first 2:39, 14 in the first period of that 2009 Game 3 against the Rangers. The Caps actually did this in Games 1 and 2 (14 and 13 shots, respectively, in this first period of those games). But they did a better job of getting in close. In Games 1 and 2, shots came from an average of 36 feet and 40 feet in the first period, respectively. In Game 1, only three of 14 shots came from inside of 30 feet. In Game 2, it was better – seven of 13. But in Game 3, the Caps unleashed 14 shots at goalie Henrik Lundqvist in the first 12:30 of the game, those shots coming from an average of 23 feet – only two shots came from outside of 30 feet. More important, both goals the Caps scored in that period (both by Alexander Semin) came from inside of 20 feet. Shoot early, shoot often…and by all means, get shots on goal from in close.

Big time players play big…

The Young Guns – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green – were a combined 1-5-6, minus-1 in Games 1 and 2 of that Rangers series. Not bad, certainly, but not quite good enough, either, especially in Game 2 when the Caps were shutout (no points, minus-3). In Game 3, though, the four went a combined 2-6-8, plus-6. So far in the Tampa Bay series they are a combined 2-1-3, minus-4. The Caps have to get these guys going.

There is another thread of history that might have some bearing on this game. Three Capitals have some recent and vivid memories of losing Games 1 and 2, and coming back to win a series. Eleven months ago, Michal Neuvirth, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner skated for the Hershey Bears in the AHL Calder Cup final against the Texas Stars. The Stars shocked the Bears on Giant Center ice, 2-1, in Game 1 behind a 26-save performance by Matt Climie, a backup goaltender manning the nets because of an injury to Brent Krahn. Like the Caps in Game 1 of the Tampa Bay series, the Bears were rusty after a long layoff (12 days) after winning their previous round and looked it with only two shots on goal in the first period of that Game 1. They never got untracked.

Texas duplicated the feat in Game 2, winning by another one-goal margin, 4-3, getting the winner in the last minute. And at that point it looked bleak as the Bears headed south for the next three games (the AHL playing a 2-3-2 seven game format). It got worse at the start of Game 3 as Texas scored a power play, an even strength, and a shorthanded goal in the first period of the game to take a 3-1 lead and threaten to blow the Bears out of the building and the series. But Hershey crawled back into it with a pair of second period goals to tie the game, then three third period markers made the comeback complete in a 6-3 win.

The Bears ended up sweeping the Stars in Texas, punishing the Stars with their power play (4-for-12) and getting good goaltending from Neuvirth, who stopped 80 of the last 83 shots he saw (.964 save percentage) in the last eight periods plus overtime in Game 5 in Texas. What is more, in outscoring Texas by 11-3 in those last eight-plus periods in Texas, the Bears got production from the guys who had to produce. Alexandre Giroux had two goals and an two assists. Mathieu Perreault had a pair of goals and a pair of assists. John Carlson was 1-2-3. Keith Aucoin had a goal and four assists.

And that is what the Caps need now. We made a point of it before Game 2, and it is no less true now that the Caps are on the road down 0-2. The guys who are expected to produce offensively have to do just that. Two goals among the Young Guns (Ovechkin, Semin) in two games is probably not going to be enough. The Caps have to remember a little bit of their own history and rip a page out of the Hershey history book to scratch their way back into this series. They can do this…they have done this.

It can be done, just by winning one game at a time.

Caps 3 - Lightning 1

Programming Note: We are going to be away for a few days. You can catch up with the usual suspects by clicking on the links to the right. We hope to be back before the Caps head off to the third round.

Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 2: Lightning 3 - Capitals 2 (OT)

There is not so much as a sliver of daylight separating the backs of the Washington Capitals and the proverbial “wall.” They are up against it now, heading to Tampa down two-games-to-none after dropping tonight’s Game 2 at Verizon Center, 3-2 in overtime.

Vincent Lecavalier sent the Lightning home happy at 6:19 of the extra session when he buried a feed from Teddy Purcell behind goalie Michal Neuvirth after the Caps got caught with too many men too far from the play (the result of a line change that was painful to watch), Mike Green being the only Cap in the defensive zone as the play unfolded.

It was Lecavalier opening and closing the scoring, his first goal of the game coming in the last minute of the first period, one-timing from the right wing circle a feed from Martin St. Louis. Brooks Laich got it back in the fifth minute of the second period, the play being a product of something the Caps just haven’t seemed to do quite enough of – pass bodies in front of goaltender Dwayne Roloson. Nicklas Backstrom skated the puck into the Tampa Bay zone leading a 3-on-2 rush. He crossed behind Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin as the latter two headed to the net. Backstrom wristed the puck on goal, and with the Caps enjoying an advantage of numbers low, Laich steered the puck past Roloson to tie the game.

Martin St. Louis gave the Lightning the lead once more early in the third period when a snap shot he took from the left wing circle looked to deflect off the skate of Mike Green and behind Neuvirth. Roloson almost made the one-goal lead stand up, but with goalie pulled and the Caps having six attackers on the ice, Alex Ovechkin converted a feed from Jason Arnott at the goal mouth with 68 seconds left to tie the game and send it into overtime. The Caps could not find that last goal on any of the five shots in overtime, and it took just one defensive breakdown to send the Caps’ backs hard by that proverbial wall.

Other stuff…

-- Tampa Bay has six goals in regulation in this series, three of them scored in the last minute of a period (one an empty netter)

-- 2-for-9…0-for-11. Eight shots… 17 shots. Tampa power play… Caps power play. How utterly fitting that what held the Caps back on offense all year (which, frankly has virtually nothing to do with their “defense-first” approach to five-on-five play), killed them in the first two games in this series. Tonight it was 0-for-6 and 12 unproductive shots on goal for the Caps power play.

-- We are going to live a long time and never figure out why the most dangerous goal scoring machine since the lockout is sitting 60 feet from the net at the point on the power play…it didn’t work in the regular season, and it hasn’t worked in this series.

-- We focused on the “Young Guns” in the pregame, so what did they do? Eighteen shots on goal (34 attempts), one goal, one assist. That’s two goals, one assist, and a combined minus-4 in two games. We’ll leave it to you, dear reader to conclude whether that is good enough.

-- Meanwhile, the Lightning big guns – Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Steven Stamkos… 4-3-7, even, in the two games.

-- 89 games into the season, and the simplest of things – a line change – was all the break the Lightning needed to spring a two on one in overtime. Yes, it was the “long” change, but that’s part of the game.

-- Tough night for Jeff Schultz. He was on the ice for all three Lightning goals, although he was on for all of five seconds for the last one.

-- The irony of it… it was the substitute for the injured Pavel Kubina – Randy Jones – who got the last play started from deep in the Tampa Bay end with the quick up to Purcell at the Caps’ blue line. Jones played a grand total of 6:25 in the game.

-- Trip down Memory Lane…the Caps won Games 1 and 2 in Tampa in 2003 rather handily (3-0 and 6-3). They then went on to lose Games 3-6 and the series. On the other hand, the Caps were 3-for-9 on the power play in Games 1 and 2 in that year (all the goals in Game 2). They were 2-for 18 in Games 3-6.

-- There is a disturbing theme emerging in this series, one that has nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with attitude. Entirely too much attention – bordering on fear, in fact – is being paid to the “intimidating” 1-3-1 defense of the Lightning. When did the Tampa Bay Lightning become the NHL version of the Steel Curtain defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The concept seems to have gotten into the minds of fans, if not those of the team. The fact is, the Caps are a more talented, deeper team than the Lightning, but they seem to lack the “swagger” gene that imposes that knowledge on their opponent.

In the end, there are two elements of this series that are intertwined, neither of which is good news for the Caps. First, there is the matter of the Caps Young Guns getting out produced by the Tampa Bay big guns. Backstrom might still be injured or re-injured, Green isn’t long back from injury and has had an interesting playoff so far (if taking a puck off the side of your helmet in an earlier playoff game confirms your notion of “interesting”).

The other is that the Caps don’t seem to have an answer, or at least a push-back for the style Tampa Bay is playing, and more than the execution of it, the notion of it seems to be in the Caps’ heads. But keep this fact in mind. The Caps scored 154 goals at even strength during the season (145 at 5-on-5, nine at 4-on-4). That is an average of 1.88 even strength goals per game. Thus far, the Caps have scored four even strength goals in two games – an average of 2.00 a game (6-on-5 goals, for purpose of league statistics, are even strength goals). This notion of the 1-3-1 being the be all and end all of the Lightning success is overstated. This series is turning on special teams. Tampa has two one-goal wins (yes, there was the empty netter in Game 1, but it did not influence the decision). They have two power play goals, the Caps have none. If that doesn’t change in Games 3 and 4 in Tampa, well…

This series marked the 17th time that the Caps opened a seven-game series with Games 1 and 2 at home. It is only the second time that the Caps dropped both home games to open the series. Let’s hope things end as happily as the first time it happened (in 2009 against the Rangers), although at the moment it is hard not to think upon the fact that tonight’s game might have been the last game at Verizon Center this season, and if it was, it will be a very, very unpleasant summer ahead.