Saturday, July 30, 2011

We're Six!

Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday to you
Happy Birthday, Dear Peerless…
Happy Birthday…tooooooo youuuuuuuuuuuu

Aw, guys…you shouldn’t have. It seems like just yesterday, not six years ago today, that we penned our first scribble in this space.

“Yeah, and to be honest cuz, it kinda sucked.”

“’Kinda?’…It was the sort insipid, dishwater dull blather that gives blogging a bad name.”

"Yeah...didn't have a title, or nuthin'"

You’re too kind, but…

"Aren’t you going to blow out the candles?"

“Und I heff joost de ting for dat.”

Well, well… if I isn’t Dr. Vynot Schootdepuck. It’s been a long time, Doc…

“Ja, und I’m not here ein moment too soon…you could schtart a fire mit all dose cendles.”

Well, we can’t heff…uh, have that, can we? But that just looks like one of those air cans you use on computers.

“Ah, dats vere you’re wrong…vatch dis…”

Hey hey HEY! All that thing does is blow hot air!

“Ja, joost like you, Mr. Schmarty Blogger.”

You couldn’t have a girl jumping out of cake?

“Uh, cousin? It’s supposed to be a birthday ‘wish,’ not a birthday ‘fantasy.’”

“Fearless, you mean ‘fantasy,’ like the Caps winning a Stanley Cup?”

I gotta get new cousins…

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Rebuild...Renovation, Part IV

So…the roster…its architects…the renovation. Any insights from all this? Well, there is a logic that has led to this point. And, it illustrates that the whole draft OR free agency OR trades argument in roster development is missing the point, because it takes no account of two things -- time and development. It requires a combination of tools, even if it is “draft-centric.” Try on this logic...

1. 2004 - Caps begin sell off of overpriced and/or aging assets for picks and/or prospects.

2. 2004 - Caps finish badly, third worst team in league, win ping pong ball contest, draft Alex Ovechkin

3. 2005/2006 - Caps have rookie Ovechkin and not much else (Alexander Semin didn't play that year, Mike Green played only 22 games), a roster made up largely of players who will be long gone when Ovechkin hits his prime. With no "core" to speak of yet, why would the Caps spend a lot of money on free agents or trade? And what would they trade, the picks and prospects they just got by selling off those overpaid/aging assets? Caps finish badly, get top-five pick -- Nicklas Backstrom.

4. 2006/2007 - Caps have Ovechkin, but Backstrom is not yet with team. Semin plays in 77 games, and Green plays in 70 (2-10-12 was his scoring line), so the Caps at least have given a part of their future lots of game experience. But again, Ovechkin, Semin and Green have little experience. Why would you buy free agents and essentially waste the first couple of years on their deals while Ovechkin, Semin, and Green were maturing. And as far as trades go, again...what would you trade away? Think you'd get much for Ben Clymer or Jakub Klepis? So Caps finish badly again, get another high pick -- Karl Alzner.

5. 2007/2008 - With young core adding year of experience, Caps deploy a free agency strategy, adding Tom Poti, Viktor Kozlov, Michael Nylander. Ovechkin has an historic year in making, Backstrom is a Calder candidate, Green puts in claim as one of best offensive defensemen in the league (18-38-56), Semin was a 26-goal scorer in only 63 games. The Young Guns are in place and make a the run at playoffs. Team rewards them by making trades to help with present -- Sergei Fedorov and (ugh!) Matt Cooke. The logic here is that the young core demonstrated an ability to compete for a playoff spot, making an investment in trades advantageous here and now to the Caps, as opposed to previous years when such moves would have been wasted waiting for the core players to develop. Caps make playoffs, indicating that they are now a competitive team, opening up other tools for the front office -- they traded up to get Anton Gustafsson (a dud) and traded a former high draft pick (Steve Eminger) for another first round pick (which became John Carlson). The Caps being competitive, they can implement other roster-building tools to supplement the draft (in this case, trading deadline trades and draft day trades).

6. 2008/2009 - The five players who would ultimately become the core (defined by commitment of dollars/years: Ovechkin, Semin, Green, Backstrom, Laich) are top five scorers on team -- all were drafted or (in case of Laich) obtained as prospect in selloff. Team improves to tie franchise record for wins. Team stands pat, advances to second round.

7. 2009/2010 – The Caps have what amounts to two-thirds of an elite first line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. They are sufficiently far along on their development curve that the Caps could invest in a Mike Knuble to supplement that first line with skills and traits it doesn’t have – an ability to eat space in front of the net and do the dirty work from in close to get those “garbage” goals. The team was far enough along to be able to take a chance on a free agency like Brendan Morrison to help shore up the middle on the second line (some things do not turn out quite as planned, as Morrison faded, only two goals and 17 points after Christmas). And, the Caps could once more be active players on the trade market, obtaining Jason Chimera at mid-season, they Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, and Joe Corvo at the deadline.

8. 2010-2011 – Here the draft once more bears fruit, but it is the product of decisions made in previous years. Karl Alzner was a result of those talent-poor teams after the selloff, a fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft. John Carlson was what came of a trade of Steve Eminger to Philadelphia for a first-round draf pick. They served their apprenticeship playing alongside one another at Hershey, and now they were a pairing that would consume lots of minutes with the Caps. So many, and in so many responsible situations that they were as close to a shutdown defensive pair the Caps had. Either of them could make a case for being a potential “core” player in time. And this further development from within could provide the confidence to fill in other holes – trading forward Tomas Fleischmann for stay-at-home defenseman Scott Hannan early in the season, then adding Marco Sturm via waivers, and Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman via trade at the trading deadline in February.

The chronology of events and the continuity among decision-makers has provided the benefit of stability and patience to build a team in a stepwise fashion – sell off the overpaid and/or aging assets, collect picks and prospects, build a core from that. As the core is assembled and allowed to develop, keep the power dry in terms of executing trades or mid-to-high end free agency signings. When the core has sufficiently matured, at that point the team could begin to add other assets – trades at the trading deadline when the club was in a position to compete for the playoffs, free agents to start filling holes in other areas of the lineup. Finally, with the Caps’ core essentially set and, perhaps more important, largely a body of assets to which the club has committed money and years, attention could be focused more on the other parts of the roster. The club could make a trade for a Dennis Wideman who was more than a rental, but had time and money left on his deal that would provide another year’s worth of stability to work with the core. The club could invest during this off season in free agents like Tomas Vokoun, Roman Hamrlik, Joel Ward, or Jeff Halpern.

It is not an abandonment of the draft-centric philosophy the club adopted when the selloff was undertaken. In fact, it is precisely because the Caps built a core almost entirely from the draft, then committed money and contract years to it that allowed them to fill other roles by other means. Since the Caps became a playoff-competitive team in the 2007-2008 season, this has meant letting the core develop into their prime and performing periodic “renovations” as a means to build around it.

The flip side of this, though, is that the Caps are committed to that core – at least to Alex Ovechkin (through 2021), Nicklas Backstrom (2020) and Brooks Laich (2017). Whether Mike Green and Alexander Semin, two players of the original “Young Guns” (who have themselves been given previous commitments in dollars and/or years) retain their place in that group might very well depend on their performance in the 2011-2012 season (Green will be a restricted free agent at year’s end; Semin will be an unrestricted free agent). That will be one of the interesting subplots to the season.

But as far as the “renovation” part of the rebuild is concerned, the Caps are now at that part of the rebuild where a point we made on other occasions steps to the forefront. And that is, it is not in drafting a generational talent like Alex Ovechkin that success is achieved or not, it is in the team that is built around him – the renovations around Ovechkin and the core. Having built that team, one could reasonably argue that now the duty to perform rests on the shoulders of the players and the coaches. But whether players like Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Roman Hamrlik, and Tomas Vokoun are the right players to build around Ovechkin and the core in their quest for a championship will speak to the skill and judgment of the architects of the rebuild, too.

Put another way, there really are no more excuses. If not now, when?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Rebuild...Renovation, Part III

Well, we covered the roster in the first two installments of the “renovation” phase of the rebuild, but there is also the matter of the architects and overseers of this phase of the rebuild. And since the rebuild began in earnest in 2004, the one thing that characterizes this element of the club is “continuity.” Draw a line from ownership to the general manager to scouting to the bench, and there isn’t much in the way of turnover.

Looking at hockey operations, the men in charge have been the men in charge, almost without exception, since the selloff.  George McPhee and Ross Mahoney have been in their respective positions since well before the selloff – McPhee having finished his 14th year as general manager and Mahoney his 13th as director of amateur scouting. And drilling a bit further, Brian MacLellan just finished his 10th season as Assistant GM/Director of Player Personnel, and Don Fishman just finished his sixth season as AssistantGM/Director of Legal Affairs and the club’s “capologist.” Team ownership cannot be accused of capriciousness with respect to front office personnel.

It hasn’t been all that much different behind the bench. After Bruce Cassidy was relieved of his duties as head coach in December 2003 in favor of Glen Hanlon, the Caps would go another four years before making another change – Bruce Boudreau replacing Hanlon – the only head coaching change since the selloff began in earnest. Even down the line, the Caps have had four bench assistant coaches over the seven years since the tail end of the 2003-2004 season. Just as continuity has characterized front office operations, the same might be said of the on-ice management of the club.

So what do we have for this stability? Well, looking at the transaction listing in the 2010-2011 Caps Media Guide and the transaction listing at ESPN for the 2010-2011 season, the Caps have made approximately 120 transactions involving acquisition of players since the trade that sent Steve Konowalchuk and a draft pick to the Colorado Avalanche for Bates Battaglia and Jonas Johansson in October 2003 that might serve as the starting point for the selloff.* In all, 42 trades, nine waiver claims, and 70 or so other deals involving free agents or signing draft picks to entry contracts. A total of 128 players wore a Caps uniform from the 2003-2004 season through the 2010-2011 season. Some of those players were those who were sold off when the Caps embarked on their rebuild – Konowalchuk, Sergei Gonchar, Peter Bondra, Jaromir Jagr, for example. Others were, for lack of a more delicate term, fodder to feed the schedule – players who filled out the roster in the woebegone 2003-2004 season or those who encumbered a roster spot as the stars-to-be were learning their craft, but whose modest skill levels ensured that they would not be around when those young stars were ready for prime time.

In that sense, the Caps tore out the walls, the wiring, the plumbing… everything down to the studs in the 2003-2004 season. Then they lived modestly while the parts were assembled over the first three seasons after the lockout (even the 2007-2008 playoff run might be thought of as a pleasant surprise, given where the Caps started that season).

The constant was management, the only big change being when it became evident that Glen Hanlon was not the right fit for where the Caps were on their development curve and for the talent the Caps had developing for the core of their roster, which leaned more heavily toward the skill aspects of the game. The stability in the front office became reflected on the roster in terms of a slightly lower frequency of transactions. Until the Caps made a series trading deadline deals in 2008 to bolster the roster for their first playoff run since the lockout, the Caps made 68 transactions by our count (according to the Caps Media Guide) involving the acquisition of players over the 50 months since the Konowalchuk-to-Colorado trade in December of 2003. Since then, however, the Caps have had only 54 transactions over the 41 months since those February 2008 trading deadline deals.

The trades since the 2008 deadline deals are especially interesting:

June 20, 2008 Caps acquired a 1st round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft (John Carlson) from Philadelphia for Steve Eminger and a 3rd round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft (Jacob Deserres).

June 27, 2009 Caps acquired a 5th round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft for Sami Lepisto.

July 17, 2009 Caps traded Keith Seabrook to Calgary for future considerations.

Dec. 28, 2009 Caps acquired Jason Chimera from Columbus for Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina.

March 3, 2010 Caps acquired Scott Walker from Carolina for a 7th round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft (later traded to Philadelphia, Ricard Blidstrand).

March 3, 2010 Caps acquired Eric Belanger from Minnesota for a 2nd round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft (Johan Larsson).

March 3, 2010 Caps acquired Milan Jurcina from Columbus for a conditional draft pick.

March 3, 2010 Caps acquired Joe Corvo from Carolina for Brian Pothier, Oskar Osala and a 2nd round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft.

July 28, 2010 Caps acquired D.J. King from St. Louis for Stefan Della Rovere

November 30, 2010 Traded F Tomas Fleischmann to Colorado for D Scott Hannan

February 26, 2011 Acquired D Dennis Wideman from Florida for C Jake Hauswirth and a 2011 third-round pick.

February 26, 2011 Acquired Jason Arnott from New Jersey for David Steckel and a 2012 second round draft pick

June 2, 2011 Acquired LW Taylor Stefishen from the Nashville Predators for a conditional pick in the 2013 draft.

June 24, 2011 Acquired Troy Brouwer from the Chicago Blackhawks for a 2011 first round draft pick

July 1, 2011 Traded G Semyon Varlamov to Colorado for a 2012 first-round draft pick and a 2012 or 2013 second-round draft pick.

In all, 15 trades on this list, none of which can be seen as of the “blockbuster” variety. Which is not to say that there are not some real bargains in that list. The 2008 trade that netted a draft pick that would become John Carlson might not have looked like a lot at the time, but given that Carlson might be an anchor defenseman for a decade, and Philadelphia would eventually trade Eminger with Steve Downie and a draft pick for Matt Carle and a draft pick, and it seems like a real bargain (we’ll leave it to you to decide if John Carlson or Matt Carle is going to have the better career).  What is telling here is that while the trades were not of the "blockbuster" variety, it would be hard to argue that the Caps came out on the low end of any of them.  Some might not have worked out as intended (the Corvo trade or the King trade, for example), but you can't say the Caps were "taken" in any of them.

On the other hand, getting Dennis Wideman for a prospect and a pick solidified the Caps’ blue line and helped the power play some until Wideman’s season was ended by injury. And, he will be back for the 2011-2012 season.  Trading an oft-injured goaltender for a first and second round draft pick provides no guarantees, but given how the Caps have drafted since the lockout, provides some cause for optimism about futures.

But the trades, for the most part, were for players to fill roles in the support group. They were not trades to establish core players. The Caps chose a different path to fill those core roles, and it has been adhered to patiently. So, for fans wishing and hoping for the Caps to make that “really big deal”… keep waiting. It just is not how the architects of the roster do business.

And this paints a bigger picture. The “rebuild,” such as it was, was limited to the ice – players and to a limited extent behind the bench. The architects and overseers have been firmly in place to manage the effort since its inception. As far as the on-ice product is concerned, the Caps have parlayed this strategy into reliable contention for a playoff spot. Four consecutive years of post-season play, and since Bruce Boudreau took over behind the bench a regular season record of 189-79-39 in 307 games.

But that success has not carried over into the post-season, where the Caps are 2-4 in six playoff series and a games record of 17-20. The frustration at this level is merely the latest instance of frustration that dates back to the first Caps playoff appearance in 1983 – 36 seasons, 22 playoff appearances, and only twice advancing past the second round. And a fan might reasonably wonder if making the playoffs is good enough for this administration.

Getting to that level – playoff qualifier – has had a considerable element of luck involved in it (the bounce of a ping pong ball allowing the Caps to draft Alex Ovechkin) and acceptance of failure (a selloff that produced picks and prospects, but also a bad team that resulted in high picks that netted Nicklas Backstrom and Karl Alzner). There has been some astute personnel management, to be sure – late first round picks such as Mike Green or Jeff Schultz, savvy horse trading that netted a pick that turned into John Carlson. Taken together though, if “playoffs” is the summit of achievement for this team, they would be little different from the 1979-2004 St. Louis Blues (25 consecutive years in the playoffs, twice advancing past the second round) or the 1983-1996 Capitals (14 consecutive playoff appearances, once advancing past the second round) -- very good teams, but not memorable. And then the question will not be whether The Plan was “right,” but whether it was done “well.”

* This does not include transactions involving re-signing of roster players to new contracts.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Rebuild...Renovation, Part II

In the last post, we looked at the current state of the “rebuild” and the elements that make up what we might consider to be the “core” of the roster and how it evolved over time. Now it is time to take a look at the players outside this core group, the ones that constitute the support group. Let’s go back to that roster table we posted last time:

(click for larger version)

Looking at that table above, we can see that there is much more turnover within that group over time. No player shows up in more than two instances of the four time markers we identified. And if you look at the changes from the last game of the 2008 playoffs to today, every spot has been recycled to another player (although one – Brooks Laich – graduated to the core). And in that new group we find today, notice that three of the 13 players came by way of Hershey – Jay Beagle, Jeff Schultz, and Michal Neuvirth. The flip side of that is that nine arrived from other organizations, either by trade (Brouwer, Chimera, Wideman) or by free agency/waivers (Knuble, Ward, Halpern, Hendricks, Hamrlik, Vokoun). Only Marcus Johansson (who someday might be a “core” player) was drafted and did not spend time in North American minor pro leagues.

And it is that imported group that is the more interesting group. Because, in a perverse way, it further supports the notion that the core is built and finished. Over the past four years, the Caps have not done much by way of off-season dealing to fill in behind the core. If you look at that 2008 playoff roster, only Viktor Kozlov, Tom Poti and Donald Brashear were brought in during an off-season (Michael Nylander would be added to that list had he been healthy for that playoff series). Others – Sergei Fedorov, Matt Cooke – were trading deadline deals. They were rentals to whom little financial or time commitment was given (Fedorov would re-sign for another season; Cooke did not).

There is a subtle, but not trivial, theme in those signings and that approach. Why commit years and money to players via trade or free-agency signings when the core is still somewhat green? You might be wasting the first year or two of a free agent’s contract, and you might be relinquishing assets too soon for players that would be arriving with a not-yet-ready-for-prime-time core. The flip side of this is that once the core is – or is near – ready for prime time, you can productively add parts that carry longer commitments.

The first inkling that the core might have been near ready was perhaps the signing of Mike Knuble in 2009. He wasn’t a signing to serve as mentor as much as contributor (as might have been the case with Michael Nylander in 2007 for Nicklas Backstrom). He wasn’t a one-dimensional player of limited skill brought on as a protector of sorts (as was Donald Brashear in 2006). He wasn’t an overpayment for a free agent to demonstrate a level of seriousness after a difficult season (as Brian Pothier might have been in 2006). Signing Knuble for two years and $5.6 million represented a substantial commitment to fill a specific need (some offense and an ability to do the dirty work around the net) at the top of the forward lines.

Fast forward to this summer’s activity. The Caps traded for Troy Brouwer, a player with some production similarities to Caps’ forward Brooks Laich. But while Laich was a product of the 2004 selloff (he was obtained for Peter Bondra), Brouwer was obtained for a first round draft pick (essentially a future) to join a team with assets in place. And if Knuble was brought in as the first indication that the core elements were sufficiently ready so that more assets with bigger commitments could be taken on, then the signings of Roman Hamrlik, Jeff Halpern, and Joel Ward serve as stronger evidence that the core is at a point in development where Caps management can make full-year (or in the case of Ward, multi-year) commitments to players from outside, not merely rental bargains at the trading deadline with minimal commitments.

One line of thinking says that you draft for skill and add the other necessities via other means. Another says you build a core, commit to it, then add the pieces you need around it. Different ways of saying similar things. The Caps sold off aging and/or overpaid assets after the 2003 playoff debacle for picks and prospects. That, coupled with the poor performances of the team that remained (plus the luck of a ping-pong ball) allowed them gather up the assets that might make a core – Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, and later (when the club committed much more in terms of years and money for his services) Brooks Laich, who joined Alexander Semin already on board.

That core group had not developed enough early on – that 2006-2007 period – to merit the Caps investing much in terms of free agent signings, nor did it make much sense to trade off picks or prospects for established players. Fans might have wanted it, but it would have been a penny-wise and pound foolish approach. The young guys who would be counted on to make up the core hadn’t really learned anything yet, making those kinds of trades or signings largely a waste of time as the young core players matured.

But this summer, the Caps were very active in the free-agent market, suggesting a new phase in the “rebuild.” And add to that they trading a first round draft pick (even if you think the 2011 draft was comparatively weak) for an established player with a lot of tread left on his tires, and you have an another way of saying the same thing for the Caps – their time is now.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Rebuild...Renovation, Part I

On Easter Sunday, 2003, the Washington Capitals lost Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite having committed considerable years and money to Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang, despite having home grown players such as Peter Bondra (his ninth 30-goal season) and Olaf Kolzig (33 wins, a 2.40 GAA) still very productive players, the Caps once more found a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The loss was their fourth in a row in that series after winning the first two games.

And no one was happy at the result, least of all the man in charge, who vented at the fans (“I have to really reconsider the kind of commitment and investment I'm making with this team. I'm not a quitter. ... It was hard to see 14,000 fans.”), at building management (“I don't like the treatment that we're getting from the building. The party's over. To play back-to-back games on Passover and Easter Sunday does not help."), at the refs ("They made a cheap call on too many men on the ice that I don't understand. The third game really hurt us. The penalty on Olie [Kolzig] was the wrong call. Every game at home or every pivotal game was in the hands of the refs.”). It was an unhappiness that might have been uttered by any of those 14,000 fans in attendance or those watching on television.

And thus, the seeds of the remaking of the Washington Capitals were planted – the “rebuild.” By the following spring Jagr, Bondra, and Lang would be gone. The Caps would sink almost to the bottom of the league standings, ship off high-salary players for draft picks and prospects, suffer the growing pains of youth, and eventually rise again to become a playoff team.

We took a look at the rebuild in its “revisited” and “reloaded” versions. The rebuild might be done, but like a homeowner might do after having lived a while in a home, some renovations are in order. And that is what the Caps appear to have been doing this summer. There is already a “core” of players – those to whom the club has committed long term contracts or who might reasonably be receiving that commitment in the near future that has been some years in the making and some years in maturing.  And there is also a cohort of players that are the role players, the support players, the character actors that might or might not at some point become “core” players, but more likely are those players who have a window of opportunity with the Caps. It is a window that will close based on diminishing skills or increasing contract demands when their current deals expire, or perhaps as a product of their value as a trading asset to obtain more appropriate skills. Just as in a renovation one doesn’t tear up the foundation, one doesn’t tear up the core of the organization. The Caps have redone the kitchen, renovated the bath, remodeled the family room in a manner of speaking. Looking back at the “prebuild” and the “revisited” and “reloaded” phases of the rebuild, we have something that might look like this with respect to the roster…

(click for larger version)

We are going to take a look at this in pieces, the first of which is “The core.” The obvious difference is that the core has become younger than that which existed in the "prebuild." In the “prebuild,” we defined the core as Jaromir Jagr (on a high-value/long-term contract), Robert Lang (same), Peter Bondra (an iconic home grown Capital still on a contract paying him $4,750,000), and Olaf Kolzig (another home-grown Cap still on a contract paying him $6,000,000 a year). Each member of this group had reached or passed the age of 30 (Bondra was the oldest, at 34, while Jagr was the youngest, at 30). And on defense, Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt might have been considered “core” players. Both were younger than their forward counterparts (28 and 27, respectively), but well into their respective careers, nevertheless (their ninth and eighth seasons, respectively).

Move forward through the revisited and reloaded phases of the rebuild and to the current version of the Caps. The old core was dissolved, and the new one expanded, as we define it, from the 2007 version that included Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green (we would no longer include a 36-year old Olaf Kolzig in that group) to the 2008 version that would add Nicklas Backstrom, thus completing the “Young Guns” group.

Now, after four playoff appearances, the “core” group might also include Brooks Laich, who was signed to a six-year contract after this past season ended. Of these five players—Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Green, and Laich – big things are now expected. And if one might be inclined to think that these five players are youngsters just entering their prime, the fact of the matter is that only Nicklas Backstrom will be younger than 25 on opening night of the 2011-2012 season. More to the point, this quintet now has more than 2,000 combined games of regular season experience (2,034, to be exact) and 184 games of playoff experience. Green is the only one of the five to have missed any of the 37 playoff games the Caps played over the past four seasons, and he missed but one.

However, each of these five players saw their individual numbers drop in the 2010-2011 season from the previous season (goals, assists, points, plus-minus):

Not that individual numbers are the be-all and end-all of player performance, and there were instances of mitigating factors (Green missing 33 games, the Caps shifting their team emphasis from pressing offense to paying more attention to defensive matters). But combined, this group recorded 65 fewer goals than in the 2009-2010 season, accounting for almost 70 percent of the decrease in goals (94) scored from the 2009-2010 season. And while there are technical reasons (too many defensive zone starts for the top line, for example) that would help explain the drop, they don’t do enough to explain the decline in power play production. These five players saw their combined power play goals scored cut more than half, from 54 in 2009-2010 to 26 in 2010-2011. The drop of 28 power play goals explains almost all of the total drop of 33 power play goals from 2009-2010 to 2010-2011. Not surprising, since these five players led the Caps in power play time on ice in each of the past two seasons.

But as we said, individual numbers are not everything. They have to be the players who, either by example or by personality, have to lead this team to where they need to go. George McPhee was rather blunt about it recently in speaking of the “Young Guns”:

"They are difference-makers, and if they are really on top of their games and committed and playing well, then this team will have success. The message to them this summer has been, 'It is time for you guys to really take over. You're talented, you can be a difference-maker, but now it is time to lead. We've had guys like (Sergei) Fedorov in and (Jason) Arnott, but it is your turn. You're old enough, you're experienced enough now to really take over and lead.'"

How they perform individually – reflected in their numbers – will be an indicator of how well they might lead by example, but there will be other things to watch for. The degree to which other players – youngsters like John Carlson or Marcus Johansson – take their cues from how hard these core players work on and off the ice, the extent to which they play – and play well – when hurt (as opposed to “injured”), how they deal with adversity both on the ice (by ramping up their performance) and off (the degree to which they are accountable as leaders for the team’s performance).

George McPhee and his staff, with the personnel moves they made this summer, sent a strong signal to these players that the club has entered a new phase in its rebuild, a more urgent one. Signing a 35-year old Tomas Vokoun, a 37-year old Roman Hamrlik, and a 35-year old Jeff Halpern fairly shouts, “win now.” That is a signal that the core, years in building, is now experienced enough that they need to think of this as their team. They are a group that should no longer need the “training wheels” of leadership that a Fedorov or an Arnott provided. They are far enough along so that the team can add a player such as a Vokoun or a Halpern for a year as that last missing piece. It is a clear signal that all the building of the core is done – their time is now.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Sittin' at the end of the bar...Camp Iwannabeacapital Edition

Day 5 at Camp Iwannabeacapital, and the biggest news wasn’t on the ice. Caps Nation can breathe a sigh of relief, for Karl Alzner has been re-signed to a two-year, $2.57 million contract.

That’s $2.57 million over two years, not for each of two years.

The Alzner signing caps (no pun intended) three months of obtaining signatures on contracts, and among the things that are noteworthy about them, it is that as a group, the signees are a bargain. Here is how the signings break down with their new salary cap hits compared to their previous cap hits:

Individually, perhaps, the bargains are not universal – the contracts of Brooks Laich and Joel Ward might be considered a bit high for the roles they would be expected to play – but here we have eight free agents (six unrestricted free agents – or about to achieve that status -- two restricted free agents) who collectively were signed for a cap hit that was a little over $1.9 million less than the aggregate value of their previous cap hits.

Cutting the issue from a different direction, the Caps managed to resign three of their own free agents (or free agents to be) to a combined $1.24 million higher price tag, which would appear to be manageable given that the total salary cap is increasing by $4.9 million in 2011-2012.

But the key has been in what is on the “replacement” side of the equation. This isn’t entirely a “free agent” effect, but it plays a front and center role. There are reasonably clear swaps that were undertaken in this off-season. For example, Boyd Gordon out, Jeff Halpern in. Matt Bradley out, Jay Beagle in. Eric Fehr out, Troy Brower in, and so on. In all, seven players departed that had a combined cap hit of $17.3 million last season. Six of them have contracts for next season (Scott Hannan is, as of this date, unsigned) with a combined cap hit of $12.4 million. The six players replacing them on the Caps’ roster have a combined cap hit of only $11.7 million.

While the Caps stand at the top of the salary cap pile at the moment and are about $890,000 over the caps at the moment, they have positioned themselves rather well given the talent that was obtained to replace those players who departed. And looking at what those players secured in terms of their own deals, resigning them in Washington might have put the Caps in a tighter bind than that in which they find themselves at the moment. It was a pretty good job overall in managing the cap number overall, and Alzner’s signing is the cherry on top of the sundae.

Meanwhile, over at Camp Iwannabeacapital, Day 5 was interesting to watch, given that on Thursday the prospects had the motivation of a scrimmage. Friday was back to drills and “systems.” After four days and the fact that the objects of the exercise are largely teenagers, attention might wander. And it helps to have another voice in the room, so to speak, such as the guest coach for the week – Steve Spott of the Kitchener Rangers. His leading some of the drills gives the guys a different look and a different voice that might provide the right kind of a change of pace to keep them engaged.

The fact that they are deep into the week looked to have taken its toll by the end of the morning session, though, when Bruce Boudreau was putting the players through their last drills. There were frequent whistles, lots of pointing and prodding by Boudreau. It just didn’t seem as if the focus was there, but they were kept out on the ice until they got things closer to right.

Tomorrow will be the last chance for the young guys to make an impression, and they are likely to do it before a big crowd. It should be a fitting end to the week.

Notes from Camp Iwannabeacapital...Day Four

Day four of the on-ice portion of Caps Development Camp 2011, and the cousins were in tow today. Guys, what did you think?

“What’s with the sign, cuz? ‘Home of the Washington Capitals?’ Did folks think they were in the food court?”

Be nice, Cheerless. Fearless, what did you think of today’s scrimmage?

“Ah, hockey in July. Makes one pine for the new season, the chill in the air, the pucks ringing off the glass, the skates digging into the freshly laid ice, and…"

O-o-o-o-o-kay. Well, fans were treated to an early edition of hockey at Camp Iwannabeacapital. Team Red and Team White went at it in a spirited fashion, and apparently the early hour of today’s scrimmage found a few campsters in ill mood. Like Danick Paquette for Team White. Having later called himself “a pretty dirty player…like Matt Cooke,” he had what amounted to a “Matt Cooke Hat Trick”… a goal, a fight, and he put another player out of the game with an iffy hit. And that didn’t even include his taking a run at a guy when he started charging from the blue line to try and line him up behind the net (he missed). If Cooke and Darcy Verot had a love child, he might be it.

Then there was Garrett Mitchell, who had…well, a “Garrett Mitchell Hat Trick.” A goal, a fight, and the game winner in the Gimmick. That said, he was probably the best player this morning for Team White.

“Don’t forget Scott Wietecha, cuz…”

I was getting to that, Cheerless. Wietecha was the Team Red opponent in each fight involving Paquette and Mitchell.  Some hockey players do more before 10 o'clock than you or I do all day.

“Well, he IS a Bulldog, after all, isn’t he cousin?”

Why yes, Fearless, a Ferris State alum.

“And a jackal, too…”

Yes, Cheerless, he had a few games with Elmira in the ECHL, too. Now, if we can get back to the hockey… speaking of which, it was Team White coming out on top this morning, 4-3 in a Gimmick, Garrett Mitchell getting the only score in the trick shot competition. Team White might consider itself fortunate, having given up a 3-1 lead in the third period on a pair of goals by Travis Boyd, who had an excellent game overall and would have won the scrimmage’s first star, had there been such a thing.

But before Boyd’s theatrics, David Civitarese chipped in a goal to go along with Mitchell’s and Paquette’s for Team White, while Reid Edmonson got one for Team Red. And in that respect, it was a bit of an odd contest. There were other prospects that one might have thought would stand out a bit more, players such as…

Stan Galiev… who is certainly a smooth skater. He had his chances this morning for Team Red, but wasn’t able to solve either Steffen Soberg or Philipp Grubauer in goal for Team White. What others have said about him looked true. He has the skill set to move up the developmental chain, but he’s going to have to become a sturdier player.

Mattias Sjogren…who was largely silent at the offensive end, but he played well in his own end. One might have thought that he would struggle against quicker players, but his experience (he is the oldest player here) served him well. He seemed particularly effective when he was sent out most often against…

Cody Eakin… who didn’t have a memorable morning. Maybe it is that he has played a lot of hockey this year (56 regular season games, 19 playoff games), maybe it was the early start, or maybe he’s pointing more toward training camp in September, but he didn’t look especially effective in this scrimmage. But even with that and watching him skate, one had the feeling that there is another gear or two there.

Dmitry Orlov… Often it is the case that if you can’t find anything to say about a defenseman, the better it is. Well, there wasn’t a lot to talk about in Orlov’s morning for Team Red, except for a deft pass he threw into space to spring Brock Montpetit on a breakaway.  Other than that, a pretty good morning.

Patrick Koudys was another defenseman who had a somewhat quiet game… in a good way as well. Solid in both the offensive and defensive zones, he chipped in a couple of assists and relied more on position and smarts in his own end to keep Team Red attackers to the outside.

So guys, what did you think of your first visit to Kettler?

“It certainly is a nice place to watch practice. And I was noticing something…”

What’s that, Fearless?

“Down there at the far end of the ice…those four posters of players with retired numbers…"


“Well, there’s all that space over there on the left…looks like they have room for a new poster.”

You might have a point there, cousin. Any idea who it might be?


“Dainius Zubrus!”

You just like saying “Dainius Zubrus.”

“Yup…dainiuszubrus dainiuszubrus dainiuszubrus dainiuszubrus…”

OK, Cheerless, seriously…what did you think of your first trip to Kettler?

“Well…it’s sorta like…


Still thinking about that sign, eh cuz?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Lightning at Capitals, April 29th

And now, we come to the last game that mattered in the Caps’ 2010-2011 season, one that in retrospect might have been predicted and one that served to predict an unpleasant outcome…

April 29, 2011: Tampa Bay at Washington, Game 1, Eastern Conference Semifinal

Result: Lightning 4 – Capitals 2

Background: Sixteen teams make the playoffs. Fifteen lose their last game of the season. The Caps would be one of the fifteen, and the last bit of road they would walk to reach that end started here. The Caps were just off a refreshingly short five-game first round series win over the New York Rangers. Meanwhile, the Lightning were coming off a hard-fought seven-game opening round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, finishing the series off by the thinnest of margins, a 1-0 win over the Penguins in Pittsburgh. At the time, it probably didn’t matter much to Caps fans whether Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh was the opponent. The Caps were 3-0-1 in the season series against Pittsburgh, 4-1-1 against Tampa Bay. Folks might have been looking ahead to who the Eastern Conference Final opponent might be.

Why It Mattered: As noted above, 15 teams in the playoffs lose their last game of the season, but the seeds of that defeat might be planted long before that last-game loss. Such was the case here, reading the signs in hindsight. The Caps had that 4-1-1 record against the Lightning in the regular season, but the season series breaks down into two pieces. The first is comprised of the first two games in which the Caps demolished the Lightning, 6-3 and 6-0. It is worth noting that Dan Ellis and Mike Smith were the goaltenders of record in those games for the Lightning.

Enter Dwayne Roloson. The Lightning traded minor league defensemen Ty Wishart to the New York Islanders for Roloson in early January, perhaps with the facing the Capitals in the spring in mind. Certainly, neither of the other goaltenders the Lightning were offering up seemed capable of holding off the Caps. Roloson played in the last four games of the season series, posting a 2-1-1, 1.22, .959 record with two shutouts. In that respect, it was a different team the Caps were facing as this series started.

Going hand in glove with Roloson’s record was the nature of those last four games. Tampa Bay won two close-fought, low-scoring contests by shutout, 1-0 and 3-0. They lost one other game in a Gimmick, 2-1, grabbing another standings point. In the only game they lost in regulation among those last four, the Caps smacked the Lightning, 5-2. Apparently, the secret for the Lightning was to keep things very close to the vest.

But there was something else going on here, and that starts on the Caps’ side of the equation. The Caps had the best record in the league in the regular season when allowing the game’s first goal, 23-19-5 (a .489 winning percentage). The flip side of that, however, was that no team making the playoffs – East or West – gave up the game’s first goal more often than the 47 times the Caps did. That spelled trouble, because no team in the league scored the game’s first goal more often than did the Lightning – 51 times in 82 games. And there is perhaps no better predictor of an NHL game’s outcome than who scores first. In the past five seasons, only three teams posted a winning record when allowing the game’s first goal – the 2009-2010 Capitals, the 2008-2009 Boston Bruins, and the 2006-2007 Buffalo Sabres.

For the Lightning, then, the formula became simple – score first, back into their 1-3-1 defense, and let Roloson frustrate the Caps when they did get infrequent chances. In Game 1, that is pretty much what happened (although no plan is perfect). Sean Bergenheim, who scored the series-winning goal in Game 7 against Pittsburgh in the first round, opened the scoring in Game 1 barely two minutes into the contest. The Caps got it back less than two minutes later on a goal by Alexander Semin, but the key sequence in the period took place in the last six minutes. Steve Downie was sent off for elbowing at 14:32, and after the Lightning killed off that penalty, Brett Clark was whistled for delay of game when he shot the puck over the glass. Four minutes of power play time late in the period, the Caps managed three shots, and no goals. Having outshot the Lightning, 14-9, in the first period and getting two power play opportunities, the Caps had an opportunity to put their boots on Tampa’s necks early, and it passed them by.

Eric Fehr gave the Caps life and a lead in the second minute of the second period, but the Lightning stuck to its game plan, foiling the Caps repeatedly and allowing Roloson to stop the last eight shots he saw in the period. It paid off when Downie atoned for his first period sins with a game-tying goal 3:43 before the second intermission. The Caps might have been relieved to get to the second intermission tied, 2-2, but Steven Stamkos put an end to that thinking with a power play goal 32 seconds before the break to give the Lightning a 3-2 lead.

Having reduced the contest to a 20 minute game in which to hold a one-goal lead, Tampa just kept frustrating the Caps. After Marco Sturm recorded a shot at the 1:37 mark of the third period, the Caps would not record another shot on goal over the next 12:48. And with the game in the balance, the Caps would manage only three shots on goal in the last 18:23 of the third period. Tampa Bay added an empty net goal from Dominic Moore with 40 seconds left to provide the final 4-2 margin and give the Lightning the early series advantage.

The Takeaway: Score first (a goal by Bergenheim), frustrate the Caps (the Lightning had almost as many blocked shots – 23 – as they had shots on goal of their own – 24), let Roloson do the rest (stopping the last 13 shots he faced over the last 38:09 of the game). That was the formula. In all four games of this series the Lightning scored the first goal (all in the first period). They frustrated the Caps (the Caps had 50 first period shots on goal in the series, 24 third period shots on goal). They let Roloson do the rest (22 saves on 24 third period shots – a respectable .917 save percentage). It was a simple formula effectively deployed against a team with superior talent, but one that showed an inexplicable inability to adjust. It was all on display in Game 1 of this series, and it would be the template upon which Tampa Bay would build three other wins to sweep the Caps out of the playoffs. And that is why this was the last game that mattered in the 2010-2011 season for the Caps.

(Photo: AP/Alex Brandon)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

50 Things I Don't Want to See, Hear, or Think About Next Season

Because it's July, it's hot outside, and there is enough going on with development camp to keep bloggers busy, we thought we would offer up 50 things we do not want to see, hear, or think about when the next season of hockey rolls around.  We figured we would do this now so that folks would have time to get everything sorted out.  So, here goes...

1. Twitpics of players out on a school night
2. "Lower body injuries"
3. 1-3-1
4. The hockey "experience"
5. "Optional"
6. Southeast Division Champion banner
7. "Stay Angry"
8. Catchy slogans
9. pithy quotes
10. "America's Hockey Capital"
11. Pictures of Caps golfing while teams are still playing for a Stanley Cup
12. "upper body injuries"
13. Helmet screws skittering along the ice because someone blocked a shot with his head
14. No-shot power plays
15. "passengers"
16. offensive zone hooking penalties
17. shootouts
18. Racing Zambonis on the video screen
19. A Mike Green/Ilya Kovalchuk "fight"
20. "Vienna 20" showing on the Metro Center train board when I get there after a game
21. Getting updates on Caps prospects in the Memorial Cup when the Stanley Cup playoffs are still going on.
22. Stories about celebrities wearing Caps paraphernalia
23. Shootouts
24. Insipid arm-waving/thrusting/pointing contests
25. The Scalper Gauntlet
26. Did I say, "shootouts?"
27. Metro elevator/escalator outage messages
28. Stories in May that use the terms "Caps" and "underacheiver" in the same sentence?
29. Alex Ovechkin having to exhort his team "for f**k's sake" after getting into a fight
30. Eight-game losing streaks
31. Luck
32. Matt Hendrick's eye in living color
33. "Bad Sasha"
34. The top Caps story in May being who is doing what in the Memorial Cup
35. "Bad ice"
36. Tom Poti on LTIR
37. Anybody on LTIR (and that goes for opponents, too)
38. The "purple haze" that is the sidewalk on F Street at intermission (cough, cough)
39. The words "[insert name of Capital here]," "groin," and "injury" in the same sentence
40. Fans of other teams using the term "Crapitals"…it's been done to death, find a new term
41. Metro "single tracking" on game nights
42. "Concussion"
43. "Head shot"
44. Oh yeah, and "shootouts"
45. Whining about travel to Winnipeg
46. Fans banging on the glass whenever there is a scrum along the boards
47. Mike Milbury opining on the Caps, good or bad
48. References to a departed Capital as "the player"
49. The word "lockout" unless is it in the form of, "isn't it a shame that the NBA and/or NFL are in a lockout?"
50. And if it isn't clear, "shootouts"

Feel free to add your own.  It's a long summer.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Rangers, April 20th

The penultimate “game that mattered” was probably the Caps’ high point of the season, the product of some other “games that mattered”…

April 20, 2011: Washington at New York Rangers, Game 4, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

Result: Capitals 4 – Rangers 3 (2OT)

The Background: For the second consecutive post-season the Caps found themselves as the number one seed in the East as the playoffs began. For the second time in three post-seasons the Caps would face the New York Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. This was not new territory for them, and the expectation was that the experience would provide the Caps with enough of a push to make quick work of the Rangers. It would be quite a change for the Caps in the Bruce Boudreau era, since all four playoff series played under Boudreau over the previous three years went to seven games. In this game, the Caps had a chance to put the Rangers in a deep hole, to go up three games to one after dropping Game 3 at Madison Square Garden.

Why It Mattered: Over the course of the season, the Caps played several other games that mattered, each carrying their own takeaway. A couple of those games would have that “takeaway” manifest itself in this game as a lesson to be applied. The resiliency they showed in the February 16th game against Anaheim would be called upon in this one. The Caps lost a tough one in Game 3 in Madison Square Garden when Brandon Dubinsky broke a 2-2 tie with 99 seconds left. It would help if they could draw on some reservoir of resiliency to reclaim their advantage in this series.

After the Caps and Rangers fought to a scoreless first period, it looked as if perhaps the Caps had done just that. Taking the crowd out of a game when playing on the road sucks the air out of a building, and holding the Rangers to six shots in the first period had that effect. But the Caps had a couple of power play opportunities slip through their fingers, too. Those opportunities lost would come back to bite them in the second. Less than a minute after killing off a tripping penalty to Mike Green, the Caps gave up the game’s first goal on the Rangers’ second shot of the period, a freakish goal by Artem Anisimov from below the goal line that he banked off the leg of Caps forward Matt Hendricks.

The Rangers were not done. When Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky scored seven seconds apart in the period’s 14th minute, the crowd was back into it, and the Rangers looked to tie the series if not take outright control of it. Since Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist had not allowed four goals in a game at MSG since January and had done so only once since early November, a comeback did not look likely for the Caps. It looked even worse when Alexander Semin took a boarding call in the last minute of the second period that put the Caps a man short and reflected a certain frustration with the way the game was going.

However, just 2:47 into the third period and barely 90 seconds after his penalty expired, Semin intercepted a clearing pass by Ryan McDonagh, skated in, and wristed a shot at Lundqvist. The Ranger goalie made the initial save but did not control the puck lying just off the left post. Semin continued in, and with Lundqvist lying on his side trying to sweep his glove over the puck, Semin poked the puck the last six inches to put the Caps on the board.

Less than a minute later Marcus Johansson sent the puck from just inside the Ranger blue line at the right point across to Brooks Laich skating down the left side. Laich did not cleanly control the puck, but he managed to retrieve it along the left wing boards. From there, Laich spun and sent the puck to the net where Johansson was waiting. The rookie forward tipped a backhand behind Lundqvist to draw the Caps to within one at 3:44.

If the crowd was making noise now, it wasn’t the roar born of the home team’s momentum, but the nervous murmuring reflecting a change in the game’s momentum to the visiting team. The nervousness was only amplified when Johansson brought the Caps even, defecting a drive by John Carlson past Lundqvist at 12:07. Having endured the “hockey as spectacle” of the Winter Classic and the trials of an eight-game losing streak gave the Caps some experience to draw from in battling adversity and dealing with big game situations. Having used that experience to draw even, it helped them hold off the Rangers over the rest of the third period and a first overtime.

The rule in overtime games is that as time passes, it is likely to be a mistake that influences the ending. Couple fatigue with deteriorating ice, and mistakes aren’t uncommon. Add in that Madison Square Garden has notoriously poor ice, and the likelihood is increased that much more. That made it a bit odd that this game should pass 90 minutes in game time, but that was the case in this one. The mistake did come though.

In the 13th minute of the second overtime, Marcus Johansson crossed the Ranger blue line and left the puck for Jason Chimera crossing behind him. Chimera wrong-footed a harmless wrist shot at Lundqvist, who fended off the shot but did not control it. Marian Gaborik, coming down the middle to defend, tried to poke the puck into the corner just as Lundqvist was going down to cover it.  Gaborik got a stick on it, but the puck was jittery on the failing ice, and the it popped behind Lundqvist. Chimera, following up his own shot and camped at the side of the net, was now faced with an open net and 12 inches of ice to negotiate with the puck on his stick. Chimera could not and did not miss from there, bunting the puck those last 12 inches and sealing the 4-3 overtime win and giving the Caps a 3-1 lead in the series.

The Takeaway: The Rangers allowed the Caps a grand total of one goal in the last three games of the regular season and overwhelmed them in 7-0 and 6-0 wins. When the Rangers scored three goals in the second period, two of them within seven seconds of one another, it started to look like one of those Ranger beatdowns. But the Caps had played well on a big stage this season, such as the New Year’s Day game in Pittsburgh. And coming back from a deficit was not unheard of, especially when they did it four times against Anaheim in February.

Their experience did not make the Game 4 outcome likely, but it didn’t mean the Caps should be given up for dead, either. And when they did come back, it made the Game 5 series-clinching win almost anti-climactic. In that sense this game, coming as it did under the circumstances and with faint echoes of previous games that mattered this season, was the high point of the Caps’ season. And that is why this game itself mattered in the 2010-2011 season.

(photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America)

D-Camp: Day One

Hockey in July. It doesn’t have quite the ring as “Parade in June,” but it will do on a hot steamy day in Arlington. The on-ice portion of 2011 development camp opened for the Washington Capitals this morning as the Caps of tomorrow (more precisely, half of the Caps of tomorrow, since there are two Groups) took the ice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex to show the coaching staff and a throng of several what they can do.

The morning session started at 9:45, and for the record, Dustin Stevenson was the first Cap on the ice. From there, it was the journey into the unknown for the assembled prospects. Although some of these youngsters have been to a camp or two, the first day of camp always seems to have that “first day of school” look to it – am I where I’m supposed to be? Am I skating where I’m supposed to skate? Am I doing this right?

But when the guys turn to the battle drills, where they compete against one another, you start to get a feel for who is further along, for the players who, even is a practice, seem to think and operate at the speed of the game a little more effortlessly and without thinking about where they need to be (and perhaps who they need to impress).

One would expect Cody Eakin to do well in this setting, and the forward seemed to do just that. As a 2009 draft pick he is a veteran of these things, and he is a player with tournament experience. These camps aren’t likely to be intimidating. Watching him working in the corners, he wasn’t rushing things or trying to play the game above its speed. Rather he seemed to make the deliberate and correct plays in moving the puck around the end boards, pushing the puck back to the points, or fending off a defender.

If Eakin’s performance on Day 1 might have been expected, perhaps that of defenseman Patrick Koudys would not have been as expected. But Koudys looked to have an ability to move the puck out of danger, and he is – as the development guide indicates – a very good skater. He will be one to watch as the week goes on.

Philipp Grubauer was at last year’s camp, and this year looks to move up a notch on the prospect chart. Although this morning’s action did not place a premium on goaltending, he looked quite fluid and comfortable in his crease. He was adept at directing, as opposed to just deflecting, pucks away.

If there was a disappointment from a spectator’s point of view, it was that the old D-camp perennial – the “herbies” – were not performed. The boys did a group skate to wind down from the morning session, thus depriving us from posting another in a series of Dmitry Kugryshev sightings (we kid, young man, because we love – keep plugging). Well, there is still rookie camp in September for that sort of thing. Meanwhile, a few pics…

You could hardly do better on a hot July day than spending some time in a cool rink checking out the future.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Canadiens, March 15th

Game 8 in the ten games that mattered – two hot teams, two hot goalies…

March 15, 2011: Washington (40-20-10) at Montreal (38-24-7)

Result: Capitals 4 – Canadiens 2

The Background: The Caps and the Canadiens each found March to their liking. The Canadiens were on a 6-1-0 run dating back to February 26th, allowing them to put some distance between themselves and the New York Rangers for sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Caps were on an eight-game winning streak dating back to February 26th that allowed them to close within one point of the Philadelphia Flyers for the top spot in the East. This would be the first visit to Bell Centre for the Caps since they lost Game 6 in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Why It Mattered: Carey Price had not compiled an especially sterling record against the Caps coming into the 2010-2011 season – a 2-1-3 win/loss record with a goals against average of 3.53. It didn’t improve much this season, his splitting two decisions in Washington – a 3-0 loss on December 28th and a 3-2 Gimmick win on February 1st at Verizon Center. But he was on a roll coming into this game. He earned the decisions in each of the Canadiens last six decisions, going 5-1-0, 1.17, .965, with two shutouts.

Price wasn’t the only goaltender on a roll. At the other end, Braden Holtby took over for Michal Neuvirth in a March 7th game against Tampa Bay when Neuvirth took a puck in the mask, snapping a metal support on the cage of his mask and injuring his eye. Holtby stopped all 21 shots he faced in that game to get the decision in a 2-1 Gimmick win, which he followed up with three more wins that gave him a 4-0-0, 1.05, .965 record with a shutout for good measure.

You wouldn’t know the goalies were on top of their game from the start of things. Both allowed a goal in the first 90 seconds as a result of some wandering. Price circled behind his net to play a dump in by Dennis Wideman, but the puck hit a seam in the allegedly seamless glass, bouncing out to Marcus Johansson for an easy power play goal into the vacated net (one of the assists going to Holtby) at 1:06. The Canadiens got it back at Holtby’s expense 20 seconds later when Holtby circled behind his net to play the puck around and up the boards. But he did not send the puck far enough, nor did he get back into his crease fast enough to prevent Travis Moen from firing the puck into the twine from the left wing boards.

Brooks Laich put the Caps back in front in the 14th minute by finishing a clean crisp play. John Carlson held the puck behind the Caps’ net waiting for Laich to circle behind the cage and start up ice. When Laich cleared out, Carlson sent the puck to the other side, to Karl Alzner at the far edge of the faceoff circle. Alzner sent a long cross-ice pass to a streaking Laich, who had opened up some space on Jeff Halpern. Laich took the puck, and with defenseman Hal Gill trying to cut off Laich’s angle to the net, Laich dipped his shoulder, beat Gill to the crease, and stuffed the puck under Price.

After Andrei Kostitsyn tied things up again in the second period, it was all even again heading into the third period. Neither goalie saw a lot of work – only a combined 14 shots on goal. But it was Price who cracked. Marcus Johansson got his second when the Canadiens, including Price, got caught paying a bit too much attention to Alex Ovechkin, who with a couple Canadiens covering him slipped the puck to Johansson coming down the slot for a backhand past Price.

Mike Knuble closed out the scoring by finishing a 2-on-1 with Marco Sturm on a Caps power play. Meanwhile, Holtby was slamming the door shut at the other end, stopping all eight shots he faced in the third period to seal the 4-2 win. Although Holtby would say later that he “kind of got off to a rough start,” and passed off credit to his defensemen, he stopped 24 of the last 25 shots he faced after allowing a goal on the Canadiens’ first shot.

The Takeaway: The win would be Holtby’s fifth in a row, but here his games played streak would end as Michal Neuvirth returned the following night to face Detroit for the second half of a back-to-back set of games. In this five-game run Holtby won all five decisions with a 1.25 goals against average and a .957 save percentage. Since allowing five goals on 23 shots to New Jersey in a 5-0 loss on November 22nd in his first stint with the Caps, he was 7-0-1, 1.14, .961 with one shutout. He would get one more start, also in Bell Centre against the Canadiens, in which he stopped all 18 shots in a 2-0 win on March 26th.

However, this win cemented Holtby’s status as a bone fide contender to become, if not this year, then perhaps sooner than anyone could have imagined in October, the Caps’ number one netminder. In the story of the 2010-2011 season, Holtby’s performance qualified as “pleasant surprise” more than it did as a factor that would influence the Caps’ ultimate success or failure in this season. But it did complicate a decision that was coming, again sooner than anyone might have anticipated at the start of the season. And that is why Holtby’s performance – staring down a tough opponent in front of a hostile crowd of more than 21,000 – made this a game that mattered in the 2010-2011 season.

(Photo: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America)

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Penguins, February 21st

And with the seventh in the series of games that mattered in the 2010-2011 season, the goaltending sweepstakes return to front and center…

February 21, 2011: Washington (31-19-10) at Pittsburgh (36-19-5)

Result: Capitals 1 – Penguins 0

The Background: In an odd quirk in the schedule, this would be the first time the Caps would play in the Penguins’ new palace, Consol Energy Center. Two games in Washington and the Winter Classic at Heinz Field made this, the fourth and last game in the series, the Caps’ inaugural visit to Consol. And these were very different teams than those who faced one another in the first three contests. The Caps had taken on a stingy personality, quite at odds with having the elite offensive talent that led the NHL in scoring. In 20 games since the Winter Classic on January 1st, the Caps allowed 2.25 goals per game, including a 3-0 shutout of the Penguins on February 6th. On the other side, the Penguins were still adjusting to life without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the former out with concussion symptoms and the latter shelved for the season with a knee injury.

Both goalies for the Caps fighting for the number one spot had shaky recent outings, though. Semyon Varlamov was 1-4-2 in his previous eight appearances with a GAA of 2.83 and a save percentage of .908. Michal Neuvirth was 1-3-0 in his previous four appearances, 3.01, .883. The last quality appearance Neuvirth had was the 3-0 shutout of the Penguins on February 6th. This game would give him a chance to repeat his success against the Penguins and perhaps get a leg up in the goalie sweepstakes.

Why It Mattered: These were two teams stuck in neutral in February. The Penguins were 5-4-1 and losers in five of their previous seven games. The Caps were 4-4-1 and losers of four of the previous six contests. Both had a particularly ugly effort along the way, the Caps giving up six goals on 21 shots in a 7-6 win in Anaheim, the Penguins getting pasted by the Islanders, 9-3, ten days before this game.

The Penguins came out as if they were going to take out their accumulated frustrations on the Caps in the first 20 minutes. After recording five hits on the Caps and the only two shots on goal in the first 4:29, the Penguins spent the rest of the first period treating Neuvirth like an arcade game. Sixteen shots on goal, six shots blocked, two misses in the last 15:31. The Caps might have been run out of the building had Neuvirth experienced the same recent trouble he had, but he kept the Caps in it until they could change momentum.

The teams changed ends for the second period, but the ice was tilted in the same direction, this time favoring the Caps. They had eight shots on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the first 8:29, but he was as equal to the task at that end of the ice as Neuvirth was in the first period.

It was Neuvirth, however, who would have the most consequential save of the period and the game, however. As the clock was winding down toward four minutes to go in the period and the Caps on a power play, Matt Cooke pitchforked the puck out of the defensive zone and into open ice, where Jordan Staal collected it behind the Caps’ defense. Staal skated in and tried to maneuver himself for a forehand try from in close. But Neuvirth turned the shot aside with his right pad, and the game remained scoreless.

Not for long. Forty-eight seconds later, Marcus Johansson teed one up for Alex Ovechkin, laying out a pass just above and between the faceoff circles. Ovechkin got all of it, pounding a one-time slap shot past Fleury to give the Caps the 1-0 lead late in the second period.

The third period had that tilted ice problem again – nine Penguin shot attempts in the first 4:11 (four on goal) to none for the Caps. The rest of the period looked much the same – the Penguins outshot the Caps 14-3 – but this Caps team was more comfortable in one-goal games than they had been in the past, and they could play defense when it mattered. Neuvirth stopped all the pucks he faced, and the Caps made their power play goal stand up to take the season series with a 3-0-1 record.

The Takeaway: Michal Neuvirth started three games against nine different opponents in the 2010-2011 season. Three of those opponents would be playoff teams in 2011. Against two of them – Boston and Philadelphia – Neuvirth had a distinctly mediocre record (0-2-0, 3.91, .810 against the Bruins; 1-0-1, 3.60, .882 against the Flyers). But against the Penguins, Neuvirth was George Hainsworth*. This would be his third start against Pittsburgh this season (sitting out the Winter Classic in favor of Semyon Varlamov), and he finished 2-0-1, 0.65, .977, with two shutouts.

From here, the final cards would be played in the goalie sweepstakes. Semyon Varlamov would miss 11 games to a knee injury and play in only three more games in the regular season. Neuvirth would get most of the work down the stretch, appearing in 13 of the Caps’ last 21 games. At the time, one could not know with certainty how the race between Neuvirth and Varlamov would be decided. But in retrospect, this game set up the home stretch of the season for what would be a one-horse race. Varlamov would be nursing an injury, and Neuvirth would be getting into a playing rhythm that would ultimately result in his being declared the playoff starter. Neuvirth would have a few bumps along the way as the season wound down, but this game served as the starting point for his own sprint down the home stretch in the goalie race. And that is why a 1-0 game in February mattered in the 2010-2011 season.

* George Hainsworth holds the record for shutouts in an NHL season – 22 with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1928-1929 season.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America)

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Ducks, February 16th

Starting the second half of our look at ten games that mattered, it’s a game that looked more like the shoot-‘em-up goal fests of the 1980’s than a game in the NHL of 2011…

February 16, 2011: Washington (29-18-10) at Anaheim (32-21-4)

Result: Capitals 7 – Ducks 6

The Background: In the 23 games played after they endured their eight-game losing streak in December the Capitals, who had reformed themselves into a team that emphasized responsibility in their own end of the ice, scored more than three goals in a game only three times. By the same token, they allowed more than three goals only three times. But their offense found itself in a bit of a deeper slump coming into this game – three goals combined over their previous three games, all losses, all to Pacific Division teams.  It looked as if hockey's dog days of the season -- those games in January and February -- had settled in for the Caps.

Why It Mattered: In Anaheim, the Caps would face their fourth straight Pacific Division opponent, and the Ducks were on a four game winning streak, two of the wins coming by shutout. The Caps were already 0-4-1 against the Pacific for the year. Not a recipe for coming out of a slump. It probably looked worse 4:10 into the game when Ryan Getzlaf put the Ducks ahead with a power play goal. It was only the third shot of the game, all of them recorded by the Ducks.

Alex Ovechkin got that one back with a highlight reel-quality goal, taking a long pass from Nicklas Backstrom up the middle as he was hitting the red line, knifing between defensemen Andreas Lilja and Cam Fowler, and as Lilja was trying to hook him off, he snapped the puck through goalie Curtis McElhinney’s legs.

From there it became a game of “anything you can do, I can do better.” The Caps looked as if they would take a lead into the first intermission on an unassisted goal by Brooks Laich when he was handed the puck by the Ducks’ Teemu Selanne in front of the Anaheim net at 16:07. But the Ducks scored two late goals in the first period to regain the lead and chase Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov, who yielded three goals on nine shots. Anaheim went up two to start the second period, potting a goal against Michal Neuvirth in relief of Varlamov.  But then the Caps scored two within three minutes of the Anaheim goal to tie it. Anaheim regained the lead in time for the second intermission, finishing the first 40 minutes with five goals on only 16 shots.

Mike Knuble got the Caps even in the first minute of the third period, but the Ducks took their fourth lead of the game five minutes later. It would be the last lead the Ducks would enjoy, as the last dozen minutes turned into “The Alexander Semin Show.” Semin, who scored the Caps’ fourth goal in the second period, showed fans why he is a gifted talent. Scott Hannan took a feed from Matt Hendricks and circled behind the Anaheim net. Hannan threw the puck in front, but on its way out from behind the net was tipped into the air by Ducks’ defenseman Luca Sbisa. Semin, skating down the middle to the net, took the puck on the bounce and short hopped it off his backhand, roofing it over McElhinney to tie the game.

Semin would score the game winner with 1:47 left. Karl Alzner sent the puck hard around the boards, where it skipped over Semin’s stick to where Brooks Laich and Cam Fowler could fight over it. Laich pushed it ahead to Semin in the corner at the goal line. Semin circled, walked the goal line, stepped out, then backhanded the puck through McElninney’s pads to complete the hat trick (his fourth of the season) and give the Caps a most improbable 7-6 win.

It was a game in which both goaltenders struggled mightily. Consider, the Ducks scored six goals on 42 shot attempts, itself a .857 “unsuccessful” percentage. The “save” percentage of .714 (15 saves on 21 shots on goal) was absolutely ghastly. But the Caps showed a certain resiliency in coming back from four separate Anaheim leads. And it was a team effort – eleven different skaters had points, five different skaters had goals. One of the quirkier numbers in the games belonged to John Carlson – nine. He was on ice for nine of the 13 goals scored, six for the Caps, three for the Ducks. On the other side, Bobby Ryan had that number stapled to him as well, on ice for nine goals -- four for Anaheim, five for the Caps.

The Takeaway: Let Mike Knuble say it

"It could be a game that gets us out of the kind of spell we were in. We gave up six goals, so it was really good to score seven and actually win a game the old way, like we were used to winning."

The Caps didn’t so much break out of a spell as they did get it out of their system. It was like the old days – if the 2009-2010 could be thought of in that fashion – but the Caps soon returned to their “be responsible” mode. They would go 11-2-0 over their next 13 games and would allow more than three goals only three more times in their last 24 games.

It was in one sense a trip down memory lane and at the same time a warning, that failure to pay attention to the defensive side of things could have unpleasant results. Based on how the Caps finished the season – a record of 18-5-1 in their last 24 games and just those three games allowing more than three goals – it was an indulgence not repeated and a lesson learned. And that’s why this oddly entertaining game mattered in the 2010-2011 season.

(photo: AP)