Thursday, September 29, 2011

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Karl Alzner

Karl Alzner

Theme: “Nothing contributes so much to tranquilizing the mind as a steady purpose”
-- Mary Wollstonecraft

Things happen. A player scores a goal…red lights flash, horns sound, fans cheer. A penalty is taken…a player skates to the box, fans boo (either him or the call). A player executes a thunderous check…glass rattles, fans come out of their seats.

But what happens when a player, merely by being in the right place at the right time, prevents things from happening – things that are bad for your team? No one cheers a player playing “sound positional defense.” Fans don’t come out of their seats when a defenseman angles a puck-carrier away from the place he wants to go. Horns don’t sound when a defenseman ties up a player around the net so he can’t secure a rebound.

The World of Karl Alzner…quiet, steady, and yet purposeful.

In 143 regular season and playoff games in the NHL, Karl Alzner has a total of three goals. You can hold off counting the Norris Trophy votes. But in 2010-2011 173 defensemen played in at least 50 NHL regular season games. Only 20 faced better competition at 5-on-5 over the course of the season than did Alzner (according to Only one of them – Florida’s Jason Garrison – came into the season having played in fewer NHL games than the 51 Alzner played before last season began. Of those 173 defensemen, only 14 had a better Corsi value relative to quality of competition, a reflection of Alzner’s ability to defend, since he does not contribute a lot at the offensive end of the ice in terms of shot generation. Only 20 players in that group recorded fewer goals against his team scored while he was on the ice at 5-on-5 than did Alzner.

And this is the player Alzner is. If you are expecting an offensive player to bloom as he matures, don’t count on it. He hasn’t recorded more than ten goals in a season since he played for the Burnaby Winter Club in 2002-2003 at the age of 14. Only twice since then has he recorded seasons with more than five goals. Alzner is a defenseman who plays defense, not by rattling the glass with opponents (his 98 hits last year was tied for 82nd in the league), but by using anticipation and position to use the word “defend” as the verb it is intended to be, not as a synonym for being “physical.”

Fearless’ Take: There is the Corsi, the Fenwick, the shots for and against and all that, but boil it down to this -- fewest goals against/on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 last season among Caps defensemen. You can use the other statistics to explain “how” he got there, but “that” he got there is the object of the exercise. And that was a significant improvement over his 2009-2010 performance in that regard, when he was worst on the club in that statistic (although in only 21 games).

Cheerless’ Take: That performance did not carry over into the post season last spring. His goals against/on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 jumped from 1.90 to 2.45 in the playoffs (second worst among Caps playing in at least two games). That might not have been a surprise. While he was a plus-14 in his first 68 games, he was only “even” in his last 14. Fading down the stretch?

The Big Question… Is Alzner going to be the shutdown defensemen over 82 games, and more?

It is worth noting that Alzner is still only 23 years old and still has only 143 games of regular season and playoff game experience in the NHL. And last season he faced the highest quality of competition among all Caps defensemen playing in at least 50 games. He did slip a bit late last season, and the question there is whether it was just a matter of the state of Alzner’s physical maturity. But even with that blip late last season there were 173 defensemen in the NHL who were on the ice for more goals against than Karl Alzner. He is already an accomplished practitioner in the art of “defense.”

In the end…

Karl Alzner is not going to wow fans with big hits or end to end rushes or weak side pinches for top shelf goals. He plays angles, keeps within himself in terms of position, moves the puck out of trouble. If one doesn’t notice Alzner’s game on the ice on any given night, chances are the opponents he faced didn’t score a goal while he was on the ice. In fact, if you look at those 20 defensemen who had lower goals against/60 minutes at 5-on-5 last season, only Zdeno Chara and Kevin Bieksa faced a higher quality of competition.

Alzner and John Carlson have skated as a pair for some time now, either at Hershey or with the Caps, where both played in all 82 games last season, the only defensemen to do so for the Caps last season. That kind of reliability, and the “steady purpose” of Alzner’s game will be a critical element in the Caps’ march toward a Stanley Cup.

Projection: 82 games, 2-11-13, +17

(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America)

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Jay Beagle

Jay Beagle

Theme: “The secret of success is to be ready when your opportunity comes.”
-- Benjamin Disraeli

Jay Beagle played in 31 games last season. It might have been a quiet 31 games but for one thing…well, two actually. He scored two goals, and both of them were game-winners. It was a sense of timing expressed in an otherwise unremarkable season.

Except now he is taking up the mantle of the “energy” forward that was worn by Matt Bradley for six seasons in Washington before he signed with the Florida Panthers this past summer. It is hard to get a handle on a player who has only 41 games of NHL experience, but maybe there are some hints from his 211 games with Hershey over the past four years.

Playing 211 regular season games and another 44 playoff games at Hershey suggests that Beagle has served a thorough apprenticeship. In those 211 regular season games with the Bears he was 47-48-95, plus-1. Compare that to a Joel Ward, who in his 209 regular season games played with the Houston Aeros in the AHL was 38-48-86, plus-11. In his first taste of NHL action, Ward played 11 games with the Minnesota Wild in 2006-2007 at age 26 and was a modest 0-1-1, even. He scored 17 goals with Nashville the following year. Beagle is 3-2-5 in 41 games over three years with the Caps. What he will do with what could be a full season’s worth of work -- at age 26 -- could be interesting to watch.

But scoring might be a pleasant surprise, if it is to come from Beagle. In camp he has spent a fair amount of time on a line with Jeff Halpern and Matt Hendricks. The charm of that line might be that it could be a pain in the neck to play against. A fourth line with that make up will, with Halpern and Hendricks, probably provide more offensive punch than last year’s edition of the fourth line. Beagle could provide that added energy, and even perhaps complement Halpern and Hendricks on the offensive end of the ice. He scored goals at an 18-per-82 game pace with Hershey, so the notion is not entirely out of bounds.

Fearless’ Take: Beagle is the latest Bear to take a place with the Caps (assuming he survives training camp) from the conveyor belt of champions that have been the Hershey Bears. In three post-seasons with the Bears, Beagle was a member of two Calder Cup championship teams. He joins Mathieu Perreault (assuming he survives camp), Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, and Michal Neuvirth among those who have graduated from Hershey teams having won championships.

Cheerless’ Take: How is it that a center who plays in an organization that is thin in the skin at that position takes four years in the AHL to make the big club?

The Big Question… Will Beagle wear the Weagle?

He has gone from playing three to seven to 31 games in his three partial years with the Caps. The Caps did some rearranging among the third and fourth line forward personnel, swapping out Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, Eric Fehr, Marco Sturm and Jason Arnott for Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, Mattias Sjogren, and Joel Ward. But there is room for a player like Beagle, who has evidenced (at least in the AHL) and ability to pot a goal here or there, to win faceoffs (55.2 percent of 152 draws taken last year with the Caps), be responsible (one giveaway in 31 games), and not take an inordinate number of penalties (four minor infractions in 31 games).

In the end…

Beagle is essentially assuming Matt Bradley’s spot on the roster. He does not exhibit quite the feistiness Bradley displayed (Beagle has had five fights in his pro career – all at Hershey; Bradley had ten last season alone). But he does a lot of things capably enough, or at least has shown an ability to do them in serving his apprenticeship at Hershey. Beagle is in a situation not unlike Mathieu Perreault. In their own ways, each of them have probably done as much as they could at Hershey to prepare themselves for the NHL. For each it might be a case of demonstrating that they can now stick on an NHL roster, or be branded a “tweener” – a player who can fill in on an emergency basis from time to time, but who isn’t likely to be getting a sweater on a regular basis at the NHL level. Beagle is getting his opportunity now, and whether he is ready will determine whether he is successful in being in the lineup on a steady basis.

Projection: 63 games, 6-8-14, +1

(photo: AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Joel Ward

Joel Ward

Theme: "Expectation is the root of all heartache."
-- William Shakespeare

Joel Ward is one of the great stories of the NHL. Four years in the Ontario Hockey League (Owen Sound Platers/Attack), then four more with the University of Prince Edward Island Panthers of Canadian Interuniversity Sport. He was signed to a free agent contract by the Houston Aeros of the AHL in December 2005 before signing – at age 25 – his first NHL contract as a free agent with the Minnesota Wild in September 2006. Ward appeared in his first NHL game in December 2006, and although he had only an assist in 11 games with the Wild and would spend the following season in Houston, he established enough of a foot-hold in the NHL to get the attention of the Nashville Predators. The Preds signed Ward to a free agent contract in July 2008, where he played in 230 games over three seasons, recording 40 goals and 98 points.

But it was the post season of his last year in Nashville that would change the arc of his career in a big way. In 12 playoff games last spring Ward scored seven goals, including four in Nashville’s second round loss to the eventual Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks. That performance made him a hot commodity on the 2011 free agent market, and he was signed by Washington to a four-year/$12 million contract on the first day of the free agent signing period last July.

So now he is going to be the last piece of the puzzle, right? That is where the whole notion of “expectations” can often end in heartache. Expecting Ward to score at a 48-goal pace (what seven goals in 12 playoff games means) is unfair. His regular season averages of 14 goals and 34 points per 82-games, plus the fact that he averaged almost 77 games played in his three full seasons in the NHL suggest a player who will give an honest effort with modest, if potentially valuable results. He is not going to turn into Teemu Selanne.

Fearless’ Take: If anything, Ward’s potential is tantalizing. He got a late start in the NHL, but has made up for it in missing few games in his three seasons. One absence might be noteworthy, though, not for a developing propensity to injury, but for revealing that he might be entering a more productive phase of his career.

Last March, Ward was ambling along with seven goals and 22 points in his first 66 games. Not a lot to get excited about there. But then he had a three-game stretch in mid-March against St. Louis, Minnesota, and Colorado in which he scored goals in each of the three games and recorded five points with a plus-2. Two of the three goals were game-winners. But then he came up with an injury in pre-game warm-up before a March 15th game against Los Angeles. He missed that game and the next against Boston. He returned for the last 11 games of the regular season, but his momentum was snuffed out – he did not score any goals in those last 11 games. Then there was that playoff run he had. So, the question one’s mind might be, was that three-game goal run before his injury an indication that maybe after having passed the 200 game mark in his career he was hitting his scoring stride, to see it interrupted by injury before resuming it in the playoffs. Or, was it merely a nice streak?

Cheerless’ Take: Cuz, it wasn’t the first time he did that. In 2010 he had a three-game goals streak in February, then had one goal in his last 20 games of the regular season. He followed that up with two goals in a six-game playoff loss to the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks. And the year before that he had a three-game goal streak in March, only to score two in his last ten games of the season. Let’s not be taking the bus down Expectations Boulevard.

The Big Question… Can Joel Ward be a “contributor” without being consumed by expectations from a big contract?

It is hard to answer a question like this in advance of seeing a body of work, but if there is a player whose path to DC suggests an answer in the affirmative, Ward fills the bill. He certainly paid his dues in a painstaking journey through juniors, collegiate, and minor league hockey before getting his chance. And one he had it, he hing tightly onto it by exhibiting a durability in his three seasons in Nashville. What has to be concerning, though, is that his goal totals dropped in each of those three seasons, from 17 to 13 to 10. That has been coupled with a shooting percentage that dropped in similar fashion, from 12.8 to 9.7 to 6.4 percent. Those numbers should temper expectations of what Ward is going to contribute in terms of scoring numbers.

In the end…

If Ward seen through a clear lens, he is a hard working winger who is likely to contribute more offense than any of the players he could be replacing. Even his ten goals last year was more than Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon, combined (seven). And they were as many as Eric Fehr had. It is also worth noting that Ward missed only two games last season. Fehr missed 29, Bradley missed 21, and Gordon missed 22. There is something to be said for durability. What the Caps are getting is some steel on the bottom half of the forward lines who can knock in a puck or two along the way. Hopefully, the kind of player that a team with designs of a championship needs.

Projection: 78 games: 11-17-28, +2

(Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

White Nets, We Hardly Knew Ye

Now that the nets behind the goals at Verizon Center are going to be returned to their “black” state, we can retire the white nets to the dustbin of “Good Ideas That Sucked”…

10. Sony Betamax

9. Crystal Pepsi

8. Pet Rocks

7. Heinz Colored (Not Red) Ketchup

6. Clairol “Touch of Yogurt” Shampoo

5. Thirsty Dog Bottled Water

4. Sylvester Stallone Pudding

3. Harley Davidson Perfume

2. White Nets Behind Hockey Goals

And the number one – and still champion “Good Idea That Sucked”…

1. New Coke

Sight Lines

Top ten materials considered for Caps new netting behind the goals…

10. Cheesecloth

9. Chicken wire

8. Those climbing nets you see at boot camp

7. Bounty paper towels

6. Window screen mesh

5. Doilies knitted together

4. Mosquito netting

3. Old goal nets they found at Piney Orchard

2. Chain mail

And the number one material considered by the Caps and installed behind the goals…

1. Surgical gauze

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Alexander Semin

Alexander Semin

Theme: “From caring comes courage.”
-- Lao Tzu

That qualifies as the quote version of a drive-away shooting. Former teammate Matt Bradley (now of the Florida Panthers) uttered those words on an Ottawa sports talk radio show last August. They elicited denials from the usual suspects – Semin’s agent, current Caps, management. They cut the fan base in two – those who see in Semin a uniquely talented player who is given little credit for the all around contributions he does make, and those who might have read Bradley’s comments and said, “see? isn’t just fans who think it.” For his part, Semin responded that “I don't pay absolutely any attention to [Bradley’s] words." The issue inspired its own Twitter topic of #sashacares.

Is there another player in the league who causes more people to go all Dr. Phil trying to figure out what makes him tick? What isn’t in question is the fact that Alexander Semin is one of the most gifted pure talents in the NHL. In almost 400 games in the NHL he has averaged 37 goals and 74 points per 82 games played. Not bad for someone who has received mostly second line minutes and is primarily a left winger playing a lot on the right side because a teammate is the best left wing in the league.

Here is a comparison for Caps fans. Semin has played in 392 regular season games so far in his NHL career and has 176 goals. After 392 games in his NHL career witht he Caps, Peter Bondra had 187 goals. And in his first five seasons covering 388 games, Mike Gartner had 184 goals for the Caps. Semin is in the neighborhood and plays in a much more defense-oriented era than did either Bondra or Gartner when they were embarking on their respective careers.

If anything has held Semin back from taking his place among the game’s stars, it has been his health. As we pointed out in another post, Semin has missed 65 games over the past four seasons. And as to the effect of these absences on his game, we had this to say about it when he was healthy…

“Semin played in what was arguably his healthiest stretch of hockey in a period covering 125 games from January 3, 2009 (game 40 of the 2008-2009 season) through the end of the 2009-2010 season. Semin played in 114 of 125 games (91 percent) over that period and went 60-71-131, plus-41 (a per-82 game pace of 43-51-94, plus-29).”

A healthy Semin is a dangerous one.

Fearless’ Take: Semin has led the Caps in 5-on-5 goals scored per 60 minutes in two of the past three years ( But Semin also had the second lowest 5-on-5 goals against/on ice per 60 minutes (1.73) of any Caps forward playing in at least 50 games last season. The 0.53 goals improvement from 2009-2010 might be attributed to the overall emphasis on defense in the 2010-2011 season, except that Semin improved his team ranking from eighth best among 10 forwards playing the entire year with the Caps to second. He is a better defensive player than he is given credit for being.

Cheerless’ Take: You wonder why I drink a lot, cuz? Maybe it’s from watching Alexander Semin in the playoffs. Consider this – in the first playoff series he every played he had points in five of the first six games against the Flyers, going 3-5-8, plus-2. In Game 7 he did not record a point; the Caps lost. The next series he played – against the Rangers – he was 5-3-8, plus-5, and had a goal in Game 7 that was overshadowed by Sergei Fedorov’s series-winner. But they don’t get to that point without Semin’s goal. He followed that up by going oh-fer in goals against the Penguins (0-6-6-, minus-6) in a seven-game loss, then did it again (0-2-2) the next season in a seven-game loss to Montreal. He was 3-1-4, plus-4 in a five-game win over the Rangers last spring, but was 1-1-2, minus-2 in the four game sweep at the hands of Tampa Bay. In three series in which the Caps won or at least performed admirably (we put the Flyer series in that category), Semin was 11-9-20, plus-11, in 19 games. In the other three series (all Caps losses in disappointing fashion), he was 1-9-10, minus-4, in 18 games.

The Big Question… Can Semin’s “game” match his “talent?”

That Semin has the talent to be an elite player is in little doubt. But for whatever reason – injury, poor timing, sunspots – he has found it difficult to be able to sustain a level of production commensurate with that talent over a long stretch of games. And the coincidence of his poor playoff performance coming in series that finished in especially disappointing fashion for the Caps has left him with a bulls eye on his back, whether it is fairly earned or not. In his career to date, the instances have been too infrequent, especially in the biggest games, where his “game” – is ability to dominate and determine an outcome – matched his “talent.”

In the end…

One could see Alexander Semin winning a Conn Smythe Trophy. One could also see him being shutout in goals in a series and the Caps slinking away once more from the post season. That is not an indictment of Semin’s ability or his capacity to care, but acknowledgment that the Caps are not likely to go deep into the post season unless he contributes in a consistent and reliable fashion. He is just one rung short of joining the top tier of players in the game, and 2011-2012 will be interesting to watch to see if Alexander Semin can take that last step up.

Projection: 72 games, 33-36-69, plus-18

(photo: The Washington Post)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Mathieu Perreault

Mathieu Perreault

Theme: “Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast.”
-- William Shakespeare

In four games in which he began stretches of games with the Washington Capitals after call-ups or sitting out games last season, Mathieu Perreault was 4-2-6, plus-6, one of the four goals being the one that famously ended the Caps’ eight-game losing streak in December 2010. In 31 other games with the Caps last season Perreault was 3-5-8, minus-9.

Mathieu Perreault has been the hockey player version of a Roman candle – a firework that explodes brightly, if briefly. In 56 career games he has posted a respectable 11-12-23, plus-1 scoring line, especially since he has averaged only about 11:40 of ice time per game in those 56 contests. Last season he was 12th among 13 Caps forwards in ice time per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (among those playing the entire season with the team and in at least 30 games), yet he finished fourth among that same set of forwards in points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. He had the fourth best Corsi value among those forwards and the fourth best relative Corsi value.

One could explain these results away by saying that he did not face the stiffest competition (11th among the group of 13 forwards), but his quality of teammates was not awe-inspiring, either – seventh among the 13 forwards (all numbers from One could say he benefitted from advantageous offensive zone starts (54.6 percent, fifth among the group of 13 forwards), but he also had a small dropoff when it came to offensive zone finishes (53.7 percent). His problem has been less his production overall and more his ability to build off hot starts once he is inserted into the lineup.

He also has had a mixed bag among some of the other responsibilities of his position. On the one hand, his takeaway-to-giveaway ratio of 1.64:1 in his career thus far reflects a certain responsibility with the puck. On the other hand, as a center one would like to see improvement on his 45.4 percent winning percentage in 56 games.

Fearless’ Take: Perreauit has little to prove at the AHL level. In 167 regular season games he is 38-97-135, plus-47. To that add 12-21-33, plus-15 in 51 post season games in the AHL. He has added some bulk since his early days in the organization, and he has displayed a certain fearlessness in going into traffic. For him it is a matter of taking the last step to a regular spot in an NHL lineup.

Cheerless’ Take: Of 891 players who dressed in the NHL last season, 873 of them carried more weight than the 174 pounds in the program that Perreault was credited with carrying. The six-month, 82-game schedule of the NHL can be quite a grind, and Perreault’s ability to stick with the big club is going to depend on his ability to produce, if not at the highest level, than at a more consistent one than he has displayed. In spurts he has produced at what a second line forward might contribute, but there have been those stretches when, whether due to lack of focus or lack of bulk to sustain him in the physical grind, he hasn’t displayed that consistency.

The Big Question… With the Caps seemingly set with their top-six forwards, can Perreault manage to carve out a niche that will make him more than a fill-in or call-up player?

The Caps are set with The Alexes, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble, and Marcus Johansson as top six forwards. Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich will get time in the sixth spot. Moving down the forward lines, Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Matt Hendricks, and Jason Chimera seem sure bets to keep their jerseys. That leaves one slot in the starting lineup and perhaps two other roster spots as healthy scratches. Perreault is competing with Mattias Sjogren, Jay Beagle, Cody Eakin, D.J. King, and Chris Bourque for one of those open lineup or roster spots. Perreault is probably the most talented offensive player of that group, but it will take more than that – at least more than that on a sporadic basis – to win one of those spots.

In the end…

There really is no mystery to what it will take for Perreault to make the club on a permanent basis. He has the speed, the skill, the willingness to stick his nose into traffic, so to speak, in part evidenced by his being suspected of suffering a concussion last season. What he has lacked is the ability to do that for more than a few games at a time, generally when he is freshly inserted into the lineup. Last season might have been a lost opportunity for Perreault in that the Caps center situation was so unsettled that he could have grabbed a slot by the throat. It did not happen. Now, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson have established themselves as the top two centers. This is not to say that there is no room for Perreault as a third line center or perhaps even as a wing. But this year, the roster spots open to competition are fewer, and Perreault need to establish that he can be more than an effective player at the AHL level to secure one of them. He has been running this race fo a while now, but it is not yet over for him, either.

Projection: 36 games, 8-9-17, +1

(Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

Theme: “There is no way this winter is ever going to end, as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don't see any other way out. He's got to be stopped. And I have to stop him.”
-- Phil Connors, Weatherman, WPBH-TV9 Pittsburgh

Four times to the show, four times with little to show for it. One can opine as to whether Alex Ovechkin has carried his share of the burden in the playoffs – if not more than that share – but the fact is that he is about to embark on Year 7 of his career, and he has yet to reach a conference final, let alone win a Stanley Cup. He is probably making lists even at this point in his career of greatest players never to win the Cup. Is life fair? No, it isn’t. And that is why as long as he goes without having won a Cup, it will be his burden to bear for the failure to do so.

Add to that the fact that last year was a considerable step backward in the career arc of Alex Ovechkin, and it makes the 2011-2012 season one in which a lot of eyes will be on him. There are a lot of questions to be answered…

-- Can he bounce back from a season in which he scored “only” 32 goals, tied for 14th in the league when he had never finished lower than fourth?

-- Can he find new wrinkles to throw at defenders who seem to have caught up to the game that allowed him to score 269 goals in his first five seasons?

-- Does he have, at age 26, the maturity to serve as a leader by example on and off the ice?

-- Can he become the first non-defenseman from Europe to captain his team to a Stanley Cup?

If Ovechkin had a 2009-2010 season that was personally disappointing, his Team Russian Olympic team and Washington Capitals teams falling earlier in their respective tournaments than most would have thought, last season was confounding. He went from putting up points at a 124-point pace (109 points in 72 games) to an 85-point season in 79 games. He went from a 57-goal scoring pace to 32 goals in those 79 games last season. Thirteen power play goals to seven (only two in the season’s first 52 games). Shooting percentage from 13.6 percent (second best of his career) to 8.7 percent (worst, by far).

What happened? Well, two numbers -- Corsi values/on ice and offensive zone starts -- examined over a period of seasons compared to his goal scoring at even strength might shed some light on a problem…

One can point to a change in team philosophy that would naturally limit the chances Ovechkin or his linemates might get to put shots on goal and score. There is the whole power play problem that seemed to infect the team. But Ovechkin was being put into fewer situations, at least from an offensive zone start viewpoint, that could maximize his strengths as an offensive player. He was starting play less often in the offensive zone at 5-on-5 (51.6 percent offensive zone starts versus 55.6 percent in 2009-2010); he ended up with fewer 5-on-5 goals. His 25 even strength goals was almost 14 fewer than the average of his previous three seasons.

Fearless’ Take: It might have been Ovechkin’s worst season, but he closed with a rush. In his last 33 games he was 17-23-40, plus-15. That works out to a 42-57-99, plus-37 pace. What is more, he had five power play goals (a 12 goal pace over 82 games) and had a 10.4 percent shooting percentage. Couple that with the fact that he was 5-5-10 with a 14.7 percent shooting percentage in the post-season, and perhaps Ovechkin’s season in 2010-2011 can be reduced to having had a bad start (which might add credence to the thought among some that he had conditioning issues).

Cheerless’ Take: In the history of the National Hockey League, 81 times has a player reached the 50-goal mark after reaching the age of 26, four times since the lockout. If folks are thinking Ovechkin has a return to 50 goals in him, it’s possible, but it would not be the way to bet. You might make the case for his reaching 40, but even though it has been done 40 times since the lockout by players aged 26 and older, no one has done it more than twice. It isn’t a certainty.

The Big Question… Can Ovechkin raise his game in the context of the new Capitals’ philosophy and drag his team to a championship?

“Showtime” worked for the Los Angeles Lakers in basketball once upon a time. “The Greatest Show on Turf” worked once upon a time in football. But scoring 65 goals in a season and being part of an offense that averaged almost four goals a game in another has not worked for Ovechkin or the Caps. The team went to a different philosophy last season when in the midst of an eight-game losing streak in December, and while it made the Caps more reliable winners – in the regular season – it didn’t do much for fantasy numbers for Ovechkin or the Caps. But even with depressed full season numbers, Ovechkin was able to ramp up his own production over the last part of the season. In those last 33 games of the season in which he played (he missed three games in late March), over which he was 17-23-40, the Caps were 21-8-4. His ability to put up big numbers is not incompatible with an approach that emphasizes defense. But even with an ability to put up fine numbers in the post season (25-25-50, plus-13 in 37 career games), his teams are still 17-20 over four years of playoff disappointment.

In the end…

The point has been made about Ovechkin getting fewer offensive zone starts than last year, but that is true for each of the big forwards (including Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, each of whom saw their offensive zone starts drop from the previous year). But Ovechkin finished seventh in that number among all Caps forwards who played the entire season in Washington and dressed for at least 50 games ( That is less than Eric Fehr, less than Mike Knuble, less than Brooks Laich, less than Matt Hendricks.

But after awhile, the numbers start to blend into a haze. For whatever reason, the Caps as a team just haven’t gotten it done in the Ovechkin era. They have been entertaining, but unfulfilling. What it means is that Ovechkin seems likely to rebound some from the numbers he posted last season, he will be in the conversation for the Hart and Lindsay awards, he will be one of the faces of the sport. And it will all have a Groundhog Day aspect to it. Until he wakes up in June with the Stanley Cup next to him in bed.

Projection: 78 games, 39-55-94, +24

(Photo: Jason Cohn, Reuters)

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Brooks Laich

Brooks Laich

Theme: “The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.”
-- Confucius

On June 28th the Capitals announced that Brooks Laich signed a six-year contract extension with the club worth $27 million. At one level, it was recognition of a player who in the previous four seasons averaged 21 goals and 49 points a season. On another level it was validation of a player’s willingness to put in the work to make himself a better player. So fast forward to August, and there he was – again – working at being a better player.

Until now, it has been a case of working to get there. Now it also will be a case of managing expectations that come with a large contract. And that matter is complicated a bit by the season Laich had last year. After three years in which he improved each year in goals, assists, points, plus-minus, and power play goals, he dropped in each – from 25 to 16 in goals, from 34 to 32 in assists, from 59 to 48 in points, from plus-16 to plus-14, and from 12 power play goals to four.

That power play number was particularly striking. Almost his entire drop in offensive production from 2009-2010 to last season can be explained by the drop in power play goals from 12 to four last year. It was not as if he was getting less time on the man advantage. He averaged 2:59 per game of power play time in 2009-2010, 2:57 last season. But then again, neither was his drop in power play production an isolated thing, not when the Caps saw their power play goal total drop by 33 goals (42 percent) from 2009-2010 to last season.

If the drop in his power play production explains his drop in overall offensive production, his even strength production is a bit more mystifying. From 2009-2010 to 2010-2011 his Corsi/on-ice and Corsi/relative values at 5-on-5 improved from year-to-year, as did those values in the context of quality of competition faced (according to But the improvement did not translate into improved scoring numbers (12-24-36 at ES in 2009-2010; 11-21-32 last season).

Fearless’ Take: Laich’s value is not merely as a scorer. He can play any forward position and can even chip in on defense in an emergency. Last season he had a 51.3 winning percentage on draws, and his home performance was almost a good as that of faceoff artist Boyd Gordon (57.4 percent to Gordon’s 57.6). His 32 assists was third on the club. He was fourth among Caps forwards in hits and was second among that group in blocked shots. He had a positive takeaway-to-giveaway ratio (1.19:1). And he led all Caps forwards in penalty-killing time (2:18/game). More than anything, it is Laich’s versatility that makes him valuable.

Cheerless’ Take: 17.2, 12.4, 11.3, 7.7. Those are the last four seasons of shooting percentages for Brooks Laich. More shots taken (122, 185, 222, 207 over those same four years) have not been accompanied by an increase, or even maintenance, of efficiency. Had he merely maintained the 11.3 percent shooting percentage he had in 2009-2010, he would have finished with 23 goals – his average over the previous three seasons.

The Big Question… Was 2010-2011 merely a blip in Brooks Laich’s progress as an offensive contributor?

Until last season, Laich had improved in each and every season of his career as a goal scorer until he reached the 25-goal plateau in 2009-2010. But that decline in shooting percentage has to be of concern. A 17.2 percent shooting percentage – what Laich had in 82 games the 2007-2008 season – isn’t rare (40 players since the lockout have had that percentage or better and at least 25 goals in at least 75 games), but it is not common, either. Last season’s 7.7 percent shooting percentage -- his worst since the 2006-2007 season -- was just one part of a team-wide drop from 11.6 percent in 2009-2010 to 8.5 percent last season. Still, one would not expect Laich to linger in a shooting neighborhood shared with Jay Beagle (7.4), Matt Bradley (6.9), or Matt Hendricks (8.0), as was the case last season.

In the end…

The temptation is to think that with the new six-year deal, Laich will become something more, perhaps a consistent 25-goal scorer (a number he has reached once in six full seasons in the NHL), or perhaps a consistent 60-point scorer (his high is 59), or the sort of special teams player who can consistently put up ten or more power play goals a season (he topped that number once with 12 in 2009-2010).

But the fact is, Laich is probably no more than an 11-13 goal scorer at even strength (that has been, in fact, the range of his even strength goal scoring the past four years). His ability to put up 20-goal seasons in the three years preceding last season was a function of his special teams production. Eight power play and two short-handed goals in 2007-2008; nine and one in 2008-2009, 12 and one in 2009-2010. Last season he dropped to four power play goals and one shorthanded. If his goal scoring is to improve, it will be a product of special teams.

It would not be surprising if Laich was among the hardest working players in the sport in terms of preparing his body to play. Now he has to bear the weight of expectations. We suspect he will rebound some from the season he had last year, but reaching his career best is going to be a matter of translating the power he develops in his workout regimens to power on the ice – power play production.

Projection: 82 games, 19-34-53, +15

(Photo: Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images North America)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Yeah...sez you! No...sez YOU!!

Yesterday, there was a brief online argument on the divide between those who “see” the game and those who “measure” the game.  As often happens in internet arguments, the fact that the argument was brief did not detract from its intensity.  The genesis of the argument was an article by Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock.

The opening in that column isn’t subtle: “I won’t be going to see 'Moneyball.' The movie celebrates the plague ruining sports: sabermetrics.'”  “Ruining” the game?  If Whitlock intended to provoke, mission accomplished.  But actually, this is just the latest installment of the “stats are for losers” versus “your eyes are lying to you” argument that you are likely to find on any message board, online forum, or sport talk call-in show concerning any sport you care to name. 

But the problems with the “stats versus eyes” argument crsytalized in my mind listening to this on…

It wasn't the predictable opinion that the Pittsburgh Penguins would be the Eastern Conference representative in the Stanley Cup finals that grabbed my attention (and yes, being a Caps fan I just rolled my eyes), it was these comments from Dan Rosen and E.J. Hradek concerning Evgeni Malkin, who is returning from a knee injury that ended his 2010-2011 season after 43 games…

Rosen: “Malkin is back – healthier, stronger, hungrier – he could be in line to have a huge year for [the Penguins].”

Hradek: “Malkin, I think, is ready to have a big year…”

A huge year?  A big year?  And on what information would one naturally reach this conclusion?  Let’s start drilling…

Malkin had a “big” year, a “huge” year in 2008-2009 when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.  He played in all 82 regular season games in which he was 35-78-113, leading the league in scoring and finishing second in the Hart Trophy voting as league’s most valuable player (some other Russian won it).  He went on to dominate in the post-season, leading all players in scoring (14-22-36 in 24 games) and skating off with the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the post season.

But since then?  In 110 regular season games Malkin was 43-71-114, minus-10.  That is a 32-53-85, minus-7 pace per 82 games.  And that is after having missed 15 games in 2009-2010 to injury and 39 games to injury last season.

At this point we’re thinking what Rosen and Hradek “see” is the 2008-2009 Malkin – who at age 22 put up what is to date his career year – not the Malkin of the past two seasons who was not that player.

Drill a little further into the numbers…

Since that whopper of a 2008-2009 regular season, Malkin’s numbers have deteriorated.  Not to the point where he might be considered “just another player,” but certainly enough to be noticeable.  For instance (numbers from…

The first thing to notice is the games – from 82 to 67 to 43.  Even with the games, there is the declining ice time per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.  His goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 do not show a clear pattern, but those assists – primarily primary assists, the bread and butter for a center – drop significantly, which in turn is reflected in his points per 60 minutes dropping substantially.  He might be coming back, as Rosen put it, “healthier, stronger, hungrier,” and that might be relative to the 2010-2011 season or even the 2009-2010 season, but to the 2008-2009 level of health, strength, and hunger? 

Drill further…

The Corsi numbers tell an odd story, and perhaps a concern to a Pens fan.  Corsi is, to simplify things, a function of shots directed toward the net, for and against.  Sort of a plus-minus on steroids that attempts to account for the effect of teammates on production.  Higher Corsi values suggest being a part of more adept puck possession and of an ability to exert more pressure on opponents than they are able to exert on your team. 

Back to Malkin.  In 2008-2009 his “relative” Corsi value – that which accounts for his Corsi value when on the ice versus that when off the ice – was relatively poor.  Puck possession appeared to be better when he was not on the ice.  At 5-on-5 he was 11th among Penguin forwards playing in at least 40 games.  That measure improved in each of the next two seasons to where he led the team in relative Corsi at 5-on-5 in the 2010-2011 season.  But despite being a part of this shot domination, and by extension puck possession, Malkin was an inefficient scorer – 2.17 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.  That works out to 22 even strength points for his 43 games played…before his knee injury that ended his season (although to be fair, he did sit out ten games over two separate stretches before his season ender with other knee injuries). 

We are not seeing how, based on Malkin’s revealed performance over the two seasons following his career year, one could conclude that it is even probable that he finishes the 2011-2012 season with a “huge” year.  If I’m a betting person, I’d be thinking he will end up at being about a point-a-game player over 70-75 games.  Better, certainly, than the 2009-2010 or 2010-2011 seasons (because he might be healthier or stronger), but not up to the “huge” year he had in 2008-2009.  Since the level of performance reflected in his numbers, even when healthy, doesn’t argue for it.

We could go on drilling, and there are folks out there who could do it far more effectively than we could, but the point is not to cast aspersions on Malkin's ability to produce.  It is that there are two sides in this larger argument competing against one another when perhaps they do not have to.  In this instance, perhaps a non-representative one since it involves one player on one team over a three-year period, the eyes see one thing, while the numbers reflect another.  But do they have to be “competing” arguments?  Can they be “complementary” arguments or approaches that inform one another?

Both sides have their strengths and their weaknesses.  The folks of the old school who “see” the game lack the rigorous structure and method that an attention to data brings, or they are too uninformed about data and method to appreciate its potential contribution.  And the numbers folks with their “fancystats” sometimes lack the texture that watching the game entails and conflate a player’s “production” (does he “put up numbers?”) with a team’s “performance” (do his numbers contribute to or result in winning?).

Statistics are the revealed production of the game’s participants distilled into numbers that can be manipulated and molded into models of performance.  The observers of hockey have the stored memory of hundreds – thousands – of observations of players in different contexts, different situations, with different teammates or cities, and under different emotional or other intangible circumstances.  If those who “see” the game cannot inform the “stats geeks” as to why their observations are more important than the rigor a numbers approach brings to the game; if those with a command of and a fondness for numbers cannot teach those who are empirically challenged why methodology matters; then each side is going to be talking past one another, sneering at the other’s approach to the game. 

And we are going to see a lot more insufferable columns such as Whitlock’s.

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Mike Knuble

Mike Knuble

Theme: “Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you.”
-- Aldous Huxley

In late March of 1997, Comet Hale-Bopp was making its closest approach to Earth, and Mike Knuble was making his debut in the National Hockey League. The comet was probably the bigger story at the time, but Knuble has managed to skate in almost 1,000 regular season games in the NHL since then. That is a lot of experience. It commands a certain amount of respect, and it was on display last winter in a rant that might have shaken the Caps out of the doldrums of a losing streak far more effectively than what any coach might say…

"Today, it's 3-0 and it will not f***ing be one of these laughers again. "It will not f***ing turn into a 5-0, 7-0 f***ing laugher. Where they're f***ing giggling getting out of their f***ing mess here. We are f***ing down 3-0 and we are going to come back and we're gonna f***ing win this thing. We're not f***ing going in the thank. That is enough right there. That's f***ing more than a year's worth. It's not going to happen again."

In that game against the Boston Bruins, the Caps ended up losing, 3-2, coming up just short in a furious comeback effort. It was the last loss in an eight-game losing streak, and the team went on to finish the season 30-11-7. It might almost be cliché to say that it was the store of his experience that gave Knuble the sense of timing to go off like that, but Knuble does bring that stored memory of 968 games with five clubs to the room. It might not be the best skill set he has, but the club values that kind of experience enough to have sought out more of it for the 2011-2012 season in the person of Jeff Halpern (792 games) and Roman Hamrlik (1,311 games).

But Knuble isn’t a player who has merely hung around for 14 seasons. He has compiled a total of 268 goals over those 14 seasons and is riding a streak of eight in a row with at least 20 goals. Six times in the last 12 season he played in every game, and eight times played in more than 75 games – he has been durable. Only once in the past ten seasons has he been a “minus” player.

But at age 39, can he still contribute as a top-six forward? If last season was an indication, the question cannot be dismissed. He was third among forwards in goals scored per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, something to watch for this season in his role as a forward expected to clean up loose change from in close. There is the matter of Knuble being third on the team in shots on goal but seventh on the team in Corsi/on ice at 5-on-5 (numbers from Knuble isn’t necessarily a creator of shots in the same sense teammates Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, or even Nicklas Backstrom might be (they had the highest Corsi/one ice ratings at 5-on-5), but one thing that might be of concern is that Knuble had the second highest shots against/20 minutes at 5-on-5 among Cap forwards (Marcus Johansson had the highest, according to

Fearless’ Take: Knuble is a responsible player who still manages to do the little things well. His 31 blocked shots was fifth among Capital forwards last season, and he was fifth in takeaways. His takeaway-to-giveaway ratio of 2.5:1 was second on the team among forwards playing in at least 50 games (Eric Fehr was tops). Knuble doesn’t play outside his skill zone in ways that would make him sloppy with the puck. And there is this. In his last 25 games last season Knuble was 11-7-18, plus-7. That is a 36-goal scoring pace per 82 games. Seems he might have something left in the tank.

Cheerless’ Take: In the last ten seasons only 12 times have players age 39 or older have recorded at least 20 goals in a season (Dave Andreychuk and Teemu Selanne each did it twice). In no season in the last ten have more than two players at that age or older done it (although last season there were only six forwards in that age group who skated in at least one game).

The Big Question… Is Knuble the player in the 39-or-older age group to reach 20 goals in 2010-2011?

The 20-goal number almost defines Knuble as a player – it reflects consistency and durability, two of the hallmarks of his game. The other things he does – and he is a more of a player than just a garbage collector in front of the opponent’s net – flow from that consistency and durability. And looking at the 12 players age-39 or older who reached 20 goals over the past ten seasons, there are no flukes in there. They are players such as Brendan Shanahan and Mark Recchi, Ron Francis and Joe Nieuwendyk – players who consistently produced well into their late-30’s.

In the end…

The caveat we would attach to Knuble’s ability to reach 20 goals for Washington this season is that he would have to be playing alongside the likes of Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, or Alexander Semin. Knuble is not a player who will create many goals on his own. He is more opportunistic than opportunity-creating as an offensive player. And that is where age does and perhaps will come into play. Will he be a drag on those other players, or will he complement them? This question comes to mind having watched Marcus Johansson skating regularly with Alex Ovechkin in camp thus far. Knuble would seem an odd fit with that pair. But one of Knuble along with Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin – a more deliberate pair in style – could be quite effective. That’s what makes this time of year interesting…the possibilities.

Projection: 78 games, 24-21-45, plus-13

(photo: Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

2011-2012 Capitals Training Camp -- Day 6

Day 6 of Caps Training Camp 2011 is in the books, with two pre-season games having been played and two groups remaining to take the ice. As to the latter, what happened on the rink?

A lot of today was spent working on the power play. It looks as if the Caps are installing some new wrinkles, so things went slowly and methodically, with players going through the drills against only a goalie, then against defensemen, then against skaters. There was quite a bit of explanation and instruction on the part of Coach Bruce Boudreau, who ran the power play portion of the session.

The search for a right wing continues. Joel Ward was today’s contestant manning the right side on the Johansson-Ovechkin line. That makes Mike Knuble, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Alexander Semin, Tony Kornheiser, and Jim Cantore, who was in town hoping for some other weather disaster to rumble by.

In the second session there was the odd sight of Troy Brouwer and Mike Knuble exchanging jersey colors (Knuble from gray to red, Brouwer the reverse), leading us to wonder if an intervention is needed concerning Bruce Boudreau’s obsession with fiddling with lines.

We also noticed that…

“Eggscuse me, Peerless, but aren’t you forgetting ze most important development.”

Why, it’s our old friend, Dr. Vynot Schootdepuck, Director of Advanced Applications at the Bettman Institute of Technology and Competitive Hockey (BITCH).

“Ze Institute changed its name, Mr. Peerless…it is now the Hockey Experimental And Developmental Sciences Headquarters for Obscure Technologies.”


“Ja…ve couldn’t get any grrrants mit de name “Bettman” in our name.”

Anyway, what about this “important development?”

“Vell, it vuss ein eggschperimental schtick vun uff ze Cepps was using.”

I don’t follow, eggschper…experimental stick?

“Ja, made uff schpace age materials. Verrry hush-hush.”

Can you elaborate?

“I menaged to bring zum equipment to ze rink to conduct zum observations, and I found zat the schtick zat Joel Rechlicz vuss using vuss verrrrrry unusual.”

Did you come up with anything?

“I beleef zat ze schtick is uff a brand new composition, an organic composite far more durable zen ze inorganic composites players heff been using in recent years.”

An organic composite?

“One of impressive tensile strength, able to absorb ze stresses of repetitive shooting of ze puck. I alzo noticed parallel striations in the material that I zusspect only increases ze strength and durability of ze material.”

"Hey cuz…who’s the guy in the lab coat?"

“Cheerless, this is Dr. Vynot Schootdepuck, the renowned eggschperi...experimental scientist.”

"Yeah, well, I saw this stick you’re talking about."


“Those starry-ayshuns Doctor Who is talkin’ about… that’s grain. The stick is made of wood. Heck, I can probably whittle one up in 20 minutes if’n you want.”

Doc? Do you want to say anything?

“I vuss just going to mention zat…”

Uh-huh…lets get to the pictures…