Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Better Now Than Then, Getting from There to Here

On October 8th, the Caps dressed a 20-man squad for the season opener that featured a pair of defensemen, a center, and a pair of goaltenders, none of whom had reached their 23rd birthday. A quarter of a team’s complement that dressed for opening night had a combined total of 127 games of NHL regular season experience. You might think this the sort of thing an expansion team, or a team that had low expectations would try, not a Stanley Cup contender.

But that is precisely what the Washington Capitals did on opening night last October. They dressed John Carlson and Karl Alzner on defense (22 and 51 games of experience, respectively), Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov (22 and 32 games, respectively), and Marcus Johansson (appearing in his first game in North America).

But in this quintet of players you can see the Capitals personnel management plan in stark relief. Carlson and Alzner were the go-to defensive pair for the Hershey Bears in their Calder Cup-winning effort the previousspring, and both got a taste of playing time in the first round playoff series the Caps played against Montreal. Neuvirth was the goaltender on that Calder Cup winner, and in fact backstopped the Bears to two consecutive Calders, winning a most valuable player award in the first of them. Varlamov’s lack of experience might have been a product of injury as much as circumstance, his already having been called upon in two NHL post-seasons to provide a spark at the position. Johansson had represented Sweden in two world junior championships, serving as captain in his second tour.

These were players with scant NHL experience but with enough schooling to assume a role with the big club – a contending club – on opening night, even if it meant there would be a crowd of such players. But here is the important part. Even if you might have been inclined to believe (and it would have been a reasonable conclusion) that a contending club was not the place for five such players of limited experience, including both goaltenders, to play at once, the object of the exercise was not “opening night.” It was here, now, in the spring as the Caps prepare for the second round of the Stanley Cup tournament.

Players with this kind of preparation could be, and should be expected to be much better after Game 82 of the regular season than after Game 1. In fact, none of them had an especially good night in a 4-2 loss to the Thrashers in Game 1. Carlson played 18 minutes and took a late penalty that snuffed out any dim hopes the Caps might have had to comeback from a two-goal deficit. Alzner played 14 minutes and was a minus-1, on ice for the Thrashers insurance goal with five minutes left. Johansson played 13 minutes, did not record a shot on goal, and lost seven of eight faceoffs. Neuvirth allowed four goals on 27 shots, and Varlamov was the backup goaltender for the evening. Not an especially auspicious start for the quintet.

You got a better picture of what was to come in the Caps second game, their home opener. Alzner played 14 minutes, had two blocked shots and a takeaway in addition to a couple of shots on goal. Carlson had a goal that would become something of a mini-legend and a couple of assists. Johansson logged almost 15 minutes and won seven of 11 draws while getting a couple of pucks on net. Neuvirth stopped 31 of 33 shots, including the last 27 he faced in a 7-2 win over the New Jersey Devils.

But again, the object of the exercise in giving these players ice time was not October, it was now. And that is a matter of getting from “there” to “here.” In Johansson’s first ten games he averaged only 12:51 of ice time, a product of Tomas Fleischmann getting his chance to fill the second line center role and pushing Johansson down the ladder. He recorded only one point – a goal – in those first ten games and was a minus-5. In his last ten games, though, he was 2-1-3, plus-3, and perhaps most important was averaging 16:28 in ice time, doing time on any of the top three lines and centering a variety of wingers from Alex Ovechkin or Alexander Semin to Jason Chimera or Eric Fehr. Although he still needs work in being able to compete in the corners and on his faceoffs, he has become one of the most versatile forwards on the team and his speed and skating ability fits in nicely with the talent mix the Caps employ.

Carlson and Alzner, “Carlzner” to Caps fans, have become as reliable a pair of defensemen as the Caps have. Each played in all 82 games for the Caps this season, and unlike Johansson, who had to orient himself to the NHL game, this pair hit the ground running. Carlson was 1-5-6, plus-3 in his first ten games, but it was an un-rookie like moment that might have announced him as a player who wasn’t going to serve much of a rookie apprenticeship. That came in the home opener, after he had already notched a goal and two assists in the game. With 4:07 to go in the contest, and three fights having been fought in the previous ten seconds of game time, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond jumped Marcus Johansson after a faceoff. Fighting not being much of Johansson’s game, and it being almost all of Letourneau-Leblond’s, it was a mismatch. It was Carlson jumping in first in defense of his teammate for which he earned a roughing minor and a game misconduct – the Carlson Hat Trick…goal, assist, misconduct. It wouldn’t end there. Carlson was arguably the top defenseman in his rookie class this season.

Alzner isn’t quite as flashy as Carlson, and his marks early – no points in his first ten games, even – suggest a lackluster start. But that’s really the point in Alzner’s game. Not so much “luster” (and the risk one bears in trying for the numbers that accompany it) as it is steady play, as reflected in his 16:42 of average ice time. And steady? Well, there is this…in those first ten games Alzner was 0-0-0, even, with six shots on goal in 16:42 of average ice time. In his last ten games he was 0-0-0, even, with six shots on goal in 23:15 of average ice time. He was an accomplished defenseman at the dawn of the season, but one the Caps leaned on – with Carlson – by year’s end.

Neuvirth and Varlamov came into the season as partners and competitors fighting to answer the question of who would be the Caps number one goaltender and having to answer doubts about either’s ability to assume that responsibility. For Varlamov, it wasn’t a matter of talent, but of durability. He was already a veteran of 19 playoff games over two seasons, but in those two season played only 32 games in the regular season. He managed only 27 appearances this season, not getting his first until he jumped into the crease in relief of a flu-bitten Michal Neuvirth in a 3-1 loss to Boston on October 19th. He played in one more game (a loss), then would not appear again until November 24th, when he recorded his first win of the season. If anything, this was Varlamov’s year of adversity. In addition to the injuries (four separate occurrences, referred to as: “undisclosed,” “groin,” “lower-body,” and ”knee”), he was not well rewarded for his performance when he was in the lineup. Despite his posting a 2.23 goals against average and .924 save percentage (both bests in his abbreviated three-year career), he was streaky in the win-loss department. Four straight wins in late November and early December were followed by four straight losses… then five straight in which he was 4-0-1… five straight losses… closing the season by alternating wins and losses with a Gimmick loss thrown in for good measure. The talent was clearly there, but the results were lacking.

Results have not been Michal Neuvirth’s problem. He came into the season fresh off consecutive Calder Cup championships with Hershey, but the question here was whether that could translate into NHL success for a goalie who had a grand total of 22 games of NHL experience with unexceptional numbers (2.80, .910). He was thrown into the fire early with Varlamov on the shelf. But he was arguably the Caps most valuable player to start the season. In his first 17 appearances he was 12-3-0, 2.56, .912, and one shutout. Not bad for a team that had yet to find its defensive theme. Neuvirth was even slightly better late – 11-4-0 in his last 16 appearances, with a 2.43 GAA, a .916 save percentage, and two shutouts. He finished third among all rookie goaltenders in wins (the two goalies in front of him playing in substantially more games), third in goals against average and tied for the lead in shutouts.

More than a few observers wondered whether giving a couple of kid defensemen so much ice time or putting the fate of the season in the hands of a couple of youngsters who represented “legitimately below average” goaltending or giving a center who had zero minutes of experience in a hockey rink in North America valuable minutes was such a bright idea. But this season did not start for the Caps with October in mind. With eyes focused on the spring and (hopefully) early summer, inserting five such young players into the lineup was not quite as bad as putting five functional “rookies” out there. These five players were prepared as best a team can prepare prospects to contribute early and be critical elements late in the season. This is what one hopes happens when a club has a developmental “system” that can prepare a John Carlson, a Karl Alzner, or a Michal Neuvirth in a winning atmosphere before they take the ice for good in a red jersey. It speaks to the ability to identify not only talent, as in the case of a Semyon Varlamov or a Marcus Johansson, but the ability to recognize the ability to play in big games under pressure –Varlamov expressing that in his ability to perform well in relief in two playoffs with the Caps and Johansson as part of Team Sweden in two world junior championships and two seasons with F√§rjestads BK in the Swedish Elite League.

For some, those who might not have been watching closely what the Caps have been doing over the last several years, putting these five players into positions of considerable responsibility to start the season might not have looked to them like a great idea at the time.

But it certainly looks like a fine idea now.