Tuesday, May 10, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions: Does He Have What It Takes II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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