Thursday, August 18, 2011

Talk Take II

Coke or Pepsi… Stones or The Beatles… Bird or Magic… Brady or Manning…

The emerging D.C. version of this seems to be “Ovechkin or Strasburg.” It started with the Washington Post's Jason Reid recently anointing Stephen Strasburg as “the District’s No. 1 sports star.” Hockey fans in these parts reacted with predictable results, the failure to recognize Alex Ovechkin as the District’s top sports star viewed an assault on the player, the Caps, hockey, and all that is good and wholesome in sports. Even we weighed in on the matter.

Chastised to a point, Reid offered in a follow-up column that he did not give Ovechkin enough credit. But he still ranked Ovechkin behind Strasburg. Good for him. I don’t agree, but he wasn’t bullied into changing his mind. From a perspective as a self-styled “baseball guy,” his choice is entirely reasonable.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to the original contention and the question it purports to answer – “Who is the District’s number one sports star?” How do you define that? Who is the most accomplished? Who gets the most hits on a Google search? Who gets the most column inches in local newspapers? Who leads off the discussion most often on sports talk radio? Who wins the most (ok, strike that…not yet relevant in these parts)?

It is in these questions that I don’t agree with Reid, and here is why. It is the difference between “is” and “could.” Reid makes the specific point in his follow-up piece that Strasburg “could emerge as the single most important athlete in D.C. sports history if his performance matches his talent. The hard-throwing right-hander could play the biggest part in transforming D.C. into a place where football no longer rules.”

“Could” has no firm place in a discussion of who “is” the biggest local sports star. Both teams pack the house when either is playing, the Caps having sold out more than 100 consecutive games, the Nationals filling the house when Strasburg takes the mound (or is even rumored to do so). For the Ovechkin and the Caps it is the product of having demonstrated an ability to win (with notable exceptions) and to display an entertaining style on the ice, a significant part of it due to Alex Ovechkin’s body of work. For Strasburg and the Nationals, though, it is the product of curiosity, precisely because Strasburg is still almost entirely potential without a body of work. Ovechkin is the statue – still largely unfinished, but we can see the shape it is taking. Strasburg is the block of marble; we are left to imagining what shape it will take.

Let’s pose a hypothetical. Let’s just say that hockey and baseball seasons overlapped more than they currently do. It is a regular season weeknight. The Caps are hosting the Minnesota Wild – a team that isn’t an especially big draw as visiting hockey teams go. The Nats are hosting the Milwaukee Brewers (another team without a clear local following) with Strasburg penciled in to take the mound. Who – Ovechkin or Strasburg – is going to be the lead on sports talk radio? Who is going to be the above the fold story in the Washington Post? Who is going to trend higher on Twitter? Who gets more attention in the blogosphere?

In the here and now, those questions are asked in the context of the teams for which these two players play. The Caps are an accomplished team, one that has won their division for four straight seasons and has won the top spot in the Eastern Conference the past two years with a Presidents Trophy thrown in for good measure. The Nats are a team that still struggles to win 70 of 162 regular season games (they have not done it in the past three seasons, although they are on a pace to win 78 this season) and have never appeared in the playoffs since arriving in D.C. in 2005. Baseball might have the advantage over hockey in these parts as sports go, but winning matters, too. And Ovechkin is a big part of why the Caps win. In that context, it’s a tough call to say whether Ovechkin or Strasburg get the majority of the attention on a regular season weeknight. But there is that winning thing. The Caps are now a playoff team, the Nats are not. Ovechkin is going to get more attention, more consistently, over more of the season than will Strasburg. At least in the here and now.

But fast-forward a few years. Strasburg has established himself as the cornerstone of the Nats’ rotation, and the team has solid players like Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond, and the Zimmermans – Jordan and Ryan – around him. They have kids pushing for roster spots. They are 90-win team, a contender. Ovechkin is still a force in the NHL, the Caps are still a playoff-caliber team, maybe with a Stanley Cup on the mantel. Sports in D.C. is good (even the Redskins might have returned to relevance, which might make John Beck a bigger star than either, but we digress).

If that is the environment in which Ovechkin and Strasburg display their talents, this is no contest. Strasburg, by virtue of his position (number one starting pitcher being analogous to starting quarterback in football) and the broader appeal of his sport, both locally and nationally, would win in a walk. This is not to say that Ovechkin would suddenly find his exploits confined to page 8 of the sports section of the Post or the link in six-point type you would have to scroll down to find on the Post Web site, but baseball is baseball, and hockey is, well, still hockey.

But that is what could happen. Stephen Strasburg could be the biggest sports star in these parts. He could be one of, if not the biggest sports star in D.C. sports history. But baseball being what it is, he could reach these heights of performance and achievement playing in the Bronx or in Boston, those teams having lots of cash and no salary cap to keep them from poaching this talent.

We do agree with Reid when he says…

“D.C.’s pro sports landscape has been barren for so long, a generation of fans has only heard stories about the way it used to be when the Redskins were winning Super Bowls. If the Redskins finally get it right again behind Shanahan, the Capitals finally break through in the playoffs and the Nationals and Wizards reach that level, D.C. would be full of sports stars.”

But that is down the road. In the here and now – as to the matter of who is the biggest sports star in D.C. – Stephen Strasburg is not the correct answer to the question. There is too much “could” and not enough “is” in his resume. Alex Ovechkin is, for the time being, the number one sports star in D.C.

Talk Take I

Timing is everything.

Say something provocative on a winter’s weekday when games are played, moves are contemplated, and fans and media alike are riding the ebb and flow of the hockey season, and that provocative comment gets a minute’s notice and fades into the background.

Say something provocative in August, when nothing else is going on, and fans and media will hit rewind and replay over and over to try and divine some hidden meaning or get a better peek under the tent flap of the locker room to see what really goes on.

On Wednesday, former Cap and current Florida Panther Matt Bradley sat down with the folks at TGOR Team 1200 radio in Ottawa to talk some hockey. And talk he did. Asked about the Caps’ post-season problems of recent years, Bradley said…

“I think we had some guys that didn’t show up in playoffs, and I’ll leave them unnamed. I think our locker room was maybe a little too nonchalant and guys weren’t disciplined the way they should’ve been. Those two things are big things, and I’d say that’s about it because I think I heard you guys saying we had a lot of guys that played hard and played well and it seemed that sometimes the guys that weren’t playing well were the ones getting rewarded with ice time, which In the playoffs – I don’t think it matters who you are — it’s who’s playing well for you at the time. That’s not always what happened with our team. It wasn’t the guys that were playing well at the time, it was the guys that were our best players for the most part that were playing no matter what.”

Seems he was just getting warmed up. Having opined on the parceling of ice time, he turned to player discipline and one player’s effort in particular…

“wasn't that guys were going out the night before a game…but not being ready to practice or missing practice with questionable injuries – that kind of thing – and not being focused. I don't mind saying Alexander Semin's name, because he's one guy who has so much talent, he could easily be the best player in the league, and just for whatever reason, just doesn't care. When you've got a guy like that, you need him to be your best player, or one of your best players, and when he doesn't show up, you almost get the sense that he wants to be back in Russia."

He walked back his comments a bit as the interview went on, noting that…

"I mean, there were a lot of guys who played well that didn't probably play as much as they needed to, but I love Bruce [Boudreau] and Bruce is a great coach and he was in a very tough position there, because in Washington our top guys are definitely the stars and the guys that people want to see on the ice, so I totally understand. That just doesn’t happen on our team, it happens on a lot of teams. When you're paying your top guys a lot of money and those guys carry you through the whole season, and if one of them isn't going, it's very hard not to play them, and I understand that that's tough. But I think in the end, if you want to win, sometimes you have to sit some of those guys down and maybe send a message and try to get them going."

Then noted about Alex Ovechkin…

"I never worry about Ovi.  He’s an all-in guy. He's young, he makes his mistakes, the same as anyone would. I often try to put myself in his position. And you've got to remember, he's 25 years old, he's got a guaranteed $120 million, he's on top of the world, and he still for the most part makes the right decisions. Ovi has some growing up to do as far as taking care of himself and things like that, but as far as his want to win, he really does just want to win the games, and he doesn't care if he scores or not. That isn't an act. He's a great guy, great player. I'd never say anything bad about him."

One can look at these comments on a number of levels. First, concerning Bradley himself, that’s rather bald commentary from a player who is few months removed from sharing a locker room with these players. Does that make his comments impolitic? Perhaps, but professional athletes – even those with many years and many questions fielded over those years – are not necessarily practiced or skilled in the nuance and subtlety that goes with the ability to parry a question into the oatmeal that are sports clich├ęs (unless your name is Sidney Crosby). Put another way, they’re not politicians. A question asked was a question answered, and we don’t think the answers reflect especially poorly on Bradley. He was a stand-up guy when he was here, and he was that in the interview. We didn’t hear those answers as bitterness or sour grapes.

Then there is the matter of the reaction. It didn’t take long for that interview to wind its way through the hockey media, mainstream or otherwise. That’s what happens when the speed of Internet meets the desert of August in the hockey calendar. There isn’t a lot of hockey news to compete with Bradley’s interview. Add to that the commentary about one of hockey’s best teams and the fact of its playoff frustration and, well, it is going to generate its own momentum. If Bradley gives this interview in March, it is buried between the shutout so-and-so had the previous night and what Sidney Crosby had for breakfast. It wouldn’t be nearly as big a story.

But then there is the matter of what might be most relevant to Caps fans. Was he right? Bruce Boudreau was quick to respond…”Oh yeah? Well, it’s his opinion.” Just about what one might expect. But it does leave lingering the content of the comments. Bradley called out Alexander Semin by name and had praise for Alex Ovechkin. Surely a lot, if not most of the attention is going to be paid to those remarks about Semin. But we wonder about the notion Bradley left hanging of who the best players were that were playing “no matter what.” That brings the other “Young Guns” into the frame – Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. Backstrom is a curious case. In 28 playoff games going into the most recent post-season, he was 12-18-30, plus-13. It would be hard to say he didn’t show up. And this season, he was burdened by injuries that limited his effectiveness and production (0-2-2, even, in nine games). Should he have sat because of injuries and yielded ice time? Perhaps a fair question, but yield that time time to whom?

Mike Green is another matter. His post-season record of 5-20-25, minus-6 in 36 career playoff games is not especially impressive, particularly when compared to his regular season record over that same period (23-46-69, plus-22 per-82 games). Then again, was the post-season dropoff for him a product of injuries (in 2009 against Pittsburgh when he was beaten to a pulp by forecheckers, and in 2011 when he returned to the playoffs after an extended stay on injured reserve recuperating from concussions)? Should a sub-par Green have had his ice time pared back? He skated at least 22 minutes in five of the eight post season games in which he played last spring, but he also skated only 16:30 or less in the other three.

There was this odd line, though… 

” should kind of run with the guys who are playing well, and I don’t think we always did that there, for whatever reason I don’t know. If it’s a guy like Jason Chimera, who is maybe your third line guy playing well, I think you should play him more if one of the top-two line guys aren’t playing well, you know."

Well, Chimera being who he is – a winger – it calls to mind those wingers on the top two lines who might sit or drop down a line or two as a result of their production. Semin might have been a candidate, but the comment would seem to shine a light on Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich, too. Maybe we’re reading too much into that, that perhaps it’s just a hypothetical and Jason Chimera serves only as an example. But Knuble has four goals in 13 post-season games with the Caps (two this past post-season when he played in only six of nine game due to injury), and Laich has only seven in 37 post-season games and no power play goals in each of the last two playoff seasons (despite 16 in regular season games in that span).

Then there is the general impression one might be left with that there isn’t anyone steering this bus; that players are left to their own devices in terms of effort and discipline. And that goes to the bench. Despite his comments that “Bruce is a great coach, and he [is] in a very tough position [here],” Bradley paints a picture in which the inmates are running the asylum. Bradley hints that other forces might be at work (that the stars are the guys folks want to see), but whether the situation is a reflection of coaching style or an acknowledgment of who it is that puts seats in the seats, it gives the impression of there being a too laissez-faire attitude. Is any of it true? This is one player – and eye-witness, to be sure, but still one player. Fans will perhaps draw their own conclusions depending on where their preconceived opinions lie.

And in that, there is probably a certain, “yeah, I thought so” reaction among many Caps fans having listened to or read those comments. That the team has suffered playoff disappointment after disappointment with key players not performing up to their regular season standard is a plain fact. And while the attention will be paid to Matt Bradley’s calling out Alexander Semin by name, his comments touch on what is a larger issue with respect to this team. It has the talent to win a Stanley Cup, but does it have the discipline, the focus – the character – to win one? Bradley’s comments might serve to bring that question into focus as the Caps embark on the 2011-2012 season. If the team genuinely has the attitude expressed in Boudreau’s response – “oh yeah? That’s his opinion” – they could use those comments as a motivator, to show their critics wrong. But if Bradley’s observations have merit, there are bigger problems here than Alexander Semin. The proof will be in the product.