Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Jeff Halpern

Jeff Halpern

Theme: "He travels best that knows when to return."
-- Thomas More

When last we saw Jeff Halpern in a Washington Capitals uniform, the colors were blue, bronze and black; and he had two goals in a 4-1 Capitals win over Tampa Bay that closed a dismal 2005-2006 season in which the Caps were 29-41-12, 14th in the Eastern Conference. It was a team of Bryan Muir and Ivan Majesky, of Mathieu Biron and Jeff Friesen. Halpern was the captain and third leading scorer on that team with 44 points, the second highest total of his career. It was not an especially good team.

Halpern moved on to Dallas, then Tampa Bay, then Los Angeles, then Montreal. And now he returns to Washington, a team that looks considerably different than the one he left. Mike Green, Brooks Laich, and Alex Ovechkin are the only players still in uniform from that team. Another former teammate – Olaf Kolzig – is now a coach in the organization. Even the uniform is different, trading the blue, bronze, and black for red, white, and blue.

Halpern returns as a role player in the latter stages of his career. But not, perhaps, as just a fourth liner filling out a roster. He did record 11 goals last season for the Montreal Canadiens, and he averaged almost 18 minutes of ice time in the post-season in four games after he returned to the ice from a lower-body injury. And, since leaving the Caps after the 2005-2006 season, Halpern has averaged 13-17-30 per 82-games. In each of the five seasons since leaving Washington he has won more than 50 percent of his faceoffs and is 52.8 percent to the good overall in that regard in that time.

And here is what might strike Caps fans as a shocking statistic. Last season Halpern averaged 2.05 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. That would have been good for third among forwards on the Caps who played in at least 50 games, behind only the Alexes and ahead of Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich. The goals scored differential at 5-on-5 for Halpern was plus-0.73/60 minutes, which would have been fourth among Caps forwards, behind the Alexes and Backstrom. That kind of production is difficult to describe considering that his Corsi value on ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was the second worst on the team last season among Montreal forwards playing in at least 50 games. And, among that same group of players for the Canadiens, Halpern was the only player with offensive zone starts at 5-on-5 below 50 percent (43.3). Perhaps the word we are looking for to describe it is “opportunistic.” At the other end, his 2.21 goals scored against per 60 minutes when on ice was fifth best among Canadien forwards (numbers from behindthenet.ca).

Fearless’ Take: The most recent generation of Caps fans, that is “post lockout,”might not remember that Halpern was quite the Penguin killer. And his career numbers against Pittsburgh cleave into two parts. With other teams, he played 13 games against the Penguins and was 2-2-4, minus-2. With the Caps he was 9-8-17, plus-13 in 22 regular season games and 4-4-8, minus-1, in 11 playoff games.

Cheerless’ Take: Uh, cuz…Halpern hasn’t scored a goal against the Penguins in a Caps uniform since before the lockout. Stop living in the black-and-white era. You’re starting to sound like Stan Fischler. Just remember that six times a team Halpern has played on reached the playoffs, and none of them moved past the first round.

The Big Question… Can Halpern contribute more from the third or fourth line than David Steckel or Boyd Gordon?

It is almost a betting certainty that, barring injury, he will, at least offensively. In the past four seasons, corresponding to the Caps’ playoff era, the Steckel/Gordon combination was 42-65-107. Meanwhile, Halpern was 47-56-103. And there is this – Steckel and Gordon compiled those numbers in 505 combined man-games. Halpern did it in 278 games.

In the end…

There are early returns to suggest that Halpern and Matt Hendricks are establishing a certain chemistry between them.  This might not be surprising. Each is a somewhat underrated offensive player, and Hendricks in style resembles a younger Halpern (except he fights more).

What Halpern brings is more balance to the fourth line than that which existed when David Steckel and Boyd Gordon were playing there. Neither Steckel nor Gordon was a credible offensive threat. And while both were excellent faceoff artists, Halpern is no significant downgrade in that area.

Halpern has now been signed twice as a free-agent by the Caps. First, it was as a 22-year old out of Princeton University. Now, as a veteran of 792 NHL regular season games (more than Steckel and Gordon’s combined 672 games, to extend that comparison). He is one of a group of players that the Caps and their fans hope is an upgrade on the third and fourth lines. And when a player reaches the age of 35, as Halpern did last May, there might be the realization that the chances to win a championship are dwindling. For the hometown boy who has returned, he is getting his best chance, and he could be an important part in realizing that goal.

Projection: 74 games, 9-16-25, +1

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Jason Chimera

Jason Chimera

Theme: “I have one speed, I have one gear: go!”
-- Charlie Sheen

Jason Chimera has scored three goals in the post season in his career. Each of them was a game-winning goal. If only he could do that more often…score goals, that is. Chimera is gifted as one of the fastest skaters in the league, capable of beating defensemen wide with speed or jumping into a rush to pressure defenses.

But he has developed a problem finishing. In his last five seasons spanning 371 games, Chimera has 62 goals on 786 shots, a 7.9 percent shooting percentage. Last season he had 10 goals on 162 shots, a 6.2 percent shooting percentage. Thirty one defensemen who played in at least 70 games – including teammate John Erskine – had a higher a shooting percentage last season (the nature of the position does not make for high shooting percentages). In his last 28 games Chimera had two goals on 46 shots, a 4.3 percent shooting percentage.

And it is not as if Chimera does not get his chances. Last season his 162 shots on goal ranked sixth on the team. Among forwards it was more than the combined shot totals of Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon (135), was 60 more than Marcus Johansson, almost 50 more than Matt Hendricks. It was the same number as Chris Stewart of the St. Louis Blues, who happened to score 28 goals (ok, 17.3 percent shooting might be unusual; it was tied for sixth among league forwards).

His recent history is at odds with his early career, during which he had a shooting percentage of 12.0 percent on 299 shots in his first 210 NHL games. So what is the problem? Maybe a lack of reliable linemates? Last season Chimera played more than 100 minutes at 5-on-5 with eight different forward teammates. Mike Knuble played in more than 150 more even strength minutes than did Chimera and played more than 100 minutes at 5-on-5 with only four forward teammates (source: stats.hockeyanalysis.com). It might be the nature of a third or fourth line forward to see more mixing and matching of linemates, but Chimera had more 5-on-5 minutes with Nicklas Backstrom (a top line center) than he had with Matt Bradley (a fourth line forward). Chimera was all over the place as far as line assignments go. Might it affect chemistry and his shooting results? We’re just tossing that out there.

Fearless’ Take: Chimera got off to a pretty good start in 2010-2011. He was 4-6-10 in his first 21 games with a 9.5 percent shooting percentage. That was a 16-23-39 scoring pace over 82-games. The 16 goals would have been more in line with his production when he was at Columbus (a 15 goals-per-82 game pace). In fact, counting those first 21 games of last season, Chimera was 11-16-27 in his first 60 games as a Cap, a respectable 15-22-37 scoring pace. He has it in him; the matter is whether he has 82 games worth of it in him.

Cheerless’ Take: If Chimera isn’t chipping in the occasional goal or getting involved in scoring, does he bring other things? He was fifth among the team’s forwards in hits last season (98), but that number was good for a tie for 135th in the league. He was ninth on the club in blocked shots among forwards (tied for 316th among league forwards). But the bigger problem might be defense. He had the worst number last season among Caps forwards playing in as least 50 games for goals scored against while on ice at 5-on-5 (2.61; source: behindthenet.ca). That number was the same as that for Steven Stamkos, for comparison’s sake. Stamkos scores a bit more, though.

The Big Question… Does Chimera have bad hands, or did he just have a bad stretch last season?

In 16 playoff games with the Caps over two seasons Chimera has three goals. That is not bad production from a player getting most of his time on the bottom half of the forward lines. It is roughly a scoring pace that is consistent with his pre-Washington career. He had a rough – and long – stretch of games to close last season in which he had just those two goals in the last 28 regular season games. Was that merely a bad stretch, or has Chimera become a player whose ability to finish, even for a third or fourth liner, has diminished?

In the end…

Jason Chimera hasn’t averaged less than 12 minutes a game since he was playing in Edmonton in the early 2000’s. In four years in Columbus he saw his ice time increase each year until he averaged 17:30 a game in 2007-2008. But adding Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward would seem to encumber the wings on the third line (unless Brouwer gets second line work if Brooks Laich plays in the middle on the third line). If that is the case, Chimera would seem to be ticketed to playing on the fourth line. In one-plus seasons in Washington he has been a 13 minute or so per game player. That could get shaved some if he pulls fourth line duty.

Projection:  80 games, 10-14-24, -4