Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Matt Hendricks

Matt Hendricks

Theme: “The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering. I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

-- Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

There are the obvious skills associated with the game of hockey that a fan can spot from the last row of the balcony – shooting, stick-handling, passing. Then there are those skills that might be harder to spot or to appreciate from that last row, but are hardly subtle – the willingness and ability to check opponents, to settle a score with fists, to yap at opponents and get under their skin.

Matt Hendricks is carving out a niche in the National Hockey League by being a practitioner of the latter set of talents. Checking? Hendricks was credited with 169 hits in 882 minutes of ice time last season, or one hit every 5:15 of ice time. By way of comparison, Alex Ovechkin was credited with 241 hits in 1,688 minutes, or one hit for every 7:00 of ice time. You might not think of or want your top scorer to be such a big hitter, but Ovechkin ranked eighth among forwards in hits recorded last season. Hendricks just did it more often.

Fighting? Hendricks has the 12th highest number of fighting majors last season (14) and added four roughing minors among his 19 minor penalties for good measure. Despite not being what one would call a “heavyweight” among NHLers (6’, 215), Hendricks does not suffer fools gladly.

Yap? Well, if our observations from training camp are an indication, Hendricks does not have an “off” switch. He enters the ice chirping and seems not to stop all the while he is out there. We can imagine opponents wanting to turn and shout, “will you PLEASE shut the $#@% UP?!” And a distracted opponent is generally not an effective one.

Having those skills does not mean Hendricks lacks the more obvious ones. He, like Jeff Halpern, is probably something of an underrated offensive player. He has averaged 11 goals per 82 games in his brief career (137 regular season games). Last season, with 51.7 percent of his starts in the offensive zone at 5-on-5, he put up 11 goals playing almost entirely on the fourth line. His 1.81 points/60 minutes at 5-on-5 was fourth among Capital forwards, behind Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom. And, he has something of a flair for the trick shot competition with a pair of goals in four tries last season, including this beauty against Philadelphia:

Fearless’ Take: You would expect an Alex Ovechkin to lead his team in game-winning goals. He did last season. And a goal scorer like Alexander Semin? You would think he’d rate highly, too. Semin was second. But Matt Hendricks third? Three of his nine goals were game-winners. And Ovechkin was the only Cap with more goals in the Gimmick round than Hendricks. It is also worth noting that Hendricks made these contributions having ranked 12th on the team in ice time per game (among players playing the entire season for Washington).

Cheerless’ Take: How did that whole playoff thing work, cuz? Hendricks played in seven of the nine games the Caps played in the post-season and did not record a point. He had a total of one shot on goal. In 13 career playoff games he has not yet recorded a point. Sure, he is a fourth liner, and fourth liners aren’t going to be expected to score much. But wasn’t that the point last spring? The Caps got hardly anything from their third and fourth lines.

The Big Question… Will being paired with Jeff Halpern allow Hendricks to get on the score sheet in the post-season?

There is no way to know that more than six months before the playoffs begin, but Halpern should provide Hendricks with more support in the offensive end than might have been the case with Boyd Gordon last season (no points in nine playoff games). It is not as if he doesn’t have it in him, though, at least on some level. In 2007 Hendricks was 8-4-12 in 19 playoff games with the Hershey Bears under current Caps coach Bruce Boudreau.

In the end…

Hendricks certainly has paid his dues, not unlike his coach in Hershey and Washington. Milwaukee, Estero (that’s in Florida), Lowell, Rochester, Hershey, Providence, Cleveland. And those are the cities in which he played professionally before he got his break in the NHL with Colorado. It might have shaped his style until he became what looks like the epitome of the “energy” player. It is that energy – manifest in his enthusiastic use of his body and vocal cords to irritate opponents – that helped get him his chance in the NHL. That he can reliably contribute something at the offensive end of the ice probably keeps him getting a sweater. Those kinds of contributions coming from the third and fourth lines – and Hendricks is an important part of that – are going to be important the deeper the Caps go in the post-season. And if they are playing in June, it sure would be something to yawp about.

Projection: 75 games, 10-15-25, even

(Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America)