Sunday, September 25, 2011

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

Theme: “There is no way this winter is ever going to end, as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don't see any other way out. He's got to be stopped. And I have to stop him.”
-- Phil Connors, Weatherman, WPBH-TV9 Pittsburgh

Four times to the show, four times with little to show for it. One can opine as to whether Alex Ovechkin has carried his share of the burden in the playoffs – if not more than that share – but the fact is that he is about to embark on Year 7 of his career, and he has yet to reach a conference final, let alone win a Stanley Cup. He is probably making lists even at this point in his career of greatest players never to win the Cup. Is life fair? No, it isn’t. And that is why as long as he goes without having won a Cup, it will be his burden to bear for the failure to do so.

Add to that the fact that last year was a considerable step backward in the career arc of Alex Ovechkin, and it makes the 2011-2012 season one in which a lot of eyes will be on him. There are a lot of questions to be answered…

-- Can he bounce back from a season in which he scored “only” 32 goals, tied for 14th in the league when he had never finished lower than fourth?

-- Can he find new wrinkles to throw at defenders who seem to have caught up to the game that allowed him to score 269 goals in his first five seasons?

-- Does he have, at age 26, the maturity to serve as a leader by example on and off the ice?

-- Can he become the first non-defenseman from Europe to captain his team to a Stanley Cup?

If Ovechkin had a 2009-2010 season that was personally disappointing, his Team Russian Olympic team and Washington Capitals teams falling earlier in their respective tournaments than most would have thought, last season was confounding. He went from putting up points at a 124-point pace (109 points in 72 games) to an 85-point season in 79 games. He went from a 57-goal scoring pace to 32 goals in those 79 games last season. Thirteen power play goals to seven (only two in the season’s first 52 games). Shooting percentage from 13.6 percent (second best of his career) to 8.7 percent (worst, by far).

What happened? Well, two numbers -- Corsi values/on ice and offensive zone starts -- examined over a period of seasons compared to his goal scoring at even strength might shed some light on a problem…

One can point to a change in team philosophy that would naturally limit the chances Ovechkin or his linemates might get to put shots on goal and score. There is the whole power play problem that seemed to infect the team. But Ovechkin was being put into fewer situations, at least from an offensive zone start viewpoint, that could maximize his strengths as an offensive player. He was starting play less often in the offensive zone at 5-on-5 (51.6 percent offensive zone starts versus 55.6 percent in 2009-2010); he ended up with fewer 5-on-5 goals. His 25 even strength goals was almost 14 fewer than the average of his previous three seasons.

Fearless’ Take: It might have been Ovechkin’s worst season, but he closed with a rush. In his last 33 games he was 17-23-40, plus-15. That works out to a 42-57-99, plus-37 pace. What is more, he had five power play goals (a 12 goal pace over 82 games) and had a 10.4 percent shooting percentage. Couple that with the fact that he was 5-5-10 with a 14.7 percent shooting percentage in the post-season, and perhaps Ovechkin’s season in 2010-2011 can be reduced to having had a bad start (which might add credence to the thought among some that he had conditioning issues).

Cheerless’ Take: In the history of the National Hockey League, 81 times has a player reached the 50-goal mark after reaching the age of 26, four times since the lockout. If folks are thinking Ovechkin has a return to 50 goals in him, it’s possible, but it would not be the way to bet. You might make the case for his reaching 40, but even though it has been done 40 times since the lockout by players aged 26 and older, no one has done it more than twice. It isn’t a certainty.

The Big Question… Can Ovechkin raise his game in the context of the new Capitals’ philosophy and drag his team to a championship?

“Showtime” worked for the Los Angeles Lakers in basketball once upon a time. “The Greatest Show on Turf” worked once upon a time in football. But scoring 65 goals in a season and being part of an offense that averaged almost four goals a game in another has not worked for Ovechkin or the Caps. The team went to a different philosophy last season when in the midst of an eight-game losing streak in December, and while it made the Caps more reliable winners – in the regular season – it didn’t do much for fantasy numbers for Ovechkin or the Caps. But even with depressed full season numbers, Ovechkin was able to ramp up his own production over the last part of the season. In those last 33 games of the season in which he played (he missed three games in late March), over which he was 17-23-40, the Caps were 21-8-4. His ability to put up big numbers is not incompatible with an approach that emphasizes defense. But even with an ability to put up fine numbers in the post season (25-25-50, plus-13 in 37 career games), his teams are still 17-20 over four years of playoff disappointment.

In the end…

The point has been made about Ovechkin getting fewer offensive zone starts than last year, but that is true for each of the big forwards (including Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, each of whom saw their offensive zone starts drop from the previous year). But Ovechkin finished seventh in that number among all Caps forwards who played the entire season in Washington and dressed for at least 50 games ( That is less than Eric Fehr, less than Mike Knuble, less than Brooks Laich, less than Matt Hendricks.

But after awhile, the numbers start to blend into a haze. For whatever reason, the Caps as a team just haven’t gotten it done in the Ovechkin era. They have been entertaining, but unfulfilling. What it means is that Ovechkin seems likely to rebound some from the numbers he posted last season, he will be in the conversation for the Hart and Lindsay awards, he will be one of the faces of the sport. And it will all have a Groundhog Day aspect to it. Until he wakes up in June with the Stanley Cup next to him in bed.

Projection: 78 games, 39-55-94, +24

(Photo: Jason Cohn, Reuters)

Washington Capitals 2011-2012 Previews: Brooks Laich

Brooks Laich

Theme: “The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools.”
-- Confucius

On June 28th the Capitals announced that Brooks Laich signed a six-year contract extension with the club worth $27 million. At one level, it was recognition of a player who in the previous four seasons averaged 21 goals and 49 points a season. On another level it was validation of a player’s willingness to put in the work to make himself a better player. So fast forward to August, and there he was – again – working at being a better player.

Until now, it has been a case of working to get there. Now it also will be a case of managing expectations that come with a large contract. And that matter is complicated a bit by the season Laich had last year. After three years in which he improved each year in goals, assists, points, plus-minus, and power play goals, he dropped in each – from 25 to 16 in goals, from 34 to 32 in assists, from 59 to 48 in points, from plus-16 to plus-14, and from 12 power play goals to four.

That power play number was particularly striking. Almost his entire drop in offensive production from 2009-2010 to last season can be explained by the drop in power play goals from 12 to four last year. It was not as if he was getting less time on the man advantage. He averaged 2:59 per game of power play time in 2009-2010, 2:57 last season. But then again, neither was his drop in power play production an isolated thing, not when the Caps saw their power play goal total drop by 33 goals (42 percent) from 2009-2010 to last season.

If the drop in his power play production explains his drop in overall offensive production, his even strength production is a bit more mystifying. From 2009-2010 to 2010-2011 his Corsi/on-ice and Corsi/relative values at 5-on-5 improved from year-to-year, as did those values in the context of quality of competition faced (according to But the improvement did not translate into improved scoring numbers (12-24-36 at ES in 2009-2010; 11-21-32 last season).

Fearless’ Take: Laich’s value is not merely as a scorer. He can play any forward position and can even chip in on defense in an emergency. Last season he had a 51.3 winning percentage on draws, and his home performance was almost a good as that of faceoff artist Boyd Gordon (57.4 percent to Gordon’s 57.6). His 32 assists was third on the club. He was fourth among Caps forwards in hits and was second among that group in blocked shots. He had a positive takeaway-to-giveaway ratio (1.19:1). And he led all Caps forwards in penalty-killing time (2:18/game). More than anything, it is Laich’s versatility that makes him valuable.

Cheerless’ Take: 17.2, 12.4, 11.3, 7.7. Those are the last four seasons of shooting percentages for Brooks Laich. More shots taken (122, 185, 222, 207 over those same four years) have not been accompanied by an increase, or even maintenance, of efficiency. Had he merely maintained the 11.3 percent shooting percentage he had in 2009-2010, he would have finished with 23 goals – his average over the previous three seasons.

The Big Question… Was 2010-2011 merely a blip in Brooks Laich’s progress as an offensive contributor?

Until last season, Laich had improved in each and every season of his career as a goal scorer until he reached the 25-goal plateau in 2009-2010. But that decline in shooting percentage has to be of concern. A 17.2 percent shooting percentage – what Laich had in 82 games the 2007-2008 season – isn’t rare (40 players since the lockout have had that percentage or better and at least 25 goals in at least 75 games), but it is not common, either. Last season’s 7.7 percent shooting percentage -- his worst since the 2006-2007 season -- was just one part of a team-wide drop from 11.6 percent in 2009-2010 to 8.5 percent last season. Still, one would not expect Laich to linger in a shooting neighborhood shared with Jay Beagle (7.4), Matt Bradley (6.9), or Matt Hendricks (8.0), as was the case last season.

In the end…

The temptation is to think that with the new six-year deal, Laich will become something more, perhaps a consistent 25-goal scorer (a number he has reached once in six full seasons in the NHL), or perhaps a consistent 60-point scorer (his high is 59), or the sort of special teams player who can consistently put up ten or more power play goals a season (he topped that number once with 12 in 2009-2010).

But the fact is, Laich is probably no more than an 11-13 goal scorer at even strength (that has been, in fact, the range of his even strength goal scoring the past four years). His ability to put up 20-goal seasons in the three years preceding last season was a function of his special teams production. Eight power play and two short-handed goals in 2007-2008; nine and one in 2008-2009, 12 and one in 2009-2010. Last season he dropped to four power play goals and one shorthanded. If his goal scoring is to improve, it will be a product of special teams.

It would not be surprising if Laich was among the hardest working players in the sport in terms of preparing his body to play. Now he has to bear the weight of expectations. We suspect he will rebound some from the season he had last year, but reaching his career best is going to be a matter of translating the power he develops in his workout regimens to power on the ice – power play production.

Projection: 82 games, 19-34-53, +15

(Photo: Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images North America)