Wednesday, May 30, 2012

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Forwards: Jeff Halpern

Jeff Halpern

Theme: “Home is where one starts from.”
-- T. S. Eliot

 (click pic for larger image)

Thirteen years ago Jeff Halpern was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Washington Capitals making him the first native of the Washington, D.C, area to sign with the club. He played six seasons with the Caps – 648 regular season games and 17 post-season contests – before heading off into free agency in 2006, signing with the Dallas Stars. He played a few games fewer than two seasons with the Stars, moved to Tampa Bay at the trading deadline in 2008 (in one of the odder trades in that none of the five principals in the deal – Halpern, Jussi Jokinen, Mike Smith, Brad Richards, and Johan Holmqvist – are with the teams that took them in trade).

Two years later, Halpern was traded to Los Angeles at the 2010 trading deadline, then signed as a free agent by Montreal the following September. He played one season with the Canadiens, and last July 1st signed a free-agent deal with the Caps, back where he started.

In Halpern’s first stint with the Caps he progressed from unlikely starter (making the big club in the fall following his free agent signing) to defense/faceoff specialist, to 20-goal scorer, to team captain. He played for playoff teams, and he played through the tear-down and start of the rebuild. Now, he rejoined the club as a 35-year old veteran with almost 800 games of regular season experience who was expected to chip in fourth – maybe third-line minutes – and provide some more tangible contributions to the score sheet than his predecessor – Boyd Gordon – who himself took the free agent route to Phoenix.

Well, that was the plan. Halpern started respectably enough for a fourth liner. In his first three 10-game segments he was 3-6-9, plus-1. By comparison, at a similar point in his season in 2010-2011, Boyd Gordon was 1-4-5, even. But after going 2-2-4, plus-4 in a four-game stretch ending on December 13th, Halpern would go 33 games without a goal, and the one he scored against the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 25th (the game-winner in a 4-2 win) would be his last of the regular season. He did not play in any of the last seven games of the regular season and saw action on only three of the last 15 games.

Halpern did do the little things that teams need to have done to be successful. His 58.4 percent faceoff winning percentage would have ranked him fourth in the league, had he qualified (not enough draws taken). He was very responsible with the puck; his six giveaways was the ninth lowest total among NHL forwards playing in at least 40 games. His takeaway-to-giveaway ratio was 3.7:1. He was fifth among forwards in blocked shots despite being ninth in average ice time per game and tenth in total minutes played.

Halpern’s underlying numbers are unremarkable. Among the 15 Capital forwards playing in at least 20 games his rankings in such staple 5-on0-5 measures as the various Corsi measures (on-ice, relative, relative to quality of competition), PDO, and quality of teammates rank in the middle third. His quality of competition, however, was generally inferior to that faced by other forwards in this group (Halpern ranked 12th). What one might have expected did in fact come to pass. Halpern had the lowest share of offensive zone starts of any Capital forward (39.2 percent), and yet he still have offensive zone finishes of 42.0 percent at 5-on-5, the largest positive spread in points of any Capital forward. Here is how his number compare to those of last season with Montreal:

Odd Halpern Fact… Only 19 times in 69 games did Jeff Halpern finish a game with under 50 percent faceoff wins. The Caps were 5-11-3 in those games.

Game to Remember… January 24, 2011. It is not always about scoring goals. Sometimes it is stepping up and not trying to do more than you can, but more of what you do. Until this game against the Boston Bruins, Halpern had been stuck in a rut of averaging in the low-teens in ice time minutes and had gone five games without a point. But on this Tuesday night at Verizon Center, with Alex Ovechkin serving the first game of a three-game suspension, Halpern skated almost 18 minutes, won 11 of 15 draws (including four of six in the defensive zone), had two blocked shots and notched an assist on an empty-net insurance goal in a 5-3 win over the Bruins.

Game to Forget… March 23, 2012. In what would be Jeff Halpern’s last appearance of the regular season the Caps raced out to a 3-0 lead against the Winnipeg Jets before the game was 26 minutes old. But the Jets scored in the 27th minute, again in the 29th minutes to get the Jets close, then one more time with less than four minutes in regulation. Halpern was on the ice for two of those goals, not the expected output for a “defensive” forward who skated a grand total of 4:35 in the game. It was his lowest ice time of the season.

Post-Season… Halpern had only two appearances in the post season, Games 6 and 7 against the Rangers in Round Two, getting the call when Jay Beagle went down to injury. There was not much of a story to tell there. In just over 16 minutes of total ice time he did not record a point, had one shot on goal, won ten of 18 draws and took a high-sticking double minor in Game 6 that the Caps managed to kill off on their way to a 2-1 win in what would be their last victory of the 2011-2012 season.

In the end… It looked early on as if Halpern would contribute something near the level of offense he did in his post-Washington, late-career years. After his first three ten-game segments he was on a pace to finish 8-17-25. As a fourth-liner it would have been roughly equivalent to the contribution of Matt Hendricks in 2010-2011 (9-16-25) in eight fewer games and more than the combined output of Boyd Gordon (3-6-9) and Jay Beagle (2-1-3) in 91 games. However, in his last 40 games Halpern was only 1-6-7 and was reduced to a spare part. It was not the way the season was supposed to go for a homecoming.

Grade: C+

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Forwards: Cody Eakin

Cody Eakin

Theme: “The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are."
-- John Pierpont Morgan

(click pic for larger image)

"He hasn't looked out of place, I'll tell you that. It's not like you can tell he's an 18- or 19-year-old; he's hung right in there. . . . His maturity, I think, is beyond his years, too, so that's really good."
-- Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau describing Cody Eakin in Training Camp 2010

“Here’s a guy who went to the Memorial Cup and you don’t finish playing until the end of May and you probably take a few weeks off — boy it’s hard to get back into it in early July. It wasn’t his draft year, he knew he was turning pro but he knows that it counts now — July 10 it didn’t count — and he’d been through three [development camps]. You can see a little bit more determination on his face. I think it will show.”
-- Boudreau on Eakin after the first on-ice session, Training Camp 2011

Twice Cody Eakin came to training camp with the Washington Capitals as a young player with a future, but not necessarily a present with the big club. Twice he made it difficult to send him down. Twice the Capitals did just that – back to Swift Current in Canadian juniors in 2010, down to Hershey in the AHL in 2011.

As the 2011-2012 season started with Eakin skating for the Bears, one had to remember that he was still a raw 20-year old prospect only 28 months removed from his being selected in the third round (85th overall) in the 2009 NHL entry draft. He did not let down upon his being sent to Hershey from last fall’s training camp. He was 3-5-8, plus-3 in ten October games with the Bears. It was a month in which the big club was paying attention; he was called up in time to make his NHL debut on November 1st against the Anaheim Ducks. Eakin did not put up any points in the 5-4 overtime win, but he had three shots on goal (four attempts), a hit, and a blocked shot in 13:19 of ice time.

His recall on November 1st would be the first of seven recalls during which he played in 30 games over the course of the 2011-2012 season:

November 1, 2011 (19 games played; 3-3-6, plus-2)
December 30, 2011 (one game; 0-0-0, even)
January 12, 2012 (seven games; 1-1-2, plus-1)
January 30, 2012 (two games; 0-0-0, minus-1)
March 23, 2012 (no games)
March 28, 2012 (one game; 0-0-0, even)
May 1, 2012 (no games)

It certainly made for an up-and-down season for the youngster. But clearly, there was still work to be done. If you take away the adrenaline-fueled rush of the first recall to the bigs, a stretch of 15 games in which he was 3-3-6, plus-4, he was 1-1-2, minus-2 in his last 15 games with the big club.

But even with the small population of games played there were things to take away as positives. He was not a big hitter (15 hits in 30 games), but had more hits-per-game than Alexander Semin among forwards. He did not have many takeaways, but neither did was he charged with many giveaways (six and five, respectively). He did not take many draws (40 in 30 games) but won a majority of them (21-19). He might have had the rookie’s reticence in shooting the puck, but his shots-per-game (1.03) was not too far off Joel Ward’s (1.08) and was better than Jeff Halpern’s (0.91).

Among his fellow rookies, he did not rank especially high in points (tied for 37th among rookie forwards), but his points-per-game ranked 26th, a respectable finish for one who did not get a lot of ice time (48th in total ice time). And among Capitals forwards who played in at least 30 games, his PDO value at 5-on-5 was tied for second best (with Joel Ward and behind Keith Aucoin, so you may have that grain of salt). However, the quality of competition he faced at 5-on-5 was weakest among Caps forwards, while his quality of teammates was fourth highest among the 15 forwards in this group. Add in that his offensive zone starts was fifth highest among the 15 forwards and he had something of a sheltered existence.

Odd Eakin Fact… Of 42 forwards in franchise history playing in at least 30 games in their first season with the club (think we had to dig for this one?), only Glen Currie recorded fewer penalty minutes (two in 32 games) than did Eakin (four in 30 games).

Game to Remember… November 4, 2011. It didn’t happen in his first game, but it would in Cody Eakin’s second. His first NHL goal, that is. It came late in what would be a 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes. It came mid-way through the third period with the Caps holding a 3-1 lead. Alexander Semin beat Carolina defenseman Joni Pitkanen to a loose puck along the wall in the defensive end and chipped it up and out of the zone. His momentum carried him past Pitkanen and to the puck in the neutral zone. Eakin filled the lane to Semin’s left as the latter collected the puck and carried it down the right wing. With Pitkanen out of the play, only Jamie McBain was back to defend the 1-on-1. Semin held the puck until he go to the Carolina blue line, then fed it across to Eakin. McBain was caught in no-man’s land without defending either Eakin or the possible pass to Semin. Eakin took his time and wristed the puck cleanly past goalie Cam Ward. It was his second point of the game, his first – and first NHL point – coming when he assisted on what would be the game-winning goal by Troy Brouwer early in the second period. Eakin finished 1-1-2, plus-2, scoring on the only shot he recorded in the game.

Game to Forget… November 25, 2011. Welcome to the bigs, kid. On the day after Thanksgiving the Capitals hosted the New York Rangers at Verizon Center. On a day when a lot went wrong for the Caps, a lot of it happened with Eakin in the vicinity. Not that it was all his fault, but out of 15 shifts he skated, five of them featured penalties – three of them against the Caps, one of which he committed when he was whistled for holding Ranger defenseman Steve Eminger in the offensive zone. Two other shifts ended in Ranger goals. All in all, the Caps lost by a 6-3 margin, while Eakin had no points, the two minutes in penalties, no shots, no shot attempts, and he lost his only faceoff in just short of 12 minutes of work.

Post Season… 0-1-1, minus-2 in five games at Hershey.

In the end… Everybody has to start somewhere, and for Cody Eakin he started in the midst of a team’s spiral downward toward a coach’s firing. He had to endure the ritual of recall and reassignment and memorize all the roadside stops between Washington and Hershey. He had the ups and downs of a rookie getting his first taste of play at its highest level. He looked at times as he fit right in, and in others as if he was out of place. He looked polished in some instances, and utterly unnoticeable in others. In other words, a rookie.

Grade: B-

Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Forwards: Jason Chimera

Jason Chimera

Theme: “Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.”
--Wyatt Earp

(click pic for larger image)

In 2010-2011, Jason Chimera seemed at times to lack the ability to find the back of the net with a flashlight and a map, let alone a hockey stick. He finished the season with ten goals, his lowest (on a pro-rated basis over 82 games) since 2003-2004, when he finished the season with four goals in 60 games for the Edmonton Oilers. His 6.2 percent shooting percentage was the second worst of his career, only that 2003-2004 season being worse (5.1 percent).

The 2011-2012 Jason Chimera was rather different. And it started on opening night against the Carolina Hurricanes. Chimera scored a goal at the 19:39 mark of the second period when Karl Alzner dug the puck out from behind the Capitals’ net and sent it around and up the boards to Joel Ward. As Ward was clearing the defensive zone, Chimera was in flight up the right side. Ward fed the puck up to Chimera who used his speed to work past an apparently gassed Tuomo Ruutu. Chimera left Ruutu behind, curled to the middle, and tucked the puck under Hurricane goalie Brian Boucher before defenseman Justin Faulk could cut him off. The goal gave the Caps their first lead of the game in what would be a 4-3 overtime win.

He followed it up with a pair of third-period goals in Game 2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, including the game-tying goal with only 2:44 left in regulation, in what would be a 6-5 Gimmick win. When he added a goal in a 3-0 win over the Florida Panthers eight days later, he had four goals in his first five games on 16 shots on goal. He was bound to slow down, and did – going eight games without a goal, but he picked it up again with seven goals in his next 13 games. Two of those goals were game-winners (one of them an overtime game-winner against Winnipeg). With 11 goals in his first 26 games Chimera was on a pace to score 35 goals.

It was not a pace he could sustain, though. He scored only five goals in his next 46 games, leaving him with 16 in 72 games. That was an 18-goal pace that was almost exactly in line with his scoring rate going into the season – 17 goals per 82 games. That’s regressing toward the mean. Chimera did have one more hot streak left in the regular season, scoring four goals in his last ten games to finish with 20 goal for the first time in his career. He had only 12 games in which he failed to record a shot on goal, which is respectable for a player largely getting third line minutes.

How did he do it? He shot the puck. The 9.8 percent shooting percentage with which Chimera finished the season was not much different from his career shooting percentage coming into the season (9.0 percent). In fact, he had three seasons with at least 65 games played in which he had higher shooting percentages. But coming into this season Chimera had never recorded more than 198 shots on goal (2007-2008 with Columbus), and his second highest total for a season was 160 (2009-2010, split between Columbus and Washington). In 2011-2012 he recorded 205 shots on goal.

But… there has to be a “but,” doesn’t there? At 5-on-5 Chimera had the tenth best PDO among 15 Caps forwards playing in at least 20 games, largely a product of a shooting percentage on ice that was 11th among that group of forwards. But he also was playing with the highest quality of teammates at 5-on-5. Still, he was 9-5-14, plus-5 in 30 games against the other seven teams qualifying for the Eastern Conference draw of the playoffs. He was not puffing up numbers playing against also-rans. Here is how Chimera’s numbers compare with last year’s:

Odd Chimera Fact… Jason Chimera was the only Capital in the 2011-2012 season to record at least one even strength goal, power play goal, shorthanded goal, penalty shot goal, and empty net goal.

Game to Remember… November 23, 2011. Things were not going especially well for the Caps. After winning their first seven games they were 4-7-1 in their last dozen games and losers of four of five going into their game against the Winnipeg Jets on the day before Thanksgiving. The Caps got out to an early lead on a goal by Alexander Semin, but the Jets tied the score eight minutes later. However, on the next shift, Chimera converted a centering feed from Brooks Laich to give the Caps the lead again just 12 seconds after the Jets tied the game. The teams fought back and forth over the last two periods, Winnipeg finally tying the game 12:36 into the third period to send the game to overtime. But just 1:52 into the extra frame, Chimera converted a pass from Dennis Wideman at the goal-mouth to give the Caps a 4-3 win. Combined, the two goals traveled a total of 22 feet.

Game to Forget… January 9, 2012. The Capitals have a long history of frustration in the state of California (25-47-9 all-time coming into this season). The frustration continued for the Caps as they headed to Los Angeles after a 5-2 loss in San Jose two nights earlier. It looked good early for the Caps in this contest with the Los Angeles Kings after Marcus Johansson scored the first goal just 1:34 into the game. But the Kings posted four unanswered goals to take a 4-1 lead into the second intermission. At the 9:45 mark of the third period Joel Ward was leveled by Willie Mitchell in front of the penalty boxes, and Jason Chimera, in what might have been part coming to a teammate’s aid and part frustration with the way the game was going, confronted Mitchell. Chimera might have won the fight on some fans’ cards, but he took a roughing minor penalty in addition to his fighting major, and the Kings added a power play goal to add insult to injury. The Caps ended the night with another loss in California, 5-2, and Chimera ended the night with no points, nine minutes in penalties, and a minus-1 in 11:50 of ice time.

Post-season… Jason Chimera was second in goals, third in points, second in best plus-minus, had the best shooting percentage among skaters with at least ten shots on goal (he was third in shots on goal), and had a game-winning goal in 14 post-season games. If there was an odd statistic, given the way the Caps chose to play in the post-season, it was that he had only two blocked shots in 14 games. Only Mike Knuble had fewer among Caps forwards playing in at least five games. He was on ice for only four goals scored against the Caps in 14 games, tied for third fewest among Caps forwards playing in at least five playoff games. He was at least in the conversation as the Caps’ best all-around forward in the post-season. Good as that may be, it says something about the play of the Caps that a forward getting ice time in the lower teens and who is primarily a checking line forward would be in that conversation. But that is commentary on other players, not Chimera, who did more than his share. It is worth noting that of the Capitals’ 14 wins in the playoffs over the past three seasons, Chimera has the game winning goal in four of them, most of any Capital in that period.

In the end… Jason Chimera had a fine year – a career best in goals (20 and points (39), and tying his career best in game-winning goals (five). He added a dimension often lacking for the Caps this season – raw speed. And he was durable, one of only three Capital forwards playing in all 82 games (Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer being the others). He was second among all Capitals skaters in shots on goal. He finished the season with the fifth highest total of goals scored against on ice, a respectable finish considering that he was third among Capitals forwards in quality of competition faced (numbers from It might have taken awhile – eleven seasons, in fact – but for Jason Chimera it was a career year.

Grade: A

Sunday, May 27, 2012

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Forwards: Troy Brouwer

Troy Brouwer

Theme: “If you have an important point to make, don't try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time - a tremendous whack.”
-- Winston Churchill

(click pic for larger image)

Troy Brouwer has recorded 840 hits in 320 regular season games in the NHL, another 163 in 57 playoff games. Not all of them were “tremendous whacks,” perhaps, but Brouwer is a player whose job description includes announcing his presence with authority. It was a part of the dirt-under-the-fingernails sort of tasks that show up on the right side of the event summary published after NHL games, not the left side, the side where the scoring is published.

Brouwer led the Caps in hits in the regular season, was second among forwards in blocked shots, was third among forwards in takeaways, and had the third best ratio of takeaways to giveaways among Capital forwards.

But then there is this. Brouwer was on ice for the second greatest number of goals scored against Caps forwards this season, tied for second in goals scored against at even strength. For a player who is primarily (although not exclusively) a second-third liner, one might want better evidence of defense than that. He was tied for last on the team in plus-minus (minus-15, with Mike Knuble and John Carlson) and was tied for 847th among 894 skaters in the NHL. Whatever you think of plus-minus as a statistic, those are not good numbers.

And is not as if he did not have a perverse consistency in putting up that plus-minus number. He was a minus player in six of his ten-game splits despite being a reasonably consistent scorer. Through the first half, anyway. Brouwer’s play cleaved into three pieces this season. There was the blush of being on a new team and impressing early. He was 2-3-5, plus-3, with 42 hits in his first ten-game segment. That first blush wearing off (and the Caps going into a tailspin generally), he was 13-8-21, minus-5, with 124 hits over his next four ten-game segments. But the last 32 games; they did not go well – 3-4-7, minus-13, with 81 hits.

One mitigating factor in Brouwer’s unfortunate plus-minus result was his facing quality competition, second only to Brooks Laich among Caps forwards at 5-on-5 (numbers from There was also the matter of zone starts. His offense zone starts (46.7 percent at 5-on-5) surpassed players who were generally fourth-liners for the Caps (such as: Mike Knuble, Joel Ward, Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle, and Jeff Halpern). There was also the matter of his Corsi values, which in absolute terms were hardly poor when on ice (ninth among 15 forwards playing in at least 20 games), and that when evaluated in the context of quality of competition were good (second among these forwards). But the Caps goaltenders save percentage when Brouwer was on the ice was awful at 5-on-5. The .898 save percentage was worst on the team.

Taken together it paints a picture of a player who might not spend a of time in the defensive end, but when he does bad things seem to ensue. Perhaps it is as simple as a lack of awareness at that end. And this might be a fundamental problem. It is not unique to this season. This year Brouwer had a PDO value (shooting percentage plus save percentage on ice) of 981 this year, largely driven by that .898 save percentage. Last year in Chicago, those numbers were 974 and .885. Even in the Stanley Cup-winning 2009-2010 season he was under 1000 – 997, but that was third among Blackhawk forwards playing in at least 20 games, and the save percentage on ice was a respectable.913. Speaking of comparisons, here is how Brouwer’s numbers compare to last season with Chicago:

Odd Brouwer Fact… Troy Brouwer had five game-winning goals in his first 42 games. He had four goals in total over his last 40 games, none of the game-winning variety.

Game to Remember… January 13th, 2012. In three games after Nicklas Backstrom left the lineup after suffering a concussion, the Caps had trouble scoring goals. They totaled only five goals in three games – a pair of 5-2 losses (to San Jose and Los Angeles) and a 1-0 win over Pittsburgh. But the Caps were being given a chance to get well against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team visiting Verizon Center on a five-game losing streak of their own. Alex Ovechkin started things off with a power play goal 3:52 into the game, but Troy Brouwer took over from there. He got his first on just 1:53 after Ovechkin’s goal when he wristed a shot from a tough angle over goalie Dwayne Roloson’s right shoulder. He got his second when Brooks Laich settled a puck at his feet and fired a shot at Roloson that the goalie kicked out into the slot, just where Brouwer was standing. Brouwer sent the gift into the open net for his second goal. He completed his first pro hat trick with an empty netter with 60 seconds left to give the Caps a 4-2 lead. Vincent Lecavalier scored for the Lightning with 10.2 seconds left, but it was too little, and Brouwer ended up with the game-winning goal in the 4-2 win.

Game to Forget… January 7, 2012. In San Jose against the Sharks, the Caps had just tied the game, 2-2, only 44 seconds into the third period on a goal by Joel Ward. But on the next shift, Brouwer got caught going in the wrong direction in his own end, leaving a passing lane for Dan Boyle, who found Joe Thornton all alone to the right of Caps goalie Tomas Vokoun. Thornton backhanded a pass to Patrick Marleau, and 16 seconds after the Caps knotted the game, they were behind again. There would not be another comeback. The Sharks scored the last three goals for a 5-2 win (Brouwer having been on ice for two of them).

Post Season… Brouwer had the first goal in the Caps 2-1 double overtime win in Game 2 of their opening round series against Boston, then had the game-winner with just 1:27 left in regulation in Game 5 to give the Caps a 4-3 win and a 3-2 lead in games. But after that he went cold. He would not score another goal in any of the last nine playoff games for the Caps. He did have two assists in Game 5 of the Ranger series, but that went for naught when the Caps allowed a power play goal with 7.6 seconds left in regulation to tie the game, then lost it 1:35 into overtime.

In the end… In one sense, the Caps got what was advertised for Brouwer – a physical player who could punish opposing puck carriers and pitch in the occasional goal (he finished fourth on the team with 18 goals). He did not contribute as much on the power play (three goals) as he did in Chicago last season (seven goals), despite having almost identical ice time with the man-advantage (just over two minutes per game). That might have been a reflection of a generally inconsistent power play for the Caps, though. What was a bit surprising was that he was on ice for so many goals against. He was on ice for a total of 72 goals against this season compared to only 47 with the Blackhawks last season and 46 the year before. For the role he plays, that number has to be better going forward.

Grade: B-

Saturday, May 26, 2012

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Forwards: Jay Beagle

Jay Beagle

Theme: “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.“
-- Henry David Thoreau

(click pic for larger image)

It took Jay Beagle a little while to arrive. From Calgary in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in 2003 to the University of Alaska-Anchorage in 2005 to the Idaho Steelheads in 2007 to the Hershey Bears later that same year. He had a big year with the Calgary Royals in the AJHL in 2004-2005 (28 goals in 64 games) but otherwise gave no obvious indication in his numbers that he would be an NHL caliber player. But that first year in Hershey – 19 goals in 64 games in the 2007-2008 season. The Washington Capitals saw something. They signed him to a free agent contract in March 2008.

Beagle then started a slow climb up the ladder splitting time between Hershey and Washington in 2008-2009 (47 games in Hershey, three in Washington plus two more in the playoffs), and again in 2009-2010 (66 and seven). In 2010-2011, Beagle had a breakthrough of sorts at the age of 25. He split his time almost evenly between Hershey and Washington, getting 31 games with the big club in addition to 34 at Hershey. He was ready to take that last step and make the big club on a full-time basis.

And things fell into place for Beagle when the Caps cleared the decks on the bottom half of the forward lines after last season. Boyd Gordon moved to Phoenix, Matt Bradley to Florida. Andrew Gordon, who might have been a competitor for one of the emerging openings, went to Anaheim. The Caps would sign Jeff Halpern to add some veteran talent, but there was still an opening. Beagle jumped into it, skating on opening night on a line with Jeff Halpern and Matt Hendricks in a 4-3 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes. Things were looking pretty good.

Then came Game 3 of the young season in Pittsburgh. Late in the third period Beagle got tangled up with Penguin defenseman Kris Letang. Arron Asham came to Letang’s defense and engaged Beagle in fisticuffs. It did not last long. As we noted at the time

“It really was a fight in three parts. There was the tangle of Beagle and Kris Letang that sparked the whole affair. Beagle might have been rightly called for roughing, but it wasn’t as if Beagle flattened Letang in open ice away from the play. What was it about this scrap that needed a third party to police it? Then there was the fight itself. Asham is a bruiser; he’s had 82 fights in the NHL before tonight. Beagle? A tough guy, but not a fighter. Tonight was his first NHL regular season fight. The results were entirely predictable.”

Concussion. Beagle would miss the next 31 games. When he did come back, things were different. He skated ten minutes in each of the two games in which he played before his concussion, a reflection of how coach Bruce Boudreau wanted to roll his lines. But now Dale Hunter was behind the bench, and he had other ideas about parceling out ice time. Beagle would dress for 12 of the next 20 games before he would top ten minutes again, averaging just over seven minutes a game in the process. He had one point to show for it (an assist in a 5-3 win over Boston on January 24th), but the Caps were 7-3-2 in those 12 games in which Beagle participated (they were 4-3-1 in the other eight games).

But Beagle climbed the ladder once more. He skated 11:06 in a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers on February 12th, the start of a ten-games in eleven stretch in which he would average about ten-and-a-half minutes a game. He had no points over those games but was a plus-2 and won the majority of the faceoffs he took in five of the seven games in which he took draws. The Caps, though, were only 4-6-0 in those games.

On March 6th Beagle got the call for 27 shifts, by far the most he had taken in an NHL game (21 being his previous high in a 4-3 overtime loss to Florida on January 21, 2011). He skated 16:40 and scored a goal in a 4-3 overtime loss to Carolina. But it started a run that would extend through the end of the regular season and through the playoffs in which he graduated to being a 17-minute-a-game player. He was not contributing a lot of offense (4-0-4 in his last 17 regular season games), but he was doing the tough jobs (hits, blocked shots, faceoffs) the Caps needed done as they finished up the regular season with a 10-4-3 record over those 17 games to secure a playoff spot that had been in jeopardy. Here is how this season compares to last for Beagle…

Odd Beagle Fact… The Caps were 23-13-5 in the 41 games in which Beagle played, 19-19-3 in the other 41 games.

Game to Remember… April 5, 1012. The Caps were hosting the Florida Panthers in need of a win in Game 81 of the season to secure a playoff berth. It was Jay Beagle who got the Caps off on the right foot. With five and a half minutes gone in the first period Beagle circled in to take a faceoff against Stephen Weiss to the left of Panther goalie Jose Theodore. Beagle won the draw, and the puck was worked around the end wall all the way out to Karl Alzner on the left point. As this was going on, Beagle was setting up camp in the slot in front of Theodore. Alzner worked the puck back down to Troy Brouwer circling out from the corner. Brouwer fired a puck on net, but it did not get all the way through. Beagle was there to make sure it did, though, collecting the loose puck, spinning, and firing it past Theodore for the game’s first goal in a 4-2 playoff-clinching win for the Caps. Beagle also won 10 of 16 draws in the game (3-for-3 in the offensive end, 6-for-9 in the defensive end) and was named the game’s second star.

Game to Forget… let’s just say that game in Pittsburgh when Arron Asham put out his pilot light. It’s probably not much of a memory to Beagle.

Post Season… A tale of two series. Beagle was by this time a reliable 15 or more minute a game player and was not counted on to contribute a lot of offense. He didn’t. But at least in the Boston series he was active. He had one goal on 13 shots (six of them in Game 2, no goal…that came in Game 5) in the seven game series. Against the Rangers, though, he played in five of seven games (breaking his foot in the second period of Game 5 and still playing 14:59 of that game) and did not record a shot on goal for the series on 143 shifts and more than 103 minutes of ice time.

In the end… Beagle played in only 41 games, but gave evidence of being a player to count on to do the hard things that need to be done to win hockey games. Win faceoffs, battle on the wall, play good defense, be physical when need be. It is tempting that in having taken over the “Mat Bradley” spot on the roster, he was not an improvement (4-1-5, minus-2, with 66 hits and 23 blocked shots in 41 games, versus 4-7-11, minus-3, with 161 hits and 15 blocked shots in 61 games for Bradley last season). The difference is where they lie on their respective career arcs. Bradley was 32 when he put up his numbers last year and had played in over 600 NHL regular season games. Beagle was 26 and finished the season with only 82 regular season games on his resume. It suggests there is more room for improvement for Beagle, which is something he has been doing slowly, but steadily, since he started putting in the hard work to climb the ladder.

Grade: B

Thursday, May 24, 2012

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom

Theme: “The way to push things through to a finish effectively must be learned.”
-- William Frederick Book

(click pic for larger image)

Talk about fast out of the gate. By the time Nicklas Backstrom had played in 14 games in the 2011-2012 season he was 5-15-20, even, through Veterans Day and on a pace to finish 29-88-117. It was not as if he slowed down a lot after that sizzling start, either. For a time, roughly coinciding with the last days of the Bruce Boudreau tenure as head coach, he did ease off (2-3-5, minus-6, in his next eight games up to Boudreau’s firing). But he picked up where he left off on Veterans Day, scoring a goal in Dale Hunter’s debut as Capitals’ head coach and using that start to go 6-11-17, plus-4, in his next 16 games. Having already recorded three assists in a game against the Calgary Flames on January 3rd, Backstrom was still on a pace for a 28-63-91 year.

But as the clock was passing the ten-minute mark of the third period of that January 3rd game against Calgary and the Caps holding a 3-1 lead, Backstrom took a pass from Roman Hamrlik at the Washington blue line. Backstrom took two strides and was sliding the puck to Mike Knuble on his right wing, who was going to dump the puck into the Calgary end to get a line change. Backstrom never got off, at least not before Rene Bourque came from Backstrom’s left (away from where Backstrom was looking to pass the puck) and drove his right elbow into the side of Backstrom’s head.

Backstrom would miss the next 40 games over 88 days with a concussion. The Caps were 21-15-2 with Backstrom in the lineup for the first 38 games, a 95-point pace, and were on a four-game winning streak when Backstrom went out of the lineup. Over the next 40 games the Caps went 18-16-6, an 86-point pace. Ten of those wins would be compressed into three winning streaks of three, three, and four games. Otherwise, the Caps were a foundering club without their top center in the lineup.

He would not return until March 31st, but even with the rust still evident was a presence the Caps lacked for half a season. They finished the regular season 4-1-0 with Backstrom back in the lineup, and he recorded a goal and an assist in the regular season finale, a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden.

The season had a sense of unfinished business attached to it, since Backstrom was coming off a down year in 2010-2011, at least scoring-wise (18-47-65 in 77 games). This season had all the makings of a special one, perhaps a return to the level of his 2009-2010 season (33-68-101, caerer bests in all categories). Even as far as the team was concerned there was that sense of unfinished business with him in the lineup. Backstrom was driving the bus when the Caps were successful – 13-22-35 in 24 wins in which he participated.

In a way, one might wonder how Backstrom assembled the numbers he did (14-30-44 in 42 games). If one works through some of the underlying numbers, they start well enough. At 5-on-5 Backstrom’s offensive zone start numbers were good – 52.2 percent, second highest on the team among forwards playing in at least 20 games. His offensive zone finishes were almost identical (51.1 percent). Overall, his faceoffs were good enough – a 51.1 percent winning percentage, fourth on the club among those taking at least 200 draws.

His Corsi/on-ice value of 3.76 was also fourth among forwards. OK, offensive zone starts/finishes, draws, Corsi values at 5-on-5 point in the right direction. But the quality of competition he faced was 11th among the 15 Caps forwards playing in at least 20 games. That depressed his relative Corsi/quality of competition values; he was 14th among the 15 forwards in this measure (only Keith Aucoin’s was lower). It gives the appearance of Backstrom feeding of the opponents’ weaker players to an extent. Certainly not a bad thing. Like to see more of it.

But here is the odd part and perhaps an indicator of why a player on an 86-point scoring pace finished a minus-4 for the year. His PDO value at 5-on-5 was awful. The 986 value with which he finished the season was better only than Matt Hendricks, Mike Knuble, and Troy Brouwer. It seems incredible that the shooting percentage for the Caps with Backstrom on ice was only 8.61 percent, and the .900 save percentage for Caps goalies with him out there was better only than that recorded when Brouwer was on ice (.898). Here is how Backstrom’s number compare with those of last year:

Odd Backstrom Fact… Backstrom was plus-5 against the other seven Eastern Conference teams qualifying for the playoffs. He was minus-8 against the seven teams failing to qualify for the post-season.

Game to Remember… November 1, 2011. Nicklas Backstrom had a relatively quiet game against the Anaheim Ducks for the first 59 minutes. He had no points, no shots on goal, was getting his lunch eaten in front of him on draws (he had lost 11 of 17 faceoffs to that point), and was a minus-1. Not much to remember so far. And once already in the 60th minute of regulation he had been robbed by goalie Jonas Hiller from between the hashmarks – his first shot on goal of the game. The puck went skittering off into the corner to Hiller’s left, the opposite side of the ice from where Backstrom had circled. As the Caps and Ducks were jostling for puck possession in the corner, Backstrom did another complete circle, finding himself at the top of the left wing circle as the puck found its way to Jason Chimera at the top of the right wing circle. Chimera fired the puck to the net, and Hiller kicked it to his right – just where Backstrom happened to be. Backstrom was in the right spot to send the puck in the direction from which it came, with Hiiller sprawled in crease and an open net behind him. Backstrom didn’t miss, and with 42 seconds left the game was tied. He wasn’t done. You will remember how we described this in the wrap-up for Jeff Schultz…

“Schultz got the play started when he pinched down the left wing wall to keep a loose puck in play as two Ducks were closing on him. He wristed the puck toward the net, where it hit a Duck stick, then Alex Ovechkin’s stick before settling in front of Backstrom at the doorstep where he flipped it in for the winner.”

In the space of 3:00 of game time, Backstrom turned an otherwise forgettable performance into his game to remember for the season.

Game to Forget… November 26, 2011. After a 7-0-0 start, the Caps were 5-8-1 in their next 14 games heading into Buffalo to take on the Sabres. Not that Backstrom was playing that poorly – he was 2-3-5, plus-2, in his previous three games. But the scoring streak would not get to four games, and he was hardly “plus.” He was on ice for four of the five Sabre goals scored that night in a brutal 5-1 loss against missing nine regular players to injury. Backstrom finished minus-4 (as did Alex Ovechkin), his worst such night in the NHL. It was Bruce Boudreau’s last game as head coach for the Caps.

Post Season… There was a sense of unfinished business here, too, after Backstrom’s injury-influenced 2010-2011 post season in which he had only two assists in nine games. Backstrom finished second on the club in playoff scoring, but it wasn’t what one might consider a top-notch performance. There was, of course, the antics at the end of Game 3 against Boston when he was assessed a match penalty for cross-checking Rich Peverley in the head after the horn in a 4-3 loss to the Bruins. In the other 13 games for the Caps he didn’t show the ability to string together games in which he contributed on the score sheet; he had points in consecutive games only in Game 1 and 2 in the opening round series. He had only two goals in the 13 games, one in each series (the goal in the Boston series being the overtime game-winner in Game 2 in Boston).

In the end… No single play had a greater effect on the Capitals’ regular season than that in which Rene Bourque elbowed Nicklas Backstrom to the sideline, but perhaps not for the reasons one might think. Backstrom’s absence, by itself, should not have left the Caps – allegedly one of the best teams in the league – wandering through winter looking for a spark of a winning streak. It pointed out starkly how thin the team was at an important position. But on another level, his absence underlined the fact that Backstrom is a damned fine player, perhaps the most important ingredient in whatever success the Caps might have moving forward.  It is important that he be there, whole, for the finish.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Forwards: Keith Aucoin

Keith Aucoin

Theme: “Expect the unexpected in the kingdom of madness!”
-- Randy “Macho Man” Savage

(click pic for larger image)

OK, so you are a 5’8”, 171 forward who over the past three seasons with the organization played 12, nine, then one game in the NHL. You have a total of eight goals in 75 career NHL games for two clubs scattered over six seasons. And, you are about to turn 33 years old. You might resign yourself to the conclusion that the NHL is out of your reach.

Well, you’re not Keith Aucoin.

Aucoin has assembled a very impressive resume as an AHL player. In nine seasons coming into 2011-2012 he played in 577 games and had a scoring line of 194-441-635 (a 28-63-91 pace over an 82-game season). He has been even more prolific since joining the Hershey Bears (60-142-202 in 142 games). But there is where he seemed stuck. As far as the NHL was concerned…too small. Not strong enough. Not a big enough shot.

In fact, Hershey is where Aucoin started this season. He picked up right where he left off. He was 3-13-16 in ten games in October, 1-13-14 in ten games in November. He was 4-19-23 in 13 games in December, 3-14-17 in ten games in January. He was on a pace to record 104 assists, which would have shattered the AHL record held by George “Red” Sullivan, who had 89 helpers in the 1953/1954 season for Hershey.

All this time what he was not doing was packing his bags for a recall to Washington. By the time he was recording his 59th assist for the Bears, his teammate Cody Eakin had been called up – several times, in fact – and had played in 29 games for the Caps (when he wasn’t putting miles on his car between Hershey and Washington). Eakin was the up-and-comer. Aucoin was, well, the AHLer.

However, by the beginning of February Eakin had skated more than 10 minutes in a game only three times in his last 14 games, clearly not enough work for a prospect. He was returned to Hershey, and Aucoin finally got his call. He would not play another game in Hershey in 2012. Red Sullivan’s record would remain safe.

Aucoin did not exactly light things up upon joining the big club. He was getting Eakin minutes – a little less than ten a game in his first seven games. Predictably, he did not record a point in any of them. But he did have a two-point night in his eighth game, a goal and an assist against Toronto on February 25th. It kicked off quite a week for him. He and his wife celebrated the birth of a “leap baby” on the 29th. Then, on March 2nd, he was promoted to the top line, centering Alex Ovechkin against the New Jersey Devils. That one didn’t turn out so well – the Caps were smacked around early and often in a 5-0 loss, Aucoin finishing without a point and a minus-2.

It would be easy to dismiss Aucoin’s season as inconsequential, but the fact is that with 11 points in 27 games, he was on a pace to match Troy Brouwer’s 33 points in 82 games. His three goals was a “Matt Hendricks” pace of nine for the season, his eight assists on a pace (24) right behind Brooks Laich (25). His plus-4 in 27 games equaled that of Jason Chimera in 82 contests and was a pace equal to that of team-leader Joel Ward (plus-12). He struggled on faceoffs (47.1 percent), but so did Brooks Laich (47.6 percent) and Marcus Johansson (43.2 percent), the team leaders in total draws taken.

As far as the underlying numbers are concerned, it is hard to draw conclusions based on the combination of games played and minutes skated. For example, he skated almost 200 fewer total minutes the regular season than did Jay Beagle, and Beagle skated almost 300 fewer minutes than did Mathieu Perreault, who played in only 64 games. That provides the grain of salt one might take while pondering, say, a PDO value of 1043, best among Capitals forwards having played in at least 20 games (numbers from By way of comparison, Cody Eakin (30 games played) has a PDO value at 5-on-5 that is up there, too, tied with Joel Ward for second best among forwards (1027). In Aucoin’s case, there is the outsized shooting percentage on ice (11.11 percent) contributing to the PDO. As a team the Caps shot to a 9.50 percent rate (all situations).

Odd Aucoin Fact… The Caps were 15-8-4 in the 27 games for which Aucoin dressed. In the 29 games played by Cody Eakin before Aucoin’s call-up the Caps were 14-12-3. OK, not much to make out of that.

Game to Remember… March 19, 2012. The Caps abused goaltender Jimmy Howard to the tune of three goals in less than 15 minutes of the first period on their way to a 3-0 lead at the first intermission of their game in Detroit against the Red Wings. The Red Wings got one back early in the second period on a power play goal by Kyle Quincey. With the period winding down, Alexander Semin found himself in the corner to the right of Howard. He flicked the puck toward the net, but Danny Cleary got a piece of it, and the puck fluttered to the ice. Aucoin jumped past Quincey at top of the crease, collected the puck, curled around to get a shooting angle, and wristed the puck over Howard’s glove to restore the Caps’ three-goal lead. A good thing, too, because the Wings made it close in the third with goals by Todd Bertuzzi and Cleary. An empty net goal by Jason Chimera sealed the 5-3 win, but it was Aucoin’s marker that would be the game-winning goal, his first in the NHL.

Game to Forget… March 6, 2012. After that promotion to the second line on March 2nd, Aucoin was returned to a spot on the fourth line with Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern for this game against the Carolina Hurricanes. It was not without its moments – or rather, moment – for Aucoin. He skated only three shifts in the first period but recorded an assist on his third shift, getting credit for a helper on a Troy Brouwer goal (frankly, it was pretty much all Brouwer, who carried the puck down the wing, flung it on net, followed up his own shot, carried around the net to the other side, and backhanded a shot past goalie Cam Ward). But that would pretty much be it for Aucoin. He skated only four more shifts in that game, and in a contest in which the Caps had 49 shots on goal, Aucoin had…wait for it… none of them. The Caps lost, 4-3.

Post Season… The jump in competitive weight class appeared to be a bit much for Aucoin to navigate in what was his first appearance in an NHL post-season. In 14 games he managed only two assists and averaged just over ten minutes of ice time per game. The best one might say is that both of his points came in Caps wins.

In the end… Stars give the game its luster, but guys like Aucoin give it depth. Since graduating out of the Norwich University program in 2001, Aucoin has played for an ECHL team, a CHL team, a UHL team, five AHL teams, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Caps. The term “journeyman” applies here. But so does the term “perseverance.” Aucoin has played 889 regular season and playoff games in just about every league imaginable over the past 11 years. That he played only 116 of them in the NHL might say something about the likelihood of a permanent place in that league, but it also says something about the player’s will to pursue that objective.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Dennis Wideman

Dennis Wideman

Theme: “You're never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you're never as bad as they say when you lose.”
-- Lou Holtz

When Dennis Wideman was obtained at the trading deadline in 2011 for a low-level prospect and a third-round draft choice, it was viewed as something of a steal. Here was Wideman, a player who could provide some pop from the blue line, who could serve as an insurance policy in the event of the continued absence of Mike Green (he was out after suffering a concussion and in fact would not return for the rest of that regular season). It looked to be quite a move, too. Wideman was 1-6-7, plus-7 in 14 games upon joining the Caps, but then he succumbed to an injury of his own – compartment syndrome in his right thigh as a result of a collision with Carolina forward Tuomo Ruutu’s knee last March 29th. It ended his season.

Fast-forward to the beginning of this season. Wideman began the year as if nothing had happened to interrupt his career, let alone a career-threatening injury. He started the year with points in each of his first seven games, eight of his first ten, and 11 of his first 14 contests, over which he was 3-9-12. Since joining the Caps he was 4-15-19 in 28 games, providing just the “pop” the team needed.

But as that run to start the season wore on, the seeds were being sown for what would be an up and down year. After going his first 11 games as an even-or-better player, he was on the ice for each of the last four goals scored by the New York Islanders in a 5-3 win over the Caps. And it was then that folks remembered – you had to take the good and the bad with Wideman. He could be very productive in the offensive end of the rink (in three of his previous four seasons he had at least ten goals and had 30 or more points in all of them). He also could be an adventure in his own zone – a minus-38 in 439 career games before joining the Caps, including a minus-59 in the 212 games immediately preceding his trade to Washington.

Wideman’s up and down season is shown clearly in his “tens.” Scoring-wise, he was prolific in the first half with eight goals and 29 points in his first 40 games. He had a dip in his second ten-game segment (0-3-3 in ten games), but was otherwise consistent in goals, assists, and points. And his scoring was largely a product of his power play contributions (4-8-12 in his first 40 games). One might have had him on a short list for the Caps’ MVP in the first half, especially with Mike Green missing so much time. But those plus-minus numbers – plus-7, minus-7, minus-8, plus-5 in those first four segments. And while his scoring cooled off in the second half (3-14-17 in his last 42 games), that plus-minus continued to be all over the place – plus-4, minus-4, even, minus-5.

Looking deeper into his numbers, Wideman was one of only two Capital defensemen playing in at least 20 games at 5-on-5 who had a PDO value below 1000 (John Carlson was the other, but the quality of competition he faced was second only to Karl Alzner). The problem was save percentage. At 5-on-5 it was second worst among this group of defensemen (numbers from

One of the odd numbers here was his zone starts at 5-on-5. Wideman and Green are the “offensive” defensemen on this club. Green’s offensive zone start number was puzzling enough (50.0 percent), but he played in so few games as to dismiss that in part as aberration. Wideman’s number was 49.0 percent, not what one might expect (or at least hope for) for a defensemen whose strength is at the offensive end of the ice.

At a more basic level, Wideman’s goal differential on/off ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was only one of two values on the wrong side of “even.” His goal differential of -0.22 was second worst among these Caps defensemen. Only John Carlson’s -0.81 was worse, and Carlson suffered from facing better competition and himself had a miserable last half of the season defensively.

Odd Wideman Fact… Dennis Wideman didn’t do “even” games this past season. He finished only 30 of 82 games in that fashion (26 on the plus side, 26 on the minus side).

Game to Remember… December 9, 2011. On November 19th the Caps visited the Toronto Maple Leafs, where they were pasted by a 7-1 score and Dennis Wideman was on the ice for three of the seven goals. On December 9th the Caps and Wideman had a chance to right the wrong done to them in Toronto. Wideman made the most of his opportunity, having a hand in all four Caps goals, all of which came on power plays (two goals, two primary assists). For Wideman it was a career high in goals and points in a game – his first multi-goal game and his first four-point game.

Game to Forget… November 5, 2011. Through 11 games Wideman was 3-7-10, plus-8, and had yet to record a minus game in the young season. That streak came to an end with a loud thud on November 5th against an unlikely opponent. Wideman was on ice for the last five goals scored in that night’s game against the New York Islanders. Unfortunately for Wideman and the Caps, four of those goals happened to be scored by the Islanders over a span of just 22:04. The implosion wasted a 2-0 start by the Caps, and Wideman finished the game a team-worst minus-4.

Post Season… No Capital defenseman was on ice for more goals against than Dennis Wideman, and at even strength this isn’t close. Wideman was on ice for 13 goals against, all of them at even strength. John Carlson was on for eight even strength goals, and Karl Alzner was on for seven. No defenseman had a worse plus-minus. What made this worse was the fact that his scoring dried up – no goals (on 23 shots), three assists (only one at even strength).

In the end… It is tempting to give Wideman a poor grade, but this discussion is meant to cover the entire season, not just the last dozen games of the regular season and the playoffs. But that really is the final exam of a sort in this case. The Caps were fighting for a playoff berth and were locked in what would be two seven-game series. Wideman was not much of a factor. On the whole, he has his good moments – stepping up early when Mike Green went down (an all-star worthy effort; it led to his second highest career total in points) – and his bad ones. Unfortunately, the lack of consistency and the fact that the bad moments (or utter lack of good ones) came too often in the stretch run and the post-season make it more difficult to give him a good grade. Of more practical import, it makes it hard to see how the Caps would be justified in retaining him at a raise in pay given that they have the contracts of Mike Green, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner to deal with in the near future.

Grade: B-

Monday, May 21, 2012

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Jeff Schultz

Jeff Schultz

Theme: “Some have greatness thrust upon them, but not lately.”
-- Frank Dane
(click pic for larger image)

It seems like a long time ago, now, that “plus-50” that Jeff Schultz put up in 2009-2010. It was the big number in a career year for games, assists, points, penalty minutes, and shots on goal. He was rewarded for that effort in July 2010 with a four year/$11 million contract. Since then, however, Schultz has returned to earth.

In 2009-2010, Schultz had a total of 11 “minus” games all season. Last year he had ten such games by the Winter Classic on January 1st. It was just once indicator of his settling into what might have been a more reliable level of performance. He finished the 2010-2011 season having played only one fewer game than in 2009-2010, but saw his point total cut by more than half (from 23 to 10), his shooting percentage dropping steeply (from 7.0 percent to 2.9 percent), and even his penalty minutes by more than half (from 32 to 12). And never a big hitter to start with, that number dropped from 66 to 53.

Perhaps Schultz was merely performing at a more reasonable level for his particular skill set. But then the 2011-2012 season began. Schultz did not start badly; in his first seven games (coinciding with the Caps’ 7-0-0 start) Schultz was on ice for only three of 14 goals, two of them in a 6-5 Gimmick win against Tampa Bay, the other a power play goal in a 7-1 win over Detroit. Even when the Caps went on the road and saw their winning streak end, he wasn’t on the ice for much of the damage – two of the 13 goals allowed.

But then the wheels started coming off. He was on ice for four of the next 11 goals allowed by the Caps. It set up a coincidence of events on November 11th – Mike Green ready to return to the lineup after a six-game absence with an injured ankle and the Caps needing to create a slot in the lineup for that return. It was Schultz who sat for what would be a 3-1 win over New Jersey.

Schultz returned to the lineup in the next game, but he – and the Capitals – were entering a downward spiral that would cost Bruce Boudreau his job. The Caps went 2-5-0 in the seven games leading up to Boudreau’s dismissal, and the Caps allowed 31 goals in the process. Schultz was minus-2 in those games. Not the worst, but any stretch, but not making a case for a heavy workload, either.

Dale Hunter took over in time for the Caps to host the St. Louis Blues, and for Schultz to be a healthy scratch. Starting with that contest Schultz would dress for only six of the next 27 games, averaging about ten and a half minutes a game. Even with Mike Green having missed all but two games in this stretch, Schultz was not getting a sweater, sitting in place of Dmitry Orlov, John Erskine, and even Tomas Kundratek for five games.

Schultz did return to the lineup on February 1st, though, and did play in 27 of the last 33 games of the season, going 1-0-1, minus-3 in the process to finish the season 1-5-6, minus-2 in 54 games. It ended as having played in fewer games than any season since his 2006-2007 rookie year (38); his fewest goals (1), assists (5), and points (6) since that season (0-3-3), and the only season in his six-year career in which he finished on the minus side of the ledger.

His underlying numbers where not especially strong, and here there is a comparable basis to judge those numbers. Dennis Wideman and Jeff Schultz faced roughly equivalent quality of competition (numbers from However, starting from that point Schultz’ numbers were quite inferior to those of Wideman at 5-on-5. Pick your poison – On ice Corsi? Wideman was in negative territory here (-1.09), but Schultz was considerable worse (-4.94). Corsi relative to competition? Same (+0.132 to -0.249). It is easy to get a bit too caught up in these numbers when one sees that in goals against on ice per 60 minutes, Schultz fares better (2.11 to 2.47), and he does have a slightly better PDO value. But this still seems a far cry from that defenseman who finished a plus-50 two seasons ago. Here how this year’s record compared to last:

Odd Schultz Fact… Well, he was consistent. In 27 games against teams reaching the playoffs, Schultz had three points and was a minus-1. In 27 games against teams missing the playoffs…yup, three points and a minus-1.

Game to Remember… November 1, 2011. In a game that would be remembered more for who didn’t skate at the end of regulation than who did when the game-tying goal was scored to send the game with the Anaheim Ducks into overtime.  When the game-winning overtime goal was scored, Jeff Schultz earned a secondary assist on Nicklas Backstrom’s overtime winner against the Ducks in a 5-4 win. Schultz got the play started when he pinched down the left wing wall to keep a loose puck in play as two Ducks were closing on him. He wristed the puck toward the net, where it hit a Duck stick, then Alex Ovechkin’s stick before settling in front of Backstrom at the doorstep where he flipped it in for the winner. Schultz also finished a plus-2, one of only two games in which he would finish that high on the ledger for the season.

Game to Forget… March 27, 2012. In what would be his last regular season game of the year, Schultz was on ice for two goals in the first five shifts he skated as the Buffalo Sabres took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission. He skated only two more shifts in the game – both early in the second period – and managed only 5:07 in ice time (his fifth lowest minute total in 373 career regular season games) while finishing minus-2 in a 5-1 loss to the Sabres.

Post Season… Perhaps surprisingly, given his sporadic activity in the last two-thirds of the season, Schultz dressed for 10 of the Caps’ 14 post-season games. But, like the regular season, he played himself to the bench before coming back to the ice. In Games 1-3 Schultz was on the ice for four of the six goals scored by the Boston Bruins. In a close fought, low scoring series, it earned him a spot in the press box for four of the next five games (the exception being the Game 7 clincher against Boston). Schultz returned for good in Game 2 of the second round series against the Rangers. He would fare marginally better in the defensive end, having been on ice for four of the 12 goals New York scored in the last six games of the series. But Schultz also had the misfortune all through the playoffs of never being around when a goal was scored by the Caps. Only once in 10 games was he on ice for a goal scored (Game 5 against the Rangers, in a 3-2 overtime loss).

In the end… One has to wonder what lies ahead for Schultz. Two years ago he was coming off a record-setting season (best plus-minus in franchise history and the highest of any player in the league since the lockout) and was about to sign a four-year deal. This past season, he was a defenseman with a $2.75 million cap hit who was not much more than an occasional player.

Looking at the defense corps under contract (or likely to be) for next season, it is a group that in addition to Schultz includes: Mike Green, Roman Hamrlik, John Erskine, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Dmitry Orlov. The Caps are not a team deep in defensive prospects, at least not of the sort one would expect to get any significant time with the club next season. This would seem to leave Schultz on the bubble, with John Erskine and Dmitry Orlov (acknowledging the possibility of a sophomore slump for the latter) for the sixth defenseman spot. It is a future as uncertain as his 2011-2012 season seemed to be, one that seems now an eternity from the great season he had just a couple of years ago.

Grade: C-

Sunday, May 20, 2012

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Dmitry Orlov

Dmitry Orlov

Theme: “Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.”
-- Samuel Johnson

(click pic for larger image)

On October 8, 2001 – opening night of the 2011-2012 season for the Washington Capitals – defenseman Dmitry Orlov finished a plus-1 with one shot on goal… for the AHL Hershey Bears, in a 3-2 win over the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

Orlov, a second-round draft pick of the Capitals in 2009 was starting his first full year in hockey in North America (he signed a tryout contract with Hershey in February 2011 and played in 25 games there, including six playoff games). The expectation was that he would spend a year (or more) of apprenticeship in Hershey to grow familiar with the North American game and develop his skill set at a difficult position.

The plan took a turn when injuries hit the blue line (that is, Mike Green) and cut the defense squad to six healthy players.  The call was made for Orlov to join the team on November 20th. At the time he was showing signs of advanced development: 4-5-9, even, in 15 games, including a 1-2-3 effort against Albany in the game immediately preceding his recall.

He was thrown right into the mix. He skated just under 12 minutes in his NHL debut and recorded three hits and a blocked shot in the Caps’ 4-3 win over the Phoenix Coyotes in what would be coach Bruce Boudreau’s 200th career NHL win. But all was not gumdrops and accordions, either. He was, as one might expect, somewhat uneven in his early going. In his pre-Christmas shakedown period he was 0-5-5, minus-1, in 15 games and was averaging almost 17 minutes of ice time a game, but mixed in there were were four “plus” games and an equal number of “minus” games. While he was going through his growing pains, the Caps were just treading water at 7-7-1 over those 15 games.

It wasn’t as if his after-Christmas performance was markedly better, at least not for a time. In 22 games after the holiday he did record his first NHL goal (a game-winner in a 2-1 win over Carolina), but he was just 1-2-3, minus-4. Then came an otherwise forgettable game against San Jose on February 13th. While the Caps were skating to a 5-3 loss to the Sharks, Orlov scored his second goal of the season. It touched off a run of games in which he was 2-9-12, plus-6 over his last 23 games.

Overall, he would finish the season with 19 points in 60 games, good for third on the club in scoring. It would be the sixth highest point total for a rookie defenseman for the Caps in franchise history and the most since Mikhail Tatarinov was 8-15-23 in the 1990-1991 season. Among those top-six rookie scorers among defensemen, only Orlov and Scott Stevens finished in “plus” territory for the season (Orlov was plus-1, Stevens a plus-14 in 1982-1983; although that speaks more to the difficulties the teams of the others had).

Not that Orlov was not protected. Only John Erskine faced a lower quality of competition among Capital defensemen playing at least 20 games (numbers from And only Erskine had a larger percentage of offensive zone starts (54.9 percent) than Orlov (51.1 percent). Perhaps a good thing – only Erskine had a worse percentage spread between offensive zone starts and offensive zone finishes.

We would offer a comparison to his previous season, but there not being one in the NHL, there is not one to compare.

Odd Orlov Fact… Orlov had only three goals, but they came on only 51 shots for the season. In fact, his three goals came on his last 37 shots of the season and that percentage (8.1 percent) would have ranked ninth among league defensemen in shooting percentage over a full year.

Game to Remember… January 15, 2012. With the Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes locked in a 1-1 tie early in the third period, Tomas Vokoun made a save on a shot from Hurricane forward Jeff Skinner. Orlov collected the long rebound and started the play the other way with a pass to Jason Chimera on the left wing. As Chimera was skating with the puck down the left side, Orlov kept going, heading down the middle to the Carolina net. Chimera fed the puck through, and Orlov appeared to try to redirect it past goalie Cam Ward. Orlov missed but stayed with the play, following up his own attempt by sneaking a shot from a very severe angle behind Ward as he was about to circle behind the net. It was his first NHL goal and a game-winner in a 2-1 Capitals win.

Game to Forget… February 12, 2012. The record will show that Brandon Prust scored a shorthanded goal for the game-winning tally in a 3-2 New York Rangers win over the Capitals at Madison Square Garden. But Orlov was on the ice for each of the first two Ranger goals, both times being this close to getting into position to sweep the puck away from danger when goalie Tomas Vokoun was down, and both times not being quite close enough.

Post Season… Orlov was a healthy scratch for all 14 games in the post-season.

In the end… Despite the ups and downs, it was a season that no one might have expected when the season began last October 8th. The plan might have been for Orlov to spend his apprenticeship in Hershey logging a lot of minutes for a contending AHL team. But circumstance led to his being called up in November, and he would never return to Hershey. He would prove to be durable (he missed one game to illness) and would show improvement over the course of the season based on his ten-game splits. But there was room for improvement. For example, his 48 giveaways in 60 games was fourth most on the team, more than Roman Hamrlik had (43) in more games (68).

What Orlov did this year was provide a look into the future, a look at what could become a third pair fixture next season (assuming Dennis Wideman is not resigned) and perhaps a top-four, two-way defenseman down the road. That he would have provided that glimpse this year – and in 60 games of action – was among the most unexpected happenings for the club this season.

Grade: B

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Roman Hamrlik

Roman Hamrlik

Theme: ”No one can avoid aging, but aging productively is something else.”
-- Katharine Graham

 (click pic for larger image)

When Roman Hamrlik was signed by the Washington Capitals, he was described thusly:

“He's got postseason experience, he's another offensive option for the blue line… Hamrlik is the kind of veteran upgrade you need to make a Cup run.”

By February, he was a healthy scratch and was being shopped in pursuit of a trade.

Then, he returned the lineup for the 13 of the last 15 games, had three assists, and was a plus-10. He followed that up by going 1-3-4, plus-8 in 14 playoff games.

If you play the game long enough, or if the season lasts long enough, you might pretty much see it all.

It was almost as if Hamrlik experienced his entire 19-year career (including this one) in the 2011-2012 season. After all, he played for a struggling team early on in his career (as the Caps were early this season), over which he was a minus-121 in his first 418 games of his career. He was a minus-12 in his first 23 games with the Caps this season.

But just as he used the experience of his later career to build a solid resume (63-227-290, plus-75 in his last nine seasons before this one), he had a solid close to this season – 1-11-12, plus-21 over his last five ten-game segments covering 42 games. By the end of the season he not only was still a Capital, he was arguably the team’s most consistent defenseman.

His experience was perhaps most telling in his home/road splits. Hamrlik was 1-6-7, plus-3 in 33 home games. Not especially noteworthy – rookie Dmitry Orlov had more points; Mike Green was almost as good at a plus-5 in barely half the home games played (17). Jeff Schultz had as many goals at home, and Schultz has as many career goals (in 373 games) as Hamrlik had in just the previous two seasons (154 games). However, while Hamrlik was not a prolific scorer on the road (1-5-6) his plus-8 was by far the best among his defenseman teammates.

The odd part about Hamrlik’s performance over the course of the year was quality of competition. It was not of particularly high quality. Among the eight defensemen playing in at least 20 games for the Caps this season, only two defensemen – Dmitry Orlov and John Erskine – faced a lower quality of competition than did Hamrlik at 5-on-5 (numbers from The comparatively easier competition no doubt influenced his having the highest relative Corsi value among this group of defensemen, although the save percentage on ice was hardly impressive (.921 – sixth among the eight defensemen).

Conversely, though, Hamrlik’s offensive zone start percentages at 5-on-5 were higher than only the “defensive” pair of Karl Alzner and John Carlson. This suggests, either by design or circumstance, a greater reliance on Hamrlik in the defensive end of the ice. He did have some relief from this burden in his relatively lower quality of competition faced, but on the other hand the quality of teammates with whom he skated was comparable. Only Erskine and Karl Alzner had lower values at 5-on-5.

Hamrlik’s was an odd mix of numbers, rather different in many ways from what he left behind in Montreal after the 2010-2011 season. Here is how those numbers compare with this past season:

Odd Hamrlik Fact… Little things. Among defensemen playing in at least half of the Caps’ games this season, Hamrlik had the most blocked shots per game, the most takeaways per game and the best takeaway-to-giveaway ratio.

Game to Remember… March 29, 2012. It was a game that would foretell the future as an example of “Hunter Hockey.” The Capitals headed to Boston in ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings, two points behind Buffalo for the last playoff spot. In what would be a hard-fought effort that was a mere warmup to the first round series they would begin just two weeks later, Hamrlik skated 24:16 (his high for ice time for the season), had three shots on goal, and led the team in blocked shots with four in a 3-2 Gimmick win at TD Garden. With the win, the Caps passed Buffalo for eighth place and remained among the playoff-eligible through the end of the regular season.

Game to Forget… November 26, 2011. A lot of Caps would like to forget this game, but for Hamrlik it might have been especially worthy of a memory lapse. In his previous game he was on the ice for three straight goals against the New York Rangers that put a game out of reach in a 6-3 loss to the Blueshirts. Against the Buffalo Sabres in this one, he was on ice for the first three Sabre goals in what would be a 5-1 blowout, leaving him with having seen six goals up close and personal in an eight goals-allowed stretch. He was a minus-6 over those two games, his worst stretch of the season.

Post Season… This is a bit of a mixed bag for Hamrlik. His top end numbers – 1-3-4, plus-8 in 14 games – look rather solid, especially since goals came at such a premium for both sides in the Caps’ playoff run. But here is the odd part of his performance. He was third among defensemen on the team in shorthanded time on ice, but it was when he wasn’t on the ice in those situations that is perhaps most interesting. He took six minor penalties in the 14 games; on none of them did the opponents score a power play goal. He was on ice for three of the six power play goals scored against the Caps in the post-season.

In the end… It is difficult to reconcile the numbers into a coherent whole other than to think that Hamrlik spent much of the early part of the season in search of a role. He is not an “offensive” defenseman in the sense Mike Green is (or was). He is not a shutdown defenseman in the sense Karl Alzner and John Carlson were used in that role. In the last third of the season he seemed to settle into a role as a steadying influence – a “straight man,” if you will – for his partner, a defenseman who by virtue of his experience could make for a reliable second-pair.

He appeared to have an especially positive effect on the play of Mike Green in this capacity, and it makes one wonder what lies in store for that pair next season (assuming Green is: a) re-signed, and b) does not suffer any further recurrences of injury). This past season they played in only 22 games together to a combined 4-7-11, plus-12. The Caps were 15-5-2 in games where both Green and Hamrlik dressed. If the Caps are set on their top pair with Karl Alzner and John Carlson, a second pair of Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik could give the Caps a solid top-four defense with which to pursue success next season.

Grade: B