Monday, July 30, 2012

Power Outage

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 defines a species as “endangered” if it is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” It defines one as “threatened” if it is “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

If the power play in the National Hockey League is not “endangered,” it certainly seems “threatened.” When the NHL returned from its lost 2004-2005 season, there was great hoopla over the game being opened up to give its stars the chance to shine. You may read that as, “we’re going to have more scoring.” An important part of that idea was the revolutionary idea of calling infractions in accordance with the rule book. You may read that as, “we’re going to have more power plays.”

We are now seven years into the post-lockout era of the NHL, and as we ponder the possibility of another lockout interrupting our enjoyment of the highest-level of the sport, we might also ponder the degree to which the league has held fast in its aim to help rejuvenate scoring by increasing special teams opportunities.

It is a happy coincidence that the Web site holds 14 seasons of team statistics (including those for special teams), seven before the lockout and seven after. Looking at those 14 seasons that straddle the lockout, we see a gloomy picture for fans of offensive hockey.

Looking at the 14 years overall, the direction of power play attempts (measured in average attempts per team) is headed in the downward direction:

But that graph above is, after all, really in two distinct parts.  It is separated by the lockout season and a conscious effort by the league to introduce more offense, in part by increasing special teams play. In the seven years that represent the pre-lockout period, the average number of power play attempts per team exhibited a substantial decline, a reflection of the “dead-puck” era in which the game was played.

In the seven years leading up to the lockout, average power plays per team dropped by a total of 12.4 percent (from 380 in 1997-1998 to 333 in 2003-2004). When the league returned from its hiatus for the 2005-2006 season, the on-ice product was true to the league’s word, spiking with an average of 480 per team. This was a 44 percent increase over the season immediately preceding the lockout and was more than 35 percent higher than the average number of power play attempts per team in the seven seasons preceding the lockout.

But since that first season after the lockout, power play attempts have resumed their seemingly inexorable journey downward. In the last seven seasons the average number of attempts per team have dropped from that high of 480 in 2005-2006 to 271 last season, a 43.5 percent drop. What we have if we then separate the 14 years into their two seven-year components are functions that behave in similar fashions (although the trend is steeper in the post-lockout period):

The trend over time has behaved rather well within the high-low range, as well. Graphically we can represent the trend by superimposing the highs and the lows for average attempts, by team and by season, as follows:

What we are left with here is the suggestion that the decline in power play attempts is an outcome that is being felt over the full range of teams, not merely a function of a small group of teams at the bottom pulling the trend line downward. This is a particularly disappointing result in this respect; in 2011-2012 the highest number of power play opportunities was recorded by the Philadelphia Flyers, whose 335 opportunities was significantly more than the second-ranked Columbus Blue Jackets (317, or 5.4 percent fewer). Those 335 opportunities, however, was lower than the average number of opportunities in five of the seven years preceding the lockout, and it was higher only than the average in 1999-2000 (331) and the average in 2003-2004 (333).

These data only tell the “what,” they do not shed light on the “why.” Is it that referees have returned to keeping the whistle in their pockets, the complaint of the pre-lockout (“clutch-and-grab”) era? Is it that coaches are actively coaching styles that are more passive and thus less likely to result in penalties? Has this result been the dark stepchild of the league’s trying to introduce more skill, the idea being that more highly-skilled players are less likely to traffic in areas that would draw penalties? Are players policing themselves better?

Whatever the “why,” the “what” seems not to be in doubt. Power play opportunities, one of the aspects of the sport that make it unique among North American team sports, are in decline as measured by total chances. The result, all things being equal, is that an important wellspring of offense is drying up.

It is hardly any surprise, then, that since the lockout goal scoring has dropped from 6.1 goals scored per game to 5.3. The incidences of power play scoring have dropped more precipitously – 44.7 percent in 2011-2012 from the 2005-2006 season. More than half of the drop in total scoring of 0.8 goals/game is explained away by the drop in power play scoring (0.45 goals/game).  Here is another way to look at it. In 2011-2012, the Philadelphia Flyers led the NHL with 66 power play goals. That total would have ranked them 27th in the NHL in 2005-2006.

Something akin to a derecho has swept across the league in the last seven years. And it has knocked a lot of the power out. This has ramifications for the Capitals in that fans might be expecting new head coach Adam Oates to work wonders on the Caps recently moribund power play.  However, if the league doesn’t find a way to restore the power play on a broader scale, we will be back in the “dark” age of hockey that led up to the lockout.

(s/t to the folks over at Japers’ Rink, whose discussion on power plays led to these scribbles)

We're Seven!

Seven years.

Or, in the cosmic sense of the word, the blink of an eye.

In any case, seven years ago today, we…

“Uh, cousin…wasn’t there supposed to be a cake?”

Yeah, well. Cheerless insisted.

“You didn’t let him…”

What could I do, Fearless? He’s been watching “The Next Food Network Star” every week saying, “shoot, I could do that.”

“But his idea of haute cuisine is cheese in a can.”

“Fromage de la boite,” if you please.

“You don’t mean…”

Yeah, he’s got the whole set of Rosetta Stone French language guides. He says he’s finding his inner Julia Child.

“Well, he’s got that half right.”

Uh, oh…here he comes.

“Well…here we are…


“Gee, cousin…it’s a little like your blog. All over the place.”

Well, he gets an ‘A’ for effort.

“And apparently he ends ‘birthday’ with the same letter.”

Now, now. Let’s just remember the seven years of fun we’ve had and hope for at least seven more.

“You guys gonna cut the cake?”

Tell you the truth, I think I’m more of a pie guy.

Friday, July 27, 2012

It's All Down Hill From Here

The Capitals' 2011-2012 season ended on May 12th.  Their 2012-2013 season will begin on October 12th, a span of 153 days since last season ended.  Today is Day 76 since the 2012-2013 season ended, which means that after today, it's all downhill to the start of the new season...

...we hope.

Seminishing Returns

Alexander Semin will wear red after all.

Yesterday, the 28-year old winger signed a one-year deal with the Carolina Hurricanes paying him an even $7 million for the 2012-2013 season.  It is a 4.5 percent pay raise for a player whose goal production dropped by 25 percent in the 2011-2012 season with Washington.  In fact, it continued a distressing trend in which compensation and goal production have been going in opposite directions over the past few years:

If the trend continues, Semin would finish the 2012-2013 season with 16 goals. We're guessing that is not what the Hurricanes have in mind.

What Semin has in mind, though, is to be happy and to fit in. In his own words...

"I'm very happy to be a Carolina Hurricane...It's a great fit for me. I look forward to playing with great players, and putting together a winning season."

What about that "fit?" First of all, he fills a clear need. No winger recorded more than 20 goals for Carolina last season. No Hurricane had as many as 25 goals (Eric Staal led the team with 24). And to be more specific, Jussi Jokinen led the Hurricanes' left wingers with 12. One would think Semin will improve on that.

However, his ability to do that might depend as much on the matter of "fit." The Hurricanes were, are, and will continue to be Eric Staal's team as long as he is employed by Carolina. In that sense, Semin does not have to be "the man," expected to carry a team in a manner befitting his compensation level. The presence of Eric Staal -- and Jordan Staal, for that matter -- will allow the Hurricanes to just "let Alex be Alex." And in that situation he could thrive.

The presence of the Staals also gives Semin the opportunity to play alongside stronger centers more consistently than was the case in Washington. The Capitals' lack of depth at the position past Nicklas Backstrom has been well-chronicled. Semin often had to play with a revolving door at the position. In the last three years alone, that group might have included: Brooks Laich, Brendan Morrison, Marcus Johansson, Jason Arnott, Mathieu Perreault, Cody Eakin, and more. It is difficult to establish a chemistry with a playmaker with that kind of turnover. He should see the same center on his right more often and more regularly in Carolina.

What is much more difficult to gauge are the intangibles of fit. From a fan's perspective Semin could give off an air of aloofness, of being a sort who was on a team, but not quite (at least obviously) a part of "a team." He will be stepping into a new locker room in the NHL for the first time in quite some time, and how he fits with his teammates in terms of interaction will be interesting to see from afar.

But that is probably a bit too far of a walk down Pop Psychology Boulevard. We think that Carolina is a good fit for Semin, perhaps among the best fits of any team that might have been pondering his services. Hurricane fans will have the chance to see one of the most spellbinding talents in the league when he is on his game. But as Caps fans could tell them, they might also wonder where he is on some nights. How he maximizes the former and minimizes the latter will be the difference between returning to the 35-40 goal scorer he has been and the 16-goal scorer he is trending toward becoming.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

As Time Goes By

On the day after the Washington Capitals lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7 of the 2008 Conference Quarterfinals, we wrote:

"This team owes no one anything. Ask yourself, if you were sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner last November 22nd, and as you were taking turns giving thanks for your blessings, your crazy uncle said, “I’m thankful that we live in a town where the hockey team is going to make the playoffs,” would you have been tempted to file commitment papers?

They gave us one helluva ride…"

They were the fresh-faced overachievers – a rarity in the history of the franchise – whose future was laid out before them. It was the first step, we hoped, of a climb to the top, to a Stanley Cup championship.

Four years later, the summit still seems so far away. In fact, the Caps have been caught and passed by a number of other teams. If you look at the league standings for the 2007-2008 season, the Caps finished 12th overall among the 30 teams. But of the 18 teams finishing below them in the standings, seven have since advanced in the post-season at least as far as a conference final. Four advanced at least as far as a Stanley Cup final, and three teams – Chicago, Boston, and Los Angeles – have won a Stanley Cup:

Looking at the teams that finished ahead of the Caps in that 2007-2008 season, seven of the 11 clubs have advanced at least once to a conference final. Only four – Anaheim, Minnesota, Dallas, and Colorado – have failed to do so.

This isn’t meant to belabor the point that the Caps can’t seem to advance past the second round. We have mentioned that from time to time over the years. But there is this notion that “anything can happen in the playoffs.” Well, no, at least not to the extent the phrase implies. In these five consecutive years that the Capitals have made the playoffs, it is true that the first round of the post-season is a free for all. Of the 30 teams in the NHL, 25 of them have at least appeared in the first round of the playoffs, and 20 different teams have advanced to the second round, including the Capitals (three times).

But just as cream rises to the top, so too do the best built teams. Eight teams have reached a Stanley Cup final over the past five seasons – Detroit (2), Pittsburgh (2), New Jersey, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. With the exception of the upstart Kings, who won the 2012 Cup, these are teams that have frequently been mentioned among the league’s top contenders in the post-lockout period. And while there have been five different Cup winners in the last five years (extending the streak of non-repeat winners since 1998), all were top-four seeds except the Kings, perhaps a special case as a thought-to-be contender with serious performance issues early in the season, but one that closed with a rush and rolled through the post season.

It all creates the impression of time passing a team by in the case of the Capitals. Yes, they are a playoff contender. Perhaps a playoff favorite. But if that is going to be the bar – get in, then win – that wall that represents the second round is likely to be one they will not clear.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

On This Date in Caps History

The Caps signed Brian Tutt. Originally a sixth-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1980, Tutt was signed as a free agent on this date in 1989. He would play in seven games for the Caps in the 1989-1990 season, scoring one goal. That goal came in a 4-3 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens in Montreal on October 16, 1989.

Tutt's first (and only) NHL goal was overshadowed by the antics of Dale Hunter, who scored the Capitals' first goal of the contest. Then, Hunter got into a scrap with Craig Ludwig, and when Chris Chelios came to the aid of his teammate, it cost Chelios his participation in the remainder of the game for being the third man in. Hunter then scored the game-winner in overtime, ending Montreal goalie Patrick Roy's 35-game unbeaten streak in regular season games played at home.

Not that Tutt's contribution was inconsequential. Just 12 seconds after Montreal took a 3-1 lead in the second period on a goal by Tom Chorske, Tutt got the Caps back within one with a blast from just inside the Montreal blue line. Michal Pivonka would tie the game with just over two minutes in regulation before Hunter ended it in overtime.

source: Associated Press

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Are the Washington Capitals "1998... 2.0?"

The brain trust appears to be complete. With the naming of Tim Hunter as an assistant coach for the Capitals on Monday, the Capitals have assembled a coaching staff that draws heavily on their most successful team to date, the 1997-1998 club that played in the Stanley Cup final. Head coach Adam Oates, assistant Calle Johansson, and associate goaltending coach Olaf Kolzig starred on that 1998 Cup finalist team, and Hunter was in his first incarnation as a Capitals assistant under head coach Ron Wilson.

But the obvious link to the 1998 team aside, the coaching staff as a group has something of a personality of its own that might be a reflection of that 1998 team. Oates, the pivot around which the offense turned (18-58-76 in 82 games that season), gets his first opportunity to run the show from behind the bench. There is not a lot of “book” on Oates’ coaching philosophy or style, but the early indications are that he will inject more offense into the Caps’ play and will be an “information-driven” coach who relies a lot on video and analytics (not surprising for a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute).

Calle Johansson also gets his first chance behind an NHL bench in an assistant’s role, and if his contribution is similar to that of his playing days, he brings a solid grasp of two-way hockey and an ability to complement his playing partners. Johansson is the leading scorer among defensemen in Capitals history (113-361-474 in 983 games) and was plus-47 as a Capital. The adjectives that might apply to his playing style that could travel with him to the bench would include: steady, consistent, effective.

Tim Hunter fills the “experience” requirement among the coaches, having more than 1,000 games as an assistant in Washington, San Jose and Toronto. That experience also includes having served as an assistant when Oates, Johansson, and Kolzig were playing for the Caps in that 1997-1998 season. More than that, his style might serve a counterpoint to the analytical Oates and the steady Johansson. Hunter is one of eight players in NHL history to have recorded more than 3,000 penalty minutes and did it playing the fewest career games of the eight players. It is not to say that he is going to turn the Caps into the Seventh Street Sluggers, but Hunter certainly is acquainted with the grittier parts of the game and could serve as complement to the personalities of Oates and Johansson. As a coach, his experience and temperament could be the glue that holds things together, much as the grinders and hard-workers can be the glue that holds a roster together on the ice.

Which brings us to the matter of whether the “1998” themed coaching staff is compatible with the “2012” Capitals. It is certainly possible to make too much of this (or engage in too much wishful thinking), but there are performance similarities in the regular season numbers of the 1998 and 2012 teams. For instance, sitting at the top of the scoring heap – goals and points – is a winger. In 1998 Peter Bondra finished the season 52-26-78. Last season, Alex Ovechkin was 38-27-65. They were closely followed by centers on the points list. Oates was 18-58-56 for the 1998 team; Mike Ribeiro was 18-45-65 with Dallas last season. And there is the “injured center” who might otherwise have been a leading scorer – Joe Juneau in 1998 (9-22-31 in 56 games) and Nicklas Backstrom in 2012 (14-30-44 in 44 games).

The young forward roles might have been played by Richard Zednik (17 goals in 65 games at age 22) and Marcus Johansson (14 goals in 80 games at age 21). The hard-nosed forwards might be Steve Konowalchuk (10-24-34 in 80 games) and Brooks Laich 16-25-41 in 82 games).

On defense, for a Phil Housley (6-25-31 in 64 games) there is a Mike Green (3-4-7 in 32 games in an injury-riddled year) to fill offensive needs from the blue line. For a Calle Johansson (15-20-35) there is a John Carlson (9-23-32). For a Joe Reekie (a team-leading plus-15 in 68 games) there is a Karl Alzner (a team-leading plus-12 in 82 games).

In fact, if one compares the regular season numbers of the 18 skaters that took the ice in the last game of the 1998 season and compare them to the 2011-2012 numbers of the 18 skaters likely (for the moment) to take the ice for the Caps on Opening Night 2012, they are remarkable similar:

Even on an average production-per-man-game basis the numbers look similar at the team level:

What the 2012 team will be is younger. On average, three and a half years younger among the skaters than the comparable 1998 team. Of the Caps likely to open this coming season, only four were older than 30 years of age last season. For the 1998 team that took the ice in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final that number was ten.

The comparisons at goaltender are less obvious, unless you consider that Braden Holtby’s style and personality on the ice resemble that of Olaf Kolzig. Both are physical goaltenders with a sharp edge to their respective games. But in terms of performance, the comparisons do not yet hold up. Kolzig proved himself over the course of the regular season in 1997-1998 after assuming the duties on behalf of injured goalie Bill Ranford. He carried the Caps on his shoulders through the first three rounds of the 1998 post-season before the Detroit Red Wings swept the Caps in the finals. For Holtby, he has a total of 35 games of NHL experience (regular season and playoffs) over two seasons.  That is fewer than half the appearances Olaf Kolzig had in the 1997-1998 season alone (84, including playoffs).  And while Holtby put up fine numbers in the post-season (third among all qualifying playoff goalies in goals against average and save percentage), his numbers had the appearance of being more driven by team philosophy than were Kolzig’s in 1998.

That 1998 club was not a great one, even by the standards of the Washington Capitals franchise. Its 40-30-12 record (92 points) is 14th-best in franchise history for wins in a regular season and tied for 13th in standings points for a season. But it closed fast (12-5-2 in their last 19 games) and displayed an opportunistic bent in the post-season (5-1 in overtime games in the first three rounds of the playoffs). In engineering the roster and coaching staff for the 2012-2013 there is at least a superficial resemblance to the 1998 club that reached the Stanley Cup finals. Or, as a fan, it is what we want to see. It is not, on paper, a great team or a team that is likely to make many short lists of strong Stanley Cup contenders. But it will be managed by those who have experience in taking the “not great” on paper and doing great things. The proof, as always, will be in the performance.

Friday, July 20, 2012

How the Game is Played: Who is the Most Influential Person in the Post-Lockout Era?

Anyone with more than a casual interest in the sport of hockey in general and the National Hockey League’s brand of it in particular would probably answer the question in the title with, “Sidney Crosby,” or perhaps “Gary Bettman,” or maybe “Brendan Shanahan,” or even perhaps a generic physician whose specialty is treating concussions.

We humbly offer this name: Jaroslav Halak.

Professional team sports differ in their rules, their cultures, their uniforms. But one thing that seems to bind them together is this – they are copycats of success. If an NFL team wins a Lombardi Trophy by pounding the ball off tackle 45 times a game, you can be sure that in the off-season 31 other general managers will be looking for big offensive linemen and depth at running back. If a major league baseball team wins a World Series with pitching and defense, 29 other front offices are going to try to load up on pitching and defense (ok, that’s a bad example; every baseball team tries to do that).

Hockey is really no different. The Los Angeles Kings are the most recent winner of the Stanley Cup, and they did it with depth and brawn at forward (four of the 15 dressing for the playoffs topped 225 pounds), grit on defense, and superior goaltending. It looked an awful lot like many, if not most of the Cup winners from 1995-2004…the dead puck era. In fact, since the lockout only the Anaheim Ducks in 2007 had a lower playoff average goals-per-game (2.76) than did the Kings (2.85). Further, four of the other five Cup winners post-lockout averaged at least 3.24 goals-per-game on their way to a championship.

Which brings us to Halak. When the Washington Capitals faced the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup tournament, they had just wrapped up a regular season in which they averaged 3.82 goals per game. That mark stands not only as the highest goals-per-game mark in the post-lockout period, but is the highest such mark since 1995-1996.  It was more than half a goal per game better than the second highest-scoring team (Vancouver: 3.27).

The Capitals barely missed a beat to open the first round playoff series against the Canadiens in 2010. In Games 1-4, the Capitals recorded a total of 19 goals from ten different players. But Capitals’ fans know what came next. Halak stopped 131 of 134 shots he faced in Games 5-7, allowing but a single goal in each contest, and the Canadiens sent the Caps home for the summer in seven games.

The Capitals have not recovered, having abandoned the style that they employed to get them to the playoffs in 2010 in favor of not one, but two “defense-first” approaches to the game, losing not one, but two coaches in the process.

But on a broader scale, if you subscribe to the whole “success breeds imitation” idea (and obviously we do, or we would not have undertaken this essay), the league lost an opportunity at the hands of Halak. Had the Caps survived that series (or at least shown up for Game 5, which was lost more for lack of effort than anything the suddenly stout Halak did) and steamrolled their way to a Stanley Cup, other teams might not have continued pursuing their collective race to the bottom of offensive production that has plagued the league over the last few years. Instead, they might have tried to emulate the Capitals, or dusted off old videos of the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s or the Pittsburgh Penguins of the early 1990’s. The league would have an exciting product to market, filled with wild nights of up-and-down-the-rink skating and pinball machine pyrotechnics on the scoreboard.

Instead, we have the league slowly descending to what it was pre-lockout. The number of teams averaging at least three goals-per-game has dropped from five in the year Washington led the league (and was eliminated by Halak’s Canadiens) to four in 2010-2011 and to three last season. In 2009-2010, 23 teams had at least 300 power play opportunities. That number dropped to ten in 2010-2011 and again to three last season. Twenty-two teams had at least 50 power play goals in 2009-2010; down to 16 the following year and seven last season. Part of this might be the manner in which rules are interpreted on the ice (referees calling fewer penalties), but much might be a product of returning to the safe and sound systems that are defense-oriented.

The Capitals might have set the league on an entirely different path had they advanced in 2010 and won a Stanley Cup. It would have been the model upon which teams might have engineered their rosters or developed their philosophies moving forward. But the Caps did not advance, and teams – not the least of which was the Capitals themselves – retreated behind a wall of traps, locks, and passive forechecks; of packing in their defenses and blocking shots until games became more a product of coin-flips than the results of hockey skill.

And for that, the person we might have most to thank, perhaps the most influential person in the sport in terms of the way the modern game is played, is Jaroslav Halak.

A Day in the Life of a Hockey Blogger

You've probably asked yourself from time to time, "just what does a hockey blogger do with all his free time in the off-season?" Well, we here at Peerless Central will lift the tent flap on that mystery and give you a glimpse at the typical day in the life, so to speak...

When we rise in the morning, we might settle into our favorite lounge chair on the back porch for a cup of coffee

Perhaps accompanied by one of the treats from these fine folks...

If, after our morning repast, we feel the urge to knock off a couple hundred words or so on hockey's peerless blog, we might hop into the Peerlessmobile...

...and spend some quiet time in front of the old reliable keyboard.

But this being summer, Cheerless is no doubt getting fidgety, and he's going to want to go get some candy...

...maybe even take in a movie (he loves the cartoons).

If we have some time, we might jump into the old roadster...

...and take a spin in our private plane.

...or head out on the water in our boat.

But no summer day is complete without a trip to the ice cream parlor for a nice sundae...

When we get home, I'm usually in the mood to listen to one of my favorites, the Ramon Marquez Orchestra...

...but sometimes Fearless insists on a rousing march on the old Victrola.

While he's doing that, I might settle in to thumb through the pages of an adventure story.

Even if Cheerless is bugging me to try a chaw of tobacco...

At the end of the day, though, nothing beats a nice cold adult beverage...

Nothing beats the life of the hockey blogger.

Monday, July 16, 2012

It's a Long, Long Summer

A few days ago, we took a look at the Washington Capitals’ free agent signings over the years since the lockout. In it, we found that in the “playoff” portion of the post-lockout period (2008 to present) the Capitals have been rather inactive after mid-July following the opening of the free agent signing period. But those are not the only transactions that make up a summer. We were asked to take a look at other types of transactions – signings of the Caps’ own free agents and trades. What we are left with when looking at those transactions is this…

This being a look at the summertime activity, you might notice that the “own-free agent” signings do not include the following:
  • Alex Ovechkin (January 13, 2008)
  • Nicklas Backstrom (May 17, 2010)
  • John Erskine (December 17, 2010)
  • Matt Hendricks (February 23, 2011)
  • Mattias Sjogren (May 31, 2011)
  • Brooks Laich (June 28, 2011)
  • Dany Sabourin (May 30, 2012)
That is not to say there is no action in the summer months, but having signed Mike Green and (hopefully) John Carlson in the next few days, that would still suggest that things are winding up, personnel-wise, until we get closer to opening night.

It really is a long summer.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

So...where are those goals coming from?

Last season, the term that could describe the Washington Capitals’ offense was “middle of the road.” The Caps finished 14th among the 30 teams in the NHL in total goals scored (218 – 2.66/game). They had one player who ranked in the top-80 among goal-scorers (Alex Ovechkin). The second-ranked goals scorer for the Caps (Alexander Semin, who was tied for 85th with 21 goals) is unlikely to return. And that begs the question of where the Caps’ offense is: a) going to be made up compared to their 2011-2012 performance, and b) where it will improve from the disappointing level of performance last season.

One way to look at this is comparing performance to capacity. Among the 21 current roster players likely to be on the roster on opening night (humor us; we are assuming Mike Green is re-signed and that season starts on time), they combined for a total of 204 goals last season.* That number is likely to leave Caps fans more than a bit concerned over the prospects for the 2012-2013 season; it would have tied for 22nd in goals scored last season (with Dallas).

However, looking at goals scored-per-game among these 21 players there was the capacity to score 44 more goals. That assumes that each of the 82 players plays an 82-game season (not possible, of course, since you can dress only 18 skaters in a game). And this is where injury plays a role. Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, and Wojtek Wolski missed a total of 141 games last season (31 of the 51 games missed by Wolski was the result of two separate bouts with groin injuries). Based on their goals scored-per game last season, their absences represented 24 goals lost. Having them healthy and producing at that level could go a long way toward replacing the goals lost through the departure of Alexander Semin (21 goals) and Mike Knuble (six goals).

But even if that happens, it gets the Caps back to last year’s level of performance, itself a disappointment. This also assumes that Jason Chimera and Mathieu Perreault perform at last year’s per-game goal scoring levels. We are left with trying to divine a way to see where the Caps can improve on last year’s goal scoring total. Except for marginal improvements over some individual players who might have underperformed relative to expectations (Joel Ward and Roman Hamrlik come to mind), it is hard to see where those improvements are going to come from on this roster.

Let us try and build a goal-scoring scenario that represents a “best case.” Here is a set of working assumptions:

1. Every player having played in at least 75 games last year scores at their goals-per-game rate of last season and plays an equivalent number of games. Eight players; total goals realized: 120.

2. Green, Backstrom and Wolski each play in at least 75 games and produce at their goals-per-game level of last year. Total goals realized: 42.

3. Joel Ward and Roman Hamrlik double their goal scoring totals from last season. Total goals realized: 16.

4. Mike Ribeiro records his average goal total since the lockout. Total goals realized: 20.

5. Perreault repeat slast season’s level of performance. Total goals realized: 16

With these five assumptions, the Caps have 214 goals. To that you can add whatever contributions come from the remaining roster players not accounted for: Dmitry Orlov, Jeff Schultz, Jay Beagle, Joey Crabb, Jack Hillen, and John Erskine. Combined, the Caps might get 25 goals from this group (they scored a total of 21 last season).

That gets the Caps to 239 goals using some rather rosy scenarios. This total would have ranked the Caps seventh in the league last season, tied with Detroit. One could imagine that the Caps could add to this total merely by improving their power play. They had 41 man-advantage goals last season, a total that was better than only three teams last season (Minnesota, Phoenix, and Dallas).

Is it reasonable to assume that the Caps can scare up 12-15 additional power play goals from this roster? If they were to get those 15 goals (adding to player totals already provided in the assumptions above), the Caps would be up to 254, which would have been good for fourth in the league last season. But who is going to get them?

Using all these assumptions, one can cobble together a scenario in which the Caps are in the upper echelon of offensive performance. But this is the “best case” scenario. Injuries occur. Power plays can be inconsistent, especially when installing a new system. New players might not mesh right away. In other words, “things happen.”

All of this might just be another way of saying that those missing goals might not be on this roster, that there is still a piece missing.

* This number includes the 18 goals scored by Mike Ribeiro and the four by Wojtek Wolski.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

It's a Long Summer, Every Year...Sometimes

Fans are, by their nature, impatient. It is part of what makes them “fanatics” about their teams. And by now, not two weeks into the free agent signing period in the NHL, fans of the Washington Capitals are gnashing their teeth, balling their fists, and muttering under their breath, “sign somebody!” And that’s after the signing earlier today of free agent forward Wojtek Wolski.

Well, kids. It’s a long summer...sometimes.  It might help to see in visual form just how long it can be...sometimes...and how free agent signings can make for that long summer...sometimes.  So, here are the Capitals’ free agent signings (excluding their own re-signings) since the lockout, starting in the summer of 2005*…

(click pics for larger images)

Of course, for the cynical fan out there, you will notice that in the "playoff team" portion of the post-lockout era, the Caps have pretty much wrapped up their free agent signings by mid-July, which is...well, just about now.

* Source for pre-2012 signings: Washington Capitals Media Guide

Sunday, July 08, 2012

We've Only Just Begun...But

The Los Angeles Kings built a Stanley Cup-winning team this past season. For 29 other franchises, the construction proceeds. By appearances, some – like the Minnesota Wild, having signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter – will try to do it with splashy free contracts; others – the Philadelphia Flyers come to mind – will try to do it by moving chess pieces around in trade.

What are the Capitals up to? One could say that the latest installment of construction began with the trading deadline – an opportunity to trade assets for futures, continued through the first days of the free agent signing period, and then will continue through the summer until the Caps take the ice on opening night.

So, what have they to show for this year’s version of the process? Well…

In the two weeks ending with the February 27th trading deadline, the Capitals were one of four teams that did not execute any trades (Pittsburgh, Calgary, and Carolina being the others). One might have argued that with unrestricted free agents-to-be Mike Knuble, Jeff Halpern, Tomas Vokoun, and Dennis Wideman, that the Caps had assets to move to stock up of draft picks and/or prospects. Then again, on deadline day the Caps were one point out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference and three out of the lead in the Southeast Division. One could have made the counter-argument that the Caps were hardly out of the playoff race, and to sell off assets would have been tantamount to conceding the season. The Caps were left with two plausible arguments – one to sell in preparation for seasons to come, the other to buy to gird themselves for a playoff push. What they did was stand pat.

The Capitals made a number of minor transactions after the season ended that looked more like faint aftershocks of deals that might have been made at the February trading deadline. After the Caps dealt forward Chris Bourque to Boston for forward Zach Hamill, they traded two of those free agents to be. Tomas Vokoun was traded to Pittsburgh for a 2012 seventh-round draft pick, and Dennis Wideman was traded to Calgary for the rights to defenseman Jordan Henry and a 2012 fifth-round draft pick.

Those deals left the Caps with a total of 11 draft picks for the next big mile marker in the NHL calendar, the 2012 entry draft in June. One of those draft picks would be used as part of a package to fill perhaps the biggest hole in the roster, a second line center. The well-traveled 54th overall pick (from Boston to Toronto to Colorado to Washington) was packaged with prospect forward Cody Eakin for Dallas Stars center Mike Ribeiro. That would be the only deal the Caps would swing involving 2012 draft picks, using their remaining ten picks to re-stock its prospect pool.

And that brings us to the free agent signing period that started on July 1st. The Capitals have not generally been swimmers in the deep end of the pool of free agents, so any thought of the club signing either of the prizes of this free agent class – New Jersey forward Zach Parise and Nashville defenseman Ryan Suter – was at best idle speculation or summertime dreaming. What the Caps did do, however, was add some depth. Forward Joey Crabb, formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was signed on July 2nd. Ditto defenseman Garrett Stafford out of the Montreal Canadiens organization on July 2nd, defenseman Jack Hillen out of the Nashville Predators organization on July 3rd, and center Ryan Stoa on July 7th out of the Colorado Avalanche organization.

To that add the re-signings of Capitals’ properties Kevin Marshall, Jay Beagle, and Mathieu Perreault, plus the earlier re-signing of forward Mike Carman on June 29th and goaltender Dany Sabourin on May 30th, and it made for a relatively quiet beginning of the summer for the Capitals. The ins-and outs so far…

Taken individually, one could argue that at the trading deadline the Caps were in the midst of a playoff fight and did not have a compelling reason to effectively concede the 2011-2012 season by selling off assets such as Dennis Wideman, Tomas Vokoun, Mike Knuble, or Jeff Halpern (or Alexander Semin, for that matter). One could argue that the 2012 draft class being not especially noteworthy, the Capitals did not have a compelling reason to bundle draft picks or prospects with the aim of jumping into the top-five from their position at 11th or 16th overall in the first round. One could argue that as a rule, unrestricted free agents are overpriced relative to production. Minnesota had its reasons for signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13-year/$98 million contracts, but unless the Wild are contending for a Stanley Cup – and soon – those contracts are not going to look nearly as good on, say, July 4, 2014 than they looked on this past July 4th when they were signed.

There are 95 days from July 9th to opening night on October 12th. The Caps have added an important piece and filled a persistent hole with the acquisition of Mike Ribeiro. But it is not as if their immediate competition in the Southeast Division have been idle. Tampa Bay filled a hole at goaltender with the acquisition of Anders Lindback from Nashville, signed a top-four defenseman in Matt Carle from Philadelphia, and added depth with Benoit Pouliot from Boston. Carolina doubled their complement of Staals by obtaining Jordan from Pittsburgh to play with brother Eric. Winnipeg added some scoring depth with forwards Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky, and added depth at goaltender with Jonas Gustavsson acquired from Toronto (edit: no they didn' a reader helpfully points out, The Monster is in Motown with the Red Wings).

In the end, we are still at the beginning of the summer. But while taken individually one could argue for the lack of action taken by the Caps since February to upgrade the parent roster, the club is now left with “trades” as the remaining tool to improve the roster (unless you are holding out hope that Phoenix’ Shane Doan will exchange one shade of red for another and sign a contract with the Capitals). And one has to think that the Caps will do something in trade, because if they do not, the roster they have at the moment (the biggest change being Mike Ribeiro in and Alexander Semin out) is not likely to be considered a favorite to win the Southeast Division, let alone be considered a favorite to go deep into the 2013 playoffs. Don’t think the rest of the summer won’t be interesting.