Friday, January 27, 2012

The Cousins of the Roundtable, Part I

The All Star Game break is a time to step back, take stock, reflect, and ponder. As the brightest stars gather in Ottawa to celebrate hockey this weekend, the cousins and I have a chance to take a look at the Capitals – where they have come from in their first 48 games, where they stand, and where they might be going as the league’s 30 teams start their sprint to the finish of the season.

“In other words, you couldn’t procure tickets to the All Star Game…”

Pretty much, Fearless. But let’s get started...

The Caps made some significant roster changes from last season. Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik, Troy Brouwer, and Tomas Vokoun. Who has made the biggest contribution so far?

Fearless: One might not have thought so, perhaps, in the first 20 games, but I would go with Roman Hamrlik. True, he is on track to have his lowest goals and points totals of his career, and he had a difficult start – 1-0-1, minus-10 in his first 22 games, but since the coaching change he is 0-6-6, plus-9 in his last 22 games. But more than that, with Mike Green out, Jeff Schultz benched, a rookie – Dmitry Orlov – getting a lot of playing time, John Carlson in a funk, and the Caps resorting to bringing up Tomas Kundratek to help shore things up, Hamrlik has turned back into what folks might have expected when he was acquired – a steadying influence on the blue line, the kind of defenseman who won’t excite, but who will be consistent.

Cheerless: You forgetting about Tomas Vokoun, cuz? He’s had a season a little like Hamrlik’s – sucked early, great late. If you look at his first 22 games, ending with a four goals on 21 shots in 40 minutes performance against the Flyers that got him benched in favor of Michal Neuvirth, he was 12-8-0, .907, 2.81. He was played less like “Tomas Vokoun” – the goalie who didn’t have a save percentage for a full season since the lockout below .919 – and more like your garden variety $1.5 million goalie. But in 13 games since he returned to the lineup, he is 8-4-0, 2.17, .931. Only twice in that span has he allowed more than three goals and only three times has stopped fewer than 90 percent of the shots he faced in a game. Over the last month, as Vokoun goes, so go the Caps.

Peerless: I’m going to put in a plug for Troy Brouwer here. Of all the new acquisitions, he has been consistently as advertised – he hits, he goes into tough places, he will mix it up and agitate, and he is on a pace to set a career best in goals (24). Five of the 14 goals he has so far are game-winners, and that leads the club. I'm a little surprised at his versatility, or at least his being applied to different situations.  He has been able to contribute to a scoring line or to a checking line. He is fourth among forwards in shorthanded ice time; he gets almost as much power play time (2:06 per game) as Alexander Semin (2:26). He is much like Brooks Laich in his ability to play in a variety of situations, but with more of an edge to his game.

OK, guys, what surprised you most in the first half of the season?

Cheerless: Ovi. Not in a good way, either. Not for all this All Star Game crap. That is going to be forgotten by next weekend. It’s just that when he came to camp in September, it all looked like it would come back together for him. He looked like he was in better shape than last year; he looked like he had more focus than he had too often last season. He even though he had a decent start to the season -- 5-4-9 in his first nine games – it wasn’t any better than the start he had last season (4-5-9). Then, in his tenth game, he got benched for that last shift in regulation against Anaheim. In his next 12 games he had three goals, the Caps went 4-7-1, and his coach got fired. In 25 games since Bruce Boudreau left, he is 12-10-22, so he seems to be getting some of his game back. But keep in mind that after 47 games last season he was 16-30-46. This year, he is 20-19-39.

Fearless: John Carlson. Perhaps young defensemen are more prone to ups and downs early in their careers than forwards, but Carlson has had a curious season. The optics of his play give the impression he lacks awareness. Only five defensemen in the league have been on the ice for more goals (he was tied for 88th last season; and among the 30 defensemen playing all 82 games, only four were on the ice for fewer goals). What is especially confounding about his play is that he looks a bit lost in the system Dale Hunter is employing. He played for Hunter at London for a season and put up fine numbers (16-60-76, plus-23, in 59 games). He is only 1-10-11, minus-5 since Hunter took over and 0-4-4, minus-8 in his last 21 games.

Peerless: Dale Hunter. There is a bright line between the responsibilities of player and that of coach, between those who toil and those who manage. But we would have thought this team might have taken on a bit more of the Hunter personality as player. We don’t mean the nasty, sharp-elbowed, in your face personality of Hunter the player, but the simple matter of aggressiveness. The Caps have been – are, as a matter of fact – a quite passive team offensively. They have been consistently and significantly out-shot, out-attempted, and out-chanced by their opponents since the change behind the bench. The Caps have gone 19 straight games without more than 30 shots on goal; they have topped 20 in only three of their last seven games. I don’t think anyone would confuse Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter in terms of approach, but I don’t know that anyone might have expected this team to struggle so much in terms of puck possession and the ability to generate offense from it.

Well have more from the cousins and the roundtable in the next edition.

“Cuz, why do they call it a roundtable when we’re sitting at keyboards?”

Save it for next time, Cheerless…