Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Cousins of the Roundtable, Part IV

We continue this little interlude with two more questions of a forward-looking nature. Let’s hope the cousins are up to it.

The NHL trading deadline is 3:00 p.m. (EST) on February 27th. The Caps have 14 games to go before that date, so there is some time to find out if they will be a buyer or a seller. Which will they be?

Fearless: A buyer. Of the 14 games to go between now and the deadline, seven of them will be against Southeast Divisions teams, and three others will be against teams below them in the standings. The Caps will not win them all, but they should be favored in all of them (Cheerless…” cough-road games-cough”).

Cheerless’ juvenile commentary notwithstanding, the other four games will be against strong teams such as Boston, the Rangers, and San Jose, but two of those are at home (the Caps will be at Madison Square Garden to face the Rangers on February 12th). If you look at the 14 opponents and their respective win-loss records at home; then compare them to how they fit those records into the Caps’ schedule, they have a combined 168 wins in 340 games. That’s a roundabout way of saying that it is not as tough a schedule of opponents as it could be.

Cheerless: Fearless, you are a certifiable, 200-proof idiot. The Caps scrooed the pooch getting to this point, cuz. They’re gonna be sellers. Take a good look at those 14 games until the deadline. Nine of them – nine! – are on the road. They have a three-game road trip coming out of this break; then they have a four-game trip in the middle of next month. Last time I looked, and that was about two wags of a dog’s tail ago, the Caps had the third worst road record in the Eastern Conference. Only Carolina has a worse road record in the Southeast, for cryin’ out loud.

Then there is the matter of whether Mike Green comes back healthy and effective, and whether Nicklas Backstrom comes back at all this season. Who is a number one center on this team with Backstrom out? Who is a number two center when he’s in? And this team hasn’t figured out a way to string a lot of wins together. Since the seven-game streak to start the season, the Caps have two winning streaks of more than two games, the same number of losing streaks of more than two games since then. Hard to see how they suddenly do more than tread water, and that schedule ain’t lookin’ too good, and it’s gonna be hard to be a buyer when you’re falling out of the playoff group. The Caps made their bed in the first half, and now they have to pay the band in the second half.

Peerless: Neither, at least in the sense a contender is looking to add the last pieces, and an also-ran is looking to sell assets for futures. The Caps have too many holes to think that adding a player like a Jason Arnott, or a Dennis Wideman, or a Sergei Fedorov is going to be the piece that makes them a good bet to go deep in the playoffs. The team has not displayed enough depth or production to warrant that kind of a conclusion. But there will be no selloff, either. One thing that will probably signal whether the Caps are going to be a “buyer” is what happens to Jeff Schultz. If he is traded at the deadline, it will not be for a top-six forward or a top-four defenseman. But packaging him with something else could yield an asset that could be valuable for the playoffs. If the Caps hold onto him, then perhaps it is a signal that they are going to cast their lot with this roster and for Schultz to regard it as a lost season for him, the aim being that perhaps next year he can be a more consistent contributor.

If the Caps do a face-plant out of the gate to start the second half, then one wonders what will happen to Alexander Semin.  The Caps could then become sellers, accelerating what some (ok, we) presume, that Semin will not be re-signed. He could be a valuable asset for a team looking for a forward with a history of scoring goals (whatever his performance this season). That is on the daring end of the spectrum in terms of team shake-up. But the fact is that the Caps have stumbled their way to their place on the edge of the playoffs. They have given little evidence that things are going to change by magic in the second half. And Cheerless, in his convoluted way, has a point – the Caps didn’t do enough in the first half, and now with the schedule putting them on the road, where they have not done well, things do not look promising.


So, you have offered your points of view on buying and selling. Who – or what positions – are bought and sold?

Cheerless: Heck, just about anybody with an expiring contract could be moved. It wouldn’t be the yard sale the Caps had a few years ago, but if the Caps are going to do some renovating, then maybe they start now instead of the summer. Even if they are not a “seller,” they might have to be a “seller.” The Caps don’t seem to have much, if any room to add a piece without sending out a piece. That might be the “Schultz” argument – sending out a player who does not fit into the team’s short term plans for a player who can help them down the stretch. The buyer would have to be a team thin on defense that is out of contention who wants to move an older player or expiring contract.

Fearless: The Caps do not seem to have much room to maneuver here and might have to buy in what amount to chewable bites. They might have to move money out as part of a two-step that brings in another player. In that instance, the first part that deal might not mean much except for what money it frees up. There might not be much return in that part of a deal. As for need and the kind of player the Caps might be bringing in, they have the perennial problems to solve – a second line center and some scoring support on the lower half of the forward lines. Another adept puck mover from the blue line might be nice to try to reverse this nasty trend of getting out shot, out attempted, and out chanced by opponents.

Peerless: One difficulty the Caps will face is that by the end of the month, there might be only half a dozen or so teams that are truly out of contention, the usual suspects for finding a spare part or two. Who might be a trading partner? Columbus has two forwards that might be of interest in Vaclav Prospal and Samuel Pahlsson. If Montreal drops further out of contention, perhaps a Travis Moen comes into play. Anaheim has a number of forwards on expiring contracts, but the Ducks are 8-1-1 in their last ten games and are showing signs that they might yet challenge for a playoff spot.

The point here is that there would not seem likely to be a clear fit of the sort Jason Arnott was thought to be last year, and a bombshell like having Sergei Fedorov come to D.C. is hard to see happening. If the Caps are to be buyers at the deadline, it would seem this year will be more like 2010, when the players obtained – Eric Belanger, Joe Corvo, and Scott Walker – probably were not on anyone’s radar but might have had fans thinking, “OK, that makes sense.” Let’s just hope that if they do go in that sort of direction, it makes more sense after the deals than was the case in 2010.

That Was The Week That Was -- Week 16 (January 22-28)

There was hockey not of an all-star game sort this past week, so let’s take a look at what the Caps did…

Record: 1-0-1

It could have been better, and it could have been worse. Getting three points out of four has to qualify as a pretty good week, though, given the opponents. The Caps went to Pittsburgh to face a team that had won five in a row and managed to get a point out of it, even after falling behind, 2-0, in the first period. But the Caps did have a lead in that game, taking a 3-2 lead early in the third on a goal by Alex Ovechkin. Pittsburgh evened it later in the period, but the Caps halted any further Penguin marches and squeezed out a standings point, even as Evgeni Malkin converted a friendly bounce off the end boards for a 4-3 overtime winner. The Caps returned home to win in unexpected fashion against the Boston Bruins, 5-3, the first time the Caps scored five goals in a game in 21 games. It made for the first week since Week 11 that the Caps did not lose a game in regulation and only the second time since their seven game winning streak to start the season.

Offense: 4.00/game (season: 2.81/rank: 9th)

Last week it was five goals on 80 shots on goal (6.25 percent); this week, eight goals on 43 shots (18.6 percent). Neither would seem to be the norm. But what does seem to be the norm is that inability to get shots on goal. With 20 against Pittsburgh and 23 against Boston, the Caps now have gone 19 consecutive games without going over 30 shots in a game, and they have been outshot by opponents in 16 of those 19 games (their last ten in a row). They are, however, 11-6-2 in those games. We do not see this as a long term recipe for success.

Individually, it was the Mathieu Perreault Show this past week. Perreault was 3-2-5, plus-4, including his first career hat trick in the 5-3 win over Boston. The Alexes – Ovechkin and Semin – each had a three point week, both going 1-2-3. Ovechkin got his in one game, having to sit out the second game of the week as a result of his suspension for a hit on Pittsburgh’s Zbynek Michalek in the 4-3 overtime loss last Sunday.

Defense: 3.50/game (season: 2.81/rank: 18th)

It is a broken record by now, but the Caps were badly out-attempted in shots this past week. Opponents launched 145 shots toward the Caps net, and 59 of them got through, seven of them for goals. Compare that to 100 shot attempts for the Caps, 43 of which made it to the net, eight of which found their way over the goal line. The Caps just are not doing a very good job of keeping opponents out of the Caps' own end. They are now allowing 2.5 more shots at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes than they are getting for themselves (numbers from that might not sound like much, but there are two things to consider here. First, that 2.5 shots is 9.2 percent more shots than the Caps are getting. Second, let’s say that a typical goalie’s save percentage at 5-on-5 is .920 (a reasonable conclusion, since 20 of 38 goalies having played at least 20 games have that mark or better). Caps goalies have to have a save percentage of ,927 just to stay even. What is Tomas Vokoun’s save percentage at even strength? You guessed it, .927. Which brings us to…

Goaltending: 3.45/.881

Can’t call it a great week, even with the strength of competition. Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth split the work this week, each getting a game and each allowing at least three goals. If there was a ray of sunshine, it was that the two combined to stop 19 of 20 third period shots in the two games. Trouble is, that one goal tied what was a 3-2 game in Pittsburgh, and the Penguins went on to win in overtime. If anything, this week was an early warning that some fine goaltending that had gone to waste over the previous month might be normalizing a bit, and that is not a good thing. Tomas Vokoun allowed three goals to Boston, and that makes three in a row and six of his last eight appearances in which he allowed three or more goals. The Caps are 2-4-0 in those six games. Neuvirth has allowed three or more in three of his last five appearances (one of those appearances being a 20 minute stint in which he allowed one goal on eight shots). If the goaltending starts to sputter, and the Caps’ offense cannot find its rhythm, this team is toast for this season.

Power Play: 0-for-5/0.0 percent (season: 18.5 percent/rank: T-12th)

In the space of two weeks, the Caps have dropped seven places in team power play rankings, this week dropping four places on the 0-for-5 effort. They managed only two shots on goal in eight minutes of man-advantage time, including 19 seconds worth of 5-on-3 time and 1:13 of 4-on-3 time. Sure, Boston and Pittsburgh are good penalty killing teams (seventh and fourth, respectively, in penalty killing), but this was just short of awful, the only mitigating factor being that the Caps were missing their biggest power play weapons in Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, and Nicklas Backstrom against Boston, against whom they had no shots on goal on their only opportunity.

Penalty Killing: 5-for-7/71.4 percent (season: 80.8%/rank:23rd)

Well, at least they didn’t drop any more places in the league rankings. Other than that, it was not a very good week. The Caps have now allowed at least one power play goal in eight of the last nine games in which they faced at least one shorthanded situation. They are 28-for-38 over that span (73.4 percent) and have a record of 4-4-1 in those games. Allowing nine shots in 8:27 of penalty killing time isn’t awful, but the Caps are slowly digging themselves a hole by allowing power play goals on what is has become a regular basis. It is just one more thing that has to be corrected if this club is to have a chance at making the playoffs.

Paying the Price: 59 hits/46 blocked shots (season rank:14th/9th)

The Caps keep getting chances to block shots, so they block shots. Another two games this week with at least 20. On one level, that’s a good thing. The Caps are showing a willingness to try to make things easier on their goaltenders. On the other hand, it is a symptom of a lot of shot attempts against – the Caps blocked more shots this week (46) than they had shots on goal of their own (43). And there is this. The Caps rank ninth in the league in blocked shots. Of the eight teams ahead of them, only three – Minnesota, the Rangers, and San Jose – are among the playoff eligibles of their respective conferences.

Faceoffs: 55-for-116/47.4 percent (season: 51.1 percent/rank: 8th)

Faceoffs – another element that seems to reflect the inability of the Caps to start and keep plays going in the offensive end. Going 55-for-116 for the two games this week is by no means awful, being three wins short of a 50 percent week, but it is the numbers by zone that continue to be troubling. The Caps took 27 draws in the offensive zone this week (winning 13) and took 51 in the defensive zone (winning only 23 of them). That the Caps would earn three points for the week while starting plays in the defensive zone by almost a two-to-one margin compared to starts in the offensive zone either speaks to their goaltending or to a bit of Perreault-fed luck (or poor Boston defense in the 5-3 Caps win).

Turnovers: plus-3

One cannot help but think that this week’s results were a reflection of the scoring differences one finds from rink to rink. The Caps and Penguins combined for only 11 turnovers in the 4-3 Penguins win last Sunday in Pittsburgh (the Caps being minus-3 in that game), while the Caps and Bruins combined for 42 turnovers in the 5-3 Caps win on Tuesday at Verizon Center (the Caps finishing plus-6). Boston had a particularly sloppy game that played a pivotal role in the Caps’ win. On balance, though, there was not much to take away from the turnover numbers this week.


A 1-0-1 week is not to be sneered at, but the way the Caps won these points is not the kind of method one can or should count on over the last 34 games of the season. They had to claw back from an 0-2 hole on the road to get a point in the first game of the week, then they had the benefit of an opponent playing a poor defensive game to get a win in the other contest. Make no mistake, that win was a good one, coming as it did while the Caps skated with three big pieces out of the lineup in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green. But in neither game did the Caps mount any consistent offensive pressure, and they showed cracks in their defense and goaltending in giving up seven goals in the two contests.

We made a point a couple of weeks ago that the Caps had six games on each side of the All-Star break that could very well make or break their chances to make the playoffs. We speculated on their chances to match their standings points mark last season after 54 games, which would come at the end of this 12-game stretch. Well, having finished the first half of that stretch of a dozen games with a 3-2-1 record, even a sweep of their next six games would leave them short of last year’s points mark after 54 games (they can finish with 67 points in 54 games, compared to 68 last season). And given the way the Caps have lurched from winning to losing in short spurts over the last two-and-a-half months, no reasonable person should be thinking “sweep” in the next six games.

The Caps have played this season like the story about a frog in a pot of water. Turn up the heat too fast, the frog jumps out. But if the water is heated gradually, the frog doesn’t have a clue what is happening until it is too late. The Caps have avoided the long losing streak for the most part this season, not having one of more than four games so far. But they have lost often enough in bits and pieces that the heat has been turned up gradually on their chances to make the playoffs. And if they don’t make something of these next six games, when the schedule favors them with four divisional games and another against a team behind them in the standings, the Caps might find themselves cooked.

The Cousins of the Roundtable, Part III

We are Day Four of the All Star break, and the cousins have been helping out in our look back at the first half. So let’s see…what to look at next.

Who is the most valuable player of the first half for the Caps?

Fearless: Nicklas Backstrom. Sometimes you do not know how valuable a player is until he is out of the lineup, and the fact is that the Caps are only 5-4-1 since Backstrom was elbowed by Rene Bourque in a 3-1 win over Calgary in the first game of the new year. When the Caps skated off with their 3-1 win over Calgary on January 3rd – a game in which Backstrom assisted on all three goals – the Caps were averaging 2.97 goals per game, ninth in the league in offense.

Since then, the Caps have a total of 22 goals in ten games. They have scored more than three twice in that span and have been shut out twice. In the first 16 games under Dale Hunter, the Caps wouldn’t make anyone think of a Gatling gun with their shots on goal, but they were averaging 26.2 shots per game. Since Backstrom went out, that has dropped to 21.6 shots per game. In those first 16 games under Hunter, with Backstrom in the lineup, the Caps were 11-for-45 on the power play (24.4 percent). In the last ten, with Backstrom out, that has dropped to 15.4 percent on 4-for-26 success. Backtrom’s value has been underlined by his absence from the lineup. He is the most valuable player of the first half for the Caps.

Cheerless: Well, if Backstrom is out, it’s good that Tomas Vokoun is in. He didn’t have such a good start with the Caps, even though he had a good record. Under former coach Bruce Boudreau he was 10-5-0, but he had a goals-against average of only 2.82, and his save percentage was only .905. And even after there was a change behind the bench, there were a few potholes on the way – Vokoun played in only five of the first 11 games under Hunter. He was 2-3-0, 2.80, .912 in those games.

Vokoun has played in 13 of the Caps’ last 15 games, though, and over that span he is 8-4-0, 2.17, .931. Although two of the losses came in the road trip out to California – Vokoun gave up four goals in each of the 5-2 losses to San Jose and Los Angeles -- in the other two losses the Caps were shut out.

Peerless: Well, you guys covered the obvious choices, so we will put in a plug for Dennis Wideman. The Caps have employed ten defensemen so far this season, but that number does not reflect the churning that has taken place on the blue line. Only three defensemen – Wideman, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson – have played in all 48 games; only four have played more than 30 games so far. With Mike Green hurt, Jeff Schultz benched, John Carlson having an up-and-down year, and Dmitry Orlov getting significant minutes as a rookie, Wideman has provided some semblance of stability on the blue line. Like a lot of Caps, he had a bumpy ride early. In 22 games under Bruce Boudreau, Wideman was 3-10-13, minus-6, but even that 22-game stretch could be cut in half. He had a difficult time in the second 11 games of that stretch, going 0-3-3 and a minus-14.

That has turned around with the change in coaches. Since Dale Hunter took over, Wideman is 6-15-21, plus 6 in his last 26 games. He is 3-7-10 on the power play, which has made up a large portion of the power play production one might have expected from Mike Green. If we could only keep him from playing teams from the state of New York. In seven games against Buffalo, the Rangers, and the Islanders, Wideman is 0-1-1, minus-8. He is 9-24-33, plus-8 in 41 games against everyone else.


Let’s assume that the Caps need to have the Young Guns firing with a little more frequency in the second have than they did before the All-Star Game. Who from among the rest of the players on the roster needs to raise his game from his first half performance for the Caps to make the playoffs?

Cheerless: Joel Ward. In his first dozen games with the Caps, Ward was 4-3-7, plus 6, and the Caps were 9-3-0. Since then, Ward is 1-6-7, even, and the Caps are 17-16-3. Even his four goals in his first dozen games was a bit of a stretch. He got them on a total of 12 shots. In his last 35 games he has that one goal on 39 shots. Of course, not all of the Caps’ slump can be placed at Ward’s feet, but it just goes to show that the Caps need to have some secondary goal scoring to jump up in the standings. And then there is this. In three seasons in Nashville, Ward averaged about two minutes of shorthanded ice time per game, never ranked lower than fourth in any season among Nashville forwards and second among Predator forwards in 2009-2010. He is averaging about half of that with Washington – 54 seconds per game – eighth among Caps forwards. Would Ward, and the Caps for that matter, benefit from his having more time a man down?

Fearless: John Carlson. One might have thought that having played for a season in juniors for Dale Hunter, that Carlson might have thrived in Hunter’s system. That has not been the case, at least so far. In 22 games skating for Bruce Boudreau, Carlson was 4-8-12, plus-5, and had only five “minus” games in all. But under Hunter, Carlson is 1-10-11, minus-5, and has had a total of 11 “minus” games in the 26 he has played under the new coach. His goal production has declined in step with his shot production – 54 in 22 games to start the year, only 42 in 26 games since the coaching change. More specific to his position, he has spent too much time and too many instances of seeing pucks head into his own net. To date this season, only five defensemen have been on the ice for more goals against. Part of that is ice time (he is second on the team to Wideman in total ice time per game), and part could be due to his assuming some more responsibility in the absence of Mike Green, but the 61 goals for which he has been on ice this season is almost equal to his entire total for last year (66). That is going to have to improve in the second half.

Peerless: I'm going to pull rank here and cheat by taking Alexander Semin. The fact that Alexander Semin has only 12 goals has to be considered something of a surprise. His pace of 21 goals for the season would leave him with a career low for a full season (he had 10 in 52 games as a rookie in 2003-2004). But looking for a cause does not seem to be a long trip. In 44 games so far, Semin has 89 shots on goal. His 13.5 percent shooting percentage is not far off his career average (14.4 percent). However, he is on a pace to finish with 158 shots on goal, about 30 percent lower than his average season shots on goal over the last five years. His shooting percentage is about half as high under Dale Hunter (9.6 percent) than it was under Bruce Boudreau (18.9 percent), even though his shots are up (2.26 per game versus 1.76 under Boudreau). Getting more production from Semin is going to be an important ingredient in ensuring the Caps finish these last 34 games of the season well.