Monday, June 04, 2012

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Forwards: Brooks Laich

Brooks Laich

Theme: “The value of identity of course is that so often with it comes purpose.”
-- Richard Grant

“We’re making the playoffs…We’re not talking worst-case scenario. We’re making the playoffs….There’s probably games in October that you wish you had or November or whatever, but over the course of 82 games your team identity is going to be revealed. And either you are or you aren’t a playoff team. There’s really no gray area.”

Fair enough. When Brooks Laich uttered those words on a local radio talk show on April 4th, the Caps were hanging onto a playoff spot by the thinnest of margins, a tie-breaker over the Buffalo Sabres, with whom they were tied in points for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

It was a rather bold pronouncement, given that the Caps were coming off a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning and had split their last four decisions, both wins coming in the Gimmick. The Caps made good on Laich’s sort-of guarantee, though, winning their final two games to secure the seventh seed in the East. But that reference to establishing an identity over an 82-game season works for individual players as well as the team.

Before that 82-game season started for Laich and the Capitals, Laich signed a six-year contract extension worth $27 million. If he was not one of the “Young Guns” – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, and Nicklas Backstrom – he was certainly now one of the players around whom the team would be built. The expectation that comes with such a commitment by the club is that the extent he could marry identity to purpose would go a long way toward determining the club’s success.

So, if an 82-game season establishes an identity, what was Laich’s?

After 82 games, it was hard to tell. First, a bit of context. From the time he joined the Capitals organization, his production was an unbroken upward climb. He had seven goals in 73 games of the 2005-2006 season, followed by seasons of eight, 21, 23, and 25 goals. Points were largely the same – 21 points followed by a hiccup of 18, but then 37, 52, and 59 points in 2009-2010. His plus-minus followed the arc of the club over that period, starting with a minus-9 in 2005-2006 and ending with a plus-16 in 2009-2010. And he became a power play producer as well, jumping from a single power play goal in 2005-2006 to 12 such markers in 2009-2010.

But in 2010-2011 all of those numbers dropped. From a 25-34-59, plus-16 mark, with an 11.3 percent shooting percentage in 2009-2010, he fell to 16-32-48, plus-14, 7.7 percent in 2010-2011. This season, with the newly minted contract, the hope was that Laich would return to something approaching those 20-plus goal, 50-plus point seasons.

It did not start that way. Other than a three-assist, plus-3 effort in a 5-4 overtime win over Anaheim on November 1st, his start to the 2011-2012 season was not a fast one. Absent that three-assist, plus-3 effort against the Ducks, Laich was 3-4-7, minus-5, over the other 15 of his first 16 games.

Curiously enough, though, Laich caught a spark just as the team was careening downward toward Thanksgiving and what would ultimately be coach Bruce Boudreau’s firing. Laich was 2-2-4, plus-1 in the four games immediately preceding Thanksgiving, but it was not nearly enough to prevent the Caps from getting pasted by Toronto (7-1) and the New York Rangers (6-3) around one-goal wins over Phoenix and Winnipeg. But Laich continued to be sharp at an individual level. In 12 games from November 17th to December 9th he was 5-5-10 to give him a 7-12-19 scoring line over 28 games. He was on a pace to be that 20-goal/50-point player (actually, 21-35-56).

But over his last 54 games Laich was 9-13-22 on his way to a 16-25-41 scoring line for the season. That was a relatively meager 14-20-34 pace over those last 54 games. As it was the goal total was unchanged from the 2010-2011 season, and the assists and points were down from the previous season. Whereas his first five full seasons with the Caps were characterized by an almost unbroken upward progression in his summary statistics, he now experienced drop-offs in each of the past two seasons.

And his underlying numbers were not very strong, either. Among the 15 Capital Forwards playing in at least 20 games, Laich had the third-worst Corsi value on-ice at 5-on-5 (numbers from shooting percentage (7.98/10th) plus on-ice save percentage (.918/8th) made for his PDO value at 5-on-5 ranking ninth among these Capital forwards. He did, however, face the stiffest competition at 5-on-5 of any Capital forward playing in at least 20 games, while his quality of teammates ranked 12th. In a way, he was not dealt a winning hand. To this add the fact that he had the third lowest offensive zone start shares among these forwards (43.1 percent), and it made for a difficult terrain to negotiate to realize decent offensive numbers.

One other set of numbers that painted an unfortunate picture in terms of production – at 5-on-4 Laich had only the eighth best shooting percentage/on-ice among Capital forwards playing in at least 20 games and recording at least one minute of ice time per 60 minutes. For someone who needs to have the keys to the bakery as part of his power play scoring repertoire, this was not a hoped for level of efficiency.

At the other end, at 4-on-5 his on-ice save percentage was only fifth best among Caps forwards with the same inclusion criteria, and Laich led the club’s forwards in ice-time per 60 minutes at 4-on-5.

Odd Laich Fact… Brooks Laich was something of a monster against the Southeast Division: 7-9-16, plus-7, 11.5 percent shooting percentage in 24 games against the other teams of the division. However, against everyone else he was 9-16-25, minus-15, with a 6.9 percent shooting percentage in 58 games.

Game to Remember… November 1, 2001. The Anaheim Ducks waddled into Verizon Center on the first day of November and went out to a 3-0 lead before the half-way point of the game. But the Caps mounted a comeback, in no small part fueled by Brooks Laich. He had the primary assist on the Caps’ first goal, scored by Joel Ward at 13:23 of the second period. He had the primary assist when Dennis Wideman scored barely three minutes later. Then, he had an assist on the game-tying goal by Nicklas Backstrom with just 42 seconds left in regulation. He finished the night with three assists, plus-3, three shots on goal (six attempts), and two hits in being named the third star in the Caps’ 5-4 overtime win.

Game to Forget… February 22, 2012. On this night when the Capitals visited the Ottawa Senators, the Caps had barely gotten warmed up when they fell behind, 2-0, Laich being on ice for both goals against in the first period. Ottawa added a pair in the second period to push their lead to 4-0, and Laich, perhaps out of frustration or one last gasp of trying to change momentum, took on Zach Smith in a fight six seconds after the fourth Senator goal. Laich might have won the fight, but he would also be on the ice for one more goal – an empty-netter with 1:13 left – and the Caps lost, 5-2.

Post-Season… Like so many Caps, it was just not quite enough in the end. Laich had a goal in each of the two playoff rounds and finished with seven points in 14 games. His playoff goal-scoring has been spotty – four in his last 27 games. But in this post-season he did lead all Capital forwards in blocked shots (even today, before Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals, he ranks second in this statistic among forwards), and he had only two giveaways in the 14 games in which he played.

In the end… Brooks Laich did not have a bad season, but given another drop in numbers from the previous year, it cannot be counted in the “good” column, either. He had his opportunities, getting more than two minutes of power play ice time per game (but recording only nine points compared to 13 the previous year, although with more ice time – 2:59/game). His production had the impression of being “off” almost across the board. And having his numbers drop for a second consecutive year, one wonders what Laich’s identity will be going forward. A second-line winger? A third-line center? A jack-of-all-trades who is deployed at even-strength, shorthanded, and with a man-advantage? Settling that matter will be no small issue in determining how far the Caps can yet progress on their way to a Stanley Cup.

Grade: C

This Year's Team to Copy

Kevin Paul Dupont, senior staff writer for the Boston Globe, tweeted this morning:

As all hockey fans know by now, Mike Richards (12-year/$69 million deal signed in December 2007 with the Flyers) and Jeff Carter (11-year/$58 million deal signed in November 2010 with the Flyers) were traded by the Flyers – Richards to Los Angeles in June 2011; Carter to Columbus in June 2011, then from Columbus to Los Angeles this past February. Philadelphia has Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Nick Cousins, and a second round draft pick in 2012. Columbus has Jack Johnson and a first round draft pick (2012 or 2013) for their trouble.

Meanwhile, the Kings are two wins away from a Stanley Cup.

One might be tempted to say that trading for players with long-term, high-value contracts should not be an impediment to teams looking to add the last piece to the puzzle, that clubs might take a look at players on long term deals whose teams are underperforming relative to the expectations that drove such large deals. It also might mean that teams might be willing to part with such players on long-term/high-value deals in return for young talent.

We think this misses the point. Whether you draft that player who will eventually get that big deal (Alex Ovechkin, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter) or trade for that player (Richards, Carter, ???), the real trick is in how a team builds around that player. Richards and Carter are especially good examples, because they are both that player drafted and that player for whom a trade was made.

The team that drafted them – the Philadelphia Flyers – built a solid team around Richards (a 24th overall pick in 2003) and Carter (a 2003 11th overall pick). The team that made the 2010 Stanley Cup finals had a productive Danny Briere, up-and-comers in Scott Hartnell and Claude Giroux, a solid veteran in Mike Knuble, and a sturdy defense with Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Matt Carle, and Braydon Coburn. But it lacked what Flyer teams always seem to lack – competent, or at least consistent goaltending. It was perhaps more than ironic that the Stanley Cup-clinching goal for the Chicago Blackhawks against the Flyers in that 2010 final should have been scored on a soft goal from deep in the corner against a journeyman goalie, Michael Leighton (who since that night has played in only three NHL games). Having a Richards and a Carter did not help the Flyers to a Cup, their trip to the finals in 2010 being their high-water mark since the lockout.

But in Los Angeles? Richards and Carter arrived separately, but to a team with many of the building blocks already in place for a Stanley Cup run. First, consider that the Kings as recently as 2008-2009 finished the regular season with a 34-37-11 record and out of the playoffs. Only six skaters having played in at least half the regular season games for that squad remain on this year’s edition of the Kings – Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Matt Greene, Anze Kopitar, Jarret Stoll, and Justin Williams. To that add goalie Jonathan Quick. That was the Kings’ “core.”

But consider that the Kings also would add to that core such as Rob Scuderi, Willie Mitchell, and Dustin Penner from other organizations. Or that they would see players such as Trevor Lewis and Slava Voynov develop from within to take regular turns in the lineup. That they would get unexpectedly pleasant contributions from home-grown players such as Jordan Nolan and Dwight King in this post-season.

Richards and Carter are big pieces, to be sure, but pieces only, nonetheless. Having them makes the Kings a good team – perhaps a very good one. But it is in what the Kings had built otherwise that makes them the heavy favorite to close out the New Jersey Devils and win their first Stanley Cup.

We do not think that the experience of the Kings in obtaining Richards and Carter is something other teams would be wise to emulate. Not if they think that by trading for a mega-contract they think that is the key to winning a championship. Think of the teams from which those players might come and why they are not winning with those players on their rosters. Chances are it is in what was built around those anchor players that does not measure up more than those anchor players themselves.

And as for the matter of the teams who have those players with large contracts who might be inclined to move them. Philadelphia did quite well in its return for Richards and Carter. The skaters they have should be among the best collection of any team in the Eastern Conference for some years to come. But what did Columbus get for Jeff Carter and his mega-contract? Moving that contract had its charms on the basis of salary cap relief alone, but Jack Johnson and a draft pick? Hard to think that the Blue Jackets broke even on that deal on the hockey merits, let alone improved themselves.

If a team has not shown an ability to build a solid team around a player with a large contract, how does one conclude that it will, with high probability, improve itself by moving that contract? There are 23 roster spots on a hockey team, and chances are that a winning team is going to get meaningful contributions at some point during the season from just about all of them if they are to win a championship. NHL teams might copy the Kings in how they added large contracts; others might copy the “sellers” to rid themselves of large contract in favor of volume and futures. Either way, you can probably count on a lot of disappointed fans for teams that go down those paths.

2011-2012 By the Tens -- Forwards: Mike Knuble

Mike Knuble

Theme:“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
-- Dylan Thomas

(click pic for larger image)

On the first day of last September’s training camp, the Capitals were subjected to a series of timed sprints with controlled recovery times to test players’ fitness level. For a player turned 39 years old with over a thousand regular season and playoff games in his rear-view mirror, it might have been the kind of test that left Mike Knuble lagging far behind his more youthful teammates. But it turned out that Knuble was one of a few Capitals who handled the test well.

But within a week, Knuble’s spot as the right wing on the first line – the position he held since coming to the Caps via free agency in 2009 – was in jeopardy, under challenge from another new acquisition, Troy Brouwer.

On opening night, though, there was Knuble stepping onto the ice with his regular linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin 20 seconds into their game against the Carolina Hurricanes. Even when Knuble recorded two goals in his first nine games it was not a concern. In his best goal-scoring season (2005-2006, when he had 34 goals for the Philadelphia Flyers) he had three in his first eight games. Even last season, when he finished with 24 goals – his eighth straight season with more than 20 – he had but one goal in his first 14 games. Hot starts were not generally a part of his history.

But this time, after he got those two goals in his first nine games, Knuble would go his next 16 games without one. He had played himself onto a third line with Cody Eakin and Marcus Johansson in that 16th game in the streak and was averaging in the low teens in ice time. He broke the goal-less streak with a score against Florida on December 5th, but then would go his next 34 games before getting another one.

By this time – March 13th – Knuble was now becoming a healthy scratch as often as not, and when he was playing he was getting third and fourth line minutes. When the regular season came to an end, Knuble had six goals in 72 games, the fewest of any season since he had one in nine games in his first season with the Detroit Red Wings in 1996-1997. His 18 points were his lowest point total since he had 14 in 54 games with the Boston Bruins in 2001-2002.

Nowhere, perhaps, was the abrupt fall-off in production more evident than on the power play. Knuble came into the season with 62 power play goals in 451 regular season games since the lockout. He finished the season with 62 power play goals in 523 games since the lockout. His ice time on the man advantage was cut by more than half from the 2010-2011 season – from 183:48 to 82:16 in total ice time and from 2:19 to 1:08 in power play ice time per game. His failure to record a single power play goal was the first time that happened since that 2001-2002 season in Boston when he played in only 54 games.

Overall, Knuble’s underlying numbers were weak. At 5-on-5 only Cody Eakin (among Capital forwards playing in at least 20 games; number from faced weaker competition, while Knuble’s quality of teammates was third highest among the 15 Caps forwards playing in at least 20 games. His raw Corsi value at 5-on-5 was worst among this group of Caps forwards, and his PDO value was second worst. He did not benefit from a comparatively large share of offensive zone starts (46.0 percent, 10th among these 15 forwards), especially when compared with last season (55.0 percent, third highest among Capital forwards), but this does not explain the stark dropoff in summary and underlying numbers.  Here is how his numbers fared compared to last season:

Odd Knuble Fact… Knuble had a fairly respectable goals-against/on-ice per 60 minutes (2.37, tied with Jason Chimera for seventh best among Capital forwards), but the utter inability to produce or at least be present for goals scored (1.44 goals-for/on-ice per 60 minutes) meant that Knuble had by far the worst differential of goals-for/goals-against on ice per 60 minutes (-0.93).

Game to Remember… March 19, 2012. It came in the city where it started for Mike Knuble. Heading to Detroit (the Wings drafted him in the fourth round in 1991) having recorded goals in two of his previous three games, Knuble was on what would be his only “hot” streak for the season. He made it three games in four with a goal when Mike Green started a play with a stretch pass from deep in his own end to the Detroit blue line. Mathieu Perreault corralled the puck and fed it off to Jason Chimera on his left. When defenseman Brendan Smith moved to occupy Chimera, Knuble filled the space down the middle. Chimera fed the puck across, and Knuble buried a wrist shot behind Jimmy Howard to give the Caps a 2-0 lead in the first period. Knuble would add an assist later and would be named the game’s third star in the 5-3 Capitals win in Detroit.

Game to Forget… February 7, 2012. In his previous four games, Knuble saw his ice time reduced from 19:50 to 15:07 to 13:13 to 8:31. He had only four shots on goal over those four games (no points) and was a minus-5. On this night against the Florida Panthers – a night that would see Alex Ovechkin net a pair of goals, with Jason Chimera and Mathieu Perreault chipping in one apiece in a 4-0 win – Knuble would not record so much as a shot attempt, and only his two hits served as marks on his score sheet line in 10:07 of ice time. He would be scratched for the first time in the 2011-2012 season in his next game and would be scratched in nine of his next 14 games overall.

Post-Season… Knuble sat for the first three games of the Boston series, but with the Bruins taking a 2-1 lead in games and the Caps in need of some more bulk in the lineup to offset the Bruins’s physical edge, Knuble returned to the lineup for Game 4. He would get a goal in Game 5 in Boston and record one of the most important assists in Capitals’ history when he stormed in on Tim Thomas in overtime in Game 7 and shot the puck on the Boston netminder, the rebound popping out to Joel Ward for the series-clinching goal. Against the Rangers, things would not work out quite as well. He did have a goal in Game 2 in a 3-2 Caps win, but was otherwise held without a point for the series. One thing to note, though, is that while Knuble finished the regular season tied for a team-worst minus-15, he did not have so much as a single game as a minus player in the post season. He was on ice for only one goal scored against in 11 games and 100:25 of ice time.

In the end… it was not the way one would have wanted the season to go for Knuble, one of the classiest men ever to wear a Capitals sweater. It was especially difficult to watch in that it is very likely his last season in Washington. At age 40 when next season starts (assuming for the moment there is a “next season” this fall), the Caps need to get younger and faster to compete with the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Players such as Mathieu Perreault will be competing for more ice time, and those such as Cody Eakin will be angling for a permanent roster spot. But through all the ups and downs this season, Knuble was a professional. He clearly chafed at his diminished role at times, but when one has played at the pinnacle of his sport for a thousand games, it is hardly surprising. Knuble might not go gentle into that good night of his career, but he will do so proudly, in a manner that serves as an example to younger players, and that does credit to him and his career.

Grade: C+

(photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America)