Monday, September 30, 2013

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 1: Capitals at Blackhawks, October 1st

The Peerless Prognosticator is BACK ON THE AIR!!!

That’s right, kids. It has been 141 days since we did one of these, and we hope you’ll forgive us if we are a little rusty. Since the last time we prognosticated in anger, a lot of things have gone on…

  • Mike Ribeiro picked up his cool hat and moved on to Phoenix
  • Wojtek Wolski went to the KHL.
  • They figured out the mechanism that causes human allergies to cats.
  • Matt Hendricks went to Nashville.
  • Pluto’s fourth and fifth moons were named “Kerberos” and “Styx.”  Wait…what?! When did Pluto get five moons?
  • Joey Crabb went to Florida, which has become the Island of Misfit Toys.
  • Two Popes were named saints.
  • Caps held development camp, and everyone was impressive. Some more than others.
  • A new language was discovered in Australia… “Light Warlpiri” (still waiting on “Heavy Warlpiri”).
  • Tom Poti is still looking for work.
  • The Duchess of Cambridge gave birth to a baby boy, who has already been linked to a bevy of starlets in the tabloid press.
  • The Caps signed Mikhail Grabovski.
  • Will and Mack got engaged.
  • A youngster named Connor Carrick was the hit of training camp and made the team as a 19-year old one year removed from his being drafted.
  • The United States government finally acknowledged the existence of “Area 51.”
  • Tom Wilson made the team.
  • Grand Theft Auto V sales hit the $1 billion mark 3 days after its release in stores.
  • Mathieu Perreault was traded.

But now it’s time to start the 2013-2014 season…on time, for a change. And what better way to do it than to be the foil for the Stanley Cup champions at their banner raising. That’s right, the Caps get to open their 39th season of hockey (some would argue their 31st season… God only knows what to call what they were playing those first eight years) in the Windy City, paying a visit to the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center. Guess we’ll get an early measuring stick to see where the Caps stand as a contender. In the meantime, here is how the clubs finished the season…

1. Chicago finished 4-0-2 in the preseason, one of three teams to finish without a loss in regulation. Five of their six games were one-goal decisions, four of them in extra time, three of them ending in a trick shot competition.

2. Despite winning the Stanley Cup in two of the last four seasons, the Blackhawks come into this season with a sub-.500 franchise record. At 2496-2535-814-97 (.497 points percentage), they rank 21st of the 30 teams in franchise points percentage.

3. Since the 2004-2005 lockout, Chicago is 3-3-2 in home openers. Six of the eight games were one-goal decisions, three of them going to the trick shot competition.

4. Last season Chicago finished in the top five in: standings points (1st), scoring offense (2nd), scoring defense (1st), 5-on-5 goal ratio (1st), penalty killing (3rd), shots on goal per game (5th), shots allowed per game (4th), shot differential (2nd), winning when out-shooting their opponent (1st), winning when being outshot by their opponent (4th), winning when scoring first (1st), winning when trailing first (2nd), winning when leading after one period (2nd), winning when trailing after two periods (1st). On the other hand, their power play finished only 19th.

5.  Chicago had 17 players finish the 2012-2013 season with at least ten points.  They accomplished that feat in 48 games.  In 2011-2012 they had 18 players reach that level in 82 games.

1. Washington finished 4-0-4 in the preseason, another of the three teams to finish the preseason without a loss in regulation time.  Six of the eight games were one-goal decisions, all of them went to extra time, and four of them finished with a Gimmick.  The Caps were 2-4 in those one-goal decision games.

2. Since 2006-2007, the Caps have alternated wins and losses in their road opener. Last year, they lost at Tampa Bay, 6-3. The Caps have opened the road portion of their season in Chicago only once. It was not pretty. The Blackhawks beat the Caps, 8-4, on October 19, 1980. That was a big night for the home team, too. It was the night the Blackhawks retired their first player number. Stan Mikita was the honoree.

3.  Only nine of the top 12 scorers from last year’s squad return for the Capitals in 2013-2014; those nine are the only returning double-digit point getters from last season.

4.  No team won more games when trailing at the end of two periods last year than the Caps.  They won five such games (tied with St. Louis and Anaheim).  They also won the most games (nine) when trailing after one period.

5.  When Adam Oates won 27 games as the Caps head coach last year, it was the fifth highest win total for a Caps head coach in his first season (not bad, considering he did it in 48 games).  That would be more than the combined first year win totals of Roger Crozier, Milt Schmidt, Tom McVie, and Glen Hanlon (a combined 25 wins) in 107 games.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Chicago: Patrick Sharp

Sure, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are the Butch and Sundance of the Chicago Blackhawks, but lost in the accolades bestowed upon that pair is the performance of Patrick Sharp.  Since the 2009-2010 season, when the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup since the 2004-2005 lockout, the eleventh-year veteran is third on the team in total goals (98, behind Toews and Kane), third in points, third in plus-minus, third in power play goals. 

He did this despite last year missing 19 regular season games to a shoulder injury.  He was right there again, though, in the 2013 playoffs, finishing first on the team in goals, third in points, first in power play goals, tied for the team lead in game-winning goals, and first in shots on goal.

Washington:  Eric Fehr

Since the Caps started on their six-year playoff run in 2007-2008, the top scorers are familiar names.  Alex Ovechkin is first, Nicklas Backstrom is second, Mike Green (among players still with the team) is third.  Would it surprise you to know that among players on the opening night roster, Eric Fehr is fifth?  He was one of only eight players in the league to play in 41 or fewer games and finish plus-14 or better.  And, he save the best for last.  Of his nine goals, three were scored in the second period, four in the third, and two in overtime (both against Boston).  He has faced Chicago only twice, recording a goal an assist.


1.  Ceremonial Stiffness.  This will be the celebration of the Stanley Cup banner-raising in Chicago with the attendant pomp and ceremony.  That means more sitting around than usual after the pre-game skate around.  The Caps can’t let a combination of stiffness and the Blackhawks’ adrenaline put them behind the eight-ball early.  And that’s something the hawks did often last year; they were 26-2-1 in games in which they scored first.  If the Caps can get out of the first ten minutes tied, consider it a plus.

2.  Shoot!  The Blackhawks have few weaknesses, but goalie Corey Crawford facing a lot of shots might be one of them.  Last season he was 4-2-2 when facing more than 30 shots (15-3-3 when facing 30 or fewer).

3.  Feel the Power.  The Caps were 10-5-2 in road games in which they scored a power play goal.  They were 2-5-0 in their other road games.  Win with power.

In the end…

Caps fans are likely to read a lot into this game, more so if they lose.  But it is a good measuring stick to see where the Caps are, and more important, where they need to go.  Chicago might not win a second consecutive Stanley Cup, but until proven otherwise, they are the class of the league. 

The trick for the Caps is going to be containing the Blackhawk offense.  Chicago was 11-1-0 when scoring at least five goals.  They were 9-5-4 when scoring two or fewer.  This is something the Caps are certainly capable of; they held 21 opponents to two or fewer goals last season and went 18-2-1 in those games.

Capitals 3 – Blackhawks 2

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 1

We are at the end.  Fearless is down to the last element – actually the first – in the periodic table of the elements.


Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.  It constitutes about 75 percent of the known mass of the universe and is the predominant element in stars.  Here on earth we know it as a gas in its native state that is plentiful (mostly as a constituent of water and organic molecules) and highly combustible.  It is highly flammable in air and will burn along a wide range of concentrations.  It can form explosive mixtures that may be ignited by electrical discharge, heat, or even sunlight.

Its discovery dates back to the late 1600’s when Robert Boyle, an Irish chemist (among other pursuits), who was fiddling around with iron filings and dilute acids.  The reaction produced hydrogen gas.  It would not be until almost a century later that Henry Cavendish, a British chemist and physicist, recognized the discrete nature of hydrogen, which he called “flammable air.”  This was part of that whole “phlogiston” theory thing (phlogiston being an element released as a result of combustion).  Despite that little detour down Peiodic Table Lane, Cavendish is credited with the discovery of hydrogen.  As for its name, that was the product of the French chemist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, who name it “hydrogen,” a combination of the Greek words for water (“hydro”) and for creator (“genes”).

Hydrogen serves as an element to be consumed in a number of industrial processes, oil and chemical production being two of the most important.  It is also used in welding processes, in electricity generation, leak detection, and nuclear fission processes.  It can be found in automotive, chemical, power generation, aerospace, and telecommunications applications.

One of its most infamous applications was its use as the lifting gas in airships.  Its flammable characteristics revealed themselves with disastrous consequences when the airship Hindenburg exploded in flame as it was approaching its mooring mast at Lakehurst Naval Iar Station, New Jersey, following a trans-Atlantic flight. The accident on May 6, 1937 effectively ended the use of hydrogen gas in airships.

We are left, finally with the element of elements.  Hydrogen, with its simple atomic structure of a single proton and a single electron, is among the most important elements in the universe.  It is essential to life on earth, mostly as a constituent of water.  It is reactive, even flammable across a wide range of conditions.

In the end, it is not unlike a part of Capitals Nation that occupies a uniquely elemental place in the life of the franchise.  It is abundant and certainly reactive (especially when the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, or Pittsburgh Penguins come to town).  It is essential to the life of the franchise, for without it, nothing else results.

Hydrogen… the “Washington Capitals Fans” of the periodic table of the elements, the element from which all other elements derive and have purpose.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Unique Capital

Thinking about the trade on Sunday of Mathieu Perreault to the Anaheim Ducks, if you look back at the history of the Washington Capitals, you could make the argument that Mathieu Perreault is unique.  Perreault is that player who, as the last player the Caps picked in the 2006 NHL entry draft (177th overall)), became “the little player that could.”  Undersized, with all the baggage that goes with that sort of thing in as physically demanding a league as the NHL is, Perreault painstakingly climbed the development ladder, one rung at a time, until he made it. 

After he was drafted, Perreault spent two more seasons with Acadie-Bathurst Titan in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before graduating to the Hershey Bears in the AHL.  His apprenticeship at Hershey reflected slow but steady progress in terms of the number of games he played there and those he played when called up to Washington.  In 2008-2009 he spent the entire season in Hershey, playing in 77 regular season games and another 21 in the playoffs.  The following year his games played in Hershey dropped to 56 in the regular season, while he was brought up for 21 regular season games in Washington.  The scales tipped a bit more the next season – 34 games in Hershey, 35 in Washington.

Finally, in 2011-2012, his apprenticeship was complete.  He spent the entire season in Washington, playing in 64 games and surprising with 16 goals, tied for fifth on the team with Brooks Laich. 

Looking back over the draft history of the team, it is hard to find a parallel to Perreault, a player taken in the sixth round who climbed high enough to play in 159 regular season games for Washington.  Only one player from the 2006 draft drafted lower than Perreault – Derek Dorsett (189th overall) has played in more NHL games than Perreault.

If you go back into the distant past of the franchise, perhaps a parallel could be drawn with Wes Jarvis, a 14th round pick in the 1978 NHL amateur draft, and like Perreault, a somewhat undersized center.  He, like Perreault, split time between Washington and Hershey over a three year period, but in his case, the splits weighted more toward Hershey over time, unlike Perreault.  He would be traded in 1982 with goaltender Rollie Boutin to Minnesota for goalie Robbie Moore and a draft pick.  It was a trade of little consequence for the Caps.  Moore played in one game for Washington, and the draft pick became Anders Huss, who never played in the NHL.  Jarvis went on to play in 93 more games for three different teams but not making much of a mark.

Maybe Andrew Brunette comes to mind.  He was a seventh round pick in 1993 (174th overall) whose perceived disadvantage was not size, but speed.  He climbed through the ECHL (with Hampton Roads) and the AHL (with Portland and Providence) before he got his shot in Washington.  He never could seem to catch on, though.  Over three seasons he played in a total of 62 games, recording 18 goals in the process.  He was lost to the Nashville Predators in the 1998 expansion draft.  He developed a reputation for having great hands and a goal-scoring touch.  After leaving Washington he went on to record 250 more goals in 1,048 games with five different teams.

Perhaps Richard Zednik is an apt comparison.  Zednik was a 10th round pick in 1994 (249th overall).  He spent two years with the Portland Winter Hawks in the Western Hockey League before graduating to the Portland Pirates in the AHL in 1995-1996 (he got one game in Washington that year).  He split time between Portland and Washington the next season and graduated for good in 1997-1998.  Once with the team, “Zed” became a fan favorite.  There was quite an uproar when he was traded (with Jan Bulis and a draft pick) to Montreal in the midst of a stretch run for Trevor Linden, Dainius Zubrus, and a draft pick in March 2001.  After leaving Washington, Zednik went on to score another 137 goals in almost 500 games for four teams (including a brief return to D.C. in the 2006-2007 season).

Perreault, however, seems unique.  Just the optics of it.  A slightly built, mop-haired youngster playing center in the National Hockey League in the land of the giants.  A kid who kept plugging at every stop on the development ladder, always (it seemed) dogged by the perception that he was too small or too offense-oriented, to too something else.

But now, he will play on the left coast, reunited with his coach from Hershey and Washington, Bruce Boudreau.  And the return?  John Mitchell (a minor leaguer two years older than Perreault) and a mid-round draft pick.  Not much, it would seem, for a player who averaged 18 goals per 82 games over his last two seasons.  For the Caps, we suspect it will be a trade of no consequence.  The Ducks will get a guy who, if nothing else is said about him, certainly has the virtues of perseverance.

Good luck, Matty.

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 2

Two elements left.  We have come so far in Fearless’ winding journey through the rows and columns of the periodic table.  And now, we are down to …


It is colorless, tasteless, odorless, non-toxic, and inert.  It exists only as a gas except in very extreme conditions.  It is the second-most abundant element in all the universe.  Its formation dates all the way back to the “big bang” at the dawn of creation of the universe as we have come to know it, although it continues to be produced as a product of nuclear fusion in stars.

Here on earth it was discovered… not on earth.  Pierre Jules César Janssen (known simply as “Jules” to his chemist pals) found evidence of helium in 1868 when he was making observations of the chromosphere of the sun.  Trouble is, Janssen thought what he discovered was actually sodium.  It was up to Norman Lockyer, an English chemist, to figure out that what it really was, was an element not found on earth.  Lockyer and his chemist partner, Edward Frankland, named the element “helium” for the Greek word “helios,” meaning “sun.”

The trick now was to find it on earth.  That would be credited to Luigi Palmieri, a physicist who detected it in analyzing lava of Mount Vesuvius in Italy.  Detecting it was one thing, finding it in volume was another.  Fast forward to 1903 and an oil well in Kansas, near its border with Oklahoma.  While drilling for oil, a gas geyser erupted, but the gas did not burn.  Erasmus Haworth, a geologist, collected and analyzed samples of the gas and found that more than ten percent of the gas was a heretofore unidentified gas (the rest of it being nitrogen, methane, and hydrogen).  Further analysis revealed that much of the unidentified gas was helium. 

Helium has a number of applications… arc welding, wind tunnels, leak detection, solar telescopes.  But it really comes down to two uses.  One, as a gas lighter than air and chemically inert, it can be used in flight applications – balloons, airships, and even in some rocket fuel production processes.  The other is as a party gag, where drunken college students can inhale the gas from party balloons to alter the resonant frequencies voices (that is, make them sound like Donald Duck after smoking marijuana).

So there it is.  A lighter than air element, named by Norman "Lockyer"… analyzed and discovered to exist in large volumes in the American Midwest by Erasmus "Haworth.”  And, perhaps its most widely known use is for occasions such as this…

Sounds like a former Capital with a nickname that sounds like “Lockyer,” who played with a teammate named “Haworth.”  A former player who has become an on-air fixture in Capitals games, but one who has a distinctive “resonance frequency” to his voice all alone.

Helium… the “Craig Laughlin” of the elements of the periodic table.

Countdown to Opening Night by the Elements: Number 3

We are almost done… well, Fearless is.  Just three more elements of the periodic table to go.  Number 3 is…


Lithium is the lightest and least dense of all the metals.  That does not make it unreactive.  It is quite reactive, in fact.  So much so that it is often stored in mineral oil to keep it from oxidizing in air.  It is so reactive that it does not occur freely in nature, only in compounds.  It possesses a high conductivity character at very low temperatures.

It has a modest history in terms of its discovery.  That is, if your starting point is a mine in island in fact (sounds a bit like the beginning of “Jurassic Park”).  But there it is, a Brazilian chemist, José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva by name, discovered a grayish, yellowish crystalline substance on the island of Utö, southeast of Stockholm (I won’t hazard a guess as to how it came to be that a Brazilian chemist was excavating on an island in an archipelago in Sweden in the year 1800).

Seventeen years later, a Swedish chemist (Johan August Arfwedson) working for another Swedish chemist (Jöns Jakob Berzelius...geez, all these Swedes!) took a sample of this crystalline substance – named “petalite” – and discovered that it contained a new element.  The boss – Berzelius – took it upon himself to name it, calling it “lithion,” for the Greek word “lithos,” meaning “stone” (imaginative, eh?).

Now that it was discovered and given a name, it had to be put to use.  And it has quite a variety of uses: ceramics and glass production, batteries, lubricants, welding and soldering processes, fireworks (where it contributes a red color), air purification, polymers, rocket propellants, as a neutron absorber in nuclear fusion (which has military applications), and as a coolant in nuclear reactors.  It might be most widely known as an element used in compounds to treat bipolar disorders.

What you have is an element that is unstable in air, yet reactive.  It was discovered “southeast” of a major city in Scandinavia (you’re pushing it, Fearless…).  It has a wide range of uses, but most of them in common applications or industrial processes.  It is quite conductive at low temperatures.  Sounds something like a player who has had “stability” issues physically, say, with his shoulders.  A player who played with two teams in the Southeast Division, including twice with the Caps.  A player who spent the NHL lockout playing in Scandinavia.  It occasionally can have some pop.

Lithium… the “Eric Fehr” of elements of the periodic table.

Washington Capitals 2013-2014 Previews -- A Six-Pack

The NHL provides that teams may carry 23 players on their rosters.  And as we head into the regular season there are going to be players on the edge who might be sent down to juniors (Tom Wilson), to the AHL (Tyson Strachan, Dmitry Orlov, Tomas Kundratek), or…well, we just don’t know (Connor Carrick).  Do we have anything to say about these guys?  You bet we do…

Tom Wilson

It would be hard to think that any player this September gave (and still gives) Washington Capitals management more cause to think than Tom Wilson.  The 16th overall pick in the 2012 entry draft is, even at just 19 years of age, the mix of size, skill, and edginess that has been lacking on the club since, well, a long time.  The problem for the Caps is that Wilson has no AHL option.  It is either a roster spot with the parent club or back to Plymouth in the Ontario Hockey League, in accordance with an agreement between the NHL and the umbrella Canadian Hockey League organization that provides that a player not having reached his 20th birthday or having played in four years in major junior hockey is not eligible to play in minor professional hockey leagues (AHL or ECHL).  Wilson has completed three years with the Plymouth Whalers. 

Scoring three goals and participating in two fights in his five preseason games has made things tougher on the Caps’ front office, but complicating the matter is payroll.  The Caps have $665,705 in cap room at the moment for 22 roster spots (13 forwards, seven defensemen, two goaltenders; source:  Given who would be expected to be retained by the club, if the Caps choose to keep 13 forwards, one would have to be moved to make room for Wilson on the roster.  Even if they were inclined to carry 14 forwards, Wilson’s $1.3 million cap hit would push the club over, making necessary a move in that case.

By the time you read this, the matter might already be settled, since NHL clubs have to get down to rosters of no more than 23 players and under the $64.3 million salary cap by 5:00 p.m. (Eastern) on Monday.  Wilson has been getting a long hard look in preseason, and we suspect that the club is trying to clear a roster space to allow him to stay with the club.  However, with a lot of other clubs in the position of having to trim their rosters to get to the 23-man limit on Monday, it could prove to be a hard chore.  That the Caps have an option with Wilson to return him to juniors means that they could be less inclined to holding what amounts to a “garage sale” sort of deal that does not return value.  We think that come Monday, Wilson will be back in Plymouth.  But we are not very confident about that forecast.

Tomas Kundratek

It was a mild surprise that Tomas Kundratek was placed on waivers on September 25th.  If there was a time to do it, though, that was the time.  With clubs heading into the last weekend of the preseason and having their own waiver decisions to make, their making a waiver claim on a third-pair defenseman was a chance the Caps were willing to take.  It worked.  Kundratek cleared waivers.

That might not be the end of it, though.  Kundratek was 1-6-7 in 25 games last season for the Caps before suffering a leg injury in a game against the Carolina Hurricanes on March 14th that ended his season.  He certainly has a salary cap-friendly hit of only $550,000, but is in a bit of a logjam with the other right-handed defensemen on the roster (Mike Green, John Carlson, Steve Oleksy, Tyson Strachan.

Although he did surprise somewhat with his offense last season, his possession numbers left a bit to be desired.  His 5-on-5 Corsi/on-ice was sixth among eight defensemen playing in at least 20 games for the Caps (only John Erskine and Jeff Schultz were worse), and his Corsi relative (on-ice less off-ice value) was also sixth among the eight defensement. His PDO (sum of team on-ice shooting and save percentages) was second worst among the defensemen (only Jeff Schultz had a lower value).  He compiled these numbers while having the highest share of offensive zone starts (52.0 percent) among the defensemen playing in at least 20 games.

Still, he could serve as one of those guys who is on a short list for call-up in the event of injury or poor play.

Projection: 13 games, 1-3-4, minus-3

Tyson Strachan

Much of what we just wrote about Tomas Kundratek also applies to Tyson Strachan.  He was placed on waivers on September 28th.  At this writing we do not know if he cleared or was claimed.  We suspect, though, that he will go unclaimed and follow Kundratek to Hershey for the same reasons.

There are, however, differences in their situations.  In Strachan’s case, he is not an especially gifted offensive player (he has one goal in 120 career games).  And, he has no history with the Caps, having spent his NHL career in St. Louis and Florida.  Last year with the Panthers, his possession numbers were alright (by Florida standards), ranked in the middle of the pack among Panther defensemen in his Corsi numbers at 5-on-5.  However, despite 54.2 percent offensive zone starts, his PDO value was second worst among seven Florida defensemen playing in at least 20 games.  In fact, only six of 210 defensemen in the league playing in at least 20 games had a lower value at 5-on-5 than his 953.

He is likely to be a fill-in of a different type than Kundratek.  Where Kundratek is more of a “skill” based defenseman, Strachan has more of a physical edge.  He could be an option in the event a John Erskine goes down (and remember, Erskine has played in more than 55 games only once in seven seasons in Washington).  His size (6’3”, 215) and edge (12 fights in 120 NHL games) makes him more suited to that role.

Projection: 12 games, 0-1-1, minus-2

Connor Carrick

Can’t say we saw this one coming.  Two years with the U.S. national development team was enough for the Caps to take a flyer on Connor Carrick in the fifth round of the 2012 entry draft.  Last year he skated in Canadian major junior hockey (Plymouth Whalers) and had a respectable 12-32-44, plus-27 scoring line in 68 games, plus 18 points in 15 post-season games.  He came to Caps development camp last July and impressed.  He was invited to training camp and apparently really impressed.  As of this writing he is still on the roster (he played 22-plus minutes in the Caps 4-3 overtime loss to Chicago on Saturday night).

He almost certainly will not make the parent roster this season, but he has played himself into a tough decision for the front office.  It is not on the order of the decision the Caps have to make concerning Carrick’s junior teammate Tom Wilson, but they have to ponder whether Carrick would be served better by a return to Plymouth or an assignment to Hershey.

In five preseason games he was 1-4-5, plus-1 ( keeps pre-season statistics).  His five points put him in a tie for 13th among Eastern Conference skaters and tied for fifth among defensemen.  Only 20 players in the league have more pre-season ice time at this writing (he leads the Caps in total ice time).  He is getting a long look and doing the most with the opportunity.

Dmitry Orlov

Dmitry is something of the lost prospect.  In 2011-2012 he was among the rookie defenseman leaders in assists and points, and developed a local reputation as being quite fond of the hip check.  Last year his season might have been a victim of the lockout that delayed the start of the season.  Without having had the opportunity to start the season in Washington with the Caps, he was skating with the Hershey Bears in a December 6th game at Verizon Center against the Norfolk Admirals when he suffered a concussion, likely the product of a hit he sustained early in the first period.

Orlov played in only 31 games for the Bears and only five for the Capitals last season, stopping his development in its tracks.  Instead of growing into a second pair role with the club, he is fighting for a roster spot in pre-season 2013.  At the moment he appears to be on the outside looking in, at least in terms of cracking the starting lineup.  John Erskine, Jack Hillen, and Steve Oleksy would appear to have the inside on the last three starting spots on defense.  Hillen and Oleksy have the added bonus of carrying lower salary cap hits than Orlov ($900,000)

The not-too-subtle hint about Orlov is that he needs to develop a more rounded two-way game  The upside for him is that as a left-handed defenseman he faces less congestion for a spot on the ice than he would if he was right-handed.  For the moment Orlov seems to be the odd-man out in the Caps’ blue line plans, but the grind of an 82-game season suggests he will get some time to show he is recovered and back on an upward development path.

Projection:  20 games, 2-4-6, minus-2

Philipp Grubauer

Philipp Grubauer’s march through the Capitals development path has been unremarkable by its consistency and steadiness.  Drafted in 2010 (fourth round, 112th overall), a year in the Ontario Hockey League (Kingston Frontenacs, a year in the ECHL (South Carolina Stingrays), and last year splitting time between the Reading Royals in the ECHL and the Hershey Bears in the AHL.  He even found time for a cup o’ coffee with the Caps last year – two games in which he faced 59 shots in 84 minutes.  That works out to 42 shots per 60 minutes.  Well, he didn’t lack for work in his short stay.

Grubauer got about a game’s worth of total minutes in the pre-season before being sent back down to Hershey (he stopped 19 of 20 shots in his pre-season debut with the Bears, a 6-1 win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton).  His 2.57 GAA and .923 save percentage in limited duty seems about where he ought to be, with a full year in Hershey to come as part of his apprenticeship.  There is no rush in bringing Grubauer along, and our expectation is that absent injury, he will not see action for the Caps this season.

Last season the Caps dressed 28 skaters and three goaltenders.  That means that there very well could be players dressing for the Caps this season in addition to those we covered in our previews.  That’s part of what makes each NHL season interesting, to see who gets a chance that you might not have expected when the season started. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Washington Capitals 2013-2014 Previews -- Goaltenders: Braden Holtby

Braden Holtby

Theme: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
-- Winston Churchill

Talk about having had two different seasons.  When Braden Holtby stumbled out of the gate at the delayed start of the 2012-2013 season, Caps fans might have had the thought, “it was nice while it lasted.”  Holtby, who started his career with a 2.02 goals against average and .929 save percentage in his first 21 career regular season games, went 3-4-0, 4.04, .870 in his first seven appearances of the new season.  Yeah, there was a shutout in there, but c’mon.  It was against Florida, a team that won two of their previous nine games in regulation going into that game. 

He looked lost…quite literally.  He was spending as much time trying to find his position in the crease as in tracking and turning away pucks.  Then he started to turn things around.  It was not a flip of a switch, by any means.  It was a three-game stretch in which he allowed eight goals but faced a ton of shots in doing so (107).  He even lost two of those games.  But stopping almost 93 percent of the shots he faced in those games marked a turning point for Holtby.

Only three times in his last 29 appearances of the season (including that three-game turning point) did Holtby allow more than three goals in an appearance.  In those 29 appearances he was 20-8-1, 2.26, .930, with three shutouts.

Overall, Holtby won 23 games in 36 appearances and posted a save percentage of .920 overall.  How many goalies in the last 20 years, age 23 or younger, posted a season with at least 20 wins and a .920 save percentage or better?  Six: Tuukka Rask, Andrew Raycroft, Carey Price (twice), Henrik Lundqvist, James Reimer, and Holtby.  If you are looking at that .930 save percentage in his last 29 appearances and ask yourself how many goalies age 23 or younger over the past 20 years posted at least 20 wins and at least a .930 save percentage in a single season, the answer is “Rask.”  That’s it.

Fearless’ Take…

Let’s extend that conversation for a moment.  Holtby has been in the league for three seasons now, having appeared in 57 games.  In that time seven different goaltenders have been named finalists for the Vezina Trophy.  How does Holtby compare to that group in terms of their respective first 57 appearances in the NHL:

Holtby has more wins and a higher save percentage than any of them, and he is second in goals against average to Henrik Lundqvist (parenthetically, it seems odd that 57 games into his career Holtby has yet to post a “no-decision” in an appearance).  And, he is consistent.  He has those spells when he looks ordinary (or worse), but he avoids losing streaks.  He has not lost three decisions in a row since his third, fourth, and fifth career games in 2010.  And, he has not yet lost three consecutive decisions in regulation in his brief career.  He’s a battler.

Cheerless’ Take…

He does have his moments.  Eighteen goals allowed in his first four appearances in 2012-2013.  Eight in his first two appearances in 2011-2012.  Eleven in three appearances in November 2010.  And it is not as if that is limited to the NHL.  Last year he had a 12 goals in four games stretch in November, 14 in four games in November 2011 and another 14 in four game stretch in December 2011, 19 in five games in February/March 2011.  Then there was the five goals on the first 20 shots he faced in Game 7 of the playoffs last spring.  Then there is that whole wandering thing...

The Big Question… The Next Big Step or the Next Big Stumble?

Braden Holtby’s performance over his first three years in the league compares more than favorably with similar game tracks of goalies who would be Vezina finalists the past three years.  Then again, there are goalies who start fast and fall quickly – Steve Mason won 33 games and a Calder Trophy in Columbus in 2008-2009, but he is 67-81-20 since and is trying to reassemble his career in Philadelphia.  Andrew Raycroft won a Calder Trophy in 2004, but he went 78-87-17 with five teams over the next seven years and played last year in Italy.  Then there is the Caps’ own Jim Carey, a first team all-rookie team goalie in 1995 and a Vezina Trophy winner in 1996.  Three years later, after going 26-35-4 with three different teams, he was out of hockey altogether.

Holtby has been prepared well, at least in the opinion of the Capitals’ brain trust.  As Capitals general manager George McPhee put it, "We think we've developed [Holtby] properly.  We've taken our time. We think he can really have a big year for us."  One could agree with that, given that Holtby served a diligent apprenticeship in South Carolina (12 games) and Hershey (107 games) before assuming the number one duties on a full-time basis last season with the Caps.

None of that, though, is a reliable indicator of future growth, and one area in which he has to break through involves this: 17-20.  That is his win-loss record in the post-season with South Carolina, Hershey, and Washington.  He has played well in those settings (a .912 save percentage with South Carolina in one post-season series, a .931 save percentage in 21 post-season games in Washington), but “great” goalies not only play well, they win at that level of play.  It is, then, still an open question whether the 2013-2014 season represents the next big step for Holtby or, well, something else.

In the end…

Hockey is a young man’s game.  This might be true more for skaters than for goaltenders.  Here’s the thing.  Cam Ward won a Stanley Cup at the age of 21 in 2006.  Since then, the average age of Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders is 29.  The youngest of that group is Marc-Andre Fleury who was 24 years old in 2009 (Holtby just turned 24). 

However, few goaltenders in the last 20 years have compiled an early-career resume as impressive as Holtby’s.  In the last 20 years only five goalies have played in at least 50 games in their first three seasons, had a goals against average of 2.39 or lower and a save percentage of .920 or better: Niklas Backstrom, Roman Cechmanek, Marty Turco, Tuukka Rask, and Holtby.  On the other hand, how many Stanley Cups were won by those other four goalies?  If you said “none,” you are correct.

Holtby has, by any measure, done everything he needs to do as a developing goaltender.  However, now he is the man.  And he has to do more.  He is at the end of the beginning.

Projection: 59 games, 32-18-6, 2.29, .924, 4 shutouts

Photo: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals 2013-2014 Previews -- Goaltenders: Michal Neuvirth

Michal Neuvirth

Theme: “Comeback is a good word, man.”
-- Mickey Rourke

Until goaltender Michal Neuvirth finished 4-5-2 with the Washington Capitals in the 2012-2013 season, he had not finished under .500 for a season since he was 6-7-0 with the South Carolina Stingrays in 2008-2009.  That was his only sub-.500 season as a goalie at any level in his career, going back to Canadian junior hockey… again, until last season.

It was a season that started with hope.  Despite his being injured late in the 2011-2012 season and yielding his starting goaltending job to Braden Holtby for the playoffs, the expectation was that he would battle Holtby for the starting job out of the gate in the 2012-2013 season.

Nice thought, except the gate did not open on time.  The Great Lockout of 2012-2013 meant no training camp for evaluation, no Opening Night start.  By the time the league got around to opening night in January, the die was cast.  Braden Holtby was the number one goalie, and Neuvirth, who might have thought he had fought off his principal goaltending challenge when Semyon Varlamov was traded to Colorado in July 2011, was on the bench for opening night of the 2012-2013 season. 

Not that Neuvirth did not get a look early.   In his first two games of the season, Holtby…what is the technical term here?  Oh, yeah…stunk.  After allowing ten goals on 73 shots in his first two games (a .863 save percentage), Holtby was shown the bench, and Neuvirth took over with a chance to grab the job as number one goalie by the throat. 

It grabbed him, and not by the throat.  Maybe a bit lower.  In five consecutive starts he was 1-3-1, 2.98, .899.  It was hardly the stuff to inspire confidence that he was the guy.  Holtby returned for two more games and, well, was not very good (1-1-0, 4.00, ,860).  So…back to Neuvirth.  He got two more games.  Well, one and a half.  He lost a 3-2 decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs then was pulled in the 33rd minute of a 5-2- loss to Pittsburgh after allowing two goals on 11 shots. 

Through his first seven appearances he was 1-4-1 (one no-decision), 3.05, .889. That pretty much settled things.  Neuvirth was not going to be the number one goalie in 2013.  In fact, he would not make another appearance for another month, getting mop-up duty in relief of Holtby in a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers on March 10th.

He did play respectably after that, getting five more appearances down the stretch in which he was 3-1-1, 2.39, .932.  The pecking order was set, though.  Holtby played superbly down the stretch, and Neuvirth proved a capable backup, but a backup, nonetheless.

Fearless’ Take…

Neuvirth has had a career that does not say “spectacular” as much as is says, “steely.”  Until last season he had experienced only one stretch of one season in which he had a sub-.900 save percentage (15 games with Oshawa in Canadian junior hockey in 2007-2008, .898).  He had only the one sub-.500 year in South Carolina.  He has a 34-15 record in the post season in the AHL and NHL with a 2.05 GAA, .924 save percentage and three shutouts.  Elite as a career ceiling might be a stretch, but his combination of technical soundness and a competitive streak hidden under a placid demeanor suggests that 2013 was something of an aberration in his career development.  Keep in mind, he still has only 130 games of NHL experience under his belt. 

Cheerless’ Take…

If you look at the 2009-2010 season – Neuvirth’s rookie season – and the goalies in that class, it’s pretty impressive.  Jimmy Howard, Tuukka Rask, Jonathan Bernier, Corey Crawford, Cory Schneider.  Neuvirth played in more games than Schneider, Crawford, and Bernier.  He had a better goals against average than Schneider and Crawford.  He had a better save percentage than Crawford and was only one point behind Schneider.  But that 2.75 goals against average and .914 save percentage doesn’t look a lot different than his career numbers (2.66, .910).  He has not made the progress we’d expect since then, and last season was a step back.

The Big Question… Can Neuvirth settle into a role as a backup in 2013-2014?

Neuvirth was the backup for the Caps last season, for all intents and purposes.  He just did not know that going into the season, he being in a competition with Braden Holtby for the number one spot.  This season, it’s different.  Absent injury or the utter collapse of his game, Holtby will be the starter this season, and Neuvirth will be the backup.  Everyone knows that going in.  Neuvirth has endured situations in which he was not the clear cut number one goalie, but it has been a while since his role as backup was this clearly defined.   If he cannot accept the role (and there are probably few NHL goaltenders his age who would “accept” such a role in their minds), can he adapt to it?

Even last season, Neuvirth’s appearances were not quite as intermittent of the sort one might expect in a backup goaltender.  Seven of his 13 appearances came in a nine-game span early in the year.  Then he played in three of four games in mid-March.  This year, with the league returning to an 82-game schedule, he stands to get somewhere between 25 and 35 appearances.  There will be slumps along the way that Holtby is likely to have to deal with, meaning Neuvirth might get more than a game in any given week.  But those instances, quite frankly, are not to be hoped for. 

So, the question is still out there… can Neuvirth settle into a role as a backup for 2013-2014?  There is little in his history to suggest a clear answer to that, but his ability to do just that – to give the Caps quality minutes when Holtby needs a breather – will be an important element on whether the Caps fight for a divisional title or struggle on the playoff bubble.

In the end…

There is a disturbing subtext to Michal Neuvirth’s numbers last season.  Against teams failing to make the playoffs he was 3-0-1, 2.21, .927.  On the other hand, against playoff teams he was 1-5-1, 3.01, .900.  That one win came in April against a Montreal Canadiens team that stumbled to a 4-6-0 finish.  He is going to have to step up his production against stiffer competition in what is likely a tougher division in which the Caps play this season.   His history says that he has it in him to rise to that challenge.  The difference this season is that he has to do it on an intermittent basis.  If he can thrive in that role, it would represent a comeback of sorts, and that is, as we have seen, a good word.

Projection: 30 games, 13-9-4, 2.61, .913

Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals 2013-2014 Previews -- Defensemen: Steve Oleksy

Steve Oleksy

“You go back Jack do it again
Wheel turnin' 'round and 'round
You go back Jack do it again”
-- Walter Becker, Donald Fagen (Steely Dan)

If you look up the word “whirlwind” in the dictionary, you will find that it can mean “a confused rush,” or “something that involves many quickly changing events.”  The last three seasons for Washington Capitals defenseman Steve Oleksy might qualify.  In the 2010-2011 season Oleksy split time between the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and the Lake Erie Monsters of the NHL, teams in cities separated by more than 2,100 miles.  In the 2011-2012 season he split time between Idaho and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, teams in towns separated by almost 2,600 miles.

In July 2012, Oleksy signed a free agent contract with the Hershey Bears.  With the National Hockey League in lockout lockdown, the Bears could get full and utter attention by the Capitals’ brain trust in player evaluation.  Oleksy made an impression.  In 55 games he recorded two goals and a dozen assists. But it was another number that might have left a lasting impression: 151.  That was the number of penalty minutes Oleksy compiled in his 55 games.  He had 11 fights with the Bears, four of them against their arch-rival Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.  That brand of feistiness, along with his production from the blue line, earned him a three-year, two-way contract with the Caps in March.

Oleksy hardly found himself out of place with the big club.  In 28 games with the Caps he finished tied for third in total points (9), behind only Mike Green and John Carlson.  He was a plus-9, good for third among defensemen.  He was also third in total hits and was second on the club in fights.  His pugnacious character coupled with his surprising productivity made him a fan favorite in Washington.  Now…if he could just get a real player page at

Fearless’ Take…

What sort of combination of productivity and feistiness did Oleksy bring last season?  If you look at all of the defensemen in the NHL, here is the complete list of defensemen who had at least nine points, finished plus-9 or better, and had three or more fights: Steve Oleksy.  That’s it.  In just 28 games.  And while the club as a whole finished the 2012-2013 season with a rush, the Caps were 19-8-1 in his 28 games with him in the lineup. 

His underlying numbers were pretty good, too.  His Corsi/on-ice per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was second best among Caps defensemen playing in at least 20 games, and his relative Corsi (on-ice less off-ice) was best on the club among defensemen.  His PDO (sum of on ice team shooting percentage and save percentage) was third, just a few ticks behind John Erskine and Jack Hillen.  And for all the penalties he took (second among Caps defensemen in penalty minutes), he was the club’s best among defensemen at drawing penalties per 60 minutes (source:

Cheerless’ Take…

Small sample size!  Small sample size!!  I heard that somewhere.  I don’t know what it means.  I just know that if I give our nephew Deerless a rifle and he shuts his eyes and plugs a 12-point buck, I ain’t gonna enter him in sharpshooting competitions right away.  I’m going to want to see him do it again.  Here’s what I’d be keeping in mind.  He had no points in his last six regular season games and only one assist in the seven-game playoff series against the New York Rangers.  He was 0-1-1, even in those last 13 games of the season.

The Big Question… What does Act II hold in store in “The Steve Oleksy Story?”

Steve Oleksy goes into the 2013-2014 season in somewhat rare company.  Since the 2004-2005 lockout, seven defensemen played in their second season in the NHL at the age of 28 or older (Oleksy will turn 28 next February):
  • Jan Hejda
  • Kent Huskins
  • Mark Streit
  • Jeff Finger
  • Marek Zidlicky
  • Deryk Engelland
  • Petteri Nummelin

It is not a group with a lot of common elements.  Hejda, like Oleksy, finished with a 1-8-9 scoring line in his first season in 39 games (Oleksy played in 28 games).  His 0.23 points per game in his first season dropped in his second season (0.16), but his career level (0.22 points per game over seven seasons) is consistent with that first season.  Huskins had a rather meager first season on a points per game basis (0.09 in 33 games), but raised that to 0.21 points per game over his seven seasons.  Finger is in the same ball park (0.29 points per game), as is Engelland (0.19 points per game).

Streit is the class of this group in terms of his offense. But what might be noteworthy in his instance is how his offense has dropped off over his last four seasons (from 0.77 points-per-game to 0.56 last season).  For our purposes here, his second season represented a more than doubling of his offensive productivity (from 0.23 points per game to 0.47).  Zidlicky and Nummelin are between the poles of this discussion (0.53 and 0.32 points per game over their respective careers).

What it suggests is that Oleksy might be more Hejda than Streit, more Huskins than Zidlicky.  The thing to note about those seven defensemen is that all of them played in at least 63 games in their second season with the exception of Nummelin, and his problem was missing 18 games to injuries in the 2006-2007 season.  If Oleksy follows in this mold, his second act might not be spectacular, but he would be a contributing player for the Caps.

In the end…

Last season, Steve Oleksy was the very definition of the “pleasant surprise.”  He came out of nowhere to get a sweater every night and provided some timely production with a splash of in-your-face.  He comes into this season penciled in as a third-pair defenseman on the right side.  There is bound to be some lingering apprehension among Caps fans along the lines of “was last year for real?” 

The thing is, though, Oleksy is not just a banger, and he is not just an offensive defenseman.  At least he was neither of the "just" last season.  He was something of both, giving the Caps a dimension they lacked.  Mike Green and John Carlson might, in a certain light, be looked at as “two-way” defensemen (certainly Carlson more than Green), but neither have a pronounced physical dimension to their games.  John Erskine is physical, but has little in terms of offensive development.  Karl Alzner is more of a defensive defenseman who relies on the geometries of the game more than a physical edge.  Jack Hillen is more of an offensive type.  Even going down the developmental chain, it is hard to find a defenseman who brings the combination of abilities Oleksy demonstrated last season.

The operative phrase in the last sentence of the previous paragraph is “last season.”  The object of the exercise this season is to strike a balance between building on that without stepping outside the comfort level of his performance capabilities – of trying to do too much while trying to prove his value to the club.  He’s done that.  He just needs to take last year’s productivity and do it again.

Projection: 65 games, 4-11-15, plus-8

Photo: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images North America