Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Questions, Questions...Then and Now: The Forwards

As the 2013 NHL season starts this weekend, there are questions.  So many questions.  And everyone seems to be doing a blog or a column or a tweet with questions.  We addressed a number of questions about the Caps during our previews last September.  Even though the season is late getting started, these questions still seem to have some relevance.  So, let’s start this look at “the big questions” with the forwards…

Nicklas Backstrom… Will Nicklas Backstrom be centering Alex Ovechkin on the top line, or will he be centering…something on the second line as Mike Ribeiro centers Ovechkin?
What we wrote back then… Just when the Caps solve one problem, another one pops up.  Since dinosaurs roamed the earth, it seems, the Caps have been searching for a second-line center.  That problem looked to be solved when the Caps signed Mike Ribeiro away from Dallas as a free agent (edit: if by "free agent" you mean "return for Cody Eakin and a second round draft pick in a trade"...thank you, dear reader).  But with neither Mike Knuble nor Alexander Semin being re-signed, the Caps do not have any proven finishers on the wings on the second line (yes, Knuble struggled mightily last season, but he had been a reliable 20-goal scorer before that).  The Caps could rotate a number of players through those spots, including (but not limited to): Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera, Marcus Johansson, Wojtek Wolski, or even Mathieu Perreault.  Will Backstrom’s greater familiarity with this group suggest matching him to some combination of this group on a second line?
And now?... Well, is he healthy?  When Backstrom entered the NHL in October 2008 he started what would be a 313-game streak of games played before going missing Game 68 of the 2010-2011 season with a thumb injury.  Since then he has appeared in 52 of 97 regular season games (he missed 40 games last season to a concussion).  He enters this season having sustained a neck injury while playing for Dynamo Moscow in the Kontinental Hockey League.  Although he has been pronounced fit by a specialist in Michigan, there lingers the question of whether Backstrom can return to being the iron man he was upon entering the league.  An absence for any length of time from the Caps lineup would likely doom the Caps to also-ran status and an early end of the season.

Jay Beagle… Can Adam Oates work wonders – even small ones – with Beagle’s offense?
What we wrote back then… Jay Beagle has demonstrated an ability to play a solid, earnest game in his own end.  It did not go unnoticed when the playoffs started last season.  But at the other end, one wonders if someone can find the key to Beagle’s offense.  He had 47 goals in 211 regular season games over four seasons at Hershey.  Maybe there is something there that some tweaks will uncover.  Consider this.  New Jersey Devil David Clarkson compiled a total of 52 goals in 298 games in the NHL before last season.  As an assistant coach with the Devils last season Adam Oates showed Clarkson some video and suggested he shorten his stick.  Clarkson finished the season with 30 goals, obliterating his previous season high of 17.  This is not to say Oates can make Jay Beagle a 30-goal scorer, or even a 20-goal producer.  But if Oates can get Beagle to, say, double his production (note: even prorated for the shortened season), those extra four goals could come in handy and at least make the fourth line a more credible threat.
And now?... Beagle still could be among the more intriguing story lines for the Caps this seaaon, but it still remains to be seen whether he can be a regular fixture in the Caps’ lineup.  He played in 41 games last season, the most in his four-year NHL career.  It might have been more but for missing 31 games as the result of a concussion from being on the wrong side of a decision in a fight with Pittsburgh’s Arron Asham.  He did chip in four goals in those 41 games, though, a level of production that is a bit more than one might expect from a fourth-liner.  What is more, all of those goals came in his last 17 games of the regular season.  But what might be more important here is his ability to help prevent goals.  He was on ice for only 13 total goals against last season in 41 games, the lowest goals scored against per game of any returning Caps forward.  That could be his role this season.

Troy Brouwer… At this stage of his career, does Troy Brouwer become a Knublian Force?
What we wrote back then… Up until now, Troy Brouwer has been a perfectly fine complementary player, averaging 17.2 goals per 82 games over a career than has spanned parts of six seasons. Last year’s 18-goal total was right in line with that level of performance.  But Brouwer might get a long look as the full-time top-line right winger on this Caps team.  It was a spot at which he logged significant minutes last season, but one had the impression the Caps could have or wanted to do better.
At the moment, though, Brouwer might have the inside track to play on the right side on a line with Alex Ovechkin and whichever center – Nicklas Backstrom or Mike Ribeiro – is penciled into the middle of it.  And that presents Brouwer with an opportunity to let him find his inner “Knuble” – to be a guy who does the dirty work of clogging the crease and collecting garbage goals.  It was good enough for the departed Mike Knuble to record 53 goals in 148 games in his first two seasons with the Caps.
Here is how that opportunity might be realized.  In his last three seasons covering a span of 239 games Brouwer has not had less than a 13.5 percent shooting percentage and has averaged 15.4 percent efficiency over those three seasons on a total of 371 shots.  In 82 games last season Brouwer recorded more than two shots in a game only 20 times.  He was also sixth among Caps forwards in even-strength and power play ice time.  If he gets a bit more ice time and more shooting opportunities in those situations as a product of a more permanent role as the top-line right wing, the shooting efficiency he has demonstrated over the past three years could pay dividends.
And now?... Today’s Troy number… 27.  That is the number of even strength points he had last season.  He was sixth on the club in even strength ice time, so it is not as if he was especially lacking in ice time (about half a shift less, per game, that Marcus Johansson who was fourth in ES ice time).  Brouwer’s offensive statistics have dropped over the past three years… goals (22 to 18), assists (18 to 15), points (40 to 33), and plus-minus (plus-9 to minus-15).  This despite his total ice time going up by almost a minute a game.  If there is an even strength silver lining, he did set a personal best in even strength goals last season (15).  Brouwer does not have to be a 50-point player (or 30 in this abbreviated season), but if he is playing on one of the top two lines, as seems likely, getting back to 40 points (his career high in 2009-2010) -- maybe 25 in this season -- would go a long way toward Capitals success this season.

Jason Chimera… “New Normal” or do I hear a clock striking midnight?
What we said back then… In setting a career high in goals last season Jason Chimera did so without the benefit of shooting efficiency that was far outside his career norm.  Coming into the 2011-2012 season his career shooting percentage was 9.03.  He finished the season at 9.76 percent on 205 shots.  The shot total was also a career high and was more than 50 shots higher than what had been his average per 82 games over his career coming into the season (153).
Here is the odd number in those shot statistics.  Chimera’s 10.4 shots per 60 minutes of total ice time was not far off Alex Ovechkin’s 11.8.  By way of further comparison, Alexander Semin was next at 8.5 shots per 60 minutes of total ice time.  If you are thinking 20 goals might be the “new normal” for Jason Chimera, then 200 shots is going to have to be the new normal for him.  If normal, it certainly would be new since he has not averaged more than 9.1 shots per 60 minutes of ice time in any season before last year.  Exclusive of last season he has averaged 8.1 shots per 60 minutes of ice time over his career.  If he reverts to 8.1 shots per 60 minutes and shoots at 9.03 percent (his career average before last season) over the same 1,184 minutes he had last season he will be back to 14 goals.  It is a long way around the barn to say that the answer to the question is all about shots on goal.
And now?... We’re pretty much where we were when we looked at Chimera in September. Last season Jason Chimera doubled his goal output over his 2010-2011 season, potting a career high 20 goals.  A lot of things went right for him to get to 20.  Even in a system that seems likely to be more dynamic offensively than what the Caps employed last season, having those things go right two years running would not seem the way to bet.

Joey Crabb… Can Crabb firm up that soft underbelly that has been the Caps’ third and fourth lines too often over the past few years?
What we said back then… Last season, if you look at the bottom half of the forward draw for the Caps, the quintet of Joel Ward, Mike Knuble, Jeff Halpern, Matt Hendricks, and Jay Beagle recorded a total of 24 goals in 333 man-games, a six-goal pace per 82 games.  Crabb had 11 goals in 67 games last season in Toronto getting 13:26 a game (that was more average ice time than any of the Caps we mentioned except Knuble).  But scoring more does not really help much if you are on the ice for a lot of goals against.  Of Toronto forwards playing in at least 40 games last season, only Matt Frattin and Mike Brown were on ice for fewer even strength goals against; he was also third best among that group in terms of goals against/60 minutes at 5-on-5 (numbers from behindthenet.ca).
And now?... Crabb not only set a personal best for goals scored last season (11), but he scored more in 67 games than he did in the 77 games in his career before last season (seven).  And his was also a product of a high shooting percentage (14.7 percent, second on the Maple Leafs among players playing in at least 25 games).  Can he repeat that performance?  It is a small sample, but going into last season his career shooting percentage was 8.3 percent.  Given the shortened season, five goals might be considered an achievement for a player who seems targeted to get fourth-line minutes.

Matt Hendricks… Can Matt Hendricks translate some of his “paralyzer” game to the 60-minute portion of the game?
What we said back then… As Matt Hendricks enters his fourth full season his offensive production shows a somewhat concerning trend: nine goals in 56 games in 2009-2010 (a 13-goal pace per 82 games), nine in 77 in 2010-2011 (10), and four in 78 games last season (four).  And this trend comes in spite of his getting progressively more ice time (9:16/game three seasons ago to 11:28 in 2010-2011 to 12:07 last season).  Part of the problem might be that Hendricks’ offensive zone starts dropped from 51.7 percent in 2010-2011 to 44.2 percent last season.  Still a 4.1 percent shooting percentage is not something that can be sustained, even from a fourth line forward.  That shooting percentage was 449th among 597 forwards dressing in the NHL last season.  Only 22 forwards playing more than half their team’s games had lower shooting percentages.  That 4.1 shooting percentage would have ranked Hendricks only 131st among defensemen in the NHL last season.
And now?... In a 48-game season, those Bettman points might take on added meaning.  Hendricks had five trick shot goals last season.  If he comes close to replicating that performance it might be the margin by which the Caps get into the post season.

Marcus Johansson… Can Johansson use the hard lessons learned in 2011-2012 to become a solid second line contributor in the 2012-2013 season?
What we said back then… Consider this.  At the 18:30 mark of the third period of Game 7 last spring against the New York Rangers, with the Caps down a goal, Marcus Johansson took the ice for his last shift of the season.  He did not do it as a center.  He was playing right wing to Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin on the left side.  When play was stopped at the 19:20 mark on an offside call, the Caps had not registered a shot attempt on that shift.  Johansson skated to the bench in favor of Brooks Laich to take the ensuing faceoff.  Was that last shift something symbolic?  Something meaningful with respect to Johansson’s season?
Not in an obvious way, perhaps, but it did suggest that after 96 games (82 in the regular season and 14 in the playoffs) Johansson had not come as far as one might have hoped.  But that was in no small way a product of being thrust into a role that was outside his comfort level, given the state of his development.  He just was not ready to be a first-line center, and in the end was given a wing slot when things were most desperate for the team.  It was not a demotion by any means, but it was the sort of sideways movement that seemed to be his season.  The opportunity that results is that Johansson had a lot thrown at him in his sophomore season, and it might have been a blessing if he can take some of what he learned from that back to being a second-line center.
And now?... Here is the most important number to keep in mind with Johansson: “22.”  Johansson turned 22 on October 6th.  He is still very green.  Since the lockout, 44 different forwards aged 21 or younger recorded 46 or more points, including Johansson.  There are a lot of big names on that list: Ovechkin, Crosby, Malkin, Stamkos, Toews, Kane, Kopitar, Seguin, Kessel, two Staals.  Caps fans seem a bit unimpressed with Johansson so far, but he is still in the midst of finding his niche.

Brooks Laich… What will his role be under new head coach Adam Oates?
What we said back then… It is precisely his versatility that makes this an interesting question.  He flourished at the offensive end under Bruce Boudreau, putting up 69 goals in 242 games over the 2007-2008 through 2009-2010 seasons.  Last year he started as part of a shutdown line – the “Meat and Potatoes” line with Joel Ward and Jason Chimera – but moved around the top three lines as circumstances (mostly injuries) dictated.  He can be (and was) deployed in a more defensive role; he can be deployed as a power play specialist.  Concerning this latter point, the departure of Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin suggests Laich will get more opportunities here.  Consider that 41 of his 116 career goals have been scored on the power play.
And now?... Laich comes into the season with a cloud over him.  Clearly he is injured, but the severity of it and the length of time it will keep him out of the lineup remains a mystery.  He could miss a week or two, which in the shortened season is almost like losing a month.    He was among the top five Capitals forwards in even-strength, shorthanded, and power play ice time last season, evidence of his versatility.  Missing him for a couple of weeks blows a big hole in the forward lines that has to be filled by multiple players, some with big questions of their own to answer.  For a team that could be on the edge of playoff eligibility, this could be a serious problem.

Alex Ovechkin… What does Alex Ovechkin have left?
What we said back then… That goal scorers enjoy their best years before the age of 27 is not exactly news.  But the difference between Alex Ovechkin of his first five seasons and the player he has been these last two seasons is considerable.  Ovechkin has never been an especially efficient shooter.  Even in the year in which he scored 65 goals he finished only in a tie for 46th in shooting percentage.  He did, as they say, a volume business in shots.  While he finished sixth among forwards in shots on goal last season, his total of 303 was 30 percent fewer than what he averaged over his first five years (432).  The matter of whether Ovechkin has more 40- or even 50-goal seasons left in him might come down to whether his drop in production is due to his being used differently by coaches, depressing his shot opportunities and shot totals, or to the fact that he can no longer get shots off from his preferred shooting areas.
And now?... Ovechkin overcame a bit of a slow start with Dynamo Moscow during the lockout.  Even now he is sixth in points and tied for fourth in goals in the KHL, despite playing in as many as ten fewer games than the players ranked ahead of him.  Granted, it is a level of hockey a rung below the NHL, but it did suggest he is ready to make an impression in the NHL when play resumes.  It makes the possibilities under new head coach Adam Oates even more intriguing.

Mathieu Perreault… Just where does Mathieu Perreault fit?
What we said back then… Mathieu Perreault is nominally a center, but it would be hard to think he has an inside track to any of the top three slots on this team.  Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro are certainly ahead of him, and Marcus Johansson probably has an edge over Perreault on the third line, though that is by no means a certainty.  Perreault is an opportunistic goal scorer, as evidenced by his shooting percentage (he is over 20 percent in 120 career NHL games), but he does not have many opportunities.  That 26.7 percent shooting percentage last season came while averaging less than a shot on goal per game.  An offensive player is either going to have to generate more opportunities for himself, or he is going to have to do it for his teammates, and Perreault had fewer assists than goals both last season (14 to 16) and for his career (26 to 27).
And now?... Perreault is one of those players who might be asked to fill the hole left in the absence of Brooks Laich to start the season.  Perreault could get increased minutes at even strength and some power play minutes.  He showed the offensive skills to assume a bigger role last season, and his opportunistic bent might serve him well here.

Mike Ribeiro…  Can Mike Ribeiro be the contributor in the playoffs the Caps have lacked in the 2C slot?
What we said back then… It would be surprising if Mike Ribeiro did not have a regular season at the second line center slot better than that of any Caps’ center in the last ten years.  But the lack of a productive second line center has been crippling to the Caps in the post season in the post-Lockout I era.  Last spring the Caps got three points in 14 playoff games out of Marcus Johansson, who spent much of the season as the first or second line center.  The year before, Nicklas Backstrom had two points out of the first line center slot and the Caps got six out of Jason Arnott in the second line slot in nine post season games.  In 2009-2010 the Caps got a combined two points out of Eric Belanger and Brendan Morrison in seven playoff games.  Mike Ribeiro is here largely to improve on that… a lot.  But while he had 17 points in 18 games in his last playoff appearance, that appearance came in the 2007-2008 post season.  Will being out of practice influence his performance in the post season?  To the extent it does, it defeats much of the purpose of his being here.
And now?... If Backstrom is healthy, then the Caps really do get an opportunity to see what having an accomplished number two center will be like.  He has averaged 48 assists per 82 games since the lockout.  No Capital center other than Backstrom has had a single season with as many as 48 assists since the lockout.  On the other hand, do the Caps have enough accomplished finishers at wing to maximize Ribeiro’s talents?  This is going to be the recurring subplot for the season. 

Joel Ward… Was Ward’s season in 2011-2012 an aberration, or was it part of a slow decline in production?
What we said back then… 17-13-10-6… 35-34-29-18… 12.8 - 9.7 - 6.4 - 7.6.  That is Joel Ward’s four-year progression in goals, points, and shooting percentage, respectively.  There are 10 players that capgeek.com identifies as spot-on comparables with Ward in terms of his $3.0 million cap hit.  Those ten players averaged 75 games played last season with a 19-23-42 scoring line.  Ward was 6-12-18 in 73 games.  He certainly showed glimpses early on of what he was brought to Washington for, but as the season wore on his offense dried up.  To his credit, he played hard and responsibly in the defensive end in a system that valued those attributes.  But at $3.0 million a year, 18 points is probably below the low end of expected contributions in the offensive end.  Given the forwards the Caps have assembled for this season, can Ward expect to improve on his production from getting more than the 12:25 a night he skated last season?
And now?... We’re pretty much in the same place.  Ward is one of a logjam of big-body forwards who can give the Caps rugged play, but who have questions lingering about their ability to contribute offense on a consistent basis.  Last year Ward’s problem was perhaps not so much his own as how others chose to use him.  But that contract sticks out like a sore thumb.  It is too much for a fourth liner, if that is where he ends up getting his minutes.

Wojtek Wolski… Is Wojtek Wolski a contender or a pretender to be a top-six winger with the Caps?
What we said back then… Let’s face it.  If you are paying a former first round draft choice $600,000 on a one-year deal, you’re hoping for, not expecting big things.  This what is called a low-risk signing.  But if Wolski can score goals at something approaching his career pace per 82 games (18) and perhaps chip in a couple of extra goals with some power play time under the tutelage of Adam Oates, that just about replaces Alexander Semin’s production last season (21 goals) at less than a tenth of the cost.  And if he doesn’t, well, you still have the $6.1 million you’re not paying Semin this season (net of the $6.7 million cap hit last year) to do other things.  What is unnerving about Wolski is the idea that he has been traded as many times as he has in so few seasons and that he has gone from a team’s “topline to its fourth line to a healthy scratch to a salary dump.”  This is not the sort of career arc that one should feel comfortable thinking is that of a potential top-six forward.
And now?... What’s that sound?  Oh, it’s “opportunity” knocking.  With Brooks Laich looking at some time off to repair, Wolski has a golden opportunity to demonstrate that he can contribute as a scoring line forward.  He might prove that he can handle that workload, or that he will be a healthy scratch for a lot of the season when Laich returns.  The first 5-10 games might be his season.

Eric Fehr... Is he capable of "shouldering" any of the offensive load?

What we said back then... Well, nothing.  He was an unrestricted free agent about to sign a contract to play with HPK in Finland.  By the looks of things -- two goals in 35 games with Winnipeg in 2011-2012 -- he looked cooked.

And now?... In a sense he is the right-handed Wojtek Wolski.  Fehr has the same low-risk one-year, $600,000 contract.  He has the same sort of "damaged goods" history to deal with, which in his case really is damaged goods -- multiple surgeries on his shoulders and a back injury over the course of his career. He is also a reasonably efficient goal scorer given his injury history and limited ice time when in the lineup (15 goals per 82 games played over his career, even with that ghastly 3.7 percent shooting percentage last season).  If the Caps get anything approaching that level of scoring efficiency it will be money well spent.