Thursday, April 04, 2013

Washington Capitals: The Mystery of Filip Forsberg

When the 11th pick of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft came around, the Washington Capitals were faced with a choice.  Two highly skilled Europeans were on the board.  Russian Mikhail Grigorenko, a big forward playing for the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, was (because of his team affiliation) ranked third among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.

Also on the board was Filip Forsberg of Sweden, a 6’2, 180, forward called by the NHL director of European Scouting, “a leader who shows by example…[comparable] to Corey Perry a little bit.”

However, both had their issues.  With Grigorenko it was a disappointing playoff for Quebec in which the Remparts blew a 3-0 lead in games against the Halifax Mooseheads.  Grigorenko finished the post season 3-7-10 in 11 games overall. It caused his stock to drop from being considered almost on a par with eventual first overall draft pick Nail Yakupov to dropping through the teens on some prognosticators’ amateur rankings.

For Forsberg it might have been level of competition.  As a 17-year old he played in ten games for Leksands IF, then played the 2011-2012 season there.  But Leksands was a member of HockeyAllsvenskan, the second tier league in Sweden below Elitserien.  It did not, however, prevent him from being ranked as the top European forward in the NHL Central Scouting final rankings in 2012.

Both players had their plusses, and both had their question marks.  When it came time for the Capitals to make a choice, whether they ever considered Grigorenko, they decided upon Forsberg.  Unanimous,” in fact. 
But this is where things get a bit murky.  In a sense, Forsberg fell into the Capitals’ lap.  Washington was very deliberate when their number came up on the draft board, finally making the pick after some gentle prodding from the Commissioner.  

Capitals General Manager George McPhee alluded to the delay after the selection:

“We didn’t expect Forsberg to be there at all.  In most mock drafts that we had done and where our scouts had him was way up high. Sometimes that happens, a good player falls because everybody’s sort of zoned in on a certain guy and people were going after defensemen and drafted a lot of good defensemen. So we focused on mostly defensemen. So when we got there, we thought, ‘Geez, we’ve got to switch gears here a little bit. This guy’s a really good player. Let’s take him.’”

The Caps were not the only team high on Forsberg.  TSN analyst Craig Button, who ranked Forsberg third in his amateur rankings, said of him that

“Filip is a blend of high end skill and indomitable will. Skill that allows him to produce offensively and a will that makes it very challenging for opponents to stop him. He's a very strong skater with power in his stride and combined with speed, he's capable of opening up ice for himself and backing up defenders. Possessing very good agility, he uses this to maneuver in the tight areas around the net and make himself dangerous. His shot is hard and accurate and he can score from 35-40 feet. His release is outstanding which doesn't allow goalies to get an accurate read on it. He can shoot off the pass as well as being able to shoot in stride. He recognizes opportunities and he has a hunger to score. He's not one-dimensional though and is capable of making plays and creating offensive chances with his passing. He gets involved in the physical game and while he may not be punishing, he's assertive in establishing his presence and gaining valuable space for himself. With a playmaking center, he could be a prolific scorer in the NHL.”

Fast forward almost ten months.  Filip Forsberg, that player with the indomitable will who could be a prolific scorer in the NHL, the one the Caps were not expecting to fall to them, the player that the Capitals “unanimously” agreed should be taken with the 11th overall pick in the draft, was traded for Martin Erat -- a 31-year old player in his 11th season who has never recorded 25 goals and has never recorded 60 points – and a prospect, Michael Latta.

If you subscribe to the notion that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, then swapping out a prospect with skill but an unknown future for a veteran with a body of consistent work can make sense.  But we have this question scratching away at our brain… “Did something happen in the last ten months that caused the Capitals to sour on Forsberg?”  Or was it something else?

This season, Forsberg once more played for Leksands in HockeyAllsvenskan and almost doubled his production from the 2011-2012 season (15-18-33 in 38 games compared to 8-9-17 in 43 games in 2011-2012).  He was 3-2-5 in six games in the World Junior Championships (U-20) and was 6-7-13 in 14 total games of international competition this season, both records representing improvement over his production in the previous season. 

It is tempting to make something out of this notion that Forsberg was playing in Sweden’s second tier league, but this has the hint of backfilling to serve a narrative.  In skating with Leskands this season, Forsberg was still young (he will not turn 19 until mid-August).  But perhaps he suffers in comparison to a fellow Swede who, when he was 18, skated with Brynäs IF in the Elitserien, the Swedish Elite League and the highest level of competition in that country.  Nicklas Backstrom skated 46 games with Brynäs IF in 2005-2006, was then drafted by the Capitals, then spent the next season in Sweden before joining the Caps for the 2007-2008 season as a 19 year old (he turned 20 in November 2007).

It is entirely possible, if not likely, that Forsberg was going to spend another year in Sweden testing his mettle in the Elitserien before coming to North America. That would have made two post-draft seasons in Sweden compared to the one that Backstrom served.  If that was the plan, perhaps the Capitals were not prepared to wait another season for Forsberg.  Perhaps it served as a signal to the Caps that his development arc was too shallow.  Perhaps ten months after the draft they had buyer’s remorse. 

We are never going to have a definitive answer as to why the Caps felt an 11th-overall pick became expendable ten months after the fact.  There are just so many questions that can be asked for which no answers are forthcoming.  But we keep coming back to that scene in Pittsburgh last June when the Caps were huddled in discussions at their table when their number came up.  We keep coming back to that moment when the Commissioner reminded the Caps that they were on the clock. Were the Caps – a team that was “focused on mostly defensemen” – taken off guard when eight defensemen went in the first ten picks, and a skill forward popped up on their screen?  It is easy to make too much of an extemporaneous quote after the draft, but the statement, “Geez, we’ve got to switch gears here a little bit. This guy’s a really good player. Let’s take him,” sounds more than a bit as if the Caps were not entiely prepared for this possibility or eventuality.

And it begs the question, given the swiftness with which Forsberg was hailed as a future core player when drafted to his being dealt for a good, if not extraordinary player, was this as thoughtful a pick as one might expect, given the stakes?  The clumsiness with which it was executed in real time suggests an “oops” component to it.  And over the next ten months, perhaps the Caps came to regret it, for whatever reason.  Whatever destiny awaits Martin Erat or Michael Latta as members of the Washington Capitals, there are some of us who are going to wonder about the mystery of Filip Forsberg’s fall out of favor over the last ten months and what it says about the process that led to his selection in the first place.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 37: Islanders at Capitals, April 4th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The new (sort of) Washington Capitals return home tonight, fresh off a 2-0-1 road trip, poised to make their final assault on the summit of the Southeast Division.  By night’s end – if the Capitals win and Winnipeg loses in Montreal in regulation time – Washington will sit atop the Southeast Division for the first time this season.

But first things first.  The Islanders return to Washington just nine days after beating the Capitals at Verizon Center, 3-2, on March 26th.  Since then, New York is 3-1-0 and are poised themselves to jump into a playoff spot.  If they should avoid a loss in regulation time tonight, they would do no worse than leap-frog the idle New York Rangers into eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

In their last four games, the Islanders outscored their opponents by an 11-8, in addition to their 3-1-0 record.  Their power play, among the best in the league so far this season (21.7 percent), has slipped a bit, going 2-for-12 (16.7 percent) in those games.  The penalty kill has been effective, if only because it has not been used.  The Islander faced only six shorthanded situations over those four games, killing off four of them (66.7 percent).

As you might expect, John Tavares – the league’s second leading goal scorer – is tied for the team lead in goals over the last four games with three.  What you might not expect is that Colin McDonald is the player with whom Tavares is tied in goals.  McDonald has almost doubled his goal output over these four games, jumping from four to seven goals on the season.  He has only eight goals in his 41-game NHL career, so one could say that at least for the moment, McDonald is hot.

It probably is not all that surprising, either, that Mark Streit is the overall point leader for the Isles in the last four games and all of those points coming on assists. He is tied for 16th among all defensemen in assists with 15.  Less fortunately, he is tied for 269th of 272 defensemen this season in plus-minus with his minus-15 mark.

Here is how the teams compare in their numbers overall…

1.  Odd fact in the Islanders 3-1-0 run since last facing Washington.  When they scored in the third period, they won.  When they didn’t, they didn’t.  Of course, that game in which the Islanders did not score in the third period happened to be one in which they did not score at all, a 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh last Saturday.

2.  First period scoring has been better of late for the Isles (three first period goals in their last two games), but it remains that only six teams have fewer first period goals this season than the Islanders.  They do seem to make up for it in the second period, though.  Only three teams have scored more middle period goals than New York.

3.  The Islanders do a good job of squeaking out wins.  They have the sixth best winning percentage in the league in one-goal decisions, and only Anaheim and Pittsburgh have fewer one-goal losses in regulation time.

4.  The Isles play nice, too.  With 9.7 minutes per game in penalties, the Islanders have the second fewest average minutes in the league.  Only the New York Rangers have fewer average penalty minutes.

5.  Where the Islanders do struggle is defending at 5-on-5.  Only Florida and Calgary, in whose company no team wants to be, have allowed more goals at 5-on-5.

1.  Washington is dead last in the league in allowing goals in 5-on-3 shorthanded situations.  Six goals allowed in 36 games.  They’re not so great at 5-on-4 shorthanded situations, either.  Only Buffalo has allowed more goals than the Caps in such situations.

2.  The Caps have a 25.4 percent home power play, fifth best in the league.  They have had 55 power play opportunities at home…fifth lowest.

3.  Six teams have recorded fewer shots on goal per game than the Caps.  Pity… the Caps still have the fourth best winning percentage in the league when they outshoot their opponents.

4.  Only Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles have more third period goals scored this season than the Caps, and only nine teams have allowed fewer third period goals.  They have the  fifth best third period goal differential in the league (plus-10).

5.  Home cookin’?  Only seven teams have fewer goals scored at home this season than the Caps.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Evgeni Nabokov

If the Islanders are going to creep into the playoffs, Evgeni Nabokov is going to have to be sharp in goal.  Lately, he has been just that.  In his last five games Nabokov is 4-1-0, 1.59, .941, with one shutout.  He was rested in favor of Kevin Poulin in the Isles’ last game, which was the second of a back to back.  He will be rested.  Just what the Caps need.  Nabokov is 12-1-2, 2.17, .924, with two shutouts in 15 career appearances against Washington, including a 20-save effort in a 3-2 win over the Caps on March 26th.

Washington: Martin Erat

Well, who else?  The Caps made one deal on deadline day, and Erat was the prize.  He will fill a hole on left wing, either on the first or second line.  Erat is a study in stick-to-it determination.  A seventh-round pick of the Nashville Predators in 1999, Erat spent two more years in Canadian junior before jumping to the Predators in the 2001-2002 season.  In 10 seasons since, coming into this one, he has not been flashy.  In his last eight seasons he has not recorded as many as 25 goals, but he has not had fewer than 16, either.  He has not had a 60-point season, but he has not had one with fewer than 49.  He is the engine that just keeps chugging along.  And the Caps certainly need some more chugging along on the left side.


What keys?  This is a huge opportunity, the Caps first chance this season to jump into the top eight, to take the lead in the Southeast.  The rest is just noise.

Capitals 3 – Islanders 1