Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Jack Hillen

That's why I say if everybody went to heaven
Hey-ey-ey, I believe I'd miss the call
But you see if it wasn't for bad luck,
Trying to tell you son if it wasn't for bad luck, now now
Oh, oh, I wouldn't have no luck at all

-- From “If It Wasn’t for Bad Luck,” by Ray Charles and Jimmy Lewis

On April 2, 2013 the Washington Capitals announced that they re-signed defenseman Jack Hillen to a two-year, $1.4 million contract extension. On that day Hillen would play in just his 11th game as a Capital, having been signed as a free agent for the abbreviated 2012-2013 season but who missed 25 games to that point of the season with a shoulder injury.

Maybe the deal was struck so the Caps could get a season’s worth of games out of Hillen while he was here and needed two seasons to do it.

That logic (which certainly was not a part of the deal) would have been prescient given what took place this past season. In his first season in Washington Hillen did not make it through his first game before sustaining that shoulder injury against Tampa Bay. This season he made it all the way to his… second game.

Just 8:10 into the Caps’ home opener against the Calgary Flames, the injury bug (which must be as big as an Abrams tank) came up and bit Hillen again, ran over him in fact. The running over came courtesy of Lance Bouma, who rode Hillen into the boards on Hillen’s third shift of the game. Hillen crumpled to the ice as Tom Wilson went search-and-destroy on Bouma. Wilson and Bouma survived their scuffle. Hillen was not as fortunate. The verdict was a broken tibia, an injury that cost Hillen 60 games. He would not return to the ice until March 5th against Philadelphia.

Hillen lasted just 11 games in this stretch, the last of which was a home contest against the Los Angeles Kings. In that one, Hillen made it to overtime, but on his only shift in the extra session he had the misfortune of standing on the tracks when the Siberian Express came roaring through. Hillen collided with Alex Ovechkin in the neutral zone suffering a concussion and ending what was a miserable season, even by the Capitals’ standards in 2013-2014. As it turned out, it was not even Hillen’s first encounter, so to speak, with Ovechkin that ended badly. There was this in 2010…

As it was, Hillen ended his second season with the Caps having played a total of 36 of 130 regular season games, going 3-7-10, plus-5.

Fearless’ Take… OK, he had one point this season, but 3-6-10, plus-5 in 36 games? That works out to 7-14-21, plus-11 over 82-games. That’s not too far off the Rangers’ Dan Girardi this past season (5-19-24, plus-6 in 81 games).

Cheerless’ Take… Yesh, cuz, and at the rate he’s going he’ll get to that 82nd game with the Caps sometime in the 2016-2017 season. But even so, his ability to remain upright is maybe a bit better than his possession numbers. Here’s how bad it was, even in just 13 games this season. At 5-on-5 his Corsi-for percentage (42.9) and his Fenwick-for percentage (42.4) was worse than the numbers for rookie Connor Carrick (43.9/42.8). He was above 50 percent Corsi-for just four times in 13 games.  He had the worst PDO of any Caps defenseman playing in more than one game (968).  You would expect some correction, and there is that “small sample size” those fancystatters talk about, but geez. Can’t say it was a year for the ol’ scrapbook.

Odd Hillen Fact… In two years with Washington the Caps are 22-10-4 in regular season games in which Jack Hillen appeared. Might we recommend this to keep him in the lineup…

Game to Remember… March 5th against Philadelphia. In an otherwise forgettable game against the Flyers, the Caps found themselves down, 4-1, heading into the third period. With 6:35 gone in the period Alex Ovechkin gave some life to the Caps with a power play goal. Less than three minutes later the Caps made a game of it. It started with Troy Brouwer and Hillen breaking out of the Caps’ zone, Brouwer feeding the puck to Hillen in stride at the red line. Hillen chipped the puck into the Flyers’ end and went after it. He beat Kimmo Timonen to the puck and shoveled it along the end wall to Nicklas Backstrom, who returned it to Hillen in the right wing corner. Hillen stepped out across the goal line and spied Brouwer all alone at the edge of the left wing circle. Brouwer one-timed the pass past goalie Steve Mason, and the Caps were within a goal. That would be as close as the Caps would get, though, the teams exchanging goals before Steve Downie potted an empty-netter with 52 seconds left to seal a 6-4 Flyers win.  For Hillen, the assist on the Brouwer goal was his only point of the season.

Game to Forget… Really, having seen the season Hillen had, do we really want to go there?

In the end…

Being a professional athlete is in many ways a gift.  You get to play a game and earn a handsome living doing it, even if you are at the bottom end of the pay scale.  But someone, somewhere, owes Jack Hillen some good fortune.  Busted shoulder, broken leg, and a concussion in less than two full seasons.  A total of 94 games missed over those two seasons.  While he has been a reasonably productive player in his limited time on the ice for the Caps, he also is a defenseman who has seen his games played drop in each of the last four seasons, from 69 in 2009-2010 to 64 to 55 to 23 to 13 this past season.

Hillen has one more year to go on his current contract.  It has the look of a deal that provides value, a player who can fill in as a third pair defenseman productively but comparatively cheaply.  The problem has been that Hillen’s time in Washington has been characterized more by players having to fill in for him during long absences.   Such was the case in 2013-2014, and one hopes than having missed 69 games this season he can have a healthy and productive 2014-2015 season.

Grade: incomplete

Elsa/Getty Images North America

Monday, April 28, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Mike Green

“I must be taken as I have been made. The success is not mine, the failure is not mine, but the two together make me.”

― Charles Dickens, “Great Expectations”

As much as any player of the Washington Capitals hockey club, Mike Green has seen it all.  He was drafted in that same 2004 draft that brought Alex Ovechkin to Washington.  He was there for large parts of two difficult, if necessary seasons, coming out of the 2004-2005 lockout when the Caps tried hard but lost far more than they won as the Young Guns – Green among them – were learning their craft.  He was there for the improbable 11-1-0 finish in 2008 that carried the Caps to the post-season for the first time since 2003.  He was there for the Presidents Trophy year, and he was there for the playoff embarrassment that followed. 

Green was there for the long, slow slide thereafter that led to the Caps failing to make the playoffs in 2014 for the first time since 2007.  At the top of his game he was the best offensive defenseman in the game, a record-setter in fact.  After injuries and time, he is now a second pair defenseman with a first pair defenseman’s contract.  He is the only Capital defenseman since that 2004-2005 lockout to appear in at least 400 games regular season games, the only one to appear in 500 regular season games (503).  He was the third oldest defenseman to dress for the Capitals in 2013-2014.

In 2013-2014 Mike Green appeared in 70 regular season games, more than he appeared in over the previous two seasons combined (67 of a possible 130 games).  That 70 games mark is a significant number, the first time Green appeared in at least 70 games in a season since he dressed for 75 games in 2009-2010.  In nine seasons in the NHL, Green has dressed for more than 70 games only twice, that 2009-2010 season and in 2007-2008, when he appeared in all 82 games.

Green’s role changed in 2013-2014, nowhere more so than as the power play quarterback.  In the Capitals playoff era, here is Green’s average ice time on the man advantage, his rank on the club, and his average ice time margin over the next ranked player relative to first place:

Note that the 2011-2012 season in which Green finished second in average power play ice time was one in which: a) Green was limited to 32 games because of injury, and b) the Caps had a suitable replacement in Dennis Wideman who played his only full season in Washington in 2011-2012.  That leaves 2013-2014.  For 49 games Green sailed along as the team leader in average power play ice time, averaging a little over three minutes a game, culminating with a whopping 8:15 in man advantage ice time on January 25th in a 5-0 win over Montreal.

Then things changed, and in an odd sort of way. In his next game Green scored a pair of goals, including the overtime winner, and was the game’s first star in a 5-4 win over Buffalo.  Green once more led the team in power play ice time (2:23), but it would be a while before he would lead the team in power play ice time again.  Mike Green would play only 5:48 in his next game, a 5-2 loss in Columbus in which Green was checked into the glass by the Blue Jackets’ Boone Jenner.  Green suffered a concussion from the hit and did not return to the lineup until after the break for the Sochi Olympic Games.

By that time John Carlson had taken over the reins as the Caps’ power play option from the point.  After the Olympics Carlson and Green played in 19 games together, and in 13 of them Carlson recorded more power play time (in one other game the Caps were not awarded a power play).  That 8:15 of power play ice time was Green’s high water mark for the season.  At that time he averaged 3:05 per game of power play ice time to Carlson’s 2:44.  After than game Green averaged 1:54 of power play ice time per game, Carlson 3:47.

Fearless’ Take… I’ll beat Cheerless to the fancystat punch here.  Of 142 defensemen playing in atleast three-quarters of their games this season, Mike Green was 47th in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 and 41st in 5-on-5 close score situations (52.4).  Not bad for a guy who some fans think is a turnover machine.  And even though he missed a dozen games this season Green remained a top-30 defenseman in goals, assists, points, power play points, and game-winning goals.

Cheerless’ Take… Mike Green was also a top-30 defenseman in giveaways. The Caps also happened to be 8-2-2 in games that Green missed, 30-28-12 in games he played.  In 19 games after the Olympic break, when the Caps were struggling to make a playoff spot, Green finished 2-6-8 and just 1-2-3 in his last 15 games.  The Caps were 6-6-3 in those 15 games.

Odd Green Fact… In only eight of 19 games after the Olympic break did Mike Green finish with a Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 above 50 percent.

Game to Remember… January 28th versus Buffalo.  Mike Green earned the nickname “Game Over Green” for his propensity for scoring game-winning goals, often in overtime.  Coming into the 2013-2014 season Green had 16 career game-winning goals, seven of them coming in overtime.  In 2013-2014, however, Green had yet to record a game-winner.  That would change on January 28th.  Green had already recorded a goal in the game against the Sabres in Buffalo, a nifty wrap-around goal that gave the Caps a 3-2 lead in the second period. 

The Caps could not hold the lead, though, and the game went to extra time.  In the first minute of overtime Martin Erat led a rush up ice.  After crossing the Sabres line Eraqt dropped the puck for Alex Ovechkin a tht etop of the left wing circle.  Ovechkin stepped up, giving every indication he was going to take the shot himself.  When the Sabres’ defense slid to his side of the ice, and goalie Jhonas Enroth stepped out to defend the shot, Ovechkin laid the puck off to the weak side where Green was filling in.  Green took the pass and wristed it past the diving Enroth for the game-winner, his eighth overtime career game-winning goal in the Caps’ 5-4 win.

Game to Forget… April 1st versus Dallas.  In a game the Capitals had to have in their late-season rush to make the playoffs, the Caps came up short. Way short.  And Mike Green got an all too close-up view of it.  Green was on ice for three of the five Dallas Stars goals in a 5-0 loss at Verizon Center.  With the Stars holding a 1-0 lead in the second period, the Stars found themselves on a two-on-none break against goalie Jaroslav Halak after a slow Caps line change.  Green was the defenseman back at the end of what would be a 1:27 shift.  His legs weary, Green did not get back quickly on the play, allowing Ray Whitney to deke Halak to the ice, tap the puck out to the top of the crease, and sweep it into the net while Green was struggling to get back into the play. 

In the third period with the Stars up 3-0, Green was caught at the end of another long shift (1:31) left spinning at the top of the crease as Whitney found Dustin Jeffrey coming late on a play to beat Halak to make it 4-0.  There was one more goal left in the Stars’ bag, and Green was on ice for that one, too, at the end of yet another long shift (1:27).  This one came with the Caps on a power play.  Vernon Fiddler ripped the puck around the end wall and up the left wing boards, springing Ryan Garbutt for a break.  Garbutt skated past a gassed Green and in alone on Halak for the period at the end of the sentence for the Caps in a game that was one more blown chance to crawl into the top eight for a playoff berth.

In the end…

Only ten defensemen in the league have higher salary cap hits than Mike Green.  Three or four years ago, when Green was the top offensive defenseman in the league, such a position might have been justified.  But Green is now a second-pair defenseman with a first-pair contract.  And despite his having played in 70 games this past season, one would not call him restored to vitality as far as his durability is concerned. 

Green will be entering the last year of his current contract in 2014-2015.  His 2013-2014 performance was just tantalizing enough to think that maybe he can justify another extension with the Caps.  On the other hand, one might also think of it as tantalizing enough to other clubs to enable the Caps get find some salary cap relief as the Young Guns era moves toward its inevitable conclusion, and the Caps try to remake themselves into a contender once more.

Grade: B-

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Defensemen: John Erskine

"By the work one knows the workman."
-- Jean de La Fontaine

John Erskine’s 2013-2014 season looked a lot like his 2012-2013 season, which looked a lot like his 2011-2012 season.  That is not good news.  Erskine dressed for only 37 games this season.  That happens to be a personal high over the past three seasons over which he appeared in 95 of 212 games.  Erskine missed 37 games to injury this past season and another three to a suspension.  Thought of early on as a potential second-pair defenseman in 2013-2014, he became part of the parade of defensemen marching through the third pair over the course of the season.  As it was his longest string of consecutive games played was 17, from December 15th through January 19th, and he appeared in only two of the Caps last 19 games.

Erskine is not what one would call an offensive defenseman, and his games played do not make for easy evaluation or comparison.  But there are a few things to point out.  For instance, at 5-on-5, John Erskine finished 176th of 230 defensemen playing at least 25 percent of their teams’ games in goals-for percentage (44.7 percent of all goals scored when he was on ice).  He was nestled between Mike Green (175th/44.8 percent) and Karl Alzner (177th/44.6 percent).    Oddly enough, though, his goals for percentage on ice relative to the teams’ performance with him not on the ice (+1.5 percent) was 84th in the league and roughly equivalent to teammate John Carlson (+1.6 percent) and the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh (+1.6 percent).

Erskine suffered from the nature of his partners this season, although the suffering might have been mutual.  In Erskine’s limited action he played more than 100 5-on-5 minutes with only two partners on defense – Connor Carrick and Steve Oleksy.  That is a pair that would finish the season with a combined 95 games of NHL experience.  Erskine’s experience with those partners was like night and day, or more precisely early and late. 

Erskine played 154 minutes of 5-on-5 time with Oleksy this season, all of it by January 4th, corresponding to Oleksy’s last game of the season with the Caps.  Paired with Erskine at 5-on-5, Oleksy had a goals-for/goals-against per 20 minutes of +0.26.  That sounds rather good until one looks at Olesky’s 5-on-5 goal differential when apart from Erskine (+0.35).  Erskine’s experience with Carrick was a bit different.  Carrick’s goal differential per 20 minutes with Erskine at 5-on-5 was 0.00.  When apart, though, Carrick’s goal differential was -0.49.  Strange results are these.

Fearless’ Take… Did you know that only 13 defensemen in Capitals history have played in more games for the club than John Erskine?  He passed Darren Veitch and Yvon Labre this season and now has 350 games played in a Capitals uniform.  Only Mike Green among active Capitals have appeared in more games with the club (503).

Cheerless’ Take… Nine defensemen played in at least 20 games for the Caps this season, including John Erskine.  Of those nine defensemen Erskine was seventh in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (45.7) and seventh in Fenwick-for percentage (44.7).  The only players with lower numbers were Alexander Urbom (44.2/44.2), who is no longer with the club, and Connor Carrick (43.9/42.8), who might have been better served being in Hershey for more of the season.

Odd Erskine Fact… The Caps were 13-17-7 in games in which Erskine appeared and 25-13-7 in games in which he did not.

Game to Remember… January 25th versus Montreal.  John Erskine does not score goals often, so those he does get are sort of memorable by definition.  However, the one he scored in Montreal on January 25th was bizarre.  After a scoreless first period the Caps took the lead 1:46 into the second period on a goal by Alex Ovechkin.  Less than two minutes later the Caps started out of their own zone with John Carlson sending the puck up to Troy Brouwer before heading to the bench.  Brouwer left a touch pass for Martin Erat, who carried the puck into the Montreal end.  Erat put on the breaks at the right wing wall waiting for the play to unfold.  He spied Erskine coming late down the middle.  Erskine was about to be tied up by Brandon Prust when he sort of half shot, half shoveled the puck at the Canadiens’ net.  The puck crawled along the ice past Prust, past P.K. Subban, past Brooks Laich, and between the pads of goalie Carey Price, settling softly in the back of the net to give the Caps a 2-0 lead on their way to a 5-0 win at Bell Centre.

Game to Forget…  March 5th versus Philadelphia.  The Caps’ schedule for March included a home-and-home set of games against the Flyers, the first in Washington on March 2nd and the second on March 5th in Philadelphia.  Washington dropped the front end of the set, 5-4 in overtime, and was looking to salvage a split in Philadelphia.  The Flyers got off fast with a pair of goals in the first eight and a half minutes.  Then things got angry.  In the 12th minute Tom Wilson laid a hit on Brayden Schenn in the Washington end, and as the puck spun around the boards John Erskine put a hit on Vincent Lecavalier.  That was merely prelude.  Wheh the Caps dumped the puck into the Flyers’ end on the ensuing rush, Luke Schenn laid the lumber to Ryan Stoa. 

That brought Wilson back into the picture to take on Schenn.  While this was going on, John Erskine stepped in on Wayne Simmonds.  That led to a pile up in the corner with Erskine tumbling to the ice, and when Erskine got to his feet it was Lecavalier standing in his way.  Erskine and Lecavalier started in on one another, which led to Simmonds coming in to Lecavalier’s assistance.  He grabbed Erskine from behind, tying up Erskine from throwing any more punches and leaving Lecavalier free to throw a couple of his own.  Erskine went down to end the fracas, and the fall would end Erskine’s night after just 5:34 of time on ice.  The Caps went on to lose the contest, 6-4, and Erskine would miss the next ten games.

In the end…

Time and circumstance have taken their toll on John Erskine.  In seven seasons with the Capitals (not including the abbreviated 48-game 2012-2013 season) he has appeared in more than 55 games in a season only once.  It is not for lack of trying or will; Erskine remains, night in and night out, among the hardest workers on the ice when he is in the lineup.  One must wonder, though, just how much Erskine has left to give.  He will be 34 on Opening Night of the 2014-2015 season, and while that is not inordinately old for a hockey player, his injury history suggests that he might be an “old” 34. 

In that respect his 2013-2014 season was not unusual and seems at least as likely as not to serve as a preview of the future.  He was available on a limited basis, and both his production and underlying numbers did not suggest a consistent level of effectiveness when he was in the lineup.  One might hope for better, but one cannot help but think that the body of work John Erskine put together this season is going to be of the sort he displays going forward.

Grade: C-

Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Washington Capitals: The End of the McPhee Era

It is not often one finds symmetry in sports.  Games are about flow and momentum.  On Saturday, however, the Washington Capitals had a moment that reflected a certain symmetry in the arc of their history.  The club announced that General Manager George McPhee and Head Coach Adam Oates would not be returning in their roles for the 2013-2014 season.

The announcement marks the end of an era that began on June 9, 1997 when then-owner Abe Pollin announced the hiring of McPhee as general manager and Ron Wilson as head coach.  That announcement came in the wake of a season in which the Caps finished fifth in the Atlantic Division and out of the playoffs, their first absence from the post season after a 14-year run.  Saturday’s announcement came on the heels of a season in which the Caps finished fifth in the Metropolitan Division and out of the playoffs, the Caps first absence from the post-season after a six-year run.

In 16 seasons with the Capitals, McPhee was the overseer of a club that won 613 regular season games.  The club reached the post season ten times, advancing as far as the Stanley Cup final in 1998, in his first season with the club.  It would not, however, advance that far again, nor would it so much as reach a conference final.

There are a lot of Capitals fans who are happy over the change at the top with respect to McPhee and Oates, but we cannot help but think that in the case of McPhee the matter is more complicated.  It started complicated, in fact.  McPhee took over an aging team that was quietly slipping into the middle of the pack despite a long run of post season appearances.  The 75-point finish in 1996-1997 was merely the period at the end of the sentence that led to the dismissals of David Poile and Jim Schoenfeld.  Only five seasons earlier the Caps were a 98-point team, but then the slide started.  The Caps slipped to 93 points the next season, then 88, then a 52-point season in the abbreviated 48-game season of 1994-1995 (about an 88-point pace), then 89 points the following year before sliding all the way out of the playoffs in 1996-1997 and ushering in the changes.

McPhee put his stamp on that 1997-1998 club with late season deals that brought Brian Bellows and Esa Tikkanen to the club for a stretch run in which the Caps finished 8-1-2, momentum that they carried into a post-season that would be the most successful in franchise history.  In that year and those since, the Washington Capitals have been an extension of George McPhee more than any other individual in the organization…

  • From Alex Ovechkin to Zbynek Novak, his administration drafted 135 players, 47 of whom have played in the NHL, a total of more than 9,000 games in all.
  • He oversaw more than 300 transactions (trades, waiver claims, reported contract signings, reassignments, call-ups).
  • After assuming his responsibilities on the same day as did new head coach at the time Ron Wilson (June 9, 1997), McPhee hired five coaches.
  • In 16 seasons teams that he built won seven division championships.
  • Only two general managers – Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey and Jim Rutherford in Carolina – have longer active tenures.
  • He forged and maintained a relationship with the Hershey Bears of the AHL that has been of benefit to both franchises.

As one might expect in such a long tenure, and given the uncertainty that attaches to so much in sports when it comes to the outcomes of management decisions, McPhee’s record with the Capitals has it highs and its lows.  The draft history of the club is uneven.  Eighteen of 21 first round picks in the McPhee era reached the NHL with Andre Burakowsky projected to make the big club in short order after his selection in 2013.  Eleven of those picks have played in more than 250 NHL games.  However, he might be remembered more for the misses than the hits – Anton Gustafsson and Sasha Pokulok were first round picks who never dressed in an NHL game, and Joe Finley never played for the Capitals after his first round selection in 2005.

The other side of that coin is that only 29 of 114 draft picks after the first round ever made it to the NHL, only three of whom played more than 250 games, two of them (Krys Barch and Johnny Oduya) playing none of those games with the Caps.  Matt Pettinger played 334 of his 422 career games in the NHL with Washington.  And for a team whose philosophy includes building from the draft, the roster that took the ice for the last game of the 2013-2014 season was conspicuous for the players, specifically forwards, who came to the Caps by other means. 

Two thirds of what was their best line for much of the season – Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, and Eric Fehr – came from other places, Ward as a free agent from Nashville in 2011 and Chimera from Columbus in a 2009 trade.  Even Fehr, originally drafted by the Caps in 2003, came to the Caps as a free agent after leaving the club via trade in 2011.  A second line of Jay Beagle, Dustin Penner, and Troy Brouwer all came to the Caps by means other than the draft.  The fourth line in that last game might have been called the “Promise Line” with drafted forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson, but their best days are perhaps some years ahead of them.

The defense suffered from a strange bi-polar quality to it.  On the one hand there were the Karl Alzner/John Carlson and Mike Green/Dmitry Orlov pairs, both of which constituted all draft picks.  That third pair, though.  The Caps rotated ten different defensemen through that last pairing over the course of the season with a combined total of 204 man-games.  And of that group only two – Connor Carrick and Patrick Wey – were drafted by the club.  Given that five defensemen drafted in the first or second round between 2005 and 2008 never played a game for the Caps (Sasha Pokulok, Joe Finley, Keith Seabrook, Josh Godfrey, and Eric Mestery), that is a not too surprising result and will be a lasting part of McPhee’s legacy.

There also were the perennial problems, filling the second line center role and finding a defenseman who could reliably defend, what is often described as the “stay at home” type.  As to the former, the Caps paid only intermittent attention to the position through the draft.  After selecting Nicklas Backstrom with the fourth overall pick in 2006 the Caps did spend a first round pick on a center in three consecutive years: Anton Gustafsson in 2008, Marcus Johansson in 2009, and Evgeny Kuznetsov in 2010.  That it hasn’t worked out, at least in terms of finding a suitable center to back up Backstrom, is to be charitable.  Gustafsson never played in the NHL, and both Johansson and Kuznetsov appear to be destined to be wingers in the NHL.

That left McPhee to patch holes, primarily at trading deadline time.  Sergei Fedorov in 2008 (after Michael Nylander was injured and missed the last three months of the regular season), Eric Belanger in 2010, and Jason Arnott in 2011 were short term fixes (only Fedorov played another season with the club).  McPhee tried to solve the problem in a more permanent way by trading futures (Cody Eakin) for a proven player at the position (Mike Ribeiro) in June 2012, but that lasted only one abbreviated season.  This year it was signing Mikhail Grabovski as a free agent on a discounted deal (quite a good one for the club, in fact), but the player’s future with the team is in doubt as he is once more a free agent..

The defense has been a work that always seems to be in progress.  Part of the problem is circumstantial, the serial injuries to Mike Green being foremost in that category.  The third pair carousel this past season was another dimension of the problem, though.  The Caps have a large gap in their developmental conveyor, those five first and second round draft picks identified above constituting that hole.  As a result, the Caps rotated a series of free agents through that pair this past season – Steve Oleksy, Nate Schmidt, Julien Brouillette, Jack Hillen, Cameron Schilling, Tyson Strachan.

One of the most enduringly curious patterns in the McPhee era was in his choices for head coach.  All five of his hires were first-time NHL head coaches.  Three of them – Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon, and Bruce Boudreau – had head coaching experience in the AHL.  The last two – Dale Hunter and Adam Oates – had no professional head coaching experience.  Of the four coaches eventually dismissed by McPhee, only Boudreau has taken another NHL head coaching position (Anaheim).  Cassidy is the head coach of the Providence Bruins in the AHL, Hanlon is head coach of the Belarusian national ice hockey team, and Hunter returned to London, Ontario, to resume his duties as president and head coach of the Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.  As a group that quintet won 421 of 868 games, Boudreau accounting for almost half the win total (201).

What gets lost sometimes, though, is that McPhee was the steward of the 2003-2008 rebuild.  That in itself was a risky endeavor, essentially gutting the team during and after the 2003-2004 season to stockpile draft picks and prospects.  Out of that came Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Shaone Morrisonn, Tomas Fleischmann, Brooks Laich, and Semyon Varlamov, all of whom would play important roles as the Caps returned to respectability and eventually won a Presidents Trophy.  But here, too, there were gaps.  Trading the then league leading scorer (Robert Lang) for a prospect (Fleischmann) and draft picks (one of whom was Green), or Brendan Witt for Kris Beech and a draft pick that would become Varlamov stand out as wins.  Mike Grier for Jakub Klepis, or Michael Nylander for draft picks that became Francois Bouchard and Patrick McNeill, not as much.

In the end, the word that comes to mind with respect to George McPhee’s tenure in Washington is “conflicted.”  On the one hand he was the administrator of an operation that for several years was on a short list of Stanley Cup contenders, not something that is said of a lot of franchises in the NHL.  And, Verizon Center is filled every night with a brand of hockey that has been, for the most part, entertaining since the 2004-2005 lockout.  These are not insignificant contributions to the history of the franchise or to the legacy of sports in Washington.  Hockey is established as a major sport in Washington in a way that it was not before McPhee’s arrival.

On the other hand, one has the haunting feeling of an opportunity squandered.  The Caps won a ping-pong ball drawing in 2004 to leap-frog two teams and get the number one pick in the 2004 draft, used to select Alex Ovechkin.  That was the easy part.  The hard part was always going to be what and how the Caps built around Ovechkin.  On that score the McPhee record is disappointing.  The club rarely had the depth or consistency to seriously challenge for a Stanley Cup despite Ovechkin’s routine appearance at the top of the league goal scoring rankings.  And when they did, in 2010, a first round playoff loss to the Montreal Canadiens resulted in some soul searching and re-engineering, especially when in the following season the club lost eight straight games with the cameras of HBO recording every sordid moment as part of it series chronicling the run-up to the 2011 Winter Classic.  From there the team slid slowly into also-ran status, a team that had to hustle just to make the playoffs and once there, lasting as long as the cherry blossoms.  The team, and McPhee, never recovered.    

In June 1997 the announcement of the hiring of a new general manager and a new head coach came as a new arena was being built that would become the home of the Caps.  Saturday’s announcement came as the other major tenant of that building – the NBA’s Washington Wizards – were playing on and giving their fans the sense of hope Caps fans might have had 17 years ago.  It serves as a reminder that 17 years is a long time, especially in the business of sports management.  It also suggests that a new start for everyone -- the Caps, George McPhee, Adam Oates, the players, and even the fans -- was in order.  But before embarking on that new start, thanks is owed to George McPhee for working at one of the most stressful of occupations, one in which every move is watched and probed and second-guessed.  He did it with diligence and perseverance in search of a championship for Washington.  That he did not get there is not a reflection on his desire or his effort.  And for that, fans should stop for a moment and remember his 17 years here with some gratitude.

But here is an odd coincidence to leave you with that might be the last 17 years in a capsule.  In 2013-2014 the Caps finished the season 38-30-14, a .549 standings points percentage. 

The Caps standings points percentage in the George McPhee era: .549.

Photo: Dave Sandford/NHL/Getty Images

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Connor Carrick

“I never think of the future - it comes soon enough.”
-- Albert Einstein

When defenseman Connor Carrick was taken 137th overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft, chances are that fans of the Washington Capitals did not think too long or too hard about whether Carrick would be the answer to depth concerns on the Capitals blue line.  They might have given less thought to the possibility that barely a year later he would be in the starting lineup on opening night of the 2013-2014 season against the Chicago Blackhawks. 

But there he was, the native of Orland Park, IL, taking the ice about 30 miles from his hometown against the defending Stanley Cup champions.  It was not the most auspicious of debuts.  On his second NHL shift he was outmuscled by Brandon Bollig in front of the Washington net where Bollig collected a rebound and stuffed it into the Capitals’ net for the first goal of the season.  Then, in the third period, his touch pass intended for Alex Ovechkin was picked off, allowing the Blackhawks to break the other way and score the tying goal in what would be a 6-4 Chicago win.

Carrick would record his first NHL goal in the Caps’ next game, their home opener against Calgary, on a breakaway in the second period to start a comeback from a 3-0 deficit in what would be a 5-4 Gimmick win.  But after his third game he was reassigned to the Hershey Bears in the AHL.  One might have thought that Carrick had his cup o’ coffee with the big club and that he would spend the rest of the season in his apprenticeship with the Bears.

That was the case until January.  Having participated in the World Junior Championships in Sweden where he had three assists in five games for the United States, he was recalled to the Caps to fill in during a stretch of five games in seven days.  He stayed for the rest of the regular season.  He would finish 27th in games played by rookie defensemen (34) and 38th in average ice time (15:58) hardly insignificant numbers for a fifth-round draft pick barely a year removed from his draft class.  In fact, only six defensemen in his draft class have more games played than Carrick, all of them drafted in the first round (Olli Maatta, Hampus Lindholm, Morgan Rielly, Ryan Murray, Jacob Trouba, and Cody Ceci).

If there was a fault line in Carrick’s game in his rookie season it was the difference between playing in the friendly confines of Verizon Center versus donning the white jerseys on the road.  In 16 home games Carrick was 1-4-5, minus-1 playing 16:13 a game.  On the road he was 0-1-1, minus-8, while playing 15:45 a night in 18 road games.  That lone road point was a secondary assist in the fifth goal of what would be a 5-0 win by the Caps over Montreal at Bell Centre on January 25th.

Fearless’ Take… Among rookie defensemen Connor Carrick finished in the top-30 in games played (34), points (6), and shooting percentage (3.8…ok, it was one goal on 26 shots).  He finished even or better in 22 of 34 games.  Of 303 defensemen having dressed for games in the regular season, Carrick was the sixth youngest of the group.  Carrick turned 20 on the last day of the regular season.

Cheerless’ Take… There wasn’t much fancy about his stats, eh, cuz?  Of 230 defensemen dressing for at least 25 percent of their teams’ games, Carrick was 210th in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (43.9) and 217th in Fenwick-for percentage (42.8).  His shots-for percentage was dead last in that group (40.4).  Poor kid.  The team gave him a pocket knife to go fight a grizzly bear.

Odd Carrick Fact… There were 45 rookie defensemen who dressed for ten or more games this season, including Connor Carrick.  Only six were on ice for fewer goals-for per game than Carrick.  He was third on his own team (0.44), behind Alexander Urbom (0.45) and Nate Schmidt (0.79).

Game to Remember… January 31st versus Detroit.  The Capitals were sinking like a stone through the standings.  Having lost two in a row and 15 of their previous 20 games (5-9-6), the Caps went into their January 31st contest with the Detroit Red Wings in 13th place in the Eastern Conference standings.  The Caps got the Red Wings running around in their own end in the fifth minute of the first period.  Casey Wellman took a pass from Jason Chimera and curled off at the top of the left wing circle before throwing the puck at the net.  The puck was redirected wide and off the end boards.  Connor Carrick jumped up from the opposite side and beat Tomas Jurco to the puck, backhanding it through the crease where Joel Ward took a whack at it.  His shot caromed off the far post but onto the stick of Chimera, who buried the shot to give the Caps a 1-0 lead.  The teams exchanged the next four goals, Detroit closing to within 3-2 at the 13:30 mark of the second period.  Just 19 seconds after the second Detroit goal, though, Carrick jumped into the play once more, darting down the right side and beating Joakim Andersson to a loose puck in the right wing circle.  From the bottom of the circle Carrick wristed the puck in front where Joel Ward finished the play to give the Caps a 4-2 lead in what would be a 6-5 overtime win over the Red Wings.  It was Carrick’s first and, to date, only multi-point game of his brief career.

Game to Forget… January 15th versus Pittsburgh.  The Caps had just taken a 3-2 lead in the ninth minute of the third period against the Penguins at Consol Energy Center.  Three minutes later, though, Brandon Sutter had the puck in the Caps’ end in the left wing circle with Carrick defending.  Sutter moved the puck from his forehand to his backhand and stepped past Carrick to get a passing lane to the crease.  Carrick was a split second too late to keep Sutter from sending a pass to Jussi Jokinen who batted the puck off Dmitry Orlov’s stick and over goalie Michal Neuvirth to tie the game.  It was the second time Carrick was left in a bad spot.  Earlier in the game he was trying to defend Taylor Pyatt in front of the Capitals net.  Giving away five inches and 45 pounds in the skirmish, Carrick merely bounced off, leaving Pyatt all alone in front to take a pass from Olli Maatta and snap it past Neuvirth to tie the game at 2-2.  The Penguins went on to win, 4-3.

In the end…

The 2013-2014 season was an unexpected sort of learning experience for Connor Carrick.  Few might have anticipated that a fifth round draft pick in 2012 out of the U.S. National Team Development Program and with a year of junior hockey would be skating significant minutes in the NHL.  However, that Carrick would be one of only nine defensemen drafted in 2012 to dress for an NHL game says something about the Capitals’ depth at the position as much as it does Carrick’s talent.  Carrick might have benefitted from a playoff stretch run with the Hershey Bears, but the Caps left him off the AHL playoff-eligible list while, curiously, he played in only four of the Caps’ last 13 regular season games. 

It is hard to know what the takeaway is for Carrick from this season.  Was it a learning experience, or was it a learning opportunity lost?  Those were things not in his control, making those things that he could control – his performance in games in which he was called upon – frustrating to watch at times.  The talent seems to be there, but on too many nights he seemed overmatched.  For Connor Carrick the future might have come just a bit too soon.

Grade: C+

photo: Bruce Bennett

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Defensemen: John Carlson

"The key to growth is the introduction of higher dimensions of consciousness into our awareness."
-- Lao Tzu

In his first three full seasons in the NHL, ending with the 2012-2013 season, John Carlson logged a total of 405:52 in power play ice time.  In the 2013-2014 season Carlson finished with 257:56 in man advantage ice time, 20th in the league among defensemen in total minutes and 27th in power play ice time per game (3:08). 

At the ripe age of 24, Carlson is now the Washington Capitals’ answer to the two-way, all-situations defenseman.  And with it came a certain maturity and stability in his game.  As to the latter, consider that at 5-on-5 he played more than ten times as many minutes (952:35, 72 percent of his total 5-on-5 ice time) with Karl Alzner as he did with his second most frequent partner, Dmitry Orlov (93:09).  

Looking at his ten-game segments, Carlson was fairly consistent in his production with a late push in points, most of that coming in power play distribution (14 assists in his last three segments), a product of his taking over the lion’s share of the responsibilities manning the point on the man advantage. 

Fearless’ Take… Carlson has come a long way in a short time.  If you look at the defenseman cohort of the 2008 entry draft, Carlson’ career numbers are:

6th in total games played (316; Drew Doughty leads with 442)
6th in goals scored (33/Eric Karlsson: 63)
4th in assists (101/Karlsson: 174)
5th in points (134/Karlsson: 237)
4th in plus/minus (plus-25/Alex Pietrangelo: plus-45)

It is worth noting that in every instance in each of those measures above that the defensemen ranking higher than Carlson were drafted before he was (27th overall) with the exception of San Jose’s Jason Demers (selected 186th overall), who outranked Carlson in career plus/minus (plus-26 to plus-25).

This season Carlson finished with the team lead in goals (10) and was second in assists (27 to Mike Green’s 29) and points (37 to Green’s 38).  His power play goals (5), assists (17), and points (22) led all Caps defensemen, as did his time on ice (24:30/game).  He is one of only four defensemen in teh league (Keith Yandle, Matt Carle, and teammate Karl Alzner being the others) to have played in all 294 games over the past four seasons.  He is second only to Yandle among those four in total minutes played.

Cheerless’ Take… OK, I’m gonna go all “fancystats” on ya.  Let’s start with Corsi.  Two years ago, Carlson had a Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 of 47.8.  Last year: 49.1.  This year?... 46.9, and that was with the best ratio of offensive zone starts in any of the three years (49.5 percent of his offensive plus defensive zone starts).  Not just that, but in 5-on-5 close score situations his Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages have dropped in each of the last two seasons, from 49.6 Corsi-for percent in 2011-2012 to 45.6 percent this season and a Fenwick-for percent of 51.4 om 2011-2012 to 46.3 percent this season.  And the quality of forwards he faced is just a little bit better (30.0 percent average total team percent of 5-on-5 on-ice opponents) than it was in 2011-2012 (29.4 percent).  You might say that’s on his coach.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Well…maybe.

Odd Carlson Fact… John Carlson skated more than 30 minutes in five games in 2013-2014.  The Caps were 4-0-1 in those games.  He had points in four of them (0-5-5 overall).  He was even or better in all of them (plus-3 overall), despite a Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 of 43.8.  Here might be the oddest fact of all, or the reason he skated more than 30 minutes in the first place.  Every game went to the Gimmick.

Game to Remember… November 15th at Detroit.  The Capitals were on a strange roll.  Going into their 20th game of the season in Detroit, Washington had participated in three extra-time games in their previous four contests, four of their last six over a span of ten days.  When they took the ice against the Red Wings on November 15th they were thinner than usual on defense.  Mike Green was out, which was going to place a larger burden on John Carlson to pick up the available ice time, especially on the power play.  It would not be the power play on which Carlson would make his mark in this game; it would come in the third period. 

Through 40 minutes Carlson already logged 17:25 in ice time, about on his season pace.  But in the third period, after he was on ice for a goal by Alex Ovechkin that got the Caps to within a goal at 3-2, it was his shot to the Detroit net that pinballed at the top of the crease and onto the stick of Michael Latta, who backhanded the puck in for his first NHL goal to tie the game. 

What might have been more amazing was what Carlson did in overtime.  Neither team would score in the extra session, but Carlson skated 4:19 of the five minutes, all of it coming on two shifts, including the last 3:49 of the overtime.  Carlson finished with 32:26 in total ice time (his second highest of the season), 6:43 of it on the power play to lead the team.  He also had 5:51 in shorthanded ice time, tied with partner Karl Alzner for the team lead.  Carlson finished with an assist and a plus-2 in what would be a 4-3 Gimmick win for the Caps at Joe Louis Arena.

Game to Forget… December 17th at Philadelphia.  It started well enough for the Caps at Wells Fargo Center when Alex Ovechkin scored a power play goal just 40 seconds into the second period of their contest with the Flyers.  Less than a minute later, though, the Flyers drew even, and John Carlson got a pretty good look at it.  As he was marking the Flyers Michael Raffl at the Flyers’ blue line, Brayden Coburn was skating the puck from around the back of the Flyers’ net.   As he was sending the puck up to Jakub Voracek, Claude Giroux cut through the middle and behind Carlson to create a 2-on-1 with only Karl Alzner back.  Voracek called his own number and wristed the puck past goalie Braden Holtby to tie the game. 

Eric Fehr restored the Caps’ one-goal advantage four minutes later, but Philadelphia tied the game in the 12th minute of the period, Carlson once more getting a good look, this time on the power play.  A shot by Nicklas Grossman was knocked down by Steve Downie in front of Holtby.  Alzner stepped up on Downieto block his shot attempt.  Nicklas Backstrom had Brayden Schenn covered at the top of the crease, but the puck squirted over to Matt Read with Carlson a step tooo far away to engage him. Read batted the puck in to tie the game. 

Things just got worse after that for the Caps and for Carlson.  It started with a major penalty to Tom Wilson for running Brayden Schenn into the boards.  The Flyers took the lead on the ensuing power play when Mark Streit scored.  The Flyers got an insurance goal on the power play barely a minute after that when Voracek got his second goal of the game.  Carlson did what he could, tying up Scott Hartnell’s stick, but it was another minus on his ledger, making him a minus-3 (his worst of the season) in a 5-2 loss to the Flyers.

In the end…

Although Mike Green’s numbers, on a per-game basis, remained superior to Carlson’s over the entirety of the 2013-2014 season, one got the feeling that by the time April rolled around Carlson was the go-to guy in every situation – even strength, penalty killing, and even on the power play, where Green ruled for several seasons.  Still, it remains somewhat unclear whether Carlson (and his frequent partner Karl Alzner, for that matter) is a top-pair defenseman just yet on a bona fide Stanley Cup contender.  He certainly was – and is – on this Capitals team, but that might be a statement about the depth and talent of the defense overall. 

This is not to diminish Carlson’s performance this season or his influence on the team’s fortunes.  He is, after all, still just 24 years old and is on the upgrade of his career arc.  This season, for example, it just seemed by observation that he had far fewer brain cramps and mental lapses that seemed to infect his game in, say, the 2011-2012 season.  That speaks to the maturity aspect of which we spoke above.

As much as we have called into question the record of this franchise in bringing amateur talent to the big club (and keeping them there), we think an argument can be made that John Carlson is among the best draft picks this administration has made when you consider a number of factors.  He was not a lottery pick (not “top-five,” like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, or Karl Alzner), he was the product of a draft pick obtained in trade (June 20, 2008, the Caps obtained the 27th pick in the draft from Philadelphia that was used to select Carlson for Steve Eminger and the 84th pick in the 2008 draft), his selection filled precisely the hole left by the underachieving Eminger (a 12th overall pick in 2002), and he has had performance numbers that are at least competitive with his draft cohort and in many instances superior.  This was a pick that the Caps had to work for to get, to identify, and to manage well in terms of his developmental progress, and it was a pick that repaired a problem that occurred with a previous pick.

There is room for improvement with Carlson, as would be the case for just about any player who toiled in every game for an underachieving team in 2013-2014.  But what we said last year at this time for Carlson echoes:

“For Carlson’s own game, it is now a matter of growth, to become the reliable, consistent two-way defenseman fans saw in the making when he came into the league.”

He is making that growth, and the 2013-2014 season demonstrated it.

Grade: B

photo:  Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Karl Alzner

“If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.”
-- Henry David Thoreau

In his first two full seasons with the Washington Capitals, Karl Alzner toiled at developing a reputation as a smart, reliable defenseman who used angles and position more than force and brawn to defend his end of the ice.  In 164 games over the 2011-2012 and the 2012-2013 seasons that approach allowed him to post a scoring line of 3-26-29, plus-26.  The 29 points was not what was noteworthy, it was the plus-26.  Even with top-pair responsibilities (generally with John Carlson), Alzner had more good things happen than bad on the ice.

In the last two years, though, Alzner has remained reliable, playing in all 130 regular season and seven playoff games, but his regular season scoring line was 3-20-23, minus-13.  It is that minus-13 stands out, especially as part of his 2-16-18, minus-7 season in 2013-2014.

The most disturbing part of the 2013-2014 season for Alzner would appear to be in his “tens,” his ten-game segments.  He started the season with a plus-1 in each of his first three ten-game segments.  This continued a pattern for Alzner.  In 2012-2013 he started the season with a minus-3 in his first ten-game segment, then followed that up with plus-2 in each of his next two segments.  In 2011-2012 Alzner was plus-7, plus-2, and plus-2 in his first three segments.

In his ten-game segments to follow, though, Alzner ended up minus-10 over his last five segments.  Again, it was part of a pattern.  He was minus-7 in his last two segments of the abbreviated 2012-2013 season and was an inconsistent plus-1 over his last five segments of the 2011-2012 season.  Looking at this from a slightly different point of view, this was the second straight season in which Alzner was on ice for more than a goal per game (1.04/game, after 1.15/game in 2012-2013).   In the two full seasons preceding, he was under that threshold (0.98/game in 2011-2012 and 0.76/game in 2010-2011).  Give his almost metronomic offensive pace, that trend suggests a bit more porousness in the defensive end of the ice.

Fearless’ Take

At this time last year Peerless noted that Alzner faced some rather offensive-minded forward opponents in his top 5-on-5 time on ice:

Jordan Staal
Evander Kane
Jeff Skinner
Steven Stamkos
Martin St. Louis
Blake Wheeler
Nik Antropov
Ilya Kovalchuk
Marcel Goc
Olli Jokinen

This year that list includes:

Claude Giroux
Eric Staal
Jakub Voracek
Marian Gaborik
Evgeni Malkin
James van Riemsdyk
Alexander Semin
Jaromir Jagr
Phil Kessel
Travis Zajac

What Alzner gets is a lot of time against a lot of players with very good possession numbers generally.  In terms of average Corsi of opposing players at 5-on-5, Alzner faced the 27th best opposition among 173 defensemen playing in at least 50 games.    He faced the 17th highest opposition in average relative Corsi.  

This is also a player who, as one might expect given the nature of the opposition he faced, got comparatively few offensive zone starts.  His 30.6 percent offensive zone starts is in the same neighborhood as defensemen such as Zdeno Chara (30.8 percent), Ryan McDonagh (30.8 percent), and Dan Girardi (30.5 percent).  Alzner remained, for this season and for better or worse, as close to a shutdown defenseman as the Capitals had.

Cheerless’ Take

How are those Corsi treating you these days? Alzner was 116th among 142 defensemen playing in 75 percent of their games in Corsi-for at 5-on-5.  His Fenwick was not any better (111th).  As it turned out, Alzner ended up 120th among those defensemen in goals for/against percentage.    And his goals-for percentage was not all that good relative to the teams’s goals for percentage at 5-on-5; Alzner was 105th among  defensemen in that one.  

Odd Alzner Fact…  Above we compared Alzner’s 2010-2011and 2011-2012 seasons to his last two seasons, noting the change in plus-minus.  There is also the scoring line.  In the first two of those seasons Alzner averaged 0.1768 points per game.  In the last two seasons he averaged 0.1769 points per game.  Taking his points per game out to a fourth decimal place is a rather amazing piece of consistency, despite having played for three coaches in that span (Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, and Adam Oates).

Game to Remember… March 8th versus Phoenix.  When the Capitals returned home on March 8th from a two-game road trip to Philadelphia and Boston, they were in the midst of a three-game losing streak and were three points behind Detroit for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.  Awaiting them were the Phoenix Coyotes, who had consecutive wins over Vancouver and Montreal before traveling to DC.  The Coyotes got out to a 2-0 lead over the Caps with goals in each of the first two periods.  As the game moved through the third period it looked as if the Caps would extend their losing streak.  As we described it at the time…

From the 3:20 mark of the second period to the 9:15 mark of the third period, Phoenix out-shot the Caps, 19-14.  Then, something strange and wonderful happened.

Karl Alzner scored.

It was innocent enough.  Jay Beagle and Keith Yandle were fighting for a loose puck in the left wing corner to goalie Mike Smith’s right.  As they were dueling, Eric Fehr swooped in and gathered up the puck, sliding it out to Alzner at the left point.  With Mike Ribeiro in the shooting lane, Alzner stepped to his left and down the wall to get an opening, then flipped a soft shot toward the goal (kids, take note...a right-handed defenseman on that side cannot make that play; sometimes the "handed" thing works).  As Alzner was snapping his shot at the net, Jay Beagle backed across Smith’s line of sight dragging Yandle with him on the coverage, and the commotion might have provided a distraction.  It was enough to allow the puck to sail untouched into the back of the net, and the Caps were within a goal.

That goal, on Alzner’s only shot on goal for the game, was the catalyst for a three-goal burst over a five-minute span that brought the Caps all the way back for what would be a 3-2 win that would stop the bleeding of the three-game losing streak.

Game to Forget… December 17th versus Philadelphia.  There were the Capitals, hanging on to a 2-1 lead mid-way through the second period of their mid-December game in Philadelphia against the Flyers.  Then the Flyers caught a break.  Nicklas Grossman started it with a wrist shot from the top of the offensive zone.  It was knocked down by what looked like a high-stick from Brayden Schenn, the puck dropping to the feet of Steve Downie. With Alzner trying to tie Downie up, Downie turned and tried to throw the puck at the net.  The puck caromed off the skate of Alzner onto the stick of Matt Read, who had a lay-up as a result, tying the game at 2-2.  Then after the Flyers took a lead late in the period on a Mark Streit power play goal following a major penalty to Tom Wilson for charging, they were on the attack moments later.  Kimmo Timonen walked the offensive blue line looking for a shooting lane but spied Jakub Voracek in the right wing circle instead.  Timonen slid the puck to Voracek, and before Alzner could step out and challenge, Voracek wristed the puck past goalie Breaden Holtby’s left pad to give the Flyers a 4-2 lead in a game they would win, 5-2.  It was Alzner’s only minus-3 performance of the season.

In the end…

Alzner is a pretty good barometer of the Capitals’ situation.  He generally speaks his mind for public consumption in an earnest sort of way, and his comments at the end of the season were illuminating…

"We play good some games, and play tough against the good teams, but the teams that are lower in the standings we take our foot off the gas.  It's almost like we have the swagger sometimes that we're the best team in the League and we can just not play our best. I think it's a mental attitude adjustment that we need to fix.

"We're supposed to be a high-flying offensive team and we haven't really done that.  Our power play has been the only real bright spot this year. But 5-on-5 we just need to be better. I mean, we have to be one of the worst 5-on-5 teams in the League in goals-for vs. goals-against. We've got to be up there.

"It's insane, really just insane.  We don't have the identity. What we're supposed to be, we are not being. That's something that needs to change. I personally am a huge fan of the tight-checking, grind-it-out, 2-1 and 1-0 games, but that's not the way this team is built. If we're not built that way we have to be better for how we're built."

That is a pretty good summary of what ails the Caps, but he did not spare himself, either…

"If you're supposed to be a guy who is scoring all the time, you've got to be scoring.  If you're supposed to be a guy keeping pucks out of the net like me, then your plus-minus has to be better than minus-8 (note: he finished minus-7). We have to hold ourselves way more accountable than we have this year."  

It was not an especially good year for Alzner or the Caps, and for a defenseman who was developing steadily as a shutdown defenseman, it was a disappointing outcome.  He, like his teammates, has some things to work on and think about before taking the ice next season.

Grade: C+

photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America