Saturday, May 31, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- The Cavalry

“It's hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.”
-- Adlai E. Stevenson

Sergei Fedorov, Matt Cooke, Cristobal Huet, Eric Belanger, Dennis Wideman, Jason Arnott, Martin Erat. Those are some of the players acquired by the Washington Capitals over the years at the trading deadline to shore up weaknesses or fill holes on a roster trying to establish themselves for a deep post-season run.

This season it was Chris Brown, Dustin Penner, and Jaroslav Halak as the cavalry reinforcements acquired at the trading deadline as the Caps found themselves in the position of having to scramble from below just to make the playoffs.

Chris Brown

Chris Brown took a rather roundabout way to Washington. A native of Flower Mound, TX, Brown spent time in the U.S. National Team Development Program.  Then, after being drafted in the second round by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2009, he spent three years at the University of Michigan.  Upon turning pro he was assigned to the Portland Pirates of the AHL, splitting time between Maine and Arizona with the Coyotes in 2012-2013. 

Brown split time between Portland (51 games) and Phoenix (six games) this season as well, but when the trading deadline came, he packed his bags once more as part of a deal that sent unhappy winger Martin Erat to the Coyotes. 

Brown split his remaining time in the 2013-2014 season between Washington (six games) and Hershey (12 games), but at least the commute was easier.  As one might expect, he was more successful at Hershey than in Washington.  With the Bears, Brown was 2-3-5, plus-2 in 12 games, over which the Bears went 6-3-3.  With Washington, Brown was 1-1-2, even, and the Caps went 1-2-3.

Brown’s activity was unremarkable.  In 9:42 of ice time per game (all of it at even strength) he had meager possession numbers: 39.0 Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 and a shots-for percentage of 38.9 at 5-on-5.  He might have been an improvement on John Mitchell, the AHLer who went west in the trade that brought Brown to Washington (he never dressed with the Caps), but for 2013-2014 not a large one.

Dustin Penner

Once upon a time, Dustin Penner was a forward with promise.  In his second season in the NHL, with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Penner scored 29 goals for a Stanley Cup champion.  He was a 20-plus goal scorer in four of his first five full seasons in the league, including 32 goals with Edmonton in 2009-2010.  After the 2010-2011 season though (23 goals in 81 games with Edmonton and the Los Angeles Kings), his production fell off the table.  In 98 games over the next two seasons he had nine goals (and yes, another Stanley Cup).  He became known more for his adventures with breakfast fare than his exploits on the ice.  

After signing with the Ducks before the start of this season – the plain old unmighty “Anaheim Ducks” -- his production rebounded somewhat with 13 goals and 32 points in 49 games.  It was not enough to keep him from being traded at the March deadline, though.  Moreover, he was obtained for a fourth-round pick.  Wait…what?  A guy who was scoring on a 22-32-54 pace per 82 games was traded for a mid-round draft pick?  On paper, it was a steal.  

Yeah, well, it’s hard to skate on paper, although at times that looked like the medium on which Penner skated.  It did not help at all that then head coach Adam Oates was adamant that Penner play a limited role.  In 18 games with the Caps, Penner averaged 12:18 a game, his lowest ice time since his first year in the league when he averaged 11:58 in 19 games with the Mighty Ducks.  Even Martin Erat, who occupied another condominium in the Adam Oates Doghouse Estates, averaged 14 minutes a game.

The mix of new surroundings and lack of use made for a scoring line for Penner that was not all that distinguishable from that of Chris Brown: 1-2-3, plus-3, and the Caps were 8-6-4 in games in which Penner appeared.

Penner was something of a curiosity.  First, he was a left-handed shooter who played primarily on the right side in previous stops.  With the Caps that left-handed shot was going to be put on the left side.  It was the Capital Way.  OK, now who is over there on the left?  There was Marcus Johansson, who never saw a shot he didn’t like…to pass up, it seemed.  But he was going to be a top-six winger on this team.  Then there was newly arrived Evgeny Kuznetsov.  You would have thought that Kuznetsov would have been, at least on the proverbial paper, a top-six winger (he wasn’t).    Folks might have been disinclined to break Jason Chimera away from what was on many nights the Caps’ most effective line (with Eric Fehr and Joel Ward). 

So, where did Penner fit?  Put him back on the right side?  The depth chart there was Alex Ovechkin-Troy Brouwer-Joel Ward.  There are fans out there who no doubt would say “stick him in Brouwer’s spot,” except Brouwer was in the midst of a career year in goals, more than a third of his year’s total scored after the trading deadline that brought Penner to the Caps. 

The Caps needed centers or defensemen, got yet another winger who on paper looked like a steal, then put him in the equivalent of a lockbox on the second half of the forward lines.  His was as good an example as any of the dysfunctional relationship among needs assessment, player procurement, communications, and deployment that plagued this team this year.  The best thing that could be said of the Penner acquisition was that it cost next to nothing.

Jaroslav Halak

You can draw a bright line between comments attributed to then general manager George McPhee about the Capitals’ goaltending this season and the acquisition of Jaroslav Halak at the trading deadline.  During a national broadcast of the Caps’ 6-5 overtime win against the Detroit Red Wings on February 2nd, NBC analyst Joe Michaletti stated that McPhee told him that with better goaltending the Caps would have ten more standings points to that point of the season. 

A month later, the Caps moved goaltender Michal Neuvirth and just-acquired defenseman Rostislav Klesla to the Buffalo Sabres for the just-acquired Halak and a third-round draft pick in 2015.  The move paid immediate dividends.  Halak went 4-2-0, 2.35, .931 in his first six games with the Caps, and it looked as if McPhee’s comment that the Caps woes were due in no small part to iffy goaltending.  At the very least the club was getting steady play between the pipes.  It recalled, if faintly, the boost that the acquisition of Cristobal Huet gave the Caps in their playoff sprint in 2008 (11-2-0, 1.63, .936, with two shutouts in 13 games to close the season).

Then, something happened… 

Trading the plain white mask with the red cage for a spiffy eagle-themed painted mask was right in line with what goalies do, make a personal statement with their new team.  It did not have the intended effect.  In Halak’s first game with the new lid he lost in a shootout to the Los Angeles Kings.  Then he lost again, in a shootout to the Kings again.  Another shootout loss, this one to the Nashville Predators, followed by losses in regulation against the Dallas Stars and New Jersey Devils, and Halak was 0-2-3 with the new mask, and the Caps’ playoff hopes were toast.

What Halak had in the old, plain white mask that he did not in the fancy new helmet was consistency.  In his first six games he had that record of 4-2-0, 2.35, .931.  Those good numbers were a product of being consistent.  Only once in those six games did he have a save percentage below .927, that coming when he allowed three goals on 20 shots in a 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh on March 10th. 

In the new mask he posted overall numbers very similar to his first six games in terms of goals against and save percentage: 2.27, .928.  What he lacked was the same consistency.  Three times in those six games he had save percentages lower than .900, and he was 0-1-2 in those games.  The team in front of him did not help much giving him little goal support in those six games, just nine goals in the five losses in his six-game finish.

Was Halak a clear improvement over Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth, and Philipp Grubauer?  Yes and no.  Holtby (.928) and Grubauer (.927) had better save percentages at even strength than did Halak (.922), but those differences are not all that significant.  Halak was much better than Holtby facing opponents’ power plays.  He finished with a save percentage of .960 (72 saves on 75 shots) versus .867 for Holtby (33 goals allowed on 248 shots faced).  That, however, might have been the product of the old “small sample” problem.  Halak had a save percentage of .876 facing opponents’ power plays tending goal for St. Louis.

Halak might have been an improvement on Holtby or Neuvirth, but not so much that it made much of a difference in the Caps’ record.  We still think it was the mask.

In the end…

The common thread with these three players obtained in the late-season push was “not enough.”  Brown didn’t have enough skill or experience to get a lot of playing time, and when he did, he was not an improvement over those players he was replacing.  Penner didn’t get enough ice time and didn’t do enough with the time he had.  Halak was a marginal improvement over the other three goalies who dressed for the Caps this season, but he was not consistent enough down the stretch to push the Caps over the top and into the playoff eight in the Eastern Conference.  The front office didn’t do enough to give the Caps a spark in the lineup for their home stretch run.  Instead of bringing in the cavalry to help save the Caps’ season, the combination of the players acquired, the manner in which they were used, and the results they provided made things seem more like F Troop.


Brown: Nick Wass/AP
Penner: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America
Halak: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Dearly, Clearly Departed

“They parted at last with mutual civility, and possibly a mutual desire of never meeting again.”
― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

The Washington Capitals bid goodbye to a few players this past season, one drafted by the organization, one for whom they traded, and one they claimed on waivers.  They were not without their contributions.  They were not without their issues.

Alexander Urbom

Alexander Urbom was claimed on waivers from the New Jersey Devils On October 3, 2013.  Once upon a time, back in 2010, Urbom had been the Devils “top prospect,” at least in the eyes of none other than legendary general manager Lou Lamoriello.  Alas, Urbom would play only 14 games for the Devils over three seasons before being waived and claimed by the Caps.

For a team with depth issues on defense, taking a flyer on a 22-year old, 6’4”, 215 pound defenseman seemed like a pretty good idea at the time.  When Jack Hillen broke his tibia that very night against the Calgary Flames, Urbom’s arrival seemed like providence.  He got his first chance with the Caps a week later against Carolina, skating 16 minutes and not being on ice for any of the Hurricanes’ three goals in their 3-2 win over the Caps.  It was the first of five straight games for which Urbom would dress, going 0-0-0, even, while averaging aLmost 17 minutes of ice time per game.

After being scratched for the first three games of a trip to western Canada in late October, Urbom was given a sweater against the Vancouver Canucks on October 28th.  He was part of what was a typically unbalanced Caps defense in terms of experience and skills.  At the top that night were John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Mike Green.  The bottom three, however, were Steve Oleky, Nate Schmidt, and Urbom. 

Urbom was the low man among the defense in ice time that night, less than 15 minutes in a 3-2 loss to the Canucks.  It would be the first of 15 straight appearances for Urbom, but one had the feeling it was out of necessity more than choice.  The Caps were just too thin on defense. 

It was not a great 15 games, at least for Urbom.  His possession numbers were awful, a Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 of 44.2, a shots-for percentage of 41.2.   The Caps did go 8-5-2 in those 15 games, but it would be the last action Urbom would see with the Caps.  He sat for 16 games before being waived so that the Caps could get a look at some other call-ups.  He would be claimed by the team that waived him in the first place in October, the New Jersey Devils, and play the remainder of his season in Albany of the AHL.

Martin Erat

There are Caps fans who probably remember Trevor Linden, a veteran who was obtained by the Capitals back in 2001 as part of a deal for futures.  Folks scratched their collective heads at the time, but Linden was a proven veteran with six 30-goal seasons on his resume.  What might have been rationalized on paper did not work out in reality.  Linden just did not fit, ended up wanting to leave, and was granted his wish, sent to Vancouver the following season.

This generation’s version of that episode centered on Martin Erat, a veteran forward obtained for futures in 2013, the hope being that a solid veteran would provide help in the here and now for the top-six forwards.  The problem here was that the coach did not seem to want to play him in a top-six role, or at least give him an opportunity to mesh with regular linemates. 

In 2013-2014 that meant being all over the place with linemates.  Erat spent more than 100 minutes at 5-on-5, but less than 200 minutes with Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, and Jason Chimera.

It did not take long for Erat to voice his frustration with his playing situation this season.  In late November he requested a trade, just eight months after he was traded to the Capitals.  From that point on his personal statistics were uneven.  He had 18 points in 30 games after that trade request, but only one was a goal, and that (his first of the season) was an empty netter.  Erat managed only 29 shots on goal in that time, and his possession numbers were not noteworthy, a Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 of 47.8, and his shots-for percentage hovered around 50 percent (50.3, actually).  It was not surprising, then, that the goals-for/goals-against on ice for Erat was 17-17 at 5-on-5 over those 30 games, while the Caps went 13-11-6.

Erat got his wish in early March.  He was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes with minor leaguer John Mitchell for Rostislav Klesla, prospect Chris Brown, and a fourth round draft pick in 2015.   It would end one of the strangest relationships between team and player in this franchise’s history.

Michal Neuvirth

Way back in 2006, the Capitals drafted two goalies 11 spots apart, Semyon Varlamov with the 23rd overall pick and Michal Neuvirth with the 34th overall pick.  Varlamov was the athletic, acrobatic one.  Neuvirth was the cool, technical one.  Cool won out when Varlamov was traded to Colorado in July 2011, but the joke seemed to be on Neuvirth, first when Tomas Vokoun was signed as a free agent for the 2011-2012 season, then when Braden Holtby completed his rise through the ranks and took over the number one spot for the 2012 post-season.

Neuvirth would never quite get a good firm grip on that number one spot, and it was clear that this season he was going to be a backup.  That made for another disgruntled Cap, another player who would request a trade (or at least his agent would in late December). 

It would be the death knell for Neuvirth’s career with the Caps.  Following the announcement of what was or was not a trade request, Neuvirth appeared in just six of the next 22 games.  The odd thing about the infrequent work was that he certainly did not lack for work when called upon.  He faced an average of almost 34 shots per 60 minutes and posted a respectable .917 save percentage in those six appearances.  It did not keep him from going 2-3-1 in those eight appearances and from sitting out his last five games with the Caps.  He was traded to Buffalo with just-obtained defenseman Rostislav Klesla for goalie Jaroslav Halak and a third round draft pick in 2015.

In the end…

When you have 20 or so players and only so many spots on a game roster, folks are going to be unhappy from time to time, either with sitting or with how they are being used.  It did seem to be turned up a notch with the Caps this season.  More symptoms of a dysfunctional season.  And when you have three bona fide defensemen and six spots to fill, then you end up with a revolving door of applicants for those last three spots, even ones you claim on waivers and wave “bye-bye” to just three months later.

The dearly, clearly departed say a lot about the Caps’ season, and not in a good way.


Urbom: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America
Erat: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America
Neuvirth: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Hope

“All human wisdom is summed up in two words; wait and hope.”
-- Alexandre Dumas

Those are the last words of Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” a story of perseverance and hope.  For the Washington Capitals, “hope” was personified in three players with three very distinct sets of expectations attached to them.  In 2013-2014 Caps fans were given their first glimpse at what each player might bring to the club on a more regular basis in the future.

Evgeny Kuznetsov

In “The Count of Monte Cristo,” the hero – Edmond Dantes – spent six years in the Chateau d'If, a prison from which no prisoner had ever escaped.  Caps fans did not have to wait quite as long to see Evgeny Kuznetsov in the flesh after he was drafted in 2010, and an island prison in the Mediterranean Sea in the early 19th Century is not Russia in the early 21st Century, but Kuznetsov did spend more time in Russia than the Caps or fans might have thought when he was taken with the 26th overall pick of the 2010 entry draft.  His choice.  When Kuznetsov chose to make the journey to North America he gave indications that the wait would be worth the trouble.

Fearless’ Take… There were 21 forwards in their first season in the NHL who recorded nine or more points and played in 17 or more games.  Kuznetsov was that 21st forward, having played in 17 games.  Of that group, the forward with the next fewest games played was Pittsburgh’s Jayson Megna, who played in 36 games and recorded nine points as well.  Of 69 first-year forwards playing in at least 17 games, Kuznetsov had the ninth-highest points per game.  Seven of the eight players ahead of him played in at least 20 more games.  The Caps also happened to be 8-5-4 in the 17 games in which Kuznetsov played.

Cheerless’ Take...  Some players drive play with possession, others are passengers.  Evgeny Kuznetsov was stuck in the bed of the pick-up truck.  A Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 of 42.3?  Fenwick-for percentage of 40.9?  Okay, okay.  A lot of that is playing so much time with Tom Wilson (37.7 percent of his 5-on-5 time) and Jay Beagle (26.4 percent),  but still. 

Peerless’ Take... That Kuznetsov averaged more than a half-point per game with such poor possession statistics might be evidence of the raw talent he possesses, an ability to make something of not much.  But that is not a strategy going forward.  His performance suggests that he will, at least for a while, be the sort of player who electrifies for stretches, makes one long to be electrocuted for others.  But he will be fun to watch develop.

Michael Latta

Michael Latta is the only remnant of the trade that sent Filip Forsberg to Nashville and that brought Martin Erat to Washington.  Erat finished his 2013-2014 season in Phoenix, while Forsberg has played only 18 games to date for the Predators.  Who would have thought that Latta would play more games with his parent club this season (17) than Forsberg (13)?  Or score as many goals (one) and almost as many points (four, versus five for Forsberg)?

Fearless’ Take… If Michael Latta ends up playing more games than Filip Forsberg or scoring almost as many points, it will say far more about Forsberg than Latta.  That, however, is Nashville’s concern for the time being.  In Washington, Latta played in 17 games and was that rare breed of Capital.  He was not a “minus” player.  He was decent (do not read that as “good”) in his possession numbers: seventh among 17 Caps forwards playing in at least ten games in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5, tied for 11th in Fenwick-for percentage.  The Caps were 9-6-2 in games in which Latta appeared. 

Cheerless’ Take… Less than eight minutes a game, only twice getting more than ten minutes, no games registering more than one shot on goal.  Among first-year forwards, his 1-3-4, even, 7:42 in average ice time over 17 games profile is almost indistinguishable from that of Darren Archibald (1-2-3, plus-1, 7:47 in 16 games) or Jerry D’Amigo (1-2-3, minus-1, 8:02 in 22 games).  Let’s just call him a work in progress, okay?

Peerless’ Take… If the Caps find a serviceable fourth liner in the mold of, say, a Matt Hendricks, in Michael Latta, they will have salvaged something out of one of the more perplexing trades and aftermath in club history.  If there is something intriguing about his game, it was in his Hershey numbers.  With the Bears he was 14-20-34, plus-14 in 52 games.  On a per-game basis, that’s better than the best seasons Jay Beagle had in Hershey.  Just something to think about.

Patrick Wey

If you were going to write a manual on how a defenseman might work up the developmental ladder, Patrick Wey might be the model.  USHL program, drafted by the Capitals, enrollment at Boston College, four years under one of the flagship programs in collegiate hockey (including two national championships while he played there), eight games in Reading with the Royals in the ECHL, then up to Hershey, and finally – last December – called up to the big club.  Okay, so he only played in one game before being reassigned, but he was recalled on two more occasions, playing in nine games and recording his first three NHL points (in consecutive games played).

Fearless’ Take…  Wey is not going to be an offensive-minded defenseman, but three assists in his first four games with the Caps at least hints he will not be totally silent at that end of the rink.  His test drive might have lasted longer but for a fight with Nashville’s Rich Clune on March 30th.  It ended unpleasantly for Wey in what would be Wey’s last game with the Caps and his last game of the season.  The Caps were 5-1-3 in the nine games in which Wey appeared.

Cheerless’ Take… Those three points in his first four games were pretty much offset by his minus-4 in his last four games.  Yeah, it was pretty stiff competition (San Jose, Los Angeles, and Boston among the teams), but he was on ice for seven of the 13 goals the Caps allowed in those four games.  It was an indication that more seasoning is needed before he’s ready to come to the table.

Peerless’ Take… In Patrick Wey’s last game with the Caps, on March 30th against Nashville, the Caps dressed a defense that included Julien Brouillette and Dmitry Orlov, in addition to Wey.  Those three defensemen had a combined 121 games of experience going into that game, and Orlov had 111 of those.  For the season the Caps dressed 14 defensemen, among them Wey, Brouillette, Cameron Schilling, Alexander Urbom, Nate Schmidt, Steve Oleksy, and Connor Carrick, only Oleksy (61) with more than 35 games of NHL experience at the end of the season.  Wey was part of a mixed green salad of sorts, the “green” being inexperienced defensemen.  Getting injured in a fight did nothing to help in Wey’s development, but playing in Washington at all in the 2013-2014 season probably would not have occurred had the Caps been deeper at the position.  That suggests that if a new management team does anything with respect to firming up the blue line, Wey will get a chance to continue his development in Hershey in 2014-2015.

In the end…

Scorer, grinder, stay-at-home defenseman.  Given their respective ages, Evgeny Kuznetsov (22), Michael Latta (23), and Patrick Wey (23) might be expected to play significant minutes in perhaps three to four years (sooner in the case of the gifted Kuznetsov).  With varying frequency this past season, each gave an indication that they could contribute those minutes.  Each of them had their shortcomings as well, though, suggesting that they have much work to do to get those significant minutes and make significant contributions to the big club.  For these three players, it is “wait and hope” for Caps fans.

But hey, we’re used to that by now, aren’t we?


Kuznetsov: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America
Latta: Elsa/Getty Images North America
Wey: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America

Monday, May 26, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Goalies: Philipp Grubauer

“Happiness is brief. It will not stay. God batters at its sails.”
-- Euripides

On Opening Night of the 2013-2014 season, there was Philipp Grubauer standing between the pipes as the puck dropped.

In Hershey.

That was as it was supposed to be and might have been for Grubauer in the 2013-2014 season, being the number one goaltender as the Bears set off in pursuit of their 12th Calder Cup.  Things, however, took a turn.  First, Grubauer appeared in only nine of the Bears’ first 17 games.  In those nine games Grubauer was 4-4-1, 2.60, .910, with one shutout.  This work profile is one to which we will return, but at this point in the season Grubauer was about to undergo a significant change in his duty station.

On November 30th Grubauer was recalled to Washington after Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth was injured in warm-ups before the Caps’ November 29th contest against the Montreal Canadiens (the Caps won, and Brett Leonhardt got another turn as emergency backup goalie to Braden Holtby).  Holtby would get the next start, on November 30th, but Grubauer got his chance, so to speak, on December 3rd when he relieved Holtby for the third period of a 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes.

Grubauer got his chance to start in a Sunday evening game at Madison Square Garden on December 8th against the New York Rangers.  Not exactly being eased into a start.  Grubauer stepped up, though, and held the Rangers to one goal on 31 shots, outdueling Rangers’ goalie Henrik Lundqvist in a 4-1 win. 

It would be an important performance in Grubauer’s development.  That start, coupled with the struggles of Braden Holtby, would begin a run in which Grubauer would appear in 13 of 17 games, posting a record of 6-2-5, 2.11, .934.  He was, for the moment at least, the Caps’ number one goaltender.

Not that Grubauer’s run was without its moments, but much of it (as so much seems to have been with respect to goaltenders on this club) was outside of his control.  Grubauer’s run started with Holtby struggling and Neuvirth injured.  Neuvirth was sufficiently rehabilitated from his injury by mid-December so that the Caps were carrying three goaltenders on the parent roster.

That was a problem that the club inflicted on itself,  but a solution presented itself when, as fast as Grubauer assumed the number one role it disappeared.  On January 17th in Columbus, Grubauer allowed three goals on 14 shots in less than 22 minutes of work in a 5-1 loss to the Blue Jackets.  He was put right back in the saddle in the Caps’ next game a rematch with the Rangers.  It did not prove an effective therapy.  Grubauer allowed three goals on eight shots in less than 18 minutes.  The following day, he was reassigned to Hershey, but only after then general manager George McPhee decided that enough was enough with the three-goaltender arrangement.  

Grubauer would get one more appearance in Washington, a relief stint in early March after Braden Holtby allowed four goals on 18 shots in a 6-4 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, but it was a brief respite from pursuing his apprenticeship in Hershey.

Fearless’ Take… There were 12 rookie goaltenders in the NHL who appeared in five or more games this season.  Philipp Grubauer finished fourth in goals against average (2.38), and third in save percentage (.925).

Cheerless’ Take… This is a goalie that needs to show he can handle a heavy workload.  Well, in one place, anyway.  In 2012-2013 he spent 26 games with the Reading Royals, 28 games with the Hershey Bears, and two games with the Caps.  This season he spent 28 games with the Bears and 17 with the Caps.  What was more curious than his 17 games with the Caps was his 28 games with the Bears.  He played in just 19 of the Bears’ last 37 regular season games.  And, he got progressively worse over time as the season wore on.  In two games to close January he was 2-0-0, 0.50, .982.  He followed that up in February with a record of 5-3-0, 3.09, .900; then a record of 0-4-0, 3.31, .909 in March.  He closed strong as the Bears tried to grab a playoff spot in April (2-2-1, 2.14, .933), but it was not enough to lift the Bears into the post-season. 

Odd Grubauer Fact… Philipp Grubauer is one of only five goaltenders since the 2004-2005 lockout to appear in 15 or more games and post a save percentage of .925 in either their first or second year in the league.   The others are Cam Talbot, Martin Jones, Niklas Backstrom, and Jonas Hiller.  No, Henrik Lundqvist did not do it; he had a .922 save percentage in his 2005-2006 rookie season.

Game to Remember… December 27th versus  New York Rangers.  In the Capitals’ last game before the Christmas break, Philipp Grubauer was given a 2-0 lead to protect against the Anaheim Ducks.  He didn’t. The Ducks scored single goals in the last half of each of the three periods, the last one coming with 5:36 left in regulation as the Ducks took a 3-2 win.  It made for an interesting prologue to the first game coming out of the break.  How would the youngster respond to that setback?

Grubauer answered the challenge in the first game after the holiday break.  The Rangers peppered him with 14 shots in the first period without finding the back of the net as the Caps took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission on a power play goal by Mike Green.  The Rangers scored on their first shot of the second period, a power play goal by Benoit Pouliot on a deflection of a Brad Richards shot.  However, Grubauer turned aside the last 17 shots he faced in the period, allowing the Caps to regain the momentum.  The Caps took advantage of Grubauer’s strong play to score late in the period on a goal by Nicklas Backstrom. 

Grubauer was victimized early in the third period on a shorthanded goal 17 seconds into the period by Carl Hagelin to tie the game, but it would be the last time the Rangers would celebrate a goal that evening.  Grubauer turned aside the next seven shots he saw, and Eric Fehr scored what would be the game-winning goal for the Caps with 5:09 left in a 3-2 win.  For Grubauer it was a 38 save effort, including 35-for-35 at even strength.  After sustaining what was his first regulation loss of the year against Anaheim and the Caps looking to stop a skid in which they lost three of four games, it was a fine effort on the young goaltender’s part.

Game to Forget… January 17th versus Columbus.  When Philipp Grubauer led the Caps onto the ice at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, he was in the midst of staking a claim to be the Caps’ number one netminder.  He had a record of 6-2-5, 2.06, .936.  When he left the game 21:44 into the game the Caps would lose by a 5-1 margin, having allowed three goals on 14 shots, his goals against average jumped to 2.21, and his save percentage dropped to .931. 

It was the first time Grubauer had been pulled after starting an NHL game.  It would not be the last.  Grubauer was pulled after allowing three goals on eight shots in just 17:49 of work in his next start, that coming against the New York Rangers in what would be a 4-1 loss.  Grubuaer was reassigned to Hershey the following day.

In the end…

It was quite a journey for Philipp Grubauer in 2013-2014, not one without its twists and turns.  But one thing seemed to be consistent this season, his game developing cracks as his tenure wore on.  It happened with the Caps, when he started strong but ended up being pulled in consecutive games before his reassignment to Hershey.  Then, it happened in Hershey as the weeks wore on after his reassignment.  It suggests that there is still some development to be made with respect to Grubauer, even if one considers him as a bona fide candidate to be a backup in Washington next season.  What fans saw in 2013-2014 was a goalie with promise, but one who remains a work in progress.

Grade: B

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Friday, May 23, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Goalies: Braden Holtby

“Never assume the obvious is true.”
-- William Safire

Back on February 2nd of this year, during a national broadcast of the Washington Capitals game against the Detroit Red Wings, then Caps general manager George McPhee was reported to have said that the Capitals would have ten more points with better goaltending.

Think about that.  In Game 56 of the season, meaning 110 standings points would have been contested to that point through the previous 55 games, Capitals goaltenders were responsible, from a lack of being better at their craft, for costing the team almost ten percent of the standings points available.

Quite an indictment.  And, if you are recognized as the number one goaltender among this motley crew, the crosshairs of that comment are trained on your sweater logo.  That number one goaltender, Braden Holtby, was diplomatic in his response:

“Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.  I think if we pay any attention to comments like that it brings the team apart. So us in here that are going to go out on and play on the ice, we can’t focus on that type of stuff. We’re all trying to accomplish the same goal of winning games and we don’t want to be separated by things like that, so it’s in one ear and out the other and we’ll focus on the next game.”

You could say, though, that whether coincidence or not, Braden Holtby was a different goaltender after those comments than he was before them.
  • Before February 2: 15-13-2. 3.00, .909, 2 shutouts
  • After February 2: 8-2-2, 2.48, .927, 2 shutouts
All told, Holtby finished 23-15-4, 2.85, .915, with four shutouts.  If you are keeping score, that was 20th among league goaltenders in wins, 41st among qualifying goalies in goals-against average, tied for 23rd in save percentage, and tied for 11th in shutouts.  It was not a terrible year, but neither was it stellar.  It certainly was not what the Caps or Caps fans might have expected from a young goaltender who had a regular season record coming into this year of 37-16-4, 2.39, .923, with seven shutouts, and who had an even better goals-against average (2.04) and save percentage (.931) in 21 post-season games.

Two things come to mind has having significant influence on Holtby’s season.  Neither were of his making.  The first was an idea hatched by the coaching staff that Holtby had to curb his more aggressive tendencies and play deeper in the net.  Not “Henrik Lundqvist-deep,” but deeper.  As goaltenders coach Olaf Kolzig put it back in December

“The game today is a lot more East-West than North-South.  We felt a lot of the goals in the league are coming from passes made through the slot, back door plays, and so what we try to get our goalies to do is to play a little flatter, as opposed to squaring up on the shot.  The old philosophy was to establish your ice and retreat back as the play is coming toward you.  I’m from a generation when a defenseman could hook and hold and you could focus on the puck carrier. You can’t do that anymore. It’s more open, so goalies have to sit back and evaluate what’s in front of them.  Now we want the goalies to read the play and instead of coming out back to in, you’re staying deep, reading it, and going from in to out.”

But was it Kolzig implementing a strategy of his own or implementing one imposed upon him?  Fast forward to April, when it was reported that the change was a product of what then head coach Adam Oates saw in Lundqvist when the Caps faced the Rangers in the 2013 playoffs.  Oates was quoted thus

“…goaltending was inconsistent last year, too.  That’s why we made changes. But at the end of the day, I like a lot of things about Holtby’s game, I do. But like everybody, he’s got holes in his game. I need him to be a little more consistent.”

Consistency was precisely what the Caps did not get from Holtby over the first four months of the season.  Then, as it became apparent that at best this would be a long-term project and at worst simply contrary to Holtby’s style and personality in the crease, he switched back with the help of Kolzig…

“…we realized I had to go back to where my natural instincts led me. We did that as a goalie-goalie coach tandem and I think toward the end of the season it paid off.”

The results after February 2nd suggest it was the move to make.

The second thing that had a significant influence on Holtby’s season was a product of simple arithmetic.  Of 63 NHL goaltenders playing more than 1,000 minutes this season only four faced more shots per 60 minutes than Holtby:
  • James Reimer 36.8
  • Robin Lehner 35.3
  • Jonathan Bernier 34.8
  • Craig Anderson 33.6
  • Braden Holtby 33.3
We would note that of the top-15 goaltenders from this group in shots faced per 60 minutes, only three played for teams making the post season (Semyon Varlamov, Carey Price, and Sergei Bobrovsky).  Holtby simply faced too much rubber to have an effective season (goal against average, wins), no matter how efficient he might have been stopping pucks (save percentage).

Fearless’ Take… Of 29 goaltenders playing in at least 40 games this season, Braden Holtby finished eighth in even strength save percentage (.928).  Even though his save percentage was not as impressive while shorthanded – 19th among those 29 goaltenders (.867), only two goaltenders faced more shots against per 60 minutes of shorthanded ice time than Holtby’s 54.1 shots (Jonathan Bernier, 54.9; and Semyon Varlamov, 54.8).

Cheerless’ Take… Odd season for the Caps, and maybe none more odd than Holtby’s.  The Caps struggled at even strength, but Holtby had a good save percentage at even strength.  Caps had one of the league’s best power plays, but Holtby had the third worst save percentage among those 29 goalies playing at least 40 games when his team was on the power play (.843), and no goalie gave up more shorthanded goals (8).

Odd Holtby Fact… Three of his four regular season shutouts came against teams that made the post season: November 1st at Philadelphia, January 25th at Montreal, and April 13th against Tampa Bay.  The shutout against Tampa Bay was one of three games this season in which both goaltenders did not allow a goal in regulation or overtime.

Game to Remember… February 8th versus New Jersey.  When the Capitals and the New Jersey Devils took the ice at Verizon Center on February 8th, it was as two desperate teams looking for momentum heading into the break for the Winter Olympic Games.  Both teams had 61 standings points, the Devils holding the standings advantage in 12th place by virtue of having more wins in regulation and overtime.

Holtby kept the Caps in the game early, stopping all 11 shots in the first period while his teammates managed only six shots on Cory Schneider at the other end of the rink.  Holtby continued his strong play into the second period, shutting the Devils out on eight more shots, but Schneider was up to the task at his end, stopping all ten shots he faced.  It would be Schneider that cracked, though, in the third period.  Julien Brouillette notched his first NHL goal 10:50 into the period, but the Caps were not out of the woods.  Holtby held on and kept his net clear of pucks until the last two minutes when the Caps would score two empty net goals, giving Washington a 3-0 win heading into the Olympic break and lifting them over the Devils and into a tie with Columbus and Ottawa for ninth place in the East, one point behind eighth-place Detroit.

Game to Forget… October 26th versus Calgary.  Goaltenders get chased.  It happens, whether your name is Patrick Roy or Patrick Labrecque.    But to get pulled twice?  In barely three weeks?  Against the same team?  It happened to Braden Holtby in October.  The first yank came in the Capitals’ home opener against the Calgary Flames when he allowed three goals on 11 shots in 16 minutes of play. The Caps bailed Holtby out of that one, coming back from that 3-0 first period hole to win, 5-4, in a Gimmick.  Holtby was not so fortunate when the Caps visited Calgary at the end of the month.

When the teams met on October 26th, Calgary scored on their second shot, just 64 seconds into the game.  Then they scored on their 10th shot at 7:24.  The Caps halved the lead at the 12:02 mark and seemed to stop the bleeding.  Just 48 seconds later, though, the Flames worked the puck around the perimeter, eventually to the stick of former Capital Dennis Wideman.  From the right point Wideman floated a shot at the net that Mike Cammalleri deflected past Holtby, the Flames had their two-goal lead restored, and Holtby was given the rest of the evening off.  In two games against the Flames Holtby allowed six goals on 25 shots (a .760 save percentage) in 29:10 of total ice time.

In the end…

Watching Braden Holtby play is not for the faint of heart.  He is an aggressive, risk-taking sort of goalie whose wandering and puck handling can get him into trouble.  But he plays with a fire about him that fans like and that seems to inspire teammates.  This year, his coaches took a garden hose to that fire, and it resulted in two-thirds of a lost season.  When Holtby returned to his comfort zone, he was more effective.  It was not enough to lift the Caps into a playoff spot, but it did suggest that Holtby’s problem was less a sophomore (or whatever class he is in) slump as much as iffy management.  We are left to wonder if he is out of the woods in terms of a return to a happy progress in his developmental arc, or if there will be remnants of this season that will affect his play going forward.  That is an issue to ponder another time.  For this season, though, the results were as much mixed-up as mixed, one in which the obvious (that he was having a poor year) was not necessarily true.

Grade: B-

Joel Auerbach/Getty Images North America

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Washington Capitals: 2013-2014 By the Tens -- Forwards: Tom Wilson

"A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions."
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

On April 26, 2013, Tom Wilson had an assist for his Plymouth Whalers’ on a game-tying goal with just 4:33 in regulation, capping a furious Whaler comeback from a 4-0 deficit to force overtime in Game 5 of Plymouth’s Ontario Hockey League playoff series against the London Knights. Alas, London would score in overtime to eliminate the Whalers and end the junior hockey career for Tom Wilson.

Two weeks later Wilson would find himself dressing for Game 5 of the Washington Capitals’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal playoff series against the New York Rangers. Alas, the Caps would lose that series in a seventh game.

On October 1, 2013, just 466 days after Wilson was drafted 16th overall by the Capitals in the 2012 entry draft, he found himself in the Caps’ lineup in the 2013-2014 season opener in Chicago to face the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks. Alas, the season did not end well for the Caps, as they failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

Before you start thinking that maybe Tom Wilson had something to do with the outcomes described above, stop. We mark them only to point out that it has been something of a whirlwind ride for Wilson in less than six months, from competing in a playoff series in junior hockey to doing so on a bigger stage just weeks later to finding himself in the Opening Night lineup in the NHL at the tender age of 19.

Maybe it was too fast, at least the last part about making the Opening Night roster for the Caps to start the 2013-2014 season. That, however, was a strategic decision taken by the Caps due to a lack of a full range of alternatives. Personnel rules dictated that the Caps’ choices were to keep Wilson on the parent roster or return him to Plymouth for a final year of junior hockey. Giving him a year in Hershey to hone his skills with the Bears was not an option.

So, young Tom Wilson got to spend his apprenticeship at the top rung of the organizational ladder. What he did not get as part of this apprenticeship was a lot of experience, at least on the ice in games. Wilson averaged 7:56 in ice time per game. Of 34 rookie forwards playing in at least half of their teams’ games this season, Wilson was 32nd in average ice time. Here is another way to look at that. Wilson skated 651 total minutes this season in 82 games, 24th in total minutes among rookie forwards. Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov just above Wilson with 682 minutes, but he did it in just 52 games played (13:06/game).

Wilson, as befits his limited ice time, did not rank especially highly among his rookie forward cohort – 39 in points (10), tied for 41st in goals (3), tied for 33rd in assists (7), 31st in shots on goal (63). There was an area in which he did rank highly, though. Wilson led all rookie forwards by a wide margin in penalty minutes with 157 (24 more than Edmonton’s Luke Gazdic). He was just one minute behind Tampa Bay defenseman Radko Gudas for the top spot among all rookie skaters.

A large portion of that was the product of Wilson’s willingness to stand up for himself and teammates. He was fifth in the league in fighting majors (14). But there was a general edginess to his game that was reflected in his penalty profile. If you look at the penalties of a more violent nature, Wilson has a broad-spectrum resume: roughing (6 penalties/12 minutes), high-sticking (2/4), cross-checking (2/4) elbowing (1/2), boarding (1/2), charging (3/9, including a major penalty), instigator (1/2), and slashing (2/4). Add in a game misconduct and two ten minute misconducts, and a total of 139 of his 151 total penalty minutes (92.1 percent) were the product of his “edginess.”

His apprenticeship was brief in terms of ice time; we did not say it was easy.

Fearless’ Take… How many players did Tom Wilson play more than 100 minutes with this season at 5-on-5? Jay Beagle, Aaron Volpatti, and… uh, that’s it. Beagle and Volpatti. And you wonder how he put up meager offensive numbers?

Cheerless’ Take… Cuz, Wilson played more than five 5-on-5 minutes with 17 forwards this season. Know how many he played with where they had a Corsi-for percentage over 50 percent? Martin Erat and… uh, that’s it.  Erat.

Fearless’ Rebuttal… Hold on, cuz. Take a look at Beagle and Volpatti, those two guys he spent most of his time with. With Wilson, Beagle was 49.1 percent; apart he was 41.7 percent. With Wilson, Volpatti was 42.6 percent; apart Volpatti was 28.6 percent (no, that is not a typo). Even Erat was worse apart from Wilson (49.7 percent) than with him (54.1 percent), although you might chalk that up to quality of competition effects.

Odd Wilson Fact… Tom Wilson was one of only three rookie forwards to play in all 82 games this season. The others were Nathan MacKinnon and Tyler Johnson, who also happen to be finalists for the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year.

Game to Remember… November 5th versus New York Islanders. You always remember your first, and for Tom Wilson there were two of them on this night.  The Caps were hosting the Islanders fresh off a Gimmick win over the Florida Panthers that got the Caps to 7-7-0, the first time they were at .500 since they split their first two games of the season.  The Islanders were feeling fat and happy having won consecutive games for the first time in the 2013-2014 season, the second win coming at the expense of the Boston Bruins. 

The teams exchanged the lead several times.  New York scored first on a goal by John Tavares early in the first period.  The Caps grabbed the lead on goals by John Carlson and Alex Ovechkin, the latter on a power play, 75 seconds apart early in the second.  The Isles tied it 17 seconds after the Ovechkin goal, but the Caps took the lead back just 2:12 later on a Marcus Johansson power play goal.  Then, just 1:20 after the Johansson goal, the Caps stuck in the dagger.

Wilson started the play when he collected a loose puck in the Capitals’ zone, turned up ice, and backhanded the puck across the ice to Steve Oleksy heading up the right wing.  Oleksy carried it to the Islander line, then sent the puck back to Wilson filling in on the left side.  With a burst of speed, Wilson leaned hard into the middle, drawing a delayed tripping call from Frans Nielsen as he reached the top of the crease and tumbled to the ice with Nabokov going down to try to seal the left side of the net.  Wilson did not give up on the play, though.  From the seat of his pants to the left of goalie Evgeni Nabokov, Wilson threaded a pass through the skates of Islander Josh Bailey and onto the stick of the Caps’ Alexander Urbom.  From the top of the left wing circle, Urbom wound up and fired a slap shot past Nabokov before he could scramble to his feet, giving Urbom his first NHL goal in almost two years and Wilson his first NHL point.

The Caps made it 5-2 before the second intermission, but there was still one item of unfinished business.  With 15:25 gone in the third period Thomas Hickey was sent off for holding Alex Ovechkin.  On the ensuing power play the Caps worked the Islanders in their own zone for a faceoff when a puck was deflected into the crowd.  On the next draw, Mikhail Grabovski pulled the puck back to Ovechkin who faked a shot and walked the puck a couple of steps down the left wing.  He retraced his steps to the top of the faceoff circle, then threw the puck into the middle where Wilson was sliding into the slot.  Wilson redirected the puck past Nabokov for his first NHL goal and first multi-point game in the Caps’ 6-2 win.  All in all, Wilson had a “Wilson Hat Trick,” a goal, an assist, and a ten-minute misconduct penalty he took with seven seconds left.

Game to Forget… December 10th versus Tampa Bay.  On a night when pucks would be flying into nets with alarming frequency, Tom Wilson would barely get a sniff of the action, let alone get in on the fun.  The Caps fell behind early to the Lightning, 3-0, just 11:07 into the game.  That put a premium on offense for the Caps, and Wilson being as green as he was, head coach Adam Oates super glued him to the bench.  The strategy paid off, the Caps clawing all the way back to tie the game with 32.4 seconds left before winning it in the trick shot competition.  For Wilson it was a short, forgettable night.  Five shifts (only one in each of the second and third periods), 3:17 of ice time, no points, no shot attempts.

In the end…

It is one thing to come up short when presented with opportunities to excel.  If this had been the case with Tom Wilson, you might say, “okay, at least it was a learning experience.”  But in this instance Wilson logged fewer than 700 total minutes for the season and did it largely with linemates who might have dragged down his performance more than vice versa.  Even though Wilson dressed for 82 games it would be hard to say just what the Caps have here.  In the limited instances in which he was given more responsibility or more exposure to higher quality teammates at the offensive end he did not look out of place.  Consider it something to build on; you’ll sleep better.

Grade: B

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America