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

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