Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Washington Capitals: All-Franchise Teams by the Alphabet -- Team H

We are up to the eighth letter of the alphabet in our walk through the Washington Capitals All-Alphabet Franchise Teams.  Team H is the first team on which all the skaters are “old school.”  None played in the 21st century.  Even the goalie has the look of an old school player.

Left Wing: Dennis Hextall

Regular Season (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 41 games, 3-10-13, minus-18
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Once upon a time, Dennis Hextall finished seventh in the voting for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player.  Unfortunately for the Washington Capitals, it was not for them.  In his fifth season in the league, in 1972-1973, Hextall recorded 30 goals and 82 points for the Minnesota North Stars.  It was his career season in goals and points, coming as a 29 year old in his prime. 

When he arrived in Washington six years later as a 35-year old, he was joining his sixth NHL club in his 11th season.  It wasn’t even a trade that brought him to the Caps in February 1979.  The Detroit Red Wings, who still had Hextall under contract through the 1979-1980 season, released him two months earlier after trying to find a trading partner for him.  He was their team captain at the time.

The last laugh (well, chuckle) belonged to the Caps.  When Hextall was signed by the Caps, Washington had a record of 17-29-8, six points ahead of the 11-29-14 Red Wings (worst in the Wales Conference at the time).  Hextall appeared in 26 games to close the 1978-1979 season, posting two goals and 11 points in 26 games.  The following season Hextall appeared in just 15 games for the Caps, going 1-1-2, minus-5, before retiring at the age of 36. 

In the summer of 1980 the Wings planned to talk to Hextall about a comeback with the club, but his playing days were at an end.  Hextall might have played only 41 games for the Caps at the end of a 12-year career that spanned more than 700 regular season and playoff games, but he was a good soldier on teams that were years from being competitive.  Dennis Hextall gets a spot on Team H.

Center:  Dale Hunter

Regular Season (with Capitals): 12 seasons, 872 games, 181-375-556, minus-11
Playoffs (with Capitals): 10 seasons, 100 games, 25-47-72, minus-1

In all of NHL history, only 16 players appeared in at least 800 games, recorded 500 or more points, and received at least 2,000 penalty minutes.  Dale Hunter is one of them.  That also happens to be a description of his 12 seasons with the Washington Capitals.  He is the only player in NHL history to play in 1,400 or more career games, post at least 1,000 points, and receive no fewer than 3,500 penalty minutes.

Dale Hunter was unique.

Hunter’s path to attaining that singular combination of numbers started when he was drafted in the second round (41st overall) by the Quebec Nordiques out of the Sudbury Wolves in the OHL in the 1979 entry draft.  That would end up being quite a draft.  Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Mike Gartner, Michel Goulet, Glenn Anderson, Anton Stastny, Brian Propp, Guy Carbonneau, and Hunter among the notables.

Hunter spent one more year in Sudbury, then made the jump to the Nordiques without stopping in the professional minor leagues.  Hunter would establish himself as an incredibly durable (playing all 80 games in five of his first six seasons with Quebec), incredibly annoying (200-plus penalty minutes in each of those first six seasons), incredibly productive player (130-289-419 in 477 games).  Five times in those first six seasons he received votes for the Selke Trophy as the league’s best defensive forward.

In his seventh season with the Nordiques, in 1986-1987, Hunter suffered a broken leg and missed 34 games, the first time in his career he missed games due to injury.  After that season the Nordiques traded Hunter to the Capitals with goaltender Clint Malarchuk for Gaetan Duchesne, Alan Haworth, and the Caps’ first round pick in the 1987 entry draft.  As any Caps fan knows, that first round pick was used by the Nordiques on Joe Sakic, who would go on to a rather significant career of his own.

In 1987-1988 Hunter picked up where he left off with the Nordiques. He was durable (appearing in 79 of 80 games), annoying (240 penalty minutes, 17th in the league), and productive (22-37-59, plus-7).  It would be the post season for which he earned a special place in Caps history, though.  Having dropped three of four games to the Philadelphia Flyers in the Wales Conference semifinals, the Caps won Games 5 and 6 to tie the series and send it back to Washington.  The Caps fell behind in the first period of Game 7, 3-0, and things looked bleak.  Then, Hunter started the comeback by feeding defenseman Gary Galley for a goal to get the Caps on the board.  The Caps would take a 4-3 lead before the Flyers tied the game to send the contest to overtime.  Any Caps fan can recite the words of Mike Fornes on the final call…

That moment would cement Dale Hunter as legend in Caps history, but being a player of a certain style, there was a dark side to his play, too.  That revealed itself in the late moments of Game 6 of the Patrick Division semifinals against the New York Islanders.  With the Islanders holding a 3-2 edge in games (all of the Caps losses coming in overtime), they allowed the Caps the first goal in Game 6, then they proceeded to steamroll the Capitals and take a 4-1 lead in the third period.  With the game and the series all but decided, Hunter had the puck taken off his stick by Islander forward Pierre Turgeon, who converted the turnover into the Islanders’ fifth goal.  As Turgeon began to celebrate his goal, Hunter checked him into the side boards, Turgeon sustaining a separated shoulder and a concussion that would keep him out of all but one game of the next series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  For his actions, Hunter received a 21-game suspension, at the time the longest suspension for on-ice activity in league history.

Whether it was that suspension, the accumulation of abuse his style of play placed on his body, or age catching up with him, Hunter was not quite the same player after that.  He played another five full seasons with the Caps, the last of them being 1997-1998 when he captained the club to the only Stanley Cup final in franchise history.  It was evident by that time that Hunter was approaching the end of his career.  In that 1997-1998 season he played in all 82 games but managed only eight goals, tying at the time his career low (set in 1994-1005 when he played only 45 games).  In 21 post season games he did not score a goal and recorded only four assists.

The following season for the Caps was marred by injuries that decimated the club.  In all, the team lost 511 man-game to injury.  Not a single player appeared in all 82 games.  When it became evident that the Caps would not reach the post-season they started tweaking the roster.  Craig Berube was traded to Philadelphia for cash.  Dale Hunter was traded to Colorado with the Caps’ third-round pick in the 2000 entry draft for the Avalanche’s second round pick in the 1999 draft.  It was an opportunity for Hunter to compete one more time for a Stanley Cup, but the Avalanche would be eliminated by the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference finals.  Hunter retired after that season.

Dale Hunter served as captain of the Capitals for five seasons, tied for the second longest tenure in club history.  He also ranks high in the Capitals record book in games played (4th with 872), goals (10th with 181), assists (4th with 375), points (5th with 555), and penalty minutes (1st with 2003).  He was for 12 years the heart and soul of the club, in both good times and bad.  There might have been better players, better centers to play for the club.  None, however, was more of a Capital.  Dale Hunter is the center and captain of Team H.

Right Wing: Ken Houston

Regular Season (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 75 games, 25-14-39, minus-10
Playoffs (with Capitals): 1 season, 4 games, 1-0-1, even

Ken Houston occupies a spot in a transitional period in Washington Capitals history.  He came to the Caps via trade in June 1982 in what was a large deal for the time.  Having complete seven seasons in the NHL with the Atlanta/Calgary Flames, Houston and goalie Pat Riggin were traded by the Flames to the Caps for George White and three draft picks. 

The following season Houston helped lead the Caps to their first playoff appearance in team history.  He finished with 25 goals (fourth on the team), nine of them on the power play (also fourth on the team) and 39 points.  Only Glen Currie had a better shooting percentage (20.4) than Houston (18.0) among Caps appearing in at least half the team’s games.  He also accumulated 93 penalty minutes (third on the team behind Randy Holt (275) and Scott Stevens (195).  He was a significant contributor to a club that finished 39-25-16, third in the Patrick Division.

Houston, like the rest of the club, could not find the key to advancing in the post-season, though.  He had one goal in four games as the Caps were eliminated by the New York Islanders in four games in their best-of-five opening round matchup.

His stay with the Caps would be short-lived.  After four games of the 1983-1984 season Houston was traded with Brian Engblom for defenseman Larry Murphy.  That would be Houston’s last stop in the NHL.  He retired at the end of the 1983-1984 season.  His stay in Washington was brief, but Ken Houston was there as the Caps made the transition from being a punch line to being a team with some punch.  He gets the nod at right wing on Team H.

Defense: Kevin Hatcher

Regular Season (with Capitals): 10 seasons, 685 games, 149-277-426, minus-10
Playoffs (with Capitals): 10 seasons, 83 games, 16-32-48, plus-5

In the early 1980s the Washington Capitals had a pretty good run in drafting defensemen.  In 1980 it was Darren Veitch (319 games with the Caps), Scott Stevens in 1982, and Kevin Hatcher with the 17th overall pick in the first round of the 1984 entry draft.  Hatcher was coming off big offensive years with Detroit Compuware (30-45-75 in 75 games) and the North Bay Centennials of the OHL (10-39-49 in 67 games), when he was drafted by the Caps as a 17-year old.

He spent most of the next season with North Bay, but he did break the seal on his NHL career, dressing for two games with the Caps.  In 1985-1986 he stuck with the parent club, posting a respectable 9-10-19, plus-6 scoring line in his rookie season.  Things were not all gumdrops and accordions in Hatcher’s development, though.  He suffered what might be called a case of the “sophomore slump” in his second full season.  While his 8-16-24 points line was consistent with his development, he saw a spike in penalty minutes (144, a career high) and an alarming deterioration in his plus-minus number (minus-29, a career worst and by far worst on the 1986-1987 squad).

He did right himself, though, and became a reliably productive offensive defenseman.  Starting with the 1987-1988 season Hatcher rolled off seven consecutive seasons with the Caps in which he finished with double-digit goal totals and 40 or more points.  Five times he would receive votes for the NHL All-Star team, and three times he received votes for the Norris Trophy.  His 34 goals in the 1992-1993 season is the most for a defenseman in the last 28 seasons.  That season he and fellow defensemen Al Iafrate (25) and Sylvain Cote (21) all passed the 20-goal mark for the season, the only time it has occurred in the modern era of hockey (post-1967 expansion).

In his nine full seasons with Washington, from 1985-1986 through 1993-1994, Hatcher was among the top ranked defensemen in a number of categories:
  • Games played: 3rd (683)
  • Goals: 5th (148)
  • Power Play goals: T-11th (50)
  • Points: 14th (425)

In a way, Hatcher was collateral damage of the Capitals’ decision not to match an offer sheet tendered to restricted free agent defenseman Scott Stevens in the summer of 1990.  Hatcher threatened to holdout for a better deal in light of Stevens’ compensation in St. Louis, a situation the Capitals and Hatcher would avoid late in training camp for the 1990-1991 season.  However, the die was cast.  Before the 1993-1994 season Hatcher decided to play out his option with the club.  The decision might have affected his play that season.  Finishing 16-24-40 in 72 games that year, Hatcher put up his weakest offensive numbers since going 13-27-40 in 62 games in 1988-1989.  It ended a string of four seasons in which he averaged 22 goals and 65 points a season.

Hatcher left the Capitals after that 1993-1994 season, trade to the Dallas Stars for Mark Tinordi and Rick Mrozik just before the start of the 1994-1995 season that was delayed due to a lockout.  Hatcher spent two years with the Stars, united with his brother Derian, before he was traded to Pittsburgh in June 1996.  After three seasons with the Penguins, he played a year in New York with the Rangers, then a year in Carolina with the Hurricanes, bringing his NHL career to an end in 2001.

Kevin Hatcher had a curious career with the Caps.  A very talented defenseman, he never seemed to rise to the level of play (or of respect among fans) of a Rod Langway or a Scott Stevens.  There seemed to be the vague air of underachievement in his years in Washington.  Nevertheless, he did manage to compile a body of work that ranks highly in franchise history among its defensemen and merits a spot on Team H.

Defense: Phil Housley

Regular Season (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 141 games, 17-54-71, minus-20
Playoffs (with Capitals): 1 season, 18 games, 0-4-4, minus-2

There seemed to be little doubt that Phil Housley would be a star in the NHL.  A second overall draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres in the 1982 entry draft, he stepped right onto the ice the following autumn and put together a rookie season good enough to finish second in voting for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, behind only Chicago’s Steve Larmer, who was three years Housley’s senior.

Housley played eight seasons in Buffalo, then was traded to Winnipeg in June 1990, where he played for three seasons.  At the ripe old age of 29, with 11 seasons under his belt, his career started to take on a wandering quality.  A year in St. Louis followed by a year and a half in Calgary, then a late season trade in 1996 from the Flames to New Jersey.  By the time that season ended in New Jersey Housley had 14 seasons in the NHL, but he had an odd fact that was a blot on an otherwise stellar career.  Despite ten seasons in which he received votes for the NHL All Star Team, six in which he received Norris Trophy votes, and three in which he received votes for the Lady Byng Trophy, he had not played for a team that won so much as a single playoff series since his rookie season, when the Sabres were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in the second round.

Then, in July 1996 Housley was signed by the Capitals.  His first season in Washington was not especially fulfilling.  He led all Capitals defensemen in points (40), but the Caps missed the playoffs after a string of 14 consecutive appearances in the post-season.

The following season it came together for Housley.  Not so much in a personal statistics sort of way, he had only six goals and 31 points in 64 regular season games and was a minus-10 for the second straight season.  But he got to do something he had waited 16 seasons to experience.  He and the Caps advanced to the Stanley Cup finals.  Housley did not put up big numbers – four assists in 18 games – but it was still third among Caps defensemen in overall post-season scoring.

That would be Housley’s last season with the Capitals.  In July he was waived by the club and claimed by the Calgary Flames.  After three seasons in Calgary, his second tour with the Flames, he was waived once more and claimed by Chicago in September 2001.  After he was traded by the Blackhawks to Toronto in March 2003, Housley appeared in one game for the Maple Leafs, his last in the NHL.

Phil Housley played only 141 of his 1,495 career games with Washington, but he did so in what was the most successful season in team history, lending a veteran presence to a club that went further in the playoffs than any Capitals team before or since.  For his contributions, Phil Housley gets the other spot on the blue line for Team H.

Goaltender: Braden Holtby

Regular Season (with Capitals): 4 seasons, 105 games, 60-31-8, 2.60, .919, 11 shutouts
Playoffs (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 21 games, 10-11, 2.04, .931, 1 shutout

This was a hard one.  Five goalies in Capitals history qualify for this spot, but in the end only two merited consideration.  On the one hand there was Cristobal Huet, whose amazing 11-2-0, 1.63, .936 run to close the 2007-2008 season helped lift the Caps into the playoffs for the first time since 2003.  However, the choice here is a homegrown goalie.

Braden Holtby was taken 93rd overall by the Capitals in the fourth round of the 2008 entry draft.  Having had good luck drafting defenseman Mike Green from the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL, it probably seemed like a good idea to go to the well again in selecting Holtby.  Not that Holtby was unworthy of his selection.  In two full seasons with the Blades he appeared in 115 of 144 regular season games, tying for 11th among WHL goalies in appearances in 2006-2007 and tying for the lead in games played in 2007-2008.  He had the potential to be a workhorse.

Holtby played one more season in Saskatoon after he was drafted, posting a 40-16-4, 2.62, .910 record for the Blades in the regular season and improving his goals against average to 2.32 and save percentage to .912 in the post-season.

His progression from there was steady and surprisingly short, given his draft position.  He split the 2009-2010 season between Hershey in the AHL and South Carolina in the ECHL.  The following year he split his time between Hershey and the Caps, getting 14 appearances for the big club.  It was an impressive beginning, too.  In those 14 appearances he went 10-2-2, 1.79, .934, with two shutouts.  It was, in fact, more impressive than his line at Hershey: 17-10-2, 2.29, .920, with five shutouts.

In 2011-2012 he spent most of the season in Hershey (20-15-2, 2.61, .906, three shutouts in 40 games) and only seven games in Washington (4-2-1, 2.49, .922, one shutout).  But when both Tomas Vokoun (groin) and Michal Neuvirth (knee) went down to injuries late in the season, it was Holtby who was called upon to carry the netminding load in the post-season.  He was a revelation.  He played every minute of two seven-game series, posting a 1.95 goals against average (third among playoff goaltenders) and a .935 save percentage (also third). 

Since then Holtby has appeared in 84 of the Caps’ 130 regular season games (46-27-5, 2.73, .917, 8 shoutouts) and another seven-game playoff series (3-4, 2.22, .922, 1 shutout).  Yet, there have been lingering doubts about his consistency, his ability to come up big when needed (losing two consecutive Games 7), and about whether he has the ability to fill a role as a number one goaltender in fact.  Compounding the situation was an intervention on the part of then head coach Adam Oates last season that cost one coach his job and Holtby a comfort level over a substantial part of his season that had to contribute to a disappointing season (2.85 GAA, .915 save percentage). 

Braden Holtby is finally the unchallenged number one goaltender for the Capitals.  That doesn’t get him a spot on Team H, though.  His early career achievements rank at the top of the franchise ladder among goalies over their first four seasons:
  • Wins: 2nd (60)
  • Goals Against Average: 3rd (2.60, minimum: 50 games)
  • Save Percentage: 1st (.919, minimum: 50 games)
  • Shutouts: 2nd (11)

Braden Holtby has earned his spot on Team H with his play to date.

What we seem to have in Team H is a team with a wide streak of old-school attitude and a helping of skill.  It is a formidable group.