Sunday, August 24, 2014

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

We are coming in to the final turn before heading into the home stretch of our look back at the Washington Capitals All-Alphabet Franchise Teams.  Having done 14 of these pieces, we take up number 15 and the letter “P.”

Left Wing: Matt Pettinger

Regular Season (with Capitals): 7 seasons, 334 games, 52-47-99, minus-44
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

The 2000 NHL entry draft was sprinkled with youngsters who would become stars in the NHL: Henrik Lundqvist, Marian Gaborik, Niklas Kronwall, Brooks Orpik, Ilya Bryzgalov.  The player taken just ahead of Bryzgalov did not become a star, but he gave evidence that he would be a solid contributor at both ends of the ice for whatever team drafted him.  The mystery is why he didn’t fulfill that modest promise. 

Matt Pettinger was taken in the second round (43rd overall) by the Washington Capitals in that draft.  His selection was part of a trend of the period for the Caps.  From 1998 through 2003 five of the Capitals’ six top selections were taken from Western Hockey League (Jomar Cruz, Kris Beech, Brian Sutherby, Nathan Paetsch, and Eric Fehr).  Eight of the Caps’ 12 top-two selections (including Pettinger) came from the WHL.

Following his draft by the Caps, Pettinger graduated to the Portland Pirates of the AHL for the 2000-2001 season.  He was also called up to the big club on two occasions, getting ten games of NHL experience.  He would have to wait until the 2001-2002 season to record his first NHL points, though.  He played in 61 games in that 2001-2002 season, going 7-3-10.  That was followed by a season in which he spent almost all of his time in Portland (69 games) getting less than four minutes of ice time in one game with the Caps.

Pettinger had a modest 2003-2004 season with the Caps, dressing for 71 games and recording 12 points, and then the 2004-2005 lockout put a temporary halt to his progress.  When the NHL came out if its hiatus, Pettinger took a big step up in production.  In 71 games for the Caps in 2005-2006 he tied for third on the club in goals scored (20).  He was on his way to similar production in the 2006-2007 season, but late in the season he suffered a fractured thumb that cost him ten games.  Still, Pettinger finished with 16 goals.

Just about to turn 27 years of age at the start of the 2007-2008 season, with 36 goals in his previous two seasons, one might have expected that Pettinger was entering his prime years with the potential to be a 20-goal scorer with a physical edge to his game.  It did not start that way in the 2007-2008 season.  Pettinger went his first ten games without a goal and had just one over his first 27 games.  It never got better.  While the Capitals were making a run toward a playoff spot after a poor start and a coaching change, Pettinger’s slump had no end.

His playing time having been cut from about 18 minutes a game over his first 15 games to less than 13 minutes a game over his last 15 games ending on February 24th, Pettinger was traded to Vancouver for Matt Cooke, having scored just two goals in 56 games.  Pettinger scored four goals in 20 games for the Canucks, but it was the start of a quick downward spiral that carried him out of the NHL entirely in two years.

Pettinger was assigned by Vancouver to their AHL farm team in Manitoba at the start of the 2008-2009 season, then was placed on waivers just two weeks later.  He was claimed from the Canucks by the Tampa Bay Lightning and appeared in 59 games for the Lightning, going 8-7-15.  Tampa Bay chose not to resign Pettinger after the 2008-2009 season, and he retured to Vancouver as a free agent in November.  Most of his 2009-2010 season was spent with the Canucks’ AHL farm team in Manitoba; he appeared in only nine games for the Canucks, scoring one goal in what was his last NHL season.

Since leaving the NHL, Matt Pettinger has been playing in Germany, having played nine seasons in the NHL.  Seven of those NHL seasons were spent in Washington, those years largely being ones in which the Caps struggled.  For a brief time, though, he displayed a promising mix of timely goal scoring and physical play that helped make the Caps, if not successful, a team that could be respected for its hard work.  For that he gets a spot on Team P.

Center:  Michal Pivonka

Regular Season (with Capitals): 13 seasons, 825 games, 181-418-599, plus-18
Playoffs (with Capitals): 11 seasons, 95 games, 19-36-55, plus-13

When fans think of the great centers in Washington Capitals history, they probably think of Nicklas Backstrom, Adam Oates, Dale Hunter, or Bengt Gustafsson.  Michal Pivonka seems to be forgotten in that conversation.  Here is what they forget…
  • Games Played: 825 (5th in team history) 
  • Goals: 181 (T-10th)
  • Assists: 418 (1st)
  • Points: 599 (4th)
  • Power Play Goals: 56 (7th)
  • Shorthanded Goals: 12 (5th)

That he would put together such a resume for the Caps was amazing given the way he came to the club in the first place.  The 1984 entry draft was the draft of Mario Lemieux, but it was also a draft in which 14 players from Czechoslovakia were selected.  Pivonka was the third Czechoslovak taken in that draft, selected by the Caps in the third round (59th overall) after Petr Svoboda and Milan Chalupa.  Czechoslovakia still being within the Soviet bloc of countries in eastern Europe, it was extremely difficult for hockey players to make their way to North America.  Pivonka defected to the West in 1986 after two years of planning with the Capitals.  

He joined the team the following season, and it was a successful one.  In 1986-1987 he finished fifth in scoring (43 points) among rookies.  After suffering something of a sophomore slump the following season (11-23-34 in 71 games), Pivonka’s production did not improve in 1988-1989.  Scoring only five goals in his first 47 games for the Caps, he was assigned to Baltimore of the AHL.  

The wake-up call had its intended effect.  Over the next six seasons Pivonka proved himself an adept playmaker and point producer.  Over those years he was 15th among NHL forwards in total assists (323), this being an era of Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Joe Sakic, and Steve Yzerman.

In 1996-1997, Pivonka suffered a knee injury in an early season game against the St. Louis Blues.  While Pivonka was a victim of frequent injuries over his career to that point, he was largely able to play through them.  This injury, however – a meniscus tear in his right knee – set in motion a series of absences due to injuries.  He played in only 54 games in 1996-1997, his lowest in a full season since 1988-1989 when he split time between Washington and Baltimore.  The following season he appeared in only 33 games in the regular season, most of his absence due to a wrist injury suffered against Pittsburgh in November.  He would appear in only 13 of the Caps’ 21 post season games, missing the eight in the Caps’ run to the Stanley Cup finals as a result of a shoulder injury.

In 1998-1999 Pivonka was one of many Capitals to contribute to more than 500 man-games lost to injury.  He missed the first 29 games of the season to the shoulder injury he sustained in the playoffs the previous spring.  As it was he played in only 36 games, reduced to a defensive specialist skating only 13 minutes a night.

Before the 1999-2000 season the Capitals made an effort to trade Pivonka.  The Capitals were close to a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning but were unable to consummate that deal.  Instead, Pivonka was assigned to the Kansas City Blades where he played his final season of pro hockey.

Michal Pivonka has perhaps the most unremembered career among those Capitals who might be considered greats in the history of the franchise.  Having endured a difficult journey just to play in the NHL, he evolved as a player, first playing a role as an player focused on his offensive game, and then when injuries started wearing his body down, using his experience to become a solid defensive specialist.  He certainly deserves to play in the middle on Team P.

Right Wing:  Jean Pronovost

Regular Season (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 90 games, 23-38-61, minus-16
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Jean Pronovost was not drafted by any NHL team, but it did not stop him from being one of the more prolific goal scorers of his era.  Over his first 12 seasons in the NHL his 368 goals was topped by only six players: Phil Esposito, Guy Lafleur, Jean Ratelle, Garry Unger, Marcel Dionne, and Rick Martin.

That was before Pronovost came to Washington.  Pronovost compiled that goal total over ten seasons in Pittsburgh with the Penguins and another two in Atlanta when he was traded to the Flames for Gregg Sheppard in September 1978.  In July 1980 he made his way to Washington, traded to the Capitals for cash.

Pronovost came to the Capitals as the team was beginning to emerge from its early history struggles.  In 1980-1981 Pronovost played in all 80 games, posting 22 goals and 58 points for a team that would finish with the best record in its seven-year history to date (26-36-18 for 70 points).  His goal total was good for fifth on the club.

The following season Pronovost appeared in only ten games for the Caps (1-2-3, minus-7).  He spent most of the 1921-1982 season in Hershey with the Bears where he played in 64 games, going 35-31-66.  It was his last season of professional hockey.

Jean Pronovost was one of three brothers who played in the NHL following Marcel, a hall of fame defenseman who played with the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, and Claude, a goaltender who appeared in three games for the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens.  Pronovost carved his own niche between his brothers, being a member of the “Century Line” in Pittsburgh with Syl Apps and Lowell MacDonald, and being once a 52-goal scorer.  By the time he arrived in Washington he was not the goal scorer he once was, but he still had some pop.  Enough to get him a sweater on Team P.

Defense:  Robert Picard

Regular Season (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 230 games, 42-114-156, minus-44
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

If one looks for a silver lining in the early years of the Washington Capitals, it might be in the fact that bad records meant high draft picks.  Having a number one overall draft pick in 1974 (Greg Joly) did not prevent the Caps from finishing the following season with the league’s worst record, perhaps the worst in league history.  In fact, the Caps were bad enough in their first three seasons to have two more top-three picks.  Rick Green was taken first overall in the 1976 amateur draft, and Robert Picard was taken with the third overall pick in 1977.

He was not happy.  So unhappy, in fact, that when a better deal came around from the Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association – five years and $625,000 – he took it.  The league had second thoughts, fearful of a lawsuit by the NHL if Picard dressed for Quebec.  The WHA barred him from playing with the Nordiques, to which Picard responded, ““I’d rather deliver pizzas in Quebec City” than play hockey in Washington.”  Pizza sales must have been slow in Quebec City.  Picard reported to the Capitals less than a week later.
Picard, who as a defenseman with Montreal in the QMJHL put up bigger goal totals over each of his four seasons in juniors, was expected to do big things in Washington, and he jumped right into the Capitals lineup in the 1977-1978 season.   He appeared in 75 games and finished fourth among rookie defensemen in points (37).  He almost doubled that total the following season, setting what would be career highs in goals (21) and points (65).  He finished sixth among 12 defensemen getting votes for the Norris Trophy that season.

The problem with setting a career high in two offensive categories at the age of 21 when big things are expected of you is that attitudes can sour as the numbers start heading south.  That is what happened when Picard slipped to 11 goals and 54 points in 1979-1980.  Even though he finished 11th among NHL defensemen in points and led the Caps’ defensemen in scoring by better than a two-to-one margin (Rick Green had 24 points), the Caps traded the 23-year old Picard to the Toronto Maple leafs with Tim Coulis and a second round pick in the 1980 entry draft for goalie Mike Palmateer and a third round pick in the 1980 draft.

In hindsight, it probably was not a bad deal.  Picard played another ten seasons with five teams.  Only once did he record double-digits in goals (12 with the Winnipeg Jets in 1984-1985) after doing so in each of his three years in Washington.  Only once twice did he surpass his lowest point total in Washington (37 in his rookie season) – 38 with Montreal in 1982-1983 and 41 in 1985-1986 split between two teams.  It was in that 1985-1986 season that Picard’s journey brought him full circle.  He was traded from the Jets to the Quebec Nordques, by this time in the NHL after the NHL/WHA merger of 1979.  He played parts of five seasons with the Nordiques before being traded to Detroit (with another former Capital — Greg Adams – for Tony McKegney).  After 28 games with the Red Wings in 1989-1990 Picard’s NHL career came to an end.

Robert Picard had a stormy stay with the Capitals, but it was a productive one over his three seasons with the club.  It just wasn’t quite what folks expected.  Nevertheless, he gets the call on the blue line for Team P.

Defense: Tom Poti

Regular Season (with Capitals): 5 seasons, 230 games, 11-64-75, plus-32
Playoffs (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 27 games, 2-10-12, plus-16

The 1996 NHL entry draft was quite a draft for defensemen.  Eleven defensemen in all from that draft have played in at least 800 games, including Chris Phillips, Zdeno Chara, the late Ruslan Salei, Sami Salo, Michal Roszival, and Tom Poti, drafted in the third round (59th overall) by the Edmonton Oilers.

Poti went on to play two seasons with the Boston University Terriers in Hockey East after his draft year, then jumped to the Oilers for the 1998-1999 season.  In his fourth season with the Oilers, he was traded to the New York Rangers with Rem Murray for Mike York and a fourth round pick in the 2002 entry draft.  He spent parts of four seasons with the Rangers, becoming more unpopular over time among Ranger fans for what was seen as his indifferent play in his own end of the ice.  After the 2005-2006 season he escaped Manhattan, but not New York, signing as a free agent with the Islanders. 

It would be the next season when Poti left the Empire State altogether, signing a four-year/$14 million free agent contract with Washington.  When he took the ice for the Capitals, it was as a veteran among a cadre of very green defensemen.  Mike Green was 22 years old, Jeff Schultz was 21.  Shaone Morrisonn was still just 25 years old, Milan Jurcina was 24.  Poti and Brian Pothier (both 30 years old) were the vets, but Pothier was limited to 38 games after sustaining a concussion against the Boston Bruins in January that ended his season.

Being the veteran presence might have been a new role for Poti, but he took to it.  In his first three seasons in Washington he recorded 66 points and was a combined plus-38.  However, injuries began to take their toll.  In 2008-2009 he lost 30 games to injuries, primarily groin problems.  Then, in the 2010 playoffs against the Montreal Canadiens, Poti suffered an orbital bone fracture in Game 6 when a backhand shot from Mike Cammalleri hit Poti in the face.  It was almost a career-ending moment.  

Poti came back from the eye injury for the 2010-2011 season, but that year would be undone largely because of the return of groin problems and a fractured pelvis.  He played in only 21 games that season, none after January 12th.  The groin problems kept out for the entire 2011-2012 season, and once more it was potentially a career-ending event.  

But return he did.  After an absence of two years, almost to the day, Poti returned to the Capitals lineup on January 19, 2013 – opening night of the abbreviated 2012-2013 season as it turned out.  Injuries would derail his return again, though.  Poti’s season ended on St. Patrick’s Day when he managed only seven minutes of ice time in a 5-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres.  This time, it was a back injury.  He missed the last 20 games of the regular season and the Caps’ first round playoff loss to the New York Rangers. 

It would be his last season in the NHL.  However, for his perseverance in the face of repeated injuries, Poti was selected by the Washington chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association to be the club’s nominee for the 2013 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player “who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.”

Despite the injury problems that plagued his last four seasons in Washington, Poti played in 825 games in the NHL, 230 of them for the Capitals.  By the time he came to Washington he was not quite the offensive producer he was in his early career, becoming more of a two-way defenseman.  It was his experience that was valuable to a team with defensemen just coming into their own in the NHL – Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, John Carlson, Karl Alzner.  Tom Poti’s leadership makes him a deserving player for Team P.

Goalie:  Pete Peeters

Regular Season (with Capitals): 4 seasons, 139 games, 70-41-15, 3.06, .887, 7 shutouts
Playoffs (with Capitals): 4 seasons, 30 games, 15-15, 3.14, .889

In the 1977 amateur draft, 15 goaltenders were selected before the Philadelphia Flyers got around to taking Pete Peeters in the eighth round (135th overall).  By the time his career ended in 1991 only Greg Millen (604 games) of the 24 goalies taken in that draft would appear in more games than Peeters (489).  None would win more games than the 246 games Peeters won over his 13-year career.

Seventy of those wins came with the Capitals over four seasons.  Peeters, who played in Philadelphia for four seasons to start his NHL career, and then another three in Boston after the Flyers traded him for Brad McCrimmon in June 1982, came to Washington early in the 1985-1986 season.  It was part of a goalie-goalie swap with the Bruins, who took Pat Riggin in exchange.

The Caps had been employing something of a time-sharing relationship between their goalies, Riggin and Al Jensen splitting much of the time over the previous few seasons.  Peeters fit into this routine upon joining the Capitals, getting 34 appearances over the rest of the 1985-1986 season while Jensen was getting 44 overall.  In the post-season, it was Peeters who got the call.  He backstopped the Caps to a sweep in the opening best-of-five round against the New York Islanders, allowing only four goals.  He was not quite as sharp to open the second round against the New York Rangers, but he was sharp enough to win two of the first three games, allowing eight goals.  Peeters and the Caps collapsed after that, however.  In Games 4-6 Peeters allowed 12 goals, and the Caps lost them all, dropping the series in six games to the heavy underdog Rangers.

Peeters put up solid numbers over the next three seasons, winning 51 of 93 decisions.  The post season was another matter.  In 1987 against the Islanders he was just 1-2 in three appearances and was held out of Games 6 and 7 in favor of Bob Mason as the Caps dropped the series to the Islanders in seven games.  The following season Peeters was strong in Games 5-7 (eight goals allowed) as the Caps rallied from a 3-1 deficit in games to win a seven game series against Philadelphia.  In the second round against the New Jersey Devils he was inconsistent, allowing a single goal in Game 1, and then allowing five in a 5-1 loss in Game 2.  After splitting time with Clint Malarchuk in a 10-4 loss to the Devils in Game 3, Peeters got the call in Game 4 in New Jersey.  His night came to an abrupt end when this happened…

Peeters, who was knocked unconscious and suffered a mild concussion on that play, returned for Game 6, winning a 7-2 decision, but he allowed one too many goals in a 3-2 loss to the Devils in Game 7 to eliminate the Caps.

In 1989 it was another case of late playoff series problems.  After the Caps took a 2-1 lead in games over the Flyers in the first round of the post-season, Peeters dropped three consecutive decisions, allowing 16 goals in the process as the Caps lost the series to Philadelphia.

Following that 1989 post-season, Peeters signed as a free agent with the Flyers, the team that originally drafted him.  He spent two years with Philadelphia, going 10-20-6, his career coming to an end after the 1990-1991 season.

In an odd sort of way, Pete Peeters is a symbol of Capitals hockey, both of the period and in the historical context of the franchise.  He had decent regular season records in his four seasons in Washington, but his goals against average in the post season got progressively worse over his four playoff years, and he was especially ineffective in the late stages of series (he was 4-8 after Game 3’s in his playoff appearances for the Caps).  Still, he is tied for fourth in wins in franchise history (with Jim Carey) and is third all-time for the Capitals in playoff wins (30).  For that, he gets the nod as starting goalie for Team P.

Team P has a mix of skill and grit that would make it look good on paper.  However, there are a sufficient number of issues with this team to make one wonder if it would be as good at the sum of its parts.  Capitals history in a nutshell.