Tuesday, August 26, 2014

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

Team S in our look back at the Washington Capitals All-Alphabet Franchise Teams is an intriguing one for its balance of grit and skill, sometimes in the same player.

Left Wing: Alexander Semin

Regular Season (with Capitals): 7 seasons, 469 games, 197-211-408, plus-65
Playoffs (with Capitals): 5 seasons, 51 games, 15-19-34, minus-1

e·nig·ma (iˈnigmə) -- noun: a person or thing that is mysterious, puzzling, or difficult to understand.

Some guys are hard to figure out.  None more so, perhaps, than Alexander Semin.  It always seemed that when Semin was around, if he wasn’t doing something incredible, something odd was happening.  First there was the price the Caps paid to get him.  Washington traded a first and a second round pick in the 2002 entry draft, plus a sixth round pick in the 2003 draft to the Dallas Stars for the 13th overall pick in the 2002 draft.  The Caps used that pick to take Semin, an 18 year old winger with Traktor Chelyabinsk in Russia.

Then things got strange.  Semin’s progress post-draft went sort of sideways.  He spent another year in Russia, skating for Lada Togliatti, after which he came to North America.  In 2003-2004 he appeared in 52 games for the Caps, finishing with ten goals and 22 points in 52 games. The odd thing about that was that there was no 53rd game.  After the Caps defeated the New York Rangers in the team’s last home game of the season, Semin missed the flight to Pittsburgh for the season finale.  The next flight he was scheduled to take was cancelled, and the flight after that did not depart Washington until after the puck drop in Pittsburgh.  The team was not happy

His season was not over; he went to the Capitals’ AHL affiliate Portland where he played in four regular season and seven playoff games for the Pirates.  It might have made for a nice segue into the next season, that of the 2004-2005 lockout.  Semin could have resumed his development in Portland while the league was dark. 

It was a good idea, except Semin did not report, choosing to play once more for Lada Togliatti in Russia.  The Caps suspended Semin for failure to report to Portland. 

When the NHL returned to action in 2005-2006 the Caps did so without Semin.  This time it was a question about his obligation for military service.  Apparently, that service could be fulfilled on a hockey rink.  Semin skated 42 games, split between Lada Togliatti and Khimik, while the mess was being sorted out in the courts in the U.S

Finally.  Finally, Semin made it back to Washington in the 2006-2007 season, and he played as if nothing ever happened.  His 38 goals in 77 games was 13th in the league.  Of those finishing ahead of him, only teammate Alexander Ovechkin was younger than the 22-year old Semin.  It was the first of a four-year period in which he was among the top ten-goal scorers overall (tied for 10th with 138) and tied for fifth with Sidney Crosby in goals per game (0.50).  On top of that, Semin received votes for the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward in the 2008-2009 season.  OK, so he finished tied for 35th, but that was a higher finish than Daniel Alfredsson, Eric Staal, and Patrick Sharp, among others.

That four-year run would end on the sourest of notes, though.  In the regular season Semin set a career high in goals with 40 in 73 games, one of seven 40-goal scorers that season.  He finished 13th in the league in total points for a club that set an NHL record for a non-original six team in total standings points (121).

The playoffs were another matter.  In the opening round series against the Montreal Canadiens he started off with a six shot effort in Game 1, but did not score.  Then it was five shots in Game 2, no goals.  Five more shots in Game 3, no goals.  By the time the seven-game series was over, Semin recorded 44 shots – most of any player in the first round – without a goal. It was not a record for futility, but he could see it from where he was – tied for fourth all time in total post-season shots without a goal. The Caps lost that series in seven games.

Semin, while still a productive offensive player, never recovered from that.  His goal total dropped to 28 in 65 games of the 2010-2011 season, then to 21 in 77 games of the 2011-2012 season.  By that time Semin, who was wrapping up his third straight one-year contract (this one paying $7 million), did not appear to be player in whom the Caps wanted to invest an elite-level amount of money.  He signed a five-year/$35 million deal with the Carolina Hurricanes in October 2012.

Ninety players have appeared in at least 200 games for the Caps in their history.  Semin is sixth in goals per game, tenth in points per game  He was one of the most gifted talents ever to skate for the club.  The mystery is why he didn’t produce even more.  But hey, we’ll always have this from 2009…

Alexander Semin, the best damned bongo player on Team S.

Center: David Steckel

Regular Season (with Capitals): 6 seasons, 291 games, 23-35-58, plus-3
Playoffs (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 24 games, 5-4-9, even

When David Steckel was drafted in the first round (30th overall) by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2001 Entry draft, his stock was high and climbing.  The 25th-ranked North American prospect in NHL Central Scouting’s mid-term evaluations, he jumped to 16th in the final rankings.  He had just completed a successful freshman year at Ohio State University, finishing third (behind Western Michigan’s Jeff Campbell and teammate R.J. Umberger) in freshman scoring in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (17-18-35 in 33 games).

Unfortunately, for those who might have projected him as a scoring line forward, that would be his high-water scoring mark at Ohio State.  It made for a sluggish start to his development toward an NHL career.  After four years with the Buckeyes, Steckel moved on to the Manchester Monarchs, the Kings’ AHL affiliate, for the 2004-2005 season.   After a lackluster season with the Monarchs (7-10-17 in 63 games), the Kings and Steckel parted ways. 

At the end of the summer of 2005 Steckel was signed by the Capitals as a free agent and assigned to Hershey.  His production improved greatly under then head coach Bruce Boudreau, doubling his point production from the previous season in Manchester (34 points) as the Bears won a Calder Cup.  In 2006-2007 Steckel’s offense made another big jump (30-31-61 in 71 games) as the Bears went to their second consecutive Calder Cup final. What he was not getting was much of a chance in Washington. 

Steckel appeared in seven games in the 2005-2006 season for the Caps and in five games the following season, failing to record a point in any of the 12 games overall.  Those two seasons in Hershey did seem to prepare him well for what was to come.  In 2007-2008 he made the big club for good, appearing in 67 games and recording his first NHL points (5-7-12 in 67 games), primarily as a defensive, bottom six forward.

It would be that role which Steckel played for the Caps, adding his singular skill in taking faceoffs, over his three full seasons.  He did not become more productive offensive forward, never scoring more than eight goals nor finishing with more than 19 points. 

His 2010-2011 season started with the same pace at which he played his previous three seasons.  In the 2010 portion of the season Steckel was 4-4-7 in 33 games.  Then, Steckel was the focal point in one of the most consequential games – plays, in fact – of the season.  On New Year’s Day, the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins faced off in the Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.  With less than a minute left in the second period and the Caps holding a 2-1 lead, the Caps were trying to move the puck out of their own zone.  When Karl Alzner tried to backhand the puck up the left side and out of danger, the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby tried to block the clearing attempt.  When he failed, he circled to turn up ice and pursue the play.  In doing so he crossed into the path of Steckel, who was staring up ice to join the play.  When they collided, Steckel’s shoulder caught Crosby flush.  The result was a concussion, the effects of which would impact Crosby and the Penguins for the remainder of that season and the next.  Whether Steckel intentionally hit Crosby (or failed to do enough to avoid the collision) was a matter of some discussion,  but there could be no question about its importance as far as Crosby, the Penguins, and their competition going forward were concerned.

It might have affected Steckel some, too, with all the discussion back and forth about whether the hit was intentional or not.  Never a big numbers player in the NHL, his offense dried up almost completely.  Over his next 23 games he was 1-2-3.  Meanwhile, the Caps had bigger problems.  They still had their perennial problem of how to fill their second line center role.  With the trading deadline approaching, much speculation in the media focused on how good a fit New Jersey’s Jason Arnott would be in that role for the Capitals.  With the Devils dropping out of the playoff race, moving a veteran to free up salary cap space made sense.

The Capitals and Devils completed a trade on February 28th with the Caps sending Steckel and a second round pick in the 2012 entry draft to New Jersey for Arnott.  Steckel wrapped up the 2010-2011 season in New Jersey, then was traded by the Devils to Toronto in October 2011.  After a 76-game season with the Maple Leafs in 2011-2012, he played just 13 for the Leafs in 2012-2013 before being traded to the Anaheim Ducks in March 2013.  He found playing time increasingly scarce with the Ducks spending most of the 2013-2014 season with the Norfolk Admirals and the Iowa Wild of the AHL.

David Steckel was a largely anonymous sort of player who did a lot of the little things that teams have to have done to win games.  The four seasons in which he played in at least 57 games was the winningest four-year stretch in Capitals history (195 wins), and Steckel was a part of that.  Enough to get him a jersey for Team S. 

Right Wing: Bob Sirois

Regular Season (with Capitals): 5 seasons, 282 games, 91-120-211, minus-54
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

In 1974-1975, Bob Sirois was a 20-year old property of the Philadelphia Flyers, a former third round draft pick (53rd overall in 1974) who had worked his way up from Rosemount National to Laval National, to Montreal Red-White-Blue, to Montreal Juniors, all of the QMJHL before getting his chance with a team that would win a Stanley Cup championship. 

Except he played in just three games that season for the Flyers, none of them in the playoffs.  But hey, there would be another chance, right?  The Flyers of the mid-1970’s were a powerhouse. 

It did not work out that way, either for the Flyers (who have not won a Stanley Cup since) or for Sirois.  After dressing for only one game for the Flyers in the 1975-1976 season he was traded to Washington in December 1975 for future considerations that become John Paddock.  Well, at least he was going to a team who made history of their own in the 1974-1975 season. 

Sirois might not have joined a top-notch team, but he got the chance to play.  He scored 10 goals in 43 games to finish the 1975-1976 season and 13 in 45 games in the 1977-1978 season, one in which he was one of only two Capitals to finish with a positive plus-minus (plus-1; Bill Riley was a plus-4 in 43 games).

Sirois got more playing time in the seasons to follow – 72 games in 1977-1978 (24 goals), and 73 games in 1978-1979 (29 goals).  With those 53 goals he was second on the club to Guy Charron (66) over those two seasons.  In the 1978-1979 season he was selected to play in the NHL all-star game, but he suffered a leg injury late in the season, denying him the chance to join Dennis Maruk and Tom Rowe as 30-goal scorers for that club.

Injuries derailed Sirois’ 1979-1980 season, limiting him to 49 games, and would force him into retirement.  After missing a season he tried to make a comeback with the Hershey Bears in the AHL, but after just 13 games with the Bears, his career was over at the age of 27.

Bob Sirois was one of an early crop of goal scorers for the Caps whose records were largely buried under an avalanche of losses.  Even with the injuries he suffered over his five seasons with the Caps he was one of the most productive players in that era of Capitals hockey.  For that, Bob Sirois plays on the right side on Team S.

Defense: Neil Sheehy

Regular Season (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 131 games, 4-9-13, plus-7
Playoffs (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 21 games, 0-3-3, minus-5

Born in Fort Frances, Ontario; raised in  International Falls, MN; then off to Cambridge, MA, and Harvard University for hockey and an education.  Quite a road it was, and that was before he arrived in the NHL.  That would take a bit longer.  After he completed his four-year tour at Harvard in 1983 he was signed as a free agent by the Calgary Flames. 

What Sheehy did after that was to establish himself as a defenseman who played with a general sense of ill humor.  Over his first four full seasons in the NHL, split between Calgary and the Hartford Whalers from 1984-1985 through 1987-1988, Sheehy ranked tenth in penalty minutes per game among players who appeared in at least 200 games.

In July 1988 Sheehy and his brand of disagreeableness was traded from Hartford to the Capitals with Mike Millar for Grant Jennings and Ed Kastelic.  He did not disappoint.  In 72 games he scored just three goals and recorded seven points, but he did have 179 penalty minutes.  The next season, he outdid himself.  He managed only one goal and six points in an injury-shortened 59 game season, but he finished tied for ninth overall with 291 penalty minutes, a career high.  He was fifth among those ten defensemen in penalty minutes per game, a number fueled by 15 fights.  He was part of a group that finished second in the league in fighting majors.

It was not just a team that could fight, and Sheehy was not just a defenseman who could, well, fight.  The Caps advanced to the Wales Conference final, Sheehy leading the league in penalty minutes in the post-season along the way (92 in 13 games).  It might have made for a great story, the Caps going deeper in the playoffs than ever before.  Unfortunately, it was not the story that would be the takeaway at the end of the season.  There would be another, unseemly one, in which Sheehy would beinvolved.  

Sheehy’s career went downhill quickly after that.  He missed the 1990-1001 season entirely as a result of a broken ankle and back surgery.  He was then made available in the 1991 expansion/dispersal draft.

He was not selected. He was signed as a free agent by the Calgary Flames in 1991 where he played one more season before his NHL career came to an end.   The Capitals portion of Neil Sheehy’s career was short, but it did not lack for drama.  In an era when hard-nosed (and hard-knuckled) play was prized, he did his part.  That is why he plays on the blue line on Team S. 

Defense: Scott Stevens

Regular Season (with Capitals): 8 seasons, 601 games, 98-331-429, plus-88
Playoffs (with Capitals): 8 seasons, 67 games, 9-44-53, plus-7

Rod Langway might be the most consequential player in Washington Capitals history.  When all is said and done, Alex Ovechkin might be, in time, the most productive player in Capitals history.  But for sheer prolificacy, there is no player in franchise history who can hold a candle to Scott Stevens.  But we will get to that.

For Stevens and the Caps it started with the 1982 entry draft in which Stevens was taken fifth overall, the third defenseman taken behind Gord Kluzak and Gary Nyland.  Stevens was an immediate fixture in the Capitals lineup, providing a blend of skill (second in goals and tied for fourth in points among rookie defensemen) and grit (first by a mile in penalty minutes, 195 to Dan Mandich’s 169 among rookie defensemen) in his rookie season in 1982-1983.  If there was a problem with the mix it might have been that Stevens had a short fuse.  A very short one.  His 14 fights in the 1982-1983 season tied for fourth among all players.

As he moved on from his rookie season he did not lose his orneriness, but he channeled it better.  After an early career marked by frequent fisticuffs (he averaged 11 a year over his first five seasons), he dropped cut that total almost in half over his next three seasons (an average of six per year).

Meanwhile, his offensive production improved significantly.  Over five seasons, from 1984-1985 through 1988-89 he had four 60-plus point years.  Only four defensemen had more points than the 319 Stevens recorded over that span.  He also produced on special teams.  With 32 power play goals over that five-year span, he was tied for sixth among all defensemen.

The combination of skills Stevens provided was a perfect complement to the stay-at-home style of Rod Langway on the blue line and the more offensive-oriented play of Larry Murphy.  All in all, Stevens played in eight seasons for the Caps, and his name is all over the record book:
  • Most points, defensemen: 2nd (429)
  • Most assists, defenseman: 2nd (331)
  • Most penalty minutes: 2nd (1,630)
  • Most penalty minutes, defenseman: 1st (1,630)
  • Most assists, defenseman (season): 1st (61)
  • Most power play goals, defenseman (season): 2nd (16)
  • Most points, defenseman (game): T-1st (5;  December 6, 1987 vs. Los Angeles; Caps won 10-3)
  • Most points, playoffs: 7th (53)
  • Most points, playoffs, defenseman: 2nd (53)
  • Most assists, playoffs: 2nd (44)
  • Most assists, playoffs, defenseman: 1st (44)
  • Most playoff games played, career: 9th (67)
  • Most playoff games played, career, defenseman: 4th (67)
  • Most penalty minutes, playoffs, career: 3rd (180)
  • Most penalty minutes, playoffs, career, defenseman: 2nd (180)

It came to an end, though, after that eighth season with the Caps in 1989-1990.  Stevens was implicated in the unfortunate incident outside a Georgetown bar described above in the summary of Neil Sheehy’s career with the Caps.  It was not that, though, that ended his career in Washington.  It was a contract. More precisely, an offer sheet tendered by the St. Louis Blues to the restricted free agent.  The deal offered was for four years and $5.145 million. 

As any Caps fan knows, the Capitals did not match the offer and lost the defenseman to the Blues in exchange for five first round draft picks.  This is where the idea of Stevens being the most prolific player in Capitals history emerges.  Those five first round draft picks, in addition to whatever contributions they might have made themselves, begat several generations of Capitals players.   

The line is still active.  Prospect forward Michael Latta came to the Capitals with Martin Erat when they traded Filip Forsberg to the Nashville Predators (this is through the “Brendan Witt” lineage among those five first round picks).  Chris Brown and a fourth round draft pick in 2015 are with the Caps as a product of the trade of Erat to the Phoenix Coyotes.  And, another asset coming to the Caps as part of the Erat-to-Phoenix trade – Rostislav Klesla – was traded to Buffalo in a deal that brought goalie Jaroslav Halak to Washington with a third round draft pick in 2015.  Halak was subsequently traded to the New York Islanders for a fourth round pick in the 2014 draft that the Capitals packaged to trade up into the third round.  That pick became Nathan Walker.

Scott Stevens would go on to bigger and better things as a member of the New Jersey Devils.  Three Stanley Cups, enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.  Caps fans think, “it might have been us.”  Still, the echoes of Stevens’ career in Washington persist: Michael Latta, Chris Brown, Nathan Walker, and a player yet to be determined from the 2015 draft.  One cannot help but wonder, though, what might have been.  We will just have to settle for Scott Stevens manning the blue line for Team S.

Goalie: Wayne Stephenson

Regular Season (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 76 games, 22-31-15, 3.65, 1 shutout
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Wayne Stephenson was a late bloomer, even if you consider that goaltenders take a while to develop.  He was never drafted by an NHL team, his career starting off as a 19 year old in 1963 with the Winnipeg Braves of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.  That was the start of a wandering journey that included stops with the Edmonton Oil Kings, the Winnipeg Nationals, the Canadian National Team (including his appearance in three games of the 1968 Winter Olympics), and the Kansas City Blues before he got his shot at the age of 27 with the St. Louis Blues. 

Stephenson spent three seasons in St. Louis before he was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers in September 1974 for a second round pick in the 1975 amateur draft and the rights to Randy Andreachuk.  In Philadelphia, Stephenson was stuck behind Bernie Parent, who backstopped the Flyers to a Stanley Cup in 1974 and was about to repeat the feat in 1975.  Stephenson, who was 7-2-1 for Philadelphia in limited work in the regular season, did appear twice in the 1975 post season for the Flyers, winning both games in route to the Cup.

The following season Parent was sidelined with a neck injury in pre-season that would limit him to 11 games.  Stephenson filled the void admirably, going 40-10-13 with a 2.58 goals against average and one shutout.  He split time with Parent in the post-season, each goalie posting a 4-4 record as the Flyers’ two-year reign as NHL champions ended.

Stephenson played two more seasons in Philadelphia before he was traded to Washington in August 1979 for a third round pick in the 1981 entry draft.  He shouldered the heaviest load between the pipes, appearing in 56 games for the Caps in the 1979-1980 season with a record of 18-24-10 and a 3.57 goals against average.  At the time, his appearances, wins, and goals against average were franchise records.

The 1980-1981 season was not kind to Stephenson, a combination of injuries and newly arrived goalie Mike Palmateer shouldering most of the load limited him to 20 appearances and a 4-7-5 record.  It would be his last season in the NHL.

Wayne Stephenson passed away in 1965 from brain cancer.  While he was with the Caps, though, he was a feisty sort with the proper attitude for a goalie on a struggling team...

That’s got to get him the nod in goal for Team S.

Team S.  And ornery bunch with just a touch of weirdness.  You could make a movie about these guys.  “S” for Slap Shot?