Sunday, August 31, 2014

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

Team V.  “V” for victory?  Well, those might be hard to come by for this team, one that had flashes of excellence but for whatever reason could not sustain it, at least with the Washington Capitals. 

Left Wing: Aaron Volpatti

Regular Season (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 58 games, 2-1-3, minus-5
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Revelstoke, British Columbia, was the birthplace of Bruce Holloway, a defenseman of modest achievement, drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in 1981, appearing in two games for the Canucks in 1985.  That might have been Revestoke’s contribution to the NHL but for Aaron Volpatti, who was born there at just about the time Holloway’s NHL career was reaching its peak (May 20, 1985).

Volpatti would also make his way to Vancouver, an undrafted free agent signed by the Canucks in March 2010 after he completed four years with the Brown University Bears in the NCAA.  The signing earned him a ticket to Manitoba to play 13 games with the Moose of the AHL (five in the playoffs) to wrap up the 2010-2011 season. 

Volpatti’s progress was quick after that.  He split time between Manitoba (53 games) and Vancouver (15 games) in 2010-2011, then stuck with the big club 2011-2012.  He had trouble cracking the lineup, though, appearing in only 23 games.  His appearances were punctuated by a certain feistiness.  Despite playing in only 23 games he was third on the team in fights (5).  Offense, however, was not his thing – one goal, one point.

The next season it was much of the same.  He was in the lineup infrequently, and when he was in the lineup his game was characterized more by belligerence (four fights in 16 games) than offensive production (one goal).  It was not a combination that the Canucks found promising, and he was placed on waivers in February.  The Caps claimed him on February 28th. 

He picked up with Washington more or less where he left off in Vancouver.  His first game with the Caps was on March 2nd against the Winnipeg Jets.  In his last shift of the first period Volpatti dropped the gloves against Anthony Peluso, three inches taller and 20 pounds heavier.  Not for lack of effort, but Volpatti probably lost the fight on points.  That would be his only fight in 17 games, but he recorded only one point in those 17 games, too.

In 2013-2014 Volpatti read once more from the same script – limited playing time (41 games), frequent fisticuffs (five fights, second on the team), and almost no offense (two goals).  He appeared in only two of the Caps’ last 31 games.

Aaron Volpatti might not be the most skilled of players ever to have worn the Capitals jersey, but he does what he can with what he has.  It makes him the best left wing in the history of the franchise whose name starts with “V” (ok, there have been two).  And that gets him a spot on Team V.

Center: Chris Valentine

Regular Season (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 105 games, 43-52-95, minus-25
Playoffs (with Capitals): 1 season, 2 games, 0-0-0, even

Try this on.  You’re drafted in the tenth round of the 1981 entry draft (194th overall).  Your neighborhood in that draft include Mario Proulx, Rejean Vignola, and Vladimir Kadlec.  Never heard of them?  Don’t worry, they never appeared in an NHL game.  You would think that being drafted in that neighborhood would mean years of development before you got to the NHL at all.

Then there was Chris Valentine.  Taken with that tenth round pick in 1981, instead of embarking on a long apprenticeship in the minors he lasted 19 games with the Hershey Bears, scoring 12 goals.  He did not miss a beat when he was called up to Washington.  Valentine recorded 30 goals in 60 games in his rookie season with the Caps, 18 of them coming on the power play.  The 18 power play goals made Valentine just the third player in the history of the NHL at the time to score that many goals on the man advantage in his rookie season.  The others, Rick Martin and Mike Bossy, would go on to score 955 goals between them in their respective NHL careers.

Alas, Valentine would not come close to scoring nearly as many as either Bossy or Martin.  He would not, in fact, reach the 50-goal mark for his career.  In his sophomore season he managed only seven goals in 23 games, spending the rest of his 1982-1983 season with the Bears, where he had 31 goals in 51 games.  The following season, the lightning in his stick had left him – six goals in 22 games with the Caps, 15 in 47 contests with Hershey.  At the age of 22, his NHL career had come and gone.

Valentine played another 12 years in Europe with Dusseldorfer EG in Germany.  He compiled an impressive European resume, scoring 356 goals in 550 regular season and playoff games.  In 1996, in his last season with Dusseldorf, he won a German league championship, the last that Dusseldorf has won.

With the Caps, there was that bright flash of offensive production from Chris Valentine that went out almost as quickly.  Nevertheless, it is enough to get him a spot in the middle on Team V.

Right Wing: Dennis Ververgaert

Regular Season (with Capitals): 1 season, 79 games, 14-27-41, minus-5
Playoffs (with Capitals): none

Over the 1973-1974 through 1977-1978 seasons, no player scored more goals than Dennis Ververgaert…

…for the Vancouver Canucks.

It was hardly unexpected, what with Ververgaert being a third overall draft pick of the Canucks in the 1973 amateur draft and finishing fourth in Calder Trophy voting for top rookie after a 26-goal rookie season.  While those first five seasons with Vancouver were productive, there would not be a sixth full season.  Ververgaert was traded to Philadelphia where he spent the rest of the 1978-1979 season and the next season. 

His offensive production having dropped with the Flyers, they did not resign him after the 1979-1980 season ended.  He signed with Washington just before the start of the 1980-1981 season.  He played in 79 games for the Caps, finishing seventh on the team in goals (14) and points (41).  It was not enough to earn him a spot on the 1982-1983 roster, though.  He was assigned to the minors, but he declined, opting to retire instead at the age of 31.

It was a short stay for Dennis Ververgaert in Washington, something he holds in common with others on Team V.  But only one right wing in Capitals history has a last name that starts with the letter “V,” and Ververgaert is it.  He has a place on Team V.

Defense: Darren Veitch

Regular Season (with Capitals): 6 seasons, 319 games, 25-118-143, plus-22
Playoffs (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 10 games, 0-2-2, plus-5

Defenseman was the position of choice at the top of the 1980 NHL entry draft.  Six of the first eight players selected were blueliners.  Larry Murphy, who later would play six seasons with the Capitals, might have arrived in Washington a lot earlier, but he was taken fourth overall by the Los Angeles Kings.  The Caps might have taken Paul Coffey, who was still available, with the next pick.  They passed on Coffey, though, and took Darren Veitch of the Regina Pats of the WHL.  Veitch had just come off an amazing season in juniors.  In 71 games with the Pats he was 29-93-122.

Veitch dressed for 59 games for the Caps the following season, putting up decent, if unspectacular numbers (4-21-25).  When his production jumped in his sophomore season (9-44-53 in 67 games), it looked as if his career was going to take off. 

The only thing he took off was time.  He suffered a fractured collarbone in his third game of the 1982-1983 season, then refractured it three days after returning from the original injury.  He played just ten games that season with no goals and eight points.  The collarbone injury delayed his start in the 1983-1984 season, limiting him to 46 games.  The injuries seemed to take a bite out of Veitch’s game, though.  In 1984-1985 he played in 75 games but managed just three goals and 21 points.

By the time the Caps were gearing up for a playoff run in 1985-1986, Veitch became expendable.  In March 1986 he was traded to the Detroit Red Wings for John Barrett and Greg Smith.  After two full seasons with the Red Wings he was traded to Toronto, where he spent three seasons struggling to crack the Maple Leaf lineup.  Late in the 1990-1991 season he was traded to St. Louis, but he never dressed for the Blues.  His NHL career ended with that 1990-1991 season.

There are Capitals fans these days who remember that the club passed on Ryan Getzlaf in the 2003 entry draft.  There is, with the passing on Paul Coffey to take Darren Veitch, a history of that (not that it doesn’t happen to other teams).  Still, Veitch might have been a productive player until injuries took their toll.  He gets a spot on defense for Team V.

Defense: Dmitri Mironov

Regular Season (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 155 games, 8-38-46, minus-5
Playoffs (with Capitals): 1 seasons, 4 games, 0-0-0, plus-2

We have another of those situations in which there are too few candidates for a position whose last name starts with the team letter.  With Team V there is only one defenseman in team history whose last name starts with the letter.  So, we go to those whose last names end in the letter, and we find Dmitri Mironov. 

By the time Mironov came to the Capitals in 1998 he was a seven-year veteran with 401 regular season games of experience in his resume.  A 1991 draftee of the Toronto Maple Leafs, he spent four seasons with the Leafs, a little more than a season in Pittsburgh with the Penguins, followed up with tours with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Detroit Red Wings, with which he won a Stanley Cup in 1998 (he did not play in the finals against the Caps).

In July 1998 Mironov signed as a free agent with the Washington.  In his first season with the club, in 1998-1999, he had respectable numbers (2-14-16, fourth on the team in scoring), despite playing in only 46 games, losing the rest of the season to a back injury that required surgery.  In 1999-2000 he came back to play in 73 games, logging more than 20 minutes a night.  His offensive numbers, those which made him appealing to the Caps in free agency, did not impress.  His three goals and 22 points was the fewest of each he had in any of the six seasons of his career in which he played more than 50 games.

Mironov played in one more season with Washington.  In 2000-2001 he appeared in just 36 games, recording three goals and eight points.  In a sense, his three years in Washington were something of a disappointment, due in some part to injuries.  Still, he brought wealth of experience, particularly playoff experience (71 games) to the Caps that he earned over seven seasons.  Neither he nor the Caps were able to take advantage of that experience to make deep playoff runs in his three seasons with the club.  It is enough to get him a berth on Team V, though.

Goalie: Semyon Varlamov

Regular Season (with Capitals): 3 seasons, 151 games, 78-59-12, 2.61, .917, 9 shutouts
Playoffs (with Capitals): 2 seasons, 19 games, 10-9, 2.49, .915, 2 shutouts

Since 1989, when Olaf Kolzig was taken with the 19th overall pick of the draft, the Washington Capitals had not drafted as high.  They came close in 2006.   After taking center Nicklas Backstrom with the fourth overall pick, the Caps used their second pick in the first round (23rd overall) on a goaltender from Samara, Russia, by way of the junior club of Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Russian Superleague.

Varlamov played two more years in Russia with the Superleague club, leading his team to the league finals in his final year.  In 2008-2009 he joined the Hershey Bears in the AHL and won 19 of 27 decisions.  He also got his first taste of the NHL, appearing in six games for the Caps without sustaining a loss (4-0-1, 2.37, .918).

He got a much bigger taste of the NHL in the post-season.  With backup goalie Brent Johnson sidelined by a hip injury that required surgery, Varlamov was thrust into the role of backup goalie behind Jose Theodore.  When Theodore came up short in Game 1 of the opening round series against the New York Rangers, a 4-3 loss, Varlamov got the call in Game 2.  He was brilliant in a 1-0 loss to the Rangers, earning him the starts for the remainder of the series.  He was even better as the Caps overcame a 3-1 deficit in games to beat the Rangers in seven.  Varlamov was 4-2, 1.17, .952, with two shutouts in the opening round.

Facing a relentless barrage from the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round (almost 38 shots per game in the first six games), Varlamov finally cracked in Game 7, allowing four goals on 18 shots in 22 minutes as the Caps were eliminated by the Pens on their way to a Stanley Cup.

When Varlamov returned for the 2009-2010 season, the idea might have been that he would be the backup to Theodore as the final step in his apprenticeship before taking over when Theodore’s contract expired with the club.  Although he appeared in 26 games and posted a fine 15-4-6 record, three things were cause for concern.  First, his underlying numbers (.909 save percentage, 2.55 goals against average), were not impressive.  Second, Michal Neuvirth, another goalie taken by the Caps in the 2006 draft, was making noise in Hershey that he would compete for that number one spot down the road.  Last, there was the hint of injuries.  Varlamov, being an extremely athletic, explosive goalie, paid for that with a wonky groin that cost him nine games.

The 2010 post season looked a lot like the 2009 post season.  Jose Theodore had an iffy effort in Game 1, Varlamov got the call in Game 2, and the Caps had to dig themselves out of a hole.  They did so quickly, turning that Game 1 loss into a 3-1 edge in games over the Montreal Canadiens.  Varlamov allowed only seven goals over those three wins (.920 save percentage).  He was equally effective in Games 4-7, allowing only seven goals.  However, he was less efficient in doing so (.892 save percentage), and the Caps’ offense dried up.  Washington and Varlamov lost those last three games and the series.

In 2010-2011 Varlamov might have been the Caps’ best goaltender.  His numbers suggested it (2.23 goals against average and .924 save percentage in 27 appearances).  However, injuries cut into his time.  He missed 13 games to a groin injury in late October and early November.  Another game in January to the same injury, then 11 games in March to a knee injury.  With Neuvirth having taken the bulk of the regular season work he was given the number one goalie responsibilities for the post-season.  Neuvirth played well in an opening round five-game win over the Rangers, but he was not as sharp in a sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.  Varlamov never got off the bench.

After the 2010-2011 season Varlamov was a free agent, the only one of the Caps’ three young goalie prospects (Braden Holtby being the third) not under contract for the 2011-2012 season.  It was a complicated situation.  Varlamov wanted assurances from the club with respect to his role, assurances the club was not inclined to give.  With a return to the KHL a possibility, leaving the Caps with the potential for no return on a departing (and unhappy) asset, they traded him to the Colorado Avalanche for the Avs’ first round pick in the 2012 entry draft and a second round pick in that draft.  The rest is well-known history among Caps fans.  Varlamov went on to be a star (second in Vezina Trophy voting, fourth in Hart Trophy voting, and a second team all-star in 2014), while the Caps selected Filip Forsberg with the first round pick from Colorado, traded him to Nashville for Martin Erat and Michael Latta, then traded Erat to the Phoenix Coyotes as part of a deal that netted Chris Brown, a fourth round draft pick, and defenseman Rostislav Klesla (who was immediately traded to Buffalo with Neuvirth for goalie Jaroslav Halak and a draft pick.  Halak left for the New York Islanders in free agency after the 2013-2014 season.

Semyon Varlamov gave glimpses of what he would become in Colorado – the brief spurts of excellent play between the injuries, the playoff run in 2009, the Winter Classic game in Pittsburgh, and this…

Like so much in the history of the Washington Capitals, there is a “what might have been” aspect to Semyon Varlamov's career in Washington.  He is the perfect goaltender for Team V.

Team V is a team that lacks a certain level of experience with just 775 games played with the Caps among the six members of the club. Not every team can be highly skilled, well experienced, or even well known.  This is a team that had its moments as individuals.  But "V" might have stood for "very short," as in the time they exhibited those flashes of play.