Sunday, October 04, 2015

Washington Capitals: Five Questions for 2015-2016, Part II

Our second big question for this season concerns whether the Washington Capitals can successfully fill critical spots from within as players depart.

One of the things that characterizes the Chicago Blackhawks in their current era of excellence is their ability to remake themselves.  That has been a product of necessity, salary cap limits and players who were coming up for raises after successful campaigns requiring the parting of ways with the Hawks.

It happened after the 2010 Cup-winning season, when the Blackhawks lost seven players – Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Colin Fraser, Andrew Ladd, and Antti Niemi – generally as a concession to their cap situation.  Chicago won again in 2013, but then they lost Michael Frolik, Dave Bolland, and Viktor Stalberg.  After winning a third Cup in six seasons last spring, the Blackhawks find themselves in the same situation now, having lost Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp.

What the Blackhawks have not done is tamper with their core – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith.  They have managed to fill in around that core very effectively.  Much of that has come from within, either new players sliding into the lineup or players assuming larger roles – Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Bryan Bickell, Marcus Kruger among them.

The Washington Capitals have not had nearly the success enjoyed by the Blackhawks, but they, too, are in the position of having to fill spots left open by players moving off to other teams.  Three players come to mind here, all Capitals draft picks – John Carlson, Andre Burakovsky, and Tom Wilson.  All are expected to assume expanded roles or fill in for departed players.

John Carlson has been slowly incorporating more responsibility into his game for a few years now.  Last season he was the team leader in minutes per game and finished the season among the best in the NHL in a number of statistical categories.  He was the team leader in even strength ice time per game and shorthanded ice time per game among defensemen for the Caps.  The one area in which he had not yet assumed the clear number one role on the blueline was quarterback on the power play. 

Now, with Mike Green departing for the greener pastures of Red Wing hockey (three-year/$18 million contract with Detroit), Carlson is going to get his shot at quarterbacking what has been the league’s best power play over the last three years (24.9 percent overall, first-ranked in two of those seasons, second by one one-hundredth of a percent in the other).  Carlson was a more efficient player than Green last season in producing power play points (16 in 142 minutes versus 17 in 199 minutes for Green), but he is going to get the best penalty killers that opponents can offer, looking to deny his teeing up Alex Ovechkin for one-timers from the left wing circle.  Assuming this responsibility means that for John Carlson, the job of number one defenseman is his job in full now.

Precocious rookie.  In Chicago, that role went to Teuvo Teravainen last season.  A former 18th overall draft pick in 2012, he went 4-5-9 in 34 games with the Blackhawks in the regular season, then followed it up with four goals and ten points in 18 post season games.  For the Caps, it was Andre Burakovsky.  The former 23rd overall pick in the 2013 draft surprised many by making the parent club out of training camp and scoring the team’s first goal of the season on his way to a 9-13-22 season in 53 games.  He followed that up with a pair of goals and three points in 11 postseason games. 

This season, Burakovsky is expected to assume a more expansive role.  He seems targeted for either the second line left wing or the third line center, although it seems likely he will be the second line center until Nicklas Backstrom returns to the lineup, and Evgeny Kuznetsov slides down a rung in the middle.

At times, it was hard to remember that Burakovsky was a 19-year old rookie.  He had a fine start to the season, and his postseason was uncommon for one as young as he was.  Then again, he was assigned to Hershey six times last season, the last time to participate in the Bears’ postseason run.  Not that he played a lot in Hershey (13 regular season games and one playoff game).  Many of the reassignments were “paper” transactions of a short term nature, but this year he will be expected to appear in more than the 53 games in which he played for the Caps last season.  But, let us keep in mind, too, that he is still just a 20-year old.  In the post 2004-2005 lockout era, 19 forwards in their 20-year old year recorded 50 or more points, less than two a year and never more than three in any one season.  If there are Caps fans out there thinking Burakovsky is going to be one of them, he is swimming upstream against recent history.  But he should be a significant contributor.  It is likely he will have to be for the Caps to be successful.

Tom Wilson is not your average 16th overall draft pick.  He is one of five players in the post 2004-2005 lockout era to record at least 300 penalty minutes in his first two seasons.  None of the other four were drafted higher than the third round or 73rd overall.  On the other hand, he is fifth in his 2012 draft class in games played (149), 14th in goals scored (7), and 11th in points (27), all rankings above his selection point (16th overall).

This season, Wilson could amend the definition of “power” forward as it applies to him.  Although the club obtained T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams to address perceived weaknesses on the right side of the forward squad, Wilson could slide into the third-line slot formerly occupied by Joel Ward, now of the San Jose Sharks.  In that position, there is going to be less emphasis on the power of his fists (26 fighting majors in two seasons) and more on muscling his way into scoring areas and improving his point production.

The age thing applies to Wilson as much as it does to Burakovsky.  He will be entering his 21-year old age year with the Caps.  In the last ten seasons, 14 right wingers have appeared in 70 or more games and recorded 30 or more points in their 21-year old year.  It would be a stretch for Wilson to make it 15, but making progress as an all-around contributor is the object of this season for Wilson.

In a salary-capped world, the ability of a team to bring new players into roles left open by players departing for better compensation is a key to sustained success.  The Chicago Blackhawks have perfected this technique in the last half-dozen seasons.  If the Capitals are to replicate the success of the Blackhawks, they are going to need to have players assume more responsible roles and make bigger contributions.  Key to that will be how John Carlson, Andre Burakovsky, and Tom Wilson – all former first-round draft picks by the club – improve on their performance to date.

Washington Capitals: Five Questions for 2015-2016, Part I

As Opening Night of the 2015-2016 NHL season approaches, there are questions, questions, questions about the Washington Capitals.  We are going to take a look at five that we have.

Can the Capitals manage expectations?

If you peruse the preseason prognostifying, the consensus appears to be that the Capitals are a conference-final caliber team.  Only the Tampa Bay Lightning are consistently ranked ahead of the Caps in the Eastern Conference.  The last time the Capitals were this much a darling of the hockey intelligentsia was in 2010.  For example, looking at the staff predictions for 2010, nine of 15 of the prognosticators picked the Caps to win it all.  They famously did not

That 2010 team was still young; the team’s core was still 25 years of age or younger.  This year’s team does not have quite the same burden of expectations as that 2010 team, but it is one that is perhaps better equipped to deal with the level of expectations they will bear.  First, it is an older, more experienced team.  Sure, they have endured a number of playoff disappointments since that early 2010 early exit against Montreal, but with age comes a certain maturity and sense of urgency.  Alex Ovechkin turned 30 years of age a few weeks ago.  Nicklas Backstrom will turn 28 in November.  Karl Alzner just turned 27. These are players squarely in their prime.  Put another way, they can see the top of their respective career summits from here, and there might not be as many chances in front of them to win a championship as might have been the case three or four years ago.

Second, this team is more balanced than perhaps any team in this era of Capitals hockey.  It is not as top-heavy an offense/forward oriented team as the 2010 edition.  The defensive top-four of Alzner, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Brooks Orpik has 2,179 games of regular season and an additional 271 games of postseason experience.  We talked about the importance of an experienced top-four on defense back before that 2009-2010 season, particularly in its relationship to a Cup winner.  Part of what such experience provides is a sense of perspective, in being able to manage expectations to keep from too-high highs and too-low lows.

Third, the Caps have their best goaltender since Olaf Kolzig was in his prime.  Braden Holtby is certainly better than any goaltender the Caps have employed in the current, post 2004-2005 lockout era.  Having such goaltending is not sufficient to winning a Stanley Cup (see: “Lundqvist, Henrik”).  But it could be a necessary condition.  Of the last ten Stanley Cup Champions, seven of the number one goaltenders in those postseasons posted a save percentage of .920 or greater in the postseason, four of those times a save percentage of .930 or greater.  In those same ten postseasons, those same number one goaltenders posted goals against averages of less than 2.00 five times. 

In three postseasons, Braden Holtby has been over .920 in save percentage all three years (over .930 twice, including a league best .944 last spring).  He has been under 2.00 in goals against average twice, including a league best 1.71 last spring.  Among goalies appearing in at least 20 playoff games over the past four postseasons, Holtby and Tuukka Rask are the only ones with a combined goals against average of less than 2.00 (both at 1.92) and a save percentage over .930 (both at .936).  What is more, he has been consistently good.  He ranks fourth over the last four postseasons in games in which he allowed fewer than two goals (15), playing barely half (34) of the games played by the three goalies ahead of him (Lundqvist, Corey Crawford, and Jonathan Quick).  He is fifth in games in which he posted a save percentage over .930. 

Fourth, the Caps were more aggressive in addressing shortcomings as an off-season task than as a trading deadline effort.  This is perhaps the biggest difference between the regime of George McPhee as general manager and that of Brian MacLellan to date.  In each of the last two off-seasons, MacLellan aggressively filled holes, last season by signing free agent defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, this summer by trading for T.J. Oshie and signing free agent Justin Williams to shore up a weak right side among the forwards.  What is more, those four players bring more than 3,000 regular season and playoff games of experience into this season.  Orpik and Niskanen had a full slate of regular season games to integrate themselves into the Caps system; Oshie and Williams will have that opportunity this season. 

Maturity, urgency, balance, goaltending and defense, experience, assimilation.  All contribute to a club that could be, if not the most talented from a skills standpoint to withstand the rigors of a long regular season and a grueling playoff tournament, then perhaps the most prepared team in the history of this franchise to face the level of expectations set forth for them.

Washington Capitals 2015-2016 Previews -- Goaltenders: Braden Holtby

Braden Holtby

“When I have reached a summit, I leave it with great reluctance, unless it is to reach for another, higher one.”
-- Gustav Mahler

Maybe it’s the…turkey.  Braden Holtby has appeared in 178 regular season games in his five-year career.  He really has two different performance profiles, separated by, of all things, Thanksgiving.  In 41 career games before Turkey Day, Holtby is 19-15-5, 2.65, .914, with two shutouts.  After the bird, stuffing, cranberries, and pumpkin pie, he is 82-36-13, 2.38, .923, with 18 shutouts.

Things were not much different in 2014-2015.  Before Thanksgiving, Holtby was 7-5-3, 2.28, .915, with one shutout.  He did not win more than two consecutive decisions in 16 appearances.  After Thanksgiving was another story. Holtby was 34-15-7, 2.20, .925, with eight shutouts, and seven times in his 56 appearances he had three consecutive wins.

It started with his going on a tear in December.  After going 1-2-0 in three appearances after Thanksgiving, Holtby had a 19-appearance span, from December 4th through January 14th, in which he went 14-1-4, 1.88, .938, with three shutouts, one of those wins being a 33-save effort in the Caps’ 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Winter Classic at Nationals Park.  Only twice in his last 54 appearances of the season did Holtby lose consecutive games in regulation, losing three in a row, February 22-27, then losing consecutive games in regulation, March 11-13.

Holtby’s 2014-2015 season was one that Caps fans might have drawn up, if not anticipated.  He struggled some early, perhaps owing to a new goaltending coach, Mitch Korn.  However, the light came on over Holtby’s head in terms of what wisdom Korn was imparting after that sluggish start, and coupled with his own natural development as a still-young goaltender, he pieced together one of the best seasons by any goaltender in 2014-2015.  He finished among the top netminders in the league in a variety of categories:
  • Games: 73 (1st)
  • Minutes: 4,247 (1st)
  • Wins: 41 (T-2nd)
  • Goals Against Average: 2.22 (5th)
  • Save Percentage: .923 (8th)
  • Shutouts: 9 (T-2nd)
  • Save Percentage, even strength: .929 (10th; minimum: 41 games)
  • Save Percentage, shorthanded: .889 (8th, minimum: 41 games)

It was a season that was eerily similar to the season Olaf Kolzig had for the Caps in 1999-2000, his Vezina Trophy-winning year:

It was also a season in which Holbty set or nearly set a number of club records:
  • Games: 73 (T-1st, Kolzig 1999-2000)
  • Wins: 41 (T-1st, Kolzig 1999-2000)
  • Minutes: 4,247 (3rd)
  • Goals Against Average: 2.22 (2nd, minimum 50 games)
  • Save Percentage: .923 (1st, minimum 50 games)
  • Shutouts: 9 (T-1st, Carey 1995-1996)

In putting together his season, Holtby became just the third goaltender since the 2004-2005 lockout to appear in at least 70 games, post a goals against average of less than 2.25, finish with a save percentage of at least .920, and record nine or more shutouts (Miikka Kiprusoff in 2005-2006 and Martin Brodeur in 2006-2007 were the others).

Fearless’ Take…

Best goals against (1.71), best save percentage (.944), second best even strength save percentage (.943), best shorthanded save percentage (.947).  And still, with all that, Holtby still finished just 6-7 in the post season last spring.  He is the only goaltender in the post 2005-2006 era to have appeared in at least 20 postseason games, posted a goals against average of less than 2.00 (1.92) and a save percentage of better than .930 (.936).  And, he has two shutouts on top of that.  And still, his win-loss record is 16-18.

And if anything, his second round performances have been better than his first round games.  In first round playoff games, Holtby is 10-10, 1.97, .935, with one shutout.  In second round games he is 6-8, 1.85, .937, with one shutout.  The Hockey Gods owe Braden Holtby.

Cheerless’ Take…

As long as we’re talkin’ playoffs, cuz, maybe what the Hockey Gods owe is for the Caps to close out series in five or fewer games.  In Games 1-5 across five postseason series, Holtby is 13-11, 1.78, .941, with two shutouts.  In Games 6 and 7 over those same five postseason series, he is 3-7, 2.26, .922 and no shutouts.  Now, some of that is that stinker of a Game 7 he had in 2013 against the Rangers when he gave up five goals on the first 22 shots he faced in a 5-0 loss.  He has allowed only six goals in four other Games 7.  But it is always something with this team.

The Big Question… Braden Holtby had an elite season, but is he now an elite goaltender?

If you are going to consider the question of whether Braden Holtby is an elite goaltender, it might be helpful to consider the path he has taken and how that compares to those goalies to whom he might be compared.  So, let’s take a look at Holtby’s 178-game career to date and compare that with some who might be widely considered as “elite” and their first 178 games:

Clearly, he is on a path to “elite,” compared to the same span of games to start his career as others in that category.  However, while his early career has been impressive, especially in the context of the current era, he has been the unchallenged number one goaltender for only one of his five seasons to date.  Not all of that is his doing, his 2013-2014 season spoiled by ineffective management of his game by then head coach Adam Oates.  Still, there is the faint notion of “do it one more time” hovering about before he could be firmly called “elite.” 

In the end…

From the time Olaf Kolzig put the Caps on his shoulders and carried them to the Stanley Cup final in 1998 until Braden Holtby appeared in his first post season game, six goaltenders manned the crease for the Capitals, including Kolzig.  It was not an especially noteworthy part of Capitals playoff history.  Combined, the sextet of Kolzig, Cristobal Huet, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, Jose Theodore, and Craig Billington went 22-32, 2.59, .906, with five shutouts. They were a combined 12-22 in one-goal games.

Holtby is the goaltender the Caps have not had, at least in the postseason, since Kolzig’s big year in 1998.  There is still the matter of how he does late in postseason series, but then again, he is tied for 19th among NHL goalies in total playoff games played since 2005-2006.  The games played statistic is an interesting one for Holtby.  It is entirely likely that by the time this year’s postseason ends, he will be the all-time franchise leader in playoff games played; Kolzig appeared in 45 games in his career, Holtby has appeared in 34 to date. 

You could say that unless he shatters that mark, this will have been a disappointing season for him and for the Caps.  Unlike previous seasons and previous goaltenders, though, Holtby should not have to bear an outsized share of the burden to carry the Caps into and through the postseason.  The team around him is deep, experienced, and skilled.  That – and having a goaltender on the cusp of “elite” status – are luxuries with which the club and its fans have not been well acquainted over the history of the franchise. 

At an individual level, the talent surrounding him should allow Holtby to focus on his game, not on having to be the best player on the ice for the Caps, as he was for many games last season.  With that burden lifted, he might find that he is just as often the best player on the ice and perhaps the best goaltender in the league.  Another summit to reach for.

Projection: 39-19-6, 2.23, .922, six shutouts

Photo: Joel Auerbach/Getty Images North America