Sunday, May 31, 2020

Peerless Playback: The All-Alphabet Team, "The N Team"

The All-Alphabet Team turns its attention to “All-Team N.”  Back in 2014, when we published this team, the roster looked like this:
  • LW: Paul Nicholson (1974-1977)
  • C: Michael Nylander (2002-2004, 2007-2009)
  • RW: Andrei Nikolishin (1996-2002)
  • D: Lee Norwood (1982-1983)
  • D: Lawrence Nycholat (2006-2007)
  • G: Michal Neuvirth (2009-2014)

This is a bit of an odd team in that it has little in the way of experience with the Capitals as a group.  Combined, the five skaters dressed for 707 regular season games for the Caps.  There are 11 players in Caps history who have played more regular season games than this entire squad.  There are 36 players in team history to have played more than the 41 postseason games this group combined to play.  And, the majority of those regular season and postseason games were played by a single player – forward Andrei Nikolishin (407 regular season games, 32 postseason games).  Three of the skaters each dressed for less than a season’s worth of regular season games: Paul Nicholson (62 games), Lee Norwood (34) and Lawrence Nycholat (18).

Unsurprisingly, Nikolishin dominates the production numbers for this group, scoring 58 of the 108 goals posted by the group, and recording 171 of the 337 points.  Only Michael Nylander among the other skaters has more than 100 games with the Caps (186), more than ten goals (37), and more than 20 points (128).  And he needed two tours with the Caps to compile those numbers (2002-2003 to 2003-2004 and 2007-2008 to 2008-2009).

It would seem that this group of skaters would be particular susceptible to replacements from among the post-2014 Capitals skating roster.  Unfortunately, the crop from which such replacements might be harvested is thin.  Only two skaters since the summer of 2014 have last names starting with the letter “N” – defensemen Aaron Ness and Matt Niskanen. 

It would be hard to make a case for Ness to be installed on the roster.  His 18 games as a Capital match that of Nycholat on the blue line, but where Nycholat had two goals and eight points in those 18 games, Ness had three points, all assists.  There is also the matter of ice time, Nycholat averaging 20:32 per game in his 18 appearances, while Ness averaged only 12:35.

Matt Niskanen, on the other hand, is clearly a replacement for Nycholat.  Niskanen played in 390 regular season games for the Caps, going 29-127-156, plus-58, and averaged almost 23 minutes per game.  Those 390 games played rank 15th in team history among defensemen, while his goal total ranks 13th, and his point total ranks 14th.  To those totals he added another 70 postseason games for Washington (sixth among defensemen in Caps history), going 2-20-22 (tied for 14th in goals, eighth in points), plus-7, and averaging almost 25 minutes per game.

In goal, Michal Neuvirth was the pick in 2014.  He was then, and he remains a top-ten goalie in many statistical categories in team history: games played (134/ninth), wins (59/ninth), goals against average (2.67/seventh among goalies with at least 25 games with the Caps), save percentage (.910/sixth in that same group), and shutouts (seven/tied for sixth).  It would have to be a goalie with a significant record since 2014 to replace Neuvirth on this roster.

If there were only one who might be eligible.  It is another case of there being no suitable replacements, none whose last names starts with the letter “N.”  Neuvirth remains as the goaltender of choice for this squad.

What we are left with in the re-worked All-Team N is a team that resembles, in some respects, an expansion team, at least insofar as their experience with the Caps suggests.  Not much in terms of tenure, lack of top-end skill, a team that might depend more on guile and effort than anything else.  Neuvirth might have seen a lot of rubber backstopping this team.  

Monday, May 25, 2020

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- May 26

When looking back on days in Washington Capitals history and if they might have happened differently had certain things happened or not, it is not just a matter of looking back at a game or a player acquisition.  Sometimes, it is a matter of management. 

The Capitals have a long and winding history with their coaches and general managers.  Consider the first pair of front office leaders, general manager Milt Schmidt and head coach Jimmy Anderson.  Schmidt, the first Capitals GM, built an impressive resume as a player (part of the “Kraut Line” for the Boston Bruins that won two Stanley Cups), coach (760 regular and postseason games with the Bruins), and GM (architect of two Bruin championship teams in the 1970’s).  With the Caps, things were a bit different.  Well on their way to a season of historic futility in their inaugural campaign as an expansion team, Schmidt was reduced to pleading for help to improve the talent level on the ice. 

Meanwhile, behind the bench, Anderson was struggling to make the Capitals something other than a punch line.  It was a losing battle.  Anderson lasted 54 games, compiling a record of 4-45-5.  On the road, his team went 0-28-0.  That is not a misprint.  The Caps allowed more than six goals per game on the road and were shutout four times in those 28 road games.  Only two of the losses were of the one-goal variety.  Not once in the 28 road games did they take a lead into the third period.  They sucked.

Anderson would be succeeded by Red Sullivan, himself a veteran of six seasons as a head coach (four with the New York Rangers, two with the Pittsburgh Penguins).  He fared little better than Anderson, going 2-16-0, and had some interesting experiences in his brief tenure.  Seeing the wreckage strewn across the landscape under Anderson an Sullivan, Schmidt took over the team as head coach for the team’s last eight games and scraped together a 2-6-0 record.  He returned to the front office after that first season, but he was let go the following season.  It was, all things considered, not a happy memory.   

It would be the creaky, brittle foundation of Capitals on and off ice management that plagued the team in those early years.  The Caps were relatively settled in the front office with Max McNab succeeding Schmidt as GM, but the Caps went through seven head coaches over 574 games with a combined record of 138-347-89 before bringing in Bryan Murray in November 1981.  Murray spent eight and a half seasons behind the Capitals’ bench, posting a regular season record of 343-246-83, his win total still most by a head coach in team history.  And, he was the first jack Adams Award winner in team history as the league’s top coach (1983-1984).  But Murray could not get the Caps over the hump in the postseason, posting a disappointing 24-29 record in seven trips to the playoffs.  Only three times in those seven postseasons did the Caps advance as far as the second round, and never further.

Murray’s frustration, and by extension that of Roger Crozier and David Poile, who were general managers during the period, would be a common thread for the Caps for more than three decades.  Starting with Murray, the Caps would employ nine head coaches who combined for a regular season record of 1232-969, with 323 ties and overtime losses. 

But it is also a group than combined for a lackluster 96-116 record in 212 postseason games, only twice (to the third round under Terry Murray in 1990 and to the Stanley Cup final in 1998 under Ron Wilson) advancing past the second round.  Neither David Poile, nor his successor George McPhee, could find the formula as general manager to put the players on the ice to replicate the success in the postseason that Caps teams had on a more consistent basis in the regular season.  The Caps were perpetually the club that could do well, occasionally very well, in the regular season, but always came up short in the spring.

And that brings us to May 26, 2014.

The Capitals had just completed a disappointing 2013-2014 season, failing to make the playoffs for the first time (and still only time) since 2008.  They finished fifth in the Metropolitan Division and ninth in the Eastern Conference, three points short of a wild-card berth in the postseason.  It cost general manager George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates their jobs in late April.  

A month to the day after the departures of McPhee and Oates, the Caps named their replacements – Brian MacLellan to take over as GM and Barry Trotz as the new bench boss.  The hiring of MacLellan might have seemed a surprise to those who expected a more thorough house-cleaning.  He had just completed his 13th season in the organization as a pro scout, director of player personnel, and assistant general manager under McPhee.  The Trotz hiring might have been something of a surprise as well.  After McPhee dismissed head coach Ron Wilson at the end of the 2001-2002 season, he embarked on a journey that saw him hire five head coaches over the next ten seasons, all of them in their first NHL posting as a head coach (Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, and Oates).  Barry Trotz was the opposite of that in terms of experience, having spent 15 seasons as the only head coach in Nashville Predators history.  But he was dismissed after the 2013-2014 season, having missed the playoffs for a second straight year and, like the Capitals, finding it difficult to advance deep in the playoffs when he had the opportunity.  Only twice in seven playoff years did his teams advance to a second round, and never further.

Over the next four weeks, MacLellan and Trotz filled out the management roster, naming Ross Mahoney assistant general manager, Todd Reirden and Lane Lambert as assistant coaches, and Mitch Korn as goaltending coach.  And then, MacLellan went to work on retooling the roster.  In the space of 25 days to start July 2014, he signed 12 players to contracts, among them free agents Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen from Pittsburgh, and Caps 2014 first round draft pick Jakub Vrana.

Not all of MacLellan’s moves bore fruit.  Signing Justin Peters as a backup to Braden Holtby in July 2014 did not work out as planned, nor did his trading for Tim Gleason and Curtis Glencross in the stretch run of the 2014-2015 season, or his trading for Kevin Shattenkirk in what was hoped for as the last piece needed for a championship in 2017 (the Caps were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round).  But he did pull the trigger on trades bringing T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller to Washington, and he re-upped players such as Braden Holtby, Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Philipp Grubauer and Dmitry Orlov.  He brought in free agents Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson.  When he traded a third round draft pick to Chicago for defenseman Michal Kempny in February 2018, it was viewed at the time as a relatively minor deal.  However, it might have been the “last piece” the Caps have long tried to find, Kempny doing much to settle the defensive pairings as the Caps marched to the Stanley Cup later that spring.

Meanwhile, Barry Trotz was trying to shed his history of early playoff failure, and he was having a rough time doing it.  He won his first postseason series as a Capitals head coach, beating the New York Islanders in a seven-game opening round series.  However, Trotz and the Caps were eliminated by the New York Rangers in a seven-game second round series, touching off a string of three straight seasons in which the Caps would be eliminated in the second round, twice by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Penguins. 

The third time was not the charm for Trotz or the Caps, but the fourth time was.  In his fourth trip to the postseason with Washington, Trotz managed the players largely assembled by MacLellan, was assisted by Lambert, Reirden, and Korn (and holdover Blaine Forsythe), and the organization won the Stanley Cup it was long denied, going through the hated Penguins on the way.

Of the 20 players to dress for the Capitals in their Stanley Cup-clinching game against the Vegas Golden Knights on June 7, 2018, all but five (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Chandler Stephenson, John Carlson, and Jay Beagle) were personnel decisions taken by MacLellan:
  • Unrestricted free agents (4): Brett Connolly, Devante Smith-Pelly, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen
  • Trades (3): Michal Kempny, Lars Eller, T.J. Oshie
  • Re-signings (7): Dmitry Orlov, Christian Djoos, Tom Wilson, Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Braden Holtby, Philipp Grubauer
  • Entry-level contract (1): Jakub Vrana

Each of the other five skaters to appear in the postseason for the Caps were MacLellan personnel actions as well (Jakub Jerabek, Nathan Walker, Shane Gersich, Travis Boyd, Alex Chiasson). 

It took four years and change, but the seeds planted on May 26, 2014 did, finally, bear fruit.  Ponder what might have happened if the Caps went in a different direction.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- May 25

The Washington Capitals spent many of their first 23 seasons fighting futility.  There was that of the expansion squad that failed to win as many as 30 games in a season or make the playoffs over their first eight seasons.  There was that of the Capitals who reached the postseason in 14 of the next 15 seasons, but reaching as far as the third round of the playoffs only once, in 1990 when they were swept by the Boston Bruins.

And then came 1998.  Caps fans will remember that as the first time that the Capitals reached the Stanley Cup finals, propelled there on an overtime goal by Joe Juneau in overtime of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Buffalo Sabres. 

However, we might ask ourselves if there even would have been a Game 6 but for an outcome earlier in the series.  Remember that the schedule had the Caps hosting Games 1 and 2 at MCI Center (now Capital One Arena).  They fell flat in the opener, Dominik Hasek pitching a 19-save shutout in a 2-0 Sabres win.  A loss in Game 2 would have sent the teams to Buffalo where the Sabres could have ended the series almost before it started.

For the Caps, losing Game 1 on home ice in a playoff series was a rather uncommon occurrence.  It was only the third time in 13 instances of opening a playoff series on home ice that they lost.  What they had never done, though, was lose both Games 1 and 2 on home ice.  But that is what they faced when they took the ice to host the Sabres on May 25, 1998.  It was an even bigger game for the special fan who joined the crowd, the President of the United States.  He and the crowd would be treated to one of the more controversial games in Capitals postseason history. 

When the first period was winding down with neither team scoring, it looked as if it might be a replay of Game 1 in which the teams went to the first intermission scoreless.  But in the final minute, the Caps failed to clear the puck out of their own end.  Dixon Ward kept the puck in just inside the offensive blue line, spun, and fired a shot at the Caps’ net.  The puck was muffled in the slot, where it ended up on the stick of Vaclav Varada.  Joe Reekie could not sweep the puck away from Varada, and the Buffalo forward snapped a shot past the blocker of goalie Olaf Kolzig to give Buffalo a 1-0 lead with 58 seconds left in the period.

The teams skated through almost the entire middle period without another goal scored, a matter than no doubt added to the frustration the Capitals were having trying to solve Hasek.  And that brings us to the first, but by no means the last controversial moment of the game.  Caps defenseman Phil Housley collected the puck at the top of the right wing circle with the clock ticking under a minute to play in the period.  He snapped a shot at the Sabres’ net where Peter Bondra was lurking.  Fending off defenseman Bob Boughner, Bondra got his stick on the puck as it was passing through, popping it up and over Hasek’s glove.  The puck settled over the goal line to tie the game, but there were two questions about the play.  One, was Bondra’s deflection a high stick violation, over the height of the crossbar when he made contact with the puck?  Two, did Bondra interfere with Hasek in the crease and prevent Hasek from cleanly playing the shot?  You be the judge…

The goal was counted, and the Caps tied the game, 1-1, heading into the second intermission. 

Washington took a 2-1 lead in the 15th minute of the third period on a goal by Joe Juneau, but it was what happened a minute after the goal that was controversial, from the Sabres’ point of view, and entertaining, from the perspective of the Caps fan.

With the puck sliding down the boards into the Sabres’ end, Hasek moved out to play it at the edge of the faceoff circle along the boards.  Peter Bondra challenged Hasek, who tried to chip the puck back, past Bondra and off the boards to Jason Wooley trailing the play.  He managed to do so, just as Bondra collided with him in the corner.  Hasek, incensed at being run over, hurled his blocker at Bondra.  Play stopped shortly thereafter as players came together at center ice to discuss the matter.

Buffalo got a measure of revenge and put the fear of losing back into the hearts of Caps fans with a power play goal with 57 seconds left to tie the game, the third time in this game that a goal was scored in the final minute of play in a period.  The teams went to overtime with the Caps in jeopardy of going down 0-2 in games on home ice.

It would not take 19 minutes and change in the overtime for the next goal to be scored, though.  Wooley chased down a loose puck behind the Sabres’ net and tried to send it around the corner and up the boards.  Andrei Nikolishin cut off that avenue for the Caps and settled the puck in the corner to Hasek’s left.  Stepping out of the corner, Nikolishin was tripped by Darryl Shannon, but he managed to backhand a centering feed to Todd Krygier in the slot.  Krygier fired low on Hasek’s glove side and found the back of the net for the game-winner.

That play was not without its own last bit of controversy, though.  Wooley went back to retrieve the puck behind the net after Hasek let it go, thinking there was an icing call that was going to be made against the Caps on the play.  The call was never made, play continued, and the Caps had their series-tying game-winning goal moments later.  

It would be the first of three overtime wins for the Caps in that Eastern Conference semi-final series against the Sabres, the Caps also needing overtime in Game 3 in Buffalo before winning the series on Juneau’s overtime goal in Game 6 of the series to send the Caps to their first Stanley Cup final.  But Joe Juneau’s legendary heroics in that Game 6 might never have come to pass without Todd Krygier putting an exclamation point on one of the most bizarre games in Capitals playoff history.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Peerless Playback: The All-Alphabet Team, "The M Team"

Our look back at the All-alphabet Team for the Washington Capitals reaches the half-way point in the alphabet with All-Team M.  When we published the original squad in 2014, the roster was:
  • LW: Kelly Miller
  • C: Dennis Maruk
  • RW: Alan May
  • D: Shaone Morrisonn
  • D: Larry Murphy
  • G: Bob Mason

This is a team that had something for everyone.  There was the plucky, hard-working winger who combined timely offense with strong defense (Miller), one of the most prolific goal scorers in Caps history (Maruk), the very epitome of “truculence (May),” the “stay-at-home” defenseman (Morrisonn), the “offensive” defenseman (Murphy), and, what makes this a truly Caps club, the young goalie upon whom fate looked unkindly in the biggest moment (Mason).

This is another squad dominated by players arriving in DC from elsewhere.  Miller was drafted by the New York Rangers before being traded to the Caps.  Maruk was drafted by the California Golden Seals, the first of three teams for whom he would play before coming to Washington.  May was an undrafted free agent signing by the Boston Bruins before going to Edmonton and then Los Angeles before becoming a Capital.  Morrisonn was a first round draft pick of the Boston Bruins before he was traded to the Caps. Murphy was likewise a first round pick, then of the Los Angeles Kings before he was traded to Washington. 

Despite their coming to the Caps from other places, the skaters do have a considerable body of work with the Caps.  All five skaters dressed for more regular season games with the Caps than did for any other team for which they played.  Combined, the five skaters total 2,458 regular season games, and account for 466 goals and 1,315 points.  When Maruk posted 60 goals in 1981-1982 for the Caps he became the first player in team history to accomplish the feat and the seventh to do it at least once in NHL history. 

When Miller’s career ended with the Caps after the 1998-1999 season, he was the team leader in games played for the franchise (940) and was a Selke Trophy finalist as best defensive forward (1991-1992).

Despite appearing in only 345 games with the Caps, May ranked third in franchise history in penalty minutes (1,189; behind only Dale Hunter (1,460) and Scott Stevens (1,628)) when he departed in 1994 in a trade with the Dallas Stars.

When Murphy was traded by the Caps to the Minnesota North Stars in 1989, he left as the second-leading point-getter among defensemen in team history (345, trailing only Scott Stevens (389)).

Even Morrisonn, who might be the least renowned of this group, had one third of the nine goals he scored as a Capital be game-winners.

In goal, Bob Mason had a brief career with the Caps (five years, 76 regular season and four postseason games after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 1984), but he might be the first tragic figure in the Caps’ long journey of postseason frustration.  Here was a goalie who pitched a shutout in his first playoff appearance, a 26-save effort in a 2-0 win over the New York Islanders in Game 3 of the 1987 Patrick Division semi-final.  He followed that up the next night by stopping 25 of 26 shots in a 4-1 win over the Isles in Game 4 of that series to give the Caps a 3-1 series lead.  Both of those wins came on the road.  Pete Peeters, who started Games 1 and 2 at home, got the call in Game 5 and lost, gave way to Mason once more on the road in Game 6.  It did not go well, the Caps losing, 5-4, to force a Game 7 in Washington.  It was an epic.  On Easter.  An “Easter Epic,” if you will.  Despite making 54 saves on 56 shots in more than 128 minutes and into a fourth overtime, it was the 57th shot that eluded him, a Pat LaFontaine shot that clanged off the post to Mason’s left and in to send the Caps into the night, disappointed.

But back to the business at hand.  If you are thinking of replacements on All-Team M among players to dress for the Caps since this team was published in 2014, you do not have much from which to pick.  Only two skaters have dressed for the Caps since then whose last names begin with the letter “M” – forwards Beck Malenstyn and Garrett Mitchell.  Between them they have four games played, no points, and both averaged less than ten minutes of ice time in their brief stays with the club.  Neither make an argument to crack this lineup.

Still, two skaters are two more players as potential replacement than there are potential replacement goalies for All-Team M.  There are no suitable replacements available among the five goalies to dress for the Caps since the original team was published in 2014.

So, All-Team M is another team that remains intact from its original release in 2014.  It is among the most versatile of teams with players that bring their own unique gifts to the ice to a degree that both individually and as a group is uncommon among the alphabet teams.  And perhaps with this group, Bob Mason might not have to endure in goal the disappointment of his “epic” night in Caps history.