Monday, June 29, 2020

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

We are almost at the end of our “Peerless Playback” of the All-Alphabet team.  We now take a look back at “All-Team S” that was published in August 2014.  That team looked like this
  • LW: Alexander Semin (2003-2012)
  • C: David Steckel (2005-2011)
  • RW: Bob Sirois (1975-1980)
  • D: Neil Sheehy (1988-1990)
  • D: Scott Stevens (1982-1990)
  • G: Wayne Stephenson (1979-1981)

All-Team S has the distinction of being perhaps the most intriguing team of the alphabet teams.  It has elite-levels scoring (Alexander Semin), solid secondary scoring up front (Bob Sirois) and in the back (Scott Stevens), solid defense (David Steckel), and a physical edge (Neil Sheehy).  The intriguing part is that while there are a number of significant boxes checked on what makes a competitive team, All-Team S might be less than the sum of its parts.  Semin was an elite talent, but he was mercurial, capable of disappearing in some games.  Steckel, a fine defensive center, penalty killer, and faceoff specialist, lacked the playmaking skill one usually likes to see at the position.  Sirois had his only two 20-plus goal scoring years as a Capital, but he labored for weak teams.  Sheehy, who played only 131 games in Washington before being caught up in an off-ice incident, was a formidable defensive defenseman with limited offensive contributions, but he posted only one point in 21 career postseason games with the Caps.  Stevens might be the most well-rounded defenseman ever to play for the Caps, but his legend was built after he left the team as a free agent (and he, too, was caught up in the same incident as Sheehy).

Then there is the cast of potential replacements for this team among players who dressed for the team after the summer of 2014.  This is a rich pool, ten players whose last names start with the letter “S.”  Five of them are forwards (Zach Sanford, Mike Sgarbossa, Zach Sill, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Chandler Stephenson), while the other five are defensemen (Cameron Schilling, Nate Schmidt, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jonas Siegenthaler, and Ryan Stanton).  Three of this group of ten dressed for more than 100 regular season games and more than 20 postseason games as Capitals – Schmidt, Smith-Pelly, and Stephenson.

However, there is a “close, but no cigar” aspect to the potential replacements.  While Smith-Pelly has a fine postseason resume with the Caps, he was not a particularly productive player in the regular season.  He comes close, but we are not inclined to have him replace Sirois at right wing.  Stephenson was a player who might be described as “plucky,” and his offensive production on a per-game basis was similar to Steckel’s, but Steckel was the superior defensive player and merits retention at center on the All-Team S on a close call.

That leaves a potential Schmidt-for-Sheehy swap among the skaters.  Schmidt was not the stay-at-home sort that Sheehy was for the Caps, nor did he play with Sheehy’s physical edge (475 penalty minutes in 131 regular season games), but he more than made up for it by being a more productive player in the offensive end of the ice (8-35-43 in 200 games with the Caps versus 4-9-13 in 131 games for Sheehy).

In goal, Wayne Stephenson was a capable veteran (three seasons in St. Louis and five more in Philadelphia) before he arrived in Washington to wrap up his career with a pair of seasons as a Capital.  He had the misfortune of tending goal for teams that did not reach the 30-win mark in either of his seasons.  Despite the struggles, Stephenson had middle-of-the-road numbers, with a cumulative 3.66 goals against average and .876 save percentage over those two seasons (ranked 18th and 17th, respectively among 32 goalies appearing in at least 50 games).  It would be fair to say he outperformed his team.

As far as a replacement goes, the candidate is rookie goalie Ilya Samsonov.  Samsonov and Stephenson represent different ends of the development spectrum, the former at the beginning of his career and the latter ending his career in Washington.  That makes divorcing Samsonov’s potential from his performance an important consideration.  But Samsonov was impressive in his first season, ranking fifth among 23 rookie goalies in goals against average (2.55) and ninth in save percentage (.913).  He was tenth among all goalies in goals against average (among 52 goalies with at least ten games played) and 24th in save percentage.  Samsonov did his work behind a much better team than that for which Stephenson played, but we are still inclined to go with Samsonov as a replacement in goal for All-Team S.

What we are left with is a quite capable original All-Team S that looks more impressive than most on paper, but perhaps a difficult one in terms of the compatibility of parts.  The changes made here are more or less on the margin, giving the team a younger, and perhaps more energetic look.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- June 22

When we ask ourselves, “what if this day in Caps history didn’t happen like this day in Caps history,” we think about game moments, wins and losses, or perhaps big personnel deals.  We do not think about fabric.  And we do not think about that subject and the same date in two years 12 years apart.

However, on June 22, 1995, the Washington Capitals announced a change in their logo and color scheme.  Gone were the red, white, and blue that served as the basic color scheme for the first 21 years of franchise history, and gone was the lower case “capitals” logo with a hockey stick serving as the letter “t.”

In their place, the Caps went with a teal, bronze, and black color scheme and a “swooping eagle” as the logo.  An all-caps “CAPITALS” diagonally displayed on the front of the uniform and a new secondary logo of the United States Capitol building with crossed hockey sticks displayed on the shoulders and “CAPITALS” overlaid on the image completed the new look.

It turns out that the Caps were not the only team to unveil a new color scheme and logo for the 1995-1996 season, nor were they the only one to do it on June 22nd.  They were not even the only team to make a switch to teal as a primary color.  The New York Islanders went with a depiction of a fisherman in teal gear angrily brandishing a hockey stick with “ISLANDERS” displayed across the bottom of the logo. 

They kept the orange of their original logo, which left one with the dim image of a Miami Dolphins color scheme rip-off.  The new look was dubbed the “Gorton’s Fisherman Jersey,” which is where we will leave this piece of hockey history.

As for the Caps, the eagle would figure prominently in the early history of the new threads, both in terms of imagery (it always seemed to us a bit out of proportion in size to the jersey) and marketing.  For example, in the unveiling of the new logo, “an unofficial count revealed that seven members of the Capitals' organization used the phrase ‘We hope to soar like an eagle’ 17 times."

If the saying “clothes make the man” applies to hockey (as hinted at in the linked article announcing the change), the updated logo did not have the intended effect.  The teal/bronze/black color scheme would last 11 seasons (including nine with a black alternate jersey featuring the “Capitol” logo on the jersey front), over which the Caps went 383-387-43 (with 89 ties) in the regular season.  Twice in those 11 seasons they finished first in their division – 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 in the Southeast Division.  Five times they reached the postseason, the zenith being their having reached the Stanley Cup final for the first time in team history in 1997-1998.

Playoff frustration was color blind, though.  In those five visits to the postseason in the “teal and bronze era,” the Caps went 19-25 in 44 playoff games, a record that looks even worse (7-16) when that Stanley Cup run in 1998 is accounted for.  And in none of those other four playoff visits did the Caps advance past the first round.  In fact, the failed to force as much as a seventh game in any of those series, losing three times in six games and once in five games. 

In those 11 seasons in teal and bronze, the Caps went through four head coaches:
  • Jim Schoenfeld (72-72, with 20 ties in the regular season, 2-4 in the postseason)
  • Ron Wilson (192-159-8, with 51 ties in the regular season, 15-17 in the postseason)
  • Bruce Cassidy (47-47-7, with 9 ties in the regular season, 2-4 in the postseason)
  • Glen Hanlon (72-108-29, with nine ties in the regular season, no postseason appearances)

Twelve years to the day that the Caps adopted the teal, bronze, and black look, they retired it in favor of a return to a red, white, and blue scheme.  It was a modern take on the original color and logo scheme, and one that coincides with the golden age of Capitals hockey.  Since the team re-adopted their red, white, and blue scheme, the Caps are 596-308-115 in 13 regular seasons, including the one recently suspended for 2019-2020.  Over that span, only the Pittsburgh Penguins have won more games than the Caps (598), and the Caps have earned more standings points (1,307) than any other team.

Six head coaches have manned the bench for the Caps in the 13 seasons since returning to their red, white, and blue roots:
  • Glen Hanlon (6-14-1 in the regular season, no postseason appearances)
  • Bruce Boudreau (201-88-40 in the regular season, 17-20 in the postseason)
  • Dale Hunter (30-23-7/7-7)
  • Adam Oates (65-48-17/3-4)
  • Barry Trotz (205-89-34/36-27)
  • Todd Reirden (89-46-16/3-4)

The Caps reached the postseason 12 times in 13 tries in their red, white, and blue threads, including this season in which they qualified for a round-robin series to determine seeding for the first round of the playoffs, yet to be finalized.  In 11 postseason appearances to date since adopting their current look, the Caps are 66-62 in 128 games, advancing past the first round seven times and winning their first Stanley Cup in 2018.  The current Capitals theme is as “winning” a theme as there is in the NHL these days.  It just took a winding road and a changing color palette to get there.

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

We have been marching through our look back at the All-Alphabet Teams that we put together back in 2014, and we have arrived at the letter “R” in the review.  Back in August 2014, the “All-Team R” team we published looked like this
  • LW: Torrie Robertson (1980-1983)
  • C: Mike Ridley (1987-1994)
  • RW: Tom Rowe (1976-1980, 1982)
  • D: Joe Reekie (1994-2002)
  • D: Bob Rouse (1989-1991)
  • G: Pat Riggin (1982-1985)

If you were searching for an adjective to describe this team, it might be “reliable,” in keeping with the letter “R” theme.  There is the reliable 30-goal scorer; Mike Ridley averaged 30 goals per 82 games over 588 regular season games.  There is the reliable secondary scoring; Tom Rowe averaged 24 goals per 82 games over 191 games, and Torrie Robertson averaged 13 goals per 82 games over 62 games with the Caps.  Joe Reekie and Bob Rouse are fine examples of reliable stay-at-home defensemen.  And when the original All-Team R was published in 2014, Pat Riggin ranked sixth in team history in regular season wins by a goaltender (67), fifth in games played (143), and tied for eighth in shutouts (six).

The playoff record of this squad as a whole paints a bit less flattering a picture.  Only three of the five (Ridley, Reekie, and Rouse) had any postseason experience with the Caps, a total of 145 games.  The odd part of it, though, is how Ridley’s goals-per-82 games dropped substantially (21 per 82 games), while those of the defensemen – Reekie and Rouse – increased (five goals and 16 goals per 81 games, respectively).

In goal, Riggin had a slightly better goals against average in 10 postseason games for the Caps than he had in 143 regular season games (2.93 versus 3.03), but his save percentage was off (.875 versus .883), and he did not record a postseason shutout for the Caps.

Possible replacements among the skaters are few in number.  There is only one Capital who dressed for the team after August 2014 who qualifies – forward Mike Richards.  A strong two-way player who played a gritty style above his weight class, had a solid ten-year career in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, winning two Stanley Cups with the Kings.  In his 11th season, 2014-2015, he dressed for 47 games through January 21st, going just 5-10-15, before he was placed on waivers.  He cleared waivers and was sent to the Kings’ AHL affiliate in Manchester, subsequently recalled in March to finish the NHL season.  It was a signal of troubles to come, the Kings later seeking to terminate their contract with Richards following an incident involving possession of a controlled substance.  After further actions by the club and the players’ union, Richards reached a settlement with the club in October 2015 releasing him from the club and making him a free agent.

Enter the Capitals.  In early January 2016, he signed a one-year/$1.0 million contract with the club.  It might have been a low-risk deal, and it was a good thing.  Richards dressed for 39 games with the Caps in the 2016 portion of the 2015-2016 season, going 2-3-5, minus-2, primarily as a bottom-six forward averaging about 12 minutes a game.  In 12 postseason games with the Caps, Richards did not record a point, averaging a bit more than 11 minutes a game.   It would be his last NHL action.  Nothing in that portion of his resume argues for consideration to replace Mike Ridley at center on All-Team R.

In goal, we are left once more with no goalie eligible to replace the incumbent in the position.  It would be difficult to dislodge Riggin from his spot, but the absence of an eligible goalie makes the task easy.  Riggin remains.

And so, the original All-Team R of August 2014 remains the All-Team R of 2020.  It is a decent team in some respects, but it just lacks the depth to consider it among the best of the all-alphabet teams.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- June 13

In sports, not every trade works.  Not every trade is spun gold.  And that being the case, being a successful general manager means having to have a short memory.  Fans do not have that burden.  They remember, especially the bad trades, sometimes to the point of obsessive discomfort.  And sometimes, fans place too much burden on thoughts of “what might have been” with respect to trades.

That brings us to June 13, 1987.  It was the day of the annual entry draft, this one being held at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan.  The Capitals had other issues to deal with, in addition to their draft picks.  Goaltender Bob Mason, who was coming off a 20-win season for the Caps (but an unfortunate finish), informed the club that he would not be returning to the team and signed with the Chicago Blackhawks as a free agent.  It left a hole in net for the club, and the front office addressed the matter by making a trade with the Quebec Nordiques

The trade seemed simple enough, if hugely significant concerning the players involved.  It was a two-for-two swap of roster players, forwards Alan Haworth and Gaetan Duchesne going to Quebec, and goalie Clint Malarchuk and forward Dale Hunter coming to Washington.  And, it involved players in their prime, none of them older than 26 (Hunter was the oldest, less than two months short of his 27th birthday).

But it was the non-roster player part of the trade that would take on significance in Capitals lore as the years went by.  The Capitals also sent their first round pick in the 1987 entry draft to the Nordiques in the deal.  With that pick, the 15th pick of the first round, the Nordiques selected a center from the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League, Joe Sakic.  One might not have foreseen it at the time, but Sakic would have one of the legendary careers in NHL history and was arguably the most accomplished player in that 1987 draft class.  Of his 1987 cohort, Sakic ranks fourth in career games played (1,378), second in goals (625), first in assists (1,016), first in points (1,641). He won the Hart Trophy (most valuable player) and Pearson Award (now the Ted Lindsay Award as most outstanding player) in 2000-2001.  He was named to the All-Star Game 12 times and was a first team NHL All Star three times.  Sakic appeared in the postseason 13 times in his 20-year career, playing in 172 games, scoring 84 goals (seventh in NHL history), posting 188 points (ninth), recording 19 game-winning goals (tied for third), and won the Stanley Cup twice (he was the Conn Smythe winner as MVP of the postseason in 1996).

Although Dale Hunter’s career is remembered fondly by most Capitals fans (even as his style of play would not suggest “fondness”), many of those same Capitals fans might ask themselves, “what if?”  What if the Caps had held the pick and taken Sakic?  Would their arc of history been different?

Considering those questions, we are still left with the Caps having the matter of shoring up their goaltending.  Pete Peeters would have been the only returning goaltender (the Caps traded Al Jensen to the Los Angeles Kings earlier in the 1996-1987 season).  And it was not as if the Caps were deep at the position in their system.  If you look at their draft picks at the position in the five drafts leading up to 1987 (Jim Holden, Jamie Reeve, Alain Raymond, Marty Abrams, Jim Hrivnak, and Shawn Simpson), there were no apparent sure-fire pros in that group.  Raymond (one game) and Hrivnak (85 games) would be the only ones ever to dress in the NHL.  Clearly, there was work that would have remained at the position on the parent roster.

But perhaps more important, there was the matter of the Caps’ draft history that renders such “what if” speculation irrelevant in hindsight.  This was not the golden age of Capitals’ draft choices, especially in the first round.  The Caps hit home runs with first round picks in 1981 (Bobby Carpenter) and in 1982 (Scott Stevens), but then the dark time set in.  From 1983 through 1990, their first round draft history of skaters was as follows:
  • 1983: No pick
  • 1984: Kevin Hatcher
  • 1985: Yvon Corriveau
  • 1986: Jeff Greenlaw
  • 1987: No pick (this was the pick traded to Quebec that was used by the Nordiques to take Sakic)
  • 1988: Reggie Savage
  • 1989: No pick (they took goalie Olaf Kolzig in the first round)
  • 1990: John Slaney

That group played a combined 1,796 regular season games in their respective NHL careers, but 1,157 of them were accounted for by Hatcher.  The five combined for 964 games played for the Caps, 685 of those by Hatcher.

It would be reasonable to wonder, even if the Capitals were inclined to take a forward, one out of the Western Hockey League, even one from the Swift Current Broncos, whether that player would have been Joe Sakic, of whom it was said at the time, “he doesn’t have much quickness,” and “usually, a player of this calibre would be certain to go in the top five. The reason he probably won't is his size and average skating ability."  Or, would the Caps have gone for a teammate of Sakic’s, one of whom it was said, “he is a good skater, has a great shot and is described as a dependable and good positional player, " and “[he is] strong”, and who himself recorded 31 goals in 52 games in the 1986-1987 season with Swift Current after arriving from the Kamloops Blazers in a trade?

Would the Caps have taken Peter Soberlak, who would be taken with the 21st overall pick in the 1987 entry draft by Edmonton?  Soberlak never played in an NHL game.

The choices made in real time are rarely an either-or proposition.  Those are the luxuries of hindsight.