Friday, October 09, 2020

A Sad Day Finally Arrives

Being a sports fan is not just rooting for the logo on the jersey.  It means developing attachments, even at a distance, with players.  We cheer for them on the field, we get a peek into their personal and off-ice lives, and these days we follow them on social media.

But it is a relationship that generally has a shelf life, sometimes far briefer than we would like.  A player is drafted, we develop our attachments as he comes along through the system, we root for him as he takes his place and makes his mark with his – our – team.

And then, he is gone.

In most instances, we might feel a twinge of regret, but then we move on as the player blends into his new surroundings, whether that is another team or retirement.  But then there are those rare instances in which fans develop a special attachment to a player, and his departure stings more keenly than other departures.

That is how a lot of fans feel today as what seemed inevitable for the past year is finally coming to pass.  Braden Holtby, after a dozen years in the Washington Capitals organization, will be moving on to another city.

One might never have seen this coming when Holtby was introduced to the Capitals back in 2008.  He was a fourth-round draft pick, the tenth goaltender taken in his draft class.  He was taken 93rd overall in the 2008 Entry Draft, between Samuel Groulx and Vinny Saponari, neither of whom ever played in the NHL.  And, his record in Canadian juniors (Saskatoon Blades) did little to distinguish him or suggest he would have a long NHL career, not with a 42-59-15 win-loss record, a 3.01 goals against average, and a .903 save percentage.

But then, things took a turn.  In the season after he was drafted, he went 40-16-4, 2.62, .917 with the Blades.  He turned pro the next season, splitting time between the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL and the Hershey Bears in the AHL, going a combined 32-10-5, 2.48, .915.  Caps fans had little up-close familiarity with the young goalie, though.  That changed, at least it did for us, during Development Camp in July 2010.  Day 4 of the camp featured a scrimmage in which the prospects took part.  Among those prospects was a first round draft pick of considerable skill and considerable expectations – Evgeny Kuznetsov.  And there was Holtby, the fourth round draft pick with perhaps a more modest resume and perhaps lesser expectations. 

Their respective stations in life mattered not at all to Holtby when the two got tangled up trying to play a puck.  As we put it at the time… 

“Braden Holtby might need his vision checked. That guy whose legs he took a one-handed slash at (and connected) happened to be the Caps first round draft pick this past June. Kuznetsov is his name. Seems the young forward got a bit too close to Holtby as the goalie was trying to play a puck (well outside the crease, it should be noted), got tangled up with him (leading to a goal when Holtby could not retreat to his crease in time), and as he was starting to head back up ice after the score took the business end of Holtby’s stick in the back of the legs, causing him to turn in wonder before limping to the bench. This prompted a few comments from the upstairs crowd directed at Holtby, although those folks might not to have the term “heat of the moment” in their lexicon. Was it the smartest thing Holtby’s done this week? We’re going to bet on “no,” but it’s hardly an unprecedented reaction from a goalie, even on one of his clubmates.”   

Caps fans had witnessed more than a bit of orneriness over the career of Olaf Kolzig.  Holtby gave notice the tradition might continue.

The attachment between player and fans only grew from there.  Holtby got his first taste of NHL action in the regular season that followed, earning a win in his first NHL appearance – stopping all four shots he faced in ten minutes of a relief role in a 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins in November 2010.  He had only 14 appearances in that first season, but it was quite a start.  He went 10-2-2, 1.79, .934, with two shutouts.  There was, however the matter of the goalies ahead of him on the depth chart – Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, both of them only 22 years old themselves, a year older than Holtby.  

Varlamov was gone the following season, off to Colorado, but there was still Neuvirth on the club, and the Caps obtained veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun, preserving the log jam in front of Holtby.  He was limited to seven games in the 2011-2012 regular season, but he was thrust into a starting role in the postseason when Vokoun and Neuvirth each suffered injuries late in the season.  He was brilliant, backstropping the Caps to an opening round win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins before falling in the second round to the New York Rangers.  In 10 games settled in regulation time he allowed more than three goals only once, and nine times in 14 games he allowed two or fewer goals.  He went 7-7, 1.95, .935.

Nevertheless, in an odd echo of Kolzig’s beginnings with the club, he had difficulty cracking the lineup to become the number one goalie.  In 2012-2013 he dressed for 36 of 48 games, but in 2013-2014 he appeared in 48 of 82 games, one of four goalies to dress for the Caps that season. 

It was in 2014-2015 that he took a tight hold on the number one spot, appearing in a league-high 73 games and posting a record of 41-20-10, 2.22, .923, with nine shutouts.  He tied a team record for appearances (Kolzig had 73 appearances in 2000-2001), and he tied (at the time) a team record for wins (Kolzig had 41 wins in 1999-2000).  But while his regular season numbers began to reflect elite status, his playoff number lagged, at least in terms of wins and losses.  As much as anything, Holtby was a victim of non-support.  After he went 6-7 in the 2015 post season, his career playoff record stood at 16-18, in spit of his underlying numbers (1.92 GAA/.936 SV) being excellent.

The divergence of regular season and postseason results widened the following season.  In 2015-2016 Holtby tied a league record for wins (48), going 48-9-7, 2.20, .922, with three shutouts on his way to winning a Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender.  But in the postseason he went 6-6, despite a 1.72 goals against average and a .942 save percentage.  When he won 42 games in 2016-2017 (a second straight league leading total), but went 7-6 in the postseason, it hardly seemed fair to Holtby or to his fans.

Then came the 2017-2018 season, perhaps the strangest and, ultimately, most wondrous of Holtby’s career with the Caps.  He had a good win-loss record (34-16-4), but his underlying numbers fell off (2.99 goals against average, .907 save percentage), and he went without a shutout over a full season for the first time in his career.  What is more, his performance slipped significantly late in the season (10-8-4. 3.47, .893 over his last 22 games), and Philipp Grubauer was picked to open the Caps’ postseason against the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Grubauer’s postseason lasted five periods, having lost Game 1 in overtime and trailing in Game 2, 4-3, after 40 minutes.  Holtby came in to start the third period, and while he would take the loss in overtime, he reclaimed the top spot in net. 

The rest is history.  Holtby went 16-6-0 to close out the postseason with a 2.17 goals against average and a .922 save percentage with two shutouts, helping the Caps to their first Stanley Cup championship and adding a bit of legendary flair along the way that would become simply, “The Save”… 

That postseason would be the pinnacle of Holtby’s career in Washington.  He struggled in the next two seasons, going 57-33-11, but posting a 2.95 goals against average with a .905 save percentage.  His postseasons over those two years were similarly disappointing, going 5-10, 2.58, .910, the Caps going out in the first round of the playoffs in each year. 

The last two years might be a smudge on his career in Washington, made more noticeable by their recency.  They do little, however, to detract from his standing as the best goaltender in Capitals history and as one of the elite netminders of the last decade in the NHL.  Over the last ten years, Holtby is highly ranked in a number of league categories (minimum: 5,000 minutes):

  • Games: 468/T-12th
  • Minutes: 26,828/11th
  • Wins: 282/T-4th
  • GAA: 2.53/T-21st
  • SV: .916/T-22nd
  • Shutouts: 35/8th

His postseason rankings are even more impressive (minimum: 1,000 minutes):

  • Games: 97/2nd
  • Minutes: 6,012 (3rd)
  • Wins: 50/2nd
  • GAA: 2.13/5th
  • SV: .926/T-5th
  • Shutouts: 7/T-3rd

But while being a goalie of superior talent and performance is one thing, there is more to a player to whom fans develop a special attachment.  Holtby has a style all his own, in terms of how he prepares for games…


And he had his own sartorial style…


But he also exhibited the sense of social awareness that makes the attachment between player and community stronger, as in his support of Capital Pride events… 

Braden Holtby is one of those rare players whose talent and humanity have made him iconic in the local community and among Capitals Nation.  It is hard to think of a parting in four decades of Capitals history that is as much equal parts good cheer and good wishes for the player, and sadness at the realization that his departure is real and finally here.  Wherever he goes, Caps fans will be rooting for him every time he faces 30 of the other 31 teams in the league (after Seattle joins the league).  And even on those occasions in which he comes out on top against his old team, Caps fans might sneak a smile.


Monday, October 05, 2020

Washington Capitals: Who Was Best in Their First Round Draft Slot?

In any other year, the first week of October is generally a time for hockey fans to welcome the NHL back to a new regular season of play.  But this is not any other year, and the NHL is weeks, if not months away from any regular season games.  This year, the first week of October means that the NHL Entry Draft is upon us.  For fans of 31 teams, hope is the keyword.  As in, “let’s hope our team doesn’t @$#% this up.”  And, since we are talking about evaluating the long-term potential of young men not yet out of their teen years, the potential for @$#%ing things up is not insignificant.

Which brings us to the Washington Capitals.  Since they selected Greg Joly with the first overall selection of the1974 draft, the Caps have made 441 picks in the Amateur/Entry Draft.  Of that number, 187 have appeared in at least one NHL game, one piece of evidence that this selection process is uncertain. 

But how have the Caps done with specific overall picks in the draft?  That is today’s topic.  We will take a look at where the Caps drafted, who they took, and who were the best among them at their overall pick in the draft.

First overall:

  • Greg Joly (1974)
  • Rick Green (1976)
  • Alex Ovechkin (2004)

We start with perhaps the least difficult choice for best pick at a draft slot.  Alex Ovechkin is not only clearly the best first-overall pick in franchise history, he must be considered among the best first-overall picks in NHL history.  No first-overall pick in league history has more goals than Ovechkin (706).  He is ninth among first-overall draft picks in career points:

  • Mario Lemieux: 1,723
  • Joe Thornton: 1,509
  • Dale Hawerchuk: 1,409
  • Mike Modano: 1,374
  • Guy Lafleur: 1,353
  • Mats Sundin: 1,349
  • Pierre Turgeon: 1,327
  • Gilbert Perreault: 1,326
  • Alex Ovechkin: 1,278

An odd fact about Ovechkin as a first-overall pick.  He is a member of a “sweet spot” of number one picks in NHL draft history.  Of the six players taken first overall over the 2003-2008 period, five of them (including Ovechkin) have won Stanley Cups (Marc-Andre Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, and Steven Stamkos being the others).  No first overall pick since Stamkos in 2008 has skated with the Cup.

Second overall:

Ryan Walter (1978) is the only player ever selected by the Caps second overall.  He played 307 of his career 1,003 NHL games with the Caps, compiling a regular season scoring line of 114-163-277, minus-16.  He never appeared in the postseason for the Caps.

Third overall:

  • Robert Picard (1977)
  • Bob Carpenter (1981)

Bob Carpenter gets the nod here.  The “Can’t Miss Kid” had more than twice as many regular season games played for the Caps (490 to 230), more goals (188 to 42, although Picard was a defenseman), and unlike Picard, he did have a postseason resume with the Caps, going 10-13-23, even, in 32 playoff games with the club.

Fourth overall:

  • Mike Gartner (1979)
  • Alexandre Volchkov (1996)
  • Nicklas Backstrom (2006)

Here we have picks at opposite ends of the success spectrum – two of the better picks in Caps history sandwiching what is arguably the single worst pick in franchise history.  This is a hard one if we over-think it.  The temptation here is to look at Mike Gartner in terms of his entire NHL career.  But while he had among the best careers among Capitals (eighth in games played, third in goals, fourth in points), and he is one of only four players in franchise history with a retired number, but by the thinnest of margins we are inclined to go with Nicklas Backstrom as the best fourth-overall pick in franchise history.  Backstrom ranks higher on the franchise list in games played 956 to 758), points (927 to 789), rating (plus-119 to plus-61), and he has a deeper postseason resume with the club (36-71-107, plus-6, in 128 games to 16-27-43, minus-4, in 47 games for Gartner).

Fifth overall:

  • Darren Veitch (1980)
  • Scott Stevens (1982)
  • Karl Alzner (2007)

Three picks, three defensemen.  But there is little mystery here that Scott Stevens is the best fifth-overall pick in franchise history, even if his best years might have been spent with other franchises (well, New Jersey).  He spent the first eight of his 22-year career in Washington and is highly ranked among defensemen in franchise history in a number of categories: games (601/eighth), goals (98/sixth), assists (331/third), points (429/third), plus-minus (plus-90/third), penalty minutes (1,628/first), power play goals (46/fifth), power play points (182/third), and game-winning goals (24/tied for first).  Stevens ranks third among defensemen in team history in playoff points (53).

Sixth overall:

The Capitals have never selected from this position in the draft.

Seventh overall:

Kris Beech is the only player ever taken by the Capitals in this slot (1999).  He might be best remembered as being the centerpiece going to Pittsburgh in the trade with the Penguins in 2001 that (with Ross Lupaschuk, Michal Sivek, and cash) brought Jaromir Jagr (with Frantisek Kucera).  In two separate tours with the Caps, Beech was 8-18-26, minus-13, in 73 regular season games.  He did not appear in the postseason with the Caps.

Eighth overall:

The Caps have never selected from this position in the draft.

Ninth overall:

  • John Slaney (1990)
  • Nick Boynton (1997)

This is a dead area of sorts.  Slaney played in only 63 games for the Caps (7-12-19, even, in the regular season; 1-1-2, minus-1, in 11 postseason games with the Caps), and Boynton never played for the team, going back into the draft and being taken 21st overall by Boston in 1999.

Tenth overall:

Nolan Baumgartner (1994) is the only player ever taken by the Caps from this draft position.  He dressed for only 18 regular season games with the club (0-2-2, minus-3) and played in one postseason game without recording a point.

11-15 overall:

  • Brendan Witt (11th/1993)
  • Filip Forsberg (11th/2012)
  • Steve Eminger (12th/2002)
  • Alexander Semin (13th/2002)
  • Jakub Vrana (13th/2014)
  • Pat Peake (14th/1991)
  • Sergei Gonchar (14th/1992)
  • Sasha Pokulok (14th/2005)
  • Greg Carroll (15th/1976)
  • Reggie Savage (15th/1988)
  • Alexander Kharlamov (15th/1994)

As a group, this collection of players might be described generally as the “not quite” group, as in “not quite achieving their potential.”  Brendan Witt was among the most intimidating players in Caps history, the epitome of a physical, stay-at-home defenseman, but he never seemed to blossom into the sort of defenseman, even among that species, who could dominate a game.  Steve Eminger had promise as a two-way defenseman; in fact, he might be thought of as an earlier version of a “John Carlson” type of player with considerable offensive upside (he would be traded by the Caps to Philadelphia for a draft pick that would later become Carlson), but he never reached that level of play, here or with the other five NHL teams for whom he played.  Alexander Semin was a player of considerable offensive gifts who could dominate one night and be absent without leave the next.  Pat Peake lost a promising career to a freak injury.  Of this group, we lean toward Sergei Gonchar as the best pick in this portion of the draft.  Fifth overall among defensemen in regular season games played with the Caps (654), second in goals (144), fifth in assists (272), fifth in points (416), first in power play goals (53), second in power play points (185), fourth in game-winning goals (19); he was also fourth among Caps defensemen in postseason points per game (0.61; minimum: 20 games).

16-20 overall:

  • Tom Wilson (16th.2012)
  • Kevin Hatcher (17th/1984)
  • Jason Allison (17th/1993)
  • Brad Church (17th/1995)
  • Jaroslav Svejkovsky (17th/1996)
  • Boyd Gordon (17th/2002)
  • Alex Forsyth (18th/1975)
  • Tim Coulis (18th/1978)
  • Eric Fehr (18th/2003)
  • Mike Marson (19th/1974)
  • Peter Scamurra (19th/1975)
  • Yvon Corriveau (19th/1985)
  • Jeff Greenlaw (19th/1986)
  • Olaf Kolzig (19th/1989)
  • Paul Mulvey (20th/1978)

As we move to the lower half of the first round, this cohort is all over the place in terms of performance.  There is one of the most prolific defensemen in Caps history (Kevin Hatcher), one of the best defensive forwards in team history (Boyd Gordon), a player who carve himself a niche with outdoor game performances (Eric Fehr, who scored goals two goals against Pittsburgh and another against Chicago in Winter Classic games), and a player still on the rising slope of his career of which big things are expected (Tom Wilson).

But best in this cohort has to be the goaltender taken highest in team history – Olaf Kolzig.  From 1998-1998, when he took over full-time as the Caps number one netminder, through the 2007-2008 season, Kolzig ranked second in the league overall in games played by a goalie (632) and second in wins (287).  He ranks first in team history in games played by a goalie (684), first in wins (301), eighth in goals against average (2.70; minimum: 1,000 minutes), seventh in save percentage (.906), tied for first in shutouts (35), second in penalty minutes (107), and first in points (17, all assists).  He is second in the postseason in games played (45), second in wins (20), third in goals against average (2.14), second in save percentage (.927), and second in shutouts (six).

21-25 overall:

  • Mark Lofthouse (21st/1977)
  • Trevor Halverson (21st/1991)
  • Anton Gustafsson (21st/2008)
  • Ilya Samsonov (22nd/2015)
  • Paul MacKinnon (23rd/1978)
  • Miika Elomo (23rd/1995)
  • Semyon Varlamov (23rd/2006)
  • Andre Burakovsky (23rd/2013)
  • Errol Rausse (24th/1979)
  • Marcus Johansson (24th/2009)
  • Eric Lavigne (25th/1991)
  • Connor McMichael (25th/2019)

This might be, in some respects, the “disappointment” cohort.  Of the 12 players taken in this region of the draft by the Caps, six played in fewer than half a season’s worth of games for the Caps, although Connor McMichael, taken 25th overall in last summer’s draft, does not really count here.  Add to that the fact that three players, who had decent early careers with the Caps (Semyon Varlamov, Andre Burakovsky, and Marcus Johansson), only to go on to have productive careers elsewhere, and there is a further “disappointment” dimension to this group.

It is from that latter group – the trio of Varlamov, Burakovsky, and Johansson – that a best in group might be selected.  All had their plusses.  Varlamov was 30-13-12, 2.39, .917 in his 59 games with the Caps; Burakovsky had 62 goals in 328 games with the Caps and was the hero of Game 7 in the 2018 Eastern Conference final with two goals against the Tampa Bay Lightning; and Johansson was a five-time 40-plus point player for the Caps with a playoff series clinching overtime goal against Toronto in 2017 on his resume.  On the minus side, Varlamov had injury issues, and Burakovsky had consistency issues.  It is the avoidance of both by Johansson (even as he had concussion issues before and after his stay with the Caps) that argues for him being the best of this group of selections.  In his stay with the Caps, from 2010-2011 through 2016-2017, he was third on the team in points (290), third in goals (102), fourth in assists (188), fourth in power play goals (26), fourth in power play points (84), and tied for second in game-winning goals (20).  He did it while taking few penalties; he was the only Capital over this period to dress for more than 200 games (501) and log fewer than 75 minutes in penalties (62).

26-30 overall:

  • Brian Sutherby (26th/2000)
  • Evgeny Kuznetsov (26th/2010)
  • Jeff Schultz (27th/2004)
  • Joe Finley (27th/2005)
  • John Carlson (27th/2008)
  • Lucas Johansen (28th/2016)
  • Michal Sivek (29th/1999)
  • Mike Green (29th/2004)
  • Rod Pasma (30th/1990)

This is another “defenseman” cohort.  Six of the nine selections in this group were blueliners, the other three being centers (Brian Sutherby, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Michal Sivek).  Thinking about who might emerge from this group as the best ever drafted, there is a recency element.  It really boils down to Kuznetsov and defensemen Mike Green and John Carlson.  Kuznetsov, who is a player of superior talent, has at times fallen short of the level of play his talent suggests.  At his best, and with more consistency, he would be the pick here, but his best has been occasional (less so over the past two seasons) and argues against his selection.  That leaves the defensemen, Green and Carlson.  It is not an easy choice.   

Green has more career goals as a Capital (113 to 105), but Carlson has more points (478 to 360), although each player averaged 0.63 points per game as a Capital.  Both have been accused at times of having to much focus in the offensive end of the ice at the expense of their defensive play.  Each player has been a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman, although Green has been selected twice as a finalist (2009 and 2010, both times finishing second in the voting).  Both players have been selected twice to the NHL All-Star team, although Green has twice been a first-team selection, while Carlson was a first team selection once.  Green has eight of the 22 overtime goals scored by Caps defensemen in team history (no other defenseman has more than two, one of whom is Carlson).  Carlson, on the other hand, is far and away the franchise leader in playoff scoring in goals (18), assists (48), and points (66); as well as power play goals (12) and power play points (35).  The difference here is that Green’s body of work as a Capital is complete, while Carlson’s is still in progress.  In time, Carlson would likely be the clear choice here.  But for the moment, and perhaps fittingly, we’re going to call this one a tie between the two most prolific offensive defensemen in Capitals history.

In the end…

Not a bad squad of “best of’s” by draft selection slot (from spots with multiple selections):

  • Alex Ovechkin
  • Bob Carpenter
  • Nicklas Backstrom
  • Scott Stevens
  • John Slaney
  • Sergei Gonchar
  • Olaf Kolzig
  • Marcus Johansson
  • Mike Green
  • John Carlson

There is a lot of offensive firepower in this group, including some of the most dominant offensive players at their positions in recent memory.  It would make things a bit difficult for goaltender Olaf Kolzig, but it would be an entertaining group to watch.