Thursday, June 17, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Forwards: Garnet Hathaway

Garnet Hathaway

“There is no God-given right to victory on the battlefield. You win that through the skill and the devotion, the valor and the ferocity of your troops.”

-- Jim Mattis

Hockey rinks are not fields of battle, but ferocity is not a characteristic unknown among a fair number of players at the highest level of competition.  It would be fair to say that Garnet Hathaway is among those NHL players who skate with a certain level of ferocity that makes life difficult for opponents.  For example, of 407 forwards this season who appeared in 25 or more games, Hathaway ranked 14th in credited hits per 60 minutes (15.56).  Of that same group of 407 forwards, he was tied for 33rd in penalties drawn (17) and 28th in penalties drawn per 60 minutes (1.48).  His net penalties per 60 minutes (minus-01.7) ranked 100th, a respectable ranking for a player who is not a star (and capable of drawing penalties while avoiding penalties of their own) and who plays with a feisty demeanor.  But Hathaway was not a one-dimensional player,  For the third consecutive season (one with Calgary, two with Washington) he posted more than 15 points, twice doing it in abbreviated seasons.  He finished 2020-2021 with 18 points in 56 games, only one point short of his career high – 19 points in 76 games with Calgary in 2018-2019. 

Fearless’ Take… There was a subtle aspect to Garnet Hathaway’s offensive efficiency in 2020-2021.  Among 106 forwards appearing in at least 25 games and averaging less than 13 minutes per game (Hathaway averaged 12:19), Hathaway was tied for seventh in points (18) and tied for 21st in goals (six).  The Caps were 6-0-0 in the games in which Hathaway scored a goal, 13-3-0 in the 16 games in which he recorded a point, a tribute to secondary scoring.  Even his engagement on offense was a plus.  The Caps were 24-7-4 in the 35 games in which he recorded a shot on goal, 12-8-1 in the 21 games in which he did not.  As a fourth liner, it is unsurprising that the team is more successful when he gets more ice time (his ice time isn’t sacrificed to more offense-oriented players when the team is behind), but the Caps were still 14-1-1 when Hathaway skated more than 14 minutes.

Cheerless’ Take… Does “feisty” translate into wins?  Well, maybe.  Maybe not.  Washington was 16-9-5 in 30 games in which Garnet Hathaway was credited with three or more hits, 20-6-0 when he was credited with two or fewer hits.  There is the arbitrary nature of what merits credit as a “hit,” and hits are evidence of chasing the puck, not possessing it, but that is still quite a disparity.  And, the Caps were 9-6-0 when Hathaway earned penalty minutes, 27-9-5 when his penalty column on the score sheet was clean.

Odd Hathaway Fact… Garnet Hathaway is the all-time leading scorer among NHL players born in Kennebunkport, ME.  Then again, he’s the only NHL player hailing from that town.

Odd Hathaway Fact II… Only twice in 56 games did Hathaway not record a credited hit (the Caps won both games).

Odd Hathaway Fact III… Home might be where the heart is, but it wasn’t where Hathaway’s offense was.  He was 5-8-13, plus-9 in 28 road games, just 1-4-5, minus-2, in 28 home games.

Game to Remember… May 3, 2021 vs. New York Rangers

They say of New York, “if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.”  In Washington’s penultimate game at Madison Square Garden this season, Garnet Hathaway might not have “made it” in that sense, but it was his effort that might have allowed the Caps to salvage a win when things looked bleak.  The Caps opened the game on May 3rd with two goals less than two minutes apart to take a 2-0 lead, one of them assisted by Hathaway, but they then surrendered three goals to allow the Rangers to take a 3-2 lead 4:35 into the second period. 

The Caps stopped the bleeding over the next 13 minutes, but it still seemed as if they would be in the hole going into the third period.  But then the fourth line took matters into their own hands.  Nic Dowd pried the puck free of a Ranger behind the New York net and fed Hathaway in the right wing circle.  Hathaway’s initial shot was turned aside, but he, Dowd, and Carl Hagelin crashed the net.  With several Rangers looking the other way as the puck squirted out into the low slot, Hathaway backhanded it through goalie Igor Shesterkin to tie the game 90 seconds before the second intermission.  The goal provided the needed momentum for the Caps to take the lead early in the third period and pull away with three goals in the last frame to skate off with a 6-3 win.

Game to Forget… April 8, 2021 vs. Boston.  It was not so much that either Hathaway or the Caps were awful in an early April game against Boston as much as it was just, well, forgettable.  The Bruins took a 3-0 lead in less than 25 minutes, withstood a pair of Caps power play goals scored 19 seconds apart to make the game close, and scored a power play goal of their own late in the third period to clinch a 4-2 win.  What made this game forgettable for Hathaway was that he was on ice for only 14 shifts and 8:11 in ice time (only 5:59 at even strength), his lowest ice time log in a Caps loss this season, but he did record a fighting major penalty and an unsportsmanlike conduct infraction.

Postseason… Garnet Hathaway was productive in the postseason, to a point.  He had two goals in the five-game opening series loss to Boston, tied for most on the team, but both came in Game 2, a 4-3 overtime loss.  He had an assist in Game 3, a 3-2 double-overtime loss.  Those two goals and an assists were his first postseason points as a Capital after going without a point in eight games (including the round robin) the 2020 postseason.

Looking ahead… Hathaway has two years left on a four-year/$6.0 million contract.  Among 18 forwards age 27-32 (Hathaway is 29) and cap hits of $1.25-$1.75 million, Hathaway ranks in the top third in offensive production (0.32 points per game played), even though he ranks in the bottom half in ice time.  As a bottom six player, he is not indispensable, but he does contribute in a variety of ways and plays with an edge that is not generally a feature of the Caps roster, unless one’s vision is clouded by visions of Tom Wilson, and one would rather have Wilson on the ice than in the penalty box.

In the end…

Garnet Hathaway is what one might call “a good teammate.”  He’s tough, stands up for teammates, works hard on a night to night basis, and contributes as much or more than one might expect from a fourth liner.  That he plays with a certain level of ferocity endears him to fans and makes the Caps a more difficult team against which to play.  It might not get a lot of attention in media, but it is a combination of attributes that a lot of successful teams have and need.

Grade: B

Photo: Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Forwards: Carl Hagelin

Carl Hagelin

“OK, so what's the speed of dark?"
-- Steven Wright

The scouting report for Washington Capitals forward Carl Hagelin contains no surprises when it comes to his assets and flaws.  As they put it:

“Assets: Owns tremendous speed, especially on the outside of defenders. Also has excellent defensive instincts, as well as streaky offensive ability. Can be an impactful forward on the penalty kill.”

“Flaws: Does not have ideal size for the National Hockey League game. Tends to run hot and cold in the scoring department. Lacks confidence in his shooting ability in the NHL.”

It is that juxtaposition of assets – “tremendous speed” – and his frustrating tendency to run hot and cold as a scorer that confounds observers.  Only twice in ten NHL seasons has Hagelin finished with a shooting percentage over 10.0 percent, and the last time he did it was in 2013-2014, when he had 17 goals (tied for a career high) on 144 shots (11.8 percent, his career high).

Overall, Hagelin was a consistent performer, although (as one would expect) at a fourth-liner level of production, as illustrated by his ten-game splits.  Goals, assists, points, and shots on goal differ little among the splits as the season progressed.

Fearless’ Take… For the first time in his ten-year NHL career, Carl Hagelin skated more than 50 percent of his team’s total shorthanded ice time (50.6 percent).  He was not always such a minutes eater on the penalty kill.  Until this season, his high share of his team’s total shorthanded ice time was 49.1 percent with Pittsburgh in 2017-2018, and before that he was over 40 percent only twice in six seasons.  Over his two full seasons in Washington, his 49.6 percent of total shorthanded ice time ranks ninth among 259 forwards appearing in at least 100 games.

Cheerless’ Take… Hagelin’s inefficiency as a shooter is not limited to the 2020-2021 season.  Of 108 forwards in Caps history to have appeared in at least 125 games, Hagelin’s 7.5 percent shooting ranks 99th.  What is more, his shooting efficiency is dropping.  He was 3-for-35 in his first season with the Caps after being acquired at the 2019 trading deadline (8.6 percent).  He followed that up in 2019-2020 by going 8-for-107 (7.5 percent) and 6-for-85 this season (7.1 percent).  Of 401 forwards with at least 100 shots on goal over the last three seasons, Hagelin (6.5 percent), ranks 392nd.

Odd Hagelin Fact… Carl Hagelin recorded at least two shots on goal in 23 games this season and posted goals in only three of those games.  Her recorded a single shot in 22 games and scored goals in three of them.  The adage “volume, volume, volume” did not apply to Hagelin in this matter.

Odd Hagelin Fact II… Carl Hagelin was second among all NHL forwards in total shorthanded ice time this season (144:02).  Only Connor Brown had more (163:40).

Odd Hagelin Fact III… This one actually goes to Hagelin and his fourth line mates.  He, Nic Dowd, and Garnet Hathaway all appeared in 56 games, and all of them were on ice for 23 even strength goals against.

Game to Remember… March 13, 2021 vs. Philadelphia.  The Caps and Flyers had a two game set in Philadelphia in mid-March that was kind to the Caps’ offense in both games, each game ending with the Caps scoring five goals.  However, it was a pair of games with very different results for Carl Hagelin.  In the first game of the set, ten Caps recorded points, including Ilya Samsonov, who assisted on a Nic Dowd empty netter in the 5-3 win.  Hagelin was not among the ten with a crooked number in the points column, though, and he logged just 11:50 in ice time.  Things were quite different two nights later for Hagelin.  In the 5-4 win, Hagelin had a goal (on his only shot on goal) and an assist (one of three two-point games he had this season), posted a season high plus-3 rating, and logged 16:58 in ice time.

Game to Forget… February 14, 2021 vs. Pittsburgh.  It is always nice to make a team you once played for pay for parting ways.  Conversely, it is bitter to face a former team and have disappointing results.  The latter was the case for Hagelin when the Caps visited the Penguins on February 14th.  The Caps got out to a 1-0 lead five minutes into the game, but Hagelin was on ice for the first three Penguin goals as the home team took a 3-2 lead less than seven minutes into the second period.  By the time it was over, Hagelin had no points, no shot attempts, a minus-2 rating, and skated only 9:37 in a 6-3 loss to his former club.

Postseason… When the Caps won the Stanley Cup in 2018, one of the keys was getting contributions from bottom six forwards.  This has been an issue with the club in the last three postseasons.  Regarding Hagelin, he was 0-1-1 in five games, the third straight postseason in which he finished 0-1-1 for the Caps.  His playoff performances have been disappointing for Washington after going 10-11-21 in 48 postseason games with Pittsburgh and 12-14-26 in 73 playoff games with the New York Rangers.

Looking ahead… Hagelin has two more seasons with a cap hit of $2.75 million in each before his contract expires after the 2022-2023 season.  Among forwards age 30-35 with cap hits of $2.5-$3.0 million, he does not stand out in either a good or a bad way (although it is a small cohort).  One does not expect high production values for someone in his role, but this is a place where the Caps might want to get younger if the opportunity presents itself.  The difficulty here, though, is that there is no obvious choice among younger players in the Caps’ system to assume this role at a lower compensation level. 

In the end…

On the one hand, Carl Hagelin is a frustrating player to watch at times.  His superior speed provides him with frequent opportunities to generate scoring chances, often on breakaways.  But finishing those chances is an issue.  On the other hand, he has made himself, perhaps by circumstance, into a penalty killing specialist and a competent defensive player.  But as Caps fans saw in the years leading up to the 2018 playoffs, and then in that Stanley Cup run, a specialist defined so narrowly who does not contribute much at the offensive end, even for a fourth liner and particularly in the playoffs, is difficult to offset with production in other areas in the roster.  He, and his fellow bottom six forwards, do not have to be Gretzky, but they cannot be mere grunts all the time, either.  Hagelin’s ability to improve his offensive production could be an important ingredient in enabling the Caps to advance past the first round of the postseason next year for the first time since winning the Stanley Cup in 2018.

Grade: B-

Photo: Patrick Smith / Getty Images

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Forwards: Lars Eller

Lars Eller

“There are no elements so diverse that they cannot be joined in the heart of a man.”
-- Jean Giraudoux

When you hear the name “Lars Eller,” you probably don’t think “offensive juggernaut.”  And yet, he is one of two Capitals in the post-2004-2005 lockout era to post at least 50 goals, 150 points, and have a rating of plus-10 or better in fewer than 400 games played for the Caps (67-94-161, plus-10, in 356 games); Jakub Vrana is the other).  When you hear “Lars Eller,” you might not think “special teams wizard,” although he is the only player to log the statistics noted above and record both power play goals (six) and shorthanded goals (three).  And, he is one of only two forwards in that span to have logged at least one minute of special teams ice time on both sides of the puck – power play (1:03) and penalty kill (2:09) – while dressing for at least 350 games (Brooks Laich is the other).  In fact, in terms of the diversity of his game, he might draw comparisons to Laich and, from a more distant era, Steve Konowalchuk, a capable player at even strength, power play, and penalty kill.

Fearless’ Take… Lars Eller is nominally the third line center, but in a pinch he can fill in as the pivot on either of the top two lines as well.  That kind of interchangeability, and more to the point his effectiveness in manning the scoring line, has enabled Eller to average more than half a point per game over the past two seasons.  That puts him in the top-50 among centers having played in at least 100 games over the past two years.  While that might not sound especially impressive, it is within rounding error of Matt Duchene, more than Max Domi and Jordan Staal, more than Paul Stastny and Eric Staal. There is also the consistency in Eller’s improved production.  He had 23 points in 44 games this season, a points pace that would have put him within striking distance of 30 points for the full 56-game season, which would  have been his fourth straight 30-plus point season with the Caps.

Cheerless’ Take… Eller had been among the most durable Capitals, logging three straight 81-game seasons before appearing in all 69 games last season.  This season, Eller missed a dozen games – four to an upper body injury, seven to a lower body injury, and one for personal reasons.  He also missed a game in the first round playoff series loss to Boston to a lower body injury.  The 12 regular season games lost were a career high for a single season.  Perhaps it was the injuries and missed time, but Eller limped, in a manner of speaking, to the finish of the regular season, recording only one goal in his last 14 games and going just 1-1-2 in his last ten games, although the Caps did post a record of 7-2-1 in those last ten games.

Odd Eller Fact… In his five seasons in Washington, Lars Eller has alternated seasons in which he scored no power play goals (2016-2017, 2018-2019, and this season) with seasons in which he had at least one power play goal (three in 2017-2018 and two in 2019-2020).

Odd Eller Fact II… The 12 regular season games lost were a career high for a single season.  In fact, it was more games missed than Eller had in the previous six seasons combined (11).

Odd Eller Fact III… “Physical” was not Eller’s game, or at least there was no relationship to a hitting Eller and a successful Caps team.  The Caps were 14-4-2 in the 20 games in which he was not credited with a hit, 13-8-3 in the 24 games in which he was credited with at least one hit.

Game to Remember… May 8, 2021 vs. Philadelphia.  In the regular season’s penultimate game, the Caps were wrapping up their season series against the Philadelphia Flyers with the second of a back-to-back set of games at Capital One Arena, having lost the opening contest, 4-2.  The teams fought to a scoreless tie through the first 40 minutes before Scott Laughlin got the Flyers on the board in the fourth minute of the third period.  It looked as though the lone goal would hold up for the Flyers, especially when a Caps power play was expiring in the final minute of regulation.  But then, this happened…

Eller’s 6-on-5 one-timer from the bottom of the right wing circle with 39.8 seconds left in regulation got the Caps a standings point, and Conor Sheary won it at the 4:00 mark of overtime to complete the comeback.  It was Eller’s only goal against the Flyers in 2020-2021 in seven games.   

Game to Forget... March 13, 2021 vs. Philadelphia.  No game illustrated Lars Eller’s issues with his presence in the lineup in the shortened season than a mid-March matchup against the Flyers.  This was the second of a two-game set in Philadelphia, the Flyers having won the opening contest, 5-3.  Eller missed that game due to a family matter.  Those things occur from time to time and are out of the player’s control.  Nevertheless, his return in the second game of the set lasted three shifts and 1:29 in ice time before he left for the remainder of the game with a leg injury.  He missed the next seven games for the Caps.

Postseason… It was a largely forgettable postseason for Eller, who went 0-1-1, even, in four games (he missed the 3-2 double overtime loss in Game 3 against Boston).  It was his second postseason without a goal, and he has only one in his last 16 playoff games (1-4-5).  It added a year to what has been an odd history in the postseason for Eller.  It might be until the sun goes dark that Caps fans will remember Eller’s 2018 postseason in which he might have saved the season with an overtime game-winner against Columbus in the first round and his game-winning, series-deciding, Cup clinching goal against Vegas in the Stanley Cup final.  He was 7-10-17 in 24 games in that postseason.  But in four other postseasons with the Caps, Eller is now 1-9-10 in 29 games.

Looking ahead… Lars Eller has two more years to run on a five-year/$17.5 million contract that will carry a $3.5 million annual cap hit.  Among centers age 27-35 (Eller is 31) and cap hits of $3.0-4.0 million, he looks like a bargain.  This season could be considered an off season for Eller, but it also would be reasonable to think of it as an anomaly, at least in the regular season, both in terms of durability and production.  There will be additional importance attached to his return to a higher level of production given the uncertainty surrounding Evgeny Kuznetsov’s future with the club.  And there remains the matter of his postseason production.  Eller should never have to buy a drink in Washington again, but it would be nice if next season his playoff production was a better approximation of that special 2018 postseason than what he experienced this season.

In the end…

Lars Eller remains one of, if not the most versatile Capital in terms of his ability to fill a range of roles effectively.  When paired with his consistency over most of his tenure in Washington, he is an extremely valuable commodity.  There is no one on the current roster with his range of skills and his ability to deploy them consistently and effectively.  It has been, and it will continue to be an important ingredient to whatever success the Caps enjoy over the last two seasons of his contract.

Grade: B

Photo: Associated Press

Monday, June 14, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Forwards: Nic Dowd

Nic Dowd

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

-- Stephen King

In five career seasons coming into the 2020-2021 season, Nic Dowd never recorded ten goals in any of them, never reached the 25-point mark, never averaged as much as 13 minutes per game.  He was the quintessential fourth-liner, a player who was counted on to do that hard, gritty work – 446 credited hits in 251 games, 128 blocked shots, and a takeaway-to-giveaway ratio of 1.29-to-1.00.  But Dowd had a career year in 2020-2021.

Fearless’ Take… 11 goals, career best (first time in double digits).  31 penalty minutes, career high.  Three game-winning goals, tied career high (2018-2019 with the Caps).  68 shots on goal, career best.  14:22 in average ice time per game, career high.  56.3 percent faceoff winning percentage, career best.  40 blocked shots, career best.  38 takeaways, career high.  He had at least one goal against each of the seven opponents of the East Division.  Frankly, one would be hard pressed to find a more effective fourth line center across a variety of measures this season than Nic Dowd.  Accounting for his role, he might have had the best season, relative to expectations, of any Capital.

Cheerless’ Take… Bottom six forwards are often referred to as “energy” players who play with a bit of an edge to wear down opponents.  In Dowd’s case, that might not have been true.  The Caps were just 4-3-2 when Dowd was credited with four or more hits, 7-4-1 when charged with at least one penalty.  There was a little stat-padding in his numbers, too.  Dowd was 8-2-10, plus-8, in 32 games against the four teams in the East Division that missed the playoffs, 3-2-5, minus-4, in 24 games against the other three division opponents to reach the postseason.  And, his road production (1-3-4, minus-4) lagged far behind his home production (10-1-11, plus-8).

Odd Dowd Fact… Nic Dowd was one of 11 players in the league this season to record 12 of fewer goals, have none of them be scored on special teams, but have three or more of them be game-winners (11 goals, three game-winners).

Odd Dowd Fact II… The Caps were 28-4-1 when Dowd skated 13 or more minutes, 8-11-4 when he skated fewer than 13 minutes.  It is not all that odd a fact, a fourth liner getting less ice time in games in which his team trails late in games and loses more often, but the difference is rather stark.

Odd Dowd Fact III… Last season, this season – 56 games/56 games, 15 points/15 points.

Game to Remember… March 11, 2021 vs. Philadelphia.  When the Caps visited the Philadelphia Flyers in March, Dowd was in the midst of what was perhaps his worst offensive slump of the season.  In his previous 15 games, he was 1-0-1 (tied for 19th among 24 skaters to dress for the Caps over that stretch), minus-3 (tied for 18th), he recorded no hits in five of those games and no blocked shots in eight of those contests. 

The Caps carried a 3-1 lead late into the second period against the Flyers when Dowd took a pass from Zdeno Chara at his defensive blue line, turned and skated up the left wing boards.  Carrying the puck into the Flyers’ zone, he backed off Flyer defenseman Travis Sanheim, circled through the left wing circle around Sanheim, and stuffed the puck under goalie Brian Elliott from the top of the blue paint to give the Caps a 4-1 lead heading into the third period.  That goal by Dowd would prove important as the Flyers closed the gap to 4-3 mid-way through the third period.  But in the last minute of regulation, Caps goalie Ilya Samsonov left the puck for Dowd below his own goal line.  Dowd collected the biscuit, turned, and fired the puck the length of the ice on one hop into the empty Flyer net to give the Caps a 5-3 win.  Dowd was credited with the game-winning goal, and his empty netter gave him his only two-goal game of the season.

Game to Forget... February 14, 2021 vs. Pittsburgh.  For about ten minutes, the Caps’ visit to Pittsburgh on Valentine’s Day might have been memorable.  Evgeny Kuznetsov scored in the sixth minute to open the scoring, but thing went downhill for the Caps starting five minutes later.  Bryan Rust and Brandon Tanev scored 32 seconds apart to give the Penguins the lead, and Nic Dowd was on ice for both of those goals.  Jakub Vrana scored early in the second period to tie the game, 2-2, and restore some hope for the Caps, but the home team scored another pair of goals four minutes apart to take a 4-2 lead.  Nicklas Backstrom got the Caps back within one late in the period, but Washington could not find the equalizer in the third period, the Pens scoring a pair of empty net goals late in a 6-3 win. 

For Dowd, it was a thoroughly forgettable game.  He finished with only 9:10 in ice time, his second lowest of the season.  He finished with no shot attempts, no credited hits, no takeaways, no blocked shots, took a penalty, and he lost six of 11 faceoffs (45.4 percent).  He skated only three meaningful shifts in the third period, all of them in the first half of the period, before finishing up the game with a mop-up shift after the second of the Penguins’ two empty net goals to seal the win.

Postseason… On the good side, Dowd tied for the team lead in goals in the five-game opening round loss to Boston.  Of the bad side, having your fourth line center tie for the team lead in goals – two in all (one of the only game-winning goal in the series for the Caps) – is not generally conducive to a playoff series win.  Making things worse, Dowd was tied with linemate Garnet Hathaway for that team lead in goals, and that duo were the only Caps to record any goals and finish the series with a plus rating (Dowd was plus-1, Hathaway was plus-2).  His overtime game-winner in Game 1 against the Bruins broke personal ten-game postseason streak without a goal.  Odd Dowd postseason fact… in 20 career postseason games, Dowd has yet to record an assist.

Looking ahead… Nic Dowd will be in the walk year of a three-year/$2.25 million deal in 2021-2022.  Looking at his current deal in the context of centers with cap hits of $750,000-$1,000,000, ages 28-34 (Dowd is 31), he looks like quite a deal for the Caps at the moment.  But will he, like his predecessor at fourth-line center, Jay Beagle, price himself out of being re-signed by the Caps after next season?  Dowd has grown into his role with the Caps, becoming a sort of jack-of-all-trades sort of bottom six forward.  It is not an irreplaceable spot on the roster, but bottom six production has been an issue with the Caps from time to time, and how Dowd performs in that role next season could be an important and underrated factor in the team’s success.

In the end…

Nic Dowd is a rather typical bottom six forward in terms of how he realizes success.  He does not have the pure goal scoring abilities of others on this roster, he plays with a physical edge from time to time but is not an extraordinary sort in terms of intimidation, he is unlikely to show up on any ballots for the Selke Trophy as the leagues top defensive forward.  But he can contribute in any of those areas, a valuable characteristic when one of his other attributes is silent.  The question is whether or not he had his career year one year too soon in terms of maximizing the value of his next contract, or if he can squeeze a bit more production out of his game in 2021-2022 before he is either extended by the Caps or hits the free agent market.  As a player who gives evidence of accomplishing more with hard work than natural talent, betting against him might be a bit premature at this point.

Grade: A

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Washington Capitals: 2020-2021 By the Tens -- Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom

“Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragements, and impossibilities: It is this, that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak.” 

-- Thomas Carlyle


If you were to look at Nicklas Backstrom’s overall numbers for the 2020-2021 season, they look a lot like last year’s numbers – 54 points last year, 53 points this season; 14 penalty minutes last season, 14 penalty minutes this season; ten even strength goals this season, ten last season; 16 power play assists last season, 17 power play helpers this season, a minus-1 rating last season, even this season.  Backstrom, among the most consistently productive players of his era, was merely being Backstrom.  At least overall.  But on a more granular level, it was an odd, and oddly disappointing season for Backstrom, too. 

Fearless’ Take…

Only once in 14 seasons has Nicklas Backstrom averaged less than 0.85 points per game, and that was back in 2010-2011, when he averaged 0.84 points per game.  His 0.96 points per game in 2020-2021 was the eighth time in those 14 seasons in which he averaged at least 0.95 points per game.  He might have finished the season with his sixth career season averaging at least 1.00 points per game.  He had 52 points in 50 games before going 1-1-2 in his last five games of the season to fall just short.  It might have been a case of a hip injury he suffered finally caught up with him.  It would be a tough stretch run for a player who was 13-25-38 in his first 36 games, posted points in 27 of those 36 games, and led his team to a 23-9-4 record in those 36 games.  He was even better early on, going 5-8-13 in his first nine games as Tom Wilson missed two game, Lars Eller missed two games, Alex Ovechkin missed four, Evgeny Kuznetsov missed five contests, and Dmitry Orlov missed five games.

Cheerless’ Take…

A lot of good things happened when Nicklas Backstrom was on the ice this season, but there were bad things that tunneled into his game.  He led all Caps forwards in goals scored against on ice at even strength (42).  It was an improvement on a per-game basis over last year (0.76 goals against per game versus 0.97 last season).  His plus-6 goal differential at even strength was tied for fifth-worst in 12 seasons since the NHL began recording these statistics.  Backstrom also had the second worst faceoff winning percentage (48.3 percent) of his career and worst since his rookie season in 2007-2008 (46.3 percent).  What was especially disappointing here was his 46.5 percent winning percentage in power play situations (60-for-129).  And there was also the two goals on 34 shots in his last 22 regular season games (5.9 percent shooting) after posting 13 goals on 57 shots (22.8 percent shooting) in his first 33 games.

Odd Backstrom Fact… The Caps were 11-5-2 when Backstrom was shut out on points (.667 points percentage), 24-10-3 (.689) when he recorded at least one point.

Odd Backstrom Fact II… Backstrom liked home cooking.  Ten of his 13 multi-point games this season were recorded at Capital One Arena.

Odd Backstrom Fact III… For the second consecutive season (and second time in his career) Backstrom did not have a game-winning goal.

Game to Remember… April 15, 2021 vs. Buffalo.  Not even a loss to the Buffalo Sabres in mid-April could diminish how meaningful that game in April was to the career of Nicklas Backstrom.  He pulled on a Caps jersey for the 1,000th time in the regular season in his career, the second player in team history to dress for 1,000 games as a Capital.  The team honored him in pre-game warmups as every player wore his number “19.”  He was honored by the team before the puck drop.

And, in typical fashion, he got on the score sheet with an assist on a second period goal by Anthony Mantha scored at 6-on-5 with a delayed penalty having been called on the Sabres. Since coming into the league in 2007-2008, Backstrom is one of 16 players to have appeared in at least 1,000 regular season games.

Game to Forget... February 20, 2021 vs. New York Rangers.  Backstrom started the season on fire, going 8-12-20 in his first 15 games, and he went into a game against the Rangers on a five-game point streak and having been held without a point only twice in those first 15 games.  That productive run was blunted when he was held off the score sheet, failed to record a shot on goal, and was minus-2 in 17:20 worth of work.  It was the first of a seven-game stretch in which he was “only” 2-3-5.

Postseason… It was not a vintage Backstrom postseason, no doubt influenced by a hip injury he suffered late in the regular season.  He finished 0-1-1, minus-2, for the second consecutive year in the playoffs.  Even with the injury, Backstrom gutted it out, averaging 20:53 in ice time over five games played, third among forwards, while his average shift time (0:49) was fourth among all skaters.

One thing that diminished on a game-to-game basis against Boston in the opening round loss was his individual shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5.  It was 57.8 percent in Game 1 of the series, the Caps lone win, but was under 50 percent in the remaining four games, all Bruin victories.  And, he was on ice for only one even strength goal scored by the Caps in the series, a problem the top line had generally (Alex Ovechkin and Anthony Mantha also were on ice for only one even strength goal in the series).

Looking ahead…

Injury and age in any player, even one as consistently productive as Nicklas Backstrom has been over his career, begs the question, will his production now start to decline?  Backstrom’s game has never been predicated on the kinds of skills one would expect to diminish as a player gets to his mid-30’s – speed, velocity of shot, physical strength used with an edge.  His game has been more cerebral, an ability to bend the pace of a game to a one of his liking and an ability to see several moves ahead.  One could reasonably expect that these skills would diminish more slowly than the others.  One thing that is of concern is the scoring that opponents have at even strength with Backstrom on ice.  The 0.76 goals against per game at even strength is an improvement over last season (0.97, the worst of his career), but it is the third straight year he has been over 0.76 goals against per game.  Goals against at evens are not the problem of a single player, but for one who was often thought to be deserving of more attention as a potential Selke Trophy finalist as best defensive forward in the league, this bears some watching going forward.

In the end…

Backstrom’s remarkable consistency extended to his point totals against opponents in 2020-2021:

  • Boston: 8 games/1-8-9
  • Buffalo: 8 games/5-4-9
  • Pittsburgh: 8 games/3-5-8
  • New Jersey: 8 games/2-5-7
  • NY Islanders: 8 games/1-6-7
  • Philadelphia: 7 games/2-5-7
  • NY Rangers: 8 games/1-5-6

It has been the signature aspect of his game for more than a decade.  But what hovers over his present situation is the hip injury in the late stages of the regular season and that eroded his production as the season wound down.   Even with the hip injury, Backstrom was 0-1-1, minus-2, for the second consecutive postseason, and he is without a goal in his last 12 postseason games.  If the Caps are going to return to the short list of Stanley Cup contenders in 2021-2022, Backstrom’s regular season numbers, especially in terms of games played, will not matter in the larger scheme of things, which is to turn those disappointing postseason numbers around.

Grade: B


Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Self versus Team -- Two Perspectives

“For the past couple of years, anytime anyone has ever talked about Ovechkin, it has been within the context of goals, specifically how many he’ll end up scoring before the end of his career. It seems almost with every goal Ovechkin scores these days comes with it a detailed synopsis of which all-time great he’s hunting down in career goals. (Checks notes. Notices that Ovechkin needs two more goals to pass Marcel Dionne for fifth all-time and 11 to usurp Brett Hull for fourth.)

This has to stop, for the good of the Washington Capitals. If Ovechkin does come back the way everyone expects he will, it has to stop being about goals. You know why? Because for all of his brilliance, for all of his otherworldly and unparalleled scoring ability, Alex Ovechkin has one Stanley Cup in 16 seasons.  That’s why. In fact, when you look at his career in totality, the ledger of playoff flops and disappointments is far more populated than playoff triumphs.”

Well, well.  Now isn’t that a piece of fine writing?  And no, this isn’t some speculative piece written in the early 2010’s, when every pundit with a pen seemed to think Ovechkin was (a) all about goals, and (b) would be better off playing anywhere else but Washington, D.C.  This was written by The Hockey News’ Ken Campbell on Wednesday of this week, who has some advice for Caps’ fans added for free…

“If I’m a fan of the Washington Capitals, nothing would thrill me more than to see Ovechkin to come into training camp in the fall and say the following: ‘I could not possibly care less how many goals I score this season or for the rest of my career. If I score 18 goals this season and we win the Stanley Cup, that would be the greatest thing ever. I’m done chasing ghosts. If I catch them, that’s great. But it is no longer how I will define my career. If sitting out games during the regular season to save myself for the playoffs and/or taking a lesser role later in my career negatively affects my overall numbers, I’m just fine with that as long as we keep chasing Stanley Cups.’”

He doesn’t come out and call Ovechkin a selfish, goals-at-all-costs player, but you can see that label from where Campbell sits.  We thought that tired trope was retired years ago.  But Campbell decided to revive it by drawing a bright line from Ovechkin’s chase of a goal scoring record in the regular season to playoff disappointment.  No one is going to argue that the Caps have been disappointing in the postseason for much of Ovechkin’s career.  In 14 postseasons since 2008, when the Caps first qualified for the playoffs in Year 3 of Ovechkin’s career, the Caps participated 13 times and won more games (69 as of Tuesday) than all but three other franchises – Pittsburgh (99), Boston (88), and Chicago (80).  On the other hand, they were eliminated in the first round six times (including 2020, after the round-robin play-in) and were beaten in the second round six other times.  Only their Stanley Cup season of 2018 stands out for having advanced past the second round.

But is Ovechkin, and his pursuit of regular season records, a cause for playoff disappointment?  He is 71-64-135, plus-8, in 141 games for his career (every playoff game the Caps played in that period) – first in goals overall, fourth among wingers in assists, third in points, eighth in points per game (0.96) among 311 players participating in at least 50 postseason games.  He isn’t even slowing down all that much in recent years.  In three postseasons since the Caps won the Cup, he is 10-8-18 in 20 playoff games (0.90 points per game).  By way of comparison, the contemporary player with whom he is most compared – Sidney Crosby – is 3-3-6 in 13 postseason games over the same three-year span.

But his contemporary is not the relevant comparison here.  Ovechkin is a player painted as one in pursuit of regular season records at the expense (even if unintended) of postseason success, of putting self above team.  How is such a portrait reconciled with another otherworldly (an adjective Campbell uses to describe Ovechkin) talent?  One who has been in the league six seasons and has established himself as the best offensive talent, by miles, in the NHL?  In the regular season, that is.  In those six regular seasons, Connor McDavid has four 100-point seasons, including this past season in which he posted 105 points in just 56 games, a 154-point pace for 82 games, which would have been the most points for a full NHL season since Mario Lemieux recorded 161 points in 70 games in 1995-1996.

But in those six seasons, McDavid has been to the postseason three times, and his Edmonton Oilers have one playoff series win to show for it, that coming in his sophomore season in 2016-2017 (Ovechkin’s Capitals were in the postseason in four of his first six seasons with two series wins).  McDavid, who has averaged 1.41 points per game in 407 career regular season games, has 22 points in 21 career postseason games (1.05 per game, tenth among players dressing for at least 15 games).

Where is the sense of disappointment?  Edmonton has won eight postseason games in McDavid’s career (tied for 20th since he came into the league in 2015-2016), and they have a .381 winning percentage (22nd).  Where is the question about whether posing gaudy points numbers in the regular season isn’t coming at the expense of postseason success?  And for that matter, where is the underlying story that followed Ovechkin around that the player (and perhaps the team) would be so much better off in another city?  Such stories just aren’t there, or at the very least, the volume on any such story has been turned down.

Look, Campbell is hardly an outlier in this kind of commentary.  And he is certainly not unique in this kind of focus on Ovechkin, while McDavid seems to get a pass (mostly, it seems from the northern press, who as often as not read like “fans” and not “reporters” when it comes to McDavid, but that’s just what it appears to be from our perch) for his team’s postseason failures in his early career.  Both teams have had disappointments in the postseason, although it is Ovechkin’s Caps who have a Cup (albeit in his 13th season).  But for now, while Ovechkin is treated as a player in pursuit of goals instead of championships, McDavid is hailed for point totals and highlight reel end-to-end rushes, while his lack of postseason success is rarely, if ever mentioned, and when done so, usually in the context of weak teammate support or ineffective team management.

The failures of the Capitals and the Oilers cannot be laid at the feet of Ovechkin or McDavid.  Both are extraordinary talents in different ways, Ovechkin as the greatest goal scorer of his generation (or perhaps ever, when era-corrected stats are considered), McDavid as the most prolific point producer of his era and perhaps the most electrifying skater in decades.  Years from now, both will have their names featured prominently in the NHL record book.  We daresay that both will retire with Stanley Cups on their resumes. But the treatment these players have received in their careers, especially in their early careers, has been quite different, and that says far more about who is doing the writing than who is doing the playing.

Photo: Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images