Thursday, May 21, 2015

Top Ten Reasons Mike Babcock Took the Maple Leaf Job

We're all going to miss David Letterman, so here is our humble (you may read: "lame") homage to that format...

Here they are, the top ten reasons Mike Babcock signed with Toronto...

Number 10... Engaging with the most knowledgeable fans in hockey in reasoned discourse

Number 9... The chance to see the smiling faces of the Toronto media every day

Number 8... Sharing the night life with Rob Ford

Number 7... He was tired of Datsyuk always muttering something at him in Russian every time they got back together after an international tournament

Number 6... He can see real baseball in the off season, the way it was meant to be played, not that American version

Number 5... No more Obamacare!

Number 4... The chance to follow in the footsteps of coaching legends in Toronto like Mike Nykoluk and Tom Watt

Number 3... He didn’t want a contract that was going to pay him in bacon-wrapped pizza

Number 2... He's a sucker for the metric system

…and the number one reason Mike Babcock took the job in Toronto…

The chance to coach the myth, the man, the legend that is Phil Kessel


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Washington Capitals: 2014-2015 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Matt Niskanen


“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.”
-- Seneca


The Matt Niskanen that signed a seven-year/$40.25 million contract with the Washington Capitals in July 2014 was something of an anomaly in the context of his own career.  In the 2013-2014 season – his “walk” year with the Pittsburgh Penguins – Niskanen scored ten goals, more than the combined total he recorded in his previous three seasons covering 178 games (nine).  He had more points (46) than he had over those same three seasons (45).  He tied a personal best in power play goals (3) and tripled his best season in game-winning goals with six.  It would be a difficult season to match.

He did not, at least in terms of the raw numbers.  Four goals, 31 points, a pair of power play goals, no game winners.  If you were comparing that to last year’s Matt Niskanen, the 2015 version might pale somewhat in that comparison.  It would also be unfair to Niskanen. 

The 2013-2014 season was a a bit of a unique instance for Niskanen.  It was a case of an opportunity born out of misfortune.  Kris Letang missed 45 games last season for the Pittsburgh Penguins to a lower body injury, and upper body injury, and then a cardiovascular ailment.  Niskanen played in all of those games, assuming much of the role Letang played.  In those 45 games, Niskanen went 7-19-26, plus-15, with three power play goals and a 120 shots on goal.  On an 82-game basis that would work out to a 13-35-47, plus-27 season. 

As it was, Niskanen was actually 10-36-46, plus-33, last season.  The difference was essentially the power play production (all three power play goals he scored came with Letang out of the lineup).  It was not going to be a role he would reprise for the Caps in his first season, either in replacing a top defenseman lost to illness or injury, or in getting top power play minutes over a long stretch of games.

Niskanen’s first season with the Caps resembled more his body of work before last season and in fact was slightly better.  On an 82-game basis, Niskanen was a 5-19-24, plus-1 player in his first six seasons in the NHL with an average of one power play goal, six power play assists, and 116 shots on goal.  In 82 games this season he was 4-27-31, plus-7 with two power play goals and eight power play assists to go with 117 shots on goal.

Niskanen’s ten-game segments display a certain consistency about them as well on one level, but an odd change over time on another level.  He was generally in the 3-4 point range per segment, and he recorded special teams points in six of the eight segments (including a shorthanded assist in the fourth segment).  His shots on goal were generally in the mid-teens across the segments. 


Fearless’ Take: Niskanen is an all-situations defenseman.  He was the only Capitals defensemen to average at least 19 minutes of even strength ice time per game and at least a minute a night on both the power play and penalty kill.  In fact, he was one of only 18 defensemen in the league with that ice time profile.  His 22:21 in average ice time was a career best for him.

Cheerless’ Take:  Look over at the columns in the far right of that summary table at the top of the page.  His Corsi plus-minus (all situations) was a net plus-68 over his first 50 games, but in his last 32 games it was a minus-91.  The scoring chance plus-minus follows a similar pattern, plus-74 in his first 50 games, minus-54 in his last 32 games.  Oddly enough, his goal differential (all situations) in those last 32 games was a plus-4 (all numbers from war-on-ice.com).  Why?  Perhaps it was those four power play assists (doubling his output over his first 70 games) that contributed to the result.  But that sure was an odd end of the season.

Odd Niskanen Fact:  That Corsi plus-minus in all situations of minus-23 can be explained in its entirety (and then some) by his performance against New York teams.  Niskanen was minus-27 against the Ranger and Islanders, plus-4 against the rest of the league.  Making that fact a bit stranger is that he was 1-5-6, even, against those two teams in eight games.

Game to Remember: November 28th versus the New York Islanders.  Matt Niskanen’s start with his new team was a lurching on, at least in the offensive end.  In his first 19 games with the Capitals he did not record a goal and had only five assists, those coming in three games.  He was having particular trouble scoring at home.  In ten home contests over those first 19 games, Niskanen was 0-2-2, plus-2.  He got his first goal as a Cap in his 17th game (and his first home ice goal) in a 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on November 22nd.  Then came a home-and-home set with the Islanders.  Niskanen recorded an assist in the first of those two games, the first time he recorded points in consecutive games with the Caps, although the Caps lost again, 3-2, in overtime. 

In the back half of the home-and-home at Verizon Center, Niskanen recorded his high for points in the 2014-2015 season.  He assisted on the Caps’ first two goals, a primary assist on a power play goal by Andre Burakovsky and another primary assist on a goal by Marcus Johansson late in the first period of that contest.  The Caps gave away the lead, allowing two goals in the space of 35 seconds in the last 1:02 of the first period of that game, but they took the lead in the second period on a goal from Alex Ovechkin, then added a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov in the third.  Niskanen took a hit to make a play late in the contest, taking one from Brock Nelson just as he was about to send the puck around the back wall in his own end.  It started a play that was finished by a Joel Ward empty net goal, and Niskanen had his third assist of the game, the first time he did so since February 2009 with the Dallas Stars.

Game to Forget: November 1st versus Tampa Bay.  It started in the game’s seventh minute when Matt Niskanen got caught in a no-man’s land above the hash marks trying to defend Bryan Boyle.  He tried to poke the puck off Boyle’s stick, but it was late and Boyle’s shot was redirected by Ryan Callahan to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead.  The Caps took the lead on goals by Marcus Johansson and Eric Fehr, but in the tenth minute of the second period, the Lightning scored again.  This time Niskanen got caught at the front of the net peering at Nikita Kucherov with the puck behind the Caps’ net.  Niskanen did not see Ondrej Palat pinching in and was no position to defend the one-timer from Palat off a pass from Kucherov.  Niskanen could not be faulted on the Lightning’s third goal, a redirect from Kucherov, but he did get a good look at it from the opposite side of the crease from where Kucherov was camped.  Washington tied the game in the last minute of the second period on a power play goal from Troy Brouwer, but the Caps lost on a third period goal by Jason Garrison.  Niskanen was not on ice for that goal in the 4-3 loss, but the three goals he was on ice for contributed to his worst plus-minus (minus-3) of the season.

Postseason: 0-4-4, minus-2

Niskanen’s postseason mirrored a lot of Caps defensemen.  The offensive contributions of the regular season were not as evident in the playoffs, especially against the Rangers in the second round (one assist in seven games).  He did lead Washington’s defensemen in takeaways in the postseason with nine.  Trouble was, he also led the blue line in giveaways with 24.

In the end…

The reasonable evaluation of Niskanen’s year would be that he delivered what would reasonably be expected of him.  Accounting for the year he had in Pittsburgh last season under somewhat unique circumstances, his performance numbers were a bit better than his career numbers would have suggested.  Even with the somewhat bizarre Corsi and scoring chance numbers late in the season, Niskanen was a steady, durable, reliable performer.  Sort of like radial tires.  You don’t really think about them much, but they do their job.

That odd fact does kind of loop around to an odd outcome of Niskanen’s season, though.  He was 1-4-5, plus-1 against the Islanders this season, but he was just 1-2-3, minus-7 in 20 games against other teams in the Eastern Conference that reached the playoffs.

On balance, though, Niskanen provided solid minutes in a second-pair role.  There is no reason to suspect that his contributions going forward would be any less.  In that sense, his new start with a new team in a new city was not so much a continuation of the experience he left behind in Pittsburgh as it was a return to the solid defenseman he has demonstrated himself to be, the sort that can be used in any situation.

Grade: B

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Washington Capitals: 2014-2015 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Mike Green



“I think goodbyes are sad and I'd much rather say hello. Hello to a new adventure.”
-- Ernie Harwell


Mike Green first took the ice for the Washington Capitals on October 12, 2005 in Carolina against the Hurricanes.  It was not an auspicious start for Green, nor was it a memorable evening for the Caps in general.  Green recorded 14 minutes and change in ice time, recording neither a shot on goal nor a point, finishing with one hit and two blocked shots in a 7-2 Caps loss.

However, in 574 games since that evening, Green ranks at or near the top in a number of statistical categories among defensemen in team history:
  • Games played: 575 (8th)
  • Goals: 113 (T-3rd, with Calle Johansson)
  • Assists: 247 (5th)
  • Points: 360 (5th)
  • Plus/Minus: plus-58 (6th)
  • Power Play Goals: 52 (2nd)
He is one of only 21 defensemen in Capitals history to record a shorthanded goal, and despite a record of injuries that robbed him of much of the most productive part of his career, he is fourth among active players on the team in games played with the club.

All of that is relevant because for Green and Capitals fans, the 2014-2015 season, if not The Long Goodbye, might be The Long Question Mark.  As an unrestricted free agent, would it be his last season with the Capitals?  That is a question that cannot be answered  in the here and now, but if the 2014-2015 season was Green’s last in Washington, he remained one of the best offensive defensemen in the league.  On a per game basis, Green finished as one of 10 defensemen who played in 70 or more games, averaged at least 0.10 goals per game, at least 0.45 assists per game, and at least 0.60 points per game.

Green remains one of the most consistent performers on the power play among NHL defensemen.  His 16 assists with the man advantage ranked tied for tenth among defensemen this season, an improvement on his 24th place ranking in 2013-2014 and consistent with his tied for 11th ranking in 2012-2013.  In this area, he improved as the season wore on.  Green had only two power play assists in over the first three ten-game segments of the season, but he recorded at least one in each of his last five segments, 14 in all.

It was part of a season in which Green, despite a diminished role as a third pair defenseman, still finished the season in the top-20 in total scoring among defensemen (45 points, tied for 16th).  There was the matter of that diminished role, though.  For the first time since the 2006-2007 season, his first full season in the league, Green averaged less than 20 minutes of ice time per game.  The drop in even strength ice time was more pronounced.  Coming into this season, Green had led the Caps’ defensemen in even strength ice time per game in six of the past seven years including the two years preceding this one.  This season his even strength ice time dropped from the 19:28 he recorded last season to 15:47, fifth highest on the club.


Fearless’ Take:  More than the ice time is the mix.  If you look at how Capitals defensemen spent even strength time with one another, one is taken by the consistency among the first and second pairs:



Brooks Orpik spent 84.1 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time with John Carlson, and Carlson spent 84.2 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time with Orpik (all numbers for ice time from stats.hockeyanalysis.com).  Similarly, Karl Alzner spent 89.9 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time with Matt Niskanen, while Niskanen spent 83.6 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time with Alzner.

Then there was Green.  He did not spend more than 30 percent of his 5-on-5 ice time with any other Caps defenseman and spent 20 percent or more (rounded) with three defensemen – Nate Schmidt, Jack Hillen, and Tim Gleason. 


And it could be reasonably said that the three were of different types, Schmidt a youngster who is more energetic in the offensive end, Hillen a two way type who depends on guile and position far more than physical presence, and Gleason a physical stay-at-home defenseman (a sort of “John Erskine-lite”).  If Green was not quite the offensive force he once was, and if he did play a diminished role, he did it in challenging circumstances with the variety of partners he had.

Cheerless’ Take:  Mike Green as a power play force seems something of a memory.  From 2007-2008 through 2013-2014, Green scored more power play goals than any defenseman (51) except Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber.  Those two recorded only two more power play goals than Green despite playing in roughly 100 more games (500 for Weber and 522 for Chara, while Green played in only 411).  No other defenseman over that period is within a dozen power play goals of Green (Dustin Byfuglien: 37 goals in 417 games).  In 2014-3015, though, Green had one power play goal.

Odd Green Fact: About that lone power play goal.  Mike Green scored it in his first game for the Capitals this season, back on October 11th in a 4-0 win in Boston over the Bruins.  Over his last 71 games and 197:07 in total power play ice time over those games, he would not record another.

Game to Remember: April 5th versus Detroit.  The Capitals clinched a spot in the postseason on this evening, technically, when the Ottawa Senators lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a Gimmick.  The Caps did not settle for backing into the playoffs, though.  Evgeny Kuznetsov scored a power play goal in the first period to give the Caps a 1-0 lead over the Red Wings.  In the second period, Green added to the lead with a blast from the top of the right wing faceoff circle.  It would be the margin of victory in the Caps’ 2-1 win over the Red Wings, Green’s second game-winning goal of the season.

Game to Forget: November 4th versus Calgary.  There was enough grief to go around for the Caps in what would be a 4-3 overtime loss to the Flames at Verizon Center, especially giving up a lead late in the third period.  It would be an especially difficult night for Green, however, who was on ice for all four Calgary goals, including the overtime winner with just 42.2 seconds left in the five-minute extra session.  Green’s minus-4 for the evening was his worst of the season.

Postseason: 0-2-2, minus-1

At a performance level, Mike Green was reduced to being a virtual non-entity in the postseason.  Part of it was deployment (he had half the average power play ice time of John Carlson), part of it was shooting (he did not have a lower average shots per game – 1.93 – in a postseason since 2009), part of it might have been just dumb luck.  He had never gone through a second round of a postseason without a goal in his career, and only once did did he do so at all (the 2010 postseason in which the Caps were eliminated in the first round).  Then, as if the hockey gods were mocking him, he drew two penalties 2:39 apart in the deciding Game 7 of the series against the New York Rangers, the second of which resulted in the game-tying power play goal in a 2-1 Capitals defeat.

In the end…

There is a whole generation of Capitals fans who know no other defenseman manning the right side on the top defensive pair (well, now the third pair) than Mike Green.  You can draw a bright line from Yvon Labre, to Rod Langway, to Scott Stevens, to Larry Murphy, to Kevin Hatcher, to Calle Johansson, to Sergei Gonchar, and finally to Green as Capitals defensemen who made a significant impact on the fortunes of the club over the years.

Since 2007-2008, no defenseman, save Duncan Keith, has more points than Green.  Over a three-year period, from 2007-2008 through 2009-2010, Green was not just the dominant offensive defenseman of the period, he lapped the field.  He had 68 goals over those three seasons; Shea Weber was next with 45.  He had 205 points; Nicklas Lidstrom was next with 178.  He had 36 power play goals; Mark Streit was next with 26.

It is a nice memory, but the reality of 2014-2015 is that Mike Green is not, and is unlikely to become again that defenseman with this club.  He remains one of the most productive offensive defensemen in the game, and his two-way game – so often denigrated when he was putting up those big offensive numbers – has improved by leaps and bounds.  However, he is no longer the minutes-eater he was when he was younger, a concession to the depth the Caps finally have at the position and perhaps the injuries Green sustained over the years that robbed him of 96 games over the three seasons ending in 2013.

There is little reason, in a hockey sense, to think that Green would be any less productive a player over the next four or five seasons than he was this past season, and he was productive indeed, especially in his role (he might have been the best "fifth" defenseman in the league) and given the changing partners on his left side.  But he and the Caps are going to have to deal with some difficult arithmetic.  A player of his talent could still be a top-pairing defenseman on a number of teams, and he could command $6 million or more per year in the free agent market.  That is a number that the Capitals almost certainly cannot accommodate in their payroll structure.

The difficult arithmetic means that Green might share something else with those Capitals defensemen of the past.  Like Stevens, Murphy, Hatcher, Johansson, and Gonchar - all of whom would move on from the Capitals, albeit under differing circumstances - it could mean that Green will be moving on to a new city come July.  It will be sad for Caps fans, should it come to pass, and no doubt for Green as well.  But it would be a new adventure for him, too, and Caps fans would have the memory of having witnessed one of the best careers in the history of the franchise.

Grade: B

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Monday, May 18, 2015

Washington Capitals: 2014-2015 By the Tens -- Defensemen: John Carlson



“Always do whatever's next.”
-- George Carlin


John Carlson has played five full seasons in the National Hockey League, and his progress has trended upward through each of those five seasons.  His goals per game has improved from 0.09 per game to 0.15, assists from 0.37 to 0.52, points from 0.45 to 0.67, shots on goal from 1.76 to 2.35.  He is one of only seven skaters to have played in every game over those five seasons and one of only three defensemen to do so (Keith Yandle and teammate Karl Alzner being the others).

There is also a certain balance to his game evidenced in those five seasons.  Using Hockey-Reference.com’s point share estimates over the last five seasons (the points contributed by a player from his offense and defense), Carlson is 14th among defensemen in offensive point share contributions, 16th in defensive point share contributions, and 12th overall (minimum: 200 games played). 

In 2014-2015, Carlson finished in the top dozen among defensemen in goals (11 – tied for 1th), assists (43 – tied for 5th), points (55 – tied for fifth), even strength assists (30 – second), even strength points (38 – second), and blocked shots (200 – third).  He was barely outside the top dozen in shorthanded ice time per game (2:57 – tied for 15th) and takeaways (41 – tied for 17th).  Again -- balance.  He was one of only four defensemen in the league whose offensive and defensive point share contributions were 4.8 or better (minimum: 40 games). 

There might be a subset of all of these numbers that bears watching as the Caps move forward.  Over the last five seasons, Carlson’s power play points have improved from 2.1 points per 60 minutes in 2010-2011 to 6.8 points per game this season.  This year’s number led the formidable Capitals power play, part of a three-headed monster from the blue line in that regard (Matt Niskanen averaged 6.8 points per 60 minutes, and Mike Green averaged 5.20 points per 60 minutes; numbers from war-on-ice.com). 

Carlson’s ten-game segments reflect a measure of consistency on the offensive end.  Only once did he fail to score a goal in any ten-game segment; only once did he record more than two goals.  Similarly, he did not finish any ten-game segment with fewer than five points, and only once did he have more than eight.  Digging underneat those numbers, Carlson feel into a ditch in his Corsi plus-minus (minus-75 in the fourth segment, minus-126 overall) and scoring chance plus-minus (minus-47 in the fourth segment, minus-35 overall) by the fourth ten-game segment of the season.  But over the last half of the season he slowly dragged himself out of that hole, or at least where he could see daylight (minus-17 Corsi +/- and minus-31 in scoring chances, but improvement in each ten-game segment).  The odd part in those ten-game segments, though, was Carlson’s goal differential – plus-3 over the first four ten-game segments, minus-3 over the last four segments.


Fearless’ Take: Carlson’s year-to-year improvement in his offensive numbers is substantial.  Goals up from 10 to 12, assists up from 27 to 43, points up from 37 to 55, plus-minus from minus-3 to plus-11.  He has quietly become one of the most productive offensive defensemen in the game.  Over the last two seasons, Carlson is one of five defensemen to have recorded 20 or more total goals and 70 or more total assists.  The others read like an all-star team top four: Erik Karlsson, P.K. Subban, Victor Hedman, and Mark Giordano.

Cheerless’ Take:  John Carlson can scare up some pretty nice efforts against elite players, but sometimes he ends up being victimized by middle-of-the-pack players or the odd lost second or two of focus.  Carlson skated more than 35 minutes at even strength against Sidney Crosby this past season, and Crosby did not have a goal.  Claude Giroux scored just one in 39:52 in 5-on-5 ice time against Carlson.  On the other hand, there are players like Andrej Nestratil (two goals in 20 minutes at 5-on-5 against Carlson) and Anders Lee (two goals in 23:04; numbers from http://stats.hockeyanalysis.com).  It seems that one part of Carlson’s game he has not yet been entirely able to shake is being around for a goal that probably should not have been scored.

Odd Carlson Fact: Six times this season John Carlson recorded at least five shots on goal in a game.  Number of goals scored on those 34 shots: zero.

Game to Remember: March 15th against Boston.  The Capitals went into their game against the Bruins on March 15th trying to nip a slump in the bud.  They had lost three of their last four games, the last of which was a lackluster 4-2 loss to Dallas at home.  The Caps had a healthy lead in the race for a playoff spot, but it shrunk from 11 to six points over the ninth-place team that 1-3-0 skid.  They needed a jolt, and Carlson provided it against the Bruins.  On a Capitals power play early in the context, he started the scoring sequence with a feed to Alex Ovechkin for a one-timer that went off the side of the cage.  The puck was turned aside by goalie Tuukka Rask, but it was tracked down by Troy Brouwer behind the net.  He fed the puck around the wall to Nicklas Backstrom who hit “reset” and fed Carlson.  Instead of sending the puck to Ovechkin again, Carlson fired and beat Rask to give the Caps a 1-0 lead in a game they would win, 2-0, to take over the first playoff wild card spot.  It was one of two game-winning goals that Carlson would have against Boston this season.

Game to Forget: October 14th versus San Jose.  You have two assists in a game and still go minus-4?  Well, it happened to John Carlson on this night against the San Jose Sharks.  Before the game was ten minutes old, the Sharks had a 3-0 lead, and Carlson was on the ice for all three goals scored by the visitors.  By the time the game was into the second minute of the third period, Carlson had been on ice for all five goals scored by the Sharks.  Nevertheless, the Capitals came from behind by two goals to tie the game late in the third period but lost in a Gimmick, 6-5.  It would be Carlson’s worst plus-minus game of the season.

Postseason: 1-5-6, plus-3, 1 PPG

One of the hallmarks of the Capitals’ season was the contributions on offense by defensemen.  John Carlson was the biggest part of that.  And when the offense from the blue line dried up, especially in the second round series against the Rangers (no goals and three assists from six defensemen in seven games), the Capitals’ chances to advance were diminished.  And Carlson was a big part of that, too.  He took an o-fer on 22 shots in those seven games against the Rangers and had one goal on 41 shots for the postseason overall.  He was on-ice for 11 of the 28 goals scored against the Caps in the post season, a number that puts him in the top twenty of defensemen in goals scored against/on ice.  While that is not necessarily a rank one would want attached to their name, it is fewer than the goals against scored while on ice for such as P.K. Subban, Duncan Keith, and Ryan Suter.  The Capitals – and Carlson – were very stingy on defense.  The Capitals – and Carlson – found points hard to come by.  It made for a lot of one-goal decisions; too many, as it turned out, for the Caps.

In the end…

John Carlson has, without much fanfare, become one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL, which is a nice development, especially with the uncertain return of Mike Green next season.  However, there might be limits to that in its effect on games.  Carlson set a personal best by recording a point in 40 of the Capitals’ 82 games this season.  It eclipsed his 31 games with points set last season.  The Caps were 23-12-5 in games in which he recorded a point, 22-14-6 in games in which he did not.  Look like a significant difference?  It doesn’t to us, either.

Nevertheless, Carlson has become a cornerstone of the Caps’ blue line and the team in general.  His development has been a steady, unbroken arc since he was drafted 27th overall in 2008 by the Capitals.  He is one of an impressive cohort of NHL defensemen in their mid-20s who could dominate the league for years to come.  That arc might have to continue climbing upward for the Caps and Carlson to be successful.  Should Mike Green depart in free agency, he will become the go-to offensive contributor from the blue line, even with Matt Niskanen in the lineup.  And, his use in all situations (he led the team in shorthanded ice time per game, for example) suggests that he will be the unquestioned number one defenseman for the Caps.  The roles expand and become more complex for Carlson, but it is what comes next after a very good season.

Grade: B+

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images North America

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Washington Capitals: 2014-2015 By the Tens -- Defensemen: Karl Alzner



“I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be.”
-- Douglas Adams


If you are not an offensive defenseman with a big shot or an ability to run a power play, or if you are not a big hitter on the back end for your club, your value is in being where you need to be on defense – a positional defender who depends on angles, stick placement, and position to prevent opponents from getting scoring chances and goals.

For Karl Alzner, the 2014-2015 season was a huge improvement in the most basic of metrics for a defenseman – goals allowed on ice.  Last season, Alzner was on ice for 85 goals against, second most on the team and top (or bottom, depending on your perspective) 30 in the league.  In 2014-2015, Alzner shaved that number by 30 goals against, to 55.  Part of that was time on ice.  Alzner, while skating in all 82 games for fourth time in his career (and in every game for the fifth consecutive year), recorded almost 100 fewer total minutes in total ice time.  That, in turn, was a reflection of his playing primarily a second pairing role with Matt Niskanen. 

In his ten-game progression, there is the trend.  Alzner had as slow start in what for him (or rather, given his responsibilities) were revealing statistics.  Over his first three ten-game segments he was a minus-5 and had a minus-ten overall goal differential.

From that stuttering start, however, he took off.  In his fourth ten game segment, Alzner was 2-2-4, plus-10 and had a total goal differential of plus-9.  It was his best ten-game segment of the season.  However, it was an odd segment in which to do well.  Those ten games were evenly split between teams that would reach the playoffs (Ottawa, the Rangers, Pittsburgh, the Islanders, and Chicago) and five that would not (Columbus, New Jersey, Florida, Toronto, and Philadelphia). He did not record a point in games against the playoff-bound teams.  Alzner was a “plus” player in eight of the ten games and even in the other two.  He was a plus-1 in scoring chances for and against (numbers from war-on-ice.com), but he was a minus-5 overall in Corsi +/- (total shot attempts for and against).

Overall, Alzner finished the season with career bests in goals (5), assists (16, the third time in four years he hit that number), points (21), and plus-minus (plus-14, matching his 2010-2011 result).  His shooting percentage of 6.9 percent for the season was three times better than his career shooting percentage coming into the season (2.3 percent).

Fearless’ Take: Alzner has been a rather consistent defenseman over his five full seasons with the Caps, with two exceptions, both of them this season.  There is the scoring that Peerless noted, Alzner setting or tying personal bests in goals, assists, and points.  But an edge crept into his game this season.  Hits are a somewhat arbitrary statistic, but even allowing for that he was in a 73-98 range over his previous four seasons.  This season he finished with 120 hits, by far a career high.  More offense, more physical play.  New dimensions in Alzner’s game.

Cheerless’ Take: Let’s go back to those tens, cousins.  His overall Corsi plus-minus over his last three segments covering 32 games was minus-143.  Almost five more shots against than for per game over those games.  The scoring chances plus-minus was minus-82; that was after being a plus-33 over the first five ten-game segments.  His scoring chances plus-minus over his last segment was minus-41, almost three and a half more scoring chances against over those 12 games.

Odd Alzner Fact: Alzner did have a career best five goals this season, but none of them came against an Eastern Conference playoff-eligible team.  He was 0-3-3, even, in 24 games against teams in the East reaching the post season.  His five goals came against New Jersey (2), Florida, Columbus, and St. Louis.

Game to Remember: March 26th versus New Jersey.  The Capitals were coming off a 3-0 shutout loss in Winnipeg against the Jets and a four-day break when the hosted the New Jersey Devils in late March.  Karl Alzner was in a slump, recording only one assist in his previous nine games and no goals in his previous 23 games before taking the ice against the Devils.  The Caps were treading water over their previous eight games, going 4-4-0.  Alzner broke his goal drought early in the contest when he took a pass from Matt Niskanen at the top of the left wing circle, stepped up, and fired a wrist shot that beat goalie Cory Schneider on the short side to give the Caps an early 1-0 lead.  The teams exchanged second period goals, but the Devils got the only third period goal to send the game to overtime.  In the second minute of the extra session, Evgeny Kuznetsov tried to feed Marcus Johansson cutting to the net, but Damon Severson got a stick on the puck to deflect it away from Johansson.  The puck came bouncing out to the right point where Alzner one timed a backhand pass to Matt Niskanen on the left point.  Niskanen fired a shot that Kuznetsov redirected past Schneider, giving the Caps a 3-2 win, a victory that would sent the Caps off on a 6-2-1 finish to the regular season and give Alzner his second two-point game of the season.

Game to Forget:  November 1st versus Tampa Bay.  The Caps were not off to the hottest of starts with new head coach Barry Trotz.  They played October to a 4-3-2 record and were 1-3-0 to finish the month.  Things did not look a lot better to start this game.  Ryan Callahan scored just over six minutes into the game, sneaking out from behind the net to redirect a Brian Boyle shot while Alzner was occupied by Brenden Morrow in front of the net.  After the Caps took a 2-1 lead in the second, the Lightning tied the game in the tenth minute of the period when Alzner got caught chasing – first Tyler Johnson as he was curling through the faceoff circle with the puck, then, when Johnson fed the puck forward, Nikita Kucherov behind the Tampa Bay net.  Kucherov fed the puck back to Ondrej Palat in the space Alzner departed, and the Lightning forward snapped it into the net to tie the game.  Kucherov victimized Alzner for the Lightning’s third goal when he redirected a drive by Eric Brewer with Alzner on his left hip.  The Caps tied the game late in the period – a Troy Brouwer power play goal in the last minute – but the Lightning won with a third period goal from Jason Garrison.  The three goals Alzner was on ice for was his high for the season.

Postseason:  2-2-4, even, 1 GWG

Alzner set career bests in offensive contributions in the playoffs, too.  It was very much a front-loaded contribution, though.  He had two goals in the Caps’ first five games of the first round against the New York Islanders, then recorded just one assist in his last nine post season games.  As it was, his two goals led the Caps’ defensemen in the playoffs (the team had only three), and his four points was tied for second among blueliners.  The goals against were a bit more disturbing.  After being on ice for 0.67 goals per game in the regular season, Alzner was on ice for 11 goals against in 14 games (0.79). 

His Corsi-for share (47.95 percent) was not significantly different from his regular season result (46.35), another indicator of consistency and dependability (at least in terms of what to expect) in Alzner’s game.

The better level of competition and the small number of games does not make his overall contribution significantly different in the post season compared to his regular season performance, but like a number of other Caps, he was not quite up to what was needed in the strongest parts of his game.

In the end…

Being a defensive defenseman in the NHL is a little like being a cornerback in the National Football League.  No matter how good you are, you are going to get beat from time to time.  Even though Karl Alzner’s role changed a bit this season – moved off the top pair with John Carlson to play second pair minutes – his game is still one of being a “shutdown” defenseman.  And in that role, he was better this year than last.  Or, perhaps more accurately, more effective, as reflected in so many fewer goals scored against the Caps with Alzner on ice. 

Part of that might be attributed to better coaching.  The Caps had a much more experienced group behind the bench this season than they had last season.  However, the player still needs to execute.  For the most part, Alzner did.  His offensive numbers established a career standard, and his goals against/on ice was quite a year-to-year improvement. 

But there were some underlying elements one would like to see Alzner improve upon, the Corsi and scoring chance numbers, for instance.  On balance, though, it was a good year for Alzner.  He will have just turned 27 years old when the season dawns next October, a signal that he is entering what should be his prime years.  In that sense, we see what Alzner is, although he might be a better version of it in the years to come – durable, dependable, unspectacular.  It might be the perfect description of a second pair defenseman, a role for which Alzner might be well suited, one that he played quite well in 2014-2015.  It might not be where one thought a fifth-overall draft pick might go, but for the Capitals it is a place he needs to be.

Grade: B

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Thursday, May 14, 2015

For the Capitals, Everything Changes but the Ending


May 13th.  That is a date that should have meaning for Caps fans, although we guarantee they will not like the reason. Last night, the night of May 13th, the Caps lost Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semi-final match against the New York Rangers.  It is the third time in the last six trips to the post season that the Caps were eliminated on that date.  They dropped a 6-2 decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins on that date in 2009 in a Game 7; they lost to the Rangers by a 5-0 margin on that date in 2012 in a Game 7.

In fact, in the 40 year history of the franchise, the Capitals have played hockey past May 13th only twice.  Once was in their 1998 run to the Stanley Cup final; the other was in 1995, when the playoffs started later than usual owing to a lockout that delayed the start of the season.  Perhaps fittingly, the Caps lost all three games played after May 13th that year, Games 5, 6, and 7 of their first round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, blowing a 3-1 series lead and bowing out in seven games.

Every year is different, every team is different, but for the Capitals it always ends the same way, a loss before the trees have filled in from their long winter nap.  One supposes, perhaps, that this year can honestly be considered different. 

One could say that the team the Caps iced for Game 7 against the Rangers last night is not as accomplished as the one that went to the Stanley Cup final in 1998, but it is younger and with more promise than that team. 

One could say that it did not go as far as the 1990 team that reached the Prince of Wales Conference final, but neither is it one whose success is largely built on an incredibly hot and incredibly unexpected streak by a heretofore (and ever after) little known player.

But we have been here before, too.  We were here in 1986 when the Caps had young, up and coming stars such as Scott Stevens and Bob Carpenter to support stars entering their prime in Mike Gartner, Rod Langway, and Bengt Gustafsson.  We were here in 2008 when Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin were the up-and-comers pushing veterans like Michael Nylander (later Sergei Fedorov after Nylander went down to injury) and Tom Poti.  We were here when the Caps promoted the fact that they had so many first round draft picks in their lineup (that 2008 team had no fewer than a dozen former first round draft picks dress for them).

Now, we can see our way to a view that says Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky will go into next season with a full season of NHL hockey under their belts, and they (and the team) will be much better for it.  We can imagine a team with these up-and-comers matched to stars who remain among the best in the game at their respective positions in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.  We can see in the distance a bevy of additional talent that might make their contributions down the road -- Jakub Vrana, Madison Bowey, Philipp Grubauer, Riley Barber.  We can conjure a vision that this is not a team coached by first-timers behind an NHL bench, that the team is being led by coaches who have been though the best and the worst, and know how to get players to row together as a team instead of pulling in different directions individually. 

But we’ve had those visions before, too.  And we can be snapped back into reality in an instant.  That 1986 team rolled through the regular season to finish with a then-record 50 wins and 107 standings points, and swept the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs.  They were less than three minutes from taking a three-games-to-one lead against the New York Rangers in the second round when Bob Brooke scored with 2:35 left in regulation to tie the game, then scored less than three minutes into overtime to tie the series, the only playoff overtime goal he would score in his career.  The Rangers swept the last two games of that series, and the Caps’ best team to that point and arguably best chance to win a Stanley Cup was left in shreds.

That 2008 team steamrolled its way through the last half of the season, posting a 37-17-7 record after Bruce Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon as head coach, including an 11-1-0 record to close the season to reach the playoffs.  Then they came back from a three-games-to-one deficit against the Philadelphia Flyers and a 2-1 deficit in Game 7 to force overtime.  Then, hope became despair and then anguish in what seemed like an instant.  A tripping penalty put the Flyers on a power play, and even with that, the Capitals almost killed off the two minutes shorthanded.  Almost.  With just nine seconds left on the penalty, Joffrey Lupul put back a rebound that goalie Cristobal Huet looked for in a different direction, and the opportunity passed for the Capitals.

Virtually the same team reached the post season the following year and got a taste of what it was to win that moment, to turn an anxious one to a joyful one, when Sergei Fedorov took a pass from Matt Bradley, sped down the right wing wall as the minutes were dwindling to a few in a tied Game 7 against the New York Rangers.  When he got to the right wing faceoff circle he slammed on the brakes and snapped a shot into a space perhaps a foot square over the left shoulder of goalie Henrik Lundqvist to send fans into pandemonium and the team into the next round.

And there, they would find despair once more in a moment that appeared and disappeared in a blink.  Against perhaps their most hated rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Caps fought to a split of the first six games, winning the sixth game of the series in overtime in Pittsburgh to force that Game 7 on home ice.  And then the moment came, three minutes into the contest.  A blocked shot, a breakaway, the puck on the star’s stick, a crowd coming to its feet…the shot, turned away.  A moment presented itself and then was gone in a game the Caps would never contest from that point further.

This year, the moment came late in what could have been a series-clinching game, one that would send the Caps to the conference final for only the third time in their 40-year history.  They scratched out a goal mid-way through the third period for the only score of the contest to that point, and then tried to nurse that slim lead for the last nine minutes.  Then the moment came, n innocent dump in from just outside the blue line by the Rangers.  Defenseman Brooks Orpik tried to bat the puck out of the air and back into the neutral zone, but missed.  The puck ended up on the stick of Derek Stepan, who dropped it back to Chris Kreider, and from one knee he fired a shot that somehow threaded its way past a screen and past Braden Holtby into the net to tie the game.  It was a game the Caps would lose in overtime, on another seeing-eye shot that deflected off defenseman Tim Gleason and past Holtby.  The moment came…the moment passed.

This morning, Caps fans will wake up with the idea that although the team failed to advance past the second round once more, there lies promise in the future for what this team accomplished, the devotion it has among players and coaches to playing the “right way,” and for the blend of young and veteran talent they will bring to camp in the fall.

However, there is still that ending, there is still that inability to grab hold of that moment that presents itself.  For the Caps, it is almost always one that slips through their fingers, to be taken up by their opponent.  It was true 30 years ago, and it was true last night.  Perhaps things will be different next season, or the year after that.  There is not a Capitals fan anywhere who wishes for anything else.  But for now, we are left with a bitter truth about this franchise.  Ownership changes, front office personnel changes, players change, new fans replace old, but every year ends in the same sad way, and that is what is so frustrating and agonizing, the sameness of it all.

The utter sameness of it all.


Eastern Conference Semifinal - Game 7: Rangers 2 - Capitals 1 (OT)

In the end, hockey is a sport that can provide the ultimate in joy and the ultimate in cruelty in the blink of an eye. There is nothing in professional team sports that compares to overtime in a Game 7 of a Stanley Cup playoff series. There isn’t often much warning when the deciding moment comes, but when it does the team that scores the deciding goal gathers as a pulsating clot of players embracing in a moment of well-deserved joy, while the team scored upon is generally littered all over the ice, left individually to drag themselves to their feet to form into a line to congratulate the winners in the series-ending handshake.

For the third time in team history the Capitals found themselves the latter as the New York Rangers scored 11:24 into overtime to win Game 7, 2-1, and advance to the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Derek Stepan followed up a rebound of a Dan Girardi shot and fired it past a diving goalie Braden Holtby to send the crowd at Madison Square Garden into a frenzy.

Before that, the game had all the look of what was the rest of the series, two teams that could get no space from one another, either on the ice or on the scoreboard. Alex Ovechkin, who famously proclaimed that the Caps would extend their season with a win on this night, opened the scoring in the 13th minute of the contest. It was a goal that would foretell the end, in a way. The play started with a faceoff win by Nicklas Backstrom from Derek Stepan, The puck made its way to Ovechkin at the left wing wall. He battled with defenseman Ryan McDonagh long enough to get the puck back to Backstrom in the faceoff circle. Backstrom moved the puck to Marcus Johansson at the bottom of the circle, and Johansson then found Ovechkin circling into the high slot. From between the circles Ovechkin wristed the puck past the glove of goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and the Caps had a 1-0 lead.

It was a good sign for the Caps, who were 41 in the post season when scoring the first goal. However, the Rangers denied the Caps any opportunity to add to that lead and tied the game themselves early in the second period. Late in a Ranger power play Kevin Hayes snuck behind the defense on the weak side and redirected a cross ice feed from J.T. Miller behind Holtby to tie the contest.

After that, the game was in the hands of the goaltenders, as it had been for much of the series. Holtby and Lundqvist led their teams through regulation and into overtime. There, in the twelfth minute, it would be a faceoff loss, this time Eric Fehr losing a draw to Stepan, that would lead to a goal that would send the Rangers on and the Caps into the post season. Too soon…again.

Other stuff…

-- The little things. There are folks who say faceoffs don’t matter. Don’t believe them. A team cannot score without the puck, and when you lose a faceoff you end up trying to chase the puck down. The Caps lost a faceoff, chased it around the zone, and were left reacting to things instead of forcing play. It was cruel irony, in a way, as the Caps won 47 of 79 faceoffs in the game (59.5 percent).

-- What the Caps could not do was convert their own small victories in the circle in the offensive end.  Washington was 16-for-24 on offensive zone draws (66.7 percent).  Nicklas Backstrom was 8-for-11 (72.7 percent).

-- The top line got off the schneid – Ovechkin scored the goal, while Backstrom and Johansson recorded the assists. It was the first time Ovechkin and Backstrom both recorded points in a game since Game 2.

-- For what it is worth, Braden Holtby finished his post season as the goalie leader in minutes (805:43) and save percentage (.944), and was second in goals against average (1.71) among goalies appearing in at least five games.

-- Eric Fehr returned to the lineup, but there was no fairy tale ending there, either.  Less than eight minutes of ice time, no shots on goal, and he was the victim of the last faceoff of the season for the Caps.

-- The Caps finished the post season 1-3 in overtime games.  All-time, they are 23-30 in extra time in the playoffs.  Since Joe Juneau scored in overtime to send the Caps to their only Stanley Cup final, the Caps are 10-18 in overtime games in the post season.

-- Did Alex Ovechkin deliver on his “guarantee?”  No, the Caps didn’t win.  But a goal, six shots on goal (tying his high in this series), three hits.  Let’s not hear any nonsense about his not showing up when the heat was turned up.

-- Troy Brouwer.  You can only shake your head.  No goals in the series (none in 14 playoff games), no shots on goal in Game 7 in almost 21 minutes of ice time.

-- More shaking of the head… Brooks Laich.  No goals in the series, in fact, no points.  He did not record a point in his last nine games of the post season and managed a total of seven shots on goal in those nine games.

-- We really and truly thought Mike Green was going to be the hero in this game.  As it is, it is entirely likely that Caps fans have seen him in the red, white, and blue for the last time.  A few ticks under 19 minutes in ice time, no shots on goal, one attempt, two blocked shots, and two penalties, one of which leading to the Rangers power play goal in the second period.

In the end...

What were you expecting?  The Caps have made it their signature not just to lose games like this but to do it in the cruelest way imaginable.  You can only laugh at the fact that a team that led the league in faceoff winning percentage ended up losing a defensive zone draw that led to the game-winning, series-clinching goal.  And what led to that defensive zone faceoff?  It was the fire that the Caps played with all series long – an icing call. 

Only one team in franchise history played more one-goal games in the post season than the 2014-2015 Capitals.  Their 11 one-goal decisions this year is eclipsed only by the 13 such decisions the Caps played in the 2012 post season under Dale Hunter.  As it turned out, in both of those years the Caps had a winning record in one-goal decisions – 7-6 in 2012 and 6-5 this season.  In both of those years, however, they lost their last such decision…in Game 7…on the road…2-1...to the New York Rangers.

You can’t make this stuff up.  More’s the pity.


Saturday, May 09, 2015

Eastern Conference Semifinal - Game 5: Rangers 2 - Capitals 1 (OT)

They call a seven-game series a “long” series, but it can all change so quickly.  Last night, the Washington Capitals went from being within two minutes of ending the season for the New York Rangers to facing the possibility that they will be playing their last game of the year on home ice on Sunday.

Taking a 1-0 lead into the final 120 seconds of the game, the Capitals suffered Chris Kreider one-timing a lightning bolt that snuck through goalie Braden Holtby’s pads to extend the Rangers’ season to at least an overtime.  In that overtime, a classic mistake – a turnover at their own blue line – led the Caps allowing the Rangers to attack in numbers, and it was Ryan McDonagh taking a pass from Derek Stepan and wristing a shot past Holtby to push the series to a Game 6 in Washington on Sunday.

Other stuff…

-- So often in the heat of a playoff game, a player can go from hero to goat.  Last night’s most recent example was Curtis Glencross.  It was his goal mid-way through the third period that put the Rangers on the brink of elimination.  His first goal of the playoffs came on a second effort.  It started with Tom Wilson poking the puck off the stick of the Rangers’ Kevin Klein as the latter was winding up to take a shot.  The puck slid to the boards where Matt Niskanen beat the Rangers’ Keith Yandle to the prize.  Niskanen swept the puck into the neutral zone where Glencross was already off to the races.  Breaking in alone on goalie Henrik Lundqvist, he fired the puck into the goalie’s glove.  Lundqvist did not handle the shot cleanly, and the puck landed at his feet.  Glencross followed up his own shot, chipping it over the falling Lundqvist and over the goal line.

-- Then Glencross became the goat.  In the tenth minute of overtime he took a pass from Mike Green at his own blue line.  He tried to move it along, cross-ice, but Jesper Fast knocked down the attempted pass and skated the puck down the right wing boards.  He found Stepan entering the zone late, but instead of taking the shot himself, Stepan left the puck for McDonagh coming into the play after jumping off the bench.  McDonagh leaned into a shot and it appeared to hit Caps defenseman Tim Gleason before whistling past Holtby to give the Rangers another chance to extend the series on Sunday.

-- In series clinching games in the post-2005 lockout era, the Capitals are 3-10.  On the other hand, the Rangers won their ninth straight game on home ice when facing elimination.

-- However this series ends, it is one for the ages as a goaltending battle.  Through five games, Holtby is 3-2,  1.36, .959, with one shutout; Lundqvist is 2-3, 1.57, .944.

-- Part of the Capitals’ problem in this game was not so much shots as who was getting them.  Of the Caps’ 29 shots on goal, nine of them came from Joel Ward (5) and Jason Chimera (4).  No other Capital had more than two.  It was balanced, but not in the sort of way that could – or did – lead to much offense.

-- Slow starts continued to plague the Caps.  The Rangers out-shot Washington by an 11-2 margin in the game’s first 8:14.

-- Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, and Troy Brouwer came into this series with a combined 166 games of post season experience.  None recorded a point last night; none have a goal in this series.

-- Alex Ovechkin was 4-4-8 in his first nine games of this post season but is without a point in his last three games.

-- Nicklas Backstrom was held without a point last night has had only an assist in his last eight post season games.

-- Odd Calendar Fact… the loss last night made the Caps 0-4 all-time in playoff games on May 8th.  All four losses were on the road.

In the end…

Last night it was a case of the Rangers getting just enough from skaters from whom they need contributions – Derek Stepan (two assists), Chris Kreider (game-tying goal), and Ryan McDonagh (game-winning goal).  The same could not be said of the Caps, who got no points from Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus-Johansson, Troy Brouwer, or the precocious kids (Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov).

If this is a goaltenders’ series, which it certainly has been to date, Capitals fans have to be pleased with the play and development of Braden Holtby.  But lurking is the thought that at the other end of the ice is a goaltender who might be more likely to extend that run of fine play.   The Caps had a chance to drive a stake into the heart of the Rangers and deny Henrik Lundqvist any more opportunities to frustrate the Caps.  They could not take advantage of that opportunity.  That opportunity will come knocking again on Sunday evening.  This time, the Caps had better answer the door.