Thursday, September 18, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Brooks Laich

Brooks Laich

An old man passed me on the street today;
I thought I knew him but I couldn't say.
I stopped to think if I could place his frame.
When he tipped his hat I knew his name.

Hello old friend,
It's really good to see you once again.
Hello old friend,
It's really good to see you once again.

-- Eric Clapton

It only seems like forever since Brooks Laich played a full season in the NHL, and he is hardly an old man, but he is 15th on the all-time list of games played in Washington Capitals franchise history (616), second among active players on the club to Alex Ovechkin (679).  He would be the active leader in games played had he not missed 70 of 130 games over the past two seasons.

And that is the issue for this season.  Despite repeated comments over time that were variations on a “feeling good” theme, there is the fact that Laich has not played a full season of NHL hockey since 2011-2012.

Last season Laich managed 51 games of action, but it was a matter of skating on one and a half legs.  That was the product of lingering groin problems that seemed to stem from an injury he sustained while playing in Switzerland during the 2012 NHL lockout.  That he led the team in shorthanded ice time per game, situations that might put even greater stress on a wonky groin, and added another 1:20 per game on the power play speaks to his grit and determination, or his stubbornness over the extent of his injury, depending on your point of view.

His performance level since his injury is down form that of his first seven full seasons with the Caps.  Over those first seven seasons, Laich’s scoring line per 82 games was 17-24-41.  In 60 games over two seasons since he was injured it is 14-16-31, perhaps not as bad as one might have expected.  When one accounts for the fact that it was his power play production that was down substantially, from 6-6-12 per 82 games in his first seven full seasons to 2-5-7 per 82 games over the last two seasons, it further suggests a level of grit (or stubbornness) that permitted him to function at something approaching a career level, at least offensively, at even strength.

Fearless’ Take…

In 2011-2012, the last healthy season Brooks Laich had, he was one of 12 forwards in the NHL playing in at least 50 games who had at least 13 minutes of even strength ice time a game, and at least two minutes of both power play and shorthanded ice time a game.  That speaks to the versatility Laich possesses and that can be valuable to this team in 2014-2015. 

Given the presence of Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward (both right-handed shots) in the middle of the power play, it seems unlikely that the left-handed shooting Laich would get that kind of man advantage ice time, but this is a team that needs all the help it can get killing penalties.  Among forwards playing in at least 50 games in 2011-2012 Laich ranked 20th in 4-on-5 ice time per 60 minutes.

It might be at even strength, though, where Laich’s presence might be felt most.  Looking back again at that last healthy season, Laich had the second lowest share of offensive zone starts among 11 Caps forwards playing in at least 50 games (43.1 percent).  However, he has a higher share of offensive zone finishes, so he as least moved the tilt a little less in the defensive zone direction, and his team rank in goals-against/on ice per 60 minutes outperformed his offensive zone start shares, implying a certain effectiveness in dealing with tough geography on the ice.

Cheerless’ Take…

That all sounds real nice, Fearless, but he’s 31 years old, has more than 650 games of regular season and playoff experience, and has tried to skate through an injury that still took 70 of 130 games the last two seasons off his resume.  Is it reasonable to think, even if he is anything close to healthy, for him to return to that 2011-2012 version?   Maybe by winter or spring, but in October?

And, it’s a good thing he is versatile, because there is no position that is marked in pen with his name on it.  He could be the first line left wing.  He could be the second line left wing.  He could be the second line or third line center.

Fearless kept comparing Laich to his last healthy season in 2011-2012.  Fine, but that year was two years removed from the last of his career best three years, from 2007-2008 through 2009-2010, when he scored 69 goals and only missed four games.  Four seasons have passed since then.  Any chance he returns to that level of production?

The Big Question… Where will Brooks Laich play?

It is not an urgent question in October, but it might be nice if Brooks Laich had a position to call his own at some point this season.  For one thing, it would signal his being healthy in fact and not just in press releases.  For another it would signal stability across the rest of the forward lines.  The one place where Laich might be the first option is at third line center.  With him in this position, it is an indicator that the Evgeny Kuznetsov experiment at second line center is working.  One might envision such a lineup as having Alex Ovechkin on the left side, Nicklas Backstrom in the middle, and perhaps Eric Fehr on the right side of the top line.  Kuznetsov might be centering Marcus Johansson on the left and Troy Brouwer on the right on the second line.  Laich would be centering Jason Chimera on his left and Joel Ward on his right on the third line.  If Laich is moving around the forward lines, it could be a sign that other things are not working as well as hoped.

In the end…

Although Brooks Laich might feel like he’s five-years old again, he is one of the core players on whom the Caps will be depending for a solid year to get them back into the post-season.  On a team that struggled in 5-on-5 play and penalty killing, Laich will be expected to provide the means to improve in those areas.  It is not the youthful effervescence on which the Capitals will be relying, but the experience earned as the longest tenured Capital in continuous service.  His window, like that of the Caps, is still open a bit.

Projection: 72 games, 14-17-31, plus-2

Photo: Rob Grabowski-USA Today Sports

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Evgeny Kuznetsov

“Experience is something you don't get until just after you need it.”
-- Steven Wright


Foodies will probably recognize the term “amuse-bouche.”  A French term that can be translated, “to entertain the mouth,” they are generally bite-sized representations of the chef’s craft and skill, an indicator of what is to come in your meal.  We have no idea what how the term translates into Russian, but late last season Evgeny Kuznetsov provided a bite-sized version of what might be in store for 2014-2015.

In 17 games Kuznetsov went 3-6-9 (a 43 point pace, albeit in a small population of games) and had a couple of highlight reel moments.  Like his first NHL goal…


Or his first turn in the Gimmick…


Or his fake slap shot/pass to Tom Wilson…


But before we help young Mr. Kuznetsov clear some space on the mantel for a Calder Trophy as 2014-2015 rookie of the year, let’s all take a step back, take a deep breath, and remember that while he was 2-5-7 in his first nine games, he had only two points in his last eight games.

Then there is the matter of where he will play.  Kuznetsov spent those 17 games at the end of last season at left wing.  He is likely to start training camp auditioning for a new role: second line center, the persistent hole in the Capitals’ lineup.  If he takes to the position, he could be the answer for the next decade.  However, if he does not, it could mean a revolving door at that position once more.

Fearless’ Take…

In the 39-season history of the Washington Capitals, only 17 first year players playing in at least 15 games had more points-per-game than Evgeny Kuznetsov had last season (0.53).  Last year’s 43-point pace, even if it was in a small population of games, was one that would have had him fourth overall in rookie scoring over a full season.  Kuznetsov, who is still a rookie for purposes of the upcoming season, has some built in advantages in terms of hitting the ground running in October.  He spent four seasons with Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL, honing his game against professionals in preparation for his move to the NHL.  He also has significant international tournament experience – two world under-18 tournaments, three world junior tournaments, and three world championship tournaments. He is a rookie for NHL purposes, but perhaps not a "rookie" in terms of his experience, even if he is only 22 years old.

Cheerless’ Take…

Yeah, about that whole second line center thing.  It’s one thing to be a center moving to the wing, even it is a temporary thing – Nicklas Backstrom started his career with the Caps on the wing, Nathan MacKinnon spent a lot of time at right wing last season in Colorado.  Both are natural centers (yeah, and both were younger than Kuznetsov, too).  It is another thing for a player who has not played the position on a scoring line in the NHL to be put into that position as a rookie, even one with his international experience at the position.  It might be that the best to be said here is that the team was patient enough with him in the position to allow him to grow into it and be a lot better at it in March than he might be in October.

The Big Question… What would a reasonable rookie season look like for Kuznetsov?

Those nine points in 17 games and the occasional highlight reel play might have some Caps fans entertaining thought of a big rookie season for Kuznetsov.  Maybe 60 points, maybe even 70.  OK, let’s take a minute here.  Alex Ovechkin recorded 106 points as a rookie.  That’s the franchise record, and the sun will go dark before it’s broken.  Next on the list is Nicklas Backstrom, who had 69 points in 2007-2008.  Chris Valentine in 1981-1982 and Bengt Gustaffson in 1979-1980 are the next centers on the list with 67 and 60 points, respectively, in their rookie seasons, but that was a different era.

Even if one looks at centers since the 2005-2006 lockout overall, there is Sidney Crosby at 102 points in 2005-2006 and then a long way to Paul Stastny in Colorado in 2006-2007 (78 points).  Only five rookie centers since the 2004-2005 lockout have had 60 points, only 10 with more than 50, and some of those players were not full time centers in their rookie season.  

Given who his linemates might be, Troy Brouwer on the right side and any of Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich, or possibly even Eric Fehr or Jason Chimera on the other side, anything north of, say, 55 points would look like a pipe dream.  But he has the skill and the experience (more so than most “rookies”) to perhaps challenge that 55-point level.

In the end…

We have seen Evgeny Kuznetsov entertain with a fair number of highlight plays in his young career to date.  Over an 82-game season the object, given his role as a scoring line center, is going to be one of providing consistent production more than bursts of flair and helping make those around him better.  Then there is the matter of his defensive responsibilities.  He will not have the same lock-down role that a checking line center might have, but he can’t be caught cheating so much into the offensive end that his line becomes a defensive liability, either. 

It is going to be a lot for Kuznetsov to assimilate in this role, even if he does have more than 200 regular season and playoff games of KHL experience and 37 games of world championship and world junior championship tournament experience.  Now he gets to add to his NHL experience, and just in time, because how quickly he fills his new role will be one of the plot twists to pay attention to as the Caps look to return to the post-season.

Projection: 75 games, 18-32-50, even

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Marcus Johansson

Marcus Johansson

“Your big opportunity may be right where you are now.”
-- Napoleon Hill


Marcus Johansson was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 2009 as a center.  It was that position which he played in his early career with the club.  He was not, it seemed, the answer to a perennial problem – who would be the team’s second line center – and he was moved to left wing on a line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. 

The move was not without its painful moments.  Johansson suffered a concussion in a collision with Ovechkin in a 2012 training camp session, an injury that would eventually cost Johansson 12 games in the regular season.  Since returning to the lineup after that concussion Johansson is 13-52-65 in 106 games over two seasons, a 10-40-50 scoring pace per 82 games, almost exclusively as a left winger.

That might make for an argument to keep Johansson at left wing, but the roster is in flux with a new head coach – Barry Trotz – calling the shots.  Ovechkin might be returned to the left side on the top line.  That move would ripple through the rest of the lineup with more options facing Johansson than perhaps any other player.  Johansson could be moved to the left side of the second line.  He could play in the middle of the second line, depending on how the Evgeny Kuznetsov experiment at center works.  He could be dropped to the middle of the third line where he would assume the duties previously fulfilled by Eric Fehr, a natural right winger.  And, if Trotz’ intention that Ovechkin develops to play both sides plays out,  Johansson could find himself back on the left side of the top.

Fearless’ Take…

Marcus Johansson is one of five players in his 2010 rookie class with at least 40 career goals, at least 90 career assists, and at least 130 career points (Derek Stepan, Tyler Seguin, Jordan Eberle, and Taylor Hall are the others).  Last season he was 5-27-32 in 37 wins, recording points in 23 of those wins.  As impressive as, say, Nicklas Backstrom (14-45-59 in 38 wins, points in 32 of them)?  No, but it isn’t a points pace far off a pace of a Daniel Sedin (13-18-31 in 32 wins).

Then there are the penalties.  The seemingly utter lack of them.  Over the last four seasons, among all skaters playing in at least 175 games, no player has logged fewer penalty minutes than Johansson (26).  Last season Johansson was sent off twice for minor penalties.  Not twice in one game, twice all season.  Two minors (high-sticking and hooking, for the record), that’s it.  Little wonder he finished sixth in the voting for the Lady Byng Trophy (including a first place vote) for gentlemanly play. 

Cheerless’ Take…

Two-point-five percent?  I ain’t no math whiz, but I know that’s not a big number.  And that was Johansson’s shooting percentage at even strength last season.  Two goals on 80 shots.  Neither was in a regulation win (one Gimmick win, against Minnesota on November 7th, one overtime loss; against Philadelphia on March 2nd).  His overall shooting percentage for the season (7.5 percent) was barely half of that over his first three seasons (14.2 percent).  His plus-minus on-ice per 60 minutes was second worst among Capital forwards playing in at least 20 games (-0.89).  Only Alex Ovechkin was worse (-1.45).  It was part of a whole first line meltdown.  Nicklas Backstrom was third worst (-0.86).  It was a team effort.

The Big Question… Will Marcus Johansson take the next step in his development?

Last year we asked this question in a slightly different way… “Can Johansson develop as a threat on his own on the left side to take some pressure off his linemates?”  Five goals, a 7.5 percent shooting percentage, 2.5 percent at even strength, a minus-21.  He didn’t answer that question in a way in which Caps fans might have hoped.  Johansson will start this season with more than 250 games of regular season under his belt (263 to be precise).  His apprenticeship is coming to an end.  He needs to be less of a passenger on a scoring line and more a player who can drive or create play on his own.

The uncertainty over just where Johansson will play muddies this issue somewhat.  That he can play a number of positions means that he might be called upon to play those positions.  If Barry Trotz moves Alex Ovechkin from wing to wing, that means another player (or more) moves, and Johansson might be just that player (although Brooks Laich also might fall into this category).

Johansson has demonstrated he can be a 50-point player (his points pace over his last 100-plus games).  Can he now: a) do it without the benefit of skating on a line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, and b) do it consistently?  That would be the next step in his development. 

In the end…

What is the Swedish word for “enigma?” Maybe “mystery” is a better word.  Despite those 263 games of regular season experience and the fact that he ranks so highly among his draft and rookie classes in career points, it is still hard to get a clear picture of just how much of his performance is due to talent and development, and how much is due to circumstance (playing with highly skilled linemates).

In 2014-2015 Johansson seems likely to come out from under that Backstrom-Ovechkin shield.  He might be asked to be the driver of a line (second or third line center).  It would be early to dismiss the likelihood that he can succeed in that role, given that his is more or less two seasons removed (and almost 120 games) removed from playing center on a consistent basis.

A lot of things have to go right for a hockey team to succeed, some of them within its power to control, others not so much.  With respect to Johansson there are two parts to this issue.  There is the matter of where head coach Barry Trotz chooses to deploy him.  That is not a matter under the player’s control.  Then there is the matter of taking advantage of the opportunity, no matter where he is deployed.  That is something over which Johansson can exert more control.  With four seasons and 250-plus games of experience, he has to take the training wheels off.  He has to be a contributing member of this squad on his own terms.  His big opportunity is where he is right now.  We just don’t quite know where he is right now on the ice yet.

Projection: 81 games, 15-33-48, plus-4

Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America

Monday, September 15, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Eric Fehr

Eric Fehr

"Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself."
-- George Bernard Shaw


Some might think it a modest achievement that Eric Fehr set his second best career marks in goals (13), tied for his career best in assists (18), and set a second best career mark in points (31) last season.  He set career highs in games played (73) and average ice time (14:45).  However, given the journey of the former first round draft pick, 2013-2014 was a fine season.

Fehr, who was the 18th overall pick in the 2003 entry draft, has endured back injuries, multiple shoulder injuries, rib injuries, was traded away, returned as a free agent, and remade himself from a big goal scorer upon his draft by the club to more of a checking line, two-way winger in his current edition.

Fehr found his place last year on a third line with Jason Chimera and Joel Ward that provided the Capitals with consistently solid play.  There was a consistency in his game as well, despite what might be considered modest scoring numbers.  Although he finished the 2013-2014 season with 31 points, he registered points against 21 of the 29 teams against whom he played, including 11 of the other 14 teams in the Eastern Conference.

Fehr did this while learning a new position on the fly.  Drafted and playing most of his career as a right winger, Fehr was converted to center under head coach Adam Oates.  He was a solid possession player, at least in the context of the team for which he played, finishing fourth among all Capital forwards who played the entire season in Washington in Corsi-relative at 5-on-5 (+2.04 percent).  And, he did that while recording the third lowest share of offensive zone starts among forwards (46.76 percent; source: war-on-ice.com).  What it meant in terms of performance was that he and his most frequent linemates – Joel Ward and Jason Chimera – all ranked in the top four on the team among forwards in points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.

Fearless’ Take…

Over the last two seasons Eric Fehr has remade himself into a reasonably reliable goal scorer, despite where he has been deployed.  Among forwards playing for the Caps in each of the past two seasons Fehr ranks sixth in goals per game (0.19, which works out to 16 goals per 82 games).  In fact, since his career best 21-goal season in 2009-2010, Fehr is fourth among forwards currently with the team in goals per game (0.23; minimum 150 games played). 

Cheerless’ Take…

Last season was a career high for Fehr in games played – 73.  The nine games he missed was a nine-game stretch in November in which he was a healthy scratch.  That might have been a product of his being a minus-8 in his first ten games of the season, although in one of those odd quirks that seemed to populate Adam Oates’ tenure as coach, Fehr was benched after he went 0-4-4, plus-3 in four games.

It is hard to find a lot to fault in Fehr’s game last season if it is placed in context.  He was put into a new position that he seemed to accept willingly.  He eventually came to play that position on what was not considered a scoring line, perhaps not what was envisioned when he was a prospect years ago.  He took to it as well as one could expect.  Which is not to say he is a long-term option at that position; his faceoffs might have been better (46.0 percent), and his assists/60 minutes at 5-on-5 (0.99) ranked tied for 80th among centers.  It was a good first year at the position, though, especially having to learn it on the fly.  It just might not be a long term solution.

The Big Question… Where will Eric Fehr play?

It seems unlikely that the Adam Oates experiment of making Eric Fehr a center will proceed in 2014-2015.  It does not mean that Fehr has a position waiting for him, though.  He could play on either side of the top two lines or provide some productivity for the fourth line.  He could, in a pinch, fill in at center on the third line, but that seems for the moment to be a fall-back position for the club.

Where Fehr plays might depend on how new head coach chooses to deploy Alex Ovechkin.  If Ovechkin is redeployed to left wing, where he played before Oates assumed the coaching responsibilities, Fehr could be a top line right winger.  If Ovechkin was on the right side of the top line, and Marcus Johansson was to move back into his top line left wing position, Fehr might be on the left side of the second line.

One other thing to wonder about with Fehr this season is whether he will get any more power play time than he has had.  Last season Fehr averaged 0:36 a game with the man advantage (less time than Jason Chimera, who had 0:50, and Dustin Penner, who had 0:56)), down from 0:49 in 2012-2013. 

In the end…

Eric Fehr has shown himself willing to play any role the team needs.  He has played all three forward positions and has played on all four lines in his eight seasons (over two tours) with Washington.  What he has not had in any of those eight seasons was a permanent home, a position he could call his.  Even last season, when he played primarily center, it seemed a stop-gap sort of move.  This season, at least to start, he seems to be once more a man looking for a steady role. 

Whatever role he plays, it could be at a bargain.  Looking at comparables from capgeek.com in terms of age and value, Fehr is in the neighborhood of such as Cody McCormick, Mike Santorelli, Tanner Glass, Drew Miller, Nate Thompson, Jim Slater, and Gregory Campbell.  Fehr compares well to that group, especially given is adaptability and versatility.

Lurking there, though, might be a goal scorer yet.  As noted, Fehr has scored goals at a 16-per-82 game pace the last two seasons, and his is not far removed from a 21-goal season (2009-2010).  It might get him a look at a scoring line role or on the power play.  Whatever role he is asked to play, though, it seems Eric Fehr is ready to give it a shot.

Projection: 77 games, 16-16-32, plus-2

Photo: Bruce Bennett

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Jason Chimera

Jason Chimera

You go back Jack do it again
Wheel turnin' 'round and 'round
You go back Jack do it again

-- Walter Becker and Donald Fagen


In his first season with Washington Capitals, 2009-2010 being a partial one following his trade from the Columbus Blue Jackets, left wing Jason Chimera scored seven goals in 39 games, a 15-goal pace over 82 games.  The following season he had ten goals in 81 games.  A drop, yes, but still a respectable number for a bottom six winger.  Chimera hit the jackpot in 2011-2012, recording his first 20-goal season while playing in all 82 games. 

Then, the bottom fell out of his production.  In the abbreviated 2012-2013 season, Chimera did not record his first goal of the season until his 28th game and finished with only three goals in 47 games.  Last season he rebounded to score 15 goals in 82 games on what was, on many nights, the Capitals’ most reliable, most effective line: Chimera, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward.

Chimera’s 2013-2014 goal total was consistent with his career average with the Caps and overall (about 14 goals per 82 games), but underneath it all there has been a certain lack of consistency in recent years. 

We have made a point over time that pairs might matter more than lines when it comes to forwards.  Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin is an example.  Last yeaer, so was Jason Chimera and Joel Ward.  Chimera skated more with Ward than he did any other Capital forward last season, more than 80 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes.  When together in those situations, Chimera recorded more than a goal per 20 minutes with Ward.

Fearless’ Take…

There was an odd number coming out of Chimera’s 2013-2014 season.  He averaged less than half a penalty minute per game, the lowest total for a full season in his career.  His 0.44 PIMs/game was consistent with his most frequent linemates, Eric Fehr (0.44) and Joel Ward (0.39).  Of the 12 Caps forwards playing in at least 20 games last season, Chimera’s plus-minus/60 minutes (+0.29) was third best on the club, trailing only linemate Joel Ward (+0.48) and Mikhail Grabovski (+0.60).

Another odd number: 17.  Chimera had 17 of his 27 assists in wins last season.  That would not be so odd in itself but for the fact that he had only 6 of his 15 goals in 38 wins, 9 goals in 44 losses.  It was part of a season that reflected the importance of secondary scoring.  Chimera had five multi-point games last season, four of them coming in wins.  The 27 assists for Chimera was a career best, as were his 42 points.

Cheerless’ Take…

Let’s draw a picture, ok?  If you look at his goals, assists, and points per game over his career, those years with the Caps start to look like a muskrat-tooth pattern at the end…

He went from 0.12 goals per game in the Caps part of his 2009-2010 season, then up to 0.24, down to 0.06, then back up to 0.18 goals per game last season.  Part of that seems to be an uneven shooting performance.  Since he came to Washington in 2010-2011, Chimera is 13th among Caps forwards who played in at least 50 games in shooting percentage (7.7 percent).   What’s it going to be this year?

The Big Question… Can Chimera maintain the solid level of play he displayed last season?

Consider it asking Cheerless’ question in a slightly different way.  Start with this.  Absent a trade over the next three weeks, Jason Chimera will open the season as the Capitals’ oldest player (35 years old), the only player on the roster born in the 1970’s.  The number – 35 – is not insignificant. Last season, nine forwards age 35 or older played in at least 50 games, recorded 12 goals, and finished with 35 points:
  • Jaromir Jagr
  • Olli Jokinen
  • Brian Gionta
  • Martin St. Louis
  • Jarome Iginla
  • Marian Hossa
  • Shane Doan
  • Daniel Alfredsson
  • Patrik Elias

This group is, by and large, primarily scoring line forwards, not the third line type into which Chimera might fall.  And, although we set the parameters at 12 goals, 35 points, and 50 games, the fact is that of this group of nine players, none had fewer than 18 goals, none had fewer than 40 points.  Those numbers are at the outer edge of Chimera’s career best performances – one season with 18 or more goals, one season with 40 or more points.  The extent to which Chimera can hold back the advance of time might be a significant factor in whether the Caps are successful this season.

In the end…

Despite just four and a half seasons with the Caps, Jason Chimera will enter the season sixth among all players in games played with the Capitals (331).  He might be considered among the team leaders at this point based on longevity.  He also might be a bargain.  Entering the first year of a two-year contract with a $2.0 million annual salary cap burden, his comparables (in age and value, according to capgeek.com) might include Raffi Torres, Chris Neil, Travis Moen, or Matt Hendricks.  Based on last year’s performance, one might reasonably think Chimera is a bargain at that price, given his comparables.  At his performance level in 2012-2013, however, he is not a bargain.

And that is going to be the thing to watch with Jason Chimera as the 2014-2015 season unfolds.  His year-to-year consistency has been an issue since his arrival in Washington, and if his pattern holds, this season would be a “down” one for him.  The mitigating factor here might be in his partnership with Joel Ward.  Last season he skated those 80-plus percent of his 5-on-5 minutes with Ward to great effect.  In the previous season (the one in which he had three goals in 47 games), Chimera did not skate as many as 50 percent of his 5-on-5 minutes with any skater (he skated 42 percent of those minutes with Ward). 

Aesop said that “familiarity breeds contempt.”  It might be that familiarity, though, both with his surroundings and his linemates, that would enable Jason Chimera to do it again and once more make him an important ingredient to the Caps’ success this season.

Projection:  82 games, 14-22-36, plus-4

Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images North America

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Troy Brouwer

Troy Brouwer

“There are no second acts in American lives.”
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald


OK, so Troy Brouwer was born in Vancouver.  But the point is that Brouwer has quite an act upon which to follow up.  You might remember that in our 2013-2014 preview of Brouwer, the theme was a quote from the movie, “Field of Dreams:”

“There comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place, and the universe opens itself for a few seconds, to show you what is possible…”

Well, things clicked for Brouwer last season.  Following up on his production at a career-best pace in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season, he played in all 82 games for the second time in his career in 2013-2014.  He set a career high in goals scored (25).  He set a career high in points (43).  He nearly doubled his previous career best in power play goals (from 7 to 12).  He tied a career high in power play assists (9).  He set a career high in ice time per game (18:51) and shots on goal (161).

Brouwer became a fixture on the power play.  It was not so much his ice time – he averaged 3:25 a game compared to 3:22 a game in 2012-2013) – as much as production.  Those five extra goals he scored over his 2012-2013 output accounted for the five point increase from year to year.  He was a top-20 point producer on the power play among forwards, a fixture on the power play almost as much as Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom.

Fearless’ Take…

Over the past two seasons only six players have scored more power play goals than Troy Brouwer:  James Neal, Zach Parise, Wayne Simmonds, Joe Pavelski, Chris Kunitz, and Alex Ovechkin.  It is more than Patrick Kane, more than Thomas Vanek, more than John Tavares.  He seems as well suited to playing in the middle of the 1-3-1 Capitals power play as Ovechkin is as the trigger man on the left wing or Backstrom as the creator on the right wing.

Overall, Brouwer has scored at a 28 goals per 82 games pace over the past two seasons.  That goal-scoring rate is second on the club only to Alex Ovechkin over the past two seasons.  He ranks in the top 40 in goals per game over the last two seasons among skaters playing in at least 50 games.

Then there are the situational aspects of his goal scoring.  Last season 19 of his 25 goals were scored when the Caps trailed by one goal (4), tied (11), or ahead by one goal (4).  His goals were not of the stat-padding sort.

He is also an efficient shooter.  Over his three seasons with Washington, Brouwer ranks 19th in shooting percentage (15.3 percent) among all NHL forwards having played in 50 or more games and having recorded 50 or more shots.

Cheerless’ Take…

117 forwards scored more even strength goals than Troy Brouwer last season.  Compare that to 37 forwards having more even strength goals in 2002-2013.  There was also the odd penalty profile.  Last season was the first in Brouwer’s career in which he averaged more than a penalty minute per game (1.12).  Included among his 92 penalty minutes were four fighting majors and two misconducts, the 40 minutes being almost half his total.

We wonder, too, about Brouwer as a penalty killer.  He was second on the team in shorthanded ice time per game (2:06), but he was also the team leader in goals scored against (19) while on ice in shorthanded situations.

The Big Question… Is Troy Brouwer a one-note wonder?

Troy Brouwer had a fine year on the man advantage, like a number of Capitals.  His even strength production was a bit less impressive.  He finished fourth on the team in even strength goals, eighth in even strength points.  It might have been part of a broader second line production problem, but a problem it was nevertheless.  Last season he had barely as many even strength points (22) as power play points (21), a departure from his first two seasons with the Caps (43 even strength points, 21 power play points).  The improvement in power play production is welcome, but for the Caps to be successful it would seem likely that his even strength point production as the second line right wing will have to improve this season.

In the end…

In his own way, Troy Brouwer was a reliable indicator of outcomes for the Caps last season.  Washington was 19-1-4 in games in which he scored a goal, 19-29-10 in games he did not light the lamp.  Not that everything has been unicorns and accordions.  Brouwer has been a minus player in each of his three seasons in Washington (minus-26 overall).  It does argue that the Caps need improved performance from Brouwer at even strength (as they do from a lot of players). 

Depending on how head coach Barry Trotz chooses to deploy Alex Ovechkin, on the right side or the left, there might be an opening on the top line for a right winger.  Troy Brouwer might get a look at that spot.  While his power play performance has been impressive, his even strength performance does not argue for his being installed in that spot.

Then there is the matter of the whole career year thing.  At age 29, Brouwer is in his chronological prime.  He might be expected to sustain his overall level of production for a few years.  The fact that he has sustained his overall level of production at a career high level over the past two seasons (a 28-20-48 pace per 82 games) lends support to that view.

However, can that level of performance be sustained on disproportionate dependence on power play results?  That is going to be the question hanging over Troy Brouwer as the 2014-2015 season unfolds.  The answer to it will reveal whether there is a second act – or a second career year – in Troy Brouwer in 2014-2015.

Projection: 80 games, 20-17-37, even

Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Jay Beagle

Jay Beagle

"Honor lies in honest toil."
-- Grover Cleveland


In six seasons with the Washington Capitals, Jay Beagle has seen his workload increase: three games in 2008-2009, then seven, 31, 41, 48, and finally 62 games played last season.  Until last season his ice time exhibited a similar increase: 7:36, 9:16, 10:30, 11: 51, and 12:06 before dropping back to 11:15 last season

That is not bad for a guy who was undrafted and who spent all of part of four seasons with the Hershey Bears in the AHL before making the big club for good.  On the other hand, Beagle has never had a ten-point season in the NHL.  He is a fourth liner who does not play special teams much, a total of 255 minutes in 192 regular season games, almost all of it penalty killing (about 1:15 a night over his career).

There is little about Beagle’s resume that stands out.  Aside from being an infrequent point-getter, he does not take a lot of penalties, but he takes fewer.  For example, his ratio of penalties taken/60 minutes to penalties drawn/60 minutes at 5-on-5 last season was second worst on the team among forwards playing in at least 20 games.

That said, what Jay Beagle was last season, as he has been over his six seasons in the NHL is a guy who puts in an honest day’s effort, even if his production is modest.

Even when he is called upon to play on the top line. Last March 16th someone thought it would be a great idea to pair Beagle and Alex Ovechkin.  OK, that someone was then head coach Adam Oates, so it became a fact.  At the 15:53 mark of the second period in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the puck was shot into the netting to stop play.  On the ensuing faceoff, Oates put Beagle out with Ovechkin and Marcus Johansson.  From that point through the Caps’ April 1st contest against Dallas, Beagle and Ovechkin skated together on 113 shifts with one of Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, or Mikhail Grabovski on the top line (shifts with Dustin Penner were excluded as not being a scoring forward).  The Caps were outshot, 43-28, over those shifts and outscored, 2-0.  The Caps went 3-2-3 in the eight games that Beagle and Ovechkin were paired in this way.  It seemed the best spin head coach Adam Oates could put on that experiment was “I thought that line hasn’t hurt us.” 

Fearless’ Take…

In the traditional formulation of forward lines, you want the first and second line to score, the third line to prevent scoring, and the fourth line to provide energy (a euphemism for crash and bang hockey) and/or do no harm.  Take that penalties thing.  He has taken only one major penalty in his career, that being a five-minute major for fighting (it didn’t end well for Beagle).  Only four times in 192 games has he taken more than one minor penalty in a game.  He has never taken a double minor penalty in the NHL.  In other words, he doesn’t play stupid, which is more than a fair number of players in his role can say.

Cheerless’ Take…

Uh, cuz…about that “do no harm” thing.  Beagle doesn’t get a lot of ice time, and almost all of it was at 5-on-5 last year.  He had the worst ratio of goals for to goals against on ice at 5-on-5 of any Capital forward who played in at least 20 games (11 for/20 against).  The Caps allowed 157 5-on-5 goals last year, 12.7 percent of them when Beagle was on the ice.  He was 351st of 435 league forwards playing 20 games or more in goals against per 60 minutes.  He is not a Selke candidate, but it is hard to think of him as any more than a fourth liner, either.

The Big Question… Is Beagle a keeper?

Jay Beagle is in the last year of a three-year contract that carries a $900,000 cap hit.  As contracts go it is unspectacular, either as a bargain (it’s not) or as an overpayment.  According to capgeek.com his comparables in age (26-30; Beagle is 28) and cap hit ($850-950,000) include: Kyle Chipchura, Richard Clune, Jesse Winchester, and Jesse Joensuu.  None of these five players were a member of a playoff team last season.

It suggests that players at this age, level of play, and compensation are interchangeable.  That is an indelicate way of putting it, but the fact is that there are a lot more players available at this level of play than there are among scoring line forwards.  Given his experience, it would seem that it is entirely likely that Beagle will start and end the season as a Capital.

In the end…

The Capitals have a fair number of unsettled roster issues – who plays second line center, which side Ovechkin plays on, how the defensemen will be paired.  Who plays on the fourth line might not get a lot of attention, but there is a potential battle shaping up there.  Beagle, Chris Brown, and Michael Latta will compete for a spot on that line, and all of them can play center.

Beagle has the advantage of experience (192 games to 17 each for Brown and Latta).  He is also a good faceoff man (54.2 percent over his career, 51.7 percent last season).  Neither Beagle nor Latta are waiver-exempt;Brown is (for another 52 games, anyway).  None are likely to raise eyebrows at the offensive end.  The battle might turn on which of the three can play adequate defense and contribute on the penalty kill. 

Beagle’s ascent through the Capitals’ system was slow and steady after he was signed as a free agent in March 2008.  In 2012-2013 he finally had a chance to play in every regular season game, albeit in an abbreviated season (48 games).  Last year he was a scratch in 20 of the Caps first 25 games.  It is worth noting that Latta played in 15 of the 20 games in which Beagle was scratched.

That was a different time under a different coach, though.  Which is to say that Beagle seems likely to be in a fight for playing time, even if it is as a fourth line forward.  Honest work has served him well so far; it appears Jay Beagle has some more ahead of him.

Projection: 52 games, 4-4-8, minus-4



Photo: Greg Fiume, Getty Images

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Washington Capitals 2014-2015 Previews -- Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom

Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.
-- Jonathan Swift


Since Nicklas Backstrom came into the league in 2007-2008, only three players have more assists – Henrik Sedin, Joe Thornton, and Martin St. Louis.  Only Sedin, Thornton, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin have more assists per game.  Sure, a lot of those assists are finishes by Alex Ovechkin, but this is like the case of the chicken or the egg.  Ovechkin wouldn’t have as many goals without a center of Backstrom’s talent, Backstrom wouldn’t have as many assists without a finisher of Ovechkin’s talent. 

The fact of the matter is that Backstrom has taken advantage of the talent around him to be one of the most consistent players of his generation.  Over 495 career regular season games, Backstrom has 494 points.  He was every bit as consistent in 2013-2014 with 79 points in 82 games.  How he got there was a bit different, though.  He had a career low in even strength assists in seasons in which he played at least 50 games (23) while posting a career best 38 power play assists for the league’s second-ranked power play.

What was not his career best was his plus-minus.  Only five centers were worse than Backstrom’s minus-20 last season, the worst in his seven-year career.  And, no center with as many points as Backstrom recorded last year (79) was close to that minus-20 (Jason Spezza had 66 points and was a minus-26).  By itself his plus-minus has limited value to explain, but it was part of a larger problem the club had at even strength last season.

Fearless’ Take…

The best thing that can be said about Backstrom’s 2013-2014 season as far as his plus-minus is concerned is that it was an anomaly in the context of his career to date.  He had been a plus-94 in six seasons going into last year.  The Caps were just such a mess at even strength last season.  They were 23rd in 5-on-5 goal ratio; no team lower than 17th made the playoffs.  It was the first time since Backstrom arrived in Washington that the Caps were below 1.00 in that measure. 

While plus-minus is a team measure, Backstrom occupies such a central role in the Caps’ scheme that he is a reflection of that outcome.  However, the fact that last year’s results, both for Backstrom and the Caps, were out of the recent norm at evens suggest that the problem can be corrected.  That might be at least as much a matter of how much a coaching change matters as whether Backstrom’s individual execution on the ice is lacking.

Cheerless’ Take…

Last season at this time Fearless said, “One would like to see better possession numbers from Backstrom and the top line.”  Well, we did not see them.  He was 220th among 375 forwards playing in at least 40 games in Corsi-on ice at 5-on-5.  Compare that to his finishing 139th among 395 forwards playing in at least 20 games of the abbreviated 2012-2013 season.*  Are his numbers an anomaly (whatever that is), or is there a trend happening here?  Then there is his shooting.  Backstrom has been either really good over his career (three seasons at 12.5 percent or better) or not really as good (three seasons at 9.5 percent or worse).

It is not all on offense, though.  In his first four seasons his ratio of goals for to goals against on ice at 5-on-5 ranged from 1.25 to 1.95.  In each of the last three seasons it was 1.24 or lower, and in two of them it was below 1.00.

The Big Question… Is it coaching, is it Ovechkin, or is it Backstrom?

Nicklas Backstrom is a point a game player.  That is as reliable a prognostication as can be made of any Capital.  However, there does seem to have been an erosion in Backstrom’s game at even strength, and it might not be restricted to one end of the ice.  At the defensive end it might or might not be associated with the iffy coaching schemes of the last three seasons, it might or might not be a product of his association with the oft-criticized defense of his linemate Alex Ovechkin, it might or might not be a product of teams matching strength to strength on Backstrom’s line, it might or might not be a product of some dim after effect of his concussion in 2011-2012, or it might be some combination of these or other factors.

At the offensive end, Backstrom was 37th in the league in even strength points (34).  This is not a neighborhood where you might find an elite center.  It is where you find Tyler Johnson (34 points), Franz Nielsen (35), Alex Kilhorn (33), or former Capital Mathieu Perreault,, who had the same 34 even strength points but did it in just 69 games.  It was not even a neighborhood in which you might have found Backstrom before last season.  He had 30 even strength points in 48 games in 2012-2013, and last year was the first in his career in which he did not average at least half a point per game at even strength (0.41).

For whatever reason or reasons, Backstrom has been slipping into sub-1.00 goals for to goals against ratio at evens over the last three seasons.  For the Caps to be successful this season, Backstrom might improve on his even strength offense, but given his history of consistency around that point a game level of performance, any improvement there would seem likely to be limited.  If there is going to be improvement – in Backstrom’s plus-minus, in the Caps’ even strength performance, in more wins than losses, -- it seems likely that most of the attention will have to be directed toward allowing fewer goals.  And for that, Backstrom has to be more the player he was in his first four seasons than that which he has been over the last three.

In the end…

As much as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom is the indispensable Capital.  There is no substitute for him anywhere in the Capitals system.  Sure, down the road Evgeny Kuznetsov might be a top-flight center.  Ditto for Andre Burakovsky, but these are potentials at best, pipe dreams at worst.  In the here and now, Nicklas Backstrom has to be and play like a top-line center. 

He is, as he has been, the epitome of the playmaking center, but his goal scoring has been a bit disappointing over the last two seasons, especially at even strength.  It is unlikely he will ever return to that 33-goal season in 2009-2010 (22 at even strength), when it seemed every Capitals set a career high in something on offense.  But being a 16-goal per 82 game player that he has been over the last two seasons needs some improving.  Look at it this way.  Three seasons ago he scored 11 even strength goals in 42 games.  Last season Backstrom scored 11 even strength goals in 82 games. 

You might have thought that the quote above refers to Nicklas Backstrom’s vision on the ice that makes him one of the premier playmakers of his generation.  It applies at least as much to Capitals fans who think Backstrom is a premier center right now.  He is not, not in that top tier anyway.  That vision might be clouded by remembrance of his 101-point season in 2009-2010 or his ability to consistently score at a point a game pace.  However, in the last two seasons he seems in his own way to have become as much a product of the Caps’ power play as Alex Ovechkin.  For the Caps to return to the post-season in 2015 he is going to have to improve his performance at even strength, and in that at both ends of the ice.  It is entirely possible that he will still be that point a game player, but if the mix between even strength and power play points tilts more toward the even strength side of the ledger, with fewer goals against when he is on the ice, the Caps might be better off for it.

Projection: 82 games, 20-63-83, plus-8


*  Numbers used here are from behindthenet.ca, stats.hockeyanalysis.com, and nhl.com