Monday, May 23, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Forwards: Michael Latta

Michael Latta

“The best work is not what is most difficult for you; it is what you do best.”
-- Jean-Paul Sartre


Michael Latta has played in 113 regular season games for the Washington Capitals, 150th in all-time games played, nestled between Joel Kwiatkowski and Greg Smith on the all-time franchise list.  There are 215 players with more points in Caps history than the 17 he has over three seasons.  The task of his making a durable mark in the history of the franchise is a difficult one, but it is not unlike the majority of players who play in the NHL.  Not everyone is Alex Ovechkin or Peter Bondra or Olaf Kolzig.

Latta did appear in 43 games in the 2015-2016 season and set personal highs in goals scored (3) and points (7) despite playing in fewer games than he did in the 2014-2015 season (53).  In fact, he was scoring at what was, for him or a fourth-liner in general, a pretty good clip.  He had his three goals for the season by the time he finished playing in his 22nd game.  He had his seven points after he finished playing in 41 games.  Both were pretty good 82-game paces.  But he played those 41 games in the Caps’ first 58 games of the season.  Latta appeared only twice in the team’s last 24 games, those coming in Games 79 and 82 of the season.

In fact, it would appear entirely likely that Latta’s effective end to his season might have come sooner had not Jay Beagle been injured.  Mike Richards agreed to a one-year deal with the Caps on January 6th but did not appear in a game until ten days later.  Beagle was out with an injured hand and would not return until late February.  Richards might have taken Latta’s spot in the lineup, but the injury to Beagle ensured that Latta remained in the lineup, appearing in 13 of 17 games until Beagle was healthy enough to return to the lineup on February 28th.  

As it was, he did have respectable possession numbers in limited minutes.  His 51.29 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 overall was 10th among 15 forwards with at least 100 5-on-5 minutes (numbers from war-on-ice.com).  His CF%/Relative of plus-1.62 ranked seventh in that group.  His score adjusted numbers were better -- 52.62 percent Corsi-for (seventh) and CF%/Relative of plus-1.85 (fifth).


Fearless’ Take… There is primary scoring, there is secondary scoring, and there is tertiary scoring.  Or maybe quaternary scoring.  It’s sort of a scale of “have to have” to “nice to have.”  Getting points from Michael Latta was nice to have.  The Caps were 5-0-1 when he recorded a point this season.  In fact, the Caps are 11-2-2 whenever Latta scored a point in his career with them.  There was another odd aspect to his in-game performance and results this season.  The Caps were 5-1-2 in games in which he had a fighting major.  All-in-all, in games in which Latta had a point, a fight, or both, the Caps were 9-1-3 (he had a point and a fight in one game).  The Caps were 7-1-1 in games in which he had three or more credited hits, 15-0-2 when he was over 50 percent on faceoffs.  An active Michael Latta appears to have some relationship, if only coincidental, with winning.

Cheerless’ Take… The Caps were 2-3-2 in the seven games in which Latta had more than ten minutes of ice time, and he had only one point in those seven games (a goal against Calgary in an overtime loss in November).  They were 11-1-3 in games in which he had fewer than seven minutes of ice time.  Seems that there are limits to the benefits of his activity.

Odd Latta Fact… Coming into this season, the Caps had not lost a game in regulation when Michael Latta skated 15 or more shifts in a game (7-0-1, regular season and playoff games).  They were 1-3-1 this season when Latta had 15 or more shifts.

Game to Remember… December 16th versus Ottawa

Coming off consecutive road wins in Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, the Caps returned home in mid-December to face the Ottawa Senators.  The visitors were in something of a rut, having lost five of nine games going into their appearance at Verizon Center.  The Caps added to the Senators’ woes, largely in part to Michael Latta.  The Caps broke on top late in the first period, taking advantage of a sloppy line change by the Senators.  While the Senators were slow to sort things out, Latta split the defense to gather up a loose puck, break in on goalie Andrew Hammond, and roof the puck over Hammond’s glove into the top of the net. 


In the sixth minute of the second period, Latta moved the puck from the center red line up to Justin Williams, who carried into the offensive zone and was hooked by Curtis Lazar.  With a delayed penalty coming, Williams slid the puck off to John Carlson for a one-timer that beat Hammond for what would be the game-winning goal in a 2-1 win.  For Latta, it was his only multi-point game of the season, the second multi-point game of his career.

Game to Forget… October 30th versus Columbus

The basic currency in which any professional athlete trades is playing time.  Getting it and keeping it is the first order of business.  A player cannot produce without it.  This is true for stars, and it is true for grinders.  For Michael Latta, the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets on October 30th was one of those games of which it might be said they didn’t have to launder his jersey after the game.  He had already been out for the previous six games after getting a sweater for the first two games of the season.  He got his first shift against Columbus before the game was two minutes old, and it would end up being his longest shift of the game at 58 seconds.  When the final horn sounded he had only seven shifts and by far the least ice time of any Capital with 3:55 (Andre Burakovsky skated 7:09).  He did manage a shot on goal and a hit, and he won both faceoffs he took, but it was the quietest night of the season for Latta as far as ice time was concerned.

Postseason:  no games played

In the end…

It could not be called a good season for Michael Latta, but it was not a poor one, either.  If the season was a movie, his name would appear in the credit roll as a minor character than had a line or two early in the film.  But in a way, that is the point.  There are a variety of roles to be played on a 20-man roster over 82 games.  Some are starring roles, others are not.  Latta played a comparatively minor role in the 2015-2016 season, but that is one that he is equipped for.  It gives him an opportunity to display skills that others who get more ice time frankly are not paid to display – hitting, being an agitator, providing energy.  It is not necessarily a set of unique skills, but they still put him among the best there are that are employed to play professional hockey.  They should not be dismissed easily.

Grade: B-

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Forwards: Evgeny Kuznetsov

Evgeny Kuznetsov

“If we will be quiet and ready enough, we shall find compensation in every disappointment.“
-- Henry David Thoreau


It has taken a while, but Evgeny Kuznetsov has taken his place among the leaders in his 2010 draft class in a number of offensive categories.  Although he ranks just 23rd in that class in NHL regular season games, he ranks tied for 17th in goals (with Cam Fowler), ninth in assists, 13th in points, sixth in plus-minus, and fifth in points per game among those of the 2010 draft class with at least 150 games played.

And that is with Kuznetsov having completed just his second full season with the Washington Capitals.  In 2015-2016 he finished ninth in the league in points (77) and fourth in assists (57).  His plus-27 tied Nashville’s James Neal and Pittsburgh’s Olli Maatta for sixth in the league.  Only three players (Patrick Kane, Artemi Parnarin, and John Gaudreau) had more games with three or more points than the eight recorded by Kuznetsov.

Things happened with Kuznetsov on the ice, although the results might not have been proportionate to the play at times.  In half of his ten-game splits, Kuznetsov finished with ten or more points.  Only twice did his on-ice Corsi-for (shot attempts) differential at 5-on-5 dip below plus-10, and that came early in the season (his second and third ten-game splits).  

However, if there was something ominous, something to portend difficulties in the playoffs, it came late in the season when his 5-on-5 goal differential went into negative territory in each of his last two ten-game splits (12 games in his last split).  There was also his plus-minus.  Only in the last ten-game split did Kuznetsov finish as a “minus” player after being at or near the top of the league rankings for much of the season.  And it was in that last ten-game split (12 games) that he recorded his only split without a goal.  In fact, Kuznetsov went his last 20 games of the regular season without a goal.

His scoring mattered.  The Caps were 14-2-1 in games in which he scored a goal, 37-5-5 in games in which he recorded a point.  And it was not just lighting the red light, it was activity, at least in terms of higher shot volumes.  In 19 games in which he recorded four or more shots, the Caps were 14-2-3.


Fearless’ Take… Even with the late-season problems, Kuznetsov managed to grind out points.  Until he had a five-game streak without a point late in the season (Games 71-75), he never went more than three games without a point.  And those 77 points are nothing to sneeze at.  He became the 11th player in Capitals history 24 years of age or younger to record a season of more than 75 points and the fifth since the 2004-2005 lockout (the others are the “Young Guns” – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin).

Cheerless’ Take…  Among 14 Caps forwards with at least 200 even-strength minutes in the regular season, Kuznetsov had the third-best Corsi-for among Caps forwards at 5-on-5 (52.53 percent) and the third-best Corsi-for/Relative (plus-2.14).  Sounds good, but maybe those were inflated numbers.   His score-adjusted numbers were not bad – 53.51 percent Corsi-for (third) and plus-2.20 Corsi-for/Relative (third), but among 13 forwards with at least 100 even strength minutes when the score was tied, he had the second-worst Corsi-for (48.91 percent) and second-worst Corsi-for/Relative (minus-2.49 percent; numbers from war-on-ice.com).

Odd Kuznetsov Fact… Being an offensive player means having the puck with which to set up plays or score goals.  And having the puck is made easier by starting plays with it instead of having to chase it down, and the brings us to faceoffs.  In 31 games in which Kuznetsov had a faceoff winning percentage of better than 50 percent, the Caps were 25-4-2; they were 9-0-1 in games in which he had ten or more faceoff wins.

Game to Remember… October 23rd versus Edmonton

In late October the Caps were wrapping up their trip to western Canada with a visit to Edmonton to face the Oilers after winning in Calgary over the Flames and in Vancouver over the Canucks.  Evgeny Kuznetsov had four points in the two games, all on assists.  It was mere prelude to what would unfold in Edmonton.  It started when Kuznetsov finished a smart tic-tac-toe passing play with Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie from the top of the Oiler crease past goalie Anders Nilsson.  The teams then engaged in a back and forth that left the teams tied 3-3 approaching the mid-way point of the second period.  John Carlson lifted the puck out of the defensive end into neutral ice where Kuznetsov settled it, broke in on the Edmonton goal, and slid the puck through the pads of Nilsson.  Three minutes later he recorded the primary assist on a goal by Andre Burakovsky, then recorded an assist two minutes after that, skating with the puck for ten full seconds around the Oiler net before setting up a play that Justin Williams finished.  Kuznetsov capped his evening when he ripped a shot over the left shoulder of relief goalie Cam Talbot on a Caps power play, finishing the night with a hat trick and five points in the Caps’ 7-4 win.  It was Kuznetsov’s first career hat trick and his first five-point game (one of eight five-point games in the league this season).

Game to Forget… March 20th versus Pittsburgh

The Caps’ last visit to Pittsburgh in the regular season did not start poorly, but it ended poorly for them and for Evgeny Kuznetsov.  The Penguins scored the game’s first goal 8:33 into the game and doubled their lead less than two minutes later.  The Caps tied the game in the second period, but the Pens grabbed the lead back less than a minutes after the Caps tied it.  Early in the third period Matt Cullen broke behind Kuznetsov and in on goalie Braden Holtby.  His snap shot was blocked, but not stopped by Holtby, the puck crawling up and over his shoulder before dropping into the net.  Chris Kunitz scored less than four minutes later, then Justin Schultz scored on a power play six minutes after that.  By the time the horn sounded, the Penguins had a 6-2 win, and Kuznetsov had his game to forget – on ice for four of the first five Penguin goals, one shot attempt, and a minus-4 in less than 14 minutes of ice time, his fourth lowest of the season.

Postseason: 12 games, 1-1-2, minus-4, 55.1 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, plus-4.7 CF%/Relative

What a difference a year made.  In 14 games in the 2015 postseason Kuznetsov had two goals (including the series-clinching goal in Game 7 of the first round against the New York Islanders) and seven points in 14 games, with a plus-4 to go along with it.  Not bad for his first NHL postseason.  One might have been forgiven if that, plus being one of the top ten scorers in the league, would be a springboard to a fine 2016 postseason.   However, there was that late-seaosn swoon to consider, and that was a stronger indicator of postseason performance for Kuznetsov than his previous postseason or his regular season overall might have suggested.  He scored a goal in Game 3 against the Philadelphia Flyers, and he had an assist in Game 2 of the second round series against Pittsburgh, both points coming on power plays.  That was it.  No even strength points, one goal on 39 shots overall.  And the odd part of its was, the outcomes (points) diverged so much from the outputs (Corsi, Corsi/Relative), which looked so much better (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

In the end…

Evgeny Kuznetsov was – is, in fact – that productive second line center the Caps have been looking for since long before the Caps went back to red jerseys.  He is one of only ten centers in Caps history to record more than 75 points in a season and the only one other than Nicklas Backstrom in the post 2004-2005 lockout era.  He has a bright future ahead of him.  But that second line center problem – one that has haunted Caps’ postseason dreams for almost a decade – reared its ugly head once more. 
Playing well, at least insofar as the underlying numbers were concerned, just was not enough.  Maybe there wasn’t enough “battle” in Kuznetsov’s game when goals became harder to come by, maybe it was part of a longer slump, or maybe it was just bad luck.  But the fact is, Kuznetsov scored one goal in his last 32 games this season, regular season and playoffs.  It was like earning an “A” grade for the first half of the semester, then squandering the fine grade with poor performance on the final.  It is the kind of disappointment that can be a learning moment, that the postseason really is different, and that for a player with responsibilities as important as Kuznetsov’s it isn’t necessarily how you start, but how you finish. 

Grade: B-

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Forwards: Marcus Johansson

Marcus Johansson

“But all I'm askin', hey
Is a little respect when I get home.
Respect is what I want;
Respect is what I need.”
-- Otis Redding


In a draft class that includes John Tavares, Matt Duchene, Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, Chris Kreider, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Victor Hedman, Nazem Kadri, and others of similar ilk, you rank seventh in NHL games played, eighth in goals, fifth in assists, fifth in points, yet there are questions whispered and murmured from time to time about whether this player (who has not yet reached his 26th birthday) should be traded.

Welcome to Marcus Johansson’s world.  Johnasson finished the 2015-2016 season with his fourth straight 40-plus point season (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season), his second-best goal scoring season (17, topped only by the 20 he had the previous season), and had his best plus-minus finish (plus-12).  His total shot attempts were down (from 253 last season to 213), but he had a higher percentage of them on goal (62.0 percent to 54.5 percent), and his shots per game were up (from 1.68 per game to 1.78 per game).

What his 2015-2016 season suggests is that a certain consistency is coming into his game.  His goals-per-game overall (0.8) was unchanged from last season.  His 5-on-5 points per game was unchanged as well (1.6).  Johansson’s overall Corsi-for of 57.8 percent was the third straight season he finished over 55 percent (although his 5-on-5 Corsi-for of 49.2 percent dipped back under 50 percent after finishing at 51.9 percent the previous season).  His on-ice 5-on-5 PDO was over 100 for the second straight year.  But here is one of the strangest nuggets of consistency in his career to date.  In five full seasons (again, not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season, his total Corsi events, for and against, have finished in a very tight band, between 111.7 and 114.9 events per 60 minutes (it was 112.0 this past season).

How Johansson got his points had an intriguing quality to it.  In 16 games in which he scored a goal, the Caps were 11-3-2, a nice record.  However, when he recorded an assist, the Caps had only one regulation loss (18-1-3).  Extending the personal performance notion, when he produced high shot volumes, the Caps were not especially successful, going 5-1-3 when he recorded four or more shots on goal (even though his shooting percentage in those games – 12.2 percent on five goals on 41 shots – was only marginally lower than his season shooting percentage of 12.9 percent).


Fearless’ Take… The subtle parts of Johansson’s game seemed to develop this year.  His on-ice goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was the lowest of his career (1.9).  His on-ice goal differential at fives was the best of his career (plus-8).  His penalty differential per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 was the second highest of his career (plus 0.7).  The on-ice shots differential was tops in his career at 5-on-5 (plus-25).  And, the scoring chances at 5-on-5 he had personally was a career high (139; numbers from war-on-ice.com).  When one speaks of a player “developing,” it is not just the goal, assist, and point totals.

Cheerless’ Take… Let’s not throw a parade for him just yet, cuz.  Seems there is a difference between making other players better and being made better by other players.  I wonder if Johansson isn’t still too much of the latter.  For instance, among forwards he spent most of his 5-on-5 ice time with Justin Williams, and their Corsi-for when on ice together was 50.2 percent.  But Williams was at 54.6 percent when not skating with Johansson.  Next on the list was Evgeny Kuznetsov, with whom his Corsi-for was 46.2 percent.  When apart, Kuznetsov was 54.6 percent, too.  Jason Chimera…47.2 percent with Johansson, 48.1 when apart.  The difference was when he played with the big guns – Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin.  With Backstrom and Johansson were 58.0 percent, but when Johansson was separated from Backstrom, he fell to 47.3 percent.  With Ovechkin, Johansson was at 58.5 percent, but apart, Johansson fell to 48.1 percent (numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com).  They made him better, but Johansson might have come up short in making other forwards better when skating with them.

Odd Johansson Fact… In the six seasons in which he has been in the league, Marcus Johansson is one of two players in the NHL to appear in more than 400 games and record fewer than 60 penalty minutes.  His numbers are 419 games and 52 penalty minutes, those of Ryan O’Reilly are 417 games and 54 penalty minutes.

Game to Remember… December 8th versus Detroit

The Caps were on a roll in early December riding a six-game winning streak when they were beaten by the Winnipeg Jets in overtime, 2-1, in the last game of a three-game road trip, a game in which Marcus Johansson did not play due to a lower body injury.  Returning home to Verizon Center, the task was to start a new streak, but the opponent was the Detroit Red Wings, who were on a three-game winning streak of their own.  It took the Caps less than a minute to serve notice that the streak was in jeopardy.  The play started with Marcus Johansson keeping a sliding puck from exiting the offensive zone, then feeding it to Evgeny Kuznetsov on his right.  Kuznetsov circled in and tried to stuff the puck past goalie Jimmy Howard, but it squirted to Howard’s right.  From his knees, Justin Williams poked the puck past Howard’s right pad and under his stick to make it a 1-0 game just 43 seconds into the contest.  For Williams it was his 600th NHL point, and for Marcus Johansson it was his 200th point.  Johansson assisted on both Capital goals, the other a primary assist on a power play goal by Alex Ovechkin in the third period, in what would be a 3-2 Gimmick win for Washington.

Game to Forget... January 7th versus New York Islanders

It was just another game in the middle of January.  The Caps were visiting Brooklyn to face the New York Islanders, and they had taken a 1-0 lead on a Jason Chimera goal early in the contest.  Then, with the clock ticking down toward the 11-minute mark, the Islanders’ Thomas Hickey collected a loose puck at center ice.  Hickey flipped the puck back into the Caps’ end, but after doing so, Marcus Johansson came in high and hard, leveling Hickey with a late hit.


Johansson was charge with a minor penalty for an illegal check to the head.  For his part, Hickey played on (he finished with more than 15 minutes of ice time).  That might have been the end of it, Johansson going on to record an assist in the Caps’ 4-1 win.  But it was not.  The league’s Department of Player Safety suspended Johansson for two games for the hit.  He missed the fun a couple of days later when Alex Ovechkin recorded his 500th goal in a 7-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.

Postseason: 12 games, 2-5-7, minus-2, 48.0 Corsi-for at 5-on-5, minus-5.3 CF%/Relative 5-on-5

It would not be fair to characterize Marcus Johansson’s postseason as bad, but it was representative of the team as a whole.  In the opening round series against the Philadelphia Flyers he was 1-5-6, plus-2, and he had a Corsi-for at 5-on-5 of 49.4 percent.  In the second round against the Pittsburgh Penguins he, like much of the forward corps outside of the first line, saw his offensive production evaporate.  In six games he was 1-0-1 (the goal coming on a power play in Game 2), minus-4, and he had a Corsi-for of 45.7 percent at 5-on-5.  It was, as it was the case for a lot of Capitals, as if it was two different postseasons entirely, not just two different series.

In the end…

We are at the point of his career at which we can say that Marcus Johansson is young, but he is not inexperienced.  He will not turn 26 until the first week of October, but he will be going into the 2016-2017 season with 475 regular season and playoff games of experience.  He is tied with Dmitri Khristich for 38th place in franchise history in regular season games played (419), and his 56 playoff games played ranks 17th.

It is that body of experience that sees the “consistency” he is developing as a coin with two sides.  On one he is the dependable top-six or top-nine forward who plays productively and intelligently at both ends of the ice.  On the other side is a question, “is this the top end of his development?”  It is a question that takes on a bit more urgency with Johansson now a restricted free agent after winning a $3.75 million judgment in arbitration last off-season.  Does he have another level or more in his developmental arc to be a reliable and productive top-six or top-nine forward?  It is not the most pressing issue the Caps have, perhaps, but it will be one that bears watching after what was, for Johansson, a good, if typical year.

Grade: B

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Forwards: Jason Chimera

Jason Chimera

“Speed provides the one genuinely modern pleasure.”
-- Aldous Huxley


It is widely accepted in the zoological community that the cheetah is the world’s fastest land mammal.  Among its lesser known characteristics is that it is the only species in its genus.  It is described as a “gregarious” animal (at least among the males).  And, it is an animal given to binding with others in “coalitions.”

Five subspecies of the animal have been identified in habitats in Africa and west Asia.  Fans of the Washington Capitals might insist that there is a sixth – the “Ice Cheetah.”  The term is actually a nickname for Jason Chimera, who even though he was approaching his 37th birthday in the 2015-2016 season (his birthday was May 2nd), was still considered among the fastest skaters in the NHL.

However, while speed has been a constant in his career, production had an odd inconsistency about it, especially in his years in Washington.  Six seasons ago, one in which he was traded from the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Caps in mid-season, he finished the year with 15 goals in 78 games.  It was the first year in a “sawtooth” pattern of goal-scoring.  Here are the goals-per-game values for each of those seasons since 2009-2010:


For Chimera, 2015-2016 was an “up” year.  He had his second career 20-goal season (the first one coming in 2011-2012) and his second career 40-point season (2013-2014).  He had a career best four power play goals, added a pair of shorthanded goals to tie a career high and lead the team this season (the only two shorthanded goals recorded by the Caps), and he had a career high in power play assists (5).  He did it playing in all 82 games for the fourth time in his 15-season career.

What’s more, his contributions mattered.  “Secondary scoring” is something a lot of us point to as an important ingredient to success.  In 19 games in which Chimera recorded a goal, the Caps were 16-2-1, and they were 26-3-1 in the 30 games in which he recorded a point.

We noted in the season preview that his sawtooth pattern in goal-scoring was accompanied by a similar pattern in ice time per game.  Here is how that played out over the last seven seasons, including this one:


It is not as pronounced, but a similar pattern is apparent.  And we can extend this pattern to his plus-minus as well, but the point is, he has been a persistent up-and-down performer on a year-to-year basis, and this was an “up” year.

Where he had an odd look in his numbers (well, one place, and we will return to that theme) was in his Corsi numbers.  His Corsi-differential at 5-on-5 of minus-70 was second worst on the club (Tom Wilson was a minus-115), but it was a product of two really poor ten-game splits  He was a total of minus-62 in his third ten-game split (minus-35) and his seventh ten-game split (minus-27).  Even with the poor result, and frankly that of the on-ice scoring chance differential (minus-16), he was just a minus-2 in total goal differential at five-on-five for the year (numbers from war-on-ice.com).


Fearless’ Take…  Two things Chimera did well that do not get a lot of attention were road scoring and shooting efficiency.  He had one of those odd seasons in which his home and road performance numbers were almost mirror images of one another.  On the road he was 15-6-21, plus-9 in 41 games.  At Verizon Center he finished 5-14-19, minus-9 in 41 games.  This despite recording almost 15 percent more shots on goal at home (88 to 77 on the road).  Which brings us to the other thing – shooting efficiency.  Chimera had his best finish in that category in ten years at 12.1 percent (he was 13.4 percent with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2005-2006), the first time he finished in double digits as a Capital.

Cheerless’ Take… Geez, that whole up-down-up-down-up-down thing will make you dizzy.  It even goes to his fancy numbers at home.  This year he was 48.8 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 on Verizon Center ice.  Last year, 50.0.  The year before that, 45.3.  Then 51.4.  And on the road, well…he hasn’t been over 50 percent, well, ever.  At least not since that 2004-2005 lockout.  He was 47.1 percent this year.  But God bless that PDO…it was 104.1 with him on this ice at 5-on-5 on the road, tied for highest as a Cap (104.1 in 2013-2014…more up-down-up-down…).  But that PDO was 96.0 this season at home at fives, second worst as a Cap (95.5 in 2010-2011).  He’s got one funky resume.

Odd Chimera Fact… Something about Wednesdays just did not agree with Chimera.  He had one point in ten games played on Wednesday’s this past season – February 24th, a goal against the Montreal Canadiens.  The Caps lost, 4-3.

Game to Remember… November 12th versus Philadelphia

The Caps headed to Philadelphia for a game against the Flyers after a tough 1-0 loss in Detroit two days earlier.  Things did not start out well for the Caps, who twice fell behind by a goal by the time the game was just over 21 minutes old.  Then Michael Raffl took a cross-checking penalty mid-way through the second period.  On the ensuing power play, Chimera caught the Flyers playing lackadaisical defense in their own end, cut between two players, took a pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov, and swatted the puck past goalie Steve Mason to tie the game.  After Justin Williams gave the Caps a lead less than a minute later (Chimera earning an assist), Chimera struck again late in the period, tipping a drive by Matt Niskanen past Mason on another power play.  Chimera finished with his only two-goal game of the season and one of his three three-point games as the Caps won going away, 5-2.

Game to Forget…  March 12th versus San Jose

The Caps were on their west coast trip, splitting the first two games of the journey with a Gimmick win over the Ducks in Anaheim and an overtime loss in Los Angeles against the Kings.  A win in San Jose would have made it a five-point trip, a nice way to see California.  It didn’t happen.  The Caps laid an egg, and Chimera had some of the mess staining his score sheet.  In just over 11 minutes of ice time (his second lowest total of the season), he had the misfortune of being on the ice for three of the first four Sharks goals – two at even strength and one when the Caps were on a power play.  He added a slashing penalty and managed just one shot attempt for the evening in a 5-2 Caps loss.

Postseason: 12 games, 1-1-2, minus-1, 46.0 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, minus-7.5 CF%/Relative 5-on-5

It would not be a stretch to say that 2016 was Jason Chimera’s worst postseason in six tries as a Capital.  He did not score a goal in his last ten postseason games, and he had just one point in that span (an assist in Game 1 against Pittsburgh).  It was, as seems a consistent feature of his time spent here, a bit odd.  He was held without a shot in five of the six games against Philadelphia in the first round, scoring his goal on two shots in Game 2.  Against Pittsburgh, he just couldn’t find the back of the net, failing on all 15 shots he recorded in six games, six of those shots on goal coming in the Game 6 series clincher for the Penguins.  The two points in a postseason were his fewest in six postseasons as a Capital, and his 1.42 shots per game was his lowest as well.  His performance was part of a team-wide problem of performance once you got past the top line of forwards.

In the end…

The Capitals are going to have an interesting and, perhaps, difficult decision to make in the offseason.  Jason Chimera has shown no obvious symptoms of slowing down at age 37, and it appears that he – an unrestricted free agent in this off-season – would like to return to the team.  However, there are a number of restricted free agents to deal with, and one wonders if his age and his propensity for alternating productive and unproductive seasons will weigh into the decisions being made in the front office.  His chief attribute – speed – is one that the Caps will being trying to maintain, if not upgrade, in the off-season.

The year he had in 2015-2016, on its own merits, argues for the club taking a deliberate look at re-signing him.  Twenty-goal scorers do not exactly grow on trees in the NHL, and Chimera does have two in his last four full seasons.  Add to that his durability (he played all 82 games this year and has missed seven games in six full seasons with the club), and it is reasonable that he would return, depending on what his own contract demands will be.  Unfortunately, that is a decision that will not be taken in as speedy a fashion as Chimera displays on the ice.  Whether the “Ice Cheetah” will be seen running down pucks at Verizon Center is something that will unfold at a slower pace.

Grade: B

Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Forwards: Andre Burakovsky

Andre Burakovsky

“Life is one big road with lots of signs. So when you riding through the ruts, don't complicate your mind. Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy. Don't bury your thoughts, put your vision to reality. Wake Up and Live!”
-- Bob Marley


Andre Burakovsky was largely free of expectations in his rookie season, an unexpected acceleration of his development curve when he impressed the brain trust enough to keep him on the parent roster to start the 2014-2015 season.  It was trust well placed, as Burakovsky finished in the top-20 among rookies in assists (13) and points (22), and was in the top-25 among rookies in goals scored (9), despite appearing in only 53 games (tied for 33rd in the rookie class).  When he finished the 2015 postseason with a more modest two goals and an assist in 11 games, it might have been chalked up to his first turn on the bigger stage of the playoffs.

His 2015-2016 regular season did not fall victim to the “sophomore slump.”  In 79 games he finished with 17 goals and 38 points, one of 20 forwards 21 years of age or younger to finish the season with at least 35 points.  He nearly doubled his shot total from his rookie season (from 65 to 126) without suffering an accompanying significant loss in efficiency (13.5 percent versus 13.8 percent in his rookie year).  He tied Nicklas Backstrom for third on the club in even-strength goals (17) and tied T.J. Oshie for fifth in even-strength points (34).

It was not all skittles and ambrosia for Burakovsky, who endured a mental time-out – a two-game absence – in late November after a stretch of 11 games in which he registered just one assist.  At the time, head coach Barry Trotz said of him:
“He’s just got to clear his mind.  He’s a young guy who’s thinking about a lot of things. I just talked to him about just worrying about his own game and not worrying about all the other stuff. He’s getting frustrated over things he doesn’t need to get frustrated over. He’s over-thinking things, and what he needs to do is just concentrate on his own game.”

Even after that short hiatus, though, he struggled to put up numbers, putting up just a pair of assists over a 14-game stretch.  However, starting with a goal in a 5-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on December 30th, Burakovsky went on to go 15-15-30, plus-7 in his last 47 games.

As it was, he had some odd splits over the course of the season.  There was the disparity in home scoring (9-14-23, plus-10) versus road scoring (8-7-15, minus-6).  And, he seemed to have an affinity for playing teams from Pennsylvania.  The only two teams against which he scored two goals this season were the Philadelphia Flyers (two goals in four games) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (two goals in five games).  The odd thing about that was that the Caps lost every game, an overtime loss to the Flyers in which he recorded his only two-goal game of the season and a pair of losses to the Penguins (one in overtime).


Fearless’ Take… Burakovsky spent a lot of time on the second line this season, suggesting a certain scorer’s responsibility, but sometimes it is easy to overlook just how young he is.  He is just the 11th player in Capitals history to have played at least 100 games and recorded at least 50 points in his first two seasons without having reached his 22nd birthday.  Only four Capitals have done it since the 2004-2005 lockout – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson are the others.

Cheerless’ Take… Cuz mentioned that slow start Burakovsky had to this season.  He didn’t mention the slow finish, and that was before the playoffs.  He had a goal and an assist (both against Pittsburgh in a 4-3 overtime loss on April 7th) in his last 11 games.  The eight-game streak he had without a point from March 22nd through April 5th tied his longest of the year (in November, part of that slow start).  Oh, and the Caps lost four of five games in which he recorded more than 17 minutes of ice time.

Odd Burakovsky Fact… He was the only Capital other than Alex Ovechkin to record 10 or more shots in a game this season.  He had one goal on ten shots in a 5-2 loss to the Florida Panthers on February 2nd.  He is one of four Capitals in the Ovechkin era to record ten or more shots on goal in a game and the first to do it, other than Ovechkin, since Alexander Semin had ten shots on goal in a 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins on October 19, 2010.  For the record, Ovechkin has recorded ten or more shots in a game 45 times in his career, Alexander Semin did it three times over that same span of time, and Mike Green and Burakovsky did it once apiece.

Game to Remember… January 5th versus Boston.

Sure, there was the goal against the Bruins, the Caps’ first one of the contest at TD Garden in Boston, converting in one motion a nifty cross-ice feed from Evgeny Kuznetsov…



…but Burakovsky also managed to hound Zdeno Chara into taking a delay-of-game penalty for shooting the puck over the glass, the Caps scoring on the ensuing power play, and he finished the game with a season high three credited hits in just under 17 minutes of ice time in a 3-2 Caps win on January 5th.

Game to Forget… December 8th versus Detroit.

Late in the first period of a 1-0 game, there was a faceoff in the Caps’ end to the left of goalie Braden Holtby.  Henrik Zetterberg won it from Michael Latta and headed for the net.  He then took a return pass from Dylan Larkin to tie the game.  What was noteworthy about the play was what Andre Burakovsky was doing…



…not much of anything as it turned out, Zetterberg cutting underneath him in open ice to take the pass and score.  Burakovsky got six more shifts after that and finished with his lowest ice time number of the season (6:45), although the Caps did get the win in a Gimmick, 3-2.

Postseason: 12 games, 1-0-1, minus-1, 59.7 5-on-5 CF%; plus-10.7 CF%/Relative

Years from now…well, maybe months…ok, for now…folks will look at Andre Burakovsky’s performance numbers in the postseason (one goal in 12 games, a minus-1 overall) and look at his personal underlying numbers (59.7 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5, Corsi-for/Relative of plus-10.7) and scratch their heads in wonder, asking themselves, “how did THIS happen?”  In only two of the 12 games in which he played did opponents have more shot attempts than the Caps at 5-on-5 when he was on the ice (Games 2 and 3 against the Philadelphia Flyers).  Only once was he underwater in Corsi-for/Relative at fives (Game 4 against the Flyers; numbers from war-on-ice.com).  But there is was, one goal…one point…in the postseason.  Ain't no "Corsi" Smythe Trophy in the playoffs.

In the end…

Andre Burakovsky had what was a pretty nice second season in the NHL blow up in the postseason.  But then again, he’s a young guy.  Don’t forget that.  The Caps have had 26 forwards in their history play in at least 50 games over their first two seasons and not yet reach their 22nd birthday.  Burakovsky ranks smack in the middle of that (13th) on a points per game basis (0.45), roughly the same as what Marcus Johansson did in the same situation in his first two seasons before reaching his 22nd birthday (0.49 points per game). 

It is a bit early to draw any conclusions about Burakovsky’s destiny, even with the disappointing postseason.  He is, as he was at the start of the season, a promising player, perhaps one who is still slightly ahead of his expected development curve.  But this postseason did serve as something of a wake-up call, that regular season numbers are nice, and fancystats are all the rage.  But Cups are won with goals, assists, and wins, and Burakovsky will be evaluated in the postseason if not overall, as will the team, on the basis of how many of those they put together in the spring.

Grade: B

Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America

Monday, May 16, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Forwards: Jay Beagle

Jay Beagle

“Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence.“
-- Buddha


Ten skaters, two goaltenders, four officials, and one puck.  Even in an enclosed space 200 feet long and 85 feet wide, those are ingredients for chaos.  And part of the chaos are those elements, large and small, obvious and subtle, that combine to favor one team or another.  Mastering any one of them is a sought-after characteristic of an NHL player, be it scoring goals, having the vision to orchestrate an offense, having the fortitude and the physical attributes to intimidate opponents, or even to master one of the arcane but often ignored facets of the game.

Washington Capital forward Jay Beagle is not in the National Hockey League because he has a scorer’s hands or a passer’s vision.  He is in the NHL because he has diligently mastered some of the less appreciated skills that are important to the success of a team.  One of them is faceoffs.  Since 2008-2009, his first season in the NHL, Beagle ranks eighth among active players in faceoff winning percentage at 55.6 percent (minimum: 1,000 faceoffs taken).  It is a skill that is sometimes overlooked, other times dismissed, sometimes considered critical only after you lost one that eventually ended up in the back of your net.  This past season, Beagle finished third in faceoff winning percentage among 114 skaters taking at least 500 draws (58.1 percent), behind only Ryan Kesler (58.5 percent) and Jonathan Toews (58.6 percent).  The difference between Beagle finishing third and first was three faceoff losses in 637 draws taken.  It was not much.

Then there is penalty-killing, another of those skills at times overlooked, except when the opponents score a power play goal.  On the league’s second-best penalty killing unit, Beagle averaged 1:59 in shorthanded ice time, second among forwards who finished the season with the team and first among those who played the entire season for the Capitals.  It was the second-highest average shorthanded ice time he recorded in his six full NHL seasons, topped only by the 2:07 per game that he recorded in 2012-2013.

None of this should diminish Beagle’s modest, but interesting contributions at the offensive end of the ice.  In 2014-2015 he set personal bests in goals (10), assists (10), and points (20) in 62 games.  He almost equaled them this season, finishing 8-9-17 in 57 games.  And, the Caps were 6-1-1 in games in which he scored a goal, 12-2-1 in games in which he recorded a point. 


Fearless’ Take… Only once in six full seasons has Beagle finished a season below 55 percent in faceoff wins (51.7 percent in 2013-2014), and never in those six seasons did he finish with more charged giveaways than credited takeaways.  This season he was 58.1 percent in faceoffs overall and 20-12 in his takeaway-to-giveaway ratio.

Cheerless’ Take… It would be nice if he could put up those numbers in those obscure categories in more games.  He’s had something of an injury bug the last two seasons.  Two years ago it was illness, an upper body injury, and a shoulder injury that limited him to 62 games.  This season it was a hand injury that limited him to 57 games.  And those possession numbers weren’t so hot.  Maybe that’s the 3rd/4th liner in him, but he had the fourth-worst Corsi-for/Relative at 5-on-5 among forwards appearing in at least half of the Caps’ games (minus-1.84; numbers from war-on-ice.com).

Odd Beagle Fact… When the Caps lost to the New York Rangers, 3-2, on March 4th, it was the first time that the Caps lost a regular season game in regulation in which Beagle scored a goal in his career.  To that point, the Caps were 22-0-5 in games in which Beagle lit the lamp.  He started a new streak on April 1st with a goal in a 4-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche.

Game to Remember… December 26th vs. Montreal

It is not often that a “grinder” gets a game-winning goal, and off a nasty snipe to boot, but that’s just what Jay Beagle found at the bottom of his stocking on the day after Christmas.  Early in the second period he took a pass from Tom Wilson at the top of the right wing circle, took one step in as he settled the puck, and rifled a snap shot over the glove of goalie Mike Condon into the top near corner.  It was the game-winning goal in the Caps’ 3-1 win over the Canadiens, Beagle also finishing a plus-2 on the night.

Game to Forget… November 19th vs. Dallas

On a late November night at Verizon Center, Jay Beagle had the misfortune to be on the ice for the first goal of the game and the last one, both of them scored by the Dallas Stars in a 3-2 loss.  The game winner came mid-way through the third period as Jason Chimera tried to thread a pass past Jason Spezza to Beagle, who had taken a step toward the blue line in anticipation of a breakout.  The Puck made it only as far as Spezz, though, who filled into the space Beagle vacated, snapping the puck past goalie Philipp Grubauer for the winning margin.  It was one of only two games this season in which Beagle finished a minus-2.

Postseason: 12 games, 3-0-3, plus-1, 41.9 5-on-5 CF%; minus-12.4 CF%/Relative

It says a lot that Jay Beagle finished tied for fourth in goal scoring for the Caps in the postseason, three in 12 games.  It was as many goals as he had in 37 career playoff games before this season.  It might say something else that he had two of those goals in the first three games of the first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers, then wrapped up the postseason with one goal on 12 shots in nine games, that one coming in an overtime loss in Game 4 to the Pittsburgh Penguins.  There was this play, though, early in overtime of Game 6…



Not every great play by a skater is a goal, and not every great save is made by a goaltender.  You do what you have to do, and sometimes a little luck plays into it, too.

In the end…

Hockey is like the quote the Tom Hanks character uttered in “A League of Their Own” in describing baseball:
“It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard... is what makes it great.”

And that is what makes a player like Jay Beagle one worth rooting for.  Beagle is not going to enjoy a long NHL career on the basis of his laser wrist shot or his ability to see the game better than anyone else to set up teammates for goals.  His stock and trade is doing the less glamorous jobs well – taking faceoffs, matching up against the other team’s best players, killing penalties, and making the odd save.  In his way, Beagle’s ability to carve out a niche for himself doing those deeds is testimony to just how hard the game is, but at the same time having room for players who out of diligence and hard work do those other jobs well.  And that is what makes Jay Beagle find his place in the chaos.

Grade: B

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Washington Capitals: 2015-2016 By the Tens -- Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom

“Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm.”
-- Robert Louis Stevenson


In the four years leading to the 2015-2016 season, ten skaters appeared in at least 200 games and recorded at least 0.95 points per game. It is a who’s who list of elite players. One of them is the Washington Capitals’ Nicklas Backstrom, perhaps the player with the fewest column inches and pixels devoted to his performance of any of the ten.  But if he was unappreciated in reporting, his coaches certainly held him in high regard.  As head coach Barry Trotz put it in the first month of this season:

“I’m telling you guys. You guys out West don’t see him. I didn’t see him enough. He’s the best two-way forward I have ever coached, and I’ve coached some pretty good guys, like Mike Fisher.  Everybody just thinks he’s an offensive player, but he’s as good as there is in the business on both ends of the ice.” 

And that first month of the season was another in the uncommonly persistent pace at which Backstrom records points – four goals and four assists in the seven games in which he played (he missed the first three games of the season recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his hip over the summer).  It was a pace he maintained over the course of the season.  Looking at his ten-game splits, the range of points recorded was between eight and 11 over his first six splits.  He fell off somewhat in his last two splits, recording seven points in each (including in the eight, 12-game split to end the season), perhaps as much a function of the Caps having clinched the league’s best record as any sluggishness in his play.

As it was, Backstrom finished the season with 20 goals, his highest total since he has a career high 33 in the 2009-2010 season.  He had his third straight 70-point season.  It, and the body of his work in previous seasons, garnered him his first career All-Star Game appearance in Nashville in January.

That body of work had another solid year added to in in terms of possession numbers.  For the eighth time in nine seasons, Backstrom finished with a Corsi-for at 5-on-5 over 50 percent.  For the ninth time he finished Corsi-for/Relative in positive territory (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

His consistency was, as one would expect, consistent at a game-to-game level.  Only twice this season did he go as many as three consecutive games without a point.  Both of them came in the last 30 games of the season.  Again, a product of the Caps’ position in the standings or was it something in Backstrom’s play?  Remember that Backstrom missed three games late in the season with an upper body injury and sat out the season finale.  His second instance of three consecutive games without a point came two weeks before he missed those games.  Given the mystery that attaches to reporting of injuries in the NHL, perhaps he wasn’t 100 percent as the season was winding down, either. 


Fearless’ Take… Fun Backstrom Fact:  He is the only player in the league to finish each of the last three seasons with at least 50 assists (he had 50 this season) and at least 70 points.  Only three other players did it twice (Sidney Crosby, Erik Karlsson, and Joe Thornton).

Cheerless’ Take… Those last three columns in that chart up on top have a strange look to them.  That minus-39 in his fourth ten-game segment in Corsi plus/minus sticks out, especially after he was plus-101 over his first three segments.  He was in minus territory in seven of those games, but the odd thing about it was, the Caps went 8-1-1. That seemed to be something of a turning point in Backstrom’s season.  To that point, he had a plus-52 in scoring chances/on ice over his first three segments.  He was minus-20 in that fourth segment, then a minus-1 over his last four segments.  His 5-on-5 goal differential did not seem to change much, but those underlying numbers did not look as good late as they did early.  A result of the Caps lapping the field in the standings?  Maybe, but that doesn’t make them look any better.

Odd Backstrom Fact… Playmaking was win-making when Backstrom was on the ice.  The Caps were 31-5-1 when Backstrom recorded at least one assist (9-0-0 when he had musti-assist games).  The odd part of it is that the Caps were “only” 12-3-3 when he recorded a goal.

Game to Remember… December 18th versus Tampa Bay

If it was a memorable game, it was because a milestone was achieved by Backstrom in the most “Backstromian” way.  Late in their contest against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a game in which the Caps came back from a 3-0 deficit to take a 4-3 lead, John Carlson dug the puck out of the corner to the right of goalie Braden Holtby.  The puck slid out to Alex Ovechkin along the wall, who fed it to Backstrom exiting the defensive zone.  Backstrom skated through the neutral zone with an empty Lightning net at the other end and only forward Vladislav Namestnikov back.  Backstrom could have fired the puck to the empty net, but he fed it off to T.J. Oshie on his right, who scored the empty net goal in the Caps’ 5-3 win.  The assist was Backstrom’s 600th career point.  He became the fourth player in Capitals’ history to hit the 600-point mark and finished the season as one of only 37 active players with at least 600 NHL points, sixth on that list in points per career game.

Game to Forget… March 20th versus Pittsburgh

What an odd game this was, for the Caps and for Backstrom.  There was a lot of back and forth over the first 25 minutes, the Pens opening the scoring with a pair of first period goals, the Caps tying the game with a pair to start the second period.  At that point, though, the Caps imploded, giving up the game’s last four goals in a 6-2 loss.  For Backstrom, it was the only game this season in which the Caps lost when he skated fewer than 17 minutes (10-1-0).  The rest of his scoring line was equally forgettable – no points, one shot attempt (on goal), one giveaway, 7-for-17 in faceoffs.

Postseason: 12 games, 2-9-11, plus-3, 55.1 5-on-5 CF%, plus-4.7 CF%/Relative

Nicklas Backstrom’s postseason illustrates the difference between “productivity” (those underlying numbers like Corsi) and “performance” (goals, points, wins).  If you look at the two series, in both of which Backstrom and the Caps played six games, his 5-on-5 numbers were almost indistinguishable – 54.7 percent Corsi-for against the Philadelphia Flyers, 55.5 percent against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.  He had 21 shot attempts in the six games against the Flyers, 20 in the six games against the Penguins.  He was a plus-19 in 5-on-5 Corsi-differential in both series.  His Corsi-for and Corsi-against in the two series were almost identical (numbers from war-on-ice.com).  

The difference was in the performance numbers.  Backstrom had two goals in the Flyer series, none against the Penguins.  He had five assists against Philadelphia, four against the Penguins.  It did not matter so much in the regular season when Backstrom did not have a goal (remember that 12-3-3 record noted above), but in the postseason the Caps won both games in which he had a goal and went 4-6 when he didn’t.  This wasn’t the reason the Caps failed to advance, but one does wonder what one timely goal might have meant.  When one says “there is enough blame to go around” with respect to the Caps’ second round loss, it doesn’t jump past Backstrom to the next player, either.

In the end…

The summaries we have written about Backstrom over the years have almost as consistent a quality as his play.  He’s a consistent player, perhaps none more so in his nine seasons in the NHL.  In some ways it makes him as important – as valuable – a player as Alex Ovechkin.  But that can be a two-edged sword.  As long as Backstrom is that consistent player, the Caps are a consistently successful team.  But when it falters in the least, the Caps will have problems unless others step up in a big way.  And that was a scenario that played out to some extent in the postseason.  Backstrom’s second round numbers were almost identical in terms of possession, but his performance numbers slipped just slightly.  It was not the proximate reason the Caps left the playoff stage early, but as close as the series was with the Penguins, a point here or there might have been a difference-maker, enough to make up for the larger shortcomings of some of his teammates.

Grade: B

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Washington Capitals: When All Is Said and Done, One Thing Remains


Capitals Nation has had more than a day to spill its bile over the Washington Capitals being eliminated from the postseason.  We are not quite at the “fix-it” stage of the offseason, but we are past (we hope) the knee-jerk “dump-fire-trade” reflex that overwhelms a lot of fans in the white-hot moments after a disappointing loss.  What we are left with for the time being is a lot of questions?  Questions like…

What just happened here?

The Caps lost a playoff series.  The persistent narrative fed by this loss is the history of “one and done” or “two and through” that haunts this franchise.  It is the 24th time in 26 postseason appearances that the Capitals have failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs.  But it would be an exercise in intellectual laziness to think that this is some systemic problem with the franchise since its inception.  Too many owners, managers, coaches, and players have been through these parts.  The ugly truth might be that every playoff loss is a snowflake – each unique in its form.  The only common attribute is, well, the loss.  And what happened?  The Caps lost. 

OK…so what makes this loss “unique?”

Goaltending, but not in a way you might think.  One sturdy lament from Caps fans over the years has been that it is always the other goalie who is the “hot goalie.”  From Kelly Hrudey turning away 72 of 75 shots in a Game 7 for the New York Islanders in 1987 to Jaroslav Halak stopping 131 of 134 shots in Games 5-7 of the Montreal Canadiens’ win over the Caps in 2010 to the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist tormenting the Caps by stopping 92 of 94 shots he faced in the last three Games 7 he played against the Caps (all Ranger wins), there has been a “hot goalie” theme Caps fans played like a dirge.

Not so in this series.  There is a stunning fact about the goaltending matchup in the series against the Penguins.  If you compare the records of the two goaltenders in the games of this series, the Caps’ Braden Holtby and the Penguins’ Matt Murray, you get a 2.57 goals against average and a .923 save percentage for Holtby, and you get a 2.40 goals against average and a .926 save percentage for Murray.  But here is the thing.  The difference in their goals against averages is precisely the game-winning, series-clinching goal by Nick Bonino in Game 7.  If it had been Murray who allowed the goal in the overtime session on the same number of shots and minutes, his series goals against average to that point would have been 2.56, and his save percentage would have been .921.  You could argue, with some merit, that the goaltending being a wash was a victory for the Penguins, given the circumstances and the seasons the respective goalies had, but in terms of pure performance, the difference was as small as the last goal scored in the series.

If goaltending was a wash, what was the difference?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but “one goal,” at least in the first pass at the review.  It is tempting to think, especially since a fair number of the numbers guys before this series has the Penguins as a solid, if not overwhelming favorite, that there was a fair amount of space between these teams.  Not so.  Five of the six games ended in one-goal decisions, three of them in overtime.  In fact, in only three of the six games did either team take a multi-goal lead (Pittsburgh twice, both in wins, and the Caps once in what ended in a win).

Look at the high-end numbers.  The Penguins outscored the Caps, 16-15.  Overall, shot attempts favored the Pens, 407-399, and Pittsburgh had a similarly narrow advantage in shots on goal (209-202).

Surely, there has to be more of a difference than “one goal?”

Well, as a matter of fact, there is.  And for that, we turn to a verse from the Bible…

“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: 
for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

-- Galatians 6:7

What the Caps sowed in the second half of the season, they reaped in the second round of the playoffs in two respects.  It started with that infernal snow storm in late January that caused the postponement of two games.  In the 36 games after that, the Caps tied the Arizona Coyotes for the third-worst 5-on-5 goal differential in the first periods of games in the league.  Their minus-9 was better than only the Detroit Red Wings (minus-13) and the Colorado Avalanche. (minus-10).  Their minus-15 goal differential in all situations was worst in the league (the Edmonton Oilers were next at minus-12).  No team in the entire league in that span of the calendar scored fewer 5-on-5 goals in the first periods of games (11, tied with Detroit and the New Jersey Devils) or fewer goals overall (13, four fewer than the Oilers and Coyotes; numbers from war-on-ice.com). 

Against the Penguins, the Caps were outscored in the first periods of games, 5-3, the Penguins scoring first period goals in each of the last four games of the series.  And what is worse, the Caps had the occasional problem of not knowing when to stop digging that hole of slow starts.  Twice in the series the Penguins scored the first three goals of a game.  Both times (Games 3 and 6), the Caps mounted furious third period comebacks (a reflection of their being perhaps the strongest third period club in the league in the regular season; no team was close to their plus-33 goal differential), but both times the comebacks were not enough, including in the series-clinching loss in overtime.

The other item of note was the reliance on special teams.  More precisely, how the power play became something of a mirage late in the season.  The Caps were at or near the top of the power play rankings for most of the season, but they slipped to fifth in the final tally.  Look again at their record after that snow storm in late January.  In the 36 games that followed, the Caps scored 15 power play goals.  Only six teams in the league scored fewer goals with the man-advantage.  In the postseason, that lack of production morphed into an odd lurching character.  They opened the first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers going 8-for-17, fueled largely by a 5-for-9 effort in Game 3 as a result of a team-wide meltdown by the Flyers.  After that game, though, the Caps went 1-for-22 in their next seven games, including 1-for-12 in the first four games of the series against the Penguins, three of those games ending in losses.  They recovered to go 4-for-11 in Games 5 and 6, but being shutout in Games 3 and 4 – both of which were one-goal losses, one in overtime – had an effect.

The power play hiccups put more pressure on the penalty killers to perform at a high-level, but this turned out to be a two-edged sword in the end.  For most of the postseason, the penalty killers were magnificent.  Through the first round and Games 1-4 of the second round, they were 36-for-37 (97.3 percent).  The trouble was, the Caps were that good killing penalties and still were just 5-5 overall in those ten games, falling behind the Penguins, three games to one, in the first four games of their series despite killing all 14 shorthanded situations they faced.  It left little margin for error for when the penalty killers were not at the top of their game.  And when Karl Alzner went down to injury in Game 6, and the Penguins scored two power play goals, that margin evaporated.

Could anything have helped to get the Caps past those problems?

One can over-think this question, but it really isn’t hard to see an answer.  Before we do address that, though, a detour.  In a season that spans six months and 100 or so regular season and playoff games, no player is immune to a slump.  You hope they don’t last long, and you pray they don’t come at the wrong time.  For the Caps, two players hit the daily double in this regard, and it hurt.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, in just his second full season in the NHL, finished ninth in the league in scoring in the regular season.  His 20 goals almost doubled his production from the previous season (11), and his 77 points more than doubled his 2014-2015 total (37).  After the postseason he had in 2015, when he had five goals in 14 games, one might have thought he would be the complementary piece in the postseason to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom that the Caps have sorely lacked over the last decade.  It did not happen.  In 12 games, he had one goal and one assist, recording only the assist in his last nine games of the postseason.  He did not have an even-strength point in any of the 12 games.  No club’s second line center is going to have that level of production at this level of play and go deep.  It was one of the most perplexing developments in a Capitals postseason in a history full of them.

Then there was Andre Burakovsky.  His fate was less surprising than that of Kuznetsov, but no less important.  He made solid progress in his second season, building on 22-points in 53 games of the 2014-2015 campaign to finish 17-21-38 in 79 regular season games this year.  What he needed to do, and what the Caps needed from him, was improve on his results from last year’s postseason in which he was 2-1-3 in 11 games.  Unfortunately, he didn’t.  He scored the Caps’ first goal of their series against the Penguins, his first point of the postseason.  He would not record another.  But again, his performance was less surprising than Kuznetsov’s.  We need to keep in mind that he just turned 21 in February and in the original scheme of things regarding his development, this might have been originally penciled in as his rookie season before he made such an impression last year.

The struggles of the young forward duo is particularly important because of what the Penguins were able to get from their next line players.  Their trio of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, and Carl Hagelin combined for seven of the 16 goals scored by the Penguins in the series.  Being gobsmacked by the output of that group, coupled with the forgettable performance of the Caps young guard, was the difference in terms of performance around which this series revolved.

Was it a failure of management?

If by “management” you mean coaching, no.  And even if you want to entertain that notion, the term “failure” would be severe.  But head coach Barry Trotz and his assistants performed well in this series.  That’s not to say every move worked (like switching Backstrom and Kuznetsov to try and get the latter untracked), but it is hard to see a move he made and think, “well, there’s a boneheaded thing to do.”  Sometimes, things just don’t work as you planned or hoped.  Even the subtle dig at the league when Brooks Orpik was being evaluated for a possible suspension after his hit on Olli Maatta in Game 2 – “I’m not surprised based on who we’re playing and all that…Take it for whatever you want” – might have paid dividends elsewhere; the Caps had a 23-19 edge in power plays in the series.  You can pick over every move he and his assistants made over the stretch of a six-game series and conclude that this, that, or another was “wrong.”  But that is in retrospect.  As a body of work, coaching decisions do not rise to the level of having been a “problem.”

So what went right?

This starts to sound a bit like, “other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”  But more went right in this series for the Caps than folks might want to acknowledge.  Start with what they did to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  In 305 total combined shifts spanning 234 minutes of ice time, the pair – generally thought of as the top pair of centers on one team in the NHL and perhaps among the top-five forwards – had one goal (Malkin).  Between them, they had one power play point (Crosby) and just four overall.  Let that sink in.  In terms of outcomes, it was perhaps the best sustained level of team defense on such prodigious offensive weapons in the history of Capitals playoff hockey.

Then there was the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie.  The trio combined for seven of the Caps’ 15 goals in the series and accounted for more than 30 percent of the total shots on goal for the club in the series (62 of 202).  Oshie had five of the seven goals, Backstrom had four of the ten assists the threesome had.  Ovechkin led them with seven points overall (2-5-7).

There was John Carlson, too.  From the backline, Carlson figured in six of the Caps’ 15 goals in the series (two goals, four assists) and had a hand in three of the team’s five power play goals (one goal, two assists).  But it was not all unicorns and accordions as far as Carlson’s performance was concerned.  He was on ice for six of the 16 goals scored by the Penguins.

In the end…

In the last meeting with the press on Thursday, Nicklas Backstrom said that with respect to playoff disappointments, “it’s getting old.”  For Caps fans who might have followed this team since the 1980’s, when they made their first forays into the postseason, “old” is something of an understatement.  But in a curious way, this loss does feel different.  It isn’t any less disappointing than any of the other 25 postseasons without a Cup, but in this instance it is not obvious that the Caps lost to a superior team.  Quite the opposite, actually.  The Caps were an untimely departure (Karl Alzner, who finally could go no longer playing on a partially torn groin muscle) and an overtime goal away from forcing a Game 7 at home in this series.  Even with the ghastly history of Games 7 in this club’s history, one might have had the feeling that a Game 6 win, coming as it would have after spotting the Penguins a three-goal lead, would have given the Caps a strong wind at their back to sail past the Pens into the conference final.

That is the margin of winning and losing in the playoffs.  For the Caps, 26 times they reached the postseason, and 26 times they were always on the wrong side of that divide.  But perhaps more than in any postseason aftermath in club history, certainly since their 1998 run to the Stanley Cup final, we are left with what was left in Pandora’s Box after it was opened, and all the evils were loosed upon the world.

Hope.


Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images