Friday, August 18, 2017

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- August 18th

We are back with another in the occasional series this summer of “What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History?”  And that brings us to August 18, 2005.  The summer preceding the 2005-2006 season was a busy one for the Caps, made more so because the club was in the midst of a rebuild, bid farewell to a number of players before the 2004-2005 lockout, and had to cobble together a full roster with so many youngsters still in development.

In the space of eight days in early-August, the Caps traded for Chris Clark, signed free agents Andrew Cassels and Lawrence Nycholat, dipped into the free agent bag again to sign Mathieu Biron and Ivan Majesky, obtained Bryan Muir from the Los Angeles Kings for future considerations, and then signed Jamie Heward and Boyd Kane.  It was a busy eight days. 

The Caps could be forgiven for going quiet on the personnel front for six days, but on August 18th, they added veteran forward Matt Bradley.  It was just another signing, or so it seemed at the time, among a blizzard of them for the Caps, the sort that gets perfunctory attention in the media

Bradley made his Capitals debut on the same night as prized rookie Alex Ovechkin, although he did not have quite the introduction to Capitals hockey that Ovechkin had (two goals in his NHL debut).  Bradley skated a team-low 8:51 that night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, going without a point, but recording three hits to give a glimpse of the sort of “energy” player he would become with the club.

Bradley, who was not a prolific scorer in 203 regular season games over four seasons before arriving in Washingon (19-26-45), was a meat-and-potatoes sort of grinder who would do the dirty work in the corners and in front of the net, get under the skin of opponents, and stand up for teammates when the need arose.  In those first 203 regular season games before joining the Caps he had 24 fights, including a career high 11 with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2003-2004, his last season before coming to D.C.

It was one element of a playing style that endeared Bradley to Caps fans through some hard times in those early years after the lockout.  It was a respect earned through episodes such as this one…

At about the 1:25 mark of the clip, you can see Bradley, who just hopped off the bench, make a bee-line to Steve Downie to keep him from renewing his antics with Alex Ovechkin from earlier in the contest.  Bradley was hardly shy about sticking his nose into such situations.  But those situations, as frequently as they might have occurred for which Bradley sacrificed his body, might not be the moment that Caps fans remember.

In fact, Bradley’s most memorable moment as a Capital might be less a vivid memory and more an “oh, yeah…” moment, at least his role in it.  It happened late in Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New York Rangers.  It had been a 1-1 contest since late in the first period, and neither team seemed to have the key to unlock the back of the net to break the tie, until…

Everyone remembers Sergei Fedorov’s wrister that beat Henrik Lundqvist to give the Caps a 2-1 lead and, ultimately, a victory in the series.  But back up the clip to the 10-second mark, when Matt Bradley takes a hit at the boards to make a play, a backhand pass to Fedorov exiting the defensive zone to start the rush that ended in the series-winning goal.  What makes the moment even more bizarre, and what might be the ultimate anonymous hockey grinder moment, Bradley did not even get a “plus” on the goal.  Immediately after making the pass, he went to the bench in favor of Viktor Kozlov, who took the ice and would get the “plus” in Bradley’s absence.

And even that moment might never have happened but for some Bradley magic in Game 5 of that series.  Going into that contest, the Rangers had three one-goal wins in skating out to a 3-1 lead in games, and the Caps were facing elimination in Game 5.  However, just 4:58 into a scoreless game, with the Rangers on a power play and threatening to take a lead to add even more pressure on the Caps, Bradley got the Caps on the board with a shorthanded goal (25 seconds into this clip) to spark the Caps to a 4-0 win and keep themselves alive…

Bradley played two more seasons with the Caps, never flinching from his role as a stand-up, high energy player, but one who could chip in with a timely goal.  The physical edge with which he played took a toll, though.  After appearing in 81 games in 2008-2009, he played in 77 games in 2009-2010 and 61 games in 2010-2011.  After that 2010-2011 season, he signed a two-year contract with the Florida Panthers as a free agent.  In February of his first (and what would be only) year with the Panthers, he suffered a concussion that limited him to 45 games in what would be his last season in the NHL.

Some free agent signings are accompanied by a lot of hoopla, and others are merely one-line of type buried deep in the sports pages.  Matt Bradley’s signing with the Caps on August 18, 2005 probably qualifies as the latter, but he gave the Caps their money’s worth and played a lot noisier than “just another signing” might be expected to perform.  And absent that signing, the Caps might have been denied not only one of the most memorable goals in the history of the franchise, but might very well have been eliminated long before such a chance would ever present itself.  Even for grinders, there is a special place in hockey, and Matt Bradley occupies his in Caps history.

Photo: Len Redkoles/Getty Images North America

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- August 10th

Some days in Caps history mark significant milestones or important events.  Others are just, well…odd in an unexpected way.  Such was August 10, 2005, in Washington Capitals history.  The day before, the club signed free agents Andrew Cassels and Lawrence Nycholat to help fill out a rather thin squad as the team was headed toward their first training camp since the 2004-2005 lockout.  On this date, the team signed two more players, both defensemen – Mathieu Biron and Ivan Majesky. 

Both were 20-something players who had knocked around a bit.  Biron was 25 years old but already had five NHL seasons on his resume.  He also had four NHL stops on that resume – Los Angeles (who drafted him, but for whom he never played a game), the New York Islanders, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Florida Panthers.  Majesky got a late start on his NHL career, not appearing in an NHL game until he was 26 years old, with the Panthers, but he had both the Panthers and the Atlanta Thrashers as stops in his two-year career before landing in Washington.

It could reasonably be said that neither Biron nor Majesky would be considered among the top 50 defensemen ever to pull on a Capitals’ sweater (they rank 92nd and 88th, respectively, in games played for the franchise among defensemen).  In fact, for both Biron and Majesky, their first seasons with the Caps in 2005-2006 would be their last seasons with the Caps.  Their last seasons in the NHL, in fact.  Not that they were bad, in the context of their respective careers.  Biron would tie a personal best of 13 points in 52 games played with Washington, while Majesky appeared in 57 games for the Caps. 

So, what makes this date and these two defensemen worthy of notice?  Actually, it is Majesky that is of particular interest here.  Not for his body of work, which was unremarkable on an unremarkable team.  It was for a moment, a single play.  Consider that Majesky is one of 13 defensemen since the 2005-2006 season to record a single goal in a season and have that goal be a shorthanded one (oddly enough, he was not the only Capital to do it; Jeff Schultz did it in 2008-2009).

What makes Majesky’s moment memorable, a glimmer of joy in what was otherwise a period lacking in success, were the circumstances surrounding the goal.  The date was March 8, 2006.  The Caps were dead last in the Southeast Division, sporting a 21-33-6 record.  It might have been the worst record in the Eastern Conference but for their opponent that night.  The Pittsburgh Penguins were waddling along with a 14-36-12 record, worst in the entire league.

The teams exchanged goals early in the first period, Colby Armstrong opening the scoring for the visitors and Ben Clymer tying the game shortly thereafter.  Chris Clark gave the Caps their first lead mid-way through the frame.  Three minutes after the Clark goal, Jeff Halpern was sent to the penalty box for interference, giving the Penguins a power play.  The Caps were less than 15 seconds from killing off the penalty when the wheel of fortune came to a stop at “Ivan Majesky.”  Shaone Morrisonn collected a sliding puck in his own end and sent it across to Majesky on the opposite side near the players bench.  And then this happened…

It was a lighthearted moment in a 6-3 Caps win against perhaps their most bitter rival, even if both clubs were in the midst of rebuilding efforts.  But for a stroke of a pen in August of 2005, Caps fans – not to mention Majesky himself – would have been denied this odd, yet charming moment in history.

Photo: Getty Images

Friday, August 04, 2017

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- August 4th

When the calendar rolls over to August, you know you are in the deep summer of hockey. Players might be back home or with their families on vacation, the members of the hockey media might take the month to recharge before training camps convene in September. But even while the pace in front office might bend to the rhythm of the summer season, there is occasional activity. Sometimes, it is even consequential.

One of those instances took place on August 4, 2005. Barely a month before training camp started for the 2005-2006 season, the Caps traded a sixth round pick in the 2007 entry draft and a seventh round draft choice in the 2006 draft to the Calgary Flames for a seventh round pick in the 2007 draft and winger Chris Clark.

Clark, who had last been seen in the Stanley Cup final in 2004, before the NHL went dark for a season due to a lockout, was coming off three consecutive 10-goal seasons with the Flames. By the standard of the times, that being the latter stages of the dead-puck era, 10-goal seasons were not bad, but Clark was thought of more as a grinder, a player who would do the dirty work in the corners and in front of the net to create space and chances for more skilled forwards.

No one could have foreseen that upon becoming a Capital, Clark would double his goal output to 20 in his first season with the club and would record his first (and only, as it turned out) 30-goal season in the NHL the following year (including nine power play goals, almost doubling his career power play goal output in his career to that date). It was in that second season with the Caps that he endeared himself to Capitals Nation for demonstrating just what “hockey tough” means. Having been named captain entering the season, Clark was leading by example late in regulation in a November contest against the Boston Bruins. With just over a minute left, he took a puck in the face that knocked out two teeth and crushed his palate bone.  And yet, he finished his shift. He recorded neither a point nor a shot in that game, but it served as an object lesson to his young teammates on toughing it out. He missed just two games before returning to the lineup, further cementing his reputation as a tough player.

The 2006-2007 season would be a career high-water mark for Clark, though. Injuries led to large chunks of lost games, and he recorded just 10 goals and 30 points in 88 games over parts of the next three seasons before being traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets with defenseman Milan Jurcina for forward Jason Chimera in December 2009. Clark finished that season and played one more in Columbus before his career came to an end at age 34.

But what if August 4, 2005 came and went without a trade? Would things have been different? It’s hard to say that keeping those late-round 2006 and 2007 draft picks would have made a difference for the better, or for the worse, for that matter. However, those were the first two seasons in which Alex Ovechkin skated with the club, and he did not have a wealth of offensive talent surrounding him, even with Clark. In his rookie season in 2005-2006, Ovechkin (52 goals) and Clark (20) were two of four 20-goal scorers for the club (Dainius Zubrus and Matt Pettinger were the others). Their 72 combined goals accounted for 25.7 percent of the club’s total. The following season, Ovechkin (46 goals) and Clark (30) accounted for 32.5 percent of the team’s total goal scoring.

The question becomes, did Clark’s presence and production make a difference in the early formative years in Ovechkin’s career, or would his absence have been reflected in more attention focused on Ovechkin with less production as a thinner lineup failed to provide enough offensive support to take the scoring burden off the youngster?  In that first season for Ovechkin, he opened on a line with Zubrus and Jeff Halpern, veterans in their own right.  Zubrus was a veteran of 539 regular season games going into that 2005-2006 season, while Halpern dressed for 368 games before Opening Night in 2005-2006.  In fact, that Ovechkin-Halpern-Zubrus combination also closed the season and was intact for much of the intervening schedule.

The following season opened with Ovechkin on a line with Zubrus and Richard Zednik, while Clark was skating with Alexander Semin and Kris Beech.  That lasted one game, a 5-2 loss in New York to the Rangers.  In Game 2, the Caps’ home opener, Ovechkin scored a pair of goals, Clark assisting on both.  It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful relationship.  Clark skated with Ovechkin and Zubrus until the latter was traded to the Buffalo Sabres late in the season, Kris Beech filling in at center for the most part thereafter.  But Clark and Ovechkin were fixtures on that top line. 

It mattered.  Although the Caps struggled overall in the 2006-1007 season, they won just one of the eight games that Clark missed that season (1-4-3).  Ovechkin did fine in Clark’s absence over those eight games, going 5-4-9.  The rest of the team, however, could not make up the scoring, averaging 2.50 goals per game while averaging 2.89 goals per game with Clark in the lineup.

Those eight games missed offer a window into what things might have been like had the trade not been made for Clark.  His influence on Ovechkin’s development, in terms of the raw numbers, appears negligible.  But he provided hard minutes and consistent production, the latter being a rare commodity with those first two teams coming out of the lockout.  One cannot help but think the Caps, unsuccessful as they were in those first two years, might have been worse.  And that is where things could have gone sideways in terms of the timeline.

It is possible that the Caps could have finished more than five points worse in the 2005-2006 season, which could have left them with the third overall draft pick instead of the fourth pick.  Caps fans know that the club selected Nicklas Backstrom with the fourth overall pick.  But picking third, Jonathan Toews (who was taken with the third pick by the Chicago Blackhawks) would have been available.  General Manager George McPhee might still have taken Backstrom, who he preferred to Jordan Staal, taken second overall in that draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins.  But, if there was some uncertainty in which direction the Caps wanted to go, perhaps there was room for a deal to be made to allow the Caps to move down in the order and still get Backstrom.

The 2007 draft might have been more intriguing had Clark never come to Washington.  The 2006-2007 Caps struggled once more and finished only two points ahead of the Los Angeles Kings and thre ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes.  The Caps, without Clark, might well have finished with the second-worst record in the league, and even if the Blackhawks still won the ping pong ball draw to draft first overall, the Caps would have had the third pick, not the fifth with which they selected Karl Alzner.  But before you spend too many brain cells on this, the 2007 draft does not seem, in retrospect, to have been a deep draft.  Chicago would have taken Patrick Kane, as they in fact did, and the Caps might have taken James van Riemsdyk (taken second by Philadelphia in real time) or Kyle Turris (taken third in real time by the Coyotes).  Ot they might have taken Thomas Hickey, who was the first defenseman taken in the draft, one spot ahead of Alzner, but who didn’t become a full-time NHL player until the 2013-2014 season with the New York Islanders.

Then there is the matter of coaching.  Glen Hanlon had the misfortune of trying to guide this young team through the formative stages of its development.  Having a veteran such as Clark helped in ways tangible (goals and assists) and intangible (experience).  In his absence, the team might not have been hard-working but unsuccessful, just bad.  Worse seasons than the ones the Caps had might have hastened a coaching change (Hanlon was relieved by Bruce Boudreau in late November of the 2007-2008 season).  Perhaps Boudreau, who was coaching the Hershey Bears, is elevated in the off season following the 2006-2007 campaign.  Or, with more time to deliberate and consider possibilities, the Caps go in an entirely different direction in favor of a head coach with more experience.  Would Claude Julien, who was fired late in the 2006-2007 season, come up on the Caps’ radar (he went to Boston that summer)? Would free agent head coach Mike Keenan have been considered (he went to Calgary)?

Chris Clark had his greatest team success with the Calgary Flames, reaching the 2004 Stanley Cup final, but he had his most successful years individually with the Capitals.  His 20 and 30 goal seasons are largely lost in what was at the same time part of an unsuccessful stretch in team history but the first years in the spectacular career of Alex Ovechkin.  However, his work ethic, consistency, and toughness allowed him to carve out a couple of fine seasons in the midst of the team’s struggles and gave the club some ballast, a foundation upon which the young guys could learn what it takes to play at this level.

The odd part about speculating on what might have happened had Clark never come to Washington is the scope of possibilities and the consequential nature of them.  The Caps might have looked very different on the ice with the high draft picks they might have made and behind the bench, depending on the timing of coaching changes they might have made.  One cannot help but think that the Caps are better today for having had Clark pass though Washington, although in ways that might not be immediately apparent.

Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images North America

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Washington Capitals -- Weekend Doodles...Did You Know?

Did you know…

No team created in the post Original Six era has more 50 win seasons than the Washington Capitals.  With five such seasons in team history, they trail only the Boston Bruins (nine), Montreal Canadiens (seven), and Detroit Red Wings (six).

Since the 2004-2005 lockout…
  • The Caps have the second-best scoring offense in the league at 2.99 goals per game.  Only Pittsburgh is better (3.05).
  • Washington has the best scoring offense on the road (2.86 goals per game).
  • The Caps have the league’s most efficient power play overall (20.6 percent) and the most efficient power play on home ice (21.3 percent).
  • Only one team has a worse penalty kill on the road than the Caps (79.6 percent) – Toronto (79.2 percent).
  • They have the second best shooting percentage (9.862 percent to 9.886 percent for Pittsburgh).
  • No team has scored more third period goals than the Caps (tied with Pittsburgh with 992).
  • No team has scored more overtime goals than the Caps (69).
  • Only five teams have more wins than the Caps  (515) – San Jose (547), Detroit (532), Pittsburgh (536), Anaheim (527), and the New York Rangers (522).
  • Only four teams have more standings points than the Caps (1148) – San Jose (1199), Detroit (1193), Pittsburgh (1173), and Anaheim (1168).
  • Mike Green has the highest goal total in a season among 797 defensemen to dress over this period (31 in 2008-2009).
  • Alex Ovechkin has seven of the 20 50-goal seasons recorded over this period.
  • Ovechkin has four of the 13 20-power play goal seasons over these years and is the only player to do it more than once.  He has 82 more power play goals (212) than the second-place player on the list (Thomas Vanek: 129).
  • Ovechkin is the only player in the league to have logged more than 4,000 power play minutes of ice time (4,459).
  • The Caps have five of the 28 100-point seasons over this period (Ovechkin has four of them; Nicklas Backstrom has one).  Only Pittsburgh has more (eight).
  • Only Henrik Sedin (seven) and Joe Thornton (six) have more 60-assist seasons than Backstrom (five).

See… it hasn’t been so bad.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- July 22nd

We are back with another Washington Capitals “what if today didn’t happen the way it happened back then?”  After a brief sojourn into an episode in which a player departed the organization to great effect, we return to an instance in which a player was brought into the organization.  July 22, 1996, was Day 3 of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, but several hundred miles to the north, the Capitals dipped into the free agent market.

The team was coming off a decent season, which is to say “typical.”  In the 1995-1996 season, the club finished with a 39-32-11 record, good for fourth in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference, the seventh-seed in the playoffs that season.  They drew the second-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round and lost in six games, a series that featured a four-overtime game, which of course, the Caps lost.

In the 1995-1996 season, the Caps’ blue line contributed some offense with three defensemen – Sergei Gonchar (15-26-41), Sylvan Cote (5-33-38), and Calle Johansson (10-25-35) – posting at least 35 points.  However, there was quite a drop-off after that to Mark Tinordi (3-10-13).  In the playoffs, though, the defense was barely heard from in terms of offensive contributions.  Gonchar was 2-4-6, and Cote was 2-0-2.  That did it for defensemen with any points in the six-game series against the Pens.

Which brings us to late July the following summer.  They signed 14-year veteran Phil Housley to a three-year/$7.5 million contract.  Housley, who had several teams from which to pick as an unrestricted free agent, chose the Caps because “the other teams weren't going in the same direction as the Capitals. Right now, they have the goaltender [Vezina Trophy winner Jim Carey] and the defense that can carry a team through the low-scoring games."

One might have been led to believe at the time that Housley was the last piece of the puzzle, the player who could deliver the mail from the blue line on offense.  After all, Housley was a defenseman who had fewer than 60 points in a full NHL season (not counting the injury-shortened 19993-1994 season) only once in 13 seasons, and that was a 43-point year in the lockout-shortened 1994-1995 season.  With Gonchar, Cote, and Johansson, the Caps could ice a formidable foursome in terms of offensive threat from the blue line.

Yeah, well, that was the plan.  What was not in the plan was the Caps having only two defensemen dress for more than 65 games in the 1996-1997 season.  Housley was one of them (77 games), Ken Klee was the other (80 games).  Gonchar, Cote, Johansson and missed a combined 67 games, and while those three finished second, third, and fourth, respectively, in defenseman scoring (Housley was first with 40 points), it was not the output foreseen when the Caps assembled this defense. 

Worse, the Caps missed the postseason after a 14-year run in reaching the playoffs.  The result was due, in no small part, to the team missing a total of 361 man-games to injury.  But it also had its origins in the weak play at goaltender.   The Vezina Trophy winner that Housley alluded to in describing his decision process in choosing the Caps, Jim Carey, imploded.  After a ghastly 1996 postseason (0-1, 6.19, .744 in just 97 minutes played), Carey went 17-18-3, 2.75, .893 in 1996-1997 (not awful by the standards of the time, but not good, either), and he was traded late in the season as the team was falling out of playoff contention.   In terms of the defense, Housley was not the “last piece” of what could be a championship-caliber team, he was the “only piece” of a defense decimated by injury and a team that managed just 75 standings points, ninth-lowest for a full season in club history to that point in time.

The Caps stormed out of the gate in the 1997-1998 season, the team going 7-1-0 in their first eight games.  Housley might have done likewise, going 1-2-3, plus-4, in his first five games, but then he was sidelined for three games (all Caps wins).  It barely slowed him down, though.  In the first 29 games of the season in which he dressed, he was held without a point in consecutive games only twice and went 3-20-23 in those games.

Then, his offensive output dried up.  From December 13th in Los Angeles against the Kings through January 21st in Tampa against the Lightning, Housley went 14 games without a point. He broke the drought with a goal against the Boston Bruins on January 25th, a 4-1 Caps win, but then he went another eight games without a point.  Housley recovered to finish the regular season 2-5-7 in his last dozen games, although three of those points (all assists) came in a 6-3 win over the Florida Panthers on March 7th.  It ended up being a frustrating season for Housley, who missed 18 games in the regular season and finished with just 31 points, his lowest total for a full season to that point in his career (not including the injury-shortened 1993-1994 season in which he had 22 points in 26 games).

It hardly improved in the postseason for Housley.  With the Caps going on a roll, winning three series to reach the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history, Housley was scratched for three games in the second-round series against the Ottawa Senators.  He averaged barely 12 minutes in the 18 games in which he did dress for the postseason (only Brendan Witt had a lower average among the six defensemen who appeared in at least ten games) and had four assists (no goals).

When the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Capitals, 4-1, to complete a four-game sweep of the Stanley Cup final, it brought down the curtain on Phil Housley’s career in Washington.  The Caps placed him on waivers in July, and he was claimed by the Calgary Flames.  And we finally get to the “what if” portion of the piece.  What if Housley had not been signed in the summer of 1996?  Looking at his body of work as a Capital, it is tempting, to say the least, that little would have changed.  In two years with the Caps, he did go 17-54-71 in 141 games, but over time he became largely a power play specialist. His minus-20 was tied for 182nd among 205 defensemen appearing in at least 50 games over the 1996-1997 and 1997-1998 seasons (to be fair, Brendan Witt was minus-31 over the same two seasons, but those were his second and third seasons in the league).  His one postseason with the Caps was as a support player with limited exposure who seemed to fall out of favor of head coach Ron Wilson.

One might make an argument that Housley’s contributions were of the intangible nature.  Despite being just 32 when he arrived in Washington, Housley had 932 games of NHL regular season experience.  That could only help a club with a couple of very green defensemen of whom much was expected; Sergei Gonchar was just 22, and Brendan Witt was just 21 years old.  The numbers Housley put up in his two seasons with the club were, in the context of the club for which he played, pretty good.  There were 15 defensemen who dressed for the team over those two seasons.  Among them, Housley ranked as follows:
  • Games played: 1st (141)
  • Goals: 3rd (17)
  • Assists: 1st (54)
  • Points: 1st (71)
  • Plus-Minus: 14th (minus-20)
  • Power play goals: 2nd (7)
  • Power play points: 1st (39)
  • Shots: 2nd (296)

However, of his 21 NHL seasons, Housley’s 11 goals in 1996-1997 is tied for the sixth lowest total in his career, while his six goals in 1997-1998 is tied for second lowest.  Similarly, his 40 points in 1996-1997 is the sixth lowest total of his career, while the 31 points he posted in the following season is third lowest.  Those years were even worse compared to his other NHL stops.  Housley played in at least 20 games for seven franchises in his career (plus one game for the Toronto Maple Leafs).  His goals per game with the Caps was sixth best of the seven teams for which he played.  His points per game was tied for sixth.  His shots on goal per game was worst with the Caps among the seven teams.

His postseason numbers might be considered disappointing.  In his two years with the club he appeared in just one postseason and was the only Capital defenseman of seven appearing in more than two games not to record a goal.  He had only two even strength points, one fewer than Joe Reekie, whose stock and trade was not in the offensive end of the ice.

It would be reasonable to conclude that had Housley not been signed by the Caps in 1996, the 1996-1997 season would not have been appreciably different.  The 1997-1998 season is a bit more nuanced.  There were all those injuries on the blue line that held Mark Tinordi to 47 games played, Sylvain Cote to 59 games, and Ken Klee to 51 games.  Housley missed 18 games that season himself.  Had Housley not been a Capital that season, the team might have had to put Brendan Witt, in just his third NHL season and first appearing in more than 50 games, in more responsible (and vulnerable) situations.  And, the Caps might have had to give defensemen such as Jeff Brown (nine games that season), Stewart Malgunas (eight), or Nolan Baumgartner (four) more appearances.  Or, the team might have had to swing a deal for a defenseman. 

It is a stretch to think that the Caps would have finished out of the playoffs with Housley never having been a member of the 1997-1998 team that went to the Cup final.  After all, they did finish 18 points ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference.  But it could have upset the seedings enough to give the Caps an unfavorable matchup as early as the first round.  Consider that the Caps finished just five points ahead of the seventh-place Montreal Canadiens.  If the Caps were five or more points worse without Housley – not beyond imagination – the Caps would have drawn the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, a team against which the Caps were 1-1-2 that season (two overtime ties) and a team against which the Caps were already 1-4 in postseason series.

If Phil Housley had never been a Capital, it is possible – if not likely – that the Caps would still have only 1990 as a year in which they advanced past the second round of the playoffs and would still be looking for their first trip to a Stanley Cup final.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- July 16th

There are distinct mileposts in a team’s history. For teams that have won championships, the dates when they clinched a title are foremost among them. For teams that haven’t, others have to do. In the case of the Washington Capitals, the dates that stand out in team history more often than not are those when important deals were transacted. And in almost all of those cases for the Caps, they involved a player arriving in Washington. There was September 9, 1982, when the Caps obtained Rod Langway in a trade that might be the most consequential deal in the history of the club, quite literally saving hockey in Washington. There was July 11, 2001, when the Capitals traded for arguably the best player in the league at the time in Jaromir Jagr. There was June 26, 2004, when General Manager George McPhee stood at the podium at RBC Center in Raleigh, North Carolina, and announced that with the first pick in the 2004 entry draft, the Caps selected Alex Ovechkin.

But there is a date in Capitals history important for the player who left town. That date was July 16, 1990. The St. Louis Blues had tendered an offer of a four-year, $5.1 million contract to Capitals restricted free agent defenseman Scott Stevens. Weighing the choice of matching the offer or accepting as many as five first round draft picks in return, the Capitals opted for the latter, allowing Stevens to depart. He signed his contract with the Blues on July 16, 1990.

This deal occupies its own special place in Caps history. In fact, it could be its own “wing” of the museum, if you will. The departure would make Stevens arguably the most prolific and consequential draft pick in team history for the lineage his departure sprouted

Things have progressed even more since this superb tree was developed at Japers' Rink (for example, Nathan Walker, who could land a spot on the Opening Night roster, is a part of this tree, and boy, it that a road to behold/1).

But the subject of our thought exercise is not the Stevens departure, but what would have happened had the Caps matched the Blues' offer and retained him for another four years. The immediate effects would have been felt on the ice. The question is, would they have been significant? In the 1990-1991 season the Caps had a revolving door at the blue line, owing to injuries and trades, dressing a total of 14 defensemen in the regular season, but only four of them appearing in more than 60 games – Calle Johansson, Kevin Hatcher, Mike Lalor, and Mikhail Tatarinov (parenthetically, current Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville was one of the 14, dressing for nine games with the Caps). One would think that Stevens, who dressed for 73 or more games in seven of his first eight seasons with the Caps, would have been another reliable fixture in the lineup. One would also think that Stevens, who topped 50 points in five of those eight seasons, would have given the Caps three such performers on the blue line (Johansson had 52 points, and Hatcher had 74).

But it might have been in the postseason in which Stevens’ presence could be most keenly felt. The Caps had six defensemen appear in at least ten of the team’s 11 postseason games in 1991. Hatcher, Johansson, Al Iafrate, and Calle Johansson were solid performers. Rod Langway, even at the tail end of his career, was still a solid stay at home defenseman. The other two defensemen – Mike Lalor (who came to the Caps in the Geoff Courtnall trade of which we spoke in the previous installment in this series) and Ken Sabourin were the others. It is Sabourin who deserves some attention here. Mid-way through the regular season, the Caps were lollygagging along with a 22-25-2 record when they made a trade to get nastier. It was a two-stage effort, the first picking up John Kordic and Paul Fenton from Toronto for future considerations. Then, the Caps shipped Fenton to Calgary for Sabourin. The shake-up was an effort to address the problem that, in General Manager David Poile’s words, the Caps “have not played tough enough.”

Sabourin played in 28 regular season games, and then got a sweater for 11 games in the postseason (he did not record a point in those 11 games and was minus-4). One wonders, if Stevens was still with the club, do the Caps make that deal? Stevens was the more skilled defenseman by leaps and bounds (which is no insult to Sabourin, a solid player in his own right) and did not lack for orneriness. That combination of attributes might have been the missing ingredient in the Caps’ five-game loss to Pittsburgh in the second round.

But thinking over the four years that Stevens might have spent in Washington had the team matched the Blue’s contract offer, it is interesting to compare Stevens’ durability and production with the changes that characterized the blue line over that period. A total of 26 defensemen dressed for the Caps over that period, Hatcher and Johansson the only ones to spend all four full seasons with the Caps (Al Iafrate spent two full seasons and parts of two other seasons with the club, the last part of 1990-1991 after arriving in Washington from Boston and leaving late in the 1993-1994 season for Toronto). Only Hatcher had more points in those four seasons than Stevens would record with St. Louis and New Jersey in real time (247 to 243), Stevens ranking tenth in points among 353 defensemen who dressed over those seasons.

This is not to say that the Caps would have been a Stanley Cup contender over those seasons, let alone a Stanley Cup champion. But it is hard to see how the team was made better in the short term of that four year contract, especially when one considers that the first of the five first round draft picks the Caps got in compensation did not dress for the Caps until the 1994-1995 season (Sergei Gonchar, drafted in 1992).

About those draft picks, though. On their own, the quartet of Gonchar, Trevor Halverson (1991), Brendan Witt (1993), and Mikka Elomo (1995; the Caps traded their 1994 pick with Mike Ridley to Toronto for Rob Pearson and a first round draft pick that became Nolan Baumgartner) had an uneven history with the club, neither Halverson nor Elomo (a total of 19 games between them with the Caps) getting much ink in the history book, while Gonchar (second highest goal scorer among defensemen in team history) and Witt (the second most penalized defenseman in team history) had solid careers with the club. Both Gonchar and Witt played for what would be the only Capitals team to play in a Stanley Cup final, in 1998, but they were feature players in a club that was largely an annual spring disappointment.

Even looking at the Stevens “family tree,” there are a lot of familiar names in addition to those we already mentioned – Matt Pettinger, Semyon Varlamov, Jeff Schultz, Kris Beech (in what would be his second tour with the club), and Mike Ribeiro among them. But they are well-known characters in those annual episodes of disappointment, too. Volume and quality are, in the context of the family tree, not synonymous.

In the end, there is no logical argument that springs to mind in favor of letting Scott Stevens go being a good move in a hockey sense. And despite the prolific nature of the deal, resulting in more than a dozen players dressing for the Caps over a period spanning more than two decades, there is the disappointment that has grown alongside the Stevens Family Tree over those same years. It is a truly bitter “what if” to contemplate.

1/  Follow along… After the Caps traded Filip Forsberg, who is fruit of this tree, for Martin Erat and Michael Latta, the Caps later traded Erat and John Mitchell to Phoenix for Chris Brown, Rostislav Klesla, and a fourth round draft pick. Klesla was immediately traded with Michal Neuvirth to Buffalo for Jaroslav Halak and a third round draft pick. Halak was later traded to the New York Islanders for a fourth round pick in the 2014 draft. The Caps traded that pick (which belonged originally to Chicago) and their own fourth round pick to the New York Rangers for a third round pick in the same draft that was used to select Nathan Walker. The tree lives on.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Washington Capitals: What If This Day In Caps History Didn't Happen Like This Day In Caps History -- July 13th

Next in our “what if today didn’t happen the way it happened back then?” series, we wonder about July 13, 1990.  Doesn’t ring a bell, does it?  The Washington Capitals were coming off their deepest playoff run ever, a trip to the Prince of Wales Conference finals.  They were smoked by the Boston Bruins in that series, four games to none, but it was still quite a ride, a year in which the Caps dressed 37 skaters and five (yes, five) goaltenders in the regular season and a year in which the phrase “Druce on the Loose” would become part of the Capitals’ history.

That playoff run led, at least indirectly, to an incident that took place before July 13, 1990, one that we would have to think could not have happened for the July 13th event not to take place.  That incident occurred on the evening of May 11th and the early morning of May 12th.  In it, four Capitals allegedly engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor (a grand jury later chose not to indict any of the four players).

Of the four players allegedly involved in the incident – Dino Ciccarelli, Scott Stevens, Geoff Courtnall, and Neil Sheehy – only Ciccarelli ever played for the Capitals again (he would be traded two years later), but the player who is the subject of this “what if” is Courtnall.  He was traded on July 13, 1990 (said to be at the player's request) to the St. Louis Blues for forward Peter Zezel and defenseman Mike Lalor.  Courtnall was coming off a 35-goal season after posting 42 goals with the Caps in 1988-1989.  He would go on to record a fourth straight 30-plus goal season in 1990-1991 with the Blues and the Vancouver Canucks, to whom he was traded late in the season. 

To ask “what if Courtnall had not been traded” is really to ask the question, “what if that incident in Georgetown never took place,” thus sparing the Caps from making deals in its aftermath?  Keep in mind, none of the four players involved had reached age 30 in the 1989-1990 season.  Ciccarelli and Sheehy were 29, Courtnall was 27, and Stevens was 25.  You could say that if these four had stayed around, the Caps might have built something special off their 1990 run to the conference final.

There are two flaws in that thinking, though.  First, there was the matter of Stevens, whose contract was up at the end of the 1989-1990 season, making him a restricted free agent.  He would be tendered an offer sheet by the St. Louis Blues, and as any Caps fan knows, the team did not match the offer to retain his services.  In exchange, the Capitals received five draft picks as compensation (note that the trade alluded to in the linked article that would be announced later would be the Courtnall trade that is the subject of this look back).  There is no reason to think that this part of the timeline would have been altered had the events of the previous May not happened; Stevens would still go to St. Louis, and the Caps would still get those five draft picks.

But what if Courtnall and the others stayed?  If you subscribe to the notion that the Stevens signing made him the most effective draft pick in team history for what his departure begat (I would subscribe to that notion), keeping an offensive contributor such as Courtnall could only have helped.  But one should not get too far in front on this idea, either.  Keep in mind that the Capitals team that went to the conference finals in 1990 finished the regular season with a record of 36-38-6, third in the Patrick Division.  They did close the regular season with a bit of a rush, going 8-4-2 in their last 14 games to give themselves some momentum heading into the playoffs.  However, this was not a dominant team by any stretch of the imagination.  If ever there was a team of whom in could be said, “just get in, and anything can happen,” the 1990 Caps were that team.

In 1990-1991, even with the Caps retaining the services of Courtnall and Sheehy, in addition to Ciccarelli, the team was embarking on something of a youth movement.  The Caps dressed 13 rookies that season in real time for a total of 228 man-games.  Three – Mikhail Tatarinov (65), Peter Bondra (54), and Dmitri Khristich (40) – appeared in 40 or more games.  Even with Courtnall and Sheehy staying, it is hard to think that the rookie imprint on the season would have been a lot different, although one can entertain the idea that perhaps Bondra would not have had quite the exposure he had that season.

And this brings us to the second flaw in thinking something special might have happened.  As it was, the 1990-1991 team without Courtnall or Sheehy was not a lot different from the previous year’s version, going 37-36-7 and once more finishing third in the Patrick Division.  Would Courtnall’s offense have made a difference?  Yes, but perhaps only on the margins in the regular season.  The Caps might have made up the four points they finished behind the New York Rangers for second place in the division, but they still would have faced the Rangers in the first round of the postseason, a team they beat four games to two in real time. 

This, however, is where things get intriguing.  In the second round, the Caps did (and likely would in this scenario) face the Pittsburgh Penguins in what was the first-ever postseason meeting of these clubs.  Washington finished just seven points behind the Penguins in the regular season, although they did struggle with them (a 2-4-1 record in seven games).  Having taken Game 1 of their second round series against the Pens, 4-2 in Pittsburgh, the Caps were in a position to grab a two-game lead on the road in Game 2.  Game 2 was a back and forth affair.  Washington scored first on a Dale Hunter goal, but the Pens scored three straight to take a 3-1 lead.  The teams then exchanged goals twice, the Pens taking a 5-3 lead.  A pair of goals by Ciccarelli tied the game, and then Calle Johansson gave the Caps the lead mid-way through the third period.  With less than five minutes in regulation, Randy Gilhen tied the game for Pittsburgh, sending the contest into overtime.  There, Kevin Stevens scored eight minutes in to give the Penguins the win and salvaging a split of the two games in Pittsburgh.  The Penguins went on to win Games 3-5 (the Caps managing single goals in each of the games) to take the series on their way to their first Stanley Cup.

So, one wonders, if Courtnall had been a Capital in the 1991 postseason, and he managed to make his own goal-scoring contribution in Game 2 to help push the Caps to a win and a 2-0 lead in games heading back to Washington, does the arc of that series change in the Caps’ favor?  And even if the Caps did not go as far as the Penguins did in the postseason in 1991, does a whole unfortunate volume of Capitals history that spans decades – up to and including this past spring – of always falling at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs never get written?

That is what we wonder about when we think about Geoff Courtnall not being traded on July 13, 1990.