Sunday, May 31, 2009

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Tomas Fleischmann


Tomas Fleischmann

Theme: “Suspense is worse than disappointment.”


Leave it to a Scot to provide the theme for a Czech, but Robert Burns gives us both sides of the coin with respect to Tomas Fleischmann. If you look passively at his line for the season – 19-18-37, -3 in 73 games – you might be inclined to think, “not bad for a 24-year old (he turned 25 two weeks ago) with less than 120 games of experience coming into the season.” In fact, he beat our projection for the year.

However, his season fades somewhat as one starts drilling into his numbers. First, his season by the tens suggests early success and late changes…


In fact, his season does seem to break cleanly into halves. In the first half, Fleischmann played in 32 games and went 12-7-19. He looked as if he’d add his name to the 30-goal scorers that Caps employ. But along with the scoring, Fleischmann was a -11 in those 32 games. Worse, he was a minus player in 14 of those 32 games. It was mixed fruit in terms of results.

In the second half, Fleischmann skated in all 41 games, and his plus-minus improved to +8. But his scoring fell off to 7-11-18. And, if one further decomposes the last half, he was 4-8-12, +13 in the first half of that and 3-3-6, -5 in the latter half. That latter half of games in the second half saw a 14-game streak in which Fleischmann failed to register a point. The slide continued into the playoffs, where Fleischman was 3-1-4, even, in 14 games.

It was not a strong finish.

If one digs even further into Fleischmann’s numbers, one finds… a mess. Scoring? He was fifth among Capitals forwards (minimum: 50 games) in five-on-five points-per-60 minutes. It’s what you’d want from a “top six” forward. But… he was third worst among forwards in goals scored against at five-on-five per 60 minutes. He was second in quality of competition (source: behindthenet.ca). But… he was eighth in Corsi rating, ahead of only the checkers and Brooks Laich.

There are also certain mysteries about Fleischmann’s numbers, and they have to do with special teams. Fleischmann was fifth among forwards in penalty killing ice time per game. One might be forgiven for wondering, “why?” Among Caps forwards playing at least 50 games, he had the third worst goals scored against per 60 minutes total. And given that Michael Nylander and Donald Brashear (the two guys he beat out) skated a total of 1:53 shorthanded all season, well…

The power play isn’t as much a mystery as it is a bit of a head-scratcher. Fleischmann was seventh on the team in average ice time on the power play. He was also seventh on the team in points scored per 60 minutes on the power play. He had a total of two power play points (both goals) in the second half of the year, whereas he had eight (5-3-8) in the first half (32 games played).

The good news, though, is that in just about every respect, Fleischmann improved on his career-best numbers to date. He went from 10 to 19 goals, from 30 to 37 points, bettered his plus-minus from minus-6 (in 2006-2007, but in only 29 games) to minus-3, increased his power play goals from one to seven, increased his game-winning goals from one to four, improved his shooting percentage from 9.3 percent to 14.5 percent, improved his takeaway/giveaway ratio from 1.38 to 1.56.

But while there were statistical improvements, there was a somewhat disturbing aspect to his numbers. He was 12-10-22 in 41 wins for which he dressed, and he was 7-8-15 in 32 losses. While he did score more in wins, it isn’t that large a spread (by way of comparison, to pick a player at random, Viktor Kozlov was 11-21-32 in 43 wins, 2-7-9 in 24 losses). It suggests that Fleischmann wasn’t all that much of a difference maker in terms of his scoring contributing to wins. There are factors that could influence that, such as ice time, participation on special teams, etc. It’s worth noting, too, that the Caps were 9-0-0 in games Fleischmann missed. That’s not the sort of difference-making the Caps or their fans would like to see.

The improvements in Fleischmann’s numbers are indicative of a player who still has upside, and the suspense is in finding out just how much of it there is. But there is also a sense that the season, especially the last 35 games or so (including the playoffs) was a disappointment. Those numbers suggest a player who was running out of gas. Fleischmann might be deemed a bargain at $725,000, but he’s also been given a lot of chances to grab a top-six spot. His numbers to date, including those this year, aren’t at that level of production – his scoring numbers were roughly equivalent among forwards with Dallas’ James Neal and Pittsburgh’s Miroslav Satan. If Fleischmann can cobble together a season that reflected the pace he set in the first half – it would have projected to 32-17-49 – he would be a fairly good complement to the forward lines. But he is also a skill winger on a club with two world-class wingers on its roster. Is Fleischmann one-too-many for his level of production? We’ll see. For this year, though…

Grade: C

Calder Cup Final - Game 1: Hershey Bears 5 - Manitoba Moose 4 (OT)


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The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Eric Fehr


Eric Fehr

Theme: “…in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come.”


Somewhere in there, there is a goal scorer. Somewhere in there, there is a player who has hands soft enough to gather up passes and quick enough to snap off wrist shots that leave goalies picking pucks from the back of their nets. Caps fans got a glimpse of that with Eric Fehr this year, but only a glimpse. Whether it was a product of ice time (or the lack of it) or failure to grab opportunity by the throat when he did get ice time, Fehr netted only 12 goals in this, his first “full” season with the Caps.

But his ten-game segments are somewhat revealing in a promising sort of way…


Fehr potted nine goals in his last 32 games, a 23-goal pace over 82 games. That’s not bad for a guy who only once in those last 32 games played as many as 15 minutes in a game and who averaged only 11:30 a game in that stretch. Most of that output was earned in games 51-60 (the sixth ten-game segment), when Fehr went 6-4-10, +7. It wasn’t as if he skated a lot more – he averaged 12 minutes a game over those ten games. But, Fehr shot the puck more. He had, by far, his highest shot total of any ten-game segment (29) and his best shooting percentage (20.7 percent).

The statistics are, as they often can be, misleading. Fehr feasted on the Southeast Division this year, going 8-1-9, +5 in 20 games against the weak sisters of the division. Against everyone else, he was 4-12-16, +3 in 41 games. He did not have a goal against a Western Conference opponent in ten games.

On the other hand, Fehr had some rather surprising numbers. Among Caps forwards playing in at least 50 games…

- He had the second best Corsi rating (behind only Sergei Fedorov)

- He was third in goals scored per 60 minutes (Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin)

- He was fourth in total assists per 60 minutes (Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin, Semin, Michael Nylander)

- He led the team in penalties drawn per 60 minutes and tied Brooks Laich for penalties drawn/penalties taken per 60 minutes differential.

- He did this without the benefit of top-end teammates. In the behindthenet.ca five-on-five quality of teammate measure, only David Steckel, Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, and Donald Brashear had lower numbers, a reflection of those four being checking/energy line forwards.

There is a “what happened?” aspect to Fehr’s game this year, and it is reflected in the playoffs. Fehr averaged only 11:14 of ice time for the year, but come the playoffs, it was cut further. In eight full games (he was hurt in game two against the Penguins and did not appear for the rest of that series), Fehr averaged barely eight minutes of ice time a game and only once topped ten minutes (a 4-0 Game 5 win over the Rangers). It is little wonder that his numbers sank to nothing – no points and minus-3 for his playoffs. He netted only 10 shots on goal, none after Game 6 of the Ranger series.

Fehr is an arbitration-eligible restricted free agent this summer. With the Caps losing perhaps as many as three forwards – Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov, and Donald Brashear – to Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, there will be room on the team heading into the 2009-2010 season. There will be opportunity to grab a fistful of ice time, and the Caps certainly need a bigger forward who can find the back of the net and play responsibly (Fehr has never been a “minus” player in the NHL in parts of four seasons). Fehr scored 146 goals in 275 games with Brandon in Canadian juniors. He netted 50 goals in 161 games with Hershey in the AHL. He’s demonstrated he can be a goal scorer, even in the NHL in limited time.

What he hasn’t demonstrated is an ability to stay healthy or to score goals on a consistent basis, despite the lack of ice time. We have to think the club will qualify Fehr for next season. Although we’ve been waiting for that player who scored 50 or more goals in consecutive seasons in Brandon to appear here, it might be that his time is about to arrive, even if he’ll never be a 50-goal scorer in the NHL. We’ve been waiting for Godot long enough. He has to show up… now.

Grade: B-

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Chris Clark


Chris Clark

Theme: “…regards to Captain Dunsel”



Chris Clark is the kind of player any team with Stanley Cup aspirations has – needs to have – on its team. He hits, he checks, he forechecks, he stands up for teammates, he pays a price to make a play, he doesn’t take a shift off. He’s also missed 114 games the past two seasons, 50 of them this year (plus six of 14 in the playoffs). For the team captain, that has to be agonizing, doubly so for a player with Clark’s work ethic.

But while Clark was dressing for only 32 games this year, the Caps were setting a franchise record for standings points, tied a team record for wins, and finished third in scoring. Clark’s having scored 50 goals over 152 games in his first two seasons with the club looks like a distant memory. What’s more, Clark’s presence in the lineup this year was something of a drag on the club. In his 32 games, the Caps were 17-15 (losses including those in extra time). His ten-game splits lack any sense of continuity…



We didn’t think Clark would come all the way back from his career years in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007. But we couldn’t have foreseen his having another season that looked hauntingly like last one. In this nightmare of a season…

- Clark returned from his injury plagued 2007-2008 season to play in 20 of the Caps’ first 21 games. But he was only 0-3-3, -5 in those games, then missed 14 games with a fractured forearm.

- Clark scored his only goal on New Year’s Day, in the midst of a stretch in which he played in 12 of 14 games.

- Then, he finally succumbed to a problem he’d had since training camp – a torn tendon sheath in his wrist that required surgery and put him on the shelf for the last 33 games of the regular season.

It all ended up reflected in his final numbers – second worst among forwards (minimum 30 games) in his Corsi rating, second worst in goals scored per 60 minutes, worst in primary assists per 60 minutes, second worst in goals scored for the Caps per 60 minutes of ice time, second worst in penalties taken per 60 minutes of ice time (although he was second best in drawing them). In 2006-2007, when Clark was on his way to a 30-goal season, he skated less than 15 minutes in only four of 74 games. This past year, he skated more than 15 minutes only four times in 32 games and only once after October 23rd.

And perhaps most disturbing, in the last 23 games in which he skated this season, he accumulated 30 minutes in penalties (10 minors, two five-minute majors). In was a trend that emerged in his injury-stunted 2007-2008 season (43 PIMs in 18 games). That might have been “cheating” of a sort as a product of the injuries through which he was trying to play. But discipline has been a problem for these Caps for two years, and the Captain being a part of that is not the sort of “lead by example” the team needs, either.

And what had to be especially frustrating for Clark and the Caps was that on both occasions he went on the shelf for long stretches, he appeared to be coming out of his points-scored funk, if not his goal scoring drought. He had assists in consecutive games on November 19th and 20th against Anaheim and Los Angeles before going down to injury two games later. Then, he had consecutive games with assists once more on January 20th and 27th against Ottawa and Boston before going down for the remainder of the regular season after the Boston game.

Clark has two more seasons on a contract that will pay him $2.633 million a year. At age 33, one wonders if the injuries haven’t taken a disproportionate toll on his game, which relies on toughness and a grinding style. He was getting the ice time of a fourth liner at the time he went down to injury, which really is no place for the captain. He has shown an ability to be opportunistic, evidenced by his netting those 50 goals in two seasons playing the opposite wing from Alex Ovechkin. Whether he can regain his health to be something approaching that player next year will go a long way to determining how far the Caps go. For now, though, you don’t want to downgrade a player because of his injury absences, but this wasn’t the Chris Clark Caps fans had become accustomed to when he was playing, either. Has his absence and lack of production the last two years turned him into "Captain Dunsel?" Hopefully, he can heal this off season and put the bad taste of the last two years out of his memory.

Grade: C-

stats from behindthenet.ca

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Donald Brashear


Donald Brashear

Theme: “a distinction without a difference”


The Caps were 37-26 (losses including extra time defeats) with Donald Brashear in the lineup this past season. They were 13-6 in his absence. This is not the result one might be looking for in a difference maker. Looking at his ten-game segments, he registered at least ten penalty minutes in six of seven segments (he did not play in the last 14 games of the regular season), was a minus player in five of seven segments, did not register a point in the last 50 games of the regular season after December 16th, and scored his only goal on December 4th…



The 2008-2009 season represented Brashear’s lowest goal total (one) since failing to register a single tally in the 1995-1996 season. It was his lowest point total since that same 1995-1996 season. Among players appearing in at least ten games he was worst on the club in minutes played per minor penalty taken (23.6). Compare that to a Matt Bradley – who had two fewer fighting majors – who skated for more than 122 minutes per minor penalty taken (fifth best among players appearing in at least ten games).

With respect to enforcement duties, Brashear played in ten games in which he earned a fighting major (he had two in a December 20th game against the Flyers). The Caps were 5-3-2 in those games. More to the point is where those penalties came in those games:

Oct. 10 (vs. ATL): 19:40, 3rd period. The Caps were already trailing Atlanta, 7-4, and would lose by that score.

Oct. 25 (vs. DAL): 15:59, 2nd period. This penalty came immediately after the faceoff following a Dallas Stars goal that made the score 4-3. There would be no more scoring in that second period. The teams traded a pair of goals each, the last being Alexander Semin’s game-winner in overtime in a 6-5 win.

Nov. 6 (vs. CAR): 16:45, 1st period. Carolina scored early in the first to take a 1-0 lead. This lead would hold up until this infraction and through the period. The Caps would score early in the second to tie the game, but Carolina would regain the lead later in the period. The Caps scored twice late in the third period to win, 3-2.

Nov 19 (vs. ANA): 2:46, 2nd period. This was another of the “ensuing faceoff” variety, coming just after Washington scored to make the score 4-2. The Caps would score once more in the period (at 17:48), then score the next goal mid-way through the third period to take a 6-2 lead. They would go on to win, 6-4.

Nov. 22 (vs. SJS): 3:24, 1st period. If one of the reasons for fisticuffs is to grab momentum or give your team a charge, this didn’t so it. San Jose scored three goals after this in the first period and never looked back in a 7-2 win.

Dec. 20 (vs. PHL): 7:38, 1st period; 12:03, 3rd period. The first battle of two battles in this one – both against the Flyers’ Riley Cote – came with the Flyers already ahead, 1-0. It was lost in a 25-shot barrage the Caps leveled at Flyer goalie Antero Niittymaki. The second scrap might have been of the “frustration” variety, the Flyers having built a 6-1 lead by the time Brashear and Cote went at it again. The Flyers won, 7-1.

Jan. 27 (vs. BOS): 9:39, 3rd period. Brashear was the opponent for Byron Bitz’ first NHL fight in what was at the time a 2-2 game in Boston. It didn’t seem especially important to the result, as the teams went to an overtime before the Bruins came out on top, 3-2.

Feb. 11 (vs. NYR): 2:43, 1st period. This was one of your odd ones. Brashear had just gone off after a three-second shift in a scoreless game, then came right back on to take on Colton Orr. One could say he squared off on his first shift. Then, Matt Bradley did the same thing three seconds later, taking on Aaron Voros. Neither bout seemed especially influential on the flow of the play, although the Caps did take a 2-1 lead into the locker room after one period. The Rangers won, though, in a Gimmick, 5-4.

Feb. 26 (vs. ATL): 2:52, 2nd period. This was one of those bouts that seems to have had an unintended effect. Coming when it did, with the Caps nursing a 2-1 lead in the second period, it might have given the Atlanta Thrashers some life (or maybe not). The Thrashers scored just over a minute later. But the Caps had the last laugh in a 4-3 win.

Mar. 10 (vs. NAS): 12:27, 1st period. In what would be, by contemporary standards, a fight-marred game (there would be three bouts in this game against Nashville), Brashear got things started against Wade Belak. It would be his last moment on the ice for the regular season, as he sprained a knee in this fight. Matt Bradley would face Jordin Tootoo three seconds after this fight, and John Erskine would give Wade Belak another shot at a Capital 4:18 into the second. None of this seemed to have any influence in the outcome, a 2-1 overtime win for the Caps.

Looking at the fights, they look like a window into the past. No fewer than six of the 11 were against fellow enforcers or guys accustomed to dropping the gloves (Jody Shelley, George Parros, Riley Cote (twice), Colton Orr, Eric Boulton). None appear to have really had an impact on the decision. It calls into question just what Brashear’s role is – or might be – on this team. His hockey skills seemed to have diminished considerably. His enforcement role seems to have little demonstrable effect on outcomes. He was worst on the team (minimum: 60 games) in penalties taken per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. The Caps were not, at least looking at their record, a better team with Brashear on the ice. Even with the six-game suspension in the playoffs, he didn’t appear to have merited a sweater, given that the Caps could have used some more defense and some more offense from the lower half of the forward lines.

The Caps are a club that lacks a measure of grit. But grit should not be confused with inconsequential side shows that too many fights in the NHL have become. Brashear’s trading fists with others of his type just don’t appear to have much influence on the game anymore. That certainly seemed to be the case this year, and while he gives every indication of being a fine teammate, and will hit and forecheck, Brashear’s other skills did not translate into very much production, either in his own statistics or the team’s win-loss record.

Grade: C-

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Last Prognostication You'll Ever Need -- The Stanley Cup Final: Detroit vs. Pittsburgh


So here we are, right back where we were this time last year – Wings…Penguins.

Why Detroit can’t lose

They’ve seen it all. The Red Wings are in their fifth Stanley Cup final in the last 12 seasons. In the previous four appearances, they did not fail to win the Cup. It started in the 1996-1997 season. From that team, Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, and Chris Osgood remain. Lidstrom has 228 games of playoff experience entering these finals. Holmstrom, 145. Maltby, 162. Draper, 198. Osgood, 122 (19 with other teams). Compare this to Pittsburgh, where Bill Guerin leads all Penguins in playoff experience – 122 games. In the four Stanley Cup finals the Red Wings have played in the last 12 seasons, their game record is 16-3. Only once in eight tries have they lost either of Games 1 and Games 2 (an overtime loss to Carolina in Game 1 in 2002 – they won the next four games).

That’s the history. The fact is, Lidstrom, Holmstrom, Draper, Maltby, and even to an extent Osgood have not been the keys for this team. They are just so uncommonly deep. Six players with at least ten points in 16 playoff games, 15 with at least five. Only one skater among the 23 who have dressed for the Red Wings is in minus territory (Maltby, minus-2), and two are above plus-10, 11 are at least plus-5. Nine different players have game winning goals in the 12 wins so far in the playoffs. Ten different players have power play goals. No Red Wing who has taken at least 100 draws has lost more than he’s won. And, for a team with something of a reputation as being too “European,” they have more guys with 10-plus hits coming into this series in 16 games played (17) than Pittsburgh does in 17 games (15).

The Red Wings do the big things well – they score (3.69 Goals/game in the playoffs), they defend (2.12 goals/against), they have the largest goal differential by far (+1.57 goals/game, compared to 1.06 for Pittsburgh), they are best in five-on-five play, they have the third best power play (25.7 percent, compared to Pittsburgh at seventh with 19.3 percent), they get and hold a lead (they’ve won eight of nine games when scoring first, tops in winning percentage at .889), they don’t wilt late (9-0 in games in which they’ve led after two periods, tops in the playoffs).

They also do the little things well. They are second in faceoff winning percentage, second in shot differential per game, second in fewest penalty minutes per game. They have been out-shot only twice in 16 playoff games and have out-shot opponents by at least ten shots in ten of 16 games.

Oh, and then there is Marian Hossa – the guy who spurned a contract offer to remain in Pittsburgh to skate for the Red Wings. He is 10-32-42 in 32 career games against the Penguins. Pavel Datsyuk came into this season without having scored a goal against the Penguins in six career games. By the end of the season, he added two games of experience against the Penguins…and scored three goals.

Why Detroit can’t win

Detroit is banged up. Lidstrom, Draper, and Pavel Datsyuk have been banged up. Only Lidstrom will play in Game 1. Jonathan Ericsson is still recovering from an appendectomy; it’s uncertain whether he will play in Game 1. Add to this that Games 1 and 2 are being played back to back, and it has all the makings of the Red Wings getting out of the gate slowly at home. Losing one or both games on home ice could be death against a team that is 6-2 on its own home ice in the playoffs.

Then there is the matter of history. Last year, the Red Wings shutout the Penguins in Games 1 and 2 at Joe Louis Arena. Pittsburgh will be remembering that embarrassment.

Detroit had little difficulty with either Columbus or Chicago, both young teams with no playoff experience to speak of. They did struggle with Anaheim – a physical team, but also one with their own cadre of playoff warriors. Pittsburgh is young, but it is also a team that has played in 42 playoff games the last three years (including this one). And Pittsburgh has a lot more skill than do the Ducks.

The Peerless’ Player to Ponder

Johan Franzen

“The Mule” is the leading scorer for the Red Wings in this post season (10-9-19 in 16 games). However, his splits by series offer a warning. Against Columbus, he was 2-4-6, +4 in four games. Against Anaheim, he was 6-3-9, +3 in seven games. But against Chicago, he was 2-2-4, +2 in five games and had only one point (a goal) after Game 1. What’s the difference? Chicago is a much speedier team than either Columbus or Anaheim. Pittsburgh does not lack for speed and will make Franzen play in his own end more than he might against teams like Anaheim or Columbus. If that eats into his production at the other end, it will be trouble for the Red Wings.

Why Pittsburgh can’t lose

We’ve said it before, and it bears repeating – Sidney Crosby is on a mission. He has been held off the score sheet only twice in 17 games. He’s had multi-point games 11 times (the last three games in a row). He hasn’t had a minus game since Game 5 against Washington (the last time he was held scoreless). He’s won at least 50 percent of his draws in 12 of 17 games, including six times over 60 percent. Among players with at least five goals in the playoffs, he is fourth in shooting percentage with a whopping 22.2 percent. It goes on and on.

But then there is the matter of Evgeni Malkin. Since taking the collar against Washington in Game 4 of the conference semi-finals, Malkin is 7-8-15, +6 in seven games. As well as Crosby has played, if Malkin hadn’t come alive in game 5 of the Capitals series (he had the game-winner in overtime), going 1-6-7 in Games 5-7, we’re probably talking about a whole different opponent for the Red Wings in the finals.

But good as those two are, there are other stories. None is better for Penguin fans than that of Sergei Gonchar, who has skated in 15 playoff games, the last five on a knee that might need surgical repair after this last series is completed. Gonchar, not necessarily included among the “stitch it up and get me back out there” category of player, gritted in out in a four game series against a Carolina team whose speed could have made Gonchar’s life miserable. Instead, he skated for more than 20 minutes in three of four games in a Pittsburgh sweep. His experience on the blue line can only help against a team that seems always to have the puck.

While perhaps not as deep as the Red Wings in terms of production, the Penguins are not simply The Sid and Geno Show, either. Eight players have game-winning goals among the 12 wins so far, seven have power play goals. They also have six players with at least ten points in the playoffs. They have three players at plus-10 or better (to the Wings’ two).

Pittsburgh seems to have found another gear since Game 6 of the Washington series. In five games since losing that game in overtime, they have outscored opponents 26-11, outshot them 168-139, converted five of 21 power play opportunities, killed 11 of 12 shorthanded situations. Those 26 goals in their last five games – it is the most scoring they have had in any five-game stretch this season, regular season or playoffs.

Why Pittsburgh can’t win

Pittsburgh played three comparatively weak defensive teams in getting to the finals. Philadelphia, Washington, and Carolina all gave up at least 2.70 goals/game in the regular season. Detroit wasn’t any great shakes, either (2.93/game, tied with Washington for 19th). But oh, have the Red Wings turned things around. They have allowed only 2.12 goals/game – second among all playoff teams. The Penguins are certainly a step up in class for the Red Wings in terms of firepower, but the Red Wings are at least that on the defensive side for the Penguins – and, they’ve been here before.

Pittsburgh has out-shot opponents in 14 of 17 playoff games so far. But seven of those came in the Washington series against a team that struggled to get the puck out of their own end for long stretches (and still took the Penguins to seven games). If there is one team the Penguins have face that resembles the Red Wings in style, if not execution, it is Washington. Detroit does not have an Alex Ovechkin, but they do have a Pavel Datsyuk (even if gimpy) and a Henrik Zetterberg. And Detroit’s blue line will probably not struggle nearly so much as Washington did moving the puck in their own end.

The Peerless’ Player to Ponder

Bill Guerin

Guerin – a late season pick up from the Islanders – has already set a personal best for playoff scoring in a season (7-7-14 in 17 games). It is the first time he’s been in double-digit playoff scoring since 1995. His plus-11 is a personal playoff best and the first time he’s been in “plus” territory in the playoffs since that 1995 season. His two game-winning goals is a personal playoff best. He’s tied his playoff high for goals scored. He’s never taken more shots on goal than he has in this playoff year. The thing is, if he doesn’t keep up that pace, it isn’t likely the Penguins are going to win this series, even if Crosby and Malkin get theirs (which they seem likely to do).

We haven’t mentioned goaltending for either team. Frankly, we don’t see this as a “goaltender’s” series. That is a good thing for Pittsburgh, oddly enough. Chris Osgood, who struggled quite a bit in the regular season, has a better GAA (2.06 to 2.62), a better save percentage (.925 to .906), has more shutouts (one to none), and has fewer games in giving up three or more goals (three to four) than his counterpart, Marc-Andre Fleury. None of this is to disparage Fleury’s performance, thus far. He’s had a good playoff run. But Osgood’s numbers, while significantly better than those he posted in the regular season, are hardly a fluke, given his playoff history. Five times in his career, Osgood has played more than one playoff series in a season with the Red Wings. In those years, he has never had a GAA above 2.12, he has only once had a save percentage below .918 (and that was in 1996). He has a total of ten shutouts in those five years. For Osgood, the season seems to start in April. One could argue that Osgood’s numbers are a product of the team around him being so good. Well, that’s really the point – the Red Wings know how to play these games. That’s why they’re the defending champs, and until a team beats them, we think it folly to pick against them.

Detroit in 7

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Deja "but"



Last year, Capitals goalie Cristobal Huet was caught looking the wrong way with a puck loose in front of him, and his season was snuffed out as Joffrey Lupul stuffed it behind Huet in overtime to send the Philadelphia Flyers onward to the second round of the 2007-2008 playoffs.

Last night, it happened again. After having made a spectacluar right pad save on Johan Franzen while lying on his stomach late in regulation to keep Chicago's season alive, Huet got caught looking the wrong way in overtime once more, this time at his right post with Tomas Holmstrom on the doorstep. But the puck was on Darren Helm's stick on the other side of the crease, and Helm only had to bunt the puck the last few inches to seal Detroit's 2-1 overtime series-clinching win.


Wings/Blackhawks Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Pretty soon, they'll have enough for a team called, "Kapitals"


Sergei Fedorov... Viktor Kozlov...

...Richard Zednik.

RDS.ca is at it again, reporting that former Capital and current Florida Panther Richard Zednik has signed a two-year deal to skate with Yaroslavl in Russia's KHL.

Zednik, Fedorov, Kozlov... Jan Bulis plays over there. Joel Kwiatkowski... Ben Clymer... Bryan Muir... Artem Ternavsky... Igor Ulanov... J-F Fortin... Ivan Ciernik... Igor Shadilov... Michael Yunkov... Jaromir Jagr.

Maybe we'll move to Russia and blog from there.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Will the last Russian please turn out the lights...


First, Sergei Fedorov is described as possibly headed to Mettalurg Magnitogorsk. Now, a report that Viktor Kozlov has signed a contract to play with Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia.

In two seasons with the Caps, Kozlov played in 148 regular season games, going 29-66-95, +19. In 21 playoff games with Washington over the past two seasons, he was 4-5-9, +1.

Is it true? Hey, who knows?

Fedorov going home?


TSN.ca reports (via RDS.ca) that Washington Capitals center Sergei Fedorov is set to forego re-signing with the Caps to take a two-year deal with Mettalurg Magnitogorsk in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

The deal is reported to pay Fedorov $3.8 million per year (he earned $4.0 million with the Caps this past season) and has the added benefit of allowing Fedorov to play with his younger brothers, Fedor, who played 18 games in the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks and New York Rangers (he last played in the NHL in the 2005-2006 season), and Evgeny, a former seventh round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings (he did not play in the NHL).

Of course, the report should be taken with a grain of salt, because: a) it is based on Russian sources (not always reliable), and b) it contradicts this report from Ryan O'Halloran over at the Washington Times just ten days ago indicating Fedorov's desire to return to the Capitals.


The next course..."Moose"


It was Penguin...

...then Bruin...

...now, Moose.

Moose is not generally a dessert course, but it'll do. The Manitoba Moose closed out the Houston Aeros last night, 3-1, to win the AHL Western Conference series, four games to two. So now, we know who the opponent will be for the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup finals. The Bears roared back with four straight wins after dropping the opener in the Eastern Conference final, the last victory being a 5-2 win in Providence to end the Bruins' season, four games to one.


The schedule for the Calder Cup final is out, for those of you thinking of a trip up to Hershey.

Games three, four, and five will be played in Hershey on June 6 (Sat.), June 7 (Sun.), and June 9 (Tues.). The teams have not met this season.


photo: Kris Craig, The Providence Journal

Monday, May 25, 2009

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Wingers: Matt Bradley


Matt Bradley

Theme: “…keeps going and going and going…”


Matt Bradley is closing in on 500 regular season games played in the NHL (289 with the Caps), not bad for a fourth round (102nd overall) draft pick who signed with his last two clubs – Pittsburgh and Washington – as a free agent. His career is testimony to the benefits of persistence and hard work, night in and night out. His 2008-2009 season reflected that kind of consistent ethic…



…but not without some concerns. That hits total changing little from one ten-game segment to the next over the last sixty or so games shows his consistent willingness to be the physical forward the Caps have in short supply. His taking a total of only seven minor penalties for the season shows that his physicality is expressed within the rules…unless liberties are taken with him or teammates. His nine major penalties for fighting illustrate that characteristic.

But there is still that problem that seems to have worked its way through the bottom two lines of forwards. In 81 games, Bradley scored 11 points (5-6-11). In fact, his offense bore a striking (and disturbing) similarity to that of Boyd Gordon. He scored only one regular season goal in 42 games after netting one against Tampa Bay on New Year’s Day. He had only three points after netting two (a goal and an assist) against the Lightning on January 1st. He was 2-2-4, +5 in six games against Tampa Bay, but only 3-4-7, -6 in 75 games against everyone else. And here might be the strangest Matt Bradley number of them all…

Zero.

That would be the number of points he registered against Southeast Division teams not calling themselves the “Lightning.” 18 games, no points, minus-4.

If one looks more closely at those ten games segments, there is a concern with respect to declining production. There were those four goals in the first 39 games of the year with only one in 42 games thereafter, but there was also the matter of his registering 61 of his 98 shots for the year in those first 39 games. We didn’t project him as having a big offensive year any more than we did Boyd Gordon, but we didn’t project him going into an even deeper offensive shell in the second half of the season.

Bradley is a bit tough to get a bead on in terms of his offensive potential. His first three seasons were partial-year affairs with an inconsistent San Jose team (although he did have 22 points in 54 games in his second season there). From there he went to a bad Pittsburgh team where he put up only 16 points (with a -27) in getting the most average ice time he’s had thus far in his career. He moved to Washington after one season, where he put up 19 points and 13 points (the latter in only 57 games) for a couple of rather atrocious teams. The past two seasons, playing for a playoff team, his offense hasn’t improved, although his plus-minus has improved along with the team so that he is more or less an “even” player.

What confuses the picture is his playoff performance this year. Starting with Game 5 of the opening round series against the Rangers, one in which he netted two goals (including the game winner) after being elevated to the third line, he went 2-4-6, +3 in ten games, while averaging 14:40 in ice time.

Getting more offense out of the bottom half of the forward lines – Bradley being part of this group – is important in this respect. Bradley was one of five Caps forwards playing at least 50 games who was on the ice for more even strength goals against that those scored for the Caps when he was on the ice (source: behindthenet.ca).

Bradley has shown himself to be persistent, an annoyance to other teams, a player who brings a physical edge, and a “stand up” guy (except in fights, when he seems to get knocked down a lot…we do admire his nerve, though). He has shown a tantalizing glimpse of being a bit more of an offensive threat, enough that we were wondering if the corner down by Section 103 at the Verizon Center might be renamed “The Bradley Corner.” Even on a team with as much goal scoring as the Caps, this would be welcome to take a bit of the heat off a rather top-heavy output among the “Young Guns.” He will never be confused with Wayne Gretzky, although he does share something with the hall of famer – both are winners of the William Hanley Trophy as Most Sportsmanlike Player in the Ontario Hockey League (Gretzky in 1978, Bradley in 1998). But maybe, we’ll see a little more offensive production next year.

Grade: B-

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Centers: Boyd Gordon


Boyd Gordon

Theme: “If only they were all Tampa Bay”


Boyd Gordon scored his last regular season point on Valentine’s Day, an assist in a 5-1 win over Tampa Bay. He scored his last goal of the regular season on New Year’s Day in a 7-4 win over Tampa Bay. He had his only multi-point game of the season in that New Year's Day game against Tampa Bay. He had more points against Tampa Bay (1-2-3 in three games) than against any team he faced this year. In three full seasons he has not in any of those seasons scored more against another team than he has against Tampa Bay. In 19 career games against Tampa Bay, he is 4-6-10, +8. Against the rest of the league he is 16-40-56, -10 in 248 career games.

Unfortunately, they’re not all Tampa Bay. And this is a problem. We didn’t project Gordon to have a big offensive year, but for the second straight season, Gordon’s numbers have dropped since setting his career bests in 2006-2007 (71 games, 7-22-29, +10). And for the second straight year, he played in fewer games (63) than he did in that 2006-2007 season (71). After scoring that last point of the regular season on February 14th, Gordon went 0-0-0, -5, in 16 games before missing the last ten games of the regular season. After that last regular season goal on New Year’s Day, Gordon was 0-2-2, -5 in 27 games and twice missed at least five games to injury. He did return to play in all 14 playoff games, but he was 0-3-3, -1 (0-1-1, -3 in seven games against Pittsburgh). His ten-game segments for this season did not look all that productive…


It was not an especially memorable year for Gordon. However, he was still second best among the team’s centers in goals scored against, on ice-per-60 minutes at even strength and was virtually indistinguishable from the Red Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk – a Selke Trophy finalist – in that measure in four-on-five situations. And he did finish 13th in the NHL among players in faceoffs (minimum: 500 draws), but even here it is a bit misleading. He was fourth on the team (behind David Steckel, Sergei Fedorov, and Brooks Laich) in faceoff winning percentage in shorthanded situations (50.5 percent).

Looking at Gordon’s ten-game segments, there is nothing there that is particularly distinguishing – not surprising for a “defensive” forward, these numbers being primarily offense-oriented. But there lies the problem, too. While Gordon is not expected to be a scoring forward, he is one of the players one might be looking at during those times when folks lament the Caps’ inability to get some contribution – any contribution – from the bottom two lines of the forward squad.

Gordon is a defensive specialist. And it is worth noting that in the Pittsburgh series, the Penguins scored 27 goals. Eight of them were scored with Gordon on the ice. In only one game (Game 4) did the Penguins not score at least one goal with Gordon on the ice, and two games winners (both in overtime) were scored with Gordon on the ice. Certainly the Caps had their problems defensively in the second round series, and Gordon cannot be held singularly accountable for those goals scored while he was on the ice. Still, this is not the sort of outcome one might expect from a forward who is expected to be of the shut-down sort, especially when he is bringing little offense to the table (one assist in the seven game series against the Penguins).

Was the broken finger he had that ended his regular season a bother? Were the back spasms that interrupted his regular season a problem? Maybe, but he also won the majority of his draws in six of the seven games of the Penguin series (four times over 75 percent), four of the seven games in the Ranger series.

Gordon finished 139th among centers in scoring in the regular season. Brian Sutherby outscored him (8-7-15 in 59 games). Jeff Halpern outscored him (7-9-16 in 52 games). Glen Metropolit outscored him (6-11-17 in 76 games). You see a theme here? If you do, you might wonder if Gordon is going to be joining that group… former Caps centers. He is a restricted free agent and wouldn’t seem likely to command more than the $725,000 he earned in 2008-2009, especially with David Steckel set to earn that amount next year having had an arguably better regular and post season than Gordon had.

Grade: C

Sunday, May 24, 2009

A Happy and Safe Memorial Day


"The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit..."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Centers: Michael Nylander


Michael Nylander


Theme: “Paradise Lost”

Michael Nylander played in 72 games this year. That is not a misprint, but it had to be the most anonymous 72 games perhaps ever logged by an NHL player, certainly among those who make almost $5 million a year. When the season started, we thought Nylander would bounce back – somewhat – from last year’s season lost to injury…


Here is a player who, coming into this season, averaged 19-43-62 per 82 games over an NHL career that spanned 848 games. 72 games later, he was an afterthought on a team with hopes of competing for a Stanley Cup…


What happened?

After scoring six points in his first four games of the season (2-4-6, +2), he went 25 games without a goal with only nine assists. He went 36 games with a total of only two power play points (both assists in a game against Anaheim on November 19th). By appearances, the Caps had changed their basic philosophy in Nylander’s absence the previous year, relying on a north-south, high-tempo style of attack that was at odds with Nylander’s more deliberate, east-west, curl-off and find the trailer sort of approach to offense. In a real and in a figurative sense, Nylander never caught up.

Looking at the ten-game segments one can see a slow descent into irrelevance. His scoring started in a manner consistent with his career trend (eight points in his first ten) games, but he’d never reach that mark again, getting more than four points in any ten-game segment only once. He had a total of seven multi-point games for the season (by way of comparison, Brooks Laich had 11; Eric Fehr had five), four of them before Thanksgiving.

In other areas, he was worst on the club in faceoffs among players taking at least 200 draws (perhaps a lingering effect of his shoulder injury). He took as many shots per game (1.2) as defenseman Milan Jurcina. He was ninth on the team in power play scoring (4-6-10), but had only five power play points in the 2009 portion of the season. This is a guy who was 18th in the entire league in power play scoring (14-23-37) in the year before he rejoined the Caps. Among the Caps’ centers, only David Steckel and Boyd Gordon averaged fewer points per 60 minutes at even strength, and Steckel and Gordon are defense-first players. That might not be true of Nylander, who was on ice more frequently for goals scored against at even strength per 60 minutes than any other center on the club.

Statistically, stylistically, whatever – this season was largely a disaster for Nylander. Whether this is a lingering product of his injury in the 2007-2008 season or his playing a style incompatible with that currently employed by the Capitals, there are some important decisions with respect to Nylander’s future on the club – decisions that are difficult to separate from Sergei Fedorov, who had his own production problems (perhaps a combination of age and health issues).

Nylander has two more seasons at $4.875 million a year to go on his contract. A 13 minute a night, 35-point center earning that sort of money is a substantial drag on the Caps’ payroll and their flexibility to make roster moves. His offensive production (9-24-33 in 72 games) was approximately equivalent to Columbus’ Manny Malhotra (11-24-35 in 77 games), a player who earns less than one-fourth what Nylander does ($1.2 million).

We said that Nylander’s season was a slow descent into irrelevance. Here is one way to look at that. He only dressed for 35 of 44 games in the 2009 portion of the season and skated for more than 15 minutes in only five of them. In his last year with the Rangers before signing with the Caps he had only five games all year out of 79 in which he played in which he skated less than 15 minutes.

It would be easy to forget that Nylander was 5-14-19 in 21 games with the Caps before Bruce Boudreau took over early in the 2007-2008 season. If anything, this lends weight to the argument that Nylander has not so much forgotten how to play hockey as much as he is a bad fit for this particular team. On teams that play the equivalent of a half-court offense – such as that which the Rangers played when he and Jaromir Jagr skated for the Rangers—Nylander has been, and would appear still to be, an effective player. On this team? It would not seem likely.

Nylander’s problems are not necessarily of his making as much as they might be the status of his physical recovery and the style the club plays. Still, he did not perform well within this structure, and for that…

Grade: C-

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Centers: David Steckel


David Steckel

Theme: “blooming late”

Here we have our preseason projection and the actual season numbers for David Steckel...


There was an odd consistency in David Steckel’s game this year that isn’t entirely reflected in his season by the tens…


If you look at his scoring by month, he averaged three points a month (not including April), not scoring fewer than two or more than four in any month. He went 6-8-14 in 59 games against team in the East and 2-3-5 in 17 games against the West (approximately the same scoring rate over comparable numbers of games). He was 4-6-10 in 39 games at home, 4-5-9 in 37 games on the road. Only three times in 76 games was he on the minus side of the ledger in consecutive games, and never more than two games in a row. And, only five times in a total of 76 games did he go consecutive games losing more faceoffs than he won (three games was his longest streak), only once after December.

And if another thing remained constant, it was his ability to score against Tampa Bay. In 2007-2008, Steckel was 4-2-6 in six games against the Lightning. This year, he was 2-3-5 in six games, making him 6-5-11 in 12 games against Tampa Bay the last two years, while going 7-13-20 in 131 games against everyone else the past two seasons.

And looking at other numbers from his ten-game segments, he looks just as consistent… six of eight with at least ten shots on goal (but more than 20 only once)… only once in eight instances with more than ten penalty minutes… six times with at least ten hits (never more than 20).

What he wasn’t, though, was especially effective on weekends. His Friday-Sunday production ended 2-4-6, -6 in 36 games. Compare that to 6-7-13, +8 in 40 games on weekdays.

Steckel could become the sort of third line center the Caps need. He shows promise of becoming an anchor in the middle among the lower half of the forward lines – consistent, able to win faceoffs consistently, defense-minded (fewest goals scored against per 60 minutes among centers), effective in penalty killing, and he has an ability to chip in some scoring (he scored goals more frequently per 60 minutes of ice time at even strength than Nicklas Backstrom).

But he’s not there yet, not when you consider that this is a team that finished 19th in goals allowed per game and tied for 17th in penalty killing, even though Steckel was by far the least likely (among Caps center playing at least 60 games) to be scored on at even strength and was most likely to be the center on the bench when opponents scored in those situations.

At the age of 27, Steckel is blooming perhaps a bit later than one might have expected for a former first-round draft pick (30th overall in 2001), but by the same token, what is past might be prelude. For example, under coach Bruce Boudreau at Hershey in the AHL, Steckel showed an ability to score shorthanded goals. He had five such goals in his last regular season campaign with the Bears and another three in the Calder Cup playoffs in that 2006-2007 season. This year, he scored his first two shorthanded goals in the NHL. He had 30 goals in his last year with the Bears, following up on a 14-goal season he had in 2005-2006. This past year, his goal output increased from five to eight, and he had another three in 14 playoff games, including a game-winner against Pittsburgh.

Steckel has fewer than two full years of NHL game experience (155 games). This was only his second full season with the Caps, and in just about every statistical category you’d care to name, he improved on his first full season. He did show an ability to score at the AHL level, and one might hope that he continues improvement along those lines next year (he is signed through next year at a $725,000 salary). He’s been consistent, but perhaps needs to raise the production level at which he is consistent for the Caps to make the next step. For this year, though, he took a step forward one would expect for an inexperienced, if late-blooming, forward…

Grade: B

Friday, May 22, 2009

"His will was stronger than the enemy in his head"


Photo: Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images

Robert Müller lost his long battle with cancer, yesterday. A 2001 draft pick of the Capitals, Müller was diagnosed with a brain tumor in late 2006, yet still managed to play the entire 2007-2008 season as a goaltender in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga.


Photo: Getty Images

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Centers: Sergei Fedorov


Sergei Fedorov

Theme: “Is that all there is?”

Sergei Fedorov is hockey royalty. He is a certain first ballot hall-of-famer. He is also the second-line center on a team that was not especially deep at center this year. Here is perhaps the one number that reflects his age (39) and the Caps’ problems at this position…

Two


In only two of the eight ten-game segments did Fedorov skate in all the games (although he did play in the last 11 games of the year). His longest consecutive games-played streak this year was 25. He played in only 52 games this year, which is unfortunate, because if you look at those pair of ten-game segments in which he played in all the games he was rather effective. In the first ten games of the season he was 3-5-8, +6, and in the ten game segment (the sixth) from February 1st through February 22nd he was 1-7-8, +6.

But take those away, and Fedorov was 7-10-17, -8 in 32 games. It wasn’t quite the performance one might expect out of a second-line center. The best one might say is, “when he did play…”

As in, when he did play, he seemed to save his best performances for the best competition. Against Atlantic Division teams, Fedorov was 1-8-9, +8 in 10 games. Against the Northeast, he was 3-7-10, +2 in 13 games. His results against the Southeast, however – 3-5-8, -5 in 16 games – was somewhat lackluster. One thing to note, though. He had one third of his points against two teams – Ottawa (1-6-7, +2 in four games) and Pittsburgh (1-3-4, +4 in four games). Against the rest of the league, he was 9-13-22, -2 in 44 games.

If there was a disturbing trend in Fedorov’s play as the season wore on it was this – starting with the fifth ten-game segment through the end of the year (spanning 29 games played), Fedorov earned 34 minutes in penalties. He had 16 of those minutes in his last six games.

There were other numbers that fell onto the negative side of the ledger late in the season that were – and are – worrisome. For example, he was minus-7 in his last ten games (plus-4 for the season) and didn’t have consecutive games on the plus-side of the ledger after February 18th. He had a total of 11 even strength points in 32 games after January 19th.
Here is a comparison…


Player 2 in this instance is the Islanders’ Frans Nielsen. We’re not making the argument that Fedorov and Nielsen are interchangeable parts, but it does suggest the need to look at Fedorov’s performance in the cold light of day (or, in this case, “days after” playoff elimination). Is Fedorov a second-line center at this point in his career? If he is a third-line center, what do you pay such a player for that level of performance and the “intangibles” he brings to the team? If you’re wondering, Nielsen’s cap hit is $525,000.

But there is a special consideration here. If the Caps were to re-sign Fedorov, does the 2009-2010 regular season matter? Well, you could argue that while his performance in playoffs hasn’t been especially noteworthy (2-11-13 in 21 playoff games with the Caps over two seasons), he has been , in a manner of speaking, “clutch.” Both goals were scored in elimination games (one against Philadelphia in Game 5 last year and, of course, the series-clincher against the Rangers this year). And while 13 points in 21 games might not sound like a lot, if you look at 2007-2008 total playoff scoring it would have been in the top-20 overall point totals.

Re-signing Fedorov, more than most players perhaps, is going to come down to price. If one didn’t see the name plate, “FEDOROV,” on the back of his jersey, you’d have been hard put to see how he was worth $4 million last year. He didn’t play in enough games, he wasn’t especially productive when he did play (certainly not what one would expect of a second-line center on an elite team), and it isn’t readily apparent that the Caps should expect better numbers next year.

Yet, there are those intangibles he brings. One can’t be too dismissive of a player with Stanley Cups on his resume and almost 1,200 points to his credit. He knows how to play the game, even if his body doesn’t respond as it did ten years ago. This will be one of the interesting plots to follow as the summer moves on, but in terms of his performance this year, it was somewhat disappointing. In terms of value, we can’t conclude that the Caps got value commensurate with his contract, and it might have bound them in ways not unlike the contract held by Michael Nylander, since the club couldn’t trade prospects for a rental at the trading deadline that would have added salary (there was also that matter of the club being at its limit for players under contract).

The opportunity to see Sergei Fedorov play in a Caps uniform has to be a thrill for any Caps fan. However, whatever novelty attaches to that has faded. Fedorov has his Cups; it is time for the Caps to earn theirs. Whether Fedorov is a part of that is a future consideration, but for this year…

Grade: B-

Monday, May 18, 2009

The 2008-2009 season, by the "tens" -- Centers: Nicklas Backstrom


As has been the case from time to time in this space, we like to divide elements of the season into “chewable bites.” That means taking a look at players and the team “by the tens.” We look back on the 2008-2009 season in ten-game bites, starting with the players.

Nicklas Backstrom

Theme: “Jinx?...What jinx??”

The “sophomore jinx.” For those not familiar with the concept, it refers to the second act of a player, a student, a musical group, etc., that fails to live up to the promise of their first effort. In this instance, it is the second year of an athlete that fails to live up to the production and the promise reflected in his first year.

Backstrom certainly had the opportunity to be the latest victim of the “jinx,” and if you look at his performance by the tens, he started off the season as if he might in fact be that latest victim…



After an opening night assist in Atlanta, he would go another five games without a point and would finish his first ten games with a sluggish 0-4-4. And, that would include no even strength points, all of his assists coming on the power play.

After that, though, Backstrom had an extremely productive 30-game stretch that coincided with perhaps the most productive stretch for the Caps of the 2008-2009 season. From November 4th through January 3rd, Backstrom scored 11 of his 22 goals for the season and registered 29 of his 66 assists. His 11-29-40, +6, went a long way toward the Caps’ 21-7-2 mark over those 30 games.

There was a remarkable symmetry to Backstrom’s year. Although he had his ups and downs through the eight ten-game segments, ranging from a low four points (in that first ten games) to a high of 15 (in his second), his first 40 games left him with an 11-33-44, +6 mark, while in his last 42 games he went 11-33-44, +10. He had 85 shots on goal in those first 40 games, 89 in his last 42. He had seven power play goals in his first 40 games, seven in his last 42… 14 power play assists in his first 40 games, 14 power play assists in his last 42 games.

There were two aspects of his play that reflected perhaps the experience he gained in his rookie year. First, his shots were up by 21 over his rookie year. It might no sound like a lot – about a quarter of a shot on goal per game – but it was almost a 14 percent jump. It was reflected in an eight-goal increase over his rookie total (from 14 to 22), even as his shooting percentage improved (from 9.2 to 12.6 percent).

If anything, that goal scoring number might yet increase in the years to come. It is worth noting that Backstrom scored 14 of his 22 goals on the power play, good for third on the team behind Alex Ovechkin (19) and Mike Green (18). He had fewer even strength goals this year (eight) than last (11). With experience, that even-strength goal number might grow. He could be a 25-30 goal scorer, but given the nature of his game – more of the traditional playmaker – that might be the upper limit of his goal-scoring production.

And in that playmaking vein, it is also worth noting that Backstrom raised his assist total by 11 from his rookie year. What might be a bit disappointing in that is that he had his best 10-game stretches early in the season, putting up 12 assists in the ten games from December 13th through January 3rd, and 11 assists (a mark that would be tied later) in the ten games from November 4th through November 22nd.

There was another aspect of his game that emerged later in the year that did not appear in either his rookie year or early in the 2008-2009 season – penalties. In his rookie campaign, Backstrom logged a total of 24 minutes in penalties, and only once did he draw more than a single minor infraction in any one game. This year, Backstrom continued on a similar pace until an odd stretch from February 15th through March 12th. In the space of 13 games, Backstrom earned 16 of the 46 minutes he would earn for the year. It didn’t seem to affect his scoring – 5-9-14 in the 13 games, and he was 2-6-8 in the seven games in which he took penalties. One might say that with experience has come a bit more of an edge to Backstrom’s game, although these things are relative.

What he has been is durable. The jokes about “Fat Nicky” at the start of the year aside, Backstrom registered his second 82-for-82, as in games played. And, for what it’s worth, he surpassed the pair of Blackhawks he shared the Calder Trophy dais with in 2008 – his 22-66-88 eclipsed Jonathan Toews (34-35-69) and Patrick Kane (25-45-70). He was plus-16 to Toews’ plus-12 and Kane’s minus-2. We’re sure, though, that Backstrom would trade places with the Chicago pair, which is now in the midst of a conference final matchup, while Backstrom contemplates his summer plans.

All in all, though, it was a “build-on” season for the second year center. He built on a solid rookie year by becoming a more productive playmaker, despite a revolving door of wingers playing along side of him. He became more of a goal-scoring threat, especially on the power play. He maintained a sense of responsibility at both ends, as reflected in a plus-16 for the year (he was plus-13 in his rookie year). While he needs improvement in the faceoff circle, he did improve on his rookie production, winning 48.7 percent of his draws versus 46.3 percent in his rookie year.

Last year we wrote of Backstrom…

"Improvement and consistency. These are precisely the things one might ask for in a student. Nicklas Backstrom came a long way this year, and while he has a long way to go, he learned his lessons well."

We’d write the same thing this year…

Grade: A-

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Your Peerless Prognostos for the Western Conference Final -- Detroit (2) vs. Chicago (4)


And now, for the western half of the finals…

Why Detroit can’t lose…

Experience. Coming into these playoffs, the Chicago Blackhawks who have skated thus far in the post season had a total of 197 games of playoff experience among them, and 64 of that came from Samuel Pahlsson – a late season pick-up from Anaheim. For the Red Wings, defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom came in with 214 games of experience… himself. Of the 22 skaters for the Red Wings thus far in the playoffs, six had more than 100 games of playoff experience coming into this year's tournament (Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom, Brian Rafalski, Kirk Martby, Kris Draper, Chris Chelios).

Why Detroit can’t win…

Chicago has no fear of the Red Wings. They fought them to a draw in six regular season games (2-2-2) and won the last two contests of the season. And, there is the matter of the grueling seven-game series the Wings played against Anaheim, perhaps the most physical team in the final eight. If Chicago – a younger, high-octane team – can steal a win out of Detroit from the first two games, it might be just the crack the Blackhawks can exploit. Chicago certainly poses a different set of challenges for a team that had goaltending issues in the regular season – they can score goals (3.17/game in the regular season, 4th in the league). Chris Osgood wasn’t facing the 1984 Edmonton Oilers in the first two rounds. Anaheim finished 14th in scoring, Columbus finished 21st.

The Peerless’ Player to Ponder

Johan Franzen

Franzen scored more points against only one team (St. Louis) than he did against the Blackhawks in the regular season (3-2-5) in six games. He is the leading scorer for the Red Wings so far in the playoffs (8-7-15 in 11 games). He has the sort of size that can pose problems for the Blackhawks down the middle, and he has the hands to finish. He has points in 10 of 11 playoff games thus far. He hasn’t gone more than two consecutive games without a point since early January.

Why Chicago can’t lose…

No worries. They weren’t supposed to get this far, even as a fourth seed. And now, they get to skate. The first two rounds – against Calgary and Vancouver – were probably more physical than anything the Red Wings are likely to throw at them. And, the Blackhawks lit up two goaltenders that, on paper, are far higher in class than what they’ll face in Chris Osgood. 19 goals against Miikka Kipprsoff (3.52 GAA) and 21 against Roberto Luongo (also a 3.52 GAA). The Blackhawks can score with anybody.

Why Chicago can’t win…

They can’t score if they don’t have the puck. Detroit has allowed the third fewest shots on goal in the playoffs (27.5). Chicago is second, you say? Well, yes, they are. But what favors Detroit here is how they got to their number. Their shot differential of +12.7 is, by far, the best of any team advancing this far. This sort of thing has the effect of choking the life out of an opponent. In the last two seasons, the Red Wings have played nine games past Game 4 in a series. They are 6-3 in those games. Do the Blackhawks have the stuff to last?

The Peerless’ Player to Ponder

Nikolai Khabibulin

Among the goalies playing in the final eight, Khabibulin has the worst save percentage (.896, the only sub-.900 in the group). Good thing Chicago has allowed the second fewest shots on goal per game. Detroit will test Khabibulin in ways that Calgary and Vancouver didn’t. He had a superb save percentage against the Red Wings in three games this year (.932), but the Blackhawks allowed him to face 133 Red Wing shots in those games (39.7 shots-per-60 minutes). If Detroit is getting those kinds of shot totals in this series, it could spell doom for the Blackhawks, unless Khabibulin steps up his shot-blocking production.

In the end…

The young and the old – the Red Wings were the oldest team in the final eight, the Blackhawks were the youngest. Guess the questions are, “are the Blackhawks too young?” and “are the Red Wings too old?” Well, we don’t think it will come down to that. The common thread between these teams is that both have done very good jobs at masking otherwise pedestrian performances in goal, given the settings (yeah, Chris Osgood has a .921 save percentage, but we’re not thinking Columbus or Anaheim are offensive juggernauts, either). Both have managed to do it by their parsimonious allocation of opponents' shot opportunities. But Detroit’s result is more a product of the style of play they impose on games – keeping the puck and overwhelming teams with their own shot volumes (40.2/game is by far the highest total in the final eight).

This argues for Detroit being able to cobble together four wins faster as a product of the comfort level and consistency they have in playing the style they play. They will be better able to impose a style on games, even if the Blackhawks want to play an up-tempo pace of their own.

Detroit in 6

Your Peerless Prognostos for the Eastern Conference Final -- Pittsburgh (4) vs. Carolina (6)


The Caps-less round three begins…

Why Pittsburgh can’t lose…

Sidney Crosby is on a mission. 12 goals in 13 games. Now, he didn’t do it against the sturdiest defensive squads in the East, but he’s not playing against such a group in the conference final, either. In fact, Carolina’s defense might resemble Washington’s a little too much for the Hurricanes’ tastes for this series -- not physical enough down low. And Crosby had eight goals against the Caps. As if we needed another Crosby nugget, he went 1-6-7 in four games against Carolina this year.

Marc-Andre Fleury had the curious propensity this year to be either very good against a team, or rather poor. For every 2-0-2, 1.69, .955 against New Jersey, there seemed to be a 1-2-0, 4.50, .881 against Toronto. He was 1-1-1, 2.00, .937 against Carolina this year.

Looking for someone to come out of the blue? Ruslan Fedotenko was 3-1-4 in four games against the Hurricanes this year. And, he had points in four of his last five games against the Caps in the second round (3-2-5).

Why Pittsburgh can’t win…

The Penguins did not play formidable teams in the first two rounds, at least in terms of their recent play, respectively. Philadelphia finished the season 11-10-1 after the end of February, leading up to their first round loss to the Penguins. The Caps – if you buy into the “Southleast” Division description of where they play – played a bunch of patsies the last month (10 of their last 13 games were against Southeast Division teams, against which they went 7-3-0) and struggled against a punchless Rangers team in the first round. This won’t be the case with Carolina – 13-3-2 since the end of February in the regular season and victors over two higher-seeded teams (New Jersey and Boston) in the first two rounds).

The Peerless’ Player to Ponder

Evgeni Malkin

Malkin has 19 points in 13 games, but his performance has the curious look of the underperformer through the first two rounds, perhaps not befitting a Hart Trophy finalist. He came on late in the second round, going 1-6-7 in the last three games against the Caps, including the game-winner in Game 5. He was 2-3-5 in four games against the Hurricanes this year. He’ll need to be at least as productive.

Why Carolina can’t lose

Here is what we said at the top of round two

"On February 17th, the Hurricanes lost a 5-1 decision to Boston in an especially ugly fashion. Playing at home, they scored first, then watched as the Bruins stormed back for five unanswered goals, three of them in the third period, all of them in the last four minutes of play. Since then, the Hurricanes went 17-5-2 to close the regular season, then they vanquished the New Jersey Devils in the opening round with a pair of lightning bolts in the last 90 seconds of Game 7 against Martin Brodeur in Newark. They have played like and have had the look of a team of destiny the last two months."

Add to this the fact that they defeated the presumptive Vezina Trophy winner in round two – Tim Thomas. Think they’ll fear Marc-Andre Fleury? Yeah, me neither.

Why Carolina can’t win…

Pittsburgh was actually a hotter team after February 17th than the Hurricanes (18-3-3 to finish the regular season). This will be a step up in class in opposition for the Hurricanes, as one expects at this time of year. What might work more insidiously against the Hurricanes here is that they are, (a) the second oldest team in average age among the final eight in the playoffs, and (b) they are coming off two seven-games series, both of which involved winning a Game 7 on the road.

The Peerless’ Player to Ponder

Rod Brind’Amour

Brind’Amour was off to the worst season of his career through February 17th. He was 8-21-29, -30 in 56 games, and you’d have to be forgiven if you thought that at age 38 the end was in sight. But he was 8-14-22. +7 in his last 24 regular season games. He had a similar slow start in the playoffs, going scoreless in his first ten games. He did have points in two of his last four games, but his importance in this series is going to be to a large extent his defense. If he can be effective against either Crosby or Malkin, perhaps Pittsburgh won’t have enough underneath support to advance. Hurricane fans hope that puck to the face in overtime of Game 7 against the Bruins won't ruin his movie star good looks... or keep him out of the lineup.

In the end…

These were the best two teams in the East down the stretch in the regular season. Both have struggled in the playoffs to get this far – one team needing 14 games, the other 13. Pittsburgh might be expected to suffer a bit of a let down after “the circus” that was the Washington series. But then again, they’ve been this far before. And, as we said, Sidney Crosby is on a mission.

On the other hand, Carolina has been this far before, too. They are not that far removed from having won a Cup. And, goalie Cam Ward has not yet lost a playoff series in his career. He might not have the star wattage of a Martin Brodeur or the quirky appeal in style of a Tim Thomas, but all he’s done is stop pucks… and he’s still playing, unlike the other two.

In the end, we’re left with a simple credo… “go with the best player.” That’s Crosby.

Pittsburgh in 7

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Long View

In 1986, the Detroit Red Wings won 17 games.

That isn’t a misprint, and it wasn’t an abbreviated season. The Red Wings won 17 games in an 80-game season. Their best player was a 20-year old who managed to dress for only 51 games that season. You might have heard of him – Steve Yzerman. But let’s leave him out of this conversation. We’re looking at teams, not players.

The Wings followed up that abysmal season with some wandering in the desert, achieving a level of mediocrity that saw them average 38 wins a year over the next nine seasons, making the playoffs eight times, but not winning a Cup and getting to a Cup final once.

Then in 1996 they won 62 games, to this day a franchise and league record. They also lost in the Western Conference final. One might call that “disappointing.” But in 13 seasons since, including that 62-win campaign, the Red Wings have reached the 50-win mark six times (the last four in a row), the 100-point threshold 11 times (the last nine in a row), and have won the Stanley Cup four times (this year’s outcome for a fifth still in doubt).

The Wings did it with an elite player subordinating personal statistics for team success (that Yzerman guy) and developing a system that identified talent, nurtured it, and sent it on a conveyor to the parent club that replenished it and made it a perennial championship contender, even when that Yzerman fellow hung up his skates.

*****

On November 19, 1983, the Edmonton Oilers defeated the New Jersey Devils, 13-4.

That’s not a misprint, either. The loss dropped the Devils to 2-18-0 on their way to their own 17-win season. It prompted the Oilers’ Wayne Gretzky to remark that “it's time they got their act together, they're ruining the whole league. They had better stop running a Mickey Mouse organization and put somebody on the ice.”

It took awhile. It would be nine more seasons before the Devils reached the 40-win mark in their history. But even doing that, it would be another two years before they would win their first Stanley Cup, in 1995. In the 14 seasons starting with that first Stanley Cup win , the Devils have had fewer than 40 wins once (not including the 22 wins in a 48-game season 1995 before winning the Cup). They’ve had fewer than 100 points only three times (not including that 1995 season), and they’ve won three Stanley Cups with another Stanley Cup finals appearance on top of that.

They did it by developing a system and building it around a player – a goaltender in this instance (Martin Brodeur) – making them one of the most consistent of teams over the past 15 years, one that is always mentioned among Stanley Cup contenders.

*****

In 1990, the Quebec Nordiques won 12 games.

Nope, not a misprint, and that was an 80-game season, too. If the New Jersey Devils were “Mickey Mouse,” it would be hard to find a cartoon character that could have accurately resembled the Nordiques. Shoot, they only won 16 games the next year and 20 the year after that. But after that 20-win season in 1992, the Nordiques consummated what is one of the biggest heists in trade in NHL history. They traded Eric Lindros to Philadelphia for five players, a first round draft pick, $15 million (when $15 million was real money in sports), and future considerations that might have included the future rights to Pat’s King of Steaks, for all we know.

Adding assets to a team that already included a 22-year old phenom by the name of “Sakic,” the Nordiques won 47 games the following year. But playoff success would be longer in coming. It took them three more years before they won a Stanley Cup (unfortunately for the fine people of Quebec, they did it in Colorado in their first year after having moved the franchise). But starting with that Stanley Cup year, they would win at least 40 games in 11 of the next 12 seasons, reached the Western Conference finals six times, and won two Stanley Cup. While their star appears to have faded, the Colorado Avalanche was also one of those teams on most experts’ short list of Stanley Cup contenders for a dozen seasons.

They did it by making a shrewd decision with respect to personnel when they were at their lowest. Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg were the cornerstones of those perennial contenders from Denver (not to mention another move later – that for Montreal goaltender Patrick Roy).

*****

The point is that these things take time, even under the best of circumstances. A lot of experts, so-called, didn’t expect the Capitals to make the playoffs last year, especially after their awful start. That made making them something of a bonus and a playoff loss in the first round less painful. The team had the look of overachievers.

This year, the expectations brought on by that playoff performance in 2008 were higher – much higher. And that makes this year’s second round exit bitter in a way that last year’s wasn’t, tainted with the whiff of disappointment, of – yes – underachievement.

But this is a team two years removed from back-to-back 70-point seasons. Detroit waited 11 seasons after that 17-win debacle before winning a Cup. It took New Jersey 11 seasons to go from “Mickey Mouse” to the penthouse. It took Quebec six years and a move to Denver to win the prize. Folks forget that once upon a time, these teams were truly, epically, legendarily bad.

There aren’t any guarantees here. The Capitals could become the perennial disappointment that are the San Jose Sharks – a team of immense talent and promise that goes quick and quiet every spring. Or they could be the modern reincarnation of the St. Louis Blues that made the playoffs every year for a quarter century (from 1980 through 2004), but which never won a Cup and advanced to a conference final only once.

But there isn’t anything about this team to suggest that it will not be better next year, even with the difficult personnel decisions that lie ahead. The Caps have a good core group, they have role players who contribute, and they might have the deepest pool of goaltending prospects in the league. If these Caps realize their promise, build on their disappointments, and win a Stanley Cup (or two, or three) while being a perennial contender, these days – not to mention the 70-point seasons – will be a dim memory, if not forgotten all together.

Like that 17-win season for those Red Wings…