Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Down the Road

Since we are in the midst of a lull in the NHL calendar – one that might last a while – let’s think a bit down the road.

“Ya mean to the general store, Cuz?...I could use a nice cold sarsaparilla.”

No, my sugary-drink addled cousin…the Capitals’ road.

“Where’s that?”

Out there…somewhere.

“Which where?”

"Cousin, you’re barking up the wrong tree…he doesn’t get it."

“Which tree is the right one to bark up?”

Can we get back to the point?

“It’s just I always here about someone barking up the wrong tree, and I never hear about which tree he should be barking up…”

Cousin?

“And what’s up with the barking, anyway?”

Cheerless!

“ok..ok.”

As we were about to say, maybe we might take a look down – well, a few years from now. The Caps pride themselves on the draft being a big part of their plan. Out in about 2015…

“When the NHL comes back to play…”

Yeah, right Fearless, when the NHL comes back to play…what might the Caps look like with those draft picks they’ve made over the years? Here is what they might look like…



“Uh, cuz…Brooks Laich wasn’t a draft pick.”

Yes, we know. But he’s under contract to the Caps in 2015, and he spent a fair amount of time in Hershey, so…

“He’s like an honorary draft pick.”

Ok, an honorary draft pick. You’ll note that the Caps can fill their lineup quite a bit with their own draft picks, and…

“What’s with the shading, cuz?”

Ah…glad you asked. Not all of these draft picks are committed to the Caps in 2015, and the shading is just our way of offering a likelihood that they will be “rocking the red,” so to speak, in 2015. Alex Ovechkin is a given, so he gets a darker shade of red. Same for Nicklas Backstrom. Marcus Johanssson is not under contract in 2015, but he’s young and has a likelihood of being here, just not the level of commitment of an Ovechkin or a Backstrom. Same for the four defensemen you see there.

“And Kuznetsov, cousin?”

Well Fearless, his is a bit less than Johansson owing to the choices he has created for himself. He would still be only 23 when the 2015-2016 season started, certainly young enough to develop in the NHL. But, there is the lingering question of whether he will be here at all.

What you probably see here is a roster heavy on skill, not so much in terms of grit. The Caps have acquired this characteristic by other means, such as trading for Troy Brouwer or Jason Chimera. It has not been something the Caps have drafted, or at least drafted with success. That is what makes “The Tom Wilson Experiment” intriguing. He has the reputation of being an ornery SOB, a talent the Caps have lacked as a playoff contender almost since Dale Hunter was playing.

What you can ask yourself is whether this lineup has the “skill” skill set to be a Stanley Cup contender. There will be players assumed to be in their prime (Ovechkin will be 30 years of age, Backstrom 27, Laich 32). And there will be youngsters coming up (Filip Forsberg will be 21, Stan Galiev 23, Tom Wilson 21). It is the kind of mix you would want, but there is the matter of those “white” blanks on the roster. It is there where the key might lie to taking those last steps to a championship…

“Uh, cuz…who’s this ‘Nathan McKinnon’ guy?”

Oh…he’s at the top of the draft rankings for 2013, a kid from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. Some folks see a lot of similarities between him and another kid from Cole Harbour.

“And you think the Caps are going to get him?”

Yeah…Bettman owes us one in the draft lottery.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Coming Into Focus

There are three numbers to keep in mind when thinking about Braden Holtby and his rapid ascent to what could be the number one goaltending position with the Washington Capitals when NHL hockey resumes in earnest: 22, 21, 14.

First, Braden Holtby is 22 years old (he will be 23 before the NHL resumes play). He was, by far, the youngest number one goalie in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs (three years and 234 days younger than Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick). Only five of 89 goaltenders having dressed for at least one regular season game last season were younger than Holtby (he shares the same date of birth as fellow Saskatchewanian and Tampa Bay goalie Dustin Tokarski).

Second, Holtby has a grand total of 21 regular season games on his resume over two seasons. That total ranks 29th in Washington Capitals franchise history among goaltenders, one behind Rollie Boutin and half as many as Michel Belhumeur (he of the no wins in his 42-game Capitals career). He does not have a lot of experience.

Third, Holtby has 14 games of playoff experience. That is already fifth in franchise history among goaltenders. Only Olaf Kolzig (45), Don Beaupre (36), Pete Peeters (30), and Semyon Varlamov (19) have more career playoff games played than Holtby for the Caps. Of the 17 goalies to have appeared in the postseason for the Caps, only Bob Mason has a lower goals-against average (1.75 to 1.95) and better save percentage (.937 to .935) than Holtby. Mason achieved his numbers in four games in the 1987 post-season, one of them a four-overtime loss. Holtby’s seven wins and 922 minutes played both rank fifth in franchise post-season history.

The point of all this is two-fold. He is young, but he has been tested more than most his age (at least with this organization) in the postseason crucible. What does that mean? Well, Holtby certainly has performed well, but there is an underlying theme in his early-career performance. And that can be summed up, perhaps, with one word.

Focus.

Here is the thing. While Holtby has put up fine numbers (2.02, .929 in 21 regular season games; 1.95, .935 in 14 playoff games), he has fallen prey from time to time to the sort of thing one might expect from a young goalie. If his attention has not drifted in certain circumstances, his performance suggests such a thing. For example, let us first look at shots. Game management is as much a skill as stopping pucks at this level, and a goalie has to be able to cope not only with the obvious pressures of high shot volumes, but of low ones as well. Games in which the goalie sees only intermittent activity might lead the mind to wander, to lose focus. In 21 regular season games thus far for Holtby, his performance is not a lot different in low-volume, as opposed to high-volume games, but it is enough to suggest there is work to be done here (games ranked by shots faced):



In six regular season appearances in which Holtby faced 30 or more shots, he has a very good 2.32 goals-against average, but even more important a .934 save percentage. On the flip side of that, in games in which he faced fewer than 30 shots, he has a GAA of 1.88, but that save percentage drops a bit to .927. The 1.88 is the outcome one looks for, but that lower save percentage is not necessarily an expected result. And, there is more than a whiff of inconsistency here. In the 15 instances in which he faced fewer than 30 shots he recorded all of his three career shutouts and had another instance in which he saved all 21 shots he faced in 45 minutes of action. But he also had five instances of having a game save percentage below .900 (he had one in six games in which he faced 30 or more shots). The takeaway here might be that with situations requiring a high level of focus (high shot volumes) he has performed remarkably well.

We are mindful that there is a low population of games from which to draw conclusions here, and this is more pronounced the playoffs. But in 14 playoff appearances (all last spring) the difference are greater. In ten appearances in which Holtby faced 30 or more shots, he had a 1.66 GAA and .948 save percentage. On the other hand, in those four appearances in which he faced fewer than 30 shots he had a GAA of 2.79 and a save percentage of .879 (games ranked by shots faced).



The differences here might be exacerbated by the different overtime format in the post-season – you play until someone scores, meaning that the longer goalies play past 60 minutes, it is all 1.000 save percentage as long as they do not give up a goal. But that brings us to a different look at Holtby’s performance thus far, his progression through games.

In 21 regular season games Holtby’s performance stopping pucks is interesting to say the least. In the first period of games he has a .929 save percentage. He has a .953 save percentage in the third period of games. And despite having “only” a .900 save percentage in five overtime games played, he has not allowed an overtime goal in his last four appearances. Focus? To start games, to end them, or to face sudden death, it seems to be there. Compare that to a .908 save percentage in the second period of games. In 19 appearances in which he played in the second period of games, Holtby has allowed goals in the second period 13 times (compared to seven in 18 in the first period and six in 19 in the third period).

The playoffs are another story altogether. In his 14 postseason appearances Holtby has a sparkling .956 first period save percentage. However, this measure drops from one period to the next: to .942 in the second period, .912 in the third frame, and .907 in overtime. And it is not a function of shot volumes. In those 14 appearances Holtby faced 136 shots in the first period, 155 in the second, and 125 in the third. He faced 43 shots in overtime, which when applied against the minutes he played works out to approximately 139 shots over 14 20-minute periods. And, Holtby was 2-4 in overtime decisions.

Since 1980, 104 goalies have appeared in at least 250 career games. Of that group only four have a career save percentage above .920: Dominik Hasek, Tim Thomas, Henrik Lundqvist, and Pekka Rinne. Braden Holtby has a save percentage of .929 in his brief 21-game career. For those of you who think he will not regress toward a mean (and everyone’s “mean” is different), you are holding that belief up against the current of history. He will not sustain that level of efficiency. This is not to say that he cannot be, from time to time, a goalie with a .920 level of efficiency. He could do that and maintain a low goals against-average (it is 2.02 through 21 regular season games). To do that the team around him is going to have to limit shots; he would have to face 25.4 shots per game to maintain that GAA at a .920 save percentage as opposed to the 28.7 he has faced so far. But more than that, he is going to have to develop, nurture, and maintain one of the most elusive qualities anyone in any pursuit must have to be successful – focus.


photo: Reuters

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

CBA Wars I: A New Hope

Well, now we have it.

Or rather, them. The NHL Players Association submitted its proposal for a new collective bargaining agreement to the league yesterday. Both sides now have proposals on the table. Each seems to reflect a certain mind set. The owners’ proposal appears to be a large dose of “more of the same.” More reductions in player share of revenues, more reductions in player freedom of movement (tighter rules on arbitration, free agency, length of contract). On the other hand, the players’ proposal appears far more nuanced.

First, there is the matter of the salary cap itself. The concept that was anathema to the players in 2004 appears now accepted by the players as the basic structural framework for the agreement. At first blush this would seem to be a major concession, especially if the players are apparently agreeing to forgo anywhere from $400 to $800 million in compensation under the agreement, depending on the rate at which the league grows over the life of the agreement.

But then things get interesting. Having set aside the argument over the concept of a salary cap itself and accepting a lower share of revenue over the first three years of the deal as proposed (the fourth year is an option year in which the players’ share of hockey relate revenue reverts to 57 percent), the players target what is perhaps the most important underlying issue in these talks – haves and have nots among the 30 NHL franchises.

As NHL Players Association leader Donald Fehr put it, “In essence, when you boil it all down, what were suggesting is that the players partner with the financially stronger owners to stabilize the industry and assist the less financially strong ownership groups.” It is a clever way of saying that the players are, well, “players” in providing assistance to the struggling franchises in the league. Ponying up perhaps half a billion dollars in forgone compensation gives the comment credibility.

And with that, the league would share as much as $250 million in revenue with financially struggling clubs. That’s the big “numbers” takeaway on the revenue sharing side, but there are other tweaks that have the effect of leveling the playing field financially between haves and have nots. As reported by Larry Brooks of the New York Post such things might include allowing clubs to use cap space as a trading asset. Clubs would be able to go above or below the salary cap by as much as $4 million. Brooks also reported that the proposal includes a provision to limit non-player spending by clubs.

Of course, we do not have access to the language of the proposal, but based on what folks have reported (the accuracy of which is not guaranteed), two things strike us about it. First, what has leaked out about the proposal appears to focus very much on the financial health of individual franchises. The aim here is to prop up the struggling clubs via expanded revenue sharing and other tools such as trading cap space or the granting of extra draft picks to those struggling clubs that then can be traded or sold. What we worry about here is whether there is a dark side to this. Will clubs having these additional tools end up using them with a vengeance to the detriment of competitive balance on the ice? Do, say, the New York Islanders trade cap space or sell draft picks so that they have a lower payroll and fewer draft picks, and thus less margin for error in trying to develop a team? Does the NHL create a permanent underclass by these means? This is mitigated by the relatively short life of the agreement (three years with an option for a fourth), and in that respect it is more a “pause” to allow struggling teams to get a financial foothold before the agreement needs to be renegotiated.

The second thing we took away from the players’ proposal is that with each side now having offered their opening proposals, two very different worldviews are at work and unexpected ones at that. The owners’ proposal, as noted, looks like a lot more of the same – reduced player compensation, reduced player freedom of movement. And it doesn’t address the underlying problem – disparity in hockey related revenue – among the 30 clubs. The proposal has the look of “fighting the last war” about it.

The players’ proposal is less a response to the owners’ proposal and more of an independent, stand-alone plan. It accepts a basic salary cap framework that creates at least the fa├žade of partnership (we’re on the same page) but then attacks the problem from essentially the owners’ rear – the problem of haves and have nots among the clubs. And, it employs tools not contemplated or not fully developed in earlier agreements.

After round one, we suspect the players will own something of a tactical advantage. Their plan has the look of being “fresher” in approach, and they are certainly making more use of social media to bleed out elements of the package. It speaks to something of a PR advantage for their side.

However, if fans are optimistic about an early resolution to the matter, they entertain such optimism at their peril. The owners have a much deeper reserve of strategic assets to deploy, namely “money.” If the players are more nimble in their tactics, the owners can apply a siege mentality to the matter, weather the delay in the start to the season (or forgo it altogether), and grind the players down to their terms. It worked in 2005. This could still be a very bumpy ride.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Value of Top-Five Draft Picks

“Top-five draft pick.”

A hockey fan hears those words and thinks, “we’re going to get a great player!” Some fans might start thinking about parade routes a few years down the road. Washington Capitals fans might have been thinking along those lines in June 2004 when the club drafted Alex Ovechkin with the first overall pick. And given that Caps fans have yet to stake out a spot on Pennsylvania Avenue to view the parade to celebrate a Stanley Cup, it got us to thinking whether or not getting a top-five pick…or two…or even three matters in the bigger scheme of things.

If you look at the drafts from 2004 through 2011, the first thing to note is that 21 different teams have had at least one top-five pick. Of that group, 14 have had more than one top-five pick, and five teams have had as many as three of the top-five picks:



The first thing to note, however, is that so many of those top-five picks did not last with the teams that drafted them. In the 2004-2007 period ten of the 20 top-five picks would eventually leave the teams that drafted them:



And looking at those departures, it is hard to see clear in general as to how the team trading that former top-five pick made themselves better in the process. One might think, “oh, Chicago traded Cam Barker and won a Stanley Cup in 2010.” But unless you adhere to the “addition-by-subraction” theory, remember that Kim Johnsson did not play for the Blackhawks in the playoffs (sidelined with a concussion), and Nick Leddy had yet to play an NHL game (he made his debut the following season).

As for the other nine instances, the only successful move of a top-five pick (or at least the most successful) might be Boston’s sending Phil Kessel (fifth overall pick in 2006) to Toronto for three draft picks, one of which that was turned into Tyler Seguin, who was 3-4-7 in 13 games of Boston’s run to a Stanley Cup in 2011. Of course, there is the unfinished result of Pittsburgh’s trade of 2006 draft pick Jordan Staal this past July and Philadelphia’s trade of 2007 draft pick James van Riemsdyk to Toronto this past June.

That brings us to the whole object of the exercise, winning a Stanley Cup. Having multiple top-five picks does seem to matter in that regard. Five of the past seven Stanley Cup winners had multiple top-five picks over the 2004-2011 period: Carolina in 2006, Pittsburgh in 2009, Chicago in 2010, Boston in 2011, and Los Angeles in 2012.

But it is possible to make too much of that, too. We have already noted the Chicago Blackhawks, but take the Los Angeles Kings, for example. Of the three top-five picks they made in the 2004-2011 period, only Drew Doughty (second overall in 2008) played on the Stanley Cup winner this past June. Brayden Schenn (picked fifth overall in 2009) was traded before the season began, sent to Philadelphia with forward Wayne Simmonds and a 2012 second round draft pick for center Mike Richards and forward Rob Bordson. It worked out well for the Kings.

The New York Islanders are something of a unique case in that their three top-five picks have yet to ripen into core contributors. All three of their top-five picks came in the last three years of the 2004-1010 period at which we are looking. John Tavares (first overall in 2009), has become almost a point-a-game player (60-88-148 over 161 games over the past two seasons), but Nino Niederreiter (fifth overall in 2010) has only 64 games of NHL experience, and Ryan Strome (fifth overall in 2011) has yet to play at the professional level.

Pittsburgh is the only team of the five with three top-five picks (four, if you count 2003's top overall pick Marc-Andre Fleury) to have all of them in their lineup when they won a Stanley Cup. Evgeni Malkin (second overall in 2004), Sidney Crosby (first overall in 2005), and Jordan Staal (second overall in 2006) all played in the 2009 post season in which they defeated the Detroit Red Wings in the finals to capture the Stanley Cup.

There is one team that stands out, though. Of the five teams that had three top-five draft picks in the 2004-2011 period, only one has: 1) had all three dress for NHL regular season and playoff games, 2) held on to all three draft picks, and 3) done that without having won a Stanley Cup. It serves as a caution to those who would place too much emphasis on how many first round or top-five draft picks are in the lineup.

The Washington Capitals.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Hockey and Cards

Reading Corey Masisak's superb series on the Caps this morning on NHL.com, I look at the Caps going into the 2012-2013 season and think, "draw poker." Caps GM George McPhee dealt himself Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik, Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern, and Tomas Vokoun last summer. It looked like a good hand at the time, but not quite good enough.  This summer he kept the first three, discarded Halpern and Vokoun, then drew Mike Ribeiro and Wojtek Wolski. The question is, "does he hold a diamond flush, or just a bunch of red cards?"

The Consistency of Alex Ovechkin

Once upon a time, we remarked on the remarkable consistency of Alexander Ovechkin. Dividing his career games into ten-game splits, he was almost like a metronome in posting ten or more points per ten-game split. We are now 553 games into Ovechkin’s career, and as the 2012-2013 season approaches, we are left to wonder, “is he still consistent?”

Well, let’s start with the 550 games that comprise his 55 complete ten-game splits in his career:



Well, that’s clear, isn’t it? Well, maybe this will help. In 35 of his first 42 splits, Ovechkin recorded at least ten points. You could reasonably call that “consistent.” But in his last 13 complete splits he reached the ten-point mark only six times. Even though there is a certain lack of consistency in these last 13 splits (he ranges from six to 12 points across these 13 splits), there is also a “glass half full” aspect to it. That group of 13 ten-game segments cleaves into two parts, the first seven of them and the last six.

In the first seven Ovechkin still managed to record at least ten points in five of them, even if in those splits he did not reach the production level that characterized his first 420 games. In his last six, however, he reached ten points only once. Those sixty games represent the period from November 15, 2011 through March 31, 2012. That would correspond to the period of Bruce Boudreau’s last seven games as head coach (over which Ovechkin was 1-2-3, minus-6) and 53 games of Boudreau’s successor as head coach, Dale Hunter, whose offensive philosophy was not nearly as dynamic as Boudreau’s. If you are one of those “glass half full” types, you might harbor the thought that Adam Oates will be able to restore some of that lost production.

The “glass half full” types might be encouraged if we break apart the points into their goals and assists components:




The careful reader is going to look at the goals graph and say, “but Peerless, that’s a downward trending line.” True enough. But there are those two distinct segments in these ten-game splits. Looking at those first 42 splits, the trend line shows that remarkable consistency, although there is a “tail” at the end that suggests the start of a decline in production. But looking at the last 13 splits (and we know, this is a small group to evaluate) there is at least the glimmer of a player dragging himself out of a slump:



If we decompose those goals by ten-game splits into even-strength and power play goal components, the trends take an odd turn. First, the even-strength goals by ten-game split show something of a downward drift over the entire range of 55 ten-game splits:



But break them into those first 42 and the last 13 splits as we did above, and things look a little different:


Ovechkin actually displayed increasing production at even strength over his first 42 splits, even with a drop-off late. But starting from that trough at the start of the second 13-split segment, he had the suggestion of coming out of that slump…

…or did he? One would have to put a lot of faith in a seven-game stretch in mid-March in which he had seven even-strength goals (nine overall). That contributes to that late spike in the last-13 split segment. But that is the unknown, too. Was he finally becoming accustomed to the locked-down style of Dale Hunter and finding a way to produce? Will he rebound further under the eye of new head coach Adam Oates?

If that question is one that Caps fans might find intriguing, it only gets more so in the case of power play goal production. Over the entire span of 55 complete ten-game splits, Ovechkin’s power play goal production has drifted downward, no doubt in large part to the diminishing opportunities he and the Caps (and the league) have been getting with the man-advantage since the lockout:



For example, the Caps 245 power play opportunities is exactly half the number of opportunities they had in 2005-2006 in the first year of the lockout (490). The surprise isn’t that Ovechkin had 13 power play goals when he had 21 in 2005-2006, but that he had as many as 13.

But back to the graphs. Breaking the 55 complete ten-game splits into those first 42 and those last 13 segments, there is that downward drift in the first group. But what do we make of the last 13 splits:



There was the span of ten games from December 30, 2011 through January 18, 2012 this past season in which Ovechkin recorded five power play goals. Other than that, though, he was stuck in a rut of 0-2 power play goals per ten games.

Whether Alex Ovechkin can return to the goal-scoring levels to which Capitals fans became accustomed in his first five seasons is a tale of two stories – even-strength goal scoring and production on the power play. It might be a bit much to expect Ovechkin to return to the even-strength goal-scoring rate he averaged in his first 42 ten-game splits. At that rate he would realize 36 even strength goals per 82 games played. But can he get to his career average? If so he could get to 33 even-strength goals per 82 games (he had 25 in each of the last two seasons). Is that too much to expect, even with the more balanced approach suggested with the arrival of Adam Oates as head coach?

The bigger question is the power play. Over his career Ovechkin has averaged 16 power play goals per 82 games. But there are those pesky segments of 42 ten-game splits and his last 13. Breaking them down, he averaged 18 power play goals per 82 games in his first 42 splits and 11 power play goals per 82 games in his last 13 splits (and this includes that five-goal spike in one ten-game split).

Any way you look at this information, getting to “50” would be a long haul, largely dependent on Ovechkin’s once more becoming a 15-20 goal scorer on the power play. But unless the Caps reverse an unbroken trend toward fewer and fewer power play opportunities, Ovechkin isn’t going to come close to being that kind of power play scorer. If you are being optimistic about it, his getting 30 even-strength and 10 power play goals seems about right. This is the level of consistency Caps fans can reasonably expect moving forward.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Longest Month of the Year

August is the eighth month of the calendar and is named for the first emperor of the Roman Empire – Augustus,* who ascended to his office after the murder of his great uncle, Julius Caesar.

August also happens to be the deadest month in the hockey year. The bloom of the free agency signing period that began in July is reduced to unkempt weeds by August. The newly minted draft picks from June have been through their development camps and have returned to their homes for the summer. Hockey media don’t tweet about this move or that, they post pictures from their vacation cabins or fishing trips. And it is too early to muster up any excitement about rookie camp or training camp.

It is hard to think about ice and the men who compete on it when one walks outside in August and cuts off a hunk of ripe juicy air to breathe.

So, what is there about August we can be happy about? For starters, it is “Happiness Happens Month,” sponsored by something called the “Secret Society of Happy People.” Makes one wonder why they want to keep it secret. Then again, if you have a web site, you’re probably not all that secret. You might consult their “31 Types of Happiness” to get you through the month.

August also happens to be “Panini Month.” We don’t make this stuff up, folks. We just report it.

And if panini’s aren’t your thing, it’s “National Goat Cheese Month.” According to “News from the Cheese Caves” (the official artisanal premium cheese blog, in case you were wondering), “August, being one of the hottest months of the year, is a time when our cheese choices are for the lighter varieties, such as those younger goat cheeses. When the temperature creeps up into the nineties or higher we might skip the blues, the big-flavored or the stinky cheeses and choose those lighter creamier goat cheeses.” I know I’m hungry now.

Feeling stressed? Annoyed? Want to punch that person in the cubicle next to yours in the mouth? Just remember, August is “National Civility Month” in which “we are civil to each other, we confirm our worth and acknowledge the worth of others. We can move in and out of all levels of society confident that we are always doing the ‘right thing.’ We gain recognition for civility, and we secure the respect of our fellow human beings.” Yeah, ok.

So, Caps fans, be civil to one another, settle back with a Panini adorned with perhaps a bit of goat cheese, and know that in 31 days, this God-forsaken month will be behind us.

Oh, and be happy thinking of this…Even Augustus couldn’t cope with August. He died on August 19, 14 A.D.


* Yes, that is a statue of Augustus, not one of Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman with Martin St. Louis at his feet.