Sunday, September 30, 2012

Washington Capitals 2012-2013 Previews -- Forwards: Matt Hendricks



Matt Hendricks

Theme:  “I really believe that everyone has a talent, ability, or skill that he can mine to support himself and to succeed in life.”
-- Dean Koontz


If age 30 is in your rear-view mirror, and you have only 137 games of NHL experience on your resume (fewer than two full year’s worth of games), it helps to have a special skill in your pocket that sets you apart from other players.

And that brings us to Matt Hendricks.  Going into the 2011-2012 season Hendricks had just celebrated his 30th birthday, and he had only those 137 games of experience with 18 goals and 41 points to go along with them.  He made himself a fan favorite with the Caps with his utter fearlessness in taking on opponents when they thought they could take liberties with teammates.  His 12 fighting majors in the 2010-2011 season tied him for 12th in the league.  It made it a difficult way to make a living for a guy topping out at six-feet in height and a shade over 200 pounds. 

But in the 2011-2012 season, Hendricks found another way to make fans cheer.  Of all NHL players with at least three attempts in The Gimmick, Hendricks tied Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson for the highest shooting percentage (83.3 percent).  That’s right, a grinder in 65 minutes of hockey who was last among 13 Caps forwards last season in goals scored for-on ice per 60 minutes turned into Mike Bossy… well, maybe that’s a bit much … in The Gimmick. 

Hendricks became so adept at making goalies look foolish in Bettman’s Folly that Caps TV analyst Craig Lauchlin gave Hendricks’ signature move its own name, “The Paralyzer.”   It was a move Hendricks picked up as a high-schooler.  Caps fans paying close attention might have gotten a clue that this skill would be a feature of Hendricks’ game when he tied for the team lead in shootout attempts (five) in his only season in Hershey in 2006-2007.

He brought “The Paralyzer” to the NHL and might have found its high point when he deked former Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas into the ice in a March 29, 2012 game in Boston against the Bruins.  But Thomas was not the only goalie victimized.  Dwayne Roloson, Evgeni Nabokov, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Peter Budaj were the other four goalies paralyzed by Hendricks.  Only Johan Hedberg stopped Hendricks in a 3-2 Gimmick win posted by the New Jersey Devils back in November.  Overall the Caps were 4-2 in games in which Hendricks attempted a trick shot (4-1 when he scored, losing only to Philadelphia), 0-2 when he was held off the ice.  Hendricks scoring in the apr├Ęs-hockey round and the Caps winning when he did was as reliable an occurrence as anything the Caps had last season.

Fearless’ Take…

Back to hockey for a moment.  Matt Hendricks was one of a quartet of Caps who finished the regular season with a rather impressive Corsi value relative to quality of competition at 5-on-5.  Only Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, and Jason Chimera were better.  And of this group only Laich had a lower offensive zone start value (43.1 percent to 44.2 percent.  In fact, only Laich, Jay Beagle, and Jeff Halpern had lower shares of offensive zone starts among the 13 Caps forwards in this group.  And, of those 13 Caps forwards, only Halpern, Beagle and Joel Ward had fewer goals scored against-on ice/60 minutes at 5-on-5.  One could explain this away by saying that Hendricks was, by and large, a fourth liner, but he finished in the middle of the pack (seventh) in quality of competition faced at 5-on-5 (numbers from behindthenet.ca). 

Cheerless’ Take…

Hendricks had the kind of offensive consistency that the Caps did not need.  In the regular season he was 4-5-9 in 78 games.  In the playoffs he was 1-1-2 in 14 games, about the same rate of scoring, which is to say "not much."  Although Hendricks is not a big scorer, his four goals and nine points for the regular season was by far the lowest in each category for him in his three full seasons in the league.  And, in the regular season Hendricks was 1-2-3, minus-6 in 28 games against teams that qualified for the Eastern Conference side of the playoffs.  Overall he was one of many on the third and fourth lines who struggled in making contributions on offense.

The Big Question… Can Matt Hendricks translate some of his “paralyzer” game to the 60-minute portion of the game?

As Matt Hendricks enters his fourth full season his offensive production shows a somewhat concerning trend: nine goals in 56 games in 2009-2010 (a 13-goal pace per 82 games), nine in 77 in 2010-2011 (10), and four in 78 games last season (four).  And this trend comes in spite of his getting progressively more ice time (9:16/game three seasons ago to 11:28 in 2010-2011 to 12:07 last season).  Part of the problem might be that Hendricks’ offensive zone starts dropped from 51.7 percent in 2010-2011 to 44.2 percent last season.  Still a 4.1 percent shooting percentage is not something that can be sustained, even from a fourth line forward.  That shooting percentage was 449th among 597 forwards dressing in the NHL last season.  Only 22 forwards playing more than half their team’s games had lower shooting percentages.  That 4.1 shooting percentage would have ranked Hendricks only 131st among defensemen in the NHL last season.

In the end…

The Caps are not expecting Matt Hendricks to be a scorer.  If he gets 10-15 points, that is probably sufficient on a team with some of the considerable weapons the Caps can use.  His forte is grit, an ability to get under the skin of opponents (he tied for the team lead in penalties drawn at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes last season), and an ability to play adequate defense.  Perhaps the drop in offensive production last season was a reflection of the style of hockey the Caps played under head coach Dale Hunter.  In a more cautious system, having the third and fourth liners taking risks is not part of the portfolio.  One could certainly come away with that watching Hendricks’ offense finding its expression in the Gimmick.  Perhaps this season he will find a little of that flair under a new head coach, although if Adam Oates can return some of his teammates to their accustomed level of success, Hendricks can be the pain in the backside – and “The Paralyzer” – that makes him a fan favorite.

Projection: 76 games, 4-4-8, minus-1

Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images North America

Washington Capitals 2012-2013 Previews -- Forwards: Joey Crabb



Joey Crabb

Theme:  “If you do not expect the unexpected you will not find it, for it is not to be reached by search or trail.”
-- Heraclitus


For a player such as Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, the path to stardom does not take many twists or turns or wrong exits.  You are branded a phenom, you are expected to be a high draft pick, you are selected first overall and pose with the Commissioner, and you go forth and put up a lot of big numbers.  For the Joey Crabb’s of the world, the path is not so straight, nor so true.

Crabb was taken in the seventh round of the 2002 draft by the New York Rangers.  He went on to a four-year career at Colorado College where he recorded 53 goals in 158 regular season games.  It was not enough to put him on a path to fame in Manhattan; he was signed as an unrestricted free agent by the Atlanta Thrashers just before the 2006-2007 season.  He would spend most of his time in the Thrasher organization toiling for the Chicago Wolves. 

In 256 games with the Wolves Crabb posted progressively higher goal totals: 7, 9, 15, then 24 in the 2009-2010 season.  But he could not crack the Thrasher lineup on a consistent basis, dressing for only 29 games in the 2008-2009 season, recording four goals and nine points.

On to Toronto.  Crabb signed with the Maple Leafs as a free agent in July 2010, where he was…assigned to the AHL Marlies.  But here Crabb’s career started to get some traction.  He was recalled to the Maple Leafs at the end of November 2010 for a brief stay, and again at the end of December.  He stuck with the big club through the end of the season, finishing 3-12-15 in 48 games. 

It got him a new one-year contract with Toronto for the 2011-2012 season.  But again, the career path took a turn.  Just before the regular season he was placed on waivers, the intent being to return him to the Marlies.  Crabb cleared waivers and went down to the AHL where he spent nine games before being called up to the Leafs for good on the first day of November.  Crabb dressed for 67 games with the Leafs in 2011-2012 and posted a very respectable 11-15-26, plus-1 line for a team that finished among the league’s also-rans (35 wins, 80 points).  The Capitals saw something in that result, signing Crabb to a one-year deal for $950,000 this past July. 

Fearless’ Take…

Joey Crabb got something of a late start, his having only 144 games of NHL experience at age 29.  But he has shown some unexpected ability as a goal scorer.  He is probably not going to be a 20-goal scorer in his career, but he does average 10 goals per 82 games so far in his limited NHL experience.  When you consider what the Caps got from their third and fourth line wingers last season, ten goals doesn’t sound too bad.  Then there are the other numbers.  Crabb did a fair job of drawing penalties, more of them drawn per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 than the likes of Mikhail Grabovski, Tim Connolly, or Phil Kessel last year in Toronto.  He also did better in this regard than Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, or Nicklas Backstrom for the Caps.  And even though his Corsi value relative to quality of competition at 5-on-5 was 10th among 12 Leaf forwards playing in at least 40 games, his offensive zone start values were not an advantage (43.1 percent).

Cheerless’ Take…

You forgot one transaction in that long and winding road, cousin.  In June 2010 Atlanta traded him to Chicago as part of that big salary dump the Blackhawks made after they won the Cup.  Of the five players the Blackhawks got in that deal or drafted with the picks they got, you know how many games those players have actually played with the Blackhawks?  Twelve.  And Crabb doesn’t have any of them (all of them played by Jeremy Morin).  Less than a month after that trade, he was signed by Toronto.  Let’s not make him the second coming of Pat Verbeek or Andrew Brunette (identified as comparables over their first three years by the folks at hockey-reference.com).

The Big Question… Can Crabb firm up that soft underbelly that has been the Caps’ third and fourth lines too often over the past few years?

Last season, if you look at the bottom half of the forward draw for the Caps, the quintet of Joel Ward, Mike Knuble, Jeff Halpern, Matt Hendricks, and Jay Beagle recorded a total of 24 goals in 333 man-games, a six-goal pace per 82 games.  Crabb had 11 goals in 67 games last season in Toronto getting 13:26 a game (that was more average ice time than any of the Caps we mentioned except Knuble).  But scoring more does not really help much if you are on the ice for a lot of goals against.  Of Toronto forwards playing in at least 40 games last season, only Matt Frattin and Mike Brown were on ice for fewer even strength goals against; he was also third best among that group in terms of goals against/60 minutes at 5-on-5 (numbers from behindthenet.ca).

In the end…

Let us do a simple comparison.  Player A played in 57 games last season and was 11-15-26, plus-1.  Player B played in 67 games and was 11-15-26, plus-1.  Player A was 6-13-19 at even strength; Player B was 9-15-24 at even strength.  If you followed along to this point, you know that Player B is Joey Crabb, the one who played in those 67 games.  Who is Player A?  Dallas’ Brenden Morrow.  We are not going to argue that Joey Crabb and Brenden Morrow are interchangeable players, especially considering that Morrow’s season was interrupted by a neck injury.  On the other hand, Crabb might not be player merely filling a jersey for a dozen minutes a night, either.  His path has taken a long and winding course to Washington, and while he is here he might provide some unexpected, if certainly welcome contributions.

Projection: 62 games, 9-12-21, plus-3

Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America

Friday, September 28, 2012

Right Church, Wrong Pew

Last night the National Football League welcomed, if that is the right term, their "official" officials back to the gridiron after a three-week hiatus in the regular season during which games were officiated by make-shift crews of replacement referees culled from the ranks of Division II and Division III college ranks.

These replacement referees have been fodder for humorists and the object of scorn among radio talk show hosts.  Fans have been in full-throated anger at some of the calls, the low point of them coming when the end of the Seattle Seahwaks/Green Bay Packers game on Monday night unfolded in chaos and from which the term "simultaneous possession" became a more popular debating point across the land than which Presidential candidate had a better grasp of economic policy.

The jokes, the scorn, the anger -- the booing -- missed the point.  Fans, those referees were not the game's problem, and they were not deserving of the abuse.  They were hired into a difficult situation to do a job for which they were ill-prepared.  Even Roger Goodell, the Commissioner of the NFL, does not deserve any extraordinary rage.  Goodell, who has mastered the art of being able to tell whoppers with a straight face, straining mightily to make the case that the botched call in Seattle on Monday night might have moved things along some, but was not all that important, is merely a mouthpiece.

The folks behind this lockout of game officials are the same ones behind the lockout of players of the National Hockey League.  They are the ones hiding behind their hired guns in the Commissioner's office.  Even if you think that there should be give and take on both sides of labor negotiations, only one party can "lock out" its labor.  And it is becoming, not a last resort sort of measure, but the default position for these people.

Sports franchises have always been businesses, but there was also a sense that they were a public trust, the basis of a covenant with communities and fans, sharing a common goal of pursuing and rooting for championships.  No more.  Franchises are no more than assets with value and that generate income.  And if improving the bottom line means locking out referees for amounts that represent rounding error on a balance sheet, or locking out players to squeeze a little more out of them on top of what was obtained the last time they were locked out, so be it.

The referees aren't the problem.  The players aren't the problem.  The Commissioners aren't the problem. 

The problem is in the owners suites.  You want to boo some one, boo them.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Washington Capitals 2012-2013 Previews -- Forwards: Jason Chimera



Jason Chimera

Theme: “Twice and thrice over, as they say, good is it to repeat and review what is good.”
-- Plato


In the years following Lockout I, Jason Chimera was one of those NHL players who cobbled together a solid, if unspectacular resume, recording seasons in which he would play 15 minutes a night as a forward for the Columbus Blue Jackets, his goal totals settling in the mid-teens.  He was a complementary player to the more talented likes of Rick Nash or Nikolai Zherdev. 

In the last week of December 2009, however, he was loosed from the bounds of mediocrity that was the Blue Jackets, and he was traded to the Capitals for Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina.  In one way his performance was unchanged (17 points in 39 games with Columbus, 17 points in 39 games with the Caps), but in another it was the difference between an early summer and a less early summer.  He was minus-7 with Columbus, plus-6 with the Caps.  The difference was that he part of a better supporting cast.

When Chimera slipped a bit the following season – 2010-2011 (10-16-26, minus-10 in 81 games) -- one might have had him penciled in as a third-liner going into the 2011-2012 season.  In fact, that was the role he adopted as the season started, manning the left side on a line with Brooks Laich and Joel Ward, the “Meat and Potatoes” line.  It worked for Chimera in the early going, putting up three goals in the first two games and four in the first five.  But by November 1st it was apparent that this trio was not driving play. 

Ward would spend significant minutes on the fourth line; Laich would move around as a product of his versatility and injuries, primarily to Nicklas Backstrom, which left a large hole in the middle.  Meanwhile,
Chimera was quietly putting together a career year.  He got off to a fast start with those four goals in his first five games and 11 in his first 26 games.  A 35-goal pace for a player whose career best to that point was 17 (in 2005-2006) was probably a bit much to hope for.  But while Chimera did slump some at mid-season (he had only five goals in his next 46 games), he closed strong with four goals in his last ten games to finish with a career high of 20 goals, third best on the Caps.  What is more, five of his goals were game-winners, and 12 of them either tied games or gave the Caps a lead. 

Fearless’ Take…

Take those numbers and couple them to the fact that he was one of only five Capital forwards averaging more than 50 seconds of both power play and penalty killing time a game, and he was a rather important player.  At 5-on-5 he had the third-best Corsi value relative to quality of competition among Caps forwards (numbers from behindthenet.ca).  Taken together, he was no longer just a complementary player, he was an important ingredient to success.

Cheerless’ Take…

Uh, cuz?  I’m no math whiz, but here are a few of them numbers you can chew on.  At 5-on-5 his goals-for/on ice per 60 minutes…2.37.  Goals-against/on ice per 60 minutes?  Yup…2.37.  Goals-for/off ice per 60 minutes… 2.32.  Goals against/off ice per 60 minutes…2.32.  If you want to argue that you want a player in his position (a third liner) “breaking even” on goals for and against, fine.  But it’s hard to see where the difference was made, despite the goals.

The Big Question… “New Normal” or do I hear a clock striking midnight?

In setting a career high in goals last season Jason Chimera did so without the benefit of shooting efficiency that was far outside his career norm.  Coming into the 2011-2012 season his career shooting percentage was 9.03.  He finished the season at 9.76 percent on 205 shots.  The shot total was also a career high and was more than 50 shots higher than what had been his average per 82 games over his career coming into the season (153). 

Here is the odd number in those shot statistics.  Chimera’s 10.4 shots per 60 minutes of total ice time was not far off Alex Ovechkin’s 11.8.  By way of further comparison, Alexander Semin was next at 8.5 shots per 60 minutes of total ice time.  If you are thinking 20 goals might be the “new normal” for Jason Chimera, then 200 shots is going to have to be the new normal for him.  If normal, it certainly would be new since he has not averaged more than 9.1 shots per 60 minutes of ice time in any season before last year.  Exclusive of last season he has averaged 8.1 shots per 60 minutes of ice time over his career.  If he reverts to 8.1 shots per 60 minutes and shoots at 9.03 percent (his career average before last season) over the same 1,184 minutes he had last season he will be back to 14 goals.  It is a long way around the barn to say that the answer to the question is all about shots on goal.

In the end…

It is nice that Jason Chimera had a career year.  It is nice that he is the second-leading goal scorer from last season returning to the Capitals (Alexander Semin’s 21 goals having gone to Carolina).  It is not necessarily nice that he be counted on to duplicate either of those outcomes.  It seems unlikely that he will: a) duplicate last season’s 205 shots on goal, or b) match last season’s 9.76 percent shooting percentage (the second would be more likely to happen than the first). 

Chimera has established himself as a reliable third-line contributor with something of a flair for the dramatic (he tied for the team-lead in game-winning goals last season, and four of his seven playoff goals are game-winners).  Getting 20 goals again would certainly be a bonus and certainly not unwelcome, but having Jason Chimera finish as the second or third leading goal scorer on this team with that total probably would leave the team realizing less than a hoped for level of success.

Projection: 79 games, 15-18-33, plus-3

Photo: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images North America

If...


If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust your call when all fans doubt you,
And make no allowance for their doubting too;
If you can go to the video replay and not be tired by waiting for the video replay,
Or being vilified by television announcers, be oblivious to it,
Or being mocked by players, be oblivious to that, too,
And yet don't look too good, nor look good at all, for that matter:

If you can dream of being a regular official while the play is going on - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think of a regular pay check - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Blown Calls and Ignorance of the Rules
And treat those trivial things just the same;
If you can bear to hear the call you’ve made
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools (or Roger Goodell…same thing),
Or watch the calls you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your rulings
And risk it on one turn of video replay,
And have them reversed, and start again at the last line of scrimmage
And never breathe a word about your embarrassment,
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To watch the play long after the ball is snapped,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Holding…ten yards…still second down!'

If you can walk past angry fans and keep your virtue,
'Or walk with Kings (or team owners…same thing) - nor lose the common touch,
If neither fans nor livid players can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much (well, maybe the home team a little bit more);
If you can fill the unforgiving Sunday afternoon (or Monday night)
With sixty minutes' worth of whistles whistled,
Yours is the Game and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Replacement Referee, my son!


Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Washington Capitals 2012-2013 Previews -- Forwards: Troy Brouwer



Troy Brouwer

Theme: “Ease his pain...”
--The Voice


So there he was, almost five minutes into overtime.  He had already launched eight shots on goal, four of them on net.  He had just stepped onto the ice and made his way to the top of the crease in front of New York Ranger goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.  As he got there the puck came out to him – right on the tape of his stick, courtesy of Matt Hendricks who fed the puck out from behind the Ranger goal line.  With Lundqvist hugging the right post to keep Hendricks from walking out and tucking the puck in, Brouwer had the entire left side of the net beckoning to him…”shoot here.”

He did.

Sorta.

Brouwer chipped the puck up and over Lundqvist’s glove as the goalie sprawled across the blue paint of the crease.  But the aim was not true.  The puck floated past the far post and off the end boards, the Rangers dodging a bullet.  The Rangers would win that game in triple-overtime, 2-1, to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semi-final playoff series, a series the Rangers would win in seven games.

Troy Brouwer came to the Capitals in June 2011 from the Chicago Blackhawks in a trade for the Caps’ first round pick in the 2011 draft.  He came to the Caps with a reputation for being a tough as nails sort who would hit, chip in some goals, and provide the gritty kind of play that helped the Blackhawks win a Stanley Cup in 2010.  He was precisely as advertised.  In his last two seasons in Chicago, Brouwer averaged 19.5 goals, 38 points, 226 hits, and 41 blocked shots.  Last season with the Caps he had 18 goals, 33 points, 247 hits, and 60 blocked shots.  He tied for the team lead in game-winning goals (five).

What might not have been expected was that opponents managed to score in significant numbers with Brouwer on the ice.  He tied for a team-worst minus-15, and only Brooks Laich was on-ice for more goals scored against among Caps forwards.  Caps goaltenders had their worst 5-on-5 save percentage with Brouwer on the ice (.898).  The differential of goals scored against/on ice per 60 minutes to goals scored against/off ice per 60 minutes for Brouwer (-0.91) was the worst among the team’s forwards by far (numbers from behindthenet.ca).  His 2011-2012 season cleaved into an odd and distressing two-part year.  In the 2011 portion of the season Brouwer was 10-8-18, plus-1 in 37 games.  However, in the 2012 portion of the season he was 8-7-15, minus-16 in 45 games.  Not exactly the finishing kick one would have hoped for.

Fearless’ Take…

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

Cheerless’ Take…

Oh my God, you’re from the playoffs!  Hey, Terence Mann, Mr. Rink of Dreams …he missed!  But it’s not like Mr. Gap-Toothed Goal Scorer didn’t flub his own chance when Anton Stralman couldn’t stick a fork in the puck to settle it down, and then Alex Ovechkin pickpocketed him and shot it off the post with five minutes left in the first OT.

Guys?... we’ll get to Alex Ovechkin another time.  This is about Troy Brouwer.  Caps fans… they never forget.  Anyway…

The Big Question… At this stage of his career, does Troy Brouwer become a Knublian Force?

Up until now, Troy Brouwer has been a perfectly fine complementary player, averaging 17.2 goals per 82 games over a career than has spanned parts of six seasons. Last year’s 18-goal total was right in line with that level of performance.  But Brouwer might get a long look as the full-time top-line right winger on this Caps team.  It was a spot at which he logged significant minutes last season, but one had the impression the Caps could have or wanted to do better. 

At the moment, though, Brouwer might have the inside track to play on the right side on a line with Alex Ovechkin and whichever center – Nicklas Backstrom or Mike Ribeiro – is penciled into the middle of it.  And that presents Brouwer with an opportunity to let him find his inner “Knuble” – to be a guy who does the dirty work of clogging the crease and collecting garbage goals.  It was good enough for the departed Mike Knuble to record 53 goals in 148 games in his first two seasons with the Caps. 

Here is how that opportunity might be realized.  In his last three seasons covering a span of 239 games Brouwer has not had less than a 13.5 percent shooting percentage and has averaged 15.4 percent efficiency over those three seasons on a total of 371 shots.  In 82 games last season Brouwer recorded more than two shots in a game only 20 times.  He was also sixth among Caps forwards in even-strength and power play ice time.  If he gets a bit more ice time and more shooting opportunities in those situations as a product of a more permanent role as the top-line right wing, the shooting efficiency he has demonstrated over the past three years could pay dividends.

In the end…

Joe Juneau, David Steckel, Troy Brouwer.  All of them Capitals who had a chance to win playoff games in overtime and didn’t.  Juneau missed a penalty shot in the second of what would be four overtimes in a 3-2 loss to the Penguins in the 1996 playoffs.  He redeemed himself by scoring the overtime goal against the Buffalo Sabres two years later than sent the Caps to their first and, to date, only Stanley Cup final.  Steckel missed an open net in Game 5 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals against Pittsburgh shortly before the Penguins won a 4-3 decision, but he redeemed himself 48 hours later by scoring the overtime game-winner in Game 6 in Pittsburgh and pushing the series to a seventh game.

Brouwer searches for his redeeming moment.  That moment when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place, and the universe opens itself for a few seconds, to show you what is possible.

Projection: 82 games, 19-19-38, minus-2

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America