Sunday, December 18, 2011

Avs-Caps Recap and Thoughts on Value

As life becomes more hectic, posts become more sporadic. But after a (very) brief back and forth with Neil Greenberg (@ngreenberg, probably the best guy to follow for Caps stats) about Schultz's role on the team and trading, I felt compelled to say a bit more here.

For those of you who do not know, the Capitals lost to Colorado tonight 2-1. A couple quick thoughts on this before moving on to the rest:
  • McLeod, MacLeod, same dif. The point is, there can be only
    one (goal like that ever again or else I will get a sword and...)
    A lot of bloggers, fans, and game announcers called the first goal of the game, scored by the Avs' Cody McLeod from about five feet past the blue line, "fluky." I call it "Neuvirth needs to get his ass outta his head." (It's still ok to quote Boudreau and his staff, right?) That was pathetic, and if he had been paying any attention, maybe he would have put his glove up during the time it took that lob pass to make it him rather than waiting until it over his shoulder. A fluky goal banks off three players or a divot in the ice. That was a crap goal against a guy who has looked like little more than a crap goalie this season.
  • Glad to see Semin scored tonight, but it is unbelievable that it was only his sixth of the season. That puts him on a 16-17 goal pace. I cannot say enough times that I think Johansson is the wrong guy to center Sasha. Not a knock on MoJo, who I have generally been impressed with this season, but just looking at the reality that something is wrong here, and realizing that you can't force a pair or trio of players to be successful if their skillsets and styles simply do not mesh.
  • Knuble on the fourth line? Halpern playing wing on the second line? Halpern is a skilled guy. Knuble can grind it out with the best of them. But they don't belong where Hunter has put them recently. Neither has done poorly, mind you, but the team as a whole is not performing. The Avalanche and Jets are absolutely lesser teams that the Capitals should DOMINATE (yes, in capitals), not score a goal against in close, grinding games. Put the guys where they belong, where they have had success, and see that success return. Knuble belongs on the top line with Ovi and Backstrom. Halpern belongs on the fourth line centering Hendricks and another player. Play with the rest of the lineup as needed, but those five should be set in stone if you ask me, which I am assuming you did.
Ok, so what to do? The team, on paper, is a top-notch group of guys that should have no problem winning a cup. There are rookies and veterans, snipers and grinders, role players and elite talent. Our starting goalie is (was?) tied for the league lead in save percentage since the lockout. Leonsis has like ten dollars left to spend under the salary cap. Bruce Boudreau was fired when things took yet another turn. All the stops have supposedly been pulled out to win a Cup, and it has been the team's worst season in four years. A trade seems likely if nothing changes in the next week or two, but the way the team has performed, who would net anything of value?

The funny thing about value is that it's relative. There are a number of trades that appear to be "bad trades," but at the time they involved moving a player who simply did not work out with teammates, coaches, or both. I think that the Fleischmann trade was absolutely awful, for example, but Boudreau was clearly not going to give Flash the consistency and ice time that he needed to succeed. A point-per-game player for the Avs/Panthers and a useless bust of a defenseman for the Caps later, and it looks even worse. When a coach handicaps a player, or the talent on a team is such that a guy cannot be unleashed or properly utilized, it is probably best to move him sooner rather than later.

As bad as the team's record is, the fact remains that there is a lot of talent and a lot of money at all positions. I say move Jeff Schultz is the guy to move. I actually kind of like Schultz, and I think he can be a good d-man when he is paired with the right guy and the right system. But he has probably had one of the worst times adjusting to style changes since the Montreal series and last season's losing streak. Coach Hunter has benched him the past couple games in favor of (inferior player) John Erskine and (budding stud) rookie Dmitri Orlov. Mike Green isn't even in the lineup, and when he returns, someone else will have to be scratched or sent down to Hershey. Schultz also carries a not-insignificant cap hit of $2.75 million. Trading him for a draft pick simplifies a crowded blueline, frees up cap space, and hopefully gets Schultz some more NHL ice time. He has spent a lot of time on the top line with Mike Green during his stay in Washington, and he could fit in that role on a lot of other NHL teams. If he is not going to be used here, or if the style of play has changed so much that he is no longer a comfortable fit, I think it is best to move him now to help the team and help his career. Schultz's value in DC may have dropped as a result of the changes made over the last year, but he is still a valuable player in the league and should be able to net some decent value in terms of a second round draft pick and maybe a late round pick or prospect in a year that is supposed to have a strong draft.

Semin has been the name floated around in most rumors, and a year ago it made sense. When McPhee made the bone-headed move of giving him $6.7 million for this season, he skyrocketed Semin's face value. Any team looking to sign him has to determine if he is worth that much money while giving up something of value to the Capitals. At his current pace and level of play, he is not worth the money. That means that the Caps would not get $6.7 of value back in a trade, and would essentially be sending away a guy that has all the skill in the world, if not the desire, for someone that very likely does not have either. Not worth it for the team.

Then you have one of my favorite players: Mathieu Perreault. Perreault is a guy who is probably undervalued by the Capitals, and apparently especially by Hunter. His ice time has been absolutely pathetic, especially since Boudreau left. On a night when Cody Eakin was benched and Matt Hendricks had to sit five minutes for a fight, Perreault saw his lowest total ice time of the season, playing a measly 3:14, last on the team behind Hendy's 3:49. You better believe that there is a team out there aching for a young, hardworking forward that is in the top three for goals- and points-per-sixty minutes on his team. You also better believe that the Capitals would only get back in return what they value him at, and not what the other team would. However, much like Fleischmann, he would benefit greatly in his personal life if he was to be traded because he would surely see more ice time and greater development. But because he has the second-lowest cap hit of any forward on the team, and only if you include Jay Beagle, and because he would net very little in return, trading MP85 would be a pretty stupid move.

All of the players have fans, and all of them have value. They will not all be here when the trade deadline rolls around. Hopefully McPhee bucks his past trends of lousy trades and figures out how to properly judge value on the team under Hunter, and is able to extract the same or greater value from another GM. My vote is for Schultz, and to a lesser extent Erskine, who is a guy I think fits in between Sarge and Perreault on my makeshift value scale. Who is yours?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Caps @ Cats Recap, 12/5/11

Two-post night for me, so pardon the brevity of each. Not a whole lot of leadup necessary for my thoughts, so here they are:
  • Michal Neuvirth is looking more like the goalie I thought he was. Five goals against tonight, a couple of which he definitely should have had and three in the first period, continue a pretty terrible season for him so far. Not to say he didn't make some nice saves, but every goalie does every night, that's why they are in the NHL. He continues to bite way too hard when shooters skate wide, leaving waaayy too much of the net open behind him (See Goal #5 for reference), and falls into his butterfly position too early. The other teams are on to him, shoot for the top-right, and you'll probably score (See goals 1, 2, 3, and 5 for reference). Dave Prior is not working out as a good replacement for Arturs Irbe, who actually replaced Prior in the first place...
  • Jason Chimera continues his best-ever season, and putting him with Brooks Laich and Joel Ward looks like a genius move more and more as the season goes on. The offense is still there on the team, it just isn't where we thought it was. Then again, we knew Laich could score, that Chimera could skate, and that Ward had it in him (at least in one playoff series), so maybe this all should not be as surprising as it has been. So at least there is one bright spot on the team.
  • John Carlson had a helluva night, himself. Eight shots on net, three assists, a +3, and 26:04 of ice time. Wideman, too, had a helluva night, just not in quite the same way. Team-leading 29:00 of ice time, including 5:29 of shorthanded time on a night that saw three PPG against, two shots on net, no points, and a -1. Wideman, at times, has looked like a valuable addition to the team, and I honestly think he is, but a healthy Mike Green will lessen the burden on Wideman and allow him to be put back in his comfort zone.
  • Speaking of what'll happen when Mike Green comes back, count me among those that hope it does not involve sending Dmitri Orlov back down to Hershey. His puck-handling skills are absolutely incredible, as is his willingness to lay into the other team and contribute to the offense, adding his third assist in eight game tonight. Carlson, Alzner, Green, and Wideman are likely all guaranteed spots when #52 returns, and Hamrlik will likely keep his sweater, too. It might be time to move Schultz or Erskine to make room for #81. Definitely a situation to watch in the coming weeks.
  • Have to give credit where it is due: the Weiss-Fleischmann-Versteeg line continued to show just how dominant they are, with each player finishing a plus-one on the night. Weiss had three points with two on the PP, and Fleischmann assisted on Weiss' second goal of the night, which ended up as the game winner. Fleischmann, a former capital and "failed" 2C experiment, has been a point-per-game player since being traded out of Washington last season, earning 49 points in 49 games as of tonight. I, for one, always thought that if he played some solid minutes that he would perform, and I am happy to see that he is doing both these days. I would still rather the Caps won, but part of that is proper player management. I don't care what some of the more popular Washington bloggers say, moving Flash was a mistake, and I think the continued problems on the second line are evidence that the team is still paying for it. Here's hoping those issues are resolved sooner rather than later.
So the Capitals are now 1-3 under new coach Dale Hunter, allowing more than two goals for the first time, and against the team currently leading their division. Hunter was brought in, presumably, to make some changes. So far, I'm not sure that many have been made. I hope tonight was more of a fluke in a new system than more of the same from the old one, but the Caps should be a lot better than this. There is still time to right the ship, but losing division games is not a good way to start the healing. Next up, another game against Ottawa on Wednesday. Hopefully the boys can get Hunter his first regulation win and his first road win in the same game.

Early Thoughts on Realignment

It has been reported on Twitter tonight that the NHL Board of Governors has agreed on a four-conference realignment to being next season. Here are your new conferences:

Conference 1: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Los Angeles, San Jose, Anaheim, Colorado, Phoenix
Conference 2: Winnipeg, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Columbus, Dallas, Minnestoa
Conference 3: Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, Buffalo, Florida, Tampa Bay
Conference 4: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, NY Rangers, NY Islanders, New Jersey, Carolina, Washington

Let me start off by saying that I am not a fan of the four conference/division split solely because it will require an overhaul of the current NHL playoff format, and the Stanley Cup Playoffs is probably the best playoff series in sports today. That being said, a lot of this makes sense. A lot does not. Conference 1 makes the most sense, keeps the west coast teams together, and really spreads out the travel requirements pretty evenly. I have issues with the rest. I would like to say that just swapping Columbus and Carolina would make a lot of sense, but that ignores Conference 3. I don't know what map they were looking at during the meetings, but having both Florida teams in a conference with three Canadian teams and two New England teams seems off. Here is how I would attempt to create a bit more common sense:

Conference 1: As is
Conference 2: Winnipeg, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas, Minnesota, Dallas
Conference 3: Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, Buffalo, Columbus, NY Rangers
Conference 4: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, NY Islanders, New Jersey, Carolina, Washington, Tampa Bay, Florida

You still end up with two 8-team and two 7-team conferences, but the travel schedules make a little bit more sense. Dallas will have one less northern city to travel to by removing Columbus. The Rangers are reunited with three of the other Original Six teams, and Columbus is in a conference that makes a lot more geographic sense. Conference 4 essentially becomes a mash-up of the Atlantic and Southeast conferences, building on some already fairly strong rivalries and requiring a good bit less travel for the Florida teams. If the NHL is going to embrace some radical changes, let's try to make those changes work for everyone.

Old is new all over again.
Either way, in terms of the Caps, more games against the Penguins and Flyers means more fire for the rekindling of old Patrick Division rivalries. Really, I think Capitals fans might get the best end of the stick out of anyone in this realignment, as the Conference 4 teams feature a lot of rivalries, top-notch teams, and budding young talent. It will certainly be an exciting year for mid-Atlantic puckheads, that's for sure.

A lot of teams will be helped by the ratings, especially the southern teams and Columbus. Dallas, too, gets a bit of a break by being away from the Pacific Division teams. I would love to hear people's thoughts on this. To date, I have not had a single comment on any of my posts, and I think this one is prime fodder for a little debate amongst my few readers. So, comment away!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Cap - Pens Recap, 12/1/11

Been a minute since I wrote a recap, but I had to make sure to write one for this game. First time Crosby has led the Penguins against the Capitals in 11 months, and new head coach Dale Hunter has had a few days with the team to try and prepare them. Before I dive into my thoughts on the game, though, I just want to say congratulations to Bruce Boudreau on landing that coaching gig in Anaheim already. I was admittedly surprised he got the call so soon, and that he got the job the same night that the Ducks won a game, but I fully expected Anaheim to be his new home by the end of this year. As much as I ragged on him and called for him to be fired, I was still a little sad to see him go. After all, the team was its most successful in its history, let alone since my childhood, under his watch. Caps-Ducks games were my favorite ones to watch these past couple seasons, and I can only hope for a Stanley Cup matchup this year. I expect Gabby to be a great fit with the team and that they will have a lot of success together. Kudos to Bruce, good luck to him and his family as they adjust to a whole new part of the country, and hopefully we'll see him at Verizon Center before the start of the next season. Now, here are my five thoughts on tonight's game:

Soooo I go over there, skate left, then to the middle, and shoot?
  • As a certain Great One said: "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." That was the story of the night for our boys in red, being held to a season-low 17 shots on goal, with only two of them in the third period. Hunter has his work cut out for him, because this kind of crap has been going on for far too long now with a team that features Alexes Ovechkin and Semin, Nick Backstrom, John Carlson, Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, and Marcus Johansson. We get it, you all miss Mike Green and he is a big part of getting the offense going. But he is not that big a part of the team that these guys can't even get shots on the net. Completely unacceptable, and I am sure that our new blue-suited coach will address it quite loudly in practice.
  • On the
    I know this photo is overused, but it is just so good...
    flip side of things, the Penguins were credited with 35 shots on goal, scoring on only two of them. Tonight, Vokoun looked like the goalie we all know him to be. Part of that was the all-around defensive play of the team, as the majority of those shots were low percentage chances from the outside. Crosby had 3 shots, Malkin had 7, neither had any points and Crosby even finished a -1. For about 90% of the night, I'd say stellar job limiting Pittsburgh's chances.
  • As has been the case with many a Washington team, the Capitals seem unable to catch a break, and seemingly must pay for every mistake made. Other teams have the occasional defensive breakdown or imperfect play and don't get scored on, but not our Caps. Both goals against came as a result of poor play by the guys in front of Vokoun. On goal #1, Vokes had no chance of making the save, because he played the puck and players perfectly. Schultz, on the other hand, has to stop that puck from getting across the crease, and Orlov has to be in tighter on his man under Dale Hunter's system. Schultz is cementing the idea that his +50 season was one of the all-time flukes in recent NHL memory, and is a prime candidate to ride the pine pony when Green returns. On the second goal, Eakin has to keep from turning over the puck, Johansson has to prevent Kennedy from keeping the puck and getting around him, and Erskine has to do better at being the last line of defense on what was essentially a 1-on-3. Carlson was not totally without blame, as he could have come in more, and Vokoun proooobably should have stopped that one, but it never should have progressed as far as it did in the first place.
  • Hits, hits, hits. Holy crap were there some hits. Hunter is making his influence known, as the Caps threw around their big bodies to the tune of 43 hits tonight. Ovechkin in particular was laying people out, looking a bit more like his old self in terms of physicality and speed. Washington has a lot of big players, and may be one of the biggest teams in the league. If they can keep this intimidating style of play up and rekindle their scoring touch, I will feel a lot better about this team.
  • I love
    Woooo! Who would have thought I'd be the go-to guy for goals?!
    being proven wrong about this team, mostly because I am such a pessimist when it comes to the Caps. Chimera, along with his linemates, has been an absolute joy to watch this season. A team-leading (!!??!?) 10 goals after tonight, the work of blazing speed and hard workalong the boards. This is the guy McPhee thought he was signing two years ago, and the work that Laich and Ward have done on what has to be the most expensive third line in the NHL is just great. All three are shutting down the opposition and adding crucial offense. This was the best thing that Boudreau left behind, and may be the only part of the forward lines that does not need to be touched. Congrats on reaching last year's goal total in just over 1/4 the time, Chimmer, and keep up the good work, Meat-n-Potatoes line.
  • BONUS THOUGHT! I love the youth and depth that Washington has, and the three guys I am keeping an eye on are Cody Eakin, Mathieu Perreault, and Dimitri Orlov. Orlov has looked incredible for a kid playing in his first handful of NHL games, absolutely embarrassing a few guys with his stick handling and hits. He has made some rookie mistakes, but overall I like his play a lot more than I like Schultz or Erskine's, or even Hamrlik's right now. I hope to see a few more games with him in the lineup, but as of right now I kind of hope he is here for good. Eakin, on the other hand, impressed early but has faltered as of late. He has gotten a much better shot at this lineup than Perreault has, despite starting the year off in Hershey. His ice time has gone up and he has played on the second line more often than not, but he looks as though he may just not be ready for the big time, even if he is on the cusp. A year with the Bears would do him a lot of good, and I think the organization would be better served by making that move sooner rather than later. Perreault has always been one of my favorite guys to watch, as he can be very speedy and tricky as the team's smallest player. Unfortunately, he just has not been given a consistent shot at staying in DC, all the while being attacked for his perceived "inconsistency." I have been saying this since he first got back-to-back healthy scratches, but how many other fourth liners set a 40-point pace? Halpern and Hendricks have suffered without him on their line, and the team as a whole has done a lot worse without him than with. If I am not mistaken (and correct me if I am), but he was the last player to be on ice for a goal against on the team. I hope he gets ice time and has the opportunity to show Hunter what he can do, but if not I hope he demands a trade as he absolutely should be playing in the NHL right now. 
Tonight marked the first time since before Dan Bylsma started coaching the Pens that Washington lost to Pittsburgh in regulation, but it had to come sometime. Two-thirds of the team's game seemed to be there, with very solid goaltending and a consistent and physical defensive effort. Nobody expected Hunter to turn this team around immediately, but back-to-back 2-1 losses show some early returns. Add in some offense, and the fans can breathe a little easier, not to mention McPhee. Looking forward to what you can do, Dale.

Monday, November 28, 2011

This Is Only A Tribute

Assuming you have your ass outta your head, you have heard by now that Bruce Boudreau is out as the guy behind the bench in Washington, and former player Dale Hunter is in as coach. Hunter has been coaching the OHL's London Knights for the past 11 years, a team that he and his brother bought shortly before he took over those duties. In that time, he reached 300 wins faster than any other OHL coach, and is the winningest coach in the league's history. This is in addition to the fact that he is one of only four Caps players to ever have their numbers retired, had a 19-year career in the NHL, and that he desperately wants a Stanley Cup. As McPhee has said in his presser, "this is the only team he has ever wanted to coach, he has had other opportunities." I would say that I was not one to say "I told you so" if that was true... so let me just remind you that I told you so (albeit in a half-joking way). But there will be more time for Hunter talk later, especially after a tough first week against a hot St. Louis Blues (who also made a coaching change), the Penguins (now with rejuvenated superstar Sidney Crosby), and a game against the Southeast Division leading Florida Panthers on Monday following the "easy game" against the Ottawa Senators. For now, Boudreau is the man of the day, and here are my thoughts and memories of the man, the coach, the foul-mouthed legend.

When Glen Hanlon was let go four years ago, it was an AHL coach with some recent success that took his spot. "Gabby," as they called him, went on to take the team from last place to first in the division, bowing out in the first round of the playoffs in a year when most thought even making it would be impossible, and winning the Jack Adams award for best coach of the year. Budding superstar Alex Ovechkin went on to score 65 goals that season. The lineup was far from perfect, but it looked like better days were to come.

The following season played out like one would expect. Another division title, this one a little less hard fought as the Caps. They finished second in the conference, won the first round of the playoffs, and lost to the eventual Cup-winning Penguins in a 7-game series widely considered to be one of the best in league history. Things were only looking better after that, when Boudreau led the team to their first ever President's Trophy for having the best record in the league. Unfortunately, it only took a couple weeks for the first signs that something was wrong to show up, when the team lost in the first round to eighth-seeded Montreal. Questions persisted and dogged Boudreau from that point forward, as it seemed that series defined his career and coaching style for the remainder of his tenure in Washington. Lineup changes were made repeatedly in game, goalies were rotated constantly, and playing styles were tweaked and overhauled on more than one occasion. Last season Boudreau likely came to the brink during an eight game losing streak, and may have actually been saved by the HBO cameras watching every move, including the end of that streak. After being swept in the second round by the Lightning, it appeared that Bruce's time might be up, but McPhee gave him the vote of confidence before making several roster changes. However, after going 7-0-0 to start the 2011-2012 season, all the wheels seemed to fall off, capped by a horrible 5-1 loss to a Buffalo Sabres team half-comprised of minor leaguers. The time for a change was upon McPhee, and he made the right call. Boudreau out, Hunter in.

Boudreau, mind you, experienced success that few, if any, coaches ever have, so long as you include the qualifier that all that success was in the regular season. He was the fastest coach to reach 200 wins, although that included 50 OT and SO wins, and he has the best winning percentage of any coach since his first day on the job. Boudreau is, or at least can be, an excellent coach with the right players. That much was evident in his first two or three seasons in the NHL, not to mention his regular season record. Unfortunately for Bruce, the moves that McPhee made in the off-season likely doomed his DC coaching gig. Players like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, Green... those are Boudreau's kind of players. Brouwer, Ward, Hamrlik, Vokoun... not as much. Boudreau will find success with another team, and I do expect it to be soon. Teams like Anaheim and Columbus are underperforming right now despite a lot of offensive talent, and BB could easily find a home with either, or another team that isn't even on the radar right now. There are always teams with untapped talent that just need a new voice, the right voice, and guys like Boudreau will always be in demand for just that reason.

We have to thank Bruce Boudreau for the good times, the records, the wins, the four years of excitement and getting the team to a place where anything less than ultimate success is considered a failure. When a team is at a spot where a coach with Bruce's win-loss record gets fired, they are in a good place. At the same time, we have to thank McPhee for letting him go in the hopes that things will advance. This is a business, and coaches in this league are not expected to last forever. The good ones find work again, and soon. Don't feel too bad for Boudreau yet, he will be fine. I, and I am sure all the fans, wish him the best of luck moving forward. Haagen-Dazs is headquartered in Oakland, CA, so Anaheim would work out beautifully.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Where Do We Go From Here?

Well I had planned to make my return with a recap of last night's game. Finally switched TV carriers so now I can actually watch all the games, and DVR them in situations where I am not able to be home, like last night. I made it through the first two periods of my own personal re-broadcast, and just couldn't bear to finish. While I honestly do not think the team as a whole played as bad as everyone says they did through those first two, it certainly was not what you want to see. Gustavsson made some huge saves with the Caps on the PP, and a lot of the goals came down to all-around awful play by Schultz, Erskine looking totally lost/being slow/screening the goalie, and a rare piss-poor performance from Backstrom in his own end. The rest of the team has had better games and worse games, but I think the loss can pretty much be pinned on those three. Big picture, though, this is the seventh regulation loss in 11 games since going 7-0-0, and fourth straight loss for the team. Washington currently sits at 8th in the Eastern Conference, thanks to holding a couple tiebreakers with the New Jersey Devils, who are in ninth with the same 10-7-1 record. Something needs to change, but what?

As I, Steven Hindle, and others pointed out early on, that winning streak was really masking a plethora of issues facing the team. Some fans may still be deluding themselves into believing that the past 11 games are the anomalous ones of the season and that it is all still just some bad luck and injuries, but the real truth of it is more likely that the first seven games were the anomaly and a factor of good luck and other teams' injuries. Some people may recognize my twitter handle as the one claiming on July 1 that he would take $20 dollar bets that the Caps wouldn't finish above 7th in the Conference so long as Boudreau was coaching and no other big changes were made. That was before the Vokoun signing, granted, and that certainly was a big move that changed things in my eyes. But apparently not enough. So what are the big issues the team is facing, and what errors have Boudreau and McPhee made? Well since you're here, I'm assuming you care what my thoughts are on those matters, so here they are:
  • Much better by the Comcast sign than by the faceoff dot.
    First things first, let me say that I was at least half-wrong about Johansson coming into this season. I am very impressed with his overall play, and I think he may become a legitimately consistent scoring threat over the course of the season. I was practically screaming on Twitter and Facebook, and literally in my apartment, for him to be sent down to Hershey last year just so he could develop and prepare for this season without being a liability. I refuse to join the cavalcade of the deluded who think that he had anything better than a mediocre rookie outing, but consider me a converted fan of his this year. All that being said, Boudreau is still using him absolutely wrong. I really don't care what his scouting report said, he is not defensively-minded or skilled enough to play on the PK, or to center one of the top two lines. Aside from the much-talked about beauty of a pass to Brouwer in one game, he has proved a relatively ineffective setup man, and I think that is the real reason that Semin has struggled so mightily to score this year. In no rational human being's mind is he anywhere approaching the talent of his countryman Backstrom, and as such MoJo should never even sniff the first line. He's good, but not that good. He is also a lousy center. His faceoff wins have been a little better as of late, but he is still worst on the team. He plays and skates like a winger, just put him there. The real success for him will come when Boudreau stops trying to play him as a top-two center and he is allowed to focus more on using his breakout speed down the boards.
  • Cody Eakin is obviously a skilled player, and I am overjoyed to have him in the Capitals organization, and I want him on the team... in 2012-2013. He has played well enough in his few games, and I will not bash him as a player, but his presence on the team is a symptom of greater issues. Boudreau and McPhee both seem to have their favorite players, and their players who will always be in the doghouse. One of the most polarizing players in years past was Tomas Fleischmann, and he has been nearly a point-per-game player since being traded after being shuffled around the lineup and benched repeatedly by Boudreau. I expect a healthy Eric Fehr to be a similar player later on this season. I point them out because they are highly skilled players that saw moderate success in Washington, but still got shuffled around and bad ice time. The Caps seem insistent on solving problems that don't exist while ignoring the most glaring issues. Mathieu Perreault has done all that has been asked of him this season. He is scoring .5 points per game while averaging only 10 minutes of ice time on the fourth line. Put that in perspective: when was the last time the Capitals had a 40+ point scorer on the fourth line? Cody Eakin has taken Perreault's spot on the roster in that Perreault is benched, but the real demotion went to Mike Knuble,a perennial 20-goal scorer. Eakin has primarily played on the second line alongside Johansson and Semin,getting roughly the same number of minutes that Perreault got.
    Cody Eakin takes "Rock the Red" waaaaay too seriously.
    His PPG is also clocking in at one every other game, but with more assists and with a better spot on the roster. There is absolutely no reason for Perreault to be sitting on the bench, and there is even less reason for the Capitals to start any rookies this year. It's time to win, not time to train new guys for NHL play. Do it next year when you have to clear up cap space. Eakin, Galiev, Kuznetsov, and Orlov are shining stars for the future, but let's keep the focus for the team on the present. McPhee and Boudreau need to grasp that lesson before the team can progress further. They've done a good job of laying the groundwork for future success, but now is the time to focus on this season.
  • The line-shuffling has to stop. If Boudreau wants to keep his job, he needs to do less, not more. I have been saying this for over a year, and the call from other fans is growing louder, too. Look around the league, what other championship caliber teams are throwing out 20 different line combinations a night? Just because the team is losing, or because a line has a bad shift or even a bad couple of games, does not mean that things are not working. It is still mind-boggling that Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Knuble were broken up this year. If Boudreau did not have faith that Knuble could carry his own in a contract year, then he should have gone to McPhee and told him to shop the big guy around. Brouwer and Ward are not replacements for Knuble on the top line. Brouwer just is not the crease presence that Knuble is, and it is a shame that Ovechkin has had to try and take that job on for himself. Stick to what works more often than not, Bruce. 8-19-22 has been one of the league's best lines for a couple seasons, don't fix what ain't broke. Some say that Boudreau is being a hard-liner and a tactician with his lineups, I say he is panicking. He does not seem to know how to handle loss. I've read a lot that the players do not know how to handle adversity - I think it's the coach that can't deal. This lineup, on paper, is filled with some of the best talent the league has to offer, some of the fastest skaters, hardest grinders, best scorers, solid defensemen, and quality goaltending. But when a player doesn't know who is going to be on his left side next game or next period, or even that he will still be playing on the right side, it will cause issues. Carlson and Alzner embody this more than most, and especially Carlson. Alzner pretty much always knows what his job is and where to be as a shutdown guy, but the big reason these two are so successful together is that they have almost always played alongside each other. They know where the other guy will be without asking, without looking, and they feel confident. The big word this season has been accountability, and it needs to be dropped. Forget accountability, this team needs consistency. A consistent coaching style, a consistent lineup. Changes can/will/should be made from time to time, but with a team this good, only after several games of ineptitude, not a shift where they allow a goal because of one mistake. McPhee added a lot of new pieces this year, and shipped out familiar ones, give the guys time to adjust, and success will come.
  • Let Ovi be Ovi, but help him grow, too. Ovechkin is not a 19-minutes-or-less talent. Players don't get better by playing less. As Ovi would say: "Nobody ever got better at hockey by bowling. More practice for you." I am not saying he should be playing 26 minutes a game, but 22 sure sounds about right. When you want to win, you want your best guys playing and working the other team. Ovechkin is not going to score more, or be more defensive, or any of that other stuff by getting five or more fewer shifts a game. Make him work for it, though. I'm a big fan of putting him on the penalty kill. Want his defensive and two-way game to get better? Put him in the situations where it matters most. There are no questions about whether this
    Sasha Smiles all around! Let's see some more moments like this.
    Russian Alex cares, we all know he does. Give him more five-on-five time, and throw him in for a few PK shifts a game. Playing a guy like him less just makes him more anxious, gives him more time to get into his own head about scoring, and pushes his focus into one area of hisgame. I guarantee you he does not get benched and think to himself "Ok, next shift I won't try to score and instead I'll create an open lane for Jason Chimera to skate through." If Ovechkin is not put into situations where he has to be defensive minded, he will not have to grow in that area of his game. Boudreau, more than Ovi himself, is pigeon-holing the captain into one role. Get and keep him off the point on the PP, give him some PK time, and never ever split him and Backstrom up at 5-on-5 play. Give the guy some room to breathe and he will bounce back and mature.
  • As for McPhee: make a trade or two when you can. Right now, McPhee has absolutely screwed himself and the team. Semin never should have gotten $6.7 million for this season, Erskine should never have gotten an extension, and Schultz should never have gotten as much money as he did. Now, when the team may need to make an early trade most, they are unable to do so. No team is going to want to give up a top defenseman (which I honestly do not think the team needs right now) or a top-two center (which I think the team desperately requires) for an underperforming penalty-taking machine with character issues like Semin, especially at that price. Erskine is at best a number six defenseman on a good team, and still can't crack the top four on a basement-level squad. Right now, he is still the team's best shot at a trade because he has not gotten much better or worse in the past year, and because the team has other players to fill his spot. Problem is that he will not yield much in return. But if McPhee can trade him away sooner rather than later for a 4th or 5th round pick, that'll free up some cap space, and maybe Schultz can be moved with a pick for an upgrade at the blue line, assuming Sarge ever picks up his game a bit. Then again, if Sarge picks up his game, the team should not need to move him or add another d-man. Carlson, Alzner, Green, Wideman, Hamrlik, and Schultz should be more than enough talent to put together a responsible defensive corps, but moving Erskine should still be a top priority if only to free up another $1.5 mil in cap space. Down the line, if Semin picks up his game, trade him away for a top centerman. Ideally, I'd say look to Columbus and Jeff Carter. He cannot be happy there and would surely be happy to waive his no-trade clause, they need a scorer, and his style of play would fit in perfectly on the Capitals second line. In a fantasy world, this trade is great on paper, but I know it will never happen.
What does this all mean, then? In my humble (Not-so-humble? Arrogant, even? You decide.) opinion, give Boudreau one more month. If he can turn back the clock, get his team playing consistently by being consistent himself, if the team can get back to winning and the Alexes start scoring again, if Perreault sees more ice time and Eakin gets a chance to grow in Hershey, then keep him. If not, time to boot the guy. I do not know who could replace him, but I hear that Dale Hunter has taken to a little minor-league coaching recently, and I'm sure he knows a thing or two about playing good hockey. McPhee needs to make a move within the next month, though, and I'm not talking about call-ups. If a day goes by where GMGM is not on the phone with another GM in the next month, Leonsis needs to start asking some questions himself. I really do think this team can win, and my bleak July predictions were only because I do not have the faith in Boudreau and McPhee to show me that they know how to properly manage this incredible roster. So far, they have done nothing to prove me wrong. I want them to, just like Johansson has. But if they can't, hockey is as much a business as everything else and the dead weight needs to be cut off before it drags the whole club down to the depths. Can't worry about making it out of the second round if you can't make it to the first, fellas. So Rock the Red and get back to scoring four goals a game like two years ago while allowing two like you did last year. The talent is there, the players are there, and 90% of them are doing their jobs. Time for Boudreau to earn his keep.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Lessons from the Western Conference

The Capitals just finished playing four Western Conference opponents in a row. Two home games against Detroit and Anaheim sandwiched a Canadian road trip to Edmonton and Vancouver. These four games revealed a lot about our boys in red, likely because these teams weren't exactly low-class organizations. Detroit has been one of, if not the most successful franchises over the past 15 years. Vancouver has been to the Western Conference what the Caps have been to the Eastern, only with a seven game Cup Finals appearance last season. Anaheim boasts what might be the best top line in hockey, including current MVP and Richard Trophy winner Corey Perry, as well as a top-notch goaltender in Jonas Hiller. Edmonton was probably viewed as the weakest opponent, but they have a budding group of talented young players including Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and are currently allowing the fewest goals against per game. In short, these were games to watch. Here are some takeaways:
  1. The offense is there. The Caps scored seven, one, four, and five goals, respectively. That's 4.25 goals per game, helping them lead the league in that particular category. After last year, it is nice to be reminded that the team is still capable of putting them in the back of the net. Backstrom in particular is at the top of his offensive game, posting his best numbers after 10 games.The offense is definitely boosted by the league's third-best power play, which is clicking at a 23.7% success rate.
  2. When it comes to the PK, we suck again. In my opinion, the most impressive thing about last season wasn't dropping the average shots against per game by 1.9 shots, it was the consistently awesome penalty kill. Well, something happened and now it is back to pedestrian-at-best. Through ten games, the Caps rank 25th, posting only a 75% penalty kill percentage. Given how much of the team's penalty killer carried over from last year, this is unacceptable. Losing Gordon, Bradley, and Hannan to gain Halpern, Ward, and Hamrlik should be an upgrade, or at least a wash. Hopefully this is just a symptom early season adjustments and things turn around soon, but there is definitely cause for concern.
    Look we all know they can do eet,
    so let's see those penalties killed.
  3. They are capable of solid defense. Anaheim is a very solid team, with some great offensive players. Holding them to only 15 shots through 63 minutes is impressive, even if four goals were allowed. "Capable of" just needs to translate into "always playing." The team is allowing far too many shots against, and Vokoun has bailed out the team more often than the other way around. The talent and ability is there, it just needs to be there consistently.
  4. Ride that Vespa all you want, just stay
    healthy and we will pretend you don't.
  5. Mike Green is even more important than we thought. And a lot of people thought he was pretty important. Green has really shaped up his defensive game over the past two years, and his upper body at least has been healthy, and his offensive touch has returned this year. Losing him to a twisted ankle for the past couple showed how important he is on the power play, and how effective he has become at the defensive part of his game. He's definitely playing like it's a contract year. Because, and don't forget it, it is.
  6. Faceoffs are an issue. Backstrom and Laich have been struggling lately on the dot, and Johansson, frankly, just sucks at faceoffs. Halpern has been great, as expected, and Perreault has performed admirably, perhaps more unexpectedly. One center being poor is fine, as is the occasional game where everybody blows, but a pattern of weakness down the middle can lead to problems for everyone. I think the first step is to move MoJo to wing and continue to 2C search. I know I sound like a broken record, but if anything his performance in Vancouver sealed it for me: the guy looks and plays like a winger, and a fairly good one at that. Get him off the dot and everyone wins.
  7. Sasha really may not care. Alexander Semin has two goals and four assists through 10 games, is tied with Hamrlik for a team-worst -2, and leads the team with 12 PIMs. Only one of those points, an assist, came in the last five games. Personally, I think that Johansson and Knuble
    His attempt at showing how much he cares.
    are not appropriate linemates for him, which hurts his point total. In fact, all three of them have six points right now. Johansson has five goals and an assist, while Knuble has the same 2-4-6 line as Semin. The difference is, they are bout +1. The penalties and plus/minus are on Semin,as the blame really can't be placed elsewhere. He is too talented to be playing the way he is, which is to say uninspired. He had a strong start to the season, and has done little to challenge the prevailing wisdom that was so "controversially" said aloud by ex-teammate Matt Bradley and seconded by Dave Steckel this summer. Hard to say he is trade bait with his recent performance and contract, but he sure isn't looking like the guy to re-sign. Dude needs to step it up unless he wants to feel Boudreau's wrath. Or not. Who cares?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Caps-Ducks Recap

Power outages and FCC blackout regs have left me with a broken ability to watch all of the past three games, which is why I haven't done a recap lately. But I was able to see all but ten minutes of the second period tonight, so here ya go. My five thoughts on tonight's game:
  • I don't know who was
    Personally, I think he is a Highlander. Ageless Scandinavian
    guy in peak physical condition? Just saying, don't be
    surprised when they find him headless in an alley or mountaintop.
    better tonight, the Caps' third line or Teemu Selanne. That's a lie, the ageless wonder was of course better (two goals and an assist, just an incredible player), but the meat-and-potatoes line looked damn good after a couple games of looking not-so-much. Combining for one goal and seven points overall, Laich, Ward, and Chimera all finished +3 to boot. If I had to pick my three stars, it'd be Selanne, M-n-P Line, and Backstrom. Backstrom, of course, got the 6-on-5 game-tying goal at the end of regulation, and then potted the winner in OT. He's obviously woken up this year and is back to form (other than those pesky faceoffs). I'm feeling good about Ovi and Backstrom this year.

    • While nobody was surprised that Boudreau did his line change shuffle tonight, seeing Knuble on the fourth line and the Carlson-Alzner pairing broken up was pretty surprising. It's been weird enough, for me at least, to see number 22 on the second line this season, but the fourth line? Man, I thought Perreault didn't belong down there. Thankfully, by the end of the game Knuble had moved back up the ranks and even got ice time with his old pals Backstrom and Ovechkin. Boudreau may have wanted to shake things up tonight, but all that really happened was he confused players by putting them with unfamiliar linemates. Just like the old days.
    • Roman Hamrlik was signed in the offseason to bring a veteran presence to the blueline,someone who could block shots, generate offense when needed, mentor the kids, and generally be one of the most defensively responsible guys on the ice. So hopefully there won't be many (any?) more games like this one. Playing a part in the first few goals scored against, with some saying he deserved some assists on the Anaheim goals, he finished with no points or shots on goal and a team worst -3, despite having the third-most ice time behind Wideman and Carlson. Hammer needs to put tonight behind him, shore up his game, and move on. But still. Yikes.
    • Defensive breakdowns and bad communication early on gave the Ducks an early 2-0 lead, and really none of the four goals Anaheim scored could be blamed on Vokoun (which is the kind of thing I don't say very often at all), and could probably be blamed on Boudreau as much as the players. Despite that, the Caps showed some of their best defensive play this season, holding the highly skilled Ducks to a mere 15 shots (6-5-4-0 by period). Not good for Vokoun's stats, but good news for the team. That effort, with a healthy Mike Green and familiarity amongst linemates again, is what they needed to carry over from last year.
    • On the opposite end of the ice, Jonas Hiller allowed five goals on 40 shots (9-12-18!-1 by period). They weren't all pretty, but that is still five goals for the league's leading offense, giving them an even 4.00 goals-for average. That's the kind of play they need to carry over from 09-10. Put 'em together and whaddya got? Bippity-boppity-winning. 
     Your Washington Capitals are now 8-2-0 through the first ten games of the season. It hasn't always been pretty, with four of those games decided in OT or the shootout, the ugly game in Vancouver, and the return of PK woes, but you don't have to win pretty for it to count in the end. I'll have more tomorrow on my thoughts of what lessons can be learned from these games, but for now, let's revel in the fact that the Caps are leading the league in point percentage and are perfect at Verizon Center. Let's keep winning, boys. And, of course, here are your highlights:

    Wednesday, October 26, 2011

    Maybe I Was Wrong...

    ...but it is still too soon to tell. While the Caps have been the most dominant team in the league so far (see Steven Hindle's article for some more details on exactly where the team ranks in different areas), they have not even played 10% of the regular season. Everyone (who is expected to get significant ice time, that is) is healthy, and the competition has either been weak or not at their best. The Flyers are the most glaring exception to this, and that win should be the shining star of this October. Carolina and Tampa Bay are weaker team than they were last year, and while the Panthers are somewhat better, they are still the Panthers. The win in Detroit was a sign of what this team can look like when all cylinders are firing, but they were playing their second game in as many days, on the road, and with their backup goalie in net. The 7-0 start is absolutely impressive regardless of any qualifiers, and it would be impressive even if it was seven straight home games against the Blue Jackets and Jets. However, those qualifiers are still there, are still worth looking at, and do still leave some questions unanswered. This post, though, looks at some of my opinions that may result in me eating my words.
    1. Marcus Johansson should not be the second line center: He has four goals in six games, having been a healthy scratch on opening night due to his sub-par preseason play, including three game winners. All four goals came in the first period. His goal against the Red Wings was the furthest away from the net he had been for any goal. Two wrap-arounds and two hard-angle shots have gotten him off to a hot start. So you know what? I am sticking to my claim here. His primary linemates, Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble, have scored one goal each with MoJo in the lineup, and he did not assist on either one. He has been absolutely horrible at winning faceoffs, posting a team-worst 37.5% while getting the third-most faceoffs on the team behind Brooks Laich and Nicklas Backstrom. His goals all came from the sides of the net, three of them to the goalie's left plus the shot from Conklin's right. His offensive awareness is much better than last year, as are his deking abilities. But his skill set looks more and more like that of a two-way winger than of the playmaking center that the team wants him to be. Washington is so deep at forward that there is no reason to force him into a role that he just isn't suited for. Obviously it would take some line-shifting, but doing so early in the season is better than halfway through or during the playoffs.
    2. Jason Chimera will not find success with the team: This one has seriously been put into question. He started off strong, getting four goals (including an empty netter) pretty quickly and not making any glaring errors while playing on the very successful "Meat and Potatoes Line." However, he has been absolutely invisible the past few games. After last season, a successful season for Chimera pretty much means scoring a bit more, hitting a bit more, and generally not being a liability. Obviously nobody expected him to keep up his scoring pace, but the last two parts there are his most important additions to the team. For now, the third line is working so solidly together that it is hard to say that I want them to break up. Nobody was really worried about Laich's productivity or Ward's role on the Capitals, so I think that Chimera is really the key to deciding how long the line should stay together. This bears watching closely, so that if it looks like there might be a better way of matching up players, Boudreau will be able to find the combo sooner rather than later.
    3. Mathieu Perreault is not a good fit for the fourth line: I made this assertion because I think he is too gifted offensively and not physical enough to be an effective fourth-liner, so I thought he should be moved up higher in the lineup. Again, however, this has seriously been thrown into question as a result of the success the fourth line of Perreault, Jeff Halpern, and Matt Hendricks. Perreault is the only to have scored a goal so far, but those were the result of very solid defensive play and awareness. He is only credited with one hit, but he has yet to be on ice for a goal against, and as a line they have just been so good together. MP85's physicality is still an issue, though, and always will be because of his size. It remains to be seen how this will really matter on the fourth line, though, as they are currently playing like an incredibly responsible offensive threat. Perreault's spot on the team, much like Chimera's, is something to keep a close eye on. Again, for now, it seems hard to want to break up the combo.
    4. Boudreau would not be able to coach this team: So far it seems I am just wrong on this one. For the most part, each game has looked better than the last. The lines have not been shuffled much, if at all, since Beagle was knocked out of the lineup in the Pittsburgh game. Just about everything is clicking. Two possible signs of weakness: (1) the shots against are sky-high, and Vokoun (probably?) can't possibly keep up this level of play throughout the year, and (2) the PK has fallen back down to the middle of the league. Luckily Vokoun has been stellar after his debut game, and the team has been responsible and hasn't had to go on the PK much. While I certainly do not want to go back to the non-scoring ways of last season, something needs to come together to give Vokoun a break and get the penalty kill working at a similar level to last year. If the team can keep up the offense, and get the PK percentage up, BB may actually have another shot at the Jack Adams (as much as it paaaaaiinnnsss me to say it). Once things start to go awry, though, be ready to see more of the line jumbling that we've become accustomed to. Hopefully it'll just bring out more of everyone's best, rather than confusing them as it seemed to last year.
    So I will say that I was wrong about Boudreau's ability to coach this team, I'll tentatively say that Perreault and Chimera are doing fine where they are, but I'm not backing down on MoJo being a lousy option at center (but he is not a lousy player). This may be something to return to once a month and check up on these guys' (and my) progress.

    Thursday, October 20, 2011

    Caps at Flyers Game Recap

    What do I know about Ovechkin? Talbot was right.
    Tonight was billed as a test for the Capitals and the Flyers. Both have had strong starts to the season, and both made some gutsy moves in the off-season, especially in net. They are both expected to be Cup contenders this year and likely for years down the road. Washington spent far less money on their star goalie, and it looks like money can't buy everything. After two tight periods, the Capitals dominated the Flyers in the third and silence the home crowd in Philadelphia. Perreault, Hamrlik, and Ward all got their first goals of the season while Ovechkin got two. It wasn't a perfect game, if such a thing exists, but it was a strong effort for Washington all the way through. It looked a lot like back-to-back 60-minute games, but that might have just been my eyes playing tricks on me. Anyway, here are my five thoughts:

    • While I still don't think Perreault belongs on the fourth line, he certainly does not seem to care where he plays as long as he is in the game. One of the stronger players for the Capitals tonight, he got the tying goal late in the first period after reading a pass and firing a low shot that deflected off one of the Flyer's skates and added an assist on Hamrlik's goal later on (first goal for each guy this season). All those people who claim Johansson is the more defensive-minded of the young centers have to be questioning themselves after these first few games. Perreault has yet to be on ice for a single goal against and is credited with five takeaways and zero giveaways. MoJo has been on ice for three goals against with four takeaways and two giveaways. MP85 also has three points (1-2-3) in four games, while MoJo has four points (3-1-4) in five. This is all while Johansson has seen far more ice time, so take all that as you wish six games into the season. Personally I have always been an unabashed Perreault supporter and I have seen nothing but play to vindicate my support so far. Both still need serious work winning faceoffs, with neither being even near a 40% win percentage.
    • Dennis Wideman came to the Capitals last year to help shore up an injured blue line and spark a floundering powerplay. He soon fell victim to injury with a nasty hematoma in his leg and missed most of the time he spent with Washington. Well, now he is on a six game points streak and has been one of the most valuable guys on the team in all six games. He is still subject to the occasional defensive lapse, but overall he makes this year's Caps all the more dangerous with one of the best defensive corps in the league.
    • All that time with awful teams was just Vokoun's way of preparing for nights like this. He kept the Caps in this game even more than the offense did, holding the Flyers to just one goal until they got a meaningless second tally with 14.7 seconds left. Oh yeah, that required him to stop 40 shots, with 41 coming before that last goal. He is making this team look a lot better than they probably are right now. 
    • Has the beast awoken? Ovechkin scored twice tonight, including a blast of a one-timer on the power play, bringing him to a season total of three. He still trails Chimera for the team lead... That right there should tell you just how much to read into goal-scoring trends in the first six games, but the Great 8 looked a bit more like his old self tonight. He laid out his old buddy Max "Ovechkin-is-a-Douche" Talbot for a questionable interference penalty and was putting shots on the net all night. Hopefully we'll see more of this Ovi on Saturday against the Red Wings, and throughout the season.
    • It's hard to criticize a team and coach that have a perfect record six games into the season, and after passing their first real "test" against another top-notch team... but that's what you have to do with a Cup contender. Just like I'm not sold on Perrault the fourth liner, I'm not a huge fan of Brouwer and Knuble on the 1st and 2nd lines, respectively. The 8-19-22 line has so much chemistry built up, while Semin and Knuble just clearly are not clicking. Semin in particular had a rough go of things tonight, being directly responsible for the Flyers scoring the first goal of the game. He may be trying to prove he does care after all, but playing cute little puck games on the blue line with Wayne Simmonds and Claude Giroux poking at the puck is asking for trouble. Brouwer said earlier today that he wanted to try and open up the ice for Alex and let him get back to his game (and become a more consistent scoring threat, himself). Obviously he was referring to Ovechkin, but I say the same attitude would work just as well with the other current Swede-Russian Alex pairing on the team. Put Knuble back where he is comfortable, and let Brouwer play his game on the second line, where he is probably more comfortable, too.
    The test isn't over. Washington hosts (currently) undefeated Detroit on Saturday. The Red Wings will be playing their second game in as many days, but as of right now have not lost and lead the league in GAA. The Caps have already felled their two biggest foes in the Eastern Conference (Pitt and Philly), now they face a Western Conference dynasty. If they keep up the kind of effort we've seen so far, they'll either never lose again or all be on IR by Christmas. I give it even-up odds. highlights below:

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011

    Caps - Panthers Recap

    After missing the Ottawa game, I'm back with a recap for the Capitals franchise-record setting win over the Panthers. The Caps have now opened the season with five straight wins for the first time in franchise history, including a franchise-best four wins at home. To cap it off, they earned a shutout against a division foe that demolished the Tampa Bay Lightning the night before. Johansson (PP), Semin, and Chimera (EN) scored while Vokoun earned the shutout. Here are my five thoughts:
    • Tonight, as just about everybod
      That's a good goalie. You'll get a treat for
      the shutout when we get back to the locker room.
      y who would possibly be reading this knows, was a sort of homecoming for a couple players. Vokoun and Wideman were with the Panthers last year, and Matt Bradley was one of the most loved players on the Capitals for years. Tomas Fleischmann was one of the many players who suffered under Boudreau's line changing regime, getting shipped off to Colorado last year before signing with Florida this off-season. Jose Theodore, a member of the rotating door cast of goaltenders for Washington for two years, got the night off for Florida. For Vokoun and Wideman, it was a good night: Vokoun got his first shutout as a Capital and Wideman extended his points streak to five games. "Flash" had a decent game and saw a couple scoring chances, while "Brads" finished a -1 for the evening. I hope they have success in their careers, just as long as things go like tonight any time they play the Caps.

    • Marcus Johansson scored on Washington's only power play of the night, giving him three scores on the season. This was his first non-wraparound goal, but it wasn't too far off. MoJo saw that Ovechkin was double covered in addition to having a good look at the net, and decided to just try and force it in the corner by Markstrom's left side, and in the five-hole it went. The sophomore Swede is showing some of that offensive prowess that everyone talked about last year (but that I never really saw translate into anything other than a solidly mediocre season), and I am man enough to admit I may have been wrong about him. Let's not get too excited, though: as was noted by Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin, the goal should have been an easy one to stop. Goalies today do not close off the posts quite like they used to, especially guys playing their first ever NHL game. He may have three goals, but temper expectations as they were close goals that all should have been stopped. But kudos to the kid for having the awareness to see that they actually would go in and making the necessary moves.

    • While he got his second straight game winner, Johansson is still leaving the second line center debate open a bit with his faceoff percentage. He only won 1 of 7 on the dot tonight. If he keeps up his goal scoring and his faceoff percentage, I see no reason why he shouldn't be moved to wing later on this season. The team really has too many centers, and on any given night you have at least two playing wing. Backstrom and Laich struggled a bit tonight, too, winning only 10 of their 26 combined faceoffs. The fourth line, made up of three natural centers in Perreault, Hendricks, and Halpern, lost only one faceoff. Perreault won both of his, Hendricks his only attempt, and Halpern won 8 of 9. Much has been said, often times by me, of how little faceoffs can actually mean in the context of a team's offense, but it is still something to keep an eye on since they do affect puck possession.

    • There have been games when you read the stats and see something like "Capitals shut outopponent and hold them to 20 shots," but think to yourself "Yeah, but it probably wasn't pretty." Tonight was not one of those games. The boys in red played the ever-elusive 60 minute game, and it really showed. The shot totals (32-20) and the score (3-0) are representative of that, and the score could easily have been even more lopsided than it was. While keeping up that kind of play for the remaining 77 games of the regular season could take a physical toll on the team, this is the kind of effort they will need in the postseason. It is refreshing to finally see it and know they can do it, now they just need to keep it up.
    • Florida must have been a little shocked at the lack of penalties. They scored four powerplay goals last night and got a shorty to boot. Tonight the Caps and Cats combined for three penalties total - two on us, one on them. Definitely another tribute to how well both teams played tonight. For years, Florida has been at the bottom of the bottom tier, but they have started this season strong and pose a legitimate threat as a dark-horse playoff contender. Markstrom played very well in net tonight, stopping 29 shots for a .923 save percentage. And if history is any indicator, he could challenge Theodore for starts for much of the season. The Panthers have a good future ahead. Add another team to the list challenging the South-Least Division nickname. Now if only the Jets would get on board the playoff train....
    Now that the Caps have beaten three division opponents, a Cup-favorite team in the Penguins, and a man-I-wish-we-had-their-draft-spot team in the Senators, they go on the road to face the Flyers on Thursday before hosting the Western Conference's undefeated Red Wings on Saturday. It was a good win against a respectable team, but now is not the time to relax by any means. Five down, seventy-seven to go. Now for your highlights:

    Thursday, October 13, 2011

    Caps-Pens Recap

    Ceremonial puck drop in honor of the Lokomotiv plane crash
    tragedy. Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images from
    The Capitals and Penguins have one of the fiercest rivalries in the sport. In recent years, the Caps have dominated the Penguins during the regular season, only losing twice in a shootout and once in regulation in the previous 14 games including a 7-for-7 record when playing in Pittsburgh. Now they can notch it up to 8-for-8. The Pens lead the NHL in points, even after tonight's loss, but they have also played twice as many games as the undefeated Capitals. These two teams will be battling all year, and tonight just got us started. Check out Lindsay Applebaum's write-up for the Capitals Insider for some more quick facts on the rivalry. For now, my five thoughts on the game:
    • Tomas Vokoun said he likes to play a game right after a particularly bad one. He made it very well known that he was not happy with his performance against the Lightning on Monday night. Well, tonight he showed that he certainly can bounce back. He was a huge reason the team only allowed one goal on the PK tonight despite the team taking five in regulation -- compared to the Penguins' zero. Oh yeah, and he stopped 39 of 41 shots, good for a .951 save percentage. This is why McPhee signed him, let's hope he keeps it up.
    • Speaking of the penalty kill, the Penguins were perfect this season going into tonight. They only took on penalty, and it was in OT, but that was all Washington needed. Backstrom and Wideman broke out on a 2-on-2 rush, and 19 shook off some of that off-season rust and threaded a beauty of a pass between the defenders' sticks. The puck landed right on the tape, and Wideman blasted the puck past former Caps' backup goalie Brent Johnson. Win.
    •  The Capitals are now 3-0-0, seemingly a great start to the season. Points wise, it sure is. However, all three came in overtime or the shootout, meaning all three opponents (two division rivals and possibly their biggest rival in the league) all got a point apiece. Nor did the team really "Rock the Red" and dominate the other team in any game. The first two were just ugly hockey, and tonight Vokoun was the real star of the night, despite not actually being named one of the three stars. Washington only got 19 shots on net while allowing 41 on their own. I know everyone is impressed with the third line, and they should be, but I again feel the need to reiterate how much I think Boudreau is mis-managing his talent with the current combinations.
    • Ovechkin has now had three games to show that he is back to form, and unfortunately he has failed to do so. He was credited with a goal tonight, but Green fired the blast that nicked off Ovi's skate and up into the net. The Great 8 has not looked himself for the better part of a year now. Some of it is obviously the focus that every team puts on him, but that didn't stop him the first four years of his career. Captain Cap needs to find a way to turn the afterburners on and get this team rolling again. Backstrom got two assists tonight, so he has started his own breakthrough, while Semin and Green have looked good, too. Time for Fearless Leader to do his part.
    • The biggest story of the game is going to be the fight between Jay Beagle and Aaron Asham. Beagle appeared to have the upper hand, but got demolished by two hits to the jaw. While Beags was laid out and bleeding, Asham made a taunting gesture and proceeded to verbally assault Ovechkin and the other Capitals players. The Pens fans, too, showed a little less than classy behavior with their own cheering, but that is to be expected when your guy wins a fight. For what it's worth, Asham did the right thing in challenging Beagle after 83 flipped the lid off Pens all-star defender Kris Letang (and earned a roughing penalty in the process). Asham said in interviews after the game that he was sorry for his post-fight actions, and repeatedly called them classless. He seemed legit, but you know what? That's too bad. Don't be surprised if he pays for his actions next time he is on the ice against the Caps. Not a single player on the team was happy, and none will forget. These are the things that come back to haunt enforcers in future matchups. More drama for the storyline here.
    No Crosby tonight, but we'll see him next time around.
      When all is said and done, again, a win is a win. Especially one against the Penguins in their home arena. I hope Boudreau continues to lay into the team and hold them accountable. They can and should be much better than they've played so far. One final note on this front: my favorite target Marcus Johansson skated for the fifth-least amount of time of all Capitals skaters, ahead of only Hendricks, Halpern, Chimera, and Beagle, after a couple turnovers early in the game and being on ice for Pittsburgh's even-strength goal. Don't say you weren't warned: the second line center battle is not over yet. And now, your game highlights courtesy of

      Tuesday, October 11, 2011

      Capitals-Lightning Game Recap

      I know this is about 12 hours later than everyone else's recap, but let's be honest, I'm not here for breaking news. If for some reason you are reading this, I presume it's because you are here by accident, a bored friend, or you legitimately find my views intriguing and my wit beguiling. Thanks to maddening FCC blackout rules (I currently live 90 miles from DC, 45 from Baltimore, 45 from Philly, and no local station airs NHL games of any sort, yet the nationally televised Versus feed was blacked out), I spent the first ten minutes of the game cursing Armstrong Cable and the government and missed the Canes' and Caps' first goals before I found a decent stream online. That said, here are my five thoughts on the other 55 minutes of the game:
      • I know we're only two games in, and Vokoun and Neuvirth have only had one game each, but the Capitals have now allowed 8 goals and gone to OT twice in two games. Vokoun looked pretty bad in the first two periods, allowing crappy goals from awful angles, but you have to accept that those goals are going to go in sometimes. Goalies have bad games, bad shots go in, and that's why good coaches like Boucher encourage their players not to abandon a play and to take shots like that. I'm not worried, except insofar as I'm worried that Boudreau will give more ice time to Neuvirth as a result. Vokoun is the better goalie, hands-down, and he needs to get the starts. The Avalanche and Varlamov allowed two goals on 38 shots in their season opener and recorded a shutout against the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins. (Very) early returns appear to favor Colorado on that trade. I really do not think that Washington is going to get the lottery picks so many assume were coming. I actually think there is a decent (read: 10% or so) chance that our boys in red may have a better draft spot with their own picks.
      • Despite struggles in net by both goalies (I refuse to join in giving praise to Neuvirth for what really was a pedestrian performance), I am glad to at least see that the offense has returned - even if not on the top line. Ovechkin and Backstrom really need to find ways to get open and get shots on net. They are obviously facing the toughest defensive competition every night, but that is because they are supposed to be one of the top-five tandems in the league. The skill is there, now it is time to get it done. If they can start scoring again, the league is again looking at the offensive juggernaut from two seasons ago, and goaltending struggles be damned.
      • Jason Chimera. That's pretty much the whole thought there. Years of stone hands and an inability to maximize on his gift of speed, and now he has three goals to start the year off. AND he is on the third line. I still think that the team's roster would best be served by having him on the fourth line, but kudos to him for bailing the team out this week. The third line has looked excellent, and he is a big big reason why. He looked awesome last night, and I hope he continues to prove me wrong about him.
      • Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson are two players that I think are being misused. Laich has been winning faceoffs and setting up plays on the third line, allowing Joel Ward and Jason Chimera to get offense going. Johansson did not seem quite up to the challenge of setting up Semin last night, and his offense came as a result of his speed and a big mistake by Roloson. I'd like to see MoJo and Laich switch spots for a couple games. Give Laich the opportunity to win the faceoffs and set up Semin and Brouwer, and give Johansson a chance to work his speed on the third line and hope that Chimera is not being fluky with his offense.
      • Mathieu Perreault was also misused last night. He is not a fourth-line guy, but he centered Hendricks and Halpern, and skated a team-low 8:26. MP85 still netted an assist and was a +1 for the second consecutive game, though. Boudreau has admitted testing out both MJ90 and MP85 on wing in practices, and I would love to see that put into effect in a real game. Ideally Johansson would be on wing solely because Perreault is better at faceoffs. But if there really is a controversy here, why not settle it by giving the fans and players what they want: ice time for both of the promising youngsters.
       Not the greatest start to the season, and certainly not what fans expected in terms of goaltending, but wins are wins, especially against division rivals. And again, the Caps allowed eight goals, but scored nine plus two in a shootout. If the offense keeps up and the Vokoun locks down, this could be a good year after all. 

      Monday, October 10, 2011

      The Capitals and the Myth of Consistency, Pt. 1

      So when you don't live in the DC area, and you don't have Center Ice, and you can only get a mediocre feed on the internet... you miss a lot of a particular Caps game. So I was not totally able to watch enough of the game to give a decent recap, other than to say that I am still not at all impressed with Neuvirth, that I think it is even more apparent that good teams know to shoot it glove high every time on him, and that Chimera must read this blog because he scores every game after I say he should get traded. But back to the Neuvirth thing: a lot of the recaps I have read all say that he was strong in net, and all summer and during last year he was referred to as consistent. They said Varlamov struggled with consistency. Neuvirth did fairly consistently get wins, and Varly had a losing record. But teams win games, goalies are only one aspect of that.

      For example, last night Neuvirth allowed three goals on 31 shots through over 62 minutes of playing time, and got a win. Varly allowed two goals on 38 shots in 59 minutes of regulation, and his team lost because they could not score a single goal. Should Neuvirth get credit for the win, and Varly for the loss? Most logical people would say absolutely not, especially when watching Neuvirth sprawl all over the ice, give up lots of rebounds, and be too far out of position on each of the three goals scored on him. So in this post, I will examine why people think Neuvirth is consistent and why I disagree.

      So one thing I learned in business school was how to use Excel, so I figured this is as good of a reason as any to try it out in the "real" world. Now, for reference, in 2010-2011 Neuvirth had a record of 27-12-4 with a .914 SV% and 2.45 GAA in 45 starts. Varlamov had a record of 11-9-5 with a .924 SV% and 2.23 GAA in 25 starts. For goalies who started 25 games or more, Varlamov was tied for 4th in save percentage and Neuvirth was tied for 23rd. For GAA, Varly was 4th in the same group of goalies and Neuvirth was tied for 14th. The only three goalies who were ahead of Varly in both categories were Tim Thomas, Roberto Luongo, and Pekka Rinne: your Vezina finalists for the season. Neuvirth's numbers put him squarely in the middle-to-bottom third of the league for starting or 1A goalies. However, he is viewed as a more consistent player, and Varly got shipped out. Let's compare their seasons using graphs.

      Each graph tracks the goalies' performance in one of three measures for each game they played (as opposed to started): Goals Against (not GAA), Save Percentage, and Shots Against. One outlier game for Varlamov has been left out, and two for Neuvirth. The 7-0 loss against the Rangers is excused for Varly, while Neuvy gets a pass on a game where he allowed 6 goals as well as a game where he played for less than one minute. Every goalie has those games, and all can agree they are not the norm and realistically should not be considered in a comparison such as this. With all that said, here is the GA chart:

       A best fit line here would show you that yes, throughout the season, Neuvirth averaged 2.45 goals against per game. It is a remarkably straight line. I chose not to include it here because that is not what we are looking at. We know what his GAA is, my issue is with the notion that he was consistent in that. Consistent implies that in just about each game, he is allowing two or three goals. However, if you look at the chart (Neuvirth is red), you see that, from game to game, he was anything but consistent. He allowed four goals in eight separate games. In all, his goals against were outside the one-to-three goal range in 12 of 45 games. Neuvirth had a good October, and was very solid during the second half of February and the first half of March. The rest of the year, though, he was either injured or allowing three or more goals per game, typically a number that leads to losses. Given his win-loss record, though, it is obvious that the offense bailed him out on these occasions.

      Varly, on the other hand, allowed four goals only twice, and they were balanced out with two shutouts. In the interest of disclosure, his best-fit line trends slightly upwards, largely because he had his shutouts early in the season. Most of his part of the chart is centered in the one-to-three goal range, with only four of 26 games venturing out of that region. In terms of goals against game-to-game, Varly comes out ahead in the battle of consistency.

      This chart shows the game-to-game save percentages. Again, Neuvirth is in red and Varlamov in blue. In October, the month where Neuvirth won rookie-of-the-month accolades from the NHL and first cemented the notion that he could be a starter, his save percentages were all over the place. Because of his low save percentage on Oct. 19, as well as his and Varly's low percentages in early February, the graph makes it appear that the variation really is not all that great. When talking about NHL-caliber numbers, though, you really want your goalies to consistently stop at least 90% of the shots against him. Realistically, if he only stops that many, your team's GM is very likely browsing the market for a new starter (here's looking at you, Theodore). Routinely varying between 85% and 95% to average out around 91-92% is not the ideal, but that is Neuvy's game. Honestly, as much as I am not a fan of the kid, I was shocked at how often he stopped less than 90% of his shots (19 out of 45 games). It absolutely baffles me how he was ever considered ahead of Varly (when both were healthy) on the depth chart when looking at those kinds of numbers. A model of consistency he is not. Varlamov, on the other hand, saw his SV% drop below 90% only three times in 26 appearances. Almost every game was spent in the 90-95% save percentage range, the very kind of consistency you want to see, even if the season percentage is the same as Neuvirth's. Varly:2, Neuvy:0.

       Finally, the shots against chart. Obviously this does not speak to the goaltenders' play. Shots against for a goalie are a factor of the play of the team in front of him. I put this up mostly because I was curious about another commonly mentioned aspect of the Capital's "strengths" last season: being better defensively. The Caps' goalies backstopped the team to one of their strongest seasons ever in terms of goals against, and many attributed this to better defensive play of the forwards. Personally, I never saw it, and it was always my belief that the team just had better goalies than Theodore, Huet, and late-career Kolzig. The best-fit lines here bare that out to an extent (it is hard to say how much the number of "good shots" increased or decreased as the year went on. I can only speak to overall shots). On average, by the end of the season Neuvirth was facing one less shot per game than at the start of the year, and Varlamov was facing about two less shots. Throughout the year, though, Varly averaged more shots against than Neuvy, yet put up consistently and substantially better numbers. Neuvirth, in fact, faced fairly absurd inconsistency in the number of shots against, while Varly was pretty much guaranteed to see somewhere around 30 shots.

      It is certainly possible that Neuvirth was a victim when it came to the number of shots against, but given that both his shots against and his save percentage (which NHL all-time record holder for the stat Tim Thomas calls "the best individual stat for a goalie") were lower than Varlamov's, I'm not quite buying that argument. When it comes to consistency and Neuvirth, the two are not quite as buddy-buddy as many would have you think. Just because hockey media says something is a certain way does not make it so.