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.

    Thursday, October 6, 2011

    If I Were A Gambling Man, and I Am

    So the popular thing to do these days is predict what is going to happen this season based on minimal information and experience, speculation as to what the hell coaches are actually talking about, and guessing who will or will not be injured. So let me look at my own tea leaves and tell you what to expect come June with the Capitals and around the league.

    I think I got old seaweed by accident...

    Caps-Centric Predictions
    • Ovechkin returns to form with something to prove. He will finally emerge as the team leader both in example on the ice and with words off the ice. 54 goals, 48 assists, 102 points in 80 games played. 
    • At least two of the following will be gone by the trade deadline: Chimera, King, Schultz, and Knuble. My money is on the first two. King has barely played and could be moved for a late-round pick. Chimera just signed a two year contract extension at a palatable price with slightly decreasing cap hits, and is one of the best skaters in the league. However, I think it is unlikely he sees success with the team this year, as he really has not found chemistry with any of the seemingly dozens of linemates he has had in Washington. Schultz and Knuble are both players that other teams could use, and that the Capitals could stand to lose given the team's depth and likely returns in a trade.
    • Backstrom gets a nomination for the Selke after leading the team in +/-, seeing significant time on the PP and PK, and finishing in the top 10 for points in the league.
    • Semin and Green return to their peak forms as well. By all accounts, Semin is finally making efforts to show the basics of team play like asking the coach questions and speaking more English. Green is in good shape and has had a full summer to recover from nagging injuries. Time with Hamrlik as his defensive partner will give him a good mentor.
    • Hockey suit up!
    • Perreault is kept on a short leash and Johansson is given free reign. MP85 gets no more than 50games, MJ90 will not sit aside from injury. I say this because this is just how the team operates. Some players (Perreault, Fehr, Varlamov) are judged only by the negatives despite having many more positives (playmaking and scoring, scoring, and being the 4th best goalie in the league last year). Others (Johansson, Chimera, Neuvirth) are practically assigned a positive view before their first shift, and no matter how weak their play is and for how long, it will always be excused away or blatantly ignored (weak faceoffs and inconsistency, turnovers and inability to finish, rebounds and soft goals and inconsistency).
    • The Capitals do not make it out of the second round of the playoffs yet again. Boudreau is finally fired, and in a shocking move, so is George McPhee. Leonsis finally loses his patience and interjects himself into team management when it becomes clear that McPhee is grasping at straws.
    Around the League
    • Playoff misses in the East: Winnipeg, Carolina, Toronto, NYI, Montreal, Ottawa and New Jersey.
    • Playoff misses in the West: Minnesota, Edmonton, Calgary, Phoenix, St. Louis, Dallas and Nashville. The Blue Jackets make it in with strong offense and mediocre goaltending, while Nashville misses out despite excellent goaltending because of a lack of offense. Think of a lesser version of the Caps with Theodore vs. a better version of the Panthers with Vokoun.
    • Semyon Varlamov (Avalanche) again finishes in the top five in SV% and GAA, getting 50 starts and at least 25 wins in regulation. He only misses 10 games due to injury and Colorado finishes seventh in the West.
    • The Panthers make a strong run for the playoffs in the second half. Clemmensen plays into the starting job, and the team is led by Fleischmann and a resurgent Booth in points. They make it in on their second to last game, eighth in the East.
    • The Penguins win it all: Division, Conference, Lord Stanley. I really hate saying that, but barring even more soul-crushing injuries, the team and the coach are too good. Having Crosby, Malkin, and Staal back and healthy down the middle is terrifying to face. I think James Neal will break out with the team this year, and Fleury will perform as usual: good enough during the regular season, and then phenomenal in the playoffs. They'll beat the Kings in the Finals after the Canucks shockingly flame out in the first round.
    • Ovechkin wins the Richard and Hart. Crosby wins the Ted Lindsay, and Malkin wins the Art Ross. None of last year's Vezina contenders get back-to-back nominations. Shea Weber wins the Norris. 
    That cup on the right doesn't seem big enough for my tastes.

    Assuming anyone actually reads this and has an opinion, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. Right now I'm mostly writing these posts for my own sake, but I'd like to think someone out there agrees or disagrees with me. 

    Wednesday, October 5, 2011

    Annnnd We're Back

    So after taking most of the summer off, much like the Capitals, I am back...also much like the Capitals. It's been a rough few months for me and for hockey in general. There has been a lot of tragedy, a lot of loss. We've had the Lokomotiv plane crash, the deaths of three enforcer-type players, and Alex Ovechkin learned yesterday that a close relative passed away. I personally lost someone very close to me, and have had to move out of Pittsburgh and back to Maryland as my life goes through kind of a rough patch overall. I guess the blog name is kind of a misnomer now, but hopefully I can move back to the City of Bridges soon enough. But life moves on for most of us, and we should all realize what a gift each day is and enjoy what time we do have left. So let's put the summer behind us, and look ahead to the fall and the NHL regular season!

    Not sure what the string is for. Maybe to distract you when things go wrong?
    Training camp is over. The roster battles, for now, are over. This morning the Caps announced their 23 man roster after making final cuts, sending Cody Eakin, Matias Sjogren, and Dmitry Orlov down to Hershey for more development. Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perrault won the battle for the two remaining forward spots after several years each of shuttling between Hershey and Washington. Here are your 2011-2012 Washington Capitals:

    At LW: Ovechkin, Brooks Laich*, Troy Brouwer*, Jason Chimera, D.J. King
    At RW: Mike Knuble, Alex Semin, Troy Brouwer*, Joel Ward, Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks
    At C: Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich*, Mathieu Perreault, Jeff Halpern
    At D: John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mike Green, Roman Hamrlik, Dennis Wideman, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine (Tom Poti will be on Long-Term Injury Reserve and does not count against the roster or salary cap during that time)
    At G: Tomas Vokoun, Michal Neuvirth
    (*) Indicates likely flexibility between positions.

    In general I have tried to list the guys in their presumptive order on the depth chart. Obviously the team will not dress all these players. One of the seven defenseman and two of the fourteen forwards will have to sit on any given night. I addressed what I thought the roster should look like in an earlier post this summer, before training camp even started. A little bit has changed, but not a whole lot.

    Prevailing wisdom at the moment is just that: at the moment. During the preseason, there was a lot of flux in the lineup, lots of guys playing on lines they probably won't see much of during the regular season. My thoughts on what the starting lineup should be are, admittedly, quite different than what you will read anywhere else. However, I am smarter than most people and you should just trust that what I say is right, even if (especially because?) you will never see Boudreau put this combo out there.

    Top Line, or If it Ain't Broke Don't Fix It

    On the top line, fans saw a good bit of Johansson and Brouwer alongside Ovechkin during the preseason. There is a very good chance that Brouwer will stay up there for now, but barring early success, I think that would be a short-lived experiment, as it will require a couple of other forwards to play out of their normal positions. Realistically, Knuble has that spot on lockdown for most of the season, and Backstrom has the top line center on lock probably until 2020, save a couple games. This is the epitome of the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy.

    Two years ago, this line combined for 263 points. Last season was a down year for the whole team, whether it was due to injuries, stylistic changes, "saving themselves for the playoffs," or any other excuse. I think it was a matter of bad coaching and a lack of consistency and chemistry combined with injuries, but we're putting all that behind us, remember? Knuble is getting old, but his productivity over the past eight seasons has been pretty consistent, scoring 20+ goals in each, and a low of 40 points last year. He's not exactly the ageless wonder that Teemu Selanne is, but there is no reason to break up the chemistry that the 8-19-22 line shares.

    Second Line, or the Anti-MoJo Rant

    Here is where things are really tricky. All we really know is that Alex Semin is most likely going to play right wing on this line for about 70% of the season, with the other 30% spent nursing an injury or trying to spark offense on the top line. Most out there right now are assuming that Johansson will play center and Brouwer or Laich will play left wing. This, if you ask me, is ridiculous. Most Capitals fans, and every single hockey blogger that I can find, have joined the team management in getting behind Johansson and forcing him into the second line center role. It is ludicrous. Last year was the first time he played North American hockey, and I understand that he picked up his offense in the second half of the season, but he showed nothing to settle the ongoing second line center debate in the nation's capital.

    If you're a center, this is your first job every shift. Nothing
    witty here, just trying to get you thinking about this kid.
    Through his first 34 games Johansson was 6-5-11, and in his final 35 games he went 7-9-16. If you extrapolate those out, he was on about a 16-21-37 point pace for 82 games. In only nine of those 35 games did he have a faceoff win percentage of 50% or better. Over the season he posted the worst faceoff numbers of any Caps center, winning a horrendous 40.5%. We are talking about the second line center on a Stanley Cup contender. It is acceptable for a guy in that role to lose faceoffs if he scores points (Evgeni Malkin has similar faceoff numbers over his career), and it might be acceptable for him to have middling points if he is dominant on the dot. You can't have both flaws and legitimately be in contention for the 2C role. The Capitals are not in a rebuilding year, they are not a mid-tier team, and Johansson was not a top-level rookie in the NHL last year. Brooks Laich is a natural center, puts up points, can win faceoffs, knows Semin, and is getting paid $6.5 million this year. He fits the more traditional role of a second-line center in that he works hard, skates hard, scores, and is the most versatile player on the team. He gets top minutes on the powerplay *and* the penalty kill.

    Additionally, Mathieu Perreault has show a decent amount of success playing alongside Laich and Semin in the past, and he was the team's top offensive player in the preseason. He, too, struggles at faceoffs, but not to the extent that MJ90 does. By all accounts, Perreault has worked on his strength and maintaining a consistent effort each night to counter his two biggest weaknesses. He is at least as talented offensively as Johansson. By mid-season, I would like to see him in that 2C role, but I know it will take at least that long to prove he is ready to Boudreau.

    If the NHL dosn't work out, he can always try out for the
    French adaptation of Phantom of the Opera
    I am not saying that Johansson is not skilled, I do not think he is a bad player nor do I think he will fail to progress this year. I'm not even saying he is a lousy second line center option in the NHL. I am saying, however, that he is a lousy option for second line center on the Washington Capitals. I was lucky enough to go see the Caps beat the Sabres at home this past weekend, and I got to see it with a good friend, fellow puckhead, and former blogging comrade. We both agreed that Johansson looked much more like a winger trying to play center. MoJo is fast, agile, and will develop into a decent scorer because of his skill set. He can blow by other players, and he is almost at the point where he can deke himself out of rough situations. That said, I would love to see him play wing.

    So who should play on the second line? First half of the season: Brouwer, Laich, Semin. Second half: Laich, Perreault, Semin. In this scenario, Laich wouldn't be called on to play wing very much in the first half, and it would give Semin two linemates who play hard and can open up the ice a bit for him to work his magic, should he feel like caring that day. In the second half, I expect Perreault to have developed some offensive consistency, and to get used to playing in the NHL more than the AHL. He'll be able to set up Semin and bring out more of the finesse game, and teams would have a hard time focusing their energy on shutting down each of these three. This line would be more of a scoring line, and could easily be a top line on half of the teams out there. The biggest thing to note here is that I don't see any reason to put Laich on the third line at all this year, despite what so many are saying online (especially at Japer's Rink, the top Caps blog in the land).

    Third Line, or Who Needs an Energy Line?

    Usually, teams have four lines, and those four lines have roles. The top line is your best players, the forwards you think will score the most points and log the most minutes. Your second line has guys who play hard, score, and can be used as more versatile players, but aren't quite good enough to beat out the top line guys at a given position. The third line is typically your "Energy Line." They skate hard, hit hard, and do their best to wear the other team out while still posing a decent scoring threat. Defensively responsible, they get more limited minutes than the top two lines, but are still called on in key situations when the top-six aren't getting it done. They typically will not face the strongest competition as a result of all this. This is also the line that is usually the most flexible, with players rotating in an out of the lineup, as well as changing positions and filling in gaps when necessary.

    Now, before we continue, look back at the Capitals' roster, and look back at who I think the top six players should be. Like the second line, the only thing we really know for certain is that Joel Ward is unlikely to see ice time pretty much anywhere but as the third line RW. He is the prototypical player for that spot. Last season, Johansson, Chimera, and Eric Fehr (traded to Winnipeg in July) logged the most minutes together. It didn't work out too great, as evidenced by low scoring and some of the worst +/- seen on the team. Chimera has stone hands and just can't ever seem to put the puck in the net, and MoJo was figuring out what to do with less rink space and constantly giving the puck to the other team. Fehr was in and out with shoulder injuries, and was the brightest spot when it came to scoring with 20 points in his limited ice time.

    When was the last time you saw a Capitals player have a full playoff beard?
    I see no reason for the Capitals to have an energy line this year. This team has so much skill that they could field a third line that is about as good as any other team's second line. Why not have players that complement each other in a way that the opposition has to handle three lines of constant scoring threats, rather than forcing a roster that fits traditional roles? The Capitals saw their greatest success when the offense was opened up. The goaltending is better than it was in 09-10 (I'm not yet sold that it is better than last year, go ahead and read my June and July posts for more on that), and the defense is the best it has been in ages.

    Based on my second line thoughts, I think Perreault should center Johansson on LW and Ward at RW, with MP85 and MoJo switching roles as the need may be for the first half. In the second half, Johnasson can center Brouwer and Ward. Depending on need and level of play, Matt Hendricks can also fill in here as needed throughout the season. Ward very likely will not be the goal-scorer that Fehr showed himself capable of being, but nobody can deny he plays hard and well. Johansson has speed and hands, and Perreault is right there with him. They won't win a ton of faceoffs, but the competition this line would face would be weak enough that it would not take much to gain control of the puck and finish in the offensive zone more often than they start there. Replace Perreault with Brouwer, and you have a Cup winner who can score and hit with a speedy center and a hard working right winger. The skill sets of these players really do fit more with a traditional second line, and both Brouwer and MoJo will in fact see time on the second line. If they are good enough for that role, why not just make the third line into a backup second line? The goal here is to win. The Capitals roster is skilled enough that, with the right coaching, the team should obliterate just about everyone else. I say let the boys loose.

    Fourth Line, or Who Needs Fourth Liners?

     Ok, I lied. The Capitals should have an energy line. It just shouldn't be the third line. If you've been paying attention, we're down to five forwards: Jason Chimera, Jeff Halpern, Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle, and D.J. King. Chimera was third liner last year. Halpern was a third liner for Montreal last year. Matt Hendricks showed he has the grit and the offensive ability to play on the third line. I say you have your fourth line right there. They'll just play like a third line normally would.

    Blue Steel won't help you here, Beagle.
    The fourth line is usually your grinders, your big guys, your enforcers, faceoff specialists, and other one-role guys. Other teams cringe when they come on the ice not because they are going to be scored on, but because somebody is probably going to get laid out and everyone will have a bruise. When your team is stuck in their own end, you send out your fourth line to push back into the other end of the ice through winning faceoffs and literally pushing the other team toward their own net. Boyd Gordon (Phoenix) and Dave Steckel (New Jersey) won upwards of 60% of their draws last year, but barely put up any points. Jeff Halpern won only marginally less of his faceoffs, but put up nearly 30 points.

    The Caps can have a fourth line of Chimera, Halpern, and Hendricks that has all the skills of traditional third lines as well as traditional fourth lines. Throw in Beagle and King as roster fill-ins for matchups and injuries, and you have a line that can skate, win faceoffs, hit, fight, and score, all with consistency. With the exception of Chimera (an abysmal -10 through 81 games despite 26 points, only two of which were on the powerplay) you have a very defensively solid line. King is primarily a fighter, although it would be nice to see him let loose to actually play hockey on those nights he dresses. Beagle is decent bottom-six option, and would probably be on the starting roster on most other teams (and let's be honest, with the bias against Perreault he'll probably start on this one), but the team's depth should force him into the fill-in role with King, though with more time actually filling in.

    Defense and Goaltending, or Things That Are of Little Concern

    There is no controversy here this year. You know who the top six defensemen are, and you probably know who matches with who. You know the goaltending tandem, and you know who is #1 and who is #2. On top of that, each defenseman is a top-four guy just about anywhere else, and both goalies could have the starting job for more than half of the NHL.

    By the end of last season, John Carlson and Karl Alzner were the top pairing, partly because of their level of play and partly due to injuries. There is no reason to think that they won't continue as the top pair for now. Mike Green and Roman Hamrlik will likely be the second pairing. Green and Jeff Schultz have traditionally been partners, but Schultz had a fairly weak outing last year, and Hamrlik is an undeniably better player than Schultz. Hamrlik is also an NHL veteran with the experience and skills to help Green round out his game and finally transition into the elite player we all know he can be. Schultz and Dennis Wideman will make an admirable third pairing. Realistically, Carl-zner and the Green-Hamrlik pairings are each great options for top pairings, with the 55-6 pairing being about on par with most other second pairings on other top teams. This will be the first time that the team has had three right-handed puck-moving defensemen (Carlson, Green, and Wideman), and each will be paired up with more of a stay-at-home shutdown player (Alzner, Hamrlik, and Schultz). Matching up defenders like that is the ideal for elite teams. Hamrlik also has the ability to take on a more offensive role when called on to do so. John Erskine will undoubtedly be the seventh defenseman after his best season to date. He is currently nursing an injury, so when the season starts we can probably expect to see Sean Collins or Dmitry Orlov called up for that fill-in role, but the seven guys that the team will carry for the season are pretty much set in stone.

    Alfred E. Neuman, philosopher and soulless ginger.
    Tomas Vokoun was the bargain signing of free agency, and widely regarded as the best move any GM made during the summer. I, along with my good friend and fellow hockey blogger Meesh (check out his site, CrosbyFTW, linked at the top for Pens coverage and a look around the league) and surely a few others, feel that it was the best move McPhee could have made after making a horrible move in trading away Semyon Varlamov. He has shown remarkable skill year after year while playing on sub-par teams and is considered an elite goalie. There are questions as to how he will handle playing on an elite team for the first time in his career, as it may call for different skills and a different mindset. He has also shown weakness at the end of the season and has minimal, unsuccessful playoff experience. This could be a result of simply playing too many games, though, and only time will tell how good of a move this really was. With Michal Neuvirth as backup, and Braden Holtby anxiously creeping in the wings, the goaltending situation in Washington is as good as it has ever been, and is among the best in the league. I, again with Meesh and a few others, disagree with many analysts that Neuvirth should be ahead of Holtby or should have been ahead of Varly on the depth chart, but he is certainly a top-tier option for backup behind someone like Vokoun. I'd rather have him there than, say Brent Johnson or Dany Sabourin (the Caps and Pens really do share a lot of players for such an intense rivalry...).

    Conclusion, or With the Right Coach...

    What I'm trying to say here is that I'm just not that fast.
    This is the year (if McPhee, Boudreau, and all the skaters want to keep their jobs) that Washington needs to stop holding itself back and stop listening to everyone else. Do what works. Run and gun, skate hard, hit hard, and score often. Play smart hockey, but realize that there is a top-tier group of guys playing behind the forwards to catch the occasional mishap. The team is solid defensively and in net. Boudreau figured out how to get top-level penalty killing last year, and has mostly retained his main PK guys. There is no reason to regress there. Aside from the PK, which has little to do with the rest of the game, I'd say this to BB: Do NOT play the defensive style of last year. It's like tying one of Usain Bolt's legs to my own, and then having him run the 40-yard dash. Yeah, we'll finish the race, and he'll drag me along to a decent showing, but we aren't going to win the gold.

    Let them loose. The talent is there to have three scoring lines and one of, if not the best and most dangerous fourth lines in the NHL today. All it will take is the right coaching. Do NOT shuffle the lines twice a game and three times on Sunday. Most of these guys are vets now, and the others are rookies or sophomores. Let them develop chemistry. Let them develop a consistent spot and role on the team. The teams that have won the Cup aren't known for having someone different play 2C or 1RW or 3LW every night. You know who the top three-to-six are in Pittsburgh, in Boston, in Chicago, in Anaheim, in Vancouver, San Jose, and just about every other team that has a shot this year. The reason Carlson and Alzner were so great last year is because they played together in Hershey, and they stuck together all year in Washington. Let it happen with the forwards, too. You can't judge a book by it's cover, and you can't judge the success of a forward line by three games.

    In reality, my prediction for the year is far less optimistic. Boudreau will shuffle the lines. Semin will play left wing next to MoJo and Knuble, Brouwer will be on the top line, and Perreault will only get into a third of the team's games before being traded at the deadline. The offense won't be there aside from Ovechkin, and the Caps won't win the division with Coach BB. Not unless he gives up trying to fix what isn't broken, unless he goes back to before the Montreal series from the 09-10 playoffs, and realizes THAT is how to play these guys. Washington has spent a year overreacting to what really was just a freak event. This is one of the only times a team needs to regress in order to progress. Expect failure if they try to emulate last year in any way. Expect failure if Boudreau is coaching after Thanksgiving and the team isn't winning in regulation two games out of every three. Look, I called the Caps losing to Tampa Bay. I won on Bodog when they lost to Montreal. I love this team, and I want them to win, but I do not expect them to do so. Not without changing by undoing changes. Here's hoping that I'm either right or wrong. Right that the team will win if they forget about the past 18 months and that they do so, or wrong that they'll flop if they don't.

    Either way: C-A-P-S CAPS CAPS CAPS!!!

    Let's not forget the dream here: A kiss from Hayden Panetierre.
    And that shiny cup thing, too.