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.

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