Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Caps Acquire Scott Hannan

I'm pumped, for two reasons. One, this guy is off the team. Second, courtesy behindthenet and hockeyreference (click for larger):

More points than either Erskine or Sloan? Check. Next.

Last season for the Avalanche Hannan was the veteran shutdown blueliner. He had tough zonestart and his Corsi wasn't all that bad (relatively, that is). His zoneshift from about 42 to 48% there is fantastic. Here, he's a second pairing defenseman who had to play top pair minutes and did alright for himself.

This is worse, but still decent. Hannan still has tough zonestart and tough competition. His Corsi is still alright considering, but he took a hit in TOI. Liles has really been a monster this season.

Looks like he can step in with Poti and bolster that third pairing. Poti looks like he's been hurt by having to play a lot with not-top-4-caliber D (and/or small sample).

On the other side, Tomas Fleischmann moves away from a chance at a Stanley Cup in the very near future, but probably goes to a place where he'll get plenty of even strength and power play time, be able to play his preferred position left wing, and from the looks of it play with Matt Duchene. A new start for Flash, and all the best to him.

But for now, looks like Hannan may play tomorrow night in St. Louis, wearing #23. And the Caps would still have enough cap room at the deadline to go after Brad Richards.

I made this last season:

Sunday, November 28, 2010

What Should "Most Valuable" Encompass?

Even though 82 games seems like a long time and a large sample size, it really isn't. There's a heavy amount of luck in the standings, as there is in individual performances. We see players like Jonathan Cheechoo, Lee Stempniak, and so on go on hot runs for parts of seasons or for a season or two, then fall back into invisibility.

The same applies to players whose normal levels of play may not be in invisibility: Henrik Sedin last season, for example. Sedin is a point-per-game player who suddenly saw his competition level drop, his own shooting percentage skyrocket, and his teammates' shooting percentages skyrocket (Alex Burrows, Mikael Samuelsson). Sidney Crosby shot 17% last season, well above normal and higher than he can sustain, almost certainly. Even our own Alex Ovechkin benefited from high on-ice shooting percentage; how else would his 1.3 points/game-ness jump to 1.5, and in fact 1.6+ prior to his second suspension?

Corsi ratings are less influenced by luck since the sample size is around 10 times bigger than goals, if not more. But should "value" encompass random performance variability ("luck"), or be based on repeatable performance? Should players receive a bump in value for benefiting from factors they essentially cannot control? I'm of two minds on this.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Preview: Hurricanes @ Capitals

Carolina Hurricanes @ Washington Capitals

Washington: 16-6-2, 34 points
Leading scorer: Alex Ovechkin, 10-21-31 in 24 GP
Shot differential/game: +2.7
Notable injuries/illnesses: D Mike Green, F Mike Knuble, D Tyler Sloan
Starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth (12-3-1, 2.63, .912), though Semyon Varlamov (2-1-0, 1.88, .928) has been hot
Player to watch: W Alex Ovechkin

Carolina: 10-10-2, 22 points
Leading scorer: Eric Staal, 10-15-25 in 22 GP
Shot differential/game: -2.4
Notable injuries/illnesses: none
Starting goalie: Cam Ward (10-7-1, 2.68, .920)
Player to watch: D Joe Corvo

Season series:
Capitals 3 @ Hurricanes 0 (10/27)
Capitals 3 @ Hurricanes 2 (11/24)

Both teams are coming off shutout wins--the Hurricanes in Boston and the Capitals against Tampa Bay.

1) Even strength. The Hurricanes scored all three of their goals against Boston on the power play. At even strength, they got killed in Corsi. The Capitals are comparable to the Bruins in Corsi, and if they keep the game at even strength they should win this game.

2) Discipline. Wow, this comes up a lot, doesn't it? Well, Carolina draws a lot of penalties. Against a decently disciplined Bruins team on Friday, they only drew three, but made all three power plays count. That was all new father Cam Ward needed in terms of goal support.

3) Don't make it exciting. I can't help but think Carolina's young players like McBain, Sutter, Dwyer, Skinner, Tlusty, and others would love to play in a back-and-forth, close affair, as has been the case in the recent history between these two teams. Their young energy might give them an edge in that case. The Capitals really locked down Tampa Bay on Friday. Hopefully they can play that low-scoring chance game again against Carolina.
Moreover, the Hurricanes are pretty short as a team. The Capitals? The tallest. Take time and space away and make this game one of positioning and strength, not speed. Take away any potential advantages Carolina may have.

4) Play your game. Joe Corvo seems to like it, since it makes you predictable. Umm, how's that working out for you, Joe? Anyways, Alex Ovechkin has been getting better and better since the shootout loss to Philadelphia, and was getting his legs and physicality back on the forecheck against Tampa Bay. He will victimize the Canes over and over again playing like that.

5) Drive the middle with MarJo. Johansson has great speed, but not the strength to control the middle like some of his Carolina counterparts. Let Johansson attack down the wing and leave it to Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin to control the middle of the ice on that line. It's critical not to let Eric Staal start feeling it, because between his size and skill he's close to unstoppable when hot. There's no need to give him any chances to get hot, and Semin and Knuble should do a good job getting annoying sticks in to strip pucks and tie up sticks.

And for good luck, let's invoke Corsi powers by checking out the new version of behindthenet.ca. Capitals 4, Hurricanes 2.

The Chris Pronger Trade, Revisited

Before the 2009 offseason, Chris Pronger, with a year left on his contract, was traded along with Ryan Dingle to Philadelphia for Joffrey Lupul, Luca Sbisa, two first round picks, and a conditional third round pick.

In other words:

To Philadelphia: point per game forward in college (WCHA) plus one year and potential to re-sign a top-5 defenseman in the world.

To Anaheim: a top-6 winger, a great young defenseman, two first round picks, and a conditional pick.

At the trade deadline that year, rumor had it Washington had interest in Pronger, but Anaheim wanted something along the lines of Semyon Varlamov, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson for Pronger at the deadline (my memory is a bit hazy--one of the two goalies, one or both of Carlznerson, and possible a first round pick in there too).

In other words:

To Philadelphia: great young goalie prospect, one or two blue-chip defense prospects, maybe a first round pick

To Washington: One year of a top-5 defenseman.

Seems like quite a hefty price to me. Via Capgeek, this is what the Caps lineup might have looked like this season. I added Milan Jurcina and Antti Niemi to round out the roster.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Recap: Capitals 6, Lightning 0

I didn't catch the previous Caps shutout at Carolina, but this game must have been close to that quality of performance. By scoring chances (see below), the Caps had I think their best defensive performance of the season. I counted 7 and thought about a couple of others, but nothing else.

Man of the match: More or less all the Caps (save Neuvirth, the backup goalie) played pretty well tonight. I'll pick Marcus Johansson, who was flying all over the ice, picked up his first two career assists, and never missed his defensive zone assignment. He doesn't look so weak on the puck anymore, either. Alexander Semin had a good game with his second hat trick this season against Tampa Bay and third overall, but was largely a finisher as well.

The special teams tonight were excellent. Tampa Bay only had one "high-pressure" power play possession, and the Caps matched them in terms of chances. Meanwhile, the Capitals' power play was moving the puck with ease and scoring at will. Sorry Tampa, you're not challenging the Caps yet.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Preview: Lightning @ Capitals

Tampa Bay Lightning @ Washington Capitals

Washington: 15-6-2, 32 points
Leading scorer: Alex Ovechkin, 10-19-29 in 23 GP
Shot differential/game: +2.3
Notable injuries/illnesses: D Tom Poti, D Mike Green, F Mike Knuble, D Tyler Sloan
Starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth (12-3-1, 2.63, .912)
Player to watch: W Alex Ovechkin

Tampa Bay: 13-7-2, 28 points
Leading scorer: Steven Stamkos, 21-17-38 in 22 GP
Shot differential/game: +5.2 (!!! Tied with Detroit for 2nd, San Jose first)
Notable injuries/illnesses: C Vincent Lecavalier, W Simon Gagne
Starting goalie: 1A Dan Ellis (5-4-2, 2.81, .898) and 1B Mike Smith (8-3-0, 3.15, .884)
Player to watch: RW Martin St. Louis

Season series:
Lightning 3 @ Capitals 6 (11/11)

The Lightning have won five straight, while the Capitals just snapped a three game losing streak. For the first time in as long as I can remember, a team facing the Capitals has two players with as many or more points than any Capital: Martin St. Louis has 29 points.

2) Good Gordon. Boyd Gordon has the speed, skill, and smarts to limit chances for Steven Stamkos. He has to come up big here, since Martin St. Louis can also take advantage of extra space if teams focus too much on Stamkos.

3) DISCIPLINE!!! This gets all caps here because it's so critically important. Tampa Bay has a hot power play and outshoots its opponents by quite a bit. They're terrific at getting shots through. The Caps need to be responsible with the puck, make smart shot blocks, and not take silly penalties.

4) Alexander the Great. Alex Ovechkin was arguably the Caps' best forward against Carolina. If he plays well again, Tampa Bay doesn't stand a chance, as they're missing tough minutes scoring line center Lecavalier.

From what I read and see, Alex Ovechkin found a rhythm against Carolina. As we've seen in the playoffs, sometimes a small temporary change (in Carolina, moving to RW; in the playoffs, playing with Sergei Fedorov) can jumpstart Ovechkin so that he continues to dominate even when lines return to normal later on. I think and hope the same has happened. Capitals 5, Lightning 3.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

On Marcus Johansson's Queer Stats

Marcus Johansson, the Capitals' 1st round pick in 2009, is a fantastic skater with good defensive instincts. He's in the lineup each night he's healthy. He's played first line center, second line center, and third line center already. His scoring chance differential is pretty decent, especially for a 20-year old rookie. Yet, his Corsi is terrible, with middling competition and teammates and easy zone start.

What gives? Maybe this is a trend of young players, who don't have the strength to generate good Corsi numbers but don't lack the smarts to prevent good scoring opportunities (which are heavily influenced by stickwork and positioning, not just strength).

Here I'll test that hypothesis. The young players I can compare Johansson to are the ones who also have scoring chance data, so players for the Oilers, '09-'10 Flames (72 games), '10-'11 Flames, Maple Leafs (76 games in '09-'10), Canadiens, '10-'11 Rangers, '10-'11 Panthers, '09-'10 Avalanche (first half of the season only), and the '09-'10 Wild (through Game 20589) are included along with Johansson. Caps scoring chance data courtesy Russian Machine Never Breaks.

Here's the list of forwards I got, with a 20 game cutoff for 09-10 and five games for 10-11:

09-10: Matt Duchene, Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak, TJ Galiardi, Ryan Wilson, Viktor Stalberg, Tom Pyatt, Brandon Yip, Robbie Earl, Christian Hanson, Ryan Stone, Mikael Backlund, Luca Caputi

10-11: Taylor Hall, Marcus Johansson, Magnus Paajarvi, Jordan Eberle, Lars Eller, Stefan Meyer, Evgeny Grachev, plus some of the guys in the previous year.

All stats from behindthenet.ca and Timeonice as of the morning of November 22, 2010. I apologize for the incomplete stats at this point. Click to enlarge.

The thought that struck me about halfway through this exercise is that Johansson's Corsi Rel could be so poor because the Capitals are a good Corsi team. His Corsi On is about -0.8, which bears out that hypothesis. The Capitals' scoring chance percentage, going by Neil Greenberg's numbers, is .517 (my numbers are incomplete).

What jumps out to me is just how poor Magnus Paajarvi's scoring chance percentage is (which makes me wonder about this post). He's getting creamed, and for some reason Tom Renney is playing him against top competition. His linemates tend to be a combination of Sam Gagner, Shawn Horcoff, Gilbert Brule, Ales Hemsky, and Jordan Eberle. And Eberle has been terrific so far (sigh...the 2008 draft...)

For an idea of what this season's Corsi% totals look like, here's some data compiled by JLikens, used to adjust Corsi based on various factors.

Marcus Johansson looks middling to slightly above average among first-year players on that list, with Eberle, Bozak, Eller, Hall, and Backlund looking better. Not bad at all. Backlund has remained very, very good for Calgary.

Looks to me like Marcus Johansson's Corsi and scoring chance numbers are only queer because he's one of the few young players that actually plays for a pretty good team. Is that good or bad that such a good team is dressing such a young player? Only time will tell.

Preview: Capitals @ Hurricanes

Washington Capitals @ Carolina Hurricanes

Washington: 14-6-2, 30 points
Leading scorer: Alex Ovechkin, 10-16-25, and Alexander Semin, 14-12-26, in 22 GP
Shot differential/game: +2.2
Notable injuries/illnesses: D Tom Poti, F Mike Knuble, G Michal Neuvirth
Starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth (12-3-1, 2.63, .912), though Semyon Varlamov may get the start.
Player to watch: W Alexander Semin

New Jersey: 9-19-2, 20 points
Leading scorer: Eric Staal, 9-14-23 in 20 GP
Shot differential/game: -1.1
Notable injuries/illnesses: none
Starting goalie: Cam Ward (9-7-1, 2.84, .914)
Player to watch: C Eric Staal

Season series:
Capitals 3 @ Hurricanes 0 (10/27)

Carolina is coming off two shootout losses over the weekend to Pittsburgh and Nashville. Carolina recently added defenseman Ian White via trade, and he looks like he's playing with Joni Pitkanen.

1) Play conservatively against Pitkanen. He's underrated because he's played for Edmonton and then Carolina, but make no mistake, Pitkanen is a legitimate 1D. He's capable of playing tough minutes and actually boasts a positive plus-minus. He loves to skate and jump into the attack. The Caps better be wary. With Ian White as his partner, that makes two defensemen that can move the puck and skate very well.

2) Dump and chase against Staal, Skinner, Sutter, and Samsonov. The four "S's" are the most creative offensive forwards the Canes have. The formula for beating creative offensive playmaking talents? Force them to play defense. Staal and Sutter are pretty good defensively too, but a physical, fast forecheck should neutralize them. Well, as long as Pitkanen and White aren't playing back there, guys who can effectively counteract the forecheck with skating and puck moving. This could work wonders against Corvo, who had trouble last season with dump-and-chase.

3) DISCIPLINE!!! This gets all caps here because it's so critically important. The Hurricanes are perennially one of the best teams at drawing penalties. The Caps? One of the best teams at taking them (that is to say, the Canes get lots of PPs and the Caps PK a lot). A couple of early power play goals and this could get ugly for the Caps really quickly.

4) Hey, hey, whad'ya say, Sasha? Alexander Semin is 23-15-38 in 30 career games played against Carolina. He's a real Canes killer, especially over the past three seasons or so. Considering his recent cold streak, plus the controversial incident with Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk after the NJD stinker, I'm sure Boudreau has had a nice little chat with Semin. Look for him to respond in a big way.

5) Play conservatively...with the puck. Carolina won't be drawing penalties without the puck. The Capitals should take fewer risks offensively and control the puck instead (like a certain team from Michigan) to try and not play to Carolina's strengths. Stay at even strength and the Capitals should be all set.

Three losses in a row, two of the blowout variety. Three straight games of giving up five goals. I don't think there will be another. Capitals 3, Hurricanes 1.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Recap: Devils 5, Capitals 0

The score tells 99% of the story.

The remaining one percent:

The ice looked terrible. Either that or something was up with the Caps, since Green slipped at least three times and all the Caps save Backstrom seemed to be mishandling the puck all night, flubbing passes and shots. I think two or three goals were scored pretty much as a result of that. Meanwhile, the Devils didn't have those same issues for the most part.

Both Mike Green and Tyler Sloan left the game and did not return.

John Carlson was the only Cap consistently creating his own offense. Backstrom had a decent game as well, but that's not saying much.

On to Raleigh. I wonder if I should take school off on Thanksgiving to watch the game.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Preview: Capitals @ Devils

Washington Capitals @ New Jersey Devils

Washington: 14-5-2, 30 points
Leading scorer: Alex Ovechkin, 10-16-25, and Alexander Semin, 14-12-26, in 21 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 51.1%
Notable injuries/illnesses: D Tom Poti, F Mike Knuble
Starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth (12-3-1, 2.63, .912), though look for Braden Holtby (2-1-1, 3.33, .869) to maybe get the start
Player to watch: C Marcus Johansson

New Jersey: 5-13-2, 12 points
Leading scorer: Patrik Elias, 2-10-12 in 20 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 52.1%
Notable injuries/illnesses: G Martin Brodeur, W Jamie Langenbrunner, D Matt Taormina, LW Zach Parise, C Jacob Josefson, D Bryce Salvador, D Anssi Salmela, D Mark Fraser
Starting goalie: Martin Brodeur (4-10-1, 2.74, .901), though look for Johan Hedberg (1-2-1, 4.53, .855) to get the nod
Player to watch: LW Patrik Elias

Season series:

Devils 2 @ Capitals 7 (10/9)

New Jersey is coming off a close 3-2 defeat at the hands of the St. Louis Blues, while the Capitals lost 5-4 to Philadelphia in a shootout. Both teams appear to be playing better as of late, though of course that means the Devils are playing mediocre again while the Capitals are playing like a pretty good team.

1) Don't let Johan Hedberg get into a groove. He can be starting caliber for stretches. Score early so he can't settle into a rhythm. Hedberg playing great is really one of the only ways the Devils can win this game.

2) Up tempo. The Devils have injury issues and don't have the youth or "horses" to play an up-tempo game with the Capitals. The Capitals need to play fast, forecheck hard, and use their speed and skating to create chances. Marcus Johansson did a terrific job of that against Philadelphia. Sitting back plays into the Devils' strengths.

3) Play along the wings. Travis Zajac and Jason Arnott are a better 1-2 down the middle than Backstrom and whomever else the Capitals can put out there. The Capitals are much better at wing and on defense, though, so keeping the attack from the blueline to the wings will help.

4) Discipline. Don't fall into a penalty-taking frenzy. Even though the Devils' PP is only 11% (29th in the NHL) with guys like Elias, Kovalchuk, Arnott, Zajac, and Greene, it could strike rapidly and frequently given the opportunity. Don't give them that opportunity, boys in white.

5) Play dirty. I don't mean dirty like Todd Bertuzzi, but dirty like Mike Richards or David Backes--frustrate the Devils, play some borderline hockey, run into their goalie, get them off their games. The Devils will lose this game in another blowout if they don't maintain their defensive structure. Get them focused on revenge instead of playing hockey and that's exactly what will happen.

Two blowouts against the same stingy Devils team in a single season? Don't bet against it. It is kind of hard to blowout the home team, though. I'm looking for a strong all-around performance, including from the captain. Capitals 4, Devils 1.

Last Five in Fenwick: Games 17-21

I put up a new format in the tables, sorting by C/W/D (I have Beagle at W right now). I listed the team stats next to the centers. I posted the tables as images. Click for a bigger picture, but make sure you open in a new tab, or else you'll navigate away.

Here's a link to view the spreadsheet, and here's one to download it. If you use the data I've compiled (thanks to Vic Ferrari's Timeonice) please assign credit appropriately.

Game 20234 Capitals 2 @ Sabres 3 (OT)
Game 20245 Thrashers 4 @ Capitals 6
Game 20260 Sabres 2 @ Capitals 4
Game 20277 Capitals 0 @ Thrashers 5
Game 20287 Flyers 5 @ Capitals 4 (SO)

All the centers had pretty good last five games. Fleischmann in particular was helped by a monster game against Philadelphia, in which he had 10 positive Fenwick events and only 1 negative event. Umm, yeah, that's kind of good. The Capitals as a team had a very solid week at 5-on-5, even notwithstanding the disappointment in the 2nd-to-last column of the next chart.

The Fenwick% numbers pretty much tell the whole story here. That'll do, all you not named Knuble and Ovechkin. Knuble in my mind gets a pass because he's a complementary player, not a Corsi-driver. But AO is the latter and was brutal, especially in the second Buffalo game in which he was a minus ten Fenwick and Corsi. Minus ten. I'll do a closer look at AO's struggles soon if he doesn't pick up his game in the next week or so.

Mike Green-Jeff Schultz is a kickass pairing, and Carlzner is pretty good too. Sloskine did pretty decently as well, as every Caps pairing finished above 50% Fenwick and only Sloan was below 50% Corsi. With Tom Poti back in the lineup, the Caps' D corps will be even better. They're certainly helping the cause--the goaltending wasn't as good as it was before behind them, that's all.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Recap: Flyers 5, Capitals 4 (SO)

I really don't know what to make of this one. I thought the Capitals played a good first and pretty poorly thereafter, but the scoring chances show that aside from the 2nd they outchanced the Flyers 19-6.

Good games from Johansson, Fleischmann, Fehr, and Chimera tonight, I thought. Johansson was stronger on the puck than I've ever seen before and created his own shots, winning board battles. Fleischmann looked much better at wing, as he had a lesser defensive responsibility and good lurk for good shots. He got them, too, hitting three posts or so. Fehr looked good for most of the game, driving to the net hard and picking up the game-tying goal too. Chimera was just flying, as the Chimera-Johansson-Bradley line looked good.

Still, I don't think the Capitals deserved the point they got, let alone two. Bad refereeing or not, bad luck hitting the posts or not, there's no excuse to take so many minor penalties, even if the other team took almost as many. By my count it was 10. That's approaching a period's worth of play solely on the PK. That's ridiculous. If the Capitals can't fix discipline issues they'll be screwed come the playoffs, as a hot goalie + good special teams a la Montreal will beat them once again.

The Flyers didn't deserve to win, but neither did the Caps. Whatever, might as well split the points.

Man of the match: Let's give it to Marcus Johansson, though no one from either side stood out all that much, really. Green was fantastic on the penalty kill, and Richards was pretty good too. Pronger made one mistake (Johansson goal), but otherwise was solid.

Don't Jump the Gun on Steven Stamkos

Steven Stamkos right now leads the NHL in both goals and points. He has 19 goals in 19 games, ahead of Alex Ovechkin's 17 through 19 last season. Ovechkin only had 27 points through 19 games last year; Stamkos has 34 and counting. Some are already labeling him the most exciting player in the NHL and one of the best in the game, right alongside Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. I've even seen some fans state that Stamkos is the best in hockey.

Sorry, Stamkos fans, we have to be patient.

Firstly, Stamkos' PDO is high (at the moment, 104.2%). While we saw last year that players can have such high PDOs over an entire season, it's unlikely. The same goes for that 12.5% on-ice shooting and 26.4% individual shooting percentage (16.4% at 5-on-5) overall. Meanwhile, Crosby is at a similar points pace, but at a sustainable 100.1% PDO.

Secondly, look at his Corsi Rel. 0.6. Sorry, that's pretty poor for a guy supposed to be one of the best in the game. While Alex Ovechkin hasn't been that dominating Corsi force this season as in years past, Crosby is still an 8.8, while his line is playing the toughest minutes on the team. Don't even get me started on Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk, either, two guys who always post high quality of competition and terrific relative Corsis and all-around numbers.

Thirdly, Stamkos seems to be contributing a bit too often. He has been on-ice for 20 even strength goals (subtract PPGF from total GF). He has 17 points on those 20 goals, for an individual point percentage of 85%, which would be first place over 2007-2010. Then, he's been on ice for 18 power play goals for, and has points on 17 of them, for a 94.4% contribution, which save for one miraculous season from Rick Nash blows everyone else out of the water. And Tampa isn't about to have a dead-last power play like that 2008-2009 Blue Jackets team. With all that talent and that high power play percentage, eventually the goals will start to get spread around a bit more, especially once Gagne and Lecavalier are ready to go again.

To be fair to Stamkos, he is a helluva exciting player, with a terrific shot, playing medium competition with weak teammates and with middling zone starts on the whole so far this season. But at this point, only in his second dominating season, he's more Ilya Kovalchuk (of seven great seasons) than Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin (each in their sixth). And we know who is better there.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Recap: Thrashers 5, Capitals 0

I did not expect such a horrible performance.

I'm not feeling very well, so only a brief recap here.

The Caps should play much, much better against Philadelphia. Bright spot of the game for the Caps: Mike Green. He looked to me like the best player on the Caps. Burmistrov looked good for Atlanta. Alex Ovechkin got a bit of his "inspired" stride back. I hope Mike Knuble is feeling alright.

And looks like the Caps got back to drawing penalties, and didn't take many too. Of course, winning >> penalty differential, though the two are related.

Why was the top power play unit out in the dying moments of a 5-0 game? Come on, BB. Credit to the Thrashers, though, they really shut everything down for most of the third (then the Caps looked like they gave up).

Here's the link to scoring chances, which I posted below the break as well. Of course, thanks to Vic Ferrari for making this so very much easier.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Preview: Capitals @ Thrashers

Washington Capitals @ Atlanta Thrashers

Washington: 14-4-1, 29 points
Leading scorer: Alex Ovechkin, 20-15-25, and Alexander Semin, 14-11-25, in 19 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 51.1%
Notable injuries/illnesses: C Boyd Gordon, G Semyon Varlamov, D Tom Poti
Starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth (12-3-0, 2.56, .912), though look for Braden Holtby (2-0-1, 2.22, .911) to get the start
Player to watch: LW Alex Ovechkin

Atlanta: 7-9-3, 17 points
Leading scorer: Andrew Ladd, 7-11-18 in 19 GP)
Tied Fenwick% last season: 49.2%
Notable injuries/illnesses: D Dustin Byfuglien, F Freddy Modin, F Eric Boulton, F Patrice Cormier
Starting goalie: Chris Mason (6-5-1, 3.90, .897), though Ondrej Pavelec (1-4-2, 2.33, .928) is playing much better as of late
Player to watch: D Tobias Enstrom

Season series:
Atlanta 4 vs Washington 2 (10/8)
Washington 4 vs Atlanta 3 (OT) (10/23)
Washington 6 vs Atlanta 4 (11/14)

Atlanta is coming off a tough 2-1 loss to Florida, while the Caps got the better of their opposing elite backstopper, winning 4-2 over Buffalo.

1) Can Atlanta stop the Caps' attack? With Dustin Byfuglien out of the lineup, the Thrashers don't look to have two pairings good enough to keep up with the Caps' top two lines. Zach Bogosian and Johnny Oduya should draw the Ovechkin matchup, and Tobias Enstrom will have to anchor the second pairing against Laich and possibly Semin and even Backstrom as well. Yikes. That being said, Enstrom is a terrific puck mover and with two-way forwards like Andrew Ladd and Alexander Burmistrov playing in front of him might be able to play good enough of a puck possession game to mitigate the Caps' huge advantage in personnel.

2) Back in a Flash. As far as I can remember, the last two times Tomas Fleischmann was benched he responded with strong games in his comebacks (the second with several months in between). If he's in, look for his line to have a big, opportune night.

3) Draw penalties. This is getting old. The hallmark of an elite team is that it draws lots of penalties (among other things) compared to how many it takes. Well, the Caps are on the wrong side of that ledger. I think they haven't even drawn five penalties in the last three games. Keep moving your feet and forecheck hard. Play responsibly with the puck and be patient. Use the power plays to put the knife to their throats.

4) Third line in. Against Buffalo the Caps' line of Chimera-Steckel-Bradley was phenomenal, topping the Corsi charts. If they click like that on every night the Capitals will have at worst a 50/50 chance to win. That's the sort of strong play from the "plumbers" that any team loves to have.

5) Getting back the MoJo. Marcus Johansson on Wednesday night got killed in Corsi, and actually has been all season, pretty much. Alex Ovechkin got killed along with Johansson, and has been relatively poor in Corsi as well this season. Regardless of what the lower lines do, the Ovechkin line--with or without Johansson--is the single most important forward line to the Capitals' success. Hopefully Ovechkin rebounds well (though this story is getting old).

Can Alex Ovechkin have two terrible games in a row? I doubt it, and I think he'll be pretty good. But can the depth have two stellar games in a row? I doubt that too. Thrashers 5, Capitals 3.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Preview: Sabres @ Capitals

Buffalo Sabres @ Washington Capitals

Washington: 13-4-1, 27 points
Leading scorer: Alex Ovechkin, 10-15-25 in 18 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 51.1%
Notable injuries/illnesses: C Boyd Gordon, G Semyon Varlamov, D Tom Poti
Starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth (11-3-0, 2.60, .910)
Player to watch: C Marcus Johansson

Buffalo: 7-9-3, 17 points
Leading scorer: Derek Roy, 8-13-21 in 19 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 49.4%
Notable injuries/illnesses: F Nathan Gerbe, F Drew Stafford
Starting goalie: Ryan Miller (5-5-2, 2.64, .906)
Player to watch: The Sabres' starting goalie

Don't look now, but the Sabres are playing kind of...well.

1) Play under control. While the Caps should come out playing strong this game (after getting embarrassed in Buffalo over the weekend) coming out firing is the wrong move. The last thing the Capitals want is for Miller to work himself into a groove a la Halak. Come out strong, but exercise shot selection, boys.

2) Use the points. Go back the to the point for shots, and head to the net for screens, deflections, and rebound chances. Miller was a bit shaky with his rebound control on Saturday and gave up two goals from the high slot. Pounce on him early and the Sabres will be forced to open up the game, which works in the Capitals favor most of the time.

3) Stop the Sabres' two scoring lines. I was surprised on Saturday how good of a Corsi team the Sabres were. The Roy line went head-to-head with the Ovechkin line and beat 'em hollow. While the Pominville line didn't do as well in Fenwick and Corsi, it did generate at least 3 good scoring chances from in tight. If they're stopped, the Sabres' offense is stopped.

4) Make them see 90 shining lights. All indications are that Marcus Johansson will center the second line, if not the first. He needs to make the most of his chances playing with a combination of Ovechkin, Semin, or team-Corsi-leader-Laich. The Capitals had trouble generating chances on Saturday and need a better attacking performance.

5) Fourth man in. A Red Wings fan commented on Winging It in Motown that Mike Green is terrible at defense and implied he's only marginally better than Jack Johnson. While the confirmation bias is probably too much for me to go convince them, an easy way for Green to "give them the finger" (so to speak) is by continuing his Corsi-dominating ways. Green causes havoc by jumping into the offense and finding open lanes for passes and shots (this season against other top lines, to boot). He needs to be near the top of his game to help stop Derek Roy and keep the center hemmed in his zone instead of attacking Michal Neuvirth or Braden Holtby.

I can't imagine the Capitals losing to Buffalo twice over such a short span. I get the feeling this game will be a hard-fought, satisfying win for the boys in red. Capitals 4, Sabres 2.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Preview: Thrashers @ Capitals

Atlanta Thrashers @ Washington Capitals

Washington: 12-4-1, 25 points
Leading scorer: Alex Ovechkin, 9-14-23 in 17 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 51.1%
Notable injuries/illnesses: C Boyd Gordon, G Semyon Varlamov, D Tom Poti
Starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth (10-3-0, 2.50, .914)
Player to watch: LW Alex Ovechkin

Atlanta: 5-9-3, 13 points
Leading scorer: Andrew Ladd (6-10-16 in 17) and Dustin Byfuglien (5-11-15 in 17)
Tied Fenwick% last season: 49.2%
Notable injuries/illnesses: Brian Little is just returning from concussion
Starting goalie: Chris Mason (6-5-1, 3.66, .903)
Player to watch: Evander Kane

Season series:
Atlanta 4, Washington 2 (10/8)
Washington 4, Atlanta 3 (OT) (10/23)

Both teams are playing the second leg of a back-to-back. The Thrashers lost 4-2 to Pittsburgh, and the Capitals lost 3-2 in overtime to Buffalo.

1) Attack Evander. The Caps got the better of Tyler Myers last night, but didn't get enough time on ice from their big guns to really do much with it (Alzner's goal, at least, came off a Myers turnover). While Evander Kane has 11 points, he's also already a minus eleven. Yikes. Semin-Laich will destroy him, and now the Caps have the last change too. It's best to stop him now before he becomes a full-time Caps killer.

2) Take away the point. Same as last night, except here it's to attack Dustin Byfuglien, who while decent offensively actually should be playing wing, not defense, from what I've seen. He's not as adept defensively as some of his fellow Atlanta blueliners and could be a weak point.

3) No panic. Control your shots and exercise shot selection. No need for the Caps to pepper Mason or Pavelec, not score, and see the other goalie suddenly stopping everything. Atlanta is not a great team, and the Capitals just need to hang onto the puck, Philly vs MTL style.

4) Alex&Alex, a family company. Messrs. Ovechkin and Semin make my family very happy with highlight-reel goals and terrific production. They should be able to feast on the Sabres' Thrashers' D. Both Alexes are over a point-a-game against Atlanta. This might be the wake-up call for Ovechkin we've been waiting for--he's more productive against Atlanta than against any other team.

5) Bounce-back rookies. John Carlson is extremely competitive and thus far in his career he's always followed up embarrassing performances with strong ones. While last night wasn't terrible, it was embarrassing in how it ended, and I'm expecting him to really play terrific hockey tonight. Ditto for Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson was on the ice for Vanek's OT goal too.

I have a bad feeling the Caps will come out flat. But they have too much talent here, and the blueline is producing. Capitals 4, Thrashers 2.

Recap: Sabres 3, Capitals 2 (OT)

When Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin get owned as a unit, you know the Capitals were in trouble.

The first period was pretty even, and the Capitals struck first. At one end of the ice--the Sabres' defensive zone for the first and third, below the goal line--Tyler Myers tripped, and while trying to make the clear while falling passed right to Alexander Semin, who looked to pass to Ovechkin. He missed, but Karl Alzner was right there and pumped a shot through traffic to make it 1-0 for Washington.

Then things got ugly.

The Sabres dominated the second period, sparked by some power plays. I noted in my preview that the Capitals needed to be penalty-disciplined--clearly, they weren't. Steve Mondator shot through traffic off the pipe and in, and Thomas Vanek took a carom in front and banged it in for a 2-1 Sabres lead.

In the third, the Sabres really didn't surrender--or, I think, the Capitals didn't create--many chances. Nicklas Backstrom faked a shot to get Ryan Miller to go down and then chipped a controlled shot into the top corner, blocker side. Add that one to the highlight reel.

And that OT goal by Vanek, too.

Man of the match: Braden Holtby was solid for the Capitals and didn't make a mistake as far as I could tell, save one mix-up while playing the puck behind his net. I think Jason Pominville deserves it overall.

Last Five in Fenwick: Games 12-16

My numbers don't include the Buffalo game on November 13.

Last Five in Fenwick: Games 1-5, Games 6-11

Game 20165 Maple Leafs 4 @ Capitals 5 (SO)
Game 20180 Bruins 3 @ Capitals 5
Game 20199 Flyers 2 @ Capitals 3 (OT)
Game 20204 Capitals 5 @ Rangers 3
Game 20219 Lightning 3 @ Capitals 6

You can access my spreadsheet here. As always, credit to Timeonice for single-game zone start, Corsi, and time on ice numbers, and stick tap to Behind the Net for the Corsi Rel, QoC, QoT, Zonestart, and PDO numbers in the season-to-date chart.

Write-in Campaign for Alexander Semin?

From NHL.com, the guys who'll be on the all-star ballot in a couple of days:

Selanne, Getzlaf, Perry, Ryan (4)
Byfuglien, Enstrom (2)
Thomas, Chara, Bergeron, Krejci (4)
Miller, Roy, Vanek (3)
Kiprusoff, Bouwmeester, Iginla (3)
Ward, Pitkanen, Staal (3)
Campbell, Seabrook, Keith, Kane, Toews, Hossa (6)
Anderson, Stastny, Hejduk (3)
Nash, Umberger (2)
Richards B., Morrow, Robidas (3)
Rafalski, Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen (5)
Khabibulin, Hemsky (2)
Vokoun, McCabe, Booth (3)
Quick, Smyth, Doughty, Kopitar (4)
Backstrom, Koivu M., Zidlicky (3)
Markov, Cammalleri, Gionta (3)
Rinne, Suter, Weber (3)
Brodeur, Parise, Kovalchuk (3)
Streit, Tavares (2)
Lundqvist, Gaborik, Staal M. (3)
Alfredsson, Gonchar, Spezza (3)
Pronger, Timonen, Richards M., Carter, Briere (5)
Bryzgalov, Doan, Jovanovski (3)
Fleury, Crosby, Malkin, Martin (4)
Niemi, Boyle, Thornton, Marleau, Heatley (5)
Halak, Oshie (2)
Stamkos, Lecavalier, St. Louis (3)
Giguere, Phaneuf, Kaberle, Kessel (4)
Luongo, Sedin D., Sedin H., Hamhuis (4)
Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green (3)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Preview: Capitals @ Sabres

Washington Capitals @ Buffalo Sabres

Washington: 12-4-0, 24 points
Leading scorer: Alex Ovechkin, 9-14-23 in 16 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 51.1%
Notable injuries/illnesses: C Boyd Gordon, G Semyon Varlamov
Starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth (10-3-0, 2.50, .914), though I expect Braden Holtby (2-0-0, 1.69, .931) to get the start
Player to watch: LW Alex Ovechkin

Buffalo: 5-9-3, 13 points
Leading scorer: Derek Roy, 8-10-18 in 17 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 49.4%
Notable injuries/illnesses: G Ryan Miller, F Nathan Gerbe, F Drew Stafford
Starting goalie: Ryan Miller (3-5-1, 2.71, .903), but I expect Jhonas Enroth (2-1-1, 3.43, .876) (according to the NHL.com preview Miller is ready to go
Player to watch: The Sabres' starting goalie

The only way the Sabres win this one is with the Capitals throwing out a clunker or if Enroth or Miller steals the game. Miller certainly is capable, but he hasn't been playing well this season. Even if he does, the Sabres' special teams could sink them. And then there's those pesky Caps goalies who are, you know, kind of decently awesome.

1) Attack Tyler Myers. The reigning Calder Trophy winner is having trouble as teams watched the game tape and learned how to beat him. That can't be good for his confidence, and given enough pressure I wouldn't be surprised to see him commit some bad turnovers in his own zone. Sorry, kid.

2) Take away the point. Both Jordan Leopold and Myers have contributed pretty well from the blueline in terms of points. For a team like Buffalo that lacks any top-end scorers (well, Vanek is debatable), "offense from the defense" is how they get it done. The Caps wingers need to be more aggressive than normal against the point and take away that outlet. Implementing this strategy should also create many odd man rushes, which the Capitals feast on.

3) Penalties. Penalty trouble is one of the few ways in which the Caps can blow this game. Even though both of Buffalo's special teams units haven't been quite up to bogey par this season, you never know when they'll suddenly break out (an 11.1% PP for the season is simply not realistic, methinks). Meanwhile, drawing penalties and maybe scoring a power play goal or two against a 77% unit will take the life out of the Sabres (if they had any). The Caps are +3 in shot differential per game, the Sabres +5--obviously some of that is score effects (for both teams, though especially the Sabres), but the Sabres are a decent ES team nonetheless.

4) Alex&Alex, a family company. Messrs. Ovechkin and Semin make my family very happy with highlight-reel goals and terrific production. They should be able to feast on the Sabres' D, including a familiar face in Shaone Morrisonn who, we're discovering, worked to Mike Green's detriment rather than complement. Semin's 4 career points against the Sabres (per the NHL.com preview) worry me, though.

5) Make Roy Green with envy. Bruce Boudreau hasn't shied away from using Mike Green to shut down top lines and Roy, the Sabres' offensive catalyst up front, is one guy that needs to be shut down. Rookie Tyler Ennis is another. If the two play together, perhaps the Caps should use a checking line against them and try to take advantage of their size; if not, Backstrom and Ovechkin should do. I hope Bruce Boudreau is consciously using them power versus power, because as soon as Ovechkin wakes up that top line will be deadly.

I have a bad feeling the Caps will come out flat. I also have a feeling Buffalo simply can't compete with Washington. Sorry, Buffalo. Capitals 5, Sabres 2.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Preview: Lightning @ Capitals

Tampa Bay Lightning @ Washington Capitals

Washington: 11-4-0, 22 points
Leading scorer: Alex Ovechkin, 8-12-20 in 15 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 51.1%
Notable injuries/illnesses: D Tom Poti, G Semyon Varlamov
Starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth (9-3-0, 2.46, .912)
Player to watch: C Boyd Gordon

Tampa Bay: 8-4-2, 18 points
Leading scorer: Steven Stamkos, 13-11-24 in 14 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 45.8%
Notable injuries/illnesses: W Simon Gagne, W Steve Downie
Starting goalie: Dan Ellis (4-2-2, 2.11, .924)
Player to watch: C Steven Stamkos

The Capitals, on a five game winning streak, come to back home to face division "rival" Tampa Bay for the first time this season. On the back of strong goaltending and some great luck Tampa Bay is off to a strong start and looks to present a tough matchup. At first glance they strike me as similar to last year's Caps--underrated goaltending and defense, lots of skill up front without the same dominance as a Chicago or Detroit but with nice shooting luck. The Caps have about the same Corsi, but with some significant Corsi underperformance from Alex Ovechkin.

1) Shut down Stamkos. Boyd Gordon got my "player to watch" for the Capitals because he'll likely be tasked with going head-to-head with Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and whoever replaces the injured Steve Downie. That may be his toughest assignment this entire season with the way the Lightning have been shooting thus far. Then again, Stamkos actually has a negative relative Corsi. As long as the Caps can limit scoring chances against and take away Stamkos' favorite shot, the one-timer from the left circle, the Caps should be alright.

2) Quick puck movement. The Lightning have some good forwards that will snipe top corners if the Caps give them the change with defensive-zone turnovers (as in the NYR game). The Caps D will need to get the puck to the Caps' reborn puck-controlling offensive players as fast as possible, so as to not risk giving up those opportune goals to Tampa Bay.

3) Who gets Vinny Lecavalier? Both Tampa and the Caps will have the same issue of figuring out how to assign their defensive players, having two strong lines to shut down. For the Caps, youngsters John Carlson and Karl Alzner will likely either draw hot Stamkos or big, physical Lecavalier. This should be a good measuring stick for the two, and I have a feeling they'll be up to the task.

4) Who plays up/down? Considering Tampa's good record and Stamkos' league-leading goal and point totals, you might think they're dominant on the puck. In reality, they're about even with the Caps in overall Corsi, as the Corsi Rel charts suggest Tampa is a bit above Washington , with both in the 7-7.4 range. Considering Alex Ovechkin's struggles, I think the Capitals are the better team--the question is whether they play down or up. If they play up they're going to win this game.

5) Chess game. Both teams looks similar, with tons of talent on the top two lines, some good defensemen, and severely underrated goaltending. I think they'll be going power versus power too, at least Lightning tough-minutes center Vincent Lecavalier. You can bet each team's top two pairings will take the other team's top two forward lines, with each third pairing needing shading. This game could very well go down with several in-game adjustments, and Bruce Boudreau will get his first taste of hotshot coach Guy Boucher.

Every winning streak has to end. I think the Lightning will come out strong and surprise the Caps, who surprise them back with another close comeback. Capitals 4, Lightning 3 (OT).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Possible Trade Target: Wojtek Wolski?

It came up on last week's Ales Hemsky post that maybe the Caps could go after Wojtek Wolski. While the Pole is listed as a LW, he played some center for the Avalanche in 2008-2009 and won 48.2% of his 515 draws.

Basic stats courtesy Yahoo. Fenwick% and Corsi% courtesy Timeonice (07-08 08-09 09-10). Pts% courtesy Copper and Blue (ES PP). Everything else from Behind the Net.

The Best Players in the NHL, Part II

One quick modification I've decided to try is taking only low-TOI NHL forwards to set a baseline standard to get a best fit line, and compare all my 600+ 5-on-5 mins forwards with that line, rather than an all-encompassing line which will be skewed by good and bad players alike.

Preview: Capitals @ Rangers

Washington Capitals @ New York Rangers

Washington: 10-4-0, 20 points
Leading scorer: Alex Ovechkin, 8-10-18 in 14 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 51.1%
Notable injuries/illnesses: D Tom Poti, G Semyon Varlamov, W Brooks Laich
Probable starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth (8-3-0, 2.41, .914)
Player to watch: D Mike Green

New York: 7-6-1, 15 points
Leading scorer: Brandon Dubinsky, 10-4-14 in 14 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 49.5%
Notable injuries/illnesses: RW Marian Gaborik, C Chris Drury, F Vaclav Prospal
Probable starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist (6-4-1, 2.55, .924)
Player to watch: C Brandon Dubinsky

The Capitals, on a four game winning streak, come to the Big Apple to face the up-and-down Rangers, who, despite injuries to important players, are somehow staying afloat, even with poor special teams (their vaunted PK is under 80%).

1) Lundqvist vs world. Henrik Lundqvist has been terrific thus far for the Rangers, and Martin Biron has been solid as well. Lundqvist will need to be at his best tonight, as Washington's talented shooters will be the toughest offensive matchup thus far for NYR. The Caps' history against New York recently may not be jaw-dropping (Ovechkin and Backstrom are hardly over a point-per-game, Semin is just under), but that doesn't mean the Rangers can slack off.

2) Does Alex Ovechkin wake up? While Ovechkin has been putting up points recently, his even strength play hasn't been too great. Instead of Pronger and Timonen trying to stop him, it'll be Marc Staal, who at just 23 years old is already an elite shutdown defenseman. John Tortorella will be matching him against Ovechkin as often as possible, and Ovechkin will have to have a very good game to break through.

3) Is this really Mike Green? Since returning from injury, Mike Green has been phenomenal. Playing top minutes every night in every sense of the word--time on ice, penalty kill, power play, and matchups--he has moved the puck efficiently, skated well, and been rock solid defensively. This is much better play from Green in terms of offensive-defensive balance than I can recall from him before. Will it keep up? He'll have his hands full taking on the blue-hot line of Ryan Callahan-Brandon Dubinsky-Artem Anisimov. Luckily for Green, those are Tortorella's tough minutes forwards too, so Green should have Ovechkin and Backstrom in front of him as well.

4) Can the second line hold its own? Brooks Laich, surprisingly to me, has been a pretty good Corsi player so far this season. He looks like he'll be out of the lineup, so Tomas Fleischmann and Mike Knuble will have a new linemate. Unless Boudreau gets creative and puts Semin on the second line with Fehr on the top line, I really think that line will have an extremely tough night. There are simply no puck control players on that line, and the Rangers have some tough forechecking forwards that'll dump-and-chase all day, plus a notable good two-way puck-possession forward in Alexander Frolov ("Semin-lite" is probably a decent description). That is, unless "Carlznerson" or "Sloskine" bails 'em out.

5) Special teams. Thus far this season the Rangers' PK has been struggling, and the power play has been frustrating. The Capitals come into the game with a hot power play that has now hit 20%, and a penalty kill that, while not as efficient as earlier in the season, is still around 87% and top-10 in the NHL. Both teams average 13.6 PIMs/game thus far as well. That being said, the Rangers' penalty kill for years has been one of the best in the league, and will present a tough matchup. A poor special teams performance could easily offset any gains at even strength

A sixth question--how much more will I love Ryan Callahan after tonight's game? My guess is not as much as before. The Capitals are hot while the Rangers are trending sideaways with injuries to two important players. Neuvirth should be nice and rested, and I'm pretty confident the Capitals can expose Lundqvist's glove more than the Rangers can attack Neuvirth's rebounds. Capitals 3, Rangers 0.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Why the Current Caps Roster is Good Enough

If you haven't read my last piece on why a team doesn't necessarily need veterans, you'd best read that first.

The reality of the salary cap is that any and every team is flawed in some manner which can be exploited. Even prior to the lockout, most if not every team had some hole in its roster, somewhere, which other teams night in and night out tried to take advantage of. Yes, even dominant Stanley Cup Championship-caliber teams.

  • The 2006 Carolina Hurricanes--where was the really good goalie (Cam Ward got hot, but his numbers that regular season screamed "backup!")? Where was the top-end talent on the blueline (Frantisek Kaberle benefited a ton from power play time)?
  • The 2007 Anaheim Ducks--their second scoring line was full of rookies, and they relied a lot on their second line--the checking, "shutdown" line--to be able to get matched against the other top lines. They relied very, very heavily on their top two pairings, one each anchored by Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger.
  • The 2008 Detroit Red Wings--who could carry the team if the top line had an off night (they had depth and balance, but no secondary star power)? Their second-line center, Valtteri Filppula, was okay but probably more suited to center a third scoring line. And where was their elite goalie?
  • The 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins--Where were the good all-around puck moving blueliners? Where was the elite goalie? (their wings were actually pretty good then, with Kunitz, Guerin, Sykora, Fedetenko, Malone, Cooke, and others) Where was the grizzled captain who could actually grow a beard?
  • The 2010 Chicago Blackhawks--goalie? (this is probably a bit unfair since Chicago was stacked thanks to their bargain-at-the-time contracts, Huet and Campbell notwithstanding) They're also kind of young, especially all the impact players like Kane and Toews.
The Caps are talented, there's no question about that. The challenge here, I think, is not adding a 2C or 6D (though those additions would certainly be welcome, don't get me wrong), but rather, getting the coaches to hide any deficiencies in the lineup. Last season, the Caps hid their deficiency at 2C pretty well. Unfortunately, that was purely unintentional, and no one seemed to see that deficiency until it was too late. The coaching staff needs to try and hide the 2C hole again this year, but in a more controlled, adaptable, consistent manner. They need to, and will, plan for it in advance and know exactly what they're doing, unlike last season which was more of a "what went wrong? Why didn't it hurt us before?" type of deal.

Considering the guy who would be trying to do this is a Jack Adams Award winner from 2008 and head coach of the 2006 Calder Cup Champions, and one of his assistants the head coach of the 2009 Calder Cup Champions, and the roster he's trying to manipulate boasts the best depth on wing of any Stanley Cup Champion since the lockout and may very well, by April, boasts a better top-5 D than at least two or three of these teams, I'm optimistic.

For example, here's an outline of a plan of action I would consider behind the bench:

Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble--power versus power
Semin-Laich-Fehr--an assortment of competition with easy zone starts
Chimera-Johansson-Fleischmann--sheltered zone starts and easy competition
Hendricks-Gordon-Bradley--shutdown line for the opposition's second scoring line

Green-Schultz--goes out with second and fourth lines
Poti-Carlson--goes out with first line
Alzner-Erskine--goes out with third line

The issue is not that the Caps have roster holes, but rather that the holes will be difficult to mask. That being said, it's not impossible. "If there's a will, there's a way." Whether it takes passive forecheck, line matching, whatever, I refuse to believe an NHL coach cannot figure out how to minimize the other team's advantages of having better top-6 D and a better 2C. An addition via trade would help, sure, but it's hardly doomsday if Brad Richards isn't a Cap come March. Just remember that.

The regular season is for working out kinks and strategies. The holes at 2C and 6D certainly present an difficult challenge for Boudreau to work around, but I don't doubt he can figure out some tweaks to mask them. Even if Boudreau does not change anything, the Capitals are still a formidable team and will be quite the handful for any team to handle. If Ovechkin, Semin, and either Varlamov or Neuvirth get hot, the Caps are probably unbeatable, quite frankly.

If Boudreau makes some changes to minimize the impact of not having an adequate second-line pivot and missing a third pairing blueliner, the Caps will be better off. It takes a huge amount of luck to win multiple playoff series as it is. The Caps with some strategy changes are as good a bet as any team in the East (save Pittsburgh) to be playing well into May and June, roster changes or not.

On "Veteran" Experience

In the mainstream media and around the Caps blogosphere you'll see many calls for the Capitals to acquire a veteran goalie or an experienced defenseman or another veteran leader.

In my humble opinion, that's not the right idea.

I was having a conversation the other day with a commenter at Japers' Rink about Jaroslav Halak. While we both agreed Halak had elite numbers, I had reservations about calling Halak an "elite" goalie because of his relative inexperience. I feel that if Halak is an "elite" goalie right now, it'll only be something we can say for certain with hindsight (the same applies to other inexperienced goalies with "elite" numbers like Tuukka Rask and Semyon Varlamov).

The mainstream media generally makes a similar argument for goalies, which is basically this:

They don't have a Stanley Cup-caliber goalie. The guy doesn't have a ring or medal.

They have a Stanley Cup-caliber goalie, because he's won a Cup.

The thing is, I feel that Halak is really good, but may not be "elite" (which at this point is a function of time, not great numbers, just like getting into the HOF necessitates a player being really good, but for a really long time as well). A goalie may not be proven as good enough to win a Cup before he wins it, but a guy like Antti Niemi is setting the bar pretty low (both in terms of ability and experience), is he not?

While Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth are not proven Cup-winning goalies, there's little doubt in my mind--and in any hockey fan's mind, for that matter--that they both have tremendous ability to steal games and get hot and play reliably. If nothing else, they are both better goalies than one-season-of-experience Antti Niemi. I won't deny that experience may help a goalie get better, but there are plenty of examples of young goalies that already have the traits that experience would bring--calmness under pressure, consistency, etc--like rookie Patrick Roy, rookie Cam Ward, rookie Ken Dryden, Antti Niemi, Michal Neuvirth, and so on. Overall ability is more important than experience. And with Arturs Irbe as goalie coach, I'm even less worried about the Caps' goaltending situation.

For similar reasons, I'm not concerned about the Caps' lack of experience on the blueline.

The slim distinction here is being flat out good versus being experienced. A team with a blueline filled with rookie Drew Doughtys would have a Cup-caliber blueline, easily, even if in total they have less than 500 games of NHL experience. Why? Because that blueline is really good. For defensemen especially, experience helps in making a player better. The defenseman better learns to play the angles, think at a faster pace, judge distances and risk, and probably fills his body out some more as well. The improvement we could see is quite big.

That being said, it's common for defensemen to get really good without needing much NHL experience: I mentioned Drew Doughty above; Mike Green in his second NHL season led defensemen in goals; Marc Staal became an elite shutdown blueliner within three NHL seasons; Dion Phaneuf was a finalist for the Norris Trophy in just his third NHL season; and so on. Experienced NHL defensemen can also make "rookie" mistakes--ever seen Tom Poti try and clear the puck on a Caps PK between October 2007 and April 2010?

"Age is but a number." What's really important for a defenseman is how good he is. Cries for a "veteran" defenseman are slightly off from reality, I think. They are really cries for a good defenseman to play on the second or third pairing and push both John Erskine and Tyler Sloan into consistent healthy scratch territory.

The "experience versus playing ability" difference is slim at times, especially for defensemen. But for GMs and armchair GMs around the world, I think it's an important one to make. Next time you're looking at potential trade targets, keep in mind that a good rookie 6D would be a better fit than Chris Chelios, for example, or that signing Ray Emery would not help the Caps in any way, shape, or form, as he's not better than either Caps goalie (unless you factor in Varlamov's injury history).

The only sort of experience we need be looking to add to the Caps' roster, in my opinion, is Stanley Cup Finals while having played tough minutes (a shutdown role). Anything else is nice, but not important enough to warrant a roster change on its own. In other words, don't even bother with the "games played" numbers. The Caps could use some better players, plain and simple.

As for leadership...Mike Green, Brooks Laich, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and heck, even Alexander Semin look to bring different elements of leadership to the team. Semin brings playing out of his comfort zone when necessary, Backstrom and Laich two-way committed play, and Green now looks like a guy committed to improving his game. Ovechkin, of course, is a guy who (once he starts) plays all-out, high "rpm" all the time, fearless and dominant. I'm not nervous about this team at all. They're full of young leaders. They're ready.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Preview: Flyers @ Capitals

Philadelphia Flyers @ Washington Capitals

Washington: 9-4-0, 18 points
Leading scorer: Alex Ovechkin, 8-9-17 in 13 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 51.1%
Notable injuries/illnesses: D Tom Poti, C Marcus Johansson, G Semyon Varlamov
Probable starting goalie: Michal Neuvirth (8-3-0, 2.41, .914, 1 SO)
Player to watch: W Mike Knuble

Philadelphia: 9-4-1, 19 points
Leading scorer: Claude Giroux, 7-7-14 in 14 GP
Tied Fenwick% last season: 51.6%
Notable injuries/illnesses: Claude Giroux was hit in the ankle with a shot late Saturday night
Probable starting goalie: Sergei Bobrovsky (8-2-0, 2.11, .927)
Player to watch: G Sergei Brobovsky

The Capitals will be hosting a Flyers team playing the second of a back-to-back, having come off a hard-fought game with Scott Gordon's Islanders. Prior to that game, all was well in Philly, with the team riding a five game winning streak. The move to put Mike Richards as a pure defensive player, regardless of whether it was well executed or not, has correlated well with the Flyers' recent success, a six game winning streak, after an inconsistent start. Sergei Bobrovsky has taken the reins in goal and played pretty well, and with the depth up front and on the blueline that Philly boasts, they'll be able to play a tough, disciplined game.

1) Neuvirth vs Bobrovsky? Michal Neuvirth and Bobrovsky are the leading rookie goalies this year, and have put up similar "boxcar" numbers so far this season. Neuvirth is probably the better goalie, but he needs to make sure that it shows this time around.

2) Does Alex Ovechkin wake up? While Ovechkin has been putting up points recently, his even strength play hasn't been too great. Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, two of the top-20 defensemen in the world, and shutdown center Mike Richards will try and make that trend continue. No matter how good those two are, though, if Ovechkin and Backstrom lock in, they are nearly impossible to stop.

3) Can Semin spark the Caps? Since the start of the season, Alexander Semin has sparked every line he has played on. If he plays on the top line, the Caps risk that entire line and Semin's valuable secondary goal scoring being shut down. If he plays on the second line, the Caps risk Philly's second all-world pairing shutting down that line. Semin will have to have his best game of the season, unless...

4) Power versus power, depth versus depth. I'd bet the offensive power at the top of the Capitals' lineup isn't too effective against the defensive fortitude at the top of the Flyers' lineup, and vice versa. If the Caps' depth can come through and play a strong game--not exactly what has been happening as of late, though Fehr-Chimera-Gordon were brilliant against Boston--and outplay the Flyers' very, very impressive depth, it gives DC the edge it likely needs to win.

5) Special teams. The Caps and Flyers look like they'll play to a standstill at even strength. The Caps' power play will have a tough time with the Flyers' 6th-ranked penalty kill, and the Flyers' power play should have trouble with the Caps' PK as well. I have a feeling that the unit that breaks through first will carry its team to victory.

Well, either that or Sergei Bobrovsky learns what it feels like to face a team that actually has semi-decent shooters and can dominate like few other teams, and has a guy with a knack for making a goalie's life difficult--especially when the goalie is a rookie--and for scoring goals on Pennsylvania-based teams. Capitals 4, Flyers 3 (OT).