Sunday, November 7, 2010

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.


  1. So far from what I've read Capsland has stayed away from "veteran" with regards to 2C, I guess since the only guys available are veterans themselves. I don't think you need a "veteran" there either, but younger players tend to not be as good defensively (according to Copper and Blue--Johansson falls under their 18-20 age bracked studied).