Friday, March 22, 2013

Maybe the biggest roster issues aren't up front

The blueline going into last year was supposed to be a real strength, between Green, Carlson, Alzner, Hamrlik, and Schultz as the top five. Ditto for this year, except Orlov emerged as a top-four defenseman, too. But with Hamrlik a frequent healthy scratch and claimed off waivers by the Rangers, Orlov only getting back into action in the last week, and Green in and out, this team's "strength" has become a weakness.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Becoming what they wanted to avoid?

Before the 2004 lockout, the Capitals decided that the way they were building their team wasn't working. Washington followed its 1998 run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998 with conference finishes (by points) of 12th, 3rd (ECQF loss to Pittsburgh), T-5th (ECQF loss to Pittsburgh), 9th, and 6th (ECQF loss to Tampa Bay).

Major moves made during that time:
  • Summer 1999--signed 33-year-old winger Ulf Dahlen
  • 2000-01 season--acquired 22-year-old former first-rounder Dainius Zubrus from Montreal and 30-year-old middle-six wing Trevor Linden from Montreal for 24-year-old winger Richard Zednik (depth scorer) and 22-year-old forward Jan Bulis (who looked like he might become a 2C at some point)
  • 2000-01 season--acquired 31-year-old forward Dmitri Khristich (who had declined from top-line form a couple of years earlier) from Toronto for a 3rd rounder
  • Summer 2001--traded three prospects (with hindsight, no one significant) for superstar Jaromir Jagr (and a defenseman); signed Jagr to the richest contract in NHL history, at the time (if memory serves)
  • Summer 2002--signed Jagr's former teammate in Pittsburgh, 1C Robert Lang
  • 2002-03 season--acquired 30-year old 1C Michael Nylander from Chicago for depth (D Andrei Nikolishin and F Chris Simon)
It doesn't look awful, but remember the money involved in signing players in free agency. Lang was also signed to a pricey contract, no doubt. (The figure isn't exactly cited as often as Jagr's is.)

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Pulling the plug

I went to get lunch during the second period of yesterday's 4-1 loss to the Rangers, and I realized something.

During the 2-8-1 start, I blamed having to learn the system. I thought, at their best, the Capitals would dominate zone time.

Then I thought the team was beginning to click and would continue to improve quickly. They were surrendering zone time but not shots, necessarily (a la Rangers), and were generating some offense themselves albeit using many long-range shots (a la Devils).

Then there was this weekend, where I was just hoping for better penalty killing and some breakdowns for the Rangers that would let the Capitals would get a chance.

That's what I ended up hoping for. That the Capitals wouldn't make a mistake and the Rangers would.

That strikes me as Montreal-like, and it's not the way a good team plays.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Shots at this point in the season

I was bored last night, so I tried my hand at running the numbers. I think most of these are correct. Note that these are shots, just goals and SOG. Realized only after finishing that I'd forgotten to include misses and blocks.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Thinking about top teams

I was really excited for this season. Adam Oates was preaching a style I liked, and I thought it would be a good fit for this team with its good D corps. Green, Alzner, Carlson, Orlov, and Hamrlik are all capable of passing the puck, which is really important in a high-pressure system--get the puck to the forwards as quickly as possible.

But Orlov has been hurt, Hamrlik a healthy scratch, and Green gets hurt every couple of days, it seems. The D isn't a strength, and the forwards certainly aren't. The roster clearly needs some changes.

Looking at the teams that have been consistently near the top of the standings, I feel like loading up on forwards is the way to go.

Look at Pittsburgh. They had the three center model, now two centers and a wing. They supported them with nice role players--Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Tyler Kennedy, etc. Their possession game is all about getting the puck out of their zone and up the ice as quickly as possible.

Look at Chicago. That team, since its Cup run, has still been very, very good. (The 2010 team was ridiculous.) The Hawks are built around Toews, Kane, Sharp, and Hossa up front, and Keith and Seabrook on the blueline. Sure, there are other guys in there, too--the speedy Stalberg, Bolland who is sometimes a Malhotra-lite (lots of defensive faceoffs and tough matchups), and some nice young players for depth. But it's still a team built around its star power--a dynamic duo on the first and second lines, and one D that can carry a weaker partner on each of the top two pairs.

Look at Detroit. Lidstrom was their only, truly, great two-way D for a few years. But he could take the tough matchups, and both Datsyuk and Zetterberg can each carry a line. Up front, Filppula, Franzen, and a few others provided some nice support. This team cycles really well, reducing the burden on its D.

Look at Boston. Chara is a great D, Seidenberg is solid, but the rest of their blueline is mediocre-to-bad. But up front, the Bruins are two top lines deep: Lucic-Krejci-Horton and Seguin-Bergeron-Marchand. And Bergeron can handle the tough matchups, meaning easy jobs for the rest of Boston's forwards.

Look at Los Angeles. Kopitar, Brown, and Williams make a good power-versus-power top line, Richards and Carter can be top liners on other teams, and so on. Their D, meanwhile, is good, but really, the standout is Doughty. The rest of the top four--Scuderi, Voynov, Mitchell, perhaps--are 2nd pair guys who have had to move up. Not like Vancouver, which is four top pair D deep.

And the team that LA beat to win the Cup, New Jersey, doesn't exactly have a great blueline either. Zidlicky, Greene, Fayne, Volchenkov, Salvador, and company aren't exactly big names. But they all have their skillsets and they're competent. Throw in the Parise-Zajac-Kovalchuk line and the veteran Elias anchoring the second, along with some nice depth players, and you've got a team that, again, is build around forwards with competent, but not outstanding, personnel on the blueline.

To be sure, there are counterexamples. Tampa Bay had a strong top six and crappy D last year and was awful. (Although, considering their blueline is much better this year while the team is not, I'd say issues are more systemic than roster-related.) Philadelphia has been falling off as Timonen ages, Carle left, and Pronger has been out, despite great forward depth. The aforementioned Canucks have great depth at every position thanks to good cap management and coaches and management being on the same page.

But I think in short, the easiest, most reliable way to construct a great possession team--which the Caps haven't been since 08-09, and they haven't even been good since the early part of 11-12, either--is through some star power up front. That will probably require some big trades (e.g. M. Richards, Carter, Neal, Horton) or free agent signings (Hossa) but it can be done.

Round out the blueline with decent defensemen that fit the system, making sure that there's at least one unit that can beat the other team's top line--with Ryan O'Reilly off the market for the next year, this is where Paul Stastny could come in handy, playing with Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson--and you should have what Leonsis planned when he signed Ovechkin to the monster contract: a team that is very good every year, and occasionally elite.