Feb 222012
 

One game does not represent an entire NHL season.  

But Washington’s 5-0 loss to Carolina Monday night was another of the growing number of nails being hammered into the coffin laying rest to the Washington Capitals – 2011-12 edition.

Make no mistake, this Washington team is taking after Monty Python’s dead parrot – it’s bereft of life, destined to rest in peace.

And to think just 24 months ago this was a team destined to transform and dominate the NHL landscape.

There are two reasons why the juggernaut Washington Capitals of 2009-10 have transformed into a Cinderella-sized pumpkin.  

The Little Reason: Injuries to their core players

Mike Green had 76 points in 75 games in the 2009-10 season. In the two seasons since, Green has played just 61 regular season games total. He is the straw that stirs the Washington attack, and he’s been MIA for most of the last two seasons.

This year, the team’s number #1 centre – Nicklas Backstrom – has missed significant time due to a concussion. The drop-off in talent from Backstrom to Marcus Johansson is the equivalent of leaving Charlize Theron to date Mayim Bialik.

Other than Alex Ovechkin, these are the team’s two best, most dynamic players. Without them it’s a no brainer the Capitals have struggled more.

The Big Reason: GM George McPhee abandoned his plan

The 2009-10 Capitals were having fun tearing up the league on their way to a 121-point season. They were the “go-go” Capitals, featuring seven 20+ goal scorers.

Flash forward to today, and the Capitals will be lucky to have four 20-goal scorers.

2009-10 Capitals 20-goal scorers:

Ovechkin 50
Semin 40
Backstrom 33
Knuble 29
Laich 25
Fleischmann 23
Fehr 21

2011-12 Capitals 20-goal scorers (on pace):

Ovechkin 34
Semin 22
Brouwer 21
Chimera 21

Where did the offense go?

It was left in Montreal during the Spring of 2010.

That seven game loss to the Canadiens was devastating to the Capitals front office, who expected nothing less than a championship run that year.

Looking back, it’s easy to see how the Capitals lost the series after being up three-games-to-one:

1) They were a young team (younger than the team that lost to Pittsburgh the year before). Inexperienced playoff teams are extremely suspect to the whims of momentum (both positive and negative).

2) Confidence is a major factor in the success of special teams, and the Capitals just didn’t have it in their powerplay (1-for-33 in the series). This meant the Habs could take penalties without punishment.

3) Montreal employed a passive trap when they had the lead, which confounded coach Bruce Boudreau.

4) Montreal paid extra-special attention to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom defensively, challenging the rest of the Capitals to create offense.

5) Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak put on the greatest playoff goaltending performance since Patrick Roy in 1992-93, if not longer.

Given the above, the steps that had to be taken to get the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final were clear:

1) Find some playoff experience to add to the dressing room.

2) Count on better luck (Halak-esque performances don’t happen every year).

3) Support coach Boudreau in figuring out how to beat the trap.

4) Find an impact second-line centre to take the pressure off of Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Instead, General Manager George McPhee went in the opposite direction, abandoning the style of play he’d built the team on for one that put a priority on defensive accountability.  

It’s been downhill ever since.

The 2010-11 Capitals racked up 107 points but their goals per game rate fell more than a full goal (-1.09). A distance emerged between the team’s run-and-gun – and best – player (Ovechkin) and its coach. Talented Tomas Fleischmann was shipped out for the blueline carcass known as Scott Hannan.  

Come playoff time, Washington was swept by another trapping team, this time the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round. But unlike during the Montreal series (where Washington generated scoring chances to no avail), the Capitals went meekly into the off-season, and with little offensive push back.

This past summer, GM George McPhee doubled-down on his defensive bet. He added Tomas Vokoun to play goal, and brought in Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Roman Hamrlik to bring size and grit to the team. 

What none of these players do is create offense on their own.

And, for the first part of the 2011-12 season, they couldn’t stop a puck either. Vokoun got off to a poor start, and despite his team out-shooting and out-chancing the opposition, Bruce Boudreau was fired.

The hiring of Dale Hunter was the last bit of “defensive desperation” to come out of the Washington front office. As discussed last week, Hunter’s hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach has stifled what creativity has remained in the Capitals attack.

The transformation of this team from “go-go” to “no-go” is now complete.

Today the Washington Capitals are in a desperate fight for their playoff lives. It didn’t have to be this way.

If Capitals fans should blame anyone, it’s GM George McPhee.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • No big surprise – this interview suggests the man behind the Seattle arena bid could care less about the NHL.
  • Meanwhile, it looks like the NHL would like to sell the Phoenix Coyotes to the bid that includes Jeremy Roenick.
  • Speaking of the Coyotes, it’s been quite the season for Radim Vrbata. He’s cracked 30 goals for the first time, and at least one person thinks he should be a Hart candidate.
  • Don’t look now but Tyler Myers has found his game in Buffalo. He’s got 2 goals, 7 points and is a +7 in his last 10 games.
  • Here’s a Detroit reaction to acquiring Kyle Quincey. Here’s more analysis from Colorado’s Mile High Hockey blog. From here it looks like a trade that helps out all three teams.
  • A great Maclean’s piece on the rise of hockey in the United States. Maybe moving into the sunbelt regions wasn’t such a bad idea for the game after all.
  • As much as there is to like about David Booth on the second line for the Canucks, they still need one more offensive piece and a defenseman, if they plan on making another Cup run this year. Mason Raymond hasn’t looked like a top-six player all year, and the blueline remains inconsistent.
  • Since the free advice is flowing, here’s some for Nashville GM David Poile – there might not be a better year to make a run at the Stanley Cup. Who knows if you’ll ever have Ryan Suter and Shea Weber under contract again, you’ve got the young assets to move, and you’re one of the toughest teams to play against in the league. Ales Hemsky, Ray Whitney, Derek Roy, etc. etc. – go get some deadline offense and push your chips into the middle of the table.
  • In case you missed it, Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
  • I know Antoine Vermette is struggling, but this return for him certainly doesn’t give anyone confidence Scott Howson is the type of GM who can maximize the return in any Rick Nash or Jeff Carter trade. It also doesn’t address their goaltending issues either.
Feb 162012
 

Ken Hitchcock has more than 500 wins, a .590 career winning percentange and a Stanley Cup to his credit.

But he’s never won the Jack Adams Award for NHL Coach of the Year.

With all due respect to the great work John Tortorella, Dan Bylsma, Kevin Dineen and Mike Babcock are doing with their respective teams, Hitchcock should win his first Jack Adams Award this year.

The impact he’s had on the St. Louis Blues has been incredible. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at how each of this season’s coaching changes have played out.

TeamGoals ForGoals AgainstShots ForShots AgainstPowerplayPenalty Kill
STL+0.06-0.98+1.56+0.82+8.60%+9.20%
LA-0.04-0.77-0.76-2.13+0.60%+3.00%
ANA+0.63-0.42+0.63-2.56+0.50%-6.30%
WAS-0.61-0.77-4.84+1.30+3.30%+0.10%
CAR+0.32+0.51+1.02+0.42+7.23%-5.22%
MTL+0.11+0.05-2.51-0.23+3.90%-0.50%
CBJ-0.25-0.24-3.27+2.32+7.10%-1.70%

Ken Hitchcock

Pre-hiring: St. Louis was 6-7 (.461 points %)
Post-hiring (as of February 14): St. Louis is 28-8-7 (.733 points %)

Under Hitchcock, the Blues have shaved almost a goal-a-game off their defense, while improving their special teams astronomically. The powerplay, penalty kill and winning percentage improvements are the biggest gains amongst any of the new coaches. Carried over an 82-game season, the Blues under Hitchcock are playing 120-point hockey.

Darryl Sutter

Pre-hiring: Los Angeles was 15-14-4 (.515 points %)
Post-hiring: Los Angeles is 12-5-7 (.646 points %)

Sutter has done exactly what many expected of him when he was hired – he’s ignored calls for more offense and tightened the screws defensively to an even greater extent than Terry Murray. Unexpectedly, this approach is working quite well, as the Kings have gone from playoff question mark to an almost certainty… especially if they can add some offense at the deadline.

Bruce Boudreau

Pre-hiring: Anaheim was 6-14-4 (.333 points %)
Post-hiring: Anaheim is 16-11-5 (.578 points %)

Under Boudreau Anaheim’s top offensive players have woken up, improving Anaheim’s offence by more than half-a-goal per game. Meanwhile, “Gabby’s” also tightened up the defence (roughly two-and-a-half less shots per game). The penalty kill hasn’t been as good though.

It’s interesting – the three coaches who have (arguably) had prior success at the NHL level have had the biggest winning percentage improvement amongst all teams that changed coaches.

Dale Hunter

Pre-hiring: Washington was 12-9-1 (.568 points %)
Post-hiring: Washington is 16-14-4 (.529 points %)

Hunter’s clamped down even more on the Capitals offense than Boudreau had prior to his firing. While this has led to a better goals against average, Washington is giving up more shots, and is taking fewer shots than before. The powerplay’s improved, but it certainly looks like the Capitals under Hunter are a borderline playoff team at best.

Kirk Muller

Pre-hiring: Carolina was 8-13-4 (.400 points %)
Post-hiring: Carolina is 13-12-7 (.516 points %)

Muller’s helped the offense get going, although one could argue the improved play of Eric Staal has been the major difference maker here. Goals against and shots against are slightly worse, while the penalty kill is much poorer.

Randy Cunneyworth

Pre-hiring: Montreal was 13-12-7 (.516 points %)
Post-hiring: Montreal is 10-13-2 (.440 points %)

The coaches may have changed, but according to these numbers players aren’t playing all that differently for Cunneyworth than they were with Jacques Martin.  The sad fact for Cunneyworth supporters is that Martin won with this team and the new coach isn’t. Montreal is taking fewer shots but their powerplay is improved. Honestly there is nothing here to suggest Cunneyworth will be a head coach beyond this season.

Todd Richards

Pre-hiring: Columbus was 12-24-5 (.356 points %)
Post-hiring: Columbus is 6-9-1 (.406 points %)

In fairness to Richards, the Blue Jackets season was lost well before he took over the reigns as coach. Nonetheless, it does look like the team is playing worse for Richards then they did Scott Arniel. The powerplay improvement could be inflated due to the small sample size (Richards has coached just 16 games for the team).

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • The fact that Ron Wilson sits 7th on the list of NHL all-time coaching wins (currently at 619 and counting) is a testament to mediocrity. Wilson teams haven’t always lived up to expectations, but they’ve also never been horrendous either. They’re like lukewarm porridge. Good enough to eat but nothing to savour.
  • Rick Nash might now be “on the market,” but only one of three rumoured destinations makes sense. Contrary to what Canucks fans would have you believe, shedding enough salary to fit Nash under the cap would be incredibly problematic. Meanwhile, GM Mike Gillis has made it clear he believes you need two goalies to succeed in the playoffs, so Cory Schneider isn’t going anywhere right now. Conversely, the New York Rangers have the cap space, but their team chemistry is so good it’s hard to see them gutting their roster for Nash. Besides, what they could really use is greater depth on the blueline. This leaves the Kings, who have the pieces (Jonathan Bernier), salary they could move to give them cap space (Dustin Penner) and the need (scoring) as the best bet for Nash.
  • Having said all that, if the Blue Jackets trade Rick Nash you might as well fold that franchise in Columbus.
  • Absolutely infuriating: obstruction is up, scoring is down, and the NHL is calling fewer penalties according to this story from Pittsburgh.
  • Could we see the U.S. adopt the Saturday night hockey tradition? It seems like it worked like gangbusters in Buffalo recently.
  • In case you missed it, Puck Daddy’s calling this the goal of the year already.
  • If I’m Ales Hemsky, I’m getting out of Edmonton as fast as I can. Clearly they don’t realize what they have, and how secondary scoring makes a difference in a long playoff run. He’s injury prone and inconsistent, but he’s also only 28 years old and has shown himself capable of dominating games in this post-lockout era. Letting his contract situation twist in the wind over the course of this entire season, ultimately to trade him for 25 cents on the dollar at the deadline, is poor asset management on the part of the Oilers front office.
  • Elliotte Friedman’s latest 30 Thoughts.
Dec 032011
 

When the Tampa Bay Lightning signed Victor Hedman to a 5-year, $20 million deal earlier in the week, there weren’t too many people complaining.

The online community, particularly Tampa Bay fans, applauded Steve Yzerman for keeping Hedman’s cost relatively low. According to the consensus, $4 million a year for 5 years is a great price for an improving, future franchise defenseman.

There’s no question Hedman is an improving player, particularly on the defensive side of the game.

But franchise cornerstone? Someone who dominates at both ends of the ice?

I’m not so sure Hedman has that in him.

I decided to compare eight under-24 blueliners to Hedman. I averaged each player’s career totals (up to December 1st) out over an 82-game schedule to create a fair comparison.

BornNameGAP+/-PIMShotsHitsBlocked ShotsGiveawaysTakeaways
1988E. Johnson82936-1156167931034937
1989D. Doughty113142460140134977525
1989L. Schenn41620-5581152251437135
1990V. Hedman41923-380105681065834
1990Z. Bogosian91625-13611631561105141
1990T. Myers1031414371151011217936
1990A. Pieterangelo1127381223161561123445
1990E. Karlsson103848-194619149707754

Then, I ranked each player 1 to 8 in each category (1 if they ranked first in the category and 8 if they ranked last) and added up their scores.

RankNameSalary after 2011/2012GAP+/-PIMShotsHitsBlocked ShotsGiveawaysTakeawaysTotal
1Pieterangelo$3.16 M154114731229
2Myers$5.5 M323226428537
3KarlssonRFA311831887141
4Doughty$7.0 M122265376842
5E. JohnsonRFA645642562444
6Bogosian$2.5 M576773243347
7Schenn$3.6 M778556115651
8Hedman$4.0 M767488654762

Yikes, Hedman-fans.

According to this list, Hedman actually comes in last, behind the much-maligned Erik Johnson, Zach Bogosian and Luke Schenn.

Granted, this isn’t exactly the most scientific method. For example, Alex Pieterangelo is probably helped from having played only one full season’s worth of games. However, I think the exercise fairly highlights the biggest flaw in Hedman’s game – his offense.

When Hedman was drafted, he was described as a shifty and creative offensive prospect.

That just hasn’t materialized.

Will it?

Let’s take a quick look at the point production of some of the league’s better offensive defensemen after their first three years in the NHL.

RankNameSalary after 2011/2012GAP+/-PIMShotsHitsBlocked ShotsGiveawaysTakeawaysTotal
1Pieterangelo$3.16 M154114731229
2Myers$5.5 M323226428537
3KarlssonRFA311831887141
4Doughty$7.0 M122265376842
5E. JohnsonRFA645642562444
6Bogosian$2.5 M576773243347
7Schenn$3.6 M778556115651
8Hedman$4.0 M767488654762

Ouch again.

Look, Hedman is young enough that there is still considerable room for him to grow as an NHL player.

But it’s fair to say there are already signs that he may never become the offensive player he was expected to be.

Hedman looks like another Zbynek Michalek (0.28 points/game), Marc Staal (0.25 pts/gm) or Eric Brewer (0.28 pts/gm).

That’s not a bad career path, but it’s not exactly the one he was hyped to have when drafted.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Even after a 6-5 loss to Nashville, and some weak defensive play lately, I’d still pick the Canucks right now to win the Northwest Division.
  • Just one man’s opinion, but here’s betting Paul Maurice’s career as an NHL head coach is over.
  • One of the definitions of madness is repeating something over and over with the expectation of a different result. That’s why it’s crazy the Washington Capitals replaced Bruce Boudreau with Dale Hunter. The Caps front-office wanted Boudreau to be tougher on his players, and he was this year. It didn’t work. What makes anyone think Hunter, who it seems is being asked to coach the same way (limited minutes so far for Ovechkin, for example), will have any more success? Sure, Hunter was a former NHL player, but many of his players were toddlers when he had his best days in the league. And remember – junior coaches don’t exactly have the best track record jumping straight into the NHL.
  • Meanwhile, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bruce Boudreau get a lot out of the Ducks. Randy Carlyle was hard on his players; Boudreau is a player’s coach.
  • Is it too soon to anoint Jhonas Enroth an NHL starting goalie? The Sabres have 3 wins in 10 games since Ryan Miller’s injury. Enroth’s five-hole at times during this stretch has been Allan Bester-esque.
  • Beware Western Conference – the Red Wings are heating up.  They hit an estimated 569 posts against Buffalo, moving the puck around like they had a 60-minute powerplay.
  • Here’s Forbes’ report on NHL franchises. My favourite stat – teams are worth 47% more than they were before the lockout. Also: the Jets are worth 21% more playing in Winnipeg than they were in Atlanta.
  • Speaking of franchise values, hard to disagree with the common sentiment right now that the league’s headed for another work stoppage. NHL owners must be looking at the NFL and NBA deals and licking their lips.
  • A quiet milestone – the NHL has reached its 1000th shootout. Most goals – Jussi Jokinen. Most attempts – Brad Richards.
  • Before Friday night’s game, Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was on an 89-point pace over a full season. That’s the most rookie points since Sidney Crosby (102) and Alex Ovechkin (106) in 2005-06.
  • For those counting the hours until there are changes in Columbus, it should be noted the team is 5-3-2 (not including their result against Edmonton) since Jeff Carter returned to the lineup November 12th.
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