Young Gones

The Washington Capitals are in dire need of a hero at the moment.  When Sheriff Shanahan rounded up the last Young Gun who was on the loose by slapping Alexander Ovechkin with a 3-game suspension, the Capitals suddenly went from a star-filled, talent-laden roster to one without a rudder.  Alexander Ovechkin is the team’s captain and emotional leader, not to mention the best goal scorer.  He was the driving force behind the Capitals getting a point out of Sunday’s loss to Pittsburgh, posting two assists and the go-ahead goal in the third period.  He used to be the most fun player to watch in the league, but lately he looks like he is being dragged down by the “C” on his chest and the public persona change that happened when he signed with IMG.  He has been a shadow of himself for over a year.  Even so, he has set up or scored 5 of the team’s 8 goals over the past 5 games, he anchors the powerplay, and he is the most dangerous player on the ice.  Without him for three games in seasons past, the Capitals would buckle down and find ways to win.  Now, a 3-game absence for the 100 million-dollar man on the heels of his first 3-point performance of the season means the Caps aren’t likely to make much of an impact on the score-sheet.

The 2011-12 season started out with so much promise for the Capitals.  The team had a lot of new, veteran faces and they were loaded for bear to march all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.  For the first 7 games, nothing could go wrong.  Even when the team looked out of sync and disjointed, they found ways to win.  That’s the mark of a great team, the ability to win games even when you’re not at your best.  Not coincidentally, those 7 wins, plus one more on November 11, are the only games the four core players this team has been built around have played together this season.  Since then, the Capitals have been a patchwork quilt of overpriced veterans, minor-league call-ups, and spare parts.  The entire team got put through the wringer when Bruce Boudreau was fired as head coach.  New coach Dale Hunter is an excellent replacement, but the team still needs to adapt to his coaching style and establish the identity he wants to stamp on them.  Hunter is getting the most he can out of this line-up, but the spokes on the wheel can only do so much without the hub. 

Hunter has the ball rolling in the right direction, but until he gets Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, and Nicklas Backstrom in the line-up at the same time, hopefully in the playoffs, we won’t get a true sense of how good this team really is.  General Manager George McPhee hates overpaying for anything, but he will pay to keep these four players together as long as he thinks they can win together.  Money can only take the team so far, though, if the players aren’t in the lineup.  As Capitals’ owner Ted Leonsis said in his rebuttal to Ovechkin’s suspension, one-third of the team’s payroll is tied up in Green ($5.25M), Ovechkin ($9.5M), and Backstrom ($6.7M).  In real money terms, the 20 players who suited up for opening night counted $59.6 million against the salary cap.  The 20 players expected to suit up for the Caps tonight combine for $39.3 million, just under 66% of the opening night roster.  Considering the salary cap floor is $48 million, don’t expect too much from the Caps tonight as they face the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins. 

Read on.

Backstrom’s absence is the most damaging of the four.  The normally indestructible Swede took an elbow to the head from Rene Bourque on January 3, also the night of his first 3-point game of the season, and hasn’t played another game since.  It was a reckless play, but not a blatant attempt to injure, and Bourque was suspended 5 games for his indiscretion.  In the meantime, Backstrom has missed 9 games and will likley miss his 10th tonight.  Nicklas Backstrom is the only true scoring center on the team who is capable of controlling the play.  As I’ve said before, he is the kind of big, tough center championship teams are built around, and he is a huge stabilizing factor in the lineup.  He is the team’s most consistent player game-to-game, and when he’s in the line-up, the Caps can be assured of 20 minutes of solid play in all three zones and in all situations.  Without their leading scorer, the Caps have been struggling to maintain offensive pressure, they’ve had issues with defensive zone face-offs and coverage, and their neutral zone play has been atrocious. 

Mike Green is another huge hole on the back end.  Already without puck-moving defender Tom Poti, Green was one best remaining defenseman on the team capable of making an effortless breakout pass or skating the puck out of his own zone, no small talent on a team that has been hemmed in its own zone seemingly since November.  He brings a whole different dimension to the team, making them instantly more dynamic and dangerous in all zones.  The Caps are fortunate to have Dennis Wideman stepping in for Green on the powerplay and that rookie D Dmitry Orlov is ready for full-time NHL duty, but that only masks the weakness. 

Green is the player people love to knock for being soft in his own zone or not very good at defense.  Regardless of what he doesn’t bring to the table, the numbers don’t lie: Green is the best offensive defenseman in a generation.  Not since 1995-96 had a defenseman posted better than a point per game, and Mike Green did it twice (2008-09, 2009-10).  Both times he was named to the NHL 1st All-Star Team, but was runner-up for the Norris Trophy for best all-around defenseman.  He is also the first defenseman to score 30 goals in a season since former Capital Kevin Hatcher did it in 1992-93.  He also broke the NHL record for consecutive games with a goal by a defenseman (8) and came within a goal of tying the record for powerplay goals by a defenseman.  Oh, and he’s a +76 since 2007-08. 

Never the most durable player, Green isn’t a hypochondriac, either.  He has played hurt in the past when he was able to do so.  Green’s first injury this season cam on his first 3+ point game of the season, too, when he took a shot to the face and twisted his ankle.  He returned on November 11 only to be the victim of a blatant knee from New Jersey Devils forward Ryan Carter, giving him a strained groin and a hernia.  Just for the sake of clarity:  NHL Rule 50.1 Kneeing – “Kneeing is the act of a player leading with his knee and in some cases extending his leg outwards to make contact with his opponent.”  Carter’s primary point of contact on the hit was his extended knee on Mike Green’s thigh and he made no attempt to change this point of contact.  If Green hadn’t been dodging the check, it is quite possible Carter’s hit would have violated the low-bridge rule, too, which is worth a lengthy suspension.  If nothing else, it should have been at least a 2-minute kneeing minor, if not a 5-minute major.  Even with the NHL’s “crackdown” violent hits, the Capitals still manage to find themselves short their best defenseman because of one that went unpunished. 

Alexander Semin, who has missed 4 games this season, is still in the lineup for the moment.  Semin is the wildcard of the four, an artistically-minded enigma who is equally capable of completely taking over a hockey game or disappearing from it altogether.   As an example, 12 of his 28 goals last season came in four hat-tricks, leaving him 16 goals in the remaining 61 games.  When the other three Young Guns are in the line-up, Semin can be all the difference against the best teams in the league, but he was never expected to carry the load alone.  Normally a stick-handling wizard and sneaky playmaker even on off-nights, Semin’s effectiveness has been severely limited this season, and his frustration is evident in his penalty-minute totals.  With 12 goals and 27 points in 43 games, he is well below his usual point per game pace from the past 5 seasons (332 points in 340 games).  

Semin has been playing much better since mid-December, likely when his shoulder pain stopped bothering him, but his lack of dominating performances otherwise is worrisome.  He’s the only one of the four to not have a 3-point game this season.  Semin takes a lot of abuse during game-play and often plays injured, which is the primary culprit for his ineffectiveness on most nights.  The other leading culprit is the Capitals’ lack of a legitimate second scoring center.  Anyone who has watched sniper Alexander Ovechkin’s career knows how much better he is when his playmaker, Backstrom, is in the lineup.  The same is true for Semin.  Semin has played his best and most consistent hockey when he was on a line with a creative playmaker, especially Backstrom, Sergei Fedorov, and Jason Arnott.  Fortunately for the Caps, Mathieu Perreault had some chemistry with Semin last season and they played well together last game.  If Perreault finds chemistry with Semin and Wideman can spark the powerplay over the next 3 games, the Capitals have a shot to win, especially with Tomas Vokoun guarding the net.  Regardless of the talent on the sidelines, the Capitals very much need to keep their chins up and keep their feet moving to have a chance. 

Here’s hoping the Caps can get out from under the gun soon.