Sunday, October 26, 2008

An Up & Down Week for the Caps In Review

[ed note: Where's this blog been all last week? Well this blogger has traveled over 8, 500 miles and had a hectic week on his day job that's why the blog hasn't had a post in 7 days - a record since I started blogging, given the NHL season is in full swing. I started the week at meetings Monday morning in Tyson's Corner. Tuesday morning found me at meetings in Anchorage, AK. I watched parts of Tuesday's Caps-Flames game while working at a desk in a business partners offices in Anchorage on my laptop - thanks to NHL GameCenter. I had meetings on Thursday morning in Seattle, WA but did catch the last half of the second and the third period of the Caps-Coyote game from my usual recliner in Bristow, VA upon my return home, though it was through bleary eyes and a bit painful. Isn't the modern marvel of air travel wonderful? Well maybe not all that wonderful but that's an entirely different story and one of relatively little interest. I did catch the shootout at the OK Corral fka American Airlines Center in Dallas last night, as the Caps avoided going 0 fer the road trip. As much has already been said and covered elsewhere on all three games last week, this blog entry will offer commentary on 5 things: i) a brief summary/recap of last week's roadtrips 3 games; ii) a review and commentary on the arrival and play of Tyler Sloan - another Caps feel good story in the making? iii) yet another different perspective on John Erskine's two year $2.5M contract extension; iv) a random thought on the already large number of 3 point games thus far in the NHL season and v) a quick-look at the month ahead (November) for the Caps. Oh and yes the crazy roadtrip I did last week was all business related, and worth the effort. Growing and making money, like ICx Technologies continues to do, takes a lot of hard work in this economy, even if you're not "Joe the Plumber." Something that isn't likely to change real fast no matter who we all elect come 9 days hence. But at least our Washington Capitals are tied in points for first in the Southeast Division once again.]

I capped off a crazy week watching the Capitals - Stars game on Saturday Night. A two point night for the Caps, almost in spite of themselves, or perhaps more fairly, because Jose Theodore outplayed Marty Turco over the length of the game and the Caps offense kicked it into gear in the OT period. Doesn't Alexander Semin have an absolutely awesome wrist shot? It sure looked like Marty Turco didn't see it until it was already past him. That is not to take away from either Sergei Federov or Tomas Fleischmann's two goals or Tyler Sloan's first NHL goal. If your keeping track based on simple extrapolation, here's some really awesome things to think about. Alexander Semin is on pace for a 72 goal, 144 point, + 6 season; Federov is on pace for a 31 goal, 72 point, +7 season; and "Flash" is on pace for a 31 goal, 51 point, +/- 0 season. Following last night's 2 goal performance "The Other Alex" is tied with Evgeni "Geno" Malkin for the NHL scoring lead with 14 goals (7 goals, 7 assists); Semin is also tied for third in goals scored with Saint Louis' Brad Boyes. So looking at the first 8 games of the season, especially the three game Western Conference/National Horseshow road trip the Caps just completed there's some things, good and some things "that are otherwise" to note. First the bright spots - a) Goaltending has been solid lately - Jose Theodore's save percentage over the three game road trip was .905; while Brent Johnson has a save percentage of 0.915 in his last two games. b) Throughout the season thus far, despite sparse first line scoring, as other teams "key" on Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom basically plays himself into shape, and first line right wing Viktor Kozlov has been slowed by injury, secondary scoring has been present in full force. So far in the first 8 games of the season, the Capitals have had 12 different players light the red light a total of 28 times scoring an average of 3.5 goals a game. c) Overall the Caps have captured just over 50% of the available points in 8 games played, and are keeping pace with their Southeast Division rivals, the Carolina Hurricanes. There's also a few areas for concern and nail biting: a) The inconsistent play of the defense exacerbated by early season injuries. The value of Tom Poti to the Caps team can no longer be denied, nor can the stress the current salary cap puts on things when any of the six regular defenseman are injured. b) The inconsistent "energy?" (probably not the right word) level with which the Caps approach forechecking during parts of what has been every game, except the game against the Canucks, so far this season, is also troubling.

Overall not a bad start, though not up to the expectations built by the drive to the finish last season or the off season efforts by the Caps. It's early and no need for panic at this time, but the Caps need to pick it up to ensure they don't find themselves "on the bubble" in late March. The team has the talent to "kick it all up a notch", but the defense needs to really tighten up and the forwards need to provide that relentless forechecking that has been their trademark since last Thanksgiving. As the Caps have found out so far this season, there's a lot of talented guys in the NHL and nobody's going to just roll over. Next up the Nashville Predators at Verizon on Tuesday Night. I'll be watching from my comfortable chair here in Bristow, while my ticket partner Tom is present and "Rockin' the Red".

I really didn't get much chance to think or talk hockey last week. So on Saturday morning, when I went to see my barber Scott at "The Barber Shop" in Manassas' Westgate Shopping Center, I enjoyed the lively conversation we had about our local NHL Team - the Washington Capitals and their most recent lineup addition, Tyler Sloan. Following Sloan's turnover in Phoenix that resulted in a game deciding goal, Scott was openly questioning why the 27 year old rookie was in the lineup while "stud prospect" Karl Alzner was still in Hershey. I, on the other hand, pointed out that even including Sloan's faux paux, at that moment, he was +/- 0 with an average of 9:27 time on ice, had not taken any stupid penalties (like puck out of the rink/delay of game), and had put a masterful hit/hip check on NHL veteran center Daymond Langkow. I felt that given he had barely had time to get off the plane, lace his skates and show up to play his first NHL game in front of his hometown friends, he wasn't doing bad. Yes, I too could have done without his turnover in Phoenix, but those things have to be expected from any rookie, even a 27 year old one. We had seen some of those same sorts of things during the pre-season from both Karl Alzner and Sami Lepisto, hadn't we? Add the fact that bringing up either Alzner or Lepisto would create salary cap issues that need not be dealt with if Poti and Erskine will soon be returning to the line up and, giving Sloan, a seventh-year pro in his third season with the Bears, and who had recorded three assists in the first five games with the Bears this season, a shot to fill the Caps short term needs on Defense doesn't seem like such a bad idea. Additionally, when he joined the Bears during their run to the Calder Cup in the 2006 AHL playoffs, Sloan demonstrated a maturity and ability to jump into tough situations and quickly contribute. That maturity and trait was something the Caps needed last week. Suffice it to say, at the end of my haircut, Scott remained unconvinced. However, the discussion had clarified my own thoughts and reaffirmed my feeling that Tyler Sloan might have what it takes to play in the NHL. Well last night in Dallas, Tyler got his first NHL goal and it should have been, could have been, a game winner. Alas that was not to be, as once again this year the Washington Capitals are vying for the NHL title as "Cardiac Kids." After his fairly solid play in the first two games of the road trip, Sloan capped off the three game trial with "the big team" with a 13:48 TOI performance and was +1 for the game. Over the three games last week, after scoring his first NHL tally, a follow-up goal as a result of staying with the play and crashing the net, Sloan's statistics are solid for a rookie. For his three games with the Caps, he has now averaged 10:54 TOI, is +/- 1, has a goal and no assists, and 6 hits. Given his $475,000 price tag, Mr. Sloan continues to more than earn his money here in Washington while Tom Poti heals and gets ready to return to form. Having Sloan and Erskine back in the lineup last night allowed Sergei Federov return to his natural center position, where he scored two goals, and the reunited duo of Tomas Fleischmann and Michael Nylander combined for two more. So I'll be curious to see what Scott has to say, the next time I need my hair cut. That said apparently Japer has a similar view to Scott. I say, once again having a coach who really knows the "guys down on the farm and what their strengths and weaknesses are", is paying dividends for the Caps like it did late last season when Bruce Boudreau introduced most DC Hockey Fans to a guy by the name of Quntin Laing.

As I caught up on my blog reading following my return from sunny Anchorage, I noted a lot of opinions floating around on the John Erskine contract extension. A lot of folks are questioning the timing of the extension and also the amount. Erskine reportedly will receive $1.25M a season for each of the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons. At 6-4, 216, the 28 year old Eskine, is a gritty, physical defenseman, whose strong points are the intensity he plays the game with and his willingness to sacrifice his body when he needs to and whose weak point is generally seen as his skating agility. So why now for the resigning? and why $1.25M/season? are the general questions being directed towards Caps GM George McPhee. First - why now? - because it likely needed to be done and could be done now. Not counting Erskine or any of the folks down in Hershey or South Carolina, at the end of this season, the Caps will have 9 U/RFAs to sign or replace. Two of whom will be 39 year old Sergei Federov and 36 year old Donald Brashear. Three others will be RFA Defenseman: Shoanne Morrisonn, Jeff Schultz, and Milan Jurcina. Not to mention that Sami Lepisto will also be an RFA and Tyler Sloan an Unrestricted Free Agent in July. Compounding the defensive uncertainty looking ahead to next year is the still uncertain status regarding Brian Pothier's return - chronic concussions are not to be taken lightly. So why not extend a contract to a guy who has some versatility and if necessary might fill the shoes of Brashear as protector of scoring phenoms such as Semin, Ovechkin, etc. even if they are relatively big guys who can take care of themselves. Why so much more than he's making this year - $537, 500? Because it's a fair number in light of his perfromance last season and his start this season. Looking around the league, at guys who are routinely playing top six defense minutes, a salary of $1.25M each of the next two seasons doesn't look too bad. Last season Erskine, played a career high 51 NHL games and finished the season with 2 goals, 7 assists and was +/- +1 averaging 21 shifts and 15:42 of TOI/Game. Those are solid NHL numbers so why not sign him to an extension now. Whether $1.25M is too much or a bargain - in actuality only time will tell but given his numbers last year along with the fact he has started out this season in better shape and displaying more mobility than ever before, it seems like a reasonable bet. Further, in light of the look ahead at the Cap's situation on defense at seasons end locking in one of the current six defenseman on the roster seems like a smart move before the Free Agency period kicks in.

While the debate continues on the merits of the three point game, no one can argue that they are not having an effect on the standings so far this season. So far this season out of the approximately 120 games so far (15 x 8), by this blogger's quick count 30 have been 3 point games. That's an extra 12.5% of points available that wouldn't have been there "in the old days." The key point here to note is it's not the "loser" who ends up with the extra point, compared with the old days when a tie was a tie, but the "winner." Once again, this writer's opinion is the only fair way to handle this is to change the system so a win in regulation is "a three point" game. That way there are no "extra points" - every game is a three point game, the only question is who gets 1, 2, or 3 points. To that end as the season progresses, my intent is to do an analysis as to what the standings in each conference would look like after 20, 41, 60 and 82 games - if all games were "three point games." What's your thoughts on the subject?

So after the first month of the season, the Caps are at 0.500 and tied for first in the Southeast Division. The month ahead will not be any easier for them then the first month of the season. During the month of November, the Caps will play 15 games, 9 away games including another 5 game road trip that includes a 4 game Western Conference swing on the heels of a home-home against the New Jersey Devils. Four of the games are against Southeast Division rivals, 3 home games and 1 away game. The Caps play the Carolina Hurricanes twice next month - once at home and once in at RBC Center. They also play Tampa Bay and Atlanta once each at Verizon Center. Five of the 14 games are against Western Conference opponents. The six games against Eastern Conference opponents from divisions other than the Southeast are two games against New Jersey and one against: Buffalo, Ottawa, the Rangers, and Montreal. Washington's Western Conference opponents will be: Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Minnesota and Columbus. All five games against Western Conference teams are away. Of the thirty available points in November, 14 are against teams that failed to make the playoffs last season, though eight (8) of those fourteen are from games against Southeast Division foes and Carolina has clearly started this season in a far better fashion then they finished last season, as have the LA Kings and the Buffalo Sabres. In fact the Sabres are 6-0-2 so far this season. So the easiest games the Caps will play in November will likely be against Atlanta and Tampa Bay at home. Other than that the next "easiest points" will be their November 29th game in Columbus, and that game is right on the heels of a home game the day before against the Canadeans; in fact that game comes at the end of a four day Thanksgiving stretch when they play 3 games. The Caps are currently 1/2 game behind Carolina for the Southeast Division lead and are in seventh (7th place) in the Eastern Conference with 9 points. They need to take it up a notch and capture at 20 of the 30 available points in November to clearly establish themselves in the Division lead including ideally taking all 4 available points from Carolina and at least 2 of the 4 available points from Tampa Bay and Atlanta. Of the 12 points available from non-Southeast Division, Eastern Conference foes, once again ideally, the Caps need to capture at least 8 points, at this juncture no points available seem much more valuable then the others, given the opponents on tap. That would be the best source, from a look ahead perspective, of 14 points, then once again looking at the Western Conference opponents, the Caps need to win at least three of the five games. Of course this all won't be an easy task and to do it the Caps will need to start the month off well and finish it even better. This team has the talent to rise to the challenge though a return to the line-up by Tom Poti, more production from the first line, and a more consistently intense forecheck will all make it a lot easier a goal to attain.

Finally, here's a goofy Mike Green piece - 20 questions with Mike Green from the Calgary Sun.
My favorite goofy answer is: "13) Where do you like to vacation? Tofino. I like to surf."
I had to google it to find it, but when I did wow, once again "Game Over" hits it right on - though I think if I had his paycheck I'd be looking to surf somewhere where the water temp was a little warmer than "B.C." as in British Columbia. Though apparently Tofino does have an active surfing community.

Once again - next up the Nashville Predators at Verizon Center on Tuesday night

--- LETS GO CAPS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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