Friday, January 2, 2009

Reflections on Last Night's Game and the Road Ahead for the Capitals (along with a little bit of a rant)

Well as usual The Peerless beat me to the punch with a great post on last night's game. It was everything, good and bad that he said it was here.

Before getting into the thoughts about the Caps perfromance last night, an item of note about Jamie Heward , this from Tarik El-Bashir's Blog: "Update: *Just got off the phone with Lightning PR director Jay Preble who said Jamie Heward has been released from Sibley Memorial Hospital with a concussion and is on his way back to Tampa Bay. He is expected to land in Florida this afternoon." That seems indeed good news, especially for this blogger and the other 18,000+ hushed fans at Verizon Center last evening.

Now back to the regularly inteded blog. It has indeed become a season where "good is not good enough," for as last night was a clear two point night, in that the Capitals never trailed and a 2 point win wasn't in doubt for more than 2 or 3 minutes at a time, the Capitals have now transcended to a much higher level of hockey than they ever achieved or many, including this writer, ever thought during the so called rebuilding years. This year the Caps are generally playing excellent hockey, so much so, that during those periods of a game when they are not, you notice it, even, perhaps especially, when the opposing team is also not playing great hockey. Last night was one of those games. The Caps won by three goals, "going away" and never trailed, but because they have now conditioned us to expect great hockey, you notice when they don't play at or near their potential. For example, the whole team seemed pretty flat the last half of the second period, sure it's hard to stay driven and "into it" when you are up by such a margin and it seems like you can't loose, but guess what, it's the NHL and you can - didn't you watch the Winter Classic? And while it was great to see Sean Collins get his first NHL goal and on the score sheet go +/- even, if you watched the game you noticed that his miscues resulted in two Lightning goals. That's not to say the 25 year old rookie is the first,nor will he be the last, NHL caliber defenseman to have his pockets picked by Martin Saint Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. I bring it up to highlight the level of play, we all have come to expect from the Capitals, every game, regardless of who is or is not in a particular game's lineup. It's really pointless whether or not, we the fans, now expect the Caps to play near perfect hockey and strive for perfection every night. The teams setting the standard in the NHL are the ones driving the Capitals to do so; the Caps have a goal this year, it's the goal every professional sports team should have. At the risk of superstition, I'll say it - to win the Stanley Cup Championship. You have to know and believe it is the same goal shared by 29 other teams and the same goal that at least ten other NHL teams are thoroughly convinced is possible.
Who is setting the bar now, well here's the top 10 teams in the NHL based on the results of the last 10 games:
1) Boston Bruins/10-0-0 (1.000 hockey)
2) Washington Capitals/9-1-0 (0.900 hockey)
3) Chicago Black Hawks/8-2-0 (0.800 hockey
4) San Jose Sharks/6-1-3 (0.750 hockey)
5) Calgary Flames/6-1-3 (0.750 hockey)
6) Detroit Red Wings/6-3-1 (0.650 hockey)
7) Montreal Canadeans/6-3-1 (0.650 hockey)
8) Philadelphia Flyers/6-3-1 (0.650 hockey)
9) Columbus Blue Jackets/6-3-1 (0.650 hockey)
10) Dallas Stars/6-3-1 (0.650 hockey).
So if you think you've been watching some of the best hockey played in the NHL of late, you're probably correct.

A final "heart warmer" for other Caps fans who felt unjustly spurned and used in June when the Blackhawks picked up Christobel Huet. From James Mirtle's blog on the Winter Classic comes this subtle reference (my emphasis added): "The best part if you're a new Blackhawks fan? While the team (Blackhawks) was outplayed in this one, mostly in goal, this is the tip of the iceberg for this group, and there's a very real possibility they'll be a contender over the next few years." So as I told the two overly smug Red Wings fans (who wears Redwings sweaters to a Caps - Lightning game anyway - do they think that is "Rockin' the Red"?) that were in section 103 with wingman and I, I'm happy with Theodore. Of course the guy wearing the Yzerman Jersey thinks that the other goalie (yes he plays goal so he's an expert) in his beer league has "better form," his words I kid you not, than Theodore.

Now I ask your indulgence and for you to please excuse the following rant, however one of the most disturbing things for me of late is to continue to hear folks "worry" about Jose Theodore and/or continue to second guess the Capitals goaltending situation. I feel it does three egregious things: i) trivializes the great team (including the goaltenders) effort that has resulted in a great start to the season, ii) fails to take into account that the current situation was not one of first choice for the Caps organization, and iii) really fails to recognize that goaltending hasn't been too much of an issue despite a game of total musical chairs on the blueline due to injuries for over the past 7 weeks. First and foremost, let's review the bidding on the Capitals choices re: netminder at the end of last season and how things look after three months of the 2008-2009 season are in the bag.

As of yesterday afternoon had the Caps gone for a 3 year/$5.5+M deal they MIGHT have had Christobel Huet in the net as their number 1 goaltender this season; Huet's numbers with the Blackhawks to date are as follow. The 33 year old French-Canadian netminder is 9-6-3 with 1 shutout, a GAA of 2.55 (17th in the league) and a save percentage of 0.910 (tied for 21st) in 18 games played. These numbers (save percentage and GAA) are slightly below his career NHL regular season numbers of 0.918 and 2.44 in 201 games played. Last regular season he played a total of 52 regular season games for the Caps and Canadeans, the most he's ever played since entering the league. He's been in the playoffs twice (2006 and 2008) in both instances he took his team into the second round but not beyond; his career playoff save percentage matches his regular season numbers of 0.918. In brief, he was and is a solid NHL netminder but NOT someone you'd want to overspend on nor one you could likely build a team around for the long haul from a proven talent perspective. Ask yourself this. Had the Capitals spent an extra million this season for Huet and also gone for the extra million for next season, AND agreed to give him a contract one year longer than they gave Jose Theodore, do you think their record would be better than it's current 25-11-3? Would they be on par with Boston's pace? As data for making your choice of answers A or B consider this - Of the Capitals 11 losses only 3 are by one goal and only 2 are by two goals, the remaining 6 are by 3 or more goals. So even if you feel Huet would have been the difference in a game you could only reasonably feel he would have won a maximum of 8 more games than Johnson and Theodore, if he were superhuman - being reasonable and assuming he is an almost mere mortal, NHL starting goaltender as his current rankings would suggest call it 4 games and give the Caps 8 more points maximum and he still isn't the silver bullet to overtake the freight trains that are Boston and San Jose in the standings.

So how does the Theodore pickup look right now anyway? The thirty two year old French-Canadian netminder is: 12-6-1, with 1 shutout, a GAA of 3.08 (36th) and a save percentage of 0.889 (39th) in 22 games played so far this season. Okay, he got off to a very rocky start and he does need to show consistency. The solid netminding of his last four games have been well chronicled elsewhere, but what hasn't been discussed much is the comparison of potential and the value of having been there before. As well as the value of wanting to be here versus the apparent fact that Huet realy didn't care that much where he played his next three seasons after last year. Theodore's career regular season numbers are a save percentage of 0.908 and a GAA of 2.68 in 466 games; he has played over 60 games in two seasons and over 50 in three others, his numbers are better in seasons where he has played over 50 games. In 47 career playoff games his GAA is 2.76 and his save percentage is 0.914. He's been through the second round of the playoffs and into the third before and his career statistics indicate two things: a) he gets better as the season goes on and b) even more importantly he clearly elevates his game come playoff time. All for $1M less a season than Huet and for a contract term the Capitals wanted for their goaltender. So yes i) rocky start, ii) improved play of late, iii) so far three more wins in four more starts than Huet, and iv) wants to be here and seems committed to the system - so far no prima donna stuff over the goaltender rotation or play when your hot stuff though to be fair this seems to be the case for Huet and Khabibuhlen in Chicago as well, and v) the Capitals have $1M more of Cap space then they would have had.

How about Brent Johnson, how's that guy look? Well, funny you should ask, he looks pretty good compared to both these guys too. So far this season the thirty one year old American netminder is: 11-5-2, with no shutouts, a GAA of 2.61 (22nd) and a save percentage of 0.913 (15th) in 19 games played. All for more than $4.6M less than Huet and $3.6M less than Theodore. Johnson, like Theodore has been a little inconsistent, and of late hampered by a nagging hip injury but he has been one of several feel good stories for the Capitals. His career numbers also compare favorably with Huet's both in tenure and results. Over a ten NHL season career that started in Saint Louis in the 1998-1999, "Johnnie" is 110-93-13-12 with a GAA of 2.62 and a save percentage of 0.903 in 245 regular season games; his career playoff numbers are 5-6 with a GAA of 1.84 and a save percentage of 0.931 in 12 playoff starts he took the Blues through the first round and into the second round of the 2001 - 2002 season. The only "knock" of sorts against Johnson is he is basically untested over the long haul as a workhorse goaltender, the only season he's played more than 50 games was the 2001-2--2 season with Saint Louis. He is a consummate team player and a solid citizen on the ice, in the dressing room and in the community. The biggest challenge for the Caps with Johnson at the end of this season will be affording him if he keeps his level of play up to where it has been so far this year. His play so far has enabled the Capitals to have a 1A/1B situation in goal and it seems that both he and Theodore get along as well as he and Kolzig did in the past. Another plus for Caps fans to note about "Johnnie" is that while like Huet he has limited (less than 15 games) playoff experience, like Theodore, he clearly elevates his game in the playoffs. All for a bargain basement price of less than $900K against the salary cap this season.

Next up the blueshirts, the New York Rangers, at Verizon Center on Saturday evening, I'll be watching from the couch as Tom has the tickets to this game since growing up he was a Ranger fan. I don't know who he'll be rooting for but I'll be hoping the Caps make it six in a row and find themselves at six points ahead of the Rangers at the end of the evening's contest.


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