Sunday, April 08, 2007

A Look Back to My Season Outlook

Goaltending: the most important position in the game is the most stable position for the Capitals. Olie Kolzig is a proven goaltender. At 36 he can still carry this team and play a good 50+ games. He came into camp in much better shape this year and the increased quickness is noticable. He still needs to try and limit the number of rebounds he gives up, especially with such a green core of defensemen. Behind him, Brent Johnson can certainly steal some games and showed last year he can play. In his 20 or so starts, he could conceivably win 10 games.

Kolzig did end up playing 54 games and did give up a lot of rebound goals. Johnny started 30 games. He won 6. Both goaltenders had a GAA of 3.00 or above and Olie had a .910 save percentage.

Defense: Youth is the theme for this year. Morrisonn, Eminger, Pothier, Green. What do they all have in common? They're under the age of 30. Only Jamie Heward and Brian Muir have seniority in this group. The problem is that before the lockout, Heward and Muir weren't in the NHL. This team gave up an average of 35 shots last year (28th in the league). Granted, Green and Pothier are an improvement over Biron and Majesky, but this group still has trouble breaking out, getting bodies out from in front of Olie and clearing rebounds. That shot average might go down to 33 a game; but still, over 30 is a LOT.

That Jeff Schultz (38 games, 3 points) was the team's leading +/- rater (+5) for defenseman tells you something about the team's defense this season. The team's big time off-season signing, Brian Pothier was...disappointing. -11, 28 points is disappointing, but he did lead the team in blocked shots (140).
But the team's best defenseman, by far was Shaone Morrisonn. Absent from the stat sheet most nights, he had a +3 rating (3rd on the team), blocked 120 shots, had 38 takeaways (most by a Caps defenseman) and played in 78 games.
Muir was injured most of the year, Heward was traded away at the deadline. Erskine was also injured most of the time. Mike Green did not have incredibly impressive numbers. Steve Eminger continued to make mental mistakes.
Oh, and as a whole, the team allowed 33.3 shots against per game (not bad huh?) which was second worst in the league. The league median for shots against was around 29.

Offense: It starts and ends with Ovechkin. The 52 goal, 106 point man has to have a good season in order for the Caps to succeed. He does have help with Semin and Zednik back in DC and with Pettinger, Zubrus, Clark and Sutherby along with him. The problem: only Zubrus and Zednik have eclipsed 40 points in a season in their careers. At the end of the day, Ovechkin will (barring injury) be good for 100 points, but if that Caps offense is going to run, someone else needs to get close to the 55-60 point area. That is definitely possible for either Zubrus or Clark, who are (currently) playing along with the Russian Dynamo, and for Alexander Semin, who has come out of the gates strong.

Ok, any numbskull could tell that Ovechkin was going to be a driving force for the offense. A 40+ goal season and 90+ point season is still nothing to sniff at. Semin was undoubtedly the Robin Ovechkin desperately needed to take pressure off, but beyond that...the river is dry.
Yes, Zubrus scored a bunch for us while he was here, but a lot of that was (as is becoming apparent) dependent on Ovie's playmaking ability.
Semin managed to be the 55-60 point man I mentioned in October (38 goals, 73 points), but after that you find Chris Clark with 54 points and a plethera of players who didn't crack 40 points or 10 goals (Pettinger's the only other 10+ goal scorer).
The Caps were, once upon a time, a team that could not be stopped offensively (remember those beautiful December days?) but they finished the year as only mediocre (2.85 goals per game, 17th in the league).

The Power Play: Oh. My. God. The problems on the powerplay are too endless to list...but I will anyway. The Caps need to move the puck quickly and with purpose. The point men need to pull the trigger when they have the open shot and have the forwards redirect the puck or bang in the rebounds. Beyond that, they need to figure out how to get the puck in the zone without dumping it (which they inevitably lose and allow the other team to fling it up the boards) and holding the puck in the zone at the points. They need to give up less shorties and with two strong PP units, they should do better than last year.

Ok, let's just go down the list here shall we?
- Move the puck quickly and with purpose? one can pass the puck (except Ovechkin), no one can catch a pass (except Ovechkin and Semin) and no one can hold the puck in the zone. Kinda makes it hard to move the puck effectively.
- Point men need to pull the trigger and forwards need to bang in rebounds? Yeah, if there was ever anybody in FRONT of the net. Shots from the outside are fine...when you have people ready to grab those inside shots. The Caps could not get anyone in front of the net to cause havoc.
- Figure out how to get the puck in the zone without dumping it and hold it there? Not even close. First off, they still have not figured out how to pentrated the offensive zone, have one guy carry it in, and wait for his teammates to set up shop. You have an extra player guys...USE HIM. You CAN get the puck into the zone without dumping it! Trust me I've seen it done. On the other side of the coin, Pothier was supposed to be our PP QB...that didn't work. The team still simply flails their stick at the puck, hoping to bat it into the zone, rather than using their body to effectively keep it in.
Oh and they were 23rd in PP percent (16.4).

The Penalty Kill: As bad as the power play is, the PK is worse. The Caps tend to swarm to the puck and get caught behind the net, usually leaving one or two guys camped out around Olie. They need to focus on being aggressive, but holding the box. They can not have their forwards revolving down low because the defensemen are getting caught trying to retrieve the puck at the point. Beyond that, they must clear the screens out from in front of Olie and just clear it as quickly as possible. With a PK ranked near the bottom of the league last year, they can only go up...hopefully.

I did hope. I did. A lot of good it did me? The Caps' PK just broke 80% effectiveness...barely.
They chased the puck A LOT. They got caught behind the net A LOT. They can't figure out how to effectively clear the puck out of the zone (here's a hint guys, hard, and off the glass high!)
They were misserable in clearing the mess out from in front of Olie and let a lot of passes throught the crease. Special teams were slightly better than last year...but they are still nothing that you can be smiling about.

Dark Horses: Alexander Semin might be the most unexpected player to have a huge sophomore year. On a line with Zednik his speed and new-found matured skills could produce 30 goals and 60 points. The other thing that makes him an X-factor is the fact that most teams will be geared towards AO and allow him and Zed to find the twine a little more. He spent two years playing in Russia and that only gave him more time for his skills and body to mature.The other Dark Horse is a fourth line veteran: Donald Brashear. For an enforcer being paid to protect the most valuable player on the Caps, "Brash" could be a big producer. He'll usually be playing with some younger players who are hungry to prove themselves. Plus, in a new city, with a new, big contract, Brashear will want to play well to get a big extension. Plus, he's shown some offensive poise in the first two games.Last but not least, Shaone Morrisonn is the most underrated young defenseman in the league. While he doesn't have a lot of flash or big-hit ability, he can make the plays in his own zone when he has to. He knows what to do with the puck and he has the veteran savvy to make those big plays on his own. He might not put up huge defensive numbers this year, but he will make leaps and bounds toward being the Caps' number one defenseman.

Semin: I'm good. 38 goals, 73 points. Second highest scorer on the team. Even without Zednik most of the year, he was deadly. Teams underestimated him. They won't next year. Kudos to Sasha.
Brashear: The Don did nothing that will make the stats sheets sing, but I tip my hat to him. Along with Clark and Ovechkin, he was hustling. Every game, he was hustling. He scrummed in the corner, got pucks out and made things happen. All of us in the stands cheered whenver Don-ald! got a goal or made some poor scruffy forward a knuckle sammich. For his efforts, he got a 1 year extension, which was absolutely deserved.
And it was also refreshing to see other team's players stealing glances at Don as they were about to line up Ovie. You know what that man's thinking...
Morrisonn: ShaMo! What more do I have to say? Nothing I haven't already said, I imagine. Unquestionably our best d-man and certainly someone I'm confident in who can be our #1 guy one day.
I would like to add to the list, however, a mid-season pickup. Milan Jurcina was a guy that the Bruins discarded for rubble. McPhee traded a meaningless 4th round pick for that "rubble" who was one of our top 3 defensemen this year. Bet the B's fans are scowling at that fleecin!

Overrated: Unfortunately, the two most overrated players are defensemen. Steve Eminger was the 12th pick in 2002. Four years later, he still has not adapted to the speed of the NHL. He can hit, and he has some speed, but he still does not have poise. He hasn't learned to knock the guys in the crease down and has given up plenty of rebound and deflection goals on his watch. His decision-making ability with the puck needs to improve if he wants to be a top notch defenseman, which he has the potential to be.Second, the highest-paid defenseman, Brian Pothier. George McPhee brought in Pothier as a stablizing top defenseman. Heck, he paid him $2.5 million per year to do so. The only problem is that Pothier is not the #1 defenseman the Caps have slotted him to be. In Ottawa, Pothier was usually paired with a veteran as a second pair and had the opportunity to learn from Redden and Chara. He is only 29 and is not a top defenseman in the NHL. Hopefully, that four-year contract will give him time to mature into the top two defenseman he could be, but you can't expect him to give Chara or Redden-like numbers.Finally, Danius Zubrus has STILL not become the star forward the Flyers envisioned when they drafted him in the first round. Now approaching his 30s, Caps fans are still hoping that Zuby will have the breakout year. It may never come. Zubrus is a great power forward, but on a line with a 100 point forward he only scored 42 points. I'm sorry, but Dainus Zubrus will never be a consistent 80 point forward.

Nail on the head here. Eminger has still not emerged into what a 1st round pick defenseman should be...a top line d-man. He finished with the worst +/- rating of any Capital defenseman (-14), and tallied only 1 goal and 17 points.
Pothier is a special case. It's hard to compare his numbers from last year (77 games, 5 goals, 35 points, +29) to this year's (72 games, 3 goals, 28 points, -11) because of the quality of talent he was playing with then (Redden, Chara) as opposed to now (Eminger, Green). Still, he is a $2.5 million defenseman who was brought in to be our Power Play's quarterback, but only scored 2 power play goals and had difficulty holding the zone.

My Outlook: The Caps will be better this year...but not by much. Most people are picking the Caps to finish in 14th in the East, ahead of only the Islanders. I see the Caps finishing 12th, ahead of the Isles, Panthers, and Penguins. Final totals for this year are 80 points.Ovechkin leads all forwards with 54 goals and 110 points. Shaone Morrisonn is the top plus/minus getter with +11. Olie wins 29 games and has a GAA of 3.10. In the end, the Caps don't make the playoffs.

Ok, the Caps finished the same as last year (70 points, 4th worst in the NHL) so I wasn't too far off from that. The "many people" were right about where the Caps would finish, but not who they would finish ahead of. The experts didn't see the Flyers having an abysmal year and trading Forsberg (I didn't either to be truthful) or that the Isles would skyrocked ahead under Ted Nolan. The Caps finished behind the teams I said they would finish ahead of, though to be fair, if they had managed to win some of the "gimme" games against Florida, they might have finished 13th in the East. I was 10 points off from the teams point total, Ovechkin's scoring drought cost him any shot at that top forward spot and he was unable to break the 50 goal plateua. Morrisonn was a +3, tops for those defensemen who played for most of the year (Schultz had a higher +/-, but only played 38 games). Kolzig won fewer games than I predicted, but surprised me and had a lower GAA.

So in the end, I was right about the a lot, but I overestimated the Caps depth, which became apparent as the injury bug struck. If Ovie hadn't had a huge scoring slump and McPhee had upgraded some depth in December, who knows? We might not have to go Golfing right now...

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