Archive for March 2007

Check Yourself

March 30, 2007

Over the course of an 82-game season, we media types will end up spending quite a bit of time together. Games, practices; home, road; press box, press lounge; and even the occasional watering hole. As you can imagine, a fair amount of “stuff” (use your imagination here, and insert the word of your choice) is doled back and forth between us and among us, and over the years we learn how to push each other’s buttons and get each other’s goat. If you know what I mean.

A recent press room exchange may have been an honest airing of a misguided (as you’re about to learn) opinion, or it may have been a matter of someone pushing one of those buttons (I’ve got a few). At any rate, it spurred a bit of research (which I actually enjoy), and it definitely brought upon some debate. I figure those are always good things, and I figure when hockey’s involved, at least some of you all might be interested as well. So here goes.

It was a couple hours before game time on Mar. 16, and the media type (who shall remain anonymous) suddenly uttered something like this:

“This team will never get anywhere as long as its checking center has three goals and eight points.”

I’m paraphrasing a bit, because it happened two weeks ago. The numbers are right, because he was under-exaggerating to make a point, something my wife is also fond of doing. The one thing I’m not sure of is whether he said “checking line” or “third line.” Not a big deal, because the two things are synonymous to many.

Anyway, it’s ridiculous. As if upgrading a third line center would suddenly catapult a 65-point team to 95 points and the playoffs. Hey, everyone would love to have four centers with 20 goals, but everyone also wants to win the lottery. It’s not going to happen.

Boyd Gordon has been fine as Washington’s checking/third line center, and there’s no reason he can’t continue to improve. He’s only 23. He has improved over last season. Hell, he has improved since December. He works his bag off shift in and shift out, night in and night out. If you’re going to point a finger at a guy and basically say, “He’s the reason they [aren’t good]!” why would you point at Gordon?

Basically, because some people don’t understand that goals prevented are as valuable as goals scored. In certain instances, maybe even more valuable. But what the hell, let’s see if he’s right. How can a team possibly win with a guy like Boyd Gordon as its third line center?

Obviously, the season is not over yet. But Gordon has six goals and 26 points, and he is a plus-9 while averaging 15:45 a night. (And yeah, he had three goals when the statement was made, but he had 20 points. Not eight.) Let’s have a look into the recent past and the current NHL and see how that stacks up.

When the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004, ex-Cap farmhand Tim Taylor was the team’s third line center. He played in all 82 games, averaging 12:54 a night. He had seven goals, 22 points and was minus-5. Certainly the Bolts must have won the Cup in spite of Taylor. They clearly would have swept the Flames in the finals if only they had a better third line/checking center. Calgary’s own checking line pivot was Stephane Yelle, he of the four goals and 17 points with a plus-1 in 15:48 of ice time over 53 regular season games.

But hey, that was way back before the lockout and the shootout. What about last season? The Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup with Kevyn Adams as their checking line center. Adams had 15 goals and 23 points, he had an even plus-minus and he averaged 12:53 a night. The Canes were one of those teams with three scoring centers: Rod Brind’Amour, Eric Staal and Matt Cullen.

The Canes beat the Oilers, whose third line center was Michael Peca. While skating 16:39 a night, Peca posted nine goals, 23 points and a minus-4.

We can clearly see that the 2006-07 Gordon compares favorably with all these players. Let’s have a look around the 2006-07 NHL and see what some of the potential Cup-winning teams have in the way of checking line centers, shall we?

Out west, many make the Anaheim Ducks a favorite to win it all. But with the likes of Sami Pahlsson (eight goals, 26 points, minus-1, 17:17) and Todd Marchant (eight goals, 23 points, plus-7, 15:16) centering the third and fourth lines, how can they possibly win?

Since we’re now operating in an entirely new economic environment, we should probably start interjecting another number into these comparisons: salary. Gordon earns $650,000 this season. Pahlsson is paid the exact same figure while Marchant gets $2,470,000.

Nashville’s acquisition of Peter Forsberg makes it much stronger up the middle, dropping David Legwand and Jason Arnott down a slot, and giving the Preds three scoring centers a la the 2005-06 Canes. Vernon Fiddler (11 goals, 24 points, plus-10, 13:35, $450,000) is the Preds’ checking pivot.

Kris Draper is Detroit’s checking line center, and he has long been regarded as one of the best. Draper has a dozen goals, 25 points and is plus-3 while skating 16:47. For this he is paid $2,128,000.

Like Nashville, Vancouver added a center at the deadline. With Henrik Sedin, Brendan Morrison and Bryan Smolinski, the Canucks now have three scoring centers. Their actual checking line center (Ryan Kesler) is injured and out for the season, leaving the likes of Trevor Linden, Tommi Santala and Marc Chouinard (since sent to the AHL) to fill in. Linden is the best of this bunch, but he has been playing wing for most of the season. When a guy hasn’t even taken 200 draws at this late stage of the season, you can’t really call him a checking line center.

The Minnesota Wild is coached by a guy (Jacques Lemaire) who was a pretty fair checking center in his own right during his playing days (he could also put up the points). The Wild’s own checking line pivot is Wes Walz (eight goals, 22 points, minus-1, 15:01). Walz makes $1,368,000 this season.

Out in San Jose, veteran Curtis Brown (eight goals, 17 points, minus-2, 13:15) handles the checking duties and gets paid $700,000 to do it.

The Dallas Stars pay a guy named Jeff Halpern $2 million a year to center their checking line. Halpern’s own line this season: seven goals, 23 points, minus-6, 16:48.

Yelle still handles the checking line chores for Calgary. He has only played 51 games this season, totaling nine goals and 19 points with a plus-3 in 14:25 of ice time.

In the East, Buffalo is obviously a freak of nature. The Sabres have been using Chris Drury as their checking line center of late, and he has 35 goals. Most statistical analyses have outliers, and the Sabres are the outlier here. Every coach in the league would love to have four centers like Drury, Daniel Briere, Derek Roy and Paul Gaustad, but only Lindy Ruff has ’em.

In New Jersey, John Madden is the Draper of the Eastern Conference. Madden has been on the job for a long time and is widely regarded as one of the best. Which means he’s paid like one of the best, overpaid actually. Madden has nine goals, 27 points, is minus-9 and logs 18:51 a night. Madden is paid $3,982,566 this season, far more than almost (you’ll see) any other player with his job description. He earns almost six times what Gordon makes. Is he six times the player Gordon is?

Down in Atlanta, the Thrashers had to hurriedly import winger-turned-middleman Keith Tkachuk and the well-traveled Eric Belanger to cure what had been a Blueland (like how I worked that in there?) ill all season: a paucity of quality pivots. With guys like Bobby Holik, Jim Slater and Steve Rucchin taking draws all season, the Thrash had a team of checking line centers. But in the stricter sense of the “checking line center” term, Holik has been the guy for most of the campaign. When healthy, Rucchin was almost always centering a scoring line. And Slater was often centering the fourth line or playing wing on a line with Holik.

Holik has 11 goals, 29 points and a minus-3 while skating 16:04 a night. He’s one of the best in the business on face-offs, and he better be. He is paid the princely (and pricey) sum of $4,250,000 this season. (More than Madden!)

With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Maxime Talbot up the middle, the Pens have the Buffalo blueprint at center ice. Crosby is the best face-off guy of the bunch (49.3% this season). Talbot (13:49) logs the least ice time per night. Staal and Talbot are both used in penalty killing situations. Staal has 29 goals (including a league-leading seven shorthanded strikes) and Talbot has 11 (including four shorties). If a couple of these guys start figuring out the face-off part of the gig, watch out. By the way, Talbot makes $545,000 for this season.

Ottawa has one of the game’s most criminally underrated players as its checking line center, Mike Fisher. Fisher is a Selke Trophy Award winner waiting to happen. He is diligent, tenacious, fast, he has some skill and is brimming with heart. Best in the business, as far as I am concerned. Fisher had trouble staying healthy early in his career, but has put together two straight relatively healthy campaigns. People are now starting to take notice of a guy who opened the eyes of some of us some time ago.

This season, Fisher has 20 goals, 44 points, is plus-9 and logs 18:27 a night. That’s what you’d get from Peca and Madden in their respective primes. The Fisher Price? $1,500,000. He’s on the verge of doubling that.

Tampa Bay is another team with an abnormal center ice arrangement. Vinny Lecavalier (1551) and Brad Richards (1485) have both taken more draws than the rest of the Lightning combined. Third- and fourth-line centers Andreas Karlsson (8:33) and Taylor (7:36) play less than 10 minutes a night. That duo has combined for four goals, 13 points and a minus-9 this season. Taylor makes $725,000 and Karlsson $500,000 for the 2006-07 season.

The Rangers deploy Blair Betts as their checking center. He has nine goals, 13 points, is minus-2, plays 14:13 a night and earns $550,000. Ho-hum.

Radek Bonk serves as Montreal’s third-line center. He has a dozen goals, 22 points and a minus-1 rating while seeing 15:57 in ice time a night. Bonk’s 2006-07 salary is 2,394,000.

Toronto’s Peca is injured and has missed half the season. He has four goals and 15 points with a plus-2 in 17:25 a night spread over 35 games. Over a full season those offensive numbers project a shade better than where Gordon is right now, but the numbers should be better. He is getting more ice time than Gordon. And Peca makes $2.5 million this season.

The Islanders have used Mike Sillinger a lot as their shutdown center, but he’s really their second-line center. When healthy, Shawn Bates is probably the third-line guy. Bates played in only 48 games this season, totaling four goals, 10 points and a plus-13 in 12:32 per contest. Bates earns $1.2 million this season.

After winning the Cup last spring, Carolina’s center ice depth chart has been in a state of flux all season. The Canes traded for Belanger, then traded him. They traded Josef Vasicek, then got him back. They traded Adams. Vasicek is the third-line guy right now. Including the time he spent in Nashville, Vasicek has six goals, 22 points and is minus-4 in 13:30 a night. Vasicek makes $1.3 million this season.

Clearly, Boyd Gordon is not the problem (or even “a” problem) in Washington. He is actually a rather nice piece of the solution, and a piece that is likely to improve over the next few seasons as the Caps evolve into a contending team. He may not be the league’s best checking line center, but he’s far closer to being the best than he is the worst, which is what my media pal meant to imply. And Gordon still has upside.

One of the traps many media types fall into is seeing a player only for what he is, rather than what he can be. I know a lot of writers who watch a lot of hockey who keep saying “so-and-so sucks.” Until one year “so-and-so” scores 20 goals and they start flocking around his locker and wondering how he suddenly became “good.” That’s why scouts are scouts and media types are not. Players get better. That’s how teams get better.

(When writing preseason previews, prognostications and the like writers, instead of simply looking at how much money a team spends on payroll and which big-ticket free agent items were purchased over the summer, might want to take into account which and how many of the players already on a given team are likely to improve. It seems like a simple thing, but it’s rarely practiced. Common sense isn’t all that common, don’tcha know.)

All I know is this. Boyd Gordon is a good hockey player, a good NHL player. And he is going to get better. Given the numbers I’ve laid out above, I’d argue that he is actually one of the better checking centers in the league and that he is a bargain for the Caps right now.

Hang your hat on this: in 27 games since the All-Star break, Gordon has four goals and 13 points and is averaging 18:01 a night. If he can maintain those numbers over a full season (let’s say, the 2007-08 season), that would translate into a dozen goals and about 40 points. There are 30 teams in the league that would take that kind of production from a guy who is also damned good at the chief aspect of his job description: shutting down the other team’s top lines.

Gordo and his agent are going to do okay in the next few years.


Get Up, Jake

March 27, 2007

Get Up, Jake, it’s late in the mornin’
The rain is pourin’ and we got work to do.
Get Up, Jake, there’s no need a-lyin’,
You tell me that you’re dyin’, but I know it’s not true.

That’s a little snippet from an underrated little song by one of the best Bands ever. And today, Jakub Klepis gets up and heads to Washington.

Jake has been up and Jake has been down this season, in so many ways. A terrific training camp opened some eyes and had some thinking he could be the second line center the Capitals needed once Nicklas Backstrom opted to stay in Sweden for another year. But he was unable to carry that success over the regular season. Klepis was in and out of the Washington lineup throughout the first half of the season, skating an average of 9:52 a night in 36 games, and totaling just two goals and eight points.

Klepis’ tenure in the District also featured an unfortunate propensity to take ill-timed penalties, particularly of the hooking variety. When last seen in a Washington uniform, this inclination reached almost comic proportions. In a Jan. 26 game at Carolina, Klepis was whistled for a goaltender interference call early in the second period. Just seven seconds after serving that sentence, he came out of the box and committed a hooking infraction in the neutral zone. Klepis spent the rest of the night on the bench and was headed to Hershey the very next day.

To his credit, the 22-year-old Czech native did not sulk. He went down to Hershey and he flourished with the Bears and head coach Bruce Boudreau. In 27 games with Hershey, Klepis totaled six goals and 27 points. He also racked up an astonishing plus-19 and committed just 14 minutes worth of penalties. Over the past two months, Klepis has routinely been among the best players on the ice for the best team in the American Hockey League, night in and night out. Playing on the wing, he has remade himself and has been playing with a lot of jam.

Now, with just half a dozen games remaining on the Caps’ slate, Washington has decided to get another quick look at the soon-to-be restricted free agent. Klepis was summoned to Washington this morning, and he is expected to skate the right side of a line with Alex Ovechkin and Jiri Novotny when the Pittsburgh Penguins come calling at Verizon Center tonight. Klepis’ return to the Caps’ lineup will give the faithful a little something interesting to watch the rest of the way. He is a very talented and skilled player, and is young enough that an awakening may yet be in his and the team’s future. Klepis will be headed back to Hershey in less than two weeks, and he figures to be a vital cog in that team’s drive for a second consecutive Calder Cup title. In the meantime, he’ll get a chance to open some eyes here in Washington, starting with his own.

Get up, Jake.

Jerky Boy

March 25, 2007

For me, Sundays always start with a look at The Boston Globe to see if I’m fortunate enough to have a Kevin Paul Dupont piece to read. Dupont wrote today, and that’s always a good thing. Not only is he the pre-eminent North American hockey writer as far as I’m concerned, but he loves the game and is always willing to seek and tweak when it comes to making the game better. I don’t always agree with him, but I like the way he thinks. Today’s Dupont piece is a perfect example. We see eye-to-eye on the issue of fighting in the game, but I’m not quite on board with a radical baseball-style roster departure. Good reading nonetheless.

And for forlorn and season-weary Caps fans, this absolute jewel was tucked a bit deeper into the piece:

Jurcina has been a plus for Capitals
Last Sunday in D.C., the lowly Capitals slapped a 7-1 loss on the lofty Lightning, a thumping that left Bolts star Vincent Lecavalier without a point and a minus-2 for his 22:17 of ice time.

“Vinny came away from that one talking about how impressed he was with [Milan] Jurcina,” said a veteran scout with close ties to Tampa’s franchise center. “I guess Jurcina was out there every time Vinny was, and he said he’s one of the toughest defensemen he’s had to play against.”

Shades of Hal Gill taking on Jaromir Jagr, isn’t it?

Jurcina, whom the Bruins dished to the Capitals for a fourth-round pick Feb. 1, had one assist and was an impressive plus-4 in 22:54. Since departing the Hub of Hockey, the behemoth Jurcina routinely logs in excess of 20 minutes of ice time per game.

During the Mar. 1 Caps-Bolts game at Verizon, it was apparent that Jurcina (who answers to the nickname “Jerky”) and Shaone Morrisonn were both doing an efffective job of getting under Lecavalier’s skin. I made mention of it to someone during the game, and specifically sought out Jurcina to ask him about it afterwards.

If the Caps are going to be seeing Lecavalier and Co. eight times a season, color me glad that the Caps have #23 and #26. When that defensive duo combined with its Caps teammates to keep Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Dan Boyle from collecting as much as a point in last Sunday’s 7-1 Washington win over Tampa Bay, it marked only the sixth time this season that all four players were held off the scoresheet in the same contest.

Defense has been a huge issue for the Caps for a few seasons now (how’s that for incisive analysis?), and the late-season emergence of Jurcina and Morrisonn as a legitimate shutdown tandem is one of the bright spots in what has been a very difficult second half of the season.

Compare and Contrast

March 19, 2007

Jason Pominville, Buffalo Sabres
– 6-foot-0, 187 pounds, according to ’06-07 Buffalo media guide
– Drafted second round, 55th overall in 2001
– Better than a point per game in last two years of junior career in QMJHL
– Disappointing first year pro in AHL
– 30-goal scorer in second season in AHL, dominant in playoffs
– 30-goal scorer in third season in AHL
– Waived at beginning of fourth pro season, passed over by all 29 teams
– Called up in Nov. of fourth season, ended up scoring 18 goals in 57 games as a rookie for league’s fifth best regular season team, adds five goals and 10 points in 18 playoff games
– 31 goals in NHL as a sophomore

Tomas Fleischmann, Washington Capitals
– 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, according to ’06-07 Washington media guide
– Drafted second round, 63rd overall in 2002
– Better than a point per game in last two years of junior career in WHL
– Disappointing first year pro in AHL
– 30-goal scorer in second season in AHL, dominant in playoffs
– Was on pace for 30-goals in third season, until recalled to NHL
– In and out of NHL lineup for non-contending team (34 games over two seasons), now in final season of entry-level deal, waiver eligible in 2007-08.

The Buffalo Sabres had no idea what type of player Jason Pominville would turn into when he was at the end of his three-year entry level pro contract. He had scored 30 goals in consecutive AHL campaigns, the second one during the lockout season of 2004-05. But Buffalo got to see Pominville play exactly one NHL game during the life of that three-year deal.

As a 22-year-old trying to crack the Sabres’ roster in the fall of 2005, Pominville failed. He was placed on waivers, passed over by all 29 NHL teams and sent back to AHL Rochester. Rather than sulk, he torched his way through the league and was leading the circuit with 19 goals when he was recalled in Nov. The day before his 24th birthday, Pominville scored his first NHL goal against Washington’s Olie Kolzig at Verizon Center. He went on to score 18 goals in 57 games as a Sabres rookie, and added five more in the playoffs. That’s 42 goals in 93 games.

This season, Pominville has 31 goals and 59 points in 72 games with Buffalo. He’s also a plus-24. Pominville has succeeded, and the Sabres were extremely lucky not to lose him. They also deserve a lot of credit for letting him play. The Sabres have been one of the best teams in the NHL for the past two seasons, but they had no qualms about letting Pominville play significant minutes with skilled linemates. Only once in his 130 NHL games has Pominville played fewer than 10 minutes. He has played 15 or more minutes in far more than half (78 of 130) his games. The rap against Pominville was that he was too slender to succeed in the NHL, but he has proved those naysayers wrong.

Fleischmann was drafted a year later than Pominville, but is two years behind him in the NHL chain. While Pominville is in his fifth season as a pro, Fleischmann is in his third season as a pro, and the final year of his entry level deal. Assuming the Capitals re-sign Fleischmann as a restricted free agent this summer, he will require waivers to be sent back and forth from the NHL to the AHL next season. And unlike Pominville, he almost certainly won’t clear.

When Pominville was on waivers, NHL teams had not played in more than a season because of the lockout. It was easier to slide a guy through waivers who was skinny and had played just one NHL game. Fleischmann won’t clear waivers.

That said, have the Caps determined that Fleischmann can play regularly for them in the NHL? Hard to say. He scored his first NHL goal on Feb. 24, months ahead of his 23rd birthday. He is ahead of where Pominville was at the same age in terms of NHL experience, but only because Pominville could not be called up to the NHL in his third pro season. Lockout, remember?

Where Pominville and Fleischmann diverge most significantly is in playing time. The Sabres (like Anaheim, San Jose and some others) have had no hesitations about dropping a raw rookie into the middle of their lineup and letting him play. And play, and play. Pominville got more playing time as a rookie on a good team than Alexander Semin did as a rookie on a team going nowhere.

Fleischmann? He has had to make the most of his limited chances. In 14 games with Washington (the 27th best team in the league) last season, Fleischmann never once cracked the 10-minute mark in minutes played. Predictably, he had two assists in those 14 games. It wasn’t until his 17th NHL game that Fleischmann cracked double digit ice time, logging 12:06 in an overtime game against Ottawa on Nov. 6 of this season. Fleischmann has exceeded 15 minutes only twice in his 34 NHL games, and the 15:29 he skated in Toronto on Mar. 6 stands as his career high.

When he finally had his coming-out party against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Sunday (two goals, two assists), he did so despite limited ice time. He logged 11:22 on the night. After skating 3:41 and scoring two goals in the first period, he was cut back to 3:01 in the second. A minor injury to Alex Ovechkin midway through the third opened up more ice time for everyone, and Fleischmann skated 4:21 in the third.

The Caps have nine more games remaining this season. Fleischmann will return to Hershey in early April, hopefully flush with the confidence that he can succeed at the NHL level. It would be great to see “Flash” follow Pominville’s path from here on out, but he’ll need some help. Pominville wouldn’t have 30 goals if he was averaging 11:14 a night with the Sabres.

Playoff Fever

March 15, 2007

While there is no playoff stretch drive for Washington this March, both of the Capitals’ two minor league affiliates are involved in exciting runs as they head into the final weeks of the regular season.

Up in Hershey, the Bears are preparing to defend their 2006 Calder Cup championship, the ninth title in the franchise’s glorious history. Hershey is aiming for just the fifth 100-point season in its 69-year AHL history, and its first ever set of back-to-back 100-point campaigns. With a 39-14-6-5 record, Hershey has the fewest regulation losses of any team in the league. The Bears have 16 games remaining, including nine at home and 11 against teams that would be out of the playoffs if the season ended today.

Hershey’s best ever regular season came in 1987-88 when the team set franchise marks with 50 wins and 105 points. Both of those records are within reach this season. The Bears have attained back-to-back Calder Cup titles once previously (1957-58 and 1958-59) and are aiming to become the first AHL team to repeat since the 1990-91 Springfield Indians. Bears bench boss Bruce Boudreau is looking to become the ninth coach to win consecutive titles. Six former Calder Cup championship coaches are now employed as NHL head coaches.

Before the Bears can concern themselves with repeating, there is the matter of the remainder of the regular season. Hershey trails front-running Norfolk by five points in the AHL’s East Division standings, and the Bears are a single point ahead of third place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. On their way to the title last season, Norfolk and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton were the first two teams the Bears eliminated. Hershey has one games remaining with Norfolk (Apr. 7 at Giant Center) and four games remaining with the Baby Pens (home on Apr. 1 and 8; away on Mar. 30 and Apr. 13).

Hershey plays in Worcester this Friday before returning home for its next five games. The Bears will finish the season with three road games in three nights, Apr. 13-15.

Last season’s championship team featured seven players who had 20 or more goals during the regular season. The 2006-07 Bears have five 20-goal scorers, and a couple more (Chris Bourque, Kyle Wilson) who could reach the 20-goal plateau. Goaltenders Maxime Daigneault (18 wins) and Frederic Cassivi (15) both have a shot at 20 wins this season. According to the Bears media guide, Hershey has never had two goaltenders win 20 or more games in the same season.

Hershey will definitely be worth watching the rest of the way, and the Bears hope to be primed for another long playoff run.

Down south, the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays have caught fire. The Rays swept a set of three games in three nights last weekend, then hopped their bus to Florida where they downed the South Division-leading Everblades on successive nights earlier this week. That’s five wins in seven nights, but the Rays can’t let off the gas yet.

This weekend’s schedule is crazy: the Rays and Everblades head back up to North Charleston Coliseum for a Friday night game in South Carolina. The Stingrays must then board the bus to Pensacola for a Saturday date with the Ice Pilots. Then the Ice Pilots will follow the Rays back to South Carolina for a rematch on Sunday. That game will mark the end of five games in six nights and eight in 11 nights for the Stingrays.

South Carolina will then be able to catch its breath with just two games in the next 10 nights before finishing up the regular season schedule with four of its last five games on the road.

With 10 games remaining on the schedule, the Stingrays are in fourth place in the South Division standings, six points behind third place Gwinnett. The Rays are two points ahead of fifth place Augusta and four points in front of sixth place Charlotte, and Charlotte has four games in hand on South Carolina. South Carolina’s remaining slate includes three games at Augusta, two at Gwinnett and one home contest against Charlotte.

The Rays have made the playoffs in every season of their existence, and are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the first of their two Kelly Cup championships. South Carolina is getting back to full strength personnel-wise, and might be peaking at just the right time. If you’ve got a mind to pay a visit to the Rays, they’re bringing back the alumni from that 1996-97 championship team for the final home game of the season. That’s Sat., Apr. 7 against the Texas Wildcatters.

Don’t forget to peek in on the Bears and the Rays as they wind up their seasons with some exciting divisional races. John Walton of the Bears and Mike Kelly of the Stingrays are both terrific play-by-play men.

Let’s hope the Caps of the future have long and rewarding playoff runs at both levels this spring.

A Birthday Wish

March 13, 2007

Happy birthday to Caps goaltender Brent Johnson, who turns 30 today. That makes him a virtual greybeard on this team, although you might not find anyone who is younger at heart. Johnny cut his NHL teeth in St. Louis, where he played behind the likes of Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis for most of his early years in the league. With those two perennial Norris Trophy contenders (and other solid defensive citizens) on the backline, Johnson and his goaltending cohorts with the Blues rarely found themselves under siege in the nets. When he came to Washington at the start of last season, Johnson had never had to make more than 35 saves in any of his 151 NHL games.

Since joining the Capitals, Johnson has made 35 or more saves in 14 of 52 games (26.9% of the games he has played). There’s no Pronger or MacInnis on the Caps’ blueline; the six defensemen who took the ice for Washington tonight in Atlanta have an average age of 23.5 and have played an average of 138 games in the NHL. Twenty-nine-year-old Brian Pothier is tops on that games played totem pole at 242, while Jeff Schultz is at the other end with 28 NHL games under his belt. Schultz turned 21 last month.

The Caps aren’t just young in the back, however. The 12 forwards who played for Washington on national (more or less) TV tonight have an average age of 25.67 and an average of 253.6 games played in the league. Brian Sutherby is almost exactly at the middle of that bunch; he turned 25 last week and has played 252 games in the NHL, fifth most among the dozen Caps forwards.

Although he just turned 30, Johnson is almost ancient when compared to the players in front of him. Along with Donald Brashear (35), Chris Clark (31) and Frederic Cassivi (31), Johnson is one of only four Caps to have spent as many as three decades on this earth.

The Caps have been struggling of late, to put it mildly. The 2006-07 edition has not displayed the strength down the stretch that last year’s model did; youth and health are likely the biggest differences between the Caps of last March and the Caps of this March. Although the team generally turns in a plucky effort every night, it is almost always outmatched by a contending club that fortified itself prior to the NHL’s trading deadline.

Wins have been hard to come by, and it might be like that the rest of the way. Achievements in special teams, goals against and shots against and individual improvement and growth will be the currency for the Caps from here on out. Individual players are trying to show they belong in the picture for 2007-08, a picture that should be brightened by a foray into free agent waters and a possible trade or two this summer.

Twelve games remain, and it’s hoped that Johnson (or whomever is between the pipes for Washington the rest of the way) won’t have to make as many as 35 saves in any of them. Fewer shots against, fewer goals against, better special teams performance, and some individual bright spots are what we’re looking for the rest of the way. The rebuilding arc rarely goes straight up; there are bound to be some valleys in with the peaks, as the Caps have learned this season.

Mistakes are made, and when they’re made, they’re generally made by the young and/or inexperienced. The Caps are adding six games worth of defensive experience in the NHL every night, and another dozen up front. And they’ll do so another dozen times this season. More experience should equal fewer mistakes, especially when the talent is already there. No matter what happens in those 12 games, the Capitals still need to go outside the organization this summer to get where they need to be and want to be at this time next season, in the playoff picture. Management and ownership both know this.

There are many ways of arriving there, and just as many ways of diverting to the treadmill to oblivion. The Thrashers had only 39 points in their first season, then 60 in their second season. They took a step back to 54, then rose to 74, 78 and finally 90 last season. It still wasn’t enough to get them into the playoffs, but they’ll get in this spring.

Calgary missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons before vaulting straight to the Cup finals (and within a game of winning it all) in 2004. The Flames had 73, 67, 72, 77, 73, 79 and 75 points in the seven seasons in which they didn’t make it. They got in with 94 points in 2003-04.

Carolina went from the Cup finals in 2001-02 to a dismal 61-point showing in 2002-03. The Canes edged up to 76 points in 2003-04, and then posted a 36-point improvement to take the Southeast Division title, the second seed in the East, and the Stanley Cup.

The Nashville Predators started with 63 points in their inaugural campaign of 1998-99. They went to 70, then 80, then dropped back to 69, then 74 before finally making their first playoff appearance with a 91-point season in 2003-04. The Preds had 106 points last season, and are likely to eclipse it in 2006-07. They’ve got designs on a Cup title this spring, but will need to win their first-ever playoff series first.

The Senators had but 24 points in their first season. In their fourth season, they had only 41. A 36-point improvement in year five got them their first playoff berth, and this will mark their 10th straight year in the postseason. But they have yet to advance beyond the second round despite five 100-point campaigns.

Pittsburgh’s route has been an interesting one. The Pens were in the conference finals in 2001, and dropped to 69 points in 2001-02. And they kept dropping. They had 65, then 58, then 58 again, and now they’re back in the saddle. Several straight seasons of downward trends, and suddenly they’re in the playoffs where, as we’ve seen year in and year out, anything can happen.

Tampa Bay made the postseason in its fourth year of existence, only to follow that with a six-year drought. The Bolts’ 88-point playoff season in 1995-96 was followed by totals of 74, 44, 47, 54, 59, 69 and finally 93 in 2002-03. They got to the second round in 2003, and won it all a year later.

Other teams like Chicago, Columbus and Boston tried to shortcut their rebuilds by spending freely in the free agent market. It hasn’t worked out so well for them. You don’t always get what you pay for, and opting for the quick fix has hurt those three franchises. It hurt Pittsburgh and Atlanta in the past, too. Timing is important.

Patience is not an easy virtue, but it is a necessary one. As you can see from the above case studies, rebuilding seldom occurs in a straight upward line. Washington’s recent slide is not reason to back up the truck and start over, nor is it reason to panic or to write out pink slips. The time I have spent in Hershey and South Carolina in the last month convinces me that Washington’s young kids are in good hands, and are progressing at a reasonable pace. Even more young players are in the pipeline at the NCAA and European levels. Several years of fallow drafts dating back almost two decades hurt the Caps, but they appear to have rebounded quite nicely.

This will be Washington’s third straight season of missing the playoffs. Looking at the above teams, that’s not a terribly long period of time. But in the post-lockout economic climate, rebuilds can’t take as long as they did earlier in this decade. For the Caps, the time to move is this summer. Some will tell you the Caps’ needs are many, but I don’t think so (assuming that Swedish center Nicklas Backstrom crosses the Atlantic and makes his NHL debut). They need a first-line center. They need a power play quarterback/minutes-eating defenseman. That might be all, but a top six winger and another experienced hand on the blueline would be good hedges. The 82-game grind has a way of shearing through any perceptible depth.

Goaltending is the Capitals’ most experienced area (heck, everyone’s 30 or older at that position). They’ve got a lot of defensive and offensive talent, but it’s young talent and they’ll need to sort through it, and wisely decide who figures into the plans for 2007-08 and beyond. Even after those decisions are made, there will be some good young talent remaining, perhaps enough to fetch an established player or two from elsewhere in the league. Add to that a couple of smart free agent buys, and the Caps should be capable of making the jump.

So happy birthday Johnny. And here’s to hoping that when your 31st rolls around, you and Olie are seeing a “St. Louis workload” back there. And that the Caps are sending out playoff tickets and sprucing up Verizon Center for some Stanley Cup hockey.

Stingrays Keep Checkers in Check

March 9, 2007

CHARLOTTE, NC — With the days and games remaining swiftly peeling off the calendar, the South Carolina Stingrays headed into an important weekend with a Thursday night road game against the Checkers in Charlotte. The first of three games in three nights (the Rays return home to host the Reading Royals on Friday and Saturday), this weekend’s slate represents 20 percent of South Carolina’s remaining games this season. The fact that the Checkers currently occupy the fifth and final playoff spot in the ECHL’s South Division only added to the magnitude of the contest.

The Stingrays got the job done, and in fine fashion. They put a convincing 6-2 hurting on the Checkers to pull within two points of Charlotte in the standings. The two teams meet for the final time this season on Mar. 25 at North Charleston Coliseum, one of the Rays’ six remaining home dates in 2006-07.

“Obviously the win is huge for us right now,” said Stingrays coach Jason Fitzsimmons after the game. “The way we did it was convincing. It was gritty. There are guys in this lineup who shouldn’t be in this lineup. They know it’s a big game, led by one of our leaders, [defenseman] Nate Kiser. Words can’t explain how big of an emotional boost to the team it was seeing Nate playing tonight when he was still supposed to two weeks away [from returning to the lineup]. I think that emotional boost alone really jump-started us tonight, and the guys went out and played a good hockey game.”

Thursday night’s game did not get off to a great start for South Carolina. The Stingrays’ Cam McCaffrey went off for tripping at 5:19 of the first (he would more than redeem himself later), and the Checkers jumped out in front on a Blake Bellefeuille power play strike. Two nights after digging a 5-1 first period hole for themselves on home ice against Columbia, the Rays were determined not to let it happen again.

Just 46 seconds after the Checkers took the lead, the Rays evened it up on Chris Chaput’s 18th goal of the season. Chaput drove the net and chipped home a feed from the circle after Charlotte goaltender Chris Holt’s ill-advised clearing attempt was kept in at the blueline. McCaffrey and Peter Szabo assisted. Eighty seconds after Chaput’s goal, Bellefeuille struck again. As the late man entering the zone, he converted a perfect feed from Mark Lee to restore Charlotte’s one-goal advantage.

Lee went off on a kneeing minor at 15:27 of the first, giving the Stingrays their first extra-man chance of the night. Just a few seconds into the advantage, Szabo drifted to the high shot and let go of a shot that dribbled off a skate and wide of the cage. But Chaput was in perfect position, parked just to the side of the crease. He tapped it in to even the score at 2-2 with less than four minutes remaining in the initial frame. Brendan Bernakevitch also assisted.

Less than five minutes into the second period, defenseman T.J. McElroy took the puck wide down the right wing and into the offensive zone. As he approached the goal line, his options for a pass to the front dried up. Rather than trying to force a low percentage play, he did the smart thing. He put the puck on the net and it found a hole, Holt’s five-hole to be exact. McElroy’s seventh of the season gave the Stingrays a lead they would not relinquish.

Charlotte got into some penalty trouble midway through the second period, allowing South Carolina to add to its lead. The Checkers were 24 seconds away from killing a Lee tripping minor when Kenton Smith was whistled for slashing. The penalty gave the Rays a two-man advantage for 22 seconds, and a crucial offensive zone draw ensued. South Carolina won the face-off, pulling the puck back to the point. It came to Marc Busenburg on the right side, and he cruised in a few feet before blasting a shot that Holt was able to stop, but not corral. Bernakevitch was able to whack it into the cage before Holt could cover up.

Less than four minutes later, the Rays’ lead would balloon to three goals. Kiser, a surprise starter just nine days removed from elbow surgery, whacked a waist-high change-up past Holt after a Checkers turnover in the neutral zone. The puck had pinballed around before popping into the air, and Kiser hit a line drive with the shaft of his stick. It was a nice reward for a guy who was nowhere near 100 percent, but who insisted on playing anyway. Kiser and Viktor Dovgan — who had another impressive night with both his stick and his body in his own end — form a formidable shutdown tandem.

Another nice reward came in the third period when McCaffrey netted his 11th of the season after another Charlotte turnover. The goal completed the Gordie Howe Hat Trick for McCaffrey, who also finished at plus-3 on the evening. He had dropped the gloves with Charlotte’s Zdenek Bahensky in the first period. McCaffrey had been a bulldog all night, especially on the South Carolina penalty kill. Szabo collected his third assist of the contest on the play, and his 40th of the season. Szabo has had three assists in each of the last two games and is now 11th in the ECHL in that department.

Stingrays goaltender Davis Parley had an extremely solid night, making big saves when they were needed, both at even strength and on the power play. He stopped 36 of 38 shots to record his 26th win of the season. Parley is tied with ex-Cap Matt Yeats of the Texas Wildcatters for second in the league in wins. Idaho’s Steve Silverthorn leads with 29.

Getting two points from Charlotte is huge, but the Rays will have little time to rest on their laurels. Just as the South Carolina team bus was pulling out of Charleston for the three-hour ride to Charlotte for Thursday’s game, the Reading team bus was pulling into its North Charleston hotel. The Royals were resting and relaxing while the Rays were combating the Checkers in Charlotte. After three games in three nights this weekend, South Carolina plays five times in six nights from Mar. 13-18. Three of those five contests come against the second place Florida Everblades.

“Everyone contributed tonight,” said Fitzsimmons. “It was all business here and it’s got to be all business from here on in. [Friday] is a huge game. We can enjoy this on the bus ride home and then tomorrow we’ve got Reading, who is sitting at home idle listening to this game. We’re going to have to enjoy this for a couple hours and then start focusing on the Reading Royals.”

NOTES: South Carolina is now 7-18-4 when the opposition scores the game’s first goal … The Rays are a perfect 21-0 when leading after 40 minutes of play … Goaltender Kirk Daubenspeck, a member of the 2006 Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears, will be in Charleston on Friday when he is inducted into the Stingrays Hall of Fame … Holt was 6-1 with a 2.36 goals against average in eight previous games against the Stingrays this season, prior to Thursday night’s tilt.