A Birthday Wish

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.

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11 Comments on “A Birthday Wish”

  1. b.orr4 Says:

    Nice analysis. These type of downward cycles are just part of the rebuilding process. Wiith the wealth of young talent they possess, the Caps should be able to trade for a decent forward to play on the top line and then they can fill their top D and #1 center spot through free agency. It’s tough now but it will happen. This could be the most important off-season in team history.

  2. CapsChick Says:

    Thank you, Mike, for once again being the voice of reason. We’re technically in the second year of our rebuild, and people think it’s going to happen overnight. Granted, something needs to happen in the next year or two and offseason pickups are necessary at some point, but the guys who are getting experience right now will be very good soon and we have to be patient. I can’t wait for next year, that’s for sure.

  3. Jay Says:

    I understand everything you are discussing with the rebuild. We keep hearing the same thing over and over too. Here’s my problem, the Caps aren’t comparable to say Pittsburgh because the Caps drafting was so poor in the first half of the decade that we simply don’t have the talent in the organization to build with, certainly at forward. Ovechkin? Yes. Semin? Yeah, realizing he’s developing into a Kovalev- talented but at times brutal (or invisible).

    Name another top six forward in the organization. Backstrom? Perhaps, but we’re not getting positive vibes about the second half of his year nor whether he’ll actually come over next year so we can gauge his ability to play a North American style game. Anyone else? Fleischmann? I liked his talent but he’s just not showing he can translate his scoring ability to the NHL. Fehr? Maybe its too early to tell, but he reminds me of a poor man’s Eric Daze.

    So in a nutshell, I think the frustration with a lot of fans right now is we’re just not seeing where this is going. And to hear the general manager, upon trading Zubrus, say he made a deal to fill a hole at third line center, when we have more third liners than we know what to do with, is just aggrevating.

    If the organization expects the fans to continue and support the team there has to be a product that’s worth watching and that shows progress. Last season everyone knew the drill, we were all patient and the team fought hard, was fun to watch and we saw the progress of the team. This season started well, but since December all we’ve seen is regression and its just not fun watching this team right now (its downright painful). And on any given night we aren’t seeing the effort we saw last year. Perhaps part of the problem was hearing everyone at the beginning of the year talk about playoffs this year, or at least seriously competing for the playoffs.

    So the table is now set with expectations (yet again) with the comments from the organization recently. There are holes to fill and, frankly, I’m concerned that the definition of “#1 center” or “a top six forward” or a “top defenseman” means something different to the organization than it does the fans. Because at this point there are third liners on good NHL teams that could be first liners here, and if that’s how it is attacked then the fans aren’t going to be happy. Communication is an important thing and sometimes I wonder about what’s happened with and to this team since 2000 and wonder what could have been.

  4. wanggo Says:

    Great analysis. But here’s what I wonder, McPhee and Ted keep preaching the “build from within” approach. That’s fine with me. But now they are promising us a huge, free spending FA acquisition this summer. I don’t think that’s inline with their “plan”. Why all of a sudden, they are admitting the team needs outside help and are opening their wallets. Is it because they never, in their wildest dreams, have thought the team would suck like it does now? With no real, meaningful, sincere moves made last summer, Ted probably thought the team will improve slightly from last year’s 70 dismal points. And he thought the fans will be complacent at that. He thought the fans will once again buy into his slow, cheap approach to winning the cup. But now that the team has not only not shown any palpable improvements, but has actually regressed in some areas, he can sense panic is in the air. And now, only now, are they (Ted and George) realizing how to build a good team: Do NOT be the cheapest team in the league just because you got burnt for one year.

  5. Jay Says:

    Why are they moving away from the “build from within” approach is a good question. It seems to me that it can only be an admission that the organization simply does not have the talent, either in DC or Hershey, to make it happen. It takes a few years for draft picks and prospects to develop into viable top NHL players (unless you are in the elite class, such as AO, Crosby, Malkin, Staals, etc.). So in order to really be in full “build from within” mode we’d have to rely heavily on our picks from 2000-2003. Here are our picks from the 1st and 2nd rounds during that time period:

    2000: Sutherby (1st round, 26th overall, at most 3rd line potential), Pettinger (2nd round, 43rd overall, hasn’t shown he can be above 3rd line player).
    2001: Paetsch (2nd round, 58th overall, never signed, now playing for Buffalo)
    2002: Eminger (1st round, 12th overall, has yet to show he can be more than a #5 or 6), Semin (1st round, 13th overall, top 6 talent but downside from a Kovalev perspective, none-the-less validated as a good top pick), Gordon (1st round, 17th overall, at most 3rd line potential), Daigneault (2nd round, 59th overall, too early to tell but questionable as to whether he’ll become starter potential)
    2003: Fehr (1st round, 18th overall, so far he has yet to display any offensive potential at the NHL level)

    That’s it. From those years, here is a list of the other drafted players that are either in DC or Hershey: NONE.

    Acquisitions of players drafted in that same window that are in DC or in Hershey: Laich (6th round pick, 3rd line player), Morrisonn (1st round pick, #3-4 defenseman and good acquisition), Klepis (1st round pick, hasn’t display enough talent to stick in NHL), Jurcina (8th round pick, too early to truly judge but nice pickup so far), Novotny (1st round pick, acknowledged by McPhee as third line player), Flesichmann (2nd round pick, thusfar unable to demostrate ability to score at NHL level), Steckel (1st round pick, 4th lin NHLer if that).

    There’s not much to pick from there. So you have to go outside the organization at this point to avoid another 3 years of mediocraty. We hope the 2004 picks of Green and Schultz will pan out, but they are probably two years from knowing if they’ll be top 2 caliber or less. Bourque, Yunkov, Lepisto, Hedman, Gordon, will any of them pan out? Not likely but we’ll need another 2 years to really say. 2005 picks? Pokulok and Finley are years away from the NHL as are McNeill and Machesney. Way too early to judge though. 2006? We won’t know about any of these picks, save Backstrom, for 3 years.

    So if you really look at the organization, its either get help elsewhere or not be able to field an NHL-caliber top six forwards and top 4 defensemen. Though they can field several pretty decent 3rd and 4th lines.

  6. wanggo Says:

    I agree with you Jay, we need help. But why the urgency coming up just now? Did we really have to wallow in this miserable season? For what? Why didn’t they bring in a decent player to compliment OV instead of getting Brashy and Zed last summer? What is the point of this season, besides torturing fans and letting our players go through a long, numbing, self-esteem crushing, dignity draining season that will not do anything but hinder progress?

    I just want the GM to stop spewing bullcrap by saying, “this season is in line with what we expect…” that’s bullcrap!

  7. dumpnchase Says:

    Jay and wanggo,
    Pittsburgh drafted well, certainly. They also had five straight top five picks, whereas Washington has had only two. And the Caps’ history of poor drafting dates back much further than the first part of this decade, it goes back to about 1994. When you look at the lack of talent introduced into the parent club’s roster for about a decade from 1994-02, it’s amazing the team was able to remain reasonably competitve for as long as it did.

    I’m one of those people that believes that a total rebuild is necessary every couple decades. You try to half-ass it or do it on the fly and you wind up like the Caps from 1982-2003, or Philly, or St. Louis or the Kings. Always more or less “competitive,” but never quite good enough to win it all. Getting hosed out of a top five pick in the 2005 draft also sucks and will hurt. A guy like Brule, Kopitar or Bourdon certainly would have helped the cause.

    I’d put Clark in the group of top six forwards, I believe he has earned the right to be considered such after two 20-goal seasons. I happen to think Fehr will eventually be a 20-goal guy in the NHL when he’s healthy; I think Flash can be too with the right linemates. I wish we had seen as much of him as we have Klepis, I think we’d know for sure if he can play at this level or not.

    Getting a “third-line” center for Zubrus is simply what the market would bear. Sure, it would have been nice to get another top six forward type, but contending teams generally don’t dish them off at the deadline. Tkachuk didn’t fetch one, and neither did Guerin. Maybe Smyth did, but I think we can all agree that he is a better player than Zubrus and demand for him would be higher.

    I totally agree with you in that the organization needs to step up to the plate and improve the on-ice product if it expects the fans to continue buying tickets and supporting the team. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, people won’t pay $75 a night 41 times a year to watch mediocre hockey and human puck races.

    That said, we are at the end of the second year of the rebuild. As I illustrated in the blog piece, most rebuilds do not go on a straight upward arc. Bumps can occur and should be expected. After the deadline last season, the Caps still had Halpern and Willsie, two players they ultimately were unable to sign in the summer. This year, the cupboard was more or less cleared. Last year, the Caps were healthy after the deadline. This year, they’re not. When you’re missing your No. 1 goalie, and four of your top six forwards in terms of ice time per game (Clark, Pettinger, Zubrus, Zednik), and you’re facing hungry and fortified teams every night, expect disasster. That’s what we’ve got, but it doesn’t have to bleed into next season.

    I wouldn’t get hung up on what draft years the players come from, or whether the rebuild is entirely from within or whether it’s augmented via trade and/or free agency. The idea is to let the kids play for a few years (which they have, though it could be argued we should have seen more of some of them), and then see where your holes are and figure out how to fill them.

    There are some good young players in the pipeline right now, but Backstrom is the only top six center. Another is needed. There is no top pair D-man who can quarterback the power play. One is needed. Those pieces need to be added between now and September, IMO. Doing so would go a long way toward showing the fans some good faith.

    And yes, I agree that forcing another team’s third-line C into the top line here won’t cut it. Unless the guy turns out to be the second coming of Chris Clark. 😉

    I can only imagine how hard it has been following teams like Calgary, the Rangers, the Blackhawks, the Jackets and the Pens during their long playoff droughts. Or the Caps from 1974-82, for that matter. Rebuilds simply can’t take as long as they used to any more, and I hope and believe that this one will not.

  8. Jay Says:

    Mike, good discussion here, kind of cathardic for me. Just want to make two comments in response to your well written post. I actually wasn’t commenting on the Zubrus trade in terms of the return, I completely agree with you on that. I just was astounded when McPhee said the trade filled a hole at third line center. If there’s any place we don’t have a hole, its at third line center. I guess my initial reaction was kind of like an insulting my intelligence thing, then it quickly turned to just shaking my head in disbelief that he actually said that.

    Second counterpoint to the comment about the 2005 draft and how it would’ve helped to have a higher pick (and we did get screwed big time there). You are very correct, but I’d also like to point out that Paul Statnsy was chosen with the 44th overall pick in that draft and he’s playing pretty well I’d say. You are right, the drafting issues go way back (before McPhee) but I guess my point is that its even more apparent when you are trying to build from within and discover you really didn’t get much via the draft.

    Its easy for me to sit here and type these comments, its not my job and I’m certainly not qualified to have a job there, but the scouting department needs some improvement as if we don’t see a turnaround in drafting and the quality of prospects the team’s system produces the team will end up in that state of purgetory you mention again.

  9. Johnny Drum Says:

    Great piece!
    I couldnt have said it better!
    The problem with the Caps,is that,for a decade and more,we were stuck in the middle of the pack.Never good enough to be considered a “contender”,yet never terrible enough to warrant a “full re-build”.
    Constant mid table finishes ,ensured we were never in a great drafting position.

    Ironically,the best time for the re-build was 1999,but the team was only 1 season removed from a Cup Final appearance,which maybe clouded the cracks,the un-likley run perhaps”tricked” us into thinking the team was better than what it actually was.

    I think people/fellow fans need to show a little more gumption,and resilience,and remember we are simply in year 2 of a major,major over-haul.

    Playoff Contenders or Strugglers,nothings gauranted for ANY of the 30 clubs,but this is my team,and I really belive that by following the Bolts path,we will eventually get it right.

  10. dave start Says:

    Hello my name is dave start my girl friend kailey is having her birthday on november 7 if there is anyone who could help me put her song on the radio? please support this request. She is a special special girl kailey wilson from calgary the song is* Mighty to save* I wish i could play hockey with my new equiptment on the flames ice time before a flames game to tell her how much i care about her!. I really do care about her and i want to have a shoot out and shoot and score on the flames goal keeper. To score a goal with heart!. while the christian song she loves mighty to save is playing on the radio intercom. I want to take her to my family friends italian resturount with all my church friends there. God loves her so much and i know in my heart that i would do anything for her. I just need the conections to do it . I want to see her smile and know that she is an angel thats been there for me where ever i was. I am hopeing someone will read this and help me make this wish work.

  11. dave start Says:

    the special birthday girl is kailey wilson everyone the best christian girl ever!!!

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