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.