Backstrom Becoming More Artful on the Draw

Posted January 26, 2008 by dumpnchase
Categories: Uncategorized

Before I delve into today’s topic, I want to alert you to washingtoncaps.com’s ongoing coverage of the All-Star festivities in Atlanta. The Caps’ Nate Ewell is on the scene along with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and he is chronicling the events and exploits of the two Washington participants in the weekend’s activities. You can check out Nate’s writings here.

One of the real benefits of watching a young team evolve, develop and blossom is watching young players evolve, develop and blossom right before your eyes over the course of games, weeks, months and seasons. Those of us who’ve seen the Caps play regularly over the last two and a half seasons have marveled at the growth of several players, but I wanted to point out a bit of growth that has gone completely unnoticed locally as far as I can tell.

Backstrom’s hockey sense, poise, puck and passing skills have been evident from the start of the season, and they were also evident to those of us who were fortunate enough to see him play before his NHL career got underway. A teenager when the 2007-08 season got underway, Backstrom was far from a finished player. One of the areas of the young center’s game that needed improvement was his work in the circle. Earlier in the season, he struggled with face-offs and was barely over 40%.

“Face-offs have been the biggest difference,” he said, back in early December. “Here it’s more like in every practice you practice face-offs. At home in Sweden, you don’t do it so much. You just go into the circle and drop the puck. Here it is more like a fight for the puck. That’s actually the difference. It’s tougher. I’m not so good at face-offs right now. I have to be better at that type of thing.”

Here we are nearing the beginning of February, and already the improvement in Backstrom’s faceoff ability has been revelatory. He has climbed to 45.7% on the season. For comparison’s sake, other highly touted rookies Sidney Crosby (45.5%) and Evgeni Malkin (43.3%) did not fare as well on the dot during their freshman seasons.

Even more impressive is Backstrom’s face-off work during the month of January. As the team’s No. 1 center, he has taken more draws than any other Caps pivot during the month. He has won 51.5% of his draws in January, including some key face-offs.

During Washington’s 5-3 win over Florida on Jan. 19, Backstrom won two offensive zone draws that led directly to goals within mere seconds of the puck drop. After that game, I told Backstrom that it seemed as though he had turned a corner in his face-off work and wondered if he felt the same way.

“I think we met the same teams [from earlier] in the season so I know a little bit what a couple guys are doing,” he told me. “It’s important with face-offs, especially in the offensive zone. I think tonight was okay from my side. I haven’t seen [the stats] yet.”

He won 9-of-20 on the night in that game, but two of those wins were huge. And he has been better than 50% in three straight games and four of his last five. What impresses the hell out of me is this: here’s a 20-year-old kid playing in a foreign country, and he has the mental wherewithal to “study” what his opponents are doing in the face-off circle to the point that he is using that information to win face-offs later in the very same season, his rookie season. And those face-off wins are leading to goals. And those goals are leading to wins.

That’s the sort of thing you can’t teach. That diligence, that desire to make yourself better and in the process, making your team better. I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, this kid is something special. He has a great head for the game, and a quiet but fiery determination that burns within. I saw George McPhee quoted recently as saying that Backstrom is the type of player who helps you win Stanley Cups. I agree with that.

********

While we’re on the subject of face-offs, it’s worth noting that Washington has won the face-off battle in nine of its 11 games in January. In each of the games in which the Caps did not win the majority of the draws, their opponent won only two more draws than them. For the month, the Caps are at 56.5%. That’s an impressive win ratio and it basically means that the Caps are coming up with 56 and a half pucks to the opposition’s 43 and a half. For a young team, that’s a big plus. And every center on the team is contributing to that success.

We outlined Backstrom’s numbers above. Before Michael Nylander went out for the season, he had a 49.2% face-off win rate but won 53.4% of his January face-offs.

Boyd Gordon is at 55.6% on the season and is 58.1% during January.

David Steckel is at 54.2% on the season and is 59.6% during January.

Brooks Laich is at 51.4% on the season and is 60% during January.

Finally, as Laich recently related to us, it’s worth noting that the Caps’ wingers also play an important role in winning face-offs. If the Caps are able to maintain this trend of winning the majority of their draws — even at a lesser rate — for the remainder of the season, it will go a long way toward keeping pressure off their goaltenders and their young defense, and fueling what has been a very potent offensive attack of late.

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Six Degrees of Chris Chelios

Posted January 25, 2008 by dumpnchase
Categories: Uncategorized

Detroit Red Wings defenseman and Chicago boy Chris Chelios celebrates his 46th birthday today. The leader among all active players in regular season NHL games played, Chelios is also the second oldest man ever to play in the league. Only a 52-year-old Gordie Howe played at a later age in the NHL than Chelios.

Chelios is seven games shy of becoming just the eighth man ever to play as many as 1,600 regular season games in the league, and with reasonably good health he could climb to sixth on the all-time list by season’s end. He is still averaging 17:13 a night and is plus-9 in 46 games with the Wings this season.

When the Caps were in Detroit last month, I had a chance for a quick chat with Chelios after the morning skate. Here’s how it went:

We don’t see you that often, but can you tell us how the Wings stay so consistent from year-to-year?
“We’ve got some pretty good depth. The transition from three or four years ago with the loss of veterans like [Steve] Yzerman, [Brett] Hull, [Brendan] Shanahan, they brought these younger kids along pretty well. They didn’t just throw them into the fire. Now you’re seeing players like [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel] Datsyuk and even [Dan] Cleary getting an opportunity and really stepping up and taking advantage of that opportunity.

“[We’ve got] solid goaltending, that’s always a great start. With [Chris] Osgood — not that it is a surprise — he picked up where he left off last year. But to have him come out and play the way he has this year and then obviously Dom [Hasek] when he is on, there is nobody is better.

“We get a pretty good effort from everybody. We rarely get outshot, we don’t allow a lot of scoring chances and we play very well defensively because of our system.”

How important is it having guys like yourself and Nick [Lidstrom] and Brian Rafalski to help bring along young defenseman like [Niklas] Kronvall and [Brett] Lebda?
“Yeah, and there are other kids like [Derek] Meech and [Kyle] Quincey that have also had the opportunity once in a while. Like I said, it’s tough when you get thrown into the fire. These kids, as much as they want to play, we’ve had the luxury at least to this point of the season of having that 10-point gap being in first place of giving these guys an opportunity to play but also not to put too much of a burden on them. There is not a lot of pressure on the young kids. I learned from watching the veterans and hopefully that experience will help them along and when they do get their opportunity to play a regular shift they’re going to be ready.”

They say that defense is one of the hardest positions to play at this level. At what stage in your career or how many games into your career did you feel like you really felt confident and felt like you had it under control defensively on the ice?
“I think up until five or six years ago I was still improving defensively. Really, that’s my role now with the Red Wings. Before, if you always had the puck and you were on offense, you didn’t have to worry about playing defense. That was always a good way to solve the defensive problems. But with the new rules, obviously it’s not an advantage to defensemen. The forwards are allowed to get in on the forecheck on you a lot quicker and you’re getting hit a lot more because of that. The battles in front of the net, it’s more of a position/zone type of game you have to play, and if you don’t figure it out, you’re going to be in trouble.

“I’m still learning now with the new rules, too, and it’s an adjustment. It’s tough for every defenseman.”

When you were a kid coming into the league, who was the one guy who helped you out the most?
“Rick Green and Craig Ludwig. Craig Ludwig was my partner. But Rick Green had a simple philosophy of the game. He made it sound kind of dumb almost. He’d say, ‘I’ve never seen a puck come out of the corner by itself.’ Little things like that. And when we were up 5-1 he’d also say, ‘We never needed that sixth goal,’

“Rick Green was really a good mentor and a teacher of being more patient and knowing when to have to maybe go out and trying to do something a little extra, but at the same time trying to be more efficient.”

Chelios has had three “minus” seasons in his 24 years in the league and is plus-349 for his career.

Finally, you can trace Chelios’ NHL lineage through a “six degrees of separation” series of Hall of Fame Canadiens defensemen that go back nearly 70 years.

When Chelios broke in with the Canadiens in 1983-84, Larry Robinson was the elder statesmen on the Montreal blueline. In Robinson’s rookie season of 1972-73, it was Jacques Laperriere. When Laperriere debuted with the Habs in 1962-63, Montreal still had veteran Tom Johnson on its defense corps. During Johnson’s rookie season of 1950-51, Doug Harvey was a stalwart on the Montreal blueline. In Harvey’s rookie season of 1947-48, the Canadiens had Ken Reardon among their rearguards. Reardon broke into the NHL in 1940-41.

Reardon, Harvey, Johnson, Laperriere, Robinson and Chelios combined for 13 Norris Trophies, 11 of them for the Canadiens. (Two of Chelios’s three Norris Trophies came while he was with the Blackhawks.) The six defensemen have also combined for 27 Stanley Cup rings, with Chelios’s 2002 title with the Wings standing alone as the one outside the Canadiens organization.

Chelios is now passing along that lineage and knowledge to a handful of young Detroit defensemen, and who knows? Maybe 15 years from now one of them will in turn be passing the torch to another young stud blueliner. It finally worked its way outside the Canadiens’ system, but it took about 50 years for it to happen.

Beech is Back

Posted January 23, 2008 by dumpnchase
Categories: Uncategorized

This just in: the Capitals have claimed center Kris Beech off waivers from Vancouver. Washington will then place Beech back on waivers with the intention of re-assigning him to Hershey of the AHL, assuming he clears waivers.

This would be Beech’s third tour of duty with the Washington organization. The Caps drafted him with their first choice (seventh overall) in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft and subsequently swapped him to the Penguins in the July, 2001 deal that brought Jaromir Jagr to the Caps. 

Beech was re-acquired from the Predators in the Mar. 2006 trade that sent defenseman Brendan Witt to Nashville. Beech was a key cog on the 2006 AHL Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears team. 

A Good Sign

Posted January 23, 2008 by dumpnchase
Categories: Uncategorized

The local ratings are in for Monday night’s telecast of the Capitals-Penguins game on the Versus Network. The telecast drew the highest NHL regular season game rating ever in the Washington market. The national ratings should be out later today.

Caps Keep on Keeping On

Posted January 22, 2008 by dumpnchase
Categories: Uncategorized

On Saturday night at Verizon Center, the Caps grabbed a 3-0 lead before letting the Florida Panthers even the score and get back into the game. But after retaking the lead on Alexander Semin’s power play goal late in the second period, the Caps crushed any hopes the Swamp Cats had of getting back into the game again.

The Caps outshot the Panthers 7-0 to start the third period, and by then Washington had increased its lead to 5-3. The Capitals kept the pressure on and never for a second let Florida think it had any hope of leaving the Phone Booth with as much as a point. It was a great win for many reasons, some of which we listed in the postgame notebook after it ended.

Two nights later, the Caps won another game, another big game, and they did so in completely different fashion. Sure, the 6-5 shootout win over Pittsburgh was a high-scoring affair, as a lot of the Caps’ games have been lately. But that’s the only similarity, that and the hugeness of it. They’re all huge for the Caps these days, as they are for most of the teams around the NHL.

This time the Caps won in a hostile environment where they had not won in more than five years and where they had won only once in the last nine seasons. They came from behind, they overcame adversity, some spotty officiating, injuries and a pair of power plays in overtime, almost always a death knell. (Since the advent of the 4-on-4 overtime, I’d love to know how many teams have had consecutive and/or overlapping power plays in the extra session. And I’d love to know how many of those teams’ opponents managed to escape without being scored upon. My guess is somewhere around five percent.)

Their best players were their best players. Their kids played like vets. Quintin Laing continued to amaze. And even though Olie Kolzig made fewer saves (10) than Alex Ovechkin had shots on goal (11), Kolzig played a Gerry Cheevers-style game and made sure the Caps didn’t come up empty by denying Evgeni Malkin’s hat trick bid in the waning minutes of regulation. After that, Laing, David Steckel, Jeff Schultz, Ovechkin and Semin took care of the rest.

No captain (Chris Clark), no first-line center (Michael Nylander), missing two top four defensemen (Shaone Morrisonn and Brian Pothier). No matter, Washington still got the two points. Nice to win in that building, even nicer because Carolina won an overtime decision earlier in the day after the New York Islanders hairballed a two-goal lead in the third period.

When it was all said and done, the Caps packed up those two points and headed off to Toronto where they’ll take on the Leafs on Wednesday. A win at the ACC that night will give the Caps their first five-game winning streak since Mar. 3-11, 2001. That long ago streak included two wins over the Penguins, including one of only two (well, three now) the Caps have managed at the Igloo in the last nine seasons. The Caps are the only team in the NHL that has gone that long between five-game winning streaks. Twenty-five of the 30 teams have won five straight at least once since the lockout.

While the Caps have not won five straight since before Dainius Zubrus first donned a Caps sweater, they’ve avoided losing two straight in regulation for 27 straight games now, their longest such streak in eight years. Washington closed out the 1999-00 season by going its last 49 games (!), from Dec. 27, 1999 through Apr. 9, 2000 without losing successive games in regulation. The Caps went 32-9-7-1 during that stretch and finished with 102 points and a Southeast Division title. That team stands as the best regular season Caps team in the last two decades.

While that sort of excellence might prove a reach for This Year’s Model, there are some fairly noteworthy things about this team and its players of late. So we’ll note some of them here, in no particular order.

This marks the latest stage of the season at which the Caps have been above the break-even point (22-21-5) since 2002-03, the last time they reached the playoffs.

After a dismal 1-7 stretch at home earlier in the season, the Caps are now 10-4-1 in their last 15 at home.

Washington is averaging 2.94 goals per game, seventh in the league. The 3.48 goals per game the Caps have averaged under Boudreau would be tops in the league. The Capitals have scored four or more goals in eight of their last 10 games.

The Capitals are one road win away from matching their total of road wins (11) for the entire 2006-07 season. Washington is currently 10-10-4 away from Verizon Center. The last time the Caps earned more points than games played on the road was in 1995-96 when they went 18-17-6 away from USAir Arena.

The Caps have won more face-offs than their opponents in seven of their last nine games. They are at 56.3% in the face-off circle in those nine games.

Bruce Boudreau has won 16 games faster than any coach in Caps history. He has more wins than the first three Caps coaches (Jimmy Anderson, Red Sullivan and Milt Schmidt) combined to earn (11) and is already more than a third of the way to Bruce Cassidy’s total (47).

The Caps are 7-1 without Nylander. Washington’s power play is 8-for-22 (36.4%) in the four games since Nylander left the lineup. There’s no doubt that they are a better team with a healthy Nylander in the lineup, but guys have been stepping it up and getting it done in his absence.

Semin’s current pace translates to about 32 goals in an 82-game season, not far from his 2006-07 pace. He tied for fourth in the NHL with 17 power play goals last season, but only two of Semin’s 11 goals this season have come on the PP.

Ovechkin leads the league with 38 goals and he has played two fewer games than Atlanta’s Ilya Kovalchuk, who has 37 goals. He also leads the league with 16 power play goals. Ovechkin’s 62 points are just two off the league-leading total of 64 (Vincent Lecavalier of Tampa Bay). The Caps’ left winger is threatening the team’s all-time marks for power play goals in a season (Peter Bondra’s 22) and goals in a season (Dennis Maruk’s 60).

Mike Green has six goals and 12 points in nine games in January, leading all NHL defensemen. Green leads all NHL defensemen with 14 goals.

Green has 11 goals, 23 points and a +3 rating in the 27 games since Boudreau took over behind the bench. He has led the team in ice time 13 times in the last 20 games, and has skated more than 25 minutes in 13 of the last 15 games, including a career-high 31:13 Thursday night against Edmonton.

Nicklas Backstrom is the first rookie in NHL history to record back-to-back four-assist games. Since Thanksgiving, he leads all NHL rookies with 31 points (eight goals, 23 assists) in 27 games. He now leads the team with 31 assists. Backstrom’s 40 points are second only to Chicago’s Patrick Kane (45) among all NHL rookies.

Backstrom had 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 13 games in December, and was named the league’s rookie of the month for his efforts. He has 12 points (two goals, 10 assists) in nine January games to date. Ovechkin was the NHL’s rookie of the month in December 2005 and January 2006 on his way to earning the 2006 Calder Trophy as the league’s top freshman.

Kolzig is seven wins shy of 300 for his career and Brent Johnson is three victories away from 100.

Kolzig is 7-1-2 since Dec. 22. You can point to his less than stellar peripheral numbers if you like, but they don’t deduct any standings points for those. And it’s not polite to point.

Johnson is 4-1 in his last five starts, and has allowed as many as three goals only once in those five outings.

After scoring four goals in his first 46 games, Viktor Kozlov needed just two games to get his next four goals. Coming into this season, Kozlov had averaged 19-30-49 per 82 games over the course of his NHL career. He is currently on a 14-38-52 pace in 2007-08.

Boyd Gordon has two goals and nine points in 11 games since coming off IR in late December.

Tomas Fleischmann has a goal and six points in his last six games.

Then there’s this, copped from my own GameDay Preview for the Caps-Pens game, and updated to reflect the results of Monday’s games:

St. Louis center Ryan Johnson leads all NHL forwards with 58 blocked shots. Johnson has played 46 games for the Blues this season.

Caps left wing Quintin Laing has cracked the top 40 among NHL forwards in blocked shots with 30, despite the fact that all 38 of the players ahead of him have played at least twice as many games as Laing this season.

Among all NHL forwards with at least 20 games played, Johnson and Laing are the only ones with more blocked shots than games played.

Laing has also been a plus or even player in 15 straight games, posting a plus-7 during that stretch.

Yeah, there’s a long way way to go. Yeah, they’re far from perfect. The penalty killing could be better. The goaltending and the defense could be more consistent.

I’d dust off the line The Wolf (Harvey Keitel) uttered in “The Bonnie Situation” segment of “Pulp Fiction” here, but it’s a family blog. You get the point. If the season ended today, they’d be golfing.

At the pace they’ve set since Boudreau took over, the Caps would put up 109 points over a full 82-game season. That would be a franchise record. If they can maintain that pace over the final 34 games of the season, they’ll finish with 94 points. Currently, front-running Carolina is on a pace to finish with 84 points. The New York Islanders, current occupants of the eighth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference, are on a pace to finish up with 89 points.

The bottom line is this: If they can keep it up, the next two and a half months — and maybe more — are gonna be a lot of fun around here.

Circle Work

Posted January 19, 2008 by dumpnchase
Categories: Uncategorized

Caps center Brooks Laich has been money in the face-off circle thus far this month. In Washington’s seven January games, he has won 69.6% of his draws, the best percentage of all pivots in the NHL during that period. Edmonton’s Jarret Stoll was second on that list coming into Thursday’s game with Washington, but Laich took two of two from Stoll and the Oilers center was just 8-for-20 (40%) on the night.

Goal scorers know when they’re on fire. Goaltenders know when they’re in a zone. But does a face-off guy know when he’s got it going on? I wondered, so I asked Laich if he had any idea he was leading the NHL in January face-off percentage.

“I knew I had been doing well,” he told me, “but a lot of that is that I’ve been playing with Brads and he has won me a lot of face-offs. [So have] Brash and Petty. [Assistant coach] Deano [Evason] has talked about that a lot lately, especially against the better teams. Against teams like Ottawa and Detroit, if we can get possession of the puck off of face-offs, we’re not chasing it as much.

“If you have a good night on face-offs, a lot of it is due to your wingers. Your wingers can make you go to 70% or they can make you go to 30% if they don’t win their battles. But I wasn’t conscious of being the best in the month [of January]. I knew it was something I had to try and improve on. Sometimes you go through hot streaks where you just can’t lose one. Sometimes you battle your butt off and you go 50-50. Hopefully, I’ll keep it going.”

Laich was also asked about his first period boarding penalty against Edmonton. He was in a race for the puck with the Oilers’ Kyle Brodziak on an icing touch-up. His response to the question is fairly illuminating, I thought.

“You know what?” Laich began, “I have no idea. First off, the D-man steps up on Brash so I’m thinking it’s a race for the puck. Secondly, I don’t hear a linesman saying it’s icing. If I finish my check, I get a penalty. If I don’t finish my check and the play isn’t an icing I’ve got a coach screaming at me and I’m getting heck when I get back to the bench. If I can, I’d like to have a linesman telling me, ‘Icing, icing, icing.’ Then I know just to go for the puck.”

Laich certainly wasn’t trying to hammer Brodziak. The two were teammates for a year and a half on the WHL Moose Jaw Warriors.

World Waking Up

Posted January 19, 2008 by dumpnchase
Categories: Uncategorized

Having had the good fortune of watching Mike Green’s development the last few seasons, I guess I had no idea how far under the radar he was to the average hockey fan out there. That is until Nate Ewell sent me the following note:

Before the NHL season kicked off on Oct. 3, 2,523 drafts had taken place in the NHL.com Fantasy Hockey Challenge. Green was selected in only four – four! – of those drafts (one live and three automated).

Wow. I’ll bet he’s not available to be had in any league these days.