Friday, February 01, 2008

Searching For Secondary Scoring

As the Caps enter the stretch run, they are led by arguably the game's best player in Alexander Ovechkin. AO leads the League in goals, points, power play goals and shots, is one off the pace in game-winners, gets more ice time than any forward in the League who isn't coached by John Tortorella, is 21st in the NHL in plus-minus, fifth among forwards in hits and ninth in takeaways. He's had a four-goal game in each of the last two months and hasn't gone three games without a goal all season (only thrice has he been held goal-less in back-to-back games).

All the more amazing, with 70 points on the season, he has factored in 45% of the Caps' 154 goals. In other words, teams know that if they can shut down Alex Ovechkin, they can beat the Caps. Easier said than done, of course, but while Ovie keeps piling up the numbers, there is reason for concern that the team's secondary scoring has been largely non-existant since Michael Nylander's season ended prematurely on January 15. Here's a quick run-down of the Caps game-by-game, even strength goal scorers since Nyls' injury, with the goals scored by other-than-first-liners in bold:
  • 1/15 (OTT): Alex Semin (2)
  • 1/17 (EDM): Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin, Semin
  • 1/19 (FLA): John Erskine, Viktor Kozlov
  • 1/21 (PIT): Tomas Fleischmann, Kozlov, Ovechkin
  • 1/23 (TOR): Ovechkin, Semin
  • 1/24 (TOR): Kozlov
  • 1/29 (MTL): None
  • 1/31 (MTL): Ovechkin (4), Kozlov
The good news is that the top line is producing in a huge way - 12 even-strength goals (and another five on the power play) in eight games, and the power play has been clicking consistently (nine goals in the eight games). But the fact that the team is getting no offensive production from its third and fourth lines and the second line has only two even-strength goals in the team's last six games is a bit of a concern.

Put another way, since Michael Nylander's exit from the lineup eight games ago, the Caps have exactly one even-strength goal scored by a forward not named Alex, Viktor or Nicklas.

I'm perfectly comfortable relying on Alex Ovechkin to carry this team. And on many nights, they don't need much more than Number Eight to win. But even AO is only good for one four-goal night a month, apparently (slacker). If the Caps are going to stay in the hunt for a Division title, they're probably going to need to find a way to get more even-strength production from the bottom three lines, and that starts with finding a center for Alex Semin. Since the Nylander injury, Boyd Gordon and Brooks Laich - Semin's most frequent five-on-five pivots - have no goals and just three assists (two of which came in the same game) at even strength in sixteen man-games. While AO can often come out on top in a one-on-five situation, AS is usually at his worst in such situations, and the past few games have shown that. Alex Semin may not need much space in which to perform his magic, but he does need some, and his current linemates aren't helping him in that respect.

Beyond the second line, there are plenty of guys whose primary job may not be goal scoring, but from whom the team needs at least the occassional tally. Matt Pettinger scored 16 goals last year and 20 the year before but has just one goal since Halloween. Laich has two goals in his last 20 games. Gordon is goal-less in ten. Dave Steckel scored 30 goals in Hershey last year, but has only four in this NHL season so far. Matt Bradley doesn't have a goal since the day after Christmas. And since Brian Pothier's goal on December 27, blueliners other than Mike Green have chipped in only a single goal.

The bottom line, of course, is that the team is winning games and winning them in bunches. But for a squad that has averaged less than a goal per game from its bottom three lines since their second-line center left the lineup, you've got to wonder how long that can last, especially in light of the goaltending they're getting.


Hooks Orpik said...

This isn't news to anyone, but due to Michael Nylander's injury there's a huge hole in the depth chart for another skilled center.

Sure you could try to shift Kozlov around, but I don't see why.

Point I'm trying to make is; this is the perfect situation for the Caps to pick up a rental. They shouldn't trade the farm away, but won't be going after guys like Hossa or Sundin so they won't have to.

At this point since there are so many teams in the mix, I'm not sure who 2nd tier rentals could be but it'll be interesting to see if the Caps are willing to trade a prospect/young player to try to fill an obvious hole in the lineup to generate more secondary scoring.

~Mark said...

As always, you make some excellent points.
You didn't mention the horrifying thought of Ovy getting hurt. I think if that happens, this team is done!
As for Semin needing a center, I think more importantly is just someone else on his line that's a threat to draw the D to, and give him some space. I don't think that player is on the active roster right now.
And the part about goaltending... I couldn't agree more. If the Olie of 1998 is in net right now, I'd put my money on this team going to the finals. But the Olie showing up most nights now, is the Olie on the 4th Habs goal last night; not as sharp.

JP said...

@ Hooks: The way it makes sense to shift Kozlov is if Clark comes back and can take the first line RW spot. Seeing as that doesn't appear likely to happen, I agree that the answer is not currently in the organization. They need a Mike Sillinger type (I know he's not a UFA, but as far as second/third-tier journeyman centers go, his is the first name that came to mind).

Unknown said...

On 28's turnovers: You'd turnover the puck too if you had three defenders collapsing on you every time you touched the puck.

I'm with Hooks. But you find me am out-of-it team with a C to trade...

bill ball said...

Brilliant summary, JP. This has been weighing on my mind, and most especially after the 2nd line's ineffectiveness last night. Your piece will hopefully be an eye opener for those that dogged Nylander as well. (If they haven't already forgiven him for playing through a shoulder injury)

I don't think the first line needs to be shaken up to make something happen. We finally have one, after all. That being said, we may have to wait to see Semin-Nylander-Clark again before there is greatness on the second line. We saw it briefly when Clark re-entered the line up for a game, and it immediately created a goal. Clark was knocking guys around, Nylander slowed things down and Semin came out of nowhere to tee up a laser.

As for what happens now, I just don't know. I think I like Gordon a little better than Laich, but as you mentioned, neither has been convincing. Flash also isn't helping by gunning in ahead of the play half the time, and flopping around on the ice easily as much as Semin.

Anonymous said...

Semin first needs to stay on his skates and hang on to the puck before he can score.

NS said...

the Caps will not pick up a rental and trade away a prospect because they know they can't go far in the playoffs with the goaltending we have.

since the goaltending issue cannot be resolved mid season (or is incredibley unlikely), i bet management is in the "lets just see how far we can go with what we have, and not sacrifice our draft picks or prospects" mode.

and you know what? i agree. this team will be stronger next year, with one of the better farm teams/system in the league, and will HOPEFULLY have some type of solution for our goaltending and defensive breakdowns.

notsoldonsemin Semin HAS been falling on his ass ALOT lately. what the deuce??

Anonymous said...

There's a good/great center out there that would fit perfectly on the second line and wouldn't cost anything but money. Can you say Peter Forsberg? I know everyone says he wants to got to Philly, but the Flyers are so tight against the cap that Ted could easily outbid them for his services. Plus, he could leave after the season when Nylander is ready to come back. He would provide the playoff grit and experience and would be the perfect compliment to Semin. It's an absolute no-brainer in terms of fit. The trick would be convincing Forsberg that Washington is a good location to make a playoff run. But with all the great press the Caps have been getting recently, that may not be as hard as you might think.

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1) Geez what happened to Pettinger. He's still a relatively young guy. Has shown some offensive production in the past. Perplexing and has to be disapointing Its not good when a teammate (AO) doubles your season long output in one game!
2) To make the playoffs the caps wil need to get MUCH more(anything!) from the other 3 lines!

Hooks Orpik said...

Damn, one of JP and my own deadline dreams (JP Dumont) just got re-signed by Nashville; 4 years, $4 million a pop.

I suppose a 16 game point streak might tell an organ-eye-zation you're worth keeping around.

Brian said...

Jeff O'Neill is available

Just kidding, but he might make Steckel look faster ...

The Peerless said...

The difficulty is that there might be so few teams out of the playoff hunt at the end of this month that no one is going to want to pull the trigger on a deal (where Mats Sundin goes, notwithstanding).

Which means that what will be available will be pricey. Unless George McPhee can find a rabbit in his hat, I don't think there's going to be much in the way of support coming from the outside.

And frankly, it might behoove the club to lift their a "rental" worth the aggravation? I think it's the second most overrated personnel transaction there is (high end free agent signings being the other one for return on investment). Do the Caps want to give up a prospect (or, more likely prospects and a player) for a guy who will play six weeks and get them maybe to the second round?