Monday, November 22, 2010

But Only a Fool Would Complain?

So....I'm assuming the "Braden Holtby is ready for the NHL" crew is ready to take a deep breath?

And the "Let's trade Varly" bandwagon has plenty of good seats available right about now?

And we can temper the "Michal Neuvirth is definitely ready to handle the demands of a #1 starter" talk just a bit, at least for the time being?

Not to sound obvious, folks, but this is why teams who think they're contenders sometimes choose not to let go of proven depth in goal. This is why it wasn't foolish of people to suggest that goaltending might become an Achilles Heel for the Caps. This is why making any grand statements about how resolved your goaltending situation is after 20 games, or about what the crease situation will look like 60 games from now, is a fool's errand.

Washington is not playing well right now, and in truth it hasn't played very well over the last few weeks. Its fire-on-ice offense was masking some glaring inconsistency in its own zone and in goal. The coaching staff knew this and said as much last week, because they recognize that playing well and winning games can be two very different things in November. And that truth, which was increasingly apparent over the last eight contests, has now become impossibly obvious.

It's not time to panic....they're still tied for the top of the Eastern Conference, still leading their division, still one of the best teams in the NHL. But they've now given up 3+ goals in over half their games (13 times in 22 games, and 9 of the last 11). They're 15th in the NHL in team GAA and tied for 14th in team Save %. After a torrid start on the penalty kill, they're down to 10th overall and are the third-most shorthanded team in the league. If you're a Caps fan you should find this alarming, and this should point to the fact that the goaltending is something less than what it needs to be. Caps fans should be asking important questions: Can any of their young goalies hold up to the rigors of 55+ regular season games and be fresh/healthy come playoff time? Can the team expect consistent play in the crease night in and night out? Can three kids come together to embrace the physical and psychological pressures associated with playing on a genuine Stanley Cup contender? These are legitimate questions at this point in this season. Are they up to it?

Right now...I don't know.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Good News, Bad News...

Well now, that was some weekend of hockey, no? Seems like a good time for the first installment of "Good News, Bad News."

Good News: Michal Neuvirth won a game last night that he had no business winning.
Bad News: It was only because Chris Mason was absolutely awful.
Conclusion: Both guys were a mess. It was as though they met up before the game and agreed that neither would use opposable thumbs, and then Mason just said screw it and had the trainer put him in a straitjacket.

Good News: Neuvirth won his fifth straight last night, and is 7-1 in his last eight decisions. His 11 wins lead the NHL.
Bad News: 3.20 GAA, .895 Save% in those five wins, which doesn't even include the three goals on 14 shots in 49+ minutes against the Bruins back on November 5th because I'm too lazy to do the math. And he blew another 2+ goal lead last night.
Conclusion: He's not playing badly, I guess. But he's definitely not playing well either, and either the soft goals stop happening, or the wins do.

Good News: Braden Holtby played well Saturday in a 3-2 OT loss to Buffalo. He's shown great athleticism and quickness so far, which is excellent given how big he is and how well he fills the net.
Bad News: He and John Carlson combined to make Thomas Vanek look like Mario Lemeiux on the game-winner. The kids will play like kids sometimes...
Conclusion: Even if he doesn't get another start before Varlamov gets back, it's been a nice stint in the Show for Holtby. I think he's a ways from being an everyday NHL goaltender, but he shows that the Caps have really excellent young depth in goal. Speaking of Varly...

Good News!: Varlamov played his first game since October 21st, an 8-3 win over the Binghampton Senators. Stopped 21 or 24. I hear he looked ok. Understandably a bit rusty. Still, a positive development all things considered.
Bad News: “But I’m not ready 100 percent. I think I need to work more and more and more. I need to play more games. Yeah, I think my plan is to stay here. After the next week, we’ll see what’s going to happen.” [courtesy Tim Leone, The Patriot-News, via Japers]
Conclusion: He should take all the time he needs. Although if he were healthy, he'd have taken over last for Neuvirth last night after the 4th goal.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Net for Catching Days

"A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time."
-Annie Dillard

Hats off again to Michal Neuvirth, who battled through a less than perfect performance last night to get a big win over a talented and dangerous Tampa Bay team. That's four straight starts giving up 3+ goals for Neuvirth, and he and the team have managed to win all four. And anytime you can win four (well, six really) in a row giving up over three goals a game, you have to be happy with a) how much offensive support you're getting, and b) that your goalie is finding ways to win even though he's not playing as well as he can.

Some disconcerting trends continued last night though...two bad rebounds wound up in the back of the net, and he (and the team) not only gave up the first goal of the game again, they blew another third period lead. That has to stop. I said this was going to be a detail blog, and it will continue to be, but all wins count the same and Neuvirth now has 10 of them, one more than anyone else in the league. Can't scoff at that.


I've mentioned here how I'm not in love with the way Bruce Boudreau manages his goalies, so I'll offer up my opinion about how the rest of the month should probably look. This assumes that Varlamov gets 1-2 good rehab starts in Hershey over the next 5 days:

Sat, Nov 13 @ Buffalo: Neuvirth
Sun, Nov 14 vs Atlanta: Holtby
Wed, Nov 17 vs Buffalo: Neuvirth
Fri, Nov 19 @ Atlanta: Neuvirth
Sat, Nov 20 vs Philly: Varlamov
Mon, Nov 22 @ New Jersey: Neuvirth
Wed, Nov 24 @ Carolina: Neuvirth
Fri, Nov 26 vs Tampa Bay: Varlamov
Sun, Nov 28 vs Carolina: Neuvirth

The last four are sort of a crap shoot, but I have to figure Neuvirth gets three out of four there, and this way he doesn't play three in a row for the rest of the month. I'll revisit this as we go, but that's how I'd want it to play out if i was BB.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Breakdowns Come, and Breakdowns Go

I had every intention of writing part two of the "Michal Neuvirth needs a day off" series, but since he just had one, we'll save parts two and three for another time. And even though I watched every minute of last night's exceptional performance by Braden Holtby, several talented people have already offered their take on his performance in appropriate detail, so no need to talk about that just yet. But I did notice a trend today that needs to be addressed. More than one excellent blog (not to mention a few message boards) mentioned that Washington would be fine with Neuvirth and Holtby, and without Varlamov. Some even mentioned it might be the right time to trade young Semyon. Me personally, I think the idea of keeping Holtby with the Caps and trading Varlamov (or even sending him to Hershey for anything longer than a conditioning stint) is ludicrous.

For starters, for all anyone knows, Varlamov is not just the best chance to win this year but the best NHL goalie in the long run. I mean, it's certainly possible that he'll be an injury-riddled question mark for his whole career, but he's an undeniable talent with a strong early track record, and it's incredibly premature to write him off. Secondly, keeping Holtby with the Caps is the wrong thing for his growth. He needs games. Like 50 or more of them. He needs to spend a full season being a starter as a pro. He needs to continue to develop outside the pressure of a NHL media market, and without the weight of a legit Stanley Cup contender on his shoulders when he gets to play every fifth game. Keeping a 21-year-old in his second pro season as an NHL back-up, especially when you already have a pair of (much more) proven young goalies ahead of him, is crazy. Next problem: if we assume that Neuvirth is the Caps' best goalie this year (and bear in mind we're still not even 1/4 of the way into the season), we also have to remember he's never played as many as 60 games in a season before. So the Caps desperately need a reliable back-up goalie to play 25+ games and get them 15+ wins. If it has to be Holtby because of injury, then so be it, even though in that case you can bet the Caps would try to trade for a cheap veteran back-up without giving up much in return. And Holtby works fine in the short term, and even gives Varlamov a chance to have a rehab start or two in Hershey. But why willingly choose Holtby when you've got a guy in Varlamov who's proven he's got NHL talent and proven he can win at this level, at least as well as Neuvirth has. Lastly, even if you disagree with the three reasons above, right now you can't get more than 50 cents on the dollar for Varlamov anyway. Given Varly's injury history, the closest comp from a trade perspective is probably Kari Lehtonen, who is vastly talented but hasn't been able to stay healthy. When he was traded last summer as a 25 year old with 200+ NHL starts and 90+ NHL wins, the Thrashers picked up a 4th round pick and a forward prospect with five NHL games on his resume. Not the sort of trade haul that helps the Caps in the here and now.

Listen, I really like what I've seen of Holtby so far. All 71 minutes of him. He seems to have the requisite poise, he moves well, and handles the puck exponentially better than either of his counterparts. And I know many Caps' fans are sick of the "glass groin" and ready to move on at the first thought of something more stable. But cooler heads need to prevail when it comes to how to handle this triumvirate. Caps fans should realize that the best possible outcome is for Neuvirth to stay hot, Varlamov to stay healthy, and Holtby to stay in Hershey.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Goalie Knows What a Goalie Shows...

First in a three-part series

"I told [goaltending coach Arturs Irbe] after the second period that Michal looks a little tired [Wednesday] and even though they only had one goal, I was a little worried about it."
-Bruce Boudreau, 11/03/2010

It makes sense that Michal Neuvirth would be feeling gassed given his yeoman's work thus far, but since he gets another start again tonight at home vs the Flyers [Ed. note: looks like it might be Holtby after all], we should wonder what exactly BB saw over the last two games (he mentioned fatigue again after Friday's circus act W over the Bruins). I'm guessing that people who pay particular attention to goaltending each have different ways to tell when a particular goalie is overworked. For me, I look for three signs: 1) going down too early (and staying down too long), 2) not working hard enough to see the puck through traffic, and 3) noticing when pucks seem to be finding their way through rather than around a goalie. And Neuvirth has been victimized by all three in the last two games. So let's take a look at problem #1, going down early and staying down too long.

It used to be, back before Francois Allaire and Patrick Roy combined to turn entire generations of goaltenders on to the butterfly, that the first hint of goalie fatigue was when they dropped to their knees (early and/or often) to make saves. I think the term most often associated with it was "flopping." It was a bad sign. Obviously that's not the case anymore...Neuvirth (and most goalies in the NHL circa 2010) goes down to his knees literally every time he faces a shot. Goalies spend more time on their knees than ever before, and in the last decade the idea of going down and staying down has evolved immensely, to the point where goalies now work hard on moving side to side after they've already dropped to the ice. And that's the evolution of goaltending in the last 30 years in a nutshell...from never going down, to rarely going down, to going down and getting right back up, and finally to going down and staying down. And that makes sense to a point. Let's say I go down to make the first save, and the rebound kicks a few feet to one side, into a dangerous'll be faster to stay down and slide than it will be to get up, push off, and go back down to stop the rebound. So is it even possible for a modern NHL goalie to go down too soon? Oh, yes...

Cases in point: the first two goals Neuvirth gave up Wednesday night. On the first, Nikolai Kulemin steals the puck at the top of the slot just to Nuevirth's right. He moves toward the net and pulls the puck to the backhand to avoid John Erskine, and immediately Nuevirth is down. All Kulemin did was move the puck to his backhand! Now there was traffic in front, and a potential shot from a backhand from that spot would be very tough to read. But now Neuvirth's gotta keep moving right to left to stay with the shooter, and in his panic to keep pace he eventually over commits to his left. Kulemin pulls the puck back to his forehand, and Neuvirth cant shift his weight around to recover in time. 1-0 Leafs.

One the second goal, John Mitchell comes down the right wing and makes a nice move to the middle to buy some time and space. And again, Neuvirth is immediately down (it's hard to see that in the clip, but it's fairly obvious in the last replay shown from behind the net). He pushes right, eventually gets back up and moves over to get in position for Kaberle's shot, but he's late getting set and can't do anything but accept the screen in front. In the end it's a tough save to make anyway, but Neuvirth didn't do himself any favors with how he played the situation.

So, he's down waaaaaay too early on both goals, and that's signal #1 that he's tired. And incidentally, both times he went down early it was, at least in part, because there were bodies in front of him. Which brings us to telltale tired sign #2: how he dealt with traffic in front of him. But since this is getting long, we'll tackle that issue another time.

Friday, November 5, 2010

They Don't Ask How, Just How Many...

- Congrats to Braden Holtby on his first NHL appearance and win tonight against Boston. Didn't have much to do, but that was a ridiculous position to be thrown into, and he responded well.

- Congrats also to Michal Neuvirth for being named the NHL's Rookie of the Month for October. Well deserved I say.

- I have huge reservations about the way Bruce Boudreau manages his goalies. I think it's a highly underrated skill in a coach, and BB has done a lousy job at it going back to last Spring, in my opinion.

- Having said that, he was dead-on when he said Neuvirth looked tired after Wednesday's shootout win over Toronto. I'll dive deeper into this over the weekend, but Neuvirth was going down too early and staying down when he shouldn't have, which are telltale signs of fatigue.

- Additionally, his play on the tying goal tonight was terrible. He played it essentially as a 2-on-0, and in the end basically just flopped and handed Shawn Thornton an empty net.

- I will say in his defense, however, that both Wednesday and tonight he had very little to do during the first two periods (16 shots vs the Leafs, nine tonight) and that makes it difficult to suddenly turn it on in the third when your team goes on cruise control. And he's not giving up howlers, he's just not finding a way to make a key save to preserve a lead.

- On that note, as "things" go, blowing three goal third period leads at home is at the very bottom of the list of "things" you want your team to have. As in: "Oh, letting three goal leads evaporate in 7 minutes at home? That's just what they do... it's there thing." Not good.

- Finally, if nothing else, these last two games have been extremely entertaining. My wife and I saw our first game at the Verizon Center tonight, and had a blast. Very good crowd tonight too.