Washington’s young goaltending thriving while offense struggles to find its way

It’s been talked almost to death how much the Capitals offense isn’t the same high-flying, run-and-gun brand of hockey that many of us grew up seeing in the 80s. After all, in past seasons we grew accustomed to seeing Alex Ovechkin score 50 or more goals in a season and figured that that trend could continue for years to come.

Fast forward to this year and with the Caps becoming a bit more focused on the defensive side of things, their offense is drawing attention to itself all over again. The difference being that it’s getting noticed for not being the prolific juggernaut it was in seasons passed. There is one part to their game that is decidedly better and yet it’s still not getting its proper amount of respect.

Goaltending.

Going into this season, the Caps and GM George McPhee steered clear of going after an experienced goaltender because they felt comfortable with who they had in place already. With Semyon Varlamov and up and coming fellow youngster Michal Neuvirth, fresh off back-to-back Calder Cup victories in the AHL, the Capitals management felt that investing precious cap space in a veteran goaltender was money poorly spent. Even in spite of injuries to both Neuvirth and Varlamov at different points this season, leading to the emergence of another youngster in Braden Holtby, their play is making Caps management look very smart.

We’ve seen Neuvirth and Varlamov essentially split duties this season. Neuvirth carried the Caps for the first two months of the season putting up a 15-6-4 record with a 2.55 goals against average and a .911 save percentage and earning one shutout. That win total still leads the team and his other numbers are solid for a NHL starter.

Where Neuvirth seems to get the offensive support, Varlamov is putting up the flashier numbers. He’s got a 9-7-4 record, which is decidedly unimpressive but it’s not totally his fault. Varlamov has team leading goals against numbers 2.13 and save percentage with .928 as well as two shutouts. Varlamov since getting healthy has been outstanding for the Caps and evidence that their dedication to defense is paying off. If the offense was a bit better for him in his starts, that record would look a little nicer.  Even Braden Holtby’s limited action this year has yielded solid results with Holtby going 4-2-2 with a 2.47 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Caps carousel of goaltending has done its job to this point in the season. They’re young (Neuvirth and Varlamov are 22 years-old, Holtby is 21) and they’re going to be prone to having the occasional bad game, but one area that Caps coach Bruce Boudreau seems to be handling well is how to juggle time and performances from his goalies.

It’s still a high-risk venture for the Caps to be counting on guys this young in goal to carry them deep into the playoffs and to win a Stanley Cup, but if last year’s playoffs showed us anything it’s that unknown goalies have as good of a chance to go deep as the franchise guys do. Look at the starting goalies that have been in the Stanley Cup finals the last few seasons:

2010: Michael Leighton, Antti Niemi

2009: Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood

2008: Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood

2007: Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Ray Emery

2006: Cam Ward, Dwayne Roloson/Ty Conklin/Jussi Markkanen

Out of that list Fleury, Giguere, and Ward are the only big names and at the time, Cam Ward was but a young guy still relatively unproven. Osgood was a famous name but in 2008 he was playing backup to Dominik Hasek before seizing the starting job during the playoffs in 2008. We’re not about to say the playoffs are a crap shoot, but the Capitals plan of letting youth be their guide isn’t one without past results to back them up.

For now, Varlamov and gang are making life easier on the Caps and if they can continue to do that in the playoffs it’ll be a load off the minds of everyone in Washington.

WATCH LIVE: Buffalo Sabres at New York Rangers

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PROJECTED LINES

Buffalo Sabres

Benoit PouliotJack EichelKyle Okposo

Evander KaneRyan O'ReillyJason Pominville

Zemgus GirgensonsEvan RodriguesSam Reinhart

Scott WilsonJohan LarssonJordan Nolan

Marco ScandellaRasmus Ristolainen

Jake McCabeJustin Falk

Josh Gorges — Casey Nelson

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner

[NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Sabres vs. Rangers; Penguins vs. Kings]

New York Rangers

Rick NashMika ZibanejadPavel Buchnevich

Mats ZuccarelloJ.T. Miller — Vinni Lettieri

Jimmy VeseyDavid DesharnaisPaul Carey

Michael Grabner — Peter Holland — Jesper Fast

Ryan McDonaghNick Holden

Brady SkjeiKevin Shattenkirk

Brendan SmithSteven Kampfer

Starting goalie: Henrik Lundqvist

Is Babcock holding the Maple Leafs back?

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The Toronto Maple Leafs might not be a perfect team, but on paper, you wouldn’t expect them to go through many scoring droughts.

It’s not just Auston Matthews, and really, it’s not just sophomores Mitch Marner and William Nylander that makes this seem so dangerous. Toronto also has solid supporting scorers in the likes of James van Riemsdyk and Nazem Kadri. They added some veteran savvy to the mix with Patrick Marleau, too.

Even so, frustration is building. In the last six games, they’ve only managed 12 goals (not counting shootouts). The Maple Leafs have lost six of their last eight games and haven’t won in regulation since Dec. 28.

Dry spells are going to come, but the heat is starting to rise on Mike Babcock’s lineup decisions.

Not that he’s flustered by such criticisms, as TSN’s Kristen Shilton reports.

“This is how I kind of look at it: I think they hired me to decide,” Babcock said on Wednesday. “So that’s kind of how I approach it … I’m just going to keep on keeping on. In your lifetime, you get to decide what you react to.”

This video has more from Babcock, including the veteran coach calling for the Maple Leafs to shoot more rather than trying to make the perfect play. It’s a nice supplement to more granular studies, like TSN’s Travis Yost’s deep dive on the Maple Leafs and icing (the unsavory infraction, not delicious frosting).

In the grand scheme of things, Babs should be commended for how he’s embraced this team’s young core, particularly in quickly acknowledging that Auston Matthews can do heavy lifting as far as deployment goes.

Still, people are getting frustrated with certain usage situations.

ESPN’s split stats allow you an opportunity to see who’s being used most often in January, this stretch in which Toronto’s scoring is really drying up.

Maybe you’d want Babcock to lean even more on Matthews (averaging 18:54 TOI this month, 18:38 on the season), but that’s a smaller quibble. People are most bothered by the reemergence of Roman Polak (17:02 per game in January) and Leo Komarov‘s frequent use (about a shift fewer than Matthews per game at 18:24 per night in January).

Komarov is getting two more minutes per game lately than Mitch Marner (16:16) and JVR (16:01). Combine that with low scoring, and yes, people are going to get frustrated.

With these developments in mind, the irritation is rising, as you can see in Ryan Fancey of Leafs Nation’s column: “The Leafs aren’t just boring, they’re mediocre.”

Toronto has stopped scoring, and their overall attack has been neutered for weeks. And what’s worse, it seems intentional. Every Babcock quote over the last couple months seems to be about “playing tight” and being more defensive, which apparently means sitting back and being fed in your own zone before ripping the puck up ice for a stretch pass (a.k.a Carlyle hockey) or getting it to the red and going for a dump-and-chase. The Leafs can’t seem to get any flow to their play when it comes to breaking out or using the neutral zone to create offense, and it’s concerning because it seems like a step back from last year. What’s even worse is that it’s so, so boring.

It’s that “intentional” part that’s interesting.

This ultimately comes down to a fascinating conundrum. The Leafs have some nice defensemen, but could use help in that area and probably lack a truly elite one, though Morgan Rielly is coming along nicely. There are some forwards with two-way ability, but no one demanding Selke bids, either.

Babcock’s goal is to get the most out of that group, so does that mean going for a high-stakes style like that of, say, the Penguins or Devils? Maybe that was the leaning for a bit, yet the charge now is that the Maple Leafs are trying to lower the number of events in their own end, which means playing a more conservative style overall.

With a reasonably comfortable grip on third place in the Atlantic Division, maybe Babcock is merely using this window to experiment? The ideal scenario could be to find the right mix of careful play and daring offense.

At least, that’s what would happen if things fall the right way.

Can Babcock figure this out – as he’s figured out many different alignments during his impressive career – or is this a case of ego and/or stubbornness lowering a team’s ceiling? There’s still time to figure this out, but it’s an interesting story to watch.

Even if the team itself isn’t always as fun as it once was.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Looking at goals, Maurice Richard race from fantasy perspective

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During many seasons, the Maurice Richard race wasn’t very interesting. In a lot of cases, it boiled down to Alex Ovechkin leaving everyone else to battle for second place.

That’s not the case as of today, although it’s refreshing to see Ovechkin back in contention after people wondered if he’d start to fade as an elite sniper.

Ovechkin is neck-and-neck with Nikita Kucherov, Anders Lee, Sean Couturier, and John Tavares. William Karlsson is joined by Tyler Seguin and Brock Boeser, while there are some dark horse candidates at 20 goals in Patrik Laine, Evgeni Malkin, and Nathan MacKinnon.

Fourteen different players are at 20 or more, and seven more are at 19, including Vladimir Tarasenko.

With such a rich field of snipers in mind, it’s been a nice volume year for fantasy hockey. Let’s ponder snipers from a variety of perspectives in hopes that some of this advice might help you make better add/drops, trades, and lineup decisions.

Shooting machines

Ovechkin is no longer miles ahead of everyone else when it comes to shooting volume.

As of today, he’s actually tied with Vladimir Tarasenko for the NHL lead in shots on goal with 193. Now, Tarasenko’s gotten there in two more games, so Ovechkin’s still firing more often than him, but the gap is closing.

There are some other interesting names among the SOG leaders. Tyler Seguin comes in third with 187 SOG in 46 games, on his way to 22 goals. Last season, Seguin scored 26 goals versus 46 assists, suffering from mediocre puck luck (8.6 shooting percentage). If he continues to generate about four per game, his 22-goal pace isn’t that outrageous, and he is in a strong spot to beat his career-best of 37 goals, set twice.

Tarasenko seems like he’ll be in line for a bump, as his 9.8 shooting percentage would be a career-worst (easily) if it stands, and is short of his career average of 13.2 percent.

Two volume shooters who are experiencing better times lately: Brent Burns and Max Pacioretty. Burns now has seven goals on 183 SOG, with those coming after a goalless October. Patches, meanwhile, finally saw a four-game goal streak end on Wednesday; that was quite a refreshing run after he scored zero goals in 12 December games (and heard plenty about it).

Well isn’t that special

Sometimes, when leaning toward “fancy stats,” players get dinged a bit if they’re too reliant on the power play for scoring. In fantasy, power play production can be an added bonus, as a goal can often cover power-play points (or PPG) and even game-winning goals depending upon the context. (Ah, those sweet, sweet, overtime four-on-three situations …)

From a prognosticating standpoint, it’s a mixed bag; even-strength scoring might mean more reliable scoring from certain perspectives, but specializing doesn’t hurt either.

Ovechkin is still lethal from “his office” on the left faceoff dot, yet he hasn’t been as dependent upon special teams as in recent seasons. Eight of his 28 goals have come on the PP so far this season; compare that to 17 of 33 last season and you’ll see that he’s diversified his threat.

When it comes to the Lightning’s power play, Kucherov may actually be more of a facilitator. Only three of his 27 goals have come on the power play, while Steven Stamkos leads the NHL with 12 PPG (a huge chunk of his 17 goals total). Patrik Laine (11 of 20), Evgeni Malkin (10 of 20), and Filip Forsberg (9 of 15) are all scoring a ton on the man advantage through the first half-and-change, too.

In case you’re wondering, Aleksander Barkov leads the NHL with four shorthanded goals, representing all of his shorthanded points so far.

High percentages

Glancing at the top scorers, you’ll see a red flag or two. This doesn’t mean these guys won’t snipe for the rest of 2017-18, just beware that they also may be at risk of cooling off or tricking you into expecting too much.

Anders Lee is third in the NHL with 26 goals, and he figures to be dangerous all season alongside John Tavares and Josh Bailey. Still, his 23.4 shooting percentage is a bit high, even compared to last season’s 17.8 percent (career average: 14.6). He should improve on last season’s career-high of 34 as long as he sticks with those high-end linemates, just don’t overreact if you’re trading for him.

William Karlsson is the other name who stands out among the top 50 in goals. He’s currently ranked sixth with 23 goals, getting there on just 92 SOG (a whopping 25 percent success rate). Karlsson already has more goals (23) than he scored points in 81 games in 2015-16 (9 goals, 21 points) and is almost there versus 81 games in 2016-17 (six goals, 25 points). Of course, he didn’t have opportunities like these in Columbus, so there’s balance both ways. Still, he’s basically doubled his career shooting percentage average of 12.6 percent.

On the flipside, while Duncan Keith isn’t a guaranteed goal machine as a defenseman, he’s at zero goals on 105 SOG. Guys like Keith should get at least a bit more puck luck through the rest of 2017-18, so keep an eye on his ilk.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ryan Getzlaf notches 600th career assist

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Milestones are often most useful toward the end of a player’s career, cementing legacies and maybe providing Hall of Fame voters with helpful signposts. That said, they can also stand as reminders that a player is special, even when there are still more chapters to be written.

At 32, Ryan Getzlaf has plenty of time to continue piling up assists after collecting his 600th helper in the Anaheim Ducks’ 5-3 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday.

Now, for a guy who sets the table as beautifully as Getzlaf does, the assist in question wasn’t necessarily typical.

Either way, hitting this milestone gives us a chance to ponder where Getzlaf ranks among the NHL’s best, whether it comes to pure playmaking or point producing overall. With 240 goals to go with those 600 points (and considering his often-scary shot), goalies and defenses have to respect that aspect of his game, too.

Let’s ponder where he ranks among the best in a few ways.

Since Getzlaf debuted in 2005-06, he’s generated those 240 goals and 600 assists for 840 points in just 883 regular-season games. That’s the ninth-highest total in the NHL during that span, trailing Henrik Zetterberg by eight points (his 848 came in 904 games). Getzlaf’s been almost exactly a point-per-game player since he really blossomed in 2007-08, generating 743 points in 744 games, the eighth-best mark. That’s 20 more points that Anze Kopitar in fewer games, and way ahead of his buddy/occasional sparring partner Corey Perry.

Getzlaf is among four players who’ve generated at least 600 assists since 2005-06: Joe Thornton (767), Henrik Sedin (711), and Sidney Crosby (677).

According to Hockey Reference, he’s been in the top 10 in assists on seven occasions and the top 10 in points three times during his career.

The Ducks get knocked for Game 7 failings and other disappointments, yet it’s difficult to pin much of that on Getzlaf.

He has 118 points in 121 career playoff games, the fourth-highest point total since he came into the NHL (once again, right in range of Zetterberg, who’s at 115 in 121 games). You could argue that he’s actually a bit more consistent than Patrick Kane, who’s ahead of him with 123 points but in 127 contests.

Of course, it’s not just about goals and assists, and maybe that’s part of why Getzlaf doesn’t get as much recognition. He can be nasty on the ice, even if Perry tends to draw a greater share of opponents’ ire. Getzlaf didn’t necessarily impress his critics at every turn with how he handled a recent controversy, either.

Also, if you’re the type to mock the follicularly challenged, this flash from the past might be amusing and/or useful:

So, Getzlaf has his critics for both on and off the ice behavior. He’s also had his setbacks, especially if you don’t give him much credit for the Stanley Cup he won as a young player (collecting 17 points in 21 games while averaging 21:43 TOI, by the way).

Love him or hate him, it’s probably fair to call him underrated, at least when you consider how rarely his name comes up in discussions about the league’s most dominant scorers. This latest milestone is a reminder that he’s among the best, particularly when it comes to making plays.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.