Armchair GM: Fiddling with the Roster

Marcus Johansson looks great in a Bears Uniform.

The Capitals’ awful, awful, very bad, no good week came to an unexpectedly pleasant finish on Saturday night. Alex Semin’s hat trick and Tomas Fleischmann’s OTGWGFTW capped off a miserable stint for the team.  Two deflating losses to the Bruins provide an excellent case study in the Caps’ problems: aside from a soaring PK squad and a competent netminder, the Caps are struggling.

That’s why we assembled the Russian Machine Brain Trust, formed to fight the foes no single hero could withstand. We put on our tweedy jackets, pack our pipes full of snuff, put some Mingus on the hifi, and did some armchair GMing. What follows is our panicked odyssey through the Capitals roster, our premature prognostications, our malevolent molestations, and one cheap crack about John Erskine’s facial hair.

Marcus Johansson
MJ90 is a promising, swifty Swede with impossible elegance on his skates. But his performance in the face-off circle has been nothing short of miserable: 18 of 53 (34%).  The face-off isn’t remotely the most important skill in a player’s arsenal, but losing one in the defensive zone can lead to the kind of trouble the Caps aren’t good at dealing with right now. Mojo being awful at taking draws forces Boudreau to use top liners in the defensive zone, which distracts from the Caps’ SCOAR MOAR GOALS ethos.

MP85 has more points in one game (2) than MJ90 has in six (1). He also won 64% of his draws Saturday night.

MP85 has more points in one game (2) than MJ90 has in six (1). He also won 64% of his draws Saturday night.

Marcus Johansson has the talent to one day be the Caps 2nd line center (unless Evgeny Kuznetsov or Cody Eakin have something to say about it). But for now, he’s a not-ready-for-prime-time player– a talented skater with a respectable defensive upside but little depth. And on the face-off dot, he’s Brett Favre in the bathroom with a camera phone: a liability.

Ian has gone sort of overboard about this point (see the image at top?), so Neil had to be the voice of reason. MoJo has earned comparisons to Nicky Backstrom during his rookie year: young Swedes who were not used to the physicality of the NHL, but really that’s where the similarities end. Backstrom was a much more talented player at that age, and the Caps were rebuilding. This team is not.

So what should be done with MoJo? Well– if he’s eligible, perhaps a long stint in Hershey could teach him to balance his nimbleness with some grit. In his meantime, Mathieu Perreault would be a superb replacement, particularly given his performance on Saturday night.

I SCOAR GOALS.

I SCOAR GOALS.

Tomas Fleischmann
Tomas is a cipher on the Caps team that must confound even Alex Semin. He disappears for long stretches except for a steady leak of penalties, and then explodes with a flurry of goals– usually when Alex Ovechkin is out. His face-off stats are good only when compared to MoJo: 28 of 80 (35.0%). It would be ridiculous to say he’s not a great player, but is he the right guy for the second-line center slot? Objectively, no.

Flash sports a sixth-best -1 scoring chance differential, but the Caps convert on 22% of those chances– much better than the top line’s 15%.

The conclusion? Tomas Fleischmann is a misappropriated weapon. His line is producing, but he’s garbage on the face-off. Send him to the wing! If Bruce Boudreau and George McPhee want to get all experimental with their centers, why not give Brooks Laich (68.6% FOW) a chance? Or we could look for a veteran center at the trade deadline. Do you think Eric Belanger will return our phone calls then?

D.J. King
George McPhee believes the Capitals need an enforcer, but the real GM wields no power in the armchair universe. The Copper & Blue does a better job dismissing the practical benefits of “goons” than we can, and we’ve already beaten this particular dead horse once already. So just consider this: is ten minutes of ice time per week from King preferable over the fifteen minuter per game that AHL call-ups like Perreault or Andrew Gordon provide?

Here’s what GMGM said about D.J. over the summer:

What we see in this player is someone who brings grit but looks like he could be a reliable player. I remember Joe Kocur late in his career was a far better player because he gave himself a chance to play and actually held down a fourth line role with Detroit when they won a Cup. If we could add a player to the club who is gritty and can play, that makes us a better team. We think if we get working with this player, he can become a reliable player who can play a little bit more.

Thus far this year, King’s been mostly ineffective and has barely cracked six minutes of ice time when he’s not a healthy scratch. The person that has filled this imagined role is Matt Hendricks, a feisty former-player of Boudreau’s. Hendricks is versatile and can put on a variety of different hats: he can forecheck, he can fight, he can fill in on the higher lines when necessary, and he always brings energy. At this point, King seems to be nothing more than a great fighter at the AHL Level.

Tyler Sloan

Somebody just got Sloan

Tyler Sloan
Now here’s a curiosity. Tyler Sloan is by all accounts a great guy and has a long history with Bruce Boudreau. He’s definitely better at hockey than we are. That’s all of the nice things we could think of.

Tyler gets 66%+ of his 5 vs 5 starts in the offensive zone and still can’t keep a positive CORSI number. Of 246 D-men who played  more than 20 games last season, only eight had 55%+ of their starts in offensive zone and a negative Corsi. EIGHT.

Maybe Tyler is a hero at practice and a beacon in the locker room, but that he is dressing for games speaks more to duress than anything else. The Caps don’t have a lot of options on D right now, and that’s when Tom Poti and Mike Green are NOT hurt.

You know that shutdown defenseman we’ve been talking about for a year and a half? Let’s get on it.

John Erskine
Big John came to D.C. to add some toughness to the patch-work Capitals defensive squad of ’06-’07. He was rarely used then even though Caps starting six included names like Jamie Heward, Bryan Muir, Shaone Morrisonn, Milan Jurcina, and two thin, fresh-faced rookies named Mike Green and Jeff Schultz.

Erskine might be half of Boudreau’s esteemed shutdown pair (along with John Carlson).  That could go a long way to explain his quietness on the boxcar stats, but it also places a premium on the hits he delivers.  Seeing the way Johnny and his flesh-colored facial hair came to the aid of a besieged Michal Neuvith on Saturday was heartening, but does it set off the pain of his -3 plus/minus?

We know Erskine’s tough, but he’s not the shutdown defenseman he’s been cast as.  So how does he remain in the top six while nearly everyone around him improves and he stagnates? And what can be done about it? There’s Sean Collins, who suited up for fifteen games in the 08-09 campaign and does a yeoman’s work in Hershey. We’d offer Sheldon Souray, but the Caps don’t own his rights and he’s just broken his hand. Another Bear, Brian Fahey, has shown numbers worse than Tyler Sloan in his time with the Capitals. No, this improvement must come from beyond the organization.

David Steckel
Stecks is a checking-line center and very important to the Capitals. There’s no greater example of his value than his GWG goal in game six against the Penguins way back in 2008-09.

But since that goal, Steck’s modest numbers numbers have worsened (8 Gs in 08-09, 5 Gs in 09-10) and he’s developed “brick hands” around the net, meaning his touch around the net lacks tact. If David is supposed to pack an offensive punch, he has clearly hit a rut in his development. Recently, Stecks had a developing 2-on-0 opportunity against the Islanders, took his shot, and missed the net by 5 to 10 feet. Alex Semin can pull knucklehead moves like that too, but then he’ll follow them up with a hat trick.  Steckel earns $1.1 million, making him not nearly as good of a value as Boyd Gordon at $800k. Fortunately for Steckel, the Caps can afford them both.

There’s probably not a good change to make here, especially given how well-liked David is, but he needs to become more than a guy who can take face-offs. As long as the Capitals have limited center depth, his job is safe for now. And we’re happy to have him.

Semyon Varlamov
Varly. We need to talk. Each spring you play like a spastic, puck-hating octopus and we love you for it. For about two weeks. But you missed most of last season due to your #brittlegroin, and this season seems like it plans on following suit. When you’re here, you’re stupendous. Plus, you’re Russian, so you know you’ve got us in your corner. But man, we’re worried about you.

varlywhyno

So here’s the deal. You’re going to take it easy. You’re going to stretch. You’re going to explore changing your style, even if it means losing some of that hybrid butterfly magic. Most of all, the all-night Dance Dance Revolution parties have to end.

Again, we love you. We think you could be one of the great ones. But we’re losing this fight, and the other blogs are starting to pick on us. Please come back to us. Please don’t take your groin away.

Love,
Russian Machine Brain Trust


Yes, we know we’re over-reacting.  Please understand that it comes from a place of love, and we’d rather these issues be talked about in a sanctimonious-but-honest way instead of ignored like that time you took a two hour-long shower in middle school and your parents couldn’t look you in the face for the rest of the week.

Who knows? Maybe everybody will get healthy in a few weeks, and we can all laugh about this in the springtime. But where’s the fun in that? So please, hasten to the comments below and tell us what we got wrong.

  • Fedor Fedin

    Great post. Haven’t read it all yet but it’s great.

  • Dave

    Dead on. Well done.

  • NBTW

    Talk of sending Johansson down is premature at this stage. He was the best Cap on the ice in his last game vs. Boston. He’s certainly not overwhelmed at the NHL level. Letting him work out the kinks with the big club helps the team in the long run.

    Then again, it doesn’t help the “Perrault is a better player right now” agenda.

  • Peter Hassett

    @NBTW, I don’t disagree, but I want to reiterate that EVERYTHING is premature at this point. We totally fess up to this being an over-reaction and a conversation piece.

  • http://www.russianmachineneverbreaks.com Ian Oland

    @NBTW What does it say, however, when the best Caps player on the ice had zero points that night? I don’t think it changes the fact that he still looked weak in the corners and is getting pushed around in general. If Perreault wasn’t in the system, it’d be a totally different story for me.

    You want to have your AHL prospects working hard for a spot on the Caps roster and think that if they pay their dues, they have a shot to make it. Don’t you think it’d be demoralizing for someone like Perry to be sent down (like he was on the last day of training camp) after the year he had last year? Especially, to be sent down again for a guy that played in Sweden and hasn’t gone through the ranks like he has?

    MoJo is a slam dunk Hershey case for me right now. I think he will be a better player than Perreault overall down the road, but I really think it’s Perreault’s time to get a chance to stick. He has worked hard and deserves it. I was glad to see he made the most of his chance Saturday Night.

    And Peter’s right, this is premature and really just to get the conversation started. It’s nice that we all had a chance to express our concerns, however! Thanks for commenting.

  • sean

    Conversation piece or not, we need a proven d-man period.

  • Rockin’ The Red in VA

    I would love to tell you that you are wrong. . . but you are absolutely correct! MoJo needs to enjoy the beautiful township of Hershey PA, MP85 derseves his shot, Saturday night was rather impressive, and as far as the shut-down blueliners. . . we can only hope GMGM uses the trade deadline wisely!

  • Peter Hassett

    Can anyone confirm that MoJo would even be eligible to play in the AHL?

    Further, I didn’t want to bog down the whole post with this, but from what I understood Marcus was either going to play in DC or head back to Sweden this year– and that seemed to be enough leverage to earn him a spot on the Caps roster.

  • Kelsey Prosser

    Agreed!!!!! p.s. Caps need to give Perreault a FULL time position!!! He’ll do them wonders!!!
    with love GO CAPS AND BEARS

  • Pat

    There’s a surplus of D-men down in Hershey right now… Why not call up P. McNeil? I too must agree MoJo should be sent down to work on his faceoff skills….. Maybe Keith Aucoin can show him a thing or two!

  • http://amusingfool.blogspot.com/ AMusingFool

    My understanding is that MarJo is eligible to play in Hershey, but can elect (on his own) to go back to play in Sweden for the rest of the year if he isn’t happy about things. I’ve no idea how you plan for that.

    He’s definitely been up and down, so far; but MattyP did look really good the other night. I guess we’ll see how he looks after playing a few more.

    I’m a lot more worried about Fahey suiting up again tonight, though.

  • http://www.examiner.com/washington-capitals-in-washington-dc/michael-hoffman Michael Hoffman

    Great stuff as usual from you guys and I pretty much agree with you on all but one point, there is no need to send MoJo down to Hershey.

    Every single game, Marcus seems to be getting it a little more and more. He does not have great offensive awareness yet, his faceoff ability needs to get better, but defensively he is catching on and shows good composure with the puck. I’ve also seen games where he has looked to be one of the better players on the ice.

    There are not a lot of great options at center for this team, if there were, the Flash at center experiment would have never taken place. As it stands now, if you play Hendricks, Perreault and of course Backstrom at center and smartly decide to move Flash back to wing, your center options are now Gordon, Steckel or Marcus. I don’t think the other two are good enough to dispose Marcus from that position, especially since the Caps believe strongly that he can be a great player at that position, in the future.

    Anyways, great article!

  • Peter Hassett

    @Michael Hoffman,

    You make some good points. Every player should be measured against the expectations for him and how comparatively a replacement player could perform in the same situation. For my money, I’m not sure what is expected of Johansson.

    And I think everyone (even Ian) agrees that Marcus has a terrific future with the organization. I think the argument we make is that a) Perreault could do better right now; and b) Johansson might benefit from getting North American play time with a club where he can work on some parts of his game without the high stakes of the Caps.

    Thanks for writing.

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