[Ed. note: Capitals During Wartime has illuminated struggles in Washington leading up to the trade deadline. Read previous installments: Centerless, Road-weary, Negativity, Bruce vs. Dale, and Trending topics.]
By this time Monday, Capitals general manager George McPhee will have already made whatever moves he has deemed wise for the future of his club. With all the prognostication and educated guessing about trade scenarios going around, I have decided not to add any noise to an already muffled signal.
Instead, we conclude this series with a look at two Capitals players who will loom large on Monday in one way or another. Those players are Mike Knuble and Tomas Vokoun.
Mike Knuble’s Walk into the Sunset
Mike Knuble is a 39-year old right winger with a Stanley Cup ring on his finger. In his first two seasons with the Capitals, he scored 53 goals and 40 assists. This year he has only 3 goals and 9 assists.
Knuble has been scratched five times in recent weeks. When he has played, he served on the bottom two lines rather than in a trio with Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstom like in years past. And now, having not played in nearly a week, Mike Knuble’s name is popping up in trade rumors.
Many teams intent on a playoff run would love to add Mike Knuble’s leadership, experience, and net presence to their chemistry. The only questions are whether he still has a spark after 16 seasons in the NHL, and what Washington will demand for his release.
To answer the first question, one need only look at how Knuble has been used this season. Accepting first and foremost that all players decline as they age, we should also add that Knuble did not flourish until his 30’s, a maneuver we may call the Reverse Gretzky. While it is possible that Knuble suddenly and profoundly hit the proverbial wall this year, let’s consider some other explanations for his lessened output.
- After starting in the offensive zone between 55% and 56% of the time in 09-10 and 10-11, Knuble dropped to 43.5% this year. A good way of thinking about this: there has been a lot more ice between Mike and the net this year.
- Instead of having Nick Backstrom (7.4 Corsi Rel and 53% of scoring chances going towards the other guy’s net) driving play as his most common linemate, Knuble relied on Marcus Johansson (-8.6 Corsi Rel and 46% scoring chances). While both Swedish centers are talented, the Backstrom is a much stronger player and without him production would obviously decline.
- Knuble’s average ice time fell from just under 17-18 minutes in his first two years in Washington to just over 14 this year. Knuble has been scratched 5 times this year.
- Finally, and perhaps most mysteriously, Knuble’s PDO (a proxy for luck that sums up on-ice save% and shooting% and normalizes around 1000) is just 972 this year, falling from 1010 last year and 1048 (!) two seasons ago. Even when he’s been given a chance to shoot, Knuble has been denied by the fates.
In summary, Mike Knuble has had inferior linemates, longer distances to the net, less time to produce, and just plain bad luck. While it’s likely age has something to do with his fall-off, these other factors are much more compelling. If Mike Knuble is traded to a team that gives him real opportunity to contribute, we may see the old man producing like his old self again.
That might suck to watch as a fan of the Washington Capitals, but as a fan of hockey in general and this player in particular, we ought to be glad if Knuble gets the opportunity to walk into the sunset in the manner of his choosing.
Tomas Vokoun’s Big Decision
Last summer, Tomas Vokoun left a position of prominence with the Florida Panthers to join a team that he thought had a better chance to win. Vokoun took a significant pay cut to play in Washington, earning just $1.5M to play for a team that now earns about one fifth of a point less per game than the Panthers.
Vokoun’s time in D.C. has not been consistently good. Along with Michal Neuvirth, his poor goaltending in October and November probably contributed to Bruce Boudreau’s firing. After losing some starts to the younger Czech goalie, Vokoun vented his frustration to the press. Most recently, Coach Dale Hunter blamed recent losses on Vokoun’s performance in net.
But despite those hiccups, Vokoun has been excellent during Hunter’s reign.
Note: This chart is a 10-game moving average of save percentage. Boudreau was replaced after Vokoun’s 17th game, the low point above.
In recent days, Japers’ Rink Noon Number feature has shared insight into how goalie performance has affected the Capitals’ fortunes. In short, the Capitals rarely win after giving up 4 goals, and they regularly lost in February unless they had perfect or near-perfect goaltending. On JP’s own twitter account, he told us that the Capitals are a stellar team when their goaltending is average or better, and kind of awful without.
With all the noise made about Alex Ovechkin’s slump or the priority of offense to the Capitals’ success, the performance of the guy in the cage has been more crucial. That’s why the Capitals’ 7 shutouts, 4 by Vokoun alone, have been such a boon to the red team.
In addition to being far too valuable to deal, Tomas Vokoun also has a no-move clause on his contract. But he turns into an unrestricted pumpkin on July 1, so hard decisions will have to be made.
It’s unlikely Vokoun would accept a “winner’s discount” for another contract with Washington, and it’s possible that the tense off-ice atmosphere (e.g. Dale Hunter’s criticism) might dissuade him from even considering an offer.
Meanwhile, George McPhee told Elliotte Friedman that he is interested only in deals that will improve the long-term health of his team. Either way, there’s negotiations to be had.
I think it more likely than not that both Mike Knuble and Tomas Vokoun will part company with the Capitals– either on Monday or at the end of the season. And that’s a shame.
In Mike Knuble’s case, the player has been deprived a fair chance to succeed. For Tomas Vokoun, a bad start doomed his chance to play for the winner he wanted. As much as I’d like to see Caps management give Mike Knuble another chance and have Vokoun consider giving Washington another go, the cold reality of the hockey business don’t really support it.
These are just two players among many who may not be long for this team. That’s the way of things in professional sports. Unpleasant as it is, fans in D.C. must now say goodbye to some of their favorite players– just a few more casualties of the Capitals during wartime.