Washington Post and ESPN writer Neil Greenberg talked Caps hockey on the Tony Kornheiser Show on ESPN 980 this morning. The RMNB alum killed it. I considered putting a bombastic quote in the subject of this post like “Greenberg: This is not a good team” or “Neil Says [Ovechkin]’s No Crosby”, but I really think you will be better served by reading or hearing the whole segment, which I freaking transcribed below instead of actually enjoying my lunch.
Tony and Neil cover a lot of topics in the 15-minute segment: Neil’s brush with the Cup in ’94, what has caused Alex Ovechkin’s decline and what we can expect from his future, Mike Milbury’s assessment of Ovi vs. reality, Adam Oates’ talent as a coach, and what the future holds for the Washington Capitals. I think this is essential reading/listening for Caps fans, so get to it.
Tony Kornheiser: The first obvious question is who are you? I mean, why are you in my life now?
Neil Greenberg: I think you always need a Neil Greenberg of some sort in your life, Tony, so I guess here I am to help fill that void.
Kornheiser: But who are you? Where do you come from?
Greenberg: I come from New York. Queens, New York actually.
Kornheiser: Really? What high school?
Greenberg: Cardozo High School. Actually the same high school Howie Rose went to.
Kornheiser: Who does the Mets, right?
Greenberg: And also the Islanders.
Kornheiser: Yeah, okay.
Greenberg: I started my stat analysis in baseball following Bill James. And then a couple years ago I started to apply those same principles to hockey. Lindsey Applebaum at the Post saw some of my writing and asked me to contribute to Capitals Insider, and then after that someone at ESPN caught some of my work, so I’ve been contributing to both of those outlets for the last couple of years.
Kornheiser: So you’re a kid, right? How old are you?
Greenberg: I’m 39 years old.
Kornheiser: That’s a kid to me. That’s not a kid to you. I should know more about hockey considering I used to cover it. I covered the Rangers for Newsday. I covered the Rangers for awhile. And I grew up on Long Island and in those days the New York Rangers lived and trained in Long Beach, Long Island, and I used to go to the rink and watch them do all these things and then I lived in Long Beach and I should know more about hockey than I do.
What intrigues me about your stuff is that you’re sort of a geek– you know how the baseball guys took over baseball. Now, led by people like Daryl Morey, they’re taking over basketball, and maybe they’re gonna take over hockey.
So you’re out of the mold of that guy Nate Silver. Am I correct on that?
Greenberg: You’re absolutely correct. I’m actually a big fan of Nate Silver’s work.
Kornheiser: Good. this is going very well, Neil. Very well. And what is your hockey background? Did you play hockey as a kid?
Greenberg: No, I never played hockey as a kid. I just grew up loving the sport. Saw my first game– Rangers-Penguins– when I was seven years old, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Kornheiser: Were you a Rangers fan as a kid?
Greenberg: I was a Rangers fan as a kid, yes. I actually drank out of the Stanley Cup when they won in 1994.
Kornheiser: Really?! How did that happen?
Greenberg: I was frequenting some of the bars of Nassau County. I don’t remember exactly which one, but I was there. There were people taking pictures with the Cup outside of one of the bars, so we stood in line. And as soon as I turned the corner to enter the bar, someone said, “Do you want to drink from the Stanley Cup?” and I said, “Absolutely.”
Kornheiser: Who would refuse that? There are only two things anybody ever wants to do with the Stanley Cup. Both have to do with fluid, and one is not good, and the one you had was the good one.
Greenberg: And it came after probably all the bad ones, so I was kind of rethinking that decision.
Kornheiser: Let’s get to what attracted me to your writing. You basically said Alex Ovechkin has fallen down the well. This is very exciting to me. You can prove this analytically that Alex Ovechkin has fallen down the well, right?
Kornheiser: What’s the deal with him?
Greenberg: Well, he’s getting older. there’s two things that are happening. One is your general age progression. People have a misconception as to when hockey players– particularly goal-scorers — peak. It’s typically between the ages of 22 and 24, and then you start to see a down-slope at age 27. Ovechkin has pretty much been in that exact pattern.
If you look at how Ovechkin scored his goals early on when he entered the league, it was by a volume shots. It was more quantity than it was quality. He led the league with 425 shots…
Kornheiser: …He was overpowering, right? He was a big strong overpowering guy.
Greenberg: He was a completely dynamic player that tossed rubber [at the net] from every angle. And as those shots per game decreased, it took the goal-scoring along with it. And now we’re looking at a player who’s putting up 300 shots on goal as opposed to 500 or 400 shots on goal. So the goal scoring numbers are gonna come down.
To his credit, those shots on goal have up-ticked a bit this year, but a lot of goalscoring is also luck. You have a clank of a pipe there; it goes through the wickets there. And he hasn’t been seeing a whole lot of puck luck as maybe he has in the past.
Kornheiser: “Puck luck?” Love it!
Greenberg: Puck luck, yeah. He’s just not going to be the 50-goal scorer that he was — probably ever again.
Kornheiser: Okay, I’ve got two questions on this. One is– what made Gretzky great over long periods of time was his ability to set other people up. I take it that Ovechkin is not an assist guy. Lemieux was an assist guy as well. Ovechkin is still in his head an overpowering goal-scorer. So I’m asking if I’m right on this– this doesn’t give Ovechkin real room to go up anymore. Or am I wrong on that? And the second question I have is– you know this, you see this– do the Capitals know this?
Greenberg: Let me take the assists first. Ovechkin is a good passer. I think that’s one of the most under-rated parts of his game; however, he’s not Gretzky, he’s not Lemieux.
Kornheiser: He’s not Crosby.
Greenberg: He’s certainly not Crosby. So he’s not going to be getting points that way. The switch to right wing was an effort to get him away from that overpowering move he had down the left side, where he would go down the left wall and try to cut in and try to score the goal that way– because that just wasn’t working anymore. Defenses have caught up to that. So you’re right. His points are going to come from goals, and unless he starts to adapt his game a little bit more on the right wing, we’re gonna see some 25- to 30-goal seasons.
Kornheiser: That’s it?!
Greenberg: Oh absolutely yeah.
Kornheiser: They’re paying him a lot of money.
Greenberg: They are, and that’s where people’s expectations I think are becoming unglued because they see on paper this 65-, 50- goal scorer that’s making 10 million dollars, and they think that’s gonna happen in perpetuity. The Ovechkin contract was a bad contract. When they signed Ovechkin to tat contract for that period of time, it was a bad deal. You can never expect a goal scorer to score 60, 50 goals a year for 10 years. It’s just not reality.
Kornheiser: Do they know what you know?
Greenberg: I think so. Hockey analytics has definitely become bigger in the past couple years. There are some teams that are embracing it. I know that Tampa Bay has a hockey analytics guy on staff. Chicago, Pittsburgh, Calgary, some other teams are embracing it. As far as the Capitals are concerned, they seem to trust the coaches more than the numbers. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing; however, I think there’s room for both when you’re looking at player evaluations.
Kornheiser: I’m sure you saw this in the paper today. Mike Milbury said of Alex Ovechkin, “When you have great talent it comes with great expectations and accountability. If you put him (Ovechkin) up to those to two standards tonight in this particular game (I guess against Philly), he fails the test miserably. This is an awful display of hockey by Alex Ovechkin. He should be ashamed of himself.” That’s pretty brutal.
Greenberg: It was a very brutal segment. I watched that segment during the game, and I think it was a little bit unfair. Ovechkin by far did not have his best game; however, he was coming off a back-to-back. And his three games before that were great. There were flashes of the old Ovechkin. So to say that his whole career has boiled down to two periods of a back-to-back I think is a little disingenuous.
Kornheiser: Okay, I started by asking you if Ovechkin had fallen down the well. Now I need to ask you have the Capitals have fallen down the well. It seems to me they are propped by playing in maybe the worst division in the history of mankind.
Kornheiser: The only way a team is gonna get in [to the playoffs] from their division is by winning it. But are [the Capitals] falling down the well?
Greenberg: Absolutely. they have been for some time. This team is not a good team. It looks good because you have guys like Ovechkin and Backstom and to some extent Green. But when you look beyond that, this team does not have any depth. The talent level is overestimated. The goalies are young and inexperienced and are prone to lapses. I think this team since the 2009-2010 season has really been in a downturn, and I just don’t see them coming out of it any time soon unless there’s some major personnel changes that happen at the core.
Kornheiser: But the Caps fans believe not just that they are the best team in hockey this year, [but that] they are the greatest team of all time. They’ve been cheated out of at least five Stanley Cups. Are Caps fan knowledgeable hockey fans?
Greenberg: They are very knowledgeable hockey fans. I do think though they get a little bit swept up in the optimism of Ovechkin. When you look at a Caps game you see Ovechkin at the top of his game, which has happened this year…
Kornheiser: …he had a hat trick the other night.
Greenberg: … It’s very easy to get swept back up into oh everything is fine, but when you look at the core of this team, they have a lot of problems. The first and foremost is they have a lack of talent at the top six forward positions. In the Philadelphia game in the third period Adam Oates switched up his lines. He took out Jason Chimera from the top line and put in Matt Hendricks on the top line. You know, Matt Hendricks is a lot of things, but he is not a top-6 — let alone top-line — player by any means. That alone illustrates the lack of top-six forward talent that this team has. The blue line is banged up. Dmitry Orlov has yet to play this season, and after Mike Green, the talent drops there too. The depth is just not there for any sort of sustained run. And this team is not a good puck-possession team. They don’t tilt the ice in their favor. When it’s five-on-five hockey, they’re probably a bottom-ten team in the NHL.
Kornheiser: Bottom ten?!
Kornheiser: Can we make any judgments on Adam Oates yet in his first year of coaching?
Greenberg: I think so. I think he’s a very good coach. I think he’s done a good job of using the assets he has on this team. It seems like Ovechkin has bought into moving the right wing. The power play is very much improved from last year now that they went to the 1-3-1 system. So yes, I think that Adam Oates is good coach, he will be a good coach, he was a fine hire. I just don’t believe that the assets that are on this team are what he needs to be successful.
Kornheiser: Alright, I’m gonna get you out of here on this. I’ve repeated this a lot because I find this sort of amazing. You look at hockey int he way that the sabermetricians look at baseball. It’s just different from ‘the eyeball test’ that most people apply to everything. Of all the things you’ve said about their relative position in the NHL, do George McPhee and Adam Oates know this?
Greenberg: I don’t know. I think to some degree they have to know that if Jason Chimera is on the top line, that they have a problem on the top-six forwards. I have to believe that if John Erskine is getting top-four defensive minutes that they know there is depth problem on the blueline. They have to know that their young goaltenders just aren’t going to have enough experience to string together long stretches of games where they play at a high level. So I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they know this, but when you’re dealing in real life with the salary cap, it’s probably a lot harder to make the moves that need to made to get this team back on track.
Kornheiser: I don’t know anything about hockey, but the next time we want to talk about hockey, will you come back on?
Greenberg: Anytime I appreciate it.
Kornheiser: Fabolous. Neil Greenberg, boys and girls. That was pretty good!
What do you think? Has your opinion of “Negative Nancy” Greenberg changed? What do you disagree with?
Also, let me know if I goofed in my transcription. This thing was basically War and Peace, so it may need proofreading.
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