Neil Greenberg on the Tony Kornheiser Show


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?

Greenberg: Absolutely.

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.

Greenberg: Yes.

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?!

Greenberg: Absolutely.

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.

  • Thanks!

  • I listened to it earlier and he made several strong points. But I do think that he is inaccurate in some of his statements on the depth of the team, especially on defense. Do not get me wrong they are not a top ten roster, but they are certainly not a bottom 10 roster in the league.

  • I think when Neil says the Caps are bottom-10 team, he’s specifically referring to possession at even strength. This table ranks the Caps at 21st out of 30 at Fenwick Close (% of shots going towards other guy’s net when it’s not a blowout):

  • Clare

    this made me seriously depressed.

  • Maybe I’m biased because of what I read, but I don’t get the feeling that any Caps fan went into this season thinking “they are the best team in hockey this year,” and even if they did, I think all but the most naive have been disabused of that notion by this point. And as a long-time fan, I don’t think the Caps have been cheated out of the last five Stanley Cups. The reason we all went nuts when they got to the 2nd round last year was because they had seriously over-acheived. I’m a longtime fan of Kornheiser too, but I think he’s a bit out of his depth when discussing the fan base of this particular Washington team.

  • Also, the only “goof” I see in the transcription still works since it’s in the bit where Neil really lays into how crappy this team is.

    “Greenberg: … It’s very east to get swept back up into oh everything is fine, butt when you look at the core of this team, they have a lot of problems.”

  • Uh you wrote butt and east instead of easy when he was talking about Hendricks

  • Swhirly

    Personally I think Neil’s “Negative Nancy” nickname needs to turn into “On the Nose Neil”. And I have thought that for some time. It was hard to read this, but it was only difficult because deep down, I know, (we all know), it is true. There is nothing in his interview that isn’t obvious when you sit down to watch most games without your “I love the CAPS SOoooOOOooOOo much!” blinders on.

  • thanks Andy– I’ll fix

    p.s. hilarious typos

  • This is correct. They are a bottom five roster in the league.

  • Neil, just wanted to say that was an awesome piece and you perfectly articulated the nauseous feelings I have had watching my team for the past two seasons. The reality is the Caps are not as good as most think they are and the coach (BB) wasnt the only issue by any means. Great work as always and nicely done in a pressure situation (live, on air).

  • Very true…

  • This was a pretty sobering read. I think Neil is on point with most everything, but I disagree with his position that GMGM is likely aware of many of the points Neil has made. The bottom line is that GMGM is an idiot. His ability to make bone-headed transactoions never ceases to amaze me. Take this week as an example: Volpatti?! Really?! What the hell is this guy going to contribute to the team that Hendricks and Erskine can’t do already?

    Ovie’s conttract is an absolute joke. I love the guy, and I love watching him pay, but he is not worth that type of money.

    Serious question for Neil: is there a way to rebuild this organization without eventually trading Ovie in order to open up salary cap room? Unless we do it through the draft, I don’t see how it is possible to bring in more talent while at the same time taking on the burden of Ovie’s contract.

  • In my perfect world/ESPN, it would be the Neil Greenberg show and after all the fact- based sports analysis grounded in reality, if there were any time left over, they might have a loud, useless blowhard who doesn’t know anything about sports like kornheiser/wilbon/bayless on as a guest to fill time.

  • Yv

    Most of NG points are true and known. However, if I recall correctly, last year New Jersey Devils (and LAK also) was also not good in 5on5 in the mid of season with something like 0.75 coeff. But they steadily improved from there and at the end played for SC. Last year Caps was not much better than current one, was awful in puck possession and 5on5, and was dreadful to watch, but still ended one goal away from conference finals. If GMGM will do something with the roster, maybe Caps with AO’ system can managed to overachieve again.

    By the way good job on transcripting such big piece of audio. I hope you used a software for help, otherwise too laborious).

  • Hockeynightincanada

    Nope, my opinion of Greenberg is even better. I have an appreciation for statistics, so I always enjoyed reading his analysis at the Washington Post. He nailed everything he talked about to TK.

    Not all will agree with me obviously, but I for one have been calling for the canning of General Manager George McPhee on numerous occasions. I remember the first time I began to lose confidence in him when he hired Bruce Cassidy.

  • johnnymorte

    I think this guy is dead wrong about everything. This team has plenty of depth and Holtby is getting better every day. Forsberg and Wilson’s arrivals are just around the corner and hopefully Kuznetsov’s in a year and a half. Ovechkin will come around again, just like Jagr and Bure had low moments in their careers and came back. Ribs is a good center for him and they are going to get better as the season progresses.

  • CM

    Right or not (and I think he is). He’s gonna start seeing a lot more work. He knocked their socks off! Congrats Neil!

  • Bryant Thomas

    make it happen, neil! seriously i would love to watch a fact-based hockey show and have him rip into (or god forbid agree with) people like melrose & milbury

  • Hatfield

    Good interview.

    I’m not sure GMGM knows about the depth issue, though. I think he sees Chimera as a 25-goal scorer and sees a sidelined 30-goal scorer in Brooks Laich. He overvalues all of his players, especially the ones he’s drafted or those who have experienced success as Caps in the past. Thus the overpayment for RFAs, the playing of underdeveloped prospects in the NHL, resistance to cutting bait with bad players, etc.

  • I don’t know if I agree with Greenberg … I’m always hesitant to reduce human action/behavior to numbers (and I say that as the daughter of a statistician who worked psychiatric research … I absolutely know that there are limits to what those numbers can tell us). Humans are very surprising creatures and can be counted on to do unexpected things now and again. I really respect what he had to say and the stats he uses to back it up; they definitely have a place in describing the team. But I don’t take his work as gospel.

    Thanks for an amazing work of transcription … that’s some tough work. I only saw a couple of typos (say for saw, for example), but they were easily overlooked in the sea of correct verbiage!

  • Matt

    I agree with him with the oveckin statements, however, some of his statements about us having to realize we are a bottom ten team, and we have been for a few seasons, are just flat out wrong. I understand looking at numbers to get an indication of how a teams playing but looking at it in the perspective of how a team should be playing is useless to me because otherwise we just shouldn’t play the games at all. I play hockey and there are just so many things that just dont translate to paper that can effect a team or a game. Another that “grinds my gears”, is that he made no mentio of Brooksie. I truly believe that his absence has created such a void in our team. He is our Ryan Callahan. The guy goes 100 percent and has the top 6 skill that Greenberg says we are missing.
    Look by no means do I think we are the best team in the NHL, or even the East, but we certainly aren’t bottom ten.

  • Teemu Selanne has scored 40 goals as a 40 year old. (I think)

    I mean yeah, he’s a rare talent, but isn’t ovechkin? Is Ovi the nest Cheechoo?

  • Also, Carlzner is phenomenal. I don’t care what anybody says lol

  • Forestfor Trees

    Interesting, Neil gets paid to analyze hockey, and sport he never played and couldn’t possible understand the intricacies associated with it. I’m in the wrong line of work. Yet everyone is drinking the kool-aid it seems? I’m not biased, but i know hockey, and I know this team is much better then their record, and much better then bottom ten 5 on 5. Sorry bro, you be wrong. Hockey ain’t baseball, and it never will be.

    Ovechkin – All about consistency. All the caps need is for him to be the consistent power forward he has shown in the last ten games (minus Philly). He’s getting chances, hes making passes, he’s plowing through. So he didn’t get a shot vs canes, he had a marvelous game and the stats lie on that one. Wouldn’t be the first time.

    “Kornheiser: …He was overpowering, right? He was a big strong overpowering guy.”
    Glad he shut you up on that last night. No one in the league can power through Chara and get calls like he did last night. NO ONE.

    You are right about one thing, he ain’t Crosby. But guess what? His brain ain’t mush either. Crosby is one decently hard hit to the head away from eating food out of a straw full time.

    Erskine – worth every penny. How was that Jets game? Fan fucking tastic. Blocked shots, pushed everyone around and made the QUICK and EASY plays out of the zone. He might not have the foot speed, but he gets the job DONE, and keeps important pucks inside the O zone. SHultz is the weak link and needs to be shown the door. Olesky was a welcome addition.

    On the caps top 6 – Sure doesn’t look pretty, but Oates just gets it. You need a grinder on the top line with Ovie, you need a guy to do the trench work. If you have three skill guys all wandering around asking for passes shit don’t get done. Hendricks is that guy until Brooks is back. He puts his hard hat on night in, night out and creates space for the other two. He has hands and decent vision, or has everyone not been paying attention to how that line operates? Fehr has shown he has the legs, the shot and the hands to play with Backstrom. Just because he had a horrible year last year means jack in the present. Did you need a youtube clip of the goal last night for proof? The top six ain’t perfect on paper, but I guess thats all you look at, is stats n paper. With Brooks back, there are zero issues with the top six. Top 10 in the league.

    Now bottom 6. Mr overpaid Joel Ward as some would call him. Not me, that guy is money. Big man that can move, makes the smart play and bangs home pucks. Matty P is finding his niche, not backing down and working his tail off. Chimera skates real fast. He is my weak link this year, too many giveaways not enough finish. Jay beagle the hardest worker on the team, wins the majority of his draws, finishes checks and wears his heart on his sleave. Joey Crabb has been a pleasant surprise, didn’t really know what to expect from him. Not really sure where wolski fits in, but not very high marks for him. When brooks comes back and hendricks drops back down to the third/fourth line, bottom six is plenty deep.

    Future? Kuznetsov, Forsberg. Nuff’ said.

    I just can’t keep myself from thinking just how smart is the hockey IQ of caps nation. I hail from the white north where I was baptized on the rink and played until junior and college. Not quite the same in the US of A. The fact that the majority of the feedback on this post is “omg yer right caps suck what wuz i THINKING!?!?” is a real big question mark for me. I support GMGM because I see exactly how he has owned the draft the past 8 years. The lack of Stanley and early season adversity has everyone calling for his head, but I shit you not there would be another Dale Tallon situation if he got axed. Shit, maybe thats what we need to cure the curse.

    I’ll resurface in a month and a half when the caps are situated in the playoffs, and my opinion of the caps depth, skill, and just how strong their bottom/top six is, are validated.