April 23, 2014

Caps clearout day provides more questions than answers

Washington Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates addressing media during Clear Out Day at Kettler, 4/14/2014 (Photo: Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Washington Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates addressing media during Clear Out Day at Kettler, 4/14/2014 (Photo: Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

The Washington Capitals conducted their clearout day and final media availabilities with the players on Monday, following the final day of the regular season, having been bounced unceremoniously from playoff contention with three games remaining on the schedule. None of the questions that were present before the day started had been answered before the day was over.

As in, who will be directing this organization going forward and who will be this team’s coach?

General Manager George McPhee is squarely on the hot seat. Head coach Adam Oates and his coaching staff’s status probably hinges on McPhee’s job security. On Monday, there was no resolution to the situation.

During the day, news that McPhee had met with owner Ted Leonsis and President Dick Patrick surfaced and that McPhee would not meet with the media during the day. But later, while the media was meeting with Mike Green, McPhee surfaced briefly, only to tell the assembled media that he would talk “in a couple of days.” It was a surreal sidebar to an already stressful day.

McPhee had no reason to appear in this instance, with the media already having been informed that he would not speak. Yet, here he was — very briefly — telling the media what we already knew and nothing more.

Never, in his 17 years, had McPhee not addressed the media on clearout day.

Later, when Oates was made available to the media, the head coach indicated that he had not spoken with McPhee or Leonsis yet, and that he did not have any indication of his continuing status with the team. He did indicate that should he be retained, he would return his entire coaching staff. Oates also said that though he had talked to a couple of players individually, he had not met with the team as a group since before Sunday’s finale and did not have formal exit interviews scheduled for any of the players, though he had hopes that would still happen.

“Some of the decisions are above me that have to be told, and I haven’t been told either way,” said Oates.

“I would say that me and my staff, we really enjoy coaching here, love coaching the guys. I feel that we’ve started a little process in terms of what we want from them in terms of how they’ve got to improve. We’ve got to improve,” Oates said. “Of course I want to coach the guys. But whatever happens, whatever’s best for the organization. That’s fine.”

Oates, for his part, answered every question directed his way by the assembled media in earnest. But as with McPhee, he’s twisting in the wind.

While Leonsis and Patrick contemplate the future of the franchise, both McPhee and Oates remain in limbo.

There are many ways this scenario can play out. The most obvious is the team is deliberating whether or not to retain McPhee and they needed some time after Monday’s initial meeting to decide. Another possibility is that McPhee was given the option of whether or not to return and it is he who is undecided. Yet another possibility is that the team has invited McPhee back with conditions — an assistant GM or executive between McPhee and team President Dick Patrick — and McPhee is deciding if that’s a situation he’d find tolerable.

But all of these scenarios are simply conjecture. We don’t know anything, much like how we went in. All that we know is McPhee met with Leonsis and Patrick, there is no resolution, and Oates hasn’t spoken with anyone about anything, including his players.

Opinion: Washington Capitals five biggest changes needed for 2014-15

The Washington Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. There wasn’t enough talent on hand, the talent available was mismanaged and there was discord between the front office and the on-ice staff. Missing the playoffs should finally be motivation to make the changes necessary for the Caps to truly contend for the Stanley Cup.

Here are the five biggest changes needed by the Caps as they enter what could be offseason full of change and drama.

1) Settle the General Manager and coaching situations.

It’s widely rumored that GM George McPhee’s contract expires following the NHL Draft. Adam Oates has another year on his contract. There’s plenty of evidence (Martin Erat, Dustin Penner, Dmitry Orlov, the goaltending situation, Tom Wilson) that McPhee and Oates’ talent evaluation doesn’t mesh. Somewhere between Ted Leonsis, President Dick Patrick and McPhee, the Caps need to decide who’s going to be in charge of this latest reboot. [By the time you read this on Monday, changes may already have been made.]

Oates’ insistence on players skating on their strong side has handicapped the organization. He’s tried to switch wingers to center (Martin Erat, Eric Fehr) and centers to wingers (Mikhail Grabovski). He played the world’s greatest goal scorer with Jay Beagle as his center on purpose. He’s banished players that were traded for by McPhee to the point of rendering them useless. His systems are indecipherable. In short, the Caps have been a disaster on the ice, much less than the sum of their parts. That falls on Oates.

McPhee is far from blameless. In fact, the collection of defensemen McPhee provided for Oates to employ this season was embarrassing, After the top combo of Karl Alzner and John Carlson, every single defenseman the Caps played this year was flawed. Mike Green isn’t nearly the offensive weapon he was during his back-to-back Norris Trophy finalist days. He still drives play, but his defensive shortcomings and gaffes often lead to bad goals. Orlov is a work in progress — talented, but raw and impetuous. The rest simply aren’t yet, or are no longer, NHL caliber. And it’s been like that the entirety of Ovechkin’s illustrious career. That falls on McPhee.

Either or both could be replaced for 2014-15, and it’s imperative the Capitals figure it out before the draft.

2) Seriously upgrade the defense.

People have said for years the Caps need a “stay-at-home” defenseman, responsible for shutting down opponents’ top lines. But the problem lies deeper than that. The Alzner/Carlson duo are good, but not great. They are a No. 1 pairing in name only. That results in a trickle-down effect. The Caps have some young talent (Orlov, Connor Carrick, Patrick Wey, Madison Bowey), but only Orlov is really close enough to the NHL level to contribute meaningfully next season, despite the experience Carrick gained this season.

The Capitals need to acquire 2-3 legitimate NHL defensemen, including a puck mover. If they can acquire a true top-pairing defenseman — probably via trade — they should do all they can to make that happen, then fill in the other spots with veteran free agents.

3) Improve play at 5v5.

The Caps were one of the worst teams in the league in puck possession, and has gotten consistently worse throughout Oates’ tenure. The team is lackadaisical and sloppy in its own end, the breakouts are unorganized, team defense suffers from lack of structure and focus, not to mention talent level.

One of the biggest problems for the Caps is one of the simplest: attempting to exit their own zone with the puck. Oates and Calle Johansson have instructed the defensemen to get rid of the puck within a second and a half of gaining possession. The idea is that if the puck is being passed, the defensemen aren’t putting themselves in danger of having their head separated from their bodies. While those instructions might have provided better health for some of their blueliners, it also neutralizes much of what makes those players effective.

Mike Green, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov — hell, even Jack Hillen — are puck-moving defensemen. McPhee drafted or obtained these players with the idea that these guys are strong skaters and can carry the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone, therefore setting up the offense.

But Oates’ and Johansson’s instructions to chip the puck to the neutral zone has instead stymied the offense. Wingers now have to battle for pucks in the neutral zone instead of setting up the attack. Instead of even attempting “dump and chase”, the Caps end up playing “dump and change”, so tired from fighting puck battles that they have to dump and go for a line change.

Either the players or the system has to change.

4) Reduce the team’s salary burden ever further.

McPhee did a great job at the trade deadline to reduce the Caps salary constraints next season by dealing Martin Erat and Michal Neuvirth. He — or whoever will be in charge — should go even further by buying out Brooks Laich (pending health) and/or trading Mike Green.

The Caps already have a good deal of cap space next season, currently $14.2 million. But Laich accounts for $4.5 million against the cap and Green’s hit is a staggering $6.083 million. Neither player is anywhere near what they were when they signed the deals.

Laich was — emphasis was — a 20-goal scoring two-way player. He was equally adept on the power play as he was on the penalty kill. He could fill a center or winger role on a scoring or checking line. But a groin injury sustained while playing abroad during the lockout has destroyed his past two seasons. When he has been able to take the ice, he’s been completely ineffective.

Green was — emphasis was — a two-time Norris Trophy candidate. He possessed singular skill at the position, producing back-to-back 70 point seasons. But again, accumulation of injury (concussions, groin, shoulder) has reduced Green to a shell of the player he once was. His nine goal, 29 assist season wasn’t bad, but the production pales in comparison to the expectation — or paycheck.

Buying out Laich and trading Green would free up another $10 million plus against the cap, giving the Capitals even more flexibility to go about rebuilding this team.

5) Inspire and motivate Alex Ovechkin — or trade him.

Alex Ovechkin is the most valuable asset the Washington Capitals possess. He registered 51 goals in 13-14, but had one 5v5 goal in the last two dozen games. Some of that has to do with Oates’ curious choices for his linemates, some of it was the result of the Caps’ systems, and some of it lies with Ovechkin himself.

His revitalization the past two seasons has occurred on the strength of the Caps prodigious power play. But the team’s inability to drive play at 5v5 has crippled any chance of this team to be successful. While Ovechkin has never played defense with the enthusiasm he utilizes on offense, at times this season he showed open disdain playing in his own end.

Ovechkin himself said the team pays him to score goals. That much is true. But it also pays him to sell tickets and the brand. And he can’t do that cruising through the neutral zone while his man streaks through the slot en route to another goal. This organization has to find a way to motivate Ovechkin to at least make consistent effort in playing defense. He doesn’t even have to be good at it. But as the captain of the team, he at least has to look like he’s trying.

At this point, Ovechkin is part of the problem. No, he isn’t going to be confused for a Selke finalist. But as captain, he needs to be more involved in all aspects of the game. He needs to show effort in every facet of his game. He needs to be a leader. It’s always been said that Ovechkin is a “lead by example” type of leader. Right now, the example he’s setting to Evgeny Kuznetsov and other young players is that defense and accountability doesn’t matter — that he’s above the rules. That’s not acceptable.

It’s simply not enough for Ovechkin to score 50 goals for this team. If it was, they’d have won multiple Cups by now as Ted Leonsis promised they would. If Ovechkin isn’t able or willing to invest the requisite effort to provide a better example to follow, then the organization should seriously consider trading him to a team where he wouldn’t have to carry that burden.

Washington Capitals Game 82 Recap: All over but the crying

The Washington Capitals fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning 1-0, in a shootout naturally, ending their season in what most folks would consider a premature manner. It was the 21st time this season that a Caps game ended in a shootout, an NHL record. That, in itself, says a lot about this team this season.

If you polled people across the NHL this preseason, most would have accepted the idea of the Capitals qualifying for the playoffs. I don’t think anyone expected them to be serious Cup contenders, but even with the move to the Metropolitan Division, this team on paper seemed to have enough talent to survive to the second season.

But they don’t play hockey on paper, they play on ice. And this season, the Washington Capitals weren’t good enough on the ice.

There’s a large segment of fans in any fan base, but they seem more vocal here, that believes any time their team isn’t successful they aren’t trying hard enough, or they don’t “want it” enough. They equate poor play with desire. But that’s very rarely the case. Modern professional athletes are highly-driven, highly-motivated individuals.

At the very least, these players are motivated to achieve the highest success their talent can carry them to.

This season’s failures weren’t about motivation or desire. It was about talent, and mismanagement of that talent. It was about players playing out of position — intentionally. It was about a difference in philosophies between the general manager and the head coach. It was about carrying three goalie for a month and a half. It was about performance — or lack thereof – on the ice.

So while we wait to see what changes are made at Kettler this week, next week, over the offseason, the only thing for certain now is that the Washington Capitals were simply not good enough on the ice to qualify for the playoffs this season, which should provide all the motivation the organization needs to make the necessary changes to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

Washington Capitals eliminated from playoffs; Plenty of blame to go around

Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals were officially eliminated from playoff contention. There will be no second season when the 2013-14 regular season concludes on Sunday. It’s the first time since 2007-08 the Caps haven’t taken part in the tournament for Lord Stanley’s Cup. It’s a drastic, severe and unexpected wake up call to the entre organization: the status quo is no longer good enough.

There have been plenty of pixels generated already — enough to kill a virtual forest — about the demise of this once-proud franchise. Most articles try to isolate the single determining factor contributing to the Caps missing out on this year’s playoffs.

But there’s plenty of blame to go around.

We can start back in 2010, when the Caps were bounced form the first round of the playoffs by Jaroslav Halak and his teammates with the Montreal Canadiens. It was the result of that playoff series loss that general manager George McPhee and then-head coach Bruce Boudreau allowed the Canadian media to dictate how the Caps should play. It was, in effect, the beginning of the end of this franchise’s identity.

Boudreau tried to instill a hybrid of his high-flying offense with the left wing trap, and it was a disaster. It was akin to asking a thoroughbred to pull a plow. The team was disjointed and distracted, and eventually Boudreau paid for his indecisiveness with his job. He said later, while coach of the Anaheim Ducks, that it was the biggest mistake of his coaching career, allowing others to influence how he should coach his players.

McPhee went overboard, bringing in Caps Mt. Rushmore member Dale Hunter to take the helm. Hunter had terrific experience guiding major juniors with the London Knights, but had no NHL coaching experience whatsoever. He promised a balanced system between offense and defense, but no such thing happened.

Hunter’s ultra-conservative approach and lack of tact and communication with his players led to a practical revolution. For Hunter’s part, he bolted the minute the team was bounced after a second-round loss to the New York Rangers after playing three months of coin-flip hockey.

Enter Adam Oates. Oates came to town promising to fix the power play and reinvigorate Caps superstar Alex Ovechkin. He succeeded in both, but little else.

Oates got a pass during the lockout season, but even after a full training camp and full season under Oates’ tutelage (along with first-time NHL assistants Calle Johansson, Blaine Forsythe and Olie Kolzig), it’s still almost impossible to decipher Oates’ systems.

The Caps were mired all season on the wrong side of possession metrics. Their breakouts resembled little more than defensemen — instructed to carry the puck no longer than two seconds at a time — chipping the puck to the neutral zone and hoping the forwards could recover loose pucks. The idea of “dump and chase” became “dump and change” as the Caps spent too much time getting out of their own end all they could once they did so was to go for a line change.

Meanwhile, Oates, buoyed by the success Ovechkin was having nominally playing right wing, insisted playing wingers and defensemen on their natural wings, to the detriment of many. He exiled top-six forwards Martin Erat and Dustin Penner – traded for valuable assets — to fourth line duty, driving Erat out of town in less than a season and neutralizing any benefit Penner might have brought to a playoff chase.

The team carried three goaltenders for six weeks over the winter, turning to untested minor leaguer Philipp Grubauer for a long stretch, completely ignoring Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby at times. Eventually, Neuvirth was shipped out unceremoniously at the trade deadline and alienated Holtby, who should be this franchise’s future between the pipes.

All the while, the defensive crew McPhee gave Oates to work with was not up to NHL caliber. The team shuttled AHL journeymen, over-the-hill has-beens and teenagers through the defensive ranks all season long. Rookie winger Tom Wilson made the team, but was relegated to less-then-fourth line minutes, averaging fewer than eight minutes a night, often doing little than punching and getting punched while burning a year off his ELC.

It’s so bad, last week when Alex Ovechkin notched his fifth 50-goal season, it was little more than a footnote — or a punchline — instead of something to celebrate as the “Great 8″ has been a victim of scorn all season as the only man to lead the league in goals and plus/minus as pundits conveniently ignore the fact that Ovechkin’s linemates have a shooting percentage lower than four percent.

And as for that infamously negative plus/minus, Ovechkin has done himself no favors being lax on defense to the point of gliding thought the neutral zone while his man streaked into the slot to score last week. Ovechkin remains engaged and motivated in the offensive end of the ice. In his own end, it’s a crapshoot between distracted and outright contempt for defense at times.

Where’s the joy of the gap-toothed superstar leaping into the glass after a goal, or wearing an oversized floppy hat and sunglasses in an NHL All-Star skills competition. We haven’t seen many glimpses of that Ovi around here for quite some time. He may never be back.

We haven’t even mentioned Ovechkin and his Russian teammates’ spectacular failure on their home ice in the Olympics, or Nicklas Backstrom’s “doping” scandal, where his team-prescribed allergy medicine got him embarrassingly dumped from Team Sweden’s gold medal game.

Like I said, plenty of blame to go around.

Where do they go from here?

Well, following Sunday’s season-capper against Tampa Bay, it will not be surprising to hear that the Caps expect to replace the entire coaching staff, or at least the head coach and defensive coordinator. In addition, the ownership and executive committee may very well want to relieve McPhee of his duties — if McPhee, who is rumored to be in the final year of his contract anyway, even wants to return.

Owner Ted Leonsis famously said once this team, this organization, was built to contend for multiple Stanley Cups — that it was only a matter of time. Time is running out. The Caps this year wasted another year of the primes of Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom. A new coach or new GM may decide that Ovechkin is part of the problem. Wanting to put a new stamp on the organization — especially if the new regime is bent on a disciplined system — Ovechkin could very possibly be shipped out as well.

At this point, nothing is off the table. This is a franchise at a crossroads. The next week or two could bring many changes to an organization that has tried to maintain a status quo of making the playoffs and taking their shots, but eventually bowing out before many thought they would — or should.

Stay tuned. Things could actually get worse before they get better.

OPINION: Washington Capitals have too many holes to trade for one “difference-maker”

On Wednesday, Mike Harris of The Washington Times espoused his opinion that the Washington Capitals should shake things up and trade for a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman. Presumably, Mike was talking about the “Rod Langway” type of Norris winner, and not the type of candidate Mike Green was when he was twice-nominated.

I’ll let Mike explain himself: [Read more...]

Washington Capitals 2013-14 Preseason Season Roundtable, Part I

Opening night of the 2013-14 season for the Washington Capitals is less than a week away. With that in mind, the District Sports Page Caps staff and contributors will take a look at several key areas that will affect the Caps season as they get ready to start play in the newly-formed Metropolitan Division.

The second half of our roundtable will post Monday.

Our panelists: Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page; Katie Brown, Caps Staff Writer for DSP; Abram Fox, former Caps Page Editor at DSP, Erika Schnure, RinkRebel.com and DSP contributor; Ted Starkey, Caps author and contributor to DSP; Sky Kerstein, 106.7 The Fan and DSP contributor; and Harry Hawkings, RocktheRed.com. [Read more...]

Nats problems in 2013 not associated with karma, pressure or curse

Now that the Washington Nationals have been eliminated from the playoff hunt, everyone, their brother, and their Uncle Junior is going to have opinions on what went wrong this season. It’s pretty simple to me. Heck, I outlined the reasons in my Aug. 7 column during the Braves sweep that unofficially ended the Nats season.

And no, the Nats struggles of the first two-thirds of the season have nothing to do with karma,  the baseball gods, pressure to live up to expectations, the Nats decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg last season or the team signing Rafael Soriano.

Now that the Nats have played almost two months at the level everyone thought they would play all season, let’s take a look at what kept the Nats from doing so the first 115 games of the season.

1) Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth and Wilson Ramos spent a significant portion of the year on the disabled list or futilely playing through injury.

No one likes to use injuries as excuses, but that’s a third of your everyday lineup on the shelf, forcing inadequate backups into way too many at bats (as we’ll outline below). Harper missed 40 games, Ramos 45 and Werth 30 – all before Aug. 9.

Up until Aug. 9, when the Braves completed that sweep, the Nats were at or very near the bottom in team batting average, on-base percentage and slugging and averaging just 3.7 runs per game, which would be next to last in the N.L. this season (ahead of only Miami) extrapolated for 162 games. That’s pretty much the Bermuda Triangle of offensive futility. Since that time, though, they’ve averaged exactly 5.0 runs per game, which would clearly lead the league. That pace might not be entirely sustainable, but it’s not far off of the true capability of this offense.

The Nats will finish the season sixth in the N.L. in runs per game, eighth in on-base percentage and fourth in slugging, even considering how atrocious they were for the first 115 games. The final 47 games of the season showed a remarkable turnaround in offensive performance, and it was primarily due to the team being healthy again and keeping their bench players on the bench.

2) The Nats wasted 150 at bats on Danny Espinosa.

We all knew Espinosa was hurt. During the winter meetings, the team announced Espinosa tore the rotator cuff in his left shoulder last August (and played through it, including his dismal performance in the playoffs). Then, Espinosa broke his right wrist getting hit by a pitch in early April and either he hid it or the team allowed him to play through it until they could no longer take it.

Espinosa “hit” .158/.193/.272 in 44 games before being placed on the D.L. and was not much better in his exile in Triple-A. His poor health decisions, going back to when he originally injured the shoulder during last season’s pennant run, could end up costing the better part of three seasons instead of one — if not jeopardizing his entire career.

Combined with the other injuries, during May and into June the Nats essentially played with four pitcher’s spots in the batting order.

3) The strength in Ryan Zimmerman’s surgically repaired right shoulder did not return to him until August.

Up until that Braves series the first week of August, Zimmerman hit .269/.340/.427 with 12 homers in 115 games. Not terrible, but certainly not numbers fit for an All-Star in the prime of his career.

Zimmerman hit a home run that night on Aug. 9. In the 42 games since, all he’s done is hit .300/.367/.556 with 13 home runs and 23 RBIs, primarily out of the two-hole. It’s been a remarkable, and much welcomed, turnaround for the face of the franchise.

As for his fielding, it too is noticeably better in the last two months than it was the first four months of the season. It’s apparent that his shoulder is much stronger now that it was early in the season and hopefully Nats fans don’t have to worry about moving Zim to first any time soon.

4) It took Denard Span three months to adjust to the National League.

I normally scoff at notions such as this. In the “old days” there was a perceived difference between how pitchers pitched in the two leagues. I don’t think it was ever really as pronounced as some oldsters might lead you to believe, and I don’t think there’s any difference now, with as much team-hopping and interleague play that there is these days.

However, and this is a big however, this was the first time in his career Span was told “You are the man.” It’s the first time a team has told him that he would unequivocally play every day and lead off every day (not that he did). It was also the first time he had to bat behind the pitcher’s spot, so perhaps that went into his mindset as well.

Regardless, he did not get off to a good start. He was very patient, as his history suggested, and even more so very early on. That limited his aggressiveness and he found himself in plenty of bad hitter’s counts, which resulted in a LOT of grounders to second. He was also completely anemic to left-handed pitching – a trait he was not alone in with the Nats this season.

Davey Johnson moved Span to the seventh spot in the order for a couple of weeks in late-July and early August and he was just about at his lowest slash of the season (.259/.311/.357) on – you guessed it – the start of play on Aug. 9, when he was put back in the lead-off spot. From that point forward, Span hit .326/.366/.425. Coincidence the Nats played their best baseball when their lead-off hitter was playing his best? I don’t think so.

5) There was no viable left-handed relief presence (and other bullpen meltdowns).

Rizzo allowed Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny and Michael Gonzalez all to walk last off-season. Zach Duke made the team out of spring training as the sole left-handed reliever, and in a long-man role at that. The theory was that Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen were as tough, if not more so, on lefties as they were righties. Storen has limited lefties to a .242/.302/.355 slash in his career, marginally worse than he’s done against righties. Clippard is actually tougher on lefties (.181/.264/.315) that righties (.203/.293/.374), so the theory was good.

Except – Davey Johnson only uses Clippard in the eighth inning and Storen was a mess until he was demoted and came back with a revamped delivery, scrapping the slow, straight leg action for a more traditional kick which restored the tilt on his slider. The other problem was who was left to face lefties in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. Duke was a disaster, Henry Rodriguez wild pitched his way out of town and Ryan Mattheus punched a locker.

The team had no other option. They called up Ian Krol, who mixed bouts of effectiveness and batting practice equally, and Xavier Cedeno and Fernando Abad, two players Houston let go this season. Both have done a decent enough job when called upon, but neither is a long-term option.

6) The bench, which performed admirably in 2012, was dismal in ’13.

Last season, when the Nats went through their injury phase, players such as Kurt Suzuki, Steve Lombardozzi, Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina and capably filled in for the injured starters, as we noted above. This year, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Suzuki showed some promise to return to his 15-homer seasons of his early career after coming over to the Nats mid-season last year. Five homers in 164 plate appearances gave hope. But he was abysmal at the plate in ’13 (.222/.283/.310) while playing full-time most of the first half while Ramos was out.

Lombardozzi has a level and he played to it this season. It’s just not very high, and certainly a drop-off from a healthy Harper or Espinosa, the two positions he’s filled in at the most. There’s just no way a contending team can give Lombardozzi 400 at bats an expect good things to happen.

Moore simply was overmatched and didn’t get regular enough at bats to get on track. He’s had a better approach since his return from the minors and may very well platoon with Adam LaRoche at first base next season. I’m not sold on Moore’s potential as an everyday player, but he could succeed in this role if he can keep himself fresh with semi-regular at bats.

You can almost understand the long leash with Bernadina this season. He was properly used last season (almost exclusively against RHPs) and gave the Nats his career year. Pressed into more general duty this season, he was exposed. Some also think he might have been hiding a nagging injury, carried over from the World Baseball Classic.

Chad Tracy, at 33, is at the end of the line. His overall numbers (.184/.221/.288) are pitcher-esque. He’s hitless for September in nine plate appearances and is 5-for-25 since Aug. 1.

Rizzo traded for Scott Hairston in early July to be the right-handed bat off the bench. He has a .683 OPS for the Nats in 57 plate appearances. Hairston has another year on his contract and is capable defensively, but he’s hit just .221/.267/.500 against lefties this season.

7) Dan Haren was the worst starting pitcher in baseball for the first three months of the season.

Haren was signed in the offseason for a not-so-meager $13 million. In the fifth spot in the rotation, the Nats only needed him to be a .500 pitcher for the team to have success. Unfortunately, for the first half of the season he was the worst starter in baseball. He was two different pitchers this season.

Before he went on the D.L. (it was either that or be released), Haren made 15 starts. The team went 4-11 in those starter. His record was 4-9 with a 6.15 ERA and his opposition slash was a dismal .306/.340/.548 against, with an NL leading 19 home runs allowed in 82.0 IP. Essentially, he made every hitter look like an All-Star.

When he returned, he was a different pitcher. He was able to get more separation between his four-seam and cutter and he was able to keep hitters off-balance again. In 14 post-D.L. starts, Haren has gone 5-5 (team record 7-8) with a 3.57 ERA and one save in that marathon game. Opponents have hit .234/.277/.365 against him, and he’s limited the homers to 9 in 80.2 IP.

So, attribute all the intangibles you want to why the Nats played poorly the first 115 games of the season. Call it karma, pressure or curse. But this team perfomed pretty much as expected the final 47 games of the season, and I have no reason to doubt they will next season as well.

OPINION: Banishment of fighting is coming, and it’s none too soon

Monday night, the Washington Capitals went up to Boston to take on the Bruins in a seemingly meaningless preseason game. The Caps took their full second line and their top goalie, but that’s just about the reach of NHL talent that went on the road trip.

What happened, then, when a bunch of young guys and career minor leaguers trying to make names for themselves went up against the big, bad Bruins? You guessed it — Fight Night!

There were five fights in all, two by Joel Rechlicz, who makes his living doing just this sort of thing in Hershey, one by Aaron Volpatti (trying — probably in vain – to earn a coveted forward spot on Opening night), and one each by minor leaguers Michal Cajkovski and Dane Byers.

Coming on the heels of the debacle in Toronto Sunday night, this was just yet another embarrassment for the league and everyone involved.

I should confess — I don’t like fighting. I think it’s unnecessary and outdated. It’s a tie to the dark ages of the game when stick swinging and other nefarious acts were perpetrated on rinks from PEI to Saskatoon. Well, we’ve still got that crap too, as we saw Zack Kassian try to decapitate Sam Gagner Saturday night.

Here’s a gratuitous picture of Gagner’s face following the incident.

The league has had continual problems with intentional head shots, elbows, stick swinging and concussions, and the fighting that’s supposed to curb that doesn’t seem to do a damn thing. It never has.

Fighting continues because it’s part of the entertainment value of the game. Pure and simple.

Let me rephrase — I don’t like staged fighting. If two guys get tangled up or are pushing for position and they start to swing at each other out of aggression naturally and organically, I’m okay with that. That’s part of the game. It’s physical and fast and there are occasions when guys are going to be overcome with adrenaline or feel they’ve been taken advantage of.

I don’t want to take checking out of the game. I don’t want to take away the contact. I want the stupidity removed.

The retribution fights, and the “momentum” fights and the fighting for fighting’s sake fights, or the immature stupidity on display Sunday in Toronto? That’s the part of the game that we can, and should, live without.

I’ve heard ad nauseum the adage that if you take fighting out of the game, headhunters will have a field day. Well, let me tell you, Rene Bourque is still employed even with the fighting. If staged fighting was eliminated, all the league would have to do is enforce rules ALREADY ON THEIR BOOKS about head shots and intentional attempts to injure.

You injure a player with an illegal hit? You suffer the consequences of suspension and loss of paycheck. Repeat offender? Sit the rest of the season. Third offense? You miss the following year. Get where I’m going with this? But it will be up to the league to take the suspension process seriously.

The league instituted the silly rule this season that players cannot remove their helmets to fight. Coupled with the new visor rule for all incoming players, it’s supposed to be a deterrent from staged fighting. But we’ve already seen in the preseason where combatants are removing their opponent’s headgear before proceeding to pummel each other into early retirement. It would be comically asinine, except for the early dementia, depression, drug addiction and early death for so many of these multiply-concussed fighters.

The league doesn’t have the, ahem, testicular fortitude to ban fighting — yet — because they are painfully aware that a large segment of their fan base wants to see the violence. In its rich history, the league has yet to have a player die on the ice from a fight. It’s only a matter of time, unfortunately.

With the concussion problem, and former fighters dying at still-young ages after their playing days are over, the league knows they have to do something. They’ve seen the results of the NFL concussion lawsuits. It’s only a matter of time before those lawyers organize retired NHL players for their own suits. Think I’m crazy? You haven’t been around enough plaintiff’s lawyers. A $650 million settlement for the NHL, as was the case for the NFL, would kill the league as we now know it.

As much lip service as the league is giving “player safety”, the real reason for the helmet law is to set a timeline that limits the statute of limitations for lawsuits. Banishment of staged fighting is coming, whether you like it or not. It can’t come soon enough for me.

OPINION: Stats, taken in context, help us understand the game better

In my guest blogging gig for MASNSports.com today, I wrote about Bryce Harper’s eighth inning sacrifice, Win Probability Added, and human evolution. It was a bit of a rambler, but my biggest point was this:

 You don’t get to pick and choose which stats you think are the right ones. They all are.

It drives me absolutely crazy to hear fans, players, managers or executives dismiss certain statistical evaluators, like we’re fabricating these numbers or pulling them out of thin air. WAR, or WPA, or wOBA, or wRC+, or ISO, or FIP, or UZR… all of those numbers are in the game every bit as much as batting average or earned run average.

It’s just that those “in the game” have been using the traditional statistical evaluators for over a century and some others were “invented” by folks not actually “in the game” in the past two decades.

Just because a statistical evaluator was created by math whiz doesn’t mean it’s any more or less legitimate than those we’ve been using for 120 years.

Each, in their own way, tells part of the story about what’s going on out there. No single statistical evaluator can tell us exactly how efficient a particular player is in his chosen craft. Some of them give us a better idea than others. But each should be taken in the context it is presented.

The “new stats” weren’t created to make following the game more difficult. They were developed to help us more deeply understand the game. Or help us compare players on a more neutral field. Or help us compare current players against the past more accurately. They weren’t created to confuse, but enlighten.

Fangraphs.com has a glossary of many of the “new stats”. They don’t hide their formulas. There’s a lot to take in, but if you take a couple of minutes most of the “new stats” are pretty simple to understand. Sure, there are some concepts that might take a few moments to think about before they make total sense. But they are all as rooted in the game as ERA, which is not a particularly good or accurate method to evaluate a pitcher.

Here’s another chunk of my MASN column to think about:

Back in the old days, they invented batting average and earned run average as a method of evaluating players side-by-side since they weren’t able to watch every game in person.

Yes, there was an era before computers. Before television. Even before radio was popular. If you wanted to know what type of ball player a guy was, you has to see him in person. You had to travel for days and hope for no rain out. There was little scouting and even less statistical evaluation. That’s why they started to keep track of these things, in order to be able to evaluate players without actually seeing them in person.

Even though every single game is now on TV and we have video of each player going back to their middles school games, we’re still looking for more clear statistical evidence to measure a player’s effectiveness. PITCHF/x and batted ball data are taking us into the next phase of statistical evaluation, and it all helps us better understand the game.

Statheads and seamheads have been at odds for decades. They don’t have to be. Each individual statistical evaluator only tells part of the story. Taken in context, they are part of the big picture. If you love the game, it’s worth your while to become more familiar with these concepts. It’s just a little math, that’s all.

Grabovski signing allows Caps to be creative with line combos

The Washington Capitals move to bring in center Mikhail Grabovski this week will send ripples down – and maybe even up – the Caps active roster, and may even prevent a top prospect from breaking camp with the team. But the bottom line is that they are better equipped today to deal with the rigors of an 82-game schedule than they were when the free agency period opened up, or perhaps at any point last season.

Grabovski has strong puck-possession numbers for his career and makes players around him better. The numbers are there to consider, if math doesn’t scare you. In fact, his puck-possession numbers are so much better than the player he takes the place of, the departed Mike Ribeiro (or anyone else on the Caps’ current roster that could fill the second-line center position) that the upgrade in that area should make the loss of Ribeiro’s supreme passing skills negligible.

For the sake of this discussion, we’re going to assume Caps GM George McPhee and Marcus Johansson’s representatives work out a deal to bring the slick-skating Swede back into the fold. There isn’t a whole lot of cap space available after Karl Alzner’s new deal and Grabo’s contract, but there still is some dead weight McPhee can trim to fir Johansson into the salary structure.

So, even though D.C. is still under a blanket of summer humidity and the chill of Kettler’s air conditioning for training camp doesn’t start for a few weeks, let’s take a look at how some of the line combinations might work with the addition of the Caps newest play-driving center.

Here’s a handy infographic of my interpretation of the Caps lines and we’ll discuss them below.

LW

C

RW

Marcus Johansson

Nick Backstrom

Alex Ovechkin

Martin Erat

Mikhail Grabovski

Troy Brouwer

Jason Chimera

Brooks Laich

Joel Ward

Mathieu Perreault

Jay Beagle

Eric Fehr

Aaron Volpatti

Michael Latta

Tom Wilson

Brandon Segal

I think the top line is set in stone, with the caveat that McPhee gets Johansson under contract, something he indicated in his press conference Friday morning was still in the works, but that the right deal had to get done. It will get done.

The second line, as constructed here, should be a quality second scoring option for the Caps this upcoming season. Erat had a rough go of it at the end of last season, not really fitting in immediately after the trade, then getting hurt and missing out on the playoffs. But he’s a quality skater with good hands and should bounce back with solid – and regular – linemates. Troy Brouwer, on the other side, is coming off a real nice season goal-scoring wise. His 19 goals (in just 47 games in the lockout-shortened season) were second most in his career and should find many more quality opportunities at regular strength with this group.

The third line is the “lunchpail” group. If Laich is indeed going to play center, he profiles much better on the third line with similar grinders than he does in the top six where he would be expected to contribute more to scoring. With Chimera’s speed, and the work ethic of the three across the board, this line should see plenty of ice time against the top lines in the newly formed Metropolitan Division. In addition, Laich and Ward should see top duty on the penalty kill as well, and grouping them together on a skating line makes more sense than breaking the two apart on different lines.

The fourth line becomes something of a mish-mash though. Of the veterans available to pick from, Mathieu Perreault and Eric Fehr profile more as scorers than fourth line muckers. At least, that’s their pedigree. Jay Beagle is a defense first (and only) center and isn’t really the best pivot for the other two. But all have established themselves as NHL players and it would be surprising to see any left off the team in favor of the players in the next group – unless a player is moved between now and the start of camp, which is entirely possible considering the logjam of forwards and the salary cap ramifications.

Aaron Volpatti and Brandon Segal are fourth-line journeymen. Both are relatively capable in their low-leverage assignments but have very limited ceilings and should be valued as such. Michael Latta, the other player acquired with Erat in exchange for top prospect Filip Forsberg, can play. Just 22, he brings skill and toughness and carries himself bigger than his 6’0, 213 frame.

Many would like to see Tom Wilson, the 19-year-old  6’4″, 210 winger the Caps called up during the playoffs to add toughness against the New York Rangers, make the team out of camp. But the Caps seem to have enough depth now that they don’t have to have him in D.C. this season.

Eventually, Beagle, Latta and Wilson could combine to form a formidable and punishing fourth line for this organization, something that the team has been missing since the Bradley-Steckel-Gordon combo was broken up several seasons ago.

With the addition of Grabovski, the Capitals now have better forward depth and multiple choices of how to line up those forwards. Before, forcing Laich into a second line role caused second-guessing and questions throughout the line-up. This team might not have moved to the top of the list of Stanley Cup candidates with the acquisition of one second line center, but it certainly made for a more solid NHL roster from top to bottom – at least from the aspect of the forward lines.

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