Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Washington Post Sports Watch: Feinstein, Ovechkin and Kuznetsov

John Feinstein's column entitled "Capitals aren't good enough, but it's not the right summer to make a splash," which appeared in last Thursday's Washington Post, provided lots of material that bothered, frustrated and even angered me. But first, because I've often been critical of the Post columnists for basically ignoring the Caps, I do want to offer some praise to Feinstein and the Post sports section for actually writing a column in the offseason about the Caps. Last year, the Caps got rid of Alex Semin and traded for Mike Ribiero, and no Post columnist ever commented on it (Feinstein and Tracee Hamilton did write about Adam Oates being hired, but never mentioned anything about having the team's second-leading goal scorer depart the team in the offseason.) And I was glad that Feinstein actually said that the Caps right now aren't good enough to win the Stanley Cup, which I think almost all Caps fans would agree with but is something that the media (and for that matter, Caps management) seems reluctant to admit. So I'll give credit where credit is due. Now, about that column...

I could complain about Feinstein's surprising conclusion that the Caps will be able to acquire a key piece for a Cup run (a "big-time scorer") by trading their (overpaid) backup goalie Michal Neuvirth--who has been unable to win the starting job for the last two years and didn't exactly make much of a mark when he was the Caps playoff goalie in 2011--and some of their "good young players" (surprising because the Caps have very few "good young players" available to trade that might be valued by other teams.). But I suppose some dumb team could make such a trade if they were desperate for a goaltender--even if Feinstein sounds a lot like some of the more delusional Caps fans proposing trades on message boards and comments sections of Caps blogs.

No, let's take on two other statements of fact Feinstein makes. First, he writes:

The man expected to replace Ribeiro won’t be here until March. That’s 22-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Caps’ first-round pick three years ago. The Caps would like to have him here for training camp but he has a $3 million buyout with the team he plays for in Russia and, by rule, the Caps can’t help him pay that off. He will be in Washington as soon as his season ends in March, and McPhee believes he will give them another quality player — with some speed — up front. 
But the problem here is that while the regular season of the KHL, the Russian league where Kuznetsov is playing, ends in early March, the league's playoffs don't finish up until the end of April, and last season, Kuznetsov's team made the finals. So it's certainly possible that Kuznetsov might not even arrive in the U.S. until after the NHL playoffs begin--and considering the Caps are in a much tougher division in the upcoming season, they might not even have qualified for the postseason without Kuznetsov. Even if Kuznetsov, though, does arrive in mid-March, do we really expect a guy who has never played in the NHL to all of a sudden fit right in as a second-line center in the league? We spent two months last season talking about how long it was taking the Caps to pick up Adam Oates' "system"--but we expect Kuznetsov to pick it up by himself in a week or two?

The other Feinstein paragraph I want to discuss is the obligatory "Let's Criticize Ovechkin" paragraph that appears in pretty much every column the Post prints about the Caps:

The Caps need a healthy Brooks Laich this coming season, not only because of his on-ice skills but because he is, in many ways, a captain. That’s not a knock on Alex Ovechkin, who wears the ‘C,’ but Ovechkin is never going to be a vocal leader and — even after winning his third MVP last month — remains something of a question mark, at least in terms of being a truly great player in postseason — when it matters most.
There is no doubt that he responded well to Oates as a coach and made the adjustment to right wing very well as the season wore on. But he didn’t score a goal in the last six games of the Rangers series and, if the Caps are ever to play deep into the playoffs, that simply can’t happen.
Remains "something of a question mark" when it comes to being a "truly great player in postseason"? I know this fits into that simple narrative that many--both in D.C. and in the NHL--cling to that when the Caps lose in the playoffs, that it's always primarily Ovechkin's fault. Of course, as the captain of the team and its best player, he certainly deserves some blame for the team's failures in the postseason, and if you want to say that he hasn't particularly distinguished himself in some of the Caps' Game 7 losses over the years, that's fair (although it's not like anyone else on the team did, either.) But to say it's still questionable if Alex Ovechkin can produce like a great player in the playoffs is just ignoring the facts. If you read the Post, you probably wouldn't know that Alex Ovechkin is one of the top playoff scorers in NHL history. He averages 1.05 points per game in the playoffs--that's 24th all time and the 23 guys in front of him includes a lot of players who played at a time when scoring was more plentiful in the league. Among active players in points per game, Ovi is fifth, trailing just Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin, Claude Giroux and Martin St. Louis. Go to goals per game in the playoffs, and it's even more impressive. Ovechkin is first among active players in playoff goals per game with .534 per game, and ninth all time. (Among those he trails: Gretzky, Lemieux, Bossy, and "Rocket" Richard--pretty impressive company.) And all this includes 2012, when Dale Hunter didn't even want to put Ovechkin on the ice some nights.

Yes, Ovi went six consecutive games without scoring in the series against the Rangers this year. Jonathan Toews of the Blackhawks, who won the playoffs MVP in 2010, at one point in the playoffs this year had scored just 1 goal in his last 20 playoff games. Malkin, who won the playoffs MVP in 2009, went scoreless in four games in the Penguins' series against the Bruins this year, as did his teammate, Sidney Crosby. Are those three, all of a sudden, players who can't perform in the playoffs? Of course not. The fact is that unlike a sport like basketball, in hockey offensive superstars only play one-third of the game--and in the playoffs, they're always going to have to play against the other's team's best defensive players. They can rarely singlehandedly lead their team to victory, and thus factors like that superstar's linemates, and the team's scoring depth are extremely important. The fact that Ovi's two linemates and the four players who played on the second line in the playoffs had a combined total of four goals in seven games--that's a pretty big problem., and when focusing on how the Caps can get better, that's where the focus should lie (along with improving the defense, which goes unmentioned in Feinstein's piece.)

To his credit, Feinstein does, throughout most of the column, focus on areas of the team besides Ovechkin. But it's unfortunate that he had to perpetuate a narrative about Ovechkin that really isn't backed by the facts.


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