16 April, 2014


We Got Slightly Atwitter Over Marcus Johansson Yesterday

It is the season for families to unite, convene in good cheer and warm embrace and, over seasonal spirits and large-portion meals, share a year’s worth of trials and triumphs, and spiritedly debate politics and sports, and soon thereafter rupture in high-pitched acrimony and pride- and esteem-smarting dispute.

Ah, the holidays.

Without the spirits or nutrition — and also without the acrimony and certainly any lasting rupture — this reminiscence otherwise describes the Capitals’ digital family of bloggers and team officials and other hockey media convened on Twitter yesterday morning: A week early we had a holiday food fight. The source of the upheaval? Oh, a certain concern I may have articulated about a certain young Swedish center prospect (not Anton Gustafsson), in a little old low-production OFB video.

A quick summary of the kerfuffle: I am not seeing and appreciating the full impact of Marcus Johansson’s solitary point on the season, my Twitter chums in Capdom alleged; additionally — notwithstanding appearances to the contrary — he is actually developing in the big league quite nicely; additionally, I’d forgotten that one Nicklas Backstrom got off to a conspicuously slow start his NHL rookie season and well didn’t that adrift ship get route-righted alright (he earned Calder votes, you see); and for good measure, I’m a hater of MJ90 by virtue of my unbridled enthusiasm for the pivot prospect he displaced at training camp, Matty — MP85 in Twitter-speak.

No matter the dispute between us I genuinely love my Washington hockey family. Occasionally, though, tough love — via machete — must be administered.

The players involved in yesterday’s e-melee: Japer’s Rink; the Caps’ Mike Vogel and Nate Ewell; Comcast Sportsnet’s Corey Masisak; the Washington Times’ Ted Starkey; OFBers Andrew and Lis; my favorite Russian-American, Dmitry Chesnokov; and yours truly. Russian Machine forsaked the courage of its namesake and went Euro-pansy on me, staying far away from the fray. Or, they actually met the obligations of their professions during work hours.

My adversaries Thursday were quick to preface their counter-arguments against my call for MJ90′s assignment to the American League by claiming no bias against, nor elitist sensibility toward, our developmental professional circuit . . . before embarking on precisely just such attacks. There is of course nothing wrong with the American League, they intoned, though large point totals often accumulated there are seldom replicated upon promotion.

I have many thoughts — all flattering — about the American League, and foremost among them is this: it is a bus and Holiday Inn league, and as such has an intrinsic way of humbling those well-pedigreed hockey players who perhaps arrive to it a bit big in their britches. I needn’t remind you of Gabby’s affinity for the circuit; when on a couple of occasions this season he’s been asked by media about his pampered players perhaps being fatigued from consecutive nights’ exertions, he quickly and derisively reminded: In the ‘A,’ it’s three games on weekends, with little-frills travel between each . . . don’t talk to me about fatigue.

As a matter of principle then, borne out of a conviction that the most humble hockey players make for the best hockey players in a room, I support a formula that posits that, give or take a few, approximately 45 of every 50 players an NHL team drafts and signs ought to apprentice in the ‘A.’ Not your lottery-elite like Ovi or Nicky, but absolutely the vast majority of your prospects. Including even Captain America. Call it initiation, call it a rite of passage, but the AHL almost since its formation has had a durable and unassailable role in forging quality-career NHLers.

It is never a bad thing to assign a player there. It is hardly a black mark upon a player’s career. It is not a colonoscopy curiously administered to 20-year-olds. Moreover, in weighing whether or not to assign, say with respect to an especially gifted young prospect who’s otherwise physically mature enough major pro hockey, I say err on the cautious side of affording him additional development shifts in the world’s greatest development league. History shows: he’ll thank you for it later.

To be clear: my position as articulated on OFB TV after the Buffalo game wasn’t that MJ90 was already a dismal failure or doomed to an underwhelming career here. Rather, I expressed (1) a sense that his was an aberrational development path  to the big league, relative to those taken by the overwhelming majority of Capitals’ prospects on George McPhee’s watch, including more than a few (like say Alex Semin) drafted with widely acknowledged expectations of surefire stardom; and (2) that there is grave risk in short-circuiting this traditional path, in illustration of which I alluded to Dainius Zubrus.

In a dispute it is always wise to seek out areas of consensus. As it relates to the development of a pro hockey prospect, I think we might all agree that the shortest route to the NHL is enjoyed by what might be termed your Tier I prospects: Typically, your lottery picks. Tier Is are also represented by those players who occasionally slip out of the lottery and are often diminished in the eyes of scouts by virtue of the league they skate in. So for instance John Carlson I’d identify as a Tier I prospect despite his being lodged well down in round one when the Capitals selected him. Had he skated for the London Knights instead of in the USHL his draft year he most assuredly would not have fallen out of the top 10.

Carlson is particularly apt in this discussion. When he skated on the Bears’ blueline in the 2009 Calder Cup playoffs scouts and writers were uniformly of the opinion that he was then an impact talent for the parent club. Still the Caps cooked him in the ‘A’ an additional season.

Prominent in both the OFB TV segment and in sentiment articulated by the family in my corner on Twitter yesterday was the theme of the importance of confidence in a young hockey player. The downside, such as it is, of “overcooking” a prospect in the ‘A’ is that at some point he rises well above his competition and hogs the league’s scoresheets. (Perhaps, you might say, like with Matty this past Sunday night.) What a problem for a prospect and his drafting club to have. I’m quite certain that in the Swedish Elite League Marcus Johansson skated with and against outstanding competition. I’m also quite certain he did not commonly share ice with players the caliber of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Steven Stamkos. Moreover, he groomed his outstanding game on a sheet of ice appreciably larger than those of North American pro hockey. Capitals’ management this past offseason seemed uber convinced that a few passes around Kettler in late summer and some NHL exhibition games ought to afford the kid experience enough in that transition. I wonder.

Again, the family argument here isn’t one of Johansson’s looking laughably out of place; instead, it’s whether or not he’s polished enough a pro to assume the rights and responsibilities of skating 15 minutes a night with a Stanley Cup contender. It is with that contender status observation in mind that I appreciated this sentiment articulated in my corner of our family dispute: growing pains associated with the lottery pick Backstrom might have been appropriate on that 2008 Capitals’ club, regarded by no one in hockey as a Cup contender; but should there be a conspicuous apprenticeship on a 2010-11 club — who should they fail calamitously again next spring will occasion actual hurled knives at our summer reunion?



8 Comments

  1. As we discussed Wednesday night, I share your concerns for Johansson. My opinion is that he is not ready to be skating on the presumed first line with 8 & 22. Placing him there, IMO, only diminished and confused both top scoring lines.

    It also placed undue burden on the rookie, skating him with the best player on the planet to his left. If the thought was by placing him on an “offensive” line it would thus reduce the inpact of his defensive responsibilities, I think that thinking is misguided as well.

    Two glaring examples; on the first shift of the game 90 failed to get a puck deep enough on the cycle to 22 (and did not follow it either) and the Buffalo D intercepted easily and cleared the boards because all three forwards were thus out of position.

    Later, 90 carried the puck and was a scant 12 feet from Ryan Miller with no defense between. Instead of shooting and looking for a juicy rebound, 90 passed backward to the top of the LW circle to 8, who was then smothered by trailing Sabres and no shot resulted.

    Both plays showed hesitancy and deference.

    If it was a one-game experiment to test out the rookie against an inferior opponent at home; fine. Otherwise, let him continue his adjustment to the NHL on centering the third line.

    In a perfect world, 90 would be serving apprenticeship in Hershey, but due to his contract status and actual need of the parent club, he’s here and playing meaningful minutes on a Stanley Cup caliber team. It’s obvious the organization has more confidence in him than 85, or the roles would be reversed.

    I maintain that No. 2 center is the position of top concern for this team, even moreso than a classic “shut-down” defenseman, whatever that is in this league anymore.

    19 November, 2010 at 9:39 am | Permalink
  2. Boush wrote:

    Thanks for posting this, it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside knowing that I’m not alone as I go through the blogosphere.

    19 November, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  3. Geo wrote:

    I understand what they like about M. Jo, and he seems like a great kid. It’s just if his defensive play is his upside, putting him on the first line with Ovy and Knuble just seems odd to me.

    I’ve always supported the sentiment for a shut-down D, but if Joe Corvo is GMGM’s idea of a good trade deadline D-man acquisition, I throw up my hands at the notion they’ll ever seek a tough D-man to add to the mix. If Poti’s groin continues to be a liability, I’m afraid they’ll go for another “puck mover” D-man instead of one who can injected some needed toughness for the playoffs.

    OTOH, they’re 14-14-1. If complaining about one young center over another is the biggest controversy w/ the Caps (vs., say, the ‘Skins situation right now), maybe that’s not so bad, right? :-)

    19 November, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  4. Geo wrote:

    Er, that’s 14-4-1. Sigh, sorry.

    19 November, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  5. Ben wrote:

    Perreault had his chance to take the roster spot when MJ90 went down, he played amazing for 1 game then completely disappeared. That doesn’t justify keeping him up on the big team. He’s not as good defensively as MJ90, and he didn’t run with his chance when he got it. I’m fine with MJ90 being up here…I’d rather him be on the 2nd or 3rd line (and I’d like Flash in the press box every night), but having him in the lineup is better than having MP85, until he shows he can be consistent…which he has not.

    19 November, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink
  6. Ben,

    I think criticism of Perreault from the standpoint of consistency is fair; although I’m not sure I’d characterize his auditions in D.C. as ones bearing *lavish patience* on the part of management. Gracious, by the standard you espoused — a single bad outing or two in a row — imagine if such had been applied to Jeff Schultz three seasons back!

    19 November, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  7. sonja wrote:

    I love MP85 … and think he’s been given short shrift by our parent team. Aside from the fact that his stats are much better than MJ90′s (see here http://capitals.nhl.com/club/stats.htm), but his energy and joy bring the team up every time he hits the ice. You can’t quantify this, but it’s the difference when Matty is playing is palpable. Johansson is still getting his skates underneath him.

    19 November, 2010 at 5:44 pm | Permalink
  8. Cathy W wrote:

    I agree with your assessment that some time in Hershey to get used to the North American ice size and game would be good. I am puzzled by the most snuff out any dissent that seems to be the rage in the Caps blogosphere. Why some players are given infinite chances and patience by the Caps while others such as Matty are sent down after 1 or 2 bad games is annoying. If they insist on keeping MJ90 up, I hope for his sake that they really do develop him and not just let him figure it out on his own. For example, who works with therm to improve their face-offs?

    21 November, 2010 at 9:52 am | Permalink