23 April, 2014


Sought After and Secured: the Shutdown D

What prior to Tuesday had been a bit of a playground for visitors in the Capitals’ end — particularly for opposing power forwards — became a bit more jungle-like with George McPhee’s acquisition of Scott Hannan from the Colorado Avalanche yesterday.

Hannan, 31, tips in at 6 ’1, 225. Over the course of his 11 NHL seasons he’s been a 22-minute-a-night pillar of own-end accountability. His reputation is as a shutdown specialist who blocks a lot of shots — commodities in short supply on the D.C. blueline in recent seasons. Some reaction among the D.C. bloggerdom yesterday seemed to get bogged down in diminishing Hannan’s bona fides as a tier I physical force.That exercise I think misses the point; there is jam to Hannan’s game, and as such he’ll well compliment Jason Chimera and Matt Hendricks as recent additions made by McPhee that in total, weighed with departures named Morrisonn, Belanger, Morrison, and now Fleischmann, invite the view of the moves as reparations for an excess of previous finesse.

Which is to say, the Caps today are tougher to play against. Appreciably. You can view the Capitals’ playoff shortscomings of the past three seasons as bouts of bad luck melded with inexperience if you so choose, but seven-game series expose the fatal flaws of their victims. I’ve been a voice suggesting that experience aside, the Caps the past three years fielded rosters that fundamentally haven’t exacted a physical price from their foes. And to no small degree that is what postseason hockey is about. You want to help make sure that what should be a five-game series against an inferior foe in April doesn’t make it to seven? Spend games one through four demanding that your adversary pay a punishing price. No such demand was placed upon the small Habs’ forwards of last April. Instead, Montreal built an ugly box, kept the Caps on the perimeter, got quality netminding, and effectively counter-punched.

My most vivid association of Hannan is with his work on the San Jose Sharks’ blueline in the middle portion of this decade, when he was exceptionally effective in making life miserable for Colorado’s Peter Forsberg in the postseason. I imagine that labor inspired Colorado’s acquiring him. Like Tomas Fleischmann, Hannan is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end; the financial risk with this acquisition therefore is minimal. Still, he represents something quite different from Joe Corvo.

The Capitals have for some years needed to become grittier on the blueline. That’s not merely my opinion but something quite close to consensus sentiment among league observers. Greg Wyshynski articulated it on video for this site just this past Sunday. And in gleaning over the deal yesterday Wyshynski offered this take:

“We’ve said the Capitals needed a Hannan-type before, and now they have Hannan. Fleischmann’s an enigmatic player who can still thrive away from the Caps’ offensive talent. But Hannan’s a coup here for Washington, and getting him well before any trade-deadline bidding wars is even better.”

Anyway, grittier where it’s most needed the Caps became yesterday. And grit in front of your own cage is important at all times but especially in the postseason, when nightly the games are closely contested, clogged and ugly in the middle of the ice. Hannan clogs and ugly-fies.

It’s difficult to disassociate this deal from the 7 seconds that ended regulation play in the Caps’ most recent game, at home Sunday night against Carolina. Guarding a 2-1 lead with the draw in their own end, the Caps replaced a fatigued John Carlson and Karl Alzner with Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz. It matters little whether Poti blew an assignment or there was miscommunication between his partner and him; once Eric Staal badly beat Dave Steckel on the draw and bull-rushed the Capitals’ cage there was little that pairing could do about it. It was an overmatch moment. Planted with impunity in front of Semyon Varlamov, Staal batted in a rebound just two seconds before the final horn while the Caps’ defenders looked on.

You can allege that Scott Hannan represents merely “veteran depth” on a relatively well performing Capitals’ blueline if you want, but then you confront this question: did McPhee have to acquire a nearly $5 million-a-year rearguard just for that? And part with an offensively gifted 26-year-old fresh off a 23-goal campaign? No, we know that Scott Hannan is a good deal more than veteran depth because of the calendar. Back in August the Capitals brought into town free agent burly defenseman Willie Mitchell, and auditioned him here at some length. Ultimately Mitchell signed with LA. When asked yesterday by the media when his interest in Scott Hannan ignited, McPhee acknowledged . . . August — either coincidental to his club’s pursuit of Mitchell, or rather immediately after it.

Yesterday’s deal absolutely was foreshadowed by the vetting of Mitchell in the summer.

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A dynamic performer in hockey needs a compliment to become something more than merely a numbers producer. When the Capitals had the offensively gifted Sergei Gonchar that impressive Russian talent and his menacing impact didn’t truly bloom until the Caps paired him with stay-at-home steady Joe Reekie. It was a wonderfully effective pairing; Gonch could rush and pinch, knowing that Reekie had his back. Mike Green has yet to be paired with so steady a defensive partner in D.C. At first blush, Scott Hannan offers this promise, the moreso with his nearly 800 games of NHL experience. And if this proves to be the case, if Hannan proves to be the Reekie Green so badly needs, George McPhee will resign him, and HockeyWashington will look back on Tuesday’s trade as historically significant.

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Not to presuppose such a pairing next postseason, but $5 million dollar blueliners generally are stored up front. Hannan is a left shot to Green’s right. But the next few weeks, or longer, are appropriately a period for Bruce Boudreau to experiment a bit with his blueline. Let us see what chemistry emerges among which pairs. All that we seemingly know for sure is that there’s a strong likelihood of a Carlson-Alzner pairing continuing to prosper through next spring and beyond. I would also not be surprised in the least if come spring a game’s white-knuckle final 7 seconds are defended by Hannan and John Carlson.

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All manner of spiritedly-shouted reactions on line yesterday aside, we don’t yet know whether — or to what extent — Scott Hannan will be successful in Washington, any more than we did with Joe Reekie at the time of his acquisition from the Lightning, or Sergei Fedorov in that 2008 deal with Columbus. Or scores more like them. Trade analyses, even by the best in the business, all too commonly transpose one set of circumstances a player played under in one setting onto those in his new one, irrespective of systems discrepancies and wholly different personnel and an entirely new coaching staff.  It’s a fool’s errand. NHLers of distinct skill whose games grow stale occasionally need a change of scenery, no more. Certainly that’s Colorado’s expectation with respect to Tomas Fleischmann.

A parting word about Flash. No Capitals player disappointed as much last April against Montreal. I’m not sure he recovered from it. He was scratched of course in game 7 after six atrocious outings. He looked positively lost in that series. And that after a breakout regular season. And injury apparently played no role in his springtime demise. He had what might charitably be termed an average camp this autumn, then struggled right out of the gate trying to secure the Capitals’ second-line center audition. I’d look for the Avs to try him at left wing, which may be his most natural position.

But his being dealt is important in the maturation of the Capitals’ front office in its pursuit of a Cup. Flash, a 2002 Red Wings’ draftee, was acquired in the McPhee deal that shipped out Robert Lang during the great pre-lockout selloff, prelude to the rebuild. The organization made a sizable investment in Flash’s development here. He was widely believed to be a part of the contending core. To part with him as they have suggests to me at least management’s acknowledgment that time is of the essence, that the window of Cup contending opportunity isn’t open-ended.

Yesterday management pushed more chips in the center of the poker table. George McPhee and his management team are to be commended for acknowledging an architectural shortcoming intrinsic to this 120-pt. Capitals’ club, and aggressively addressing it.