Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Capitals Players Looking to Turn a Corner Heading into the New Year

Resolutions, promises, a fresh start: What better time than New Year's Eve to take a look at some of the players on the Capitals who look like they're going to (and need to) turn a corner in the very near future?

Without further ado, here are a half-dozen Caps players who will be looking to elevate their game start January 1st against the Senators:

Tomas Fleischmann - Flash has nothing left to prove at the AHL level, where he's scored 114 points in 102 games since 2005, but he hasn't been able to consistently contribute offensively in Washington. I think Flash stands a pretty good chance at getting on the scoresheet on a regular basis now that he's becoming aware that he is not skilled enough to get by on skill alone and has hence started working harder without the puck and driving to the net. I'm still not completely sold on Fleischmann though and time is starting to run out for him, although you'd have to think that if he's ever going to show he can play at the NHL level it would be under another relatively slight winger who showed a ton of skill in the minors but couldn't stick in the NHL.

Viktor Kozlov - Kozlov hasn't been as bad as some Caps fans seem to think (a number of people have recently advocated his benching in the comments on Capitals Insider). He's second on the team in assists and shots and is getting his chances - he just needs to start converting them. And he will.

Olaf Kolzig - After allowing six goals on 22 shots against Ottawa (despite not playing all that poorly) Kolzig's save percentage is down to .888 and his GAA up to 3.02. His numbers haven't been stellar and he's let in a number of soft goals, but he has been playing better recently, even if the numbers don't show it. With Johnson out 2-4 weeks and with the team playing well and gaining ground in the playoff race the Capitals need Kolzig to be a solid presence in net.

Matt Pettinger - In a season that has been disappointing thus far for Capitals fans perhaps no single player has been as disappointing as Pettinger, who has only five points in 37 games and was a healthy scratch against Ottawa. But the numbers look worse than Pettinger's play has been - while Pettinger has only two goals he is getting his chances and his shots per game average (1.86) is about the same as what it's been the last couple years (1.81), and you don't go from being a guy who shoots better than 14% to a guy who shoots under 3% without some bad luck in there. Although Pettinger has only three assists he has played much of the year with Boyd Gordon and David Steckel, neither of whom is finding the net on a regular basis. At this point I think Pettinger's problem is largely mental - he looked like he was on his game early in the year and I think the lack of success he's had playing his game started to get to him, he started to doubt himself, got off his game and has looked a little lost. Hopefully sitting out a game or two helps him get his head back together and boosts his on-ice performance.

Jeff Schultz - Schultz is a defensive defenseman, so unlike Kolzig or Kozlov it might not be as obvious when he turns a corner and is able to elevate his game. Rather than flashy goals or saves, Schultz is at his best when he plays positionally, frustrates opponents and avoids mistakes. Not especially jaw-dropping stuff, but it's an important role nonetheless. Sarge has been looking smarter and more comfortable almost by the game and is close to becoming a very solid backline presence. Schultz has also taken some heat for not being physical enough given his size (6'5'', 215) and the nature of his game. I don't think it's that Schultz won't initiate contact, I think it's that he doesn't want to draw himself out of position trying to deliver a big hit. As he become more aware and more confident in his own end watch for his physical game to improve as well.

David Steckel - I conceived this post a couple weeks ago, but the holidays make me lazy (you know it happens to you too) and I wish that I'd written it up before before Steckel three-point performance against Tampa Bay, but here it goes anyway: Steckel has received praise from Caps management and fans for doing jobs that are all too often underappreciated (playing a defensive role, faceoffs, penalty kills) and so it's become easy to forget that he put up 61 points (30+31) in 71 games for Hershey last year. While Steckel will never be a great scorer at the NHL level he has enough talent to chip in offensively on a consistent basis. Lately he's looked more comfortable in the offensive end, going to the net more often, being more assertive and showing better vision, so I'd expect some points to follow.

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