When the history of the Capitals of this era is written, whatever their legacy may be, the first names that will be mentioned will inevitably be Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, and Green. These are the the “Young Guns,” hockey’s answer to the Brat Pack, and the Cap’s’ most marketable (and rightfully so, marketed) stars. During countless intermission games of “Mites on Ice” at Verizon Center, they always ask one kid who his or her favorite player is. At least in the last four seasons, I’ve never heard any kid say anything but “Ovechkin!”
However, the story of the 2010-11 playoff run will be equally as influenced by four names you probably won’t see on many kids’ hockey jerseys this winter: Arnott, Chimera, Hannan and Knuble.
Time plays a large part in this story for a number of reasons. If you’re a Malcolm Gladwell reader, you know that mastery occurs somewhere around the 10,000 hour mark. Not to say that everyone in the NHL hasn’t mastered hockey, but maybe there are levels beyond levels to be attained. Maybe that doesn’t quite come to fruition, even for gifted players, at ages 23, 25, 25, and 26 (Backstrom, Ovechkin, Green, and Semin). Maybe it comes out of necessity, when the body begins to wear down and every stride, pass, shot, and initiation of contact needs to count as much as possible. Perhaps these traits start to develop at ages 31, 32, 36, and 38 (Chimera, Hannan, Arnott, and Knuble).
The element of time is also important within the sphere of a seven game series. You get anywhere from 240 to 500ish minutes of hockey to best your opponent. You could simultaneously start the game film on a playoff series and the Extended Edition of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and not be close to Mount Doom by the time players are shaking hands. It is no surprise that the most consistent player in the current series against the Rangers has spent the most time on the ice. While the Capitals’ defensive corps has been valiant in its shot-blocking and penalty-killing efforts thus far, its steadiest contributer to the playoff campaign has been Scott Hannan, averaging 24:03 per game in ice time (leading the team) and carrying an even +/- rating. Hannan, arriving via trade with Colorado for Tomas Fleischmann at the end of November, has also quickly become a leader in the locker room and on the ice, donning the “A” for Washington toward the end of the regular season. Hannan has seen playoff action in 10 of his 12 NHL seasons, and has set the tone for a tough-but-careful style of play that has made the Caps a bigger threat than previous seasons to survive a 7-game series.
As big as Hannan’s contributions have been, the three forwards; Jason Chimera, Jason Arnott, and Mike Knuble, could form a line that combines for 2,271 regular season NHL games played, or, and perhaps more importantly, 176 combined playoff games played. All three have either worn the “A” like Hannan or become instant locker room leaders. This isn’t just a group of gray-hairs shouting at young stars, either. Without Knuble, the Caps would be short 20+ goals the last two seasons and devoid of a top-line right winger. Without Chimera and Arnott, the Rangers series could easily by 2-1 in the other direction. Chimera’s speed, Arnott’s playmaking and Knuble’s ability around the front of the net make them a trio of nut just leaders, but integral pieces of a successful club.
It is worth noting that all four of these additions are not homegrown players. All added via trade or free agency within the last two seasons, they could be seen as rentals or stopgaps while younger players develop. Instead, they have been major contributors, scoring goals all spring, again (Knuble), whipping game-winning assists in the playoffs (Arnott), and banging home game winning goals as well (Chimera). In exchange for this, the Capitals have surrendered Fleishmann, David Steckel, Chris Clark, and 2nd round draft pick. As much as you may have liked the inconsistent Czech winter, the hardworking face-off specialist, or the oft-injured former captain, it’s hard to argue that what Washington got in return; four players exuding leadership, experience, perspective, and toughness, doesn’t give the team it’s best chance to make an honest threat at the Cup.