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Re-defining Secondary Scoring

[Ed. note: The newest member of our Rink family needs no introduction, but if we didn't give her one, you wouldn't know how happy we are to have her aboard. So please welcome CapsChick (you know her from A View From the Cheap Seats) and make her feel at home.]

We're about a month into the 2009-10 season and the Caps are sitting at or near the top of both the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference standings. Yet despite a start that looks great on paper, the Caps have some holes to fill and some flaws to fix before anyone – Caps fans included – will believe that they’re a true contender.

One area of potential concern is the seeming lack of secondary scoring.  Reasonable minds may differ on what secondary scoring means (Pepper yesterday defined it as scoring from other than the Big Four -- Alex OvechkinAlexander SeminNicklas Backstrom and Mike Green -- and Mike Knuble).  Here, we'll take a bit more critical and demanding view of balanced team scoring and define it as goals from people other than those Big Four, Knuble, Brooks Laich, and Brendan Morrison. Through ten games this year the Caps have scored 36 goals, a mark which puts them in fourth in the League in goals per game. Of those 36 goals, only 8 have come from someone besides the top two lines and Green (and five of those came last Thursday in Atlanta).

Secondary scoring is absolutely a key to success, and the lack thereof can be cause for some concern. And yes, there are some players who need to pick up the offense as the season goes on – no team gets very far if they don't have help from throughout their lineup, and it's often the workhorses who make the difference in the postseason.

But are we perhaps getting a little carried away.

Right now the Caps have two very talented scoring lines, each of which can provide a different style of attack (and even a different look from the day before, depending on which side of the bed Coach Boudreau wakes up).

In the five years since the lockout we have gradually broadened our definition of "primary" scoring. First primary scoring was Ovechkin and secondary scoring was everyone else. Then Alexander Semin threw his hat in the ring as the "two" of a dominant one-two punch, while Ovechkin boosted the numbers of his linemates Chris Clark and Dainius Zubrus and that was considered primary scoring.

Ergo, what has been considered "primary" has expanded year by year until eventually we reached the place we find ourselves in today, where "primary" has come to mean the entire top two lines and a defenseman - seven different players, almost a third of the team.

Over the last three years we’ve seen trades and free agents bring more talent to the lineup while prospects evolved into true scoring threats. With each year, the team has grown and presented a more diversified attack - while still centered around Ovechkin, he's no longer the only one lighting the lamp. 

2007-08 - 23 goals scored through 10 games, with a combined 64 goals and assists

Player    Goals       Points    % of Goals % of Pts
Ovechkin 6 13 26.09% 20.31%
Nylander 3 8 13.04% 12.50%
Green 3 6 13.04% 9.38%
Kozlov 2 5 8.70% 7.81%
Clark 2 4 8.70% 6.25%
Laich 2 3 8.70% 4.69%

Ovechkin dominated early on in the 2007-08 season, going 6-7-13 in his first 10 games - good enough for over 25% of the teams goals and over a fifth of their points. But beyond Ovechkin, it was still all "secondary" scoring, with the next highest forward registering the same number of goals and just two more assists than defenseman Mike Green, and Chris Clark's 4 points putting him among the team leaders.

Keep in mind that this was in the dying days of the Hanlon era, a defensively tight system with emphasis on playing it safe and less on being offensively creative. 

Moving on down the timeline...

2008-09 - 29 goals scored through 10 games, with a combined 78 goals and assists

Player Goals Points % of Goals % of Pts
Semin 8 16 27.59% 20.51%
Green 4 8 13.79% 10.26%
Fedorov 3 8 10.34% 10.26%
Fleischmann 3 5 10.34% 6.41%
Laich 2 6 6.90% 7.69%
Ovechkin 2 5 6.90% 6.41%

Last season's slow start for Ovechkin opened the door for Semin to step in as the dominant scorer, picking up right where #8 had left off the year before. His goal and point totals were markedly higher than Ovechkin's early on, but they still represent about the same portion of the team's total offense. This time it was #28, not #8, who carried the load for the team as he doubled up on his next highest-scoring teammate.

Still, there was a bit more of a scoring spark throughout the rest of the team, as Tomas Fleischmann and Laich began contributing with more regularity alongside a young-at-heart Sergei Fedorov

Which brings us to...

2009-10 - 36 goals scored through 10 games, with a combined 98 goals and assists

Player Goals Points % of Goals % of Pts
Ovechkin 9 17 24.32% 17.35%
Semin 6 10 16.22% 10.20%
Laich 4 9 10.81% 9.18%
Morrison 3 8 8.11% 8.16%
Bradley 3 5 8.11% 5.10%
Backstrom 2 11 5.41% 11.22%
Green 2 8 5.41% 8.16%
Knuble 2 8 5.41% 8.16%

A couple of things stand out so far. The top six forwards are still providing the bulk of the offense, but they're doing so at a much more even pace than they have in recent years. Ovechkin is one of the league leaders in points and yet his percentage of the team's total points is way down – that's not a knock on him, of course, but a sign that the rest of the team is starting to chip in more.

Even if it's true, that consistent scoring from "only" a third of the team is somehow bad, is it accurate to say that it's all we've got? A certain professor might take exception to that.

So often this year complaints regarding a lack of secondary scoring have been accompanied by "except for Matt Bradley", thrown in almost as an afterthought. But Bradley's three goals shouldn't be overlooked, nor should the fact that he's been on quite a tear that dates back to the playoffs. It's a bit far-fetched to think he'll continue at this pace and finish with a projected 25 goals – but it is not out of the realm of possibility that he hits the 10-15 goal plateau, and that's nothing to sneeze at. Especially for a guy who has never scored more than nine.

Also not to be overlooked is the performance of the third and fourth lines against Atlanta last week, when the top two lines experienced a rare, synchronized off night. The whole underlying fear of not having secondary scoring is that all another team has to do is shut down your primary scorers and the game is over. But as the Thrashers meticulously shut down Ovechkin, Backstrom and the rest, others were stepping forward to make sure two points wouldn't get away.

Of course, the fact that the Young Guns and their new friends have been shut down just once in ten games, particularly considering some of the teams the Caps have played thus far, is a perfect example of just how hard it can be to stop six or seven talented scorers in the same game. It's incredibly tricky for opponents. If they shut down Ovechkin, there's Semin. Neutralize Laich, Mike Knuble can play the role. Backstrom and Morrison are a two-pronged attack of pure, playmaking skill; if the opponents take away passing lanes, there's always someone with a vicious shot waiting and vice versa.

And there's always Mike Green patrolling the blue line, waiting to strike.

At the end of the day we know that Ovechkin is going to score. We also know that because of him, others are going to put up points. What we're starting to see this year, though, is a more balanced distribution of points among those top six forwards and beyond. Mike Green is starting to chip in. Bradley, Laich and Fehr all have the potential to chip in, as does a healthy Tomas Fleischmann.

This team has for so long been Ovechkin and Friends, a tale of a high-octane, high-tempo, high-scoring superstar and his little sidekicks who chip in with a goal here or there.

So to complain about scoring from any one of six or seven guys when there finally are six or seven guys around to help out, to ignore the contributions of others whether they show up on paper or not, is to ignore the evolution this team continues to undertake.