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What We Learned: In which Capitals Coach Dale Hunter uses plus/minus to bench people

Ryan Lambert
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Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend's events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

We've been told that we're in an age where advanced hockey stats are becoming the norm.

There have been a ton of articles about how many teams throughout the League are pursuing the use of this information, which gives you so much more information about players and their true value than we had even five years ago; and how that data is being used to reshape not only the thinking in the front office, but behind the bench and on the ice as well.

For example, we know that no one in the League starts more of their shifts in the offensive zone than the Sedin twins (Daniel at 78.7, Henrik at 77.4). We know that this means that, as good as they are offensively, they're incredibly sheltered as well. This type of stat, your Corsi and Fenwick and QualComp, also give us a better understanding of players that are great at driving possession.

Having all this information available is great. And if a team uses it correctly, they're getting a competitive advantage against those foolish few that still rely on conventional player evaluation methods in the pursuit of free agents, trade targets or prospects, as well as in maximizing their chances to win every night.

One such team that apparently does not subscribe to the use of advanced statistics as a means of bolstering their on-ice success, apparently, is the Washington Capitals.

Or at least their coach doesn't.

Dale Hunter made the decision on Thursday night to sit Mike Knuble, the first time the 39-year-old now-defensive specialist has been a healthy scratch since 2002-03. On Saturday, the reason why Hunter made the decision was revealed.

"He told me I wasn't going to play and just kind of said, 'You haven't scored in a while and bad plus-minus,'" Knuble told reporters.

That's enough to make even the least-geeky stat geek take a long, hot shower curled into the fetal position. It's the equivalent of benching a baseball player because he doesn't have enough RBI.

(Coming Up: Jonathan Toews on the Blackhawks' spiral; the Kings' offense stinks; Dion Phaneuf gets turn-stiled by Lars Eller; two struggling goalies have great performances; the Bruins want to trade for everyone; Malkin's pretty good; safe to say Luke Adam's not winning the Calder; Clemmensen owns the Devils; the Flames are hurtin' bad; the Islanders are delusional; Walsh speaks out on the Moore; Nicklas Backstrom health update; and the Flyers hear it from Timonen and see Bobrovsky become a sieve.)

"We watch game film, we look at stats," Hunter explained.

Well that's reassuring.

The "haven't scored in a while" thing is obviously a perfectly reasonable complaint (at least if you're looking to Mike Knuble for offense, which I'm not sure why you would be these days). The guy doesn't have a goal since Dec. 5 and only has three this season. And the Capitals had been somewhat goal-deficient in recent weeks, though not in the game immediately prior to the scratch. Certainly, if you're trying to work in a guy who gives you a little more offensive pop, it's at least an understandable position to take.

But that thing about Knuble's plus-minus? Seriously? What year is this? To excoriate anyone who plays a wholly defensive role on a team with an even goal differential and doesn't score a whole lot seems pretty dumb.

You would think that in 2012, knowing what we know about statistics — and given that we've been saying how bad of a stat plus-minus is for telling you anything since at least that one time Marek Malik led the League in it— that this factor would be the least of anyone's concerns, let alone the coach of a National Hockey League team's, is alarming.

There's no way to know for sure, of course, whether Hunter actually uses plus-minus in player evaluation, or if that was just a thing he said to Knuble to justify benching a 39-year-old who's very clearly on his last legs if he's not already past it. But at this point, there's no reason for anyone to buy into it.

No one stat is enough to properly evaluate a player's effectiveness in this day and age. Even goals scored and points accumulated in a short period of time can be misleading. Ask Sam Gagner.

Hell, you can use advanced stats to explain why the Capitals are so bad this year. They've gotten more than their share of breaks in the last few regular seasons, and the fact that they're currently ninth in the East despite actually improving on paper in the offseason can probably be chalked up, at least in part, as regression to the mean.

But if their coach is dumb enough to base personnel decisions on plus-minus, that probably has a lot to do with it too.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: The Ducks' penalty kill was pretty bad the last two years but has improved considerably to be 84.3 percent. Why? According to Bruce Boudreau, it's the emergence of Andrew Cogliano, but if that were true, why does he only play 1:34 per night on the PK, 113th in the league among forwards? He doesn't even lead Anaheim forwards in shorthanded TOI/game.

Boston Bruins: Who might the Bruins target on the trade market? Everyone, apparently. If you've ever played rec league hockey, they've at least had a look at you.

Buffalo Sabres: Luke Adam has played so poorly for the Sabres in the last few months they sent him to Rochester over the weekend. Adam doesn't have a point in an NHL game since Dec. 17. He has 10-10-20 this season, and 16 of those came in 24 games in October and November. How awful.

Calgary Flames: Blair Jones fractured his ankle on Thursday and is out indefinitely, and now Mikael Backlund is walking around in a cast. Derek Smith has a bum ankle too. So does David Moss. And Lee Stempniak. Curtis Glencross is also on the shelf with an injured knee. In short, everyone on the Flames is injuring themselves.

Carolina Hurricanes: On Friday, the Hurricanes lost to Colorado with 1.2 seconds left in overtime, but that's really not something that should surprise anyone. The last time Carolina won there, they were still Hartford. It was the 1995-1996 season. Kirk Muller still had another seven seasons before he retired. Eric Staal was 12 years old.

Chicago Blackhawks: Chicago's losing streak hit eight games in Glendale on Saturday and hoo boy is Jonathan Toews not happy about it. "We need something," he said. "We don't care what it is. Something has to give in to make us feel good about ourselves. … I've been searching for words for a while now. It's getting even harder to explain it right now." It's actually pretty easy to explain: Your goaltending sucks.

Colorado Avalanche: Semyon Varlamov hasn't been great this year, but he sure was on Saturday. He made nine saves in the first period, 13 in the second and 18 in the third, but only one in OT. He really deserved better.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Steve Mason earned a win on Saturday, his first since Dec. 29. No, really. It took a game against Minnesota to do it, but apparently that counts just as much as a win over Detroit would have. Doesn't seem fair.

Dallas Stars: Here's Stars owner Tom Gaglardi saying that basically the Stars won't acquire any old players at the deadline because they want to get better going forward, rather than shoot for the moon with a mediocre team now. How terribly sensible.

Detroit Red Wings Presented by Amway: There are, as you'd probably expect, a bunch of crazy-ass stats from the Red Wings' 20-game home winning streak, a franchise best. My favorite stat is that in the first 19 games, 18 players scored for the team. That's a lot of them.

Edmonton Oilers: This Taylor Hall kid is pretty good at putting the puck in the net, eh?

Florida Panthers: The Panthers beat New Jersey on Saturday afternoon, and it was just their third road win in their last 16 tries. The other two came at Winnipeg (in a shootout) and at Boston. Then they won on Long Islander yesterday. It's all turning around.

Los Angeles Kings: This Kings offense is really something. The team has lost 10 games 2-1 this season, and 11 in overtime or the shootout. Following Saturday's loss to the Isles, poor Jonathan Quick had lost more games than he'd won despite a .934 save percentage and 1.91 GAA. Insanity.

Minnesota Wild: The Wild now know they're running out of time to get the ship back on the right track, and 3-1 losses to Columbus where they outshot their cellar-dwelling opponents 35-19 sure aren't helping.

Montreal Canadiens: Here's All-Star Captain Dion Phaneuf getting turn-stiled by Lars Eller.

Nashville Predators: The Preds might have lost to Boston 4-3 in a shootout on Saturday but they're real lucky Pekka Rinne was in net. It would have been about 6-1 Bruins through 20 minutes had Rinne not stood on his head. Ryan Suter was really happy with the performance: "That was a terrible game for us. We came out slow. In the second period, we looked like a minor hockey team. Second half of the second period we started to play a little bit better. We were very fortunate to get one point today."

New Jersey Devils: Remember when Scott Clemmensen played for the Devils? Lou Lamoriello is probably wishing he never left. Clemmensen is now 4-0-0 in five starts against his old team, allowing just nine goals on 143 shots in those games.

New York Islanders: The Islanders aren't trading Evgeni Nabokov because they think they can make the playoffs. Given how bad the East is, they just might do it. (But of course they won't.)

New York Rangers: Who's the most furious about Ruslan Fedotenko not being avenged by a lengthy suspension for Dominic Moore? Fedotenko himself? His Rangers teammates? John Tortorella? Close, it's his agent, Allan Walsh. Surprised?

Ottawa Senators: When even Bryan Murray is saying he won't overpay for a player at the deadline, you start to get the feeling this is going to be one boring TSN special.

Philadelphia Flyers: Count Kimmo Timonen among those who think the Flyers' efforts were lacking against the Rangers on Saturday: "We were disappointed with the effort actually. The emotional level, playing against the top team in the conference...league...to be honest I think we got half the guys going half the guys not."

Phoenix Coyotes: Don't know if I've ever seen a goalie take a shot so directly in the face. Usually the shots go off the side of their helmet. I guess that's just staying square to the puck.

Pittsburgh Penguins: A goal and an assist in just 16:14 of ice time? Yeah, Jordan Staal looked pretty damn good in playing his first game in 36 days against Winnipeg Saturday.

San Jose Sharks: Hey remember when the Sharks' power play was atrocious earlier this year? Yeah, it's fourth in the league these days, and going 8 for their previous 16 headed into yesterday's game really hasn't hurt.

St. Louis Blues: Andy McDonald returned to the lineup yesterday after missing 51 games with post-concussion symptoms, and that's always great to see.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos has scored more goals than any player in the league since 2009-10, with the next closest player (Alex Ovechkin) being 28 behind. If everything shakes out as expected, he'll have his second Rocket Richard in three seasons come June.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Here's the full video of the Mats Sundin banner raising and acceptance speech, the latter being really very good, and the former being only okay, in my estimation.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks might get Chris Higgins back from injury on Monday, which would be pretty good considering he's exactly the type of player they've been missing in this frustrating stretch. Six of their last seven games have gone to OT or a shootout, and while they've still won five of them, it's a really dicey proposition to live and die with that kind of uncertainty.

Washington Capitals: Nicklas Backstrom still isn't skating, and it's been 40 days since Rene Bourque elbowed him in the face. Reading stories like this every week really sucks.

Winnipeg Jets: Ondrej Pavelec stopped just 31 of 39 shots against the Penguins on Saturday but Claude Noel doesn't think he's accountable. "We hung him out to dry," the coach said. "I'm not going to sit here and blame the goaltender. Eight goals, yeah, but he should be the most livid guy in the room, teammates doing that to you. It's awful."

Gold Star Award

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Evgeni Malkin had five points against Winnipeg on Saturday and it was his third five-point game of the season; he added two more goals on Sunday. So I guess what I'm saying is he's pretty good.

Minus of the Weekend

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Sergei Bobrovsky gave up five goals on 26 shots and if it had been Ilya Bryzgalov doing it, he would have been killed in the parking lot by the Philadelphia press. Instead, Claude Giroux is issuing quotes like, "We have to do a better job of protecting [Bobrovsky]. We have to learn from it."

Play of the Weekend
Reminder that Steve Mason was, at one time, a good NHL goaltender.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User "habs09" isn't doing much to help his favorite team.

to CLB: Pleckanec, Palushaj, 3rd 2013 and Weber

to MTL: Vermette, 2012 2nd, Kubalik, 2013 2nd

Signoff
I can't keep doing this on my own with these... people.

Ryan Lambert publishes hockey awesomeness rather infrequently over at The Two-Line Pass. Check it out, why don't you? Or you can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter if you so desire.

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