Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: Placing Bets on Theodore

Entering this season, most of the attention on the Washington Capitals focused on Caps wing Alex Ovechkin.

After his record-setting 65-goal season, his unparalleled skill was acknowledged. His prowess was a given. Another stellar performance this season was seen as a sure thing.

The uncertainty surrounding the Washington’s Stanley Cup chances centered on the Caps’ crease and the newly acquired Jose Theodore. Could Theodore replace Cristobal Huet and his stellar play down the stretch last season? Could Theodore put the erratic play of the past several seasons behind him? Could Theodore recapture the form that won him the Hart Trophy for the league’s MVP?

Since the ink dried on his two-year free agent contract, Theodore bore the brunt of the scrutiny – scrutiny that was seemingly legitimized when he was pulled from the season’s first game after allowing several soft goals. Another weak goal at the start of the Caps’ home opener against Chicago added to the evidence that Theodore’s enigmatic past is far from behind him.

Talk is already swirling, however, that the Theodore signing has been a bust. Let’s nip that in the bud right now.

Martin Biron, Marty Turco, Evgeni Nabokov, Chris Osgood – all of them have worse save percentages than Theodore’s not-great mark of .887. For the uninitiated, that list comprises the goalie who outdueled the highly regarded Huet in last year’s playoffs (Biron), another with a career goal against average of 2.19 (Turco), a 2008 finalist for the Vezina trophy – given to the NHL’s best goalie – (Nabokov) and the Stanley Cup winner (Osgood). Just ahead of Theodore on the Save Percentage list is Flames All-Star standard Miika Kiprusoff, and also under the .900 mark is the Canucks’ perennial top stopper Roberto Luongo and … wait for it … Cristobal Huet.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true – the season is young – and young seasons yield wildly varying results. Already, we’ve seen one of the worst defensive performances the Caps have ever turned in – their 7-4 opening-night loss to Atlanta. Likewise, we’ve seen one of Washington’s best-ever showings – a 5-1 pounding of Vancouver in which the Caps allowed a franchise-low 10 shots on goal.

You won’t find anyone claiming that Theodore’s play has been exceptional this season, but the evidence is still too small to dump the team’s faults entirely in his crease.

Against Dallas Saturday night, Theodore was charged with five goals allowed. The score sheet doesn’t tell you that awful defense accounted for two of those and a fluky bounce contributed to a third. The score sheet also doesn’t assess degree of difficulty for the saves Theodore does make, such as the several times this season he has slung his body across the crease to stop shots in midair.

Within the game, there are subtleties belied by statistics. Such a small sample is not necessarily indicative of an entire season. Just ask Ovechkin.

The Great 8 has just two goals this season, both scored in the home opener against Chicago. Based on that, you could presume the left wing is heading for a disappointing season. Does anyone really think the reigning goal-scorer who averaged over 100 points in his first three seasons is going to fall flat on his face this season? Neither do I.

Theodore’s recent track record is nowhere near as consistent as Ovechkin’s, but he is through the hard part of the acclimation process now and the Caps are still leading the Southeast Division. From here on out, he’ll continue to build a rapport with the Caps defensemen when he plays pucks in his own zone. He’ll start to put the nerves behind him and start to eliminate those soft goals. And he’ll benefit from an improved defensive corps.

Tom Poti’s absence has badly hurt Washington. Poti is another player whose contributions go far beyond his statistics, leading the Caps’ blueliners in ice time last season. Callup Tyler Sloan and veteran Sergei Fedorov have performed well, but Sloan’s miscues have been costly, as have Fedorov’s propensity to take penalties. His eight penalty minutes already equal his total from the entirety of last season.

Is there a guarantee that Theodore will improve? No. However, he has never looked as bad as he did in his Caps debut and the defense has often looked worse. I’m betting on both to improve as the season moves forward.