Missing a Vitally Important Middle Man

cupajoe.jpegDainius Zubrus was last in action in Washington the weekend of February 24, when the team had a home-and-home set with New Jersey. The team played fantastic on the road that Saturday, easily winning 4-2, a late Devils’ goal making the game appear closer than it actually was. The Caps lost a nailbiter rematch on Sunday at Verizon Center. The weekend would mark the conclusion of the Caps’ competitive viability in the ’06-’07 season.
Ever since, through no fault of the remaining roster, this hockey team has, in a landscape of single family brick houses, resembled a hollowed-out mobile home ravaged by Force Ten Fury.
In the midst of our present misery, it isn’t enough to say merely that we in Washington miss Dainius Zubrus; it’s important to inventory why so that we never again take for granted or too easily bid adieu to a key cog.
Three million annually, laid out over four seasons, is simply too much for simply 20 goals. However, it is generously fair value if offered to a team leader who does the dirty work along the boards, regularly cleans up the late-to-backcheck messes made by novice linemates, and splendidly mentors the organization’s building blocks of the present and future. Also, if he’s beloved by his teammates.
It was only at the 11th hour that fans and media here were afforded an insider’s assessment of Zubrus’ actual value to the organization. Conspicuously cautious with long-term deals, and in general regarding three years their ceiling, general manager George McPhee blinked in the closing hours of negotiations and ponyed up four years and $12 million. The offer spoke loudly and clearly: Zubrus was wanted not merely for the completion of the rebuild but for its ascension solidly into contender status — compensated as a valued contributor to it.
We also learned that negotiations with Zubrus and his agent actually began in November 2006.
Zubrus, like Ken Klee before him, chose to roll risky dice and wager that greener pastures would arrive in summer. Klee lost that gamble. Zubrus may, too. The point here today, however, isn’t to beat up an individual player or his agent for the bargaining position they staked out — that’s the business side of our game, and we in the stands are ever removed from it. Rather, I’d have message board reactionaries singularly guided by stats sheets strive for greater nuanced, more sophisticated assessments of the subtleties of the game: of the services rendered during the 59 minutes and 25 seconds of each game not producing scoring.
It truly bears referencing: nowhere in the Washington Capitals’ development pipeline resides a prospect remotely in possession of Zubrus’ assets. Nature just doesn’t often forge such a blend.
Greg Wyshynski of the Fourth Period went inside the Caps’ locker room not long after the trade and captured what struck me as far more than the expected bit of reminiscence of Zubrus offered up by his teammates:

“Zubrus’s presence could still be felt in the Capitals’ locker room where he spent the last six seasons.

“He was always smiling,” recalled captain Chris Clark, who was Zubrus’s linemate for the last two years. “We always said that it’s great to be Zubie. He’s got everything: Great family, great life, being in the NHL. He loved everything about it. He was one of the guys to brighten up the room all the time.”

“Alexander Ovechkin was also on Zubrus’s line, and was taken under the veteran’s wing when he arrived in D.C. last season. Zubrus was a mentor, an interpreter and a host to Ovechkin. He was, according to several members of the organization, one of the most important reasons the Calder winner found his comfort zone so quickly last year.”

Perhaps it’s a byproduct of our culture’s fantasy league fetish, but modern pro athletes are regularly and shamefully cast as “haves” or “have nots” when every once in a while there are also marvelous hybrids. The now regularly 100-point-accumulating Buffalo Sabres know this.
I wish that hockey had a quantifiable statistical column for its dirty work — for those instances in which two competitors race to the dangerous corners in pursuit of the puck, and a victor emerges, and especially when a lone skater betters two of his competitors there. Dainius Zubrus won more than his fair share of such encounters, and for it the Capitals won more games than they should have in his six seasons here.
I miss him. Almost as much as the team.

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9 Responses to Missing a Vitally Important Middle Man

  1. I have to disagree a bit with the tone of the piece. Yes, Dainius won more than his share of battles in the corner. And yes, he was valuable as a veteran leader and locker room presence.
    But saying nobody in the pipeline has the skillset Zubrus has is a bit far fetched.
    We have several players with the physical tools and ability to take over the role Zubie filled. If you look at the point totals since the trade, Novotny has actually put up more points than Zubrus. He’s still growing into his role with the team, and even though I doubt he’ll scrap in the corners like Zubrus did (mainly because he’s a natural center, while Zubrus honed that aspect of his game playing the wing) he looks to have the potential to be a solid 2 or 3 center, which is pretty much exactly what Zubrus is. There’s also some kid named Backstrom over in Sweden that I hear is pretty good.
    If you’re looking for a player that plays tough defensively and is a solid grinder, you can always watch Boyd Gordon.
    My issue with Zubie is that he always had the tools to be a legitimate top line scorer (as evidenced by his high draft selection) but was never able to put all the pieces together. He should have been an elite level scorer, yet he refused to take defenders on one on one, instead choosing to take the battle to the boards. And while he won most of those battles, you don’t score goals along the boards.
    I guess I say all that to say this: yes, the Zubrus trade hurt us short term. And yes, it’s hard to replace someone who, by all accounts, was a great mentor and veteran leader. Still, there are plenty of veteran guys out there that are willing to grind it out in the corners with the same vigor Zubrus did, and most can be had for significantly less money.
    Then again, missing someone is unique to each person, and you clearly hold more affection for Zubrus as a player than I do. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

  2. Nancy says:

    Thank you for articulating what I’ve very much felt right before and after Zubrus’ trade, but had been unable to state with as much clarity. It’s not just what Zubrus did on the ice as the presence he had as a team leader behind the scenes, and his rapport with players such as AO and others.
    Acknowledging 3 Grumpy Caps’ Fans’ point above — the skillsets Zubie brings to the game may not be difficult to replace (or even develop). But I think it’s difficult to replace someone who has the kind of personality, optimism, and presence on and off the ice — a combination of leadership from experience and from natural ability — that Zubie brought to the team. And it works both ways: look at the poisonous environment that Jagr has brought to the teams he’s played on when he’s disinterested or unhappy.
    Bottom line: it’s certainly obvious watching the team play since the trade deadline that Zubie is missed, for whatever reason. I am interested in seeing what will happen this summer.

  3. Nancy, 3 Grumpy Caps Fans misread my claim about Zubrus, mistaking “skill set” for “assets.” Clearly they are not the same. Zubrus’ sheer size is rivaled among the organization’s prosects really only by Dave Steckel and Oskar Osala, neither of whom, to date, is acclaimed for offensive skills that forecast 20-25 goals in the NHL. Indeed, this misread led to a wholly false conclusion that I see no value in an elite prospect like Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom will almost certainly bring an altogether different, more dynamic game to center ice in a Caps’ sweater. I welcome that.

  4. usiel says:

    From all reports the deal breaker was that zubrus was bent on a 5 year deal and the caps wanted a 4 year. Money per year wasn’t the problem.

  5. I did not mean to infer that you saw no value in Backstrom, or any other prospect, for that matter. I only wanted to express that while we’ll certainly miss Zubrus at center for the rest of this season, I don’t think that will be the case next year.
    Also, I still consider Fehr a prospect, and he’s 6’3″ and will have about the same mass as Zubrus in a year or so (provided his back holds up… Back injuries on big men scare the heck out of me). And I don’t see 25 goals as out of his range.

  6. Nancy says:

    Pucksandbooks — yes, I recognized the distinction you were making between skill sets and assets, and was agreeing with your points, though that might not have been clear from my comment.
    I also welcome the addition of new talent to the team, but I do hope that the team management is committed to bringing some veteran leadership to the team in the off-season. In my opinion, it’s not enough to try and bring in young talent and supplement with a few 3rd string players that we pick up haphazardly. (of course management’s strategy for “rebuilding” the team is fodder for another post… and I’m not a hockey blogger, so I’ll let the experts tackle that.)

  7. Nancy says:

    p.s., not trying to be anonymous, I just don’t have a hockey blog to link to. 🙂

  8. Norwoodsrevenge says:

    Buffalo 9:35, Dainius Zubrus 22 (Henrik Tallinder, Derek Roy)

  9. maruk says:

    Clearly, Zubie’s value to the team was far greater than his on-ice contributions. GMGM’s final offer reflected that, and he was very wise not to give a 5th year. Zubie’s got a lot more mileage on his tires than most soon-to-be 29 year olds. I would be very surprised if Zubie does better than 4/12 on the open market.

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