Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Postmortem on the Zubrus era in DC.

Dainus Zubrus came to the Capitals with big shoes to fill. Or rather, to me he did. I was a big fan of both Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis, both of whom went to Montreal. I remember one reporter's scout's take on Zednik as something to the effect of "had almost 20 goals last year playing with Bondra. Should have had double that with all the chances he had." And while it's true that Zednik's scoring touch was sometimes lacking, his speed and effort made sure that he got enough chances to score 19 goals in consecutive seasons. Nevertheless, Capitals brass deemed him expendable, and both he and Bulis were shipped to Montreal for Zubrus and Trevor Linden's corpse. In Montreal, Zednik erupted, scoring more than 20 goals every full season he played there, including 31 in 02-03. He also shined in his playoff series against Boston until a cheap Kyle McLaren elbow to the head put him out of commission. One might argue that he still hasn't fully recovered from the blow.

In that trade between the Capitals and Montreal Zubrus was the promise of a big return on investment. He was certainly talented enough, and had the size and speed to use those talents effectively at the NHL level. He was highly coveted, having been drafted 15th by the Flyers and traded along with a bag of pucks to Montreal for Mark Recchi, a legitimate star in the league at that time. It was clear that Zubrus had the talent, but something was missing in him that allowed not one, but two teams to deem him expendable.

In the time that Zubrus played for the Caps, he never set fire to the league offensively (his career high 23 goals came in his first season with Ovechkin), but he played well in the defensive zone, and we all know how much the Capitals covet two way players. And while he did display flashes of brilliance, he never lived up to his billing as a top line forward. He gave an honest effort most nights, especially later in his career here, but never developed the scoring touch one would hope for a player of his caliber. Only scoring 20 goals twice is fairly meager output for a player who played on teams with Ovechkin, Peter Bondra, Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, Adam Oates, and Micheal Nylander. And while he didn't play on a line with Jagr often, his numbers should still have benefited from not playing the oppositions shut down line. But they never did.

This season, Zubrus came roaring out of the gate, and everyone thought that the enigmatic forward was finally delivering what he had only shown glimpses of before. Playing with Ovechkin clearly suited Zubrus, and he opened the season on a scoring tear. I even wrote a post apologizing to him for riding him so hard. Alas, midway through the season Zubrus went as cold as he had been hot, and the team's record suffered as a result.

So what was Zubrus missing? What kept him from fulfilling the promise he has shown for so many years?


Zubrus never showed the courage to rely on his skills to beat players one on one. He always took the puck wide rather than attempting to beat a defenseman one on one. He loved working in the corner, where he could out muscle the opposition without the fear of taking a big hit. The faith in those amazing skills to protect him was just never there. This flaw became abundantly clear when juxtaposed against his linemate Alex Ovechkin, who showed absolutely no fear, and in fact seemed to relish taking on opposing players one on one, one on two, even one on four at times. But instead of inspiring that same type of aggressive play by Zubrus it only served to highlight his inadequacies.

Worse, it became obvious later in the season that Zubrus was trying to force play carrying the puck instead of passing the puck off to his linemates. Whether he was pushing too hard trying to earn that big contract or whether he truly believed he was making the right play, he was hurting the team. He still refused to play in the middle of the ice, but he wouldn't give up the puck, either. He consistently drove at defensemen, but against the boards so he could be easily rubbed out or at least neutralized. If this was the way he was going to play, the Capitals needed to go another direction. So they did.

So what is Zubrus' legacy here in DC? He was a fan favorite, and a decent forward on a team that lately has seen far too few of them. He took Ovechkin under his wing in his first year in the league, which should not be undervalued. Who knows if we would have seen the same exuberance from the Russian Machine had he been homesick and lonely? For that service, we'll call his time here in Washington a positive, even if he never did live up to the lofty expectations surrounding his arrival.

So farewell, Dainius. Thanks for the time you've put in. Hopefully the crowd will recognize you with an ovation in your first game back, and hopefully things will go well for you this postseason. Perhaps we'll meet again when the signing period for free agents starts. But I doubt we'll again see you in Caps colors, be they black and bronze or red, white and blue.

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