Editor’s note: We don’t always get everything right here at RMNB, and we don’t always have the perspective to deal with the criticism we get. For that reason, we’ve asked Eric Fingerhut to act as an independent critic of our work and to keep us honest and accountable. Here comes the RMNB Ombudsman.
Hi, I’m Eric Fingerhut and you may know me from my incessant (some would even say tiresome) criticism of the Washington Post Sports section. I am the new ombudsman at Russian Machine Never Breaks, which means I’ll be providing a monthly critique of the site — as well as hopefully providing a voice for some of the complaints of readers. What are my qualifications for this new post? Well, I’ve been a fan of the Caps since the days of Guy Charron and Bernie Wolfe, I like to write criticism and, most importantly, Peter and Ian asked me if I’d be interested in the position and I said yes.
So let’s start with how RMNB handled the most controversial move of the Caps’ offseason, the signing of Brooks Orpik to what this website called an “insane” five-year, $27.5 million deal. I think the site’s initial response to the contract was similar to the first reactions of many Caps fans — even the biggest supporters of Brooks Orpik would have to acknowledge that signing a 34-year-old defensive defenseman to a five –year deal for more than $5 million each year in a salary-capped sport is a questionable move. And RMNB backed up their strong opinion with solid analysis — Peter had a great post on the day of the signing contrasting what Ted Leonsis and Brian MacLellan had said just a few weeks earlier about things such as the importance of puck possession and the danger in signing aging veterans to long-term contracts, and then noted how the Brooks Orpik signing seemed to undermines everything they had so recently professed to believe. A later post speculating on how the defense might line up – and how someone is going to make lots of money to play third-pair minutes – was also quite interesting.
But I did think Peter’s post laying out an “Orpikalypse Test” essentially criteria he believers Orpik needs to meet in order for his contract to be judged a success – was unfair. Unless the Caps win the Stanley Cup with Orpik on the roster – in which case the contract is a wild success — Peter said he would judge Orpik’s tenure on whether he met two of five benchmarks he laid out.
The problem is that four of the five benchmarks are either things that Peter knows Orpik is extremely unlikely to achieve or things that may not have anything to do with Orpik’s actual play. Will Orpik post a “positive relative possession score in three or more seasons”? Considering he’s never done it in one season during his Pittsburgh career, that seems unlikely. Will Orpik score 10 goals and 30 assists in two seasons during the contract? Considering Orpik has never scored more than two goals or had more than 25 seasons in any previous campaign, of course that’s not going to happen. Then there are the two criteria that have to do with ice time—Orpik either playing top-4 minutes in the final year of his contract or averaging 21 minutes of ice time in three of the contract’s five seasons. Achieving those marks would demonstrate Orpik’s durability and ability to contribute to the team throughout the life of the deal, but they don’t necessarily mean that Orpik would be helping the team. Orpik could be terrible in year five of the contract but still play top-4 minutes because there are a lot of injuries on the blue line that year, or because the Caps don’t have anyone better to put out ahead of him in the top-4 (see John Erskine, 2013-14, for instance). And why an arbitrary benchmark of 21 minutes a game on a team that how has a pretty deep defensive corps? Why is that a magic number?
I am OK with Peter’s fifth benchmark, whether Orpik improves the WOWY (With Or Without You) possession score of his most frequent defensive partner, considering the Caps themselves have said that they brought Orpik in to play the toughest minutes and, hopefully, bring veteran leadership and experience to a blue line which has struggled and stagnated in the past couple years. But since Orpik is apparently going to be on the top penalty-killing unit, shouldn’t one of the Orpik benchmarks be a metric that measures whether the PK improves from what this site called “maybe the worst penalty kill in recent history”? If Orpik, as the Caps claim, is going to frequently be on the ice against the opposition’s best offensive players, is there a way to measure how going against weaker competition may help other defensemen on the team. Of course, I realize both these benchmarks may not be perfect either – the latter because I’m not sure if there is a way to measure it, but furthermore because in both cases improvements to the PK and to other d-men could be as much the result of coaching as any “Orpik effect.” So while I don’t think the “Orpikalypse Test” is one which will fairly judge Orpik’s play, I’ve found it hard to actually propose a proper replacement myself. I guess this ombudsman thing is going to be more difficult than I thought…
So let’s move on to one of the most controversial posts on the site in the last few weeks, “Russia, Ukraine, and What Alex Ovechkin’s #SaveChildrenFromFascism Photo Means.” First of all, I do think it’s totally appropriate for the writers at a site named after Alex Ovechkin to write about Ovi’s publicly expressed political opinions and take issue with them if they so choose. Where I have a problem is that I felt the post could have used just a little bit more context on Ovechkin, and why he might have posed for a photo in which he makes the ridiculous claim that the pro-Russian rebels fighting the Ukrainian government are stopping fascism.
I don’t think you have to agree with Ovechkin’s views here to acknowledge that he is a patriotic Russian, he’s one of the most famous people in the country, and that he’ll probably go back to live in Russia when he’s finished with his NHL career. Thus, it’s likely there’s both a lot of pressure on someone as well-known as Ovechkin—both in Russia and throughout the world—to back his government publicly, something that Ovechkin notably didn’t do before the Olympics when he pretty much avoided taking a position on Russia’s anti-gay laws while other NHL players expressed support. Furthermore, Russia doesn’t have a free press, which likely means that much, if not all, the news and information he was getting about the Ukrainian situation was heavily biased toward the Russian government position. Sure, you say, but Ovi knows English – can’t he read the New York Times or other more neutral news sources on the Internet? Of course, but considering many Americans increasingly get their news only from media sources whose politics they agree with, should we really be surprised when a Russian chooses to believe what he hears in his home country’s media rather than in America’s?
None of this is meant as a defense of Ovechkin’s position. I just think the original post taking issue with Ovechkin’s politics would have been better with a sentence or two pointing out these complicating factors. And in fact, when Ovi arrived in the United States a couple weeks later, said he wasn’t trying to make a statement with the photo and repeated a few times that he just didn’t want a war, it certainly made me wonder whether now being outside of Russia and away from any political pressure allowed him to do what he really wanted to do in the first place — not get involved in a controversial political situation and focus on hockey. (Or of course, maybe he got to the U.S., read the New York Times, and reconsidered his original position. Who knows?)
Finally, I also wanted to note this post from last month, “Stub Hub, Washington Capitals Battle for Ticket-Reselling Market,” for two reasons. First, it’s great that this site is doing a story on a fan-related issue like a change in the ticket resale policy and giving a voice to season-ticket holders unhappy over a new policy. But as a season-ticket holder myself, I also wanted to correct one problem with the story. Peter writes that the new ticket resale policy, according to the Caps, is designed to cut down on counterfeit tickets, and then says that it also should “ameliorate” the problem of long lines outside the Verizon Center before games.
I’m not sure from the story whether the Caps themselves are saying that this new policy will reduce the lines to get into the building before games, or Peter is making that assumption (since the Caps statement pasted at the bottom of the post doesn’t explicitly make that claim). But whatever the case, this policy will have virtually no effect on the time it takes to get into the building. I have no reason to doubt the Caps’ assertion that there is a problem with counterfeit tickets, but as a season-ticket holder, I can tell you that the reason fans sometimes have to stand in lines of hundreds of people just to enter Verizon Center is because of the security policy implemented following the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2012 – making all fans take everything out of their pockets and get individually “wanded” just to get into the building. Only after going through that gauntlet do fans even get to stand in a line to give tickets to an usher – a line which is rarely more than a couple people long. Thus, the occasional delay that might occur because of a fake ticket in a line that rarely takes more than a minute to two to navigate is not the reason it can take 15-20 minutes just to enter the building some nights.
Finally, I wanted to finish on a positive note, so I’ll simply direct you to one of my favorite posts of the offseason – pictures of new Caps goalie coach Mitch Korn eating corn and wearing corn-related clothing. It just made me laugh.
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