The Washington Capitals are an enigma. Historically, this was true and the current incarnation is no better than it’s predecessors. Take for instance the mid-70s expansion franchise that struggled to reach double digit wins for several seasons as compared to a team that made nearly 20 consecutive post-season berths. After an enlightening Stanley Cup run in the late 90s the team imploded and landed near the bottom of the league and in a position to pick up some of the brightest young stars in over a decade to come out of the draft. Now, after four straight South East division champion banners and a President’s trophy run the Washington Capitals find themselves mired in mediocrity when they should be preparring to win it all.
How did it go so wrong so fast? There’s plenty of blame to go around, but let’s focus on yesterday’s big news in the release of Bruce Boudreau.
Truth be told, Bruce IS a good coach who deservedly should and hopefully will land somewhere quickly to find continued success. After all, he led the Hershey Bears their titles and was one among the fastest to some of the wins mile-markers in the AHL experience. He followed that up with coming to the Bear’s NHL team, the Caps and turning around the next several seasons earning his 200th win among the quickest in history as well. You don’t accomplish those feats without some ability and talent. The lone flaw in the resume was his inability to lead the Caps to the coveted Stanley Cup.
Rarely did it come down to the coaching blame-game once Boudreau took over. His ability to connect with the young Caps stars early on – many of whom he had early experience with at Hershey. This seemed to lend itself to the early success and the raw talent carried the rest.
The excuses were more open ended throughout BBs tenure. At first it was the Caps were too young and inexperienced. Then, it was that they weren’t focused enough for the full 60-minute challenge each night. Or, it was a lack of defensive responsibility. Now, you hear about a lack of passion or excitement from the players. Sometimes, it was blamed it on the lack of a qualified, veteran, #1 goalie. Others, one could attribute it to not enough experienced pivots, particularly on the second and many times third line center position. Both depth and experience on the blue line haunted the team throughout while gritty, two-way forwards with experience also were lacking to provide the Caps a work ethic. At any given time over the last decade didn’t have a real consistent voice, or a captain, or tough-guy, or the toothless, gray-bearded, prognosticator to get them over the hump… and they’ve schemed in their back-roster and traded and pulled from the wavers-market any way they could to find that magical “guy”…
As much as any of those things were true (and they absolutely were), there are few roster excuses to really say the Caps are lacking this season. Gone are the goalie scapegoats, with the addition of Voukoun they have the best backstop since Kolzig and fellow countryman Neuvirth returns to gain experience while phenom Holtby awaits his AHL callups. At center the Caps have #1 Backstrom, #2 Johansson, #3 Laich, #4 Halpern and depth to use Hendricks, Perrault and Eakin if and when necessary (such as when Laich or Halpern is moved to wing or D) which is the deepest and most talented the team has ever been. On defense, the Caps feature the addition of vet Roman Hamerlick to Mike Green and vet Dennis Wideman to to Jeff Schultz, along with the successful Caps youth pairing of Alzner and Carlson that dominated offenses last season as well as vet Erskine and rookie Orlov to fill in. And speaking of grit, the addition of not-already mentioned Brower and Ward this season were supposed to support Knuble Ovi, and King (when he’s called up) in making them tougher hitting. (according to the published rosters as of today on washingtoncaps.com and sports.yahoo.com)
So what is the problem? Is it that the defensive-responsible system instituted mid-last season is still being learned? Is it that the new players are not yet gelling? Is it despite the veteran leadership they aren’t veteran enough (currently, only one player with a Cup of the 8 available players over-30, while 10 are less than 5 years experience on the active roster with 3, 21-years-old or less) or there isn’t enough outside experience (8 vets – 9 with ex-Cap captain Halpern returning, while at least the 10 of the other ‘regulars’ plus all of the backups are Caps products, mostly through Hershey) that has the roster out-of-wack in general? Or are the individual players not worth what they are being played, or paid, at?
None of those truly encapsulate the problem. The Caps are dysfunctional at a higher order than taking any one element or specimen of the game and trying to identify it. However, lets take for example, the microcosm of superstar captain Alex Ovechkin’s position on the team in the last year-and-a-half of the franchise’s problems:
1. Time on ice: reduced by close to two minutes total. This is including a negligible decrease in average PP time – Less ability to work over the opposing D, less time to gel with linemates, less shots and shot attempts, less time to learn a new system, less time to lead teammates, less OV magic
2. Ice companions: Too much rotating. Typically has Backstrom (usually, when he’s healthy but that hasn’t stopped the pivots from changing often, and the types of pivots are too different to provide continuity) at center with an always rotating winger (Knubes and Brower so far but the options including Semin are and as of late have been endless) and rarely the same defensive pairing behind him (because there isn’t a top line D to begin with) – Less consistency means less trust and consistency, less ability to build communication or rather innate expectation, and no-one he can “turn to” as part of regular play-making situations.
3. Position on the ice: primarily still his strong wing on offense (most of the time, he looks like he’s trying to overplay center with some of his assignments lately), but mose-so he’s moved from slot on the PP to pivot to down low and back up as well as more PK assignments (assumed to teach him D, or to provide short-handed offense, except, he doesn’t play positions or at times that warrant it) – less time means less time to feel comfortable with new players and new positions and increases ambiguity when playing new roles especially on PP and PK assignments
4. Shots: simply, not enough – his passing more and his assists are solid but he’s pulling less shot attempts overall and that’s especially glaring on his shot-on-goal numbers which then result in less goals (even with the excuse of him choosing his shots better -OR- trying to play a more balanced forward position)
5. Responsibility: is he the captain or isn’t he? If 10 players are having to speak up at a closed door meeting what does that say? Closed meetings are a sign of trouble, closed players meetings w/o other staff are a sign of real trouble. If the locker room has lost its way the first thing that happens is privacy / secrecy AND the players are not defending their coach vehemently that usually means the issues lie on the bench or related staff. It very well may be there are OV issues, but if he’s the only issue there’s something really deeply, darkly wrong with not only these players, but a dark multi-team, agent, NHL conspiracy that’s more than inexplicable to exiting players, coaches and staff.
Are you seeing a pattern if you look at say Alex Semin? Mike Green? Brookes Laich? Mike Knuble? or maybe Nicklas Backstrom? Schultz? Alzner? In the last season and a half is this not a problem for these core kids and can you not begin to see it also happening to Carlson, Nuevy and even Johansson and Perrault? Why was there not something said from former vets and only a few singular player call outs (mostly at Semin) if it were at anything other than the coaching direction as a whole (actually, there was, no names attached, as in, I can’t believe they don’t, haven’t, didn’t, or can’t… starting from the acquisition of Federov and continuing each time a new vet lined up at the trade deadline)
Boudreau struggled to figure out, beyond accentuating their natural talents, how to develop the breath of the Capitals team and had little down-low defensive experience as it related to the re-developed NHL. Remember, when Bruce was successful it was while the AHL was also in a speed based, high-powered offense fret as related to the NHL lockout, since that time both have seen a resurgence in more balanced, defense responsible teams and are even showing shadows of defense first systems like what the NHL experienced with the “trap” as a response to the cross-line pass offenses that were developed to springboard against the wing-lock defenses and so on. He only knows how to break out of certain D styles and only uses certain offensive schemes to do it, his answer is line shuffling (and lots of it!) and line rolling to wear down defensive schemes as he’s always used, not developing unique or effective plays based on his individual player strengths or figuring out his players unique weaknesses and determining how to counter-act a defenses potential strengths to them. It was simply, let me try this combination instead – breaking up ones that worked to try and jump-start a player or two how didn’t, or now, lets bench / healthy scratch this play or that one to send a message, or run exceedingly difficult practices that never existed before and be a disciplinarian. At times the coaching felt overly contrived attempting anything and everything to test if it might work, while at the same time it was like blind shots at a dart board hoping something would work – neither of which have been very successful.
Granted, there are a lot of big egos to go with the big talents the team sports. Bruce may have had their young ears but as they’ve matured coach and player haven’t come together in the same way. Perhaps the expectations were too big in reigning in high priced, high octane players especially in making a mid-season 180-degree turn, first in the style of play last season and then in the style of coaching this season.
Did the players stop listening? Where they not able to buy into a drastically new system under the same coach they grew up with? Was the system too different? Or could it just not accommodate the plethora of new changes in the lineup? Was it the lineup itself just changed too much overall? … Or was it, did the fans give up? Or was it the front office giving up? Or the NHL itself no longer treating the franchise as elite now that it had Chicago, Boston and Vancouver to tout as of late?
So, is a coaching change the answer to solve the Caps woes assuming they still have the talent and player names?
One would only know if the “right” coach was chosen, which beckons the next question, is Dale Hunter the answer?
The short, on paper assumption should be for now: yes.
Dale is everything Bruce hasn’t been and couldn’t be. Hunter IS a Cap. He is everything being one historically always has been and should be, and what you want a franchise name to exude – a former captain (94-99), and All-Star, with a retired number that is fifth all time for the franchise in points (and leads in career PIMs). Despite coming over to the Caps from Quebec (in a trade that eventually landed Quebec with the pick of Joe Sakic in the draft that year) he’s as beloved as any drafted Cap ever was and has a reputation throughout the league that’s irreplaceably associated with the Caps.
Actually, Hunter is the only NHL player ever to score over 1,000 points and rack up over 3,000 penalty minutes (1,020 points and 3,565 PIMs over 1,407 NHL games). He worked hard at his position as a two-way Center in every aspect of it and wasn’t afraid of either being a physical forward or a points scoring machine and in-as-such is as close a proxy to the physical-and-points, emotional-yet-leader, goal-yet-assault mindset that someone like Ovi NEEDS to see to succeed.
Given the opportunity, he can AND very well should turn strong-minded players into big-game-hunters like he and many of his fellow Caps were. The challenge will be taking his 186 playoff games without a Stanley Cup and using that knowledge to push the current team over that hurdle and into Cup legend. During Hunter’s career he was in the playoffs all but once and amassed 118 points and 179 PIMs while helping lead the Caps to their only Cup final near the end of his storied career. Hunter as a coach was among the fastest to each mile-marker of wins in the minors, earning 450 in a decade on the way to six first place finishes, ten post-season appearances and win the OHL’s Memorial Cup in his decade as the bench boss.
More than the experience that Hunter brings, it’s his overall attitude and work ethic. If he can translate that to the Caps and force them to function again like a team then he can help drive success. In his day he was known as the guy to be first on and last off the ice and his aggressive style of play on the ice was backed up with being a ‘player’s player’ off the ice.
Players like Knuble, Brower, Ward and Laich are not unlike the style of play Hunter himself dominated with. With the talents of Wideman, Green, Carlson and Orlov being similar to the defensive shooters like Johansson, Iafrate and Gonchar from earlier Caps days and aggressive forwards in Ovechkin, Backstrom and Semin similar to Bondra and Pivonka there’s a lot of similarities to build success from for Hunter since he’s seen some of this before.
Of course, bringing in someone like Hunter comes with great risk. His reputation preceeds him both for players and fans and how they embrace that reputation could looms large in how the rest of the season plays out. If Hunter is successful he takes his status beyond legend for the team, while, if he’s not one of the greatest Caps legacy’s will be tarnished which devalues the entire franchise.
The challenge ahead will be to find the right voice to mentor the young players (Carlson, Orlov, Johansson, Perault, Eakin, Holtby, etc) while effectively teaching the stars to shine brighter (Ovechkin, Semin, Green, Backstrom, Brower, Voukoun, etc.) and figure out how the working-man’s players fit into the scheme (particularly Kunble and Hamerlick) while living up to the expectation that THISteam is the one destined to win the Cup. Can he figure out what is ailing Ovie’s game? Or what happened to the hot start of Knubes and Chimaira? Or how to get Semin to produce more than bad penalties? Or where Wideman’s shot went?
Only time will tell now how Hunter will fair. He’s not the first successful minor league coach to be called up and not the first former player to lead is old team, but neither guarantees success and with a red hot Florida Panther team sitting in first in the division currently and a very talented Tampa Bay team right behind the Caps in third, Hunter will have his work cut out for him to right the ship quickly or face the possibility it will be an uphill battle over a long season to retain a fifth straight division title en-route to the playoffs. Despite the statistics showing coaching changes usually have a net-postive effect of over .125 in winning percentage and the previous regime change from Halon to BB working out, there’s as many questions left on the table with this move as there were potentially ones answered.
Luckily, all eyes are on Pittsburgh right now with the triumphant return of Sydney Crosby, so there might not be the same inundation of immediate pressure with another media story to attract attention as Hunter settles into the role.