Halfway through the 2011-2012 National Hockey League campaign and there are a lot of interesting stories to follow from the success of the Jets or Wild or Panthers to the failures of the Habs or Tampa Bay or Pittsburgh, from the concussions to the new justice system to the impending realignment to the plethora of coaching changes. Scoring is down, but defensive systems aren’t dominate and goalies aren’t stealing the show and fighting isn’t at center stage (it’s down as well). There’s a sense of youth throughout the league and some rising stars defining the league beyond the usual faces of the past few seasons. Then, there are the teams that a playing into mediocrity like the Wings, Pens and Caps.
For the Caps, they’ve seen a little of it all, from an undefeated start to the season to some painful losing streaks highlighted by established stars injured to young kids stepping up and even a coaching change. One can only imagine what’s happening in the locker room these days, as nothing seems to be predictable.
The new caps, same as the old caps
The concerns of my pre-season look at the Capitals have come to pass. This is the same kind of team that failed in the playoffs previously by not playing a full 60 minutes each game, not controlling the puck well through the neutral zone and playing responsible defense, not shining in goal consistently, not being physical enough especially on the forecheck and lacking the real leadership to truly direct the course to success.
The parallels to the recent past of the Caps is uncanny and disheartening considering the makeover they were supposed to have underwent. There are more than enough excuses and points of blame to go around, from Ovechkin’s play and leadership to the coaching staff situation to the makeup of the team itself to whatever the play-of-the-day example is of basic hockey breakdowns. There is no single, simple answer to their lack of performance over the past few months despite the efforts made to analyze it.
Net effect of the loser point
The situation would look a little less dyer if not for the loser point. The Caps are in a very tentative 8th seed in the overall standings, 2nd in the Southeast with the win over arch-rival Pittsburgh tonight, holding a 22-17-2 record good for 46 points. They would be at 44 points without the two loser points gained from their OTL, or .537 winning percentage. By comparison, Florida is at 21-13-8 with 50 points, but if you remove the loser points they clock in with 42 points, or a .500 winning percentage. This gives the Caps the Southeast and the #3 seed. For comparison to some of the other teams above the Caps in the conference standings: Toronto at the #7 seed has a .523 and takes advantage of 5 loser points, Ottawa at the #5 seed has a .533 with 6 loser points both helping them in the standings and even Pittsburgh which just fell out of the top 8 is only sporting a .500 average helped by 4 loser points. The caps 21 regulation wins puts them above the Devils, Ottawa, Toronto and Florida in the overall standings but they don’t benefit from this because of the lack of weighting them against OT appearances (won or lost) that the league employs.
The points system is what it is and the Caps are as much at fault in not getting more regulation wins as they are hurt by the lack of OT appearances to get a loser point from in the first place. If the Caps want to succeed in the long-haul they need to win, period.
Two seasons ago the Caps were an offensive juggernaut. They led the league in most major offensive catagories supported by the combined individual efforts of their star players, Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and Semin. After some lackluster games at the end of 2010, then coach Bruce Boudreau swapped out the high-flying attack for a more defensive minded approach. As one might assume, the shots on goal and goals for both decreased as the transition occurred. They still were among the league leaders and could turn on the jets to score in bushels when necessary but gone were the gun-slinging days of high-octane onslaughts. This change in play carried over to the new season, where the team continued to struggle with offensive consistency.
There are a number of key factors in this. The first of which still revolves around Ovechkin. Much has been made of this style of play lately. Is it that defenses figured him out? Or he is still not accustomed to the new style of play? Or that he isn’t skating with a consistent line? Or that he isn’t shooting enough or getting enough minutes on the ice? Or that he is lazy? Or whatever the assumption du jour happens to be? Only Alex really knows the answer to some of these. The fact of the matter is without Ovechkin leading the charge offensively, consistently, this isn’t the same team.
Second, the defense’s contribution to offense. Primarily, this comes down to the lack of Mike Green in the lineup. His ability to move the puck changes the entire team dynamic. They miss his goal scoring touch, but they miss his outlet passes and transitional play in the neutral zone as well as presence on the power play even more. When Green is on the ice and skating well the team wins. He is to the current Caps what Gonchar was to the previous era’s Capital success. He makes the offense better and rounds out the entire defense, opening up space for players like Carlson, Orlov and Wideman to do the same on their shifts. Speaking of those two, they need to step it up as well, particularly with Green out as often as he has been with his wonky groin. Carlson can be given the benefit of the doubt as he is still developing as a young player and also isn’t skating as consistently with Alzner who seemed to click very well with him last season. Orlov is a rookie and still adjusting to the NHL and his role on the team. His talent is reminiscent to that of Green and Carlson but with the lack of a consistent partner and his youth it would be expected he will struggle from time to time. Wideman, being a veteran brought in specifically for this role, however, has only shown flashes of brilliance with his playmaking. That’s been a problem throughout his career and why he was gaining the reputation of a journeyman.
Third, whose line is it, anyway. The line shuffling continues to be a problem there has been a lot of personnel changes on each line, and in that the positions players are each playing. Only five players consistently know their role: Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line and Laich & Chimaira on the third. That’s less than half the offense, with maybe Ward on the third line Halpern as a center rounding it out to be half the team.
There’s no surprise then, that the third line has been the powerhouse of the team, not only producing scoring opportunities but shutting down the top lines of the opposition. Realistically though, the third line cannot carry the team, no matter how much Chimaira has turned his scoring career around or how solid Laich has been as a pivot or how much passion Ward brings on the play.
As it has for the past several seasons the second line’s unpredictability continues to upset the balance of the entire offensive dynamic. Figuring out who is playing on it any given night is like throwing darts blindly at the roster. Granted, some of this inconsistency is due to injury, some of it due to finding the right right-winger to anchor the top line, some of it is the nature of how the second line was built in the pre-season to begin with.
Which begs the question, what is each players role? Where does Knuble fit in, for example. He was the top line, net crashing winger but is now seems like a forth line role player. Where does Alex Semin fit in? He seems to be the top line winger at point, but was the second line winger and occasionally even a center. Add in Halpern, Johannson, Perrault, Hendricks and Eakin all playing center at different times on different lines and it becomes apparent how confusion ensues. What is Wards actual role and where does Brower fit into the mix? It is natural to shuffle lines to find the right fit but this is a lot of shuffling in a short amount of time.
Finally, the offense isn’t doing what offenses do… putting the puck in the net. The team is lagging on shots on goal (23rd in the league, 28.4 per), which, in turn is resulting in less scoring (tied 8th in the league, 2.88 per). As a team they don’t control the play in the offensive zone well enough which is why 5-on-5 they are mired in the middle of the league for scoring. This means they aren’t sustaining pressure on the defense and goalie which tires them out and increases the chances of mistakes by the other team such as defensive turnovers and rebounds. They aren’t in position as often to screen the goalie or set up defined plays. The hitting has improved but the forecheck system itself is still not dominate enough to define the attack and open up more opportunities. It still feels like a reliance on raw skill and creative playmaking that previously defined the offense rather than the fundamental hockey required by a systematic approach (either the one Gabby tried or the one Hunter is employing now).
One of the biggest criticisms of the Caps for the last several years has been their swiss cheese defense. It was expected at the beginning of the season there might still be some lingering issues with the D-corpes overall but much of the concern should have been addressed, providing it greater balance and more depth.
In some regards the defense is better than it has been at times in the past. However, they are 6th in the east for GA (behind the Bruins, Rangers, Pittsburgh, Florida and Montreal) and 19th overall for GA average (2.88). As a unit they are 13th overall with 29.8 shots against average and in the top third for blocked shots. However, all of these numbers are skewed to look better than they maybe are by looking at scoring chances given up, and especiall because of the blocked shots numbers. A more sound defense and a better neutral zone game in general would not give up the kind of opportunities requiring that many blocked shots in the first place. The goal differential, shots differential and overall team plus/minus just solidifies the picture of inconsistency that the Caps are and ranking 18th with a mere 82% on the PK isn’t helping any.
First, with the offense so unpredictable it puts additional pressure on the defense to control the pace and style of the game and this is not a unit built to stand up in that manner. There are lots of reasons for this, the most obvious is that the unit itself lacks identity and therefore consistency. The unit itself is missing a cohesive personality and they don’t get much help from their forwards (or the goalie) to stabilize their inherent inconsistency.
The second reason comes back to the lack of Mike Green on the squad. Although he was never known as a solid blue-liner his time on the IR is forcing the D-corpse to shuffle entirely too much to cover for his absence. True, there should be more than enough depth to go around carrying Wideman, Hamerlik, Carlson, Alzner, Schultz, Ernskine and being able to call up Orlov and Kundratek at will, but the type of player Green is defines so much more than the depth of the corps can provide as it changes the normal defensive pairings and how the team approaches all of its special teams. Green changes the way other teams play which in turn changes how the defense must respond.
Third, stemming from the last thought, the corpse itself isn’t balanced even with Green’s presence. They are young and mostly home grown (Green 26, Schultz 25 are the oldest and most experienced with Alzner 23 and Carlson 22 next, and rookie Orlov 20 and recent rookie call up Kundratek 22 all come from the Caps system). They are heavy on the puck moving, offensively minded (Green, Wideman, Carlson and Orlov, as well as Hamerlik at points in his career). There aren’t consistent pairings to begin with and no pairing that serves as the top, lock-down pair (like what Alzner and Carlson put together last season) to really set the tone. While some players have stepped up under Hunter, two in particular seem to be lacking completely in the line up (Schultz and Ernskine) and two seem to have regressed slightly (Carlson and Alzner) from their highs last season which probably doesn’t help the sense of moral either. Take Green out of the mix and it turns the whole defense upside down to make up for it, lost any other guy and it really looks down right chaotic.
Finally, the goal tending. Initially the thought of having the highly regarded Voukon as a backstop paired with the up-and-coming Neuvirth looked to be one of the surest tandems in the NHL. The numbers have played out considerably different over the first half of the season. At one point goalie contravercy seemed inevitable, at others both looked so bad that neither looked like the best option (and prospect Braden Holtby hasn’t looked as hot down in Hershey either to complicate matters.) Although Vouks has looked better as of late, he’s not getting enough help from solid play in front of him as anyone would like to see and will continue to struggle of the shots against goes back up to the numbers from earlier in the season.
Anytime you have a mid-season coaching change you are taking a huge chance. Any coach coming in must learn the players and the team’s dynamic as well as institute his own style behind the bench, gaining buy-in from the players. There will surely be long debates on having waited to let Bruce Boudreau go during the season as opposed to before training camp, or letting him coach through one more year. There will be constant debates on bringing in franchise legend Dale Hunter, a successful OHL but untested NHL coach to the helm. All in all it is just speculation until the season plays itself out and we have actual results to show for it. Letting Gabby go seemed largely inevitable despite his regular season record, but what comes of the change probably has more to do with how the team is built than with whatever coach took it over.
Hunter has instituted a more conservative style that emphasizes fundamental hockey smarts and basic responsibility. For too long the team was led by the play-makers rather than taking a systemic approach to winning and that led to breakdowns when the stars weren’t shining as bright. If Hunter can change some of the value structure for the team and instill a sense of accountability across the board he might have a chance to turn around some of the fundamental flaws in the teams overall play. That’s a big IF considering he basically has a roster designed around a completely different model than the one he wants to coach to.
His approach seems to already be correcting some of the broader ailments of the team as he has a 12-9-1 record since taking over, with shots against and scoring chances decreasing while the special teams play appears to be getting better statistically. On the flip side, not every player seems to be benefiting from the changes. As much as you’d expect chippy grinders like Ward and Knuble to be centerpieces of a system like this they haven’t been, same can be said of Schultz on defense. Furthermore, his former OHL d-man Carlson appears in a sophomore slump tail-spin that Hunter has yet to pull him out of. It may take time to figure out how all the pieces fit together, particularly with Green (and now Backstrom) out of the lineup and enigmas like Semin constently throwing a wrench in it. But time is a luxury one doesn’t have when half-way through the season and mired in the middle of the pack