The turbulence that is the Capitals 2011-12 season is coming to a close as the regular season’s end is only about 20 games away and the trade deadline has all but come and gone.
Taking stock before the deadline
This resulted in a franchise best 7-0 undefeated start which masked much of the underlying problem with the team.
Then, Coach Boudreau was replaced by former Cap captain Dale Hunter on the bench in an attempt to spark something.
However, it only got worse, instead of better, come mid-season. Core players spent extended periods of time out of the line up injured (Green, Backstrom). Several young players seem to be regressing in their development (Carlson, Johannson, Neuvirth and to a lesser degree Schultz, Alzner). Bigger names aren’t living up to their hype (Ovechkin, Semin, Volkoun) And, some players just don’t seem to fit in right anywhere (Ward, Knuble, Erskine).
Who are the Caps?
On paper, they look like an offense-minded team. On the ice, they aren’t scoring much at all.
In interviews they talk about positional responsibility and defense. On the ice, they hardly demonstrate either.
The team lacks a cohesive identity. One that defines them. Instead, they are a collection of mis-matched players attempting to do their respective jobs if and when they actually make it to the ice.
Is it GMGM’s fault for how he built the team? Or are the players individually accountable for their lack of output? Is the lack of a coherent coaching strategy? Or is it an inherently lack of leadership among the players themselves?
Perhaps, it is all of these things combined and more.
To say that the Center position for the Caps lacks depth is probably a bit of a misnomer. There are plenty of guys who can play center on the roster. The season began with Backstrom, Johannson, Laich and Halpern handling the duty as 1-4C, while Perrault, Hendricks, Beagle, Eakin, Aucoin and others were available in spots to fill in. At face value, it’s a pretty deep group. As the season’s gone on, unfortunately, all of them have played center. Rotating five-to-six centers regularly across four lines is a recipe for trouble. This creates incongruity in the lines that breads inconsistency in the individual efforts for everyone on the ice.
For several years now the 2C position has been a problem. It became even more glaring with the loss Backstrom at 1C. Not because of the lack of depth, but rather, the lack of talent at Center. Particularly, the right kind of talent at center to create a real four line balance.
Three qualified Centers available for the bottom two lines: Laich (28), Halpern (35) and Hendricks (30) are experienced and worthy 3C/4C guys who are up to the challenges of standing up to other teams top lines, checking and chipping in with grit, and occasionally spring-boarding extra offense. None of them are really designed though to shift from their back-line duty to top-line and be nearly as effective.
One qualified Center for the top two lines: Backstrom (25) is an elite 1C who is capable of not only feeding his wingers quality scoring chances but more than able to score himself too. The team doesn’t have anyone even remotely close at Center to what Backes can do and he, when healthy, can only center one line, Ovi’s.
Plugs that don’t fit either set of lines: That leaves inexperienced Johannson (21) and Perrault (24) to fill in the gap at 2C, or rather now, attempt to replace Backes at 1C. Neither of them is experienced enough to springboard Semin on the second line consistently, never mind help Ovi out on the first line under the pressure of the tightest defenses in the league, nor are they gritty back-line centers that can masterfully shut down the opposition. Additionally, Hershey call ups Beagle (26), Eakin (20) and others don’t possess the NHL experience or natural talent for any of the lines to just hop into being a regular starter right now.
As much as the Caps want to continue to build a core from within (7 of the 8 regulars are Caps products), the 2C position is not going to come internally in the short term. With a glut of possibilities for the position, there’s enough depth to facilitate trades more than there is talent to be serviceable in the current situation. This should have been resolved in years past. It wasn’t and the Caps are paying the price now.
Defensive depth isn’t the problem haunting the Caps blue line, like at Center, it is the balance of talent that is the drain on resources. The need for a puck-moving D-man or two on a successful team cannot be understated. The need for potentially five of them though is something completely different, as it tends to unbalance the lines. The pairings have not been consistent all season which further hinders their ability to connect and therefore succeed.
Again, like at Center, the defensive identity crisis is a problem that plagued the Caps for several years. They lack a seasoned stay-at-home defender that really strikes fear into opposing teams. Losing Green threw the early season success of the corpse out of balance and exposed the holes in the defense as pairings shifted to cover the gap.
Too much (attempted) finesse: The centerpiece of the Caps offensive defense has traditionally been Mike Green. In Green’s relative absence this season, due to injury, Denis Wideman has more than stepped up, and in doing so is putting up career numbers. Carlson struggled at times this year, but is on track to match his offensive output last year. Orlov made the jump from Hershey to the Caps in part because of his puck moving ability and shows flashes of brilliance between rookie stumbles. Meanwhile, Hamrlick, traditionally a solid puck mover is experiencing a career worst on the offensive side. (And, to demonstrate the Caps heavy propensity to this kind of player, one need only look at the injured Tom Poti as well)
Not enough experienced grit to round it out: Alzner (23) is the only other regular as part of a six-man corps. Schultz (25) and the veteran Erskine (31) round out the depth but their usage is sporadic, at best, despite being more of the traditional stay-at-home style D-men.
Some stats mask how big the problem with the defense really is. Take, for example, blocked shots. As a team they are among the top ten in the league and 4 d-men rank in the top 30 individually (Hamrlick, Alzner, Carlson & Wideman). Then, consider, they are dead in the middle of the pack for shots given up on goal (~30), despite being in the top ten for lowest goals scored against per game average. If it weren’t for the blocked shots, the Caps would probably lead the league in goals against through no fault of the goalie. The blocked shots, albeit it helpful to the other defensive stats, mask the actual problems on defense: controlling the offensive attack of the opposing team. The Caps aren’t built to prevent attacking offenses from gaining the defensive zone, nor are they built to neutralize the attack one the zone is gained. Thus, blocking shots becomes a team-wide last resort for staving off a full onslaught of the goalie. Eventually, a blocked shot will result in an injury – something the Caps can ill-afford.
On top of all that, for a offence minded defense, right now they just don’t score, or assist on scoring nearly enough to help overcome the deficit they present a defenders to begin with. Just like at center, as much as the Caps want to build from within (5 of the 8 are Caps products), that big, shutdown d-man just isn’t coming from the system in the short term.
Granted, the goalies on the Caps have been hung out to dry for years due to a lack of a big blue line and overall team defensive responsibility, but this was supposed to be the season that was going to change.
Vokoun was widely regarded as a top five starting goalie in the league, particularly because he was playing on such a bad Florida Panters team the last few years. He didn’t land a long-term starting contract probably because of his age and he turned down offers for more money on other teams for the chance to win it all with the Caps. Since then his bargain basement contract by playing mostly like a bargain basement goalie at times.
Nuevirth looked to be the undisputed starting goalie when Varlomov was dealt in the off-season only to have countryman Vokoun come in to close it down between the pipes. Nuevy is young so it wasn’t a surprise a vet was brought in and this looked like an especially good pairing to have. Unfortunately, it hasn’t turned out that was, as Nuevy at times looks like he’s regressed from his play a year ago when he took the reigns of starting goalie from the injured Varly.
Holtby also feels very disappointing this year, and not just his few call ups to the big club. His time in Hershey as the heir apparent to the spot that opens next year upon Vokouns expected departure has looked more like a wake up call to shop around for Voks replacement rather than pre-maturally bring Holtby up full time.
Everyone knows you cannot win without a goalie. They set the tone for how the rest of the team performs. The best of them can carry a team on their own and the worst of them can sink it single handedly. Right now the Caps goalies are as much at fault in the lack of success as anyone and carry the additional weight of the hype surround them going into the season.
The Offense gets a Zero
The recent 5-0 loss to the floundering Carolina Hurricanes is a glaring example of the season in microcosm. Even during their opening flurry of wins to begin the season scoring was at a premium, and continues to be a challenge.
Presently the Goals Total and Goals Per Game Average were both dead middle of the pack, then again, shots on goal was in the bottom third of the league; all stats they led in in previous seasons. This is driven by only one player in the top 20 for scoring, Ovechkin, and the next closest being Semin and Brower barely breaking the top 100. Of course, you can’t score if you don’t shoot and perenial league leader Ovechkin barely cracks the top ten for attempts, followed by Laich and Chimaira barely breaking the top 100. They aren’t helping one another out, either. The injured Backstrom continues to lead the team in assists, and no Caps appearing in the top 25 for the league (the closest active is Wideman). The resulting points totals demonstrate how dismal it really is, only Ovechkin makes the top 50, barely.
There are lots of reasons for lower scoring, but all of them are excuses and none of them singularly explains where the scoring went.
Three reasons for the failure
First, the inconsistency of the lineup card. There are no distinguishably consistent forward lines or defensive pairings. As discussed earlier, this lack of continuity undercuts the dynamic players build with one another. Some of the line shuffling is due to injury, but even Green and Backstrom’s absence aside, the lines drawn up at the bench aren’t consistent enough to breed stability on the ice. In trying to shake up under-performing players and spark a resurgence in the level of play overall, some players are being played on different lines or in different positions, have had their ice time diminished or even been sat. There becomes a sense of discomfort not knowing who is skating with who (or if you’re even skating at all) and it undermines the chance of building comradely on a line (or as a team) and doesn’t provide time to create trust in one’s line-mates. The lack of players feeling like part of a consistent unit diminishes long-term success even when short term gains might be made in changes. As much as there needs to be accountability for failures in performance, there also needs to be the ability to work through problems and build on-ice relationships which isn’t happening.
Second, coaching ideology doesn’t fit player skills. Beyond the line shuffling itself, how players are actually used, or not utilized, in the lineup goes against their natural skills. Many times it feels like players are square pegs being forced into round holes, either as individuals or on a larger scale in the overall identity. The team isn’t built for the kind of play that either BB or DH attempted. An emphasis on zone responsibility is important, but only within the constraints of the players abilities. It is hard to know what the coaching expectation of players is when players like Knuble were used to gridning it out on the top line in front of the net find themselves grinding their teeth on the bench or Laich goes from play-making on the third line to covering the blue line on defense and so on.
Finally, a lack of player leadership. This goes well beyond just Ovechkin as the Captain no appearing to fulfill the duties as a noble leader of the team. There were high hopes Voks and Nuevy would work into a great tandem but you just don’t hear about the kind of comradery one would hope for between a veteran and a sophomore player. Knubes and Hamr both bring Cup level experience (and a combined more games played than the top-six combined) but seem under-utalized at best and ignored at worst when both could be suburb examples of how to get it done. Brower was brought in and Halpern was brought back to lend additional locker room voices of experience. And, yet, none of this has helped actually create any additional strength in the locker room. Is it too many “leaders,” or, still just not the right ones?
Rebuild or Right the Ship
There are a lot of fans advocating blowing the team up claiming the core is rotten and GMGMs move still haven’t done enough to address the underlying weaknesses of the team.
There are a number of players who could be available because they are at the end of their contract: Voks is inexpensive and only signed through the end of the year so anyone looking for a rental backstop on a budget might be willing to take chance. With the Nuevy and Holts available and doing no worse than Volks is the Caps could probably get away with them as the pairing for the reminder of the season and hope the playoff experience for them now pays off down the road. Green definitely has the talent and there are definitely teams that would take a chance on his injuries to gain his offense prowess, but because of his recent injuries isn’t worth as much as would probably be requested. Green becomes more expendable with Wideman’s current streak along with Orlov and Carlson’s potential. Semin likewise also has the talent and would certainly turn heads to get a chance at his scoring touch. He’d be addition by subtraction in removing the poison he can bring to the Caps aura and if they were able to land a versatile center for the second line at some point could always return in the off-season since he’s end-of-contract. Disgruntled vets Kunble, Ernskine and Hamrlick also represent end-of-contract possibilities in moving to a contender looking for that extra depth but age and lack of recent positive play could hinder their worth. Wideman could also move but likely the Caps would ask a lot due to Green’s injuries and his role in filling in thus far.
And, there are a number of young players that could move as “propects”: Perrault and Eakin both have demonstrated their abilities and shown flashes of youthful skill while Johannson has faltered a bit more in his development.
Personally, I’m not actually expecting much from the trade deadline for the caps. The missing pieces are too egregious to fill based on the available cap space, the trading pieces we have and the players rumored to be on the market.
I’m not one of them.