Friday, April 30, 2010

The Washington Capitals- the Phoenix Suns of the NHL

WASHINGTON DC, DC - APRIL 23: Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals reacts after missing a scoring chance in the third period against the Montreal Canadiens in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 23, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Habs defeated the Caps 2-1.Washington leads the best of seven series 3 games to 2. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Before the playoffs began, the Washington Capitals were supposed to be the toast of the National Hockey League. The President’s Trophy winners by a country mile (eight points ahead of the San Jose Sharks), many pundits believed this would be the Capitals’ year. The skill of Alexander Ovechkin was without question, but finally he had some significant support in the likes of Nicklas Backstrom with 101 points and Alexander Semin with 40 goals (both career highs) alongside the scoring prowess of defenceman Mike Green (76 points, though just 19 goals after 31 the year before). There were multiple questions about their defence (16th in the NHL in goals against, and 4th worst among playoff participants) and their goaltending, but the NHL’s top offence (313 goals, the most since the Ottawa Senators scored 314 in 2005-06 and only the second 310+ goal season since the Detroit Red Wings scored 325 in 1995-96) figured to be enough to overcome those deficiencies. Besides, the Capitals could look at the Wings for inspiration- since 2006-07, Detroit had been dominant in the playoffs without a quality goaltender, and in previous playoffs Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov were competent at least, so a run may have been in order. For the first four games against the Montreal Canadiens in Round 1, everything seemed to be going to plan, with the Capitals winning three straight after Tomas Plekanec’s OT stunner for Montreal in Game 1.

Instead, Washington collapsed under the weight of vastly superior coaching by the Canadiens and a goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, who channelled his inner Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy and entered Canadiens lore in stopping 131 of the next 134 Capital shots over the next three games. More important than Halak’s sparkling save percentage (97.7%) was the fact that Halak never relinquished the lead in any of those games, being the very definition of “clutch goaltending”. Varlamov, who got the start for the Capitals in every game after Game 2, meanwhile couldn’t make a save when the team needed it most, notably in Game 7 when Domonic Moore beat Varlamov one-on-one late in the third period to give the Canadiens a 2-0 lead. Washington made a go of it when Brooks Laich popped in a goal a minute later, but the series-defining moment came seconds later, when Montreal defenceman Ryan O’Byrne was called for high-sticking with 1:45 left. The Capitals’ power play was 1-32 at that point with a chance at redemption, but, as they had done all series long, shot blindly from the point without much thought as the Canadiens erased their lanes, and fittingly the game- and the series- ended on yet another failed Washington power play.

The series loss means that the Capitals have just one series win since Ovechkin’s rookie campaign in 2005-06, so, naturally, fingers are pointing at Ovie’s way. It’s unfair to really put all of this on the shoulders of Ovechkin- he did have ten points in the series, including five goals- though it does suggest that Ovie doesn’t deserve to rank among the best in the NHL without success at the highest stage. It is more accurate to compare them to the National Basketball Association’s Phoenix Suns, who for years were maligned as a team that could score a ton during the regular season but, come playoff time, couldn’t play the “dirty” basketball needed to succeed at the grandest stage.

That is where the Capitals sit now. They have shown they can score at will in the regular season, where the time and space is there since defences aren’t always “in tune” and there’s a greater opportunity to play weaker defences since they have to play everyone in the NHL. Once the playoffs start, the time and space needed to score disappears as defences are keyed in and the Capitals have to play stronger opponents, meaning they have stronger defences to contend with. Washington has also shown they cannot deal with the adjustments that come with playoff hockey, as teams over a seven game set eventually learn your weaknesses and exploit them.

The series with Montreal was a textbook example. After the Capitals torched them for 16 goals in Games 2-4- scored mainly off the rush- the Canadiens adjusted, took away the lanes and stayed behind the puck. This forced Washington to the outside where the scoring threat is low and the shots easier to save (though Halak still had to be brilliant), which should have forced the Capitals to drive to the net. It’s not like Ovechkin, Semin or Backstrom couldn’t do it with their stickhandling skills or players like Mike Knuble with their size but it never materialized. Plus it’s not like the Capitals were caught totally off guard- after Game 4, Canadiens defenceman Hal Gill commented about Ovechkin’s “signature move”- drive on the wing, cut inside and shoot- so Ovechkin and the Capitals should have known the Canadiens figured him out. How did Ovie respond? By continuing to use the same moves. No wonder he and his team found it difficult to score.

So where do the Capitals go from here? Here are some points to consider.

  1. Get better against the rest of the NHL. Over the course of the regular season, a team plays 24 times against divisional opponents, providing a possible 48 points. The Capitals scored 40 points off 19 victories and two overtime/shootout losses, including sweeps of the Atlanta Thrashers and Florida Panthers and four dropped points each against the Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning. For perspective, the Caps’ 40 points is the most in the NHL by seven points, with the next highest total being the 33 the Los Angeles Kings posted. Now, one could argue with the President’s Trophy such a gap would be expected, but Washington’s divisional point total makes up nearly one third (33.06%) of their total points. That’s fourth highest in the NHL and most out of all the playoff participants. In fact, the only other divisional winner to record more than 30% of their points against their own division this season was the Vancouver Canucks at 31.07%. A year before, the Capitals recorded 16 wins and 32 points against the Southeast Division. Such dominance is impressive, but it does come against a division that has never sent more than two teams to the playoffs in a single year since the lockout and features the only team- the Florida Panthers- to not qualify for the playoffs in that span. Furthermore, Washington’s record against the Top 5 in the Western Conference (where most believe the Stanley Cup winner will come from), prorated over 82 games, wouldn’t qualify the Capitals for the playoffs (the Caps would have 93 points, the Colorado Avalanche finished 8th with 95). Clearly, the Capitals benefit from being in a weak division and if they want to improve, they have to show they don’t just bully the weak but can dominate the best.
  2. Trade Alex for a power forward. No, I don’t mean Ovechkin. I mean Semin. After a goalless streak that now reaches 14 games following Game 7, it’s patently obvious that Semin, now 26, is the weak link on the Capitals attack. Like Backstrom and Ovechkin, he’s a perimeter player who loves to score off the rush, and, while he does it with deadly accuracy, the Capitals offence still suffers. What’s needed is someone who can go to the net and screen, so that the shots from the point (or wherever the Caps want to take their shot) won’t be seen by the goaltender and have a great chance at getting through. They also need that player to drive to the net and challenge the defencemen, because that creates space for Ovie and Backstrom to set up their shots or poke in rebounds. It would also greatly help their power play, especially with the bomb that Green and rookie sensation John Carlson have. Semin’s $6 million cap hit won’t be cheap to shop, but there are options out there, such as Columbus Blue Jacket Rick Nash, Florida Panther Nathan Horton (who could be packaged with Bryan Allen, a shutdown defender) or Anaheim Ducks Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry. A trade here is the best option, since the free agent list is slim and the Capitals will need what little cap space they have to resign Backstrom, who’ll be due a hefty raise from the $700,000 he made this season.
  3. Get a goaltender. Yes, Varlamov is just 23 and he’s still got plenty of time to grow. However, it’s clear after two seasons with the club he’s not yet ready for NHL play. Therefore, it’d be better if he could learn under the tutelage of a veteran who can be there for three or four years so Varlamov develops into the goaltender the Capitals need him to be. Some goaltenders will be available as free agents, like Marty Turco and Dan Ellis, and the Capitals should be aggressive in their pursuit. The way Washington plays they can’t afford to have any holes in net, because their aggressive style of play leaves them vulnerable and they’ll need a goaltender who can stop all the odd-man breaks the team will give up. This lack of confidence in the goaltending may be one reason why the Capitals didn’t send anyone to the net against Montreal, because they were too worried about having players deep and getting caught up ice. This could be seen as the few chances Montreal generated in Games 5 through 7 led to goals in what was the exact opposite of Halak; and you can’t attack effectively if you’re worried the slightest break is going to lead to a goal. Washington needs someone in net they can trust. It doesn’t have to be an elite goaltender, because this team doesn’t need a shutout to win, but an effective starter, because there will be times the offence goes dry (as it did against Montreal) and they’ll need a goaltender who can bail them out and steal a game every now and then. Three of the four Stanley Cup winners since the lockout won with a goaltender one wouldn’t call “elite” but each of them- Cam Ward, Chris Osgood and Marc-Andre Fleury- are dependable, which is more than you can say about Varlamov at this point.
  4. Shore up the blueline. We’d solve a lot of problems if Green could learn how to defend, but we can’t base our remodelling on something that might happen. Having said that, the Capitals aren’t particularly terrible at the backend, the problem is that after Green and Tom Poti, they have a bunch of No. 5 and 6 and no clear top end guys. Furthermore, none of the Capitals’ top blueliners could be described as a “defensive defenceman”, and they’ll need that if they hope to have any success in the playoffs. It would have definitely helped their penalty killing, which may have posted a respectable 80% clip but didn’t kill the penalties when it counted most, such as the 4-on-3 early in Game 7 that gave Montreal their deserved lead. It definitely would have helped out Green, because then he could focus on his play up ice since he knows he has a partner who can bail him out, like Brent Seabrook does for Duncan Keith (though Keith can hold his own defensively, unlike Green). The Capitals don’t need an elite guy- they just need someone who can step in and be a minute eater, like Toni Lydman or Willie Mitchell. Fortunately for Washington Carlson looks like he’ll be a complete defenceman so all they really need is someone who can “bide the time” while he develops. The Caps may not even need to go outside of the organization to fill this role because of the presence of Carlson and another fine youngster in Karl Alzner, who just may be ready to step in and play pivotal minutes next season. Still, it’s always important to err on the side of caution, and if Alzner or Carlson don’t develop as quickly as the Capitals would like, another option must be made available.

Those are the key areas I would focus on. While Washington’s loss against Montreal was catastrophic, wholesale changes are not what this team needs- it needs tweaks. They will need to make a splash and sign a quality netminder and they’ll have to move Semin to get the elite power forward they need, but a firesale, or trading Ovechkin or even firing coach Bruce Boudreau isn’t necessary at this stage. The Capitals are on the cusp of truly being a Stanley Cup contender and not the next version of the San Jose Sharks- they just need to make the right moves now. Otherwise, their legacy will be that like the Phoenix Suns- they can score all the time but they can’t win when it counts, and that’s not the future any of them should want.



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