By design, newspaper column writing is reflective. It’s an exercise in exploration, analysis, and contextualization. (When it’s done well.) It’s not an easy endeavor — often limited to 750 or so words, required to offer up compelling points, and expected to be executed with some level of rhetorical flair — but generally column writers are afforded considerably more liberal deadlines with which to file their thoughts than are beat reporters. Which brings me to the motivation for this file: the only column writing we’ve seen on the Caps this season has occurred (A) outside of Washington’s MSM; and (B) on line — almost exclusively of the blogging variety.
It fairly leads the local puckhead to this conclusion: our local column writers have the most liberal of deadlines for filing on the Caps — Never.
The end of the first month of the season is the perfect time to pause and reflect. The Caps’ Mike Vogel does precisely this in “Opening Act.” It’s a superb summary of how the ’06-’07 rendition of the Caps represents a dramatic improvement over last October’s. The numbers Vogel runs through are eye-opening: last year’s Caps and this year’s both won 4 games in October, but the similarities stop there. This year’s 4-3-4 start represents the team’s first winning October since 1997-98. Last season’s squad was outscored 46-24 in October, but this year, the Caps scored 11 more goals than last year and surrendered 11 fewer. Vogel observes: that’s an improvement of a goal a game at both ends of the rink.
Fueling a lot of the improvement is the dramatic strides made by special teams this year. Last season’s specialty units were abysmal all season long, but they were really wretched in October, leading to that month’s huge cumulative goals differential. After one month this year the Caps rank in the top half of the league in power play success (13th) and are 19th in penalty killing. That PK rating may not seem sterling, but as Vogel points out, this year’s Caps took 30 fewer penalties than did last October’s.
This is big stuff.
And there’s more than big numerical differences going on. Last autumn’s Caps suffered from what I term Band-Aids and Bad Luck among new personnel. The Andrew Cassells signing was an unmitigated nightmare. The price for Jeff Friesen was modest, but his return on the investment was even less during what proved to be the inaugurating of his career decline (actually, his descent into a non-scoring abyss). On the blueline, the gem finding of Jamie Heward was obliterated by the Twin Towers of Terrible: Majesky and Biron.
Contrast this with what we’ve seen so far from the new guys in ’06. Three months ago the Caps looked a bit like the bridesmaid in securing Brian Pothier’s services rather than Zdeno Chara’s from Ottawa. I’m not going to suggest to you that Pothier is a better defenceman than Chara, but he is outscoring him (9 points to Chara’s 7), and Brian is a +4 while the Bruin Brinks Truck is -5.
Last year’s Caps undoubtedly suffered from Alexander Semin’s absence; his belated return has greatly diversified the team’s attack this fall. And while Richard Zednik spent much of October snakebit in the goal column, he did give the team great effort on the PK and toward the end of the month appeared his old fast, troublemaking, cycling-like-mad-down-low self. Even Kris Beech — widely thought to be a throw-in in last March’s Brendan Witt deal — has lodged himself into the league’s elite in faceoff percentage and chipped in a handful of points.
If I were a local columnist looking for poetic prose beyond the 2-5 Burgundy and Gold, I’d take a close look not only at these vastly improved numbers and the infinitely more successful offseason personnel maneuvering and offer up a front-page-worthy finding: the doom and gloom forecasts league-wide for this season’s Caps, which unfortunately were echoed even close to home, today look rat-pack reactionary and foolish. I read them all, and at the end of each I repeatedly asked, “But that patchwork club with its all-alone rookie sniper notched 70 points . . . and with its core young and maturing and gelling, still you think them lottery-worthy?”
These findings of marked improvement are important for a number of reasons. First, it reminds again that the correlation between vast and extravegant free agent spending and on-ice success is dubious, to say the least. I remember commenting to my fellow OFBers in late August that this season’s Caps had a markedly more organic feel to them; Zednik and Semin were basically prodigal sons returned. The MSM conventional wisdom NHL style of course is: no outside zillionaires brought in, no new Ws going up.
But these successes are also benchmarks of importance as quasi mid-terms in the McPhee-Mahoney-Leonsis blueprint for long-range competitive success. And as such, they merit mentioning in columns because those are afforded particular prestige both in placement and journalistic aura. It’s one thing for the beat guy to say things look brighter, it’s quite another for Boz to.