16 April, 2014


In a Season of High Hopes, Instead We Have High Crimes and Misdemeanors

A political bumper sticker of some years back read, ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.’ “Outrage” by local hockey fans may be too strong a term to apply with respect to the 2010-11 Washington Capitals in this most unexpected, most irregular regular season tour of duty, but I think if you’re not at least mildly concerned, you’re not paying particularly close attention.

Yesterday a loud chorus of concern arose all about digital D.C. and on talk radio, related to the standing of the Caps as we approach the All Star Game break. It’s well-placed, well-pitched concern, I say.

No longer can spectacularly underwhelming showings like those in Florida this week be written off as exhibitions of a meaningless autumn; post January 1, NHL games take on increased importance, as the league’s trade deadline (February 28) looms and managers must determine whether they are buyers or sellers, and what pieces must be added or subtracted for postseason contention. The Capitals these days are making a compelling case for George McPhee to be a buyer this trade deadline season. And perhaps in bulk.

I stunned my new media colleagues up in the press box early on in the season when I confided in them: ‘I don’t like this team.’ Without even an audition a player (Tomas Fleischmann) whose performance last spring was ghastly was awarded second-line center duty. Today Flash is a member of the Colorado Avalanche, and thriving — on the wing, his natural position. Similarly, there was work to be done on the blueline this past offseason, but there, too, George McPhee deferred. Meanwhile, his GM colleagues all about the East (especially in Pittsburgh and the Southeast) loaded up for bear.

If we were to draft Articles of Impeachment against the Caps near the midway mark of this season, the evidence would be compelling.

DNS is my shorthand for “Did Not Show.” I haven’t had much occasion to use it for a Capitals team since Jaromir Jagr left town. But I am using it this season, and the frequency with which it’s fairly applied is what is perhaps most troubling to me about this team. My list:

  • 11/19 ATL (0-5)
  • 11/22 NJ (0-5)
  • 12/9 FLA (0-3)
  • 12/12 NYR (0-7)
  • 1/12 TAMPA (0-3)

There isn’t a juggernaut among that list, either. Six shutouts already for a team bearing (ostensibly) four or five high-scoring stars? And that’s not merely five super lousy efforts listed above; (there have been those as well); that’s five outings halfway through the season for which the team arrived at puckdrop lifeless, indifferent to the game’s developments as it progressed, and remained that way for the full 60 minutes. These were betrayals of the crest. Impeachment-inaugurating instances of infamy.

In the case of the Caps and the Southeast division this season, shockingly, the three-time defending champions may well be underdogs to win it. Last season the Caps won the Southeast by nearly 40 points, and largely through attrition and promotion, were believed to have strengthened their roster in the offseason. Wednesday night in Tampa first place in the Southeast was at stake. The hosts had shut out the Caps in D.C. the previous week. As “big games” in winter go, this was a big one. Not only didn’t the Caps score again against Tampa, they didn’t show up for the showdown.

Again.

This fanbase is showing up alright — in hordes, over great travel. You notice the Red-out behind the team bench every night on the road. The least this club can do is show up.

I’d be the first in town to suggest that the NHL’s regular season is meaning-deficient, and I fairly led a chorus that noted back in fall that this regular season especially was going to be meaning-challenged for this club. But there’s a difference between skating inconsistently, picking your spots for inspired play, out of a deficit of motivation, and not showing up for games at all.

A team hopeful of contending in the NHL postseason generally needs at least two solidly productive forward lines. These Caps don’t have one. Across the board of the skilled forward corps there is conspicuous under-achievement.

The young goaltending was thought by some to be a potential Achilles heel heading into the season. Not so; the dynamic duo of Neuvirth and Varlamov is blameless for this mess.

The defense is improved, as Scott Hannan has helped forge an effective first pairing on the blueline. John Carlson and Karl Alzner have exhibited conspicuously few growing pains, and on more than a few nights in the season’s first half have been the best blueliners in red. Jeff Schultz, no longer overmatched in matchups up top, has struggled still at times (hello -3 Wednesday); that +50 of a season ago was certainly a mirage. Tom Poti swiftly has become brittle. (He’s back on the shelf again.) Both members of that third pairing have new, multi-year contracts. Not cheap ones, either. It’s more than $5 million in third-pairing partners the next couple of seasons. Question for the GM: What exactly was the urgency to get Poti re-upped so early in autumn?

Increasingly we are encountering inventive excuses for the Capitals’ disturbingly deficient play this season. Carolina Hurricanes’ General Manager Jim Rutherford recently suggested with a straight face that Alexander Ovechkin is playing possum. Our owner this week suggested that his players are “subconsciously pacing themselves.”

Maybe there’s another excuse: Maybe there was work to be done this past offseason, it didn’t get done, and now the team is trying to alter on the fly. High crime, that.

Also: Where is the leadership?

On the front of aesthetics, there is yet more damning evidence. The Capitals achieved Golden Team status — and Winter Classic invitation — on the basis of brandishing a beautiful, fanbase growing brand of razzle-dazzle, one which showcased a new generation of hip Young Gun talent. It was a style the league understandably wanted to grow the sport upon. Well, that’s been abandoned. Today in its place is the trap. Caps’ games these days are close to unwatchable, even in barely-eeked-out victory.

Stylistically, the Caps are the Nats in skates. Or maybe that’s giving them too much credit; the Nats at least have an identity (dull). The Caps are experiencing an identity crisis.

And what of the Red Army’s rightful expectation of patronizing a regular season of achievement and distinction? This hockey club wasn’t marketed on a season-long experiment of blight and confusion and identity crisis. Things didn’t work out in 2009-10, but there was the franchise-best 14-game winning streak of January and February, and sweeping the Pens. What is there about this season to date to hang a touque on? January 1 — won with the aid of a monsoon — and little else. Isn’t part of following a full-fledged contender enjoying the journey from autumn through spring? The Capitals this season are affording their fanbase precious little to relish and savor.

Once upon a time not long ago we watched a Red Force unleash its fury. Theirs was the hot ticket in town. A city fell in love with the spectacle. Faces for game nights were painted red.

Today faces are reddening with anger.



18 Comments

  1. Robert Kelly wrote:

    Great Article – If you are a hockey player, fan and even a newly rock the red inspired fan you have to be very concerned about this team. No shows at the NHL level come from rebuilding teams or teams that are about to loose their coach. Given Ted’s support of BB, you have to just hope the players pick up their game or our rebuild will begin after we miss/early exit the playoffs. Also if you think AO is going to flip the switch and be the old Alex from years past you are going to be very dissapointed. Our only shot of making the playoffs this season is going to fall on our grinders and Hershey Bear call ups.

    14 January, 2011 at 8:20 am | Permalink
  2. morgan wrote:

    The “Young Guns” seem more concerned with the party circuit in Georgetown than the effort on the ice. Bloggers seem to say Ovi is out of shape but I think a better term is “hung-over.” And he isn’t the top dog as the boozer of the group. That honor seems to fall upon one who normally doesn’t play wing.

    14 January, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink
  3. Very eloquently put.

    I found Ted’s comments yesterday about coasting through the regular season very strange. It just seems off. This whole season seems off.

    14 January, 2011 at 8:41 am | Permalink
  4. Alex wrote:

    I honestly find some performances atrocious, but to describe the whole season as “off” is quite a statement. Let’s not forget the Caps are in the healthily in a playoff spot and will qualify comfortably (it’s all subjective). Sports pros, especially the greats can be doing cocaine in Barcelona nightclubs (Ronaldinho) and still be voted best player in the world, so that point for me is naught. Just take it! We are not a better regular season team this time around, but that’s not to say the sleeping giant won’t awake in spring.

    14 January, 2011 at 9:49 am | Permalink
  5. beeman wrote:

    Two excerpts from your blog are juxtapositions that summarize recent history in D.C.:
    “…there was work to be done on the blueline this past offseason, but there, too, George McPhee deferred.”
    “…a compelling case for George McPhee to be a buyer this trade deadline season. And perhaps in bulk.”
    Why would anyone expect bold, declarative moves from GMGM, given his track record of timidity at the trade table?

    14 January, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  6. MadCap wrote:

    I don’t disagree with the main point, i.e. exhibiting concern about the level of play so far this season (the Caps look like a mess at the moment, with the only consolation being that the Flyers last year and the Pens in ’09 were struggling mightily about this time of the season also, and we know how they both ended up). I do wonder about you mentioning “style” and the Caps lack thereof this year as compared to the last three seasons — I believe that you were a champion of the “we have to change the way we play” in order to achieve postseason success — isn’t it possible that the lack of production/dynamics offensively is directly related to this supposedly necessary change in style, one with which they have yet to achieve a comfort level ?

    BTW, Fleischmann “thrived” last season in the regular season (only to be a no-show in the playoffs) also (23 goals/51 points). It seems inconsistent to point out that he is “thriving” in Colorado based on regular season performance – he may become a no-show in Colorado in the postseason (if they make the playoffs).

    14 January, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  7. Dave wrote:

    Madcap is 100% right, and it’s something i tried to point out over the summer when everyone was championing a playing style change. The trap style game SUCKS. It always has. And the biggest problem with it, when it’s exploited it’s usually done so in spectacular fashion. Where last year(and even the beginning of the season) the run and gun style would lead to dramatic comebacks, this style doesn’t lead to that. I’m really starting to get pissed off with this amnesia everyone is developing where they forget how after the playoffs last year they were screaming about the regular season doesn’t matter. This year, even though our boys are 5th in the east and eighth in the league, people are losing their minds because we’re getting roughed up now and then, and on back to back games after a dogfight at the Panthers the team looked flat. This is what you asked for. For the team to just make the playoffs, and change to a system that isn’t so fun and is supposed to win in the playoffs.

    14 January, 2011 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  8. iafrate skullet wrote:

    The trap game has gummed up the high scoring offense, but I think we’re seeing a team that is unable to balance competing offensive and defensive needs. The bigger problem, to me, is the lack of motivation and grit. They don’t really play like they care. Ovi, Green, Backstrom, Semin, etc are victims of hubris–fueled by a sycophantic media. The Caps are like the genius kid who is told at an early age that they are a genius, and because of that, never fully develop their skills because they already think theyre great. They are not great. Ovi never plays defense and keeps doing the same toe-drag move and not protecting the puck when he has it, for example. Ovi also changes lines on his own schedule, without regard for whats happening on the ice–see e.g., changing during opposing teams break out, and if not, being a statue on the blue line waiving his stick like some lazy kid. So where does this leave us? With a team of uber-talented divas who can’t be motivated….Gabby, you’re a great guy but this isnt gonna cut it. We need a coach, not a couch for supporting the players ego’s. Sadly, I think the Caps are starting to look like an underperforming European soccer team. GMGM needs to do some hard thinking, because this team has not played more than one good game in a row this season.

    Lastly, I have been a Caps fan since the late 80′s, and now I’m in the unfortunate position of becoming like the japanese groundskeepers in Major League…”theyre still sh*tty”

    14 January, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink
  9. TG wrote:

    Now wait a sec. After the playoffs last year, everyone said, “The President’s Cup doesn’t mean anything, we want the REAL cup.” So this year they’re trying new things, including a tryout for 2C, determining if they have enough in terms of goalies, defense, etc. to go well in the playoffs. They’ve changed styles. They’re adapting to various changes. They had an 8 game losing streak. Their big guns aren’t firing.

    AND THEY’RE STILL ON AN OVER 100 POINT PACE, TWO POINTS OFF THE DIVISION LEAD AND 5 POINTS OFF OF THE EAST LEAD!!!!!!

    Now, if they’re still having these types of problems in a month or two, then I may start to worry. But didn’t everyone say we’d rather them have problems now than in April, May and June?

    Y’all can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim that the President’s Cup doesn’t matter then complain loudly when the team doesn’t win as often or as prettily/handily as last year when they’re trying to implement a new system. A new system which, may I remind people, everyone seemed to be clamoring for given their defensive difficulties.

    Pick. Win with the offensive style, where we’ve seen what happens. Or suffer the growing pains now of the defensive style in the hopes that it pays off down the line.

    Do you REALLY think that the power play will continue to misfire this badly? I’m confident that they will work it out. I’m much happier that the penalty kill is light years ahead of where it was last year.

    Again, come see me in a month or so, and then we can revisit to see if this is still an issue.

    14 January, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Permalink
  10. Darryl wrote:

    So what do we want? Do we want a team that is playing all out in Dec/Jan, Or a team that can put it together in Apr/May?

    The regular season is try and get a system that will award you in the postseason. Yes there are concerns but I dont think anything that should make us think this team cant get into the postseason. Go back and listen to all the guys before the season started and listen to what they were saying. They are waiting for the postseason because they know what they do once they get there, is how they will be judged. Regular season success means nothing to them

    I would rather see this team get on a roll the last week of the season and carry that into Game 1.

    14 January, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink
  11. nafyekcoh wrote:

    Agree with Skullet, the change in playing style appears to have confused the team. Games are plagued with missed or errand passes. Players seem to be out of place in the offensive zone and not taking shots when the opportunities are there. Or maybe Skullet’s right, our key players have found their sugar daddy (us fans) so to hell with everything else. Stanley Cup Champions don’t play this way. Do you think this attitude would be tolerated in Detriot?

    This team was built for an open style of playing and it has worked out pretty well. I may be one of the few people, although very disappointed, that feel there was no reason for the change simply because of the early departure in the playoffs. Let’s not forget, the team that beat us also knocked out the then reigning Stanley Cup Champions. The year before that we lost an exciting 7-game series to the eventual cup champs.

    Then again maybe our opponents have improved their game. Atlanta was very active in the off season, Carolina is always tough, and you knew the Lighting would improve under Stevie Y. I agree there haven’t been to many high points this season, but the Caps are only 4 points out of first in the conference.

    14 January, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  12. Katie wrote:

    I think everyone agrees we would all feel okay about the regular season if the “sleeping giant” awakes for the playoffs. I think the concern of many, myself included, is that the regular season performances to this point don’t leave much hope that this team can compete well come playoff time.

    My favorite point about this posting is that the fans should be able to enjoy the regular season journey to the playoffs as well, and after Ted’s recent comments, I feel like he’s missed that point. If the club wants people like me who pay way too much money for lower level season tickets to sign up again next season, then it needs to be fun to come to regular season games. I need to see a team that when it loses, at least appears to have sincerely tried to win. If the club is going to treat the regular season like nothing more than a means to end and aim for the minimum needed to just make it to the playoffs, then fans like myself might give up our tickets and just wait until April every year and buy tickets then.

    16 January, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink
  13. donnab wrote:

    What Katie said is exactly right!!! Really the complaint about the CAPS this season isn’t about them losing and us ( fans) “wanting it both ways” it’s about them not playing the game like they want to win it and yes the big names are not trying anymore at all. Honestly , Ovechkin needs to have someone PUSH him and not be his friend. He has to have someone telling him he needs to earn the salary he is making, get back to playing with the skills he has and show some leadership, because I don’t see any leadership with anyone. I would hate to see Bruce go, but ….. BB seems to want to be everyone’s friend , and i think they have all the friends they need right now. They all need to show up and not just in the 3rd period and maybe a coach like a Mike Keenan type is what these guys need to play some 60 minute hockey!!! GO CAPS!!

    16 January, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  14. HBH WC wrote:

    Does anyone remember when Hanlon was the coach?
    Didn’t the team attempt to play this style then?

    Didn’t Gabby come in, recognize he had thoroughbreds and decide to let them play like thoroughbreds and not Clydesdale’s?

    I’m thinkin’ let them play like the breed they are and take your chances in the playoffs. A leopard can’t change it’s spots.
    Fire wagon hockey all the way.
    Maybe the stars will start being the elite players that Gabby recognized they were when he first got here.

    16 January, 2011 at 3:27 pm | Permalink
  15. SKINSCAPSTERPS wrote:

    Admittedly I havent seen many games this year, due to travel and living outisde the DC area.

    One thing I have noticed on offense is that there are very few rebound opportunities, one and done most chances. And Friday night, against Vancouver Mike Green makes a body check on a player w/o puck, while one of the Sedins is racing in on a breakaway ?

    The same Lightning goaltender the Caps cant even beat once on Wednesday, the Devils beat 4 times on 9 shots Friday. In the NHL goaltender pantheon, nobody’s confusing Roloson w/ Luongo or Miller.

    Something about this team does seem to be off. Maybe one of the stars needs to be made an example of with a healthy scratch.

    16 January, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink
  16. HBH WC wrote:

    @skinscapsterps,
    I saw that play a little differently than you. The Caps player tried to make a move at the red line and it was tipped away by a Canuck. Greene and the other Canuck then ran in to each other (incidental contact) if Greene actually checked him there would have been an interference penalty. There was no puck near them.

    16 January, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Permalink
  17. Brett wrote:

    Anyone think that the major dropoff this year from the stars on this team may be linked to the story last year regarding the Doctor and the “steroid” investigation? I am beginning to think that possibly some of these stars may have been on something to help them out. It seems as though ever since this story came out, the points for these guys have been going down. Just a thought.

    16 January, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Permalink
  18. SKINSCAPSTERPS wrote:

    @HBH WC

    That was a chronic misplay by Green. He’s routinely out of position, costing the team goals as soon as the puck changed possession he should have changed course to try to stop opponent. But that is not Green’s priority when he’s playing

    16 January, 2011 at 10:50 pm | Permalink