Instructive moment: Rangers’ captain Ryan Callahan, made captain at so tender an age partly out of his affinity for playing December hockey games like they’re game 7s in May, blocked a John Carlson slapshot at the point the other night, and the selfless sacrifice led to a Rangers goal in transition seconds later. The block was one of four Callahan recorded in the game’s opening 20 minutes. Among a few members of the Capitals’ commentariat on Twitter then there was expressed something tantamount to censure of Callahan, for, I guess, what was deemed a reckless lack of self regard: were he to keep it up, the tweeters lectured, Callahan would again find himself shelved with injury come spring.
A devoted worshiper at the Church of Old Time Hockey, and imbued with resounding cynicism, I couldn’t help but think: We in D.C. have become so saturated with soft, perimeter play by our hockey players — most especially in spring — that it shouldn’t be surprising that some observers here find Callahan’s impression of William Wallace . . . so alien. One interpretation of the perpetual scratching of Jeff Schultz is that the Capitals’ new head coach thinks like I do.
An alternative interpretation of Callahan’s gallantry could go something like this: That motherf*cker is damned tough to play against, and for the past couple of seasons, the talent-challenged Rangers have well reflected their captain’s grit and determination, by decree of their head coach, and given more talented clubs a real run for their money (especially in spring). Ryan Callahan is one hell of a captain. He will be one hell of an American Olympian captain as well.
Today, that talent gap with the rest of the East for New York has been closed quite a bit, and for me it’s no coincidence that playing inspired, finish-your-checks hockey the Rangers reside at the very top of the conference. Soon, they’ll get their best defenseman in the lineup (Marc Staal), for the first time this season, making them even tougher to play against. The Rangers are built the way serious contenders are — from the net out, big and brawny, with an unmistakable net-clearing ethos in front of the net, and mobile and skilled on the blueline. Served the Bruins rather well last spring.
Perhaps before we criticize another team’s captain and his teammates for excessive sacrifice and courage we ought to see to it that ours is within driving distance of the Viking, Alberta, meter of toughness and tenacity.
The Washington Capitals of the past five years haven’t exactly been known for the selfless sacrifice of their bodies for the betterment of the team, for finishing their checks. In fact, especially in spring, they have fairly earned the reputation of being a team that’s easy to play against, one that comparative lunch pale squads want to draw in the postseason. To state the obvious: there is today no Capitals player quite like Ryan Callahan, and there hasn’t been for some years. Once upon a time, though, there was. The good news is that the former Capitals’ captain is now behind the team’s bench. There, he’s attempting to change a country club culture.
He needs time — cultures, of course, aren’t changed in a week or a month.
Almost certainly, he also needs more Patrick division bodies. More on that in a moment.
Speaking of instructional moments, HBO’s ’24/7′ this month is again affording more stark relief for Capitals fans insofar as how the rugged East comports itself. Watching the intermission exhortations of John Tortorella and Peter Laviolette is not far removed from listening to the warrior words of William Wallace. At their conclusion I find myself clutching my abdomen on my couch to make sure no Rangers or Flyers stick blades make their way through the TV screen at me, and necessarily I’m reminded of the contrast Dan Bylsma brought with our guy on last year’s series (“Hit Green.”).
George McPhee hired Dale Hunter because he believed him to be the best possible coach for the Capitals at the present moment, and part of that formulation perhaps included his conviction that Hunter could be the architect for revamping both the style and ethos of the club. My guess is that Coach Hunter is taking inventory of the roster he has and will report rugged shortcomings to the GM in short order.
The arrival of 2012 really brings a demarcation moment for the Washington Capitals. To posit any plausible playoff success next spring the Caps necessarily will have to get past the pesky and gutsy and supremely sacrificing Rags, the larger and skilled Flyers and Bruins. I’m not sure that as comprised the Capitals would be favored in any series. But 2012 also brings Washington’s return to the reconstituted Patrick division. The Capitals of the past five years have been assembled to compete quite well in the softer Southeast. In the next calendar year the hockey for the guys in red necessarily gets rougher and tougher.
Looking ahead to 2012 and beyond, there is cause for concern. When you inventory the Capitals’ prospects holdings at Hockeysfuture, with an eye toward who among just the top 15 qualifies as a North American forward prospect tipping the scales at at least 6 ’0, 180 pounds (hardly power forward in stature), the calculation is stunning: zero. Then for fun take a look at the size of the prospect holdings for the Rags, Flyers, Pens, and Devils — and just in their top 10. The Rangers are awaiting on reinforcements like Chris Kreider (6 ’2, 200), J.T. Miller (6 ’1, 198), and defenseman Dylan McIlraith (6 ’4, 215, nicknamed the Undertaker). Philly, ravaged by injury this season, has already received notable contributions from young, big-bodied North Americans like Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier. The Pens have Eric Tangradi (6 ’4, 232), Dustin Jeffrey (6 ’1, 205), Robert Bortuzzo (6 ’3, 196), and Brian Strait (6 ’0, 200) in the pipeline. From the development perspective, we’re coming to the Patrick rechristening party next season with jockeys.
I still suggest that in hindsight it was right to draft the likes of Brian Sutherby, Nolan Yonkman, and Joe Finley. Things didn’t work out with them; injuries eviscerated their respective development. But the Capitals obviously have gotten away from drafting size and guile and grit, and beginning in 2012, they need it badly. Funny: The ‘New-look’ NHL at the top of the East these days rather resembles the old, in stature. The Capitals hold two first-round picks and potentially Colorado’s second-rounder next June. Those picks need to resemble NFL linebackers or safeties in size, and here’s hoping Dale Hunter — uniquely qualified to assess the attributes of top junior talent — is at the draft table for their selection, and subsequently their development.