If you are shocked and dismayed by where we are with hockey in Washington these days, you weren’t reading here last July. The Unexpected Rebuild, I called it. The Washington Capitals today on the ice are receiving their just due: they aren’t merely what their record says they are, they are what the composition of their roster suggests they ought to be.
My blogger buddy Ed Frankovic nailed it last week, when he wrote that this hockey club has but three legitimate top six forwards on its roster. That’s a principal reason why the Caps have so much difficulty sustaining possession and delivering threat in the offensive zone. It’s why they don’t score much. It is a trainwreck out there on the ice to be sure, but it’s no accident.
I’d go one step further up front than Ed, though: One of the three legit top six forwards, the one earning about $10 million a year in salary, is today but a fraction of his dominance of a few years ago. He is one-dimensional, at a loss to adjust his game, and worse, unlike a good many other performers in his very executive salary range, he does not make his teammates on the ice better. More on him later.
In this regard I will give General Manager George McPhee the benefit of the doubt: The roster moves he made last summer, I’m convinced, were executed with a conviction that there’d be no hockey played in 2012-13. Do you really believe that even a hypothetical worst GM in the league would view the trio of Wolski, Crabb, and Hillen as a mediocre roster’s key missing pieces for genuine Cup contention? And give McPhee his due: He was only off in his lost season calculus by a mere week; we were that close to not having to watch any of this horror show.
Thus ends the flattering portion of my essay for Mr. McPhee.
But first: To understand better where the Capitals of today stand, it’s wise to reflect on where they were just a year ago. They struggled early last season, mightily, changed coaches in-season, again changed systems, but at the end of 2011-12 the Capitals had adopted the commitment and work ethic of their new coach, Dale Hunter, and snuck into the postseason. They finished 42-32-8 for 92 points and a seventh seed in the Eastern conference. They gamely bested the defending champion Bruins in round one and were a Joel Ward high stick away from reaching the conference finals. There was a sense, in this corner of bloggerdom, that Hunter had inherited something less than the sort of roster he’d ultimately like to have led, that he’d gotten just about as much out of a fairly flawed roster (no second line center; no shutdown D; a rookie in net) as one could reasonably expect. He did something more important than win, though, I thought: He obliterated the caste-clique star-driven culture that had overtaken the roster, one identified and condemned by recently departed players, thinking nothing of benching his under-performing captain for long stretches.
But in the offseason the Capitals were at a crossroads with their personnel. Two impact performers — Alexander Semin and Dennis Wideman — were unrestricted free agents. McPhee gambled in holding on to them instead of dealing them for high picks at the trade deadline, and one could credibly claim that the playoff return, modest though it again turned out to be, justified that. But come summer, both players walked, the Capitals received nothing as compensation in return, and in exchange for those two deft puck distributors and scorers the team inked the unholy triumvirate of Crabb, Wolski, and Hillen, all to one-year, near minimum wage pacts. McPhee made a better than solid deal with Dallas to at last acquire a second-line center, Mike Ribeiro, but out on the wings there was the look of a vast wasteland: Fehr, Bouchard, Kugryshev had gone bust, and Mike Knuble at last looked his age.
It seems obvious to me at least that a manager cannot jettison multiple impact talents, replace them largely with driftwood, and expect improvement. And remember, Ribeiro was entering the final year of his pact. You looked widely over the roster, you surveyed the bluechip talent fast developing overseas, and you could come up with a fairly non-radical conclusion that the Caps weren’t pushing all their chips into the center of the card table for the 2012-13 season. That’s why I maintain that Leonsis and McPhee calculated on a lost season, and Crabb, Wolski, and Hillen actually never seeing a Caps sweater hung in a stall bearing their names.
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I get that in the salary cap era NHL clubs won’t assemble forward lines of clear ability demarcation as we knew them just a decade or so ago. The distinctions between second- and third-line performers have been obscured today to be sure. But the hodge-podge approach to roster building pursued by McPhee in recent seasons mystifies me. On some nights Marcus Johansson skates opposite Backstrom and Ovechkin. On others it’s Wolski. Neither should be skating with a contending team’s top six. The Penguins once had a glaring discrepancy in ability between their centers and wings, and they used impressive roster depth to wheel and deal and secure James Neal and Chris Kunitz. Kunitz should have had four goals against the Caps last Sunday. Today in his roster construction it’s as if McPhee is guided by a targeted rotisserie/fantasy mindset; that with three or four premiere name talents at his roster’s core it really doesn’t matter what’s filled in around them.
Here’s where I come down: if you have two-thirds of a good line you have an almost good line. Or put another way: You don’t have a good line.
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On the back end, it’s almost all-time ugly. Mike Green has been pretty good and by far the best blueliner. Then there’s a precipitous dropoff. The bane of this team on the back end has been the conspicuous absence of an authentic shutdown skater with a little snarl. For about a decade. Again the Capitals on the back end are of modest size, and a total finesse unit. They never make opposing forwards pay a price. It’s simply not their game. And that has consequences.
During last night’s television broadcast Joe B and Craig referenced the Caps’ blueliners, in the cumulative, having delivered only a single hit against the Penguins last Sunday. In 60 minutes. Imagine playing your biggest rival and playing a contact-free game in your own end. But the stat didn’t really shock me. Who’s the banger on the back end?
Not long ago, and not without good reason, the Caps believed they had a bedrock foundation for the top four of their blueline in John Carlson and Karl Alzner. But in 2013 they’ve largely looked awful, especially together. Carlson I believe possesses elite, difference-making talent. It hasn’t come together for him, yet. I have larger concerns with Alzner. A no. 5 overall pick in 2007, the 18-year-old Alzner at the draft was 6 ’2, 210 pounds, an absolute standout in the CHL. It seemed as if the Caps had at last secured a franchise defender, of solid build. He captained a gold medal winning Canadian World Junior team. But nearly a half dozen years into his pro career Karl Alzner’s frame is about the same, and his game bears no signature standout traits. He’s of average size, average speed, average passing ability; he makes solid if unspectacular decisions with the puck, and he isn’t big enough to dislodge opposing power forwards from his goaltender’s crease. He’s a former lottery pick who’s turned into a serviceable rearguard.
The best contextual assessment of Alzner I’ve heard came recently from my buddy Eric McErlain, who said of no. 27, “He isn’t even Ken Klee.” I thought that summed up Alzner’s professional plateau perfectly. Klee was a ninth round Caps’ pick in 1990 who spent nine seasons in D.C., and while he didn’t put a lot of points on the board, he sure threw his weight around. He was one of those rare late find gems who developed a career whose sum was considerably greater than the toolbox he arrived with.
The rest of the blueline isn’t worth discussing. The Capitals today do not have anything approaching a contending blueline.
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My greatest concern with the Capitals today remains the organization’s ongoing lack of identity. A lifelong Washingtonian, and a follower of hockey here since its inaugural season, I can’t isolate the losing of this season from the overall Capitals narrative: Even with Alexander Ovechkin, and a few gifted others in recent years, this remains an organization which can be counted on most . . . to fail. And from one season to the next, we never quite know what kind of hockey team will wear the Capitals crest. In one iteration they’re Gabby’s gallopers; in another, the dump and retreat and trap band under a desperate Boudreau. Dale Hunter emphasized an even more devoted defensive game. I’m not sure yet what kind of hockey team Adam Oates is trying to assemble; I’m just sure, given the caliber of roster he’s inherited, that it isn’t fair to condemn him for this mess.
The point is: The owner and manager fairly cede the identity of each Capitals club to the man with the whistle. There’s no overarching blueprint. And increasingly, with respect to roster formation, there’s an awful lot of ad hoc.
Meanwhile, the names behind the bench of the New Jersey Devils change with some regularity, but the winning goes on. And I think that’s because Lou Lamoriello had a vision for the identity of his franchise when he first came aboard and he’s been faithful to it. You can argue that aesthetically it’s a rather unappealing identity, but it’s delivered Jersey multiple Cups and won them a lot of games. The Flyers, while not the felonious pugilists of their forebears, still have a core identity they’ve maintained for decades. The Penguins aren’t Sidney Crosby and filler; they’re strong in all three units, mobile and super skilled and lethal on the power play, have a widely respected coach and GM, and win a lot. That’s three Eastern conference organizations all with discernible identities, all with Cups. Maybe that’s not a coincidence.
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What the Capitals are, more than anything, organizationally, is a Marketing Machine. They’ve got the marketing down, and the full house to prove it. They devise catchy slogans as well as anyone, whether they’re Rockin’ the Red or showcasing Young Guns or Building the Nation’s Hockey Capital. You have to market creatively when your foundation is illusory.
No one, nothing, better exemplifies this marketing ethos than Alexander Ovechkin. We had but a brief glimpse of the shy and quiet and demure prodigy who met season ticket holders in a hotel suite at his draft in Raleigh in 2004. Soon thereafter the Caps made him a rock star, their Elvis, never imagining he could, in his prime, become Fat Elvis.
In a sense you can’t blame the Caps for the all consuming PR blitz they devised for their star. Not only was the NHL leading it as well, leveraging Ovechkin-Crosby much as the NBA did with Bird and Magic a generation earlier, but the Caps in their history had never had anything quite like the zeitgeist that Ovi seemed to represent. Washington at last had a dynamic figure who’d make hockey the hot ticket in town.
But what the Caps didn’t seem to care about was ensuring that like Crosby their young star developed into a complete player. Success was so sudden and so easy for him. Work ethic — particularly in the offseason — seemed to wane. Worse, in a catastrophic tit for tat with Pittsburgh, Capitals management foisted the captain’s ‘C’ upon their star. It seemed appropriate only to outsiders as a conferring accompanying celebrity. But those who’d covered the team and listened to a variety of voices in the room never identified Alex’s as distinctive, naturally out front. It seemed yet another marketing scheme. Today it seems a disaster.
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Be irate with your hockey heroes, or their management, if you want, but you should absolutely be incensed at the “professional” media covering this team. Ask yourself: To what extent did the full-time, rights-holding, establishment media preview and prepare you for this collapse? Were any of George McPhee’s moves last summer second-guessed by them? This week the Washington Post had the audacity to publish speculation on the propriety of trading Ovechkin. How often have you read within those pages a withering attack on Ovechkin’s leadership, or the imprudence of that untradeable contract? Of course Japers’ Rink has a thoughtful and detailed autopsy; there isn’t the talent at any of our copyrighted outlets to come close to matching it. And you know what? The marketers in the halls and cubes at Kettler want it just like that.