Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Some Early Thoughts on What Awaits

OK . . . so what lies in store for the Caps this year? Although there are roster spots to fill, and line combinations and defensive pairings to iron out, it is clear – as if hit over the head with a mallet – that the Caps are going with youth. So, we know who should be skating with the big club this season as far as the core is concerned . . . at least to start.

Given all that, it’s reasonable to assume that the Caps are unlikely to be a successful club in the standings. But what can we look forward to? What would constitute success, give our meager expectations for this year and hope for the years to come?

Standings . . . I’m a big proponent of breaking a season down into manageable pieces – ten game slices. I think this will be particularly helpful in gauging the Caps’ progress over the course of the season. Usually, I’d be looking to see if the Caps average 12 standings points per 10 game stretch. That can be a formula for reaching a 100-point season. This year, I’ll be looking to see if one ten game stretch improves on the last. If, for instance, the Caps earn only six points in the first slice of ten games, but earn ten points in the fifth and 12 in the sixth, I would regard that as progress, even if the Caps are lagging in the standings. It would be evidence that the kids are getting it.

Team . . . once upon a time, the Caps had a reputation as being a real hard team to play against. They were a “lunch-pail” group that brought their best effort every night. The “Plumbers Line” represented what Caps hockey was all about – relentless pursuit and in-your-face hockey all over the ice. It wasn’t a reflection of pugilistic prowess, but a high-octane approach to checking and hard work. Even as recently as the line of Jeff Halpern, Ulf Dahlen, and Steve Konowalchuk you could see elements of such an approach to the game. Their ability to control the puck and dominate the corners and end boards frustrated opponents endlessly. The Caps need to return to a similar theme – they need to re-establish a team philosophy, a sense of what it means to play “Caps Hockey.” If kids like Brian Sutherby and Boyd Gordon and Matt Pettinger can set the tone, the comparisons to hard-working, if less-than-glamorous guys from the past like Gaetan Duchesne, Alan Haworth, or Greg Adams would be appropriate. Even in a new, offensively-oriented NHL, I think there is an important place for this kind of ethic.

Individuals . . . for some players, the time has come to show that they deserve major minutes in the NHL. We’re not talking competing for scoring championships or Norris Trophy candidacies, but for guys like Brian Sutherby, Steve Eminger, Boyd Gordon, and others, the club needs some indication that they will be contributing members of the club for years to come. Here, the ten game slice idea also is apt. Some of the plus-minus statistics for these guys will be brutal early on. But after the all-star break, with several dozen games behind them, we might expect to see improvement. If any of these guys are struggling, see their minutes cut back, or worse – get sent to Hershey – the club will have problems, and the rebuild will suffer. That’s a lot of pressure to put on 20-something young men, but that’s also the nature of professional sports.

Winners don’t get built from kits. The failures of the New York Rangers and the Caps, as well as the successes of the New Jersey Devils and, more recently, the Tampa Bay Lightning show that rather clearly. Even in the Oklahoma Land Rush of free agency that we’ve been in over the past few weeks, I think “building” a team will result in a sustainable success that “shopping” for a team will not.

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