On January 14, 2004, the Caps tied Calgary, 3-3, in their 45th game of the season. The outcome isn’t as important as who was responsible. It speaks to where the Caps are through 45 games this year. If one looks at the roster that took the ice that night and compares it to the rosters that took the ice in the 45th games of the following seasons (a 5-4 shootout win against St. Louis in 2005-2006, and a 7-3 loss to Florida last Saturday night), what is remarkable is the turnover:
|Bates Battaglia||Matt Bradley||Matt Bradley|
|Peter Bondra||Alex Ovechkin||Alex Ovechkin|
|Mike Grier||Brooks Laich||Brooks Laich|
|Jeff Halpern||Colin Forbes||Kris Beech|
|Jaromir Jagr||Chris Clark||Chris Clark|
|Robert Lang||Dainius Zubrus||Dainius Zubrus|
|Kip Miller||Ben Clymer||Ben Clymer|
|Matt Pettinger||Matt Pettinger||Matt Pettinger|
|Trent Whitfield||Brian Sutherby||Brian Sutherby|
|Stephen Peat||Brian Willsie||Donald Brashear|
|Darcy Verot||Boyd Gordon||Boyd Gordon|
|Alexander Semin||Jeff Friesen||Alexander Semin|
|Jason Doig||Mathieu Biron||Jamie Heward|
|Sergei Gonchar||Bryan Muir||Lawrence Nycholat|
|Brendan Witt||Brendan Witt||Mike Green|
|Rick Berry||Nolan Yonkman||Steve Eminger|
|Joel Kwiatlowski||Shaone Morrisonn||Shaone Morrisonn|
|Todd Rohloff||Ivan Majesky||Brian Pothier|
|Olaf Kolzig||Olaf Kolzig||Olaf Kolzig|
|Rastislav Stana||Brent Johnson||Brent Johnson|
Of the 20 players taking the ice in that 45th game two seasons ago, only three – Matt Pettinger, Olaf Kolzig, and Alexander Semin (who missed the 2005-2006 season) took the ice on Saturday. The entire defense has been replaced.
The table inserts players in their rough approximations of who replaced whom (there are obvious mismatches of roles because of carryover elsewhere – Brian Willsie for Stephen Peat comes to mind). And what is striking there is the difference between a team “on paper” and the one that takes the ice. If you look at certain positions “on paper” there is a considerable drop off in talent. For example, I don’t know anyone who is likely to take Chris Clark over Jaromir Jagr in a fantasy league. Or Lawrence Nycholat over Sergei Gonchar. But the 2006-2007 team is 13 points better – more than 40 percent – than that 2003-2004 club. There is a “glass half full,” “glass half empty” aspect to that. Sure, the Caps are improved, but they’ve left a lot of points on the ice this year, too.
It’s frustrating – for fans, certainly, but it has to be that way for players, too. One step up, one step back, and the guys are at 45 points in 45 games. But there is a bigger picture here, as well. Through 45 games, the Caps had those 32 points in 2003-2004. Last year, they had 37 points (16-24-5). 45 this year. The improvement has been consistent and significant from year to year, which really is the object of the exercise. And this is a group that has not spent all that much time playing together, especially at this level of play. What the team needs are the factors that make diamonds out of coal – time and pressure. Time to develop that knowledge of one another and the pressure of having to deal with different situations, including emerging expectations among fans of a playoff run . . . soon.