Look, let’s be up front about this. Bruce Boudreau doesn’t need some hack at a keyboard coming to his defense. He’s an Jack Adams Award winner, and the last time we looked, the only hardware we had was the four trophies the Alex Ovechkin bobblehead on our desk is holding. Boudreau forgot more about hockey stirring his morning coffee than we’re ever likely to know.
But here’s the thing. When the Caps lose, and lose in as particularly ugly a fashion as they did last night, there are whispers. Boudreau needs to sit this guy… Boudreau needs to wake up and realize Jeff Schultz is better equipped to have a job with a paper hat… Boudreau can’t be skating Boyd Gordon on a nightly basis… What’s Boudreau doing skating Tyler Sloan as a forward, for heaven’s sake??
Well, kids, here’s the deal. Last night was Game 4 in an 82-game season. Without looking it up, can you recall the result of Game 4 of last year’s season?* There is a long, long road ahead, and there will be ups and downs along the way. But of special relevance to this discussion is this. It’s all about the spring. So what if the Caps don’t win a Southeast Division title this year (we think they will, but humor us)? It’s not like anyone really cares at this point to see another Southeast Division Champion banner hoisted over the catwalk railing at Verizon Center. The only good it does at this point is provide employment to fabric manufacturers.
It’s all about the spring and finding out who can and can’t play (or play consistently) at a high level, both individually and – perhaps more important – within the team framework and philosophy.
We know already that the regular season is going to be largely an audition between Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov to see who gets the call as “The Man” in the spring in goal. But there is more than that. Coach Boudreau needs to know who can play with whom. Are John Erskine and Tom Poti, in fact, a train wreck waiting to happen as a defensive pair (they looked like it against Philly)? Better to find that out in October and November than in April or when you’re facing an elimination game.
Is Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin really a line for the ages, or is it the NHL equivalent of shooting a satellite into the moon and watching the pretty show for a few minutes (we have that on our minds this morning as we watch the live NASA feed with one eye)?
Should Chris Clark play on the third line… should he play -- can he play -- on the top line?... should he be a scratch? It would be nice to find out now, not in the last week of the season.
Can Tyler Sloan be an adequate fill in as a depth forward? You probably don’t want to be asking that question in the second week of April.
Are Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble – teammates from long ago in maize and blue – a good fit as linemates in red and blue? Hey, they’re both new here, let's find out… now, before the crunch of a stretch run and a playoff series.
This isn’t the Beauty Contest System of college football, where if you lose a game in September, you can kiss your “national championship” dreams goodbye. It’s not the NFL, where you have only 16 Sundays to get yourself into the playoffs. This is an 82-game season. A couple of years ago, a Capitals coach won the first three games of the season and was fired on Thanksgiving.
You could say that this Capitals team is little different than the one that skated off the ice last May after losing to the Penguins, and in terms of the roster, you’d be right. But you’d also be wrong. Every team is different. Young guys mature at different rates. Older guys might see this skill or that start to slip. Teammates than clicked last year might be thoroughly incompatible now, or at least not the best of fit. Better to find these things out now, to look at different pairings on defense, to look at line combinations, to test and stretch players outside of their comfortable roles, than to seek answers to those questions, or worse – problems – in April.
None of this excuses bad results or indifferent efforts such as that last night. That is a separate issue that we suspect the coaching staff will address. But with respect to how players are used, to what roles they are assigned, and to the extent they fit better with one teammate or another, remember… there is a bigger objective here than winning a game in October. There is the matter of winning 16 games in April, May and June. And if that means sacrificing a result here or there now to be ready to win those games in the spring, then it isn’t just smart coaching, it the smart management move to take the long view.
* It was a 4-3 win over Pittsburgh.