Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Tale of an Opportunity

In 2009-2010 the Washington Capitals were the most entertaining team in the National Hockey League. They were averaging 3.82 goals a game, more than half a goal a game more than their closest pursuer in the scoring rankings (Vancouver: 3.27). They were beating up opponents along the way, the only team in the league that scored more than a goal a game, on average, more than their opponents.

But amidst all this entertainment, the hockey intelligentsia were proclaiming, “yes, but the Caps can’t (or don’t) play defense; they will fail in the playoffs.” And when the Caps did, in fact, fail in the playoffs, the hockey intelligentsia was validated. The Caps learned their lesson, but not after having a refresher course in pain the following season in the form of a December eight-game losing streak.

The Caps decided in the midst of that eight-game losing streak last season that the blueprint for success had to be tossed out and replaced by a new one, a plan that emphasized more focus in the defensive zone, trapping in the neutral zone, and restraint in the offensive zone to avoid turnovers. No more flying the zone before you get possession, no more daring stretch passes, no more pressing the attack.

And it worked…kinda. The Caps went 30-11-7 after that losing streak and after first installing their new “defense first” approach. When they defeated the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, it appeared that the change was further validated. The hockey intelligentsia looked on and smiled. And then it all blew up when the Caps were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning and the fearsome (if sleep-inducing) 1-3-1 defense. The hockey intelligentsia clucked that the Caps didn’t have the defense or the goaltending to go deeper (the Caps allowed 16 goals to the Lightning in the four-game sweep).

The Caps took their lessons to heart in the off-season, adding grit and hockey toughness in players like Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern and Troy Brouwer. They added a defenseman who knew how to play the game (as in, “won’t go jumping up in the offensive end”) in Roman Hamrlik. They got an elite goalie at a discount.

The Caps went out to a 7-0-0 start, and folks might have been thinking, “see? It was worth it to change styles.” Then, the Caps record fell through the floor. They went 5-9-1 in their next 15 games, and it got their coach fired. They went 12-9-1 in their first 22 games under the new coach, the same record the old coach started the season with, and folks might have been thinking…”what the #@$%?”

And now, we’re all frustrated as Caps fans. But it got us to thinking… did the Caps abandon that hell-bent-for-leather style too soon? Humor us.

Let’s look at that Caps team that was defeated by Montreal in the 2010 playoffs. Let’s look at the defensive side of the roster. First, the four defensemen who played in all seven games against Montreal – John Carlson, Mike Green, Joe Corvo, and Jeff Schultz. Carlson had so few games played in the regular season, he would qualify for rookie of the year selection the following season. Green was finishing up his fourth full season. Corvo was, well…ugh. And Schultz was coming off a freakish plus-50 season in which he put up 23 points. You get to that plus-50, perhaps, by being dependable at the defensive end while your teammates are having fun at the other.

Then there is the rest of the group that dressed. Tom Poti played in six games (suffering a gruesome eye injury in Game 6 that kept him out of Game 7). He was a player of considerable experience and had a reputation of being competent at both ends of the rink (if he had played that Game 7 and the Caps won, would there ever have been a change in philosophy?...hold that thought). On the other hand, there was Shaone Morrisonn. A player of modest skill, but let’s face it. He now toils for Rochester in the AHL and cannot crack the Buffalo Sabres lineup. Tyler Sloan played in two games and would never be thought of as a top-four (or top-six, seeing as how he is playing in Milwaukee of the AHL) defenseman. Karl Alzner (with barely 50 games of experience) played one game – Game 7 in Poti’s place – as a call-up.

The goalies? For the second straight year, the Caps started with Jose Thoedore, then had to give way to Semyon Varlamov when Theodore faltered. In the 2010 playoffs, Varlamov was the starting goalie for the last six games of the series against Montreal with a total of 32 games of NHL regular season and 13 games of playoff game experience.

Here we had a defense lacking in experience in a Game 7 (Carlson, Alzner), a defenseman entering who might be entering his prime (Green), a competent if unexciting stay-at-home defenseman with fewer than 250 games of experience (Schultz), a current minor leaguer (Morrisonn), and a defenseman for whom “defense” did not seem to apply (Corvo). It should never have come to that in a Game 7, but that was the hand dealt, and Montreal ended the night with better cards.

In retrospect, perhaps the Caps’ wide open style might not have been doomed for lack of sufficient detail to defense. Perhaps it was abandoned before the defense could mature and catch up to the offense, or at least have the ability from added experience to bar the door when the Caps weren’t wreaking havoc in the other end. Look at the John Carlson and Karl Alzner of today, with perhaps a Dmitry Orlov, and let’s even throw in a healthy Mike Green (like we said, humor us). Heck, swap out the 2010 Corvo model for the 2012 Alzner edition. A Jeff Schultz with another 100 games of experience. If that defense had been there in 2010 with the level of skill they now have (yes, we realized Orlov would not have been there), would that Montreal series have ended differently? Would there have even been a Game 6 in which a Tom Poti could get hurt? And more to the point, would the Caps today be the juggernaut with the plus-68 goal differential that folks talk about instead of the Boston Bruins, and with Bruce Boudreau still at the helm?

Perhaps it was a time and case of opportunity knocking, and the Caps opened the door to an exciting brand of hockey, only to close it too soon.

We shall never know.


Hale said...

That just makes me sad because I miss those days. Semin was villified for taking "poor" shots, thught they actually weren't poor. But, he took 44 of them! What would we not give for him to average 6 shots a game now? Big problem then was lack of anyone there for rebound attempts. In reading article about BB's regrets, I wonder exactly at what point did he quit being true to himself?

TG said...


TG said...

Or how about the year before? What if Coach BB had gone to Theodore in the second game of the back-to-back against Pittsburgh instead of having Varlamov play both of them...something he'd never done before?

KingBonehead said...

I agree.

Always felt to me that the problem in the Montreal series was that they couldn't score all of a sudden (and the pp was absolutely horrible.) A couple pp goals in the series and it doesn't get to game 7.