Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Are the Washington Capitals "1998... 2.0?"

The brain trust appears to be complete. With the naming of Tim Hunter as an assistant coach for the Capitals on Monday, the Capitals have assembled a coaching staff that draws heavily on their most successful team to date, the 1997-1998 club that played in the Stanley Cup final. Head coach Adam Oates, assistant Calle Johansson, and associate goaltending coach Olaf Kolzig starred on that 1998 Cup finalist team, and Hunter was in his first incarnation as a Capitals assistant under head coach Ron Wilson.

But the obvious link to the 1998 team aside, the coaching staff as a group has something of a personality of its own that might be a reflection of that 1998 team. Oates, the pivot around which the offense turned (18-58-76 in 82 games that season), gets his first opportunity to run the show from behind the bench. There is not a lot of “book” on Oates’ coaching philosophy or style, but the early indications are that he will inject more offense into the Caps’ play and will be an “information-driven” coach who relies a lot on video and analytics (not surprising for a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute).

Calle Johansson also gets his first chance behind an NHL bench in an assistant’s role, and if his contribution is similar to that of his playing days, he brings a solid grasp of two-way hockey and an ability to complement his playing partners. Johansson is the leading scorer among defensemen in Capitals history (113-361-474 in 983 games) and was plus-47 as a Capital. The adjectives that might apply to his playing style that could travel with him to the bench would include: steady, consistent, effective.

Tim Hunter fills the “experience” requirement among the coaches, having more than 1,000 games as an assistant in Washington, San Jose and Toronto. That experience also includes having served as an assistant when Oates, Johansson, and Kolzig were playing for the Caps in that 1997-1998 season. More than that, his style might serve a counterpoint to the analytical Oates and the steady Johansson. Hunter is one of eight players in NHL history to have recorded more than 3,000 penalty minutes and did it playing the fewest career games of the eight players. It is not to say that he is going to turn the Caps into the Seventh Street Sluggers, but Hunter certainly is acquainted with the grittier parts of the game and could serve as complement to the personalities of Oates and Johansson. As a coach, his experience and temperament could be the glue that holds things together, much as the grinders and hard-workers can be the glue that holds a roster together on the ice.

Which brings us to the matter of whether the “1998” themed coaching staff is compatible with the “2012” Capitals. It is certainly possible to make too much of this (or engage in too much wishful thinking), but there are performance similarities in the regular season numbers of the 1998 and 2012 teams. For instance, sitting at the top of the scoring heap – goals and points – is a winger. In 1998 Peter Bondra finished the season 52-26-78. Last season, Alex Ovechkin was 38-27-65. They were closely followed by centers on the points list. Oates was 18-58-56 for the 1998 team; Mike Ribeiro was 18-45-65 with Dallas last season. And there is the “injured center” who might otherwise have been a leading scorer – Joe Juneau in 1998 (9-22-31 in 56 games) and Nicklas Backstrom in 2012 (14-30-44 in 44 games).

The young forward roles might have been played by Richard Zednik (17 goals in 65 games at age 22) and Marcus Johansson (14 goals in 80 games at age 21). The hard-nosed forwards might be Steve Konowalchuk (10-24-34 in 80 games) and Brooks Laich 16-25-41 in 82 games).

On defense, for a Phil Housley (6-25-31 in 64 games) there is a Mike Green (3-4-7 in 32 games in an injury-riddled year) to fill offensive needs from the blue line. For a Calle Johansson (15-20-35) there is a John Carlson (9-23-32). For a Joe Reekie (a team-leading plus-15 in 68 games) there is a Karl Alzner (a team-leading plus-12 in 82 games).

In fact, if one compares the regular season numbers of the 18 skaters that took the ice in the last game of the 1998 season and compare them to the 2011-2012 numbers of the 18 skaters likely (for the moment) to take the ice for the Caps on Opening Night 2012, they are remarkable similar:

Even on an average production-per-man-game basis the numbers look similar at the team level:

What the 2012 team will be is younger. On average, three and a half years younger among the skaters than the comparable 1998 team. Of the Caps likely to open this coming season, only four were older than 30 years of age last season. For the 1998 team that took the ice in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final that number was ten.

The comparisons at goaltender are less obvious, unless you consider that Braden Holtby’s style and personality on the ice resemble that of Olaf Kolzig. Both are physical goaltenders with a sharp edge to their respective games. But in terms of performance, the comparisons do not yet hold up. Kolzig proved himself over the course of the regular season in 1997-1998 after assuming the duties on behalf of injured goalie Bill Ranford. He carried the Caps on his shoulders through the first three rounds of the 1998 post-season before the Detroit Red Wings swept the Caps in the finals. For Holtby, he has a total of 35 games of NHL experience (regular season and playoffs) over two seasons.  That is fewer than half the appearances Olaf Kolzig had in the 1997-1998 season alone (84, including playoffs).  And while Holtby put up fine numbers in the post-season (third among all qualifying playoff goalies in goals against average and save percentage), his numbers had the appearance of being more driven by team philosophy than were Kolzig’s in 1998.

That 1998 club was not a great one, even by the standards of the Washington Capitals franchise. Its 40-30-12 record (92 points) is 14th-best in franchise history for wins in a regular season and tied for 13th in standings points for a season. But it closed fast (12-5-2 in their last 19 games) and displayed an opportunistic bent in the post-season (5-1 in overtime games in the first three rounds of the playoffs). In engineering the roster and coaching staff for the 2012-2013 there is at least a superficial resemblance to the 1998 club that reached the Stanley Cup finals. Or, as a fan, it is what we want to see. It is not, on paper, a great team or a team that is likely to make many short lists of strong Stanley Cup contenders. But it will be managed by those who have experience in taking the “not great” on paper and doing great things. The proof, as always, will be in the performance.