Thursday, June 20, 2013

Washington Capitals: 2012-2013 By the Tens -- The Planners

Fans of the Washington Capitals know the drill.  There is this “plan,” you see.  It started back in 2003 when the previous plan went bad.  That one started when in 2001 the Capitals made one of the biggest trades in club history, procuring the services of Jaromir Jagr and Frantisek Kucera from the Pittsburgh Penguins for prospects Kris Beech, Ross Lupaschuk, Michal Sivek and future considerations.

The trade announced to fans, other teams, and the hockey world that the Caps were now “players” in the NHL, serious about taking the actions and implementing the means to compete for a Stanley Cup.  It was the very definition of a blockbuster trade. 

However, Jagr struggled on the ice compared to his production with the Penguins, even after receiving a long, lucrative contract extension from the Capitals, and the team sought to rectify the situation by doubling down – obtaining Robert Lang (another long, lucrative contract) and Kip Miller, both of whom were former teammates of Jagr brought in to give his game lift.

A team with Jagr, Lang, Peter Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, and Michael Nylander to fill the skill needs, plus players such as Steve Konowalchuk, Jeff Halpern, Mike Grier, and Calle Johansson to fill support roles, just had to be formidable.

They were not.  In 2003 they were ousted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs in four straight games after jumping out to a 2-0 lead in games off impressive three-goal wins.  The fall from there was swift and stunning.  They started the 2003-2004 season going 1-7-1 in their first eight games.  Things did not improve appreciably after that.  By December 8th, after they lost to the Colorado Avalanche by a 4-1 score in Denver, the Caps were 8-18-1-1, 14th in a 15-team Eastern Conference, tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins with the fewest standings points in the entire NHL.

Then, they fired their coach.  Then, they swapped out players – old for new, expensive for cheap, “stars” for journeymen.  Then, they finished the season (mercifully).  They embarked on a new version of, “The Plan.”

Almost ten years later, the Capitals have a “plan,” but do they a have a “clue?”  That is, about how to implement their plan.  Whatever the merits of their “plan” (and we do not have any quarrel with it), they don’t give evidence of having a clue of what kind of team they want to be, and if you don’t have that, no “plan” is going to help you.  It is like having a road map without a sense of what your destination is.  You end up wandering from pillar to post with this “plan” in your hand wondering why it is you’re not getting any closer to where you want to go.

We read somewhere once that “buying a lottery ticket is not a financial plan.”  Well, for the Caps, in retrospect, maybe that was the hockey plan.  They just happened to win that lottery.  They won the bounce of the ping pong ball in 2004 and with that ping pong ball clutched tightly in their hands selected Alex Ovechkin.  That did not take any “plan” to accomplish.  The trick, we maintained then and do so now, was what the Caps would do to build a team around their lottery prize.

You see the results.  This is a team with the simple aims to “make the playoffs.” Once done, the story goes, “anything can happen.”  It is as if their fate would then be in the hands of the hockey gods, not their own, as if they could not take action to reach higher – “the Stanley Cup is our goal” – but instead be acted upon.  Games and series then become a product of officiating or the proverbial “lucky” – or in the Capitals’ case, “unlucky” – bounce.

The Capitals are the “Good Enough Franchise.”  Made the playoffs?  Good enough.  Sold out the arena?  Good enough.  Rockin’ that red merchandise?  Good enough.  You can see it in the spin the franchise wishes to put on its season.  Caps fans were treated to a season-ending example of this.  One would think this a season of high accomplishment, when, well... let’s take a look at some of the facts, spun a bit differently…

- The current streak of six-straight playoff appearances is tied for the fourth-longest active playoff streak in the NHL.

The Capitals have three series wins in that period.  Nine teams have more, and two others have as many.

- Since 2007-08 the Capitals have won 148 games on home ice, tied for the second-most home wins in the NHL in the last six seasons.

Since 2007-2008 the Caps are 16-15 on home ice in the playoffs, 1-4 in Game 7’s.

- The Caps 116 road wins since 2007-08 rank tied for seventh in the league during that span.

The Caps are 11-16 on the road in the post-season since 2008.

- The Capitals have won five Southeast Division titles in the last six seasons, joining Vancouver as the only two teams in the league to accomplish that feat.

In those five seasons only twice did another Southeast Division team qualify for the playoffs.

- 2012-13 marked Washington’s 24th playoff appearance in franchise history.

Twice in those 24 seasons they advanced past the second round, none of them in their last nine playoff appearances.

- Washington has advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals in three of the last five seasons.

And twice lost to lower seeded teams.  We won’t bring up that one-and-done Presidents Trophy year.

- In the past 10 years only one team has won multiple Stanley Cups (Detroit), and there have been nine different Stanley Cup winners in each of the past nine seasons. (That underscores the parity in this league.)

23 different teams have advanced to a conference final in that span of years, including two Southeast Division teams that went on to win a Stanley Cup.  The Caps are not among either of those groups.

- The Capitals finished April with an 11-1-1 record, the best record in the league and the most productive month in Capitals regular-season history.

They finished May with a 3-4 record, their 14th first-round playoff exit in team history and sixth in nine playoff appearances since they appeared in the Stanley Cup final in 1998.

- Adam Oates helped guide the Capitals to the Southeast Division title in his first season as a head coach in the NHL.

We like Oates, a lot in fact, but the there is also the fact that in 2011, rookie head coach Guy Boucher (of the Southeast Division Tampa Bay Lightning, it might be noted) led the Lightning to the Eastern Conference finals (after sweeping the Capitals in the second round to get there, it might also be noted).

- For the fourth year in a row, the Capitals sold out every home game and continue to build upon their club-record 181 consecutive sellouts (including playoffs and dating back to 2008-09).

Meaning a lot of people got to watch another in a long line of disappointments.

But, dear reader – yes, you…the one forking over those thousands of dollars for season tickets and all that rockin’ red merchandise – it is “good enough?”  Different people have different expectations and different ways of defining satisfaction with a product.  That is something for each fan to consider.  Judging by what the team says are its renewal rates for season tickets, it seems a lot of those fans are satisfied.  Score one for capitalism.

But one just gets the feeling, after all the self-promotion about having a “plan,” whatever the merits of that plan (and like we said, we don’t have a quarrel with it), the simple matter is one of whether these planners have done an especially good job executing that plan.  If playoffs are your aim, if ticket sales are the goal, if ringing up merchandise sales is the objective, then yes, they have done a swell job.  But as far as building a hockey team that can compete with the elite teams in the National Hockey League?  Well, not so much.  They can make the playoffs these days with regularity, just as they did with regularity before the current administration took over.  Making the playoffs is not nothing; it is an achievement.  But this was not the 2006 Capitals for whom making the playoffs would have been a borderline miracle.  Should making the playoffs not be an expectation as well as an achievement for this team? 

Whatever the answer is to that question, one thing is sure.  Making the playoffs makes you a good team, but it is no more the measure of an elite team today than it was in the 1980’s and 1990’s when the Caps strung together 14 straight playoff years.  In the end, Caps fans were dealt a double dose of disappointment.  First, they were denied almost half a season of hockey in part by those who seem to plan lockout strategies much more effectively than they do their core product.  Then, they watched as the Caps went out in the first round of the playoffs...again.

The 2013 Capitals that lost in the first round of the playoffs were hardly distinguishable from the 2003 Capitals (out in the first round), the 1993 Capitals (out in the first round), or the 1983 Capitals, for that matter (out in the first round in their first ever playoff appearance).  Maybe that parade down Pennsylvania Avenue will happen someday, but for the moment – here in 2013 – what you see, it seems, is…

Good enough.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson


Billy said...

It will be interesting to see how realignment shakes things up. One thing seems likely: if we make the playoffs, we won't be the only team from the division to do it. The optimist's view is that the bar for "good enough" is about to get a lot higher, so the Caps might be more playoff ready (assuming they still qualify). The more pessimistic (realistic?) view is that playoff hockey is a different beast, and regular season competition has about as much bearing in post-season success as pre-season competition has on regular season success. The Caps need to learn that other teams aren't playing the same game in May that they were in February.

Anonymous said...