Thursday, June 20, 2013

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

There are different stories about how the word “fan” came into use to describe an avid follower of a movie star, a singer, or a sports franchise.  Some say it is a product of 18th century England, when the term “the fancy” was used to refer to followers of a sport.  Some argue it dates all the way back to the mid-1600’s and the Latin word, “fanaticus,” meaning “divinely inspired.”  And there are those who of a mind that the word is uniquely American, derived from shortening the word, “fanatic.”

Whatever.  Fans are the lifeblood of sports.  You might say that they are – or can be – the inspiration for athletes on the field, the court, or the rink.  How many times does one see a reference to the “12th man” in football? The “sixth man” in basketball, or “the seventh man” in hockey (sorry, ladies, it always seems this reference is made to men)?  They are not talking about the Zamboni driver, who might have a fan club of his own.

They are referring to fans.  And contrary to opinion in a lot of places in North America, the Washington Capitals have one fantastic fan base.  That 181-game sellout streak the Caps have represents more than 3.3 million fans.  They rock the red, the scream their lungs out, they make Verizon Center one of the loudest rinks in the league.

But that is just the surface.  There are those fans that plan summer vacations around development camp in July or postpone their vacations so they can attend training camp in September.  There are the ones who for almost 15 years have been combining their love of hockey and the open road to plan road trip charters.  There are fans who take the time to build, nurture, and maintain message forums to talk about the Caps.

There are the Caps fans that blow their horn and lend a full-throated roar in support of the boys, night in and night out.  You’ll go to a lot of arenas and never hear any horn sounded so clearly and used with such impeccable timing, or hear a voice that could drown out most public-address systems.  How could one not “unleash the fury” with that fusillade of sound?

Then there are the folks who write about the Caps because they’re fans.  The do it without compensation because they’re fans.  You’ll see a lot of them over there in the margin on the right – our “fellow wizards,” we call them – and we are probably missing a lot of them in that list because, well, the Caps have a lot of fans and they have a lot of things to say.  You will not find better reporting anywhere than you will see over at Japers’ Rink, or Russian Machine Never Breaks, or Capitals Outsider, or…well, you get the point.  The Caps have the best damn blogging community around.  Period.

And even though he is part of the production, there is the voice of the Capitals, Wes Johnson, who seems at least as much a fan as announcer.  No one revs up the faithful of your WASH-ING-TONNNN CAP-I-TALLLLLLLS like Wes.  Ditto for John Walton, Ken Sabourin, Joe Beninati, Craig Laughlin, and Mike Vogel doing television, radio, and video production.  They are the best at what they do in large part because they’re fans.

Folks talk about “bandwagon” fans and do so too often in a derogatory way.  Sure, the Caps have had a lot of folks jump on the bandwagon over the last few years.  But hey, the more the merrier.  But those folks who have had a seat on that bandwagon over the last ten, twenty, thirty or more years...those folks are the true fanatics.  You have to be a fan to have your heart broken so many times in so many ways – blowing three-games-to-one leads, hearing shots in overtime hit a post to end a Game 7 in the playoffs, bad ice that makes you fumble the puck that leads to a series clinching breakaway, the Islanders, then the Penguins, and now for you “bandwagon fans,” the Rangers.

In 2013 Caps fans suffered the loss of almost half of a hockey season, and then, just when the team seemed to be clicking under the hand of new head coach Adam Oates, suffered yet another early playoff exit.  Only once have the Caps played hockey in June.  If you’re a Caps fan, you know that.  But you’re a Caps fan because you want to be there when they do it a second time.

Maybe Washington is not a “hockey town” in the same way Detroit is, or Toronto, or Montreal, or those cities in the Northeast.  That says nothing about the devotion of those who do call themselves “Caps fans.”  They have had to be to sustain themselves through long winters and too-early springs over the years.  In 2013, their devotion and fanaticism was put to the test.  They passed with flying colors (mostly “red”).

Grade: A+

Photo: Greg Fiume: Getty Images

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