Sunday, April 13, 2014

Washington Capitals -- A Summer Where Reflection Meets Analysis

For the first time in seven seasons the Washington Capitals are sitting out the post season.  Do not be surprised.  From a certain perspective you could see this day coming from the moment the Capitals were eliminated in seven games in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup tournament.  The Capitals have been in a slide since they received the Presidents Trophy in 2009-2010.  It is high irony that the proximate agent of that ouster in 2010 – Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak – should have been the goaltender the Capitals would call upon to stave off (unsuccessfully, as it would turn out) elimination from the playoffs in the 2013-2014 season.

But, what is done, is done.  The Capitals are, if it has not yet finally occurred to them, an also-ran, one of the 14 teams that will ask, “what happened?” and “what do we do about it?”  The Capitals, unlike many other teams, have recent knowledge of what that means.  Rest assured, this situation is not as dire as that which confronted the club in 2003 after they lost their first round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning (a recurring theme for this franchise), but it is not insignificant to the point of needing only tweaking, either.

When the Caps returned to the ice for the 2003-2004 season after their disappointing loss to the Lightning they stumbled badly out of the gate, going 5-13-1 in October, fired their coach in December, and came to a chilling conclusion – they needed to start over.  They did.  Five seasons later the Capitals were Presidents Trophy winners and on the verge of being Stanley Cup contenders for years to come.  That came crashing down with their first round playoff loss to Montreal in 2010.  Ever since, it has been a mudslide in slow motion.  From that 121-point season in 2009-2010 the Caps posted these results:
  • 2010-2011: 48-23-11/107 points, second round playoff loss under head coach Bruce Boudreau
  • 2011-2012: 42-32-8/92 points, Bruce Boudreau fired in favor of Dale Hunter, second round playoff loss
  • 2012-2013: Dale Hunter elects not to return, Adam Oates named head coach, 27-18-3/57 points, first round playoff loss
  • 2013-2014: 38-30-14/90 points under Adam Oates, fifth in the Metropolitan Division, out of the playoffs

Four seasons, three coaches, two years getting to the second round (and no further), one season missing the playoffs altogether.  It has been a slow, steady regression, leaving the Caps not a contender for a Stanley Cup, but more like the aging doyenne whose best days on stage are behind her, left with trying to recapture the magic in dinner theater.  It is not a happy place to be for a franchise with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in at least the chronological prime years of their careers.  And that begs for careful scrutiny of what the issues are and how to correct them. 

There are those who have already jumped right to the “what” – what the Caps should do in terms of personnel changes to make in the front office and on the ice, what the Caps’ philosophy should be as an organization and as a hockey team, what measures should be taken between now and opening night of the 2014-2015 season to return the Caps to competitiveness, to a position to contend for a championship.

“What” to do presumes that the “how” the organization arrives at those decisons is either already completed or trivial if it has not.  We do not share that view.  On the other hand, we are not privy to the decision-making processes in this organization that would allow fans to get a warm, comfortable feeling that the powers that be will undertake ”a comprehensive review of what transpired this year, listen to appropriate voices and then determine what steps are necessary to ensure the Capitals return to the playoffs and compete for a Stanley Cup.”

We cannot know the specifics of what such a “comprehensive review” might look like.  Or do we?  In 2009 a corner of the tent flap was lifted on the Capitals’ 10-point rebuilding plan implemented a decade ago.  It serves as a road map for fans to follow as the days and weeks pass, and the Capitals figure out what happened and what to do in response.  How might one look at those ten points in what promises to be an off-season of soul-searching?

1. Ask yourself the big question: "Can this team--as constructed--ever win a championship?" If the answer is yes -- stay the course and try to find the right formula -- if the answer is no, then plan to rebuild. Don't fake it--really do the analytics and be brutally honest. Once you have your answer, develop the game plan to try to REALLY win a championship. Always run away from experts that say, "We are just one player away." Recognize there is no easy and fast systemic fix. It will be a bumpy ride--have confidence in the plan--"trust and verify: the progress -- but don't deviate from the plan."

Since this 10-point guide was published in February 2009, the Capitals have been in five post-season tournaments and missed the playoffs this season.  They have three playoff round wins, five losses, and have yet to so much as reach a conference final.  They won a conference quarterfinal two years ago, lost in a conference quarterfinal last year, and failed to make the playoffs this year.  This is not moving in the right direction.

Want to make a comparison?  Let’s do that.  Imagine a team with an elite scoring winger in his prime, a center who has a history of meshing with that scoring winger, a top-end offensive defenseman in his late-20’s prime.  Sound familiar?  It should.  It was the 2002-2003 Capitals, the team that made the playoffs in 2003 but was blown up the following year in what would become the start of The Great Rebuild.  That was the team that had Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, and Sergei Gonchar in the roles of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green.  All of them were moved for assets or to clear the decks for draft picks in years to come.

If you look at the playoff era of Capitals that just ended this past weekend and compare the team that closed the first playoff season with that which wrapped up this season, there are six players who were on both: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Mike Green, John Erskine, and Eric Fehr.  One could regard the first four of that group as the remaining “core” of the playoff era – an elite winger, a center with a history of meshing with that winger, a top-end defenseman in his late 20’s, and a useful utility forward to boot.  Can the Caps win a championship with that core, as it is constructed?   Does it need to be broken up?  The more appropriate question at this point is, if you “really do the analytics and be brutally honest,” do you have to consider it?

2. Once you make the decision to rebuild--be transparent. Articulate the plan and sell it loudly and proudly to all constituencies, the media, the organization, the fans, your partners, family and anyone who will listen. Agree to what makes for a successful rebuild--in our case it is "a great young team with upside that can make the playoffs for a decade and win a Stanley Cup or two."

Obviously, the Caps will not “make the playoffs for a decade.”  The streak ended at six years this season.  And, having gone through a painful rebuild only a decade ago, is it too fresh in fans’ minds for the team to be willing to undergo another one, even less a “rebuild” than a “renovation?”  This is the kind of thing that, if undertaken, would test the mettle of what is arguably the strongest facet of this enterprise, its ability to market its product.  The higher you go in dissolving the “core,” the harder that job gets.  It would be one thing to deal with a parting of the ways with a Brooks Laich, or even a Mike Green, both of whom have become fan favorites in their decade or so in the organization.  It would be another thing entirely if the Capitals were to seriously consider parting with Ovechkin or Backstrom. 

Then there is the second part of that point, agreeing on what makes for a successful rebuild.  In 2005 that was “a great young team with upside that can make the playoffs for a decade and win a Stanley Cup or two."  That sounds a lot like a marketing theme as much as a case for a rebuild.  And there are not a lot of products that repeat marketing slogans with success.  What fresh new theme would the team use to promote a renovation?

3. Once you decide to rebuild--bring the house down to the foundation--be consistent with your plan--and with your asks--we always sought to get "a pick and a prospect" in all of our trades. We believed that volume would yield better results than precision. We decided to trade multiple stars at their prime or peak to get a large volume of young players. Young players will get better as they age, so you have built in upside. Youngsters push vets to play better to keep their jobs, and they stay healthier, and they are more fun--less jaded by pro sports.

It is one thing to move a 31-year old world-class winger who gives every indication of being unhappy with his role, whose best days were spent in another city entirely, as was the case of Jaromir Jagr in 2004.  It is quite another to move a world-class talent of the home grown sort who is the centerpiece on and off the ice for the franchise and who has both given no indication of undue unhappiness (other than the frustrations that occur when the team is not as successful as hoped) and who has become as much a part of the community as an athlete can who spends nine months a year in the States.

The center you might be considering as a trade candidate is not a 33-year old well-traveled veteran, as was the case with Robert Lang in 2004, but a 26-year old home grown point-a-game player over his career who is elite in his own right.  If Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom never hit their career highs in goals or points again, neither are either of them in what might be considered their declining years.

The Caps are more constrained with respect to their ability to move their prime assets – they are still valuable to this franchise and would be unlikely (or at least would be uncertain) to return anything close to current value in trade.  They also carry heavy salary cap burdens that many teams might be unable to bear.  If the Caps choose to “renovate” instead of “rebuild, they seem likely to do it with the lesser of their core players – moving a Green and/or a Laich, but that means lower probabilities of getting a pick and a prospect, at least any considered high draft picks or upper echelon prospects.

Perhaps the Caps break up what they built over the last two seasons rather than their core.  Now we are into “less jaded by pro sports” territory.  To cast veterans by inference as more jaded to pro sports seems a bit harsh and too much a blanket statement, but there is a considerable population of players who have been with the club the last two seasons who would qualify as veterans.  If you take the core out of the mix, you are left with the following group who are 28 or older (an arbitrary standard) that were with the team in each of the last two seasons:
  • Jay Beagle
  • Troy Brouwer
  • Jason Chimera
  • John Erskine
  • Eric Fehr
  • Jack Hillen
  • Aaron Volpatti
  • Joel Ward

All of them are under contract for at least next season.  If the Caps are considering moving Brouwer and/or Ward, they would be doing so with each player having a career year in goals and points.  It would be reasonable to think that the Caps would never get as much return for either as they might right now, even if other general managers believe that neither has another career year in him.  The others?  Good luck getting a “large volume of young players” at the end of that process.

4. Commit to building around the draft. Invest in scouting, development, and a system. Articulate that system and stay with it so that all players feel comfortable-- know the language-- know what is expected of them-- read “The Oriole Way.” It worked and it is a great tutorial. Draft players that fit the system, not the best player. Draft the best player for the system. Don't deviate or get seduced by agents, media demands, or by just stats or hype. Envision how this player will slide into your system.

We have been over the matter of building through the draft in some detail.  The performance in evaluating, drafting, and bringing to an NHL performance level amateur talent has been uneven.  Perhaps Evgeny Kuznetsov or Tom Wilson, both of whom have just taken the first steps in their NHL careers, will improve the overall performance of the Caps in their ability to build through the draft.  Perhaps an Andre Burakowsky or a Madison Bowey will make that jump to important contributor down the road. 

However, the fact remains that three of the top five Capitals in goals scored this season were obtained by trade (Brouwer, Ward, Chimera), the two players tied for sixth in goal scoring (Eric Fehr, Mikhail Grabovski) were obtained in free agency, Fehr coming back for his second tour with the Caps after being drafted by the club in 2003.  The offensive talent among the skaters on the 2013-2014 club were built with a couple of lottery picks (Ovechkin and Backstrom) and players coming from somewhere else.

On defense the situation is comparable.  John Carlson and Karl Alzner are a solid pair (whether they are a bona fide top pair on a contender might be in some dispute).  After that there is Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov.  To the Caps’ credit, those are four home grown draft picks.  After that, however, of the other ten defensemen to have dressed for the team this season, only two – Connor Carrick and Patrick Wey – were drafted by the club.  Seven were signed as free agents, and one was obtained through waivers.  Drafting defensemen has been an endeavor with mixed success.  Going forward, even with a renovation, can fans have a reasonable expectation that this will improve?

As for the “system” and drafting the best player for it, do the Caps have a system?  Into what “system” were Kuznetsov, Wilson, and Burakowsky drafted?

5. Be patient with young players-- throw them in the pool to see if they can swim. Believe in them. Show them loyalty. Re-sign the best young players to long term high priced deals. Show the players you are very loyal to them as compared to free agents who achieved highly for another team. Teach them. Celebrate their successes. Use failures as a way to teach and improve. Coaches must be tough but kind to build confidence.

The Capitals certainly did that with defenseman Connor Carrick this season, who was thrown into the deep end of the pool on Opening Night against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in his first game as a professional at any level.  He is also something of the poster boy for what ended up being a mismanaged asset, somewhat overmatched at this level of play (limiting him to 33 games played), but not included on the roster of playoff-eligible players for the Hershey Bears, where a late-season playoff push or playoff games in the AHL Calder Cup tournament could have been valuable developmental experience.

At the other end there were the curious experiences of Steve Oleksy and Nate Schmidt, who played 62 games between them with the Caps, but none after January 21st.  Whatever you think of the plus-minus statistic, those two were two of only three defensemen still with the club in “plus” territory and two of only nine skaters still in the organization with plus numbers.  Even now at the end of the season they rank second and fourth in that measure with the Caps.

Then there is Tom Wilson.  You could say he was thrown into the pool, having gone from Plymouth in the Ontario Hockey League in 2012-2013 to the Caps in the playoffs last season and for the entirety of this season.  But the club tossed him into the shallow end and never let him out into deeper water.  Only two of 34 rookie forwards having played in at least 40 games have averaged less ice time than Wilson’s 7:56. 

Perhaps every youngster is their own case, but it certainly applies conspicuously to the Caps, whose  plan for bringing youngsters along seems inconsistent.

6. Make sure the GM, coach, owner and business folks are on the EXACT same page as to deliverables, metrics of success, ultimate goal, process and measured outcomes. Always meet to discuss analytics and don't be afraid of the truth that the numbers reveal. Manage to outcomes. Manage to let the GM and coach NOT be afraid of taking risks, and make sure there are no surprises. Over communicate. Act like an ethnic family--battle around the dinner table--never in public. Be tight as a team. Protect and enhance each other. Let the right people do their jobs.

If there is one point in the ten-point plan that a fan might like to see in more detail after this season, this is the one.  Were the GM, coach, owner and business folks on the EXACT same page as to deliverables, metrics of success, ultimate goal, process and measured outcomes?   If they met to discuss analytics, did they have a consistent set of them that all the parties treated as dispositive with respect to the team’s performance on the ice?  Did they manage risk appropriately?  If the coach and general manager were given latitude to take risks, was the risk taking asymmetrical (think here in terms of the general manager making trades for Martin Erat and Dustin Penner and the coach not using them)?  Going forward in the review of this season, with respect to what “outcomes” will the team be evaluated? 

This is likely to be the least transparent aspect of the evaluation (reasonably so) but almost certainly the most important.  One thing seems apparent, though.  Looking back over this season, it looked as if the general manager and the coaching staff were not on the same book shelf, let alone the same page.

7. No jerks allowed. Implement a no jerk policy. Draft and develop and keep high character people. Team chemistry is vital to success. Make sure the best and highest paid players are coachable, show respect to the system, want to be in the city, love to welcome new, young players to the team, have respect for the fan base, show joy in their occupation, get the system, believe in the coaches, have fun in practice, and want to be gym rats. Dump quickly distractions. Life is too short to drink bad wine.

There is a cart and horse element to this point.  Are players “jerks” when they arrive, or do they become so when used (or not) inappropriately (not that any are in evidence on this team)?  How is character evaluated?  When does “team chemistry” become “too comfortable with their station in life?”  What “system” is it in which the players are being trained? 

Overall, this speaks to a cultural element, and this has, from a distance at least, become a fundamental problem for this club.  Players (not to mention coaches and managers, for that matter) appear to have become too comfortable in their occupations.  What might be viewed as “patience” with performance can look like denial about the state of the club and its performance level.  There is too much attention to personalities, of image, of what seems to market well and less with holding people accountable for the “outcomes” one manages against in Point 6.  Assuming, that is, that it is the on-ice outcomes that are paramount.

8. Add veterans to the team via shorter term deals as free agents. Signing long-term, expensive deals for vets is very risky. We try to add vets to the mix for two year or three year deals. They fill in around our young core. They are very important for leadership, but they must complement the young core (NOT try to overtake them or be paid more than them). Identify and protect the core. Add veterans to complement them, not vice versa.

The club has adhered to this guideline for the most part.  If one looks at individual deals – extensions for Jason Chimera, Troy Brouwer, etc., or free agent deals, the only one to exceed the 2-3 year threshold was the free agent deal for Joel Ward (four years).  Duration is not the only consideration, though.  There are the compensation amounts as well.  In that regard the Caps have been good to “good soldiers” such as John Erskine or Jack Hillen or Aaron Volpatti in contract extensions.  Were these wise moves?   

But it has not been enough to add these parts to short term deals.  It is left to the imagination what the overall strategy was into which these pieces fit in the first place.  Individually, the deals might make sense, even to a fan.  But the Caps’ record over the past four seasons suggests that those parts have not been assembled into a coherent whole.

9. Measure and improve. Have shared metrics--know what the progress is--and where it ranks on the timeline-- be honest in all appraisals; don't be afraid to trade young assets for other draft picks to build back end backlog-- know the aging of contracts-- protect "optionality" to make trades at deadlines or in off season; never get in cap jail. Having dry powder is very important to make needed moves.

There are so many unknowns here.  One wonders what those “shared metrics” are in evaluating performance on the ice or in the front office.  Are the appraisals analyzing the right things, a pre-requisite to being “honest” with their results?  What constitutes progress?  Is it something other than wins and losses, progressively deeper runs in the playoffs?  If those are the outcome measures the team thinks are important, can the team honestly make a case that it has made progress?

10. Never settle--never rest--keep on improving. Around the edges to the plan, have monthly, quarterly and annual check-ups. Refresh the plan when needed but for the right reasons-- "how are we doing against our metrics of success and where are we on our path to a championship." Never listen to bloggers, media, so called experts--to thine own self be true. Enjoy the ride.

Hey, I wouldn’t listen to me either if I was making decisions about an asset worth nine figures with talent payroll over $60 million a year.  Neither I nor any of my fellow blogging wizards are privy to the detailed machinery of decision-making in this organization.  Fortunately, however, sports provide clarity with respect to outcome measures.  You win, or you lose.  The rest is just noise.

So, let us add to the decibels that will be shed in the aftermath of this dumpster fire of a season.

To a team that was trumpeted as one that would win “Stanley Cups” – plural –  that goes from the Presidents Trophy to a first-round playoff loss that same season, slides down the standings ladder until they have to rely on late season rushes just to make the playoffs, then fail in that altogether, the word “success” does not apply.

Is this team “patient” in its management, or has it merely been satisfied?  Last year we gave the planners a “Gentleman’s C.”  It would be hard to give the planners – the people one would expect to conduct the comprehensive analysis that is said to be coming – even that good a grade this season. 

This is not a case of injuries decimating the club and rendering it uncompetitive over long portions of the 82-game season.  Pittsburgh lost more than 500 man-games to injuries.  They are in the playoffs.  San Jose lost almost 300 man-games to injuries.  They are in the playoffs.  Ten teams finished with more man-games lost to injury than the Capitals.  Five of them are in the playoffs.  

This is not a case of a collective failure on the part of players.  Alex Ovechkin recorded his fifth 50-goal season.  Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward recorded career highs in goals and points.  Nicklas Backstrom finished third in the league in assists.

This is not a case of the culture shock of moving from the Southeast Division to the Metropolitan Division.  They were under .500 for the season in the Metro (12-15-3), but they were under .500 last season against the same teams, except Columbus, who the Caps did not face (7-10-2).  They were 12-10-2 against those teams in 2011-2012.

This was not a case of goaltenders costing the team ten points with inconsistency.  Capitals goalies finished in a virtual tie for 11th overall with Anaheim, a team that won 54 games this season, in save percentage at even strength.  

Over the last few years the Caps have worked from the bottom up in trying to fix what ails the team on the ice.  They have had four coaches over their last 190 regular season games starting with Bruce Boudreau’s last appearance behind the Caps bench in Game 22 of the 2011-2012 season.  A total of 65 skaters and six goaltenders have dressed for the Caps since their first round playoff loss to Montreal in 2010.  They have changed systems and schemes. 

And yet, the slide to also-ran status has proceeded uninterrupted since that 2010 playoff embarrassment.  The Caps are out of excuses.  It isn’t injuries, it isn’t realignment, it isn’t coaches, it isn’t players.  It is bigger.  This is a team that offers no evidence of what it wants to be as a hockey team and shows no particular ambition to be a champion.  It has too long been little more than a core and a revolving door of coaches and players, either too content to pursue popularity more than excellence, or pursuing success in an almost aimless manner. 

That is not to say they do not want a championship, in the abstract they probably want it as much as any organization. But fostering a culture that has a single-minded focus on winning?  A culture that promotes accountability?  A culture that takes a clear-eyed look at itself and fixes problems?  A culture that exudes a hard-working, relentless approach to the game? We are going to find out if all this attention to metrics and outcomes is an analytical tool or merely for public consumption.

Management cannot look outside the office suites for answers any longer.  They have to look in the mirror.  The answer starts there.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon


Jeremy said...

Today is a joyous day for those of us who have, for years, been saying "Ted Leonsis is not the Best Owner in Sports." The guy has always been hot air, spin, and sugar. Everything he touches turns to hype, then crashes. The difference today is even a moron can see the truth about Ted.

It's been astounding to watch how, year after year, the overwhelming majority of fans and media have more than given Ted the benefit of the doubt. They've actually encouraged the guy, stood up and cheered him on the jumbotron. "He's rich, he must know what he's doing." As if...

Here is the metric that will matter to Ted, here is the "appropriate voice" that will get Ted's ear this summer, here is The Metric of all metrics:

Percent of Season Ticket Renewals.

There's your "Same Page," Peerless. It's the ONLY page that matters in the end. It's the measure of Popularity. And with so many people renewing, year after year, why should Ted or Ov or George or Dick or anybody else change?

Have a nice, hot, long summer, Ted. You earned it!

ResidentOslo said...

Excellent recap and evaluation, I only hope that the organization itself is capable and willing to take such a hard look at itself.