Friday, April 30, 2010

Now What?

That’s going to be the question that haunts Caps Nation until this time next year. When a season of such hope and expectation ends so suddenly and emphatically with a loss in the first round of the playoffs to a team that finished 33 points behind you in the standings, that’s a question that betrays a lack of certainty as to just the “what” is supposed to be.

But out of the wreckage of the bomb that was set off in Verizon Center on Wednesday night, there are still sturdy shoots of hope popping out of the rubble. First, let’s get something out of the way at the start. In our last entry we said, “the only people who could call this season successful on any score are either drawing a paycheck from the club, or they are suffering serious delusions. Tonight, the season stands as a failure. Period, and point blank."

We stand by it. It is precisely because the aspirations of this franchise are to great things, not mediocrity, and because the expectations were so high, not merely to make the playoffs but to carry a Stanley Cup around the Verizon Center ice. If those are your ambitions, anything less is, by definition, “failure.”

The best that can be said is that “failure” is not a moral judgment. One of the things that comes out of this season is that the Caps seem to be, individually and as a group, as well-grounded a bunch of young men as there are in the league – thoughtful, earnest, diligent, all those virtues you hope for and expect in athletes you root for, at least given the fact that many of them are early 20-somethings who might do some things that old farts like us would cringe at. “Failure” isn’t a value judgment, either. Despite the way the season ended, this is one of, if not the most, talented teams in the NHL.

“Failure” is an event. It is a condition that can be corrected. It is an opportunity.

And it begs the question posed above… “now what?”

The groundwork to be laid in answering that question came from The Boss, himself, who wrote…

“We won’t do anything rash or make any decisions out of emotional angst. We will collect our thoughts. We will be energized by our failure. We will seek to improve. We will be diligent in our research and we won’t deviate from our plan. We still intend to build around our core. We will make adjustments. We will keep our upside. We will accentuate the positives and we will tweak and change around the negatives where needed.”

There are a lot of action statements in that quote, a “plan within a plan,” as it were. The Caps “will” and “will not” do things going forward. What might those things be?

Ever hear the old saying, “marry in haste, repent in leisure?” Well, a similar thought applies here… act in haste, regret in time. Blowing things up based on the Montreal series – what appears to pass for a plan among an awful lot of Caps fans – is an option. It also happens to be a really bad one. One of the things that went wrong early for the Caps in this regime’s tenure was going for the quick fix, then compounding it by trying quick fixes to fix the quick fix (the “Snyder Syndrome”). That pertained to adding assets. Now, a lot of folks in Caps Nation seem to want to pursue the reverse – get rid of Flesichmann, trade Semin, what can we get for (fill in the name of your favorite Capital here)? Sort of the quick fix by elimination, which will be compounded (we have little doubt) later with calls to get rid of more players.

Lessons learned in the past half dozen years point to what will certainly be patience in evaluating what happened here, and more important, how it can be corrected. Caps fans will be impatient, but that evaluation and implementation is probably going to take the entire summer and beyond. Yes, there will be players on expiring contracts who will not be offered new deals, or will be given perfunctory offers, but radical, sweeping changes? We think that unlikely and bad strategy to boot, at least in the fresh pain of defeat.

What would “improvement” look like? Well, it might look very strange to Caps fans who just saw a 120 point season go up smoke. First of all, there might not be a 120-point season… ever again. Maybe President’s Cup teams don’t win Stanley Cups as often as you might expect for a reason. Seasons have eddys and currents to them, ups and downs. Maybe those teams have enjoyed their best too early to be able to sustain it into the early summer. But for the Caps, it seems the problem is a lot less esoteric. Their style slammed right into a wall – literally, a wall – through which they could not penetrate effectively. You could convince yourself that three goals on 134 shots in the last three games against Montreal is just having had to face a “hot goaltender.” Well, that’s a part of it, but not all of it, and perhaps only some of it.

Despite the presence of Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich to do a lot of dirty work in front of the net, this club was either not engineered for or was just not constitutionally capable of doing any of the dirty work in other areas of the ice that one has to perform to succeed at this time of the year. It seemed as if too many Caps were pushed out of their productive areas of the ice and didn’t push back hard enough to assert themselves into those positions. Here is an example – Montreal blocked a ton of shots in this series (182 in seven games, almost as many as they had shots on goal in the series – 194). That suggests a herculean effort by the Montreal defense, throwing themselves without regard to welfare in front of Capitals’ shots. Well, it suggests something else, too. It is a lot more likely a shot coming from 50 feet will be blocked than one coming from five feet. Looking at the shot charts from the last three games, there were too many of the former, and not enough of the latter.

As much as we are loathe resurrecting the comparison with Pittsburgh, again, one of the things that set the Penguins apart from their competitors last year in winning the Stanley Cup was the appearance that everyone bought into the idea of fighting for control of the 200-foot ice sheet, of everyone making things uncomfortable for opponents -- forechecking, going to the net, fighting for and winning loose pucks in corners and along the wall. In the regular season, you can give up some of that. You can win games on the sole basis of having superior skill. In the playoffs, as seems all too clear now, you cannot.

The Canadiens took the “regular season” sort of game away from the Caps, and the Caps did not (or could not) reach down find that reservoir of will. Now, are the Caps as currently constituted capable of finding that reservoir of playoff-style will? Is it a matter of players finding that next rung on the ladder of maturity? Or will it require retooling, or to “tweak and change,” to put it another way? We’ll see, but what changes come cannot be with the October-to-April part of the season in mind.

You would think that players coming through the system via Hershey will get a long look, perhaps a longer one than one might usually think. Hershey is, after all, a critical part of “the plan” to which the Caps have adhered for the past several years. John Carlson and Karl Alzner are almost locks to stick with the parent team next year, and both of them look to have not only talent, but the indefinable sense of being “winners.” You have to ask the question whether there are others in Hershey who can provide that “playoff-oriented” style that seemed so lacking on the big club this spring.

Given the way the Caps approached the regular season, style wise, this could be a rather significant shift in attitude. It does not necessarily mean an abandonment of the fighter-squadron attack style that made them the entertainment darlings of the league this year, but rather adding an “infantry” element to their game – one that they seem to need to push through in the playoffs. Adding that to their game might result in some fits and starts along the way that make a 120-point regular season beyond their reach. But if they’ve added that to their repertoire by the spring, not getting 120 points, or 110, or even 100 won’t matter.

The evolution of this team reflects a core of players around which players will be added or subtracted. OK, so what is that core this morning? Clearly, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are a part of that core. You can’t fault either for the Caps’ loss, even if they had stretches where they weren’t heard from. Until the Montreal series, you wouldn’t have wasted a half-second in answering “Mike Green and Alexander Semin” as part of that core too. But what about those two? Here, the Caps patience is being and will be tested. Green is the best offensive defenseman of this generation, or so the prevailing narrative goes (to which we have made meager contributions). But in his last three playoff series, he is 1-8-9, minus-4. He has been a non-factor in the offensive end of the ice and has been something of a liability in the other end. Does the light go on over his head at some point like it does for a lot of defensemen who need to serve a rough playoff apprenticeship? An example. There is a defenseman in the NHL of some renown these days who, in his first two playoff seasons playing on a team that won 90 regular season games combined over those two years, went 1-3-4, minus-7 in 18 playoff games. Who was that?

Nicklas Lidstrom

Does Green have it in him to become something approaching that kind of player in the playoffs (Lidstrom has 167 points and is a plus-54 in 224 playoff games since)? You’ll have to be patient with him to see.

Alexander Semin is a much tougher nut to crack. Look up the word “enigma” in the dictionary, and there is his inscrutable face peering out at you. How can a player scoring 40 goals in the regular season then lead the NHL in playoff shots on goal (44) and not have one hit the back of the net? Well, you might have to be patient with him in the same fashion you will have to be with Mike Green, and perhaps for similar reasons. Let us look at another player – a player who when he came into the league was thought to be a bit too frail, a bit less sturdy than folks might have thought necessary to be successful, one who in his first four playoff years went 3-9-12, minus-1 in 42 games on a very successful team (205 regular season wins in those four years, one Stanley Cup), and this despite 81 goals and 241 points in his first four regular seasons. But today, he is thought of as one of the best two-way players in the league, whose skill and determination in the playoffs are questioned by no one. Who is that?

Pavel Datsyuk

We’re not trying to sell you an argument that Mike Green is Nicklas Lidstrom in waiting, or that Alexander Semin is the next great two-way Russian. They could become that; perhaps they will not. That is the sense in which the Caps are going to have their patience tested. There are no sure things, unless you move them, in which the certainty is that they won’t be doing it here.

Then there is the coach.  Two years ago at this time, Bruce Boudreau was the toast of the town, the savior who rescued the season, whose style and just-folks attitude was the bee's knees.  Today, there are questions whispered about whether he is the right coach for this team, if he is a "regular season" coach who doesn't have what it takes to take the final step.  We admit to some uncertainty as to the answers to those questions.  Certainly, the Caps never adjusted to what Montreal's strategy was (at least not effectively), and there was a certain lack of nimbleness in responding to the in-series changes that Montreal made tacically.  We think that can be fairly laid at the coaching staff's feet.  But does that stamp "failure" on Boudreau's resume? 

No coach can win a Stanley Cup until he does.  No coach has "Will Win Stanley Cups" accompanying his resume as he comes to the NHL.  But Boudreau has won championships in two other leagues and added another finals appearance in the AHL.  He has the bona fides as a coach capable of leading a winning team.  He is in his third year with this group, and while there might be grumbling about a window closing on his opportunity from other quarters, we think it unlikely in the extreme that he will be relieved this summer.  That's not to say that his continued employment is a certainty if either the Caps start poorly next year, or the Caps pull another one-and-done act next spring.  But firing a coach for a singular failure (we do not think either of the last two playoff exits were failures as much as losing to teams that were better) seems incomprehensible for a club whose philosophy is rooted in more long-term considerations.  All that said, we are reminded of Bryan Murray -- a Caps coach of considerable accomplishment in the regular season during the 1980's who spent years with this club living year after year of playoff disappointment.  We do not think folks will be so tolerant as to get into that kind of habit once more.

In a sports-talk, internet-infused sports environment, the pressure is on finding answers and making decisions now. For the first five years under this regime, the Caps reflected that. Trade for Jaromir Jagr, sign Robert Lang, create buzz. We will admit being swept up in it at the time (we thought trading for Jagr was a good thing). We all see how that worked out. Enter “The Plan.” Draft well, build a foundation, adjust here and there to fit, build a “system” that includes a philosophy permeating all of its elements from Washington to Hershey. In this era, it’s boring. But it might yet be boring in that “Berkshire Hathaway” sort of way that made investor Warren Buffett and a lot of his shareholders very rich. If you are investing for long term growth, you are going to suffer losses along the way. This, obviously, was a big loss that hurt from the fan watching at home on TV to the owner’s suite at Verizon Center. But “failure” is, as noted above, an event. It is an opportunity. We will see now what the Caps do with that opportunity.

This morning, the Caps are a punch line in the world of hockey. Folks are taking shots at the club that they seem to have been saving up since Alex Ovechkin won his first Hart Trophy. Fine. To that, we’ll quote a proverb first quoted in French literature (for the benefit of all the Canadian press who seem to be taking a special glee in the fall of the Caps)… "la vengeance se mange très-bien froide."

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

Hockey, as you recall, is played on ice.