Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Washington Capitals: When a Window Closes...Find (or Make) Another Window

"The Washington Capitals’ window has closed.   Year after year the Caps said, as the Nats are now saying for the third straight year, we have the talent, we have what it takes, right here in this room, to play for a championship. Our window of opportunity is wide open.
Right up until it isn’t."

Thomas Boswell, the renowned columnist for the Washington Post, authored those words in a column about the Washington Nationals baseball team on Saturday.  It was a warning to the Nationals and their fans that windows of opportunity that open for a professional sports team eventually close, that the team chock full of talent and expectations today can turn into, as he put it, “a decent back-in-the-pack team.”  

While Boswell’s subject is the Nationals, we are left to wonder if the basis for his warning, that the window of opportunity for the Caps has closed, has merit.

Let us begin by saying, he’s right.  The Caps are no longer, as Boswell said, one of six or eight teams that is in Stanley Cup debates.  They are just a decent back-in-the-pack team, and sometimes that description seems charitable.  They are, at this stage of their evolution depending on “a puncher’s chance to find a hot goalie in the playoffs, get their lines right, fall into a couple of advantageous early-round matchups.” In other words, to rely on the fool’s crutch, that “anything can happen” once you get to the playoffs.

If they get there at all.

Getting to the playoffs this season is not what concerns us about Boswell’s argument.  It is whether this club has essentially wasted the blessings of a ping-pong ball falling into their lap to secure the rights to pick first in the 2004 entry draft, a pick they used to select Alex Ovechkin, who has since been the face and the cornerstone of the franchise.

The best we can say about that is, “it depends.”  The team, as currently constituted, is not going to win a Stanley Cup.  It just isn’t, the deluded ramblings of early-season prognosticators notwithstanding.    We could go into the why’s and the how’s, but that is a conversation for another day.  We are concerned with the question of whether the window of opportunity is closed.

Call it the “Home Depot Theory” of team evolution, but if we are going to use the “window” analogy to describe a team’s evolution, then we need to acknowledge that a structure generally has more than one window.  And perhaps as one window closes, another becomes available.

The “window” of which we might speak of these Capitals opened when that ping-pong ball came up “Capitals” in 2004.  That season the Caps drafted Alex Ovechkin, a generational talent.  It also happened to be the season in which they drafted defenseman Mike Green, another young talent around which the Capitals could rebuild in addition to a raw natural talent that the club drafted in 2002 – Alexander Semin. 

After a 2005 league-wide lotto-draft in which the still bottom-rung Capitals were drafting in the middle of the pack, a draft that would eventually yield no player who would ever dress for the Caps, Washington took advantage of another lottery draft slot and selected Nicklas Backstrom with the fifth-overall pick in 2006.  The club also would pick a pair of goalies – Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth – to compete to become the successor to franchise icon Olaf Kolzig.

The Caps had their core, and the “window of opportunity” was about to open.  The first opportunity they had to climb through it was in 2008, following a coaching change and a furious comeback from being dead last in the Eastern Conference at one point in the season.  However, the Caps, with their “young guns” of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, and Green, were eliminated from their unanticipated and unlikely Stanley Cup playoff appearance by the Philadelphia Flyers, who won a Game 7 in overtime.

That appearance would start a string of six seasons in which the Caps would reach the post-season Stanley Cup tournament, a string that is current, but in jeopardy.  That six-year run of post-season appearances constitute the “window of opportunity” for this generation of Caps to bring a championship to Washington, an achievement no local major professional sports organization has been able to accomplish since the Washington Redskins won a Super Bowl title in 1992.

Alas, not only has this edition of the Capitals not won a championship, they have not advanced to a conference final and have won a grand total of three playoff series.  The losses have been agonizing.  In the six years in which the Caps appeared in the playoffs they were eliminated in a Game 7 five times, four times at home.

This season, the Capitals are in a fight for their playoff lives.  They are in ninth place in a race in which only eight teams make the playoffs, a tie-breaker behind the Detroit Red Wings, with whom they are tied in standings points, for a wild card spot.  It is part of what has been a long, slow decline since the Capitals set a franchise record (and a record for a non-original six team) 121 standings points and won a Presidents Trophy in 2009-2010.  Since that 54-win season the club has seen its win totals drop to 48 to 42 to a pro-rated 46 (they won 27 times in 48 games in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season) to what is a pace for 38 wins this season.

The window barely makes a sound when it closes, apparently.

Do the Caps have another window to open, though?  Every team turns over its personnel.  The annual entry draft, trades, free agent signings, waiver claims, all are means for a club to remake itself over time.  The flip side is that players and personalities that we become used to, familiar with, and even attached to move on.  For the Caps, the “young guns” that made their appearance in 2007-2008 are a thing of the past.  Alexander Semin has moved on to Carolina.  Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green are not “young guns,” they are engaged to be married.  Nicklas Backstrom is a father.  Time goes on.

Life’s march of time and responsibilities aside, we are left to consider if there is another window for the Caps to open.  Let’s go back in time to consider if this is even reasonable.  First, remember what the Capitals were before they drafted Alex Ovechkin – awful.  Having gambled on splashy trades (well, one),  free agents, and aging stars to bring a Cup to Washington, the gamble failed, and the team sold off its pricey assets for picks and prospects.  The result was a team that won just 23 games in the 2003-2004 season, and even after drafting Alex Ovechkin in 2004 winning only 29 games in 2005-2006 and 28 games in 2006-2007.  In those years the Caps would develop Ovechkin, to whom would be added Green, Semin, and Backstrom to form the core that would make the playoffs in 2007-2008.

Dial the Wayback Machine to 1983.  The Detroit Red Wings, a proud franchise having won seven Stanley Cups, had just finished a five-year run in which they failed to win as many as 25 games.  They missed the playoffs for the 12th time in 13 seasons, over which time they went through a dozen coaches.  They were a mess.

They also had the fourth overall pick in the 1983 draft.  The Wings were not unfamiliar with high round draft picks, having picked in the top five four times in the previous eight drafts.  In 1983, though, they hit the jackpot.  They selected Steve Yzerman, a center with the Peterborough Petes who racked up 91 points in 56 games in the 1982-1983 season.  Given the state of the Wings and their lack of talent, Yzerman was thrust into the lineup right away to sink or swim.  For him, the rest was history.

We are more concerned with what happened later.  Despite Yzerman’s presence the Red Wings still struggled, enough to realize top-ten draft picks in each of the next three drafts, including an number one overall pick in 1986 (Joe Murphy).  The infusion of talent had an effect.  Yzerman piled up points. Recording 229 goals and 565 points over his first six seasons, culminating in a 65-goal/155-point finish to his sixth season in 1988-1989.  The Red Wings made the playoffs five times in those six seasons, but they advanced past the first round only twice, due in part to the fact that those other top-ten picks did not develop as one might have expected top-ten picks to do, and Yzerman was perhaps too enamored of scoring and not doing the other things great players and great teams do to win championships.

Yzerman continued to produce at a 50-plus goal/100-plus point pace into the early 1990’s, but by the time he completed his tenth season in 1992-1993 (a 58-goal/137-point season), Yzerman was the only member of the 1983-1984 team (his rookie season) left.  He had eight playoff appearances to show for it, but five times in those eight appearances his team was eliminated in the first round.

You would think that any “window” that the Red Wings might have had with one of the most prolific scorers of his era was closing.  There were other things going on, though.  There was the draft.  Having top-ten draft picks was no guarantee of success, but finding gold in later rounds would pay off.  In 1989 the Red Wings went to Europe for their third and fourth round picks, taking a defenseman from Sweden in the third round and a forward from Russia in the fourth.  The next season they would find another Russian forward in the third round.  In 1991 they took a Canadian forward in the first round with the tenth-overall pick and a goalie in the third round, the first time the Red Wings took a goalie that high in the draft in ten years.

The Red Wings still had Yzerman, but now they also had Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Martin Lapointe, and Chris Osgood.  By 1993-1994 all six would play important roles for the club for their new coach, Scotty Bowman.  By 1995, all of them would reach the Stanley Cup finals, and by 1997 they would win it all.

What you have just read might be considered a bit simplistic.  It was not just these six players, in addition to Yzerman, that took the Red Wings to a Cup in 1997, and Hall of Fame coaches do not drop out of trees into the laps of NHL teams.  However, what we can – and do – argue is that a window closing does not preclude another from opening, if managed well.

For the Washington Capitals, the window that opened in 2007-2008 is most assuredly closing.  The task at hand is to find another window to open.  Will that window provide entry for the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Tom Wilson, Andre Burakowsky, Riley Barber, or other prospects?  Will this coaching staff, or perhaps another, find the key to unlock the talents of the old guard of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green, and find a way to mesh them with the next generation of Capitals?

That the Red Wings found a way to do it is not meant to serve as a template, it is not the sort of thing that can be replicated in an on-demand basis.  It is only as a example that it can – and does – happen.  But it is rare to find those elements and have them come together just so to make a collection of pieces a championship whole.  It might not be that a single generation of talent takes a club to the highest level.  Perhaps it is another generation that takes its place in the constant evolution of a franchise to build on what that first generation raised from the rubble of mediocrity when they were younger.

Boswell says what perhaps a lot of Caps fans feel, that “if the Caps had made horrid mistakes, the pain of watching them now as they struggle to be average would not be so annoying and poignant. But they didn’t. Their exceptionality just slipped away as the years sped past.”

The Red Wings became exceptional because their success was unexceptional.  It became their standard, a product of a long series of decisions and actions – some the product of good fortune, some unfortunate, some painstakingly taken with the longer view in mind.

In the end, the Caps might have been exceptional, and if these last six years are, in fact, the exception, perhaps that means that their standard is something less or unachievable in the manner the team is organized.  It should not be.  But to raise that standard, they need to find – or make – another window.