Uninspired and Unwatchable

Like many in the region, I lost power in my home during Wednesday night’s storm. But I’ve a four-wheel drive and a flatscreen-laden Chili’s nearby, and I really wanted to watch the Capitals’ final game before the All Star break. Bruce Boudreau had identified Wednesday night’s game in Atlanta as a big one.

(Like those in Tampa January 12, and Philly a week later.)

And so I braved the extreme elements in pursuit of televised, big-game puck. Might not have been the wisest course of action, but I regard myself as a hearty winter soul.

In ordinary weather I’ve merely a three- or four-minute commute to my local Chili’s, but Wednesday evening was anything but ordinary. The roads were madness, chaos, quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my hometown in winter — even last year’s anomalously snow-buried one. Ill-informed or belligerent drivers of small, rear-wheel-drive cars had no chance. None. And because of stranded and abandoned buses I had to navigate a 4-mile, highly circuitousĀ  route to the restaurant. I made it, finally, and was thrilled to be seated in warmth smack in front of a 50-inch flatscreen, all to myself, tall draft beer before me. I’d missed only the opening couple of minutes of the game. (Obviously, no scoring.) The evening at that moment felt quite special; I rather enjoyed the adventurous ardor by which to view the big game.

Then I watched it. Well, tried to.

The next time you read or hear a prominent hockey commentator — particularly one up in Canada, one who isn’t tasked with watching Washington Capitals’ games night in, night out — blather on about all being just dandy in D.C. these days, that the Caps are merely dress rehearsing for the big springtime production, shoot him a quick email that informs:

  • The Washington Capitals have won a grand total of nine of their last 25 games. Does that strike you as the mid-season form of a champion-in-waiting?
  • Also, if the game goes to OT, they’ve no chance.

I was appalled by what I watched Wednesday night. Again. In another “big game,” the Capitals came up incredibly small. There’s far more power outage among the Capitals’ forwards than any Montgomery County neighborhood serviced by Pepco. And it isn’t accidental. Not only didn’t the Caps score, again, really they didn’t even come close to. Again.

More and more this is a hockey season of unfathomable waste in Washington. So little worth preserving on the DVR. New Years Day is less a grand feat in the context of the whole season because we now realize that the game’s swamp conditions greatly aided the guests. The Caps’ most impressive games this season came way back in the fall, when the Caps were the Caps of old: exciting. Now they’re the Devils of the past 15 or 20 years. What I really need from Pepco this hockey season are outages from 7:00-10:00 on Capitals’ game nights.

I was filled with disgust at the game-ending horn Wednesday, and I immediately rang my buddy Michael in up Maine, who I knew was watching like I was. I didn’t even get a hello in to him before I heard these words from his mouth: “Uninspired and unwatchable.”

Utterly perfect synopsis.

The Washington Capitals this winter are unwatchable — particularly from the vantage of those laying out large coins to be seated down low in Verizon Center, having responded to the offseason marketing cry of, Washington’s most exciting sports brand — the only winning game in town!

At the end of my 20-minute telephone catharsis with Michael Wednesday I realized that my outrage wasn’t directed merely at another lousy result in a “big game” but what the Capitals’ surrender meant in a macro-philosophical sense. Remember the adage “The new NHL”? It represented an evolution away from the clutch-and-grab, drab trap and dump NHL hockey pre-lockout. The one that ESPN rightfully abandoned. In the new NHL hockey was to be played . . . with flow and creativity, with scoring consequently elevated. In other words, as it’s supposed to be played. In capitulating as the Capitals have this winter, in playing away from their roster strength, they’ve basically dropped the proud flag of up-tempo thrill that actually made Washington a hockey town.

Our last great hope perhaps is to have the Vancouver Canucks win Lord Stanley this season. The brand of hockey they displayed at Verizon Center a few weeks back was captivating — fast and synchronous, quality scoring chance after quality scoring chance generated, hard-hitting, hockey the way it’s supposed to be played. The Caps did everything they could in that game to uglify it. Naturally, they lost. Because they’re impostors.

George McPhee this week announced the resigning of Alexander Semin. A part of me wondered why he pursued such a skilled player to play in this slop of a system. But then I realized: McPhee and Bruce Boudreau genuinely want a 0-0 result in 5-on-5 play this season, especially in the postseason — that’s what these new-look Caps seem to be able to consistently generate, after all — and hope that Semin or Mike Green can tally on a power play, and then they’ll hold on.

How thrilling.

Two weeks ago, when I went up to Philly for that other big game, I joined Lisa Hillary for a between-periods radio segment with WTOP’s Jonathon Warner. Warner asked Lisa if she was surprised by what she’d seen from the Capitals on the evening. Lisa turned and looked blankly at me, a bit fearful I think of her instinct to be blunt and frank on the air in that moment. But she replied, “Jonathon, I don’t recognize the Capitals’ team I’m seeing tonight.”

You know, there remain 10 more contractual years of Alexander Ovechkin’s NHL career in Washington. What if you knew that all 10 were to be played in a system such as this season’s? Wouldn’t you hurl yourself in front of the next available snowplow?

It is uniquely the NHL that soils the intrinsic beauty of this great game. George McPhee this week acknowledged there being a lot of “copy-catting” by teams in the league. It’s a copy-catting of the lowest common denominator: take highly skilled hockey players and suffocate their instincts and skillsets within a soporific system that stymies. It’s socialized hockey. When have you associated socialism with creativity and inspiration? It’s the old ways versus the short-lived, tantalizingly exciting new. I understand the need of many European pro teams, in leagues in nations whose best players have come over to the NHL, to play neutral zone suffocation — there’s a dearth of talent there. But watch our Americans who’ve come up through the USNDTP, in any international tournament today, in any age bracket. The Red, White and Blue develop young guns of great gallop, and they attack in waves and pressure the puck in every inch of the ice. It’s so beautiful to watch. It’s hockey as hockey should be played. It’s also the hockey the NHL promised us it was returning to.

Label this surrender style the Caps are playing whatever you want, but most assuredly, if you are a lover of hockey as it should be played, you can’t call it inspired. Or watchable.

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This entry was posted in Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Bruce Boudreau, Front Office, George McPhee, Jonathan Warner, Lisa Hillary, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, New Jersey Devils, Vancouver Canucks, Washington Capitals, Washington the hockey town. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Uninspired and Unwatchable

  1. Kazer says:

    Very well put.

    Good or bad, the Caps have at least been watchable post-lockout in all but that horrible stretch of games leading up to Hanlon getting fired. Lately, they haven’t been watchable at all. I used to be glued to my television from the beginning of the game to the end. Now, I ‘watch’ the game by sitting downstairs on my computer listening to Joe B describe the game on my computer while my TV is on the background.

    I appreciate that they are emphasizing defense, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of ALL offense. If they don’t find any balance, this team may find a way to exit the playoffs even earlier than they did last season.

  2. Ray in MD says:

    The playoffs may not include the Caps if they continue playing as they have lately, and if they do get in, someone will have to self-destruck for them to win a 7-game series.

  3. Neuromancer says:

    I agree that the new Caps style is like watching the old NJ Devils. However, it has our goals-against at unbelievably low levels. The next coaching magical trick will be to figure out how to get our skill forwards to be better at counter-attacking from a stifled rush by the opponents. Oh, and be willing to play aggressive dump and chase forechecking in the corners, as well as crash the net in a regular-season game, risking injury. I think what we have to hope is that by playing this way in the regular season, developing comfort with the defensive game, well enough to make the playoffs without major injuries to offensive assets, then allows us to turn up the intensity of the offensive game in the playoffs within the new system to score enough goals each game to advance. It appears that we will need fewer goals-for this year than last. I just hope I am right that increasing intensity and commitment from the offensive players in the playoff mode will get it done. We shall see…

  4. Nancy S says:

    You nailed it. Wish there was a balance between exciting& winning close games. But this system ain’t it. Especially if they can’t even score one goal. Sadness:(

  5. DarkStranger44 says:

    And, sad to say, they’re not even winning with their new system. Instead, it’s surrender. Maybe they need to concentrate on how to beat the trap instead of playing the trap. Granted, they needed to learn more defense but …… These days, all the other team has to do to win is score one time. At worst, take the game into OT and win there or in the shootout. These days, a Caps OT game is a guaranteed loss for the Caps. Best cure for insomnia these days — watch a tape of a Caps game.

  6. Philip Schneider says:

    I seem to recall many columns from this site and others last spring complaining about the Caps post season flame outs, practically BEGGING for exactly this type of hockey. Well guess what, you wanted it, you got it.

    To now criticize that which you asked for is incredibly disingenuous, if not outright hypocritical.

    I always worried about this exact situation (giving in to the Trap and having unwatchable hockey) and it is one of the reasons I did not complain (unlike so many others) about Boudreau’s system. You can’t have it both ways Pucksandbooks. You cannot say you want them to focus on defence and then when they do, call the season a waste!

    The problem is not the Caps, the problem is the fact that the league ALLOWS THE TRAP. It would be so simply to outlaw this defensive posture. The NBA has an illegal D rule. Hockey could as well. No Trap, ever. A ref upstairs watches the game, if they are not sending two guys in at least or if they are sitting 5 guys back, it’s a warning the first time, a two minute minor thereafter. But of course the league will never do that, because the TRAP allows the less talented teams to compete and keeps the standings close.

    I love the Caps and want them to do well. But let’s call a spade a spade here Pucksandbooks. I would rather they play their uptempo brand of hockey, even if that means they NEVER win the cup. That is how much I love this game and hate the Trap. Are you willing to make that statement as well? Because that is the only logical conclusion of your article here. And hey, that’s great. I agree. Of course I’d also understand if you said, “well no, I’d rather play the Trap and win the Cup”. Fine.

    But you cannot have it both ways…you cannot complain about their defence and then when they change to your recommended style, complain yet again.

    That’s no fair.

  7. RAL says:

    I’ll watch any hockey, quite frankly. Of course if it’s between a vintage trap-era game vs the WJC final, give me the wide-open hockey of the WJC, but I’ll watch the Caps no matter which style they play or how well they play it. If they can learn to play the trap very well then that becomes a HUGE asset in the playoffs, defending a lead and whatnot.

  8. Duffman says:

    We don’t play a trap system on defense. Not every defensively focused system is a “trap.”

    The problem is not that we are focusing on defense. The problem is that BB doesn’t know how to coach offense without sacrificing defense. His entire offensive system us based on leaving the defense out to dry.

    It’s entirely possible to focus on defense while having offensive balance, teams do it every year and win cups. You just need a coach that can actually coach that style of balanced hockey.

    But just stop pretending we play anything resembling an NJ style trap, all you do is prove people who say Caps fans don’t know anything about hokey correct when you do that.

  9. Duffman says:

    We don’t play a trap system on defense. Not every defensively focused system is a “trap.”

    The problem is not that we are focusing on defense. The problem is that BB doesn’t know how to coach offense without sacrificing defense. His entire offensive system us based on leaving the defense out to dry.

    It’s entirely possible to focus on defense while having offensive balance, teams do it every year and win cups. You just need a coach that can actually coach that style of balanced hockey.

  10. Dougeb says:

    Okay, so stop watching the Caps then, and quit writing about them. If you pay good money to do something that is supposed to be enjoyable, and isn’t, then it’s foolish.

    Your next article will probably compare watching the Caps to getting a root canal.

    No reason to waste your money if you don’t like the team. Maybe you could instead blog about the Wizards — I hear their road record is good.

  11. Philip,

    If you can point me back to a single file I wrote here or on any other site advocating the Caps’ adoption of a trap, I will send you on an all-expenses-paid week’s vacation to a locale of your choice, and run naked down Pennsylvania Ave. naked at rush hour in our next blizzard.

  12. Ted says:

    I get the impression that they may not have the motivation or emotional investment of past seasons given the somber realization in many of the players minds that all that ends up mattering is the playoffs. I think the players realize this and may be a different team in terms of effort and passion come playoff time. If my memory serves me well, the Penguins were 11th in the East in February of 2009 and then went on to win the Stanley Cup. Also, the Flyers snuck in on a shootout last year and almost won. Let’s not forget the Hurricanes in 2009 either and what they did.

  13. Dave says:

    Goals for through Dec 2 (against Dallas when they were robbed of the game tieing goal); 27 games = 91 goals (3.37 per). Since that game; 24 games = 49 goals (2.04). That game is also when their losing streak started, did something happen to their psyche that is has manifested itself into a team not crashing the net and generally not scoring? I am happy with the improved defense, but would love to see some of the old spark that provided all the scoring.

  14. John Q says:

    Good article except for the random bit about socialism…plenty of great hockey players come from places that today we’d consider socialist countries-sweden/finland/russia/czech…picasso was a socialist, dali was a fascist-what do economic politics have to do with any of your comments?

  15. Josh says:

    My response to this, and the general complaints of people regarding what the Caps are going through, is to wait for the playoffs. The judgement point for the BB era (at least in his full seasons)has frequently been a lack of playoff success against great regular seasons.

    If that is the standard being imposed, don’t watch the regular season and see what happens in the playoffs. If we get swept in the first round, then by all means let it rip; if we’re going to base success off of playoff performance, however, then wait and see what happens.

    But in general, (although perhaps not specifically in direct response to ‘Pucksandbooks’) we wanted defence, and we’ve got it.

  16. Neuromancer says:

    @John Q,
    I thought the use of the socialism reference was appropriate. He used it in the sense of a system of hockey in which no team was allowed to perform at a higher offensive level than another, regardless of talent level. Everybody-back defensive schemes in hockey make superior skill less effective, penalizing the extra effort and expense a team has gone through to achieve that higher capability. Sort of like socialism.

  17. HBH WC says:

    I agree with everything said in your blog. Looking from the outside, it looks as thought they are trying to play a system similar to the system Hanlon had them play. How did that work out? They have succumbed to the pressures from hockey outsiders that are screaming that in order to win the cup they need to play a more defensive system. A leopard can’t change it’s spots. I’ve said it before, you have thoroughbreds they need to run. I’d like to see them try to win the cup that way. Let the chips fall where they may.

  18. Ron Turcotte says:

    Its like putting a plow on Secratariat.

  19. sonja says:

    Hmmm … there is something to this theory and time will tell. But.

    I’ve been watching the All Star shenanigans this weekend. And something is not right with Alex Ovechkin. If all that was wrong with this team and it’s players were this system or that system, one would think that when he is lifted out of the team and left to his own devices, he would shine. That’s not happening. I’m watching the ASG and he’s giving the puck away, has no life, no spark … just bleh. That can’t be explained by a new system back here.

  20. Philip Schneider says:

    Pucksandbooks,

    Perhaps calling it a specific “trap” is not the right way to phrase it. What I’m trying to get at is that so many people, since last year’s playoffs, have been begging the Caps to focus more on defence. Well they finally have. And not surprisingly, it leads to less exciting hockey. I guess I am just a bit annoyed that people are complaining now about that which they seemed to be asking for.

    Again, I agree with you. It is terrible hockey to watch. I just don’t think that our venom should be directed towards the Caps for implementing it. It ought to, rightly, be directed towards a league office that allows this style of hockey to be played.

    I know that I would probably get very few to agree with me, but I will state again, that I would rather lose with an uptempo style of play, than win with this horrible to watch defensive style of play.

    On a slightly different note, I also might add that I don’t think the Caps had to adopt this style to be successful. The reason we lost last year in the 1st round was not because of poor coaching or improper team composition. It was due to sheer, dumb luck. People don’t want to admit that because they always want to be able to assign blame. Well sometimes, there is none. It’s just simple variance. The best way to assure long term success is to follow the path GMGM is on – lock up your best guys long term, never over commit to free agents (imagine if we’d signed some of those crazy expensive dmen from last year’s UFA crop…Ugh!), and make sure you have a steady pipeline of cheap, high talent kids (the last few years Carlson and Varly, going forward Kuznetsof and Orlov). It took Detroit a long time to win it’s first cup too, but they certainly didn’t stop at 1. And neither will we. We all just need to be patient. Eventually, talent will win out. And we do have the talent.

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