A defining trait of the ’06-’07 Caps to date is their inability to put together 60 minutes of quality hockey — the type of outing in which a controlling tone is established in the earliest shifts; the team stakes itself to a lead it never relinquishes; penalties are kept to a manageable number; special teams execute their tasks with something reasonably close to perfection; shift after shift of accountable and cohesive 5-man, two-way play is only intermittently interrupted and clearly outplayed; and victory is ensured before the game’s final minutes. What we might call a polished professional outing.
A quarter of the way through the season, I’m not positive I could identify fully two such games, although leading candidates would be October 30 in Calgary and November 4 in Philadelphia (interestingly, both on the road). And injuries, I’d argue, aren’t the culprit: October — historically the Caps’ killer bad wins-loss month — was basically injury-free, and the team left it with a winning record. Additionally, it’d be virtually impossible to argue that the offseason delivered Coach Hanlon an inordinately high volume of roster turnover, making line cohesion and chemistry an autumn-long endeavor.
Instead, the vulnerabilities and their consequences appear to be both foreseeable and surprising in disappointing ways. First, the two leading roster issues of summer and training camp are proving to be nightly maladies this fall: the absence of a reliably productive, draw-winning second-line center and an authentic, shut-down blueliner. It’s been no. 2 pivot by committee, and the returns on the auditions of Jacub Klepis, Kris Beech, and Brooks Laich there have been largely dismal. Additionally, last season’s CBS anchor line of Clymer, Bradley, and Sutherby was broken up this summer with the Clymer experiment on defense, removing a strength that would have followed the second line weakness. Correspondingly, the opposition has been largely allowed to gang up on Ovechkin without paying a price by Caps’ lines following.
The addition of Brian Pothier on the blueline, joined by the subtraction of last season’s BandAids there, has improved the rearguards’ transition game, but during the current losing streak the Caps’ blueline corps has regularly been physically overwhlemed down low. The lone legitimate physical blueliner is John Erskine, whose play overall has been a pleasant surprise but who obviously is vulnerable to outside speed. It’s worth noting that the Caps did make a reasonably strong play for Zdeno Chara this past summer.
Steve Eminger simply isn’t making the sort of progress he ought to be given his skill set, experience, and minutes. Shaone Morrisonn follows strong outings and shifts with maddeningly numbskull ones. Overall, the unit is improved from a year ago but very much a work still in progress, and it’s hard to fathom it being a source of sting for the opposition so long as your no. 1 minutes-eater there — as well as your nos. 2 and 3 — can’t clear the crease.
These things, along with Kris Beech’s underwhelming productivity, could reasonably have been forecast.
But Brooks Laich’s fall from grace is a stunner. Recall that last September he had a mediocre camp, was dispatched to Hershey, put up huge number for the Bears in October, was summoned back to D.C., and spent the remainder of the year playing outstanding hockey in both ends for the Caps. But then he went back to Hershey for the AHL postseason and the Bears’ Calder Cup run, and he ended up playing well over 100 pro games last season. This morning I wonder if that calendar didn’t foster a bit of hockey hangover for Laich.
Brooks is no scapegoate, however. Brian Sutherby’s offensive production isn’t where it ought to be. Richard Zednik is another model of inconsistency. The Caps really needed impact Hershey graduations from one defenseman and at least one forward, and they’ve only gotten it from Mike Green so far. George McPhee had hoped that Nicklas Backstrom would play center in Washington this season, but that didn’t happen.
Going forward, it’s difficult to envision this club as comprised stitching together a notable winning streak and making a serious run for the playoffs with the two glaring holes and some unexpected inconsistency from the likes of Laich, Eminger, Morrisonn, and Sutherby. Conventional wisdom three weeks ago was that GMGM might be in a positoon this winter to make a deal bettering the Caps’ playoff chances. This week, however, one wonders if a deal might merely address an unanticipated disappointment. Or three.