Caps’ Season Overview: “A Work in Progress”

report_card.jpgFrom our vantage, the Washington Capitals have not yet assembled the key roster pieces that ownership and management need to supplement the rebuilding blocks laid during the first two post-lockout seasons — and which can deliver the Caps to springtime viability. Even prior to the trade of Dainius Zubrus, the team lacked a true first-line, playmaking pivot. This offseason, it needs to bring in skilled centers for the first two lines. One position presumably will be filled by 2006 draft gem Nicklas Backstrom of Sweden. Almost certainly the other will have to come from free agency or a trade this summer.
Despite Captain Chris Clark’s 30 goals, there are question marks on right wing. Is Eric Fehr’s back injury chronic? Is there durable chemistry between Alexander Semin and Tomas Fleischmann, and if so, can Semin settle in on the wing to Flash’s right?
Without question Alexander Ovechkin is the face and future of this organization, but his sophomore season brought struggles and frustrations few of us would have imagined last June, when we watched him best Sidney Crosby for the Calder Trophy. Eric McErlain last week well chronicled AO’s season of comparative discontent. He is one of the five most gifted hockey players on the planet today, but his defensive game, underscored by his -19 rating, has a long way to go. An important reminder: he is still a very young hockey player, and developing consistent defensive play takes time.
On the blueline, optimism is to be found with the maturation of Shaone Morrisonn, the precocious promise of Mike Green, the discipline and savvy instincts of Jeff Schultz, and most especially the two-way, bruising play of Milan Jurcina. George McPhee’s highway robbery of Jurcina from the Bs appears to rank among the best trade work of his 10-year tenure in town. But missing from the rearguard corps is a genuine #1 stud: a smooth puck-moving, minutes-eating threat from the point. There’s some shopping to do.
This past campaign was a tale of three seasons: that which ended on Dec. 16, with the team 5 games above .500; the next 25 games, when injury and illness and a brutally congested and difficult schedule sent the squad into a standings free fall; and the trade deadline purging of key veterans as the team settled into the Southeast’s basement. Again.
On the surface, 2006-07’s 70 points suggest a hockey club in standings stagnation. We don’t see it like that. Owner Ted Leonsis this past weekend claimed his team had taken “two steps forward and one back” this season. He also claimed in the season’s final week that the time for “rebuilding” was finished and intimated that “reloading” was more this offseason’s operative word. That seems about right to us.
Ovechkin - Caps/Carolina 7 October, 2006But this past weekend Ted also made an important point about the imperative of fans trusting in a team’s organic growth. Alexander Semin and his spectacular season, he noted, weren’t achieved via free agency splurging but rather from the astute labor of the team’s scouts as well as Semin’s years of development. That indeed is a blueprint to follow.
The Caps this season shaved off about 20 goals from the 300-plus they surrendered in 2005-06, but next season, they’ll need to lop off at least another 30 to rise to postseason contention. Olie Kolzig, newly turned 37, appears to have at least a couple more high-quality seasons in him (his general manager near the end of this season claimed he could remain an elite netminder through his 40th birthday), and it is our expectation that beginning next season, markedly less of a nightly workload will be thrust upon him: both volume and quality of shots faced need to be reduced.
A repeat disappointment: the Capitals finished near the bottom of the league again in power play efficiency, and in the “new NHL” that is a supreme no-no — special teams are more critical than ever. The team was consistently unable to generate one-timers, and its frustrating pass-pass-pass approach was often painful to watch. Low power play shot production and the lack of anyone camped in the opposing netminder’s crease to provide screens and bang in rebounds (a la Konowalchuk back in the day) made for too much extra-man misery.
Another indication of the team’s anemic power play: only Boston allowed more shorthanded goals than the Capitals. For approximately every five goals the Caps scored with the man advantage, they allowed one the other way. For comparison, Florida (13th overall in power play success) scored more than ten extra-man goals for every shorty allowed.
The lack of an experienced power play quarterback certainly looms over both the team’s poor power play production and its ineffective defensive coverage. With the addition of an experienced defenseman, another year of growth among the Caps’ young d-men, and the continued presence of the Alexes on the top-line power play, one expects to see a marked improvement in the fine alchemy of converting PPs to goals next season. Hopefully Coach Hanlon can convince the players to shoot first and ask questions later.
But the bottom has truly fallen out when it comes to overtime hockey. The Caps lost their last 15 overtime games of the season. It has a fanbase all but averting its eyes during shootouts. It’s not enough to attribute the unwavering extra-session failures merely to inexperience or bad luck. The shootout showings in particular are nothing short of harrowing.
The team is simply surrendering too many pivotal points in extra play. Management’s summer work, it seems to us, must acknowledge and address this. But how? Coach Hanlon has tried allotting the concluding minutes of practices to the shootout, and he tried in the second half of the season to inject new names as his shooters. Nothing has helped. Would a shootout ‘specialist’ be included in the team’s offseason wish list?
A fixture of future shootouts will be Alexander Semin. Way back last autumn we thought we saw something special taking place with Semin and this team, and we were right. There were a lot of Semin doubters within the fanbase and media back then, and while his season was marred at times by wretched penalties, his game-breaking talent has few if any rivals in the history of this organization.
Another startling emergence was that of Boyd Gordon. He earned Glen Hanlon’s trust as the team’s most reliable and accountable forward. By January Sidney Crosby was calling him the toughest forward for him to play against. By March he was taking seemingly every important defensive zone draw. A virtual afterthought of the 2002 first round Caps’ draft class, today he joins Semin as another jewel from it.
There were, however, numerous and in some instances surprising struggles. We thought 2005-06 was a breakout year for Brian Sutherby. But we saw little of that two-zone effectiveness this season. Brooks Laich struggled in the season’s first half, after so strong a showing last season, but his game we thought improved appreciably from late January on. Both Matt Bradley and Ben Clymer received multi-year deals this past offseason, but they suffered nagging injuries for most of this season and never seemed able to get in their typical feisty grooves.
Our prediction is that there will be unprecedented competition for roster spots at Kettler Capitals Iceplex this coming autumn, and some prominent names today under contract may be in for a rude awakening then — if not sooner.
For better or for worse, the Caps these days regularly suffer from comparisons with the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s unavoidable. The league’s marquee stars of the next decade arrived last year in these two cities, both teams have spent most of this decade disappointing their supporters, and they are both endeavoring to arrive at annual and durable Cup contender status with years of patient rebuilding through good drafting. Oh, and they have a bit of a rivalry thing going.
But Pittsburgh’s 47-point improvement this season over last is abberant historically, and it’s replicability is virtually impossible. Seldom does any NHL team enjoy the arrival of game-breaking talents delivered to the roster the same summer, before both knew their 20th birthdays, as the Pens did with both Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal this season. And whereas Pittsburgh has benefited from spending most of this decade drafting from the league’s lottery perch, the Caps have but two such selections. A third arrives this June. A year from now would deliver a far fairer barometer of the relative standing of the two clubs.
General Manager George McPhee
What looms ahead is the most important offseason for the club in at least 20 years. For the third straight season the Caps finished fifth in the Southeast division. Mandatory improvement next season must be charted less in an arbitrary or specific point total and more in how many division foes the Caps finish ahead of.
We see little value in ascribing a “grade” to a team clearly transitioning from the roster-gutting, rebuild-from-the-ground-up course embarked upon by management in the spring of 2004. Instead, we’d call this season the culmination of a rough continuum begun three springs back by General Manager McPhee. The largess of losing during this period has been painful, but necessary. Now, however, it is both fair and appropriate to hold the architects accountable for robust improvement with the very first game of 2007-08.
The team will have a new look in 2007-08 — new colors and, we’re pretty sure, new logos — but will the roster be overhauled in a volume and substance sufficient to dislodge it from its Eastern conference bottom feeding of recent years? It’s our belief that chronicling that task is going to make for one fun summer.

This entry was posted in Boyd Gordon, Dainius Zubrus, Milan Jurcina, NHL Trades, Olaf Kolzig. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Caps’ Season Overview: “A Work in Progress”

  1. Rick Vaive says:

    Same story year after year – ie – ok, now is the time for “no more excuses” – next year will be critical..blah, blah, blah.
    I guess you write this bile so Teddy throws you some signed jerseys or free tickets??
    There’s no call for management to be accountable for their actions in your article – just a bunch of eating of McPhee’s wilnots for trading for Jurcina when his hand was forced b/c so many of his defence were injured.
    So much I could write. This franchise has been abysmal since for – ever, and Leonsis marketing approach hasn’t worked since Day 1. Remember Butch Cassidy?????????? How many years did that set the team back??? Eh???
    How about the signing of:
    Joe Murphy
    Ivan Ciernik
    Jon Gruden
    Jason Doig
    bringing back Cote
    Frank Kucera being a top 4 defenseman
    Petr Sykora – you remember that debacle??
    trying to get Richer out of retirement
    Pothier as the new #1
    General Manger – you seriously think McPhee knows what he’s doing? He’s had 10 years of being in charge and faileld repeatedly – even with a blank checkbook.
    Coach – As much as I think Hanlon is a good person, he’s not a coach for a developing team like the Caps. Leonsis can’t quite figure out he needs a world class coach behind the bench to push youngsters, make Alex Ovechkin / Semin play defense and enforce systems. He should have JUMPED when Ken Hitchcock became available or I hate to say it – looked at Ted Nolan – who’s had great success w/ young teams.
    Too bad there’s so many patsy’s like you out there feeding Leonsis what he wants to hear.

  2. capsbiggerthanTed says:

    For every one good move McPhee makes, he makes 10 bad ones. For every Semin and Jurcina, there’s Beech, Pothier, Cassell, Muir, Cassidy, Doig, Zednik, Novotny, Kiwi….
    Ted promises to spend big bucks this summer after spending nothing the past two seasons. Why the change? Isn’t that steering away from the “build-from-within” approach? Is it because the fans are calling for his head? Is it because the fans know that the 3 worst seasons in the history of the caps are under his watch?

  3. CapsChick says:

    Wow – lots of viciousness today, looks like some people didn’t get their coffee and free jerseys this morning.
    I actually agree with you (but what else is new) – and to the previous commenters, I just wonder how well any of us would do as a GM and whether we wouldn’t make some mistakes as well. No one knows how a player will peform on a team…until they play for the team. We don’t hear about the mistakes on other teams, but I guarantee you every team in the NHL has signed numerous players that were later looked on as catastrophes. You only hear about the successes – and there’s only one of those a season.
    Let’s give it another year or two, see what happens during the offseason, and go from there. Sheesh. People are so quick to cut and run in this town… 😉

  4. Doug says:

    I enjoyed your essay, but think that you miss the biggest reason why the Caps are so pathetic in shootouts:Olie!!
    As Tarik noted accurately, the rest of the NHL figured out how to beat him in the SO- make him move laterally, deke him and beat him 5 or 7-hole.
    Instead of a “shootout specialist”, we need a “shootout goalie”.

  5. idl says:

    Sometimes cutting and running is better than the alternative of staying the course. 😉
    More seriously, some people just don’t get nuance. If you’re not steaming mad about the season then you must be an apologist for the front office. The problem is that one’s outrage is pretty closely attuned to one’s expectations for the year.
    The meat of the post, one that pretty much everyone that follows the Caps can agree on, is that this offseason is the most important since the Save the Caps campaign-era. The situation is not so dire as those days for a number of reasons (both on the ice and away from the ice) but there is a pretty unanimous sense that significant change is deeply necessary to fill the all-too apparent holes in the roster.

  6. Vogs says:

    Very good summary boys, as usual. But Ovie’s defense is the least of my worries. That “study” cited by Eric and by James Mirtle (and found here: http://www.behindthenet.ca/player_stats.html) places Ovie 335th overall in the league. There are 676 players listed. So he’s in the top half of the league, and well ahead of many of his teammates (including checking line winger Matt Pettinger). And he had 46 goals and 92 points. To me, that’s like Selma Hayek having a blackhead. Not a big problem.

  7. usiel says:

    Tinner is that you? Lol!
    I agree with the post that this off season is critical. Even GMGM admitted his job will be on the line this off season/next season’s performance.

  8. TG says:

    I think I’m with CapsChick on this one. EVERY team has problems with bad trades, draft picks, signings, etc. When you hit bottom, might as well use the spaghetti method (get as many picks/prospects as you can, throw ’em on the wall and see what sticks).
    I also think that the anger/agression was intensified by the start to the season. This is, what, year two of a long-term rebuilding plan? (Or year three of being terrible.) If going into the season, you had told most people that the point total would be the same, but that the goals for and goals against would improve dramatically, some of the younger players would show major improvement and the defense, although still a weak spot, would show promise, I think most people would take it.
    But unfortunately, they played way better than expected during the first part of the year. I believe that had GMGM and Ted known that they would be sitting in a comfortable playoff position in mid-December, they might have played this last offseason more aggressively and fill more holes. But it was truly unexpected that they would play that well, which led to higher expectations from fans and, ultimately, bigger disappointment. Had they stayed in or near the cellar the entire time, I bet that a lot of the anger of the fans would be more resignation, and hope having seen the other improvements in the team.
    And what no one’s talking about is that there are a whole bunch of teams near the cap. They’re not going to be able to keep all of their players. The Caps might be able to get a few decent players in return for prospects or picks. (Think of it as the trade deadline in reverse.) You think New Jersey, Colorado, the Rangers, Buffalo, etc., aren’t looking for a little wiggle room under the cap?

  9. Jean says:

    I think Rick has a point about McPhee. The Caps have changed coaches, owners, trainers, even arenas, but the consistent person has been McPhee. And they’ve been consistently crap.
    That said, I don’t see the article as “bile” nor its authors “patsy’s”. It is a well thought out, constructive post.
    It just didn’t change my (well known) opinion of Mr. McPhee.

  10. CapsHockeyMax says:

    Ted, Ted, Ted. . . Look at the end of season standings, the Pittsburg Penguins, a smaller market team, made the move back to the playoffs and we didn’t. Plain and simple our management doesn’t get it done. They have never gotten it done. I say this year after year. This team cannot win with McPhee at the helm. He will never GM a team to the cup. I’ll buy my Ovechkin jersey when McPhee is gone, not one second sooner. Has he ever made a trade deadline deal that has helped this team? They sure have helped the others! I have written this note every year for the last five. Come on Ted, make the bold move, fire George, it can’t hurt.

  11. RealCapsFAn says:

    Those of you who are expecting miracles need to wake up. The miserable seasons as of late were, in retrospect, unavoidable ever since the Caps lost to the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals. The team has always been old, and with the exception of Peter Bondra, were often a chore to watch.
    Now, the team is full of youth, there are no long term contracts to over the hill veterans that will drain the franchise, and the team, although just a mockery in overtimes, have otherwise been enjoyable to watch.
    As for George McPhee, I give him credit for snatching up Jurcina before anyone else did. Jurcina was a player that didn’t fit in in Boston, but no one expected him to play the way he did since the trade, not even McPhee. Also, McPhee is the guy responsible for all those first round draft picks lately; he was the guy that made the final decision on the drafting players like Gordon, Semin, and Pettinger. Remember, no one expected Semin to score almost 40 goals this season, and Pettinger is turning into a pretty reliable 20 goal scorer and shorthanded specialist.
    Finally, we should all be grateful to have an owner like Leonsis. No, I’m not saying he’s made all the right moves (God knows he’s made some boneheaded ones), but his dedication to making this team competitive, despite large financial losses year after year, is unparalleled. I mean, you think any other owner wouldn’t have thought about seriously relocating? Look at Nashville and the stuff their owner pulls (blacking out playoff games). At least Ted cares about the team and not the bottom line.
    So, I now turn my attention to this offseason with optimism for continued improvement. After this year, we are now one step closer to winning a Stanley Cup, which is the whole point anyway.

  12. exwhaler says:

    Max:
    The Pens also have been rebuilding for longer than the Caps, and they have had 5 top 5 picks to the Caps’ 2 (one of which isn’t here yet). If you showed the patience that Pens fans did (or at least their management), then the Caps will get to the same place.
    If not, then Caps fans will get the franchise they asked for–a middling one.

  13. Dan says:

    3 thoughts:
    Naysayers,
    If you question the “rebuilding” approach, think back a few short years ago when the Caps acquired every big name available in hockey. That first year with Jagr was under Ron Wilson who went on to have success at the helm in San Jose and is still considered one of the best american coaches. I’ll take a rebuilding approach to that “mess” where a bunch of overpaid, underperforming veterans any day. These kids are more fun to watch even when they are losing. They play with heart.
    2) Blaming the shootout futility this season on Kolzig? Kolzig? Come on. That’s just dumb. How many tries did Ovie have in shootouts? How many did he make this season? Last year he was automatic in shootouts. This year he stunk. I don’t mean to place the blame solely on Ovie’s shoulders, but you can’t put it on Kolzig. You have to score at least 1 goal in a shootout or you WILL lose. Semin was just about as bad in shootouts. At one point Hanlon didn’t even put Ovie on the shootout roster in the first 3 rounds…he actually shot 4th. He still missed.
    3) Ovechkin had a -19 for the season. Imagine what that would have been if he had not amassed 50+ goals and 30+ assists. As much as I love watching Ovechkin play, he is a liability on defense. Hanlon needs to get him straightened out quick. And Alexander Semin needs to stop taking penalties. 5th highest minutes in the league…and he doesn’t even fight.
    Overall I think management and ownership are doing it right. Do you really want the Caps front office to follow the Redskins business model?

  14. Judy says:

    Hi everyone. I don’t own a cell phone or a pager. I just hang around everyone I know, all the time. If someone wants to get a hold of me, they just say ‘Mitch,’ and I say ‘what?’ and turn my head slightly.
    I am from Honduras and learning to write in English, tell me right I wrote the following sentence: “Info the first great cheap airline ticket sites online.”
    Thank you so much for your future answers :-D. Judy.

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