A week away from Christmas, my thoughts pucks are dark, wholly free of Yuletide cheer. It’s awful. I can’t recall anything quite like this since following this team from its inception — a moment when so much promise surrounding this organization was so swiftly and savagely replaced by rampant doubts of the darkest nature.
Our woe is existential. And it’s all traceable back to last spring, and the Montreal series. More and more it appears as if (1) the Habs offered the league a surefire blueprint for thwarting the Caps’ attack and (2) there is no counter-attack coming from the coach and carried out to any effect by his players.
Meaning: we really might just be screwed.
I look at Philadelphia and Pittsburgh pulling away from the rest of the pack in the East this Christmas and I think back to concerns I articulated here back in the summer about the aggressive moves both those clubs made, while George McPhee stood pat. I remember articulating a sentiment that the individual personnel moves made by traditional Eastern powerhouses in summer seemed in their totality orchestrated specifically with the idea of confronting the Capitals.
There was a counter argument made in summer by defenders of the status quo that the retained salary cap space for the Capitals would prove valuable as the trade deadline approached. But:
- What if Montreal didn’t get lucky; what if Gabby and this band of Caps were yet again exposed as regular season wonders? What if they were fundamentally flawed in their assembly and what if the system in which they skated was ultimately figured out by the league’s brightest minds? What then?
It’s interesting to note that so much coverage of the present agony has alluded to the Habs-adoptive qualities of the Capitals’ foes during this streak of stink.
This is where we seem to be perched a week before Christmas 2010: wholly unsure of the identity of this Capitals’ team; wholly unsure — to be brutally frank — if the team got it right in selecting its captain as replacement for Chris Clark almost a year ago; wholly unsure about the long-term efficacy of Gabby’s system; and, by extension, and most saliently and salaciously, wholly uncertain if the right guys is guiding behind the bench.
In other words, not only unsure of the Capitals’ fitness for springtime duty, again, but now confronting the possibility that the league isn’t waiting for any specific season in the calendar to render its verdict on Gabby and his guys. Or, you can choose to view the seven-game slide as merely a rough patch of bad bounces joined by some tough-luck injuries and illnesses. I might have been there a week ago; this morning however I’m filled with wretched wonder. And doubt.
It is not inappropriate or vulgar to raise the Gabby question. To put it bluntly again: he is, in the big leagues at least, a regular season wonder (until this season) . . . while a conspicuous sub-.500 guiding hand in the season that matters. And if that is not evidence enough to raise your wonder, ponder this scenario: Gabby’s guys have two toughies on the road this weekend, and were all well and good in a big picture sense they’d be a tough two or three points to earn. What happens if the Caps lose them both, and the losing streak extends to nine? What will that ensuing climate be like for the head coach and the HBO cameras ever following his club? Haven’t we already reached a surfeit of locker room vulgarity? With Alexander Semin potentially shelved for the weekend, a nine-game losing streak is a very real possibility. And with reasonable recuperation and practice time afforded the team in the leadup to this week’s games, what excuse is next invented?
On to the Ovechkin dilemma. Not every superstar is qualified or appropriate for team captaincy. We know I think three things about Ovi’s leadership reign to date. First, it was achieved with an alleged unanimity of election — not one teammate wanted anyone else in the role. Second, he’s something less than a font of penetrating, impassioned insight with his postgame reflections and his more general state of the team assessments. If anything, the cameras daily crowd his stall, he utters — rotely — cliche and clipped and often vacuous assessments, and that’s that. Maybe that matters, maybe it doesn’t, but one thing’s for sure: his teammates aren’t logging on and reading inspiration from their captain whilst they peruse the media that covers the team. Thirdly, and most importantly, under his first full season of leadership weight Ovechkin is putting forward his worst statistical performance as an NHLer. Maybe that’s a coincidence, maybe it isn’t. Anyway, the bottom line is the Old Ovi is AWOL. And so I wonder: if the burden of leadership were lifted off of Ovi’s breast, if he had no other responsibility but to play his game, would he still look as he has all season to date (relatively ineffectual)?
Meanwhile, who has been the most regular voice of high-pitched passion and positivism and thoughtful reflection amid all the agony? The same fella who crawled about an oil-soaked District pavement in his suit in the middle of the night to change the flat tire of two stranded Caps’ fans after last spring’s game 7. Just sayin.
Next disquieting question: what about the time-honored notion that durably quality hockey clubs are assembled from the back end outward? To get back to the identity question — isn’t it the case that the supposedly contending Capitals have been assembled around lottery selection forwards, Mike Green, a smattering of free agents and spare parts, and a few trades, all resulting in a forward-heavy identity? If we strive for objectivity in an assessment of the contemporary Capitals’ blueline, wouldn’t we describe it as merely serviceable — as opposed to physical and intimidating and shut-down — on its best days? David Poile’s Capitals’ clubs that durably contended for Patrick division supremacy against the dynastic Islanders and other strong clubs had solid goaltending and studly bluelines, and a lot of lunchpailers up front. Maybe it’s a much different NHL now. Maybe not so much.
One day during training camp way back in September I listened patiently as the professional beat reporters questioned George McPhee on the exciting news about the Capitals being involved in an HBO sports documentary. Their questions were all premised on the details of camera access and such and his players and coaches perhaps being captured in unflattering moments. For some reason internally I felt a vaguely defined quasi-dread about the project. So I spoke up. While obviously a flattering and extraordinary opportunity in the franchise’s history, isn’t it possible that the demands associated with this project could prove disruptive in the room at an inopportune time? I asked the GM. No, he had no concern about that.
This morning I wonder also: did George McPhee ever ponder the possibility that grave misfortune could befall his club this fall, and that a world cable television viewing audience could munch on popcorn at home watching all his hard work swirl around a drain?