We’re in a Winter Wonderland of Existential Puck Purgatory

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.Β  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,Β  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 beenΒ  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?

This entry was posted in Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, Bruce Boudreau, Eastern Conference, George McPhee, HBO's 24/7, Media, Montreal Canadiens, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, NHL playoffs, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to We’re in a Winter Wonderland of Existential Puck Purgatory

  1. Dave says:

    I think one of the most frustrating things this season is watching Sidney Crosby evolve his game and continue his dominance. I hate to say it, but what if Mad Mike is right, and Sid is the hard working, best player in the world and every day is just a party for Ovechkin? I’ve long argued against the “best player” meme, i’ve always felt there was simply a top echelon of players, but lately it’s becoming pretty goddamned hard to argue that our hero is in the class. Every time he rushes down the boards and attempts to cut across the front of a defender to the middle at the top of the circle to try to setup a shot, i want to scream. I’m pretty sure I could anticipate and break up that move at this point. Everyone knows it’s coming, and it isn’t working. I can’t help but think that maybe if the summer was spent working more on evolving his game rather than fashion we might not be having this problem. At what point does a “slump” become and inability to evolve?

  2. Robert Kelly says:

    As Caps fans we over-analyze but sadly things are becoming very clear. Alex is playing like a very average player this year with speed, puck handling and shooting all looking below average. Most telling is the lack of intensity for an entire game. This could not be more evident than the last minute of overtime vs. Ducks where 74, 22, and especially 8 were not moving their feet. Inexcusable and it is telling why we give up so many goals in the final minutes(s) of periods. You wrote a great article and I love the team but it is hard to love a team that appears lazy, unwilling to get the dirty goals or like DE said so well on 24/7 – “F’ing Compete”

  3. JonnyP says:

    Playing Devil’s advocate for a bit … he’s a great guy πŸ™‚

    But really, what if this team is evolving? what if Boudreau is changing the makeup of the team so playoff success occurs? Do people still write articles about how lackluster this Capitals team is?

  4. MadCap says:

    And I well remember that those Poile teams with the lunchpailers up front could never get the big goal when we needed it in the playoffs (well, other than Hunter in Game 7 OT against the Flyers and Druce during the dream run to the Conference Finals). I’ll take my chances with this current group of dynamic forwards and young, developing guys on the back end and in net. This current streak is incredibly frustrating for all Caps fans, but this roster is far more capable of making a legimate push for a Cup (either this year or in the next few) than any squad that the Caps have ever put onn the ice.

  5. HBH WC says:

    I think the reason the Caps start winning when Gabby replaced Hanlon is because he looked at his team, evaluated what he had and let them run (skate) with it. The began winning immediately. Now, succumbing to pressures about the team being just a regular season team and not a playoff team, he is trying to change the way they play. I think that is BS. Take the leash off of them and let them play like they can play!!! Get to the playoffs and deal. If they keep trying to change their identity, they won’t have to worry about what happens when the get to the playoffs, because they won’t be there.
    What’s that saying? “Dance with who brung ya.”

  6. Geo says:

    I’m tired of pundits saying “the regular season doesn’t matter” and then deciding that a regular season losing streak suddnely means “See? The coach can’t cut it. The regular season DOES matter.”

    More than likely the Caps will snap out of it soon, run off a few wins, and then they’ll go back to saying, “Humbug. It’s the regular season. It doesn’t matter.” πŸ˜€

    A couple games ago the mighty Flyers blew a 4-1 lead. Doesn’t that clearly mean they can’t cut it? That they’re overrated? Afterall, no superior team with Chris Pronger on it should ever blow a lead like that, right? Oh wait, it’s the regular season. It doesn’t matter…

    Barring the Streak stretching to epic proportions, imho Boudreau deserves one more shot at the playoffs. The only exception I’d make is if parking a forklift of money in front of Scotty Bowman dragged him out of retirement; otherwise, I’m unconvinced Bob Woods, Hershey coach Mark French, or any coach playing golf right now could magically transform the Caps midway through this season.

    I found it interesting that even Boudreau himself in his press conference said maybe all this is fate or God’s way of forcing the team to learn to low-scoring playoff hockey *now*. Although clearly averaging about 1 goal a game is good playoff hockey. πŸ˜€

    I will admit that this could all indicate that the current Caps as built is simply not built for playoff hockey. In which case, our favorite team is, well, screwed. I’d rather remain optimistic at this point. πŸ™‚

  7. Geo says:

    I swear this blog software inserts typos in my posts. πŸ™‚

    >Although clearly averaging about 1 goal a game is *NOT* good playoff hockey. πŸ˜€

    is what I meant to say.

  8. Riley says:

    This article strikes me as filled with the type of hindsight bias that is unavoidable during a losing streak. How much does one particular style of leadership matter versus another? Does Nick Lidstrom, to take one example, provide better quotes for public consumption? If we are going to require him to shoulder a larger burden for the losing streak, should we not have given him a greater proportion of credit for the winning streak last year? I love me some Brooks Laich, but a good team has more than one leader to begin with.

    Also, concur with Madcap regarding the team’s current make-up. If we had 6 Scott Stevens on the backline and 12 Matt Bradleys and David Steckels up front, would we be satisfied with the results?

  9. Tre Kronor says:

    @ Riley: Leadership styles do matter and Lidstrom proves the point. He commands his teammates’ respect, wins and competes for Stanley Cups (how many rings does he have?)and, yes, he provides better quotes for public consumption – he is analytical and precise about the game. At any rate, I think the article is spot on to raise these questions because this is more than a losing streak – it’s a streak punctuated by collapses and blow outs of the kind you don’t see from a team that fancies and hypes itself as a contender. It is also happening to a team that plays in the softest division in the NHL and is about to be overtaken by the Thrashers and Lightning (if the Caps don’t win now). How would that be going into the Winter Classic against the Pens – in third place in the pathetic SE division?

  10. Dave says:

    Riley, it’s not hindsight if you were screaming about it before it happened, which many of us were as soon as Chris Clark was traded. The problem isn’t the slump, because during these last few games aren’t the only time these problems have reared their heads. Remember that many of the early season wins were come from behind rabbit out of the hat types. They have been collapsing and barely pulling out games all year, rarely putting together a complete game. Thats the problem, that even when they win they do it in shaky fashion rife with a lack of consistent effort. If we had 6 scott stevens and 12 matt bradleys and had these same results? Yes, we’d be satisfied, because they were overachieving. But instead we have a super talented roster that is underachieving, and thats frustrating.

  11. Valleycapsfan says:

    Madcap and Geo are spot on. December is a tad early to hit the panic button. How much did last year’s 15-game win streak matter in april? The cup- winning 08-09 Pens lost 7 of 8 in one stretch and I’d bet their fans were having the same discussion we are now. Let’s all take a chill pill. It’s the losing streaks in April that we need to worry about.

  12. Dougeb says:

    I appreciate your points and as always and your writing style. It’s always easier to prognosticate with a negative tenor; 1 team out of 30 wins the Cup. The odds favor failure over success if a Cup is the desired net result.

    Some folks said this would be a down year for the Caps, Ovie was due for a slide, and Coach BB would not last the year.

    You can never be accused of being a homer, that’s for sure. I’d rather take the easy way out and look at the good things and enjoy my team.

    I get paid to analyze all day long at work. Darned if I want to spend my time away from work analyzing the Caps — I pay to enjoy the NHL game. Even if the Caps lose, I get to see 41 games a year at the Verizon Center.

    My glass of water is half full, and I don’t see the sky falling (yet).

  13. Dave says:

    @valley: The 08-09 pens fired their coach with 25 games left in the regular season in response to their poor play.

  14. polarbear says:

    The captain during this losing streak is the same captain from last year’s 15 game winning streak.

  15. Many reactions of rigor and passion, which I always appreciate. Some back at the OFB readership family:

    I’m not sure that the franchise-record-best winning streak of last winter is germane now; what seems paramount is how teams have adjusted to the Capitals’ very stylish, very winning ways ever since. I am also sympathetic to the concern that apart from the current wretched slide, there have been (1) extraordinarily inexplicable blowouts — and to the dregs of the league no less (Jersey, Fla.); and (2) a preponderance of unimpressive wins among the 18, with perhaps the home opener and the Tampa blowout looming as the exceptions to the rule. Lastly, and this was something I pondered including in my file, how would you characterize Ovechkin’s play in a Caps’ sweater ever since his coach threw him under the bus for last season’s suspensions/Vancouver?

  16. Geo says:

    “Winning solves everything.” I’ll pull for a win tonight and a return to “normalcy,” which means a winning Caps team that everyone assumes is going to belly flop in the playoffs. Which is fine by me — usually it’s the teams everyone think are going to tear up the playoffs that don’t go anywhere, right? πŸ™‚

  17. Avtopilot says:

    as caps fan since 2006, i must say, that there is no reason for panic. This losing streak is exactly what is required to this team to get rid of some extra glamour, to get some F-bombs and to start working hard.
    The next game, that really matters is 23rd and classics against Pensburg. There we will see, if this team has grit.
    And those fans, that allready start wavering now – sorry guys, you don’t have the grit yourseleves πŸ™‚

  18. RememberingRidley says:

    Dude, you are so spot on with this assessment! Brooks not being named captain, no Scott Stevens type roaming the blueline, and most important – no answer for how teams are playing the Caps. I am so tired of seeing shots blocked by the opposition before reaching the goal. Shaking my head…

  19. SkinsCapsTerps says:

    Been a fan since the Langway / Gartner Days. There does seem to be an inability / unwillingness to change playing style, you hear all the time about coaches making adjustments except with this coaching staff. If they are being made either theyre not working or not being implemented by players.

    Yes it’s a long season and there peaks and valleys, but is this Caps team really 7 goals worse than the Rangers ? Ludqvist is a world class goalie, but he’s NOT that good.

    Maybe there is something about star players being captains. There was a lot of talk about Roberto Luongo being captain and how it affected his game, he gave it up see if things change. There was a lot of talk when Pronger was traded to Flyers how him being a former captain, would affect Mike Richards captaincy. It didnt seem to be an issue based on playoffs. I also think you can be a leader without being captain.

    There seems to be a lot of desire on the Caps to score highlight reel goals, not the dirty goals. In the Red Wings agianst Montreal on the 11th, a Detroit player made a pass from his knees to an on rushing player, and that player scored a goal. The Capitals dont seem to go after rebounds at either end of ice or sometimes fight for puck.

    I am not really sure what the answer is, except the status quo isnt working.

  20. Scott Winn says:

    Pucksandbooks, Laich ought to be named Captain. The coach ought to ask (tell) OV to hand it over. As per a new coach? I would give Caps till Dec 31st to show definite improvement. Fire the coach one day before Winter Classic? Why not…

  21. Brent Mattson says:

    How spoiled we are by our own (recent) past sucess. Please, when analyzing this club, pick ONE theme, or even a group of themes, and use them. This same site within the past year has argued for more toughness and a stay-at-home defenseman, yet when the team has added them (both moves highly celebreated by this blog) with no sucess we find something else to blame, even though if I were to blame one single player for the Anaheim loss it would be the “perfect fit.” The Capitals have been shut out 4 times over the last 20 odd games, but the “problem” is too much emphasis on the offense? Having six Scott Stevens types on the blueline would not have won any of those games. If Brroks Laich is such a leader, which I think he is, he does not need a letter on his jersey to lead. The Captaincy is largely a ceremonial position. Was Steve Yzerman commanding respect as a 19 year old Captain? How about Sidney Crosby. Yes, they grew into those roles and hopefully Ovi will,too, but he most definetly will not if not given the opportunity. Leaders will lead whether named captian or not. It is easy, and I though below the normal standards of this site, to pick apart this team and there coach at their lowest point.

  22. Dave says:

    @AVTOPILOT: As a fan since 2006, you don’t have any room to talk about grit. After the Jagr bomb we were promised that this team would be built the right way, and we stuck with this team through the lean years. This team has bombed out of the playoffs two years in a row in spectacular fashion, and we’re supposed to believe that this regular season losing slump is whats finally going to “get rid of some extra glamour?” Meanwhile we watch the goddamned Penguins and Flyers get stronger?(Both of which are haunting memories of my childhood, see, back before everyone started rocking the red, as a kid in the 90’s i remember sitting in the capital centre surrounded by an invading force of Penguins and Flyers fans whenever their teams came to town) So please, don’t talk about grit. This frustration has been building for 10 years, and it’s the backlash for asking fans to be loyal, and trust the process. When those fans have stuck with it and weathered the lean years, they’re going to be pissed when it seems like they’re watching Jagr loaf around the ice again. Don’t mistake this as sour grapes “it was MINE first” type of rambling, i love that this team finally has the following i’ve long felt it deserved, and i love that new fans are coming in and spending money on the team, but don’t act like frustration isn’t warranted when you haven’t suffered through the ugliness of this franchise.

  23. Stephen says:

    After reading the article and all of the comments, i find myself torn. I have been a die hard fan who has always believed in OV and what he could do. However this year something has made me view him differently. I watch him every shift and instead of playing full speed and hitting, he is forcing the play. Waiting at the blue line for the puck to be passed out of the zone to him, I think that even his D knows that he will turn the puck over or have it blocked so they look for a different outlet. Last year he would turn and go get the puck and hit someone while he did, this year he waits even when he can beat the guy. Is there anything more obvious then what OV will do on the power play? One timer from the right D? Anything more obvious then the attack he comes into the zone with, fake outside…pull up and cut in or shoot. This is not the player who made a backwards pass to himself then crashed the net to score in Montreal. Why? Maybe because of his pressure to be a “captain” but he is his best when everyone is playing their best. When its an attack like there was tonight in the last minute, the puck comes to him like it did tonight. All of this really makes me agree the BB is the one to blame. As a hockey player as I am sure many here are, BB’s speeches seem like the do more harm then good. These Caps were who they were last year because they were having fun within the confines of a system. This year BB has keep the same system and that is the problem. Please put OV as a forward on the PP to mix it up. Please make him go back to hitting at full speed. OV is doing what he knows, but you see him try and go to the front because even he wants to change it up. The coach is to blame for this slide and for having weakness in the playoffs. Yes its obvious the Cindy works harder in the off season and that will separate him Alex long term. But counter teams, match lines, know their systems, study you stars and if Alex is doing the same thing every single time he skates into the zone- Teach him what to do to be successful within the team. I swear I think that Matt Hendricks is the only player I see aside from BL working every shift. That is a coaching error not a captains error. OV does what he thinks will help, I saw his fight at MSG and it was inspiring, watching 24/7 and seeing what BB was saying behind the bench during that game was not.

  24. Avtopilot says:

    yesterdays loss to Bruins was not that bad after all. I mean, it looks like they still want to win.
    The captaincy shall be decided between the players – OV was elected, so, there is no reason not to elect Laich if the team decides so.
    As for OV – well, he is slower, lacks precision and is predictable. He is still one of the best players on the roster. He is not lazy, so it’s up to the coach to show his skill in well “coaching”. I still hope for the spring, this playoff run will be decisive for BB and this team.

  25. TheMermaid says:

    As another fan from the “lunch-pailer” and spare-parts era, I’ve loved the seemingly effortless offense of the Caps teams of the past couple of years, especially the ability to reel off a few goals when needed. The regular season may be meaningless (or not), but racking up wins is a satisfying game experience.

    Right now is big-hurt territory (even when the turnaround comes, HBO has captured this stretch forever), and I can’t see around the next corner. The playoff loss to Montreal is a bone in the throat — and maybe forcing the “new system” is an overreaction doing its own damage. Only the emphasis on more aggressive PK seems to be a win at this point. . .I agree with the “dance with the ones who brung us” comment. Why not fashion the system to the strength of the team — with a bit of needed tweaking as opposed to an uncomfortable overhaul in style? Not much mention of the goal-tending. Since management is doing with the two young goalies, they’ll only get better — maybe not this year — and one or both will be the hot-hand that saves more regular season games and also steps his game for the playoffs.

    As for Gabby, he’s such a good story of hard work, persistence, and success rewarded with a jump to the NHL, it’s hard to turn against him. It’s also hard for me, on outside, to evaluate his share in the disappointments so far this season. Just hoping for no panic moves. If GMGM puts in a call to Mike Keenan, I’m outta here.

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