A political bumper sticker of some years back read, ‘If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.’ “Outrage” by local hockey fans may be too strong a term to apply with respect to the 2010-11 Washington Capitals in this most unexpected, most irregular regular season tour of duty, but I think if you’re not at least mildly concerned, you’re not paying particularly close attention.
Yesterday a loud chorus of concern arose all about digital D.C. and on talk radio, related to the standing of the Caps as we approach the All Star Game break. It’s well-placed, well-pitched concern, I say.
No longer can spectacularly underwhelming showings like those in Florida this week be written off as exhibitions of a meaningless autumn; post January 1, NHL games take on increased importance, as the league’s trade deadline (February 28) looms and managers must determine whether they are buyers or sellers, and what pieces must be added or subtracted for postseason contention. The Capitals these days are making a compelling case for George McPhee to be a buyer this trade deadline season. And perhaps in bulk.
I stunned my new media colleagues up in the press box early on in the season when I confided in them: ‘I don’t like this team.’ Without even an audition a player (Tomas Fleischmann) whose performance last spring was ghastly was awarded second-line center duty. Today Flash is a member of the Colorado Avalanche, and thriving — on the wing, his natural position. Similarly, there was work to be done on the blueline this past offseason, but there, too, George McPhee deferred. Meanwhile, his GM colleagues all about the East (especially in Pittsburgh and the Southeast) loaded up for bear.
If we were to draft Articles of Impeachment against the Caps near the midway mark of this season, the evidence would be compelling.
DNS is my shorthand for “Did Not Show.” I haven’t had much occasion to use it for a Capitals team since Jaromir Jagr left town. But I am using it this season, and the frequency with which it’s fairly applied is what is perhaps most troubling to me about this team. My list:
- 11/19 ATL (0-5)
- 11/22 NJ (0-5)
- 12/9 FLA (0-3)
- 12/12 NYR (0-7)
- 1/12 TAMPA (0-3)
There isn’t a juggernaut among that list, either. Six shutouts already for a team bearing (ostensibly) four or five high-scoring stars? And that’s not merely five super lousy efforts listed above; (there have been those as well); that’s five outings halfway through the season for which the team arrived at puckdrop lifeless, indifferent to the game’s developments as it progressed, and remained that way for the full 60 minutes. These were betrayals of the crest. Impeachment-inaugurating instances of infamy.
In the case of the Caps and the Southeast division this season, shockingly, the three-time defending champions may well be underdogs to win it. Last season the Caps won the Southeast by nearly 40 points, and largely through attrition and promotion, were believed to have strengthened their roster in the offseason. Wednesday night in Tampa first place in the Southeast was at stake. The hosts had shut out the Caps in D.C. the previous week. As “big games” in winter go, this was a big one. Not only didn’t the Caps score again against Tampa, they didn’t show up for the showdown.
This fanbase is showing up alright — in hordes, over great travel. You notice the Red-out behind the team bench every night on the road. The least this club can do is show up.
I’d be the first in town to suggest that the NHL’s regular season is meaning-deficient, and I fairly led a chorus that noted back in fall that this regular season especially was going to be meaning-challenged for this club. But there’s a difference between skating inconsistently, picking your spots for inspired play, out of a deficit of motivation, and not showing up for games at all.
A team hopeful of contending in the NHL postseason generally needs at least two solidly productive forward lines. These Caps don’t have one. Across the board of the skilled forward corps there is conspicuous under-achievement.
The young goaltending was thought by some to be a potential Achilles heel heading into the season. Not so; the dynamic duo of Neuvirth and Varlamov is blameless for this mess.
The defense is improved, as Scott Hannan has helped forge an effective first pairing on the blueline. John Carlson and Karl Alzner have exhibited conspicuously few growing pains, and on more than a few nights in the season’s first half have been the best blueliners in red. Jeff Schultz, no longer overmatched in matchups up top, has struggled still at times (hello -3 Wednesday); that +50 of a season ago was certainly a mirage. Tom Poti swiftly has become brittle. (He’s back on the shelf again.) Both members of that third pairing have new, multi-year contracts. Not cheap ones, either. It’s more than $5 million in third-pairing partners the next couple of seasons. Question for the GM: What exactly was the urgency to get Poti re-upped so early in autumn?
Increasingly we are encountering inventive excuses for the Capitals’ disturbingly deficient play this season. Carolina Hurricanes’ General Manager Jim Rutherford recently suggested with a straight face that Alexander Ovechkin is playing possum. Our owner this week suggested that his players are “subconsciously pacing themselves.”
Maybe there’s another excuse: Maybe there was work to be done this past offseason, it didn’t get done, and now the team is trying to alter on the fly. High crime, that.
Also: Where is the leadership?
On the front of aesthetics, there is yet more damning evidence. The Capitals achieved Golden Team status — and Winter Classic invitation — on the basis of brandishing a beautiful, fanbase growing brand of razzle-dazzle, one which showcased a new generation of hip Young Gun talent. It was a style the league understandably wanted to grow the sport upon. Well, that’s been abandoned. Today in its place is the trap. Caps’ games these days are close to unwatchable, even in barely-eeked-out victory.
Stylistically, the Caps are the Nats in skates. Or maybe that’s giving them too much credit; the Nats at least have an identity (dull). The Caps are experiencing an identity crisis.
And what of the Red Army’s rightful expectation of patronizing a regular season of achievement and distinction? This hockey club wasn’t marketed on a season-long experiment of blight and confusion and identity crisis. Things didn’t work out in 2009-10, but there was the franchise-best 14-game winning streak of January and February, and sweeping the Pens. What is there about this season to date to hang a touque on? January 1 — won with the aid of a monsoon — and little else. Isn’t part of following a full-fledged contender enjoying the journey from autumn through spring? The Capitals this season are affording their fanbase precious little to relish and savor.
Once upon a time not long ago we watched a Red Force unleash its fury. Theirs was the hot ticket in town. A city fell in love with the spectacle. Faces for game nights were painted red.
Today faces are reddening with anger.