How will you remember the 2010-11 Capitals’ regular season? I ask because at least one prominent person in town — the team owner — thinks that to date I’ve judged his team too harshly on the campaign. My critique began near the end of last summer, when I observed management execute a largely passive approach to roster improvement in the offseason, while East rivals Pittsburgh and Philly aggressively improved. Not that I’m a throw-mad-money-at-free-agents kind of guy; never have been, never will be. But if you’ve just been vanquished in round one, as the Caps were last April, and you sit on your hands all summer, rest assured your conference peers will gain ground on you.
Through about 50 games into 2010-11, there was plenty of ground-gaining, you’ll recall. For instance: the Caps, having won the Southeast division title just a year ago by 40 points, trailed the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast in late February. That’s ground-gaining alright. And it’s not as if Tampa in the offseason acquired Bobby Orr and Mr. Hockey in their prime.
I continued my critique: the handling of Marcus Johansson (overmatched in the season’s first half; solid to superb for most of the second), which stood so conspicuously apart from the manner in which the rest of the Capitals’ important young prospects had been developed. The Capitals addressed the conspicuous gap at center on the second line by going young and cheap, and it showed. As the season approached game 60 and the team up to that point made the biggest news by nearly ruining an HBO special and adopting a godforsaken-on-the-eyes trap (“Trapitals” they were called at one point), I began drinking more. (On that latter point, the Caps seemed to acknowledge this dire situation for me with a marvelous adoption of marvelous technology. By middle February, this truly was a season-long highlight for me.)
More: You heard of Fat Elvis? Through 50 games we had Fat Ovi.
Then, magic happened at the NHL trade deadline. George McPhee acquired a legit second-line center, with Stanley Cup pedigree, who not only established instant chemistry with Alexander Semin but forged a notable off-ice bond with captain Ovechkin. The GM also stole Dennis Wideman blind from the Panthers (in last place for a reason) for a pick and . . . Jake Hausworth. Wideman, up until his injury, had been the best defenseman to wear a Capitals’ sweater in years. McPhee also plucked another able and fast-legged vet (Marco Sturm) off the waiver wire. It was as if the Hockey Gods, having dealt us Eric Belanger and Joe Corvo and some other junk last February, felt obliged to atone, big time, this spring.
Winning suddenly seriously followed: 15-2-1 with all the new bodies brought in since February 28. That’s a slightly different winning percentage than say December through February.
Something far more important than adding talented players transformed this lethargic, underachieving Capitals’ club, I allege. Something special happened in the room. Guys who looked old (Knuble) soon thereafter looked young again. Brooks Laich suddenly became an impact player — up front and on the power play point when injuries necessitated his move there. New voices in the room were raised, and underachieving ears seemed to listen.
And so this is what I call the Capitals’ 2010-11 regular season campaign: The Tale of Two Seasons
One was spirited and committed to absorbing a wholesale new system and defiant of ravenous injuries, standings-surging and uplifting. The other . . . markedly less so. Today, understandably, the owner wants you to forget the fact that his team was shut out ten times in about 80 games and instead focus on a third consecutive Southeast division crown. (Those Southeast banners, along with a $5 bill, will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.) What I wager he won’t acknowledge on his blog any time soon is that my read of the roster last fall was largely right, and that his general manager was forced into an aggressive mandate at trade deadline time to fix some serious shortcomings.
All of which is dandy this morning, when it counts, but is dismissive of the wallet-letting by the Red Army who weren’t pitched to renew their ticket plans last summer with a pledge to fix things come March.
But this morning, rather than reckon, let’s celebrate a season of so much sour so well righted by such extraordinary mid-season re-engineering. The team remains battered as the regular season’s final weekend dawns. But if Mike Green (skating in Sunrise Saturday night, per John Walton) returns healed and with hop in his stride, if Dennis Wideman can return in late April, the sky’s the limit for this club. It’s fast, it possesses an enviable blend of precocious youth and cagey veterans, it’s deep — and reliable — in net, and it has springtime MoJo.
And for all this, let’s give credit where clearly credit is due: One achievement by this Capitals club stands above all others, for me, this regular season. Bruce Boudreau, under such intense pressure and criticism in late December, rather courageously jettisoned the system that had come to define him in his pro hockey coaching career in favor of a more conventional thwart first, counter-attach next approach — and he got 25 skaters to buy into it. You didn’t hear a peep of complaint from all the highly skilled millionaires about it. You know what system the skill guys would have preferred — the one that fattens their stats and thereby fattens their contracts. Instead, you saw total buy-in by Bruce’s brigade. No grumbling. No doubts. Some growing pains with it to be sure, but taken in total, the dramatic transformation was remarkably efficient and successful.
Oh, and lastly, with such charitable impulses behind the scheme of last summer, Mr. Owner, why didn’t you accept my wager? : )