Memo to the Revisionists: It Was a Tale of Two Seasons

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? : )

This entry was posted in Alexander Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, Bruce Boudreau, Dennis Wideman, Front Office, George McPhee, HBO's 24/7, Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm, Marcus Johansson, Mike Green, Mike Knuble, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, Scott Hannan, Ted Leonsis, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Memo to the Revisionists: It Was a Tale of Two Seasons

  1. RussC says:

    Why do you not give any credit to the Mr. Owner in this article. In the first article you challenged him based on your perceptin he was not doing a good job. You only gave credit for the turnaround to GMGM and Bruce B., starting to sound personal.

  2. penguin pete says:

    i really respect the fact that you can write this: “Those Southeast banners, along with a $5 bill, will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks.”

    seems to me that ted’s take is a bit short-sighted in that, yes, your team (whom i want on a golf course as soon as possible!) has had a successful season thus far, however, i’d assume (dangerous, i know) the fanbase could give a frog’s water-tight butt about another division crown at this point.

    i think he should be saving this post for mid-june, right before a cup parade in DC (which i won’t be able to see as my eyes will fall out if ovi lifts the cup).

    stick tap to Gavin in the comments section of ted’s take for a good post.

  3. MadCap says:

    Who was the 2nd line center you would have procured during the Summer ? Perhaps the plan all along, due to cap limitations/lack of a viable alternative, was to make a move for a 2C at the deadline if that was deemed necessary at that point of the season.

    You criticize Ted and yet won’t admit that you were wrong about Marcus Johannson. He wasn’t as overmatched at the start of the season as you would like to make us believe, and his path to the NHL is no different than that of another 1st Round pick from Sweden by the name of Backstrom (I don’t seem to remember him in a Hershey Bears uniform either).

  4. You are well named, Madcap. I was, and remain, hardly alone among media new and traditional in pointing out that non-lottery draft picks — particularly those from Europe, unaccustomed to the NA sized sheet of ice — are *typically* accorded some development time in North American pro hockey prior to be thrust into NHL action. Just makes sense. MJ90 was badly overmatched in the faceoff circle (still is). He was often confused about defensive responsibilities — I was in the Flyers’ building Jan. 18 when he was misplaced out on the ice by Gabby in overtime and made a decisive coverage error that led to the Flyers’ winning goal. I’m just not of the opinion that a Cup contender should be apprenticing kids like that. So we disagree. If you’re the Panthers or Islanders, sure, throw him out there; who cares? But this organization has prided itself on the patient development of its prized prospects for years. The exceptions — and they’re necessarily few — are with lottery pick talents like Ovi and Backstrom.There is just no downside to putting a talented, wet behind the ears kid in the ‘A’ for a season. But the Caps were forced into playing MJ and Matty in the top six because they had no other options. And by the way, not so incidentally, you burn a year of service in so doing.

  5. MadCap says:

    I failed to see you address what/whom would have been your alternative to MJ90 / MP85 ? Did you want Belanger or “some other junk” to be signed last Summer ? Belanger is superior to MJ90 in the faceoff circle, but I think you’ll struggle to find anyone who will tell you they’d rather have Belanger on this team at this point. Perhaps Management took the view that this team was talented enough to fight through some growing pains this year with an eye on the trade deadline to fill whatever needs were determined at that point. As for MJ90 and the Flyers incident, I see seasoned vets making similar “coverage errors” on a nightly basis in this league. It’s amazing that you choose such a small sample to support your contention that MJ90 should have been in the “A” this season. Not all “non-lottery draft picks” are created equal.

  6. It’s water under the bridge now, but how am I supposed to know the identities of players McPhee did or did not have conservations with or about last summer? And my wish list is irrelevant to the GM — as it should be. Bottom line is the team went into the season with glaring holes and subsequently played some of the worst hockey we’ve seen in the era of Ovechkin. Not a coincidence. The two East rivals I cited addressed core needs last summer and played consistently strong hockey pretty much all season long. Pittsburgh’s performance without Crosby and Malkin for extended stretches is astounding, IMO. And your fallback plan — waiting til the deadline — is remarkable riverboat gambling; didn’t work out so well in ’09 and the pursuit of Bill Guerin, did it?

  7. MadCap says:

    Whom McPhee might have had conversations with/about last summer is irrelevant to me — YOU must have had someone in mind in your hopes for a 2C, didn’t you (it’s silly to criticize the lack of an addition of a 2C if there were no viable candidates available to be acquired) ? As for the Pens, yeah, they addressed some deficiencies on the blue line, but IMO at a cost (i.e. overpayment) that is going to be problematic for them in the near future. As for Philly, they NEVER addressed their most glaring weakness, which was between the pipes. They decided to go with a relative unknown in BoB – maybe it works out for them, but I don’t like the chances (Leighton will probably be the guy there shortly, and if that doesn’t scare Flyers fans I don’t know what will).

    BTW, in the cap era, riverboat gambling (via deadline acquisitions) is almost inevitably going to be part of the process. Caps snatched Huet/Federov at the deadline and they led a run to the playoffs. Caps snatched Corvo/Walker/Belanger, it didn’t work out so well. This year’s acquisitions look great today — maybe in a week or two, not so much (or hopefully they lead to a Cup). We shall see.

    Lastly, I like your blogs and visit this site daily. My two cents is that I could do without some of the self-important stuff like today’s blog, but it’s your site to do with as you please.

  8. mostholy2 says:

    The optimistic view of the situation is that GMGM knew what he was doing the whole time and decided to be patient during the summer to see what would pop up to shore up problems with the team during the year. The more cynical view is that GMGM made some good moves on the fly which ended up with a pretty strong team going into the playoffs without giving up too much.

    Looking back on the year and going into the playoffs, I don’t really think it matters either way. We might have struggled mightily during the middle of the year and played some of the worst hockey during that stretch, but the bottom line is we are going into the playoffs with what I feel is one of the strongest teams and most likely as the no. 1 seed in the East.

    Defense needed to be addressed, so instead of going after Hamhuis and Volchenkov during the summer, he brought in Hannan then got Wideman for a song at the trade deadline and developed Carlson and Alzner into a true shutdown pair.

    2nd line center was a question, they let Johansson be up with the club from the beginning of the year and the kid has really developed in the latter part of the year (IMO much faster than he would have in Hershey). AND he was able to trade for Arnott at the deadline to bring veteran leadership and a stability for the 2nd line. Now Johansson can really help make the 3rd line a scoring threat and gives flexibility and depth at forward if someone one the top 2 lines gets hurt.

    All of this, and the team’s “poor” play in the middle of the year and we still end up at or near the top of the Conference and we’re still not happy with decisions that were made?

    It may be all for naught depending on how we do in the playoffs, but I can’t say that GMGM and Capital’s management has handled things poorly. Just look at the results of their decisions. I’m drinking the cool-aid. Better this stuff than what the Redskins have been peddling for the last 10 years.

  9. MostHoly: a sober and helpful vantage; thank you for sharing it. I share your optimism for this postseason — assuming Wideman comes back reasonably soon. I really believe the Caps will need him to defend Philly’s centers if they see them in the conference finals.He’s also part of the PP equation.

    You’re referencing the Redskins is helpful too. In my darkest moments with the Caps this winter I never once wished myself instead a patron of sports’ biggest bandit.

  10. mostholy2 says:

    I have to admit that right at the trade deadline I was looking at this team and thinking “hrm…first round exit”, as they had only been able to muster about 0.500 hockey since their disasterous December losing streak.

    But as you say, something “magic” happened after the trade deadline. Things just started clicking. Here hope to things continuing to click throughout the playoffs for the team. Go CAPS!

  11. Dan says:

    I think you should give a little more credit to the internal development of the players for the 2nd half turnaround. To be sure, the trade deadline additions were big, but I think the turnaround was happining/ would’ve happened just from their improvement within.

  12. Cathy W says:

    I am amazed that they are finishing first in the East. I don’t think it would have happened without the trade deadline additions. Some players improved, but at least one appears to have regressed. Looking from the outside, something happened to the dynamics of the team after the trade deadline. They now appear to be a committed team, not individual players. Maybe the message finally got through that when opportunity knocks, you have to be ready.

  13. Dave says:

    Your “bet” with Ted Leonsis might have gone over better had you suggested he donate to charity, too. Why you think he owes you a Hawaiian vacation is totally beyond me.

  14. He already donates to charity, moron. So do I. And I never said he “owed” me anything. The spirit of the vacation suggestion centered on the Capitals’ annual playoff swoon — and the toll they’ve taken on a lifelong, native Washington Caps follower. It was a moment of mirth in a difficult topic. And since apparently you’re new to the blog, he’s already footed a large bill for me to fly to Russia to cover hockey. He didn’t “owe” me that, either.

  15. Dave says:

    I’m not new to either the blog or to commenting on it. But this is the first time I’ve directly addressed you, and you responded with name calling, so it will be the last.

  16. Based on the substance of your comments, you’ll be much missed. Not.

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