On at least three occasions during Monday night’s national television broadcast the NBC Sports studio tandem of Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick explicitly alluded to the Capitals lacking any discernible identity. It’s a sentiment I began expresing on this blog about two years ago. And it’s a lead reason why I find it, in year seven of Alexander Ovechkin’s NHL career, so difficult to invest much interest any more in this team as currently comprised. They are going nowhere, and Nicklas Backstrom’s injury is only a minor reason for that. Recall: prior to Backstrom’s injury, this club wasn’t exactly striking fear broadly about the league, either.
The Capitals aren’t merely relatively dull to watch — especially relative to two or three seasons ago; they don’t possess a carefully assembled architecture of character, cohesion, guile, and identity — and leadership — that gives us much reason to watch with hope. We are wtinessing late this February the final fleeting flickerings of the very style that so enthralled and so captivated so many District sports fans as newcomers to hockey. Soon, Alexander Semin will be gone. So, too, may other Young Guns. Theirs was a style that metamorphosized Chinatown. But it also wasn’t a style well suited to the tight confinements of the NHL postseason, and the Capitals, cognizant of the imperative to change under Dale Hunter, don’t have the players to carry it out. They are a transformational outfit of mismatched pieces attempting to compete against clubs who know who and what they are. As such they aren’t a good bet to outperform the well identified adversaries among whom they’re bunched over the next six weeks. My gut says Capitals management knows this and therefore will be sellers rather than buyers as the NHL trade deadline approaches in a week’s time.
Why add another new part or two to what’s already a mess?
You watch John Tortorella’s Rangers night in and night out and you know the caliber and quality and character of play you’re almost certain to see. The Blueshirts don’t play a pretty game of hockey, but they do play cohesively, with extraoridnary selflessness, a style conspicuously embodied by their captain, and most especially they play a style of regular season hockey well suited to the transitional demands of postseason hockey. I give the Rags a ton of credit: though they were bested twice by the Capitals in the postseason in the span of just three years, they weren’t much intimidated by those results, and they believed themselves capable of surpassing the Caps in short order.
George McPhee has spent the past four or five years simply drafting the best available talent he could from entry draft positions which seldom deliver bluechip talent — the byproduct of successive years of regular season success. He applied no blueprint whatsoever to the selections, no overarching roster composition philosophy. Glen Sather and John Tortorella, blessed already by the presence of one of the planet’s finest goaltenders, took a much different approach, seeking to assemble size and grit and character — the very traits any coach most would want for his club in the postseason — most particularly on the blueline. The Rangers today are infinitely closer to a Stanley Cup than are the Capitals, and given the Rags’ precocious youth on the blueline, that may be the case for some years.
McPhee then made matters worse for himself this past offseason. By late last spring it had become abundantly clear that Eric Fehr wasn’t going to develop into an impact wing. The club had already swung and missed with wings in recent drafts by the names of Bouchard and Kugryshev. The team had a rapidly aging Mike Knuble up front, and the wildly inconsistent and postseason-underperforming Alexander Semin. McPhee wanted more size and grit and postseason pedigree on his wing, so he inked Joel Ward to a 4-year, $12 million deal — a pact that staggered most at its announcing.
With Nashville last spring Ward posted 13 points in 12 playoff games. McPhee believed Ward to be a rising performer, a guy to be counted upon in the clutch. A more balanced assessment, however, would have taken into account more durable traits — what we’ve seen from Ward all season long in Washington this season: He doesn’t skate well at all; he doesn’t shoot real well; he doesn’t pass well; he doesn’t makes plays; his hockey IQ is underwhelming. Other than that, he’s swell. With three more years to go Ward’s contract is positively unmoveable.
Had he been a GM in the summer of 1990, one wonders what manner of contract George McPhee would have awarded to John Druce.
So on the wings McPhee this morning looks out and sees markedly diminished production on the left side from two high-priced players he thought he’d have superstar production from, and a mess on the right. And no hope coming from the farm. Backstrom’s out, and perhaps needs to be shut down for the remainder of the season, there is no 2C, and then the rest of the pivot committee is under-skilled, under-experienced, and under-sized. At least next season the arrival of Evgeni Kuznetsov, joined by the prospect of a repaired Backstrom, affords Capitals fans the thought of finally attaining strength down the middle, at long last. How the wings will be repaired is anybody’s guess.
Any discussion of this Capitals team’s shortcomings this season would be remiss in omitting mention of its captain. I was one who wondered at the wisdom of awarding Ovechin the captaincy from the get-go. Not every superstar is a natural captain. Two years later I remain at pains to identify what he brings to the captaincy that we can point to out on the ice as evidence of elevating and inspiring the efforts of his teammates. Then there’s this: his best hockey is behind him. I went nuclear on this blog when after Ovechkin’s third NHL season his general manager signed Jose Theodore to backstop the Capitals’ championship aspirations. Ovechkin was turning sports-Washington, and the NHL, on its head, and McPhee gave him a journeyman in net. I termed that a waste of two more years of having the world’s best hockey player, producing at a level you want for an authentic contender.
To the extent that the Capitals can contend in the immediate years ahead management must content themselves with the thought that Ovechkin, so well figured out by the rest of the league these days, will contribute some 30-odd goals to the effort — good but hardly superstar production. The question remains whether or not thay can win with his leadership.