‘It’s a Team That Lacks an Identity’

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.

They have.

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.

This entry was posted in Alexander Ovechkin, Eastern Conference, George McPhee, Joel Ward, Morning cup-a-joe, New York Rangers, NHL playoffs, playoff hockey, The curse of Washington hockey, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to ‘It’s a Team That Lacks an Identity’

  1. HBH WC says:

    Of course they have no identity. Every time something goes south there is a knee-jerk reaction to drastically change the philosophy.

    Here’s the problem. Three years ago the Caps are flying’. They’re the most exciting team in the league. They have the athletes to play this fire-wagon brand hockey. Then two years ago in the playoffs, they run in to a goalie that was as hot as any playoff goalie could be. They were typically putting between 40 and 50 shots on goal each game but they couldn’t beat Halak. So they’re out of the playoffs. Now the Caps brass panics. We need to change our style of play they say. We need to adopt a more defensive playoff type style of play. Kinda like Glen Hanlon’s style (remember Hanlon’s teams record?). So they asked BB to change their style and he did. The Caps were the third best defensive team in the NHL last year. Only problem with that was this team was not built personnel wise to play that style. So, they loose in the playoffs again. BB is outcoached (so they say). So because the brass still feels they need to play a Hanlon style. They try it again. It doesn’t work out, BB is fired and the Dale Hunter is hired to save the day. Dale can surely teach them how to play like Hanlon wanted them to play. That great defensive playoff style. Look at his record in the Juniors. He’s phenomenal. Well….not really. Still don’t have the personnel to play this style. (SOG last night? 17 – 40) So BB is hired in Aneheim. He’s allowed to coach the team to play the type of style he likes to coach. Now the Ducks are winning like crazy. So all of this happened because the high-flyin’ BB coached Caps ran in to a hot goaltender 2 years ago. Do ya know who else ran in to that hot goaltender???? The Penguins! Did they change their style of play? No! Did they fire their coach? No! Are they making the playoffs this year? Sure! Are the Caps making the playoffs this year? Maybe not. And if they do, does anyone really think they’ll make it past the first round?
    If it continues like this Rockin’ the Red will mean Red Wings sweaters will out number Caps sweaters when the Wings visit Verizon. Just like it used to be.

  2. Jack says:

    I think HBH WC is exactly right. There was way too much overreaction to the loss against Montreal. What scores did we lose games 5 and 7 in that series? 2-1 both games. So what people were saying after the series is that if the Caps played a more defensive style of play they would have won those games 1-0??? The bottom line is that Halak played out of his mind. It happens all the time in the NHL playoffs. When the Caps lost Game 7 to the Penguins in ’09 was anyone questioning the Caps style of play? The truth is that if that OV scores in that breakaway in the beginning of that game and Varly doesn’t have a meltdown, we could have easily made the Finals that year.

  3. tracy says:

    I shudder when I see Caps players absolutely folding when physically challenged for puck possession. Joe B. and Locker use verbs like “scamper” when they describe Caps moving the puck down ice- why can’t the Caps be “charging” or “barreling” down the ice??? I could not even bear to watch past halfway thru the 2nd period last night, and I am known as the Eternally Optimistic Fan.
    Our goalies got practically nothing from their team.

  4. Sig says:

    At this point, the Caps should be SELLING in my opinion. Returns are high in a market that has very little supply. I’m a proponent of playing for a championship not the playoffs; and the Caps aren’t healthy enough, and don’t currently have the tools, to well, even make the playoffs… let alone go on a playoff run.

    They could really clean up this roster to set themselves up for future years.

    And OFB is correct. Their first problem is leadership. Sure, leadership can be taught. But it’s nice to have some qualities of leadership already in place to work with. Ovechkin doesn’t. The bull should be left to play like a bull… attacking, carefree, little thought required. The leadership should be left to a leader. Although he seems to be a bit quiet, Brooks Laich comes to mind. Troy Brouwer maybe. Leadership determines the character of the team. And this team has little to no character.

    At this point, they’re not even built like teams that are successful in the playoffs. They don’t bang in front of the net near enough, they only have a handful of players that are gritty. Simply put, this team is not tough in any sense of the word. Semin was voted, by his NHLPA peers, as one of the easiest players to intimidate in the NHL. Mike Green is routinely targeted by opposing teams because they know he will eventually break. Backstrom’s brain is currently mush. Our only regular tough guy, Matt Hendricks, isn’t a tough guy… he doesn’t deter anyone. You just CANNOT assemble a team with soft “young guns” and no protection. The last time the Caps had that protection was when Brashear roamed the ice. And guess what? Everyone was healthy and the Caps were poised to make a playoff run.

    So start with character issues. I hope we don’t have three Russians skating in DC next year. Do we really want to strengthen locker room cliques and kill the lack chemistry even more?

    Then onto team composition. GMGM should be selling. It makes sense…. at least to a long-term thinker. Set Hunter up with “Hunter-eque” players. The guy is probably going nuts coaching this team of soft toilet paper.

  5. Mike says:

    Good stuff. The #1 problem with this team for years has been George McPhee. He only has a job for 2 reasons. 1) That Stanley Cup in 98 when he took over Poile’s team and 2) Won the draft lottery and Ovechkin was a superstar for 3-4 years and masked his other deficiencies. If we pick 3rd and get Cam Barker..McPhee is out of Hockey today.

    As far as the identity. How are we going to get one back? Ovechkin is only going to get fatter, slower, and older. His days of 50-60 goals are gone. He’s going to post up back to back low to mid 30 goals again this year. There’s his ceiling the rest of his career and we’re paying 9.5 million for that. I have no idea why but its like voodoo but all of the Caps players, media, coaches are afraid to say it until OLIE did and GMGM confirmed it. Ovie parties his ass off…doesn’t take care of himself…and anyone surprised by his fall off or thinks he’ll be back to superstar form is sadly living in some other world. The sad part is the CAPS have known this for YEARS. And everyone was too scared to say or really do something about it.

    If the Caps come back with Hunter & GMGM again we are wasting another year. I like that OFB brought up Torts. These party rockers–Ovie, Semin, Carlson, Green NEED a prick like Torts. As much as we want Hunter the player as Coach, that’s not him..and honestly the team has regressed under him. Bruce must be laughing his ass off.

    But sadly. McFail isn’t going anywhere. He added 5 more years to his lifetime contract last season. No way Ted fires him with 4 more years of guaranteed cash.

    So embrace it Caps fans, this track wreck created by GMGM is here to stay.

  6. oldtowncapsfan says:

    I was at the game last night in Carolina. Not only was it painful, but I was for the first time in my life embarrassed to be wearing a Caps jersey (and one with an “8” on the back, especially). The team had no fire, absolutely did not respond after the Canes scored two quick goals (and yeah, they weren’t great goals, but not sure I’d pull Vouks after just five minutes when the problem was more defensive breakdowns than bad goaltending). Listening to the Canes post-game show on the way back, they were absolutely shocked at just how poorly we played, and I completely agreed with them. I don’t think Carolina is as bad as its record (much better since the December coaching switch), but we were certainly the ones who looked like the cellar dwellars last night.

    If I may, I’d like to just throw out a few suggestions. I’ve coached junior hockey and played the game my whole life, and a couple of things jump out with this team:

    – No presence in front of the attacking net. When things are going bad, you go back to basics: get across the blue line, shoot the puck, follow up for rebounds. We still do too much passing right at or across the blue line, which often leads to turnovers and odd-man rushes. It’s not complicated: have someone take it in, rip a shot, hustle for the rebounds. None of that last night.

    – Get the puck out of the zone! Again, we’re looking for the perfect breakout pass when we should just be focused on getting into the neutral zone and starting the attack. This kills our D and goalie, who are expecting the O to move the puck but just can’t seem to do so.

    – Strip Ovie of the C and give it to Hendricks. He’s the only one playing with any fire right now, maybe he can inspire the boys to do something.

    – Dump Semin for draft picks. I get that he has skills, but his consistent lack of effort is appalling. He doesn’t backcheck, he doesn’t forecheck, he gives up the puck at the least sign of trouble, and I really doubt (though obviously have no knowledge) that he is a plus in the locker room.

    OK, that’s my rant for this morning. I want to continue supporting this team, but not sure I will keep shelling out hundreds of dollar to watch efforts like last night’s.

  7. nhock says:

    OFB and all comments are correct and spot on. Thankfully I was able to see the 2007-08 CAPS run to the post season. That is my favorite MEMORY of what the team was and could have been. Now, every game we are stuck with more giveaways than shots on goal. Identity? Yes they have one… its a bunch of players (not a team) that has seen its best days. But wait! To reward the season ticket holders Ted has INCREASED prices by over 8%… $4972.50 per seat. You tell me; does the team provide that level of entertainment and excitement?? I think not, and predict the “sellouts” are a thing of the past.
    It’s so sad to watch.

  8. Paul says:

    On Oct 24, you proclaimed “the club that was needed has been built.” Hmmmmm, this looks like that club, with the exception of those players lost to extended injuries, notably the #1 center and #1 defenseman. Now your solution is to run GMGM over the club’s shortcomings; is it only a matter of time before you begin your revisionist analysis of the decision to fire BB in favor of mythical hero Dale Hunter?

    No one is in the NHL because of a Cup they almost won, certainly not 14 springs later. That is absurd.

    Your hindsight and mine is both 20/20. If winning in the NHL were easy everyone would be doing it.

    @Nhock: I don’t get your math. I know prices are going up, but are you paying $62k per seat now?? That’s $1500 per game, and even the Leafs don’t charge that.

  9. xke4me says:

    I’ve heard it said that the Russians couldn’t care less about the post season. They don’t get paid much for it, and the Stanley cup doesn’t mean much to them. They’re here to collect their paychecks. I’m sure there are exceptions, but our top Russians aren’t them.

    Ovie doesn’t care enough to figure out a new way to play now. He’s not a superstar anymore, but an average player. Everyone knows his moves, what little he has left. We should trade him and Semin to the KHL.

    I don’t ask if the Caps are playing anymore, I ask if they’re “on the ice.” That’s a better description of what they’re doing these days. Showing up. Barely.

  10. Caps Fan 68 says:

    I agree with most of the posters here that the Caps should look to be sellers this year. Its a great market to be a seller with very little competition and lots of demand. If Kyle Quincey can fetch a 1st and a prospect, think what we might get for some of our guys.

    Here is my list of guys who shouldn’t go: Holtby, Neuvirth, Backstrom, Alzner, Carlson, Orlov, Johansson, Chimera and Browuer.

    Here is my list of guys who probably can’t go: Ovi, Ward, Laich and Schultz (all for bad contract reasons)

    Here are the guys who must go: Semin, Voukoun, Green, Hamerlik, Wideman and Knuble.

    There are a lot of high picks and/or very good prospects to be had for that bunch, all pending UFAs except Green, who is a pending RFA.

    There are times when it is smart to hit the reset button. It worked well when we did it seven years ago, and could work even better now. We have a much better core of youngsters this time than we did back in 03-04.

  11. xke4me says:

    ITA on hitting the reset button, but with so many who can’t go (and I agree with your list, as much as I hate the truth of it), will be a true reset? I’m not sure the current team deserves a playoff spot and would not be unhappy if management opted to toss this season to the side and made changes looking at 2013 and beyond.

    It does seem that the “Young Guns” have been replaced with the “Younger Guns.”

  12. ATXCap says:

    It pains me to admit it, but I agree with the sentiment that the Russians aren’t great character players on the Caps, and that starts with Ovie and ends with Semen. Since Ovie’s not going anywhere, Semen must.

  13. Epic McPhail says:

    I could not disagree more with Paul. McPhee is a disastrous failure. How many decades should a GM get to build a team capable of reaching the conference finals, let alone the Stanley Cup? Apparently in your estimation two decades. However, Caps fans seem to enjoy less than mediocrity and lapping up the shameless and buffoonish Leonsis and his bag of lies and excuses.

  14. Paul says:

    @Eric McPhail: we are probably not in as much disagreement as you think. GMGM may be the only employee of the Washington Caps who was hired by Abe Pollin and is still in a position of any authority. 15 years is a long time in any job, especially in the NHL, where by my count (someone check me) the Caps have had five different head coaches in that tenure.

    I was merely noting the revisionism that covers this blog and the disappointing performance of this year’s Capitals. Witness the Oct 24 post I cited, where GMGM was being measured for his statue to be built next to our Stanley Cup displays. Vokoun was hailed as the steal of the season, Ward was lauded, and of course we were so, so smart to lock up Ovechkin and Backstrom for their careers.

    So now we sit in the winter of our discontent, alongside fans of the Maple Leafs, Kings, Blues, Canucks, and Sabres, who have also not won a Cup since the Caps entered the league in 1974. What about fans of teams like the Islanders, who have not been competitive in over a decade? How about the Canadiens, who seem in perpetual reset mode except for one brief playoff run?

    Like most figures in pro sports, it is unlikely that GMGM will get to choose the time and place for his exit. That’s how it goes. Just don’t think for a second that the Capitals have been short-changed by under-performance in the front office. To paraphrase a BNL lyric: it’s is fate, but it’s not his fault.

  15. Darryl says:

    Upper Management needs to be blamed as well. Ted going out of his way to promote Ovi and his MVP’s was worthless.. Ask yourself what were we to be happy about? Yes it was nice that a player on the Caps won those awards, But to make a big deal of it was pointless.

    GMGM drafts have been 500 or lower. He bombed in the 05 draft.07 wasnt all that great either. 08 we know the 1st pick was Gustafsson and then Varly… None are here… See a trend. After Nick we havent drafted a center or tried to trade of a young one.

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