Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Player Is Not the Only Thing Missing from the Capitals

As I'm sure you all heard, the Caps lost 6-0 to the New York Rangers; a team that has struggled to score, and yet found the ability to drop six on Washington. With the trade deadline approaching, many have requested certain pieces and/or players to be implanted into Washington's roster. However, with the way the Caps have played of late, they resemble more of a mess than a team that has a few pieces missing. I realized long ago that this team needed more help than any center, winger, defenseman or veteran goaltender could provide.

When the Capitals started this season, it was noted that they needed 1.) a reliable, stay at home defenseman 2.) a center for their second line 3.) a playoff-experienced, most likely a previous Cup-winning veteran with presence to lead this team. Pieces 1 and 2 were most urgent, and number 3 could be acquired later in the year.

The season progressed, and the Capitals seemed to be struggling offensively. Turns out the struggles were the result of their shift from a high-octane offensive team to a team focused on winning with defense. The Caps acquired Scott Hannan for Tomas Fleischmann in November, crossing one item off their wish list, but the offensive struggles continued and there still was that hole at center.

Fast-forwarding to the 26th of February, two days before the NHL's trade deadline, the Caps still have made no moves toward numbers 2 and 3 on the list of needs. What also remains an issue for Washington is that even if they went out and got said player(s), they still no longer remain favorites to win it all, despite their expectations to do so this year.

So then what else could be wrong even if the team plugs those holes?

Confidence. Trust. Identity.

All of these traits are missing in Washington.

The Capitals have no identity: while they have shifted to a "more defensive" style of play, they continue to try and convince everyone that they have an offensive attack. "Well," I ask, "where is this 'attack'?" The Caps have fallen into this trap of becoming a team that thinks it's playing well defensively, but still it is not winning them games consistently..

Hell, this style of play hasn't even worked against teams that already use this "defensive" style. As the Caps saw with Western Conference teams like the Sharks and Kings, who have bigger players and players used to this system, Washington doesn't match up well to these guys. And even though the Capitals may be "better," it doesn't mean jack when you lose almost every game like this.

There is a line between being "defensively responsible" and "blue collar." The first time I had heard the term blue collar to describe the Capitals was in Mike Hoffman's article about the re-signing of Matt Hendricks. It almost tore my mind apart. While Hendricks is a fan favorite in Washington, and a fantastic addition this season, he is not the entire persona of the team... and he shouldn't be.

Let's get real here: don't tell me you're a "blue collar" city when everybody drives a Bentley. Alex Semin = not blue collar. Alex Ovechkin; not blue collar. Nick Backstrom; not blue collar. This is why you have four lines to play with. You have your cafeteria line, mail room line, all the way to the secretary and office line, to the CEO line. That's what worked for Washington. That's what gave them their swagger and their confidence to play.

So pick one style. No wonder they're such an enigma. They lost their game in an attempt to try to tell me they are something they're not. Glen Sather did not tell Wayne Gretzky to play defense in November. It wasn't until the Stanley Cup playoffs when Gretzky was told to shorten his shifts and work a little more on defense." (I replaced the term "Finals" with "Stanley Cup playoffs. Otherwise, he was encouraged to break his records and play HIS game. When you have such stars on a team, like Ovechkin, you build a team to win around his style.

Which brings us to the next issue: Trust. The fact that head coach Bruce Boudreau could not trust general manager George McPhee to get players for his system that he felt he had to go through this ridiculous game shift is a big problem. There is no trust then from the players in the general manager, and brings questions to the team's real commitment to winning.

Yeah, I said it. Commitment to winning. Even the smallest of moves can make a difference, as The Hockey Writers' Mike Colligan wrote. For the last few weeks, we have been hearing about the trades of Ray Shero, Steve Yzerman, Paul Holmgren, and other GMs of contenders in the East. But how about the small moves that did not even shift the team, but showed an effort to move to win? The San Jose Sharks picked up Kyle Wellwood (fatass or not), Ben Eager, and recently got Ian White via waivers and small trades. In between all of these moves, the Sharks became a team that went from not making the playoffs to possibly winning their division.

Then there are the big splash moves like Shero made to plug the holes his team had, especially in the face of injury. With the Penguins biggest stars like Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby out (both possibly for the rest of the year), Shero went out and negotiated his ass off to get the types of players he needed that seemed impossible to get for next to nothing. Not everyone can get the type of moves that he did, but his approach was the right one in seeing what the team needs and going for it. And also finding ways to not give up key pieces even with injuries running rampant.

Timing was key in Steve Yzerman's moves. He made moves during the offseason to build the Lightining around their key stars like Lecavalier, Stamkos, and St. Louis. Yzerman then made a mid season trade to get Dwayne Roloson to take over the goaltending duties. While Roloson may not be the best goalie around, his veteran presence gave the Bolts some breathing room and he's won games for them that they probably would not have won with Mike Smith and Dan Ellis. Last week then, as we move closer to the playoffs, Yzerman gets Eric Brewer, a defenseman who was captain of the St. Louis Blues. A veteran player who also can put sturdy defense in front of Roloson and keep the team focused helps make the Lightning more solid than before. Then, seemingly a touch up move, Stevie Y moves Dan Ellis to the Ducks for Curtis McElhinney in a goalie exchange.

On the Ducks' end of things, it seems as though Jonas Hiller might be out longer than expected, and with McElhinney not working out too well, Ellis and their other option, Ray Emery, will handle the goaltending duties until Hiller can return. Even though these are not top goalies, it's a move that was made for the best available.

McPhee may be working behind the scenes for Monday's deadline, but if players are hearing about these trades going on and every day their team is not involved in the mix of all the teams making moves and winning as a result, it hurts their trust in the team and in the GM. As a GM, you must set your own time table for these deals to get done. McPhee is not Ken Holland of the Detroit Red Wings, who has the trust of his players that he will get things done (if even need be) and vice versa. Holland has given Detroit championships, and has a team with a pedigree and a reputation... an identity if you will. There is no reason for people to have faith in McPhee because he has done nothing close o what Holland has done for the Red Wings.

Even the most conservative of GMs, Dave Poile of the Nashville Predators went out and got Mike Fisher in a timely manner. While we joke that it had everything to do with Carrie Underwood, in reality, Mike Fisher actually works in Nashville, and Poile even gave up a first rounder for the move. If such a quiet GM made a move like that, it shows the environment that is needed to get the deal done and sometimes, a trade can be made to trade; the same way a coach can get fired just to get things done, or any other kind of move to show what the team wants to do. Right now in Washington, it looks as though the GM doesn't know what he's doing and he will have to come up with the biggest fish of them all, or else he fails.

Finally, this leads into confidence. With all of this falling on the mistakes of the GM of the Caps and the over-pronounced shift in the Caps' play by the coach, the players are the ones who execute these plays and have to have responsibility for their own actions as well.

They look dead. Especially after Friday night's 6-0 loss.

Will there be enough time to tweak the team before the playoffs to return to scoring once the pick up is made by Monday, we don't know. Many have remained passive and have tried to show trust in the Caps' front office to make decisions. Go ahead, get mad. There's no reason to trust them.

If a move is made that turns this team around, I will take everything back that I have said. No problem admitting that. I do not mind admitting being impressed after heavy criticism. If the Caps win without making a move, I can admit being wrong. But if none of the above happens, be prepared for me to rip a new one into the atmosphere. But I'll stay classy.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for telling it like it is. I'm not impressed with this year's Caps team. No, not even after coming from behind to defeat the Islanders the next night. This team is too bipolar or schizophrenic, I'm not sure which. They stink up the joint one night, then show signs of life the next. Is this their attitude going into the homestretch of the season and then (hopefully) into the playoffs? I'm not even sure an 11th hour trade will save them from themselves because heart, discipline, and consistent effort are in such short supply.

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  2. Not a problem! I don't think anyone should be impressed with this team, and I'm confused as to why folks like McPhee and Ed Olczyk are such fans of this "style of play." You hit the nail on the head though about the things missing as well: heart, discipline, and consistency. Very important virtues to have in the playoffs and to not have them worries me. It's not even about the trades, like you said. It's about the culture about the team.
    Thanks for the comment! (@lewisa@washpost.com)

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  3. I'm back for another comment LTC.

    Today the Caps plugged some holes in their lineup by trading for C Jason Arnott and D Dennis Wideman. Whether they also plugged holes in their character and identity remain to be seen. It's all about an attitude adjustment to the culture of entitlement and privilege that pervades this team.

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  4. At least I see a commitment to winning, moves that say, we want to win really soon. It's a step toward the right direction. I'm a little disappointed in the Wideman trade, but you gotta take what you can get for such a short notice move. I wrote on The Hockey Writers today for the implications of these trades and that Arnott can provide leadership and a winning mentality on the Caps. I think the team can cross things off the checklist at least, and hope for the best. It's now up to BB and the Caps for the result to turn out.

    My article on THW: http://thehockeywriters.com/the-washington-capitals-trade-grades-b/

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  5. Hey Caps fans! $10 for $20 at The Front page! Great for their Caps Away Games Viewing Parties!

    http://www.specialicious.com/specials/front-page-2

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