Sunday, November 20, 2011

Where Do We Go From Here?

Well I had planned to make my return with a recap of last night's game. Finally switched TV carriers so now I can actually watch all the games, and DVR them in situations where I am not able to be home, like last night. I made it through the first two periods of my own personal re-broadcast, and just couldn't bear to finish. While I honestly do not think the team as a whole played as bad as everyone says they did through those first two, it certainly was not what you want to see. Gustavsson made some huge saves with the Caps on the PP, and a lot of the goals came down to all-around awful play by Schultz, Erskine looking totally lost/being slow/screening the goalie, and a rare piss-poor performance from Backstrom in his own end. The rest of the team has had better games and worse games, but I think the loss can pretty much be pinned on those three. Big picture, though, this is the seventh regulation loss in 11 games since going 7-0-0, and fourth straight loss for the team. Washington currently sits at 8th in the Eastern Conference, thanks to holding a couple tiebreakers with the New Jersey Devils, who are in ninth with the same 10-7-1 record. Something needs to change, but what?

As I, Steven Hindle, and others pointed out early on, that winning streak was really masking a plethora of issues facing the team. Some fans may still be deluding themselves into believing that the past 11 games are the anomalous ones of the season and that it is all still just some bad luck and injuries, but the real truth of it is more likely that the first seven games were the anomaly and a factor of good luck and other teams' injuries. Some people may recognize my twitter handle as the one claiming on July 1 that he would take $20 dollar bets that the Caps wouldn't finish above 7th in the Conference so long as Boudreau was coaching and no other big changes were made. That was before the Vokoun signing, granted, and that certainly was a big move that changed things in my eyes. But apparently not enough. So what are the big issues the team is facing, and what errors have Boudreau and McPhee made? Well since you're here, I'm assuming you care what my thoughts are on those matters, so here they are:
  • Much better by the Comcast sign than by the faceoff dot.
    First things first, let me say that I was at least half-wrong about Johansson coming into this season. I am very impressed with his overall play, and I think he may become a legitimately consistent scoring threat over the course of the season. I was practically screaming on Twitter and Facebook, and literally in my apartment, for him to be sent down to Hershey last year just so he could develop and prepare for this season without being a liability. I refuse to join the cavalcade of the deluded who think that he had anything better than a mediocre rookie outing, but consider me a converted fan of his this year. All that being said, Boudreau is still using him absolutely wrong. I really don't care what his scouting report said, he is not defensively-minded or skilled enough to play on the PK, or to center one of the top two lines. Aside from the much-talked about beauty of a pass to Brouwer in one game, he has proved a relatively ineffective setup man, and I think that is the real reason that Semin has struggled so mightily to score this year. In no rational human being's mind is he anywhere approaching the talent of his countryman Backstrom, and as such MoJo should never even sniff the first line. He's good, but not that good. He is also a lousy center. His faceoff wins have been a little better as of late, but he is still worst on the team. He plays and skates like a winger, just put him there. The real success for him will come when Boudreau stops trying to play him as a top-two center and he is allowed to focus more on using his breakout speed down the boards.
  • Cody Eakin is obviously a skilled player, and I am overjoyed to have him in the Capitals organization, and I want him on the team... in 2012-2013. He has played well enough in his few games, and I will not bash him as a player, but his presence on the team is a symptom of greater issues. Boudreau and McPhee both seem to have their favorite players, and their players who will always be in the doghouse. One of the most polarizing players in years past was Tomas Fleischmann, and he has been nearly a point-per-game player since being traded after being shuffled around the lineup and benched repeatedly by Boudreau. I expect a healthy Eric Fehr to be a similar player later on this season. I point them out because they are highly skilled players that saw moderate success in Washington, but still got shuffled around and bad ice time. The Caps seem insistent on solving problems that don't exist while ignoring the most glaring issues. Mathieu Perreault has done all that has been asked of him this season. He is scoring .5 points per game while averaging only 10 minutes of ice time on the fourth line. Put that in perspective: when was the last time the Capitals had a 40+ point scorer on the fourth line? Cody Eakin has taken Perreault's spot on the roster in that Perreault is benched, but the real demotion went to Mike Knuble,a perennial 20-goal scorer. Eakin has primarily played on the second line alongside Johansson and Semin,getting roughly the same number of minutes that Perreault got.
    Cody Eakin takes "Rock the Red" waaaaay too seriously.
    His PPG is also clocking in at one every other game, but with more assists and with a better spot on the roster. There is absolutely no reason for Perreault to be sitting on the bench, and there is even less reason for the Capitals to start any rookies this year. It's time to win, not time to train new guys for NHL play. Do it next year when you have to clear up cap space. Eakin, Galiev, Kuznetsov, and Orlov are shining stars for the future, but let's keep the focus for the team on the present. McPhee and Boudreau need to grasp that lesson before the team can progress further. They've done a good job of laying the groundwork for future success, but now is the time to focus on this season.
  • The line-shuffling has to stop. If Boudreau wants to keep his job, he needs to do less, not more. I have been saying this for over a year, and the call from other fans is growing louder, too. Look around the league, what other championship caliber teams are throwing out 20 different line combinations a night? Just because the team is losing, or because a line has a bad shift or even a bad couple of games, does not mean that things are not working. It is still mind-boggling that Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Knuble were broken up this year. If Boudreau did not have faith that Knuble could carry his own in a contract year, then he should have gone to McPhee and told him to shop the big guy around. Brouwer and Ward are not replacements for Knuble on the top line. Brouwer just is not the crease presence that Knuble is, and it is a shame that Ovechkin has had to try and take that job on for himself. Stick to what works more often than not, Bruce. 8-19-22 has been one of the league's best lines for a couple seasons, don't fix what ain't broke. Some say that Boudreau is being a hard-liner and a tactician with his lineups, I say he is panicking. He does not seem to know how to handle loss. I've read a lot that the players do not know how to handle adversity - I think it's the coach that can't deal. This lineup, on paper, is filled with some of the best talent the league has to offer, some of the fastest skaters, hardest grinders, best scorers, solid defensemen, and quality goaltending. But when a player doesn't know who is going to be on his left side next game or next period, or even that he will still be playing on the right side, it will cause issues. Carlson and Alzner embody this more than most, and especially Carlson. Alzner pretty much always knows what his job is and where to be as a shutdown guy, but the big reason these two are so successful together is that they have almost always played alongside each other. They know where the other guy will be without asking, without looking, and they feel confident. The big word this season has been accountability, and it needs to be dropped. Forget accountability, this team needs consistency. A consistent coaching style, a consistent lineup. Changes can/will/should be made from time to time, but with a team this good, only after several games of ineptitude, not a shift where they allow a goal because of one mistake. McPhee added a lot of new pieces this year, and shipped out familiar ones, give the guys time to adjust, and success will come.
  • Let Ovi be Ovi, but help him grow, too. Ovechkin is not a 19-minutes-or-less talent. Players don't get better by playing less. As Ovi would say: "Nobody ever got better at hockey by bowling. More practice for you." I am not saying he should be playing 26 minutes a game, but 22 sure sounds about right. When you want to win, you want your best guys playing and working the other team. Ovechkin is not going to score more, or be more defensive, or any of that other stuff by getting five or more fewer shifts a game. Make him work for it, though. I'm a big fan of putting him on the penalty kill. Want his defensive and two-way game to get better? Put him in the situations where it matters most. There are no questions about whether this
    Sasha Smiles all around! Let's see some more moments like this.
    Russian Alex cares, we all know he does. Give him more five-on-five time, and throw him in for a few PK shifts a game. Playing a guy like him less just makes him more anxious, gives him more time to get into his own head about scoring, and pushes his focus into one area of hisgame. I guarantee you he does not get benched and think to himself "Ok, next shift I won't try to score and instead I'll create an open lane for Jason Chimera to skate through." If Ovechkin is not put into situations where he has to be defensive minded, he will not have to grow in that area of his game. Boudreau, more than Ovi himself, is pigeon-holing the captain into one role. Get and keep him off the point on the PP, give him some PK time, and never ever split him and Backstrom up at 5-on-5 play. Give the guy some room to breathe and he will bounce back and mature.
  • As for McPhee: make a trade or two when you can. Right now, McPhee has absolutely screwed himself and the team. Semin never should have gotten $6.7 million for this season, Erskine should never have gotten an extension, and Schultz should never have gotten as much money as he did. Now, when the team may need to make an early trade most, they are unable to do so. No team is going to want to give up a top defenseman (which I honestly do not think the team needs right now) or a top-two center (which I think the team desperately requires) for an underperforming penalty-taking machine with character issues like Semin, especially at that price. Erskine is at best a number six defenseman on a good team, and still can't crack the top four on a basement-level squad. Right now, he is still the team's best shot at a trade because he has not gotten much better or worse in the past year, and because the team has other players to fill his spot. Problem is that he will not yield much in return. But if McPhee can trade him away sooner rather than later for a 4th or 5th round pick, that'll free up some cap space, and maybe Schultz can be moved with a pick for an upgrade at the blue line, assuming Sarge ever picks up his game a bit. Then again, if Sarge picks up his game, the team should not need to move him or add another d-man. Carlson, Alzner, Green, Wideman, Hamrlik, and Schultz should be more than enough talent to put together a responsible defensive corps, but moving Erskine should still be a top priority if only to free up another $1.5 mil in cap space. Down the line, if Semin picks up his game, trade him away for a top centerman. Ideally, I'd say look to Columbus and Jeff Carter. He cannot be happy there and would surely be happy to waive his no-trade clause, they need a scorer, and his style of play would fit in perfectly on the Capitals second line. In a fantasy world, this trade is great on paper, but I know it will never happen.
What does this all mean, then? In my humble (Not-so-humble? Arrogant, even? You decide.) opinion, give Boudreau one more month. If he can turn back the clock, get his team playing consistently by being consistent himself, if the team can get back to winning and the Alexes start scoring again, if Perreault sees more ice time and Eakin gets a chance to grow in Hershey, then keep him. If not, time to boot the guy. I do not know who could replace him, but I hear that Dale Hunter has taken to a little minor-league coaching recently, and I'm sure he knows a thing or two about playing good hockey. McPhee needs to make a move within the next month, though, and I'm not talking about call-ups. If a day goes by where GMGM is not on the phone with another GM in the next month, Leonsis needs to start asking some questions himself. I really do think this team can win, and my bleak July predictions were only because I do not have the faith in Boudreau and McPhee to show me that they know how to properly manage this incredible roster. So far, they have done nothing to prove me wrong. I want them to, just like Johansson has. But if they can't, hockey is as much a business as everything else and the dead weight needs to be cut off before it drags the whole club down to the depths. Can't worry about making it out of the second round if you can't make it to the first, fellas. So Rock the Red and get back to scoring four goals a game like two years ago while allowing two like you did last year. The talent is there, the players are there, and 90% of them are doing their jobs. Time for Boudreau to earn his keep.

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