Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Caps are Losing. So What?

And not just because he is the team's king of bling

Tonight the Capitals lost to the fairly dreadful Toronto Maple Leafs, blowing a 2-1 lead by getting pretty much owned in the third. They were outshot roughly 2-1, but there were a few bright spots. Namely Joel Ward and Mike Ribeiro, but still.

I was going to say Michal Neuvirth, but then I looked at his actual stats this season. They're pretty dreadful, down among the league's worst, same as they were last season. The Caps defense has been nothing short of abysmal through these first seven games (the last five of which Neuvy has started), but that only gets you so far. Devin Dubnyk (4-2-0, 2.74, .922; Islanders), Sergei Bobrovsky (2-1-1, 2.40, .922; Blue Jackets), and tonight's foe James Reimer (3-1-0, 2.80, .914; Maple Leafs) all have far better numbers on (theoretically) far worse teams than the Caps and Neuvirth (1-3-1, 2.97, .899). I don't think Washington fans really want to swap team defenses with any of those three.

Anyway, I digress. What I meant to say is that I am not worried. I really do not care what the win-loss record is this season. Many would chastise me for saying this, but I do not want the Capitals to win the Stanley Cup this year. Silly as even I know it to be, I would not want the first time Lord Stanley is lifted by a Capital to be in a lockout-marred and shortened season. What I think is far more important is that the Caps find an identity.

Over the past year, Washington has seen three coaches, roughly four systems, no starting goalie, and lines that appear to be put together using Colin Campbells old Wheel of Justice. We've seen players effectively chirping each other in the media, coaches questioned, and hints of general locker room disarray. I've heard it suggested, almost in hushed whispers, that maybe this season is like an extended training camp or preseason for this team. I'm hear to shout it from the rooftops: that's a great way of looking at things.  It's probably easier to swallow (and more accurate) than the "R"-word: rebuild.

Now do not read this as me saying we should tank the season. I really believe that where this team finishes in the standings this year should not and does not matter. It's not the team's structure that is being rebuilt nearly as much as it is the team's identity. They had one, and it led them to dominate the league. The hottest of hot goalies cooled the Caps (and pulled the exact same crap on Pittsburgh, though nobody outside of the Steel City seemed to notice), and Washington went into panic mode. The team didn't just lose its identity, it was actively dismantled, destroyed, and dismissed. Here we are, three seasons later, with two more 2nd round playoff exits, and nothing has filled the void. It's time for that to change.

What, me worry?
This is the perfect time to experiment with Ovechkin. Put him on the third line. Put him on the opposite wing. Put him on the penalty kill. Use the shortened season to round out his game and build a repertoire with some other players, or at least learn for certain that it is never going to happen. Try to find out hidden talents of other guys. Joel Ward has been spectacular so far, making me and so many others eat our words about buying him out. Make a decision between Johansson and Perreault, as it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is only room for one of them on this team.

And the goalies. This 1A/1B crap has to end now. Neuvirth and Holtby are both RFAs after this season. Neuvirth will almost certainly lay down  the same lines that Varlamov did, and he should (although his numbers are worse than Varly's every season). With Philipp Grubauer in the wings, there is no need to keep all three young goalies. Trade one for a pick or a veteran tender to back up and mentor whoever is chosen to stick in Washington - my pick is Holtby. I think we've seen Neuvirth's ceiling, and I believe Holtby has more to offer long-term. But that's not the issue, making the hard choice is.

That's what this has to be about. Making hard choices and rolling with them. When Laich, Orlov, and Hillen are healthy, there will be too many players. Some would have to be sent down. Better to trade them, even if it's just for picks or prospects. But choices must be made. Some about specific players, some about linemates, but the biggest question to be answered is "Who?" - Who are these Capitals, and where are they going? It can't be answered in seven games. It won't be answered in twenty. But in forty-eight? We should know by then.

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