Where have all the good times gone?
Last night against the San Jose Sharks could be called “Throwback Night” for the Washington Capitals.
It was a throwback to the days of 2005, when the Verizon Center was half empty as an outmanned and outgunned Caps team lost yet again. Those days were supposed to be over, but in a depressing 5-3 loss to the Sharks, they were back again.
It’s been a long time since the Phone Booth was as quiet as a morgue, but when Patrick Marleau scored to put the Sharks up 3-0 in the second period you could hear a pin drop in the place. And this is Verizon, one of the best home-ice advantages in the NHL the past four years.
I wasn’t in the building but I would venture a guess that the silence at the Phone Booth was the collective sound of 17,000 people sitting there slack-jawed at how far the Caps have fallen this year. That the one-time most exciting team in the NHL was now doing a bad Minnesota Wild impersonation. It was the realization that there’s no chance in hell of this team winning a Stanley Cup this year, nay, might not even make the playoffs. Even if they do make the playoffs, no one that has watched them play is naïve enough to think they’re going to do anything but get eliminated in a round or two.
Going over the Caps’ problems threatens to turn a blog post into the Unabomber manifesto, but here’s a Cliff’s Notes version:
--- The Caps might be the worst professional hockey team I have ever seen at clearing the puck out of their own end. I’ve been around beer league teams that were bad at clearing their end, but the Caps are by far the worst I’ve seen at the pro level. It’s unreal to watch highly trained hockey players just fire the puck all over the ice in their own end, with no regard to where it’s going. But that’s what the Caps do. That in turn leads to the following problem…
---They have no offense, partly because they spend so much time in their own end. It’s hard to imagine watching them today that just a couple years ago this was the most explosive offensive team in hockey.
---The personnel, system and coaching staff are completely mismatched. For the most part, this is a team built to play up-tempo. But since they had some tough playoff losses, and everybody in their brother wanted them to play “smart, two-way hockey,” the Caps scrapped the go-go, high-scoring system they played under ex-Coach Bruce Boudreau, and went with a more “defensively responsible” system.
In other words, where they once tried to outscore everyone, the Caps now try to eek out 2-1 victories. Just from an entertainment standpoint, it is dreadfully boring to watch. I can’t imagine those that shell out good money to see this team play at Verizon had this in mind. As a fan, I can tell you, it is really hard to watch this team play.
Like I said, this team was constructed to play up-tempo hockey, but that’s not new coach Dale Hunter’s style. Hunter wants to play a mucking, grinding, trapping style and this team just isn’t put together that way. Not to mention some of Hunter’s strange personnel decisions, most recently calling up useless goon Joel Rechlicz and scratching veteran forward Mike Knuble for the San Jose game. I know Knuble is pretty much finished as an NHL player, but he’s at least able to contribute more than Recker, a minor league fighter who might play two minutes a game.
--- Injuries to Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom have killed this team, particularly Backstrom’s. Nick is the trigger man for the Caps offense, the conductor for the Caps power play, Alex Ovechkin’s wingman and most importantly, the Caps’ top center, a position the team is woefully thin at.
--- The goaltending has been all over the map. Veteran Tomas Vokoun has been good for the most part, but not great. He’s had a tendency to give up soft goals at bad times, which makes him basically just like Jose Theodore. With the old Caps, that may have been good enough, but the way this team plays, Vokoun needs to be Martin Brodeur circa 2000 for the Caps to win.
Youngster Michal Neuvirth has been inconsistent too, and has never seized the job when Vokoun has faltered at times.
--- Ovechkin has been equally all over the map. Sometimes, you see vintage Ovi, the guy who skated like a bat out of hell, hit anything that moves and scores pretty goals. Other times, he’s invisible, as he was this past Sunday against the Rangers. There’s no way a player of Ovechkin’s talent should be invisible. You simply need better from your captain and best player than Ovi has provided this year.
--- Alexander Semin is still on this roster.
--- Sans Backstrom, if Jeff Halpern is arguably your most consistent centerman, you have serious problems.
---As a whole, this defenseman group isn’t good enough. Individually, Dennis Wideman has been good, as has Karl Alzner. John Carlson has regressed this year. Dmitry Orlov is a rookie who occasionally makes rookie mistakes but looks like a keeper. Roman Hamrlik, John Erskine and Jeff Schultz are all slow, can’t move the puck, don’t contribute much offense and are liabilities against faster, quicker teams. Other than that, they’re great.
So what can be done to remedy this to salvage the season? I have no clue. I’m not sure this season can be salvaged. Does this team need to be blown up? Your guess is as good as mine.
General Manager George McPhee has to decide whether Hunter is the solution at coach. Either you get players in here that fit what Hunter wants to do or you get rid of Hunter. In the long-term, this team desperately needs to get stronger at center and quicker on the backline. But what else is new? Those have been the Caps problem for the better part of four years.
Then again, what do I know? As McPhee once said, if I knew anything about the game I’d be in it. And he would know ‘cause he’s the guy that has fourth-line winger Joel Ward on his books for three more years.