Playoff Upsets Provide Context for Evaluating Caps' Season and Future

Often in difficult, stressful times in which things don’t go exactly the way we had hoped or planned, many of us let our emotions get the best of us. For hockey players this may manifest itself in the form of a stupid penalty, a player breaking his stick intentionally in frustration (sorry Sid), a fight or a poorly thought-out, off-the-cuff remark during a postgame press conference that makes the player or coach look like a whiner or poor sport (or both).

For hockey fans, the emotional or knee-jerk response usually results in whining about the officials (consider me guilty), belief in wild conspiracy theories (no longer guilty thanks to weeks of listening to others do this and seeing seeds 1-6 fall in the East) and “let’s trade some of our top players” and/or “let’s fire the coach” phone calls to sportstalk shows.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received – and I have to credit my former boss, Cal Ripken, for this – was to always take a step back from an emotionally charged situation. Take some time to analyze everything that has happened, and before you formulate your response or your plan, take the emotion out of the decision-making process. Although this is sound advice from one of the most respected athletes of our time, for someone who is really competitive or die-hard, so to speak, it can be difficult (guilty again).

However, as an athlete, no one was more competitive or hated to lose more than Ripken, and he managed to do that. Sure, there were a few moments on the field in which he lost his cool with an umpire and was ejected from a game (very few), but always after cooling off, reflecting and analyzing, he presented himself in such a way that he looked like the good guy. So, I have to think if a competitive athlete of that magnitude who performed at the level he did could do it, so could I – and so could all the others who follow the Washington Capitals on a regular basis.

Well, I was wrong about a lot of the Caps’ followers, but as far as I’m concerned instead of joining in on the “fire Boudreau” and “trade Green and Semin” fervor, I decided it was best for me to take a step back and see how the upstart Canadiens fared against the defending Stanley Cup champs. If Montreal were to go down in four or five games, I would have had to agree that the Caps were in need of a playoff overhaul and a long summer of mirror-staring. I started feeling differently a few days ago, asking former NHL goaltender and NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes if the Canadiens had simply underachieved all year or if they had finally figured it out. His short answer, “They figured it out.” Then they eliminated the Pens. Closure.

That does beg the question, “If Montreal figured it out in two weeks, how come the Caps haven’t figured it out in three years?” But in taking the emotion out of the situation, there no doubt is more to it than that.

First and foremost, if Jaroslav Halak hadn’t turned into the third coming of Ken Dryden – or if freaking Carey Price had made about two more saves – I’d probably be writing about a just-concluded Caps-Flyers series right now. History shows that a hot goalie can overcome a shortage of talent in April and May. We witnessed it firsthand in 1998 when the Caps were badly outshot almost every night, but rode the broad shoulders of Olaf Kolzig all the way to the finals (for the record, I would recommend that Mr. Boudreau and the team watch some of those games, because the Caps’ style that year was eerily similar to Montreal’s current method of play).

If you look at the ridiculous shot advantage the Caps posted vs. the Habs; the speed and intensity with which they played; the players such as Boyd Gordon, Tom Poti, John Carlson, Mike Knuble who raised their games and gave a true playoff effort; and others such as Eric Belanger, Nicklas Backstrom and who knows who else who played through injuries, you can’t fault the effort. Maligned players such as Mike Green and Alexander Semin were visibly distraught after the Game 7 loss, which with one less third-period whistle could have turned out differently. A lot of this first-round upset, which right this minute doesn’t look like such a big upset after the Pens’ loss and the Bruins’ implosion, comes down to one thing: It’s the playoffs, and these things happen when two teams of elite professional hockey players battle tooth and nail through seven bruising playoff tilts.

So, in order of insanity, I’d like to take a few minutes to address the common themes that came out in the form of tweets, blogs and columns in the D.C. area in the immediate aftermath of Habs-gate, keeping in mind that this team did roll to more than 120 points this season to capture it’s first Presidents’ Trophy, has players who are finalists for league MVP and top defenseman honors and has a GM that has constructed a powerhouse and is nominated for the NHL’s first-ever General Manager of the Year Award.

But first, one thing has been on my mind since the Caps’ elimination that points to one of the main reasons why I got out of sports journalism and went into sports public relations while a college senior at the University of Maryland. It is getting really tiresome when “respected” Washington Post columnists such as Mike Wilbon and Tom Boswell, after ignoring NHL hockey for the previous 364 days, decide to come out to a deciding playoff game in hopes of a Caps collapse and then profess to be experts on the sport. What these guys know about hockey literally can be written, double-spaced, on a 3x5 card. One day for kicks maybe I’ll red pen some of their “award-winning” columns and send them back to the desk editor at the Post.

I’ve been waiting for Mr. Wilbon’s column ripping Sidney Crosby’s lack of leadership and for Mr. Boswell’s thoughts on why the Penguins need to be blown up. Won’t happen, even though they had no problem a few weeks ago writing that Crosby was miles ahead of Alex Ovechkin in terms of leadership (addressed below) and achievements and that the Caps literally need a complete overhaul. Nobody cares more than guys like Ovechkin, Crosby and LeBron James, yet all these fat, non-athletic sports columnists and commentators want to point the finger at them every time their teams fail.

Only one team with its one or two superstars wins in each sport every year, so I guess that makes every other great player in every other sport some sort of a dismal failure? These guys carry their teams for 90-100 games a year. Some days they just aren’t going to have it. Ease up and start pointing the finger at the supporting players, making a lot more money than any of us by the way, who don’t show up when it counts.

Okay, venting aside, again here are my thoughts about what has been written about the future of the Washington Capitals in order of insanity:

Bruce Boudreau should be fired or at least be on the hot seat
This is preposterous. Do I think Boudreau was outcoached slightly in the Habs’ series? Yes. Perhaps his biggest mistake was spending the last few weeks of the season openly discussing with the media how his team was settling into a more conservative, defensive style in preparation for the playoffs. I think those comments quite possibly may have hampered Green, his star on the blueline and a top offensive contributor, who seemed to take the new game plan personally and struggled to involve himself in the offensive end. Joe Corvo, a solid two-way threat throughout his career, also seemed to be confused as to his role until Washington trailed in games five six and seven and he knew unquestionably that he had to join the rush.

Boudreau’s other misstep came in his dealings with the media. Professional athletes, even the superstars, have been trained since they were 5 years old to look to their coach for comfort and encouragement in times of adversity. Boudreau, who had been happy go lucky throughout the Caps’ stellar regular season, suddenly became abrupt and rude with the media after playoff losses. From the outside looking in he seemed really uptight, which I’m sure did not go unnoticed in the locker room. Players feed off of their coach, and when the leader is uptight, teams often play that way.

The playoff loss aside, Boudreau has taken a team and built an extremely successful system around that team. Remember that fewer than three seasons ago Washington was mired in last place playing Glen Hanlon’s conservative, uninspiring system. Since Boudreau took over that Thanksgiving, the Caps are 141-56-28 for a .689 winning percentage, easily the best number produced by any Washington coach. Green probably summed up the situation best a few days after elimination: “In the playoffs we played better defensively, limiting them to 15 or 16 shots a game but not scoring … It’s a great system, and it works. Unfortunately we couldn’t score goals this time. “ (see Halak)

As Caps’ blogger Mike Vogel points out, Al Arbour posted the same playoff record out of the gate, 13-15, as Boudreau before going on to win four Stanley Cups. Scotty Bowman went 28-30 in five playoffs before capturing nine titles. The first three times the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s, often compared to the Caps because of their offensive firepower and style of play, advanced to the playoffs they didn’t escape the second round. The fourth year they advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the rest is history.

Just like the youthful Caps, Boudreau, a hockey lifer, is young in terms of NHL mileage. You don’t give up on a guy who has the respect of the room and has won at a 69 percent rate in his first three seasons because of a hiccup. “He’s a really good coach. He’s here for a long time,” General Manger George McPhee said. “There’s no reason to raise those issues, because he’s not going anywhere.”

Added Brooks Laich, who has been with Boudreau for a championship in the AHL and throughout his tenure in D.C.: “There is no coach who is more prepared then Bruce. He is at the rink earlier than any coach. He watches more hockey later at night than any coach. Any criticism of him should be directed toward us players. We didn’t execute.”

Trade Green and Semin
For a couple of days I was teetering on the verge of jumping on the anti-Semin bandwagon. There are definite issues with his game, but there were issues with the games of some of the Great One’s supporting cast early on as well. There are two ways of looking at this. One, after his 40-goal season his value is highest, so why not move him for the physical, mobile defenseman the media and fans have been screaming for? Or, two, he’s a young guy who just potted 40 often-spectacular goals and who is still developing and maturing as a player. Because of the chemistry he has with Ovechkin and Backstrom and the fact that he is a true sniper, something that is very hard to come by, I think you keep him.

Semin did not play poorly the last two games of the series. He gave the necessary effort and created numerous scoring chances (see Halak). That said, Semin did not show up early in the series. If he had simply given the same effort as he did in the final two contests, somehow a puck would have found the back of the net for him and he wouldn’t have been squeezing the stick so tightly when it counted. Don’t forget that he’s a young, developing, maturing player with amazing skill. Lesson learned. You don’t give up on that type of ability.

As for the Green talk, you simply don’t trade a 25-year-old defenseman who has been a two-time Norris Trophy finalist and is good for 70-plus points a year. Certainly there are some flaws in his defensive game (see young Paul Coffey), but you have to turn him loose and let him be who he is. In my opinion Green heard the media and listened to Boudreau’s comments about playing a more defensive style as a team and took that to heart. What you got from him was a decent defensive effort and absolutely no offense as opposed to a decent defensive effort and a point or two per night. The Caps have Green, John Carlson, NHL plus-minus leader Jeff Schultz and Karl Alzner locked up as their top four d-men for as long as they can afford them. You don’t break up that nucleus. What you do is find that veteran, playoff-grizzled stay-at-home leader with a winning track record to anchor the defense, let Green be Green and keep the unit together and focused in the room during tough times.

Alex Ovechkin is Not a Leader
Ease up. The guy has been a captain for exactly three months. He received a standing ovation in the dressing room the day it was announced that he’d wear the “C.” The team went something like 30-4 out of the gate after he was named captain. No one plays harder. No one cares more. Five goals and five assists vs. the Habs (please compare to Crosby’s production). Yes, there were a couple of games that he didn’t produce, but in all except one of those he was Washington’s best player on the ice. Ovie may need to tweak his game a bit, in the opposite manner that Crosby did this year, and work on playing more down low, being more of a presence in front of the net and accepting 15-20 garbage goals, but there is no question he is the man in the room. The Caps would be smart to give him some veteran leadership support on the blueline, however, and to possibly bring in a veteran forward with a Stanley Cup on his resume to take some of the weight off of Ovechkin’s shoulders.

Overhaul the Roster
The Caps were exposed a bit as not having the type of irritating, get-under-your-skin players who drive to the net, wreak havoc with goaltenders and generally seem to have more postseason than regular-season success (see Dustin Byfuglien). No disagreement there. They have three talented lines and all kinds of speed and skill. They added Mike Knuble last offseason, and he proved to be a big difference-maker – apparently too much of one in the final period of the final game vs. Montreal.

Washington’s fourth line brings the energy and is one of the most respected in the game – whether it’s Matt Bradley, David Steckel and Boyd Gordon or if Jason Chimera is thrown into the mix. The top line of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble returns, with Boudreau having the ability to exchange second-liner Semin for Knuble when an offensive jolt is needed. The Caps don’t have a lock-down defensive line and they don’t have a true second-line center. Brendan Morrison and Eric Belanger really are third-line pivots who are UFAs, and Tomas Fleischmann, a huge playoff disappointment, spent some time centering the second line, but is definitely not a pivot. Brooks Laich has played a decent amount of center over the years, but he seems to have settled into a role as a winger who can float between the second and third line and sees time on both special teams units.

Supposing that Gordon, a RFA, returns and the fourth line stays basically intact (perhaps with shot-blocking fiend Quintin Laing suiting up more often to help a less-than-spectacular penalty-killing unit), with the first line unchanged, right now the forward combinations look like this:

Oveckin-Backstrom-Knuble
Laich-Fleischmann-Semin
Chimera-?????-Fehr
Bradley-Steckel-Gordon/Laing

Of the Caps’ UFA forwards (Belanger, Morrison, Scott Walker), the most likely to be re-signed is Belanger, who would give Washington a strong two-way third line with some speed and skill. Or Washington could give the opportunity to one of the players who helped its AHL affiliate notch a record-breaking season, several of whom contributed to the Caps’ own record-breaking campaign. Players like Keith Aucoin, the AHL MVP, and Mathieu Perreault have shown they can contribute at the NHL level and are deserving of a look.

Other potential scenarios include returning Laich to center and using him on the third line to create a very dangerous two-way trio while moving Fleischmann back to wing and making a play for a UFA center such as Tomas Plekanec, Patrick Marleau or Matthew Lombardi. And, based on Fleischmann’s postseason after a very solid regular season, there always is the possibility of moving him for the veteran defenseman that seems to be missing from the equation. It seems as though it might be a good idea for Washington also to take a serious look at bringing in a veteran forward with a Stanley Cup on his resume to help in the locker room and on the ice come crunch time. Ray Whitney, Thomas Holmstrom and Mike Modano, who supposedly hasn’t made a final decision about his future, all fit that description.

On the defensive end, it seems unlikely that UFA’s Joe Corvo and Milan Jurcina will return. Veteran defenseman Shaone Morrisonn had his best season statistically, but with Alzner and Carlson expected to arrive for full-time duty, Jeff Schultz coming off a breakthrough year, Mike Green being named a Norris finalist again and Tom Poti expected to recover fully from an eye injury after an outstanding playoff, if the Caps are going to make a splash and bring in a name vet on the blueline, it looks like Morrisonn would be the odd man out. Expect rumors to swirl about players such as Anton Volchenkov, Dennis Seidenberg and Paul Martin coming to D.C. to sure up the young defensive corps. John Erskine and Tyler Sloane return to provide depth. As of today the pairings look like this:

Schultz-Green
Alzner-Carlson
Poti-?????

In goal, despite an outstanding regular season, Jose Theodore will move on and Semyon Varlamov most likely will be named the starter heading into training camp. Varlamov figures to be backed up by AHL-standout and NHL-contributor Michael Neuvirth, who has shown flashes of brilliance with the big club. There is an outside possibility that a veteran backup could be brought in with Neuvirth staying in Hershey, but the more likely scenario is a split in playing time between Neuvirth and Varlamov that is slightly in favor of the young Russian until late in the season when one will take over on a more regular basis.