Feb 222012
 

One game does not represent an entire NHL season.  

But Washington’s 5-0 loss to Carolina Monday night was another of the growing number of nails being hammered into the coffin laying rest to the Washington Capitals – 2011-12 edition.

Make no mistake, this Washington team is taking after Monty Python’s dead parrot – it’s bereft of life, destined to rest in peace.

And to think just 24 months ago this was a team destined to transform and dominate the NHL landscape.

There are two reasons why the juggernaut Washington Capitals of 2009-10 have transformed into a Cinderella-sized pumpkin.  

The Little Reason: Injuries to their core players

Mike Green had 76 points in 75 games in the 2009-10 season. In the two seasons since, Green has played just 61 regular season games total. He is the straw that stirs the Washington attack, and he’s been MIA for most of the last two seasons.

This year, the team’s number #1 centre – Nicklas Backstrom – has missed significant time due to a concussion. The drop-off in talent from Backstrom to Marcus Johansson is the equivalent of leaving Charlize Theron to date Mayim Bialik.

Other than Alex Ovechkin, these are the team’s two best, most dynamic players. Without them it’s a no brainer the Capitals have struggled more.

The Big Reason: GM George McPhee abandoned his plan

The 2009-10 Capitals were having fun tearing up the league on their way to a 121-point season. They were the “go-go” Capitals, featuring seven 20+ goal scorers.

Flash forward to today, and the Capitals will be lucky to have four 20-goal scorers.

2009-10 Capitals 20-goal scorers:

Ovechkin 50
Semin 40
Backstrom 33
Knuble 29
Laich 25
Fleischmann 23
Fehr 21

2011-12 Capitals 20-goal scorers (on pace):

Ovechkin 34
Semin 22
Brouwer 21
Chimera 21

Where did the offense go?

It was left in Montreal during the Spring of 2010.

That seven game loss to the Canadiens was devastating to the Capitals front office, who expected nothing less than a championship run that year.

Looking back, it’s easy to see how the Capitals lost the series after being up three-games-to-one:

1) They were a young team (younger than the team that lost to Pittsburgh the year before). Inexperienced playoff teams are extremely suspect to the whims of momentum (both positive and negative).

2) Confidence is a major factor in the success of special teams, and the Capitals just didn’t have it in their powerplay (1-for-33 in the series). This meant the Habs could take penalties without punishment.

3) Montreal employed a passive trap when they had the lead, which confounded coach Bruce Boudreau.

4) Montreal paid extra-special attention to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom defensively, challenging the rest of the Capitals to create offense.

5) Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak put on the greatest playoff goaltending performance since Patrick Roy in 1992-93, if not longer.

Given the above, the steps that had to be taken to get the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final were clear:

1) Find some playoff experience to add to the dressing room.

2) Count on better luck (Halak-esque performances don’t happen every year).

3) Support coach Boudreau in figuring out how to beat the trap.

4) Find an impact second-line centre to take the pressure off of Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Instead, General Manager George McPhee went in the opposite direction, abandoning the style of play he’d built the team on for one that put a priority on defensive accountability.  

It’s been downhill ever since.

The 2010-11 Capitals racked up 107 points but their goals per game rate fell more than a full goal (-1.09). A distance emerged between the team’s run-and-gun – and best – player (Ovechkin) and its coach. Talented Tomas Fleischmann was shipped out for the blueline carcass known as Scott Hannan.  

Come playoff time, Washington was swept by another trapping team, this time the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round. But unlike during the Montreal series (where Washington generated scoring chances to no avail), the Capitals went meekly into the off-season, and with little offensive push back.

This past summer, GM George McPhee doubled-down on his defensive bet. He added Tomas Vokoun to play goal, and brought in Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer and Roman Hamrlik to bring size and grit to the team. 

What none of these players do is create offense on their own.

And, for the first part of the 2011-12 season, they couldn’t stop a puck either. Vokoun got off to a poor start, and despite his team out-shooting and out-chancing the opposition, Bruce Boudreau was fired.

The hiring of Dale Hunter was the last bit of “defensive desperation” to come out of the Washington front office. As discussed last week, Hunter’s hard-nosed, no-nonsense approach has stifled what creativity has remained in the Capitals attack.

The transformation of this team from “go-go” to “no-go” is now complete.

Today the Washington Capitals are in a desperate fight for their playoff lives. It didn’t have to be this way.

If Capitals fans should blame anyone, it’s GM George McPhee.

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • No big surprise – this interview suggests the man behind the Seattle arena bid could care less about the NHL.
  • Meanwhile, it looks like the NHL would like to sell the Phoenix Coyotes to the bid that includes Jeremy Roenick.
  • Speaking of the Coyotes, it’s been quite the season for Radim Vrbata. He’s cracked 30 goals for the first time, and at least one person thinks he should be a Hart candidate.
  • Don’t look now but Tyler Myers has found his game in Buffalo. He’s got 2 goals, 7 points and is a +7 in his last 10 games.
  • Here’s a Detroit reaction to acquiring Kyle Quincey. Here’s more analysis from Colorado’s Mile High Hockey blog. From here it looks like a trade that helps out all three teams.
  • A great Maclean’s piece on the rise of hockey in the United States. Maybe moving into the sunbelt regions wasn’t such a bad idea for the game after all.
  • As much as there is to like about David Booth on the second line for the Canucks, they still need one more offensive piece and a defenseman, if they plan on making another Cup run this year. Mason Raymond hasn’t looked like a top-six player all year, and the blueline remains inconsistent.
  • Since the free advice is flowing, here’s some for Nashville GM David Poile – there might not be a better year to make a run at the Stanley Cup. Who knows if you’ll ever have Ryan Suter and Shea Weber under contract again, you’ve got the young assets to move, and you’re one of the toughest teams to play against in the league. Ales Hemsky, Ray Whitney, Derek Roy, etc. etc. – go get some deadline offense and push your chips into the middle of the table.
  • In case you missed it, Elliotte Friedman’s 30 Thoughts.
  • I know Antoine Vermette is struggling, but this return for him certainly doesn’t give anyone confidence Scott Howson is the type of GM who can maximize the return in any Rick Nash or Jeff Carter trade. It also doesn’t address their goaltending issues either.
Mar 262011
 

[Every weekend, Canucks Hockey Blog goes out of town as Tom Wakefield (@tomwakefield88) posts his thoughts on what's happening around the NHL.]

With two weeks left until the end of the NHL regular season, it’s pretty easy for fans to get caught up in the race for the final playoff spots.

But those teams who scramble to the finish line rarely make it all the way to the Stanley Cup final.

Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose in the West, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington in the East – these are your Stanley Cup favourites heading into the Spring.

Each of these teams has their strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s take a closer look.

Philadelphia Flyers

Strengths: Offensive depth – five 20-goal scorers, soon-to-be five players with 50-or-more points. A strong two-way defense that features two solid puckmovers (Andrej Meszaros, Braydon Coburn), two good puck movers (Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen) and one of the best of all-time (Chris Pronger). This is also an experienced team, similar in makeup to the roster that made it to the Finals last year. Peter Laviolette is a very good coach.

Weaknesses: For a team this offensively gifted, the powerplay has been awfully mediocre.

Question marks: The Flyers made the Stanley Cup Finals last year with questionable goaltending. Sergei Bobrovski enters the playoffs as the number one, but he’s unproven. Chris Pronger has had an injury-filled season. Healthy he’s their MVP, and has proven (as recently as last year) he can be a dominant player in the post-season.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 100-1

Boston Bruins

Strengths: Goaltending. Tim Thomas has had a wonderful season, and Tuukka Rask is a more-than-capable back-up. Like the Flyers, the Bruins also feature balanced scoring. They’re also the best team in the NHL at 5-on-5.

Weaknesses: It’s a good thing the Bruins have good goaltending, since they are second-worst in the league at giving up shots on goal. Without Zdeno Chara, this is a serviceable defense at best.

Question marks: None of the players the Bruins picked-up (Tomas Kaberle, Rich Peverley, Chris Kelly) have made much of an impact, although Kaberle has picked it up of late. The thing is the former Leaf blueliner’s post-season play has never earned rave reviews. This is also predominantly the same team that got upset by the Flyers last year.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 20-1

Washington Capitals

Strengths: With Crosby out, they have the most talented player in the game in Alex Ovechkin. They’ve played very well defensively in the regular season, and the blueline is much improved over the 2009-10 season. Their penalty killing is amongst the league’s best. Good team speed.

Weaknesses: Injuries have plagued the team’s best players (Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nik Backstrom, Alex Semin) for most of the season. This might be why scoring has been such a problem. Only the Los Angeles Kings and Montreal Canadiens are on pace to score fewer goals to reach the post-season than Washington. Low-scoring teams historically don’t do well in the playoffs.

Question marks: The Capitals might be the team with the most question marks on this list. Goaltending is a concern, with three youngsters (Michal Neuvirth, Sergei Varlamov, Braden Holtby) each looking like the answer for periods of time during the season. Perhaps the biggest question is the health of Alex Ovechkin. Without him dominating, this team won’t score enough. Finally, for a team that’s dedicated itself to the defensive side of the game, can this new approach translate into playoff victories, or is it true that a leopard can’t change its spots?

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 4-1

Vancouver Canucks

Strengths: The team’s top line. In fact, for two seasons now the Sedin line (the brothers and whomever they lineup with) has been probably the best line in the NHL. Canucks special teams have been truly special – there might not be another team that moves the puck on the powerplay as well as Vancouver. Roberto Luongo has had another strong season, and should enter the playoffs rested. The defense is incredibly deep, featuring a group that’s good, but not great, in all areas.

Weaknesses: This team is top-heavy. For all their success scoring, the Canucks might finish the season with only three 20-goal scorers on the roster (Daniel Sedin, Ryan Kesler, Alex Burrows). That’s the same number as the offensively challenged Capitals this season. Vancouver has also been home and cooled out as the top seed in the Western Conference for almost two months now, which rarely bodes well for playoff success.

Question marks: Can Vancouver’s secondary scoring step up if other teams take liberties with the Sedin line and find a way to render it ineffective? Rightly or wrongly, Roberto Luongo still has a reputation for not being mentally tough enough to go far in the post-season. With Manny Malholtra out, there is a lot more pressure on Ryan Kesler to dominate the faceoff circle and play a shut-down role.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: (Given it could mean facing Chicago or Anaheim) 5-1

Detroit Red Wings

Strengths: This is an experienced, well-rounded team that rarely takes penalties nor loses focus. They have the best defenseman in the game (Nik Lidstrom) and probably the two best two-way players in the game (Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk), all having terrific seasons. This is another team with solid puck moving options on defense. They have arguably the league’s best coach (Mike Babcock) behind the bench.

Weaknesses: Jimmy Howard might have a new contract, but his rebound control isn’t very good. He’s definitely the weakest link on the team.

Question marks: For all the skill and speed the Red Wings have, they will have to prove they can win the trench battles required to go deep in the playoffs. Secondary scoring, particularly in a physical playoff series, is also something to wonder about.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 10-1

San Jose Sharks

Strengths: Maybe the strongest top-six offensively in the NHL, and certainly one of the best teams in the centre position. No team takes more shots than San Jose. Other than Vancouver no team is better in the faceoff circle.

Weaknesses: The defense has been a concern for most of the year, although it has improved steadily over the second half. While the team’s bottom-six forwards are full of grit and sandpaper, goals are hard to come by.

Question marks: Antti Niemi has been terrific for a few months, and has already won a Stanley Cup. Still, there are those who believe his unorthodox approach render him a liability. This post-season is his chance to prove he’s not a one-playoff wonder. Like Washington, the Sharks, particularly their top three players (Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley), face questions about being mentally tough enough for playoff success. Heatley in particular has lacked edge since putting on a Sharks uniform.

Chances they’ll be upset in the first-round: 20-1

THOUGHTS ON THE FLY

  • Damien Cox looked at the rebuilding jobs of eight NHL teams. Oiler fans won’t be happy.
  • Boston’s 7-0 win over Montreal was the highest-rated regular season game on NESN (New England Sports Channel) in 27-years. It’s also safe to say the Bruins have a pretty strong psychological advantage over the Canadiens right now.
  • With local talk that Canucks ownership is hoping to lure an NBA franchise to the Rogers Centre, interesting to read that Anaheim’s ownership is hoping to do the same thing.
  • Michael Grabner has scored more goals than any player acquired on waivers in the past 15 years. Between Grabner and Matt Moulson, the Islanders have their first pair of 30-goal scorers since 2001-02.
  • For those of you who missed it, here’s Ray Ferrero’s take on the Atlanta Thrashers situation.
  • With Justin Williams out of the Los Angeles lineup for the rest of the season, this could be the last, best chance for Oscar Moller to finally stick with the big club. His development has been a disappointment so far for the Kings.
  • Sad news out of Edmonton where anthem singer Paul Lorieau is retiring at the end of the season. Lorieau was the first anthem singer to invite the crowd to sing the national anthem, popularizing the move during the Oilers Cup run in 2006. He’s been the team’s anthem singer since 1981.
  • Too little, too late – Columbus players held a closed door meeting after the team’s loss to Phoenix earlier in the week. The Blue Jackets have only won two of their last 14 games.
  • The Ottawa Citizen takes a look at how their “departed” (Mike Fisher, Alex Kovalev, Chris Kelly etc) have fared since being traded.
  • From the department of weird stats: The Dallas Stars are 2-8-3 without Adam Burish in the lineup.
  • More evidence that Tomas Vokun won’t be a Florida Panther for much longer: he called out his teammates for a lack of effort this week.
  • With the playoffs out of reach, is it really that important for Zach Parise to return to the New Jersey lineup? Entering restricted free agency, perhaps Parise wants to prove he’s healthy. Much could be lost if his knee isn’t ready for NHL action.
  • The emergence of Brandon Prust for the New York Rangers makes one think Sean Avery is very expendable come this off-season.
  • Sidney Crosby is still progressing in his attempt to return to the Penguins lineup. As stated numerous times, expect him in the lineup during the first round of the playoffs.
  • Not a very bold prediction, but you have to expect Gary Bettman will announce the Coyotes are moving to Winnipeg the day after Phoenix is eliminated from the playoffs.
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