Don’t Change Your Style Caps!

April 29, 2010 | Ed Frankovic

The 2009-10 Washington Capitals sold out every single home game, set a club record for points in a season (121), and scored a league leading 313 goals, which was 45 more than the second place Vancouver Canucks. However, after Washington was upset in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in seven games by the Montreal Canadiens there are people in the hockey world (other teams employees, media, fans, etc.) who insist the Caps need to change their style of play if they want to win the Stanley Cup. Even more crazy is there are some who are calling for Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau to be fired after he just orchestrated the single greatest regular season in franchise history. My reply to all of this talk is:  STOP THE NONSENSE! (which is a nicer way of saying, ala Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, “What are you people, on dope??!!”)

First off, the system works and it fits Washington’s make-up, granted I will argue that some changes in personnel need to be made to make it work even better, but more on that later. When Boudreau was hired the Caps stunk. They were 6-14-1 and in last place in the Eastern Conference. They had a bunch of young and highly skilled players but they were using an archaic system under former Coach Glen Hanlon. Enter “Gabby” and suddenly the Caps are more aggressive, score goals, and are exciting to watch. He also has led them to three straight Southeast Division titles and a third, second, and first place finish, respectively, in the Eastern Conference. The first season fans were just happy to make the playoffs and the loss to Philadelphia in the first round in seven games was considered a good first step. Then last season, Washington grew up and took eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh to seven games in the second round before losing convincingly in the last tilt, 6-2. Naturally expectations were high for 2009-10 and the Capitals delivered in the regular season setting the marks mentioned in the opening above. However, come playoff time, something happened on the way to the Forum and all of that firepower fizzled out, mostly due to a hot goalie but also due to some defencies on the Washington end. After last night’s loss, which can definitely be considered a post season step back, some have hit the panic button.

The easiest thing for critics of the Caps to point to are the comments from R.J. Umberger of Columbus that came after Washington beat the Blue Jackets, 3-2, in a meaningless affair in Ohio on April 3rd. Specifically Umberger said the following about the Caps:

“I don’t think any team in the West would be overmatched by them,” Umberger said. “They play the wrong way. They want to be moving all the time. They float around in their zone, looking for breakaways and odd-man rushes. A good defensive team is going to beat them (in the playoffs). If you eliminate your turnovers and keep them off the power play, they’re going to get frustrated because they’re in their zone a lot.”

Naturally after the Caps were knocked off by Montreal, which on paper appears to be a defensive team, the Umberger quotes were thrown in their face and labeled as correct. Ludicrous accusations, I say. Umberger basically says all you need to do is keep the Caps off of the power play because they won’t be able to get out of their zone and that will allow you to beat them with defensive mistakes. Well you don’t have to be a prosecutor or attorney on Law & Order to see that Umberger’s quote does not match what actually happened between the Caps and the Habs. Montreal DID take penalties, in fact, Washington had 33 attempts in seven games, nearly five a tilt, but they only scored once in the entire series with a manpower advantage. In addition, the puck spent very little time in Washington’s zone, other than short stretches in the early minutes of several of the contests and the proof of that is the Caps outshot Montreal by a staggering 292-194! Those stats do not represent the work of a club that chooses to “float in their own zone looking for breakaways.” The truth is the Caps dominated the play but lost due to an anemic power play, great goaltending by Halak, and the unwillingness of some Caps players to make the hard plays necessary to score goals.

Now that we have dispelled the Umberger myth let’s get back to some of the other thoughts on the style of play. Teams say because Washington is an offensive minded team that they can’t win the Stanley Cup. To that I say, any of those people ever see the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s or the Pittsburgh Penguins of the early 1990’s or some of the Detroit Red Wings teams’ that have won Stanley Cups in the last 15 years? We’ll get to those teams in a minute but does anyone really think that taking the skilled players the Caps have and putting them in a system like what the New Jersey Devils play will work in the post lockout era? Sure New Jersey is good during the regular season but in the playoffs their trapping, defensive system has led to three straight first round defeats with arguably the greatest goalie of all time in net (Martin Brodeur). To see more proof that their system does not work look no further than the mid-season addition of Ilya Kovalchuk. The highly skilled Russian, in the Devils defense first mantra, was supposed to be the final piece of the puzzle for New Jersey but he was unable to get Jacques Lemaire’s club out of the first round. So to think Washington should switch to a trapping, defensive system is pure hogwash. That style doesn’t work anymore.

The truth is, the Caps are playing the right system and post season setbacks will happen, especially to young teams like Washington has and despite what many people may be thinking today, this difficult experience is not all bad. Reference the 1981-82 Edmonton Oilers. This Wayne Gretzky led club, after being knocked out in the first round in their initial playoff appearance in 1979-80 and then defeated in round two in the post season in 1980-81, set the league on fire scoring an NHL record 417 goals! The Oilers notched 111 points and won their division, over the Vancouver Canucks, by 34 points (sound familiar?) but somehow got bounced in a best of five series by a Los Angeles Kings club that only amassed 63 points in the regular season. Wow, I guess breaking up Edmonton and changing their system, one that reflected the then clutch and Stanley Cup Champion New York Islanders were employing in that era was what should have happened next, right? But no, Edmonton Coach Glen Sather stayed the course, made some minor personnel tweaks (added forward Ken Linesman from Philadelphia), and in 1982-83 they went to the Finals only to lose to the Islanders. But in 1984 and 1985 they were Stanley Cup Champions and in 1987 and 1988 they did that again. I know people were all over Sather, Gretzky, Messier and company after the Kings debacle but the Edmonton brain trust knew what they had and didn’t panic. They simply allowed the young players they had to mature and one of the lessons learned was realizing the price that needed to be paid to win in the post season. This is similar to what the Red Wings went through during the 1990’s before they finally broke through and won back to back Cups in 1997 and 1998. I vividly remember the Red Wings being labeled as the typical Presidents’ Trophy team that could not get it together in the playoffs, much like the monikor the San Jose Sharks are wearing in current times.

If you look at the personnel on that 81-82 Oilers team the names Gretzky and Mark Messier jump out first. The two great centers were flanked by pure goal scorers Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri. They were also led on the blue line by a fast skating, offensive minded defenseman named Paul Coffey, who took a lot of heat in his career for his play in his own zone. In goal they had a young and acrobatic Grant Fuhr and they had a super solid Kevin Lowe on the back end who focused on defense first.

Circling back to Washington, I see a lot of similarities in the 2009-10 Capitals with the 1981-82 Oilers, although that Edmonton team was clearly deeper up the middle and on the back end. The Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom combination is not Gretzky-Messier but it isn’t way off the map as far as top ranked players in the league at the time are concerned, except that the Great #8 plays left wing. Two time Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green can be compared to #77 and in 81-82, Coffey only had a goal and an assist in five post season tilts before figuring out how to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs and recording seven goals and seven assists in the Oilers run to the finals in 82-83. Fuhr was a phenomenal goalie but he was lit up in five games going 2-3 with a 5.05 GAA in 81-82 but in their Cup run in 1983-84 he kept the GAA down to 2.99. Varlamov certainly has the ability of a young Fuhr. Anderson was a great skater and could fill the net and the closest comparison would be Mike Knuble, although #22 has nowhere near the speed that #9 had. Now the similarities start to get a little dicey, Kurri was a pure goal scorer who could play defense. Semin is the closest Capital in skill and ability but from what I have seen from #28 he has nowhere near the drive to be like #17 at both ends of the rink. Washington also doesn’t really have a Lowe type d-man right now. Would it be Tom Poti? Jeff Schultz? or perhaps could it be Karl Alzner? Big stretch on that front, if you ask me.

Clearly that Edmonton squad was great and they managed to learn from that first round knock out in their third playoff season. But Washington has a talent base that is somewhat comparable and the teams play very similar styles. With the post lockout rules, the game has become much more like the mid-eighties with the notable exception being the ability of the goalies and the increased size of their equipment. A Capitals style of hockey works, if Boudreau and GM George McPhee have the right players that execute the system.

Execution was clearly lacking against Montreal. Some players were not physical enough (see Tomas Fleischmann) to handle the demands of the high energy system while others just don’t seem to have the speed or size to punish opponents on the backend. This team will improve based on maturity and experience alone, but to take it to the next level some pieces of the puzzle need to be found. First and foremost is a second line center. Boudreau said himself that secondary scoring was what was missing from his club in 2010. Would a better center help Semin get going? Probably not, #28 still performed in the same soft manner when paired with Backstrom in game six, but if you brought in a real #2 pivot man then a Brooks Laich or an Eric Fehr likely pots more tallies in the post season. Based on this, Semin is disposable, especially if he fails to compete like he did for much of the Montreal series. The defense could use some tweaks in addition to the permanent promotions of Alzner and John Carlson. Specifically the blue line could use a guy who is physical in his own end, can wear smaller opponents out, and block shots.

In summary, the disappointment from 2009-10 is very high right now, but to do something drastic like changing the system or firing the coach makes zero sense. These guys are not going to become the 1995 or 2002-03 New Jersey Devils nor do the current rules dictate that type of system will work. An offensive team that is willing to pay the price at both ends of the rink is what has won the last two Stanley Cups and will likely take it again this year.  Washington just needs to mature as a team and realize that from puck drop they need to be ready. They clearly were not this post season. Finally, McPhee must fill some of the final holes on his roster, with a focus on finding another line that can score when it counts.