So I’ve returned from my annual self-imposed exile from civilization. Did I miss anything?
Actually, even in the middle of the woods in the remotest regions of the Blue Ridge mountains one still can’t escape fully, as I had excellent reception on my iPhone (thanks, AT&T) to keep up with the “real” world while I was communing with nature. I heard and read all about the Washington Capitals four-game losing streak, the benching of Alexander Semin, and the subsequent home win Monday night, thanks all to a stray red balloon, I gathered.
By now, every Caps fan has tired of the story: supremely talented — yet maddeningly casual — winger falls out of favor yet again due to selfish and lackadaisical play. The slump, and string of offensive zone stick fouls, prompts cries of “Trade the bum!” or “The Caps will never win with him.” Only this time, the Semin saga has apparently entered new territory. Caps coach Bruce Boudreau (with apparent blessing from upstairs) benched Semin for Monday’s night’s streak-breaking win against Phoenix — only the second time in his career and first since his rookie season he’s been a healthy scratch.
Coincidence the Caps won without him?
Almost assuredly. The Caps gave up two shorthanded goals to spot the Coyotes to a two-goal lead, but after Matt Hendricks’ scuffle — and pointed words to his bench on the way to the dressing room — Washington found that extra gear that has been missing for the last two weeks and buried a road-weary opponent.
But Semin played no part in the win. Or did he? Indirectly, by assigning Semin to a seat in the press box for the first time since his rookie season, Boudreau put the rest of his team on notice. He’s now set the precedent. But Boudreau surely must be feeling the heat himself. After winning the first seven games of the season, the Caps have gone a miserable 4-7-1 since. He’s already resorted to a bag skate the day after a road loss and benching one of his most talented players.
What other possible tricks could Boudreau have up his sleeve should he need to send a message to a player? Banishment to the AHL for an established veteran could be a possibility, but that would carry a pretty heavy price both in terms of roster talent and cap considerations. Of everyone that’s frustrated about the Caps’ struggles the past month, Boudreau most of all must be the most frustrated. He has the most to gain — or lose — in the whole equation.
We would be remiss if we failed to mention the fact that his best player, the one with the 11-year contract and national endorsement contracts, is tied for 57th in the league in scoring and is a cool minus-5 thus far while averaging fewer minutes per game than he has his entire career. What can you do when your best player doesn’t play like it? Take more minutes away? Put him on the third line? Take away power play time?
Sounds like measures only a coach grasping to keep his job would take.
If Ovechkin won’t — or more scary — can’t play up to his previous talent level, Boudreau might not have any real options anyway. If he can’t find a way to coax more out of his star player, and he’s already tried him on right wing and all over the ice on the power play, the Caps won’t be playing for anything meaningful this spring. How do you discipline a guy who has his own wax figure at Madame Tussauds? Would stripping his captaincy motivate or alienate? And have we gotten that far?
Including Monday’s win, the Caps host six out of seven games at the friendly confines of Verizon Center. It’s entirely possible Monday’s win spurs the Caps to a health and lengthy winning stretch. But even then, when Semin’s name was posted on the HD scoreboard prior to the game against the Coyotes, cheers were heard throughout the barn. Maybe the “Phone Booth” denizens are starting to protect themselves with a hard outer shell of sarcasm.
The Caps have played the last several seasons with very lofty expectations, from themselves, the organization, the media and the fan base. Over those seasons, the idea of accountability has been a nebulous concept. Long described as a “player’s coach”, Boudreau’s newly found hard-assery may be a case of too little, too late. It also may be the case that he simply isn’t the type to carry off that type of team discipline.
We were told in the off-season and pre-season this team would be different. We were told that the veterans acquired, along with those already assembled (and given lucrative, long-term contracts) were those of the highest mettle, that leadership would not be a problem on this team. The team reportedly had a closed-door player’s only meeting Sunday before practice. But the Caps have always talked a good game. They’ve had varied success though, with ultimate disappointment, when it’s come time to put up or shut up.
Some of my electronic media brethren have long been vocal about their displeasure with the “country club” atmosphere that has surrounded this franchise, longing for more snarl and discipline from the Caps’ taskmasters. The bag skate and benching of Semin were Boudreau’s first real attempt at establishing a “Maginot Line” between himself and his players.
The real military strategy, employed by the French after being overrun in World War I, was lauded as an ingenious plan to thwart a direct attack by Nazi Germany in World War II. But in the end, the German military circumvented the defensive line, marched through Austria, flanked the Maginot Line and took France in mere days. What once provided hope only succeeded in failing miserably.
All of Caps Nation hopes Boudreau’s tactics do not end similarly.