Is it better to be an optimist and eventually be disappointed or a pessimist and be pleasantly surprised?
The grim realization taking hold of Caps fans everywhere is that the Washington Capitals are in big trouble. And everyone seems to know it but them.
After play Wednesday night, the Caps remained one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for eighth place in the Eastern Conference and four points behind their next opponent, the Florida Panthers, for first place in the Southeast Division and the third seed in the conference.
The team has lost three in a row and five of their last seven. According to our good friends at Japers Rink, they’ve won exactly once in the last month when they’ve allowed the opposition to score a goal. They are 9-15-3 on the road, where they play their next four games in advance of the NHL trade deadline, and have a five-game trip looming in March, with stops in Winnipeg, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. All of their best players are on pace for career lows in points. They still don’t know when Mike Green and IF Nick Backstrom will rejoin the team.
The bottom line is that the Caps have a lot of work to do to gain enough standings points to make the playoffs. If you figure that 92 is the magic number, the Caps will need 31 points in their last 26 games, going 15-10-1, a .572 win percentage. Considering the Caps have won 28 out of 56 games thus far (.500), they will have to play their best hockey all season to hit that mark. Throw in the fact that 14 of their last 26 are on the road, where they’ve played .333 hockey, and you can fully understand how long the odds are.
Barring a complete collapse from Florida, the Caps best hope is that Toronto stubs its toe down the stretch and Washington sneaks into the playoffs in the eighth seed, earning the right to face the Rangers in the first round once again.
But it’s more than the standings points right now. On top of playing disappointing hockey, getting out-shot and out-chanced just about every night, the Capitals look dysfunctional, like a team in disarray.
Rookie head coach Dale Hunter, one of the “Rushmores” of Capitals history, has shown a capricious hand in making lineup decisions and dishing out playing time. He’s polite, but curt with the media, and leaves late-game strategy to assistant coach Jim Johnson.
Most nights, it appears the Caps plan for getting out of their own end is to chip the puck to center ice and hope to win a one-on-one battle or spring someone loose for an odd-man rush. The Caps keep backing into their own end, unable to get out of the zone and once they do, head straight off for a line change. The team has given up three goals beyond the center ice line in the last two weeks. Their best defensive pair were on the ice for all five goals against Monday night. You get the point.
Needing all the offensive firepower then can muster, Hunter benched underperforming veteran Mike Knuble, replacing him with career minor leaguers with questionable pedigrees. Hunter inserted minor league punching bag Joel Rechlicz in the lineup simply as a deterrent against teams taking liberties with skill players. Rechlicz skated all of two shifts Monday against San Jose, but did manage to snag a 10 minute misconduct from the bench. Jay Beagle (no goals and one assist in 16 games) and Keith Aucoin (no points in five games) also played in Knuble’s place in the last three games.
It has forced Knuble, one of the leaders of this team, to defend himself in the media while twisting in the wind.
Hunter also inserted Braden Holtby, an emergency call-up because of Tomas Vokoun’s illness, into the lineup Monday night instead of Michal Neuvirth, who’s been with the team all season. Apparently no one thought to tell Neuvirth this, as he didn’t find out he wouldn’t start until he reached Verizon Center Monday afternoon.
Hunter originally said that the nature of back-to-back games was why the team went with Holtby (though Holtby played Sunday as well). But after practice Tuesday, when pressed Hunter said of the situation, “It’s one of those things that if [Neuvirth] was standing on his head every night, would Braden be playing? No.”
We’ve also seen Jeff Schultz and John Erskine benched in favor of non-prospect Tomas Kundratek, leading to more head-scratching.
Hunter was defended by Olie Kolzig, associate goaltenders coach for the Caps and long-time Hunter teammate after practice Wednesday, saying, “As a coach, you’re going to bruise some egos, going to hurt some feelings but that’s what he believes in. If that’s what it’s going to take to get this team close to winning a Stanley Cup, I think at the end of the day, if that happens, all those unpopular decisions will all of a sudden look smart.”
Kolzig might have done some ego-bruising of his own. His comments about another former teammate, Alex Ovechkin, might have been a public jab that others in the organization might have wanted to make, but haven’t. “He just has to get back to being the was he was in his younger days and maybe not get wrapped up too much in the rock-star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.”
Kolzig’s always been known for telling it like it is, but it seems a strange place for a roving goalie coach to be calling out the team’s star and captain in a public interview.
All the while, GM George McPhee faces more scrutiny than any point in his tenure since the days of the great purge in 2004. McPhee told The Washington Post‘s John Feinstein Monday, “I still think if we get our guys back and if we can add something here in the next couple of weeks we’re good enough to win the Stanley Cup.”
McPhee has to say this, whether he believes it or not. Owner Ted Leonsis echoed McPhee’s statements Tuesday on his personal blog Ted’s Take, saying, “…hope we can add some jump via the trade markets during the next few weeks.” CBC.com’s Elliot Freidman, in his “30 Thoughts” column Tuesday, said,
“Apparently, no GM is burning up the phone lines more than George McPhee. The Capitals face Canadian-franchise-level pressure to succeed.”
It’s that type of pressure, indeed, the Capitals find themselves under. Whether it’s wise for the team to move assets for veteran help at this point is openly debatable. The team needs a second line center, general scoring help and some snarl on the back end, pieces that don’t come cheaply. And depending on the status of Green and Backstrom, they could be up against the salary cap as well.
To top it all off, as if things couldn’t get any worse, the Caps just sent out their season-ticket renewal letters, notifying fans about an average of an eight percent increase in ticket prices next season. Seems like rubbing salt in a wound, eh?
If the Caps can find a way to sneak in the playoffs and upset the Rangers in the first round, I think Caps fans might forgive and forget about the struggles this season. But if they fail to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07, this season will go down as the most disappointing season in Washington Capitals history.
And that’s saying something.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Nats and the Caps, and previously wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network. Dave’s first sports hero was Bobby Dandridge. Follow Dave’s Capitals coverage on Twitter @CapitalsDSP.