by Jack Anderson, special to District Sports Page
There’s still time to rectify the situation, but the Washington Capitals are in a bad way.
Questions abound for a defense that breaks down at all the wrong times and an offense that can’t seem to rediscover the magic. Dale Hunter – quite possibly George McPhee’s last hope – was expected to bring a new dynamic to a squad that went stale under Bruce Boudreau.
Thus far, it’s been a bumpy ride.
Some of the lack of production can be blamed on injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. Alex Ovechkin’s three-game suspension did little to help Washington’s anemic offense get back on track either, but even with Backstrom and Ovechkin in the lineup, the Capitals were regularly outchanced and outshot.
If not for Tomas Vokoun’s recent stretch of steady play, the Capitals would be in an even worse predicament. They have improved defensively under Hunter, but breakdowns at inopportune moments have compounded with a lack of goal scoring to prevent the Caps from establishing any foothold in a crowded playoff picture.
Washington will receive a boost with Ovechkin set to return Saturday night in Montreal, but there remains a shortage of quality play up the middle along with the ever-growing concern that Hunter’s system just isn’t the right fit.
Forget Backstrom’s absence – the Capitals weren’t able to maintain any sort of consistent offensive pressure with him – a bigger issue is acquiring another centerman at the trade deadline. If the Caps can land one and Backstrom gets healthy, the odds for a playoff berth go up drastically.
However, even that scenario doesn’t ensure a spot. Hunter’s man-to-man scheme and its anemic offensive side effects might be the biggest thing crippling a squad that was already struggling to generate offense under Boudreau.
In theory, Hunter’s gameplan is simple. He wants a high-pressure effort in the defensive zone where his players win one-on-one battles. Such a system emphasizes a special mix of physicality and skill that’s tough to find from top to bottom on an NHL roster.
In the OHL, Hunter’s teams simply outclassed opponents with their superior athleticism. The NHL is another story. In the salary cap era it isn’t possible to have six elite defensemen – the league is simply on a more level playing field than its minor league counterparts.
And the Capitals aren’t as high in the NHL’s pecking order than they once were, making Hunter’s strategy even riskier.
Consider his personnel. John Erskine and Jeff Schultz are clearly not good fits in the system and have seen their ice time diminished significantly. For a short period of time, playing with virtually five defensemen is feasible. But this has been going on for the bulk of Hunter’s time here and players like Dennis Wideman and John Carlson are showing negative effects.
Wideman’s offensive abilities have been limited with increased ice time. He’s skated over 25 minutes in 20 of 28 games in the Hunter era. Carlson’s struggles might have more to do with the system itself than fatigue. He hasn’t looked comfortable in weeks and has regressed at an alarming rate in his second season. The wear and tear on the entire defensive corps is noticeable as it has been outworked in key situations often over the past several games.
Of course there is a greater commitment on the defensive end from the entire team. That’s resulted in a lower goals against average, but teams are still taking advantage of the same mental errors and occasional breakdowns that tormented them under Boudreau. That commitment is also taking it’s toll on the offense, where Hunter’s Caps are being outshot and outchanced on a nightly basis.
So long as those issues persist, the focus will remain on Ovechkin and the offense to contribute more than the 2.54 goals per game they have with Hunter.
McPhee made a huge gamble by handing the reins to an inexperienced coach and a system that doesn’t seem to have a place in the NHL. With the Caps faltering in the midst of what is going to be a grueling stretch run in jam-packed playoff race, it’s a bet that doesn’t appear to be paying off.
If it doesn’t, McPhee will have plenty of explaining to do come April.
Jack Anderson is a special contributor to District Sports Page. He has been covering Washington, DC sports as a credentialed reporter since 2009. He covers the Capitals for NHL Home Ice and TSN Radio and is a freelance writer having contributed to the Washington Times, Associated Press and NBC Washington. You can follow him on twitter @jackandersonIII.