October 31, 2014

Just another post about what’s wrong with the Capitals

Everyone and their brother has a blog post out about “What’s wrong with the Capitals?”  Seems like we should do one here too.  One need not look too deeply to understand why the Capitals are struggling.  It’s not the coaching, though many wanted to scapegoat Bruce Boudreau and hoped that Dale Hunter would ‘light a fire’ underneath these supposedly coddled all-stars.  It’s not some mysterious lack of leadership.  And though you certainly could if you wanted to, it doesn’t really take any #fancystats to figure it out either.

 1)  The Alexes aren’t living up to their standard.  Alex Ovechkin is 75th in the NHL in scoring with nine goals and 12 assists and is minus-10 so far this season.  Since Dale Hunter took over behind the bench, the ‘Great Eight’ has amassed a whopping one goal and three helpers and is minus-3 in seven games.  In fact, he’s scored two goals total since Nov. 12, spanning 15 games.

Alexander Semin ranks 238th in the league in points with just 11 (five goals, six assists) in 26 games.  He has one point on the power play.  He has one assist in five games since Hunter took over, playing to a minus six in those five games.  Semin has never shot lower than 14.1 percent over a season since his rookie year; he sits at 8.9 percent today.

Some people think Ovechkin’s nagging thumb/wrist injury is more of a concern than anyone lets on, but then he puts on a display like that goal he scored the other night against Ottawa and you think, “There’s the real Ovi.”  But then he disappears like he did in Tuesday’s home game against rival Philadelphia, where he managed just three innocuous shots and two hits. 

Semin doesn’t even have a whisper of injury to muddle the situation.  He’s just been absent, or more likely, in the penalty box with yet another offensive zone stick foul, the result of reaching for a puck or player instead of skating hard.  He’s played his way out of even being a valuable trade commodity, even with his expiring contract.

2)  Inconsistent goaltending.  You can’t put it any more clearly or succinctly as my friends over at Japers’ Rink put it in their “Noon Numbers” post:  When the Caps get even mediocre goaltending this season, they win.  The problem is they haven’t even been getting that often enough. 

.786 – Caps winning percentage (11-3-0) in games in which their team save percentage is .895 or better. As that save percentage drops below .895, the win percentage drops to .267 (4-10-1). 

For the season, Tomas Vokoun has a save percentage of .906, which ranks 26th out of goalies that qualify for the league lead.  But as with the first and fifth goals last night will attest, he’s had a proclivity for allowing soft goals, and he’s been very stand-up about accepting responsibility.  In his introductory press conference, he mentioned how it would be refreshing not having to play in 2-1 games every single night.  But as it stands now, if the coaches had any confidence in the back-ups, Vokoun might not be playing with as much regularity to begin with.

Therein lies the problem: Michael Neuvirth (3.73 GAA, .875 SV%) hasn’t been any better than Vokoun, and Braden Holtby has been languishing in Hershey, perhaps partly due to his belief that he should be with the big club after his successes last season.  There certainly have been enough cries in the social media over the last couple of weeks to give Holtby another try, but the Caps have to get Vokoun and Neuvirth straightened out first.  They are both better than they’ve shown.

3)  Mike Green’s injury.  Published reports has Green joining the team on the upcoming road trip to condition with the team, but there is still no timetable on his return  as he continues to sit, recovering reportedly from groin and ankle injuries. 

In a twitter debate I had with The Washington Times Stephen Whyno Thursday, the beat reporter made a solid point that Green’s injury shouldn’t derail the team.  He’s right.  It shouldn’t.  But it unquestionably has.  Green is singular talent from the blue line in this league and the Caps base a lot of what they do off his ability to clear the defensive zone.  They also build much of their power play around Green’s deft passing and big shot from the point, which has been missing since the eighth game of the season.

Green’s absence is not unlike a baseball team missing its cleanup hitter.  It forces all the other players in the lineup, in this case his fellow blue-liners, one spot up in the order and reduces the team as a whole.  None of the other defensemen have Green’s skill set, so everyone is one spot out of place right now.  The Caps acquisition last year of Dennis Wideman and this year of Roman Hamrlik were supposed to take the heat off the Caps should the Caps sustain injuries to key defensemen like in last year’s playoffs, but Hamrlik has been a complete disappointment thus far (one goal, no assists, minus-11) and Wideman, though moderately productive scoring (5 G, 15 A), has looked lethargic and uninterested in his own end on too many occasions.

Are there other factors that are affecting the Capitals right now?  Sure.  They aren’t getting much production from Marcus Johansson.  Same with Cody Eakin and Matthieu Perreault, who looked smaller than normal out there against Philadelphia Tuesday.  The whole team is trying to adapt to Hunter’s (and new defensive coach Jim Johnson’s) tweaks in the systems.  But if the team’s best players aren’t playing like it, the Caps are going to continue to struggle.  The offense is far from the most pressing problem though, as the Caps sit sixth in the league in goals per game.

It’s not even Christmas yet, but it’s right around the corner.  This is the time when NHL GMs really start looking at their rosters, trying to decide if they’re true contenders, playoff also-rans, or building for the future.  The Caps really could settle into any of those three categories right now unless they get their act in gear, and you have to figure that GM George McPhee won’t go on too much longer without making some sort of personnel moves.

Against Philly, the Capitals were flat-out beaten by a better team.  They played well the first ten minutes, but after the first goal trickled past Vokoun, they were beaten.  They were handled physically, subjected to tossing 30 foot wrist shots in Ilya Bryzgalov’s general direction.  There was no traffic.  There were no screens.  There were no second chances.  Those things aren’t about talent.  Those things are about desire, and the Caps didn’t show any of it against a fierce rival.

The Caps have a long way in the standings to get back to where they want to be.  They aren’t out of anything… yet.  There’s still time to right the ship.  But as Yogi Berra might say, it gets late around here early.  The Capitals just can’t have any more efforts like the one against Philadelphia, shutting down at the first sight of trouble.  It’s okay to get beaten giving full effort.  It’s completely something different giving up.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

Comments

  1. I have just about given up trying to figure out what is wrong with this team. It seems they are mentally fragile to me, but that is a difficult thing to assess from the outside. I agree with your other points. It is very difficult for me to be objective about the Caps because I am a little too emotionally involved. I will say this, the day they get full effort out of Alex Ovechkin on a consistent basis is, IMO, the day they will start consistently winning again.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      Agreed Rob. Ovi’s level of intensity varies greatly game-to-game these days. Some night he looks like the Ovi of old, but he was invisible Tuesday. Though he was the only player to skate down to Vokoun after the first goal and tap the goalie on his pads.

      • I don’t mean to blame it all on Ovie, hope it did not come across that way. I just think he needs to lead. It just kills me to see a guy with his skill gliding back into the defensive zone with his legs straight staring at the puck. There are so many problems, and like most things in hockey, they are all connected. I suppose if I had to pick one other thing it would be the general lack of solid defensive play from the majority of the Caps forwards. The d men always take the blame, but IMO often it is the forwards puck watching and gliding that puts them in a no win or at least a very difficult situation. On the bright side, there is time left during the season for improvement. I can’t imagine Vokoun will keep playing this poorly…can he? Geez, I hope not.

        • Dave Nichols says:

          I think Vokoun will get get things figured out. I didn’t take your first comment laying everything on Ovi, but he’s a large part of this team and will be for many years. if he can’t find that attack style of hockey like he used to play again… well, let’s just hope he can, that’s all.

  2. Scott Gater says:

    I think Rob’s point about mental fragility is close to the point. They seem to lose their way after the first bit of trouble. I’d be interested in seeing if the caps change goalie coaches any time soon. As someone who moved here from somewhere else, I don’t have the emotional attachment to this team. They seemed to do well when Ovie played a chippy, aggressive style of play. He got penalised/suspended for it, changed his style and hasn’t played well since that time. The other thing is that their PP has to get better or else it’ll be over in January. I realise that it was great that they only took one penalty in the game against the flyers, but since the flyers “only” got called for three, I’d say the zebras took the night off.

    • Dave Nichols says:

      thanks for the comment Scott. yeah, the ease at which they seem to get deflated in recent losses is troubling, and I think speaks to the overal lack of intensity some nights. It seems like some nights they just don’t bring it as a team, and you have to wonder how and why. Most folks credited that to them tuning out the former coach, but it seems to persist. I think personnel changes are coming soon. I’m not usually a proponent of “shaking up the room”, but in this instance it seems like it might be necessary.

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