When the Washington Capitals lost Game 7 of their second round matchup with the New York Rangers, another chapter in this franchise’s history came to a close. With the uncertainty of a new head coach entering the organization, a bevy of free agents — both unrestricted and restricted, and the decline of Alex Ovechkin’s scoring dominance, the Caps could very well have also closed the book on an entire era.
The “Young Guns” (Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green) grew up playing NHL hockey in D.C., bringing an offensive excitement to the game rarely seen in the league. For several seasons, they were the fastest, most prolific offense in North America. Now, with Semin a UFA, Green an RFA, Ovechkin a shell of the happy-go-lucky player he once was, and Backstrom still not completely back on his game after missing half of last season with concussion symptoms, one has to wonder if this group have achieved all they will together.
Over the next several days, District Sports Page will take a look at the 2011-2012 Capitals season. We’ll assess their achievements, analyze the shortcomings, and do a bit of projection. Our panelists are Dave Nichols (DSP Editor-in-Chief), Abram Fox (DSP Caps Page Editor), Erika Schnure (Ravings of a Rink Rebel and DSP’s Caps minor league contributor), Andrew Tomlinson (DSP Caps contributor) and respected Caps media Ted Starkey (author of Transition Game and Red Rising), Peter Hassett (Russian Machine Never Breaks) and Adam Vingan (NBCWashington.com and Kings of Leonsis).
Our first question: Were you encouraged or disappointed with how the Capitals performed and adjusted during the regular season? Did you opinion change for the playoffs?
Dave: My disappointment in this season started last season, peaked with the firing of Bruce Boudreau in November and continued through the end of the season. I truly believe — and Boudreau has almost said as much in interviews — that he let opinions outside the Capitals organization guide the way he coached this team. I think the December 2010 losing streak and the pressure that came along with it under the magnified lenses of HBO’s 24/7 convinced Boudreau to go against his nature and try to implement a more defensive-oriented style. The Caps rebounded and won the Winter Classic and went of a bit of a run, reinforcing Boudreau’s decision. But challenged by a team with offensive firepower in the second round of the playoffs against Tampa Bay, they flamed out spectacularly when they couldn’t “turn it on.”
Defense is less about skill and more about desire. The players were physically capable of playing that way, but it was akin to asking a thoroughbred to pull a plow.
Boudreau then tried to “double down” at the start of the 2011-12 season, implementing a more rigid disciplinary system and the players rebuffed and rejected it. At that point, unfortunately, he had to go.
I was hopeful that Dale Hunter would be able to get the players’ attention focused on the game and the team, and in that much I think he was successful. But his ultra-conservative philosophy was even more ill-suited for the collection of talent on hand, and the regular season results showed it. Once in the playoffs, Hunter was satisfied on playing dramatic –but dull — hockey, riding a hot rookie goalie, hoping to eek out one-goal wins. While the Caps took both the defending Stanley Cup champions and regular season Eastern Conference champion to seven games, they ultimately went no further than they ever did under Boudreau.
At the beginning of the season if someone told me the Caps failed to get out of the second round again, I would have been disappointed. I am no less disappointed regardless of how they ended up there.
Abram: My opinion of the season did change in the playoffs; I was more encouraged. Even if Alex Ovechkin didn’t buy into Hunter’s system, he kept any complaints behind closed doors. That’s huge for morale and camaraderie. Any encouragement is tempered by the fact that Washington’s playoff run was backstopped by a guy who wasn’t part of the regular season, Braden Holtby. The rookie was playing out of his mind. Tim Thomas and Cam Ward won Conn Smythe Trophies with numbers worse than Holtby’s 1.95 GAA and .935 Save% this postseason. Tomas Vokoun or Michal Neuvirth may have performed similarly, but chances are without a hot goalie like Holtby the Caps wouldn’t have made it out of the first round, and they weren’t good enough this year to take advantage of Holtby’s performance.
Erika: Disappointed, no question. It started off so well, and then, pretty much inexplicably, it all fell apart. Once Hunter came in, since his systems were so different from what everyone was used to, it took a very long time for players to adapt to it. The Capitals are very lucky they got into the postseason with the season they had. But then suddenly Hunter’s system started to click at just the right time, and the Capitals had an unexpectedly impressive run in the playoffs. It was almost nice to have the reverse of what the team usually does. For once, it was almost nice to have a bad regular season and a great postseason.
Andrew: It is hard to really look at any part of the season as any sort of success. A team with as much talent as the Capitals have should not have struggled as mightily as they did. Not only did they struggle though, the team really didn’t learn much about itself. Sure, Jay Beagle and Dimitri Orlov learned and grew on the ice, but no one can really say the team learned all that much about the kind of team they are from barely making the playoffs.
Perhaps the only thing we even learned from the playoffs was that Braden Holtby probably shouldn’t have spent the season with the Hershey Bears. Everyone is quick to say “Dale Hunter taught the team how to win,” but at the same time how much winning did he really teach them if they again didn’t advance out of the second round?
All the way around, it was a lost season for the Capitals as they didn’t change or grow significantly, didn’t find a new long-term solution at head coach and ultimately didn’t advance any further in the playoffs.
Ted: It certainly was a strange season of highs and lows for the Capitals, going from being tabbed as the Hockey News’ preseason pick for the Cup to looking like they might not even qualify for the playoffs to ousting the Stanley Cup champs and nearly doing the same to the top seed in the East.
Washington certainly got a decent ways this season with a flawed roster, and certainly, having Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom out for long periods of time hurt the team’s regular-season point total – likely costing them a fifth straight Southeast Division title and a more advantageous seed.
However, the Capitals got better near the season’s end, going 10-4-2 in the team’s last 16 regular season games, then playing 13-of-14 one-goal games against the top two teams in the Eastern Conference in the playoffs. After playing most of the season as a team that was anything that was cohesive, the Capitals played much better the final weeks of the season, which is an encouraging sign.
Washington still has a flawed roster, and has some areas to shore up in the offseason, but the finish – when other teams such as the Leafs and Canadiens imploded – was more encouraging at both the end of the regular season and two rounds of playoffs.
Peter: I’ve gotta admit I was disappointed with the regular season. The Capitals under Hunter were sub-.500, even after a lengthy grace period. That might have been tolerable if they were playing fun-to-watch, chaotic hockey, but they weren’t. They played a style that was antithetical to the talent on their roster, and they continued that into the playoffs– where they got bounced after losing half of their fourteen games. I wasn’t happy with it.
Adam: Forgive me if this does not even come close to answering the question, but I was encouraged by how the Caps responded in the postseason after what can be easily considered as a disappointing regular season. Yet, the key for me this season was watching the Caps overcome adversity instead of buckling underneath it. I said it much better in my season-ending column than I can here, so allow me to share:
“The Caps overcame a coaching change, a complete overhaul of their style of play and several bouts of inconsistency and injury just to qualify for the postseason. Once there, things gelled; the Caps were never out of any of their 14 postseason games, setting NHL records in the process. They disposed of the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins before taking the top-seeded Rangers to the absolute limit.As opposed to the aforementioned season-ending losses, from which nothing could be salvaged, Saturday’s loss was simply a speed bump on the road to continued growth. Evolution takes time. Never has a team underachieved and overachieved in the same season. And Washington is stronger for it.”
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.