August 31, 2014

Washington Capitals hope defense-first takes them to Holy Grail

The Washington Capitals have been getting rave reviews from various corners of the hockey media world on their transformation from Bruce Boudreau’s exciting, offensive-minded approach to the stifling, sit-on-a-lead defensive approach implemented by Dale Hunter.

In fact, the opening two paragraphs from Scott Burnside’s column on ESPN.com today pretty much sums up the feelings of much of the Canadian media on the topic.

“It’s still a bit difficult to reconcile this grinding, hard-nosed version of the Washington Capitals to earlier, high-flying, playoff-crashing versions.

But the fact this current, albeit less flashy, model is still around and preparing for a seventh game against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins suggests change isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”

Forget that the idea of “still around” in this case consists of Game Seven of the first round, a lofty perch attained several times in Boudreau’s tenure. But you get the point. The Caps are playing hockey “the right way” now! They are playing “playoff hockey”! They block shots! Imagine if Boudreau was still the coach. They would have lost to the Bruins in negative-three games!

Pierre McGuire agrees, telling CSNWashington.com’s Chuck Gormley:

“But if you had this team playing this way against Montreal two years ago or playing against Philadelphia four years ago, then it might have been different. Now they’re starting to get on track as far as playing playoff hockey.”

But here’s the thing. If the Caps lose Game Seven, what does it matter?

I know that no one wants to think about the Washington Capitals losing Game Seven Wednesday night already. According to Mike Wise of The Washington Post, just contemplating the idea will bum the players out enough to live out a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it could happen.

And then what?

This organization will find itself, as it has every season in its existence, contemplating what could have been, what went wrong, and how to fix it. Just like it always has. Except this time, they did it by undermining four years of organized effort and preparation, firing the most successful regular season coach in its history, and completely and fundamentally transforming how they play the game.

They took the most exciting, offense-minded team in the league and transformed it into what we see today: a plodding, conservative, defensive group that blocks shots first and ask questions later, where one mistake can mean the difference between moving on and going home. And it’s not like this “quick fix” will be easy to sustain. What talent the Caps have stocked in the minor leagues and abroad are the same type of skill players the organization has tried to cultivate since adopting Boudreau’s run-and-gun.

If the Caps decide to stay with Hunter following the conclusion of these playoffs — whenever that may be — they will have to further tear down before building back up again. Many of the free agents the Caps have this off-season are in that offense-first (and sometimes, only) build. It could very well get worse before it gets better.

Alexander Semin. Mike Green. Dennis Wideman. Matthieu Perreault. Even Keith Aucoin. Not to mention the two players this team invested in for the long haul, Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom. None is really suited to play a defense-oriented style of hockey. They may have “bought into it” for this stretch and playoff run, but what choice did they have? Some are playing for their jobs.

Again, if Hunter sticks around, you’d have to assume all of the above free agents will be allowed to walk, replaced with players more suited for his style of play.

I wrote this last May when the Caps were bounced by Tampa in four games:

“They’re uncanny when they want to get a goal. They just snap their fingers, hit a button and dial it up. You can see it’s like they flipped a switch. I don’t know what it is. It leaves you flabbergasted.” Mike Knuble uttered those words about the Lightning last night. They used to say that about the Caps.
 
The soul of this team has been crushed. They were once the most exciting team in the league. They had a joyful, energetic, singular talent leading them on the ice and leading the league in offense. Now, they’re stuck in a system that is apparent that very few of them want to play…
 
They went from a system that was designed to win games to one that is designed to not lose games. Playoff hockey indeed.”

I don’t want to write it again after Wednesday night’s game.

I hope the Caps can follow their newly-adopted formula and block shots all the way to the Holy Grail. I really do. The fan in me has been waiting since 1974. And if that happens, I’ll gladly suffer any slings and arrows that might stem from my critique. The Caps have stood toe-to-toe with the Bruins, playing David to their Goliath. Let’s hope David has one more rock to sling.

__________________________

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.

Comments

  1. Scott Gater says:

    I dare say that it is an Eastern media (Canadian) that pushes this idea of “playoff hockey” style. Sunday I watched the caps vs bruins, followed by the Canuck vs LA game. A 100% difference. No mucking about after the whistle, end to end rushes, crisp passes, no trap style of play. It was the best game ( inspite of Vancouver losing) I’d seen all playoffs! I think the problem has been in the past the Caps had lots of offense and survived only because they could score more goals, not because they could score goals and stop goals. I agree, the defensive style of play is boring to watch, but as shown by NJ in the past, it can win games. The Canucks did well last year due to a powerful offense combined with a top level defense. The top level D is what the caps lack. If Hunter’s system is to work, you have to get a D that is top knotch, goals aren’t enough.

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