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Callum McCarthy: Capitals Playing To Their Weaknesses, Not Strengths


My name is Callum McCarthy, and I will be your host on Bourne’s Blog until Justin finishes his Christmas eating binge. This could be any time around March. There’s a distinct possibility you have absolutely no idea who I am, so for those who don’t know, here’s a piece I wrote for this blog explaining my hockey background.

You can follow me on Twitter or Tumblr, but preferably both.

I don't want your fucking half-eaten cookie.

********************************************************************************************************The Washington Capitals are a team in transition; that much we know. We know where they came from, and we know why they’re trying to get away from that — they sucked when it mattered — but as for their destination? That remains a mystery to most.

Beyond suggestions of “The Promised Land”, the end product George McPhee and Bruce Boudreau are looking for in order to win a Stanley Cup is still lost in a fog of slumps and shutouts. It took a virtual bye against the Ottawa Senators for the Caps to prevent their losing streak from stretching to nine games, but even with a W on the board, they still lack rhythm going into the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day. Where before the Capitals would play their way out of a hole, Boudreau and McPhee are keen to make their team dig their way out this time — something that this particular collection of players are almost alien to.

It is this stylistic cleansing that management hope will turn their playoff fortunes around, but as McPhee is finding out the hard way, it may already be too late.

Since the lockout, the Caps have been drafting anything and everything that put up points. In an effort to discontinue the yearly suck that had infected the Verizon Center, they have brought in the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mathieu Perreault, Francois Bouchard, Anton Gustafsson, and more recently Evgeny Kuznetsov — all of which have either put up big numbers in major junior or the WJC — to bolster their goal tally. From the day Alex Ovechkin took to the Verizon ice, Washington hockey has been about scoring goals and looking fly like a G6 while you do it.

Five years down the line, McPhee has seen great goaltending and solid defensive hockey put the Caps out of their misery one too many times in the postseason. He has seen teams grind and graft their way through playoff rounds to give them a shot at the prize, and for McPhee, enough is seemingly enough.

The trade of second-liner Tomas Fleischmann to the Colorado Avalanche in return for stay-at-home D-man Scott Hannan is likely to be the first of many to make them “harder to beat” in the postseason. Alexander Semin could be on the block come March 1, and the Capitals may seek to reshape their pool of prospects which is top heavy to say the least.

Until McPhee can start making physical changes, Bruce Boudreau has been given the unenviable task of trying to mould an offensive minded lineup into one that can play ugly when necessary. No more lazy backchecking, no more risky moves in the neutral zone, just solid hockey that wins games.

Well, that’s the idea anyway.

Washington could be without their resident percussionist come March 1.

The transition from offensive flash to defensive grit is one that McPhee and Boudreau admit will take time, but whether it is even possible with this current roster of players will remain to be seen. For some on this Capitals team, they have been playing the same way for 5+ years. Alexander Semin, who made his debut in the 2003-04 season for the Capitals, has never played in such a system. As the saying goes, you can’t teach a 26 year old dog new tricks.

By enforcing a grinder’s philosophy on a team stacked with stars, the Caps went on an eight game skid that at several points could have been snapped with the sort of hockey that comes naturally to them, especially against Florida at home. But instead, Boudreau insisted on “outworking” the Panthers, something that the Capitals simply didn’t have to do.

The idea that a team can replicate playoff hockey in preparation for the real thing is, to me, hilarious. To tell a talented team to go out and try too hard at things they never had to think about before is, to me, a sure-fire way of losing games. To blame playoff losses on winning too much or being too good is, to everybody and his dog, plain absurd.

McPhee and Boudreau believe that there is a formula that must be adhered to in order to win a Stanley Cup; that getting pucks deep and all that jazz will automatically result in postseason wins. There isn’t, and it won’t. The best thing that Capitals management can do is let this team play to its strengths, not its weaknesses.

This team wasn’t built for grit or for battles in the corner. It was built for steamrolling every team that got in its way. To reduce such a sublime roster to playing like a stone-handed bunch of drones doesn’t make them harder to beat at all, it forces them to put focus on the weakest part of their game. Playing defense is just not what they were built for, and McPhee should know that. Without a partial or total rebuild of the franchise, the Capitals will continue to lose games whilst playing in this style. This team could win 9-1 or lose 5-0 on any given night, and no amount of tactical brainwashing can change that.

For the Caps, there is no new direction or philosophy needed. There is nothing that can be done about a goaltender on a hot streak or a player being out of form in the postseason, just like there is nothing that can be done about a Capitals team on an offensive roll. And should Boudreau and McPhee let their boys play, the rest will be left to lady luck, just like every other team that makes it to the Spring dance.

As for the formula that they seek to conform to, there is no such thing. For the Blackhawks, Penguins, Red Wings, Hurricanes, Lightning and The Sherminator, it was just their time.


12 Responses to “Callum McCarthy: Capitals Playing To Their Weaknesses, Not Strengths”
  1. DB says:

    You are an idiot!

  2. Anduno says:

    Wow are you serious?
    Bring back Bourne asap. Have you even watched more than 3 capitals games this year?
    This caps team has been playing gritty all year, not just the loosing streak.
    This years Goals against is about a goal less per game.
    I’m a long time reader but never commented until I read this extensive gust of hot air.
    Please don’t let this this guy write any more articles.

  3. mirm says:

    Exactly. Nobody ever got better by identifying areas of weakness, and then trying to improve on them. Illogical.

  4. Ben says:

    Somebody hasn’t been paying attention to the Caps recent 5 game stretch AFTER the losing streak.

    That streak could end up being the best thing that could have happened to this team. They are playing airtight D, and their offense is starting to come around again as well.

    Pay attention dude!

  5. Johan Witt says:

    Wow, the difference between the well-reasoned and well-written material from Bourne and this drivel is enormous. Until you can get your thoughts straight and put your words together in a style exceeding than the fifth grade level we see here, you had just better stick to your half-eaten cookie. And leave hockey analysis to those qualified to offer it.

  6. Wes says:

    You’ve clearly never played hockey before or watched the last 5 games the Caps have played. They’ve all been much more gritty than flashy and they’re 4-0-1.

  7. Skeeter says:

    DB makes a good point. Clearly you haven’t taken into account the socio-political factors at play here. A proper reading of this situation would involve an extensive analysis of how rational self-interest is involved in the objectivisation of the human mind. It’s a good thing DB was here to point this out.

    As for the article, I agree to an extent: the Capitals just aren’t built to play grinding, defensive hockey and attempting to make them play that way is playing to their weaknesses. The issue, of course, is that when the Caps haven’t been able to overwhelm their opponents with skill, they have no other recourse. The Caps tend to win hockey games in only one way, when the playoffs frequently require a team to win in a multitude of different ways. I don’t think there’s a problem with trying to develop that side of the Capitals. It is a weakness, but it is one that could be made, if not a strength, at least less weak. That way when the playoffs come around and their offensive game isn’t enough to win a game, they have something else available to them. Otherwise they risk becoming one-dimensional and prone to defeat by a less-talented squad.

  8. anduno says:

    WOW are you serious kid?
    Have you even watched more than 2 caps games this season?
    Give me a break.
    I am a long time reader, never had the motivation to post until I read this gust of hot air.
    Please Bourne, never let this windbag post on your site again.

  9. Deirdre says:

    So how many games does Boudreau let them lose while they’re trying to learn how to play defensive hockey…and will it be so many that they don’t even *make* the playoffs. I understand trying to teach a team a new system, but at some point you have to realize that these games count!

    They practiced outside today in preparation for Saturday…wonder if it’ll help :-P

  10. Dunc says:

    The saying goes: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result”.

    If the Caps have the pieces to get a different result at the moment is debatable but at least McPhee and Boudreau have realised they can’t keep flogging the ‘we’ll just score more goals’ horse and expect to suddenly win come playoff time.

    Given the time left in the season and that McPhee has already moved to get Hannan is it not a tad premature to assume he will make no further moves and persist in trying to get the Caps to win despite their gifts? Even if he does make no further moves is this really a bad thing? If they fail by trying to play a more complete game at least they have tried, they will lose anyway if they don’t change (as they have shown many times) so they lose nothing by trying.

    The Blackhawks, Penguins, Red Wings, Hurricanes and Lightning made it their time by being able to beat the rest multiple ways, by doing nothing I doubt the Caps with their single way of playing would be able to achieve the same.

  11. The Tinner says:

    Hmmm…not sure all your “facts” are correct here…

    1) The Caps and Alexander Semin HAVE played a trapping system before, albiet unsuccessfully as a team, when Glenn Hanlon was coach in his 2nd to last year. Semin scored 38 goals I believe. They just didn’t have the talent that year to succeed.

    2) There is a reason why the Caps scooped up guys like Hendricks, King & Hannan and are rewarding guys like Beagle, Erskine, Andrew Gordon with more ice time. There is a reason why softies like Flash, Corvo, Belanger, BMo etc were cut loose and replaced with more hard nosed players. Clearly you have not followed the personnel on the team as close as you may think. Even a small guy like Mathieu Perrault is really willing to get his nose dirty.

    3) Lets face facts…most teams employ the trap especially come playoff time. Its a tactic ripe with CHEESE but it works when one team plays it while the other plays an all out attack system. The Caps are learning that they have to fight fire with fire…..IF you can recall back in 1991-2 (I think the Caps had a great team (Scotty Bowman even said they were the best team that year)…..Caps had a 3-1 lead in the series and were just racking up goals….Bowman started trapping and the Pens won the next 3 games on their way to a Stanley cup victory.

    4) Yeah they had an eight game losing streak…but they should have won more than half those games. Over the last 5 they have lost one shootout (and they won that in OT in reality as Green did score on Fleury). I don’t see how they are “lacking rythm going into the winter classic”…..

    5) so lets see…you are telling me that the following forwards are not what you consider “grinders”: Laich, Knuble, Hendricks, Chimera, Steckel, Bradley, Gordons (both of them), Beagle, and King??? Really? I mean REALLY? ….and if you knew anything about certain players you would know that Alexander Semin and Backstrom are perhaps their best two “cyclers” down low…in fact the goto playoff line (sans last year) has been Semin/Backstrom/Laich for that reason.

    In the end I see where you are trying to go with this article and you are entitled to your own opinion..but that opinion is one “bourne” out of watching the team as a casual fan from a distance.

    The main reason the Caps will do well this year? The D corps has improved by LEAPS AND BOUNDS….Carlson and Alzner are absolute studs, Green is really rounding out his game and Hannan and a full time Erskine add a physical edge (along with Carlson and the new Green).

  12. nguyeng19 says:

    You can’t always just play to your strengths. We always have to work on the weaknesses. It’s like telling a basketball player who can’t go left… “it’s ok, just go right. It’s your strength.”

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