Callum McCarthy: Capitals Playing To Their Weaknesses, Not StrengthsShareThis
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.
********************************************************************************************************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.
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.