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Tasca's Take

Changing Course

Midway through last season, then-Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau decided his team was incapable of winning the Stanley Cup by playing fire-wagon hockey.  He completely changed the way his team played, implementing a defensive-oriented system designed to ultimately achieve playoff success. 

Many factors contributed to Boudreau’s decision, not the least of which is probably organizationally-imposed pressure stemming from a widely-held belief that defense wins championships.  Hockey observers the world over have preached the importance of this mantra since time immemorial, and after three consecutive playoff failures, Boudreau was forced to capitulate.

The timing of Washington’s philosophical change was striking.  The team was coming off a heart-breaking upset at the hands of Montreal in the 2010 playoffs, blowing a 3-1 series lead in the process.  It was a disappointing loss, to say the least, and it provided ample ammunition for the naysayers who believed the Capitals weren’t defensive-minded enough to win a title.

In reality, it wasn’t poor defense that cost Washington that year.  It was a pop-gun offense that scored a measly three goals in the final three games of the series.  Despite badly outplaying Montreal in those matches, registering an incredible 54 shots in Game 6 alone, the Capitals went down to defeat. 

The loss sent shock waves through the organization, culminating in the drastic change not only in Boudreau’s coaching strategy, but in the team’s overall approach to way the game is played.  At some point last year, the Capitals made a conscious effort to abandon everything they previously stood for, and to adopt a new, playoff-ready identity.

After another playoff disappointment in 2011 and a slow start to this season, Boudreau was replaced by Dale Hunter.  A defensive-specialist during his playing days, Hunter is the perfect man to lead the Capitals into their brave new world of defensive-mindedness.  He’s a no-nonsense guy with little regard for how much money a player is being paid or the name on the back of his jersey. 

In beating the Bruins in the opening round and going toe-to-toe with the top-seeded Rangers in the conference semi-finals, Washington has seemingly silenced its critics for the time being.  Even if the Caps bow out of the playoffs tonight, many pundits will say the club had a successful season, and may be primed for a Cup run next year with the emergence of Braden Holtby in goal and Hunter at the helm. 

The fact of the matter is Washington is no better prepared to win a Stanley Cup now than it was two years ago.  In fact, it’s debatable whether the team is actually better at all.  In 2009-10, the Capitals scored 318 goals, while giving up 233.  That’s a difference of 85 goals.  Last season, the team was a plus-27.  This year, they were minus-eight. 

While that’s not exactly a positive trend, some will argue the offensive sacrifices the Capitals have made were absolutely necessary to transform the team into a legitimate championship contender.  It’s a fair argument, but it’s difficult, if not impossible to believe that a team built around speed and skill is going to have long-term success by playing a game it was never intended to play.

The home-grown offensive talent in Washington is remarkable.  The club’s roster is littered with the likes of Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Johansson, Perreault, and Green, players who’s penchant for goal-scoring has been well-documented.  In drafting these players, George McPhee was trying to construct a high-flying offensive juggernaut, a lofty goal that was realized just a few short years after the lockout. 

In adopting this strategy, it’s obvious that McPhee believed a team’s success in the “new NHL” was going to be dependent on its ability to put the puck in the net.  McPhee may very well have been inspired by former Lightning coach John Tortorella, whose “Safe is Death” mentality produced a Stanley Cup champion for the Capitals’ division rival in 2004. 

Ironically enough, both Tortorella and McPhee have changed their respective tunes, as evidenced by this year’s Rangers/Capitals series.  But while the Broadway Blueshirts are a rugged, tough bunch whose skill players compliment their fourth-line grinders, Washington is a team whose fourth-line grinders are playing starring roles and the skill players are being stifled.

When it comes right down to it, scoring goals is still the most important factor in winning hockey games.  It’s not difficult to understand why the Capitals are having trouble lighting the lamp when Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle are getting more ice time than Alexander Ovechkin.  Is it any wonder why Washington is one loss away from elimination, despite not having given up more than three goals in any game of the series?

In the end, your best players have to be your best players, and as Ovechkin, Semin, and company go, so go the Capitals.  Matt Hendricks may be a wonderful penalty-killer and a face-off specialist, but he’ll never score 65 goals in a season (or maybe his career).  By having his star players ride the pine for much of the night, Dale Hunter is making life a lot easier for his opponent. 

Hunter obviously won’t let the horses loose, even though his team would likely have just as good a chance of winning a 5-4 game as it does losing a low-scoring tilt.  Opening things up would require the team to revert back to its old identity as a free-wheeling group where creativity was encouraged, and very often rewarded. 

In discouraging his offensive players from doing what they do best, one can’t help but wonder if the Capitals’ studs will eventually become disillusioned with the team’s defensive philosophy.  As it is, the club’s leading scorers are taking a lot of heat for not producing in the playoffs, and if Washington is ousted tonight, the finger will be pointed not at Hunter, but at the team’s enigmatic Russian snipers.

Such criticism is largely undeserved.  The Capitals certainly have enough talent to be successful, but the talent on hand is being underutilized.  And while championship teams aren’t laden with one-dimensional offensive players, it’s important to note that one-dimensional defensive players won’t do the job, either.  When all is said and done, scoring goals is still the name of the game. 

The inevitable result of Washington’s drastic transformation will be the same as it’s been in past years.  The only difference will be the manner in which the team meets its demise.

Filed in: | Tasca's Take | Permalink
  Tags: alexander+ovechkin, dale+hunter, washington+capitals

Comments

Thag's avatar

I completely disagree. The skill players - Ovechkin and Semin in particular - have had plenty of chances to open up these games. They have spent a great deal of time this spring missing the net and passing instead of shooting. A run-and-gun Caps team would probably have been swept by Boston, no matter how well Braden Holtby played. I really admire these guys for buying into the new system, and I still think they can beat the Rags, who played their best game of this round and barely won game 5.

Posted by Thag from DC on 05/09/12 at 09:47 AM ET

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For all the talk of coaching, Hunter has the Caps in the exact same place Boudreau had them. The only difference is they entered the post-season with lower expectations. Then again, Hunter lead them to the eight seed while Boudreau had them usually in the number one seed in season’s past. 

There needs to be a compromise somewhere, where a team can play to their strength (offense) while maintaining sound defensive posture. The Caps are currently the Habs team that ousted them several years ago, the difference being the Habs had no offense and therefore no choice. If I am Tortorella, I applaud Hunter for not using Ovechkin, it removes the biggest offensive threat the Caps have and allows the Rangers to continue to pile up shots with littel fear of counter attack.

I agree with Tasca here, if the Caps are going to change their stripes, then GMGM is going to have to get a different set of horses. The team as-built is not playing to their strength which may or may not be suitable for the playoffs.

Posted by hockey1919 from mid-atlantic on 05/09/12 at 04:03 PM ET

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About Tasca's Take

Tasca's Take is written by Joe Tasca. Born and raised in Westerly, Rhode Island, Joe works as a broadcaster for seven radio stations in southern New England. Whether that's a testament to his on-air ability or because he has a desparate need for money is debatable.

Joe spends his summers playing golf, enjoying the beauty of Misquamicut Beach, and wining and dining girls who are easily awed by the mere presence of a radio personality. During the winter months, he can usually be found taking in a hockey game somewhere in North America. In the spring, he spends much of his time in botanical gardens tiptoeing through the tulips, while autumn is a time to frolic with his golden retrievers through piles of his neighbors’ leaves.