The great “what do with do with this team” debate continues this week following the fall of the Caps, again. There is plenty of blame to go around. Every blogger, every media person, and every fan has an opinion. Everyone is searching for an answer. In the end, the only opinion that will matter is that of the management and the owners. And they aren’t talking, yet.
So lets take a look at what’s been going on during the Ovechkin Era since he is the one person who consistently receives the blame for the Capitals Cup failure. He was drafted just before the 2004/05 lockout so we’ll start with the 2005/06 season.
The longest tenured players on the team are Alexander Ovechkin (drafted 2004 and played first game in 2005) and Nicklas Backstrom (acquired in 2006 although he didn’t play his first game until 2007). Shortly after the Caps would raid the Hershey Bears and bring up John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Jay Beagle. Soon, the Caps and coach Dale Hunter would call up goaltender Braden Holtby for the 2011 for Playoffs . Under coach Adam Oates they would finally give him a permanent spot on the Caps roster in 2012/13 season. When we talk about the old guard, these are those players. These are the players whom many say are holding the Caps back since they are the ones, other than Holtby, who have been in the thick of all the playoff losses, especially Ovi and Backie.
- Ovi holds more franchise and NHL records than any player in the history of the team. He has earned the MVP for the league three times. He has been voted most outstanding player three times. And he has shown his incredible skill as a six-time winner of the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for the most goals scored in the regular season. There is no disputing his contribution to the team as a player and as the face, not only of the Caps franchise, but of the NHL. He is a big money-maker because he is a great player.
- Backstrom is one of the most underrated centers in the league. According to the Caps web, Nicky “in 2007-08 he set a Capitals rookie record with 55 assists.”That was just a start for him. He became the all time assist leader in franchise history in 2015. This past season he was second in the league with 66 assists and fourth in overall points (86). He continues to elevate whatever line and whichever team member he is playing with–as he showed when playing in IIHF Worlds and the Olympics.
- John Carlson and Karl Alzner are often viewed as a magic defensive pairing. They began playing together in Hershey and were called up to the Caps for permanent slots in 2010, with a great deal of excitement in the fan base. It worked well for many years and then under Trotz, Todd Reirden, the Capitals’ associate coach, split the pair. Carlson has suffered a few injuries in recent years which led to the split as Iron Man Alzner went on to play with Niskanen while Carlson was joined with Orpik. Reirden reunited them but they didn’t really have the same success as when they first joined the Caps.
- Carlson hasn’t played a complete season since 2014. He ended this season about on par for him with 37 points, 16 power play points, and a plus 7–which is a decline for him. This season he was responsible for two goals during the playoffs. He is another player who may not always get the credit due.
- Alzner is one of the hardest working players on the team, although this past season he has seen a slight decline in his scoring stats, ending the season with 13 points. He is still one of the best defensemen on the team Unfortunately an injury kept him from fully participating in the playoffs and he was virtually invisible in the seven games he played. He is the only unrestricted free agent in this group and will be a costly deal for the Caps to keep in the ranks.
- Jay Beagle also came up through the Hershey Bears. He was called up to the NHL team in 2009 and right off the bat was putting points on the board. He became a permanent fixture on the roster in the 2010 season. He is the Caps faceoff guy with a consistent 55% win record. This was the first season in which he played in nearly every game (he missed one). And this was his highest scoring season with 30 points. Unfortunately, he brought nothing to the playoffs this season ending with a -5 and zero points.
- And finally we look at Braden Holtby. Like Ovechkin, he is an award-winning stat-setting superstar, who hasn’t been able to lead the Caps to the final round. We watched and waited for the time when the Holtbeast would finally defend the net for the Caps. Another Hershey alum he joined the Caps for a few games in 2010 and in 2012 was brought up for the playoffs, in which he showed why he deserved a permanent spot on the roster. He got his wish in the 2012 season. He remains the darling of the team despite the playoff losses.
Although there is a good deal of discussion about shaking up the old guard, the reality is only Alzner is a UFA. Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Holtby have no trade clauses in their contracts. That means they can’t be traded unless they agree to go on waivers, which is doubtful for these three. Beagle and Carlson are UFAs in 2018.
- Age is also a factor for this group. Ovi and Beagle are already 31. Backstrom turns 30 this year. Holtby and Carlson are 27 while Alzner is 28. They have matured personally and professionally and that is a positive professionally but personally, the toll on their bodies is starting to show.
These players have been through five coaches in 12 seasons, starting with the 2005/06 season. (see our post for more info) These coaches brought the team to the playoffs all but three times. And in none of those attempts did the Caps get beyond the second round. During that same period the Capitals won the President’s Trophy, given to the team that earns the most points in the regular season.
- Since the 2005 playoff games (12) there have only been two instances in which the President’s Trophy winner also won the Stanley Cup–the Red Wings in 2007 and the Blackhawks in 2012. So this is pretty much an inconsequential indicator of potential success.
So what is the problem and who is to blame for the Caps inability to play as strong as they do in the regular season when they get to the playoffs?
- Is it a single player’s fault–as in Ovechkin? We think not.
- Are the ‘old guys’ holding the team back? Nah.
- Do they need a major player overhaul? You’re kidding right?
- Is it a mental curse that hangs over team? It shouldn’t be.
- Is it a coaching problem? Maybe…
- Is it a management problem? Maybe…
It is the great mystery in the NHL. How can a team that has the some of the most talented players in the league never make it to the final round? How can a team that talks about the friendships they have and the way in which they encourage one-another, never win the big trophy? Why does the team with the best scores in the league never bring it to the playoffs? It doesn’t seem to matter which players they hire to infuse new juice to the team, nothing really works. Even the likes of Justin Williams and TJ Oshie didn’t swing them to the win side.
For us, we do think it is mental in some respects. The leadership needs to figure out how to excite an exhausted team to keep winning. We include the captain in that leadership equation. The playoffs are grueling. Most play through injuries–its just part of the culture. What can they do to keep the momentum through a schedule in which they play a match nearly every other day.
- Maybe they need a different playing style–which would require at least another year of ‘rebuilding,” and yes, maybe a new coach or assistant coaches.
- Maybe they need to consider who is ready in Hershey to become the next generation of Caps superstars.
- Maybe they need to think outside the box and bring in a coach or counselor for the individual players–not a sports coach but a coach that can help them tap into their personal motivation, desires, and thought process that will help them get past the ‘curse’ mentality.
We know that there are a lot of moving pieces this summer between the Las Vegas Knight’s draft and expiring contracts. This is another opportunity for the Caps to consider how to put together the right mix of players to get out of the trap they are in. Or maybe they don’t mess too much with what has nearly worked and they only make some minor changes. Looking at the current UFA/RFA list, we know some players will go simply because the Caps won’t be able to meet their salary demands. That raises the question as to who is available and who might they bring in to complement the bonds that they created this past season. All the players indicated a desire to stay with the Caps, but we know that won’t happen. We’ll be watching and thinking about it with you.
And of course: