Come in Off The Ledge

Let’s say you’re a fan of a certain NHL team. And let’s say this NHL team had 70 points in each of the previous two seasons, hasn’t made the playoffs in five years and has averaged a mere 11 road wins in its 41 road games over the previous three seasons.

Now let’s say someone told you this NHL team you liked was going to open the season with three games in a span of 67 hours to start the season, and that this NHL team would play four of its first five games on the road, and that all four of those road games would be against teams that made the Stanley Cup playoffs last season.

Let’s also say that this seer were to remind you that the next team to get through the 82-game NHL schedule with an unblemished 82-0 record would be the first. Finally, let’s assume that you were also told that your team would start the season by going 3-2 in this five-game stretch.

How would you feel about that?

Judging from what some folks are writing on message boards and other places, apparently not so good. People are gnashing teeth, wringing hands and are already suggesting sweeping changes in personnel and in forward lines and defensive pairs, special teams and what have you. I could link to them, but you probably know where to look and I don’t feel like giving them any more attention than I just did.

Yeah, the last couple games were ugly. They were also played without a guy who scored 38 goals last season and without another guy who anchors the checking line and who is one of the league’s best defensive forwards. The Capitals are a much better team with Alexander Semin and Boyd Gordon in the lineup, and no one can argue otherwise. It’s also worth noting that the last two games were also played against teams considered to be among the Eastern Conference’s elite this season. You’d like to be able to compete against them and beat them, but I’d much rather be able to do so in March than in October.

Injuries happen. And no one is looking to make excuses in the Caps’ room, and no one should. Excuses should not be necessary when you’re 3-2, which is, incidentally, a pace that would lead to a 98-point season and an almost certain playoff berth. That would also mean a 28-point improvement in the standings, and that would mark the fourth greatest improvement from one single season to the next in franchise history. Where’s the issue with that?

Should the power play be better? Certainly. But if the Caps had gone 4-for-26 (15.4%) with the extra man over a five-game stretch in January, few would likely notice. And let’s not forget that Semin, who finished last season tied for fourth in the NHL in power play goals, has played part of one game on the power play to date. Or that the penalty kill is 12-for-12 with Gordon in the lineup and 10-for-15 (66.7%) without him.

Should Glen Hanlon bag skate his team because they lost consecutive road games? To hear some tell it, yes. But Hanlon instead elected to let his team have its scheduled Sunday off, then conduct a rigorous two-part Monday practice that was aimed at making his team better rather than punishing it. And I’m sorry to inform some of you keyboard taskamasters that the boys will get Tuesday off, too. It’s a long season.

Few of those of us who work under or have worked under micro-managers have enjoyed the experience. But the internet is teeming with those who feel compelled to issue report cards on a game-by-game (and believe it or not, shift-by-shift) basis. The season is far too long for such micro-analysis.

Hockey is a game of mistakes. Hockey is a game of adjustments. The mistakes have been made, and now it’s up to the Caps to make the resulting adjustments. Bag skating 20-some players is not an adjustment. Neither the coaching staff nor the players have their heads in the sand. They know they need to be better, and they’re working on it.

The players themselves were saying toward the end of training camp that it will likely take 15-20 games to see how good they can be, and what kind of team they’ll be.

“I think we’ll know 20 games in where we are,” said Matt Pettinger a couple weeks ago. “We’ll have played a lot of the teams. It’s a tough league; there are no real bad hockey teams anymore where the bottom team can’t beat the top team. We proved that over the last three years where we were one of those bad teams and we could go into any building and win. It’s just consistency, and we’ve got to get off to a good start, too.”

Does 3-0 constitute “a good start?” I don’t think so. Does 3-2? No. To me, the sample size is too small in both. Let’s see how they look after 15-20 games. In the meantime, a few tweaks and adjustments are in order, but I wouldn’t advocate massive upheaval.

People are railing about the Caps’ power play, and it hasn’t been pretty to watch. But two of those PP chances were a few seconds in duration at the end of games. And the Caps had a Chris Clark power play goal waved off because of a high stick, a call that was questionable. Had the goal counted, the Caps’ power play would be sitting at 19.2% instead of 15.4%, and fewer people would be bitching about it.

You can drive yourself nuts watching any sports team and breaking down and critiquing the performance of individual players during, in the middle of, and/or immediately after games. And if you derive joy and pleasure from such exercise, then by all means giddy-up. Maybe a person’s driver’s license should be revoked if they forget to use their turn signal when diagonal parking at the grocery store. But it’s also worth realizing that the largest of these units constitutes 1/82nd of what this team and most of these players will be judged on at season’s end.

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33 Comments on “Come in Off The Ledge”

  1. Sean Says:

    Vogs, you make some good points. Check out the Skins message board to see some micro management taken to a whole new level!

    However, I do still feel that this team needs a top 6 RW and that player may not be in the system now (sure, maybe Flash or Fehr next year, maybe Bourque the year after). And obviously, the Gordon injury is huge. Hopefully the 2nd line can being their gelling process when Semin gets back on the ice.

  2. Chris Says:

    Vogs, I think that what you have said in this latest post has maybe put things into perspective for many of us who may be guilty of rushing to judgment. I will admit that I was disappointed in the play of the NY games, and began to compare the current 5 game season with last years performance and drew some rather quick conclusions. Perhaps just drunk on the celebration of winning, only to come crashing back to reality when we lost.

    Thanks for giving me a dose of perspective and a good swift kick in the arse.

  3. al Says:

    do you expect to see semin back on sat. against the penguins?

  4. strungout Says:

    I have no problem with the 3-2 record. Could be worse…but will be getting better.

    However…I do have a problem with having 2 natural centers on the 2nd line while a RW is playing center on the top line (with an obvious hole on the right side).

  5. mike s Says:

    amen vogs…thanks for that! were still above 500 after 4 games on the road, we have played 4 of 5 games without our second best player, we are 500. on the road (which playoff teams basically need), the biggest concern (olie) is gone because hes played amazing, and were going home for a two week 4 game homestand. If we can take at least 3 of these games, were looking at a strong record ending October. I would agree Fri and Sat were brutal to watch, but chemistry takes time some times. And shots on goal are all about possession and you know semin would have given us a lot more puck possession time.

  6. Daniel Says:

    a 3-2 start? that works for me. it seems, to me, that the first 3 games and the last 2 games were played by different teams. it is amazing to me how the pk seemed to change so drastically after gordon was injured. but it is also 5 games in and people are still adjusting. now if the caps lose 15 of their next 20 and are 8 and 22, then i think we can start bitching. in the immortal words of tom waits, ‘never trust a scarecrow wearing shades after dark’…

  7. Todd Says:

    I agree we all need to calm down. I think that the season can be broken into 10-20 game segments, and progress can be viewed that way.

    At the same time, I do find it interesting the contribution that Boyd Gordon, at least statistically, is making on the penalty kill.

    See y’all Thursday!

  8. Muddapucker Says:

    The one thing that I came away with is how important Boyd Gordon must be to this team. The penalty kill was devasted without him. Certain players influence other players game and how they play. It makes me wonder if the team takes on Gordon’s defensive personna. It will be interesting to see what happens when he gets back.

    If Gordon prevents 1-2 goals a night with his defensive play, he is every bit as valuable as someone that scores on average a goal or assist per night.

    New found respect for Gordon if this is, indeed the case.

  9. Anthony Says:

    I agree vogs, however the one thing that keeps sitting in the back of my mind is 50 shots.

    Its not that they lost, but its how they lost. Then again, I do like that a defensemen scored one of our goals in the buffalo game.

  10. Frank M Says:

    He’s right, we’ve just left port and already people are saying we wont last the voyage. In retrospect, it’s kind of humorous! Nice write-up Mike…

  11. pgreene Says:

    any word on suts? can’t for the life of me understand why motzko would get a jersey ahead of assistant-captain-sutherby unless the latter was injured.

  12. dumpnchase Says:

    Good chance that you’re right about the top six RW. Wish Fehr was healthy, he coulda been the guy.

    Semin definitely won’t play on Thursday and he’s very doubtful for Saturday, too.

    I assume you’re talking about moving Backstrom back to the middle, maybe sliding Nylander up to play with Ovy and putting Kozlov on the right? It’s been done a few times, but if you blinked … or if you have selective memory … you may have missed it. Obviously the shift charts show 8-92-25 on the power play, but as best as I can tell, they’ve played together a bit at even strength, too.

    First time was a 45-second shift vs. the Isles that resulted in NY’s fourth line scoring the Fishermen’s only goal of the game. Second time was a relatively uneventful shift against the Rangers. Third time was to take the draw after Buffalo had tied Saturday’s game at 1-1. I don’t have to tell you how important the first shift after a goal (especially a goal against) is, and it was only 11 seconds before Buffalo scored to make it 2-1. That’s it. First time together, scored against. Last time together, scored against. We might be waiting for a while for it to happen again. There’s also the matter of which wingers you would put with Backstrom in that instance, and the fact that Kozlov has been much better in the circle going back to preseason.

    I agree that it looks like two different teams out there, but again, I’d rather have them feeling their way around right now and being a finely tuned machine come March-April. If they lose 15 of 20, a lot more than bitching will be going on.

    “And I’ll see your Red Label, and I’ll raise you one more
    And you can pour me a cab , I just can’t drink no more”

    You’re gonna have the 50 against from time to time. Caps gave up 50 (got outshot 50-20) and won last year. They gave up 54 later in the season in Florida. You don’t wanna see it any more often than that, though.

    Suts practiced y-day and was out on the ice the whole time.

  13. kenhockey Says:

    Seems to me that this Thursday game is a very important one against the Islanders.
    We’ll see if the break has helped. Another poor loss, especially at home will really bring out the naysayers.

  14. Catalyst Says:

    *holding an unlit match near himself after pouring gasoline all over himself…*

    I’m sorry, I’m not currently listening to complete common sense right now.. if you’d like to leave a message..

  15. hockeygrl_76 Says:

    Thanks for this post! The other naysayers are getting really annoying! No one is ever happy with this team and although I didn’t like watching the game on Friday or listening to it on Sat I’m hoping that it will help us in the long run by allowing us to figure out what went wrong. I also have to add that I agree with everyone about Sutherby. He’s my favorite and I want to see him play already!

  16. KraziJoe Says:

    Way to be a negative Nancy! The CAPS will be 80-2!!!

  17. strungout Says:

    Actually…I was thinking of putting Backstrom with 8 and 25…not Nylander.

  18. Mike L Says:

    If you had told me going in the Caps would be 3-2 after 5 games, with 4 of the 5 on the road, I’d be happy. And if you tell me who the teams are, I’d still be happy with how they did.

    I know I write about records in blow-outs and the Caps are now 0-1 in them, but that to me is an indication of quality of both teams. Going into the season I figured there were five teams in the east better than the Caps: Rangers, Penguins, Devils, Senators and Sabres. The Caps record against those teams is 0-2, all on the road. Against the teams I think they’re better than, they’re 3-0. The only game that they didn’t play well at all was the Islander game, which they won, but were outshot 31-12 by what will be, by season’s end, a dreadful team. Getting outshot by Buffalo and the Rangers is going to happen to a lot of teams this year, these teams can skate.

    The Caps have a long way to go, sure, and they’re not going to win every game. But don’t confuse back-to-back road losses in Buffalo and MSG as a problem. A lot of teams are going to go into those buildings a lot of nights and come away with nothing.

    Just like a lot of teams will be coming to the Verizon Center, and coming up empty as well.

    In the upcoming 4 game homestand, I am hoping the Caps can come away with 6 points. Normally you want 8, but the Penguins are, right now, a better team, and the Canucks are a Cup contender. I’m hoping the Caps can steal 2 points in those games. The Islanders…the Caps should go 4-0 against them this year, and the Tampa game is the game they really need Boyd Gordon to help contain Vinny and co. After that, the Caps finish October on the road in St. Louis (a winable game) and then Toronto (tough but points can be had) so maybe the Caps after October could be 6-3-2 (wins over Islanders, Lighting, Blues, OT Loses to Pens and Leafs, Loss to the Canucks). That’d put them right in the thick of things.

  19. CapsDreamer Says:

    Thanks Vogs for a great blog post. The 53 shots on goals and what appeared to be a lack of motivation (Ovie is the exception to this…he’s playing like a monster on both ends of the ice) by many players are the two things that have me quite concerned. It’s early, but I’d like to see the Caps act motivated to win every game and I didn’t see that during these last few games.

    And what is up with this ridiculous schedule? I think these 4 and 5 day breaks with 3 games in 4 days isn’t helping anything.

  20. Danny Says:

    I agree that it’s too early to start jumping off bridges (or throwing people off of bridges). I think the masses are angst-ridden more because of HOW they lost…not that they lost. As you noted – I’m quite happy with the 3-2 record so far. And the Caps haven’t played any lightweights.

    But the weaknesses this year appear to be the same as last year (failing to convert, or even get shots in 5 on 3 situations being one of the most frustrating). Yes, the Caps are missing Semin…but last I checked he plays on the second powerplay unit.

    Personally – I think that if the Caps can go 3-1 on the current home stand AND (especially) beat up on the Penguins…things will calm down. But don’t be too hard on people who still have the bitter taste of the last half-dozen years still in their mouth. Is it somewhat slightly absurd that people over analyze every aspect of a team? Sure. But that’s part of the entertainment factor. I know it really drives a certain someone nuts…but I think that it’s part and parcel of the modern age fan/team relationship. Blogs, message boards, etc. have given everyone a voice – for better or worse.

  21. Blueline Says:

    I’m not one to yell “the sky is falling”, but there is cause for concern…especially if the effort doesn’t improve. Pettinger was right with his view that a hardworking team is capable of beating a more talented team, but the hardworking team must work hard, get a lucky bounce or two, and put shots on net.

    For the Caps to have a successful season, they must be consistent…will not achieve their goals (no pun intended) if they play “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” all season.

  22. Mark Says:

    Vogs, great points all the way around.

    One question though – how are we as fans not supposed to react after 5 games, when it looks like the coach has done the same thing? Flash has gone from 1st line duties to the green shirt?

    Seems to me that Hanlon is guilty of the same thing. I know lines always change, but to scratch him? Seems a little knee jerk…

  23. shaggy Says:

    I will say Flash looks like he is making another inconsequential appearance in the big league, but Hanlon must give him the chance to succeed or fail. He should sit after 5 games with no shots on goal; that’s a wakeup call.
    I think Clarkie said it best that when you give the elite teams too much respect, and sit back and wait for them to take their game to you, a pasting is in order. These Caps can play much, much better – it is surprising to see their fragility, though, when losing a guy like Gordo for a couple games.

  24. Hi5 Codes Says:

    This NHL team drives my psycho… it angers me how bad they are lol.

  25. Muddapucker Says:

    I have been wondering about something… Its not a knee jerk reaction the last three losses. It crossed my mind last year.

    Are there players on the Caps team who may subconsciously find themselves playing at a level that they can get by with? In other words, is there a possibilty that players (as nearly every player will do) are working to a level that they know works for them in terms of Coach Hanlon’s expectations. Have they found some sort of comfort zone?

    Why else do teams often play better when there is a coaching change for a period of time only to settle back into routines? Some of the best coaches, Scottie Bowman as an example, were elusive and unpredictable and somewhat aloof.

    Is it possible that the era of patience,understanding and nurturing needs to be uniquivicably shown to be over? Have players mistaken that for tolerance? Maybe they are not even aware that they may have, if they have.

    Glen Hanlon is one of the best coaches in the NHL. I am not advocating his firing him, but what I am saying is that maybe a shakeup of somekind is due if the play, particularly the defensive play continues.

    I am not a naysayer. I am not out on the ledge. However, I agree with Ted when he says the rebuilding is over. Expectations are high… and they should be. I definitely think the players need to know that 50+ shots on goal is ridiculous. What team can survive that? That is a team stat, not an individual stat and the team needs to feel the pressure. Some how, some way, management needs to put them on the collective rock pile and demand a better performance. There really is no excuse.

    I am not pulling the plug on the Caps or bailing on them… What I am saying is I think management needs to leen hard on the players and if they fail to respond shake them up. The time for rebuilding is over. Its time to perform and that is the message I think management needs to send.

  26. Chris Says:

    Yeah because Kozlov is a horrible center, even though he centered Bure to two back to back 50 goal seasons. Also, Kozlov has had considerable success this year with OV, so I doubt he’s a detriment to the club.

    The same goes for Backstrom–he’s been playing very well with Nylander, so to change that seems a little rash as of now.

    Flash hasn’t really presented himself in the way the management would have liked, but we have options there. We can place Clark there (I’d rather keep him on our uber checking line), or we can place someone from our 2nd line there. Heck, we might even trade for someone decent.

    On the positive side of things, our goaltending has been really superb to handle the amount of shots they have.

    One question though: Are our healthy scratches being marketed for a trade?

  27. Chopseuy Says:

    I think it’s great that fans are calling for people’s heads to roll. It means we Caps fans, are becoming true fans. We are becoming more passionate, intense, rabid, knowledgeable, proactive. We need to turn this town into a real hockey town!

  28. dumpnchase Says:

    How many 19 or 20 y.o. centers can you name that have come over to N.A. and jumped right in as the center of their team’s first line in their first season in the league? Let’s even open it up to the rest of the world, and include North Americans like Crosby (who had more points than all the other natural centers on the PIT roster combined as a rookie). And how many of those guys were anywhere near 50% in face-offs as a rookie? And if the team hopes to play a puck possession style, how smart is it to have your No. 1 center playing 20 minutes (and therefore, taking most of the team’s face-offs) if he’s going to win only about 40% of his draws? Finally, any of those teams make the playoffs?

    You’re the first person I’ve come across who’s been in favor of Backstrom playing with Ovie. While that’s obviously the long-term plan, I have yet to hear any compelling reason why it makes sense right now, let alone later this season. I am all ears, however. Seriously, I’ve heard why it doesn’t make sense but I’m open to hearing the other side of it.

    Sked is a little loopy right now. Odd to have three games in like 67 hours, then odd to have almost two weeks straight at home, but only play four games during that span. It’ll even out.

    I appreciate what you’re saying. The last five years here have been rough. But if management had taken heed of the public’s “temperature” on all this, it would be worse. We’d be like the Bruins, in a constant spiral of mediocrity with no “rebuild.” I give a lot of credit to management for not giving in to the pressure and trying to buy its way into the playoffs before this team was ready, in either of the last two seasons. The worst thing you can do is try to take a shortcut through the rebuilding process, a la Pittsburgh and Columbus.

    I think the PP and the PK will be fine. Again, if it had gone through a stretch of 4-for-26 in January, few would notice. I’d rather be 3-2 with a struggling PP than be 1-5 with a PP clicking at 24.2% (LA Kings).

    It’s good that fans are invested and that everyone has a voice. A little perspective here and there is also useful. And I appreciate all of you who have taken the time to share your own insights in this forum. It’s great to be kicking stuff like this around instead of waiting for August to end.

    You’re right of course, and the term “Jekyll and Hyde” did come to my mind as I wrote this. But there’s a difference between playing this way in October and playing this way in March. I’m hoping they’ll pull it together and be fine by late season. Remember the 1999-00 Caps? They were 2-6-2 at the end of October, but finished with 102 points and the second division title in franchise history. The 2000-01 team was 1-5-4-1 before it turned around and righted itself, winning a second straight division title.

    Let’s hope this team does better than those two did in the playoffs, though.

    Well, it’s the coach’s job to react and to move around the parts that aren’t producing and find combinations that are. Ovechkin and Kozlov are working out, and we’ve seen the right winger on Ovie’s line put up solid numbers the last two seasons. Why can’t a talented guy like Flash manage as much as a shot on goal in a five-game span? He was the odd man out at practice y-day, but with other guys ailing, he could find himself in the mix again before Thursday. Motzko played well though, and is likely to open the Isles game on the right side of a line with Ovie and Kozlov. Or as the immortal Fleshtones would put it in their inimitable Super Rock fashion, “The Right Side of a Good Thing.”

    They can definitely play better. And they know it. And like a few of them (and Hanlon) were saying y-day, they can put these two losses to work for them. Let’s hope it’s more than lip service (Elvis Costello. I’m on a roll.)

    Hi5 Codes,
    Psycho Killer (Talking Heads) or Psychotic Reaction (Count Five)?

    It’s a valid question. I think Hanlon is wielding the hammer a bit more this season, mostly because he can, but also because he has to. Case in point: I think we can all agree that Brian Pothier has not played as well as he can or as well as he would have liked to thus far. In either of the last two seasons, he’d likely still be logging 20 plus minutes, maybe even somewhere near 25. But he was benched in the third period of the season opener, and his ice time has been carefully managed since. In his defense, he spent the entire preseason and the second half of last season playing with Jeff Schultz, and suddenly on opening night he’s skating with John Erskine, a guy he has never played with before. So that’s tricky.

    If guys aren’t pulling their share of the weight, they won’t play. Ice time is the hammer the coach wields, and Hanlon has been wielding it more liberally than ever before in the preseason and in the early part of the regular season.

    You’re right that expectations are high, and yeah, they should be. I think there’s too much focus on the 53 shots against Buffalo. Would it have been any more palatable if it was only 49? Likely not. Giving up 50 shots in a game to a team like Buffalo in October in no way disqualifies you for the playoffs. And if you’re smart, you can even use it to light a fire under your collective ass.

    I don’t think the healthy scratches are being marketed for a trade. Depth is necessary over the course of an 82-game season. Ulf Dahlen started the 1999-00 season as a healthy scratch and he looked finished to those of us who were around the team every day. He ended up with 15 goals and 38 points, and by the next season he was a vital part of what was arguably the best checking line in the league, a unit that totaled 60 goals and was a plus-32 while playing against the other club’s top lines. Matt Pettinger started 2005-06 as a healthy scratch and some in the media figured he was days away from being dealt in Oct. and Nov. but he finished the season with 20 goals.

    It’s hard to “market” a guy who is not playing. But if someone comes along with a deal proposal that George McPhee believes will improve this team, he’ll pull the trigger. That said, does anyone remember any impact deals being made between opening night and Jan. 1 of either of the last two seasons? Serious question, because I can’t think of any.

    Thanks again to everyone who took the time to leave comments and/or questions. We’ll be available for more of the same on the Capitals Report weekly podcast at 2 pm tomorrow (Wednesday). I’m working on lining up Hershey Bears play-by-play guy John Walton to join us (Bears home opener is coming up on Saturday), and will let you all know if and when he is confirmed.

  29. Marco Says:

    Nice, Mike, a little perspective goes a long way.
    I have few problems with how things have gone so far. Its not so late that things can’t be corrected. 82 games is a lot different than 17. The redskins have more problems right now than the Caps ( :
    That said, I wish Ted would stop saying things like ‘the rebuild is over’. Its been mentioned before, and I agree, that its over when the team plays like it (consistently) and the record proves it. It reminded me of Bush on that aircraft carrier.
    Anyway, I think what you wrote was necessary and poignant. There are too many half-assed opinions around these parts, too many fans spouting on about having watched the team since 74 so GMGM should be drawn and quartered. I can only hope that, coming from you, a logical perspective is embraced. I’d hold my breath, but, well…

  30. Bob Says:

    More spin from marketing organization that happens to own a hockey team.

  31. Johnny Drum Says:

    Great,great article Mr Vogel!
    I really hope people take note.

    Before everyone jumps in the Potomac river,may i remind all that it is NOVEMBER!

    I recall the 2000/01 SEASON. We had won just 3 games from 18 matches, but turned the season round into a SE Division winning 41 wins!

    Now Im not saying were going to win the division,but lets have a bit of spirit here!
    We are supposed to be fans of the Caps afterall!

  32. […] the Rubber Meets the Road A few weeks back I wrote an entry about how some were overreacting to a couple of bad Washington losses, consecutive setbacks to the […]

  33. […] boards and among the regular listeners of our “Capitals Report” and “Pre-Cap” podcasts. I wrote a blog post that asked for some patience, some sanity and a willingness to let the sample size […]

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