Where 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 Rangers and Sabres on Oct. 12 and 13, respectively. Now that the Caps have lost eight of their last 10, you’re probably moving aside to make room for me on the ledge. I sincerely appreciate the altruism, and I’m not saying I won’t join you out there eventually. But not just yet, thanks.
I’m still not convinced the Capitals are a bad hockey team. (My mama always said and still says I’m stubborn.) Let’s examine some of the evidence. They’re 5-8. That’s not good. At that pace, they’re not even going to reach the 70 points they finished with in each of the last two seasons. One of my mates in the media uttered this after Friday’s loss: “Playoff teams don’t lose eight of 10 games.” Sounds like a wise old saying, except it’s not true. Hell, at least one Stanley Cup champion that I’m aware of lost 10 straight regular season games. Made the playoffs, won the Cup.
Going into Monday night’s game at Carolina, the Caps are tied for worst record in the NHL. The basement. Ten points. But look a little closer. Every team has played at least 11 games, and a few have played as many as 15. Twenty-eight of the 30 teams in the NHL have between five and eight wins. Ottawa (with 12) and Detroit (with 11) are the outliers. The Caps and the Thrashers — tied for the bottom spot in the Eastern Conference — are both three points out of the final playoff spot with 69 games (or, in Atlanta’s case only 68) games to play.
Clearly, all hope is lost, eh?
If not in the Eastern Conference, then certainly in the West, where both Phoenix and Edmonton are four points out of the last playoff berth with only five months left in the season. It could be that next April the Caps and Atlanta will be the worst two teams in the East, and the Coyotes and the Oilers will be the worst two in the West.
I’m betting against it.
In what way(s) are the Capitals a bad hockey team?
Goaltending? Olie Kolzig is 37 years old. He also has a 2.36 goals against average and a .920 save pct. The last time he had a lower GAA, he won the Vezina. The last time he had a save pct. of .920 or better the Caps went to the Stanley Cup finals. Has he let in a soft goal here and there? He’d be the first to tell you he has. Kolzig has also allowed three or fewer goals in eight of his nine starts. With all the offensive weapons Washington has, his performance should have translated into more than four wins by now.
Brent Johnson’s numbers this season are roughly the same as those he’s compiled in his first two seasons in Washington. They’re also tainted by that night in Buffalo when he was hung out to dry by his teammates. Historically, he’s a better goaltender when he doesn’t see the 34.3 shots a game he’s seen since coming to the District. Johnson faced an average of 23.8 shots per night before he arrived in Washington. His numbers took a rather unfair beating in the second half of the Buffalo game, and he has played reasonably well otherwise.
Goaltending isn’t why the Caps are the worst team in the NHL.
Defense? We all worried about it coming into the season. The Capitals surrendered 300 goals in 2005-06, the second highest total in the league. They pared that total only to 275 last season, and it was still the fifth highest mark in the NHL. Washington has allowed 35 goals in its 13 games this season, the 13th best total in the league. Over a full season, that pace would lead to 221 goals against. The last time the Caps surrendered fewer was in 2002-03, when they allowed 220 and made the playoffs. Last season, every NHL team that allowed 241 or fewer goals against made the playoffs.
This year’s Caps have held the opposition to three or fewer goals in 10 of the team’s first 13 games. Two seasons ago, the Caps held their opponent to three or fewer goals for the 10th time in the season’s 23rd game. Last season, they did so in the 17th game. With veteran free agent acquisition Tom Poti on the sidelines because of a groin injury for each of the Caps’ last five games, Washington has still managed to limit its foes to three or fewer goals in four of those games. Poti is the Caps’ most experienced defenseman, and he leads the team in average ice time per game. With him on the sidelines, Brian Pothier (267 NHL games) becomes Washington’s defensive elder statesman.
It’s not the defense.
Special teams? They could be better for sure, but they’re already better than the last two seasons. The Caps finished 26th in 2005-06 and 24th last season in the league’s power play rankings. Washington’s power play is 19th in the league thus far this season, and is clicking at roughly the same rate as it did last season. And that’s without any goals from the injured trio of Alexander Semin, Chris Clark and Poti. Those three combined for 32 power play goals in 2006-07.
The penalty killing outfit also stands 19th on the NHL’s ledger. The Caps were 28th in that department in 2005-06 and they were 23rd last season. Both special teams have been a shade better of late, and I figure them both for middle-of-the-pack (at worst) status by season’s end.
Coaching? I’m sure I can produce at least one person who will swear the Caps would be 13-0 if only Michael Nylander and Alex Ovechkin had been playing together since the start of the season. But there’s no objective way to quantify the contributions of the coaching staff, and I can’t say with any degree of certainty that the coaches are responsible for Washington’s 5-8 start.
Offense? I think we’ve got something here. The Caps have scored more than two goals just twice in 13 games. Dating back to last season, they’ve done so only twice in 22 games. When Washington opened its wallet over the offseason, it spent on offensive players Nylander, Poti and Viktor Kozlov. It also added Nicklas Backstrom, another offensively gifted player. So where’s the offense? (More on that in the next post.)
Another goal here, another goal there, and maybe Washington is 7-6. Or 8-5. Or 7-5-1. You get the idea. To me, the Capitals have played well enough to win in four of their eight losses. That’s of little to no consolation to anyone right now, but I think it’s useful when you’re trying to decide whether to throw the baby out with the bath water here. This is not a bad hockey team.
Here’s a little something for you to chew on. The Caps have scored 33 goals and have allowed 35. They’re 5-8. The New York Islanders have scored 33 goals and have allowed 35. They’re 7-4.
New Jersey has scored fewer goals and allowed more than Washington, but the Devils are two points ahead of Washington in the standings by virtue of a couple extra-time losses (5-6-2). Boston has scored two fewer and allowed two fewer, and the Bruins are at 7-5-1. Minnesota has scored three more and allowed five fewer. The Wild is 8-4-2. San Jose has scored one more goal than Washington, and has allowed one fewer. The Sharks are 7-6-1.
Glen Hanlon is quoted in the papers today as saying the upcoming three-game road trip is “huge.” I’d agree. At some point, you’ve got to start winning the games you’re playing well enough to win. The only style points the NHL awards are for shootouts, and the Caps have exactly one style point in the last season-plus. We all understand this is a young team, but at some point (and some point soon) they’ve got to start winning and winning frequently. And winning consecutively, because that’s what good teams do. It’s what playoff teams do.
Some of the Caps themselves said we’d know more about what kind of team this is after 20 games. To me, that’s a fair measuring point. Looking at the Caps right now and advocating complete upheaval would be tantamount to an NFL team blowing everything up after a 1-2 start. (A little) more patience is required, and six or seven games worth of patience is not likely to bury the team. They’re in last place, sure. Three points out of a playoff spot.
Now they play three straight and five of the next six on the road. By the time that stretch is over, they’ll be 19 games in, with 12 of those having been played on the road. We’ll have a better idea then, especially if some of the wounded are able to return in the interim.
I’m not saying I won’t be on the ledge eventually. I am reserving the right to be wrong about these guys for just a little bit longer.