With the start of hockey’s regular season only a few days away, the Guardian Liberty Voice will be taking an in-depth look at the 30 organizations, one for each day. Today, 30 in 30 will look at the Washington Capitals. The Capitals have had a sharp, sudden decline in play over the past few years. At one time, they were one of the more threatening teams in the East, and seemed on the cusp of a deep playoff run. However, something changed in recent years, and it appears to be a team-wide issue. With a new coach and a new system, the Washington Capitals are ensuring that character is at the forefront of their organization from now on.
Last Season – There is a lot that went wrong for Washington last year. The team missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-2007 season, and it wasn’t a close miss either. Despite being only three points out of a playoff spot, they had only 28 wins in regulation or overtime (ROW), which was one of the worst totals in the Eastern Conference.
The reasons why the Washington Capitals missed are numerous. The first culprit was as obvious on the scoresheet as it was on the ice. The defense simply was not good enough. The team ranked near the bottom of the league in shots against, and a large reason for that was the rotating door of defenseman the Capitals iced last year. The team dressed 14 total defenseman over the course of the season, and only four of them – Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Mike Green and Dmitri Orlov – played in more than half the games. With that sort of constant turnover, it is no wonder the defense lacked a lot of chemistry that is paramount to a solid attack prevention.
To make matters worse, the goaltending wasn’t there to bail the defense out. The Washington Capitals appeared to have their net presence set going into last season, but a freak injury to Michael Neuvirth in November changed all that. With Neuvirth injured, the Capitals called up the 22-year-old Phillipp Grubauer, who posted a .925 save percentage in his time up. When Neuvirth returned to the lineup healthy, the organization decided to run with three goaltenders rather than send Grubauer back down. This did not sit well with Neuvirth, who requested a trade after it became apparent Grubauer was going to stay on the roster.
The request was met in March, when the team traded the goaltender to Buffalo for Jaroslav Halak. But the goaltending troubles for the Capitals did not stop there, after an innocuous comment before facing Halak’s former team left the goaltender and his agent unhappy with the coach and the organization.
The late season drama coincided with a severe drop in play from the Capitals’ captain, Alexander Ovechkin, who was rightfully criticized for his lackluster, and often effortless, play. Despite scoring over 50 goals for the fourth time in his career, Ovechkin also finished -35 in the +/- category, a reflection on his questionable defensive effort. For the first time in a long time, Ovechkin was not the solution to the Capitals many problems.
The Offseason – With that sobering thought in mind, Washington set out in the offseason to make the changes that could solve some of their problems. The first was an overhaul of their management. Adam Oates, whose coaching style was criticized often during his time behind the Washington bench, was fired, and general manager George McPhee did not have his expiring contract renewed. The organization promoted Brian MacLellan from assistant general manager to general manager, and hired Barry Trotz out of Nashville to be the new head coach. Trotz has always had a very no-nonsense approach to the game, and it is hoped that he will reestablish character as the forefront of the Washington Capitals organization.
To prevent, or at least stem, the leaky defense, the Capitals signed two defensemen in free agency. Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen both played last year in Pittsburgh, but in very different roles. Orpik was signed to a five-year, $27.5 million deal, a oddly high number for a player that has essentially been a bottom-pairing defenseman over the past few years. Niskanen was given a more reasonable number for his talent, signing a seven-year, $40.25 million deal. The good news for the Capitals is that these two signings should limit the numerous defensive call-ups the organization dealt with last year.
What to Watch for This Season – The storylines of this year are going to determine whether Washington returns to the playoffs or falls short once again. The first and foremost important issue to address is the new coach. Trotz is an experienced head coach, something the Capitals have not had in a long time. He knows what it takes to win, and he expects the very best of his players.
This showed in a recent preseason game, when Washington faced the Philadelphia Flyers in a shootout. Trotz had done his research, and Ovechkin’s 2-16 record in the shootout certainly did not fill him with a sense of optimism.
“I talked to Ovi and said, ‘If you’re going to go in there and deke, you’re not going to go in. Go in there and shoot. Use your asset,” said Trotz. “He said he would think about it, so I went for someone else.”
It worked out for the Capitals in the end, as they defeated Philadelphia 3-2, but the exchange signaled something more. This showed that the new Washington Capitals are Trotz’s team – not the players’, and not Ovechkin’s. This sense of personal responsibility will surely help the Capitals succeed, if it is bought into by all the players.
The special teams will be another aspect to watch in Washington next year. Washington’s powerplay has been one of the league’s best units for years, but that was largely due to the ridiculous amount of powerplay time Ovechkin has been receiving. In an effort to have Ovechkin more rested near the end of the year, Trotz announced recently that he is planning on cutting Ovechkin’s powerplay time per game by about half. An interesting move, considering Ovechkin had 23 powerplay goals last year, but it may turn Ovi into a more well-rounded player.
The penalty kill will also get a new outlook, after Adam Oates essentially prevented his players from blocking shots. Oates’ belief was that if a shot got off, its the goaltending’s responsibility to stop it. The defense’s job was to prevent a shot from getting off in the first place. This may not have been the best philosophy, given the Capitals’ shot against totals, but it is one that new assistant head coach Lane Lambert will look to change.
Character has appeared to become a major issue with the Washington Capitals in recent years. At some point, the players began to run the organization, rather than the coach or the general manager. With the moves made this offseason, Washington is hoping to change that. If the team can buy into the system that Trotz will attempt to implement this year, the Capitals will make the playoffs again with character at the forefront of their organization.
Join the Guardian Liberty Voice tomorrow, where 30 in 30 will take a look at the last team on the schedule, the Winnipeg Jets. Also check out yesterday’s team, the Vancouver Canucks.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner