Earlier today, Cam Charron wrote about the listless Washington Capitals, and as usual, did a good job using numbers to demonstrate just what’s going on. I want to look at them from a systems angle, and my stance is pretty black and white:

Asking the Washington Capitals to play defense-first hockey is like asking Tim Wakefield to “maybe not rely on that knuckleball so much.” Maybe the trap-era Devils should’ve opened things up a bit? Hey Ray Allen, maybe don’t attempt so many threes, man.

It’s a rule most of us learned in high school: trying to be something you’re not doesn’t work. And with a team whose core is comprised of Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, “who they are” is a high-octane group that should be primed like sled-dogs, running, running, running. Keeping them leashed up seems backwards.

As @DobberHockey put it to @banginpanger and @japersrink on twitter today:

I’m worried that they made the wrong decision on what style of play to employ based on one hot goalie (Halak), and now they’re stubbornly sticking with it. The run-and-gun thing was working great, play to Ovi’s strength!

And isn’t that a terrific point? They major switch to a “focus on defense” type of team happened after a playoff failure in 2009-10, which can largely be traced back to one goaltender’s extended blackout where he played out of his mind. The Capitals scored three goals over the final three games of that series (all losses) - I don’t think a lack of team defense was the issue there. They only gave up eight over those games.

The response from the other two gents was equally logical:

From @japersrink

Well, it stopped working. But maybe a small tweak instead of a 180 could’ve worked. Impossible to say.

Yup.

From @banginpanger

That was my initial inclination too; but thought GMGMs moves picking up more suitable personnel would’ve fixed that; hasn’t

And he’s right – they did alter their team so they could play a different style of game, and in this humble blogger’s opinion, there’s the root of their problems. Teams had trouble slowing them down in the past – now it’s like they’ve done it for them.

Hindsight it 20/20, and we can all play armchair GM armchair coach (and we do, that’s what being a sports fan is), but can we find another, more likely explanation for this team’s struggles?

I don’t think so.

Those sled dogs wanna run, and right now, they’re being chained to the posts of their own d-zone.

Comments (6)

  1. The problem with a high-octane offense is that chances are, it will get choked out in the playoffs. All that has to happen is to run into one hot goaltender in one of the playoff series. And the chances of running into a hot goaltender in the playoffs is really high. All it takes is one goaltender to play well, and the caps lose. Planning on playing high scoring games isn’t going to work in the playoffs. It works fine in the regular season, but come crunch time, you need to play both offensively and defensively.

    Going all out on offense is bad, but sitting 5 men in the neutral and d-zone is just as bad. A balance has to be achieved, and Washington just doesn’t have a good balance.

  2. I think you’re completely right, Justin. Playing (successfully) a primarily defensive style of hockey means reducing the total number of goals scored in the game. Lower goal totals lead to narrow margins of victory and narrow margins of victory mean that luck plays a larger role in the outcomes. You want that if you’re a team low on talent but I think it’s the last thing you would want on a team with Ovechkin, Green, Backstrom, Semin, etc.

  3. Joe:

    All the Cup winners since the lockout have had high-octane offenses. In fact, you probably need to go back to the first Devils’ cup to find a team that didn’t have a top-10 offense during the regular season but won the championship.

    Even if you play stifling D, if you run into a hot goalie, you’re doomed.

    I think the Caps relied a bit too much off the rush. Teams decided to deny the Caps the rush at all (I mean, I’ve seen the Rangers get more odd-man rushes in a single game than the Caps have had at even strength this season in the games I’ve watched, about half). They’re not really able to generate off the cycle and don’t have that great two-way second-line center to help get the puck back and begin the breakout (Fedorov) that they had before.

    I like what Hunter has been preaching so far–tenacious backchecking to force turnovers, and then counterattacking, because that will generate chances off the rush, and I don’t think there’s a more dangerous team on a 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 than Washington. The less they get hemmed in their own zone and the more turnovers they can force in the neutral zone, the better.

  4. I agree with you Ralph. Teams do need to have a high powered offense. But if they can’t play defense, they’re not going to win the cup. There needs to be a bit of a balance, and the Caps haven’t had it. Boston won the cup last year while scoring the 8th most goals in the NHL, but allowing the 3rd fewest. Chicago won it 2 years ago scoring the 3rd most while letting in the 5th fewest. The year before, Pittsburgh was a little flukey and allowed a lot of goals during the year, but shut teams down in the Playoffs. When Detroit one it last, they scored the 3rd most, and allowed the fewest in the league.

    So, you need that high octane offense, but you can’t just ignore the defensive side of the game. It just won’t work. The caps need to go back to playing an offensively oriented game, but all 5 guys can’t concentrate on scoring 100% of the time.

  5. I don’t understand why being an offensively-focused team precludes you from being good defensively. There are three defensive situations, pretty much: defending off possession in your own zone (i.e. cycle) and defending in transition (i.e. rush), and PK.

    The first one should be almost completely unaffected by how much you focus on offense. With the dangerous, speedy forwards the Caps have, their focus on offense, if anything, should help their in-zone defense by taking away the defensemen. Defending off the rush I feel is much more reliant on smarts and work ethic, which the Caps have lacked since 08-09, I think, when they were a great two-way team in transition. In fact, they were 15th in 5v5 GA in 07-08 with below-replacement-level goaltending for 3/4 of the season, 11th in 08-09 when they had a ton of injuries at every position, and 5th in 09-10 when they managed to get solid goaltending. The issue with total GA, if any, has been PK…until this season.

    The problem with the total GA isn’t focusing on offense, it’s working hard and having guys who are smarter in their own end to break up the cycle and skill plays which so often hem in Ovechkin’s line and Semin’s line.

    So yes, they need to be better defensively. That doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of offense.

  6. If the halak of that series were to join the capitals.. all their problems would be solved haha

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