Part of the problem with outsider sports analysis is that there’s no way for outsiders to be conclusively proved “right” or “wrong” in regards to a certain player or team. Last season, for instance, Boston was my pre-season pick to win the Stanley Cup, but it didn’t come without its caveats: I had also picked Tuukka Rask to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Can I consider myself “right” even when the result was fine, considering when I showed my work, I was completely wrong? Tim Thomas, not Rask, was the goalie who took Boston to the Finals in the playoffs after the two goalies more or less split regular season starts.
Then again, how can I also be “wrong”? Rask didn’t have a chance as a starter. There is a universe that exists in which Tuukka Rask played for the Bruins all through last season’s playoffs. Maybe he did win the Conn Smythe with a save percentage of .940 or higher. Maybe the Bruins did win the Cup.
I’m looking ahead to Game 7 of the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals series. A little over a month ago, the only way this series was a conceptual possibility was as a first-round matchup. The numbers were stacked against Washington ever since Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau. The measure I use for team quality, Fenwick Tied, a unblocked shot-differential rate, lists Washington at a 55.4% puck possession team under Bruce Boudreau and just 47.4% under Dale Hunter.
The record under Boudreau, 12-9-1, didn’t reflect their puck possession rate, which isn’t too crazy to believe after 20 games. Despite this, the Capitals were a team that was still right there in the mix, at a 93.2 points per 82 games rate. Since they fired Boudreau, their points per 82 game rate has dipped slightly to 91.6. It’s not a huge difference, but fair to note that Hunter has seen better short-term goaltending than Boudreau got.
Yet, should the Capitals pull one off tonight, they’ll have advanced further into the NHL season than they ever did with Bruce Boudreau. Even before Boudreau’s era—1998—have the Washington Capitals advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Like the Los Angeles Kings, Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver Canucks and St. Louis Blues, they’re one of those teams that has been around seemingly forever (they were around when I started watching hockey) and don’t have any Stanley Cup banners.
Simply being a good team isn’t enough. The Capitals, like all those other teams, need a “winner”. If this couldn’t be done by the Capitals advancing every season as the number one seed and an entertaining offensive force, Hunter’s way, relying on shot blocking, goaltending, and one-goal victories, if it resulted in a couple of series victories, is preferable.
This doesn’t make Boudreau’s system any worse. Whatever he does, he’s done it with the Ducks, and they were a much better team after they scooped him up from the NHL’s unemployment line (a 57-point pace to an 89-point pace). It just means it’s different. I’m sure if Washington pull off a win on the back of Braden Holtby, some commentators will point out that Dale Hunter’s system permit the Capitals to “just win” and it’s a system better suited for the NHL playoffs than Boudreau’s.
But really, with the team this year, we have no way of knowing. A good way to think about it: there are four chances for the best team to be eliminated, meaning the best team is statistically unlikely to win. Hard-working, gritty teams from the lower seeds can make it far, but they’re also less likely to win because they aren’t as good.
I’m sure Hunter has done some things to prepare the Capitals, to craft a game well suited for the style of some of their players. But we can’t conclusively say that it’s any better than Boudreau’s systems, no matter what happens tonight. Hunter’s former team, the London Knights, appear to be doing just fine without him: they won the OHL title Friday night in five games over the Niagara Ice Dogs.
For the record, the Capitals were my pre-season Stanley Cup pick. Just don’t ask me to show my work.