"A lot of these games, we've escaped. We haven't played our best hockey. I think what we have to worry about is more the process - how we're winning games. Don't think about the result, think about the process. If we go about that the right way, we'll come out on top most nights" - Brendan Morrison, after the Capitals 4-3 overtime loss to the Islanders on Friday night.
It goes without saying that winning is the end game in professional sports and that, accordingly, wins will get you an awful lot of leeway when it comes to performance analysis. That's why every critique of the Capitals this season has included a caveat acknowledging their record (8-2-4 at the moment), and why Bruce Boudreau is ready to point out the team's point total when he takes questions from the media. It'd be easy to sit back, look at the Capitals wins column, and conclude this team's style of play, though fraught with issues about consistency, discipline, and effort, is good enough to make them a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. That may very well be the case - but I wouldn't bet on it.
Why? Well, for one thing the game the Capitals are playing right now - only ratcheting up their game against top tier opponents - is a dangerous one. A team can't perform at it's highest level if it doesn't keep its focus and intensity level up day in and day out, just as an individual player can't perform at his best without practice. No matter how many times the Caps have a strong showing after coming out flat against a weaker opponent (or a series of weaker opponents, as the case may be), it's hard to believe they're capable of "turning it on" at will because, as skilled at the team is, the timing, concentration, and understanding it takes to win in a league like the NHL, where margin for error is minimal.
Say, for the sake of argument, that the Capitals are capable of taking the ice and playing their best hockey at will, consistent efforts or no - should we then be satisfied with the team's progress, confident that they'll be a force to be reckoned with in the postseason even if we're frustrated by their performances in the meantime? The answer, pretty clearly I think, is 'no' because this team, right now, hasn't proven that they're good enough to win the Stanley Cup. Constant improvement in all facets of the game, more so than picking up wins, should be the team's focus at this point.
Making the changes the Capitals need may hurt the team in the short term, but fortunately for the Capitals they're in a position where a temporary drop off in performance isn't going to hurt them too much because they're not in danger of missing the postseason. The Alexander Ovechkins, Mike Greens, and Nicklas Backstroms of the world can come to training camp and work on ironing out the smaller flaws in their game - say, a hitch in their stride, or an imperfection in their wrist shot technique - because they know they're going to make the team. An unimpressive preseason won't do them on. On the other hand the Chris Bourques and Quintin Laings of the world have to come to camp and try to get the job done with their existing skill sets, imperfections and all, because a bad camp means they're no longer in the picture. By the same token a team like the Capitals can afford to spare a few points to refine its game, a luxury few NHL teams have.
For the time being Bruce Boudreau and his coaching staff should deflect attention away from the final score and on to specific areas of the team's play that need work and hold players accountable. Put the emphasis on cycling the puck in the offensive zone, dumping and chasing effectively enough to wear out opponents, tightening the penalty kill box, and making smart decisions with the puck. Cut ice time from a defenseman who makes a bad pass through his own slot, a winger who doesn't backcheck, and anyone who shows a lack of effort. The team's play is going to be different by necessity while they wait for the best player in the world to recover from injury, so why not use the time to enact on-ice changes - to try to win games the way "normal" teams have to win games? Break the bad habits now, in November, when the games don't mean all that much, rather than waiting for April and May and hoping the problems fix themselves. The team at this point doesn't require a complete overhaul, just some well-timed, well-placed tweaking, but it still needs some work.
In that sense what the Capitals need is a renovation and, as is the case with a renovation, it's not going to be easy or seamless. Difficult changes will have to be made, someone's feelings will get hurt, you may have to part with something you love, your neighbors will question your decisions, and, truth be told, there's a very good chance it'll like like crap in the meantime. But if you go in knowing what areas to improve and how to do it, you're going to be better off in the end.
Most importantly, though, Boudreau and George McPhee need to remember what happens when you wait too long and renovation is no longer an option: you're forced to rebuild.