Wednesday night the Caps took the ice for their 41st game of the season, a 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins that marked the halfway point of the season (and the 19th game of Dale Hunter’s tenure as bench boss). That win pushed the Caps back into playoff position with exactly half a season remaining in the 2011-12 campaign – and just about three months remaining until the playoffs.
With 41 games left on the slate and plenty of questions remaining about this team and their potential, we weigh in on how the season has gone so far… and what could lie ahead.
Question 1: Let’s start with the big one - is this Capitals team headed to the post-season, and, if so, can they do any damage once they get there?
Kareem: Yes, they are going to make the playoffs. They may even win the division if they get healthy enough. And there is always the possibility that they get hot at the right time and make a deep run, like Tampa did last year. But they are not a Stanley Cup contender. Even with a healthy Backstrom, they’re missing play-makers up front, evidenced by the failures of the second line to consistently produce. The defense is also a mess. The team’s push to have an overabundance of "puck-moving defensemen" hasn’t worked out as planned. The injury to Mike Green has really hurt the blue-line. Plus, the season-to-season regression of Jeff Schultz, Roman Hamrlik and, to a lesser extent, John Carlson, have really impaired the Caps ability to play well in their own zone and provide adequate defensive coverage. Long story short, the team’s personnel is a mess. It’s missing key players (a 2C and a top-pairing defenseman) and folks are not meeting expectations. And that’s why they’re underachieving.
J.P.: If they’re missing two incredibly important key pieces - a second-line center and a top-pairing defenseman (whether you’re talking about Mike Green or in further addition to him) - are they really underachieving that massively? If the personnel is a mess, perhaps they’re performing about as well as should reasonably be expected. Isn’t it one or the other - either they’ve got the right personnel to succeed and aren’t or they’ve got the wrong personnel and it’s easy to see why they aren’t having success?
KE: It’s not an either-or scenario: the Caps don’t have ideal personnel, and compounding that problem is the fact the the ones on the roster are underachieving. Even before Nicklas Backstrom went down, the team was playing very average hockey. The return of a healthy Mike Green won’t singlehandedly turn this team into a bona-fide contender. The Caps are missing key ingredients to a Stanley Cup contender, pieces that were missing last year and remain missing this year. Making matters worse are the 6-8 skaters (depending on who you ask) who have not brought their "A" games this season.
JP: To answer the question, I think it’s going to be awfully close on the playoffs. On the one hand, Dale Hunter’s system seems to be one that, when played properly, gives the Caps a chance to win every game. And yet it’s unproductive enough, offensively, that they’ve also got a chance to lose every game. When you’re playing for 2-1 wins every night, you’re essentially flipping coins and hoping they come up heads. Maybe they do more than half the time... and maybe they don’t. But they haven’t had many convincing enough performances under the new regime for me to think that they’ve got much more than a 50/50 shot on any given night, and that’s going to make it tough to make up a lot of ground in the standings. That said, their Division is weak (again) and if they can ever figure out how to play .500 hockey on the road, they should be OK. And once they get there... who knows?
Becca: I definitely see them making the playoffs, as well, but I disagree with Kareem in that I think the regression of Hamrlik is a bit overstated; he had a bad first quarter but has rebounded to become one of the team’s steadiest defensemen. I also don’t think we know what this team is capable of doing in the playoffs. We can project, sure, and agree that a 2C is probably needed before any significant movement in the postseason can happen, but when the defense is healthy (ha) and the team sticks to their system (ha ha) I could see them making some noise. The fact is that the hockey being played right now is nothing like what playoff hockey will look like, from any team, and we don’t know if another piece will be added, and we don’t know if, by then, the team will have adapted and adopted Hunter’s system the way it’s meant to be played.
Admittedly before the season I had them as at least Conference finalists and admittedly I might be less sure...but if we’ve learned nothing else from past playoff runs, even within this team’s own history, we know that all you have to do is get in and anything can happen.
Rob: They’ll make the playoffs but it won’t be with as much breathing room as we’ve gotten used to. From Montreal to Philadelphia to Tampa Bay we’ve seen that anything can happen in the playoffs, and the Caps certainly have a goalie that can get hot and change everything. But relying on a goalie getting hot is not an ideal position to be in so it’s tough to be too confident about the team’s chances right now.
Maybe the team will continue to adjust to Coach Hunter’s system and look like a more formidable team, but they’ve got a long way to go and haven’t looked like a team that can dominate puck possession for quite a while now. The defense could be better (and healthier) but this team has been a very successful team over the last few seasons with worse D than they have right now, regardless of personal under-performances. The forwards are the most troubling aspect, I believe. We’re not two years removed from a team that thought they could ice 3 scoring lines and now they’ve got to put all their eggs in one basket to create a single scoring line.
Question 2: How nervous are you that Dale Hunter might not be able to make the jump from OHL to NHL? What happens if he doesn’t find success?
RP: Hunter’s ability to make the jump has got to be a concern. The recent track record of coaches going from the CHL to the NHL isn’t exactly confidence inspiring so as much as Caps fans love Dale Hunter we have to be realistic about what he’s up against. He knows the game and has had a lot of experience and success as a player, but the game has changed a lot since the last time he was part of an NHL roster. He deserves the chance to implement his system and show what he can do, but it’s by no means a lock that he’s going to have the same kind of success in the NHL as he had in the OHL.
J.P.: I think that’s right. Simply put, this isn’t the OHL (where Hunter had some gangsta-stacked teams), just like this isn’t the AHL for Bruce Boudreau. Moreover, trying to implement a system based on what you want to do rather than what you have, resource-wise, can be dicey. It’s like putting the plane together while you’re starting down the runway (which is why coaching changes are made during the offseason whenever possible). There’s been a bit of square-peg-round-hole going on, so it’s going to be hard to judge the success of Hunter’s system... but it’s not going to be as hard to judge the short-term success of Hunter at motivating and focusing a team that’s been in need of both.
BH: I certainly have had my doubts about whether a junior hockey coach can jump into the NHL - and I’m not entirely sold yet, either. But I think what we have to remember is that as much as the team is adjusting to Hunter’s system, Hunter is still adjusting to the team. He’s been here for a little over a month now; by the end of January I think we’ll know a little more about how much he’s willing to mold the system that’s given him so much success to fit the team he’s got. And it may not take much - for all their struggles, he’s got this team playing harder than they were earlier this year (not that the bar was all that high, mind you) and when they execute his system to perfection they can be dominant.
Pepper: Hunter’s arrival also marks the second seismic shift in systems, or at least defensive emphasis, that this team has seen in less than a calendar year. A team whose foundational roster has been kept intact since Bruce Boudreau coached his first NHL game. I could see Ted facing a very difficult decision regarding George McPhee if and when Hunter can show that he can motivate and focus this bunch and get them to perform as best they can in a demanding system that can produce great things, but the consistent performance of which McPhee’s team isn’t capable. Exposing not lack of effort, but a poorly-constructed team that may have been overvalued by all the principals involved for several seasons.
RP: What happens if he doesn’t have success is troubling. You have a franchise legend, his number hanging in the rafters, who left a pretty cushy gig where he is essentially his own boss, to return for a chance at glory with his old team. I think it’s clear that Ted Leonsis will give Hunter a fair chance to show he can succeed; I doubt they’ve put any "win or you’re gone" requirements on Coach Hunter and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t coach the team in 2012-13. If the team wins it’ll obviously not be a problem, but if things don’t turn around and this continues to be a team that has mediocre possession numbers and has to fight just to make the playoffs, things could get ugly.
JP: Yeah, I don’t even want to think about what happens if things go sideways. Next question.
Question 3: What has been the most pleasant surprise of the season so far? The most unpleasant surprise?
RP: The easy answer for pleasant surprise is Jason Chimera. Many of us laughed when he said he thought he could be a 20 goal scorer and now he is at 14 halfway into the season. He should easily set career records for goals and points, I’m just glad it’s not a contract season. Having said that, Dmitri Orlov is my vote for the most pleasant surprise. His reputation was that of an offensive playmaker that had little idea how to play in his own end. He’s certainly had his bumps in the road, but he’s been much better than I anticipated and looks like he belongs in the NHL. Ideally he’d be getting the minutes of a 6D/PP specialist but with so many moving parts on the D corps right now it’s hard to see how Coach Hunter will be using him when the dust settles. At the very least Orlov is providing some depth in terms of puck moving defensemen, which is going to be crucial considering Mike Green looks like he’s going to lose this season to a groin injury.
The goaltending would be the easy answer for biggest disappointment, as the tandem we thought would be one of the best in the league hasn’t come close to living up to that billing, despite Vokoun’s play of late. I still think the goaltending will regress back to (at least) the mean, so it’s a bit less worrisome. My biggest disappointment is painful for me to say: John Carlson. After a stellar rookie year fans expected to see the Carlson/Alzner duo to pick up where they left off and keep dominating top opposition. Well that hasn’t been the case this year, and since the coaching change Carlson hasn’t even been playing the tough competition. Carlson still has time to turn it around, but defensive play isn’t the kind of thing that can change in an instant (like goaltending) so with each passing game I have less confidence that Carlson will regain his old form during the 2011-12 season.
BH: Goaltending has been troubling, but I think the slip of Carlson’s game – and to some extent Alzner’s as well - has been more troubling. This kid was easily one of the bright spots last year and to see him come into camp looking off (and continuing to struggle even as he’s been reunited with Hunter) is really disappointing. The hope is that his, and Alzner’s, failings to this point can be chalked up to youth, inexperience and a bit of the dreaded sophomore slump. I have to believe that guys who have been through a number of systems over the course of their careers find it easier to switch gears than young players with at most 2-3 years of pro experience.
As far as pleasant surprises, hard not to agree on Orlov. We joked a bit when he was called up about how he would be the savior, and while I think he’s a long way away from making that kind of an impact on a team he’s certainly been a breath of fresh air. He’s made rookie mistakes, and predictably so, but he recovers well and something about his presence out there is well beyond his years - he’s so calm with the puck, he’s not afraid to hit guys bigger than he is or carry the puck into the offensive zone on his own. Hard not to get excited about Orlov when he’s evolved into a full-fledged NHL defenseman.
David: I agree with you both on Orlov, but I might even take it a step further and say all of the Hershey (or formerly mostly Hershey guys) who have spent significant time with the team this year. Not that Perreault, Eakin, or Beagle have exactly set the world on fire, but I thought they have, generally speaking, handled themselves better than expected.
As for disappointments, I think it’s the goaltending, and while I think Vokoun will get himself sorted out (and seems to be doing that pretty well, if you look at the season splits), I’m starting to wonder what’s going to happen with Michal Neuvirth down the road. Maybe it’s a slump, maybe it’s something that can be corrected, and maybe he is getting a little unlucky....or maybe he’s Steve Mason.
Pepper: I’m most positively surprised by Dennis Wideman’s offensive production. I suppose we knew he had it in his toolbox, but hadn’t had a chance to witness it in Caps colors. Obviously Hunter’s arrival could not have come at a better time for him. For a negative, I’d have to say generally the team’s performance on the road.
JP: I’m going to go with Hamrlik’s turn-around as the pleasant surprise. Granted, it’s only really a surprise given how low he’d set the bar over the first ~20 games, but since then he’s been everything the Caps could have asked for and then some.
As to the disappointment, how can I be the first one to mention Alexander Semin? He’s made $3.35 million so far this year (notice I didn’t say "earned") and is having his worst season, statistically, since the lockout. His goals, points and shots per game are all at post-rookie lows, and he’s failed repeatedly to carry a second line that’s desperately needed him to do so. Maybe he’s not disappointing some folks because they’ve come to expect this from him, but I know what he’s capable of and believe he can produce a lot more than he has.
Oh, and honorable mention to the captain, who would’ve gotten my vote if you’d asked me three weeks ago.
Question 4: If you were GMGM and you had one do-over from the off-season, what would it be?
RP: It won’t be much of a shock to anyone, but I think GMGM should have changed coaches in the off-season. I understand that GMGM wanted to put the onus on the players and try to give Bruce Boudreau better personnel, but especially now in hind-sight the team should have gone in a different direction over the summer. For one, it would have allowed them to conduct a more complete coaching search instead of being limited to the unemployed and Dale Hunter. Even if they knew that Dale Hunter was the next in line (which I suspect is the case), there would be no downside by having a broader pool to choose from. Even more importantly, making the change over the summer allows the new coaching staff to come together, evaluate personnel, and begin to implement their system. That would have avoided the growing pains that came after the transition, growing pains that a team on the outside looking in can hardly afford. It’s admirable that the organization demonstrates such loyalty to its people, but this may be a case where they were loyal to a fault.
DMG: I don’t think there’s much debate that the decision to keep Boudreau at the helm was the one you’d most like to have back. After last season and, more importantly, last year’s postseason, the idea that Boudreau could be "the guy" seems a lot more steeped in wishful thinking than analysis. Rather than holding out hope it would turn out to be the right guy for this team right now, it would have made more sense to bring in a new guy and give him a while to get settled in with the team, bring in his own assistants as needed, and give the front office a better idea of what they were working towards during the offseason. I sort of feel like that’s a cop-out answer, because a coaching change opens to door to a ton of other changes that may have benefited the team, but I think if you’re looking for one decision, that’s the one that really stands out.
Pepper: That all makes sense but, as Rob suggests, I suspect that McPhee was 99% set to go with Hunter if and when that judgment day arrived in-season (and knew that Dale would not accept any other offer in the meantime). If so, in his view there may have been no downside to giving Boudreau another spin of the wheel, and spend the summer focused on his own team-building efforts: flying out to meet Mike Green and Nick Backstrom; getting the guys to focus their summer workouts; instilling more positive attitudes.
That said, I don’t think there’s any better "do-over" from last summer than addressing coaching personnel. McPhee had a great off-season considering players who were available and what the perceived needs were. Could he have orchestrated a blockbuster trade to dig up and replant the core of the roster? We’ll never know for sure if there was a serious trading partner for acquiring components of a Caps roster that was, and still is, chock full o’ question marks, health concerns and otherwise.
BH: I’m probably one of the few who thinks Boudreau should not have been fired in the summer (or at least one of the few who agrees with why he wasn’t at the time). Sure, in hindsight it’s very easy to say that such a drastic change in systems would require a full training camp to get everyone on the same page before the games began to count...but there’s that proverbial 20/20 aspect to hindsight, and at the time I don’t think the team had given up on Boudreau the way they appeared to do a few months later.
And I really believe McPhee when he says he thought the problem against Tampa was that there were simply too many injuries on the blue line - considering the way the Caps played in the first round, there wasn’t really much reason to believe they wouldn’t come out and at least give it their all if they could in the second round. Between that and the additions made over the offseason I think GMGM was comfortable giving Boudreau one more shot.
So what’s the do-over? I think perhaps it’s in what wasn’t done as opposed to what was - if the Caps were going to go out and spend to fill holes (holes that needed to be filled: grit, defensive depth, a Boyd Gordon replacement, etc) they should have at least taken a swing at the issue that always seems to plague this team, and that’s the lack of a second line center. We’re living out the scenario right now that’s been the fear of many a Caps fan in recent years: what does this team do without Backstrom in the lineup? Without 19 you’re bumping a kid who isn’t even a bona fide second-line center yet up to first-line duty, leaving the second and third lines potentially even weaker up the middle.
JP: If McPhee could take a mulligan, I’d think it’d be on Joel Ward. He’s already admitted that he overpaid by 15 percent or so, and Ward’s production has been nearly non-existent (as much as he may have been acquired for the playoffs, that doesn’t mean at thing if they don’t get there first). But more than any of that - because I do believe he can be a valuable contributor - Hunter doesn’t seem to be maximizing the return on investment for Ward, not using him on the penalty kill much at all and not leaning on him as a shutdown guy nearly as much as I’d expected. If this is how Ward’s going to be deployed going forward, that 15% overpay goes much, much higher.