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Caps Questions: Are the Caps Improving?

With ten games down, a look at what - if any - improvement has been made by the Caps.

Greg Fiume

As much as we are one big, happy Rink family, the shocking fact is that we don't always agree on everything about the Caps - so throughout the season we'll present mini-roundtables, with each of us weighing in on a pressing question or issue facing the team, a player or the League as a whole. Next up, weighing in on how many steps forward (if any) this team has taken.

Are the Caps making progress?

Kareem: If you frame this question to ask if the Caps are making progress towards learning Adam Oates’ system, then yes, I think they are, even though it’s not showing up in the results. Lack of a full training camp and normal allotment of practices is hurting the Caps right now. But I still think there is progress being made. I liken this transformation to what my kid is going through on his basketball team. The first few games of the season they couldn’t break the full-court press or play good team defense, despite being equally or more talented than most of their opponents. It didn’t look like they would ever figure it out and they were getting run out of the gym a lot.

And then one game it all sunk in, they started winning games, and players started smiling again. Moral of the story: it takes a bit of time to learn new systems. Similarly, the Caps will eventually pick Oates’s system up and figure out how to be in the right place at the right time to force turnovers and generate offensive pressure. Once they do they’ll be a noticeably better team, and they may crack a smile every now and then. (Seriously, how can they not look better?)

Now if you ask me if the Caps are making progress towards the playoffs? Nope. No smiles here. That ship is leaving port.

JP: If this team is making progress, as Kareem suggests, it’s imperceptibly small and slow right now. After an ugly start to the season, games three through six looked better (the blown lead in Ottawa notwithstanding), but these last three have been a step backwards. After posting a shot differential of plus-six against both the Sabres and Senators (made a bit more impressive considering that the Caps held leads throughout large portions of those games), they were outshot 97-72 over the next three, and that includes something of a score-effect-aided rally in the third period on Sunday. A key save here, a lucky bounce there and the record might look better, but what underlies the topical numbers is a team that hasn’t been good in any facet of the game – even-strength or on either special teams unit – and shows few sustained signs of turning things around. But it’ll come.

And if you want a couple of points of reference here, Adam Oates’ Caps have five points through ten games. Dale Hunter’s team had ten (5-5-0). Bruce Boudreau’s had thirteen (6-3-1). Hell, Glen Hanlon’s lottery-bound 2003-04 Caps picked up eight points (3-5-2) after that coaching change was made. And not one of those teams had a goal-differential worse than minus-two; Oates’ Caps have been outscored by a baker’s dozen of goals already, and have four ugly losses in the last five games. If that’s progress, it says more about where they were than where they’re headed.

Becca: I do think this team is making progress - shocking that I'd be the optimist, I know. But it’s a misconception that progress is only being made if it’s linear and without bumps, that because the Caps may have had one or two bad outings or periods they’re not still improving. It’s not going to be like a switch being flipped, they’re not suddenly going to go from bad to good overnight; it takes time and occasionally things don’t fall perfectly into place. Is it happening at a slightly more leisurely pace than I’d prefer? Much more leisurely, especially with so many regulation losses... but I definitely see improvement.

Further to that point, I disagree that the last few games have been a step backwards. In fact, the only game out of the last six that was pretty bad from start to finish was the first loss to Toronto, and even that wasn’t the lopsided fiasco it could have been. They held their own for long stretches against a decent Pens team, almost beat a red-hot Ottawa team, dominated most of Tuesday’s loss to Toronto and put together good team wins against the Sabres and Flyers. In the process they haven’t looked anywhere near as lost or confused as they did early on; ever since the third period and overtime against New Jersey, they’ve looked more focused and more in sync with each other. They’re more disciplined. Their special teams have improved (slightly but they have gotten better). I still think there’s plenty of room for improvement, but the team we’ve seen over the last week is miles ahead of where they were to start the season.

Rob: If you focus very narrowly on the first two games of the season, then yeah, sure, they are making some progress. They aren’t a complete disaster and the PK is above 50%. In the big picture, I don’t think they’ve made any progress. This is a team that won a playoff series last year and was a good bounce (or shot) from going to the Eastern Conference Finals. I know, I know, new coach, new personnel, long layoff, yadda yadda. But lots of teams have that, and those teams aren’t all contending for dead last.

Becca is right that progress isn’t a straight line, and neither is regression (not the statistical kind). I’d argue that this Caps team has been regressing for a few years now, with punctuated moments that appeared to be progress. But the play on the ice has not been befitting of a team that has playoff aspirations, much less Stanley Cup aspirations, and this isn’t a team that most people describe as a "contender" anymore. Framing an argument is key to any debate, so unless you frame it as "are the Caps making progress under Adam Oates?" I don’t think you can answer "yes" to the question.