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. Today, a discussion on whether a bad division really matters.
The Caps are currently in first place in the Southeast Division. Popular opinion says that the Southeast Division stinks (and so do the standings). So... do you care?
Becca: I care as much as I always care about what others think (which to say is probably too much) - but having lived through one of the team’s worst starts in my lifetime, I don’t. That the Southeast is, to put it mildly, not very good has been a blessing for the Caps and if that’s what gets them to the playoffs, so be it. I can’t imagine most of us even predicted playoffs for them just a month ago and now they’re in a great position to extend their season largely because of the division in which they play.
The fact is that if you’re going to have divisions, they have to matter, and that means winning said division makes you a top seed regardless of what teams you’re up against for the title. Unfair? Perhaps, but it’s hardly new - just last year the Bruins feasted on a fairly weak Northeast Division (with little uproar, mind you), going 19-4-1 against their own division while putting up just a 19-19-2 record against the rest of the East.
There’s simply no way to evenly disperse talent - or lack thereof - across the League, particularly considering how much teams can change, not just from year to year but within a single season. Occasionally you’ll have a weak division while others are freakishly strong; That’s just the way it goes, and if at the end of the day the team that makes it in as one of those seeds turns out not to be as good as the other playoff teams, they’ll be weeded out fairly quickly.
The Caps have done pretty much exactly what they’ve needed to do down the stretch, beating the teams in their division and picking up enough points outside it to lead the hunt for that three seed. Would I be more comfortable if they started beating some tougher teams? Sure. But they’ll get there, be it this year or next, and with such low expectations overall just being in the playoff discussion is enough for me this year... although that’s not to say I wouldn’t be on board with a stunning run to the Cup Finals. I’m only human.
Bottom line, the last thing I care about right now is how "strong" the Caps' schedule has been. They've still had to play other teams, and they haven't been embarrassed by any of them (at least in recent weeks), so the fact that they're doing what they should - beating less talented teams - really doesn't bother me. They didn’t choose their division, they didn’t choose their opponents and they certainly didn’t force Winnipeg and Carolina to nosedive out of first - they’re darn well going to take advantage of it while they can. And if that gets them back to the postseason, I’m happy.
Geoff: Sure, the Southeast Division sits ten points below the League’s next worst grouping (Northwest at 192 cumulative points) but the Capitals are still the cream of their crop. Playing the hand they were dealt during the NHL’s Division Realignment in the late 90’s Washington currently paces the Southeast at forty-two points, two ahead of second place Winnipeg. Unrelated to the division race the Capitals are still a playoff team in the Eastern Conference (tied for 8th at the moment, holding a tiebreaker over the Islanders).
Much has been written about the Southeast’s poor showing in the truncated 2013 season because of the Division’s lack of standings points, but several prideful points have been glossed over by the media (assumedly) to the North. With a goal differential of +6 Washington sits above the League’s break even point (+2) but still behind Tampa Bay, a club who has scored seven more goals than they have allowed. While some may say the Southeast Division has gotten fat on second-rate goaltending from the Cam Ward-less Hurricanes (injury) and the League worst Panthers (-36) it is actually the Western Conference’s Northwest Division with the weakest firepower-to-goaltending ratio (Minnesota +6, Edmonton -6, Colorado -32, and Calgary -34) against some equally subpar crease holders (MacDonald/Kiprusoff jump to mind) through this season. The Northwest has played feeble hockey amongst itself and the Western Conference, the Southeast’s teams executing at a higher rate than their neighbors North and West.
The Southeast Division also has the least amount of "Bettman Points" (points earned by OT or shootout loss), their fourteen charity concessions far below the League’s average of 22.5 (Atlantic-21, Northeast-25, Central-24, Northwest-24, Pacific-27). The individual team average of 4.5 Bettman Points (as of April 7th) would bump the Capitals up to 50.5 standings points and they would outpace the Northwest’s Vancouver Canucks by a full game (2.5 points). Would we be having this discussion if Washington were ahead of all five Northwest teams?, at this point they’re only two Ls turned OTLs from that being a reality. With seven games lost in regulation by a single goal a bounce here or there (twice) would make this Southleast argument null-and-void.
The Southeast Division has been home to the Washington Capitals since 1998 and they have put up impressive seasons (count one President’s Trophy) against their neighbors, the 2013 season hopefully ending on a high note come April 27th. Washington has finished last in the Division (hello Ovechkin) and won the Eastern Conference Finals (thanks Oates) as a member of the SE and if that’s not an accurate representation of the Division’s talent then I don’t know what is.
Rob: While I applaud Geoff’s efforts to defend the Southeast Division, I’m not going to go there. You can look at the standings, the play on the ice, or the fact that a team that started as poorly as the Caps did is somehow leading the division with ten games to go. It’s just not a good division. But, for now, so what? Divisions are always going to be unbalanced. Sometimes your team benefits, sometimes they don’t. There’s no point getting caught up in that argument. The team that wins their division gets home ice in the first round of the playoffs, and a top 3 seed. End of story. Caps are leading the division, and it appears to be theirs to lose at this point.
On the other hand, if you care about where the Caps are going, this should concern you. The seeding and home ice will look good, but if you want to take this team seriously, you need to see them do it against higher quality opponents. We haven’t seen that to date. There will be some chances to face some of the top teams in the east, and the Caps would do well to seize those opportunities... but even if they don’t, it doesn’t matter. Proving things in the regular season, especially to fans, bloggers, and pundits of all stripes, is irrelevant. The Caps, should they take care of their business, will get their chance to prove whether or not they can hang with the big boys over a seven-game series. When that time comes, as Caps fans have seen, the regular season means [nothing].
So, in sum, the Southeast division stinks, but who cares? The Caps are set to win the division title, and then everything will get settled on the ice. If jealous fans who think their team has a tougher road to the playoffs want to throw mud from the sidelines, let ‘em. If Caps fans want to get defensive, let ‘em. The way the Caps have played this season (including the schedule they’ve had) does not make me think they are ready to run for the Cup. I also know that my confidence in the team is literally irrelevant, so I’ll just enjoy the ride.
JP: I’m with Rob here. While hanging another Southeast Division Champs banner after this year, should it come to pass, would be a bit like a school proudly displaying a "Mississippi’s Best Public Educational Institution" sign out front, the fact of the matter is that this Caps team will have (and to this point has) overcome a dreadful start and steep learning curve under a rookie coach to be in the position they’re in right now. Granted, they didn’t have to scale the mountain most thought they would have to climb, as the mountain met them halfway, but the point remains that since that start, they’re on a pace that compares favorably in any number of metrics to some of the best teams in the League.
Of course, therein lies the rub - almost all of that has come against the Conference’s weaker teams, both within their Division and elsewhere (let’s not forget Buffalo). The fact is that the Caps haven’t won a single game in regulation against a team currently in a playoff spot yet this season, and have one overtime win against those clubs (Boston) and a pair of shootout wins against the 7th- and 8th-seeded New York teams. There’s something to be said for "taking care of business" and beating the teams that you should beat, but for most division leaders, that list is longer than it is for the Caps right now. It seems almost non-controversial to me that it’d be very hard to imagine the Caps being in as favorable a position today in any other division.
All of this isn’t to say the Caps are incapable of rising to the occasion against good teams - certainly they’re better equipped to do so now than they were in late January and into February, when they blew three third period leads with nothing to show for them (how much more comfortable would the Caps be feeling with another three-to-six points in the standings right about now?). It’s just to say that they haven’t yet. Tonight’s game is a big measuring stick - let’s see how they do.
Basically I care that the Southeast Division stinks because if it didn’t, the Caps wouldn’t be in a playoff race right now. Get in - especially with home ice against a six-seed in the first round - and maybe they can do a little damage. But I don’t much care what the critics, pundits and others have to say about the Division - I wouldn’t for a moment disagree about its top-to-bottom lack of quality or that the Caps are fortunate to be lumped in with them this year.
Kevin: No, I don’t care. When the window opened— yeah, that window, the Ovechkin, Green, Backstrom window— and the Caps made the playoffs in 2008, then returned with a stellar showing in 2009 when they fell in seven games to the eventual Stanley Cup winners, I developed a somewhat impatient outlook. This team will win a Cup. I wish we could fast forward through the regular season and just start the playoffs already. That philosophy is somewhat flawed, as evidenced by the Capitals tremendous regular season troubles during the past two years, but the underlying point remains intact and hardly needs defense: ones the playoffs begin, all that happened before them matter not. There’s a reason it’s called the "second season", after all. Indeed, one void of divisions.
Caps’ fans should be particularly aware of the minimal correlation between regular season and postseason success— the former is certainly heavier on the scale than the latter. Since the lockout they’ve gone further in the postseason as third and seventh seeds than they have during their two shots as a number one seed. I believe in the magic of the postseason: the unpredictability, the inexplicable hot streaks, the goalie who suddenly started taking brick wall pills, the one injury that totally reverses the contour of a series. There’s any number of ways to the Cup, many of which we couldn’t even fathom. I don’t think taking a path through a weak division particular diminishes this number.
I’ll add that the Caps have experienced a lot of change during the past two seasons, and after each change it’s taken them some time to really get things in order. Boudreau’s shift in philosophy, and then the installation of Hunter’s scheme both took about thirty games for things to really start to click. Well Oates’s Caps have been Oates’s Caps for 39 games now. In the 9 games since that 30 game marker, the team is 7-1-1, and they’ve sloughed away the two current playoff teams they’ve faced, albeit in shootout fashion. Their 107 points in 2010 didn’t mean a lick more than their 92 last year, and if they get in with 54 this year, I don’t think that’ll mean diddly either.
The season’s a marathon, not a sprint, and other such tired cliches. Here’s to hoping the Caps are the tortoise.