Just past the halfway point of the season, there are plenty of storylines one could point at to tell the tale of the 2013-14 Caps. With 49 games gone, the Caps find themselves teetering on the edge of playoff contention - in one day and out the next, as most of their Metropolitan Division rivals continue to improve on their sluggish starts. They have at times sported a dominant power play and a questionable defense; they've gotten impressive performances from some of their top guys and less-than-impressive ones from others. They've had good goaltending and bad goaltending... and three-headed goaltending.
And yet the biggest storyline of all - the one that drives most of the others - is the ongoing evolution of Adam Oates as a head coach.
We're almost exactly a year removed from the official start of Oates's tenure behind the Washington bench. Over the course of those 365+ days there have been a variety of successes and a fair number of failures, moves that seemed bizarre until they ended up being genius and moves that remain bizarre. When looking at the areas which fall under the coach's purview - his relationship and communication with his team, his ability to maximize his lineup and his game plan at both even strength and on special teams - the results so far this season have been mixed.
Any discussion of Adam Oates's work behind the Caps' bench so far has to begin with the captain and face of the franchise, Alex Ovechkin. In no other area has Oates's influence been so dramatically felt, his changes so crucial and the success rate so high. As was the case in his playing days, Oates understands what makes elite goal-scorers tick, and by moving Ovechkin to the right side - and instilling a level of mutual trust between coach and captain - he has helped bring about a return to form for a player some thought was washed up just a year ago:
|Total Under Oates||95||66||38||104||-13||70||38||28||0||474||13.9%|
|95 Games Before Oates||95||46||42||88||3||28||31||15||0||377||12.2%|
The turnaround has been something special to watch, too. Because not only is Ovechkin producing at a high level, notching his League-leading 35th goal of the season Sunday night, but he's also finding new ways to score those goals. Ovechkin's game now has a nice blend of consistent production and unpredictability, both of which have been lacking at times throughout his career - and both of which make him incredibly dangerous.
And while Ovechkin himself deserves plenty of credit for taking his game to another level and allowing himself to evolve, there's no question that this performance we're witnessing was coaxed out of him by Oates. It is, without question, the greatest achievement on Oates's coaching resume to date.
While the fact that Oates has brought about a new and improved Alex Ovechkin is great, his work with the rest of the team so far hasn't been as inspiring. In fact, at times it's been downright troubling. Oates came to town with a reputation as, and a desire to be, a great communicator and a players' coach - and yet he's had some unhappy campers in his locker room, three of whom have gone public with their unhappiness this year, and each of whose complaints can be traced back to how Oates is managing his lineup from night to night.
It started back in training camp with the most vocal of the bunch, Martin Erat. Because instead of trying Erat out with a variety of line combinations (and one in particular we think would have worked nicely), one of the first things he did was try and shift the winger to center - and when that didn't work, he was slotted in on the fourth line alongside the likes of rookie Tom Wilson and grinder Aaron Volpatti. It was only an injury to Ovechkin that even gave Erat a shot in the top-six, just a handful of games on the top line before being pushed back down the lineup and eventually to the pressbox as a healthy scratch.
Granted, all of the blame there doesn't lie on Oates's shoulders; Erat didn't take the opportunity and run with it as much as he could have, and spots are earned, not gifted (and the blame game doesn't stop with Oates and Erat on that one, either, as George McPhee deserves a turn or two). Still, he wasn't given nearly as long a leash as others were given - and yet did more with it than some of those players - before he found himself back in lineup purgatory. This while being one of the better even-strength point producers on a team sorely lacking in that department. The result? An unhappy player who is being regularly scratched in favor of guys like Aaron Volpatti, and a $4.5 million chunk of an already-tight budget going to waste.
Then there's the second of the trio, Dmitry Orlov, who has settled in nicely as the team's fourth defenseman alongside Mike Green - but only after being yanked back and forth between Hershey and DC for the better part of a month, and only after his agent made it clear that if his future wasn't with the Caps, he needed to move on. After seeing the way Orlov has acclimated himself to the team over the last month, and how he continues to evolve each game (with to-be-expected bumps along the way), it's hard not to wonder where this team might be right now if he'd been with it from Day One.
Rounding out the three is Michal Neuvirth, the biggest casualty of the three-headed goaltending monster the Caps were sporting until yesterday.
Despite starting the season as the team's backup, Neuvirth appeared in just two games after Thanksgiving, watching from the sidelines due to yet another injury (and a freak one at that) but eventually relegated to healthy scratch status as the team decided to keep Hershey call-up Philipp Grubauer around long-term. It wasn't a good situation for anyone involved, but Neuvirth - who was just re-signed last April - certainly drew the short stick on this one, and the fact that he remained on the sidelines for so long after returning to health is one of the more puzzling aspects of Oates's decision-making this season.
It's not that Grubauer wasn't good in his time with the Caps, because he certainly was - great at times, in fact. And there's no question that he gave the team a good chance to win on most nights (even if they didn't actually do so). But to put the goalies, and the team, through this extended state of confusion simply to win a few games came across as reactionary and short-sighted. It meant keeping Braden Holtby out of the net for long stretches of time. It meant none of the three goalies got a decent practice in.
And it meant that Neuvirth was now the third player to publicly request a trade, on a season just barely half over. That's three more than pretty much every other NHL team has had so far... and it's three too many.
Minimizing the Lines
The issues with the roster management go beyond just the players who aren't playing; the ones who are getting jerseys on a regular basis are often being put in situations that don't maximize their effectiveness.
One of the more glaring examples of this over the course of the season has been Oates's insistence on putting Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich on the same line - at least with the intention of using them as part of the team's top-six forwards. It's not surprising that both saw their production increase once they were broken up, or that it dipped back down again whenever they were reunited; in fact, there's considerable evidence that they are much worse together than apart:
|Brouwer and Laich Together||303:57||0.395||0.526||42.9||16.06||19.28||45.4|
|Laich Without Brouwer||138:16||0.868||1.157||42.9||20.25||18.95||51.7|
|Brouwer Without Laich||300:22||0.866||0.732||54.2||19.18||17.71||52|
It's not just noticeable to outside observers, either - the players are also well aware, as Brouwer himself noted back on January 7:
"Me and Brooksie have had some troubles at the beginning of the season with puck possession... not just turning pucks over but not being able to keep the puck when we have it."
Given the stats, and the overall performance, it's hard to fathom why Oates has continuously gone back to that well, especially when there are other options available that might work better (although to his credit, the latest attempt to put Brouwer and Laich on the same line lasted less than a full game... so there is hope). One possible explanation would be that they're kept together in an attempt to improve the penalty kill - Oates has said that he likes to keep forward pairs consistent across lines and the PK unit - but considering that the Caps' work shorthanded has struggled over the last few months regardless, at some point this line of thinking doesn't make sense.
The consistent return to a Brouwer-Laich duo is an ongoing problem, but it's just one aspect of a larger issue, which is that the lines are in constant flux these days. Breaking up Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, rotating centers on the third line, putting a clearly non-fourth line guy like Erat on the fourth line, shifting the lines around and giving the changes just a few games (or less) to stick... all of these moves smack of a coach who is over-thinking things, and perhaps making changes to give the impression that something is being done when things are going wrong. He's not the first coach to try it, and lines do need to be shaken up from time to time - but the changes these days are too frequent, and often have not been as effective as they could be.
And yet as things change throughout the lineup, some things have stayed the same that perhaps shouldn't.Take, for example, the way Tom Wilson has been handled so far this season. Oates said recently that the team's usage of Wilson is similar to the way the Bruins dealt with Joe Thornton in his rookie season; while that's one logical explanation for the limited minutes, it also raises some issues.
For one thing, Thornton and Wilson aren't the same type of player, and while Thornton's development may have been aided by that first limited season, with Wilson it seems to be having an adverse effect. Wilson is a big kid with a lot of energy and an ability to play an extremely physical game; those are good characteristics to have in general, but in limited time one almost gets the sense that he feels he needs to make a huge impact on every shift... and that means a few questionable hits and more than a few fights pepper his resume, but not much else.
Perhaps more importantly is the impact it has on the team. When Thornton started his NHL career it was a different League, a different time where teams were working without the constraints of a salary cap. With Wilson, the Caps are keeping not only a young player on the roster but an expensive one (a fact which at least partly contributed to the shipping of Mathieu Perreault to Anaheim back in the fall). That's a pretty hefty price to pay on a team that is already tight to the cap, especially if the player in question is not only not getting much ice time but isn't being given opportunities to grow beyond that.
Whether it will pay off in the long run is obviously unknown, and Oates (and George McPhee) likely have forgotten more about player development than most of us will ever know - but without seeing anything else from Wilson, it's hard not to question the way he's been handled so far.
Oates's tinkering (or lack thereof) isn't limited to just the forwards. The blue line, which was clearly a weak point on this team before the season even started, has been made even weaker by relying on players not suited to the task - whether it's John Erskine's ongoing struggles or the rotating fill-in players from Tyson Strachan to Alexander Urbom to Patrick Wey. Meanwhile Dmitry Orlov's arrival is delayed two months, and arguably one of the better and more surprising defensive contributors, Nate Schmidt, sits in Hershey.
Maximizing the Lines
For all the questionable lineup choices Oates has made this season, of course, there have also been some that have not only made sense but paid off in spades. And outside of Ovechkin, the players who have perhaps benefitted the most from Oates have been Mikhail Grabovski, freed from the Randy Carlyle shackles that held him in Toronto, and Marcus Johansson, who continues to evolve quite nicely under Oates's watch.
While others have been used in somewhat questionable fashion at times, both Grabovski and Johansson have been given assignments that have highlighted their skills and have flourished this season. Johansson has seen his assists- and points-per-game increase under Oates, but more importantly he's becoming a more dangerous all-around player who is more than just a passenger alongside two all-world talents. He's added an edge to his game, a more physical aspect along the boards and a net presence that is unexpected but impressive and welcome. Meanwhile Grabovski has already more than doubled his goal-, assist- and point-production from last season and is on pace to at least match his career-best numbers from four years ago, a product of getting better assignments (and maybe a bit of a desire to prove himself after being bought out).
Grabovski's success in DC so far was, somewhat surprisingly, jump-started by his addition to the third line between Jason Chimera and Joel Ward - something which has become a common theme this year, because just as Laich and Brouwer's combined forces have been enough to render any center ineffective, throwing players in between Chimera and Ward seems to have the complete opposite effect. The duo provided a very good starting place for Grabovski when he was adjusting to the team (and during their run that third line was one of the most productive lines in the League). They turned Martin Erat into an assist-producing machine. And the addition of Marcus Johansson gave the team a consistently strong third line when some of their other lines had been anything but consistent or strong.
Putting Chimera and Ward together on the same line isn't too much of a gamble; what was slightly risky was joining Mike Green with Dmitry Orlov a month ago, and its a move which, until recently, had paid off remarkably well. One could make the argument that the Caps' limited options for that fourth defenseman, but the fact remains that putting Orlov with Green went against the conventional wisdom of defense pairings (the idea that you should always balance out an offensive-minded blueliner with a more "stay-at-home" variety) and yet was a bright spot for the team.
When Oates took over the Caps, one of the first things he (along with now-assistant coach Blaine Forsythe) did was to help revitalize a once-dominant power play that had since gone cold. And even with some recent hiccups, the extra-man unit has continued to be among the League's best this season, operating at a healthy 24.1% through Sunday's game. Backstrom and Ovechkin have not only combined for more points with the extra man than any other two teammates in the League (their 51 points besting the next-highest duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin's 42) but hold the top two spots in power-play points respectively. A lot of that comes from Ovechkin's League-leading 13 power-play goals... which is more goals than 720 players have scored in any situation this year.
On the flip side, however, is a penalty-killing unit that started out strong - thanks in large part to some impressive goaltending performances early on - but has struggled over the last month or two and dropped to 19th overall at just over 80% effectiveness. Furthermore, only four teams have given up more power-play goals overall than the Caps (and Tampa is tied). For a team prone to mental mistakes and questionable work in their own end (and for one of the League's most penalized teams), this is one area in which they can't afford to be giving up goals in bunches.
If the team's work on special teams has been something of a mixed bag, their even-strength performance has been even more so. For all the talk about the Caps' impressive power play - and it has been impressive, no doubt - the fact is that they continue to be too reliant on it to drive their offense. The team is just about middle-of-the-pack when it comes to goals-per-game with 2.74, but 31% of those goals have been scored five-on-four, which leads the League:
|Team||GP||5 on 5||5 on 4||5 on 3||4 on 3||PPG||Total||% of Total|
Top ten NHL teams by % of goals on the power play
Aside from the high rate of production with the extra man, the Caps' possession numbers at even strength are, as a whole, not that inspiring. To date they're clicking at 48.4% at even strength, 48.6% five-on-five, 48.2% five-on-five in close situations, and 47.2% when tied. All of those numbers are in the bottom-third of the League, and taken over the course of the season are pretty fair indicators of what this team is without the power play. They're also pretty fair indicators that not much has changed despite the team having gone through three different coaches in the last three seasons:
|GF% Close||CF% Close||FF% Close||SF% Close|
|2013-14 Season (Oates)||45.5||48.9||48.2||47.2|
|2012-13 Season (Oates)||50.0||47.9||47.6||46.1|
(Hunter / Boudreau)
There is some positive news on this front; over the last eleven games the Caps seem to have flipped a switch when it comes to possession, ending up on the right side of 50% in close FF% in nine of their last eleven, and two of those eleven games falling well over 65% (with one of the two games below that 50% line ending up in the win column). That's still a pretty small sample, but a somewhat encouraging one.
...that's the good news. The bad news? That stretch of improved hockey overall has not translated to points in the standings - in fact, of those eleven games, only two have been wins (although four more were of the overtime/shootout-loss variety).
And while that may seem a bit strange, the reason behind it is fairly simple: mistakes are killing this team.
There's no one stat that can encompass a team's focus level or bounceback quotient or whatever it is, but we've seen it time and time again. The inability to hold leads in general. The goals given up within two minutes of scoring, 21 so far (and counting), including the nail in the coffin against the Rangers on Sunday. The mental mistakes, the miscues, the bad penalties... it all adds up to a lack of focus and attention to detail by a team that should be much better than it is. Throw in a power play that's gone cold and a penalty kill that's gone off the rails, and even the best even-strength performances aren't going to get the wins.
For all the good that's been done, particularly over the past few weeks, for all the strong performances from Ovechkin to Chimera and Ward to Carlson and even the goalies, it all gets wasted if the team can't find a way to overcome the mental roadblocks that pop up over and over - and that comes back to the man behind the bench.
One could say that the Caps are a work in progress - but "progress" implies that some sort of forward momentum exists, and in a lot of areas that's simply not the case. A model of stagnation, perhaps. A team perpetually getting in their own way, over-thinking things that don't need to be over-thought and then seemingly missing the obvious needs.
Granted, it's very easy for fans to look at the team from an outsider's perspective and presume to know the reasons behind a coach's decisions. It's even easier for fans to assume they could do better. And the fact is that none of us knows what happens behind closed doors, what reasoning goes into each move and what Oates's relationship is with each of his players, let alone how much blame for the team's faults ultimately falls on the head coach and how much should go on his assistants, the players or George McPhee.
What we can see are the results - and so far the results haven't been great. 49 games down and the Caps are firmly ensconced in mediocrity, barely staying in the Metropolitan Division race (and the playoff race) in large part because the rest of the Division's teams (and the Eastern teams as a whole) are equally mediocre. But it's not enough to merely keep up with other teams at this point. Not as the window starts to close on the Caps' highly-paid and rapidly-aging talent, and as the fanbase becomes increasingly disillusioned with a team that once held such promise.
Adam Oates was brought in to return that hope, that promise, to a team that had gone off track. As his first full season continues, that hasn't been the case. And with just 32 games left, time is running out on the 2013-14 Caps - and their coach - to find their way again.