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Experience, Leadership and Whether It's Going to Matter

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Eleven games into the season, the Caps are close to putting it all together and being a very good hockey team... or are they?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

"I don't know if it's staying with the game plan or whatever, but you're in a battle... You can't just say, ‘Okay I'm going to stop battling.' We had a good first period or whatever. The other team's coming out. Sometimes I get the feeling we want to play as hard as we just need to. That's not how I operate. That's not how you win in this league."

Barry Trotz, November 2, 2014

The Washington Capitals spent much of the offseason talking about changing the culture of the organization. They brought in a new general manager in Brian MacLellan and a new, more experienced head coach in Barry Trotz. They spent (some might say over-spent) big money to bring in the gritty leadership of Brooks Orpik. They formed leadership committeesroped-off the Weagle in the locker room, and did a team-building exercise in Annapolis.

They may be about to find out if any of their efforts worked.

After last night's loss to the Arizona Coyotes, the Capitals are mired in a four-game streak of regulation losses, mirroring, to an extent, the first five games of the season in which they earned at least a point each time out. Over the last six, however, they've managed only two points with a regulation victory over the Calgary Flames, a team that is projected to challenge for a lottery pick.

Following a strong start to the season, the Caps are now on pace for 75 points. Failing to match last year's 90 points - garnered under the clearly incompetent Adam Oates regime - would be an almost incomprehensible failure given the offseason changes to the front office and the spending spree on defensemen, the sort of result that could usher in wholesale changes to the roster.

But despite their disappointing number of points in the standings, the Caps have generally been playing terrific hockey. According to War-on-Ice.com, they are presently 4th overall in the League in Even Strength 5v5 Fenwick Close at a tick under 54.5% (thanks to a significantly reduced shot-volume against). This means that, at even strength with the score close, 54.5% of all shot attempts are directed at their opponents' net, while only 45.5% are headed toward the goal tended by Braden Holtby and Justin Peters. They haven't just been doing this against weak opponents, either; they handily out-shot the Lightning Saturday night, and Tampa Bay sits seventh overall in Fenwick Close. Tilting the ice in this way correlates strongly with regular-season and playoff success - last year the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks went 1-2 overall, while the Rangers were 6th.

Even for those skeptical about the value of advanced statistics, the Caps look good by the eye test. For the most part, their breakouts are crisp - they exit the zone quickly with puck control rather than chipping the puck off the glass to neutral ice as they did so often under Oates. They occasionally have some turnovers and fumbled exits, but so do most teams; it's always worth remembering that the Caps working against opponents that are doing their best to stop them.

The Caps move through the neutral zone with speed and do a pretty good job of gaining the offensive zone with possession. Once set up in the offensive zone, they've developed a strong cycle game that incorporates the points with low-to-high puck movement. This means that there are far fewer "one-and-done" shifts this year - the Caps are getting many long offensive-zone shifts that tire out opposing defensemen.

The biggest question facing the team this year according to most media pundits was, "how would Alex Ovechkin mesh with the more demanding coaching style of Barry Trotz?" The answer thus far seems to be, "like hops mesh with malted barley." He's hustling back on defense and actually picking up his man. He's moving his feet without the puck and he's hitting guys and causing turnovers. He's standing up for his teammates and blocking shots and doing just about everything a team could expect from their captain. With the exception of his recent short scoring drought (towards the end of which he was clearly showing some signs of frustration, pressing a bit and reverting to some old bad habits), this is some of the best all-around hockey we've ever seen from Ovi... no matter what you may have heard.

And yet here we are eleven games into the season and the Caps have as many points as they did at this time last year.

Why? How?

There are three reasons why the Caps have garnered only two points in their last five games despite all of the positive signs enumerated above: defensive-zone coverage and turnovers, unsustainably bad goaltending, and poor puck-luck. We'll deal with them in turn.

The Caps' defensive-zone coverage has been spotty, particularly on plays down low. Ondrej Palat's goal to make it 2-2 Saturday night was a great example (and a "Moment That Mattered," which Rob dissected yesterday). Evgeny Kuznetsov and Karl Alzner both initially went after Tyler Johnson as he curled into the corner, then Alzner switched to take Nikita Kucherov, but the hesitation left him with time and space to find Palat coming in as a trailer. Matt Niskanen and Joel Ward were watching Kucherov behind the net and failed to pick up Palat. Eventually, those sorts of plays should get ironed out as players become more familiar with each other and the Trotz-Reirden system. But for now, the turnovers and poor coverage are far too frequent occurences. As Rob noted:

If this were an isolated incident then the Caps would have a few more points on the season. But it's not an isolated incident. This could have been the goal Justin Schultz scored in Edmonton (getting Ward demoted in the process). This could have been the goal Gustav Nyquist scored. Or the goal Justin Abdelkader scored. Or the other goal Justin Abdelkader scored. Or the goal Ryan Callahan scored. Or the goal Kucherov scored.

And that list doesn't even include last night's meltdown.

While the Caps' breakouts are generally light-years better than they were under Oates, there are still some kinks to be worked out. Oates' breakout scheme was atrocious because it was so safe and predictable - everything was up the boards or off the glass. Under Trotz, there's a lot more movement to the center of the ice. While this is generally good, it also means that when turnovers happen, they can happen in a high-scoring area, much like this (GFY via reddit):

The Caps are incorporating two new defensemen into their top-four and breaking in a new, rookie second-line center, all while learning a new defensive system. These sorts of mistakes are going to happen, but hopefully we don't see much of this once the calendar turns to 2015.

The second reason the Caps' results don't reflect their generally strong play is between the pipes. Braden Holtby has made some outstanding saves (see above), but his overall play has been well below the standard he's set so far in his career, as this five-on-five chart from War-on-Ice shows:

Holtby Sv%

Holtby is better than this. His play will rebound and, if the Caps keep out-shooting their opponents, they'll win a lot of games this season. But, to date, the goaltending simply hasn't been good enough, and that certainly includes Justin Peters' effort Sunday night.

The final reason the Caps are struggling of late is puck-luck, and Saturday night's game demonstrated this perfectly. Callahan's opening goal came after no fewer than four random puck bounces ended up on the sticks of Lightning players. Brian Boyle surely deserves credit for his perseverance, and Callahan was in the right place at the right time and made a great deflection, but if any one of those bounces goes just a few inches in the other direction, the Caps clear the puck.

By contrast, at 12:36 of the first period, Andre Burakovsky set up Mike Green with a perfect pass in the low slot after an outstanding low cycle. Green had Ben Bishop beat cleanly, but put his shot off the crossbar.

One team turned a bunch of random bounces into a goal, while the other team demonstrated outstanding skill and got nothing to show for it but a shot-attempt and a black mark on the pipe. Over the span of the current six-game skid, no team in the League has a lower five-on-five PDO (which ostensibly measures "puck luck") than the Caps, whose .944 marks is largely driven by a woefully low .877 save percentage.

That, as they say, is hockey. It can be a strange, infuriating, and fascinating sport. Over the course of an infinite number of games, results would reflect the underlying skill, effort level, and coaching quality of a given team. In smaller samples, however, goalies get hot, shooters get cold, pucks take random bounces, and the Montreal Canadiens beat the President's Trophy-winning Capitals in seven games despite being out-shot approximately eleventy-billion to one.

There may be nothing more frustrating in hockey than thoroughly outplaying one's opponent and not having the result appear on the scoreboard. The Caps' response to this particular type of adversity over the last seven years has been predictable: the teams' skill players begin to freelance. Ovechkin, Green, Backstrom, and the erstwhile Alexander Semin often went into "screw it, I've got this" mode, and attempted to score by carrying the puck through every opposing defender. This worked on occasion, but it failed much more often.

The pre-Trotz Caps simply lacked the discipline, mental toughness, and faith in the system to stick with things that worked, even when the results weren't there. In short, they lacked experience and leadership. As JP pointed out in his magnum opus, this tendency manifested itself most spectacularly in the winter of 2011, when then-head coach Bruce Boudreau decided to implement the trap, despite ample evidence that the team was playing well in the midst of their eight-game losing streak. When things began to fall apart at the end of his tenure, Boudreau uttered what turned out to be the epitaph of the pre-Trotz Capitals:

"This group has got to learn how to be mentally strong. ... We've reached, for 15 games now, some adversity and some guys are having a tough time with it. ... I'm hoping [the mental fortitude will] come from within because if I've got to teach them how to be tough, then I don't know quite how to do that."

For the 2014-2015 Washington Capitals, the $69 million question is this:

Did the offseason attempts to change the culture of this franchise succeed? Did the addition of Brooks Orpik and the maturation of players like Backstrom and Ovechkin create a group that is more mentally tough? Can Trotz succeed at maintaining discipline and cohesion where Boudreau failed?

The Caps may be about to get a preliminary answer to these questions. All the ingredients from past meltdowns are there. They've been outplaying their opponents without seeing results on the scoreboard and they'll be feeling the pressure to turn things around. Players like Mike Green are uttering familiar quotes about accountability and mental mistakes:

"Just dumb plays that they capitalize on, and we shot ourselves in the foot again... Like I said, we need to be accountable for what happened tonight as us guys in this dressing room and figure it out."

Troy Brouwer offered up a similar sentiment after the Arizona loss:

"We have to work harder. We’ve got to work smarter. It’s not one or two guys, it’s collectively every guy in here that needs to be better. It’s not something that is going to change tonight or change tomorrow. We’ve got to work at it; be on guys to make sure they are giving their best every night, and that’s the only way that we’ll get better."

Tom Wilson offered his (non-)variation on the theme as well:

"We are going to get together on Tuesday after our day off and just work hard. We are going to come practice hard and we are going to do everything right. "

You get the point.

If the Caps can stick with what's working and eliminate some of the mental errors, then it's likely that this losing streak will simply be a minor hiccup (they've had a lead in every game they've played this season, with the exception of the shootout loss to San Jose). If, however, the team's skill players begin to freestyle or the team has repeated system breakdowns, it may be an indication that the issues with this team were too fundamental to be solved by a new GM, coaching staff, and alternate captain.