The playoffs are almost upon us and the Washington Capitals are one of the 16 teams with a ticket to the ball. As we approach this highly anticipated time of the year, one's thoughts tilt toward prognosticating who will be among the elite of the elite, the favorites to emerge from their respective conference battles to meet in the Stanley Cup Final.
Chances are you are not going to find the Washington Capitals on any short lists. Oh sure, they are a nice story of sorts. New coach who gets the superstar to broaden his game, the superstar finds joy in his game once more (not to mention 50 or so more goals), etc. But Stanley Cup contender? Probably not part of the narrative.
Maybe it should be. In an odd sort of way, this team, perhaps more than any other since the Caps made their first and only appearance in the Stanley Cup final in 1998, is best positioned to do precisely that. And the reason lies in that 1998 team and the similarities the 2015 playoff team has with it. "Pish-tosh," you say? Read on.
The 1998 Capitals were coming off a season that started under new management. George McPhee was hired to replace David Poile as general manager on June 9, 1997, and Ron Wilson was signed the same day to replace Jim Schoenfeld as head coach. The signings took place in the aftermath of what was a disappointing 1996-97 season that saw the Capitals finish with a 33-40-9 record, out of the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons.
The 2015 Capitals are similarly wrapping up a season played under new management (sort of). Brian MacLellan was promoted to general manager on May 26, 2014 after McPhee was relieved of his duties as GM, and Barry Trotz was signed to replace Adam Oates behind the bench. All this followed a 2013-14 season that saw the Capitals finish with a 38-30-14 record that left them out of the playoffs for the first time after recording six-straight postseason appearances.
Ron Wilson guided the Capitals to a 40-30-12 record in the 1997-98 season, good for third in the Atlantic Division and a fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals of 2014-15 surpassed Wilson's record (45-26-11)... but if we count shootout wins as what they would have been in 1997-98, ties, the record would be 40-33-9. Not much difference there.
The Performance Profile...
The 2015 team is more accomplished in terms of how it stacks up to contemporary teams on both offense and defense. The special teams are mirror images of one another, and while the current Caps are higher ranked when it comes to both scoring and preventing goals, both the 1998 and 2015 squads show a good balance between offense and defense.
There are differences to note here, though. The 1998 team was more adept at earning wins in one-goal games, while the 2015 version of the Caps is more of a front-running team than their 1998 counterpart. So while today's team has the best record in the League when scoring first, they also struggle when surrendering the game's first goal.
In 1998, George McPhee made what might have seemed like slight alterations to his club in the run-up to the trade deadline, with an eye toward adding experience. On March 9th he traded Dwayne Hay, a second round draft pick in 1995 who played two games for the Caps, to Florida for a well-traveled 33-year old veteran wrapping up his 13th season in the NHL (the Caps would be his seventh NHL club) - Esa Tikkanen. A few weeks later, McPhee completed another deal, signing as a free agent another 33-year old, this one a veteran of 15 seasons who had been playing for the Berlin Capitals in Germany - Brian Bellows.
Tikkanen would go on to record two goals and 12 points in 20 regular season games for the Caps, Bellows finishing with six goals and nine points in 11 games. One could have surmised that the production from each was a pleasant surprise. And, there were the 1,926 games of regular season and the 287 games of post-season experience the two brought with them.
In 2015, Brian MacLellan made two deals that had a similar look in that veterans were the target. On March 2nd, MacLellan sent second and a third round 2015 draft picks to Calgary for Curtis Glencross, a 32-year old in his ninth NHL season. That same day MacLellan packaged defenseman Jack Hillen and a fourth round 2015 draft pick and sent them to Carolina for defenseman Tim Gleason, a 32-year old in his 11th NHL season.
The offensive numbers of the additions do not match those of the two players brought in late in the 1997-98 season, but the experience profiles are comparable, at least as far as regular season experience is concerned. Glencross and Gleason also brought more than 1,000 games of regular season experience to the Caps between them (1,199 games). The difference here is that Glencross and Gleason have only 24 combined games of post-season experience on which to draw.
Teams have to be solid and reliable from the goal out, and in goal there certainly are similarities between the 1998 version of the Caps and the current edition. The 1998 version of the Caps went into the post season with a goalie in his first full season as the clear number one goaltender. Olaf Kolzig went into the season having appeared in 71 games over six seasons. He built a bigger reputation in the post season of those years, appearing in seven games (a 3-3-0 record) with a gaudy 1.87 goals against average and a .936 save percentage.
Kolzig did not start the 1997-98 season as the number one goalie. That job was held by Bill Ranford, but only for 20 minutes into the season as he suffered a first period injury on Opening Night against the Toronto Maple Leafs that opened the door for Kolzig. He sealed the win on Opening Night in relief of Ranford, then won his next six decisions. The job was his.
Braden Holtby came into the 2014-15 season as a goalie with the potential to be the number one netminder, but there always seemed to be someone in front of him or competing with him for that title. As it was he came into the season having appeared in 105 career games over four seasons, but his shining moment might have been in the 2012 post season when he assumed the number one goaltending responsibilities after both Tomas Vokoun andMichal Neuvirth sustained injuries. In 14 playoff games, Holtby recorded a 1.95 goals against average and a .935 save percentage.
It was only at the start of the 2014-15 season, with all of his competition having moved off to other teams and the club signing free agent Justin Peters for the specific responsibility of being his back-up, that Holtby finally held the job of number one goaltender for his own.
Neither Kolzig nor Holtby disappointed in their respective first years as the clear number one netminder, as this table indicates:
The Team Leaders...
The top of the charts for a variety of categories suggest some similarities between the clubs among the skaters. It is here that the goal scoring, playmaking, and other of the broadly known performance categories just do not differ much between the squads.
If the Caps were breaking in new number one goaltenders at one end of the ice, they had iconic goal-scoring forwards to lead the way at the other end. For the 1997-98 team it was Peter Bondra. By the time that season started, Bondra already established himself among the most effective goal scorers in team history and one of the most dangerous goal scorers in the league. He already had one goal-scoring title (the Maurice Richard Trophy for top goal scorer would not be awarded for the first time until the 1998-1999 season), and he had a 50-goal season to his credit. He went into that season with 132 goals in his previous 191 games over three seasons, a 54-goal pace per 82 games. Bondra finished the season just above that pace - 52 goals in 76 games and another goal scoring title on his resume.
The 2014-15 Capitals had their own elite goal scorer. Alex Ovechkin had established himself as one of the greatest goal scorers of all time, and he stood alone as the top goal scorer of his era coming into the season. The goal scoring accomplishments were many: five 50-goal seasons, four Richard Trophies, a career average over nine years of 51 goals per 82 games played. He finished the 2014-15 season just above that pace with 53 goals in 81 games, his sixth 50-goal season and his fifth Richard Trophy.
There were playmaking similarities as well. The 1997-98 team had Adam Oates, whose 58 assists was good for a tie for fifth in the league. He had already established himself as one of the supreme playmakers of his era, first as a set-up man for Brett Hull in St. Louis then for what seemed like everyone in Boston, before arriving in Washington.
The 2014-15 team had Nicklas Backstrom. His resume was not as long as Oates, but he had established himself as one of the best playmakers of his era, posting the fifth best assists per game mark since entering the league in 2007-2008 (minimum: 250 games played). Backstrom finished the 2014-15 season atop the league rankings in assists (60).
The 1997-98 Caps did not lack for secondary scoring among the forwards. In addition to Bondra and Oates, the Caps had five other players finishing with more than 20 points - Steve Konowalchuk (34), Joe Juneau (31), Richard Zednik (26), Dale Hunter (26), and Andrew Brunette (23). But for injuries (Andrei Nikolishin, Chris Simon among them) the total might have been higher.
The 2014-15 team had, in addition to Ovechkin and Backstrom, six other forwards with more than 20 points:Marcus Johansson (47), Troy Brouwer (43), Evgeny Kuznetsov (37), Joel Ward (34), Eric Fehr (33), and Andre Burakovsky (22). But for injuries, Jay Beagle and Brooks Laich, each of whom finished with 20 points, and Tom Wilson (17) might have joined that group.
The ties that bind the defensive squads of the 1997-98 team and the 2014-15 squad are their being deep. The 1997-98 team had seven defensemen who could legitimately be considered solid top-six defenders: Calle Johansson, Phil Housley, Sergei Gonchar, Mark Tinordi, Joe Reekie, Brendan Witt, and Ken Klee (Sylvain Cote was traded to Toronto for defenseman Jeff Brown earlier in the season).
It was a group that could contribute offensively. Johansson contributed 15 goals; and Johansson, Gonchar, and Housley all finished with more than 20 points. Not that they lacked for a stay-at-home presence. Tinordi was among the most intimidating physical players of that era, as was Witt. Reekie was a more positional than physical defenseman, but he was effective in that role.
The 2014-15 edition of the Caps had similar benefits of depth, perhaps as much as they enjoyed since that 1997-98 team. John Carlson, Mike Green, Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner, Brooks Orpik, and late edition Tim Gleason comprise what, given recent Caps history, is a formidable group. They could score. Carlson (12) and Green (10) finished in double digits in goals; and in addition to those two, Niskanen and Alzner finished with more than 20 points. Orpik provided a physical presence in the defensive end, and Alzner was the defender who used angles and position to stymie opposition.
Ron Wilson already had a solid resume when he arrived in Washington at the start of the1997-98 season. In four seasons with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Wilson compiled a 120-145-31 record with and expansion team and led them to the playoffs in his last season with the Ducks In 1996-97. He might have coached ahead of the talent he had available, a product of the difficulties an expansion team faces in its early years. In Washington he would have a team more established and arguably one with more talent than he enjoyed in Anaheim.
Barry Trotz had a long resume before assuming the head coaching duties in Washington for the 2014-15 season. In 15 seasons with the Nashville Predators - the only coach the franchise knew since its establishment for the 1998-1999 season - he had a record of 557-479-100 (with 60 ties). He reached the playoffs for the first time in his sixth season in Nashville and would take seven teams to the post season overall. His teams stalled in the post season, perhaps a product of a problem similar to what Wilson faced in Anaheim. Nashville was a struggling franchise for much of Trotz' tenure and lacked many of the financial resources other clubs could deploy to acquire talent. In Washington, Trotz would have the opportunity to coach world-class talent in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Both the Capitals of 1997-98 and those of 2014-15 entered the post season as a fourth-seed in the Eastern Conference. The earlier version was one point better than the fifth-seed Boston Bruins, while the later version was a tie-breaker better than the fifth-seed New York Islanders.
What is perhaps more interesting than the closeness of the Caps and their opening round opponents in the first round in the two instances is how the other series matched up. The first round of the 1998 playoffs featured three upsets by lower seeds in the first round - Buffalo over Philadelphia, Montreal over Pittsburgh, and Ottawa over New Jersey.
The first round of the 2015 post season had potential land mines for the other higher seeded teams. The Rangerswere the class of the East in the regular season, but the Pittsburgh Penguins still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Pens might not have what it takes for the long haul, but they can be nightmarish for any one club they face.
Tampa Bay might be the least talked-about 100-point team in recent memory, but their burden is facing a team that will be making its 24th consecutive appearance in the post-season.
Montreal is a team that relies far more heavily on the elite goaltending of Carey Price than perhaps a contender should, and they face the hottest team in the league in the Ottawa Senators.
In the end...
Three upsets of higher seed in the first round of the Eastern Conference side of the playoffs would not be the way to bet, but neither is it out of the realm of consideration. Even without that scenario unfolding, the Caps have a lot of similarities to the only edition of the franchise to reach a Stanley Cup final. It has top-end goal scoring, elite playmaking, solid goaltending, a deep defense, and solid support troops.
The 2014-15 team is one that, like the 1997-98 squad, is constructed to win in a variety of ways. The can beat you with lethal goal scoring (Peter Bondra/Alex Ovechkin), get sublime playmaking (Adam Oates/Nicklas Backstrom), stifle your offense with goaltending (Olaf Kolzig/Braden Holtby) or wear you down with grinders in waves (Steve Konowalchuk, Kelly Miller, Mark Tinordi/Joel Ward, Eric Fehr, Brooks Orpik). They added players to fill key roles late in the season (Tikkanen, Bellows/Glencross, Gleason), and they have coaches who have experience and something to prove in the post season after taking expansion teams as far as they did (Wilson/Trotz).
The similarities are not perfect, but in the 2014-15 Capitals one can see the echo of the only team to reach the Stanley Cup final in franchise history.