In life, you generally learn the most by making mistakes. But over the last three months, the Washington Capitals seem to have learned nothing at all.
When 2020 began, the Caps were running away with the NHL’s best record. Three months later, they have slid down to a deadlock for the Metropolitan Division lead. The reason for this 13-11-2 record, a massive drop from the form in which the Capitals started the season, is simple: penetrable defense, unwise turnovers and avoidable penalties. In the calendar year, Capitals have allowed the sixth-most goals, have been credited with the sixth-most giveaways and have been called for the third-most penalties in the league.
All this has been clear to the coaching staff and players since January. Led by head coach Todd Reirden, the Capitals staff has employed a wait and see approach with the players, insisting the talented squad will overcome their mental errors and emerge as a battle-tested team ready for the playoffs.
But in a recent press conference, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan shunned the rose-colored assessment that the team’s struggles are a character-building experience.
“There’s a little cheat in our game,” MacLellan said on February 24. “I think we have a good team that’s not playing the right way.”
To put it more plainly, the Capitals have the talent to play better, but currently not the will.
The waiting — and the errors — have continued. Washington has taken 20 penalties in its last three games and suffered humiliating defeats to division rivals on back-to-back nights.
Reirden juggled the lines in an attempt to change something in his team’s game while defense has been a game of musical chairs to find a passable combination. In 24 hours the Capitals allowed 11 goals, surrendering sole control of the division lead.
The day before the Capitals fired Bruce Boudreau in 2011, the head coach offered these words when asked how to fix his team’s struggles:
“[Mental fortitude has] got to come from within, I’ve got to believe. I’m hoping that’s got to 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.”
A coach’s job, of course, is to teach his players to right their wrongs. Openly admitting you do not fully control your players is an ominous sign for a head coach.
When asked about the Caps’ irresolute play recently, though, Reirden also seemed to imply that he was running out of options to correct his team’s bad habits.
“You can only sit players for so many times – not dress them, scratch them for taking penalties – but eventually, they have got make a decision in our own room that they’re going to stop handcuffing our entire team from having success,” Reirden said Thursday night. “Again, I can hold them accountable by not playing them — like I did tonight from poor penalties or uneven play — but at the end of the day, our group in that room needs to make a decision that we have to be more disciplined.”
“It’s certainly not any fun,” the coach added towards the end of his press conference.
With one month left in the regular season, and grueling playoffs awaiting the team after its conclusion, time is running out for the Capitals — and Reirden — to find success.
“We can all only say so much,” defenseman John Carlson concluded.