Tough season-ending loss to the Rangers yesterday and the annual griping and whining has started. Let’s set emotions aside and take a rational look at how the season went and how the Caps are positioned for the future.
In clearly a transitional period, Dale Hunter took a team on the serious decline, gave them an identity and a system they could function in, and got the best possible results given their current talent level. No, this team is not of Stanley Cup caliber.
First the good news. The Caps often lackadaisical effort during the regular season suddenly improved during the playoffs, as everyone seemed to buy into Dale Hunter’s defensive-minded changes. Also, Braden Holtby’s emergence as a stand-on-your-head goalie, and a leader by example was important. His steadfast presence in the crease, no matter what the situation, was comforting because knowing your last line of defense is going to be stout allows your team to play worry-free and focus out in front. Holtby is still young and needs to work on his stick handling, positioning, and rebound control, but overall is very promising.
Next is the emergence of Matt Hendricks as more than just your designated tough guy. His late season overtime heroics (5 for 6 on shootout goals) showed a side and skill set nobody expected, and his playoff face-off win percentage (56%) and ability to deliver huge momentum changing hits along the boards was outstanding. I’d vote him most improved Capital for the season and he should play a big part in the team’s future plans.
It took the entire regular season, and some reduced minutes late in the Boston series, but Alex Ovechkin has finally demonstrated a commitment to competing as the two-way player he needs to be. Sure, his defensive skills are lacking, but he showed me something with his willingness to shot block late in the Ranger series. The team followed the lead of their captain, which is critical and had been lacking in several regular season meltdowns.
Now the bad news. Outside the fourth line, this team cannot pressure the opposition into enough defensive end mistakes to create a consistent pipeline of scoring opportunities. The Bruins and Rangers continuously brought two and three forwards in to forecheck, won all the battles along the boards, and exhausted the Caps to the point of when they finally extracted themselves from their own end, needed to exit the ice with line changes. This was a pattern that continued from the regular season and is largely due to their personnel make-up, but is somewhat attributable to the Caps 1-2-2 system. Players like Marcus Johansson, Alexander Semin, Matthieu Perreault, and Keith Aucoin exemplify guys who have skills in open ice but are too small and weak, don’t win one-on-one battles along the boards, and often fall off their skates in traffic as they are separated from the puck by skilled defensemen. Players like Brooks Laich, Jason Chimera, and Ovechkin, have the strength to play this style, but the system doesn’t permit anyone other than the checking line to dump, chase, cycle, grind, and put D-zone pressure on the opponent. This will need to be addressed or the Caps won’t be able to advance against bigger tougher Eastern Conference foes.
The Caps sorely need a shut-down stay at home defenseman, and an overall increase in speed at defense. Sorry, but all star Dennis Wideman makes too many mistakes in his own end and exits the zone too slowly. Long-in-the-tooth D-man Roman Hammerlick, is too slow and routinely gets beaten to pucks on the boards. I know Dale Hunter wanted to leverage his experience in the playoffs, and actually got some decent work out of him, but I would have preferred to have seen Dmitry Orlov, who has tremendous upside potential. The youngster needed the playoff experience and has the skills to develop into a top flight blue-liner.
The situation at goaltender is interesting. Holtby’s market value soared in the playoffs and the team has two other serviceable but often injured net-minders in Michal Neuvirth and Thomas Vokoun. If they are happy with the latter duo, Holtby might fetch a solid checking forward and shut down defensemen via trade, even though you’d hate to see him leave after his playoff heroics. The shortcomings at the other positions may warrant such a move. Looking forward to some off-season wheeling and dealing and Rocking The Red next October. LET’S GO CAPS!