A lot has changed with the Capitals since last May’s unfulfilling end to the season. The defense that the Caps iced in the playoff loss to Tampa said good-bye to Scott Hannan, introduced Roman Hamrlik and welcomed the return of a healthy Dennis Wideman; the bottom two lines were turned over, with the team introducing a more sandpapery bunch led by Joel Ward; the goaltending situation improved, as the hockey gods gifted Tomas Vokoun to the team for super cheap; and the coaching staff pledged to be tougher and hold individuals more accountable. On the face of it, this was a good summer for the Capitals.
But the reality is that while the Caps improved several of their weaknesses, they also failed to properly address their two most significant shortcomings: the deficiencies at center and the all-too-loose locker room culture that pervades the team.
The center issue has been a problem for years, as the Caps have had poor luck drafting or developing top-line centers. Over the past five seasons, first and second-line centers on Stanley Cup finalists have averaged at least 0.7 points per game, an important benchmark to meet as it demonstrates the ability to spread scoring across multiple lines. Since the lockout, the Caps have not received this level of production from a second-line center (2C).
This season, the keys to the 2C spot will be handed to Marcus Johansson. MarJo is a developing player with high upside, but one who is being asked to shoulder a giant burden for a 20-year old: center a line with either Alex Ovechkin or Alexander Semin, improve scoring from last year’s 0.4 ppg pace to 0.7 ppg (or 57 points over 82 games), and improve on that ugly 41 percent face-off percentage so that Nicklas Backstrom doesn’t have to take as many defensive zone draws. It might be too much for a still-developing second-year player, and there isn’t salary cap space (at this moment) to look for alternatives.
The second issue is of greater concern – the lack of accountability and its effect on the locker room. It’s no secret that Boudreau has always held a double-standard with his star players. While Eric Fehr constantly sat in the dog house for under-performance, Alex Semin rarely missed a shift for his extended scoring slumps, untimely stick penalties, mercurial back-checking and chronic cheating on breakouts. Scott Hannan got caught on a bad line change in the playoffs and was called out for it by his coach; but Ovechkin, who has made a career of over-extending shifts and slowly gliding off the ice at the expense of his team, never gets publicly flogged for his repeated transgressions.
I understand that coaches have double-standards – that’s just the way it is in team sports. But it should never reach the point that it affects team morale. It clearly has, evidenced by Matt Bradley’s “no heart” comments about Semin this summer. The concern with that episode is two-fold, the first being the obvious: that a highly-paid player doesn’t give it his all. (That specific assertion is no surprise — those rumors have been emanating from Kettler for years.)
The more disconcerting concern is that a respected veteran and fan favorite (Bradley) doesn’t feel comfortable approaching his coach to have those issues addressed and resolved in-house. It says a lot about the type of ship Boudreau runs, that there is minimal accountability for star players and an overall lack of communication and openness from top-to-bottom. It also indicts Ovechkin’s leadership skills, demonstrating that the team captain doesn’t have the self-awareness to put an end to this nonsense, or, worse, that he recognizes what’s going on and simply won’t address it because he benefits from it. Neither excuse gives me comfort.
Is this locker room mess fixable in one off-season? I hope so, but old habits die hard. George McPhee is asking Bruce Boudreau, the man responsible for instituting and enabling this culture, to turn it around. Easier said than done, especially considering that the core beneficiaries of Boudreau’s loose policies – the Young Guns – aren’t so young anymore. Semin, Ovechkin and Mike Green are 27, 26 and 25 respectively, and are approaching “finished product” status. These are no longer impressionable kids, they’re veterans now. What you see is what you get.
I realize that the Caps went out and brought in solid veteran players such as Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern to help change the culture, but don’t pin your hopes on them. Ultimately, a change in the locker room comes down to whether Ovi is ever going to have his “Stevie Y Moment”, where he sacrifices personal styles and preferences for greater team goals, and forces teammates to behave similarly. It took the greatest hockey coach of all time, Scotty Bowman, to coax that change out of Yzerman. Think Boudreau is the one to entice it out of Ovechkin? (Forgive me, but I don’t.)
So what do I think happens this season? For starters, I think the Caps can play shorthanded for the season and still make the playoffs. Of course that’s an exaggeration, but the point is that talent isn’t their issue. This is a 110-112 point team, a Southeast division winner and likely the Eastern Conference champion (just ahead of Pittsburgh). That’s not a difficult forecast to make.
But if you’re more interested in how they’ll perform in the playoffs, keep an eye on two key themes as the season advances. First, look at how Marcus Johansson develops as a center, specifically if he can handle the rigors of a 2C, produce offensively and hold his own defensively throughout the course of the season. A strong 2C is going to be critical to a deep Cup run. More importantly, watch to the see if the culture changes. See if Bruce actually sits his star players whenever they take silly penalties, or glide off the ice during line changes, or overextend shifts, or fail to dump the puck in deep, or back-check like it’s an 11 p.m. adult league game. See if Semin can stay interested for an entire season. See if Ovechkin leads by example, progressing in his play away from the puck and playing the right way all the time.Until that happens, my prediction is that the Caps talent will carry them to the Eastern Conference finals, but no further. Any expectations beyond that require core players to show a dedication to team-oriented play that they have never demonstrated or embraced. If the Young Guns have it in them to step up their games and evolve as hockey players, now is the time to show it. D.C. is waiting.