On Hockey: Washington Capitals built team, expectations and now must deliver with what they have
By Barry Svrluga,
Eric Fehr re-watched tape of the move he made in overtime Tuesday night against the Boston Bruins — taking a pass near the blue line, tapping the puck ahead to himself, splitting two defenders, then winning a game the Washington Capitals needed to win — and smiled. “A great feeling,” he said. It reminded him of someone he once knew: himself.
“That’s kind of the way I was playing when the team drafted me,” Fehr said Wednesday, almost a decade after he was drafted. “I grew up scoring goals. That’s what I did.”
In a lot of ways, Fehr represents where the Capitals are right now — trying to match expectations with results. He was in the system prior to the last lockout, the one that cost the 2004-05 season, for which the Caps prepared by trading away their best veteran players, each time wanting in return “a prospect and a pick,” as owner Ted Leonsis has said time and again in the years since. It was, the Capitals said, the right way to build a consistent winner.
Fehr, a first-round pick in 2003, was part of the building. He grew up in the Capitals system with Mike Green, with Brooks Laich, with the guys who were supposed to make up the core of the franchise then and now. The team won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2009-10, when Fehr was one of seven Capitals to score at least 20 goals.
“I felt like it was gonna be a team that was gonna stay together for a long period of time,” Fehr said.
It is the story line the Caps, understandably, sold: The times, they’re good now, and they’re going to be good for as far as the eye can see. Look who we have, and look who we have coming up through the system.
But funny things happen along the way to deep runs in the Stanley Cup playoffs, of which these Capitals have made exactly none. What, exactly, has that system produced? Expectations, for sure. But by way of results? Not much. The Capitals have won exactly three playoff series in that time, and they currently sit tied with the Florida Panthers for last place in the Eastern Conference.
Since the Capitals took Alex Ovechkin with the first pick of the 2004 draft, and added defensemen Jeff Schultz and Green later in that same first round, they have selected 61 players in the NHL draft. Not one has appeared in an NHL all-star game. All of five were on the ice for Tuesday’s victory over the Bruins — goalie Braden Holtby, defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner and centers Nicklas Backstrom and Mathieu Perreault.
Marcus Johansson, Washington’s first-round pick in 2009, was finally cleared to skate Wednesday after dealing with what turned out to be a concussion. What he’ll be when he gets back on the ice, Coach Adam Oates — who has both benched Johansson and put him on the fourth line already this year — doesn’t know.
Defenseman Dmitry Orlov, expected to contribute in what would be his second season, hasn’t played a shift because of his own concussion.
Backstrom, who seemed a surefire all-star two years ago, has all of two goals (though he did an exceptional job feeding Fehr for the game-winner Tuesday, quietly his 17th assist). Green, once a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman, is all but broken, on injured reserve with the latest in a series of maladies. He has played in 97 and missed 88 games over the past three seasons. Laich, once the franchise’s versatile iron man, hasn’t appeared this year because of a groin injury.
So they are resigned to making moves like they did this week, signing defenseman Steve Oleksy — a drifter of a minor leaguer who had never before appeared in an NHL game at age 27 — and putting him on the ice immediately. There is no savior at Hershey now, no one in the pipeline prepared to steady the franchise as Ovechkin and Green and the since-departed Alexander Semin once did.
What’s more, there has been tremendous turnover. The lineup Oates put on the ice Tuesday against the Bruins featured exactly three home-grown players — Backstrom, Ovechkin and Fehr — who were on that Presidents’ Trophy team of three seasons ago. Yet the expectations remain the same. With forward Troy Brouwer out with an illness, only nine players who beat the Bruins in Game 7 of the first round of the NHL playoffs last spring skated against Boston on Tuesday. That’s less than half the lineup. Not to mention a new coach and a new system.
“A lot of change,” Oates said.
For the Capitals to play as they themselves expect, the players they have produced from their system — on whom they put expectations — must produce on the ice. Carlson doesn’t have to replace all of Green’s offense, but he has to put his early-season struggles behind him. Alzner must play like what he was, a solid, two-way defenseman worthy of the fifth pick in the 2007 draft. Johansson must establish himself as a play-maker. Backstrom must somehow turn back into Backstrom.
Help is not on the way, so the Capitals must help themselves.
(And none of this even begins to address Oates’s most significant task: reaching Ovechkin, who has scored in just one of his past eight games.)
The mood Wednesday: something like Fehr’s brilliant, game-winning move could put it all back on course. Even before Fehr snuck his shot past Boston goalie Tuuka Rask as he fell to the ice, Oates had noticed a difference in the winger, who had been cast aside for the 2011-12 season to Winnipeg and returned almost as an afterthought before this season. “He looks like a goal-scorer,” Oates said. Oates sought out Fehr at the Caps’ practice facility Wednesday. He found him in the middle of a Ping-Pong game, so he let him be. But he said he will ask him some questions soon.
“What happened?” Oates planned on asking Fehr. “Where have you been for two years?”
They are questions worth asking the entire franchise, which is saddled with expectations of its own making. Only the players already on hand can provide the answers.