February 3, 2013; Washington, DC, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Tyler Kennedy (48) checks Washington Capitals defenseman Jeff Schultz (55) in the second period at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Apparently The Washington Capitals Are Just Fine, Thanks

Two days ago, Corey Masisak wrote a piece for NHL.com laying out seven reasons why the Washington Capitals are having such a dismal 2013. In no particular order, the list includes goaltending, the play of Alex Ovechkin, special teams, forward depth, defense depth, mental breakdowns, and a catch-all he called circumstances.

Sharp readers might note that those seven items encompass just about every aspect of a hockey team. In short, Masisak felt what many Caps fans must be thinking after a 2-8-1 start: that there’s a lot wrong with this team, things that need to be fixed.

A dissenting view of sorts came yesterday from general manager George McPhee. Meeting with the assembled members of the media, McPhee gave a rosier picture of the team’s situation in a lot of ways. He seemed to be preaching patience, which unfortunately is something in short supply in a shortened season.

Before we just condemn McPhee’s spin outright, let’s go through what he said statement by statement and see if we can find places we beg to differ. Here’s McPhee on the team’s lack of discipline:

We’re playing a good game and then we start taking penalties, and we take them in bunches. And no system, no coach, no team can survive that.

That was definitely true at the beginning of the season, when the Caps seemed like they were trying to give themselves the highest possible degree of difficulty by taking numerous trips to the box. In recent games, they’ve settled down, and they currently sit in 13th position at 13.6 penalty minutes per game – very much middle of the pack.

The bigger issue is that the PK unit has been dreadful, killing off only 70 percent of opposing power plays. On Thursday against the Penguins, it wasn’t the number of penalties that Caps took that spelled doom, it was the sinking feeling that Sidney Crosby and company were probably going to score every time out.

Until Washington gets its penalty killing house in order, even four minors a game is going to be too many.

Now we move to McPhee on goalies Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby:

There is upside there with these goaltenders. But they both can play better and they know it. And it’s time for them to play.

This is pretty much on the money. What you’d like to see in a situation with two young goalies is for one to establish himself as the alpha dog. That hasn’t happened.

Not only that, but Neuvirth and Holtby have both been allowing seemingly stoppable shots to beat them. That demoralizes the guys playing in front of them (you could see it happen against the Pens) and robs them of confidence. One of them needs to step up, and soon.

How about coach Adam Oates and the job he’s doing? McPhee had something to say there too:

I really like the coaches. I love what they’re doing. I like the way that we’re playing in terms of our system.

Without dismissing the changes the Caps have gone through in terms of philosophy while shifting from Bruce Boudreau to Dale Hunter to Oates, evaluating a system is something that is difficult to do in the short term. Maybe it’s better to voice complaints in this area in terms of identity, or lack thereof.

Under Boudreau, it was mostly freewheeling, offensive hockey. Hunter wanted everything locked down to minimize mistakes. And Oates? The Caps don’t seem to have an identity right now with him at the helm.

Oates has also made some head-scratching decisions that haven’t paid off in direct results, things like the quick hook he gave to Neuvirth last Thursday and playing Ovechkin with Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb. Speaking of Ovi…

I really like the way Alex has played the last four games. … He’s a much more effective player. I like it a lot. You might disagree, but it looks a lot better to us.

The stats do bear this out somewhat. Ovechkin has launched 22 shots in those four games, exactly the same number as he had in his first seven games. He also has a goal and three assists over that stretch.

Yet only one assist was at even strength, and he hasn’t scored all year five-on-five. Ovi gets paid way too much to be a power play specialist, and while there’s something to be said for the idea that the goals will come if he can keep getting off shots ( I hear you Phil Kessel!), the question is whether the Caps’ season will effectively be over if/when he heats up.

That makes a great segue into our final topic, which is whether McPhee, traditionally not a mid-season wheeler and dealer, has plans to shake things up. I’ll take this next quote as a no:

It’s not over. Nothing that a couple of wins won’t really help. But we’re going to make good decisions. We’re not going to do anything short term. We’re not going to blow anything up.

The problem with a debate over the correct time to push the proverbial panic button is that by the time you figure it out, that time has usually passed. After the upcoming home-and-home with the Florida Panthers, the season will be more than a quarter complete.

No one is calling for McPhee to do anything crazy like giving away Evgeny Kuznetsov and Filip Forsberg for rental players, and there’s something to be said for having a high first round pick in the talent-rich 2013 draft.

It’s not all or nothing, though. There’s a middle ground between mortgaging the future and giving the appearance that you are punting the season, and it would be nice to see McPhee acknowledge that. All of the loyal fans who faithfully “Rock the Red” deserve at least that much.


Tags: Alex Ovechkin Braden Holtby Michal Neuvirth Washington Capitals

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