Friday, 25 July 2014

Capital Offences?

I'll fully admit that I am no Capitals fan being that I have a liking for their division rivals in the Pittsburgh Penguins. Pittsburgh and Washington had some epic battles in the playoffs in my youth, and the Crosby-vs-Ovechkin battle re-ignited the rivalry between these two proud hockey clubs and their fans. I will say that I wanted to see Barry Trotz hired in Pittsburgh, but Washington made the leap before anyone else as Trotz agreed to coach the Capitals. Today, Neal L., known for his segment on Gentlemen, To Your Corners here on HBIC, submits a piece on the Capitals' recent moves!

Without further adieu, here is Neal and his thoughts on the Washington Capitals!
Before I get started, I figured I would give a little foreword to my first solo blog on the site. I never figured six months ago that I would be writing a hockey blog and for a Canadian site no less! While hockey is king in Canada, I'm in the short-attention-span, sports-saturated, east coast United States. While I would admit that hockey probably is not my favorite sport, it has to be my favorite sport to talk about. Hockey fans in general are the most intelligent of all the sports, and, except for a few, are usually open to multiple points of view. It's why GTYC is such a fun segment for me and I hope to continue to be involved in. The best part of that segment is that it's something John and I have done for what seems like every day for years. We just now get to privilege of publishing our arguments. If I didn't delete most of our conversations from the past, an excellent piece would have been just to post some of our arguments over the years. So with that said, I hope you guys enjoy reading my blogs. I know I have fun writing them.

My piece today is about what I consider to be the next tire fire in the NHL. Of course, some people may say that this situation has already been in flames for a couple of seasons now. I think this situation is about to get a whole lot worse. What I am talking about? I'm talking about the current situation of the Washington Capitals. I feel like this team, who seemed like a shoo-in a few short years ago to be a perennial cup contender, just made a terrible coaching hire and other personnel moves to potentially make it a bottom-feeder team in the future.

My first argument is my case against Barry Trotz, the new coach of the Capitals. Around the league, it is noted how much respect Barry has and what a steady hand he had in creating a solid foundation in Nashville. While in some respects this is true, my argument is that he is pretty overrated in my book. How can I say such a thing? I would say the record speaks for itself in multiple ways. First, we all know how Trotz took over an expansion team and turned it quickly into one of the league's better teams by the middle of the last decade. I'm not going to discredit him for that. After all, in the first couple seasons, he did as well as anyone could. Where I discredit him is that despite being consistently one of the league's better teams over the past ten seasons, his squads have produced a total of two playoff series wins. Simply put, that's not very good. In most other situations, only having two series wins would get you fired well before Nashville decided to can Trotz, but maybe their standards are a bit lower. Some people would also argue they often ran into extremely tough competition in the playoffs. Let's make no bones about it: to win in this league you have to beat tough teams. There are no "gimmies" in the NHL, and to use the reasoning we ran into tough teams is a pretty lame excuse.

The other piece of evidence I have against Trotz is his inability to develop real offensive playmakers. While guys like Hornqvist and Erat are decent enough players, you can't really think of one impact forward that the team has developed. While some of the blame for the lack of forward prospects rests on GM David Poile, it is often the coach and his staff's responsibility to develop his players. Some people would argue that some of that has to do with Trotz's defensive style, but isn't that also an indictment of the coach? It should be the coach who adjusts his system to maximize the talents of his players. Rest assured, if Patric Hornqvist nets forty goals for the Penguins this year, I would consider that to be indicative of Trotz's methods.

This issue makes things worse for the Caps. Let's face it: outside of Ovechkin and Backstrom, who do the Capitals have up front that can contribute on a consistent basis? The Caps are rated as having six forward prospects rated 7.0 or better by, so can Trotz be trusted to develop it? Consider that in the same period the Predators came into the league, Minnesota had Marian Gaborik, Columbus had Rick Nash, and bumbling Atlanta managed to get Kovalchuk and Heatley. Elite forward prospects usually are available in the top-five picks in the draft, and the fact Nashville couldn't develop any of their forward picks in its infancy is inexcusable. By those numbers, I don't like the chances of the Capitals' forwards developing. That doesn't even count how Alexander Ovechkin will react to Trotz's defensive style this season!

The other argument I’m going to present is based on the construction of the Capitals' roster. When the Capitals were one of the best teams in the league under Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals often employed a high-octane, full-court press style of hockey that kept opponents on the ropes. During the period, they were often the most fun team in the league to watch. Ovechkin instantly became a fan favorite, and all seemed to be well in the nation's capital. A few disappointing playoff exits later - with a trip to the conference finals something more than Trotz can say - it was determined that a shake-up was needed and Boudreau was let go in favor of Dale Hunter who employed a strict defensive style. The hope was that employing a more defensive game would be better in the playoffs where other teams often tighten up, and the fast breaks that the Capitals were so dependent on wouldn't be as effective. In his one season as coach, the Capitals did make the second-round of the playoffs though Hunter often clashed with Alexander Ovechkin over his defensive play. Of course, Hunter was replaced by Adam Oates whose system I still can't determine other than "here Alex, go make a play".

While what Hunter did might bode well for Trotz, the fact that a rift can occur with his star player might be catastrophic for the team. From the Capitals' perspective, if you had the most success under an up-tempo coach, why wouldn't you hire one when the opportunity presented itself? Peter Laviolette would have been an excellent hire. Simply put, the Caps really are not constructed to be a defensive team. John Carlson and Dmitri Orlov are developing into very solid defensemen. Newly-signed Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, however, are not exactly known for defensive prowess. Although plus/minus can often be a bogus stat, before this season's +33 Niskanen had never been better than a +9 and was often a minus player. That doesn't even include defensive black hole Mike Green who is essentially a forward playing on the back end, and ironically enough was a +39 one year during the Caps' heyday - better than any year of Niskanen to date! Even if Trotz can get his stars in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to buy into his defensive system, it may be the defence that who could prove to be his downfall. It's not Shea Weber back there anymore to bail the team out.

In conclusion, the Capitals do have a team that should contend for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but I don't know if they are a lock. The hiring of the defensive Barry Trotz is puzzling to me from a pure fit perspective. They are still smarting from early playoff exits from a few seasons ago when they were a Stanley Cup favorite, yet they brought in a coach who has made a job of exiting from the playoffs early. If the Caps are improved and win consistently under Trotz, I will be the first to eat crow on this blog.

However, I just don’t see it happening.
Wow! Great article, Neal!

Now I'm going to speculate that a number of Capitals fans and bloggers will take issue with a few of Neal's assertions. That's why we have discussions. Neal feels a certain way about the moves the Capitals made with regards to the coach they hired, and he's entitled to his opinion. If you'd like to engage with Neal, leave a comment below. He can respond there as well.

Personally, I think it will be interesting to see how Alexander Ovechkin approaches this season knowing that Barry Trotz will demand more focus on the defensive side of the puck. Combine that with his recent break-up with Maria Kirilenko and we could see fireworks if Ovechkin comes into camp with a chip on his shoulder. However, if Ovechkin comes in with an open mind with regards to the season, the Capitals may surprise everyone.

It should be interesting in the District of Columbia this season!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Bill said...

When did the Caps make the Conference Final under Boudreau? As a STH, I wish I got to see those games. No matter who is coach, this crew of Caps just can't win game 7's. 2-5, right?

Aaron said...

You're right, fans will have issues with a couple of these assertions. First off, Boudreau didn't make the conference finals - just a fact-check there. It's generally considered to be the case that Hunter's one season (whilst miserable in the regular season - I really didn't like Hunter Hockey) was the closest the team has got to the conference finals since 1998. If Trotz's style resembles Hunter's (I don't think it does really, but it's closer to that than to Boudreau's), then Trotz is infinitely better at dealing with his players than Hunter, so must be an improvement.

The author's argument is undermined in my mind by a simple flawed statement - namely that if Hornqvist scores 40 goals (exaggerated, but I take the point, i.e. if Hornqvist scores well) that's an indication that Trotz constrained him - that has to be an incorrect assertion. He's forgetting that Hornqvist is going from playing with Mike Fisher at best, to playing with Malkin or Crosby - that will be why his offensive output increases (that's what happened to James Neal for example).

I'm not going to say the Caps have a perfect roster - they certainly don't - but I'm not going to write off one of the most well-respected coaches in the league, or the biggest prize free agent defenseman of this class, without seeing a single game.

Teebz said...

Good comments, gentlemen!

Off the top, I didn't correct any of Neal's assertions in the article. They are his thoughts, and I don't want to change his tone or message by changing his words.

I think Washington has a very good chance at taking a run at the Metropolitan title this season. That alone should be reason enough to fear the Caps, but if Trotz can get 50 goals out of Ovechkin and bring him back as an even player? Yowza.

DL said...

I can't agree with this article.

Nashville never had as good of a team as the Caps do now when Trotz was their coach.

If it weren't for Trotz, Nasvhille would've been a lottery pick team for years.

In his years in Nashville, Trotz pulled out as much success as possible from that team.

I think he's being heavily underrated in this article.

Also, Orpik and Niskanen aren't known for their defensive prowess? That's bogus.

Orpik may have lost a step due to age but, he has always and still is described solely as a shutdown defensive defenceman.

Niskanen is considered a two-way defenceman. He can play efficiently in both ends. While Pittsburgh was going through big injuries on defence, he was playing the most minutes while anchoring youngster Maata.

Don't forget that the rest of the Caps D-corps (Carlson, Alzner, Green, and Orlov) will help out greatly. Orpik and Niskanen won't be as heavily relied on as you seem to think.

The Caps are fine.

The only question mark is whether Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Laich will step up and whether Mike Green is gone at the deadline or is left to walk next summer.

Unknown said...

I disagree with the notion that Ovechkin will clash with Trotz. He had issues with Hunter, but he wasn't the only player on the team upset by Hunter's inability to communicate. Also, he willingly and without complaint changed positions under Oates and withstood all the criticism of his defensive game last year to play the system without throwing Oates under the bus (even though Oates sold him out to the media late in the season). I think that both Ovechkin and Trotz are intelligent enough to understand that they must be on the same page if the team is going to succeed. Hopefully Trotz's answer is better than pairing him with Jay Beagle.

Teebz said...

Again, good comments, gentlemen!

I'm not saying that I agree solely with what Neal wrote either, but the article prompts discussion (which we're having). And both of you made fine points for your reasons as well. Thanks for being level-headed in your comments!