Or, “Are the Caps the NHL’s version of the Phoenix Suns?”
At the quarter mark of the NHL season, the Washington Capitals sit in 6th place in the East with 25 points in 20 games, 2 back of the Southeast Division leading Florida Panthers (seriously). It’s been a somewhat turbulent season so far in DC, and much has been made of the benching of Alexander Ovechkin in the late stages of a game earlier in November, and, more recently, the scratching of a healthy Alexander Semin from the Caps lineup. This pushing and prodding of the Caps top talent is directly related to the reality that regular season success is no longer enough in Washington, and, building on the predominant belief that defense wins championships, a demand for increased responsibility and accountability at both ends of the ice is being demanded of them.
This team, therefore, appears to be at somewhat of a crossroads, a supremely talented group of offensive players struggling to find a new defensive minded identity, an ideological tug of war that will decide whether this team can get over that proverbial hump and may ultimately cost coach Bruce Boudreau his job if they don’t.
One can’t look at this team and not think about a similar situation that occurred in the NBA. Prior to the 2004-05 season, the Phoenix Suns made a major splash by signing free agent PG Steve Nash, who, along with Amar’e Stoudemire & Shawn Marion (and under the guidance of coach Mike D’Antoni), made an immediate and dynamic impact by initiating an exciting and effective up tempo brand of basketball. In his first year in the desert, the Suns finished the season with the best record in the NBA (62-20) & Nash would go on to be named MVP of the league. While the Suns did beat the Grizzlies & Mavericks en route to the conference finals (a feat that Caps have yet to achieve, it should be noted), they were ousted by the more defensive minded Spurs in 5 games. The following season, Nash and the Suns would finish 2nd in the West with a record of 54-28, despite the departure of Joe Johnson and without the services of Stoudemire, out with a knee injury for most of the year. Nash would win his second consecutive MVP award, and helped lead the Suns to a remarkable comeback in the opening round of the playoffs against the Lakers. After beating the Clippers in round 2, the Suns once again fell short in the conference finals, this time to the Mavericks (a team that, until last season, faced similar questions about their makeup). In 2007, as the #2 seed in the West and again backed by some incredibly exciting up-tempo play by Nash, the Suns would again knock off the Lakers in the first round. In round 2, controversy reigned as the Suns were bounced from the playoffs by the more fundamentally sound Spurs, with many believing the Suns could and should have won it all had suspensions not been handed out to key players after they left the bench when Robert Horry hip checked Nash. This appeared to be their best chance to win it all, an opportunity to prove that a run & gun style of basketball could be used to build a winner, but in the end only added to the growing list of playoff failures for this team.
After losing out (again) to the Spurs in the 2008 playoffs, and with D’Antoni moving on to coach the Knicks, the Suns decided it was time to make a change by bringing in a more defensive minded coach. Terry Porter, formerly of the Pistons, would all but fail in his attempt to slow down the Suns, leading the team to a record of 28-23 at the All-Star break, one game out of the playoff picture. The defensive approach was tossed out altogether after 4 months, and Alvin Gentry was brought in to (in his words) “establish a breakneck pace like we’ve had in the past.” And score they did, but in a competitive Western Conference, they failed to make the playoffs in 2009. And after one more conference finals appearance in 2010 followed up by missing the playoffs entirely in 2011, it appears as though the Suns window has closed, validating in the eyes of many that an up tempo / run & gun philosophy, while supremely entertaining, is quite simply not the way to go in order to win championships.
Which brings us back to the Washington Capitals. While the Ovechkin era would begin one year after Nash’s first MVP season (due to the NHL lockout), his impact was also immediately felt, as he put up 52 goals and 106 points in his rookie season and 46 goals and 92 points in his second year. The Capitals, however, continued to struggle as a team, failing to make the playoffs in those two years and leading to the hiring of Bruce Boudreau in 2007. Washington – backed by Ovi’s 56 goals and 110 points goals en route to his first Hart Trophy, and aided by the emergence of the likes of Green, Backstrom & Semim – would go on to win their division and make the playoffs in 2008, losing in round 1 to the Flyers in 7 games after being down 3-1 to start the series, an experience that many believed would serve them well moving forward. The following season, Ovechkin would once again bring home the Hart (with 50 g, 109 points), and the Caps would once again win the division, even making it to the 2nd round with a series win over the Rangers. While they did lose out in 7 to the eventual Cup champions (Pittsburgh), this was seen as the next big step for them, another building block en route to the Cup.
It would be in the following two years that major questions would start to be asked about this team. In 2009-10, the Caps would win the president’s trophy and were heavy favorites going into the playoffs, but their aspirations were stymied in the first round by a brilliant defensive scheme & some legendary goal-tending by Jaroslav Halak of the 8th seeded Canadiens. And in 2011 (in a down year statistically for Ovi as he tried to adjust his game and perhaps save himself a bit for the playoffs), Boudreau made a determined effort to ratchet up the defensive responsibility, growing pains marked by an 8 game losing streak made infamous by HBO. They would recover in time to once again win the division, but after taking care of the Rangers in round 1, they were swept in round 2 by the defensive minded Lightning. This result brought this team beyond the realm of ‘learning experiences’ and firmly under the microscope in terms of whether or not they can successfully balance their firepower with a measure of defensive responsibility.
Having said all this, there are two fundamental differences between these two similar scenarios. First, the Suns decided to make a coaching change in order to attempt to spark a shift in philosophy (which lasted only 50 games or so). They quickly reverted back to a freewheeling style, to some measure of regular season success, while at the same time validating the difficulty of achieving it at the highest level. The Capitals, on the other hand, have attempted to make that shift within the context of the status quo, keeping Boudreau behind the bench. You can’t help but wonder if the players are struggling with this new song from the same voice, or if they resent having their skills roped in where they once had free reign. It will be interesting to see if BB
Q will be allowed to see this through to the end, or if the Caps will decide that a new captain is needed to steer this ship. Up to this point, management appears to be quite committed to the current coach, perhaps putting more of the onus on the players to get it straight.
Which brings us to the second major difference between the Caps & Suns. It’s important to note that Nash was 30 years old when he kick started the Suns rise to prominence; he had already been in the NBA for 8 years before he began to dominate the game, which is what makes his story so remarkable. The catalyst in Washington, however, is currently only 26 years old, and by all rights he and his core teammates should just now be entering the prime of their careers. To even suggest that the window is closing on the Caps is extremely premature; while Nash surprised everyone with a late in the career surge, Ovi & Co. (barring any major changes to the roster) still have a good decade to prove that they are capable of winning the Cup. The Caps made some important depth moves this past off season, and brought in a potential star G in Tomas Vokoun, all of which may yet pay off down the road. For me, it all starts with Ovechkin. If he can harness his energy & get back to his old freewheeling self while at the same time helping to take care of business in his own end, those willing to follow his example will ride that wave while the rest (regardless of how talented, ie: Semin) should be shown the door. As noted on the most recent ‘Backhand Shelf’ podcast, however, Semin’s post-scratch response was quite encouraging. But if Ovi and others have decided to tune out the coach, then perhaps it’s only a matter of time until Boudreau is shown the door, at which point all bets are off in terms of how this group will respond.
Having said all this, the truth of the matter is that it’s very difficult to achieve and maintain the highest level of success in the NHL; 2 of the past 3 Cup champions have been built similarly to the Caps (ie: through the draft with high end picks) and have very real aspirations of returning to glory, and last year’s champs look as though they’re not going away anytime soon. On paper, the Caps are indeed as good as any team in hockey, but at the end of the day, not every good to great team in each era can come out on top. What’s left to be seen is if the Caps have the maturity & dedication to rise above their past failures & present challenges in order to ultimately achieve their goals of becoming winners when it counts.
This team is without question one of the more interesting stories in the NHL this year, one that all hockey fans will be keeping an eye on.