Not long ago, NHL headlines were dominated by a rivalry which was in every way dynamic, youthful and immensely entertaining. It was unique in the fact that it contained the two best players in the game, each with a valid case as to why they were best in the world. Neither player with particularly friendly sentiments for the other. Both had a supporting cast every bit as intriguing as the main character. The rivalry soon achieved the cinematic proportions that everyone was hoping was possible, made evident by an exceptional playoff series.
Those were the glory days of the Penguins-Capitals saga, a time when they could legitimately be considered two of the best teams in hockey. However, just a few years down the road and these teams have taken very different paths since they met in the 2009 Stanley Cup Semi-Finals. The Penguins would go on to win the Cup that year, making good on their boundless potential. Meanwhile, the Capitals have largely faded into a sort of anonymity from which they have yet to recover.
Fast-forward to the 2012-2013 season, the Capitals coming off yet another playoff disappointment, albeit a surprising run to the conference semi-finals. Yet, just a year later this is not the same Washington team – in fact most of the framework isn’t even present. The 2012-13 Capitals are seen in sharp contrast to that 2008-09 season. The dominant offensive framework has largely departed from the city, replaced by inconsistency and has-beens. The Capitals find themselves in the basement of the NHL’s Eastern Conference in the early going.
It was likely that the Capitals would regress after last season, an impressive playoff victory over the Boston Bruins rendering the season palpable. Few would have guessed that they would come out of the gates flying, and be a contender for either their division or the conference. However, this was a team that seemed ready to once again heavily compete for a playoff position. The addition of the incredibly talented Mike Ribeiro seemed to be a decent enough replacement of the departed Alex Semin. Plus, with Adam Oates behind the bench it seemed Washington finally had a chance to return to the offence-first hockey which saw them dominate the National Hockey League.
However, you could say that the coaching hire of Oates was just the latest in an on-going series of mistakes made by the Capitals’ management. A situation like Washington’s begs for experienced coaching, as they simply don’t have a roster where a new coach can walk in and produce results. Last year under Dale Hunter, while the team certainly wasn’t as dynamic or exciting to watch they played a system which extended their playoff life and almost earned them a birth in the Conference Finals. The team played a well structured and disciplined, leaving the formerly signature offensive style nothing but a distant memory. But part of Hunter’s ability to make bold decisions was the fact that he never really seemed to want the job, he quickly departed at the end of the season.
While Hunter was the mastermind behind the Capitals playoff success, it is evident that he could not have done it without his centrepiece, Braden Holtby. The Washington goaltender did his very best Jaroslav Halak impression as he willed the Capitals through almost every single playoff game. For the first time in recent memory the Capitals finally had a goaltending display worthy of the talent in front. Returning to their comparable, Fleury provided Pittsburgh with goaltending that was just solid enough, while the Capitals could never find a winner. Sadly the Holtby heroics didn’t coincide with the required version of the Capitals. Although the defensive mindset of this edition of the team could only have helped his goaltending production.
Going into this season, Capitals fans finally had hope because of Holtby’s playoff performance, that he could make up for some of the other holes in their lineup. However, Holtby has predictably suffered from Jim Carey syndrome, a goaltender who played for the very same club. Once the book is out on a goaltender, teams will be able to render human those who looked heroic in the past. Some recent examples of this effect would be James Riemer for the Maple Leafs and of course Steve Mason for the Jackets.
While the factors are different, this syndrome can effect players as well. It could explain what has become of one of the league’s most dynamic stars in Alex Ovechkin. Returning to above, Crosby and Ovechkin used to be one-two, not necessarily in that order, in the entire world. Since then, Oveckhin has widely fallen off that pedestal, and his talents and statistics not what they once were. This has translated into the 2012-13 season, where Ovechkin has looked the worst in his career. Teams have figured out how to play Ovechkin, how to counter his skill and energy. Now the Capitals have been left to wonder whether they selected the right Russian in 2004. Malkin’s play as of late is making that question incredibly relevant.
Finally, last season the departure of Alex Semin seemed like an inevitable. The Russian forward had shown flashes of being one of the league’s elite players during his entire career but lacked the work ethic or the ability to dominate big games. However, it would appear that in the early going the Capitals are missing his presence. One thing that nobody could doubt about Semin was his skill and he brought plenty of it to the table for Washington. Mike Ribeiro just doesn’t have the same scoring ability or threat which Semin possesses when he is playing at his finest. Furthermore, the trade for Ribeiro was nonsensical at best, sacrificing future for temporary talent.
Cody Eakin isn’t the only prospect that the Washington Capitals have mishandled, they seem to have a tough time realising that with their current roster it is best to focus on youth. John Carlson has worked out incredibly well for the Capitals, becoming a stud on their blueline. But on top of losing Eakin the club has yet to persuade Evgeny Kuznetsov to join their ranks from the KHL. With him in the lineup the team would be far more dangerous.
While their were clues to this effect, nobody would have pieced together the Capitals early disappointments.