I was recently watching the Washington Capitals, and the experience was considerably different than it has been the last couple of years. While the Capitals are a similar team in the sense of personnel, they have clearly experienced a shift in organizational philosophy. They are a team that has become much more defensively responsible. I’m sure this has a lot to do with the additions of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, as well as the coaching of Barry Trotz. Nonetheless, I thought I would look a little deeper into Washington’s recent performance, in comparison to seasons’ past.
The first time I saw Alexander Ovechkin play live, it was an underwhelming experience. It was a number of years ago, but it was safe to say that he was one of the laziest “superstars” I had ever seen. He literally loafed around the neutral zone the entire game, looking for opportunities for breakaways, and that was about it. Before that game, I was more inclined to be impressed by him, but after that game I felt like I discovered the man behind the curtain. Along with the decline in his stats a couple of seasons ago, I was beginning to write the Obituary on Ovechkin’s career, along with the Capitals organizational plan, but then he bounced back.
As I began thinking about this article, I couldn’t help but think about the lore surrounding Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings from the 1980s into the 1990s. Looking first at Yzerman’s early career, he looks very similar to Ovechkin (minus all the personal awards that is, but he was playing with Gretzky, Lemieux, etc). Yzerman had six 100+ point seasons from 87-88 until 92-93. His highest output in 87-88 with a staggering 155 points. Yet Yzerman has a career plus/minus of +185. Considering he has 1755 career points, it doesn’t seem like he was always the most defensively responsible. Sound familiar? Ovechkin has amassed 867 points in 735 career games, yet despite all of his offense, his plus/minus is at +56, with 13-14 being the most egregious example of poor defense at a horrendous -35.
The Red Wings toiled through the mid to late 80s always in the conversation, but never being able to break through. The team was usually top in their division, with 89-90 being the only year that they missed the playoffs. It wasn’t until 93-94 that Scotty Bowman took over the team, bringing with him higher demands of his players, and a more regimented defensive philosophy that he expected everyone to be a part of, Yzerman included. Apparently Yzerman bristled to this idea at first, but then he bought in. The year Bowman first headed the Red Wings, they were out in the first round, which was basically more of the same. The year after they lost in the Stanley Cup Final. In 95-96 they lost in the Conference Final. Then in 96-97 they broke through and won the Stanley Cup for the first time in 42 years in Detroit. Now they are the last team that we have ever seen come close to uttering the term dynasty.
I see a lot of this with the Capitals. They are a team that since the 2007-08 season have been a perennial playoff team. They have been consistently at the top of their division (I know the Southeast hasn’t been the most competitive of divisions), and as well they have toiled in the first two rounds every year (personally, if they beat the Penguins in 2009, I think they would have taken a good run at the Stanley Cup). Now they have added the considerable coaching experience of Barry Trotz after he was fired by the Nashville Predators last season. While some of the teams in Nashville were decent, I really do think that they were more of a product of their system than anything else. Trotz had buy-in in Nashville, and early on in Washington, it looks like more of the same. Last season under Adam Oates, the Capitals goal differential was -5. While not terrible, still pretty bad considering they are supposed to have one of the premiere snipers in the game, clearly team defense was an issue. This year they are at a comfortable +21. That is a 26 goal difference in less than a year. I know adding Orpik and Niskanen really changes the look of the blue line, but I can’t help but think that this team has just experienced a change in philosophy. After all, Trotz’s history in Nashville is the epitome of team defense. There is no reason to think that the Capitals don’t at least try and buy in at first. Plus, Trots has never had this kind of offense at his disposal, which must help in the execution of systems.
While Trots was in Nashville, his winning percentage as a coach was .533. That is a fantastic stat, all things considered. Bryan Murray had a .400 record at the helm of the Red Wings. That was followed up by Scotty Bowman posting a .655 record over 8 seasons. In comparison, Bruce Boudreau had a record of .459 while running the Capitals. Dale Hunter posted a .500 over 1 season, and Adam Oates posted an unimpressive .429. Thus far, Barry Trotz has accumulated a record of .517. To me, all the numbers and comparisons are there. Barring an epic collapse down the stretch, the Capitals should be making it into the post season this year. I think they will be a tough out, and may even push through in Cinderella fashion. They might not win a Cup this year, but they will soon. You heard it here first!
Think I’m an idiot? Post a comment below.