Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Thoughts while in between games

While the Caps players are spending this week getting accustomed to Coach Boudreau's system, it's a good time to examine the state of the team and identify which areas have performed well and which, to put it politely, need improvement. While their record certainly indicated there will be more of the latter than the former, there are certainly bright spots to touch upon. After all, with the snow on the ground in the area and the holiday season approaching, we don't want to be called Grinches

On the positive side, the Caps have improved the overall skill level of their team, specifically with the additions of Nylander and Backstrom. While their impact has yet to show in the standings, you'd be hard pressed to find a more improved position for the Caps than at the center dot. Keep in mind, Kris Beech was playing top minutes for the team last year at the position. While Backstrom still has to improve his skating and physical play, he's shown that he can mentally keep up with the responsibilies of playing the pivot. And Nylander is miles ahead of any Caps center since Adam Oates wore the sweater.

Additionally, the Caps defense has developed more offensive swagger with the addition of Tom Poti and the emergence of Mike Green as a geniune offensive dynamo. While Poti has had to contend with injuries and increased responsibility in all zones, he has been effective as the Caps top defenseman. Mike Green, meanwhile, has been one of the team's top offensive threats for most of this season, redeeming himself after a lackluster second season (and making this post from last year relevant again).

Alex Ovechkin has 20 goals and is averaging over a point a game while playing the best two way hockey of his career. Nothing to scoff at.

Unfortunately, the list of problems is much more robust.

First, aside from Poti and Green, the defense for the Caps has looked positively amateurish so far. Jurcina is no longer hitting everything that moves, and Jeff Shultz must have pictures of Ted Leonsis naked in order to keep his spot on the roster. He's been overmatched in almost every game he's played. Why they haven't shuffled him out of the lineup and given Steve Eminger more looks confounds me. And while John Erskine has been effective at playing the body, he has had lapses of discipline that make his spot in the lineup tenuous at best. Another major issue for the Caps blueliners is their lack of footspeed. They simply cannot skate with the faster teams in the league, and they lack the toughness to pound away at quick players when they have opportunities. Looking for proof? Watch the replay of their performance against Buffalo.

In order for the defense to reach a respectable level, they need a banger, plain and simple. I hate to say it, but the Caps sure could use Brendan Witt right now. I think I just lost a year of my life typing that.

Injuries have also played a major part in the Caps horrendous start, but that does not excuse how they've been managed (and how they might have been prevented). First, let's go with prevention. Under Glen Hanlon, the power play lacked movement, which led to players having to flood the front of the net to create scoring chances (since the shot angles didn't change, they attempted to screen the goaltender and fight for rebounds). Unfortunately, their best shooter is at his best shooting for high corners. Close range shots aimed high tend to be VERY, VERY dangerous to anyone setting a screen. Just ask Chris Clark about it. The Caps could just as easily have created the same screen with Clark skating across the shooting lane, instead of standing in it, and Clarkie would still have both ears in one piece.

As far as Alex Semin's injury is concerned, we covered that weeks ago. Ankle injuries should be given ample time to recover, even if the player thinks they're ready to play. Instead of sitting him for a couple weeks, the Caps rushed Semin back into the lineup, after which he promptly reinjured himself and has yet to fully recover. Ugh.

In terms of forward contributions outside of the Russian Machine, there haven't been any. When your primary setup man is second on the team in goals and one of your defensemen is tied for third, you know there's a problem. Simply put, the Capitals second through fourth lines have not been getting it done. And while their old (trap) system is partially to blame, someone on the team has to step up and get the job done.

And speaking of stepping up, will someone let Viktor Kozlov know that the season has started? Kozlov has been by far the least impactful free agent signing, even though he's played on the top line almost exclusively. At this point, it's fair to say that Kozlov is stealing money every shift he's on the ice. At this point, I think every defenseman in the league knows that Kozlov needs time to make a play and presses him before he gets the opportunity.

It's true that despite his size, Kozlov will never be a banger. But would it be too much to ask for his to actually forecheck instead of weakly swiping his stick at opposing players as they skate past? And if he ever takes another shift at center it will be too soon. I'd rather see Backstrom losing draws but refining his technique than Kozlov losing draw after draw after draw after draw. He belongs on the wing (or more accurately right now, on the bench).

So what do the Caps need to do to address these issues? It's clear that not all of them can be taken care of with the team in its current makeup, so a trade is a possibility. It's much more likely that they'll wait until the offseason to make any moves (especially with the Russian Machine's contract coming due).

However, there are certain things that Coach Boudreau can do right now to improve the team (and some things he's already done).

1. Unleash Mike Green and allow him to play an attacking game (check).
2. Move Kozlov to the wing and off the first line (almost there).
3. LET SEMIN'S ANKLE HEAL. At this point, the Caps have played almost a third of the season without Semin. Sitting him a few extra games isn't going to make or break team chemistry.
4. Improve team discipline. The Caps have taken far too many penalties this year, from their Captain on down. It needs to stop if the Caps want to have any hope of a midseason run. You can win a game or two in a row without discipline, but not 5 or 6 in a row.
5. Wake up (or trade) Kozlov.

So, there you have it. Hopefully Coach B will bring the Caps out on Friday full of fire and wrath, and we'll look back at this as the point in the season where things turned around. Even if they don't recover and make the playoffs, at least we might get to watch some entertaining offensive hockey.


usually frustrated caps fan said...

I agree with you re: letting Semin's ankle heal. I am not at all down on Kozlov and feel Kozlov as first line center with Nyls as second has a better impact and seems to give the Caps two lines that clik; Backstrom between Brashear and Bradley also works IMO. I've written to this extent in my own blog. Thanks for all the great thouhts and info. LETS GO CAPS!!!!

DMG said...

I think Morrisonn has played pretty well most of the year and would look great if he we had another solid defensive defeseman to play with him