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Five ugly truths about the Caps

By Kareem El-Alaily

Optimism is the hallmark of sports fans. Despite the playoff heartbreak and a quiet summer (Belanger-gate notwithstanding), us Cap fans aren''t lacking excitement over this year''s team. We''ve got the league''s most talented offense. We''ve got young, rookie talent ready to step up on defense and in net. We know that last spring''s playoff loss was a fluke and that all the pieces are there to make us favorites for a Stanley Cup run. We all believe, right?

Not quite.

Don''t get me wrong, we''re still good enough to run away with the division and make some noise in the playoffs, but win a Stanley Cup?  I don''t see it.

We went into the Montreal series five months ago thinking that we had two holes in the core part of the lineup, namely the lack of a top-4, physical defenseman and no true second-line center (2C). That certainly wasn''t disproved. But what team in the salary cap era doesn''t have holes? Pittsburgh had issues on the wings; the Devils had holes on offense and defense; Chicago had big questions in net. A team doesn''t have to be perfect to make a run as the Flyers showed. So why should we Cap fans be overly concerned with two measly holes in the lineup?

Because we don't really have two holes; –we have five:

1.  We're still missing a top 4, physical defenseman: John Carlson stepped up and played great in our lineup last spring and will soon become an elite defenseman. But he does not, –nor should he be, expected to – provide the physical presence that makes it hard for other teams to skate against. And none of the other top 4 defenseman --– Green, Poti or Schultz – can provide that missing element of nastiness. Without it, opposing forwards have no fear of hanging around the net and causing trouble as the Flyers (2008), Penguins (2009), and Canadiens (2010) all aptly showcased. Signing Willie Mitchell would have solved the problem, but he was too expensive (2 yrs, $7M) and would have hamstrung us from addressing other pressing needs. So we''ll have to cross our fingers again in hopes of a mid-season injection of sandpaper along the back line. We desperately need it.

2. We have no Stanley Cup caliber 2C. Some folks think that one of the two rookies, –Marcus Johansson or Mathieu Perreault, – will stick with the big club and fill the much needed second-line pivot role that neither Brendan Morrison, Eric Belanger nor Tomas Fleischmann could handle full-time last year. I just don't see it. Should either of them ever become viable 2Cs it's a stretch to think they'll hit full effectiveness in their first full year in the League. Yet it''s a critical position for teams with Stanley Cup aspirations. Over the past four years the 2Cs from Stanley Cup finalists include Patrick Sharp, Jeff Carter, Evgeni Malkin, Henrik Zetterberg, Ryan Getzlaf, and Mike Fischer. That's a mighty impressive list. Think we''ll get that level of play from Fleischmann, Johansson or Perreault this year? I don''t.

3. Alex Semin and Tomas Fleischmann are playoff liabilities. What was most disheartening about our latest playoff collapse was that two second-liners -- Semin and Fleischmann -- were rendered useless. They were partly undone by having an ineffectual center, but mostly it happened because those two gentlemen played too gently. Despite their gaudy regular season numbers, these two did not show the ability to pay the price to succeed in the playoffs. Their aptitude to dangle may work flawlessly against middling teams in the regular season but it won''t work in the playoffs when Hall Gill is laying lumber across your wrists every time you come within 20 feet of the net. Battlers they are not. Unless these two find some inner grit -- or better yet a capable 2C that can squeeze more out of Semin and push Flash off the second line -- –it''s hard to fathom either as a consistent playoff contributor.

4. Sub-standard playoff coaching: It bothers me to say this because we all love what Bruce has done for the franchise. But let's face it, in the past 3 playoff series, he''s been thoroughly out-coached by Jacques Martin and Dan Blysma (a first-year coach) and earned a draw against John Torterella, whose water-bottle meltdown kept Torts from a decisive coaching win. When vastly inferior teams such as Montreal or the Rangers are taking the Caps to seven games, it shows that we''re getting out-coached tactically. When your team is 1-3 in Game 7s at home in front of raucous crowds, there is a motivation problem. When your coach is falling back on the "hot goalie" excuse too liberally, it shows a flawed sense of reality. Yes Bruce, Halak may have singlehandedly won a few games for Les Habs, but Jacques put his undermanned team in position to succeed. You didn't.

5. Lack of playoff experience. The choke job to the Canadiens had another unfortunate consequence - the Caps missed out on vital playoff experience. Think they''ll go from zero series wins to winning the Cup in one year? Only three teams have done it since the 1994 lockout: Carolina 2005, New Jersey 2001 and Colorado 1996. But –-- and of course there''s a but -- both Carolina and New Jersey were veteran teams with a recent Stanley Cup appearance under their belts. Only Colorado ''96 would be a true comparison to the Caps situation. The Nordiques/Avs franchise hadn''t won a playoff series in a decade before running off four in a row. History doesn''t appear to be on our side.

As ugly as these truths are, I''m not implying the Caps are going to be awful. Without a doubt they are one of the top teams going into the season. But I struggle seeing how this team will address those holes, toughen up, stay under the cap and simultaneously develop the mental fortitude to win four straight playoff series THIS year, all while carrying the immense psychological burden of being labeled as chronic underachievers. That''s a lot to overcome. So as you prepare for the 2010-11 season, the theme should not be how many points the Caps can accrue. Barring a horrific run of injuries it''s a foregone conclusion that the Caps will win the division and finish first or second in the Eastern Conference. What we need to watch for is how George McPhee addresses the team's weaknesses up through the March 2 trade deadline. If he can upgrade deficient areas we really do have a shot at winning the Cup. If not, well.... …you know how this will end.

By Box Seats blogger  | September 16, 2010; 10:48 AM ET
Categories:  Capitals, Kareem El-Alaily  | Tags:  Capitals  
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Setting aside some obvious factual inconsistencies...

Care to write anything us Caps fans don't already know? Or was it hard enough copying and pasting pieces from all over the web to bring this together?

Posted by: GFisher1 | September 16, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

We all know about the center shortage, but don't forget the talk about trying Brooks Laich at center. I think he could do a solid job at C if given enough time to get used to the role (and not jerked back and forth between C and wing).

Perreault has a productive sparkplug in his short stints in D.C., they just need to be patient (imho) and see if he can bring that every night in the long haul and not get worn down because of his small size (supposedly he bulked up a bit for camp, and maybe that will help).

Carlson is capable of playing pretty physical, and he seems wise beyond his years in positioning. I really don't think a "crease-clearing" D-man is that critical during the regular season, though I remain hopeful they'll bring someone in like that at the trade deadline.

Posted by: blackjack65 | September 16, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

@GFisher1 - what are the factual inconsistencies?

Posted by: goskinsgo | September 16, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

For what it's worth, GFisher, he's spot on with this. There are zero factual inconsistencies. To say otherwise is to look at the team through blinders.

Posted by: bumperhead | September 16, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

How about letting training camp play out and determine who will be on the the roster before spewing your negative comments. You have NO IDEA what the 2010 edition of the Caps will be.

Posted by: lukeinva | September 16, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

While the author makes some valid points, the only thing I'd propose changing is:
1) Willie Mitchell is a shutdown defender. He's not overly physical and while he would have been an improvement, he certainly does not address the issue in the manner with which the author proposed the problem. If he feels tenacious & physical defense is what is necessary he should watch tape on Mitchell and check out his stats as Mitchell is not a "physical" defender by most hockey standards.

2) It is a lot to expect of Marjo for those numbers. That's just being honest. Flash has a long way to go to make those comparisons as well. I can agree with this assessment.

3) Consistency hasn't been strong in these two. Liking them doesn't mean they haven't not been inconsistent, or let alone produce, as last year and the year before their production was not where it needed to be.

4) One could say that a learning curve is to be expected, but yes there were not adequate changes made to the Power Play systems. As good of a coach as BB is, it would behoove him to accept some responsibility here, if only for his own sake.

5) This is another I would propose changing. Playoff "success" is more accurate. A large portion of these players have played 28GP in the post season. I would accept "playoff success" here, as winning in the post season is important, but experience... 34% of a full 82 game season? I'd say that's ample experience, just not of the "right" kind.

Posted by: paidinfull | September 16, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

I don't see McPhee parting with prospects/picks at the deadline to bring in the kind of players truly needed to address their needs.

And who's to say those players will even be available? Last year's deadline was very quiet as there were only a few teams that were in a selling position.

Posted by: Hatfield223 | September 16, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, what a huge playoff liability Semin is, being PPG in the playoffs and all up until going up against a team that Crosby and Malkin had about as much success as him against... while having to carry Fleischmann and Laich (a guy designated as our top 6 grinder/powerforward who doesn't really have the size for that role has yet to ever establish consistent physical or net presence in the playoffs).

Without Semin this team is in serious trouble as a cluster**** of Laich, Fehr, Fleischmann, Perreault, etc. does not secondary scoring make.

Then again, it's in serious trouble as things stand anyway. Having 2 rookies as your #2 AND #3 centers worked for the Avalanche last year. Except their rookies happen to be elite. Ours are run of the mill (yes, Johansson isn't the savior people are pegging him as).

Posted by: yellowtail99 | September 16, 2010 4:02 PM | Report abuse

"Having 2 rookies as your #2 AND #3 centers worked for the Avalanche last year."

How'd they do in the Playoffs?

It seems like the Caps have taken at least a step back and are in rebuilding mode again. I don't think you can completely build from within when you pick so late in the draft every year and expect to compete for Cups. McPhee does not seem to be able to add quality pieces in free agency or Trades.

Posted by: alanb1 | September 16, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

I think it is important to remember that the Stanley Cup playoffs do not start in October. I think we should wait until after the trade deadline to figure out how we are set up for the playoffs. Also didn't the Caps win a series last year against the Rangers?

Posted by: SFcapsfan | September 17, 2010 12:24 AM | Report abuse

Kareem it's "they" not "we" since you don't play for the Capitals. The ugly truth is you blog itself

Posted by: forever211 | September 17, 2010 5:11 AM | Report abuse

and by last year calender, not season, so 2009

Posted by: SFcapsfan | September 17, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

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