Friday, May 06, 2011

Where To Go From Here?

It was a quick exit for the Caps. Apologies to fans from the owner, some job security for a coach by a general manager and all around bad feeling for just about everyone else. What is done, can not be undone so all there is left to do is look to the future of the franchise. Where do the Capitals go from here?

The first thing they have to do is analyze what went wrong. The Capitals thought that changing their system to a more defensive style would prove useful come playoff time. It did work. If you look at game five against the New York Rangers, the Capitals played their system to a tee. They were patient, played responsible in the defensive zone and their transition from defense to offense lead to a few goals.

But in the series against the Lightning, their iron clad system turned into confusion and mental mistakes. Resiliency turned into panic and poor decision making. Some of it can be blamed on youth. A third of the Caps defensive corps are rookies. Some of it could be blamed on role players not stepping up and adding to the score sheet.

The Capitals are an emotional team. The Lightning gave them very little to react to. There were no fights, no real scrums. Tampa kept their emotions in check and the Capitals had little to work on. They couldn't get under the skin of top players like Marty St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier. There was nothing to build a cause around and they just got out played. I think we all remember what Steve Downie tried to do getting into a fight with Ovechkin in the regular season. It ended up bolstering the Caps bench and Matt Bradley came to the rescue. But the Bolts didn't give the Caps much to work with in the playoffs.

Now the Caps have to correct it when they face this type of game again. Brooks Laich is a unrestricted free agent this summer, as is Jason Arnott, Matt Bradley, Marco Sturm and Boyd Gordon. George McPhee might try to hold on to a few, but all were non factors in the series against the Lightnin (just two goals total and a combined -2 for those 5 players in four games).

McPhee could try to re-energize his team with some proven role players. Bring in some guys who know what their job is and do it well. An agitator when he needs to be, a fighter to protect his team and some one who isn't afraid to score a goal or two.

As far as his defense looks, McPhee has masterfully protected his blue line with some great youth. Karl Alzner and John Carlson have been fantastic on the back end for Washington, often matched up with top lines on opposing teams. With youth coming up the pipeline in Dmitri Orlov the Caps will be okay on the back end. Alzner is a RFA this summer, but I don't think McPhee will have any trouble resigning the young defenseman.

The netminders look good too. Michal Neuvirth's first season as a Capital was a success. He was the best goaltender in the playoffs before they ran into the Lightning. Even if back up Semyon Varlamov goes to the KHL, which he is rumored to do, Braden Holtby will be more than capable filling in. The Caps are solid with three youthful goaltenders that have nothing but potential ahead of them.

Let's face it, the young guns (Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Nick Backstrom and Mike Green) aren't getting much younger. These core players actually have the clock against them. Green's contract ends next year, as does Semin. If a contracts can't be negotiated, the pair could be traded for something in return (not saying that will happen, McPhee has done funnier and less funnier things).

The power play needs to be revamped. After only scoring 2 goals for 19 chances against the Lightning (one goal on a 5 on 3), the extra man advantage needs to find a better system. Part of their problem is their predictability. It is a problem that plagued the Capitals all season long. They look for the one timer opposite side of the overload. Backstrom feeds the cross ice pass to shooters Green, Semin and Ovechkin and Mike Knuble cleans up the garbage. But teams have started to be more aggressive on the passer and take away the center of the ice. Instead of a quick pass, the Caps are still looking for the cross ice pass, often forcing it if it isn't there.

The easiest solution to the power play woes is to practice moving the puck much faster and puck control inside the zone. Practicing patience and wearing down the penalty killers could lead to mistakes by the defensive team and open seams to one timers or better. The system doesn't always work, but it does lead to offensive chances and also tires the goaltender who has to go from post to post to keep up with the passes and fake shots.

The penalty kill is fine. Although it would be best if the Capitals practiced some discipline. They changed their penalty kill to be more aggressive and the killers they have also add an offensive threat to keep other teams honest. It wasn't perfect against the Bolts, they scored at least a power play goal in three of four games in the series.

There will be a whole lot of questions this summer yet to be answered. Will the Caps be able to hold on to the players they need while improving their team? Will the power play change? Will the Caps go in a different direction with their offense? The sad thing is we will have to wait until September to get all the answers.

Caps notes:
  • Ovechkin is off to play in the World Championship. After admitting he had been injured for most of the season according to Wash Post. He was recovering from surgery in March during his "rest." Ovi stayed mum on the injury and blamed most of his lack of offensive production due to his focus on the post season.
  • Other injuries that were disclosed: Mike Knuble (broken thumb), Mike Green (hip flexor), John Carlson (hip pointer), Jason Arnott (had knee surgery late in the season). Add Tom Poti who is battling a groin pull problem and Backstrom had a fractured thumb late in the season.

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