The next cover story in The Hockey News magazine is entitled “On the Clock.” Senior writer Ken Campbell delves into the Washington Capitals and how there are simply no more excuses for this team; the time to win is this season.
During the pre-season, I had a chance to talk with Versus analyst, Stanley Cup-winner and former NHL coach Ed Olczyk about the Caps and their chances this season. Classify him as a positive doubter.
Olczyk was quick to point out that the same question marks that dogged the Caps in 2009-10 remained as they readied for this season. He questioned the team defense and the goaltending, saying losing veteran Jose Theodore and going with two relatively untested youngsters, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, means even more question marks.
But he couched that with: “I think they have that uncanny ability to be able to turn not a whole heck of a lot into momentum.”
I raised a lack of depth down the middle as something that doesn’t bode well in an Eastern Conference chock full of top-flight centers. Olczyk raised coaching.
“They couldn’t adapt when they needed to in the playoffs to change the momentum or win a game or put Montreal out of their misery,” he said. “Do they have the personnel to be able to adapt when the game goes to a station-to-station or to a dump-and-retreat type of game, or just a muck-and-grind type of game in the corners?”
Of course, Olczyk knows all of that is easier said than done when you’re talking about players with skill sets such as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and any of the other offense-minded guys Washington boasts.
“When you have world-class thoroughbreds,” Olczyk said, “it’s hard to not allow them to play and showcase their ability.”
Motivating players and tactical changes falls under the auspices of Bruce Boudreau and his staff, but Olczyk is also right when he says: “You’ve been dealt a hand in the type of players you have and (it’s tough) to take them out of their comfort zone. There’s a way to play come playoff time and sometimes you get on those railroad tracks and you can’t get off.”
But, then, what to do? Simple answer: Make those changes now, during the regular season, because it’s a lot easier to adapt your style when you’ve already done it.
“One thing I’d like to see is for them to play a couple of different styles,” Olczyk said, “because, for the most part, it’s one way and one way only.”
Early this season, the stats have shown the Caps are making those adaptations. Their scoring had dropped by more than a goal per game heading into the weekend and their goals-against was down by almost half-a-goal (that doesn’t sound like much at first blush, but it had them jumping from the middle of the pack to the top five in that category).
What that tells me is they’re paying closer attention to playing a style that is traditionally successful come the spring. Flashy goals and 5-1 scorelines are nice, but they don’t win Cups.
And winning the Cup – or at least coming much closer – is paramount in Washington this season. With nine looming unrestricted free agents next summer – including mainstays Semin, Mike Knuble, Tomas Fleischmann and Brooks Laich – a changing of the guard is coming. But Boudreau and GM George McPhee are also going to be under the gun. If they can’t coach and manage this cast of characters to a deep playoff run, their jobs will be in question.
“I think the big picture for the Washington Capitals is they need to take the next step,” Olczyk said. “This is a gigantic year for a lot of different reasons.”
Can’t argue with that.
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