A Renewed Commitment to the Regular Season
Despite the team T-shirts, cute sound bytes and T-shirts with cute sound bytes, the Caps seemed shockingly disinterested for most the regular season following a jarring first-round loss to the Canadiens. In a lot of ways it was understandable. They expended so much effort to win the President’s Trophy in 2009-10 and in the end it got them nothing.
Instead of returning this year with a renewed commitment to the fundamentals, it almost looked as if the Caps weren’t excited to show up to work.
As a result, they spent most of the season mired in mediocrity and almost let things spiral out of control during an HBO-televised eight game losing streak in December. During the streak, Head Coach Bruce Boudreau changed his team’s system from run-and-gun to defensive shell.
The systemic change was perhaps the strangest development in a season full of strange developments. How often does a team with the same coach go through an entire overhaul of their system mid-season? Why was the same team that put up historic numbers the season before suddenly unable to execute the same system effectively?
It seemed more like a desperate move to cover for the fact that the players lacked the focus and commitment to play Boudreau’s original and more complicated system with any effectiveness.
Additionally, the nature of many of the losses throughout the streak and the season were perplexing and indicative of major issues. They were shut out 10 times in 2010-11, several of those in blowouts at the hands of less talented teams like the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings.
Shockingly, the player who seemed least interested may have been the team’s captain, who didn’t seem prepared when the regular season began in October.
For all his skill and strength, Montreal Head Coach Jacques Martin figured out last post-season that Ovechkin’s go-to move was to skate across the top of the circles to the middle of the ice, use the defenseman as a screen and unleash a wicked shot. Martin positioned his defensemen just right and had his forwards apply aggressive back pressure to cut down on time and space. The technique was reasonably effective, limiting Ovechkin to just one goal in Games 5-7 of the series.
This season, every other team started doing the same thing while Ovechkin, well, kept doing the same thing. His numbers plummeted and the team’s offense suffered. It seemed that Ovechkin made no adjustments in the offseason and added nothing new to his game.
If his role as captain was to lead by example, what kind of message was his frequently uninspired play and lack of preparation supposed to send to the locker room?
In fact, the entire organization at times seemed to casually blow off the regular season as an exhibition.
In January, they lost what was then considered a pivotal game in the Southeast Division standings 3-0 to the Lightning in resounding fashion. That week, owner Ted Leonsis seemed to excuse the team’s play in an interview on a local radio show.
“My goal is I just want to qualify for the playoffs,” Leonsis said on 106.7 FM’s Mike Wise’s show. “I don’t think it matters how many points we finish with. I want us to enter the playoffs playing the right way and being healthy….I think our guys may be unconsciously pacing themselves a little bit, I do. I think that.”
Perhaps the “flip the switch” mindset started from the top.
Proven Stanley Cup winner Jason Arnott arrived on March 1 and wasn’t impressed with what he saw. His first game in a Caps’ uniform was against the Islanders, and with his team trailing 1-0 he felt the need to call out the lackadaisical attitude that seemed to pervade the entire locker room between periods.
“It’s tough, but I can’t hold anything back,” Arnott told the Washington Post after the game, which the Caps won, 2-1. “There are certain things we have to address if we want to go forward. If these guys want to win there’s a lot of things that we need to address and play a lot better than we did tonight.
“I saw a lot of things tonight that we can do a lot better and I’m sure everybody knows that.”
After that game, the Caps appeared to have turned the corner. It was a stroke of genius on the part of GM George McPhee to bring in Arnott both for the leadership role he assumed and the hole he filled as second line center. However, the fact that the team had to essentially bring in a player-coach to change the locker room culture is alarming, particularly given that Arnott is an unrestricted free agent and may not be back next season.
There’s a reason Arnott was disturbed when he entered a locker room that seemed content to go through the motions. The New Jersey Devils team he won the Stanley Cup with probably didn’t treat the regular season like an 82-game warm-up session.
Did the lackadaisical approach from to October to March doom the Caps in the playoffs? Maybe not directly, but it certainly couldn’t have helped.
The past three Stanley Cup winners in the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks were also successful regular season teams. They achieved that success through good habits in the regular season and didn’t have to change once the games started to matter.
For Detroit, that entailed an all-out commitment to total domination of puck possession. The Penguins succeeded by adhering to Dan Bylsma’s forechecking system which led them to glory the year after. Last year, the Blackhawks committed themselves to two-way hockey from October through June.
None of those teams talked about flipping switches or playing differently when it mattered. The switch was always on. The effort was always there. Every regular season game mattered because it was an opportunity to perfect the system they were using.
Maybe the Caps need to set a higher standard of expectations every single day, starting from the owner and trickling down to the GM, the coach and the team captain all the way down through the fourth line. The leaders of the organization need to realize the importance of perfecting a system and establishing good habits during the regular season instead of treating it as an exhibition.