For a while there, the Washington Capitals were the NHL’s preeminent cautionary tale for how quickly the outlook and fortunes of a team can change. They were the living embodiment of the dangers of succumbing to the human impulse for overreacting to the variance rooted in small sample sizes.
As quickly as they had built up the offensive juggernaut that was tearing through the league during the regular season from 2008 to 2011, they tore it all down following one too many premature playoff exits. In a misguided effort to bolster their chances come the postseason they turned their back on their greatest attributes – a high-octane group oozing with skill – and opted for a more conservative, defensive-minded approach.
While the initial returns were seemingly promising given that they came within just one game of their first Conference Final appearance since ‘98 under Dale Hunter, they eventually fell flat on their collective faces once the underlying issues that had been accumulating manifested themselves.
The notion of ‘team identity’ is generally one of the most overused cliches in sports, but in this case it actually has some merit. In switching between the likes of Hunter to Adam Oates, they were yo-yoing from one extreme to the other without any real sort of evident plan in place.
By the end of the ‘13-’14 season, things truly hit rock bottom. They missed the playoffs for the first time in years, ultimately leading to the firing of both their third coach in as many years and the guy that had been pulling the strings for nearly two decades.
As it turns out the organizational overhaul came at just the right time, because the perfect coach to right the ship fell right into their lap. While Barry Trotz is mostly known for the work he did with the Nashville Predators on the defensive side of things for all of those years, I suspect that label doesn’t fully do him justice as a bench boss. The best trait a coach can possess is the ability to adapt to his surroundings, and work with the hand he’s dealt.
In Trotz’s case he took over an expansion franchise in the Predators that was never really in the business of shelling out the type of money that high-end offensive options generally command on the open market. So while it would be disingenuous to suggest that his structure and defensive principles haven’t played a large part in Washington’s rebirth since his arrival, he’s also done a commendable job of striking a fine balance between offence and defence.
He has taken the muzzle off of his best player, who just so happens to be unquestionably the most prolific scorer of his time. He has only finally unleashed Evgeny Kuznetsov onto the league, which has afforded them the luxury of splitting Backstrom up from Ovechkin and stretching opposing teams thin by forcing them to legitimately fear two scoring lines now.
It helps that they also addressed their biggest hole this summer by replacing the likes of Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward – two fine players in their own right, but also guys that have made a career of outkicking their coverage – with more talented options in TJ Oshie and Justin Williams on the right wing. The latter in particular has been a fantastic addition, proving he still has some juice left in those legs. After a worrisome dip in point and shot generation rate stats last season in L.A. Williams has fit in perfectly next to Backstrom and Marcus Johansson on their second line, with the trio controlling roughly 60% of all shot attempts at five-on-five.
Put all of that together, and the Capitals are beginning to resemble that dominant 50-win squad from ‘08-’09:
(All data came from the invaluable War on Ice)
While the cumulative numbers themselves look awfully similar, it’s worth noting that they’ve taken a different path towards getting there. They’re making up for the fact that they’re taking 6.6 fewer shot attempts per 60 minutes by giving up 4.7 fewer attempts the other way. Remarkably no team in the league has been better at suppressing shot attempts than the Capitals thus far, sample size caveats and all.
I’d go so far as to argue that this incarnation of the Capitals is generally a better one from top to bottom. While the forward talent is relatively comparable, they’ve essentially upgraded from Jose Theodore and a very green Semyon Varlamov in net to someone who has established himself as one of the best goaltenders in the league. While their power play hasn’t been as potent this so far this year, there isn’t really much reason to believe it won’t get there; their rates from last season were very comparable to the ones from their late-2000s heyday.
Things were bad there for a while in Washington but they also could’ve realistically been a lot worse. Despite a few hiccups along the way they managed to rebuild the team on the fly, which is a tough task in today’s salary cap world. Without fully blowing up the operation and starting it up again from the ground floor, they instead reloaded around their generational star player. In doing so, they may’ve quite possibly presented him with his best chance yet to make a long playoff run, something every fan of the game should be able to agree upon as being a great thing for the sport.