Capitals filled with questions
Entering the 2014-15 season, Alex Ovechkin looks to lead the not-so-deep
NEW YORK, NY -- With an immense amount of data and video available,
it's shocking there's no conventional wisdom on athletes. With a tap
on a touch screen, an input of 16 sequenced digits, you can have any
game streaming directly to whatever phone or tablet you're currently
more addicted to.
Yet, still, opinions on something that seems like it could be
objective seem so subjective, like a hot political issue. Is this an
age of rapidly waning neutrality with sports analyzation, or is the
saturation of opinion helping put the poor ones that team's make on a
The Washington Capitals this coming season could be a battleground
test case for proving pundits' majority opinions wrong or affirming
After nabbing themselves some top draft choices -- one of which was
used to select elite scoring winger Alexander Ovechkin -- the Capitals
enjoyed a resurgence up the standings. The team shot up the charts
like a melodic, sample heavy teen-pop song about first dates and
partying in the sun.
They topped out at 121 regular season points in 2009-10, but never
made it past the second round in the playoffs. They've run through
coaches like a kid runs through toys: using them up, wearing them out
and ultimately feeling underwhelmed after they've outlived their
Is this year going to be different for the team based in the U.S.
They made monumental changes but the offensive core had stayed the
same and it starts with the Ovechkin, a maligned superstar whose game
is not played "the right way" (the North American way). The "Great 8"
is a spectacular goal scorer and has the ability to put his foot on
the throat of a game, with a rarely seen combination of size, skill,
tenacity and speed.
Watching him play is supremely pure. There's an almost naive
exuberance, which there has to be, because somewhere in the arena, his
effort is being questioned, along with his heart and leadership. The
mercurial narrative surrounding Ovechkin could send anyone's head
For this team to be successful, the narratives need not be capricious.
Ovechkin has to silence any critics of his game on a nightly basis.
How can he do that? By playing exactly like he has been for years,
like one of the league's best.
Yes, it's not nearly Ovechkin's fault that the Capitals have struggled
in recent years. It's lazy to launch unscrupulous criticism his way.
That's what most of it has been. The Capitals don't need to trade
Ovechkin, they need to surround him with talent, like all good teams
do. Jonathan Toews has won two Stanley Cups with Duncan Keith, Brent
Seabrook, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and a cast as deep as a Wes
Ovechkin has consistently had Niklas Backstrom and an oft-injured Mike
Green. Plus, Brooks Laich? Yes, over the years, there has been other
talent in and out of the room, like Alexander Semin, but this team has
never been deep, an absolute requirement for playoff success.
Deep teams aren't impacted nearly as strongly by those off-nights from
their superstars, which some call statistical variance, others call
luck and even others call a lack of intangibles.
Washington spent over $10 million on two defensemen this off-season.
Matt Niskanen, who signed the pricier deal, coming off his best season
as a professional, notching career-highs in pretty much every
category, and Brooks Orpik, who brings a whole myriad of
As I have written in the past, there's no sense in the Orpik signing.
That didn't prevent the Capitals from trying to defend it.
"I know that [General Manager Brian MacLellan's] taken some heat on
that," Capitals Head Coach Barry Trotz told Washington Post earlier
this month. "One of the things you get, and it's most common,
everybody looks at the points and says Brooks Orpik doesn't have great
points, so why are you paying him that? The things that Brooks Orpik
does, you can't put a value on."
That's an argument in the face of the impossible. We can quantify
almost everything today. Soon, it'll all be tracked by the NHL. These
squabbles rely on a player supposedly transcending empirical evidence.
It's the metaphysics of hockey those damn intangibles.
"I hope you won't take this the wrong way, but I don't listen much
anymore to what you guys say," Capitals Owner Ted Leonsis told Post.
"I think it's your jobs, and I was a little disappointed that it's not
the right way to welcome somebody to a new team and a new city, a guy
who has been in the league a long, long time. He's a guy who has
intangibles of leadership and he's tough as nails and one the coaches
and [MacLellan] respect very much. I think he's a good player."
There's that word again: intangibles. Those things that superstar
winger Ovechkin doesn't have. He only has tangibles.
Behind the bench, comes the biggest change of all for the Washington
Capitals: the addition of Trotz along with the subtraction of Adam
Oates, a failed coaching experiment.
Trotz had proven, on an almost yearly basis, that he could do a lot
more with a lot less. In Nashville, he took an expansion team out of
the basement (a place where expansion teams can often get stuck
without great drafting acumen) into a perennial playoff team. He did
it mostly with smoke, mirrors and goaltending.
Systematically, there was always an emphasis on defensive play with
Trotz, but not defensive play in the John Tortorella (New York Ranger
era) sense. The emphasis was on responsibility, not defending first
and getting stuck in your own zone, blocking shots because you never
have the puck.
It's a system built on responsibility and accountability.
The Capitals are hoping that it'll pull all of those tangible
qualities out of Ovechkin, putting them on display on a nightly basis.
Ovechkin's success is integral to the team's success.
The Capitals will take aim at a very winnable division, with some
elite talent. Backstrom joins Green (a player that was overrated, and
then underrated, but has talent despite injuries) and some decent
young goaltending that could them competitive all season. They are the
toughest team to forecast because there's so much unknown, especially
Just don't count out tangible superstar Alex Ovechkin.