NoVa Caps Mailbag: The Sky Is Falling! Or Is It?

mail-bag (1)The Washington Capitals are fully engulfed in their annual mid-season swoon. Each of the last five or six seasons, sometime around the All-Star break, the Caps end up fighting through the dog days of Winter. Having established themselves as an upper-echelon team, they seem to coast for a few weeks. Call it relaxing, letting their foot off the gas pedal, saving energy for the stretch run. Players look disengaged. Goaltending falters. Fans worry and fret. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Warning signs agonized over such as lack of scoring, coaching doubts, and goaltending troubles recede as the team rounds back into form in the Spring. As this season’s annual hiccup stretches longer than expected, as it edges toward something much bigger, it is fair to wonder if this year is different. For the Capitals, the sky is falling. Or is it? To find out, let’s answer a few questions from the ol’ NoVa Caps Mailbag.

Over the last few weeks, as the Caps have had more trouble than usual getting their heads out of the sand, they have relinquished the top spot in the league standings and the Metropolitan Division. Shorthanded goals against continue to pile up. Power play goals remain scarce. Team defense has disappeared. Wins are no longer routine. With that in mind, let’s get to the questions.

Can I finally begin to panic about Panik?
– Underwhelmed in Upper Marlboro

In a word: Yes. I have spent most of the season defending Richard Panik, but it gets tougher each game. Acclimating to a new system and an injury stunted his early season development. The third-line has played better recently, with Lars Eller elevating his game of late. But I think it is fair to say the Caps haven’t gotten all they expected from Richard Panik. Brought in to bolster the bottom-six, Panik’s possession metrics are okay, yet he really doesn’t pass the eye test. He is not aggressive enough on the forecheck and has twice as many penalty minutes as points. Additionally, his points per game (.30) is his lowest total since 2015-2016. Panik was never expected to consistently light the lamp, but his lack of scoring (combined with Carl Hagelin’s) highlights a dearth of secondary scoring from the bottom six. Washington’s offense hummed when able to stash weapons like Brett Connolly and Jakub Vrana on the third-line. Connolly’s departure and Vrana’s elevation mean the Caps rely too much on their top six forwards for scoring. That may be the real reason to mash the Panik button.

The power play will improve at some point, right? Right?

-Despondent in the District

No power play unit this talented should struggle. However, as long as the Caps cling to the slingshot, refuse to do much beyond feeding Alex Ovechkin in his office, and surrender shorthanded breakaways, the unit will not have the success it is accustomed to having. I have a different theory as to what’s truly wrong. Maybe the hockey gods will not allow both the power play and penalty kill to be great simultaneously. Even Steven like in that old Seinfeld episode. Maybe the power play must suffer in order to have a top-five PK. Given the astonishing rate at which the Caps take minor penalties it’s probably a fair trade. Especially in the playoffs when a solid penalty killing unit is crucial.

If General Manager Brian MacLellan could only make one more acquisition, would you rather see him grab another defenseman or someone to boost the bottom six forwards?
-Tense in Tenleytown

Neither. Sure, as stated above, a bottom-six forward that could put the puck in the net would be great. But what MacLellan should look to acquire is a heart transplant surgeon. Obviously that’s a joke, but this team has the talent to win; I’m not sure they have the heart, the will, the desire to do it. For a team with a championship pedigree, that knows what it takes to win, this club too often looks listless. All the things required to win it all, traits they showed in 2018, are missing right now. Grinding forecheckers and aggressive backcheckers. Crease clearing monsters and shot blocking masochists. When the Caps hit and skate, they are nearly unbeatable. Lately, however, Washington is being outworked on a nightly basis and skating hard for five or 20, but certainly not 60 minutes. Disinterested, sloppy play has become the norm. Up and down the lineup, players look carelessly lazy. Perfectly lackadaisical in their play, with crisp tape-to-tape passes becoming wishful dishes to no one in particular. More turnovers than a televised baking show. Forgetting that dumping and chasing only works if you actually chase down the puck. Routinely surrendering the first goal. Often letting their opponent score mere minutes after a Capitals goal. Yes, the Capitals have some weaknesses, but the biggest one is fixable IF the players can find their heart.

Fire. Todd. Reirden.
– Angry in Alexandria

Terse and to the point. I like it. However, I don’t believe firing Reirden is the answer. I know the list of reasons to lose faith in Reirden grows longer by the day. His stubborn reluctance to revamp the power play is frustrating. A team leading the league in minor penalties could seem to many like a reflection of a coach unwilling to hold his players accountable. Star players, who aren’t getting any younger, look tired perhaps being given too much ice time early in the season. It’s ironic that a coach who was lauded for solving the defensive woes of an eventual Stanley Cup champion now presides over a team which seemingly avoids defense like a disease. At times, Reirden looks lost behind the bench as his players appear on the ice, and with his crossed arms and furrowed brow, he resembles a middle school teacher waiting for his class to quiet down. Not exactly exuding or instilling confidence. Yes, maybe they miss Barry Trotz. And don’t underestimate the void left by Lane Lambert following Barry to Long Island.

Honestly though, what should fans expect Brian MacLellan to do? If he fires Todd Reirden tomorrow, he needs a plan. Bring back Bruce Boudreau? No thanks. If one thinks Reirden doesn’t make adequate adjustments, allow me to show Boudreau’s work over the course of a seven-game series. Should he call Peter Laviolette, a coach with a history of motivating players, having an almost immediate positive impact on franchises, and leading teams to the Stanley Cup Final only to wear out his welcome in a few short, albeit successful, years which is a timeline that just might happen to coincide with the end of the Ovechkin-Backstrom Era providing them the opportunity to win more Cups before the window closes? That’s the guy you’d like to hire? Hmmm…you might be on to something, Angry in Alexandria. Maybe it’s time for me to feel the anger too.

As Capitals fans, some of us are nervous, frustrated, or angry as we wait to see which Capital team shows for the remainder of the regular season. History says it will be the one that gets its act together in time for a strong playoff push. We’ll keep our fingers crossed as we close up the NoVa Caps Mailbag.

By Bryan Hailey.

About Bryan Hailey

I have been a Washington Capitals fan for over thirty years. Some of my favorite memories are rocking the red with friends while cheering the Caps and rooting against their Patrick/Metropolitan Division rivals.
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4 Responses to NoVa Caps Mailbag: The Sky Is Falling! Or Is It?

  1. Marky says:

    Kovy should make that 3rd line more dangerous. Panik to the 4th line now inevitable. The power play is getting better now. I think they will be able to get back to where they were as their entries the last game were much better. Probably very too late to fire Rear Done now. I think if the team gets bumped in the 1st round again, he should be gone the next day and get Gallant in here for the last 3 or 4 years of OVI/BACKY effectiveness. I wouldn’t mind Laviolette either.

  2. hockeydruid says:

    Panik to sit in the rafters for the rest of the season. No need to place him on the 4th line as they are doing as well as a 4th line should although they dont score much. I think his lack of Heart and D would ruin the 4th line. I agree that loosing Lane hurt as much if not more that loosing trotz. Shame that they didnt just give barry the contract he wanted as it would have coincided with the last contract of Ovie and Backy. Yes this team needs more heart but it also needs to keep its head in the game more. Maybe with Ovie finally getting #700 they can go back to thinking about abd playing their game rather than trying to get him his 700th. You can have both a good PP and good PK at the same time. The problem is the Caps have run the same PP for years now and teams have finally learned how to stop it. Also the sling-shot has to stop being their #1 way to get the puck in the zone. maybe shake things up and start the #2 PP some times. Change the personal on the #1 PP like maybe move Oshie to the wing or baseline and put Wilson in the Middle or try Eller there. In fact try a different setup and move Ovie around not have him just sit in his “Office”. Yes as far as Im concerned reardon needs to go; not only does he look overmatched but I dont think he knows how to make any changes. Yes to Laviolette as he would be here only as long as Backy and Ovie are then they all exit at the same time. How about Dan Bylsma or Guy Boucher or Alain Vigneault or Mike Yeo or Sheldon Keefe or Lane Lambert or Bob Boughner or John Hynes or Peter DeBoer or giving Dale Hunter another shot (dont think he would come back and doubt that management would offer him) or Jeff Blashill or Jacques Martin or Phil Housley and finally Steve Konowalchuk. Know that is a long list but surely there is someone on there that could come in and improve the PP, keep the PK up and do something to improve the D.

    • Anonymous says:

      I would never fire him when the Caps are in first place… the POs are dependent to a large degree on BH… he failed in game 7 last year.

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