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.