Sometimes I think there’s this assumption about how you build a championship NHL team, or in any sport really. That you bottom out, collect your draft picks, hit on most of them, bring them through together, add the veterans at the right time and then you win. But that doesn’t really factor in for so many things that are out of your control. Because you can do all those things, and there just might be someone better or farther along their curve when you’re ready. And then when they’re done, one who is behind you on the curve is ready to come to the fore.
The Capitals have gone through this cycle twice. They had one of the NHL’s best teams in 2009 and 2010. They had blended Ovechkin with Backstrom, Semin, Green, Laich, Fehr, Fleischmann, and a few others. They amassed what now looks to be a silly 121 points. But one year, they ran into Crosby and the Penguins in 2009 when they were a post-Therrien firing buzzsaw. They lost in seven games. Not all that far away. The next year they got goalie’d by Jaro Halak. Really, these are two things out of their control. And they lost both series on something of a knife edge.
The latter setback caused Bruce Boudreau and the whole organization to basically lose its mind. They went away from what made them so good, tried to be defensive, and eventually lost their way for a few years with Dale Hunter and Adam Oates behind the bench.
So they somewhat started over with Barry Trotz. Ovechkin and Backstrom were still around, but this time they were blended with a Vezina-caliber goalie, Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Carlson, Alzner, Orlov… and well we could keep going but the level of talent is really silly. They added Williams and Oshie and went for it.
And for the past two years, they combined what befell them in ’09 and ’10 by getting goalie’d and Penguins Buzzsawed at the same time! You can’t look back at any of these series and say the Caps did something massively wrong. Especially this time around, when they’ve basically controlled most of the four games. There’s not much more you can ask a team to do than really have the attempts slant toward you and have the puck most of the time and generate far more of the better chances. What do you do when Marc-Andre Fleury has simply gone nuts?
But that’s not enough for fans and team execs, is it? They’re going to demand answers. You can’t just say, “Hockey’s weird and we simply didn’t roll 7s this time.” There has to be a reason, because if there’s a reason there’s a fix. And if there’s no fix… you’re just lost, or so it feels.
Sure, Holtby hasn’t been as good as Fleury. But he’s only really had one bad game. And he’s a Vezina winner. What more could you ask? Sure, Ovechkin could probably play a little better but the puck isn’t going in for him just like everyone else because there’s an octopus on speed wearing black and gold goalie pads.
This series isn’t over. Maybe Fleury can’t keep up this level (who could?). The absence of Crosby, if it continues, has to be felt at some time. Holtby probably has one more game to steal in him.
But if it does end against the Caps yet again. what will they learn? The salary cap will answer a lot of questions for them of course. But will they conclude they just don’t have the right mentality? That’s hard to believe when they’ve been the best team in hockey two straight years. And this year in a meat-grinder of a division. Do they think there’s something wrong with their style? That’s what went wrong last time, trying to adapt a roster that was built for one thing into another.
Or can they do the hardest thing, and conclude that sometimes, it just isn’t up to you? Stan Bowman has made his mistakes, but I think his biggest success was after the ’12 first round exit, and there were calls to do some drastic things. I’m sure some of them came from above him as well. But he assessed it, thought he had put together a pretty good team and thought, “Well, maybe next year the opposing goalie won’t throw a .950 at us, and I think we’ve got a pretty good team here.” His patience was rewarded with an utterly dominant season-in-a-can and a second Cup.
You’ve seen it in plenty of other sports, too. The ’98 Indiana Pacers team was fucking loaded. One problem. Michael Jordan still plied his trade on the Westside. The next year when he was gone, the Pacers had the small problem of Kobe and Shaq on the West Coast. Did the Pacers do something wrong? Or was there timing just off? Our beloved 80’s Bears. Put up one Super Bowl, were drunk and stupid for the next two years, and then looked pretty good in 1988. Just a Montana-and-Rice size obstacle in the way. Whoops. Those mid-90’s Cleveland Indians. Had a strike get in the way one year (and we can have that ’94 White Sox-Indians debate some time or we can put forks into stomachs, your call). Then ran into Glavine and Maddux. Two years later it was the mercenary Marlins. Did they really do anything wrong?
In sports, and especially hockey, there really is so much you can do. The rest falls out of your control. If Martin Erat doesn’t lose his mind in Game 5, and the Preds win that series, is Stan even around to make that level-headed decision in 2012? If Jimmy Howard went nuclear in Game 6 or 7 in ’13, are Stan and Q around by the time 2015 rolls around? Or if Chara hit twine instead of post in Game 1? If Rinne doesn’t let in two long-range bombs from Keith and Seabrook in multiple overtime games and the Hawks are sitting on three straight first-round exits and now five years without a conference final appearance? Who’s still around?
That’s what could make the Caps a fascinating watch. Or they’ll win the whole thing for the same reasons that they have no control over.