For the last few years, the Capitals’ up-tempo style of play caused many to call for the acquisition of a big, physical, stay-at-home defenseman. It almost came to fruition a couple times, most notably this offseason when they were one of the final teams in the running for then free agent defenseman Willie Mitchell.
Earlier this season, the team acquired Scott Hannan from Colorado to fill this role. It is ironic that just after the Caps accomplished the deal they wanted and filled out their personnel the way many critics thought they needed to, they would go on to lose the next eight games.
After a devastating 7-0 pounding at the hands of the New York Rangers, the Capitals began implementing a form of trap defense. In the 24 games since then, they have allowed an average of 1.87 goals per game. Nothing else about the team changed: there was no new personnel, no lineup changes, and no transactions. They merely tweaked their system.
This begs the question, were the critics wrong? Was the Capitals’ problem system-based and not personnel-based?
The acquisition of Scott Hannan didn’t immediately make the impact everyone thought a sturdy defenseman would for the Capitals. What made the difference was the team effort. The Caps have changed the style of their play, not the players who played it. Could it be that that is the key, instead of making bold trade deadline moves?
Every year, teams push the pedal to the medal and pull the trigger on crazy trades. They think their team is “just one player away” from being a Cup contender. However, there is more evidence against that train of thought than for it.
Generally, when a team is doing poorly, rather than make trades, the front office looks to replace the coaches. It was successful for the Penguins in 2009, when they hired Dan Bylsma in February (out of a playoff position at the time) before going on to win the Stanley Cup in June. The Capitals replaced Glen Hanlon with Bruce Boudreau in November with the team sitting in last place in the league. They would go on to win 11 of their final 12 games to squeeze their way into the playoffs.
The Philadelphia Flyers replaced their coach last year as well. They hired Peter Laviolette to take over the reigns mid-season. The Flyers would earn a playoff spot in a shootout in the final game of the season before catching fire, making it all the way to the Finals.
On the flip side, the New Jersey Devils acquired Russian star Ilya Kovalchuk just before the Olympic break last season, thinking the scoring he would bring was the one missing element to their team. They would go on to be upset by the Flyers in 5 games in the first round of the playoffs. This season has been a complete disaster for New Jersey, as they have consistently sat in last place of the Eastern Conference.
These examples show that while trades can seem like a simpler path to the goal, it is more important how you play, not who is playing. Applying this to the Capitals, it was their system that indicated their style of play, not their players. No single player would have improved their defense as much as the team commitment has.
One individual can never make up for the play of the team in a sport like hockey. The players with the most ice time are only on the ice for about a third of the game. One player will never be the answer to a team’s woes. It was a smart move not to give up too much going after a Willie Mitchell type player, and the Capitals are showing that they had that ability all along, it just needed to be tapped. Why they didn’t tap it sooner is a different story, but the Caps are showing they were right in not giving up the kitchen sink for one player.