Last week, the Washington Capitals’ owner, Ted Leonsis, commented on his blog that the Caps may just be “the worst best team” in the NHL right now, an assertion that seems to summarize the franchise’s current situation quite clearly. No doubt, Caps fans immediately focused on the word “worst” and jumped on the defensive. Statistically speaking, the Caps aren’t the worst at anything right now. They have a 7-1 record at home and a 3-3 record on the road. Their power play is operating at a respectable 20% and the PK unit has been nearly 87% effective. They’re first in their division, first in their conference, and third in the league.
Goalie Michal Neuvirth has played nearly as many NHL games in the first month of this season than he did for all of the preceding season, was named Rookie of the Month in October, and is sitting in a four-way tie for wins with elite goalies Jaroslav Halak and Jonathan Quick, as well as another standout rookie, the Flyers’ Sergei Bobrovsky. No, looking at stats, the word “worst” shouldn’t even be in this season’s Caps vocabulary. And yet, Leonsis’ assessment of his own team is still startlingly accurate.
It comes down to what is, essentially, intangibles. The Washington Capitals almost seem like the NHL’s version of an exceptionally bright child who doesn’t always have to work as hard as the other kids in school and is therefore distracted by just about everything. Reminiscent of last year’s playoffs, when they blew a 3-1 lead over Montreal, the Caps have the ability to come out with their big guns blazing but also have the tendency to sit back, as if the game was already over. When focused, they are smart enough and capable enough to masterfully control a power play and execute well-developed timing plays. Unfortunately, it appears they’ve been hesitant to do so, despite these talents, shown beautifully by Alex Semin’s shorthanded tally against the Boston Bruins’ seemingly unstoppable Tim Thomas:
But because the Caps have such great snipers in Ovechkin and Semin, clutch shooters like Mike Green and Nick Backstrom, and gritty front-of-the-net guys like Mike Knuble and Sports Illustrated “Sportsman of the Year” nominee Brooks Laich, the team often bears the weight of winning on the shoulders of individuals, not necessarily as a team.
This doesn’t mean players are playing selfishly; there have been few, if any, occurrences of players taking shots when passing would have been a better option. The problem sometimes with key players is not that they are selfish, but that role players turn selfless. The Caps certainly have a “there’s no ‘I’ in team” mentality but their playing style this season has not reflected that. The team went through almost no line shuffling over the off-season. DJ King adds grit and a strong arm, taking some pressure off Matt Bradley and John Erskine who became default punching bags following the departure of enforcer Donald Brashear after the culmination of the 08-09 season. However, aside from that, the lines–notably the first two–have fluctuated very little since last season but they have yet to gel the way their skill has allowed them to in the past. And elsewhere on the ice, what’s happening is the opposite of what happens during playoff season: as opposed to the role players stepping up, they seem to be backing down–not just allowing, but relying on, superstars to do what they do best. The problem is that the superstars aren’t doing what they do best, which is capitalizing on their cohesion. It’s almost as if they’ve forgotten how extremely well they are capable of playing.
The “worst best team” in the NHL is a nod to the team’s potential and the fact that they are not living up to it. Winning games is not enough if a team is only playing their best hockey for 15 minutes a game. The Washington Capitals need to be smarter right now; they ought to be the best team in the NHL but they’re struggling to show it. When a team has the statistics mentioned above but is believed by many to be playing only as hard as is required per game, they just can’t be the best team in the NHL. In fact, being the “worst best” team may actually be a generous categorization.