The Capitals and “Boring Hockey”

Posted December 9, 2013

Troy Brouwer has 10 points in 30 games this season. (Caps Outsider)

A Note from the Author: I wrote this late last Friday night, before this weekend’s country whippin’s of Nashville and the New York Rangers, so if this particular article seems odd in its timing, that’s why. I have also written an addendum at the end of the piece, wherein I discuss a little bit of the aforementioned weekend country whippin’s in the context of what I have already written.

There are lots of things you can pin the inconsistencies of the Washington Capitals on. They’re playing with three NHL defensemen (Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Mike Green, and only one of those is scoring any goals right now) and a hodgepodge of a mishmash of whatever three defensemen are summoned from their pressbox den of eating nachos and lighting farts/hotfoots to play that particular evening. The play of Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer has been well…let’s just be polite and say “not good.” Braden Holtby has been pretty good for the most part, but every once in a while there’s what I like to call a “Braden Holtby Night”, usually determined by whether a floating eephus pitch of a shot beats him from the point, where you can tell it’s going to be a long evening

But here’s what’s wrong with the Capitals: they’re boring. This is a boring hockey club.

This is what happens when you’re a team that’s bad possession-wise. You spend an inordinate amount of your time chasing pucks in your own zone. You finally manage, through some miracle act of Providence, to get the puck out of the defensive zone. You’ve got no gas left. Dump the puck into the offensive zone, change lines. Lather, rinse, repeat. This makes for an excruciating viewing experience for all involved (well, at least if your team is the one stuck in the endless cycle of muck). This is not the Rumble In the Jungle. Teams aren’t going to wear themselves out out-shooting you 45-20 every night.

Bear with me for a brief jaunt into history. In 1863, General William S. Rosecrans, commander of the Union Army of the Cumberland, completed one of the more brilliant tactical maneuvers of the entire Civil War (and of all war, really), by driving the Confederate Army of Tennessee from Tennessee with almost no loss of life. He did it through speed and maneuver and daring. He did it by being “not boring”.

These Capitals are not the Army of the Cumberland. They are not Napoleon at Austerlitz, deliberately weakening his forces in one area, and then sweeping with overwhelming force in another. Rather, they are the Army of the Potomac, the Union Army’s eastern edition. They have become a meandering, plodding hockey team, as the Army of the Potomac was a meandering, plodding army, doggedly attacking straight ahead with tight formations, heads and bodies bent forward as if walking into a stiff wind on a million different fields all over the mid-Atlantic and taking giant numbers of casualties with consistently sub-par results and endless frustration. They strike with no overwhelming force and attempt to bludgeon you to death by jabbing you with Alex Ovechkin.

Much like in war, you don’t win at hockey by being “boring”, unless you’re the mid-90s New Jersey Devils, and that seems to be the root of the entire problem here. Much, much smarter minds than mine have gone over this question, but when the Capitals freaked out after the Montreal series in 2010, and they most certainly did indeed, “freak out” as much as an organization can, they consigned themselves to playing outdated, slogging, in the muck, “let’s trap the hell out of people and be more defensive-minded” hockey, and I don’t think you can do that any longer. Instead of adding more speed to take advantage of how the game had changed, they added guys like Roman Hamrlik and Joel Ward and drafted people like Filip Forsberg and Tom Wilson. They’ve determined they can win with one scoring line (and an interchangeable situation at second line center, which they’ve hit the lottery for twice), and the proverbial cut and paste job with the back three defensemen.

They built this team for a league that no longer exists, and by doing that, they’ve consigned themselves to mediocrity, which in a salary cap league like this one, is death, because you can’t rebuild with high draft picks, and you’re not competing for Cups. You’re building a team that has first or second round exits every single year with little hope of progress beyond that.

Mediocrity in this man’s NHL is absolute death. And really, what’s more boring than death?

Postscript: So of course after I write this, the Caps go and drop 5 on Nashville and 4 on the Rangers, despite the heroics of one Henrik Lundqvist. I’d like to hope that this is the beginning of a gradual turnaround, and it’s easy for me to think that way. Secondary (and tertiary scoring!) Defensemen scoring goals! Out corsi-ing opponents!  I really liked, in particular, what seemed to be some creative new breakouts in the Rangers game. But forgive me if I’m holding the ol’ horses for a bit. The Rangers are a middling side (one not much different from the Caps), and the Preds are terrible. We’ll see how they do in the next week, where they’re home against Tampa, have a tricky road game in Florida (I say tricky because like a thousand people will be there and the Caps have a tendency to be um…not interested sometimes against lesser foes), and a quasi back-to-back home n’ home against the suddenly resurgent Flyers.