If the Stanley Cup was awarded solely on the basis of regular season performance, then the Washington Capitals would have skated the Cup a few times by now.
As we all know, winning the Stanley Cup is not nearly so simple. This is particularly true for the Caps who, throughout their history, have turned choking in the playoffs into an art form.
All that was supposed to change with the arrivals of Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, otherwise known by Caps’ fans as the Core Four.
Now, some 10 years after Semin was picked by the Caps in the 2002 NHL entry draft, Caps’ fans are still waiting for that first Cup to be delivered, and Semin will be donning the uniform of the Carolina Hurricanes this season (NHL.com).
With the Core Four now officially splintered, and with the Caps now fresh off yet another playoff failure, there are some who have suggested that the Caps should have just scrapped the team, traded the remaining members of the Core Four, stockpiled quality players in exchange for them and basically rebuilt the team from scratch.
That would have been a mistake.
True, the Caps, since Ovechkin came to town, have been a regular season powerhouse and a playoff pushover. That might be a bit harsh, but there is no other way to describe the Caps’ playoff performances since the 2008 playoffs as anything but disappointing.
Yes, there have been some epic comebacks, such as against the Flyers in 2008 and against the Rangers in 2009. Sure, there have been some epic moments, such as Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby both getting hat tricks in 2009, or the tremendous comeback in Game 2 against Montreal in 2010.
The fact remains, however, that even with Ovechkin, Semin, Green and Backstrom, the Caps have failed to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998. So the idea of blowing up the Caps and starting fresh is not as absurd as some might expect.
But there is another way to look at this and it supports the way the Caps have retooled this summer, as opposed to rebuild.
That way is to look at what the Caps have done every year and realize they are close—and getting closer.
In 2007-2008, the team was thrilled just to get to the playoffs and they played their guts out to rally from a 3-1 deficit and force a decisive Game 7 against the Flyers. Though the Caps would fall in overtime, that playoff run has to be considered a great success and actually might have set the bar too high for the team from that moment on.
In 2008-2009, the Caps had to muster a tremendous rally from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Rangers in seven games. The team demonstrated great heart and determination in accomplishing this. The next series was, of course the seven game classic with Crosby and the Penguins. The Caps, however, forgot to show up for Game 7 and the Pens would go on to win the Cup that season.
In 2009-2010, the Caps ran roughshod over the NHL during the regular season and entered the playoffs as the President’s Trophy winners. They had every reason to believe their own press clippings as they entered their first round series with the Canadiens. The series was a struggle from the start, but the Caps found themselves with a 3-1 series lead.
Anyone who is versed in the history of the Caps would know that a 3-1 series lead is a very dangerous thing for Washington. Surely this version of the Caps would be different…right?
The collapse against the Canadiens was a wrenching one from which many Caps’ fans have still not recovered. Yes, Jaroslav Halak stole that series with his phenomenal play in goal. But the fact remained that the Caps could not close the deal when they needed to. They had not learned to develop a killer instinct, a vital component for a team to have playoff success.
In 2010-2011, the Caps again earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. In the playoffs, the Caps again grabbed a 3-1 series lead against the No. 8 seeded Rangers and everyone in DC cringed. This time, however, the Caps came out in Game 5 at home and put the Blue Shirts away. Thus, the Caps learned from their mistakes the previous year and made progress.
Unfortunately, the team then seemed to be satisfied with just that result as they were never in the Conference Semi-Final series against the Lightning and were shockingly swept by their Southeast division rivals.
The playoff run in 2012, however, showed how the Caps have learned from all of this playoff experience, why they are getting closer to breaking through and, more importantly, why a complete rebuild of the Caps would have been a mistake.
As the No. 7 seed, the Caps were a huge underdog to the defending champion Bruins. They were supposed to be out manned, out gunned and, in general, out classed by the champs. The Caps window of opportunity had, supposedly, already closed on them. There was no way they could match the speed, skill or depth of the B’s.
But all the playoff experience of the past four years suddenly bore fruit. Led by then coach Dale Hunter, the Caps reinvented themselves, played the Bruins’ style of hockey better than the Bruins themselves and pulled a shocking upset with one of the more memorable Game 7 wins in franchise history.
It was the Caps’ ability to play a defensive style of hockey that won that series, showing that they had learned to adapt to their opponent.
Against the Rangers, a team built largely to defeat the team that had eliminated them two of the past three seasons, the Caps then showed that they had developed the heart necessary to win in the playoffs.
They lost a crushing triple overtime Game 3 to the Rangers and came back to win a crucial Game 4 on home ice. They ultimately blew the series in Game 5 by surrendering the tying goal with 6.6 seconds left and then giving up the game winner in the opening minutes of overtime. Nonplussed, they then forced a decisive Game 7 when they easily could have packed it in.
As can be seen, the Caps continued to improve, learn and evolve. As for the Core Four, Ovechkin has always been a solid performer in the playoffs. Green, Semin and Backstrom have usually been disappointments.
During the 2012 playoffs, Green evolved and became, shockingly, a solid defender. He was doing things he had not done before, such as blocking shots and asserting himself physically. Green’s performance was so inspiring that the Caps ignored his recent history of injuries and rewarded him with a three year, $18.25 million deal (Washington Post).
Many would call that a gamble; others would call it an investment.
Backstrom also had a decent playoff run and the Caps were a different team with him in the lineup, as opposed to when he was absent during the regular season.
Never was this on display more than in Game 4 against the Rangers when Backstrom decked Artem Anisimov with a shoulder check, gained some space and then put the puck past Henrik Lundqvist.
In that moment, it became evident why the Caps would be absolutely insane to part with Backstrom.
Semin, on the other hand, never had a moment like that. He had flashes but nothing that really showed he could be a prime time performer in the playoffs. While letting Semin sign with a divisional rival represents a significant loss of production for the Caps, his absence during the playoffs will likely be negligible.
In many ways, Semin represented the problems the Caps have had as a team. He was tremendously talented and one of the best forwards in the game. But when it was crunch time, when he needed to be at the top of his game, 80 percent of the time he failed.
Beyond Semin, blowing up the rest of the Caps would have done nothing more than just waste the team’s existing chemistry, erase all the experience they had gained over the past few years and hope that they could catch lightning in a bottle with an influx of new talent that would mix seamlessly with the remaining lineup.
As you may have guessed, the odds of that working are pretty dismal.
Instead, George McPhee has played things extremely well this offseason. By adding players like Mike Ribeiro, Jack Hillen and Wojtek Wolski, McPhee added depth to the team while also adding something more important—flexibility.
And this is why—assuming there is a season of course—the Caps retooling will pay big dividends.
They finally have a true second line center in Ribeiro whose mere presence will allow a player like Brooks Laich to assume a position on the wing, where is usually more effective.
They have added role players who will give them the depth they need in order to compete with the Bruins and Rangers of the hockey world.
They have learned how to play a defensive style of hockey that will yield results in the playoffs and they have the personnel to implement that style.
They have one of the best young goalies in the NHL in Braden Holtby.
They have a first time coach who just happens to be a brand new Hall of Famer.
Fir the first time in a long time, this version of the Caps seems perfectly balanced and poised to finally break through.
Had they rebuilt from scratch, the Caps would be many years away from reaching the point they are at right now.
The only thing that can really derail what should be a very successful season for the Caps is if there is no season at all.
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