Hunter is out, and with him goes half-effective Alex.
photo by Ivan Makarov, via Wikimedia Commons
As a group, NHL General Managers generally know what they’re doing. Individual GMs fail, and fail mightily, and torch franchises in the process. But even the very good GMs make mistakes from time-to-time and last year Washington Capitals GM George McPhee made an enormous blunder.
The 2011-12 Capitals were an expensive team filled with superstars, but those stars weren’t winning and that money was burning. In Bruce Boudreau, McPhee had a lightning rod of a head coach (thanks mainly to HBO) and chose Boudreau to take the fall for the wins. Stories surfaced about locker room discord and pouting superstars and in the end, even Boudreau agreed the dismissal was the right move. McPhee said that “the message wasn’t getting through,” and it was time for a change.
In reality, however, the Caps weren’t suffering under Boudreau. When Boudreau was fired, the Capitals were a top five team in Fenwick Close, the sign of a dominant possession team. The difference in the team, at least on the ice, was the lack of plentiful goals, something management could count on in years past. At fault particularly was the power play, oft-cited in articles about Boudreau’s firing, and Alex Ovechkin was blamed for the team’s lack of success.
Thus began the Dale Hunter era.
At first glance, hiring Dale Hunter seemed like a brilliant move. He was a franchise hero and an extremely successful juniors coach. His gritty, usually-dirty style, was supposed to bring much-needed toughness to the Washington lineup. Who could’ve known that Hunter would be completely lost as an NHL coach?
I mentioned the Caps’ possession dominance under Boudreau — Hunter reversed that. Two months of top five play was undone in four months by Hunter’s tactics and the Capitals finished 16th in Fenwick Close, an unimaginable single-season collapse in the metric.
The contrast is more glaring when last year’s individual numbers are set against recent historicals:
Only the bottom of the roster improved under Hunter – the players at the top of the roster, those capable of winning games, suffered badly at the hands of Hunter’s “system”.
The Capitals backed into the off-season and rode a ridiculously hot goaltender once in, but Hunter’s system was beaten up and down and sideways in the playoffs.
George McPhee’s Offseason
McPhee’s offseason was full of significant moves, beginning first with allowing Hunter to head back to the OHL. The Capitals should rebound to pre-Hunter levels by the possession numbers, but it won’t be because of new coach Adam Oates or a revelation by the coaching staff. Oates, another significant figure in Washington Capitals history, was hired on June 26th after a year in Tampa working with the power play and two more in New Jersey. If Oates is able to stay out of the way at even strength and bring a new, more effective system with a man advantage, his hiring would be McPhee’s best move of the summer.
McPhee also chose to let Alex Semin leave via free agency, a move that may backfire, as Semin signed with division rival Carolina for one year and $7 million. Scott Reynolds wrote about Semin in the Carolina annual:
I tend to agree that he’ll be a major boost for the Hurricanes up front. When the team got value on the back end, they were able to push for Semin. He isn’t a proven option for tough minutes, but he is a proven scorer, and he has consistently driven possession in second minutes. If we assume that he’ll be getting a push with zone-starts, he should help to make that line in a net plus for Carolina.
McPhee also let Mike Knuble walk as an unrestricted free agent, though Knuble was hardly used by Dale Hunter and spent much of the season as a bottom-six player.
McPhee replaced Semin with Mike Ribeiro in a trade with Dallas. McPhee gave up nothing of significant value (Cody Eakin and a 2nd round draft pick) to land Ribeiro for one year at $5 million. Ribeiro’s numbers have slipped slightly over the last few seasons, and it’s not due to quality of competition:
|Year||ZS Adj Corsi / 60||Level of Comp|
He is, however, a natural center and a versatile one at that. Nicklas Backstrom will take top-line duties, and Ribeiro will have the easier minutes like he did in Dallas. He’s also an effective third option on the penalty kill and prior to the 2011-12 season, was an extremely effective power play center. If he can rebound, he could be part of the solution for Adam Oates.
McPhee added Wojtek Wolski for the bargain price of $600,000 for a single season. If Wolski can rebound to the form that made him a dominant possession player in Colorado, this could be the signing of the off-season. If not, his shootout prowess alone is worth the money. Joey Crabb, a bottom-of-the-roster forward who can kill penalties, was signed on a single-year deal.
The only thing left on his plate is to sign defenseman John Carlson, a restricted free agent, to a long-term deal.
The 2012-13 Roster
The Caps projected lineup via Neil Greenberg:
Johansson – Ribiero – Wolski
Chimera – Laich – Ward
Hendricks – Beagle – Perreault
The forward unit isn’t deep, but there are some amazing talents up front. Backstrom and Ovechkin should consistently face tough minutes and Laich’s line will take the load off of when Oates has an advantage. Johansson is growing into the game and Ribeiro has been solid for five seasons in a row, but without a big rebound by Wolski, that line probably isn’t capable of beating second minutes.
Green – Hamrlik
Orlov – Erskine/Schultz
John Carlson and Karl Alzner are the best young defensive pairing in the game and each of them could pass as a #1 defenseman on their own. They’ve been facing the tough minutes and should be expected to do so again. If the Caps get 90% of the old Mike Green back, the Green – Hamrlik pairing could dominate second minutes. Dmitry Orlov is probably 75 games away from playing second minutes.
The goalies are young, but they’re good. Braden Holtby can’t be expected to be the .934 goalie he was two seasons ago, but if he can manage .925, Caps’ fans should be ecstatic.
The Capitals should be vastly improved because Dale Hunter is no longer head coach. Adam Oates could help on the power play and Riberio could help the Caps’ wingers. Though Alex Ovechkin is not going to near his previous season totals (thanks to declining shot volumes), he’s still an excellent player, one of the best in the league. Alex Semin’s departure could mean less production from the second line, but Ribeiro, Marcus Johansson, and Wolski could mitigate the damage.
The defense is in good hands with Alzner and Carlson at the top but the rest of the corps depends on Green’s health and Orlov’s improvement. McPhee has plenty of cap space to work with and should use some of that space to acquire some depth on defense.
Most Caps’ fans are confident in Holtby, but he’s going to regress this season. It shouldn’t matter, because without Hunter putting the clamps on the Caps’ scoring chances, they should easily overcome Holtby’s regression.
The Southeast Division is a strange bird. It remains the weakest division in the NHL, but on paper at least, it looks like it’s going to be the most competitive division in the NHL. The Caps can win the division, but need healthy seasons from Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom and the Alzner/Carlson duo. They’re also going to need Johansson and Orlov to improve and take on greater responsibilities. If those things come together, the Caps could easily land the #3 seed in the East.