Doug Johnson, from DC/Capitals blog Russian Machine Never Breaks, reached out to me last week with a list of questions he had about the Florida Panthers, which you can check out right here. He was kind enough to answer a list I sent him back as we ready for the second clash of the season between Florida and their former Southeast Division rival, the Caps.
How much do the Barry Trotz Capitals differ from last year's model?
Fundamentally. Adam Oates was brought in to do two specific things - to shore up a squad that was wobbling a bit following Boudreau's departure and a year of Hunter Hockey, and also tighten up a slack Caps defense on a team that up to then had been mostly an offensive behemoth. The front office apparently led him to believe he could mold the team into exactly what he wanted, and he believed that he could, too, if he only fiddled with enough things.
All this led to a rigidity about his ‘system' - whatever that was - and what increasingly looked like an inability on his part to adapt. Heck, I'd even say ultimately an unwillingness to look at the natural talents and flavor of the team as it was meant to be. I dare say most players can adapt to all sorts of new systems and whatnot, but I don't think you can make an orange into a banana just because it fits with what you want to do.
Others with far more credibility than me have analyzed his system, which I can only think of as partially paralyzed play. He was inflexible about his lines even when they weren't working, benching some players even though they had more to offer, and he was downright weird about changing practically everyone's sticks. Maybe he was too stiff, or lost in the weeds, or distracted with constant fussing over our goalies or Ovi or everything else, but in the end he lost the fans, the players and then-GM George McPhee, I think pretty much in that order.
Which is a whole lot of peeing on the Oates era, and not much insight about Trotz, I agree. I still believe it's too early to say much - remember Oates started well - but he appears willing to work with the players to improve them, not change them, and I think they respect that and are responding well.
After a somewhat slow start, the Caps have been pretty hot lately. What do you attribute the turnaround to?
Some of it is just cyclic. Who knows why slumps start or end? Maybe Mike Babcock these days. I try and look for the long trends. Part of it is just getting everyone settled - comfortable with the new coach, the new GM, the new guys on the squad.
Another part is the performance of a number of guys - some expected, some not. We were expecting good things from the kids Burakovsky and Kuznetsov, and we haven't been disappointed. Even though Ovi's been a little off, others are picking up the slack - even surprise players like Jay Beagle, a real fan fav.
I'm going to step out a bit and say another component is the Caps early season history. It just seems every year at the start of the regular season, feelings are running high and the team looks like it's really pulled it together, even though they're only 10 games in. Then the doldrums hit and everyone starts wringing their hands and saying "Oh not again!" even though we're only 20 games into the season. Then everyone starts to rouse and players start performing and fans start concluding they "really turned it around!" even though it's early December. The ultimate point is that I think this team is showing marginal but long-term improvements that continue to build, but some of what we're seeing now is just part of that cycle.
How are big-ticket, summer signings Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen working out in D.C.?
The Caps signing a 33-year-old Orpik to a stunning 5-year, 27+ million dollar deal made a lot of people spit up their soup at the time. It was said then that the Caps D needed something to settle them down and he was it. That jarred with his early play here - slow as pitch, elegant as a box of anvils, hitting everything except the opponent's pucks sailing into our twine. But he has begun to turn that around, and part of it I believe - I hope - is Barry Trotz working with him to get him into the right spots to perform the best he can. I just wish he would stop talking about how awesome the Penguins are.
Matt Niskanen is a bit of a different matter. His contract was even larger and longer than Orpik's, but given how he had been performing and his age, that didn't grate as much. What was clear from the outset is what this team was saying was of prime importance, and then putting up the money to back that up. RMNB's fancy-stats guy Patrick Holden charted how his time on the ice seems to improve play for a majority of the Caps' other defenders. But he went on to say that, while he's been a solid contributor to the team, they should still expect more from him. Never one to contradict Patrick, I'll agree. Niskanen is, at this writing, at 2 goals and 10 assists; clearly he can shoot. He is a great player - I'd like to see him play a little more like a great.
Yipes! These kinds of questions never end well. A brave soul would make all sorts of loud predictions; a smart one would try and bolster his argument with fancy stats; a big chicken would say basically what I'm saying: I have no freaking idea. I could guess if you want: Sure! Sure they do! I think the Devs are totally going to collapse!
That aside, I'm more worried about the Rangers just because...and my real worry is whether we'll be able to catch the Penguins, as per usual. I just hate them. The Devils have had a way of kicking us in the shins like the annoying overgrown children they are, screwing everything up, but the Penguins are for real and that's just one reason we hate Pittsburgh.
Let's turn to fashion for a second. What do you think of the Winter Classic sweaters the Caps will be sporting on New Year's Day?
I think I'm in the minority on this one, but I just think they're dispiritingly dull. From top to bottom. I get that they're supposed to evoke days of yore and all that, but were olden times really so tedious and grim? My better half at PuckBuddys, Craig, and I are in agreement on this, and had a thorough exploration here. To spare you all the cackling, I'd sum them up this way: the colors are wrong, the "W" made up of two leaning Washington Monuments just confusing, and the stripes way too stripey. Bleah. At least we just saved ourselves some dough by not purchasing these things.
In addition to the usual suspects (i.e. Ovechkin, Backstrom), is there anyone else Panther fans need to watch out for in this upcoming tilt?
Yes. Everyone. THERE ARE YOU PSYCHED OUT YET BWA HA HA!!! First, just never, ever underestimate Nick Backstrom. "St. Nicklas" is the gift you want every time you head out on the ice. Carlson has been having a whale of a season and so has Beags, although with much fewer points. I've been a little surprised that Ward and Brouwer have seemed a little off so far, but Ward has a knack of showing up at just the right spot to get that greasy goal - remember our first match this season? There are others, too, but I don't want to list every secret.
And then there's Tom Wilson. My advice is to just keep trying to hit Tom Wilson as much as you can, over and over, because he will only laugh and laugh at you and maybe draw us a couple of power plays.
What makes you uneasy about this matchup with the improving Panthers?
Pretty much everything makes me uneasy. I'm uneasy about the shaky cease-fire in Ukraine and the struggling Japanese economy. I'm uneasy about my commute home tonight, or whether there's enough coffee in the house. You get the picture.
So yeah, I wish I felt better about Tuesday's game, and while I do think we've got more advantage in this match, it's not by much. I may well be completely off on this, but I think you're playing a bit more defensively while we're letting up the choke on our offense, which generally speaking I think favors us.
And yes, I already expect my views to be mocked and flung back in my face, so don't hurt yourselves on that account.
A big thanks to Doug for taking the time to join us on LBC. Make sure to visit Russian Machine Never Breaks as part of your pregame for tonight's match up or anytime you need more on the Caps.