Sunday, November 7, 2010

Why the Current Caps Roster is Good Enough

If you haven't read my last piece on why a team doesn't necessarily need veterans, you'd best read that first.

The reality of the salary cap is that any and every team is flawed in some manner which can be exploited. Even prior to the lockout, most if not every team had some hole in its roster, somewhere, which other teams night in and night out tried to take advantage of. Yes, even dominant Stanley Cup Championship-caliber teams.

  • The 2006 Carolina Hurricanes--where was the really good goalie (Cam Ward got hot, but his numbers that regular season screamed "backup!")? Where was the top-end talent on the blueline (Frantisek Kaberle benefited a ton from power play time)?
  • The 2007 Anaheim Ducks--their second scoring line was full of rookies, and they relied a lot on their second line--the checking, "shutdown" line--to be able to get matched against the other top lines. They relied very, very heavily on their top two pairings, one each anchored by Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger.
  • The 2008 Detroit Red Wings--who could carry the team if the top line had an off night (they had depth and balance, but no secondary star power)? Their second-line center, Valtteri Filppula, was okay but probably more suited to center a third scoring line. And where was their elite goalie?
  • The 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins--Where were the good all-around puck moving blueliners? Where was the elite goalie? (their wings were actually pretty good then, with Kunitz, Guerin, Sykora, Fedetenko, Malone, Cooke, and others) Where was the grizzled captain who could actually grow a beard?
  • The 2010 Chicago Blackhawks--goalie? (this is probably a bit unfair since Chicago was stacked thanks to their bargain-at-the-time contracts, Huet and Campbell notwithstanding) They're also kind of young, especially all the impact players like Kane and Toews.
The Caps are talented, there's no question about that. The challenge here, I think, is not adding a 2C or 6D (though those additions would certainly be welcome, don't get me wrong), but rather, getting the coaches to hide any deficiencies in the lineup. Last season, the Caps hid their deficiency at 2C pretty well. Unfortunately, that was purely unintentional, and no one seemed to see that deficiency until it was too late. The coaching staff needs to try and hide the 2C hole again this year, but in a more controlled, adaptable, consistent manner. They need to, and will, plan for it in advance and know exactly what they're doing, unlike last season which was more of a "what went wrong? Why didn't it hurt us before?" type of deal.

Considering the guy who would be trying to do this is a Jack Adams Award winner from 2008 and head coach of the 2006 Calder Cup Champions, and one of his assistants the head coach of the 2009 Calder Cup Champions, and the roster he's trying to manipulate boasts the best depth on wing of any Stanley Cup Champion since the lockout and may very well, by April, boasts a better top-5 D than at least two or three of these teams, I'm optimistic.

For example, here's an outline of a plan of action I would consider behind the bench:

Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble--power versus power
Semin-Laich-Fehr--an assortment of competition with easy zone starts
Chimera-Johansson-Fleischmann--sheltered zone starts and easy competition
Hendricks-Gordon-Bradley--shutdown line for the opposition's second scoring line

Green-Schultz--goes out with second and fourth lines
Poti-Carlson--goes out with first line
Alzner-Erskine--goes out with third line

The issue is not that the Caps have roster holes, but rather that the holes will be difficult to mask. That being said, it's not impossible. "If there's a will, there's a way." Whether it takes passive forecheck, line matching, whatever, I refuse to believe an NHL coach cannot figure out how to minimize the other team's advantages of having better top-6 D and a better 2C. An addition via trade would help, sure, but it's hardly doomsday if Brad Richards isn't a Cap come March. Just remember that.

The regular season is for working out kinks and strategies. The holes at 2C and 6D certainly present an difficult challenge for Boudreau to work around, but I don't doubt he can figure out some tweaks to mask them. Even if Boudreau does not change anything, the Capitals are still a formidable team and will be quite the handful for any team to handle. If Ovechkin, Semin, and either Varlamov or Neuvirth get hot, the Caps are probably unbeatable, quite frankly.

If Boudreau makes some changes to minimize the impact of not having an adequate second-line pivot and missing a third pairing blueliner, the Caps will be better off. It takes a huge amount of luck to win multiple playoff series as it is. The Caps with some strategy changes are as good a bet as any team in the East (save Pittsburgh) to be playing well into May and June, roster changes or not.

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