sad caps - Rob Carr

Sad Caps (Photo: Rob Carr)

There’s a lot of conclusions you can draw from Wednesday’s night’s obliterating defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins. One might look at that loss and decide that the lack of experience on Washington’s defense corps is untenable. Or maybe you could decide that the continued pairing of Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer is bad news. It’s conceivable that a studious person could calculate that the Capitals are on-pace for the most shots against in a season since 1987 and decide that something must change.

Those people, however, are all wrong. The true problem with the Capitals last night was just a lack of execution.

At least, that’s what we’ve been told.

Troy Brouwer:

I thought our execution last night was poor, bad passes, missed assignments things like that just things that we know we need to clean up and things we have the ability to clean up which is good.

Adam Oates:

It was probably just our execution. You obviously have to give [the Penguins] some credit; they played a very good hockey game.

Adam Oates, again:

The first thing I showed them was our execution, decisions with the puck — that when they scored a goal we weren’t ourselves and that’s something we should have conquered by now.

Brooks Laich:

The decision making and execution with the puck needed to be better tonight than it was.

The Washington Post’s Katie Carrera:

While many things went wrong for Washington in its 4-0 loss to the Penguins at Verizon Center – from a lack of execution at even strength, inability to consistently set up on the power play to inaccurate passes particularly in the defensive zone – Holtby also didn’t have his best outing.

The fair truth is that the Capitals really did make poor decisions last night. Watching Steve Oleksy and Alex Urbom flounder to make clean breakout passes was evidence enough of that. And the only thing the second line seemed able to execute competently was a dump and change.

But saying the team’s execution is poor has a very specific meaning. It means the Caps players are good, their deployments are good, their system is good, but– just this one time– those good players in their good deployments were unable to put that system into effect well.

To believe that the Capitals’ execution on Wednesday was A) poor, and B) the true cause of their defeat requires us to first believe these three tenets:

  1. The Capitals roster as of Wednesday night is the best available and capable of winning reliably.
  2. The Caps’ forward lines and defensive pairings give those players the best chance to score and prevent goals against.
  3. The system (i.e. the body of tactics the Capitals employ to assign defensive coverage, break up plays, move the puck out of their own zone and into the offensive zone, and generate shots) is good.

I can see why the team would want us to believe those three things are true. For a player to admit his execution was off is to take a modicum of personal blame while implicitly asserting that he is good. If a player said the systems are bad or his linemates hindered him would be bad sportsmanship; to say he himself isn’t good would be career suicide. Were a coach to say that the team’s problem was not execution, he would then be saying that his coaching decisions –or the players his general manager gave him– were not good enough to get the job done.

But blaming execution is a non-apology apology. If anyone was offended by the events that occurred, then I regret that.

It’s not the team’s job to list its failings to the media, and I don’t fault them for choosing to be contrite in the most self-serving manner possible. I simply hope that they are capable of honest self-evaluation in private. The team’s problems are not inscrutable and fugacious; they’re persistent and predictable. If they can identify and diagnose those problems– even if we the public are not privy to them– that’s the only way they will be able to solve them.

An incomplete list of those problems, in short:

  1. The Caps allow too many shots against and do not generate enough shots of their own.
  2. Together, Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich constitute a black hole for puck possession.
  3. Together, Alex Urbom and Steve Oleksy are outmatched.
  4. Zone exits and entries are not clean or consistent.
  5. The team does not generate much offense in the first 15-20 minutes.

You can probably think of more. Many of these may be symptoms of some shared problem. If I were able to articulate that problem better, I’d probably be working for the team rather than writing about them.

There’s nothing on that list that is unsolvable, and the Capitals have a long time to figure it out. But a chorus of  “our execution was poor” evokes from me a response contrary from the one intended. I worry more, not less.

  • Why does Michael Latta look exactly like Alex Semin in the headline photo?

  • Mike HNC

    it’s a sign.

  • Chris

    I wish GMGM would read this stuff

  • Bob

    I wish we got rid of 1 of the guys on the black hole line. and maybe one of the defensemen who is constantly hurt.

  • He does

  • …not read this stuff

    sorry last comment got cut off

  • William

    Your thoughts seem like a well organized collective of the comments on this years game recap’s to date. Good stuff

  • Sasha is INTRIGUED by this Dali painting. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHgzh0tW7yI

  • JessHughes

    Also, even if we do the best we can with what we’ve got, is this a team capable of going deep into the playoffs? Or are significant personnel changes (at least 1 top-4 D-man, a true 3C) necessary? That is, are playing Orlov and Fehr and breaking up the current “2nd line” going to really help the Caps?

  • Clint Petty

    I’ve watched pretty much every Caps game this season including that embarassment of a hockey game last night. Pretty much exactly one-quarter of the way through the season, I am not impressed with the Capitals play (save for a few dominant performances against weaker teams). We have been absolutely bailed out by the shootout more often than I would like to admit. Only 7 right-out wins (14 points) and 5 shoot-out wins (11 points, including 1 OTL). If these shootout games went the other way (because honestly, it’s pretty much a crap-shoot every time and if it weren’t Nicky B, we wouldn’t have half those SO wins) and we went 1-5 instead, the Caps would have a very mediocre 8-9-5 record (21 pts) which would put us in the bottom half of the league. Our record is hanging on a thread and I don’t think we really deserve to have the 2nd spot in the Metro. I don’t expect to be there for long. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Caps lose a bunch of games in the next week or two and have a more accurate depiction of where they rank against the rest of the league.

    I’ve seen glimmers of brilliance in this year’s team, but it is not consistent. The one consistency is us getting outshot and often being bailed out by Holtby and the shootout. Our D cannot handle the likes of players like Crosby and Malkin (yes, these guys are really good, but it’s not just them) and we aren’t scoring goals like we did in 09-10 to make up for the lack of D. I’ve seen more to be worried about than I have to be hopeful for.

    I’d really like to see Green back in the lineup and for Calle Jo to give him the same amount of attention that Oates gives to Ovi. Ovi and Backstrom have put their team on the back and while the 3rd line has been great, I don’t think they can consistently produce the way the have been. Green has to find himself again and start it back up. Oates system relies heavily on the D being involved, making the right decisions and reads, but they lack the experience to make it work.

    I hate to sound like such a pessimist and a downer but I think that things are going to get worse before they get better. We will turn it around though, just hope it’s not too late.

  • Ryan

    Let us not forget to include the fact that the majority of players on the Caps do not have good puck possession skills. There are a few exceptions, but, if a puck goes into the corner, so many times the other team leaves with the puck. We’re quick to dump & chase. Imagine if Ovi had good puck possession skills… he goes soft when going at slow speeds…….

    Also, despite his recent Goal surge, Carlson makes some terrible defensive decisions. So many times I notice him in the play when a goal is scored. Amazing to me that his +/- is 0. And Green, for as awesome as he thinks he is, he holds a -6. Maybe put Green up there on Offense. A lot of skimping on fundamentals on D…

  • I just want this one tiny thing. ALL I ASK.

  • http://i.imgur.com/zi0yJGp.jpg One team since 2006 has had a possession score as bad as the Caps has made the conference finals, but most miss the playoffs altogether.

    And yes, splitting up Laich and Brouwer will help. the Caps see 17 and 14 more shots attempts (net) per game go in the right direction when they’re OFF the ice.

  • Thanks!

  • I agreed with most of what you said until you mentioned +/-.

    Peter, give him TEH PHOTO.

  • Did someone say plus-minus?!

  • JessHughes

    Thanks, Peter. Glad I don’t have to give up all hope for the Caps before Thanksgiving. Is there data on whether all teams favoring dump & chase are as bad w/possession numbers as the Caps or are the Caps just really bad at dump & chase? In my non-statistical watching of last night’s debacle, I was consistently amazed/saddened by how often the Pens were able to come through the neutral zone with speed and possession.

  • Bob

    need to get some RMNB readers who go to games to make some FreeDima posters. This aggression against him will not stand!

  • I don’t know if TEAMS that favor dump and chase are worse at possession. I remember LAK doing a lot of dumping last season, and they owned the puck.

    We do know, on a micro scale, that a team gets about half as many shot attempts off following a dump and chase compared to a zone entry where a player has control of the puck. Since most people measure possession by shot attempts, it definitely hurts.

  • JH

    I observed last night a lot of (what’s the opposite of crisp? Oh, yeah – soggy) – I observed a lot of soggy passing last night. That stuff gets you killed in the N.H.L. Some nights, the passing is weirdly off, and it seems to affect the entire team. Does anyone else notice this phenomenon?
    Last night, poor passing, plus Holtby being off his game early (Crosby’s PP goal was not on Holtby; it was just a wicked good shot, sorry), put us in a big hole. We didn’t capitalize on the PP which is our bread and butter right now, and we were on the PK too much against a loaded team.
    I think the loss is at least 50 percent the function of a bad night vs. a really good team, i.e., execution. But I’m willing to concede that possibly 50 percent of the problem is systemic in some form or fashion. To wit:
    * We have a dearth of veteran talent in the D corps. The chemistry back there has yet to be found.
    * The second o-line is dreadful. I have no good explanation. Could be these guys are hurt, could be there’s no chemistry, could be they’ve lost a step, could be they are less than the sum of their parts.
    * Need a shooter on the LW opposite Ovi. MoJo is not that guy.
    But, caveat: we’re living in a salary cap world, so I like to operate on the assumption that we can’t make major changes short of blowing up the whole team, which I think would be a huge error. We have the core of something good, but adjustments are still necessary. I think Oates and GMGM realize this.
    That’s all I got.

  • Graham Dumas


  • standarsh

    Great post peter, this is top notch stuff

  • Dark Stranger

    I want that very same thing. (And how did a guy who was practically a regular one year fall so far in the depth chart after every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the organization?)

  • Michael Reschly

    You explain why team representatives would blame execution. But is there a conclusion to be drawn about members of the press that blame execution?

  • Good question. A beat reporter’s primary job is to communicate what’s happening with the team. Katie characterized what the team said– and she did it while recording a litany of other things the team goofed on. I think it’s all good.

    (And for the record, I *do* think the team’s execution was off last night.)

  • I’d love to see a grassroots FREEFEHR/FREEDIMA campaign.

  • Matthew Burdash

    Looks more like Michael Del Zotto to me

  • dylan wheatley

    that lonely thrashers team…

  • Owen Johnson

    Me: What did you think of your team’s execution?
    Adam Oates: I’m in favor of it.

  • Red

    Sweet use of fugacious. The one nice thing about Caps losses is that, over the years of fandom, they’ve helped expand my vocabulary tremendously, as I attempt to describe my ever-growing levels of frustration.
    Positive thinking is positive!

  • jp_daddi0

    Great write up and I think you make some great points. Whenever I see the word “Execution” in a sports commentary, though, I can’t help but think back to John McKay, the coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 70s and 80s. When asked after yet another loss what he thought about the team’s execution, he replied “I’m all for it”

  • RC

    “Fugacious.” And in a hockey blog. Me like. Besides, Peter, your analysis is cogent and spot on. The Caps must find a reliable, healthy, no-drama, strong defenseman or two ASAP. The loss to Pittsburgh revealed just how deficient the Caps in O, D and everywhere betwixt the two ends of the ice.