The time has come for the Capitals to do something bold, to do something with some shock value, to do something that causes anyone who follows hockey to sit up and say, “They did what?”
Blow it all up? No. That’s too drastic. Some very good pieces are in place and the Capitals don’t need to start over.
Fire the coach? Not hardly. It is way too early in Adam Oates’ tenure to think along those lines. Oates has a good hockey mind and deserves a chance to show what he can do with a full deck. As good as he might be, Oates can’t make chicken salad out of chicken feathers.
What the Caps need to do is make a major trade, one that brings back a big-time, well-respected defenseman who makes defense his first priority. A defensive defenseman is what they’re called in hockey parlance and the Caps need one in the worst way.
They need to go get one. Easier said than done, for sure. It’s like saying trade for a top-line starting pitcher. Hey, the Nats did exactly that by parting with a huge package of prospects for Gio Gonzalez. It’s like saying trade for a quarterback. Hey, the Skins did it by giving up three first-round draft picks for the right to take RG3.
Who should the Caps target? That’s why general manager George McPhee makes the big bucks. He has every general manager in the league’s direct number and — we hope — full knowledge of the personnel around the league. Find a partner and make the big deal.
Such a trade would serve two purposes. It would give the Capitals a piece they desperately need, and it would send a message to the rest of the team and everyone else: we’re no longer satisfied with the level we’ve reached.
The season is only 12 games old and maybe that’s too soon to make such a judgment. Well, this season is only 12 games old. This pattern, the nature of this team, is several seasons plus this year’s 12 games old. The Caps have reached a level where they’re a solid, playoff-level team and no more. We’ve been there, done that. They’re good enough to beat any team on the right night, inconsistent enough to lose to any team on the right night.
That dynamic needs a change. Now, before this year becomes a repeat of the last however many. Do something bold.
At what price? Again, that’s why McPhee earns a paycheck. Maybe it will take giving up a top prospect like Evgeny Kuznetsov, or established players like defenseman Mike Green or forward Troy Brouwer. Or a combination of the three. Or all three. Maybe it is time to listen to offers for Braden Holtby or Nicklas Backstrom or — dare we say it? — Alex Ovechkin himself.
Blasphemy, you say, to suggest moving a three-time winner of the MVP award who at times in his career has been the best player in the game? Maybe. Maybe not. Even with Ovechkin, the Caps have spun their wheels at their current level. They’ve won all of three playoff series since making the Cup finals in 1998.
Besides, Ovechkin can be as disinterested in the defensive end as he can be electric in the offensive end. Even with 15 points through 12 games, he’s minus-6 on the season. Plus/minus isn’t a tell-all stat but that’s not a good number. He’s on the ice for a lot of goals against.
Whatever it costs to obtain a first-class defenseman is going to hurt. Someone like Boston’s Dennis Seidenberg isn’t coming over for Kuznetsov and Michael Latta. Seidenberg isn’t coming over at all — but someone like him could be and the price will be steep.
Pay it anyway. The team needs that respected defensive presence. When John Erskine was hurt earlier this year (and he went on injured reserve Wednesday), Oates was left with three defensemen who didn’t have 40 games experience in the NHL. Of the other three, Green and John Carlson tilt more toward the offensive end. Karl Alzner is a quality defensive-minded blueliner but he’s not enough. The Caps need someone who is already at the level many expect Alzner will be in the future.
Holtby wasn’t asked Wednesday about trading for a defensive standout. It’s not fair to put him on the spot like that. But he did talk about the value of such a player, and of defense in general.
“It’s huge,” Holtby said of having a defensive rock on his side. “It means just as much as a goalscorer. When you’re trying to build a team, everyone looks at skill guys, but from a team aspect those guys who play a ton of minutes shutting down the other team’s top players mean just as much as the guys who score goals. They don’t get near as much credit but that’s just the way it works.”
Ex-Capital Rod Langway won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman in back-to-back seasons when he scored a total of 12 goals. Those who played with and against Langway used to marvel that he never made mistakes. Sure, he got beat sometimes. But the key is to make the opponent beat you, not make it easy for them to beat you.
“I think obviously it is a cliché, but defense does win championships,” Holtby said. “The team that have won in the past, you look at their defensive system and their defensemen. They have 1-2 guys who are top 20 [offensive] players in the league probably, but it is never really them that gets you there. If you can be consistent in the defensive end, not giving up goals, you’re going to win more games than the team that puts all their effort into scoring.”
The Caps haven’t been consistent on either end, but shoring up the defense would really help.
“When you look at successful teams, you usually see teams that don’t give up more than 10 scoring chances a game,” Holtby said. “I don’t know that we’ve had one game like that. It’s just a consistency thing. We need to figure out how to focus on that aspect first and not worry about the goals being scored because that’s going to come. We have enough skill in this dressing room to score goals. It’s the other aspect that needs work right now.”
Help it along by giving until it hurts, by doing whatever it takes to bring in a defender. Gonzalez was an All-Star and 21-game winner his first year with the Nats. RG3 was rookie of the year and led the Skins to the playoffs.
Go get a Norris Trophy contender.