The Washington Capitals are once again out of the playoffs before the conference finals, and the post-mortems have been churning out a lot of well-worn theories as to why that is.
The first, always the first, is that a team with Alex Ovechkin as captain will never win when it matters. Your leaders have to lead you to the promised land, and the big Russian has never had the kind of transcendent performance we’ve seen from guys like Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews in the past, or that we’re seeing from Erik Karlsson right now. Ovechkin, the thinking goes, is a great regular season player – just as the Caps are a great regular season team (let’s not even indulge the “Ovie cares more about Russia than the Caps” thing).
The second theory is that there is some larger, inherent “culture” problem with the Capitals. This argument is built with opinions and quotes more than actual facts, and it’s made more powerful when guys involved with the organization are hinting at it.
Here’s what players told Dan Steinberg of the Washington Post on locker clean-out day on Friday:
Nicklas Backstrom: “The same thing over and over again. “Obviously it’s not working.”
Brooks Orpik: “Obviously when you haven’t gotten the job done this many times, that’s what’s probably the most important thing. And if we don’t view it that way, then things won’t change.”
Karl Alzner: “You can only get to the second round so many times before you have to think that something needs to be changed.”
Matt Niskanen: “It’s pretty clear that we can play really well in the regular season, but it’s either a mental thing or how we’re built or how we play the game — something. “We can’t play well enough to advance as is. Something’s got to change.”
Steinberg concludes that Washington GM Brian MacLellan should heed Niskanen’s last four words and shake things up somehow.
Now, it may well be that there is some nebulous locker room issue or systems issue or coaching issue that we’re not aware of, but what if we considered for the moment a theory that might be radical, but that is probably the one closest to reality: that the Washington Capitals are actually fine.
Listen, whenever a team doesn’t meet expectations, there’s going to be a lot of hand-wringing and a lot of searching for meaning – as there should be. But I think, in focusing solely on that, we often lose sight of what those expectations should be.
Let’s consider probabilities for a moment: Say you believed that the Capitals had a 70 per cent chance to win each of their first two rounds. This is completely outlandish, but given what oddsmakers were giving the Caps, most people actually thought their odds were better than that. Even in that case, the Capitals had a less than 50 per cent chance of advancing to the conference final (49 per cent).
What would happen if we got closer to the actual numbers? Using probabilities from hockey mathematician Micah Blake McCurdy’s model, we get an even bleaker picture. He had the Caps as 63 per cent favourites in Round 1 and 57 per cent favourites in Round 2. Suddenly, Washington’s chances of getting to the third round fall to just under 36 per cent. Thirty-six per cent!
The fact of the matter is, any long playoff run requires strong performances and a great deal of luck. Look at the Ottawa Senators – if we use Micah’s numbers again, they had only a 22 per cent chance of reaching Round 3. They’ve also benefited from timely injuries to their opponents and some outcomes that didn’t line up with how they were actually playing at times.
You never want to see your players questioning the team’s make-up as the Caps were the other day, but the pain of losing is still raw, and players misunderstand probabilities just as much as your typical fan does – maybe more.
No, the Washington Capitals did not win the Stanley Cup this season, nor have they won it during the Ovechkin era, but if you look at this season objectively, it’s hard to see it as unsuccessful. The Capitals won the President’s Trophy for having the NHL’s best record, which is not insignificant. If they were a European soccer team, they’d be being hailed as league champions, with all the accolades and riches that come with that. They had a +87 goal differential, almost 30 more than the second-place Minnesota Wild (who were bounced in the first round).
Whenever you fail, you always look for ways to improve, but the Capitals should be looking for minor tweaks, not wholesale changes.
It can be tough to accept at times, but the best approach hockey teams can take is to come up with the best process possible and hope the outcomes shake out the way they’d like. The Washington Capitals’ process produced a dominant team, and they’ll be a dominant team next year if they bring this group of coaches and players back. Who knows – they might even win a Stanley Cup.