Something was wrong with the Capitals this season.
How does a team with as much talent on the roster as Washington go from the top team in the NHL to a .500 team seemingly overnight? How does a team that dominated the NHL for three months lose in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second straight year?
Fans have already decided who to scapegoat. That would be head coach Todd Reirden and his staff. And while fans often paint a black-and-white picture of what ails a professional sports team and are quick to emotionally peg the problems on one person, it is also impossible to look at the 2019-20 season and discuss what went wrong without mentioning the coaching staff. That topic is especially unavoidable when you are ousted in five games by a less-talented team led by your former coach.
Barry Trotz always said the Capitals were still a championship-caliber club but would "have to go through the [expletive] Island" to get there again. It was said with love during a championship ring ceremony in Brooklyn last year. But it tured out to be true. And now Reirden is under the microscope
Washington began the season with a 26-6-5 record. The Capitals were the best team in the NHL by a wide margin and had the best offense in the league, a top-10 defense, a top-10 power play and the second-best penalty kill. The coaches deserve credit for that. They do. They also must take accountability for what happened next.
Almost overnight, Washington fell apart starting with a 7-3 loss to the Boston Bruins on Dec. 23. The comparison before Dec. 23 and after is pretty stark.
From Oct. 1 to Dec. 22: 26-6-5, 3.54 goals per game, 2.76 goals against per game, 21.8-percent power play, 85.7-percent penalty kill
From Dec. 23 to March 12: 15-14-3, 3.28 goals per game, 3.44 goals against per game, 17.0-percent power play, 78.7-percent penalty kill
Every team goes through peaks and valleys in a season, but this was not a slump. It was half the season. We are not privy to everything that happens within a locker room and perhaps there was some underlying issue dragging the team down that went unspoken publicly. Not being aware of any such problem, however, it appears the Caps' staff was simply unable to lift the team out of its struggles.
With the Caps spiraling heading into March, they were given a second chance as the NHL paused its season for the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And yet, when play resumed nearly five months later, so did many of the issues. The coaches had failed to address or fix the team's glaring weaknesses with essentially an entire offseason to work through them. The result was a third-place finish in the round robin and a first-round exit for the second year in a row.
Many of Washington's problems were glaring. Most came in the defensive end of the ice, which is curious considering Reirden is a highly-touted defensive coach. He played the position in the NHL and he first came into the organization to work with the Caps' defensemen under Trotz.
Defensively, the team was atrocious. Defensemen were often drawn out of position leaving room in front of the net because a trailing forward was not able to pick up his assignment.
For much of the season the Caps gave up too many opportunities in high-danger areas making life difficult for the goalies. Washington gave up 3.07 goals per game, more than it gave up in any of Trotz's four years behind the bench and the most the team has given up since the 2006-07 season.
Offensively under Reirden, the team scored 3.34 and 3.42 goals per game in his two seasons, more than they ever scored under Trotz and the most since the 2009-10 season. But that production too often seemed to come at the expense of the defense. The offense relied too much on long breakout passes that opposing teams were able to read and intercept in the neutral zone to turn into scoring chances of their own. There always seemed to be a disconnect between the defensemen and forwards on the breakouts.
And then there's the power play.
The power play has gotten progressively worse in both years of the Reirden era. The 20.8-percent the team managed in Reirden's first season was the team's worst percentage since 2011-12 and it got worse in 2019-20 dropping to 19.4-percent. I have been told by the players and coaches that what most people refer to as the "slingshot" is not actually what the slingshot is, but regardless of what you want to call it the team has become largely dependent on the drop-pass breakout to enter the offensive zone.
The problem is they do not run it effectively. The point of this transition is speed. One player dumps the puck off to a trailing player giving him a "running" start which he can use to pierce through the penalty killers into the offensive zone. Washington runs it so slowly that it hinders its own system.
Reirden is not in charge of the power play. Assistant coach Blaine Forsythe is and has been during great times and not-so-great. But at some point shouldn't Reirden or Forsythe say, hey, this isn't working? Maybe they have and the team did not respond. Maybe Forsythe has directed them to play it slow for personnel reasons. A coach works with what he has. But it's been two years now with the power play built around a system that it's not running effectively and not much has changed. Without speed, the drop pass transition is ineffective and yet they keep running it.
These were the problems the team brought with them to the playoffs and these are the problems that led to another early exit.
Is it fair to judge the coaches solely on the 2020 postseason? No, it's not. This is a postseason unlike any we have ever seen. Some organizations were going to handle it better than others. Matchups also matter. The Capitals had to play the Eastern Conference's three other top teams in the round robin and then Trotz's Islanders which has quality players of its own.
But we don't just have the 2020 postseason. The Capitals also exited in the first round of the playoffs in 2019 in a loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. And all of the same challenges the bubble presented for the Caps were true of every other team, including the Islanders. What's more, Washington was given a format that so far has been a clear advantage for the higher-seeded teams.
I thought making the top four seeds in each conference play a round robin while the rest of the field played in qualifying round series would benefit the lower-seeded teams, but I was wrong. The Caps are, at the moment, the only top-four team in either conference to be eliminated in the first round. Only Philadelphia and St. Louis have not advanced yet, but both lead their series which is farther than the Caps got.
The most glaring indictment of the coaching came in the playoff series when Trotz took an Islanders team with less talent and handled the Capitals seemingly with little issue, dispatching them in just five games. At no time in the series did it appear the Caps had any real plan for how to adjust to what the Islanders were doing well against them. There were a handful of line changes that worked in Game 4, but that's it and by then the series was 3-0.
Even after the Game 4 win, Reirden said, "Our team believes in that style of play and for us it was a matter of continue to do it over and over and over and then get rewarded."
It certainly sounds as if the team won Game 4 executing the same gameplan from the first three games rather than adjusting to the strengths of the Islanders. OK, it worked in Game 4, but it hadn't worked in any of the three games prior and it didn't work in Game 5. Now, the season is over.
There were a lot of things that went wrong for the Caps in 2019-20. Statistically, it was the worst year of Braden Holtby's career. Michal Kempny never returned to being the top-pair defenseman he was prior to his hamstring injury even after the NHL pause gave him more time to recover physically and mentally. Nicklas Backstrom was knocked out of the first game of the playoff series with a concussion and John Carlson was injured during the round robin and did not look the same after. But every coaching staff faces issues in a season and it appears Washington's was not up to the challenge in 2019-20.
Reirden said it best after Game 5 when he said, "This is not acceptable for our organization."
He's absolutely right.