Heading into the season, one of the big tasks that Adam Oates had was trying to help the Capitals find an identity.
The Caps have been somewhat of an enigma the past few years. It has been hard to put a label on them. Are they an offense-first, run-and-gun sort of team that would just as soon overpower you instead of trying to really beat you with defense?
That certainly seemed to be the case in 2009-10 when the Caps blitzed the rest of the NHL for 318 goals while giving up 233 in the process. The 2009-10 Caps, on several occasions, would spot the opposition a mullti-goal lead only to come storming back for the win. This served the Caps well, as they ended up with a 54-15-13 record and captured the Presidents' Trophy.
The next season, the Caps suffered the beginnings of their identity crisis. After the stunning loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the 2010 playoffs, the Caps seemed to realize that simply overpowering the opposition might not yield playoff success. The Caps tried to play a tighter style of game and no longer attacked with the same blitzkrieg style of offense as the previous season.
Alexander Ovechkin began to struggle, and the Caps only scored 224 goals during the 2010-11 season. Playoff success was a little better, though, as the Caps advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals before bowing out.
Last season, though, the Caps fired Bruce Boudreau very early into the campaign and replaced him with the more defensive-minded Dale Hunter. The Caps struggled with their identity crisis even further. Their goal production slipped a bit further, down to 222 for the season. Ironically, their goals against went up during the 2011-12 season (230) as opposed to the previous season (197).
Still, this defensive philosophy paid dividends during the playoffs when the Caps subdued the more offensively talented Boston Bruins and very nearly repeated the trick against the even more offensively lethal New York Rangers.
When Adam Oates was hired, the hope was that he would be able to strike a balance between the offensive style of Bruce Boudreau and the defensive style of Dale Hunter.
The solution that Oates came up with was, in essence, a hybrid of the two systems. Prior to the season starting, Katie Carrera of the Washington Post reported that Oates was going to call upon his defensemen to be something really special in his system.
Oates was going to place immense trust in his blueliners by giving them the discretion to jump up into the offensive zone with the forwards. Moreover, Oates was giving all the defenders the green light to do this.
It was an immense leap of faith on the part of Oates and new assistant coach, Calle Johansson. They were trusting players who had never been given a chance before to make the right choices, jump into the play when the situation presented itself, so long as they were not sacrificing position and exposing the team to odd-man rushes.
Oates seemed intent on creating a cohesive overall system that almost organically created offense out of the flow of the defense. Oates wanted to utilize the same sort of pressure-based and aggressive defense that Dale Hunter used, but with a higher emphasis on puck movement and using turnovers to create scoring opportunities.
As Oates said to Katie Carrera:
The system is really based on keeping the D from taking as much contact as possible. They are the lifeblood of the team. I really believe that. They got to obviously help us in our own end, but they got to help the forwards score. The way teams back-check now and play all three zones, our D [is] vital to us. So the system really is based on them.
In theory, it sounded great, especially if the forwards got adept at back-checking so that the defense was not hung out to dry if a mistake is made.
But early in the season, the system was a mess. The Caps were being exposed to odd-man rushes all the time, and the defenders jumping up into the offensive zone were doing so at the wrong time. Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth were being hung out to dry far too often, and the team was getting absolutely blitzed by everyone they were facing.
The downward spiral would continue because as the Caps would fall behind, the defense would press to try to get the team back in the game which, naturally, would leave the Caps defensive zone more unattended. Rinse...repeat...and is it any wonder the Caps were the worst team in the NHL just about a week ago?
But the past few games, something has seemed to click for the Caps. After not scoring more than three goals in any game during the first 11 games of the season, the Caps have scored at least four in the past three games.
That is the good part. The bad part is that the team is still giving up too many goals and is not playing the type of tight, checking style of game that served the team so well in the playoffs last spring. The past few games, the Caps have looked a bit like the 2009-10 version, a team simply trying to outgun the opposition.
The goal that Tampa Bay's Nate Thompson scored on Thursday night was a good example of the Caps still trying to find their way. Why were all the defenders up in the offensive zone when the Caps had a two-goal lead with barely three minutes left to play? The resulting breakaway goal by Thompson was inexcusable.
Without question, playing in this manner might be a necessity for a team struggling to climb back into playoff contention. But once the playoffs begin, will the Caps be able to play the sort of hockey they need to play in order to succeed in the playoffs.
Another identity crisis, come playoff time, would be devastating for the Caps' chances.
This is where Adam Oates has some work to do. He must either do much more to get the Caps to embrace the hybrid sort of system he wants to install or he needs to decide, definitively, what sort of style the Caps will want to play the rest of the season.
If the Caps are going to be an offense-first team, then so be it; if they will focus on defense first that is fine too.
But getting the Caps to figure out their identity—and figure out what style of hockey best fits the team's current skill set—is an enormously important change that Adam Oates must make.