Everyone wants their team to be successful. We don’t follow our teams for nine (or twelve) months every year just to watch them be the NHL equivalent of the Los Angeles Clippers. Everyone wants to follow a winner. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself why there are so many New York Yankees fans. It’s just more fun to watch your team win. Would you rather watch your team win two out of every three games? Or lose two out of three games?
Unfortunately, there’s a flip side to success that can make outsiders both cringe and mock simultaneously. What happens when a team is wildly successful throughout the entire season, only to slip at the wrong time and make a premature exit from the playoffs against an over matched team? What happens when that talented team that’s won three consecutive division titles has underwhelming playoff performances in three straight years? All the sudden, fans that used to get excited because their team is playing well will become jaded because they have higher expectations.
This brings us to the 2010-11 edition of the Washington Capitals. Their fans have been blessed with some exciting (and successful) hockey over the last few seasons. Three years ago, winning the Southeast Division was exciting. This year, it’s expected. Three years ago, watching a young team explode onto the scene was fulfilling. This year, they’re already residing with the league’s elite. Three years ago, earning home ice-advantage was a goal. This year, fans know it means nothing if they don’t do anything with it. You get the idea.
Fans in Washington used to be happy when their team would get any kind of national notoriety. They wanted fans outside of the DC area to talk about their team in a context other than being the butt of jokes that repeatedly landed those Top 5 picks. A few Hart Trophies, Norris nominations, and a Masterton later, and Caps fans are getting the attention they deserve.
But now with the spotlight directly squared on Verizon Center, there’s a new set of challenges the Capitals and their fans are faced with. Now they must produce positive results of the highest order. Not only will they have a target on their backs all season, but they’ll still be expected to thrive in spite of getting everyone’s best shot. They’re in San Jose Sharks territory. Their fans haven’t had the pleasure of tasting sweet victory, but they’re still saddled with lofty expectations. Fairly or unfairly, they’re held to a higher standard than they’ve ever actually achieved because those are their expectations. This version of the Caps may have never been to the Cup Finals (like the Sharks), but anything short of playing for it all in June, and the season will be deemed a failure. Again.
Before people can even start talking about next season, it’s important to put last season into perspective for fans in Washington. The Caps managed to Rock The Red to a ridiculous 54-15-13 record during the regular season en route to the cursed Presidents’ Trophy. Stop and read that record again. They had 54 wins. They earned at least a point in 67 of 82 games. That means the average month for them last season only saw them lose two games in regulation. TWO GAMES PER MONTH! Do you know what most teams in the Southeast call two losses in regulation? A normal weekend.
Here’s the deal: The Caps are really in a no-win situation this coming season. Chances are they won’t be able to equal their 2009-10 regular season. That’s not saying anything about their team on the ice—that’s just common sense. If a team posts franchise-best records, then it might be asking a bit much expect them to exceed those numbers. That’s just how it is. It’s not easy to set franchise records every season.
If they lose two or three games in a row, fans are going to wonder what their problem is. We’ll hear things like, “Last year’s team didn’t struggle like this and we all know what happened to them!” But if they streak through the regular season and capture another Presidents’ Trophy, we’ll hear things about how weak the Southeast Division is and how none of it matters until they win in the postseason.
Don’t feel bad for them—they put themselves in this situation by crapping the bed against a #8 seed in the first round of the playoffs last year. This is the exact same situation the San Jose Sharks have been living with for the last few years. It doesn’t matter how well they play in the regular season, because we know they are capable of winning November. Anytime they rattle off eight or nine wins in a row, people are always quick to rain on their parade and point out how they can’t win in the playoffs. And you know what? They’ll keep pointing it out until the Sharks win in the playoffs and quiet all the cynics. It’s the only way they’ll be able to shut the negative voices up.
It’s a situation that Capitals fans better get used to. They’re at that point where fans and experts alike take the team’s talent for granted. This season, they are actually better on paper than they were last year. The only players they have lost from last year’s team were their trade deadline rentals. To take their places, Washington has one of the deepest talent pipelines to pull from.
John Carlson may have burst onto the scene at the end of the season and in the playoffs, but it’s important to note that the Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy largely without his services. While showing the rest of the league that the future is bright, he only played 22 regular season games last year. In fact, he’s still eligible for the Calder Trophy next year. You have to figure that 82 games with him on the blue line is an improvement.
On the same note, Karl Alzner looks like he’s going to get a legitimate shot to make the team on a full-time basis out of training camp. Just like Carlson, Alzner played just over 20 games last season (21), but should be growing into the player the Caps picked 5th overall in 2007.
With the young players almost assuredly proving to be an improvement over exiled veterans, the Capitals are a better team on paper than the team that tore through the league last season. Even though they didn’t get a defensive stalwart in free agency like they might have liked, they still have two highly regarded blue line prospects with a ton of potential looking to make their mark this season. Not to mention they have enough young forward depth that they could still be in the market to trade for the defenseman they were looking for.
In fact, the whole organization is in an amazing place. The NHL club was the best team over 82 games last season. Their AHL affiliate in Hershey was the best team over the regular season and proved it wasn’t a fluke when they tore through the AHL playoffs to win their second consecutive Calder Cup. Even if people doubt the immense young talent and veteran presence on the roster, their minor league affiliate is the gold-standard of the AHL, and is just waiting to pump out replacements to help them reload at a moment’s notice.
The players are there. The talent is there. The schedule is there because, let’s face it, the Southeast isn’t the strongest. All of the ingredients are there for the Capitals to be successful on the ice. And I’ll give you a 100% guarantee they’ll be successful on the ice. But that’s not enough this year.
If you look at the Sharks last year, they were successful on the ice, as well. But the one place they weren’t quite as successful was in the minds of hockey fans. Even when the Sharks were playing their best hockey of the year, there was a little voice in the back of just about every fan’s mind asking if this was just the same ole song and dance, or if this was a different team. Would this be a team that could break through and compete at the highest level in the playoffs? The Sharks may have captured victories on the ice—but they didn’t capture the imagination and enthusiasm of the fans. Such is life on top. The standards are higher and the expectations are rarely realistic.
The Capitals and their fans should take a good look at the public perception of the Sharks last year because that will be their reality this year. 10 game winning streaks will be looked at with skepticism. 8-1 victories in the middle of the season will be questioned and hat tricks will be quickly discarded. The only way that will change is if they realize their lofty expectations and meet them head on.
After all, it’s not easy to put up 121 points every season. But it’s what happens after those 121 points that will determine how fans will measure these Capitals. Clearly, winning the Cup after a season like that is difficult, but for the fanbase, it might be more difficult to see another successful regular season go down the drain in the playoffs.