Arts & Entertainment, Sports

Picking Splinters: Caps Need

We’ve seen this before haven’t we? Alexander Ovechkin scores a ridiculous amount of goals, but the Capitals skid to another high draft pick after a season of high effort but low results. And still no one watches at Verizon Center.

This will likely be the second year in a row that story has repeated itself. It’s okay though, because Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee have demonstrated their resolve to take their lumps and build from the ground up with young talent. They know that’s the key to the championship puzzle and that’s the model they’ve followed in rebuilding this team.

There’s only one problem. Nearly two seasons into the rebuilding process it seems the Caps are still missing one glaringly vital piece to their puzzle — defense.

Last season, Washington allowed 35.1 shots per game, this season they’ve trimmed that number to 33.9. Regardless, they’re still last in the league in that category. That’s a large part of why the Caps sports a 3.40 Goals Against Average, a mark that ranks 27th out of 30 teams. Conversely, the current top eight teams in the Western Conference (Nashville, Anaheim, Vancouver, Detroit, San Jose, Dallas, Minnesota, Calgary) account for all but one of the top nine teams in that category.

It was expected that the Caps defensive corps would take some time to round into shape. Defensemen traditionally have longer learning curves than other positions in the NHL, but how long can the Caps wait? Can they really bank on their young corps of Steve Eminger, Shaone Morrisonn and Mike Green (who was just demoted to the farm team in Hershey) to make a big leap next season? How long will the dwindling fans tolerate disappointment? More importantly, how long will Ovechkin tolerate disappointment?

The trick, of course, is actually getting a blue chip defenseman in the fold. In the currency of the day, prices for such players runs somewhere in the neighborhood of a first-born son and a six-month lease with an option to buy on each additional child. Still, it’s time to pony up.

The Caps will get a big boost next year when Nicklas Backstrom, last year’s top first round draft pick, will likely make his NHL debut. That ought to help in the scoring department, but the defense will still need help. It’s time to open the pocket book and ink a free agent or two like 27-year old Eric Brewer (18 points and an Even +/- rating with a mediocre St. Louis Blues team). Washington has been holding onto salary cap room and saving money (or at least losing less of it) for two years now. It’s time to give something back to the fans, and the players, who have stood by the team through two lean years. Two bad years can be attributed to rebuilding. Three bad years and it starts to become a culture of losing. Anything more than that and you’re the Kansas City Royals.

 
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The George Mason University Patriots might not be reaping the spoils of last year’s Final Four run in the rankings this season, but other mid-majors certainly are. Currently six mid-major teams (Memphis, Nevada, Air Force, Butler, Southern Illinois and BYU) find themselves in the Associated Press Top 25, with Winthrop sporting a decent chance of getting in by year’s end. And to clarify, yes, I definitely believe Memphis is a mid-major program now. If you think otherwise, then please name me five other teams in Conference USA off the top of your head. Thought so.

Nevada, Southern Illinois, Air Force and Butler occupy spots 11, 13, 14 and 15 in the poll and present an interesting dilemma here on out. It’s usually the case that losses are the major catalyst for movement in the polls, not wins. With relatively easy schedules from here on out, particularly for Memphis and Southern Illinois, there’s a decent possibility those teams will win out. If top tier teams like Wisconsin or Kansas or Ohio State drop another game or two, could the voters move one or more of the mids into the top five? Or has the upper crust established itself so firmly that nothing short of a complete collapse will move them down? Could teams like Marquette and Vanderbilt actually leap frog the pack of mid-majors even with seven or eight losses?

Here’s something else to consider about the mid-major renaissance: As the Georgetown Hoyas have ascended to No. 12 in the polls, no one is holding a home-court loss to Old Dominion against them. In fact, 10 of the 19 major programs in this week’s Top 25 have lost at least one game this season to a mid-major team. That list includes No. 6 Kansas (to Oral Roberts), No. 5 North Carolina (to Gonzaga) and No. 1 Wisconsin (to Missouri State).

Good luck filling out your brackets boys and girls. You’re going to need it.