Three games into the season, fans of the Washington Capitals have to feel very good about the team’s Stanley Cup chances. How can you not when the team has averaged five goals a game and the player who may have been the team’s biggest question mark coming into the season, Jose Theodore, was strong in a 4-1, opening-night win over the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins?
But here’s a big reason the Caps still have a lot of work to do to refine themselves into the type of team that sips champagne from an over-sized silver chalice: Penalties.
Tuesday night in its 6-5 OT loss to Philadelphia, Washington took nine minor penalties. That’s a factor that ended up costing the Caps the game and an extra point in the standings. And it’s nothing new.
Last season the Caps took 414 minor penalties, the seventh most in the league. Those infractions left the team shorthanded 387 times (third most in the NHL) and led to 75 power-play goals against (fifth). That’s not the sort of discipline usually required from a Stanley-Cup-worthy team, as it’s tough to beat the best teams playing a man down. But it also tells another tale.
Not all penalties are created equal. A co-worker of mine used to work in the NHL some years ago and the team had his staff differentiate between aggression penalties (such as roughing and cross checking) and positioning penalties (holding, hooking, tripping, interference, etc.). The thinking was that aggression penalties weren’t all bad, as you often get a side benefit of intimidation in addition to any physical pain you inflict upon your opponent. If you board your opponent, sure, you go to the sin bin, but that player is going to think twice about going into the corners again. Positioning penalties on the other hand tell you when your team is getting out-skated and your players need to clutch and grab at other players to prevent prime offensive opportunities. There’s no benefit on these penalties, as they just illustrate that your opponent is out-classing you and you have to break the rules to even the odds.
While I can find no breakdown of last year’s Caps’ penalties, Washington has committed 17 minor penalties in three games, including nine Tuesday against Philadelphia. Of those 17, just three were aggression penalties.
It’s a small sample size, but it leaves some dubious conclusions when you break down those positioning penalties, particularly regarding two slower-skating defensemen.
John Erskine: 2 minutes, holding Daniel Briere; 2 minutes, interference of Ryan Parent; 2 minutes, holding the stick of Michael Ryder.
Milan Jurcina: 2 minutes, holding the stick of James van Riemsdyk, 2 minutes holding Mark Recchi.
Both Erskine and Jurcina have many virtues on the ice, but their skating ability is not among them. In today’s more-open NHL, against the league’s faster teams like the Flyers, they could be prone to falling flat footed.
For now, it’s just a small sample that doesn’t prove much, but it does point to a problem the Caps will likely have to address at some point during the season. Washington needs faster players on its blue line. It has them within the organization in Karl Alzner, John Carlson and even Tyler Sloan, but by inserting them in the lineup you create salary cap issues, lose considerable size and, depending on the transaction, could lose a player to a waiver claim.
It’s a tough fix, but one that may need to be made before the playoffs begin if these penalty trends continue.
There’s another distinction you could make about penalties, one, again, where the Caps fall short: Offensive zone penalties. There is really no good reason to take an offensive zone penalty, as you are negating a chance to score and there’s no risk of allowing a goal by your opponent. Still, the Caps seem to take these types of penalties a bit.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of their attacking style of offense, perhaps it’s just poor discipline, but Washington has already committed at least four such penalties.
All of these infractions may just be “minor” penalties by definition, but they could have major implications for the Caps’ Stanley Cup aspirations.