Capitals general manager George McPhee spoke to reporters on Friday afternoon about his team’s slow start. Washington is 2-8-1 after its latest loss on Thursday – an embarrassing 5-2 defeat in Pittsburgh – remains the NHL’s worst team with five points.
An organization that has made a living off terrible, terrible starts to seasons over the last 39 years is perilously close to its worst yet – and with no time to recover in a 48-game season. Through 11 games only the 1981-82 (1-10, 2 points), 1975-76 (1-9-1, 3 points) and 1974-75 (1-9-1, 3 points) teams have been worse. The 1977-78 (2-8-1, 5 points) and 2003-04 (2-8-1, 5 points) teams both had the exact same record as this group through 11 games.
“I like the way we’re playing. I think if you’re watching, our team has really adjusted to the system pretty quickly- we wanted it right away, but it’s quicker than we were hoping for,” McPhee said. “The issue with our club right now, in my mind, is all these penalties that we’re taking. It’s too much. We’re playing a good game and then we start taking penalties and we take them in bunches. No system, no coach, no team can survive that. We’ve given up the most shorthanded goals in the league and for good reason: we’re taking too many. It’s too hard on the goaltenders and it’s too hard on the team.”
Indeed, the Caps have allowed an NHL-most 15 goals on the penalty kill. They have taken 51 minor penalties total. Only six NHL teams have taken more. The penalty kill percentage is 70.6 percent, 27th in the league.
“The PK can be better if you allow it to be. Any time you take three [penalties] or less, in most cases you can kill those,” McPhee said. “Any time we’ve done that this year, I think in every case except one, we’ve killed them all off. But when you start taking more than three penalties a game, it ruins the game. Not only do you give up some goals, but you wipe the players out. Penalty killing is really tiring.
The goalies – Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby – have struggled. Holtby is 1-4 with a 4.73 goals-against average and an .857 save percentage. Neuvirth is 1-4-1 with a 3.05 goals-against average and an .889 save percentage. That’s been the other big issue in addition to penalties, according to McPhee.
“I really like the coaches, I love what they’re doing and I like the way that we’re playing in terms of our system,” McPhee said. “We don’t spend a lot of time in our zone, we protect our defensemen, we’re consistently out chancing the other team and we’re getting more attacks than we’ve had, so we’re doing a lot of things well. But the penalties and [lack of] timely saves – the goaltenders have to be better- are hurting the club right now.”
But that doesn’t mean McPhee is getting an itchy trigger finger. A club source vehemently denied trade talks were in the works with Vancouver for veteran goalie Roberto Luongo last weekend. If there’s a trade available to make the team better McPhee is all ears. League sources have suggested trading a surplus defenseman and either a draft pick or a lower-tier prospect for a scoring winger. Not sure if that deal is out there to be made. But, for now, don’t expect any major changes.
“We’re disappointed with the way things have started. It’s not over,” McPhee said. “Nothing that a couple of wins won’t really help. But we’re gonna make good decisions. We’re not gonna do anything short term. We’re not going to blow anything up. We like the people here. Just got to be smart about how we do it.”
McPhee acknowledges that his team hasn’t exactly been the most mentally tough group so far. Several players were frustrated after the latest Pittsburgh loss on Thursday and said that the Caps just weren’t ready to play. Others talked about a distinct lack of focus during practices that has carried over into games.
“Sometimes players will talk in clichés. They don’t want to throw another player under the bus. They don’t want to throw darts at anyone,” McPhee said. “Not being mentally prepared to play, I don’t think that’s the case. I think we’ve been really well prepared to play. I think we’ve started games really well, with the exception of Toronto [Tuesday night]. Are they fragile? Yeah, they are. It all seems to start with the penalties. We’ve played so well in so many games and we take penalties at inopportune times and clusters of them. You’re just putting yourself in jail.”
Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14