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The Capitals, the Leafs, and Fate

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Let’s hope Toronto has a better destiny than Washington.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Toronto Maple Leafs at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.—Ecclesiastes 9:11

As is apparently the eternal law of the universe, the Washington Capitals fell in Game 7 of their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins last night. Many people thought that this might finally be the Capitals’ year. But, then, many people have said that in previous years, and they’ve always been wrong.

To be honest, they’ve been so wrong so many times it’s a running joke. The Caps haven’t even made the third round in the Alex Ovechkin era! The Senators, who at this point, are held together by unicorn hair, pixie dust, and the ligaments in Erik Karlsson’s legs have made it farther than the Caps in the past twelve seasons. The Caps are the ultimate argument for how little the Presidents’ Trophy means in winning the Stanley Cup. And as everyone knows, this is because they are truly, deeply, morally flawed.

Mr. Commodore isn’t alone. If you can stomach it, listen to sports talk radio today. They won’t be talking about how the Capitals mostly dominated at 5v5 for the series, both in terms of shot quality and quantity. They won’t be talking about Fleury’s performance in the first two games, where he absolutely robbed a Caps team throwing the sink at him. They’ll talk about Ovi, and Backstrom, and Holtby, and they’ll be saying that you can’t win if those guys are your best players.

If you’re on this blog, though, maybe you’re a little less inclined to believe that the Capitals are tragically lacking in desire. Maybe you like to look at numbers, or team composition, and you want to try and draw some lessons for our beloved Maple Leafs—who were compared so often to the Caps of a decade ago when they met the current version in Round One.

And if you do that, you’ll find that a team can spend years and high picks and assets building a winner, and then...not win.

The ugly truth is that the biggest mistakes the Caps have made in their Presidents’ Trophy seasons were:

  1. Facing Jaroslav Halak during a three-game stretch in which he put up .975.
  2. Existing in a world in which Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin also exist and play together.

You can point to mistakes in the last decade for Washington—trading Filip Forsberg, hiring Adam Oates. But you can point to a hell of a lot of very good ones. The Capitals have the best goal scorer in the history of the NHL, and an elite 1C who’s a borderline HHOF player himself. Behind those guys they have a deep forward lineup, even featuring the once-clutch Justin Williams. They’re so good, that they’ll likely lose a 30 goal scorer this offseason (TJ Oshie), and to replace him, all they need to do is slide up a guy playing on their THIRD line (Andre Burakovsky).

They have a defence group that currently features five really good defenders. Aside from Brooks Orpik, there is never a time where they are playing a below average defenceman. They’re so good that they basically have 3 defencemen who could feasibly be the #1D on a playoff team (Niskanen, Shattenkirk, Carlson).

They have drafted exceedingly well despite not having high picks. These are guys the Capitals have acquired outside the top 10 in the Ovechkin era: Braden Holtby (93rd overall), Evgeny Kuznetsov (26th), Filip Forsberg (11th), Andre Burakovsky (23rd), John Carlson (27th), Marcus Johansson (24th), Tom Wilson (16th), Dmitry Orlov (55th), Nate Schmidt (undrafted), Philipp Grubauer (111th).

They have an outstanding goaltender who is recognized as elite. Their roster is commonly regarded as the best in the league. It has as few weaknesses as a team in the cap era can realistically expect to have.

And they were the better team against the Penguins for most of the series.

“But not when it mattered,” the traditionalists will retort.

Well, no, in the end, the Caps always ran into a hot goalie (“couldn’t finish their chances”), or took a bad bounce (“didn’t fight for the 50/50 pucks”), or had their own netminder bobble a puck (“Holtby isn’t clutch”).

They never played perfectly for a whole series. Because of course they didn’t. If they were perfect, they would have won. But no team is perfect. Perfect doesn’t exist in hockey. That’s what makes it a fun sport to watch, especially come playoff time. If we wanted perfection to be rewarded, we’d become basketball fans.

Either you believe every Cup winner is ultimately the best team, or you’ll have to admit the Caps have sure looked like a team good enough to do it.

So What About The Leafs?

Why are we dwelling on this melancholy topic? Because as much as we ignore it, the Leafs are never going to win without luck. We’ve already needed it to get this far. There’s a universe where the Leafs are building around a core of Nick Ritchie, Noah Hanifin, and Pierre-Luc Dubois. Which is to say, there’s a universe where the Leafs are still a cellar dweller.

Every draft pick, every free agent, every change in the lineup, is an effort to weight the dice before we roll them. And if the dice come up snake eyes, we’ll say it was done wrong. We’ll go back and point out the flaws. They shouldn’t have extended this guy, they should have traded that guy, why didn’t we trade our prospects to go all in, why did we spend so much on that deadline rental. After the fact, it’ll be clear to fans and media that the Leafs are fatally flawed, that they don’t have the guts to win, can you really win with Auston Matthews, after all?

There will be disappointing playoff outings, and all we can do is hope management doesn’t overreact to them—which is something the Capitals have done before, and may now do again. It’s worth remembering there are no guarantees. It’s possible to be right in sports and lose, to play better and lose, to deserve to win and lose.

The Leafs’ early rebuild has gone close to perfectly. Let’s hope it keeps going that way. And let’s hope the Leafs build a team as dominant as the Capitals. In the end, though, when they’re in the playoffs, we’ll just have to hope they’re luckier.