NHL Teams Facing an Identity Crisis

Nearly every championship team has an identity. Sometimes it's the way that the team plays. Sometimes it's the pace set by the star player. Sometimes it's the chemistry in the locker room. And sometimes it's a little bit of all of those things.

But what happens when that identity goes away? In its place comes limbo, and when a team is in limbo — regardless of sport — chances are, you're not going to find success. On the other hand, the ability to scratch, claw, and fight out of limbo can often be a means of establishing a new identity.

In this year's NHL offseason, three teams are facing major crossroads. Two teams are perennial underachievers while another is taking a bold step forward in what could be considered the world's most traditional — and impatient market. Will these shifts create results? We'll have to wait until April 2015 to make that call.

Washington Capitals — New GM, new coach, new defense. What isn’t new about the Washington Capitals? That Alex Ovechkin guy is still there, along with some of his usual supporting cast. Since the firing of Bruce Boudreau, the Caps have lacked a true identity. They’ve played dress-up in a few different incarnations, but there was no true persona with a team that should be brimming with it. Does the arrival of Barry Trotz mean that this will be similar to the Dale Hunter version of the Caps? Not necessarily, since Trotz himself has said that he’s basically coached with the hand that he’d been dealt in Nashville. Trotz is a smart guy and he knows he’s got weapons in his arsenal. The question is whether or not a guy like Ovechkin can be a good soldier while still showcasing his fiery personality.

San Jose Sharks — The Sharks are a team in chaos, both changing gears and mired in mud at the same time. Veterans are gone, but not the most pivotal ones. The defense is revamped, but not drastically. The focus is on the young players but the team’s traditional leaders are still there. Many have argued that jettisoning talent like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau simply for the sake of change is stupid, and on paper, they’re right. However, it looks like this is a gigantic chemistry experiment. Will Thornton and Marleau follow new leadership and a culture change? If they fall in line, they’ve still got a chance to win the Pacific Division. If there is tension between those two and the younger players (Logan Couture, Tommy Wingels, etc.), things could implode quickly in the Bay Area.

Toronto Maple Leafs — Moneyball was such a big story in Major League Baseball that they made a Brad Pitt movie out of it. If the Leafs prove to be as successful in the next years, then maybe a major Hollywood star will play Kyle Dubas. While there's no seismic roster shift in Toronto, bringing in a "fancy stats" guy like Dubas into a traditional front office is a significant move. But part of the problem in Toronto is that things never go full-tilt: there's never quite a full rebuild or extreme overhaul; instead, the team seems to constantly take a few steps forward before trotting back. While many NHL teams are already employing analytics people, perhaps the fanfare behind Dubas was more than a show for the media — perhaps the team wanted to show that they truly were looking to change the culture of a team that's known for short-sighted mistake after short-sighted mistake.

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