Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Will someone wake up the Washington Post's sports columnists and tell them the Caps are a good story?

One of my favorite topics to blog about over the years has been the Washington Post's hockey coverage--because not many people really care about it, even fewer also blog about it (one of the guys at On Frozen Blog, but that's about it) but also because no one pays more attention to it than me. (That's not necessarily a good thing or particularly healthy, but it's just the truth and I can't help it.)

The day-to-day beat coverage of the Caps and the placement of stories on days after games--and features on off-days--is fine and I have no complaint about that. My problem is with the columnists at the Post, who seem to have abandoned the Caps as the team spent the last month and a half going from a group in disarray to a red-hot team that looks like it may have a decent shot at making waves in the playoffs. Sounds like a good story that a sports columnist would be interested in, doesn't it?

And yet somehow there have been FOUR TIMES as many columns written about the Nats in the last month and a half than about the Caps, even though the Nats didn't play their first game of the season until this past Thursday. Now I like the Nats, I follow the Nats and I read most of those columns. But Tom Boswell, the most senior and best Post sports columnist, wrote 13 columns about the Nats since spring training started (including a couple containing such ridiculous optimism about the team that I think family members of Nats players made fun of them.) I know there's a romanticism about spring training, but that's a lot of columns about practice. In that same time period, he wrote one about the Caps (to be fair, it was a good one.) He wrote the same number of columns about the Orioles in that time period.

(By the way, all these column numbers are approximate, because the Post's new website is so bad and hard to use that every columnist archive either was impossible to find or was missing columns that I remembered reading.)

So you say, did other columnists pick up the slack on the Caps while Boswell was delirious from sun poisoning in Florida? Actually, not really. Jason Reid, who just became a columnist in February and is already pretty good, went down to Florida and has written three columns already about the Nats (including a really good one Saturday about the change at the catching position). His tally of Caps columns since he began: zero. (He has written a few about the Wizards.)

How about Tracee Hamilton? The count on her from mid-February to now was three Wizards columns, three Nats columns and two Caps columns. Mike Wise has written no columns about the Caps since...I'm not sure, but not since Presidents' Day. John Feinstein wrote one in mid-Februrary, and went back to college basketball (which is fine, because that's his specialty, although he probably knows the most about hockey of all the sports columnists.) And finally, there's Sally Jenkins, who I don't think has written about hockey since the 1990s.

I'm sure if the Post editors were reading this, they would point to Tarik El-Bashir's "On Hockey" column as a substitute for Boswell, et. al. El-Bashir, who was formerly the Caps beat writer and now covers Georgetown basketball, knows a lot about hockey and his columns are always interesting and often deal with strategy, important issues within the team or how a particular player is doing. But half of them don't even appear in the print edition of the sports section. (Yeah, I know, at 40, I'm just about the youngest person that actually still reads the print edition, but let's face it: If a sports column doesn't appear in the print edition, it means the editors don't consider it as important as all the articles that did make it to print.) And as I said earlier, the Post web site is such a mess lately, it's pretty easy to miss stuff these days--I almost missed El-Bashir's web-only column last week because I'd been busy that day and hadn't had time to check the Caps Insider blog where it was linked until I was on my way to the game.

What makes me even more upset about this is all the great column ideas that any editor or columnist should be able to come up with but that aren't being written. There's the mystery of Alex Ovechkin (why did he have such a mediocre first four and a half months of the season and then all of a sudden look like himself again?). There's the mystery of Alex Semin (is any local athlete as mystifying, both in the ups and downs of his play and his refusal to ever be interviewed in English? Can someone follow him around for a day and see if he insists on speaking Russian to the woman behind the deli counter at Giant?) There's the mystery of the Caps' new defensive system (what exactly are they doing that's so different?) There's the mystery of the Caps goalie situation (there are a lot of fans who think the Caps' best goalie is currently playing in Hershey.) And then there's the obvious story for the last week of the season: Who should the Caps want to play in the first round of the playoffs? Who should they not want to play? I've heard hosts on sports radio lead discussions on this topic--the Post can't dive in?

The Post has certainly made some progress in their coverage of the Caps over the past few years--Dan Steinberg, of course, does some great feature stuff on the Caps, from Ovechkin getting pictures with Michelle Obama to why Baltimore is into the Caps. And I'm sure in the playoffs, we'll get some more Caps features from the Post and regular columns. But if the columnists aren't following the team during the year, are they going to have any idea what's going on when they have to write about the team in the playoffs when it matters? I guess we'll see when the playoffs start next week, but the paper's performance these past few months doesn't give me hope.

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