After the latest loss, the Capitals have big decisions to make


(Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

ANALYSIS | Even in the dark days at the end of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure with the Capitals, when Washington had lost six of eight, there wasn’t the misery and anger this city’s hockey hardcores rise to Wednesday morning. Back then, in Nov. 2011, a Presidents Trophy was just 18 months in arrears, the Caps still had a winning record, and a Stanley Cup seemed, potentially, around the corner. Bring in a new voice – and go.

What the Capitals wake to this morning: The deepest, most fundamental questions an organization can face. Do we, after Tuesday night’s 5-0 disaster at home against Dallas, regroup and forge ahead with these same guys – from the ice to the bench to the front office? Or does it all change, a complete reboot?

Inhale. Exhale. Deep breaths.

There is, right now, a mob waving burning stakes, coming after General Manager George McPhee, who has constructed each Capitals team since 1997-98, a remarkably stable run in a traditionally volatile job. McPhee is in the last year of his contract and the fan base has long since perfected a case against him: No Cups in 17 years, and what they would say is both an inability to acquire the kind of sturdy defenseman the team has needed for years and an overvaluing of the Capitals’ own talent, from Mike Green to Brooks Laich and beyond.

But the line from McPhee runs through team President Dick Patrick and, more importantly, to owner Ted Leonsis. In a column last week, Mike Wise outlined Leonsis’s stance – that even though he has never fired either of his general managers, with the Capitals or the Wizards, Leonsis is hardly married to McPhee.

A few weeks ago, just after the trade deadline, I talked to McPhee about his communications with Leonsis. At that point, he had not been isolated, cut out of any loop.

“I hear from Ted one way or another every day,” McPhee said. “And I interact with Dick Patrick and Ted Leonsis consistently and constantly. It’s regular. They own the team, and whatever they ask, I tell them. And whether it makes me look good or bad at the end of the day, it’s my obligation to tell them.”

What must that conversation be like this morning? Tuesday was ugly, over at the end of two periods, an unacceptable result that puts the Capitals two points out of a playoff spot with six games remaining.

Somehow, during a six-year postseason streak, the playoffs have become a birthright here. Given Alex Ovechkin’s presence at the center of a once young, on-the-rise core, that’s not unreasonable. McPhee believes that core, when healthy, could contend for the Stanley Cup. Leonsis said before this season his team had “no weaknesses.”

So follow that line of thinking. Does that mean the problem is with Adam Oates, who’s barely completed one full season as head coach? Oates had only the lockout-shortened 2013 season to implement his system, his structure, before this year. His mantra has been to treat players like he wanted to be treated during his own Hall of Fame playing career, and that is with respect and positive reinforcement.

But the fan base, on this morning, would argue that there’s nothing positive to reinforce, so Oates ought to kick his charges in their rears. If he’s unwilling, then off he goes.

Continue following that line of thinking, though. Leonsis keeps McPhee, but McPhee fires Oates. The general manager would then be looking to make his sixth coaching hire. Who gets that many chances? And if he did, would he turn, again, to someone with no prior NHL coaching experience? From Bruce Cassidy to Glen Hanlon to Boudreau to Dale Hunter to Oates, that’s all McPhee has ever done.

Fire Oates, and the Caps would be on their fourth coach – and fifth system, given Boudreau employed two – since the Presidents Trophy.

Okay, okay. So say Oates stays, too. Just suppose. Does the core on the ice remain the same as well? McPhee believes the way the roster is constructed – with departing contracts from goalie Jaroslav Halak and forward Dustin Penner and maybe Mikhail Grabovski – leaves enough space under the salary cap to bring in the type of free agents the Capitals need, particularly on the blue line.

But that core that so many were so psyched about just a few years ago just isn’t the same anymore, either. Alexander Semin and his amazing hands (and, yes, his stupid offensive-zone penalties) have long since departed. Brooks Laich, who once played 406 of a possible 410 games in a five-year stretch, can no longer stay on the ice and may be permanently damaged. Mike Green was a first-team NHL all-star and the Norris Trophy runner-up in both 2009 and 2010. Now, at 28, he has been replaced on the first power play and is so often an afterthought – which is better than when he’s an outright liability.

The Post Sports Live crew tries to figure out the missing element from the Capitals that is preventing them from playing to their full potential this season. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

 

And then there is Ovechkin himself, who is six years into a 13-year, $124 million contract. He will lead the league in goals this season. He is, also, widely considered to be abominable as a two-way player, and for the moment he can’t score unless the Capitals are on the power play.

Power plays, of course, don’t come around much in the playoffs. Which, the way it looks Wednesday morning, won’t matter much for these Capitals, because they will be watching, not playing.

“I don’t have answer,” Ovechkin said after the Dallas game.

He doesn’t have them for the short-term, for Friday’s game at New Jersey, on why the Capitals have come up small when they needed their best efforts to squeeze into the playoffs. But he doesn’t have them, either – nor does anyone else – about the cut-to-the-core questions that now face the entire organization. Ovechkin will almost certainly be here for years to come. But who else will?

More on the Capitals:

Caps get blanked by the Stars

Five thoughts on a gut-wrenching defeat

Caps show complete lack of urgency

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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