Even in the dark days at the end of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure, when Washington had lost six of eight, there wasn’t the misery and anger this city’s hockey hard-cores rose to Wednesday morning. Back then, in November 2011, a Presidents’ Trophy had been in the trophy case barely 18 months, the Caps still had a winning record, and a Stanley Cup seemed, potentially, around the corner. Bring in a new voice — and keep going.
What the Capitals woke to Wednesday: the deepest, most fundamental questions an organization can face. Do they, 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 torch-waving mob 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 steadily built a case against him: No Cup 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. Ted’s take, outlined in a Mike Wise column last week, is that he is hardly married to McPhee — even though he has fired neither of the general managers that were in place when he acquired the Capitals and the Wizards.
A few weeks ago, just after the trade deadline, McPhee talked about his interactions with Leonsis. At that point, he had not been isolated, cut out of any loop. Far from it.
“I hear from Ted one way or another every day,” McPhee said then. “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 have been like Wednesday morning? Tuesday was ugly, essentially over after the second goal, an unacceptable result that puts the Capitals three points out of a playoff spot with six games to play.
Somehow, during those years of postseason berths, the playoffs became 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 he didn’t “see any weaknesses” with the team.
So follow that line of thinking. Does that mean the problem is with Adam Oates, who has yet to complete one full season as head coach? Oates’s mantra has been to treat players like he wanted to be treated during his own Hall of Fame playing career, with respect and positive reinforcement. He isn’t changing that now.
“The one big thing is someone will say, ‘You need to yell at them,’ right?” Oates said after a somber practice Wednesday. “I don’t see Bill Belichick yell. Now that doesn’t mean he can’t yell with his eyes, right? Or his face, his mood. That’s all part of respect, no question. Everybody says that until they’re the one yelled at.”
But fans would argue that there’s nothing positive to reinforce, so Oates needs to yell. If he’s unwilling, then off he goes.
Continue following that line of thinking, though. Leonsis keeps McPhee, but McPhee fires Oates. Don’t discount this, because there are indications of fissures in that relationship, subtle and otherwise. As a player, Oates was never afraid of playing the squeaky wheel. Could he be that way as a coach?
When McPhee acquired forward Dustin Penner at the trade deadline, he said, “I thought we needed another guy like that, who could play with our skill guys and go to the net.” He brought up the name of Mike Knuble, the veteran forward who once provided a screen on the power play and frequently played with Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom. Oates has called Penner a bad fit with Ovechkin, and has played him mostly on the fourth line. Penner played 16 minutes 50 seconds in his Washington debut, and has never again seen the ice for that long.
Dysfunction? Maybe not. Disconnect? It would seem a strong possibility.
But if McPhee stays and Oates goes, the general manager would then be looking to make his sixth coaching hire. Who gets that many chances? 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 Penner, goalie Jaroslav Halak and maybe forward 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 the core that so many were so psyched about just a few years ago just isn’t the same anymore, either. Alex Semin and his amazing hands (and, yes, his stupid offensive-zone penalties) have long since departed. 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. Green was the Norris Trophy runner-up in 2009 and 2010. Now, at 28, he has been replaced on the first power play and is often an afterthought — which is better than when he’s an outright liability.
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 at the moment he can’t score at even strength.
Power plays, of course, don’t come around much in the playoffs. Which may not matter for these Capitals, because barring a radical turnaround, they will be watching, not playing.
“I don’t have answer,” Ovechkin said after the Dallas game.
He doesn’t have answers for Friday’s game at New Jersey, for why the Capitals have come up small when they needed their best efforts to squeeze into the playoffs. But he also doesn’t have them — nor does anyone else — for the cut-to-the-core questions that now face the entire organization. Ovechkin will almost certainly be here for years to come. Who else will?