Capitals’ downfall turns harsh light onTed Leonsis, George McPhee, Adam Oates

If the Capitals fail to make the playoffs, it will be the first time since 2007. The Post Sports Live crew debates whether General Manager George McPhee or Coach Adam Oates is more to blame for the team's underperformance. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Mike Wise
Columnist April 10

It officially ended at 11:02 p.m. Eastern, 10:02 p.m. Central, on a rink with an empty net in Dallas.

The Capitals were in a Raleigh, N.C., hotel Wednesday when a victory by Columbus over the Stars eliminated Alex Ovechkin and his franchise from playing in the postseason for the first time since 2007.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Just like that, Tom Green’s arresting image won’t be leading throaty chants on the Jumbotron. Ovi won’t be slam-dancing with the glass partition after yet another playoff goal that made Verizon Center go berserk. Turns out there is a worse feeling than the dread and agony leading up to another Game 7 on home ice: the reality of no Game 1.

Before the recriminations begin, a moment to reflect on not having a Stanley Cup playoff team for the first time in seven years in Washington — a moment to realize the ice won’t be put down at Verizon Center in mid-April or May, the sad truth that thousands of red-mesh jerseys with “BACKSTROM,” “OVECHKIN” and “LANGWAY” stenciled on the back don’t really have to be laundered again until October.

Relish the memory of Sergei Fedorov beating Henrik Lundqvist, glove side. Remember the night Joel Ward siphoned the season from the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in Boston. All that overtime anxiety and, sometimes, exhilaration.

Okay, we good? Great. Now . . .

Unleash the jury.

Ted Leonsis, guilty of believing this seriously flawed roster could be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

George McPhee, guilty the past seven years of not being able to put together a coaching staff and roster capable of getting past the second round of the playoffs — despite building around one of the greatest offensive talents in NHL history.

Adam Oates, guilty of employing more odd-line combinations the past month than the makers of Master Lock, guilty of coaching a team that gave up 13 two-goal leads, a team that rested on its laurels routinely after it scored and never developed a consistent identity — really, a mentally soft team that inexplicably has yet to win a game under Oates when scoring two or fewer goals.

And Ovechkin, inferior linemates and all, guilty of one of the most meaningless 50-goal seasons in NHL annals. With the Caps’ playoff hopes in the balance, the captain failed to score an even-strength goal in 15 straight, gotta-have-it games.

McPhee and Oates may soon lose their jobs as general manager and coach, but it’s Ovechkin who has posted the most disappointing season of his career.

The pressure of winning gold at the Winter Olympics blew up in his face when Russia didn’t make the medal round in Sochi. Then he came back to an NHL supporting cast that simply wasn’t up to the task.

He’s on his third coach in three years, his 10th goalie in seven seasons. The immense turnover doesn’t hide the fact that Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are the common denominators of a team unable to take the next step toward a championship.

Leonsis said prior to the season opener, “I think if we can make the playoffs in [the Metropolitan] division, that yeah, we are a legitimate Cup threat.” Now he must face the fact that his grand plan has gone awry.

“Alex and the Caps are going to win Stanley Cups,” he said to me in a radio studio about four years ago. “We’re either going to win it this year or next year or the year after. We’re going to get better, too. That’s the thing. I promise the team will be better next year than it is this year.”

If Leonsis truly believed this team should have made the playoffs and contended for the Cup, he can’t stand pat. Too-patient Ted has never hired or fired a GM before, but now he might not be able to avoid it.

On some level, it has to make sense to fire McPhee. He becomes a sacrifice to frothing fans, the last card Leonsis can play with his base to inspire hope. And what to do with Oates, who kept trying to reinvent the wheel and whose superior technical knowledge may have sometimes undermined his motivational skills?

Would a new general manager be all right with his coach already in house?

As fashionable as it is to bash him now, McPhee has given the Capitals a very good 17 years, incredible longevity for any executive in pro sports. He never made hasty trades or mortgaged the future to save his job.

He also surrounded Ovechkin with too many inexperienced defensemen who couldn’t learn on the job fast enough. Green has regressed since McPhee re-signed him, Brooks Laich went to Europe during the lockout, injured his groin and hasn’t been the same for almost two years.

Braden Holtby feels like a wishbone, pulled every which way by a franchise that acts as if it doesn’t believe he has the makeup to be their No. 1 goalie.

This isn’t a train wreck in the truest sense. It’s an organization that until Wednesday night had the fifth-longest playoff streak in the league.

There are so many valuable pieces in the locker room and the front office. Backing up the truck and hauling everything to the dump would be an emotional, knee-jerk decision.

But the foundation is aging, and Ovechkin’s not going to score 50 goals a season forever. McPhee built his roster around a wing in Ovechkin, not a center, as most Cup champions in recent years have done. And as much resolve as the Caps have shown during their runs since 2008, they were more often than not outworked by a more physical and determined team in late April or May.

When that starts happening in March and early April, something is wrong and needs to change. In the locker room. In the front office. And at the very top of the food chain, where a status-quo offseason no longer flies.

If we’re being honest, that dog didn’t hunt four years ago.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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