For the first time since the summer of 1997, the Washington Capitals know neither who will be their general manager nor coach heading into next season.
George McPhee was told Saturday morning by Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and President Dick Patrick that his contract would not be renewed after 17 years as general manager. Adam Oates, the team’s third coach since late 2011, was fired with one year remaining on his contract.
Leonsis and Patrick made the shake-up after undergoing a nearly two-week examination of the team, which failed to reach the postseason for the first time in seven seasons. According to sources with knowledge of the process, Leonsis and Patrick met with people from all corners of the organization — players, scouts, medical and front office staff — for feedback on the entire operation.
Leonsis repeatedly declined to provide any specific details on what they gleaned from those interviews or share key factors in why they decided to part with McPhee and Oates, the crux lies in the team failing to make progress toward a Stanley Cup.
“We were a continuously improving playoff team until we weren’t,” Leonsis said at a news conference Saturday at Verizon Center. “The last two seasons showed us that we need to improve. That’s what it came down to, where Dick and I said, ‘We have to make that gut check. Do we have to change? And where do you start?’ You start with the coach and the general manager.”
Patrick said the search for a new general manager and coach will begin immediately. While he said he hopes at least the former will be in place by the 2014 NHL draft on June 27 in Philadelphia, it isn’t a steadfast deadline.
“It would be nice to have someone in place before the draft and I think it’s probably more likely than not that that timeline will work out,” Patrick said. “But it’s not something that we’re a slave to because the organization’s set up so we can handle the draft the way it is, with the organization now, without anyone new.”
Reached by text message Saturday morning, McPhee declined to comment until Monday.
McPhee, 55, was the third-longest-tenured general manager in the NHL. Under his guidance the Capitals reached the playoffs 10 of 16 seasons, won seven Southeast Division titles and captured the Presidents’ Trophy as owners of the league’s best regular season record in 2009-10. But Washington advanced past the second round only once during that span, when they reached the Stanley Cup finals in McPhee’s first season.
The inability of his teams to shatter their own glass ceiling played a significant role in his departure but it is not the entirety of McPhee’s legacy in Washington. He engineered a total roster reconstruction that began in the 2003-04 season when he traded away high-priced veteran players and restocked the organization through the draft. Alex Ovechkin became the centerpiece of that plan when he was drafted first overall in 2004.
After missing the postseason three straight seasons while rebuilding, the Capitals returned to the playoffs in 2007-08, Ovechkin’s third season in the NHL, and made return trips every year until this spring.
“That rebuild process was dramatic and I watched a great executive really go through really, really hard times and rebuild that team quickly but we just didn’t get there,” Leonsis said.
Washington’s scouting staff is believed to be under contract for next season and Patrick said he didn’t anticipate any other immediate changes to the hockey operations staff, adding that the assistant coaches will also remain in their current capacities for the time being.
Oates, 51, a Hall of Fame player but first-time head coach when he took over in June 2012, was unable to produce consistent performances from his team. In his two seasons, Washington recorded a 65-48-17 record. Whomever follows Oates will be the Capitals’ fourth coach in four years.
“I’m not very proud of that; I think that’s a real issue,” Leonsis said of the turnover. “It’s very hard for players to jell going from system to system to system. It concerns me greatly.”
Oates succeeded in an attempt to spark Ovechkin, who saw a decline in offensive production each of the two seasons prior to Oates’s arrival, by switching him from left to right wing. The team captain won his third Hart trophy as league MVP and two Maurice “Rocket’” Richard trophies as the league’s leading goal scorer with Oates as coach. But those individual results didn’t translate on a larger scale.
Questions about Washington’s play at even strength that surfaced during a first-round playoff loss to the Rangers in 2013 persisted during the 2013-14 campaign. Neither were season-long trends such as the inability to win low-scoring games, preventing quick goals after scoring themselves and frequently squandering two-goal leads.
Oates, who spent parts of six seasons with the Capitals as a player, declined to comment beyond a prepared statement released by the team in which he thanked ownership and McPhee for his first head-coaching opportunity, saying the franchise will “always be close to my heart”.
With McPhee and Oates ousted, Leonsis must now take a step he’s never had to make since buying the Capitals in 1999: Hire the man responsible for delivering his ultimate objective.
“There’s lots of noise but the signal was that we need to get back to being totally focused on one goal and that’s winning a Stanley Cup,” Leonsis said. “All of us have to recommit to just that one goal. That’s all that we should be in discussions about and that’s where we’re hoping we get a fresh set of eyes and new voice.”