George McPhee must do something big to turn Washington Capitals around


(Patrick McDermott/GETTY IMAGES)

It’s not time for George McPhee and Capitals fans to panic, not yet. Granted, the Caps have to look up to see the eighth spot, but they don’t have to squint. It’s still in sight.

But if it’s not time to panic, it’s certainly time for action. It might even be time for McPhee to do something big, to save the season and perhaps to save his job. Because while McPhee has a successful record in Washington, he also thought that this year’s team had a shot to win the Stanley Cup, and that firing Bruce Boudreau might light a fire under it after his alleged Cup contender had a less-than-Cuppy start.

McPhee pointed out to John Feinstein Monday night that this year’s team has only been on the ice together for eight games and is 8-0 in those games. That’s one of those “what if?” propositions that riddle the sports world. What if the Caps had suffered no injuries? What if Babe Ruth had remained in Boston? What if Jeremy Lin was a Wizard?

(Wait, what if Jeremy Lin was a Wizard? Well, for starters, there’d be no Linsanity, except on the part of Jeremy Lin, poor fellow.)

Anyway, what McPhee was trying to say is that injuries are to blame for the Caps’ plight. Which makes you wonder why Boudreau had to take his clean carpets and head west. Of course, firing the coach is typically the first move made by a struggling team. No point in dwelling on it. Time to think about that second move.

But the “it’s not the team, it’s the injuries” excuse is a little like “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” When the Caps are playing golf this June, they’ll find that like most clever sayings, it’s not true. In fact, they’ll find that it’s both the heat and the humidity. Then again, they have a lot of experience playing golf in June so that should come as no surprise.

McPhee also has to know that the problems with this team go far deeper than injuries. Of course, the loss of Nicklas Backstrom — out since Jan. 3 with a concussion — has been a major blow, but it’s been exacerbated by the on-and-off play of Alex Ovechkin. Backstrom has played in 15 fewer games than Ovechkin, but has just two fewer points. And there is no timetable for Backstrom’s return. Acquiring a center before the Feb. 27 trade deadline has to be McPhee’s top priority.

The loss — or rather losses — of Mike Green are perhaps no less painful, but McPhee’s been around the block — and around this team too long to have thought that Green would remain healthy for anything approaching 82 games this season. If the Caps are going to keep Green, they have to be prepared to replace him at a moment’s notice. After playing in 82 games five seasons ago, he’s played in just 43 percent of the Caps’ games this season and last. Green is one of the best players on the team — when he plays, which is currently 43 percent of the time. That leaves McPhee with a very tough decision — another item for his to-do list.

How well McPhee does in getting this team on track will determine more than whether the Caps make the playoffs. It could determine McPhee’s future in Washington. There is no question that McPhee is a favorite of owner Ted Leonsis, but there is also no question that a string of playoff flops followed by no playoff appearance at all is not the result Leonsis is looking for — and not the result he’s been selling to Caps fans.

Leonsis has been demonstrably patient with the Caps’ rebuilding process but that was to be a blueprint for his newly acquired Wizards. It’s going to be hard for him to preach patience to the Wizards’ fan base — current and potential — while using the Caps as an object lesson. Not that Wizards fans wouldn’t love to make the playoffs occasionally, but failing to make the postseason? Been there, done that.

McPhee needs to make some smart moves before the trade deadline, get the Caps on track, and hope for some inspired postseason play. Because once a coach has been fired — Boudreau, say, or Flip Saunders — there are only so many options available to an owner.

For Tracee Hamilton’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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