Are the Capitals the team that got drummed by the Penguins twice last week, 6-3 and 5-2? Or are they the team that shut out division rival Florida on Saturday, 5-0? Is Braden Holtby the goalie who gave up those six goals in the first loss to the Penguins, or the one who blanked the Panthers? Is General Manager George McPhee the executive who has twice torn down and rebuilt this team, or is he past his expiration date in Washington?
So far this season, the Caps have been a mystery. Another clue comes Tuesday night, when the Capitals travel to Florida to face the Panthers. Saturday’s blowout against Florida should signal another good performance. And yet, nothing about the Caps has been predictable except the unhappiness that has greeted their 3-8-1 start this season.
McPhee said last week that the Caps’ problems stemmed from too many penalties and poor goaltending. He was a little more diplomatic than that, but not much. Holtby had a nightmare start to his season — before Saturday’s 5-0 victory, Holtby’s goals-against average (more than 4) was higher than the number of goals the Caps had scored in any game this season. The shutout might signal a return of the Holtby of 2012. If it doesn’t, the Caps are in trouble.
A shortened season and a new system are the common culprits blamed, ad nauseam, for the Caps’ plight. That’s about 50 percent fair. The length of prep time and the 48-game season is the same for every team in the NHL. The new system, well, that can’t be helped, not with three coaches in 18 months.
Many fans wish the Caps had kept Dale Hunter, for the sake of consistency, but get over it — Hunter wasn’t staying. Adam Oates has the thankless task of trying to get this team on the same page and up the standings. Calling for his firing after 12 games isn’t sensible enough to be taken seriously.
Which brings us to McPhee. He and owner Ted Leonsis put Bruce Boudreau on a clock at the start of the 2011-12 season, and when he couldn’t do what they wanted (impose discipline), out he went. In came Hunter, who had no trouble doling out discipline and putting in a system that took the team to the conference semifinals, but at the end of the season Hunter made a dash for the Canadian border. He may not have stopped till he reached the pole.
McPhee and Leonsis tried that recipe again — hiring a former Cap with no NHL head coaching experience — and gave the job to Oates. Thus came the new system. It’s the circle of life, with the 50-year-old Oates as Simba.
It’s too early to know if Oates was the right choice, and it will be tough to judge him on this unusual season. Therefore, it’s also unfair to judge McPhee on that hire. He made the offseason deal that brought Mike Ribeiro to town, and Caps fans can agree that was a good move — Ribeiro leads the team with 4 goals and 10 assists. Ribeiro should probably not be leading the team in scoring, not with a roster than includes Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but that is not McPhee’s fault.
Has Washington’s once-powerful core lost a step? The young team that McPhee built after the Caps abandoned their attempt to build through free agency is no longer so young. McPhee indicated last week that he will make moves to help the team but “I’m not going to do anything stupid.”
A lot of teams may have McPhee on speed dial simply because he has stocked the Caps’ pipeline of young talent, so “anything stupid” might refer to trading away the future. The NHL draft, in fact, seems to be McPhee’s forte. Among the not quite ready for prime time Capitals are forwards Filip Forsberg, Tom Wilson and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Well, Kuznetsov is more than ready, but he won’t leave Russia. He recently told a Slovak journalist that he fully intends to play for the Capitals — after the Socchi Olympics in his beloved Russia. (That’s 12 months away, in case you haven’t been counting the days till the next Winter Games.)
So on the plus side, McPhee is a team builder whose clubs have won the division title in four of the past five seasons, he’s the only Caps general manager to preside over a Stanley Cup finalist and the Caps are just a few wins away from being back in the race. On the other hand, none of these high-power teams of recent seasons has managed to get back to the finals, his roster is aging and this season’s effort has been puzzling.
So does Leonsis give McPhee time to fix this, and does McPhee deserve it? I think the answer is yes to both. Leonsis and McPhee have a close relationship and firing him, after 16 years of building and dumping and building again, would be difficult for Leonsis. And I’m not sure anyone can be judged on this weird season — yet. But if McPhee’s prospects don’t pan out, and he can’t clear some of the dead wood off the roster, then perhaps 16 years is long enough to win a Cup. Then it will be time for a change.
For Tracee Hamilton’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.