Washington Capitals hope a change will be as good as a cure

The Capitals have missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years. What effect might another management change have on the core group of players, including Alex Ovechkin? (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
John Feinstein
April 26

Ted Leonsis spilled a lot of words Saturday afternoon. He talked again and again about how much he liked and respected George McPhee and Adam Oates. He predicted both would be successful somewhere else in the National Hockey League. In all, he spent 30 solid minutes taking questions from the media — not something he does very often these days.

But when all was said and done, the Washington Capitals owner’s decision to fire McPhee after 17 seasons as general manager and Oates after just two seasons as coach came down to 13 words.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

“We need a fresh set of eyes,” Leonsis said. “And we need a new voice.”

That’s why McPhee and Oates are out of work today. As Leonsis pointed out, the Caps had the fifth-longest playoff streak in the NHL prior to this baffling and disappointing season, which ended short of the postseason for the first time since 2007. They also won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2010 and were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference in 2011.

McPhee must have been doing something right along the way for those things to happen.

The Post Sports Live crew debates why Capitals owner Ted Leonsis is waiting to make any moves on whether the team will GM George McPhee or Coach Adam Oates. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

Oates was hired two years ago because McPhee believed Alexander Ovechkin might be willing to listen to him. For the Caps to win a Stanley Cup, Ovechkin has to be, at worst, the second-best player in hockey. (If fans are debating whether Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby is the best, then the Caps have a chance to compete with anyone.)

In 2011 and 2012, Ovechkin wasn’t the best player on his own team; Niklas Backstrom was most times, and before injuries turned him into an ordinary player, Mike Green was at others.

Oates’s job was to get Ovechkin to be Ovechkin again.

He moved his No. 1 star/headache to right wing, and even though the team didn’t have the benefit of a training camp last season because of the lockout, Ovechkin responded with an MVP season. This winter, Ovechkin led the league in goals with 51. Oates deserves credit for getting Ovechkin to be one of the sport’s special players again.

And yet, Oates is gone after only one full season. The reason is simple: The Caps didn’t make the playoffs this spring, and Leonsis certainly isn’t going to fire Ovechkin with seven years and $70 million left on his contract.

Leonsis spoke very mysteriously about the meetings he and team president Dick Patrick conducted over the last two weeks, as if national security was at stake. Undoubtedly, what happened was this: Leonsis and Patrick held the meetings to find out if there was any compelling reason not to make a change — and didn’t find one.

Sometimes change for the sake of change is needed. Leonsis is right about one thing: McPhee and Oates will find success with other teams. That doesn’t mean that firing them was a mistake. It just means both may have needed to leave Washington for different reasons: McPhee, because 17 years is a long time (he was the third-longest tenured general manager in the league), and Oates, because a first coaching job is often a place where smart people learn from their mistakes.

Bill Belichick was fired in Cleveland; Mike Shanahan in Oakland. Tony LaRussa was fired by the White Sox and Joe Torre was fired three times. Red Auerbach got fired twice before he landed in Boston. Hockey coaches get fired and re-hired faster than coaches in any other sport. Oates will land somewhere and will no doubt be a better coach the second time around.

But let’s be honest. Oates didn’t get fired because he “micro-managed,” even if he was guilty of it at times. McPhee didn’t get fired because he couldn’t find a second-line center; he actually found a couple of reasonably good ones but couldn’t keep them around. And he certainly didn’t get fired because he had the gall to keep agents out of the Capitals’ postgame locker room. (If he did, Leonsis should fire himself).

The Caps simply got stuck in a postseason rut that began in 2010, when they were clearly the best team in the league and got stoned by Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak after taking a three-games-to-one series lead in the first round, only to lose the last three games.

There’s irony in the fact that McPhee’s last move of substance was to trade for a goalie for this season’s playoff run: Halak. It is also instructive to note that the Caps have had two general managers in the last 32 years: McPhee and David Poile. Whoever replaces Oates will be the fourth Caps coach since the start of the 2011-2012 season.

The question now is what next?

There are two very respected coaches who are available right now: Barry Trotz, recently fired in Nashville, and Peter Laviolette, who won a Stanley Cup in Carolina and went to the finals in Philadelphia and might be in line to succeed Trotz in Nashville.

The general manager picture is far murkier: The ex-GM’s on the market right now excite very few people. There are a host of young, unproven No. 2’s out there, which is what McPhee was when he came here in 1997. Patrick said the team probably would prefer to hire a GM and let him have input in who the coach will be. That’s the smart thing to do, and that means this will be a lengthy process.

Whomever gets hired will have to figure out ways to make the defense better; to get Braden Holtby to be the goalie he was in the spring of 2012 and to improve the second and third lines.

But more than anything, the two men will have to figure out how to get Ovechkin to be a truly great player — and leader — not just a great scorer. It says a lot that Pavel Datsyuk, not Ovechkin, was chosen to be captain of this year’s Russian Olympic team. That team failed the way Ovechkin’s teams have consistently failed in the playoffs. Ovechkin was as invisible in Sochi in February as he has been in Washington in May.

“Alexander Ovechkin is a great, great hockey player,” Patrick said. “The criticism of him is unfair. How can we be unhappy with what Alexander Ovechkin has accomplished in the National Hockey League?”

Perhaps because Ovechkin has never taken a team past the second round of the playoffs. Which is why the Caps will now begin to search for a fresh set of eyes and a new voice.

Maybe they can get him to perform — finally — in the games that matter most.

For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.

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