Washington Capitals’ problems began long before their playoff streak ended

The Capitals failed to make the playoffs for 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)
April 11

Four years ago, as the Washington Capitals were about to clinch the Presidents’ Trophy with the best regular season record in the NHL, owner Ted Leonsis declared that his team had arrived as one of the league’s elite.

“Alex and the Caps are going to win Stanley Cups,” Leonsis said during an interview on 106.7-FM, referring to the club’s goal-scoring forward, Alex Ovechkin. “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.”

Dynamic and overwhelming on offense, Washington entered the playoffs that year a feared juggernaut, only to be eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round.

In the four seasons since that high-water mark, the Capitals have gone through three coaches, four styles of play and six goaltenders. They have tried to reinvent Ovechkin and rotated through numerous supporting cast members. But no version has advanced past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

This season, the Capitals surpassed that level of disappointment by failing to reach the postseason for the first time since 2006-07, prompting speculation about the job security of General Manager George McPhee, team President Dick Patrick and Coach Adam Oates.

“I want to conduct a comprehensive review of what transpired this year,” Leonsis wrote on his blog Thursday after declining to be interviewed for this story, “Listen to appropriate voices and then determine what steps are necessary to ensure the Capitals return to the playoffs and compete for a Stanley Cup.”

But while this spring marks a nadir for the Capitals on the ice, it’s clear that a lack of direction and communication off it have been eroding the franchise from within for far longer.

What system?

Despite the Capitals’ postseason loss to Montreal the previous spring, coach Bruce Boudreau didn’t enter the 2010-11 season expecting to revamp his system. When the goals began to dry up early in the season, though, Washington embarked on a quest to become a more respectable two-way team, one that would pay closer attention to defense and move away from its high-flying style.

After a 7-0 drubbing by the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 12, 2010, a demoralizing loss captured on HBO’s “24/7” documentary, Boudreau chose to adapt. With the blessing of McPhee, who declined to be interviewed for this story, Boudreau used the Capitals’ next practice to introduce the trap, a defense-oriented strategy aimed at preventing opponents from moving the puck through center ice and into their offensive zone.

“What everyone forgets is that we were among the leaders in goals against that year,” Boudreau, now coach of the Pacific Division champion Anaheim Ducks, said in December. “It worked.”

The Capitals didn’t score at their previous clip — down to 2.67 goals per game from 3.82 the season before — but finished with the fourth-fewest goals-against in the league (2.33), the lowest mark they’ve held in four seasons since winning the Presidents’ Trophy.

Should the Capitals have stuck with the aggressive offensive approach? Perhaps. But players supported the move.

“You look around the league, and it’s really tough to win just scoring goals,” forward Eric Fehr said. “You have to play defense in the playoffs, and that was a change I think we needed to make. Goals never really worked anyway if you look at our playoff history.”

But neither did the more defensive-oriented approaches. Washington was swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the 2011 playoffs. Boudreau was fired after a slow start to the 2011-12 season, and his replacement, Dale Hunter, imposed the stingiest, most risk-averse style of play since Ovechkin arrived in 2005. Still, the Capitals were eliminated in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Rangers.

Amid such postseason disappointments, however, the Capitals’ identity was never in question, even as their systems evolved under Boudreau and Hunter.

The same can’t be said now.

“We’re still trying to figure it out. There hasn’t been a clear indication of what we are this year, and it’s too late. You can’t all of a sudden create an identity with four games left,” defenseman Karl Alzner said this past week.

“We don’t know what we’re going to get. Some nights we play a game, we finish and we’re like, ‘Holy smokes, we look like a good team,’ and then some nights we’re like, ‘Wow we should just pack it in now.’ . . . That’s what’s been so tough with us, the uncertainty. It’s our fault: the players’ fault, the staff’s fault. We’ve got to be better off being there every single night.”

This year’s Capitals have scored the 11th-fewest five-on-five goals (135), excluding empty-net tallies, in the league but give up the 10th most (153). The power play has accounted for a staggering 30 percent of their offense; when it struggles, so does the team.

At the same time, Washington’s defense has been shaky. The Capitals own the worst record in the league when scoring two or fewer goals this season at 0-25-6. In two years under Oates, they’re 1-41-8 in such contests.

“It’s tough for me to answer,” Oates said. “I don’t think we’re strong enough defensively. I’ve got four minor league defensemen playing [against St. Louis]. So can we play defensive? We play correct as a team. We play the same way as every team. There’s things we could do better for sure, and that’s our job to try and get better at it.”

The Ovechkin dilemma

Each strategy to improve the Capitals’ defense is met with the contradiction of Ovechkin.

The Capitals decided long ago to build around Ovechkin both on the ice and off. They signed him to a 13-year contract extension worth $124 million that runs through 2020-21 with an annual salary cap hit of more than $9.5 million. They reinforced his stature when they named him captain in January 2010. He isn’t the face of the franchise because of his back-checking skills, but it’s difficult for a team to play one way and a star to play another.

So with each coach came an attempt to instill greater defensive aptitude in Ovechkin’s game. None was as unequivocal and straightforward as Hunter, who simply didn’t play the star winger if Washington was protecting a lead.

On April 30, 2012, in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Rangers, Ovechkin scored what would be the game-winner in a 3-2 triumph but skated just 13 minutes 36 seconds. It is his lowest ice time in 58 career playoff games and the least he has played in any game he didn’t leave because of an injury.

“You have to suck it up and play for team,” Ovechkin said that spring, but it was clear to everyone watching that this route was unsustainable.

After Ovechkin’s relationship with Boudreau soured and then Hunter handcuffed him to the bench, Oates — hired in June 2012 — was expected to strike a balance while also reinvigorating the winger, whose point totals had dipped dramatically the previous two seasons.

Oates moved Ovechkin to the right wing from the left to get him the puck more, and the gap-toothed superstar won his third Hart Trophy last season as the NHL’s MVP after posting 32 goals and 56 points in the lockout-shortened season. Even with his offensive resurgence, defensive questions persist.

Ovechkin will be the NHL’s only 50-goal scorer this season, but he also has one of the worst plus-minus ratings in the league at -35.

“My job to score goals; that’s why I get paid,” Ovechkin said this past week. “I didn’t get paid to put puck deep and create some other opportunities. As soon as I’m going to do that, you guys going to ask why I don’t score. It’s always going to be questions; there’s going to be remarks where I have to play better.”

Constant changes in goal

After three seasons in which his athletic brilliance was intertwined with injuries, Semyon Varlamov, a restricted free agent, wanted the commitment and salary of a No. 1 goaltender.

“We couldn’t guarantee that, not with the competition that we had at the position,” McPhee said July 1, 2011,the day he traded Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche.

Colorado offered Varlamov that security, and last week the 25-year-old recorded his first 40-win season, leading the Avalanche to the playoffs.

Parting with Varlamov — probably the most physically gifted of the four goalies the Capitals drafted between 2006 and 2010 who have since made the NHL — may have been unavoidable given his demands, but it triggered fault lines in the organization’s greatest source of depth.

In three seasons since that deal, five goaltenders have taken a turn on the Capitals’ carousel. Michal Neuvirth requested a trade and was sent to Buffalo. Braden Holtby, who showed such promise in the 2012 playoffs, is about to complete his worst season in the NHL. He has a pedestrian .913 save percentage and 2.92 goals-against average.

Holtby entered the year at the top of the depth chart, but despite starting 24 of the first 29 games, he was clearly struggling to handle alterations the coaching staff made to his game. Later in the season, he was spending more time as backup to 22-year-old rookie Philipp Grubauer and Jaroslav Halak, who was acquired at the trade deadline. Holtby has started just 20 out of the last 51 contests.

“You can’t be complacent at any time, and it’s kind of what happened. I was complacent for one or two games where I didn’t play well, and things switched instantly,” Holtby said. “You learn from that. You don’t want it to happen. You want to have some confidence, but you have to earn that confidence from people in the organization.”

But entering this season, the organization made a fundamental shift in its goaltending philosophy.

Dave Prior, who had worked with the Capitals either as a goaltending coach, scout or adviser since 1997 and helped draft Varlamov, Neuvirth, Holtby and Grubauer, was fired in August 2013 when he refused to endorse and implement changes to the style of play Oates wanted.

“Adam did not agree with how I coach, both in my methods and the content of what I coached,” Prior said from his home in Ontario. “My inflexibility was perceived as ignorance or stubbornness, but I perceive it as a much deeper knowledge of the position. . . . I have no regrets. I would do the same thing again because I stand up for what I believe in. I would gladly defend a goaltender and what I believe is the toughest way to play goal and lose my job over it than to pour gas on them or give them what I believe is bad advice.”

Oates and new goaltending coach Olie Kolzig promoted a calm, controlled style of play that allowed for deeper placement in the crease. All three netminders who started the year in Washington acknowledged the adjustments weren’t instantaneous, but the most visibly affected was Holtby.

The most aggressive of the bunch, Holtby appeared trapped between instinct and instruction. During a stretch from Dec. 10 to Jan. 21, in which he made just seven appearances, Holtby gave up 23 goals on 160 shots and said his confidence was low.

While Oates declined to comment specifically on the difference of opinion with Prior, he made his case for the modifications.

“I’ve studied the position. I’ve met with a lot of people and studied the position. I’m a head coach of a team: My job is to know every position. I never played D but I know D, so I know goaltending,” Oates said. “We’re just trying to tap in more to their reflexes. . . . Every opportunity I give [Holtby] to make another save with his reflexes is a bonus. Now, it’s a process. There’s many nights that he reverts back because that’s his habits, but there’s things I think he needs to do to be better.”

Evergreen needs

The Capitals’ primary roster needs haven’t changed over the past four years: They lack a rugged, steady top-four defenseman who can handle a sizable workload and provide balance to a group defined by puck-movers, and they could use an elite playmaker who could slot in as the No. 2 center behind Nicklas Backstrom.

Even with persistent vacancies, the Capitals haven’t been able to find long-term solutions. According to multiple league sources, that can be attributed partly to what they describe as McPhee’s adversarial relationship with player agents, whose grievances include his refusal to communicate with them directly and limiting their postgame access to clients.

When a key free agent or a player with a no-trade clause — one who can name what teams he will play for — is available, the Capitals intentionally aren’t on the list, one NHL agent explained.

“It’s hostile,” another agent said. “Why would anyone encourage their client to play there when the organization intentionally makes it incredibly difficult to work with them?”

With many top-level players unattainable, the Capitals leaned on the familiar, but even the significant deals they’ve handed out haven’t always gone as the team hoped.

They signed Brooks Laich to a six-year, $27 million contract ahead of the 2011-12 season, banking on his durability: He never played fewer than 73 games in his first six seasons as an NHL regular. Just halfway through that deal, Laich, 30, has missed all but 60 games the past two seasons because of a lingering groin injury that required two surgeries.

Mike Green was two years and multiple injuries removed from his two Norris Trophy finalist seasons when the Capitals signed him to a three-year, $18.25 million deal in 2012. With one year still remaining on that contract, Green has yet to rediscover his previous form or develop into a more well-rounded player. Instead, he has been supplanted by John Carlson as the team’s top defenseman.

Those two may have received similar contracts elsewhere, according to league sources, but while they still account for more than $10.5 million of the team’s total salary cap space, neither is the contributor he once was.

Disconnected

While he has been a head coach for just 129 regular season games, Oates’s influences are everywhere: from the structure of the power play to the discouragement of shot-blocking, from players skating on their strong side to the curvature of each stick.

Oates believes his unrelenting attention to detail expands skill sets, thereby making players more valuable to themselves and the team. But after two seasons of constant tweaks, the line between productive and meddlesome may have blurred.

“He wants you to play a specific way, and that taps into things guys have done consistently for years and years and now he wants you to switch,” Alzner said. “When you’re doing it, it works and it’s great, but it’s hard to change your game that much — to tamper with things you’ve done the same way for so many years.”

Nearly every player on the roster has been shown evidence as to why he should change his stick — Oates said he plans to discuss tweaks to Ovechkin’s this summer — and many have done so, although Oates insists he has never forced anyone to adopt his suggestions.

For someone so in tune with every microscopic element of the game, though, Oates has sent firework-sized signals that he and McPhee aren’t on the same page. The most glaring instances came with McPhee’s trade deadline acquisitions of Martin Erat and Dustin Penner the past two seasons. Both had played on the top lines for other teams but barely saw time beyond Washington’s third or fourth unit.

“Nobody’s fooled,” said former Calgary general manager Craig Button, who is an analyst for NHL Network. “The players, the staff are fully cognizant of what’s going on. I think when you look at a relationship, there can’t even be questions about it.”

Acquiring Erat by sending highly touted prospect Filip Forsberg to Nashville was a win-now move by McPhee, who said he expected the veteran winger to skate on the top two lines and “continue to be a real consistent player.” Injuries limited Erat to 13 games last season after the deal. When the following training camp started, he was penciled in as a spare part.

Erat played the first seven games this season on the fourth line, even as Washington struggled at even strength, and by late November he publicly demanded a trade, stating he “never got a chance” to show what he could do.

While disgruntled, Erat wasn’t wrong. He saw less even-strength time per game than every player on the roster except Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle and Aaron Volpatti, and he never skated a game at right wing, which was the position he has played predominantly throughout his 12-year NHL career.

The same day Erat was traded to Phoenix, March 4, to end one failed experiment, another began as Washington picked up Penner from Anaheim. McPhee spoke of the hulking winger’s ability to play on the first or second line, possibly fill a role similar to the one Mike Knuble held years ago. But Oates said he didn’t think Penner fit with Ovechkin. Penner played 16 minutes 50 seconds in his Capitals debut but hasn’t skated that much since and has, like Erat, seen significant time on the fourth line.

At one level, Erat and Penner can be viewed as a coach and GM having differences of opinion on ancillary players. But on a larger level, they symbolize an organization struggling to define itself, while its star players age and its competitive fortunes deteriorate.

“Everybody knows where the GM-coach relationship is strong, functioning and purposeful,” Button said. “It doesn’t always mean that the GM gets his way or the coach gets his way. It’s about them working in unison, in lock step. Once the perception’s there that they’re not on the same page, it permeates the organization.”

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