Do you believe in unlikelihoods?
Yes, Cotton McKnight, I do, and so does all of Caps Nation after that Game 7 Thursday night in Boston. What could be more unlikely than the Washington Capitals approaching May from somewhere other than the front nine? In February, did this seem possible?
Did it seem possible at the trade deadline, when rumors flew and players looked around the room, weighing the odds, and fans prayed for help at center, on defense, anyone, anywhere. And when no big deal went down, the pot boiled over. Season ticket prices were rising and so were tempers.
I was sure, several months ago, even several weeks ago, that Ted Leonsis would be the busiest man in Washington this summer. After all, he had two franchises to rebuild, two general managers to fire and two to hire before two drafts, two front offices to overhaul, two coaches to replace. His long-term plan for the Caps would be in tatters if they missed the playoffs — which seemed possible — and as for his basketball team, well, it is hard to know what to say about the Washington Wizards.
Now Leonsis can book a cruise, write a book, produce a movie — all at the same time, knowing him — because what looked like a huge mess is now just a mess. And most of that mess is the Wizards. And that mess is of Leonsis’s making. Of course, he always has to be in cellphone range so he can tell recently re-signed GM Ernie Grunfeld what to do.
There’s a parallel between Leonsis’s handling of his two franchises that is telling. When he bought the Capitals from Abe Pollin, he kept GM George McPhee to see how the two would mesh, how McPhee did his job, how McPhee managed down, and how he managed up. In the end, Leonsis liked what he saw and kept him. That decision is popular with Caps fans when the team is winning — like, today — and not popular when the team seems to sit on its hands at the trade deadline or is swept out of the playoffs.
But Leonsis and McPhee are now tighter than ticks, and that worries Caps fans who say Leonsis doesn’t have the stomach to fire someone he likes. Then again, both men liked Bruce Boudreau, and I haven’t seen him around Kettler in a long time.
When the buddies brought in former Caps tough guy Dale Hunter to replace Boudreau, it raised a lot of eyebrows. He had a different system — everyone has a different system; the Redskins seem to have a different system every year — and he was certainly a different type of personality than Boudreau, who didn’t earn the nickname “Gabby” because he was a huge fan of the oeuvre of actor George Hayes.
Hunter, on the other hand, looks like he’s been undergoing the world’s longest root canal since taking the job in November. It was understandable: The Caps’ highs were high, but their lows were almost unwatchable. But somewhere along the way they finally began to get his system, just in time to sneak into the playoffs.
Then, what a ridiculously good seven-course meal they concocted. Every game was decided by one goal, an NHL first. The Caps scored 16 goals; the Bruins, 15. Twelve different Caps scored those goals. They won three of their four games on the road. And they won as the No. 7 seed with a rookie goaltender against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
What coach-’em-up advice did Hunter offer the Caps before the deciding game? “Have fun! It’s Game 7!” (But he probably said it without the exclamation points.)
Once the adrenaline of the Bruins series has receded, will Leonsis indeed stand pat with his front office, even if, say, the Caps get swept out of the next round? It seems likely McPhee is safe and Hunter is safe if he wants to be. He may well want to return to Canada, where he had a lucrative and presumably less stressful life as owner of the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. So McPhee may be replacing a coach this summer.
Because it seems certain that if Grunfeld is staying, so is McPhee. Grunfeld is like the dad who builds a tree house in the backyard. The roof leaks and the floor is so cattywampus that children are sliding out the side and into the neighbor’s pool. So he tears it down, but continues to call himself an architect. No. Just no.
Grunfeld certainly will be hiring a coach. Poor Randy Wittman did the best he could with what he had, but he likely won’t get the “interim” tag removed unless Grunfeld literally cannot find anyone else who wants the job. If the Wizards get lucky again in the draft lottery, Grunfeld should be able to make an appropriate hire, someone who can work with a growing team of youngsters.
So if you were expecting major changes in the front offices of the Capitals and Wizards this summer, don’t. Unless you really believe in unlikelihoods.