The easiest thing for Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis to do right now is clean house. Fire George McPhee as general manager and send Coach Adam Oates packing, too — even though that would mean paying Oates not to coach for a season.
After all, the Caps missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007, and they haven’t been beyond the second round of the playoffs since 1998 — McPhee’s first year in charge — when they reached the Stanley Cup finals.
Let’s take it a step further: If Leonsis is going to jettison McPhee and Oates — or just McPhee, as seems possible — he should have done it Monday. It isn’t as if he hasn’t had plenty of time to look at his dysfunctional team this season and make decisions about who should — or should not — lead it into the future.
Instead, Leonsis met with McPhee on Monday, slapped a gag order on him, refused to speak to anyone in the media himself and said he might take up to two weeks to decide what to do.
Talk about leaving people twisting in the wind. The Caps haven’t won the Stanley Cup, but McPhee built a team that has sold out virtually every game at Verizon Center the past five seasons. He has earned the right not to be left wondering what his future holds.
But beyond common decency, he and Oates deserve to keep their jobs.
There’s no doubt most Caps fans want McPhee gone. They aren’t wrong to lay a good deal of the blame for this lost season at his feet. They will point — for the one-millionth time — at the Martin Erat trade of a year ago, as if that failed move is somehow the cause of the Caps’ decline.
That trade was a mistake, but it isn’t the reason the Caps are playing golf this weekend. The team has plenty of problems: Their goaltending failed for much of the season, their defense was porous and they have no real leadership in the locker room. It’s nice when a team’s star is also its leader. But that isn’t always the case.
Alex Ovechkin simply isn’t the kind of leader who can shut the door and call out his teammates when things aren’t going well. Brooks Laich might be able to do it, but he’s been hurt for most of the past two seasons. Once upon a time Mike Green might have been able to do it, but he’s gone from all-star to ordinary in the past couple of years, largely because of injuries.
Injuries are a part of sports. A general manager’s job is to build a team deep enough to deal with them. But no one could have anticipated the rapid decline of Green, who at his best was the kind of player who can’t be replaced, just as there was no way to overcome Ovechkin’s swan dive after the 2010 Olympics, when he went from a great player to merely a good one for the next two seasons.
McPhee hired Oates in part because he thought he could restart Ovechkin. Oates did that. He put him at right wing and, at least for a while, had his attention because he could speak to him as Hall of Famer to future Hall of Famer. Ovechkin stopped listening toward the end of Bruce Boudreau’s coaching tenure, and he never listened to Dale Hunter.
Ovechkin’s mercurial personality remains this team’s biggest issue. Even though listening to Oates made him an MVP again last season and a 51-goal scorer this season, he got testy when Oates suggested he might occasionally want to back-check. Ovechkin has always believed that’s beneath him. He’s honest about the fact he enjoys playing hockey going toward the net, not away from it. But teams that win Stanley Cups do it with very good goalies, tough defense and forwards willing to back-check. There won’t be a lot of 5-4 games the next two months.
The care and feeding of Ovechkin is a major challenge for any general manager or coach. Building on Ovechkin’s brilliance, McPhee created a team good enough to win the Presidents’ Trophy in 2010 and earn the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference a year later. McPhee drafted Ovechkin, Green, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, who appeared in 2008 to be the core of a team that would contend for the Stanley Cup on an annual basis.
McPhee also brought in a plethora of young goaltending talent and appeared to have found the answer in net when Braden Holtby was brilliant in the 2012 playoffs. The emergence of Holtby and the presence of Michal Neuvirth and Philipp Grubauer allowed McPhee to trade Semyon Varlamov for a first-round draft pick in what looked like a brilliant deal three years ago. None of the three goalies the Caps kept have become a star. Varlamov just had a breakout season in Colorado — probably not coincidentally, while playing for Coach Patrick Roy.
McPhee hasn’t been perfect, but he’s been very good. Think about this: Most of the moves he has made appeared to make sense at the time. Some simply haven’t panned out as almost everyone expected them to at the time.
But if you want to understand why the Caps have been treading water for what feels like forever — before going under this season — it might be worth thinking about a move McPhee didn’t — or couldn’t — make two summers ago.
With Dennis Wideman and Semin leaving the payroll, the Caps should have been positioned to make a big splash. The Columbus Blue Jackets were committed to trading Rick Nash because they had decided they didn’t want to pay the remaining six years on his $62 million contract.
Adding a scorer such as Nash on the second line would have made the never-ending search for a second-line center a lot easier and would have given the Caps a more powerful 1-2 goal-scoring punch than just about anyone in the league. Leonsis didn’t want to spend the money. Nash went to the Rangers for three reasonably good players — the Caps have plenty of those — and a first-round draft pick, that the Caps had to spare because of the Varlamov trade.
Nash hasn’t led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup, but he did help them beat the Caps last spring. And the Rangers will be playing playoff hockey this week while the Caps will watch on television.
The bottom line then is this: Will firing McPhee and Oates guarantee the Caps will be able to fix all their problems? No. Will firing them mean Leonsis will hire a general manager or coach better than McPhee and Oates? Nope. Firing the duo — or even just McPhee — does one thing: It appeases a frustrated fan base for a while.
That’s not the reason to make a change. Sometimes the easiest decision is the wrong one.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.