Something has to change.
This is no longer about patience or seeing the rough times through during that annual regular season swoon before the Washington Capitals find themselves and their games just in time for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
With each recent close loss or fall-flat night against one of the NHL’s weaker franchises, it feels bigger than that.
It feels like it’s time to break up the nucleus, to shake up a roster with just three players not under contract for next season. It can only happen through a substantial trade, and that is why it is time for Mike Green to go.
It might sound knee-jerk, especially given the Capitals’ myriad problems that have little to do with the underwhelming veteran defenseman.
But if a seventh straight postseason is the goal, if not wasting a single season of Alex Ovechkin’s and Nicklas Backstrom’s prime is really paramount — if this season is going to be about more than giving good, young kids experience — then the team committed to going green at goalie and on defense has to seriously consider parting with Green.
Because unlike other players, Green might still bring the Caps something good in return, maybe even a veteran tough guy, a defensive defenseman for a change.
If George McPhee is genuinely in survival mode during the last year of his deal as general manager and hasn’t been given reassurances of his return, this might be his last card left to play. Yet another gamble on patience right now — a gamble this fan base is frankly sick of betting on — might not be worth it.
By Friday, when the Capitals open a five-game road swing in New Jersey, they will not have won a hockey game in two full weeks. In what feels like a heartbeat, they have gone from second to seventh in the Metropolitan Division and are four points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Their No. 1 goalie has not won a game since Dec. 7. Mind-blowingly, Braden Holtby is healthy but has made just three starts in a month.
Oh, and the NHL’s goal scoring leader cannot save them because he is hurt. Besides, in two weeks Ovechkin has bigger concerns; he has to save his homeland from the United States, Sweden and Sidney Crosby in the Olympic tournament.
So this is where they are: Martin Erat still wants out, Holtby is trying to psychologically remember he was supposed to be the next Olie Kolzig after being toyed with the past six weeks in a three-goalie rotation, and all the Ovechkin goals in the world can’t put the Caps back together again right now.
“We’re going to get out of this little funk with the guys in this room,” Troy Brouwer said Thursday in front of his cubicle at the team’s practice facility in Arlington. “I know we will.”
The trouble is the room isn’t working. It needs more than cosmetic changes — now.
Moving Green works on two levels. For one, he is still a marquee name in the NHL. There has to be a team that needs Green on the power play, a team that believes he can be fixed and rebuilt as the Norris Trophy candidate he once was.
He had a great finish to last season, quarterbacking the power play and becoming that essential move-the-puck guy he has been for so long. Despite teams taking runs at him constantly, his recent track record of suiting up has dispelled the knock that his body is porcelain and he’s going to get hurt again.
Those pluses can’t completely camouflage the recent horrible decisions made in his own zone or all the inexplicable times the puck somehow went under his stick headed the other way. It won’t take away his minus-13 rating, meaning Green’s even-strength ice time has included 13 more goals for the opposition than his own team. (Okay, Ovi’s is actually minus-16.)
But the notion that he can still be a great player in this league is one shared by enough general managers to warrant moving him now instead of after paying him more than $6 million next season for not enough defense, too many penalty minutes and the possibility Green dwells on his deficiencies and the criticism leveled at him too much to recover his form of two and three years ago in Washington.
If we’re being completely honest, he hasn’t been the best defenseman on this team for a while. John Carlson does what Green does on many nights — and often better.
The pleas for second-line centers, creasemen and beyond masks the real need: The Capitals need a rugged, character-driven person to pound the hell out of everyone in his way, a defenseman who actually plays defense.
Adam Oates is trying to siphon lemonade from citrus that isn’t quite ripe. There is a thought the Caps can survive the next 20 games with Dmitry Orlov, Connor Carrick and Nate Schmidt. Those newbie defensemen get experience, the thought is, and youth is suddenly on their side as Washington tries to make a run before April.
But the reality is, after the Olympic break, March is the most brutal month for the Caps, featuring three games against the Bruins, two apiece against the Penguins and Flyers and three against Cup contenders on a Western road swing.
Yes, it’s hard to lose a puck-moving defenseman — a 28-year-old very much still entering his prime years. But when no other player but Ovechkin has hit double figures in even-strength goals, when your star has accounted for 26.1 percent of your goals (Ovechkin’s total is second in NHL history right now behind Pavel Bure’s 29.5 percent for a losing Florida Panthers team in 2000-01), you can only hope for a player’s trade value to hold steady for so long.
Having run into strong goalies lately, the Capitals aren’t falling apart. And the Islanders and Maple Leafs recovered from bad play early to come on recently. And in Washington we’ve seen this story before, where all looks lost and somehow this team finds the resolve to get it together before the playoffs begin.
But beyond actually getting behind Holtby for good and living with his mistakes, beyond getting Erat out of here tomorrow or sooner because he doesn’t want to be here, beyond Brooks Laich finally returning to full health, beyond waiting for that kiddie corps of defensemen not to be so awestruck in all these NHL arenas they’re seeing for the first time, a real change must be made to alter the trajectory of a roster that doesn’t have the look of a Stanley Cup contender in its immediate future.
It may take several trades. But seeing as how Backstrom and Ovechkin are understandably untouchable, Green is the one who can bring the most back now. For both parties involved, he should be moved for the right player or players as soon as McPhee can get it done.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.