With all due respect to George McPhee, Adam Oates, Bruce Boudreau, Brooks Laich, Dale Hunter, Mike Green and even Ted Leonsis, there is neither mystery nor nuance in identifying the most important figure on Washington’s hockey landscape, past and present. It is, was and will be Alex Ovechkin.
But what other “terrific hockey town” — and that’s what McPhee called Washington during his it’s-been-nice news conference Monday — has such divergent and emotional opinions about its indisputable leading man? Two weeks into the offseason, the debate continues. Ovechkin is either a gifted goal scorer whose offensive prowess is the Capitals’ most essential asset or a brooding prima donna whose primary concerns are his own stats, one who refuses to learn defensive responsibilities a decade into his career.
So, George, you’re two days into life after the Capitals. Which one is it?
“I don’t really want to answer questions about individuals,” McPhee said. “I’m going to duck those.”
As non-answers go, that says something. There is, of course, no ducking the importance of Ovechkin, the importance of managing Ovechkin, for the general manager who replaces McPhee, for the coach who replaces Oates. It is and will be Job No. 1 until the Caps either win the Stanley Cup or fail miserably and repeatedly, such that Leonsis and team president Dick Patrick must confront the issue head-on. (Read: Move Ovechkin.)
We are not at that point. But as much as McPhee was going to be diplomatic Monday — it is his nature, and he knows no other way — his premeditated ducking of the Ovechkin question was stark. Pressed, he allowed, “If you’re asking me if we can win with him, I believed we could win with him.”
The incoming management team must believe the same thing. Forget 51 goals. Forget plus-minus ratings. Forget even the Hart Trophies. Can you win with him? The answer better be yes.
Oates believed he could. The former Capital made Ovechkin — embarrassingly marginalized during Hunter’s half-season reign in 2011-12 — his top priority. Oates’s reasoning was solid: How can one of the best offensive players on the planet be on the ice for fewer than 18 minutes a night, as Ovechkin was in exactly half the Capitals’ 14 playoff games under Hunter?
Ovechkin’s two seasons under Oates resulted in two goal-scoring titles and his third Hart Trophy as league MVP. But even here there is disagreement. Even as Oates made both obvious and subtle attempts to reach Ovechkin, he made sure to criticize the team captain in nearly every film session. The rest of the locker room, Oates felt, needed to see that the coach could be tough on the star.
But the idea that Ovechkin became a coach killer seems misplaced. For one, Oates never truly took playing time from Ovechkin for his defensive transgressions, and Ovechkin’s offensive numbers were stellar. Yes, Oates said Ovechkin quit on a play in the humiliating performance that pretty much defined the Capitals’ empty playoff push, a 5-0 home loss to equally desperate Dallas on April 1. Why did Oates say that? Because Ovechkin obviously quit on the play. Simple as that.
No, the idea of Ovechkin being behind Oates’s ouster — with a season left on the coach’s contract — is incorrect. One person was behind Oates’s ouster: Oates. Without question, he alienated members in every corner of the organization. In a long, Hall of Fame playing career, Oates was never afraid to be a cage-rattler, to question how coaches were coaching or how organizations were being run. By all telling inside the organization, he didn’t change when he was handed the keys to the Capitals.
So, then, listen to McPhee, on his working relationship with Oates: “I just would rather have a happy day and duck individual talk.” And yet, over the course of a discussion that lasted more than half an hour, he called Boudreau (now on to the second round of the playoffs with Anaheim) “an outstanding coach and a good guy” and said, “I loved working with Dale.”
Throw in Oates’s seemingly defiant non-use of trade-deadline acquisition Dustin Penner as essentially an extra part, and draw your own conclusions. Know this, too: There were moistened eyes among Capitals staffers about McPhee’s departure after 17 years. No such tears were shed for Oates.
Which brings us back to Ovechkin. Even if he didn’t help push Oates out the door, the Capitals are at a crossroads unlike any during Leonsis’s ownership, and their captain/star/lightning rod is standing in the middle of the traffic. Any incoming general manager-and-coach combination should want to know — indeed, needs to know — what it’s like to work with Ovechkin. He has, after all, seven years and $70 million remaining on his contract, so even three years from now, it’ll still be easier to fire a coach than it will be to trade a 31-year-old former MVP who’s still owed $40 million.
The next few weeks of executive search will be interesting for Capitals fans, and the hires — particularly at general manager — are extraordinarily important for an owner who not long ago thought he was entering a window in which his team could win multiple Stanley Cups.
But the reason Leonsis thought that, back then, wasn’t because of McPhee or Boudreau or any other comparably bit character. It was because of Alexander Mikhailovich Ovechkin, the most important hockey figure Washington has ever known. If a new management team is to have success here, deciphering the Ovechkin riddle — Is he great? Is he terrible? — is the most important job.