Let’s begin with all the hearts and flowers stuff:
The Washington Capitals made the 2012 playoffs more compelling than in any year since their run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. For the second time in four years, they pushed a conference semifinal series to seven games.
The Caps learned to play interim coach Dale Hunter’s style, becoming aggressive back-checkers and fearless shot-blockers through 14 postseason games.
They also showed heart, bouncing back from an overtime loss in Game 6 of the first round against Boston to win Game 7. They managed to win Games 4 and 6 against the Rangers, after devastating overtime losses in Game 3 and 5.
Perhaps the most important development is they appear to have found a goaltender in Braden Holtby, who has just the kind of cockiness you need playing a position where moments of humiliation are inevitable. Most important, his teammates clearly felt confident playing in front of him.
Three cheers for Holtzy.
Now let’s peel away from the lovely season-ending rhetoric and deal with what needs to happen in the offseason if the Capitals want to finally be in the hockey conversation beyond mid-May.
First, they need to find a coach. Hunter is gone, heading back to London, Ontario, to be a wealthy junior hockey coach/owner. His brief coaching tenure here was an experiment — for him and the team. He wanted to see if he would enjoy coaching in the National Hockey League; the team wanted to see if his pugnacious approach would work at this level.
Ultimately, the reviews were mixed. The Caps were 30-23-7 in the regular season after Hunter took over and sneaked into the playoffs the last week of the season. They were 7-7 in the playoffs, surprising the Bruins and playing the Rangers to the wire.
The final result, the one that matters, wasn’t any different than the results under Bruce Boudreau — except less fun. The dazzling, high-wire Caps who won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2010 under a coach who had a deprecating sense of humor and a glint in his eyes, were replaced by a grinding, muck-it-up team that didn’t suffer the same lows but rarely reached the same highs.
Hunter’s decision to leave came as a surprise to no one who has spent time around the team. General Manager George McPhee would have been happy to have him back — “I like the accountability he’s brought,” McPhee said — but couldn’t have been stunned or even that disappointed that Hunter elected not to return.
That’s because the notion that Hunter had implemented sort of magic elixir of a system is a myth. Boudreau was in the process of changing the Capitals’ approach when he was fired for essentially one reason: Alex Ovechkin didn’t want to play for him anymore because — ironically — Boudreau began insisting on accountability from everyone, including his superstar.
Hunter was a different voice saying many of the same things — to the team in general and to Ovechkin in specific. Slowly, they responded, which made them a lot like the four teams that are still playing. All play defense. All are blessed with solid goaltending. None are coached by Hunter, yet one of them will win the Stanley Cup.
McPhee has looked to the minor leagues for his last two coaches. He might be well-advised to do so so again, but if he wants someone with NHL experience, plenty of solid coaches are waiting for another chance.
In hockey, retread coaches often have great success: Peter Laviolette was fired on Long Island, then won a Stanley Cup in Carolina. John Tortorella won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay, got fired and might win another one in New York. Peter Deboer was fired by Florida a year ago, was hired in New Jersey, beat the Panthers in the playoffs this year and is still coaching as hockey’s final four begins.
The bigger concerns for McPhee are on the ice. He needs to sign at least two of his four restricted free agents — Mike Green and John Carlson — and would no doubt like to have Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perreault back as long as the price is right.
The unrestricted free agents are another story. In theory, there is good reason to bring back Alexander Semin and Dennis Wideman. In reality, it might be smarter to say goodbye to both, especially Semin.
In many ways, Semin defines the Caps: brilliant at times; wonderfully talented and yet destined to break your heart sooner or later. Wideman was an all-star the first half of the season, not nearly as good the second half. His best hockey might be behind him.
If McPhee wants to make a really important move this offseason, perhaps he could take the money not spent on Semin and Wideman and put together a package of draft picks (he has two first-round picks this year) and young players to trade for Columbus’s Rick Nash.
Adding a forward of Nash’s caliber would change the Caps in ways far more important than any coach or system possibly can. Not only would he give the team another big scorer, his presence might finally spur Ovechkin into being Ovechkin again. At the very least, it would take some scoring pressure off Ovechkin and his line.
That is all for the future. For now, there is the epitaph for this season to consider. There’s no shame in the way the Caps lost, but there certainly shouldn’t be any satisfaction either. This was a playoff season in which there wasn’t a dominant team; the Caps were as capable of winning the Stanley Cup as any of the four teams left playing.
And yet, they aren’t playing. They won’t win the Stanley Cup. Hearts and flowers aside, that’s the bottom line. This was a healthy team with a hot goaltender. In the end, this was a spring filled with great promise. It ended — again — with great disappointment.