Five years ago Thursday, Alex Ovechkin sat out because of a lower body injury, 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr dished out two assists for New Jersey, and the Washington Capitals lost to the Devils, 2-1. Their seventh straight defeat left them seventh in the Metropolitan Division. The season — and even the franchise — felt on a precipice, and it was. That summer, Adam Oates was out as coach, and George McPhee was out as general manager.
Until Wednesday night, the Caps hadn’t lost seven straight since. Now they have, and that fact will sit with them for more than a week as they scatter around the globe for the NHL’s all-star break and their subsequent bye week.
When they return, the jobs of their coach and general manager won’t be at stake as they were that night in New Jersey. This might not be disarray. But they have allowed 30 goals — 30 goals! — in the past five games. That’s unbefitting a Stanley Cup champion, and the skid brings up some uncomfortable questions about the state of the team.
The first is this: The coach with whom the Caps won the Stanley Cup not only is no longer coaching the Caps, but he is coaching the team ahead of them in the division. Barry Trotz’s New York Islanders dealt Washington the fourth of these seven losses, a 2-0 defeat last Friday at Capital One Arena that marked a lovely homecoming for Trotz, who delighted in the tribute he received but delighted more in stomping on the throats of the team that offered the tribute.
I’m not going to get revisionist here. I understood at the time why the Caps and Trotz came to an impasse on a new contract for the coach who won the Cup. (To review: Trotz was nearly fired twice during the 2017-18 regular season and understandably wanted a five-year, $20 million contract after winning the Cup, which made some members of the Capitals’ hierarchy uneasy.) Let’s not make this about, “Well, if they only had Trotzy . . .”
But the issue of the coach also can’t be ignored. Todd Reirden was a well-liked assistant on Trotz’s staff, considered a head-coach-in-waiting. But before this season, he had never run an NHL team and taken on all the responsibilities that come with that. His first squad: the defending Stanley Cup champions.
That’s a lot to deal with, and when the Capitals navigated the travails of the early part of the season — a suspension to Tom Wilson, injuries to T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Brooks Orpik — it seemed Reirden and his veteran leaders had endured the widely predicted Stanley Cup hangover.
Except here they are, wheezing and stumbling through January, carrying a massive headache into the break.
“The break is coming at a good time for us,” Reirden told reporters in Toronto following Wednesday’s 6-3 loss to the Maple Leafs. “We understand there’s a lot of work to be done when we get back.”
The work also must include some sort of return to the defensive concepts that won the Caps the Cup. Their recent style could make fans half-expect to see Alexander Semin up front and Mike Green at the point on the power play with Bruce Boudreau behind the bench. That made for fun hockey nearly a decade ago.
But these scores — losses by 7-2, 8-5, 7-6 and 6-3 in an eight-day span — are junk. It’s not a style they’re built to play. It’s not a style that’s sustainable in April, let alone May and June. It must be purged immediately upon their return. That’s on the veterans, who ought to know better. But it’s also on Reirden, who is tasked with pulling the strings.
Some notes about when they get back: Their first game is Feb. 1 against Calgary, which carries the best record in the Western Conference. They will face the Flames without Ovechkin, who is skipping the All-Star Game to rest his body, a decision that comes with an NHL-mandated one-game absence. Ending the skid starts with one hand tied behind their back.
Beyond that: Five more home games in a row. The first is against Boston, whom the Caps own. Two are against lowly Florida and Los Angeles. And the other two are against Colorado and Vancouver, who are battling for the final wild-card berth in the West. There is time to get this right, but it won’t correct itself.
Two quotes from two key players jumped out in colleague Isabelle Khurshudyan’s game story from Toronto:
“We’ve got to put the work in,” goalie Braden Holtby said.
“This is a work thing,” veteran Nicklas Backstrom said.
Look, we knew parts of this post-Cup season would be difficult. When you have played the most meaningful games of your life, how do you get up for St. Louis on a Monday in January (4-1 loss) or San Jose on the following Tuesday (7-6 loss in overtime, which came after a buzzer-beating goal from the Sharks)?
The answer: You better figure out a way. And if a lack of work is the problem, well, that’s unacceptable. These Caps are afforded some leeway because of all they have accomplished. But they’re not allowed to ignore the basics of their job.
This isn’t five years ago. The wheels aren’t about to come off the franchise. Shoot, they’re still in second place in the Metro, just three points behind the Islanders.
Seven games in January don’t make the season. Seven games in January don’t take away the Cup. But these seven games in January have given these Capitals much to think about during their break. They are playing lousy hockey. A week from Friday, that needs to stop.