Evaluation Process Time for Caps. Who Stays, Who Goes?

May 06, 2011 | Ed Frankovic

Today was breakdown day for the 2010-11 Washington Capitals, the least favorite day for NHL teams that do not win the Stanley Cup, and with it came interviews with General Manager George McPhee, Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, and several players at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. We’ll get to that info in a minute, but perhaps what was even bigger news, at least in my view, was Thursday morning’s blog entry from Capitals Owner Ted Leonsis. Particularly the following sentences:

In times like these people are emotional; angry; and demand change. I understand.

The best course of action for us though is to let a few days pass; be very analytic about what needs to be improved; articulate that plan; and then execute upon it.

Clearly we know we have to improve to build a franchise that is as good as our fan base.

I appreciate your emails. I appreciate all of the advice we are being given by media and bloggers. I understand that we are what our record says we are.

Thank you for your support during this grind of a season.

Thank you for caring so much. I am so very sorry we let you all down.

Wow! That is some true, from the heart, direct feedback to the Caps fan base (gratuitous shot at Orioles ownership can be taken at any time). Leonsis clearly gets it and he realizes that he has a problem right now. It is nice to win four straight Southeast Division titles, a Presidents’ Trophy, and a second Eastern Conference regular season title, but his club is two for six in playoff series’ the last four years. Both wins came against mismatched New York Rangers teams and this year’s four game second round loss to Tampa Bay was shocking to nearly everyone. Right now, this club bears a lot of resemblance to those great 1980’s Capitals teams that were coached by Bryan Murray that also could not get past the second round. Back then the major problem was poor goaltending, but that wasn’t really the case this post season. So what are the problems, how are they going to be identified, and what will be done to fix them?

That brings us back to breakdown day and the evaluation process that McPhee described begins today.

“It’s important to do [an evaluation] and what we’ve always done is meet with the coaches and get their evaluations of players, and how the season went. Then I’ll meet with our pro scouts and then I’ll meet with ownership and we put it all together. We put together a plan and then move forward. I’d like to think we’ve been doing a lot of good things,” stated the man who has been the Caps GM since the summer of 1997.

Immediately following that response, Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post asked the GM if Boudreau would be back next season. After a slight pause, the GM gave the following answer.

“I expect him to be back, yeah, he’s a good coach..either you are a good coach or you are not,” stated McPhee.

So clearly the GM is likely in the coach’s corner at this stage of the process, which is at the absolute beginning. If we combine what McPhee said above about the evaluation process with the owner’s blog, it is clear to me that NOTHING has been decided yet, so the decision on Boudreau and anyone else in the organization has yet to be finalized. In addition to Leonsis, I would also imagine that Team President Dick Patrick will have a say in all hockey matters too, so we may be several days or weeks from decisions on management and coaches. After that is decided, the entire hockey department will focus on which players stay and which go, in addition to preparing for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

Locks to be back are Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, right off the bat, because of their talent and long term contracts. #19 struggled in the post season and courtesy of Mike Vogel of Dump ‘n Chase we learned today that Backstrom re-injured his thumb in the Rangers series and played hurt against the Bolts. Additional players who will most certainly be back are John Carlson, Michal Neuvirth, Karl Alzner (although he is a restricted free agent), Marcus Johansson, Braden Holtby, and Dennis Wideman. Mike Green, Mike Knuble, and Alexander Semin are under contract for another season. Knuble played with a fractured thumb that required four pins (hurt in game 3 of Rangers series), Green suffered a hip flexor injury, and Carlson played in pain with a hip pointer making it difficult for him to hit or be hit. With #52 and #74 ailing, and #6 out due to injury, it was clear that the Capitals biggest problem in the Tampa series was the lack of puck rushing defenseman, like I stated after game four. McPhee discussed that today.

“I thought that the [blue line] was our biggest issue in the playoffs. I thought our puck distribution and puck possession wasn’t where it needed to be due to those injuries,” commented GMGM on why he thought his team failed against Tampa.

As a result, slower defensemen Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, and Scott Hannan were exposed by a quicker Tampa crew of forwards. Both #4 and #55 are resigned for next year but are third defensive pair guys, at best. Hannan is an unrestricted free agent and will not get anywhere close to the $4.5M he made this season.

McPhee talked about the infusion of young talent into his lineup this year and the Capitals will certainly benefit going forward from their progression.

“The good news is we introduced some really good young players to our team this year to our fans and we think they liked what they saw in Neuvirth, Johansson, Carlson, and Alzner and we have some terrific young players I am thinking hard about introducing next year,” stated McPhee, who did not dismiss the possibility of center Evgeny Kuznetsov, d-man Dmitri Orlov, and forward Cody Eakin getting a shot at playing for the 2011-12 Caps squad.

It’s pretty clear from hearing McPhee today that he thinks he has the personnel on the roster or in the system to get the Caps where they want to be.

“There’s a certain place I want to get to with the team. I think we have it within in our organization to get there. I don’t think we have to go outside the organization. I want to spend more time talking to our scouts about that. We’ve really got some good ones, some difference makers,” added McPhee on how he sees team improvement occuring on the personnel front.

This squad, if it does not bring back Jason Arnott, who hurt his knee shortly after coming to the Caps at the trade deadline and had minor surgery done on it in March, still needs a second line center. Johansson made a lot of progress this year but he is really a third line center. Kuznetsov suffered a shoulder injury this spring and given that he will be only 19 and is not physically developed, he likely isn’t the answer at the two hole, yet. So maybe #44 is back? He told the media today that he wants to return. As for #90, he was playing hurt against Tampa, but he impressed the GM with his rapid development this season.

“He’s really good defensively, a lot of kids don’t have that this early in their careers and we expect his offensive game to continue to blossom,” added GMGM on his young Swedish center, who was selected in the first round of the 2009 NHL entry draft.

On the goaltending front, the GM is extremely happy with his trio of net minders.

“I’m really pleased with where we are with the goaltending. We drafted well, we’ve developed them well. They are three terrific kids with lots of upside.We are in no rush to change anything there. No pressure points in terms of waivers or anthying like that. We’re comfortable with that. It’s the most important position in the league. They’re good. We’ll continue to play them to see how they do. They did really well this year. All three of them played and played well. We have good goaltending,” said McPhee of a stable of goalies that many teams in the league would love to have.

I was happy to hear that the GM plans to stick with all three of them. To rush out and trade one of them would be a big mistake. What would have happened to this franchise had Olie Kolzig been traded in the early or mid 1990’s when he was seemingly passed in the organization by Byron Dafoe and Jim Carey? “Olie the Goalie” turned out to be the best of the three despite early injury problems that had him playing in the ECHL, at one point. #37 was the face of the franchise for many years until Ovechkin arrived on the scene. So a cautious approach with young goalies is a must for the Capitals brass. None of us, at this time, know who will be the best goalie long term between Semyon Varlamov, Neuvirth, and Holtby.

So it was clear, when hearing what McPhee had to say today, that he is pretty confident in staying the course, for the most part, and continuing to improve from within.

“We were the #1 seed in our conference and we played the #8 seed, and we had just four more wins than them. Nobody is that much better than everyone else. What we’re doing here, I believe is we are putting a good team on the ice every year, and hopefully one of these years we win it. But we’re in the mix every year, it could be worse, we could be missing the playoffs…thank goodness we’ve been drafting well, we’ve been really good at it recently…so I don’t expect us to lose any ground, I expect us to get better,” stated McPhee on player development.

“I don’t see major changes. Every team can continue to add to it and make it better. But we’ll see this summer. It’s not easy to step back for a manager either, we’re all here to win a Cup, as we all know, only one team wins it. Hopefully it will be that much better when we win it,” finished McPhee.

I wouldn’t expect McPhee, who has drafted or acquired all of these players, to think otherwise on where his personnel is right now given the fairly successful results of the past four seasons, at least based on the regular season. But to me there are major questions with how his talent is being implemented and that could impact some of GMGM’s personnel decisions going forward.

Are the Capitals playing the right system? Why does the power play continue to struggle after it was such an achilles heel in the 2010 post season? Why does Ovechkin continue to be placed on the point when it seems he would be better served down low or on the half wall? Had the power play been corrected could it have been the difference in games one and two of the Tampa series and allowed the Caps to overcome their key defensive injuries? Speaking of injuries, why is it that Green gets hurt every year? Is he not taking care of himself, is he being over targeted by other teams, or is it a function of not being taught how to move the puck more efficiently and avoid big hits? (You don’t see Nicklas Lidstrom with these continual post season injury issues). Why is Semin so inconsistent? Are the star players listening to the coaching staff? How come Tampa was able to hide its non-highly mobile defense and be so effective?

I could go on and on with these questions but you get the picture. Hopefully the evaluation process examines all of these issues because as I stated on twitter today, “collectively” this group of coaches and players have NOT gotten it done in the post season. This franchise needs to figure out why that is happening and fix it going forward before another year is wasted.

NOTE: Special thanks to Ted Starkey of The Washington Times for sending me the audio for Boudreau and McPhee’s media sessions from breakdown day.