It’s been nearly two weeks since the Washington Capitals were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round of the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs in disappointing fashion. These last two hockey seasons the Capitals have been a squad that has been outstanding in the regular season but struggled when battling for Lord Stanley. In 2010, after losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, the club talked continuously about “running into a hot goalie” as the primary reason for their post season failure following a Presidents’ Trophy winning campaign. This year the Capitals are pinning the majority of the loss to the Bolts on injuries, specifically those to Dennis Wideman, Mike Green, and John Carlson, the three defensemen that Coach Bruce Boudreau heavily counted on to push the puck up the ice.
The Caps have a highly skilled and talented team that is still very young. But let’s be honest, their second straight Eastern Conference regular season title followed by an earlier than expected playoff defeat will only bring increased pressure next year on a team led primarily by Alexander Ovechkin, who will turn 26 in September. Another post season clunker in 2012 could seriously damage the confidence level of many of the young players on the team so the heat is clearly on the organization this summer to address some of the team’s deficiencies to help get them at least to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012.
The glass half full people will point to the numerous one goal losses the last two post seasons to justify their argument that the Capitals are getting closer to breaking through. The Caps lost three of the four games dropped to the Habs in 2010 by a single tally and this spring Tampa won two games by a goal and another by two due to a late empty netter. Surely had the bounces or breaks gone their way Washington might have won one or both of those series, right? Maybe, but I am not totally buying into that. A great quote from Hall of Famer Bob Gainey will back my position up.
“One-goal games are easy to hide behind. One-goal games are two goals away from winning, and that’s a lot in the NHL,” Gainey once said about one of his own clubs in a very telling statement.
If I am the Capitals, who are working through the final analysis of the 2010-11 season and beginning their planning for 2011-12, that quote from Gainey should be a reminder and a clear indicator that minor incremental changes aren’t what this hockey team needs to get to the next level. Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Green, and company are at a critical juncture in their development. They have talent and skill and they really want to win when it matters. The desire is clearly there from the interactions I’ve had with those three and we’ve also read the reports that Ovechkin spent extensive time this spring with former Stanley Cup winner Jason Arnott trying to pick his brain in an attempt to help put the Capitals over the top. Just last week owner Ted Leonsis mentioned in a radio interview that #8 offered to change his off season training regimen to try to finally deliver a Cup. Given all of this information, it seems to me that the big problem this team has right now is it just doesn’t know how to win when the chips are down.
Yes, General Manager George McPhee needs to improve some weak areas on this club, specifically finding a stronger second line center and bolstering a defense that seems to always be an injury or two away from major problems. There is no doubt some on the ice upgrades are necessary to improve their chances for success. But to me, what this organization seems to need more than anything, is an infusion of leadership. Simply put, they need to add personnel with Stanley Cup winning experience at the management level and on the ice. The role of those additions would be to help Ovechkin and many of the talented younger players on the team to understand the process of what it takes to capture a Stanley Cup, the hardest trophy to win in all of sports.
Armed with this premise on the Caps need to add leadership, I began looking at the personnel of past Cup winners to include not only the players but the coaches and the front office. Last season’s Chicago Blackhawks were a young club, similar to the Caps, but they did employ legendary Scotty Bowman, a nine time Stanley Cup winner as a coach who also has an additional three rings as a member of management, in their front office. On the ice they had Andrew Ladd, who won with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. In addition, three of their key players, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook, were members of the 2010 Olympic Canadian gold medal winning hockey team, so they gained invaluable experience playing alongside previous Cup winners Scott Niedermayer, Martin Brodeur, Dan Boyle, Chris Pronger, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Sidney Crosby, and Eric Staal.
In 2009, Crosby won his first Stanley Cup with the Penguins, who are owned by two-time Stanley Cup winner, as a player, Mario Lemieux. Mario has won at every level so you can bet that if Sid the Kid ever has any questions on what is needed to come out on top he doesn’t have to walk very far for advice. In addition, GM Ray Shero’s father, Fred, won two Stanley Cups as coach of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1974 and 1975 so the knowledge and pedigree were there as well. On the ice, Crosby was flanked by previous Cup winners Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz.
Continuing to go through the list of past Cup winners, it seemed that every team had multiple past links to Lord Stanley. Even the highly talented Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s had guys like Pat Hughes, Rick Chartraw, and Dave Lumley on their roster who previously earned Cups with the Bowman-led Canadiens of the late 1970’s. As highly skilled as those Oilers teams were with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, and Jari Kurri, General Manager and Coach Glen Sather still knew he needed experienced leaders, even if they were simply role players on the ice, to help teach his young talent how to win.
As my researched progressed, another team really started to stand out when examining their roster, coaches, and front office, the 1998-99 Dallas Stars. That Cup winning team’s best player was Mike Modano, the first overall pick in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft and their team captain was defenseman Derian Hatcher, the 8th overall pick in the 1990 NHL draft. Both of those players were in their mid to late 20’s, just like Ovechkin and Green will be heading into next season, and they had suffered several tough defeats in the post season in previous years. But that is where comparison to the current Caps team pretty much ended since Modano and Hatcher had lots of help when they finally broke through. Their GM was Gainey, Doug Jarvis (four time Stanley Cup winner with Montreal and former Washington Capital) was an assistant coach, and the club had eight players who already had their names etched on the most famous trophy in sports in Joe Nieuwendyk, Guy Carbonneau, Brian Skrudland, Mike Keane, Sergei Zubov, Shawn Chambers, Craig Ludwig, and Doug Lidster. It was a fascinating combination of young hockey talent with experienced players and management.
The Director of Player Personnel on that 1999 Cup winning Stars team was current NHL Network analyst Craig Button, the son of former Capitals Director of Player Personnel, Jack Button. Craig had started with the Stars in Minnesota in 1988 so he was heavily involved in the steps necessary to build this Cup winner and he worked with hockey legends Bob Clarke and Gainey in the process. With “the need for experienced leadership” hypothesis seemingly cemented via pure research, I contacted Button to discuss the subject, determine how important it really was to Dallas’ success, and attempted to gather insight into how they developed it in their organization.
“Leadership is clearly important and takes on a lot of different elements. It is extremely rare to find a team where it is mostly about one guy. Mark Messier is one of the greatest leaders of all time, in any sport, but people like him are few and far between, so you need a collective effort,” started Button.
The Stars had built their team around Modano and Hatcher but since a run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1991, they had ownership issues and moved to Dallas into a new NHL market before the 1993-94 campaign. That first season in Texas was an outstanding one with Modano putting up big numbers and Dallas advanced to the second playoff round before losing to the Vancouver Canucks. They then had two poor seasons and the pressure to win was mounting on a young team, but a couple of moves they made in 1995-96 added talent and more importantly, leadership, to the equation. Former Canadiens captain Carbonneau was acquired from St. Louis and in a blockbuster deal, Nieuwendyk was brought in from Calgary for Corey Millen and top prospect at the time, Jarome Iginla. Getting the former Flame was the move that stood out for Button because the Stars knew to win the West they would have to defeat Colorado, who had Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg as their top two center men, and Detroit, who boasted Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov at the pivot position.
“We needed that one-two punch up in the middle but we also needed influence on our younger players. Joe came in and he was such a pro. He was a strong man and a really good player but he took the pressure off of Modano. He helped the younger players understand how to be a professional,” added Button.
Button talked about the tough decision the organization faced to make that trade and he also felt that his club caught a bit of a break with Nieuwendyk’s situation with the Flames.
“We knew Jarome was going to be a really good player, maybe not a 50 goal scorer. But we also knew he wasn’t going to help Modano and the other younger guys on our team, who really wanted to win now but didn’t know how, figure out how to do that. So we made the trade knowing that we had good pieces in place but we needed someone to help Modano, Hatcher, Richard Matvichuk, and some of our other younger players. We also caught a break that Joe was available thanks to a contract dispute in Calgary,” recalled Button.
In the summer of 1996 they added d-man Zubov, who had won the Cup with the Rangers in 1994, and the still young Stars went on to win their division and grab the #2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. But they were upset in seven games in the first round by “hot goalie” Curtis Joseph and the Edmonton Oilers. Prior to the following season the Stars added goalie Ed Belfour and went on to win the franchise’s first ever Presidents’ Trophy in 1997-98. At the trade deadline they added Mike “you brought me here to win a Cup” Keane, but when Nieuwendyk injured his knee in game one of the post season on a check from Bryan Marchment, their chances of winning a championship took a big hit. Still, the Stars didn’t let that major injury derail them totally and they managed to take the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Red Wings to six games that spring in the Western Conference Finals. It was after that final loss that the presence of leadership helped set the stage, once again, for a strong offseason and the eventual Cup run the following June.
“We had just lost a tough series to Detroit and everyone knew the injury to Joe really hurt. It was really quiet in the dressing room following that game but after five minutes or so of dead silence, Jarvis spoke out and he said, ‘You know what we have here boys? We’ve got a team here!’ Suddenly the mood lightened and a couple of days later we had a great team party with the entire organization,” spoke Button of a leadership moment, that in hindsight, likely re-energized their club at a critical juncture.
That summer they went out and signed free agent Brett Hull but the interesting thing in that whole process was that the entire leadership team, from Gainey, Button, assistant GM Doug Armstrong, the coaches, and the players were all involved. Hull was a great talent but his dynamic personality could easily control and even disrupt a locker room. The Stars knew they needed more scoring but they didn’t want to risk that “team” concept they had developed that Jarvis glowingly spoke of following their playoff loss. Gainey met with Modano, and Hatcher, followed by meetings with the older leadership core (Carbonneau, Ludwig, Skrudland, Keane, Nieuwendyk, etc.) to ensure they understood what he was thinking and to emphasize their importance to the club and how they could be instrumental in integrating a player such as Hull into the locker room. When Hull came in he knew exactly what his role would be because he heard a consistent message from both management and players.
Before the puck even dropped on the 1998-99 season, the Stars leadership across the board had everything set up and the result was a second Presidents’ Trophy and eventually their first Stanley Cup in June. But along the way, that leadership had to play a key role. Around the trade deadline Button mentioned that Carbonneau went to Coach Ken Hitchcock to try to “manage” the team’s practice schedule down the stretch. The then 39 year old forward said that in order for his team to continue to play into June, some days off would need to be added. Hitchcock, who was not known as an easy coach, agreed, showing trust in his appointed leadership group.
“The coaching staff is only around the players about 20% of the time, the other 80% of the time you have to have leadership that understands what the team needs and calms everything down. They understand the ups and downs and the ebbs and flows and can keep everyone focused,” added Button.
That trust and reliance on leadership would pay dividends in the 1999 Western Conference Finals against Coloardo. The Stars had just lost game five at home, 7-5, and faced elimination in Denver in game six. After the first period, Dallas was down 1-0 despite playing solidly in the opening frame, and Button said that Hitchcock was walking towards the players’ room to talk to his troops when he overheard one of his leaders addressing the team.
“Hitch said he heard the players talking and emphasizing ‘to keep doing what we’re doing and we will be fine’. At that moment Ken knew he didn’t need to say much, if anything at all, because he knew the players already had his message,” said Button.
Dallas would score the last four goals of game six and go home and win 4-1 again in game seven to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. They would face the Buffalo Sabres and win, ironically on a game six triple overtime goal by Hull.
Clearly the Stars organization was loaded with great leaders on and off the ice, but if they didn’t have the strong leadership they definitely don’t win the Stanley Cup that year.
“Sure what we had in Dallas was special. Was it an embarrassment of riches? No question about it, but you can never underestimate the importance of being around proven leaders and the impact they can have,” finished Button on the Stars’ Cup winning experience.
It seems apparent that the Washington Capitals can learn some lessons from that Stars team, a club that endured similar circumstances prior to hoisting Lord Stanley. Under contract, the Caps still have Mike Knuble with a Stanley Cup ring on their roster, but he is the only player. In the front office, it appears that Director of Player Personnel and assistant GM Brian MacLellan is the only manager with a Stanley Cup (as a player with the 1989 Calgary Flames).
McPhee will likely be making numerous personnel moves this summer, player turnover is inevitable and occurs every off season with each NHL team, so it seems important that he look for guys with Cup winning experience and leadership, as Button noted Dallas did during their Cup building process.
“It is not just about skill, you need to find the personality fits and get a team more than what that player can just do on the ice,” said Button of his experiences.
Off the ice, Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick might also discuss with McPhee the idea of bringing in another person at the management level with Stanley Cup experience. In that scenario they need to find a person who will work with the existing crew in a non-threatening manner.
This year Washington has seen firsthand and, unfortunately in a bad way for them, the impact of what a proven winner like Steve Yzerman can do to help turn around a struggling club. With the Wings former #19 at the helm in Tampa Bay, the Bolts added some key people with leadership experience (i.e, defensemen Pavel Kubina and scout Pat Verbeek) and Yzerman was also able to get one of his existing star players, team captain Vincent Lecavalier, to elevate his game to a level he hadn’t really been at since the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup victory. As a result, a team that relies on key young players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman is still very much in the running for this year’s Stanley Cup just one year after finishing 41 points behind the Capitals in 2009-10.
In closing, the Capitals have a very talented and young team that really wants to be successful and win in the post season. Unfortunately, they haven’t figured out how to do that yet. Washington could certainly address that issue by adding experienced leaders to the organization this off-season, on and off the ice, like several past Cup winners have done before finally breaking through. It might cost the organization more money and they may have to part with one of their future prospects, like Dallas did with Iginla, but if they really want to help take the pressure off of Ovechkin and some of their other star players, then it is definitely the right thing to do. If they decide not to go that route, then they will likely continue to pursue a championship via the “trial and error” path, which in no way guarantees success.