The Washington Capitals have been in existence for 39 years and they still have not won a Stanley Cup.
With their team spiraling further away from winning Lord Stanley, Caps Owner Ted Leonsis and Team President Dick Patrick fired both General Manager George McPhee and Head Coach Adam Oates on Saturday.
Those moves were no surprise, especially if you read my blog from two weeks ago. The Capitals have a flawed and unbalanced roster that became even more exposed under some questionable coaching decisions this past season.
Simply put, these moves had to be made and Leonsis stated that the team needed new leadership and “a new set of eyes.”
The hiring of the next GM is critical to this franchise given that star players Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who are both signed to long term contracts, are in the prime seasons of their career. McPhee and company were unable to put a quality team around those two players and as a result much criticism has fallen on them, especially the Gr8.
Some who cover the NHL have already tweeted or blogged that this is Ovechkin’s fault. When you make the money he makes, have won the MVP three times, aren’t of North American descent, and haven’t won a Stanley Cup yet, those things will happen. It’s an easy narrative for those who choose to be lazy and biased.
But those who’ve studied and watched this Washington team since 2008 know the real story. Fancy stats clearly show that this team’s puck possession statistics have steadily declined since 2009, after Sergei Fedorov left for Russia. The decline is a function of an eroding roster, particularly on defense, and poor coaching/system changes. None of those roster or system decisions were made by Ovechkin.
Hall of Famer Rod Langway used to always tell me that hockey starts from the goalie to the defense and then to the forwards. If your defense routinely can’t get the puck out of your own end, how are the forwards going to produce with any consistency at even strength? Washington’s overall blue line crew has gotten worse over the past several seasons.
Bottom line, as I wrote two weeks ago, the Caps have failed Ovechkin, not the other way around.
For those who still want to put a vast amount of blame on him I pose the following question:
If I gave you the choice of any other forward in the NHL in place of Ovechkin for the last three seasons, would the Capitals have won a Stanley Cup or even made the Finals?
That’s right, you could have Jonathan Toews, Ryan Getzlaf, Sidney Crosby, etc. but you lose Ovechkin in that move. Do you think the Capitals win a Stanley Cup doing that?
No way, not with the rest of that roster.
Hockey is a team sport. So blaming Ovechkin for the team’s decline is absolutely incorrect.
Now that’s not saying that the Gr8 can’t improve his game. Every player can always get better. NBA great Larry Bird used to spend every summer working on new moves, so if Bird thought he needed to improve, every player certainly should be trying to do so, as well.
Fortunately for Caps fans, the ownership, despite making it clear that these moves weren’t done solely for Ovechkin, get that the Gr8 is a special player. When I asked both Leonsis and Patrick about the pressure and abuse that Ovechkin takes, Patrick was quick to defend him and point out the nature of the NHL.
“Alex Ovechkin is a great, great hockey player,” Patrick said. “I wish we had two of him, then we wouldn’t even be here today, probably. All he wants to do is win. People are saying, ‘Well, you’ve got Alex Ovechkin. How come you haven’t won a Cup?’ It does take a team. It takes 20 guys. How can you be unhappy with what Alex Ovechkin has accomplished and continues to accomplish in the National Hockey League?”
Patrick is bang on and that is why it is so crucial to get a GM that really understands how to build a team. The “new set of eyes” needs to help alleviate the pressure on its two stars by bringing in better players, particularly on the blue line, and by adding leaders with winning experience.
As the great Jim Ignatowski once said on Taxi, “There is no substitute for experience!”
That brings me to my next point. The trend in sports is to seek out the next “hot” assistant and give him the keys to the camper. We see it with GM positions and head coaching openings many times in pro sports.
Jim Benning of Boston is a name that is on the top of the “next GM” list for many NHL clubs, according to people I’ve spoken with around the league. There are other hot assistants out there too like Ron Hextall, Jason Botterill, and Tim Burke.
But would hiring another hockey person with no GM experience be the right move here?
Sometimes bringing in a person that has performed in that role previously is the better choice, even if they’ve been fired. After all, Joe Torre and Bill Belichick were both fired but went on to win multiple championships with their new teams. Simply put, there is something to be said for learning from past mistakes.
So shouldn’t names like Mike Gillis, Neil Smith, and Craig Button garner attention? All have been a GM before and both Smith and Button have Stanley Cup winning experience, Smith as GM of the Rangers in 1994 and Button as the Director of Player Personnel with Dallas in 1999.
To me, Button is an intriguing option. He has ties to the organization from his late father Jack, who played a prominent role in the drafting and development of personnel in Washington from 1979 to 1996. Craig worked closely for years with Bob Gainey and Doug Armstrong in Dallas taking a team that was built around young players Mike Modano, Derian Hatcher, and Richard Matvichuck and transformed it into a Stanley Cup Champion. He understands the microscope Ovechkin and Backstrom are under and he has a successful track record in dealing with that scenario.
In addition, he took a flailing Calgary Flames team and re-built the defense on a club that eventually went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2004. Then GM and Coach Darryl Sutter credited Craig for laying the groundwork for a squad that came ultra close to winning it all.
He currently covers the NHL for the NHL Network and TSN but he also pays close attention to the junior ranks and publishes his own draft board each spring on TSN’s website. His knowledge of current pros and amateurs is extensive. With the Stars, he drafted both Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow. As someone in the business recently told me, “He’s hard working, dedicated, and has an incredible passion for the game.”
Given his excellent people skills, I’d have to imagine he is on Leonsis and Patrick’s current list to interivew.
As for that process, Leonsis made it clear that they were not going to conduct a search where information is going to be made publicly available. Certainly details will get exposed as the media scouts out Kettler IcePlex, but the Caps are pretty good at keeping things secretive.
Leonsis stated this was going to be a thorough search while putting no timetable on its conclusion.
Given the importance of this decision, which I believe is the most critical one in franchise history, the owner and Team President must do what they need to do to make sure they get this GM selection correct.