The Washington Capitals closed out their 2013-14 season today with a 1-0 shootout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a meaningless game. The Caps finish the season at 38-30-14 (90 points) and have failed to make the post season for the first time since 2006-07.
The failed season is unacceptable on numerous levels. Owner Ted Leonsis blogged over the weekend that the analysis of this club is “fair and deserved” and stated that they will not make any knee jerk reactions and conduct a thorough review before making any decisions.
Last Wednesday I blogged that the Caps need to move on from current GM George McPhee and Coach Adam Oates. I stand by those statements.
Both McPhee and Oates are good men that are very intelligent. There is no denying that. They’ve done many good things for the NHL and the Capitals organization.
My decision is not personal, they are both likeable people. But the bottom line is despite their intelligence they have failed to get the Caps to be in a position to do what they need to do: Compete for and Win a Stanley Cup.
This Capitals team, over the last three plus seasons has gotten further from lifting Lord Stanley. They are not contenders, as currently configured.
The defense is horribly thin with both Karl Alzner and Oates himself questioning the talent level this week. Putting together a quality defense has been McPhee’s achilles heel since he took over the job from David Poile in 1997. He has failed to get to the Eastern Conference Finals with two superstars, Jaromir Jagr and Alexander Ovechkin, primarily because of his inability to put together a strong blue line. Year after year stop gaps like Joel Kwiakowski, Jason Doig, Milan Jurcina, Tyler Sloan, Jack Hillen, etc. have been thrust into prominent roles when they simply weren’t qualified to be playing on a club that has Stanley Cup aspirations. This year’s defense was easily the worst since 2007-08 and the decision to rush a 19 year old Connor Carrick to the NHL was a disaster and hopefully hasn’t wrecked the future of a kid that has promise. Carrick should’ve been playing in Hershey all season but McPhee hamstrung himself with the salary cap by tying up too much of his money in forwards and forced an already weak defense to once again rot.
McPhee’s inability to get a second scoring line has been a problem for years. One of George’s best trades ever was acquiring Sergei Fedorov from Columbus at the 2008 deadline. #91 not only brought talent that allowed Coach Bruce Boudreau to have two legit scoring lines, but Fedorov also brought a wealth of experience and leadership to Washington’s locker room. He took pressure off of Ovechkin and Alexander Semin played his best hockey during that time. But once Fedorov left in 2009, partly to play with his brother but also because the failed Michael Nylander contract ate up the salary cap room that could have been used to entice Fedorov to stay, things began to unravel. Yes, the team had a great 2009-10 regular season but that team’s big holes were at 2nd line center and on defense. The Canadiens knew they only had to shut down one line to win and they did that. From there, things have gotten worse.
The declining talent is troubling and the Martin Erat for Filip Forsberg deal was an indication that this hockey department has lost its way. Whether Forsberg turns into a top six player or not is not what bothers me the most. What is troubling is that McPhee’s staff felt that Erat, who had struggled in 2012-13 and was clearly on the down side of his career, was worth a player that they had just lucked into in the first round at the previous draft. It made me start to wonder about the work ethic of the Caps hockey department when you see a move like that made.
Clearly not enough talent has been brought in to help Ovechkin and a lack of experienced leaders, something I blogged about back in the spring of 2011 that the Caps badly needed to add, has put an incredible amount of pressure and scrutiny on the Gr8. Sure Ovechkin could improve defensively, but he’s been a reason this team is not a bottom five hockey club for the last three years. He is not the problem. The lack of talent in the top six forwards and on defense along with little support in the leadership department has done serious damage to Ovechkin and probably impacted his ability to enjoy hockey. McPhee and the organization have failed Ovechkin, not the other way around.
As for Oates, I give him full credit for reinvigorating the Gr8 over the last 14 months. An MVP season followed by an NHL leading 51 goals for Ovechkin was made possible by things Oates did, including changing the Caps power play and moving Ovechkin to right wing. Clearly Oates was given a not very perfect set of tools to work with, he inherited an unbalanced roster, but overall he did not come close to optimizing what he was given.
Oates may be a “genius” on technical hockey issues, as Alzner called him on Sunday, but coaching is more of an art and not a science. It’s nice to be armed with technical details, but to be a successful coach you have to get people to work together. As The Washington Post’s Katie Carrera wrote last week, former Caps goaltending coach Dave Prior said he was forced out because Oates felt he knew goaltending better than a man who has successfully coached it for years, including turning Olie Kolzig into one of the NHL’s top goaltenders. The coaching staff’s decision to try and change Braden Holtby’s game was a disaster and led to an unneeded goaltending carousel that forced Michal Neuvirth out of town.
Being the smartest guy in the room is nice, but when it comes to being a successful leader, it isn’t about being smart. It’s about gathering input from the people around you, harnessing it, and using it to make the total greater than the sum of its parts. Oates failed to do that this season and the 2013-14 Caps were not a “team.”
You simply can’t have three players ask for trades in a season, that just shows organizational chaos and that falls on both the GM and the head coach. It was clear that both Oates and McPhee were not on the same page. Dustin Penner was brought in at the deadline and was misused. Several players were not properly deployed and a team that should be playing hockey on Wednesday finished 5th in its’ new division. The Caps went 12-15-3 against the Metropolitan Division in 2013-14 with many of the losses coming after December 27th. Overall they were 28-33 in games decided before the shootout. That is clearly not Stanley Cup contending calibre.
In the past, while the team has been steadily eroding since the spring of 2009, the organization’s motto has been “we’re close” and when they’ve been bounced out in either the first or second round the excuses have ranged from “facing a hot goaltender” to “injuries.”
There are no excuses this year and this team is not close to being a Stanley Cup contender as configured currently. Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Boston all suffered far worse injury situations and made the postseason. The Penguins survived five of their six defensemen out of the lineup, at one point. Those clubs have built depth and they have tremendous leadership and quality coaching. Washington does not compare in those three categories.
In sports, you are either getting better or you are getting worse. The Caps clearly fit the latter right now.
In summary, it seems apparent that the Caps “thorough review” should lead to the same conclusion I’ve arrived at: both the GM and the coaching staff need to be changed going forward.
The Caps have some key pieces they can build around in Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Holtby, but they need someone running the show that really knows the league and can reshape and balance the roster. The new GM can’t overvalue his current players like this regime has done on too many occasions. They need leadership on and off of the ice. Towards that end, Leonsis may want to consider requiring the hockey department to include not only a new GM but a new Director of Player Personnel that has Stanley Cup winning experience. Winning championships is not easy to do, so getting people that have won them before so that they can help teach the others in your organization how to do it seems like a no brainer to me.
They need people that know how to get managers and players to work together. They need a hockey department with a strong work ethic and an attention to detail. They need a coaching staff that gets the club to be a team.
It’s 39 years and counting without a Stanley Cup in Washington. I’ve been watching this club since 1974 and have pretty much seen it all. There’s a time to stand pat and let things run it’s course and there is a time for change. This club is not on the right path with the current management and coaching.
Time for a big change, because clearly the “status quo” method is not working.