It was a good run.
In 2007-08, the Washington Capitals were a rising team with a new coach in midseason, an identity, and a superstar in Alex Ovechkin. Things still looked up after the 2008 and 2009 seasons, although the Caps were bounced.
In 2010, the Caps were Presidents’ Trophy winners and were expecting to go deep into the playoffs. Instead, Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens came back from 3-1 and stunned the Caps in the first round. This is where the Caps identity crisis started.
The Caps were a good regular season team from 2011-2013 because they were playing in the weak Southeast division and racked up division titles. You could say the closest team to the Stanley Cup was in 2012 when Dale Hunter was the coach and defense was a requirement, not a recommendation. The identity crisis did not bother the Caps in the regular season, but in the playoffs, it was exposed.
In 2014, everything went downhill with George McPhee’s questionable moves, Adam Oates’s “raw” side of coaching and the players incapability to defend. Altogether, the Caps missed the playoffs and now both McPhee and Oates are done in D.C. So what happened?
Let’s start with George McPhee. I think McPhee has done a marvelous job in 1 years with the team. He was part of the Stanley Cup Finals run in 1998; he brought over Jaromir Jagr (albeit with less than stellar results); he drafted Alex Ovechkin; he brought back the Capitals from the abyss in the mid 2000s to structure a respectable team from 2007-2013. What happened to him was when the Caps lost their identity in 2010, he also lost his identity. He was focusing on top-tier talent, loyalty, and filling holes, instead of fielding the best team possible. McPhee will get another job somewhere, but his time was up with the Capitals. It was a solid run. It could of been better, but McPhee had a successful run.
As for Adam Oates, it was his lack of experience on the bench. There have been assistant coaches who became very good coaches. There have been great minor league coaches who were great NHL coaches. What all these coaches had in common was took their time on the bench all these years before getting a head coaching job. Oates got the job because of his association of the New Jersey Devils staff that went to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012. If you’re part of the Lou Lamoriello team, you’re getting eye balls. The Caps were attracted and got Oates. It didn’t begin well in 2012-13 because of the lockout and Oates was behind the 8-ball. However, in a weak division, the Caps came back and won the last Southeast division. It was in the first round series with New York Rangers that open Pandora’s Box for the Caps. A 1-0 shutout in Game 6, then a 5-0 thrashing in Game 7 carried over to this season and the Caps couldn’t recover and Oates essentially lost the team (see the 5-0 loss vs. Dallas in April). Oates will be an assistant coach, but if he wises up, and I think he will, he could become a coach in the NHL in the next five years.
However, the bottom line of where the Caps are are the players. Their identity was an offensive juggernaut, and they were great at it. It would of been 2009 the light was on after they lost to the Penguins that the Caps were close of going further. In 2010, they won the Presidents’ Cup based on their offense and were leading the Canadiens 3-1. Then, they didn’t make adjustments on the Montreal trap and the Caps failed to advance. You might say coaching is blame under Boudreau and Oates and credit Hunter for keeping the Caps competitive with his scheme, but the fact of the matter is the players play on the ice and held accountable when they score and when they give up a goal. The Caps relied too much on their regular season success. Part of it was on coaching, but most of it was on the players who kept thinking their scheme is championship material, but in reality, they weren’t even close. Could it be a country club atmosphere that was created by the players because of their success and ranking in the team? Was it the scheme that felt very comfortable of the players and they were spoiled by their success? Frankly, everyone, from players, coaches, and front office, is accountable for and now we’re seeing the consequences.
We know next season, there’s going to be a new general manager and coach. What we don’t know is what direction the team is going to be headed. There are two ways to look into it:
Leonsis Logic (coined by Clinton Yates)
Next year, the Winter Classic is at Nationals Park and the Caps will be playing. Leonsis literally begged the NHL Commissioner, Gary Bettman, to have the game in D.C. and he got his wish. It is also of note that the Caps will have between $11-16 million under the cap, so they might go for the Cup in 2015 and that depends on the new GM. If Leonsis was serious of bringing the Winter Classic and the Stanley Cup, he has to be Dan Snyder-esque this offseason, which could be a good thing or a very bad thing.
The Long Game
With a new GM and coach, changes will happen. It’s likely the Caps are looking for trade partners for either Brooks Laich, Mike Green, or both to clear cap space. The team will still have Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, but it will be unlike the team in recent years. Could this be the lost year next year? It’s very likely, but the consolation of missing the playoffs next year is the 2015 NHL Draft, which has been touted as the deepest in years, and the prizes are Centers Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. If the Caps are not going far next year, why not save cap room space for 2015, get a top 2 or 5 pick and get someone very good and build your team from there? The risk being you could alienate hockey fans in D.C. and tickets will plummet, but if a lost season leads to a potential bright future, you have to think about it. I’ve always said last year that if the Caps didn’t make the playoffs and had a top 5 draft pick, they could of had defencemen, Seth Jones, who could of been D.C. next hockey crossover superstar because of his play and his color. Then again, would McPhee come back next year and select a forward or would Leonsis bring a new GM last year if the Caps failed to make the playoffs? We don’t know and from the result of this year, the Caps could be one year too early and one year too late.
Give the Washington Capitals credit for starting off the D.C. Sports Renaissance several years ago. In those few years, the Capitals were the only team in town that had a chance of a championship. Now, the Redskins, Nationals, and even the Wizards have surpassed the Capitals as a D.C. sports attraction. Can the Caps regain the throne? Of course, but what direction do they want to go to? That is up to Ted Leonsis and the new general manager to figure it out.