Washington Capitals: Where's the Problem in DC, Ownership or GM?
Well, these last few years haven't gone too well, have they?
It's hard to believe that after the stratospheric rise of the Washington Capitals following the acquisition of Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom since the lockout, all they have to show for it is a squad that hasn't yet figured out how to win two consecutive playoff series. Truly, the front office has assembled one of the most dominant non-dominant teams in sports history.
Two men have overseen this Caps team since that time: owner Ted Leonsis and general manager George McPhee. So who is to blame for the less-than-satisfactory results? And how does a fan even separate the two regarding personnel decisions to figure out when Ted Leonsis is the puppet master, and when he takes a hands-off approach and lets McPhee do the dirty work? By dissecting their virtually identical quotes, of course. Foolproof.
So let's take a look at some of the recent Caps debacles and start pointing fingers. Time to do some speculatin'!
The Decline of Alex Ovechkin
Alex Ovechkin's dip in numbers has probably caused more ink to be spilled on an NHL subject than just about anything else since the lockout. What's wrong with him? Is he having too much fun? Is he not having enough fun? Why is he enjoying himself during the summer instead of shooting hockey pucks into dryers like REAL champions do? And most importantly, who can we blame for this travesty? Well, let's find out.
Ted Leonsis: “The game has changed since Alex entered the league, and we are looking for him to be a better all-around player. We want him to adapt his game to be productive within the framework of our team, not necessarily in comparison with others in the NHL.” — The Washington Post, March 10, 2012
George McPhee: "As with any great athlete, the league will adjust to you. Your opposition is smart. Players and coaches always adjust. Players adjust to new rules quickly, they adjust to players quickly. There’s always a strategy to defend certain players. ... The league has adjusted to Ovi; now it’s his turn to adjust." — The Washington Post, March 9, 2012
SUSPECT: Ted Leonsis. "Be productive within the framework of our team" is a phrase that makes perfect sense when you're talking about a role player you brought in to grind it out on the fourth line. It does not, however, make any sense when you're talking about one of the biggest stars in the league.
Ovechkin IS—or should be—the framework that you build around. And if you're doing things like, oh, I don't know, switching to a defensive focus when you have one of the elite scorers in the game on your team with one of the top assist men in Backstrom, you're going to get less production. And it's hard to blame Ovi for that.
Firing Boudreau Midseason Rather Than in the Offseason
Before the final horn even sounded following the Caps' Game 4 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning to complete a sweep in the second round in 2011, undoubtedly Caps fans were already calling for Bruce Boudreau's dismissal. This was the fourth straight year, and fans were tired of watching a familiar story unfold that started when Barack Obama was just a senator from Illinois. And yet, it took an early-season pounding for George McPhee to finally relent and can Boudreau. Here's what they said at the time:
Ted Leonsis: "It’s never easy to let a coach go, and Bruce was a popular personality who helped turn around our franchise. Despite what transpired on the ice this year, I always will be thankful for Bruce’s time with the Capitals and will remember him fondly. ... Unfortunately the shelf life of a coach is short; Bruce was the fifth longest tenured coach in the league.”—The Washington Post, November 2011
George McPhee: "The reason for the change was we weren't winning. This wasn't a slump. You can ride out slumps. This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce. When you see that ... you have to make a change. ... I didn't like some of the things that I saw in training camp and some of the preseason games."—SB Nation, Nov. 28, 2011
SUSPECT: George McPhee. Here's what McPhee said May 5 about Boudreau after the sweep: “I expect him to be back. He’s a good coach. Someone said he’s not a playoff coach, there’s no difference between a playoff coach and a regular season coach. You’re either a good coach or you’re not. He’s a good coach.”
I don't necessarily disagree with him. Here's what I don't get: In May of 2011 after getting swept by the Lightning for a fourth straight early playoff exit, Boudreau is still a good coach who has control of the team, according to McPhee. Either we believe McPhee made the wrong decision then and needlessly handicapped the team by shoving a new coach into a bad situation midseason with no time to acclimate, or Boudreau somehow lost the team over a couple months in the offseason.
Who knows. Maybe he refused to share his Haagen-Dazs with Ovi.
Hiring Dale Hunter
Bruce Boudreau's firing paved the way to bring on a respected former Capitals great to act as the new bench boss, which got lots of folks excited inside the beltway, despite the total lack of success on the part of players who become coaches or general managers in any sport. The move resulted in the fifth consecutive Caps team to be a non-factor in the playoffs. Who gets the blame?
Ted Leonsis: “Dale was a great coach. I am grateful that he came in midseason to help us and we went to Game 7 of the second round so he had a successful season...He developed our team with a much more responsible defensive posture. [Q: And given his limiting of minutes with Alex, would you have definitely retained him if he wanted to stay?] Yes.”—The Washington Post, July 19, 2012
George McPhee: “I thought he did a great job of coming in and helping us out. Trying to hire a coach in the middle of the a season is a difficult process, and that vetting process is a long one, and so to have Dale be available to come in even if on a temporary basis was something we liked a lot.”—CSN Washington, May 14, 2012
SUSPECT: Ted Leonsis. It's a tale of two front office guys: One talks about the outgoing coach as the potential future of the franchise. The other talks about him as if he were duct tape over a gaping hole on a leaking ship. And considering this coach managed to turn a perennial President's Trophy contender into a .500 squad, I think the latter has his head screwed on a little straighter. And it leads me to wonder which guy really pushed to hire Adam Oates.
And now, we have a verdict...
VERDICT: Ted Leonsis
Teddy deserves a lot of credit for making hockey relevant in Washington again and turning the Caps into a contender for five straight years now.
But he's clearly become disenfranchised with the run-and-gun style the Caps used to have after some (unlucky) early playoff exits, and now appears to want to totally reinvent the team as a defensive-minded squad, hoping the Caps' offensive weapons will just be able to adapt and, if not, he'll ship 'em out Alexander Semin style.
That's not a strategy; that's a reactionary way to run a franchise, and the Caps are beginning to suffer from it. McPhee has made some missteps and shoulders some of the blame, but ultimately, Ted Leonsis determines the direction of the team.
Unless he learns from those mistakes and allows Adam Oates to focus on the team's strengths once again, that Caps are headed nowhere fast.