Something is holding back the Washington Capitals from meeting their lofty expectations.
Since 2007-08, the Caps have accomplished the following:
- Five Stanley Cup Playoff appearances
- Four Southeast Division titles
- Three 100-point regular seasons
- Two Eastern Conference No. 1 seeds
- One overall No. 1 seed
- Zero Stanley Cup Finals appearances
And now, the 2013 Capitals are off to a very slow start, in a shortened NHL season where they can ill afford to do so. Washington has a 2-7-1 record as of Thursday night's game, good for only five of a possible 20 points. The Caps currently rank fifth in the Southeast Division and 15th in the Eastern Conference. If the Stanley Cup playoffs started today, the Capitals would not qualify.
Is the Washington Capitals' clubhouse culture holding the team back?
Yes. Yes it is. Time to face the cold hard facts.
But to fully answer that question, we must go back in time.
The Washington Capitals began their run of success in 2007-08 with the midseason hiring of Bruce Boudreau. Gabby awakened a dormant offense with his high-risk, high-reward system. This very system allowed the Capitals to catch fire and make an improbable comeback in the standings that was not complete until the last game of the season, as the Caps won the Southeast Division and qualified for the playoffs.
But Boudreau's philosophies also created a corrosive clubhouse culture.
Boudreau treated his superstars very well, including Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin. Boudreau required them to practice very little, often employing optional skates. Yet Gabby still gave his best players the bulk of the ice time. This was the first example of Boudreau enabling Ovechkin's behavior.
Then, the Capitals named Ovechkin team captain on January 5, 2010, further enabling the star winger's behavior. This elevation of Ovechkin to a leadership position combined with the country club treatment he was already receiving from his coach eventually backfired on Boudreau.
During a game against the Anaheim Ducks on November 2, 2011 at Verizon Center, the Capitals were trailing by one with 1:02 left in regulation. After a timeout, Boudreau kept Ovechkin off the ice, instead opting for a different group of six players as he attempted to tie the game with the goalie pulled.
Ovechkin was quite displeased with this decision. Instead of accepting it like any captain or team-oriented player would have, Ovechkin voiced his displeasure for all the world to see.
Boudreau divided the locker room by keeping the best offensive weapon in the league (at the time) on the bench while trying to tie a game late in regulation. Ovechkin had been slumping (he’d recently posted a -4 in the worst game of his career), but if you make players choose between the best player on the team and their coach, not everyone will fall in line.
The players had made their choice, and this laid the ground work for the Capitals' current corrosive clubhouse culture. But this culture was solidified by general manager George McPhee.
After Boudreau was fired and replaced by former Capitals great Dale Hunter, McPhee of course had to discuss the future of his captain. When asked by Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times if Ovechkin would be stripped of the captain's "C," McPhee replied “That’s not going to happen."
This very public statement by McPhee further reinforced the decision of the players to support their captain and not their coach, whoever it may be. And their captain did nothing to change his behavior as one may have hoped. Instead, Ovechkin continued to test the players' decision to choose him over the coach, while at the same time testing the resolve of the coach and general manager to levy any disciplinary action against him.
During the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Boston Bruins, Dale Hunter stuck with his plan to install a system foreign to this incarnation of the Washington Capitals that involved plenty of defensive discipline, offensive sacrifice and shot-blocking. In Hunter's eyes, Ovechkin was not doing enough of this, so his ice time was drastically reduced. Katie Carrera of the Washington Post explained:
At points over the course of this first-round series, Alex Ovechkin’s ice time has been curiously low. The third period of Game 4 when he skated only 1 minute, 58 seconds is the most glaring example. It was attributed to line matching by Coach Dale Hunter, but given that Ovechkin’s linemates that game both saw more shifts and ice time in the third, it was likely more of an indictment of the star winger’s defensive play. In Game 5, Ovechkin skated only 15 minutes, 34 seconds — a career postseason low.
Ovechkin told Carrera how he felt about his new role and reduced ice time, leaving doubts as to whether or not he had completely bought in:
It doesn’t matter if I’m going to play 10 seconds or 5 seconds, most important thing is team result. Of course, sometimes you get angry you didn’t play a lot [of] minutes. And sometimes you get angry you’re not out there. But if it’s good for the team, you have to eat it, and you have to stay in the same course. Of course, sometimes I get angry I didn’t play, but it’s normal routine. It’s normal stuff.
Although that specific issue faded into the background when the Capitals were eliminated in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals by the New York Rangers, the Capitals' controversial captain quickly raised another issue. On the day Capitals players cleaned out their lockers after their playoff defeat, Ovechkin responded to Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times and made a few curious comments:
I don't know who's going to be the coach next year but the leaders in this group have to be together and don't look, you know. … I don't know how to explain better, but sometimes you don't have to be jealous. I don't want to say it was a jealous situation for us, but sometimes you just have to be a group together. ... I don't want to say persons, I don't want to say situations, but sometimes you just know like, some guys, if you didn't play well they just look at you like, you know. Of course, you can see it, I can see it and somebody else gonna see it and it's not the way we gonna win the game.
This may be the low point of Ovechkin's captaincy. Not only did he air his dirty laundry, but as captain, he sent the message to the rest of the team that it was OK for the team to air their dirty laundry as well.
The ramifications of Ovechkin's precedent became painfully obvious over the summer, as there were multiple instances of divisive comments between and among various Washington Capitals players.
Michal Neuvirth unleashed the opening salvo, in an interview with Czech website iSport.cz (as translated by Russian Machine Never Breaks). Neuvirth discussed his impending goalie competition with Braden Holtby by saying "I’m starting the season sure that I want to play forty/fifty games and I am really sure that I have the weakest competition I’ve ever had."
And about Ovechkin, Neuvirth was even more direct (via Russian Machine Never Breaks):
He isn’t what he used to be, that’s for sure. And if a team like ours wants to have a chance at the Stanley Cup, we need Ovi to be the best. We all expect that from him; he has to be the real leader. But it’s hard you know, he achieved everything as a player. He was on the absolute top, and then one can only fall down.
These comments seemed to set a tone for the offseason. Roman Hamrlik disagreed with NHLPA representative Donald Fehr's handling of the lockout, and voiced his opinion (via The Sporting News), which was later supported by none other than Neuvirth:
There should be voting between players. Four questions—YES or NO—then count it. If half of players say let's play, then they should sign new CBA. If there is no season he [Donald Fehr] should leave and we will find someone new. Time is our enemy.
But the response by fellow Capitals player and NHLPA team representative Troy Brouwer was harsh and confrontational. Brouwer spoke to Katie Carrera of the Washington Post on:
Those are two guys that have never been on a conference call, never been to a meeting, never paid attention. People are going to have their own opinions but when you’re fighting for something with 700 other guys, all you’re doing is just making it harder to make a deal and making it harder to accomplish the things we’re fighting for. For me, I think those guys selling us out, being selfish like that and making those comments … Me being on their team, how am I going to trust them as a teammate from now on? Because you know they’re not going to support players in the big scheme of things when you go and you play on the team with them; it’s going to be tough to want to back those guys from now on.
Hamrlik and Brouwer have since put aside their lockout comments. But in the process, Brouwer established himself as perhaps the most vocal leader on the team. During this slow start to the 2013 season that the Capitals are experiencing, Brouwer laid into his team following a 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens on January 24, as reported by Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times:
Embarrassing is almost the right term right now. Pathetic is probably a better one. You know, I feel bad for the fans. I’d like to finish a game with at least 50 percent of the fans still in the stands. Their reaction is completely warranted: booing us. We haven’t earned any of their respect. We haven’t earned any of their passion, their ambition. We’ve got to turn something around, and we’ve got to do it fast.
Those comments by Brouwer, who is frequently an alternate captain, illustrate the Capitals' biggest problem regarding their clubhouse culture: the leadership structure is turned upside down.
The Capitals' best leaders are at the bottom or middle of the leadership hierarchy. Brouwer is not the full captain, yet he has become a new spokesperson for the team with Brooks Laich injured. Matt Hendricks is not even an alternate captain, yet the fourth-line grinder always seems to know what his teammates need for inspiration and when they need it.
Conversely, the top of the Capitals' leadership structure is not setting the right example. Ovechkin has struggled to buy into new systems, both under Dale Hunter and current head coach Adam Oates, who has decided to play Ovechkin at an unnatural position of right wing. And Ovechkin's comments and actions have been corrosive both to locker room chemistry and to the coach's attempts at control.
Furthermore, longtime alternate captains Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are often deathly silent during times of crisis, despite their status as two of the most prominent members of the team. This soft-spoken pair consistently fails to exert any positive influence over the team that could possibly counteract the negative influence exerted by team captain Ovechkin.
The Capitals have changed coaches, systems and line combinations, yet they are still falling well short of expectations. It is now time to change the clubhouse culture of the Washington Capitals. Oates, McPhee and owner Ted Leonsis are entrusted with changing the culture of this team—a monumental task indeed.