Dave Lozo's Bag Skate: How Did the Washington Capitals Become Such a Mess?

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Dave Lozo's Bag Skate: How Did the Washington Capitals Become Such a Mess?
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Has anyone else noticed that the Washington Capitals seem to lack, what's the word I'm looking for here, a consistent direction or plan of attack for how to build a winning team?

It was just four years ago that the Capitals were a slick-skating juggernaut that finished with 121 points in the regular season. They had 107 points in 2010-11 and 92 points in 2011-12. Last season, they had 57 points in 48 games, which is a 97-point pace over 82 games. This season, they're on pace for 86 points and their first postseason miss since 2007.

I mean, what the heck happened? 

Washington Capitals since 2008-09
Season Record Points Result
2008-09 50-24-8 108 Lost in conference semifinals
2009-10 54-15-13 121 Lost in conference quarterfinals
2010-11 48-23-11 107 Lost in conference semifinals
2011-12 42-32-8 92 Lost in conference semifinals
2013 27-18-3 57 Lost in conference quarterfinals
2013-14 30-27-10 70 Currently 11th in the East

NHL.com

The Capitals have endured this slow, steady, inexplicable decline over the past four years that's far easier to recognize now, much the way you wouldn't really notice how a U.S. president has aged until you see a photo from his inauguration next to a photo of him four years later. "Man, he used to look so young and full of life. The job really does age a person, it seems."

But what in the world has aged the Capitals so quickly when it seems like it was just yesterday that they were this young, fresh-faced group primed to rule the hockey world for at least two presidential terms?

The answer is there is no real answer. It's a wishy-washy, mish-mashed collection of reasons that mirror the wishy-washy, mish-mashed collection of decisions the Capitals have made since the conclusion of the 2009-10 season.

(Right away, let's go ahead and say that Alex Ovechkin is not the reason or a reason for why the Capitals have endured this decline. He's either the reason or a reason things haven't been a failure of epic proportions.

He's a goal-scoring and Hart Trophy-winning machine who drives possession. If you ever find yourself citing his plus-minus to criticize his game, just hang up the old laptop and notepad and find a new career doing something else.)

Things began to unravel after the top-seeded Capitals lost to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in seven games in Round 1 in 2010.

The Capitals, who scored a league-best 318 goals in the regular season, scored three goals in the final three games of the series, all losses. It was a crushing and shocking loss that led to a shift in organizational philosophy, something experts said was required if the team were to ever win a Stanley Cup.

The basic idea was that coach Bruce Boudreau's philosophy was great in the regular season but wasn't going to lead to a Stanley Cup, as playoff hockey wasn't conducive to the Capitals' run-and-gun style.

Instead of viewing that loss to the Canadiens as an anomaly or another step in the learning process of a young team, the Capitals overreacted and used a flamethrower to kill a few ants on their living room carpet.

J.P. over at Japers' Rink, who has forgotten more about Capitals hockey than I'll ever know, has watched the team slowly eat itself alive since that franchise-changing loss to the Canadiens.

"To me, everything started to come off the rails when they got away from who they were and what they did well and started chasing what others thought they should be," he says, "and they're at a point now where I'm not even sure the general manager and the head coach are on the same page with respect to what they want to do on the ice or the personnel needed to do it.

"There simply doesn't appear to be a coherent vision of what they are or are going to be as a team.

"They've been in scramble mode for nearly three years, and it's caught up with them."

Greg Fiume/Getty Images

A once dynamic team has now been reduced to a squad that doesn't look like a good bet to reach the playoffs in a watered-down Eastern Conference. It has to do with a lot of things, perhaps the biggest of which was firing Boudreau in November 2011 after management made him change his coaching style, one that has worked wonders with the Anaheim Ducks the past two seasons.

General manager George McPhee also seems to have no idea what he's doing with his roster.

"I think that's part of what makes them such a hot mess - they don't know if they're playing for the present or the future," says J.P., "and there are probably different people within the organization who view it differently."

At the 2014 trade deadline, the Capitals were clearly desperate for help along the blue line. They instead acquired forward Dustin Penner and goaltender Jaroslav Halak, this despite the fact they have a very solid goaltender in Braden Holtby who was good enough to be invited to Team Canada's orientation camp last summer.

McPhee's back was against the wall with Martin Erat and Michal Neuvirth demanding trades, perhaps forcing him to take whatever he could get (Penner and Halak, two pending UFAs) for those players.

This comes on the heels of last season's deadline, when McPhee scuttled 2012 first-round pick Filip Forsberg to the Nashville Predators for what turned out to be 66 games and one goal from Erat. Forsberg may never live up to first-round expectations, but it was a bizarre trade that made little sense at the time for a flawed Capitals team with zero chance of winning a championship in 2013.

The Capitals can't make room for Forsberg, but they're willing to use 2013 first-round pick Tom Wilson on the fourth line for an entire season? Why? Is the team so devoid of usable bodies that they have to burn a year of Wilson's entry-level deal so he can play seven minutes per night?

Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

It's as if the window closed on this team when no one was looking, and now management is trying to keep it open with a wooden spoon or half a pool cue. New coach Adam Oates has the team playing an up-and-down game in a similar vein as Boudreau, but this team is far less talented than Boudreau's team, a little bit older and clearly not producing anywhere near the same results.

Throw in the fact that the Capitals no longer have the Southeast Division to bully, and there appears to be no end in sight to their mediocrity. The Capitals have descended into the bottom-third of the NHL in most possession-based categories, as ExtraSkater.com shows (2011-12, 2013, 2013-14), and with the competition now a little stiffer in the new Metropolitan Division, the wins are fewer and farther between.

John Carlson is 24. Nicklas Backstrom is 26. Ovechkin and Mike Green are 28. Time is on their side for the most part, but we're another presidential term away from saying Backstrom, Green and Ovechkin are on the back nine of their careers, and we've already seen how quickly that amount of time can fly.

Once you get beyond those four players, what else do the Capitals have? Brooks Laich is 30 years old. Evgeny Kuznetsov is 21 and could become anything. Troy Brouwer is 28 and fine if not unremarkable. Mikhail Grabovski is 30 and heading toward unrestricted free agency this summer and won't be cheap to sign.

Should the Capitals be better? If so, why? If not, why? It's as if the Capitals are dying by a million paper cuts.

Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

"It's so hard to pin it down, too," J.P. says. "There are personnel (GM) issues, systems (coaching) issues and execution (players) issues. You think to yourself, 'A lot of coaches in this league would win a lot more games with this roster than Adam Oates has,' but then you look at an NHL team that is pretty much completely healthy on the blue line and has a Connor Carrick-Jack Hillen pairing for some reason."

This season's club is a far cry from the 2009-10 team that included Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, Laich and the since-departed Tomas Fleischmann, Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble that was filled with promise and appeared poised to contend for Stanley Cups in the coming years.

The shame of all this is instead of people feeling sadness that Ovechkin's best years are being wasted as the Capitals mismanage everything a team can mismanage, he's getting all the blame for everything that's going wrong.

 

FIVE LETTERS

(If you’d like to ask a question for the weekly mailbag, you can reach me via email at dave111177@gmail.com, fire your query at me via Twitter at @DaveLozo or leave a question in the comments section for next week.)

Hey Dave,

What do you think about the playoff format and potentially having two of the best teams in the league like San Jose and LA facing off in the first round?

Andrew

Don Smith/Getty Images

I'm not particularly jazzed about it, but that's more about it being difficult to follow for fans. About a month ago, I had a player ask me if I knew how the playoff format worked.

I explained the first round easily, but for the second round, I wasn't sure how it worked if five teams made it from one division and three from other and if three teams from the one division made it to Round 2, would they re-seed or would the crossover team face the...

It's just a little confusing is all. I was able to explain it to the player a couple days later, but when players are unsure of the system, it's understandable if fans are a tad perplexed by the wild-card format.

(Cue comments at the bottom of this post from people saying how easy the new playoff system is to understand.)

As for the fact this system will likely produce a Sharks-Kings Round 1 matchup, thus eliminating a legitimate Cup contender right away, that's not really something you can pin on the system. If you're looking at it through the old system, it would be No. 3 Chicago vs. No. 6 Los Angeles and No. 4 Colorado vs. No. 5 San Jose.

No matter how you slice it, in a conference as good as the West, someone will have to go home far earlier than expected.

 

Call me crazy, but I think the fact the New York Rangers acquired Martin St. Louis bodes well for the them keeping Brad Richards. The two are really good friends, and they've shown chemistry (in just a handful of games, of course) together, so I don't think the arrival of St. Louis guarantees the departure of Richards.

Len Redkoles/Getty Images

I also don't think the Rangers really know for sure what they'll do with Richards after the season, but if they decide against using their final amnesty buyout on the final six years of his contract, the cap-recapture penalty isn't all that bad.

Richards is scheduled to make $1 million per season on his front-loaded contract in 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20, the final three years of the contract. If he retires the summer before those seasons, the Rangers would have dead cap space in the amount of $5.67 million over the remaining life of the contract.

The salary cap is set at $71.1 million next season. Who's to say where it will be for the 2017-18 season, but a $5.67 million cap penalty won't be as crippling as it is now.

And looking at the Rangers' cap situation for next season, I believe they can re-sign all the UFAs and RFAs they want to retain, while keeping Richards on the books. The Rangers can play hardball with RFAs Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello and John Moore, as they have been known to do in the past.

Having said all that, my best guess, which I don't feel all that confident about, is the Rangers cut ties with Richards in the summer and go with Derek Stepan and Brassard as their top two centers in 2014-15 and beyond.

 

 

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Nathan MacKinnon is going to win the Calder Trophy. There's no getting around it. Olli Maatta has played really, really well this season, but MacKinnon has been the best rookie in my eyes.

But Maatta definitely deserves a weekend in Las Vegas as one of the finalists.

He's been, by far, the best rookie defenseman in the NHL this season—better than Torey Krug, better than Seth Jones—and what he's accomplished as a 19-year-old in the face of all the injuries to the Penguins' blue line makes it even more impressive. It's not as though Maatta is being matched up against third and fourth lines and racking up all his points on the power play, either.

The Calder generally goes to one of the leaders in rookie points and/or an exceptional goaltender. But if you wanted to vote for Maatta, you wouldn't have to work very hard to convince me he's worthy.

 

I hope not. What he's been able to accomplish with a New Jersey Devils team that lost its best player—Ilya Kovalchuk—over the summer and has a goaltending situation that could have sunk the team at several times this season is worthy of a tip of the cap. 

Andy Marlin/Getty Images

It's easy to criticize him for giving a diminished Martin Brodeur a nearly equal number of starts as the far superior option in Cory Schneider, but it's such a unique challenge.

Brodeur is the Devils franchise, and it's a lot easier in theory to staple someone of his stature to the bench than it is to pull off in practice. The balance between keeping Brodeur happy and the team successful is a high-wire act few coaches could've pulled off.

The Devils have played hard all season and have shown no signs of quitting on DeBoer, something that could have easily happened, given how the Brodeur/Schneider drama could divide a locker room or how the Devils have leaked points by losing shootouts or how they opened the season winless in seven games after missing the playoffs last season.

Outside of giving Brodeur a few more starts than he deserves, I've got no major issues with how he has run things this season.

 

Pancakes and flapjacks are neither American nor Canadian. Their greatness transcends boundaries drawn on a map by man. If a person ever presents you with a pancake or a flapjack, you stop what you're doing and eat them. 

Print this out and carry it with you as a reminder—never say no to a pancake or a flapjack.

 

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.

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