For the Washington Capitals, to say that missing the postseason for the first time in seven years is embarrassing would be a gross understatement, because much more was expected of this team.
And, as is almost always the case when a team fails to come anywhere close to meeting its potential, it's certainly possible that both Adam Oates and George McPhee will be out of jobs by the time the 2014 NHL draft rolls around.
However, in spite of the Caps' struggles in 2013-14, cleaning house and jettisoning both their coach and longtime general manager would be a mistake.
Yes, I fully understand that each man deserves a healthy portion of the blame for Washington's shortcomings, but it is difficult to see how starting from scratch in the front office and behind the bench would help this team bounce back next season.
From a management standpoint, there are undeniable flaws with Washington's roster, such as the team's lack of depth on back end, but before calling for McPhee's head, it's worth remembering that the one-time Hobey Baker winner is responsible for drafting the majority of the team's best players, and assembled a team that has been among the best in the East for more than half a decade.
Sure, the Martin Erat-Filip Forsberg deal didn't pan out, but that's just one trade, and he's had many more that have proved to be smart moves. And the same can be said for his work contractually. While the contracts given to Mike Green and Brooks Laich look bad, he's managed to get a number of highly regarded talents on board at prices lower than what they'd command on the open market (think Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Nicklas Backstrom, for starters).
Ultimately, if Ted Leonsis does decide to fire the only general manager he's ever known during his time as the majority owner of the Capitals, he may well be doing so in order to demonstrate to the fans that this franchise won't accept failure, even if the core of this roster is arguably the best in team history.
Assuming Leonsis is aware of that, from a purely hockey standpoint, hiring a new general manager may as well be an admission that he doesn't believe this current core group is capable of challenging for a Stanley Cup. If that's the case, one has to think that at least a couple of Washington's franchise cornerstones in Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson, Alzner, Green and Braden Holtby will be gone as well.
Of that group, only Green is worth dealing at this point in time, because the return on the other five simply won't be worth what the Caps will have to give up. Ovechkin's coming off of his second consecutive NHL goal title, Backstrom's still among the game's best setup men, Holtby remains a promising young stopper and the pairing of Carlson and Alzner is simply too talented to give up on this early.
Beyond them, there are some very promising young prospects in the system, and at least two are already making an impact at the NHL level, as Russian scorer Evgeny Kuznetsov and bruising winger Tom Wilson both impressed during their debuts with the Caps.
Blowing up the roster after one bad regular season would be a knee-jerk reaction, and as much as it pains Caps fans to watch the postseason from the sidelines, building a hockey team does not happen overnight, and none of the team's best players are yet over the age of 28, so there's still time for this group.
Which brings us to the situation surrounding Oates' future in D.C. beyond this summer.
During the Hall of Fame center's first two seasons behind Washington's bench, Oates helped rejuvenate Ovechkin's career as a scorer by moving him to the right wing, as Ovechkin has scored 83 goals in his last 126 games under Oates, after failing to reach the 40-goal mark in consecutive seasons under Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter.
In addition, with Oates at the helm, Backstrom has put up impressive numbers as well, and much of that is due to the lethal power play unit the former Caps standout has assembled, so there are definitely indications that he has what it takes to be successful at this level. Given that Ovechkin and Backstrom are largely viewed as Washington's two most important players, Oates' ability to coax production out of them is worth noting, but there are simply too many troubling signs to ignore.
The horrendous plus-minus ratings of the two star forwards are a starting point, but Oates' shortcomings run much deeper. Among the most detrimental are the lack of mental toughness the team exhibits when playing with a lead, the inexplicable tendency of slotting grinder Jay Beagle next to Ovechkin at times and the clear lack of urgency shown by his charges during the most critical times of the season (the 5-0 thumping on home ice against Dallas a few games back comes to mind).
But perhaps Oates' most glaring mistakes have to do with the way he's handled newly acquired players, as that shows a potential disconnect between him and McPhee, which is a recipe for disaster. First, Oates completely alienated Erat, a longtime first-liner on a perennial playoff team in Nashville, and though he may not be a 58-point guy anymore, he's got a lot more to offer at both ends of the ice than what Oates got out of him.
This season, Oates, once again, was unable to properly integrate McPhee's latest deadline reinforcements in Dustin Penner and Jaroslav Halak, which is just unacceptable. Penner's been a key top-six winger on two Stanley Cup teams since 2007, and one can imagine that McPhee brought the hulking power forward in to create space for Washington's best offensive threats.
But as NBC's Adam Vingan reported, Oates believed Penner's speed would drag Ovechkin and Backstrom down, so he slotted the former 63-point scorer on the fourth line. This move seemed curious, given that Penner had spent much of the season on a line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the top unit with the Western Conference's best team in Anaheim, but Oates never wavered.
Penner aside, Oates also appears to have burned a bridge with Halak, a proven postseason hero (as Washington fans will surely remember), as the coach opted to start Holtby against St. Louis, the Slovak goaltender's former team. If sitting the 28-year-old wasn't enough, Oates publicly said that it was because Halak wasn't keen on facing the Blues so soon after being dealt, and as CBS Sports' Brian Stubits reported, Allan Walsh, the stopper's agent, was less than pleased.
As Walsh notes, the breaking of Halak's trust by airing that conversation -- again, even if his version as correct -- is not a good sign. This comes not long after Oates called out Alex Ovechkin for quitting on a play.
For the record, Halak talked about it being too fresh to play against the Blues but that could have been him talking about the decision after Oates had made it, who knows. Whether or not that's what Halak told Oates before the decision to start Holtby was made, though, is close to irrelevant. This is a mess of a situation.
Ultimately, Oates has now mishandled personnel situations with three players that could and should have produced much more than they did in Capitals uniforms, and with Erat now long gone and the other two set to hit unrestricted free agency, McPhee will have coughed up Forsberg, Michal Neuvirth and multiple picks for virtually no tangible return.
To recap, there are both positive and negative takeaways from Oates' first two seasons (including last year's lockout-shortened schedule) behind the bench, but if someone has to go between him and the GM, there's a pretty strong case to be made for it to be the former assist machine.
But how would bringing in the third new coach in three years impact the core and, more specifically, the team's most important player?
Of course, as Pierre LeBrun recently discussed, there remains a faint possibility that like his good friend and Russian Olympic teammate Ilya Kovalchuk, Ovechkin will bolt for the KHL after such a difficult year, but given the financial and logistical hurdles that would entail, let's assume that it won't happen.
So if Ovechkin, Backstrom, Carlson and Alzner are to remain as Washington's centerpieces, what's the best way to proceed?
It's tough to say, but getting rid of both the architect of this roster and the man he hired to lead it would be both unnecessary and premature, unless Leonsis and Dick Patrick believe it's time for a total makeover from the top on down.
This situation won't be resolved for at least a few weeks, but for Capitals fans, the hope should be that Leonsis weighs his options carefully, because dismantling a management team, coaching staff and core group of players is a course of action that would essentially signal a rebuild for a franchise less than a year after a fifth divisional crown in six seasons.
I'm not saying that the current tandem of Oates and McPhee (or even Patrick, for that matter), should be back by the fall, but getting rid of both would be a panicked move too drastic for this current collection of key players to overcome.
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