Saturday, April 26, 2014
Caps' firings aren't all Ovechkin's fault
By Scott Burnside
And then there was Ovie.
Or at least that's how it seems in Washington now that longtime GM George McPhee has been cut loose, his contract not being renewed for the first time since he took over in June 1997, and coach Adam Oates also being given the heave-ho after just two seasons behind the bench.
The decisions made by owner Ted Leonsis to essentially clean house perhaps aren't all that surprising, given that the Caps struggled for much of the regular season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07. But if anyone thinks this is the start of an easy path to a quick renaissance in Washington, that person is dreaming in Technicolor.
This is a team that, after failing to capitalize on strong regular seasons under Bruce Boudreau, now the successful coach of the Anaheim Ducks, is adrift, rudderless.
At the heart of the matter and the chief challenge for whoever takes over as GM and then whomever that person hires as coach -- and surely Leonsis is not vain enough to move quickly to hire a coach without having a new GM in place -- is to resolve the Alex Ovechkin issue.
The knee-jerk response is to suggest this is further evidence that Ovechkin is a coach killer, that the Capitals' captain is too narcissistic, too out of sync with the group, to lead anyone to anything of substance in the playoffs.
Nice storyline but not entirely, if at all, true.
Has Ovechkin not done all that's been asked of him in recent years?
Did he not take less ice time and play less of an offensive role when Dale Hunter took over for Boudreau? Did the Caps not then knock off the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2012 playoffs?
When Oates came in after the lockout, did Ovechkin not agree to move to the right side and did he not end up winning a Hart Trophy (OK, a controversial Hart Trophy, but a Hart Trophy nonetheless)?
Did Ovechkin not score 50-plus goals for the fifth time in his career (he notched 51) to lead the NHL in goal scoring this season?
These things are self-evident, just as the fact that Ovechkin is a rare hockey talent.
Of course, the downside of the Ovechkin problem is that he was minus-35 this season, and, although plus/minus is a stat with only relative meaning, it does tell a significant story when the number is as big as Ovechkin's. Throw in the fact that Ovechkin has never really been able to replicate his regular-season production in the playoffs -- a fact that defines the entire team since Ovechkin came into the NHL -- and you have a conundrum.
What to do with an exceptional talent who can't win?
Our good friend Craig Custance wrote that perhaps it's about redefining Ovechkin’s role with the Capitals. Perhaps that means taking the captaincy away from him in the hopes of letting him be Alex Ovechkin as opposed to trying to be all things to all people as the captain and the face of the franchise.
The other option is to pursue a trade.
Hard to imagine Leonsis giving his OK to even discuss such a complex transaction, given the length of Ovechkin's contract (he is under contract until 2020-21 with a cap hit of $9.538 million annually and has a modified no-trade clause that kicks in this July), but those are discussions that need to be explored before new people are brought in to fill these positions.
Ovechkin isn't the only pressing issue for the new management-coaching team.
What to do about defenseman Mike Green, who has battled injury and inconsistency in recent years after being a two-time Norris Trophy finalist? What about Brooks Laich, the gritty glue guy who signed a long-term deal but can’t stay healthy? And the goaltending situation -- in theory a position of strength, given the top talent that has been drafted and nurtured -- needs to be resolved. Is Braden Holtby the guy? Is it Philipp Grubauer? There are issues with a blue line that only a few years ago looked to be one of the team’s strengths with Karl Alzner and John Carlson as young anchors.
As for McPhee and Oates, it's hard to imagine either will be looking for work long, if work is what they desire.
McPhee has already been linked via rumor to open positions with the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks. He is a smart judge of hockey talent who oversaw a hockey revolution in Washington coming out of the 2004-05 lockout.
Still, with him having been with the franchise since 1997, it is time for a fresh viewpoint on how to treat the various ills that afflict this talented team and that, in the end, McPhee was unable to address.
Oates brought a fresh way of thinking to the job after being an assistant in New Jersey when the Devils advanced to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals.
He was criticized for his candor, especially late in the season, when he said he didn't start netminder Jaroslav Halak in a crucial game against the St. Louis Blues because Halak wasn't comfortable playing against his old team. Still, we loved Oates' refusal to sugarcoat the situation or, worse, lie, and we loved his approach to the game that saw the Caps make a late run to a division title in 2013.
He, too, is a bright hockey mind who thinks outside the box. That there were issues down the stretch does nothing to contradict the idea that he has the tools to be an NHL head coach, and this experience, even though it ended abruptly, no doubt will provide him with growth for his next job.
And so it was a seminal day in the history of the Washington Capitals, the kind of day that speaks of optimism and a chance to move forward but also a day that reminds us of the significant challenges that face the folks who, in the coming weeks, will assume those now-vacant positions.