Renewed Questions of Leadership

Deep into Tuesday night, a prominent member of Washington’s hockey media, referencing the Boston Bruins’ effort in game 2 of the Eastern conference finals, emailed me this reflection: “This is what a desperate team is supposed to look like down 0-1 in a series not wanting to go down 0-2 before hitting the road.”

Indeed.

Maybe the Bruins ultimately make a series of it, maybe they don’t. But down 2-1 after 20 minutes last night, against the hottest team in the NHL postseason, and confronting the harrowing reality of dropping the series’ first two games on home ice against the Bolts, just as the Caps did two weeks ago, the Bs went Commando on Tampa in the second frame, scoring five times. Gut check. Series on.

The deeper we get into the 2011 postseason in Washington, which of course affords us additional context with which to compare the Capitals’ shortcomings, as more accomplished organizations play on, all the more that troubling questions related to team leadership arise. “Team leadership” here encompassing the captaincy, the coaching, and the management. I’m ok with the equipment guys.

Now it seems almost preposterous to ponder the preoccupation some in media articulated back last autumn: that by virtue of youth and inexperience in net, the Capitals could have their spring short-circuited. The Capitals didn’t lose prematurely early this spring, or last, or the spring previous to that, because of their goaltending. They did lose because they’d been out-worked, out-coached, and out-led every spring. They consistently confronted teams in possession of superior leadership. In an era of parity, that’s certainly a differentiating quality.

Conventional wisdom, as recent as perhaps just a few years ago, was that a team needed a star stopper between the pipes to get it done in spring. To be sure — and you need just ask Flyers’ fans — you can’t go Johnny Pedestrian in net. But there are probably 20-plus netminders around the league today more than adequate to the task of guiding a team through three or four postseason rounds, and one or more of them is likely already under contract in Washington.

But what does it matter if you’ve talent and poise in net if your hockey club has a deficit of leadership everywhere else?

  • In the spring of 2009 virtually everyone in hockey recognized that warrior right wing Bill Guerin was a coveted commodity likely to be moved by the Islanders to a playoff-bound team serious about contending. The Capitals then had serious production deficiencies on the right side of their lineup, and they were a young playoff team. There was rampant media speculation, especially in Washington, that Guerin should have been a primary acquisition target for George McPhee. Instead, Guerin ended up in Pittsburgh. The Penguins of course beat the Capitals in seven games that spring. The Penguins of course went on to win the Cup that spring. Bill Guerin played a significant role for the Pens.
  • Does it mean anything that Dan Bylsma came in from the American League and immediately enjoyed notable success in Pittsburgh, and does it mean anything that Guy Boucher came in from the American League and immediately enjoyed notable success in Tampa, while our American Leaguer behind the bench has spent the past four springs underwhelming us?
  • Does it mean anything that literally 40 minutes into his Washington Capitals career Jason Arnott was so troubled by the culture he surveyed in his new room that he felt compelled to stand up and . . . lead?
  • Those HBO ’24/7′ cameras were rightly lauded for taking us on the innermost inside of hockey last December, and when they captured the Capitals’ inner sanctum at the season’s most vexing moment, what was, for you, the leadership portrait offered? Were you, like me, more than mildly surprised that it was Mike Knuble standing up and blowing a gasket in the Boston visitor’s locker room? Perhaps more revealing moments of player reaction were left on the cable outlet’s cutting room floor, but I doubt it.
  • Another curious ’24/7′ snapshot: The head coach and GM meet one morning at Kettler to post mortem the extraordinary losing streak, and the GM states that the team’s prolonged losing could actually be beneficial in the long run. I remember reacting in that moment: ‘WTF???’ Interesting that other managers don’t typically pursue that as strategy for long-term success.
  • The GM also responded to critics, particularly in local media, who were appropriately questioning the team’s leadership in late December with the snide and derisive rejoinder that were such voices qualified to weigh in on hockey personnel they’d be employed in the game. The hirer of Bruce Cassidy probably ought to have brought greater humility to that moment.

My new media colleague and friend Ed Frankovic of Baltimore WNST, in his latest blog entry, ‘Caps Off-season Focus Should Be on Leadership,’ tackles terrifically the Capitals’ deficit of leadership: “There is no doubt some on the ice upgrades are necessary to improve [the Caps’] chances for success. But to me, what this organization seems to need more than anything, is an infusion of leadership. Simply put, they need to add personnel with Stanley Cup winning experience at the management level [emphasis OFB’s] and on the ice. The role of those additions would be to help Ovechkin and many of the talented younger players on the team to understand the process of what it takes to capture a Stanley Cup, the hardest trophy to win in all of sports.”

I really admire what Frankovic next does in his narrative: he traces the leadership bona fides of previous Cup winners, noting that even the lavishly talented Edmonton Oilers clubs of the 1980s were laden with Cup-winning resumes from the ’70s. He then goes ’24/7′-inside the 1999 Cup-winning Dallas Stars team with former Stars executive Craig Button, now of the NHL Network. Lots of talent on that Stars team, but it was carefully acquired veteran leadership that ultimately allowed Dallas to break through a formidable Western conference and win the big prize.

“Washington has seen firsthand . . the impact of what a proven winner like Steve Yzerman can do to help turn around a struggling club,” Frankovic concludes. “With the Wings former #19 at the helm in Tampa Bay, the Bolts added some key people with leadership experience (i.e, defensemen Pavel Kubina and scout Pat Verbeek) and Yzerman was also able to get one of his existing star players, team captain Vincent Lecavalier, to elevate his game to a level he hadn’t really been at since the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup victory. As a result, a team that relies on key young players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman is still very much in the running for this year’s Stanley Cup just one year after finishing 41 points behind the Capitals in 2009-10.”

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This entry was posted in Boston Bruins, Eastern Conference, Ed Frankovic, Front Office, George McPhee, HBO's 24/7, hockey blogging, Morning cup-a-joe, New media, NHL playoffs, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Renewed Questions of Leadership

  1. mostholy2 says:

    Spot on pucksandbooks. I loved Frankovic’s article too. A fascinating detailed look at the Dallas organization and their quest for the Cup.

    Having stable leadership is what this team needs most. I am firmly convinced that we have talent to win a Cup, but are still not mature enough to handle the ups-and-downs of the playoffs.

    From all accounts it sounds as if resigning Arnott is a longshot, but given how much emphasis on what he brought to the club, it seems to me like a step in the right direction.

  2. Mark says:

    Good post, and I have something else to consider. When we talk about leadership, the focus is on coaches, captains, and veteran players (especially those who have won Cups). In last night’s game, what about the inspiring play of 19-year-old Tyler Seguin? Leadership can – and needs to – come from all levels.

  3. Chris says:

    I 100% agree that the caps lack player leadership. I was not a fan of Ovie being picked to begin with. That being said, I do not agree with your comparison of what Guy and Stevie Y have done compared to Bruce (or Danny from Pitt). You neglect to mention that one thing that they had that the caps do not is two team leaders, one of which is the captain, both one a cup for the team they are on in 2004. Bringing Kubina back gives them three players from the 2004 team. I don’t think that can be overlooked and all of the credit given to the management.
    I am not debating if Bruce is the right coach or not. That is a different argument entirely, and one in which you have made your position clear.

  4. Chris, I agree with you about the overall value of Kubina to the Bolts, and it sure seems like yet another savvy move on Stevie Y’s part. Interesting, isn’t it, that Kubina went down early in the series against the Caps, and yet it the grand scheme of things it didn’t seem to matter. Meanwhile, we hear whining about our dinged up blueline corps (in Mike Green’s case, he was sufficiently repaired the night after the series to rock and roll at some Bon Jovi cover band gig).

  5. Paul says:

    Your comment about Green at a Bon Jovi thing renewed a theme that has bothered me. While I have no way to verify, I heard that a bunch of Caps were partying at Cafe Milano the night before Game 5 last year. While I was at times rowdy at 22-25 it behooved me not to do it on a key work night or I would be fired. Is there more party-time stuff going on? Are the Caps more boisterous than other teams? Is there a bad side to having so many Russians and Swedes (not teetotaling cultures) on our team? Maybe we should bring in some stricter Germans? Maybe the lifestyle is a factor in the physical fitness of some players?

    Why would you booze it up the night before the most important measured event of the year? Such behavior seems self-destructive…maybe the Caps need add psychologist to the staff. Or Ted can import some stout Babuskas from Russia and some stern logging-camp matrons from Canada to keep our party animals inline? Or maybe we should just find a wife this summer for some of these guys.

  6. JR says:

    “The hirer of Bruce Cassidy probably ought to have brought greater humility to that moment.”

    Head-shot.

  7. SJ says:

    Two things strike me. First, “out-worked”, definitely. Saw it last year, saw it again this year. The difference is the obvious, on every cup winning team every player plays every shift as if it means something. This crop of players, from the first thru the fourth line, simply don’t. It’s a matter of character. Second, management and coaching whines too much. It’s enabling for the players. No one cares how many injuries you have – every team has them. And no one cares about the other team’s goalie. Simply put, he’s paid to stop pucks and you’re paid to score. He did his job, you didn’t.

  8. xke4me says:

    Just because Kubina isn’t on the ice or the bench right now doesn’t mean he isn’t providing leadership for his team. Hence, the Bolts continued success.

    I, too, hope they resign Arnott. Assuming that Arnott would resign with the Caps.

  9. SKINSCAPSTERPS says:

    Good point about how Boston played. Also, Tampa made a game of it in the third, Bolts didnt give up either. One of Tampa’s goals was scored with Lecavlier standing on goal line, and shot it toward net another player put it in. Caps would have probably lost this game 8-2.

    As for management / coaching change, most of the Cup winning coaches available (Keenan, Hitchcock, Crawford, Bowman) play a defensive style not suited to Caps personnel. Crawford might be the best option since he had Sakic and Forsberg in Denver. Although the possibilty of Keenan giving these guys a well needed kick in the backside might be enjoyable.

  10. Spank That Donkey says:

    I am thinking about having someone write my autobiography….

  11. Mike says:

    So if Boudreau, who has an excellent regular season record since coming to the NHL, and GMGM are sent packing, who do we get to replace them and what is the appropriate metric to judge them by? BB has the #1 overall regular season record (2009-2010) and #1 regular season record in the Eastern Conference (2010-2011). While the only thing that provides is seeding for the post-season, does it mean that a first year coach has to get at least to the ECF or SCF to be successful? If the new coach gets the #4 seed in the EC playoffs and loses in the 2nd round, is that a failure? After all, BB has gotten us further than that…

    Bottom line, who are we talking about here for replacements? You’re not getting Bylsma, Boucher, Julien or Martin to replace them. So what mystery coach is going to provide this breakthrough? And if the coach is so good, why hasn’t he done it with his current team?

  12. Mike, I am of the opinion that the ‘Nice Guy’ approach here in Washington has outlived its utility, and that its results are self evident. (Really swell (if meaning-starved) regular seasons, really shitty postseasons.) I am also of the opinion that the ‘Nice Guy’ approach is the byproduct of a country club culture — a hockey club that’s pampered and coddled and ever excused for in its shortcomings by its manager. All that’s missing from the GM’s end-of-season roll call of injury litany are minstrels playing violins.

    From where I sit, this organization needs to go bad-ass, in the worst way. A royal bastard needs to be behind the bench. A no excuses GM delivering the talent. Scouts, if they’re retained, need to be deployed about the globe and told, ‘Less finesse, more brawn, more piss-n-vinegar.’ I’m also of the opinion that there is no one single name as replacement for each of these posts. Our sport is filled with fire-in-their-belly leaders. Men of achievement when it counts most. There is another Guy Boucher out there, another Bylsma. There always is. But you actually have to want him to work for you to begin with.

  13. Postscript, Mike: You know who I think would most enjoy playing in a bad-ass environment here? Alexander Ovechkin.

  14. Geo says:

    I’m not one of those frothing at the mouth for *total* change. John Tortorella is as big a “bad ass” and “royal bastard” as you can get, and while he has a Stanley Cup (with Tampa, ironically), his Rangers record to date doesn’t suggest going that route works with every team.

    However, I did read recently that Boucher has very few optional practices. Maybe that’s at least one tweak BB & co. (if staying, as it looks now) can make to change the atmosphere, though that’s assuming the team really sees discipline and accountability as the problem. We may see that as the issue, but if they don’t, things won’t change on that.

    otoh, I don’t think they should use “fear of the unknown” as a reason to avoid hiring an AHL coach or a well-regarded NHL assistant.

    Who was Guy Boucher? A nobody AHL coach that apparently only two NHL teams (Tampa and Columbus) offered a job. Who was Bylsma? He seemed a desperation promotion by Pittsburgh at the time (no other NHL team was bashing his door in to hire him). Even Boudreau was that himself after Hanlon got canned. I recall much skepticism at promoting this guy who looked like Uncle Fester from the Adams Family TV show.

    I’m sure the next Boucher, Bylsma, Boudreau is “out there” somewhere (I don’t know enough about Mark French in Hershey to know if he is similar material). It’s just a matter of whether gmgm & staff want to actually do research and look for that Next Guy.

  15. kelly Chuba says:

    I’m a Bruce B supporter. I can’t help it being in Hershey.

    While watching the Bruins, I realised they did what we could not. Make those fine adjustments. Now I waiver.

  16. Chris says:

    Pucks,

    I am a Bruce supporter partly becuase I am not sure the caps could get anyone better. Although I do kind of daydream about what this team would be with Torts in charge.

    Part of me wonders if this isn’t going to turn into sometihng where Bruce needs to go to learn what he needs to do differently. Just look at the NFL, Bill Belichick had to tank in Cleveland before he became one fo the best coaches in league history (And his initials are B.B. Coincidence, I think not.)
    I agree that there is another Danny or Guy out there but there are also other Cassidys or John Mcleans as well.

  17. sean says:

    We can nitpick this team to death, truth is we are a soft team and other teams know it. I will give BB this, he realized that unless the whole team had a D first mentality we were toast. But without toughness and heart that only gets you so far. People can spin the Rangers series all they want, but we did not not look like a superior team playing an 8 seed. Face it, we are team built to fill the stands not win the cup.

  18. Mia says:

    Agreed!

    Tampa Bay Ligtning Bench Boss, Guy Bucher (do you believe in the French Canadian Mafia?) stated several times that Washington Capitals was a “Hockey Machine.”

    A Machine has no HEART!

    Our misery may end on Saturday I hear, so things may be looking up for CAPS fans (well, some of us anyway ;-0)

    Thanks OFB

  19. OvieTracker says:

    You’re preaching to the choir here, P&B. As I watch the final 4 teams in the playoffs playing their hearts out, never quitting even when down in games, I compare what I’m seeing to what I observed in the Lightning series as the Caps made yet another embarrassing playoff exit. The Caps DID quit, they made excuses for what happened to them. Championship teams, or at least teams who are serious about competing for a championship, don’t make excuses and they don’t quit. I’m tired of hearing about bad bounces, bad luck, bad officiating, injuries, yada yada yada. The Caps have cornered the market on making excuses, and it’s about time to put an end to it.

    The Caps will never be anything more than they have been, never be more than what they are now, unless the country club culture is addressed and the pampering and coddling end. Way too often it seems the owner, GM, and coaches turn a blind eye and deaf ear toward the attitude and behavior of key players when they screw up, stand around, stop moving their feet, and otherwise play hockey like amateurs instead of the highly paid pros they are. Why are there untouchable favorites on this team who seem to get away with doing whatever they want whenever they want to do it both on and off the ice? I picture a Caps team divided between the haves (the favorites) and have-nots (scapegoats), and in this kind of environment, no wonder they seem to lack the ability to gel and develop cohesiveness as a TEAM.

    Which brings me to your statement that Alex Ovechkin would most benefit from playing in a bad-ass environment here. If you mean that what he needs is to be held accountable and not treated like a prima donna who’s somehow above reproach or criticism for his lapses in leadership and discipline, I agree 100%. But in order for that to happen Ted leonsis, George McPhee, and Bruce Boudreau need to get their heads out of their asses and call AO out for his cavalier attitude toward preparing for games and trying to do everything himself when the Caps are in trouble. It means taking shorter shifts and learning to cycle the puck instead of trying to go in alone against 2 or 3 defensemen who have him covered like a blanket.

    As I watched the Caps crap the bed against the Lightning, with AO desperately trying to get something going, I asked myself why aren’t his teammates doing something productive, why does it seem they are just watching and waiting for AO to convert and score? It looked like the other Caps were unable or unwilling to follow AO’s lead, which begs the question of how effective is AO as a Captain and team leader? If he’s leading by example and in so doing, straying from the game plan and trying to do it all by himself, how are his teammates supposed to respond?

    Last year prior to the Canadiens series, Boudreau said he was OK with AO bringing in his personal trainer, he was fine with “whatever makes Alex happy.” Whatever makes Alex happy??? How about whatever is best for the TEAM? The country club culture is deeply entrenched as I already said, with some players getting a free pass to do whatever they want. This is not conducive to winning a Stanley Cup. To win the Cup, players have to make sacrifices and exert displine. The Caps seem unwilling or unable to do either. And unless and until everyone involved gets their collective heads out of their collective asses, the Caps will continue to crash and burn when the calendar turns to playoff season.

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