A Crisis of Mismanagement

Cup'pa JoeIf you are shocked and dismayed by where we are with hockey in Washington these days, you weren’t reading here last July. The Unexpected Rebuild, I called it. The Washington Capitals today on the ice are receiving their just due: they aren’t merely what their record says they are, they are what the composition of their roster suggests they ought to be.

My blogger buddy Ed Frankovic nailed it last week, when he wrote that this hockey club has but three legitimate top six forwards on its roster. That’s a principal reason why the Caps have so much difficulty sustaining possession and delivering threat in the offensive zone. It’s why they don’t score much. It is a trainwreck out there on the ice to be sure, but it’s no accident.

I’d go one step further up front than Ed, though: One of the three legit top six forwards, the one earning about $10 million a year in salary, is today but a fraction of his dominance of a few years ago. He is one-dimensional, at a loss to adjust his game, and worse, unlike a good many other performers in his very executive salary range, he does not make his teammates on the ice better. More on him later.

In this regard I will give General Manager George McPhee the benefit of the doubt: The roster moves he made last summer, I’m convinced, were executed with a conviction that there’d be no hockey played in 2012-13. Do you really believe that even a hypothetical worst GM in the league would view the trio of Wolski, Crabb, and Hillen as a mediocre roster’s key missing pieces for genuine Cup contention? And give McPhee his due: He was only off in his lost season calculus by a mere week; we were that close to not having to watch any of this horror show.

Thus ends the flattering portion of my essay for Mr. McPhee.

But first: To understand better where the Capitals of today stand, it’s wise to reflect on where they were just a year ago. They struggled early last season, mightily, changed coaches in-season, again changed systems, but at the end of 2011-12 the Capitals had adopted the commitment and work ethic of their new coach, Dale Hunter, and snuck into the postseason. They finished 42-32-8 for 92 points and a seventh seed in the Eastern conference. They gamely bested the defending champion Bruins in round one and were a Joel Ward high stick away from reaching the conference finals. There was a sense, in this corner of bloggerdom, that Hunter had inherited something less than the sort of roster he’d ultimately like to have led, that he’d gotten just about as much out of a fairly flawed roster (no second line center; no shutdown D; a rookie in net) as one could reasonably expect. He did something more important than win, though, I thought: He obliterated the caste-clique star-driven culture that had overtaken the roster, one identified and condemned by recently departed players, thinking nothing of benching his under-performing captain for long stretches.

But in the offseason the Capitals were at a crossroads with their personnel. Two impact performers — Alexander Semin and Dennis Wideman — were unrestricted free agents. McPhee gambled in holding on to them instead of dealing them for high picks at the trade deadline, and one could credibly claim that the playoff return, modest though it again turned out to be, justified that. But come summer, both players walked, the Capitals received nothing as compensation in return, and in exchange for those two deft puck distributors and scorers the team inked the unholy triumvirate of Crabb, Wolski, and Hillen, all to one-year, near minimum wage pacts. McPhee made a better than solid deal with Dallas to at last acquire a second-line center, Mike Ribeiro, but out on the wings there was the look of a vast wasteland: Fehr, Bouchard, Kugryshev had gone bust, and Mike Knuble at last looked his age.

It seems obvious to me at least that a manager cannot jettison multiple impact talents, replace them largely with driftwood, and expect improvement. And remember, Ribeiro was entering the final year of his pact. You looked widely over the roster, you surveyed the bluechip talent fast developing overseas, and you could come up with a fairly non-radical conclusion that the Caps weren’t pushing all their chips into the center of the card table for the 2012-13 season. That’s why I maintain that Leonsis and McPhee calculated on a lost season, and Crabb, Wolski, and Hillen actually never seeing a Caps sweater hung in a stall bearing their names.

* * * * *

I get that in the salary cap era NHL clubs won’t assemble forward lines of clear ability demarcation as we knew them just a decade or so ago. The distinctions between second- and third-line performers have been obscured today to be sure. But the hodge-podge approach to roster building pursued by McPhee in recent seasons mystifies me. On some nights Marcus Johansson skates opposite Backstrom and Ovechkin. On others it’s Wolski. Neither should be skating with a contending team’s top six. The Penguins once had a glaring discrepancy in ability between their centers and wings, and they used impressive roster depth to wheel and deal and secure James Neal and Chris Kunitz. Kunitz should have had four goals against the Caps last Sunday. Today in his roster construction it’s as if McPhee is guided by a targeted rotisserie/fantasy mindset; that with three or four premiere name talents at his roster’s core it really doesn’t matter what’s filled in around them.

Here’s where I come down: if you have two-thirds of a good line you have an almost good line. Or put another way: You don’t have a good line.

* * * * *

On the back end, it’s almost all-time ugly. Mike Green has been pretty good and by far the best blueliner. Then there’s a precipitous dropoff. The bane of this team on the back end has been the conspicuous absence of an authentic shutdown skater with a little snarl. For about a decade. Again the Capitals on the back end are of modest size, and a total finesse unit. They never make opposing forwards pay a price. It’s simply not their game. And that has consequences.

During last night’s television broadcast Joe B and Craig referenced the Caps’ blueliners, in the cumulative, having delivered only a single hit against the Penguins last Sunday. In 60 minutes. Imagine playing your biggest rival and playing a contact-free game in your own end. But the stat didn’t really shock me. Who’s the banger on the back end?

Not long ago, and not without good reason, the Caps believed they had a bedrock foundation for the top four of their blueline in John Carlson and Karl Alzner. But in 2013 they’ve largely looked awful, especially together. Carlson I believe possesses elite, difference-making talent. It hasn’t come together for him, yet. I have larger concerns with Alzner. A no. 5 overall pick in 2007, the 18-year-old Alzner at the draft was 6 ‘2, 210 pounds, an absolute standout in the CHL. It seemed as if the Caps had at last secured a franchise defender, of solid build. He captained a gold medal winning Canadian World Junior team. But nearly a half dozen years into his pro career Karl Alzner’s frame is about the same, and his game bears no signature standout traits. He’s of average size, average speed, average passing ability; he makes solid if unspectacular decisions with the puck, and he isn’t big enough to dislodge opposing power forwards from his goaltender’s crease. He’s a former lottery pick who’s turned into a serviceable rearguard.

The best contextual assessment of Alzner I’ve heard came recently from my buddy Eric McErlain, who said of no. 27, “He isn’t even Ken Klee.” I thought that summed up Alzner’s professional plateau perfectly. Klee was a ninth round Caps’ pick in 1990 who spent nine seasons in D.C., and while he didn’t put a lot of points on the board, he sure threw his weight around. He was one of those rare late find gems who developed a career whose sum was considerably greater than the toolbox he arrived with.

The rest of the blueline isn’t worth discussing. The Capitals today do not have anything approaching a contending blueline.

* * * * *

My greatest concern with the Capitals today remains the organization’s ongoing lack of identity. A lifelong Washingtonian, and a follower of hockey here since its inaugural season, I can’t isolate the losing of this season from the overall Capitals narrative: Even with Alexander Ovechkin, and a few gifted others in recent years, this remains an organization which can be counted on most . . . to fail. And from one season to the next, we never quite know what kind of hockey team will wear the Capitals crest. In one iteration they’re Gabby’s gallopers; in another, the dump and retreat and trap band under a desperate Boudreau. Dale Hunter emphasized an even more devoted defensive game. I’m not sure yet what kind of hockey team Adam Oates is trying to assemble; I’m just sure, given the caliber of roster he’s inherited, that it isn’t fair to condemn him for this mess.

The point is: The owner and manager fairly cede the identity of each Capitals club to the man with the whistle. There’s no overarching blueprint.  And increasingly, with respect to roster formation, there’s an awful lot of ad hoc.

Meanwhile, the names behind the bench of the New Jersey Devils change with some regularity, but the winning goes on. And I think that’s because Lou Lamoriello had a vision for the identity of his franchise when he first came aboard and he’s been faithful to it. You can argue that aesthetically it’s a rather unappealing identity, but it’s delivered Jersey multiple Cups and won them a lot of games. The Flyers, while not the felonious pugilists of their forebears, still have a core identity they’ve maintained for decades. The Penguins aren’t Sidney Crosby and filler; they’re strong in all three units, mobile and super skilled and lethal on the power play, have a widely respected coach and GM, and win a lot. That’s three Eastern conference organizations all with discernible identities, all with Cups. Maybe that’s not a coincidence.

* * * * *

What the Capitals are, more than anything, organizationally, is a Marketing Machine. They’ve got the marketing down, and the full house to prove it. They devise catchy slogans as well as anyone, whether they’re Rockin’ the Red or showcasing Young Guns or Building the Nation’s Hockey Capital. You have to market creatively when your foundation is illusory.

No one, nothing, better exemplifies this marketing ethos than Alexander Ovechkin. We had but a brief glimpse of the shy and quiet and demure prodigy who met season ticket holders in a hotel suite at his draft in Raleigh in 2004. Soon thereafter the Caps made him a rock star, their Elvis, never imagining he could, in his prime, become Fat Elvis.

In a sense you can’t blame the Caps for the all consuming PR blitz they devised for their star. Not only was the NHL leading it as well, leveraging Ovechkin-Crosby much as the NBA did with Bird and Magic a generation earlier, but the Caps in their history had never had anything quite like the zeitgeist that Ovi seemed to represent. Washington at last had a dynamic figure who’d make hockey the hot ticket in town.

But what the Caps didn’t seem to care about was ensuring that like Crosby their young star developed into a complete player. Success was so sudden and so easy for him. Work ethic — particularly in the offseason — seemed to wane. Worse, in a catastrophic tit for tat with Pittsburgh, Capitals management foisted the captain’s ‘C’ upon their star. It seemed appropriate only to outsiders as a conferring accompanying celebrity. But those who’d covered the team and listened to a variety of voices in the room never identified Alex’s as distinctive, naturally out front. It seemed yet another marketing scheme. Today it seems a disaster.

* * * * *

Be irate with your hockey heroes, or their management, if you want, but you should absolutely be incensed at the “professional” media covering this team. Ask yourself: To what extent did the full-time, rights-holding, establishment media preview and prepare you for this collapse? Were any of George McPhee’s moves last summer second-guessed by them? This week the Washington Post had the audacity to publish speculation on the propriety of trading Ovechkin. How often have you read within those pages a withering attack on Ovechkin’s leadership, or the imprudence of that untradeable contract? Of course Japers’ Rink has a thoughtful and detailed autopsy; there isn’t the talent at any of our copyrighted outlets to come close to matching it. And you know what? The marketers in the halls and cubes at Kettler want it just like that.

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This entry was posted in Adam Oates, Alexander Ovechkin, Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, Eastern Conference, Ed Frankovic, Eric McErlain, Front Office, George McPhee, hockey blogging, Japers' Rink, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mike Ribeiro, Morning cup-a-joe, New Jersey Devils, New media, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Rock the Red, Ted Leonsis, Washington Capitals, Washington Post, Washington the cursed hockey town. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to A Crisis of Mismanagement

  1. The Fingerman says:

    Well said. I particularly second your criticism of the establishment media for their complete inattention and disinterest in any serious analysis of the Caps. I would disagree, though, that the Post is lacking in attacks on Ovechkin. In fact, that is the only analysis of the Caps the Post ever does–“as Ovechkin goes, so goes the Caps.” And even though Ovechkin’s play is one of the many big reasons this team is such a mess, there are so many other factors that it has never mentioned. Has the Post ever done an analysis of how George McPhee has assembled this roster, or the things he failed to do 2-3 years ago when this team could have won the Cup with a couple key moves? Has it ever analyzed the style/philosophy change in the team like Japers Rink did yesterday? No.

  2. morgan says:

    Excellent!! We have a perfect storm: three or four lazy well paid players, a GMGM that has assembled this current mess, and an incompetent media covering the team. Marketing, however, will depend on the product. If the current product continues to stink up the Verizon Center, the fans will quickly disappear even if the marketing geniuses give free gas masks to all attendees. One should ask Chief marketeer Ted: if your marketing team continually fails to deliver on its marketing campaign do you still keep on doing the same marketing with the same marketing team?

  3. Dave B says:

    Not sure if you were joking about gmgm not expecting a season. If you weren’t, the Ribeiro trade would be considered foolish

  4. Bucky Katt says:

    Well written article P&B. Spot on. One thing the Caps marketing team hasn’t taken into consideration is the upcoming sequestration. Most people in this town are Fed employees with a 20 percent pay cut looming this this spring due to seqestration. Those that aren’t Feds generally work for companies dependent on fed contracts. Layoffs are already starting for them. What little discretionary money folks have in the coming months isn’t going to be spent on over priced tickets watching this monstrosity assembled by Ted and GMGM.

  5. Dave B says:

    If we are going try to stretch and give GMGM credit for something, maybe it would be for tanking this year. This woud be the time to do it because you get a short period of suffering for a top pick. Later playoffs this year might mean more than just the cup champion has a hangover next year. Then throw in Olympics next year. Maybe this is a good time to rest and regroup. Could he have possibly orchestrated this level of suckitude?

  6. The Fingerman says:

    One other thing–on the marketing machine issue: Doesn’t that have something to do with the coaches selected as well? After jettisoning a popular coach like Boudreau who created a Caps “brand,” as Ted Leonsis once said, they picked Dale Hunter, who could be marketed as “the great past captain coming back to coach his old team.” And then there’s Oates, another former Cap coming back to coach his old team. Otherwise, it’s kind of amazing–the last four coaches GMGM has hired either coached in Hershey or played for the Caps under GM George McPhee. How about some fresh eyes?

  7. penguin pete says:

    first, i can’t believe i miss that damn pic of the caps jersey with the red dog/michelob amber bock (yeah, i said it) toast.

    i don’t know what the hell is going on down there, but i sure hope oates survives somehow. hate to see this fall on him at some point, though, to be honest, i don’t watch enough caps hockey to know if this isn’t, in fact, his fault.

    i don’t need to reiterate my hatred for ovi, but after reading pages and pages of interwebs about how lousy of a captain he is, he looked like a leader last night. i chuckled at the thought of him going into the locker room post-game and punching each guy in the face, telling them to wake up, as he appeared that angry to me.

    so it’s easy to say from the outside, but i still think there’s a good 8-10 game win streak left in you SOBs, which will make all of this a distant memory…

  8. SA-Town says:

    I agree with Fingerman. This organization is loaded like a fraternity with Oates, Calle, Olie, Hunter, running key roles. Bondra has been wanting a job, and Im shocked he doesnt have one. While I love all these guys, in business you need to diversify. You need opinions from all walks of the game..what has worked in other places. For a jersey and logo that has a weak history of Conference Finals and beyond..(our only goal which we hold now so dear) And a Presidents Cup which was nice, but also makes elite regular season success irrelevant to the fan base…you would think we would try to get some coaching and player pedigree in here that knows what it takes to build a cup team….then again, we always have Troy Brouwer…

  9. SA-Town says:

    I do disagree on the Ovechkin Captain comments though. For Ovie, they waited for him to improve his english, and see what kind of leader he would become. When it came time that he was close enough to be considered, his work ethic and “lead by example,” won him the job. I never expected him to be a Steve Yzerman like leader….The problem with him being the captain now, is that his work ethic follows his success. He stops working when he is not at the top of the hill…that is trouble, as the reasons for him being Captain,(work ethic) seem to fade away when he needs to be Captain most.

  10. Todd says:

    Just something to think about guys. As bad as they’ve been (and I’m not disagreeing about the record), as of this morning they are only five points out of the playoffs. With over 35 games remaining in the season. If they go 3-0-1 in the next four games (I said “if”), they’re right back in the playoff picture. And they’ve had absolutely no “luck” (there’s no way their shooting percentage stays that low), they’re adjusting to yet another new system, and the goalies not making the big save when needed.

    Are they a contending team? Probably not. But as Earl Weaver said, “You’re never as good as you look when you’re winning, and never as bad as you look when you’re losing.” Had this 2-8-1 streak happened in the middle of the year, it would cause some hand wringing, but not the hari-kiri that’s out there.

    I thought the switch to Dale Hunter was wrong. And when they were struggling, I thought that they should have traded all of the pending UFAs last year for whatever they could get. Maybe that will happen this year instead.

    But I also understand McPhee not spending a lot on long-term contracts this offseason. You had no idea what the cap would be like, and you’ve got 3-4 prospects that are going to be joining the team in the next year or so (hopefully) in Kuznetsov, Galliev and Forsberg, along with whoever else you think is ready. The Flyers, who you cite, had their one year hiccup and ended up with Van Riemsdyk (who they traded, but that’s a different story).

    If they’re still this way in a month, declare it a lost season, trade all your pending UFAs for whatever you can get (Poti, Hamrlik, Chimera, Wolski, heck, possibly Brower and Johanssen too) in terms of draft picks, and come back next year with the kids in place, a full period for Oates to put in what he wants, McPhee better filling out the roster, and a fresh start.

  11. Sam W. says:

    Truth. Thank you for putting it out there.

  12. Steve Naismith says:

    Beautiful!

    “Kunitz should have had four goals against the Caps last Sunday.”

    Just FYI, he DID have four.

  13. Stealth says:

    A great article, but it’s not nearly strong enough at placing the responsibility for this debacle squarely on McPhee… For sixteen years, we, the fans, have suffered through poor decision after poor decision with this guy, and the team has never found much success under his failed leadership… When they finally get close to building a cup contender, they panic after that playoff loss to the Habs, and McPhee orders a more defensive style of play… The CAPS have never recovered from that decision, and at the time, were likely only a second line center and a quality, experienced blue liner away from being a strong contender… Teams feared playing the CAPS in that wide open Boudreau offense… Now, not that far removed, the CAPS are a shell of that team… I believe Oates will be a quality head coach in the NHL, but as long as McPhee is making the personnel decisions, he and the Capitals are screwed… Sixteen years of blatant incompetence by McPhee tells me all I need to know about why this team is in it’s current disgraceful situation.

  14. H. Mikael says:

    Really good read. I like your comparison of Ovechkin to Elvis, although Ovie is showing “signs” of life recently (maybe it’s his one comeback hit like Elvis had w/ “Burnin’ Love” in the 1970’s!).

    But really – the depth of the organization is scary. I have followed Hershey’s stats for years & I have never seen a lack of “NHL potential” as I see now.

    When the Caps were the league’s best, they literally had 4 legitimate NHL-calibur lines, and an additional 2 in Hershey. A few years later (now), they have maybe 2 legitimate NHL-calibur lines & nothing in the minors. This is MISMANAGEMENT at its worst!

    The decay here is like watching your teeth deteriorate & not going to a dentist.

  15. DME says:

    There is lots of blame to go around, but Oates cannot be above blame.

    Oates’ system is being played in Hershey as well as in DC. How many people who read this site have seen 20 Hershey Bears games this year ? How about 10 ? I’ve seen 26 Bears games so far this year. Adam Oates was “co-coach” for the first two months of the AHL season to get his system implemented and it still isn’t working well. The Bears are failing will it, and so are the Caps.

    Yes there have been some questionable roster moves, but the confusion I have seen by both teams proves to me that it is more than roster issues.

  16. Fred says:

    This is an outstanding analysis. Thank you for having the courage to tell it like it is.

  17. We Old Farts remember how Elvis left this world. As frustrated or even irate as many of us are with Ovi, that fate should be wished on no one. Anyway, I’m not to be counted among those who can see some miracle turnaround for this club. I am concerned about the new draft lottery — all teams missing the playoffs are eligible for the no. 1 pick now. We need Seth Jones in the worst way. Can’t afford another Sasha Pokulok screwjob by the league.

  18. gs12 says:

    Thank you. Now i really understand the problem(s) with the Caps. WaPo is useless in Caps coverage, i get more intel from the boards on WaPo the the articles.

    Anyway..

    I agree with you 100% on everything, except the marketing machine. I think your looking at it more conspirially then it is. Ted understands marketing, from AOL. I can’t fault him for using his skill with catch-lines etc. It’s just good marketing, that’s it.

    The real problems are everything else you outlined. It really sucks, because this team had so much hope – you always felt like we would eventually get there, now it looks like it’s a rebuild. Very sad.

  19. kab says:

    great post . if what you say is true and I tend to believe it. what comes next. do we get another speech from ted telling us he’s tried building a team and now wants to go back to buying free agents? and what of ovi. I for one am convinced he didn’t think he was playing here this year. how long before he thinks he’s not going to get a team in front of him that can win a cup and he takes his wade of cash and goes back to Moscow?

  20. Matt says:

    I really, liked this article. The best break down of our team’s problems I’ve read so far. However, I must say the one thing that I am disappointed that no one in any of their blog posts says what they would do to turn around the team. Everyone says whats wrong with the team but no one offers any form of input, in terms of what they think actions the team should make to get better. Its one thing to say we need better players on our lines, but what players do you see us realistically getting to make a difference.

  21. Stealth says:

    @ Matt… IMHO, the CAPS should immediately fire GM George McPhee, and pretty much everyone else in the front office that has been there as long as McPhee… This team and organization needs a new vision and direction, and more ability than they have shown in evaluating talent… Way too many blown picks under McPhee’s tenure… There are plenty of good hockey people out there that would love this opportunity… There is talent on the CAPS roster not being maximized, and really, the front office is a mess… A thorough house cleaning is in order.

    These people would be on my consideration list, in no particular order: David McNab, Senior VP of hockey operations for the Ducks… His first job in the NHL was as a scout for the CAPS from 1978-1982… Jim Nill, long time assistant GM for the Redwings… Wayne Thomas, assistant GM of the Sharks… Jason Botterill, assistant GM of the Pens – Yea, I know… It’s the Pens… But there is no denying their success and his qualifications… Paul Fenton, assistant GM with the Preds… Norm Maciver, assistant GM of the Blackhawks… And if you want to think a little outside the box, how about Laurence Gillman, the assistant GM for the Canucks…

    You get one of these guys, and let him build his entire front office staff… And you let him decide on the fate of Adam Oates… A fresh start with a new vision… I just don’t believe McPhee can see the forest through the trees at this point…

    Lets face it… The CAPS are the worst team in the NHL… This change cannot possibly make anything any worse than it already is, and just might get them out of this “woe is me” mentality they all have under McPhee’s lack of leadership…

  22. Via_Twitter says:

    “… Amazing how Devils bleed stars every year and just keep contending.”

  23. morgan says:

    Draft biggger, stronger players, especially defense-men with a propensity to knock the crap out of anyone parking their carcusses in the crease area. The bigger, stronger type wings and centers drafted should also be those who will go the net–Knuble-types. A garbage goal counts just as much as one set up by tick-tac-toe passing. Having bigger and stronger wings and centers should vastly improve puck battles along the boards and in the corners. The Flyers, for example, seem to have little problems drafting such types. Why can’t the Caps do the same–under a new GM, of course.

  24. Hal says:

    I said it before and I’ll say it again, “Successful organizations are learning organizations.” To stay competitive an organization must not only get the best out of their employees, but they must see that each one improves over time. As this article points out none of the Capital’s players (with the possible exception of Backstrom) is a better player then the day they arrived. You can NOT be competitive doing that!

  25. Astounding to me: How many people have contacted me in the last 24 hours merely to inform that they’re not going to watch tonight’s game. Just have no interest anymore. I’m headed over to a buddy’s wine cellar, where we’ll have music but no television. Saturday evening of culture, if you ask me.

  26. Seller says:

    I said it 5 years ago, and I’ll say it again. When the masses bolt and no longer attend games (because of the team and their record) Ted will sell the Caps and take his ball elsewhere. How GMGM still has a job is amazing…Lets get another coach !!

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