It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Ten years ago, gifted by the draft lottery gods, and with a young but battle-tested general manager presiding over a roster rebuild he’d already appropriately earned plaudits for, the Washington Capitals were supposed to be at the dawn of a period of unprecedented prosperity.
I remember like it was yesterday the vibrant brilliance of early spring in downtown Washington on Monday, April 5, 2004. It was toward the back of lunch hour that extraordinary afternoon that the rumblings of the then relatively primitive Capitals Internet community first erupted: the Capitals, somewhat against the odds, had won the Entry Draft lottery in New York that morning. They would draft first, before any other club, and realize in the payoff something they’d never before had — a franchise defining and altering talent, Alexander Ovechkin.
That April we the ice-impassioned in this town were still a small and very niche band. Hockey here was a garage band drowned out by U2 playing at FedEx Field. The momentous moment of April 5 wouldn’t lead any of the local newscasts that evening, but we few who suffered through not just George McPhee’s necessary tear-down of the Capitals of 2002-04 but our Loserville Legacy of 30 years . . . finally . . . had . . . redemption. I was a DraftGeek in those days, and I knew not only what Ovechkin meant as a talent but more importantly what he would mean to a franchise of perennial disappointment and with a perpetual identity crisis in its hometown.
At long last, I email-screamed to my mates, we finally have our Gretzky, our Lemieux. He’s that much of a difference-maker. He’s going to change the way hockey is viewed in this town, I alleged. In our collective giddiness we puckheads shopped for Russian beer, fancied hordes of johnny come lately broadcast news outlets jockeying for positions by the plexiglass, and imagined keys to the city dispensed to our guys, and eventually, ultimately . . . a parade planned.
Ten years later, almost to the week, the Capitals, without a single second-round playoff victory to their credit during the Era of Ovechkin, find themselves instead in a competitive death spiral.
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It’s not just that 2013-14 was a disaster, oh so difficult and dull to watch five-on-five. It’s that the franchise has been trending down for years, unabated, durable prosperity now well in the rear view mirror. In February 2013, when OFB was still active but increasingly fomenting discontent, and with the Caps looking grotesque out of the gate in a lockout-shortened season, I wrote here that management ought to set about a badly needed rebuild. The days of dominating the Southeast were dwindling; realignment portended a heavy reckoning. The Young Gun core wasn’t getting it done, Ovechkin was approaching the back nine of his career, and ever-present roster holes weren’t getting plugged by the GM. Worse, there seemed nothing in the way of a defining ethos for George McPhee’s hockey clubs, year in and year out.
The pain of management’s orchestrating a restart could have been fairly short-lived, I alleged: Kuznetsov and Forsberg were in the pipeline, young Holtby had high-end skill and competitive fire and swagger, and Seth Jones was there come June for the taking. Cup clubs are built from the goal out, up the middle. Not out on the wings.
Some weeks later George McPhee, in job-saving desperation the likes of which I’d never before observed from him, dealt Filip Forsberg to Nashville for washed up Martin Erat. It was my opinion then and remains so now that that was a fireable offense. The move sapped what little enthusiasm I had remaining for closely following this franchise. Had Ted Leonsis fired McPhee 30 minutes after that deal was made, for cause, I think managers in Boston and Chicago and Pittsburgh and Detroit would have said, Hey, there actually is accountability in Washington, at long last.
This past weekend I took note of how universally it was said that not only shouldn’t McPhee have made the Erat deal but how it represented precisely the sort of deal he characteristically shunned: no high-end prospects more or less straight up for geezing vets bereft of any notable production, orchestrated from a posture of vulnerability.
But what of deals the most often over-cautious McPhee failed to make? Here there is heavy reckoning, too.
Late in winter 2009 the Caps and Pens were vying for conference supremacy, and Pittsburgh, in deals perhaps as much about shielding talent from Washington as about improving its own roster, dispatched middle round picks for Hal Gill and Bill Guerin. A big bodied shutdown D and a playoff savvy power forward. Both players were key leadership figures for the Pens Cup run that spring, and we can’t help but wonder the outcome of that spring’s Eastern conference semi-final had those players been in our colors instead. The asking prices for them surely weren’t bluechips.
This morning the Grand Design of the past 10 years, undertaken and presided over uniquely by George McPhee, reeks of failure. I credit the owner Saturday for his press conference candor: Yes he’s sold lots of t-shirts and jerseys, yes his attendance and renewal rates have been beautiful, he intimated, but Mission Critical — what ultimately matters — again this season was a failure, and its prospects immediately ahead look grim. And because of this, the owner over the weekend cleaned house. Belatedly but appropriately.
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There’s spectacular irony in George McPhee’s spectacular crash and burn here. If you had to hand-pick one former big leaguer to build and mold, year in and year out, an NHL roster fit for battle — especially in spring — necessarily you’d choose George. He was a highly skilled, Hobey Baker winner at Bowling Green, but to earn his dinner in hockey after college he had to play the role of 4th line agitator and brute on and off Broadway, with the Rangers and Devils. He did that with courage and distinction. Upon retiring he earned a law degree to better his management prospects, then was mentored in Vancouver by Pat Quinn, an ’80s and ’90s hockey management icon.
And yet the toughest roster McPhee presided over here was 1997-98’s — assembled principally by his predecessor, David Poile. Thereafter: a slow if unsteady diminution into perimeter finesse, power forwards yielding to petite playmakers, Langway, Stevens, Tinordi and Reekie replaced by Brian Pothier, Jeff Schultz, Mike Green, Tom Poti, Dennis Wideman, Jack Hillen . . . Connor Carrick. Possession and perimeter.
It was all well and good from October til April while lodged in hockey’s greatest welfare state, the Southeast division. No sport, I’ve long maintained, changes as drastically from regular season to postseason as does the NHL. Initially we locals consoled ourselves in spring’s annual reckoning with prattle of hot goalies and bad breaks, eventually settling upon an indictment of Bruce Boudreau’s Harlem Globetrotters approach. But the reality was George McPhee truly didn’t know, year to year, what kind of identity he was assembling. Or even if there was going to be one. Something about the post left wing lock/trap ennui of the ’90s and early 2000s seemingly established in McPhee’s thinking that his guys, often smaller of stature, sometimes quicker of skate, could hold onto the puck, find seams through which to score, and simply outscore. Eventually, though, they couldn’t even hold onto the puck.
With each passing year glaring deficiencies remained unaddressed, Band-aids positioned, fingers crossed. No match for the cauldron of the NHL in spring.
I really do believe that ownership and McPhee and all levels of Capitals management these past 10 years simply got swept up in the hype they created. They loved having the rock star — rather than, say, Patrice Bergeron or Willie Mitchell. It seemed too good a story not to come true. ‘Building the nation’s hockey capital.’ The slogans were so slick, the marketing so clever. They just forgot to address what matters most in our sport. ‘I really like this hockey club‘ [from you know who] . . . [regurgitate, rinse, and repeat each September]
What I despise most about the past 10 years of spectacularly wasted opportunity — and there will be books written about this organization wasting the transcendent talent of Alex Ovechkin — is that George McPhee’s Caps never gave us what ought to have been a baseline trait: The Caps of the past 10 years hardly ever made you pay a price — in the corners, when liberties were taken with front-line talent, especially in front of the crease. McPhee’s Caps were never constructed to be tough to play against.
And this beget what came to be known as Capitals Country Club. Accountability was short, Georgetown and Arlington bar tabs long. Followed by a carousel of head coaches and systems experimentation. No discernible identity crafted or cultivated. The window for viable contention — if it ever genuinely existed — closed long ago.
To state the obvious, the Capitals are not winning the Stanley Cup in 2014-15. They are not a player or two away. They first need a brand new management regime — one which first needs to identify an identity for this organization and then draft and build to it. But the new manager must also tackle something far larger than merely the identity of the on-ice product: he must endeavor to blow up a spectacularly dysfunctional culture.
I wish him luck.