Time for a Change in Culture

This morning I am trying to imagine the slogan of resolve and defiance and unity Capitals’ players will brandish on team-issued t-shirts at the start of training camp in September. They are quite good at looking tough and determined, via fashion, and of expressing steely-eyed determination after abject failure. Out on the ice, it’s a different matter altogether.

As currently comprised — and just as importantly, as currently coddled by management — the present band of Caps may well qualify for the postseason this spring, but most assuredly they will not win the Stanley Cup. This morning, it’s difficult to fathom this club scoring enough goals to best any of the surrounding seeds in the Eastern conference postseason’s opening round, let alone win four of them.

And so in all likelihood the Caps will have fresh cause to take more tough talk to the backs of training camp t-shirts again.

This past weekend a reporter I greatly respect, reflecting on the Caps’ pulse-less showings against both San Jose and L.A. at Verizon Center last week, post-game press conference whispered to me that were the Caps situated out West they would almost certainly be outside of the top eight in that conference — outside the playoffs and looking in. A cursory glance at the standings seems to bolster that claim: five of the six worst teams in the league reside in the East. In other words, the Caps’ 68 points this morning would have been a decent bit tougher to come by out West. Last week’s 120 minutes of thoroughly underwhelming hockey against two mediocre Western clubs certainly suggests so.

Saturday’s rare hockey matinee aided the formation of a large contingent of local hockey media for late-afternoon congregating at a D.C. bar, after the Caps’ latest mess-making on the ice, and the sentiments expressed then over pilsners in pint glasses were equally and universally pessimistic about the state of this club. It’s a mess, you could have summarized the bar chatter themes during our wound-licking sippings.

At one point I asked my colleagues in new and traditional media what they imagined was the ceiling of achievement for the Caps out on their five-game roadtrip that begins tonight in Phoenix. Consensus: 2-2-1. That’s the ceiling achievement, the best-case scenario, they said without a dissenting voice. A solid plurality at our table thought 1-3-1 more likely. Next I asked what they imagined would be the state of the club were it to return to D.C. without a single win in a week’s time. A handful of reporters thought that quite possible. This offense-starved club will in all likelihood have to find a way to get a few pucks past Ilya Bryzgalov tonight, best a solid Anaheim club, win for the first time in San Jose since 1993, then confront Ryan Miller and the Sabres and a very revenge-minded Penguins’ club. I got mostly blank expressions at that query.

With any sort of objectivity applied you’d have to cast the Caps as solid underdogs in four of the five games. And as badly as the Pens are beat up, they did beat LA last Thursday night, right before the Kings came to D.C. Moreover, Caps-Pens is hockey’s ultimate rivalry; throw records and recent trends out for it, and just expect the Pens to give a by then road-weary Caps’ club an alley fight. Let’s say it’s seven losses in a row in a week’s time. That’d be an eight-game losing streak in December and a seven-game slide in February on Bruce Boudreau’s ledger this season. Hunky-dory with that?

Boudreau isn’t much known for cracking the proverbial whip; he’s more of a proverbial player’s coach. Last Thursday he ordered a bag-skate of his Caps, to try and shake them out of their lethargy. The team responded with one of its worst games of the season at home Saturday. I see real danger signs in that.

One of my favorites in all of local hockey media, Ed Frankovic, an endearing straight-shooter of truth-talk at every point in a season, is also gravely troubled by the status quo. The Caps, Ed wrote this past weekend, “seem to have more questions than answers” at this point in the season, and are “a team that looks like it will be a one series and done squad in the postseason unless changes are made.”

Frankovic, whose tweets on any given NHL game’s officiating are jewels of caustic candor, is flag-bearer on a crusade of Capitals’ accountability these days. Of Jeff Schultz’s pylon play on Saturday Frankovic observed, “Sarge was -3 in 14:35 [of ice time] and was on the ice for the first three LA goals. He played only two shifts after . . . He was downright awful and slow, and on that third Kings’ goal I think an orange road cone could have played better defense.”

And more Frankovic: “The direction this team is going in right now leads to early tee times.”

For some while now the Capitals have been playing entitlement hockey. That’s their culture. Probably this dates back to last April’s postseason game 5. The Capitals got a scare from Montreal in that series’ first two games here — they were down 4-1 in period three after losing game 1 before securing the split. They flew up to Montreal perhaps somewhat scared. They took care of business on the road in a tough environment and figured the Habs would acquiesce the rest of the way. Only a corrupt and ill-formed hockey culture could harbor such thinking. For God’s sake, they were pitted against hockey’s proudest, most storied franchise.

The Capitals don’t just presume that an evening’s two points are theirs to lose, they don’t just execute a perimeter attack, they skate out on the perimeter awaiting pucks to come their way, with wings and centers way wide and up ice, requisite cohesion an afterthought. In years past, when they were still regular-season hungry, they would attack opposition zones with speed and cohesion, cycling pucks and engineering multiple scoring chances on many an individual rush. This season, it’s most often one-and-done in terms of shots registering on opposing goalies, and more often than that they don’t even register a weak shot on net from their attack. No psyche-breaking puck possession, no waves of quality scoring chances being engineered, no sniping from all angles of the attack. The Capitals skate with an entitlement ethos, for this is the culture management has cultivated.

The Caps once upon a time had a swagger that was merited; today they’ve a swagger premised on hubris.

Back in early January, before things got bleak again, I was on WTOP radio’s ‘Saturday Night Caps,’ and I issued a warning to my fellow pucksheads in the studio that night. It was back then that “Flip-switching” chatter was emerging as an in vogue way of explaining how things had so suddenly gone so sour.

“What exactly has this organization achieved — in its entire existence — to merit skating an entire regular season with an On-Off button,” I blurted out indignantly.

(The answer: Nothing. Ever.)

These Capitals are young, wealthy, happy and well-partied — oh so well-partied — expert at t-shirt design and making amusing television commercials.

And management seems to like it that way.

This entry was posted in Bruce Boudreau, George McPhee, Media, Morning cup-a-joe, National Hockey League, Ted Leonsis, The Red Army, Washington Capitals, Washington the hockey town. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Time for a Change in Culture

  1. The Horn Guy says:

    I fear the Caps are doomed to fail for one simple reaon: they’re playing the wrong system. Yes, they’re more defensively responsible, improved on the PK, yadda yadda. However, they drafted players based on an offense-heavy attack. They brought in a coach who thinks about offense first. Last season showed that this team, when they play their game, can outscore almost any team in the league. So why are they changing so dramatically? If they wanted a team like the mid-late-90s Devils then they would have needed those types of players to begin with.

    Last spring the Caps faced the hottest goalie since Kolzig in 98. Halak saved the Habs from defeat through two rounds. The Caps had their chances and he stood on his head to beat them. They weren’t getting blown out each game. Their defense wasn’t stellar, but it wasn’t the reason for the first round exit.

    Hockey moves too fast for thinking. One must act. The Caps are getting slowed down by their brains because they’re not a trap team. They’re being taught to play in ways that are strange to them and it’s costing them in key situations. They’re being held back because someone high up in the organization decided their primary focus this season was to scrap the old system altogether.

    The Bears ran that old system and won two Cups in three seasons. The Caps ran that old system and had the greatest regular season in club history. It’s no shocker that they’re struggling with the new one.

    You can’t turn a stallion into a donkey overnight. If the Caps have any chance of winning anything besides another worthless SE banner they’ll need to stop thinking so hard and start playing hockey the way they know how.

    Or maybe this isn’t their year. Again. Maybe they’re just trying to take baby steps to get where they need to be. Last year their offense was the best. This season they’re attempting to improve their defense. Hopefully this means next season they’ll have enough of the mix be second nature and not something they have to think about so harrd when they’ve got the puck and the crowds and the time counting down to another early spring.

  2. morgan says:

    Maybe they’re too hungover to play last year’s offensive game ? Ted’s investment in his high-priced “young Guns” is evaporating in a fog of vodka at Russia House and gin mills in Georgetwon. The team is acting like spoiled frat guys instead professional athletes. They need to change there ways or ship the glamour guys out to LA and Annaheim where they can booze it up with the Hollywood crowd. At least out there they can destroy their careers without wrecking the tam in DC.

  3. Dave B says:

    I was thinking about their T-shirt making abilities yesterday. How about they make one that says “Play Better”?

  4. HornGuyFan says:

    HornGuy – your comments account for everything except for a lack of compete level on any consistent basis. This has zero to do with the system. If the team tried hard more than 1 or 2 games in a week I might agree with you.

    The players are responsible for getting themselves up to play – but it’s the coaches job to inspire them when they don’t.

    For whatever reason, Boudreau has been unable to do that *when it counts* other than the long run they made at the end of a season to make the playoffs.

    It’s time to thank him and move on. anything else is the very definition of insanity. this season is already lost.

  5. penguin pete says:

    this is the 3rd or 4th time i’ve read partying innuendos? what’s the deal with that? are there rumors out there?

    i’m out of the loop and despise the caps, but this blog is too good not to read.

  6. I’ve seen reports that people have spied the young guns enjoying the nightlife the evening before games. I saw one that had Ovi out boozing it up this past Friday night even with a noon-ish game on Saturday.

    Though these reports don’t ever have photographic evidence, it certainly isn’t out of the realm of possibility… and troubling.

  7. Mia says:

    And here I was wondering if the hockey gods had left me and I was all alone thinking exactly what you have deftly put into your written view. I think the word “coddled” is a huge problem with this organization. My latest video blog, taped seconds after the CAPS loss to the Kings pretty much should indicate that those of us who have been around to witness the history of the organization have seen this happen before. A team that by all accounts has talent and high profile players starts to crumble and it has been allowed to completely fall. Or, for the dork-geeks like me, a Washington Capitals team was allowed to get to the “event horizon” and no one pulled them back to safety, so they got sucked into a black hole. This group of players is at the “event horizon” as a group and if someone from within the organization does not “sack up”, I will take my love of the NHL and leave my 30+ years of Washington Capitals fandom behind at the end of this season. Thanks to technology, I can take my love of the game and give it to the Toronto Maple Leafs through the internet. They may be far from the Cup, but so is the Washington Capitals organization that has had more than enough time to find the RIGHT way to get much closer.

    Oh and since I’m on a roll here – the next time I see a commercial demanding that we fans “do our parts to build America’s hockey capital”, let it be known that every time I do, this fan is saying out loud in response, “I’ll work harder on that when the Washington Capitals do.”

    I do feel a great sense of sympathy for the players in some way, however. Not that any of them should “get a free pass” as BB has stated recently. Not that all of them aren’t the guys who have to hit the ice and do the on-ice work. There’s another level of issues with this organization that is sucking the love of the game out of certain players and success doesn’t usually follow when the players don’t love what they do.

    Thanks for the post and GO CAPS! If I could write that in Russian, I would.


    Im beginning to think it might be good long term for the team to miss playoffs entirely this year. Maybe that will wake them up.

    If not start cleaning house, need to shake things up. #52 would be first out door if it were up to me.

  9. EnzoBigBlue says:

    OFB – Great article. As much as I get caught up in the system is the problem speak or when Semin/Fehr returns so will our offense speak, I have to remind myself of the beginning of the season(before the system change) and the observations that we were not playing 60 minutes or winning the one on one battles. Remember those first 20 games? The effort this year before the change tells me it is more the players underperforming. Another point is that our power play is awful which again tells me it is the players not the system. If we scored 10% points higher (more in line with last year) than our record and confidence and standing in the east would not be in jeopardy let alone BB’s job. I was watching Ovi hard on Saturday after hearing about his drinking the night before and when he scored I said to myself well so much for the rumor or his evening affecting his play. Then as the game went on, Ovi became Ovi (2010-2011) version with his coasting and inability to move his feet. Ovi now reminds me of the beer league cherry picker who just wants breakaways and skates for 10 seconds max. As a caps fan for a very long time this season hurts more than the heartbreak of the fire sale because our players are underperforming and wasting their gifts. Now I see no other outcome than terminating BB after either missing the playoffs or any early exit. Hard days ahead for Caps Nation.

    PS – Double Nickel sucked on Saturday!

  10. sonja says:

    Hah! I am really glad to know that I’m not the only one to see that Schultz is just great big bump on a log out there. He can’t skate with Green … if the organization must keep him, then pair him with Erskine where he belongs. Put Hannan up with Green … Hannan was/is a great foil for Green and both of them were better off with each other; as were Erskine and Schultz.

    While the defense pairings seem to be cast in stone … and only one of those pairings is working well. The offensive lines are ephemeral and fleeting to the point that no chemistry is allowed to develop on a line even during the course of one game or one period. By this stage of the season the offense should know who they’re going to be out on the ice with and how those teammates will play, etc. Right now, they have no idea who they’re going out with from one shift to the next. And that might have something to do with the current state offensive sluggishness; something that no one is talking about.

    I recognize that that hockey is a rough sport employing rough language, however. If one must resort to dropping f-bombs as a method of motivating one’s charges, then one is completely lost. F-bombs are not a motivational tool, they are a joke. And a bad joke at that. It’s been fairly clear since round 1 of last year’s playoffs that there is something missing in the mix between Boudreau and the players. Either he isn’t changing the game or they aren’t listening to him or some combination of the two. I’m not necessarily advocating a new coach, but someone needs to straighten this coach out fairly smartly and in short order. What is currently happening is not working. So perhaps a change is in order?

  11. JS says:

    If the Caps players are partying and this is a cause of their shitty play this season, readers want to know about it. Next time you’re with all your media buddies at the bar tell ’em to get off their asses and get to the bottom of this and other issues. I feel like I’m flying in the dark this season from the media coverage; WaPo is especially bad. Thanks!

  12. Mike says:

    Starts at the top..McPhee needs to go first. Schultz for 4 years, brutal. Semin, again..brutal.

    You have a young, immature team, led by a Coach that does bird calls on TV and our esteemed GM adds 5 rookies to the starting lineup. What did you expect to happen? All a recipe for a big circus..

    The “young guns” need a Coach to hold them accountable, and probably need to be split up (see ya Semin). Ted should be worried b/c all the bandwagoners will be gone soon.

  13. Sissy says:

    While BB’s style may have been exactly what was needed to motivate and help these young players find their niche during the post-Hanlon era, his time is coming to an end.

    Now that the young guns have signed their multi-million/multi-year deals it’s painfully obvious that they’ve grown too big for their britches utilizing BB’s system. They’ve seen all of his tricks, heard all of his advice, taken his directions and are now tuning it out.

    What’s lacking? Discipline, respect, humility, pride, personal responsibility and a LOVE for the game. You know, the basics… (well, that and shooting the puck!)

    We’ve heard this song before and it’s not a happy tune – the question becomes when will management change the maestro or will they continue to accept the sound of the same off-key orchestra?

  14. MS says:

    There was a post on Puck Daddy last fall that, despite being about two other team captains who will not be named, sums up the Caps pretty well right now.

    This team loves to win more than it hates to lose.

  15. martin says:

    Great post, consoling to read. Agree about the culture, especially since I watched the HBO special around the winter classics. I was unpleasantly surprised to hear how BB talks in the locker room – in sharp contrast Pens’ coach was exactly what I imagined an NHL coach to be. In my opinion GMGM should step up here.

  16. Ross says:

    Minor league coach pitted against major league egos. Make an after-school special about it and move on. Seen this one before.

  17. One thing to keep in mind, Bylsma made a conscious effort to tone down his swearing during the filming of 24/7. He didn’t want his son to hear him be a foul mouth coach. Just because you didn’t see it on 24/7, doesn’t mean he’s not one.

  18. Big Pushy says:

    One thing to remember about this season, It doesn’t matter until mid April. The Flyers made it into the playoffs the last day of the season last year thanks to a shoot out. The fact is that this team could be
    56-0-0 and people would say it doesn’t count until the playoffs. I am hoping that struggling now will help them in the upcoming playoff battles.

    I believe this team is biding their time and playing out the string, and that makes this season no less frustrating. They appear lackadasical, lazy, lethargic (I love alliteration). I can’t believe that BB and his foul language has anything to do with their current state. It appears to be a motivational issue. That being said, BB has proven that he has what it takes to motivate this team. If he doesn’t have that any longer, the proof will be in the pudding.

  19. Pingback: With 25 games left, Capitals keeping an eye on the standings | DC-ON.us

  20. Dougeb says:

    Thanks for the article, another well written piece. BTW, I’m the guy who asked you the question at the Caps Fan Club meeting last Saturday morning. I appreciated your answer; some of that is articulated in this piece. keep up the good work!!!

  21. alank says:

    I can’t help but notice that no positive contribution appears on this thread. If you perceive a problem, come up with a solution that involves the present lineup and coaching staff. Firing everyone doesn’t count as a solution to whatever problem you perceive.

  22. john says:

    1) The worst thing of all is with the Semin deal this team is now doomed next season! They have next to no $$ to add anything more than marginal talent. Shuffling the deck chairs on the titanic would be a useful analogy there.
    2) The coach most certainly must go, but would that change the ‘culture of entitlement?’ Would a dale Hunter come in and ‘kick ass’? Not sure, but as a season ticket holder I want to see more than cosmetic changes to this team. Its become unwatchable hockey
    3) I also don’t want to hear about the ‘new system’. Bull shit. Someone explain how a defensive system could cause the power play to play at a 9% clip the past 30 games?

  23. vacapsfan says:

    I know this season has been rough on us all, but I am so sick and tired of everyone placing the blame on Mike Green ALL the time. UMMM>>>>> why is there not more criticism of Ovechkin? or Backstrom? To me, their drop-off in play is GLARING, while Green has gone to great measures to be more disciplined and become a leader. Sure he will make a mistake here and there–(don’t they all?) All season I have seen him playing a more solid defensive game and the pair of Hannan and he seem to click nicely. If you ask me, the Defensive System should be the first to go. It’s like asking me to make my students who are right-handed use their left hands and then get mad at them when their work is sloppy. Am I too naive to think there should be a system out there where the defense plays defense well and the offense plays offense well? I’m pretty sure that system is called “Winning”. Maybe McPhee and Boudreau should look into it…

  24. Steve Owen says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your comments, both about the pairings and the swearings (yes that was meant to rhyme).
    Boudreau seems to be out of his depth. In reading his book, “Gabby…” most of what I got out of it was that he wasted his talents as a player by making an incredible series of poor choices. There were no pearls of coaching wisdom in the text, and it was clear that he is no great mind.
    Like many posters have stated, the f-bombs on HBO also turned me off. I’m no prude and abrasive language doesn’t make me blanch, but f-bombs should be used to connote emphasis. If they’re used three times in a sentence (or was it 28 times in 90 seconds) they lose their effectiveness and the message just gets tuned out. He just came off sounding like a person of dim intelligence who can’t frame a thought without defaulting to obscenities. I don’t know but if I was in that locker room I’d wonder if strategizing would be a better use of the time.
    BB seems to be desperately searching for answers. Last year when we had the best power play in the league, by far, it was always the same five guys on the PP. Then Montreal stops us and B. Mo makes some comments and now he rotates 10 or more within the 2 minutes. Players can’t have a lot of confidence in a coach that is constantly tinkering. The lines are ever changing, he plays roulette with the goaltenders. I think he made a big mistake the last two years in the playoffs banishing Theodore after one bad game (both years).
    Unfortunately I expect another early round exit this year and a BB dismissal but it will unfortunately be too late to save our season. The window is closing and what if some of our top guys get hurt next year?

  25. Richard says:

    “At one point I asked my colleagues in new and traditional media what they imagined was the ceiling of achievement for the Caps out on their five-game roadtrip that begins tonight in Phoenix. Consensus: 2-2-1. That’s the ceiling [emphasis added] achievement, the best-case scenario, they said without a dissenting voice. A solid plurality at our table thought 1-3-1 more likely.”
    I guess you guys got that wrong.

  26. Right you are, Richard. Probably the first instance in Western civilization of media prognosticating erring.

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