On an individual game basis, the scoreboard will suggest that this Caps-Bolts series was close and competitive. In reality, the Capitals were never in this series beyond the knotted up nature of late in game 1. Once Tampa Bay secured victory in overtime then, while spectacularly fatigued, and while the Capitals were not, the lasting psychological damage was inflicted.
Once again, Bruce Boudreau was no match for his NHL bench counterpart in spring. Many adjustments needed, none made. Guy Boucher was uniformly impressive in this series in every respect save one — his aptitude with metaphors. He called this a David versus Goliath matchup, but he had no notion who the actual David was. But he’s a young man and a rookie coach perhaps without access to the grainy footage of Capitals’ playoff history, and its uniformly grim outcomes.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this fantastic flameout in yet another spring was that the very premiere players who in all piety expressed resolve for righting the wrongs of previous springs again, with the exception of the captain, came up conspicuously small. The story of the Tampa Bay upset — upset sweep — was the character and determination and drive of the Lightning’s Top Three, fairly embarrassing their Washington star counterparts. As such, there must be not only a regime change in D.C. but a cultural reconstruction.
About a half dozen roster spots ought to be safe for 2011-12 — those of Ovechkin, Neuvirth, Carlson, Johansson, Alzner, Wideman.
The rest need to be rigorously re-evaluated. The rest are wholly marketable (to the extent that there are parties interested in discussing them).
But re-evaluated by whom?
Earlier this season I wrote about a country club culture enveloping this franchise — an aura of pampering and entitlement, of rampant, conspicuous Playboy-ism, and of premature, illusory achievement settling in. The owner didn’t much care for that characterization. When the winning once again became habitual in March, he reminded me of the file. I don’t expect to hear further challenge from him about this assessment this offseason.
Some seven years ago Capitals management embarked upon a rigorous roster rebuild. Beginning immediately, team management — which may be reconstructed itself — needs to reconstruct the entire culture of this franchise.
For it is a franchise of abject failure. Quick — when was the most recent instance you gathered your buddies to toast to the last four Southeast division championships?
Today this franchise is unworthy of its fanbase, which is one of the best in the league. The reconstruction must address this.
For going on 40 years, the Capitals have yet to achieve a durable, intimidating postseason identity. That identity, I submit, must cease being elusive, and achieving it must specifically guide the reconstruction I believe imperative in this moment. The surest way to forge such an identity is to select a coach the likes of which we’ve never before seen in D.C. A coach who will not accept 30- and 40-minute nightly efforts. A coach who will not turn a blind eye to his twentysomething charges making the last-call rounds in Georgetown in-season. A coach who knows no notion of “optional skates” in autumn, but rather, perhaps, in July. A coach with the gravitas and guts to stare straight into Ovi’s eyes in a month’s time and say, ‘Young man, return home if you must this summer, but for every photo of you I see on line in a Moscow discotheque this summer, we’ll skate in miles come September as a group.”
Call it a new creed if you will: Less clubbing, more running.
Or perhaps you thought the Capitals looked rather spry in the third periods this postseason — particularly against Tampa. These were the least impressively conditioned Capitals for third periods of a postseason I’d seen in my lifetime. They looked better conditioned in the compressed schedule of last season, with its Olympics participation. Imagine. A storyline suddenly emerged that Tampa Bay was exploiting the Capitals’ lack of speed. When did the Caps suddenly become a slow hockey team? The answer is, they didn’t.
They just looked that way.
By all accounts Bruce Boudreau was the proverbial “players’ coach.”
How has that worked out with this bunch?
The Toronto Globe & Mail’s Eric Duhatschek has long been one of my favorite writers in all of hockey. For decades his prose has delivered erudition, nuance, and general elite thoughtfulness. But yesterday Duhatschek penned what I regard as his least impressive column, ever: ‘Boudreau shouldn’t take the fall in Washington.’ He labeled talk in support of Gabby’s firing “absurd” and “patently unfair.”
“Boudreau’s record as the Capitals coach is extraordinary,” Duhatschek wrote. And he’s right, Gabby was great at winning here — October through March. During regular season play, Gabby’s gone 189-79-39. But there’s a dramatic counterpart to that regular season success, in the postseason. There Gabby’s won two of the six series he’s coached in, 17-20 overall, and you’d be hard-pressed to identify a single series in which the Caps were regarded as underdog. That’s not an inconsiderable body of underachieving work.
“What we have is a coach who develops kids, game plans well, and has his team alive in the second round of the playoffs when 22 other clubs have already gone home. People talk about the Capitals needing to take the next step – and they do and they will eventually. But it is not as if their window of opportunity is closing any time soon either, not with three young goalies in the system, four young defencemen in the lineup now and a superstar just approaching his prime years who is still one of the most fun players to watch in the game.”
“Game plans well”??? As with his contention of Gabby’s winning excellence, Duhatschek offers no contextual support for this claim. Indeed, in game 2 against Tampa, Gabby lamented how a “river hockey” approach overtook his club. In the absence of coherent and sustained game plans we saw the Capitals often pursue a highly individualized style of play, with the captain especially susceptible to it. By the bitter end, we saw a band of misled brothers wholly uncertain of what to do against Tampa Bay, how to counteract “character” game-breakers who rose to the occasion. By the bitter end, you didn’t sense that when all the chips were on the table, there was great resolve and great buy-in by these Caps for what their coach was preaching. They bore all the emotion and passion of exhibition play in September. Especially in this series’ third periods.
Duhatschek here bears an outsider’s sneering elitism in his column. I doubt he’s paid much for hockey tickets the past 25 years, but in Washington they are very expensive. And going up in cost for next season, apparently. Let Duhatschek try and lecture the federal government bureaucrat here straining to pay for his family’s admission at Verizon Center the past four springs, and see if that fella agrees that we’re still just going through requisite “growing pains” with our allegedly contending core of hockey stars.
Chicago and Pittsburgh in recent years seemed to perform at appreciably higher levels with their talented youngsters in spring.
The next coach of the Washington Capitals likely won’t attempt to make ploughhorses out of his roster’s thoroughbreds. “Free Ovi” ought to be the summer battlecry. But most especially, the men who wear the Washington crest beginning next season need to be led by a figure of unassailable street cred — preferably a warrior from the past who wore the crest himself.