Wishing for a Special Forces Mindset

Big news — the Red Wings are out of the playoffs, prematurely. Prematurely for them of course is anything short of securing the Cup. The seasons change, some faces change, the objective though for the Wings ever remains the same.

I was struck at the ferocity and domination with which Detroit skated in periods two and three last night in San Jose. Especially in the third, Detroit simply imposed its will against a terrific Sharks club, and did everything but tie up the game. San Jose triumphed principally because Joe Thornton, heretofore a postseason no-show in big games, skated the game of his life when his team needed it most.

Like every club in the NHL’s postseason, the Wings are battered brutally, and last night they lost Todd Bertuzzi and Dan Cleary to the medical ward as well. But it just didn’t seem to matter. To the Wings, injuries are an obstacle but never an excuse.

Detroit is an “old” hockey team, too, but did you see how energized and fleet of foot they looked when their season was on the line last night? And when you compare that with how our Capitals looked in every third period of the second round, what conclusion do you draw?

This week the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg reminded us that the offseasons of sports are what we in sporting Washington do best. And so the headline-grabbing news relates to hockey coaches and GMs staying put, and the hoops team getting a nifty new look but not a badly needed name change. Again: it’s middle spring, and nothing of consequence is transpiring for D.C. sports. We are a horrible, horrible sports town, still, not because our residents lack passion or commitment as with those in great sports towns, but because of the rank incompetencies of the men who are the stewards of our teams.

The early hours of every hockey offseason in Washington are grotesque because they are always arrived at prematurely. But I am finding this offseason uniquely vexing, for it is forcing upon me a confrontation with a new and unpleasant consideration of our owner and his management team. Our owner, the executives surrounding him, his coach, they are all fine men, and quite competent at their jobs. They are better than average, I think. And because they are merely better than average they loom as exemplars among their local peers. But what concerns me this spring is that we’ve no evidence that Capitals management possesses what might be termed a Special Forces mindset for securing a coveted target.

And in the world we live in, I think, truly coveted targets require Special Ops.

The Detroit Red Wings strike me as a Special Forces operation within our sport. Notable obstacles are ever placed in their way — amid all the heightened talk of franchise relocation this season, we’re reminded that the Wings would very much like to move to the Eastern conference, to address their longstanding travel ardor. They are, annually, a road weary hockey club. It just never seems to matter. And given their now decades-long reign of success, they ever draft late in each round of each entry draft, after all the bluechip talent seemingly has been selected. It just never seems to matter. They lose a Scotty Bowman and replace him, after a brief dalliance with Dave Lewis, with a Mike Babcock. They just go Special Ops on the opposition as the occasion mandates. The San Jose Sharks defeated a special adversary last night.

What about our Washington Capitals would you identify as Special Ops rival to the Wings? Its Marketing? Its web ops? Anything?

A few years back, there was frenzy over allegations that the New England Patriots, another outfit deadly serious about winning, was engaging in illicit, outside-the-sanctioned mode of football operations: that they were cheating. I haven’t much interest in the NFL, but for some reason this week I thought back to that moment and that team. I don’t know that much came about those allegations against the Patriots, but today I find it interesting that it was the Patriots — and not say the Redskins — who were forced to defend themselves against such attack. I guess today still a lot of football fans outside of New England believe that something sinister and covert was executed by Bill Belichick.

The warfare-sports mix of metaphor needs to be executed, if at all, with limit and care. But this spring in Washington, with the stunning news of the remarkable mission of SEAL Team Six, I can’t help but wrestle a bit with the notion that when it comes to hockey in my hometown, we are badly in need of the equivalent of a SEAL Team Six running things, when at present, relative to a club like the Wings, we have McHale’s Navy.

I’m hardly alone in such thinking. Again I reference the recent post mortem of the Post’s Tom Boswell:

“[George] McPhee respects his players’ pain. His face darkens as he describes Mike Knuble playing with a shattered thumb that required four pins and pain-killing shots just so he could take the ice. He knows which man can’t open his own car door after a game, which may never play again and which could hardly get off the ice unaided after one game.

“Attuned to such sacrifice and 100-hour coaching weeks, McPhee transmits that appreciation to Leonsis, a man defined by loyalties. If you bleed for them, they find it mighty hard to slit your throat [emphasis OFB’s]. And that’s wrong?

“In a sense, the Caps are trapped by their own culture of decency, self-regard and optimism. They want to give everybody a second, and sometimes a fourth chance, even the coach. They don’t want to act in haste and repent at leisure, even if it means soft players aren’t traded and get to repeat their spring failures. They don’t want to blow up what they’ve built because they believe in sound foundations. But the Caps also flatter themselves that what they have created is a notch better than it actually is.”

As it relates to the real serious news of this spring, of covert warfare and military unilateralism, I am intrigued by what’s followed the initial awe and celebration of our nation’s feat over its greatest foe. Just in the past few days, a segment of our culture, clearly flanked left on the political spectrum, is articulating something akin to buyer’s remorse: Did we really have to go hitman? For these thinkers, there seems something elementally and intrinsically indecent about such a world.

And they’re right. And it’s this harrowing indecency which requires Special Ops.

On a far less important scale triumph in pursuit of sports’ greatest prize — securing the coveted target — surely requires something akin to a Special Ops mindset. Tampa Bay under the guidance of Steve Yzerman, a good many in hockey today believe, is closer to executing that mindset than we in Washington with our team. Yzerman of course was bred in Detroit.

This entry was posted in detroit red wings, Front Office, George McPhee, Morning cup-a-joe, NHL playoffs, San Jose Sharks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Ted Leonsis, Washington Capitals, Washington Post. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Wishing for a Special Forces Mindset

  1. Paul says:

    Certainly bring on the Special Forces. I think it is a function of player maturity. Players who have been around awhile in the league know when and how to turn on the gas. Most youngsters (though not all) are not so good at turning it on and off and are easily sidetracked by distractions.

    Could apply to the owner and coaches but that is more of a Redskins problem. I don’t think the Caps management is lacking maturity. I kind of like the respectful culture, but that only works with mature players. Perhaps it is too indulgent for a younger player.

  2. Mike says:

    An interesting analogy, and one that speaks to the difference of team cultures. There wasn’t a Capitals fan who watched that game last night who didn’t have a “so THIS is how teams facing elimination play” moment. The deadly serious desire to win was evident on both sides, a desire which, akin to Spec Ops, can be fulfilled only through training until the cows come home, and truly knowing yourself as a unit. With respect to the former, both teams looked conditioned and agile until the very end, adapting to each others’ tactics like they were flipping through page after page in their play books. With respect to the latter, each player on each squad knew their role, and played it. Jumbo Joe gently eased seconds off the PK, Marleau got the goal that mattered most, and perhaps most strikingly, Datsyuk pulled off another magic trick to keep his team alive, not by trying to skate through a brick wall trap, but by being where he needed to be, and by playing his role.

    I hope our boys watched that game last night and took notes. We have a ways to go to become that silent, deadly, disciplined SpecOps machine.

  3. tracy says:

    (raised in Michigan, 20 plus years in VA), we watched the wings/sharks game last night. the wings put 110% into the 3rd period. we also noticed that the refs were just letting the guys play. I’ve learned to not get outraged over the refs’ penalty calling(or lack thereof), because eventually Our Team will get the soft calls. It was just a pleasure to watch such energetic, passionate hockey. Too bad it didn’t result in a win for the Wings. Too bad the Caps couldn’t have had a couple of third periods like that in their too-short post season.

  4. mostholy2 says:

    Not to sound like an apologist for our Capitals, but it takes years to establish the type of organization that the Red Wings (or Devils) have. To be able to ride the ebb-and-flow of every year and to have a consistently excellent mix of veterans and young players is a testament to how Detroit has built their organization.

    For 2 years, I’ve been left with the feeling that this team is just too young to win it all. They don’t make the smart hockey plays, they get flustered easily, they don’t have that killer or survivalist mentality when they need to. All of these aspects, to me, suggest immaturity.

    When people ask about the strengths of the Caps organization, the first thing to mind is the strong farm system and influx of young talent coming into the organization. While its great to have young talent, what I think that the current team needs more veterans to get to the next level.

    If you look at Detroit’s organization, they always keep their veterans to be able to teach the kids coming up. Datsyuk and Zetterburg were learning to be leaders during the Yzerman/Federov championship years. Lindstrom has been there forever.

    You can sense how much the team needs veteran leadership now, given how much emphasis was placed on how much difference Arnott’s presence made after the trade deadline. The current coaching staff, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to be able to give this level of stability and steadfastness, that the team needs. This team needs stable veteran leadership either at the coaching level or at the player level.

  5. MadCap says:

    Detroit is terrific, but to build on MOSTHOLY2’s point the Red Wings were an annual playoff disappointment prior to their Cup win in 1997. Yzerman, who is often sited as one of the greatest Captains ever, won his 1st Cup in his 14th season. This doesn’t tell us that the same thing is going to happen for the Caps/Ovechkin, but it is interesting how perspective changes as a career/team is allowed to develop over more than a 3 or 4 year period.

  6. Paul says:

    Some Wings history for you to ponder: Yzerman taken #4 overall in 1983 entry draft. In his first TWELVE seasons with Wings, their playoff eliminations: R1, R1, DNQ, R3, R3, R1, DNQ, R1, R2, R1, R1 (losing infamously to #8 San Jose when Detroit was #1 seed), R4. So, a quick rise to playoff competence, followed by a significant step back, retooling, and a rise to prominence after many failures along the way.

    The Wings franchise you rightfully admire took 12 years to go from the Dead Things to Hockeytown, USA.

    In that time they had two GMs: Bryan Murray in 1990-94 in between two tenures of Jimmy Devellano.

    Keep a bit of perspective in your need to win it all right now. 29 other NHL clubs want the same thing we in Washington do.

  7. NHL_Observer says:

    The Caps still possess a mindset that “doing a lot” to win is enough, and it isn’t. There are plenty of guys who will do “a lot” to win. There isn’t anyone on this roster who has demonstrated that they will “do anything” to win. The last guy who came close was Quintan Laing, and he did it on determination and fearlessness, but didn’t have the skills to make the difference. The team as a group has gotten better at doing important things, like blocking shots and clogging lanes. Ultimately though, there aren’t enough guys driving to the net, working for loose pucks or picking up the open wing in their own end. There isn’t enough leadership in the room and their isn’t enough heart on the bench. Too many guys get the yips when the pressure gets turned up.

  8. Paul, far from expecting the Caps to “win it all,” I merely want a team in shape to play a competitive third period. I’m not of the opinion that one needs a decade of playoff ups and downs to achieve that.

    Your point about Detroit’s measured rise to greatness is, however, apt and well taken. But Yzerman’s long gone, kids come into that lineup every year, and the winning beat goes on. There’s a culture Detroit has cultivated separate and distinct from the final tally of victories each season. It’s awe-inspiring, and I’m of the opinion, if you couldn’t tell, that the Caps are lightyears away from it. And I’d add: my prediction for Yzerman’s Tampa reign is something far different from the first 10 or 12 years of his run as a Wing.

  9. Nate Hewitt says:

    Great article. However, we can’t forget that ***spoiler alert*** McHale and crew got the job done when things mattered most.

    This team might be better compared to Red October. ***More spoilers*** Strife and turmoil, before seemingly righting the ship and (seemingly) being sunk in the middle of the Atlantic…

  10. APCaps says:

    @PucksandBooks: Yes, your opinion they are light years away comes through loud and clear. While I love your writing and think you are extremely insightful, I must disagree with that view. Sitting here now, after what was an incredibly painful flameout, it feels like there is no reason to sense a Cup (or even a deep run) on the horizon (even moreso given your apt comment that it seemed like the Caps were out of shape down the stretch against TB). I grew up on Long Island in the 70’s and started out as a Rangers fan who abandoned those “fat cats” once the Islanders came along. Lived them and loved them all the way until the 90’s when I moved to DC and adopted the Caps. The parallels between the Caps and the Islanders are pretty strong and we on the Island thought they would never break through after 5 or 6 year of increasingly strong finishes and disappointment in the playoffs. Then Al Arbour did something different — he stopped trying to be the number one seed. In 1980, the Islanders had their lowest point total in years, conserved some energy, worked out the kinks, brought in Butch Goring as a solid 2-way center and, voila, things fell the right way and a dynasty was born. Mike Bossy didn’t play much more defense than Alex Semin does (not suggesting Semin is in the same class as a goal-scorer but the skill level is there). Clark Gillies wasn’t the most talented guy but tough as nails — kind of a Mike Knuble type. It can go on and on.

    Point is — there is reason for hope and the notion that “BB is no Al Arbour” is horsehockey. Nobody knows until after the fact. Until the dynasty, Al Arbour was no Al Arbour. Whether BB stays or goes isn’t the issue. It’s whether the players to put the pieces all together at the right time and have the right things fall into place. The biggest difference in my mind is that now we have the internet, Twitter, 24/7 coverage, sportcenter, etc. We feel like we KNOW our players better and we KNOW they just don’t have the heart, etc. Back in the 70’s we got what we got from the newspaper and you knew what they told you. We worried that they didn’t have what it took, but, lo’ and behold, we were wrong.

    Hopefully, you are wrong about the Caps as well.

  11. Chris says:

    One major difference aside from age/experience, I see the Caps are focused on the European players versus the old school Canadians who grind for 60 minutes +.

  12. APCaps says:

    @Chris. Take a look at Detroit’s roster. 11 players from SWE, FIN, CZE, RUS and BLR. It’s not where there from — it’s what they are made of and how they play.

  13. sean says:

    It’s way too soon to expect great things, we have yet to surpass the futility of the Caps 80’s teams. When we go 8 straight seasons without getting to the finals, then we can worry.

  14. Kevin says:

    I think the bottom line is that the new system of hockey hasn’t sunk in well enough yet, and that there are too many “new pieces” of the puzzle to consider this team firmly built yet. Looking at brand new roster players this year, I count somewhere in the realm of six or seven. I think we are good there but need some more time in order for this team to gel into the machine it is capable of becoming.

  15. Mia says:

    Well, considering I’ve been harping about the “special ops” mentality for some time now, I find it awesome to read this OFB contribution today. It’s been bugging so much as the last few years have transpired, that this season’s SWEEP really crushed me. It may be a game, but in most senses, it is all I have.

    I have worked for the Dept. of Homeland Security, mostly concentrating on groups of operational specialists who MUST work together successfully as a TEAM to accomplish a mission. Human life relies on a certain mentality in those cases, but for many, the Stanley Cup in DC is life. It is the mission.

    150% agreed by someone who has experience in understanding and training those who participate in a team of special operations to achieve the “goal”. Human behavioral dynamics more than many would chose to realize for the Capitals.

    Many factors are at play, but I was so hard hit this season in particular because I have been watching the same issues over and over again (as have many of you reslient fans). I recognize them as though they were my kids, so after at least three years of that, I was more emotional than any of my 30+ seasons prior.

    And yes everyone, I HAVE tried to the Capitals to hire me to help them. I have made a complete wanker of myself on my blog, which is very public. I’m even on youtube now it seems. Someone like me, at the very least, should be brought in to build the Stanley Cup winning mentality. I am a very good choice, but if that can’t happen, something needs to be done on the INSIDE to get our CAPS actually moving TOWARD the silver.

    Thanks again for such a great read. I also want to extend my deepest sympathies to all those who are touched by the untimely passing of Derek Boogard, age 28, of the New York Rangers. I hope the hockeygods are working hard at sending all our best vibes to his family and friends.

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