Deep into Tuesday night, a prominent member of Washington’s hockey media, referencing the Boston Bruins’ effort in game 2 of the Eastern conference finals, emailed me this reflection: “This is what a desperate team is supposed to look like down 0-1 in a series not wanting to go down 0-2 before hitting the road.”
Maybe the Bruins ultimately make a series of it, maybe they don’t. But down 2-1 after 20 minutes last night, against the hottest team in the NHL postseason, and confronting the harrowing reality of dropping the series’ first two games on home ice against the Bolts, just as the Caps did two weeks ago, the Bs went Commando on Tampa in the second frame, scoring five times. Gut check. Series on.
The deeper we get into the 2011 postseason in Washington, which of course affords us additional context with which to compare the Capitals’ shortcomings, as more accomplished organizations play on, all the more that troubling questions related to team leadership arise. “Team leadership” here encompassing the captaincy, the coaching, and the management. I’m ok with the equipment guys.
Now it seems almost preposterous to ponder the preoccupation some in media articulated back last autumn: that by virtue of youth and inexperience in net, the Capitals could have their spring short-circuited. The Capitals didn’t lose prematurely early this spring, or last, or the spring previous to that, because of their goaltending. They did lose because they’d been out-worked, out-coached, and out-led every spring. They consistently confronted teams in possession of superior leadership. In an era of parity, that’s certainly a differentiating quality.
Conventional wisdom, as recent as perhaps just a few years ago, was that a team needed a star stopper between the pipes to get it done in spring. To be sure — and you need just ask Flyers’ fans — you can’t go Johnny Pedestrian in net. But there are probably 20-plus netminders around the league today more than adequate to the task of guiding a team through three or four postseason rounds, and one or more of them is likely already under contract in Washington.
But what does it matter if you’ve talent and poise in net if your hockey club has a deficit of leadership everywhere else?
- In the spring of 2009 virtually everyone in hockey recognized that warrior right wing Bill Guerin was a coveted commodity likely to be moved by the Islanders to a playoff-bound team serious about contending. The Capitals then had serious production deficiencies on the right side of their lineup, and they were a young playoff team. There was rampant media speculation, especially in Washington, that Guerin should have been a primary acquisition target for George McPhee. Instead, Guerin ended up in Pittsburgh. The Penguins of course beat the Capitals in seven games that spring. The Penguins of course went on to win the Cup that spring. Bill Guerin played a significant role for the Pens.
- Does it mean anything that Dan Bylsma came in from the American League and immediately enjoyed notable success in Pittsburgh, and does it mean anything that Guy Boucher came in from the American League and immediately enjoyed notable success in Tampa, while our American Leaguer behind the bench has spent the past four springs underwhelming us?
- Does it mean anything that literally 40 minutes into his Washington Capitals career Jason Arnott was so troubled by the culture he surveyed in his new room that he felt compelled to stand up and . . . lead?
- Those HBO ’24/7′ cameras were rightly lauded for taking us on the innermost inside of hockey last December, and when they captured the Capitals’ inner sanctum at the season’s most vexing moment, what was, for you, the leadership portrait offered? Were you, like me, more than mildly surprised that it was Mike Knuble standing up and blowing a gasket in the Boston visitor’s locker room? Perhaps more revealing moments of player reaction were left on the cable outlet’s cutting room floor, but I doubt it.
- Another curious ’24/7′ snapshot: The head coach and GM meet one morning at Kettler to post mortem the extraordinary losing streak, and the GM states that the team’s prolonged losing could actually be beneficial in the long run. I remember reacting in that moment: ‘WTF???’ Interesting that other managers don’t typically pursue that as strategy for long-term success.
- The GM also responded to critics, particularly in local media, who were appropriately questioning the team’s leadership in late December with the snide and derisive rejoinder that were such voices qualified to weigh in on hockey personnel they’d be employed in the game. The hirer of Bruce Cassidy probably ought to have brought greater humility to that moment.
My new media colleague and friend Ed Frankovic of Baltimore WNST, in his latest blog entry, ‘Caps Off-season Focus Should Be on Leadership,’ tackles terrifically the Capitals’ deficit of leadership: “There is no doubt some on the ice upgrades are necessary to improve [the Caps’] chances for success. But to me, what this organization seems to need more than anything, is an infusion of leadership. Simply put, they need to add personnel with Stanley Cup winning experience at the management level [emphasis OFB’s] and on the ice. The role of those additions would be to help Ovechkin and many of the talented younger players on the team to understand the process of what it takes to capture a Stanley Cup, the hardest trophy to win in all of sports.”
I really admire what Frankovic next does in his narrative: he traces the leadership bona fides of previous Cup winners, noting that even the lavishly talented Edmonton Oilers clubs of the 1980s were laden with Cup-winning resumes from the ’70s. He then goes ’24/7′-inside the 1999 Cup-winning Dallas Stars team with former Stars executive Craig Button, now of the NHL Network. Lots of talent on that Stars team, but it was carefully acquired veteran leadership that ultimately allowed Dallas to break through a formidable Western conference and win the big prize.
“Washington has seen firsthand . . the impact of what a proven winner like Steve Yzerman can do to help turn around a struggling club,” Frankovic concludes. “With the Wings former #19 at the helm in Tampa Bay, the Bolts added some key people with leadership experience (i.e, defensemen Pavel Kubina and scout Pat Verbeek) and Yzerman was also able to get one of his existing star players, team captain Vincent Lecavalier, to elevate his game to a level he hadn’t really been at since the Lightning’s 2004 Stanley Cup victory. As a result, a team that relies on key young players Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman is still very much in the running for this year’s Stanley Cup just one year after finishing 41 points behind the Capitals in 2009-10.”