A State of the Nation That Comes Up Small

On May 5, the morning after his hockey team had been swept out of the playoffs in the second round by the no. 5 seed, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, to his credit, logged in to his blog, congratulated the victorious Tampa Bay Lightning, and swallowed no small amount of pride in acknowledging that “[Tampa’s] role players outplayed our highest paid players.” He added: “Clearly we know we have to improve to build a franchise that is as good as our fan base.” Those latter words especially caught my attention because a few hours earlier I’d written these: “Today this franchise is unworthy of its fanbase, which is one of the best in the league.”

In those earliest hours of the offseason I had already excoriated the Capitals, fairly, for a spectacularly failed season, again, but I wanted days and even weeks to pass before weighing in again with heavy ammo against the status quo.

Mr. Leonsis in his blog that painful morning called for patience and for a cooling off period. “The best course of action for us . . . is to let a few days pass; be very analytic about what needs to be improved; articulate that plan; and then execute upon it.”

And so yesterday, having allowed more than a few days to pass — fully two weeks, in fact — before commenting again on the Caps, Mr. Leonsis appeared on his hockey team’s web site to address Capitals Nation, offering remarks and taking questions from one of his communicators, with what was tantamount to a State of the Hockey Nation update. It did little to comfort the grieving.

For starters, Mr. Leonsis is not availing himself to media this offseason. Not yet, anyway. Capitals’ fans were welcomed to submit questions for yesterday’s streaming summit, but in no way does that approach the accountability that’s part and parcel with stepping up to the scrutiny of media cameras, microphones, and perhaps even a call-it-as-they-see-it corps of bloggers. If the President of the United States stands before the White House press corps, you can be assured of a good grilling, no matter the time of year. And when times are tough, we expect that of our President.

On the positive side of the self assessment ledger, acknowledging the widespread criticism his hockey team has cultivated in spades this spring, the owner yesterday said, “We want to change.” He pointed an accusatory finger at the power play, ranked no. 1 in the league until last spring, and said, “We might have to do something major to the power play because it has let us down last year against [Montreal] and this year against [Tampa Bay].” Big-picturing better, he said, “We’re struggling . . . in translating productivity in the regular season into longer success in the playoffs.”

To put it mildly.

But the format of yesterday’s forum undermined a good deal of discipline of message, and the owner early on in the proceedings, speaking contemporaneously and without interruption, allowed platitudes, a reservoir of accumulated good will, and I think wishful thinking to cloud and clutter what in another setting might have produced some heavy reckoning.

“I can say unequivocally that the regular season does matter,” he alleged.

Well, I can say unequivocally that at this moment in Washington it does not. I certainly said it in my season preview back in the autumn, and I was one of many voices then saying it. By the end of summer there will be four Southeast division title banners hanging from the rafters of Verizon Center commemorating the regular season feats of the past four seasons. Listening to Mr. Leonsis yesterday, I wondered: would the Capitals again try and draw attention to that on opening night in October? If they do, they might be surprised at the Red Army’s reaction to it.

To some extent, hockey’s regular season is diminished by the unrivaled-anywhere-else-in-sports glory of its ultimate prize. For every conspicuously winning-in-regular-season team in the NHL there is by late March something of an exasperation with playing out the string, an unnerving anxiety for the arrival of the true test, and given the turnaround of fortune in this past regular season’s second half for the Caps, and especially given the seeming success of the trade deadline acquisitions, there was an especially pronounced fatigue-anxiety among the Red Army. Long-standing demons of spring oh so badly needed to be exorcised. The regular season certainly seemed to matter here in 2007-08 and its following campaign. The President’s trophy seemed to give meaning to 2009-10. But that spring’s sourness cast a suspicious cloud over 2010-11 — and in point of fact, this past regular season delivered a great deal of stress and woe, infuriating season ticket holders bewildered by blowouts by the Blueshirts. And next season? Many of us in HockeyWashington regarded this spring as a referendum on the existing regime, seeking evidence that 2010’s first-round dismal was an aberration. We don’t have it — not by a longshot.

Surely everyone affiliated with the Caps will have to regard 2011-12 as more a referendum on how this organization is managed than with any previous season in Capitals’ history. But yesterday the owner was anything but aware of such a sensibility. And that is deeply troubling.

To some extent there is a tone deafness to management when it comes to acknowledging this organization’s sordid state in spring. They seem to want to be judged only on the springtimes in the Era of Ovechkin. They fail even in that limited litmus test, but the larger reality — one that reigns league-wide, and for a sizable contingent of the fanbase — is that we are the Chicago Cubs of our sport, and it’s mildly amusing to joke about in fall but something far more sinister in spring. Alexander Ovechkin’s arrival here was meant to address it. Management said as much.

Most egregiously yesterday, Mr. Leonsis said this of his club’s present standing: “There are 29 teams in the league that would trade positions with us.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. To trade places with the Washington Capitals today would be to assume their burden of spring. Sadomasochists wouldn’t take that on. To trade places with the Caps would be to reside in a media market in which John Beck — no relation to Glenn, Google informed me yesterday — is the celebrated athlete of the moment. A condition for which our market is rightly mocked.

To make no mention of the Pittsburgh Penguins, or the Detroit Red Wings, or the Chicago Blackhawks, not even the Toronto Maple Leafs would uproot themselves and trade places with us here. It’s $300-plus for a premium seat in the lower bowl of Air Canada Centre for a hockey game in October. There’s a 24-hour television station devoted to the team for goodness sake. There’s been a lot of losing by the Leafs over the years, but also, though distant now, Glory achieved. And goodness knows Brian Burke is held accountable by Leaf media and fans.

Perhaps most troubling of all yesterday Mr. Leonsis expressed an intellectual incompatibility with the notion that the window may be closing on his team’s status as contender. In point of fact, that window may never have opened. His team isn’t a contender; the Lightning proved that. And as exclamation point, the Lightning, we in Washington are suddenly learning, aren’t in fact the ’76 Canadiens after all. They’re just a good hockey team, nothing more — and better than the Caps by leaps and bounds.

Alexander Ovechkin, the franchise savior, will turn 26 early next hockey season. Today, he seems far removed from his days as a 65-goal scorer. The league seems to have figured him out. Additionally, his leadership quotient seems notably deficient. Presumed key pieces surrounding him suddenly don’t seem daunting, or untouchable. And they are all under the guidance of a man who’s failed to advance past round two of the NHL postseason, when a host of his younger, less experienced colleagues have. But fannies still are filling the seats in Chinatown, so all is good. This is the State of Capitals Nation.

*Correction:* Comment above attributed to Mr. Leonsis — “There are 29 teams in the league that would trade positions with us right now” — was erroneously reported. His full comment in context should have read: “There are 29 teams in the league that would trade positions with us right now to have three young, very, very talented players, all affordable, all with their best days ahead of them and so I’m really happy with how well-stocked we are at the toughest position in the game.”

This entry was posted in Alexander Ovechkin, Eastern Conference, Morning cup-a-joe, New media, NHL playoffs, Southeast Division, Tampa Bay Lightning, Ted Leonsis, The President's Trophy, The Red Army, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to A State of the Nation That Comes Up Small

  1. Brian says:

    What are these Division Championship banners that you speak of? I believe that even in your blog you noted that Hershey does not hang them. I believe that it was back in the 2005-2006 playoffs after winning the Eastern Conference Championship I heard one of the best quotes that I can remember. If memory serves me correctly it was Boyd Kane. During the post game celebration in the locker room while everyone else was celebrating, he was not. When asked if he was excited about the win he responded with “We haven’t won anything yet.” That is what makes him a leader, and that is the attitude that is needed in the Caps locker room. Maybe they will find it next season.

  2. Dave says:

    Ted has become a snake oil salesman. It is beyond broken, and either he doesn’t have the brains or the stones to fix it.

    McPhee is another story. As far as I am concerned, anybody would be a better choice at this point. He is the ONE person in the world that has PROVEN beyond a shadow of a doubt that he CANNOT get this team to the next level. He has had plenty of time, it aint gonna happen. How much more does Ted need to see?

    Before Tampa hired Yzerman, many of us begged Ted to consider him for the GM position. He refused. All Yzerman did in one year as GM is take a team that finished more than 40 points behind Washington last year, and pass them like they were standing still. In many ways, we are. Yzerman had a “core”, and built around it. Don’t we have a “core”? Is Poti part of that “core”? It sure seems like it.

    Here’s a quiz. To turn the Caps into a Cup Contender, Ted must:
    a. Fire McPhee
    b. Insist McPhee find a new coach
    c. Unload the bloated salaries of: Semin, Schultz, Poti, and move away from all current Capital UFAs.
    d. All of the above
    e. Stand Pat

    Ted has chosen “e”. Last year, he also chose “e”. He failed last years quiz miserably. You don’t need to be a psychic to see how he will do on this years quiz. History has a way of repeating itself. If you have been a Caps fan for any leangth of time, you know this all too well. What is becoming concerning is that the fans and Ted are judging this team by different metrics. The fans are judging by championships (0). Ted seems to be judging by season ticket renewal rates (98%). Thanks to the 2% who said, “not again”.

    Ted and George have won only one thing, the draft lottery in 2004. Take that away, the Caps are the Thrashers.

  3. A withering and unsparing commentary, Dave. And you won’t get a word of protest from me about its substance.

  4. gusty says:

    You completely misrepresented Ted’s comment when you quoted him as saying “There are 29 teams in the league that would trade positions with us.” He wasn’t talking about the Caps team but very specifically their three goaltenders. His actual quote was “I think going into season our goaltending was suspect. There are 29 teams in the league that would trade positions with us now to have three young very very talented players all affordable all with their best days ahead of them really happy how well stocked we are at the toughest position in the game.”
    Shoddy, shoddy reporting.

  5. Gusty, right you are. In a literal sense. Although to view management’s resolute commitment to the status quo, again, I’m not sure it’s unfair in the least. Literally.

  6. Ray in Bowie says:

    The defense-first experiment was a total failure; we were barely beating poor teams on our late season “run”, and the Rangers are pitiful.

    It seems to me that we also have an unfortunate combination of Europeans (who generally play a skill brand of hockey not always possible in the playoffs) and North Americans who don’t have the proper net presence, defensively or offensively.
    And our lack of D-men speed was exposed by TBL; Shultz, Hannan, & Erskine are painfully slow but Hannan at least plays the angles and clears the crease.

    In other words, more: Knuble/Laich/Carlson/Gordon/Alzner/Arnott/Widemannless:
    Schultz/Semin/Hendricks &/or Fehr/(sorry)Erskine

    Ovi & Backs (& maybe Semin if he can’t be traded) need to get a personal trainer, sports psychologist, and outside consultant(s) to provide some tough love. With Ovi & Backs the effort is usually there but the strategy is often lacking; Semin is so talented maybe someone can get to him & explain, with rededication and training, he can be an elite player (see Datsyuk) in this league.

    Finally, in the playoffs, every game is vital – play to win, not to avoid losing (think games 2 & 3 of TBL series).
    And unfortunately, Bruce & McPhee should probably go, but the upgraded replacements need to be lined up first or it’s a Hail Mary. The players still have to produce.

  7. Paul says:

    I mostly concur with recent rantings but do you really expect Ted to publicly trash the organization and repeat all the shortcomings noted in recent OFB posts?

    Comparing Ted’s responsibilities to the President is a bit of a stretch along with the Caps media to the WH press corps. (Note–the Pres. is much more sheltered and coddled than Ted)

    I have always thought Ted is a bit thin skinned but sometimes I sympathize with him about all the harping and complaints.

    I am still waiting on someone to opine with concrete action steps, with names, places for trades and dollars. The ‘we should fire someone and pray the replacement is will be a genius’ line is getting kind of old.

  8. JR says:

    Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. What do they call that again?

  9. beeman says:

    @DAVE has stated it succinctly in his first and final sentences.
    Ted is a marketing maven, not a hockey guy. While telling us he feels our pain, the gauge he uses to measure success is gate receipts.
    Only when fans vote with their feet will serious moves be made.

  10. It bears mentioning, I think: One can, as I have, spiritedly critique a sport’s team ultimate barometer performances, and its management, and still be grateful that it has the ownership group it does. In the big picture, Washington hockey fans are exceptionally lucky to have Mr. Leonsis as owner. And if you’ve read my blog since its start, you know that I believe him to be a night and day — franchise-saving, in fact — improvement over his predecessor. I didn’t agree with the PR strategy of yesterday, I worry that he’s “too nice” a guy for this business at times, but still it should be acknowledged: In this lifetime, Redskins fans will never know the access and accountability Caps fans have with their owner.

    A good many Skins fans are voting with their wallet/feet now, but ultimately, it won’t matter. Snyder’s young and going nowhere. It’s tough being a hockey fan here, but it has to be hopelessly unbearable being a football fan. Truly.

  11. CubsFan says:

    “one that reigns league-wide, and for a sizable contingent of the fanbase — is that we are the Chicago Cubs of our sport, and it’s mildly amusing to joke about in fall but something far more sinister in spring.”
    No actually this may be worse. I grew up in IL and was and still am a Cubs fan for 44 years of my life and am a Caps season ticket holder. I have to say these past two Caps seasons have been worse than being a Cubs fan. The Cubs never had as much talent as the Caps and blew it year after year. That’s what is so hard here. GMGM has pretty much kept this talented core together and given them plenty of chances to win in the Spring but they have not lived up to it. Something drastic needs to happen. What happens next year if the same thing happens? Will he then say “oh now is the time” or will there be more excuses? Last year I was sad when we lost to Montreal. This year I’m just frustrated and perplexed. Hopefully they do something this summer to make changes but if history is a guide I ain’t holding my breath.

  12. CubsFan, Firstly, you’re one of the most courageous fans in all of sports — to transition in fall from summer as you do . . . May I ask: Do you have a Special Forces background?

    The question you ask about a potentially delayed Rapture until next spring is one that fascinates me. One more flameout and yes, heads will have to roll. They’ll simply have to, or else what little credibility is left with the regime will vanquish. And if failure follows and the unwashed and unlearned masses are proven correct, the next question raised could haunt this organization for an eternity: ‘Was a once-in-a-generation talent squandered in the prime of his career?’

  13. Ray in Bowie says:

    I feel compelled here to mention that I’m a life-long Red Sox fan & franchise-long Caps fan & am 58 years old — my dad passed away at 54 on Fathers’ Day 1984 & one of my biggest disappointments is that he didn’t live until 2004 so I could share the euphoria with him — IOW, it CAN happen if a team believes in itself & its leaders lead.

  14. Mike says:

    Great article. Its sad watching something I love so much get destroyed by incompetent people. Ted is making it very hard to be a Caps fan.

  15. Geo says:

    The optimist in me can only point out the Bruins went out 1st>2nd>2nd (historic collapse to Flyers after 3-0 series lead) the last 3 years in the playoffs, and had a long, Caps-like history of 1st/2nd round playoff defeats dating back to 1992 before that. They didn’t fire Julien, and this year they broke through to the conference finals and are giving Tampa the fight we couldn’t.
    The Realist in me says: OK, BB isn’t going anywhere.
    -How about a new assistant to run the PP who has some new ideas/schemes/insights?
    -If we’re not getting a new coach/staff, how about encouraging BB to back up his cussing (per HBO) with disciplinary actions. Bench non-performers. Have fewer optional practices. Bench/fine players who don’t show up.

    If BB can morph into a “defense-first” coach, surely he can morph into more of a disciplinarian coach.

    -Maybe they need a fresh eye in conditioning so half the team isn’t taking “maintenance days” so often at season’s end.

    It’s pretty clear we won’t see the see change most of us think is needed. I still have hope we’ll see *some* sort of change.

  16. Boomer says:

    @Mike…you must shed some light on what it is that you love so much that Ted is destroying? I am at a total loss to understand of what you are speaking?

  17. Priscilla Villanueva says:

    “In a literal sense. Although to view management’s resolute commitment to the status quo, again, I’m not sure it’s unfair in the least. Literally.”

    I don’t think it’s a question of being literal – you misquoted him. Totally onboard with taking issue with “status quo” but to take words out of context to support your position is 1) incorrect, 2)bad writing, 3) dishonest and 4) really self-serving.

    Show some integrity: Admit your mistake, and don’t try to save face by qualifying it with nonsense. Because to take someone’s words out of context in order to show them up is actually very unfair, and, as it happens, illegal in some cases for this very reason.

  18. EJ says:

    I agree entirely with Priscilla. That misquote and rationalizing it makes me not want to read anything further from this particular writer…and is way more egregious than anything Ted has done or said.

  19. TG says:

    “Gusty, right you are. In a literal sense. Although to view management’s resolute commitment to the status quo, again, I’m not sure it’s unfair in the least. Literally.”

    So let’s see. You take part of a quote, represent it as a complete statement, and then when called on it, you don’t really admit to it, but rather say that it accurately represents what you feel is the team’s/owner’s view?

    Yet you’ve also complained about how “old media” unfairly looks down upon “new media.” Well, then man up and admit, oh, I dunno, that you didn’t put up the comment in whole. (Even an ellipsis would have solve that problem.)

    I find that sometimes you have good thoughts. But a BIG failing of yours is that you absolutely CANNOT admit a mistake, a fault, an error, anything of that sort.

    You want to play in the big leagues – as you constantly push for teams to fully accept bloggers as “real media”? Then grow up and either fix the quote, or admit a mistake.

    Trust me. I worked as a journalist for several years. This is a mistake/error and deserves a correction.

    There’s lots of other examples I’m sure you can find to make your point without essentially manufacturing a quote.

    Or would you like someone to say that the point of your post is: “Fannies still are filling the seats in Chinatown, so all is good.” After all, you stated this in the blog post, did you not?

  20. Buki says:

    I’ve looked to this blog as one of the three or four places to get quality information about my favorite hockey club, the Washington Capitals.
    If this kind of high school rationalization for poor journalistic integrity is to become the norm (Literally), or even repeated (Literally), I’ll be sure to change my behavior (you guessed it – Literally).
    Admitting you based a major part of your screed on a misquote would be a nice start.
    Jesus, it is tiring when ventures get so big that they feel the need to trip over each other to make headlines. Never forget that opinions (even those in blogs) are like a-holes– everyone’s got one and they stink about half the time.

    Go Caps!!!

  21. Jimmy says:

    Yeah that misquote and the weak explanation for it just made you guys lose a lot of credibility from my perspective. You want ownership to have standards and I agree, but you need to have standards as well.

  22. JB says:

    I found a link and wound up here – it reminded me why I deleted my bookmark in the first place.

  23. Stephan says:

    Shame on you OFB….you guys are really slipping as of late. Credibility is very important thing in this buisiness and without it, your nothing.

  24. Ray in Bowie says:

    P&B, you need to own up to your error. Although, for you folks piling on, it was the 14th paragraph of the blog post; hardly the BASIS for the post itself.
    Regardless of the error, Ted’s trying to put a happy face on the situation by pointing to the goalie situation: that dog won’t hunt. I do respect his ability not to overreact just to please us rabid fans, however.

  25. Sean says:

    I completely disagree with Priscilla and EJ. Writing fact-based articles is not illegal in this country, at least not yet. Let me tell you about something that is egregious: Taking the some of the best Hockey talent in the world and squandering it year after year, without a true self-examination and purposeful/goal oriented organizational adjustment. If they had adjusted last year, at a minimum Semin and Green wouldn’t have been here this past year, and if they don’t at least get rid of Green, Varly, Laich, Semin, Gabby, and quite possibly GMGM, then we will have another offseason where the status quo stays without a real meaningful change. Anything less will be nothing more than going through the motions for Caps Hockey fans. Oh yeah, and Ovi needs to be stripped of his C, in fact, the ideal sitution would be to not have anyone wear a C until March 2012. Someone has to step up and be a leader by deed and by creed.

  26. Buki says:

    “Squandering it year after year?”
    Last I checked 30 teams are fighting for the Cup every year. I would venture to say this iteration of the Caps has only been in that hunt the last four years.
    The Caps have needs to fill like all teams and mistakes can expose those needs– that is largely the whole exercise of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
    I believe the man who pays the bills is allowed to assess the team he owns, and helped make a talked about commodity in the NHL, and then crow about his apparent happiness with his goaltending even in the face of admitted failure and disappointment.
    Some people need to learn to get beyond disappointment in a sporting event or get better blood pressure meds. Find something to be happy about in your life and get away from beating that very dead horse.

    Go Caps!!!

  27. Pingback: Rock The Yellow « Kings Of Leonsis

  28. Paul Douglass says:

    The Caps have three young goaltenders who are injury prone and do not always showcase their talents very well. In truth, they are over-rated if you look at them critically. Yes, they have moments of absolute brilliance, but they are so very inconsistent. Can the team afford to wait for one to excell, or should they trade for a known talent?

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