Hitting the Reset Button

At at least one local airport Alexander Ovechkin t-shirts are on sale. A good many things Capitals may well be over the next few days.

I never slow down to peek at roadside car wrecks, but I am going to blog a bit about our barely moving wreck of a hockey team. I’m here with a good deal many more questions than answers, and a lot of dark thoughts. Principal among them: How did the wreck happen? I welcome both queries and answer-hypotheses from you. This fall from privileged perch has been so precipitous, so inexplicable and so, so sudden, one staggers into a sort of sports-coma-stupor at its arrival. It wasn’t that long ago that we were . . . 7-0!

Now that seems so mirage.

Over the past weekend, one which started with such promise in Sunrise, I watched in the company of great friends up in Maine cautious hope collapse into disgust and dismay. Also, rage. There is always the possibility of rejuvenation and redemption — once in a blue moon sports delivers it — but the problem with this hockey team is that there is to this season so little precedent to point to for hoping that with any modicum of rationality. Instead, its journey seems irreversible, its concluding collision a “totaling” calamity. If polled, I suspect a good many of us this morning are of this opinion: it’s time to hit the reset button.

Up in Maine my pals and I busied ourselves out and about the beautifully frosty New England air each afternoon and evening, pubbing and American League puck pursuing (the Bears were beautiful in Manchester Saturday night!), careful always to record the big club’s games and watch them late with late-night beers. It was a very hockey weekend, and we had high hopes for it. Mostly what matters about it is our being together for it.

Early Sunday morning we cursed Matt Hendricks’ and his gifting giveaways to Tampa. Late Monday night we felt blindsided by inexplicable, big-game surrender, composure and leadership AWOL. Tuesday morning, we devoted hours to a wretched reckoning of the sour fate that seemed certain ahead. The three of us tabulated forecasts for the season’s final 23 games. One game’s difference separated our forecasts; I won’t add to your woe this morning by sharing those figures with you — suffice to say, the team is on par with them.

In no particular order, my ruminations, woes, and wonderment:

  • It was wholly understandable to dream as Caps fans did these past five hockey seasons, accumulating as the team seemingly did so gaudy an abundance of elite, game-breaking talent, beginning with the 2002 Entry Draft, and watching it ripen in spectacularly dominant fashion. In May 2009, even amid the bitter embers of a seven-game defeat in the Eastern conference semifinals to Pittsburgh, the future — the immediate and what the owner liked to refer to as the “durable contention” down the road — seemed unarguably bright. We openly and boastfully forecasted Stanley Cups raised. Plural.
  • We developed, quite collectively, quite universally, a sense of entitlement. After nearly four decades wandering in infamy and irrelevancy, our franchise-altering dynamo was delivered to us, rather magically, by a New York ping pong ball. Surely he would wash away all the accumulated hurt — even the scar tissue — with his you-can’t-defend-my-game brilliance and bravdo, lifting a falling-in-love-with-hockey city on his shoulders. For a while, he did.
  • Entitlement. Bravado. Hubris. Slick marketing campaign. Superficiality. Shortcuts. Shortcuts to serious contention. We can get by with Theodore, for we have Ovi. Second line center by committee . . . for years . . . for we have Ovi and Nick and Sasha and Game Over. Piecemeal it here, patchwork it there, duct tape it every trade deadline, for we have what you don’t.
  • The Grand Delusion, certainly subscribed to and proclaimed as gospel by the manager: in the New NHL, speed and open ice would trump the time-honored ethos of building out a big and tough club about the middle of the ice, back-stopped by great goaltending. Those were the old ways; we in possession of Young Guns, we will show you the new way.
  • Suddenly, size matters. Whiff on the wings with draft after draft, pluck undersized pivots, the rugged shutdown D ever elusive. Promotions, most earned, some seemingly premature and ill-advised, arrive on the heels of less than successful depth drafting, and the stable suddenly is small, chock full of middling prospects. No one among them is North American, 6 feet tall and 190 pounds. Concussions run amok. Talk of slowing down the game. If that happens, how are you situated for the evolution? Now look at the Bs , now look at the Rags. Philly never stopped going big. Game over.
  • Shortcuts in roster formation, premised on hubris, can perhaps create shortcuts in work ethic. If the Greatest Show in Red is so young and hungry and well formed why a few years into the Mission did they look so gassed from routine conditioning skates on Day One of fall camp? Next: the conspicuous occurrence of optional skates. A good many “maintenance days” by the elite and of the biggest bank-accounts. Failure, then more failure, then shocking failure, then seriously shocking failure, then the dam breaks, on Ottawa sports radio in summer, by a recently departed. Truth-teller, condemned. (He also had a backup voice of protest, from another newly departed.)
  • Social media sayeth: Guess who and what I saw at Russia House last night!?
  • Suddenly: Fat Elvis.
  • Our Great Guns rarely outwork the opposition. And as a whole, year in and year out, the gang never earns the reputation Tough to Play Against. Never.
  • If your first reaction to a player contract is I must pick my jaw up off the ground it’s safe to say odds are that it’s an imprudent inking. Poti. Schultz. Semin. Ward . . . 8.
  • General manager flies all the way out to Alberta in mid-summer to meet with two Young Guns at the airport, merely for lunch. Guess-hunch on the lunch topic: The Urgency of the Moment.
  • Carlson and Alzner. Unified Demise. How? The look of a stud no. 1 duo two years ago in the postseason against Montreal. Understandably counted upon going into this season. Most nights, they look lost and confused. How? Why?

I want to see Mike Green remain a Capital, but now it is Game Over.

This entry was posted in Alexander Ovechkin, Dave Steckel, George McPhee, Matt Bradley, Mike Green, Stanley Cup, Ted Leonsis, The curse of Washington hockey, The Red Army, The Young Guns, Verizon Center, Washington Capitals, Washington the hockey town. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Hitting the Reset Button

  1. Greg H says:

    I’m a firm believer that Semin never bought in and that McPhee and Leonsis hoped that Ovechkin’s attitude would bring Semin on board. Instead, he brought Ovechkin down to his level and now we are stuck for 9 more years at $9.5 mil a season and hoping he gets back to where he was. I never understood Ward or Hamrlik’s signings. I would have rather stood pat with what we had then grab a one year playoff wonder (and a lot of lucky goals) and a career self preservationist (avoids contact). Halpern was a good one at the right price, but we should have never left Arnott go. That was stupid. Now we are begging for good centers and Arnott is leading the Blues when he should have been leading here.

  2. Greg H says:

    I will say one other thing… There are many cries for a new coach, but I don’t care who you bring in, you have to fix the locker room the right way. Hunter is trying to fix it, but no one is responding. I remember that one thing that Poile always drafted for was guys who were leaders. He never seemed to hit big in the high talent department, but we always had leaders. This team has none. Boudreau tried to challenge them at the beginning of the year and look what happened. Now Hunter is doing the same and look at these guys wilt. They want it easy, they like the rock star treatment, and they are acting like brats. This is the ugly breakup to the rock band where the hits aren’t coming as easy and they’d rather let it die then to work hard for another hit. Pampering, like Boudreau did, only works for so long. He finally had to challenge them to grow up and man up because they weren’t going to police themselves. They are getting more of the same and they don’t like it. They were too soft for the playoffs and they are too soft to man up.

  3. Great article! Doesn’t make watching what’s going on with this team any easier, but I think you guys really nailed down so much of what is wrong, in this post. Really enjoyed it.

  4. Sam Shafer says:

    Russian Cancer. Simple as that. Remove divas, fix the team. Trade Semin and Ovi both for Nash.

  5. Darren says:

    I do not think anyone would trade for Semin or Ovie. Ifall thr rumors of Ovies’s drinking are true, cut him.

  6. HBH WC says:

    If size does matter as you say, check out the Detroit Red Wings roster and explain how they keep winning.
    I believe consistency is the answer. They build their team with a philosophy and system in mind and then they stay with that. They understand that losing in the playoffs is no reason to blow the whole thing up. These are their guys, this is how they play. They don’t panic like the Caps if things don’t work out. GMGM built a Lamborghini in DC, now they want it to pull a plow.

    How long has Barry Trotz been in Nashville? How many playoff series has he won? He wouldn’t last three years in DC.

  7. Greg H: I very much share your concern vis a vis Arnott. There were whispers around media about his initial reactions to the room here upon arrival. And note how long he lasted. And you are precisely right pointing out his impact in St. Louis this season. Note also the price paid for his rental here. I will be watching closely how DevilLou uses that 2nd rounder this year.

  8. Tony says:

    Great article. This all dovetails nicely with increased ticket prices next year for STHs.

  9. Dave says:

    If only blogs ran NHL teams. It would be hilarious.

  10. Mike says:

    So the question now appears, based on what I’m reading, seeing, and thinking: Where do the Caps go from here. I look forward to your excellent analysis in a future post about what should be done, who should be brought in, who should be excused, and whether or not it will make a difference in the long term.

  11. tracy says:

    Best thing for these guys is not to make the playoffs. In fact, if Carolina keeps climbing, that would add insult to injury; they are playing with hunger, at least. As I posted before, I get a sick feeling watching a Cap and any other team’s player when there is a battle for the puck. The Caps are way too soft, physically. ALL of the other teams are onto us, too. I watched Alan May talk about the woes of this team. He mentioned #19’s injury several times. Datsuyk is out for a while for the Red Wings. See if they fold. I doubt it.

  12. Mike says:

    HBH WC: This is the result of consistency!! The Caps have let this core grow up together in the hopes that they would mature as professionals and players. The Caps haven’t been extremely patient, way too patient with this core.

    The result: Ovie’s gone from the best player in the league..to some Joe Blow who’s going to score 30 goals this year. Are Green’s injuries a result of coincidences or someone who doesn’t take care of himself? Your beyond hope if you don’t understand why Semin will never win a Stanley Cup in his career.

    The window for the young guns is officially over. You can no longer throw a bunch of crap together around #8 which McPhee did for years. Ovie before he became a Rock God was this team and made this team relevant. Now that he’s fallen back to earth..McPhee’s deficiencies are on full display. Ovie is no longer a centerpiece. He is just some really expensive piece and we need some to work (not build) around that. And that person ain’t McPhee.

  13. nhock says:

    SELLERS. SELLERS. SELLERS. SELLERS. There are no magic bullets that will fix our beloved but passionless team. Break it up completely. RESET. It’s time to go back 10 years and SELL, SELL, SELL. I’m too old to wait another 10 years. My hard earned, center ice season tickets will not be renewed.
    It’s so sad.

  14. oldtowncapsfan says:

    Wonderful piece, but we need to look at reality: 8 is not going anywhere, nor should he, for a number of reasons. First, no way any team would take on his contract based on his performance for the last two seasons. It’s just too much of a monster. Second, and granted, this is a little crass, but this organization is simply way too invested in the Ovi brand (see, e.g., the photo above). Given the owner’s background and the fact that GMGM has basically staked his job/career around making 8 the centerpiece, Ovi is with us to stay. And we should be thrilled about that. You don’t just up and lose the kind of talent that he has and displays from time to time. He is clearly not motivated and I don’t pretend to understand what would, in fact, motivate a 27 year old multi-millionaire athlete (not being one myself), but somehow this organization needs to figure that out. Maybe eliminate optional practics, throw in a bag-skate after bad games (ala Herb Brooks), maybe just sit down with him with trade options and figure out who he wants around him, I really don’t know. Until they figure this out, the team is going nowhere fast, but we shouldn’t just toss 8 overboard and blow the whole thing up.

    Oh, and please for the love of god stop playing Ovi on D during PPs. I have never understood this and would much rather just have our normal defensemen on the blue line and let Ovi play the position he’s comfortable with. Might cut down on those pesky short-handed goals too.

  15. capsrus says:

    Good piece. Many of us share your misery. The other question I have is what happened to “the system” and Hershey? Remember when BB and the team were riding high, injuries didn’t matter (supposedly) because we called someone up from talent laden Hershey who was playing the same system. Stuck around seamlessly for a night or two and then back down to the minors. Now it would appear that the guys on ice still don’t know what Hunter’s system is (does anyone?) and the well is dry in Hershey. Aucoin? Is that all that’s left? What happened?

  16. Decapitated says:

    My high school buddy is an assistant coach with another NHL franchise. In light of the recent implosion I asked for his diagnosis. His answer, only half in jest: “too many europeans”. He then added “Listen, the foundation of every recent Cup-winning team is the Canadian style…big, physical players with some combination of talent and grit who are going home to the farm if they don’t perform. You need both talent and grit, neither alone is enough to succeed in this league. There are nights when your skill players are hurt or underperforming, and you need to be able to win on grit”.

    The Caps are clearly long on raw talent, but lack the size and(with the exception of the 4th line and Brooksie) have a fatal grit deficit in their top 2 lines. Ovie once had both in absurd quantities, but the grit is gone for reasons we can only speculate.

    Despite the flashes of brilliance over the past few seasons, it’s hard not to conclude that as currently configured the Caps are a mirage. Modest personnel adjustments won’t cure our ills; we’ve simply built our team on the wrong foundation. Our generally small skill players might dominate the NCAA Frozen Four and win they Hobey Baker prize, but simply won’t contend in this league.

    These may not be deep or new insights – your bloggers and site visitors are all over these issues – but interesting to hear this diagnosis directly from another NHL coach.

  17. Greg H says:

    Capsrus: I understand what Hunter’s system is. He’s dumbed down everything to get guys to make simple plays they weren’t making before and then trying to build on that. It’s also based on (once again, something Boudreau begged and begged for) guys crashing the net. It’s also based on guys getting a good shot towards the net. How many shots do you see our defense firing at the net, that aren’t passes, completely missing the net? If you have guys crashing the net, the D plays you closer to the net so then the pretty plays open up. We all know that the Caps for years have refused to go to the net on a consistent basis. Hunter’s system works if the guys work for the puck and go to the net. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this team doesn’t compete for the puck.

  18. HBH WC says:

    We are talking about 2 different consistencies here. You seem to be talking players, I am talking systems. These guys have played 3 different systems over the last five years, although I believe Hanlon’s system is most probably similar to Hunter’s. This is why I brought up the Red Wings and Preds in my post.

    And yes Capsrus, when BB was the coach the minor league’s system was identical to the Caps. As Inspector Clouseau would say….”Nit eny mur”.

  19. Geo says:

    All very true (I like the Druce-Ward remark), though in spite of everything, we’re just 2 points out of the division lead and, separately, the last conference playoff spot. I don’t feel they should “blow up the team” as long as a playoff spot is within reasonable reach.

    Yes the Caps are dreadful. Montreal is too. Tampa is too, and they can’t take advantage of the Caps’ woes to increase their division lead yet. Seven of the next nine games are at Verizon Center. Here’s hoping they can pull themselves together enough to take advantage of it. I don’t care if have to win every game 1-0 in a shootout, just find a way, guys.

    Winning solves everything. It shuts up angry fans, comments thread trolls and upset bloggers. 🙂

    In retrospect, I don’t think firing BB was wrong, but I wish they had in fact been “knee jerk” about it and fired him right after the Tampa playoff catastrophe. That would’ve given Hunter time to hire a new staff, implement his schemes, practice them, have a preseason, and presumably talk to gmgm about the types of players that would fit his system.

    Certainly lots of teams change coaches mid-season and go on great runs. It just seems like Hunter’s style is so drastically different from BB’s, that an off-season coaching change to him would’ve worked better.

  20. I like all these comments, a ton. The query re. Gabby’s system and its organization-wide influence is especially fascinating. We all remember it well. In theory, it sure seemed appealing. It, like the coach, died a cruel slow death seemingly when it didn’t hold up in the crucible of the postseason. Problem is, and I alluded to it a bit in the piece, is that remnants of that system continue to ply their trade on the farm, and you have to believe that very few of them should have roles in a reboot. “We’ve simply built our team on the wrong foundation,” commentor Decapitated wrote. Sums it up perfectly.

  21. kazoo says:

    The GM specifically got Brouwer and Ward to add some grit to the team, but it hasn’t worked. The goaltending was TERRIBLE early in the year and is only mediocre now–that is one problem. Ovie and Semin are problems. Whether’s Ovie’s falloff is due to a bad attitude/work ethic and no leadership skill or something less, I don’t know–but it is worth exploring. Because if he is a problem, then the Caps won’t be fixed. Semin was terrible in the first half of the year but has been working a lot hard the last month–without much to show for it, but at least he’s been working. The defense has also been bad–and I’m no AT ALL sold on Hunter–the GM should have hired a veteran coach. I think Hunter is over his head, which isn’t surprising since he had ZERO NHL experience.

  22. Carded21 says:

    Comments are right on. I could rant here, echoing these sentiments, but that’s all being done everywhere around this town so I thought I’d post a quick word on the “Ovi Problem”. People say he party’s too hard now? BS. He was getting hammered at Russia House and other spots since he got to town…Witnessed it. He’d get wrecked then put up 4 points the next night. He enjoyed playing hockey. In my humble opinion, giving him the C was a huge strategic blunder done in the midst of the Crosby/Ovechkin debates. Loading him up with all that responsibility, sponsorships (looking at you Gillette), and expecting him to CHANGE his whole persona and lead in the locker room and not just on the ice was hugely detrimental to him and this team. You need a leader and communicator with that C and Ovi never has been and never will be either of those.

    Maybe (and probably) it’s too late, but if GM/Ted could somehow find a way to give Brooksy the C, sooth Ovi’s ego, and tell him to simply go play again and worry about nothing else, perhaps he’d get back to the player we all latched on to in the first place. No shaving, No Russian-glish attempts to motivate in the locker room, no corporate appearances, no trying to be the face of the NHL and suspensions be damned. Look, I know this is flimsy, full of holes, and just one of the dozens of problems currently plaguing this team. However, the endgame is that we cant move him and we cannot succeed with a guying wearing the C just because he’s our most talented player. If we’re reseting the team, then why not make an attempt to let him reset his game and salvage his career?

  23. HBH says:

    Makes sense to me.

  24. Gene says:

    I dunno, to me it’s a fairly obvious problem. Like it or not, this team was built for speed. That team was amazing in the regular season, for 4-5 years? YES, they had problems in playoffs – but don’t forget they went to 7 w Pitt, and Mont – it’s not like they were blown out (until last year, but i’ll get to that)

    My point. If you have a race horse, race it. But you can’t make it pull a cart. That’s what GMGM tried to do after Montreal loss – panic. We HAVE to do something, he thought, so lets ‘try’ and become more defensive?

    BB gets tuned out, because nobody then or now bought in, or more importantly, played that style. It produced an identity-less team, who doesn’t know who it is. New players that didn’t play that way, mixed with the avante-garde – and puff, no chemistry.

    It’s a mess, have to Sell – including GMGM.

  25. Gene, the speed issue is also at the center of this vivisection. Like you, I remember *wave* after *wave* of Capitals’ forwards coming at the opposition with terrific speed from 2006-09, with Mike Green adding lethal reinforcement as a rover. On many nights, the opposition was simply overwhelmed by the Capitals’ overall mobility. But how do you add Knuble, Hamrlik, and Ward to the quotient and think you haven’t undermined that stratagem? There is now no actual ‘speed line’ to the team anymore. Consequently, they’re a hodgepodge of skaters and mules. And no flow to their game whatsoever.

  26. HBH says:

    Hence yours and Roenicks identity issue, spurred on by changing strategy/systems mid-stream after the loss to the Habs in the playoffs. They may have lost in those playoffs but the regular season was a hell of a lot more fun back then.

  27. HBH says:

    This java great discussion/thread BTW!

  28. HBH says:

    This is a great thread/discussion BTW; is what I meant to say…….damn spell check.

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