George McPhee has Capitals Stuck in Neutral
General Manager George McPhee could potentially be facing his last free agency period as a member of the Washington Capitals. McPhee (whom we will refer to as GMGM at times) has spent the last two seasons essentially spinning his wheels in the nation’s capital. Most of it through his own poor decision making and if Caps fans are feeling like they are watching the 1993 movie Ground Hog Day, starring Bill Murray---you are not alone.
The plot of the movie is very similar to what is happening in Washington. Bill Murray is a miserable TV reporter who is sent to cover the annual event of Ground Hogs Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania on February 1. Murray does not like the assignment, the town and his life. His reports are not very favorable and reflect his miserable existence. However, a blizzard forces him and his team to stay in the little town where he awakens the next day to find out that it’s Ground Hogs Day all over again and again and this continues to happen until he fixes things in his life and delivers the perfect report.
The Washington Capitals offseason in 2013 (minus lockouts and coaching changes) has been nearly identical to what happened last offseason. McPhee seems stuck in a rut in Washington and possibly, only a move out of town can get him out of it.
Making the same moves, delivering the same boring non-informational press conferences would all be OK from the Capitals GM, if his team were coming off a Stanley Cup Finals appearance---or—even a conference final. However, as they have done every year, except for McPhees first in 1998, when the Red Wings swept them in the Finals, the Capitals were once again bounced early in the playoffs.
This year it was in the first round, when the lower seeded Rangers took out Washington in seven games. The seven game loss, as they usually are in Washington, was another gut wrenching defeat because the Caps led the best of seven series 2-0. McPhee is not responsible for this all by himself. Let us just say he has assumed his place in the franchise lore that is losing when the Cherry Blossoms are in bloom in D.C.
Losing playoff series while owning a relatively comfortable lead has been a time tortured tradition in Washington. Since 1985, the Capitals have lost nine series in which the club led either 2-0 or 3-1.
Some may say at least the Capitals won the division after a horrendous start to the year but I would simply respond by saying—ARE YOU SERIOUS- After all, the Southeast Division has been the worst in hockey for probably all but three seasons during its 15 years of miserable non-intense playing, lack of any good rivalry-- existence.
Winning the Southeast has been a blessing and curse for the Capitals. The blessing is of course, a chance to be a high seed and have home ice to start the playoffs. The curse is that by not playing in a good division each year, you miss out on playing in those mid-year playoff type games. You remember those Caps fans back in the late 80's and early 90's. Those games seemed to happen every other night when Washington was playing in the old Patrick Division.
The proof is in the pudding with this current group. Since the start of the 2008 playoffs -- when Washington's core of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Mike Green and yes Alex Semin until this season, made their postseason debuts -- the Capitals have appeared in nine series, and this past spring, played in their seventh playoff series to last the full seven games.
Here is where the lack of competitive spirit in the division seems to get lost in the shuffle, at least for the Caps. Washington is now 2-5 in those game sevens, losing three on home ice. Ovechkin and Co. have never been beyond the second round. Experience matters in the NHL, it always has but so is finding the right compliment of players.
Two of those Game 7 contests occurred on home ice and the Capitals lost by a combined score of 11-2. They were manhandled 5-0 by the Rangers this past spring and in 2009, were beaten handedly, 6-2, by Sidney Crosby and the Penguins. That loss really hurt Caps fans; as Sid and company went on to win Pittsburgh’s third Stanley Cup.
Winning the Southeast division with the some of the talent the Capitals have had during the Ovechkin era should have been a foregone conclusion each season. When the Capitals won the President’s Trophy during the 2009-10 season, the next best team in the Southeast (Atlanta) finished the year with 83 points and of course, out of the playoffs. Many would say the Vancouver Canucks benefited in much the same way the following season when they won the President’s Trophy playing in the less than stellar Northwest Division. At least Vancouver made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they blew 2-0 and 3-2 series leads to the tougher Boston Bruins to lose Lord Stanley’s Cup. Wow---sound familiar—all but the Stanley Cup part.
Sure McPhee built a roster to win this division but at times, Gordon Bombay and his Mighty Ducks may have won a few games in the southeast. What McPhee never did was build a tough playoff deep roster. That does not mean four lines of scoring---it means building a team where the head coach isn’t afraid to put his third or fourth line on the ice with 70 seconds to play in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
With all of this in mind, plus factoring in realignment--where the Capitals will no longer be playing in the cupcake southeast-- but instead the old Patrick Division, plus Carolina and an improving Columbus Bluejackets, how did McPhee approach last Sunday’s NHL Draft and apparently Friday’s upcoming free agency period.
Exactly the same way he approached last offseason, which on the surface may sound like a good thing but when you consider how it all turned out---it’s no longer a positive. Things began well last year in Pittsburgh for the Caps at the draft. A trade on Friday and two solid first round picks would highlight the weekend. With the last solid all-around front office decision McPhee made, the Capitals used the No.11 overall pick acquired from the Colorado Avalanche for Semyon Varlamov to draft what NHL Central scouting called the best European player in the draft in Filip Forsberg. Washington landed a player that six months before the draft was being mocked as a possible top three choice.
McPhee strengthened the Capitals weekend in Pittsburgh by trading 21-year old Cody Eakin and Boston's second round choice (previously acquired, Dallas selected Mike Winther) in 2012 for 33-year old center Mike Ribeiro.
Ribs came to D.C. and immediately filled a huge gaping hole down the center of Washington’s lineup and on their power play. During the Ovechkin era, the Capitals always seemed to be missing a viable second line center. They got him in Ribeiro and he did not disappoint. With 13 goals and 49 points (6 on the pp) in 48 games, Ribs had a career year playing long stretches alongside Alex Ovechkin in Washington.
Eakin registered 24 points in 48 games for the Stars and the trade appeared to pay dividends for both teams. The biggest part of the deal that the Caps knew they were going to have to deal with was deciding whether to re-sign Ribeiro to contract after this season or let him hit the market. It only made sense to make the trade if Washington was going to re-sign him or at the very least, trade him at the deadline to improve the roster for the future if the Capitals were not going to contend for a Stanley Cup.
Surely, McPhee learned his lesson from the year before when after allowing Alex Semin to sign a few one-year deals to stay in Washington; he left after the lockout via free agency. What angered Caps fans the most about this was certainly not that the Capitals—or the fan base for that matter—wanted No.28 to stay, but the fact the Capitals were left empty handed in the end for a player that was worth something at the trade deadline.
Despite his bad reputation for not being a locker room guy and a team player, allowing him to just walk out the front door after averaging almost 60-points per season was a mistake—McPhee wasn’t going to let it happen again----well here we are.
A trade that met both teams’ expectations---NOW fails miserably in Washington. Ribeiro is hitting the free agent market and while it is understandable that McPhee does not want to give a 34-year old second line center a five year deal worth the money he is seeking, what is mind numbing is why GMGM did not have the foresight to see this coming----ESPECIALLY AFTER NOT TRADING SEMIN!
This will not sit well in Washington once the fans see the reality of him another jersey. It’s not that he has been a Capital for 10 years but he was a valuable player and one GMGM should have either signed or traded. As good hockey fans we know the business--we only ask that you make good business decisions for our team and holding onto Ribeiro knowing you were not going to re-sign him is a bad business decision. He never upped the money he wanted, so McPhee and the Caps knew all along what it would take to keep him.
The situation certainly does not sit well with Ribeiro’s wife, Tamara. Earlier this week, the USA Today reported that she Tweeted the following, “Nothing like being uprooted from your home for a year for absolutely no apparent reason. #pissedbeyondbelief. If you think she is pissed, she should try being a Capitals fan from April until October these past few seasons.
GMGM knew Ribeiro was going to want big money this offseason. He certainly by the time this year’s trade deadline came and then went. Now, not only is it likely that Ribeiro will be elsewhere next season but the Caps are again left empty handed while also losing a solid prospect in Cody Eakin.
It is possible that McPhee felt this year’s team had to have Ribeiro to make a viable run in the playoffs—or even make the playoffs at all. However, with that said, was this year’s version of the Capitals a Stanley Cup contender at any point with or without Ribeiro? One would like to think the man running the front office knows this. If McPhee honestly thought, the Caps were Cup contenders than there are far bigger problems.
To make matters worse, what McPhee actually did at the deadline this season may turn out to be the biggest head scratcher of them all during his recent run of poor decisions. Remember the top European prospect the Capitals drafted last year with their 11th overall pick, McPhee traded him to the Nashville Predators for Martin Erat.
Not usually called out for making bad decisions, McPhee was hammered in local and national hockey media outlets. ‘If the trade is Erat for Forsberg, then I hope GMGM is also announcing his resignation at the press conference”, said one Capitals insider. Jeff Kleinman said, “If Filip Forsberg has been traded, then GMGM should be fired on the spot.”
Arrogance and idiocy many-called GMGM’s thought process. Ill-advised, horrendous and other words not suitable for a PG Sports Blog would blanket the internet in regards to the Forsberg for Erat deal.
For this Caps fan, the limit was reached last Sunday night at the NHL Draft. Former Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said, “It’s Déjà vu all over again” and that was the bitter truth when with the team’s 23rd overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft , McPhee selected an offensive talent from----you guessed it---Sweden.
Listed at 6-1, 176 pounds Andre Burakovsky was ranked fifth among European skaters available in the draft according to NHL Central Scouting. Born in Austria while his father played hockey there, Andre grew up in Sweden and was working his way up through their developmental leagues and national teams. In 2012-13, Burakovsky recorded four goals and seven assists in 43 games for Malmo in the second-tier Swedish league. His father, Robert, played 23 games in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators in 1994.
Burakovsky also had team-highs of four goals and five assists in five games to help Sweden win the silver medal at the 2013 IIHF World Under-18 Championship. But this past week, unable to reach an agreement on a deal with the Malmo Redhawks of second-tier Swedish league Allsvenskan, he was selected fifth overall in a CHL Import Draft (Wednesday) by the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters.
This was not a bad draft choice by the Capitals but we were here last year at this point. Except the player, Washington selected last year—12 spots higher was a far better talent. Do not have visions of grandeur here Caps fans, Burakovsky is a nice pick but he is not nearly as talented as Forsberg.
The question then becomes, why McPhee made this pick. Will he be looking to trade Burakovsky at the 2014 trade deadline for a veteran forward that’s averaged about 40 points a season for the last 10 years?
Why did he trade Forsberg in the first place? The Capitals gave Tom Wilson, their second selection in last year’s first round a shot in the NHL playoffs this past season. Why wouldn’t they have done the same for Forsberg? Nashville got him into a few games by seasons end.
Had this happened in a hockey city where the sport is revered 365 days a year, it would have been bedlam. However, this is Washington D.C, not Montreal, Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston, New York or Vancouver- it’s just hockey not the Redskins for God sakes. While Caps fans love their team, George McPhee continues with a confusing muddled path. There is no blueprint in D.C to win a Stanley Cup. While head coach Adam Oates is a good pick by McPhee to lead the team from behind the bench, he is the franchises third head coach in two seasons.
With free agency set to start tomorrow, Caps fans have no idea what to expect. McPhee has not had a good run lately and while everyone is entitled to have a bad offseason, that offseason cannot have repercussions into the next offseason-- with no lessons learned. McPhee almost set this Capitals team back two years when he hired Dale Hunter last season and then watched as he quit.
This has to be McPhee’s last in Washington and nothing but a solid performance in the conference finals should be able to save him. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Maybe that is it-- is it possible GMGM has gone mad watching his team invent ways to blow series in the playoffs. But if he has, then he has no one but himself to blame. That is the team he assembled—one just not tough enough—or good enough to win the pivotal games when it matters most.
Have you talked to a Caps fan lately---unless you catch them after they’ve had their Zoloft, discussing hockey is not a good idea. It may be time to rename the team to the Punxsutawney Capitals. The more things change in Washington, the more they stay the same. McPhee has done some good things in Washington but you are ultimately judged on what your teams accomplish once the regular season ends. That is true in every sport……
McPhee needs to throw caution to the wind in hopes of having a solid free agency period. At this point, McPhee has nothing to lose. This is likely his final season in Washington. If there is a bright spot, at least McPhee never sees his shadow every Feb 1. How can he not, the Capitals always seem to find spring sooner than the rest of the teams in the NHL playoffs.