In a city where executive change occurs every two years through our nation’s democratic voting process, the Washington Capitals decided on Saturday to make a change in their executive office for the first time since Bill Clinton was the Commander in Chief.
After a season when his club failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007, Capitals Owner Ted Leonsis decided not renew the contract of General Manager George McPhee and fired head coach Adam Oates. The house cleaning comes as no surprise; in fact, the only surprise is that it took 14 days for Leonsis to make the changes once the regular season ended.
However, according to the Washington Post, the process of evaluating the organization began once the Capitals lost their final game of the season in a 1-0 shootout to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Leonsis and team President Dick Patrick made the moves after undergoing a nearly two-week examination of the team. According to sources with knowledge of the process, Leonsis and Patrick met with people from all corners of the organization — players, scouts, medical and front office staff — for feedback on the entire operation.
“We were a continuously improving playoff team until we weren’t,” Leonsis said at a news conference Saturday at Verizon Center. “The last two seasons showed us that we need to improve. That’s what it came down to, where Dick and I said, ‘We have to make that gut check. Do we have to change? And where do you start?’ You start with the coach and the general manager.”
STARTING WITH A BANG:
McPhee, 55, took over the Capitals in 1998; the year they made the franchise’s first and only trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. Washington fell in four straight games to the Steve Yzerman led Detroit Red Wings. McPhee was never able to assemble a Finals team again, although it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Aside from a planned rebuild from 2003-07, McPhee seemed to assemble teams that experts considered Stanley Cup contenders. But following the 98 Finals appearance, the Capitals never made it past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs during the rest of McPhee’s tenure.
McPhee was the third longest-tenured general manager in the NHL behind New Jersey’s Lou Lamoriello (27 years) and Carolina’s Jim Rutherford (20 years). The Capitals accomplished a lot under McPhee during the regular season but floundered miserably once the cherry blossoms began to bloom in the city in which they play. During McPhee’s 17 years on the job, the other 29 teams in the NHL have employed a combined total of 100 general managers.
Since McPhee took over in the 97-98 season, the Capitals have posted a regular season record of 613-488-69-108 in 1,278 games. If we are using todays standard formula for points percentage, that’s .546 winning percentage NHL style (point percentage). In comparison, Rutherford, who’s been in Carolina for two decades and was with the team when they moved from Hartford, has compiled a record of 570-521-156-31 with a winning point’s percentage of .519.
It's fair to compare the two because the Canes and Caps have competed in the same division every year except for McPhee’s first when Washington was in the Atlantic and Carolina, coming from Hartford, stayed in the Northeast. In 1998, the NHL realigned moving both to the Southeast division where McPhee’s teams would win seven division titles compared to Rutherford’s three but the Canes would participate in three Easter Conference Finals, winning two of them. In 2006, with Peter Laviolette as the head coach, Carolina won the Stanley Cup in a thrilling seven game series over the Edmonton Oilers. This was just three years after another division rival; the Tampa Bay Lightning won a Cup vs. the Calgary Flames in seven games.
While the Florida teams were experiencing success, each playoff loss seemed worse than the year before for McPhee and his Capitals. The misery seemed to hit its peak in 2010. With a record of 54 wins, 15 losses, and 13 overtime losses, the Capitals won the President’s Trophy with 121 points but the top-seeded Capitals faltered historically in the first round of playoffs. Washington became the first team in the history of the league to be a No.1 seed and cough up a 3 games to 1 lead in losing in 7 games to the 8th-seeded Montreal Canadians.
The following year, Washington managed to somehow top the misery by once again earning the No.1 seed in the regular season but then made history, this time in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Caps became the first No.1 seed in league history to be swept in the second round of the SC playoffs, again by a Steve Yzerman led team. As General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Yzerman watched from above, as his team won the first two games of the series in D.C. and then finished off the Caps in Tampa.
Not all of the onus of Washington’s post season misery falls on McPhee but a great deal of the blame has to be shouldered by his teams. In 10 trips to the playoffs, McPhee’s teams have posted a record of 44-52. Since 2007, the Capitals are 27-31 and have lost five Game 7’s—all of them on home ice.
No NHL team has lost more playoff series as the higher seed in the last 30 years (11 times), lost more three- or four-overtime playoff games (four) or lost more series in which they led by two games (eight) than the Caps.
McPhee’s rebuild led to some lean years in Washington, which in turn led to the Capitals getting high draft picks. McPhee didn’t waste his opportunity during the NHL’s annual job fair. With one of the three first round selections in 2002, McPhee selected the first of two Alexander’s. This one was named Semin. Two years later, the second Alexander was selected and once he landed in D.C., McPhee had the centerpiece to build his paper champion. McPhee also landed an offensive minded defenseman in the same round and draft as The Great 8. Mike Green was selected with the Capitals third pick (29) of the first round.
Alexander Ovechkin would lead a post 2004 lockout team that was built to run and gun. Although McPhee missed miserably in the 2005 Draft, Niklas Backstrom (2006-4), Karl Alzner (2007, 5), John Carlson (2008, 34), Dimitri Orlov (2010, 55), Evgeny Kuznetsov (2010-26), Filip Forsberg (2012, 11) and goalies Semyon Varlamov, Michael Neuvirth and Braden Holtby were all selected in the drafts following 2004. Only Holtby was selected lower than the second round, with Semin, Ovechkin, Green and Backstrom considered the “Core 4” that would lead the team to the promise land.
While these players helped a Capitals team reach the playoffs earlier than expected, egos and a lack of clear leadership amongst a ton of youth led to these same Capitals to exit the playoffs earlier than expected.
While they set franchise records for points, wins and offense, they never seemed to adjust to the difference when playing a much tighter defensive checking game in the playoffs. Ovechkin couldn’t adjust to having less space, the team never seemed to play as a unit, and as a result the Capitals floundered, as playoff series wore on with more on the line.
The reason McPhee stayed as long as he did in Washington was he rarely missed on selecting the right player or signing the right free agent. No General Manager or his scouting department in any sport is perfect but the Capitals hit a lot more doubles, triples and home runs than they did singles or striking out.
What may have cost McPhee is relying too much on the “European” player. Since selecting Semin with the 13th overall pick in 2002, McPhee has used 25 of 85 picks on talented European players with 77 percent of them being selected in the first three rounds of the NHL Draft.
McPhee obviously believed a high flying—run and gun style would be the way to capturing Washington’s first Stanley Cup. He clearly sacrificed the blue line but the differences between North American players and European players is notable when trying to decipher and breakdown the lack of success this McPhee assembled Capitals team experienced in the post season.
European hockey is a more wide open and offensive, whereas North American hockey is more defensive with tighter checking. North American hockey is more physical, whereas many of the skilled European players were looked upon as timid. And finally, since the collapse of the Russian Empire, where Soviet teams played as teams for years on end, European players of the past 20 years are often perceived as individual players – Ovechkin carries no different a stigma than that of say, Petr Klima, Pavel Bure or Ilya Kovalchuk.
All of these traits if not executed come playoff time usually means a quick exit for teams. It also can also mean quick exits for head coaches that demand players play as a team and when a team falters, the first to usually pay the price is the head coach and the Capitals have certainly seen their fair share of them lately.
THE COACHING CAROUSEL:
Since Ovechkin’s NHL debut in 2005, he’s played for 4 head coaches, three in the last two years. While the youth of this team may have called for an experienced head coach, Ovechkin and company have played for four firs time NHL Head coaches—each implanting a far different system than their predecessor. Bruce Boudreau who took over 22 games into the 2007-08 season for Glen Hanlon, experienced the most success.
Boudreau stood behind the Capitals until he was fired nearly four years to the day and ironically 22 games into the 2011 season. Boudreau posted an astonishing 201-88-40 record with an amazing .671 winning point percentage. Boudreau started the 2011 season a franchise best 7-0 but following a 5-9-1 stretch, Gabby lost his locker room and then his job. A style change to defense and holding his team ore accountable for sloppy and undisciplined play led to Ovechkin losing ice time and benching’s at critical times of games-- Alex Semin became a healthy scratch in Boudreau’s final days.
In stepped former Caps captain Dale Hunter, who would suffocate the Capitals offense demanding a more disciplined accountable style of play. Ovechkin could only watch, as not only did his ice time diminish but so did his goals and points.
After starting his NHL career averaging nearly 54 goals per season, he would average just 30 during the next two seasons. Although the Capitals had their greatest post season triumph during the Ovechkin era with Hunter as Head Coach, a seven game series win over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins, Dale Hunter would not return as HC. Many believed his inability to see eye to eye with Ovie and the fact that McPhee overvalued players that were not contributing or couldn’t in Hunters system was too frustrating for a man that was once considered the most frustrating player in the league to play against. Hunter elected returned to London, Ontario to the success of his junior team and McPhee would hire another former Capital to take over, Adam Oates.
On the day Oates was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame he would get the call from McPhee to be the Caps coach, McPhee’s sixth and final hire for the position in D.C. Under Oates, Ovechkin would find his offensive form, as the Great 8 would lead the league in goals with 32 in 48 games 2013 and win his second straight and fourth overall Rocket Richard trophy with 51 this season. He also captured his third MVP award in 2013 under Oates.
However, questions would begin to arise, as to how McPhee was handling player personnel moves. He failed to trade Alexander Semin at the deadline in 2012 and watched him walk for nothing--failing to replace his role or offense. McPhee did the same thing the following season with second line center Mike Ribeiro, which the Capitals never seemed to have throughout much of McPhee's final seven years. McPhee seemed to panic at the 2013 deadline when he traded a possible future star in Filip Forsberg to Nashville to get winger Martin Erat to fill a hole at left wing when young Russian superstar Evgeny Kuznetsov dropped the bomb that he was going to stay in Russia for two more seasons. Erat was injured shortly after his arrival and did not factor into the post season leaving Caps fans scratching their heads.
Although Oates' club had a good run at the end of the 48-game 2012-13 season, earning a playoff berth with Ovechkin finding his game, in reality, it was the beginning of the end. On the ice, the Capitals were just trying to play another style of wide-open hockey that ignored blue line discipline. Even though the Caps reached the postseason for a sixth straight year, the result was the same. After leading the series 2-0 against the New York Rangers, Washington lost four of the next five games, including an embarrassing 5-0 game seven loss, on home ice.
With a full offseason to work with his squad, Oates and the Capitals never seemed to gel in 2013-14. Despite several players enjoying personal best seasons, Oates’ team was uneven and consistently inconsistent, a mantra that has been all to familiar with the Ovechkin led Capitals. Washington finished with 90 points and left at least 10 points on the table by not being able to hold two goal leads late. Some of Oates’ coaching decisions seemed as uneven as his teams play on the ice such as opting to go with an ill-advised three-goalie rotation (Philipp Grubauer, Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth) rather than go with the two (Holtby and Neuvirth). At one point during the middle of the season, the Caps won four of 18 games (4-9-5), with most of those games coming while the team was unsuccessfully trying to stay in the playoff hunt with three healthy netminders on its roster.
Washington won only three of its last 15 (3-10-2) divisional games in 2013-14 and it was shutout on home ice six times, the most since suffering nine in the team’s inaugural campaign of 1974-75. The Capitals won only 28 games in regulation or overtime last season; only four clubs (Edmonton, the New York Islanders, Florida, and Buffalo) had fewer such wins. As a result, the Capitals missed the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in seven years, and that was enough to end Oates’ tenure as the 16thhead coach in the franchise’s history and McPhee’s as the fifth GM in club history.
EXITING WITH CLASS:
McPhee spoke to the media on Monday for his exit interview at the Kettler Ice Plex in Northern Virginia. McPhee was classy and to the point. “Should I start by saying fire away or is that the wrong terminology?” McPhee joked as he walked up to the podium. “I felt it was coming, but in this job, you’re 24 hours away from being fired almost any time.”
“I’m the manager and I was supposed to get it done,” he added. “I’m not going to say anything negative about anyone here. I blame no one.”
McPhee’s press conference wasn't filled with arrogance or carried a tone of "I know something you don't", as many of his press conferences did during his tenure---he was classy in his farewell. He did not play the blame game. He said he preferred to duck questions about individuals when asked about Alex Ovechkin. Instead McPhee reflected on his time and how much of it he surprisingly spent in D.C. When he joined the organization, his daughter was six months old and his son Graham had yet to be born. Last week, McPhee read Capitals scouting reports on him and his daughter is in college. Throughout his talk, McPhee praised his former players, praised his former coaches, and he praised the people that fired him. On Saturday morning, team president Dick Patrick placed a call to McPhee. An hour later, owner Ted Leonsis contacted him too.
“When I saw that it was from the office at 10 o’clock Saturday morning I thought ‘Well this isn’t gonna be good news,’” McPhee said. “Our last game was Sunday … [I didn’t want to] get whacked on Sunday night or Monday morning. I wanted a chance to just breathe a little and talk about it. I thought it worked really well.”
McPhee also said yesterday in his final gathering with the media, "We have no bad contracts on the books”, which isn’t exactly true but it does speak volumes about why this decision was not only correct, but needed and overdue. McPhee simply relied too much on players (Brooks Laich) that couldn't get it done and admitted he gave up on prospects too quickly (Filip Forsberg) to fill holes.
McPhee also spoke of how proud he was of the fans in D.C., who have been as patient as any in any professional sport. The Washington faithful ended the 2013-14 season with an impressive streak of 222 consecutive sellouts at the Verizon Center. When you factor in how disappointing the team has been over the last 18 months, that is a remarkable accomplishment considering the Redskins and Nationals are one and two in the nation's capital. The NBA's Washington Wizards returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, which ironically, is the the year the Capitals began their playoff run of six straight post season appearances. The Capitals just completed their 39th season in the NHL. Only three expansion franchises have gone longer without experiencing the feeling of hoisting Lord Stanley, the St. Louis Blues (46), Buffalo Sabres (43) and Vancouver Canucks (43). The Toronto Maple Leafs currently own the longest Stanley Cup drought of 46 years---last winning the sports ultimate prize in 1967.
What road the Capitals travel is no longer up to McPhee but the Great 8 will certainly play a pivotal role as to whether the city ever experiences the thrill of winning a Stanley Cup. Alex Ovechkin is the lone remaining denominator and should do some soul searching during the offseason. When Ovechkin looks around and realizes that the man that drafted him is no longer here and the third head coach in two years is now gone, his heart must race. He is likely to be excited, nervous and scared all at the same about the future of the team and his own and hopefully in that order. Whatever you think of The Great 8, he is a competitor and wants to win but his way and style of winning, while OK for the regular season, doesn't not work in the playoffs. Ovechkin is smart enough to know that this is truly his team now---no matter whom Leonsis and Patrick bring in. During an interview I conducted with Caps Senior Writer Mike Vogel on Sunday, Ovechkin's name is almost certainly going to a part of the hiring process. He may even be consulted on who the Caps hire. However, there is one thing Ovechkin knows for sure, If whomever Ted Leonsis and Dick Patrick bring in fail to succeed, he will shoulder all of the blame going forward. The Great 8 is the lone remaining denominator in D.C.