There’s standup, and then there’s what Gabby offered the Washington Post’s Tarik El Bashir Wednesday morning — actually agreeing with Capitals management that it was time for a change behind the bench. He actually told General Manager George McPhee, “You’re doing what you have to do.” A company man in this sport if there ever was one. He’d just been terminated from his dream job, and still his thoughts were with what was best for the team.
On November 17 the Caps were in Winnipeg, and after they’d fallen behind 4-1 after 40 minutes, most listlessly, I sensed, really for the very first time, that we were watching the onset of destruction. The very next morning I took to Twitter and made explicit my concern: “The biggest indictment of this team was the final frame. Teams with pride and character make it 4-2 or 4-3, to build on for the next outing.”
I reference this moment because when Tarik yesterday morning asked Boudreau when he sensed that things might be slipping from his control the coach pointed to November 17 in Winnipeg.
Way back in January I published a highly unflattering, highly critical two-part read on the struggling, soft and identity-challenged Caps, calling them out for operating in a what I regarded as a “country club” atmosphere of luxury, comfort and precious little accountability that, from where I blogged, undermined an ethos of night-in, night-out hunger and drive — most particularly relative to the lunch pale Capitals rosters of 15-plus years ago. You know, the types of teams Dale Hunter played on here. And last season I also pulled no punches with respect to commenting on the increasing frequency with which Washington hockey fans were taking to social media to share photos and accounts of nightclub encounters with members of the team at troubling hours, and with troubling frequency. And so it was most interesting for me to take in the NHL Network’s coverage of Monday’s drama, Monday night, and hear Billy Jaffe suggest that under Dale Hunter there could be no serious commitment to winning when it mattered without the Caps mending their “clubbing” ways, while Joe Beninati not long later alluded to a “country club atmosphere” taking hold in recent years. The Washington Post’s Tom Boswell authored what I thought was the most severe indictment of the Boudreau era, but taking pains, to his credit, to also assign blame to upper management.
“During the offseason two ex-Capitals went public about the country club atmosphere that undermined discipline on the team. Once you’ve tolerated a star system for years, how can the same coach possibly reverse the trend?”
About a week ago, right as I began sensing that things were truly boiling over, I sent email to some reporters here suggesting that Jason Arnott would be in a unique position to comment on troubles that festered last season and perhaps metastasized this. Arnott had been afforded an inside look at the team last spring and then departed town — having arrived here with great fanfare at the trade deadline as a coveted leadership asset — with nary a word said about it, and having landed quite well in St. Louis this season. To his credit again, Tarik button-holed Arnott out at Kettler on Monday. You might say that in D.C. Arnott saw a loose ship being captained.
“It’s very hard. When you let guys do what they please, what they want [emphasis OFB's], then you come in and get hard on them, it’s pretty tough.”
But by no means should Bruce Boudreau alone be scapegoated for the country club atmosphere — and Boswell emphasizes this in his column. Boudreau wasn’t in D.C. when the Caps drafted Ovechkin and subsequently devised elaborate and clever and highly successive marketing campaigns for him his first two seasons. The coddling and deification of the extraordinary talent began from day one. With Alexander Ovechkin the Capitals, for the first time in their history, had an opportunity to create their Elvis (thin and fat), and they did.
There were no larger-than-life figures on that ’98 Capitals club, captained by the legend, that made it to the Stanley Cup finals, were there? Just food for thought.
So you know that my concerns with the Caps date back deep into last season and you should know too that I opened this season with a renewal of them — I titled my season preview ‘Questions for a Hockey Club at a Crossroads.’ In it I identified Bruce Boudreau as a figure who had to demonstrate marked improvement at his job: “Much as the Capitals’ core roster has experienced growing pains in its path toward legitimate contention, so too has Head Coach Bruce Boudreau. Put bluntly: he’s underwhelmed a lot of observers with his handling of the Capitals’ recent postseasons, and in fact in the judgment of many been out-coached by less experienced bench bosses of lower-seeded clubs.”
I didn’t write this sentiment for that preview file, but I did suggest to a few of my blogger chums here that it was not at all beyond the realm of possibility that the Caps could can Boudreau at about the 25-game mark. I specifically wondered how McPhee would react if, for instance, the Caps were behind Tampa Bay in the Southeast division then. Like I think everyone else, I had no idea we’d see what we have this season from the Panthers. Anyway, my hypothesis occasioned a torrent of email protest back from my chums: “No way; he’s years left on his deal; Ted’s too cheap.” (They really wrote me that.) The Moral: When a team goes bad any GM who values his job will pull the trigger, no matter (within reason) the financial fallout.
* * * * *
I’m closing this file with a very personal feel-good story. Last night the Buffalo Sabres recalled Joe Finley. In the summer of 2010 Fins kept a diary during Capitals’ Development Camp for OFB. It was a really fun project, and I enjoyed most that Big Joe had a lot of fun with it. Meeting him for that project remains one of the great rewards I’ve derived from this blogging gig. Big Joe is a true gentle giant, truly one of the friendliest people I’ve met in the sport.
During his development time with the Caps Fins suffered injury after injury, and finally, at the end of last season, the team did what most teams do after a first-round pick fails to show some durable glimmer that all of that development investment was paying off: they cut ties with him.
Buffalo invited Fins to training camp this fall, and he showed well enough to earn an AHL contract with the Sabres’ American League affiliate in Rochester. With the Amerks Fins has been what the Buffalo News this week termed “a revelation.” Through 18 games this season Big Joe has seriously thrown his weight around (57 PIMs), and played so strongly that he’s earned a shut-down designation with the top pairing on the Rochester blueline. His +10 is best on the team. It’s a terrific story, capped by his earning this week a three-year, two-way contract with the Sabres and last night’s callup. I sent him a congratulatory note the other day, in which I somewhat jokingly expressed remorse that the Caps hadn’t held on to him one year longer, given the arrival of the new sheriff in town. He agreed.