24 April, 2014


Managing, and Excusing, the Ever Repeating Loop of Mediocrity

Cup'pa Joe

“I hope the Caps win a Stanley Cup before I’m dead.” — Kevin Fletcher, age 7, Alexandria, Virginia, earlier this week, relayed by his father on Facebook.

The definition of precocious there.

Good luck with that, Kevin.

This Henrik Lundqvist offered to the Washington Post deep into Monday night: “The great thing is we managed to win the series without playing our absolute best.”

If that doesn’t frighten you about the present and future of the Washington Capitals, nothing will. Lundqvist was commendably frank and spot on: His Rangers club, one that had to especially scratch and claw its way — utilizing the final hours of the NHL regular season — merely to qualify for the postseason, could best the Caps without home ice while receiving AWOL performances from its biggest stars: Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan. Captain Callahan, a likely leader for the American entry in next year’s Olympics, tallied his first goal of the series in Monday night’s third period of what was already a blowout by the visitors.

They were able to do this because third-liner Derick Brassard — a virtual throw-in in the deal that sent Marian Gaborik to Columbus — outscored the Capitals’ first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson.

So it’s come to this: A 6 seed in the East can bring its B game and better our Beasts of the Southeast. Again. Funny to think that a mere two weeks ago there was haughty talk about town of taking it to Pittsburgh this spring. The Washington Post’s Tom Boswell addressed this line of thinking Wednesday morning in an evisceration of the organization I’ll be quoting liberally this morning: “what universe are they living in?”

What the Rangers did to succeed — box it in tight, hurl bodies hundreds of times in front of pucks, make life in front of the net miserable (aka HockeyUgly, which in the NHL postseason is quite beautiful), patiently counter-punch — was strikingly similar to what the 8th-seeded Habs did to D.C. in round one of 2010. A bit of a broken record, wouldn’t you say? The names of the coaches here have changed, a few of the names of the perimeter players have changed, but the maestro remains. Convene the premature end-of-season presser, ladle out the excuses, rinse, repeat.

The early excuses this offseason got a bit creative, and included a conspiracy theory against the Caps articulated by the team captain, heretofore believed to have appreciably matured during this abbreviated season. The GM, for good measure, more or less sided with him. Coach Tortorella, exercising the vanquisher’s prerogative, gazed upon Washington’s fourth or fifth alleged scandal of intrigue this spring and mocked.

I will, without tinfoil cap, weigh in on the series’ officiating: it fairly sucked. It had curious, sustained periods of utterly aberrational one-sided-ness. Then again, this is the NHL. But we deserve better from our captain — in performance and reflection — and I think Tortorella’s not being entirely petty when he suggests that the Caps’ focus on the zebras distracts somewhat from the larger mission.

Moreover, the Capitals have earned the disrespect they perceive to receive from the league when moments get big. They’re legacy recipients of dissing. When the Pittsburgh Penguins have queer arena bookings in spring, it’s the Capitals who are asked to accommodate (jeopardizing their competitive integrity in the process). When the league expands to the American Southeast, the Capitals are cherry-picked to join the newcomers, watering down well developed Mid-Atlantic rivalries and neutering the appeal of the home slate. Remember three years back when the 2011 Winter Classic was announced, and how Mr. Leonsis made a point of boasting that he had extracted from the league “a promise” to bring that game to D.C., and in short order? Well four years later there will be six outdoor NHL games contested next season, and not only won’t the Capitals be hosting one, they won’t be playing in any of them.

Until they prove otherwise, the Capitals — for good reason — are viewed by the league as Small Timey, an entity that can be trifled with. And when you have two faces of organizational leadership proffer conspiracy theories in postseason pressers, that only reinforces Small Timey sensibilities. Respect in this league isn’t easily earned; going on 40 seasons in the NHL the Capitals most assuredly haven’t earned it.

I have a ton of respect for the heroic Boston Bruins this spring, and even greater appreciation for what Monday night’s miracle likely meant to that sports-mad city this particular spring. Being in Verizon Center Monday night, I was unable to view Boston’s unprecedented, unfathomable third period comeback in that game 7. I saw the hero goals when I got home. With Rask pulled and less than 2 minutes remaining, the immovable Milan Lucic made it 4-3, swatting home a rebound from about 18 inches out in front of the Leaf cage. The tying goal came some 30 seconds later, with the equally immovable Chara serving as a crease screen for Patrice Bergeron. Intriguing strategy in desperation moments of a postseason, crashing the net with brute brawn. Be nice if that was tried in D.C. one of these years.

Very interesting sidebar to that Boston Miracle: After game 6 Sunday night the Bruins learned that their charter home was sidelined with mechanical issues. That’s no time for serious travel woes. Recall the Capitals’ travel travails in the leadup to game 5 of their 2010 series with Montreal (Fog-gate). The Bs on Sunday quickly decided to make a restful night of it in Toronto and travel home the next morning. The Caps of course opted to leave their players on a stranded jet for hours and ultimately deliver them home around 5 a.m., subsequently missing out on a practice with that series’ momentum swiftly altered. Winning organizations, I posit, win for reasons large and small.

In the early hours of yet another colossal Capitals collapse, however, some influential natives aren’t stomaching the annual double-speak, sophistry, and — again quoting Boz, “delusional denial” — coming out of Kettler. Boz, in fact, led the wood-shedding Wednesday:

“When you have a general manager who has been in his job 16 years but hasn’t been to the Stanley Cup finals since his first year and that GM builds teams designed to win in the regular season and fill up the rink for his boss but not to weather the demands of the playoffs, why would you think he’s going to win it all?

“When you have a star who was made captain not because he deserved it but in the hopes that it would prod him to get in better shape, cut down his carousing and show some leadership, why be shocked when he scores fewer goals (one) in a first-round exit than Rangers fourth-liner Arron Asham?

Clever artwork by Jamie Mottram

Clever artwork by Jamie Mottram

Interesting themes there, no? How many GMs in contemporary pro sports avoid a pink slip over a decade-and-a-half plus without ever achieving anything? And the matter of the fraudulent captaincy rises again. Mere weeks ago we were supposed to believe that running roughshod over the Southleast — earning yet another Trophy for Trying banner — was vindication. Boz has something to say about this, too: “it’s the soft Southeast Division universe, a kind of parallel world where you play pigeons all season, then meet birds of prey in May. Next year, the Caps will fight for a playoff spot against the Pens, Flyers, Rangers, Isles, Devils, Columbus and the ’Canes. Life is about to get a lot harder.” It is indeed.

Already of course the team is pitching optimism for next season: Laich and Erat (would you do that trade again?) will be healthy, the blueline is solidified in a comparative sense (compared to the previous 8-10 seasons), Oates is a fine coach, and he gets Ovi and Ovi gets him. But every spring reveals essential flaws that architect McPhee can’t or won’t acknowledge. Marcus Johansson is a really nice kid, a wonderful skater, and he works really hard, but he is not an elite talent. Wonderful passes come his way from across the ice and most often they die on his blade. In this organization he skates on the top line. John Erskine again had a season whose sum was greater than his component parts, but he is not a top 4 blueliner in this league. But he is on this team.

The Capitals lose when it matters not because of conspiracies against them but precisely because of how they’re assembled. And perpetual losing when it matters, which is this organization’s legacy, is an added burden every rendition in red skates with, no matter how spiritedly they suggest otherwise. That plays a part in their choking away so many game 7s, so many sizable series leads. The region now has red-clad 7-year-olds who know this.

Here’s the Post’s Mike Wise cutting to the chase: “Taught early in this business to root for good stories instead of teams, I nonetheless feel the Capitals are annually telling me what they keep telling their emotionally beaten-down fans: Don’t get your hopes too high because we’ll eventually dredge out your aortic valve with a backhoe.”



8 Comments

  1. sonja wrote:

    Yeah … I dunno, if you were trying to make a case that there is no conspiracy, you actually proved the point that maybe there is some kind of extra hurdle that the Caps must overcome in order to win each round that is not placed in front of other teams. We who sit at home (or in seats at VC) can postulate all we want about how officiating shouldn’t matter … but when it’s that lop-sided it can break a team’s heart. Why try if the way you played all season is suddenly penalty-worthy? It was ridiculous … they were only 9th in the league for PIMs during the season, but suddenly for no reason they were at the most undisciplined team in the league? That doesn’t make any sense …

    16 May, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink
  2. Andrew Tomlinson wrote:

    Here is the thing with Teddy boy and GMGM. It seems Ted is merely content to fill the stadium during the season and collect the “gate.” His whole diatribe about how he “does this for the fans” sure does fall on deaf ears when he continues to raise ticket and beer prices.

    Until Ted decides he wants to win something GMGM will stay. He doesn’t care about the fans, he just cares the fans keep buying sweaters and regular season tickets.

    Need proof Ted isn’t that keen on finding the best person to be a GM? Look at the number of centers GMGM has either drafted or acquired since about 2003, it is over 20. How many are still here? How many were legitimate options?

    16 May, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink
  3. Greg wrote:

    I don’t think the average, unbiased person would say game 6 was an even playing field. However, it was a 1-0 game. Teams with heart find a way. The Rangers didn’t benefit from the power plays as they scored 5 on 5. Good 5 on 5 teams are successful in the playoffs because, let’s face it, the NHL has proven that their playoff officiating is abysmal. Look at the Caps teams that were regular season heroes… All big time champs on the power play. We were #1 again this year. When that dries up in the playoffs, you’re left with scoring even strength. The Caps weren’t all that good even. The one thing that annoys me most of all is Dale Hunter. Red rockers whined and moaned about his style of play. The team wouldn’t co-operate until the final week or so of the season. Then we go out and get beaten by a team that plays the same style and they DIDN’T PLAY THEIR BEST. What’s that tell you? I got sick of morons posting on the Washington Post that Dale didn’t know hockey. He was a bad coach. He was incompetent. Well, in one season, with the team barely buying in, he got to the 2nd round and was a sniff from the conference finals. Imagine if they bought in earlier. Imagine if the captain didn’t have to be benched for not following Dale’s plan. Red rockers were furious at Dale for sitting our big goal scorer. They said that Alex wasn’t scoring because he wasn’t getting the minutes. We would have beaten the Rangers and advanced if Ovi got his way. Guess what? Ovi got his way this year. 42 minutes of playing time in the last 2 games produced only excuses, not goals. By the way, what was Dale doing on Monday night? Leading his team to the OHL title with the London Knights. A team that he’s the GM for as well. Yeah… He doesn’t know hockey.

    16 May, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink
  4. You’ve given me a great deal to agree with, Greg. Of course there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Coach Oates, but I share your perception that Coach Hunter was too easily derided and dismissed as a boorish, out of touch knave (especially by WaPost columnists). I’d love to have seen Steve Oleksy compete under Dale. But he wasn’t ripened last season as a pro. A fun what if. As it relates to team discipline, again I concur. McDonagh was steamrollered by Ovi in game 7, and instead of retaliating — a la Green and Erskine in game 6 — he just skated back to his bench, well bloodied.

    16 May, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  5. penguin pete wrote:

    As the only Pens fan who loathes the likes of Lemieux and Malkin, while adoring Dale Hunter, let me say this:

    I love you, Greg.

    16 May, 2013 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  6. "Boo" Patty wrote:

    “George McPhee has Ted fooled.” That statement was said to me by a player over a couple beers. It’s that simple, until Ted realizes that the Cup is more important than profit, look for another organization to support. McPhee is classless and arrogant, nobody can dispute that and it infects everyone. Bad news for the guys that actually want to win the Cup.

    16 May, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink
  7. Mark wrote:

    It’s hard to defend McPhee with his long record of playoff underperformance, but what is a GM’s job? He needs to assemble a team that can compete. It’s the coach and players who have to find a way to put the puck in the net and keep it out of theirs. Is Holtby as good as Lundqvist? No, but Holtby kept them in 6 of 7 playoff games this year. After other years, people said the team needed more grit. Oleksy, Chimera, Hendricks, and others are a big improvement than some of the lightweights who have failed before. And people hate Green, until he scores, and then they love him again.

    My only argument to fire McPhee is that it would show that Ted has lost his patience and demands a (playoff) winning team. Remember Ted’s five-year plan? First, get in the playoffs. Then, win one round. Then, win another round each year. It’s time for Ted to admit that his plan has failed, and make the needed changes. This team has never won more than one round in the Ovechkin era, and we’re well past five years.

    16 May, 2013 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  8. "Boo" Patty wrote:

    @Mark….A GM has an influence that is far greater than assembling players. It is about culture, character, respect and an overall atmosphere that shows everyone within the organization is on the same page. The exact opposite is currently in place. The article mentioned Hunter but it’s worth saying that Hunter is probably the first coach to fire the team.

    16 May, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink