For the better part of three years, there has been one mantra that has been attached to the Washington Capitals: their season will be judged on postseason success. That is what happens when a team runs roughshod over seven months of the regular season before losing it all in a matter of weeks, even days.
This season, however, may be over in that same matter of weeks. After a 5-0 loss to the cellar-dwelling Carolina Hurricanes Monday, the Caps sit in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, only one point behind the eighth-place Toronto Maple Leafs and two points behind the Southeast Division-leading Florida Panthers, but only six points ahead of the last place Hurricanes entering Tuesday.
Those odds are definitely surmountable, but frankly, the best thing that could possibly happen to this current Washington team is missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Consider a macro look at this season so far, particularly since late November when Washington dismissed head coach Bruce Boudreau. Since then, the Caps have played 37 games under Dale Hunter and have won consecutive games just three times (for what it is worth, they have not won consecutive games since January 9-13). Yet, it seems that whenever the Caps put on a spirited performance in between forgettable ones – a 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins January 24 or two 3-0 shutout victories over the Montreal Canadiens January 18 and February 4, for example – everything rotten is forgotten. The Caps’ painfully-apparent lack of depth at center without Nicklas Backstrom is not as noticeable and praised for pulling together without its star playmaker; one electrifying, vintage goal from Alex Ovechkin means that he is on his way back to prominence.
None of those things, however, are true. They only stand to temporarily assuage the fears of those optimistic Caps fans with glimmers of hope in their eyes and put a proverbial bandage on the obvious problems surrounding the team: a lack of identity, killer instinct or determination. Making the playoffs would only do the same thing on a much larger scale.
Team owner Ted Leonsis said in July 2011 that the Caps “will make the playoffs…10 to 15 years in a row.” If his words come up empty, however, it might be better for his entire organization. In Leonsis’ 10-point plan to rebuild a franchise, the first point is as follows:
Ask yourself the big question: “Can this team – as constructed – ever win a championship?” If the answer is yes – stay the course and try to find the right formula – if the answer is no, then plan to rebuild. Don’t fake it – really do the analytics and be brutally honest. Once you have your answer, develop the game plan to try to REALLY win a championship. Always run away from experts that say, “We are just one player away.” Recognize there is no easy and fast systemic fix.”
Unfortunately for Leonsis, one of those “experts” resides within his organization.
General Manager George McPhee made it clear February 16 that he does not plan to make moves before Monday’s trade deadline until he knows where Backstrom stands in his recovery from a concussion suffered January 3. While a decision to stand pat at the deadline could be the best possible decision – acquiring a rental while possibly mortgaging the future would be just another temporary fix – McPhee believes that the return of Backstrom will suddenly alleviate any problems. It would certainly help, but then again, Backstrom’s return would just hide the inadequacy of the centers below him again.
McPhee has been the general manager since 1997, meaning that he is largely responsible for cultivating the “country club atmosphere” that finally forced Boudreau to inject some semblance of accountability into a team that had and continues to have none. That lack of accountability is not solely on the players; for example, Ovechkin would not have a “rock star” attitude if he was not treated like one within the organization and staunchly defended at every turn. Hunter will surely absorb much of the blame for a lost season, but he is nothing more than a scapegoat. He simply inherited a team that has transformed from “The Greatest Show On Ice” to a mere sideshow.
When Leonsis and McPhee’s attempt to win with high-priced talent 10 years ago failed, they held a fire sale to scorch the roster in order to start a youth movement. Ten years later, that same youth movement has become the high-priced talent. For a team that was selected by many to win the Stanley Cup not only this year, but in years previous, a season ending in early April as opposed to the customary late April/early May would require swift and immediate action, but not only to the roster this time.
This problem has seeped its way all the way up to the front office and an extra month to start the cleansing process will ultimately help Washington.