The Washington Capitals are in last place in the NHL. The Columbus BlueJackets who shipped out Rick Nash over the summer are ahead of them. The New York Islanders who struggle to hit the salary cap floor are in playoff position. The Washington Capitals with one of the highest salaries in the NHL have the worst goal differential, sit in last, and worse do so in a division that has been widely regarded as the weakest division in the NHL for a decade.
Current General Manager George McPhee has been with the club since 1997. During that time, despite numerous high draft picks, the Capitals have not achieved as much under his leadership as they did in the past. Since McPhee took charge of the team they have never made it out of the Conference, most years they don’t even make it past the first round. This despite having had incredibly potent offenses year in and year out.
Over the sixteen years of GMGM’s tenure six coaches have been named. Ron Wilson who has had success elsewhere, Bruce Boudreau who probably spent more time trying to figure out the fastest way to get to his new office than he did looking for a job when he was relieved of his duties in Washington, Dale Hunter of major junior’s model franchise the London Knights, who after sixty games and a playoff round won bid sweet adieu to McPhee’s house of madness.
In drafting they’ve had both good and bad, but the bad certainly outweighs the good. Under McPhee, they’ve cashed in on can’t miss first round talents like Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, John Carlson, Carl Alzner and Nicklas Backstrom. It’s hard to say that that missed on the top end of the draft. Sure things that any of them were, its not hard to see how this could be conflated with general draft success. But taking a look a bit deeper in the draft shows the McPhee administration has done little more than cash big checks made out in their name and delivered by courier directly to their hands.
Real draft success isn’t just what you get in the first round. Take a look at the Vancouver Canucks, like the Caps nearly all their most impactful players are from the first round. When they faced off against the Bruins, they had little in the way of grit, plenty of skill but aside from Bieksa and Kesler, nothing and no one who knew what adversity was or how to overcome it. The Washington Capitals have added players who have both grit and ability, but no impact players with it.
The Los Angeles Kings, like the Pittsburgh Penguins before them, turned to Rob Scuderi to help out their blueline, and the delivered to the tune of nearly 22 minutes a night through the playoffs. Where’s the gritty cornerstone for the Caps? More importantly, where’s the stability behind the bench to point out that person as a rock and roll model and take push other players to be more like them.
Coaches aren’t alone in being run out of town on a rail. Alex Semin spent two years in the KHL, likely in part to avoid the scapegoating for all the teams ills that became the norm that saw him depart the team for a second time, on this occasion signing with division rivals the Carolina Hurricanes. Then Captain Chris Clark was traded during the 2009 season, in fact he was dumped to the bottom feeding Columbus BlueJackets. Then Captain Jeff Halpern was allowed to walk away in free agency. In all there have been seven captains of the Washington Capitals during the reign of George McPhee. In the same time period the Los Angeles Kings have had three, the Montreal Canadiens have had three, and even the Boston Bruins who are on their fifth general manager since McPhee took office have only had three captains.
What has taken place for many of the last sixteen years in Washington has been shuffling the deck chairs as the ship sinks. The guys on the ice don’t play like a team. Sure Chimera and Ward are guys who get it done and leave nothing on the ice unless it’s blood and teeth, but they’re not going to get the team to a championship by themselves.
Ovechkin who has been played on his off wing is the current scapegoat. People are saying he doesn’t care (after years of complaining he enjoyed goals being scored too much) and yet in addition to his thirty plus goals a season, he puts his body on the line to well over 200 hits a season a number about 50 higher per than Shea Weber and eclipsing Zdeno Chara as well. Additionally, year over year his blocked shots count has climbed steadily. While it is doubtful that Ovechkin will be shortlisted for the Selke award anytime soon, it is worth noting his blocked shot totals have been comparable to Jonathan Toews, who plays a lot more short handed than does Ovechkin, meaning that Alex is doing more at five on five than he’s being given credit for in some circles.
The question for Ted Leonsis isn’t what player or coach is failing him. The question isn’t even if the person currently assembling all the bits and bobbles is capable of creating a winner, that answer is readily apparent. What the Capitals owner needs to query himself and his advisors over is what to do with the man who has had far longer than most general managers to produce and not only failed to do so, but failed to recognize the underlying problems with his own system. Whoever follows McPhee, and for Caps fans, may it be soon, will have a huge task to shoulder.