Who should rightfully take the blame for the perpetually disappointing Washington Capitals? Today, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis made it clear that he believes mismanagement was the issue when he announced the dismissal of GM George McPhee and coach Adam Oates.
Hard to argue with either decision. Ultimately, on-ice success is the responsibility of the GM and the coach. The results just haven’t been there under the watch of McPhee, and more recently, Oates. Before failing to qualify this year, the Caps made the playoffs for six straight seasons, winning only three rounds.
But on paper, the Caps have been much better than that. A top-flight No. 1 center and a perennial 50-goal man anchoring the offense. A an offensively-gifted former Norris finalist and a dependable two-way tandem on the blueline. And a pipeline of young goaltending talent. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, and Braden Holtby (after the trade of 2013-14 Vezina finalist Semyon Varlamov). That’s essentially been the core of the Caps, and they’ve won three rounds in seven seasons. Meanwhile, handfuls of teams have won more with less.
Acknowledging the upside of the Capitals’ core, Leonsis permitted McPhee three coaching changes during the Ovechkin era. With each coach, the team underachieved and struggled to settle on an identity, while McPhee remained in place, allowed to tinker with the on-ice supporting cast. Whether you buy into the “Ovechkin is a coach killer” narrative (I do) or if you place the blame elsewhere, you can’t argue that McPhee wasn’t given ample time to reconfigure the roster several times over and prove that he’d invested in the proper core.
The dismissals today made some clear statements. First, Oates wasn’t cut out for this gig and he’s better suited, as many have argued, as an assistant coach. (Or, at least, better suited to coaching a team where he isn’t forced to coddle a superstar with a huge ego and a decade-long contract.) And Oates’ media blunders this season didn’t better his odds of being brought back another year. He publicly called out Ovechkin near the end of the season for quitting on a play, and revealed that Jaroslav Halak requested to sit out against his former team, the St. Louis Blues. With the added burden a head coach takes on in managing people in addition to systems, Oates showed cracks and eventually tapped out. The dismissal of Oates does signify ownership’s belief that the team’s potential wasn’t maximized, but more than that, speaks to the fact that at times, Oates looked to be drowning in the head coaching role.
McPhee was especially inept in his final year at the helm — look no further than the Martin Erat for Filip Forsberg trade — but his approach for the last seven years seemed to be fine-tuning the depth components of the team, believing his key pieces simply needed a different mix of role players around them. McPhee’s exit indicates the next architect of the Capitals might tear down some beams rather than landscape the lawn. Or perhaps it’s a major addition to the core that’s needed, rather than swapping a piece of it out. His successor might just be bold enough to trade Mike Green, or even consider trading (gasp!) Alex Ovechkin. Though an Ovechkin trade remains unlikely, a major move becomes a likelier possibility with the ousting of ‘GMGM’.
McPhee knew the clock was ticking. Had he not been faced with the pressure to win immediately, he would have held on to Filip Forsberg. At this year’s deadline, he went out and traded for Dustin Penner and Jaroslav Halak to strengthen a team that was at that point chasing a wild card spot. The same GM who once dealt Robert Lang for Tomas Fleischmann and a first round pick that became Mike Green had fallen into a spiral of making patchwork moves, spurred by the pressure to finally meet longstanding expectations. The roster was constantly shuffled around the core, but ultimately, no coach and collection of supporting players elevated the Caps to where McPhee envisioned his leaders would take them.
The best news of all for Caps fans? The organization is loaded with assets. It’s easier to bring in quality when you have quality in hand to parlay. The team could be one off-season trade away from contention, or they could be a couple years off. Will the new architect be bold enough to make the moves McPhee was afraid to make?