A Tough Go

Photo by the Washington Post

When the Washington Capitals hired Adam Oates this July, it was a clear sign from management and ownership that the team was going to distance itself from the system that Dale Hunter had brought to the team.  To many, it meant the possible renaissance of an offensive system that could help to rejuvenate Alex Ovechkin and play to strength of the roster while at the same time keep a sense of responsibility in Washington’s own zone.

After four games, it has been neither.

The Capitals are 0-3-1 after four games, and have led for less than three minutes total across those four games.  Only a big third period on Friday night against the Devils earned the Capitals a point and kept them from remaining the only team in the NHL without any standings points.  They are taking dumb penalties and playing poorly on the penalty kill.  It has been rough sledding, and it might be a while before it gets sighnificantly better.

No matter who the Capitals hired as their next head coach, there was going to an adjustment period, especially with a week-long training camp.  Three very different systems in 15 months is hard, even for professional hockey players.  Even teams that are established as elite, like the Flyers and Rangers, are struggling.  Hell, the defending Stanley Cup Champions have zero wins.

Other teams in the NHL with the same predicament as the Capitals, like Edmonton and Montreal, are doing better than the Capitals, but that doesn’t mean it’s been easy.  Nor are they doing it without one of their best defensive forwards, penalty killers, and leaders.  This was always going to take time.

Many have already criticized the Oates hire and his style during this short season despite the very small sample size and the fact that he has said after each loss that the Capitals are not executing the way they are supposed to and are making effort-based mistakes.  How can these comments be transformed to  an indictment of a system?  This is an indictment of the players in the locker room and the leadership in that room.

Many are running out of patience, saying that the team is built to “win now” and that the window is closing for this particular group of players to win a championship.  News flash: the window has closed on this particular group of players.  The “big four” are no more – Alexander Semin is in Carolina, Mike Green isn’t what he used to be, and Alex Ovechkin is rapidly declining while his defensive shortcomings continue to jump to the limelight.  Only Nicklas Backstrom is at a level of overall excellence that resembles that magnificent 2009-10 group.

This is no longer a team that should have the expectation to win the Stanley Cup every year.  Yeah, anything can happen, which is why the Capitals are good enough to compete in the playoffs and have the ability to make a run if they execute their new system properly in their current state.  But it’s still a longshot, and that is the reality. 

Gone are the days when a championship was something that felt like it was just a matter of time.  And that’s how I felt between 2008-2011; I know that I was not alone in feeling that way.

Now, the Capitals are in a state of transition.  It’s more obvious now than it was last spring, when Hunter neutered the offensive side of the team and ground out enough wins with excellent goaltending and defensive hockey to make the playoffs and make it to game seven in the second round.  Some of their core players are past their prime, and an inflated market last summer prevented George McPhee from adding an elite talent via the free agent market.  That was still the right move long-term, as Wild and Flames fans will learn soon, but it makes the present less enjoyable.

Filip Forsberg has confirmed his status as an elite player with an excellent season so far in Sweden, and could be over as soon as this spring at the conclusion of his European campaign.  Evgeny Kuznetsov, a gamebreaker, will come to America eventually, hopefully sooner than the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  The Caps have some other good prospects as well at all positions, especially in goal; the eventual trade of some of these goalies is sure to net more prospects or picks, or perhaps a good roster player.

With the salary cap coming down and a more balanced pool of free agents this summer, there will be fewer crazy contracts for those players and McPhee, therefore, would find it easier and more responsible to add talent to the roster.  In other words, reinforcements are coming.

These are not excuses for McPhee or Ted Leonsis, who is attached to Ovechkin and his massive contract.  This is just the way that it is right now.  McPhee is doing his best with what ownership has given him, and this is what has come out.  Transition, uncertainty, and frustration from a fan base that has been angered by rising ticket prices and a lockout that, despite what he says, was partially engineered by Leonsis as a member of the NHL’s board of governors.

So what’s next? 

We wait.  The Capitals’ first clear window has closed, and now it’s time to wait for a new one.  That’s just the way it is.

Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR.  Follow him on Twitter here for all your news needs this season.