Beware: No Man’s Land

At a crossroads, George McPhee must do what is best for this franchise, even at his own potential peril. (Clydeorama)

2013 has been a season unlike any in recent memory for the Washington Capitals.  For the first time in nearly a decade, the team has gotten off to a poor start with little hope for the future.  This isn’t like 2007, where despite their significant early struggles, there was a core of dynamic young players that had the potential to carry the franchise to unprecedented heights.

With that potential realized now, at least in the regular season, that core’s prime has largely passed the Capitals by.  Mike Green, who has been solid when healthy, is still a shadow of his former self and is once again hurt.  Alexander Semin is gone.  Alex Ovechkin, whether you think it his fault or not, is grossly overpaid despite his occasional moments of true brilliance and is under fire.  Nicklas Backstrom is the only one even close to what he was between 2008-2010, and even that might be a stretch.

The result of that aging core along with a poorer than usual supporting cast this season has been, to put it mildly, disastrous for a team and an owner who expected to be competitive for at least a decade as of 2010.  The Capitals are 8-11-1 so far on this shortened campaign, which is good enough for 4th in the Southeast Division, 14th in the Eastern Conference, and 28th overall in the NHL.  In short, they are bad, and despite their recent hot-ish swing that has seen them win six of their last ten games, have shown little to prove to me, and others, that they are good enough to win the Stanley Cup this year.  That’s because they’re not good enough to win the Stanley Cup this year.

But the issue that has begun to arise, as noted in media coverage over the last two weeks as beat reporters, fans, and blogs begin their annual scoreboard watching frenzy, is that the Capitals play in the worst division in hockey, the Southeast.  Seriously, it’s brutal.  Four of the five teams in the Division are out of the playoffs.  Three of its teams occupy the 13th, 14th, and 15th spots in the Conference.  And the Hurricanes, who lead the Division, are tied for seventh in the Conference in points and have now lost starting goaltender Cam Ward for at least six weeks and possibly the rest of the season. 

As a result, many view the Southeast as being wide open despite the Capitals’ poor start, and, as such, think Washington should buy now in order to try and make the playoffs as aided by their weak division.  There will likely only be one playoff team from the Southeast, so that’s the Caps’ gateway to the dance.  But all playoff teams are not created equal, and not any team that makes the playoffs can win the Stanley Cup.  Making the playoffs is not the goal of this franchise. Winning is the goal.  And this team is not a winner; in fact, they are far away from being a winner.

When you look at the Capitals as a whole, there is no reason to expect them to all of a sudden turn it around and become a contender.  As mentioned before, their core is largely past its prime with no rebound in the forecast, their best offensive defenseman is hurt again, and their goaltenders, despite being young and supremely talented, are often inconsistent.  Their team PDO, a metric that measures puck luck, is .992.  That number, while unfavorable, is not far enough away from 1.000, the mean that the statistic corrects to, to signal that a big swing in luck is likely coming their way. 

In other words, this team is not this year’s version of the Los Angeles Kings, who made the playoffs as an 8 seed last season after adding Jeff Carter at the deadline and then went on to win the Stanley Cup in one of the most dominant playoff runs in recent memory.  The Kings were a solid team that season, not a mediocre one, competing in a division that produced three playoff teams, two of which made the Conference finals, and having star players in their prime such as Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Jonathan Quick, on their roster.  Los Angeles was trending up, attempting to arrive at their destination a little bit earlier by swinging for the fences and acquiring Carter for a relatively low price from a general manager who has been a punch line for the last 18 months.  The Capitals are trending down, not up.  They are not the Kings, and it’s not close.

What’s more, any move that the Capitals made in a desperate attempt to make the playoffs and line Ted Leonsis’ pocket with a few million dollars before bowing out in the Conference Semifinals or earlier would likely cost them one or both of Evgeny Kuznetsov or Filip Forsberg, along with several draft picks and other prospects.  For a team that is realistically not a contender and needs to look to the future, whether management admits it publicly or not, that would be one of the worst decisions in the team’s history. 

Yes, players like Simon Gagne can be had for much less than what is mentioned above, but Simon Gagne would not make this team a contender.  Plus, Washington needs more help than trading a regular player like John Carlson, Mike Green, or Karl Alzner would net (and no, I don’t recommend that course of action).  And Michal Neuvirth, who some view as expendable despite him still being viewed highly in terms of potential, would not get much back at this point that could really help the team win this year.  The only type of player the Capitals should hypothetically pursue is one they can build around, not a rental – which isn’t likely to be available at the trade deadline.

With no real chance of winning anything should they make the playoffs, Washington’s management has a decision to make.  The correct decision is easy: do not buy aging, “win now” type players at the expense of the young players in the organization.  Dump Roman Hamrlik, even if it’s for a conditional draft pick.  And if the team is clearly out of the playoff picture when deadline day comes, sell like your life depends on it.  Get rid of everything you don’t need or can sign at a reasonable price for the future.  If you’re going to be bad, be BAD.  Take your chances at Seth Jones or Nathan MacKinnon.  The worst possible thing this team can do is finish between 9thth -12th in the Conference in no man’s land, miss out on a potentially game-changing pick, and still not make the playoffs.  You end up like Calgary, who are quickly becoming laughably mediocre and have ruined their salary cap structure with big money deals as they attempt to “go for it.”  You think the team is struggling now?  Just wait until that potential plan ran its course in Washington.

Of course, this decision, despite being rather obvious to me and some others, is difficult for George McPhee to make because it may cost him his job.  Leonsis has been a loyal owner his entire tenure in control of the Capitals and Wizards, sometimes to a fault, but he may not show much patience with McPhee for a second rebuild, even a smaller one, in a decade.  I’ve been as staunch a supporter of McPhee as any over the last year, but he needs to have the guts to do this the right way and not attempt to extend this group of players’ “glory” days for another failed postseason and then get fired anyway for being consistently mediocre.  There is really only one option unless the Capitals get a franchise player in a trade.  That is the unfortunate reality here.

Please, George, avoid no man’s land for everyone’s sake.  I beg you.

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.