George McPhee is here for the long haul. (AP)
Another season has come and gone with similar results for the Washington Capitals, to the point where what was going to happen eventually was very predictable. After an awful start, the Capitals rode a tremendous stretch of play by Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Braden Holtby to the postseason, only to be knocked out in the first round once more, this time by the New York Rangers. They lost another game seven on home ice, the sixth consecutive season that they have fallen out of the playoffs before the Conference Finals and the fourth time in those six seasons they’ve lost in the first round.
It was more of the same.
The message on Wednesday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex? Not much is going to change.
“I thought it was a really good season,” General Manager George McPhee said, dressed in a dark blue pinstripe suit. “We improved in a lot of ways. Our coaching staff was terrific. We had a slow start but really played well down the stretch and played well in the playoffs. It didn’t go our way.”
No, it didn’t go the Capitals’ way. It has yet to go Washington’s way in the Alex Ovechkin era, or frankly ever, in the postseason. The Capitals have only made the Stanley Cup Final once, in 1998, when they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in four games. Since then, they haven’t even come close, especially disconcerting given the talent that they have had over the last six or seven years.
Despite these rather alarming facts, the club, at both the player and management level, doesn’t see any reason to change their approach in terms of player personnel.
“But these guys, I’d go to war with these guys,” McPhee continued. “These are good players. Where do you get another Ovechkin? Nick Backstrom is a heck of a player. Mike Green is a heck of a player. Carlson is on his way up. We’ve got a lot of good young players, and we’ll keep going to war with them.”
“I think it’s very close,” head coach Adam Oates said. “It’s very hard to put your finger on it. It can happen. There is no magic formula, you just have to keep at it and hope that one day, sooner or later, it will happen.”
“We need to take the next step,” added Backstrom, morose as ever. “But I don’t really have a good answer for you. We talk about it in the locker room, but you gotta believe it. You gotta stick with it, and looking at the teams that have been winning, they’ve stuck with their system and their plan.”
That’s true, to an extent. Recent Stanley Cup winners, like the Blackhawks, Kings, and Penguins, stuck to their plans to build a contender and win a championship. But they did it much faster. The Penguins took three years (2006-07 to 2008-2009) to win a title with their revitalized team after their first playoff appearance with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The Blackhawks went only two seasons with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and their young guns before winning a title. And Los Angeles won their Cup within four years of drafting Drew Doughty, which completed their building core along with Jon Quick and Anze Kopitar. Washington is going on six, and with re-alignment next season hardening their task of making the postseason significantly, and the likely loss of Mike Ribeiro in free agency, there is a very real chance that it may be seven at this time next year.
This isn’t 2009 anymore, when the Capitals are clearly a team on the upswing with their best days ahead of them by most measures. This is a franchise that has now spent six years with more or less the same group of core players – the exception being Alexander Semin – and has yet to make it out of the second round. We hear the same thing every year: how injuries affected the club, how they ran in to a hot goaltender, how they didn’t get the bounces. But is that enough to justify keeping the same course? They’ve tried a coaching switch three times. They’ve tried to tinker with the system. They’ve tried to alter the supporting cast. At what point do you have to make a personnel move that shakes the franchise to its foundation?
Certainly, there is something to be said for organizational stability, but this just isn’t working. The sample size is large enough. There has to be a point where management – including Ted Leonsis – steps back and really evaluates what has gone wrong here, and how to fix it. After all, that is part of Leonsis’ “five-year plan.”
Unfortunately, it seems as though that management is clinging to the idea that this team is as good as they used to be. The players know they need to be better, and they said so on Wednesday. But from what McPhee said, it was obvious that no change is coming. McPhee and his boss, Leonsis, are focused on the fact that the Capitals have made the playoffs six consecutive years, and believe that it is the best course of action to make the playoffs continually, never really taking a step back to try and re-tool for a stronger push at a Stanley Cup.
“We have made the playoffs six straight years and you’ve got to be in it to win it,” the general manager said. “You make the playoffs and at the beginning of it, you think you can win a Cup.” Later, when pressed on the long-term ability of his team to win when it matters, he held firm to this stance.
“They’ve made the playoffs six years in a row, how many teams have done that? It’s not easy to do in this league,” he reiterated. “I think we are [built to win in the postseason], and I’m confident in that. I really like this group of players. I think we’ve done a lot of good things, and we keep trying to put a good team out there. One of these years we’ll break through, and it will be fantastic. It will be just glorious.”
To answer McPhee’s question, four teams have done it other than the Caps. Of the four other than Washington to make the playoffs every season for the past six, the Bruins, Red Wings, and Penguins have won a Cup (San Jose is the fourth). The Blackhawks, who have made the playoffs each of the last five seasons, have won a Cup. And the Kings, who have made the playoffs each of the last four seasons, have won a Cup. Making the playoffs is great, and McPhee is right that you have to be “in it to win it,” but something is off here. Insanity, so we are told, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Is firing McPee the answer? Probably not. There’s no doubt that he has made some quizzical decisions over his tenure as GM in Washington, but it’s important to note that he has made these decisions in order to please his boss more often than not. Leonsis wants to make the playoffs, and he wants a full building every night. McPhee has accomplished those goals, season in and season out, since the rebuild. People come to see the Capitals in droves, and they did so even after the lockout. The season ticket holder renewal rate remains high despite rising prices. From a business standpoint, there is no reason, at least not now, to fire McPhee.
McPhee is a smart man, and he knows the game of hockey well. He knows talent. Will a new GM be better in this regard? It’s tough to say. But one thing is for certain: any new GM will also feel pressure to do this Leonsis’ way, in order to keep his job. Does that mean that a lot would be different?
Ultimately, the reason that the Capitals have failed to reach the promised land, or come close, is a combination of several things – personnel, philosophy, coaching, and yes, some bad luck and bad bounces. But you can’t base your franchise’s direction on banging your head against the wall, hoping that it breaks through. You have to try new things in order to win. You have to alter the things you can control, and hope that the things you cannot control even out and fall in your favor.
Until the Capitals alter their approach from the very top down, I fear that the more things “change,” the more they will continue to stay the same.
And that, friends, is not the way to get it done.
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.