October 25, 2014

OPINION: Capitals sack McPhee, Oates; Leonsis and Patrick now on the hook

When the head coach completely disregards the main trade deadline acquisition you’ve acquired — two years in a row — you know there’s a problem.

Saturday, the Washington Capitals announced they would not renew general manager George McPhee’s contract, thus terminating a 17-year partnership. In addition, the team relieved their two-year head coach Adam Oates of his duties.

Owner Ted Leonsis and team president Dick Patrick spoke with effusive praise for both men, reassuring all in attendance at the press conference and those watching on the internet that neither men would be unemployed for very long. In McPhee’s case, it wouldn’t be shocking if he was named GM of the Canucks or Flames before he meets with the media on Monday afternoon in D.C.

Oates was a no-brainer. He misapplied assets, was inflexible and presided over a team that steadily got worse and worse possession-wise under his tutelage. Though the players — to a man — praised him on clearout day and decried that he was not the problem, in reality he was a significant portion of it this season.

As for McPhee, well…

I’ll go on record here. I think George McPhee is one of the smartest men in hockey. He keeps his business in-house, is professional under all circumstances (well, except for this), a fairly strong drafter and is a shrewd negotiator. He was responsible for the fire sale and rebuild, and has kept this team in the playoffs for the past seven years. Until this season.

McPhee has also completed some very head-scratching trades, had a couple of very notable busts in the first round of the draft, and built a team that was perennial successful but never able to get past the second round, winning just three playoff series in the Ovechkin era. He never acquired the defensive stalwart this team needed so badly.

The Caps were destined to fail this season, and it’s been coming for a while. Really, it’s been coming since they allowed their identity to be stolen following the 2010 flame-out against the Montreal Canadiens. They abandoned the high-powered, puck possession style that dominated the NHL and won a President’s Trophy and it’s been a steady decline ever since.

Bruce Boudreau was ousted, Dale Hunter fled, and now Oates is jettisoned after just two seasons.

There are a lot of executives employed across the NHL that don’t have half the acumen that McPhee has. Pray the Caps don’t end up with one of them. Change is exciting, and probably warranted in this case. But things could get worse before they get better. Will modern Caps fans — the ones that came on board as fans of the “Young Guns” — be willing to stay on through a rebuild, with a possible teardown of those players they fell in love with?

Veteran Caps fans will remember some very lean years. I’m not just talking the doldrums the team was in before they sold off Bondra, Jagr, Gonchar, Lang and Konowalchuk. I’m talking the days where there were more Red Wings fans in the arena than Caps fans in the Stanley Cup finals.   I’m talking the old days when Scott Stevens, Dino Ciccarelli and others were run out of town due to an inappropriate incident in a limousine.  I’m talking real old days, when the city almost lost the team due to complete ignorance of the District’s sporting fanbase.

You think it’s bad they missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years? You want dark days? Everything is relative, friends.

Now, let’s discuss the elephant in the room.

The Caps allowed McPhee to walk and fired Oates, under contract for another season (so they are eating that cash), yet they did not fire any of the assistant coaches. Leonsis allowed Patrick to give the news that the team does not expect to make any more changes to the staff and that they would prefer to have a manager in place before hiring a coach or conducting the NHL Draft, but don’t see that as a necessity.

Say what?

They dismissed the man that has been guiding this franchise for the past 17 seasons, yet don’t feel it’s necessary to have his replacement in place before either hiring a new coach or conducting this year’s draft? And they are retaining all the assistants, including Caps “Mt. Rushmore” members Calle Johansson and Olie Kolzig?

Really?

It’s hard not to look at this and think that Oates didn’t hire either assistant for their current position. It’s hard not to look at this — now — and think that Johansson and Kolzig were hired as public relation moves to act as a buffer to deflect criticism of the franchise out of respect for what they did as players. Neither had NHL credentials as coaches before they came here. The head coach they worked for was summarily dismissed. The GM was allowed to walk. But yet, the highly respected ex-players remain? Especially when the defense and goaltending were a source of criticism all season long, locally and nationally?

I loved Johansson and Kolzig as players as much as anyone. But their track record as coaches speaks for itself.

How can we separate Johansson and Kolzig from McPhee and Oates? How can they justify it?

The franchise is in turmoil. It’s at a crossroads. The decisions the organization — Leonsis and Patrick — make in the coming weeks and months will dictate the playing situation Alex Ovechkin will be in for the remainder of his time in D.C. Only they are responsible now. There’s no more scapegoat. There’s no more buffer or shield.

In the Ovechkin era, this organization has made promises and boasts and predictions of multiple Cups to a loyal and passionate fanbase. There’s no wonder there’s a sense of entitlement, both from the fans and the players themselves. They’ve bought in to it as much as anyone.

Make no mistake now though. Leonsis and Patrick are now directly responsible for whether or not Ovechkin takes this franchise to a Stanley Cup final that the fanbase, the team, the organization so richly think they deserve.

Here’s hoping they make the right decisions. I’m not as sure today as I was yesterday that will happen.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

Comments

  1. Gregory Burnett says:

    One subtle distinction I took from the presser was that Dick Patrick said “at this time” before basically admitting that he would let a new GM and/or a new coach handle the hiring/firing of assistants. Ted made it explicit for the GM (they would have the same latitude as McPher) but they both left it abigupus for the coach.

    Basically it seems like they cleared out the top line issue and decided they wouldnt fire anybody else (and thus take money out of hands) until the new guy comes in to make those calls…doesn’t mean nobody else is going to be fired just that it won’t happen before the new leadership makes it to town.

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