Washington Capitals General Manager George McPhee was the first person to stand in front of the microphone today, tasked with explaining his decision to fire Coach Bruce Boudreau, Jack Adams Award winner, fastest NHL coach to 200 wins and four-time Southeast Division champion and hire Capitals legend Dale Hunter out of Junior League OHL to take command of a team struggling to find its identity and consistency of play.
McPhee was pointed from his very first answer: “The reason for the change was we weren’t winning, obviously, and this wasn’t a slump,” McPhee said. “You can ride out slumps. This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce. When you see that, as much as you don’t want to make a change, you have to make a change. Bruce did a terrific job. We’re very proud of him, proud of the work he did for us, but when the players aren’t responding, you have to make a change.”
It’s a difficult thing, measuring the effect a coach has in the room. It’s even more difficult to make an honest assessment, stand in front of dozens of media, and explain that the players on the team — the players McPhee himself selected — gave up on a good coach. To me, it says more about the players than the coach.
“The issue was we weren’t playing very well. And I think Bruce came in here and emptied the tank. He gave it everything he could and did a really good job, but the tank was empty. When that happens, you get a new coach, where the tank is full, and see if it makes a difference.”
McPhee was asked when he knew things were breaking down, that he had to make a change. The answer was a bit surprising.
“I didn’t like some of the things that I saw in training camp, in some of the preseason games,” McPhee said. “I don’t want to put too much into that. But I was worried then. And then we had a great start, and then we started to slip up, and you have an injury here or there that you think is part of it, but ultimately we have too many players that aren’t playing well, and that’s what it comes down to. They can play better. So you have to find out how you can make them play better and we think this is the solution.”
Any discussion of the Washington Capitals has to start with the underperforming captain, Alex Ovechkin. The star winger has but 8 goals and 17 points in 22 games. The lack of scoring is one thing, but he’s often looked apathetic at best — and completely disinterested at worst — backchecking and playing defense. His running mate, center Nicklas Backstrom, hasn’t offered much more in his own end, and what’s worse, has regressed as a defensive player the longer he’s played alongside Ovechkin. When your two best players haven’t bought into your system, its unfortunately time to try a new voice.
McPhee tried to isolate Ovechkin from the root of the problem. “I don’t think this has anything to do with Alex Ovechkin,” McPhee said. “I think it’s got everything to do with this team not playing well. Our goalies aren’t stopping pucks. The defense aren’t getting the pucks out. And the forwards aren’t checking and scoring enough. It’s our whole team. It’s not an individual. We have a lot of players that aren’t playing the way they’re capable of playing, and that’s why the change is made.”
While all that is certainly true, a team takes its cues from its captain and best player, even if it’s done subconsciously. And Ovechkin just has not been invested for a while. Some track it back to the Olympic failure last year. Others assume the mantle of captaincy is too heavy for him. Whatever the case, hockey doesn’t seem “fun” to Ovechkin right now, and obviously Boudreau was unable to make it fun for him.
McPhee didn’t see another option considering the way the team has played its last 15 games. “These are always difficult decisions, but as I said, you don’t want to make these decisions, but when you see what I saw, you have to make the decision. You can’t look the other way. And I’ve seen it in a few games recently, enough that I knew the team wasn’t responding. We’ve got their attention now, and hopefully they’ll respond in the right way.”
It’s tough that a good man and a great hockey coach had to lose his job to get the attention of a few millionaire hockey players with long contracts. McPhee hopes the message gets through. But the new guy won’t suffer fools. It’s all on the players now. Because if you don’t play hard for Dale Hunter every single night, you won’t be wearing the Capitals crest on your chest for very long.