April 20, 2014

What went wrong with the Washington Capitals, Part 2: Coaching

The Washington Capitals were officially eliminated from the playoffs last week, something few fans and analysts anticipated at the start of the season.

By failing to reach the postseason for the first time since 2007, the Caps were clearly one of the more disappointing teams this season. This is part two of a three-part series looking into what went wrong for the Caps. Last week, we looked at general manager George McPhee.

This week, we’ll look at the man behind the bench, Adam Oates.

One reason why this season was such a disappointment is because of the success Oates had in his first season as coach. After a 2-8-1 start to the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, the Caps rallied to win the Southeast Division and make their sixth consecutive postseason.

This was especially impressive given the fact that Oates did not have the time in the offseason or a camp to instill his new system and coaching style with the team; he had to take control on the fly and the team responded.

Oates’ initial success made everyone believe the team would thrive in his second year with a full offseason.

That didn’t happen.

So a first-year head coach was able to take over an NHL team with no offseason and lead them to the playoffs, but in his second season the team flounder even with a normal offseason schedule. Doesn’t that seem backwards to you?

Indeed Oates took a huge step back this year with baffling personnel decisions, a stubbornness to change or acknowledge those things that weren’t working and his complete inability to give this team any sort of identity.

Oates got things started early in the season with his handling of Tom Wilson.

Wilson averaged less than eight minutes a game even though McPhee made clear at the beginning of the season that he wanted him to receive significant minutes.  About the only thing Wilson has been allowed to do this season is fight.

Part of the reason he was brought to the NHL was to protect him from players targeting him in the OHL to make a name for themselves. Luckily Oates was there to protect him from those 18 and 19 year olds by throwing him to the wolves in the NHL.

If we are going to talk about personnel, we have to talk about Jay Beagle.

Perhaps the most curious move Oates made this season was moving Beagle to the top line to play with Alex Ovechkin at a time when the team was in desperate need of points.

Just one year ago, Oates stuck Ovechkin with Beagle and Joey Crabb when Ovechkin wanted to move back to left wing. It was a not-so-subtle hint to Ovechkin that if he did not commit to the switch to right wing, he would be stuck with a line he could not produce with.

In one year Beagle went from a ‘punishment’ center to the actual top center. Take a guess as to how well that move worked.

Ovechkin’s line was allowing more goals than it was producing and Oates added Beagle, a more defensively responsible forward, to the top line in an effort to fix the problem.

Dale Hunter’s solution for this was to simply bench Ovechkin, so I applaud Oates’ effort to find a more viable solution, but this move was doomed from the start.

Beagle is a ‘defensively responsible’ forward because he can’t produce offensively. At all. His career high in points is nine, set this season. Even though he played more games this season (62) than he has in any other season in his career and spent time playing with the best scorer in the world, he still managed only nine points.

What really bothers me about this move other than the fact that it didn’t work was that it vilified both Beagle and Ovechkin. Beagle is everything you want in a fourth line player; he works hard, he has an imposing frame which he’s not afraid to use, but he is a horrendous option for the top line. Continually throwing him on the top line where he doesn’t belong exposes his flaws and does not endear him to the fans. He does his job well, but by asking him to do more than he is capable of Oates made Beagle look and feel like a detriment to the team. That’s not fair and it’s not right.

Ovechkin also came under intense scrutiny in the back half of the season as his plus-minus continued to drop, but he can’t improve his plus-minus if he’s skating with someone who can’t produce offensively.

Did the top line allow as many goals with Beagle? No, but they didn’t score any either.

Ovechkin did not score a single point while skating with Beagle. Instead of allowing more goals than they were scoring, the top line just stopped scoring.

And yet Oates would not back down. This experiment should have lasted only a few games, but it went on for two weeks. When asked, what did Oates have to say? “I thought that line hasn’t hurt us.”

What team was he watching?

It was this kind of stubborn refusal to acknowledge any of his team’s struggles or make necessary changes that made this season so frustrating.

The team needed a top six forward and Oates kept Martin Erat on the fourth line until he was traded. The roster is very weak on the left side, but Oates put Dustin Penner on the fourth line after the team traded for him. Oates kept Dmitry Orlov cycling back and forth between Washington and Hershey so many times that he demanded a trade. Oates rode Philipp Grubauer into the ground and refused to play Michal Neuvirth even though that was the only way to raise his trade value. Oates continually played Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer on a line despite the fact that they are two players with two similar playing styles and did not produce offensively together.

McPhee’s hands were also tied in terms of building a roster given Oates’ insistence on playing each player on their shooting side, thus limiting McPhee’s options. Even when he did bring in players that seemingly fit what the team needed, Oates refused to use them.

McPhee may be at fault for not bringing in players that Oates would want to use, but Oates is at fault for not utilizing an optimal lineup.

You can’t convince me that it is better for the team to have Beagle on the top line and Erat and Penner on the fourth. I can’t quantify what giving players like Erat and Penner more time would mean in terms of the standings, but the Caps ended up only three points behind Detroit for the final wildcard spot. Keeping good players on the bench for much of the year could very well have been the difference between a playoff berth and an early summer vacation.

The only way Oates could have justified his puzzling line combinations would be if these players better fit the team’s identity, but there’s a major problem with that argument:  the team doesn’t have an identity.

Can anyone tell me what this team’s identity is? Are they a run-and-gun offense? A defensive stalwart? Grinders and hard-workers? A trap team? A two-way team? Opportunistic? They are none of these.

The fact is even after 82 games I don’t know what they are.

The ultimate failure of Oates this season is that he was never able to instill an identity into the team, unless you believe that identity was bad-turnovers leading to odd man rushes and a complete reliance on the power play. Given that this isn’t Oates’ first season with the team, that is a particularly egregious failure.

The only way you could characterize the Caps this season is by what they did poorly. They could not hold on to two-goal leads, constantly allowed goals after scoring, could not score at even strength, and literally could not win without scoring three goals or more, going 0-25-7 when scoring two goals or less.

These are mental and systematic mistakes that all reflect on the coaching.

Given the roster Oates was handed to start the season, the Caps should be in the playoffs. Is it a championship caliber roster? No, it had some holes, but it was better than how they played.

Oates is a great assistant coach, but that may be his ceiling. He was hired because he was the architect of New Jersey’s power play and had ideas on how to resurrect Ovechkin’s offensive prowess. He accomplished both feats and put together a productive third line, but he did little else.

Ovechkin, Brouwer Jason Chimera and Joel Ward all had great offensive numbers under Oates’ tutelage. Ovechkin even led the league with 51 goals this season.

Before you hail Oates as an offensive genius, however, consider this: 24 of Ovechkin’s 51 goals were scored on the power play where he continues to play on the left side. Nearly half of his goals came on the side Oates moved Ovechkin away from.

Oates didn’t fix Ovechkin, he fixed the power play.

Oates can believe in whatever theories or ideas he wants, but the results from his first full season as a head coach have been downright awful. He is the definition of a meddling coach, tweaking everything from playing side, stick curves and even goaltending style. When things went bad this season he blamed everyone else throwing players like Ovechkin and Jaroslav Halak under the bus all while sticking to his guns on the questionable decisions he himself had made.

In his first season, Oates showed Caps fans a lot to be hopeful for, but that was just not the case in year two.

Next week, I’ll take a look at the players to see what went wrong on the ice.

Caps clearout day provides more questions than answers

Washington Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates addressing media during Clear Out Day at Kettler, 4/14/2014 (Photo: Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Washington Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates addressing media during Clear Out Day at Kettler, 4/14/2014 (Photo: Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

The Washington Capitals conducted their clearout day and final media availabilities with the players on Monday, following the final day of the regular season, having been bounced unceremoniously from playoff contention with three games remaining on the schedule. None of the questions that were present before the day started had been answered before the day was over.

As in, who will be directing this organization going forward and who will be this team’s coach?

General Manager George McPhee is squarely on the hot seat. Head coach Adam Oates and his coaching staff’s status probably hinges on McPhee’s job security. On Monday, there was no resolution to the situation.

During the day, news that McPhee had met with owner Ted Leonsis and President Dick Patrick surfaced and that McPhee would not meet with the media during the day. But later, while the media was meeting with Mike Green, McPhee surfaced briefly, only to tell the assembled media that he would talk “in a couple of days.” It was a surreal sidebar to an already stressful day.

McPhee had no reason to appear in this instance, with the media already having been informed that he would not speak. Yet, here he was — very briefly — telling the media what we already knew and nothing more.

Never, in his 17 years, had McPhee not addressed the media on clearout day.

Later, when Oates was made available to the media, the head coach indicated that he had not spoken with McPhee or Leonsis yet, and that he did not have any indication of his continuing status with the team. He did indicate that should he be retained, he would return his entire coaching staff. Oates also said that though he had talked to a couple of players individually, he had not met with the team as a group since before Sunday’s finale and did not have formal exit interviews scheduled for any of the players, though he had hopes that would still happen.

“Some of the decisions are above me that have to be told, and I haven’t been told either way,” said Oates.

“I would say that me and my staff, we really enjoy coaching here, love coaching the guys. I feel that we’ve started a little process in terms of what we want from them in terms of how they’ve got to improve. We’ve got to improve,” Oates said. “Of course I want to coach the guys. But whatever happens, whatever’s best for the organization. That’s fine.”

Oates, for his part, answered every question directed his way by the assembled media in earnest. But as with McPhee, he’s twisting in the wind.

While Leonsis and Patrick contemplate the future of the franchise, both McPhee and Oates remain in limbo.

There are many ways this scenario can play out. The most obvious is the team is deliberating whether or not to retain McPhee and they needed some time after Monday’s initial meeting to decide. Another possibility is that McPhee was given the option of whether or not to return and it is he who is undecided. Yet another possibility is that the team has invited McPhee back with conditions — an assistant GM or executive between McPhee and team President Dick Patrick — and McPhee is deciding if that’s a situation he’d find tolerable.

But all of these scenarios are simply conjecture. We don’t know anything, much like how we went in. All that we know is McPhee met with Leonsis and Patrick, there is no resolution, and Oates hasn’t spoken with anyone about anything, including his players.

Opinion: Washington Capitals five biggest changes needed for 2014-15

The Washington Capitals missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. There wasn’t enough talent on hand, the talent available was mismanaged and there was discord between the front office and the on-ice staff. Missing the playoffs should finally be motivation to make the changes necessary for the Caps to truly contend for the Stanley Cup.

Here are the five biggest changes needed by the Caps as they enter what could be offseason full of change and drama.

1) Settle the General Manager and coaching situations.

It’s widely rumored that GM George McPhee’s contract expires following the NHL Draft. Adam Oates has another year on his contract. There’s plenty of evidence (Martin Erat, Dustin Penner, Dmitry Orlov, the goaltending situation, Tom Wilson) that McPhee and Oates’ talent evaluation doesn’t mesh. Somewhere between Ted Leonsis, President Dick Patrick and McPhee, the Caps need to decide who’s going to be in charge of this latest reboot. [By the time you read this on Monday, changes may already have been made.]

Oates’ insistence on players skating on their strong side has handicapped the organization. He’s tried to switch wingers to center (Martin Erat, Eric Fehr) and centers to wingers (Mikhail Grabovski). He played the world’s greatest goal scorer with Jay Beagle as his center on purpose. He’s banished players that were traded for by McPhee to the point of rendering them useless. His systems are indecipherable. In short, the Caps have been a disaster on the ice, much less than the sum of their parts. That falls on Oates.

McPhee is far from blameless. In fact, the collection of defensemen McPhee provided for Oates to employ this season was embarrassing, After the top combo of Karl Alzner and John Carlson, every single defenseman the Caps played this year was flawed. Mike Green isn’t nearly the offensive weapon he was during his back-to-back Norris Trophy finalist days. He still drives play, but his defensive shortcomings and gaffes often lead to bad goals. Orlov is a work in progress — talented, but raw and impetuous. The rest simply aren’t yet, or are no longer, NHL caliber. And it’s been like that the entirety of Ovechkin’s illustrious career. That falls on McPhee.

Either or both could be replaced for 2014-15, and it’s imperative the Capitals figure it out before the draft.

2) Seriously upgrade the defense.

People have said for years the Caps need a “stay-at-home” defenseman, responsible for shutting down opponents’ top lines. But the problem lies deeper than that. The Alzner/Carlson duo are good, but not great. They are a No. 1 pairing in name only. That results in a trickle-down effect. The Caps have some young talent (Orlov, Connor Carrick, Patrick Wey, Madison Bowey), but only Orlov is really close enough to the NHL level to contribute meaningfully next season, despite the experience Carrick gained this season.

The Capitals need to acquire 2-3 legitimate NHL defensemen, including a puck mover. If they can acquire a true top-pairing defenseman — probably via trade — they should do all they can to make that happen, then fill in the other spots with veteran free agents.

3) Improve play at 5v5.

The Caps were one of the worst teams in the league in puck possession, and has gotten consistently worse throughout Oates’ tenure. The team is lackadaisical and sloppy in its own end, the breakouts are unorganized, team defense suffers from lack of structure and focus, not to mention talent level.

One of the biggest problems for the Caps is one of the simplest: attempting to exit their own zone with the puck. Oates and Calle Johansson have instructed the defensemen to get rid of the puck within a second and a half of gaining possession. The idea is that if the puck is being passed, the defensemen aren’t putting themselves in danger of having their head separated from their bodies. While those instructions might have provided better health for some of their blueliners, it also neutralizes much of what makes those players effective.

Mike Green, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov — hell, even Jack Hillen — are puck-moving defensemen. McPhee drafted or obtained these players with the idea that these guys are strong skaters and can carry the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone, therefore setting up the offense.

But Oates’ and Johansson’s instructions to chip the puck to the neutral zone has instead stymied the offense. Wingers now have to battle for pucks in the neutral zone instead of setting up the attack. Instead of even attempting “dump and chase”, the Caps end up playing “dump and change”, so tired from fighting puck battles that they have to dump and go for a line change.

Either the players or the system has to change.

4) Reduce the team’s salary burden ever further.

McPhee did a great job at the trade deadline to reduce the Caps salary constraints next season by dealing Martin Erat and Michal Neuvirth. He — or whoever will be in charge — should go even further by buying out Brooks Laich (pending health) and/or trading Mike Green.

The Caps already have a good deal of cap space next season, currently $14.2 million. But Laich accounts for $4.5 million against the cap and Green’s hit is a staggering $6.083 million. Neither player is anywhere near what they were when they signed the deals.

Laich was — emphasis was — a 20-goal scoring two-way player. He was equally adept on the power play as he was on the penalty kill. He could fill a center or winger role on a scoring or checking line. But a groin injury sustained while playing abroad during the lockout has destroyed his past two seasons. When he has been able to take the ice, he’s been completely ineffective.

Green was — emphasis was — a two-time Norris Trophy candidate. He possessed singular skill at the position, producing back-to-back 70 point seasons. But again, accumulation of injury (concussions, groin, shoulder) has reduced Green to a shell of the player he once was. His nine goal, 29 assist season wasn’t bad, but the production pales in comparison to the expectation — or paycheck.

Buying out Laich and trading Green would free up another $10 million plus against the cap, giving the Capitals even more flexibility to go about rebuilding this team.

5) Inspire and motivate Alex Ovechkin — or trade him.

Alex Ovechkin is the most valuable asset the Washington Capitals possess. He registered 51 goals in 13-14, but had one 5v5 goal in the last two dozen games. Some of that has to do with Oates’ curious choices for his linemates, some of it was the result of the Caps’ systems, and some of it lies with Ovechkin himself.

His revitalization the past two seasons has occurred on the strength of the Caps prodigious power play. But the team’s inability to drive play at 5v5 has crippled any chance of this team to be successful. While Ovechkin has never played defense with the enthusiasm he utilizes on offense, at times this season he showed open disdain playing in his own end.

Ovechkin himself said the team pays him to score goals. That much is true. But it also pays him to sell tickets and the brand. And he can’t do that cruising through the neutral zone while his man streaks through the slot en route to another goal. This organization has to find a way to motivate Ovechkin to at least make consistent effort in playing defense. He doesn’t even have to be good at it. But as the captain of the team, he at least has to look like he’s trying.

At this point, Ovechkin is part of the problem. No, he isn’t going to be confused for a Selke finalist. But as captain, he needs to be more involved in all aspects of the game. He needs to show effort in every facet of his game. He needs to be a leader. It’s always been said that Ovechkin is a “lead by example” type of leader. Right now, the example he’s setting to Evgeny Kuznetsov and other young players is that defense and accountability doesn’t matter — that he’s above the rules. That’s not acceptable.

It’s simply not enough for Ovechkin to score 50 goals for this team. If it was, they’d have won multiple Cups by now as Ted Leonsis promised they would. If Ovechkin isn’t able or willing to invest the requisite effort to provide a better example to follow, then the organization should seriously consider trading him to a team where he wouldn’t have to carry that burden.

Washington Capitals eliminated from playoffs; Plenty of blame to go around

Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals were officially eliminated from playoff contention. There will be no second season when the 2013-14 regular season concludes on Sunday. It’s the first time since 2007-08 the Caps haven’t taken part in the tournament for Lord Stanley’s Cup. It’s a drastic, severe and unexpected wake up call to the entre organization: the status quo is no longer good enough.

There have been plenty of pixels generated already — enough to kill a virtual forest — about the demise of this once-proud franchise. Most articles try to isolate the single determining factor contributing to the Caps missing out on this year’s playoffs.

But there’s plenty of blame to go around.

We can start back in 2010, when the Caps were bounced form the first round of the playoffs by Jaroslav Halak and his teammates with the Montreal Canadiens. It was the result of that playoff series loss that general manager George McPhee and then-head coach Bruce Boudreau allowed the Canadian media to dictate how the Caps should play. It was, in effect, the beginning of the end of this franchise’s identity.

Boudreau tried to instill a hybrid of his high-flying offense with the left wing trap, and it was a disaster. It was akin to asking a thoroughbred to pull a plow. The team was disjointed and distracted, and eventually Boudreau paid for his indecisiveness with his job. He said later, while coach of the Anaheim Ducks, that it was the biggest mistake of his coaching career, allowing others to influence how he should coach his players.

McPhee went overboard, bringing in Caps Mt. Rushmore member Dale Hunter to take the helm. Hunter had terrific experience guiding major juniors with the London Knights, but had no NHL coaching experience whatsoever. He promised a balanced system between offense and defense, but no such thing happened.

Hunter’s ultra-conservative approach and lack of tact and communication with his players led to a practical revolution. For Hunter’s part, he bolted the minute the team was bounced after a second-round loss to the New York Rangers after playing three months of coin-flip hockey.

Enter Adam Oates. Oates came to town promising to fix the power play and reinvigorate Caps superstar Alex Ovechkin. He succeeded in both, but little else.

Oates got a pass during the lockout season, but even after a full training camp and full season under Oates’ tutelage (along with first-time NHL assistants Calle Johansson, Blaine Forsythe and Olie Kolzig), it’s still almost impossible to decipher Oates’ systems.

The Caps were mired all season on the wrong side of possession metrics. Their breakouts resembled little more than defensemen — instructed to carry the puck no longer than two seconds at a time — chipping the puck to the neutral zone and hoping the forwards could recover loose pucks. The idea of “dump and chase” became “dump and change” as the Caps spent too much time getting out of their own end all they could once they did so was to go for a line change.

Meanwhile, Oates, buoyed by the success Ovechkin was having nominally playing right wing, insisted playing wingers and defensemen on their natural wings, to the detriment of many. He exiled top-six forwards Martin Erat and Dustin Penner – traded for valuable assets — to fourth line duty, driving Erat out of town in less than a season and neutralizing any benefit Penner might have brought to a playoff chase.

The team carried three goaltenders for six weeks over the winter, turning to untested minor leaguer Philipp Grubauer for a long stretch, completely ignoring Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby at times. Eventually, Neuvirth was shipped out unceremoniously at the trade deadline and alienated Holtby, who should be this franchise’s future between the pipes.

All the while, the defensive crew McPhee gave Oates to work with was not up to NHL caliber. The team shuttled AHL journeymen, over-the-hill has-beens and teenagers through the defensive ranks all season long. Rookie winger Tom Wilson made the team, but was relegated to less-then-fourth line minutes, averaging fewer than eight minutes a night, often doing little than punching and getting punched while burning a year off his ELC.

It’s so bad, last week when Alex Ovechkin notched his fifth 50-goal season, it was little more than a footnote — or a punchline — instead of something to celebrate as the “Great 8″ has been a victim of scorn all season as the only man to lead the league in goals and plus/minus as pundits conveniently ignore the fact that Ovechkin’s linemates have a shooting percentage lower than four percent.

And as for that infamously negative plus/minus, Ovechkin has done himself no favors being lax on defense to the point of gliding thought the neutral zone while his man streaked into the slot to score last week. Ovechkin remains engaged and motivated in the offensive end of the ice. In his own end, it’s a crapshoot between distracted and outright contempt for defense at times.

Where’s the joy of the gap-toothed superstar leaping into the glass after a goal, or wearing an oversized floppy hat and sunglasses in an NHL All-Star skills competition. We haven’t seen many glimpses of that Ovi around here for quite some time. He may never be back.

We haven’t even mentioned Ovechkin and his Russian teammates’ spectacular failure on their home ice in the Olympics, or Nicklas Backstrom’s “doping” scandal, where his team-prescribed allergy medicine got him embarrassingly dumped from Team Sweden’s gold medal game.

Like I said, plenty of blame to go around.

Where do they go from here?

Well, following Sunday’s season-capper against Tampa Bay, it will not be surprising to hear that the Caps expect to replace the entire coaching staff, or at least the head coach and defensive coordinator. In addition, the ownership and executive committee may very well want to relieve McPhee of his duties — if McPhee, who is rumored to be in the final year of his contract anyway, even wants to return.

Owner Ted Leonsis famously said once this team, this organization, was built to contend for multiple Stanley Cups — that it was only a matter of time. Time is running out. The Caps this year wasted another year of the primes of Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom. A new coach or new GM may decide that Ovechkin is part of the problem. Wanting to put a new stamp on the organization — especially if the new regime is bent on a disciplined system — Ovechkin could very possibly be shipped out as well.

At this point, nothing is off the table. This is a franchise at a crossroads. The next week or two could bring many changes to an organization that has tried to maintain a status quo of making the playoffs and taking their shots, but eventually bowing out before many thought they would — or should.

Stay tuned. Things could actually get worse before they get better.

What went wrong with the Washington Capitals, Part 1: The Front Office

The Washington Capitals are on the verge of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and fans want to know why. This is part one of a three-part series looking into what exactly went wrong for the Caps this season.

This week, we’ll look at everyone’s favorite front office target of frustration, general manager George McPhee.

When you’ve been the general manager of one team for 17 years and that team has only made it past the second round of the playoffs once, you’re bound to take some criticism.

When you’re the general manager of a team with a talented star like Alex Ovechkin and you’ve failed to build a team capable of challenging for the Stanley Cup, well, pretty soon you’re going to have to explain to owner Ted Leonsis why you should still keep your job.

Quantifying the impact a general manager has had on a team in a single season is extremely difficult since he doesn’t lace up the skates or stand behind the bench, but a good starting point is to look at the team’s roster at the start of the season.

Teams often look very different from one end of a season to another with injuries, trades and the myriad of things that can take place over 82 games, but the starting roster can give us a pretty good idea of what the general manager expected from his team.

Here were the line combinations for the first game of the season on October 1 in Chicago:








Holtby starting, Neuvirth on the bench. Aaron Volpatti, Jay Beagle and Steve Oleksy were healthy scratches.

Two things jump out immediately. One, the Caps have no left wings and two, the defense is pretty thin.

McPhee is handcuffed a bit by head coach Adam Oates’ philosophy/obsession with playing players on their stick-shooting side, making it more difficult to build up a full roster, but even so this is pretty weak.

Of the forwards playing on the left, Jason Chimera is the only natural left wing. Marcus Johansson began as a center and though it seems he is much more suited to being a winger, setting up a roster with him on the top line is a lot to ask.

The defense is a mess and one that has hung over the team’s head all season long.

Karl Alzner and John Carlson are both serviceable top two defensemen, no problems there. Whether Mike Green is still a top defenseman is debatable given how awful he can be defensively at times, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for now.

Who rounds out the top four on defense?

John Erskine? He would struggle to make the roster of any serious contender in the NHL and he was injured to start the season (he went on injured reserve at the end of October).

Dmitry Orlov? He started the season in AHL Hershey and has shown this season he still has some developing to do.

The Caps have been trying to solve this problem all season long as demonstrated by the fact that the Caps have had 14 different defensemen play.

Is this a terrible roster? No. There are several other NHL rosters that look much worse. The Caps problems are not simply due to a terrible roster as I don’t think anyone could argue that the Caps have not underachieved this year.

If the roster does not compare with some of the NHL’s worst, however, neither does it compare with the NHL’s best.

In a salary cap sport, no team can be constructed without certain weaknesses on the roster, but to say the Caps could challenge a team like Chicago or Boston with the roster McPhee constructed heading into the season is laughable.

Putting a team together short a top four defensemen and without a top six left wing is like trying to fix a ship with a hole in the bottom by giving it a new coat of paint; it’s still going to sink.

Part of the problem is that the moves McPhee has tried to make to improve the team have been completely rejected by Oates, and that has been a major problem both this season and last season.

McPhee and Oates just are not on the same page.

Even though we are focusing on this season, allow me reach into last season to help illustrate my point.

The Caps needed a top six forward and to play left wing so McPhee traded the highly touted prospect Filip Forsberg to bring in Martin Erat (and Michael Latta).

Erat shoots left and was a consistent 50 point producer in Nashville, but he started this season on the fourth line.

I doubt Oates could have soured on a player so quickly that he could go from the top line to the fourth in one offseason. That suggests that Erat was not the type of player Oates wanted in the first place.

That episode repeated itself this season with the deadline acquisition of Dustin Penner. Again, McPhee found someone who seemingly fit the requirements, but Penner was rejected even faster than Erat and already has been demoted to being either on the fourth line or a healthy scratch.

I would argue McPhee’s deadline moves this year were geared more toward freeing up salary cap room for next season than they were about improving the team, but I also don’t think McPhee would have bothered bringing Penner in if he didn’t think the team would benefit in some small way from his addition to the lineup.

Clearly Oates disagreed with what McPhee saw, something McPhee should have been aware of before making the trade.

Am I defending how Oates has handled these players? Absolutely not. Oates’ personnel decisions have been puzzling to say the least and I will talk more about that next week, but the clear disconnect between general manager and coach is something they should both be held accountable for.

Those unfortunately are not the only examples of poorly handled personnel situations.

Before the season, McPhee was adamant that he wanted Tom Wilson to get significant minutes if he kept him in the NHL this season. Wilson is averaging 7:42 in ice time, not exactly what anyone would label ‘significant.’

Dmitry Orlov spent most of the beginning of the season not in Hershey or D.C., but in his car commuting back and forth as he was being continually called up, unused then reassigned back to Hershey.

In January when the Caps had three goalies on the roster, McPhee told the media repeatedly that it was hard to trade a goalie like Michal Neuvirth when no one had seen him play in over a month. He might as well have held a giant banner saying “DEAR OATES: PLAY NEUVIRTH.”

Oates responded by starting Neuvirth only twice after his return from injury and then not even dressing him until Philipp Grubauer was sent back to the AHL, no doubt in part because he was struggling with having to share practice time with the two other goalies on the ice.

Connor Carrick is not eligible to play in the AHL playoffs this year because he was not on the AHL roster at the deadline on March 5. Why? Well clearly he’s too valuable to reassign to Hershey even for the day as evidence by him being a healthy scratch for the last nine games.

I guess McPhee thought the 19-year-old didn’t need any postseason experience or development time.

There’s a reason three different Caps publicly asked to be traded this season. The Caps have been a dysfunctional team both on and off the ice. A share of the blame belongs to Oates, but the mishandling of so many players ultimately falls on McPhee.

I am not here to determine whether or not McPhee should get fired; it’s easy and lazy to say a team should clean house after a bad season. The question I believe Ted Leonsis has to ask himself this season is whether or not he believes McPhee can step outside of the comfort zone he has hidden inside for several years and make the tough moves that need to be made to salvage this team.

With superstar players like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the core is in place to build a winning franchise. That’s what makes this season so baffling frustrating.

We are not talking about whether McPhee should be fired because he failed to live up to the fan base’s unrealistic expectations, we’re here because this team isn’t even going to make the playoffs. We’re here because the Caps have wasted a year of Ovechkin and Backstrom’s careers by throwing a clearly incomplete roster on the ice and failing to fix recurring needs for several seasons.

A top four defenseman has been a need for quite awhile now, but instead of addressing the problem, McPhee resigned Erskine.

Granted, top defensemen are hard to find. They don’t grow on trees, but neither do Stanley Cups. After several years of failing to produce either, you’ve got to look at the person in charge and wonder just how good of a job is he really doing?

Tough moves are going to have to be made to get this team back on the right track. Can McPhee be trusted to step outside that trap that so many general managers fall into as they try to protect ‘their’ players? Will he be willing to cut bait/trade players like Mike Green, Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, Braden Holtby, etc. if it will make the team better?

Hired in 1997, McPhee currently has the third longest tenure among NHL general managers behind only New Jersey’s Lou Lamoriello and Carolina’s Jim Rutherford.

He’s also the only one of those three to not produce a Stanley Cup. He’s going to have to prove he deserves that 18th year.

Next week, I’ll take a look at the head coach to see just where he went wrong behind the bench.

Goalie dilemma: Halak’s success raises offseason questions for Caps

In 2012, a 22-year-old goalie with only 21 games of NHL experience managed to lead a seventh place team over the defending champions in the first round of the NHL playoffs.

That goalie was Braden Holtby and his sterling .935 save percentage during that postseason run had the Washington Capitals within one game of the conference finals. Though the team’s playoffs hopes were dashed yet again, the collective feeling around D.C. was satisfaction over the fact that at least now, the Caps had their goalie.

Two inconsistent seasons later, the Caps’ future in net doesn’t seem so certain.

Holtby’s play has been incredibly erratic the past two seasons. He has shown flashes of the brilliance we saw in 2012, but also has a tendency to let in soft goals. Fans aren’t the only ones concerned as highlighted by general manager George McPhee’s trade for Jaroslav Halak.

Halak has played well since coming to D.C. and as a result has started in nine of the Caps’ 12 games since his acquisition. So with the team in desperate need of points to make the playoffs, McPhee traded for another goalie and Oates turned to him three out of every four games.

You can see why there may be some questions.

Halak is a free agent at the end of the season. According to capgeek.com his salary is $4.5 million. At 28 years old, he’s going to want a sizable contract somewhere in that range and all indications are that he will test free agency. Keeping him around will therefore be expensive.

It would also most likely mean trading either Holtby or Philipp Grubauer.

When Grubauer was called up in the winter thanks to an injury to Michal Neuvirth, he showed that he is just about ready for the NHL. Having three NHL goalies is not a good situation for anyone involved. If the Caps decided to bring back Halak or bring in another free agent, they would have to ship off one of the two incumbents to make room.

If the team was so quick to turn to someone else when they needed the points, why would they suddenly feel good about handing the reins back to Holtby? Wouldn’t it make sense to trade him?

Before you kick Holtby out the door, however, remember that he is still 24 years old. He’s not old and worn out, he’s young and still developing. Goalie coach Olaf Kolzig also is coaching the team’s goalies to play deeper in net this season, meaning Holtby, a usually aggressive goalie had to learn a new style of play. (LINK!!!!!!!)

One could easily argue that it is too soon to give up on Holtby.

Whatever the Caps decide will likely depend on how they finish the season and who is making the decisions.

It would be hard to deny Halak’s impact if the Caps manage to make the playoffs. Earlier in the season, according to analyst Joe Micheletti, McPhee said he felt inconsistent goaltending has cost the team 10 points.

If Halak can orchestrate a run to the playoffs, the Caps will have to at least explore the possibility of either bringing Halak back or bringing in another goalie through a trade or free agency to find more consistency in net.

McPhee, however, like most if not all general managers is partial to his own prospects. Given that he drafted both Holtby and Grbauer, McPhee would be loath to give up on either and turn the team over to a newcomer in net. It doesn’t mean he won’t, as we’ve seen Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth traded away, but it does mean that McPhee would be more reluctant to do so than another general manager.

It has been widely speculated, however, that McPhee will not return after this season. Though every decision he has made in 2013-14 seems to indicate otherwise, a change in general manager is always possible in the NHL.

A new general manager would bring a new perspective to the team’s goalie situation. He may see a team that was inconsistent in net all season, played better after trading for Halak, and conclude that the team therefore needs a new netminder.

After the 2012 playoffs, Caps fans assumed Holtby would be the team’s starting goalie, but that doesn’t mean people around the NHL felt the same way. The new general manager could be someone who never liked Holtby and felt 2012 was a fluke or it could be someone who likes him just as much as McPhee. We don’t know.

The point is that with a new general manager, Holtby won’t get the same benefit of the doubt as he would from someone who drafted him and was here to experience what he did in that first postseason run.

If you’re a Holtby fan, you want McPhee to stick around.

Of course all of this depends on who the next general manager turns out to be. The bottom line is that the Caps have three goalies right now and only room for two. At least one won’t be around next season. Who will be left standing?

Big changes needed for Caps to contend for Cup in balance of Ovechkin’s career

Caps Captain Alex Ovechkin and Alternate Captain Nicklas Backstrom presented Mike Knuble and his family with a Sea-Doo on behave of the Caps players (Photo by @jlrpuck))

Will Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom ever play for a Stanley Cup? (Photo by @jlrpuck))

With the postseason slowly slipping away from them with every loss, the Washington Capitals have quietly put themselves in prime position for the offseason. With the NHL’s salary cap expected to go up and major revisions to the defensive corps on tap, the salary restraints being lifted could not have come at a better time.

How they use that cap space, and who makes those decisions, will shape whether this team will contend for a Stanley Cup during the balance of one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the league’s career with the Caps.


GM George McPhee essentially pulled off the world’s quietest fire sale during last week’s deadline. He shed the team of Martin Erat’s $4.5 million and Michal Neuvirth’s $2.5 million. Both players wanted a fresh start where they could be a bigger part of a team’s plans; the team wanted to shed their salaries. McPhee moved both players without acquiring NHL contracts they’d be on the hook for past this season.

In the process, the team acquired UFA G Jaroslav Halak and LW Dustin Penner. Both veterans were immediately inserted into the lineup with the idea they could add a presence to help the Caps qualify for the playoffs this season. It hasn’t really worked out that way as the Caps have lost five of its past six games — and now stare a three-game west coast swing right in the face.

The organization can spin the trade deadline acquisitions all they want, but the moves were all about clearing cap space for the offseason.


With the Caps locking up D Dmitry Orlov to a two-year deal on Thursday — and finally bringing on forward Evgeny Kuznetsov after his contract expired in the KHL, the Caps have just three free agents heading into the offseason: the aforementioned Halak and Penner, and C Mikhail Grabovski, the past offseason’s major acquisition. Grabovski, who has been hurt much of the second half of the season, signed a one-year, $3 million deal to come to D.C. this year to re-energize his career after being relegated to the doghouse in his last season in Toronto. He was hopeful to put up big numbers and earn a multi-year deal.

It looked like he was well on the way to driving his salary up into the $5-6 million range, with a hat trick on opening night (courtesy of a couple of tip-ins) and 12 goals and 21 assists in 50 games. But the injury that has kept him out of the team’s past 17 games has really hurt him, which may make him easier to re-sign as the season nears its conclusion.

As for Halak and Penner, it’s debatable whether the Caps have any interest in re-signing either one. Halak is a good, dependable starting goalie in the league, but he’ll be expensive as a free agent. He’s of the age where he’ll want a 4-5 year deal, and with Braden Holtby (and Philipp Grubauer in the wings) it doesn’t seem like that’s the route the Caps would go, unless they have a major change of heart.

Penner is a big, rugged winger who has failed to register a point in five games since joining the Caps. In 49 games with Anaheim this season, he had 13 goals and 19 assists and hasn’t eclipsed 20 goals since the ’10-’11 season. He’ll be 32 at the end of the season, and has spent his entire career up until the past week and a half in the Western Conference. With Adam Oates’ reluctance to play him on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom, it isn’t a stretch to see the Caps allowing Penner to walk without so much as a second thought.


The Capitals have one more buyout available (they used their first on Jeff Schultz) and it’s quite possible they might exercise that buyout this offseason. They have two prime candidates: F Brooks Laich ($4.5 million cap hit) and D Mike Green ($6 million).

Laich, 30, signed a long term deal a couple of seasons ago when he was a 20-goal scoring, two-way forward capable of playing on the power play as well as the penalty kill. He was a versatile player, able to move among the top three lines in a variety of positions. But the groin injury that’s robbed him of most of the past two seasons has really cut into his availability and reliability, as well as his production. This season, Laich has eight goals and seven assists in 50 games and is currently not practicing at all while trying to remain available for games.

Green has always been a liability in the defensive end. The fact that his possession numbers remain decent is hidden by the fact that when he gets beaten, it’s often ugly. He’s a target for opposing forecheckers, and that wear and tear has resulted in several head injuries in the past three seasons. In the past, the Caps were willing to live with Green’s inadequacies, but he’s just not putting up the kind of numbers that made him a two-time Norris Trophy finalist. His eight goals and 27 assists this season are nothing to sneeze at, but hardly worth the $6 million per annum Green counts against the cap.


According to Capgeek.com, the Capitals — with Orlov’s new contract and the Laich/Green albatross contracts — will have a little over $14 million to spend under the expected cap available to sign free agents or bring in players via trade.

Obviously, it the team buys out either Laich or Green, they’ll have even more money to spend. Buy one out (Laich) and trade the other (Green) and the Caps would have a cash bonanza to work with.


So if the Caps have all this money to play with in the offseason, where should they spend it? The simple, fast answer is on defense. The Caps have a dependable pair of defensemen in Karl Alzner and John Carlson, even if the opinion of the two is a bit inflated within the market. We’ve detailed Green’s shortcomings. If he was paired with a reliable, dependable defense-first partner, his shortcomings could be mitigated better. Right now, he’s paired with Orlov, who’s prone to his own bouts of turnover-itis in his own end.

The rest of the staff has been filled with has-beens (John Erskine), never-weres (Alexander Urbom, Tyson Strachan) and youngsters just barely out of high school. The Capitals have some promising young blueliners, but Connor Carrick, Nate Schmidt, Cam Schilling and Patrick Wey have all been overmatched, and Madison Bowey is still a couple of years away in the grand scheme.

A cursory glance at the top UFA defensemen provides a sobering moment when considering how the Caps should spend their money. There’s just not that much available on the open market that one might consider a “Top-4″ defenseman. Certainly there are some useful players out there that could bump Carrick, et al. back to Hershey for another year of seasoning to seriously upgrade the bottom pair. But how likely are the Caps to lock up an older player for several seasons to play in the third pairing, blocking the youngsters?

The Caps need to get better on the blueline from the top down, not the other way around. And it’s going to take going to the trade market in the offseason to do that.

If the Caps want to add to the forwards roster (and if Laich is let go, they would certainly be in the market) there are some interesting players still in their prime available, including Thomas Vanek, Paul Stastny, Jussi Jokinen and Matt Moulson, in addition to their own Grabovski and Penner.


The biggest question might be: Who will make these decisions? It’s no secret that both GM George McPhee and coach Adam Oates (and the rest of his nascent coaching staff) are on the hot seat. McPhee has build this team into a seasonal playoff team, if not a Stanley Cup contender. If the Caps were to miss the playoffs this season, the organization would miss out on that nice chuck of playoff revenue, which in turns hurts the bottom line throughout the system.

There are plenty of folks inside and outside of the Beltway that wouldn’t mind seeing a new manager put in charge of re-energizing this franchise. McPhee’s detractors point to exactly zero trips past the second round since the team’s Finals appearance in McPhee’s first season at the helm. At some point, just making the playoffs isn’t good enough.

But McPhee has overseen a rebuild before. And the moves he made at this past trade deadline didn’t seem like the moves a man in fear of his job security would make.

As for Oates, everyone wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially the way he was able to help Ovechkin get back to being the most lethal goal scorer on the planet. But the fact of the matter is that the Caps have steadily been in decline in terms of puck possession since he took over. The puck movement in the Caps’ own end has been amateurish at times. And instead of playing dump-and-chase, too often the Caps are relegated to playing dump-and-change, taking so long to get out of their own end that all they can do at the end of their shift is head back to the bench.

Add on the fact that the Caps aren’t above 50 percent in the faceoff dot, and it all adds up to a team that seems to still be searching for an identity under the first-time head coach.

Head coaches in this league have been let go for less.


With 15 games left in the regular season, it’s still early to write this team’s epitaph. But the writing’s on the wall. Losses in five of the last six games and the brutal schedule ahead leave the Caps solidly behind the eight-ball in terms of postseason play. Most simulators have them with less than a seven percent chance at qualifying for the playoffs.

Whether they sneak in or not, big changes are needed if the Washington Capitals indeed want to compete for the Stanley Cup in the near future. Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom aren’t kids anymore. Every year that this team can’t truly compete in the second season is wasted. The Caps need to make some big changes soon, or the duo will go down not only as the best players in this generation to not win a Cup, but not even play for one.

And that would be a shame for all involved.

NHL Trade Deadline brings more questions for Caps than answers

The Washington Capitals were busy at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline. Out went Michal Neuvirth and Martin Erat; in comes Jaroslav Halak and Dustin Penner. General Manager George McPhee made a couple of moves that might help this team sneak into the playoffs this season, though back-to-back losses this week to the team immediately ahead of them in the standings, the Philadelphia Flyers, makes that task that much more daunting.

But that’s immaterial. The real benefit of these moves will come in the offseason, when the money comes off the books.

Halak and Penner are both dependable NHL veterans and will contribute on the ice. Had they been here since Day 1 this season, things might look a little different for the Caps. But neither player lines up at the Caps biggest weakness, on defense. It’s there that the Capitals hope that the return of undersized puck-moving defenseman Jack Hillen will give the team the boost it needs on the blueline.

But Wednesday’s loss to the Flyers, with Hillen in the lineup, provided no evidence that will be the case.

Hillen was primarily responsible for the Caps’ first goal against, when Sean Couturier outmuscled Hillen to a puck near the Caps blueline, then fed a streaking Claude Giroux who beat Braden Holtby cleanly with a backhand after deking the Caps’ netminder.

This isn’t a critique of Hillen in his first game back. But expecting Hillen to be a difference-maker on the defensive squad is akin to putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. The team probably needs to add two NHL-caliber defensemen to the roster; a legitimate shutdown defender, the type teams have to game-plan around and another rugged defenseman that can skate. It’s easier said than done.

McPhee said Wednesday after the trade deadline that those types of players just weren’t available. A look at the defensemen that did get moved (Rafael Diaz, Andrej Meszaros, Nick Schultz) is evidence of that. Useful players, but not the types teams sacrifice assets to bring in. McPhee said the players already on the payroll were as good as what got moved today and while any of the three previously mentioned players would knock a Caps player or two back to Hershey, it’s certainly easy to see that true quality defensemen didn’t get moved at the deadline.

This isn’t to defend McPhee. The team he put together this season was woefully inadequate on the back end and it’s proven to bite his team night in and night out. And he couldn’t — or wouldn’t — find a dance partner at the deadline to address that issue.

But in the long run, the moves he made today will help the Caps out — not necessarily in making the playoffs, because I think that damage has already been done. Bringing in two players who are unrestricted free agents at the end of the season opens quite a bit of money for the Caps to have available to go fishing during the offseason, either via free agency or taking on other teams’ overpriced veteran players. Considering the salary cap is expected to go up next season, the Caps could be sitting pretty.

That’s the real benefit from the deals the Caps made this week. Removing Erat and Neuvirth’s salaries from the books for next season opens up a world of possibilities. If they use their second compliance buyout on Brooks Laich, there would be even more money to go around.

Could they re-sign Mikhail Grabovski, Penner and still go out and pick up two NHL defensemen? That would be expensive, but with the money the Caps could have available, anything would be possible.

This week’s moves amount to a well-hidden fire sale. McPhee brought in two veterans that might help the Caps sneak into the playoffs, but they are both on expiring contracts — and he moved a significant amount of money off the books. The real benefit will be in the offseason. This week’s moves were not the type that a man fearing for his job security makes.

Washington Capitals acquire defenseman Klesla, prospect Chris Brown for Erat

Washington Capitals general manager George McPhee is a busy man these days. Tuesday morning he acquired LW Dustin Penner from the Anaheim Ducks, in the afternoon he shipped disgruntled winger Martin Erat, and minor leaguer John Mitchell, to the Phoenix Coyotes for veteran defenseman Rostislav Klesla, forward prospect Chris Brown and a fourth round draft pick in the 2015 draft.

From the press release on Brown:

Brown, 23, played in six games with the Coyotes this season, collecting 17 penalty minutes. In addition, he recorded 35 points (14 goals, 21 assists) and 68 penalty minutes in 51 games with the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League (AHL). Last season, Brown led the Pirates and all AHL rookies in scoring (29 goals) and ranked tied for third in the AHL with 14 power-play goals. He also made his NHL debut.

During the 2011-12 season, Brown recorded 29 points (12 goals, 17 assists) and 66 penalty minutes in 38 games with University of Michigan (CCHA), setting career highs in assists, points and penalty minutes. Brown led all Michigan rookies in 2009-10 with 28 points (13 goals, 15 assists), and led the team with seven power-play goals in 45 games. He was also named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team. Brown registered 80 points (34 goals, 46 assists) and 183 penalty minutes in 125 regular season games during his three-year career with the Wolverines. The Flower Mound, Texas native was the first ever Michigan recruit from the state of Texas.

And info on Klesla:

Klesla, 31, collected four points (one goal, three assists) and 24 penalty minutes with the Coyotes this season. The native of Novy Jicin, Czech Republic, is a 14-year NHL veteran who has played for Columbus and Phoenix. The 6’3’’, 215-pound defenseman has appeared in 659 NHL games, recording 159 points (48 goals, 111 assists) and 620 penalty minutes. Additionally, Klesla has collected nine points (two goals, seven assists) and 11 penalty minutes in 23 career playoff games. Klesla was originally drafted by the Blue Jackets in the first round (fourth overall) in the 2000 NHL Draft.

Both players will report to AHL Hershey for the time being.

With Erat’s $4.5 million off the books for this year and next, McPhee now has some flexibility under the salary cap to address the blueline in a meaningful manner. Of course, every team in the league that considers itself a playoff caliber team would like to upgrade its defensive corps this time of year, but McPhee is a lot better off now to do it than he was a day ago.

Washington Capitals acquire Dustin Penner from Ducks


The Washington Capitals traded the fourth round pick they acquired from the Anaheim Ducks back to its origin and acquired veteran forward Dustin Penner, the team announced on Tuesday.

The 31-year-old, 6’4″, 240 left-handed shot should join Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom on the team’s top line, giving the Caps a big-bodied, experienced running mate for their best players.

From the press release:

Penner, 31, is a 10-year NHL veteran who has played for the Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim. The 6’4’’, 247-pound forward has appeared in 571 career NHL games, recording 307 points (150 goals, 157 assists) and 352 penalty minutes. In addition, Penner has collected 35 points (13 goals, 22 assists) and 58 penalty minutes in 78 career playoff games. Penner won the Stanley Cup with the Ducks in 2007 and with the Kings in 2012.

This season, Penner has recorded 32 points (13 goals, 19 assists) and 28 penalty minutes while playing in 49 games for the Ducks. The Winkler, Manitoba native ranked fifth on the team in goals, sixth in points and assists and tied for fifth in plus/minus (22).

Penner will wear jersey No. 17 with Washington.

The move costs the Caps very little in terms of trade assets and, for now, Penner fits under the salary cap with Jack Hillen and Aaron Volpatti both on long-term injured reserve. But Hillen is expected to be activated before Wednesday’s game against Philadelphia, so there could be more dominoes to fall.

With the move, GM George McPhee signals that the Caps aren’t folding their tents and expect to make a late push to qualify for the playoffs. This could be just the first of several moves in advance of Wednesday’s trade deadline.

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