October 31, 2014

OPINION: Washington Nationals might have blown best chance for this group to win championship

It’s never easy, the end of the baseball season. And make no mistake, it’s over. Sure, you can follow the rest of the playoffs until its conclusion, but for fans of the Washington Nationals, the end of the baseball season came late Tuesday night in San Francisco.

It came in a bitter, frustrating, disappointing manner — they weren’t so much defeated, but done in by their own mistakes and mismanagement.

It’s an unimaginable conclusion, after winning their way to the best record in the National League to be dumped in the division series, unceremoniously, on the road, practically in the middle of the night.

Most fans would like nothing better than to praise the winners for a job well done, victors in a meritorious fashion. But the bottom line of this NLDS is that the Giants, while victors, were no better than the Nats. Neither team hit at all, rather the Nats continued to make errors and mistakes, and as one of the analysts on the terrible postgame shows said, “If you aren’t scoring runs, you can’t give away outs.”

The Giants didn’t, the Nats did.

Both teams scored nine runs in the series. Four of the nine runs came via solo home runs, three of which came from the youngest player on the team — who could be the youngest player on the majority of AA teams.

It just wasn’t enough.

Manager Matt Williams was criticized — rightly — in three of the four games for decisions he made with his pitching staff, most notably how he managed his bullpen. Veterans Denard Span, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos were non-existent.

Werth and LaRoche, the three-four hitters combined for two base hits in 35 at bats in the four games. In the game Span reached twice, the Nats won. Other than that, he was transparent. Desmond and Ramos are still swinging at sliders away.

It’s hard to fault the pitchers that didn’t come through, considering they gave up just nine runs in four games. Aaron Barrett and Tanner Roark looked in over their heads. Gio Gonzalez got rattled after a physical error. Drew Storen gave up base hits when he needed strikeouts. But it’s nit-picking.

They gave up NINE RUNS IN FOUR GAMES. They should have won all of them.

Yes, this one’s gonna hurt. They all do. But this will hurt differently than 2012 did. The Nats were one pitch away from advancing on several occasions in a ten minute period and it was ripped away from them. Most thought they weren’t ready.

This year, they were ready. Full of veterans. Playoff tested. Best record in the league. Young players coming into their own. The best starting staff and bullpen in the league. Yet, it all blew up. Rather, they just didn’t show up.

The window’s still open with this group of players, but it won’t be forever. Denard Span and Adam LaRoche both have team options for next year. We don’t know if either will be back. Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann are free agents after next season.

We have no idea where — or even if — Ryan Zimmerman will be able to contribute in a meaningful way the rest of his career.

For a team that’s as veteran as this is, there are a lot of questions. The sobering conclusion is that this very well might have been the Nats best chance to win a championship with this group of players.

And they blew it. It’s hard to type that. I’m sure it hard to read it. But it’s true.

OPINION: Harsh dose of reality for Washington Redskins after Giants beatdown

Washington Redskins fans cling to every last glimmer of hope with every fiber of their being. You can’t blame them. For 20 years, this team has been the Lucy to its fans’ Charlie Brown, holding that football out for them enticingly, only to pull it away at the last, sending poor Chuck to an embarrassing and painful fall.

The latest shimmer of hope, Kirk Cousins, went dark Thursday night, as the New York Football Giants picked him off four times and forced him to fumble yet again. Cousins has now turned the ball over an astonishing 18 times in 10 games, including 13 interceptions and five fumbles.

That’s absolutely no way to win in this league. [Read more...]

OPINION: Time For Roger Goodell to Send a Message Regarding Off-Field Player Violence

He gets booed consistently and is widely ridiculed, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is currently staring down a golden opportunity to improve his reputation and the league’s reputation with a strong and strict disciplinary ruling on Carolina Panthers’ Greg Hardy’s latest domestic violence charge.

If there’s one thing that has been a constant problem in recent years in the NFL, it’s player discipline. More and more each year, we hear about and see players getting in trouble for their actions off the field. Despite the real world rules and laws they’ve broken, they still manage to take the field on Sunday’s and make millions of dollars. [Read more...]

Capitals overpay to rebuild defensive corps in NHL free agent frenzy

When I first heard the deal the Washington Capitals handed 33-year-old (34 before opening night) defenseman Brooks Orpik, I was as apoplectic as anyone else. Well, almost anyone else.

My initial reaction: the Caps drastically overpaid — in dollars and years — for an aging, slowing, one-dimensional defenseman that doesn’t drive play. While I can appreciate the element Orpik will contribute to the team, what crusty old Canadians refer to as “snarl”, in no way is that worth $5.5 million over a five year term. Let alone, to a player that will be 39 at the end of the deal.

The analysis stands. My emotional response to the deal has mellowed a bit though.

Yes, the Caps drastically overpaid. There’s no possible way Orpik returns value on the length of the contract. With luck, the salary cap will continue to go up and he’ll be less of a burden in the later years.

He’ll add very little to the offensive side of the game. He makes a decent outlet pass, that’s about it. There’s lots of video of more talented skaters turning him inside out, and that’s going to continue.

As Caps GM Brian MacLellan pointed out, Orpik’s primary responsibility was starting in his own end and getting the puck out of it. Corsi’s not going to be kind to a player like that.

But the Caps have very precious little muscle on the back end. And that’s where Orpik can still contribute. Essentially, Orpik will be the player the Caps hoped John Erskine could continue to be. It’s debatable how long Orpik will be able to continue in that role, but we’ve got the next five years to watch it.

The next deal that the Caps made, bringing in fellow former Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen, sort of helps put the Orpik deal in perspective.

Niskanen signed a market-value seven-year deal for $40.25 million — the largest contract doled out on frenzy day. Niskanen was probably the best defenseman available on the free agent market. He’s 27, coming off his best season, and in the prime of his career. He’ll “just” be 34 at the conclusion of his current contract.

Signing Niskanen gives the Caps not just another top-four defenseman, it gives them a top pair blue-liner. Whether Niskanen plays with Karl Alzner, Orpik, John Carlson, or even Mike Green or Dmitry Orlov, it slots every one down a spot. The Caps added not one, but two top four defensemen, something we advocated in this column before the conclusion of last season.

They are now deep, talented and tough on the back end, with impressive defense coaches to guide them.

Yes, the Caps spent a lot of money on two NHL caliber defensemen. But they needed to. After the parade of journeymen and teenagers last season, the Caps now boast a legitimate NHL defensive corps.

The team has been pretty good at drafting and developing puck moving defensemen, but you can’t teach size and toughness. As much as some of us (myself definitely included) like to point to possession and skill, this game still needs an element of toughness and defensive reliability on the backline.

The Caps have failed miserably to develop anyone to fill that role, so they had to pay for it.

The Caps are banking on the idea that while Alex Ovechkin is in his prime, they have to take every opportunity to “go for it.” Tuesday proved that this “refresh” is no rebuild. Damn the future, MacLellan’s directive is obvious: patch together a team that if it makes the playoffs, will at least have a puncher’s chance in the tournament.

The addition of Niskanen and Orpik, at an exorbitant cost, prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the organization — and ownership — thinks it should be competitive.  Maybe they are deluding themselves. Maybe they know more than we think. Maybe they are chasing fool’s gold. Maybe they are just trying to pull the wool over our eyes.

Maybe in three year’s time they’ll be looking for another general manager.

But for know, the Caps were the most active team in the free agent market. That means that they have at least acknowledged that problems existed. There will still probably be dominoes to fall. When all is said and done, we can — and will — judge.

Orpik’s deal is bad. He’s aging quickly, his skating isn’t great, and he doesn’t drive play. The last couple of years of this contract are going to be painful to watch. But, at least, at the end of the day we could see a semblance of a plan, where taken at face value and on its own it looked like unmitigated and indefensible disaster.
__________________

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics. Dave also works for Associated Press, covering Major League Soccer, college football and basketball out of its Spokane, WA college sports desk. Previously, he wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network and spent four years in commercial 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.

OPINION: Time for Washington Redskins to change name

I have long resisted entering this debate, but the time has come that I commit my opinion publically, for whatever that is worth. Being one-eighth native American, I have long wrestled with whether my affinity for the NFL team that resides in Washington (technically, Virginia and Maryland, but I digress) should override the just plain wrongness of its nickname. It should not.

The Washington Redskins should change their name.

I have been a fan of the Washington Redskins since I was a child. One of my first real memories was Super Bowl VII, huddled around a small black and white television in our home in Fairfax with my mom. I remember the excitement when Mike Bass returned the blocked field goal for a touchdown, and the disappointment when the team lost to the “perfect” Miami Dolphins.

I was in high school and college during the championship years of Joe Gibbs and the Hogs and the Fun Bunch and Riggo and believed it was my birthright for my team to win the NFC East and have a chance to truly compete for the Super Bowl every year.

As an adult, I had season tickets to the games for a couple of years until the misery associated with 10-hour Sundays at FedEx Field got too much to bear.

I understand the feeling of camaraderie in being associated with a group of fans that take pride in their team. That’s what sports is all about. There’s nothing better than the euphoria when your team wins the big game. All those years going through the “bad times” are rationalized away when the team finally wins.

But that euphoria doesn’t justify institutional racism.

There are no winners in this game. The “defenders” are too busy crying “political correctness” to see the big picture, the team is too busy defending what they think are its rights, and those that are offended — truly offended — continue to suffer in silence as they have since colonial times.

There are three reasons it is beyond time for the team to change its name:

THE TERM “REDSKIN” IS DEMEANING AND PEJORATIVE

There are studies on both side of the origin of the word “redskin.” The origin of the term is immaterial. The term was widely and publically used as a pejorative for many decades and, according to the literal definition in the dictionary, still is.

It does not matter if you are not personally offended by the word, or if I am or not. it doesn’t matter if a large group — even a majority — of people are not offended. It does not matter if you use the term solely to describe the NFL team or not. It only matters that there is a segment of people — by the way, AMERICAN PEOPLE — that are offended and demeaned by the term’s use.

Like any other type of harassment, the intent of someone using the term is irrelevant to whether another finds it offensive.

That’s the very definition of institutional racism. Because so many (non-offended) people use a word that was once demeaning and pejorative in a manner that is not necessarily so, that term has now been, more or less, accepted as a society to have taken that second meaning. That, my friends, is a perfect example of institutional racism.

History shows how native American people have been systematically oppressed damn near to the point of extinction. No amount of public relations fluffery can make a dent in the damage that continues in the name of “team pride.”

Ironically, everyone that opposes the name change is a victim themselves of the institutional racism they oppose and they are completely unaware of it.

And that is very, very wrong.

THE TERM “WASHINGTON REDSKINS” NOW REPRESENTS EMBARRASSMENT

The very first thing that comes up when one identifies themselves as a fan of the team is the name debate. The second is the other person’s opinion of Daniel Snyder. Maybe the third thing is RGIII, and not how exciting a football player he is, but how the whole mess about how his injury was handled.

This is how the Washington Redskins are perceived from outside the beltway. As a joke, at best. A punchline. An embarrassment.

Not with words like “pride” or “history” or “legacy”, as the team’s promotion material so stridently tries to pull the wool over the eyes of the fervent, defending their trademarks and wordmarks until the very end.

In other words, most of the country doesn’t even think about football at all when the term Washington Redskins is brought up. Through the team and ownership’s own actions and words, the very ideals they claim that the name represents are rendered an afterthought.

There’s no talk nationally about how the team will fare on the field. It’s just the incessant talk about the name change and the dysfunction surrounding the team. Eventually, fans of the team will die off (figuratively and literally) and new ones won’t take their place because of the embarrassment associated with the team.

I think even the most fervent “defenders” would agree that the headache associated with being a fan of the Washington Redskins outweighs whatever benefit comes from the arrangement.

THE TEAM WILL CONTINUE TO MAKE MONEY REGARDESS THE OUTCOME

There have been lawsuits over the past 20 years, and so far the Washington Redskins have come out on top. Maybe that actually fuels the hubris by the organization with regards to the name change. But they face another challenge in the courts, as Wednesday’s ruling by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office shows.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Washington Redskins’ trademark registrations for the team’s name Wednesday, claiming it is “disparaging to Native Americans.” 

The case, brought to the PTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board by five Native Americans in 2006, removed six federal trademarks that included the word “Redskin”…

“The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed with our clients that the team’s name and trademarks disparage Native Americans,” Jesse Witten, the plaintiff’s attorney told Politico. “The Board ruled that the Trademark Office should never have registered these trademarks in the first place.”

The team issued a sternly-worded press release, vowing to continue its fight for its name and trademarks.

We’ve seen this story before.   And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo. [ed.--team's bold face]

 -snip-

We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal.  This case is no different than an earlier case, where the Board cancelled the Redskins’ trademark registrations, and where a federal district court disagreed and reversed the Board.

As for public opinion, well, we’ve been down that road already. But the most recent and obvious example of public opinion swaying against the team was the two minute PSA that appeared during the NBA Finals on national television, sponsored by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation of native Americans. It was moving and poignant, and of course was met with derision and contempt by “defenders”.

But eventually, public opinion will win. Scores of colleges and high schools have changed their names over the past several decades. More will follow. It’s not enough that the once socially acceptable nicknames are “history” and used with “pride” by those associated with those institutions. As we detailed above, it’s institutional racism.

The Washington Redskins, despite years of futility on the field, are still one of the most profitable franchises in the league. They will continue to do so even if forced to change the name and mascot. The NFL has a license to print money. Between the massive broadcast contracts, merchandise sales, stadium and parking concessions, and overwhelming dominance in the sporting landscape, the team will continue to thrive regardless of what it is called.

Despite their adamant defense of its trademarks and wordmarks, the team stands to heavily profit from a name change, when the eventuality finally presents itself. It is only due to the hubris of its ownership that the team still fights so fervently against public opinion and governmental interjection.

***

Going forward, as Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page I am instructing all of our writers to refer to the team as “Washington Redskins”, in full, in any mention of the team in any game story, article, analysis or opinion. We will no longer use the term “redskins” or “skins” as a stand-alone references to the team in any form.

I realize that our reach and scope is limited. I also realize that it’s a fine editorial line I’m making between the protected wordmark “Washington Redskins” and the pejorative “redskins” or “skins”. Until the team changes its name — or is forced to — we’re left with imperfect options.

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.

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 Game 82 Recap: All over but the crying

The Washington Capitals fell to the Tampa Bay Lightning 1-0, in a shootout naturally, ending their season in what most folks would consider a premature manner. It was the 21st time this season that a Caps game ended in a shootout, an NHL record. That, in itself, says a lot about this team this season.

If you polled people across the NHL this preseason, most would have accepted the idea of the Capitals qualifying for the playoffs. I don’t think anyone expected them to be serious Cup contenders, but even with the move to the Metropolitan Division, this team on paper seemed to have enough talent to survive to the second season.

But they don’t play hockey on paper, they play on ice. And this season, the Washington Capitals weren’t good enough on the ice.

There’s a large segment of fans in any fan base, but they seem more vocal here, that believes any time their team isn’t successful they aren’t trying hard enough, or they don’t “want it” enough. They equate poor play with desire. But that’s very rarely the case. Modern professional athletes are highly-driven, highly-motivated individuals.

At the very least, these players are motivated to achieve the highest success their talent can carry them to.

This season’s failures weren’t about motivation or desire. It was about talent, and mismanagement of that talent. It was about players playing out of position — intentionally. It was about a difference in philosophies between the general manager and the head coach. It was about carrying three goalie for a month and a half. It was about performance — or lack thereof — on the ice.

So while we wait to see what changes are made at Kettler this week, next week, over the offseason, the only thing for certain now is that the Washington Capitals were simply not good enough on the ice to qualify for the playoffs this season, which should provide all the motivation the organization needs to make the necessary changes to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

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.

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