April 24, 2014

All quiet on the Kettler front (for now)

Despite some conflicting reports the other day from two trusted sources (and both good friends), it’s been almost two weeks since the end of the Washington Capitals season, and the fates of GM George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates are still unknown.

To recap: the team announced on breakdown day that McPhee had met with owner Ted Leonsis and president Dick Patrick, and would not address the media that day. Later in the day. McPhee did poke his head out and verified that yes, he did meet with the brass and that they would meet again but he would not speak until that happened. He has not spoken to the media since.

On the same day, Oates did address the media and indicated that he had not spoken with McPhee, Leonsis or Patrick and was not scheduled to. He also informed the media that he did not have exit interviews scheduled with the players and hoped he would have the opportunity to address them before they and he left town for the summer. There has been no report of that happening and Oates has not spoken to the media since either.

It’s very possible the team is still debating about retaining McPhee and leaving Oates in limbo until a decision is made with the general manager.

Meanwhile, there have been very few rumors around the NHL about other GMs and coaches on the hot seat. Usually by this time, there are a number of coaching availabilities, but the only coach to be sacked thus far was Barry Trotz by Nashville.

Where does this leave us? Pretty much the same place as we were on breakdown day, unfortunately. Let’s take a look at the options [note: our good friends at RMNB have already discussed these scenarios. This is my take, albeit much less funny.]:

1) Blow It Up

The team could allow McPhee’s contract to expire (it reportedly runs out after the draft) and fire Oates. Leonsis has never fired a general manager in his stewardship of either the Caps or the Wizards, and the time this is taking might speak to his reluctance to do so.

In his only comments to the media (through his personal blog), Leonsis said the team would take a meticulous look at the status of the franchise and not make any rash decisions based simply on missing the playoffs this season. But the team DID miss the playoffs, where Leonsis makes a bulk of his operating revenue and missing out hurts his bottom line as much as it does the goodwill his team has built in the sporting community in DC.

The criticisms of McPhee and Oates have been well documented, in this space and throughout the Caps blogosphere — as well as the national media. The team was ill-equipped to start the season, then mismanaged throughout. The team played without an identity, functional on offense almost solely dependent on the power play and completely inept on the defensive end. They were one of the worst possession teams in the league, and the coach appeared inflexible to change and unwilling to adapt.

2) Rearrange deck chairs

The team could keep McPhee (presumably on double-secret probation) and dump Oates to hire their fourth coach in three calendar years. In my mind, this option is the favorite in this race.

There are several attractive coaching candidates available already, from the aforementioned Trotz to Peter Laviolette, and as teams are eliminated from the playoffs there would be any number of attractive assistants available. Many have decried McPhee’s proclivity to hire former Caps and first-time head coaches to helm the team. If he returns, you have to imagine he’ll be influenced to bring in an experienced coach, preferably one with a Stanley Cup resume. Those guys are few and far between, though.

3) Maintain Status Quo

The team could stay the course and keep both McPhee and Oates. They could speak to continuity, injuries (though not a valid excuse) and the power play as reasons to keep both McPhee and Oates. This could also spur a mutiny. Many (most) Caps fans are at a boiling point, having become accustomed to postseason play, if not success.

It’s hard to imagine no change to the braintrust. Missing the playoffs is simply inexcusable. There are gaps in the talent, for sure. But there is simply too much of it for this collection of athletes to miss out on the second season. The Caps have $14 million under the salary cap with which to work this offseason, and could make even more room if they can find takers for — or buy out — Brooks Laich or Mike Green’s contracts.
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It’s hard to say which of the above scenarios the salary cap space affects most.

At the very least, we’ll see changes to the personnel. The Caps need to decide on Mikhail Grabovski, probably find a depth center to allow Eric Fehr to go back to wing, and 2-3 NHL caliber defensemen. It’s a long shopping list, but they have quiet a bit of cash to work with.

At this point, I would advocate for option number two. I fear the executive the team brings in if they sack McPhee. The NHL is littered with folks in evaluative positions that I would find unpalatable. Call me coward, but I’ll go with the devil I know in this case. McPhee is a shrewd negotiator, has a good (maybe not great) track record in the draft, and has proven adept at finding productive bargains, both on the free agent wire and via trade.

I think his hand might have been forced in a couple of recent moves, and it will be interesting if he is retained how he conducts his business going forward. I maintain that the moves he made at the deadline were not the moves of a man fearing for his job. The deals for Dustin Penner (who should have helped this team immensely, instead of the player getting banished to the fourth line) and Jaroslav Halak brought in veteran players for the stretch drive, yes. But they were also on expiring contracts and McPhee shed the contracts of Martin Erat (another resident of Oates’ Siberia) and Michal Neuvirth.

For now, though, we all wait.

Brouwer, Chimera, and Ward to represent Canada at 2014 IIHF World Championship in Belarus

Three Washington Capitals will be representing Canada at the World Championship in May, according to the official Capitals press release. Despite failing to make the playoffs, all three players notched career years- Brouwer and Ward in goals, and Chimera in points and assists.

Press release: 

ARLINGTON, Va. – Washington Capitals forwards Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera and Joel Ward will represent Canada at the 2014 IIHF World Championship in Minsk, Belarus. The World Championship begin on May 9 and conclude on May 25.

Brouwer, 28, will represent Canada at the World Championship for the first time. The Vancouver native registered 43 points (25 goals, 18 assists) in 82 games with the Capitals this season, setting new career highs in goals, points and power-play goals (12). Brouwer finished the season ranked tied for sixth in the NHL in power-play goals, first among Washington skaters in hits (210) and second on the team in goals.

Chimera, 34, will be making his third World Championship appearance. The Edmonton native has recorded eight points (one goal, seven assists) in 18 career games at the tournament. Chimera earned a medal in each of his previous World Championship appearances, winning gold with Canada in 2007 and silver in 2008. He has represented Canada at two World Championships (2007, 2008) and at World Junior Championship (1999). The 6’3”, 216-pound left wing registered 42 points (15 goals, 27 assists) in 82 games with the Capitals this season, setting career highs in assists and points.

Ward, 33, will represent Canada at the World Championship for the first time. The Toronto native registered 49 points (24 goals, 25 assists) in 82 games with Washington this season, setting career highs in goals, assists, points and power-play goals (6). Ward earned his first career hat trick on Nov. 1 against the Philadelphia Flyers and finished the season ranked third on the team in goals and points.

 

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 Game 81 Recap: Caps dump Blackhawks 4-0 in meaningless exhibition

In a completely meaningless hockey game at the end of a lost season, the Washington Capitals defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 4-0 before a less-than capacity crowd at the Verizon Center Friday night. That the Blackhawks had nothing to play for other than not getting any more injured than they already are speak a lot to the final score of the contest.

Jaroslav Halak made 33 saves in the shutout.

The Caps got going early in the first period. Just 1:03 in, Marcus Kruger went off for a holding penalty. 1:01 into the power play, John Carlson slid the puck to Alex Ovechkin in his normal spot in the left wing faceoff circle and as he’s done so many times before, Ovechkin buried it past Corey Crawford, registering his 51st goal of the season.

A few minutes later, Dmitry Orlov’s shot from the point was knocked down, redirected right to Jay Beagle, alone on the right post. Beagle calmly knocked it to the back of the net for his third of the season and the Caps had a two-goal lead before the half-way point of the first period.

On the next shift, Joel Ward sprung loose on a breakaway and beat Crawford stick-side, but his shot rang off the post.

The Capitals made it 3-0 just 1:19 into the second period. Ovechkin handed the puck to Nick Backstrom and the Swede sent a shot from an almost impossibly tight angle past Crawford for his 18th goal of the campaign.

They tacked on another one with 3:44 left in the frame. Beagle, again on the doorstep, banged home a pass from Jason Chimera from behind the goal for his second of the game, and his first multi-goal game of his career.

The Capitals conclude the 2013-14 season Sunday when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning, at which point a critical offseason will commence.

Washington Capitals Game 80 Recap: Caps calm ‘Canes 5-2

Neither the Washington Capitals or the Carolina Hurricanes had anything to play for on Thursday night and for half of the game both teams played like it. Eventually, the Caps were able to exert their dominance and earned a convincing 5-2 win in their final road game of the season.

You had to wonder what the mentality of the Caps would be heading into this one, their first meaningless game since 2007. Luckily for them, the third line continued to be the team’s most consistent line and the Caps were able to ride their strong performance to an easy win.

Joel Ward kicked things off quickly scoring just 1:02 into the game. Linemate Jason Chimera poked the puck away from the defense below the red line and Eric Fehr took the puck and fed it to Ward with a nifty backhand pass. [Read more...]

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.

Washington Capitals Game 79 Recap: Capitals beat Blues 4-1

Throughout the second half of the season, the Washington Capitals had a chance to help themselves but couldn’t do it. Now, they must rely on the bad luck of other teams for their playoff fate. Riding the momentum from their shootout win against the Islanders on Saturday, the Capitals stymied the league-leading St. Louis Blues, 4-1.

Alex Ovechkin scored the first goal of the game, his 50th of the season. Ovechkin is the first player in the NHL this season to reach that mark, and will likely be the only one. This season is the fifth 50-goal campaign of his career.

Though the Blues out shot-attempted the Capitals by double, the Capitals dominated on the scoreboard.

Mikhail Grabovski opened the floodgates with his second period goal, his 13th tally of the season. Nicklas Backstrom added another even-strength goal, his 16th of the season, to round out the period for the Caps.

Leading 3-1 heading into the third period, the most dangerous lead of all, the Capitals hung on, and got more help from Backstrom.

Backstrom tallied his 17th of the season a power play goal, to put the Capitals up 4-1.

Braden Holtby was stellar, stopping 28 of 29 shots in the win. There was a lot of buzz surrounding the starting goaltender situation preceding the game, but Holtby’s performance pushed it to the background.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were officially eliminated from playoff contention tonight, but even if the Capitals win their remaining three games, there is still a mathematically slim chance they will make the playoffs.

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:

Johansson-Backstrom-Ovechkin

Laich-Grabovski-Brouwer

Chimera-Fehr-Ward

Erat-Latta-Wilson

Alzner-Green

Erskine-Carlson

Hillen-Carrick

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.

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