With the conclusion of Washington Capitals season, too early yet again, it’s time for appreciation, evaluation and critique. In this seven part series, the Caps staff at District Sports Page, and a few friends, will be taking an in-depth look at what went right, what could be better, suggest some changes and grade out the team position-by-position.
Our panel: Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief of DSP; Abram Fox, Caps Team Editor of DSP; Katie Brown, Caps Beat Writer for DSP; Sky Kerstein, 106.7 The Fan and DSP contributor; Ted Starkey, SBNation.com and DSP contributor, Adam Vingan, NBCWashington.com; and Harry Hawkings, RocktheRed.net.
PART VII: How would you rate Adam Oates, George McPhee and the Caps management this season?
DAVE: Oates: A. McPhee: D. Adam Oates is one of the smartest hockey guys I’ve been around. From his interaction with players at practice to his thoughtful and thought-provoking answers to the media, it’s apparent this guy eats, sleeps and breathes hockey. He’s an able communicator in a business that doesn’t always promote that concept. It took a while, but once the Caps felt comfortable in his systems, they really took off, rebounding from the miserable start to win the Southeast. He jump-started the power play and inspired the “old” Alex Ovechkin to lead the league in scoring again. Oates was measured with how he used his goalies, leaning on Braden Holtby, and did not panic when things went south at times. I look forward to what Oates can do with a full off-season and training camp.
As for the management, organizationally I felt the Caps were not prepared to start this season with the player personnel they had on hand, almost as if they didn’t expect the lockout to end and actually have to play a season. When Eric Fehr, Wojtek Wolski and Joey Crabb are your big free agent additions at winger, you’re grasping at straws. McPhee pulled the trigger during last summer’s draft to finally acquire a legitimate second line center in impending free agent Mike Ribeiro, but then allowed Alexander Semin to walk via free agency. I have no complaint about that actually, but McPhee did not take the necessary steps to replace Semin’s 25 goals. Rather, the organization hoped that the scoring difference would be made up from within. It didn’t work. Only Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer, amongst wingers, scored more than 10 goals.
At the trade deadline, McPhee traded one of his two top prospects, Filip Forsberg, for veteran winger Martin Erat. In nine games with the Caps, he had three points — and just one goal — then zero in four playoff games before he was injured. There’s some disagreement on what type of player Forsberg might turn out to be, but we know what Erat is, and in two years he’ll be even less of what that is and the Caps are on the hook at $4.5M per declining year.
I’m a big fan of McPhee, but he has some work to do this off-season. The Ribeiro decision could very well shape this franchise for the four years. He needs to find a scoring winger, some toughness, and an able blueliner in the very least. His grade for the past season would have been lower had Oates not worked out so well.
ABRAM: 7/10. Tricky question. Oates performed extremely well this season, given the stresses of the lockout on top of being a new coach. He won a division title, his team won 27 games in a 48 game season, and he finished ninth in the NHL in points despite posting a 3-8-1 record over the first quarter of the season. Management’s season was less of a success. McPhee struck out with the Wojtek Wolski signing and the Aaron Volpatti waiver claim, did alright with the Jack Hillen signing, found a gem when he recalled Steven Olesky, and hit a home run with Mike Ribeiro.
At about 3 p.m. on trade deadline day, McPhee would have been judged for this season based on whether or not he re-signs Ribeiro in the next month. Then GMGM dealt prized prospect Filip Forsberg for Martin Erat, a proven veteran usually good for 20 goals and 50 points a season. Erat flopped posting just one goal and two assists in nine regular season games, and zero points in four playoff games. Truthfully McPhee couldn’t have won the deal unless Erat was a major player in a Stanley Cup run, as Forsberg’s potential would always trump consistency. The Erat trade does reflect uncertainty in Washington’s direction. It’s often unclear if GMGM considers his team a pretender or contender – the Erat trade and Ribeiro signing said contender, the Wolski and Hillen signing said pretender. Washington’s second-half surge says they can be contenders, and McPhee will likely get at least one more offseason to make that a reality.
KATIE: Adam Oates was the reason the Capitals were able to attain any sort of success this season. That’s not to negate any of the talent on the roster whatsoever, but what he was able to do with no training camp, a short season, a terrible start and successfully transition Ovechkin to the right wing as a first-year head coach is nothing short of impressive and is a testament to his ability to cultivate a relationship with his players and articulate his systems to the team.
George McPhee deserves all the props in the world for hiring Oates as head coach, his third in two years. Whereas Dale Hunter’s hiring was merely a stopgap, Oates’ hiring was one designed to be long term. The management did well in that aspect, but when it comes down to taking risks to improve the roster, it is less successful. I admire that McPhee doesn’t make knee jerk reactions to remedy things, but there’s such a thing as having too much confidence in the team you’ve assembled, and not doing enough to improve and upgrade it.
SKY: Oates: B+. Management: D
TED: B-. A mixed grade results from Adam Oates’ performance (A-) and George McPhee’s (C-). While Oates’ experiment to move Ovechkin to the right wing was a success, landing the captain back in Hart voting, McPhee’s lack of having a Top 6 forward hampered the Caps for most of the season. The trade for Erat on paper was expensive and may be something that comes back to haunt Washington.
ADAM: Considering all of the obstacles placed in front of him (a lockout, a truncated training camp, a horrible start), Adam Oates did a fantastic job in his first season as head coach. To borrow some of my own work from earlier this season, Oates provided the steady presence necessary to right what had become a rudderless ship with so much turnover behind the bench.
His even-keeled nature and reliance on positive reinforcement rubbed off on his players and provided them with a low-pressure environment. Of course, Oates also revitalized Alex Ovechkin’s career, which cannot be overstated. All in all, Oates is the coach that this team needs to succeed in the future.
As for management, I’ll get into that later…
HARRY: I give Adam Oates an A this season for what he did to revitalize Ovechkin, which had to be his primary job, as well as what he did to the power play, and the fact that he got the team to the playoffs despite their brutal start. Sure, he was aided by some luck and some hot shooting at the end, but some of the things that he did really helped the club recover and bode well for their future. He is an infinitely better coach for this team than Dale Hunter.
I give the management a D-plus. They made the playoffs, and George McPhee made some good bargain moves to get them there. All of this would have been okay had the Capitals not made that Erat deal and waited for younger, cheaper, enforcements to bring them to the promised land and not went for it by buying at the deadline. But I simply can’t condone trading away a top prospect for a winger on the wrong side of 30 in an attempt to “win now” when you don’t come close to winning. Especially because anyone could see it coming from a mile away. You have to take this move with a small grain of salt because of the way Mr. Leonsis runs his teams, but it’s still very difficult to see a positive.