April 20, 2021

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.

About J.J. Regan

J.J. Regan is a contributor to District Sports Page. He also is a college football and NHL blogger for CSNwashington.com and CSNbaltimore.com and has a master's degree in interactive journalism from American University. Regan follows all DC sports but focuses mainly on the the Caps and college football. You can view his online portfolio at regansports.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheDC_Sportsguy.

Trackbacks

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

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