To the surprise of virtually no one, the axe fell on the Washington Capitals’ front-office tandem of general manager George McPhee and head coach Adam Oates on Saturday. Right or wrong, the expectation was that the Caps would be challenging for the Stanley Cup this season, not watching as their fellow denizens of the weak Metropolitan Division – the Columbus Blue Jackets – essentially usurped their playoff spot.
But the larger, unanswered question is whether the Caps will stick with a traditional NHL front-office model – McPhee was vice-president and GM for the past 17 years – or switch gears like the Vancouver Canucks and the Toronto Maple Leafs and hire someone as the head of hockey operations to select the new general manager and coach.
If they go that way, there really aren’t a lot of people with superstar ties to the Caps organization, who could theoretically be their Trevor Linden or Joe Sakic - or even Ron Francis, who will be elevated to the Carolina Hurricanes general manager’s job later this week.
You can't imagine Peter Bondra or Olaf Kolzig stepping into that role because realistically, the most identifiable Caps player in history still plays for them today – Alex Ovechkin, the four-time winner of the Rocket Richard trophy as the NHL’s goal-scoring leader.
Some would argue Ovechkin is running the show already, from that dot on the left-wing offensive zone face-off circle where he scores most of his goals, mostly on the power play, but clearly he’s not ready to join the suit-and-tie brigade just yet.
The reality is that whoever goes in to run the Caps next must understand the care and feeding of the NHL superstar because Ovechkin, at a cap hit of $9.538-million per year until 2020-21, is untradeable. In terms of actual dollars out, Ovechkin gets a bump from $9-million to $10-million next season, which is what he’ll earn in each of the final seven years of his contract.
There had been some speculation that former Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson might be a candidate for an uber-boss position with the Capitals – and if we’re blue-skying names, would they ever consider talking to Wayne Gretzky, who has gradually come out of the shadows the past few months after years of being on the outside NHL, about a position with the team?
It’s difficult to predict because owner Ted Leonsis has no established modus operandi to dissect when it comes to managerial hires. He essentially let McPhee make the hockey decisions for all his years at the helm and while there was some immediate piling on McPhee because of desperate moves he’s made in the past couple of years, his overall record is pretty good.
When McPhee took over from David Poile in 1997, Washington was a competitive franchise floundering at the box office. The Caps were a team that had consistently made the playoffs during Poile’s tenure, but couldn't do anything once they got there. They bottomed out for a three-year period in the mid-2000s and were rewarded at the draft table with Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and then started the cycle anew – icing good-to-great regular-season teams that couldn’t get over the same playoff hump.
The Caps made the playoffs for six consecutive seasons going into this year. The team with the best chance was their 2010 squad which produced an eye-popping 121 points, lost only 15 games in regulation, but fell in the opening playoff round to an underdog Montreal Canadiens team that rode the hot goaltending of Jaroslav Halak to a major upset.
It must have been the memory of Halak’s performance in that playoff that convinced McPhee to add him to the Caps roster as a trading deadline addition in the hopes that he could go on a similar role. Alas, the Caps were inconsistent down the stretch and ultimately missed the playoffs by a handful of points. Had the Caps defeated Montreal back in 2010, it might have charted a completely different course for the franchise.
The Caps finished first twice and second once in the overall Eastern Conference standings between 2008-09 and 2010-11, but they got the best glimpse of what might work best in the playoffs during an up-and-down 2011-12 season when they fired coach Bruce Boudreau mid-year and brought in Dale Hunter as the interim coach.