Hunter used Ovechkin far more judiciously and sparingly than either his predecessor or successor – and when games were on the line, he was frequently pasted to the bench. But the Caps, a seventh seed that year, knocked off the No. 2 Boston Bruins in a thrilling seven-game series to open the playoffs and then gave the New York Rangers all they could handle, eventually losing 2-1 in the seventh game.
New York won twice in overtime in that series, you could argue that had Washington found a way to win there, they might have taken out the New Jersey Devils in the semis and then played the Los Angeles Kings for the Cup.
Sadly for the Capitals, Hunter stepped away following that season and so they turned to Oates as his replacement. At different times, over Oates’s two years, it looked as they were getting it. At other times, they looked lost.
Ovechkin is – and will always be - the lightning rod, a five-time 50-goal scorer who continues to be a liability defensively, someone more interested in the offensive than the defensive side of the game. He can be a divisive force, but smart coaches maximize what they can from him and then frame the lineup and in-game strategy to reflect what they need to win at a given moment.
If the Caps had a more bruising defence corps and a bit more consistency in goal, they could be a factor again soon. Some of their supporting cast up front is good – Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich when he’s healthy – and in Evgeny Kuznetsov, they have one of the more dynamic young talents in the game. The Caps just need to be a harder team to play against, more like the St. Louis Blues or the Los Angeles Kings, the teams that grind you down over time. The task will be to find a GM to stabilize the defence and a coach who can reach an accommodation with both Good Alex and Bad Alex. It won’t be easy, but it’s not an impossible task either. At this stage, tweaking is a more appropriate response than a scorched-earth reversal.
ADD CAPS: McPhee, of course, should be an immediate candidate for the opening in Vancouver. Prior to joining the Caps, he spent five years working for the Canucks as vice-president of hockey operations and alternate governor during the fourth to ninth years of Trevor Linden’s playing career. McPhee essentially replaced Brian Burke in that job, after Burke left in 1992 to join the Hartford Whalers. Burke and McPhee have had a long association over the years but Calgary was primarily searching for a GM candidate from the ranks of the assistants and settled on Brad Treliving from the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday. It would probably require a leap of faith by Leonsis to contact the Philadelphia Flyers about Ron Hextall’s availability. The view is that Hextall is the heir apparent to Paul Holmgren, but if he had the opportunity to move into a GM’s job right away, they might be able to lure him away. Hextall might be just the right mix of old-school values and modern-day thinking and probably would be a good fit there.
THE DEFENCE CONUNDRUM: The San Jose Sharks lost a major piece on Saturday, when defenceman Marc-Edouard Vlasic was injured in a collision with the Kings’ Jarret Stoll. Vlasic’s value to the Sharks was probably emphasized by his inclusion on Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey team, where he played a top-four role.
Colorado hasn’t been the same the team since losing Tyson Barrie as a result of that knee-on-knee collision with Minnesota’s Matt Cooke, but the Chicago Blackhawks proved that you can win without a key defensive piece, sweeping all three games that Brent Seabrook missed as a result of his suspension for that hit to David Backes’s head in Game 2 of the St. Louis series.