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.
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.
Seabrook returned for Game 6, a 5-1 win for the Blackhawks that was close for two periods before Chicago pulled away. Seabrook finished with six points in the three games he played. That Chicago won so easily was remarkable for a lot of reasons, including the fact that Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane both had lengthy injury absences leading into the playoffs, but managed to get their legs going early and were firing on all cylinders by the end.
Each team had 10 players in the Olympics; and each team had injury issues down the stretch, but Chicago proved to be the far more resilient team, and when St. Louis challenged – as they did in the second period Sunday, riding all those power-play opportunities into a 17-3 shot advantage – they couldn’t get a second goal past Corey Crawford in the Chicago net.
St. Louis finished two-for-29 for the series with the man advantage, just not good enough if the Blues legitimately expect to challenge for the Stanley Cup one of these years. This is the second year in a row in which St. Louis took a 2-0 opening-round series lead and then lost four in a row. The two-headed goaltending monster of Halak and Brian Elliott took the brunt of the blame over the previous two years (Halak couldn’t go in 2012 because of an injury) and it was why Ryan Miller was brought in at great expense from the Buffalo Sabres at the trading deadline – the notion that he was the missing piece of the puzzle. Miller had an okay playoff, but it’s hard to imagine he did enough to convince the Blues to sign him to an expensive multi-year contract in the offseason to get the job done.
St. Louis does have a top young goalie in the organization – Jake Allen, voted top goalie in the AHL this season. Allen’s presence in the organization convinced the Blues to trade Ben Bishop to Ottawa in February of 2012, on the theory that Allen had the greater upside. Might be time to see if that’s actually so.
SWIMMING WITH THE SHARKS: The concern in San Jose, apart from Vlasic’s injury, is how to sort out the goaltending, with the momentum completely shifting to the Los Angeles side. Minnesota received a big boost from Darcy Kuemper’s return and the feeling has been that San Jose would like to see more of Alex Stalock, who came on in relief of starter Antti Niemi after Niemi had given up three goals to the Kings Saturday night.
Niemi wasn’t great, but he wasn’t flat-out awful either. But there was a sense that the Sharks would keep Niemi on a short leash just because he’d had an up-and-down time of it during the regular season. Stalock stopped all 22 shots he faced, but even so, it would be a major move to switch to him for Game 6 in L.A. Monday, with the Kings now having a breath of life, after falling behind 3-0 in a series many thought would go down to the wire. Now, it looks as if it actually could.
The Kings, meanwhile, are getting far better work from Jonathan Quick these past two games, which also included his eighth career shutout Saturday night. Quick gave up 16 goals in the first three games of the series, with a garish .852 save percentage and then just three in the next two, with a more typical (for him) .957 save percentage. Psychologically, it was also important for the Kings to prove they could win a game up in San Jose, where they’d managed just one victory in their previous 13 visits, combining regular-season and playoff games.
If L.A. wants to record a comeback for the ages by winning four in a row after losing the first three, they’ll need one more victory at the Shark Tank. In the meantime, San Jose defenceman Matt Irwin, who was the odd man out for the first five games of the Kings-Sharks series, likely jumps in as Vlasic’s replacement.