It had to happen. Adam Oates and George McPhee had to go away. When you have an owner proclaiming that this year’s Capitals were the deepest team in team history, you would think that they would at least get to the second round again (and if this is a real NHL franchise, that is about as bare minimum of a standard as you will ever get). Instead, they couldn’t even make it to the playoffs, in one of the crummiest conferences in NHL history.
For Adam Oates, his personality is that of a boss that can’t trust any of his or her subordinates. The most obnoxious thing I have ever heard as a Capitals fan was hearing that Oates was a good head coach because he turned Ovechkin’s career around. If Ovechkin is thriving under Oates’ coaching, why isn’t the same happening with anyone else on the team? Nicklas Backstrom may be one of the greatest passers in the league, but why can’t he get back to his 30-goal pace like he did in 2009? Even if that’s not feasible anymore, 25 goals is certainly not too high of a reach, right? When was the last time you ever put “Marcus Johanson” and “agressive” in the same sentence? Again, like Backstrom, is he just a dude that Neil Greenberg and his minions think he is awesome because of his puck carrying skills or is 20 goals a target that Johansson should seriously consider reaching? Why did he never stick to any goaltender in his entire tenure? If advanced stats like corsi and fenwick are telling you that the Capitals have gotten significantly worse since the Bruce Boudreau days, why do you think it was a good idea to give more playing time to proverbial black holes Aaron Volpatti and Joey Crabb instead of Wojtek Wolski, Martin Erat, Dustin Penner and even Tom Wilson?
Speaking of Tom Wilson, can you name me a single good Capitals prospect Oates has ever developed properly during his tenure? It was embarrassing how poorly used Connor Carrick was during Adam Oates’ tenure, especially for anyone that was drafted in the fourth round with only one extra season of amateur hockey under his belt. Michael Latta seemed like a player that could develop into someone solid, as well as defenseman Nate Schmidt and Steve Oleksey, but why on Earth would you only let them play less than 35 games this season when it looked like no one else was playing better than them?
Again, you have the youngest and brightest goaltending talent pool in the league and you end up getting Braden Holtby out of his aggressive goaltending style and deciding not play Michael Neuvirth after coming back from his ankle injury because AHL-call up Philipp Grubauer was the “hot hand”. Grubauer may end up being a solid NHL netminder, but this is the regular season!!! Even children understand that the regular season is used to decide on a number one goaltender before any games are played and give him as close to 60 starts as possible.
Lastly, the group of Washington’s defensemen has been in absolute decay since Boudreau’s last full season on the team. That was back when the six best blue liners were John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz (back when he was good in some capacity), Dennis Wideman and Scott Hannan (even though I will never forgive the trade that brought him here. More on that soon). At the very least, that is six guys that are of guaranteed NHL quality. During Oates’ days, those six guys turned into Alzner (who has deceptively gotten worse in the last two years), Carlson, Green, Dmitri Orlov, John “Captain Slow” Erskine and your choice of any AHL journeyman or prospect. That’s not good enough to ever make it into the playoffs, let alone put an end to a soon to be 40-year old curse. Orlov has been by far, the most improved player under Oates, but like everyone not named Alzner, Carlson or Green, he was never given a role on special teams while playing more than half the season.
Also, how dare Adam Oates bring out to the public his true feelings towards Mike Green? Even if you are like the majority of Caps fans and treat him like the one player that screws up all the time for us, Common Sense 101 states that opinions like this are always saved behind closed doors. Remember, Green has two years left on his contract, and comments like Oates’ can seriously determine whether or not Washington can ever get something valuable in return in a trade or whether or not Green ever wants to come back to DC when his contract runs out.
Adam Oates’ assistants even show how little they were able to control his micromanaging. Before becoming an assistant coach, Calle Johansson only spent one season coaching, and that was with Frolunda at the Swedish Elite League. Olaf Kolzig might have been training under longtime goaltender coach Dave Prior, but this was his first go-around coaching at the NHL level. Lastly, poor Blaine Forsythe. After long time assistant Tim Hunter left (like so many referenced in Katie Carrera’s damning article, because of difference of opinion), Forsythe went from video coordinator to running the team’s special teams. The power play was great, but again, being a great assistant is more about being a well-rounded coach with the ability to develop a meeting of the minds with your head coach.
The best example of this is the 2008 Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings. They might have had Mike Babcock, who is now duking it out with Joel Quenneville and Claude Julien as the greatest head coach of his generation, but Babcock had Paul MacLean and Todd McLellan as his assistants. Both of those guys are now head coaches at Ottawa and San Jose, respectively, and are not too shabby at their current roles, to say the least. Now, Babcock has Tom Renney as his top assistant, who despite failing at Edmonton as head coach, has also had a solid record as the New York Rangers head coach during Jaromir Jagr’s difficult tenure there.
“All the experts, all the pundits come out with their opinions. The truth of the matter is, if they knew anything about the game, they’d be in it.”-George McPhee during the first episode of HBO’s “24/7 Capitals-Penguins: Road to the Winter Classic”
With all this in mind, Oates had to go, but not without a man he couldn’t come to grips with in George McPhee. While doing research throughout the blog’s existence, one thing that stood out was the fact that David Poile left the Capitals as one of the most better defensive units in the NHL. The team had Phil Housley, Calle Johansson and Sergei Gonchar as their offensive catalists from the blue line, along with defenders Joe Reekie, Mark Tinordi and Sylvain Cote. Brendan Witt went on to play 890 career NHL games, but he was the team’s seventh best defenseman at 22-years old. That was until McPhee traded Cote for Jeff Brown at that season’s trade deadline. With hindsight, that trade was seen as the beginning of the end for the Ron Wilson-era Capitals.
Afterwards Housley, one of the greatest offensive defenseman of his generation, was waived after the season due to a difference of opinion with Wilson. Not traded, but WAIVED!!! Housley was seen a bit of a pariah due to his lack of production in DC. He put up 71 points and a -20 in 141 games and 7.2 point shares/82 versus 1232 career NHL points and a -53 in 1495 career NHL games and 9.4 point shares/82. But remember, those are still solid numbers for a 32 and 33-year-old hockey player. Housley would spend his final 466 games putting up 306 points, a +5 rating and 8.5 point shares/82. Let this be a lesson to what ever comes out of Mike Green, Caps fans. Housley would be replaced by Detroit’s seventh defenseman that season: Dmitri Mironov. He would actually turn out to be pretty solid in his three seasons with the Caps, but Mironov was passed his prime and he would never play another NHL game after his age-35 season.
Another issue McPhee had was his poor drafting skills prior to 2002. In his first ever draft, the Capitals selected Nick Boynton ninth overall. Two years later, the Caps were not able to sign him and he went back into the draft. Boston would select Boynton 21st overall in 1999 and he would go on to play 605 career NHL games and win a championship as a seventh defenseman for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. Odds are Boynton would not have mattered at all in Capitals history, but that’s at least a long-term depth player that Washington squandered the opportunity to get.
1998-2000 was horrible for anyone interested in Capitals prospects. Yes, McPhee was not able to have a first round pick in 1998 because David Poile traded that pick and Keith Jones to bring in Curtis Lechyshyn and Chris Simon. However, instead of drafting Todd Hornung in the third round of 1998, Washington still could have picked Brad Richards, Mike Ribeiro and Erik Cole before being taken within the next twelve picks.
1999 and 2000 will go down was two of the worst drafts in NHL history, but Washington had a real opportunity to get some serious talent in 1999 by having five picks in the top 37. But instead of taking people like Barret Jackman, Taylor Pyatt, Mike Commodore or Jordan Leopold, the Caps took Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, Charlie Stephens and Ross Lupaschuk. None of them would ever play over 200 NHL games. 2000 was McPhee’s first genuine success in the draft, but his two big hits (no pun intended) were Brian Sutherby and Matt Pettinger; two players that at least played over 400 NHL games, but would only amount to bottom six forward or bottom pairing blue line duty. Nicklas Kronwall, Justin Williams and Nick Schultz were picked within the next six selections after Sutherby and Ilya Bryzgalov and Jarret Stoll were taken three picks after Pettinger. Yes, this is a lot of hindsight and any hockey fan smart enough will tell you that once you pass the latter stages of the first round and into the second and third round of any NHL draft that it is a crap shoot. Still, it takes world-class scouting and timely picks to make a franchise stay relevent and/or build the franchise further into becoming a cup contender.
2001 would be the year Washington decided to trade two of their last remaining young players in Richard Zednik and Jan Bulis for Trevor Linden (Dainius Zubrus came in the deal, but this is missing the point). For me, I never remembered this transaction until two months ago. Even the internet can’t remember him in a Capitals uniform. I think that’s a good thing no one remembers, because for all the talk regarding Jaromir Jagr in DC, it was this trade that started the plummet for McPhee’s Capitals. Linden would only play 28 games in DC and record 7 points and 0.9 point shares/82 instead of his career 4.3 point shares/82. The team itself would lose eight of it’s 12 games with Linden on the team in 2001, get knocked out of the first round in six by Pittsburgh and then start 5-9-2 in the 2001-2002 season before Linden was shipped back to Vancouver. That season would be Ron Wilson’s last as head coach with the team after missing that year’s playoffs.
However, trading away Linden and then Adam Oates that year turned out to be great for George McPhee. Those acquisitions gave them the 26th and 17th overall picks to add to their original 12th overall pick for the 2002 draft. After trading up from 26th to 13th with the Dallas Starts, McPhee selected Steve Eminger, Alexander Semin and Boyd Gordon in the first round. For the first time, McPhee looked like he picked up assets that could last in the NHL for the long-term and be counted on in major roles on any NHL roster.
Under Bruce Cassidy, Washington got back into the playoffs, but the team became stale and changes had to be made. For the exception of 2012, 2003 would be the last year McPhee would have a team that was above the league-wide average age. 2004 would be another major draft for McPhee with the selections of Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz among their seven top-100 selections. However, McPhee could have taken Dave Bolland instead of Jeff Schultz, your choice of two of David Krejci, Brandon Prust and Andrej Sekera instead of Sami Lepisto and Mikhail Yunkov, and Alex Edler or Johan Franzen instead of Clayton Barthel. Ovechkin would give the team some promise during his rookie season under new head coach Glen Hanlon, but McPhee had a miserable 2005 draft by taking Sasha Pokulok instead of Tuuka Rask, Martin Hanzal, T.J. Oshie or Jakub Kindle and Joe Finley instead of Matt Niskanen, Marc-Eduard Vlasic, James Neal or Steve Downie. Those were the only picks McPhee had in the top-100 that summer.
2006 would be another failed season for Ovechkin and the Caps, but McPhee would out-do himself in the upcoming draft with six top-100 picks. He would use them and the rest of his selections to take Nicklas Backstrom, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Mathieu Perrault. Jamie McGinn, Nikolai Kulemin, Artem Anisimov and James Reimer could have been taken instead of Francois Bouchard, Keith Seabrook and Oskar Osala respectively. 2007 would see Washington’s doppelgangers, Pittsburgh, make the playoffs while the Caps sat at home, and McPhee would revert back to having a miserable odd-numbered year draft. Karl Alzner was taken fifth overall, but Josh Godfrey, Theo Ruth and Phil DeSimone would round out the remainder of McPhee’s top-100 picks that draft. Ruth would later be used as trade bait to get Sergei Federov, but McPhee had the opportunity to take P.K. Subban, T.J. Galiardi and Alec Martinez in the picks Godfrey, Ruth and DeSimone were selected at, respectively.
Washington would finally get back into the playoffs with the development of players like Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann and the additions of Federov, Viktor Kozlov, Matt Cooke (before he turned into a jerk), Donald Brashaer and Christobal Huet. They would lose in seven to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, but McPhee would add John Carlson and Braden Holtby in that summer’s draft. It would be the last draft McPhee would have more than three top-100 picks. Anton Gustafsson was taken in the first round, but concussions would prevent him from ever playing in North America while Jordan Eberle, the player taken right after Gustafsson, would turn into a top six forward for Edmonton.
2009 would be considered Washington’s best chance at winning a Stanley Cup, according to WNST’s Ed Francovic and the last year the fan base had a collective innocence about them and a carefree attitude heading into the Verizon Center. Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby would go toe-to-toe in the second round for the first and only time in the playoffs throughout their NHL careers and the series did not disappoint. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh smashed the Caps in Game Seven and the likes of Kozlov, Federov and Brashaer would never play in the NHL ever again. McPhee would draft Marcus Johansson, Dmitry Orlov, Cody Eakin and Patrick Wey in that summer’s draft. McPhee could have taken Ryan O’Reilly instead of MoJo and Tomas Tatar or Tyson Barrie instead of Orlov, but that weekend in Montreal could arguably be one of McPhee’s better draft classes.
Then 2010 happened. Washington would go on to win the President’s trophy, but rather than maintain the chemistry, McPhee decided to trade Captain Chris Clark for Jason Chimera. The trade would be a success in the long-term, but there are enough Caps fans that felt the team has never had the same toughness without Clark’s leadership. Afterwards, McPhee would trade draft picks left, right and center for Scott Walker, Eric Belanger and Joe Corvo. Add in the addition of an aging Brendan Morrison to replace Federov for the soon-to-be never-ending search for a second line center, and despite the fact that the Caps were ready for a Cup run, they had some true flaws. Those flaws were exposed really badly by the stifling Montreal Canadiens under Jacques Martin. McPhee would go on to draft Evgeny Kuznetsov and Philipp Grubauer that summer. His five selections would then be the smallest draft class in his entire tenure.
That record would be broken again next year as McPhee only had four draft picks in the 2011 draft and he did not have a single pick until the fourth round at 117th overall. So far, Travis Boyd and Patrick Koudys are big names with their respective NCAA teams, but Steffen Soberg refused to play at the CHL and Garrett Haar is an overage player with the Portland Winterhawks after transferring out of Western Michigan. The lack of draft picks were the result of more rental trades by McPhee as Jason Arnott, an always injured Milan Jurcina, Dennis Wideman, the infamous Scott Hannan and a past-his-prime Marco Sturm were given a shot to give the Caps their first Stanley Cup. Only Wideman would stay with the team beyond 2011 and he wasn’t able to play in the playoffs that season because of a gruesome leg hematoma.
Before we continue, I have to mention what I truly believe is McPhee’s worst trade ever. Tomas Fleischmann was among the many players scapegoated for the traumatizing Montreal series, but he was still one of the best goal scorers amongst all bottom six forwards in the NHL. Instead of continuing to outscore every team in the league and maintain Bruce Boudreau’s style of hockey, McPhee thought it would be a better idea to make the team more talented on the back-end and traded Fleischmann straight up for Hannan, a slow and methodical blue liner that was making over $4 million and would end up playing on the team’s bottom pairing. Hannan’s first game as a Capital would be a 2-1 loss to the Dallas Stars and it would be the first of eight straight losses for Boudreau’s team. This would lead to Boudreau leaving his comfort zone and having the Caps play the trap the rest of the way. During the playoffs though, Washington would be out-trapped by Guy Boucher’s Tampa Bay Lightning. In Game 2 of the Conference Semifinals, Hannan will go on to make one of the worst line changes in franchise history that resulted in a one-on-none game winner by Vincent Lecavlier in overtime. By the time Game Four came around, Washington was without Green, Wideman and 50% of John Carlson because of a hip flexor injury and Captain Slow Erskine and Sean Collins of all people received playing time. Hannan could not help the blue line at all during that game as the Caps were swept and he would never play another game for DC ever again. Despite suffering a season ending blood clot that year, Fleischmann would move to Florida for the 2011-12 season and is now one of their most dependable forwards.
The summer of 2011 resulted in McPhee’s last offseason signing bonanza by bringing in Roman Hamrlik, Troy Brouwer via a draft day trade, Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, D.J. King and Tomas Vokoun. Only Brouwer and Ward have stayed with the team and after Boudreau was let go and replaced by Dale Hunter, the Caps would lose to the Rangers in the second round. Than McPhee brought in what could be his last masterpiece, the 2012 NHL draft class. Only Sergei Kostenko and maybe Austin Wuthrich haven’t shown any signs of playing for the Capitals in the long-term, but again, it is early (maybe not for Kostenko as he is no longer playing in North America). We all know about Filip Forsberg, Tom Wilson and Connor Carrick at the NHL level, but Chandler Stephenson could come up as early as next season to play center. Thomas di Pauli and Riley Barber has represented the United States while Christian Djoos, the 195th pick overall for goodness sakes, has represented Sweden at this year’s World Junior Championships. Even Jaynen Rissling had trade value as he was sent to Nashville for a high seventh round pick in this year’s draft.
The downside, of course, was McPhee hiring Adam Oates that summer when he had the opportunity to hire John Cooper. Despite the St. Louis trade, Tampa Bay now has additional draft picks and a young roster that still hit 100 standings points this season. Who knows what would have happened to Martin Erat and Dustin Penner under a different head coach, but since Oates was hired, it was clear McPhee was trying to swing for the fences on his transactions. It probably took two years too long to bring Evgeny Kuznetsov to DC and Mike Ribeiro was clearly a last-ditch effort to bring in a second line center. Now that this season has gone pear-shaped, who knows if Mikhail Grabovski will also be counted as a last resort move instead of a long-term fix.
Another major flaw under George McPhee was being embarrassingly loyal a handful of Capitals players that probably had no business getting paid the amount they ended up getting. There was Mike Green receiving a contract in the same context as Gilbert Arenas for over $6 million per year. There was Brooks Laich getting paid the exact same amount as Ville Leino (6 years/$27 million). There was Jason Chimera and Captain Slow Erskine receiving any extension at all. Of course, there was McPhee constantly pleasing Alexander Semin by giving him very short-term, but expensive contracts throughout his time in DC. When the time was up for him to ask for a big extension, rather than trade Semin, McPhee just let him walk for nothing.
It can not be stated how ridiculous it is to see Boston trade away Tyler Seguin and Phil Kessel in order to win a Stanley Cup and make it work. How about Los Angeles trading away Jack Johnson and future assets like Brayden Schenn and Jonathan Bernier and still contend for a championship? It takes pure guts, smart analysis and world-class scouting to truly make sure that if moves like this were to happen, they work almost every single time.
Of course, the last big flaw under McPhee was the fact that he never brought in a head coach with any experience of doing it beforehand at the NHL level. Ron Wilson was the only head coach with that type of experience under McPhee’s tenure, but both were brought in on June 9th and hired under then new owner Ted Leonsis.
Now Leonsis will have to go back to a drawing board that has certainly developed some cobwebs over the last seventeen years. There is certainly a new crop of potentially good candidates at the General Manager position, but Vancouver and Florida are now competing with Washington after Carolina and Calgary brought in Ron Francis and Brad Treliving, respectively. Washington is both at a good and bad spot for their long-term prospects. Washington finished as the eighth youngest team in the NHL according to quanthockey.com’s weighted average; right in between Edmonton and Calgary. However, their best players are getting close to hitting the wrong side of 30 and there is not that many roster spots open to make the team better next year. This team is getting worse every year in terms of possession and they can not afford to ignore it any more in order to get back to the playoffs. Columbus is not going away anytime soon thanks to their young core and absolute boat load of prospects and future draft picks. Meanwhile, the Penguins, Flyers and Rangers will continue to do what they have been doing for the last three years: splurge like crazy on free agency, even if their roster becomes top-heavy, until their best players age terribly. What Leonsis and Dick Patrick have done is proved that they are not afraid to make changes anymore, but now have to find the replacement that guarantees them success and that is always better said than done.