Capital Chaos in Washington

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By Dave Cunning

Anyone wanting to remember the current incarnation of the Washington Capitals better take a picture of them as they are today --  it’s going to last a lot longer than today’s version of their team ever will.


BetOnHockey_Capitals_Playoffs.jpgTo put it bluntly, the Capitals appear to be in a complete downward spiral of disarray and chaos. Reaching the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals isn’t all that bad of an accomplishment for an average team (heck, the Phoenix Coyotes made it there for the first time ever this year), but when you’re the Capitals, it just isn’t acceptable to conclude a season there anymore. This is a team that got slick new uniforms, and maxed out their cap space with names like Ovechkin, Semin, and Backstrom for a very specific reason – to score a ton of goals and discontinue not winning the Cup.

It’s bizarre that they haven’t yet, considering what an offensive dynamo this team once was – Ovechkin has won nine NHL awards, Bruce Boudreau was Coach of the Year in 07/08, and Caps won the President’s Trophy as top team in the regular season for 09/10 -- but ever since former Caps bench boss Bruce Boudreau had a revelation that he was to turn the league’s most potent scorers into the most defensively responsible hockey team in the NHL, the car has veered off course, and flipped over eight times in the trees.

If there was ever an opportunity to change course, it was at Boudreau’s removal midway through this past season – instead, the Capitals chose to bring in Dale Hunter as head coach. No knock against Hunter’s coaching ability, style, or philosophy, but as we saw through his takeover, Hunter also preached that exact same defensive responsibility that Boudreau did. You know, the style that Boudreau “lost the room” with, didn’t bring them a Cup, and essentially got him fired for. In fact, Hunter too made sure guys like Ovechkin knew it, and still paid for it in ice-time when they didn’t perform it correctly.

BetOnHockey_Ovechkin_Benched.jpgAnd while Washington’s top scorers were pining to be allowed to float around the blue line for breakaways again, but instead still told to backcheck, where did Hunter’s hard-nosed, grindingly responsible Capitals get? No further than round 2 – and no further than Boudreau was able to get with them either.

In fact, the closest the Caps have ever come to a Stanley Cup victory was their appearance in the 1998 Final against the Detroit Red Wings – where they were swept in four games. In 19 seasons since the NHL’s evolution to a Western and Eastern Conference, Washington has qualified for the playoffs 12 times (including this season); where they moved on to the second round only five times, and have sputtered in the first round the other seven.

And now frustration has start to set in. Semin’s agent has said his will test free agency this summer ( ), Ovechkin is muttering things about his ice-time reduction ( ) and jealousy ( ) in the Capitals dressing room, and coach Dale Hunter has decided half a season in Washington is enough ( ), and that he’d rather go back to London, Ontario and watch his OHL team with his family than coach the Caps in the NHL again.

The screws have come lose, and integrity is compromised – this team’s going to get shook up over the summer.

On the bright side for the Capitals though, is that GM George McPhee again has the opportunity to start over – at least coaching-wise. The potential is there for a new coach to grab the attention of the team, and revitalize their excitement and belief in winning. Names like Marc Crawford, Paul Maurice, Patrick Roy, Bob Hartley, Tom Renney, Craig MacTavish, Ron Wilson (most seem to think he’s not a contender), and Guy Carbonneau are all names being mentioned as potential suitors – and we can only pray that no one is considering Pierre McGuire, after the recent scare of him being considered for GM of the Montreal Canadiens.

BetOnHockey_Ovechkin_Playoffs.jpgPlayer-wise, if the Caps truly want defensive players, why don’t they just get them, rather than trying to teach their old dogs new tricks? Ovechkin is locked in until 2021, and Backstrom until 2020, but Semin, Knuble, Green, Wideman and seven other Caps players become versions of free agents this summer – that’s nearly $23 million dollars worth of players, according to their combined salaries last season – they could afford 40% of the St. Louis Blues (last season’s lowest goals against total and average), or 35% of the Boston Bruins (highest plus/minus rating last season) rosters for that amount [obviously, those players would have to be available, but I’ll assume you get the point].

If they’re truly committed to this defensive style, then they need personnel that are capable of performing it. Otherwise, they need to hire an offensive minded coach, and let the guys that they have off their collars to do what they do best. Using offensive players offensively doesn’t seem all that complicated – after all, the way to win hockey games is to score more goals than your opponent, right? You know they’ll all be let loose while playing for Team Russia at the World Championships – playing together, playing often, enjoying themselves, all the things that contribute towards creating much sought-after chemistry – for reasons like these, it’s no wonder Ovechkin said he would choose Team Russia over the NHL, even if the NHL doesn’t allow players to go to Sochi in 2014.

Five months is a long time. We’ll see who’s wearing Capitals colors come October – my money’s on fresh faces. Twitter: @davecunning Twitter @CunningAthletix



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