Monday, January 13, 2014

Is It Time For the Caps to Fire George McPhee?

Is a shake-up necessary in DC to get the Washington Capitals back on the right track? In a city where panic buttons are pushed after the first quarter of the Redskins season opener and coaches in the major sports hold shorter tenures than one term by the President of the United States the Caps are looking like a team that will be in need of a change to possibly get the team in gear. I don't usually write a team off from making the playoffs until certain points of the season.  For the Wizards, I can normally get a feeling 5 games into the season, the Nationals need to have a winning record by the trade deadline and the Redskins need to show me something by Week 8. The Caps however can rarely be written off because when they seem to be done, that's when they go on their run....until the playoffs then you can write them off.

Over the past five years I've been vocal  in my belief that the Caps window of opportunity to be a Stanley Cup contender was closing within the past two seasons. The team still has the talent to win and be a perennial playoff contender but at some point the current crop of talent would need to be broken up. As a fan its hard for me to want any member of the team gone, I'd be okay with some, such as John Erskine, being healthy scratches however. However also as a fan, I want to see this team achieve its maximum potential and for the past few years they haven't done that and while some of that falls on the players it also falls on management.

I believe many of the players have become complacent due to the success they've had finishing atop the Southeast Division for so long, even making a late season rally to squeak their way into a Top 3 spot in the playoffs last season. Once in the playoffs though the team, even when they had the best record in the NHL a few seasons back, looks over matched. Either opponents tighten up their defensive approach or the team gets away, ever so slightly, from what got them their success and tighten up a bit too much. Of course that late in the year injuries also play a role in many of the team's shortcomings but that happens to all teams so that excuse holds little water.

Over the past six seasons the team has made the playoffs every time, under three different coaches, 5 different goalies starting playoff games (Huet, Theodore, Varlamov, Neuvirth, and Holtby) and the many of the same forwards and defensemen while making a roster tweak at the trade deadline deal to upgrade a roster flaw. In the end its never just enough and the same issues come up, Ovechkin gets shutdown by the opponents, other players don't step up, mental errors pop up more, and a few unlucky bounces off of Caps players end up behind their own goalie (I'll avoid the yearly goalie interference calls that NEVER go in the Caps favor nor get called the same way twice). One other constant over the six seasons, and every year since 1997, is General Manager George McPhee.

Before I touch on GMGM lets look at how things have gone for the Caps since the start of the 2011-12 season. The team began the season with an amazing 7-0 start only to fall on hard times fast and by the end of November the team had fired head coach Bruce Boudreau. As the struggles mounted his coaching philosophy was called into question, as was his inability to get players to change or adapt come the playoffs and through this struggle. Boudreau had actually gotten the team to play differently in the playoffs the season prior but at the expense of their offense and it once again lead to an early exit. The fans and many of the players loved Boudreau but it appeared like he had lost the team, especially franchise player Alex Ovechkin. It was a shame because Boudreau held the best winning percentage in Caps history and while his offensive coaching style could be compared a bit to the NBA's Mike D'Antoni (circa Phoenix Suns) the difference was his style actually produced championships (in the US). When Boudreau was the coach of the Caps AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, he lead them to the 2006 Calder Cup championship and to the finals again in 2007. After being fired by the Caps Boudreau landed in Anaheim where he took over a struggling Ducks team (6-20-6) that went on to accumulate 38 points in its next 24 games before struggling and eventually missing the playoffs. During the 12-13 season the Ducks finished 30-12-6 and won the Pacific division but were eliminated by the 7th seed Detroit Red Wings. Currently the Ducks are 35-8-5 under Boudreau, the best record in the NHL.

Boudreau had been replaced by former Caps great Dale Hunter who was more of a defensive minded coach and maybe a tad less vocal than Boudreau when it came to ripping into the players. Hunter saw success in the OHL, winning one championship. Under Hunter's guidance the Caps got back on track and rallied to finish 2nd in the Southeast, 2 points behind Florida for 1st, and 7th in the Eastern Conference.  They got their with mainly Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth in net but when the playoffs came they turned to rookie goalie Braden Holtby. The Caps went to the second round of the playoffs before losing in 7 games to the New York Rangers and after the series Hunter stepped down. In all honesty he didn't seem to fit well with the team that had been assembled but the team did play better defensively under him. 

After Hunter left, the Caps hired another former Cap Adam Oates. Unlike the previous two coaches, Oates isn't a yeller and screamer, instead he prefers to teach the players the errors of their ways. Under Oates the Caps scored the most power play goals and had the highest power play conversion percentage of all teams in the 12/13 season. Once again the Caps needed a strong late season rally to make a playoff push before being eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, again by the Rangers. Holtby also firmly unseated Neuvirth as the team's #1 goalie. This season the Caps had managed to achieve the best record in the Metropolitan division, for about an hour, and the top Power Play and Penalty Kill in the NHL but since that time in late Novemeber the team has been average, at best and currently have the 5th most points in the East, but are only 5 points from being in 13th place so there is little room for error over the next few weeks before the break for the Olympics.

Once again this year there is goalie controversy. It happened with Boudreau (Kolzig/Huet, Theodore/Varlamov, Varlamov/Neuvirth, Vokun/Neuvirth) and Hunter (Vokun/Neuvirth/Holtby) and now with Oates (Holtby/Neuvirth, Holtby/Neuvirth/Grubauer). While its nice to have an abundance of young talent in net, they also need to be given regular starts. Since Kolzig left, the team seems to find a possible franchise goalie only to have him replaced by the next young glove that goes through a hot stretch. Neuvirth lost his spot as the back-up (he'd prefer starter) when he stepped on a puck during pregame warm-ups which cause the team to call up Grubauer. Holtby was unseated by Grubauer after a couple bad games and seems to not be able to stop much of anything. After getting his first start in I think 6 weeks Neuvy had a great game on Friday only to end up a healthy scratch on Sunday.

Another problem is line chemistry. All three coaches have been guilty of not sticking with their lines for more than a few games. If players can't build chemistry together its only going to make it harder for the team to find that winning formula. Add to it each coach has a player that ends up in the doghouse and eventually wants to be traded and it makes for a bad atmosphere. Currently the Caps have 3 players that requested to be traded, Martin Erat, Dmitri Orlov and Neuvy. I don't see Orlov going anywhere, in fact I think he's played himself into the Top 6 defensemen rotation. Neuvy could be a nice trade chip while Erat needs to just be dumped.

And that is what brings me to McPhee. GMGM used to be able to have a Midas touch when it came to trades and free agency. Always able to find that right plug to fix a leaking ship. However when he traded promising prospect Filip Forsberg for veteran Erat it seemed like a move made just to make a move rather than one that would help now and in the future. Forsberg was amazing in international play while Erat toiled away in Nashville. Since coming to DC he's been a scratch or seen limited ice time, many times on the 4th line and his trade value is less than a bag of pucks. This trade screamed of they type the Bullets/Wizards would make in the 90s (Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond or Rasheed Wallace for Rod Strickland and Harvey Grant..actually liked Strickland so not too bad). That Erat trade is where GMGM lost me. I hated but understood the trade of Bondra (my favorite Cap of all-time) and was disappointed when he traded Dave Steckel and Chris Bourque but those moves either made the team better or were players that weren't necessarily in the team's long term future. GMGM has done a great job with being able to skirt the salary cap but it may be time for a change of the puppet master because the less things change, the more they stay the same.

By no means am I saying the season is over. I don't even know if a major personnel change is needed but mental changes are. I'd scratch Erskine except when the Caps play physical teams. I'd think about seeing what Mike Green looks like as a winger, though that means teaching him to also play in front of the net, and rotate Laich as a defenseman since he's filled in their previously but I don't know if his groin can handle it. At the very least don't let Green have the puck coming out of the defensive zone. Oates and GMGM need to find a way to make the team stronger mentally so as to not give up goals immediately following a Caps goal, they need to quit taking dumb penalties, figure out how to count so as to stop getting hit with, or luckily not getting called for, too many men on the ice and the team needs to avoid the delay of game (over the glass) penalty as much as possible. Of course its easy to say that from behind a computer and while watching the game from the outside but these are the things I think the team needs to focus on most as the latter ones have plagued the team for years. 

I'm sure there are other things that can be pointed to, mainly using sabermetrics like Corsi and numbers like that but I just don't understand them. I love numbers and understand the baseball ones but I haven't spent enough time or don't care to investigate the hockey ones yet because I fear it'll take away from part of the game I've come to love. I prefer to watch a game where guys hit, score, fight and make great saves without trying to figure out what players match-up best and where. That's the coaches job.

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