A Little Brains, Heart and Nerve: Say Goodnight, Washington Capitals

Photo courtesy of
‘IMG_1503.jpg’
courtesy of ‘bridgetds’

I could wile away the hours,
Conferrin’ with the flowers,
Consultin’ with the rain,
And my head I’d be scratchin,’
While my thoughts were busy hatchin’ …

The Bruce Boudreau Era is done.

Make no mistake about it. Heading into the postseason the question was not so much about how far the Caps would go but more about how they performed once they got out of the first round. “Does Boudreau lose his job if the Caps do not make it to the Stanley Cup Finals” was an unfair question. The Stanley Cup is perhaps the hardest trophy to win in all of American sports, outside of the horse racing Triple Crown.

Washington just needed to play respectably, up to its potential and level of talent. No choking, no dramatic series losses after being up big. From the Eastern Conference semifinals on, if the Caps played well but got beat, that would have been an acceptable outcome.

That is not what happened.

Getting swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning was simply appalling. There is no excuse for it. It looked like Washington had found a way to win in the playoffs after the New York series. They were motivated, they played tight defensively, were opportunistic when they needed to be and, most importantly, they looked like they were focused and playing together. Sheer talent and determination should have been enough to get them through the semifinals.

A very good friend of mine, Erin, said that the Caps would be swept. She is an evil genius. Most pundits picked Washington to win anywhere between five and seven games. Myself, I thought Washington could eke it out in seven. I was not going to be one of those writers who dismissed the Lightning as too young or too raw. Tampa has a superbly talented hockey team not to be underestimated.

What I did was overestimate the Washington Capitals.

The woes start at the top. Boudreau is a players’ coach. He will oft times insinuate that a player is not performing up his potential but rarely do we see much done about it. Boudreau grew up as a coach with this group of players coming from coaching them in the AHL in Hershey and then graduating to the NHL. The Caps have had regular season success and he has certainly been good for the development of the franchise, but he lacks discipline and the ability to rein in his stars. The Russian Contingent seemed to operate at a different plane of existence for the Caps, on and off the ice and there was little Boudreau could do about it.

Sure, we saw the benching of Eric Fehr. Yet, it was done in favor of Marco Sturm. That was a mistake. Sturm is a veteran and has a good history but he has not been the same player after two major knee operations in the last two years. It pains me to say it because Marco is one of the Good Guys in the NHL, but he is going to be out of the league in a year, two tops. Fehr is still young and has explosive tendencies. If ever there was a player that Boudreau needed to get a handle on to play with grit and efficiency, it is Fehr.

In the playoffs there is one point that needs to be made crystal clear – It was absolutely criminal that Semyon Varlamov did not start a single game against the Lightning.

Boudreau has a proclivity to be over-reliant on some of his tools and stubborn when it comes to his methods (see: Alex Ovechkin on the point in the power play). In the beginning of the season it looked like he was going to wear Michal Neuvirth to the bone. As well as Neuvirth was playing, it is a mistake to ride a young goaltender during the regular season, especially when there are other options that may be just as good. Varlamov was hurt for stretches this year but when he played he played well.

Heading into the Tampa series, it was clear that Varlamov had better numbers against the Lightning. The idea behind the Caps goaltending playoff scenario was that Washington could get far in the postseason but it would not be one of the young trio who carried the entire load. Boudreau probably should have started Varlamov in Game 2 against the Lightning, Game 3 at the latest. If he faltered, Neuvirth would be there to pick up the slack. Yet, when Neuvirth slacked from either pressure or fatigue, Boudreau did not roll out Varlamov to steady the crease.

There are some behind-the-scenes issues involved here. Varlamov is reportedly disgruntled, Braden Holtby looks to be the heir apparent to Washington’s future and Neuvirth deserved the chance to prove himself in the playoffs. But, Boudreau picked Neuvirth and stayed with him to a fault and it might cost him his job.

Just to register emotion,
jealousy – devotion,
And really feel the part.
I could stay young and chipper,
and I’d lock it with a zipper …

Alex Ovechkin deserves as much of the blame for the way the Caps turned out as Boudreau does.

This is not a discussion of talent or performance. It is a matter of leadership.

Some say that “chemistry” and “leadership” are overrated qualities in professional sports. Sports writers (myself included) bandy them about enough to make people sick. To a certain extent it is true. Teams that hate each other have won championships, teams without strong leaders have succeeded.

In hockey though, the leader is the man who wears the ‘C’ on his chest. Players take their cues from the captain and he defines the identity of the team.

Now, think about it for a second – What is the Washington Capitals identity?

Having trouble figuring a good answer to that question? It is a tough one.

Look at other teams around the league. Vancouver is propelled by the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik. San Jose’s pace, for good or bad, is set by Joe Thornton. Boston can be a vicious, brutal physical bear to deal with and that pours out of Zdeno Chara. Philadelphia is smug and talented and mean, certainly characteristics of Mike Richards (and Chris Pronger).

The Caps showed their heart against the Lightning. Or lack thereof. It is a product of Ovechkin. The man has heart as a player. He wants to win and he wants to play well in winning. The problem is that he does not take the rest of the Caps with him. Ovechkin is so talented that it seems that often he thinks he can succeed just by putting skates on his feet and showing up at the appointed time.

It looked like that it what Washington felt when they faced Tampa Bay. By matter of birthright and hierarchy in the current era of NHL hockey, they should be able to trounce these upstarts.

Then … nothing.

The pulse of the whole series was set in Game 1 at Verizon Center. It was an awkward environment. The crowd was not into it as they had been all season, the Caps were present but maybe not wholly accounted for. When success did not come immediately (despite dominating stretches of Games 1 and 2), the Caps let off a bit while Tampa Bay kept grinding. Grinding led to goals, goals led to wins and the cycle perpetuated. Washington hardly showed up for Game 4 at the St. Pete Time Forum in Tampa Bay. Who scored for Washington? Sturm and John Erskine (before garbage time at the end when John Carlson netted one). Sturm and Erskine are character guys. They, unlike some of their higher paid counterparts (well, Sturm does make $3.5 million a year) came to play.

Ovechkin? He was playing pond hockey. Going 1-on-4 and, not surprisingly, getting nothing from it.

It’s sad, believe me, Missy,
When you’re born to be a sissy
Without the vim and verve.
But I could show my prowess, be a lion not a mouse-ess …

General Manager George McPhee has to show a little courage.

Last summer he looked around the league, looked at his roster and said “all is well.” Minimal changes were made and the Caps went into 2010-11 with basically the same roster that choked against Montreal.

That proved to be a mistake.

Yes, Washington did win the Eastern Conference regular season and a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Boudreau, to his credit, had a big part in that. He taught the team to play defensive hockey and the team was much stouter at the end of the year than it was at the beginning.

It did not have to be that way. McPhee should have realized that Washington, as constituted in September, could not make a run at the Cup. He gave Boudreau free reign to run the team like the high-flying offensive juggernaut that dominated the regular season in 2009-10. When that began to sputter, Boudreau made changes and, to a certain extent, they worked.

McPhee picked up Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman at the trade deadline. Those were very astute moves and it did not cost the Caps much in the way of draft picks or young talent. McPhee should not lose his job over the Caps postseason failures. He has helped to grow the franchise to the point that the discussion of any type of playoff success is relevant and there is merit to that.

But McPhee cannot do what he did last summer. Boudreau has to be let go, as sad as that reality is. He needs to offload Ovechkin’s cronies – Alexander Semin and Varlamov. The roster needs to be retooled to be deeper at forward with a third line that is capable of scoring a couple goals and being shutdown defensively. Semin needs to be replaced with a strong defensive leader a la Chara or Pronger (who are not available, but the prototype stands).

It will take a little nerve. But McPhee should realize that he may need to take a small step back if he wants to take a big step forward.

Otherwise, we will be living this whole scenario at this time next year.

And for years to come.

Dan Rowinski

New England raised, transplanted in Virginia. Sports writer who has spent several seasons on the NHL beat covering the Boston Bruins along with stints writing about Boston College, Red Sox, Capitals and Nationals. Has worked for the New England Hockey Journal, WEEI.com, Fire Brand Of The American League, TBD.com among others. Also a technophile covering technology for ReadWriteWeb. Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Rowinski or email him at dan (at) welovedc.com.

8 thoughts on “A Little Brains, Heart and Nerve: Say Goodnight, Washington Capitals

  1. Spot on Dan. I think one part of the problem is the “country club culture” that OFB wrote about earlier in the season and the other part comes from the leadership treating it more like a business than a sports team. Loyalty is held in high regard in the Caps organization, but to a fault (see: riding Neuvirth when it was clear he needed a break in the semifinals). Some players are clearly favorites and given more of a chance than others (Fehr, Eric).

  2. don’t know if you saw this quote but here is a link to the article.
    Bruce is not going anywhere.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/capitals-general-manager-george-mcphee-expects-bruce-boudreau-will-return-as-head-coach/2011/05/05/AFbpRQ2F_story.html

    Also, to place blame on Bruce and Ovi a little overstated
    I’d blame Semin, Backstorm, Arrnott, HANNON, MIKE GREEN big time, just to name a few before Bruce and Ovi.

    No to mention the fact that Wideman was hurt which hurt most of all.

  3. First, I call shenanigans on Boudreau not being fired. That is what GMs will always say the day after the season in a playoff loss. Second, Wideman is not a savior. Third, Boudreau is culpable for the performance of his players. Green being hurt and ineffective hurt a lot and Semin and Backstrom are the stars that need to carry the load. But, when a team consistently gets nothing from its top line in the playoffs, sometimes that has as much to do with the coach as the players.

  4. I’m not disagreeing with you, I just say that blame needs to be placed on the whole team not just two guys. Is Ovi Messier? no, will be ever be, nope. But, is Ovi a great player, yes, do we need him yes. Is Bruce the guy to take the Caps to the promise land nope. But will this playoff run change anything, I don’t think so, I hope I’m wrong.

    Varlamov should have gotten at least one start, I think anyone with a pulse will agree with that, my main point, the blame needs to be on the whole organization not just Bruce and Ovi.

  5. Wake,

    In my experience covering sports, technology and government one of the prime lessons I have learned is that success or failure starts at the top. That is why CEOs get canned when their middle managers screw projects up. Certain aspects of the mechanism can be called out and, if I was more of a beat writer than a feature writer, Nicklas Backstrom would have had many words of digital wordage on his performance or lack thereof.

  6. Dear Bandwagon Caps Fans,

    1. This is hockey not Football, Not Basketball, Not Baseball! Teams get hot and make runs. Unfortunately the Caps have run into hot teams the past 2 years. I understand that you came on when the Caps have always been a good team, aka the past 4 years. I would take what has happen the past 4 years to deal with what happen with the 4 years before that

    2. THIS IS NOT OVECHKIN’S FAULT. OVIE Played his ass off. He put his heart out there. It was the Core guys that were not existent. Love them to death but where was Bradley, Gordon, Hendricks, Laich, Schultz? Ovie had one of his best series with hits and scoring chances.

    3. THIS IS NOT BRUCE’S FAULT! LOOK AT ALL THE REASONS ABOVE! He Adapted to the style of play the players didn’t. Only thing he didnt do was bench Jeff Schultz

    4. JEFF SCHULTZ IS A DAMN BUM!! He is the softed 6’6 player ever! He is always on the ice when there are goals scored and never lays the body! STOP BEING SO SOFT! Vinny Lecavalier made him look stupid on a number of occasions. GET RID OF HIM!

    5. Carlson and Alzner Showed their age- Not much to say on that … Stamkos, St.Louis and Lecavalier Showed them play off hockey.

    6. Backstrom ,Semin , Green- TIME TO SHOW UP!!

    So to sum up…. Keep Bruce Get off of Ovie and Core players need to show up. Please learn the sport of Hockey and Come on guys if your gonna be a fan be a true fan. Don’t come around when things are good and then bitch when things are bad! It takes the bad to make the good! BE LOYAL!

    - CRG

  7. I was at the November ’07 game before Hanlon got the ax and Bruce got promoted. I remember it clearly because there has only been one time I’ve left a sporting event early and that game was it (and I’m a Pirate fan, so I know about losing). Then Bruce showed up, kicked the team’s ass and the they started winning consistantly … at least in the regular season (and, apparently, against the Pens).

    But for all that, the Caps are soft compared to other teams in the East (Flyers, Bruins, Pens especially) and they won’t start winning deep in the playoffs until this changes. As much as they’d like to think they’re complete, the Caps are still a player or two away from competing for the Cup (probably a goalie and a bone-crushing defensman).

    The other problem with this team is a failure of on-ice leadership. Boudreau can only do so much from the bench. Someone said it before, the guys with “C” on their sweaters need to step up and lead. Or they need to go away. Simple as that.