When Leadership Fails
The Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks issues point directly at
the men who wear the C.
LOS ANGELES -- As the horn sounded in the Verizon Center last Sunday
evening, thousands of Washington Capitals drudged deep into the D.C.
night on the heels of shutout loss that kept them ninth in the Eastern
Conference with 17 games remaining in the regular season.
In a year that started with such promise, for the many rooters who had
them as a Stanley Cup Finals favorite, the stark reality of missing
the playoffs now looms in the distance with the only benefit being
with a cost savings on playoff seats. Sure, they've climbed back into
eighth for the time being, but the team desperately misses its No. 1
center, the currently concussed Nicklas Backstrom, and the thought was
that there was enough talent and character in the room to overcome any
individual missing player.
A mirror image to the Capitals situation exists on the West Coast with
the roller coaster season endured by the San Jose Sharks now
plummeting to a depth that currently seats them just behind the eighth
and final playoff position. While their fans will point to the fact
that the Sharks swam as deep as 11th in the West in January in the
2010-11 season, as the calendar hits March and having blown so many
games in hand over the past three weeks, their final fate could equal
what their Capitol cousins fret about before they sleep at night,
being on the outside looking in come the evening of April 7.
The dictionary defines a leader as "a first or principal performer of
a group," and strictly defined in NHL terms, it starts and ends with
the skater who wears the "C" that symbolizes team captaincy.
Similarly, an alternative definition of captain is "a person of
importance or influence in a field."
In the case of the Capitals and the Sharks, the players that have been
designated as the primary influencers of their success and destiny
continue to fail their teammates, ownership and ultimately, their
Alex Ovechkin landed in Washington in 2005 and hasn't looked back, his
rookie season was a 52 goal, 106 wonder and in four subsequent
seasons, his lowest point total was 92. Even larger than his 6 foot 2,
230 pound frame was his personality; his antics at the All Star
weekends were great theater. Alexander the Great sold tickets and tons
of jerseys with the No. 8 on the back and filled the pockets of
franchise owner Ted Leonsis in the process. The former AOL executive
had tried and failed in the past to go the superstar route, the
Jaromir Jagr era in D.C. offered as the evidence but the second time
around was gold.
In the midst of a spectacular personal best, 65 goal 112 point season,
Ted took the unprecedented step of inking the Russian Machine to a
13-year, $124 million extension that has an equally staggering $9.5
million cap hit attached. The deal served to simultaneously place a
heavier paycheck and expectation on his broad shoulders and most
observers assumed Ovechkin could handle it as flawlessly as shoving
off a 5-foot-10 defense on the way to the net.
Adding to the intrigue, Sidney Crosby's star was simultaneously
ascending 250 miles to the west in Pennsylvania. Their games were a
disparate as their personalities; the Kid from Nova Scotia was a
perfect PR machine, measured in his responses, boyish grin always in
tow, while Alex was the rock star, the cat with the gap tooth smile
who powered through life.
The one thing they shared, at least at the time, was a burning desire
to win. During their direct mano-a-manos, Sid was already wearing the
"C" while Alex was just one of the alternates for the Caps but there
was no mistaking where the focus was during the Penguins and Capitals
Sidney went on to two Cup Finals and became the youngest captain in
NHL history to win a Stanley Cup providing a very bitter pill served
to Alex after two playoff eliminations at his hands. While Crosby's
legacy is secured during his continuing holding pattern due to
post-concussion syndrome, Ovechkin's biggest concern should be that
when he skates off the ice for the final time, they may say, "a great
player but not a winner."
The Sharks are a model sports, not just NHL franchise. From the moment
when their original ownership group broke the NHL color barrier by
selecting teal as their primary color to the use of the theme from the
movie "Jaws" when they took to ice for a power play at the Shark Tank
(the arena that's been named for multiple laptop companies, but hey,
it IS Silicon Valley), this team has never taken a misstep. They pack
a newer, but not modern arena with a low ceiling that keeps it loud
and their fans are among the most knowledgeable and best-behaved group
in the league.
Starting with Dean Lombardi and continuing with Doug Wilson, they've
developed high performance and the expectations that go along with
them hard by the South Bay in Northern California. They've drafted and
developed wisely and only when a holdout by Evgeni Nabokov led to
Lombardi's demise, the former Chicago Blackhawks defenseman entirely
seamlessly with a tinge of a riverboat gambler that his predecessor
Recognizing that the inherited group wasn't strong enough to get to
the Finals, Wilson dealt in season for Boston's Joe Thornton, a
talented, number one center that was unable to lead the Bruins to the
Promised Land (bookmark that thought for now) despite being a first
overall pick in 1997. He came to California determined to prove those
Chowderheads wrong; forming a partnership with Jonathan Cheechoo that
resulted in an eye popping 92 points in 58 games performance. Those
numbers had fans convinced that with Jumbo Joe holding down the number
one pivot in support of skilled players like Cheechoo and Patrick
Marleau, it was just a matter of time before the Cup would be touring
around HP and Apple headquarters in June.
Like Ovechkin, Thornton wore an "A" through his early days in the 408
area code, but continual playoff failures including the shocking first
round elimination in 2008 as a one seed at the hands of the Anaheim
Ducks. The loss was the defining moment that saw the San Jose
captaincy change hands. We were in the room that night in Anaheim and
the shock and stunned silence was only broken by one of the few
championship players on the team, defensemen Dan Boyle. With his eyes
reddened and voice straining, Boyle delivered the proper response that
should have been universal. After a long interlude, then captain
Patrick Marleau stepped out of the dressing area and offered little
explanation or passion in discussing a result that affirmed he was
ill-suited to hold the leadership role. Though he's never expressed it
publicly, the organization did him a huge favor by stripping him of
the "C" next year in favor of Thornton, who now carries the burden of
missed opportunities on his sturdy frame. Though Joe says he never
reads what reporters write about him,"honestly, I'd rather read
Playboy," was a beauty of a quote last year, his on-ice reaction to
his series winning goal against the Los Angeles Kings in the first
round told us that the burden of never winning is very apparent and
certainly not subconscious.
Those the Sharks bravely battled on last season, defeating the Red
Wings in an epic second round Game 7 in San Jose, their injuries and
exhaustion made them easy prey for the Vancouver Canucks in the
conference finals. Though they managed to make the Final Four, it was
no surprise that Wilson did far more than tinker with the roster this
past summer. He dealt for Martin Havlat and Brent Burns is separate
deals for Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, moves that some say have
hurt both teams this late in the season. Regardless of the final
result of swap, the Sharks were once again expected to win the Pacific
and when the one rival whom most thought would provide the most
pushback in the Kings couldn't find a way to score a goal for most of
the season, as the calendar turned to 2012, most thought it was a
simple matter of which of the top three seeds the Sharks would swim
into come the post season.
Leadership is a tricky thing. There are 30 captains with 30 different
personalities. What goes on in the locker room, no one sees and even
though dudes like me hear whispers and get text messages, only the
guys that look each other in the eye can truly measure how good his
Mark Messier, arguably the greatest leader any sport, may have wasted
all that charisma and strength if not surrounded with all that
championship talent in Edmonton.
If Stephane Matteau doesn't beat Martin Brodeur in double OT the prior
series, we'd never have that lasting image of him going crazy on
Madison Square Garden ice as Commissioner Gary Bettman handed him the
Cup in 1994.
Steve Yzerman, he of the first ballot Hall of Fame designation as well
as 692 goals, won his first Stanley Cup a mere 14 seasons into his
legendary career. Was he only a great leader after Brendan Shanahan,
Larry Murphy, Dominik Hasek and Brett Hull came to town? Would Crosby
and all his magic brought the trophy home at age 21 without a guy
named Malkin behind him and a kid named Fleury in the net?
So while a leader needs willingness and acceptance from his mates in
order to lead them to the Promised Land, when it does goes south, as
it appears to be in Washington and San Jose, the blame appropriates
lays at the feet of the captain of the ship.
Ovechkin clearly tuned out former coach Bruce Boudreau in his final
days (many were guilty of that sin in D.C.) and is on the cusp of
burning through a second in one season with Dale Hunter. Things got
sketchier in the aftermath of the Caps loss Sunday evening, with his
misplay leading to the game's long goal scored by the Flyers fourth
Though the captain owned it ("It's tough loss for us, I think. My
mistake cost us two points and it cost us the game"), his coach's
subsequent response and explanation is a telling clue.
After failing to put Ovechkin out for six minutes, Hunter cited
disadvantageous matchups as to why he didn't see the ice, "It's not a
benching. Maybe he missed a shift. I definitely was matching lines; it
was one of those things that he wasn't the right match up. I didn't
want him against [Jaromir] Jagr and Jagr's line."
I'll do the math for you, Jagr (you know, the dude that was Alex in
D.C. before Alex) is 14 years older than the guy who watched from the
bench and is only on pace for 22 goals in a comeback season. This
episode comes on the heels of the former Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig take
on how Ovechkin is being caught up in being a rock star and not
concentrating on finding where the once dominant game in his skates
is. While Ovechkin served up a humor-tinged rebuttal, the telling part
of the story was the punch line delivered by the man who holds some of
the cards, GM George McPhee.
"I don't disagree with anything that Olie said," affirming that
Ovechkin didn't achieve his status without doing the heavy lifting,
"he needs to be reminded once in a while," that hard work usually is
The Sharks had a comfortable lead for the past seven weeks in the
Pacific, the uber-quirky schedule had them a lead in both points and
games in hand over the pack, with the closest pursuer changing from
time to time but never too close as to cause much of a stir in the
room or organization. While the team kept one eye on a vicious nine
game road trip, the core unit of Thornton, Marleau, Boyle and young
leaders like Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski could be depended on to
play their usual game of "Sharks hockey," a brand that is smart and
opportunistic, speed and depth that cause favorable matchups and most
importantly, never beating themselves.
Even with Heatley and Setoguchi, who were very well liked in the room,
moving on to greener pastures, they're a tight knit group that trust
and likes each other every time we've encountered them. I'm not sure
what happened on that February day after they beat the Blackhawks to
start that fifteen day sojourn but they landed back in California a
very changed team and likely not for the better.
The defining moment for the team and perhaps the season came on the
trip's final day, a Sunday afternoon matchup against the non-descript
Minnesota Wild. In the box score, it was a game similar to many on the
trip, the Sharks uncharacteristically blew a third period lead and
while the damage from the loss of two points in the standings impacted
the playoff race, the damage to one of its stars, the sophomore
Couture now arguably its best player, goes directly to the leadership
in the room.
Couture was pounded repeatedly by the Wild with its culmination
resulting in him limping to the dressing room as the Sharks were
blowing the lead. The punishment doled out wasn't lost on one of the
Sharks' organization but unfortunately he sat in the broadcast booth
and not on the bench. CSN Bay Area's color analyst Drew Remenda begged
and pleaded for the Teal to serve a measured response to any Minnesota
player but his calls went without an answer.
While it makes for compelling television, I don't know how any of the
Sharks that day faced Couture in the eye on the flight home. Couture
went on to miss two additional games and it raises a huge red flag
about the atmosphere in the locker room that was reinforced when
Wilson again flipped the room the next day by bringing in T.J.
Galiardi and Dan Winnik from the Avalanche.
The change in the team's attitude hasn't gone unnoticed as a member of
a Pacific team's organization noted, "We have home and home games with
them down the stretch, we'd thought they'd be far in front, now we're
probably playing them for first place. Something's going on in San
Thornton has made public statements, but their tone ain't exactly
Messier guarantee-like. After a loss in Columbus he classified the
team as being "fragile" and told the San Jose Mercury News, "You can
talk so much, but it's up to that individual to come out and perform.
This is why we get paid, to perform every night and for whatever
reason everybody's not on board." The Wild game was even more damaging
when Todd McLellan took a stick to the head in a scary episode that
stripped the team of its one few strong-willed individuals.
The next four months will define Joe Thornton's captaincy in San Jose.
Should they suffer another early playoff exit or encounter the
once-unfathomable playoff miss, it will be time to strip Thornton of
the captaincy. As McLellan continues to recover from his concussion,
Thornton's done little on or off the ice to seize the moment. Those
100 points seasons are far gone and he's likely not to eclipse 80
points at his present pace. He's never been the fiery personality this
team begs for at times, this despite the fact that they already have
the guy in the room that does. While we're a big fan of McLellan and
hope for an immediate return, his biggest failure was not to appoint
Boyle the captain instead of Thornton in 2008 and is encapsulated by
the comments made by his defenseman while in the throes of the team's
"The one thing you can control, you can't control bounces, the one
thing you can control is work and that's the one thing we've got to
elevate. We've got to work hard. You can't cheat. We've got to work
and the talent takes over after that. You look around this locker room
and we have as much talent if not more than most teams in this league.
We've got to work. When we do that, we're OK so that needs to come up,
As for Ovechkin, his destiny may be a change of scenery. The Capitals
have tried to get to the next level with this core group and have yet
to emerge from the second round of any playoff season. McPhee
constantly changes the supporting cast and is one of the more active
dealers at the deadline but his lack of shaking up the room may be a
signal that the real changes will come in the off season.
While he'll certainly need the approval of owner Ted Leonsis to
engineer a blockbuster deal unlike the recent Rick Nash sage, there's
not a no-trade/no-movement clause standing in the way, Ovechkin
doesn't hold that card until July 1, 2014 when he can submit a list of
10 teams he will not accept a trade to. For now, he'd be even fair
game to the Islanders. I'll half-jokingly suggest that the Kings turn
into the NHL version of the old Oakland Raiders by engineering a deal
that would put Alex on the same line as Mike Richards and Jeff Carter,
as the L.A. already wears black and rock stars are a dime a dozen in
One regular Hollywood club-goer already cleared the path for Carter by
saying, "Jeff will be fine, he'll walk into a club and look like a
dozen other blond 27 year olds in Hollywood. This ain't Philly."
While there would be some very lifting required to take on a $9.5
million cap hit through 2021, all that's needed is a bigger sucker to
think it's a good deal. With Zach Parise ready to step into the same
free agent spotlight that Ilya Kovalchuk and Brad Richards deal before
him, the slot created by an Ovechkin trade would provide the necessary
funds to best offer the current New Jersey winger.
Ovechkin has never cheated the Capitals at the cash register with
merchandise sales, but I'd be willing to venture that American Olympic
Silver Medalist Zach Parise in red, white and blue would eclipse him
in sweater sales.