WASHINGTON, DC -- The Washington Capitals season has come to an end. Earlier than some expected, yet most are not surprised. They lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a tough six game series.
The President Trophy winning Capitals, the team that posted a 120 point regular season, lost in the second round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year. A round they have not been beyond since the spring of 1998.
How is this possible?
I have seen many people provide their rationale for why and how it happened over the last 48 hours, and yes some are correct. However, for the most accurate reason let me take you back to the spring of 1999.
This is when Ted Leonsis bought the Washington Capitals from the Pollin family. No, I am not saying there is a curse of Ted on the Capitals.
I am saying the innovative businessman Leonsis is about the furthest thing from an innovative sports owner. Instead, he tries to mimic what he has seen have success in the world of sports and hope his organization is able to replicate it. Being a copycat owner in the world of hockey needs to be timed perfectly, otherwise you will be constantly chasing from behind.
The first big thing Leonsis did as owner of the Capitals was trade for Jaromir Jagr.
Jagr terrorized the Capitals as a member of the Penguins so he figured, ‘trade for the top dog’ and he can be the golden ticket for the franchise. The result was failure.
The only time Leonsis has been forward thinking as an owner was when he knew a lockout was on the horizon and his businessman style kicked in. Leonsis had then-GM George McPhee shed his roster and essentially have the team tank. What better way to improve your organization than having top 5 draft picks for a few years, it works in most places. Sorry Edmonton.
This idea brought the Capitals Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, and Karl Alzner as top draft picks. The Penguins and Blackhawks likewise got their superstars and the post-lockout NHL era was upon us.
So here we are, now in the Ovechkin era. Would Ted decide to stop the mimicking and become an innovative, forward thinking owner? Did he hire a GM and coach that could see where the game was going and make roster changes to follow suit? No, he did none of that.
Over the last decade the NHL has been constantly changing. What it takes to win has changed. In order to win, you have to have a vision of what you expect to come and build your team to fit that style of play as best you can. What kills you in the constantly changing and evolving world of the NHL is being an owner of patience if you lack vision. Owners that succeed are aggressive, vision oriented, and surrounded themselves with great hockey people. So let me take you through the Ovechkin era to show you how the patient owner, with no foresight has cost the team he owns.
In 2008, Leonsis preached that he wanted his organization to be like the Detroit Red Wings. Detroit was an organization that didn’t miss the playoffs and was on the cusp of winning a Stanley Cup in 2008 and returning to the Final in 2009. The Capitals loaded up on skilled forwards, like Ovechkin, Backstrom and Alexander Semin. The problem was they lacked the experience, the grit, and the depth to produce like Detroit had. Detroit made their last trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2009, but still Ted wanted to be like them.
The problem was the game was changing and passing the Red Wings by. The game was transforming into one where youth, center depth and size was critical to success. The Penguins and Blackhawks, the two teams that were part of the lottery process with the Capitals went on to win a Stanley Cup. This had to eat at Ted. He must have asked himself, why his team hadn’t won the Cup? The simple answer is he was trying to be like the Red Wings still and not adjusting to the times.
The Boston Bruins would win a Stanley Cup and the Los Angeles Kings would go on to win two out of three Stanley Cups. The Washington Capitals were now missing the playoffs.
What did Ted do?
He fired his coach and general manager. He hired a coach in Barry Trotz that mimicked his own franchise, a coach that could not get beyond the second round of the playoffs in Nashville. He hired a new GM, who was the assistant general manager. Assistant general managers tend to think a lot like their predecessor, who positioned the Capitals where they were.
Under the new coach and general manager, the Capitals decided they wanted to play like the Kings, who had just won two of the last three championships. A bigger club, with skill, that would attempt to wear you out over the course of a game, the season and a playoff series. In the two years using this style, the Capitals have failed to get beyond the second round. Since the Capitals chose this style, the Kings have missed the playoffs and been bounced in the first round.
Why is that relevant?
Again, the Capitals were late. By the time they transitioned to the build of the Kings, the League changed right before their eyes. Youth, speed, and skill are now how the best teams are built. The Tampa Bay Lightning is in the Conference Finals for the second straight year with this style. The Penguins transitioned to it mid-season this year and will face Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Final while the Washington Capitals are home dancing to Justin Timberlake’s ‘Can’t Stop the Feeling!’
How Did This Mentality Impact the Series?
The Penguins put on a speed and desire clinic versus the Capitals. The Penguins played five skaters who played for slightly more than half the regular-season at the NHL level. They employed a rookie goalie that made timely saves. They were first to pucks for the majority of the series. They knew if the Caps were going to dump the puck in the zone that it was most likely going to be down the right side of the ice so they’d be there first with their speed, retrieve the puck and try to counter.
The Pens' PK unit was aggressive with their speed. They did their best to collapse on Backstrom when he had the puck on the half-wall making it hard for the Caps to get into any rhythm. The Caps ultimately had their best success on the PP during broken plays, like after scrambles on faceoffs.
The Penguins third line, which played like a second line, of Carl Hagelin, Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino just made life miserable for the Capitals all series long. No matter who they were put out against it seemed as if they were generating scoring chances for the Penguins. The speed and skill was something the Capitals bigger and less skilled depth players definitely could not keep up with.
It was a series that saw the star players mostly cancel each other out. It was a series of great goaltending on both sides. It was a series that was ultimately won because of speed and depth. The Pens third line was magical and the Penguins’ defense that filled in for Kris Letang and Olli Matta were better than the Caps D that filled in for Brooks Orpik.
The better team won a close series. It really is nothing for the Capitals to be ashamed about.
Fans will rightfully be pissed, sad and frustrated. It has been a long time since the team has lived up to or exceeded expectations during the playoffs. Coaches, management, and fans are all searching for answers. What could have been done differently? Nothing. The main question is what to do now.
The Roster Moving Forward
The Capitals will have their end of the season meetings and move on to the summer. UFAs Jason Chimera and Mike Weber are likely to move on. Mike Richards is a toss-up. If he is willing to come back for $850,000 next year and play a fourth-line roll and as a PKer, I’d welcome him back. His hockey IQ is great, his hands and skating ability are mostly gone.
Marcus Johansson, Tom Wilson, Michael Latta, and Dmitry Orlov are all RFAs and three of the four are likely due slight raises.
The Capitals will have about $15 million in salary cap space to sign players and fill out their roster. Which means if all those RFAs are signed they will likely have about $5-6 million to sign two players, a D and a F, preferably a skilled player with size that can slide between the second and third line.
It is too early to tell what free agents will be available come July 1 or what players will be available via the trade market. One thing is for certain, if expansion is approved by the NHL Board of Governors in the next month for the 2017-18 season a host of players could end up being moved this summer.
How Do the Caps Prevent History from Repeating Itself?
The Capitals need to find an identity. Not try to duplicate what is being done elsewhere in the league, but instead have some foresight and determine what the next trend in hockey is going to be. Yes, the Capitals need to get faster because you can use speed no matter what style you play but that isn’t the only answer.
What style do I think the Capitals should move towards? The style of play that I think is going to make a comeback by necessity in the next year or two to combat the speed that is exhibited by some of the teams around the league is the old fashion neutral-zone trap that made the New Jersey Devils a successful organization during the Martin Brodeur era. Trotz used a similar trap system in Nashville and a less aggressive version so far in DC. They need to transition to full on neutral-zone trap mode.
The Capitals have some size built in already, they have a great goalie, and they have already been taught most of the basics and don’t even realize it so the transition would be easy. It may bore the hell out of the fan base and the league, but sometimes you can’t just compete with speed. The Capitals found that out the hard way against the Penguins. If the Capitals want to have their best shot at winning the Stanley Cup next year, they need to play the ugly neutral-zone trap style of a game.
So, Ted Leonsis and Brian MacLellan, if you are reading this and don’t want to be behind the times, playing catch up to the speed game of the NHL especially since there is not enough speed to go around, this is what your summer should be about.
Sign players that can fit this mold and that will buy-in. It will extend the Ovechkin era window to win a Stanley Cup by a few years. Scoring doesn’t sell tickets, winning sells tickets and the Capitals must win a Cup very, very soon before the fans start to find something else to do.
Patrick Greissing is the Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period. Follow him on Twitter.