Anyone who has ever talked hockey with me, followed me on Twitter, or passed me on a crowded city street is almost certainly aware of the degree to which I despise the Washington Capitals. It's the sort of irrational hatred that only sports fans truly understand, and its roots run deep within me. I have hated the Capitals since I became aware of the existence of ice hockey, and I loathe this present Capitals squad more than any that has ever plagued hockey rinks across America. It brings me no small amount of joy to see them depart the playoffs early once more, a cloud of disappointment and humiliation hanging over their heads. However, I am writing this post not to taunt them, but rather to attempt to identify what is actually wrong with the Capitals as a team and as a franchise, and to offer my perspective on how to fix it. I do this partly as a thought experiment, and partly because the hockey teams to which I would in the spirit of goodwill hope to see right their ships have already done so and won Stanley Cups in the last two years (go Pens, go 'Hawks), but mostly because as a Cubs fan, I understand the concept of the disappointing season.
Before I go on, I'd like to explore for a moment the origins of my hatred for the Caps. Growing up in West Virginia, I was fair game to become either a Caps fan or a Pens fan. Being that it was the mid-1990s and the Pens were icing a team that featured Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis (my all-time favorite hockey player), Jaromir Jagr, and other greats, I couldn't help but be attracted to them. Casual hockey fans might think that the Pens-Caps rivalry began with the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry, but it actually go back years. The two met in the playoffs five out of seven years in the 90s, and with a Caps team that featured all-time goon Dale Hunter as its leader, they were as easy to hate as the Pens were to love. I lived and died with the Pens as they matched up with the Caps. My earliest hockey memory remains Pittsburgh's Petr Nedved scoring a quadruple overtime game-winning goal in 1996, ending the longest NHL game in 60 years. I experienced triumph as the Caps experienced tragedy, and fifteen years later, little has changed.
Now Pittsburgh has won its third Stanley Cup, and Sidney Crosby has cemented his status as the NHL's greatest superstar. Washington, on the other hand, is regarded as a group of underachievers who collapse when the pressure is on. A Pittsburgh team missing Crosby and Evgeni Malkin took three games from Tampa Bay this playoff year. Washington couldn't take one. The talent is there for the Caps, or so it would seem. What, then, is the problem?
Some will pin the blame on Bruce Boudreau, and he deserves a lot of it. He's a tremendously overrated coach, good at drawing up plays but terrible at motivating his players. The difference in this last series with Tampa Bay may well have been that Boudreau could not get his players believing in his system the way Tampa's Guy Boucher - a rookie coach with a master's degree in sports psychology - inspired the Lightening. If Boudreau is fired, no one will be surprised.
Others will point to GM George McPhee, who, to invert a phrase from the film Miracle, has signed the "best" players but not the right ones. It is McPhee's job to put together a team that can win, and he hasn't done that. He's found extremely talented players that won't grind, won't work, and won't win. Nick Backstrom and Alex Semin were outplayed in the playoffs by Steve Downie and Sean Bergenheim - less talented players who rose to the occasion when it was demanded of them. If the problem isn't with the coach, it's with the team, and that's McPhee's responsibility.
Still more might point to Ovechkin himself, who had the most disappointing season of his career mercifully cut short. What was wrong with Ovechkin this year? Is the responsibility of being the team's captain weighing too heavily on him, or is the pressure of proving himself the equal of not just Crosby, but also of Jonathan Toews and Corey Perry and Steven Stamkos simply too great? In any event, Ovechkin failed to motivate his team the way a leader should, and while no one can question his effort, his teammates simply aren't willing to follow him.
All of these criticisms are valid, but they are also incomplete. To my mind, there is ultimately one man who bears responsibility for what happened not just this year but for the last four years as well. That man is Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.
Ah, Leonsis. You rarely read a negative word about him in the sporting press. He's a great, patient, interested owner who says and does all the right things, the media insists. But every one of the Caps' issues starts and ends with Leonsis, and until he realizes that and adjusts his behavior accordingly, his team will continue to fail. This goes beyond the fact that Leonsis is ultimately responsible for his team's front office. That's obvious, and if there is a personnel deficiency there, it is his job to address it. What it boils down to is that Leonsis has defined the culture that permeates the entire organization - he is more concerned about appearing successful than he is actually winning.
If we ignore Stanley Cups - which we cannot, of course, as Stanley Cups are the definition of success in the NHL - the Caps appear to be a very successful NHL franchise. They sell out games, and their crowd, clad entirely in red, is visually intimidating. The team is filled with loud, dynamic personalities. Players and announcers alike are the stars of major advertising campaigns that last longer in the playoffs than the team itself. Their regular season record is brilliant. To all appearances, they are a successful hockey team.
But they don't win when it counts. They can't. Their not built to. It's not their organizational priority. If it were, changes would have been made after last year. But they weren't. Changes should be made after this year. Leonsis doesn't seem ready to make them. Boudreau and McPhee's jobs look secure. And despite Leonsis's assurances that the Caps need to win a Cup - because "Pittsburgh already has theirs," no less - there seems to be no movement in the right direction. Next year's squad might look a little different, but the core of underachievers will remain the same, and if the same coach is behind the bench, we'll see the same results, because the organization's priorities have not changed.
To change this team, Ted Leonsis needs to demonstrate that he understands that despite the Caps' high revenues and high exposure, losing in the playoffs is unacceptable. At this point, only one of threes things can demonstrate that change. Boudreau must be fired. If not he, them McPhee. If neither, then a major player - a Mike Green or Alex Semin- must dealt for someone who can epitomize a new team direction, the way Keith Primeau and Paul Coffey were dealt by the Red Wings in 1996 for Brendan Shanahan, who proved the final piece of Detroit's Cup puzzle. One of these three things must happen to demonstrate a change in the team's culture, and for the players who remain to get the message that losing is no longer acceptable. And the onus for this is on Leonsis. He is the owner. It is his team. He needs to set the direction in the way that Rocky Wirtz did for the Blackhawks and Lemieux did for the Penguins. He needs to step up.
But if he doesn't, if he ices the same team, if he continues to be satisfied with sellout crowds but no championships, this Pens fan won't mind. Not one bit.