(photo by Brian Murphy)
Growing up, the Washington Capitals were the epitome of a blue-collar team.
They never had the biggest names in hockey, but they earned respect thanks to their desire to outwork and outhustle opponents into submission.
While our nation’s capital will never be confused for a blue-collar town, that lunch pail mentality served the franchise well as the team qualified for the postseason 14 consecutive seasons – starting with the 1982-83 season and running through the 1995-96 campaign.
The Capitals typically lost in the first round of the playoffs, but the bar was set low enough locally that simply qualifying for the postseason was good enough to keep most fans happy.
And then there was the 1997-98 season, where everything came together for the Caps in a perfect storm of skill, determination and a lot of luck.
Goalie Olaf Kolzig, playing some of the best hockey* of his stellar career, backstopped the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals and for a brief moment it seemed like the Capitals might actually be capable of shocking the hockey-watching world.
Unfortunately, the Detroit Red Wings never got the memo and any dreams of seeing Peter Bondra raise the most storied hardware in all of sports were snuffed out in a hurry.
After 24 seasons of good, but rarely great hockey, the Capitals had finally elevated their play to hockey’s grandest stage – only to get steamrolled by a franchise that has drank from Lord Stanley’s Cup 11 times.
*Even after being swept by Detroit, Kolzig finished the playoffs with a 12-9 record, a 1.95 goals against average, a .941 save percentage and four shutouts. That’s called getting it done, boys and girls.
And yet, although Washington suffered a beatdown in the finals, most Caps fans were just thankful for the experience. When you root for a team with little to no expectations, you’re able to celebrate the victories and brush off the setbacks easier than most.
Fast forward to the 2003-04 season when Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and his general manager, George McPhee, took a critical look at their roster and came to the gutsy decision to blow it all up and start over from scratch.
By their own admission, Leonsis and McPhee saw a team that was good enough to make the playoffs each year, but wasn’t much of a threat to do anything once the postseason began.
The new regime refused to accept mediocrity, so they traded away aging veterans to stockpile young prospects and draft picks while bracing for a painful rebuilding process known simply as “the plan.”
They openly admitted to anyone and everyone that the process wasn’t going to happen overnight and it might even get ugly at times, but they promised it would be worth it in the long run. And, as we all know by now, the move paid off.
Thanks to the decision to embrace a full-fledged rebuild, the Caps were in a position to land a franchise cornerstone like Alex Ovechkin, as well as top-end players like Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green.
With a nucleus of these “young guns” and a loveable coach named Bruce Boudreau, the Capitals entered a golden age – reaching heights that were previously unthinkable in Washington.
Regular season victories and individual accolades rained down on Ovechkin and friends, and suddenly, hockey games were the trendy place to be in an admittedly fair-weather town.
Every time they took the ice, the Capitals played in front of a rowdy sellout crowd. Their excited run-and-gun style of play made even the most mundane games must-see TV and in turn, ushered in a new generation of hockey fans.
While the other teams in town continued to toil in mediocrity, the Capitals were viewed as one of the NHL’s elite franchises and heralded as one of the handful of teams who could legitimately win a championship.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, regular season wins never translated to postseason victories, and once again the Caps were good enough to make the playoffs, but unable to do anything once they got there.
Even though the Capitals entered the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s top seed on more than one occasion, too often they failed to maintain momentum and season after season ended in disappointment.
Desperate to get his team over the proverbial hump, Boudreau embraced a less offensively aggressive and more defensively responsible mentality that his players never truly bought into.
Something about seeing the cool teacher in your school suddenly turn into a disciplinarian seemingly overnight rang hollow to too many of the young men in the Washington locker room and suddenly the team lacked an identity.
A team that was built to trade goals with anyone no longer scored goals with ease. And while the team was slightly better on defense, they didn’t exactly transform into a lockdown defensive juggernaut either. Just like that the Caps went from the hottest ticket in town to a team hoping to bore their opponent into submission with a 2-1 win every night.
While the blue-collar mindset has been the identifying trait of Washington Capitals hockey for the bulk of the franchise’s existence, it’s not what this collection of players was brought here to do.
Digging for loose pucks in the trenches and crashing the net came naturally for years, but the message largely fell on deaf ears as the players eventually stopped responding to Boudreau.
Once that happens, changes have to be made and even though Boudreau accomplished more than any other coach in Caps history, he was fired in November and replaced by former captain Dale Hunter, who might as well be the posterboy for blue collar workers everywhere.
There’s just one problem – these players still aren’t best suited for that particular style of play.
On most nights they give it a try, but it definitely doesn’t come naturally. So what you see is long stretches of the team trying to get the puck out of their own zone followed by an abbreviated rush up the ice that ends with a long-range shot that either misses the net completely (also known as an Alexander Semin shot from the point) or is easily saved by the opposing goalie.
These days, Washington can go an entire period without putting together a legitimate scoring chance, and once again fans are left hoping for a grind-it-out 2-1 victory.
On nights when the Caps goaltenders are up for the challenge, the team is typically in decent shape. When they’re not (or if the team is playing a game on the west coast), it gets ugly.
When you’re living and dying with such a small margin for error, you’re no longer able to stake your claim as one of the league’s elite.
In related news, if the playoffs started today that Capitals would barely even qualify as the eighth seed. Through 47 games played the team has 25 wins and 22 total losses. They’ve scored 131 goals while giving up 134.
There’s no way around it – the Capitals are once again mediocre.
Sure, many of the names that ushered in the best days this franchise has ever known are still prominently involved, but at the end of the day we’re once again looking at a team that is good enough to make the playoffs, but has no chance once they get there.
In other words, the Caps have come full circle. We’re back to where things were when Leonsis and McPhee made the controversial decision to blow it all up and start over from scratch.
No one could blame the current regime if they sat on their hands and did nothing. Even though this team would need a miracle to win in the postseason, I could fully understand if Leonsis was content to let the cash roll in while his hockey team continues to play in front of a sellout crowd.
But if the plan has always been to bring this town a championship, at some point everyone involved is going to have to take that same critical view as they did back in 2003-04 and admit that the window has closed on these “young guns.”
From where I’m sitting, the only difference between this team and the one that Leonsis and McPhee blew up back then is that this one actually has expectations placed upon them. Otherwise, it’s back to square one for the Washington Capitals.
January 23, 2012 at 10:29 am
The team before the blow up was much more fun to watch than the rec league crap I see them play now. I was at the Hurricanes game Friday and it was one of the worst games I’ve seen at any level of hockey. This struggle to get it out of the zone just to throw it towards the center of the ice and hope something happens hockey is garbage. I would have more fun watching the 2005-06 Caps sturggle than watching a team against the salary cap play midnight beer league hockey
January 23, 2012 at 10:39 am
I agree with Mike. I had season tickets 2005-2007, and actually liked watching the team, even if they were losing regularly. This is just painful to watch, period. It is as if they brought back the spirit of the Caps of the 70s with the red pants.
January 23, 2012 at 10:44 am
havent finished the entire article yet, but i feel need to once again punch the screen at the thought of Esa
January 23, 2012 at 10:56 am
Well let’s just get this out of the way: We are missing some big big talent on the health side.
Having said that: I think the entire problem with this team is Halak. I think one amazing goaltender stared down not only a team, not only a franchise; he stared down and entire system of play. And let’s not forget Montreal (unlike TB) was lucky to escape. They may have grand memories (nightmares for us) about that series, but they were a #$%@hair away from losing that series.
80s Edmonton and 90s Pittsburgh just called (Pittburgh’s call was collect) to say that offense can work!
this is major-league-monday-morning-quarterbacking but maybe we gave up on it too soon.
January 23, 2012 at 11:04 am
That was an excellent, albeit depressing, read. The only sliver of hope the Caps can cling to is that both Green and Backstrom can come back for the playoffs and one last hurrah. It’s unlikely that Semin or Green will be back next year. Others likely to be gone are Knuble, Wideman, and Vokoun. So really, without even intending to, the stage is set for another ‘mini’ rebuild at a minimum.
Orlov, Kuznetsov, and Eakin should continue to develop. While Carlson and Alzner need to put this season behind them and work hard in the offseason.
January 23, 2012 at 11:07 am
Semin is gone (in a few weeks likely) but i dont think the ship has sailed on Greenie at all… others players have been injury-prone and made comebacks.
January 23, 2012 at 1:43 pm
Trade Ovechkin maybe? That would blow up the team all by its self and Leonsis’ pocket book.
Wait, I’ll just shut up and let the adults talk.
January 23, 2012 at 1:49 pm
I’m not ready to blow up the team yet, but I do think the window is closing–there’s no better evidence of that then the fact that other than Kuznetzov and Holtby, there really is no help coming from minor/juniors/overseas in the next couple years. The vaunted Caps farm system of the last few years is pretty much tapped out–with Orlov and Eakin up, this is pretty much what we’ve got unless we make some trades. I totally agree with the commenter who said that they let the Halak thing totally change this team when it wasn’t clear that the system was the problem, but I also think the Leonsis “we want to be good for 10 years and we’ll eventually win a Cup” philosophy may have destroyed this team’s chance at the Cup. The fact is, like Chicago did two years ago, if you want to win, you just have to go for it. If instead of the tinkering they did two years ago, they’d pulled the trigger on a Pronger and given up a couple pieces of young talent, who knows where this team could have gone?
January 23, 2012 at 3:05 pm
The first part of healing is to admit your mistake. They should have Never Fired Boudreau. they should have canned those that did not want to get with the program.
January 24, 2012 at 8:20 am
Can we wait until the season is over before we pass final judgement on this season’s changed Caps and this season’s new head coach? I remember not so long ago a 7th seed in the East playing in the Stanley Cup Final, meaning that all it takes is to top that by one level and that team wins a Stanley Cup. In other words, even if the Caps don’t win the division, they’re still not out of the race, and I for one am not willing to condemn this team and set-up before I’ve seen what it can do.
If the Caps miss the playoffs this year, then yes we can say the window has closed. Until then, I reserve judgement, and so should you.
January 24, 2012 at 10:25 am
As said above, the “run and gun” talent is still here. I love Hunter as much as the next fan, but it was a tragic mistake to bring a defensive-minded guy in to work with these guys. This group will never succeed in a defense-first system. Is it too late, or might Ted see what seems so obvious and act?
January 24, 2012 at 11:18 am
What’s left to do this season at this point? Perhaps Hunter is right and his system is the only way to win it all but this team as currently composed is clearly not able to execute that system. The Caps still lack an identity and the team composition is such a muddled mess that I don’t see a way to give it an identity in the short term. Even if this team could deal away players that “don’t fit” namely Schultz and Semin what are we going to get back that can make an impact this season.
I kinda hope the Caps are out of playoff contention in 4 weeks so we can sell off before the deadline and acquire some upcoming talent.
January 24, 2012 at 11:34 am
I don’t think the window is shut on the nucleus, but I think it’s shut on this current roster.
Carlson and Alzner are having terrible seasons, and I fully expect them to bounce back to dominant form starting next season, and for the next decade. Remember, they’re both younger than 23!
Green might be injury prone, but if he plays even half of a season, we are a transformed team.
Kuznetsov is the shit.
Regular season means jack shit.
January 24, 2012 at 6:50 pm
Agree with the article in many ways. I think Dale Hunter as coach is the immediate fashion partly as a result of Boston’s style and win last year. But this roster is not capable of Boston style play. Moreover, the years of drafts have a stable, albeit depleted, of players who naturally fit a run and gun style so in a sense the stable is empty.
I think the Chicago model was most apt and should have been applied here. I agree with letting Bruce go (in game decision making was a nightmare) but not with hiring Dale with his system as the answer. Chicago won with solid defensemen yes, but they also had two fast and highly skilled lines with two lines that would punish you with no mercy. Unfortunately Chimera, Ward, Halpern and any mix of undersized Hershey talent isn’t going to give you that.
So in the end, smart moves (c’mon, bringing in Ward based on one playoff year, really!?) at the trade deadline MAY bolster this team if you use the Chicago model and let the top two lines do what they do – score.
January 31, 2012 at 2:00 pm
“Dale Hunter is cursed, he will never lead a team to the Finals.” – To paraphrase Pierre Turgeon.