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McPhee, Oates dismissed: Adversity can teach, but can the Washington Capitals learn?

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports
McPhee: Caps could reach finals in next 3 years
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Former Washington Capitals vice president and general manager George McPhee. (AP Photo)

Now that the Washington Capitals have dumped general manager George McPhee and coach Adam Oates, I can’t help but think the turning point for this organization came in December 2010 – and was caught on camera.

The Capitals were seven games into an eight-game losing streak. HBO was filming behind the scenes for the first NHL edition of “24/7,” leading up to the Winter Classic. McPhee sat in his office with Boudreau, the coach then.

“Adversity is a good teacher,” McPhee told Boudreau. “This could be the best thing that ever happened to us.”

As it turned out, it was the worst.

It’s easy for me to say that now. At the time, like most people, I thought the Capitals relied too much on their high-flying offense and needed to buckle down defensively. I thought they were too fragile mentally. When they decided to shift their philosophy on the fly, I thought it was what they needed to do.

There was truth to that. They did need to change. But in 20/20 hindsight, they should not have been so quick to abandon what made them an exciting, successful regular-season team. They should have been more patient, more methodical.

They went through four philosophies and three coaches in 3 1/2 seasons. They went from offensive to defensive under Boudreau. They went to ultra-defensive under Dale Hunter. Then they tried to become a blend under Oates. And they did it all with the same core of players.

McPhee went from one extreme to the other and then hired a guy who couldn’t even it out. He swung the pendulum back and forth wildly instead of staying calm and tweaking the system and roster – the way the San Jose Sharks have done to become faster. The Sharks have not taken a step forward yet, but they have not taken a step back yet, either.

[Puck Daddy: Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates, GM George McPhee won't return]

The Capitals put captain Alex Ovechkin through the wringer and went from a team that couldn’t win in the playoffs to a team that couldn’t make the playoffs. Ovechkin isn’t perfect. He isn’t blameless by any means. But he sure doesn’t deserve all the blame. He’s a victim of circumstance, too.

Rewind to 2009-10. Ovechkin had his third straight season with 50 goals or more. The Capitals led the league with 318 goals, and they won the Presidents’ Trophy as the top regular-season team with 121 points – eight points ahead of the next-best team. Note: The next-best team was San Jose.

The Capitals were upset in seven games in the first-round of the playoffs by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens. But was it a disaster? Was it an indicator of a fatal flaw that the Capitals couldn’t break through the Habs’ stifling defense and goalie Jaroslav Halak? The Habs went on to upset the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games in the second round, too.

Amid that losing streak in the first half of 2010-11, the Capitals concentrated on defense. It worked, in a sense. Ovechkin scored 32 goals, a career low. They ranked fourth in goals-against and second in points. But they lost in the second round of the playoffs – the fourth straight year they failed to make the conference final under Boudreau – and weren’t the same. Gee, why did Ovechkin seem like he wasn’t playing with joy anymore?

Boudreau tried to hold his players to a different standard than he had in the past, and that’s hard to do. Ovechkin was caught on camera calling him a “fat [you-know-what]” as the Capitals got off to a slow start. Boudreau was fired and immediately hired to coach the Ducks, who soon started winning again (at least in the regular season). Ovechkin was called a coach-killer.

Hunter, the Capitals legend, left his junior team in mid-season to teach his old NHL team to sit back and block shots. It worked, in a sense. Ovechkin scored 38 goals, and he didn’t complain for the most part even though his ice time was often cut, sometimes dramatically. The Capitals made the playoffs, upset the defending champion Boston Bruins in seven games in the first round and took the New York Rangers to seven games in the second round. But they didn’t make the conference final again, and was this really the best formula, especially for this particular group of players? Winning coin flips? Marginalizing Ovechkin instead of maximizing him?

It was never going to be a long-term thing. Hunter went back to junior, and in came Oates, another former Capital. Oates had the right idea. He wanted a hybrid – defend at the right time, attack at the right time. He wanted to maximize Ovechkin by communicating better, moving him to right wing, fixing the power play. But Oates entered a difficult situation in 2012-13, with players who had been taught one thing, then another, and now were being taught yet another without a training camp because of the lockout. The Capitals got off to an awful start.

[Related: Ovechkin says Capitals are in 'middle of nowhere']

I thought Oates deserved the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year, considering the circumstances. The Capitals roared back and made the playoffs, and they did it largely because Ovechkin was Ovechkin again. He won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s goal-scoring champion with 32 goals – 23 in his final 23 games – and the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. But the Capitals lost in the first round of the playoffs, and Oates was not the head coach I thought he would be this season, when he had a full training camp and a full system to implement his system.

Oates made Ovechkin a scorer again. Ovechkin won the Rocket Richard again this season with 51 goals, but Ovechkin was minus-35. Yes, plus/minus is a flawed stat. It can be misleading about individuals. But it says something about the team in this case: The Capitals had the league’s top goal-scorer but still got smoked with him on the ice at even strength. It goes beyond Ovechkin’s defensive game. They relied too much on the power play, which ranked second in the league. They were one of the worst possession teams in the league. That goes to the personnel and how it was used. They finished three points out of a playoff spot, missing for the first time since 2006-07.

The Sharks hate comparisons to the Capitals, for good reason. The Sharks have been to the conference finals twice in recent years; the Capitals have not. But the Sharks have been lumped together with the Capitals as teams that have succeeded in the regular season, raised expectations and disappointed in the playoffs, and so it’s interesting to compare them now:

General manager Doug Wilson stuck with coach Todd McLellan, and they identified that the game was changing and they weren’t keeping up. They kept key veterans. They gave more to developing youngsters. They shipped out slower players and brought in faster players, and they adjusted their style instead of overhauling it. Will they finally make the Stanley Cup final this year? Will they finally win the Cup? Who knows? But they are one of the NHL’s best possession teams and have remained contenders. They have a shot now; the Capitals do not.

If McPhee couldn’t do something similar, that’s on him. He was the GM since 1997, so he was responsible for the all the drafting, developing, signing, trading and hiring leading up to this point. He had much more of a chance than most GMs ever get.

The Capitals have some pieces, but soon they will be bringing in their fifth philosophy and fourth coach since December 2010, when McPhee sat in his office with Boudreau. How do you make the best use of what the Capitals have? What is the best way for this team to play in the regular season and the playoffs?

Owner Ted Leonsis should be asking those questions as he hires a new GM, because they must be answered before you can ask who the new coach should be, what should happen with Ovechkin, who needs to stay, who needs to go. The Capitals need to pick a philosophy, build the team with that philosophy in mind and stick with it.

McPhee was right about one thing: Adversity is a good teacher. What have the Capitals learned from this?

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