(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today: Jason Rogers of Japers’ Rink on the Washington Capitals. Enjoy!)
By Jason Rogers
Early on, before primordial Man first learned to rub two concussion videos together to create Monetization, water froze into ice.
To quote Douglas Adams, “this has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
In the summer of 1974, some of this frozen water eventually made its way to Washington, D.C. by way of NHL expansion. That first Washington Capitals season is still the all-time low-water mark for bumbling futility in NHL history, amassing just eight total wins and somehow managing to cripple public confidence in Washington institutions more in that decade than the literal resignation of the President and the onset of disco.
But when imagining a pivotal Capitals moment to take a cosmic do-over on, there’s no point in reinventing the wheel, or the draft lottery. Forget “what if”-ing your way back through the 2004 NHL Draft, when the bubbling ping pong gods leapt the Capitals over the worse-ranked (gasp) Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins to bequeath them goofy aestheticism’s very avatar himself, Alexander Ovechkin.
Forget the 2001 blockbuster trade that brought a be-mulleted Jaromir Jagr to Washington from Pittsburgh and that, like Blockbuster Video itself, resulted in little more than a short-term rental and eventual financial ruin.
Those are obvious choices, and nothing in D.C. sports is obvious. Not winning, not blowing leads, not trading away Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils for a bag of promotional Mountain Dew hockey pucks and a heap of rotting, unused cap space. No, we need to go deeper.
And by deeper, I inexplicably mean more recent.
What if the Capitals Never Hired Dale Hunter and Adam Oates as Head Coach?
Look, if you love the Capitals, or get a particularly potent brand of sadist’s schadenfreude from watching them suffer, you know all about the first round of the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup Eastern Conference playoffs. You may even have the word “HALAK” tattooed across your stomach in Gothic script like Tupac.
Fresh off the first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history and another 50-goal season from Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals met the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens and back-up wunderkind goaltender Jaroslav Halak in the first round of the playoffs. In the following seven games, Halak would stand on his head so long he should be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, including saving 53-of-54 shots for a simply Martian .981 save percentage in a Game 6 victory. Washington fell to the Canadiens in seven games, and the book on the Capitals was written forever in blood.
Regular season champs, playoff chumps.
Rinse, repeat, recycle, ad infinitum.
The coaching hot seat, then, was already set to “bun warmer” by the time the 2010-2011 Stanley Cup playoffs rolled around the following year. The Capitals had just wrapped up their fourth consecutive Southeastern Division title (ironic t-shirts for sale here!), and essentially steamrolled their way through the New York Rangers in the first round, knocking off the Blueshirts in just five games. In the second round, the Capitals drew the Tampa Bay Lightning, a plucky young upstart club from the Florida panhandle making their first postseason appearance in four years. In an effort to slow down the high-flying Capitals offense, Tampa employed a neutral zone trap. If you’re unfamiliar, the neutral zone trap is a defensive tactic designed to squeeze the life out of an offensive team as it attempts to gain the offensive zone. As a curious side-effect, the trap also squeezes the life out of the fun of hockey, the patience of neutral observers, and the Capitals’ ability to win a single game.
The Lightning swept Washington in four games, and it was another early summer of head-scratching for the boys in Red.
Now, here’s what really happened next: Bruce Boudreau’s reputation as a “great coach who can’t get over the hump” was firmly cemented in the ether of hockey canon, and just one month into the 2011-2012 season, he was unceremoniously [poop]-canned for Capitals legend and then-coach of the OHL’s London Knights, Dale Hunter.
(Fortunately, Boudreau has since shirked that unfair label, throwing off the oppressive mantle of “Can’t Win Big Games” by showing his critics, his fans, and the whole world that-….wait, wait, no, sorry.)
Hunter had never served as head coach in the AHL, let alone the NHL. Which is fine, if you like your commercial airline pilots to have heard the word “plane” before but have only a vague familiarity with the principles of flight. Why, if not for pure, high-octane fan service, did the Capitals choose such an obviously ill-qualified candidate to take over a team that was, by any logical estimation, a mere hop, skip, and a jump away from hoisting the Stanley Cup?
The answer, like all things comedic, is timing.
See, as my fearless leader over on SB Nation’s Japers’ Rink notes, the middle of the season is rarely the most opportune time to go looking for a new head coach.
Had the Capitals had the chutzpah to pull the plug on the Boudreau Era during the offseason, before limping like a drunken giraffe through a full quarter of the schedule, they had several NHL coaching options that, you know, had ever done it before even one single solitary time.
The coaches available during the 2011-2012 offseason included: Ken Hitchcock (currently head coach of the Dallas Stars), Marc Crawford (currently associate coach of the Ottawa Senators), Bob Hartley (who signed on as head coach of the Calgary Flames that season instead), and Craig MacTavish (currently V.P. of Hockey Operations for the resurgent Edmonton Oilers).
Instead of choosing one of these known, proven values during the offseason, the Capitals waited until everyone else had a dance partner, then fired their prom date. With no better options left, Washington hired Guy-With-Lots-Of-Fan-Patience-Built-In Dale Hunter, one of just four players who have had their number retired by the Capitals.
Hunter did, actually, enjoy a modicum of success in his single season coaching the Capitals. Preaching a physicality-first, shot-blocking mindset (one that would make him a raving lunatic in today’s Speed Kills NHL), Hunter led Washington to a first-round victory over the Boston Bruins before falling in seven games in the (you guessed it!) second round to the New York Rangers. In fact, the Capitals got no closer to a championship under Boudreau, and have gotten no closer since Hunter left.
But Hunter quickly decided that being a family man and running essentially a family business in the OHL was more appealing than being a head coach in the National Hockey League, and he quit his first offseason despite the pleading objections of GM George McPhee.
That left McPhee and the Capitals with the second identical choice to make in two years: who to hire as head coach?
This time, timing was on Washington’s side. Hunter, ever the stalwart curmudgeon-turned-loveable-hero, announced his intention to retire (if I quit my job after only a year, is it retirement?) with plenty of time to spare for Washington to make other plans. In fact, former (and current, ain’t life funny?) Anaheim Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle was available, as was current San Jose Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer.
So who did the Capitals pick?
Adam Oates, another Hall of Famer and former Capitals player with absolutely no NHL head coaching experience, that’s who. In fact, of the five head coaching hires George McPhee made as GM of the Washington Capitals, a grand total of zero of them had ever served a single game as an NHL head coach. Oates, at the time, was serving as an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils, and many in the media lauded his ability to finally get a two-way game out of big, Russian superstar Ilya Kovalchuk.
You know where this is going, right? In an effort to “rejuvenate” Alex Ovechkin’s career, Oates moved him over to right wing, and heavily emphasized back-checking, defense, and shot-blocking to perhaps the greatest offensive player who ever lived. Ovechkin still managed to win the Rocket Richard Trophy both seasons under Oates, but saw his MVP voting plummet from first to just 23rd by the second year. Ovechkin also recorded his second-lowest career points total in a non-lockout-shortened season under Oates, and saw his average ice time sink like a stone to a full three minutes below his career highs under Boudreau.
A team without an identity and a captain without a prudent coach, the Capitals missed the playoffs in Oates’ second (and first full) season for the only time in the past decade. Oates was finally fired, and replaced with current head coach Barry Trotz.
ALTERNATE HISTORY, ENGAGE!
But let’s go back, way back, to the days of yore. In this case, to 2011.
What if the Capitals had simply sucked it up, taken their medicine, and ripped off the Bruce Boudreau Band-Aid™ in May, after being eliminated from the playoffs?
Well, first of all, they would not have had to scramble, Jofa helmet on fire, for a head coach in November. Chances are very good that Washington would have hired head coach Ken Hitchcock. “Hitch” had coached the Dallas Stars to back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals appearances, including their first ever championship. By 2009, Hitchcock had coached 1000 games, won 500, and was already a well-respected legend. In fact, the very same season the Capitals didn’t sign Hitchcock, he won the freaking Jack Adams Award with the St. Louis Blues. Put succinctly, the dude could coach, and everyone knew it.
So let’s say the Capitals hired Ken Hitchcock in 2011. With his track record of coaxing over-achievement from his teams like honeysuckle nectar, past playoff failures would wither in the wind of Hitch’s mighty jowls, steering the Capitals towards victory like the topsails of a clipper ship. I’m not going to sit here and declare, in a bout of masturbatory historical revisionism, that Washington would have won its first Stanley Cup that year. But I will declare, in a bout of kinky revisionist teasing, that the Capitals would likely have gotten beyond the second round of the playoffs, breaching the conference finals like a glorious hockey sperm whale and ejecting so much accumulated failure from their lungs via a fleshy Hitchcock-shaped blowhole.
With the world’s most insistent simian off their backs, the Capitals suddenly became free to chase their dreams like so many unfettered Canadian (and Russian, and Swedish, and American) geese. Fear, replaced by its primal cousin hunger, ceded way in the collective psyche of the Capitals to raw, inevitable desire. “Can’t get past the second round” became “so close we can taste it,” and the general malaise among an entire generation of Washington-based cynics melted away into nothingness like Social Security.
The next season, Hitchcock and the Capitals win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history, and the first major Washington professional sports championship since I’ve been alive. Instantly, thousands of octogenarian Washingtonians die, happy and relieved of their unimaginable burden. The streets run red with Capitals merchandise and the blood of gaily scuffed beer-opening knuckles and drunken celebratory kerfuffles.
Corrupt politicians, blinded by the white light of Truth, flee the city en masse, and a new Golden Age of just, fair, inclusive politics sweeps the nation like a deluge of fresh air. Wars end, disease is cured, and Futurama is brought back to television five nights a week.
His battle won, his hero’s journey complete, Alex Ovechkin retires from the NHL and returns to Russia to open a successful chain of fast food discotheques where beautiful people serve greasy borscht over thumping basslines.
Beloved by the city and the region, Capitals and Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis successfully creates a Kickstarter to buy the Washington Redskins from marmot-faced billionaire Dan Snyder, and in one fell swoop, the collective nightmares of millions of D.C. sports fans are vanquished.
Leonsis then sells the whole lot and the team is moved to Seattle.
Capitals fans die confused but happy, the best any of us can hope for.
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