Is Ovechkin Responsible for the Caps' Woes?Posted on April 10, 2014 by Ben Bruno
The Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets both got points last night and officially eliminated the Capitals from making the playoffs this season. If you followed the team this year, you are well aware of how just about everything that could have gone wrong, did go wrong. So who is to blame for the lost season?
I'm not going to beat around the bush here. Alex Ovechkin is NOT responsible for the way the season turned out. If anything, it's the opposite. Besides the play of the 3rd line - and specifically Ward and Chimera - Ovechkin was basically the only bright spot for the Caps this season. He hit the 50 goal milestone and will lead the league in goals scored for the 4th time in his career. Much has been made of his horrible plus/minus (currently -34), but that statistic is a team metric and not an accurate evaluation of individual talent (or lack thereof). Added to that, his linemates basically did not score at even-strength this year. I'll fully admit that Ovie is not a two-way player who is consistently active defensively, but that's not his primary responsibility anyway. He's a goal-scorer and he's shown that even in his 9th season in the league, there's no one better in the world at putting the puck in the net. Still, Ovie continues to receive harsh criticism for the disappointing season the Caps had, and while part of that comes with the territory of being a captain, it's mostly unwarranted. Those calling for his captaincy to be stripped, are succumbing to the easy narrative of "Russian Captain Who Only Cares About Himself, Not Fit to Lead Team to a Cup" and are choosing to ignore the facts.
Since Ovechkin entered the NHL during the 2005-06 season, he leads the league in both goals scored (by a whopping 111!) and total points. If you want to argue that the majority of those points came towards the beginning of his career, then let's look at how he's fared over the last three seasons (this season included). He still has the most goals scored and has dropped slightly in total points, to having the 5th most over that span. But yea sure, a top-point producer and the BEST goal-scorer in hockey, is responsible for the Caps' shortcomings. The article I linked to above also says that "Ovechkin isn’t about team. He’s all about Ovechkin." This can't be quantified using stats and is the lazy opinion of someone who would rather write an easy story, instead of digging for the truth. Click here and tell me Ovie doesn't care about his teammates. Ovechkin might not be a vocal voice in the locker room, but that's not a necessity from your captain. He plays with a passion that can only come from wanting to win night in and night out, and it doesn't go unrecognized by his teammates. Ovie did what he could to carry this team to the playoffs, but unfortunately the issues are bigger than just one player, and to place the blame solely on him - or to go as far as saying he should no longer be captain - is not only unfair, it's wrong. So if Ovie isn't the problem, who is?
The failures of this season fall primarily on the shoulders of Adam Oates. I won't go in-depth as to why (click here for an extensive list of reasons), but it can be generalized by his failure to properly utilize the players on his roster, as well as trying to implement a defensive system that would not work with the type of defenders the Caps have. Or maybe because the Caps didn't win a single game when scoring two or less goals with Oates as coach. Either way, it's safe to say that Oates won't be back with the team next season, but part of the blame needs to also land on GM George McPhee.
In early March, McPhee said, "We play a system where teams get probably more shots the way we play but most of them are from the outside, we’ll allow those," as reported by Katie Carrera of The Washington Post. Not only was this a ludicrous statement, but it was made after acquiring Jaroslav Halak, a move that did not need to be made as goal-tending was not an issue for the Caps. Currently, there are six other teams with the exact same save percentage (.914) this season as the Caps. Four of them have clinched playoff berths and looking at the chart below, it should be obvious as to why. Hint: (more shots allowed lead to more goals against.)
Clearly shot quantity matters, and for a GM to think otherwise and for a coach to implement a system that doesn't try to outshoot their opponents, it's no wonder the Caps are out of the playoffs for the first time since 2007. McPhee has had his chance to make the Caps contenders for the Cup and it's time to move on from him as well. His contract is up after the season and I think it's time for owner Ted Leonsis to let McPhee walk. So will a potential new GM and head coach make the Caps contenders?
If the changes stop there, my quick answer is no. Here's what the Caps need to do: Give Holtby an actual chance at being the #1 goalie. Bring in a top-4, shutdown defender. I know this is much easier said than done, but it needs to happen. Don't trade Mike Green. He's got tons of talent, he just needs to be paired with a shutdown defenseman to help out in the Caps' zone. Re-sign Mikhail Grabovski and play him at center. Grabo was great - when healthy - and center depth is a weakness for this team. Overpay if you have to, but make sure he re-signs. Buyout Brooks Laich (if possible). This is tricky with him ending the season on injured-reserve, but I believe he can be bought out once the team medically clears him. I like Brooks a lot, but his contract is too detrimental to offset his skill-set. Trade a winger for center depth or defensive depth. Preferably one (or two) of Brouwer, Ward, Fehr, Chimera, Laich, or Johansson, otherwise, and pending Grabo re-signing, there just isn't room for everyone to play. Lastly, whatever coach is brought in to replace Oates needs to be one that deals with the teams' problems and instead of pushing "them under the rug and worry[ing] about it later."
This season for the Caps has been a disaster, but at least it's basically over. While the sting of not watching the Caps compete in the playoffs will hurt at first, this season should hopefully lead to better things. Instead of another season of barely making the playoffs and no significant changes occurring in the offseason, the reality of missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season should cause the organization to do a serious evaluation of itself and make the necessary changes to succeed. The "C" on Ovie's sweater will be there next year - and likely so will the blame if the Caps have another disappointing season - but if he plays anywhere close to how he has his whole career, it will yet again be unjust.
With the Caps having "nothing" left to play for over their last three games, I'd love to see Tom Wilson get top-6 minutes and see what the kid can do. He was beyond underutilized this season and it hopefully was not detrimental to his development. Let's see what else he can do besides throwing monster checks and fighting anyone dumb enough to drop the gloves with him.
If you have any other "fixes" for the Caps, let me know them on Twitter (@bcubed86) or in the comments below.