Capitals During Wartime: Our Misery is Their Trending Topic

[Ed. note: This is fifth installment of Capitals During Wartime, a series about Washington's struggles before the 2012 trade deadline. Read previous entries about coaching, negativity, road performance, and centers.]

Everyone has the moment when you realize that the Caps are in serious trouble. You know when mine was, because that’s when I started this Capitals During Wartime series. For Ian, it was Monday night, when he finally admitted to me how worried he was. For the rest of the Internet and the broader hockey community, that moment is right now.

This article documents The Week from Hell, a litany of depressing and infuriating stories about your Washington Capitals. Because we need a single, coherent record of what exactly it was like when things couldn’t possibly get any worse.

The fourth item in a column by thirty dimensional thinker Elliotte Friedman told us that George McPhee has been the most active deal-maker in the run-up to the trade deadline. With this knowledge, we must view all team moves through the prism of an impending trade– and we must view the team itself as we might a long-term relationship on the verge of a nasty break-up.

Tomas Vokoun missed Sunday’s and Monday’s games due to the flu, disrupting the impeccable goaltending that has kept the Capitals just barely afloat. Michal Neuvirth was expected to make both starts, but was replaced on Monday by Hershey’s Braden Holtby. Video of an embarrassing 90-foot goal surrendered by Holtby showed up on Yahoo and the Pensblog.

When asked about why he chose Holtby over Neuvirth, Coach Dale Hunter made two distressing points. First, he said the reason for the call-up was because he didn’t want Neuvirth playing back-to-back games (a feeling he did not share for Holtby, who played even later on Sunday than Neuvirth). Then, on Wednesday, Hunter told WaPo’s Katie Carrera this:

It’s one of those things that if he was standing on his head every night, would Braden be playing? No.

Neuvirth said he was not informed of the replacement until he arrived at Verizon Center Monday night, and he found the whole ordeal “tough to swallow.”

Adding to the rift between Hunter and his players is the ongoing saga with Mike Knuble. Scratched in the last three games (all Caps losses), Knuble made several angst-ridden but polite statements to the press about his situation. The 39-year-old, Stanley-Cup-winning veteran (who has scored more in his 30s than Wayne Gretzky and had not been benched in a decade) called his first scratch “humbling” and the second “frustrating.” By the third game he missed, Knuble was musing on hypothetical trade situations, saying:

You want to go somewhere where you’re going to play and contribute to the team. If you can’t do it one place, then you got to go.

Perhaps aware of the growing disquiet, Knuble declined to comment further about the matter this week, telling the Washington Times’ Stephen Whyno that he has been “a little too dramatic,” and telling CSN’s Chuck Gormley that he has already “said [his] peace.”

Even Coach Hunter offered encouraging words about Knuble, adding, “He looked good. . . He’s chomping at the bit to go, so again we’ll see what happens.” Knuble skated with the third line at Wednesday’s practice and is expected to play in Florida this weekend.

Caps icon and assistant goalie coach Olie Kolzig leapt to the defense of Dale Hunter on Wednesday, offering this tasty quote about Hunter’s methods to hungry reporters from various outlets:

If that’s what it’s going to take to get this team close to winning a Stanley Cup then I think at the end of the day if that happens all those unpopular decisions will all of the sudden look pretty smart.

It was a stirring and contrary position, but one undercut quite a bit for three reasons: 1) the paucity of Kolzig’s appearances at Kettler; b) the ominously qualifying “if” preposition; and iii) Neil Greenberg’s recent recalibration of the Capitals’ chances for a postseason. Greenberg observes that the Capitals face a daunting challenge to make the playoffs, and that “the margin of error is razor thin no matter what the future holds for the roster.”

Kolzig was then apparently asked the age-old question: what’s wrong with Alex Ovechkin? Kolzig, who was once one of D.C.’s most loved players, advised that Ovechkin should “maybe not get wrapped up too much with the rock star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.”

That line, of course, got picked up by all kinds of hockey press. It even made Puck Daddy’s headlines with the old “phrase-it-like-a-question” technique.

Ovechkin, for his part, dispelled any accusations of his celebrity overriding his play by… debuting this new commercial for Verizon.

At that point, contributors to national sports networks offered their takes. A.J. Perez of Fox Sports pointed out that fan attendance at Capitals practice has diminished significantly, and Joe Yerdon of NBC’s ProHockeyTalk basked in the schadenfreude like he always does.

The Valentine’s Day edition of Sportsnet’s Marek vs Wyshynski amped up the volume on the Capitals’ suffering even more by making this its question of the day: How would you fix the Washington Capitals? [conversation is around one hour in]. Any kind of in-depth discussion by national media about a single team usually retreats into nebulous characterization or innuendo (which is fine, since those guys have 29 other teams to worry about and besides– it’s sports radio, designed to provoke). Their conclusion was more about Alex Ovechkin’s decline and some perceived conflict between Ovechkin and Hunter than any kind of systemic problems (like defensive reformulation or moving away from a run-and-gun style).

But really, what has gone wrong with Alex Ovechkin beyond the normal ravages of time and changing from a system where offense trumps all to one that either inhibits offense or just cannot generate it? Ovechkin himself talked down his own shortfalls by advancing another pernicious excuse: injury.

It’s not a secret that we miss [Mike Green] and Nicky [Backstrom]. Some people might think it’s good for us to see how good we are without those guys. Everybody knows how good we are, but without those guys this team is not that good.

Even the good folks in the organization got in on the struggle. On Wednesday’s Capitals Report, John Walton said he considers inconsistency to be chief among the team’s troubles. Senior Writer Mike Vogel published to Dump’n’Chase a treatise on the changes the team has tried to effect positive results without success.

But we finish where we began. In a lengthy piece for Monday’s Washington Post, John Feinstein sat down with George McPhee. The crucial argument McPhee makes is that the team was great until they got hurt:

. . . We’ve only had that team on ice for eight games. We’re 8-0 in those games.

Injury is an eventuality in hockey as columnist Tracee Hamilton pointed out (and for once, I agree with her). A team that cannot withstand a single injury might not have been that good to begin with. Regardless, we now know that McPhee will be busy at the deadline, and that means some of our favorites are going to leave D.C.

Maybe that just means saying goodbye to players who might play better with another club. But isn’t that pretty much every player at this point?

Strange — isn’t it — that the spotlight of national attention is brightest on the Capitals while they are so mired in fog. Player-coach disputes and dimming stardom and unfortunate quotations all seem to have popped up at the least opportune time. The Capitals leave town on Thursday for a road trip that may be both determinative for their season and the last for this incarnation of the roster.

I used the word nadir to describe Bruce Boudreau’s final game as coach, but I was wrong. We are steeped in it now. This moment right here is the Capitals during wartime, and everyone is watching. Failure is expected, and it’s expected to be huge.

But there’s a little glimmer of hopeMike Green skated a full practice on Wednesday, his first since undergoing surgery for a hernia last month. He’ll be travelling with the team this weekend and might even play.

In the midst of all this melodrama and pathos, Mike Green is– as Steven Whyno described him– “all smiles.”

  • Sue

    If the press would stop taking everything that is said to heart and just let the team and coaches do their jobs then everyone may see a difference.  People are looking for problems and giving their own opinions.  Sometimes clubs just hit slumps, not for any ONE reason it just happens and eventually things turn around.  Give these guys a chance to turn around before you slam them even harder into the ground.  I presonally think they can do it.  they just need to clear their heads and ignore the media around them.  I was a competitor for 20 years.  Some good and some not so good.  But i do know that the more negative comments just caused more negatvity around me and certainly did not help me win.  The cup is half full, so lets give these awesome hockey players the chance to fill it up all the way!  Caps Rock the Red.

  • http://www.calacirian.org sonja n a

    This subject is something we discuss quite a bit in our house as we are all fans.  My daughter (18 and a travel team goalie) made an interesting point.  She pointed out to me that a huge majority of the fan base here in WDC got on board with this team during it’s fabulous seasons, when they were winning and charming.  But a lot of those fans don’t actually know hockey and when the team was winning it was great fun, but now that they are having some hard times it’s a lot less fun to be a fan.  She further pulled this theme out and talked about the culture surrounding this area.  Only the best and brightest come to Washington and these people are used to winning in most aspects of their lives.  Even second place is considered failure.  This is a very white collar, high expectations fan base.  Many other teams in the league (Pittsburgh, Detroit, etc.) have a long-standing blue collar fan base where the desires for the team are high, but the expectations are more reasonable.  These players are human after all and the constant haranguing as got to be demoralizing and by saying that I do not mean to tar this blog with that feather.  But the press, media etc. needs to lay off the constant critique and allow these men to struggle through this period of discontent.  They will emerge as better, stronger players if we just allow them some room to breath.

  • Stu

    That was a pretty conceded opening paragraph

  • Peter

    “Conceited”

  • Nicole

    Maggie Smith is awesome. That’s all.

  • Peter

    I’m with you on a lot of that, Sonja, but lemme come at it from another angle. The Caps were playing a brand of hockey that the NHL hadn’t seen since the 80′s.  That was really exciting– the best thing in  the league by far I think– and earned them a lot of fans.

    But they ran into some inhumanly bad luck in the playoffs one year and then retreated into what I consider a dull and cynical style of hockey that I don’t like. I bet other fans feels the same.

    The style and the outcome are linked is what I’m saying.

  • Halpern the Hut

    Maybe he meant conceded as in to Admit that something is true or valid after first denying or resisting it.
    But my 2 cents are: The Capitals do not play in a vacuum. The DC metropolitan area is chock full of awesome sports fans that have been starved for not greatness as Sue’s daughter suggests but for mere mediocrity, a goal that now seems years away in every sport team. The Wizards are embarrassing, the Redskins are a comedy of Errors and besides the Washington Power and the DC United the past decade and a half have been abysmal. Then the Caps came along and put out a product that was consistently awesome every night. I remember watching games 2/3 years ago and even though the Caps might have been down by a few goals i ALWAYS expected them to win.
    In summary, the Caps actually have/had a good product in the middle of some historically horrific franchises, and I think that the sun setting on this swagger is really really painful. And this hullabaloo has to be looked at framed against the other professional sports in the Area Maybe the Nats will be good in a couple years.
    Lastly (and thanks for reading this far) I go to school in Boston, and its awful to see “greatness” juxtaposed against my hometown teams alllll the time. 

  • jack

     Conceited?

  • that asshole fan

    @ sonja IT TOOK A GENIOUS TO FIGURE THAT OUT. I’m happy all the bandwagon fans have cooled off. Let me tell you, I have been saying the capitals will not make playoff’s since early december.

    FAIL UNDER DALE:
     Now dale is not all to blame; but I highly dislike his systems. 1-2-2 trap, man on man in the D-zone, no floating wingers pulling their D out of our defensive zone, overall defensive minded and lack of line consistency. For those that might not know hockey that well, man-on-man consists of individuals winning battles in the corner, discipline and hockey sense. In my opinion only a few of our D-men have all 3 of those attributes, which makes this system hard to execute. GMGM has some explaining to do.

    Other than Dales shit systems (in my opinion), leadership is the biggest hurdle for the Caps. From what the sports media has said, “the reason why Gabby got fired was because of the dispute with Ovi.” Ovi is a captain; he needs to be the most dynamic player on the ice, adapting at whatever is thrown at him…obviously his play nor his attitude has adapted within the last 2 seasons.

    The Capitals have had their shot at the cup, we reached our peak, and now we are on the decline. We blew our changes because of immaturity and lack of desire/heart from our core players.

    I’m  a pessimistic asshole, I know; But this Capitals team realls needs a shake up. you know something is not right when Chim-dog and laich have as many goals as  stick-infraction-Semin (who I will admit has been better as of late).

  • Yv

    If it is wartime indeed, I wonder what’s your take what KC reporting now about shoving between Ovie and Wideman. Do you have your info about it? It sounds very disturbing, considering it timing.

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  • http://twitter.com/TheHornGuy Sam Wolk

    I have no illusions about this team.  I’m unsure why the media latched on to an insulting comment about the Caps supposedly not “playing the right way,” which was purported to be their downfall against Montreal.  Defensive lapses didn’t lose the Caps their series against Montreal. They weren’t being blown out. The Caps outscored Montreal 22-20 over seven games. The Caps scored 17 goals to the Habs’ 9 in games 2-4 (their three wins). But their defense was the problem? The largest deficit the Caps had in a loss was 3 goals, in game 6, which was the fluke of them all. The other four losses were tight, one-goal games. That Caps squad, that year, was the most exciting team I think we’ve ever seen or will ever see. They dared anyone to score more than them. You score 5 on us? Fine, we’ll score 6  (that happened in game 2, if you recall).

    They ran head first into a hot goalie. Pure and simple. They put up more shots in those seven games than I remember them ever doing but Halak was on fire, he stopped everything. What he didn’t stop, his defense did. That wasn’t an indictment of the Caps’ defense. That was a testament to the zone in which Halak was clearly tuned. When the Habs also beat Pittsburgh I would have thought this nonsense would have died. Drives me nuts, it’s insulting. 

    Gabby coached the way he played. He coached the way this team needed him to. He wasn’t the problem. The NEW SYSTEM, rolled out the next season, was the problem. That’s what cost him his job. He was forced at gunpoint to change everything he knows about hockey, and to change what made this team successful.

     I’m going to go on record as saying it wasn’t McPhee’s fault. Anyone who thinks for a second that McPhee was the mastermind behind the 180° turn in philosophy is delusional.  You can draw your own conclusions from that.

    Dale Hunter is not the answer. He never was. Why would McPhee spend all that time building a high-octane, in-your-face, offensive juggernaut only to say after a few years, “whoops, my bad” and change everything? Who in their right mind does that? McPhee, who drafted the right guys, traded for the right guys, hired the right coach for THOSE GUYS and the way they play? It’s insanity!  There had to have been someone else calling his shots for him.  He’s not stupid or crazy.

    We may never know for certain what led the Caps to the spot they’re in: they’re a disjointed bunch of talented guys who don’t know whether they’re coming or going because they’re playing against their skill set. One cannot drop a Yugo engine into a Ferrari body and expect to win any races.  If Hunter is to remain with this team, they will have to blow it up, again, and start building a team which meets his requirements: big, dumb, physical, and YOUNG. That’s the type of player he knows how to coach. That’s the type of player with which he wins. That’s not this team. 

    Dale Hunter will be gone after this season.  He’s on a one-year deal.  Let’s hope when the dust settles the Caps will have a coach worthy of their talent.

  • Peter

    Sam, I agree with everything you said about Montreal and Boudreau– and shifting away from the offense-first stuff.

    I don’t agree with touting GMGM though. I think his failure to put a 2nd center on the Caps was a gigantic problem.

    I wanna look back at Montreal again soon, but I’m worried it’ll just be sad.

  • 28ISGREAT

    On the upside, you don’t hear people saying the regular season is meaningless anymore! 

  • Peter

    hahaha +1

  • http://www.calacirian.org sonja n a

    Wooowwwww … since you have called yourself an asshole to begin, I guess I don’t have to.  I don’t think you read the entirety of my post.  The point was not about bandwagon fans, but about the culture of this area which does not suffer losers lightly.  And the sobriquet of loser is much easier to achieve here than it is in other markets.  It’s much more difficult to maintain a winning title … especially in the face of a fan base that doesn’t know the intricacies of hockey. 

    Peter, I agree … the outcome and the style are definitely linked.  And that is aggravated by the sports culture of this area. 

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