Ever since Alex Ovechkin’s debut in a Caps’ uniform, there has always been reason for hope in Washington. Sure, the Caps were terrible for his first couple of years in the NHL, but they were rebuilding. Fans can deal with a few tough seasons so long as the team’s future looks bright. Once Bruce Boudreau arrived in the fall of 2007, and the team began its transformation into a perennial cup contender, the general feeling around DC was that it wasn’t a matter of “if”, but a matter of “when” they would bring a championship to Washington.
Seven years later, and the Capitals’ championship window has closed. More accurately, it’s been closed; probably since 2011. Even for the last three seasons they’ve been a middling franchise: Good enough to get into the playoffs, but never a real threat to do anything of significance once there. Nevertheless, there has always been a reason for Caps’ fans to believe. Whether it was the upset of Boston in 2012, or the miraculous finish to the regular season in 2013 to recapture the Southeast Division, there was always something to convince fans that maybe, despite the glaring deficiencies, this team could pull it all together for deep playoff run.
Now, however, as they struggle to squeak their way into the postseason, the reality of the Caps’ futility is hitting home in a way that it never has before. This is no longer about “finding that missing piece”, for the Caps are missing far too many. The defensive corps is, objectively, a mess. They have systematically tested, mismanaged, and discarded one highly regarded goaltending prospect after another: First Semyon Varlamov, then Michal Neuvirth, and now, with the deadline deal for Jaroslav Halak, Braden Holtby’s future with the organization is hazy, at best. And in the meantime, Ovechkin, the face of the franchise and the team captain, has become such a tremendous defensive liability that, despite his league leading 48 goals, he has a minus-32 rating: good for second to last in the entire NHL, and by far the worst on his own team. This is all to say that, nine seasons into the Ovechkin era, it’s time for a fresh start.
But what would convince the Caps to do such a thing? Ted Leonsis has time and again demonstrated his remarkable patience as an owner (and not only with the Caps; the Washington Wizards have been mired in utter dysfunction for several years without a major shakeup). As noted by Mike Wise of the Washington Post, George McPhee is the 5th longest tenured General Manager in each of the four major professional sports, and the only one in the top-5 that has yet to produce a championship. Now in the midst of his 15th season at the helm, McPhee has enjoyed an astoundingly long leash for an executive with so little comparative success.
All of this leads me to my larger point: Perhaps it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Caps missed the playoffs this season. It’s abundantly clear that this team will not win a Stanley Cup as presently constructed. What’s more, it’s obvious that George McPhee, despite being granted all the time and resources in the world, is incapable of building a roster/hiring a coach/instilling a culture that is able to win in Washington. It’s time for McPhee to go, but the only thing that would compel the painfully complacent Leonsis to make the move is if the Caps falter in their final 8 games and miss the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
To be clear, I have never, and will never cheer for the Caps to lose. Despite the rational acceptance that they won’t win the Cup this season, it was still painful to watch them lose a crucial game to Boston this afternoon. But in a league with admirable parity, it’s time to acknowledge that this Caps’ team simply cannot keep up. And once this notion has sunk in, how can Caps fans—and Ted Leonsis—accept anything less than dramatic, foundational change?