In trying to explain what happened to the Washington Capitals in my previous article, I put forward the theory that the players, particularly Alexander Ovechkin, simply are not good enough, that fans, ownership, management, coaches, and maybe even the players themselves are believing myths that cannot come true. Ovechkin of course is the up-front guy. He has never had a big performance either in the NHL playoffs for Washington, nor for his Russian teams in major tournaments like the Olympics and the World Cup.
As to why it never happens for him, I don’t know. I once read that a quarterback of the Oakland Raiders, Darryl Lamonica was frightened about being hit and that all his teammates knew and that silently to themselves knew that Oakland would never win the Super Bowl as long as he was at quarterback. The problem was human fears that probably everybody has in one form or another. What is wrong with Ovechkin? A fear? Does he freeze under pressure? Does he try too hard? Does he concentrate on offense too much which means that after almost every playoff round he has a horrible plus/minus statistic? I am not there so I don’t know. Someone with some inside knowledge will have to write those articles.
Right behind him is goaltender Braden Holtby, a Vezina Trophy finalist. He was not good enough against Pittsburgh last year and this year there were two games of 3 goals on 19 shots and 3 goals on 14 shots. He was pulled in that game. Brooks Orpik and Nicklas Backstrom have been around as long as Ovechkin. Neither of them have ever been a difference maker, who have carried Washington at least to the Eastern Conference Final. And the new guy, prized acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk failed to impress, failed to put Washington over the top. All are now candidates to be traded.
Washington and Minnesota are the champion wheel-spinners of the NHL. Every year now it seems, for at least the past half-decade they have met in the Stanley Cup playoff final of wheel spinning. Minnesota’s problem can easily be explained. General Manager Chuck Fletcher signed Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, figured that was enough to be a Stanley Cup champion and has not added any significant talent since. This state of affairs finally caught up to his coach Mike Yeo who was fired when he could not take the Wild deeper in the playoffs. This year, Fletcher and the Minnesota ownership and management were punished in the worse way when the Wild was humiliatingly ejected from the playoffs in only 5 games by the St. Louis Blues coached by none other than Yeo. I have already written an article about their need to be shaken up, to have more top talent added.
But the Washington situation cannot be explained so easily. General Manager Brian MacLellan added T.J. Oshie last year and Shattenkirk this year and it still has not been enough. So it is not that ownership and management are walking around with blinkers, stuck with their heads in the sand. Washington has changed coaches too during the Ovechkin era and that has not helped either. Certain players are not rising to the occasion, to perform at the peak when they are needed the most. One just needs to see the unheralded Jean-Gabriel Pageau, of the still-playing Ottawa Senators, who has never been a star, who has low scoring statistics but a good plus/minus record, who is now coming through big when the pressure is on, when his team needs him the most, to see the kind of the player Washington has never been able to get.
So are wheel spinners always doomed? Not necessarily, and the best example that comes to my mind is the story of the baseball Toronto Blue Jays. This is what should have happened to the Capitals, what the Washington ownership, management, and coaches were trying to do, what the Capitals fans envisioned.
The Blue Jays were formed in 1977 and in 1983 fielded their first division-contending team. Two years later they won their first division title and then lost in the American championship series to the Kansas City Royals who would win the World Series. No problem. That was the new kid learning the ropes, paying his dues. Great things were projected for Toronto in the future.
But then came the wheel-spinning years lasting from 1986 to 1991, just like they have been for Washington. Toronto would win its division or just fail to do it. Somehow the chemistry of the team was wrong. Detroit, Oakland, and Minnesota would regularly fatten up on these kings of playoff chokers. Toronto would move to the SkyDome and set American League attendance records. Manager Jimy Williams would be fired and replaced by Cito Gaston. (Does this sound like the Washington Capitals?) Nothing worked.
General Manager Pat Gillick acquired an unfavorable nickname, “Stand Pat”. The fans all knew the Blue Jays were not good enough and demanded changes. Gaston was brought in and then Gillick tried a block buster equivalent trade. He sent top shortstop Tony Fernandez and slugger Fred McGriff to San Diego for Roborto Alomar and Joe Carter. It still was not enough. Then (unlike Chuck Fletcher) Gillick added more top talent. Pitchers like David Cone and Jack Morris would be signed. And frustrated wheel spinners Dave Winfield (labeled cruelly “Mr. May” by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner) and Paul Molitor would be installed as the designated hitter.
Then with this added talent came the turning point. In the 1992 American League Championship series, Oakland brought in top reliever Dennis Ekersley to mop up the Blue Jays as usual. But Roberto Alomar hit a home run and the whole Oakland stadium went silent. Suddenly the Blue Jays were no longer wheel spinners, no longer chokers, could no longer be counted on to be a loser who would self destruct, players who never came through when the pressure was on. They were over the hump. Dave Winfield would no longer carry the label “Mr. May”. Paul Molitor would be the MVP of the next World Series in 1993. Tony Fernandez would be reacquired and win a World Series.
That is what the Washington Capitals have been trying to do. Are there any lessons for them here? Can they get over the hump and turn things around like Toronto did? Will there be the moment where the guy comes through when his team needs him the most; do it like Alomar did?
And by the way, after the Alomar home run, the Blue Jays lived happily ever after.
But the Washington Capitals…?