When you are the Washington Capitals and you speak extensively about how the biggest change you need to make is to become more of a “team,” it isn’t hard to crack the code.
“In kindergarten they give you a report card and [ask], ‘Do you play well with others?’ ” said incoming head coach Barry Trotz. “My job is to get everyone to play well together.”
What he means is: “As long as the book on the Caps is, ‘Stop Alex Ovechkin, stop the Caps,’ we aren’t going anywhere.”
Or perhaps this: “When every win is Ovechkin’s doing but every loss is Ovechkin’s fault, accountability for the rest of the roster is nonexistent.”
Trotz and new general manager Brian MacLellan were unveiled in Washington Tuesday, as was the goal of the Caps 2.0: Get deeper, less Ovechkin-reliant, and build a team. A real hockey team.
What the Capitals have taken too long to figure out is that this isn’t the NBA, where one superstar and a good supporting cast can get you into the playoffs. Riding Ovechkin as if he were Kobe Bryant has produced all of three playoff series wins over the course of the sniper’s nine National Hockey League seasons, and he has never even reached a conference final. Now his club is going backwards, with Washington missing the playoffs altogether in 2013-14.
The firing of ex-GM George McPhee, the changing out of four head coaches during Ovie’s time, the love affair between owner Ted Leonsis and his No. 8, jersey-selling star….
Say it slowly now: It… has… not… worked.
Presumably, that is how McPhee’s right-hand man, Brian MacLellan, ended up in the GM’s chair. Because he had the courage to tell the big boss what the real problems were in Washington.
“To be honest, I had never spent any time with Brian, short of shaking his hands at draft and whatnot,” said Leonsis, the billionaire AOL magnate who (and we’re guessing here) does not often have an employee sit down across the desk from him and do anything but blow smoke up his office chair.
“He was critical,” Leonsis said of his interview with MacLellan. “Having the confidence to come in and tell people what they don’t want to hear: ‘Here’s what we have to do better as a franchise. And here’s what you have to better as an owner.’ That’s a strong voice. I’d never heard that before.”
Of course, as the assistant GM whose boss had been fired, MacLellan figured, “I didn’t have anything to lose.”
Trotz, of course, may be the perfect coach for this retool. No coach has done more with less than Trotz did in all those years with Nashville, a team that had goaltending and a blue line but could not score to save its life. The Predators have been a playoff team for six of the past nine seasons with almost zero budget and nary a superstar up front.
Meanwhile in Washington, Ovechkin led the league in goals (51) and power-play goals (24) but was a Yakupovian minus-35. The problem there isn’t Ovechkin’s offence — it's the Capitals’ team defence, and everyone is aware of that.
“We’ve got to be a better five-on-five team,” said MacLellan. “Conditioning has got to be a big part of it. We need to have a hard camp and get everyone ready to play hard. The off-ice workout culture needs to change a bit. We need to get everyone involved in it.”
Leonsis had no intention of hiring McPhee’s lieutenant, but there is some merit in handing the job to a man who has seen firsthand the mistakes that were made.
“His was the most negative of the interviews, and I liked that brutal honesty that he brought,” the owner said.
So, what changes in Washington? Well, left winger Marcus Johansson, 23, has likely seen the last of Ovechkin’s left wing. We’d predict someone slots in there who can take care of the defensive game.
Defenceman Mike Green will get a chance to put some structure in his game. His talents aren’t something you just trade away, but his overall game will be altered by Trotz.
Karl Alzner will be asked to play like he’s 6-2, 217 pounds, as the website says he is. Because this defence has been one of the NHL’s least physical, and that won’t suit Trotz even a little.
And lastly, Ovechkin will be expected to lead but not carry the Caps. His buy-in on all counts will be vital and, we predict, tangible.
Because Ovechkin wants to win, and the old way did not work. Ovechkin is aware of that, and so is Leonsis — his new GM told him so.
You’ve got to admire that courage.