Rink Roundtable: Changing Suits

Photo by Mark Gail/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A painful hypothetical for a painful season

These Caps are a mess and one bad season will surely roll into another unless this organization is willing to make some significant changes.

Those are likely to start with the dismissal of coach Adam Oates, who has made a series of curious decisions while the 2013-14 campaign slipped out of his grasp. They should continue with the turfing of general manager George McPhee, the man responsible for, among other failures, handing Oates this sack of mismatched parts and expecting him to create something more than a fringe contender out of them. - Allan Muir, Sports Illustrated

Skipping over the thesis of the piece quoted above (for now, at least), Allan Muir echoes a pair of intertwined but not inseparable sentiments that are growing louder and seemingly more inevitable by the day - that the Washington Capitals need to part ways with their general manager and head coach once the season somewhat mercifully ends. Heck, these were easily the toughest regions in yesterday's "Bracket of Fail," and the general consensus is that it's time to clean house.

But what if the house could only be partially cleaned? Okay, let's ditch the metaphor. What if at least one of George McPhee and Adam Oates had to be retained - who would you keep? With the only ground rule being that whomever stayed couldn't be replaced for two years, with which dapper gentleman would you part ways? Below are our answers, but who are you letting go?

Muneeb: I'd fire Oates.

At the beginning of the season, I think most people (myself included) thought the roster was solid. Not elite, but playoff-caliber for sure. Another GM could do better, but perhaps not much better.

Even an average coach, meanwhile, should have been able to take this team to the playoffs (if we think the roster was above average). There's much more potential for improvement behind the bench, and I think that in the next year or two, the team would be better off seeing if McPhee can find a passable coach than seeing if Ted Leonsis can find an excellent GM.

Becca: Oates. No question. As Muneeb noted, this roster as configured should have been at least good enough to be competing with the Rangers and Flyers of the world - yes, there are holes on the defense and there have been injuries up front, but neither seems to be a legitimate enough reason for this team to be scrapping for a playoff spot, especially with the East (and the Metropolitan Division in particular) as weak as it is.

The way Oates has managed this team over the course of the season has been infuriating to watch. There is too much talent and too much potential on the roster for this Caps team to be playing the way they're currently playing and have been playing for much of the season; that starts and ends behind the bench. Whatever system is in place doesn't seem to suit the players on the roster, and yet there's been this stubborn refusal to adjust it as the team continues to flail. Say what you will about how well the third line has performed under this system (and they have been great)...but maybe a game plan that can only be successfully carried out by a quarter of your lineup on a consistent basis is not the best one for the team you're coaching. And beyond that there's the motivational factor, the lack of focus that has led to innumerable mistakes and turnovers and quick-strike goals-against, all of which have contributed to the Caps being where they are in the standings.

Perhaps his greatest success earlier in his tenure behind the Caps' bench is his work with Alex Ovechkin... but then he broke him again, to the tune of no even-strength points for the captain in over a month and a rotation of linemates that doesn't include the team's best center (or even second- or third-best). He's stubbornly stuck with line configurations that don't work, defensive pairings that yield goal after goal after goal, and a system that clearly doesn't suit the personnel he's got.

McPhee has built a team and brought in plenty of pieces that should have at least guaranteed a playoff spot - and all of them have been mishandled and mismanaged.

Say what you will about George McPhee, but he's built a team and brought in plenty of pieces that should have at least guaranteed a playoff spot - and all of them have been mishandled and mismanaged. Three public trade requests (and who knows how many more behind the scenes)? Jay Beagle on the top line? 19-year-old Connor Carrick getting a regular NHL spot rather than time to develop in the AHL? Martin Erat, then Dustin Penner after him, on the fourth line?

That last one is particularly frustrating, especially given how the team is in freefall. Penner has a proven track record of success alongside some of the best players in the game, and yet he isn't given a shot to skate alongside Ovechkin - not because it doesn't work but because Oates thinks it won't work. To not even try it when the rest of the team is in freefall is just unconscionable, and speaks to the larger issue of a coach whose intelligence works against him, who just seems arrogant and inflexible even in the face of chaos.

It's just a waste, all of it. It's made the team a painful one to watch as they limp to the finish line. It's made the atmosphere in DC (among fans and media alike) angry and toxic. What players will want to come here, in this environment, with this guy in charge? Perhaps more importantly, what players will want to stay?

Peerless: McPhee, if for no other reason that if you fire Oates, he gets to choose another coach, and frankly the thought of that scares me to death. Actually, there is another reason. If you look at the McPhee's body of work in terms of the individual pieces, you could probably make a case that most of those individual pieces were good deals or had a logic behind them (even the drafting of Sasha Pokulok, if you wear really dark glasses and have a few adult beverages).

As a "body" of work, the whole is a lot less than the sum of the parts.

However, as a "body" of work, the whole is a lot less than the sum of the parts. You look at this roster, and sure, it looks good on paper, but on the ice? And this is not just an "Adam Oates" thing. This club has been like a balloon with a slow leak since it was eliminated by Montreal in the 2010 playoffs, sliding slowly down the standings. And don't give me any crap about the competition in the new Metropolitan Division. There are ugly ducklings here, too, just as there were in the old Southeast.

From my chair, the Caps lack a team philosophy. When someone says, "Washington Capitals Hockey," what comes to mind, other than the vague sound of crickets? If you look at the top teams in this league, you know what you are going to get. Perhaps not the same philosophy among them, each of them have one. Boston Bruins hockey conjures up an image. So does Detroit Red Wings hockey... Los Angeles Kings hockey... Chicago Blackhawks hockey. Looking at the Caps and, say, their forward lines, you might not recognize that they play for the same team except for the jerseys.

Even back in the 1980's the Caps had an image. Not a successful one, perhaps, but it was lunch-pail hockey. You knew that club was going to bring effort every night and make things unpleasant all over the ice for opponents with that effort. This club - and McPhee - have had ample opportunity since the start of the rebuild to put their philosophical imprint on this franchise. And making Alex Ovechkin a centerpiece of marketing is not a philosophy that translates to the ice; hockey is too much a team sport for that sort of thing.

If McPhee is relieved, perhaps the next incumbent will imprint a style that is compatible with the incumbent coach - Oates. And, in fairness he would get at least those two years to do just that.

Geoff: Given the choice between two of the organization's inefficiencies it is McPhee who must go. He is the architect of the current product, including designating the man behind the bench, and built one that consistently fails to fulfill the promise everyone can see on paper. The general manager has swung questionable trades and organizational promotions and demotions that in some case directly hamper Oates' efforts. At what point do roster changes start to benefit this team again? I don't need to get in too deep about the Filip Forsberg story because it's all been written but the past couple of years with McPhee at the helm have been counterproductive and I'm starting to believe that anyone could have constructed the Capitals' teams that have been flaming out in April and May since 2008.

To further The Peerless's point about what image Washington Capitals Hockey brings to mind - it is one of individuals (if not only one individual). There are serious issues with a team whose identity boils down to one player - the Montreal Canadiens identified it, applied their solution, saw success, and the organization has been treading water against opponents (especially in long playoff series) ever since. I don't mind that Alex is our centerpiece because he will be a League centerpiece regardless of uniform color for (hopefully) ten more years. The underlying issue in Washington is the lack of a hockey team composed of the necessary pieces to thrive as the games get tighter in Spring, and that doesn't fall at the feet of Alex nor Oates.

I am not a fan of Oates, his coaching shtick, nor his interviews. Unfortunately, I still believe that the organization's greatest problems are in Kettler's offices, not on the benches or in the locker room, and I'm only allowed to select one guy to go. Oates has stuck to his guns throughout the turbulent past two seasons (with some successes) but McPhee continues to deal tangible assets for players Oates is not interested in playing. We, as Washington Capitals fans, must collectively raise an eyebrow at a head coach so openly flying in the face of his superior (Erat, Penner, etc.) and Oates' outright defiance reminds me of Dale Hunter's hell-no-thank-you at the conclusion of the 2011-2012 season. When it comes down to a choice between Oates and McPhee it is the general manager on an expiring contract and his current product has been stagnant on the shelves, spoiling, for the past two seasons (at a minimum). GMGM's use by date is long gone in the rear view mirror - and that's not news to anyone here.

Remember - given the choice of only one, if you elect to let Adam Oates go, you also must re-sign George McPhee. Chomp on that.

Rob: George McPhee has been running the Caps since 1998. In that time, the team has made it out of the second round of the playoffs only once, GMGM's rookie year (with a team that he largely inherited). The Caps have had two generational players around which to build. Neither time worked out. Spending money on free agents hasn't worked. Building through the draft hasn't worked. Is there any reason to think more of the same is going to get the Caps closer to the Cup? No, not really.

The team had a glaring hole at second-line center for most of Ovechkin's prime years. Stop-gap after stop-gap was tried, to no avail. It was an obvious problem, yet McPhee wasn't proactive about resolving it until it was too late. This year, everyone knew the defense wasn't deep enough or good enough. McPhee was again not proactive about resolving it. The results have been predictable.

The future results with McPhee are also predictable. He is unlikely to push in major future assets to upgrade a glaring hole in the short term, meaning the Caps will be relying on young players to step up or old players to have great seasons after being claimed off the career scrap heap. It's not going to work. There's not much more we need to see from GMGM to understand how he's going to manage this team, and what the results will look like. There's no real reason to keep him at this point.

Well, there is one reason: the terms of the hypothetical. If only one of GMGM or Oates can be fired, you have to keep GMGM. As obvious as the deficiencies are on this roster, the team is still better on paper than it is on the ice. To me, that's a clear indication that the GM has done a better job than the coach. The Caps may not be a perfect team, but they are better than they've shown and by all rights should be in a playoff spot. There are tons of coaches that can (and have) gotten better results out of less-talented lineups. That Oates has managed to make this collection so ineffectual on the ice, and that's with a resurgent Alex Ovechkin, speaks volumes about how badly this team (and the fans) have been let down by the coaching staff. Considering how close the Caps are likely to end up to the final spot in the playoffs, it's not inconceivable that small improvements in play (or, related, personnel decisions) could have made the difference between this team hitting the golf course at the end of the regular season and this team hitting the golf course at the end of the first round of the playoffs. That the Capitals are settling for 82 games played rather than 89 is a greater indictment of the coaching staff than the front office.

J.P.: Welp. For me, it's relatively simple - there are plenty of coaches who could win more games with this roster than Adam Oates has, but I'm far less certain that Adam Oates could win a lot more games with a better roster. Obviously an upgraded blueline would help quite a bit, but Oates's "good" blueliners have regressed since he's been here, so what reason is there to think that this team would suddenly be markedly better by adding another second-pairing defenseman? I was perfectly willing to grant Oates a lengthy leash on his learning curve as an NHL bench boss, but things simply haven't gotten better and show no real signs of improvement. His philosophies and systems seem archaic, and his players seem less invested by the day. Moreover, I loathe the idea of bringing in a new general manager with an incumbent coach. That's just asking for trouble - if you're going to hire a general manager, hand him the keys and step back.

Ultimately, I think it's time for a change in both positions - McPhee's methods and results have grown stale, and this team desperately needs a change in its culture and that hasn't happened with either of the last two coaching changes, so it stands to reason that the organization needs to kick it up a level. But if I can fire only one and I'm looking for short term results, it's the coach.

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