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Pardon Our Pardons: Offering Some Capitals Clemency

Is it time to forgive and forget?

Phoenix Coyotes v Washington Capitals

Earlier this week, The Athletic’s Mark Lazerus posed the following question to Blackhawks fans:

The horrific reality of the situation aside, that got us thinking around here... if you could pardon any Capitals villain, be they a former member of the organization or a frequent Caps’ foe, who would it be?

Greg: Let’s go controversial right off of the bat. My proposed pardon is to Jaromir Jagr for his years with the Washington Capitals.

Now, let’s stipulate that Jaromir Jagr was...not what the Capitals were hoping for. Despite some (perhaps) revisionist thinking, the Jagr trade was going to be the missing link to getting the Washington Capitals a championship. However, within 3 years, Jagr was out of DC with not so much as a playoff series win for the Caps. However, there are quite a few reasons that Jagr deserves a pardon from Caps fans.

First off, the Capitals gave absolutely nothing of consequence to acquire Jagr. Here’s the players that the Capitals gave up to acquire Jagr: Kris Beech, Michal Sivek and Ross Lupaschuk. Combined, that trio played 236 games, scoring a measly 73 points and 28 goals. Ultimately, as GMGM himself later said, “we didn’t give them anything.”

Second, Jagr was better with the Caps than you probably remember. Here’s Jagr’s 3 seasons with the Caps, with his 3 Penguins seasons and 3 Rangers seasons for context:

You’ll note that there was a drop-off from Jagr’s Penguins years to his Capitals years, but Jagr was still around a point a game player. However, there’s a whole lot of context that needs to be provided to Jagr’s drop-off. This includes: 1. Jagr was entering his age 29-30 season with the Caps...aka right when you’d expect a forward to decline 2. Jagr’s decline came right as the dead puck era was peaking and 3. Although Jagr’s points per game picked up in his first full year with the Rangers...they immediately reverted back to around 1 point per game afterwards, and stayed there or lower for the rest of his career.

Finally, I’ll let Jagr himself explain why his Caps tenure wasn’t all bad:

So let’s move on, Caps fans, and allow ourselves to forgive one of the most fun players in NHL history. Let us finally pardon Jaromir Jagr.

J.P.: I appreciate Greg pardoning Jagr for his time here… because now he’s on record and we can impeach and remove him for this indefensible abuse of power.

Anyway, since I’m the despot in these parts, I’m granting myself two pardons. The first one goes to Joel Ward, who’s hereby pardoned for his high-sticking double-minor with less than 22 seconds left in Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Rangers. The series was tied, the Caps were up 2-1… you know the rest. (Fun fact: the Ranger on the receiving end of Ward’s stick was none other than Carl Hagelin!) But Wardo is the best and, heck, the Caps might not even be in that series if not for his Game 7 overtime winner over the defending champion Bruins two weeks earlier. We’re good, Big Cheese.

Now for my more… controversial pardon. I hereby pardon George McPhee for trading Filip Forsberg for Martin Erat and Michael Latta. Did the Caps get absolutely fleeced in that trade, taking on a miscast malcontent and a (below) replacement-level plug for a cost-controlled, soon-to-be-elite recent first round pick? Unquestionably. That trade, deservedly, has been the platonic ideal of fucking up a swap ever since. But…

The Forsberg trade and the ensuing fallout (on the Caps side) highlighted the organizational dysfunction that had been bubbling up since probably even before Adam Oates was hired. In this case, McPhee had acquired a player his head coach seemingly had no interest in playing, exemplifying the philosophical rift between the two. As Katie Carrera noted in her Oates post mortem:

For someone so in tune with every microscopic element of the game, though, Oates has sent firework-sized signals that he and McPhee aren’t on the same page. The most glaring instances came with McPhee’s trade deadline acquisitions of Martin Erat and Dustin Penner the past two seasons. Both had played on the top lines for other teams but barely saw time beyond Washington’s third or fourth unit.

“Nobody’s fooled,” said former Calgary general manager Craig Button, who is an analyst for NHL Network. “The players, the staff are fully cognizant of what’s going on. I think when you look at a relationship, there can’t even be questions about it.”

At one level, Erat and Penner can be viewed as a coach and GM having differences of opinion on ancillary players. But on a larger level, they symbolize an organization struggling to define itself, while its star players age and its competitive fortunes deteriorate.

“Everybody knows where the GM-coach relationship is strong, functioning and purposeful,” Button said. “It doesn’t always mean that the GM gets his way or the coach gets his way. It’s about them working in unison, in lock step. Once the perception’s there that they’re not on the same page, it permeates the organization.”

The results - not of the Erat trade alone, but of this dysfunction - was a first-round playoff exit in 2013 and a playoff miss in 2014, to date still the only one for the organization since Alex Ovechkin first carried the club to the postseason in 2008. What followed that, of course, was both McPhee and Oates being relieved of their respective duties at season’s end, to be replaced by Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz, respectively. In four years, under MacLellan’s and Trotz’s leadership (and with a roster largely - though by no means entirely - assembled by McPhee), the Caps won the Division three times, the Presidents’ Trophy twice and a Stanley Cup.

Do McPhee and/or Oates get fired when they do without the Forsberg trade? Maybe. Does the Cup happen without MacLellan and/or Trotz? Probably not. Does a Caps team that holds on to Filip Forsberg trade for T.J. Oshie? Doubtful. In much the way that Jagr’s disastrous tenure in D.C. can be rationalized as being a “but for” cause of the entire Ovechkin Era (Greg’s strongest point for pardon, which he doesn’t even mention: no Jagr, no 2004 rebuild, no lottery win, no Ovechkin), the Forsberg trade put into motion the events that would eventually lead to the Caps winning the 2018 Stanley Cup. Moreover, much of the core of that team was put together under McPhee’s direction. For these reasons, George McPhee is worthy of pardon (even if he did take Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft) for the Forsberg trade and is hereby absolved.

Peerless: I’m going to pardon the poor wretch who thought white pants for the Caps’ players would be a good idea.

Washington Capitals v New York Rangers Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

As for the other pardons, Jagr was Jagr. He was a bad fit here. He wanted to play his way, and the rest of the team played an entirely different style that the coaching staff wanted. Jimi Hendrix was a great talent, but he wasn’t going to mesh with the London Philharmonic. He had his moments, but they were all too few in a fog-shrouded sea of meh. Jagr in a nutshell...He had a hat trick and four assists in a game against Florida in January 2003 and followed that up with a pair of goals and a pair of assists against the Islanders in his next game. But those 11 points in consecutive games constituted 14 percent of the point total he had in 75 games in that 2002-2003 season. The Caps paid a lot of money for him to go 31-35-66 in 73 other games. I can see granting him a pardon, but I’m not doing handsprings about it.

With McPhee, the passage of time has rounded the sharp edges of my opinion of him. He had hits, he had misses, he had this weird thing about not drafting players out of Finland, and the Forsberg-for-Stuff trade might have been his signature gaffe. My biggest problem with McPhee, though, wasn’t that trade. It was hiring five straight first time NHL coaches after he dismissed Ron Wilson after the 2001-2002 season. Of Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, and Adam Oates, only Cassidy and Boudreau have had subsequent NHL gigs. The teams under those coaches went 421-329-100, with 18 ties (220-241-60 if Boudreau’s record is taken out, although the team going through a major selloff/rebuild stripped it of talent and depth during much of that period) and missed the playoffs four times in 11 years while winning only three playoff series. That’s another crime not covered by the pardon.

Bryan Stabbe: As a fan of re-litigating things that no one ever asked to re-litigate, I’m going to step up and Remember A Guy whose Washington tenure has not been reflected upon fondly, though I’ll argue is less deserving of the grief he received before he headed out of town: I hereby pardon Cristobal Huet.

Huet, as you may remember, was the netminder of record in the 2007-08 Capitals’ first-round loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, a series that went seven games and concluded on a Joffrey Lupul powerplay goal on the Caps’ home ice. Many blamed Huet who completely lost sight of the puck on that series-clinching goal.

The sense at the time was that despite being early in the “Young Gunz” Rock The Red era, it was a lost opportunity to capitalize on a young and talented squad deemed worthy of a deep playoff run.

The bigger picture was not who Huet was but more about who he was not. The season had started with franchise legend and fan favorite Olie Kolzig as the starter in net, and the decision to trade a second-round pick for Huet was a signal that the Caps were moving away from a netminder who had brought the team to their only Stanley Cup Final to date. In addition, well-liked backup Brent Johnson was demoted to third string and ultimately the press box with Huet’s arrival to D.C.

While Kolzig was diplomatic about the demotion, he was vocal enough to cause resentment towards his replacement. An article that came out after the season was finished noted that “Kolzig thought he might get a chance to play when Washington fell behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven first-round playoff series against Philadelphia. The Capitals stuck with Huet, though.”

Kolzig was also quoted as saying “Our backs were against the wall, but it didn’t happen...I said to myself: ‘My time here in Washington has passed. They’ve chosen to go in a different direction, and this was the exclamation point on it.”’

In retrospect, the trade can now be considered a launching pad to the best era in team history, and while Huet did not get them beyond the first round (and is far from the only goalie to suffer that indignity in a Capitals sweater) the fact is he played FAR better than Kolzig did that season. Kolzig finished the year 25-21-6 with an .892 sv% and a 2.91 GAA in 54 games. He also tended net in all but one game during a brutal November stretch where the team went 3-10-2. In contrast, Huet went 11-2-0 with a .936 sv% and 1.63 GAA in 13 regular season games, before going 3-2-2 with a .909 sv% and a regressed 2.93 GAA in the playoffs.

Huet left town and signed with the Blackhawks in free agency after his lone short stint with Washington, but upon further reflection it is clear that he is worthy of a pardon for the crime of not being Olie the Goalie.

Becca: I’m not even touching that Jagr pardon because just... no. Instead I’m taking my pardoning powers back a little further in the organization’s history and forgiving the misdeeds of one Esa Tikkanen.

If you were a fan of the team during the 1997-98 season, I certainly don’t need to tell you why Tikkanen has almost been a dirty word in DC ever since. For those of you who may have hopped on the Caps’ bandwagon later, however (or simply weren’t born yet, ya whippersnappers), Tikkanen’s time as a Cap will forever be remembered for the goal that he didn’t score.

It was Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Caps’ first foray ever in the big show against the defending champs of Detroit. The visiting Caps were trailing the series 1-0 but up by a goal with 10 minutes to go in the third period. Esa Tikkanen had the puck on his stick and drove the net with a glorious chance to give the Caps the insurance goal they so sorely need… when this happened:

Roughly two minutes later, the Red Wings tied it up, then went on to win in overtime en route to a sweep of the Capitals and their second Stanley Cup in two years.

It was a horrible moment, one that loomed large for so many of us as the ultimate “what if...?” moment in a franchise filled with them.

But today I’m here to offer Mr. Tikkanen some clemency. As painful as that moment was, as much as many a Caps’ fan - myself included - has cursed his name ever since, it’s time to let this one go.

Why? Because if we’re being honest, the answer to “what if Tikkanen scores that goal?” is probably “they lose in five games”. Obviously we’ll never know either way, and perhaps that little bit of momentum would have been enough to give the Caps life - but in hindsight, despite the fact that three of the four games were close on the scoresheet, the Caps were pretty well outclassed in that series. As our own J.P. noted several years ago:

[T]here’s no telling what would have happened if Tikkanen had buried that lay-up, that tap-in; the Caps were still absurdly out-gunned by a Red Wings team that featured more future Hall-of-Famers than the Caps had double-digit goal-scorers. Who knows how the series might have gone. Heck, the Caps may yet have blown that Game 2.

In that Game 2, the Caps were outshot 60-33, and 168-99 over the course of the Final (and may we add, god bless Olie Kolzig for making it appear as close as it did). One road win was probably not enough to get them past the powerhouse Wings who were playing for more than just Cup glory.

While we begin impeachment proceedings for Mr. Greg Young, we’ll pose the question to you, as well - which former villain do you let off the hook?