“Then fall Caesar” – A Caps postmortem
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him;
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.” – Mark Antony in “Julius Caesar”
Much like Mark Antony, I come to bury the 2010-11 Washington Capitals, not to praise them.
And much in the way Antony described Caesar, as is often the case with the Caps, another playoff flameout will obscure another fine regular season.
Unlike in other years, this year’s second round four-game sweep at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning, cannot be blamed on a hot goalie or a bad bounce or bad luck or being too young, although the first three certainly contributed to their demise.
No, the reason this Caps team got swept is simply and painfully obvious: the Lightning players simply wanted it more.
For a team that has spent the whole year talking about learning lessons and being ready for the playoffs this time and being more willing to pay the price and being focused only on winning the Stanley Cup, it turns out it was just that – talk.
Oh have the Caps talked a good game over the years. But when the heat was on, when the spotlight shone brightest, when it was time to apply those lessons learned from three prior years of playoff failure, they were outworked, outcoached, outhustled, out-everythinged by the focused Lightning. The Bolts won every board battle, got to every loose puck, played together and deserved to win.
Running down the culprits for the Caps in this series threatens to become a list, but that list should not include Alex Ovechkin. He will certainly take his share of flak for this since he is the captain and the face of the franchise. But he was the only Caps forward that was consistent in effort and productivity. He showed up. His teammates didn’t.
If it wasn’t clear to General Manager George McPhee before now, it should be: Mike Green and Alexander Semin are fool’s gold on the ice.
After seeming to have a breakthrough in Round 1 against the Rangers, Semin regressed again and disappeared against Tampa. That makes it three of the last four Caps playoff series when the ultra-talented Semin has gone MIA. Good Sasha/Bad Sasha should be someone else’s problem next season.
Green is a great kid and a likeable player, but he’s too brittle both mentally and physically. It’s always something with Greener. If any takers can be found for him so be it. The Caps really missed Dennis Wideman in these playoffs. A steadying influence when he was brought in from Florida, Wideman should be brought back and given Green’s role next year.
Nicklas Backstrom is secure, given he signed a decade-long contract after last season. But this year, in both the regular season and playoffs, we didn’t get the Backstrom we paid for. Against Tampa in particular, Backstrom was an embarrassment offensively and was miserable in the faceoff dot. He better find his old mojo in time for next season or his $67 million contract will be an albatross around this franchise.
Besides Ovechkin, Backstrom and Wideman, defenseman John Carlson and Karl Alzner are keepers, as is goalie Michal Neuvirth and center Marcus Johansson. Winger Mike Knuble is getting long in the tooth, but he can play on my team any time, as can center Jason Arnott.
After that, nobody is safe. It’s time for management to reconsider this team and how it’s constituted. This group has had four years to get it done and has come up short every time. They've managed to turn playoff heartbreak into some sort of art form. The fan base, which is starved for a championship, deserves much better.
Of course, the biggest scalp to be had, at least in the fan base's eyes, is coach Bruce Boudreau. And after this latest playoff debacle, I'm in full agreement that Boudreau should be relieved of his duties.
Gabby deserves all the credit in the world for taking over a young team and teaching it how to win. But the team has gone as far as it can go under his leadership. Yes, it’s not fair that if 18 guys are lousy, the coach gets fired, but Boudreau had plenty to do with this one too. A bad line change cost the team Game 2 and a too many men on the ice penalty cost them the all-important first goal in Game 3. That’s on the coach, as was his lack of in-game tactical adjustments, not just in this series against Tampa, but in last year’s loss to Montreal as well.
Besides being outcoached by a rookie bench boss (Guy Boucher), what sealed my view that Gabby should be put on waivers was his press conference after Game 3. Boudreau put on an embarrassing Excuse-a-Thon, whining about the officiating. He also publicly scolded third-line winger Eric Fehr, of all people, but not more deserving targets like Backstrom or Semin.
Needless to say, Detroit’s Mike Babcock wouldn’t have made excuses like that, or targeted a marginal player and not an underperforming star. Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma wouldn’t have done that either. Great coaches figure out how to get results and Gabby hasn’t done that. As Darth Vader once said, “Asteroids do not concern me, Admiral. I want that ship, not excuses.”
The situation reminds me of the late 1990s-early 2000s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ironically enough. Tony Dungy was the popular players coach who molded the young Bucs and taught them how to win. But the team had plateaued in the playoffs, never quite being able to get to the Super Bowl.
In comes hard-ass Jon Gruden, who cracked the whip, didn’t tolerate any funny business, emphasized the details and gave the team the extra push it needed to win a championship.
The Caps need to find their Gruden.