Photo courtesy of Monumental Network/Amanda Maglione
I was reading the PuckBuddys’ coverage of Alex Ovechkin’s Ride of Fame thing the other day. To celebrate Ovi’s success, this “mobile monument” tour created a custom bus emblazoned with his face, cruising around the Penn Quarter. It was a nice moment for a special player– and it seemed to me a complete reversal from where we were one year ago.
In early April of 2014, the only bus I was concerned about was the metaphorical one the team’s coach kept parking on his players.
Here and now, at the setting of a successful season and the dawn of the playoffs, I’m struck by the transformation this team has made in the last year. You’ve come a long way, baby.
It was April 2014. News had come in that the Capitals had missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007, ending the season with a dismal 38-30-14 record.
General Manager George McPhee had a made a series of blunders: trading away that one guy for that other guy whom his coach didn’t actually use, giving away Mathieu Perreault for nothing in particular so that a promising prospect would be wasted on the fourth line, re-signing a couple struggling players to generous contracts, and failing to improve a thin blue line. The good times for GMGM were in the past.
Meanwhile, head coach Adam Oates had run his team into the ground and his goalie coach out of town. He had forced a handful of trade requests from his players, buried talented youth in Hershey, inappropriately disclosed one goalie’s awkward request not to play a former team, and publicly rolled over on Alex Ovechkin.
For his part, Ovechkin was on the ice for only 27 more Caps goals than opponent goals– though if, for some strange reason, you counted only even-strength and shorthanded goals-against, you might call him a minus-35. Ovechkin had captured the goal-scoring title again, but his teammates were ice cold during 5v5. Ovi was a washed-up “specialty act,” a me-first diva who didn’t care about team success.
It was dark times, as anyone who waded through our comments or suffered our tweets noticed.
Free agency will be fun. "Psst. Hey kid. You wanna play for Adam Oates? You wanna skate 5v5 with Alex Ovechkin?"
— RMNB (@russianmachine) April 2, 2014
If you say "dagger," you're like three weeks late.
— RMNB (@russianmachine) April 2, 2014
You deserve better. You invest time and money and feels into this team, and they let you down hard. http://t.co/pUNpeL6Mq8
— RMNB (@russianmachine) April 2, 2014
Those were all from a single day. We were glum.
But by the end of the month, the Capitals had begun to turn it around. For his rank incompetence, Adam Oates was summarily fired. George McPhee had made one mistake too many, and his expiring contract went unextended. A serious, sober search for replacements came.
First hired was Brian MacLellan, promoted from within due to his insider’s take on the organization’s missteps in years prior. MacLellan took those lessons to heart, shelling out big bucks for Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik in free agency. Whatever damage that latter deal may wreak in coming years, the blue line was immediately and indisputably improved.
MacLellan staffed up behind the bench as well. Most importantly, Nashville’s tiny titan Barry Trotz returned to the organization that gave him his start (with the Baltimore Skipjacks– Maryland hockey, baby!). With him came Lane Lambert, who overhauled the Capitals’ apocalyptically bad penalty kill. MacLellan snatched up defensive coach Todd Reirden hours after he was relieved by Pittsburgh, perhaps signaling safe harbor for Orpik and Niskanen before free agency. The services of the enigmatic Blaine Forsythe were retained to keep the Caps power play pumping and to keep conversation lively. And finally, Mitch Korn, weird old freaky Mitch Korn, the guy behind the greatest goalie of all time, joined the Capitals as goalie coach, hoping to herd Braden Holtby to a career season.
The forwards were mostly the same, the defense somewhat similar, but everything else had changed. A new culture, we were told, had come to Washington. It sounded like empty hype. It was not.
The Capitals dominated 5v5 hockey in their first month. Young players like Andre Burakovsky, Nate Schmidt, and Evgeny Kuznetsov impressed early. Brooks Laich had shaken off three injury-plagued years. Marcus Johansson had almost doubled his offensive output. Mike Green had gotten his scoring touch back. No one noticed Nick Backstrom, but he was solid as ever. The power play, a lonely bright spot last season, continued at its torrid pace. Braden Holtby cemented his label as an elite goaltender.
And by late December, Alex Ovechkin began making the case for being the best player in the world. Again. Like four years after most of the national hockey press wrote him off.
It wasn’t just Ovi, and it wasn’t just Trotz, but those two were at the helm as the Washington Capitals reversed a five-year decline. Since 2010, the Capitals had been getting objectively worse. Now, and suddenly, the Capitals will once again compete for the Stanley Cup in the playoffs.
I had– and still have– tempered expectations for the postseason. I’ve been hurt, you know. But Ben Heisenberg of Stars and Sticks pointed out to me on Thursday that the Capitals have been north of 53 percent in score-adjusted possession since the beginning of March. That’s nothing to sneer at. And while I’m not taking Washington to #thebank just yet, I’m excited and optimistic about what they might do starting next week.
Hypothetical: Let’s say the Caps play a brutal seven-game series and get bounced in the first round. Or let’s say they deliver a thrilling win in the first round and get swept in the second. Both of those scenarios would hurt– deeply– but I would not and cannot let that hinder my overflowing enthusiasm and gratitude for what this team has done in the last year. Watching Caps hockey was a chore in April of 2014. A year later, finally, is party now.
I mean– have you seen Alex Ovechkin? Have you truly seen him? I’m as narrative-wary and narrative-weary as anybody, but even I have seen the change. After five years of watching every game like a hawk and writing about Ovi in particular, it’s like night and day to me. Do you remember the winter of 2011? I certainly freaking do. And while Ovi deserved the criticism he got back then, he hasn’t deserved the bile he’s endured since. Long before Trotz came to town, Alex Ovechkin has been leading on and off the ice.
You could have understood if Ovechkin were glum after he got disemboweled in Sochi, but that’s not what happened. The Capitals captain has been incessantly cheerful. After Oates got canned, Ovechkin never even once stooped so low (as we so often do) to slam his former coach.
Alex Ovechkin has got what we in Washington call PMA.
He has done everything asked of him by Barry Trotz. From Trotz’s telling, that ask has mostly regarded the times when Ovechkin doesn’t have the puck, a much smaller portion of time than it was last season (his opponents get about 7 fewer shot attempts per 60 minutes now). Ovechkin has run away with the scoring title again. He’s continued to be freaking deadly when the Caps are a man up, matching his career-high 24 power-play goals from last season, but he has also broadened his attack. As Elliotte Friedman said last week, there are all of a sudden a lot more arrows in Ovi’s quiver.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t hear much of this anymore:
Wilbon: If Caps can't make the playoffs, they should trade Ovechkin http://t.co/D6N2BkuWS3
— Dan Steinberg (@dcsportsbog) April 3, 2014
If Dale Hunter had guts, he'd strip Ovechkin of the captaincy and challenge someone to earn the "C."
— Down Goes Avery (@DownGoesAvery) February 23, 2012
C Sick: Why it's time for the Capitals to strip Alex Ovechkin of the captaincy. By Allan Muir http://t.co/60VpAGOofh
— SI NHL (@SI_NHL) April 3, 2014
And that’s just on-ice stuff. Away from the rink, Alex Ovechkin has become an A-1 humanitarian. Deal with this:
And that’s just the stuff we know about and were allowed to publish.
If Alex Ovechkin doesn’t add a King Clancy to his Hart and Richard trophies this summer, it’ll be wrong. What Ovi has done off the ice in some ways is more lasting and more human than his many, many accomplishments on the ice.
Actually, that goes for the whole club. That goes for the whole community.
Because, when I think back on this season, I’ll think of the return of Fun Hockey to DC, and I’ll think of how Alex Ovechkin celebrated 50 of his own goals (and 70 more for others, just a little bit harder), but I’ll also think about the hundreds of Caps fans who reached out to the Schones in their time of need. I’ll think of the fans who gave away their cherished belongings because maybe they could go to better use in Mike Green’s hands. I’ll think of the friendships forged at #RMNBPartyGr8 and the Brouwer Rangers raising money for Fort Dupont and the jokesters in the comments and the should ofs and the Bailamoses and the fifty-thousand watts of goodwill we all share every game night.
I don’t know what happens next, but maybe this– right here and right now– is the good stuff. Maybe this is the golden age. I think I’d be alright with that.
Crash the net.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
All original content on russianmachineneverbreaks.com is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)– unless otherwise stated or superseded by another license. You are free to share, copy, and remix this content so long as it is attributed, done for noncommercial purposes, and done so under a license similar to this one.